Thursday, June 30, 2011

tUnE-yArDs: whokill (2011)


(4AD)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

It's a really good thing this is a blog post and not a legitimate writing assignment because I've lived with this album for the better part of a week, through roughly five and a half listens, and I still don't feel capable of articulating how I feel about it. Hope you don't mind hearing this story, but here goes: in the middle of the fourth time all the way through I had to stop in to the grocery store and heard one of my favorite John Lennon songs, "Watching the Wheels." Usually this cut always sends me into a reeling fit of nostalgia, sorrow, and joyful discussion about Lennon's lovingly domesticated message. Today it sounded lifeless, petty, dim compared to whokill. Different vernacular, different time, different purpose? All granted. But there was a time when Lennon himself with that old band of his could have that kind of effect on all other music, and still can when those songs recirculate, and in no way -- regardless of how great "Watching the Wheels" really is -- is that ability not worth praising.

tUnE-yArDs' supersonic force Merrill Garbus is a rarity indeed -- the singer-songwriter of remarkable maturity whose work also explodes with youthful life. Garbus produced the record, wrote nearly all of it (sharing a cowrite credit on four cuts), and performs the overwhelming bulk of its music, solely accompanied by bassist Nate Brenner and scattered supplemental players. But this is Garbus' world, one of stirring excitement, funk, joy, despair (not any pop-twee notion of sadness or happiness -- actual, felt depth, even when she can hardly be writing about herself), and full-force, exuberant individualism. It is like nothing else in the pop marketplace at the moment. It must be heard, and now.

Garbus' uniquely direct, even invasive approach is bracing in its clarity -- her music is so busy, so overloaded with pleasing ideas and bizarre tangents that it can take time for the curtain to lift to reveal just how expressive and beautiful it is. "Es-so," incredibly early on the album, will leave some exhausted the first time around, sounding vaguely like a malfunctioning Prince b-side, but there is so much happening in it, and once the surrender happens, the dancing takes over, and eventually all you can hear is its shimmer. One detail that will fail to escape even the curious hearing it at a comfortable distance will be that, in contrast to every stereotype of singer-songwriter genre exercises, this is body music. With only a few fleeting exceptions, every second of every song slams somehow -- throbbing, stomping, pulsing, bubbling, vibrating, marching, bumping. "Gangsta" is as original and vibrant a dance song as you will hear in 2011 or most likely 2012; it will eventually become clear that it's also witty and discomforting, but its bleeding edge on top of expansive delicacy and almost impossibly elegant sense of threat is what's really special, followed up by the teasing "Riotriot," which perverts its pleasing simple sing-song riff by building it up into menace until Garbus explodes unaccompanied with the so-wrong so-wise "THERE IS A FREEDOM IN VIOLENCE THAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND / THAT I'VE NEVER FELT BEFORE." The climax of the record, the moment that gives its assaultive ideas their purpose -- this is the now we need to know, the unfamiliar we need to embrace.

But beats are one thing. The spirited, inventive instrumentation here, uncovering alien noise from ukuleles and horns and loops and Korg keyboards and an unearthly combination thereof, plus Garbus' infectious vocals and drumming and "stick clicks" crafts a bed of sound nearly unheard of in Western music, certainly in rock & roll. But as much as Garbus engages in the sound of Tanzania, the music of which she says was a key to inspiring her harmonic process, or Jamaica, rock & roll is what this is -- a stunning deconstruction and revamping of folk and R&B conventions until all that's left is what's most rattling, most impossible to shake, most subversively moving. "You Yes You" might populate your head with pleasant Paul Simon memories, the vocals and music perfect Vampire Weekend politeness, until Garbus bursts in with a wonderfully obnoxious "Dance This Mess Around" snarl, demanding "WHAT'S THAT ABOUT!? WHAT'S THAT ABOUT!?" The barbed anti-materialism, anti-criticism of materialism rant that follows is worthy of Johnny Rotten's gleefully fucked "Bodies," only Garbus feels comfortable enough to finally let romance into her idealism and eye-rolling. "Throw your money on the ground and leave it there, you! Yes, you!" This is what is known, in our American rock context, as New Music.

Not that Garbus lacks peers, or precedent. M.I.A. is hardly a stretch, even if she'd never stand for recording an entire album (like tUnE-yArDs' debut, bIrD-bRaIns) on Audacity. But Garbus' seemingly born-in ingenuity as a songwriter more closely recalls the equally gifted Joanna Newsom, as much as Newsom has yet to exhibit the wild eclecticism whokill revels in. For sheer unblocked catharsis, I can't help thinking of Josephine Olausson from Love Is All, but whereas Olausson is clearly exorcising demons -- however artless and lovable those demons are -- Garbus is anxious to thrill, to please, to entertain, to make sense of a world outside herself.

As for the ancestry of this noise in the pop galaxy, never mind the moments that plainly display a Blondie or B-52's reference point on some superficial level, it certainly seems to me that this is what it must have felt like when London Calling, with its effortless integration and fussing up of ageless sounds, or Remain in Light, investigating the spiritual depth of polyrhythms from a hyperactively emotional standpoint, were released. Garbus is really that imaginative, that graceful, that pressing.

In fairness, she is a singer whose work is genuinely made grand by her voice. Without it, this would only be what's vague and dispassionate; slap on this, say, Zooey Deschanel's voice or even Inara George's and you'd get something perhaps interesting, far more risky than their usual work, but hardly life-saving. Garbus completes the portrait; tUnE-yArDs don't surrender to girl-group politics or obsess over their aesthetics. If it retains anything from those old records, it's none of their mustiness. That's thanks to the subservience to the songs (in the vein of Van Morrison or Tom Verlaine) and the remarkable fluidity and virtuosity of Garbus' singing. She can sound so entirely unlike herself from track to track -- like a more coy and intelligent Anthony Kiedis on opener "My Country," like an even more sinister PJ Harvey on "Wooly Wolly Gong," like a way-out seductress on "Powa" or a streetwise wanderer on "Gangsta," or like a crestfallen romantic on "Doorstep" -- that she has no such thing as a "real" voice, except to the extent they all reveal the same basic humanity. Even Mel Blanc ultimately sounded "like" Mel Blanc. This is different; the voice invariably reveals what's behind the songs, which are worrisome, hard-edged, at times sensual, and always inexhaustibly good-hearted.

And that last trait is what allows tUnE-yArDs to uncover a broad and infinitely assured emotional vocabulary. That a fired-up love song like "Powa," about needing to be held down "before my body flies away," can coexist peacefully with the doubt-fraught, warmly hilarious but sharply feminist semi-anthem "Killa" ("I'm a lemon, not a black-and-blue kinda woman") is as infinitely reassuring as, indeed, the celebratory cry against victimhood "Bizness" or the empathy and desperation Garbus expresses, note for note perfectly, on the masterful tragedy "Doorstep."

"Doorstep" is the song of the album, probably the song of 2011. With the storytelling verve of Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" but all of the audible pain the older song omits, Garbus sails into a wrenching tale of a man, boyfriend or husband, so immensely loved his arms inspired her "first joy in life," who is gunned down by ghosts from his past in the doorway. Amidst a repeating plead for understanding from the "p'liceman," Garbus gives a harrowing performance, recounting the details and the injustice and the hurt, the depth of hurt. Then about two minutes and forty seconds in, the heretofore stark instrumentation gives way into a lush prom-night backdrop while she cries her eyes out, and every human who listens will in turn rush to find a way to cope and she shakes her head and wonders simply why the violence, maybe the same violence she was head over heels for on "Riotriot," is permitted to contain her when she's "tried so hard to be a peaceful, loving woman." It's the fulfillment of the Joplinesque, soulful cry of joy on "Powa," and the most disarming, soft, heartrending moment of an astounding album.

Last year I made a proclamation, to whatever extent such silly templates and rules even shape this weblog, that the A+ rating you see at the top of this review would be withheld for any album until the end of the year. I stand by that, it seems logical enough. Chronologically, none of the last four albums I think deserve such a grade would've earned it from me immediately. But the fifth most recent one, Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, would have. This is just as unquestionable an instant classic, an instant benchmark for me. Ten incredibly well-crafted, resonant songs that are felt and playful and direct and immense, all over way too soon. It would be dishonest not to plug it in the highest manner possible. Again I say, buy this now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Velvet Underground: White Light / White Heat (1968)


(Verve)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The purpose and thrust of the Velvet Underground, the one they were too mild to express on their Warhol-showered debut album, was the articulation of the secret urge of so many without the smarts or skills to pull it off: the literate garage band -- the absolute maximum capacity of poetry without pretentiousness, musical or otherwise. No one better has ever been born to realize this, not even his bandmates, than Lou Reed. Reed's vocal performance on White Light / White Heat is a tour de force, a slice of macabre magic. Putting Edgar Allan Poe into rock & roll has its own stark implications, but Reed is smart enough (smarter than the Doors or Jefferson Airplane by a zillion miles) to revel in what counts from the actual act of reading Poe, rather than being Poe -- the joy, the utter fixation and thrill, in the bizarre, the grotesque. He oozes with this unashamed flamboyance; he c-c-c-c-c-couldn't hit it sideways, awww it tickle him down to his toes, and then he feels his mind split open.

Reed's confidence and hyperactivity is leagues above his Dylanesque calm on The Velvet Underground & Nico, and this is the sole studio album on which the band's chops are on full display; in song after song, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison impress tirelessly, passionate and giddy in their search for the most unhinged noises they can muster up. Some sophomore albums display newfound comfort, some are portraits of confusion, some certifiable documents of instant creative burnout. For the Velvet Underground, album number two marked a moment when all eyes were no longer on them, when they were blessed with freedom and cursed with a nonchalant public. Their tactic was to create a record with the boisterous, flowing anarchy of their live show. Cut loose from the Factory and all the image-making it entailed, no longer are they bound to uphold anything except their batshit, stunningly prescient idea of rock music -- riddled with in-the-red distortion, feedback, and scarcely contained cacophony. If anything, they're more outlandish than before -- but this time, it comes from deeper. It has almost nothing in common with their debut.

No Andy Warhol. No Nico. No films playing behind them, no dancers in front. Just guitars, bass, viola, and drums, with expertly minimalist production by Tom Wilson. It is almost impossible to believe that this man was thickening and sweetening Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" just a couple of years before. Now here he is, serving as less a producer than a documentary soundman, exposing the world to guitar insanity that would send Art Garfunkel cowering into the closet.

This band was twice as dangerous as even the heaviest of their most gifted peers -- the MC5, the Fugs, the 13th Floor Elevators, to name a few -- first of all because they would stick "Here She Comes Now" on an album with "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "Sister Ray" (but more on that later) and mostly because it was guitar (and drums and bass and viola) insanity. It could not be attributed to drugs or to political opinion or to metal illness. It was people enslaved by music, and it was forceful -- not in the way people think of the Velvets as being confrontational, but in the sense that you're with them or against them.

There is no sequencing logic to White Light / White Heat, nor is there much logic to the way the music is thrown together to begin with. Only six songs, and one of them is seventeen minutes, and another is hardly even a song. It has taken the Velvets less than three years to come to the conclusion that the Beatles would in the same year, over a decade after their formation: that it doesn't fucking matter. Like the White Album, the VU's LP spits in the eye of the Sgt. Pepper logic of an album arranged like a film, opening softly then flowing towards a climax and an ending. There is no easing into the Velvets' world. The brash intensity is there from the first second and it doesn't cease. The title track, a methamphetamine-oriented sequel to the far more maudlin "Heroin," is so loud you might not even notice how conventional it is, but the power is in the convention. It's a ruthless dance song, and you'll dance when you're not wondering what the hell Lou Reed is talking about. Who cares? This is pure rock & roll, tangential and derailed; at one point John Cale's bass goes off the deep end, and the whole band follows. It's beautiful... then the song ends.

"The Gift" runs as long as "Revolution 9" and is guaranteed to piss off the people who despise the latter song twice as much. While the Velvets jam at stage right, John Cale goes into Orson Welles mode, reading in unerring deadpan the run-on sentences and O.-Henry-meets-Poe logic of a short story created for a writing class by Lou Reed. The disturbing factor is that the experiment actually works, and that Reed's characters and situations are screamingly funny even when you know all about the twisted conclusion. "He needed her, and she wasn't there," Cale announced, followed with the unforgivingly precise sitcom-ironic "awwwww" from the others. You can't escape without a kind of adoration for the pathetic, deluded Waldo Jeffers. The humor is magnified by Cale's deftly understated reading, Lou's gleefully elaborate setting up of his twist, the neverending instrumental that conforms not once to the rhythm of the story, and the very fact that it's all on a rock album.

The Poe corner of Reed's psyche, which he would decades later explore on an overwrought concept album called The Raven, gets transplanted to the modern era with the botched lobotomy saga "Lady Godiva's Operation," a surprisingly intricate -- and melodic! -- ballad of a transsexual who, after seducing the doctor's sons, goes under the knife to horrific results. Singer Cale and terrifying interjector Reed see this as neither poetic justice nor anything of much more interest than the apathetically described junkies and hookers of the rest of the album, just a tool to get under the crowd's skin and terrorize them in perfect Hitchcock or Corman mold; the otherworldly sound effects at the climax are genuinely horrific (and intoxicating). The Byrdsian guitars and Cale's Welsh delicacy can deceive you into thinking nothing sinister is amiss, but then along comes Reed, whose flair for drama makes Phil Spector seem like Rick Rubin: "Now comes the moment of great, great decision! The doctor is making... his first incision!"

Without its surroundings, the eye-of-the-hurricane ballad "Here She Comes Now" might seem much more innocuous on a record where, otherwise, any given cut is scarier than the most "evil" moments of The Velvet Underground & Nico. The undeniably college rock-prophetic song (it has aged even less than the record's other cuts) is deceptively simple, and terrific; on the heels of "Godiva" and as a predecessor to the geyser-orgasm of the last two tracks, it's impossibly tense, even with appropriately shimmering production to match the subtle lyricism. This is a good example of a song that sounds and feels entirely different outside its original context, like looking at different colors side by side.

Every connotation of Side One explodes on "I Heard Her Call My Name," one of the most dizzying, intense songs of the '60s, and without a doubt the loudest. Musically, it's nothing less than an assault. While Moe keeps time with ruthless, jaw-dropping precision, the men lose themselves completely, and the guitar attack -- making no melodic sense and all the better for it -- builds for four and a half minutes without a break or decrease in velocity. There's no great climactic explosion -- that's saved for the next song -- and it all would mean nothing if not for Lou's barely coherent, ecstatic, murderous, insane lyrics and vocals. He wails out his story of pining for a woman who's "long dead and gone" and now he hears her calling him. Jumping again from the pages of Poe, this time his masterpiece "Ligeia," Reed looks us in the eye with emotions and desires not of this world or any, and he has the audacity to do it with the thrill-ride exuberance of James Brown. You can't explain that which defies definition, but in the end "I Heard Her Call My Name" is the very essence of everything rock & roll ever shot for. It makes all the sense in the world because it doesn't.

"Sister Ray" may or may not stand up to that, but it forces you to think it does. Mastered louder than any of the other songs here, it intends to make an instant mark -- or wound. Again Reed's tale, told with the enthusiasm and vocabulary of a little boy in a playground, centers around death, but here he adds prostitution, drugs, sailors, and blowjobs to the mix. Someone's just come back from Carolina, someone's sucking on a ding dong, someone needs a dollar, someone's staining the carpet, someone's been murdered, and the police are knocking on the door. The aural attack of the music, similar to the previous song but making its point (or lack of point) gradually instead of all at once, is too seductive for me to keep the characters (Duck, Sally, and their pals) straight yet Reed seems to know them all like brothers and sisters, but he too gives in to the music eventually. "Whip it on me, Jim! Whip it on me, Jim!" Poe arrives again -- "Who's that knocking at my chamber door?" The music could be a story in itself... it begins with standard Velvets guitars-and-feedback, then someone (Cale, I think) sits at an organ and it's louder than everybody else and everybody else tries to be louder, and eventually the song mutates into a white noise dirge and it gets faster and louder and goes on for seventeen minutes. Legend has it an engineer walked out. How could you start this without needing closure on it? Well, you can and will because there is no closure, it's all a moment. Seventeen minutes and it's still a moment, no second wasted. It's funny and danceable and disturbing and unforgettable. They had better songs, but none that explained their dynamic appeal so well; everyone gives the song every ounce of their energy, and it is -- recognized, ignored mistakes and all -- a triumph.

What's endearing about White Light / White Heat is not the veneer of cool that's undeniably there; Reed wouldn't learn to be himself until after John Cale left the band. In simple terms, it's the thrill of a band that's employing the studio as a tool without leaping too far into its capabilities, and doing things more for the hell of it than to make an impression. To be less cerebral, it's a band that has found a way to stick to the wonderful power of rock & roll at its basic, most primal form yet somehow take it further, expanding its horizons and running to unheard-of lengths with it. They're having fun. They're toying with us. And we love it.

[Revised from an essay originally posted at d-b.com in 2003.]

[SEE ALSO:]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Panda Bear: Tomboy (2011)


(Paw Tracks)

!! CAUTION !!

You know why Wild Honey is a better Beach Boys record than the nebulous evolving theory of Smile? It gots soul, that's why. "Our Prayer" might be a disarming recording, but it's the glory without the guts; even if "Darlin'" doesn't move you more, "The Warmth of the Sun" surely will, unless you're a fuckin' alien or a prog rocker.

Or a fan of Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, possessive of one of the greatest voices currently in the indie rock scene. What you essentially get with his work in Animal Colective or alone is an eternity of "Our Prayer" as concept, a painfully extensive exercise in the belief that, well, pretty is enough. On Lennox's prior record, Person Pitch, he tempered indulgences like the overwrought, melodramatic 1940s film score "Bros" with beds of music, and even occasionally songs. Only once on the followup -- the pleasing enough "Alsatian Darn" -- does he cop to such philistine temptations. The rest of the time, he expects the aural immensity of his vocals to carry fifty full minutes all by themselves.

But even things as nice as Lennox's pipes can get old after a while, particularly without any serious variance to back it up. True fatigue sets in around the ridiculous "Surfer's Hymn," an all-too-literal blotch of saccharine choir practice feted by -- of course -- the sound of the ocean. Before that, it's so difficult to distinguish Tomboy from Person Pitch it barely seems worth the trouble. And afterward, the boredom and sameness grow overbearing; Lennox wails against the darkness with something like enthusiasm, but he is in serious need of structure. There's not even the grounded emotion and vague wit of his band's "Guys' Eyes" or "My Girls," and certainly not the open-armed loveliness of "Bluish."

Those scattered Animal Collective triumphs aside, the one time I've truly loved Panda Bear is the same moment as the one time I've truly loved Pantha du Prince; the pair's collaboration "Stick to My Side" from last year's Black Noise is heavenly, Lennox's voice as instrument and not centerpiece, giving Pantha's noodling something warm to hang onto. These two need each other. Or at least, they both need something more than they're capable of on their own. As it is, Tomboy is basically sludge. You might find something lovely and worth remembering in the puddle, but parsing through the in-your-face mess will take longer than most of us have to spare.

[SEE ALSO:]
Person Pitch (2007)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Faces: The Definitive Rock Collection (1970-75)


(Rhino)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Rod Stewart's in my bottom half-dozen rock performers of all time, the rare individual who completely shuts my faculties off and makes my hair stand on end, and no, it's not just because of his supposedly sellout pop records later on, which if anything are more entertaining to me, but also -- geez, I'm sorry, but I will die happy if the opening notes of "Maggie May" never cross my ears again. (This loathing of Stewart is mild compared to my feelings for James Taylor, however.) But "Ooh La La" by his old band the Faces, on which Stewart doesn't sing lead (one of a handful of such instances on this two-disc compilation) has been an absolutely beloved song to me ever since, naturally, its expert placement at the end of Rushmore -- it's transcendent and sad, perfectly suited to that film. So I figured, maybe these two things will cancel each other out and I will somehow end up digging the Faces.

Nope. As Stewart would put it, no, no, no, no, no. This is pure bonehead-blues wank. I couldn't even make it through most of the songs. Nothing even approaches "Ooh La La," which on close inspection reflects the same idiotic vagina-hating bullshit you'd suspect of Stewart himself at his worst -- but the music is irresistible enough that it takes the wind out of its wrongheaded convictions. Maybe. Or maybe now that I know the song is basically about the fact that women are abusive sluts who will stomp all over innocent childlike Men, it will lose some of its magic. Then I can delete this entire shitty folder instead of everything except the one track.

I have absolutely nothing else to say about this tripe, so let's just run down some of my favorite lyrics from the bits I managed to listen to (and was able to remotely comprehend; the man just doesn't enunciate).

Well, well, hello and how are you?
Fancy seeing you here, don't let it show
No look, no one must know


It's hard to believe that this is the place
Where we were so happy all our lives


Miss Judy, she was moody
Owned a sweaty farm in old Alabama
I was just eighteen, crude and mean
And all I needed was to get my own way, get my own way


Your love is fading,
I can feel your love fading,
Woman it's fading away from me


In the mornin' don't say you love me
'Cause I'll only kick you out of the door
I know your name is Rita
'cause your perfume's smelling sweeter
Since when I saw you down on the floor


Most shameful moment of all: a five and a half-minute cover of Chuck Berry's sublime "Memphis." [pulls hair out]

One of the allmusic.com keywords for this compilation is "Guys Night Out." No wonder.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian EP (2011) + Flaming Lips 2011 craziness [Gummy Skull + Two Blobs Fucking]


(Warner Bros.)

RECOMMENDED
[** see note at bottom **]

In 2009, the Flaming Lips released their best album in a decade, the darkly psychedelic Embryonic. Since then they've been given goodwill from their fanbase and their record label in the form of, as Wayne Coyne told Billboard, the "freedom to fuck around." This campaign of nuttiness began with the 2010 release of an album-length cover version of The Dark Side of the Moon, which I admittedly skipped. In 2011, though, in amongst an outpouring of oddities have been three major dumps of intriguing new material from one of the world's most prolific and creatively restless bands.

The most conventional of these so far has been the 12" EP-length collaboration with Mexican chillwavers Neon Indian, not at all an obvious match for the Lips. The release itself was issued on vinyl only, the severely limited number of copies distributed to record stores personally by band members. The content, if you can find it, does not disappoint: The most traditional cut is opener "Is David Bowie Dying," an appropriately droning killing off of a hero that sounds, indeed, like David Bowie -- plodding and tense like Talking Heads' "The Overload," the song is a must. Fans are also likely to appreciate Minutemen sequel "Do YOu Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth (Part 2)," on which Neon Indian's influence is impossible to detect. But I'm even more attracted to the two oddities in the middle, the experimental headfuck "You Don't Respond" and the meandering "Alan's Theremin," a hypnotic but appealingly minimalistic jam that recalls some of Yo La Tengo's best extended lullabys.



The virtues of the two middle selections, "Theremin" especially, carry over to the Lips' best song of the year to date, the arresting, minimal but gorgeous "Hillary's Time Machine Machine," a nine-minute trance into nocturnal guitar and a sleepy comedown. Simultaneously comforting and creepy, it's a piece of instrumental rock mastery. Unfortunately, the only way to hear it (legally) is to purchase the foreboding object seen above, bite into it, and slobber your way through a big hunk of candy until you find a USB flash drive that includes four new Flaming Lips songs, totalling twenty-five minutes. All for the low ebay price of $199 and rising!

Don't pay $199 and you will be missing out on two tracks from the Lips' obnoxious, indulgent side -- the wah-wah video game soundtrack "In Our Bodies, Out of Our Heads" and the '80s Bowie riff "Walk with Me" -- but also a soaring, triumphant chorus on the lovely "Drug Chart." One has to wonder about what the bosses at Warner Music Group think of a stunt like this. I couldn't even get them to send me an Iron & Wine press kit this January, but they'll underwrite a few hundred giant gummy skulls? Releasing music in this manner equates essentially to, if you're very naive, not releasing it at all or -- more realistically - releasing it for free, because I'd wager barely a dozen of the 1,365 listeners "Walk with Me" has on last.fm gnawed their way through those colorful brains.



Luckily, the other big Lips moment of the year, and curiously the one that seemed to ignite the most fanfare, was free. Free! Through the magic of YouTube, the Lips both minimized their Zaireeka (their boxed set of 4 CDs that had to be played simultaneously) experiment by reducing its length to about three minutes and maximized it by requiring twelve YouTube videos to be played at once. And calling it "Two Blobs Fucking," thus guaranteeing that the corresponding SteveHoffman.TV thread would mostly consist of generational hemming and hawing about "that word." Various web experiments have been put in place to allow the twelve to start automatically and simultaneously, but one wonders -- if human error isn't the point of projects like this, what is the point? That is, if I'm understanding all this correctly, and if Brian Eno's experiments in the same capacity, which predated the Lips', are a worthy guide, I am. If every version of "Two Blobs Fucking" is the same, why bother? Is this all just to exercise our clicky fingers? At any rate, it's easy to find a synced audio-only rip, which will reveal that "Blobs" is a curio and not much else.

When I was a teenager in the '90s, as a function of both my obsessive personality and the fact that one of my first favorite bands was R.E.M. whose rarities tend to be sublime, if I grew seriously infatuated with a band I had to own every song they released, ever. All the b-sides and compilation tracks, which in the pre-Napster world were often a bitch and a half to find; I collected the confusing two-part import singles to get this or that elusive track, I slaved over whether this or that live track or remix was worth the trouble as opposed to an all-new studio cut, and I remember trolling pawn shop aisles for weird VA comps like DGC Rarities, No Alternative, and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I've gotten over that -- there's a Yo La Tengo song I've never heard and cannot find anywhere on a vinyl compilation I see on ebay for some extravagant price every day, and I am not even tempted, as badly as I want to hear the song -- but I can't help thinking of my 14 year-old self when bands like the Lips do something of this nature, and it continues to bug me when I can't have all the music by a great band easily at my fingertips. I don't begrudge Coyne and company the fun of coming up with wild and crazy alternatives to simple album or EP or single formats, and I strongly prefer their support of independent record stores to the tendency toward relatively dull marginalia like "iTunes exclusives." But I'll repeat the point I made in talking about the Mountain Goats cassette recently: I wish stuff could just be available and not suspended inside gross gooey candy and outdated media. But I suppose those days are over.

[Note on Recommendation: The boldfaced opinion at the top reflects these three releases taken as one whole, on a purely musical basis. Caveat to follow -- These Lips releases are commanding outrageous prices on ebay as we speak. Hardcore fans who can get a copy of the Neon Indian 12" for less than $40 are advised to do so, as the record is consistently very good. The gummy skull, while it contains songs that'd be above average b-sides, is consumer fraud for anyone who isn't a psychotic Lips fan, as even directly from the band it's being sold for $150 or so. I have trouble thinking of a USB stick inside a piece of candy, particularly one that's $150 or so, as an "EP" or "single" or pretty much anything. Call me old fashioned. This is at bottom just four Lips rarities on a flash drive, nothing earth-shaking, and certainly nothing as unified as the Neon Indian collab. So do what I did; hit bit torrent (or your crazy friend) for it and stick it a folder with a synced-up "Two Blobs." Voila, you have caught up with the Flaming Lips. For now.]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adam & the Ants: Stand and Deliver- Very Best Of (1977-95)


(Columbia)

Thanks to the late professional dickweed Malcolm McLaren, these New Romantic touchstones have over the years been primarily known to me via their connection to one of my favorite bands of the early '80s, Bow Wow Wow; McLaren stole away the original incarnation of the Ants, save their stalwart leader, to form Bow Wow Wow around Annabella Lwin, making irresistible pop that isn't our concern here. A fuckwit move to be sure, but maybe it was meant to be. While I can certainly recognize the virtue and influence of Adam Ant, I have a hard time enjoying his music nearly as much as Lwin and company's, largely as a result of a personal quirk -- his voice is nails on the chalkboard to me. I don't want to, as I've done in the past, appear to be dismissing great music purely on this basis; people hear things differently, not anyone's fault, and in my case Yoko Ono and Josephine Olausson are like music down from on high, Bach on the satellite in Dirk Gently, and Adam Ant and Sigur Ros bug me so much I have to leave the room. I don't know what it is or how to explain it. It's probably genetic. But whatever is there that's good, it is literally impossible for me to hear.

That doesn't mean I haven't spent a number of happy evenings with "Antmusic," pop music brimming with genuine wit, and I can't deny the appeal of Adam Ant's stubborn nonconformity (compared to the practiced refinement of, say, the Jam or the Kinks). The gem of his career is the completely undeniable "Kings of the Wild Fronier," one of the true juggernaut dance songs of the last thirty years -- both left-field and startlingly populist. It gets anyone moving, alleged cultural robbery and all, and has been a life-saver on many DJing excursions. Its dynamics, its two-drummer attack, its apocalyptic shapeshifting -- all beyond classic, beyond grand, into scary.

As a compilation, Stand and Deliver presents all sorts of problems and frustrations. Credited to Adam and the Ants, it in fact consists in large part of material from Ant's solo career -- nearly all of which is trend-following junk. Even the hit "Goody Two Shoes" sounds tired and anonymous compared to the full-band force of the Ants' records. This would be forgivable, making it a one-swoop curiosity, if the songs were presented in any sensible order, but they aren't arranged chronologically and certainly don't follow any thematic thrust, Ant's mid-'80s MOR banalities coming awkwardly between stabs of youth and energy, like "Kokomo" sandwiched between "Surfer Girl" and "I Get Around."

But this is one of those moments when I confess the bigger problem is me. In the same way I've (gulp) never been able to get past Elvis Costello's incessant squaking to really fall in love with his music, in the same way that for all my problems with his dubious character the real reason George is my least favorite Beatle is I think he sounds like a giant-throatted rat, in the same way that Robert Plant sends me screaming into the night, I cannot handle Adam Ant's voice. The chirping, the in-your-face obnoxiousness that all seems quite deliberate is too much for me, to the point of being actually intolerable. I was unable to listen to this disc in one sitting, and had to split it up. The second and third time through, at which point I skipped most of the solo cuts, I was in the car, which broke it up into four tiny bits but Ant still wore on me quickly. I do wish he had recorded more material like debut "Young Parisians," on which he affects a nonchalance that doesn't seem compromised, seeping with his eccentric characteristics but also distant enough not to give me that rubbing-on-a-balloon feeling.

We should, of course, move on now. It's not typically the goal of this blog to take down material that is simply not within my realm of taste (which is why there will be no reviews of Led Zep and Nirvana records in this space, because such actions would be pointless); I was in this case genuinely curious how I'd feel about a full Ant comp. But I will quickly add that hearing the Ants' music, disregarding all my issues, is a surprisingly strong rush of nostalgia. There is more here to admire than style, than a certain radiance of spirit that seemed more possible then, particularly in the UK, but that may in fact be Ant's legacy. I'm really not the one to ask, unfortunately.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gang of Four: Content (2011)


(Yep Roc)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Two post-punk titans issued albums in the first few weeks of 2011. Wire has been surprisingly prolific in the last decade, but Gang of Four's return was a bit of a shock. Both albums are strong, but for what it's worth, it's the Four's that feels most vital and full of youth -- and not just because their sound has been more openly appropriated into the mainstream by a younger generation. But Wire's songs are better, so it's kind of a wash. Anyway, both releases are worth your time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

With the Beatles (1963)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

With the Beatles is everything. If the Beatles' career had ended after their life-affirming, infinitely powerful second album, released the day JFK was shot, it would be enough to secure their legend. It contains all the detail, idiosyncrasy, urgency needed to make the idea and perfect execution of rock & roll clear to anyone. Arguably nothing else in the LP form can compete with its immediacy. So what if rock & roll was no longer new by 1963, so what if this record was the shot in the arm required to wake it up? And so what if its most sublime moment, its crowning touch, appears in its first thirty seconds? John Lennon's first words to his adoring disciples (almost exclusively European at this point; the first trip to America was still months away) in "I Won't Be Long": "Every night when everybody has fun / Here am I, sitting all on my own." Fuck sex and drugs... that is rock & roll. That is the spirit and the truth. Every second of the rest of the album is an illustration of Lennon's manifesto.

Behind that massive voice, the Beatles make good on their Please Please Me promises by playing with even more graceful abandon. Their proficiency with studio work has increased, and they now have the luxury of spending more than one day on an LP, but it has not softened their impact. The songs on their second goround gain a stark eloquence, a musical dialogue of their own, and most importantly, they're loud. And if you're not playing them with the volume pumped to the maximum, you are not hearing them as they must be heard. It's been said that With the Beatles at top volume essentially approximates the sound of the Beatles at the Cavern, which is useful since only a handful of recordings of their pre-Beatlemania performances survive. But it's beyond that -- get this on loud enough and it is, quite precisely, punk rock. In England in 1963. If you spend enough time thinking about it your head will explode. So don't. Just scream and dance, like they did then.

The opening three cuts ("It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got to Do," "All My Loving") say it all, slyly coating the band's pop smarts and terrifying abrasiveness with a nuance and care passed over on the prior record in favor of impact. The Beatles in the fall of 1963 are not just wild dumb teenage sex -- they're smart, they're sensual, they're unstoppable. But they're also very, very serious -- no light sardonics or cuts into the mystique here, all detached quality control and impassioned playing and singing -- and they are no longer betraying the naive charm of London music industry newcomers. Already tight professionals as a live band by the time they signed to Parlophone, With reveals the rapidity of their learning process. In the interim between the two records, two singles had seen release, neither of them included on either long-form LP. "From Me to You," though a strong enough composition, sounded tentative and confused, a lily-fingered follwup to the fire and madness of the album, but its b-side, "Thank You Girl," suggested a phenomenal, almost sinister, developing of familiarity with the secrets of studio pop. By "She Loves You," only the band's fourth single, they are masters. Producer George Martin, always an improviser and always an asset, lends the song an almost alien force by layering on sheets of noise, making Ringo's cymbals sound as though they never stop crashing, making John and Paul's harmonies seem to extend forever in some rock & roll hall of mirrors. And they managed it all in the context of a song that was both improbably hard-edged, almost unbearably intense rock & roll... and sexually charged teenage music.

That same blanket of noise populates With the Beatles, constant but at times deliberately impenetrable -- how many times must one listen to "Devil in Her Heart" before that primal wall behind everything is actually revealed to be John and Paul's backing vocals? But even at the beginning, it was on the singles that the band showed their chops, and on the albums that they expressed themselves most deeply. It's a curious paradox that the original condition of the pop album as something not many fans actually listened to or cared about is likely what led the Beatles to save their darkest, most ambitious and experimental material for their LPs, which in turn led to the perhaps wrongheaded vaunting of the album as the definitive form of pop music. Clearly the Beatles cared a lot about this material, all the same; whether it was their decision or Martin's, it's telling that unlike Please Please Me, With the Beatles contains not one song issued as a single. In the end, nearly half of their albums would score record-breaking sales without the aid of singles. Instead, With scores on nothing more than its material, which is often bracing in its craft and intelligence -- innovative, fascinating chord structures and harmonies, adventurous compositions, and most of all their tight ("tighter!"), intimidating presence as a band, and their absolute conviction, their undiluted passion, as singers -- Lennon especially.

Lennon's alienated "It Won't Be Long," with its pressing and anguished performance and his trademark sympathy for the outcast, closes with a hell of a dramatic moment, turning the similarly jazzy finale of "She Loves You" upside down: an improvised, sweet but sudden climax to its royal mess of crazed emotions. This leads directly into what is certainly the finest song on With the Beatles and may indeed be (heavily competing with "Don't Let Me Down," "Help!," "I Call Your Name," and "Strawberry Fields Forever," only one of which is on an LP) the greatest Beatles song of all, John's tender "All I've Got to Do." The composition, tipping a hat to Smokey Robinson, is airtight and gorgeous, its stunning descending melodic trick reprised briefly and famously on "Not a Second Time," but the performance is surely the most riveting in a catalog that would soon be dominated by studio playtime that, however impressive, can never compete with the sound of John Lennon going off on a vocal tangent over this band playing together, better than ever before or since, as a unit.

As at so many other points, as much as all four Beatles are necessary to make this magic tick, it is Lennon who sets the scene and leads it to its peak. The passion and sex in his voice are irresistible, impossibly elegant, quickly displaying the reason he may be the greatest male singer in a field full of masters from Sam Cooke to Lou Reed, the things he does hypnotic: his wraparound of the "IIIII-hiiiii-IIIIII" hook worthy of Billie Holiday, his slip in and out of the intoxicating baritone on "On meeeeeee yeah," a revelatory moment that would be recalled on the Richard Lloyd guitar solo in Television's "Elevation" -- you think you understand the song's limits until Lennon and Lloyd dip below the ground. The build of the powerfully direct, communicative chorus, the way it grows warmer each time, is a magic seduction -- the teenage telephone tale never condescended to or deflated, no Phil Spector melodrama required. And the "ohhh!" just before the last "You just gotta call on me," and finally the band's tour de force entrance into John's sublime humming coda.

It's not an insult to the others that John Lennon dominates the best Beatles recordings; he was simply that astonishing. Nor is it an insult that "All I've Got to Do" destroys "Yesterday," "Michelle," "Imagine," "God Only Knows," everything -- this is the sound of uncluttered, unchecked, un-fucked up emotion pouring out of a human being. No second-hand documentary bullshit definition of rock & roll can approach its beauty and delicacy. To hear it blasting from speakers grand or small, to witness it, is a gift worth giddy excitement nearly five decades later.

But Paul too is capable, on "All My Loving," of a love song that brims with the same undiluted energy as the Beatles' idols -- it's rollicking country-western that, despite its ballad template, moves along with the same restless, driving speed as the rockers, picking up the pace considerably from "All I've Got to Do" without attempting its hard-soft dynamics in remotely the same fashion. Paul offers all the cushioning the song's sharp-edged arrangement needs, while George's solo underscores its Carl Perkins roots in a moment that peaks the populist divinities of With the Beatles' opening salvo.

Generally, With approaches its songs from a more controlled atmosphere than the debut; none of the three masterworks described above could have been possible on that remarkably divergent effort. The choices of covers here, scattered now rather than appearing in a row, are also more interesting, with the exception of the vaguely charming but slightly regrettable maxed-out balladry Paul shows off on "Till There Was You," a step down from the oddball mystery of "A Taste of Honey." The others are capable of spinning killer new angles on classics, like Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," and even standing alongside the immortal performances of masters, as on the still-flooring versions of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and the Marvelettes' "Please Mister Postman." Without the virtue of songwriting adventure, the covers become the place for startling, savory rushes of stabbing guitar, unstoppable beat, and indescribable frenzy. Banalities like "(There's A) Devil in Her Heart" are obliterated by the Beatles' hasty passion. And with Lennon at the helm, a girl group classic like "Postman" becomes exhilarating, a tearing-your-hair-out plead to a lost companion, coming apart with desperation. Musically, the revision of "Hold on Me," hardly a song it would seem remotely possible to improve, is even more extreme, stripping it of everything but minimalist instrumentation, Ringo (who careens miles ahead of all others, as usual), and the gasping, relentless drama of the voices. Add "Don't want to kiss you / But I need to" to the grand listing of iconic sophomore-LP moments.

And then there are the originals. Even the throwaways are virtually flawless. Ringo fucks up "I Wanna Be Your Man," already released as a Rolling Stones 45, with manic Indra-sized gusto; dig John and Paul's simultaneous scream of joy ahead of the bridge. The Motown knockoff "Hold Me Tight" is driven into oblivion by a perfect rhythm guitar line, the harmonies stretching upward forever. George's debut as composer, "Don't Bother Me," is haunting grade-A Brit invasion arrogance. And try to escape the grip of John's bruising "Little Child," as hook-filled as any Beatles single.

If the stark, stylish, gloomy album cover wasn't enough to suggest more in play on With the Beatles than the brightly lit corridors and grinning faces of Please Please Me, the last three songs fully realize a menace that had existed underneath the surface brightness of the Beatles' music since at least their first trip to Hamburg, now accidentally set to coincide with an approaching descent into darkness for the Western world, in particular the country that the Beatles would forever alter in the year ahead. It's simple enough to draw a cultural diagram, though; more interestingly, one actually seems to be hearing the beginnings of John Lennon's "Primal Scream" output, the confessional mode that would culminate seven years later on Plastic Ono Band but would in the meantime produce gut-splitting songs like "Help!" and the bulk of albums like A Hard Day's Night and Rubber Soul. In the bleak shred of his voice on "Not a Second Time" and "Money," he seems to be reliving the loss of his mother and (to a lesser extent) his father, of his childhood, of Stuart Sutcliffe, of all the endurances and dreads that brought him to the recording studio in which he now sits. He is living it, still, and on iPods around the world, he will be living it in perpetuity.

At first or even twelfth glance, "Devil in Her Heart" -- led by George -- is a relatively minor entry in the canon. But pay attention, with or without the aid of the Donays' obscure original, and live for a time with esoteric majesty and odd mysticism of the harmonies; the willingness to go crazy-eccentric for a cover dates back at least to their midnight destructions of "Your Feets Too Big" and the first album's "Boys," but that swirl is something new to the Beatles, something almost creepily foretelling. But they never again recorded anything like "Not a Second Time," and no one has. Turning around the ecstacy of Side One with last-minute menace, Lennon sounds ruthless, battle-lines drawn, as the tension escalates around him. At first he wails alone with George Martin's piano, later the centerpiece of an otherworldly solo, before Ringo's unflappable mechanic drumming pushes it all ahead. His fill after the first verse and the piano solo that follows need no words to humanize the suggestion of the moment. There is no protection or forgiveness within this track... a four-wall trap of agony and fury, John's wails filling every inch.

While there's little that's theatrical about With the Beatles, the band's entity and their individual personas create an effect of apocalypse. On "Money," possibly the band's finest cover, Lennon nearly betters his own wrenching "Twist and Shout" vocal with layers of bravado and angst behind smirking irony; it culminates in the spontaneous electricity of what may be the most important line he would ever sing... "I WANT TO BE FREE." It builds and builds some more, oppressive and unforgiving, until Lennon seems to be digging himself slowly out of a hole, out of the hole of all of his losses, into the cynicism that can save him, a world away from the vibrant loveliness of "All I've Got to Do" -- his triumphant final line carrying a John Lydon sneer, "That's what I want," at which point he seems to slap the rest of the music away nonchalantly. Okay, that's it, I'm done with you. And what's next. Mick Jagger's entire career cannot compete.

George Martin communicates the chaos across these fourteen songs with the aplomb of a grand but modest showman; he means to aid the boys in documenting their actual sound, as had long been his mission. His aim is selfless, not to make a name for himself by capturing some nervous energy or undercurrent, to frame them as whatever he could fathom. His decisions only underline the band's virtues, and With the Beatles and its followup, A Hard Day's Night, captures the beautiful moment when these forces sat perfectly in sync with a band in harmony. Martin is so sympathetic to the Beatles' chaos it's incredible he was removed from their generation; much would be made of his sober sonic empathy with drug use in later years, but his application of youth to what had long been a routine enough production gig is far more intriguing and refreshing. And despite the croaking angst from audiophiles and other dweebs about the stereo separation on these early records, Martin hits it just right on either mix, though the mono inarguably sounds best with one significant exception. In mono "Money" comes across merely as a strong effort, a worthy sibling to Barrett Strong's excellent original; in stereo, it blisters with want and electricity, almost sickeningly. And this one of many things it's astounding Martin was able to capture so well.

There are probably better albums. There are a few (very few) better Beatles albums, although only Rubber Soul makes as strong a case for them as a four-piece band. But there is no album with such vitality, no album that speaks directly into the heart of anyone with such focus and enthusiasm. This is life, immortalized, the boundless talent and intelligence of four men guiding it along through a universe of energy and light. We're fortunate to have it. It really does seem as though they could do no wrong back then. How lovely it is to revisit the time when the world was completely within the grasp of the Beatles, and when they had ideas for what to do with it when they earned it.

[Substantially revised from a review posted at d-b.com in 2003.]

The Mountain Goats: All Survivors Pack (2011)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

Here is the risk one runs upon having established a cult on the level of John Darnielle's: any artistic maturity, even the good kind, is met with anger and suspicion. Replacements fans in the '80s were downright distraught over Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, which seems silly today (and even sillier when modern indie rockers attempt to appropriate such nonsensical prejudices). As his recording methods become increasingly elaborate, and as he becomes less and less the sole vital member of the Mountain Goats, Darnielle deals with a base of followers whose patience with his balladeering and introspection and grownup laments, all laid down with ample studio polish, is constantly thin. To an outsider, the Mountain Goats seem to be getting better and better every year; to someone whose obsession can be traced back to the early to mid-'90s, they're not the same band.

That's why beginning with The Sunset Tree and sporadically since, Darnielle has excitedly taken the unprecedented (outside of hip hop) move of releasing work-in-progress versions of his latest songs concurrently with his actual LPs, essentially public demo tapes which -- surprise, surprise -- distinctly resemble the rough-hewn early cassette releases under the Goats' name. Prior to 2011, two albums have received the treatment: Sunset Tree begat the vinyl-only Come, Come to the Sunset Tree, an interesting if inessential item, and The Life of the World to Come was issued overseas with the bonus CD The Life of the World in Flux, which I have yet to hear. But only upon moving to flush-with-Arcade-Fire-cash Merge Records in 2011 was Darnielle permitted to slip out an actual living breathing cassette tape, just like old times, sealing the image of a bone thrown to the lifers. The artwork was Xeroxed and hand-colored by Darnielle himself, a move surely meant to impress those who feel the slickness and relative calm of his recent albums has created a barrier separating them from their once-intelligently aggressive hero.

But there is enough of an inherent falseness to the image that one wonders if it will impress Mountain Goats cultists, if the imaginative and vastly resonant songwriting Darnielle has let loose in recent years didn't. Darnielle admitted in interviews that, of course, in 2011 it's not really possible to record a tape the way he did in 1994. He can simulate the limited, fraying sound of those vocal takes, he can certainly record something alone in a room -- but it is all digital, with all the inroads and separate "uncool" limitations that creates. For one thing, these tracks are unequivocally not boombox recordings; they are clearly layered and crafted with the assistance of perfectly pleasant-sounding modern techniques available on any home computer -- that's cleanly separated stereo sound you're hearing on the guitars, and it's hard to imagine that the compression on the vocals isn't a conscious measure to make the tape "messier."

Which begs the question, was the harshness and dirt ever the point of the early Mountain Goats? It's natural to miss what you loved about a band you used to adore, who then moved in another direction, but the number of songwriters who haven't benefitted from bigger studios with more choices is negligible. Lo-fi is a means to an end, and rarely is it in and of itself a virtue. It's fine to be able to hear past the hissing, the tape glitches; what's not fine is fetishizing them to the point that you can't accept that "Sourdoire Valley Song" is an exponentially better song than "Golden Boy" simply because "Sourdoire" doesn't sound like it was recorded in someone's basement. Controversial opinion: lo-fi is a genre that exists because it has to, because it often takes gifted people a long time to find their audience. Once they do, there's little reason to continue in the same vein.

Another reason it's hard to view All Survivors Pack as a modern Hound Chronicles is that these are not designed as the final public performances of the songs. This isn't a question of being desperate to communicate something, which is a lot of the charm of the Mountain Goats in the '90s; witness the way "Liza Forever Minnelli," for instance, is an extremely vague, rough runthrough of the rote compositional facets of the song. These recordings were made to play to the rest of the band to determine questions of arrangement and production; despite the synchronicity of their release with All Eternals Deck, they are not finished songs. They are functioning demos, an aspect of a band that is typically kept private.

With that said, the fervor Darnielle brings to some of these performances slightly eclipses the final released versions, but this is usually pinned down simply to a more spontaneous, felt vocal performance. (And it can go the other way -- on Come, Come to the Sunset Tree's "Love, Love, Love" he seems to merely be reciting the lyrics in the vein of Jason Robards' Brutus; on the LP, he feels them.) Most significant is the fine rock song "Birth of Serpents," which boasts a bit more passion than on Eternals and comes across just as fully as in the band arrangement; the ballad "Never Quite Free" benefits from Darnielle's unfussy solo take. Both songs work perfectly on the LP, but the touch of simplicity, the sense of being alone in a room with an outsized personality like Darnielle's, adds flavor -- perhaps a few of these demos could be included on the actual album next time around.

Mostly, though, for anyone who's come to love the accompanied record (one of the band's best ever), these takes seem unfinished. "High Hawk Season" is difficult to accept without the baritone choir, "Sourdoire" is so whisper-quiet it's hard to hear, as though Darnielle fears waking his wife, and if "For Charles Bronson" fails to suffer for the absence of the other Goats, it's strictly because the song itself is utterly indestructible.

For a fan, all of the demos remain fascinating to hear, and I'd encourage the band to continue these releases, but I do wish they'd find a better home for the two new songs here, whether they flesh them out with band arrangements or not. "Catherine Antrim's Kid" and "Rotten Stinking Mouthpiece" are as striking and moving as All Eternals Deck at its best. Even as they are, they would be a worthy addition, but the mind reels at contemplating drums and bass on the warm, affecting "Antrim," strings on the ominous "Mouthpiece." As it is, no Mountain Goats fan can legally hear them outside of the five hundred who scored Eternals early enough in the run to get the free cassette.

I was one such person, and I'm glad; Survivors is a thrill to listen to and a fun curio to have in the collection. But I'd gladly trade its scarcity, the joy of owning it, for those two songs to be more widely heard. Even illegally, the tracks only show up via Mediafire in two long side-length MP3s, annoying to listen to and parse out. I would post them myself but I love Merge Records and John Darnielle and do wish to incur the wrath of either. Just trust me: find a way to hear them, even if you can't track down the cassette as a whole, which is currently going for $102 at Discogs. Limited edition objects are always so fun in theory, but this is always what happens -- I'm a stickler for availability, cultists be damned.

The flawed theory at the heart of All Survivors Pack, along with its two rough-hewn demo predecessors in the Goats' catalog, is that the band has something they need to recapture. They don't; John Darnielle doesn't. No one who could issue a record as brilliant as All Eternals Deck less than six months after a very enjoyable one like the Extra Lens' Undercard, in turn less than a year after one as strong as The Life of the World to Come, needs to reach for the past. He's doing fine.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Life of the World to Come (2009)
All Eternals Deck (2011)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Parliament: Osmium (1970)


(Invictus)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Who can count up, and who would care, how much copy was wasted over the years attempting to determine the difference between George Clinton's two same-personnel-different-label outlets, Parliament and Funkadelic? Most of the time, the conclusions could've varied wildly from record to record -- sometimes Funkadelic was "darker," sometimes the opposite; sometimes Parliament was "drugs," sometimes Funkadelic was "sex." What's clear is that the distinction Clinton made between material for the two bands was private to him. The utter lack of daylight, overall, between the two groups prevents one from really considering this Parliament's "debut," as chronologically it follows at least one Funkadelic LP. But with four years to elapse between Osmium and its official followup, and indeed with a spiritual and musical crux more in line with the namesake Parliaments (the R&B outlet that gave way to P. Funk) than with the sister band, it's easy to look upon this obscure oddity as a work apart from the remainder of Clinton's insanely prolific '70s discography. That's a pity, because the record -- without qualification, without need for contextualization -- is brilliant, bearing all the crazed mad scientist genius marks of George Clinton at his best. It deserves to be as known and beloved as any of Parliament or Funkadelic's subsequent classics.

Already, Parliament is -- by the fact of their very existence -- a spit in the face of staid rock conventions that had by 1970 taken firm hold on pop music. Osmium defies all critical conceits coloring FM of the period; when they're not inconsequential, the lyrics are stuboornly banal ("the sink began to think") and the band finds heaviness a thematic tool rather than a sonic end. The intimidation one feels in the militaristic hard rock on "Funky Woman" is all in the space between the instruments, the cumulative effect of the band as an unstoppable unit. The confidence, assurance, swagger that would make George Clinton a major artist of the era is in place on "Moonshine Heather," irresistible sleaze as lazily provocative as any number of P-Funk classics, and proving that Clinton was already proficient and innovative as a producer before Parliament ever played a note. Others could easy channel the melodic "There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang" into a chunky anthem, but Clinton refashions it as towering guitar pop, with a gleeful overflow of effects, that ultimately falls into a glorious VU-like shapelessness fused, improbably, with Deep South gospel. And that's hardly the peak.

Osmium is a thrilling, endlessly surprising record because its songs are all so individualistic, to the point they scarcely seem to belong together -- Parliament's first record is not merely the creation of a grand world, it's the creation of many. You can hear Clinton's joy in subverting and updating his Parliaments formula on "Put Love in Your Life," which opens as a street doo wop hymn but veers nonchalantly into spy-movie melody, organ-driven minimalism, and a triumphantly emotional vocal of soul and sex that underscores, toys with, makes something of the song's craziness and plodding drama, with its epic build and closing guiatr deconstruction subtly offset by shades of Tommy James. This is an LP of head-turning eclecticism and variance even when its genre experiments are not as explicit as the (completely convincing) funk-country-yodeling hybrid "Little Ole Country Boy." Each track is utterly distinct, the crew never stopping for a breather.

If Parliament's artistic peaks come when they are most challenging, the treasure here is "Oh Lord, Why Lord / Prayer," a deeply ironic (in the vein of the Clash's "The Sound of the Sinners") but unfailingly respectful toy piano gospel, allowing a Eurofolk stuffiness to give way to filthy, often out of tune soul. But the pleasures are just as likely to be pure and unvarnished, the undeniable "My Automobile" scoring instantly with its post-modern doo wop, warm humor, atypically simplistic sentiments ("If you be nice to me I'll be good to you / We'll both ride home in my automobile"). If all this occasionally seems inappropriately kitchen-sink, it feels less so the more attention you pay to the Parliaments' silky vocals, which attain a rare spontaneity while sliding in and out of deepest darkest soul with what sounds like little effort, at chugging pace. They can make an emotional crescendo at the snap of the fingers, with expertise and professionalism -- hired funk and sincerity.

Osmium embodies the material for an A+ album to stand with Mothership Connection and Let's Take It to the Stage, but there are a few duds -- opener "I Call My Baby Pussycat" is a noisy hard rock nursery rhyme that's somewhat nondescript musically, and the last two songs are cock rock meandering and sap, despite a memorable chrous and thrilling, sophisticated guitar work on closer "The Silent Boatman." But even with its flaws, the record scores big as the real-time establishment of an artiste, with most if not all of his motifs in place. The songs are lengthy, given room to breathe and wallow in the fear, dread, paranoia that Clinton would make a career of crafting. condemning, celebrating. Even stripped of all context, of all awareness of its place in pop history, though, Osmium is as intensely pleasurable a record as even this master could conceive. A treasure trove indeed, it deserves many times the reputation it holds.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (2011)


(Slumberland)

RECOMMENDED

With a name like this, a band has a lot of persuading to do; there is little about their stylistic niche that doesn't initially confirm all the worst suspicions it gives. They look, sound, and feel exactly like you'd imagine a group called The Pains of Being Pure at Heart would. Conversely, the memories they evoke are unmistakably up my alley, and indeed that of most anyone interested in alternative rock 1980s to present. If nothing else, this is a band with impeccable taste in material to imitate, which they do quite liberally. We get the sound, already well-mined by the Smashing Pumpkins among many others, of the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine crossed with adolescent, melodramatic attitudes of the Cure and the Smiths -- sans the humor and wryness of Depeche Mode. It's as if they're crafting music with a specific audience of irony-free youth in mind. There's not really any shame in that, but it is difficult to buy the sincerity of grownups who propagate this sort of material with a straight face. When I listen to Cure records, I find myself wearily smiling a bit at the sheer silliness of it all -- and there doesn't seem to be any self-awareness to offset that, or to find pleasure in it.

So for the duration of Belong's title track, I'm connecting the dots. Its "we just don't belong" chorus hits hard like the best '60s instances of grown weirdos like Shadow Morton making little girls sing crazed odes to the immensity of teenage passion, like a reality distorted. And the song shoots out of the speakers like some 1989 college rock juggernaut, guitars relentless with the shimmering, anthemic spirit of youth. It's the closest TPOBPAH can come to finding the human essence their skyscraping tunes grasp for, that added depth and intensity that makes Arcade Fire and U2 (on a good day, which was long ago) riveting and not embarrassing. To make music this sweeping and grand work, one must move past communication into an empathy that this crowd, like Robert Smith before them, is too preoccupied to track down. It's a hell of a voyage but with no touchdown.

Soon you come to recognize the broad strokes and thickness provided by Flood and Alan Moulder, whose work on a constant parade of '90s commercial-alt classics puts them second only to Butch Vig as defining the rock radio sound of that decade. Like the band, this pair seems stuck in time somehow, only they seem to have an excuse -- they were hired to duplicate a feeling. Hirings and duplications hint at a deeper problem for bands like Pains, whose obsessions drive them more than their discoveries. Spend enough time listening to the classic indie and alternative records from the 1987-91 period this record plunders and you find the same thing you find when you spend too many hours on the pop station: all this shit has a formula too. In a true sense, genres are formulas, or formula applications, and this one can finally go only so far in confirming individuality. Without distinctive songwriting to back up an addiction to a noise, you're left only with a briefly gratifying fridge buzz. "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" coulda been on the radio between Screaming Trees and Catherine Wheel songs and you would bob along and wait for the next non-filler tune to come up. And twenty years later you'd hear it on the radio and it would bring that period alive for you and you'd wonder why you didn't love it then. But the unfair advantage of advance memory accumulation should not be the prime stock in trade of a vital new band.

It sounds like there is an identity hiding somewhere in here; I've been one to lament the tired "why listen to [new band] when you could listen to [old band that influenced new band]?" argument, but never has it been as tempting as when I hear "Heart in Your Heartbreak," a song whose throwback tendencies are so explicit it feels manipulative, and "The Body," a lift from the group's collective favorite, the terminally underappreciated O.M.D. And yet... something begins to happen to even the best of us, that feverish party-dream sound becomes hard to resist. You want to stay away from these towers of propulsive kiddie synthpop, but oh, that chorus... And this is why grownups are hooked on young adult lit, why a film about adolescence done right with depth of feeling (like Adventureland) can leave even a cynic woozy, why Depeche Mode's coy songs about teenage lust are high art -- because there is immensity, truth, and the delight of the universal in these emotions. Because they are important, and they long ago laid the groundwork for us. And here they are again.

At the midpoint of Belong, it becomes genuinely and completely seductive. It's shoegaze power pop, a concept of endless possibility. The suite that makes Belong impossible to ignore begins with the Church / Echo and the Bunnymen oddity "Anne with an E," whispered posturing that feels incredibly good. And there are songs! Real, complete songs, perpetually lacking on the remainder of the disc. The pick hit here is "Even in Dreams," which could have been on the soundtrack to Lost Boys (or Donnie Darko!) or, better yet, any midnight you've ever spent staring straight upward -- it's note-perfect midnight glory; you can almost see the stars swooning past in some perfumed bout of inspired private or shared troublemaking or wandering. This is what introspective rock & roll is all about. But Pains also offer their 2011 equivalent of last year's baffling Midnight Juggernauts masterstroke "Lara vs. the Savage Pack" in the form of the improbably ingenious pop work "My Terrible Friend" -- dynamic, maximized synthpop with thoroughly ingratiating stop-start momentum. It's like bubblegum Cocteau Twins.

Then comes the afterparty, and the whole colorful Psychedelic Furs foundation collapses as if all the appealing, blissful stuff were just a put-on (like a Strokes LP). "Girl of 1000 Dreams" is a rock dud that lamely approximates My Bloody Valentine circa Ecstasy and Wine, "Too Tough" is a hungover guitar thing briefly conjuring up current college rock's bizarre fascination with Tom Petty, and "Strange" simply meanders, droning and singing off into the darkness. Despite the strong impressions Belong's highlights leave, it really consists of three excellent songs, preceded by four good but hyper-derivative ones and leaving three mediocrities in their wake. There isn't enough here to form a complete picture of a group that knows what it's doing; it's not even particularly their fault, but this is why it's so much harder for new artists to develop in the 2010s. A band with obviously considerable potential can record an album that only realizes some of it -- this is Pains' second goround, and as of yet I cannot comment on their first -- but gets half-crazed notices filled with hype, inevitably leading future audience members to look for a fully formed group that is in fact still learning who they are and what they want to do.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are doing a fine enough job so far; their hearts are unmistakably in the right place. They could stand to have a little bit more fun, to allow their integrity not to morph into an odd, crushing absense of sensuality, to write more of the spellbinding and evocative songs of which they're clearly capable. I hope everyone gives them time and keeps listening; for merely the pleasure I get from nodding and grooving along to "My Terrible Friend," they've got me on their team.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Air: Moon Safari (1998)


(Caroline)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Having never adequately explored any Air LP until this week, I admit wondering a lot to myself now why it took me so long. As documented in this space, I am something of an easy-listening, lounge, and beautiful music diehard -- and in combining Muzak with punk rock ethos, the Versailles duo is conceptual gold to me on a level with the Velvet Underground. This is what I've been wanting to exist for years, and I can't explain why it hadn't found its way to me until now.

No matter. With a smart lushness far beyond master of rock & roll elevator music Eno, who favors a starkness that is a world away from Air's floridly cloudy textures, Moon Safari is irresistible. If it converts so many without a prediliction for electronica or lounge, imagine how special it ends up being for one with a collection of 101 Strings Orchestra and Bert Kaempfert LPs. Air manages to extract a thick essence from the idea of aural atmospheres while piling on towers of percussion and dream-pop as on the hit "Sexy Boy," or offering musical ideas so beyond quibbling as to render any objection to the stuffy background moot, like the appalling snakelike bassline on opener "La Femme d'Argent."

You don't come to this for songs, really; you come to it for something to put on in the bedroom, lights off or dim, to let yourself drift. The Chemical Brothers fan in me digs the Beth Hirsch contributions that vaguely recall the now-untouchable dance classic "Where Do I Begin," which chillingly enough was barely a year old when Moon Safari was issued. The Moby fan digs the clever use of pleasurable samples throughout, a contrast to clip artists who'll use sordid junk to try and craft high art. Of course the Beach Boys fan in me is thrilled that the wicked drum sound from "Do It Again" found its way to something like "Remember."

But the music fan is craziest about "Kelly Watch the Stars," the kind of sonic bliss that usually only a wall of guitars can provide for me -- and when something as detached and cerebral as Beautiful Music generates that sort of reaction, you're in the hands of a couple of masters. But the best track here, for me, is the one that puts Air's debt to '60s lounge music and BM on plainest display. "Ce Matin La" could come directly from a 101 record, only its wry, bachelor party pillow of noise has the subtlest -- but most striking -- hint of sadness and loss, indescribable and vague but unmistakable, that makes the band near-automatic masters of a craft devised for cynical reasons long before they existed.

I have listened to this three times in the last six hours. New addictions are what makes life grand.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011)


(Matador)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Boooooooooooooooorrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnnnnnng.

I'd like to leave it at that, but in the interest of being at least kind of informative: This is the sort of thing your dad listened to while he worked on stuff in the garage. The sort of music that comes on the incessantly blaring adult contemporary station that hasn't added anything to its rotation since 1992, in brief intervals between seventeen hours a day of car commercials. The sort of miserable music you hear in your part-time job, or anywhere you're stuck when you can't wait to be somewhere else, that makes you want to kill yourself. The sort of music that used to disgust people enough to drive them to create and listen to college rock, but no more now that it's lapped itself.

Everybody says Vile is in the tradition of Bob Seger and Tom Petty, and I'll add Don Henley who is the only person I can think about during neverending slogs like "Society Is My Friend." If we're approaching that palette in an ironic sense, I can't see what makes Vile any better than those ridiculously overrated, generic MOR staples. But if we're operating from the perspective that sounding like Tom Petty is something to strive for, I begrudgingly admit that I just don't "understand." Still, put this on in bar jukeboxes where it belongs, not on a label with Yo La Tengo and Fucked Up. I tentatively supported the snowballing of icky influences for the sake of chillwave or whatnot, but I give up now. Please. Stop. Now.

For fuck's sake, if you want a bleak oppressive atmosphere, buy PJ Harvey's new record, which is brilliant and enriching and will stimulate you. Not this dishwater barf.

I'm sorry, I don't mean to sound cranky, just... ew. Ew, ew, ew.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari (1962)


(Capitol)

RECOMMENDED

"Garage rock" wasn't a fitting descriptor for the Beach Boys' music for the majority of the '60s, but in the beginning, it was a literal truth -- the band formed, practiced, and spent the majority of its earliest days in the Wilson family's garage. For all the generic lumping in they've endured with the instrumental surf bands whose heyday immediately preceded theirs, it's the mid-'60s garage explosion that the Beach Boys' crucial early singles most accurately predicted. The direct line the band's early material draws from the Nuggets era on through to American punk rock, from the Ramones to the future inconsequentials in their decades-spanning wake, is startling -- it is hardly a stretch at all to picture any number of high school emo kids yowling along to "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" or, indeed, dismantling a pop song the way Dennis does "Little Girl (You're My Miss America)," or lovingly adapting the work of a hero like Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues") but making a mess of it.

Modern shadows notwithstanding, it's tempting to look back on this as all quite wholesome. But the Beach Boys, in some sense, invented the white American rock band as we know it today. It was remarkably innovative, ballsy, perhaps even stupid for Capitol Records to allow the band's publicity and work to circulate with no obvious leader, with such an initially novelty-courting, later confrontational name, with such now-astoundingly spare, harsh, rough-hewn music. But a glance at Capitol's repertoire in 1962 reveals why, perhaps, they gunned it on the Beach Boys -- the label's absence of youth appeal, their fear of rock & roll and black music and even edgier teenage music in general, was crippling. It was Lou Rawls, the Lettermen, Dick Dale and these guys. Perhaps the Beach Boys appeared to them an agreeable, whitebread, easily controllable (and marketable!) nod to the kids. It must be an accident that they issued perhaps the rawest music heard on a major label up to that time, a band with chunky guitars, floating and breathless harmonies, ridiculously quick pogo-friendly tempos, lyrics about "the most specialest girl I knew." Generations of adolescent-courting rockers wish they could've ever made their point so succinctly.

This record is the sole LP to capture the Beach Boys at the special moment when their youth was charming enough to carry them, when Brian Wilson's simplest ideas (complemented in large part by his then-confidante and lyricist Gary Usher) were carried by the others with enough freshfaced enthusiasm to make them work, when they were the most unadulterated stab of rock & roll yet to be heard in the U.S. from white boys, when it wasn't about production or romance, when it was about drivin' a 409 and anglin' in Laguna and Cerro Azul and kickin' out in Doheny too. A bunch of shit these kids (drummer Dennis excluded) knew nothing about, much as their suburban universe could offer them nothing of the worldly young wisdom Little Richard or even Elvis Presley had used to light up the world -- which perversely made them all the more subversive.

It's easy to romanticize this as proto-punk, which it often is, but it's also suburban amateurs singing songs about cuckoo clocks and county fairs. Just bloody kids. But I'm still skeptical of the ideological notion that they ever represented some sort of mom-and-apple-pie propaganda. They loved R&B and the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry, so they took their innocently raunchy guitars and bottom-heavy rhythms and banged out some tunes. It's clear that they were never dangerous, and I'd venture to guess that the voices played no small role in that. Plus, at a surface glance anyway, they'd led sheltered lives. (Never mind the abuse at the hands of then-manager Murry Wilson that would become the stuff of depressing legend later.) They were not leather-clad hellions like the Beatles, who were rousing the wrong element in Hamburg while the Wilsons were finishing high school. Dennis may have been the only one at the time this was recorded who'd much of any sense of a larger world; Carl Wilson and David Marks were probably even virgins at this point.

So maybe it's more than just a result of their place in America (Americana, even, a product of the real-and-actual nuclear family; David Anderle called their hometown of Hawthorne, California "Iowa with a beach") that the guitars, frequently louder and more adventurous than you'd expect, never suggest sex or even aggression, just general vaguely dissatisfied angst, even when -- on "The Shift" -- they sing more explicitly about sex than anyone outside of what were then called race records. This plus the harmonies was new, and so was the audience. Capitol viewed the boys as safe, but for their gradually building audience they were rocking and edgy, managing to be heroic and sexy but uncontroversial. There was precedent to this, Cochran himself most clearly, but up to now nobody'd said so much on such a wide-ranging platform with so little at their disposal.

Brian Wilson's instincts as a songwriter were already promising; it was largely this facet of the band's talent, along with their fresh demeanor and the effortless but complex harmonies, that brought them from the garage to the living room of local homespun composer-producers and talent spotters Hite and Dorinda Morgan to a charting if rudimentary single (issued on Candix, otherwise best known as home to the minor instrumental classic "Underwater" by the Frogmen) to a professional demo tape made by Murry to Capitol A&R man Nik Venet's attention. If you limit it to both sides of the single, their Capitol debut, "Surfin' Safari" and "409," you've got a divinely perfect and singular moment of immediate, pounding rock & roll with much more finesse than the stark earlier independent single "Surfin'" (included here but sped up) but no less unkempt charm. If "Safari" sounds weak or facile to you, try louder volume or even bigger speakers, fleshing it out until the drum sound dominates -- it's exciting and evergreen, and "409" might be even stronger. Unlike the later "Surfin' U.S.A.," neither seems really to lead into what the band would later attempt. They're keyed into a movement of their own, and both are rollicking signature licks of the early DIY aesthetic in a league with the Barbarians' "Moulty," the Troggs' "Wild Thing," and ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears." Pretension isn't just absent here, it's unheard of.

The rest of this, thrown together in a handful of sessions with Venet acting ostensibly as producer and Brian already dominating the room, is outwardly disposable but still ingratiating in spots -- the immensely fun "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" is garage angst at its most entertainingly petty, squeaky clean root beer anthem "Chug-a-Lug" is a delightful if whitewashed slice of authentic life. And although it's best heard elsewhere, "Surfin'" brings us back to the original conceit: a few guys who loved to sing, still learning to play, swarming on a microphone and using any excuse to do so. The group's passion for surfing and for the beach was born of a need for a novelty, a hook (Candix first wanted to call them the Surfers before renaming them without the band's knowledge in time for the single's first pressing); for Brian Wilson, any surface motivation was secondary to the love of creating and arranging songs and records. We'd never hear him and his group in so pure and young a form again.

Still, Surfin' Safari is the first of many Beach Boys LPs better in theory than in practice. What's most impressive about it are the ideas that were likely unconscious, the way the songs burst in and back out before barely a minute and a half has passed, but the problem is too many of them are short on the goofy charm of "Cuckoo Clock" (Brian's only lead vocal here) and the amiable grittiness of "Heads." Instead you have the offensive, half-assed "Ten Little Indians," which was inexplicably released as a single by Capitol, and the bizarre "County Fair," a mostly spoken word piece in which a woman ditches the protagonist over his inability to ring a bell at the eponymous festival and win her a "stuffed koala bear," for which her enthusiasm seems disturbingly erotic ("oooOOOOOOHHHHHH!!!"; "Come onnn, baby!"), somehow not even the only sexual undercurrent hidden on this album (there's also Mike's vocal about "balling it" in "The Shift"; I'm tempted to also nominate the line "Dennis wonders what's under the hood" in "Chug-a-Lug"). The tracklist is filled out by a cover of the Gamblers' primitive but ghostly surf instrumental "Moon Dawg," likely present because of Venet's involvement in the original, but it only serves to emphasize that instrumentals were not the Beach Boys' strong suit (yet).

"County Fair," however, is the most prophetic song on the album, both for the Beach Boys' career and for the alternative rock future that would have its prototypical beginnings in the near future. The hero of "County Fair" is not the strong man, not Dion Dimucci's loathsome promiscuous wanderer, not Elvis' sneering sexpot, but the put-upon "loser" who tries to escape before his girlfriend makes him fight for her in a test of strength he knows he will lose. Coming from Brian Wilson, this Charlie Brownesque sense of inevitable loss and romantic doom seems far more felt than any lyric about a car or a surfboard, and soon enough his predominant themes of women and suffering would emerge. And the entire modus operandi of alternative, college, garage, and punk rock, converse to what would by decade's end become the mainstream variant, would be the celebration not of the Strong Man but of the isolated dork, male or female, whose solace comes from a guitar to weep out his or her deepest, loneliest longing for warmth, or from the headphones that provide the only known sense of acceptance. That's quite a lot for a mere disposable pop song to chew on; good thing there are unknown masters lurking in this one.

[Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003. In addition, the post was edited to align with a larger Beach Boys project in 2016.]

Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise (2005)


(Asthmatic Kitty)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When this landmark album was released, Katrina was still two months away. The attacks on the London Underground were to occur in just three days. At nearly the center of a chaotic decade, it would quickly gather up associations that would allow wunderkind singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens to forever mark its time for legions. But against a flood of horror, warfare, political disgust, it placed itself in a broader historical place -- a place for the wonder of the World's Columbian Exposition, a place for Abraham Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas, a place for recoiling in horror at the bodies in John Wayne Gacy's crawlspace. The second (and likely last) volume of Stevens' fabled 50 States Project is affecting, comforting, unforgettable, massively impressive in part because of its wide-eyed and thorough separation from any modern-life subtext. It is a living dream, a dream far less of its title locale than of a sense of time, a sense of processing a world that bears down. "College rock" has never been so apt a description, for when but young adulthood is the feeling so strong of rushing to make sense of one's place in time?

Containment and subtlety are not aspects of Stevens' skill set. If anything, he can be guilty of what amounts to obsession -- a preoccupation with busy arrangments and their details -- that can either balloon even his simplest compositions into seemingly gargantuan entities or reduce all their potential into a hushed-tone baroque self-parody. But at his best, Stevens gets amazingly complex emotions and elegant, giddily gorgeous melodies across with the most consistency, and certainly the best showmanship, of his generation. He is not the first or greatest fixated, self-aware pop madman-genius, he comes from a long line of Phil Spectors and Princes, but he may be the most unguarded weirdo the rock spectrum has come across. And when someone can win you over with the naive urgency that takes hold seconds into this record, he is some kind of a master.

That Stevens isn't shy about his eccentricities and overblown sonic notions might not be all that interesting in a broad pop context, but within the scope of alternative rock, there was a time when you'd have had to be mental to release a song called "To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament" and give voice to such childlike concepts without hiding behind David Byrne irony or politics. We call it twee now, but as a stylistic move, Stevens' work was impossible to conceive just a few years earlier. It's not merely because alternative was co-opted by corporate underwriters, it's also because even in the genre's gestation, effervescence such as Stevens' was anathema to indie rock, even as a disinterest in following an inline behavior model would seem a glorious rebellion.

Perhaps above all else, Illinoise is deservedly famous for reveling, thrilling in its own flamboyance. Florid but unpretentious, it hides nothing. Like most lengthy treatises on vague ideas, it could've used more editing, but therein lies some of its charm. Would a stylish minimalist have ever allowed the grinding, sexless choirboy rambling on "A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But for Very Good Reasons" to exist? Would a stylish minimalist have ever even written a song with that title? It's true that Stevens sometimes carries his reluctance to drop any crazy or dumb idea to a fault, that we probably did not need a mortifyingly delicate song about Gacy to worm its way into any heart. But distressingly enough, it did, which by itself speaks to Stevens' immense charm and, now as in every millennium before, music's capacity to persuade past moral and rational limit.

Stevens' compositions aren't necessarily as tricky as they sound, and his vocals are often nearly absent of affect, never (or seldom; there are exceptions on his subsequent album, The Age of Adz) one to let the song sing him. So a large part of his fame, of his impact, must be attributed to the ingenuity of his arrangements. Not one song here is not instantly pleasing, admirable, intriguing and delightful to listen to (the fragments, more or less Stevens' equivalent to hip hop skits, don't bear much reference), and Stevens knows precisely when to break the tension of his claustrophic chamber pop atmospheres with a bit of screaming guitar ("The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts") or deeply felt semi-gospel ("Jacksonville") or even lite but staggeringly assured disco ("They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"), always just when you're about to get sick of his acoustics. It is for this reason that, for all the meanderings and tangents over its seventy-odd minutes, this lengthy album feels strangely right despite its lack of aural variance. Stevens can persuade with a banjo ditty or an expansive choir, and make the two -- the smallest noise to the most immense -- seem of a piece. As a writer and performer, Stevens is great enough, but as an arranger and producer, he is a force. He sells his record's sonics unwaveringly.

Prior 50 States project Greetings from Michigan has always been the Sufjan Stevens record closest to my heart; I find its songs less cerebral, less calculatedly busy. There are plenty of beautiful, stunning cuts on Illinoise, but nothing as otherworldly and capable of moving the listener to instant mysterious tears as "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti." But that cut's intricacy as intimacy is a key evolutionary moment for Stevens; the exploration of the banjo down to its innards, the hauntingly stark sounds and friendly simplicity it can exude, form the foundation of some of this album's highlights. "Casimir Pulaski Day" layers and compounds the earlier song, with a more upbeat -- but also, wonderfully, looser -- vocal, until it seems to exude the sound of a frontier.

Conversely, Illinoise is home to Stevens' second greatest song, the unreservedly brilliant "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" The vocals are his most sincere and effective, the performance and arrangement almost supernaturally evocative, the song dramatic in the best, most moving manner. Forget its tale of uneven childhood and memorials for Illinois landmarks, pay attention only to its musical wasp -- a butterfly-motion of orchestral power creating a moment all its own -- and then to its climax, the full-color explosion of music roughly three minutes in that encapsulates every moment of self-discovery and Steven Chbosky's feeling infinite -- an immediate monument of Cinemascope beauty for a generation. From then on, Sufjan owns the audience, and we him.

More famous, but only nearly as masterful, is "Chicago," a joyously dynamic rise-and-fall of sympathy and fever, boasting the clearest example yet of Stevens' arrangement mastery; when he uses his mad scientist gifts in service of an ever-expanding wall of vocals, the unification and realization of every Phil Spector notion in his blood, and all -- Spector again! -- in service of the simplest of sentiments, all things go, beyond its veneer of specifity. But I'm even more persuaded by the elegant summary "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoudlers," which encapsulates everything Stevens touched on elsewhere in his narrative for a production that feels like no gut-splitting heart-opening, no valentine to a place, only the beginnings of life, the pop-music verification of the things that went away in "Chicago" all starting again, with so much more to reveal.

Stevens can evoke these things on an album with fewer autobiographical strokes than Michigan because the record in the interim, Seven Swans, taught him a careful selflessness that casts him as a most remarkable creature in a grand folk tradition, the songsmith who observes and captures the world around him. Not his world, ours. According to Wikipedia, Stevens' contributions to this recording included "acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, bass guitar, drums, electric guitar, oboe, alto saxophone, flute, banjo, glockenspiel, accordion, vibraphone, alto recorder, Casiotone MT-70, sleigh bells, shaker, tambourine, triangle, electronic organ, vocals, arrangement, engineering, recording, production." All in service of capturing inner worlds, tragedies, triumphs of his audience. Does that make him Prince? Well, kind of, although it would take the far more gleefully indulgent Age of Adz to render that comparison popular. To me, Illinoise feels more like a step in a process of blooming than the fruition it's often perceived to be; Stevens' preoccupations can still hurt him at this stage, predominately because a broader look at his career shows an eclectic, exciting musician capable of far more than the relatively limited explorations of this song cycle. And even his virtues of unrestrained beauty can bog him down at times; the cleverly named "Seer's Tower" is a drag to even listen halfway to. But whatever. Anything is worth letting an anti-alternative hero like this, one who can once and for all make rock & roll actively "pretty" without making it gutless, have his canvas to discolor.

[SEE ALSO:]
All Delighted People EP (2010)
The Age of Adz (2010)