Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Old Crow Medicine Show: Tennessee Pusher (2008)



The third time out from this localized alt-bluegrass favorite remains one of the most curious, odd, and strangely alluring items of recent years -- in direct contrast to the self-consciously rough-hewn sound Old Crow staked out for themselves earlier in the decade, Tennessee Pusher is thanks to unlikely production partner Don Was as slick as you can imagine this genre of music ever getting, approaching a workmanlike Nashville veneer of multitrack layering and aural syrup. It sounds like the work of a band far older than this one, not necessarily in a complimentary manner; it's like we're given the sleazy hard-drinking harder-declining version of OCMS before we even got used to the spry backwoods hipsters singing about cocaine and pretending it was the 1890s. To be blunt, this is plainly an example of the coffeehouse Prairie Home Companion country premiered long before it had a name by the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and by now the subject of much scorn in devoted roots-music circles. For whatever reason, though, the album is superb -- it could be that, like Leonard Cohen's albums from Death of a Ladies Man on, it's so conscious of its own tastelessness that it completely surrenders to it and fashions it a secret sonic weapon, or maybe the search of "authenticity" in this field is all nonsense and what really matters is emotional authenticity, something that does not correlate to the number of pedal steel overdubs on a country record.

A person might be seeking trouble if they try to label something "adult" music and consider it a compliment, but in nearly every respect, this is a concoction of adult music that actually works. Underneath its well-practiced calm is a real fiery melancholy, and a determination to strike full-bore into a series of detailed, dirge-like grooves that bring a sort of pillowy comfort while retaining just the right level of artful ease. The best songs by a longshot are the lengthy, intricate, slow ones, which neither fall in with the traditional OCMS or bluegrass-at-large sound nor commit the purists' choice offenses. "The Greatest Hustler of All" is a gorgeous moonlight ramble that holds the attention for more than seven minutes, a hypnotic and splendidly moody creation; the equally determined dirge "Methamphetamine" works just as well and approaches its sobering subject matter with welcome distance and respect. Best of all is the subtly apocalyptic title track, the epic and deeply involving sound of trouble approaching from afar. With methods that don't even once remind you of their identity as the "Wagon Wheel" band, they've found a new way to haunt and seduce, to almost staggering effect; these longer cuts don't let up, and linger in the mind long after they're done.

The melodies are consistently strong too, even if they sometimes offer an absurd counterpoint to the shoehorned-in barroom bliss of it all (see "Highway Halo"); the body of Pusher concentrates on a notion of fusing the basic aesthetic elements of bluegrass with mildly self-absorbed but well-crafted '70s singer-songwriter material, specifically that which was emitted for so many years from Los Angeles, words that will send bluegrass purists screaming into the night. Cry if you want, but it's in here; "Next Go Round," "Evening Sun" and "Lift Him Up" are all evocative of the gentle sing-song affectations of John Denver or James Taylor or, far more forgivably, Harry Nilsson. Somehow this strange slip suits the band decently, little as it has to do with their musical groundwork, presumably because they tackle the material with sincerity -- actually more than they've done so in the past. You don't get those snide off-camera sardonics that make Taylor so insufferable, and the craft seems stronger, more substantive (not so fluffy) than Denver's. Still, no one who remembers OCMS will avoid wondering where all these affected lilts in the vocals came from, not so many months after the same boys bawled and wailed their way through "Tell It to Me."

If Tennessee Pusher is a great record that's likely great by accident, just an instance of a series of Tramp-like accidents that somehow work out for the better in the end, there are inevitably some seams showing. The upbeat songs are problematic ("Humdinger" and "Mary's Kitchen" especially), illustrating how little compromise there really is underneath the odd production choices on the rest of the album, and underscoring for the zillionth time just how bad country music sounds in general when this much cheese is applied. Was exhibits the same unfortunate obsession with prettying everything up here as he did years ago when working with Brian Wilson.

Some of the problems spring not from Was but from the band itself. Musically, "Motel in Memphis" is menacing and strong, but it's hard to know what exactly the band was getting at with its straightforward illustration of the MLK crime scene, hard not to cringe at the extremely irritating way Ketch Secor pronounces "COR-etta" (I say this as a Southerner). And "Crazy Eyes" cripples its minimal, soft, sad first moments with an eventual rockist arrangement that overreaches the track into oblivion. But when you hear the closing "Caroline," it's suddenly clear how much Was simply let the band be as writers and arrangers; it's the only thing here really resembling a pop song. The rest of the time, the Medicine Show are permitted to craft a series of idiosyncratic and unexpectedly resonant ballads that may linger more powerfully than all the remainder of their output to date. They leave town with something quiet but great under their belts.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-69)



[A few things that should be addressed before we delve deeply into this: Although Back to Mono, the definitive collection of Phil Spector's output as a singles producer during his reign at Philles Records, contains as its fourth disc his seminal seasonal LP A Christmas Gift for You, we won't be addressing it here -- it's a classic and deserves its own review. Secondly, the grade above comes with a strong caveat that requires some explication; the first two discs of Back to Mono are as sublime and expansive and valuable as popular recorded music gets. The third disc lands with a thud, something that will be explored below but hinges likely on your faithful reviewer's strong personal bias against both the Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner, performers who dominate that CD. The Crystals, the Ronettes, and Darlene Love are my domain; I can't bear to listen to the Righteous Brothers, finding them akin to nails on a chalkboard and an assurance of irrational risibility -- you cannot imagine how much I loathe them, along with the Mamas & the Papas and the Four Seasons probably the sole major early-to-mid '60s artists whose work is anathemic to me, and I can't exactly explain it so I don't intend to try too much. Ike and Tina, on the other hand, don't bother me as much as the material Spector gave them, which is overblown and stupid (every time someone says the execrable "River Deep Mountain High" is one of the best rock & roll songs ever recorded, a baby somewhere vomits; I'm serious). Why does this receive an A+, then? First of all, because the first two discs are flawless and Christmas Gift for You's inclusion somewhat redeems the third; but also because, disregarding the rest of the LPs and his Apple Records material, this is in the ideal comprehensive document of Phil Spector's recorded career, and for historical interest alone it therefore deserves placement at the top of the pop music canon. Hope that makes sense.]

Seven inch 45rpm records were Phil Spector's medium; that's the beginning and end of it, and regardless of how much you may adore his work in any digital format it seems to leap up and sparkle with life the first time you hear it jump off a turntable. As a victory lap, though, the Philles boxed set Back to Mono is an establishment of canon for the man who, after everything that's happened, remains unquestionably rock & roll's finest producer. All the spontaneous thrills and burstings of joy and desperation on the individual sides that powered through melodramatic teenage sorrows and sock hops lived in those old vinyl grooves, but it's when you take in these mass quantities of playful schlock stacked together all at once on a couple of CDs that you grasp for the first time just how incendiary this music was -- its toying with perception, its brutal and truthful darkness as a profound illustration of mammoth adolescent emotions and urges. Beyond any technical achievement, what Spector had was a one-up over any Freedian Clarkian sense of youth as fertile ground for moneymaking.

Spector believed in his audience as half of his art, because he understood and responded to the depths of how the problems of a lovesick boy or girl feel so magnified and beautiful. Maybe he responded too closely, to too great an extent, but this was his artistic domain -- expounding upon the inner lives of his singers and their fans by expressing it as a cacophony of urgent, damaged noise behind anthemic hooks and boy-girl lyrics raised to highest honesty and art by his stable of gifted singers, who could make the most trite turn of phrase magic, who can make grownups weak-kneed and misty-eyed with their deeply convicted interpretations of sing-song simple ideas.

The brooding, ominous personality of the producer provides a reasonable enough theory on what led him to this great skill, along with his eventual undoing. Rejecting the conventional and high-minded both, he approaches the essence of rock & roll's five prior years from the opposite direction -- no-brow and vital, young and exuberant and sexy, but baroque, demented, kitschy and ornate with an intimidating independence and determination of spirit that makes anything outwardly ridiculous about it right and chilling, because it so courageously defines, over and over again, the experience of first love and first pratfall. Spector was clearly an asshole all along, but one thing he never did, not a single time, is talk down to the people who bought his records. He was right there with them all, feeling every heart-leaping impulse and blue-balled disappointment. Take this to its conclusion: like so many artists, he felt things too much, things he had no business feeling, and it bled through his work and destroyed him, in the fucked up process bringing us roughly a dozen of the most monumentally stunning moments in the pop music idiom.

The first portions of Back to Mono deal strictly with an incomplete, pre-Philles exploration of his gradually fine-tuned craft; selections of Ray Peterson ("Corrine, Corrina"), Ben E. King ("Spanish Harlem"), and Gene Pitney ("Every Breath I Take") seem to sail far afield of the Spector Wall of Sound, but what's interesting about them is how they hide the eccentricities that would become the artist's hallmarks soon enough. Peterson's song is all echo and frivolity until the lovably stifled attempt at a cathartic chorus; "Spanish Harlem" tries to shoehorn the great King into a slightly awkward dinner-music number that bursts into life at its elaborate bridge, all strings and woodwinds and King smiling his way through the murk like what-the-fuck; Pitney tries to wind his way around the dizzying "Breath," a song far beyond his vocal abilities, with a distractingly winding melody that Spector gleefully emphasizes. There are later doo wop interludes (the Alley Cats' oddball "Puddin' n' Tain," the Blue Jeans' frankly irresistible "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts") and a baffling but curiously affecting version of "Zip a Dee Doo Dah," of all things, but the first evidence we get of anything resembling the Spector sound comes from an obscurity named Curtis Lee.

Lee's career doesn't seem to have made much of a blip on the radar beyond his brief association with Spector. The Arizona singer-songwriter penned a relatively conventional street-corner number called "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" and in 1961 Spector made some perverse magic of it, generating a top ten hit in the process; Lee is required by Spector not just to sing but to belt and project and yelp his way up and above and race around gallantly through the bombastic whack-a-mole backing track like he's hanging on for dear life. He's no better at catching his breath on the even stronger and wilder "Under the Moon of Love," a stridently raucous rocker that explodes with raunchy horns and crashing cymbals; sadly, this brilliant record wasn't a success and Spector moved on, Lee wandering off into the construction business. The point had been made, though -- with the proper mixture of the gifted and the selfless in his talent, Spector could get away with almost anything and stood a good chance of making commercial hay of it. Perhaps "Under the Moon of Love" had been a step too far for the conservative radio of '61, but no one who heard it could have denied it was striking, and Spector most of all had to have been aware that he'd essentially turned two nondescript Brill Building-esque singles into memorably sprightly entertainments that exploded with musical life. Lee seemed to audibly strain to keep up. Where could this take the boy wonder next?

It was later in 1961 that the 21 year-old Spector founded Philles Records (with a brief and ill-fated assist from Lester Sill). There would be moments when it would still seem fragile, when the juggernaut in waiting would falter and reveal a little too much of himself and his components -- the magic had a curtain. You can hear it in Darlene Love's sweetly bubbly "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry"; the flawed Crystals obscurity "Girls Can Tell"; the charming throwback "You, Baby." Maybe there was something of the real Spector here, the traveling down a nonfunctioning rabbit hole that shows his subtle adherence to certain pop conventions, whose upending was the center of his prowess. That basis, though, of the fabric of pop and baroque as a reason for everything to follow is crucial; it's something to revel in as much as to rebel against, and reveling and rebelling are central to our teenage odyssey. You need some relief anyway. There's little relief once this gets moving.

If you want to jump to the real beginning of this story, open up disc two; you'll be skipping some crucial singles and undeniable classics that you must return to, but the wild disconcerting punch of everything, the uppercut to the heavens, starts with those unforgettable, heavenly, towering Hal Blaine drumbeats that open the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Boom... boom boom, CHI / Boom... boom boom, CHI. And it's over, we're done, for the unstoppable five-times-over frenzy to follow: "Be My Baby" leads into "Then He Kissed Me" (Crystals) on into the spiritually ejaculatory "A Fine, Fine Boy" (Darlene Love) and back to the Ronettes for the warmth and leaping, ceiling-dance romance of "Baby, I Love You" and "I Wonder." A lot of the pre-Spector rock & roll tends to be very concise and clearheaded, while of course he intentionally made sludge, but in a manner beyond even the finest of all prior and concurrent girl-group pop (the Shangri-Las' output and the Chiffons' "One Fine Day" come closest) there’s something deeply and almost tormentingly affecting about the end result, cynically manufactured or not. To call it all grand seems reductive, to complain it's empty and disposable would be beside the point even if it weren't wrongheaded and incorrect. All the sweep and majesty you need to understand this man, his work, pop music, everything you love about everything, is here. If it was "manufactured," if you could "manufacture" this, there'd be no need ever to make much of anything else.

Spector's work -- and his faith in it -- must have been everything to him. There doesn't seem to have been another calling to match it for him, any other justification for turning away from his creepily insular and ultimately dangerous existence. He's a murderer, he put people in great danger, he was an abusive husband and a conniving dick, but his gift to us is still an unfettered thing made only stronger and more complex by its unwelcome newer context. The first record released on Philles Records defined much of what was to follow; after so much tentative milling about on other people's output, this would belong to him. "There's No Other (Like My Baby)" is credited to the Crystals, an elastic creation to be sure, and everything within its brief runtime is worked out to its most carefully tweaked detail. It opens with Patsy Wright issuing a mournful paean to a lover and then the Wall appears, the Wall of so much scorn and hope and thinkpiece scholarship -- here it's guitar, tambourines, drums, mostly voices: they seem to cascade and wash over you, releasing the title at highest volume and intensity "THEEEEREEEEE'S NO OTHHHERRR," shoving all else out of immediate consciousness, including the song's own erotically languid pace. In retrospect, you imagine it as a furious careen forth rather than a funeral march.

The distinction of elasticity afforded the Crystals seems to exist because Spector simply liked the name. "There's No Other" is in actuality a Crystals song. The next two masterpieces issued under their name are not. Spector didn't even write "He's a Rebel" (that would be Gene Pitney), but he stole and defined it, and it broke him through much more than it did the performer of the track. You're hearing no Crystals here (they couldn't make themselves available fast enough to please their dictatorial producer) but the irresistible Spector acolyte Darlene Love. This #1 hit made the Wall famous but is uncharacteristic in some ways, not ending with the absence of strings. Instead of exploding like "Be My Baby" or piledriving like the battering ram "Da Doo Ron Ron," it opens somewhat conventionally and is carried to intimidating emotional heights by Love, in a riveting performance. A sudden key change leading into the chorus drives us into the bliss where we remain.

If this doesn't epitomize Spector, and it probably doesn't, it still defines girl-group pop, music of producers and Brill songwriters that retains its perfectly-engineered vitality today becuase of its documentation of sheer feminity... and struggle. Ages before "Dancing in the Street" brought liberation to a forefront, Love's commentary here is not just on a yearning for the boy who is an individual but for individualism itself. The story in these songs is always the same; the parents don't want any part of it and our heroine is disgusted by the opposition. Spector's groups always had the deepest knack for teen emotion when the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las dwelled toward the tongue-in-cheek. Nearly all of his hits with the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Love live up to industry standards of simply intoxicating the listener with joy, but little else he did bursts forth with the manic energy of this track. It's a moment to which a person surrenders, wherever you are. There aren't many of those and you have to grab them while you can.

Even if Spector extended the urgency and enormity of his concept with "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain," more sophisticated later works, the simplicity of this depth-charge was never matched. It was the first bolt of thunder in a decade that would soon afterward blanket the world again with "I Get Around" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Its message of bitterness and sweet, sweet euphoria is universal in a way that eradicates all intellectual rationalization, the same way the Beatles and Beach Boys would but somehow more directly. It's one of the most out and out brilliant pop recordings in history, and it must be turned up every single time.

In the wake of something that strong, you can tend to miss the breadth of its surroundings at first glance, but take a breath and take the songs one at a time. From the fake Crystals, now a third band yet, "He's Sure the Boy I Love" charms like mad with its overwhelmed dedication to impassioned love of few resources, audacious enough to proclaim he sure ain't that boy, but he's the one they love, the payoff being that moment of sincere liftoff when this semi-anonymous group lets loose with "When he holds me tight, everything's right, crazy as it seems" and everything seems weightless, coasting onward to "Heartbreaker" with its soft sock hop tough talk and ingeniously enveloping hooks and changes. The iterations of Spector's crown jewel the Ronettes and their showpiece Veronica (later known as Ronnie Spector) croon and wail through the splendidly bleak, devastated "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love," the room full of clatter against the most epic of Shadow Morton-like slowdances on "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up," and the immense chamber pop of "Do I Love You?" Darlene Love reappears on the stunning "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home," the complete upheaval of workmanlike lyrics with vocal dedication and a gently bent, absorbing melody, and the full-on release of bumping, complex energy "Stumble and Fall." These are all low-tier Spector but stand easily amongst his large collection of lost classics. There was a period when he was doing everything the right way, when he had the Midas touch. Somewhere buried in all this, he even improves on a Beatles song (the already stellar "Hold Me Tight") by giving it new light, layering, and a magnificently nuanced vocal performance through an assist from total obscurities the Treasures.

But when the producer pushed himself, and hard, the magic came. The magic pieces, the half-dozen or so liberating and unshakeable masterpieces, are carefully paced on Back to Mono but they are so insistent when they appear they seem poised to break the bleachers, crash through the floor. It's only by giving vent to the base impulses they exhibit that Spector became more than a great producer and actually someone powerful, crafting a canon that's still the peak of emotional pop music. Rooted in its time but hardly trapped in it, this material only offers the caveat that this kind of artistic stretching and confidence also led Spector down an increasingly narrow and finally disappointing path. In its moment, though, these were the records, this was the sound. It cannot be a coincidence that five of Spector's six best productions and compositions were cowritten by his ideal collaborators, Jeff Barrie and Ellie Greenwich, whose peak is shared with him.

When it opens, the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" comes across as an explosion in progress. Unhinged rolling piano and an undercurrent of pregnant menace push upward until the drumroll consumes, and then, more breathless than ever: "Met him on a Monday and my heart stood still / Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron / Somebody told me that his name was Bill / Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron." You can almost hear the puffed-up disapproval of the parents of the girls seeking Bill and the parents of the teenagers dancing to this, smirking and shaking their heads at the banality of the lyric, the banality to which the song itself immediately surrenders, with no thought given in either direction by the delirious beauty of the vocals. That's why the crucial moment is the defiant, ecstatic underlining. "Yes, my heart stood still," they expound grinning, "yes, his name was Bill." His name was Bill! Indeed! That's all that's required, we're done here, the complete maxing out of rock & roll as all-powerful force of the quietly inward-looking and extroverted obnoxious alike is sealed forever, the spinning around leaping about of being here, alive, in love, young, whatever, even if you're not one or all of the above of those. Sterile, overstuffed production nothing; this is lively, as lively as anything can be.

The other Crystals masterpiece is a more emotionally restrained but equally breathless, magnified affair. "Then He Kissed Me" features one of the most heavenly of all Wrecking Crew arrangements, and a sumptuously romantic (less exuberant, more reflective) bit of high storytelling from first encounter to first kiss to being his bride, and always being right by his side. All the while the Crew persists with castinets, the ambiance of a world deeply sheltered off from all outside, like that of the young heart in a fit of lust or love or the panic of either. Spector, his co-composers, his musicians, and the Crystals are careful not to give the tension a moment to explode. It's all detail, all careful crafting; the rest is elsewhere, the celebratory, knowing outburst of every promise and hope and lovesick need. It's by the Ronettes and it's called "Be My Baby," and maybe it's the best pop song ever recorded and maybe it isn't, but the people who say it is are not off their rockers.

Start intellectually; the record's fascinating. You can study its components and marvel at how well and seamlessly it works, how much its sounds and structure and strange seduction apply together in equal measure to render something like perfection of its kind. But no one's going to be able to avoid surrendering long enough to think too much about all of that. Once those drum hits are over, Ronnie appears. You start to want to hold on tight to every phrase as she wraps her words around you, defining a permanent American myth with each all-important second. She begins by forging her way through that winding track of a melody: "the night we met, I knew I needed you so." The drums continue, the piano pounds, she cuts through it all. The way she sings "never let you go," tentative but in command, marks her the powerful figure of this recording. She does battle with her producer until all we hear is her insistence: "be my little baby," making a point as much of her own independence as of her wanting of you, the budding sexuality and open-armed romance all of a piece with this most shattering and wondrous of melodies, the sense of euophoria when the strings overtake on the bridge as the nearly shapeless backing vocals swirl around. It's a concoction, something otherworldly. Even the lyrics bear the mark of something more affected and scarred than usual; there are too many details ("for every kiss you give me, I'll give you three") for this not to have meant something, too much desperation to illustrate a want. Not one of the involved parties -- Phil Spector, the Ronettes, Barry/Greenwich, the Wrecking Crew -- would ever improve upon this embrace of human comfort.

Which isn't to say they didn't try. In some sense, the far less popular "Baby, I Love You' is the artistic equal of "Be My Baby" -- and in its romantic longing and spirited, closely connected documentation of busy bustling love itself, it may be superior. This is owed largely to Ronnie Bennett's superlative performance, less erotic but crucially earthier than on "Be My Baby," and considerably more revealing. She doesn't get herself tripped or muddied up in the prisms and filters of Brill Building songwriting that surround her, she finds a way to make these abstract words function as an act of direct messaging on her part, as an honestly felt and achingly real love song that elevates the excessive traditionalism of its lyric by presenting us with a singer who feels and understands every word, every syllable in its most immense possible glory. And it's inescapable to continually use the word "catharsis" in regard to Spector's work, but no matter; the catharsis in this chorus, in that simple and humane gesture of the flabbergasting "baby, I love you" that seems to bottom out into some heretofore unknown canyon beyond the wintry urgency of the verses, is a moment of such sincere and selfless affection it can choke you up after a hundred times to know these emotions exist, that they're possible, that it takes so much work and noise to even begin to explain what they feel like.

A third Ronettes treasure, "I Wonder," deserves treatment alongside its more famous brethren, here for its audaciously piled-on arrangement and the edgiest expression of desire ever felt from Ronnie's vocal chords. As for Darlene Love's triumphant peak, a concurrent and also commercially disappointing release, it's best perhaps to let Greil Marcus have the floor:

It is overwhelming. Its momentum is unbreakable, the backup singing full of delight and wisdom and humor, and the vocal is -- well, it is that utopia of feeling. It is Darlene, telling us about her fine fine boy. She's full of pride; most of girl group rock is music of pain and longing, of pining away, but there isn't a hint of that here. Darlene has what she wants and she knows what he's worth -- after about ten seconds, so do you, and you'll never forget it. Church bells ring (that's not a metaphor, they do) and the whole disc seems to physically jump. It never stops. And the message? What does girl group rock say? What does it come down to? What is its mystery of life? "He even takes me places and buys me things / But love is more important than a diamond ring."

The peak of the Spector sound and iconography came in 1964 with his magnum opus "Walking in the Rain," a Ronettes song he wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. After an opening crash of thunder, Ronnie's cronies doo-doo-doo-doo on symphonically as she attempts once and for all to pack it all in the same place, to define the heady and impossible in the door-locked room of teenage mourning as a piece of popular entertainment. It's a spectacle, but it's also moving -- the tune strikes out and wipes away, the tears and memories almost tangible. For all the greeting card tropes of the words, what we really have is an intensely relatable piece of writing that effortlessly conjures up the eerily familiar, sending us down into a dirge that simultaneously attracts and repels us. We wanted to get inside "Be My Baby" and live in it, throw our arms out at celebrate; all you can do with "Walking in the Rain" is marvel at the immaculate fact of its creation and feel everything it wants you to feel, which is a lot. It's a masterpiece among masterpieces, something more to so many degrees than another girl group pop single.

What good is all this purity and respect, this resonant drama, if it ties itself inexorably to the early '60s? Except for the fact that it’s one channel instead of two, it doesn’t. To this day the material humbles. Even the songs that were stepping stones in the career are haunting and surge with full-blooded angst. Spector redefined the portrayal of human life in pop music, and no one’s been able to duplicate his success without overcoming the sincerity with unearned melodrama or, worse yet, failing to find the fun in either. The performers enliven these songs, but he was the auteur. He also was a violent man -- an abusive, threatening, murderous asshole. The most important figure for the evolution of pop music as a sonic miracle, yes, but a man derailed by demons. If you listen carefully enough, you can hear them, almost back to the beginning of his career.

The first ghosts on Back to Mono are a pair of significant debuts for Spector -- his first major recording, and his first sizable hit as a producer. We're traveling far back into a musty distance to hear "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (title taken from the likely apocryphal epitaph of Spector's father), the legendarily chilling classic recorded by Spector's performing unit the Teddy Bears; the song's beautiful but it stands off eerily aside, a humming indulgence of the hushed and tentative, the vaguely unhinged. "Why can't he see?" it demands. "How blind can he be?" The Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me," arguably the song that put the producer on the map as a major talent, has the same quality of a certain old-world, haunted pessimism -- a loving macabre like Poe's "Ligeia," something tremendously sad and lilting and devastating about it. You can hear it on the difficult but worthwhile Darlene Love oddity "Strange Love," the chilling forgotten Ronettes duet of "When I Saw You" and the stirring "Keep on Dancing," the genuinely unnerving solo Ronnie deconstruction of the Students' signature "So Young," the surreal and splendid but utterly incongruous unissued Modern Folk Quartet side "This Could Be the Night," a song that seems to be playing from many miles away, urging you to come closer, surely to meet some unfortunate fate if you try. Perhaps it's all our imagination, though I don't really think so; Spector was already exorcising something, something that'd blossom into the unspeakable. At one crucial, terrifying, unforgettable, and oddly brilliant moment, he (along with Gerry Goffin and Carole King) makes it explicit.

Written as a document of domestic violence (specifically that suffered at the hands of underrated pop star Little Eva), freely interpreted as a sadomasochistic anthem, but presented by Spector with irresponsible William Castle trickery and slithery fear, "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" is the most uncompromised and horrendously disturbing of all Spector's works. It's also masterful, a work of psychotic mad pop genius that's as addictive, revealing, and cunningly vital as it is morally suspect. Against militaristic backing and a spare, tense drip, the familiar and mortifying tale is told: she knows he loves her because he hits, and by the end, when he hits her she is "glad," Spector sweeping up the climax with a wildly inappropriate sensual rush borrowed from Roy Orbison's "Running Scared." The song's ingenious because like just one other of its period (Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me") it takes the format of the girl group itself and takes it to the end it's always implied: the freakish adherence to a patriarchal authority, either drowning or drowned out by a winking and mindbending subversion -- Spector daring us to celebrate the batterer, the victim, the Stepford Wife, the fiercely independent escapee, the fucked-up screaming match of a relationship you simply know the song documents with perfectly reasonable accuracy. By inviting us to recoil and celebrate and drench ourselves in these filthy emotions, Spector makes clear we're not safe from the disparate power of his impulse and influence. It's exhilarating; if only it had merely been an outlet in recorded music. If only it weren't obvious beyond a doubt now that when we hear this, however much Goffin and King may have been complicit, we are hearing the first pangs of an act of brutality that would take a life away -- a life no number of Philles 45s and Walls of Sound will ever have the energy and capability in them to bring back.

Other harsh, ugly discomforts are simply the often intriguing sound of mild artistic stumbling: Crystals failures "Uptown," "All Grown Up," and "Little Boy" are more awkward than embarrassing; "Soldier Baby of Mine" and "Woman in Love" just stretch Ronnie Bennett a little farther than she's built to handle; the Bob B. Soxx number "Not Too Young to Get Married" is bouncy in a most irritably insistent fashion; and a curious Darlene Love edition of future Dixie Cups hit "Chapel of Love" feels like the victim of a haphazard arrangement. Most of the time, the Wrecking Crew, the various singers, and Jack Nitzsche keep Spector from falling into indulgence across the bulk of the Philles singles discography. There are two solid discs here of peerless music.

The downfall, as mentioned, comes suddenly and overtakes the final hour, and doesn't bear a lot of summarizing and diagnostics here. The Barry/Weill/Spector mishmash "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" became not just a breakthrough for the Righteous Brothers but one of the most popular songs in the history of radio, almost certainly the commercial peak of Spector's career; the problem is, like all of Spector's cuts from this point and most of the Righteous Brothers' output generally, it's a huge kicthen-sink mess. Having mastered at last with "Walking in the Rain" the splendid use of every noise and strange aural quirk to fully sell the personal undercurrent of his songs, he evidently convinced himself by 1965 that a shorter route to such business was simply to make no artsitic decisions whatsoever, to simply put every terrible and screeching noise he could think of and pile it all up. People dug the insipidly plodding result, for whatever reason, but it sounds awful today. By the bridge of "Lovin' Feeling," when the drums have lost all semblance of structure and the two vocalists are just competing to see who can tunelessly scream "BABYYY!" louder, the need to run screaming into the night matches even Spector's need to rivet and glue us. None of the other Righteous tracks here are any better, and indeed some (like the appallingly turgid "Just Once in My Life") are worse yet; there's no break in the overstuffing. Spector was preoccupied soon enough with trying to turn soul-singing marrieds Ike and Tina Turner into his messengers, but the results are equally muddled for all their towering ambition. At the same time, Spector's work for the Ronettes and his other stable members suffers -- the songs are still full of vitality and hooks, but they're almost invariably too long, some approaching the four-minute mark, and the producer's way around a sense of real loss or longing and musical bliss seems lost in his own constant desire to top himself. The third disc of Back to Mono travels meanderingly from irritating to unlistenable but remains overly busy throughout.

There was still great work in his future by the end of the '60s; he would collaborate memorably with John Lennon and (less fruitfully) George Harrison, would form something worth hearing if not savoring out of the Beatles' fragmented Get Back sessions, would make sleazy singer-songwriter heaven a reality with Leonard Cohen, would connect all manner of rock & pop degrees with the Ramones, would even try and make Dion hip again. But it was an artist's game by then; the strange short-lived world of the mad scientist producer-composer had long passed its window. It's hard to even explain what Phil Spector was in his prime now, except to say that if you have a good oldies station in your town (which it's a good bet you don't), he's bound to be a hero of yours. Or maybe it's sufficient just to say "I'll be certain he's my guy by the things he'll like to do, like walking in the rain, and wishing on the stars up above... and being so in love."

[Some elements of the above material were previously posted in other venues. The Greil Marcus extract is from his Girl Groups chapter of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.]

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lupe Fiasco: Friend of the People (2012)



It's true, kids, that at one point not even very long ago Lupe Fiasco had the world at his fingertips. In the mid-2000s his bright future seemed a sure thing; it's not even a bunk bit of output that's really sunk all the hope attached to Food & Liquor, it's a series of bizarre career moves, a long spate of radio silence, and an odd feeling of cheapness. The lethal combination produced the embarrassing Lasers last year, and this face-saving mixtape does little to reverse his downward spiral, which for those of us who still retain a lot of affection for his best work is a real shame.

Friend of the People features Lupe taking the mixtape format to a cheerfully obnoxious extreme that invokes John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "newspaper album," Some Time in New York City. With its instantly dated topical lyrics about Occupy Wall Street and a fucking song called "Joaquin Phoenix" (and one called "Double Burger w/ Cheese"), Friend of the People appears to be designed to enjoy a brief shelf life, and this comes through in the confoundingly half-baked music as well. Once blazing forth with armloads of beautifully produced material, he now raps over low-rent trance and electronica -- with the result that most of these songs sound like open-mike night at a shitty art gallery. The cut that samples M83 is certainly an improvement on the Modest Mouse abomination last year, but like much of this tape, it's barely discernible as a step in the right direction.

His flow is still decent enough, even if he sometimes resembles the guy in your circle who will never shut the fuck up and tends to talk over more interesting people, and he's got no shortage of talent, it just seems he's also intentionally sidestepping it to keep belaboring some tired and confused point. There are some pop smarts in evidence on the ridiculously named "WWJD He'd Probably LOL Like WTF!!!" and "Life, Death and Love from San Francisco" (maybe the best cut we've heard from this guy since The Cool, but still workmanlike) -- yet these seem to be the product of a man whose existence you can't even suss out on "Lupe Back" and the hilariously Skrillex-derived "SNDclsh in Vegas." At this point it's hard to know what to expect or even hope for from Lupe Fiasco, but his decline is one of the most confusing in recent memory -- perhaps he's really smarter than all of us and we're just missing the essence of his point. Nothing would be more delightful to believe.

Lasers (2011)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fairport Convention (1967)



nathan: i'm listening to Fairport Convention for the first time
it is weedy man

grant: i know nothing about them

nathan: also i have to run to the store in a minute
need liquids
gonna suffer through this shitty album first, just 4 songs left

nathan: amber just said re: this Fairport album "this sounds like a psychedelic irish spring commercial" :D

grant: i'm sold

nathan: choice sentiment: "like a lobster i can swim / and grow another limb"
that lyric is from the epic song "The Lobster"

grant: i did the stifled laugh snort

nathan: haha
oh jesus it's FREAKING OUT now

grant: drop some acid

nathan: i'm gonna send this to [___]
when he gets over his midlife crisis
apparently this was an inspiration for The Hazards of Love, the more you know tm

grant: huhhh yeah
is it proggy??

nathan: kind of preproggy
but it definitely has the traces of prog combined with like... eurofolk

nathan: ok broth
one last sample lyric
before you go
"look at me now
what do you see?
it isn't me"
ponder that as you sleep tonite

grant: lol
listen to the flower people

nathan: 8-3
that was supposed to be a stoned emoticon, oh well
goodnight, thx for chat

grant: looks like a googly eyed cat

nathan: stoned cat!!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Feist: The Reminder (2007)



What business do I have talking about my boring personal life in the context of this music blog? None, but this post is the way it is because I don't know any other way to approach The Reminder, and in any case perhaps it's an opportunity to get an unusually full sense of the evolving utility of a piece of music that may or may not have some grand artistic depth but certainly falls in, defines, articulates particular aspects of its time as I lived it. It's not as if I can really hear it for what it is anymore.

In I think August '07 I was sent a link to Leslie Feist performing her version of "Secret Heart" on Late Night. It's quite different from the recording on Let It Die, featuring searing guitar and a sort of noisy blast. I was taken with her playing more than anything. This was all back in the days of Napster, not the peer-to-peer service but the actual subscription-based online music distributor, which I was paying a monthly fee to use at the time and I sampled several Feist cuts and one month went to a chain store (it was a different time) and walked home with Let It Die, the next month with this one. I was excited about it, excited about knowing something about new music again. Along with an Old 97's compilation and Wincing the Night Away, it stayed on my card table for a while and I'd feel quite proud of myself for having Purchased Actual Music -- these would turn out to be some of the last compact discs I'd ever buy.

The card table, for what it's worth, is where this computer sits. We bought it the previous year. It wasn't warped then like it is now, and it wasn't really my idea to buy it; it was hers, and I don't really know what the primary motivator for that was but it ended up being a desk for my laptop that was not really a high-functioning laptop. I'm using the same laptop now, and it still isn't, only now more so. Back then it still had keys and was mobile enough that I could take it out to work and such; now I don't think it'll ever move again, the monitor falls off if you touch it the wrong way. But already then, it didn't hold a charge and stayed in this spot almost all the time. The Reminder was sitting near the left speaker when she came by after the breakup, just long enough for me to inform her of what I'd bought at the music shop because I was still in that sort of habit then and long enough for her to smile politely and say how much she hated Feist and wanted to punch or kill her, I think it was.

When I bought it, coincidentally, "My Moon My Man" was playing over the Best Buy loudspeaker with that obnoxious announcer. Feist was a major label figure now with a big audience share in this country as a result of the iPod ad with "1234" (the probable reason behind all that hatred up there). The pounding drooped-down piano and sensual thrust of it were something new, the video -- airport choreography -- resonated with me, and to some degree allowing myself to explore something separately and even come out and pronounce it sexy was a bit of liberation.

Here's what I initially wrote about The Reminder in 2007; I don't agree with all of it now:

When you get in the certain kind of mood, not quite depression but more like restlessness, when all chance of reconciliation with your past seems lost, when everything seems too complicated to handle, your only two options are to dance or to die. Feist's follow-up to LET IT DIE presents both options in equal time, in this case with a more obviously ragged edge than on the predecessor, although they are equally good. LET IT DIE was half covers, this one is all originals save the tradtional "Sealion." The difference between the two is fairly dramatic -- the vocals remain astonishingly inflected, nuanced, perfect -- but the dip in quality is only in the sense that THE REMINDER is longer and carries more opportunities to screw up. The screwups are there, no doubt; nothing bad, but probably one or two slow ones too many.

Confronted with a single like "My Moon My Man," what the hell do the slightly lackluster cuts count for? Men and women alike could melt at the propulsive piano but especially at Feist's request that you take it slow, take it easy on her; this could very well be the first pop song of the millennium that is actually too short. In general, these songs make their point in the sweetest and most succinct way they can. Each is a riff of sorts on an idea established on LET IT DIE. "So Sorry" is from the same camp as "Gatekeeper," but it stretches and builds in new ways; the vocals, probably the best on the album, expand on the song in all the right ways, and it's anguished and haunting but still strangely ingratiating. Even in the forceful drama of "I Feel It All" -- perfect Monday morning driving music -- the charm is always there. Bouncy and beautiful as the major international hit "1234" is, it's far from the highlight.

"Sealion" is the unlikely nutzoid rock move, "The Water" the best and most infectious slow-jam of the lot, "Honey Honey" sounds like a Prince b-side, and "Brandy Alexander" is the kind of sweetness that most people in the indie rock community would have been embarrassed to sincerely believe in ten years ago. Even the lesser songs are kind to the ears, and "The Park" is the only track that really wears out its welcome. One does miss the lounge and disco connotations of LET IT DIE on "One Evening" and "Inside & Out," that album seemingly having been less concerned with the hipster demographic. But it's just as possible that she's just versatile as fuck.

"The Limit to Your Love" is currently just about my favorite song in the world, sung with John Lennon-like intensity, witty in lyric and melody and arrangement all, and astonishingly seductive and sad. It's a microcosm for both this album and LET IT DIE. In conclusion, gaargh, this album is so fucking great. That's the best I can do.

Awesome album cover too, by the way.

Can't believe I said that about "Park," a sulking masterpiece. "Sealion" isn't the only nonoriginal and is a brutal, immersive calculation; Feist didn't write "1234" either. Its reputation and clout -- iPod commercial, Sesame Street cameo, Letterman performance, cheery video -- doesn't match up with its crushing sadness. Money can't buy you back the love that you had then. I do still believe "The Limit to Your Love" is her best song; soulful, resigned, dark, it almost mocks in its yearning. You can't even imagine how many strange strands of memories all this conjures up. That line in "1234" I'm around the side of the building at the grocery store I always go to, the part they've demolished now. "The Limit to Your Love" I'm in the lot at work waiting out the end of my lunch; I don't typically listen to music at lunch unless I'm in a pretty dour mood. I remember how enveloped I gradually felt by all the dramatic development in "Limit," and then that piano pound into the chorus, the narrow-eyed realization of the title.

The morning after the breakup, I took the disc into the car and "I Feel It All" was blaring obnoxiously as I hit the stoplights on the way to work after Labor Day weekend. The triumphant ringing and build on vocals helped me feel like I was driving away from more than home but also the life of the prior number of years I don't care to count, that I was driving into the future -- and in the meantime with "So Sorry" I could have some vision of tranquility in that peerlessly well-armed performance, my guard up all the way to the melancholic "Limit" and "1234" but all with the feeling that I was intact, that I could look to the future and feel it all. A year later and still in mourning for something or other I'd see a bland romcom trailer while seeing a movie by myself (of course) and "I Feel It All" underscored all the emotional climaxes and, in the mood then to take everything to its worst possible conclusion, I decided that the fact I'd ever experienced some sort of catharsis from this was laughable, that I was old. That I didn't really know anything about music at all and hadn't learned anything and my own emotional applications to it were an out-of-touch joke. That vision of tranqulity was tranqulity, Feist doesn't sing she sings, and yikes "Limit to Your Love" is pure WGNI call-in melodrama, "1234" a commercial. My entire self-constructed world deflated, a joke.

But a lot happened in between there, which explains some of that internal shift. There was someone in between, a whole relationship and a far healthier one to boot, happily a sign of a future well-adjustment and maturity that I'm glad to say has proven the path I've somehow set myself down -- my wanderings into introspective sadness are mostly by choice now and help me write nonsense like this, sometimes horrifyingly enough getting paid for it -- despite still not really knowing much of anything. The Reminder played while I had guacamole for the first time ever and it was also the first time I didn't listen alone, and "Past in Present" suddenly was clear, "Brandy Alexander" and "Honey Honey" with their groaning decadence. All the songs sounded different, like "Limit to Your Love" I seem to remember as just drunken, a pronouncement from some height that was really deceptively clear and unfogged, that you'd better not forget the crux of what you're singing about because there's a limit.

I've written before here, I think in regard to Galaxie 500, about the period in my life shortly after that, the spring, when I slept in the living room on a really terrible pullout couch with the screen on this thing dimmed and noisy, reading about early America and watching strange movies like Aguirre, the point being I was really on my own, my lifestyle was an insular strange thing that didn't make much sense outside of this odd construct of mine. I hadn't recovered from traveling, which I'd done earlier in the year alone, and something about being inside and carrying on any semblance of old routines really scared me, right down I guess to sleeping in my bed. The night I returned I turned the Fox station on really loud even though it was really bad sitcoms all night just because the silence was horrifying me, the bigness of the world suddenly proven. "Intuition" I'm sure I caught wisps of its horrible resignation before but I can really sense the dimness of the room -- I'd leave most of the lights out -- and smell the smells of the food I'd bring home and think about the regular silence of that world, it's vivid in a way that I don't typically find (perhaps because of my age at the time?) from the images I get out of music, especially at the closing Leonard Cohen-like "did I? did I?" chorus. The same goes for the noir curiosity "The Water," which recalls for me the experience of walking in this neighborhood quietly by myself, hoping to observe something and never seeing anything, wishing like crazy to be somewhere else. Once I took Let It Die out in my Discman -- my fucking Discman -- and found it so damned sad I couldn't finish it, but I had similar experiences at the time while attempting to clean this apartment to the tune of Yo La Tengo's Beat Your Ass and a Surfin' Sixties compilation, so I guess I was just sort of fucked up.

The heaviness of heart there reached what I now realize was its climax, I guess, about a year and a month after I bought The Reminder. I went to a wedding in the Midwest in late September 2008; on the way back to the airport, my friend and I stopped at a large book-music exchange in Kansas City. I bought a signed copy of an Audrey Nieffenger book for my mom; he bought The Reminder on CD, having only acquired it before as a download. He put it in as we drove onward, and that was one of the hardest things I've ever experienced. These are just instruments, just a voice, why can music do this to a person? The "I Feel It All" ringing out was too much again, "So Sorry" just hung me back to hopes of before, "The Park" was sadness so real that it populated, that gorgeous acoustic guitar and wordless gravity. Couldn't see, couldn't hear, in a daze when the lady at the airport counter told me I really needed to get my driver's license replaced and said I looked like one of the Jonas Brothers.

I wasn't there. All I could think was: the seasons have changed from present to past. There was a limit to your love; is there always a limit to love? Not for everyone, clearly; people were getting married, life was going on, and I had to talk myself into walking into doors -- not because of any event, not because of any personal deficiency or some Mr. Fixit problem I could attend to, but because everything was all too much and I needed help I wouldn't seek out, finally finding my own unorthodox things but don't do that to yourself, I beg you, please don't close yourself off more. I didn't understand depression, didn't take that seriously, thought it was all some tangible thing I could parse out and power through with words and closing off, sometimes in ways it was hard to repair later. So: Find some kind of a base and don't let a whole year, especially a year in which you do more fun and crazy things you ever had before, disappear under the weight of your own unwillingness to engage with the world. Otherwise you might get on a plane and not see or hear anything -- I have no memory of the flight home or the days after -- except that subtle picking in "Intuition" ringing in your head, how you might have changed it all for him, did I did I, money can't buy you back the love that you had then, there's so much past inside my present, and this is how my heart behaves.

That's when you (I) realize that probably by accident, this record has become its title. Through no fault of Leslie Feist's, she is keeping ghosts and demons alive for you any time you push the iTunes play button. Now you can go there when you want to because you're OK, but it's still what it says it is -- it's a visit to all that, for better or worse. It's like opening a box. Beautiful in a way, but dangerous and surprisingly powerful for this "adult contemporary claptrap" that plays in romcom movie trailers. So fascinating what we can wrap up in something, and how much our experiences can eclipse everything about a piece of art until those experiences are all we can hear in it any longer.

Metals (2011)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Andy Statman: Nashville Mornings, New York Nights (1986)



On the basis of the delightful cover alone, I had to investigate this $1 item seen in a record store bargain bin. Expecting kitsch, I was instead given a prestigious experience, the most mindbending mandolin showcase this side of Bill Monroe. Statman's music is a bit hard to explain succinctly; influenced equally by klezmer and country, he plays clarinet in addition to the mandolin and his work hops and strides through genres with improvisational chutzpah and great band interplay. His excellent band here (including Bela Fleck) runs through these alternately soothing and audacious instrumental pieces at a cheerfully advanced pace.

Your favorite material here will depend on your feelings about bluegrass raveups and fiddle interludes ("Old Country" and "Apple Pickin' Girl" are strong examples), but there's plenty of pretty, intricate picking here along with some hyperactive complexity that belies the theoretically basic arrangements; listen to the way Statman and company fly up and over the boogie-woogie groove on "Ariela's First Step." As strong, dignified, joyous as all of the record is, it's best when it lapses into romance ("Joshua's Waltz") or eccentricity ("I Do Not Ride the Horse"). Best of all, the record ends with the mandolin-bluegrass equivalent of an apocalyptic Lou Reed freakout, a fun speculation all by itself. $1 well spent for sure.

The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (2009)



You wouldn't need to walk far in my home state to find someone who loves the Avett Brothers, nor much farther for someone who thinks the Avett Brothers were a great act who are now vicious sellouts, Rick Rubin major label monkeys, Dave Matthews Band openers. All this, especially the elements of it that trade in the "authenticity" so beloved to alt-country stalwarts, misses the entire appeal of this really rather wonderful band, whose greatest work is this polished, studio-centric, soft and safe Rubin creation. The thing is that theirs is adult music in every sense of the term, honest and romantic and fucked the hell up, and it lives in this secret place that you might find elusive until a certain point in your life. Doesn't matter if you're young or old or whatever's in between those elastic terms. At some point, you are going to know what it means when Seth says he hopes you won't think he's insane when he says there's darkness all around us, and that sometimes he needs her to protect him.

That line, the one about protection, is remarkable. That's the moment of shed-everything directness and wisdom that an entire difficult career has led to. The Avett Brothers have not been a flashing, sudden entity; over a lengthy series of albums, they've developed at times painfully slowly, primarily because it seems their interests are precise and specific: to distort nothing of their emotional signal, to bleed their hearts in as unadorned and unafraid a sense as possible. But beyond that, this is how bands used to be allowed to develop, and we've seen that even groups with limited economic prowess (the Walkmen, Yo La Tengo) can become something grander than imagined in initial incarnation. But alt-country is something different; it features some extraordinary bands (Old 97's are unquestionable; we'll save my perversely passionate feelings toward OCMS for another time), but it's an Attitude thing. Alt-country has no Leonard Cohen or Marvin Gaye willing to crawl on his knees for nothing beyond the sake of his own at times embarrassing feelings. The Avett Brothers are willing to lay all of that on the line, and this is one of a few reasons they don't fit the alt-country rubric. They're country musicians in the purest sense; they talk about January weddings and feelings of grownup malaise and vivid fear the way Hank Williams talked about jumping into lakes or getting choked up in church.

So I and Love and You, damn the haters, marks a major progression on everything they've done before. Emotionalism had been a great record with a few cuts stronger than anything on their Sony debut... but the cumulative effect and thematic intelligence of this LP eclipses it. Not designed for the hipster-cool or detached kitsch that has come to inform much of the alt-country cult, this is an extremely well-crafted pop album designed to inspire passion in people who will recognize its aching beauty.

And of course, aching beauty can be interpreted (and dismissed) as cheese; the mournful title track has strings made for a Starbucks night (it's not so ironic that Sony played up the coffeehouse NPR-country angle by cross-promoting the Avetts there), and "January Wedding" may be the corniest thing any artistically major rock band has put out with a straight face in the last several years. It's a calculated risk because it is conversely one of the most beautifully unaffected, fearless, and genuine. At times I think it's the best relationship song I know about; with no airs at all, it describes a love worth saving and doing battle for. Hardly a new subject for the Avett Brothers, but as on the rest of this album, the lyrics have such a thrilling clarity and humility it's difficult not to be moved long after you've become your neighborhood's love-song curmudgeon. It's too on the nose to be "This Must Be the Place," but we've not come so close in a long time.

Scott and Seth Avett trade lead vocals throughout the record; both have gradually become nuanced singers whose work brims with sadness and soul. They inject plenty of warmth into a series of atypically elaborate, rockist arrangements -- "Head Full of Doubt" gets its depth from the singing more even than its nostalgic piano, which also offsets more of the pronounced "darkness" (the band's word) that seems forever around the corner within these songs' inner lives. The yearning melody the pair brings to "Tin Man" helps to make the incongruous "full on" nature (with goofy Hollywood brass) of that song healthy until the uncomfortable hybrid itself becomes a center of appeal. And producer Rubin is all over material like "Slight Figure of Speech" whose connection to the Avetts' general material seems tenuous at best, but Rubin also brings out a perfect pop wisdom in something like "It Goes On and On" (more lovely piano rolling) and the absolutely brilliant "Kick Drum Heart," a mindbendingly blissful piece of driving determination, a preparation for some sort of liftoff that teases, only taking hold with a deliciously brief screaming climax before falling away back into the heartbeat shadows. What a kick in the ironists' teeth to hear a modern group devoting themselves so passionately to a classicist, minimalist but gloriously suggestive pop song. And not that it matters the first time, but the lyrics are again knocked out of the park. "It's not the chase that I love," goes the confession, "it's me, following you."

Of course, one thing that gets lost somewhere in here is nearly all semblance of country music. That isn't such a bad thing, nor an inappropriate thing when you consider how far afield Nashville country has gone at this point, but some will inevitably feel it's an example of compromise. The problem with that notion is that the most country-leaning tunes here tend to take the longest to ingratiate. A particular offender is the Scott Avett-led "Ten Thousand Words," a sort of twangy variation on the Sandals' "Theme from Endless Summer" that's almost painfully slow. It's too long and repetitive, but it works better on repeated exposure -- and it's redeemed entirely by the audaciously liberating bluegrass interlude that closes "Laundry Room," a later cut marked by its almost inhumane prettiness. And that of course is another leading trait to the Avetts' newer music. The soul pop "Ill with Want" has the rootsy firepower of Wilco or Lucinda Williams, other erstwhile country musicians, but along with piano showpiece "The Perfect Space," its initial appeal is based primarily on its delicate aesthetics -- in the most unfashionable adult contemporary sense, both songs sound cushy and instantly appealing.

That's reductive, of course, because those two cuts also nail the complex, advanced emotions the Avetts seek to capture here; every word of the smartly prescient rant in "The Perfect Space" about the sort of friends you wish you had will ring mortifyingly true to anyone who's spent time alone among pals, and "Ill with Want" has maybe the key sentence of the LP: "Something has me acting like someone I don't wanna be." Comparing the raw and naked lyrics with their delicate, proper arrangements is interesting and reaches back to no less than Pet Sounds, but that makes it more of a relief when "And It Spread," another ferocious cry against at all, allows for such glorious acoustic catharsis.

Since its release, at which point I had the feeling there was "something" about it, I and Love and You has deepened in importance for me. There's a lot of talk about American indie music (which this isn't, but it shares an audience profile) hitting the thirtysomething demographic and becoming the modern soundtrack of MOR romantic comedies and car commercials. But the Avett Brothers have reacted to advancement by learning how to speak directly to my age group; the young-marrieds, the new-parents, the still-singles, the still-confuseds. They approach it masterfully by suggesting a desperation to break out without really wanting to, a bleakness they're aware of but don't fully want to surrender to, a constantly looming specter of further aging and more yet met with both hope and apprehension. In another lovably direct song, Stephin Merritt called it "things we're all too young to know." Leonard Cohen, twenty years ago now, lifted his glass to "the awful truth, which you can't reveal to the ears of youth." The Avetts are incomplete and insecure, but they also would like us to be aware that the woman who protects them "knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they're performing." In January they're getting married, and that small insignificant thing somehow means something in the only context they (and we) are really permitted to live with.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Clash (1977)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

This will never happen again. It was too much of a miracle to begin with. That Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Terry Chimes (soon replaced by Topper Headon) and Paul Simonon found one another at all required a series of coincidences and the strange fusion of scenes and circles in the mid-'70s London punk scene. This isn't the magic, though. The magic we can no longer have is the cultural monolith for a band like the Clash to raise a sucker punch against -- and that was all a big image anyway, some frilly neon Way Things Are to kick down. Who knows if it was any truer then? Crucial to the Clash was their commercial intelligence, their awareness of the power of illusion, the illusion to create an enemy. To be working class would've been one thing, and not wholly relevant; fuck, the Rolling Stones were prep school boys. Strummer would talk in later years about the Clash being boot camp. You dropped everything, you threw your identity away, and everything would become the band, all of yourself a party to it and a participant.

We don't have time to reveal the history of the Clash, but suffice to say it's got the Dickensian intricacy of some Pulitizer prize winning epic novel, the very thing you can pretend Marcus Gray's biography of the band (Last Gang in Town) is. What matters to us is the knockdown drag-out relentlessness of one specific iteration, idea, theory of the Clash. Let's even disregard punk for a moment; what's punk turned out to be aside from one more buzz word? In their all too brief prime, the Clash may have been the definitive rock & roll band -- restlessly creative and intelligent but remaining committed to the basest of base impulse in their work, the Bo Diddley beat and the blasted-out soundsystem, so much more than the One Chord Wonders public image limited of "punk." An upending of pop is what this is ("phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust"), a documentarylike capturing of the frenetic within a galvanizing and hard-working band thoroughly dedicated to craft. Such an intrinsic understanding of impact, of how this lively protest music is so much more than a pretty voice against some bastard tide. And wit, above all. "London's Burning," they said, with boredom. How can something be so well defined and so appealing by these reductive definitions? But if "Janie Jones" is compressed Beatles, Ramones rivalry, why's it so humongous and exhausting? The Clash were about essence, about altering, about seriousness. Seriousness and wit, a miracle (oh, that word again) of the time.

Do we want to run down the list of all these instances of directness and electricity? Let's have a bit of levity, or not, like when Joe Strummer breaks into a giggle on "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" that turns out to be itself a put-on when he chases it harshly with the cockeyed accusation "Ho, you think it's funny? / Turning rebellion into money." In that meantime, that's reggae you're hearing (repeated on the masterpiece cover of "Police & Thieves"), an expression of both solidarity and virtuosity -- disparate influence as a mere inflection, something else the Clash shares with the Beatles. It's the Troggs I think of on the cheerily hammering "Hate & War" though, the Troggs tackling something important. What's important to the Clash? Poverty, racism, alienation, commercialism, anger playing as hard as you can -- the usual punk shit, sans apathy. The Clash are apathetic about nothing. Ever. Everything matters. Everything will continue to matter.

We're talking about the U.S. album here, and we're aware this is a copout and one more instance of Seppo decadence and myopia: I grew up with this LP, therefore it is the LP. CBS didn't think there'd be a market for the Clash here in America where we were only interested in heavy and overblown things, but they had to import so many copies they finally relented... but not until 1979, by which time history had passed. The result is actually a compilation record of sorts, gathering most of the early Clash singles and lopping off about half their actual debut album and to boot throwing in a brand new recording (issued on the EP Cost of Living over there), a weaving and unexpectedly grand take on Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law," with glorious guitar and arrangement. Like The Beatles' Second Album, this unabashed piece of product that everyone knew was a ripoff accidentally stacks together some of the greatest rock recordings of all time, which is saying a lot because nothing is greater than the greatest rock & roll, and some people even voice the belief that it's the best slab of vinyl ever pressed, this. Still... fucks. Meddling of this sort led the band to publicly denounce their label back in 77 Present Day because they released the comparatively feeble "Remote Control," intended just as an album cut, as a single. That pissed them off so much they wrote a song about it, mocking the fact they'd been told that "complete control" was theirs (containment wasn't), but here we were. A humiliation for CBS Records.

A humiliation, and one of those "greatest recordings" aforementioned. Fucking A, "Complete Control," the very title twisting the knife, is an act of heroism. Closeness, fury, a towering conclusion, the slap in the face of Capricorn Records coke rock: "you're my guitar hero!" shouted during a primitive solo. The bent sophistication really kicks off here, something that really extends far beyond the brutish infectious beginning "White Riot" and points the way forward to a band so eclectic you could program a night's worth of their songs without much trace of repetition. Fast forward to "What's My Name" to reveal their way with both a crushingly personal lyric about depression and madness, and the menace and apocalypse of built-up production and layered guitars. It's so loud, it has to be loud! You only get the richness of it when it's loud. They're explosive, and it's not like when the Pistols were scary which they could be, it's something more in the head, less to make an impression, personable in its insanity.

There's a little bit of the Lydonesque sneering abandon here and the Clash is plenty good at it -- "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." is one of the definitive collisions of menacing riffage and sarcasm since the Stones' heyday, while the brash humor in the lyrics of "Career Opportunities" is so appealing and well-written you almost miss what a bit of pop pleasure the song is -- but their interests lie elsewhere. One happy fixation is the guitar, the things you can do with it in the most courageously nonchalant and unembellished context. The Sex Pistols were pretend amateurs; the Clash didn't see much point in acting like they didn't want you to think they cared, which they so! obviously! did!, even if that behavior marked a clear inspiration. "Clash City Rockers" tries to hold up the brash badass image but the bridge reveals the real sophistication underneath. More clues are on the deeply detailed hard rock of "Jail Guitar Doors" and "Garageland," the former full of interacting if thrillingly basic guitar lines, the latter melodic and rife with emotion, a statement of purpose -- I just want to stay in the garage all night and not hear "where the rich are going," we're a garage band.

This record is fucking staggering, still, it's like fireworks and no distraction -- all good stuff, the true instant greatest hits (far better than Never Mind the Bollocks). It's not everything the Clash could be but it's the definitive and most lasting idea of the Clash, the instant when just playing their loudest angriest most revealing tunes was enough. You feel it all over you, and it's never forced or dumb or insincere. Totally alive, as alive as anything gets, as alive as your Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry 45's. It was overexcitement to say no one else matters, but it's easy to see why such a thing was done, because you hear the stuff the Clash did in 1977 and it's like oh, fuck everything else. On first pass, they emerge to the very top of the British punk heap -- where they remain to this day. But legacy is nothing. Pedestals are nothing. This is immediate, bare, now, direct. If you're not in its path just forget recorded music, it ain't fer you.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (2012)



On the follow-up to 2004's underrated Dear Heather, North America's finest songwriter sounds cursed by his pedestal. Once an outlier in his slate of mid-'80s apocalyptic warnings you could dance to, "Hallelujah" has become his signature tune, and an impossible foundation: you get the sense that every new Leonard Cohen song that dissects desire, wickedness and sin is designed as a hymn, an open hand risen up to the heavens.

He knows he's good at such hushed, spiritual material, particularly as his voice wears down and cackles with knowing irony. Is it wrong, though, during an LP that embodies some of the strongest songs and lyrics in his four-decade career, to miss the unhinged moments? The beats? The menace?

The calm resignation of aging on Old Ideas is moving, but it's hard not to feel regret when he expounds and seduces but almost never bites, as though he's holding back out of professionalism. Kinkier oddball selections "Amen" and "Different Sides" provide some relief, and when Cohen sneers "Come on baby, give me a kiss/Stop writing everything down," this record suddenly seems worth the seven-year wait.

[Originally published in Metro Times.]

Since submitting the review above, I've come to feel I underrated this record a bit, even though I was already somewhat smitten with the majority of it after my first pass. The only parts really subject to the named criticisms come later on in the second half, picking back up for a glorious finish. This is certainly second-tier Cohen for me, but it's sobering and humbling all the same.

Dear Heather (2004)

Handsome Boy Modeling School: So... How's Your Girl? (1999)

(Tommy Boy)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Big mistake of the year so far was devoting time to this because of a long-running admiration of Prince Paul and something that I guess could be termed "not exactly distaste" for Dan the Automator. This Get a Life-inspired oddity was their college radio-approved collaboration, and it... it... it sounds like the kind of hip hop record that college radio stations would approve of. Profoundly inoffensive and insipid, it's a chestnut of a time when it took more trip than hip to appeal to purportedly edgy gatekeepers of the "alternative" universe.

The lame sitcom premise of this bland record isn't much worth considering here; the big issue is that this pair's production talent doesn't translate at all to any great skill as performers. They seem aware of this, bringing in a hefty number of guests (including Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Mike D) who can't lift up the deadweight of the album's flimsy humor and flat beats. It's a testament to the dated anonymity of the music and lyrics that we're repeatedly asked to "check it out" when the question inevitably is, what are we checking out? There isn't anything! Other verses go on about computer viruses and DVDs against awkward sampling of classical music and AM soul hits, none of which are any less off-rhythm and stupid than the rapping.

This is all very much of its time, so it sometimes translates -- as on "Metaphysical" -- to astonishingly diluted Fugees; when you can see past the schoolboy performing and conceptual pretensions, there are some pleasant enough grooves. "The Truth" is perfectly passable until the whiny cringeworthy rhyming comes in. Usually, though, songs like "Sunshine" come off as parodies of sincere and skilled soul music, as though a mockery of things the Handsome Boys aren't gifted enough to duplicate, and that's bullshit. I have more to complain about, but I ain't even gonna finish this song; it's too long.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (2008)



Suppose you had a really great night. Doesn't matter what you did, eating out or having sex or clubbing or going to a Revolutionary War battlefield or watching Fantasia on a shag carpet, at the end of it you felt almost dizzy with magic-hour energy and you knew it was a time you'd remember permanently, and it might have covered just a scant three or four hours but you'll turn every minute over forever in your mind. If you could package that night, whether you've enjoyed such an experience or not, a credible theory holds that it would sound like Made in the Dark.

This blistering, crazily fast-paced pop potpourri of every dressed-up sonic impulse that ever befitted modern dance music, disco down to synthpop down to drum & bass ("Bendable Poseable" tackles it by way of U2's "Numb," all menace), was criminally misunderstood at the time as a somewhat empty refinement of Hot Chip's prior record, The Warning, a great one by all means and one with a heavy drift of melancholy and anxiety that's hard to locate on the sequel. But there's more than that; the Hot Chip of this record is lipsticked and drunk and ready, determined perhaps above all else to permanently bury the notion that synth and beat-driven music is a necessarily cold and moody affair. Taking cues as much from Donna Summer as OMD, this is a record that seems primed to explode from sheer liveliness, its every second well-crafted, entertaining, relentlessly banging, and occasionally as moving as "Boy from School" or "No Fit State"... sometimes even more so.

For those of us who joined Hot Chip at this point, it can be tough to admit that the album is mostly a refinement; being perfectly honest, I've thought of it that way for a long time now. After initially discovering it shortly after its release, I ended up putting it away for a very long time and concentrating on The Warning and later One Life Stand. But when I broke Made in the Dark from its dormancy, it seemed to jump up and all about in three dimensions thoroughly dedicated to taking me back to its world and its time, beckoning and then pulling and then running alongside. The 5000 Volts rollerdisco factory that opens the album, "Out at the Pictures," opens with the perfect nasty slow burn until its robotic relentlessness gives way to "Shake a Fist," a jungle-force dance floor subversion with high-level funk on its falsetto vocals. The heroic intensity of both songs is offset by the band's waning habit of simply playing around, here with a nonsensical interlude about "sounds of the studio." (Later on, an entire song about watching TV wrestling, and a tick tick time delay.)

But they get all that out of the way fast, because "Ready for the Floor" is pretty serious business: "do it do it do it now," chants the opening groove -- killer disgusting of course, before we're ready for a fall: a hellish beat, a polite Pet Shop Boys breakdown, a wonderfully fragmented pop song. When singers Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard start really trading their lines back and forth and that joyous sense of mutual creation takes over, you're in heaven, which incidentally is the subject of "Hold On," an insistent follow-on from both the insistence of "Ready" and the tricky undercurrent of "Boy from School" all colliding with Camouflage and early Depeche Mode, but it's a grand moment because it's the kind of hedonistic anthem that indie-courting dance music so doggedly loves to avoid. As zen messages go, you could do worse than the apt "Don't Dance," which of course is actually a totally reckless dance cut, in stop-start half formation; when it suddenly breaks in, it's breathtaking and it tastes like caramel.

The unique seating of Made in the Dark among the Hot Chip catalog might be its full integration of their modern Maximum R&B. There's still synthpop infection on "We're Looking for a Lot of Love," but at a deeper level it's pure slow jam: those perfect vocals, that bass line, that crazy chorus and whether it matters to you or not, the sly lyrics that add on to the unexpected rush of emotion. The title track's a hushed and beautiful showstopper, the short and perfect heartbreak anthem evoking the lover's pulse at closing; don't hit me with a chair for saying it, but even the novelty bit "Wrestlers" is Prince minimal and funkily repetitive, with supreme Whispers bridge -- and hey, the jokes work, even the listing of wrestling moves that gradually loses coherence. And if you said enough's enough, "Touch Too Much" may win you back, a classicist synth-funk concoction almost involuntary in its celebratory encitement of bodily movement, but the soul music remains, a debt that in the end seems far more interesting than all that the group shares with forefathers DM and PSB (they even end the album along the same lines as Very, with a short ethereal instrumental piece).

A model of pacing, Made in the Dark propels along at a clip for eleven tracks, every song a morsel. Then at the finale, it stops short a bit, it seems intentionally: with the artificial Mr. Mister slow one "Whistle for WIll" and the semi-gospel piano balladry of "In the Privacy of Our Love," which is in some ways a fitting conclusion -- the retreat back into normalcy and reflection after the grand time out. The effect is the same, anyway; you know you'll love them always now. It could be just romance, I guess; Taylor had just gotten married and the whole album's written about that experience. For me it's something more singular, something about the way all of the various things that might affect you emotionally are what they are, and it's the emotions themselves that linger and shape the narrative of your life, color it.

But we've missed talking about "One Pure Thought," because it's special. An army of exclamation marks would seem insufficient. This is the epicenter of the triumph, the moment when the adrenaline rushes most of all -- especially in memory. The song's too good, too much of a perfect fusion of confusion and melody and dance, probably the best song of its kind since the New Order days, to grab ahold of all at once. It has to endure in the mind, perhaps along with the vague suggestion of some peak of life, some real determination of living it. (All the lives of these people stopping long enough to dance, etc.) I don't know what it's really about. I won't be on my way, or I will? The yearn in Taylor's voice at the chorus, that's what it's about. But you think about being somewhere when it's on, and as soon as that cacophonious guitar intro starts, you're completely there.

One Life Stand (2010)
We Have Remixes EP (2010)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Albert Ammons: The Boogie Woogie Man (1936-44)



Albert Ammons was one of the pioneers of boogie woogie as a commercial music, a pianist who legendarily backed Joe Turner at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and successfully sold the world on a new sort of dance music, one of the major building blocks of rock & roll. He played the blues for his entire life, but his career was kick started after he met fellow pianist Lux Lewis while working as a cab driver in the '20s. His bending, funky variation on the sort of material Fats Waller was playing at the time would catapult his career; he'd ultimately collaborate with Benny Goodman, among many other legends, and would play at Harry Truman's second inauguration in 1949. Sadly, that same year he'd succumb to failing health and die all too young, meaning he'd never live to see his innovations vindicated as a crucial element in a new force of artistic expression, his improvisation and style set to shadow the decades to follow.

Fortunately, he left behind a treasured body of work, and this budget-line CD is a fantastic sampler that remains entertaining and propulsive for more than seventy minutes (though I'd advise you to divide it in half for comfortable listening). It's jazz with a cheeky kick, dance music with impeccable craft and enthusiasm. Ammons is a top-level piano player, and his work takes center stage against some formidable collaborators here, from Lewis and Turner to Pete Johnson and trumpet player Harry James. The occasional tinge of melancholy to "St. Louis Blues," "Sixth Avenue Express" and "Chicago in Mind" only enhances the utter joy in "Bass Goin' Crazy," "Boogie Woogie Stomp," and the million seller "Swanee River Boogie." They're all a blast, and the groove's never dated. Introduce yourself to Ammons now if you haven't already.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Joanna Newsom: Ys (2006)

(Drag City)


Here's an instance of an artist I love taking me on a journey I'd probably be unwilling to travel under most circumstances. Two years ago in this space, I spent a lot of time attempting to gauge and interpret the conceptual meaning of Newsom's Have One on Me, a record I cherish immensely -- but when I imagine doing the same for Ys, despite its relative brevity, I'm too intimidated and a little sleepy. It's fascinating to journey back four years in time to arrive at this, this strange figure encased in something for an otherworldly and intimately sprawling experience that seems so far removed from the earthy, funny Newsom of Have One or the young smart melodicist of The Milk Eyed Mender. This record is meant to be art, to mean something, and I can't pretend I feel qualified to speak to all that. But I love it just the same.

Newsom seems distant, cautious here; the music's more precisely arranged than on her other two albums, and the tracks tend to be immersive and wandering. There are only periodic injections of what now seems her typical vocal warmth, but those moments are the key to the record. And what is the story of this album? I went and checked at SongMeanings to see what I could find out and came away disappointed; instead of debating about the imagery in "Emily," the fans there would prefer to question whether it's even a "song" or is in fact "so much more." I blush when I read Newsom rhyming "see" with "thee" and mixing up astronomy terms in her high-minded poetry. The lyrics are felt, but throughout this record there's a creative distance, an absence of the kind of personal spark and messy emotion that bleeds through on her best songs, "Occident" to "This Side of the Blue," so that I tend to want to ignore these lyrics with the overly practiced hint of the artfully protective. The clues to what Joanna Newsom is thinking are in her voice, and it's the voice that makes these words moving, not so artificial, not so writerly and impersonal.

Musically, Ys is her most ambitious effort so far, which in some ways should brand it a piece of arts & crafts folky prog rock, and admittedly there's a touch of that -- I'm not convinced pop songs should have movements, nor do I really feel that any song that's not "Sister Ray" has much business prattling on for a quarter hour. But I also feel hypnotized by this music in a sense that flags only a couple of times during the fifty-five minutes. There are only five songs here, each with moments that seem as stirringly beautiful as any kind of modern American music gets, helped along by two crucial contraditions: that between the cerebral and the heartfelt, and the unadorned versus the meticulously arranged.

Ys, as proven on the tour Newsom went on to promote it, owes a good deal to Appalachian folk music and benefits from a stark instrumental setup. Newsom forgoes the piano for the album's duration, lingering at the harp from start to finish. In an alternate version released the following year of "Cosmia," you can hear what the songs sound like in the banjo-driven getup she took out on the road. The song seems more personal but somehow less absorbing and beautiful; is the surface-level florid gloriousness of the album preferable, or is the feeling (so prominent on the other two albums) that Newsom is exorcising something? Either way, there's no denying that Steve Albini's clean, crystal-clear approach to the sonics of Newsom's performance is a cut above the aural quality of what we've heard before and since from her, and the dream collaboration with Van Dyke Parks here with his constantly twisting and unpredictable strings and perfectly complementary ideas is a good fit for these songs, actually a far better fit than his more famous joint venture with a pop A-lister.

The best Newsom moments for me, as implied, are not just gorgeous but smart and witty and deeply affecting. After a fresh listen to Ys, I find that my issues with it (the prog flatness of "Monkey & Bear" despite its irresistible Andrews Sisters intro, the audacious overlength of "Only Skin" despite its fine lyrics and dreamlike conclusion) have deepened over the years... but so has my appreciation of those moments on which something really felt and moving bursts through, almost always in the vocals. The small moments are rewarding: the way she sings the line "being a woman" on "Only Skin" redeems all sixteen minutes; her gradual transformation from whispering respectability to fuck-all abandon on "Emily," the drama that gives that song its loving thrust. But the big ones are, well, huge. "Sawdust & Diamonds" sounds like a Leonard Cohen song but with an undercurrent of optimism he wouldn't allow, and there's never been a better showcase for her voice. She purrs and bites like Björk (uncannily at times) and the song lets her really break, really get lost in a moment like nothing until "Occident" in 2010 would allow for so extended a time.

And is "Cosmia" the best Joanna Newsom song? I'm extremely partial to "This Side of the Blue," which rescued me in more than one dark moment, but there's something about the seductive spirit in this song trying to embrace enormous concepts of life and death and flittering toward the light -- it's her best melody, her best and warmest pure expression of an idea, and during its seven minutes nothing can convince you that Ys isn't incredibly valuable. "Sawdust & Diamonds" and "Cosmia" alone transcend every quibble about the record, with "Emily" serving as a backup. No matter how you feel about the lofty and sometimes oversized ambitions of this album, it's likely that something about it will win you over and keep you returning. It's unquestionably the most difficult and flawed of the three LPs, but hey, there's value in that too.

Have One on Me (2010)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Brown: In the Jungle Groove (1969-86)



I've really got to call my friend Anthony and ask him how he feels about James Brown these days. We used to sit around talking about girls and listening to old soul music and our favorites were Ben E. King, Otis Redding, and especially Sam Cooke. I was surprised to hear him somewhat dismissive of Brown the first time we talked about him, and remember him focusing back on Cooke to demonstrate a belief that by exposing a greater emotional range, by actually exhibiting containment and artful calculation, he was a true artist of considerable depth and Brown just flew off the handle, a boy busting out with vague snatches of pounding funk all strung together. Though I couldn't deny that Cooke and Redding stirred some pretty deep shit in me that no one else did necessarily, I did counter by saying that JB too was capable of documenting desperation and need, which seemed to be what moved us both about the others' best records, on "Please, Please, Please" and "Try Me" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." My larger defense of Brown, though, was that his brand of catharsis was really no less valid and sophisticated than what you hear on "Hawg for You" or "Chain Gang," just expressed differently and all the more like something from a plane beyond what most of us can really explain -- a kind of avant garde burst of feeling.

Those three songs didn't change his mind and I left it alone, but later Anthony heard me playing "It's a New Day," included as the opening track on this watershed compilation, and it messed his theory up a little bit. In the Jungle Groove was getting a lot of play from me around that time; I was in one of my heavy Beatles bootleg phases and I think it was the only non-Liverpudlian thing I was listening to frequently right then. Sometime after processing it once or twice I could tell Anthony started to turn around, and the revelation came in one stilted word: "band." James Brown wasn't a phenomenal singer, he was a phenomenal bandleader, and his psychological playground was the body. Yours, mine, everyone's -- which is no less deep or important or resonant than those "honest you do" refrains on "You Send Me." "It wasn't just about him," Anthony mused, "it was about all of the group. He was channeling things for them."

At the time of its release in 1986, Jungle Groove was basically a cash-in. Brown had some commercial success in the '80s but certainly faced a growing reputation as a sort of novelty or nostalgia act. In the same way that Endless Summer represented a canonization of a band that was growing artistically stale, Groove is a reconfiguration of the entire idea of James Brown and his career. It's hard to say how much his legacy today owes to this collection, but it's not unthinkable that this reactionary move to the increasing popularity of Brown's work as sampled material in hip hop is still reflected in the way that people think of James Brown.

Certainly, as a sampler of the turntable-ready beats-and-grooves within Brown's canon, In the Jungle Groove is unbeatable. The centerpiece would be the hypnotic "Funky Drummer," twelve full minutes (including reprise) of this once-rare holy grail of funky, dirge-like rants. The nine tracks here are focused upon cohesion rather than chronology or any comprehensive aspirations -- there are plenty of other CDs for that -- jumping around between classics and far-flung obscurities, original recordings to outtakes to remixes. As an introduction to the depth of Brown's catalog, you'll find it wanting; it doesn't even touch his best music -- but as a rundown of his appeal and an instantaneous fan-maker, it soars, as I learned myself when accidentally converting my friend.

Best of all, Groove offers the perfect dosage of Brown as the dancing machine and the outsize personality; he's often buried on these songs by the band interplay that made these late '60s / early '70s sessions such dangerous magic, and when he bursts through and grabs your attention it's like he's just one of the instruments. And whereas the idea of circa-1986 remixes of Brown's work might sound like something that would've dated horrendously by now, this is actually the rare instance of such a notion done correctly. The massive sound of "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" here, the insanity of the augmented dropout that introduces the outtake "I Got to Move," and above all the flight of groove ecstasy -- as irresistibly transportive as any piece of cascading shoegaze or conventional R&B -- that is touched most divinely by this version of "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing," well, authenticity ain't nothin'. After Brown goes off on the crazed tangent in which he urges the engineer to "keep the tape runnin, we gonna do somethin' funny" and then proceeds to chant or rap or half-sing or something a cappella for nearly a full minute, holding the tension with godlike William Castle dramatic flair, before he lets it go and the pregnant moment just explodes -- just nothing else seems relevant after that. And when In the Jungle Groove is over, no urge or need however trite or heavy seems pressing enough except the one that tells you to play the fucking record again, right now.