Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Savages: Silence Yourself (2013)


(Matador)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Given how much indie rock of the 2000s owed to a small cachet of post-punk bands from twenty years prior, Wire and Gang of Four in particular, it's startling when a new band effortlessly, self-consciously appropriates that same dark, compressed and sustained grit and manages to sound like a unique fixture in a glutted marketplace. Maybe it's because London's Savages choose to draw from a wider range of material, Joy Division at one end but Siouxsie and the Banshees and Pere Ubu at the other, but it's more likely because their debut Silence Yourself is an act of passion. In all its forceful, apocalyptic chaos it sounds so convincingly like a record drawn from the age of Public Image Ltd. and Patti Smith Group (singer Jehnny Beth sounds quite similar to both Smith and Tom Verlaine at times), like a direct outgrowth of the Damned's "New Rose" rather than a multigenerational resurgence -- but this is why it's fresh. Its laundry list of influences is nearly incidental when its impressively direct, unfussy approach amounts to just four people playing music they love, speaking words to the blind. It is to Joy Division as Slanted and Enchanted was to the Velvets. Like Pavement, Savages work hard to conceal their pop songcraft under distortion and muddiness, but this only adds to their energetic mystery.

It's unfair to cast any one member of Savages as more key than any other, but Silence Yourself very simply wouldn't work without the steely, searing focus of Gemma Thompson's rumbling, crunching guitar sound. It can be seductive (amplified, of course, by Ayse Hassan and Fay Milton's excellent garage-band rhythm section), harrowing, graceful, deceptively clean, but most of the time it's in attack mode. For much of the first half of the record, peaking with the maniacal "City's Full," she lays the groundwork for a dead-end punk nuclear blast on top of which Beth can lose her marbles beautifully. Savages are magnetic because they're so fatalistic and serious, like so many great bands of the relevant period, which makes it all the weirder that their record is in the end so delightful, but this music in all its tension and fever is really nothing more or less than great, intense rock & roll -- fun even when it's not "fun."

That makes it sound as if Silence Yourself is a dour affair, but that's not the case at all; it's simply ambitious in its minimalism and devotedly free of flourish. For some of us, this is the motivational workout record of the year. Put it on and you can't help but want to do something, clean your living room or brush the cat or paint the walls or run laps around the property, but it's not sitting-still music. What it really demands is pogoing or sitting entranced at the base of a stage, watching these great musicians perform and screaming along to "YOU HAVE... NO FACE" or the Spectorian "I'm ready I'm ready / when you hit me I'm READY." If the instant classic "Husbands" didn't already generate the feeling of being in a smoky club during the Thatcher era, the complete album will blaze away any doubts.

Savages may be pure threat musically, but their songs also come with a sense of triumph -- and a sly humor and Rolling Stones-vintage attitude problem (what could be purer?) suggested immediately by the willfully bizarre sampling of a Cassavetes movie. The threat and dread come loudest and clearest: while the songs are generally bashed out with abandon and then discarded, the band is quick to shrug off any questions about versatility with variations like "Strife," slowing down to a deliberate pregnant plod and doing things with you that you will never tell your mum; "Waiting for a Sign" takes this further to a sad, menacing guitar mourn -- the guitar rather than voice taking the emotional lead, brilliant as the vocal is -- and proceeds to thrust with a quiet-loud pacing that somehow manages never to allow its tension to break. But is there joy in all this? Absolutely; turn it up louder. You could argue that even the creation of music this defined by throwback yet wholly inventive and crafty is in itself an act of stubborn joy, and one of the most assured and powerful rock-band moments of recent vintage.

Easy as it is to single out Thompson's guitar or Beth's singing -- and it's all too tempting -- what makes Savages already such a treasure of a band is their interplay and precision. Post-punk bands like Gang of Four and Wire were always built on this, but Savages are more interested in carefully sustained chaos; the beautiful paranoia of their intriguingly expressive sound is already impressively assured. For every breathless climax ("SHE WILL SHE WILL SHE WILL SHE WILL SHE WILL SHE WILL") there is a stunning movement like "Marshal Dear," which more than anything else here suggests the incredible rage of an antecedent like Love Is All or X-Ray Spex, and not merely because of its saxophone solo. This is a song with genuine anger and bottom-heavy desperation, a song that doesn't seem to be a mere act of wish-fulfillment navel gaze when Beth calmly announces "I hope you're breathing your last breath." I have no idea whether they Mean It or whatever because that's irrelevant anyway; what matters to me is that they enjoy sounding like they Mean It, as though even in this commodified age there can still be some act of rebellion so long as it's the culmination of something personal. That's as moving as, well, punk rock.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Leonard Cohen: Songs from a Room (1969)


(Columbia)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

One of the more egregious examples of an expectation-defying followup, Leonard Cohen's sophomore album couldn't be more different from its polished, transcendent predecessor Songs of Leonard Cohen -- it's rather hard to imagine any other singer-songwriter displaying such a blatant change of approach so quickly. A big part of this violent turnaround is the quick and determined drive away from producer John Simon, who gave Cohen's debut so much of its chamber-pop glitter and helped make its cyclical collection of gorgeous lyrics and melodies such an out-of-nowhere masterwork. Songs from a Room brings collaborator Bob Johnston aboard, and it's quickly evident that Johnston hasn't much interest in woodwinds, choirs, baroque slickness or -- to be perfectly frank -- widespread appeal.

Room looks and feels homemade, starting with its slapdash cover art and extending to Johnston's almost comically minimalistic miking up and accompaniment of Cohen, which amounts to just the man and his guitar -- the approach he wanted to begin with -- and some awkwardly inserted jew's harp, with a blast of organ here and there. Precisely one song has an elaborate enough arrangement to have fit in on Songs of Leonard Cohen: "The Partisan," the one he had no hand in writing but here does include some accordion and some singing children. Elsewhere, Cohen is ragged and direct, almost relishing the thinness of his voice, the sudden absence of any label-mandated obstacles between his words and music and his audience.

The approach is probably more ideal for Cohen in the long run, but it's little surprise initially that this marks a disproportionate drop in popularity from his debut, and honestly one doubts there are many people who would attempt to claim that this record is nearly as good as that one -- that comes down to a lapse in songs and poetry, more than anything. Simon's sessions had no faltering, tentative moments like "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes" or anything so gleefully on-the-nose as the heroin verse on "The Butcher" ("it did some good / it did some harm" does kind of sum it all up, though). What Songs from a Room does have in spades is honesty, an unsophisticated nakedness that may incorporate more from Cohen's own life than any of his other records.

Cohen's world here feels boxed-in, almost hopeless; the record of two years prior suggested a sense of journey and wanderlust, but the very title of Songs from a Room implies a claustrophobia maintained by the stark, plain artwork, with lines like "I choose the rooms I live in with care / the windows are small and the walls almost bare" almost certainly coming from the barbed, sometimes slightly humorous perspective of a deeply depressed person. Nowhere is Cohen's state of mind clearer than on "Seems So Long Go, Nancy," a fiercely unsentimental tribute to a friend of his who had committed suicide. He both holds her at a distance and sees himself in her. Much more than latter romantic ballads of death like "Chelsea Hotel," this cut removes any distance between the singer and his subject -- he might be the desperate friend on the phone crying out that he loves Nancy, but he is also the wizened, weakened troubador who knows such platitudes can finally make little difference.

"Nancy" is one of Cohen's most shocking songs because it's one of his most direct, and is therefore the ideal match to Johnston's efforts to emphasize the elegant, quite raw simplicity of these arrangements. Elsewhere, Cohen offers up songs that could just as easily have found their home on Songs of Leonard Cohen -- equally good, but perhaps less suited to Johnston's sound than to Simon's. These are songs of God and love and war, all of the loftiest images floating through Cohen's head. "The Partisan," the beautiful anthem of the French resistance, is one thing -- an obvious showpiece that stands out almost rudely from the rest of this material. "The Old Revolution" is rather another, a brilliant song that would benefit from stronger and more distinctive production. The bitingly anti-war Biblical epic "Story of Isaac" is one of the scattered Cohen songs that is generally better in cover versions, less because of flaws in his performance than in the flat, hollow sound of the record itself.

"Isaac" is a deservedly celebrated example of Cohen's poetic mastery, though, and it's likely the second most famous selection here aside from "Bird on the Wire," a startling opener that has remained in some quarters Cohen's signature song, eclipsing even "Suzanne" and the later "Hallelujah." "Wire" is the quickest example to cite when making the case that this LP is Cohen at his most personal and unfettered. It opens as arm's-length philosophy ("I have tried in my way to be free") and gradually reveals that it's an act of atonement, making much of flaws that the singer-writer seems to feel can never be truly be forgiven: his freedom comes at a cost -- that he will inevitably be unkind, untrue. This is finally wrapped up in Cohen's anxieties about God himself and the often miserable world around him; on "You Know Who I Am," he takes for the first time a higher-up, omniscient perspective that would become increasingly important to his work in the years to follow, here within commentary upon sin and the punishment of women, sex and abortion taking on the mystical dread of heroin earlier on the record. It's a startling piece of work that calls ahead to Songs of Love and Hate -- convincingly scary, convincingly broken.

But Cohen is at his best here when he suggests something that can be heard almost nowhere else in his catalog: resignation, to grief and loss and aging. The wistful, fatalistically smiling voice on the last two songs frankly mean far more to me than "Bird on the Wire" ever really could. "Lady Midnight" features one of Cohen's most delicate and perfect lyrics (right from its economical, stirringly graceful opening couplet: "I came by myself to a very crowded place / I was looking for someone who had lines in her face"), of accepting need and lamenting a disconnect as he wanders among the cougars at a bar late at night and finds that even the one he most desires cannot and will not simply bend to his whims until he truly opens up without hesitation. The optimism here to be found in one of Cohen's sprightliest chord structures and most lovingly simple guitar performances is shattered both by its cutting humor and self-deprecation and by the heart-opening sadness of the finale.

"Tonight Will Be Fine" is identifiably the work of a young man; his voice is still witheringly thin, and his sexual politics are still those of a person who not long earlier had penned a novel, Beautiful Losers, that mostly consisted of finding about a thousand different ways of describing oral sex. But the song is honest, wounded, vulnerable and finally about as haunting as anything he's ever committed to tape. As on "Lady Midnight," the words feature not a single wasted word, and capture the lingering passion and heated regret of a collapsing relationship in its waning nights. It's a comfort to anyone who's rubbed up against the noted emotions not because it's cathartic or optimistic but because it simultaneously giggles in the face of its own despair and revels comfortably within it -- indeed, it details an almost crushing loneliness.

At the end of it all, Songs from a Room captures an extended feeling of melancholy that is unbroken for the duration. Even the bravura interlude "The Partisan" offers little respite from the deathliness and dread. But at the close of Side Two, Cohen reveals that he is most in his element when detailing not mythology or religious anxiety or even confessional regret but just the pratfalls and lonely solitude of romantic failure. At even its most optimistic, "Tonight Will Be Fine" must sarcastically undercut itself: "tonight will be fine," but only "for a while." The song lowers all of the flags and admits defeat -- he sees that he has caused his lady's grief, that he is lucky her step will appear on his stair one more time, that she has not forgiven him but is willing to be with him for one last night, that he must enjoy these final touches -- and yet somehow Cohen finds glory in hitting rock bottom. For one of the few times in his entire career, he falls hard enough for his melody that he spends the entire last minute sitting and humming it, as if he has attained some sort of nirvana in acknowledging this grief. He would attain such considerable heights from now onward and this is probably in the next-to-bottom tier of his discography, but this may perversely be his most triumphant moment. I know it's one I can never help but sing along to.

[SEE ALSO:]
Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Dear Heather (2004)
Old Ideas (2012)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mikal Cronin: MCII (2013)


(Merge)

There's nothing wrong with what Mikal Cronin is doing. The singer-songwriter knows his way around a hook and maximizes his use of each and every one of them. He's power pop in the latter-day vein of Matthew Sweet or (don't let anyone hear you say this) Gin Blossoms, when the gaze turned inward and the casual abuse of the other halves of the boys' (seemingly always boys') relationships calmed down. Cronin is twenty-five years old, not much younger than Sweet was circa Girlfriend, but something weird has happened in the intervening generation: a barely palpable, barely tangible fear. Cronin doesn't lash out, doesn't protest, doesn't even really signal much heartbreak or ill health to speak of. Everything is all too calm on MCII, which is its undoing. To put it another way: there's nothing wrong with it.

The polish has its benefits. The driving, snowy "Weight" that opens the record -- like a wistful, sensitive Smith Westerns -- is justifiably pushed to its gorgeous limits and is one of the best guitar pop songs, actually popular or not, to come down the pike this year. Much like Real Estate, Cronin seems almost like the Frankensteinian creation of those Youtube commenters who talk about how they love it when Yo La Tengo is "mellow"; "Shout It Out" is built on what sounds like a leftover Ira Kaplan riff, "Don't Let Me Go" drops the pretense and just cops the one from "The Summer" (itself an Only Ones lift, so we're not judging), and "Peace of Mind" is practically a full rewrite of "Did I Tell You." That's all fine. But bite makes sweetness special. The Byrds and Turtles knew that when they were inventing the busy verses and strange drumlines now revised on "Shout It Out" and "Change."

Like a lot of songs here, those are tempered by Cronin's other fixation: FM modern rock radio of the mid-'90s, which seems to be the primary frame of reference for his songs' peaks and choruses. "Am I Wrong," for instance, is already permanently in your head halfway through the first minute; unfortunately, Cronin sees little point in writing an actual song around the hook, instead just letting it sort of shapelessly support itself like a lot of mainstream bands (Collective Soul; Stone Temple Pilots) spent that entire decade doing. Their songs often blasted out with enthusiasm and went nowhere, like "Peace of Mind" and "Am I Wrong" here. But Cronin was born in 1987, so this is in his DNA and he's quite entitled. One song, "See It My Way," is practically a dictionary fusion of his two interests, reconfiguring "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with calm hippie folk rock to tirelessly amusing effect.

The sound of MCII is towering and slick and immediately appealing, like a latter-day R.E.M. album, or like any Tom Petty album. But as with either of those frames of reference, the closer you look at the thing, the hazier and emptier it seems. I lost patience earlier and earlier each time I listened to the entire LP, and that's with having a natural attraction to the kinds of noises Cronin likes and the way he lays them out. It's all songwriting, finally. Even the feedback and electric power turn on "Change" is as much throwback as a Yuck song, and starts falling down the "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" rabbit hole before it can really charm on its disaffected, superficial catchiness.

One can't object to the concept of basic, unfettered guitar pop with an edge; think of the Shins' first three albums, vividly recalled more than once here, especially on "Don't Let Me Go." But the Shins' James Mercer had a boldness of composition and a sense of passion in those days that Cronin's affable politeness and fatal love of the radio-pandering familiar cannot match. His songs soar and envelop, but only in the most obvious ways, formats, structures, places. There's nothing surprising or personal, certainly not intimate or idiosyncratic about them. His sole note of individuality is a slight tendency toward the prog-"epic" that gives these songs a potentially transportive, cloudy feeling that somehow stays rock-grounded. The thing is lean and fun enough for background music, but it gets tired fast. In one last throwback, the record even provides an additional '70s nod, to the old album-closing power ballad move. Title? "Piano Mantra."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Charli XCX: True Romance (2013)


(Atlantic)

"How can I fix what I fucked up?" is the mantra of True Romance, a surprisingly raw and bleeding examination of wrecked relationships, bad nights and occasional bliss that marks the full-length debut of Charli XCX, a glittery pop-disco queen who could better be described simply as a singer-songwriter; these songs revolve around direct unadorned emotional expression and, as with the concurrent Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara, the synthpop throwback sound and insistent beat is really incidental to the singing and lyrics, which are routinely inspired.

Unfortunately, whereas Heartthrob augments its tension and despair with genuinely graceful melodies and throttling hooks, much of True Romance simply whips in and out of the room inconspicuously. The songs are well-written but often slower, it seems, than they should be. The record opens and closes at its strongest; "Nuclear Sessions" is a wildly eccentric bow, and "Lock You Up" marries the generally dour mood with a towering, angsty body-music glory that most easily calls back to the O.M.D. and Siouxie and the Banshees numbers that likely inspired the album as a whole. There are fun moments scattered here and there, like the bouncy hip hop-flavored "Cloud Aura," but it's most effective on those rare occasions when Charli seems to be having a blast, which happens less often with her perfectly assured vocals than those moments when she lapses into spoken-word murmurs, the breathy confessions of a confusion we all know in which feeling bad is almost as necessary as feeling good.

There's not a bad cut here, and nothing overstays its welcome. The entire album is intriguing, even brilliant at times, and this is clearly a smart and resourceful artist -- but in general, it just seems too polite to hit as hard as we'd like.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You (1963)


(Philles [original] / Apple [reissue] / Abkco [compact disc])

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It's October now, but as you well know if you work retail, Christmas is just around the yeah yeah. You can already hear it lurking around, some unseen thread of invisible colored lights propping itself up from underground like the tripods in War of the Worlds -- that now-whispered furor of forthcoming stresses and dreads and everything frantic and terrifying about spending the holidays with your family, or with a parade of perpetually dissatisfied members of the public each with their own mortally freaky back story. But underneath all this, there is Something About the holiday season that even a nonreligious person can find some way to get a sense of once in a while. It's not limited to just goodwill and angelic pleasures -- who doesn't like getting presents? -- and it's not even limited to things you celebrate privately in your own way. There is (or can be) something kind of lovely about the sensation of urgency you get out in the thick of it surrounded by the busy and overworked populace.

That world looks better with the Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride" floating through it. It's an arrangement that makes the most of its melody's giddy exuberance far beyond the trappings of its lite-classical origins, smartly excising the momentum-killing "giddy-up" bridge in favor of that unforgettable ringalingalinga dingdongding after each line. Ronnie Spector's sumptuous treatment of the song makes it something much more than a decorative supplement to chaos. It alters the architecture of the season, infuses it with an enchantingly furious romance. To put it more simply, it makes rock & roll out of the most arid and secular of humdrum traditions. Exploding with overfilled brass and bells and drums, it's so much alive as to become an escape, something that implies both a universal celebration and the ability to carve our own space in it. The Ronettes' communication, singing songs that we've heard so many hundreds of times, seems strangely personal. And so it goes for Phil Spector's entire Christmas album, a piece of lovably cluttered beauty and unabashed (almost weird) sincerity that does so much more and works so much harder than it has to.

That wasn't typically the case with the few full-length albums Spector released on his Philles label in the '60s; this is by far the most significant LP he produced until he worked on the Beatles' Let It Be in 1970, and it would remain his best for longer than that. Spector's team of session musicians, singers, writers and arrangers seem to have been waiting their entire lives for this. They probably hadn't, they might not even have cared that much deep down, but they certainly make it seem like the most important thing that's ever been recorded for the duration, in an era when even non-seasonal rock & roll and pop albums were still generally cash-ins. Though he trips up the magic a few times with probably too many songs about Santa Claus that can't really be anything but kiddie distractions and one too many intrusions from dark-horse stablemates Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, Spector does something here with Christmas music that seems to exist nowhere else and seems to capture something intrinsic to the nature of the American celebration: he makes it vital.

From the first melancholy, driving notes of Darlene Love's belted-out "White Christmas" -- one of the best recordings ever of that brilliant, haunting song -- the sense of power, yearning and loneliness seems to infuse nearly every moment of A Christmas Gift for You. Love was and remains one of the most commanding singers in American popular music, and when she stops the presses to announce that "there's never been such a day in old L.A.," the intoxication is complete, which is something considering that she is merely setting up the payoff to come on Side Two. The Crystals, great as ever, must inevitably sit in the shadow of Love and Ronnie Spector. More than their peers, the Crystals seem saddled with the toy-drum part of our production, the part that seems -- adoringly enough -- to bask in frivolity. But these too are powerful performances, even of so slight a creation as "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," or one so tired as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." It's just that the Ronettes do more than faithfully enhance their songs, they conquer them; that includes "Frosty the Snowman," deconstructed into something like perverse eroticism (this is Phil Spector, after all) with nothing more than Ronnie's read of the words "button nose." Her delivery of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is mindbending for similar reasons.

Nevertheless, the highlights of this record are quite consistently Love's domain, enough that it's hard to imagine it would have suffered much as a complete album of her performances. "Winter Wonderland" is the truest Spector wall of sound to be heard here, though the Crystals' gloriously busy "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" is an ambitious near-miss. But Christmas Gift houses two of Love's greatest moments on record, and everything here sort of lives in their wake, not just on the LP but in all attempts since to record worthwhile popular Christmas music.

There are few moments more luminous in '60s pop than the introduction of Love's "Marshmallow World," likely the most obscure non-original song selected for inclusion here, which ends up mattering not even a little bit. Its wonderfully surreal, evocative lyric is instinctively captured and rendered by Love into a towering celebration of the snow, the ice, the paradise of cold, and again, the warmth of romantic awakenings. It's as if in treating a holiday occasion as an event of the same momentous largeness as the boy-girl relationships she and Spector usually tackle, she is implying something larger, something about the moment when the annual obligations of surrounding oneself with iconography and celebrating the icily familiar gives way to the ability to choose how we do what we do, to form our own families -- to burst out dancing and to notice that it's our own turn to decide what being grownup actually means, all of the frustrations and unrequited desires amounting in the end just to freedom. That's rock & roll, and that's "Marshmallow World" in its breakneck, unstoppable speed.

As ever, though, we cannot be permitted these freedoms without ache. All of A Christmas Gift for You builds to the moment of truth seven minutes before it amusingly ends with a suitably creepy message from Spector himself (later imitated with adorably stilted awkwardness by Dennis Wilson on the Beach Boys' "Auld Lang Syne") over the top of "Silent Night," the album's only directly religious song. There's something coyly perfect about the ghostly beauty of "Silent Night," with its stark Nativity image, ultimately seeming in this context less important than Darlene Love singing about a boy she misses. Or rather, Darlene Love giving every bit of herself, as if her every last shred of life absolutely depends on it, to the masterpiece of this album: the glorious "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," a song of frankly indescribable grandness, in July or October or December.

Not for nothing is the song beautifully written -- by Spector with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich -- including its lyrics that capture the anguish of loneliness, especially in a time of celebrated union and family, as well as any non-holiday composition. Love carries it home, though, and seems to define with herculean glory the bittersweetness of memory and grief in the face of perpetual cheeriness. Jack Nitzsche's arrangement builds and builds, conscious of the mounting intensity in Love's performance, until the song reaches a "please! please! please! please!" climax so overwhelming it seems to almost lose its grip on itself. But Love's control is absolute; nearly unnoticed in 1963, issued on the day that John F. Kennedy was shot, here sits on tape one of the finest vocal performances ever captured -- one that resonates fifty years later to anyone who's ever longed for someone, anyone who's ever looked at tinsel and tidings and wanted desperately to be happier.

This all-time moment is just the shiniest of the jewels given to us by this noble and gorgeous album. There is no use for irony here, no way or cause to be dismissive or skeptical of it. A Christmas Gift for You is ubiquitous, played year after year until its mono grooves wear thin to the eardrum, but it can still captivate, charm and bomb you out with its sheer, irreducible emotional vastness. Trim your tree to nothing less.

[SEE ALSO:]
Back to Mono (1958-69)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kaki King: Legs to Make Us Longer (2004)


(Epic)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

By her music's very nature, Kaki King tends to slip into the background, which is not a criticism -- so did Brian Eno, quite intentionally. But as with Eno, until you sit down and concentrate fully on one of her complete albums, you likely neglect to notice just how formidable and unique a talent she truly is. No one disputes at this point that she is one of the era's best guitarists, and she does more with this technical proficiency than almost anyone ever has. Her lyricism is in a class with the likes of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from Television, but her application of those gifts reminds me of no one so much as Dick Dale -- the playfulness, the spirit, and the quiet but ruthless command of center stage with nothing but the wild and engaging and frequently breathtaking sounds she can wring from a guitar, most often (more remarkably yet) acoustically. It's exciting enough just to watch her play, almost to the point of distraction; listen to the records to discover how creative she really is.

King's second album, which makes compositional and technical leaps over her first while retaining its directness, adds a full band but still communicates largely in a whisper, except when King periodically feels more noise is warranted. That includes the beautifully busy, almost manic "Playing with Pink Noise," which in its way is just as intense as a concentrated hypnosis like "Can the Gwot Save Us?" -- however many elements King adds to her sound, intimacy is still paramount, far more than any fawning over her astounding high-level technique; unlike so many guitar heroes, she shirks anything that amounts to mere showboating and always serves the song or tone of the moment. The ideas can flash on and off like the opening two-minute slide "Frame" or can transform and build and vary wildly like the brilliant "Lies," which never rests for even a moment but also never sounds strung together or unstructured.

There are no weak moments to be found on this record, but it's a goldmine of atmospheres that can change the color of a room and can even lull you into a gazing, tranced-out peace. Boredom never comes; there's too much warmth, mystery and romance in even a creation as deliberate as "Doing the Wrong Thing" -- which puts weight behind every note and equal weight behind the silences -- for it not to charge and challenge, even if subtly. There are boring technical reasons for why this record feels even stronger than its fine predecessor, and many of King's subsequent efforts -- the tracks are individually distinctive but cohere very smoothly into one another, and each seems reflective of careful enough planning that a lesser artist might find them constraining; the ambient production and arrangements are tasteful and use their extra palette of sounds sparingly -- but this sort of weighty, driving beauty comes from the soul and from King following her obviously restless but deeply giving instincts.

She vocalizes a bit on "My Insect Life," near the end, but even then this is a record of nothing but pure melody and texture washing over you. It might give you pause on, say, the midsections of "Magazine" and "Lies" to have it occur to you just how incredible King is at what she does, but mostly this record is a gift of drifting and receding. Its pleasures are difficult to articulate, but they are -- sincerely -- almost innumerable, and usually breathtaking.

[SEE ALSO:]
Everybody Loves You (2003)