Thursday, February 17, 2011

Van Morrison: Best Of (1965-89)



Some artists were never meant to be compiled; from such a textbook arrives Van Morrison's first officially sanctioned greatest-hits, issued back in 1990. There had been compilations of his Bang Records material, but never with his blessing. In the years hence, Morrison had traveled across every realm of commercial success and obscurity, so in covering such mountainous terrain, Best Of becomes a dilution of the premier blue-eyed soul singer, the man whose intensity of feeling and hard-hitting starkness seem so resonant and resistant to reduction. As introductions go, you could do worse, and from "Jackie Wilson Said" to "Moondance" to "Wild Night," this has the bulk of the songs mainstream listeners are likely to know. As an introduction to an artist with depth, however, it falls short, perhaps because it aims to please rather than to impress, which it very easily could.

The new arrival to Morrison will nevertheless find this album an immediate charmer. His personal reputation notwithstanding, Morrison is possessed of one of rock's true miracle voices. His virtues are many, but his subservience to emotion sets him above and beyond most others. From the opening bounce of "Bright Side of the Road," this music is open-armed forgiveness for all. The years have perhaps allowed many of us to forget how packed with power and joy something like "Wild Night" truly is, but on those '70s selections, Morrison betrays a wisdom and grace far beyond his age at the time.

Some of the MOR excursions of later years (seven tracks from the '80s, most of which are hardly as misguided as is their reputation, and many of which have entered an inescapable pop culture lexicon -- "Have I Told You Lately" above all) don't really fit with the peerless '60s-'70s material, but the most jarring selections are clearly the three tracks by Morrison's seminal garage band Them; while classic, they belong on a Them CD -- at least one of which should be owned by every rock fan. Those quibbles aside, the number of emotional crescendos here is truly staggering, and makes for a surprisingly enriching, comforting listen -- particularly for the soul in distress.

A point worth making is that Best Of signalled the beginning of a career renaissance for Morrison, who would -- after somehow managing to create an Event out of his licensing of a best-of, a decade before the Beatles would do the same -- go on to record some of his strongest-ever albums in the '90s. It's a pity that this package remains tied firmly to a reverence for the material prior to that emergence; while "Wherever God Shines His Light" is tolerable, even if it sounds vaguely like a Buick ad, there's really no excuse for "Wonderful Remark." Polish has never fit Morrison's scrappy performance style, even as his writing has remained strong.

On the whole, my advice would be not to start here; the collection is rushed and wastes too much time to explore Morrison's career in its real breadth. Look, the correct progression is: Astral Weeks; His Band and the Street Choir; Moondance; Tupelo Honey; Saint Dominic's Preview; Into the Music; It's Too Late to Stop Now; and you're on your own from there. Any one of those is guaranteed to make you more of a fan than this will and to entice you to continue. Oh, and grab a Them package while you're at it. Fun as this CD is, once you've heard those you can build your own Van mixtape that will trounce it, and hearing "Sweet Thing" stripped of its Astral context is quite heartbreaking for anyone to whom that record means something, which should fucking well be every single person reading this, and you are required to get it immediately if not.

Still, major point -- this is the best-ever context in which to hear "Brown Eyed Girl," Morrison's career-blueprint classic, one of rock & roll's indisputable 45rpm masterpieces. Its haphazard grace and emotional intelligence -- his lead in to the chorus is wrenching every time -- must constitute some of the loveliest noise ever captured on tape. Everything Morrison has done since 1967 has been an outgrowth of that moment, which retains its youth, sexual buoyancy, melodic charm, and odd sadness even now. In fairness, this is the only place short of a Various Artists comp that you can hear "Brown Eyed Girl" on an LP that doesn't surround it with vastly lesser material. For that alone, Best Of warrants a home in the canon alongside those stunning full-lengths.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Vampire Weekend: iTunes Session EP (2011)



With brass this sweet and spontaneous, and with that bounce in Ezra Koenig's voice on "Have I the Right," at this point it wouldn't matter if they were singing about yachting clubs and vacation homes. This is the sound of a good band effortlessly becoming one of your favorites in the world, calm, live, tight, and joyous. "Cousins" is better, "Holiday" unrecognizable (perhaps for the better following its teevee overexposure), "I'm Going Down" classic. Buy/download now.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

10,000 Maniacs: Blind Man's Zoo (1989)


Even the most third-rate, forgotten rock star deserves an opportunity to tell his or her story, and if Natalie Merchant's "Eat for Two" constitutes such a moment, it is surely a reward for the blandly political nonsense that pervaded most of her career with 10,000 Maniacs. A harrowing chronicle of pregnancy, the song is a monument -- brilliantly written, honest, unsentimental, provocative, and gorgeously performed. This track alone prevents any one-handed dismissal of 10KM from attaining validity; it's a singular achievement and belongs in any pantheon of modern pop music.

"Hateful Hate" is the only cut on the remainder of the band's second major label album that even approaches that passion, but Blind Man's Zoo is a far more agreeable recording than its predecessor, the intolerably preachy In My Tribe. Retaining producer Peter Asher (you know him for "World Without Love"), Zoo still covers the dull-sheened jangle pop of the earlier records, but there is a bit more variance here, with genuine sadness and menace on "Hate" and the touchstone "Dust Bowl." And "Trouble Me" is reasonably harmless. As for the rest, I don't remember it and I just listened to it. But "Eat for Two" buys an awful lot of goodwill.

In My Tribe (1987)
MTV Unplugged (1993)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blur: Think Tank (2003)



Sometimes the last album a band records before it descends into a murky "hiatus" zone is the ideal climax and ending to its story; could there ever really be an effective followup to Loveless or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? On the other hand, the sole LP appearance this past decade of Britpop kings Blur is such a tantalizing left turn and so bursting with potential it has managed to make their absence increasingly painful every year since. It's not that Think Tank is their best work -- though I would argue it trumps their prior two records -- but that it seems to begin a strong and woefully unfinished tale of a band just starting to realize the depth of its creative ability. Damon Albarn's imagination and restlessness seem undiminished even this far in, and Blur remains a stronger backbone for his flights of fancy than his other projects. But if they end up leaving us with this as their finale, at least it's a strong closing statement.

Exactly one track on Think Tank doesn't work: "Crazy Beat," a silly and annoying earworm that nevertheless illustrates precisely what is impressive about the LP below the surface. Albarn's largeness of personality reveals a constant impulse to push ever harder. "Crazy Beat" is obnoxious like certain older Blur tracks, including the inescapable "Song 2," but more so. Returning to Blur for the first time after the sky's-the-limit nuttiness of the Gorillaz project, Albarn seems unwilling to tone anything down, which is great for the album but perhaps rough going for the rest of the band; Graham Coxon's career with Blur ended during the sessions.

Much more important is the penchant for "pretty" that has never been so strong on a Blur album and lends itself to some of the most valuable and heartfelt moments in an illustrious career. The slight drone and menace of "Out of Time" slowly pull apart to reveal a reflective melody so shatteringly lovely it could make you involuntarily bow down like you once did to "The Universal," only responding now to a whole different region of feeling. The band brings itself together just as impressively on the swimmingly moving duo of "Good Song" and "Sweet Song," two of Blur's best-ever moments, both brimming with emotion and Beach Boy harmonies, neither overreaching but both overcome with the Kinks-esque out-of-reachness of all desirable and free-setting things. Even if "Good Song" isn't the best song he will ever write, which it may be, Albarn's vocal on it is his peak as a performer.

Superficially, Think Tank travels beyond the lo-fi and rhythmic experiments of late-'90s Blur and offers some excursions into worldbeat. These textures come across strongest on the heavy, atmospheric opener "Ambulance," which brings to mind Peter Gabriel's "Intruder" with its quiet, tense urgency. Fans of the other '80s heavyweight (besides Paul Simon) to catapult African music into the mainstream, Talking Heads, will appreciate "Brothers and Sisters" and particularly the seemingly direct tribute "On the Way to the Club." Still, these all tend to be eclipsed by the Afro-disco of "Moroccan People's Revolution" specifically due to its reprisal of Blur's unabashed Britishness; they even go so far as to proclaim "Being English isn't about hate, it's about disgust" against the wickedest of thumping beats.

It's difficult to deny that the most joyous (and relieving) Blur moment on Think Tank may be the balls-out punk rock explosion of "We've Got a File on You," replete with Colin Newman shouts, which takes barely a minute to offset the rest of the album's excursions with its hit to the jugular. Still, a band with (by 2003) such elder-statesmen sway amping up the weirdness like this is a fairly ballsy move in itself. So does effectively (but not officially) disbanding after such a transitional album, which continues to make the hope for a Think Tank sequel hard to kill. Last year's "Fool's Day" proves they've still got the gift; perhaps someday soon they'll decide to treat us with another complete piece of the puzzle.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Prince: Controversy (1981)

(Warner Bros.)


It would be easy to accuse Prince of stagnation here. Controversy, his fourth album, is the first not to significantly advance on its predecessor; in most respects, it's an extension of Dirty Mind, and not even really a deepening -- it leaps and whispers and seduces in mostly the same ways, and in an identical format. Naturally, its production and elclectic stylistic leaping is less surprising than it was a year earlier, but the album has legs: it doesn't have an out-and-out murderous groove like "When You Were Mine," but its songwriting is more consistent (save the baffling "Sister" sequel "Ronnie, Talk to Russia") and the arrangements more durable and open -- ideal, prophetically, for opening up into full-band play. No doubt Dirty Mind is the superior record, but Controversy is worth just as many return trips, and may be even more rewarding in the long run.

Controversy is the unfortunate home of two of Prince's least memorable singles of the '80s, "Sexuality" and "Let's Work," but both are more fitting and evocative in the record's context: "Sexuality" is a reasonably fun, if occasionally bizarre, bridge between two juggernauts: the title track, an utterly classic humanist cutdown of tabloid culture (with some of Prince's cleverest lyrics to date, a litany of rude and cooing questions: "Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?... Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?"), and "Do Me, Baby," the orgasm to which all of Prince's prior slowjams (particularly those on his underrated self-titled album) had been leading. "Controversy" and "Do Me, Baby" run seven minutes each on the LP; the extension of the former is dubious when compared to the hot-beyond-belief 45, but "Do Me" runs wild with the extra time, offering a preview of ingeniously left-field Prince fadeouts to come. Controversy may mark the point when Prince found a truly efficient method of allowing his loverboy conceits and his avant garde pop extremities to share real estate. Even "Soft and Wet" and "When We're Dancing Close and Slow," highlights of his first two albums, sound puny next to "Do Me, Baby."

On side two, it's simple enough to draw straight lines to Dirty Mind cuts: the mindbending should-have-been-single "Private Joy" revises the otherworldly funk of "Head"; the teasingly taboo "Sister" becomes the musically intriguing, lyrically failed "Ronnie, Talk to Russia; and the catchy but vapid "Let's Work" represents Prince's space-filling perception of what a radio song sounds like, much like "Do It All Night." But as the album draws to a close, Prince pulls the rug out and reveals the true innovations that deserve to stand on a pedestal with Dirty Mind: "Annie Christian" runs menace and unkempt, almost dangerous sensuality under its snakelike groove, casting a light ahead not just to 1999 but to Sign o' the Times. And the album's best cut, the unapologetically explicit and unfit for radio "Jack U Off" forecasts the stunning genre-melt and frankness plus undeniable pop appeal of Purple Rain. A massive and confounding crowd-pleaser, "Jack U Off" summarizes everything Prince can do as of 1981. And it's a fucking lot.

Controversy is a great Prince album, but in the narrative of his career it's only an interlude between two landmarks. Dirty Mind had set the stage for an earth-shaking career, and 1999 would begin to fulfill the promise and prove Prince to be one of the greatest performers to ever grace the pop music stage. Seen in retrospect, Controversy is just more evidence of his brilliance; heard in conjunction with Dirty Mind, it sounds like a torrential rain of maverick madness -- just the thing that he was about to unrestrain himself enough to offer all at once.

Dirty Mind (1980)

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (2007)

(Sub Pop)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Believe me, I'm aware of the stretch of credibility that grade above is now creating in your mind. Fair warning: this is an indulgent blog post, but I'd be lying if I gave this album muted praise. Wincing the Night Away was the first Shins album I loved. I wasn't ready for them at their peak of popularity, hearing only a shrillness and strain that I mistaked for dilution (not aided, clichéd as it sounds, by Garden State's dogged promotion). What I missed about Chutes Too Narrow upon first hearing it in 2003 or 2004 was that it's a guitar album, of a precision and purity the preceding decade had seldom offered so invitingly. The band arguably derailed their career by waiting too long (four years) after the groundswell of Chutes hype to follow it up, and they've been MIA ever since. Along the way, however, they let a wonderful artifact slip in the form of Wincing. It's as much a product and evocation of its time as anything from the mid-2000s, I suppose; overflowing with mystery, optimism, and reflection, it is designed to contextualize the listener's environment -- simultaneously a populist record, a telling of its audience's story, and a closed-off ramble from James Mercer. The way these qualities mesh, fusing the best elements of the prior two albums, creates a remarkably durable and unexpectedly beautiful pop record, adventurous and comfortable, without subverting the band's still-relieving musical directness.

In short, this is modern guitar pop done the right way: challenging but immediate. No lo-fi quirks needed. If it recalls anything in particular, it's R.E.M.'s initial post-Bill Berry period, particularly Up, but overstuffed with hooks; the menacing, assured triumph "Spilt Needles" and ecstatic "Turn on Me" are mega-amplified pop atmospheres, easy to live in, easier still to love. Mercer's astounding (as ever) songwriting nails it down past Up's meandering vagueness -- the gentle experimentation passes over the electro-baroque flourescence R.E.M. captured into a colorful bliss.

Still, I can't fully divorce myself from my personal history with Wincing. It was September 2007 when I heard "Phantom Limb" for the first time, in the car one day after being dumped. My life's long-ago messes are not our concern here, but in this case, how sure can I possibly be that the resilience and cockeyed curiosity "Limb" articulates didn't move me (enormously) because of the state I was in? It still does, every time, and one of the top musical moments of the last decade for me is that final minute of "Limb," when the band just gives itself away to rhythm and harmony -- the lights go out but the dancing continues. Not to be corny about it. In years hence, after a brief no-recent-music lockout, I've discovered "Phantom Limb" is only the second best Shins song (after the immortal "Girl on the Wing," to which I wasn't introduced until 2009), but it remains hypnotic to me. If, as according to rumor, the song is lyrically a lesbian-oriented reframing of Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy," all the better; its tentative, hung-back, but open-armed emotion is more than fitting.

I've also learned since 2007, with the benefit of not having known the Shins as they progressed, that James Mercer is an extraordinary writer; no traditional rock band to surface in the 2000s was better or more productive in the classic sense. Nearly every Shins obscurity is worth seeking out, and as good as the band's performances are, it's Mercer's writing that makes this so. As usual for power pop, of which the Shins must be a new top-tier example, everything is subservient to songs. Scattered band comments and reviews suggest that Wincing is an album about hazy insomnia, which fits with its dreamlike textures. But to me as a new fan, it was about warm blue-lit evenings in the first few months of singledom in my adult life. Even opener "Sleeping Lessons," with its bubbling intensity building to an expressive burst, seemed to narrate my world at the time in a manner I can't imagine another record doing. The tapping exuberance of "Australia" was only a natural extension. Wincing made it an unforgettable pleasure to be late to the party on the Shins.

Really, I haven't a clue what James Mercer is talking about in any of his songs. Songs I consider absolutely classic like "Red Rabbits" and the terrifically jittery "Sea Legs" are about mood to me, and that in a sense is what I've found I hold so dearly about the Shins. In a clear-eyed guitar pop context, they push the buttons of vaguest feelings like My Bloody Valentine -- their conscious surrender to heartfelt prettiness is worthy of peak-period Beach Boys. Like the Beach Boys (who also infected Up), they are unafraid of absorbing influences uncool even to the subsequent lo-fi and chillwave movements. There's Muzak here, lounge, bubblegum, and the lushest of soundscapes, all in the context and service of what is, at the end of it all, an excellent guitar band.

I'm a longtime stalwart for not making a distinction between what is "best" or "classic" and what I love the most. Wincing didn't get great reviews and isn't discussed all that much. It might be passé at this point, whether the Shins are or not, but it means a lot to me. For me, it bears the mark of a top-caliber album: I can't imagine the last four years without it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ice-T: O.G. Original Gangster (1991)



I'm not a ruthless warrior for the positive tip -- I too think Arrested Development is some bland nonsense, a catchy track or two aside, and I like it when B.I.G. is nasty -- but I'm willing to admit that gangsta rap is something of a black hole for me. I have attempted N.W.A. and The Chronic and came away, unfashionable though it is to admit, fairly disgusted. We won't even talk about Ice Cube. Two things have always given me pause in dismissing gangsta, which seemed a subversion of a genre of music I love and care about. One is that it arguably begins with one of my all-time favorite hip hop records, Boogie Down Productions' youthful and raw debut Criminal Minded, to me an indisputable masterpiece and one of the true landmark pop records of the '80s. Second is that I've always had an affinity for Ice-T, although until this week I never spent extensive time with any of his albums. It was obvious from his media presence that he was a bright guy and a serious artist in a field I'd once been too eager to dismiss. Finally, I've now gotten to know what is largely considered his finest record, O.G. Original Gangster, and I find it just as addictive and smart as I hoped.

What's immediately interesting is how far hip hop has strayed from the mainstream vision as of 1991. Radio rap today owes little to this style of sampling, obsessively bumping -- engineered almost in a bubblegum fashion: the way everything in bubblegum hinges upon the hook, everything in these tracks hinges upon the beat, as upfront and raw as possible. Only Ice-T himself demands more attention, and he owns the floor when he has it. His aggressive, heavy and unstoppable flow makes it hard to comprehend why he is today so overlooked -- the lyrics are intelligent, both mannered and forceful as they craft and unravel fantasies and nightmares. And while it shouldn't be so, in contrast to many gangsta peers, T deserves credit for not copping excessively to pointless misogyny and slickly macho street glorification. There's plenty of murder and mayhem, but it's murder and mayhem in the manner of Bo Diddley or Johnny Cash or, why the fuck not, Howard Hawks -- the flight of a master storyteller. And the attention-grabbing, booming "Bitches 2" takes pains to point out its use of "bitches" as a gender-neutral term; indeed, that's the song's entire chorus. He's also funnier than anyone else in the early '90s rap class: along with Evil E, Ice-T pokes fun at cock-rapping on the skit "What About Sex?" that builds to a brilliantly anticlimactic finish, and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous" delves brutally into life on tour, awash with irritating reporters, mysterious groupies, crowded hotels, freakish hangers-on, and the fans T knows he can't disappoint.

This levity makes Ice-T's seriousness more compelling: his description of how failed party anthems led to his ghetto documentation on the title track is so compelling you may forget to bob your head. And he deserves eternal credit for ending his record with a spoken-word rant against the Gulf War and the American criminal justice system. I'll be honest: the record's a little long for me (though it does feel shorter than its 72 minutes), and my 1991 heart still lies with personal heroes like A Tribe Called Quest, whose music hasn't dated in the slightest these last twenty years, but moments like that make O.G. a truly special record, one I'll return to often.

You'll find no sung, catchy choruses here, few skits, no showy production distractions from the bruising samples and Ice-T's stark spilling. But as he comes close to pointing out on "Body Count," this is all still rock & roll. That's important.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)

(Warner Bros.)


Read my review for the Metro Times.

An additional note: The review sounds harsher than is probably warranted, the consequence of its word count. Many of the songs on Kiss Each Other Clean are worthy of Sam Beam's catalog. I consider this record analogous to Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record last year, an album that I found sorely disappointing but that nevertheless I appreciate as an addition to the BSS canon. The songs come on individually and I enjoy them a great deal. I suspect the same will be true of Clean.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Source Tags & Codes (2002)



[This was going to be the first review I posted in this blog a year ago, which is why it sounds different than most of the others. I abandoned it for reasons explained below, but now I present it nearly unaltered, because I'm tired and having a bad day and someone asked me to. Apologies for the delays of late.]

We inaugurate this blog with one of those albums that was so happenin' when I was in high school that I wasn't cool enough at the time to investigate. I remember seeing Trail of Dead on a cable concert series back around ten years ago and finding them pretty whacked out and interesting. I know the sordid tale of their abandonment of original label Merge in favor of Interscope, an action that altered Merge's business practices and blacklisted the band in North Carolina forever, and I know of the cultish acclaim and glee that greeted 'Source Tags and Codes,' but until this week I'd never heard it.

Track down some Trail of Dead fans and they will contradict this for sure, but this sounds like prog rock to me -- *heavy* prog rock at that. The first post seems like a decent moment to announce that this uncovers two of my major musical prejudices. There's such a fine line between lovely and awful; prog and metal hurtle themselves headlong over the line. Prog heads pride themselves on the "intelligence" of their music; metalheads pride themselves on its loudness. I love loud music, and intelligent music. But play me this kind of stuff and my brain shuts off. The orchestras, the guitars, the intricacies of the songs: I only hear wank.

People don't really talk about Trail of Dead these days. Seems like some of them are kind of embarrassed, but who's to say? In a sense, the band was ahead of its time on a movement I quite favor -- the reckless snowballing of college/indie/alternative pop music to incorporate all of the forms that were once its antithesis: AM adult contemporary and soft rock, over-the-top progressive and torch music, etc. It's no longer compelling to make divisive separatist arguments about rock & roll. It's all a wonderful din now, and it's become reassuringly constant and all-encompassing, even as listening habits themselves have grown astonishingly democratic and fragmented. It's a new age, and the old dichotomies are interesting only as intellectual surveys of the first few decades of our popular music. No need to condescend to metal or prog or jam bands anymore.

Unless you hate them. Which I do. But that's immaterial. Me personally? I can't get fun out of TOD's incorporation of these ridiculous forms any more than I can hear Television in Phish. One of the few conclusions I can draw about this nebulous aspect of my music fandom is that I'm rather uncomfortable with heftily expressed masculinity -- a theme running through the bulk of my most hated popular bands -- but Trail of Dead doesn't seem all that macho. Perhaps I'm too old and stubborn now to adapt to the coolness of uncoolness -- I certainly feel that way at times when new bands incorporate the dreaded Hall & Oates -- which puts the urge to tone everything back down to guitars and verses and choruses in a peculiar position. Are we rebelling again, or just backward looking? I like to think I am an extremely adaptable listener, ready for new things, and I want that to be the theme of this blog, making Source Tags and Codes kind of a terrible starting point, exposing as it does an instance of music that probably isn't as turgid and awful as it sounds to me (see also: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin). So th [At this point I stopped writing, it having apparently dawned on me that for the stated reasons, this was a terrible album with which to begin this weblog. So I put it away and wrote about Essex Green. All this time I've left Source Tags on my computer to listen to again and write up and then finally delete. After listening again, I don't have much to add really, so here you go, and off it goes into the recycle bin. No offense to the TOD fans reading this.]