Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fat Boys: All Meat No Filler (1984-89)


(Rhino)

RECOMMENDED

It was always the job of other people to take the Fat Boys seriously, never their own. Like the Shangri-Las or Jerry Lee Lewis at his earliest and wildest, their conviction was the ruthless pursuit of purportedly mindless fun, the carnal and the corpulent; it fell to others after the fact to read the group's innovation, cleverness and their sense of cut-loose pure joy. The gimmick of Prince Markie Dee, Kool RockSki and the late great Human Beat Box, Darren Robinson, called to mind that sequence in Spartacus when Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov sit down to discuss the great joys of gluttony. There's a certain novel frivolity in all this, but musically, the group is serious business.

The most consistent material on this enjoyable if somewhat padded out compilation comes from the Fat Boys' landmark first album, several veritable classics of old-school hip hop: "Fat Boys," "Human Beatbox," "Can You Feel It," and the massive "Jail House Rap." But the peaks in the trio's later work reach even higher: "All You Can Eat" is a binge-eating throwdown for the ages, "The Fat Boys Are Back" boasts the wickedest groove here, with "Falling in Love" a piece of grandly self-effacing storytelling worthy of Dana Dane or Slick Rick. Like so many first-generation rap artists, the band loses their integrity as the years weigh on them, though never their enthusiasm; there's something sort of charming about the Beach Boys collaboration "Wipeout" and the awkward deconstruction of "Louie Louie" (try not to love this couplet: "it caused a big-ass rumble / they thought it was filthy, cause the lyrics were mumbled") even if both are sort of terrible. The affability of all three Boys and Robinson in particular is unflagging and makes this hit-and-miss collection a lot of fun even at its worst.

Robinson's beatboxing is wild to experience, even now, squeaking and chopping and screwing and scratching with supernatural rhythm; the prime takeaway is the essence of real artistry. His confidence and self-assertion cannot shrink away other insecurities, but his steely control of his skill makes its own statement. Those same insecurities become something to both mock and celebrate across the rest of the record, although one bristles at realizing how gendered all this is; it's unlikely that a group of Fat Girls would find mainstream acceptance for embracing their own body issues -- as the Boys, or Biggie, or Big Pun all managed to do.

These singles are very much of their time and you have to crane your neck at times to hear the vitality in them. It's probably a good idea to stick to the Fat Boys' individual albums, but this gives you a decent idea of what made them so instantly appealing, even as you cringe at pseudo-Ray Parker "Are You Ready for Freddy" or "The Twist (Yo, Twist)"... and, to be less charitable, the blatant Run-DMC cribbing of "Don't Be Stupid" and "In the House." Still, personality bursts through on this music so much that you can't help liking them even when you don't particularly like where they're putting their talent. The unceasingly wonderful sound of early hip hop is rejuvenating in any context, regardless.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Complete Ann Peebles on Hi Records, Vol. 1 (1969-73)


(Demon)

RECOMMENDED

One of a number of soul singers of her period who was talented, consistently good on record, had a hell of a voice both literally and as a songwriter, and even enjoyed a bit of mainstream success but has lapsed into semi-obscurity with the passing decades, Ann Peebles was known primarily to me for two reasons: her biggest hit "I Can't Stand the Rain" was sampled on Missy Elliott's mindblowing 1997 single "Da Rain," one of the songs that got me seriously interested in hip hop; and she was performing on the night that John Lennon got kicked out of the Troubador for wearing a maxi pad on his head. Not coincidentally, Lennon cited "I Can't Stand the Rain" as the finest record ever made. I don't know if he's right, but he's not wrong, if that makes sense.

This exhaustive compilation may not be the best introduction to Peebles' work. While everything it encompasses is listenable, I have to imagine that Peebles works better in shorter, more urgent doses. These two discs gather a wealth of the St. Louis native's work in what is unquestionably one of the best periods of soul music: 1969 to 1973. It's reviewed here specifically because it was the only Peebles item I could easily find when I was trying to learn more about her; now I can and probably eventually will dig for her albums or a more conventional compilation on one of the streaming services. But don't let that sound like muted praise for Peebles herself or her body of work -- there are a lot of songs here that work great for mixes, for DJing, for bursts of pleasure. They just don't all stack together necessarily without wearing out their welcome, and because this is a complete chunk of her discography, you get limp covers of "Rescue Me" and "Chain of Fools" and "Respect" probably intended as b-sides or to be buried on records. There's also a strange tune about a generation gap within a relationship, which is... strange, though not altogether in a bad way. (Note that I'm resisting the obvious Woody Allen joke.)

Hi Records was one of the centers of the world in soul music in the early '70s, in part but not entirely because it was the home of Al Green at the time; though it's never been as appreciated as the Stax or Motown style, there was a distinctive sound to the Hi recordings, and that's audible and intensely delightful on this nearly two-hour set. The horns on "Part Time Love" and "I'll Get Along" have that crunchy stop-start lilt while the rhythm section plods through an immaculately minimal groove and you keep expecting "Let's Stay Together" or "I'm Still in Love with You" to kick up. It's no fair to compare Peebles or anyone else to Green, but it's interesting that her creative arrangement of the Memphis sound puts her in a wholly different position to her peer's; whereas he deliberately commands and places himself in front of the band, Peebles seems to see herself as a more democratic member of the troupe and, skilled and impressive though her voice is, exchanges direct call and response with the other instruments and never attempts to assert herself as the untouchable center. And given what seems to have been an unusual level of creative control, this was almost assuredly intentional.

You can place either of these discs on as background and enjoy yourself, although again the length will leave you reaching up to vary things a bit, but the second is far stronger than the first. Nearly all of the songs are solid, with very few merely serviceable. A more streamlined singles collection would likely up the consistency; the individual standouts leap out in your direction here. Opener "Give Me Some Credit" certainly qualifies as a statement of purpose, as bold and flooring as all those Marvin Gaye sets that open with "Stubborn Kind of Fellow." The vicious late '60s groove on "Credit" is the perfect stage to set for Peebles' voice, already perfectly formed and nuanced and clear as bell, flipping wildly between tough and vulnerable, speaking and singing, singing and singing like something depends on it. Maybe it did; she seldom sounds so excited elsewhere, and her reputation as rather a dour and bleak figure isn't wholly unjustified. It's the brilliant band performance that sticks out on the ringing, alternately bottom-heavy and feather-light funk on "It's Your Thing," despite the prowess of Peebles and the backing vocalists. She only seems to cut as loose as her backers at the end, when she emits a marvelously gentle echo of Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect" -- "sockittome sockittome," she nearly whispers.

Not for nothing does Peebles seem most at home on ballads -- the lovely slow-jams "Won't You Try Me" and particularly "Troubles, Heartaches and Sadness" are easy choices for your next second-chance prom (though even the pure sap of "Until You Came into My Life" is agreeable), and they've got nothing on the goddamn sick-beyond-all-definition "I've Been There Before." This song, the emotional peak of the collection, opens with "Did you ever have to sit there and watch them holding hands?" and whether you have or haven't, you feel like you have when this thing gets in your bones. The concoction is a delicate one: slippery guitar in the fashion of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears," and a plodding, incredibly tense drum pattern. In a sense it's just like a hundred other R&B ballads, but in another it's fully singular -- it just has that kind of immediacy and ideal fusion of performance and composition.

Maybe part of Peebles' charm is how tentatively she comes around to a swaggering moment like her "yeh" on "Part Time Love," but as the years wear on, some of her best material finds her in rock & roll badass mode, like the delicious "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," which I'm thrilled to report is nearly as good as its title, and the towering, brutal "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," which some say is better than "I Can't Stand the Rain," though I'm not among them. By "I Pity the Fool," Peebles has fully come into her own as both soul singer and pop professional. Which I suppose is a cry out for me to investigate Vol. 2.

But as for "I Can't Stand the Rain," it truly stands above all else here. Like some sort of alien creation, it sounds as surreal and incongruous here as in any other context, and must have been outrageous on the radio. It has the feel of a world-shaker like "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- some twisted thing that, even if not truly "new," has never been done in quite this way before. It comes down to nothing more than romantic yearning, but what else is there? And that wet, fishy tap-tap percussion that bursts in like a transmission from parts unknown, weirdly reminiscent of the bizarre percussion Phil Spector used on Lennon's "Instant Karma!", is a stroke of genius that can't likely be explained away rationally. Like Screamin' Jay Hawkins or John Cale, Peebles here shows herself to be fearlessly inventive in adapting strange ideas to a pop idiom, even if fleetingly.

Further research required, then? Unquestionably. I feel I'll be able to evaluate Peebles' work and career with clearer eyes by seeking out her work in shorter form, at which point I have little doubt she'll join the list of my favorite singers of her period. For now: go find her, listen to her, enjoy her great music, but maybe go a different route than I did.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Depeche Mode: Delta Machine (2013)


(Columbia)

As a construction and in pleasurable (non-)effect, every Depeche Mode album since, uh, let's say the departure of Alan Wilder has been essentially the same. Look no further for a case in point than the end of their latest mildly successful return to the well: closing track "Goodbye" is more or less a remake of every closing track from every Depeche Mode release. It even references "Clean" directly. Talking of in-between years, these titans have been on a rather strict four-year release and tour and side project and vacation model, and this workhorse of a band cannot ever be accused of being inconsistent. They're a devoted bunch, and it's pleasing in a way that you can count on certain things every post-election year since George Bush, Sr. lost: Dave Gahan excitedly racing up the steps with the results of his latest vocal lessons, Martin Gore pretending to care about "riffs" for a while, Andy Fletcher doing whatever it is he does (planning the vacations?), Anton Corbijn designing very Anton Corbijny cover art, and Flood onboard as a "mixer." I have no quarrel with Mode's presence in the marketplace; I'm glad they're still around and clearly enjoying what they do, and finding it profitable and rewarding. But consistency is no guarantee of inspiration, and after a three-decade run of albums that were at least interesting, this is the closest they've come to a dud. But it's a respectable dud.

It's not a weak effort because it's absent of the revelatory punch of Exciter or Playing the Angel, for even in relatively lackluster moments like Ultra and Sounds of the Universe, the band was always admirably ambitious. Significantly, beginning with Angel the band has added another major voice to its reliable fold: that of producer Ben Hillier, a programmer reared on classic DM singles who faithfully pursued the essence of the band's darkest and most beautiful noises on his first two records with them. Even at their best, though, one distressing trend since Hillier came aboard has been the group's sacrifice of any semblance of innovation. Their records still explore trends in modern dance music -- there's even a touch of dubstep here, kind of -- but post-Wilder, it seems always to have been in the guise of following rather than leading.

Nevertheless: the diminishing returns of Delta Machine, which sadly now crystallize what seems to be a trend (and we won't get to prove it's not for another four years), are not Hillier's problem. Those, by the way, are diminishing returns both in light of Sounds of the Universe and, more significantly, the way it sounds a little dumber and limper each time you spin it -- this from a band whose intricacies were once enough that we could fill C-90s with consistently weird and entertaining remixes. But no, it's surely a question of songwriting. Yet again, Gore is sharing the stage in this respect with Dave Gahan, whose great test here is contributing the all-important first single. The first single of a given Depeche Mode LP is, I don't have to tell you, a big deal in their world -- it seldom bears much relation to the "sound" of the album but, from "Personal Jesus" onward, has been designed to lay down a sort of "we're back" gauntlet. How depressing that "Heaven" is probably the weakest first single from a Depeche Mode album, uh, ever, assuming we're not counting the turgid "Martyr," which was issued to promote a compilation. It sounds like latter-day R.E.M., of all things, incredibly plodding and all too willing to let its sort-of-competent melody slide down the hill into nothingness.

Gahan's other tune in the first half is no more auspicious. "Secret to the End" yearns, just yearns to connect, but its hook is just too weak -- the entire record almost seems determined at times to shirk pleasure in favor of, frankly, a dismal musical nihilism, something that was a little fresher in 1993 when Songs of Faith and Devotion attempted it. Faith and Devotion, although it consists of some wonderful songs, nearly derailed the band with its irksome self-seriousness and rockist flogging, but I'd never have called it a blot on the resume, which that "shoulda been you" refrain assuredly is. Vocally and otherwise, Gahan seems completely beholden to his desire to imitate big-brother Martin; why? His tunes on Playing the Angel were magnificent, and I don't know what happened after that.

We should be gentle with Gahan, though, for Gore's often no better here -- neither Hillier's tweaks nor Gahan's perfectly capable singing can rescue something so draggy as "Slow." I coulda sworn they already had a song called this (was thinking of "Slowblow," maybe?) and moreover that it sounded just like this; it's verging on self-parody with its hamhanded pseudo-sensuality, and the lyrics give the impression of being lifted from a volume of unpublished erotica by Jack Prelutsky. But at least "Slow" is a shit track through and through -- what's more tragic is "Broken," a clear attempt to reconnect with the fanbase that has actual propulsion but then... alas, one-chord wonder, no hook.

It's entirely possible that the band and Gore's entire purpose with this project was to sink into themselves and issue something that gave no real concessions to the audience, but it's hard to have fun listening to something like that -- and I actually do listen to this band to enjoy myself; they may have been reputed for years to be outlandishly depressing, but in fact their peak work was witty and sexy. It's unreasonable to ask a thirty-three year old band to match their peak period, I realize, but I don't think all this dour lily-fingered indus-pop is the best use of their talents, aged or not.

There has yet to be a Depeche Mode record that I didn't enjoy in part. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Delta Machine has any hidden gems, but it does have a few cuts decent enough to fit well in the library. I like Martin Gore's center-stage piece "The Child Inside," another weird weightless thing like "When the Body Speaks" and a bit of a treat as such. It still seems more like b-side material, and I'm unnerved by the weird popping sound in the right channel, but it shows off a less blankly macho kind of weirdness that I appreciate. (Are we still facing the consequences for Dave Gahan's lost grunge weekend in the mid-'90s?) "Soft Touch/Raw Nerve" is some ridiculous garbage, a totally tasteless jock jam that sounds more than slightly like something the justifiably forgotten alt-rock band Filter would've formed into a mild hit, but it actually picks up a groove and turns it all the way around and is uncharacteristic enough to be a pleasing novelty slash pop concoction. The second single "Soothe My Soul" is sort of cute; it reminds me of ZZ Top! But my favorite cut is also the bounciest, at least as bouncy as this rattle-bones gets, and was intriguingly also written by Gahan: "Should Be Higher" boasts another silly chorus and gives a priceless mental image of Gahan leaping to reach a high microphone and belting out one clause at a time, but the bridge is cool and the tune is a fine fake backwoods stomper that favorably recalls Talking Heads' "Swamp."

Hillier, again, has a good handle on what sounds complement these voices well. But he can't do much except go with the flow in terms of songwriting, so now all his up-to-the-moment wizardry is in service of some dirgelike stuff. As a consequence, the recordings are tricky and playful but have no real bite or magic, something that was ominously but only slightly suggested on Sounds of the Universe. There are tweaky charms to spare on "My Little Universe" but it's annoying and breathy and, really, just another half-song musically. "Alone" is the quintessential example of Hillier's helplessness; it has enthusiasm in its pound pound pound pound glitter, but it's for naught -- there's no air in it, and the melody has only a wisp of presence.

By far the most tiresome change that's overtaken Depeche Mode's music post-Wilder has been one that initially seemed like an asset -- Dave Gahan, once rock's most famous deadpan, is now a technically quite impressive singer. But he and Gore both got the blues, and it's lethal. The increasing histrionics in Gahan's voice and Gore's songwriting as they both fall in love with Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker records is both charmingly weird and an ever-increasing blight on their hallowed dance music legacy. Because they just can't pull this shit off, man. "John the Revelator" was a great single back in 2005, but it should not have been the beginning of an ever-deepening fixation that the group can't properly carry beyond a vaguely reductive novelty. I suppose I don't have to tell you what the Delta of the title comes to imply, right? The tip of the iceberg here is "Angel," one of the most tragically bad songs in the catalog; it's maxed out electro-blues that sound like an Atari game set in an acne-faced programmer's stereotyped impressions of "the Bayou." Haven't we done this before? Yeah, you could argue it reaches all the way back to "Personal Jesus," but it's getting worse, man. The Blind David Gahan shtick has got to go, guys. It makes you sound luuuudicrous.

Even apart from the blooze problem, which is honestly the sort of thing that rock bands have struggled with longer than most of us have been alive, on the first moments of this record we have an intriguingly modernist Hillier backing track and then in comes Gahan to slather his sleazy choirboy thing all over "Welcome to My World." That song's a great mood piece, with a colorful build even if its hook doesn't really go anywhere... but Gahan's more than competent vocal is one of those that just seems like an ill fit to this group, this music. Something about all of his ever-increasing command of affected emotion seems actually less emotional than, you know, "Master and Servant" or "A Question of Time" or even "Precious," which retained an ideal balance of old barking Gahan and melodic troubadour. Hell, stay even closer; compare "Broken" to even something as recent as the sublimely menacing "Ghost." Better his croon than his gritty roar, but... I miss the sneer. I miss the guy who talked about how much happier he was stocking shelves in 101. Clearly that's no longer true; Gore has gone through a divorce, last I heard, and for all I know Gahan's personal life may be a mess, I don't really keep up with that stuff, but the three of them are clearly in just about the most perfect position you can be in within a pop music context. They don't have to record anything now, or tour, to secure their legacy and live comfortably, they choose to do so and if they just end up with an inconsequential mood piece, well, add it to the pile. These dudes have it made, and more power to them; they deserve it. But maybe that's what makes all this carefully cultivated pain and misery hard to swallow by now.

[SEE ALSO:]
Sounds of the Universe (2009)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Kinks: Face to Face (1966)


(Pye)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Mysteriously difficult to acquire in America for a number of years, this is one of the Kinks' essential records and deserves a place in the pantheon alongside Something Else, Village Green, and Arthur. Of course, I'm slightly biased in my cheerleading; an import of this was one of my early grown-up purchases and I listened to it all summer one particularly bright and elated year, so its songs jump out to me with promise and delight as much as the Beatles records that reigned supremely over the springs and summers of my childhood. But it isn't just me -- this is the album that determined what sort of the band the Kinks would be for the next several years, thus pointing forward to their most lasting and meaningful work.

Neither Rubber Soul nor Revolver have the operative Britishness of Face to Face, which is seeped thoroughly in mod culture without being either an empty exercise in style or a brash half-hour of sneering "attitude," hence it's fair to call this the seminal pop album of mid-'60s Britian. The cover art -- cooked up between recording and release to the band's objections -- is the most "of its time" the Kinks ever were in the '60s, but it's appropriate to the riffology and revelation in the music, which is quite consciously like nothing they'd done before but also fits firmly with both its period and its band's legacy.

The most pressing fact of the fourth Kinks album is composition -- as with the Beatles' third album two years earlier, it's the first to feature no outside compositions, in this case meaning that every song included is fully the work of Ray Davies. Because it's a transitional effort, caught halfway between the stomping blues-rock of the Kinks' first two years of recordings and Davies' erudite, sarcastic lyricism and sophisticated melodies of the late '60s, it has perhaps the broadest reach and appeal of any of their core LPs. One is struck yet again by, incredibly, how much more idiosyncratically the Kinks approached the incoming self-conscious seriousness of late '60s rock than nearly any other group, Beatles included. For now, the evolution remains coy: "Dandy," more famous as covered by Herman's Hermits, boasts a level of subversion and anger in Davies' vocal performance that's easy to ignore but harrowing if you listen carefully; and "Party Line" is a triumphant return in all its novelty and grossout humor but its secret political jabs are a riot.

The swinging-London satire is hardly all-encompassing, with "I'll Remember" too early an effort (actually recorded for The Kink Kontroversy) to be infected with any supposed concept, and "House in the Country" a classicist enough Stones-ish effort that the Pretty Things later covered it (discarding, as with "Dandy," a lot of its stark bitterness), but the songs are mostly of a piece with the outside-looking-in subtext of much of the more celebrated Something Else, and if anything they often have more kick and spark to them: the William Castle-like "Rainy Day in June" and class-teasing "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale" are angst and bluster enough even without the accompaniment of "Holiday in Waikiki."

Maybe you have to have spent a lot of time listening to oldies radio to appreciate the brilliance of "Holiday in Waikiki," which is in certain respects the perfect Ray Davies number, balancing his familiarity of pop music form with his scathing cynicism without falling into the ferocious negativity of something like "King Kong" or "Plastic Man." Davies' trip to Hawaii introduces two fixations -- a skepticism that some would label anti-Americanism but consistently leads to some of his most hilarious observtaions, and a love of saying the words "Coca Cola." These two, you'll note, are not unrelated matters, nor is Davies' intimate relationship with American blues records that would never cease but which stops being apparent on his records here.

No doubt this was a calculated change, as calculated as the ease with which the average listener fails initially to notice that "Holiday in Waikiki" is about how shitty a time our hero is having, tempered by the sound of waves and surf-rock drums and a delirious Dave Davies guitar. But its sharpness reigns over everything and turns the song into something nasty and feral and special like a great Ealing Studios comedy. Conversely: "Little Miss Queen of Darkness" could be a pleasant but flaccid little country or cabaret tune without its lyric, and "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" is merely passable par for the British Invasion course if you subtract the giddy vocal performance and unusual rhyming structure, but in their current form both are remarkable songs. Ray Davies is the rare pop performer whose lyrics deserve to be considered with some gravity.

What wasn't planned, sadly, was the Kinks' falling out of favor in America, a turn of events that would have consequences for decades to come. (The unavailability of Face to Face on CD Stateside when I purchased it in 2003 being one of them.) Scapegoat after scapegoat would be trotted out through the years. The band's U.S. label, Reprise, was quite faithful to the group but couldn't sell their later records to save its life. The Kinks themselves got deported and were unable to tour. And the group's aversion to anything that could be labeled "hardness" left them out of the classic-rock grit of the turn of the decade. But the real reason seems to have been that they simply moved too fast for the American audience. The case in point is "Fancy."

"Fancy" remains one of the most sophisticated and brilliant songs released in a rock music context in the '60s. Laid against other Indian-infected recordings of the period, it crumbles them all (especially the Beatles' comparatively silly "Love You To") except possibly the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and shares with that song the menace of revolution. Dark and stinging, its romantic arrogance is as enigmatic as it is sensual -- "my love is like a ruby," Davies announces, sounding then like a boy caught in some sort of a web, but soon enough he's asserted himself and you can almost feel the cold gae in his eyes with his prounouncement: "no one can penetrate me / they only see what's in their own fancy." Was this therapy for Ray Davies? As much as "Waterloo Sunset" was, this is more so -- its sparkling strangeness and intensity are some sort of a hallmark in this band's output, in the sense that they'd never exactly build on it -- it stands alone, even now.

But they would build on an equally radical selection. "Sunny Afternoon" preceded Face to Face by some margin in both recording and release, and if any single track marks the transformation of Ray Davies' songwriting to the wounded sensitive character studies and dejected, alienated rants of his band's subsequent albums, it's this one, the moment when everything changed. Along with contemporary tracks and singles like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "Dead End Street," "Big Black Smoke," and the cathartically romantic "This Is Where I Belong" (all of which are included on most contemporary CD releases of Face to Face), this is the Kinks' "Dylan goes electric" moment. It's still surprising to hear "Sunny Afternoon" on mainstream oldies stations now -- it was a major hit in the U.S. as well -- with not just its belligerent attack on a proto-Yuppie with a yacht and a "life of luxury" who's cruel to his girlfriend but one written from his perspective, so that we're actually meant to laugh at the foolishness of the part Davies chooses to play. It's a surprisingly smart and fully-formed piece of mockery for a three-minute pop song, and musically its slow-burn calmness and broken-down big band march somewhat suggest Otis Redding's later "Dock of the Bay" turned angrily upside-down.

That the Kinks managed a massive hit with such an idiosyncractic number was a miracle in its time, and by many accounts allowed Davies and the band to pursue their increasingly eccentric instincts on Something Else and Village Green, a change in tack that would culminate in Pete Quaife's departure from the band -- he wanted to play rock music and had little interest in Anglo-centric pseudo-showtunes. But Face to Face demonstrates that the change wasn't so sudden or out-of-nowhere; it's just sounded that way in the U.S. for all these years. Sadly, the Americans wouldn't follow the band much further down this path, and indeed they would remain a cult band in most of the world for the rest of the '60s.

As it still stands, Face to Face captures something special that still seems alive and new in even the well-trodden context of the Beatles' contemporary records, which are relevant because the two bands accidentally evolved similarly, not just because Dave Davies' voice occasionally sounds just like Paul's (see "Party Line," one of his two leads here). The Beatles were a better rock band than the Kinks; they had to be. But despite exceptions like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," which boast a once-in-a-lifetime emotional closeness that "psychedelic rock" generally cannot hold, the Kinks were stronger at integrating a real fire-breathing human personality into their late-'60s album-length musical-theater experiments. Perhaps it's because one band consisted of dueling pop geniuses and the Kinks were always pretty much just Ray with the occasional assist. Face to Face does have a couple of slow spots -- the pleasant "Too Much on My Mind," the total filler "Session Man," and "You're Looking Fine," which is most notable for Nicky Hopkins' lovely piano work -- but Revolver has "Doctor Robert," "And Your Bird Can Sing," and "Love You To" and doesn't have "Holiday in Waikiki" or "Fancy." Both are great records but let's be honest -- these days, Face to Face probably has more to teach us.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Kinks (1964)
Kinda Kinks (1965)
The Kink Kontroversy (1965)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Bloody Valentine: MBV (2013)


(Pickpocket)

RECOMMENDED

Mythologies are leaving us rapidly. Since we departed the Twentieth Century, it's my Andy Rooneyesque opinion that far too many dangling rock & roll threads have been tied up. Smile shouldn't have been released, nor whatever that Guns 'N Roses thing was called, and I'm not too comfortable with all these reunion tours, or with Jeff Mangum playing shows to hushed choral-cute singalongs, or with this or that post-punk titan burying the hatchet. And now Kevin Shields, the kind of guy who probably lets a dozen-deep line form behind him at Starbucks before he even decides if he wants a double shot, has done the unthinkable: he has followed up My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. He has done so without the aid of Island, or Creation, and with the aid of his actual real, not just in-name-only band. Colm Ó Cíosóig, Debbie Googe, Bilinda Butcher, everyone you can even think of save the mysterious "Tina" (no longer a mystery now, her name was Tina Durkin; another disappointment!) and everyone's favorite pseudo-Nick Cave, Dave Conway... with those exceptions, they're back!

I don't take this lightly -- this is one of my favorite bands of the relevant period, and Loveless, their magnum opus, remains for me probably the best rock album released by anyone since the '70s. (At the very least, it's down to Loveless and Remain in Light, real talk.) As you well know, the hype over the theoretical New Record by My Bloody Valentine began shortly after their prior release, which occasioned the group leaving a damaged-by-them Creation and leaping over to Island, building a studio and racking up time and money and a number of rock & roll horror stories about bloated budgets and outsized egos, and more than anything, Shields' ruthless perfectionism. Shields' errant sightings in the last two decades have been comically haphazard -- a Primal Scream record, a Yo La Tengo remix, the Marie Antoinette soundtrack -- and peppered with stories of frantic nerves over his aversion to deadlines. I'm not sure when I finally just sort of accepted that Shields was a brilliant bum but it was probably around the time that reissues of his band's two proper full-length albums (I still say they had four albums, but we're just counting here the two that no one disputes) were delayed by a year and change because of dissatisfaction with the "artwork."

In retrospect, bumming around had little to do with all this. Delaying and/or failing altogether to follow up Loveless was in fact a brilliant tactical maneuver, and a signal of Shields' self-awareness. Here for a change was someone who recognized that they'd captured lightning on a CD in a perfect storm of freakish opportunity: Shields was ahead of the pack in every sense in 1991, his songcraft was at peak form, his band was playing together brilliantly, and they were forging a sound that both captured the essence of its time and was remarkably forward-looking. Simple and pleasurable but confoundingly layered and intricate, the album was a masterpiece because it subtly challenged and expanded the way we listen to guitar music. Of course it stood on plenty of shoulders, from the Jesus & Mary Chain to (gasp, don't tell anyone I said this) U2, but it synthesized its ideas into an economical format and lent itself to an incredible degree of sensory pleasure and emotional investment.

But we're not here to review Loveless, are we? Long story short: My Bloody Valentine's intriguingly bare-minimum odyssey from 1992 to their mid-'00s reunion amounted to an acceptance that to attempt to duplicate such a conflation of perfect contexts and forces as Loveless will serve only to dilute the initial achievement. Sure, lots of great bands issue masterful albums and follow them up with little difficulty -- but Loveless is a special case, a permanent but highly specific moment etched in time, and its legend, in turn the band's mysterious disappearance, aids its enigma, adds to its appeal. Musical perfection or not, it's a piece of a larger drama and that made it more popular. It's only human.

The actual narrative of Loveless as hushed-tones masterpiece of a slowly dying form -- let's say, the great novel about its existence and place in the world -- really ended on the morning of February 2nd, when in one last all-too-appropriate gasp of the tantalizing unavailability of new My Bloody Valentine music, speculated over and discussed endlessly for over twenty years, the band's website crashed when they attempted to self-release their new album. It was the last moment of frustration, before anyone heard the first note of "She Found Now," the dying throes of that world in which a strange band gathered up a ball of energy, issued a record that changed some small part of a lot of lives, and then flew away in a cloud of dust. Once the world coped, it corrected itself, and Shields is a respectable man, he probably even wears a hat now; and the good news is that Loveless sits unchanged, but now there's this new actual music to deal with, an Active Recording Unit even, and remember that mysticism and cleverly skittish interview answers aren't what it's really about. It's about the music, man. Yeah.

Here's where we stop dead, and this is why this isn't part of the same book, or is nothing more than a contrived happily-ever-after epilogue if so: the record's a disappointment. But that's only stating the obvious -- it would have to be, right? That's the most explicit reason for the delay, one assumes, and one that must have become more crucial a part of its development as the years passed and Loveless snowballed from a cult item into an artifact widely regarded as massively important. Suddenly the mystery of Shields' psychology shatters -- he is still astonishingly savvy; he waited until precisely the right moment to release the lazily named MBV (or is it M B V or mbv, says the guy who refused to label his favorite record of the last five years w h o k i l l instead of whokill)... timing it so that most fans would be so happy to have the band back and sounding mostly the same as before that no one would think to expect much more.

Indeed, that's the best effect MBV really has on me: not that I ever felt like Shields et al. were my pals, but it is a bit like revisiting an old hangout and being bittersweetly relieved that the old gang is still kicking and chugging along. It's nothing like that ecstatic rush of recognition and heartfelt joy I felt when hearing Neil Tennant's voice for the first time in too long on Release because this isn't that kind of group -- but it's in the same category of sort of not realizing how much you missed something. But in the month I've been messing around with it, doing my best to delve into it and analyze it as much as Jesus Christ, the fucking new My Bloody Valentine album, for heaven's sake deserves, all I can really tell you is that I feel its primary utility in the long run will likely be "oh here are a few songs to tack onto the end of a My Bloody Valentine playlist" or "hey let's shuffle my entire collection of My Bloody Valentine MP3s, oh yeah, this one is kinda pleasant, this is from that reunion-ish thing they did" or, most of all, "this would make a good So Tough-style bonus disc for Loveless."

In this case, the disappointment is not one I'm bitter about -- the songs are nice, they're well-recorded, they're just nothing (to my mind) extremely special. As a person who once felt hungry to acquire and hear every note of music My Bloody Valentine ever released and is still thrilled to have all their minutiae in the collection, shouldn't I welcome new things to add to the pile, the first new things to add to it (bootlegs aside) since I became a fan? Of course, and I do! But artistically, I don't feel this is anything much more than a "hey, we can still do this!" assertion, and it doesn't necessarily need to be and I'm glad it's here, but that doesn't make it a Great Record. I'm thrilled people are happy with it... but I can't share the intensity of their happiness, maybe because the pull of nostalgia toward this sound for me has never been so strong as just an attachment to the many aspects of the music itself. You can't take me back to Loveless with merely a sound; Loveless worked because everything came together, and it was more than the sum of those things, and it was a moment of peak-level creative energy and everything just "worked" as it so supernaturally does sometimes.

There are hints of greatness here. No one who ever loved Shields' work can come away entirely unaffected by that intimate throbbing on "She Found Now," and familiarity is sometimes a warm and intoxicating thing indeed -- the only thing "new" to the band here is that crystalline guitar at center stage, and it eases us into things we probably recognize subconsciously, and Shields knows it. And I wish the whole record were as much of a revelation as "New You," which actually suggests an unexpected sort of evolution -- it condenses the band's signature sound, which they never really had until after the fact, into a propulsive and radio-ready modern rock number. Had they fussed around more with this bubblegum shoegaze, this could perhaps have been as interesting as Television's 1992 reunion record. But the Television record alienated many fans because it strayed too far from the group's established nature, so economically I understand why MBV feels more than anything like Good Grief, More Loveless (Only Friendlier).

It would've been possible for Shields and the gang to craft a really enjoyable album, though probably not a capital-G Great one, by riffing on previous sounds and tricks that are no longer so cutting edge and vital. The foremost reason they can't get that far, why this is the least of their albums aside from the unholy 1985 Birthday Party-Cure hybrid This Is Your Bloody Valentine, is, well, songs. And specifically, melody. With words buried and noise paramount, every previous effort of this incarnation of the band staked everything on melody, on an ethereal and immediate kind of songwriting that simultaneously relished weirdness and unapologetically embraced conventional notions of "beauty," arriving at them by the most surreal means then imaginable within the post-punk or "college rock" framework.

Not only do these recordings not seem terribly challenging, to them or to us, they don't carry a lot of innate appeal and often seem half-formed. The melody lines that were so full and expressive all the way back to Ecstasy and Wine are stunted here, something that never used to happen even on the band's b-sides and throwaways. "Only Tomorrow," for one, is like stopping halfway into "To Here Knows When" and giving up, "Sugarcube" guitar and supersonic-space "Telstar" Shields buffoonery and all. Even worse, the frantic silliness of "Wonder 2" again tantalizes with what sounds like a swooning and twist that could lead somewhere but then is distracted, dumped; you may as well listen to a recording of Katrina & the Waves attempting to practice and being escorted out of the building by a crusty landlord.

The songs aren't exactly weak, just a little underwhelming and one-dimensional; they seem more like fragments, like maybe a bridge or a chorus stretched out, which is hard to accept when there are only nine cuts. I wouldn't expect mere production craft to rescue a situation like this, because that'd make the album a pure gimmick, but with the long lead time and famously obsessive preparation I would have hoped for something more unusual and idiosyncratic than this: the broadest left turns we get from this once-cutting edge band are a barely-there track ("Is This and Yes") that gets points for maybe inventing the idea of a sparkly dirge; a pounding "If I Am" that's, okay, agreeably minimal; and the just-plain-goddamn-annoying "Nothing Is," which is, uh, a cute title. Kind of. Maybe. Not really.

Conversely, those are the biggest sour notes; no MBV fan will likely object to these songs loudly, they just don't seem to travel anywhere really new, and this does come across to me as a Loveless retread with both less interesting sounds and less beautiful and tricky songs. The repetition is most obvious on the aforementioned "Only Tomorrow" and the mostly passable throwback "Who Sees You," a blatant near-clone of "Come in Alone." Though it's been suggested in many quarters that MBV follows through more on the promise of Isn't Anything than Loveless, I only hear the former on the atonal roar of "In Another Way" and I'm not sure it's a great translation of what was making waves in 1988. The band's never sounded so out-of-time (in the wrong direction), copping "When Doves Cry" guitars and a mountainous high-drama synth line that probably gave Justin Vernon the jollies... but give it up: they've also never been this loose and "fun" before, at least not since they were cranking out adorably silly stuff like "Lovelee Sweet Darlene" and "Forever and Again."

It's some sort of evolution for Shields to take himself less seriously, at least as far as we know; frankly, what do we really know about him, his band, or his working methods even now? How much of this record really dates from anytime recently and how much of it is the outgrowth of legendary recording sessions for Island in the mid-'90s? Perhaps the band is right about everything and time will vindicate this. But I'm no longer sure I believe the delay was solely a result of ego, or perfectionism, or just working really slowly. We know Shields to be a maverick and an innovator, and perhaps it frustrated him that the advances and uniqueness of Isn't Anything were overshadowed by an album that came out just three years later. Only in the last few years, in the wake of a world of shrines to the subsequent record, has Isn't Anything -- which is a bold recording and really deserved its own spectacular moment -- begun to receive any level of real open attachment and championship. It's entirely possible that one day I will try MBV again and the world will open up to me and I will completely understand what they're getting at and why this expands on, reacts to Loveless rather than simply awkwardly extending it. For now: thanks for the music, guys, but I still say there was something to the notion of leaving well enough alone.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Galaxie 500: This Is Our Music (1990)


(Rough Trade)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

In retrospect, it's only too recognizable that this is the sound of a band falling apart -- really, more than that, the sound of a band that's already fallen apart doing their best to save face. Damon Krukowski would claim years later that the writing was on the wall for Galaxie 500 before Today, their debut, was even released. Their discography thus now takes a narrative track of inevitability, and the eagerness of an unusual young group gives way to something more ethereal, harder to grasp. The band's third and final album is their best, but its alterations to the extant groundwork are mostly subtle, as though Today and On Fire were merely earlier passes at these same goals, of stripping away everything except a raw, unguarded expressiveness that makes no apologies for its reverence toward pure aural pleasure. Cloudier, more tuned-in and hypnotic than even the Velvet Underground records that inspired them (the older band was too restless to sustain a mood like this), Galaxie 500 grab wisps of songs here, wisps like "Spook," and render electric serenades. Dean Wareham never sounded lovelier, or more resigned and haunted. When he apologizes for everything, the weather included, you know he really is sorry.

It might have seemed there was no way for this extraordinary group to become more aggressively minimalistic. The trick, simple enough, is that the stripping down is mostly in the songwriting; if the group disintegrates, it's only into beauty and -- more than anything -- sensuality, a laconic swinging that neither of the prior records delivered to this extent. The space between the notes, the lift and lilt in each affected, fleeting moment, are where this drama lives. The wavering, weak, despairing, glorious "Hearing Voices" is probably their best song, a creation so stirringly delicate it's as though you can hear the trio all individually surrendering control of the performance and somehow coming out better for it. "Voices" lyrically echoes "Goodnight Irene," a song that predates rock & roll itself, and that's a perfect line to draw, for despite its immense debt to the rock narrative, this is music that seems to spew forth from an indeterminate, almost supernaturally distant past. It's as unfettered and uncluttered in its fashion as Mickey & Sylvia's highly relevant "Love Is Strange."

The easier (but no less salient) comparison, of course, is to the third album by another band whose entire body of work was a tracking of their slow-motion dismantling: Big Star's Sister Lovers. Indeed, much of Alex Chilton's early solo work is spiritually connected to This Is Our Music, but the evocative chaos of "Kanga Roo" seems directly reprised by a song like "Summertime" -- press your ear to its achingly beautiful melody, its intense guitars sinking into a never-assaultive sea of noise, and vague, surreal lyrics like "Goin' to the movies / I found a shelter from the sun." As much as the chords and arrangements remain unmistakably familiar from Galaxie 500's stock in trade, their library of riffs still tiny, these songs break apart and sway and each feverishly captures an emotional freeze-frame, as much for the listener as for the band. Time seems to stop for a bit, or at least moves at a decelerated, drugged pace.

In an appropriate analogy to the strings on Sister Lovers, This Is Our Music boasts a new sonic fearlessness on Galaxie 500's part, with musical flourishes that indicate a willingness to evolve, and a skepticism about the drawbacks that lie in prog and post-rock's usual trappings. The peaceful sweetness of "Way Up High" is adorably delivered by a simple flute (yes, flute) performance that backs up and pushes back against Wareham, and that doesn't even linger in the memory after the Renaissance festival ending of "King of Spain, Part Two." There's even a touch of swinging funk, a Roger McGuinn-ish solo, and an ending directly from "A Day in the Life" in "Melt Away," Wareham reveling in all of the above.

Still, if the driving, quietly drunken madness of "Hearing Voices" wasn't enough to summarize this brief career, two cuts indicate just how far afield Galaxie 500 landed from their earliest work -- not far at all, yet worlds away in terms of a willingness to be playful, the final obstacle to really sinking into their more dour debut and sophomore efforts. Opener and single "Fourth of July," oblique lyrics about dog biscuits and all, is downright cheery! It forecasts Luna with a refrain about feeling "all right when you smile" and engagingly brings us Dean Wareham going on and on like Moulty, but the cumulative effect is pure exhilaration. And as accomplished as the band had already proven themselves with prior cover songs, their version of Yoko Ono's lullaby "Listen, the Snow Is Falling!" is enough to leave you pinned and awestruck even after you've heard it dozens of times. Naomi Yang's voice travels over and underneath the initially buoyant and sparkling arrangement that eventually bursts into sonically exuberant mayhem -- all the while perfectly suggesting the desolate winter Ono's song seeks to bring to life. (Our only regret is that the equally brilliant VU cover "Here She Comes Now," a shoegaze triumph that actually betters the original, wasn't able to make the LP cut, though it's included as a bonus track on most CD versions.)

No doubt dreariness has its benefits; "Hearing Voices" isn't exactly much more a slice of pop bliss than was "Tugboat," after all. But what makes This Is Our Music such a masterpiece of its form is that, however much the band has split into two factions, it merits a personal and deep connection to its songs, to the individual band members, and mostly to an emotional cycle -- a carefully structured one like that of Pet Sounds, not so much the mad tea party of Sister Lovers. Even more than in the case of Today, I find myself yearning to hear this record when I'm in a certain mode of isolation and reflection -- which sounds awfully moony, but pop music is designed to serve various personal utilities, and this is a record that functions in a manner thoroughly exclusive to its art, pulling apart and investigating and toying with an established band's sound to give them the market on a feeling. This Is Our Music finds a way to do something that only a full-length album can do; it's the warmest of all alternative rock recordings of its era, and sets the table for Loveless the following year. Hearing either record in the right moment can give the sensation of floating, or something similarly transportive. Very few records can do that at all, much less sustain it properly with good songs and performances -- and even fewer can call back to that special instance of being completely taken in and seduced, time after time, each time you hear them. It's a pity that the sun now set on Galaxie 500, but I doubt they could ever have improved on this.

[SEE ALSO:]
Today (1988)
On Fire (1989)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

One-sentence reviews #6



Grouper
The Man Who Died in His Boat

(Kranky)

Do you ever wonder why the water doesn't just... fly off into the sky?

***

The Flaming Lips
The Terror

(Warner Bros.)

Melodic, sputtering meander gives off a deadening, intoxicated dread -- something to which this band's been headed for a while -- and it both intrigues and bores me.

***

Sorry for only two this time but nothing else in the pipeline, even several things I'm neutral about like these, can be pared down to so few words. More expansive stuff in the next couple days.