Sunday, March 27, 2011

Big Star: #1 Record (1972)


(Ardent)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

What made Big Star so explosive? The "power pop" label they essentially created doesn't begin to explain it, nor does the almost chemical perfection of their music. Like no one since the Beatles, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens of the legendary Memphis cult outfit took -- in their painfully brief period as an active and functioning four-piece entity -- the idea of the guitar band to its white-hot extreme of impassioned precision: loose in the right places, universally and permanently powerful and pertinent. All these guys knew was what they loved: Southern soul, British Invasion, and Byrds, and like their most hallowed heroes, they made assured hay of it all. In a world in which the marketplace (and their label's distribution) was built to handle this decidedly pure-pleasure, seemingly very commercial music, Big Star would have been one of the most popular bands of all time. That they were not resulted in one of the most fascinating and musically fruitful artistic declines of the twentieth century. But #1 Record captures the Big Star that was consciously intended, the moment before destruction, the initial masters meant to pack a wallop.

Striking the newcomer first is the easiness #1 Record has falling on the ear. Divorced from the self-conscious heaviness that has tainted and dated so much '70s rock, "Feel" breaks down the defenses immediately with its grinning anglophilia, but it's "The Ballad of El Goodo" that will win every heart but the most hardened. Alex Chilton had been the star of seminal teen-pop band the Box Tops, who recorded oodles of moving blue eyed soul singles in the '60s, at which time he was affecting an unnaturally gruff tone designed to match up with the popular R&B of the time. But here he sings in his frayed, sweetly lilting real voice for the first time and unleashes an almost hymnal lament of such unpretentious, ground-level power and personality it threatens to tear apart at any moment, but it never does -- the band maintains their committment to pop throughout this naked emotional moment, leveling all the record-collector rock trappings the production might entail. It's a ballad played by giant Kinks / Who fans, but written by someone of astoundingly personable talent.

The late Chilton was not a prolific master, but he was the greatest white American rock composer aside from Brian Wilson; his compositions inspire well-deserved reverence because to devalue them is to devalue the very idea of rock & roll, and more importantly rock & roll as a beloved youthful force, before it became what Neil Tennant later called "the safest institution of all," before adults pretended to understand it. It is this strange moment of purity that the greatest, most transcendent practitioners of adolescent pop from Martin Gore to Paul Westerberg must tap into, but none ever seemed to have the direct line Chilton did. This isn't to discount Chris Bell's contributions -- he was the force behind this album, and more on him in a bit -- but Chilton's youth-solidarity, lyrically and musically, is a remarkable element of what has lent his work its lasting impact.

An explanation: There is the high school counselor who will tell you that you, the dumb kid, are being naive. There is a better than outside chance that the counselor is quite correct. But the failure -- and the reason you hated your high school guidance counselor -- is in his or her failure to see the humanity in that naivete. That is what "El Goodo"'s magnification of trivial problems, or human reading of massive ones, offers: a pillow of empathy. Chilton's Friday night teen dream "In the Street" and shatteringly beautiful young love anthem "Thirteen" take the concept to its most unadulterated. He is truly speaking a language, an elusive vernacular of never-condescending youth, from a palette of emotions at their most unadorned and intense. "Thirteen" especially, against its snowy-soft acoustic backing, is a love letter of sympathetic arrogance, achingly real and personal: "Won't you tell your dad, get off my back / Tell him what we said 'bout 'Paint It Black'"... with all the awkwardness and false-starts of an early relationship. "If it's over, let me know / If it's no, well, I can go." Chilton's elegant simplicity of sentiment and complexity of expression at this stage recalls Boudleaux Bryant ("Problems") and of course Buddy Holly ("Not Fade Away") and Brian Wilson ("I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man") but somehow, his steadiness seems singular -- a force even he is so afraid to tamper with that he would offer it rarely.

Chris Bell is no less idiosyncratic, but his approach is more indirect. The abstract anger of "Don't Lie to Me" is admirable ("I told my dad, and now I'm telling you, don't push me 'round!") and bears solidarity with Chilton's approach, but he is far more intrigued by contrasts of style than the sheer force of a melody and vocal. "Don't Lie to Me" is a British hard-rock assault, very similar to Badfinger or to Get Back-period Beatles with its hotly compressed guitar solos and general air of chosen, contained madness, but whereas a dichotomy of brash words and gentle music would likely fascinate Chilton, Bell is (at this point) eager to separate the two. "My Life Is Right" is given the album's most rote, conventional arrangement -- an almost by-the-book 1970s torch ballad -- but Bell sings it with such stunning force ("Once I walked a lonely road / I had no one to share my love" seems incalculably serious and real in his context) that it overwhelms its musical context until everything seems gorgeously synchronized, the band sympathetic to Bell's every tic (listen carefully to the way the track skitters and bounces on "Lonely days of uncertainty"). His vision of the rock song as singular emotional force -- his vehicle even more than Chilton's -- is never so elegantly realized. However, it is "Try Again" that comes across as his loveliest success here, a simple and leaden force of sorrow, his equivalent to "El Goodo" and one of the most bracingly sung ballads of the period; calculated or not, the pain is palpable here, and a comfort to behold.

Bassist Andy Hummel contributes "India Song," a moment that escapes all of Bell and Chilton's preoccupations but equals them with its sweetness and adorably untouched lyric ("let no one know until I've gone" as the all-time middle class fantasy). It's neatly placed at the halfway point, but something sadly goes slightly awry with the sequencing afterward. Discarding the ethereal outro "ST 100/6," Side Two is bookended by Chilton masterstrokes: his most complete rocker up to now, the celebratory and perfectly performed "When My Baby's Beside Me" and the jaw-dropping ballad "Watch the Sunrise," a delicate, knowing, alarmingly adult life-saver, Chilton's voice showing delicacy on a level with Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. Three strong ballads make the balance, but stringing them together was perhaps a mistake; "My Life Is Right," Alex's groveling, teasing "Give Me Another Chance," and "Try Again" are all strong on their own, but become numbing when piled together (at least, until you've heard the album five hundred times, by which time all you notice is how much you love every second). This in a sense is a function of Bell's vision for #1 Record (the Beach Boys used to arrange LPs with ballads all on the second half), the album he waited his whole life to make and spent a chunk of it tweaking and perfecting, the project and notion that consumed him, whose commercial failure would truly break his heart, perhaps irreparably.

Everything about the album reflects both the excitement of creation and discovery and a remarkable degree of care. Chilton was just a voice in the process here, a star performer, a featured songwriter. Big Star was Chris Bell's vision and consumption. He had a vision of a permanent youth, a defiance against the widespread adulteration of the music he loved, and he yearned to capture every pop conceit and guitar-rock juggernaut of his world into an LP, a band. #1 Record is not an album about hooks, or an album about emotions... it is an album about well-crafted, perfectly engineered hooks in humane but impressive sync with purest, ebbing and flowing emotions. It's about being young and impressionable and stupid and alive, it is specifically designed to enter the heart and swell, to become part of a life. That was all Chris Bell wanted. The ultimate tragedy is that he would not live to see it become that important to legions of people, as it is today. With Jody Stephens now the only surviving member of Big Star, we are left with a ghostly moment in time, a capturing of moments of optimism and determination that meant so much to these people. The way those aspirations would be ripped to shreds would become the subject of music scholarship and fandom, giving Big Star the extra push to become one of the most seriously beloved and analyzed bands of the last forty years. But #1 Record brings back the moment when they were as they (especially Bell) intended: a guitar band doing absolutely everything right, no stone unturned. It is still a beautiful creation.

[Editorial Note: This review contains some very minor elements from a quite awful piece I wrote about this album in 2004. Just FYI.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)

Cut Copy: Zonoscope (2011)


(Modular)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

I adore this album. Give Cut Copy all of your money please. And pump this in the car this summer, as I surely will.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ida Cox & Coleman Hawkins: Blues for Rampart Street (1961)


(Riverside)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I checked into this record due to the presence of Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, knowing little about Ida Cox's storied career, but while Hawkins' band provides beautifully restrained arrangements, shadowing their swing-period glories, it is she who ended up throttling me. When the LP was recorded, she was nearing her seventies and had been retired for two decades. We're not hearing her sing these mostly self-penned blues classics at her peak, but the wisdom and fire, the frayed edges, make all ten tracks genuinely affecting.

"Blues for Rampart Street" itself is a stirring evocation of bygone years, "Wild Women (Don't Have the Blues)" a monument of teasing eroticism made all the more intriguing by the power in Cox's fading voice. Perhaps best of all is her interpretation of the standard "St. Louis Blues," maybe the most resigned and wounded version I've heard, but there is not even a hint of falseness or strain on this entire disc -- all the songs movingly capture echoes of 1920s and '30s dancehalls and romance and promises running almost tangibly through Cox, the mood sweet but melancholy in the loveliest way.

Ida Cox would never record another album; this short-lived comeback was her last musical project before her death in 1967. It's rare that blues historians get such an unfiltered glimpse at an aged legend, and even rarer that the result is so revealing, ghostly but present. But what makes Blues for Rampart Street truly exceptional is the effortless universal appeal it packs. Dig jazz or blues at all? Pick this up and set forty minutes aside for it; you absolutely will not regret it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007)


(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Sam Beam was an important performer to me in the last decade, someone who brought the integral forces and potential of American music back into focus -- modern and vital and mysterious, untied to any specific time. When Kiss Each Other Clean, his latest album under the Iron & Wine moniker, was issued and felt like the letdown of the year to me, I got the urge to scramble back and reevaluate a record I came to absolutely adore a year after its release, The Shepherd's Dog, the third I&W album and the first I bought. I would soon discover even greater pleasures in the prior Our Endless Numbered Days and any number of peripheral releases, but Shepherd's Dog opened up a door for me. When encountering fans who felt that this record was moving too far in a polished, lush direction, I balked. But now that I have had the same reaction to Kiss, I tend to wonder: am I turning into one of those people? A fresh appraisal of Shepherd's Dog seemed fair.

Short answer: No way. Recorded and released in what now seems like a quaintly hopeful time, The Shepherd's Dog has worn its first four years gracefully. None of the MOR hangups that mar Iron & Wine's major label debut exist here, and all of its charms are as intense and its music as impressive as ever. Beam's intricate folk, already breathtakingly beautiful on his first two LPs, seems to open up as the curtain of a theater here to reveal a pastoral landscape dotted with menace and private emotion, elation to bitterness to sorrow but never emptiness.

Undeniably, Shepherd's Dog does stand out from Creek Drank the Cradle and Days: gone is the lo-fi simplicity, in favor of a carefully produced musical kaleidoscope: more percussion than ever before, electric guitar, piano, elements of heretofore unexplored rhythmic valleys, generally the sound of an actual band, which does wonders for the liveliness of these songs and the flights they take. Beam's populist sweetness -- the spinning-around childhood spilling into college-age reflection, an easy connection either way -- allows for a relatively easy Astral Weeks comparison; even if Shepherd's Dog has nothing like the complexity of that masterpiece, it's certainly what Beam strives for, a worthy objective for his talents. As his once-stark folk spills into busy, detailed, soft atmospheres, it earns a remarkable adaptability, the claustrophobic woodshed and the grassy field of "Brown Eyed Girl" approached with equal enthusiasm.

Little attention was afforded Shepherd's sequencing, but much of its magic can be attributed to the gradual build and climactic blush -- it opens with three delicate but assured anthems. "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" was made for the beginning of someone's road trip, the meaty classic-rock hooks of "White Tooth Man" delivering on every gritty Byrdsian promise Beam ever made, "Lovesong of the Buzzard" making glittery and raw romance of its desolation. Here, though, Beam sticks the knife in, with one of the strongest three-track runs in recent memory. The almost unearthly "Carousel" gives way to the creeping Appalachian glories of "House by the Sea" (very nearly the finest song he has written to date), then to the lyrically scathing, musically ecstatic "Innocent Bones" an unforgettable humanist relief quite conveniently sharing its year of origin with the Arcade Fire's similarly themed (and far less subtle) "Intervention."

"Wolves" returns to the spinning, layered intensity of the early cuts; anything would be a letdown after hearing Beam let himself go completely on "Innocent Bones" and its companions. A second series of more reflective gems, also unmissable, dominates the second half of the LP. Literate and on the verge of falling apart like late-period Big Star, "Resurrection Fern" suggests the direction one wishes Kiss Each Other Clean had pressed with, while "Boy with a Coin" lives exclusively in the moment of Shepherd's Dog with its teasing rhythmic and vocal tricks, a shower of noise, and "The Devil Never Sleeps" brings the fireside, perhaps slowly dying or creeping along uncontrolled.

Of all the record's many shimmering highlights, only the widely beloved "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" bears any suggestion of the overbearing balladry direction that Beam would choose to take next; because of his subsequent work, it now becomes a difficult song to listen to, but get beyond that and you can still detect the novelty, and the well-intended emotional crescendos. Most of its points, though, are made more succinctly elsewhere on the record (and are not hampered by vampire associations).

The all-important Specialness of Iron & Wine lies not in any cosmic-American skewering of roots music but in its sheer shorthand celebration of same, and the special (calm, collected, but devotedly passionate) way Beam has of tying it all together with his voice in a singular, personal manner. That world-apart wisdom can deliver a music that is at times indescribably lovely, a carrying on of Morrison, of Nick Drake, of Gram Parsons, of any unpretentious, dignified quiet master of song.

At its best, The Shepherd's Dog achieves something rarer than even Beam probably realizes: it's communicative of actual joy.

[SEE ALSO:]
Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The 6ths: Hyacinths and Thistles (2000)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

Whereas the 6ths' debut album Wasps' Nests defied explanation and convenient pigeonholing, being a series of songs as instantaneous in appeal as they were obscure in origin, its sole followup Hyacinths and Thistles requires a setup. Released only a year after Stephin Merritt's magnum opus 69 Love Songs under the Magnetic Fields rubric, it feels like a low-key collection of potential leftovers from that project. Only Merritt probably knows if that's the case, but most of the songs could have fit comfortably as minor entries in 69 with its smart, mannered use of guest vocalists. It's worth approaching, then, as a sort of Magnetic Fields b-sides comp, only with no Merritt-sung tracks. That comparison ends up meaning more than its association with the 6ths. Wasps' Nests felt like a large-scale undertaking, and an important one to Merritt, in every sense -- its major label backing down to the caliber of its guests. The feeling of a toning down on this far more modest release is unmistakable.

That's not to say Merritt isn't up to his usual brilliant business here. Who could argue with the sheer spectacle of American icon Odetta singing a Merritt auto-standard called "Waltzing Me All the Way Home," or synthpop celebrities Gary Numan and Marc Almond nailing the bleeding mechanical emotion that always cuts to the core in the Merritt canon, or Katherine Whalen (Squirrel Nut Zippers) given at last a song worthy of her abilities, the charming and strange "You You You You You?" But inevitably, nothing here adds up to the emotional heights of 69 Love Songs, the ample cream of that particular enormous songwriting crop having already been exploited. (The Magnetic Fields wouldn't release another album for four years after this.)

Still, a few moments stand out as unique, some of them sublime. Bob Mould is such an unlikely fit for Merritt's songwriting stylistics that it's a joy simply to hear them collaborating, on "He Didn't." Cibbo Matto's Miho Hatori gives the artful gift of a lifetime with her almost unbearably sweet reading of "Lindy-Lou," and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon is irresistible on the achingly brief "The Dead Only Quickly." And there are the traditional '90s Magnetic Fields soundscapes, halfway between Cole Porter and Vince Clarke: "Give Me Back My Dreams," "Just Like a Movie Star," and "As You Turn to Go" feel almost unnaturally divorced from Merritt's more famous outlet. But not everything is well-advised. The record's sixty-minute runtime is enticing until you realize nearly half of it is closing track "Oahu," an agreeably minimal pop song that descends rapidly into a bare, simplistic keyboard line repeated over and over and over and over again, ever slower and more plodding, until it unceremoniously stops (or, more likely, until the listener shuts it off).

All Stephin Merritt's projects are worth consideration, and this is no exception; no Magnetic Fields collection is complete without it, and the fan of Get Lost and 69 Love Songs will find many pieces here to win their heart and add to the tremendous canon. Take it as a no-nonsense collection of fine melodies and rhymes from a first-rate songwriter, nothing more or less. Only when compared to Wasps' Nests does it fall short, which says more about the brilliance of that album than the inadequacy of this one.

[SEE ALSO:]
Wasps' Nests (1995)

Tennis: Cape Dory (2011)


(Fat Possum)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Additional point: Light as the breeze and equally enjoyable, even invigorating, when it's playing, this album has absolutely no presence once it's done. It is readymade for early spring listening, though, so keep it around at least till early May; I doubt it will have much staying power beyond that. Also, Amber pointed out while we were listening to it again this week that the guitar playing and rhythmic ease is akin to the doo wop / Sun Records / Van Morrison sound the Walkmen have adopted on their last couple of albums; this also goes back to the skewered classicist '50s texture in Television's "Prove It"... which just goes to show, you can make anything lightweight and bubbly if you try hard enough.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Kinks: Kinda Kinks (1965)


(Pye [orig] / Castle [reissue])

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

After the hardscrabble, consciously raw R&B of the Kinks' debut album, Kinda Kinks finds the band smoothing out some of its rough edges while finding their aggressive muse much more convincingly, their time on the road having paid off in their performance abilities. Despite its reputation as amateurish and vapid, this is the first excellent Kinks LP, although it is enhanced vastly if you track down the 23-track CD version.

The appeal of Kinda Kinks is that it captures Ray, Dave, Mick, and Pete at their peak as the band they initially intended to be: frayed-edge Big Beat confrontation snarlers. In modern parlance, think of it as punk-blues: "Look for Me Baby," "Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," "Come on Now," and "Got My Feet on the Ground" have the grit of the Stones with an extra push -- Ray writes in the American black music vernacular far more convincingly than his peers. Unfortunately, his voice continues to strain, all too dignified and British to really wash over the consistently excellent music. That's a minor carp when the band is so tight, the songs so addictive and convincing. You forget any problems you have with the presentation and dance your ass off. (And Dave's much more limited voice, perversely, can really sell a groove.)

The number of covers on Kinda Kinks is reduced dramatically; we're left with two, an able and impressive "Naggin' Woman" and a crushingly tepid "Dancing in the Street," although it's a sort of thrill to hear the Kinks take on Motown so soon after the covered song was recorded. The original is just too famous and beloved, and there's no comparison, and to boot Ray is far out of his element.

But where Kinda Kinks really spreads out is on the ballads, which find Ray coming into his own at last. The delightfully catchy "Don't Ever Change" and "You Shouldn't Be Sad" owe a bit of debt to Paul McCartney's slow ones for the Beatles, but their charm is considerable, while "So Long" -- on which Ray even sounds like Paul -- carries the weight and emotion of something like "I'll Follow the Sun" even farther. Without the vague hint of self-regard and pretension McCartney always brought, "So Long" nails a romantic longing and regret with painful ease that foretells the many treasures to come in the Kinks' catalog.

The most famous of the more toned-down and sophisticated songs here, "Tired of Waiting for You," gave the Kinks a smash hit (their last for twenty years in America), and it's a unique, stunningly far-reaching bit of adolescent heart. Ray Davies mumbles out much of the vocal from what sounds like the corner of his mouth, as though he doesn't really want to hear, while the band seems to intentionally plod along to suggest the boredom with which the narrator struggles. Held-back quiet anger, sustained for three minutes, would soon become a Kinks treatment; "Set Me Free," heard in the disc's bonus tracks, is an equally stirring example, while "See My Friends" adds vaguely Eastern textures and a menacing drone to craft one of the most remarkable early Kinks records, on which the band begins to lose their handle on the anger. Instead of giving vent to it at last, they'd come to move in the opposite direction.

"Something Better Beginning," familiar to Americans for its inclusions on the first Kinks Greatest Hits record, is a forlornly tentative romantic classic, with an apprehension toward new love that's atypical for pop lyrics and mature far beyond the band's years. But most intriguing of all is "Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl," buried on Side One with most of the fast ones, capturing a creeping, brooding Skip James undercurrent with the put-upon sensitivity of Davies' more accomplished new songs. He still can't compare to the blues greats, but he finds a niche here, a low-toned near-growl full of nuance and hurt that makes one wish the band had recorded more in this regard. It sounds unhinged, scary even, and there's nothing else like it in the Kinks universe.

You will, however, bear witness to some equally striking material in the bonus tracks if you pick up the Castle CD (and, hopefully, the forthcoming reissue). As I said when discussing the first LP, I don't typically plan to ever discuss bonus tracks within album reviews, for two reasons: They're not part of a given album and shouldn't be a consideration when giving an opinion of the full product, and we will be discussing them in a different, to-be-determined format at a later date. But the first four Kinks albums depend too much on the bonuses, and have too much excellent and crucial supplementary material, for me to entirely ignore the extra cuts.

The classics stream forth after the album ends: "Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy," a weird, skittering single that was quite a hit, even though it takes longer to fully comprehend than most of their '60s singles; the U.S.-beloved "Who'll Be the Next in Line," a prototypical nonconformist statement; the aforementioned two-pronged genius attack "Set Me Free" and "See My Friends"; and the sweetly cutting, brutal "A Well Respected Man," a rather obscure EP track that managed over the years to become one of the band's most popular early numbers.

But two songs you're less likely to have heard before stand out. First up is "I Need You," not to be confused with the near-simultaneous Beatles song, the most abrasive and ruthless early Kinks rocker. If "All Day and All of the Night" and reflected the band's growing virtuosity and accomplishment since "You Really Got Me," this casts a a shadow over both, bearing down on the feedback, the pounding, the crunchy guitars and delectably simple riffage, and (especially) the emotional intensity. It's inexplicable that this wasn't an A-side. "Till the End of the Day" would soon go even further.

The final track on the Castle CD is time-stoppingly incredible. "I Go to Sleep" is a frequently covered solo piano demo from the Ray Davies catalog, never properly recorded by the Kinks, but this deserves to be in their canon. A ghostly, panging lament of a loss, conquering her absence with her presence in his dreams, it is quite, quite a song, and Ray has never sounded ghostlier or more destroyed. Yet again, he explores vocal avenues here he would never again approach, and for all the brilliance the Kinks would offer in the years ahead, that is a pity. Do not miss this song. If buying some pricey import copy of Kinda Kinks is the only way you can get it, do that. Run, jump, fly to get to it. And don't listen to anyone else; if you dig the Kinks at all, you will dig this album.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Kinks (1964)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Destroyer: Kaputt (2011)


(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Let's get this out of the way: this is a brilliant record. Confounding, provocative, strange, rewarding, a singular thing in its own world from a singular mind like Highway 61 Revisited or Love You or Death of a Ladies' Man. So much going on here, indeed, it's too sophisticated to be readily dissected now. The summary is that Dan Bejar rambles and meanders over soundscapes borrowed from twenty year-old Hall & Oates slash Mr. Mister slash Thompson Twins slash Berlin slash Phil Collins slash Sting nonsense, replete with the cheap sax solos and a generally overwhelming lushness. And he sings these songs all like they're showtunes, like he has to fit every syllable he possibly can into an ever-shrinking number of seconds. This is unadulerated weirdness.

But it's a personable, warm weirdness, not the weirdness of, say, Ariel Pink, who can riff on the soft rock genre along with any number of other recyclables from his collection. But Bejar dwells on a preoccupation and fucks around with it until it suits his needs, not the other way around. Much as Leonard Cohen did in the late '80s, Bejar modifies a specific genre construct, a product of a time, and squeezes it until its age, its pangs of nostalgia, disappear, and it becomes just another noise for him to corrupt. Call it Gothic soft rock, or soft Gothic rock if you like, and think of it as highly peculiar 2010s Americana -- very distinctly based on the fridge buzz that probably circulated around Bejar when he was young, if he was, as the song goes, twenty years old in 1992.

The songs come into focus after a time, but initially they all seem to exist simply to serve one another and give a larger impression, blending together with Bejar's twisted, beautifully idiosyncractic voice weaving in and out. "Chinatown" sets the smooth scene, "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" brings priceless guitar and flute to a Peter Gabriel circus, the slyly romantic "Poor in Love" offers an intriguing build and stark variation on the trad soft-rock sax, "Downtown" provides AM choral female backing alongside Tom Waits-level insistence, and everything else surrounding "Song for America" gives in to its slick bass line. But three cuts offer well-paced climaxes: "Savage Night at the Opera" quickens things up stunningly with its earnest OMD ba-da-da-dum pop; the title track's shimmering 1980s evocations come equipped with crazed propulsion and the album's most sophisticated melodic trickery. At last, "Bay of Pigs" is the full-on ejaculation, the extended cacophonious triumph of broken-mirror pop music, its tension teasingly ever-mounting.

But so much of Kaputt's art and craft (if not pleasure) is in the power of Bejar's phrasing, the way he forms his coos and cries around his words, the way they jut out and seduce from repetition and command. His obliquely expressed, carefully sung words begin to wrap around the listener, their memory lingering at times as strongly as that of the songs themselves: "walk away, I can walk away"; "I write poetry for myself"; "I won't and I never will"; "Don't be ashamed and disgusted with yourselves"; "Set the loop and then go wild"; "Enter through the exit and exit through the entrance"; "I look up, I see the north star"; "Wasting your days chasing some girls-- all right, chasing cocaine to the backrooms of the world" (repeated immediately, fully aware of how striking it is); "Wandering around the world"; "As apocalypses go, that's pretty good sha la la, wouldn't you say?"; "Christiiiine!"

The record is much more than a glide through adult contemporary conventions with brilliant lyrics; Bejar celebrates those clichés and magnifies their appeal. This is not a challenge to reevaluate old music, or -- how condescending -- an attempt to make something bad into something good. There is straightfaced love here, and that's hardly the point since this is hardly a simple tribute. I'm not a Hall & Oates fan either; the thing is, H&O never exposed this much, never offered themselves like this. Destroyer might be banking on ghosts of the past here, but in the same manner of so many lo-fi and chillwave artists; Dan Bejar runs across and over his predecessors and devises something that belongs to him -- could in fact be no one else's.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sam & Dave: Sweat 'n' Soul- Anthology (1965-71)


(Rhino)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

There ought to be a word more evocative than "permanent" or "eternal" for music that, five decades after it was recorded, continues to sound as fresh and renewed as Sam & Dave at their best. Rhino's 1993 compilation Sweat 'n' Soul captures exactly that, with a flawlessness and drive that can make even a relatively familiar discography seem like a miracle. If, however, one is not already in love with soul's premier duo, this two-disc, nearly filler-free collection of absolutely flooring music will be both an education and a delight. It's difficult to imagine a more persuasive introduction.

Here's the scene: You created the underlying give-and-take, the comraderie and subservience to romance, of an R&B duo -- two men playing off one another's strengths, each having the level of trust to build on whatever the partner brings. The result is a feeling of elation, constantly rising strength upon strength, a stairway to heaven of sorts. With some help from peripheral talents (Isaac Hayes and David Porter, most significantly), you're the author of the way this works, and you rode it through its glory years and its decline, as the relations soured, with the showmanship a constant: legend has it that when you play, so insistent and wild is your enthusiasm, so boundless your energy, that you and your partner leave pools of sweat on stage. (You can practically hear them forming on the live cut here, "Soothe Me"; the mood in the room is fucking electric.) And now these two asshole white comedians want you to play the intro to one of your hits so they can nab the spotlight for you and "revise" your song to fit their needs, hitchhiking on your coattails into the clouds, and rendering your creativity and gift marginal, just a preview for some culture robbery, right before they expound on how their audience should "buy all the blues records [they] can."

You are Sam Moore or David Prather. The white comedians are Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the Blues Brothers, and you refuse. Even if there weren't legitimate personal reasons to do so, just as a matter of pride, it's also a brilliant sweep of quality control: even Otis Redding couldn't follow Sam and Dave, so how the fuck could a couple of drunkass SNL actors? Who stole your dynamic and your very act, no less. But you don't have anything to prove because the Blues Brothers will look pretty stupid in thirty years. And you will look better than ever.

When Redding requests being pulled off any tour that includes your group so as not to be upstaged, that means you're onto something, and Sam and Dave -- sharp decline ignored -- are the textbook example of how a stratospheric career, one that can turn such a snub into such an honor, must work. Heard today, their music captures so much of the grand scope of soul music in the '60s and '70s in a single place, with an astoundingly easy versatility: they are the Ohio Players, Otis Redding, and Jackie Wilson in one package. Better yet, Rhino here suggests that their catalog has just as much depth, an element of their staying power that's been given little to no credit.

Opening their career as relatively standard (but still excellent) rhythm-and-gospel balladeers and ballers, Sam and Dave would explode with the massive, charged, leeringly confident "Hold On! I'm Comin'," but suggestions abound in the prior tracks here. The contained celebration in "A Place Nobody Can Find" is what Van Morrison has spent his career grasping at, the falling apart organ in "Goodnight Baby" shows no fear of the unconventional, and "You Don't Know Like I Know" signals something new in its sheer assurance. Even something like the run-of-the-mill Redding derivation "I Take What I Want" has a sting and conviction that set Sam & Dave apart. Something in their fusion of rock & roll as a complete, uncluttered music with the raw gospel that gave rise to it (see "Born Again" for an amazingly late example) simmers and bubbles, threatening to wreak havoc on every typical ideal of soul music.

James Brown got there first, sure, and Sam & Dave could never match that man's earth-cracking capacity, but they exist on a parallel plane that carries both considerable innovation and remarkable adaptability -- it's difficult to imagine anyone with a taste for western music of the modern era who wouldn't respond to these beats, these voices, this expression of body exhiliration. Hayes and Porter's production pokes, prods, and stabs with an unmatched focus, engineered to craft songs that must be danced to, or gone to bed with. "I Got Everything I Needs" has the sweetest horns and vocals to ever live in your ear, and "Blame Me" truly is infinitely sad in the most ingratiating fashion.

Sweat 'n' Soul really starts to cook wih "You Got Me Hummin'," a sex jam with grand bass and piano, which progresses nicely into the arresting smoothness of the classic "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby," the Wilson Pickett sunshine of "Small Portion of Your Love," the sheer inexhaustability of "I Don't Need Nobody." And these records, quite simply, sounded magnificent. Mostly recorded live (in classic Stax tradition), they are as admirable when buckling under trends (big beat on "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody") as when founding them (prototypical slow jamming on "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," and the organ line on "That's the Way It's Gotta Be" is the beginning and end of everything), which is one reason that this fascinatingly vital collection is never boring or tiring -- it's easy on the ear, even heard all at once.

Highlights are the norm rather than the exception here, and some have pleasures that stick out before the songs even sink in: "Toe Hold" is an organ stomp with some choice lyrics about romantic "malnutrition," a funky horn section enlivens "The Good Runs the Bad Away," a surprisingly unsentimental economic strife comment hides behind traditional sentiments on "Rich Kind of Poverty," and stuttering grooves ("Wrap It Up"), rapid fire vocals ("Can't You find Another Way"), nasty bass ("Come on In"), unflagging intensity ("You Don't Know What You mean to Me"), and bright slinky joy ("This Is Your World") are the order of the day, all of the time, in Sam & Dave's world. Surely their catalog contained some lax moments, but Rhino brilliantly ignores them. Even the selections from their decline, a determined "One Parts Love / Two Parts Pain" and engagingly funky "Jody Ryder Got Killed," stand up seamlessly.

Still, certain songs announce themselves as centerpieces, and they are as stunning as one would expect. "Soul Man" is a masterpiece of reassurance that still burns hard and fast after all these years, a statement of purpose whose crossover success (in Cashbox, at least, a #1 pop hit) was a big enough deal to open doors (and not just for Moore and Prather). "Broke Down Piece of Man" again suggests a potential lawsuit against Van Morrison with its filthy springtime sound and sophisticated production. And "Don't Turn Your Heater On," derived from the Mar-Keys' "Last Night," manages to one-up a classic.

But, even on a compilation with so many classics and unknown gems and the completely undeniable to any sane person "Soul Man" and "Hold On! I'm Comin'," the knockout, fuck-all highlight is a song Sam & Dave aren't even famous for covering. Their relatively obscure version of "You Left the Water Running," driven by electric guitar, is advanced beyond all genre constraint, as intelligent, as calculated and pop-charged, as masterfully otherworldly as a Screamin' Jay Hawkins record. For whatever price you pay to get the Rhino set, this is the moment when it becomes completely and undeniably worth it, a beautiful capturing of an arm-waving truth to keep forever.

We've not talked nearly enough about Sam and Dave as performers, as singers. Their dancing, their full-on grooving, is well documented, and don't say you can't hear it on their records. On their own, tenor Sam and baritone Dave maybe wouldn't have had terribly striking voices. Certainly neither could have tapped into the market on their own the way Redding or Sam Cooke did. But the power, the energy, the mutual engagement and familiarity of their interplay, the passion that drips from it more than any bodily substance, that is something you shouldn't be able to put on a record. But Stax found a way, and centuries or millennia from now someone will hear this and realize that something beautiful, real, and celebratory could come out of a civilization full of strife, hatred, fear. When you're this gifted, you're kicking against the darkness even when you're singing about lost love and midnight fucking. Especially then, in fact.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (2011)


(Fat Possum)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Guitar bands are always throwbacks, and yet they're always so very now. Chicago's Smith Westerns are disinterested in replication of a sound; their jolt of freshfaced, effortlessly hook-gushing power pop is a note of solidarity, for all its distortions and embellishments, with the permanent elegance of rock music's most basic strands. And that's why they are impressive, a wonderful force to hear and behold, and that's why their new record Dye It Blonde is the first album in ages that I've owned on vinyl within twenty-four hours of first hearing it. Without question, this will be (in my world, at least) The Record of this spring.

None of this is to say that the Smith Westerns don't have old ideas to recontextualize and play with; for certain, they mean to toy with the past, but only in the manner that anybody would want to, with pervasive and unmitigated joy. The thrill in the bouncy, open-armed Beatles conjurer "Imagine Pt. 3" is overpowering, especially the crisp, smartly recorded vocal sound of Cullen Omori, a genuine talent whose Alex Chilton-like frayed pipes can wrap around a hook in the most seductive way. It's reductive, though, to claim all this as mere power pop. For one thing, it ties itself down to no time or place; for all its recollections, it's inescapably a modern record and is delighted to be such. But the Smith Westerns' way with integration of sounds and ideas -- kids in a candy store -- smacks of young fearlessness. How many bands would temper the irresistable pop (dig that bass!) of "Still New" with a left-field integration of '70s stadium rock straight out of a scene from Almost Famous? And honestly, how many bands are able to factor in equal parts shoegaze and glam rock until something like "All Die Young" sounds like Kevin Shields fronting Slade? That cut is a versatile tower of beautiful angst, but it's tremendously spirited. Totally glam, totally Ziggy Stardust, but totally ours.

It's a credit to Slade, T. Rex, and Bowie that talented kids are still employing their tricks, but more pressingly, it's a credit to the kids that they know just how to use that meaty '70s guitar for its greatest calculated impact, gleefully engineered and maxed out for pleasure. What will end up setting the Smith Westerns apart is the same thing that set the Shins apart ten years ago for all their influence-on-sleeve sonics: a total and admirable subservience to songs. Take last year's advance single "Weekend," which lays out the road map for the album to follow: teasing and expansive, it builds emotional crescendos on melody and its flawless sentiment "Weekends are never fun unless you're around here too." They earn the credit from such finely tuned pure pop to catapult into a singalong like "Fallen in Love," or to make the ridiculous ELO piano on "End of the Night" sound not just charming but like a triumph, sitting aside a tower of vocals intoning weekend-revising lines like "Everybody wants to be a star on a Saturday night" (seriously) to craft what -- you quickly become convinced -- would be easy top 40 radio shit in another time.

The key is, that very subservience -- and the content of the songwriting -- is quietly laying a groundwork for sophistication; this is only album two, but already there's evidence of something even more special. The record's immediate classic is "Dance Away" (not, alas, a Roxy Music cover), which tosses aside the general indie-rock muddiness of Dye It Blonde as though a curtain is opening, and dives into the most undeniable, upbeat dancefloor makeout session 2011 is likely to bring, replete with ingenious left-field tempo changes and an almost smugly assured renewal of college rock's onetime inescapable cliché of the chorus that's slower (but sneakier) than the verse. Like Big Star or the Beatles at their respective best, it's the kind of song that makes a bizarre idea sound like the most commercial pop music notion ever crafted. For this blissful 2:44, the whole world stops, and that's the kind of power one suspects the band will learn to wield all the more mightily in years to come.

As in all the best power pop, every second of Dye It Blonde seems carefully considered, the playing precise but never arid. The songs show a welcome versatility without deadening the pace; the more reflective songs toward the end are still stuffed with top-level pleasure. "Only One" opens with R.E.M.-like folk-rock but circles back to the note-perfect FM radio vocals that are already the band's signature; "Smile" is the prom slow-dance, nodding to the college rockers with its priceless wall-of-sound teenage depression chorus; and closer "Dye the World" plods deliberately like Bowie but brings the love with its unabashed Abbey Road riff. It's a delightfully dirty electric guitar sound that recalls the sort of incongruity that always made glam and garage rock work so well -- it sounds so wrong, which makes it sound so right.

And one can't overstate the importance of that ringing guitar sound all over this pop record in a period of indie rock that's become known for studio manipulation and synthpop worship -- the attempted duplication, rather than evocation, of bygone noises. No interest in that from Smith Westerns; they're young, they're eager, and this is the noise of youth as we have understood it to this point. Rock & roll, right? These boys have captured this moment. I would tell you to watch them closely, but fuck that. Don't watch, listen.

Monday, March 7, 2011

13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (1967)


(International Artists)

RECOMMENDED

Psychedelia has been kitsch since before you and I were born; even those of us who love the Seeds do so half-ironically, and the garish LP covers of the late '60s are choice monuments of tastelessness -- beloved, maybe, but mocked just as much. But Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators would prefer you to take them seriously, thank you very much. On their second album, they tone down the excesses and overstated incongruities of their 1966 debut Psychedelic Sounds to craft something no more commercial but far starker -- and even less fitting with the San Francisco definition of drug music. Like the first LP, Easter casts a remarkable net through the underground: at least two other bands with small followings, too quiet to be heard over the Airplane din, were crafting similar textures in the same period, most likely without a clue as to one another's existence. It's not nearly as strong, but this is easily of a piece with the long-players Love and the Velvet Underground were busy on this same year. More importantly, this strange, subtle record is a steaming and admirably restrained bit of left-field rock that (accidentally?) proves all roads lead back to the Byrds.

That's because the guitar wash in general -- really, theirs along with everyone's -- is infected with the sound of "Eight Miles High," which may lay claim to being the most earth-shaking single of the '60s. But more specifically, meet your new favorite oddball Dylan cover: the Elevators' "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is an amazingly hunkered-down, passionately singular moment -- as revealing and stunning an instance of total recasting as the Box Tops' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." In its own perverse way, it's a reverent cover, as over five minutes Erickson and Tommy Moore and cohorts get farther lost in the song than they ever seem to in their own. Experiments like this have tremendous curiosity value and emotional payoff, and more to the point, they feel prophetic -- which makes it all the more unfortunate that after this was issued, the band was basically done. "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)" has twice as many layers than are instantly apparent, "Postures" rambles pricelessly, "Earthquake" successfully weirds up the Stones, and "Dust" and "I Had to Tell You" knife their way through everything with unexpected pop expertise.

One thing for sure -- this isn't more of the same, even if Moore's electric jug is an obvious bridge. The fooling with guitar textures throughout Easter Everywhere, as much as it may owe to the hilariously studious devotion to LSD insisted upon by Moore, is a shimmering proto-shoegaze; there are times when you could easily mistake this album for a recently-recorded treasure from Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth; the devotion to pop filtered through distortion, feedback, and beautiful fuzz and force are as pronounced as the velvet Underground's. Revert to 1980s indie and the forecasting is even more pronounced.

But those are all the parts when the guitars take over, when it could just as well be an instrumental LP. Where the Elevators fall short is, alas, the increasingly lost-sounding, distant, flat vocals from Erickson, who came off snobby and sneering on Psychedelic Sounds and simply unfeeling and bored here. His ample, horrific troubles -- electroshock therapy and years in an insane asylum due to being caught with a single joint -- were still ahead, so why does it already sound like he's holding us at arm's length? Disturbingly, it's like he's already afraid of being hurt, like a part of him has already resigned. All the same, the first two Elevators LPs will live on as Erickson's legacy, and as a fascinating curiosity serving to prove the point that we really had done everything by the close of the '60s.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)

Wire: Red Barked Tree (2011)


(Pink Flag)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Everly Brothers: Walk Right Back (Warner Years) (1960-69)


(Warner Bros.)

RECOMMENDED

This shouldn't be your first Everly Brothers purchase, or even your second. A compilation of their '60s material for Warner Bros. is best reserved for after you know the handful of legendary Cadence recordings back to front. It is, after all, those songs that forever sealed the Everlys' artistic legacy. For anyone who loves the group, though, this is where it gets serious, and the two discs of Walk Right Back are the strongest and most vivid telling of their transformative years -- their greatest commercial success, their sharp decline, their surreal reignition -- and as with any great rock performers, it is in these muddy, idiosyncratic years that the richest and most personal pleasures are to be found. Walk Right Back is only a gateway drug ahead of the surprising depth to be found in the Everlys' WB albums, but it remains an essential stopgap that promotes a more nuanced understanding of the band's mature years than a survey of the intimidating catalog can quickly offer.

We noted the last time we talked about the Everlys a couple of things that bear repeating here. First, along with Elvis, the everpopular indie vs. major narrative begins here. One would be hard pressed to find an earlier example of the generally accepted loss of vitality upon the can-of-worms signing to a big label; it's so accepted it's a cliché. In the case of Everlys, there's some truth in the argument. The chronological arrangement of Walk Right Back can be an endurance test, particularly in the messy middle period. But the joyous bounce that crops up early on and the artistic ambition (and accomplishment!) that surfaces deep into the second disc give the lie to any broad strokes. The Everlys lived up to the hints of sophistication in their early material, they just had to struggle and suffer with the volatility of the changing music business to make themselves heard. And ultimately weren't able to do so.

Everything is rosy at the outset. Phil and Don began the decade and their Warner Bros. contract with back to back juggernauts. Pop in disc one and you are confronted with "Cathy's Clown" followed by "So Sad" followed by "Walk Right Back" followed by "Love Hurts" -- an onslaught few compilations can match, and these are from rock's supposedly "dead" period. "Cathy's Clown" is the biggest hit and the biggest miracle of the bunch. Above an incessant pounding, a tower of vocals shimmers with confident hurt. Pop seldom gets more giddily appealing and triumphantly bitter; the Don solo drips with swagger and soul beyond even his many treasured Cadence moments, and every sense the song comes across "bigger" than anything they'd previously done. In the classic Spectorian sense, it casts operatic teenage misery as shadow puppetry; the pleasures are huge, the dramas bigger yet, and the beat shuffles and stabs at all of it. Beneath it all, it seems an apt narrative placement for a band's move to greater financial security. To boot, it represents an artistic coup; a band best known for interpreting songs written by others scores its biggest hit with their own composition.

Perversely, then, the followup is starkly opposed. "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)," written by Don alone, embodies adult dread couched in boy-girl terminology. As ever, the emotional content is fascinating in its contrasts and extremes; the wailing of "It makes me cry / To see love die" has its melodrama offset by the calm, collected acoustic backdrop. The Everlys by turns capture anguish, resignation, fear, anger, and the actual pain of memory in the space of two and a half minutes with but the simplest of lyrical ideas. The detail is exclusively in their mannered, intelligent use of their own voices and harmonic abilities. This time around, Don's solo approaches keening, and the intent of embodying actual loss and grief becomes obvious.

This may not be the time or place, but the other point I need to reprise from our Cadence Classics writeup is that "Walk Right Back" changed my life. This is the song I heard at just the right instant that set me on the path of exploring early rock & roll with a devotion that no other obsession can ever really match. The simplicity of expression in that guitar lick doesn't really bear explaining, but the vocal and emotional complexity is just as intense as on "So Sad," only now the brothers begin with a plead and develop into desperation -- "Bring your love to me, don't send it" -- and finally an embattled self-examination. So lonesome every day. The guitars aren't the jilted lover, the guitars are the awareness that these immense problems are a ticking consistency of life itself, for all their relative pettiness, an elucidation of the concept the Everlys eloquently explored in "Problems." And again, it's all over in 138 seconds.

Finally there's "Love Hurts," more famously performed by Roy Orbison and a host of others (including but not limited to Cher and Nazareth), but Boudleaux Bryant wrote it for the Everly Brothers. They never turned it into a hit, but they could have; their version is the finest ever record, approached with the same complexities and ambiguities as their other early WB sides. Where they trump Orbison (not an easy task) is on the audible near-smile that breaks through even when they sing about "lots of pain."

Then comes a sign of trouble: "Sleepless Nights," a heavy-handed ballad, still isn't beyond help, but it is the first track on Walk Right Back not to noticeably evolve from the Cadence period -- or at least attempt such. Luckily, a couple of album tracks, "Nashville Blues" and "What Kind of Girl Are You" bring back the raw swagger, leading the apocalypse of the blistering, strange Little Richard cover "Lucille," originally the b-side of "So Sad," featuring droning, atonal singing that would make (and probably has made) John Cale smile. Innovation continues with the bright bubblegum of "Made to Love," but the Everlys at this point remain enjoyable even when tackling the fairly conventional country-pop bounce of "Radio and TV" and "Stick with Me Baby."

The pleasures become less frequent here. There are bright spots. "Crying in the Rain" is classic Everly, a shatteringly sad Goffin/King number as brilliant and resonant as any of the Cadence material; "I'm Not Angry" -- but they are, forecasting the Mountain Goats' "No Children" ("I hope your mail always fails to reach you") -- successfully recaptures the buried fury of Cadence singles like "Problems" and "Bird Dog," while the pair's increasingly sophisticated guitar work shines on "Don't Blame Me." It's interesting to hear the group take stabs at staying alive in an unfamiliar industry that seems to have turned against them; the hits dried up soon after "Walk Right Back." They could've done far worse than the elaborate chamber pop of "Nancy's Minuet" and still kick with life on "How Can I Meet Her?" and the persuasive "Muskrat." Most promisingly, a major country infection rears its head on "Just One Time," pounding and thrusting with a massive guitar sound, a welcome change.

Mediocrities abound, though, for much of the set's midsection. The ballad downturn begins with the overrated "Always It's You," and the rockers become unconvincing somewhere around the "Claudette" clone "Temptation." "True Love" is plodding, "Burma Shave" strained, "Lonely Street" and "Sweet Dreams" light and absent as air. But the first disc is at its worst on, ironically, two of its more popular selections. "Ebony Eyes," the b-side (and chart equal) of "Walk Right Back," is the worst song the band recorded in its first decade and a half, horrendously maudlin "Tell Laura I Love Her" nonsense that renders "Take a Message to Mary" a masterpiece of restraint in its light. Only the Shangri-Las should ever have been allowed to record tripe like this.

But at least that cut displays the Everly Brothers taking a stab at well-trod commercial ground. On "That's Old Fashioned (That's the Way Love Should Be)," as disgustingly squeaky-clean as its title implies, they dig their own grave. The song is everything rock music should never be -- for one thing, designed for parental approval. "Wake Up Little Susie" was dangerous on its own, and downright subversive compared to this. Portions of disc two are just as rough going. "Give Me a Sweetheart," weak-kneed balladeering, is inoffensive enough. But things get ugly for a stretch starting around "Don't Forget to Cry" and "Nothing Matters But You," dull dishwater leading to the barely tuneful teenybopper ballad shit of "It's All Over" and "Empty Boxes." And if you think songs with titles like "Love of the Common People" and "A Legend in My Time" can possibly score, you're reading the wrong weblog. Both are guaranteed to make the most seasoned bad-music buff want to scream.

Strip all that baggage away and here's the shock: you're left with a second disc that is not only stronger than the first, but nearly as interesting and exciting as Cadence Classics. We begin with raw country ("The Price of Love") and a triumphant cover of "Love Is Strange," and then the Beatles hit and everything gets shaken, especially in the Everlys' world. ("Please Please Me" was, after all, a remake of "Cathy's Clown," and "I Should Have Known Better" a revision of "Til I Kissed You.") "Man with Money" tempers its credible Big Beat with irony and "You're My Girl" is sheer Dave Clark Five, but by "Gone, Gone, Gone" the Everlys are fully convincing as British Invasion soldiers, displaying not their debt to the younger bands -- if anything, these fans from across the pond helped destroy them -- but their solidarity with them.

Even if the Everlys proved themselves adaptable in 1964, it's the folk-rock movement that gave them a place in the modern world, though the world wasn't any more receptive to them than before. "Kiss Your Man Goodbye" and "Shady Grove" are dead ringers for Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds respectively, and with the credibility that comes from being there first. And even the Byrds couldn't merge their pure folky aspirations with psychedelia as well as the Everlys on the over-the-top "Bowling Green." These cuts begin an upward trajectory that carries through to the band's most strongly artistic album-length statement, Roots. The 1967-68 songs here sound shockingly modern; a revision of the '50s chestnut "I Wonder if I Care as Much" amounts to lo-fi reappropriation of drugged-up late '60s rock. "Lord of the Manor" and "Sing Me Back Home" provide some bridge to indie rock, and bringing back the Byrds rifling, "Cuckoo Bird" and "I'm on My Way Home Again" amount to impressively prescient alt-country.

But all excuse-making aside, Walk Right Back undeniably captures a loved artist in decline. You can hear them battling their age on "Don't Let the Whole World Know" and "T for Texas," juggling Orbison melodramatics with hardened Appalachia and silly novelty. "You're the One I Love" suggests the baroque country path they could easily have taken and couldn't shed their egos and ambitions enough to try (perhaps thankfully). But the most telling cut on the compilation is "I'm Movin' On," which is the raw and assured rock & roll the Everly Brothers are good at, the very thing they're supposed to do, unmistakably recorded by older guys (relatively -- this was only 1964, an eternity after "Cathy's Clown" in pop music terms) who must think they're past this sort of thing but are still incredibly proficient at putting it across. There's life for you. You get old, and then you do what you know you're supposed to do. Is that giving up, or is that wisdom?

[SEE ALSO:]
Cadence Classics: Their 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)

Teddy Thompson: Bella (2011)


(Verve)

!! CAUTION !!

Read my review at Metro Times.