Monday, May 30, 2011

Otis Redding: Otis Blue (1965)


(Volt)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

It was recorded, almost entirely, in the space of a single day; it follows the mid-'60s LP format of a couple of hits filled out by cover versions of popular tracks of the day, seen on so many deservedly forgotten half-assed garage and Motown longplayers of its period. It opens with the most disorienting shapeless groove this side of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Its most innovative recording is better known as sung by another artist. Even its nondescript, lazy cover art bears out the generic implications of its tracklist, that this is merely a great artist working on contract. So how does Otis Blue manage to be the definitive album of '60s soul, a genre of rock & roll more revered and spoken of in hushed tones than any other?

Perhaps it's because Otis Redding, as he'd been proving on a long line of killer singles and a spell of increasingly raw and unhinged albums, was the most impassioned, fiery romantic pop music has ever seen. James Brown got down on his knees, of course, but never with Redding's sensuality and the sparks of real pain shredding his voice; Sam Cooke, Redding's hero (three of whose masterpieces get covered on Otis Blue), had the fearless subservience and emotional bareness, but he chose classicist, reflective beauty over tearing himself apart.

Perhaps it's the unstoppably breathtaking performances happening behind Redding, a tour de force from Booker T. and the MG's and the other Stax/Volt players, who are able not only to stake a claim for greater consistency than the Funk Brothers by churning this wildly eclectic mix of material out at such breathless speed and palpable urgency, they directly upstage them by adding a touch of organic energy to then-brand new Motown game-changer "My Girl." Never has the reductive labeling of early soul as "Motown" seemed so damaging. Certainly there are things Motown records could do that this album can't. But there are considerably more of the opposite -- rather than toning down and centralizing the vocalist's emotion, the Stax crew underline, spread, reinforce it. Redding and the band coalesce for what amounts to a half-hour orgasm of pointed, elegant love and distress.

Perhaps it's the strength of the material. In contrast to virtually every non-Beatles non-Dylan non-Night Beat rock record of the first half of the '60s, there is not a single weak cut among these eleven. By approaching the recording of the package as the ultimate desperate rock & soul concert, by clearly assigning each cut major importance, by taking obvious joy in all of them, Redding and his band get beyond most of the filler tendencies. But it must be stated that the caliber of the compositions is what ultimately brings this a cut above Redding's other LPs, which in turn takes it above all other '60s soul LPs in general. The triad of Cooke numbers is astonishing -- "Shake" becomes a Redding signature by default, "Wonderful World" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" operate beautifully despite the vast differences in delivery and impulse between the two singers. Solomon Burke appears with "Down in the Valley," B.B. King with "Rock Me Baby," William Bell with "You Don't Miss Your Water," Jerry Butler as cowriter on "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and of course Smokey Robinson with "My Girl." Then there are Redding's three originals, all among his best. A daunting collection, undeniably, of the distinguished writers of their time.

Perhaps it's the fact, in turn, that Redding -- for all the strength and grace of the original versions of these songs -- is the greatest soul singer of all, that he therefore is a match made in heaven with this music. Seldom will you find a more haunting record than Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," but as controversial as it may be, Redding strengthens it by sounding closer, more awestruck than Cooke. The agony of "You Don't Miss Your Water" was never so articulate as when he expressed it. And if you still place the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" on a pedestal for some reason, prepare to witness its painful toppling when you introduce yourself to Redding's cover, so manically driven it is genuinely euphoric to listen to. The point being, he is the singer these songs want.

Perhaps it's because of the record's prescience, as a lively but preservationist document, that captures in very little time the complete breadth of black music of its period. Some of this isn't even intentional, but by composing the anthem "Respect" that would quickly be reapproriated and canonized by peer Aretha Franklin, Redding makes a strong enough contribution to the cause to make the record an indispensable piece of history. Luckily, it's far more, and ironically its lesser known cuts attest to its continual value as a source of pleasure and surrender: opener "Ole Man Trouble" is composer Redding pleading up a storm, "Down in the Valley" sears with voodoo glee, and "Wonderful World" gains an unexpected hint of triumph in Otis' hands.

Perhaps its roughness feels more genuine than the pop-end of ground zero soul. This can be extended to Redding's career as a whole; his voice always had a rawness that was more immediately communicative than the artful subtleties of someone like Marvin Gaye -- who laid it all out like Redding, but more obliquely -- or Sam Cooke. The ragtag sound is, of course, misleading; the MGs are tighter than anybody, but the starkness of their sound must surely have been designed to make it as ageless as it's become.

Perhaps it's simply Otis Blue's reinforcement, much like Ray Charles' Modern Sounds, of interpretation as a great force of expression in rock as much as in jazz or blues or pop. Not to dwell on the "canon" idea, but Redding truly does create one here, lathering his gleeful and singular vocals -- as sophisticated at times as the best jazz singing, integrating fascinating rhythmic ideas -- onto the soul standards of the day, creating new ones, ridding non-soul ("Satisfaction") of all its practiced sardonics and converting it into plainspoken, deep-end begging. Redding proves himself a master interpreter, but just as importantly, he brings a composer's eye to his approach to these songs.

Without any of those, Otis Blue wouldn't work. But what glues it together is none of them. The answer, the secret ingredient, the crucial distinction, is heat. That lengthy session that produced every cut except the classic single, the original naked slow-jam "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (featuring what may be Redding's greatest vocal ever), occurred in the middle of a sweltering July. You can hear the sweat, the summertime beat, the unbearable intensity of summer at its height, in these songs. And without that punishing heat, you couldn't have the definitive statement, the definitive representation, the definitive groundwork, of soul music. But there it was, and there it is.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Weeknd: House of Balloons (2011)


(s/r)

RECOMMENDED

Right, that's "Weeknd," not "Weekend," and that is indeed the most searing piece of trend-baiting cover art you've seen in months, or maybe even since Vampire Weekend's Contra. But in fact, this is no Afro-leaning NPR adult contemporary outing, it's bent and erotic R&B, and for all the blog overhype -- much of it from typically R&B-ignorant quarters -- there is something here, and this self-released, absolutely free (download it here) mixtape embodies more innovations and ideas than a year's worth of chart-topping pop records. Mysterious Canadian Abel Tesfaye has a future, most assuredly; the question is whether he can shed his overwrought college-rock leanings enough to craft the mind-blowing commercial music freely suggested at the edges of these tight, distracting grooves.

Tesfaye deserves credit for how much he flies in here, convincing retro to cutting-edge dubstep that easily upstages How to Dress Well and even James Blake, and most of all for the most convincing foundation of a new filthy sensuality -- in the nearly ambient, arrestingly shapeless "Loft Music" -- since Prince and D'Angelo. But House of Balloons scores biggest on its least cluttered installments, the first two tracks ("High for This" and "What You Need") in particular. It's here that Tesfaye seems least afraid to let his voice sit and stretch, to cater to the radio pop ideas he finds so easy they're almost boring, to craft populist and nasty soul music. So if he can get past some of the artful formalities that make much of the last twenty of these forty-odd minutes rather trying, he will be one of our generation's valuable and scary forces. The funky mystique may be attractive, but it's window dressing and it's a gimmick; drop it.

(Maybe think of a few more synonyms for and ways of singing "girl," "giiiirl," and "girrrrrrl," too, but that's extra credit.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Talking Heads: Sand in the Vaseline- Popular Favorites (1975-1992)


(Sire)

RECOMMENDED

Sentiment alert: This two-disc career overview was, radio aside, my introduction to Talking Heads, a band that eclipses all others post-'60s for me. I could recount the moment in the middle of "Don't Worry About the Government" when I recognized that glimmer, that thrilling instant of discovery when I completely "got" what the band was about -- but really, so much of that will be covered when we discuss the individual albums. Being honest, I wouldn't any longer name this as the ideal way in to the Heads; its approach to their best albums is too haphazard, and the glut of material from their brief but wounding decline (would've been just a weak detour if they hadn't come to hate one another so much) is too much of a slog. If I were going to send a Talking Heads newbie to the proverbial record shop, I would point them in the direction of any of the three Eno-produced LPs plus the handy no-nonsense Rhino package The Best of Talking Heads. But Sand in the Vaseline, creepy title aside, is arguably as essential for harder core fans as the overhyped three-disc box Once in a Lifetime, and the Heads compile well, so that if this is the way you first come across the breadth of their catalog, it will undoubtedly intrigue you.

Not really a greatest-hits package per se, this is more comparable to the Beatles' Red and Blue albums in its mix of most (but not all) of the big singles, some band-beloved album tracks, and a few rarities. The content is sandwiched by eight previously unreleased or non-LP cuts, four at the beginning of disc one and the rest at the end of disc two, that remain the selling point for fans and will doubtless keep the set in rotation after its utility as a jukebox has passed.

There are two performances from pre-Jerry Harrison demo sessions. "Sugar on My Tongue" is archetypal, clipped punk-bubblegum, but "I Want to Live" is flat-out remarkable. Byrne puts in one of his most riveting performances, and in many ways "I've had some friends... but I want more" is a moment that defines the band. Incredibly, this rough early runthrough of an abandoned track is one of their most accomplished, compelling recorded moments. The band already has a distinctive sound as a three-piece; on "I Want to Live" especially, the slinking funk of Tina Weymouth's oddball bass line is evocative of things to come.

Vaseline provides the first CD release of Talking Heads' legendary debut single, "Love -> Building on Fire," never offered on a studio album. Byrne's already infectious drama and twitchy psychosis peak with his wild and possessed devotion to "two loves" (the most breathless line is listed on the web as "Count 'em: one, two loves" but I've always heard it as the more unhinged "God, I want two loves"). The major body of the song is in the "Don't Worry About the Government"-predicting obsessive-compulsive tracking of a six-degrees link described in the title. Love is his face, which is a building (!), which is on fire. Jerry Harrison has yet to arrive, so the sound is filled out with somewhat goofy horns, the sort of overly twee maneuver the Heads would passionately steer clear of on their debut album (demanding, as recounted in the liner notes, that cellos be removed from "Psycho Killer").

In a storied career spanning fifteen years on record, Talking Heads only technically had one non-album b-side, duly but somewhat awkwardly provided with a home on Sand in the Vaseline. "I Wish You Wouldn't Say That" hails from the sessions for Talking Heads '77 and is clearly among the lesser numbers produced then, though it would have fit reasonably well on the first half of that LP. The arrangement is weak compared to the crazed precision of 77 at its best, or the massiveness of the Eno recordings, but Byrne has never sounded scarier, more paranoid, or more impassioned -- his childlike, desperate "now Jimmy's coming over" still sends a few uncomfortable chills my way.

The Talking Heads odyssey truly begins with track five, "Psycho Killer," which spearheads the same comic, life-affirming anecdote described by Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense: the nervous nerd learning to loosen up and move his ass, and basically give in to the void. So he struggles to form the bizarre universe he inhabits into neat boxes, sometimes obsessive ("Psycho Killer"), sometimes wide-eyed and innocent ("Don't Worry About the Government"), sometimes outlandishly angry ("No Compassion"), but always self-denying and ingratiatingly crazed, weirdly glorious. Never has a drawn-out character study found such a warm and expressive home in rock & roll. It's easy to carp with the tracklist, of course, as how can "Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town" and "Pulled Up" really be left out of this odyssey, but 77 is still quite properly represented.

The same can't be said of the three albums to follow, the ones that unquestionably represent Talking Heads' peak -- and maybe Brian Eno's. But the thing is, you should own them anyway, so why does it matter? More Songs About Buildings and Food is the band's expansive, assured masterpiece, one of the rare times in history when a fabulous group at the initial rush of its greatest creativity has been captured in full by a brilliant renegade producer sympathetic to and cognizant of their power. It's not that "Warning Sign" isn't great, it's that More Songs contains all of the original Heads material that made them such a hot attraction at CBGB and was held off from their first record until they met up with a more ideal producer. Eno rammed unheard-of electricity and mystery into "Stay Hungry," "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls," and "Found a Job" -- in his hands, the band was permitted to sound as stomping and enormous as they were. "Warning Sign" is marginal stuff compared to those live killers. Of course the surprisingly reverent, sweet-natured take on Al Green's "Take Me to the River," their first stroke with mainstream success, has to be here, so Vaseline gets points for including the band's greatest song ever, never a hit or even a single, "The Big Country" -- an impossibly articulate ode to alienation and depression that I've been telling people for years now is my choice for best ballad in rock & roll. I don't think I'm wrong. The complexity of emotions when David Byrne slips into gibberish in the end makes this the "Waterloo Sunset" for those of us too young and cynical for "Waterloo Sunset" to mean as much as "Dead End Street" did.

In tackling Fear of Music, Vaseline weirdly skips its signature "Life During Wartime" (but offers a bad edit of the Stop Making Sense rendition on disc two), replacing it with "Memories Can't Wait," an excellent and completely uncommercial, eccentric song that under no circumstances belongs on a greatest hits package. "Heaven" -- the record's most reassuring moment, which is amazing considering how bleak it is -- and "I Zimbra" are crucial. So the biggest gaffe is only allowing two songs from Remain in Light, the album for which the band will surely be remembered, both of which the prospective buyer is nearly guaranteed to have already heard ("Once in a Lifetime" and "Crosseyed and Painless") -- the same weird error Allen Klein made when only offering two Revolver cuts on The Beatles 1962-1966. And all, it would seem, in the interest of dividing the story in half between the increasingly abstract progression of the band through their commercial peak in 1983, and the rootsy slickness that came to preoccupy them starting in the mid-'80s.

Speaking in Tongues is not nearly as difficult a record to pare down as its predecessors, so offering "Burning Down the House" (their biggest hit, maybe?), "Swamp" (David Byrne's cattiest rant), and "This Must Be the Place" (the Heads' only love song) is logical enough. Then an inviting detour into Stop Making Sense, then we arrive at the band's return from synthpop and polyrhythm and get to study what exactly ripped them apart.

Losing Eno -- or getting rid of Eno, rather -- was probably not much help, but Speaking in Tongues did continue to show a sure-footed band, particularly coming along after a three-year hiatus. The reboot Little Creatures is the band's finest non-Eno moment, but it marked the first signs of a sharp decline in commercial fortunes. A key to this: Whoever chose the leading singles from each of the last three Talking Heads albums was clearly out of their mind. Creatures, an album whose dark subject matter was hidden by musical levity, was anticipated by "The Lady Don't Mind," the subtlest, most low-key track on an album overstuffed with pop hooks. It came equipped with a Jim Jarmusch-directed video, even. But it isn't even acknowledged as a Popular Favorite here, replaced by three subsequent and better-received singles (hymnal "Road to Nowhere," silly and disturbing "Stay Up Late," powerfully surrendering "And She Was"). Preceding the following year's True Stories, a flawed but brilliant film tie-in, was the Heads' worst and most grating single, "Wild, Wild Life." And if you had been considering giving up on America's greatest band since the Velvet Underground, "Blind" -- the promo for their final LP, Naked -- couldn't have changed your mind, with its hamhanded video, politely painful horns, and Byrne's ridiculously inexpressive caterwauling.

Little Creatures was far friendlier than "The Lady Don't Mind" suggested, and while hardly its siblings in quality, the last two records certainly weren't as awful as those songs indicate. Vaseline would seem an ideal opportunity to delve more seriously into the 1985-88 material to ward off suspicions about it and maybe get a few more people interested in those twilight-period efforts. There is, after all, plenty of room, since we squeezed the bulk of the band's career onto one disc already. Alas, we get just three songs from each of these albums. "City of Dreams" isn't a terrible choice for an album track from True Stories, but there were better ones ("People Like Us," "Dream Operator," and where is the charming single "Radio Head"?), and instead of the delightful "Mommy, Daddy, You and I" (casting Byrne, like "Found a Job" a decade earlier, as a punk-rock Shel Silverstein) or bracing "The Democratic Circus," Naked offers the weightless, inconsequential "Mr. Jones," whose Muzak trumpets seem only to serve the worst prejudices about what's wrong with Naked.

If side projects (mostly excellent ones, which put them in an unusual position) and a dooming sense of impending repetition seem to have hurt Talking Heads, and if Sand in the Vaseline fails to give serious lie to the concept, it also offers a counterargument in the form of "Sax and Violins," a holdover from the Naked sessions ultimately completed and used for Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World in 1991 that suggests both everything the final album could and should have been, and the splendidly evocative direction they might have taken if not for the now-crippling acrimony that destroyed them the year this compilation was issued. It integrates its West African influences and international army of musicians with a sense of beauty and assurance almost entirely missing from Naked, the best moments of which are its simplest; on "Sax and Violins," the Heads reacquaint themselves with the sound of mass unification that made Stop Making Sense such a moving experience -- people gather to play and chant and sing in the service of a simple romantic message. That is the notion of Talking Heads I wish could've lived into the '90s, and it seems as though they were conscious of this, only a bit too late -- just a tantalizingly tiny bit too late. (And not that anyone remembers, but "Sax and Violins" was also a surprisingly sizable radio hit.)

The chronology of all this is hard to suss out, but before David Byrne's bandmates learned of their breakup from an interview in a newspaper, they managed to finish a new song that's included here. The very last Talking Heads track completed, "Gangster of Love" uses some interesting sampling techniques (integrating a drum loop from the Remain in Light period) but is little more than a loopy slow-jam in the end that fails to go much of anywhere despite its infectious bassline and ghostly backing vocals. It's not nearly the soaring, disarming swansong "Sax and Violins" could've been.

Though newly released as a single in 1992, "Lifetime Piling Up" -- a pandering new-song-for-a-best-of title if ever there was one -- is a Naked outtake and rises above that album's dregs only through Byrne's amusing lyrics and the celebratory, catchy chorus. Vaseline closes with the Speaking in Tongues reject "Popsicle," a fun and mildly sexy bit of radio pop that was overhauled to become "Walk It Down" on Little Creatures -- but one wishes they'd found a way to appropriate Byrne's fantastic "gimme gimme gimme" and "summertime, boy" hooks someplace, as they sound like they belong on your FM dial.

Sand in the Vaseline deserves high praise for one thing, surely: the best liner notes for any release I've ever bought. Good Lord, they're fantastic. Lavishly and cleverly illustrated with picture sleeves, bootlegs, rare band photographs, and, especially unmissable, a bombastic anonymous note sent to the band in the mid-'70s, the two booklets contain interesting band comments for every track. Plus, each member of the band contributes an essay, all funny and observant, with only Byrne's drug rant seeming a bit aloof, and he makes up for it with a "Talking Heads FAQ" almost as deadpan funny as his promotional "David Byrne Interviews David Byrne" featurette. This package was obviously a labor of love, twice as impressive for a band that had just called it quits.

Again, although I think the Heads would be better served with a simpler way in, I'd consider this an essential package (much better than the Rhino boxed set), and you will fall in love with the band; I certainly did. If you love them already, you need "Sax and Violins" and "I Want to Live," and the other new ones out of sheer curiosity. Plus those goddamn booklets, seriously. Troll your local used bins now.

[Heavily expanded from a review posted at d-b.com in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Bonus Rarities & Outtakes (1975-92)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Toro Y Moi: Underneath the Pine (2011)


(Carpark)

Chaz Bundick can really sing; his voice is a soothing combination of surfer casual and weighty soul that sounds as good when softly intoning as when wordlessly wailing. Bundick can also craft some solid keyboard and toy piano trills that can occasionally provide a bit of gentle beauty or impressive atmosphere. (I advise new agers in need to take "Before I'm Done" and "Elise" to yoga class.)

What he's missing, then, are songs. That's not to say there's nothing here you can learn to hum to yourself with a little practice, and maybe there are a couple of hooks that will make their way into the summer's musical vocabulary. But mark my words, there aren't many, and Bundick's melodies tend to wander off in clipped, incomplete directions like the worst psychedelia. Indeed, he could score with an Ariel Pink sort of flukish style-play if his fixation were with the kind of music he's writing.

Instead, he shares the odd obsession of many concurrent songwriters with AM Gold soft rock of the Carter and Reagan administrations. Whereas Ariel Pink approaches his genre lifts with an attractive outrageousness and Twin Shadow and elder statesman Dan Bejar of Destroyer utilize this music, once the antithesis of college rock, as a springboard for their idiosyncratic songwriting, Bundick can't seem to get past just wanting his stuff to feel like something you'd have heard on the radio after midnight in a certain period. His approach is clinical, weirdly seductionless, and stripping Hall & Oates of their ham-handed sensuality (brash and sexist though they may ultimately have been) really leaves nothing at all worth mentioning. I'm told there's something here, and the supergross cover certainly suggests a far more interesting artist than the one I seem to be hearing, but this delicate, pleasant stuff puts me right to sleep.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Aesop Rock: Labor Days (2001)


(Definitive Jux)

RECOMMENDED

I'm having trouble thinking of an individual story better-told, in any branch of pop music, than this album's "No Regrets," a shattering tale of love and art and satisfied death. I suppose we could delve into the Kinks' catalog and find some intricate character study like "Two Sisters" but who but Aesop Rock has ever thrown the words together in such a thrillingly precise, unfussy but eloquent manner?

That's one of the tracks when you can figure out what the hell he's talking about (the direct, perhaps overdramatic Clashism "9-5ers Anthem" is another example); after spending a few days with this in the car wondering whether it would be worthwhile to decipher enough of it to write intelligently about Aesop's fixations, I determined that it would be a futile gesture, unless I really need to work enough out of his Nazi and Justice League and Kraftwerk and refs to provide a commentary that won't say nearly as much as this wordy, complex music.

Aesop Rock is hardly a hip hop master; his delivery lacks emotional variance and often feels rote, or slavish to the material he recites. Still, not many rappers can compete with either the conceptual ambition of this record, worthy of Kanye West, or its working-class solidarity, worthy of the Roots or, hell, the Pogues. If you're looking for an incredibly dense, musically intriguing, smartly flowing record to keep you busy parsing out its ideas and thrusts for a good long while, this literate and fascinating cult moment should be near the top of your list. There's plenty of brainpower and funk in this hour of interjections and loops; it's pretty damn funny, too. "If the revolution ain't gonna be televised, then fuck, I prob'ly missed it."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place (2011)


(Asthmatic Kitty)

More than twenty years after her breakthrough Watermark, Enya is still going at it, crafting overelaborate but sleepy atmospheres tha-- huh? Who? Are you serious? Well, fuck. Sorry.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1960)


(Atlantic)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

When someone in the audience at a recent Cat's Cradle show requested his unreleased Coltrane love letter "My Favorite Things," John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats politely complied then told the story, and I'm paraphrasing, of how everyone when they're somewhere between 18 and 23 discovers John Coltrane and believes in their heart of hearts that they are the first person ever to realize how amazing he is, to revel in the joy of growing into an appreciation of someone so unassumingly brilliant, so high-art, so wise and eclectic beyond what even the most artful among us can hope to achieve in our lifetimes, much less in the forty years he was afforded.

But this extended communal experience, clichéd and familiar as it is, speaks to a common truth -- that to have something this beautiful and so seemingly exotic fall into place is really an amazing thing, a wonderful part of a human and musical appreciation we all deserve to run through. And once we get there, we can start to relate to how much fucking fun and joy there is in Giant Steps.

As with so many before me, my relationship with jazz, or at least hard bop and modal jazz, began with Miles Davis -- who is considerably easier to get to know and love than Trane for a teenager used to considering everything within a rock idiom. Kind of Blue was the first purely jazz record I owned, purchased in a moment of the sort of aimless curiosity I like to think has served me well in life. And Kind of Blue isn't such a big stretch for any human being to understand, its sad textures and ample grooves as clear-cut and deceptively straightforward as the hooks on a Beach Boys LP. Above all, its emotions are direct; it's never a struggle to follow the drift of feeling in any of those six cuts.

I couldn't help noticing how much Coltrane's sax throttled me when it came into focus on "So What," and of course his name was familiar, though I never learned about him school (even though I'm from his home state and he is the greatest cultural asset we've ever had, but that's another rant for another day). Several months after Kind of Blue, I got Giant Steps. Man, I want to tell you it blew my eighteen year-old mind and changed my life forever, but I didn't really get it. Certainly not on the level that I got Kind of Blue. And I'm going to sound like an asshole but I'm pretty sure it's because I was a kid, and if Giant Steps -- if Coltrane in general -- is about anything, I can't say what it is exactly but it isn't something we know when we're eighteen. In Stephin Merritt's phrase, it's about things we're all too young to know.

It's not that Kind of Blue is from the heart and Giant Steps isn't; it's that Steps' pathway to the senses is more cerebral, less sensuous than spiritual -- but busily, brightly so. Recorded within three weeks of one another in what must be among the most productive months of recording any American musician has managed, the two records are cut from a common cloth but couldn't finally be more different. Steps is "hard bop" from its first few seconds, when furious chord changes beyond my human comprehension fly past Coltrane and band, who proceed so nonchalantly it's rather startling. To put this record on is to feel you are bursting into a gathering in process, a world of high traffic that never began and never will end. Perversely, the songs, "Giant Steps" itself in particular, approach their chaos in a casual, threateningly clean-cut manner that may come off as detached to the newcomer, diluted by none of the aural comforts and explicit shadings of an "All Blues."

Of course, Coltrane is anything but detached and that would always be the case; his stated desire to record great meadows of happiness and button-pushing emotion for his listeners still lay ahead. Even though Giant Steps post-dates the great revelation he credited for altering his musical course, its approach is worlds more impressionistic and streamlined than his second greatest recording, A Love Supreme. It's fitting that, in part presumably as a result of his grand experiments with Miles Davis, Giant Steps would prove his final session before a world-shaking immersion in modal jazz.

We can spend all day reading about bebop and Coltrane changes, and struggling with the implications of the word "modal," and those of us without the head or ears for it will quickly collapse in frustration. I can only explain in barest of terms what I love, what I find so difficult and moving about something like "Cousin Mary" -- its conflict and propulsion, its cheery street corner madness. Innovative it may be, but it's the strange itching and drama that strikes me in "Countdown," and it's the bustling urban confusion in "Spiral," an almost over-the-top evocation of sprawl and the wet paved midnight Sweet Smell of Success alleyways just as intoxicatingly captured by Television's Marquee Moon. It's the lonely shades of militaristic duty on "Syeeda's Song Flute" before it degenerates into almost unbearably heavy bass cycles just before Coltrane returns with the most beautiful and searing sequence of the album.

But I can't attest to any of this being valid for anyone else; truthfully, by now the pleasures come immediately and require no twisting. What is certain about the appeal of Giant Steps, never suggested by its peacefully impassioned cover, are its vague running commentary on a debilitating, scarcely acknowledged chaos brewing underneath it, the quiet but unmistakable prelude to Coltrane's 1960s. More directly approachable and striking is the manner in which Trane's rapid-fire solos, so crazed that pianist Tommy Flanagan occasionally seems to lose his grip, bounce against the sweetly urbane, melancholy melodies of his compositions -- a fascinating contrast easy for a new jazz fan reared on rock & roll to get behind -- as though he is proceeding with business but periodically slipping into an alien trance. Coltrane's professionalism and the careful construction of emotional rise-and-fall in his music are stunning, and it's a thrill to hear his rational side slip unwarned into gorgeous, effortless flight on every track.

I can tell you how Giant Steps fell into place for me. For someone who's always listened to jazz, this likely won't make much sense, but I never really had. It's different now, but when I was in my early twenties I needed something to signify to make me enjoy a piece of music, something more than virtuosic solos and arranged prettiness or falling-apart sheets of sound. I was researching the Hamlet chicken plant fire, an ugly incident that took place in North Carolina in September of 1991. A company called Imperial Foods with a poor safety record had an unfortunate habit of locking the emergency exit doors at its plant, based on a paranoia that their predominately black, poor workforce would rob them of some of their rotten chicken parts. On September 3rd, a hydraulic line burst near a gigantic deep fryer. 25 people were killed, most of them trapped inside the cooler or by the locked doors. In crime scene photos of the doors you can see the fingernail marks of people desperately trying to escape before the smoke killed them. Less soul-crushing but no less sad and disturbing are the photos taken a decade later, days before the remains of the plant were finally torn down, depicting an idly overrun scene of misery, its bent metallic quiet unmistakably an aftermath of horror no novelist could grasp long enough to invent. In the prior few years, the survivors who did not subsequently succumb to their injuries mostly -- too poor to leave Hamlet -- lived within sight of the plant, reminded every day.

John Coltrane was born in Hamlet sixty-five years before that. On a tape I found from a public TV station regarding the tenth anniversary of the incident, "Naima" from Giant Steps -- recorded at a different session than the other tracks, softer and more deliberate, full of ache in Coltrane's stark playing and the tolling of Paul Chambers' bass -- was laid over a grim montage of the town of Hamlet in the years after the fire, a community forever shadowed, every loss and inescapable disappointment apparent in the faces of those nearby. I was haunted but somehow failed to recognize the music. When I learned of its identity, I was taken aback and something led me to grow addicted to the immense sadness, desperation, loneliness of the song. It was written for Coltrane's wife at the time but the Hamlet video threw me for a loop with the realization that the crux of it was not any particular lovelorn or lost melancholy or dread but the sheer essence of a loss, perfectly and flawlessly expressed. It soon hit me emotionally, every time, with no photos or associations attached beyond what rise it could get from me. And within five years or so it was, roughly speaking, the greatest recording, the greatest song of any kind I knew of. I still think it is.

And then the reason to hear Giant Steps again became "Naima" and what longings it could conjure up, because there is always longing no matter how good of a place we're in. We know that as well as Coltrane did, but we can't do what he did with it. And then after that the reason becomes how good it feels to have the tenor sax blasting in your eardrum (what a terrific album for headphones this is), and then the reason is to visit that strange ornately captured dirty-town urban mystery, all business and secrets. The reason for me is never just musical sophistication. But fuck, any reason to listen to this is a good one.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx: We're New Here (2011)


(XL)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

No, it's no match for I'm New Here, a minimal masterwork of a record that will be remembered as sealing Gil Scott-Heron's legacy forever. But as remix albums go, this is really odd and special. Do take a look, and dig particularly the astoundingly gorgeous / groovy "My Cloud," the standout of the selections here that dip into Gil's catalog but coalesce lovingly with the reflection-on-chaos of I'm New Here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taj Mahal: Best Of (1967-74)


(Columbia)

RECOMMENDED

Admission: I'd no idea who Taj Mahal was until I heard his throttling version of "Stagger Lee" on a compilation of murder ballads. This is embarrassing, but I had to try for years before blues appreciation sprang up in me, and even then (and now) I have a bit of trouble with modern-ish blues such as Mahal's. And some of this music, like the opening slog through "Statesboro Blues" and the ridiculous whistle-jam "Ain't Gwine to Whistle DixieAnymo'" fails to challenge my prejudices about the worst rote excesses of the blues of the last forty years or so.

But to my surprise, Mahal is more warmth than slickness; there is real low-key beauty to most of these songs: the casually lovely "Leaving Trunk," the spiritual "Farther on Down the Road," the wondrous take on Goffin/King's "Take a Giant Step." Some of it is Mahal's impressive guitar work, but the lion's share of his work's appeal is his gruff but sentimental voice, which overcomes even the most simplistic arrangements and overly polished production work. And by "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" and the utterly affirming "Cakewalk into Town" (2.5 minutes of bliss, with horns), it's not just the blooze jockeys he's won over.

As a compilation, I can't speak to this disc's breadth since it's my first exposure to the material, but I can say that its narrative drift makes it extraordinarily easy to get to know. The emotional connection might peak somewhere around "Six Days on the Road," a travel anthem without rawk bullshit, but the biggest surprise is "Fishin' Blues," a musically sneaky, lyrically hilarious fuckaround about fishing with your woman, or something, as great as Hank Locklin's "We're Gonna Go Fishin'" but more intentionally funny. And, as dumb as it sounds, realer in some strange way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)


(Kranky)

!! CAUTION !!

Being impressed with Nicolas Jaar and somewhat enjoying James Blake, I thought I'd maybe dip in for another hip-approved ambient electronic album. This is one from a lifer who uses lots of tape delay and creates a kind of shapeless wall of sound different (very different) from the one Phil Spector used on those old b-sides. It's... it's so...

I don't know, I think I like avant garde music, right? I think I even like droning. But this is fifty-two minutes of droning with little variance, or rather, with variance I'm not capable of hearing. I don't want to tell other people how to do their job but damn, dude, couldn't it have been just a little shorter? Things do get a little more interesting toward the end with some piano textures, but approaching this from my philistine pop perspective I must say this doesn't move me at all. If you're seriously into ambient, though, don't steer clear; I'm sure it's better than what my ears allow me to realize.

(I think the last track has a sound effect from "Yars' Revenge" for Atari 2600 which honestly makes me like this a little more...)

Aaron Neville: A Collection of His Best (1966-2006)


(Hip-O)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Not in the mood to write very formally today, so bear with me. Someone I know felt I would greatly enjoy this compilation; luckily, they don't read this blog as far as I know. It isn't in dispute here that Aaron Neville has a hell of a voice. At times, like on his fine version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," it has the nuance and vulnerability of Marvin Gaye. But the production style he tends to be saddled with and selection of songs, often pop standards, he tends to be given are tasteless. It's extraordinarily difficult to listen to this best-of, and worse yet it omits many of his better cuts, like "Apeman." Instead it's firmly driven toward the adult contemporary pap market, with distressingly bland versions of great songs like "Bird on a Wire" and numerous instances of fine singing wasted on subpar material. Probably worst of all is the duet with the great Tammy Wynette, allowing you to hear two legends waste their time for the price of one.

I remain open to the possibility that there is Neville material out there that can convert me; I bet his spiritual recordings are solid. But this shit isn't even worth a full listen. Sorry.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (2011)


(Circus Company)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Opening with the peaceful sound of sloshing water, children playing and a Leonard Cohen-like abstract narration, closing with an inverted revision of the same sounds, Chilean wunderkind Nicolas Jaar's debut album conceals much Wellesian peace and deception in its impressively rich textures. Presented as an electronic record but with much parlor trickery concealing just how much of the record is synthetic and how much is performed (Jaar is much more musician than DJ), Space Is Only Noise is the kind of album that renders genre a moot point. By the end of the first track, Jaar has already made a journey from pure ambient effects to gentle piano jazz; on "Colomb," a lonely faraway sound of distortion crumbles into the record's first actual beat, a morbidly slow one, while idly pretty processed vocals float aimlessly above. Jaar is a mood artist, but he doesn't make ambient music; he certainly doesn't make dance music, even though he is marketed as such. So what is this?

Maybe strictly because of the cover and title, I'm calling it "moon music." It has that faraway feeling that still hints at being an aspect of home. Take a close look at that cover art, and you discover you're seeing not a lunar surface photograph but nothing more or less than sandy earth, the lunar module a stroller. It's a handy metaphor for the album's magic; it's far more familiar than we intuitively grasp.

Jaar's peculiar gift is in finding the spaciousness and weird in what amounts to a soft -- if slightly druggy - aural comfort. Never background music, the record demands attention and earns it, and it is consistently inviting and entertaining, whether evoking a thumbnail sketch of disco or periodically allowing an organic guitar line to breathe. Through enormous production gifts, he captures a skewed and cohesive variance on a wide stylistic palette; the pleasure is immense and shockingly immediate -- far more so than the work of the more celebrated James Blake.

Space Is Only Noise is equally memorable as an entity, in an age when actual advancement of the album as an artform is (for the most part justifiably) rare. The Nouvelle Vague cool distance of "Sunflower' sits undisruptively alongside the mindbending vocal tics of "Keep Me There," an evocation of Medulla and doo wop that mercifully never moves past its smart minimalism. Everything here, even the high-pitched Mickey Mouse vocal tracks that see the album out (including a semi-clone of Patti Smith's "Birdland"), rises from the same powerfully slow heartbeat, its tribal rhythms, crawling pace, and hints of paranoia fusing these disparate ideas into a seamless whole.

There are moments that leap out, all the same. "I Got a Woman" is, even more than its neighbors, an orgy of calmly alluring, careful but sensual noise, opening as sample-happy sex, closing as mysterious eurojazz. The robo-rollick "Problems with the Sun" offers utterly celebratory, elephantine dance, most addictive in the way its modest vocals echo and fall confusingly into one another. And then there's the title track, a thrillingly catchy pop tune buried under only a thin e-cloud veneer that recalls Wire in their period of "Eardrum Buzz" and "Kidney Bingos" unmitigated joy. Wire is just as informative of the fashion in which much of these tracks are just teasingly brief pleasurable blips that make their point and instantly move on, a welcome development (shared by Flying Lotus, among others) for the typical overextension of electronica.

You don't have to be a lamenter of modern music, which I am not, to concede that very little of what we hear today feels truly identifiably new; I'm too much of a pop guitar stalwart to believe newness is what finally matters about music. But Space Is Only Noise carries more wisps of the new than anything I've heard in some time. And what's most bracing about it is its sheer accessibility; along amongst the wave of dubstep and electro-jazz breakthroughs of these past few years, it holds that proto-legendary vibe of the rare electronic record that any pop fan, especially any alt-pop fan, will understand and love. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Dig Your Own Hole, Play, and Since I Left You -- it's a short list but a profound one, of records that soared far beyond their target audiences and became a part of more lives than their creators likely imagined possible. As at so many other points when techno and electronica almost became mainstream, never before with a recording this subtle and quirky, I find myself on hearing Space Is OnlY Noise engaging in an undetached cry of joy for the future. It deserves to be as a communal as it feels, so make that happen, please.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971)


(Tamla)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The album cover's mildly Gothic appearance and grainy distance (its somber color scheme recalling Rubber Soul) are not an accident; Marvin Gaye's left-field intention is to evoke a pallid, foreboding landscape, to direct his listeners' eyes and ears to the newspaper-gray misery of the out-of-sight out-of-mind invisible elements of their world, a permanent rejection, forty years on, of royal weddings and Microsoft's purchase of Skype. This brief, chillingly direct set of nine songs dives into poverty, war, fear, anger, sober maturity, and the pure shit of trying to make a life and help along the lives one touches -- responsibility. It's the most uncommercial, wildly bizarre proposition for a pop record, one to which Motown head Berry Gordy was understandably resistant. To everyone's surprise, to the eternal befuddlement of the executive establishment, it was Gaye's career-making moment, a record of shining and revolutionary power. And a permanent record of his compassion and, more pressingly, his musical expertise, craft, taste.

The modern rock scholar underestimates Gaye's 1960s teen-oriented material at his or her own risk; the respect and awe Gaye as a performer -- as nothing more than a performer! -- demands is formidable, his greatness intimidating from the start. But he was still very much a Motown stable man, on the same Mobius strip as virtually everyone under Gordy save Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. So Gaye's demand of control over this release not only altered the course, the sound, the meaning and contextual merit of his career, it created a precedent that led to a gutting and rebuilding of Motown as a business and artistic entity. It is difficult, for instance, to imagine Stevie Wonder's triumphs of the '70s without What's Going On; Gaye and Wonder were the first artists at the label to gain total control of their output, and both took a greater level of care and interest in the entirety of that position than Gordy likely expected.

Gaye's career is divided conveniently, tragically neatly -- heartthrob and oddball -- his life cut short before he could explore the cunning popster he was becoming... He would reach bracing heights in the '70s, and in fact his two later peaks -- Let's Get It On and the magical, bizarre, insurmountable Here, My Dear -- eclipse What's Going On despite its lofty reputation. But this is the record that made everything possible, that opened the door for Gaye, who instantly proves himself a brilliant producer -- consciously aligning himself with a singular and distinct timely sound, forever identifying the record as a product of its '70s without sacrificing its universal elements. The stark, spacious but complex sound evokes cloudy urban squalor and its impenetrably intricate politics; the deft trickery of the songwriting, the most immaculately crafted of Motown up to this point, fuses with the emotional cresting in the remarkable arrangements to pay off, in spades, on the hundreds of brilliant 7" records the factory'd been churning out for the previous decade. It makes perfect narrative sense that this is the LP on which the Funk Brothers, Motown's immaculate backing band, finally received individual credit -- this is the product of everything they'd ever worked for, an artistic zenith worthy of any heady analysis, tearful evening, or dancing boom.

What's Going On is unmistakably, deliberately built around three centerpiece tracks, which also happen to be the three singles. The masterpiece of compassion "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is as ideal a summation of the record as any, wrapping its waves and layers of beauty and misty-eyed altruism around to build a collective of humanity that lifts and tugs. Even more remarkable is "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," a politically conscious, nearly alien slab of funk slow-burn energy that upgrades the snake-charming voodoo of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" with coy anger and protest. For not merely is the music's abstraction and relentless, lush oddness a sharp contrast to Gaye's and Motown's standard material, its subject matter is remarkably dark, eloquent, and advanced, a perfect narrative to the late-twenties human growing glumly aware of his surroundings. Though the Temptations and Stevie Wonder had taken their stabs, this was typically the domain of Curtis Mayfield's Impressions. It must be stated, then, that Gaye's economy and soul, his ability to connect his ideas and concerns directly to the listener's heartbeat, stands above and beyond his peers.

This, for whatever reason, comes across considerably less on the album's most famous crucial cut, its title track. "What's Going On" is a solid single and deserved hit, but it shoves the musical innovation into a less central role, and what's left flirts with what we'd now call adult contemporary. To boot, it contains unquestionably Gaye's least inspired vocal performance of the album. It only colors itself in comparison, truly; everywhere else on the LP, Gaye is nuanced, calm, achingly sad, every millisecond of every recording awash with modest warmth and muted genius.

As soon as "What's Going On" fades, it leads to the suite that makes the record an undisputed classic. The segues are rapid and scarcely noted, the songs taking the form of pieces of a whole. "What's Happening Brother" immediately flies leaps and bounds above, the Funk Brothers persuasive yet nonchalant, the unhummable melody circling around and teasing without ever setting out to convert, a job left for the cumulative effect of the songs to gather. The drug lament "Flying High" is the masterfully vague first display of Gaye's great gift as producer and arranger, his goosebump-inducing vocal interplay with strings and instruments, and the immense, well-contained power of his self-recorded backing vocals. Less discussed but equally vital: the half spoken-word, low-key "Save the Children," which presents itself as powerful poetry quite admirably without overselling, and the insanely sophisticated "God Is Love," inspired in its brevity. All this leads to the climax of "Mercy, Mercy Me" and the LP side that shook the world halts, demanding to be played again.

The second half is less remarkable, almost strictly because one of its only three cuts is the record's sole serious misstep. "Wholly Holy," though it must be acknowledged as a classic of black American music, is shapeless and lyrically weak, the arrangement an overly busy mess. Happily, the seven-minute "Right On" is a worthy comedown from the mastery of the suite, and of course the falsetto and depressive tease "Inner City Blues" could lift anything.

What's Going On is the unveiling of a man, the rigorous and elegant documentation of a time and a culture. Its low piano lines and gorgeous da-da-das bring its time more vividly to life than any history book, perhaps because the dots it connects to the world to which subsequent generations have awoken are so strong. Vietnam is long over, but war remains, as do our struggles with poverty, addiction, and racism. Can something this beautiful have a part in helping us cope? A few seconds, really any, of the first side of this LP and/or "Inner City Blues" can't save the world, but damn if they don't feel like some form of deliverance.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (2011)


(Interscope)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

M. Ward: End of Amnesia (2001)


(Future Farmer)

RECOMMENDED

How hard is it to put "pretty" on record? Brilliant at it though they might be, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, and Owen Pallett make it sound like an intimidating, herculean task fit for only the most agile among us. But Matt Ward, as early as this sophomore album, seems naturally capable of it with less effort than it takes for Justin Bieber to break a teenage heart. Not the superhuman Mr. or Mrs. Incredible of Newsom or Stevens, he always sounds like a Regular Everyman -- he's you and me, and he can't sing much better than we can. But he presents his sliding, slinky folk rock as an Eno-like seduction; breathlessly gorgeous background music, the sound of bourgeois wallpaper introspection -- which is what more background music should aspire for.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the most striking moments on End of Amnesia have nothing to do with the vocal melodies, which are lovely but mostly overshadowed. It's no accident that the instrumental (or mostly instrumental) songs come off strongest; the singing sounds labored on the more structured cuts. At their best, Ward's vocals are casual and scattered, as on the down-home comfortable "Color of Water," which sways thanks to his ace guitar technique while the vocals quietly croak througha nd weave with the chords. Beyond that, the richest pleasures are on the title track, a gentle ditty with the three-piece lineup of piano, guitar and atmosphere, "Psalm" with its expressive, ghostly guitar line, and "Silverline," which amps up th eadventure with left-field descension and the most impressive guitar work on the record (plus spookily possessed, barely audible vocals).

Voodoo and speaking in tongues might run counter to the record's laid-back persuasion, but Ward doesn't want it so simple; the entire album is backgrounded by a distant hiss of noises enveloping and obscure, like old movies and nearby circuses are proceeding behind the music. The odd Fogerty and Ryan Adams-quoting stomp "Flaming Heart" leaves you longing for its carnival-like intro. "Half Moon" seems to open someplace in the 1920s with a faint shred of the last lonely note of some big band jazz number before the sound slowly builds from seductive mystery to full-band, with pounding drums and what sounds like pedal steel but probably isn't. That slow attainment of rhythm carries through on the next cut, "So Much Water," continuing the river-music obsession. Ward expertly captures the feel of classicist folk (mastering it later on the almost supernaturally antiquated "From a Pirate Radio Sermon, 1989," though that one is spoiled somewhat by a silly MOR chorus) while his whispery double tracking gives off breathy Elliott Smith-like tones.

Ward's ambitions clearly lie outside the scope of the record even at this point. "Bad Dreams" carefully gives the illusion of four-track production before the curtain lifts to reveal an unsubtle polish, not the most persuasive sound of musical improvement. The most complete song, "Carolina," is likely to perk up the ears of Mountain Goats or Eels fans, but more telling are its faroff shreds of AM radio glory, a sentimental affinity Ward would later explore to mixed results on his She & Him albums with Zooey Deschanel.

End of Amnesia is just a tad too long, particularly given its wispy textures that would seem to demand a certain brevity. Fourteen songs (running nearly an hour total) is a lot to digest of music that largely sidesteps great variance. And there's something unnatural about the last three tracks, which is deathly for music so reliant on its perceived simplicity. The harmonica on "Ella" suggest a somewhat labored folk lexicon quest that feels false; "Seashell Tale" is rather overly cutesy and homey, not unlike Paul McCartney's first album; and the storytelling suite stunt "O'Brien / O'Brien's Nocturne" is over the top in its explicit nostalgia (here comes 1989 again, rendered with Bryan Adams-like excessive shorthand longing). Nevertheless, even without cutting this material off the end, the record's sense of restraint as means to folkish beauty is impressive and endearing.

Ward's real winners still lay ahead at this point; Post-War and Transistor Radio display a confidence and individualism that can't be touched here. But he lays the groundwork on End of Amnesia, and taken on its own it's sheer delight. Even if it might threaten to rock you to sleep.

[SEE ALSO:]
Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come (2009)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

As the song goes, "I am not this body that imprisons me." Luckily, the appeal of the Mountain Goats' second most recent album isn't tied up in the Bible verses that form its central conceit, even though that comprises the bulk of discussion about the LP. I'll admit to a certain ignorance on Biblical matters, and additionally an ambivalence toward them. But even at that, I don't buy that the cultural or spiritual framework provided is any more important here than on any other Mountain Goats album, informed as John Darnielle's lyrics always are by the grand palette of religious and social and artistic American culture. I read all of the verses referred to in the song titles here and I understand the links most of them share with the lyrical content; the rigid context suggested by The Life of the World to Come's package still seems unnecessarily constraining, even pretentious to me -- it grapples with the same themes Darnielle always does, but dressing it up this way gives it a Gimmick. And at that, an inconvenient gimmick; replacing meaningful song titles with Biblical cross references makes remembering which song is which a tiresome puzzle game... unless you know your Bible, which I suppose is the point.

But that is my lone serious objection to this album, which does stand apart in other ways. Pretension isn't audible; even when Darnielle plants lines like "Go down to the netherworld, plant grapes" and "My house will be for all people who have nowhere to go" in the first couple of minutes, it sounds unforced. For one thing, even encompassing the adventurous and sprawling All Eternals Deck from this spring, it is Darnielle's biggest stretch to date, a real tour de force for him as a songwriter and performer. Moreover, it is an at times almost oppressively dark, haunting record, deliberately paced and marked by a seriousness that would be stifling if not for Darnielle's natural levity. The witticisms and gentle humor that populate most of his work is absent here ("Feel bad about the things we do along the way, but not that bad" would count if it didn't come across so threateningly); taken all at once, hearing his gifts applied to such dour material can be overwhelming, but what makes it all tick is his attention to detail, the lovingly defined feeling of heat in the dying man's fingers as he idly pores over a magazine left behind by a friend, holding it close to his face, just before the nurse comes in.

And although there is a conscious slowing down of pace, a concentration on stripped-down piano and acoustic laments here (the solemn reflection of "1 Samuel 15:23" a rather curious opening until the pounding from outside begins), these are some of the most durable songs Darnielle has written, even if it takes them some time to come into focus. In a few cases, string arrangements swirl around the songs, adding both a slickness and a sense of disorientation new for the band. And plopped down at scattered points on the record are three of the most advanced, expertly crafted pop songs he's ever released -- sounding as far from his boom box-recorded treasures of yore as can be conceived.

The chief difference, of course, is the absense of catharsis, which can be difficult to handle on first hearing something like "Philippians 3:20-21," but when the curtain lifts, the hushed folk rock reveals its beauty. The swirling, ideally placed strings and drums add ample drama to the stunning "Hebrews 11:40," but even it continues to retain the mood established in the record's first seconds. The sparest acoustic moment is the shattering death song "Matthew 25:21," the longest and most deliberate track here, and seemingly (though it's hard to be certain) the most personal; if Life of the World to Come feels like the document of a stressful period, this song gives some clue as to potentially why: an ending life is celebrated ("I am a witness to your life and to its worth"), but when the inevitable phone call arrives, there's "no one around to break my fall."

Upon reaching the second half of the album, Darnielle takes a Randy Newman stance, with some of his finest melodies approached in solo piano arrangements -- a stark sound applied to disparate material, the barroom hangover "Genesis 30:3" ("for several days the visitors were here") far off from the lilting lullabye "1 John 4:16" ("long ago and far away"), calm Darnielle at his all-time peak. The piano backgrounds hints of hope on "Deuteronomy 2:10" ("the sun above me..."), the brightest break in the tension that any of the ballads can offer, but then we descend into appropriate apocalypse for the closing "Ezekiel 7," cementing Darnielle's mastery of the ballad, and finding his voice begin to stretch in the ways he would further explore on All Eternals Deck. Its beating-heart close leaves you hanging; never before has Darnielle so avidly and devotedly captured and sustained a mood.

The exceptions prove equally fascinating. "Psalms 40:2" is Darnielle's regular nod to metal, with one of his most furious vocals, the sole instance of his once-trademark frayed edges across this LP. The genius popcraft of "Genesis 3:23" -- "therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden" spilled into a story of a man secretly returning to the home he shared with his ex-wife (chorus "I used to live... here") -- is one of the most tantalizing signals of progression Darnielle has yet emitted, a gentle and introspective but intricate piece that builds its character perfectly, musically and lyrically, until his "Drive home with old dreams that play in my mind, and the wind at my back" is so evocative you can almost see and feel it. "No Children" and "This Year" notwithstanding, "Romans 10:9" might be the closest thing to a pop single Darnielle has ever written, despite its overtly religious themes -- upbeat, back-against-wall strong, and redemptive, all cast into bliss by its decidedly un-Goats-like, delicious opening riff.

Best of all is "Isaiah 4:23"; this song, although it arguably relies more on the album's spiritual themes than any other track save "Romans 10:9," may have a claim to being, at the very least, one of the Mountain Goats' half dozen finest songs. It is here that Darnielle so lovingly delves into a drawn-out expiration and its hard-won acceptance, lifted and supported by the stirring chorus: "I won't get better, but someday I'll be free." If Darnielle set out to create something like a hymn somewhere on this album, here he's got it. He gets deep, unbelievably deep with this one; you feel it in your bones, shaking down to your heart, and it amounts to the rescue it so loftily describes. If The Life of the World to Come had only this masterpiece, this triumph, to offer, it would be worthwhile, years of development and work paying off in three and a half minutes. But there's more, lots more, and so much to reveal and reinforce its heights. Back to front, this is as strong as The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee, even if its unifying theme is less specific, even if its music is consciously less varied.

But can I please please please retitle all the songs??

[SEE ALSO:]
All Eternals Deck (2011)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

The first time I listened to Get Guilty, I dismissed it almost right away as going too far in the "record collector rock" direction suggested by some of Carl Newman's material with the New Pornographers. When I listen to Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema and trip out on their pure and ample pleasures, there's this feeling in the back of my mind -- I get it with Beulah and Apples in Stereo records as well -- that the songs are just ever-so-slightly close to going past chorus and hook-filled pop bliss into being just, well, annoying. The tension generated from teetering on that edge and rarely falling over gives the band a lot of their spunky, outrageous appeal, solving a problem the Cars struggled with throughout their post-debut career (they ended up making their music overly anonymous in reaction). It doesn't help that Guilty is Newman's first real project to surface after the Pornographers' Challengers, an underrated and actually quite lovely album but still an undeniable game-changer and turnaround for them, with a hint of parade's-gone-by heartbreak and loss reminiscent of early-'80s Kinks. Album centerpiece "Prophets" comes across as a direct sequel to that flawed LP, but its strangely uneven, memorable but difficult chorus calls another UK luminary immediately to mind: Paul McCartney.

More specifically, Paul McCartney in the '70s. The most apt comparison for the way Get Guilty initially came off to me is suggested by conjuring up the excited claims I made about the New Pornographers on first discovering them and thinking of their unmitigated joy and pop subservience and audience connection as our equivalent to the Beatles; they were the band that frankly made the indie rock of the 2000s come alive for me and become visibly worth my consideration. So therefore, Get Guilty reminds me of Wings... one member of the supergroup running amok, with none of the filtering his very talented fellow Pornographers usually provide, so that his skill at crafting melodies and hooks that burrow their ways into your skull and refuse to leave is more prominent than ever... but as with Wings, there's the question of whether you really want these tunes in there. The repetition of these uproariously catchy bits and pieces can come off initially as, to put in kindly, a bit grating. It's hard not to grimace at the application of Newman's pop smarts to songs as plodding as "Thunderbolts" and poorly placed opener "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve," and a song as persuasively complex, so lovingly designed for a journey of upheaval, as "The Heartbreak Rides" deserves a far stronger chorus than the letdown nonentity provided.

Happily, Newman's second album is deceptive and intricate in ways its predecessor, the more immediately pleasurable Slow Wonder, did not approach. By a third or fourth runthrough, the sophistication and undercurrent and even the jugular pleasures of the songs, the accents that his band might have made more pronounced, come into stunning focus. One lesson: the record isn't made for headphones and needs to be played as loud as possible. Sure, Newman, like McCartney, is more difficult to love when his intensity and raw populist eccentricities are not diluted by any outside force, but his songs still have hidden treasures and subtleties to discover, which makes the record easier going as familiarity grows -- there's a lot more going on here than in Wings at the Speed of Sound or something -- and there's even something to be said for the album's misdirected "bigness" and its immensely charming fliching before its own hedonism, the good-time rock & roll clichés meeting with nice-guy hesitation.

Newman rounds out his lineup variously with the ever-reliable Jon Wurster, appealingly Neko Case-like backing vocalist Nicole Atkins, and most interestingly, Lawrence's Mates of State, a band that's made a career out of toying with pop structure to render it twisted and unrecognizable but still subliminally pleasurable, an appropriate correspondence for the songwriting here that would never occur in a New Pornos setting. Note the way that "Like a Hitman Like a Dancer" tosses halting rhythms on an NPs-like arrangement. On "Submarines of Stockholm," Newman and cohorts add dynamic extremism and a defiant (if slightly dated, maybe on purpose) Midwestern college rock sound to a tune that's otherwise indistiguishable from the New Pornographers. Newman still has a taste for pop gimmicry to which he totally gives in on "Elemental," complete with well-timed falsetto, but the new crew gives him license to cut loose on the unexpected British Invasion stomper "All of My days and All of My Days Off," which degenerates into a lovely singalong worthy of his greatest work.

The second half of Get Guilty changes things up a bit; the songs are stronger and come on less empathically, offering more room to breathe, with a heretofore unexplored (at least, as far as I can remember) Brian Wilson fixation that manifests itself quite gorgeously on "The Palace at 4 AM." The track's towering intensity marks a clear debt to the Wrecking Crew (and there seems to be a bit of Hal Blaine-infested Wurster drumming on "The Changeling" as well), while the Smile-like "Young Atlantis" is such a standout it scarcely seems to belong on the record. The sweet string arrangement, the vocal sophistication, and the feel of an extremely softened Pornographers track add up to an injecion of something that seems outside Guilty's emotional scope, and indeed outside of the pleasure-upon-pleasure devotion of much of Newman's work to date. On reflection, it's surprising that the following year's NP return Together did not move farther in this direction. More reflection of its sort could prove revitalizing.

But hey, a Wings album isn't necessarily a bad thing; "The Changeling (Get Guilty)" is a triumph, building drama with its very '70s Paul-Linda-Denny solidity. McCartney wasn't always hard to listen to in the '70s, and he was always interesting... and always impeccably skilled. I was immediately crazy for The Slow Wonder, but that was tempered by a feeling that it was Carl Newman on autopilot -- that he could've written and performed it without more than a modicum of effort and it would've still been just as strong. In many ways, I prefer the trickier and much more difficult Get Guilty; it's almost too much at times, like an over-the-top disaster flick, but that seems to be a function of who Newman is. Perhaps it feels more endearing because it's so personal. You can hear when he's pushing himself, and that always manifests with the New Pornographers in the feeling of sheer joy and smart tweakery that made them the astounding band they were at their peak, and still are if you catch them live on a night like we did last June. That version of ringleader A.C. Newman guest stars here in "The Collected Works" -- bouncy, feverish and ferocious, and just a little bit back-of-the-room dorky. Here's to seeing and hearing where the dork takes it from here.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Slow Wonder (2004)