Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Walkmen: Bows + Arrows (2004)


(Record Collection)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Shortly after I returned to Heaven to deliver an updated verdict on it, my longtime friend Brian texted me to inform me he'd just discovered the album and had flipped for it, calling it the Walkmen's best since Bows and Arrows. I must admit that it has its melodic tangents that have stuck with me strongly in the last few days, and my impression of it has improved since its initial release, but what struck me about Brian's comment was how differently his impressions of the Walkmen are from mine. For I have felt that their career was leading to the double-header of You & Me and Lisbon, a peak of unfiltered, masterful rock & roll beauty. Though Bows + Arrows had been my introduction to the band -- and, indeed, to modern indie rock -- I suddenly realized that I hadn't spent any significant amount of time with it in several years.

The Walkmen have always adored linguistic clichés. "What happened to you?" "We're counting on you." "What's in it for me?" "We can't be beat." "Woe is me." They're something that creates an instant rapport, something to toy with, but in my mind all these years the band had only begun to concentrate on a give-and-take audience relationship in the hopeful, open-armed sounds they delivered in the late 2000s. It's not that I'd forgotten the romantic reveal on "What's in It for Me?" but just that it had lingered in my memory as something else, something detached and closed-off and brooding. With the perspective of the intervening years, though, I now see that everything goes back to Bows + Arrows, that it's no outlier at all -- it's just a youthful expression of the same emotions that would end up delivering the band's best recordings. Youth provides, of course, a climactic heft that an older band could never manage, which is one reason why this remains their signature record in the eyes and ears of most folks. But they're already suggesting sweet domesticity on the tirelessly pretty "138th Street": "take a wife and start a life, it won't be long."

I discovered the Walkmen in the very 2004 manner of a burned CDR from a fellow deli clerk, at a time when my awareness of new music had reached what remains its all-time nadir. The radio was gone and I had not yet adjusted to the methods of discovery and digestion that would soon fill the years between Napster and Spotify. Dustin, the friend who made me the CD, was consumed and validated by "The Rat," as I soon would be. There are other slamming "rock" songs on this actually quite sad and quiet album, which contribute to its legend and memory as a brash and attitude-filled production hunting undeniably for Strokes-ish immediacy, but even they shimmer ("The North Pole") or scatter ("Thinking of a Dream," which boasts both consuming organ and an American Breed drumbeat cop). The touchstone here, I knew immediately, was Marquee Moon, a record I unreservedly adored and found infinite solace in at that time -- so I responded well to Bows + Arrows, but to none of it so much as "The Rat," which entirely orients and balances the remainder of the LP. It was like some sort of knock down into a puddle, and I still believe it to be the finest rock song of its decade.

Because you can hear the future and the past in the pure hazy distortion of "No Christmas While I'm Talking," the drunkenness of "My Old Man," but it's no big thing to express youthful introspection in those terms. "The Rat" is a remarkable single because it delivers apprehension and alienation as a violent and desolate force without either anger or self-pity; it's a black hole of something akin to empathy, so even as it sounds nothing like Television, who'd have balked at the idea of providing such a forgiving climax, it does their thematic concerns proud. The harshness of its rapid-fire assault, the strangely redemptive arrangement, the half-hearted expressions of broken longing that almost but not quite can be bothered to get upset ("I know, we've been through this before") are all aspects of its primal appeal.

But the thing Dustin and I obssessed over, at a time when every other piece of music we conversed about dated from the early '80s at the latest, was the bridge, which musically is just a mild break from the catharsis, but vocally and lyrically, Hamilton Leithauser delivers the haunting thesis: "When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw. Now I go out alone, if I go out at all." I was twenty then, and without knowing what the future would hold, I somehow knew this was a universal biography of my kind. As much as "Venus" and "Marquee Moon" might have celebrated the dizzy familiarity of a city, "The Rat" sees dread and despair in the same -- yet there's still a hint of beauty and joy to be found, but it's an Eyes Wide Shut or Sweet Smell of Success New York, not a Woody Allen New York. This ain't the Mudd Club or CBGB's; I ain't got time for that now.

"The Rat" is only the second cut on Bows + Arrows. I think it was months before I stopped repeating it long enough to move on. I eventually found much to love in the oblique beauty of the title track, the hungover piano of "Hang On, Siobhan," in which Hamilton's ache predicts his next eight years of gorgeous singing ("we promised to keep it between you and me," he snarls adoringly). And while it's handily defeated by "In the New Year" in the grand context of Walkmen songs about December 31, "New Year's Eve" is a simple, gorgeous jewel, the occasional explosion of joy already driving the Walkmen. That's certainly illustrated by the other climactic track here, the immortal "Little House of Savages," which when I put it on yesterday evening drove home to me how much, as good as Heaven is, it can't stand up to this relentless, brutal younger band. After all these years I can't decide if the narrative of someone waiting for you to come home is as romantic as my heart tells me or as menacing and potentially lethal as my cynical impulse does, but the best corroborative evidence that it's both -- a doomed love affair, more than likely -- is the almost conservative romanticism and pragmatic intelligence illustrated by the three most recent Walkmen records. And that's what I love about them, what I suspect I was hearing from the start. Because it's scary and sad, and you're a bastard for doing this, but there's also some resigned what-a-world loveliness to all of it, isn't there?

I was a Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry geek; the only currently running band I cared about in 2004 was Yo La Tengo, and really I was more interested in movies then anyway. "Little House of Savages" would have more relevance for me than I could've known later in the year, and years hence so would that haunting refrain in "The Rat," but what hooked me was that this was a rock band from New York City (by way of Washington) and they were alive, new that moment, and here I was receiving these missives and caring about, loving them. (I could have seen them at a tiny club called the Soapbox that very week -- more foreshadowing -- but didn't, because I was too scared to go out on my own; I wouldn't get to see them until six years later, but it was worth the wait.) It was a moment of genuine evolution and stabbed much of my skepticism about "new bands" in the heart. I couldn't really explain why this sound connected so instantly and intimately with me, why I heard the wet city streets of Marquee Moon in the Walkmen's songs, don't know why they sound like they should be bigger than life to me and aren't (they still open for younger, lesser bands after all these years), but whatever. It's to my delight that it's all still true, that I'd forgotten how it was all already there back then. As the song goes, the more we talk, the less we understand.

[SEE ALSO:]
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2004)
You & Me (2008)
Lisbon (2010)
Heaven (2012)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Walkmen: Heaven (2012)


(Fat Possum)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review.

This is right on the edge of being just "recommended" but I bumped it up because I truly feel that if a change so minor as the songs being in a different order had been made, I wouldn't have been so underwhelmed -- and after spending the summer with the thing, I find myself reaching for it with considerable affection. More specific justification follows.

Cons: sounds like a series of leftovers, sounds vaguely unfinished (it appeared so suspiciously fast!), a little treacly in areas (though I really love "Song for Leigh" which is the one everyone's singled out). Has a bit of an early U2 thing going? Or Dire Straits or uh, Springsteen. Sounds really weak and nimble when played against basically any of their prior canonical albums -- even A Hundred Miles Off, which I stand by as a mystifying underrated record -- especially so soon after Lisbon. Pacing is bizarre, sounds like someone reversed it at the factory or something.

Pros: guitars have never sounded better. Band has never sounded better. Hamilton has never sounded better. The songs are solid. And when I think about it, it's the mesmerizing sound that I love about the Walkmen and I dig this album for the sheer fact of adding more and increasingly adventurous and weirdly arranged tunes (they've discovered 1950s country, it seems) to their canon. Sounds absolutely wonderful while driving at night. Has a bit of an early U2 thing going? Or uh, Van Morrison circa Tupelo Honey. The songs with "love" in the title are two of the best songs with "love" in the title that I've heard lately.

[SEE ALSO:]
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002)
You & Me (2008)
Lisbon (2010)

Amos Milburn: Bad Bad Whiskey (1947-55)


(Vanilla Digital)

RECOMMENDED

The low-key career of the late pianist Amos Milburn is an important link in the rock & roll narrative because it's one of the bodies of work that sits in a nexus point -- encyclopedias remember him as nominally a boogie musician, but it's more accurate to consider him as one of the architects of the link between jazz and blues, of the affixing of blues song forms to musically adventurous, free-flowing jazz arrangements. In this sense, a luminary like Fats Domino owes everything to Milburn, something Domino has always been ready to acknowledge.

This brief compilation of some of Milburn's signature sides is, admittedly, more absorbing as a historical listen than as the pounding, ferocious marathon of immediacy that its excited liner notes might imply. There's no wow factor or spark of latecoming recognition. Without the context, though, the music's simply a lot of fun, and you don't have to know much about Milburn or about where boogie, jazz, or blues were sitting in the '40s to appreciate these songs, their banging piano solos, their suggestively erotic and playful lyrics ("just draw the shades and we'll play a while"), and the ageless joy in something like the killer proto-rock & roll jam "House Party Tonight."

That song along with the title track are the highlights here. The latter is a jewel; for all the swing in its rolling piano, that mischievously muttering vocal is what strikes. The same goes for the semi-sequel "Let Me Go Home Whiskey," on which Milburn mournfully announces that he's "got orders from my baby / not to come home juiced no more." There's a comic enthusiasm to even his sad songs, but one must admit that Milburn is most fun when he sounds absolutely loose. Take the perfect hop-skip of "Down the Road Apiece," a strong case made in two minutes for Milburn's importance in jump-blues, or better yet the dirty sax and proto-rap in "Sax Shack Boogie," all about "a little dance that they call the scrunch." This disc is over before you know it, but in the meantime it's a worthy education on a hotbed of influence, and the songs still cook hot and bright enough for your house party.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Velvet Underground (1969)


(MGM)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The first casualties had been Nico and Andy Warhol, who abandoned the Velvets for good or ill. The next one was potentially crippling -- John Cale, fed up with Lou Reed and the universe, packed his bags and viola and vanished. Without Cale, however, Reed the songwriter suddenly came of age. His biggest ally in the world of noise and experimentation was gone and now he was a tunesmith. For the Velvets' third album, he becomes his own Dylan, spinning tales and melodies with the unerring sophistication of an obvious Goffin-King-Barry-Greenwich-Holland-Dozier-Holland student. Reed had, in fact, worked in a miniature Brill Building knockoff in the years before the VU came together -- his label had refused to release "Heroin."

Even with the angelic singing of Lou and new bassist Doug Yule, the soft, delicate production, and the overwhelming melodic appeal of the songs, it is Bob Dylan who comes to mind when we hear this, for the simple reason that all ten of these compositions have a life of their own; all seem monumental, legendary, and with good reason.

The album, in truth, couldn't be sonically more different from its predecessors. You can hear some traces of it in "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror," but even they had a self-imposed iconic sheen that seems long gone in these bare, literate, and almost invariably sad songs. You could call it Simon & Garfunkel with a brain and heart and libido ("Some Kinda Love"), but even that doesn't even touch the fact of the matter, which is that for all its uncharacteristic qualities, it is the same band that brought forth "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" from the pits of foul whatever. "I'm Set Free" may be straightforward and pretty, but it marks the same desperation and fury as "Heroin." It's just a good enough song to pass on its own merits and say what it means instead of leaping into you unguarded for attention. In the same sense, "The Murder Mystery" is as rock & roll as "Tutti Frutti" -- silly and senseless but fun and teasing. All this is irrelevant, though, because these are not only the best and most personal songs Lou Reed has ever written, they are the best, most assured performances in the Velvets' catalog. The result is, perhaps inevitably, one of the best rock & roll longplayers of all time.

Lou Reed has the alluring voice, but it's Doug Yule at the helm of the seductive opener, "Candy Says." The band's touch is light as a feather, gorgeously so, as Reed reminds us of his prowess with his characters -- the way he identifies and sympathizes with them, and senses the unlikely truth that we (and he) can see ourselves in them. His effortless lyrics on this LP are his best ever, so if I don't mention it in the paragraphs to follow, keep in mind that all of these songs have brilliant, eloquent lyrics. In any case, this is a character sketch that reaches leagues beyond the world of flower power and displays a presence of mind and thought unheard of in most rock. In the end we're left with one of the most beautiful songs of its time.

"What Goes On" immediately changes the pace, breaking out the organ and guitars and giving us Lou Reed singing pure rock & roll for all of life's worth. He sings, in his first appearance on the album, as if he has just made a great discovery in his existence, as if he'd finally had a chance to tell us how he really felt, as if it doesn't really matter but he'd love to sing about it anyway. Then the solo, then the organ is louder, and he's back... and magnetic.

Sterling Morrison and Lou's Byrdsian guitar interplay on "Some Kinda Love" is only half the song's fun. Reed's witty pop-psychology lyrics about sexuality are as intelligent and amusing as you'd expect, and the man is a poet, but even as he's living in a guise of satire he presents us with a recording that finds its own way to be erotic, not explicitly but somewhere within the pulses of Maureen Tucker's bass drum and the casual slaughter of Reed's voice. "Let us now kiss the culprit" is as vital a climax in the Velvets' catalog as "My mind's split open."

Side One reaches a climax with the magnificent "Pale Blue Eyes," one of the best rock moments on record. The personal, childlike lyrics are jaw-dropping in their articulate, frenzied affection. The musical dead air hurls by the words like a train, and Reed sounds both deathly alone and of one with the face of his surroundings, the guitar playing off his emotions the way you'd imagine is ideal to every composer and rarely achieved. Musically, it couldn't be happier or more shimmering, but Reed casts a pall on the proceedings and the world soon seems to be in black and white, the beautiful notes a fragment of a funeral march.

"Jesus" is as revealtory as "Pale Blue Eyes." The challenging declaration of faith seems a genuine cry for a help without a trace of irony. The recording itself is especially evocative. Like the rest of the album, it is aided by a muffled, distant production that brings to mind an image of a band playing in an old, decaying house (Lou Reed's version was called "the closet mix" for a reason). In their awareness of the past -- the mentions of forgotten old movies, Reed's chivalrous dialect and endless array of odd characters -- the Velvet Underground have a way of reaching beyond the traces of the world and of time that rock & roll has inhabited. They nonetheless see them within the dialect and the mindset of the music they create, rendering it exempt from the curse of aging; it understands time too well to date itself.

The next two songs, "Beginning to See the Light" and "I'm Set Free," offer the greatest pleasures in the Velvet Underground's entire catalog. The former forecasts the all-knowing glory of Loaded; an arm-raising anthem of joy and freedom, it marks Lou Reed as a real charmer on vocals ("there are problems in these times, but wooo! none of them are mine!"), and the band is loud, reflective and thrilling without wearing out its welcome or betraying the introspective flavor of the record. Modeled on the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You," it's irresistible and addictive, with a remarkably exhilirating bridge section... and the all-time moment, "How does it feel...?"

"I'm Set Free," however, is their most fully realized production and, for me at least, their greatest and most elegant achievement. Theatrical in a Phil Spector vein, with guitars and drums that sound like reassuring answers to every unsettling question you ever needed to ask. Lou is overjoyed at the changes his life has undertaken, but carries no misconceptions about his fate. He is set free... but only to find a new illusion. It can be nothing but uplifting, however, because although Reed is unwilling to accept the truth, he breaks it open and finds life and joy in it. "I saw my head laughing / Rolling on the ground." There are few songs in the world that are so life-affirming, potentially life-changing. The Velvet Underground is not Andy Warhol's big joke or a set of leather-clad smack-snorting nogoodniks. They are an outfit of awesome power.

"That's the Story of My Life" is a trifle, but only in comparison, and it offers somber, comforting reflection of its own. "The Murder Mystery" is another story, so to speak. Earmarked almost unanimously as a failed experiment, it's anything but. Lou and Sterling spit out words rapidly and Maureen and Doug sing softly while a creeping, crawling backing track suffocates them all slowly. You may grow bitter if you sit for untold hours with your ear to the speaker attempting to find the culprit, but accepting it as a mood, as a single painterly piece of work you can't help but adore it, especially if you stay through the whole nine minutes. Like "The Gift" and the Beatles' "Revolution 9," it's that seldom-heard self-indulgent rock experiment that works perfectly and remembers to be fun. Also, the stream-of-consciousness words are a gas if you can find them.

That madness sets the stage -- the table? -- for Maureen Tucker's step up to the spotlight, the delightful, sparse, unforgettable "After Hours." With soft cabaret backup, she offers some of Reed's most personal and touching lyrics -- he still manages to be clever and she is just pure charm all the way through. It's a perfect song and probably a shoe-in as the best album closer in rock history.

You will carry all of these wonderful songs with you for the rest of your life. I don't know what else I can say, but it really doesn't get any better than this.

[Originally posted in a state of infinite naivete in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO:]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
White Light / White Heat (1968)

One-Sentence Reviews

I'm cranky music-wise lately, and feel my interest in modern "indie" rock depressingly fading -- its fault, not mine -- and I am not going to torture myself to come up with anything significant to say about the following. I reserve the right to add more to this over the next week or two.

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends (2012)

(Warner Bros.)

There's nothing particularly offensive about this musically but at the moment the only thing I want to do less than talk about the Flaming Lips is talk about Chris Brown, Surfer Blood, and Ariel Pink; Wayne Coyne's cutesy aloofness isn't funny anymore.

***

Faith No More: Angel Dust (1992)

(Slash)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

It would be better for all of us if Mike Patton just... checked out.

***

Death Grips: The Money Store (2012)

(Epic)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Thanks, Jayson, but I'll take the skinned knee over this mumblehip bonehead shit that sounds like a room full of fratholes.

***

Actress: R.I.P. (2012)

(Honest Jon's)

Immersive.

***

Curren$y: The Stoned Immaculate (2012)

(Warner Bros.)

RECOMMENDED

You know the drill by now -- a worthy summer comedown/chillout, but I do wish there were something here as good as the one-off "Plot Music," on which he sounds, well, awake?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Annie: Anniemal (2004)


(679)

To a great degree, this record hangs on a tragedy: the death of this Norwegian pop singer's collaborator and boyfriend Tore Kroknes. The pair had begun recording as a lark in the late '90s; Annie finished the project in tribute to him. This explains why it ends up sounding like a capturing of fun, impulsive artistry stunted by a sense of labored obligation. Because as much as Annie has been embraced by the alternative press, her presentation of basic dancefloor ideas is only slightly off-kilter. And that's fine, we love this sort of music, but we can't ignore a certain absence of spontaneity here, a weak self-consciousness that stems, really, from its being a blatant grab bag of era-defiant dance music influences.

And for the passionate discophile or electro-pop aficionado, this can prove reductive, because we know that the Tom Tom Club boy-crazy romp "Chewing Gum" reaches out to us from a different universe from the early '90s hi-NRG drama of "Always Too Late," the catchy but superficial bubblegum of "Me Plus One," the nondescript gym music of the title cut, the made-for-The-Limited trip hop of "No Easy Love" (her best track), the generic Madonnaisms and party disco of "Greatest Hit," even the R&B slowjam that sets us off into the night on "My Best Friend." The collision of these things, none of them seeming terribly convicted and all rather off the cuff, is awkward.

The songwriting does little to mask these issues and often meanders dreadfully despite promising moments. Many of these hooks are from the Wings/ABBA universe of music that burrows its way into your skull as shamelessly as possible with a headache-inducing lack of substance. These already busy songs could do without diversions like that "oh no, oh no, you got it all wrong" on the too-long-and-facile "Chewing Gum," that Mike Love-like nursery rhyme chant "if there's ever a girl that can rock your world then that girl sure is me" on "Me Plus One," the mismatched baroque chorus of the improbably shiny Björk allusion "Helpless Fool for Love," and oh, that simply painful "My best friend, where are you? Tell me, where are you?"

Only rarely, however, is Annie's work here devoid of appeal. (The two complete misfires are the awful, badly sung "Happy Without You" and the endless 1986-vintage 12" single soundalike "Come Together") The weaker cuts still might boast rousing beats or splendid towers of vocals, and "No Easy Love" is a surprisingly stylish wonder. But except for "Greatest Hit," the melodies seem lazy; the instrumentation is often better or more interesting than the songs or the singing, and this just isn't the type of carefree party it passionately wishes to be. You've heard of record-collector rock? This is record-collector dance music, something I didn't even know was possible.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gossip: A Joyful Noise (2012)


(Columbia)

!! CAUTION !!

Read my Metro Times review.

To be fair, the cover art's worse than the music.

Buddy Holly (1958)


(Coral)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There are twelve songs on Buddy Holly's second album and only officially credited solo LP. Exactly half of them qualify as landmarks, those weighed heavily on the back half, the opposite of the Brunswick collection The "Chirping" Crickets. Of the remaining six cuts, there are three outright duds, covers of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley (Leiber-Stoller) tunes to which Holly's unique, fascinating voice is ill-suited. One of the three remaining cuts, all cowritten by Holly, is a pleasant diversion ("Little Baby"). But the two songs that reveal most are the filler toward the beginning: the melodic oddity "Look at Me" and the yet more eccentric folky guitar piece "Listen to Me" don't sit neatly with any of Holly's most famous music. But what's interesting about both is that they sound at least seven years ahead of the pack sonically, emotionally, aesthetically. Hearing "Listen to Me" today it's impossible not be shocked that one isn't hearing a forgotten outtake from Beatles for Sale or Help!.

But assume for a second that there's nothing you really need in the lesser half of this album. You're wrong, of course, but let's favor that argument. Theoretically, that's a rather poor batting average, not one we'd easily forgive on a modern record. There's little doubt in my mind that the number of people who've ever pinpointed this as a starting or defining point for Holly newbies is trivial. Yet if an artist issued original songs on the order of "Everyday," "Words of Love," and "Rave On!" on the same slab of vinyl in 2012, it's my firmly held belief that -- no matter how the quality of the other selections averaged out -- the world would basically implode.

The two full-length albums Holly released in his lifetime are surprisingly separate in tone and stylistics -- The "Chirping" Crickets had been all explosions, bursts of energy. On Buddy Holly, only "Rave On!" savors this over sustaining a mood. Still, the distinction both halves of this tiny body of work share is that while their character and strength are suggested in any context, their life comes out when they're played as loudly as possible. How else to experience the real rumbling that undercuts the carnal desires in "Peggy Sue," the intensity of the drums on "Rave On," the cluck-cluck swagger in the breathtakingly intense vocal of "I'm Gonna Love You Too"? "It's gonna happen someday," he joyously, soulfully sneers.

Holly was an innovator more than a showman; "Peggy Sue" is the subtlest of all early rock & roll hits, admittedly watered down a bit by overexposure through the years. You can't gauge its impact from a tinny telecine or an iPhone speaker; what you really need is the 45 with its deep grooves rattling up from beneath. But frankly, as much as I love Holly, what gets me excited is the heavenly run of "Everyday" -- "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" -- "Words of Love."

Neutered a couple of decades later by James Taylor, "Everyday" is one of the greatest capturings of young love in Western art; delicately hopeful, sexually charged, whispering and tense, it envelops everything about the early stages of a relationship lyrically, vocally, and musically, and it's one of Holly's true masterpieces. Crucially, unlike even the boldly dramatic stop-start of the Crickets ballad "Not Fade Away," it never releases its tension, a task left to "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" on which you can hear the earliest evidence of Holly attaining the wistful desperation that would become his last recorded legacy with the apartment demos laid down shortly before his death. Those recordings are more obviously anticipated by the playful surrealism of "Listen to Me," but "Mailman" presents such a harsh, cathartic vocal performance -- the song itself almost overcome with regret and dread -- that it seems in many ways the most artistically advanced moment of this often breathtakingly sophisticated album.

"Words of Love" presents yet another side of Holly that would subsequently be explored in more depth: the grand, sheepish romantic. Up to now, most of Holly's relationship songs had been either angry, like "That'll Be the Day," or seeped in eroticism, like "Not Fade Away." This cut, though, is positioned as a response to one of Holly's most beloved records (and, not to make this about me, but mine too): Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," a song that predicts everything from funk and soul to shoegaze, a positively nasty guitar lick held together by incongruously ugly, agonized vocals that embody the title masterfully. I believe it's one of the ten best rock & roll records of all, and I think Holly agreed. But whereas that song means to swipe and provoke, Holly's response in "Words of Love" is a cooing ocean-breeze of sweetness and open-armed adulation, a song as pleasing to the ear as any one can imagine, its guitars ringing out with the clean simplicity of Hank Williams, the vocals a gently brooding low-intoned hum of springtime reverence. It's Holly's only ascendence into a belief in magic, rather than mere generating of it.

The Holly story is unfinished after this. It never will be finished, and it's foolish to think we have some inkling of where it was headed. Buddy Holly, the album, is just one element in a larger legacy of this master who never had the chance to prove the degree of his mastery -- but because that larger legacy isn't large enough, this is important: for history, for memory, for pleasure.

[SEE ALSO:]
The "Chirping" Crickets (1957)
Greatest Hits (1957-59)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

El-P: Cancer 4 Cure (2012)


(Fat Possum)

This is dramatic shit -- though engaging, it's a mountain of impulses and kind of a task to get through. Four full listens, several halfway, and I don't really know what I think of it and I'm not terribly excited to hear it again. It's true that El-P's off-kilter, spittingly dense delivery has never been for all tastes; I've never really warmed to it myself. This seems alternately the most and least "El-P" effort to date, mostly because it's so ambitious. You can sift through his wordplay and find some jewels like "Walk in the zone or get less, wake in the fog of fright night / Eat where the sifters sell trash, sleep where the orphan's hell hatched" and bear witness to the extreme storytelling mastery of something like the bystanding accomplice anthem "For My Upstairs Neighbors (Mum's the Word)." But outside of magnificently fun guest spots from Danny Brown and Killer Mike, your overriding impression is that this the work of a pretty tortured dude. It's all very serious, and I don't necessarily mean to put that up as a negative.

Brooklyn courses through the veins of this record; the live tracks that encompass keyboards by Ikey Owens, bass from James McNew, and guitar from Jaleel Bunton capture these times as well as anything. El-P has called this an album about wanting to live, and in its apocalyptic tenor, the busy difficulty of it all, it seems shadowed by death, "darkness" in the author's phrase. So this might not be much of a party record and it's frankly too overwhelming to sink into, but it's certainly fascinating.