Monday, August 30, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP (2010)


(Asthmatic Kitty)

RECOMMENDED (purchase online-only here)

Less than two weeks ago, Sufjan Stevens remained in the limbo that's been his home since the ecstatic reaction given to Illinois[e] in 2005; still no new pop material could be verified, continuing the silence of these five years that's been broken only by an outtakes album, an orchestral experiment, and several one-offs. But then suddenly and with no prior announcement, last week, Stevens put this EP up for sale digitally. It was ready for download immediately, eclipsing even the tiny lead time Radiohead allowed for In Rainbows in '07. Speculation mounted immediately about what such an unorthodox approach to distribution and promotion means in the context of Sufjan's career and the perilous industry at large. Is putting up an hour of new music for $5 the wave of the pop music future? Was the quiet, underhanded out-of-nowhere nature of the announcement an antidote to hype and leaks, or simply a comment on the unusual and/or uncommercial nature of the record?

When Sufjan, days later, signaled the coming of a new studio album, the position of All Delighted People in his catalog began more clearly to fall into place, particularly with the caveat that said album, The Age of Adz, will have nothing to do with the songs or sound of this EP. We may have to wait until we hear Adz to know if this runoff EP amounts of leftover or discarded ideas from the larger record, or just a Mt. Vernon and Fairway-style supplement, an altogether separate but simultaneous entity. In contrast to Vernon, though, much of People's strangeness derives from the coldest facts and measurements of its existence.

What's so strange about Sufjan releasing an EP? Nothing, really, disregarding the suddenness of its appearance, nor is it weird that there is no immediately available physical counterpart... but this is an oddity in every other sense, beginning with its length. The record stretches every definition of "EP" I can recall in my years of consciousness that such a format existed. At 59:15, it is longer than seven of my ten favorite albums so far in 2010; this will require it to be stretched across two records for its vinyl release late this year, making it surely the first double-LP EP ever. (The Beatles' UK EP Magical Mystery Tour was a two-record set, but they were seven-inches.) Its number of tracks, eight, is hardly modest either; the EP average is, what, five? And a number of classic albums (Marquee Moon, Horses, Remain in Light) contained eight songs. And oh yes, some of the music is also pretty fucking weird.

If you've followed Stevens' career carefully enough, you know better than to expect complacency; if the oddball genius of something like The BQE wasn't a convincer, maybe last year's left-field "You Are the Blood" (from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night) got the point across. Still, one can't help but be taken aback by this EP's title track, presented here in two versions (one eight minutes, one twelve) best described as a violent rollercoaster of sweetness and caterwauling, sounding a bit like a typical cut from Michigan or Seven Swans placed in a garbage disposal for a few seconds before the hapless dishwashing househusband realizes his error and removes the mangled mess from the blades. It's kind of wonderful, kind of irritating, all the way eccentric, replete with liberal Paul Simon quotes and a taste for the epic. Never one for the overblown tendencies of puffier rock music, I admit I'm impressed but doubt I'll be listening often to either the "original" version or the bafflingly titled "classic rock" version.

Half a decade past the peak of his awestruck college-rock acclaim, Stevens counters the inevitability of diminishing returns caused by his lengthy absence with much that sounds as disarmingly New as Illinoise did at the time, not always in such immediate ways. Sounding slightly like a forgotten rejected tune from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Owl and the Tanager" is measured, dramatic minimalism, the falsetto and trickery classic Sufjan, the whimsy somehow a different angle. And "From the Mouth of Gabriel" offers operatic baroque pop with a new electro-bounce in its flourishes. Shedding all but the essentials of his melody, the hushed, confident "Arnika" -- the simplest song here -- proves that at its barest, the magic lives; outside of Joanna Newsom, no one wrings so much casual, ornate beauty out of so modest a sound.

But if it's genuinely new territory the listener seeks (which may or may not be the idea; after all, couldn't the EP be designed to stave off protests about a potentially ever more radical full-length?), "Djohariah" delivers. The record's grand finale runs seventeen minutes (longer, for those keeping score, than any of the three much-whined-about closing tracks on Yo La Tengo's Popular Songs of last year), the first nine of which consist of a genuinely disorienting, creepy choral chant behind Sufjan shredding away amateurishly on an electric guitar, wringing sounds from it that are several leagues below Dave Davies but certainly possess comparable goals, if not more apocalyptic ones -- the feeling of mounting chaos from the never-obsolete "Revolution 9" makes a cameo, unnerving and eerily close. When he finally begins to sing, the track becomes only marginally less surreal and disturbing. It's welcome news that Stevens plans to compress his eclecticism and thus challenge his kinder gentler listeners more; all the same, conflicted feelings about this particular execution are difficult to escape. I can't help loving the idea of a lengthy atonal guitar solo, especially on a Sufjan record, but something feels too studied, overwrought about this one, and it does become pretty insufferable and rambling before the halfway point. But no self-respecting fan of the feedback-laden dirge can deny a (nostalgic?) giddiness at the audaciousness of this track. And strangely enough, it's quite catchy.

Maybe, though, for all its detours and indulgences, All Delighted People serves its highest purpose as a kind of reassurance. Those of us who follow great pop music have been waiting for a new song-based Sufjan release for so long we forgot we were waiting for it. Before the crescendo, here's a tiny announcement that our guy is still out there banging away and putting new shit together, only with this particular artist, of course, nothing is ever really tiny, so even his EP has epic pretensions. How could it really be him otherwise? No matter, the net effect is a hit: this is reassuring -- he's still thinking, still preoccupied, still wondering, still our eccentric weirdo, still "just like us" (but so much better).

Did you forget he's a master? One of our brightest lights? You don't even have to pull out your well-worn copies of Illinoise (one of the last physical CDs a lot of us probably bought) and Michigan to bring this back into your fickle consciousness. The moment when I realized the magnitude of Sufjan's return, and how thrilled I am that he's back, was on track number two here, "Enchanting Ghost," ironically one of the two most explicit callbacks back here to Stevens' most famous compositions. That's irrelevant because here it is: the lyrical wisdom and elegant melodies, guitars, candycoated pastoral little soundscapes, strange buried rhythmic suggestions. Oh, but even better: the haunting "Heirloom," here the revival of his folky celebrations of pure gorgeousness that seem to make all other music cease to exist for a few minutes, blissfully drowning in lovely tracked vocals. This noise will never grow too old. Right then, all those qualms and suspicions and mixed feelings about the more overblown moments here (which have their obvious excitment, application, virtue) go away and I can only say: come right on, October 12.

Friday, August 27, 2010

M. Ward: Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)


(Ow Om [orig] / Merge [reissue])

RECOMMENDED

Back in the Nineties, Matt Ward was just one of many acoustic folkies searching for a niche. The album he recorded before the wispy, barbed elements of his best material fell into place, Duet for Guitars #2, might have sounded like nothing special in 1999, but hindsight benefits it. It's possible, with knowledge of brilliant records like Post-War and Hold Time, to approach it as prologue, an identity that suits its elegant, whispered prettiness and tentative melodic quirks.

It also gives ample opportunity to appreciate Ward's guitar playing before it became somewhat iconic. It's great fun to hear the idle strums on the instrumentals, and the calm but insistent chiming everywhere, particularly the slightly Lennonesque "Who May Be Lazy." And dig the Leonard Cohen lick and tonal experimentation on "It Won't Happen Twice." Despite the clear appropriations of these forefathers' ideas, the record mostly sounds ahead of its time, setting a table of sorts for the introspective, quietly ambitious compositions from Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens that would light the world up in the next several years.

That said, Duet is still mostly a throwback, and it isn't particularly unique in this sense -- the mixtape-ready "Scene from #12" is half a step away from being an outtake from Beck's One Foot in the Grave, accurately paring down his abrasive folk melodies to a slightly sweeter and more cleanly recorded vocal-guitar combo. Those are gentle Elliott Smithisms you're hearing on the appealingly named "He Asked Me to Be a Snake and Live Underground," a fine song that simply doesn't have much lasting impact. One shouldn't underestimate, of course, the value of something that sounds familiar without being old: "Beautiful Car" features some of Ward's most nuanced double-tracked vocals, and its lyrical suggestions of the Beach Boys' "Ballad of Ole' Betsy" and "This Car of Mine" offer charm to spare.

Ward also exhibits an admirable economy in his songwriting; the achingly beautiful "Good News" and the singsong drone "Fishing Boat Song" could each be a couple of minutes longer without really wearing out their welcome, but they make their respective points and move on. Best of all is the minimal production on "Look Me Over," completely amazing scrappy Euro-folk that has to be one of Ward's greatest songs ever. All of the flourishes he indulges in elsewhere step out of the way for the wonderful churn and elegance of his melody and craft on this one.

"Look Me Over" and "Good News" might be the only truly great cuts here, but there's nothing on the record that's not intriguing and appealing; for sure, I think this is at least as essential as either of Ward's She & Him albums with Zooey Deschanel. It won't blow your mind, but it doesn't want to; it wants to be friends, and as lovely and occasionally hypnotic dinner music, it's a notable success.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (2010)


(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

If you love music, you live for unexpected discoveries. 2010 has been full of them for me. Here is the latest, a band whose first release has been met with a bottomless pool of Nirvana comparisons. Much to my surprise, then, every time I put it on, I can't stop dancing; no fucking way is it not one of the most glorious albums of the year, and yet how can I really explain why when it's simply in a hallowed tradition, its unique contributions to its genre -- if they exist -- virtually impossible to pin down? This, in other words, is Punk Rock.

What is it about young men blasting out sweet melodies as loud and fast and hard as they can that manages to achieve such consistent eternal grace? No band seems able to pull off more than half an hour of it before it starts to sound stale, but at their first blush, every one of them (or at least a staggering number of them) achieve this odd, life-affirming impeccability on their initial full-force annihiliation of rock & roll. After thirty-five years, how does punk always manage to sound new? How did punk manage to sound new twenty years after rock & roll? Etc.

Male Bonding is a British punk band whose album is a twenty-nine minute thunderbolt of lovably catchy songs couched in feverish energy and unmitigated joy. Only Surfer Blood and Love Is All have recorded straight-ahead rock albums with as much vitality this year. We'll continue to need a neverending supply of young people to fill these holes as they wear themselves out, and Male Bonding is merely the latest in a long line that may or may not be able to capture anything of such immediacy and emotion again. But right now, the world is theirs, and rock & roll is nothing if not a movement of moments. Enjoy this one while it's here, before it becomes as nostalgic as a glass of wine and Is This It.

The impulse to dance and brood flies in with the opening "Year's Not Long," all big riffage and shoegaze vocals, plus irresistible hooks and instant transcendence. The boys keep the monstrously appealing rock & roll coming nonstop, with not a second of breathing space between the thirteen songs, none of which exceed 2:45 and four of which run less than two minutes. And for most of the program, everything is impossibly right: the singing is massive, towering, anthemic, the guitars explosive, the beat pounding. The highlights hammer from all directions afterward with battering-ram force; check out the angular rhythmic trickery on "Crooked Scene" that manages to build to an undeniable raveup. Take a listen to the youthful hooks, vocal interplay, simple but sublime melody (buried behind massive, dynamic guitar, of course) on "Nothing Remains." And best of all, put on "Franklin" and feel the room spinning around in some cosmic meeting between IRS-era R.E.M. and Robert Knight's '60s chestnut "Everlasting Love."

You can spot My Bloody Valentine here and there as well, plus a bit of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as in any new band that plays with noise and melody, but the pure pleasures that abound on this LP are an end in themselves; in all seriousness, cue up any of these songs and feel the permanent daylight of guitars chiming, chugging, shouting. Listening to Nothing Hurts feels like being a teenager again, in the best way, all the magnified emotions and dead-eyed understatement and infinite abandon, as though we and the band will live a million years and never feel older than here. When the singer/bassist Kevin Hendrick dismissively contends "I felt like this for ages, just didn't know how to say it," we all stand in angsty solidarity, although it's really the freakish impulsive dancing that Male Bonding involuntarily inspires in me that puts me there.

Admittedly, even at this length, Male Bonding lose some of their momentum near the end. Neither the grungy thrash of "Paradise Vendors" nor the dogged early post-punk imitation "Pumpkin" retain the excitement and power of the better cuts, though stacking their only less than stellar tracks as two of the last three only serves to make everything else more addictive, one ruthless banger effortlessly leading to another.

Nothing Hurts does save its most heartening trick for last; the beautiful acoustic jangle "Worse to Come" is the album's only song without a driving beat, but it will make you shout thanks to whatever heavens that people are still making music so plainly, unpretentiously lovely in a pop/indie context. It will remind you of the stunning Paul Westerberg solo numbers the Replacements used to save for Side Two of their albums, the special bits when the rockers unplug and tell you how they really feel. And better yet, it's succinct, minimal, and boasts piping-hot cynicism, closing on the bitter "Keep her away from me." It is on this cut and "Franklin" that Male Bonding suggests they can contribute more than this single magic moment.

Even if they can't, though, this magic is real -- my choice for the most fun album of the year so far.

Friday, August 20, 2010

? & the Mysterians: Best Of- Cameo Parkway (1966-67)


(Atco)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Jesus Christ, where do you even begin? In the overarching narrative of American popular music, garage rock amounted to a movement of 45's, generally one and only one allotted to each group of young people banging away from humble territories, building to a Nuggets collective. This all provided the seed of punk rock and, in a broader sense, the divide between Mainstream and Alternative sensibilities that would continue to define the genre for arguably the next three and a half decades (some would say permanently thereafter, but such people have probably not heard Midlake, Mumford & Sons, or Dr. Dog).

Two caveats to this conventional wisdom -- basically valid -- apply: one, a number of these garage bands were fabulously talented, their skills expanding far beyond an explosive one-off. The best band to which the "garage" rubric is typically applied is probably the Remains, occasionally a.k.a. Barry & the Remains, of whom we'll have more discussion in the future I'm certain. Far away in Belfast, Them gave them a strong run for their money and possessed a visceral, gritty audience connection in the absence of the Remains' offbeat wit; I would make the case for ? & the Mysterians as nearly-as-strong competitors. However, one of the two greatest of all American rock bands, the Beach Boys, arguably premiered the garage band phenomenon as a pop commodity, anticipated in a serious fashion only by their surf-rock predecessors. The other great American rock band, the Velvet Underground, is frequently described, not inaccurately, as a garage band whose artistic and literary persuasions breathed new distinction on the most primitive musical ideas imaginable. A simplification, perhaps, but difficult to wholly dispute.

The other point is that while the line drawn in the sand between kids listening to Wire and kids listening to Journey certainly has something to do with the philosophical schism first articulated by the garage bands, the proto-indie notion at least suffers in the sense that many of these bands -- or at least, many of these songs -- were hugely popular. For nearly every outfit that issued brilliant material to no avail (Little Phil & The Nightshadows being my favorite example), there was a Standells, a Blues Magoos, a Them, an Electric Prunes that, however fleetingly, raised this dirty sound into the pop charts, often straight to the top, as in the case of the band that allegedly caused the invention of the term "punk rock": ? & the Mysterians.

Although, contrary to nearly universal belief, "96 Tears" is not the band's only hit -- or even their only sizable hit (they had four top 100 hits, two top 40) -- their fame was certainly assured by it for all eternity. The song is the ideal tool for the person asked to summarize rock & roll in two minutes and thirty seconds, at least for the person with the belief in the power within the primal that I feel is essential in understanding this music. A record almost too brilliant to even completely grasp, "96 Tears" works because its elements are pop heaven, and because of some kind of mysterious magic that binds it all together beautifully. But any given one of its central ingredients could make it memorable: the appallingly dirty production (recorded someplace out of the way, ostensibly someone's porch, in Michigan); the grinding bass with a heavy, elephantine monster march; the meaty, whirly organ lick that unexpectedly twists into an infectious spy-movie dance step then (at the bridge) into a circus-dirge; and Question Mark's vocals, aggressive but inward, pissed-off but abstract and evasive, his lyrics obliquely bitter, surreal but somehow expressive of petty romantic-kissoff truths. However the number 96 was arrived at (the band claims they simply transposed "69"), ? has clearly decided with great unwavering confidence that it is precisely how many tears you will cry. And how about that rant about being "up on top," standard enough relationship fare (see "I'm Looking Through You," issued months earlier), that quickly disintegrates into a bizarre debate about whether you or he is actually "on top" or "looking up" or what the fuck ever, it's free-associative nonsense that is perfectly ingratiating and defines the Rock Weird for years to come. These idiosyncracies are not on the intellectual level of Ray Davies', Brian Wilson's, or Lou Reed's, but they have equal or greater weight in the way that semi-pop music would unfold in decades to come.

Sorry to indulge here, but my relationship with "96 Tears" is a big deal to me, and this seems as nice a place as any to detail it. I initially heard the song the same place I heard my second favorite song ("Tighten Up"): on an odd 5-LP set from Warner Special Products called Solid Gold Party Rock, evidently sold on TV in the early '80s, consisting of about fifty #1 hits from the 1960s. My parents bought a copy at a garage sale and it became a major musical education for me, leading me to a number of artists whose work would change my landscape forever. I don't love everything in the package, which I still own, but I love a staggering amount of it. "96 Tears" was one of the songs my parents didn't seem overly keen on, and I don't remember paying it all that much attention beyond a cursory play or two before skipping on to the Shirelles or the Everly Brothers. I took enough notice, though, that about ten years later, it made me almost miss my turnoff when I heard it on an oldies station in the car. There was that organ hook and its bizarre, almost subliminally engaging hook five seconds in; it was one of Those Moments when you feel as though an alien force has seized you, and the impulse to move and shake in inhuman ways is almost overpowering.

I wouldn't get the opportunity for five years. But the song instantly became an object of fascination, downloaded from whatever file-sharing program was prevalent at the time. (No CD containing the original track was even in print in mid-2003.) I remembered one appearance by ? & the Mysterians in the years between my Solid Gold Party Rock acquisition and my oldies-radio reappraisal: a mocking story on the band by The Daily Show with Craig Kilborne in 1997, reporting on a reunion show with sarcasm-drenched condescension, the writers and staff jealous of how much funnier Question Mark was than they. The report involved his repeated claims that he is a Martian and that he once lived among dinosaurs (I forget whether these two things are connected). It's an interesting sideline that Sun Ra was rarely badgered for his similar statements about alien origins, but had he entered their radar, I'm sure that would've been different. The lesson is still that to the extent that the mainstream entertainment world even bothers paying attention to creative pop music, it is always with the same loathsome cluelessness.

I attempted to buy the Mysterians' live CD from that same reunion tour, Do You Feel It, Baby!?, which garnered excellent reviews. It was out of stock everywhere and I never did track it down. Meanwhile, despite the fact that it was a very famous song that everyone in my sphere probably already knew, I began insisting that "96 Tears" had to be on every mix CD I put together. I discovered that at least two bands I had grown to love in intervening years -- Suicide and Tom Tom Club -- constantly ran back to it as a centerpiece of live jams, confirming what I suspected about its universal durability. Better yet, I learned that a coworker at the time had raised hellfire playing organ at church in the '60s by launching into "96 Tears" and surely inspiring a Rev. Lovejoy-esque tirade (only with a far better song).

And on a September night in 2008, I finally let go of the pent-up energy that began to build when I rediscovered "96 Tears" in my car half a decade earlier. Pensive and out-of-place, I'd ventured downtown because I had heard that a DJ was playing music I would like. He was, and we'd already become friends by the end of the night, but I was content to sit quietly at the Ms. Pac-Man machine having sodas while he played brilliant garage punk classics and made the youth dance like no time had passed from 1965 to now. When he played this song, though, I couldn't stay in my seat anymore, and I the perpetually shelled and awkward did some weird shit that maybe resembled dancing, I don't know, who cared, and the jubilance took its hold. Sure, it was the environment the DJ laid down that provided that escape, but ? & the Mysterians had their crucial role as well.

It again is certainly no big deal to anyone else, but this all came full circle in May of this year, when I was shopping for 45's at a thrift store with that same DJ. Rifling through box after box, I already had a pile set aside when he came around the corner and held up a treasure: a well-worn but still decently preserved "96 Tears" single. Not a rarity by any means, but it's my favorite song and I'd always wanted one, and hadn't run across it in any shop before. For 25 cents it was mine; stunningly enough, a little sibilance notwithstanding, it sounds glorious, exploding with the ambience of that small-time Michigan recording date. The disc sounds larger than life (and the quarter pricetag manages to quietly justify the fortysomething bucks I spent on a Candix "Surfin'" earlier this year).


[Image from Boss Tracks.]

Cameo-Parkway was not an obscure label by any means; though their roster was small, they issued what Billboard alleges is the most-played song of the twentieth century, Chubby Checker's "The Twist." Not a major player, but no backwoods operation. Still, the typeface on the single looks distinctly homemade, creepily thin and faint. Partially because of Cameo's generic label design, it comes off more like an acetate than a stock single, but this air of the unfamiliar somehow makes it feel more sacred. That "forbidden" flavor is in one respect not a coincidence: Like "The Twist" and nearly every other song released on the label, "96 Tears" has been next to impossible to find on compact disc until very recently, as a result of the late Allen Klein's, um, charitable buyout of the label's back catalog in the late '60s. If you owned "96 Tears" on CD before 2005, it was very likely a lesser remake, and if not that then certainly a pirated copy.

That all changed with Abkco's 2005 release (only in Canada, alas, but readily imported elsewhere) of this generous compilation, one in a line that included a disc for each of Cameo-Parkway's other major acts -- Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, Bobby Rydell, etc. (As an aside, I have the Chubby Checker entry and it's certainly worth your while.) "Generous" is really an understatement, as the disc contains everything of significance recorded by ? & the Mysterians in the '60s, including both of their long-lost LPs for Cameo-Parkway (96 Tears and Action) in their entirety, plus the sole non-album single, "Do Something to Me" b/w "Love Me Baby," and a couple of outtakes. The original recording of "96 Tears" alone would make this an essential disc for the garage band devotee, but this is no simplistic filler job. The contents are consistently enjoyable and, at times, brilliant; the instances of the latter are not limited to "96 Tears."

We open with the band's second biggest hit, the Stonesish "I Need Somebody," which builds on another feverish organ to a massive groove that would recall the Animals if not for its relentless cheeriness and goofily incongruous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" bridge. On this and the next five cuts, we're treated to garage band expertise, helped along in large part by the Mysterians' rhythm section, which is incredible, approaching bangers and filler with equal aplomb until everything sounds crucial. Question Mark -- real name Rudy Martinez -- drips with charisma that recalls alternately Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Mick Jagger. If anything might push this group over the Remains, not that I'm suggesting such a thing is possible, it's the sheer dynamism of their frontman.

There are pleasures on the first few tracks to follow, sure, dig the guitar hook and Martinez's sexual weight on "Stormy Monday" for starters, but things don't really heat up until number seven, a criminally, viciously sick jam called "'8' Teen." Here's your first suggestion that the pool from which "96 Tears" was drawn was less finite than you might expect. The ingredients are all there, particularly the weirdness, but this is no mere clone of the hit; it has drama, personality, bite all its own. It's also enough of a breathlessly fast stomper that it could outpace the Blues Magoos at their horniest, if not the Animals. That's followed swiftly by the delightful "Don't Tease Me," boasting the most ominous Carnival of Souls organ in the package, and presented here in unnerving stereo. You also get the obligatory appearance of the "96 Tears" b-side, "Midnight Hour," another Howlin' Wolf-via-British Invasion clone tune that does manage to stand out amongst the first-LP songs.

About halfway through the disc, "96 Tears" arrives and carries with it a storm of garage-rock masterpieces. First there's the proto-psychedelic "Girl (You Captivate Me)," advance-slaughtering Jim Morrison's sex poetry and preening both; the band sounds so accomplished here it's heartbreaking that no one's heard the song. There's seriously no reason a world that celebrates the Velvet Underground cannot hear the elegance and innovation of this murky, shaking piece. Then: a 180-degree turn into a sarcastic reprise of the "96 Tears" intro before an even more demented backing track behind an even more dementedly straightforward lyric which I think is about a threesome (?) for the deserved classic "Can't Get Enough of You Baby," covered in an innocuous toothless grin by teenyboppers Smash Mouth in the late '90s. Martinez continues to dazzle with his energy and theatrics; the band still sounds like they believe they're the only ones making music like this, and for the minutes while they're playing, their belief in this makes it so. Then, the promise of "Stormy Monday" is at last fulfilled by the Eric Burdon mashup "Got To," which sees the Mysterians tackling balladry and funk simultaneously to grand effect; the highlight is a lengthy spoken word treatise by Martinez about losing the one you can't have that has enough weirdly directed passion and wide-eyed insistence (here upon dispensing extraordinarily bad advice, more or less an advocation of stalking) to evoke memories of Marvin Gaye's speeches between songs at his live shows, which often had as much soul as the tunes.

The final ten tracks of the Cameo-Parkway disc witness an intriguing transition for ? & the Mysterians. From their maximum R&B ambitions early on, Martinez doing some crazy shit halfway between Burdon and James Brown by the climax, the gear shifts into the rise of The Pop Impulse. Rather than leveling off the vitality, this mostly proves the band amazingly capable of a rich, clean, but still garage-infected bubblegum sound. "I'll Be Back," as obscure as anything here, sounds like it could have been a massive radio hit. The organ remains as loud and mysterious as ever, but it now takes on candyfloss melodies while Martinez attains a sort of gentle croon. Not only are they convincing, the songs they work with are excellent. Good as "I'll Be Back" is, the real pop achievements are "Hangin' on a String" (which sounds for all the world like a cover of some famous hit, but I can't find any record of such a thing existing), as tight as the band ever sounded, the drum bursts perfectly timed with the organ dance and a vocal melody seemingly engineered for permanent sealed-shut entrance into the listener's head, and "Do Something to Me," predating and bettering Tommy James' legendary hit version of the same song.

By this point, they're well above their peers' abilities and are nearing the godlike passion and professionalism of a band like the Box Tops, managing in fleeting bursts to match that peerless outfit's fusion of commercial genius with unfiltered feeling. The band is finally practically unrecognizable as the "96 Tears" Mysterians, but it's the mark of evolution, not regression; more assured than ever, they are as splendidly infectious in their pop-bliss period as in their nasty garage days, and what's the difference? It's all glorious dance music, isn't it? The b-side, "Love Me Baby (Cherry July)," is pretty dandy as well.

So why weren't these hits? You could ask the same question of hundreds of songs in the late '60s and blame an overcrowded marketplace of smart pop music, but in fact, in the case of ? & the Mysterians, there may be a specific event to which we can point. Cameo-Parkway went bellyup and ended up in the possession of Allen Klein, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time for ? & the Mysterians; their second album had just been released. It's likely that none of its excellent singles were ever pushed properly, while Klein set about his merry way writing off the purchase and preparing for bigger fish.

Thankfully, the ending has mostly been a happy one for ? & the Mysterians. They're routinely honored for their place in rock & roll history, as forefathers of punk and as possibly the very first Latino rock band to achieve success on a national scale. They still play live, still pull in crowds, and Martinez says they have every intention to be playing "96 Tears" in 8,000 years. I kind of feel like they could pull that off. I know for sure that we'll still need to hear the song then. Hopefully we'll get an encore of "Got To."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pantha du Prince: Black Noise (2010)


(Rough Trade)

This album contains one of the finest tracks I've heard all year, the obscurely beautiful "Stick to My Side," a languid electronic piece with layers of evocative, twisting vocals from Panda Bear, recalling the Beach Boys' "Cool, Cool Water." The beats are complemented by a chiming, persuasive rhythm that moves perfectly without calling attention to itself. Despite its mode of communication, the piece operates organically, passing forward and building in an intuitive fashion that make its seven minutes pass almost undetected. Even the touches of 1980s synth-dance are marvellously subtle; everything is subservient to the vague but addictive melody. The voices sound distant but attain a perfect intimacy. One can't help an Animal Collective comparison, but the track jumps at me, and even swings a little, in a sense I've yet to hear from AC. This is a hundred kinds of pop music ideal. Should you deem no other element of Black Noise worth your attention, you still need this song.

It may be my problem more than the album's that nothing else on it lives up to that for me. The other ten cuts are perfectly serviceable minimal techno; for whatever reason, maybe my own prejudices about and relative distance (these days) from electronic music, I can't lose myself in them. The opener, titled (on the nose) "Lay in the Shimmer," charms immediately with its inviting, airy blips and whooshes and laid-back beats. The sounds are always pleasantly enveloping. I wonder if I'd be more swayed by it all if the one song that is so breathtaking to me were not included; as it is, my expectations are whacked by the outlier.

This isn't really ambient music, nor is it techno; it demands attention but also seems to encourage slipping into subconsciousness. For anyone attuned to this style of electronic noodling, I imagine this would be a wonderful record. It's fascinating how much is happening in music whose cumulative effect is finally so slight and elegiac, more sensual than pressing. How often in any genre of music is subtlety so religiously practiced?

Perhaps because I find the album, save "Stick to My Side," rather samey, I have to protest its length. All told, it runs about seventy minutes. For music so terminally calm, and so centered upon atmosphere, that is a very long time. The individual songs almost all approach six or seven minutes, which actually makes me long for the brevity of Flying Lotus' recent LP. I recognize the utility of working on a groove at length, here and everywhere, but I suppose I just can't get inside this material enough to appreciate it for more than an hour. I personally will have to file this as a mildly interesting disc with one stunner. I'm sure your mileage will vary.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Everly Brothers: Cadence Classics- 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)


(Rhino)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Reflective, melancholic rock & roll may have existed before the Everly Brothers. But their subdued chords and anguished cries made a case altogether new for youth-targeted pop music as a monument for not aggression or rage but benign, universal frustration, even humiliation. To hear them now is to bear witness in a stunningly direct sense to the collision of styles that essentially produced all subsequent rock recordings, but also to discover anew the Appalachian eccentricity, the ghostly permanence of folk traditions, and the integral agelessness of both youth and wisdom.

Crucially boyish, soft, sophisticated, sad, the Everlys still come off as a strange success in Elvis' decade. On an artistic level, theirs is undoubtedly one of the three most accomplished rock catalogs to find release in the 1950s (bested by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry but no one else, not even the greats); it is no shock that it remains celebrated now, that their harmonies and emotionally unkempt tunes retain a direct line to the perptually adolescent heart (which is everyone's). What's more puzzling is how mass popularity and instant legend found music that rises up from a potpourri of the West's oldest human musical traditions, brilliantly setting wild new sounds of R&B and ruthlessly pounded acoustic guitar against them in a manner worthy of avant-garde case studies. It set aflame not merely the country & western charts but the pop and R&B as well, which is achievement enough in Elvis' calculated context but is mind-boggling for music this authentic and expressive. The Everlys today would be indie rock obscurities, reveled in by a cult but never to be heard by such an audacious cross section of Americans... but then again, it is doubtful we would still have a rock & roll without what they did, so the point is moot.

The 1950s will always remain for me the seminal decade in American popular music; the 1960s had their points, the 1970s agruably had even more, and the 2000s gave either of those a run. But the '50s stand alone in the same way that the films of the 1930s stand alone -- the form of rock & roll, like the form of sound filmmaking, is so new that everyone is an inventor, that every recording or presentation takes the form of some giddily conceived new idea and expression with an inescapable spark of the new that never wears. I will never run out of music I've never heard of from those ten years that I need to, want to, must hear. It is a bottomless well, and it's all in there: the stage set for the crazed barrier-destroying between supposedly insurmountably separate ideas of pop music acceptability, walls reinforced by foolish racial and programming and charting lines until the pressue becomes so great that all that can happen is an explosion: Elvis, if you like, or Chuck Berry -- the single most important figure in pop for me -- or Little Richard. Wanda Jackson, even, it doesn't matter, what matters is the gleeful expression of youth, sex, energy won in a sense that it has never won again -- not even in the day of the Beatles -- and indeed cannot possibly.

In any given account of that decade, the Everlys aren't necessarily in the first breath with the likes of Penniman, Berry, Holly, even Diddley. But for all my obsession with all of the above, I will make the case that there are two completely undeniable moments in '50s rock & roll, two that I refuse to believe anyone with more than a passing interest in pop music can deny. The first is, clearly enough, the rattling first ten seconds of "Heartbreak Hotel." But the second is not Bill Haley or "Hound Dog" (better in the Big Mama Thornton version anyway) or even "Tutti Frutti." It's that enormous, indescribably challenging guitar intro on "Bye Bye Love," and the funeral-chime vocals that follow it.

If it's been a few years since you heard "Bye Bye Love," it may surprise you to be reminded of its mechanics -- it smirks, for one thing, and conquers heartbreak with its vengeful joy in counting the betrayals out loud. It's perfectly mannered in both writing and delivery, but it's also palpably angry, and brilliantly articulate to boot: the grand statements of being "through with romance," "through with love," "through with a-countin' the stars above" are worthy of Hank Williams in their sulking, exaggerated but masterfully honest self-defeat.

That ingenious composition is the work of the legendary couple Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Boudleaux was a classically trained violinist with what can only be declared an awe-inspiring ear for scrappy youth music; the words and music he put together with his wife comprised a large part of the Everlys' initial success. But less concrete, more unmistakable elements gave them their legend. The blending of Phil and Don Everly's voices is hardly any great technical shakes; unlike, for instance, the Beach Boys, they don't rely on conventional harmonizing but a simple derivative thereof, each singing a parallel melody in a manner basic in execution but otherworldly in its final effect, suggestive of a Gothic church influence otherwise absent from rock & roll. The magic of these close harmonies lends the Everlys a sound that is, to this day, nearly unique.

It may be that the combination of factors is that simple to pin down: they were great because their guitar playing, ramming down on those steel strings, was primitive but grand. They were great because their vocals were the best duetting pop music has seen. They were great because they had a repository of wonderful songs. But spend enough time listening to them and it's the songs that finally become the reason to return. Not everything on this compilation -- which only covers the first three years of Everlydom -- is great, nor does it encompass everything that's essential. But it gets points for going deeper than most collections in its examination of not just how well the group could interpret material, but how much higher they soared when given exceptional songs to play.

Even some of the album-track obscurities here qualify, and stand apart with adventure and impressive genre oddity: you'll never hear "I Wonder If I Care as Much" on the radio, maybe because it is unabashedly backwoods, like a lost Carter Family track, bracing in its purity but written by the Brothers themselves. "Brand New Heartache" is straight ahead country from the Bryants with more spitting venom from a jilted lover (this poor girl was three hours late for their date!). You'll even find a dead ringer for Christy Minstrel folk pre-Dylan on "Hey Doll Baby."

But people come to this disc to hear the songs that lit up the country in the late '50s, for the now exceedingly odd visions of teen hops and dances grooving to what amounts to slightly drummed-up mountain music. Whatever decade reared you, I defy you to not recognize tracks 7-11 here as some kind of glorious rock & roll peak, five songs as good, fresh, irresistible as anything off any given platter in the decades hence. You get "All I Have to Do Is Dream" with its deep-layered unrequited yearning from the quiet kid; "Claudette" (the best of the b-sides here), a driving, yelping love song with still-potent rhythm and faintly Middle Eastern guitar hooks; the humorous, juvenile, lively "Bird Dog," a song about the obnoxious brat attempting to make moves on the protagonist's girlfriend through such vile trickery as "ma[king] the teacher let him sit next to my baby," interjected by (I think) Phil's bass vocals, a bit of tomfoolery to which Mike Love owes his livelihood; "Devoted to You," the ultimate expression of teenage love, unstoppably real and eloquent, both convincingly defensive, as young love must be, and unabashedly sweet without descending into easy sentimentality; and best of all, the anthemic "Problems," an all-time classic Ramones-predicting statement of purpose about the endless suckage and drudgery of everyday life at any damn age. I still drive to work listening to it some days and I still feel every line.

These records are not antiques; they may not have the vitality of the most energetic products of those feverish first five rock & roll years, but they still cook. You don't listen to them for a history lesson. However, if you must, it's in "Devoted to You" that the past comes alive most strongly -- the sound of a million last dances at a million proms, juke joints, too-young honeymoons, and too-public parking lots springs forward like a torrent of glitter and dust. People don't record songs like this anymore; nakedly emotional balladry from a man outside the realm of soul music was only otherwise the domain of a far less sexually ambiguous Gene Vincent. It's not that such expression is out of style, just that the gut reaction it generates is still primal enough that maybe no one necessarily needs to try to improve on it. With that said, as lovely as "Devoted to You" still is, I'm beginning to think -- despite its sugary string arrangement-- that even it is no match for "Let It Be Me," a non-Bryant composition that is likely the best-crafted Everly ballad, and certainly the one with the greatest emotional payoff in the form of a Don solo (always the most moving moment of a given cut) that somehow injects a bit of swagger in with all the vulnerability. But even disregarding that, how anyone can hear "Let It Be Me" and not want to grab their sweetie or find a sweetie they can grab is a mystery I don't want to contemplate.

Of the other slow ones about girls on this particular disc, one's a surprisingly unknown gem, the Orbisonian "Love of My Life," and one, "Like Strangers," is a maudlin slow-dance amusingly delicate about the bitterness it describes. It's almost as though even the group itself didn't think it was worth giving it their all again after "Devoted to You" and "Let It Be Me," so there's nothing else like them here. Indeed, the Everly Brothers are good when they fast, good when they're morbidly depressing, but at their absolute best when they're both.

The turns of decades seem to have a knack for ushering out the once new and now suddenly irrelevant, and stagnations seem curiously timed with the start of a new one (think of how many bands either broke up or lost their hunger and urgency in 1970). But it can't be claimed that the Everlys had any intention of resting on their laurels. On the contrary, the songs recorded on the eve of their departure from modest Cadence to the massive Warner Bros. document a band with restless ambition: "('Til) I Kissed You" is the most directly influential of their Cadence singles. You can hear about six Beatles songs in it, at least one ("I Should Have Known Better") explicitly. There's a lot going on here, not just with the more elaborate instrumentation and rhythmic games backing up the unmitigated joy of the lyric and singing. Phil's solo is more passionate and confident than ever, sure, but comparing this song to the material they were making just a year earlier shows a quatum leap: the guitar playing is trickier, minimalistic, more dedicated to its place in the song, the transition from verse to chorus to bridge is more rapid, stranger yet more oblquely logical than before, the entire song feels tighter, louder, more nuanced and more vital than anything they've done before. And the Everlys wrote it themselves, no outside contribution required.

Similar inventions come to less blissful -- but no less noble -- fates elsewhere, as on the Byrdsian "Since You Broke My Heart." On its radically offbeat guitar lines and sprawling melody, you can hear a new kind of aching taking hold in these men -- the need for new ways to create. Such a germ, felt not long before by Buddy Holly and undoubtedly preparing to take hold in Chuck Berry and Little Richard if not for their respective detours, is what created the notion of the practiced, artistically intense rock band, perfected in years to come by the Beatles; the Everlys couldn't maintain the audience share long enough to put across whatever it was they were getting at, unfortunately, but they would always have the edge over the Beatles in at least the sense that they embodied that spontaneous glory of the first few years and knew firsthand how to extract all manner of life from it. Sure, they soon discovered their professionalism would keep them from milking their most basic ideas, but what ideas they were and still are. Meanwhile, you can see in their faces, in most any candid photograph of them from the time, the steady, unsmiling seriousness toward their craft as they practice and explore. They saved all the energy and emoting for the stage, where it was put to its very best imaginable use.

If the years to come would prove the Everlys victims of a fickle public, they find themselves today the victims of a curious squeaky-clean revisionism. Moving backward to near the beginning of this disc, the classic followup to "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," is nearly its match in clunky churning rhythm and dramatic desperation. Find any given article about the Everly Brothers today and you're likely to see a lot of talk about "innocence," the attitude being that a song about sleeping with your girlfriend in the car until 4:00am is somehow a quaint malt-shop memory reflective of "less complicated" times. By extension, the point likely being made is either that the music kids listen to now is vile and eeeeevil, or that the Everly Brothers' songs have no relevance in an era when the barriers of frankness have been broken. Both options are maddeningly unsophisticated; neither has a shred of truth. To begin with, even if Phil and Don Everly (and the late Bryants) would deny it given the opportunity now, if they were young folks today, or if general censorship had been more relaxed in 1957, I have trouble believing they wouldn't talk about sexing it up or at least getting to second base in the car at the drive-in, were the option then available. The song makes the same point anyway, in less potent phrasing. Our concern here, as anytime we talk about rock & roll, is teenage problems and how they inevitably reach across our lives, and in that sense nothing's really changed since 1957. Either the Everlys are smut like everyone else and we need to gain some perspective, or we need to stop bitching our brains out about what our kids are listening to. But that point, that we're all essentially the same people we were in 1957, says a lot about the sheer mechanics of why this music still works so well, damn the ignorant press.

If hearing them rock out on "This Little Girl of Mine' isn't enough, if the biting anti-authority satire "Poor Jenny" isn't, then consider "When Will I Be Loved," because this is the summary of everything. It's the last single the Everly Brothers released on Cadence, and it's perhaps their most perfect. By now the old crunch of the first hits has given way to joyous pop expression, with sophisticated song structures and gradually soaring vocal melodies. But forget all that and just hear the simplicity, the beautiful recognition of truth, in what the boys are singing. "I've been cheated / Been mistreated / When will I be loved?" You can say they're still whining, but aren't we all. If you're really letting yourself go, you're probably feeling something glorious in the way those words are flying upward in those voices, and when Don takes over with the rising, open-armed lament "When I meet a new girl... that I want for mine... she always breaks my heart in two..." and here comes Phil: "... it HAPPENS EVERY TIME." And suddenly you know what they're feeling and they know what you're feeling and isn't music a motherfucker, you know?

As you've surely deduced, the Everly Brothers are near the top of the heap for me and have been since I rediscovered them (a former background childhood fixture) on a break from work seven years ago. The song that hooked me isn't here, but no matter; I was soon drawn fully and permanently into the world not only of this group but of '50s rock & roll in general, and I've been in love ever since. But I cannot give this compilation a perfect grade, which may seem odd, because probably no one disc more succinctly defines the group at their acknowledged peak. The problem for me is that the Warner Bros. singles are, at least for the first few years, just as important as those on Cadence. They include the Everlys' biggest hit, "Cathy's Clown" (the inspiration for "Please Please Me") and many sweet detours in dark and light. Thus, I can't declare this a perfect introduction -- luckily, there is a shorter single-disc compilation covering all the important hits for both labels, All-Time Original Hits -- but I can still declare it indispensable. Cadence Classics is still the best way to get the full grasp on the first three years of Everly output, and I'm sure we'll talk about where next to visit in the near future.

If the Everlys could be argued as a folk-indie archetype (and we'll get to that when we talk about their album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us), so it must be said that they may have originated the "sellout" accusation in a rock & roll context. Elvis wasn't celebrated enough upon his move to RCA for his abandonment of Sun to make waves, but when the Everly Brothers signed to Warner Bros. in 1960 and continued to produce music of a startlingly high standard for much of the next decade, the public never seemed to truly forgive them, and aside from one monster hit ("Cathy's Clown") their signature work remained tied up forever at Cadence. It's indeed become such an obvious quirk as to be too easy to bring up, as if rock writers think they can sleep through writing about the Everlys provided they make the tired and inaccurate point that it was all over at the end of their independent run.

There's some wisdom, though, in those polemics. Nothing so direct and concise as these twenty soul-stirring sides would henceforth be sung or played by the Everly Brothers. That's as much a consequence of growing up as of selling out, and the chronology is unfriendly to the Cadence partisans; the group had already moved to a more sophisticated, stark folk sound by their second Cadence album, represented here only by the tearjerker "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail." By the same token, the strange melodrama "Take a Message to Mary" points away from both the richly textured, freshfaced ballads and the pained rockers elsewhere here. But for the rest of this forty-five minute period, the world is theirs, serving up an endless series of pains major and minor, never strictly adult but always familiar, to wail and bang and clatter about. It's agony and ecstasy, and it is the sweetest of rock & roll laments. More than a decade later, when Leonard Cohen (channelling Janis Joplin) would counter for the misfits "oppressed by the figures of beauty" that "we are ugly but we have the music," it is the Everly Brothers' shy, standoffish, richly emotional early music that seems to come calling. Progeny from the Beach Boys to Weezer would face years of geek-rock condescension, but the secret is that few things are more powerful than the loser who uses what he has to express what he must.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Broken Bells (2010)


(Columbia)

James Mercer is maybe the alt-pop genius of the 2000s, and Danger Mouse has had a hand in an intimidating number of smart and influential productions; put them together and you get Broken Bells, this year's replacement for the Shins and alas, a surprisingly undistinguished project given its pedigree. You might rattle off an impressive list of genres and subgenres it takes a stab at, but in the interest of accuracy you'd have to add "lite-" in front of each.

Opener "The High Road" draws closest to what one might expect a Shins/Danger Mouse collaboration might sound like -- essentially a spacier, slightly funkier Shins. But this is no high-spirited romp; Mercer's "I don't know if the dead can talk to anyone" bleary-eyed vocals sound like a soft lament when they don't sound like a miserable cry, to be sure an interesting if maudlin angle on rhythm-driven music, although Marvin Gaye did it a little more convincingly. That's as good as the album gets.

What follows cannot be seriously derided; it's inoffensive enough and never bad, with the exception of the magnificently ill-advised Gnarls Barkleyisms of "The Ghost Inside." Seldom do the pair seem truly in sync; "Vaporize," with its fat acoustic guitar sound and engaging aural trickery, gives vent to exciting possibilities about what a high-profile producer could do with the Shins, but Mercer still sounds so bored he could scarcely be persuaded to show up at the studio. On the other hand, the singer does a rather incredible Thom Yorke impression on "Sailing to Nowhere" and is rewarded with thin, warbling production from his new partner.

That said, the driving talent of the album is clearly Danger Mouse, and his ability to mimic quaint production styles is entertaining: "Trap Doors" is a dead ringer for Tears for Fears. "Your Head Is on Fire" sounds like either bad Beatles or good George Harrison. "Citizen" calls to mind Nigel Godrich's first Beck album, Mutations. But it's a signal of how much my patience with the album wears thin when I start playing the influence-spotting game throughout the second half, where the last three songs sputter out in generic pleasantry. Electronics don't do much to liven up the sleepy proceedings. Songs with propulsive beats still seem somehow unenthusiastic, lacking in bite and passion, and when an electric guitar lick shows up on "The Mall & Misery," it's a too-late breath of fresh air.

I'm no psychoanalyst, and Mercer has long seemed like an unsettled man in interviews, which is not here our concern. But I wonder if Mercer is tired of, or at least discovering the limits of, the kind of self-expression that pop music can hold. He performs competently here, but one rarely gets the impression that he is actually living in the words and music, that there is any substantial degree of real emotion behind the songs. (And before you make any claim that this is simply his style, listen to "Gone for Good" again.) It feels like a follow-the-numbers album, assembled quickly and all too calmly.

The garish publicity photo on Best Buy endcaps the world over displays Danger Mouse looking stern and able, Mercer annoyed and disinterested. I don't know if Broken Bells and their label (exponentially larger than the Shins') expected to light the world on fire with a modicum of effort; I doubt it. If anything, this music seems designed to serve the purpose that the duo fills in the overblown recent video for "Ghost Inside," in which a girl on a spaceship runs into crisis and requires their nonchalant assistance, dutifully obliged. With their easygoing electronics and decent melodies, they keep the ship running, but that's about it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

Carl (A.C.) Newman is the mastermind of one of the best rock bands in the world, the New Pornographers, as well as the less celebrated Superconductor, and probably a dozen or so other projects we don't even know about. Newman's celebration of self-contained, hook-filled joy in pop music has made his work a constant pleasure. Few rockers can lay claim to anything like his capacity to connect a catchy melody straight to the heart and gut.

After two records with the New Pornographers, Newman decided to put out a solo record in 2004, and this brief (just over thirty minutes) explosion of pop bliss is the result. The Slow Wonder is the kind of unassuming, buried-treasure power pop record you might've found in some dusty bargain bin in the mid-'80s, and if you dropped the 99 cents you'd take it home, fall in love with its unpretentiously free-flowing delights, and promptly begin championing it to a bunch of skeptical pals.

Kicking off with a drum-guitar-belting attack, "Miracle Drug," The Slow Wonder proceeds to run through a tour of every trick of economical Anglophile guitar rock, all driven by great songs that always fade or cut early enough to leave the listener bewildered with excitement. The barest roots of rock & roll -- even if a gentle version -- are adorned with versatile, feverishly enthusiastic vocals; listen to the way he generates drama from simplicity in the irresistible "On the Table," covered in sweet, stirring piano. The Beatles and Big Star comparisons are bound to pour forth from the new convert, but Newman has tricks up his sleeve to prevent any straightforward imitation, which makes him perversely a perfect imitator of those bands' appeal: the unorthodox keyboard-and-whistling break on "Drink to Me Babe, Then," the stark desperation hidden politely within divinely restrained balladry in "Come Crash," the stop-start-shuddering and atonal vocals of "Battle for Straght Time." And on "Better Than Most," Newman twists what could be an honest-to-god lost Beatles track just downbeat enough, alternately sweet and difficult, to make it deliriously complicated and addictive.

Newman is hardly the only singer-songwriter of this period to make some kind of populist perfection his mission; you don't even have to look far to find Robert Schneider, whose entire modus operandi is informed by his obsession with hits of the past. And of course, Rivers Cuomo once held a well-documented fixation with the minute details of hook composition. Part of the reason Newman stands apart is that although his openness to stylistic renovation is seemingly a constant, he also holds a direct fondness -- not an obligation toward -- strangeness. "Most of Us Prizefighters" might sound like some mid-'90s modern rock hit at first, but Newman's vocal melody twists and turns unpredictably, chasing this disorientation until it becomes something profoundly catchy. Finale "35 in the Shade" (the title a Third World gag?) has Newman living in his vocals and songs that way he's so good at, engaged in music and melody like he's running a marathon, but even it breaks form with a bombastic instrumental tension, inflected with melodramatic flourishes from piano and drums, placing our fearless hero on top of a kind of aural mountain as he shouts downward.

Even so, it's obvious that Newman is capable of writing songs that fall on the ear like cotton candy all day long -- and occasonally does, as on the Beulah-worthy slow one "The Cloud Prayer" -- but he resists the temptation far more even on this high-energy, accessible recording than on the Pornograhers' albums. As if to deliberately set this album apart, it's full of strange little tricks, some spectacularly ingratiating, and some that seem almost too calculated -- the opposite of bubblegum? "The Town Halo," with its easy progression from menacing shouted vocals to the cheering, pounding chorus gives a better idea of Newman's alarming capacity for pop form. But no track here calls the New Pornographers to mind quite like the 2:34 juggernaut "Secretarial," and it may be the classic of the LP, ingeniously fusing '70s AOR with punk aggression and wit, like a cerebral Cars... although the drama Newman generates, here as with his band, sends him beyond his sources.

If there's anything worth criticizing on this very fun record, it's only the faint feeling that this is all quite easy for Mr. Newman, that he could knock out five albums like this in a year if he felt like it. There's charm in the simplicity of the arrangements, but for the most part, the fire and bite and brilliant restlessness of the New Pornographers at their best are muted here. Who cares, though? This entire album is still a wonderful gift.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)


(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The morning after I listened to this album for the first time I drove to work playing the National, whose latest record I'd consider to be on the same level of high quality as this. I was struck by the marked difference in two bands with such basically similar appeals and audiences, and of course an occasionally amusing level of Seriousness. The National sounds like a markedly grown-up, sober, resigned group after an hour of perpetual adolescent bluster and confusion from Arcade Fire. Indisputably, there's a need for both, and it's been too long since Win Butler & co. had their say.

For those who've followed the band, it's hard to imagine the 2000s without Funeral and Neon Bible, but luckily not necessary; nearly alone amongst post-Radiohead rock bands, Arcade Fire has managed to enter the radar of a very healthy number of mainstream music listeners. Only the Shins and (soon enough) Vampire Weekend can seriously compete for the title of Most Across-the-Board Popular post-millennial rock band, with clout, sales, omnipresence, universal critical acclaim, and a massive following that tracks their movements. And it's telling that, like the other two named, they have managed this without a shred of major label contact.

Unlike virtually every other band in the current indie rock database, Arcade Fire's influences lay far afield of traditional alternative, bypassing the classic new wave/postpunk lineage; if you try hard enough, you can link them to Television by way of U2, but that's tenuous. Neon Bible did sound slightly like what might have happened if U2 had regained their intensity, lost a few decades of age, and gained some extra songwriting economy, but the favored pop critical comparison seems to be Springsteen. I see it, but I don't really want to because I love the band and can't tolerate the Boss, so I prefer to cite Depeche Mode (an early favorite of Win Butler's), Phil Spector, and the Shangri-Las. Slightly more adult concerns than the last one, considerably less ironic detachment than the first, but they get under the skin in the same way... and they're a surprising kindred spirit of sorts with Spector.

In keeping with the Fire's slight detachment from the Sonic Youth descendents of the world, many are applying the notion of a Concept to the new third album, The Suburbs. I couldn't really say, because such things tend to gripe me, but from artwork to titles to basic tone, there is obviously a thematic concentration on an adult's reflections on growing up in guess where. Butler knows this subject and his ruminations are wise and often touching. The title track, "We Used to Wait," "Deep Blue," and "Wasted Hours" will resonate with most anyone who was raised in a small town, far away from what then seemed like civilization. In particular, I relate strongly to "We watched the end of the century compressed on a tiny screen" (from "Deep Blue"), a remarkably apt line. And "We Used to Wait," perfect rock music in every sense, describes in thankfully unsentimental detail the weird isolation of a childhood spent amongst quiet paved roads, picket fences, well-kept lawns. Not a lament, not a nostalgia trip, not a rebellion, just rich evocation. ("All my friends, they don't know me now" later, on "Suburban War," may count as one or both of those first couple, but who cannot vouch for its dead-eyed truth?)

But examining these songs musically reveals all of the true craft therein. "Deep Blue" may be basic pop singalong, but not one of the other three retreads ground covered on the first two albums. "Wasted Hours" sounds like a Carpenters song reinvented by My Bloody Valentine. The piano-driven "We Used to Wait" is an explosion of life fast and beautiful. And the bouncy, playful "The Suburbs" itself practically qualifies as a sober version of late '60s California pop, the Lovin' Spoonful with responsibilities.

Elsewhere, the reflection is couched in more hyperactive atmospheres. Call Arcade Fire derivative if you want, but "Half Light II (No Celebration)" is first class synth mystery worthy of New Order, delivered with Butler's typical depth, or at least extremity, of feeling, building to an intensity to which it is difficult not to respond. Later on, the relentlessly pounding new-wave dance jam "Sprawl II" fulfills every promise the band's made in its short career with five and a half minutes of unabashed hope and joy. There is more nuanced, perhaps more innovative music being made today, but I'm not aware of anything more exciting than this.

The Suburbs seems designed not just to move forward but to keep everyone who's been waiting for it happy in the process, a noble idea for now but one that could start to hurt them later. For now, the rabble-rousers "Ready to Start" (with its wonderful largeness of sound), "Suburban War" (dig the Roger McGuinn guitar and the crazed backward-looking buildup!), and "City with No Children" (making the Springsteen comparisons all but impossible to resist, but also sounding like a slow-burn Clash song) still connect and sound felt. But the best of the harder-edged cuts is the one already released on a 12" and the one that sounds least like Arcade Fire, the pure punk-rock blast "Month of May," with its oddly infectious rallying cry of "2009 / 2010 / Wanna make a record how I felt then."

Criticisms of Win Butler as a frontman remain understandable to a degree. Gifted as he is, he's only the band's second-best singer. His wife, Régine Chassagne, plays an enormous role in making this group unique, and her unshaking, forceful voice may be its greatest asset. The early standout "Empty Room" owes a lot to Owen Pallett's excellent string arrangement and the incredible momentum with which it bursts out of the gate, but the impassioned, sympathetic glory of Win and Régine's shared vocals sends it soaring. "Half Light I" initially feels like a reject from U2's The Unforgettable Fire (and even more specifically, like their Passengers cut "Your Blue Room"), but in seconds it makes a left turn into Régine's stunning vocals and blissful territory. And if the stirring and wonderfully fresh "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" turns out to be the finest song of 2010, such a result is unimaginable without her blazing, fervently enthusiastic performance. I can only hope we are someday treated to an entire album like it.

I do hope that Arcade Fire rediscover brevity soon; cut this down to thirteen songs and it would be hard to find anything to bitch about. Cut it down to ten or eleven and it would be a masterpiece. Then again, of course, an album with two songs called "Sprawl" doesn't intend to be concise, but the callbacks to the Funeral sense of journey are starting to wear thin, in part because the band isn't necessarily interested in writing or playing the exact same kind of material now. We may have to wait three years to find out where they take it from here, but there's probably some indication in these sixty-five minutes. Unfortunately, there are also redundancies. Although I quite like "Deep Blue," it treads the same ground as "The Suburbs." Less enjoyable are the pace-stalling "Modern Man" and "Rococo." The first, in the unfortunately crucial position of third track on the record, conjures up "Mind" by Talking Heads with its skittering rhythmic changes, here ill-advised; Butler comes off pedantic. "Rococo" takes some of Neon Bible's political pomp to an unsavory and not-particularly-tuneful extreme. Less forgettable and inoffensive: the whining, thin "Sprawl (Flatland)," which feels like theatrical linking material and will give Win Butler-haters all the ammunition they need to dismiss this album if they somehow get to hear it. But there is so much to love on The Suburbs, it's not worth bellyaching about the missteps.

An acquaintance who is not a fan regularly compares Arcade Fire to Coldplay, arguing that Coldplay pulls the same emotional tricks but without the credibility. Yet I don't hear much genuine passion out of Chris Martin, and I completely don't hear the eclecticism and experimentation that really makes AF's albums worth hearing. Let's hear Coldplay come up with something like Funeral's "Haiti," for instance. Yes, a lot of their best songs have the same fist-in-the-air intensity of midtempo U2 -- "Intervention," one of my favorites, comes to mind -- but so long as there's something obviously genuine behind the songs, what's wrong with that? What I think people miss is that these angst-ridden little operas are important for rock & roll, that Win Butler's solidarity with "the kids" (the phrase he's being called to task for falling back on with the comical overzealousness of Ian Broudie and his hatred of "lies") and writing of personal, private loss in grandiose terms is comparable with Alex Chilton's and is quite moving, and that Arcade Fire are masters of melodrama... a role that needs to be filled with levity and charm in 2010.

All that said, it's been interesting to read the slightly muted praise The Suburbs is garnering; the reviews are still wildly laudatory, but there's a hint of hesitation. Meanwhile, a lot of friends to whom I've spoken are disappointed, generally because "it's no Funeral," a comparison they naturally make because, for all their evolving, Arcade Fire are still working from the sound they inaugurated in 2004. I'd say Suburbs is a more varied record than its predecessors, but so was Fables of the Reconstruction; there's a good chance Arcade Fire have now taken their original modus operandi as far as it can go. Album 4 will likely be the time for the Big Stylistic Change, the one that will certainly divide fans and will meet the world with either ecstasy or dread. You can hear hints of the restlessness already on the title track and "Sprawl II." Jumps and risks. I, for one, am pretty excited.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987)


(Elektra)

!! CAUTION !!

Is there really anything all that bad about being politically correct? Of course not. Anything can be taken to an unpalatable extreme, but in principle, the PC movement was a positive evolution in mainstream American thinking. Why, then, is it so demonized, and why has it been such since its spreading in the Reagan-Bush period? I don't know the answer, but I bet it has something to do with 10,000 Maniacs.

I have three 10KM albums, acquired during some bout of nostalgia for Natalie Merchant's throaty voice, which brings back not its original period so much as many late nights working as a deli clerk in the first half of the 2000s. On this, their Elektra debut, "Like the Weather" in particular effortlessly conjures up the rhythm of slicing someone's Ovengold Turkey. Weird the things that stick with you, I know, but I admit I've let this band live on goodwill in my mind for a long while without ever really seriously contemplating them, and scarcely ever taking out of one of their albums. Before it was deli clerking nostalgia, I suppose it was the free pass that comes with being an R.E.M. opener, that band's taste for support acts normally being close to infallible.

Today, this album -- produced by Peter Asher; yes, everything is Beatles-related! -- is a popped balloon. It's tempting to label Merchant's lyrics as aimless preaching, but truthfully I can't often tell what exactly she's getting at in speeches like this, from "The Painted Desert":

When I'm sure the rains have ended, the blooms have gone,
everyone killed by the morning frost.
Is a cactus blooming there in every roadside stand
where the big deal is cowboy gear won in Japan?


... and even when she's on, like on the engimatically appealing "Verdi Cries," she can hardly claim the knowing, earthy sophistication of her peer Tracy Chapman, and certainly not the transcendence of a Kate Bush. Most of her poetic lines are instantly negated by some annoyingly obvious copout or qualification. And yeah, she has her causes, you can take out your checklist now: "What's the Matter Here" tackles child abuse, "A Campfire Song" shakes a fist at man's rape of the landscape, "Gun Shy" is anti-gun or anti-army or something, so heavy-handed it would probably make David Crosby proud.

I'm not concerned by the emptiness of the words so much as the way that 10KM's music comes off with the same dull sheen as any knee-jerking, overly gentle good intentions gone too far... the most annoying fringes of hypersensitive liberalism set to music. I'd liken the sound to the college-rock version of a very poor director being permitted to shoot his shoestring debut in Technicolor Cinemascope, the size of which simply cannot be filled by his thin set of ideas. 10KM sound like jangle-pop, one of my favorite subgenres, writ so large as to obliterate all mystery and detail, sort of like U2 if they wrote songs in their sleep, so in other words sort of like Coldplay with a female lead singer and a Greenpeace bumper sticker. It is the sound of people making noise and taking great care to ensure that no distinction or personality slips through. Merchant bursts out with a couple of blandly convicted calls-to-arm, the image of naïvely free-spirited arms tentatively waving in the air all too inevitable.

It's difficult to tell most of the songs apart at a passing glance, with three exceptions: "Don't Talk" because it's lovely, "Peace Train" because it's a Cat Stevens cover, and "The Painted Desert" because it is obscenely awful. The story that endures from the "Peace Train" cover is more interesting than either version of the song: following Cat Stevens cum Yusuf Islam's call for Salman Rushdie's death, the band withdrew the track from future printings of the CD like good little imbecilic flagwavers. The stale production of "Painted Desert" reminds you of how much less fun the '80s probably were to live through than to remember on theoretic, selective terms. But "Don't Talk" really does shimmer, and it also doesn't really attempt to make any grand social gestures. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it is romantic and appealingly direct pop music.

Hating 10,000 Maniacs is difficult and pointless, much as I find it hard to yell at people over liberal causes; they may be simple-minded, but their hearts are too firmly in the much-needed right place to get too bent out of shape. I'm still struck by how forgettable this music is, and how much it now feels to be more an emotionally insignificant time capsule than a relevant piece of art or even history. I'd be surprised if it carries much luster for anyone now, but I could easily be wrong about that. To me, In My Tribe sounds like protest music... but shouldn't protest music be maybe a little bit angry?

I still kind of dig Merchant's singing, though.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crystal Castles (2010)


(Motown)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It's not often that one hears music that ingrains itself in the skull so utterly as to push everything else out of it; it's not that it defies comparison to anything, just that it renders such details beside the point. As I've come to see music as more of a social experience than I once did, it's fascinating to discover an album this immersive, one which eskews wide open space in favor of arid, compressed, person-to-person confrontation... and infectious confrontation at that.

The electro-pop duo Crystal Castles has built its career on bubbling, antiquated samples -- often of video games in a touch of 1980s nostalgia -- with abrasive vocals howling overhead. On their second album (eponymous like their debut), they take a turn for delicacy and dreampop while sacrificing none of their strange allure. A completely unexpected treasure (for me), this record is as addictive as they come. While the album is framed by a pair of deliberately abrasive, stabbing songs -- one ("Fainting Spells") with warbling screams of misery that gradually fall into rhythmic place and one (aptly labeled "I Am Made of Chalk") that suggests the same voice after its owner has already begun to drown in some filthy babbling brook -- much of what's in between is a surprising combination of provocative experimentation and pure (if slightly Gothic) dance-pop.

Second track and first single "Celestica" makes clear the disconect, its pounding, insistent beauty and effortless vocal only allowing for a little bit of the patented beeping over in the left channel. Not quite mainstream disco, to be sure, but not in a different world either, with a chilly Alice Glass cooing and wailing quite tunefully over her small soundscape. When the first two cuts on an album have so little in common, it's clear the listener is in for a ride. The payoff comes in waves, in the otherworldly, deep-in-the-earth bodyshaking "Baptism," the confident menace of the ingenious Sigur Ros-derived "Year of Silence," the young, vibrant, ragged, but lovely sound of "Suffocation" with its inescapably engaging sense of journey. The entire first half of the record is, song for song, as good a collection of intelligent dance music as the brightest lights of the genre have ever devised.

The final half flies into two very different directions, less focused but hardly less endearing than the unmissable initial seven cuts. Out of the gate, "Violent Dreams" and "Vietnam" are the album's subtlest moments; the former's dissonance suggests Kevin Shields dance music, fragile and impenetrable, the latter is unbelievably grand club chillout, but both go full-force on sideways electronic vocal tricks, sharing with "Not in Love" an inclination toward burying and blending in the vocals that were so bravely incongruous elsewhere, Alice Glass belting out her intricate words like a Yoko Ono that won everyone's heart, in a shower of distortion and production gimmicry. The effect is enjoyable enough, but it's difficult not to miss the unpretentious emotional directness of the unfiltered vocal tracks.

The rest of Side Two flips into blissful dance mode, though with a still-powerful edge. "Not in Love," a cover of a song by Platinum Blonde, is super-fun robomusic that could nearly pass for a marginally more twisted variation on Goldfrapp. "Pap Smear" aims equally for four-on-the-floor, albeit in a more eccentric disguise. It is here that, for all the shades of avant garde and designed difficulty, Crystal Castles begin to sound most like a conventional pop group -- and to boot, an excellent one with ideas to apply and songs to share. But for today, their hearts thankfully still lie with the tricky synths, samples, and beats of Side A, which make a welcome return (replete with ominous Rosemary's Baby backing vocals) on the stellar "Intimate."

But I don't mean to overstate the delectable, friendly elements; all of the songs have a self-conscious but sophisticated cloak of darkness and melodrama, all seeming to hint at danger below the surface, as though The Truth is only best delivered when it rides a killer mix. One can't help but recall Depeche Mode, with their much more commercial mixture of cartoonishly bleak themes and cutting-edge electro-pop. But the comparison is limited. Crystal Castles don't forsake chaos on the body of the record; "Doe Deer" is a spirited screamer with a rather impressively obscene level of intentional compression and distortion. (Audiophiles will inevitably shudder at the production credit delivered to Jacknife Lee, notorious for cranking everything as loud as it can go.) "Empathy" feels like it's transmitting from inside your head, especially if you listen on headphones, and primed to implode, causing audaciously involuntary movement, infection, response. It's not just the space in their recordings that Crystal Castles tamper with; it's also their physical relationship with the gentle listener, who is attacked mercilessly on both "Birds" -- which squirts like those quirky fountains that used to be near Spaceship Earth at EPCOT Center and is, to be honest, kind of annoying -- and "Pap Smear," a kitchen-sink pastiche that is too restless to even spend more than a few seconds on a given sonic idea before skipping along, all the while somehow recalling Madonna's "Holiday."

For the most part though, despite its seeming illusions to the contrary, much of this effort is an immediate pleasure. The difference between Crystal Castles and any number of semi-electronica outfits that could easily be wrestling with and even conquering ideas of the same variety is in the age-old rock & roll formula of the dynamic frontperson. Alice Glass has personality, depth, anger, and nuance. She makes this band worth following, and the conflicted-pleasure wizard Ethan Kath has made one hell of a great album of beautiful, uncompromising modern dance music around her.