Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Terror of the infinite: November 2014 new release rush (part 1 of 3)

SOHN
Tremors (2014)

(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Christopher Taylor's debut full-length under this moniker is lovingly produced R&B with impassioned vocals and a pillow of sound that's both intriguingly unsettled and extremely pleasurable to the ear, even on first contact. Artists like Taylor and Lyla Foy, despite being mostly tsk-tsked at by the hoary indie rock blogosphere, represent the bedroom pop of the early part of this decade actually coming to fruition at last. Both artists explored the limits of the bedroom and chillwave concepts and moved on to higher-fidelity factions with what they'd learned, a path not dissimilar to what modern luminaries Merrill Garbus and John Darnielle did. Despite being a professionally recorded album with a presumably decent budget (given Taylor's track record working with bigger successes like Rhye), Tremors inherits the sense of emotional immersion that gives private demos their strange resonance in the first place. Unlike many of his peers, Taylor is also a superb singer and meticulously generates beautiful electronic backing for his complex songs, which are mostly quite subtle (excluding the tower-of-song chorus of "Artifice") but consistently striking and intelligent. It's an album that bears the mark of ambient music with its floating, ethereal qualities -- the pulsating "Lessons" is a bit like Music for Films with a catchy vocal melody laid over -- while also suggesting the stripped-back R&B of James Blake and How to Dress Well but, unlike those artists, actually bringing the songs and grooves home. That's because they're written and recorded as complete creations, but also because Taylor is simply a better, more guttural and expressive singer than almost anyone in the indie-R&B subfield right now; only Rhye's Milosh and Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas come to mind as stronger. It's easy to glance at Tremors and think you've heard it all before, but as with Foy's equally brilliant debut on Sub Pop, I feel it's a shame to overlook something that's such a work of refined craft and emotion even if it's not brazenly original. Besides, "The Wheel," "Bloodflows," "Fool," the erotically charged slowjam "Veto" and the stunning ear-bender "Lights" are the honest-to-god next level; they're as good as anything issued in this blue-eyed lonely-highway idiom, and it's hard to see how anyone could argue that the drab smartass Ariel Pink has more to show us. For one thing, Taylor seems to give a fuck.

***

Ben Watt
Hendra (2014)

(Caroline)

Watt was half of the increasingly underappreciated Everything But the Girl. Though he and Tracey Thorn still appear to be happily married, they haven't released new music together since the magnificent Temperamental in 1999. While both have stayed busy, this is Watt's first solo album since prior to EBTG's formation. Those who know the duo primarily for their full-on embrace of dance music and urban loneliness will be surprised by how low-key this is -- it's a very calm singer-songwriter record in the vein of Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright. Then again, Thorn and Watt became known to begin with for their gentle, frothy pseudo-lounge music so for long-timers it's not as much of a stretch. Like his wife (both are outstanding prose writers as well) Watt writes good, incisive lyrics but his vocals don't have the character or bite of those luminaries (or Thorn's), though he does vaguely resemble Thompson at times. Not surprisingly, the album is strongest when it picks up the pace a little (as on the sharp, guitar-driven Lindsey Buckingham-like "Nathaniel"); generally it can most politely be characterized as a middling, folky exercise you don't necessarily have the urge to turn off. Too happy that Watt is making music again to get too upset about it being a bit dull.

***

Old 97's
Most Messed Up (2014)

(ATO)

RECOMMENDED * Thank goodness they got the rotten listlessness of the Grand Theatre records out of their system. But formerly one of the best bands in America, they now seem content to rest on the laurels of what's Expected. They roar and blast their way through twelve quick, raucous riff twangers, but the biggest clue to Rhett Miller's psychology these days comes at the very beginning, on the cynical, biting "Longer Than You've Been Alive," like Pet Shop Boys' "Young Offender" only pissed and pissed off. It's about being a washed-up (?) rock star on the road and making a career of it. The rest of the songs are about gettin' laid and gettin' drunk -- so in other words, Miller's primary interest at this point seems to be to pander to the people who go to Old 97's shows chiefly to get drunk and sling their beers in the faces of nearby introverts. (I digress.) These are the same people who thought that the band was selling out to Elektra when Miller's songs started to get stronger and stronger and the band's style became harder and harder to pinpoint. Only Murry Hammond still delivers the kind of murky power pop that made Fight Songs and Satellite Rides so valuable; the rest of the time, the band tries desperately to fit what they now perceive as being their "place." The songs are raw raunch & roll, but they're also really damned obvious, sometimes annoyingly so. Still, doing what's expected of you can deliver, and the acid in Miller's tongue can give this a pleasing New Adventures in Hi-Fi vibe at its best. Is it their best record in years? Sure. Is it their best since Elektra? Hell no -- I'll still take Blame It on Gravity, their last swipe at genre-loose fearlessness -- but it's certainly a step in the right direction for which I honestly thought it was too late.

***

Lykke Li
I Never Learn (2014)

(Atlantic)

It's great to have Jewel back, dunno why she's traveling under an alias. But for real, this concept album about post-breakup stasis was purportedly influenced by Pacific Ocean Blue and Astral Weeks but ends up sounding more like Nico before the morning shot. It's less vivid and engaging than Lykke Li's previous work because it's necessarily so morose, while still being written and structured like a conventional pop record -- "Gunshot" is like a very tired "Paper Planes" -- and driven, like Wounded Rhymes, by big drive-by statements like "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone" (see: "Sadness Is a Blessing"). What has changed is that the pain in Li's voice is very much audible, so even if the music isn't particularly interesting your heart does go out to her. The tortured torch songs all run together except the big, floridly arranged "Heart of Steel" -- but even there, what we're hearing is the virtue of Wounded Rhymes extended more than any revealing, newly personal intimacy.

***

The Roots
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014)

(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED * More power to one of the best and most consistent bands in the world for being able to do whatever the hell they want these days, and have a label willing to release it, but this diehard still misses Black Thought actually being given the chance to rap and ?uestlove writing rather than just producing. The concept is a tackling of hip hop bravado, street violence and self-destruction versus mainstream perception of same; it's tragic, dark, satiric, cerebral, and some would say just a little too easy. Musically, the Roots continue to push boundaries, which isn't what we'd once have expected from a Tonight Show house band, but like undun before it, it's muchly in the vein of their subtle, artistically adventurous adaptation of Langston Hughes' "Ask Your Mama," which they performed at Carnegie Hall in 2009. That's well and good, but is it shallow of me to miss a great band's pop sensibility? It is shallow, actually, and kind of cynical -- we always hope for great bands to reach the level of success where they can release an incongruous half-hour of intricate, close listen-rewarding high art with musique concrete interpolations from Michel Chion, and then when one actually survives at that level we snarl at it. So in essence, this is a record whose existence I love more than I love or even like the actual results, and I accept the hypocrisy inherent to that. But my goodness, the closer -- "Tomorrow," sung by R&B obscurity Raheem DeVaughn -- is wonderful, a beautiful and possibly sardonic ode to finding your angel with hopping pop bliss and a melody so simple and perfect you can't believe no one already wrote it. That's how we know this album isn't just a busy band being obtuse; they are still doing something special, we just haven't necessarily caught up.

***

Toumani Diabaté / Sidiki Diabaté
Toumani & Sidiki (2014)

(Nonesuch)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * The Malian hip hop drummer Sidiki Diabaté is also a third-generation master of the kora, a 21-string harp associated with West Africa. This collaborative album made with his father Toumani, one of the most celebrated kora players on the continent, wonderfully captures the collision both performers enjoy exploring of Malian musical traditionalism and American jazz and blues. Fully instrumental and creating a rhythmic, melodic cushion of lively improvisation, it benefits from the palpable camaraderie between father and son. The results are offbeat and magical, with numerous striking grooves and enough depth and variance to make it a rich listen from start to finish. For pure musicality, it's hard to imagine a more immediate or accessible African album, and it rewards both background listening and careful attention.

***

Sharon Van Etten
Are We There (2014)

(Jagjaguwar)

!! CAUTION !! * Having seen a few mesmerizing videos of Van Etten performing completely alone, it's astounding how dull her music becomes when weighted down with full performances and layers of studio slickness. Less is more, and on this record she just sounds like a hundred other airy singer-songwriters.

***

Owen Pallett
In Conflict (2014)

(Domino)

RECOMMENDED * Pallett's had a busy few years, arranging strings for Arcade Fire and helping them out with the score of the Oscar-nominated film From Agnes with Love. He's learned some things about big powerful impression-making from his fellow Canadians -- check "The Riverbed" -- and is now practically a de facto extra member of the band, an informal distinction once handed to one Brian Eno during his association with Talking Heads. And who should be here offering musical and vocal -- but surprisingly, not production -- input on Pallett's follow-up to Heartland but one Brian Eno? Seconds into In Conflict, we're reminded of what made Heartland such an indelibly appealing pop moment: Pallett's voice is godly, capable of generating almost involuntary emotional and physical reactions. He refines Heartland by shedding some of its frivolity and amping up the menace ("Song for Five and Six" is terrifying till it turns to disco; it's likely a yawn-inducing analogy, but "The Passions" is unmistakably his "The Overload") and making very clear what a virtuoso he is at crafting melodic tension and drama. Opener "I Am Not Afraid" is just about perfect, starting with the woozy morbidity of its words ("I'm never having children"... "I haven't had a smoke in years") but Eno's involvement is clearer on the title cut, the delectable prettiness of which is offset by Pallett's muscular, passionate singing. It's even catchy, and leaves you wanting more even at 4:14. Eno remains as startling a wizard with the synthesizer as ever, helping Pallett achieve his Björk dreams. Being a pop nut, I like it when he sounds like OMD ("The Secret Heaven") more than when his florid arrangements get so exhausting they resemble prog ("Chorale"), and Pallett's sensibility still gets tiresome to me at around the halfway point just like last time. Just as often, Pallett's orchestrations are enough to leave you wide-eyed and breathless, like on the intense and lovely "On a Path," and his vocals are consistently staggering. Spending time away and coming back, I hear the ferocity and sensuality on "Infernal Fantasy" and can appreciate the little things in "Soldiers Rock," like a prettied-up Clash song, but it's just too overwhelming in a sitting. Maximalism suits Pallett's voice, but he could reach farther with less of it.

***

Ben Frost
Aurora (2014)

(Mute)

High-drama ambient menace in search of film accompaniment. Weirdly unsettling.

***

Hundred Waters
The Moon Rang Like a Bell (2014)

(OWSLA)

Singer and flautist Nicole Miglis sounds like Björk at times (best example is the opening minute or so of "Down from the Rafters"), which is the major distinction of this politely spacey stuff from Gainesville. It's a pretty and clever record, clearly recorded by passionate pop devotees, but excessively long-winded and not really engaging at all. Exceptions: the admirably exotic Cocteau Twins vagueness of "[Animal]" and the sense of conflict, contrast and variance on the otherwise typical "Xtalk." Unlike most of these songs, those sound complete rather than just wispy and half-formed.

***

Sleaford Mods
Divide and Exit (2014)

(Harbinger Sound)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * This goofball -- Sleaford Mods' jubilant asshat punk rapper Jason Williamson -- is 44 years old, and expresses himself about as well as a perpetually dumped adolescent moron who listens to lots of Henry Rollins spoken word CDs and thinks everything he says (which is also everything he thinks) is hee-larious. Actual no-shit sentence from Wikipedia: "Sleaford Mods songs have been described as embittered rants about such topics as unemployment, criticism of modern working life, criticism of celebrities and pop culture, capitalism and society in general." Just repeat after me: 44 years old. Key lyric: "I just wanked in your toilet." 44.

***

Bob Mould
Beauty & Ruin (2014)

(Merge)

RECOMMENDED * Remember that Simpsons where Marge gives Homer an extra birthday cake just so he can ruin it? Marge = Merge Records; Homer = Bob Mould. He's hip, he's cool, he's 54, but he's got an excuse, and it's fun to hear him fuck off on this decent guitar rock to which he's fully earned the right. Mould's history makes it especially weird that "Low Season" sounds like "Wonderwall" only grunge. The rest is nothing you don't expect, but plenty charming -- the best being the slow ones, the best slow one being "Let the Beauty Be."

***

Fucked Up
Glass Boys (2014)

(Matador)

More guttural puffery. These are nice kids and they are telling another crafty high-concept story, this about how much Damian Abraham is coming to resemble the lead character of Vampire Weekend's "Giving Up the Gun." Succinctly: punk lives a longer time than it ever expects to, which has been true since before it had a name. Abraham's style is anathema to me; J. Mascis and the guy from the Tragically Hip (no, really) help out. Despite believing in my heart that I love punk rock I still can't hear the music in this (and I try, and I like Abraham very much as a person so far as I can tell). Maybe you can.

***

Parquet Courts
Sunbathing Animal (2014)

(What's Your Rupture?)

!! CAUTION !! * I hate to sound like the people who whined about how Turn on the Bright Lights was redundant so long as the master tapes of Unknown Pleasures existed, and I know I'm not saying anything that other people haven't already worn themselves out stating and rebuking, but I'm a grouch and I don't care and jesus fucking hell, go listen to Pavement. This band is smarter than they sound initially but I can't hear past their decision not to fuss with their sound more.

***

Lee Fields
Emma Jean (2014)

(Truth & Soul)

RECOMMENDED * Compared to classic soul revivalists like Sharon Jones, Fields is quite idiosyncratic and sounds like this stuff still matters to him like he's a twentysomething rock & roller. Known around my way for being a Wilson, NC native who explodes on stage, known nationally for being so similar in stature and voice to James Brown that the producers of Get on Up hired him for some overdubbing, he's a terrific singer and writer and as much of a throwback as this is, the music is creatively arranged and original. The first half of this album is ridiculously strong, one show-stopper after another, enough to make you think crazy things like there's nothing wrong with doing new things in an old context, but then again, the record eventually winds around to sounding like a wonderful nostalgia festival. Which is great -- see Charles Bradley's Victim of Love to compare -- but Fields is so adept at operating as a full-fire working artist in a classic form that you wonder how close he came to pushing it all the way. Excellent words too, typically about the minutiae that passes between couples on the harder nights.

***

First Aid Kit
Stay Gold (2014)

(Columbia)

RECOMMENDED * Sweden's half-invisible U.S.-derived folk revival goes on with these sisters whose twanging, melodic work with slight elements of dream-pop is a bit overly lush but provides some endearing vocals that show a touch of European baroque... and some outstanding songs, with personal and self-aware lyrics that cut deep. Check out the spectacularly driving "Heaven Knows," the sardonic and lost-soul beautiful "Waitress Song," the wistful title cut -- these two are in their early twenties but exhibit range and confessional maturity that goes beyond the stylistic surface of imitation you initially hear. I long for rawer production -- at times this sounds like a modern Nashville record -- but I can't object to much else.

***


The Antlers
Familiars (2014)

(Anti-)

RECOMMENDED * Soul dirge.

***

Lone
Reality Testing (2014)

(R+S)

I am sure I'm not the first to think "lo-NRG," so we'll skip that joke. "Begin to Begin" is pleasant blip bloop. "Jaded" sounds, as Amber pointed out, like "The Boy Is Mine." The rest is excessively polite as techno, not disagreeable as rainy background.

***

White Lung
Deep Fantasy (2014)

(Domino)

Who let you past security!? No, really, not-bad Canadian punk whose only sin is just coming off kinda tired. Singer Mish Way has a terrific, throaty rock & roll voice; guitarist Kenneth William is too metal for me, and in turn the record is heavier -- in performance and production -- than I prefer the hard stuff to be, but you know me.

***

A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Sea When Absent (2014)

(Lefse)

!! CAUTION !! * Annie Fredrickson is so overly practiced as a singer that she sounds like a sampler someone is tapping to generate notes. Philly's premier pseudo-shoegazers are led by guitarist and writer Ben Daniels, who runs the thing as a sort of ego extension that implies he's studied Fred Thomas' career extensively. The band has the twee thing down, at times recalling the candy-tooth pat prettiness of Polyphonic Spree or the Wondermints, but with Cocteau-ish aspirations. The songs are too weak to hold up the noodling or the production, and it's awkwardly clear how much of a drudge the thing was to put together. At best it sounds like Architecture in Helsinki without any sense of rhythm; at worst, Michelle Branch.

***

Brian Eno & Karl Hyde
High Life (2014)

(Warp)

RECOMMENDED * This collaboration has yielded more pop-like material than Eno's put his name on in some time, immersed in the marketplace with the rejuvenative help of Underworld's Hyde. "Cells & Bells" even has the diembodied vocals and alien pulse of a "Julie With..." but the jamming interplay of Hyde's guitar with the curious polyrhythms and Eno's signature faint-gloss keyboard effects is as often formless and annoying as crafty. Honestly Eno's Fripp collabs always put me off a little too, and while this record sounds like it could have basically existed in the same form 34 years ago, it's somewhat to its detriment that it relies so much on bare exercises in musicianship. Still a worthwhile extension from the old guard.

***

Trey Songz
Trigga (2014)

(Atlantic)

!! CAUTION !! * "Cake," a song about a woman's vagina that uses the title as in "eat it too" and also in a lot of talk about what's "on the menu," is what we call an overextended metaphor. At 4:45, it wears out every permutation of itself short of making some joke about Cake, the wanky '90s alternative band. "Foreign" is about having sex with a woman from a country that is not the United States; it includes a pun about going "down under" (according to Urban Dictionary, that means "Australia," a continent south of the Equator) and speculates that her amorous interests in him may in fact be a ploy to get a "vis." "Na Na" grabs the hook from "Fu-Gee-La" and takes it exactly nowhere. "Touchin, Lovin" grabs the hook from "Fuck You Tonight" but makes that "touch you tonight," among other things, and has Nicki Minaj briefly giving this drab nonsense a slight kick in the teeth. "Disrespectful" postulates that infedelity makes a lot of people pretty upset and features a backing choir of turkeys reinforcing this conclusion. "Foreign Remix" -- since when are we allowed to include both a track and its remix on the same record? -- has Justin Bieber because Trey couldn't afford any better Justin. There's a song called "SmartPhones." Trey Songz turned 30 this past month; happy birthday.

***

Strand of Oaks
Heal (2014)

(Dead Oceans)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * Oh my god, no way this isn't a joke. This is Jack Black, right? (I didn't say it was funny.) Over a Bryan Adams riff: "I found my dad's old tape machine / That's where the magic began." (That happened in Indiana, as Johnny Cougar would hasten to add.) Inspired to record this after a car wreck -- dude really digs singing about himself, as bros generally do -- he nevertheless announces that everything good has been made, which begs the question of why he must bother us with this garbage.

***

Manic Street Preachers
Futurology (2014)

(Columbia)

Keeping the faith with vaguely expired-sounding arena histrionics. Really dull, but that's kind of expected, right? File it between Brothers in Arms and that last Suede album.

***

[Heavy contributions from Amber Morris, who sat in on my last run through these albums, throughout this post.]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (2014)


(Big Dada)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

"Hip-hop was real to me. It was alive. It didn’t feel like I was appropriating a culture from America. The only thing that was weird was being a girl, I suppose, but I’ve kind of made my peace with that.”

Kate Tempest, who turns 29 tomorrow, is a poet, rapper and playwright who doesn't care much for being broken down in that manner. For our purposes, then, she is a rapper from South London and, as far as that goes, one of the best MCs to surface in the last ten years. Her first proper album is an explosive narrative about three young lives intertwining in the same chaotic London she's always known, the gutter flirting with the posh and vice versa, strife and hopelessness a way of life, ways out a mythical thing. A high school dropout whose written work is already being studied in some UK schools for its interpolation of mythology (shades of John Darnielle), she always really wanted to be a rapper. Her inspirations were the MCs whose work wove elaborate narratives into monstrous, hook-filled records: Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Kendrick Lamar, Wu-Tang Clan. Knowing those records intimately, taking their lessons to heart and building a body of work on her own compassionate drive to explore other people's lives, she performs with passion and dedication that can leave you thoroughly breathless. That's before you even notice how astoundingly fucking smart her lyrics are.

This needs to be emphasized before we go much further. If you pay no attention whatsoever to the lyrics of Everybody Down, which is an intricately structured concept album, it still sounds immediately like something destined to become a landmark. Tempest's delivery is nuanced, witty, fast and emotionally wrenching but it's also beat and groove-driven like the best of her influences. She and producer Dan Carey, typically associated with indie rock that gives no clue as to the genius he displays and participates in here, designed the album with this in mind and thus avoid one of the pratfalls of concept records since the dawn of time: the "story" never overwhelms the music, and the results are songs first, episodes second. Even good kid, m.A.A.d city, the deserved tentpole of modern LPs in this domain, didn't achieve this so beautifully. Every time Tempest's wordy, busy lyrics start to get complicated, she and Carey swoop in with a killer, body-shaking chorus to drum up asses on the dance floor. Several songs, perhaps even most, on the record are so phenomenally crafted and pleasurable as music -- "Circles," "The Beigeness" and the astonishing "Lonely Daze" for a start -- one can scarcely believe they're inextricably part of a complicated whole. Carey's backing tracks are consistently robust and beat-driven but well matched to the heady staging of Tempest's magnificent drama.

But listen to this album enough -- which you will want to, often -- and curiosity about the lyrics will eventually win you over, and with rapt attention you'll find a remarkable story unraveling further with each song. Tempest only really knew Yeats and Blake before she sat down to start writing poetry, but her work proves that such matters are irrelevant to true creativity. Wise and warm beyond the scope of most of us in our twenties, she is an intimidatingly wise wordsmith and documentarian of human character and frailty. She doesn't simply relate her rapt audience marvelously to the plight of the bored-with-life barista Becky who takes a job as a "masseuse," leading to jealousy between her and the fellow overqualified blue-collar worker Pete whose alienation and shyness seem at first to be a perfect fit with her own. Rather, Tempest lets us feel both Becky's confidence and sense of justification for the work she's doing but also Pete's agony over his wondering if he's justified in his suspicion that she is actually a sex worker -- and, on another layer, exploring this without demonizing either of them. Like it or not, that's difficult as hell and extremely admirable.

Meanwhile Pete's brother Harry, who carries a torch for Becky after meeting her at a video shoot, pulls off a big but messy drug heist, and love, impulse and disappointment come rushing forth in a fast-paced climactic rage. What's more telling than the intracices of the plot -- which are rife with suggested back stories that Tempest plans to expand into a novel -- are the many details, the wisps of understanding and familiarity that ring as true as some tossed-off moment of casual affection in a Frank Borzage movie. She captures awkward conversations, little moments of fear and desperation, and observations that carry sardonic humor but also a vitality that's staggering to behold. It's so important to experience every moment and every twist of Everybody Down for yourself, but witness the way Tempest documents this moment so vividly as if she were capturing it on film:

He's got nice eyes
Shame about his issues, though
The party pushes on
Her cynicism's getting vicious
Show nothing, keep smiling
She catches the eye of her mates
They're dancing by the bar
They're in a state
Nod for "save me"
They understand, dance over
Put their arms around her shoulders
"Becky, we're bored, let's go"
His mouth slows to a stop
She smiles at him
"Yeah, it was nice getting to know ya"


That comes toward the end of the blisteringly powerful, impression-making opener "Marshall Law"; as usual, Tempest elegantly describes both sides of a conversation, in this case a pensive encounter between introverts at a party, one of whom is so excited to be asked about his life that he just talks too much and spends much of the rest of the album regretting it. The details stack up into truth; on "Lonely Daze," a guy strikes Becky's fancy because he's "the first customer to close the door behind him / for that alone she likes him." On "Theme from Becky," there is that shatteringly real moment when irrationl jealousy and the resulting caps on freedom start to pull the young lovers apart: "When he's holding her hand it feels less like her hand / and more like his hand." And the entirety of "Stink" delves into the play-by-play of a quarrel so real and evenly accounted you can feel as though you lived through it.

And maybe you did; that's how fucking great Tempest is. Not since John Darnielle has someone so successfully wrung pop lyrics from what amounts to thoroughly crafted, imaginative literature. Tempest, of course, knows these people and this world, but it cannot be charged for even a millisecond that she is failing to think outside of herself. In fact she is doing so with such consistency and joy that you're left breathless at the probing curiosity she exhibits about people, their lives, their histories, their personal tragedies. In a pop music universe where the music press openly celebrates an aging singer-songwriter for writing a song about his first few blowjobs and the time he hung out backstage with the guy from Death Cab, Tempest's skill level and selflessness are hard to fathom, as is the vibrant, novelistic story she chooses to tell, with any luck her first of many in this format.

The thing is that anybody who has ever tried to write any work of fiction knows it is fucking hard. Anybody who's tried to rap knows that the harebrained pricks who still crow about how hip hop requires no "talent" are full of rat shit. Anybody who tries to do both at once is practically running a perpetual risk of humiliation and deserves automatic respect for giving it a shot. When someone like Tempest -- someone who doesn't fit with any "scene" she's entered and is an outlier as a twentysomething white British woman performing hip hop -- creates something like Everybody Down and does so with such confidence, good judgment and performance aplomb, it's a miracle not because she's some miraculous genius any more than Orson Welles was when, at 26, he summed up and satirized the entire culture of his time with Citizen Kane. It's that you know this was an insanely hard album to create and that every second of it was worked over and thought about, and when you listen to it you are experiencing the fruits of a lot of creative labor. It is a work of art that reflects a massive amount of intelligence, good taste and -- most of all -- caring.

Tempest sounds nervous in interviews about the limelight that the music world places upon bloghypes, and moreover about being pegged as any one thing; she is always, it seems, looking to move on to something she hasn't tried yet and is alarmed at the idea of being boxed in. That restlessness will serve her well for a long life wowing the rest of us. This has been an exciting, scary year for her. But from within the U.S., it seems that Everybody Down wasn't appreciated nearly enough -- none of the country's big music publications even addressed it on their year-end lists thus far, filled with glorified Tom Petty cover bands and the aforementioned oversharing, unhinged ranters; hardly anyone even bothered to review it, the only American journalist showing any real enthusiasm having been the reliably savvy Sady Doyle. This is criminal and deeply disillusioning to some of us, but it may be that Tempest prefers things this way -- it's not unlikely that she was relieved when she lost the 2014 Mercury Prize to Young Fathers (whose album is at least good) -- since so far, the relative anonymity of the circles in which she travels have allowed her to explore her artistry and invention as freely and constantly as she likes, thank you very much. We hope with all our hearts that Tempest continues recording and makes a dozen more albums like this one, or unlike this one. But that may indeed not be enough for her. For someone as brilliant as she clearly is, those of us waving the flag are happy to just follow wherever we're led.

But if this blog is any sort of a platform (nope) or is still being read by anyone (yep), I beg you: listen to this one, and listen to it carefully. I doubt I've ever been more convicted about anything in this space.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Carl Perkins: Original Sun Greatest Hits (1955-57)


(Rhino)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

Polite, gifted and grand, Carl Perkins personifies rockabilly despite never really approaching any ideas about rebellion or machismo typical of the music. His bravado and innovation were all musical: taught to play guitar while working as a sharecropper in Tennessee, he was steeped in the fusion of black and white musical traditions that resulted in the creation of rock & roll. He stood at the crossroads even before he was discovered by Sam Phillips and signed to the illustrious Sun Records roster. Today he is the least known of Sun's "class of '55," eclipsed by charismatic peers Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and -- inevitably -- Elvis Presley. Perkins was cruder, stranger looking, more hick than rocker. But in some ways Perkins is the quintessential white rock musician, marked by his freewheeling but respectful mutating of the idiom, and embodied on the records he made at Sun is the bare essence of the best rock & roll.

Perkins was blessed with a range and sensitivity that his Sun classmates didn't necessarily lack. Orbison's records for Monument would turn out to boil over with emotion, and certainly Presley and Cash would become known for their ways with a ballad. Despite his somewhat intimidating, formidable appearance, Perkins had none of Presley's ozzing sexuality, Lewis' frenetics or Cash's sense of darkness and menace. Instead he always seemed like a sort of normal guy who happened to be possessed of immense talent as a composer, singer and player. The pure musicianship of Perkins' best singles is enough to make one temporarily shirk the whole concept that attitude and image are integral to rock & roll; like the Everly Brothers during their Cadence period, he demonstrates the purity and wisdom of just laying down brilliant music expertly and consistently. It could be argued, indeed, that of all of the Sun artists, his recordings for the label have weathered the years most gracefully. Perhaps that's because the way in which he "comes off" is of no concern to him. He attempts neither to confront audiences nor to wipe himself clean of the unsavories. Like so many iconic cowboy heroes, he just is who he is.

That's why, when you hear "Blue Suede Shoes" now, it doesn't necessarily cross your mind to compare it to the bigger hit version recorded by Presley. What's striking about it rather is Perkins' straightforward confidence -- the song is a great dance number, brilliantly written, and he's aware of this without undue swagger. An immediate standard, the song was inspired by an altercation Perkins witnessed between a dancing couple, the alpha-male half getting into a hissy fit over his partner stepping on his shoes. The song as written has some of the quick, worldly wit of Chuck Berry but more generally exists as a folksy, energetic scold made tremendously entertaining (and audience-inclusive) by Perkins' conversational but mildly vicious vocal performance. Perkins' other early classic, "Movie Magg," is a less dryly cynical affair -- its engaging, sure-footed teen romancing put him on the map to begin with -- but "Blue Suede Shoes" has survived all these years because its elegance is so damned durable. Almost no song in the rock idiom is more immediately recognizable. So even if Perkins could do a lot more and did, it scarcely matters; "Blue Suede Shoes" would be plenty, and after all these decades it still gets the shoes moving.

It's not unusual, nevertheless, to meet a Perkins diehard who will have much more room in his or her heart for "Movie Magg," in which Perkins seems to be playing himself, not a character, and offers up a sheepish date-night giddiness that uncovers a charm absent from so many early white rockers whose prime motive was often to simply make a strong, typically dangerous impression. The scope of Perkins' influence over future awkward geeks and other non-handsome misfits is tough to quantify; along with Buddy Holly, he virtually created one of the archetypes of rock & roll to come -- the gawking dork with hidden talents. These days you probably know several of Perkins' classics -- namely "Honey Don't," "Matchbox" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" -- because they were memorably covered by the Beatles, who were crazy about the guy's records. (Particularly adoring fan George Harrison would later become a lifelong friend of Perkins.) In all three cases, the band handed off the vocal duties to one of the two lesser singers in the band, lending them an agreeable modesty that fits perfectly with the man's own image. It's also perhaps not a coincidence that these are among the very few covers recorded by the Beatles that don't improve on their original counterparts -- Perkins has too great a command of his voice and playing for George and Ringo to compare. Though a fine lyricist, he gives his words their meaning and sense of irony (especially on "...Be My Baby") with gulping, chattering pensiveness that probably just represents his real, low-key personality shining through.

Low-key doesn't mean unenthusiastic, of course, and at times Perkins fits the rockabilly mold set forth by the likes of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent (and to a lesser extent, Elvis himself); typically literate and relfective, he can at times be downright furious and primal. The (deservedly) most famous example is the outrageous "Put Your Cat Clothes On," in my opinion an even stronger rock & roll track than "Blue Suede Shoes," most easily comparable to relentless attacks from this period like Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Nothing on "Cat Clothes" is designed to make sense beyond its devotion to adolescent, inarticulate escape, and Perkins proves himself just as capable of encouraging such misbehavior as the most rambunctious of his peers. His howling and hooting don't seem like an improbable stretch, just a monster he waits to let out until just the right moment. "Boppin' the Blues" also examines the harder side of Perkins' art, and "Glad All Over" reveals the virile sexuality bubbling under the surface in his cooing, flirty, impressively elastic vocal. It isn't that, on an expertly crafted cut like that, he does anything that other titans couldn't do just as well; rather, the specific range of Perkins' gifts is almost something he alone demonstrates. Buddy Holly could record a "Glad All Over" but he doesn't have a "Put Your Cat Clothes On" or a "Sure to Fall." Ditto Eddie Cochran in the other direction, and numerous permutations besides.

Perkins' most immediately obvious virtue is his multifaceted singing voice, but a lot of what makes him so singular is found in his legendarily breakneck guitar playing. More technically polished than Vincent and the other rockabilly gods, but more lyrical and felt than Presley, he is properly remembered as an innovator of his day in a field with Chuck Berry and the "5" Royales' Lowman Pauling. Listen to Perkins' solo on "Sure to Fall" and you can hear what drove Lou Reed to learn to play the way he played. Listen to almost any of his other solos and you'll hear George Harrison's style being predicated almost note for note -- "All My Loving" and the Beatles' unreleased cover of "Leave My Kitten Alone" are handy examples. More importantly, however, Perkins like Berry explores the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar within the boundaries of what will make his individual songs stronger. His guitar work seldom calls attention to itself but is never boring or even merely serviceable; without fail, it hits the moment perfectly during every cut that's included on this disc.

The Beatles had more Perkins covers in their live repertoire than they ever recorded. Versions of "Lend Me Your Comb" and "Sure to Fall" exist in professionally recorded tapes from BBC performances, and while their folky, intricate take on the former is outstanding, their "Sure to Fall" is rather flat specifically because it reveals the absolute brilliance of Perkins as a singer. In the Beatles' arrangement, the verses of the song are harmonized and the middle-eight is handed off for a rather sugary interlude from Paul McCartney alone. That's not extremely different from what the original record does, but the separation of emotive qualities makes a lot of difference -- Perkins' range on the track is remarkable. In fact "Sure to Fall" is, to my mind, Perkins' finest moment on record; it is a legendary showcase for his fast-picking, layered guitar playing but that's couched in an emotionally aching, genuinely lovely song. Orbison was, of course, the greatest singer of the '55 class, but that moment in the bridge when Perkins' voice breaks and rises on "let tonight beeee the night" is some kind of heartfelt peak of the Sun era. It's also just barely rock & roll -- the song is just shy of being pure country, and is all the better for its appropriation of the Ozarks with the bump and grind of black music. The song is Perkins at his purest. "Your True Love" (pure pop joy) and the impressively complex "Lend Me Your Comb" (all sex and resignation) are Perkins at his busiest, and no less pleasurable or engaging. In fact, these are his three strongest (if hardly his most famous) Sun recordings -- and therefore his best work.

It's feasible for a person to be a massive Perkins devotee and barely know much of anything besides the material he made at Sun. It's even feasible to admire him deeply while only being familiar with the sixteen songs on this disc, which is miraculous and consistent enough to make a complete case for him. Lots of artists recorded all of their best work for one label despite jumping off many times -- Little Richard on Specialty being one famous example -- but the classic Sun crew all went on to extremely illustrious careers outside of the focal point of their discovery. Purists be damned, Elvis recorded some extraordinary music at RCA and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit. Roy Orbison's Monument work eclipses his Sun output to the point of absurdity. A case could be made that Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were never more vital than on Sun, but serious fans and scholars of country music would likely debate you -- and anyway Lewis' definitive statements were on stage, not on record. Perkins alone among these titans laid down his absolute essence on tape during his Sun tenure, and never bettered it or even really attempted to come close. He was never destined to embarrass himself as a performer but the truth is that by the close of the '50s, he had done enough to secure his place in the pantheon as a vital and brilliant artist.

Of course, if that haunting little hiccup in "Sure to Fall" or that bashful faux-swagger in "Blue Suede Shoes" are intriguing to you, you may go seeking more and you will likely find buried treasure. But you'll never stop coming back to these Sun singles, and never stop finding the kind of elegant, subtle thrills in them that rock & roll at its best ought to provide. Though his records require no context of "influence," it deserves to be pointed out: Perkins was one of the truly underappreciated architects of rock & roll, and all that's required to understand that is to hear these songs; this stirring 38-minute document is one of the cornerstone items in any good rock collection, but more to the point, it's one of the most surprising and delightful.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

In between the concrete and the mist: October 2014 albums

Jesse Boykins III
Love Apparatus (2014)

(Empire)

RECOMMENDED * Boykins is a good, jazzy neo-soul singer in the D'Angelo and Maxwell tradition, thankfully free of the careful distance that's become a calling card of peripheral R&B artists like the Weeknd and How to Dress Well. His third album is heavy on riffed-upon, extended grooves and good band interplay, but it just goes on too long without much variance -- and without any songs that really seize upon his clearly immense talent. Still, it's excellent, sensual post-midnight comedown music.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1949-52)

(Document)

Crudup's importance to rock & roll history is well established despite not many people really remembering him as an exceptionally good blues musician. Like the previously reviewed second volume in this series, this compilation shows his chops and shows (for much longer) his limits. Though these sides are never less than competent, it's hard to receive them with much beyond politeness, especially with so many of them being rewrites of his signature. It's well-compiled and notated, there just isn't much to reveal.

Lake Street Dive
Bad Self Portraits (2014)

(Signature Sounds)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Well, "I bought this camera to take pictures of my love / Now that he's gone I don't have anybody to take pictures of" may sound better than it reads, but it still sounds incredible. Some people make fun of this sort of thing because it's seen as reinforcing a certain bourgeois NPR folk-rock stereotype, but this band's stunning level of enthusiasm and musicianship is a reminder that such shorthand really leads us nowhere. Besides, singer Rachael Price, younger than I am but displaying a wisdom and maturity I almost can't comprehend (maybe in part because of her volatile family history), has a soulful voice with irreducible depth. She has a knack for elevating lyrics that may seem trite on paper (there are exceptions: "I could have been a painter or a president / But after 25 years, I should be good at something"; "If I didn't know all the things that you'd done I'd swear that I need you"; "Looking at you right next to me, the stillness feels like emotion") into profoundity, all with loneliness, sophistication and warmth to match the band behind her. But groups with this sort of disparate yet reverent influences -- jazz, soul, country, etc. -- that can play well are a dime a dozen in local bars across the nation. Difference here is that the songs are complete creations, and their craft consistently surprises and pleasures for all across every cut here (totaling an economical 38 minutes). When the song is fast -- like the title cut, "Stop Your Crying," "You Go Down Smooth" (I didn't know you could still write a song like that without it being Ironic) and "What About Me" -- the band builds, then builds some more, and peak follows peak with highs and lows in Price's vocals to match. When it's slow, like on the girl group-infected "Use Me Up," the sexually charged "Just Ask" and the utterly magic, vulnerable, grudgingly honest "Better Than" (which could almost pass for an American Camera Obscura), Price is allowed to be much of the show, and a listener with an ability to resist her exorcism and grace has more willpower than the vast majority of people who will hear this wonderful album. Unlike nearly every other artist Lake Stret Dive will be compared to that subsists in part on self-effacing charm, they are never once cloying, and that toughness of spirit is what makes them.

Lyla Foy
Mirrors the Sky (2014)

(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Foy used to record hushed bedroom pop under the name WALL; despite adding a full band for her debut album, her mission remains admirably minimalistic and classicist -- she's a singer-songwriter who writes catchy, transportive, addictive music, all sparse introspection and intimacy, and sings it gorgeously. There isn't much else to report about Mirrors the Sky except that it's magnificent. Foy and her band have soul and subtlety to spare, the arrangements and melodies always persuasive, but a lot of the album's excellence comes down to Foy's impressively diverse production and mixing. Though the record sustains its mood strongly, every song is explorative in a different sense: the underwater flourishes of "Honeymoon," sad dance music on "I Only," the stripped-down Spectorisms of "No Secrets." It's as likely for one to hear this as woozy, unresolved and immersive (the dreamy "Rumour") as it is to get a hint to the driving, hard and strong personality at its center. Foy's recorded a quiet record that invites getting lost. Partially recorded on mobile recording equipment in the English countryside and sounding like it, it's the best pastoral album I'm aware of since Iron & Wine's Shepherd's Dog. Extra credit for that moment in "Bitter Tongue" when it all drops out except Foy's voice and percussion for a minute.

La Bouche
Sweet Dreams (1996)

(Arista)

After Milli Vanilli's (somewhat injust) implosion at the dawn of the '90s, the two dancers who supposedly comprised the group, Rob Piltus and Fab Morvan, were left to languish in the eternal nothing by their "creator," Frank Farian. They were never to be heard from again, but Farian's success went uninterrupted. His next most famous project was this hi-NRG concoction from the peak of the Eurodance period. La Bouche consisted of a person who actually sang, Melanie Thornton, and someone named Lane McCray who sort of rapped. They released some great singles, including the title cut and the rapid-fire stuttering-rhythm signature "Be My Lover." They're dated in their naive interpolation of hip hop, an issue common to big club records in this period, but at least disco was trying to be inclusive. The group only recorded two albums and only this one enjoyed any kind of success; it comes equipped with a few other middling club tracks and one other sizable hit, a cover of the easy listening hit "Fallin' in Love" (most interesting now for being Playboy Records' only major success). This isn't groundbreaking music but it does have, thanks to Thornton, a few moments of exhilarating transcendence; the two choruses for which La Bouche became a known quantity are genuine tentpole pop fragments that deserve to live on in places besides ads for early '90s dance music compilations. "Sweet Dreams" in particular is the kind of song a smart DJ builds toward; everything about it feels like the peak of a sweated-out, beautiful late night. But like everything here, it now comes with a hint of melancholy that may help or hurt its impact. In 2001, Thornton boarded a plane in Berlin on her way to a promotional appearance and never made it there; she was only 34.

Ought
More Than Any Other Day (2014)

(Constellation)

There's a universe in which this politically charged Montreal-based band's semi-emo, overly wordy take on Talking Heads and Fugazi probably works. It rambles appealingly on occasion, but the band's awareness of its own identity seems limited, as if they don't yet know how to say what they want to say. Singer Tim Beeler is like a fusion of Conor Oberst and a motivational speaker, and one's interest in this will live and die by their ability to deal with his mixture of overwrought irony and fist-pumping emotion. It's punk rock for today, I reckon, and will hit its targets.

Artful Dodger
It's All About the Stragglers (2000)

(London)

RECOMMENDED * More Eurodance, from the UK garage era -- this is the album that ostensibly launched Craig David (on the hit "Re-rewind" and two other cuts). It's also rather wonderful, a portfolio of previously issued and uniformly good productions by Mark Hill. Hill was Artful Dodger at the time; they've since devolved, along with the garage scene itself, and Hill has long since split. Stragglers amounts to a good, soulful mixtape with a good deal more depth, groove and sensuality than a lot of British dance and techno from the period; because of the disparate times and featured performers represented, it serves as a solid and enjoyable introduction to garage, which unfortunately never got noticed much Stateside.

Ratking
So It Goes (2014)

(XL)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * It's hard to imagine Ratking -- a tough, raw underground trio from Harlem -- recording this just a few years ago, but in the post-Shabazz Palaces, post-Yeezus era, hip hop is more expansive than ever before, and "alternative" no longer is a codeword for "safe." So It Goes, Ratking's grimy, Vonnegut-quoting, NYPD arrest-sampling debut is as far as can be imagined from traditions of New York hip hop but it captures the city itself with almost freakish aural accuracy. Hak and Wiki are both good-to-excellent MCs whose politically tuned-in rhymes don't shy from aggression ("Bug Fights"), but the star of So It Goes is third member and producer Sporting Life, whose twists and turns and hip hop dreams seem deceptively simple but wrap us up in a sense of journey and groove that lend weight and complexity to already resonant tracks like "So Sick Stories," not just another inner city river bliss. Ratking are unafraid of being confrontational not just lyrically but musically -- "Protein" seeks to annoy, but in a great way -- and in their delvings on black mortality, protest-police clashes and gentification (including a timely freestyle by a passenger recorded on the subway) they recall no one less fearless than the Fugees. Want a taste? Try "Snow Beach," which opens atonal and hard and becomes ("every year another court date / every winter need a North Face for warmth's sake on long days") the best hook-filled classic jam you'll hear this season.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Talking Heads: Remain in Light (1980)


(Sire)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

This is one of those moments when music sounds new all over again. On their previous album, Talking Heads mired themselves in fear and loss; on Remain in Light, the most vibrantly moving pop album imaginable, they conquer that by finding the freedom and salvation in insanity, the rock & roll ideal of everything in nothingness, of throwing back the head in surrender. Byrne's advice three years later to "stop making sense" is the real statement, and this LP is the compelling argument.

We begin with David Byrne cracking the walls of "Drugs" to fall into the abyss of "Born Under Punches," a gospel-tinged, deceptively simple groove run into the ground with a dance beat. Everything about Remain in Light is deeply complex, but incisive enough that you don't notice. Byrne's disconnected images -- lacking all linear elements of his work up to this point -- gain resonance through the sheer association of his voice to "Heaven" and "The Big Country"; he unveils dramatic violence ("falling bodies") but he finds life, life even in death. The instrumental break sounds like a malfunctioning Atari; the Heads can't allow you to dance in any typical way.

Full fusion of music -- the love of R&B, funk, African music, gospel, hip-hop in a new-wave band -- comes to a head on "Crosseyed and Painless." Producer Brian Eno, a brilliant musician in his own right who after leaving Roxy Music had been associated with David Bowie and Devo before setting his production career in stone with the Heads, has for all intents and purposes become an ancillary member of the band, and he's not alone. The songwriting is so vast and intricate, with numerous session players, that the onstage lineup ballooned to nine members. You can have these bleeding funk rhythms, unapologetic fusion, and even a bizarre rap from Byrne about the various problems with "facts" and it is all fun but deadly serious, completely dedicated to itself and to the listener. The Heads' gift is to encapsulate somehow the joy in displacement, alienation, even bitter regret, especially in the opening lines: "Lost my shape / Trying to act casual / Can't stop / I might end up in the hospital."

What always made the Heads' music so beautiful was its narrowly sidestepping, devoted avoidance of pop normality. The hooks were there but they were somehow more involving. Here their work is thrusting with impossible, undeniable grace but it does not overreach or abandon its sense of subtlety. In the gorgeous, life-affirming "The Great Curve," a shifting, sliding, propulsive masterpiece, Byrne has made his full transition into the void of bliss, and it's full of joyful noise. All over this album are moments of band synergy that leave you marvelling; Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and especially the maverick Tina Weymouth (and at times even Brian Eno) all threaten at one point or another to steal the show, but mostly everybody's working for the same cause, and "Curve" is the orgasmic moment when they leave the whole world behind in their majestic polyrhythms. The astounding vocal arrangements that build their tower of glory and build some more, the intense wall of sound that's closer to a tapestry, the religious experience of sheer momentum, ruthlessly moving forward and straight into the mind and body simultaneously -- you could write a book about the nuances in this song alone, and for that matter the lyrics. Just "The world moves on a woman's hips" -- there's an essay. Just the exciting sound of Byrne's voice on the opening "Sometimes the world has a load of questions / Seems like the world knows nothing at all / The world is near but it's out of reach / Some people touch it but they can't hold on." Just "Night must fall... darker, darker." In the end, this is among the most overwhelming recordings of the 1980s and maybe more than that. It's pure bliss, and what power.

If the ultimate escape is to recognize reality for what it truly is, no more and no less (what could be more?), we can't deny that some can destroy themselves in the process, of enlightenment or just of wrongheaded conversion of ideas. The Heads and David Byrne have raised the gray areas to an art form. On Talking Heads: 77 the casual slaughter of his voice had been discomforting in a way even Johnny Rotten couldn't muster (since in the end, Rotten was preaching to the choir). But by Side Two of Remain in Light, Byrne has gained a sympathy and even an admiration of even his most one-dimensional subjects. Little Creatures and True Stories would be wholly based on this concept. This second half is closer to Talking Heads convention than the first, but just barely; it's louder, livelier, and even more unsettling than Fear of Music. "Once in a Lifetime," the southern-preacher ramble that will probably remain the signature tune in this group's discography, is a midpoint in more ways than one. You can see it, if you choose, as an optimistic comment on growing up and wondering how it happened, or as a pessimistic one on... well, the same thing, and a maybe a kind of quiet futility, the humanist lesson perhaps being that you can't let the complacency or the sorrow win. As he once did so often, Byrne looks at reality taken for granted and breaks it down until it feels as absurd as it really is. You might think of this song as a summary for the whole record.

Similarly, yet another self-contained contradiction, the surprisingly low-key single "Houses in Motion" examines the immense wonder and maddening strife of the material world. Byrne understands deeply the plight of his offbeat characters but can't stop himself from thinking of how ridiculous they are. You shouldn't have to strain to see the subtext here: "As we watch him digging his own grave / It was important to know that was where he's at / He can't afford to stop... that is what he believe / He'll keep on digging for a thousand years." It may not be as obvious as "Listening Wind," but it's equally relevant. Even more so is the greatest line Byrne will ever write: "Right about then, is where she give up / She has closed her eyes; she has give up hope." The music surges quietly this time as if to emphasize the importance of what he's saying -- and he is saying it, speak-singing in a way maybe licensed by hip hop but not necessarily owing a lot to it. The next song follows the same vocal path.

"Seen and Not Seen" is a spoken-word story, a space-age update of the Velvet Underground's "The Gift" without the macabre thrill of the earlier chestnut. Byrne tells, with ghostly deadpan delivery, a satirical but also genuinely upsetting tale of a man who decides to change his facial features (check out reality television sometime if you want proof that Byrne had some kind of Network devilish crystal-ball understanding of the dark side of humanity). While he grips us, we have here the seductive pronouncements of "The Great Curve" presenting a reversal of that song's relentless nonconformity and seeking out of the life and the thrill in anything and everything. It sounds new but ancient, electronically enhanced but natural, hopping but downbeat, chilly but faintly human, with a hint not so much of the embracing of madness but of begrudging acceptance of being crushed by the world. You dance to the impending doom of it all.

It arrives in "Listening Wind." Eno and the band present a warped Middle Eastern-influenced soundscape that's genuinely otherworldly -- it's difficult intuitively to understand how it's being crafted. When ClearChannel, shortly after the U.S. terrorist attacks in 2001, published a list of songs that they recommended leaving off playlists due to sensitivity, it's a bit surprising that this didn't come up, even if it wasn't a single. I don't know of any song more prophetic than this; the vision is charred with regret but, once again, understanding. The story is of Mojique, who resorts to terrorism against Americans after his life has been wrecked. Like the man digging the grave in "Houses in Motion," Mojique is so charged in his beliefs that he is ultimately blind, but his emotions -- the same as anyone's -- are made to correspond: "The wind in my heart / The dust in my head... Come to drive them away..." The band knows how to shift our sympathies, no matter how much current events taint our viewpoints, because they do it not only through their lyrics but through the brilliantly detailed and exuberant music, an atmosphere of electricity and horror. We are sent into a realm of the bleak and hopeless as quickly as Side One shot us into the stratosphere.

The closing track offers the shuddering, pitch-black aftermath. Chilling, completely lost, and with no chance of an escape, "The Overload" -- based on a theory of what Joy Division sounded like and surprisingly close -- makes no secret in its lyrics that even if we have given into the abyss, crushing reality has won this time. For six minutes we're falling into a black hole and stuck here. It's oppressive, haunting, and difficult, the music turgid and nightmarish, Byrne's voice sounding less like a man and more like broken machinery... and then it disappears, leaving us reeling forever.

[Originally posted in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO: Talking Heads: 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music reviewed.]