Sunday, April 24, 2011

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)


(Island)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I don't know if Let England Shake is the best rock LP ever made about World War I; believe it or not, it has at least one stiff competitor. But I know this -- it is a special and remarkable thing, a record of enough grace and intelligence to transcend any pop boundaries it brings with it, enough sophistication and passion to make any number of other brilliant and enjoyable songs and albums on the current landscape sound lacking, even silly. It sounds and feels like a classic, and potentially like a crown jewel in a two-year period crowded with exquisite albums, and all you want to do when it ends is hear it again.

Polly Jean Harvey's imagery in tackling the horrific loss of an entire generation in the Great War ("Weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won't rise again"), intermingling it with jabs of modern warfare, was informed by Eliot and Goya, by interviews with Iraq vets and stories of Gallipoli. (This review is accidentally timed with ANZAC Day. I honestly did not know until moments ago that April 25 was the anniversary.) But listening to the album conjures up cinematic images for me, the unforgiving, color-filtered bleakness of Elem Klimov's Come and See or the oppressively sparse disorientation of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, the oblique beauty of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge or a book of Civil War battlefield photographs. All the same, as its brilliantly straightforward but poetic lyrics periodically suggest, these songs are made for a personal struggle, even as the fog of war permeates them.

The dichotomy, indeed, of this music's immense pleasures -- its addictive spaciousness and brevity -- and its cloud-covered darkness, akin to the work of Harvey's onetime lover Nick Cave, lends it much of its urgency, like the Velvet Underground's deliberately unresolved conflicts of reassurance and chaos. There are times when the music absolutely shimmers, occasionally just before it gives way to an all-encompassing (but no less stunning) dread; witness the deeply affecting pillow of comfort in "On Battleship Hill" falling away to stark dread. The title cut's twisted curiosity cheerfully invites a boy to descend into the bowels of "the fountain of death." This ingenious use of traditionalism reaches its peak on "The Words That Maketh Murder," morbidly bouncy traditional folk that -- along with much of the album -- evokes a modern spin on the sea chanty, or the murder ballad. No novelty, this, as it's most chilling: "Flies swarming everyone / Over the whole summit peak / Flesh quivering in the heat / This was something else again / I fear it cannot be explained." And by the time it quotes Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," it's such a warm injection of humanity into the breathless story as to render it a rapturous rock & roll moment. Very seldom is this war music in any obvious fashion; even the songs that sort of march, like "Bitter Branches," do it upside down, and for all the warlord chanting on "Written on the Forehead," it feels in the end like a cry against the darkness.

The classicist music is playful as often as unsettling (current single "The Glorious Land" verges on new wave), but seldom lacks a vicious bite -- the wry quasi-national anthem "The Last Living Rose" sarcastically romanticizes ("Take me back to beautiful England / And the grey, damp filthiness of ages, and battered books") against a disturbing, claustrophobic performance. For all the airy precision and economy of the songs, for all their airtight composition, they are nothing without Harvey's bending, teasing, evocatively belted vocals. Nearly as striking, and just as vital to the album's success, is the male chorus of backing vocals provided by her band on several tracks, which adds a fascinating dimension and fills out the sound into something roomier, new, scary.

That voice, those backing voices, the sad brass, the watery foreboding, the easy humanist depth suggestive of Patti Smith at her peak, and alarming eloquence -- "We got up early / washed our faces / walked the fields / and put up crosses / Passed through the damned mountains / went hellwards / and some of us returned / and some of us did not" -- would be enough to make this a terrific mood piece, a turn-the-lights-out and have-a-drink-and-lament experience, but it's considerably more, for Harvey tops the grand achievement with a parade of memorable songs that don't even necessarily need the context, much as it enhances them. The electric guitar stab on the persuasively hushed "In the Dark Places" would have immediate impact regardless, and this holds true for everything, especially the shambolic, drama-building "England" (capturing a stirring double-track vocal by Harvey going mental) and the crushingly sad, haunting, vulnerable "Hanging in the Wire," its piano a note of gorgeous desperation, its words beyond hope:

Walker's in the wire
Limbs point upwards
There are no birds singing
The white cliffs of Dover
There are no trees to sing from
Walker cannot hear the wind
Far off symphony
To hear the guns beginning


The male chorus is used most effectively on "Words That Maketh Murder," potentially tied with "Hanging in the Wire" as the best cut, and the stirring folk eulogy "The Colour of the Earth," on which Harvey resigns herself to the background, as a mere bystander as the tale is told:

Louis was my dearest friend
Fighting in the ANZAC trench
Louis ran forward from the line
I never saw him again
Later in the dark
I thought I heard Louis' voice
Calling for his mother, then me
But I couldn't get to him
He's still up on that hill
20 years on that hill
Nothing more than a pile of bones
But I think of him still
If I was asked I'd tell
The colour of the earth that day
It was dull and browny red
The colour of blood, I'd say.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)


(ABC)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

"If you ever want to see a grown man cry," the nice record store clerk told me when I bought this LP, "put this one on. Get ready for some schmaltzy strings." He glanced at the tracklist on the back and pointed to a couple of specific songs. "Yeah. This one and this one. Every time."

Popular music has its artistic elements, and certainly deserves the respect that we afford art. But it also has a utility, a utility that trumps its loftier pretensions. All those Jackie Gleason mood music records had a function, served a need. 1962 was before anything mattered in pop music except what the people would use; that such mentality served up a recording as unassumingly, achingly beautiful as this seems like a miracle until you consider that it's specifically the Thalbergian concern for emotional impact that gives Modern Sounds such immediacy. Over the top like Paul Anka, sung with the respect and individual spin that an older singer might have afforded an album of true standards, the album's defiantly populist heartstring-tuggery hits where it hurts -- it means to mark a moment, a sorrow, a blissful wallowing, and it nails it. Every second is felt and genuine.

Decades now past Charley Pride, we understandably fail to appreciate the synthesis of R&B and C&W, and in a youth music context built by Elvis, such aural fusion was nothing special. But as interpretation, the record was extraordinary: confident, freewheeling, respectful but almost ruthlessly nonconformist. Charles is clearly moved by the songs, but spins them into what amount to original compositions; the bounce he applies to "Bye Bye Love" and "Hey Good Lookin'" have virtually nothing to do with the Everlys or Hank Williams. "Half as Much," also once recorded by Williams, could easily be one of Ray's mid-'50s jazz numbers; he hisses and begs despite himself against the album's hottest bed of horns, though "Just a Little Lovin'" approaches it, verging on big band.

It must be said, those bright moments bookend a lot of elegant darkness. It begins with the first tearjerker, the lushly arranged (ridiculous strings and chorus become somehow profound) Eddy Arnold oddity "You Don't Know Me," ingeniously engineered for the wistful lost-love dark nights of the soul -- but hear it at the right depressive moment and you might not even want to get better.

For all the fanfare Modern Sounds has gained over the years, past it already being positioned at the peak of Charles' career, the concentration has always been on its Civil Rights-period innovation, its florid sound. But so much, indeed nearly all, of what makes it such a peerlessly brilliant and monumentally sad recording is the responsibility of Ray Charles' voice. His singing drips with character and sorrow, a cockeyed sweetness and resignation he can pour over the most banal lyric to make it an immovable truth:

I'll just live my life in dreams of yesterday
Those happy hours that we once knew
Though long ago, they still make me blue
They say that time heals a broken heart
But time has stood still since we've been apart


And the way he puts that shit across, it hits you suddenly. Do you realize what he's singing about? He's talking about the feeling that you've just been crushed, your heart in pieces, and there is no consolation, and hitting bottom only proves there's nothing at the bottom, and you are in love and they don't love you back and you're left to sort through the lingering threads of all that with your beer or bedsheets, and either way you're on your own. Completely. That is serious soul-stomping shit and everyone knows the feeling, everyone knows it to such an extent that it's ridiculous and trite to even mention... but if you're Ray Charles, you can bloody sing about it and everyone knows what you mean because it's not the words, not at all, it's that hint of longing -- gruff, masculine, but soft and shattered.

That's the blues, and therein lies the point of the record, that country and blues' racial divide is just so much bullshit, the despair that is this record's calling card belonging equally to them -- both far away from the excuse-making and impulse censorship of pop, both stirring in their frankness. "Worried Mind," "It Makes No Difference Now," and "Careless Love" all make the relation plain with their application of skilled traditional blues piano and stylistics to now-unrecognizable country and western. But Charles knows that such intellectualism barely registers against the immensity and tragedy of the emotions these songs capture (if not document) for their audience.

Side Two is a nearly unrelenting parade of distress. No lonely reflective night is complete without the crestfallen "Born to Lose" and broken "You Win Again"; close your eyes accompanied by either and hear Ray Charles capable of turning your bad stuff into catharsis, just carrying you away like the years between this record and you never existed. And if you really want to cement a dank Sunday night at a bar, give "I Love You So Much It Hurts" a spin and watch the lonesome types tip a glass to its eloquence. And don't tell me they don't feel a little bit better for the outlet. They do. I did. You did. The similarity of everything, you see, isn't limited to genres of music or generations of people. Jesus, it's everything. So yes, get ready for some schmaltzy strings, and get ready to cry, and get ready to start feeling better about the world you live in because a world in which something like this can be created is one worth waking up to, goddammit.

The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (2011)


(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Check out my thoughts on the Goats' Apr. 8 show at Cat's Cradle!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

R.E.M.: Chronic Town EP (1982)


(I.R.S.)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Sure, R.E.M.'s first 12" release is a jangle pop record -- one of the first of its kind -- but if that were all, you could name another recording as baffling, mysterious, and seductive within its narrowly eccentric Southern dreamscape framework. If the British Invasion offered the music of outer-space creatures, this was the music of ghosts.

These songs seem to have existed always, to have been merely discovered by R.E.M., who exist here on a completely separate plan from their less auspicious debut, the Pere-Ubu-meets-B-52's new wave single "Radio Free Europe." Their music, creepy but sexy, enigmatic and painterly but invariably quick and engaging, offers layer upon bewildering layer of Byrdsian guitar, shifting, haunted textures, and joyfully anguished vocals.

R.E.M. was always obviously a southern band, but they simultaneously evoke urbania. Defying any conventional definition except that they borrowed equally from Gang of Four, the Everly Brothers, and Television, their songs are something above and beyond the widespread postpunk college rock of their day. "Carnival of Sorts," "1,000,000," and "Wolves, Lower" are like small, puzzling film strips, unlabeled and left behind in a cabinet somewhere. The songs even have a scare factor at times, and the closing track, "Stumble," immerses the listener in a completely unfamiliar environment during the bridge. Michael Stipe maintained that R.E.M.'s music was highly visual; they and producer Mitch Easter have tweaked each song, each short film, to its maximum effect, like editors in the cutting room. As a result, the intricate, precise details in the music make it an teasingly absorbing listen.

"Carnival of Sorts" is a chilling moment, capturing the paranoia of the times the way the New York groups did but in a passive, dadaist fashion that makes it both emotionally evocative and sincerely mindbending. The befuddling lyrics make it all the more personal. What's especially riveting is the way Michael Stipe not only belts out all this free-associative nonsense, but does it in a way that sounds terrifying in its insistence. You really believe every word he says no matter how much it lacks any kind of linear structure. Even Tom Verlaine managed to sound like he at least had some point to get across. Stipe has the wonderful qualities of someone who's lost it altogether, whose flashes of sanity and conventional anecdote -- in "Gardening at Night" -- last for a sentence at the most. Guitarist Peter Buck said once that Stipe's postcards were like plays without the beginning and middle. But there's a liveliness in his words.

This band's songwriting always was astonishing. Their radically unconventional musicianship -- the melodies are often in the bass from Mike Mills, the unofficial backbone of the group -- and sense of both joy and restraint allow the songs to wrap around Stipe and the listener, as if both of you are lost in the same maze.

On this EP, Bill Berry's drumming is pronounced enough that the band carries identifiable traces of new wave on the way to their college rock pantheon, but this would change by the time of the debut album and it has no negative effect whatsoever on the songs. Their surrealism allows them to confront you with freewheeling, quickly transforming emotions. A single song, like, say, "1,000,000," might be happy and sad and funny and dark and nightmarish at once. Stipe is thrilled to announce that he could live to be the title number, but all the while he's wandering through a graveyard.

In a sense, rock & roll is a quest to eradicate meaning. Of course the words can matter but they're best if they are subordinate to the music and if ultimately the complete ignorance to real-world fact and folly is what makes you throw your head back and dance. CHRONIC TOWN reminds me of "Sweet Little Sixteen" or Talking Heads' "The Great Curve" or the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," those points when things just shift and everything works perfectly, everything moves out of the way for you to surrender, and it supports you when you fall. In 1982, R.E.M. were pure rock & roll. Perhaps even more than the insistently enigmatic Murmur LP that would follow, this is the perfect capturing of R.E.M. as the strange entity that initially won hearts. It may look small but it's really gigantic, and despite its length it is remarkably close to being their finest work.

[Originally posted at my webpage in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Eponymous (1981-87)

Radiohead: The King of Limbs (2011)


(s/r)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

As noted in the review, posted at MT the week after the LP's digital release, it was too early to fully grasp the layering and complexity here. Since then, I have only fallen more in love with the album. Just to be clear, this is precisely the music Radiohead should be making right now: intriguing but not exclusively cerebral body music that bounces and shakes seductively. It's the most addictive record of 2011 thus far, and it may be the best. I wasn't on board with the post-Kid A output, but now I feel like this is my band again.

[SEE ALSO:]
In Rainbows (2007)

non-LP cuts: #

When this blog initially went online, I intended to review singles occasionally; I later decided that since individual tracks that really matter tend to be discussed in the LP reviews, there wasn't much point. But what of the tracks that aren't on reviewed albums or that belong to albums I have no real interest in hearing or reviewing? That's where this alphabetical collection comes in. Beginning today, every once in a while we will venture into the dredges of my hard drive and collection of 45s to offer some thoughts on various material that won't inspire dedicated entries... This ranges from great songs by artists whose full-lengths I don't particularly care about to curiosity items to compilation chestnuts to things I can't remember why I have to things I have strictly for DJing purposes, which should be horrendous and fun. For this punctuation section (keep in mind we are using iTunes alphabetization here) we begin, appropriately enough, with *NSync, who end up dominating this entry. (Sort of forgot I had so many of their songs on here...)

*NSync: Tearing Up My Heart (1997): HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - Most definitely the best male group of the late '90s teen boom, *NSYNC released a couple of excellent singles, got self-aware and pretentious, and disbanded after three fluffy albums, subsequent to which their most famous member became a sexay superstar and another one admitted he was gay. A perfect career trajectory, and more historically reverent than they could possibly have realized -- at the time they were active, rock & rollers who were listening to terrible neo-grunge bands like Creed and Limp Bizkit bitched endlessly about the popularity of groups like *NSYNC, but in retrospect this seems to have been born out of the same brainless homophobia that plagued disco in the '70s, and lo and behold, Justin Timberlake is now artistically celebrated for returning something like disco to the mainstream arena. I reject comparisons to NKOTB, who truly were half-baked and awful, and Britney Spears, who never could sing like these fuckers, out of hand. I only have half a dozen *NSYNC songs in my library but they are primo bubblegum, I don't care what you think. To me, this is their best cut -- please note its conservative length -- and if you want, I can tell you the reasons it's different from the execrable teen pop of ten years prior and closer to the wonderful bubblegum of the '60s. In the first few seconds, the song's more evocative of the explosion -- early the same decade -- of a gay-centric dance club movement (La Bouche, CeCe Peniston, Haddaway, C+C Music Factory, etc.) than it is of the typical cult of personality that surrounds teen pop acts. Additionally, these guys actually have decent voices, and the hook is tremendous, and doesn't come off as stupid even all these years later so much as just easily applicable to whatever catchy occasion. This kind of rousing stupidity is pure and ageless. I wouldn't put it on a level with "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, who are probably the most accomplished band in the history of teen pop, but I don't apologize for thinking this is more rock & roll than "Freak on a Leash."

*NSync: I Want You Back (1998): RECOMMENDED - The Backstreets did more with the exact same backing track, the Jacksons did more with the exact same title, but in a certain mindset, surrender is inevitable.

*NSync: I Drive Myself Crazy (1998): HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - It's pure ignorance to deny yourself any groove this hot. I don't blame people for being afraid of *NSYNC; this video, for instance, was horrifying. In case you don't remember, it took place in a padded cell, where the members of *NSYNC were strapped in straitjackets, the consequence of the literal insanity described in the lyrics. The implication was that they were hoisted on the path toward this inevitable destruction by you, the supple female with hard nipples who wants to sleep with the members of *NSYNC, who are not permitted to touch you because Louis Pacifico or whatever the fuck his name was will castrate them and after all, you are all jailbait. But whatever, the end of the chorus is sick as all hell.

*NSync: Bye Bye Bye (2000): HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - Again, more dance-pop than teen-pop, this was never a difficult song to imagine an adult enjoying, specifically because it isn't stupid and condescending. Compare Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time," essentially a Converse ad set to music, free of its own actual worth, engineered toward half-baked fantasy and dunderheaded, manufactured joy. "Bye Bye Bye" is interesting, sideways, subtle... I mean, not Tom Waits subtle, but way the fuck better than you think it is.

*NSync: It's Gonna Be Me (2000): RECOMMENDED - Virtually all of *NSYNC's hits are about conflict; they tended to be cathartic rather than sexual, which may be why their music has aged more gracefully than the rest of the teen-pop smorgasboard of those days. This song is the discovery of sex in all the anger and misery, a more important step upward than it seemed then. The herky-jerky chorus weirdly recalls Devo, a notion Justin Timberlake would later carry to the bank when he more or less single-handedly revitalized dance music.

*NSync: This I Promise You (2000): HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - Though I loathed New Kids on the Block, it was beyond me to deny that "Right Stuff" was a stylish danceable teddy-bear public service. What really made them contemptible was their ballads, all engineered and product placement-ready. It was easy to look past the pandering as long as there was a beat. Perversely, the '00s teen pop has the opposite issue, though it's generally a more obvious problem with the Backstreet Boys: the fast dance songs are often generic and condescending, the ballads revel in the shameless melodrama that only aging fools will deny is what they loved about the Shangri-Las and Phil Spector, precisely because teendom is itself melodramatic. Those petty problems we lose the ability to even look at can be life-or-death; they swirl around our heads and strangle us. Accidentally copping some of its melody from the Beach Boys' obscure "Where I Belong," this is absolutely peerless schlock, the only time *NSYNC bested BSB at this particular game. And the lies are inherent... there is no pandering because the growing up and forgetting all these promises is not just part of the song but indeed, it may be the point.

5000 Volts: I'm on Fire (1975) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - The blast of demented machismo at the chorus of this completely delirious single captures disco as a filthy club subculture rather than a corporate marketing term; "I'm on Fire" seldom appeared on the Bee Gee-filled '70s compilations that used to receive perpetual promotion on Nick at Nite, because to remind audiences of it is to remind them that once this movement lived and cackled, and at an overwhelming breakneck speed. It's not soul, it's just fast and furious.

80 Drums Around the World: Caravan (1965) RECOMMENDED - (The date is approximate.) This comes to us via Capitol's inordinately enjoyable Ultra Lounge series, an ideal venture for the space age bachelor. 80 Drums made demo music for the bachelor's hi-fi set; this particular cut is awash in vibes and eventually a somewhat half-hearted Middle Eastern texture. I frankly prefer all those French Girls who can't be wrong.

This entry is subject to be supplemented as additional marginals that don't start with letters come to light!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (1950)


(Capitol)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Cool jazz begins here -- the immediate decisive reaction to bebop that backgrounded its freshness and off-the-wall instrumentation with traditional big band or even classical (some would say stuffy) arrangements. But this roadmap for the subgenre belies the arm's-length ennui implied by its title. Miles Davis, even at the first stages of his grand career, couldn't have fallen for anything so safe -- if anything, it's unmitigated joy that lurks behind the adventurous jumping and tempo trickery of "Israel." The songs recorded by Davis' short-lived Nonet, who had enjoyed a couple of residencies before reconvening to lay down twelve songs for a series of Capitol 78s, never stop at being purely cerebral. By the admission of arranger Gil Evans, who deserves a large share of credit for the sound of Birth of the Cool, Davis is the playful driving force of this music that was actually the work of a large collective. And it's only through great care and ingenuity that a nine-man lineup could sound so streamlined, so specific and simple. Long after the bebop reactionary politics are forgotten, as they already are in most quarters, that simplicity remains startlingly ingratiating, and even if that weren't the case, the balancing of skittering, impassioned bop with conservative songcraft feels far more subversive than was probably intended.

Birth of the Cool arrived at a crossroads of enough far-flung historical interest that it stands as a fine jazz introduction, and in that regard it is an absolute prize, endlessly fun and involving to listen to, and its length and pace are breakneck enough (the consequence of being derived from 78s) that even the novice will never lose patience, the hooks lingering long after the individual songs. And although the range of material is eclectic, the songs fall together as a single, infinitely pleasing performance. Far from Davis' best work it may be, but it has a case as his most immediate -- even if much of its greatness can't entirely be pinned down to his trumpet.

But the loveliest moment does belong almost exclusively to Davis -- "Boplicity" may be his first masterful cut as bandleader. Considered with or without the rest of Birth of the Cool, it positively yearns, every note a powerhouse -- and most interestingly (and foretellingly), it owns up to and toys with the conservative roots of cool jazz like nothing else here, amounting at moments to nightclub big band twisted into a celebration, a sampling of pleasures and their emotional applications -- life as music and the opposite, or wherever those notes might lead.

This wasn't technically designed as an album -- the long-playing compilation of the first eleven sides first appeared in 1957 -- but it deserves consideration as one; in a sense, it gives birth to not just the genre of the title but to the concept that a series of session materials might prove a further greatness when set to play off one another, parallel entitles that reveal more when lined up. I am normally a stickler for the album / compilation divide, but this is my sole exception; I can't imagine these songs separated. However, be careful if you're seeking out the old 1957 LP -- until 1971, all copies omitted the flip of the final 78, "Darn That Dream," an odd selection sung (the only vocal track the Nonet released) by Kenny Hagood. Typically derided in jazz books, I find its weird distance intriguing and vaguely ghostly, almost antiquated, and the most fitting conclusion to the deceptively simple, secretly forward-thinking material collected on the rest of the record. However little it relates to the larger context of Miles Davis' output, Birth of the Cool is the real starting point of a career that would soon enough set music on its ear forever.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

James Blake (2011)


(A&M)

RECOMMENDED

James Blake's minimalistic, electronic but oddly raw R&B isn't quite as new as it's cracked up to be. Sure, unless you count Radiohead's experiments on The King of Limbs, this is the most mainstream-friendly the dubstep subgenre has gotten thus far, but an extra listen to the more far-flung material Prince was throwing out in the Sign o' the Times era reveals the same sense of another world's underbelly, the processed vocals symphonically backing up against one another to create actual disorientation. Still, as a producer, Blake is a master at creating that out-of-mind feeling and fusing it with almost eagerly heavy emotion.

Blake's EPs were more firmly in the cult mode, with half-formed ideas aplenty. He gets it together fast for this major-label full-length; the first three songs all vibrate and shimmer with bursting invention and drive, marvelously tricky and fun to listen to while carrying just the proper introspective weight. The jewel of the record is "Wilhelm Scream," a parade of paranoid tics and aching beauties -- "Unluck" and "I Never Learnt to Share" build themselves up nicely but end up coming off as bookends.

The problem is that until its finale, the explosively direct and complete "Measurements," Blake's record doesn't expand on the offerings of its first ten minutes. The sounds that throttle you then are more or less what you live with for the rest of the album, which would be fine if it offered real songs in a more persuasive sense, but only the flimsy but funky "To Care (Like You)" and the Feist cover "Limit to Your Love" (which fails to uncover much that its composer didn't on The Reminder) don't seem as incomplete as linking material from Smile.

There is also the sense that indie rock's interpretation of soul and funk is all too brittle, airy, cerebral. The beats titter and tease but never release; that is probably the point, I grant you, but the same way I miss a nice blast of guitar on some folk-indie records that seem to be begging for it, I miss the actual body response when nice boys attempt soulful dance music.

But this is a fascinating album all the same, never overstaying its welcome at just under forty minutes -- one worth multiple investigations, and the sideways beauty of "Wilhelm Scream" and primal sway of "Measurements" are enough to make it noteworthy. "Measurements" escorts Blake out into the night with the transformation of an inward-looking chant into some kind of communal celebration, all excruciating pauses and thrilling explosions. It doesn't matter if this is the future of music when it can feel this present.

[SEE ALSO:]
CMYK EP (2010)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oasis: The Masterplan (1994-97)


(Epic)

RECOMMENDED

The inimitable, glorious blast of Definitely Maybe aside, Oasis never really fulfilled their promise. Of course they had their commercial moment with (What's the Story) Morning Glory and the beautiful misfire Be Here Now, just the kind of oddball creative idiocy that is the true mark of greatness. But the Great Band narrative they wrote for themselves became, perhaps, too restrictive. It would seem that a b-sides collection could afford an opportunity to witness the band loosening up a little fucking bit for once, and better yet to present some oddities from the brief but unforgettable period when Noel Gallagher was writing one classic after another. It turns out that The Masterplan is worth the Oasis canon, but not at all for the expected reasons.

An Oasis fanatic and tireless defender when this was issued in 1998, I nevertheless did not pick it up, in large part because when I heard the single "Acquiesce" (originally the flipside of "Roll with It"), I thought it was too much like a Bryan Adams record. Hearing it for the first time in thirteen years yesterday, that impulse hasn't changed. The big secret of The Masterplan, the great hidden truth that these discards reveal, is Noel Gallagher's fixation with the FM radio orthodoxy. Three of the first four tracks on this compilation possess traditional and fairly grand low-key Oasis verses then fall into shameless pop-automatic choruses that could make even a diehard cringe.

But there's plenty special in the exceptions. The title track is something of a miracle, a delicate, considered jangle-pop chamber piece that easily goes down as one of the band's most completely realized, lively songs, its lilting melody and building chorus stunningly persuasive. Like it, "Talk Tonight" features Noel on lead vocals, and it provides the same sort of relief that the flooring "Don't Look Back in Anger" did on Morning Glory; it's easy to understand why Liam's personality placed him as the ideal frontman, but does anyone doubt that his brother destroyed him as a singer? On "Talk" and the less defensible "Going Nowhere," he gives vent to worlds of nuance that are never even approached on something like "Champagne Supernova." As ever, one wishes for more like it; there isn't the catharsis and euphoria of "Anger" but there's a knocking at the door. And only Noel could sell a lyric as dubious as that of "Half the World Away" ("This old town don't smell too pretty") but he nails it.

Still, what's remarkable about the live cover of "I Am the Walrus" is not how bizarre the blissed-out arrangement is, or the hilarity of Liam's curious pronunciation ("sittin' on a conn-flayake") and scat singing ("goo goo goo jah / choo choo choo bah")... it's the sheer sincerity of the boys' Beatles fandom, and it's how capable Liam is of slipping in and out of a near-perfect pitch John Lennon impression. This is something beyond Britpop -- this is a strange and semi-wonderful magnification of a memory.

So Liam was always best on the sheer snottiness of "Married with Children" or the reluctant emotion of "Wonderwall," and he seldom gets to wrap his tongue around anything of the kind here (at one point he has to sing "It's the little things that make me feel happy" with a straight face) because, of course, all his shining bits made the albums. "Fade Away," reaching back to the band's shoegaze period, is a notable exception, a hard-hitting track that could easily have made any of the first three albums without any serious compromise, and "Listen Up" gets close to towering (hampered by throaty strain), but the lion's share of these are rarities and b-sides and unheard cuts for rather obvious reasons.

If you dug the first three or four Oasis albums like I did but never sought this out, do so; in part because the first record remained by far their best, it's easy to find it a difficult sell. Were the band more consistent for longer, no one would need persuading to track down their esoteric material. But this isn't noodling; if anything, it has more immediacy than the sometimes labored chugging along of albums two and three. Even Definitely Maybe, great as it is, is never as charming as the goofily sweet "Rockin' Chair." Better yet, The Masterplan is a surprisingly pleasing rush of nostalgia that makes that weird moment last just a tiny bit longer; the rapid-fire, unfettered "Headshrinker" is worth the trouble all by itself. Just don't expect it to have the lasting power of Definitely Maybe or even the addictive curiosity of Be Here Now and you're all set.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Early Years (1992-95)
Definitely Maybe (1994)

Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender (2011)


(Great Speckled Dog)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Read my interview with the band at Metro Times Blogs.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in Eden (1992)


(Elektra)

!! CAUTION !!

Try to forget for just a second that it's 2011 and pretend you feel optimistic about our government, our collective humanity, our bright future. Isn't there something to those premature proclamations Natalie Merchant lets loose in "These Are Days"? She says the world is warm, and it's there -- nearly tangible -- a feeling of being on the cusp of halcyon days, golden years, the Revolution. It's like that awful Jesus Jones song only it feels actually good to believe in it. Close your eyes and you're there, back to wide-eyed naivete. That's a difficult and powerful thing to record, and 10,000 Maniacs absolutely nail it on this track. Nearly two decades later, it still leaps out, even from supermarket intercoms, even from telephone company hold music -- which are the primary ways 10,000 Maniacs are now listened to.

Don't let that, or the unexpected delicacy and subtlety of opener "Noah's Dove" -- the band's second-best song behind "Eat for Two" -- fool you: 10,000 Maniacs are as toothless and boring as ever on the majority of this album. The difference between this and Blind Man's Zoo is that the slickness is now claustrophobic. Witness the lifeless brassiness of "Candy Everybody Wants," which sounds like an economics student's vision of funk, and it's just about the liveliest thing here apart from the first two tracks. The others revisit the acceptable meandering of Blind Man's Zoo ("Gold Rush Brides," "Stockton Gala Days," "I'm Not the Man") and the claustrophobic PC dirges of In My Tribe ("Tolerance," the antiseptic, cringeworthy "How You've Grown"). Even the typically reliable Natalie Merchant sounds bored -- "Noah's Dove" and "These Are Days" notwithstanding, she only comes to life in her passionate vocal performance on "Jezebel," which is better heard on the Maniacs' Unplugged album.

Producer Paul Fox lays on so much sweetness you wonder how so many self-respecting adult alterna-rockers put up with this back in 1992 -- the other bands they were listening to were actually doing fairly bold things at the time: U2 reinventing their entire conception with dance beats while investigating ever slower, sadder material; R.E.M. wallowing in Appalachia and self-pity with the exceptionally lovely double threat of Out of Time and Automatic for the People; and the Pixies breaking the hell up. It is, alas, this last lesson that 10KM failed even in duress to adopt. The sole virtue of much of 10,000 Maniacs' music is Natalie Merchant and her sometimes shrill but often wonderfully expressive voice. When Merchant announced an impending departure before this album's release, the band chose to soldier on, leaving time for a surprisingly ethereal Unplugged performance that stands as the band's best recorded moment.

The result wasn't terribly surprising. Though her solo career ended up copping to the same Sting-like blandness and Enya-like boredom that she seemed to be driving at with 10KM, Merchant's first single out of the gate was "Carnival," one of the most tremendously wise and beautiful singles of the '90s, a low-key treasure and her biggest hit ever. 10,000 Maniacs laid low for a couple of years and returned with the anonymous Mary Ramsey, who cooed and chirped her way through an embarrassing cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This," after which we never heard from the band again -- although they do still exist in some odd incarnation, now without even their late guitarist, Rob Buck. You can mark your calendars for their 30th anniversary tour, but I doubt very much any kind of a hip resurgence for this very strange band. Even by the standards of the modern chillwave scene that's renovated music lovers' perception of soft rock, their interest in remarkably bland, bloodless music makes their critical cachet and cult incomprehensible, a reevaluation too boring to conclude.

[SEE ALSO:]
In My Tribe (1987)
Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
MTV Unplugged (1993)

Editorial Note: You might be wondering two things. First, why did I just review the bulk of the discography of a band I don't even like? Answer: I don't know, thought it would be interesting, wasn't even sure I didn't like them until I investigated, etc., sorry if it was lame but it was a fun exercise for me. There will be more stuff like it in the future, so sit yourself down and relax. Second, why did I just disappear for like twelve days? Well, when I'm gone for long periods it's because I'm probably tied up with a combination of my actual day job and my side gig writing rock reviews professionally as a freelancer, which does take up more time than these blog posts even though the reviews are shorter. (I will not write up an album I'm getting paid to review after hearing it just a couple of times, which I sometimes do here.) And also, we went out of town last night to see the Mountain Goats, who I already loved and after seeing the show am now enamored with and I don't think I can talk about anything else for a little while. But I'll try.

Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (2011)


(Atlantic)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

One expects the damage-control compromise required by Lupe Fiasco’s painfully protracted third release -- and the many concessions made to get Atlantic to put it out -- to be depressing, so the first few tracks on Lasers come as a bit of a relief: he survives “Letting Go” and the suspiciously catchy “Till I Get There” with his dignity largely intact, his flow still hard-hitting and intelligent.

But then all hell breaks loose: MDMA and Trey Songz invade with already-dated club R&B that’s ill-fitting for Lupe. It gets worse yet, with the brain-melting rap rock of “Break the Chain,” the pandering incongruity of John Legend’s “Never Forget You,” and the total WTF that is the Modest Mouse-sampling “The Show Goes On.” It’s all rather disturbing, and with the artist’s radicalism intact (sometimes comically so), it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t see the irony, suggested by media comments that he “loves and hates” the record and that he contemplated suicide during the battles over it.

Occasionally his wit shines through (there's even a Leonard Cohen reference), but this music is completely unworthy of such a talent -- and it's a pity to hear the mediocre leveling-off of a performer who could potentially be as good as Kanye if allowed. In the end, Lasers plays out less as a downturn for Lupe than as an accidentally searing indictment of the corporate record industry.