Thursday, May 31, 2012

John Coltrane: Ballads (1962)


(Impulse!)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Like most who've fallen under the Coltrane spell, I believe Giant Steps and A Love Supreme to be the essential works of one of the 20th century's major creative forces. After that, I diverge from the norm unequivocally. For one thing, I believe his "free jazz" peripheral items like Om to be among the most beautiful music he ever recorded, and that Africa/Brass is easily as innovative and influential as A Love Supreme. And then there's Ballads, one of the biggest sources of controversy among Coltrane scholars. The common accusation is that he didn't want to record it at all, that it was a concession to Impulse! and a reactionary move against criticism of his hard bop records (and Africa/Brass). Believed it be laid down quickly in a slapdash manner, it's seen more than anything as a step backward -- an album of standards that includes no music actually written by Coltrane himself. I don't really know or care how much of this is true; I wouldn't put it past even an idiosyncratic record label to worry itself sick over an artist's direction. It's my firm feeling, however, that there are nearly no more intense pleasures available to us as music listeners than Ballads.

And more to the point, I would put it past Coltrane to not care about something he recorded. I don't honestly believe that he was capable of getting drawn into such apathy -- not to paint him as saintly, but this is simple mathematics: terribly young at the time he died (40), he never had time to screw up or to become the jaded business-worn figure, prolific though he may have been. The serious reason I think the "all standards" controversy is bunk, though, is the nature of jazz itself as formed in the hands of people like Coltrane. Clearly, these standards are a mere launching pad for a collection of ideas by a fascinating and robust quartet. It's fair enough to suggest that those ideas are necessarily less vibrant and prescient than those typically explored by Coltrane's various units, but it's nevertheless a stirring feat to hear his fully developed musicianship in service of material that in so many hands would seem tired and basic, witness the very use of the term "standard." If you don't accept that logic, which you really should, fine, think of this as a vacation with John Coltrane to the French Riviera or something. That's no less beautiful than the act of turning jazz on its head with every packed-in note, it's just something else, some other mood this extraordinarily gifted individual was able to give off.

Ballads is the sharpest and most confident of Coltrane's romances, with warmth enough in its introspection to make a listener feel lifted and embraced. It's not simply a performance of songs, it's a definitive recasting of them as golden seduction. The seduction wastes no time; the gentle swaying of "Say It" is instantly tempered by the sophisticated playing of Coltrane as well as McCoy Tyner's hopping, charged piano. Convention gets turned around just slightly throughout both sides of the record; "What's New," for instance, is almost a straight read but with just a touch of the giddily arrhythmic. "I Wish I Knew," by contrast, might add nothing more than that extra sense of yearning to the sax, but it's so much more powerful than such a simple word as "yearning" can get across.

That's because the playing here is so deeply felt, as always, but amazingly just as much so on distant items like these worn-down songs. Coltrane plays both tenor and soprano here, as on My Favorite Things and Africa/Brass, and charges into the emotional center of each track as a vocalist typically would. The entire band does superlative work here, though, supposedly basing their recorded arrangements and performances on only a limited knowledge of the songs and a painfully brief rehearsal for each cut. That's hard to believe considering the intricacy of, to start with, "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "All or Nothing at All." The latter has Elvin Jones starkly pound out a drum introduction with a building, cascading rhythm suggestive of later, wilder freedoms. The song that develops is gloriously illusory, like a mutated bossa nova, a thing so vague that it somehow can't be reached, but as the chaos mounts it features as well the most lyrical sax line on the record -- until tune and sense are slowly and sensually lost.

It's "You Don't Know What Love Is," however, that most conveniently defines the tremendous artistry and immediate appeal of the Ballads aesthetic. Another galvanizing introduction washes over us with drummer Jones pulsing inward -- a wet and disorganized pathway into total bliss -- until stabbing, angular single notes and an abrasive arrangement contrast on the verses with the sax flowing outward -- all growing clearer and more traditional as the clock ticks, until it seems to fall together tantalizingly just before it ends. It's an arresting performance, but most importantly one that's both engagingly strange and gut-level beautiful. That keen sense of the immediate in even the most unexpected setting actually points the way ahead to A Love Supreme.

Like nearly all of Coltrane's work, Ballads is designed to reward careful listening, even if its central conceit and pretense seems to be the crafting of dinner music. Dinner music, great as it may be, seldom shimmers like this, and it's hard to ignore or escape the knowledge that these songs are impossibly elevated beyond their origins. They may be worthy of their status or not, they probably are, but it's Coltrane's actions and violence upon them that matter. Even at the album's most conventional, it's still nocturnal joy ("It's Easy to Remember") with a pulse-pounding undercurrent of frayed, serious, messed-up love and sex. The most beautiful, involving, and (why not) danceable of these songs is "Too Young to Go Steady," the band unbelievably tight with its arrangement's consistent pressing onward, backdropping the sheer and absolutely knowing nature of Coltrane's sax playing. When this crisp, indomitable Ballads whispers off into the night with its lonely crystalline sound, you feel you've heard much more than a simple Coltrane album of jazz-standard covers. But hell, that would be enough anyway, I'm pretty sure.

[SEE ALSO:]
Giant Steps (1960)
A Love Supreme (1964)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

Mike Hadreas' song "Hood" is, no words minced, a masterpiece. Released as the single from his second album as Perfume Genius, it sparkles out clearly as a raw moment of entirely unguarded expression -- from its bare-minimum, haunted "you'd never call me baby if you knew the truth" hook to the unfiltered catharsis of its piano explosion, the thing is an act of emotional terrorism. In exactly two minutes it moves, crushes, and challenges, a seemingly one-on-one communique on which we're invited to listen in. You wish it wouldn't end so quickly, and yet it's perfect that it does, and invites the kind of repeated-listening obsession you can't believe you're subjecting yourself to.

The side effect of "Hood" is it makes everything else on this entirely pleasant and often touching record sound slightly drab, purely a consequence of its everything-falling-together-in-proportion perfection. If you enjoy the key track, there's little doubt that you'll find some things to appreciate on the LP despite the far-outlying nature of its peak. The stark, stunning intimacy appears throughout the record, with excellent use of minimalist sounds like the terminally sad plinking piano on "AWOL Marine," the subdued string arrangement on the dramatic "17," the intricate and whispery dreampop of "Floating Spit."

But despite the command Hadreas exhibits in his best moments -- he knows his way around a classicist piano ballad for sure, as "Hood" and "Take Me Home" prove most immediately -- many of the peripheral songs here have a tendency to sort of float away unnoticed, and paying extra-careful attention doesn't seem to help much. A chunk of the tunes just aren't quite "there" yet, but of course when they connect, they soar. The second best cut is likely "Dark Parts," which brings in some faint pop propulsion but succeeds greatly on the basis of its aching lyric ("I will take the dark part of your heart into my heart," a flooring, deep-rooted sentiment that becomes all the more so when you discover he wrote the song for his mother), but the complex subtlety of the melody on the busy "Floating Spit" points a bright way forward as well. It's easy to guess that this is only the beginning, and Hadreas will be gradually developing into the capable and assured artist he already sometimes hints at being.

Hadreas' voice -- sometimes passing from "lovely" into "moony" -- will remind many of Sufjan Stevens, something amplified by their similar tastes for an almost painful-to-us vulnerability and a regular surrender to pure prettiness that Hadreas seems to be working actually a bit too hard to temper. ("All Waters" is a dirge, "Put Your Back N 2 It" is not nearly so exciting as its title implies, and if you're anything like me you spend "Sister Song" wishing he'd break into a spirited rendition of the Magnetic Fields' "Drive On, Driver.") What makes the record a bit of a task to listen to is not his musical tastes but the sometimes harrowing suggestion of a complex and tortured history -- put in your time and it rewards you, but in the dramatic funeral wheeze baroque "No Tear," the wounds are plain and deep. The record's like a hymnal for perceived sin, lush but subversive, brief (32:13) and confessional. Caught in the right mindset, it's also downright heavenly.

But there is fun to be had here; as stunning as that video for "Hood" is, featuring Hadreas locked in loving embrace with porn actor Aprad Miklos, it's also quite playful. The uneasily direct and soulful Millay poetry reading "Dirge" isn't one, and the hushed, shaky waltz "Normal Song" offers a bit of release and hope: "Take my hand when you are scared," he sings, and it's the quiet fruition of the redemption longed for on "Hood" -- yet it's "Hood" we come back to. Can't help wondering what that means.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

L7: Smell the Magic (1990)


(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The riot grrl movement was one of the cultural miracles of the early '90s, and what a pity that my suburban backwards southern modern rock station utterly ignored it (Garbage and Hole were as close as it came, and that's not much consolation); it seems almost unfair to play up or praise L7, one of the best bands of the decade, on the basis of their refusal to cooperate with rockist gender roles, but it's equally uncouth to ignore that element. You know what made this music special and empowering? It wasn't some reductive "women can scream and rock too" pandering to radio formats, L7 was empowering and heroic because they didn't give a fuck. It wasn't that they busted open gender roles and rewrote "the rules" or whatever, it was they refused to accept that those things even began to matter. They laughed in the face of the idea of pinning them down as "female music," of "female music" being a thing at all, which it isn't. But is it nevertheless fair for a privileged white male to say he finds this music galvanizing and glorious in some part as a result of that specific refusal to adhere to "tradition"? I certainly hope so, and I have to imagine it has some considerable role in explaining why I love this band's records despite never being (and still not being) a fan of metal, trash, "hard rock," virtually any harder-edged guitar-driven material. This, though. This speaks to me.

My affinity, for years now, has always been to L7's subsequent commercial semi-breakthrough Bricks Are Heavy, but that's mostly because I hadn't spent much time with their earlier work until recently. This second album, which was originally an EP but was later repackaged with additional tracks and now may as well be considered a stopgap between L7 and Bricks, is a gem. It's reasonable, of course, to be curious about why the sort of person who can't stand obvious markers like Zeppelin and Sabbath would love this, and no, it's not because it's "female music." It's the songs, man. Songs. They are almost painfully sharp and melodic, such a strong strengthening of their prior work, full of towering, leery menace that's also totally pop. So L7 appropriates the classic rock tropes without compromise, but also redefines them -- gleefully.

Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, and Jennifer Finch trade lead vocals back and forth but it's Gardner who makes the outlandish and throttling initial impression with her spitting out and screeching of "Shove," a splendidly nonchalant and totally assured anthem that captures that feeling of nightclub electricity in a tiny room like few recorded pop songs can. The aggression sets the stage beautifully, and it's not a stretch to imagine this all as a blistering live recording, on a scarring night to remember. "Fast and Frightening" has that nocturnal, dark mercilessness, Sparks letting loose whoppers like "straight girls wish they were dykes" and the magnificent manifesto "got so much clit she don't need no balls." But the hardness is deceptive; what it really reaches back to is rockabilly, especially Eddie Cochran and Dale Hawkins.

You really don't have to listen hard to note such clear-cut yet appealingly realized influences, quite apart from the towering guitar funk exercise "(Right On) Thru" and the outstanding garage rock "Deathwish"; and god bless them, in our 2012 context, for not being wholly indebted to Lesley Gore and the Ronettes as is now the parlance of so much surf-punk and hardcore, led by men or women. Nothing against those wonderful artists, of course, but it's so much more interesting to hear a band with a classicist rock & roll sound that's interested in riffing on the Monkees ("Packin' a Rod," sneering joy) or Paul Revere & the Raiders by way of the Ramones ("Just Like Me," boasting an unforgettable riff). There's even a place for British new wave, so unfairly disdained by most of the U.S. indie-rock underground of the period, on the methodical and bottom-heavy "Broomstick."

At its best, Smell the Magic causes a streaming out of hyperbole. The total headfuck "Till the Wheels Fall Off" drives on and on intensely, the sort of thing that generated the rock standby adjective "face-melting"; and the tormenting earworm "American Society," aside from anticipating the hit "Pretend We're Dead" with its riff, peaks with an honestly glorious refrain. And that one was originally an outtake!

Sweltering and exhausting, this is a stunning leap beyond L7's debut, and you know it's gotten under your skin by how fast it seems to skitter by -- at a mere thirty minutes, it feels much shorter. For me, this is so much more vital than anything produced by the concurrent grunge movement, and though my teenage self was happy with all the Pearl Jam and Hole and Live and Garbage on the radio, I have this perpetual feeling that I missed the actual '90s and the broadening of thoughts and horizons it might have given me because I wasn't turned on to L7 at the time. The same goes for bands like Luna and Pavement, but who knows -- if I'd been aware of L7 in my formative years, maybe it would have had such an effect on me that I would have a taste for classic rock and metal in my twenties! It's an outlying possibility, but this record is such a consistent and addictive pleasure I can actually imagine it happening. You never know, right?

[SEE ALSO:]
L7 (1988)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lambchop: Mr. M (2012)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

To open with a bit of honesty: I'm not altogether familiar with Lambchop outside of their peripheral involvement with other bands and the chapter about them in Our Noise. The only record I've heard by them prior to this one is 1996's How I Quit Smoking. One of the stories that sticks out for me from the book is how cathartically emotional the band's concert appearances are reported to be, especially in Europe where they enjoy considerably more celebration than stateside. Spending time with their new record, Kurt Wagner's hushed and grieving tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt, I can easily understand why so many are reduced to tears when seeing them. But my lack of context prevents this from being a more comprehensive review; I'm inspired certainly to catch up on Lambchop and then one hopes I will be able to speak about Mr. M more articulately. For now: it's involving, lilting, immersive, and it's working for me more than all but a handful of the records released thus far in this dismal year.

Disarming as the profane "If Not I'll Die" is with its dreamy Wizard of Oz strings, it gathers us into the meditative slow burn of the album's particularly strong first half. Songs like "2B2" and "Gone Tomorrow" screw darkly into a moment, minor-key moods with quiet monetum, a sad and spirited reluctance to snap out of it. The latter is particularly beautiful, its gentle shuffling jam slowly building to a stunning slight lift from "Ceremony" at the climax. The theme of obsessively slowed-down dance music happily carries through to the immersive "Mr. Met" with its crawling bass riff, but Wagner and company interestingly seem to lose themselves most of all on a pair of instrumentals. "Gar" is unabashedly sweet with calm piano and Bowie-like harmonies that seems to beg for some oblique entrance to a '70s rock playlist alongside Eno and Rundgren; and "Betty's Overture" is a score without a film, lovably suggestive of Beautiful Music.

Mr. M fades out slowly, harping on the phenomenon of nearly melody-free prettiness on "Nice Without Mercy" and only very occasionally starting to drag. The romantic simplicity is always tempered by sadness, and occasionally the chilly cynicism of something like the catchy manifesto "The Good Life (Is Wasted)." Wagner's vocals weave quietly in and out of band performances that are routinely impressive but seldom call excessive attention unto themselves. Without any setting up whatsoever, you get the sense that this is a band worthy of a particularly fiery sort of passion -- and more of us should be following them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (2004)


(Fat Cat)

How many Animal Collective albums should one listen to before one is satisfied that Animal Collective is very simply not their "thing"? That's an open question to any and all fans reading this. I don't want any anti-"hipster" sarcasm, either; I genuinely have the feeling that lurking in this music somewhere is something that would connect with me. I came to the band backward, during the mass internet hysteria about Merriweather Post Pavilion, and was seduced instinctively by "My Girls" and especially "Bluish" (best love song of the last five years? maybe) -- and of course the Collective's palette of influences is near and dear to me.

But something's missing, and I have a feeling it's a thing with me. Your friendly context here is that as I write this I'm in the middle of reviewing the new album by (the) Gossip, one of those bands whose primary interest to me seems to extend only to a single beloved LP (Music for Men, a shy DJ's best friend in mid-2009) and a few stray cuts -- their new record suffers from the same issues as Goldfrapp's last one, it's steeped in the very wrong kind of 1980s pastiche and seems a reaction against carefree synth-disco, which to me amounts to a certain betrayal. The smoothness and sterility of it is driving me nuts, and I have to listen to it several more times (because I do that when people are paying me to write about something, not like here where I snap judgments in y'all's face) so I needed a break. And I've had this Sung Tongs lying around a while, I like Panda Bear and Avey Tare's voices, I "get" what the band is about, and I heard this was a pretty abrasive record, which sounded nice right then. Plus we'd just seen Shortbus in which music from this album is prominently featured.

It's too much for me, and as I sit with it again now something about it is just irksome; I seem to remember a publicist at one point calling this pets-running-out-of-the-room music, and though I tend to like bizarre and angular and "irritating" music like Yoko Ono and tUnE-yArDs and shit, I'm with the pets on this one. There's something in the space between sounds here that's getting the wrong sort of rise out of me. I like the vocals on "Get to Know Your Rabbit" or whatever. And I feel sort of dejected because the Collective is really the fruition of a prediction of mine a decade ago that we'd soon see the Beach Boys surpass the Beatles in influence, yet I can't seem to enjoy it, or get the emotional push I do from Smiley Smile. The bent, crazed ambiance and the intricate harshness of the sound is somehow like a roadblock, even though I can sense something beautiful happening nearly all the time for the duration of this record.

Positive message, though: You really don't need to go to college. But... can I make one hipster joke? Just one? Maybe you have to go to college to appreciate this music. I can't seem to. But how can I write off a band with this much to offer? Is there anything wrong with working through the murk and the mess to get to the good stuff, anything wrong with a band that takes some work to listen to? Am I just getting impatient? I don't have the answers to any of this, I'm asking you, the viewer. As for Sung Tongs, two befuddled listens later (don't tell anyone but I skipped around a lot the second time through), it's going in the "I have no clue what I think of this" pile.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion (2012)


(Merge)

Read my Metro Times review.

Feeling cynical these days, I guess. Not so long ago I felt this man could do no wrong (excluding his "bands"). Now...?

[SEE ALSO:]
Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)
End of Amnesia (2001)
Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

This is the Beatles' masterpiece, or at the very least the unimpeachable peak of the band they initially set out to be, from basements in Liverpool to the crawlspace behind cinema screens in Hamburg. Explosive, impassioned, blissfully fucked-up rock & roll, the highest kind of art and communication. Rubber Soul may have the strongest songs, the White Album may be the strongest amalgam, but it's this record that gives the base visceral reaction of knowing you're hearing the Beatles, an actual band, proving their utter mastery of everything. The moment it captures is so vivid and so present it can bring a tear to your eye as much as it adds a bounce to your step. They'd never record with this enthusiasm again, and they'd never fill an entire album with Lennon/McCartney songs again.

"Lennon/McCartney," of course, is an in-name-only attribution. All but three of the songs on A Hard Day's Night are John Lennon's work. This creates an interesting paradox: the album is worlds away from the movie that gave birth to half of it. Richard Lester's film is about community, confusion, imprisonment, and freedom; the album is about one man's demons. A Hard Day's Night is Lennon's real primal-scream record. "Please Mr. Postman," "All I've Got to Do," and "Ask Me Why," among others, had given some hint of the beautiful ache he was wont to bury behind some semblance of rock-boy swagger. The world in the palm of his hand, he's hiding no longer -- the depth of emotion, the joy and the pain, in every note he sings here is inescapable.

The eponymous track flies through you like a bullet train, opening the album with a thunderous guitar chord and Lennon's desperate-man-in-love theme. It's a decided evolution from "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It adds something like pure charisma. Lennon gets by on similar arresting tactics for the swinging "I Should Have Known Better," girl-group shuffles "Tell Me Why," and "When I Get Home," all with stinging vocals that seem to prove Lennon's commitment to his material. No ordinary pop star, no studio musician punching the everyday clock, could sing the way he did in a million years.

What's more, there was a truth in these songs, a resignation but also a bracing desire to hope. "If I Fell," his most naked love song aside from "Don't Let Me Down," is in many ways the centerpiece of the LP. It often feels like these songs exist in a medium where they cry out, begging to be heard and understood. Lennon is deadly -- articulate, sexual, brilliant, and seemingly always on the brink of devastation, destruction. His voice is the Beatles' best asset by a longshot... it expresses so much that is inexpressible, in songs like "When I Get Home" that could easly be slight and forgettable without him. Alas, not one song he sings here isn't wonderful.

The voice isn't everything; as if to prove it, "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You," written by John but sung by George, comes flying out. It speaks volumes that it offers the same intensity in a voice that is, at best, not even a thousandth as good as John's. This is a song I come back to frequently. It roars with movement and one leans against the cracks, knowing something's hidden in there and waiting for it to show itself. The payoff is on Side Two.

Lennon seems liberated completely on the non-film songs. Sounding genuinely bitter on "You Can't Do That," he keeps the mental anguish rolling on three of the best rock songs of all time. "Any Time at All" one-ups the uncontrollable engine of the title track by heading somewhere with it. It is possible to lose oneself forever in the guitars on this track, and it's the Beatles' most raggedly delicate rocker, bleeding from all corners. "I'll Cry Instead" is so eloquent, sad, witty, personal, and vaguely weird it's hard to believe it comes from one of Lennon's songs and not either of his books. A country riff backs Lennon's sighing heartbreak clown routine, wailing out words about coming back and showing 'em all that he knows aren't true, and making them that much more moving as a result.

"I'll Be Back," the album closer, covers the same kind of territory, but the Beatles have saved the best for last. The melody is John at his peak, and his singing is something you can't explain, especially since the darkness and light of his lyric humanizes mindsets that we can't explain any more easily. The band's restraint hides the grandly affecting statements backing the song up; they sound just magnificent.

And although his single "Can't Buy Me Love," a raucous and rousing but somewhat generic rocker, doesn't amount to much in these surroundings, Paul winds his way skillfully through a set that threatens to overshadow him entirely. You know "And I Love Her," you love it (especially if you've viewed a performance of it through Richard Lester's lens) and you probably know "Things We Said Today." Paul's lyrics here -- though more indirect -- are a close match for John's in "I'll Be Back," and the cloudy hop of this gorgeous song is irresistible.

With the music business in the palm of their hands the world over, the Beatles lost none of their vitality. Their strengths are intact, refined and perfected, and this is the crown jewel in a fine career, a record of unparalleled grace and understatement, a powerfully succinct thirty-minute set of songs that, like the film, brims with life. Rock & roll has never been so gloriously beautiful while retaining the strength of its core. A Hard Day's Night is more than just a culmination of this band's near-perfect first three LPs: it's indispensable. The band needn't have done anything else afterward. It's to their credit that they did, but this is their highest statement on record. They laid themselves down here and that's it. Everything else is a luxury.

[Slightly modified from a review posted elsewhere in 2003.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Please Please Me (1963)
With the Beatles (1963)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Frankie Rose: Interstellar (2012)


(Slumberland)

You can be forgiven if you feel like you've just wandered into a concert by a Chromatics tribute band attempting to cover "Telstar" when the synth-overdriven Interstellar opens up on its title track's widescreen, spacey (but finally unjustified) thrust. Frankie Rose, formerly of Crystal Stilts and the Vivian Girls (making this an interesting comparison with Katy Goodman's project La Sera), has shed most of the surf influence heard on her previous work and scaled back some of the noise to concentrate on some of those dream-pop "soundscapes" the kids like these days. The result is largely as numbing as you might fear from that description, in large part because Rose seems infatuated with walls of vocals. That quirk is a less than desirable addition when your singing voice varies narrowly between aimlessly, introspectively pretty and calmly, robotically "lilting" without ever managing to seriously connect. But if you can brush off some of the dross all over this album, there's some enjoyable and promising stuff in it.

All those vocals serve to fill the space between the keenly separated sonics here, as though Rose is afraid of us really hearing her songs. She needn't be. None are bad, but the overexcited production often makes them such. Her melodic sense is strong, and the more proudly she wears her influences the better she is: the liquid bass-driven beauty of "Daylight Sky" strongly suggests New Order, while the pop bliss of "Night Swim" brings back her clean surf guitar licks to provide us with what may be the best song in the subgenre we've heard in some time. New wave is the fixation, it seems, skewing a little earlier than many of Rose's Human League-loving peers: "Had We Had It" will flash you back to the pregnant propulsion of all those forgotten bargain-bin power pop LPs circa 1982 you've picked up for $1. True to authenticity, the hook is pretty dumb and in less lean years it'd be b-side material at best.

Your fears about where Rose is going with all this are sadly confirmed by the sagging second half of Interstellar, more Bon Iver than Bangles (though I wouldn't mind hearing Susanna Hoffs' take on "Moon in My Mind" circa Everything). There's some kitsch value to it, but dealing with someone as obviously gifted as Rose, that's kind of a bummer. "Pair of Wings" is fun, for instance, if you imagine it's a recording of Lesley Gore after she's hit her baroque psychedelic period, but once that fantasy is smashed you feel like you're being put on -- within some sort of terrifying tower-of-sound soft rock experiment a la "Beth / Rest." That's just the first in a series of beatless, shapeless dirges: "Apples for the Sun" builds up to nothing, and "The Fall" sacrifices its nice celo and guitar into the abyss of total sludge.

But let's hear it for the pounding snare on "Gospel/Grace," dramatic and sweet, and above all (even the great "Night Swim") the true all-things-come-together touchstone of the album, "Know Me." It's a transportive jangle pop triumph as fast and sad and wily as you wish everything here was. On this one cut, no throwback necessary, Rose determines some operational formula for compressing her influences and ideas all in the perfect proportion. You hear it and it's instantly late Saturday night, in the best way.

The larger question Interstellar begs is, what has managed to make popular indie rock in 2012 such a damned sappy institution? Until recently, it seemed the growing acceptance of folk rock was a culprit, but now I'm not so sure. It's as if after Loveless mastered the obsession with oscillating sound, we've only gone further into the dead end of staring at ourselves with our eyes glazing over until everything amounts to an indiscriminate buzz. The injection of soft rock theatrics of yore hasn't helped, so someone with a keen sense of noise who could make a great scrappy rock & roll record like Frankie Rose ("Night Swim" proves it) chooses instead to travel down this strange path of artificial immersion, and it's a bit disheartening. Except when it isn't: "Know Me" shows how it can all come together in the right moment. Besides that, Rose's new material is all pleasant and evocative but there just doesn't seem to be a lot of substance to it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Galaxie 500: On Fire (1989)


(Rough Trade)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Galaxie 500 didn't capture the sound of a traverse down a busy downtown street at 1 in the morning -- they were going a few hours later, after everyone else has gone home and the first peeks up of the Sunday morning sunrays are springing up and you can't imagine what the fuck you're still doing here with your head in the hands on the sidewalk. But of course, a more beautiful version of all that, the keening sing-song lullaby of "Tell Me" ringing out like some objectively beautiful glimpse at your plight that, in such a state, you can't possibly see yourself.

On Fire captures the trio -- Dean Wareham, Naomi Yang, Damon Krukowski -- at midpoint, after the constant contention that'd finally tear them apart had already taken hold. Acknowledged as their masterpiece, as a fan I've always found it the sole record of theirs that I start to lose a little patience with toward the end, with both "Leave the Planet" and "Plastic Bird" tending to flutter away unnoticed. Yet it's still a wonderful record; having established a distinctive reverb-drenched, dramatic one-chord sound with Today, the band digs its heels in here, crafting a series of powerful dirges that shed the faint folky Byrdisms in favor of a more insular yet sound, slower and sadder and more explicitly predicting shoegaze. "Snowstorm," for instance, casts a metronome over a nearly inconsolable sense of yearning, despite its whooshing cymbals, the slicing in of a powerful drum sound, and the endless wah-wah solo. Wareham whines and drawls more, freer to explore his impulses on "Strange" and "When Will You Come Home" here, and the slight propulsion of the debut is nearly absent in favor of essentially pure atmospherics.

A difficult record, certainly, and one that stands firmly in place and refuses to move, but one that also periodically uncovers something of breathtaking beauty that can allow a knockout that seems to belie all influence and inflection. It's easy enough to intellectualize them as Harvard-education artsies with an interest in the "Hoboken sound" (they frequently worked with Dave Rick, formerly of Yo La Tengo) but then you hear that Naomi Yang vocal on "Another Day" with its twisting, persuasive melody and build to a tantalizingly brief duet with Wareham that bursts forth like a full color slow-motion dream -- or, better yet, the requisite cover, sending a standard George Harrison number ("Isn't It a Pity") off into agonized airspace, limited vocals and "cheap organ" and all. For all the simplicity of their sound and arrangement, for pure moping pleasure it's hard to beat them.

The experimentation, the walking-on-air steps toward pop immortality, would come on the third and final record, which I'm convinced is going to receive its critical due any year now. In the meantime, it's previewed by the splendidly incongruous tenor sax on "Decomposing Trees," a perfect complement to the song's cacophonous downbeat slide. And "Blue Thunder," the opening track, is itself a tough act to follow, building on the Today-styled mumbling melody as a figure on the floor looking up, the falsetto leaps and repetition of the evocative "I'll drive so far away" packing a lot of grandness in just 3:45. That cut and "Tell Me" alone define this band and their capacity for gentle, lyrical longing; if their sound carried its limits, good on them for making their point and departing, however acrimoniously, with the knowledge that they were capable of music this gorgeous and vivid.

[SEE ALSO:]
Today (1988)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Great Lake Swimmers: New Wild Everywhere (2012)


(Nettwerk)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Read my Metro Times review.

Guiltiest feeling about reviewing things professionally so far: trashing a favorite band to this extent. But oh well. It really is pretty bad.

[SEE ALSO:]
Lost Channels (2009)

Alex Chilton: A Retrospective (1967-95)


(bootleg)

RECOMMENDED

A major improvement on Rykodisc's official 19 Years from 1992, this unfortunately now long-gone blog download is the best rundown of Alex Chilton's solo career I've heard, though one criticism still applies: much of the first disc -- thirteen of the eighteen cuts, in fact -- consists of what amounts to a Box Tops hits collection, which anyone interested enough in Chilton to seek this out should already have and very likely does. Ironically, when 19 Years was released, the Box Tops were Chilton's best-known venture in the mainstream, so the compilation sought to introduce listeners to Big Star (they only had to rights to Third) and then to a smattering of '80s material. Now, Big Star is arguably in the average rock music listener's introductory course -- though still not as famous as they deserve to be, which is unlikely to change -- so this mix ignores them in favor of a cram session of Box Tops.

It's a decent collection of their work, and gets major credit for incorporating not just the hits but the bizarrely lovely "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" and the throttling, emotionally overwhelming psych cover of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On," the exclusion of which is the sole criticism of the excellent Soul Deep: Best of the Box Tops. The problem is more that the Box Tops are rich enough to deserve their own discussion as much as Big Star is. Either go all the way and give a full-fledged sampler of both bands or stick to what Chilton's done on his own.

In that respect, A Retrospective is a success. We still miss Alex more than we care to tell you -- and it's one of those sickening instances when you find out after his death that he was so much more accessible than you realized. I learned two months after his passing that we shared a close mutual friend, through whom I might have spoken to him and told him how much his work had meant to me, something he'd likely have shrugged off modestly and offered me a drink or game of tennis, but which still would have felt nice to express to him. He heard it all the time, of course; it's for me more than for him that I'd like to say it. He was among those very few pop stars for whom legend seems a good fit: his gifts of hookery and directness were that mythical, his demons that alluring.

Those demons are most strongly expressed on the record Like Flies on Sherbert (which was supposed to be reviewed here some time ago but somehow got muddled around and never posted); these compilers sidestep all but one song on that record that's sometimes decried as inaccessible -- though the carnival-like fuckup "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It" is here -- but it's really the culmination of the beautifully apocalyptic psychodrama to which Big Star's work had gradually been leading. After that, Chilton sets out to not give a shit, rock out, and have the time of his life in the studio. The results tend to be a bit more innocuous than many fans would prefer, but they're also undeniably fun and personable.

And as this collection shows, on the first disc particularly, they can scrape up with brilliance amid their lyrical sarcasm and shattered chords. 1987's "Dalai Lama" is the funniest vaguely offensive dance song you've ever heard (rhyming "mosquito" with "Buddha" among other whoppers) and he sings it with a sly pleasure untapped in the context of either of his bands. The prior year's "No Sex" (and "Underclass" to a lesser extent) is anthemic in approach and fits in beautifully with the breadth of '80s power pop infected with Big Star's sound, though far smarter and clearer for obvious reasons.

It's the six-minute "Wild Kingdom" that's become my obsession among this lot -- a subtle Bo Diddley rhythm track with strangely intoxicating light-jazz tones, over which Chilton croons heartily in yet another new voice; eventually, like "Shangri La," it gives away to pointed guitar and extended jamming before returning to Chilton losing himself more completely than he or anyone who ever wrote about his solo work will give him credit for. It's hard to know what to make of its pointed but mysterious lyric and its complete separation from all else here, but it's a stirring moment. The closest analogy I can think of it would be, appropriately enough, the Replacements' "Nightclub Jitters."

The second disc is a bit lighter on conversion-worthy material (though dig "Guantanamerika" for some perfectly constructed conscious pop, "Bangkok" for the sound of a raging tornado in full control) but is a blast anyway. If you've heard the Big Star reunion album, In Space -- basically a Chilton solo effort with high-profile backing by Jody Stephens and the Posies -- you know what to expect: the sound of pressure-free maniacs goofing off in the studio. He seldom does what his fanbase probably expected, fixated on midcentury-vintage song forms ("Let Me Get Close to You," the hauntingly beautiful "My Baby Just Cares for Me" cover, a logical progression from Big Star's "Nature Boy") and discordant boogie ("Make a Little Love," "Rock Hard"). If you like that, you'll like this. Equipped with a "GTO" cover and songs with titles like "What's Your Sign Girl" and "B.A.B.Y.,' it's twenty years worth of coming to terms with past success or failure by not giving a shit, and doing what the hell you want to do, living an adult life in the richest most fulfilling way you can with limited resources. You know what that is? That's inspirational.

Chilton's music, in all its various stages, is consistently full of life -- that's why when you feel broken, it's a good idea to put this compilation on and hear how that strange belief in one's own immortality that comes from this sort of carefree performing can be laid down on tape, captured in perpetuity. "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is a must for me any time I miss someone who's passed -- not just Chilton.