Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Backmasking, vol. 1 no. 2

Check back here for a full explanation of this post. You've already been along for the ride with my recent essays on Love Is All, Hot Chip, Tallest Man, etc.; now here's the remaining bulk of old records by favorite acts with quicker thoughts. Errata: I have so far been unable to find a copy of Hospitality's 2008 demo EP. Feel free to point me in the right direction if you have any ideas.

Sister Suvi: Now I Am Champion (Common Cloud 2009)
Lone album of the Montreal trio that included Merrill Garbus before tUnE-yArDs became a full-time project; this came out about two months ahead of BiRd-BrAiNs and, unlike that record, is clearly professionally recorded and doesn't sound at all lo-fi. Her ukulele can be heard throughout the record in addition to her voice, including leads on several tunes that sound like low-tier tUnE-yArDs b-sides ("low-tier" because what little non-LP t-y material that exists, like the "Real Live Flesh" 7", has mostly been very good); the rest is decidedly ordinary, surprisingly prog-leaning but fitfully engaging alt-rock. It's clearly an example of a group that just didn't get off the ground far enough to explore their potential -- their website sits as a 2009 time capsule, and their first release (a self-issued EP that features none other than Nate Brenner on bass) dates from just two years earlier -- and unfortunately primary singer Patrick Gregoire sounds often like Mike Love covering Joy Division songs.

Ciara: Fantasy Ride (Jive 2009)
The triumphant entrance "Ciara to the Stage" has the ego and generosity to stand up to her best work, but the Timberlake hit "Love Sex Magic" quickly derails the record, which thereafter settles for generic except when it decides to be truly bizarre ("High Price," with Ciara and Ludacris defiantly refusing to compensate for the gulf between their voices) or outright awful ("Pucker Up," "G Is for Girl"). She gamely gives all her energy to whatever is thrown at her by producers and guests (which also include Young Jeezy, The-Dream, Chris Brown and Missy Elliott, and ironically only the last one doesn't sound like a time capsule relic already) but the record never offers any reason for its existence beyond simple marketplace presence.

Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental (Rhino 2005)
The troupe's most workmanlike, time-killing effort to date; fans will find something in most of the songs -- "Luna Park" has that tasty melodramatic piano hook, the lackluster opener "Psychological" hides decently witty lyrics, and the keyboards on "Twentieth Century" redeem Neil's feigned sentimentality -- to appreciate except any sense that the duo are putting any real passion or effort in. At worst it's disturbingly smarmy and empty, causing the worst moments of Nightlife to seem comparatively bright; "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" is bad, thinly produced self-parody and not even b-side worthy, an over-the-top burlesque of "It's a Sin" and "Shameless" that seems even more phoned-in than the instantly dated single "I'm with Stupid," about the buddy-buddy courtship of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. What these songs share, along with the Stephin Merritt-like, goofily arranged "Casanova in Hell" and excessively arid and intellectual "Indefinite Leave to Remain" and the been-there-done-that "Integral," is not only uninspired songcraft but terribly on-the-nose "satirical" lyrics that, like so much of the group's political or statement-making material, seem to sacrifice musical coherence to try and put their weak verbal ideas at center stage. There is a very good three-song stretch toward the beginning in which the pair surrenders to their pop instincts; "I Made My Excuses and Left" is slightly maudlin but heartfelt, "Minimal" is easily their most relentless (and surprisingly beautiful) dance song between Nightlife and Electric, and "Numb" proves they are still capable of striking a proper balance between smart, acerbic melancholy, irresistible melody and stark production. Thankfully this was just a bump in the road, and they've rarely failed to demonstrate their virtuosity since.

Janelle Monáe: Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (Bad Boy EP 2007) [r]
Monáe's brief, striking first release was intended as the first of seven suites in her chronicle of the android Cindi Mayweather, which continued with The ArchAndroid and describes a sort of funked-up variant on the plot of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, hence the title here. This seventeen-minute opus introduces the concept and characters but its chief attraction, as with all of Monáe's work, is musical; the record's so quick and restless it's hard for it to make a complete, profound impression, all storytelling and wild, broad orchestration, but there's no denying that right from the beginning, Monáe sounds like no one else in her peer group. After a breathless series of spy-film bouncers suggestive of the wild, relentless pacing on her debut album three years later, the disc peaks with its finale "Sincerely, Jane," a soulful-chanteuse showstopper evocative of Henry Mancini, whose strong melody and vocal snap into focus and point the way forward directly to Monáe's future, not to mention Cindi's.

The National: Boxer (Beggars Banquet 2007) [hr]
It seems weird that I missed this at the time, dyed-in-the-wool alternative rock kid that I was, except how much can the National really be characterized as alternative? If not for their lyrical abstraction and resistance to pure catharsis, they'd be a pretty traditional high-drama rock band; and it would take a professional bullshitter to define why they're not good old fashioned FM radio disciples, except it's all in the nervousness and dread under the surface, how they permit a little hope but snarl at it like Lou Reed. There's a narrative to the National's discography, whereby an early urgency gradually seeps out into resignation and a simultaneous surrender to and distrust of routine; it's also significant that, like few other bands, their sound answers only to itself, each album seemingly strictly influenced and informed by the last one. I've heard Boxer a number of times since I did start listening to this band in 2010, and I think of it as real prom night stuff, a little long, and 2007 itself as a time is so indelible to me that I can retroactively contemplate it as a part of that landscape, but hearing it today -- especially in tandem with the music they've released since then -- it now seems like a stark preview of indescribable loss. The curtain opens on Matt Berninger stumbling around against a piano; eventually the band falls in behind him with a surprisingly complex shuffle but he stays consistent and lovelorn, and then there are sweet, lilting horns, but then it's over. Skeptical as always of the very grandiosity at which they excel, they offer some signature songs -- "Mistaken for Strangers" (misterioso guitar, punk-rock singing, the last traces of kicking out against the dregs of impending maturity), the unmoored and wonderful "Slow Show," and of course "Apartment Story," which flirts with pure pop and ends up a singalong -- but by the end of the sequence they just sound dejected. The intricate "Ada" could be Leonard Cohen, and they're well aware of the implications of naming a song "Start a War" in 2007, but the toughness is a mask, the little moments of celebration and beauty ("Green Gloves") are a temporary salve, and when the record slows down and starts to wind back in on itself, it sounds like they learned before any of us that the escape we sought for ourselves back then wouldn't arrive and couldn't rescue us. High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast enrich the sound and lift it up, by both comparison and contrast, but all three have more to say to us because they don't even try to convince us there's a way out.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue (Out Here 2007) [r]
The first full-length album by one of the best bands in the world. Hallowed ground, though their later, angrier (and, frankly, more feminine) records do more for me personally.

Julie Ruin (Kill Rock Stars 1998) [hr]
Kathleen Hanna seemingly does not consider this obscure, long-out of print recording the debut album of her current rock band, the Julie Ruin (note article), more like her McCartney-like retreat from Bikini Kill; but whatever its pedigree, it's among the richest and most satisfying bedroom pop albums I can name, a wonderfully insular examination of a great singer and writer's tics, impulses, preoccupations. As abrasive and confrontational at times as her best, loudest work with either of her bands, it's also atypically direct and weird, nodding to a head-spinning array of sources from the Kinks to Orbital to the (cleverly sampled) Clash. And its homespun quality does not equate to a modesty in ambition or form; the peak statement of purpose "The Punk Singer" is all rock & roll, but everything else is below it only by degrees. "Stay Monkey" gives the argument that this is the band that would eventually record Run Fast (Hanna's sensibility is that strong, that distinctive), and suddenly on "Apt. #5" there's kalimba or a keyboard in a slow-burn that's nevertheless never anything but fast and furious. And even when the record makes the most of its slapdash edict, on "Aerobicide," it's with a liberating kind of playfulness, the thrill that comes from feeling like we're not really meant to hear it. Its screaming and bold riffs sound like they're being made up as it goes; as on "Tania," it's beauty that folds back on itself, refuses its own elegance. In the very best and least forced manner, it doesn't care what you think of it, which makes it all seem totally out of time and unaffected, and for me at least, irresistible.

Kendrick Lamar: Overly Dedicated (Top Dawg mixtape 2010) [r]
Lamar luxuriously resting on his laurels before he even had the clout -- before his A$AP Rocky verse, even -- and there's something about this fucking guy: I like him better when he's fucking off. This early mixtape, his first under his own name, has better flow ("Barbed Wire") and better tracks than his actual debut album Section 80. He's already killing it on verses -- when he feels like it -- but this breezy hour is rife with surprising hooks and shy anthems for when the windows are rolled up with the top down. "Alien Girl" and "P&P 1.5" are polite lust with a good feeling to them, though the former will probably now seem too silly for kids reared on To Pimp a Butterfly. There's a dumb song about Michael Jordan that sounds like a sea shanty. There's a badly sung take on the entire Bobby Caldwell verse sampled in Common's "The Light" almost a decade before Jay-Z pulled out a whole verse of the Common song itself. There's the microphone left on for a long run of "woop de woo, blasé blah, he say she say" that features the MC still clearly enamored of his own voice and the tape it's getting laid down on; how can this only be eight years ago? Yeah, it's best when he's a little more "regular" than usual at this point, as his higher-minded ambitions to "everyday music" are clearly a little ahead of him here -- the dropping of the guard and amping up of the cultural criticism starting in 2012 needed work to seem as natural as they did -- but the high-level fuckery on "Cut You Off" and the overstuffed anti-smoking treatise (??) "H.O.C." are youthful and willing to misstep in a way that totally charms, especially because at his goofiest he can pull out "we hurt people that love us, love people that hurt us" and the crack in his voice already makes it.

Fiona Apple: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right (Epic 1999) [hr]
Confession time: I didn't start regularly listening to Fiona Apple until after I met my wife, but I'd hidden my adoration of this album's lead single, "Fast as You Can," and the earlier "Sleep to Dream," from friends and ex-lovers out of pressure due to her being viewed as a laughable poseur back then. When "Fast as You Can" came on the radio I used to stand up while it was on, just to participate in it somehow, always paranoid that somehow I'd be seen. Its sense of dynamic, playful drama, its unexpected debt to musical theater, and its sheer inexhaustibility as a lyrical and melodic work (it shattered whatever else was a big hit on alt-rock radio in late '99, shortly before I pretty much gave up on "alt-rock radio") and the slowed-down bridge mark it as much an erotic awakening -- a shared one between artist and listener, not a voyeuristic one like the "Criminal" video -- as a Bowie or Billie Holiday record.

At any rate, of course now that I'm older I know the entire record is a gift from the gods, with Jon Brion's subtly electro-weird production an asset, underlining the lush pleasure of the music, that's failed to age like so many once-slick records of the period. The main thing is how much fun Apple is clearly having with writing and singing and playing -- you can tell she's someone for whom the private act of creation is the essence and the reason she pays the price of enduring all the bullshit of a world's worth of overanalysis -- and her utter command in all three categories. Every cut is a big gift filled with smaller gifts. One's a public-domain seafaring anthem? One's a rock & roll riff-job transferred to piano. Several are angry but in a way that brings you completely to her corner ("I never did anything to you, man"; god, imagine her saying that to you!). Near the end they're all lovely chaos. They're all incredibly blunt for all their poetry ("he don't give a shit about me"), none more than the perverted, slinky "A Mistake" in which she announces she's gonna do it on purpose, she's gonna fuck it up again. And what excuse do I have for giving my 1999 money to Ben Folds? As "Paper Bag" says, I thought I was a man but I was just a little boy.

Saint Etienne: London Conversations (PIAS compilation 2009) [r]
In the old days of radio songs and compact discs, days for which this band is unapologetically nostalgic, if I was interested in an artist with a lengthy history my first step was to pick up a good greatest-hits compilation and familiarize myself with all the different parts of the catalog. So it goes that after falling in love with the two latest Saint Etienne albums and the scattered singles I'd heard, I decided to dive further into the first disc of this set, sent to me by my friend Ryan, before kicking off a more systematic look at their individual albums. The only reason I'm not highly recommending it is that the second disc is comprised of b-sides, and I don't really want to pass judgment on those before I've listened to all the canon records. At any rate, this collection is like a burst of empathetic, witty sunshine. The pre-Sarah Cracknell dance version of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" has been a favorite ever since I found the 12" shoved in the further reaches of a rack somewhere, but the majority of what's after that is new to me, and nearly all of it is lovely. Seductive grooves, retro synthesizers, triumph and propulsion, the occasional touch of the exotic ("Join Our Club"), gentle sweetness ("Side Streets"), insistent and beautiful dance music ("He's on the Phone," "Like a Motorway"), and dimly lit club dreams ("Heart Failed"). Plus of course, sheer catchiness, with hooks and melodies that simmer and get under your skin, and various totally unexpected moments of smart weirdness: the percussion on "Sylvie," the shot of Latin pop on "Pale Movie," and an interpolation of the Beach Boys' "Do It Again" on "Action." My favorite cut is another cover, but one I don't know: the stunning pure pop of Candlewick Green's "Who Do You Think You Are," a British novelty hit from 1973. The only dud is a soppy ballad called "Hobart Paving" that nonetheless has great lyrics. Both are on an album called So Tough, another Beach Boys reference, so you see, they're nerds like us, but people you want badly to get to know -- theirs is impossibly catchy music with an irresistible warmth.

Saint Etienne: Tales from Turnpike House (Sanctuary 2005) [r]
A concept record of short bites of suburban fiction on a London block, with an attendant smorgasboard of styles and sounds: the Tears for Fears-Beach Boys clashing of opener "Sun in My Morning," the Smile-like "Milk Bottle Symphony," the nod to Madonna on "Stars Above Us." The record does slow down a lot after its opening salvo, beholden like too many albums of its nature to logic over thought. Sometimes the matter of stage-setting and narrative makes it tougher to appreciate the eclecticism we get here, though Cracknell's lyrics are vital and touching as usual (her namedrops of Go Kart Mozart and M83 mean more than the ones of James Spader and Brad Pitt), and the chameleon gesture allows them to go for broke with a giant glam groove like "Oh My" or a classic rock riff on "Last Orders." Which brings us to another issue with this: infuriatingly, it has a different tracklist seemingly everywhere it shows up, so I can't even be sure what the hell I'm reviewing, though it seems that the Spotify version is the 2011 reissue, but c'mon -- consistency please. All versions appear to contain the electro-lovely "I'm Falling," the just plain lovely "Goodnight," and the calmly stated farewell "Teenage Winter." So you get the essence of the story... but it shouldn't be this difficult to ensure you're getting all of it.

Beach House (Carpark 2006) [hr]
Young, hip, weird and already stoned out of their damn minds, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally impose discordant lullabies of sex in suspended animation on their truly terrific debut album, the best of their early works because its basic tone is so consistent, distinct and matter-of-fact. You could argue that the entire Beach House tale is getting told, plus or minus some keyboard overdubs and production slickness, on the lovably atonal "Tokyo Witch." Really, the thing here is that these songs are actually less likely to shy away from their own pure beauty ("House on the Hill," the sweetly lilting "Lovelier Girl") than anything on Teen Dream, which I guess may be a demerit in some quarters, but nobody with a weakness for those lazy hazy crazy days of summer is gonna get away from this one totally unseduced. "Master of None" is a straight-ahead pop song, at least if you pare it down to Legrand's vocal melody; and "Auburn and Ivory" is so haunting and hypnotic you can almost see somebody charging "Black Car," a decade and change later, with belaboring the point. Almost. But these aren't just any architects of a maddeningly constant kind of buzzing, pillowy noise, they're our architects of a maddeningly constant kind of buzzing, pillowy noise, and I don't care what you think of me if I start needing to hear this in order to relax enough to sleep.

Leonard Cohen: Ten New Songs (Columbia 2001) [r]
Leonard Cohen hadn't released a new album since 1992's The Future, and no new music at all since he added a couple of new songs to a 1997 best-of, and this very matter-of-factly titled record, his tenth, marked his celebrated reemergence. It's really a direct collaboration with singer-songwriter and previous collaborator Sharon Robinson, whose face adorns the cover along with Cohen's, whose programming and production defines the sound of the record, who cowrote all ten songs, and whose voice is audible on every cut, sometimes singing lead along with Cohen. Having spent much of the previous decade at a Zen monastery, Cohen emerged with a glut of written material, a lot of which would find its way into his next record Dear Heather. In this case, Robinson took lyrics that Cohen gave to her and wrote and recorded synthesized music with a laid-back adult contemporary influence around it; Cohen had wanted for years to avoid actual studios, and in this case he managed it by completing the record entirely digitally at Robinson's home. Given the impeccable quality of Robinson's previous songs with Cohen, "Everybody Knows" and "Waiting for the Miracle," the often repetitive and bland nature of this music is slightly disappointing, though the first track completed, "In My Secret Life," is an instant classic -- a brilliant, incisive, impeccably drawn portrait of loneliness wherein Cohen is as emotive and acerbic as ever in his wounded vision of a life of solitude and irrelevance ("I smile when I'm angry, I cheat and I lie / I do what I have to do to get by / but I know what is wrong, and I know what is right / and I'd die for the truth in my secret life," that's it, he could've retired right then), matched beautifully by Robinson's arrangement and vocals.

The other marker of genius within "In My Secret Life" is Cohen's voice -- it's obviously aged since '92 but his intonations are more sensitive, controlled, complicated than perhaps ever before; it's bewitching, calling Isaac Hayes to mind more than any of Cohen's former folk-rock "peers." For the rest of the songs, however, Cohen tends to outrun Robinson, his lyrics considerably more sophisticated than the music and less well-fitted to the framework she provides. "Alexandra Leaving," based on a Constantine Cavafy poem, and the Robinson-dominated "Here It Is" come off best in their romantic generosity and full-color reflectiveness, while "By the Rivers Dark" shows Robinson admirably stretching out to craft something larger in scope than one might think possible from the rest of these almost primitive electronic sound-beds. The rest ("That Don't Make It Junk," "Love Itself," the gently grooving "Boogie Street") has a decently mellow feeling about it, but that doesn't always seem to reflect the darkness and despair of Cohen's mood over the previous several years that his lyrics document. Yes, there's the serenity of a resurrection after some time away, but there's also "You win a while and then it's done, your little winning streak / and summoned now to deal with your invincible defeat / you live your life as if it's real, a thousand kisses deep." This getting delivered with synth-fed cheerfulness is a strange, though not unpleasant, sensation, but the schism becomes clearest on the biting "Land of Plenty," a skeptical sequel to "Democracy," when the two collaborators seem to be in totally different headspaces. Still, as returns from lengthy hiatus periods go, this is a solid album if upstaged by the four remaining ones Cohen was destined to record.

Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude (s/r mixtape 2010) [r]
The Sex Pistols of blog-rap, Das Racist "went viral" in 2008 with "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," a stoned consumerism satire that gave no hint to the actual raw talent within Heems and Kool A.D., though it did suggest their self-described deconstructionist approach toward hip hop. However, fuck the idea that this defines them -- "Rainbow in the Dark," which mocks it, is their real signature -- the best parts of both their mixtapes, of which this is the most iconic but not the superior, are those that center much more on the pair's batshit genius as wordsmiths and MCs in a very classic sense; what made them powerful was the unassuming modesty with which they deployed their rapid-fire wit and flow, and their unmistakable lack of concern for how they came off, setting the table for a movement of viciously nonconformist, sub-mainstream rap music that never really happened. This tape comes out swinging with the Tribe-sampling banger (and source of the decade's greatest music video), "Who's That? Brooown!" which introduces the basic goodness of their groove and casual delivery as well as their effortlessly provocative social commentary; also, you can tell it's on a free tape because it's so badly mastered, clipping on every set of speakers I'm presently able to access. The best of their early tracks, "You Oughta Know," launches improbably from a Billy Joel sample and rants prophetically of "arguin' with white dudes on the internet." It manages to totally define Heems' personality ("I get around like a vinyl / all sales final / Lionel / Richie") in his haphazard keeping of the chorus beat. "Nutmeg" totally defines both of them with its urgent delivery of wildly frenetic free association ("fuck a George Harrison / embarrassing / sitars no comparison"; "Get Smart Again / it's a cardigan / play the race card again") and a very New York backing track provided by a Ghostface sample, uncleared because it's a mixtape and also because they don't know if they're BMI or ASCAP. Even better, maybe: "Shorty Said," a laundry list of what a girl said the members of Das Racist look like: Slash with no hat on, Devandra Banhart, Egyptian Lover, a chubby Jake Gyllenhaal, Takashi Murakami (whose name Kool can't remember), Ritchie Valens (whose name Heems can't remember), etc. Like "Black cop black cop black cop / you don't even get paid a whole lot," this is a great example of the group's satirical approach to racism, which even they couldn't sustain as through what should have been the Decade of Das Racist, American society only grew more and more brazenly racist; and white critics who actually bothered to take DR seriously started leaning too heavily on them as prophets or professors on the subject.

Intelligent though it is, "Fake Patois" suggests their future proficiency as architects of genuine dance music that people were determined to interpret ironically. This kind of becomes the general tenor of the second half of the tape, with production mostly overwhelming the more impressive elements of the group, namely the lyrics and the extremely personality-heavy delivery of them. The sound lets them down and drowns out some of their cleverest rhymes and funniest interludes ("wowwwwww, this is silly dumb shit") though there's something to be said for the drugged-out Old School-isms of "Hugo Chavez," the Relax-predicting "Coochie Dip City," the Swet Shop Boys-predicting "Ek Shaneesh," and the serious shit "I Don't Want to Deal with Those Monsters," which calls out R. Kelly before it was cool. Hell, R. Kelly headlined the Pitchfork festival well after Pitchfork broke Das Racist up. [Note: I wrote this before it came out that Kool A.D. is apparently a creep who has historically been awful to women, which makes the Kelly call-out a lot less impressive; my points otherwise stand.]

Shabazz Palaces (Templar EP 2009) [r]
Shabazz Palaces: Of Light (Templar EP 2009) [hr]
Of Light is the winner here -- truly weird, forward-looking funk as strong and probing and oddly warm in its "alternative rap" strangeness as any of Ishmael Butler et al.'s subsequent albums under this name. But both add a welcome precedent to their already formidable discography of jazzy, restless hip hop records too defiant in their avant garde leanings to be dismissable as mere hipster stuff, even though Butler's bonafides in that department are considerable. To this longtime Digable Planets fan, it's all a confounding pleasure, an addictively hard-to-pin-down sound matched well with wizened lyrical confrontation. It's serious business, but it slaps, and the quest for that winning conflation (see "Sparkles" and "Blastit"), and the internal conflict thereby implied, has informed all of Butler's career, enough so that it all qualifies by now as something of a canon, and one we'd all do well to appreciate more.

Atlas Sound: Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (4AD 2008) [r]
Bradford Cox at his most stubbornly droning and experimental, with the songs bleeding indiscriminately into one another and bearing down on prolonged waves of noise with childlike glee. The record boasts some of Cox's most confessional lyrics, almost uncomfortably so, devoting his energy to cascading memories of a tempered romance with a fellow musician (Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt). Because it's such a bath of sound, you can hear past it, but if you do listen for the frank, highly exposed sentiments at its core, it's a relief in a sense considering how much Cox has shied away from open emotional expression of open-hearted pain in latter-day Deerhunter music.

PJ Harvey: White Chalk (Island 2007) [r]
Have to confess I never warmed to Harvey's music in the '90s, loved some of Stories from the City and then tuned out in the 2000s, then Let England Shake blew me away in 2011 -- so Backmasking for this particular artist will be a huge education for me, and I'll be especially interested in whether I'll now have started to turn around on her classic works. At any rate, this record's baroque-goth atmospheres serve as a precursor to her work in the current decade, with all the evocative folky paranoia, but unlike her two most recent LPs, this one is extremely front-loaded, though what remarkable gifts she gives us at the outset with "The Devil," "Dear Darkness" (lovely piano trill, and a tension that evokes the sound of distant music emanating from somewhere in another room of a very old house), "Grow Grow Grow" (with her lovely vocal sound jinxed by ominous backing harmonies), and the title track with all its ghostly, beautiful sounds (dear lord, the banjo) has me transfixed every time. She could wipe the floor with people she isn't even trying to compete with -- like, I dunno, Great Lake Swimmers? Gillian Welch? But I maintain she refined this sound with greater command on Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project, despite the very different range of subject matter on those albums. This remains a lovely album and I'm glad I've caught up with it.

Cut Copy: Bright Like Neon Love (Modular 2004) [r]
Dan Whitford, songwriter, singer, synthesizer architect, dominates Cut Copy's first release, which must have sounded truly out-there at the time -- throwback, yeah, but also utter disco sincerity in an indie rock field not yet rocked by the earnestness of Funeral. Personally I'm confused; the whole thing is delightful, especially the opening triad of "Time Stands Still," "Future" (which they still play at most shows) and the magnificent Cars-like "Saturdays," all sounding slick but never arid or lifeless, but having now gotten to know it at last it challenges my perception of the great linear Cut Copy narrative. Because while three fourths of the band is in trad rock & roll configuration (Mitchell Scott on drums, Bennett Foddy on bass, Tim Hoey on guitar), this is a synthpop record through and through. They didn't come about their fearlessly unapologetic dance music spirit gradually after all -- it's baked in to everything they've done. Makes me wonder if I got it wrong thinking In Ghost Colours was too tentative; regardless, conventional wisdom be damned, Whitford has only improved as a writer since those first two records (while beautiful and heartfelt, these songs don't soar, nor do they have the knowing smirk of some of the band's peers, which is part of what I admire about them but also opens them up for charges of being undistinguished), but combine the best parts of both and I think CC would have four near-classics under their belt so far. I hope they keep doing exactly what they're doing for as long as it stimulates them.

Titus Andronicus: The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman 2008)
This is all right and changes none of my sincere love for this band, but heard today it really just sounds like a dry run for The Monitor, filtered through interminable levels of distortion, especially on the vocals; the songs often build up to agreeable moments of anthemic glory (or anti-anthemic glory, on the oddly titled "Titus Andronicus") but it feels like you're canoeing through muck to get to them. All of Patrick Stickles' punk fury is already directed inward, and even more than later on, it feels very much like a private affair.

Deerhunter: Weird Era Cont. (4AD 2008) [r]
The most interesting aspect of this record is its perverse release history, which says a lot about the dissemination of indie rock circa 2008, whereby it was issued simultaneously with Microcastle in compensation for that album being leaked... but was then itself leaked, prompting much indignation from Bradford Cox. How young we all were. Taking it on its own terms, the record is less polished than Microcastle but also has them sounding more like their fellow favorite sons R.E.M. than ever, droning and flowing and jangling and at times sounding less like a rock band than an installation at a museum that only mutates by degrees depending on how far away you stand. These guys are nothing if not experts at immersion; you can sink and fall into this for probably hours -- can even loop it inoffensively -- but okay, it's all a little indulgent. But say this for them: they could've just thrown anything out there as a "bonus" for patient fans who didn't pirate their canon release, just a crop of rarities or goofy asides or some such. Instead they didn't merely put in the effort to compose and construct a whole new Deerhunter album, they essentially created what amounts to the mathematical average of Deerhunter albums. It's all so lovely, and I never seem to remember it after it's over -- except for the doo wop bump and grind "Slow Swords," which neatly points the way ahead to what remains their most inspired album.

***

Expect semi-regular full-length reviews of Backmasked albums to resume in a few weeks, followed eventually by another post like this!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Beatles: Past Masters (1962-70)


(Apple 1988)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

Initially released separately, this no-frills pair of discs is designed to simplify the Beatles' discography -- the year after their albums were standardized to the UK catalog worldwide on CD -- by gathering all of their canonical material that wasn't on the eleven proper albums, Yellow Submarine or the American Magical Mystery Tour (retrofitted into the official sequence). This is a splendid idea, well-executed (and in the original incarnation, with informative liner notes by Mark Lewisohn) and I wish other bands took the same approach to collecting their b-sides in one place. Most bands aren't the Beatles, though, and a quick look at this tracklist reveals the extent to which that's true: hardly a collection of odds and ends, this contains a great many of the band's biggest hits and most culturally ubiquitous and long-lived selections, since around half of their singles were not included on the original LPs. The only tracks that really feel as inconsequential as the average performer's "rarities" are the German-language versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" -- good for a laugh, at least -- and the late-period novelty throwaway "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."

Otherwise this embodies some of the Beatles' best music of all, and none of it duplicates any of the content on the albums, so if you have those you can pick this up and very simply and easily round out the catalog. The set gathers both sides of all of the non-album singles the Beatles released in the UK during their career (not including those that Capitol compiled on Magical Mystery Tour), the scattered exclusive b-sides that accompanied an album cut, the entirety of the EP Long Tall Sally, the Beatles' one contribution to a various-artists collection (the original "charity" version of "Across the Universe"), the three songs released as singles in different mixes or takes from the albums ("Love Me Do," "Get Back" and "Let It Be"), and the errant "Bad Boy," recorded specifically for the American market and included on the deleted UK comp A Collection of Beatles Oldies.

We start off with "Love Me Do," the September 4th, 1962 version with Ringo on drums, apparently a bit of a fraught session at which Ringo struck producer George Martin as unprofessional; a remake from a week later with session player Andy White drumming and a dejected Ringo on tambourine featured on the Please Please Me album the following year. The album version with a marginally less nervous band plays better, but both recordings are striking and slightly funky. Martin preferred the single and tried to avoid accidental use of the Andy White version -- the performances are similar enough to cause confusion -- but somehow the master tape of the single is the one that got destroyed. Since the early '60s, when Parlophone resorted to using the Andy White take on represses of the 7", any release of the single version has been from a disc source, first on Capitol's Rarities (1980) then on the 1988 and 2009 remasters, each progressively higher in quality than the previous dub; but all variants are imperfect. The version with Ringo drumming never saw release in the United States until Rarities, though it made it to a Canadian 45; Vee Jay's Tollie subsidiary didn't get in on the action until 1964 and their enormously successful North American release of the song had the tambourine.

The Beatles' breakthrough UK hit "Please Please Me" is skipped because of its placement on the album of the same name along with its b-side, "Ask Me Why." Instead we move straight to that single's stale follow-up, "From Me to You" (April 1963), which suggests little of the strength of the prior hit and the LP released just a month earlier. It treads along in friendly, cheerful manner with little momentum, fixates too much on the signature harmonica, and is upstaged by its slightly less stilted b-side "Thank You Girl," a reasonably credible adolescent love song with signature "oh-ohs" that sound increasingly sexual. All that said, live performances of "From Me to You" tended to bring some real muscle into it, so perhaps the piecemeal nature of the recording session was a factor in the single's ho-hum quality. It was a smash hit in England even so, though it never quite made the leap over to America even post-Beatlemania. (Capitol never released it at all in the '60s; "Thank You Girl" made it to The Beatles' Second Album.)

Things spin around completely with the band's fourth single, maybe their quintessential recording and surely one of the greatest singles of all time, the frenzied, unbottled "She Loves You" (July 1963) which can barely spit out its amusingly senseless, chiding third-person narrative -- about a girl who you need to make up with because even though you caused her to nearly "lose her mind," she now realizes you didn't mean it -- in favor of its repeated peak-level hooks with insistent, barbaric repetitions of the title phrase and primal, unrelentingly insane woooo noises. It's as if the same moment that produced "Thank You Girl" kept going and became totally unstable and uncorked as the night wore on (and in fact, it's probably not a coincidence that this was recorded on the day the Abbey Road studio was invaded by security-breaching teenagers during a recording session); not since Little Richard had rock & roll sounded simultaneously so precisely constructed and so out of control. It has two hidden meanings: one demanding that you get up and scream with mystified bliss, the other insisting that it be played again right away once it finishes. If you ever do make it to the b-side, "I'll Get You," you find more of the same: a remarkable request for absolute devotion by our new gods.

From the bass notes of the opening through to the delirious sensuality of the chorus, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (November 1963), the song that broke the Beatles in America, sounds like it's coming from outer space. The accusations, mostly in the U.S., that the Beatles were somehow subliminally wooing their female fans to become spawns of Satan or sexual slaves or whatnot aren't far from understandable in this case: the clunking rhythm guitar track, the appalling left-field vocals, Ringo's insane percussion work, and the intensity of the "I can't hiiiiiide!" are like nothing else previously labeled rock & roll. You could listen to this repeatedly all day grasping for the full effect of its sheer entity. Many people did. Although the flip "This Boy" doesn't leave you reeling from the same kind of culture shock, it is beautiful three-part-harmony rock & roll, with an appropriately pained lead from John and a wonderful riff. This single on its own is another of the greatest ever pressed and is twice as evocative as most albums of the period.

And with that, Beatlemania overtook the globe throughout 1964, a harrowing and infinitely exciting story told in many different places in this discography; the next two Beatles singles, both A- and b-sides, were part of the A Hard Day's Night project. This is important to mention because the narrative of the Beatles' singles up through 1967 really do tell a remarkable, ever-heightening story. That story is rejoined in November here with "I Feel Fine," their strangest and most breathtakingly infectious single to date, which is saying a lot given the above. "Can't Buy Me Love" had moved to straightforward rocking, "A Hard Day's Night" introduced introspection, and that sensation of looming adulthood allows the relationship here to sound slightly less perpetually teenage than the prior chronicles of something so innocent as hand-holding prompting a violently frenetic response. An utterly incredible recording, it begins with a squeal of feedback before possibly the best rhythm-guitar riff of all time begins. This is what hero worship is all about. Ringo's nonstop cymbals and the tower of vocals reach back toward the days of Hamburg and the Cavern, days which in a sense the Beatles were probably wishing for by now. But no song released in 1962 or 1963 would have the courage and confidence of this one, which ends with the mildly apocalyptic sounds of barking in the fade. "I Feel Fine" is paired with the slightly monotonous headbanger "She's a Woman" (what a title); Paul belts it out with a debt to mid-'60s soul but it's no "I Saw Her Standing There," thanks at least partially to his amusingly vapid rhyme scheme here, but he's clearly having a great time and the band does hit upon a modest groove after a time.

"Ticket to Ride," on Help!, continued the progression into uncharted territory for the Beatles; as soon as others had time to imitate their sound and general demeanor, they would change it again, and like all of their early hits this one was light years ahead of the radio but still struck a chord with everyone listening, as though they were all hypnotized. Its accompanying "Yes It Is" (April 1965), gathered here, is a sequel of sorts to "This Boy" with its sensitive three-part harmony and John's emotionally overwhelmed crooning at the bridge; lyrically, it's in the vein of the funerary oddity "Baby's in Black" with a weirdly specific, Edgar Allan Poe-like vision of despair: the protagonist sinks into a melancholy episode whenever his partner is seen in red, which apparently was the color "she wore" when some macabre event occurred. This becomes less ridiculous both because Lennon sings his solo portion so beautifully (approximating soul without, it seems, even trying) and because his lyric is so strangely observant, with "everybody knows, I'm sure" taking John and Paul's reputation as masters of the conversational lyric into a new dimension with its evocation of how an absinthe-swilling anti-hero might respond to a world of "others" chattering about him behind his back.

Such outsiders -- always "they" -- haunt Lennon's lyrics of 1964 and 1965, peaking with "Help!", which isn't here but when you think about it is a truly audacious song to release as a single; despite its masterful popcraft, it is nothing short of the laying bare of the singer, the totally unfiltered exposure of base insecurities for an entire world to hear and take to #1. That underlines how relatively (if understandably) superficial its b-side "I'm Down" (July 1965), closing the first disc of this compilation, is. Poorly written with a kind of vaguely misogynist rage to react against John's vaguely misogynist misery on "Yes It Is," it does boast one of the hardest rocking Beatles performances in their studio career, one of those scattered moments when you hear the old all-nighters in Germany manifesting themselves again.

Disc two kicks off with the two songs that weren't quite witty or introspective enough for the simultaneously released Rubber Soul and became a double-sided smash (December 1965), though both are among the few Beatles songs for which superior contemporaneous cover versions exist, "Day Tripper" by Otis Redding (so convincing it's like he wrote it) and "We Can Work It Out" by Stevie Wonder. Nevertheless, both songs are excellent as long as you don't compare them to their close relatives on the album ("Drive My Car" and "I'm Looking Through You" respectively); "Tripper" is built on one of the Beatles' very best riffs, almost Stones-like, and "We Can Work It Out" has an exceptionally strong Paul McCartney lyric built around yet another argument with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, the same intensely tense relationship that inspired "Looking" and the later "For No One." Both songs have the usual lovingly weird interludes that are amped up and emphasized by George Martin: a wildly disorienting instrumental break on "Tripper" and a circus-like harmonium overdub on "Work It Out."

The next single, "Paperback Writer" (June 1966), is one of the few cases in which a b-side artistically overwhelms the hit altogether. Nevertheless, "Writer" is a perfect taste of the Beatles' increasingly eccentric sensibilities as of Revolver (not that they weren't always a certain kind of eccentric), with an engaging quirkiness to the Brian Wilson-influenced harmony vocals and arrangement, that still manages to function mightily as unadulterated rock & roll. With so much of the Beatles' 1966-67 work, which I often rate below most fans, what's there doesn't bother me. It's what's not there that keeps me from praising it to the skies, and I maintain that Lennon all but lost it during this period, but I often forget how fabulous Paul McCartney's work was throughout the last half of the Beatles' career. His sense of humor is criminally overlooked, much closer to Ray Davies than John Lennon, and the lyrics to "Paperback Writer" are excellent and surprisingly evocative (though I'm still bugged that he claims to be writing a novel that is "based on a novel"). The song points in the direction of his sharply satirical work on the White Album.

But in any case, the b-side "Rain" is something else entirely; with its backward loops, Byrdsian guitars and utterly phenomenal work from Ringo (only "Ticket to Ride" rivals it as his best performance), it's experimental but stronger even than works like "Tomorrow Never Knows" because it's also fun and playful, strange and individualistic without being druggy. It even serves as Lennon's dry run for "Strawberry Fields Forever" thanks to a lyric that is childlike without attempting tired whimsy, and the resignation in his vocal that sells the complexity of the offbeat emotions it captures. With its grinning, trippy, gorgeous vocals and beautifully ugly sonic guitar attacks, it's as discordant-yet-gripping as "She Said, She Said" or "I'm Only Sleeping"... and it easily tops both. To me, this is the perfect psychedelic Beatles: it's obviously a pop song but the fuck-all, anything-goes spirit makes it something bigger. The oddities aren't the star of the show, they're just a complement to a grand attraction.

At this point Past Masters totally skips an entire year in the Beatles' history, and a pivotal one; 1967 is completely absent here because the American Magical Mystery Tour, now part of the core catalog, gathered all the errant singles from that year. Therefore we miss pretty much the entirety of the band's psychedelic period -- therefore their best single of all, "Strawberry Fields Forever" c/w "Penny Lane," another double-A side -- and have a jarring leap straight from "Rain" to "Lady Madonna" (March 1968). As of "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" the Beatles were still kind of the Mop Tops, with another punishing world tour ahead of them; "Lady Madonna" finds them already over their subsequent assertion of total pop culture dominance with the Sgt. Pepper album and in a strange moment of limbo just past the excesses of their hippie period, the sobering death of Brian Epstein, the disastrous Magical Mystery Tour film project and on the cusp of their two-month exile in India at the ashram with the Maharishi. "Lady Madonna" offers the first glimpse of the back-to-basics Beatles, centered on a rollicking Elvis impersonation by Paul that gets things immediately back on track after an erratic period for the band. It's one of the band's more propulsive and instantly appealing works, evocative of Fats Domino in its boogie woogie-derived piano line; that it doesn't really move the band forward speaks to their aspirations back toward pure rock & roll, which would disrupt them again -- and less successfully -- the following year. George Harrison's b-side "The Inner Light," while pretty in a wispy sort of way, is slight enough that it's hard to imagine it was written after the infinitely more sophisticated "Within You, Without You."

"Hey Jude" (August 1968), the first single on the band's own label Apple, finds Paul McCartney once and for all laying down the rules of sensitive, perfectly judged rock balladry, and as on the White Album, he gets it just right. It's a complete turnaround from the blubbering mess of pop confections like "Hello, Goodbye." The Beatles knew better than to hide behind "Crimson & Clover" power chords -- "Hey Jude" demonstrates the band's key appeal, which is that they broke down barriers for others while lurking behind their own hold of an audience. This song made seven-minute singles an acceptable idea, but not a second of it seems wasted, even in the anthemic fadeout that occupies over half of the running time. It's pointless to claim that the song isn't touching -- a loving chide meant to pick five year-old Julian Lennon's head up in the midst of his parents' separation, but applicable somehow to the whole world in any moment of personal uncertainty -- and for my money it's leaps and bounds over "Yesterday." You just can't escape these clutches, and in its own way the blistering "Revolution" is similarly unifying. Hearing these two tracks you feel like you're a part of something; no wonder "Hey Jude" became the Beatles' biggest hit.

After the White Album -- too soon after -- the Beatles holed up for a month to record their next album, being filmed in the process, and prepare for what turned out not to be a tour or concert, replaced with the small gesture of an ostensibly impromptu performance on the roof of the Apple building in London on a cold Thursday morning in January. The sessions throughout the first month of 1969 were legendarily miserable, with interpersonal and technical problems as well as the sheer wrongheaded and badly-timed nature of the project causing major tensions. While the album was delayed for sixteen months, only finally released just after the band's official breakup in the spring of 1970, the first fruits of the sessions were unveiled in April 1969 with the "Get Back" single. This record is significant for, on both sides, carrying a co-bill on the credit: "The Beatles with Billy Preston." Their gratitude to Preston and centering of his name on the label was not undeserved; Preston makes "Get Back" a classic all by himself. His brilliant piano solo cooks in a song that, truth be told, barely qualifies as a significant composition -- or at least, a significant performance. (This indoor version of the song is eclipsed by the rooftop version heard in the film and on several later releases, which rocks much harder and boasts a stronger lead vocal.) The Beatles are Back to Basics here; down to bare instrumentation playing good old rock & roll with goofy, incompetent lyrics, vocal bravado, and that stomping beat. In contrast to the later edit on the album Let It Be, the 7" version of "Get Back" launches straight into the song without the studio chatter that kicks it off on LP, then features an extra, off-the-cuff-sounding verse by Paul at the end in lieu of the "hope we passed the audience" finale.

At any rate, this is another song completely overshadowed by its b-side, John's "Don't Let Me Down," an enormously persuasive, specific, desperate love song (unmistakably directed at Yoko Ono) and quite possibly the band's single best recording since "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane," and for certain one of Lennon's most moving songs this side of "In My Life." The sparse production and Preston's piano help make it a perfect moment, its teasing lyrics, decisive movement, and intoxicating soul flowing forth in breathtaking waves, exploding with that last climactic instrumental break, replete with the distant scream that makes it all so complete. I know that when I say I love the Beatles, this is exactly what I mean. And even this performance, while just about as good as anything the Beatles released, may be slightly lesser to the live rooftop counterpart heard in the film, with John seemingly feeling it even more and contributing beautiful wordless vocals in the final instrumental break.

Talking of Ono, the Beatles' rather audacious May 1969 single courts controversy by labeling itself "The Ballad of John and Yoko," though the song itself isn't especially divisive, enjoying a relaxed but driving groove behind its Chuck Berry-like intricate chronicle of the title couple's wild year of button-pushing protest activity and attention-whoring, presented with wit and charm. You have to admire the Beatles for sticking by this composition considering what some might consider a crowning example of Lennon's self-indulgence. All I hear is a swinging reminiscence of a wild and crazy time, and John and Paul -- the only Beatles on the track, soaring together in a kind of harmony that seemed impossible in the Get Back sessions a few months prior -- sound as enthusiastic as they ever did. Lennon continues to learn to relax as a vocalist while retaining every trace of his expressive abilities, and while this isn't a "Don't Let Me Down," it's one of the most delightful cuts in the late Beatles catalog. I also dig George's b-side, "Old Brown Shoe," with a spectacular band performance, but every time I hear it I can't ignore George's still-contemptible attitude toward the romantic partners he seems to regard as pathetic underlings, a problem that even extends to beautiful later cuts like "All Things Must Pass." The line "if I grow up I'll be a singer / wearing rings on every finger" is too good for me to dismiss the song as charmless, and the beat is relentless, but c'mon: "my love is something you can't reject"? "Who knows, baby, you may comfort me"? Not much progression since "You Like Me Too Much," it appears.

The final UK Beatles single is "Let It Be" (February 1970), a moving and powerful ballad from Paul from the Get Back sessions, which he simultaneously gave to Aretha Franklin; she took it perhaps to even better places. Interpreted by millions as either a solemn farewell to the band or a religious hymn, it mostly seems to be Paul's "Julia," a longing eulogy for the author's mother Mary McCartney, though nobody's saying the other two ideas aren't there or that they're any less personal. George Martin's mix of the song lacks Phil Spector's overdubs, but the Spector version on the LP is actually an improvement because of its more incisive guitar solo, one of Harrison's best. The b-side, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," is a flaky attempt at a "comedy record" that dates back to 1967 with a few '69 updates and demonstrates that, for fleeting moments, the unaffected charm was still there, though it's telling that they waited so long to find a place to bury it.

Regarding the rest of the material Past Masters covers: "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand" and "Sie Liebt Dich" are bizarre curiosities issued as a single on the EMI Odeon label in Germany in March 1964, with apparently little band enthusiasm. The songs of the Long Tall Sally EP are reviewed on this discography's EP page, but all four ("Long Tall Sally," "I Call Your Name," "Slow Down," "Matchbox") are essential Mania-period Beatles, "Name" being one of their best songs of all. "Bad Boy" was first released on the U.S. album Beatles VI and is a monstrously rocking Larry Williams cover -- yes, another one -- with a truly nasty, soaring Lennon vocal that like the unissued "Leave My Kitten Alone" reminds you of how powerful he was when engaged. ("Dizzy Miss Lizzie" was also recorded for Beatles VI but ended up on the UK Help! album because of a dearth of material the Beatles and George Martin were happy with.) The second disc is all singles except "Across the Universe," the same performance as on Let It Be minus Spector strings and choir, plus an overdub of wild bird sound effects (the song was commissioned for a charity compilation for the World Wildlife Fund) and a couple of band hangers-on (known then as "Apple Scruffs," the group of fans who haunted the steps of the studio and were also set to work putting copies of Two Virgins into brown paper sleeves to hide John and Yoko's nude bodies) lifted off the street outside the studio to badly but charmingly sing backing vocals. It's a tepid presentation of a lovely, sincere John song that deserved much better treatment, but it would take decades for a good Beatles version to see release and the definitive performance is likely not even by them but by Fiona Apple.

Past Masters stayed on the market for twenty-one years before Apple updated it in 2009. On the original '88 disc, all of the songs before "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are included in mono; Apple or EMI policy at the time dictated that two-track recordings would only be released in mono even though stereo mixes existed for "From Me to You" and "Thank You Girl"... they're awkward in stereo, but "Thank You Girl" is a lot more complete, with harmonica that never got tracked to the single. The 2009 disc restores these and also switches the two German cuts to perversely wide stereo versions, track on the left and vocals on the right, which probably isn't an improvement. (All of the Beatles' canon mono mixes were given their own separate release in 2009; this compilation's counterpart, Mono Masters, will be reviewed separately.)

What's odd about this compilation is that it couldn't be more drab and purely functional; it barely has artwork and does absolutely nothing except serve its purpose and straightforwardly present the songs in chronological order... and yet from start to finish, it is a delightful listen, an absolutely crucial complement to the thirteen core albums, and as good a greatest-hits compilation as exists for the Beatles, or really for anyone, even though a handful of hits are missing because they were on LPs. (Amazingly, there has yet to be a straightforward disc that just collects the twenty-six proper A-sides, which would also merit an A+ easily.) It is really the cornerstone of any Beatles collection, capturing the entirety of their evolution while duplicating nothing you'll find on their other important releases; it might look dull on the outside, but no fan should be caught without it.

***

[My old webpage had separate reviews of all of the Beatles' UK singles, and I've used that material from 2003 to form the main body of this otherwise new review.]

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Love Is All: A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (2008)


(What's Your Rupture?)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Love Is All was the greatest punk band in a generation, giving the lie to every trace of phony suburban angst and boring snottiness of the Green Day-derived "mall emo" era of music and all its corporate-sponsored romper room fuckery, and not because they were lo-fi and signed (at least in the U.S.) to a small label. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Brand New and whoever else were the version of purely adolescent emotional catharsis that authorities wanted you to subscribe to, much as Korn and Limp Bizkit were the version of anti-everything aggression that was deemed a safe and temporary outlet for teenagers to let it all out while the world was secretly being dismantled around them. If you couldn't hear the phoniness, it was only because the marketing was so savvy. Love Is All is one of the bands that holds the secret: that angst isn't teenage at all, that by continuing to live in the world you're signing up to a lifetime of weird emotions, kicking against the darkness and trying to convince yourself that you're not totally insane. I hope someday you'll join us, etc.

But that doesn't mean the destination is joyless or maudlin. The band's second full-length release is a forceful, unbelievably exuberant record whose energy all but refuses to flag and whose restlessness is constantly engaging. If you were to approach it solely as a musical enterprise, ignoring for just a moment that the band happens to have one of the world's most tirelessly brilliant lead singers and lyricists, it's already practically everything you could want if you're a fan of brash, loud guitar music; despite a wonderful consistency of sound and spirit, every song is a world unto itself, and the performances are indefatigably tight for all their controlled chaos, from the coming-out-swinging "New Beginnings," which audibly can't contain itself, to the last sneaky groove on "19 Floors" with its irresistible vocal-sax hook collapsing into free jazz and one last chorus amid the madness. The music is raw and roomy, full of sonic spaces counterbalancing its quick, breathless ferocity.

But Love Is All is more than all that; they are punk rock's most persuasive introverts ("art fags" in the parlance of the movie 20th Century Women, which if you are happily reading this is a film you must see) since Talking Heads, and unlike that band they never take the luxury of hiding behind irony. This is thanks in large part to Josephine Olausson, who furthers an already striking absence of traditional male aggression in the band's music; when the men in the band assert themselves it's with charmingly amateurish, full-throated "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba" backing vocals and of course their impossibly powerful, enthusiastic playing. As noted, said men form a band that in any capacity would be obviously excellent, but they are wise to allow LIA to be Olausson's show, and she is wise to only modestly accept the stage she's given; the result is a band whose sense of democracy is unmistakable, but also a band deeply conscious of their own strengths. What they end up providing is a bed of sound from which their leader can repeatedly emerge; she stands out starkly from her band and from the world at large, but they ensure that she is always within a community (even extending on this record to a couple of duets), one more than happy to prop her up. In other words, they seem to love her as much as we inevitably come to when hearing these songs.

Olausson's observant, witty lyrics ("the breakfast stuff is an impressive spread but not enough to make me get out of bed"... "the same song is on repeat, something inappropriately upbeat") would be delightful regardless of how she delivered them, but her almost violent, rapid-fire and stubbornly mobile delivery, despite often making them extremely difficult to understand, is the perfect expression of the wide range of difficult-to-pare-down emotions she captures. On "Last Choice," a disco-derived number that leads up to a chiming climax and glorious sing-song refrain before ramping everything back down to a tantalizingly brief morning-after resurgence of its synth hook, she gender-reverses the Cars' unforgettably snide "You're All I've Got Tonight" while sheepishly turning it on its hand with its confession that while the guy isn't her type, she's not his either. It's impossible for this band to use their sonic firepower, or for Olausson to use her humor, to attack someone or something; they only turn the gun on the endlessly awkward situations of a fickle universe. "I'm bored to death of all this shit," she announces on "Sea Sick," which lives up to its title with a disorienting tempo change but is otherwise the most instantly addictive soundtrack to boredom one can imagine.

That's because this band is built on both the refusal of surrender and a compassionate recognition of its temptations; the melancholy in Olausson's lyrics comes from her heartfelt resignation at every misfortune or disappointment or surreal disaster that faces her, but the music tells us she'll continue to fight. They avoid the pratfalls of a bad mood by coping through dance and humor, and so for a certain subset of listeners (specifically those who "get took," as Shirley MacLaine says in The Apartment), they're almost the Utopian ideal of a rock band. A song like "Give It Back" demands pogoing and whoa-ho singalongs in all its guitar fury, but if you pause long enough to hear (or read) the words, you discover it's built around one of the loneliest, angriest sentiments imaginable ("forget I ever mentioned my heart"). Thus, the inability of those words to tell the entire story -- which is completed by Olausson's defiantly wild singing and the band's pounding along -- is a feature rather than a defect, and illustrates rock & roll as sheer redemption narrative.

That same dynamic is central to Love Is All's signature song and the two other evenly spaced album centerpieces. The musically triumphant "Wishing Well" catalogs a list of woo-woo solutions that disappoint -- palm-reading, Tarot, and throwing money in a wishing well with the result that "nothing got better, I was slightly wetter" -- and finally finds solace in the arrangement that gets the whole band singing together with a feverish excitement, a cry in the dark that needn't be a lonely one. Her pining and persistent hopefulness on "Movie Romance" might read as unabashedly un-punk but really it's a celebration of creating one's family ("I laugh in the face of a movie romance / cause against this it doesn't stand a chance"), a rebellious and distinctly adult concept, made rough-and-tumble by her and the band's intensity and especially Markus Görsch's earthquake-like drumming, which at one point takes center stage. And the source of the album title, "Big Bangs, Black Holes, Meteorities" is the quintessential anxiety anthem, strung together by a surf guitar hook and Olausson's expressions of terminal nervousness and discomfort -- she's up all night worrying about what can't be controlled, or she's "much too warm or far too cold" -- but at the touching climax, the tower of vocals not only absorbs her but the audience as well, inviting us all in to share this moment of fearful dissatisfaction, again with not one of us flying solo and least of all our singer.

The back half of Hundred Things does allow the entrance of a few ballads, which points the way ahead to the more aurally varied (and even better, but much less fast-and-furious) third album while not at all corrupting the record's invariable validity as a piece of art therapy for those who need the speed and abandon. "When Giants Fall" is one of the few times Love Is All unabashedly lays their cards on the table about their influences apart from X-Ray Spex and first wave punk in general (and apart from their scattered non-album covers of songs by the likes of Yoko Ono, A Flock of Seagulls, Prince and Dire Straits; what, no Toni Basil?): this song is all Jesus & Mary Chain, complete with the "Be My Baby"-"Just Like Honey" drum pattern and feedback, but with the band's own trademark chiming guitars and, as always, the feel of the full room. "Rumours" is a military march driven by guitar and sax, and impresses mostly with the fullness of sound they get with such spare instrumentation, while the statement-of-purpose chant of the bashfully steadfast "mind your business, I'll mind mine" is kind of a handy boiling down of the band's essence. Lastly, "A More Uncertain Future" is the one track on the record that doesn't entirely work, really because of the dueling vocals with Nicholaus Sparding who sounds a bit inadequate next to Olausson's amusing total overdrive -- it's as if they were recorded in separate rooms! -- even though the group's taking on of sax-driven doo wop draws the line again back to pure punk and further back to the essence of rock & roll itself.

That re-enlivening of classic song forms profoundly illustrates one of the many things Love Is All serves to irresistibly illuminate: the continued transcendence of and personal communication permitted by rock & roll over all other arts, including whatever movement or subgenre of indie rock to which the blogosphere once lazily attributed this band. (Conventional wisdom evidently has them as "indie pop" rather than "indie rock," whatever the hell that means.) Because it is a bare-essence expression of universal emotions delivered with grace and enthusiasm, this music doesn't fit into a neat category or narrative... and yet it does, it's just a movement of body and spirit that's been happening for six decades now. That's why Love Is All didn't change the world or shake it to its core, even though they were as good as any band that could. But hear them and they'll change you, more than any band that actually set out to shake the world to its core, and you'll join me in not wanting to keep constantly facing the fact of their silence.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Walk around and you'll see how it fades: February 2019 music diary

One more time a celebration / you know we're gonna do it right / tonight, just feeling / music's got me feeling the need.

Steve Gunn: The Unseen in Between (Matador)
Gunn's a perfect example of why I'm retiring my unpaid commitment to review all seriously acclaimed new records after 2019; his last two albums received virtually identical reviews here to any that I could conceivably write about this pleasant, totally forgettable tidbit of dad rock revenge. Y'all already know if you want to hear this. And it's the kind of thing that I never mind hearing, but also would never in a million years think to put on if I wasn't doing this.

The Twilight Sad: It Won't Be Like This All the Time (Rock Action)
The pains of being young at heart: this angsty song cycle from these old pros at feeling bad is full of Bon Iver-style song title pretensions and plenty of meaty, arena rock-sized hooks suffused with synthy MTV goth sensibility. They're Old Romantics, and this is makeout music for future senior citizens as assuredly as a McGuire Sisters 45 was for their parents.

Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar) [r]
Her voice doesn't always navigate the nuances of the slower songs enough to make them drown out even the more generic fast ones, such as the St. Vincent-like "Comeback Kid." But speaking as a longtime skeptic, I find that Van Etten's songcraft has improved immeasurably, and of course handing the production reins over to John Congleton helps; the pounding beat on "No One's Easy to Love" (which should've been the album title, paired with that mortifying LP cover) most agreeably subsumes Van Etten's guttural vocal tones. Obviously the main advantage is in the writing, how the vivid narrative of "Malibu" about a couple of dudes who don't give a fuck lays out detail and truth in spades, or how the melody on "You Shadow" effortlessly evokes the Beatles without directly referring to them; but when she thinks of the songs in terms of music, words and sounds all at once, the rewards are ample (trippy and flipped out "Memorial Day," desolate-harsh "Jupiter 4," the build to chaos on "Seventeen"). It peaks with its iris-out "Stay," a ghostly and hypnotic wail emanating from a maxed-out boom box -- clear as day in its haze and confusion.

Deerhunter: Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD) [r]
Not a guitar record, and barely a Deerhunter record by the sound of it; its oscillation between cartoon-colored emotions and doldrum dirges approximating the bouncy-and-sad dynamic of Bradford Cox's solo records as Atlas Sound... except in the sense that it lacks the overindulgence that pins Logos and such as self-edited. Much of the album, signature "Death in Midsummer" and "What Happens to People?" above all, presents as bubblegum psychedelia so strangely convincing that these could be songs left off the soundtracks to The World of Henry Orient or, I dunno, A Thousand Clowns -- they're that hippie, that rainbow-sweet. It's like if R.E.M.'s signature sound was adopted and expanded from the Lovin' Spoonful instead of the Byrds. But that R.E.M. connection is key because these are songs with subtleties, valleys and infinite secrets, plus the occasional well-placed keyboard hook that seems like a cop rather than a climax. It's telling that the Atlas-esque cuts like "Element," "Tarnung" and the glitching anticlimax "Nocturne" are as shimmery and pretty in their multidimensional headache-music excavations as stuff like "Plains" that once upon a time coulda been something like popular, or the fake video game soundtrack cut "Futurism" on which Cox buys completely into the vocal Lennon comparisons with the dry treatment he gives the melody. The weirdness sometimes is ridiculously over-the-top; there's an instrumental Depeche Mode b-side, basically, and a robovoice rant 'n' rave that puts a little too much of an angel on top of the album's slickly immersive, seductive paranoia. Don't worry, he won't hurt you. He only wants you to have some fun.

M. Ward: What a Wonderful Industry (s/r)
There's probably a very long back story here regarding the fact that Ward's first album not on a label (he was previously signed to Merge as a solo artist and to Columbia/Sony as cofounder of She & Him) is one long rant about "the biz." It's also the most passionate, coy and dedicated he's sounded in probably a full decade, and no question I'd rather put up with its litany of first-world problems than read that tell-all book by the drummer from Semisonic. Ward's guitar playing has only ever been pretty much infallible, but his singing has been erratic since the start of the She & Him period, so it's nice to hear him loosen up again, but it's less exciting that what's woken up him is a sense of overwhelming bitterness. The songs are varied enough, but the presence of word-salad overdoses like "Sit Around the House" and "A Mind Is the Worst Thing to Waste" strongly indicate that he's more interested in rambling angrily than in writing coherent or complete songs, and the last thing we want is another of those singer-songwriters. Even when Ward does combine the two impulses, as on the countrified "Miracle Man," he's still telling tales about hangin' out with A&R bros, and sometimes his lyrics are so on-the-nose it's close to unbearable, as on "Shark," the title character of which "wears a heavy coat all day so the world can't see his fins." Or on "Poor Tom": "they forgot to say the name of the record... they announced the show all wrong." Sheesh. I mean, why yell at us? Luckily, this is mostly a good time if you can tune out the words. "Motorcycle Ride" is classically toned Ward, "Kind of Human" is clasically toned Neil Young (no, really) and best of all, "Return to Neptune's Net" is... instrumental! As Louis Armstrong sang...

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here) [hr]
If hard-earned, transcendent pleasure is what you're looking for from a new record in 2019, this is where you go. So impossibly gorgeous it almost hurts, this phenomenal outing from one of the best bands in the world is as singular and effective as their best to date Jama Ko but with a completely different mood and mindset. Slow but not relaxed, collected but deeply intense, it is sensuous and vital in the best way; and if you as a listener of Western music have any taste at all for a great interlocking jam, then the record is your homework assignment, and if you haven't the time, just try "Deli." Sweeping, lilting voices your thing? The sweet, addictive opener "Kanougnon" is the music of heaven tself. You dig arm-waving anthems? "Wele Cuba" is an even stronger dip into such territory than those that populated the crossover bid I Speak Fula. You want jazz? "Nyame" is as mournful and complex as a Coltrane ballad. You want something to fall headfirst into? "Tabital Pulaaku" shows that there is nothing Kouyate and his gaggle of family musicians can't do -- really and truly, to my mind it's as heavy and deep as music gets. Ngoni Ba is currently touring the States and I wish I could go; if you can, do so.

Michael Chapman: True North (Paradise of Bachelors)
British singer-songwriter with jazz and folk roots, recording since 1969. His latest album is not recommended for drowsy Monday morning commutes, unless listening to someone growl about waking up with a bottle full of "something strong and cheap" turns you on. Once you're accustomed to the stark, monochromatic Grandpa sensibility, the weird duets, the dirgey Buffalo Springfield homages, and the scattered nonverbal meanderings, this isn't bad, though I never want to hear another 78 year-old tell me that "youth is wasted on the young."

Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer) [r]
Scored on mood alone, this is magnificent and slightly eerie, approached as lost early '60s baroque with maxed-out distortion causing a distant, ghostly sound that at its most generous allows a thin, Tweety-like voice to conjure up Dusty Springfield and Vera Lynn; and in general lets this otherwise lightweight record attain a lilting, lovely, almost indescribable quality of enigma, the disembodied sound of the past haunting us. The only problem is that the songs are basically identical, which isn't so offensive since the whole shebang runs under a half-hour, but you may end up taking your favorite and running with it then forgetting the rest; they all have extracts of the sublime lurking in their melodies. I like "Poly Blue" best.

Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge) [r]
The cover of this blistering, classicist alt-rock album evokes not anything from Mould's active era as a musician but something from his childhood: the Capitol swirl logo used on that label's famous Beach Boys, Beatles, Human Beinz and Dick Dale singles. Aside from the fine cover of the Shocking Blue's psychedelic totem "Send Me a Postcard," though, this relates to the 1960s only insofar as it's comprised of easy-on-the-ear, digestible yet deceptively thorny rock anthems one right after the other. "Sunny Love Song" does sound like a radio hit, albeit from the '90s, but it's just quirky enough to be wonderful, and "Western Sunset" is the best kind of fragmented pop, but only their titles tell a story of freewheeling youth and abandon. Mould's actual heart is more closely aligned with the sad but forceful "Lost Faith" and the beefed-up keyboard trill and huge sound of "The Final Years," a mournful mystery whose nuances you want to pause long enough to slip away and contemplate. The ironies are less important than the sheer power of the singing and playing; despite its economy, the record drags a bit into sameness in the midsection, but at its best this is rousing and intense in a sharp, intelligent manner rarely heard from new guitar music by an artist of Mould's experience.

Nivhek: After Its Own Death / Walking in a spiral towards the house (Yellow Electric) [r]
The D'ni are an ancient race who used a special skill to create magical books which serve as portals to the worlds they describe, known as Ages. The D'ni build a great city and thriving civilization in underground caverns. A young geologist from the surface, Anna, stumbles upon the D'ni civilization. Learning the D'ni language, Anna becomes known as Ti'ana and marries a D'ni named Aitrus; the couple have a son named Gehn. Soon after, D'ni is ravaged by a plague created by a man named A'Gaeris. Aitrus sacrifices himself to save his wife and child, killing A'Gaeris while Ti'ana and Gehn escape to the surface as the D'ni civilization falls. Ti'ana raises Gehn until he runs away as a teenager, learning the D'ni Art of writing descriptive books. Ti'ana also cares for Gehn's son, Atrus, until Gehn arrives to teach Atrus the Art. Atrus realizes that his father is reckless and power-hungry, and with the help of Ti'ana and a young woman, Catherine, Atrus traps Gehn on his Age of Riven with no linking books. Atrus and Catherine marry and have two children, Sirrus and Achenar. The brothers grow greedy and after plundering their father's Ages they trap Catherine on Riven. When Atrus returns to investigate, the brothers strand him in a D'ni cavern before they themselves are trapped by special "prison" books. Through the help of a Stranger, Atrus is freed and sends his benefactor to Riven to retrieve Catherine from the clutches of Gehn. Sirrus and Achenar are punished for their crimes by being imprisoned in separate Ages until they reform. Atrus writes a new Age called Releeshahn for the D'ni survivors to rebuild their civilization as he and Catherine settle back on Earth, raising a daughter named Yeesha. As Atrus prepares to take the Stranger to Releeshahn, a mysterious man named Saavedro appears and steals the Releeshahn Descriptive Book. The Stranger follows Saavedro through several Ages (which were used to train Sirrus and Achenar in the art of writing Ages), before finally recovering the book. Ten years later, Atrus asks for the Stranger's help in determining if his sons have repented after their lengthy imprisonment; the Stranger saves Yeesha from Sirrus' machinations, but Sirrus and a repentant Achenar are killed. D'ni is not fully restored until the creatures the D'ni enslaved, known as the Bahro, are freed.

Anyway, good stuff.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Ray BLK: Empress
* Miya Folick: Premonitions
* Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis
* Dawn Richard: New Breed
* Beirut: Gallipoli
Mick Jenkins: Pieces of a Man
Eli Keszler: Stadium
Makaya McCraven: Universal Beings
Ty Segall: Fudge Sandwich
David Crosby: Here If You Listen
Kelly Moran: Ultraviolet
Bill Ryder-Jones: Yawn
Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox: The Essentials 2
Objekt: Cocoon Crush
Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore: Ghost Forests
Rita Ora: Phoenix
Bryan Ferry: Bitter-Sweet
Meek Mill: Champions
Lubomyr Melnyk: Fallen Trees
21 Savage: I Am > I Was
Lorelle Meets the Obsolete: De Facto
Buke and Gase: Scholars
Swindle: No More Normal
TOY: Happy in the Hollow
Julia Kent: Temporal
William Tyler: Goes West
Swervedriver: Future Ruins
Blood Red Shoes: Get Tragic
AJ Tracey
Ladytron
The Long Ryders: Psychedelic Country Soul
Czarface / Ghostface Killah: Czarface Meets Ghostface

REJECTS:
Daughters: You Won't Get What You Want
The Struts: Young & Dangerous
Doug Paisley: Starter Home [NYIM]
Marianne Faithfull: Negative Capability [NYIM]
Lil Peep: Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 2
Muse: Simulation Theory
J Masics: Elastic Days
Mariah Carey: Caution
The Good, the Bad & the Queen: Merrie Land
Ryley Walker: The Lillywhite Sessions
Laibach: The Sound of Music
Alessia Cara: The Pains of Growing
Laura Gibson: Goners
Vera Sola: Shades [NYIM]
Angelo de Augustine: Tomb [NYIM]
Bad Bunny: X100 PRE
You Tell Me
The Delines: The Imperial [NYIM]
Joe Jackson: Fool
Steve Mason: About the Light
Lost Under Heaven: Love Hates What You Become
Pedro the Lion: Phoenix
Maggie Rogers: Heard It in a Past Life
Better Oblivion Community Center
Sarah Louise: Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars [NYIM]
Rival Sons: Feral Roots
White Lies: Five
Tiny Ruins: Olympic Girls [NYIM]
Rustin Man: Drift Code
Cherry Glazerr: Stuffed & Ready
Girlpool: What Chaos Is Imaginary
Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Smells Funny
Skinny Girl Diet: Ideal Woman
Yak: Pursuit of Momentary Happiness
HEALTH: Vol. 4- Slaves of Fear
Ariana Grande: thank u, next [NYIM]
Panda Bear: Buoys
Cass McCombs: Tip of the Sphere
Robert Ellis: Texas Piano Man
Perfect Son: Cast
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Signs
Piroshka: Brickbat
Hayes Carll: What It Is [NYIM]
Ry X: Unfurl
Yann Tiersen: ALL [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES
Piroshka "Village of the Damned" [Brickbat]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul (Philips 1967) [r]
Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA 1967) [hr]
Albert Ayler: Love Cry (Impulse! 1968) [hr]
Alice Coltrane: A Monastic Trio (Impulse! 1968) [r]
Big Brother & the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills (Columbia 1968) [-]

ARCHIVAL GRADE CHANGES
The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed (London 1969) [hr] -> [A+]

Please note that my Beach Boys discography has been updated to include the new releases from late last year. I skipped the collection of Beach Boys classics with new orchestral overdubs because I think it's just about the most idiotic thing I can imagine.