Sunday, October 31, 2010

3 Mustaphas 3: Soup of the Century (1990)



Let's get this out of the way: world music is not really a thing. Even the divisions of the term are too broad -- sure, you might say you dig African music, but of what region? What style? Groups that are billed as world music tend to be designed for those who like the idea but lack the patience required to actually learn anything about it. That's not meant as pejorative, but it's likely that those with a passion for non-AngloAmerican musics will be unimpressed with the result.

3 Mustaphas 3 is the kind of band that has a false "back story," the kind of band who gets a "grab bag" descriptor in most writeups. They get fawned over for writing Tejano songs with a klezmer bent, or country songs in Japanese about exotic food, Middle Eastern music played by dorky Britons. But this is eclecticism for its own sake and doesn't offer memorable enough creative elements of its own to be meaningful.

Most of the songs are either instrumental or sung in various other languages, which is a relief since the English lyrics are just the kind of precious "quirk" that Yonder Mountain String Band fans should enjoy. The biggest problem with the record, for me, is its production, which has all the arid cleanliness of the worst sonic advancements of its time; I'm not a "warmth" obsessive but the music just sounds so digital, and it's not interesting enough to overcome that.

3 Mustaphas 3 often get credit from their cult for "blending" styles the way Asylum Street Spankers or Andrew Bird later would; I concede that the dated production is one of the elements that hurts this claim for me, but much more importantly, Soup of the Century feels like a sampler of what sorts of music from all over the world, Scotland to Greece to Mexico to Bostwana, fuse well together in their core form. I fail to see where the bent that would give these fusions an identity appears, but maybe I just need to learn a few more languages and to accept unrelenting goofiness as a match for expert musicianship, which I have a hard time with. (I mean, isn't any musical genre at its best when it illustrates complex emotion instead of functioning for its own sake to impress someone? I digress.)

I do really like the song title "This City Is Very Exciting!" but regardless, this one's going in the reject pile.

[Editorial Note: This will be the last "archival" review for several weeks. I have a ginormous backlog of new albums I want to listen to and write up, and if I'm to get them finished by the end of the year I must buckle down. Thus, for the time being, this weblog will be reviewing 2010 releases only. Sometime in December we will return to the regular pattern of a new album followed swiftly by an old one.]

Friday, October 29, 2010

Best Coast: Crazy for You (2010)

(Mexican Summer)


Bethany Cosentino's songs are dynamite, upgrading the tremendous shimmer, largeness, and beauty of Phil Spector and the girl groups to the era of high fuzz and low fidelity, augmenting songs in the style of the Ronettes and the Shirelles with blazing, distorted guitars and an incessant, stoked California buzz. Within modest means, she evokes the biggest, most powerful primary-color ideas in pop music, thereby offering shorthand for how the creation of rock & roll has refined itself in the last forty years. Indeed, with nothing but the most miniscule push from her tiny label, Cosentino's debut album with her band Best Coast entered the top forty. Unfortunately, these ingratiating, deightful songs backdrop some of the laziest, most anonymous vocals and juvenile lyrics I can recall.

Crazy for You comes throttling out of the gate with the in-most-ways-incredible "Boyfriend"; above a circus of gloriously backward-looking noises, Cosentino pulls out a perfect Ronnie Spector inflection (which is the most expressive her voice ever gets) as she announces her intentions to shove aside the other, skinnier girl with "the college degree." Elsewhere, she is adept at channeling circa-1963 Beach Boys ("Summer Mood") only with abrasive vocals that cross the unemotive intensity of Nico with the casual machismo of Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry (sans irony); the classic echo-ridden Wall of Sound on "Our Deal"; the chunky, sensual, deceptively simple lurching of the best and most dramatic surf music on "I Want To," which builds to masterfully schlocky teenage symphony; "Honey" moves toward the tricky hooks and adventurous texture of the Barracudas or Pixies; and "Happy" is a semi-successful stab at crackhead Dion. If you are any kind of a '60s-phile, chances are you will find plenty to love here; the tracks like "When the Sun Don't Shine" that are actually simple to the point of stupid tend to be the exception, although the classic riff on "Bratty B" can't really compensate for the feeling that it's being presented by little teenage emo girls in a band formed specifically to sing about replacing some jerk ex-boyfriend's t-shirt.

So let me preface this by saying that this is exactly the kind of music I love; therefore, the extent to which I'm troubled by the words is a testament to how awful they are. Cosentino is receiving more attention than any female performer in recent indie-rock memory, and is doing so with songs that are, nearly without exception, about "boys." The supreme nature and immense complication of boys when they are in her life, the desperate yearning for boys when they're not, the pall that a lack of a boy casts over all other elements of life, and generally a horizon that goes no farther than boys and the many things they have to offer, beginning and not ending with the tuneful feedback-alongs they inspire. And pretty much, boys.

You might wonder how this is different from the majority of pop music; isn't it all about the quest to get into a romantic entanglement and the lamenting of the condition of said entanglements? Well, okay, here are a few choice sentiments, across songs that are really a half hour's worth of variations on a theme: "There's nothing worse than sitting all alone waiting by the phone" ("Boyfriend"); "Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Crazy for you, baby" ("Crazy for You"); "How you / How you / How you'd be home soon / How you [...] He was / He was nice and cute / But he / He wasn't you" ("The End"); "I wish my cat could talk [...] Nothing makes me happy / Not even TV and a bunch of weed" ("Goodbye"); "I want to talk / About my day / It really sucked" ("Bratty B"); "All I do is think about you / Ooh-ooh la-la-la-la" ("Each and Every Day"). And in the record's best song, actually a "bonus track" apparently, the incredibly persuasive girl-group ripoff "When I'm with You," she hates, hates, hates sleeping alone and remembers how her mom told her there'd be boys like you. Yikes. The lyrics consistently lack any irony or sense of enigma; there's nothing there beyond the explicit. No problem with naked emotion on this end, except there's naked emotion (assuming none of this is market-embracing fakery) and then there's naked emotion unfiltered through any lyricism and artistic restraint.

Still, is this any worse than the lyrics Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, the Shangri-Las, etc. were forced to sing? Probably not, but Cosentino is not Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love. She hasn't even a fraction of their vocal skill or nuance, that which would be required to elevate the banalities of vastly projected personal emotions to something trascendent, idiosyncratic, moving. If anything, her closest ancestor is Stephen Malkmus, who as a diehard Pavement fan I'm willing to call a (deliberately) lazy singer. Malkmus also wrote some of the most confoundingly brilliant, witty, surrealistic lyrics in rock history. He did not sing about how empty his bed felt without a girl -- a valid sentiment, but an entire album centered around it by Malkmus or virtually any man would strike me as impossibly creepy. But equal opportunity is my aim, for I think Consentino comes off as a fucking codependent creeper too.

Throughout Crazy for You, the creeper's voice floats loudly above everything else, to the point that it makes it impossible to ignore for the discerning among us who'd be happy with this album for its production and performances alone. The lyrics are too much to get past. I hate sleeping alone, too, and everyone has the inalienable right to that emotion at some time in their lives. Lord knows that a person's actual instability is more telling than a behind-the-scenes producer's interpretation of female insecurities, but freeing them of any artful abstraction perversely renders them difficult to relate to, however universal their crux may be. I loathe the widespread media discomfort with women who display lustiness, crushiness, sexuality the same way men are expected to. In Bringing Up Baby, a film hardly from the age of women's lib, Katharine Hepburn doggedly pursues (and thoroughly controls) Cary Grant -- not a real-life scenario, but as wonderful and appealing a fantasy as any male-centric sci-fi world of buxom ladies. Lovelorn feelings, emotional loss and neediness and insecurity at the loss or lack of a mate -- these things don't define us, hopefully, but they do chase most of us at one time or another.

And I love hearing them expressed eloquently in pop music. You know who does that? Lots of people, but one female performer who comes to mind who released an album in 2010 that is exceptional and didn't get a shred of the attention afforded Crazy for You is Josephine Olausson, lead singer and keyboardist of Sweden's tremendous Love Is All. Olausson is an avowed Best Coast fan, to be fair, but the difference between her detailed, impassioned "A Side in a Bed" ("I want a seat by a table [...] I want a place in somebody's head / I Want my head resting on a lap / I want dirty dishes for two [...] I want to be somebody's favorite") and Best Coast's "Boyfriend" ("One day I'll make him mine / And we'll be together all the time / We'll sit and watch the sun rise / And gaze into each other's eyes / And know that he knows / That he wants to be my boyfriend") is like the difference between an E.E. Cummings poem and a Facebook love note. Criminally, Olausson's words are much more difficult to hear, but it's OK because her singing has, you know, character. I'd so much rather the alienated young folks (and blog buzz) attached themselves to Love Is All, or Janelle Monáe, or Alice freaking Glass, or -- going back to the more established world, because why not? -- Joanna Newsom, or Leslie Feist, or Jenny Lewis, or Neko Case, or Cat Power, or etc etc etc etc etc. You can debate the merits of all of the above, fine, but you have to admit that none of them could be mistaken for a third-hand media-savvy creation like Avril Lavigne ("Don't pretend, I think you know / I'm damn precious / And hell yeah / I'm the motherfuckin' princess / I can tell you like me too / And you know I'm right"). The most generic manufacturing is sometimes easily mistaken for the nakedest, least crafted feeling, lest we forget.

As you've likely deduced, that "recommended" tag up there is against all of my better judgment, because honestly Cosentino is existing in the groove of my life here -- I connect so strongly with the music she's copying that I can't help but get a thrill from her aping and slight repositioning of it. She deserves accolades for her economy, too; the whole mess runs barely thirty minutes, and only one track (one of the best, too, "Honey") exceeds three. Besides, according to a comment on the page for "Boyfriend," "i love this song not only because its really good but also because it explains how girls feel about their guy friends sometimes." How can I argue with that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)



It's kind of a miracle that hip cachet has remained with this album after all this time; the knee-jerk reaction to it in 1967 seems like it would be identical today. What kind of wankers put out a record with a shitty conceptual "pop art" cover like this? And oh god, liner notes describing "happenings" and all that nonsense, photos of the band in these nonchalant poses with sunglasses. And they have a "chanteuse." How, one might wonder, is it any different from a thousand other low-tier psych-rock bands of the period?

But psych-rock is a red herring here, and so is 1967. This album was recorded and should have been released a year earlier, in which case it would be not just an alternative landmark but an earth-shakingly innovative effort. By '67, the rock world hadn't caught up, but it was inches closer. Not the band's fault. Still, there's that damned cover. Andy Warhol was a showman who doesn't seem suited for rock & roll; is it likely he was a supporter of the Velvets' aesthetic? The Velvet Underground's separation from the peers and the places where they stood by the late '60s was their dogged belief in rock & roll as originally conceived. Warhol probably saw the VU as a vehicle, a representation for his own notions of popular music, a channel for his ideas more than a sovereign entity? But luckily, they weren't having it, album cover aside. And without Warhol, they might have floundered as perpetual NYC garage secret for all eternity.

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the event that gave rise to this infamous collaboration, is the best idea Warhol ever had. Commanding and unrelenting, loud and unforgiving and demonic, it shattered the audience by removing all familiarity and placing the room in an apocalyptic (and artless) state. The band and dancers played on a stage with Warhol's goofy, disorienting films playing behind them. Sometimes a woman would jump out into the audience and scream unsettling questions ("DOES HE EAT YOU OUT?") at random people. Of course much of the crowd would be annoyed by the whole business, a few people would actually be disturbed, and some would take it all in, hypnotized. That's one form of rock & roll, but the soul of the Velvets is prefaced most obviously by a man whose world seems thoroughly divorced from the surrealistic pretensions of the EPI: Chuck Berry.

Berry is the man who first fused literary ambitions, poetry and eloquence, with fuzzy, clanging guitar. The Velvet Underground simply plugged the idea in and kept pushing it until it exploded. Warhol wanted them to be pure "threat," and theirs were hardly the most inviting sound, but it hid nuance, sophistication, cleverness beyond what the Doors and the Airplane would be offering in the next four years. The screeching viola, the feedback, the ritualistic drums gave them their signatures and their eclecticism, but what made the Velvets a touchstone was their restlessness, their intelligence, their committment to the rawest, basest rock & roll, and most of all, the songs. The strongest sampler is this, their debut album; for all its flaws (it is the least satisfying of their four original LPs), it presents the ideal Velvet manifesto. Hear it in mono if you can. The stereo version isn't awful but is poorly engineered compared to the appealingly frayed sound of the mono mix, which is now widely available so there's no reason you can't reach it.

You can hear the entire album in one of its songs. "Heroin," more than likely the most potent anti-drug song to come from any rock performer, is violently manipulative and teasing, opening as a somber funeral march with desperate crooning of stunningly felt addiction-psychodrama lyrics by Lou Reed. Then the pounding picks up, the words' connection to reality blurs and weakens, the intensity builds and falls and builds and within seven minutes the whole foundation collapses and bursts. The fine, bluesy rockers of Side One had to come before "Heroin" or else they would seem inconsequential. As it stands, both are part of a prelude to a harrowing drama: Reed's streetwise confidence, so fragile and tattered on "Heroin," is in full swing on "I'm Waiting for the Man" (about scoring dope in Harlem) and "Run Run Run" (a fast-paced illustration and lament of alleyway oddballs from Seasick Sara to Beardless Harry).

Generally, the gentleness or abrasiveness is more focused than on "Heroin." At the core, the Velvet Underground is almost from the Phil Spector school of songwriting, paranoid documents like "Sunday Morning" swooning with melody. "There She Goes Again," copping its riff from Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike," doesn't bother to hide the debut: it's a blatant girl group song, a compelling, harsh essay on boy/girl love, need, hate, and violence. Musically, the Velvets aim for the jugular, their antecedents obvious, but their obsession with going farther than is expected in the rock & roll framework is both their innovation and their portrait of where a more conscientious, artful base of mainstream performers may have taken the genre: the band's comprehension that the limits to their music exist for a specific reason, and limits to the subject matter and nature of their lyrics are baseless, is the reason they are considered pioneers. But they're impressive today because their focus was so easy to corrupt, their sound so formless and mutant; what's scary is that the softest songs are tied up in a feedback-ridden package that oozes with lust but also reels you in with hooks and choruses and guitars worthy of the Beatles or the Byrds. The Velvets are those bands plus the Who (times a thousand), the Stones, Berry, and Bo Diddley all rolled into one mammoth force. Sonically, there is no avoiding them. You hear them and it will affect you somehow.

The band's musical prowess is a part of this feat -- Reed and Sterling Morrison's maverick guitar work, John Cale's wild bass playing and wilder viola stabs, and more than anything Maureen Tucker's crazed, precise but manic drumming. When Tucker is behind the kit you don't know whether to dance, run away, march, or fire your rifle -- but the biggest credit goes to Lou as a songwriter. He was and remains a remarkable creature, for certain one of the all-time best and most cerebral lyricists in rock music. The S&M fantasy in "Venus in Furs," the bizarre imagery of "The Black Angel's Death Song," and particularly the bracing complexity of "Heroin" and equally bracing simplicity of "Femme Fatale," skirt clichés with glee and aplomb, and Reed -- an underrated, masterful rock vocalist -- sings most of them with a palpable joy that he's doing his best, and failing, to hide behind the shades.

Hidden beneath the menacing aural stomp of "Venus in Furs" is a song of delicate beauty and undeniably sexual power. Restraint never being the band's strong suit, the production pushes it beyond subtlety into a universe where the viola is a symbol of evil. Remove either the dirty but ornate production or the sensual melody and you'd have something nice, but it would not be the Velevt Underground. And of course the aforementioned "Sunday Morning," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Run Run Run," "There She Goes Again" -- all seeming like the closest the '60s offered to the primal pleasures and raw emotion of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, met with a forward-thinking ambition and crucial false ambivalence. That's called "attitude." The Velvets were the heirs to rock & roll, not to "art rock," a fact which may have made their cutting of ties with Warhol inevitable.

Warhol had time to slap his name on this album and force the band to take in a German chanteuse he fancied, Nico, famous for her modeling and a walk-on in La Dolce Vita -- everything but her voice. Whatever the band's feelings about her, her legend was forever fused with theirs by this record and its preceding singles, both of which featured her prominently on the A-side. Nico was foisted on the VU and was not the ideal method of expression for some of Lou's songs, at least "Femme Fatale," on which she reportedly wanted to sound "like Baab Dee-lan" but never quite came off, but there is a strange, baroque perfection to her involvement here. (And her accidental music career would prove fruitful in the years following her departure from the Velvets' camp.) The creeping, smirking classic "All Tomorrow's Parties" -- a distinctly '60s masterpiece if ever there was one -- is impossible to imagine without her.

The other two Nico songs are more of the instantaneous standards Reed was capable of churning out with startling speed. "Femme Fatale" is a song that could only have been written out of immense hatred and bitterness, "I'll Be Your Mirror" a love song that could not possibly come from the mind of a man who didn't mean it. These are two of the most sincere testaments in pop music history, the latter among the most beautiful love songs of the rock era; when Reed sings them on Live at Max's and other stage recordings, you feel his attachment to the words and melodies. Nico sounds appreciably sincere on "Mirror" but botches "Fatale," and yet the songs are so strong it scarcely matters.

As a statement of purpose, The Velvet Underground & Nico tries a bit too hard to be different, but this was a point worth pursuing to establish a foothold in the then-highly competitive rock marketplace. They didn't make it, but in the hearts of those who discovered them in time, the Velvet Underground reignited the garage band as the American ideal; by crafting literate, unrestrained, maxed-out rock & roll, they by default became the greatest in their field. And they'd only get better after this, freed from the limits of the Warhol camp.

To boot, they would learn more about themselves. The loud, repetitive, long closing track "European Son" is manufactured insanity, with a great riff but a sense of tight, canned routine in its attempted wild shapelessness. As an avant garde experiment, it's not nearly as shocking as intended, as Cale himself would later point out -- just tame and contrived. One doesn't doubt that the band could infuse these creative urges with the same conviction that lighted the hummable pop tunes of this LP, and of course they'd prove it soon enough across three of the most wildly wonderful and smart albums in rock & roll. But every extremity is explored in some sense here, and it's unbeatable as a starting point in an appreciation of one of the maverick forces in U.S. rock.

[Editorial Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003.]

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010)



Now that the Mountain Goats are a capitalized Big Deal, it's hard to remember a time when a John Darnielle song with a complex, full-band arrangement was an unprecedented event. But back in 2002 when he and his school friend Franklin Bruno released Martial Arts Weekend as the Extra Glenns, it was a jarring deviation from the norm of Darnielle's home recorded tapes of legend, on which he shouted to be heard over the hiss. The Glenns' album sounded restrained, professional, even slick at times; it also had the immediacy and precision of real collaboration, met with the depth and nuance of Darnielle's usual songwriting. One can't really know if this was the beginning of the shift that would create Tallhassee, The Sunset Tree, and Darnielle's other subsquent releases, but it definitely comes off that way.

These days, Goats records are far more intricate than they were ten years ago; last year's The Life of the World to Come was a moody, complex conceptual piece, its songs far more carefully crafted than one once would have expected from Darnielle's frontier cassette recorder days. Not only is this a mark of a change in his interests, it's a reflection of the fact that the Mountain Goats are now an actual band -- and to boot, albeit unofficially, Bruno is a part of it on most studio and live performances. As such, the difference between the Extra Glenns and the Mountain Goats seems suddenly as hard to define as the difference between the 6ths, the Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, and the Magnetic Fields.

Oh, and they've also signed to Merge Records and lost two letters for unknown reasons (Darnielle claims that they "rotted") to become the Extra Lens. But Martial Arts Weekend is such a consistently pleasurable, touching album that one can't help but greet the semi-revival of the name with excitement. The result, Undercard, is unsurprising; viewed in the context of its predecessor, it's a slight scaling back of arrangements and immediacy. Viewed in the context of the Mountain Goats, it's pretty much a Mountain Goats album, a mild step back from the bold, lyrical, thematically driven Life of the World to Come and back into Darnielle's land of brief, stabbing character portraits.

It was once said (by Bruno, I believe) that an Extra Glenns song was a Mountain Goats song with more than two chords. Now that a Mountain Goats song with more than two chords is, well, a Mountain Goats song, the side-projecty Extra Lens name mostly allows Darnielle to loosen up a bit in the vein of his earlier work and even sing a song or two he didn't write -- in this case, Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War." Bruno's songs (one of which, "Some Other Way," has Darnielle threatening suicide for an ex-lover's sake in a tale that could easily be mistaken for pre-2002 Mountain Goats), melodic contributions and arrangements gel perfectly with Darnielle's sensibilities -- almost too perfectly to make a distinction. Only three songs here seem to be in a significantly different league than the stuff Darnielle's been doing with the Goats for the last four or five years. The Newman cover is the most obvious, banking on the M-agery with stark, eerie production and hushed vocals that seem to take a macabre thrill in the subject matter. Disregarding the chirpy singing, the financial crisis jam "Rockin' Rockin' Twilight of the Gods" is dangerously close to commercial alternative rock -- clipped, hook-filled, and quite entertaining, although it embodies some of Darnielle's most pedestrian, bizarre lyrics. The album's final cut, "Dogs of Clinic 17" -- one of several tracks with heavy prison imagery -- comes off like some intellectual deconstruction of riff-rock, the guitars clean and dry, the notes of discordance rare.

But even though a couple of the best tracks here were fully composed by his bandmate, you came for the new John Darnielle songs more than you probably came to hear what Frank Bruno's up to (sorry, Mr. Bruno, no offense), and you're unlikely to be let down. Here he is on "Only Existing Footage" connecting dots with a truckload of filmmaking trials and metaphors ("Lousy continuity, the coats won't match from shot to shot"); wandering a lonely netherworld of canned foods and cell phones on "Programmed Cell Death" ("I wore my suit from Hong Kong to the store tonight / 'Cause it fits me just right"); here he is on "Cruiserweights" boxing for his life ("Take a couple of shots right to the liver / Then remember what the food was like in prison"); and on "Ambivalent Landscape Z," here he is taking Lennonesque pleasure in turning a fallout shelter into "a shelter to fall out in." One of the strongest moments is the vague, powerful "Tug on the Line," a wispy, nearly inaudible ballad of a family fishing trip which yields some triumph or grotesquerie, it's hard to tell which, the stricken shorthand note of a rapid coming-of-age expressed more beautifully than in a hundred young adult novels. As ever, Darnielle's gravest minimalisms reveal his true literary brilliance -- and what nails it is his attention to detail. These songs in particular are almost nothing but detail, which makes them all the more affecting (and fascinating).

Two of my three favorite tracks here -- the other one is Franklin Bruno's "Communicating Doors" ("I know people who dig up graves just to label the bones"), chiefly because it carries one of the loveliest, most lilting melodies Darnielle has yet to sing -- come in flash-fiction bursts that reveal and tell a staggering, enticing, please-go-on amount, each in less than two minutes. The opening guitar burst "Adultery" captures rapid fire Polaroid photos to back up its title ("I'm standing in the same spot where your husband stood"), while Bruno's unforgettable, shattering "How I Left the Ministry" carries a similar tale (the same tale?) to its inevitably tragic, tremendous conclusion: a heart she draws on his leg with her finger as he drives ("My god, what an infantile gesture... my god, what an indescribable high") distracts him enough to forget where the brakes are located. The song cuts to black just before the payoff, leaving us reeling; I almost wish it were positioned as the finale here.

Even if this isn't the revelation Martial Arts Weekend was, it's a model of the increasingly underrated virtue of consistency. I don't know that all the compartmentalization is necessary, though; I have the slightest instinct that his current Mountain Goats records, great as they are, could use a bit of the levity evidenced here. And I wouldn't mind if John Darnielle covered a song more than once a decade, even if "In Germany Before the War" isn't as stunning as the Glenns' take on Leonard Cohen's "Memories." But all this griping is just minor on the face of this formidable gift for storytelling and musical illustration, a gift that continues to serve him and his audience marvelously, as I'm sure it will for years to come.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Oasis: The Early Years (1992-95)


Forgetting for a moment that you think Noel and Liam Gallagher are wankers, what was Oasis exactly? Some say charlatans or ripoff artists, but I say masters of muscular, anthemic pure pop music. The reason I care about an unauthorized recording of their demos circa 1992 is that I believe in what Oasis was founded to put across: meaty, hook-filled, uncomplicated rock & roll with a highly melodic streak, configured for mass appeal. And to hear how they arrived at the formula that crafted a short-lived streak of unpretentious mastery is, for me as a pop fan, irresistible.

With that said, this is of more interest as a portrait of band's creation than it is as acttual pleasure, particularly since much of it predates Noel Gallagher's emergence as a compelling songwriter. The recording is presented in three stages -- we begin with a low-quality, decently performed demo, not the famous one that got them signed to Creation Records a bit later, but a roughshod one consisting of songs that the band did not rework. These are very much of their time, somewhere between imitation-shoegaze and high school garage band punk. The songs are competent enough, but generic; the opening track, "Colour My Life," sets the stage. There are no Gallagher hooks, and Noel's lyrics ("My shapes of confusion dig holes of frustration") are worthless, his voice unsuited to the material.

"Take Me" is a slight improvement with Liam taking the reins, his quaint arrogance already bleeding through. The song is built on giants of the period (Nirvana, Pixies, Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Catherine Wheel, etc.); it doesn't sound much like Oasis. These tracks are harder, sludgier, more lo-fi than what the band's known for (on "See the Sun," they could pass for big dumb stoner rock), and this isn't where their abilites lay.

After the outlier of the riff-oriented "Snakebite," two songs give some clue to the sound Oasis would soon establish. "Must Be the Music" and "Better Let You Know," though the former has more than a shade of Golden Earring, provides some evidence of the germ that would -- astonishingly soon -- develop into "Cigarettes and Alcohol" and "Live Forever." What's odd is that the supreme confidence with which Liam's often excruciating voice would soon be presented to the world has yet to appear at this stage. His vocals are buried on one, distorted beyond recognition on the other, precisely the sort of hemming and hawing that the band at their height would adamantly oppose.

The second stage of the disc isn't nearly as interesting or listenable. It consists of several live cuts, some of them duplicates of the demos. Liam is insufferable here, apparently not yet familiar with his own vocal limitations. The acoustic horror "Live in Vain" smacks of someone's first pass at songwriting, and was rightly left buried; by bursting out of the gate with the songs and LP they produced in 1994, Oasis erased all memory of nonsense like this. I do confess an instant soft spot for "I'll Show You," which sounds like classic late '80s jangle pop, only with -- alas -- obnoxious fucking vocals. The live set closes out with a couple of unlabeled fragments that sound like a John Mellencamp rehearsal, plus an endless instrumental take on "Fade Away" to which I have yet to manage a complete listen. Go ahead, try it.

By default and a longshot, the third and final portion of this collection is the best, but also has the least to do with the rest -- not to mention its very title. The three closing tracks are a Noel solo acoustic performance from the mid-'90s (not "early" by any stretch), after the band had been well-established. It does provide an interesting contrast and reminder of where all this mess was heading, which can lend a bit of much-needed magic to the muddy inconsequentials that make up the bulk of the disc. They also prove that Noel is many times the singer Liam is. Liam may know his way around a hook, but Noel wrings unheard-of emotion from these songs. I'd actually forgotten how wonderful "Cast No Shadow" was until hearing this version; fans won't be surprised by the loveliness of the stripped-down "Don't Look Back in Anger" (tied with "Live Forever," in my opinion, as Oasis' finest song) or "Wonderwall," but I found the indisputable evolutionary evidence a treat.

So the actual Early Years material you only need if you're an obsessive, but anyone who loves a fine melody beautifully presented needs these Noel Gallagher acoustic cuts. Perhaps a one-man tour is in the cards? I'm there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010)

(New West)

For me, Old 97's are on a level with Radiohead, Pavement, and the Magnetic Fields as just about the best rock band to emerge in the '90s (and yes, I am aware Stephin Merritt would oppose his characterization as being part of a "rock band"). Heartfelt, angry, country-tinged romanticists, these Texas boys have all the sky-gazing conviction of purest, basest '50s rock & roll, all the crazed abandon of the Replacements, and all the detailed storytelling prowess of the Kinks or Neil Young. Rhett Miller's heartbreak is as real and vividly expressed as Smokey Robinson's, his put-upon wit as sharp as Neil Tennant's. They are, in short, everything you ought to want. And in 2010, they are starting to come off as tired.

It hurts me to say some of this about a band I admire so deeply, a band I've plugged incessantly for years, a band whose records I want everyone to buy, this one included, just so they'll know people care. Let me express quickly that they have not released a bad album here; if I was unfamiliar with their older work, I might actually love it. Their arrangements, writing, and performances are as tight as ever, if maybe a bit less impassioned. And these guys are S-M-A-R-T, I'd argue as smart as any of the other three I named in the first line as their '90s equals, and in my opinion smarter than at least one of them (which I won't name). Any sound or quirk or ambiguity you hear in the emotion or structure of a record, they probably put there on purpose. If they sound weary, it's likely because they mean to. But I'm going to risk coming off like an asshole and give my version of why I feel they're losing me a bit.

Old 97's are an exception to a lot of rules. They were the best band in their given subgenre but they did not turn out to be the most successful, or even widely successful at all, remaining a just-under-the-radar cult band that, in the pre-Internet days, would've been on a level of national acclaim and public indifference with the Replacements; and in the pre-fanzine world, on a level of complete unjust anonymity with Big Star. Most importantly, they've spent most of their career as an indie rock band but recorded their three best albums for a major label, Elektra, which signed them in the heat of a curious notion that Alt-Country was destined to become the next Grunge.

The albums before the Elektra contract -- Hitchhike to Rhome and Wreck Your Life -- have a number of classics, as do the albums since: Drag It Up, Blame It on Gravity (a mood piece I spent a lot of time defending), and now The Grand Theatre, Volume One, first half of a projected double. But the grand statements come in larger sizes on the three major LPs: Too Far to Care (raw, youthful, manic depressive), Fight Songs (confident, alternative, manic depressive), and Satellite Rides (grandly written, power poppy, manic depressive). The Elektra albums plotted the band on a gradual trend from drunken-on-late-night-possibilities Texas twang to expertly crafted, multilayered, gently emotional pop music. Most importantly, there's something imperceptibly wonderful about listening to those three records; they're alive, evocative, and full of gifts.

The chief problem with Old 97's in their post-major period has seemingly been a reluctance to give in to evolution; each of the first five albums was markedly different than everything before it, showing off growth and experimentation. As performers, the 97's still seem like kings; few reports from their concerts are not ecstastic. As songwriters, Rhett plus his gifted cohorts (Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, Phillip Peeples) have never stopped bringing it; Drag It Up and BIOG only felt like letdowns for what seemed like a tiresome insistency about the idea of "going back" to the band's roots and "recapturing" the intensity of Too Far to Care. A central problem I can't imagine these guys aren't aware of is that "recapturing" anything is diametrically opposed to what works in rock & roll.

So it is with Grand Theatre: advance publicity hypes the ambition to rechannel The Urgency of classic Old 97's, all the same stuff advance publicity hyped last time. Critical reviews have it as the best thing they've done it years, just like reviews last time (when do these "years" begin and end, one wonders?), and cultists decry that it's not country enough, which is what they've been prattling on uselessly about since 1999. Listening to the album offers an experience that none of these reactions suggest: familiarity. The songs are Old 97's songs, their composition and production vividly tailored to generate memories of (or ape) this or that classic of their catalog, but barely any of them sound new. The ones that do seem suggestive, much like the best songs on BIOG and especially Drag It Up, of a capability for stronger material that the band still possesses but that they're reluctant, for whatever reason, to exploit, too determined to (or stuck on?) being what people what them to be, and not necessarily pulling that off either. The record becomes a compromise that will please few people who actually love the band, and which I'm reluctant to believe pleases the band either.

The economy for a rock band approaching the start of its third decade being what it is, I'm worried that they've grown afraid of taking risks; I'd have expected they were too smart to fall into that, but I'd have expected the same of lots of bands it's happened to. Much of the new album sounds like a set of examples of what they believe Old 97's are "supposed" to sound like. "The Magician" is a middle-tier song but it's made up and flaunted like it's "If My Heart Was a Car," which crushes it under the weight of trying too hard. The enthusiastic manufactured-show-stopper "A State of Texas," which is a dead ringer for "Timebomb," is a catalog of alt-country clichés: "I'm living in a state of Texas / And Texas lives in me."

There's nothing actually wrong with sticking to a signature sound; Rhett has two excellent songs here, his best in some time, that are instant classics and both could be on any prior Old 97's full-length. "Let the Whisky Take the Reins" is delicate, instantaneously affecting lonesome country -- hoarsely sung and self-deprecating but convincingly outlaw: the lament of the badass male hero who knows he's fucked up. Nearly as strong: "The Beauty Marks," a hushed, trippy widescreen drama that could've fit on the soundtrack to The Last Picture Show. Both songs are whispered, as fragile as the best song of the band's post-major period, "In the Satellite Rides a Star." The key is that these are unforced; they don't tread new ground for the group, but they feel natural and organic.

It's a mistake to overlook the willingness to expand that still remains here. Unfortunately, sometimes the band's forward pole-vaults lead them in a direction that simply doesn't suit them. This record's sole absolute dud is the lusty stalker-shuffle "The Dance Class," which comes off like a really bad musical number wedged into the movie Talk to Her. Other problems could have been repaired neatly with a few extra rewrites (not rehearsals, which they still don't need): "Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)" finds the band doing a respectable job of cutting loose on the pop sound, but the lyrics are terrible ("I was dumb as a rock / I could not read a clock"), thus short-circuiting part of the appeal of their finest moments. The nearly great "Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving" opens as routine road-movie music then falls into a delightfully tricky, memorable Eddie Cochran-quoting interlude that leaves the rest of the song far behind, gasping for air.

As ever, bassist and secondary vocalist Murry Hammond can be counted on as a consistent joy, whatever the rest of a given album is like. "You Were Born to Be in Battle" is a surprisingly convincing Johnny Cash imitation, marred only by a rote Tex-Mex arrangement lacking the emotional depth of Hammond's best cuts. But (not for the first time), he also contributes the highlight of Volume One in the form of "You Smoke Too Much." The most distinctly "New" Old 97's track in some time, this slice of Lovin' Spoonful-ish pop heaven with twang is where I wish this band would let themselves go. Not that they'll ever read this, but please guys, more like this.

None of the other songs will surprise the longtime fan. The title track is a classic Rhett Miller singalong, in the vaguely menacing vein of "The New Kid," awkwardly pastiched with the band's mid-'90s sound. "Champaign, Illinois" is a (credited) Bob Dylan rewrite that will please alt-country obsessives. And "Love Is What You Are" is well-sung but boring balladry in the fashion of Miller's solo work. All of these songs came from the same sessions, and those produced much of what will be released as Vol. 2, with the result that it's difficult to discern what that record will be like. The band initially wanted a double album with twenty-odd tracks but thought better of it. Some are murmuring that such a configuration would have helped these songs, but I'm not so sure. The weakest cuts don't bother me so much as the mediocre ones like "A State of Texas," "Love Is What You Are," and "The Magician," and their problems are self-contained enough that even the mighty force of recontextualization wouldn't help them, unless -- I hasten to add -- I were a new fan unfamiliar with Too Far to Care, which might make the songs sound fresher.

The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2, despite the sequel-syndrome its title evokes, will be a crucial Old 97's record for me, as it's probably the one that will decide for me if I'm still going to follow their new records as devotedly as I have been. I wonder currently if the time's finally passed that they'll really be able to put out an artistically triumphant, impressive LP. It's been almost ten years, but songs like "You Smoke Too Much" and "The Beauty Marks" give me hope that these four heroes have more yet to prove to us, and that they've still got the fight in them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

101 Strings Orchestra: 20 Years of Beautiful Music (1969)



Easy listening has so many facets and applications now but it's never ceased to be a dirty word. With the sort of lite-jazz and adult contemporary material that currently pipes in to the discount stores and rest stops of the world, that makes sense. But what of Beautiful Music ("mood music" colloquially), the once-bustling radio format that started it all, a perverse space-age lite classical with lounge elements and considerable quirk, evocative of mythical early 1960s bachelor pads and chic parties, and with an impressive alt-pedigree -- it's one of the many key inspirations for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and its principles are not leagues apart from Brian Eno's ambient creations of the '70s and '80s.

As an example of what Beautiful Music has to offer, a lot of people will point you to the many 50-cent bin vinyl offerings of the Hollyridge Strings or the Mystic Moods Orchestra, or even the Jackie Gleason Presents series. Not this guy. Your money's well spent on any of the above; if you've got a taste for this stuff, you'll love them all. But along with Herb Alpert and Bert Kaempfert, 101 Strings are a cut above. Their arrangements will be indistinguishable from those others first, even to the Muzak aficionado, but there is some actual legitimate lounge in their catalog, particularly early on during their Latin/Mambo period. And the lush impersonality fades on many of their covers until a surprisingly adventurous layer of verve and swing appear. Their take on "Girl from Ipanema" is just about the best that exists; their "Moon River" is haunting, their "Music Box Dancer" destroys the hit, their "Scarborough Fayre" and "Call Me Irresponsible" are downright trippy.

And I'm not kidding, they deserve your attention beyond novelty; as an artistic figure, they have a certain mythic quality -- actually 125 strings, and existing in various parallel arrangements and nations, their brand stamp betrays a whimsy of purpose that often takes them in bizarre directions. Take their Play the Blues album, which finally answers the burning question of what raw B.B. King songs sound like with massive string arrangements behind them. Or the deservedly legendary exotica piece Songs of the Seasons of Japan. Or just listen to "Guantanamera," which has such lilt and bounce and boom it fits perfectly on a dance floor.

If debating the relative quality of five versions of "This Guy's in Love with You" and studying some of the most stunning art-deco LP covers of all time sounds like fun to you, and if maybe you have a jones for the saccharine kitsch of a good Jack Nitzsche or Percy Faith, perhaps you are an easy listening or Beautiful Music buff in the making. Few things are more fun (and cheap) to collect. Here's all you need to do: 1) Go to your library and check out (or go to your bookstore and buy) Joseph Lanza's Elevator Music, a definitive, fascinating look at the subject that you won't be able to put down -- one of the best books on pop music of any kind that I've read. 2) Go to your local goodwill or, preferably, record store and start digging through the cheap bins of the stuff nobody wants. The rule in kitsch, exotica, lounge, and easy listening is that the cooler and/or more offensively funny the cover is, the more you want the record. And it's fifty fucking cents (or less), for Chrissake. Just buy it. That's how you build a damn collection.

Beautiful Music hasn't really moved into the CD era, but the notoriously roughshod reissue company Madacy has brought out a lot of the 101 Strings material. And if you want a basic sampling of what this weird obsession is all about, you could do worse than picking up this CD, which is only about $5 at most places. Drawing mostly from late-'60s material (and very little from the more "legit" early records, which are far easier to track down on vinyl), it contains a few bits of Andrew Lloyd Weber nonsense, but the rest of it will brighten your evening. It's well-recorded, unbelievably lush and silly, and feels like a good frothy mixed drink. The weirdos and the old folks understand.

Great "Elvira Madigan Theme" on here too, by the way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (2010)



Reports indicate that seeing Belle & Sebastian on their current brief U.S. tour is a breathtaking experience, a communal participation in the pretty and the witty under the night sky that feels wonderful for all concerned, in a world that presently needs more wonderful satisfactions. If only they could stay over here longer. One interesting facet in the elation people are experiencing from these evenings is that they know and love all of the songs. Of course, you know all the songs at a Pixies or Pavement or Brian Wilson show, but what's different about this is the cozy but transcendent confidence of B&S's songs; they've always suggested time long past, and by (reportedly) only playing a couple of songs from their new album on this tour, they reinforce the celebration of living apart in one's own dusty, quiet universe.

That doesn't make them an oldies act. That only suggests a subservience to the stage, their surrender of exposing their new music to the larger scope of bringing their entire career to people who have rarely been able to see it performed. And yet, I can scarcely imagine a tour behind any of their last three albums that sidestepped much of the new material. Perhaps those seemed more immediate, perhaps they were just a bit stronger, but Write About Love, their seventh album, sounds like an extension of the same proto-nostalgia. Whereas their three full-length efforts of the 2000s brought them to new territory, eventually to actual power pop, Write About Love is more of a refinement, or a career summary, or even a reminder that the band still exists after a four-year hiatus.

Stuart Murdoch's songwriting hasn't flagged, but some element of his musical ambition seems to have calmed down since the last we heard from him. The majority of these songs could be on any of the records from the first half of the band's career, the chief difference being an integration of some of the production tricks and vocal expansions discovered in the years since. Only one of the songs is something for which I can't think of a predecessor in their catalog. That's the audacious beachball-juggling summer fun of "I'm Not Living in the Real World," which is utter bliss and opens up in a wild, unpolished manner that Murdoch's obsession with baroque minutiae seldom allows, less akin to the Beach Boys than the fucking Sunrays. I wouldn't mind a whole LP like it.

Nevertheless, the numbers are on their side; I count seven excellent songs out of eleven total. Full curtain opens on the beautiful, breathy vocals of Sarah Martin for the melodic light synthpop of "I Didn't See It Coming," continuing the gradual improvement in the songs not voiced by Murdoch. And as an opener, it grips immediately and properly anticipates the extra punch of "Come On Sister," Life Pursuit-like power pop elegantly bringing Holland-Dozier-Holland into the Information Age. Two perfect pop songs, momentum building, and then they have to go and crash us back to earth with "Calculating Bimbo."

This track is a good example to cite of why Belle & Sebastian aren't Lambchop -- why they're more popular and why their cult will never be quite as emotionally intense. It's beautiful music set against quirky intellectual trash-talk -- a joke that's become less funny over the years. I don't know if Scottish kids grow up with the same class-conscious inferiority complex that we hear so much about from England, but Murdoch at times comes off nearly embarrassed at his own gifts and cheapens them with the same awkward character studies that began creeping into Ray Davies' work around 1972. But the larger problem is that the song is just indistinct in style and production. Early in B&S's career, their crafting of mood was expert. It remains potent now, but I tend to wonder by this point if it's really necessary to add any more of these dirges to the catalog; that point was made years ago and they're better at different things now. The same criticisms apply to "Read the Blessed Pages" on the second half, here with Murdoch applying his cynicism to some sort of odd Behind the Music plotline, albeit with the intriguing twist that his timewarp has officially moved forward to the '70s and a solid Richard Thompson influence.

Elsewhere, though, Belle & Sebastian's fixation with '60s iconography and alt-'80s stylistics holds fast on this album; the strongest illustration is the ingratiating "I Want the World to Stop," as indebted to the New Romantic movement (Depeche Mode, A Flock of Seagulls, etc.) -- calling back to the Trevor Horn production on Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- as to the more obvious traces of Northern Soul girl-group pop. And it wouldn't be Belle & Sebastian if these hook-filled pastiches didn't ultimately carry a certain world-weary, wistful sadness. Elsewhere, the winning, immediately treasured title track perfectly conveys a modern day cynicism against a musical jumble of stuff likely blaring out of windows at Berkeley in the early Vietnam era, Simon & Garfunkel back to the Kinks back to Nico-period Velvets. "I Can See Your Future" calls back to the Turtles-like "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" on Life Pursuit but is just as good, just as sweet and instilling of sheer wide-eyed wonder. I'm more dubious on the keyboardy "Sunday's Pretty Icons," the brightest of the period-alternative lifts here. It sounds like it could've been a Modern Rock hit around 1993, slightly in the vein of the Cranberries, but like the Cranberries often were, it is seriously kind of annoying. I don't remember saying that about Belle & Sebastian before, but there it is.

The only other song here I initially cited as a dud was "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John," but the problem isn't really anything to do with the song. The melody is nice and the performance seems designed to evoke the country-edged singer-songwriters of the Nixon years; think Gram Parsons' albums with Emmylou Harris, or Richard & Linda Thompson, or even the Loretta Lynn albums from the period. But here's the clincher: To further this impression, they bring in Norah Jones and have her sing in an attempted Southern twang that sends the whole enterprise clattering down, in true what-the-hell-were-they-thinking fashion. Jones' voice hasn't ever really appealed to me anyway, but it doesn't fit here at all, and I can't help wanting to know why they didn't use Sarah Martin for her part. (Surely Norah Jones' commerical presence is no longer such that her credit will improve sales?) The song is good enough to mostly keep the bad feeling from bringing the album down as a whole.

Disregarding their likely discomfort about all that, it won't be difficult at all for a Belle & Sebastian fan to love this record, and it will certainly cause less backlash than the increasingly sunny pop of the last two did, but I hope we haven't heard the last of the Belle & Sebastian that was determined to change and alter its sound as the years went by. As solid as these songs are, I'm not overwhelmed with joy like I was by The Life Pursuit and Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Maybe it's the feeling that this is all sort of easy for them, or at least, easy for Stuart; is the "stretching" over? Or is the pulling back just reflective of Murdoch's detail-oriented perfectionism, meaning they just need time and they'll be thrilling again instead of merely great? Or is this all just, you know, the life cycle of a pop group? I don't want to sound ungrateful, because this record is full of songs I'll keep with me forever.

Besides, none of that applies to the true masterpiece of this album, a song nestled near the start of Side Two called "The Ghost of Rockschool." There's nothing immediately unusual about it, just Murdoch singing another lonely tune in his traditionally affected, dejectedly bouncy way. But as the song presses onward, that feeling of discovery appears and you start to hear the sort of aching melody and gorgeous arrangement made for those misty-eyed, deeply moving moments at future Belle & Sebastian shows. Or just future times alone with the song feeling every nook and cranny hidden in the witty words and vibrant music. And then you're more thankful than ever that they're still around and, damn everything, hope for a dozen more albums just like this one.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Mark Lewisohn's been working on a full-scale, immaculately detailed, three-volume biography of the Beatles for the last five or six years; it emerged this past week that he is currently "up to Hamburg." In other words, he's still chronologically three years away from the band's debut album. Such is the status of the Beatles that their first LP barely qualifies now as a beginning; the religious converts, which in this band's case encompass much of the mainstream music audience, know that so much of the story that would have permanent impact on millions of lives, four in particular, had already occurred by February 11, 1963, the date on which most of Please Please Me was laid down. Approaching this audio document as an opening, thus dismissing with the galvanizing places -- The Reeperbahn, Liverpool, Penny Lane, The Cavern, etc. -- and people -- Astrid Kirchher, Stuart Sutcliffe, Allan Williams, Pete Best, Tony Sheridan -- touched in the prior years, seems inherently false and inaccurate because of how much we've been conditioned to the Beatles' endlessly fascinating history.

To an extent, that's a good thing, but maybe we should scale back a bit and try to view Please Please Me from the perspective that is most relevant to the majority of us and our parents, maybe even grandparents. From the outside, there were no predecessors, no signals, no avant garde-bent crowds in Germany whispering that these boys were going somewhere, no girls screaming over their secret thrill at the Caven Club. In most of the UK as of March 1963, the Beatles were just a serviceable pop group who'd done their country proud with a big hit in the form of this record's title track, now followed by the inevitable Album of the Same Name, surely for the label to cash-in on the fast fade of the pop throne. If it was unusual to discover how much of the record consisted of original compositions (over half, although four of them had already been released as 45's), it was surely bracing to lay the heavy needle down and discover an explosion like this.

It was all different in the U.S., where American fans often grew up thinking of Meet the Beatles! -- mostly derived from the band's actual second album, With the Beatles -- as the initial bow. That's a thunderous record, sure, and deservedly celebrated, but to hear Please Please Me is to hear the full story of lightning striking out of a portrait of stately, respectable normalcy. Insanity met the Beatles when they landed in America, but in Great Britain, their prowess and success grew out of something like an actual Establishment, and that is what makes this album subversive.

Paul McCartney's barking count that opens "I Saw Her Standing There" could never be anything but the start of something huge. He roars through the first three lines of the song, accompanied by handclaps, John Lennon's smirking rhythm guitar and breakneck drumming from Ringo Starr, and twenty seconds in, something happens, a ruthless drum fill, and a sound that already threatened to make the rest of the world spontaneously combust becomes outrageous. The powerful, melodic bass line, the relentlessly rising melody, and robust, mischievous songcraft remain stunning, and in 1963 must have been a compelling indicator of how much different things were going to be with this band than all rock & roll prior.

But not the first. Greil Marcus has written that, in America, the Beatles made everything else on the radio in 1964 sound "faintly stupid." In terms of the UK's output of rock & roll, which ironically would soon be overflowing with innovation and talent, Please Please Me must have been even more of a bullet-force scream against the tedium. Of course they had antecedents; Buddy Holly is everywhere, Chuck Berry is nearly to the same extent (his "I'm Talking About You" is the source of the aforementioned powerful, melodic bass line), and the Everly Brothers serve as the clear inspiration for the song that made them a Force. But the first incarnation of the Beatles dates to the dawn of rock & roll; who was more equipped to further the invention than a creative entity that had existed from the beginning?

Discounting their work with Tony Sheridan in Germany, the Beatles' first commercial release was the Parlophone 45 "Love Me Do" b/w "P.S. I Love You." Both songs are included here, "Love Me Do" in a brighter alternate take with Andy White on drums (Ringo on tambourine). As infectious and funky as even this origin is, their second single "Please Please Me" is the one that sold the UK public on the Liverpudlians. The improvement is startling; it's largely sheer force, but also composition. Copping a lively "Cathy's Clown"-like arrangement but without the desperation, the song has size and swagger, and John Lennon's first released lead vocal already feels wonderfully lost in a moment. Even the clever, eloquently developed lyric is a vast leap forward. And the hooks are immersive -- who can deny the almost big band-like guitar lick after each line of the verse? "Last night I said these words to my girl..." badum badum badadadada. It's the first taste of Beatles magic.

Yet, that was the sound of the band putting on their best face for a new audience. The real identity of the group lies in the raw crunch and grind of "I Saw Her Standing There" and that direct-from-Hamburg drumfill and glide into the first chorus. That is undoctored, un-gentle rock & roll, the noise and product of working musicians, for whom this was actual l-i-f-e. From that second, the most intense, exciting debut album ever made refuses to let up. The band that cut its teeth on impossibly fierce audiences in Germany rips through fourteen songs -- a mixture of their originals and a delightful set of favorites -- as if they will never even wake up the next day to see what the future will bring. The future is just irrelevant here, and even forty years later, all you know with Please Please Me on the speakers is that it's not happening in 1963, it's happening now.

If With the Beatles is the album that exposes their intensity (as if this didn't do plenty of that), A Hard Day's Night is the birth of John Lennon the singer-songwriter genius, and Beatles for Sale the moody sound of maturing, Please Please Me is the inside-out exploration of the group's dynamic, and their arresting spontaneity. That an album recorded in the space of a few hours remains as remarkable as other Beatles LPs that were months in the making says enough about their effortless bombast, their assurance and their complete love for and devotion to what they did.

The personalities are already in place. Paul, with his eclectic bass playing lighting up the proceedings, is the gruff balladeer; his b-side "P.S. I Love You" slows down the album a bit and is the kind of thing they'd soon start leaving off their LPs, but he strains nowhere else. Even on the oddball version of "A Taste of Honey," his enthusiasm leaves the amusingly tired backing of the other ones in the dust. His vocal is mannered but impassioned, and the workmanlike performance only enhances the smoky jazz-club feeling conjured up by George Martin with crude but evocative echo. But only on "I Saw Her Standing There" does Paul really get to cut loose. It's new recruit Ringo Starr who gets the floor on the wildest, most unorthodox cut, the killer Shirelles cover "Boys," not so much homoerotic as simply a shockingly bold song for straight men to sing in 1963, which lends it a defiant liveliness today and provides a welcome glimpse at the juggernaut force of the Beatles as a live band in those days.

George Harrison is given the least inspiring numbers to sing, but they still work. "Chains" is an extremely, somewhat admirably obscure girl-group number, showing impeccable taste on the Beatles' part in niche product. John Lennon's "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is a sweeter, more personal number than it might initially seem -- based on childhood memories of a rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to which his late mother Julia took him -- but the Roy Orbison-like emotional drama of the intro and the carefully paced, playful chorus are slightly ill-suited to Harrison's voice, although the song was a big hit when inexplicably released as a single in America. The song itself is yet another early Lennon/McCartney triumph, the melody and chords sideways and intriguing, as they consistently would be in the first half of the band's Parlophone output. No matter anyway; Harrison's great shining achievement is that impossibly loud but infinitely heartfelt guitar solo on "Baby It's You," a perfect complement to an arresting love song.

Throughout the album and, in fact, particularly on "Secret," George Martin's attentive production is nothing but an asset... and not just for his lovely piano bit on "Misery." He seems to understand precisely what it is about the group that must be captured, and throws its emphasis to the forefront. Every note feels so convicted and undoctored that whether you listen to the mono (ideal) or stereo (better than reputed) mix, you feel as though you are in the studio. You can hear the walls and the ceiling and the floor and you can sense the pregnancy of the moment, that beginning suggested so eloquently by the opening "one, two, three, four!"

Even if Martin is owed a great deal for how he puts all this (and every subsequent Beatles record) together, and even if Paul McCartney is the most versatile band member at this stage in terms of his musicianship, John Lennon is the star of the album. His songwriting already displays a maturity and intelligence above and beyond his peers and even his idols, well before his discovery of Bob Dylan and well before rivals from Mick Jagger to Brian Wilson approached their peaks. Take "Ask Me Why," the most John-centric of the first four Beatles songs released. It's startlingly vulnerable, a more confessional piece of work than one could reasonably have expected from a rock & roller up to now; Orbison remains a key inspiration, but how much did even he look straight into his soul to his extent? I don't know many times Lennon sings "cry" here, but it's a lot, and when at one point his voice cracks under the weight of the word, it's as telling a microcosm of the seventeen years remaining in his professional career as could be devised.

There are several fine ballads on this record, some written by Beatles and some not, but "Misery" and "Ask Me Why" are a class apart. "Misery" is a compression and furthering of pop conventions dating back to before Lennon was born, beginning with an addictive hook and just bounding until it exhausts itself. It has a full but effortless sound, almost prototypical power pop. And "Ask Me Why" is John Lennon's idea of a slow burn; amidst vaguely jazzy chords and subtle but profoundingly expert writing, he lays it all out. The naked emotion and honest confusion of these lyrics is remarkable, and Lennon's enigma is in place from the beginning. He already seems so observant, angry, and vocal, like the kind of person you observe from a distance in a crowded room. His singing is dynamic, and on his numbers, even the (absolutely outstanding) Shirelles cover "Baby It's You," he seems to come from a different and separate, somehow more pained, place than the others, which only reinforces the power of the band behind him. He proves himself a master interpreter: "Anna" is a fine old Arthur Alexander obscurity, but John's pained, urgent vocals make it no one's but his own -- the pain belongs to him. All of the slow ones, but John's in particular, have a propulsion and sadness that never allows them to cloy. They sit comfortably alongside the rockers and even deepen and enhance them.

It's on the last two cuts, though, that Lennon truly makes his intentions known. "There's a Place" is the album's best original, and one of the finest songs of the early '60s. A case can easily be made that the Beatles and Lennon never actually topped this explosive cut, its message of insecurity and alienation so well-expressed so concisely. The band's precision is clean but unforced, and on a song this darkly universal, faintly hopeful, it's easy to see how they became so easily embraced as a generation's "voice," but perversely, the song's power today comes from its note of privacy and isolation (a sibling of sorts to the Beach Boys' "In My Room"). It is innovative both for its unstoppable, loud exuberance and for its deeply introspective lyric, and particularly for the fact that the two elements are matched. The song is so splendid it could only be followed by something like "Twist and Shout," something that could raise the hackles of the most seasoned rock & roll veteran.

There is a kind of vocal in rock music, a kind exhibited frequently by the likes of James Brown and perhaps Otis Redding. There is no word for it but it occurs to an almost frightening degree when a performer is so enraptured and enclosed in the world of the song he is playing that he loses all the reins on his voice until it seems as if the song is a demon that most be exorcised from his soul. "Twist and Shout," a rather mild Isley Brothers song, becomes in Lennon's hand a bloodcurdling, insane bullet train of beautiful noise. All the while, as John is lost more and more in the world of his voice, as his screams become less tuneful and more unearthly, the backup singing of the others retains its deadpan machismo, keeping us grounded in a world that is increasingly difficult to sense in the ripping vocal chords of the frontman. The trick would be employed later in the Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name," but Lou Reed never sang like this. No one did.

The Beatles did not become legendary, at least initially, because they sang nifty pop songs and appealed to everyone of all ages. They became what they were because they were dangerous and dirty, Buddy Holly and Elvis and Little Richard times a thousand. Brian Epstein did his best to hide this for commercial interests, but you could still hear it in 1963 if you listened hard enough. Now, the cultivation of Beatles style as universal fact of our time, and the band members' rise to virtual ambassadors for Western civilization has further obscured the edginess and concealed sexuality of their initial genius. The gateway is the songs. They would, of course, Change the World and this and that in years to come. But they would never top their first four albums for songcraft, invention, passion, raw power. You want to hear why the Beatles matter, forget (for a moment, at least) the albums VH1 talks about and return to the songs that made teenaged girls scream their heads off. They knew what they were doing, and they were better at it than anyone. Please Please Me is revolution in a long, dirty day.

[Editorial Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003.]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010)

(Asthmatic Kitty)


When you left me
I went crazy.

- "I Walked"

The followup to one of the most celebrated albums of the last ten years is, in a word, fascinating. The songs are slower, more personal, more aching than Illnoise, all packaged in a wisely overstated, occasionally silly, usually beautiful hyper-media pop parlance that lightly brushes musical touchstones ranging from John Lennon to T-Pain. The Age of Adz is both Sufjan Stevens' most assured album thus far and his most uncertain bout of navel-gaze. As an audio document of a truly brilliant performer's deepest thoughts, The Age of Adz is indispensable -- a vaguely surreal painting of Stevens as American adventurer looking inward. You really don't need anyone to tell you to listen to it, I hope, and you probably already have. So I'll assume you did and then we'll talk about it.

By the stopwatch standard, the only major American artist who's probably released more music in 2010 than Sufjan Stevens is Joanna Newsom -- and this after a pop-oriented silence of four years, five if you don't count the stopgap outtakes collection The Avalanche. Like Newsom, Stevens is blessed and cursed with a restless creative spirit; his music, like Newsom's, is tightly composed, gentle but biting, vividly pretty -- at times ridiculously, mockery-invitingly pretty. But as an artist, Joanna Newsom rails from the direction of rationality; if she has outbursts, they are constructed with a thought to every detail. It isn't so much that Stevens doesn't care where each note falls as he is willing to give vent to every incongruous, scary, buried thing that travels from his brain to his fingertips. An unfiltered oddball, you might say; where Newsom gives the impression of someone who knows exactly how to express herself, Stevens is constantly letting everything go and then doubting it. These are two kinds of genuine artists, their approaches and tastes in noise so similar, their pathology of ruthless creating identical, their music finally on opposite extremes.

The Age of Adz, Sufjan's sixth album, offers a startling portrait of an artist's entire world, no selective process of saying what and when visible (not that it doesn't exist), only a feeling of every word and every sound being felt and honest and a piece of a man. Just enough time has passed since Sufjan Stevens' last album, Illnoise, that his warm, fragile voice is suggestive of another era. It always seemed to come from a place we weren't necessarily permitted to know. Now, when he sings, that otherworldly quality has given way to a recognition. It's a more powerful tool than ever, and by diving headfirst into his most eclectic recording, he finds its best-suited purpose. No longer just falling amongst ornate arrangements, it's a ghostly wail today above unfamiliar terrain, allowing us the luxury of a guided tour with a man we know. Still, even friendly eclecticism has its enemies, and a lot of people are upset that Stevens' new LP is, well, "different."

Different, like, skittering drum machines and a chorus of "I'm not fuckin' around!" on the crazed, jilted "I Want to Be Well." Different like the purest pop in the man's catalog, albeit with an ominous undercurrent, on "Get Real Get Right." Different like "I Walked," a wrenching programmed breakup song on which he demands "Do you think of me now?" amid tortured analyses of minute dumpee details like the lack of a goodbye kiss. Different like the unhinged, scary, gorgeous "Now That I'm Older" which will send listeners racing back to the recent EP's moving but overwrought "Djohariah" to reevaluate the ambitions focused and realized here. And different kinds of babbling-book beautiful on the absolutely classic "Vesuvius," which is pure Sufjan, though even it contributes the memorable self-referential chorus "Sufjan, follow your heart."

So yeah, it's different, but only meaningfully different in a way hardly anyone's talking about. I admit to being taken aback when I heard "Too Much" in advance of the album -- less experimentation than pedestrian goofing off, it sounded like maddening radio pap. But this is deceptive. For one thing, the opposite is just as prevalent; disregarding a bit of extra atmosphere and the words, the two-minute opener "Futile Devices" speeds a five-year gap to an untransformative instant. Stevens' consistency of craft is a miracle, seeming not to have weakened one iota since the surely draining Illinoise experience. His songs and ideas are as bracing as ever, if not more so. The change most have found jarring is the entrance of heavily electronic-leaning production, utilizing synths, drum machines, computer bleeps and bloops, and sporadic tools such as AutoTune to create a phantasmagoric, ever-changing backdrop that seems to move and evolve as fast and as unpredictably as Stevens' brain. The songs operate in fits and starts that approach something like whimsy, but it seems to come from a far deeper place than is probably the norm in precious electro-folk. The songs are still intimate when he feels like it, but like the preceding EP All Delighted People, Age of Adz finds Sufjan exploring an expansive, intricate wall of sound, augmented here and there by strings and choir, usually doing absolutely nothing conventional. The result is an album that, indeed, sounds like nothing (no one) else.

However, while these new sounds and effects are hardly window dressing, they serve to disguise the most personal, harrowingly broken songs their composer has written to date, offering his most fragile performances as a singer. Less than twenty seconds into the record, here he is pulling the blankets over his head on the couch belonging to the ex he misses horribly, like some masochistic twist on "Hey Jealousy." He isn't Antony Hegarty, but he is walking wounded. As much as the intimate productions of Stevens' two States albums and Seven Swans frequently disrupted and offset the intensity of the huge subjects he tackled, the musical toying and tinkering replace the guard that Stevens once put up within his writing. This experimental music is not about experimentation; it is a conception. It's about loss, fear, dread, all manner of dark things, but mostly a broken feeling, seemingly expressed best by coldly programmed machines.

The masterful dupicity is best exemplified by the title track, on which filthy Depeche Mode synths collide with a melodramatic arrangement and deeply affecting, audibly pained singing, the plastic noises only deepening the human connection -- CFTPA writ large. And by the way, analyze this: "I'm sorry if I seem self-effacing / Consumed by selfish thoughts / It's only that I still love you deeply / It's all the love I got." The kitchen sink production lends Stevens the fearlessness necessary to give vent to words and emotions free of his typical poetic bent, as absent of boundaries of lyricism as of genre constrictions. At the very least, it is his greatest achievement as a vocalist thus far; there are moments in which he gets to That Point, you know? The staring-up-from-the-abyss-toward-the-open-window, throwing the head back, giving the self away Point. These songs are gut-splitters, and his submission to them is a life-affirming accomplishment.

Only thing is, the shock that's greeted this adventurous LP betrays sort of a naivete about Sufjan Stevens' prior career, and moreover, demonstrates an odd distrust of individualistic pop music making that seems to have crept into Rock sometime during the '70s. (Hip hop has never suffered from a fear of the tirelessly inventive half-crazed genius, but for whatever reason, within "alternative rock" only Beck has carried an ignorance of genre boundaries to platinum territory, perhaps because his choices tend to be safer, less direct and expressive.) First off, Stevens has never committed himself to the obvious. His old rarity "The First Full Moon" is a defiant and blissy feedback explosion that suggests spacey Britpop. His second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, already displayed an interest in electronic music. And most importantly, an even rote examination of his discography reveals a musician completely unwilling to relax. The only thing that would shock me more than The Age of Adz sounding like Illnoise would be if it were a dirge, devoid of hooks, instead of the often charmingly infectious pop record it is (listen especially to "Get Real Get Right" and portions of the controversial "Impossible Soul"). Like no one since Prince, whose '80s albums serve as an interesting ancestry to what Sufjan is doing here, Stevens is expert at matching avant garde, leftfield music with mass audiences via his fixation with the earthy, the expressive, the heartfelt.

And like Prince, he is a consummate showman. There's a case to be made that some calculation is at work here, at least on business terms. Stevens probably likes the idea of people creating a rumble about a radical departure from his biggest success; though it too displays craft and purpose well-suited to the central lyrical conceits of the album, the cover art by troubled artist Royal Robertson seems designed to confound those same people, even though if anything it fits well with the corny in-jokes populating the front of his last LP. Robertson was a fabled schizophrenic who flew into a seemingly permanent rage upon being divorced by his wife and forever afterward created images of science fiction space creatures screaming misogynistic insults at one another. The oblique sympathy and glimpse of grotesque hatred in his story feels like a classic Sufjan eyeballing examination of Discomforting Things, a visual representation of the wronged man buried deep inside him slash us who says and thinks horrible things, such as the bleakly cynical "Don't walk away when I am speaking!" on "Bad Communication." How telling that the sentiment is made almost serene by the intriguing, retro-futuristic Atari FX surrounding it.

In a recent interview, Stevens showed a remarkably progressive viewpoint toward the changes in the music business and how they affect perception of the album. He is a fan of the Internet free-for-all that allows additional vent for a prolific artist and thus opened the door for something now economically viable like the All Delighted People EP, an hour-long oddity that would've been unthinkable a decade or two ago. He also enjoys the lack of "event" now afforded a new LP release. I tend to agree, but there are cracks. First is that the final track here, the 25-minute "Impossible Soul," feels more like four songs of tangential relation strung together, and sure, they belong together, and sure, Sufjan feels they must be heard together, but in another age it wouldn't have been necessary to glue them together. (We'll talk about Lovesexy later.) The annoyance of this may be less than obvious until you imagine everything on Abbey Road from "You Never Give Me Your Money" to "The End" grafted together as a single cut. The overwhelming nature of the track somehow works against it, as grand as the music is.

And then there's the matter of momentum. With a five-year lapse, did Sufjan lose his audience? I couldn't figure out, given how many people were altered by Sufjan early in the last decade, why more hype didn't seem to be attending a record this long-awaited. It's just long enough for the Illinoise interest and goodwill to have faded, not long enough for Stevens to acquire a mystique with its own commercial viability and conspicuous absence. A new album in the three years after Illinoise would have warranted far more excitement, I think, than at this stage, when the artist has receded just enough that people are starting to need a reminder. That's the part of me talking that misses people looking forward to, marking their calendars for a new record. I got in the spirit and wouldn't listen to NPR's stream of Adz or any of the leaks, only hearing it on its actual release date. What can I say? I'm a sap.

The thesis statement of Age of Adz is buried in "Now That I'm Older": "I'm not over you," he confesses, and the story never goes much further than that. But the telling, sad details that anyone who's lost a lover will recognize end up carrying the album, and will resonate enough to end up being the bulk of its legacy, long after the quaint sonic tricks' novelty fades and we're left with another set of marvellous Sufjan Stevens songs. How about that.

All Delighted People EP (2010)

Monday, October 11, 2010

T.I.: King (2006)



Atlanta's T.I. is one of those artists who makes it tiresomely difficult to be altogether dismissive of mainstream radio in America; his work is built to blast, pure ear-candy for anyone with any more-than-passing interest in hip hop, including but not limited to those who regularly decry the dire landscape of commercial rap. Probably all the more frustrating for those who bank their existence on the "album-length statement" is that to be properly understood, T.I. needs more than an hour of your time, and he actually uses that hour extremely well, which must drive the haters nuts if they ever bother to give him such an opportunity to prove himself.

To the cynics' credit, there was a point when an awful lot of stuff on R&B radio sounded like T.I.; I don't know whether he was the pioneer of the juggernaut-arena sound that correctly forecasted the mainstreaming of live performance as integral facet of mass-consumer hip hop. But "What You Know" is the single that will instantly spring to mind when describing the sound of the mid-2000s to someone. There's nothing live about it, of course, but it has the sound and battering-ram crowd-surfing intensity of a stadium concert that somehow manages to get directly in the face of all bystanders. There were fresher songs on the airwaves then, but few of them stand up as well as "What You Know," which still gets the blood running all these years later, and feels like it stands apart from its imitators and even predecessors in its straight to-the-bone perfection. It is, above all, a pop single. And pop singles can spawn pop movements; you don't have to give a whit for modern hip hop to get why it connected.

But T.I.'s intent with King probably wasn't to chase everyone else out of the room with the outrageous, the loud, the big statement. The record actually is rife with lower-key moments that are often its strongest; other big hit "Why You Wanna" runs a teasing wronged-man tack over a Q-Tip hook around minimal backbeat, and the amazingly effective love song "Hello" is built on such a classic formula of rap-n-soul, replete with Isley Brothers sample, it could be a Common single (and Common guests elsewhere on the album, proving himself surprisingly capable of a killer verse as late as '06). But others, like the stunning Grandmaster Flash nod "Goodlife," the breathless "Told You So," and the instantly classic closer "Bankhead" practically enter wall of sound territory. The heavy, chilly anthems are the reason the album succeeded, but people stayed for the oddball stuff, the ballads, the slowed-down and slightly eccentric back half.

Nice folks seeking consciousness rhymes aren't likely to find them here, even if the shit inevitably makes their heads bob; T.I.'s big motif, as recent headlines have made all too explicit, is drugs and everything about drugs: obtaining, selling, taking, paying for, charged for. And he won't win the Father of the Year award, either; "Top Back" announces "Think I'm bad now, shoulda seen me before I had children." He does compensate some for the eye-rolling misogyny inherent to so much hip hop of his time with some genuine, knowing, Prince-like romantic tenderness on "Hello" and "Why You Wanna." Just as importantly, the man gives a fuck about his craft, throwing himself into his rhymes and flow like few other rappers -- you can almost hear him break into a roar a few times; no casual apathy here -- and even when there's a touch of telling lack of detail or just tired trash talk in his lyrics, he chooses producers wisely and comes up with a consistently powerful, slick set that is full of artful surprises, excellent beats, and songs that catch and won't let go. Disregarding the four or five duds (all on the first half), every track here is memorable.

Those duds also tend to be the longest tracks; after an opening 1-2-3 punch of genius tracks, T.I. decides to bore us to deah with "I'm Talkin to You," which comes off like a low-tier recording of the Wu-Tang Clan members all shouting over one another, followed by the obligatory Jamie Foxx cameo on the dull "Live in the Sky." The agreeable throwback funk of "Ride Wit Me" picks things back up, and after that the only song that makes me reach for "skip" is the intolerably annoying "Get It." But I did say song. Rant alert: Anybody who loves hip hop will admit to you that the genre has its baggage like any other. The same way I hate most 103-note guitar solos, I am immensely irritated by the "skits" that come packaged with most rap records of all eras. Even the best of them are funny, at most, twice, and these tend to come on records that are worth listening to over and over and over again. It's a simple matter of programming -- usually. But T.I. commits the double offense of tacking skits on to the end of several tracks, including the perfectly ill "I'm Straight," which runs 6:35 thanks to a nonsensical obscenity-laced rant at the end. The phone call at the end of "Goodlife" is slightly less bothersome, and the worst of the bunch, a lovers' quarrel that precedes "Why You Wanna," is skippable. But with an album that's already about a quarter-hour too long, these are needless indulgences. I wish we could scale back the template a bit on these records, but maybe most folks like these skits, hell if I know.

With the real age of the gangsta long past us now, the hip hop world has become a sort of poetic apocalypse -- we've entered an age when the most exciting, innovative rap isn't necessarily the most fun rap. The problem is, as Mos Def has argued, both divisions of the music have value that's consistently undervalued by occupants of the other contingent. I'm a Roots guy myself; De La Soul and Run-DMC are still my favorite hip hop artists of all time. If I have to pick the current masters, I can't escape the cliché that Jay and Kanye are the kings because that'd be like saying the Beatles and the Rolling Stones weren't the kings in 1968. But I was listening to a lot of urban radio when this album came out and ultimately found that a lot of my resistance crumbled in the hands of the sheer rock & roll mastery of what amounts to an elevation of classic populist folk and blues. What T.I. is basically doing, whether he's boasting or lamenting a real injustice or bawling about some shit that's his own dumb fault, is what John Lee Hooker was doing fifty years ago. It's sometimes an ugly -- if catchy! -- world he and many of his peers seem to occupy, in the real world and on store shelves, but goddamn if it isn't as evocative an artful distortion-slash-representation of reality as pop culture has ever offered us. Testimonials about drug dealing and other unpleasant matters set to music this sick from talent this deep sure beats a Wall Street Journal op-ed about rap being mindless junk, doesn't it?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (2010)



No longer a kitsch notion, psychedelia lives on today, filtered through the new capabilities and pop-historical consciousness of current rock musicians who long for an ideal of near-institutionalized mainstream experimentation, even if such a thing was largely mythical. Some bands actually experiment; some issue fervent, loving valentines to the age when everything seemed like newly forged territory. You'll find a bit of the latter in this Australian band's trippy, Beatlesque new album. It is a full-on retro move, with vocal and guitar and melodic pop doodling that will sound comfortably familiar, but it's so much fun -- and the songwriting is so solid -- that the derivative elements wash over into a respectful, personal new investigation of late '60s music. As immediate as the best power pop, as serious-minded and convincing as the tightest post-punk outfit, this is music that requires no setup, no introduction. The second you hear it, it feels like it's all in the blood.

And that sounds like a case of backward-looking fever, but it's actually the mark of extraordinary skill. I'm miffed by the idea that someone can't make a kickass record steeped in '60s artifact without accusations of unoriginality. A band like Tame Impala configures the past as a palette to draw on, and they're too young for the baggage -- political, social, musical -- inherent to their period of strongest influence. They don't necessarily know about the scenes, the pomp, the attitudes that produced Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, but they know what sounds cool, and by reliving the notion of sounding cool within a pop joy free of Airplane and Doors iconography, they render something altogether more special. It can evoke a memory while feeling alive, creating dreamlike waves.

There was a lot, as you know, both good and bad about rock music in the late '60s. For someone to filter all of that into comfort food like this -- rock & roll with cutting, vibrant energy and imagination -- is commendable. Given the band's youthful appearance, it's startling how confident and grown-up they sound when dabbling in light guitar funk on "Solitude Is Bliss" or just laid-back mod rock on "Lucidity." Each track is distinct but all share an identifiable, instantly enjoyable style. And the record only gets more interesting, brighter, niftier with each listen.

It's a mistake to suggest Tame Impala is all rejuvenated vintage and distorted Beatlemania. There's dream-pop here too, for one thing, on a pair of beautiful tracks ("Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind" and "Expectation") that offer a Jesus & Mary Chain tower of college-rock sound and even conjure up the pure, modern infatuation with beauty of a Sufjan Stevens or Owen Pallett -- and a bit of shockingly fresh U2 arena rock in "Alter Ego" -- but they also are wise enough to comprehend the sheer voltage of guitars, bass, and drums, a medium that never dates. Their melodies and performances are strong enough that all other definining characteristics are embellishment, whether they're fearlessly exploring Roky Erickson heavy (and archetypal wide-eyed '60s lyrics) on "The Bold Arrow of Time" or offering up true psych-rock epic, replete with McCartneyesque bass, on "Runaway, Houses, City, Clouds." Tame Impala's Beatles costuming is handiest less because they're soundalikes (although vocalist Kevin Parker is at times a dead ringer for John Lennon) than because they share the older band's propensity for filtering big ideas through precision and economy. A six-minute song here can pass by like nothing at all.

This album is oozing with goddamned fun; it's hard to say what the best song of the crop is. I vote either the stoned-addictive "Lucidity," with its snakelike melody and ample cool, or the closing pop bliss move "I Don't Really Mind," enough of an infectious dazzler to call to mind your favorite garage rock nugget (or, naturally, early-to-midperiod Beatles 45). Whatever. If you love rock & roll and psychedelia, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot and feel the unqualified-awesome shimmer of this fantastic record. Indie rockers need a little more of the '60s in their juice, and folks stuck in the past need to hear what the youth are up to; what better and more delightful compromise could there be?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 (2002)


You're looking at a mashup album, a mix tape with the twist of recontextualization, here aimed for dimly lit dance clubs with a cheery, almost masochistically over-the-top sense of fun. The rush of pleasure comes out of recognition of a zillion popular favorites; the secondary aristic appreciation is a gut-level wonder at how many records are being culled from at once, and how they are jumbled together into what sounds bizarrely logical. If the mashup album is a genre, As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 could reasonably be described as one of two quintessential examples.

The other one? That would be Danger Mouse's Grey Album, a far more focused and linear fusion of Jay-Z and the Beatles, which was never legally released but virtually launched DM's career. But the mashup existed well before the 2000s; it is arguably an outgrowth of early underground hip hop. Sampling was so advanced and admirably reckless by the end of the '80s that records like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (produced by the Dust Brothers) and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Prince Paul) render every use of the tool thereafter nearly beside the point. Still, Beck's Odelay and the Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust slowed down and discovered nuances in the tool that the feverishly paced earlier records were too drunken on a million possibilities to investigate. And a tool was what it remained; the sampling, the mixing, the tampering, the twiddling was a rush of interactive joy providing the backdrop to these performers creating something wholly unique, something beyond its sources.

Though I'd consider making a case for Paul's Boutique since nothing else the Beasties did came even close to its brilliance, the only great record that's actually about sampling, indeed the masterpiece of the "mashup" ideal before there was a mainstream term for it, is the Avalanches' Since I Left You. One of the reasons Since I Left You is so compelling is that it doesn't sample a damn thing you've ever heard of. Actually, it samples the sort of unloved leftovers you find in the fifty-cent bin at your local record store or goodwill: spoken word nonsense, easy-listening, obscure dusty soul, bad jazz, worse disco, worst Beautiful Music. It is the crafting of divinity from tripe, of something from nothing -- art, right?

So you can think of this 2 Many DJ's record as the same idea with another school of thought: the speed and pace of sampling is just as breakneck even if the rhythms and detail are less densely layered. The difference is that you've heard an awful lot of these records. Probably not all of them, sure; Erykah Badu's approval notwithstanding, the overlap of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and/or Mancini) fans with Breeders fans, much less Basement Jaxx fans, remains miniscule. But anyone who has been alive and not living in a monastery at some point in the last forty years will recognize a significant number of the songs used on this album.

Rather than carving out an experience of its own like Since I Left You, and thus becoming a singular work, the 2 Many DJ's record draws upon the listener's emotions, culture, and experiences. The mashup trend of the 2000s relies muchly on a hardline view of pop music history -- it throws around touchstones, gems, and nearly-forgotten distractions of the prior fifty years and blips them in and out speedily, just enough time for that sheer rush of recognition. The latter is what all pop music DJ's thrive on, but I've always preferred the ones (and been the one) who let the songs play out untouched, little attention given to BPMs and mixer-melding. When in service of music like this, such trickery plays for me as almost cheap -- an easy way of proving one's adept genius at mixing and matching, a way of speeding up the process of enjoying music to a simple system of momentary impulses, button-pushed feelings.

There's value in that, to be sure, and the record is a fun listen. Once. I miss the feeling of something new laid on top of it, and moreover I'm distressed at the chronology drawn upon, in service of an eclectic but blind-spotted nostalgia that generally cuts off at the dawn of the MP3 age, nods to Destiny's Child and "Fuck the Pain Away" aside. We are much more in the service of "9 to 5" and "Oh Sheila" here; there is the notion of an underground in the form of, well, the Velvet one, but that savvy and prescience is locked away in 1967. I can't imagine the record would be much different released eight years later, when mass awareness of popular music has cut cleanly between those who really, really care and those who don't pay much attention at all. Radio Soulwax serves as a slightly disturbing reminder at how the communal experience of pop has been cut off at its knees since the dawn of the millennium. I usually don't miss it, but the magic-discs-in-The Time Machine quality of the permanent rotation and re-re-revision of past generations' keystone moments here is disheartening. Like listening to classic rock radio in 2010 that isn't aware the world kept moving after 1974 (in ways beyond Guns N Roses, AC/DC, and The Wall). There's nothing wrong with Top 40, but to so limit a joyous scope only serves to in turn limit future perception, untrue perception, about the worth and meaning of Western popular music. That's operating on the theory, of course, that the 2 Many DJ's record would prove an exception to this cutoff point, which I admit is probably not the case.

I hasten to add that I understand why this has accolades. I have nothing but admiration for the skill and calculated aural button-pushing required to put together something like this, which I'm certain was not easy. I can't identify with it because it feels like a celebration of music that it truncates, rather than a ruthless chopping-to-bits of it all into something genuinely new -- a rapid-fire flipping of the proverbial channels. And even when you're dancing, well, nonstop is nice. But the occasional tense, pregnant, giddy pause is better still.