Monday, July 22, 2013

Television: Adventure (1978)


(Elektra)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

"Highly what? This guy's a quack! I don't even want to know what he'll say about Monster when he gets around to it in ten years. Marquee Moon is a classic of the punk and new wave genres, but it's a one-shot, the chief example of a great live band's one successful bid at recording. Revelatory as it is, it was lightning that could not be recaptured. Why bother with this when you can buy The Blow Up? It would be one thing if Television accepted their fate and moved into a new direction, but this album's production is different from the debut only in that is a bit slicker. I accepted, god knows how, all that bullshit about Galaxie 500 peaking with their last album, I accepted the unfocused, rambling debunking of England's Newest Hit Makers, I accepted the vindictive Grizzly Bear review obviously intended to offend people who will never read it, but I cannot accept this."

Jesus, calm down! No, Larry, Adventure does not live up to Marquee Moon in any major fashion. All that proves is that Marquee Moon is, as you point out, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. It's some kind of heaven captured in a butterfly net, unheard-of beauty in a surprising medium. But Adventure is a wonderful album too, on its own terms. I concur that Television did not opt to change their sound and the result is very much a slicker, more rhythmically consistent extension of or a sequel to Marquee Moon. Were the two albums put together the result would remain cohesive but it would not sustain the mood of the first record as well. Music and emotional bleedthrough were the world of the other album, while this one is about songs. For all I know it may even be a bid for pop success.

"Yes, yes, Tom Verlaine is an excellent songwriter and half of these songs are magnificent even though the production isn't as sharp as Marquee Moon. Let me beat you to the punch by saying that 'Glory' is quite possibly his finest composition, though I know you may side toward 'Venus' or 'Guiding Light' or 'Prove It.'"

Sure, but "Glory" is indeed perfect Verlaine; on this album his performances are more ambitious (in terms of their careful keying to their environment; you have to listen far more times to take real note of the virtuosity in the solos here), and it's clear immediately on this first track. The band is less stunning than it was on Marquee Moon because they've decided to take a backseat to the songs, I assume because they're so good. It reminds me of, if you'll excuse the indulgence, the minimalism of Carl Wilson's solo on "Don't Worry Baby" as an act of submission to the sublime power of the song's ambiance. That doesn't mean the sonic guitar bliss stops, but I think you can sense the analogy. "Glory" has Verlaine's usual brilliantly mindbending lyrics, and on this anthem he's quite poignant, awkwardly observing a lover from a distance. I don't know if it's their best song, but it sure is amazing and it's probably their quintessential moment. So are we done?

"All you've done is sing the praises of one song. You still haven't explained how you think this deserves to align with your definition of what makes something 'highly recommended' -- can you really argue that this album is one you'd reach for as an example of what made Television great, or as a release that belongs in a library or a canon or a pantheon of genuinely excellent work? Even in the context of 1978, think about other beloved records of yours -- Chairs Missing or All Mod Cons or the Talking Heads one you never shut up about."

Let me say this. It's a fair guess that far more people own Marquee Moon than own Adventure. For whatever reason, even though the second album is more conventionally accessible, the first one captures what was special about the group so that's what people go for. But if you've had Moon long enough for it to get under your skin and obsess you, you need this CD. It won't floor you the same way but you will certainly adore it. So stop now and go buy it and then, we'll talk about it.

Okay, Tom Verlaine's other moment of pure genius here is a treasure: "Careful" is three minutes of outright flawless rock & roll. It's immediate and transcendent and it will move you -- physically -- every time you hear it. Without feeling the least bit trite or overly familiar, it's one to crank up, and better yet it's a moment of fun. I mean, I'm not one to complain that Marquee Moon is too serious.

"Oh, you'd never do that."

Right, I wouldn't. But there's nothing on it as lightweight as "Careful," and lightweight is not a bad thing because as much as this song sweetens the earlobes it also sticks with you. I can hear the Replacements in it. And then there's "Days."

"The other excellent Adventure track. When all is said and done, 'Careful' is just 'Prove It' again and 'Car--'"

I admit similarities, but they're very different, "Careful" possessing a refinement of the previous aesthetic that's characteristic of the sophomore effort overa--

"DO NOT FUCKING INTERRUPT ME, ASSHOLE. Richard Lloyd, who later did some very nice solo work that Nathan's probably never heard --"

Yes, I have, the first al--

"SHUT UP. Richard Lloyd cowrote 'Days' and not only is it Television's most beautiful song, it's one of the best rock & roll ballads ever."

I agree with that absolutely, as pretty as "1880 or So" is. There are certain songs that just stick out in that exact sense, and it's interesting that two of them are called "Days." (The other one, by the Kinks, might be close to my favorite song, period.) Tom Verlaine's vocals on this track have to be heard to be believed, and its steady, dreamlike melody of it anticipates R.E.M. as much as the intro to "Elevation."

"Yeah."

Mm-hmm.

"You've run out of things to say, haven't you?"

Well, this is where I figured you would tell me about "Foxhole" being tame and "The Fire" being self-indulgent.

"I was waiting for the opportune moment, but since you've set me up, yes. 'Foxhole' is a big failure, despite whatever Nathan is going to say. Even though he claims to be very fond of the Rolling Stones, he's always complaining about how some of their major rockers sound canned."

For example, "Brown Sugar" and "Let's Spend the Night Together" and (gulp) "Satisfaction," which are brilliant compositions, well-performed, but don't play to the band's strengths. I see where you're going with this.

"But if you probe Nathan for a while you'll learn that he didn't like 'Satisfaction' at all until he heard Television play it."

I admit that. But I didn't like "The Black Angel's Death Song" until I heard it on the Quine (RIP) tapes either.

"You and your song-title-dropping. In any case, isn't it hypocritical of you to say that 'Foxhole' doesn't sound canned? It's clearly intended to be a big rock move and make an impression. Not only is it sequenced terribly on the album -- between 'Days' and 'Careful' -- it fails despite its merits as a song because it sounds like posturing."

In fact, I do agree with that point, and I think the studio recording of "Foxhole" is merely adequate. It shows up in roaring variations on the two live albums. I don't skip it, and generally I can say something is a five-star album even if there's one track I skip (maybe two if there's a lot, but there's eight on here). I tend to listen to this start to finish but I can acknowledge the flaws in that recording. I don't think the potential of the song was fulfilled. And now I know you're going to grill me about "The Fire."

"'The Fire' sounds like the Grateful fucking Dead. It's an obvious excuse to have Verlaine compensating for the timid, exact pop constructions on the rest of the album by doing a bunch of Van Halen shit. I know you'll say Verlaine's a better guitarist than Eddie Van Halen but everybody knows that. So prove me wrong here. I think you're just fucking around."

Oh dear. Listen, I don't want to do some kind of unrelated speech here but you know how I hate the notion of living on principles.

"Oooh, is there a Wordpress entry about that coming up?"

Uh, probably.

"Fine, I don't even know what the hell you're talking about."

I think there are exceptions to everything and that while I have every right to say "never" if I feel like it, if something comes up to retract that opinion I don't think it constitutes duplicity, just metamorphosis. In other words, I can change my mind, or I can make umbrella statements with the knowledge that they don't have to be absolute, and especially that I can think whatever I want to without having to refer back to previous statements to ensure that it's how I'm supposed to feel.

"Get to the point."

The guitar work in "The Fire" is beautiful. Listen again, just forget that it's guitar heroics and be neutral. If you take the same attitude and go try to get through "Truckin'" or something it's still going to jar you. Verlaine is committed to the music itself, not to his own star power, and he has none anyway. One thing I can go along with you on is that it's a little too long.

"'Ain't That Nothin'' is a little too long, and bland to boot."

I don't think it's bland; it was a perfect single (in an alternate, better mix). It's probably not going to impress people who know every second of "Friction" by heart but it's still charming and it rocks out. Larry, you know it's not as bland as "Start Me Up."

"The Rolling Stones could be bland too. They're always filling out albums with stuff like 'Carried Away' here, now this is just 'Guiding Light' all over again."

It's a mournful, lovely little song -- I often forget how chilling and desolate it is, and how wonderful a showpiece it is for the band's utterly tireless rhythm section plodding through the thing. Like most of Adventure, I think it just is what it is, I don't think it's the band repeating itself or inflating their own work. It's like a great set of b-sides; the only thing that keeps people from giving it the credit it deserves is the arbitrary requirement that it must stand up and move beyond Marquee Moon. Records like this usually find an audience over time. Now that Rhino's reissued this I hope more people discover it. Alone it's a great album I'll play over and over, maybe even more than the first one because it has more variance. In tandem with MM, it's a religious experience. But of course, of the two, Marquee Moon is a better introduction.

"Why is that?"

Marquee Moon is not a record about the band; it's really a creation in itself. It's one of the albums that completely overhauls the formula and expands the boundaries. It's still ahead of what's being made today and nothing that's come out of the indie movement it halfway spawned has been able to capture its all-encompassing spirit. The songs are wonderful, the band performances are, in a word, extraordinary, and there's so much passion and, um, glory pressed into it. I just simply think it's something everybody should own, and once you appreciate it, you can appreciate Adventure, which probably is more easy to adapt to but won't mean as much to you until after you hear the other one.

"But 'highly recommended,' which according to you translates as an A or A-, as 'among the crucial and best works of the band?'"

What do you care? It's a personal blog! Nobody said that something has to make sense the first time to be a classic. Marquee Moon and Adventure are both deeply involving and they demand concentration; it can be a slow kill. The same goes for the third album (which sounds ahead of its time now too; have you listened to it side by side with the National?).

"You and I'd better not talk about that one."

Okay.

"Hey, I don't remember this last song, 'The Dream's Dream.'"

Oh, yeah, that's a great one.

"Holy shit, this is some amazing guitar work. There's so much atmosphere to this. I can't believe it's more or less a punk song from 1978."

I know, it reels you in.

"I give up, the album is great. I give it three and a half stars; that's close enough to an agreement, right? No more fighting?"

I didn't really know we were fighting.

"Whatever. But you're still wrong about Monomania."

Fuck off, Larry. Who the hell are you, anyway?

[Originally written and posted (with now-nonsensical in-context references updated) in 2004. I'm sorry.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Marquee Moon (1977)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The National: Trouble Will Find Me (2013)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Did you think I was waiting to talk about Trouble Will Find Me just because I didn't really know what I thought of it yet? You should know me better than that -- I'm kidding, of course; you're absolutely right. Until the last few days, that was almost a mere "recommended." The release of the National's High Violet slightly predated my determination to analyze every new album I listened to in this space so you never really saw me talking about it, but it was an immediately treasured item here and made sense to me the instant that the first expansive chord of "Sorrow" struck (I never dug "Terrible Love" much). Given that sort of an expectation, it becomes hard to cope when the follow-up, heard too offhand in a few contexts to form a coherent opinion before a full-fledged concentration, revealed slight disappointment -- nothing that immediately signaled me as distinctive, vital or just supernaturally "right" in the same way.

But context is everything -- the album just demanded to be heard at night and without interruption. I don't mean that in the sense that it makes a little more sense in the dark or sounds a little better on headphones or great speakers or in the car, I mean it comes completely alive and is almost identifiably a different recording in its properly lonely setting. The songs are less bare and impulsive and individually disparate than those of High Violet, hence some of the resultant consternation, but while the albums carry forward similar moods and modes of expression, Trouble is appreciably less cautious: more nakedly haunted. Yet musically, the band seems in tighter control than ever; despite carefully evoking the emotional context of a band playing to a few people in a bar far too close to last call, with autumn chill just out the door, the band has never before sounded so primed for what we once would have called the rock mainstream.

Mood is everything to the National; their usage of the manic depressive arena-rock sound is plainly more mature than trailblazers like Pearl Jam, in part because they celebrate the lonely Saturday night drunkenness and regret of far more luminous forebears. It was by coincidence that in the middle of making notes for this review I listened to Sam Cooke's Night Beat and Television's Adventure and noticed that the three artists seem to all greet urban life with simultaneous romance and dread, breaking down the city like blurry lights distorted in puddles along the street. The melancholy is immense, even if I have little doubt that its somehow florid, soulful starkness would allow it to enhance a makeout session, and at its best, its intricate inversions of conventional rock rhythms and eerie, choked-up nostalgia recall the R.E.M. of Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi -- there is really that much buried, slowly unveiling pleasure and detailed emotional thrust to be found in these songs.

Like High Violet, the record opens with its strangest song, but "I Should Live in Salt" more convincingly collects its draggily weird rhythm into AM balladry by the chorus. Here and elsewhere, the bigness of the drums and guitar suggest U2 if not Arcade Fire or Coldplay, but despite sharing the easy, baseline appeal of those bands, the National's oceanic, shadowy film noir music stands apart thanks to both its sparse cleanliness and sense of despair. Their big minor key chords, clipped melodies and gruff sorrow are the best use anyone's made lately of a "big" sound. We could say those same things about High Violet, clearly, but if the band seemed to come into its own then, here they sustain that confidence and find ways to toy with it -- always with the insistent bedrock of Bryan Devendorf's indispensable drums.

There is more pain now in Matt Berninger's baritone, which suggests if anything that the confidence brought to the band by their prior record has made them more comfortable with ambiguity and stretching -- while the band moves along with their usual dry tension and guitar intricacy, taking off when they want to but often deliberately not, Berninger explores a vulnerability and simply expresses himself more variably. He can intone quietly "I am secretly in love with everyone that I grew up with" on the upside-down Scottish folk "Demons" or find the sinister in the heartfelt on "Fireproof" or softly proclaim "things are tougher than we are" on the reverbed piano-heavy "Heavenfaced." He seldom lets loose and belts out now, but he finds more territory to scope out in his quieter, sobered up morning-after vocal range, much like Ira Kaplan did circa Painful.

At the album's best, it may indeed eclipse the less complex and multilayered songs from High Violet, even if the goals of these tracks are markedly different, and even if in some respects they are more derivative of various familiar pop music conventions. "This Is the Last Time" may be the best song they have written to date, its gorgeous minimalistic riff and its lonely and beautifully painful ramble off into the ether almost breathtaking, its pin-drop quiet such that you barely notice it's tuning up the strings and horns and building and building behind you. Part one is the swung-around neon streets "but your love is such a swamp / you don't think before you jump" monologue, and then comes the confessional, an entirely separate back half graced by the presence of Sharon van Etten and Berninger laying bare like ever before: "Jenny, I am in trouble," he cries, always in control but losing it behind the curtain.

Less ambiguous but equally stunning pleasures are to be found in the Johnny Cash-like "I Need My Girl," an eerie bit of longing that comes on almost tangibly like returning to a place long since abandoned; its romance is hard-won and possibly not won at all, its repeated insistences of sanity and self-awareness ("I am good and I am grounded") more realistic because they're so unconvincing, and the song is catchy enough to be someone's first dance if it didn't seem so somber or embody such sentiments as "there are some things I should never laugh about in front of family." The song is built around a crafty, lilting guitar riff familiar as one the Dessner brothers helped create for Sufjan Stevens' "Impossible Soul" three years ago... which isn't the only moment of recognizable throwback here. With some clarity I feel that "Slipped" shares the von Sternberg movie soundtrack and city-life chills of the Clash's "Broadway," but that is no slur on its beauty and dramatic weight, the deconstruction and solace of a man having trouble living inside his skin -- achingly familiar and undoubtedly felt, of course.

There are other traces of the past: the Smiths and the Cure and even a touch of Abbey Road on "Humiliation," which finds Berninger discovering the lowest tones we've heard from his voice yet, and the slowed-down ragtime of the piano ballad 'Pink Rabbits" (which pokes light fun at the apparently constant use of High Violet songs in various teen-targeted TV dramas of the last few years), slowed down because you'd be surprised if they wanted to dance with you now. The urgency of the new wave on the pop-blissful "Don't Swallow the Cap" is dashed with restraint for presumably the same reason; the title is a Tennessee Williams reference (not to one of his plays, but to his actual death) and that kind of sets the dour stage -- they're not exactly Twin Shadow but they love the '80s too, though bully on them if it's the Beatles' Let It Be they mean and not the Replacements'.

The sole drawback to all this is that Trouble Will Find Me cannot finally match the leanness and concise nature of High Violet, and for all its wit and self-criticism, you can see the strings a little. Witness the clearly calculated bone-to-the-recent-converts inclusion of "Sea of Love," a towering crescendo that goes just where you expect, and "Graceless," a propulsive tune whose hooks unabashedly burst out of the speakers, which perversely makes it feel like one of the record's least cathartic songs. These aren't lowlights exactly, they just contain elements of the band doing what's probably expected of them and fattening up the running time as a result; without them (and with "I Should Live in Salt" not so awkwardly positioned as the album opener), the record's pleasures and brilliance might be easier and quicker to discern.

But no problem. This is a focused, emotive, direct rock album; every note seems to correspond to a force -- it yearns to be heard and to express something even if ambiguous -- along the lines of Arcade Fire's first two records but with its groove imbued with longing instead of mere spirit. It falls over you in a shower of blissful grief; by the time the sun comes up on "Hard to Find," you know you've made it through another night and that you'll survive another one. Trouble Will Find Me is the solace you seek out when you don't think anybody you know is awake.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cake: Prolonging the Magic (1998)


(Capricorn)

In retrospect, now that I've realized Motorcade of Generosity is not the giant I once thought, this is probably Cake's best record. At the very least, it's the one whose smugness has best survived the decade and a half since its release. All these years later, the band has won some reluctant praise for how devotedly they have stood by a single, rather limited idea -- right down to all of their album covers being nearly identical -- but in 1998, Prolonging the Magic was born out of a personnel shakeup and a slowly crumbling label that failed wholly to promote it.

Greg Brown, author of the band's biggest hit "The Distance," was out -- and more than ever the core of the band was proven to be John McCrea. To say the least, McCrea is a love-or-hate personality; at the time I wanted to think there was some preoccupied genius lurking inside him. And certainly, with no other creative personalities now in the group, this was the time to advance such a theory. But when I went searching for soul in McCrea's Tin Pin Alley populism -- drilling his output down to its bizarre but rudimentary basics -- I think what I was looking for would eventually be found in the Mountain Goats.

McCrea displays neither the kid-in-candy-store enthusiasm nor the articulate lyricism of the Goats' John Darnielle, but both of them love repetitive and catchy riffs; we've learned since that Darnielle isn't quite as fond of distorting them as is McCrea, but that was many years ahead in 1998. Don't listen carefully and either band's songs are hard to tell apart -- but there's a reason that the average Mountain Goats convert soon knows the words to approximately two hundred tunes and maybe more. And with McCrea, the problem is not that he's a poor songwriter. The problem is he has no clue how to deliver his own work. Everything that attracts an army of cultists to Darnielle's obviously kind spirit is absent in McCrea's snarl and bark. His vocals, heard now free of the ironic-detachment phase of popular music, are nearly intolerable.

But he can write a melody, and when he isn't infatuated with his own overburdened word count, his lyrics are hardly as terrible as they sound when presented by a voice that short-circuits any attempt at genuine feeling or insight they offer. The single "Never There" sounded tired even at the time with its rumbling, tired, third-hand relationship whining in which he doesn't even come across as slightly invested. He's only at home when all his songs demand of him is "Satan is the only one who seems to understand," or maybe "I've got brakes / I'm wide awake." But skip ahead and find a sad country song called "Mexico," a lovely, plaintive melody and adorable cowboy-cartoon arrangement; the lyrics are sub-Beck semi-sarcasm but all the song needs is a real voice and it could be a minor chestnut for the Last Picture Show set.

And I'm not sure what exactly it is, but there's something being danced around in the odd "Guitar"; its celebratory chorus and sense of escape seems too carefully constructed to simply be about what it claims to be about (see: title). Ditto the seemingly heartfelt verses on "Sheep Go to Heaven," notwithstanding the defiantly stupid chorus. With no covers this time, McCrea gives permission for the Anglo-pop "Hem of Your Garment" and Barry Manilow-like ballad "Where Would I Be?" in their wake, and these are further moments in which he works against himself more than usual. Is this the careerist taking over, or impulse? We never come to know him enough to tell.

Although Vince di Fiore's trumpet is buried this time as a sort of sonic-wallpaper embellishment, with the guitars of McCrea and others mostly center-stage, the commercial success of Fashion Nugget is acknowledged with the stark modern-ish rock (with a slight R&B influence) of "Cool Blue Reason," an ominous and empty nyah-nyah, and the abrasive "You Turn the Screws," a pure, mocking midtempo rock song that seems to be a very slightly veiled rant against cast-off band members and possibly Capricorn Records. A breakup song, in other words, but even here McCrea can't muster up the passion to convince us he actually cares about his subject matter.

That's why the underlying impression one has is that someone else needs to sing these songs. That's especially true when confronted with the minor hit "Let Me Go," lyrically a strong and feminist relationship song that proves McCrea understands the world enough to write about it but is remarkably good at pretending he doesn't -- like Lou Reed and Doug Yule in one package. And Prolonging also contains what is likely Cake's best song ever, the tight and despairing and beautiful "Walk on By" (no relation to the Dionne Warwick classic), a resigned and lovely lyric and melody that simply cannot be done service by this band. I never felt that Leonard Cohen needed to have his songs "interpreted" to make them acceptable, but maybe John McCrea needs his own Jennifer Warnes. A song like "Walk on By" deserves better than Cake can give it, and one's enjoyment of it and this album is a whole is tempered at those moments when you realize you might love it if someone who seemed to believe in it was on the microphone.

[SEE ALSO:]
Motorcade of Generosity (1994)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Camera Obscura: Desire Lines (2013)


(4AD)

RECOMMENDED

Glasgow's Camera Obscura mastered their affected sound before they even committed much of anything to tape. Songs took a little longer, but not by much; albums the second and third, Underachievers Please Try Harder and Let's Get Out of This Country together remain their lean zenith. But after derailing with the bleakly standoffish and indistinct My Maudlin Career, the group has sharpened again: the hooks are back, but the mood is no brighter. Even when it sounds like a morning-dew orange juice commercial (see: title track), the sadness of their return is all-encompassing.

Desire Lines, their first record in four years, is as dark as its predecessor but as catchy and immediate as their Merge albums, resulting in a keenly Pet Sounds-like juxtaposition of gentle and bright chamber pop with Tracyanne Campbell's most vividly realized demons. She is the teenager needing desperately to connect, the lonely adult needing desperately to connect, and both parties in some mythical relationship that wants so wholeheartedly to work. She sings with unceasing sophistication, but there's a shadow over every moment -- as though all the persona can do to prevent from breaking down is to bite its lip and mumble "all I ever wanted was someone to rely on" (a Replacements quote, and probably not accidental, if not as ingenious as the much less accidental Lesley Gore quote elsewhere).

In contrast to the dungeon of reverb that entranced us on pre-hiatus Camera Obscura records, Desire Lines presents a new "clarity" courtesy of renowned "clear" producer Tucker Martine, but in this band's case that's quite the amusing distinction, since it primarily seems to have meant that a cleaning up of their production trickery led to an exponentially greater quantity of overdubbed horns and strings and fussy little details -- the record is so busy that it can occasionally overwhelm its sing-song pleasures, as on the wanky guitar wheeze-bounce "Do It Again," but there's also something to be said for how the gang just barely holds together the fragmented, intricate but florid arrangement of "This Is Love (Feels Alright)," so unmistakably signaling a triumphant return of sorts. Call it baroque funk: the sax that calmly adorns its hook achieves optimal cute and grit alike, a good complement to Campbell's sweet lilt announcing "I coulda slapped you in the face."

You can track Camera Obscura's evolution by the way their touchstones have moved. You can still hear Belle & Sebastian and Phil Spector in these songs, but it's getting fainter, and the group has luckily gotten over any discomfort with the way that their own recobbled sound seemed to infect the indieverse in the late 2000s. Now, then, we have traces of and references to Beulah and the Smiths and, on the frisky "Break It to You Gently," Howard Jones and OMD -- but it's all just a snowball, the overriding point always being that the band's pop is almost perversely coiffed: here are a bridge and chorus at perfect intervals, here are backing vocals that underline what you feel when you feel it, you are welcome.

Resignation never gave way to pleasure on My Maudlin Career, but the labor now pays off as Campbell's songs achieve a neatly philosophical melancholy that is admirably undercut by her vocal performances, which are her best in the band's history. On the propulsive country tune "Troublemaker," her determination punctuates every rhyming phrase sensually and finds a full-on escape from the deadpan that everyone who's ever sung in this group has occasionally exhibited. There's a sense of tragedy, a bigness to the words ("survival") and even the "ohhh oh" sounds, and while there is something playful to find in the rambunctiously jangly "Every Weekday" ("tiptoein' aroundja," she says), its wordy passion seems fit nearly to shout along to. "Cri du Coeur" is something akin to a rewrite of "Teenager" but slows it down to uncover such pain that its towering conclusion almost seems like a cheat.

So by the time we reach the lovely, modest plod of "Fifth in Line to the Throne," we sense that Campbell has entirely earned the yearning and gravity on what sounds like a classic rock ballad: if "I have seen your deepest flaws" doesn't twist the knife, try "If you want me to leave then I'll go / If you want me to stay let me know." No, it's nothing on paper -- delivery is everything. Rerecording and plumbing the depths of long-expired girl group pop ideas doesn't sound like an innovation or an artistic angle, either, but in execution it can spin you around and break your heart. Sure, maybe there's nowhere to go with these sonics, but if refining how well you can emotionally terrorize and lift up your listeners isn't a kind of evolution -- fuck it, it is, just hush and let them work on you.

[SEE ALSO:]
My Maudlin Career (2009)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)


(Apollo)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

What makes this quietly intense, near-revolutionary seventy-five minutes of music so transcendent and engaging is how carefully it treads the ghostly line between the organic and the technological -- those frayed sounds of a decaying tape, actually an accident with the source material for all existing editions of the record, are the evocative aural singing, the tears on the wallpaper, that drift smokily above its sparse existence as just a guy, some keyboards and some software, alone in a room. Selected Ambient Works depicts an immaculately crafted, arid environment that's been unmistakably lived-in; Brian Eno's airport, in other words, is open for business. Kids kick the walls. Someone let a cat inside.

Not so long ago, I associated Richard James' Aphex Twin project mostly with a lot of late '90s music videos I know I'm supposed to find jaw-dropping and never really did. But an investigation of his early ambient work has not only left me with considerable admiration for his sonic and rhythmic gifts but has given me my current favorite disc to waft through the room quietly while I watch a silent movie. It doesn't "fit" the way a score would, but like Eno's Discrete Music, it's universally adaptable -- it's good for cooking, too. I can't think of a higher compliment (or a more un-rock & roll virtue) than this: Aphex Twin has, for the last month or so, Enhanced My Lifestyle. (!) Of course for some people, "dinner music" isn't a compliment. Maybe "dinner music with tension" is.

As modest as its origins may be, James' work here is genuinely resourceful and innovative -- and the results are expansive, even haunting. The grit and amateurishness of it all add to the mystery. If there's a calming spirit to it all, it's the sort of calm you force over yourself as an outlet from duress. That's why when you note that the music seems to come from far away (a less lofty and silly proclamation than it sounds like), it's a high compliment: its stuck-in-time eeriness ("Schottkey 7th Path") is downright therapeutic.

But it's also pop music. No, no, hear me out. Beyond how distinctive its various pulsations and wandered-off structures become even after just a couple of listens (the "now you're playing Simon" on the abrasive and fussy "Green Calx," the BBC science-documentary curiosities of "Ptolemy," the twenty-year jump on Kanye West's Roald Dahl interpolation), how familiar and quite comforting they are after a few more, James' sense of playfulness and subservience to beauty in songform and soundform are just a stripping down of what constitutes great pop. "Pulsewidth," for example, is a song, and after you've heard it a few times you'll be hard pressed to think otherwise. This is a different beast, then, from most ambient music that preceded it -- "Tha" might step into a void of gorgeous nothing, but it doesn't meander there long.

I tend to love the Muzak makers myself, and I love zoning out in this manner, so for me the expansive, lengthy cuts are best, and it's here that James most actively explores atypical, alluring rhythms. But this is an eclectic album and there's something here for everyone. How great it is to say that about an unadorned collection of synthesizer pieces and starkly dressed-up beats.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Saturday Looks Good to Me: One Kiss Ends It All (2013)


(Polyvinyl)

RECOMMENDED

To continue a conversation that seems to have formed a bulk of posts here recently, in the guise of a traditional pop group songs are everything. I herald the return of Fred Thomas and his loose Saturday Looks Good to Me outfit because while they are only a "band" in the sense that the mysterious '60s instrumentalists the Marketts were a band, they are the best formal placement imaginable for Thomas' elaborate, expressive pop creations. He hasn't the cachet of Stephin Merritt or Robert Schneider or even Matthew Sweet or Ian Broudie, but his work encompasses fragments of the best virtues of each. The return of the group after a six-year absence is a pretty decent record: pore over it and you will find hooks and melodies worth remembering, a lot of playfulness and a little soul even, but the record doesn't explode because the songs just aren't as tightly written, or as consistently memorable, as they once were. This is disappointing in part because the prior release, the luminous Fill Up the Room, was one of the best collections of just plain songs by anyone in the last ten years, and a step in the right direction for Thomas in terms of crafting, if you'll forgive the jargon, a unified full-length cohesive statement.

Thomas' analogue dream has upgraded a bit to the 1970s (there's a lot of electric piano), and I detect a stronger attachment to the dreaded Guitar than I recall noticing previously -- an infection almost certainly derived from the emergence (since the last SLGTM album) of bands like Real Estate whose stock in trade is transferring a certain sunny, hard-won optimism and vigor that used to be the parlance of bands like this one and Camera Obscura to the land of jangle-pop. Note the actually stunning multilayered Peter Buck-like guitar line on "Empty Beach," for starters. Thomas' mumbled orchestrations and lush romantics actually seem a bit less complicated and gritty than they once did, perhaps because they are now being sung a bit less memorably. Nevertheless, the best moments are husky and insistent in the best way -- on "Invisible Friend," what remains of the group seems to be collecting itself and then ringing out with renewed glee.

Thomas' preoccupation on One Kiss Ends It All is on the sonic end: lots of stereo trickery and the same fixation on a kind of unpolished purity that used to embellish the songs and even took center stage at times before. On this record, those moments of unexpected dropouts and radio interference and white-noise swells are indeed the most exciting moments. If Thomas seems a bit fussy, it's no shock given what little we can glean of his state of mind: here "you're unhappy with the way you are," there "I don't wanna go back home / and the bars aren't open yet," some "nobody actually wants to be forgiven, they just hate to be wrong," a little bit of "when the money runs out" and a whole lot of "I'm so tired of smiling every time I wanna scream." This is the life of the pop singer in 2013, especially one whose work is going to have to work harder to distinguish itself now in a marketplace glutted with pale-ish but winning imitators She & Him, rejuvenated stalwarts Camera Obscura, and great white hype Cults -- who, it must be said, did nearly everything in the current Thomas playbook with more confidence on their debut except the songs weren't quite up to his standard -- and now he's slipping in that department.

But like Cults, Thomas sees the malaise and desperation inherent to his chosen form everywhere he looks. His best-ever instrument for this was former lead singer Betty Marie Barnes, whose short-lived reentrance here is more than a mild relief, her wonderfully affected deadpan a splendid standout in a tide of the sort of cute-overload vocal this genre typically invites. She's more Ronnie Spector than Fabian, or if you like, more Jenny Lewis than Zooey Deschanel -- but there's little of her here. On "Negative Space," she defines the minimalistic unhinged while Thomas sells it in his soulful electric arrangement; the song wanders off and comes back with full-force choral power and strings, and you start to believe again -- not for the only time here.

From the tricky and breathlessly enthused ("New City") to the yearning and stark ("the Everpresent New Times Condition"), Thomas' melodies and production remain mysterious, charged, and splendidly worked out. The strongest tunes, not surprisingly, encompass the strongest hooks and the moments when the band sounds most like, well, a band. The single "Sunglasses" is one of the stronger examples; beach music with a drum machine, its good-time comes equipped with a bit of Christine McVie regret: the sound of aging. That's maybe the one moment when Thomas is able to fuse his inclination toward new sounds and new adventures in hi-fi with his songcraft. There are fun experiments here and there, like the MBV drumkit tape-futzing on "Polar Bear" (which boasts, it must be said, a glorious ending), and keen homages like the chilly stop-start "Fancy" swim in the murky "Johnny" and a coda on the tower-of-vocals "Break In" that reminds me greatly of that weird "just be a cool guy" interlude on the Smiley Smile version of "Wonderful"... and Skeeter Davis shows up somewhere deep in "Are You Kissing Anyone?". But "Space Children" is more symptomatic of how fragmented Thomas' impulses currently are; its toothy overlength falls flat, taking half its length to get off the ground and lead to an engagingly creepy closing minute.

Still, I know that I'd rather have Thomas back on board messing around and fucking up under the SLGTM spotlight than to see him meander out into oblivion -- and this is a very enjoyable record, even if I don't think it will come to have the staying power of several of his earlier releases; even if not particularly memorable, it has more to offer in the sense of providing a genuine sense of an artist's impulses and skills fusing than a lot of more immediate successes. Or to be more direct, it probably sounds great on the beach.

[SEE ALSO:]
Fill Up the Room (2007)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Here's Little Richard (1957)


(Specialty)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This is a nasty, abrasive brew that must be played as loudly as possible for full impact -- it's out of the gate with the searing, crazy, dangerous vocal on "Tutti Frutti," the rantings of a possible psychopath against the draggy, tripped-up, rapid-fire jump blues his fingers lurchingly emit. The adults were right to fear this music; it's a harrowing missive from a world of gangsters and whores and girls named Sue who know just what to do, uncles groping Sallies ducking back in the alley, flat top cats and dungaree dolls -- neon, twisted, demented. From the first breathless seconds it only lets you stop and catch up at the unfortunate interval during which you have to flip over the LP.

"Tutti Frutti" follows the initial shock of Richard Penniman's confrontational, ferocious vocal style with a refusal to comply to follow even the rules that the first anarchic seconds lay down -- there's that "wooo!" and the announcement that there's another girl, crazy Daisy. The sax is only half as insistent as Little Richard but that's enough, as no instrument can live up to that "ow OWWWWWWW" that gutturally bursts forth from somewhere inside him. The song is hellishly repetitive, driving relentlessly into its groove with piano and sax and voice competing frantically for attention, while all the while Earl Palmer's drumkit pounds and plots with abandon, periodically asserting itself with an incongruous fill.

That's how Here's Little Richard spends its first two minutes. No time to lose -- "True Fine Mama" brings Penniman's piano up in the mix and has its notes chaotically higher and lower than they should be, then a vocal so high pitched that its seemingly random, dadaist assortment of caveman-vocab words, an exorcism almost -- "YESSSS true fine mama, don't go away," each word like a stab -- leaves the tolling of the backup singers stranded. They can't keep up with that voice, a potent and terrifying and erotic mixture of ecstasy and misery. Its perversity tops out with that refrain of "honey honey hon-eyyyyyyyyy," baby talk elevated to histrionic confessional. The band -- Lee Allen and Red Tyler on sax, Frank Fields on the bass, Edgar Blanchard with lead guitar -- tries the best they can to get Penniman to calm down by handing him a plodding ballad but this too he blows to smithereens, breaking your speakers in half with his gruff, tireless atonal madness. You almost can't even hear the band faithfully meandering along as he wails and cries on top of them, destroys them.

Yet as of "Ready Teddy," he only seems to be settling in, with the "go man go" an impatient request to a rhythm section that picks up and picks up more but still can't quite fall in behind its leader, who finally gives up and goes nearly a cappella for a stretch -- and finally, the twitching saxophone lick, something as fucking dirty as he is. On "Baby" he delights in the naughtiness of winking "man like me" in a feminine, tough-as-nails vocal performance that suggests Etta James, so soft and cracking and hopped-up he overtakes your senses -- but if you have the time to listen closely, and the sweat's probably too heavy by now for that, you might catch the genius under the bluster: the nuance in "wanna loooOOve me so," but generally Richard's game is that the genius is the bluster. The others just let the song die out melodramatically, a decaying monster of a big band falling apart -- and Penniman enjoys this, squealing whenever they take over, his relationship with their pounding and sauntering delighted, as they fulfill his emotionally exhausting avant garde performance.

The only sort-of rational composition here is Little Richard's most fully-realized song, "Slippin' and Slidin'," and he does kind of have the reins on it between hyperenergetic piano lines, but just barely. The vocal is controlled, at first, but it's just a trick so that you sense how big and threatening he is when he gets pissed. The sexual pleading in "slippin' and a SLiIIIIIIIdin', peepin' and a HIIIIIIIdin'" belie an unflagging tempo -- and fit well with another madly filthy sax break.

Then you have to flip the record over, and yet again you first hear that ashen, tireless roar of a voice. "Long Tall Sally" is a drunken rant, literally one-note, that in just two minutes becomes a shapeless revelation of great and sumptuous ideas that there is simply no time to explore in full, except for the catharsis and triumph of "having some fun tonight." His return to each verse, not composing himself at all except in terms of tight and invisible self-control he always exhibits as a performer, finds him no less emphatic than before; he's bashing out a mess of notes on the piano but they're unrecognizable.

The derangement evident on "Long Tall Sally" is present on "Miss Ann," just menacingly slowed down until it seems to forecast the dirtiest of '70s funk, then somewhere after another rant about "believin' and deceivin'" the drum picks up and the whole thing is elevated, up on top of this whirpool of full-on drunken cacophony. No wonder that on "Oh Why," Penniman dreams of being charged with a crime, a story he tells with palpably real pleading and desperation while the band comes on all Sweet Smell of Success. Richard eventually gets his energy back on "Jenny Jenny," caterwauling with more nonsense yet about "spinna-spin," spinning like a spinning top. And "She's Got It," though it just recommissions "Lucille" and "Slippin' and Slidin'," bears no mark of epilogue to a wildly unhinged party. "Rip It Up," all fevered anticipation, hot groove, and yearning for sexual release, is too much: it's hard to stand it and sweat it out knowing what's coming, knowing that the Great Ball is tonight.

Here's Little Richard is an obnoxious, enormous, shocking record -- the few things about it that aren't wild and unpredictable are mashed down into the mix like scrap metal, and everything conservative the band pulls out is laughingly tossed aside by Richard Penniman, whose absolutely fearless and nearly surreal absence of exhaustion or tempering is primarily what allows this to remain such an electrifying, magnetic, treacherously powerful recording. It's atonal, amoral, naturally divisive -- the ravings of an audacious egomaniac and a sex-crazed symbol of youthful corruption, building up and falling apart in sensual rhythms before our eyes and ears. Isn't. It. Fucking. Glorious???!!

[SEE ALSO:]
The Specialty Sessions (1954-60)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (2013)


(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

You can and should forgive your heroes their indulgences. Stephin Merritt would owe me nothing even if it'd just been 13 love songs -- but since he went for more than five times that, I've smiled and rolled my eyes only a little at his subsequent itch to become the Irving Berlin of novelty songs. With rhymes about "sarcastic sharks" and actively aggressive stabs at Christmas music, the last two Magnetic Fields albums were as fun as they sound -- but also a little shrill, and more than a little impersonal, as though Merritt's long-term mockery of the pop music field that fascinates him had blossomed into an alienating cynicism. If Realism and Love at the Bottom of the Sea sometimes felt like intellectual exercises more than enthusiastically presented music, it probably wasn't by accident. Merritt didn't seem to have much need or desire to return to whatever well provided us with "The Book of Love" and "I Think I Need a New Heart," songs whose self-deprecating jokes and platitudes betrayed their ache.

He did not, however, lose his capability, as proven by his latest record and his best since Distortion, very possibly earlier than that, I wouldn't want to say how much earlier. There are distinctions behind the scenes between Merritt's various musical projects, mostly tied to the collaborators used and the nature of the collaboration -- in the case of Future Bible Heroes, the keyboards are programmed and played by Chris Ewen, and Claudia Gonson sings a little more than Merritt does (though given how much of Bottom of the Sea is belted out by Gonson or Shirley Simms, that seems a less surefire designation now). But for you, the listener, the differences between the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths and plain old Stephin Merritt are mostly academic. But Merritt's mood is vastly different on this outing than it was just last year.

Maybe it's something to do with getting older, anxieties about which were already audible on the collective's previous record Eternal Youth; in that sense, the music only backs up the wistful glancing backward. It's no longer, as during the period when the Fields hit their artistic peak, a "statement" to evoke straight Construction Time Again-vintage Alan Wilder arrangements or to long for "a dance floor where no one says maybe" while throwing back to radio pop and hi-NRG in equal measure. Merritt's pop interests are now suggestive of a very distinctly different time, and his fascination with the architecture of "the hit" is twenty years or more behind; the same could be said of Robert Schneider from the Apples in Stereo. Despite their vastly incompatible dispositions, the two men both exercise in a form of expression that they carried from their youth, from a time when ELO and ABBA's presence on the radio was not seen as a freak accident. And as much as Schneider cheerleads and projects rampant positivity, Merritt can only sense the way that this occasions melancholy and despair -- but with a slight wink, as always.

So Partygoing is dance music, although not in any modern sense -- even by the standards of an indieverse very much consumed by the sound of 1980s, its club constructions are both convincing and defiantly unhip. The hopeful sprightliness of "A New Kind of Town" is merrier than a toothpaste commercial, and despite Gonson's deadpan, the flamboyant "Living, Loving, Partygoing" is more reverent than subversive, not just because it longs for nights of dancing until 4 but because you can't come up with that "LIVING [whisper] living / LOVING [whisper] loving" chorus without a lot of adoration of a bygone art. Ewen's ebullient arrangements cast Gonson and Merritt's vocals in a new light, sure, but the two of them also are singing more expressively than in recent years. Gonson gets liberally manipulated, going on creepily about how deep our love was, on "Let's Go to Sleep," but without the aid of outside transformation manages a Nico level of alienation on "How Very Strange," which comes on like something from the incredibly eccentric back third of 69 Love Songs. Merritt, meanwhile, belts "Love Is A Luxury I Can No Longer Afford" like it's 19-whenever he recorded The Charm of the Highway Strip, on which he probably would have conjured up a better couplet than "for your sake / I would bake wedding cake," but that's forgivable.

Scary, apocalyptic, and emotionally honest -- that sort of sums up Merritt's career in general, but he's letting us in a little more than usual on this year's episode. Practically the only major trait this shares with Bottom of the Sea is its brevity -- 34:11 isn't enough time to cover even a third of 69, and he seems to like it that way. Make no mistake: he hasn't lost his black humor or the frivolity of many of his lyrics. "Digging My Own Grave," a great Yaz and/or PSB imitation, succeeds despite the silly lyric that means the title quite literally. "A Drink Is Just the Thing" casts Claudia in a film noir but still suggests a reading at a cutesy poetry recital. And "Keep Your Children in a Coma" nearly could be a latter-day Fields track, but it's bouncier and less stoic thanks to Ewen, and no one said these songs weren't funny -- "they have to program everything" is almost David Byrne circa Fear of Music-worthy.

But while there are mild suggestions that Merritt's found a medium between his obligations to awkward rhyming poetry and the sheer joyous eccentricity (and red-eyed melancholy) that marked his best work, what's really happening on Partygoing was best described by my friend Andrew: it's a return to sincerity. Of course, you don't have to travel far to find Merritt cultists who will yell at you for suggesting that he was ever sincere -- but even if he was always bullshitting, the stories of "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" and "Born on a Train" always felt lived-in and true because they spoke to genuine universal feelings, something all the best storytellers and, uh, pop music composers can do on a good day. This is, to put it mildly, a good day. Four reasons: First, "Sadder Than the Moon," on which Merritt's pain returns within his most assured vocal since Distortion, his most convincing ballad since god knows when, adventurous arrhythmic trickery, and a weird arrangement with holow choral murmuring in the background that plays as a long-lost outtake from Get Lost. Even the title sounds like something from Get Lost. Second, "Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One" is probably a joke, but its low-key delivery is so free of gimmickry that I can't help feeling that it would have significantly changed the tone of everything else that made it to the last Fields LP. Thirdly, "Drink Nothing But Champagne" tackles Merritt's adoration of the musical traditionalism of the Great American Songbook as more than a hollow exercise in imitation -- here, it's a game and winning evocation, a sophisticated singalong with a surprising melody and a tight lyric. In an allusion to Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," Merritt conjures up and delightfully connects the dots from Jesus to Bowie to Hitler to Churchill to Aleister Crowley (!) with the common denominator of guess what.

But for those who were gravely disappointed that nothing on Love at the Bottom of the Sea was melodically or lyrically worthy of its priceless single "Andrew in Drag," I give you "All I Care About Is You," which is one of the man's best cuts of this century. With "Drag" it shares a towering melody and skating rink production, and a verse and chorus both full of hooks; with a luminous body of work it shares pain and humor; with no one else in the pop idiom it shares lines like "suddenly I don't wish I were dead anymore." And if you haven't cared in years, it'll make you.

The thirteen songs here collectively serve to make a wholly different impression than any of Merritt's last several releases, and unlike all of them it displays no serious conceptual gimmick, which may be one key to its excellence. Putting aside Ewen's engaging stylistics for just a moment, in terms of vocal performance and songwriting, Merritt properly reins in his impulses for both melodrama and novelty. Partygoing is just new songs in the same old idiom; it treads no new ground but it's him. That weird investment in Hollywood fused with mournful "As Tears Go By" lament on "When Evening Falls in Tinseltwon" -- it couldn't be more idiosyncratic, or more appealing to those for whom these particular idiosyncrasies have been a hallmark for over twenty years now. I'm putting this in Merritt and, hell, the Magnetic Fields' column as a resounding success because it's the first time since I've been a fan that I can point to a new release under any name from the Merritt camp and say "this is why I love this man's work."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Vampire Weekend (2008)


(XL)

RECOMMENDED

Admit this much. no matter how much you love this band: you're asking for trouble if you're a bloghype band on the cover of Spin before your first album release, which contains songs about Cape Cod and, uh, "college." Admit this no matter how much you hate them: catchy and exuberant transcend privilege. For heaven's sake, aren't we all sick of the authenticity conversation by now? It's so damn old-fashioned, and does anyone even remember the point when people sincerely believed that from-the-roots grittiness was the prime qualification for Rocking Out? Vampire Weekend weren't a terribly original fixture when they earwormed their way into the community's consciousness after opening for the Shins and issuing an obnoxious pogoing pseudo-oi! piece called "A-Punk." Their chops weren't faultless (Rostam Batmanglij's keyboard playing is rudimentary at best, even if his production is more assured, and it's unfair how he and Ezra Koenig overshadow the band's more technically proficient rhythm section) and you can see how their Wings-like jam-band-with-pop-songs cutesiness could wear thin on a world of seasoned eye-rollers. But there's a reason that, for all their faults, I think the Shins are one of the best rock bands of the millennium, and I'm now applying the same logic to Vampend Weekire: (a) it's the songs, obviously; (b) those songs are an instantly appealing as any that have come down the guitar-music pike in this decade or the last, and hence the band is vital and immediate and a joy to listen to.

Vampire Weekend is the least of the group's three albums so far, but the one that's exerted the most influence, enough so that talking about it seems almost redundant now, like any treatise on So or The Joshua Tree or Thriller must've seemed when everyone in the nation was wearing their grooves into nubs. Short of perhaps the Postal Service's Give Up (anyone who's been in a semi-trendy restaurant or sports bar the last ten years will hear me) no indie-rock record is more ubiquitous than this one. I heard "A-Punk" approximately forty-seven times before I had any clue what it was. It never did charm me, but it made its way into my brain. Its pogoing rhythm and sparkly-jangly-abrasive riffing are like Wire, if they were both friendlier and more arrogant, if that makes sense -- and if their songs were about thrice as long. Plus it has flutes and generally feels like the fratty punk (not the good kind) stuff they rushed quickly afterward to shed.

That's not a ringing endorsement, obviously -- I'd love to tell you that I have warmer feelings toward "Oxford Comma" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "Mansard Roof" but no, not by much. This is one record on which I vastly prefer the less famous cuts. I don't know what was a "single" officially here and what wasn't, but I know that the first four cuts are to this day those most readily identified with Vampire Weekend, and probably the reason I didn't choose to spend much time thinking about them or forming much of an opinion on them when they were being referenced in Sally Forth in 2008, a time when I was more receptive to new music than I had been in years. The once-ubiquitous "Oxford Comma" does work a little better for me now, its propulsion and Koenig's delivery both inspired, though its self-conscious lyrical ironies are tired English major stuff, and that includes the repeated use of the phrase "who gives a fuck."

All four of these opening songs have aged, though, in a way that Contra hasn't. The cartoon soundtrack that is "Mansard Roof" is vital to give context to everything that flowered thereafter, but indeed "Cape Cod" does play into some of the more vicious stereotypes that would greet the band, and I don't mean class-related ones. I mean that it's the laziest kind of chillout island-rock shit. 2008 wasn't very long ago but already these seem like missives from a time of naivete, which underline how they seem like the sort of music that sounds great to you in college (cannot verify) or in the car (can). All of Vampire Weekend's music is readymade for summer, but the forceful stamp their entrance puts on this feature limits the grace of these recordings.

The album improves significantly after that, but only one song hints in any serious way at what's to come, by which I mean that word again: "grace." The dancing enormity of "Walcott" attains fleetingly the lived-in but majestic lilt that would become more apparent over the next five years. The song's remarkable sense of space, even laid against the band's clipped and quickened grooves here and everywhere, is a "whoa, wait a second" moment when something conceptually and contextually surprising starts to happen. To pick back up on the Beatles analogy from a few days ago, suppose it's the intensity of John's vocal on "There's a Place," for instance. Vampire Weekend mean to give pleasure and make a quick impression and distract you a lot on their debut, but this is your official hint that something of quite a bit more intelligence and ambition than you might first suspect is going on back there.

As for the oft-cited African influences, they're not insulting cause they're barely even there, at least no more than as an addition of mild keyboard and guitar flavor to sprightly little pop tunes. The superficially exotic "One" is surf-rock fused with Tom Tom Club and is kind of annoying, though charming enough; "Campus," which is about guess what, sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers, and "M76" -- the best song on the record -- is defiantly European and defiantly lowbrow, its mild suggestion of classical music suggestive more of the piped-in orchestrations at a Discovery Channel Store than an evening at the symphony. Beyond that, the strongest evidence I get of the outside world is the clear Funeral debt on "I Stand Corrected," which itself tempers its propulsion with minimalist goofiness and the effect is, yeah, a little silly. The band doesn't get much tighter than on the tricky sprawled-out rhythm of "Bryn," and the songs don't get more accomplished than "The Kids Don't Stand the Catch," a subtly infectious and unusually confident way to end the record.

Mostly the album is a quick and precise introduction that now feels like just a prelude to two others, but served its purpose to what now seems like a completely different audience. It's remarkable how linear this all seems already: this is purity and the last vestiges of a certain childishness, Contra is full of doubt and self-reflection, and Modern Vampires of the City is full-on adulthood, a record made by people who appreciate the size of a world that was seen through a limited prism just half a decade ago. You couldn't craft a homemade compilation without being able to detect the gap in skill and craft from the oldest songs to the newest. I don't love this album, but I love the story it accidentally tells.

[SEE ALSO:]
Modern Vampires of the City (2013)