Sunday, January 29, 2012

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible (2007)



HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This band had a lot to answer for in 2007; with Funeral, in an age some years after "alternative rock" had ceased to commercially matter, really after any kind of rock band could lay serious claim to belonging to any kind of larger culture, they'd formed some sort of post-consensus consensus -- the closest thing, Coldplay aside, we're going to get to old-fashioned rock stars, except on a tiny label and with an audience of self-conscious college students. The leveling effect of Funeral still can't be overstated, but Funeral was a special record. Where does a lot of hope and a lot of pain lead after that kind of bombastic expression?

Like an odd number of other groups of their period, they answered by holing themselves in a church to put together a sophomore album as Merge Records waited anxiously in the wings, given for the first time an opportunity to follow up a bona fide triumphant seller (the Magnetic Fields had signed to WB after 69 Love Songs, and we all know the fable of Neutral Milk Hotel). Early leak "Black Mirror" is misleading about Neon Bible's response to such expectations -- its slow build, eccentric but vital, is a direct remark upon success and a rockist contrast to Funeral, so much explicit hubris to challenge the more deliberate seductions of yore. It's cathartic but lumbering, oversized. In some sense, the title track is just as deceptive, a minimalist lullaby that turns out to be the sole touch of the non-jugular elements of Funeral, which incidentally are those moments that lent that touchstone its grace, structure and muscle.

Luckily, Neon Bible operates over and above these confusions and contradictions, largely by openly embracing them -- one track, "Black Waves / Bad Vibrations," opens with a lovely blast of Blondie new wave courtesy Regine Chassagne before landing with a thud for the darker second half, as if neither song moved them enough to finish and for some reason they got a kick out of that. We're in probably the fifth generation now of album-driven rock bands and Win Butler and his army of family and friends know the tricks, the secrets of the trade as passed upon the masses by VH1 and Rolling Stone. The second album fucks you up. So they approach it with a supreme confidence and don't bother trying to make it fall seriously together, crafting instead what amounts to a series of very strong pop songs with a certain decisive and furious underscore.

That underscore is illustrated by something far outside the mere scope of a rock album: the personal becoming political. The way Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," from 1992, could suddenly get applause in 2006 for the line "I can't run no more with that lawless crowd / While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud." Compare "Working for the church while your family dies" and "Singing 'hallelujah' with the fear in your heart." Those lines come from "Intervention," the point at which, four songs in to their second album, Arcade Fire transcend everything that's come before with one of their simplest but most massive, assaultive creations -- an onslaught of church organ and a feeling of absolute release of a decade's worth of anger at religion, America, the war. You can't hear it because of the hugeness of the arrangement and the vocals, lead and backing, but there's a warmth here, an almost heroic selflessness. That's too fair to be an overstatement; it's tempered by both trad rock arrogance and by so many attempts on this record at the same thing that can't get there, because that's a kind of intense magic you can't just decide to perform.

Because sometimes meaning well is all we've got; enter Arcade Fire's most epic and strange piece to date (still), "(Antichrist Television Blues)." Another playfully misleading opening, as a rockbilly song suggestive only mildly of the later Woody Guthrie aspirations for grassroots personal protest, collapses quickly so that Win Butler can give us another list of things he doesn't want to do. This time it's working in a building downtown -- it seems affected, because he's playing a role of a brimstone bile-spewing evangelist parading his young daughter around on stage. It's manipulative and rambling, but its most remarkable out-of-time moment comes when Butler begins pleading for a child, and it transcends the context in an unexpected way that points forward to a sincere illustration of the same desire in "The Suburbs" three years later.

I could do without such arm's-length character studies. That kind of melodrama, though, is perpetual on the record and frequently works marvelously. "Ocean of Noise" would be like Luna with an agena, just a subtle and rhythmic piece of atmosphere, if not for the deep piano chords that seem to stir the bones around. And "The Well and the Lighthouse" would be sprightly (if a little strained) radio punk without this band's sense of urgency, Butler drawing the battle lines in his good-and-evil parables like he and the band are remaking I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in a building that's consumed with flames. It's completely silly in a way that "Intervention" is not, but it extends the spell that song cast somehow.

Escaping the clear marks of Bush-era anxiety, this music is all electricity and tension and fun. The opening seconds of "Keep the Car Running" sound like a hybrid of a Chrysler ad and a nighttime sulk session backgrounded by New Order, and what comes after is like opening the window and leaping off into the night air; the delicately pretty insistence sounds like the way music sounded to you as a teenager, whipping around corners and avoiding capture. The reprise of early track "No Cars Go" is another adolescent celebration, a further illustration of that strange indie-level consensus whereby in this microcosm we're all at a U2 show except we have our own people and our music but we chant along with macho disco songs too. It has no more content and form than any arena rock track, whether the arena is filled with Springsteen fans or Juggalos, but that's the charm and the point. It's a matter of solidarity, if you can forgive that awkward brass.

Through all these strange alleyways and flawed experiments with their sound, Arcade Fire mostly discover their pop spirit -- and how well it can capture the mood of the times. That's accomplished best in the extrapolated S&M metaphor "My Body Is a Cage" about an impossibility of expression familiar to all teenagers and former teenagers, a macabre, sexual and multilayered championship and rallying cry for the nearly unaccompanied (most of the way) Butler, evoking Prince and Trent Reznor singing in a gospel choir. It's impressively assured and as teasingly ambitious a song as the band has put down to date.

But the most telling ideological score is "Windowsill," along with "Intervention" the moment on Neon Bible when it's virtually impossible not to be moved. The band spends much time elsewhere in often vain search for the groove and the glory, and here it's all so natural because the sentiment is so simple but so titanic, as succinct as "Don't Worry Baby" and as biting as "You Haven't Done Nothing." With persistent, percussive pounding and a mounting sense of Spectorian drama, Butler offers another don't-wanna litany. I don't want to live in my father's house no more. I don't want to live with my father's debt, you can't forgive what you can't forget. (No matter what you say, there's some debts you'll never pay.) I don't want to fight in the holy war, I don't want the salesman knocking at my door, I don't want to live in America no more. Agree with its thrust or not, but it's the sort of juggernaut of a moment you can't dismiss easily. Many people said it in that decade, many didn't mean it (this band didn't, being Canadian), but it was somehow never so pressing and powerful, and never such a cause for unexpected and explosive applause. And all the while, the music bangs and clatters and pulses along like nothing any more important than anything else has been said.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Suburbs (2010)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Nana Grizol: Love It Love It (2008)


(Orange Twin)

RECOMMENDED

Here's maybe the most frequently written sentence in rock criticism: "This is a promising band from Athens, Georgia." But let's not be so bitter, at least not just yet. Nana Grizol is a fascinating entity: a My Dinner with Andre-like elevation of and meditation upon the act of conversation. Central figure Theo Hilton thrives upon a specific practice of singing songs as if he's talking to you in extended rambles and big-brother lectures and run-on sentences, like fellow Athenian Michael Stipe in recent years but considerably friendlier, almost entirely free of arty meandering. Hilton is vocally opposed to "bullshit," but not aggressively. Though his lyrics periodically inject some wit or artificial conceit, for the most part he enunciates with clarity and impeccable straightforwardness. This is amusing because none of the above were remotely a part of the doctrine for Neutral Milk Hotel, the band whose ashen remains provided two thirds of Nana Grizol's members. If Laura Carter and Robbie Cucchiaro had great creative input in Love It Love It, which I doubt, it can be heard as kind of a reaction against Jeff Mangum and all his insular abstractions. But that's reading a lot into this, as an NMH fan is wont to do.

Musically, it's garage rock with horns -- fragmented and awkward but adorably so, and sort of beside the point anyway. Let's think of these songs, then, as conversations... because as songs they're problematic, mostly brief blips of hooks running over variations on a consistent idea. Hilton takes center stage for all of his material, and his conceits and tangents become the appeal of the record by which it lives or dies. His thesis is buried under some brass on "Motion in the Ocean": "Language makes a simple feeling seem oh so absurd." As suggested by that thought, Hilton doesn't lack a sense of irony -- he just got finished saying he hasn't much use for words -- but he prefers to fight against it. The result is a sort of triumph of mock-proof emotion. He's entirely aware he's expressing things that are obvious, overstated, even silly, but he's in a proud pop music tradition that goes back to the Shirelles wondering if you'd still love them tomorrow. Graduated from adolescence but still years away from the world-weary romanticism of so much indie pop, this music is fixated upon the feeling of early twenties decadence and transience, the yearning and fleeting nature of college-aged connections. It sounds a bit like a road album because the lives it seeks to document are so constantly moving, but rather than an act of navel gaze or melancholy the record's a world-embrace. Hilton's no dummy: seconds after somewhat goofily expressing amazement that the sun rises every day, he goes off on "the sinking sunken feeling that you get on the roofs of tall buildings" and the guy can make you well up. Or he can talk about going "back to Portland" (of course, Portland) and expel some patter about "the best books of our lives, they're being written all the time" in the same breath as getting choked up on the mere eloquent "Well these last few years, I guess they've been pretty weird."

So he's smart, really more mature than smart which is a nice change from alt-rock normal, and the feverish optimism and head-screwed-on-tight nature of the lyrics offset the overuse of clichés and somewhat tired sentiments that aren't hollow but just melodramatic, which I hasten to add is also in the same fine pop music tradition. Somewhere in all the carping about change and friendship and neglect is this immaculate wisdom. On "Voices Echo Down Thee Halls" there's this whole bit about wishing you could live or be someplace else, and Hilton articulates the fallacy and humanity of such displacement with a clever simplicity even Woody Allen can't quite approach. "Why is everything like that so concrete / When that's the same stuff under your feet / That connects where you're standing to the place you'd rather be?"

Hilton's so unapologetic and out in the open it's tempting to think of him as kicking against hate and the darkness, especially when he gets impressively boisterous on "Stop and Smell the Roses" (spitting out greeting card platitudes like "take life in smaller doses" like he's Johnny Rotten screaming about abortion) and furious on "Less Than the Air," on which he bursts into an immensely charming gibberish breakdown like a much less affected David Byrne. Indie folk like this usually isn't the place for such rampant, personal positivity. Even amidst the mournful horns on "Tamborine-N-Thyme," Nana Grizol's music is a celebration.

The operative word here is sincerity: an all-consuming and relentless sincerity so naked it seems you couldn't break it down even if you wanted to. I get the same feeling from Bright Eyes, Titus Andronicus, and especially Pet Shop Boys (at least in the '90s), and Hilton may not be as articulate as Neil Tennant, Patrick Stickles, or Conor Oberst... but he's happier than all three, which sounds like empty praise but isn't. He's got shit figured out, including how to unexpectedly move you ("Tiny Rainbows") and how to do the same thing within a formal pop construction ("The Idea That Everything Could Possibly Ever Be Said"), which is something I wouldn't mind Nana Grizol tried a bit more of.

And hey, maybe this isn't as disconnected from Neutral Milk Hotel as it seems at first. Neither band has a Beautiful Music derivation, they'd both make your grandparents scream with their noisy outlandishness, even if they are Nice Young Folks, but the goal is sort of the same, shifted to a younger demographic -- make people swoon a little bit. "Circles 'round the moon, is this why city lights feel so awful? It should be unlawful to live where you can't see the sun." Laugh if you want, but I know that feeling, the same way I know "Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all," the same way I know how the card game in The Apartment feels. It's, like, OK to feel things, you know? The fuzz-rock giganticism of the FM '90s (to which "Everything You Ever Hoped or Worked For" pays fond tribute) taught me that in Billy Corgan's heyday. And now a lot of us need to learn it again, especially in the increasingly dour and humorless world of indie rock. These last few years have been pretty weird.

Lastly, the rational little things that keep me from absolutely adoring this record. First, like so many others, it operates more strongly as individual songs encountered separately than as a marathon, despite the astoundingly tasteful length of 29 minutes (with only one song significantly passing three minutes). As it is, the songs do run together... and so do some of the clichés, which can be a bit much at times. But really, the right to have this kind of sincerity and optimism served so skillfully and touchingly is worth it.

The New Pornographers: Challengers (2007)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

It was hard to appreciate this album at the time; it got lost in one of the best music years of the 2000s, for one, and it's also a completely unexpected, even odd turnaround in style and preoccupation for one of the premier indie-level pop groups of the day. Trudging through the release, the only orthodox New Pornographers moment is "Mutiny, I Promise You," a throwback showpiece in the style of "From Blown Speakers" that ends up sounding crazily out of place. The stage is better set by the gently melodic opener, "My Rights Versus Yours"; it's an airy, floaty evocation of something on A.C. Newman's mind in a Shins-like setting, opening starkly before flowing into a bed of lovely all-star harmony and lushness. It's as addictive and sweeping as ever, but dark -- its ambitions beyond the simple fixations upon pop radio mutation of Twin Cinema. You might call it, gulp, progressive ("Unguided" answers this stray thought later in the affirmative); this is tricky, sometimes cringeworthy territory for a band that had released three fairly masterful albums in unpretentious, hyperkinetic power pop format with intimate audience connection and a feeling of genuine unfettered joy. But three albums is a lot, and where do you go after that?

We can't fully answer that yet. While Newman and company haven't really shown any inclination to take the New Porns any farther in this direction than Challengers, it does seem the beginning of one trend: like the subsequent Together, it's a series of almost peerless if disconnected songs that sound far better on their own than as part of the group. In this guise the NPs can join fellow semi-power pop titans the Cars, whose albums were generally unwavering in intensity and weirdness but are hard to take in a sitting. You really have to pull something like "Myriad Harbor" apart from its surroundings to appreciate how it's nearly bursting with creative energy and teasing joy, the kind of musical solace a teenager longs for and seeks forever after. It's Dan Bejar dropping by the Brill Building, but while it finds him putting his bandmates in this side-project-for-him to better use than ever, in contrast to his contributions on previous records, it doesn't seem to have much to do with whatever Newman's on about, and it gets lost in the shuffle.

That shuffle, as it happens, is craftier than ever, but the roll call of intricately written songs that sparkle with detail and precision ends up coming across as a mess, almost hard to really take in. What's weirdly reassuring is the band's newfound willingness to sound non-superhuman; they're cutting loose here and letting out some oddball selections that would have brought Electric Version down, but serve only to warm up Challengers; "Failsafe" reminds me of one-hit band Snake River Conspiracy's cover of "How Soon Is Now" with its echoy melodic wall of sound and a "you and me both, kid" chorus that -- Yaz suggestion notwithstanding -- touches the same inexplicable sweet spot as "Myriad Harbor." Throughout the record, the vocals (especially by Neko Case and Kathryn Calder) seem like the biggest draw, unceasing in their enthusiasm and conviction even against Newman's muddy new musical backdrops.

It's not a matter of Challengers subverting the band's prior reaches for perfection, which had almost been a theme of their work. The change is primarily that more than ever before, these pop smarts are held back by a sense of melancholy and even melodrama. It's not always, frankly, the best fit for Newman's talents -- it seems like a good idea but there's a touch of the self-consciously obtuse and standoffish. When it works, though, it absolutely soars. The centerpieces of Challengers and the two songs that absolutely succeed have the combination of Spectorian grandiosity and elegant simplicity in chords and melody that once made suburban adolescents fall for U2 and (these days) Arcade Fire. "Challengers" is a towering love song, Newman and Case trading lines about a love affair put on hold, in a minimal fashion that lets it manage to come across as a something of a hymn. It doesn't build to some splendid breaking point, it sticks with tension and, going along with its themes of responsibility and duty and paying one's debt, is stoic in its perverse romanticism. It's nearly bettered, even, by the Case and Calder-centric "Go Places," a gigantic and glorious tune that does burst into the kind of irresistible chorus so familiar from earlier New Pornographers records -- but never before elevated to this kind of Paul Westerberg hunger and urgency.

Urgency, it seems, is really the theme of Challengers -- Newman's always functioned at breakneck capacity, but on those two cuts his themes match his musical ideas, conjuring up the moments when an emotional desire seems to take on all-consuming importance, the militaristic sense of what must be. The mismatch is the cursed musical maturity, because Newman thrives on immaturity. As much as these songs reveal themselves with time, the indie-rock adult contemporary that much of Challengers embodies, as would the next record, seems an ill fit and an under-utilization of this band's talents. "Adventures in Solitude" is a fine song but it's easy listening navel gaze the way Newman arranges it; irresistible as it is, "All the Old Showstoppers" finds the band aping '70s AM the way they used to vaguely suggest "She Loves You" or "Glad All Over"; even Dan Bejar joins in the sap pile with "The Spirit of Giving." But when you hear the traditional bashed-out NP rocker, "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," and sense the generically tired film that covers it, you know the truth: bandleader Newman was simply aware that this project needed a new direction. As of 2010, he was still working on finding it -- but at least in the process he's added a plethora of outstanding new songs to the canon.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Thrills (1998)


(Rykodisc)

It's strange to think about Andrew Bird, our Andrew Bird of the dignified indie-pop 2000s, existing during the swing revival -- an experience that was miserable for a lot of us in high school at the time. In retrospect I don't have a big problem with people yearning for the days of Benny Goodman and I've come to love at least one band on the outskirts of revivalist music, Asylum Street Spankers, but on the whole there was something horribly generic about that little episode in mainstream radio. The Bowl of Fire begins somewhat inauspiciously with a record that fits in somewhat with the retro mood of its period; their work would grow better with time, but the major problem here with Bird and his band is that they're all too tasteful. Whereas the major players of the swing resurrection and a few minor ones like Squirrel Nut Zippers (a band in which Bird was peripherally involved) dealt in flashiness and a kind of over-the-top, frenzied evocation of '20s big band, Bird sidesteps such matters in favor of a gentle and somewhat meticulous interest in documenting and experimenting with these sounds as if they're field recordings for him to play with. Thrills ends up being so dogged and single-minded in its maniacally backward-looking impulses that it's sort of formalist and dull. The throwback humdrum is rife with charm but total lack of necessity.

What's more, the best moments don't really point forward to what would end up making Bird special as a composer or the Bowl of Fire triumphant as a group -- you come back to the sinister Germanic pastiche of "Pathetique" with its deliciously playful vocal, or the Ukranian folk concoction "50 Pieces" that sounds like something Mel Brooks would've written for The Twelve Chairs. The songs generally come across as parodies of standards, which I assume wasn't really the intent, and not particularly clever or playful ones -- it's quite straight-ahead, music that would've drifted to the middle or the bottom in the fruitful periods it's trying to conjure up. Bird would get far, far better, and Bowl of Fire would improve immensely almost right away. Do pick up Thrills, though, for the absolutely lovely version of Charley Patton's "Some of These Days," a whimsical and ghostly recording that stands well apart from the gimmicry largely in play here. Maybe this should have been a covers album.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Great Lake Swimmers: Lost Channels (2009)


(Nettwerk)

RECOMMENDED

The attractive thing about Great Lake Swimmers has always been the absence of excessive formal "framing" to their work -- no context was ever needed, it was as simple as diving in and enjoying a strong sense of melody and atmosphere that didn't seem to suffer from unearned pretension. They're part of a folk rock class of thousands, for sure, but they've stood out because Tony Dekker's writing, arrangements, and vocals always seemed to operate with no need for adornment.

Of course, there are drawbacks; it's rare that such a relatively low-lying band carves out a sound quite so singular -- similar as Dekker's work may be in a superficial way to Justin Vernon's or Sam Beam's, you always know when you're listening to him -- and when all a musician wants to do is craft a motif and operate within it, the results can grow repetitive after a while (see: Depeche Mode, much as I love them). It doesn't matter how good the mandolin and banjo and guitar sound or how successful the music is at evoking a driving, fiery version of Appalachia wherein you can hear the mountains and feel like you're reading a Foxfire book; when you buy an album and feel like you've bought it before, that stings. Dekker is a good writer and capable of greatness; that might sound lofty, but I'd point you to "Moving, Shaking," "The Animals of the World," and "Your Rocky Spine" as works of otherworldly faux-backwoods pop genius. The problem is he isn't good or prolific enough to really establish a canon in the fashion he seems to be trying to, if his last couple of projects are a fair indication. The melodies have wisps of strength and power, but just not enough to justify a flatness of style that's continually, and unfairly, sent Great Lake Swimmers to the back of the room.

Let me be clear about this. I'd prefer a dozen albums that sound exactly like Ongiara to Great Lake Swimmers toning down their ragged edges and throwing out a Kiss Each Other Clean, but a sound so immediate as theirs deserves to be nurtured and explored rather than spun around into something ever more insular and preoccupied with a sense of rather limited expression. The songs of Lost Channels, a record I more or less dodged until this past week, are good ones, but in the grand scheme of Great Lake Swimmers, it's just too much of the same thing.

The frustration in that is that the thing is quite pleasant to listen to, and there are touches of winning sweetness and pop muscle here and there; opener "Palmistry" belies its log cabin atmosphere with a wonderfully folksy but intense chorus. The vocals throughout the record are, as always, impeccable, but Dekker's impulses seem to be at war -- the classicist GLS verses of "Pulling on a Line" seem to be almost artificially yanking themselves apart from the distinctive, modernist chorus -- as if the band's losing its trademark, their subservience to atmosphere, and resisting it. (Their next record, out in April, was recorded in a conventional studio, which suggests that this isn't just a feeling.) Oddly enough, some of the most memorable Lost Channels cuts are the florid ones: "New Light," with its violin and flute and full-fledged choral sound, sounds like some lost Christmas song; "River's Edge" is almost a hymn, working Dekker through one of his best melodies to date, but its delicate gospel sound is so self-consciously pretty it begins to grate after the halfway point, in the manner of Fleet Foxes.

It's not really a valid compliment or complaint to talk about this record being gorgeous and suggestive; it's easy for Great Lake Swimmers to make transportive music. That's what they do, and it's neither here nor there as a feature of their work at this point. It's become such a defining factor of Dekker's work that it now verges on empty mooniness; "Everything Is Moving So Fast" is so painfully on the nose lyrically and musically it recalls Contemporary Christian titans Jars of Clay. I don't necessarily mind Dekker reaching for a pop audience, something I'd imagine he's perfectly capable of, but the gross adult contemporary sheen on "Stealing Tomorrow" is too much, and while the FM country sound on "She Comes to Me in Dreams" isn't so disagreeable with its ringing steel guitar, it's horribly mismatched with Dekker's "this is a convergennnnnnce" vocal -- perhaps some lovely voices just weren't made for the radio?

Anyway, if easy-listening aspirations have overtaken indie rock already, why not bluegrass-tinged folk rock too? Wedding banjo music isn't the worst concept, really, but after "The Chorus in the Underground" it's sort of a relief to get the nice and loud Neutral Milk Hotel ripoff "Still," even if that showcases Dekker at his most simplistic.

Great Lake Swimmers have always seemed to be an evolving concept, for Dekker as well as his revolving door of bandmates; it's a pity that as the years go by he only seems to be growing more confused. That said, there's still something about this music that's fascinating and audibly passionate. Perhaps the new record this spring will find Dekker newly refocused. If he can play to the best of the abilities displayed here and on the other LPs for a consistent forty minutes or so, it'll be something really special.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Television: Marquee Moon (1977)


(Elektra)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Far beyond the CBGB context driving its creation, those history-textbook notions of New York punk rock's origins, the life stories of Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell and whoever else, Marquee Moon is as much now as ever a shining star of an album, because its artful evocation of something surprisingly tangible is so absolutely universal and permanent. What matters over thirty years later is that this is the most nocturnal music a white rock band's likely ever recorded, a distinct explosion of youthful naivete wandering the brightly lit, probably wet streets alone or falling sideways laughing with a friend from many stages. Despite the spectacular level of influence Marquee Moon has had on all interesting guitar pop since, its squawks and fiery undercurrent the impetus for the vast majority of indie and alternative rock of the '80s and beyond, it really only makes sense when the tide of adulthood's swarming around you and you feel an introspective artifact of your own youth, stepping just out of time, cackling and observing.

Here's one such scenario: I bought this on CD because other bands claimed it as an influence; all I initially remembered as teenage screwup was Tom Verlaine's voice and the length and quiet (or loud) power of the title track. Then one day long after I'd fallen victim to guitars and Eddie Cochran, I put it in and it suddenly fell into place. The movement began, the eyes closed, and the world of this record built itself around me. I never looked back; it reminded me of the Nick Cave sequence in Wings of Desire, when a roomful of people are totally at the mercy of the beauty in something as outwardly ordinary as a rock band playing rock songs. I felt I was standing in front of them and dancing, an alien concept to me at the time. Like Pet Sounds, the record has managed to magnify in meaning and utility to me since then; always, whatever is happening, Marquee Moon seems almost supernaturally suited: listening to it in the dark with my girlfriend or dancing to it in a nightclub and deciding it would play at my funeral or playing it from a stage at a DJing gig or most of all just wandering around a city in the middle of the night realizing this slightly woozy nuttiness was what "Venus" and "Marquee Moon" were about.

But back on that one night when I'd worked overtime at my first job, prepping a grocery store perishables department for a visit from the president of the company, suddenly the opening chords of "See No Evil" were something to worship, and suddenly the entire song seemed to be harmonious in nature, harsh and angular to be sure, but beautiful and perfect.

I'm not trying to make this about me. Everybody has these moments. I remember Remain in Light as being a situation -- here not at all ideal, I was sitting on my bed staring at the back of the CD case the first time I paid close attention to it -- wherein I found myself stupefied by the music's simultaneous darkness and vibrance. With Marquee Moon, it was that feeling you have when you immediately know that something has finally revealed itself to you, that you are entering an experience that never will be duplicated. I knew I would never be forgetting any of these songs again, I knew I instantly loved it more than almost any other collection of songs I'd heard. It was so potent that for a while -- and still at times -- I wanted to carry it with me everywhere, even to work when I had shifts alone.

Lester Bangs accused Television of sounding like the Grateful Dead, but Television is hardly a jam band -- their music is modeled more on jazz than blues, and more on rock & roll than anything. They are genuine punk rockers but their music is introspective and poetic, loud and boisterous but not obnoxious. They favor power over impact, and they are about a total lack of discomfort when confronted with utter beauty and utter obscurity.

"Venus" is one of the finest songs ever written. It envelops you with its sly humor, Verlaine's typically surreal lyrics expressing things that go beyond human vocabulary, falling over himself in inarticulate awe and passion. Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's guitars create tapestries of emotion and conflict; the rhythm section, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith, gives the band its new-wave fervor, driving the music along with a propulsive, unrelenting beat. "DIDJA FEEL LOW? Not at all." This is a hundred mile per hour drive, lights everywhere, complicated but focused and penetrating.

On to "Friction," and by this time I was hanging on Verlaine's every vocal tic. His voice and his words made all the sense in the world to me. The paranoid backwoods rhythm guitar line, Ficca's astonishing percussion, and "I knew it musta been... SOME BIIIIG SETUP." No band could ever stand up to this one for sheer interplay. At one break, Verlaine spells "f-r-i-c-t-i-o-n," emphasizing every beat with his guitar, and Ficca is right behind him. Scripted or not, this is enough to hang you upside down. Verlaine understands drama but he also steers clear of the overbearing stupidity of macho rock vocalists. You never feel like he's a god, but you do know he's something far out there. He thrives on perversity, minimalism, lack of explanation, on baffling you via seduction. "You complain of my DICK... tion."

The title track, stabbing guitar tones gradually canceled out by gently weaving guitar symphonics among the most beautiful ever put down in ths format, indeed captures the eponymous urban imagery, but more importantly sheer joy and confusion, the motifs of the album and Television's output at large. There's nothing alien about it, it's a warm and inviting song as penetrative as it may be. It is a freight train that comes slowly and leaves many times, never entirely. Everything about it is gleeful; the band stuns at every turn, and "then the CADILLAC, IT PULLED BACK IN THE GRAVEYARD / ME, I GOT OUT AGAIN." This music does not function in any normal way. It shuffles around you and you choose to involve yourself, and once you do it's as if nothing else exists. It demands attention; it is not wallpaper. All eleven minutes of "Marquee Moon" are emotionally exhilarating; they're playing you as much as their instruments. When it explodes into its beautiful coda, you are reeling.

Then side two. A pair of stirring ballads sandwiched by paranoid, chilling nightmares. "Elevation" is the hangover from "Marquee Moon," its pained vocals and strangled strings awash with regret, even fear. "Elevation, DON'T GO TO MY HEAD." And the song that closes the album, "Torn Curtain," is for sheer displacement and misery a close match for Remain in Light's final track, "The Overload." It is meant to leave your world stirred and blackened.

"Guiding Light" and "Prove It" are so wonderful they nearly make you forget much of Side One, the former a gutwrenching ballad, the latter a majestic rock & roll song with a stab of "Stand by Me" and doo wop. "Guiding Light" is incredibly similar to the works of Verlaine collaborator Patti Smith, and as in Smith's work, the minimalistic instrumentation -- guitar, piano, bass, drums, all blaring quietly -- is scraped down to its core so that not a note is wasted, every last one weighed down with feeling. And "Prove It" is, like "Venus," completely charged and in truth indescribable; it's propelled, earthly heaven ("Chirp chrip... BIRDS!!!"), with Verlaine's guitar and a wounding solo a glimpse into the abyss, but all the while, that reliable '50s pastiche rhythm is still there, faintly.

These eight songs hang together as a mysterious, orgasmic bit of rock & roll gothic mystique that, when you're finally prepared for it, no longer seems so mystical. It grabs you and doesn't let go, and you submit to its every move. It's quite a legacy; if they never recorded anything else, Television would be legendary. Marquee Moon may not change your life, and I tend to be skeptical of any pop culture item that is charged with changing lives, but it certainly changed something in me that night, and something gets stirred way down there, my heart or my stomach or something like that, when I hear any given note from it. If the era of the Album begins in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, then I have to name this as its peak.

[Originally posted elsewhere in 2004.]

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Walkmen: You & Me (2008)


(Gigantic)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Seeing the Walkmen live for the first time last year and noting the way that they, as one of the very best bands in the world at going for the jugular, prefer to resist doing so, instead lingering and drifting around their melodic and emotional points, gave me a chance to reflect on how unusual their career trajectory thus far has been. The unfortunate portion is that it hasn't found them the widespread popularity that once seemed possible (they're still opening for bands like the Black Keys that aren't half as talented as they are); everything else about the Walkmen story so far is a model of how we wish these things always worked for young bands. Busting out with the '90s hangover of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone and the massive impression-maker Bows and Arrows, the band proceeded to craft a world-weary, underrated road album with A Hundred Miles Off and then suddenly, in 2008, changed their entire direction. The nocturnal alienation band of 2000 had made a remarkably linear progression to cathartically joyful and deeply thoughtful music, more akin to Van Morrison than to their onetime "rock savior" peers.

You & Me, their fourth proper album, wrestles to my mind only with the subsequent Lisbon as their finest work to date; both are rare gems in the sense that they document a band's conscientious maturity without the usually accompanying retreat into adult-contemporary blandness. Lisbon is a refinement of this album's atypical sprawl and languid pacing, but there are days when the heartfelt mess of this recording is preferable to anything more carefully constructed. Disregarding what came later, the record is in any case a major departure, sweet-natured and achingly, almost overwhelmingly romantic. Better yet, it very distinctly comes across this way not because that's what their career points to as the next big score, but because it is a bald evocation of a mood, something being felt at the time; you can sense something in the room where it's been recorded, like you could with Please Please Me or even In Rainbows. It's magic, as weighty, rocking and direct as the National but as transportive as Galaxie 500.

It also illustrates an evolving sense of the real utility of music; the Walkmen had once been one of many New York City bands fighting for attention and meaning to strike out with their detached, tossed-off Richard Hell decadence. Even the slow songs, not unlike Interpol's, smacked of despair and the old punk rock trope of alienation. By now, after the audible frustrations of A Hundred Miles Off, it's not just warmth and love that seem to have overtaken the Walkmen -- it's an awareness of the power of memory. You & Me, despite its obvious thematic interests in shared lives and desires, would make a good companion to Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest, due to its concern with capturing how feelings far and near live on, vaguely or precisely, in the mind.

Like Lisbon, this record is among indie rock's most skillfully sequenced, formed into rather distinct thirds: a muddy and intense buildup, gradually collecting into the beautifully expressive midsection, and a hung-over denouement. The record also handily moves along from its predecessor; "Dónde Está La Play" is the opening mystery, and on it you can actually hear the spy-flick machismo of A Hundred Miles Off giving way to something eerily pretty, the slow takeover of a sound that has arguably now become the band's signature. Two songs later, it happens; we get "In the New Year," the first real explosion of this kind of unguarded feeling in the Walkmen's catalog. The enormity of the song's romance is bound to leave one familiar with "We've Been Had" and "The Rat" taken completely aback at first, then that stunner of a chorus gets under your skin and it becomes a large enough thing to be a brand new NYE tradition. In my house it is, anyway.

The Television comparisons that all NYC bands must wrestle with had always dogged the Walkmen, but they become something close to reality here. Musically, the Walkmen's recent work specifically reminds me of Television's masterful and underappreciated 1992 reunion album for Capitol (see especially "Postcards from Tiny Islands"), but in Hamilton Leithauser's vocals it's all Tom Verlaine circa 1977, especially in the sense of his sheer passion, kicking against apathy with inarticulate need; listen to how he's too excited to keep up with his own words on "Seven Years of Holidays." The endearingly ghostly backing whistles, well-sustained drama and build, and bass-heavy arrangement offer strong band interplay on "On the Water," but it's Leithauser's voice that makes it so irresistible and gives you such an unstoppable need to hear what's next.

Even at You & Me's occasional lackluster points -- which do exist; not all the fat got trimmed off this one -- you can still imagine yourself standing in front of the band and enjoying that certain total feeling of release. If the record overreaches a couple of times (see "Seven Years" and the slightly too on-the-nose "If Only It Were True"), it's because they're contending with a newfound force they've only just discovered themselves. These songs are more half-formed than the others, as though they can't resist trying to keep capturing that lightning with the same sort of base impulses; the drumrolls and kicks and devotion to playing the hell out of the songs never flag. As they conquer such shapelessness, the Walkmen are obviously the most assured and powerful they've ever been.

One reason is that the ballads here are as boisterous and explosive as the rock songs; the sheets of guitar falling over a wailing Hamilton on "Postcards" give such a dose of breathless excitement. And I keep harping on this, but we must note the "half moon and your pretty eye," the unabashed romance; among the 2000s' crop of major alt-rock bands, only TV on the Radio can do it better. This leads us into the Walkmen's biggest one-two punch to date. Trying to write about "Red Moon" is just ridiculous; it's a wedding song, right? Total slow-dance shit, and it's lovely when it begins but it just gets more and more so. The glorious horn section is set up against the reflective charm of just everything, and you're left with an otherworldly and painfully grand nominee for their best-ever track. "Darkness is wrapped all around me tonight," Leithauser sings, and we know what can save him; the song evokes no less than the Nat King Cole sequence in Terrence Malick's Badlands, when Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek start dancing in car headlights out in the desert. One can practically imagine Sheen's character putting a line like "you shine like the steel on my knife" in that song he wished he could've written.

"Canadian Girl" continues this unstoppable stretch with a touch of pop bliss and doo wop, the vocals actually conjuring up visions of Cole himself at points, with a wonderfully twisted and blurry guitar backing. This yet again, it must be said, is wedding music of the highest order, and any single element of it could stop you in your tracks, but the singing is what's most arresting of all, what makes it so hard to deal with its wondrously quick fade away. Between these two astounding cuts and "In the New Year" alone, this is one of the most heavily (but admirably controlled) cathartic and emotive LPs of recent years.

After the run of chamber pop in the center, "Four Provinces" is like a burst back out into open air. The poetry presses on, laid here against more percussive material, banging with lilting beauty up to the total release of the instrumental break, in the meantime giving Leithauser a chance to shout for something. The lost-nights moodiness and reflection go on after that; "Long Time Ahead of Us" is a campfire interlude of sorts that exemplifies the Walkmen's simultaneous pull in numerous directions, a crucial prelude to the top chorus of the album ("What happened to you??") on the essential "Rat" followup "The Blue Route." They're as great as ever at recording this kind of cut, always and forever their specialty, only now it seems more detailed and universal. Some old schoolers might even place "The Blue Route" above everything else here, but not me; I love the gushy stuff, and by the time the guitar and strings come on in the prior song it's like, agh, I'm yours, guys.

The final act of the record is marked largely by the beauty of the guitars. "New Country" just about lives in 'em, eschewing drums in favor of vocal meander a la some of R.E.M.'s stark Appalachian material on Green. The final surrender is in "I Lost You," the first touch of desperation here; the melody by itself is ominous, driven by a drunkenly beautiful and sad vocal and lyric, the sentiment unmistakably heartbreaking. What happened to you, indeed. It's in some ways a pity that so much genuine feel for devotion and cherished partnership across the LP must end in this kind of a stark goodbye, but part of the appeal of great albums about relationships from Pet Sounds to In Rainbows is they leave ample room to remain universal, even if you lose the special one. That's why we need this when we're alone. But we'll need it at our wedding too.

[SEE ALSO:]
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002)
Lisbon (2010)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)


(Sire)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

It's been called the "day of reckoning." It seems so common for a performer to dump all resources into a debut and then to come up empty for the followup. Talking Heads, to begin with, were too prolific and daring to fall into such traps, and moreover, they were reserving their best early material for the ideal producer, which Tony Bongiovi was not. Upon finding a soulmate in the great Brian Eno, they unleashed all of the live classics from their years at CBGB's. These compositions are rife with creative spark, and the imagination of the performances and production result in a leaping, enveloping record and an innovative band in peak form. This is the sophomore anti-slump, not to mention the unsurpassable apex of new wave and alternative rock.

The aptly titled More Songs About Buildings and Food contains an incredible number of this band's signature works -- "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls," "Found a Job," "Take Me to the River," "Artists Only," "The Big Country," "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," "With Our Love," etc. -- that bristled with energy in live performance. Eno did such a flawless job transferring the power and bliss of the live Heads to disc, with the same savvy studio intelligence that has made him famous, that you want to hang on to immortalize every second, and you feel yourself grabbing at all the nuances to try to keep them.

David Byrne's selection of lyrics this time around find the open windows in "No Compassion" and "The Book I Read" and fly out of both. He is still an angry young man, but much more so than 77, this album is full of moments in which he seems vocally to grasp something beautiful that lies just beyond his reach; he fulfills the promises of the early demo "I Want to Live." On "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," he achieves rock & roll ecstasy while the others bang out a loud loud loud Velvet Underground groove and Eno turns every guitar note into a Spector wall of sound. On "With Our Love" and the rather shocking Prince-on-amphetamines cut "Stay Hungry" he expresses desires that are almost human, but of course in a sublimely aloof fashion. ("Here's my shoulderblade" is his idea of a come-on.)

The uncredited "No Compassion" sequel "I'm Not in Love" makes the 10cc song of the same name sound like "The Way We Were." "There'll come a day when we won't need love," Byrne snarls. He's ever more alienating on "Warning Sign," on which he finally gives it all up, ignoring the music and simply shouting at the listener as if through a megaphone, "PAY ATTENTION! PAY ATTENTION! I'm talking to you and I hope you're concentrating!" It's a moment that eerily foreshadows the undoing of his persona on the following album, Fear of Music.

A set of three songs at the halfway point of More Songs permanently raise the bar. "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" is driving and intrusive and seductive in all kinds of ironic and sincere ways. "Found a Job" casts Byrne as either Shel Silverstein or one of Roald Dahl's Oompa Loompas as he belts out the story of Bob and Judy, who didn't like the shows on TV so they started writing their own. The result is bitter social commentary that climaxes in a simple but riveting, breathless jam with some of the hardest and loudest piano banging since the the unforgettable intro to the Chiffons' "One Fine Day." Byrne is at his most unguarded -- and funniest -- in his clever encapsulation of the creative process, "Artists Only," which boasts an incomprehensibly grand Heads performance, always hard rocking but subtle and more attentive to rhythm than bombast. These tracks alone would certify this an essential recording.

Eno has a great deal to do with just how astounding this album is. He has removed the space between the songs to create relentless pacing that never allows you to pause for a breather. More importantly, he has done away with all of the problems that made some of Talking Heads: 77 such a tinny mess. A band this great deserved better than that treatment, with Chris Frantz's drums seeming like an afterthought and Tina Weymouth's bass hardly noticeable at all. For Buildings and Food, Eno understands how important their energy is to the group and emphasizes them above everything else, making this a new wave record slightly closer to R&B than punk. In a sense Byrne's voice feels like a percussive effect in these songs ("Found a Job") while Eno casts a multilayered soundscape around him.

Instead of using subtlety as an excuse to let the songs sit there, Eno utilizes pop method to pump each track with power and enormity. Where "With Our Love," "Stay Hungry," and "The Good Thing" would have been jangly and indistinct on 77, Eno recasts the elements of the songs and lets them spring to life, each note bouncing out of the speakers, every detail out in the open, and the music never sounding minimalistic even though it is. "With Our Love" is suddenly an epic psychodrama, "Stay Hungry" is "Things We Said Today" except it evokes fucking in words and otherwise and degenerates into a murky, stark jam at the end, and "The Good Thing" is an emotionally exhausting, fast-moving cartoon with a fabulously busy climax. The automatic reaction is to dance; it's no surprise that the Heads loved disco. They promote the ideals of musical hedonism through the propulsive, unstoppable beat that runs through this record like a pulsating force of life. It's a genre of its own, ironic detachment dance music.

On the last two songs, the band ditches the first two ingredients. Their hit version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" really isn't punk-irony at all, it's just proof of the Heads' belief in music as universal thought, and it's telling that Green's lyrics on the track blend perfectly with Byrne's on the rest of the album. But it's "The Big Country" that will leave the biggest mark. Dark and almost visual in its panoramic beauty, it may be the finest ballad in rock music, rigorously unsentimental yet ultimately devastating. Wailing with yet another powerful bass & drum heartbeat and some gorgeous slide guitar, Byrne quietly examines America and the activities of its citizens from an airplane, coming to the bitter conclusion that "I wouldn't live there if you paid me." He can't find the virtues in any place; he doesn't feel at home anywhere. He has no Waterloo sunset. The final verse is stunning: He admits that "I'm tired of looking out the window... I'm tired of traveling... I want to be somewhere" but, in a painfully real moment, is unable to confront his feelings so he says "It's not even worth talking about..." and descends into gibberish. Without abandoning the breakneck immediacy of their aesthetic, the Heads have created something genuinely moving.

More Songs About Buildings and Food is, of course, very early in the career of Talking Heads and comes ahead of foreceful, magnificent recordings like Fear of Music, Little Creatures, and especially the crowning Remain in Light. But this second album is their defining moment, capturing the glory and strength of the best of the CBGB's bands when they were still making music that was identifiably punk. It captures them in their classic, pure moment, and for that reason it remains -- for all the beginnings it fostered, from Eno's position as their only ideal producer to the flirtation with black music -- simply their loveliest effort. It is absolutely an album for the ages and should be heard by everyone, because everyone deserves the opportunity to dance in the ways only this group can make you dance.

[Originally posted at a different venue in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites (1975-92)
Bonus Rarities & Outtakes (1975-92)
Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

Friday, January 13, 2012

tUnE-yArDs: BiRd-BrAiNs (2009)


(Marriage [orig] / 4AD [reissue])

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I don't have to tell you, if you read this blog or my other writings or if you freaking know me at all, that I am pretty well in awe of tUnE-yArDs, more so than I've been with an artist in a number of years. That would've already been the case had Amber and I not seen her live this past October, standing in the front row in the mass of dancing bodies, inches away from Merrill Garbus, but that certainly didn't hurt. Garbus has won many hearts in these last nine months since the release of her second album under the tUnE-yArDs rubric. How, then, does the proverbial fan of w h o k i l l approach her prior release, BiRd-BrAiNs, once the myriad tunnels and grooves in the subsequent record have all seemingly revealed themselves? The answer is -- with great, fresh joy, as was always intended, as if there is no later classic for it to bump up against.

The differences are major, though in final effect they really don't mean much. Clearly tUnE-yArDs began as far more identifiably a solo, non-band project, designed plainly as a cathartic outlet for Garbus' melodic and stylistic interests. These songs were recorded with the favored ukulele-and-sampler setup in Audacity; a veneer of rawness should ideally come from music more than medium, but here you get both. In quality of both performance and writing, Garbus is ever so slightly more frayed and fragile here. What this finally serves is to make the album feel more spontaneous, a less practiced gift that means passionately to connect, to give joy. It charms you more than it knocks you out -- most of the time, anyway.

Those aesthetics and attitudes aside, the two records are clearly of a piece. BiRd-BrAiNs gains traction from its messiness and slight sprawl, with the way it occasionally flies off into abrupt asides of music and archived sound, a cough here, a bit of joyous jamming there, a blueberry snack on "For You." When Garbus is concentrating and determined, though, she is already crafting some of the most pressing and undiluted American music of recent years. Your first thought on encountering the Mbuti chant opening "Hatari" is it doesn't make any claim to being pure but is nevertheless lived-in and guttural, not at all an empty affectation, and well, it isn't Paul Simon (or Vampire Weekend), is it? And there's nothing everyday, nothing at all, about anyone who can pop a Mahotella Queens bridge into a threateningly unstoppable banger (uke banger, at that!) like "News."

It isn't meant to be an insult to say that the sound of lo-fi is too small, too hazy and superficial, to be the definitive vessel for Garbus' work -- it's the same story for John Darnielle and, why not, the Beatles. What makes it appropriate here is her attitude toward it. Whereas on w h o k i l l she would be a fully empowered creature consumed by higher needs, back here she's willing to muse and dote on herself a bit more. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that to some extent these are love songs, quite literally because they themselves cry out to be loved and understood. Their full-bodied world-embrace is courageously romantic and sunny and desirous of some far-up-above fulfillment; that's more familiar than the sentiments populating something like "Doorstep" or "Gangsta," but it's also an act of sanity-assuring humanism. The sound on "Fiya" of racing toward the heavens and just being is in its fashion something as powerful as you can put in recorded music.

"Hatari" and "Fiya" alone are tastes of the unbridled Garbus, but her wicked humor and personable subservience to sound are most evident on the staggering "News." I'm not sure which of these three songs is the clear showpiece, but I know that "News" may be the song that explains everything wonderful and ingenious about tUnE-yArDs in a handily packaged three and a half minutes. It's sass, snarl, and hip hip, a loud and hard feminist triumph. A sampled beat that plops around with the wet-frog sound of "Instant Karma!" pumping along patiently while Garbus hammers her uke and lets her gentle, snakelike melody weave around. All the while she's giving vent to gloriously perverse sentiments about not needing any booze "to get it up in the morning" and most importantly, letting you know she won't take this shit anymore no matter what. The contradiction of her lilting phrases with the relentlessness in her words and music is the driving force of BiRd-BrAiNs, a necessary motif with its more relaxed vocal structure.

Contradictions, in general, light the fire under these songs, how "Hatari" can sound so open-aired and natural like something that sprang up from your body but is still constantly surprising, or how the yearning of "Sunlight" has the feel of something astonishingly controlled and assured. Slyly modest at first, the latter builds to an enormous climax until the wall of ukuleles sounds like it's going to snap your speakers in half. The grandest showcase of all, of course, for Garbus' impulses is her voice. The first dramatic reveal of its cathartic, alarming range is on "Lions," an intimate and mysterious but lovely circular piece that begins small, just an infectious beat, but then she cuts loose and begins to shout, howl, and grunt, all with unfailing confidence, in touch with vast abilities we can scarcely even imagine.

And if you didn't realize then the bottomless virtuosity of Garbus' singing, "Jamaican" will seal it -- this thing is a wonder: wicked-sinister cooing followed by abrasive, spitting smack talk that collides into a screaming rant, against the sound of a heavily sampled construction site. Not all the songs are so overloaded with ideas, but like every initially ordinary-seeming Beatles single, they all have some surreal touch: the weird synth and traffic sounds on "Jumping Jack," the killer riffage that drives and morphs "Little Tiger." Even her count-ins are awesome (see "Safety"), and the sense of gleeful pattern living in the construction of her songs gives a clue to the coming cacophony of w h o k i l l. That's handy, because as odd as it seems, Garbus seems so much more studied and calm here, and there's something wonderful and revealing about that... but experiencing her work backward, I tend to miss the aggression a little.

So much of BiRd-BrAiNs has such a touch of the deliberate, the careful distribution of Garbus' gifts, that it's like the lift of a cinematic curtain when she just throws it all out and goes crazy on "Fiya," a song that stands firmly apart from the entire remainder of her work -- filled with genuine yearning, vulnerability, it's powerful enough before you notice the deft wisdom in the words: "What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?" It's reassuring. We can't be Merrill Garbus. We could live a thousand years and work hard at whatever we do every day and never be that fucking smart and gifted... but we can still recognize in ourselves something she feels, and that's why we have and need art itself. This longer messier record is her first of two major gifts to us, with surely many more to come.

[SEE ALSO:]
w h o k i l l (2011)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Alan Lomax Popular Songbook (1933-59)


(Rounder)

RECOMMENDED

The field recordings of the great and vital folklorist Alan Lomax are among the most important documents of the real America, the birth of the undercurrent of always-scattering culture you could catch wisps of all through the twentieth century. We can still detect it here and there, underneath all the noise. This compilation serves as a brief but intriguing explanation of how Lomax's field recordings and discoveries impacted the broader frame of recorded pop music. That's hardly the most compelling reason for these songs' existence, but there's no such thing as a bad reason to bear witness to Mississippi Fred McDowell's haunting "Motherless Children," the riveting Woody Guthrie performance of "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," and the stunningly beautiful Cleveland Simmons "Sloop John B." You get a few recordings already quite famous on their own, too; Leadbelly's "Irene Goodnight" and Kely Pace's "Rock Island Line" are as stirring as ever, Macbeth the Great's "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and Duke of Iron's "Ugly Woman" just as maddeningly stupid.

The only problem with this collection is the clear effect Moby's Play had on it, basing some of its song choices on the material used as the basis for several songs on that then-insanely popular record. One doubts that "John Lee's Rock" by Boy Blue and "Sometimes" by Bessie Jones would've made their way here without "Find My Baby" and "Honey" respectively, though they along with the great-in-any-context "Trouble So Hard" by Vera Hall Ward serve to prove how little Moby had to do in order to fashion these chestnuts into dance music.

At its best, Popular Songbook will fill you with the glee of discovery and make you long to hear more of Lomax's recordings. I'm experiencing that myself, and I have a feeling there are many pleasures richer yet to be found.

Monday, January 9, 2012

OutKast: Idlewild (2006)


(Jive)

RECOMMENDED

Good thing I don't impose a minimum word count on these reviews, because I've got no idea how to expound about Idlewild. During the new release drought of December and January, I try to tackle the last albums some of my favorite acts issued prior to my starting this blog, and for whatever reason when I think of "the last OutKast album" I invariably think of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and this novel semi-soundtrack thing completely slips my mind, until a hunt through my playlists and folders alerts me to its existence and I remember the two and a half times I listened to it many years ago.

It's a good enough record, but there's a reason it doesn't seem like a proper OutKast LP even though it is: the whole thing just sounds too damn easy for them. It's slightly off-kilter funk-hop with tinges of genre melt from all over the place, tackling the Depression, showtunes, jazz, hard rock sheer surrealism, etc. The songs are lovably weird, some of them irritatingly so with their repetitive sledghammer hooks, and Big Boi and Dre are as charming and funny as ever, but nothing really sticks, as much fun as the sprawling seventy-minute (too damn long, admittedly) disc is to listen to. In the end its primary contribution to the world may be its introduction of Janelle Monae, who sizzles on her pair of appearances, and while it's easily outlasted the film of the same name in the cultural memory, it smacks of side project pretension. But if you're tuned in to OutKast's general aesthetic, you'll undoubtedly find this a delightful if extremely slight romp, its backward-looking stylistic exercises not nearly as fascinating as their less guarded material but expert and easy to like all the same.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Little Richard: The Specialty Sessions (1954-60)


(Ace)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Richard Penniman is outrageous. The present tense, "is," matters there because as far as we know, he still is. He still plays live occasionally and probably shows his age when he goes out on stage, especially currently as he recovers from recent hip surgery. The things life has dragged rock & roll through now, right? Hip surgery! But there's no doubt his eyes are still wide and crazed, no doubt he's still a mess of contradictions and passions. We know because that's what he always was, even as a child, the boy whose rebellions against his strict parents (how cinematic) got him kicked out to join a medicine show and then finally form his life elsewhere, turn himself into Little Richard. Six decades hence, as he prepares to enter his eighties, he remains Little Richard.

And not in name only, and regardless of the absence of creative output since he was a young man. The point of a figure like Penniman is that he exists on a continuum; he doesn't craft new material because he doesn't have to, because when he gradually revealed his massive, world-altering style to the world, it was just a laying down on tape of a base impulse, a force of liveliness deep inside him that he'd been struggling his whole life to know what to do with. He learned it and documented it, and everything since has just been celebration, well-deserved at that. We know all this because Anthony Burgess was wrong; Alex and his Droogs in A Clockwork Orange were never really destined to change, their destructive and awful forces always brewing underneath as much as you and I might always be good-hearted or complacent or just centrally strange. Penniman's acts of violence, his gleeful, giggling lashes out against all notions of order within the world, weren't meant to hurt anyone, and they didn't, but that doesn't mean they weren't explosive. They were all on record, in his vocal tics and bops and hoots and snarls on "Tutti Frutti" and "Good Golly Miss Molly." The gurgling fury and fire within him that emitted these things is a force so frightening, so persuasive, so wild that it's no wonder Penniman's confusion about his possession of it -- and love-hate relationship with the person it, this thing, created -- caused him to derail his career more than once for sacred concerns.

And only too appropriate, given that Little Richard's records at his peak, all of which were recorded for and released on Specialty Records, call so vividly to mind the hopping exuberance of a Sunday morning revival -- the steady but complete loss of grip on everything, the surrender that is at the core of both religion and rock & roll. As in the souls of so many other performers, this diabolical disparity and similarity between the carnal and the sacred has defined everything for Little Richard: his attitude, his losses, the path of his life. In the beginning, it was just the devilish impulse in him that turned a bawdy old joke into the most frenetic and nightmarishly hammerheaded 45 recorded up to that point, "Tutti Frutti." From there, the intensity of his hits over the precious few years to follow never flagged, and never failed to provide everything you could want from two minutes of outrageously steamy rock & roll music. There was no time for tension on Little Richard's records -- maybe "Lucille" had a little, but not much -- because everything was constantly breaking, bursting. There was no time to breathe.

That's how Little Richard wanted it; initially it was just because he was and is the liveliest of wires. But later, you sense a wicked craft in play. The key to all of the essential Little Richard classics -- "Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and Slidin'" -- is that they cannot fall victim to any kind of reductionism or recontextualization. What year it is doesn't matter, these songs command the room if they're playing, and provided they're loud enough they're more than capable of exuding the same sexuality and Pied Piper voodoo control as they ever did. These records are a documentary of a force, and they will always endure as an enthralling and powerful glimpse and touch of something we can't feel anywhere else. The total joy of these recordings shrouds and owns us. They're still just about as good as music -- or anything, really -- gets.

An early peak of the CD era (issued in 1989), The Speciality Sessions is one of the greatest boxed sets ever released and one of a handful of two or three that can be described as essential. It isn't a good way to get acquainted with Little Richard if you're not already, but if you're not, why are you reading music blogs!? I kid, but get thee promptly to Youtube or Spotify or whatever and find a Little Richard greatest hits package with the original Specialty material; it seems incredibly unlikely (and sad) to me that anyone could be raised in America without some awareness of Penniman's music. I don't actually have a single-disc collection of his work anywhere, but I understand The Georgia Peach is the one to beat.

Assuming you're already pretty aware of the basic facets of Little Richard's music and career, you'll find this box a worthwhile investment. It's available in two versions: the full-fledged six-disc set that encompasses every note of music Penniman put down for Specialty, and a condensed three-disc version with the highlights. Both are pretty exhaustive, embodying all of the hits but a fair number of obscurities and a wealth of alternate takes and other curiosities. Both boxes are out of print now but used copies of the three-discer are relatively affordable. If you can find it, I recommend picking up the larger box, which is known in some parts of the world as The Specialty Box Set. The reason is that while the six discs may seem a bit much and they are certainly comprehensive to the point of clearly being designed for the hardcore fan, Little Richard deserves some pretty intensive scholarship sooner or later; you can program the redundant stuff out for now and just hear the highlights, but he's too damn brilliant for there not to be some point in your life when you want to hear everything he did, and the white-hot moment is clearly the 1955-57 period captured here. The larger set is a keen purchase because it allows you to enjoy the recordings at your own pace, with lots of options available. I mean, if you're going to hoard and analyze anyone's whole body of work, this is the man to choose.

Whatever version you end up with, you'll find the sound quality stunning: the sharpness of the vocals and music bring home another key point about these singles. Little Richard had already developed his vocal style on the pre-"Tutti Frutti" material that's more or less generic jump blues. Even on those songs, which sound like everything else that was coming out of the south at the time, he's mesmerizing; he makes even the nth outtake of "Baby" interesting." To hear these performances sparkle like they do here, with none of the maxed-out EQ bullshit you'd get on a modern release, makes for an enormously compelling headphones or dance-party experience. Something else that separates this from a lot of "sessions" boxes, incidentally, is its listenability. Today we listened to something like five versions of "Good Golly Miss Molly," all right in a row, and it didn't get old. Not in the least. It never will. To boot, Penniman, like Buddy Holly, loved to experiment and play around with his compositions, and he had a good ear for which offered the most intriguing opportunities for alternation, tweaking, contrast. As it turns out, Penniman and Holly both were fascinated by the former's composition "Slippin' and Slidin'," one of the most immaculately written rock & roll songs. On each of the alternate takes of the song provided here, the instrumentation changes; there's a version with pounding drums, one with brushes, a perverse bongo variation, and the ridiculously hot 45 mix. Each is a top-caliber recording that could surely have been a hit; you're getting a lot more than you think with this session material.

Inevitably, the boxed set malaise applies here, which is one reason that unless you're engaging in some serious study of Little Richard's artistry, you'll want to make heavy use of the "program" function (as I'm sure early-period CD advisers would tell you) or take the whole thing in small doses. The midsection, disc two on the compressed set and discs three and four on the extensive one, is appallingly addictive and batshit fun and worth hearing in complete form again and again. The rougher going bits are the slow buildup, finally cresting and breaking out with "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally," and the slide back down into decline as we approach the epiphany that led to Little Richard's retirement from the industry to find God and righteousness. The final discs culminate in some entertainingly bizarre moments like a Royal Crown hairdressing ad and a giggly, half-assed run through "Hound Dog" that simply must have been a joke. Of course this dilutes the overall impact a bit, but that's the nature of the beat, and you're also treated to such loveliness as Richard's tackling of "Well, Alright" and the wonderful low-rent "Good Golly Miss Molly" variant "Bama Lama Bama Loo," which nearly surpasses the hit in its subliminal energy.

That just adds to my conviction of how much you really get with this set. You can use it to make a sweet and simple Little Richard greatest hits set, which would easily rate A+ on my scale, or you can craft a shorter but still revealing cross section of his evolution in those two and a half magical and frightening years when the world was in his hands thanks to what amounted to an entirely new form of communication -- one which I believe has lost not one iota of its brightness, vitality, sheer beauty.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Roots: undun (2012)


(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED

There’s no better measure of the increasingly broad influence of college rock than its presence on the last couple of Roots albums. 2010’s How I Got Over included guest spots from Joanna Newsom and Monsters of Folk, while this low-key new release is purportedly inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford,” a pretty cut buried on Michigan. The other trend in recent Roots projects, though, completely overwhelms all else: a fascination with stark ‘70s soul. The pounding pianos and downbeat What’s Going On arrangements ebb and flow underneath Black Thought’s usual brilliant verses, plus such fine guests as Big KRIT, Bilal, and Stevens himself on piano.

There’s always a caveat on recent Roots LPs; in this case it’s the socially charged “concept album” formula, another byproduct of the ‘70s. The time devoted to the Redford “character,” a troubled, unlucky everyman we meet upon his death Sunset Blvd style, is just another distraction from the consistent musical greatness of the Roots and especially Black Thought, one of America’s most articulate and underrated MCs. There’s nothing wrong with being artful, but the Roots are best when they drop the costume drama and let loose.

[Note: Though this is a 2011 release technically, it showed up so late that I'd already compiled my end-of-year lists; it'll be in consideration for at least the "liked" list at the end of 2012. The year in the title is off by one for cataloging purposes. FYI.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Rising Down (2008)