Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ariel Pink: Worn Copy (2005)

(Rhystop [orig] / Paw Tracks [reissue])

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

There's nothing about this that isn't annoying. Since Ariel Pink released Before Today, a record I stand by as excellent, he's set about working full-time on proving it was a fluke with odd behaviors and the general stepping away from the slightly more universal appeal he was beginning to reach. Despite this skepticism, I was curious enough to step into the past and dig into some of Pink's old lo-fi bedroom chillwave. I wish I had not done this. It's not even that it's particularly bad for what it is, just that "what it is" is something I have no ability to hear the virtues in. It's really a good thing I'm not hearing this until now because if I had, I doubt very much I ever would have given Before Today a stab.

Before Today (2010)

Cake: Motorcade of Generosity (1994)

(s/r [later Capricorn])

Breaking: junior high school nostalgia trip hits brick wall.

Things I still like about the first and easily best album by a band whose sardonics now rub me completely the wrong way: the joyous (and significantly, wordless) bridge of "Comanche"; Vince di Fiore's trumpet licks on "Up So Close" -- also the attempted rhyme of the title with "microscope"; the melodrama of "You Part the Waters," which was in a David O. Russell movie I think; all of "Jesus Wrote a Blank Check," a minor but infectious rockabilly creation; not the smug, contemptuous "Rock N Roll Lifestyle" itself but happy memories of the Daria (talk of peaking early...) episode in which it appeared; the actually somewhat ambitious and philosophical if overlong "Mr. Mastodon Farm," which I think was probably my father's least favorite song I owned when I was a teenager.

And... well... I don't like the condescension that drips over everything. I can't deal with that sort of shit anymore. It's little wonder that John McCrea would later collaborate with Ben Folds, whose band appealed to me for similar reasons and is now similarly useless to me. When I was a kid I hated the classicist teen angst bands like Nirvana and Green Day (and still do, fyi); I perceived groups like Cake and Ben Folds Five as being more to my liking because they delivered what I now understand to be the same angst in a dreamcoat of wit and the all-important teen trope of sarcasm. But this isn't wit, it's clever boys who know they're clever, and it's incredibly tiresome. In fairness, Cake would get worse in this department then improve immensely on the much more user-friendly Prolonging the Magic and would even occasionally be genuinely funny (from Comfort Eagle's "Short Skirt... Long Jacket," "At Citibank we will meet accidentally / We'll start to talk when she borrows my pen" still makes me laugh) but by that time they would have sacrificed the gritty country-rock minimalism that gave their music its appeal in the first place.

Like all Cake albums, this one is repetitive and dry, the performances uninspired to the point of being insipid -- the band's only distinctive personalities are their winning trumpeter Vince di Fiore and their utterly obnoxious singer John McCrea, whose deadpan snotty delivery immediately reveals the reason this band's music speaks primarily to teenagers. If by some slim chance there are portions of the lyrics meant to be read sincerely ("Right then she knew there must be something more" on "Jolene" or "I am thinking of you wondering what I should do" on "Haze of Love," both delivered like the dude's going over his taxes with an accountant) he single-handedly sabotages them. It's easy to see what this anti-amibitious crew was aiming for, though, and it comes together in fits and starts: "Ruby Sees All" is still a great song, and the lyrics aren't stupid. "Jolene" is an excellent song, but its entire last minute is wasted real estate. I spent late nights my whole ninth grade year jamming to "Jolene" and brooding and wishing to get the hell out of where I was, like pretty much everyone does -- think I succeeded but it's awfully easy to bring those feelings back when these canned-sounding guitar tracks pop up. And now I can't escape the sense that I was being manipulated.

Really, the songwriting is generally solid -- I compared this record to Brill Building pop a lot and I see what I meant, but not in totality: "Haze of Love" sounds like about a third of a Goffin-King composition, but there's no way in hell those two would have allowed three full minutes of meandering and riffing on the same basic melodic theme over and over with just one slight variation.

The CD I'm listening to is unusually well-mastered for a '90s album. Apparently the record was later "refurbished" to become louder, ha. Of course. Fun fact: I originally owned this on cassette. Wonder where that is.

If John McCrea says "aw" one more time I will spit my Froot Loops all over this lapt

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chromatics: Kill for Love (2012)

(Italians Do It Better)


Few bands have more to answer for, at least in the context of indie pop, than this one -- though initially released with little fanfare, their 2007 album Night Drive turned them radically away from their lo-fi origins into a then-otherworldly delving into '80s AM radio, fused with the hazy mystery of the Cocteau Twins. In bloggery circles, 2007 was an eternity ago and Night Drive is seen as a classic that foretold the advent of chillwave and correctly predicted the shifting of the tide in indie circles to a fetish for synth textures and, gulp, soft rock. Then there was the film Drive, of course, which despite being an abysmal, hate-filled movie certainly captured the musical moment decently enough in its iconography of a blank-faced Ryan Gosling traversing the streets in his shiny car, the airy, lightweight, moody textures of the Chromatics drifting dreamily from his cracked windows. Mood music, you say, and you're right -- mood music raised to some sort of agonized art.

But this is a more interesting group than all that accidental trend-mongering suggests, certainly more compelling than the majority of the bands who've made it their mission in the last five years to conjure up memories of Mr. Mister, occasionally riding the idea to an armload of Grammy nominations. The major difference, emphasized heavily by long-awaited sequel (and grandly titled) Kill for Love, is that the quartet doesn't value perfection, nor is an artificial "sheen" their simple means to an end. Their addiction is on sound, and in this respect they belong far more to the shoegaze and Eno quadrant of alternative rock than to the Bon Iver / Fleet Foxes guild of glazed-eye boredom. That's not to say Kill for Love is an exciting and explosive record -- it almost painstakingly avoids saying or doing anything terribly distinctive beyond its cumulative effect, the provision of an impulsive, hypnotic state that perversely recalls some of the sleazier corners of '60s psychedelia, the C.A. Quintet and the 13th Floor Elevators in particular.

What excuses all of the stylish excesses of this record? The vocals, plainly. Singer Ruth Radelet takes most of the duties, and her warmth and strange, sullen nonchalance transforms the music and lends it an air of joy and enthusiasm, because it sidesteps the technical crooning favored by both the chillwave and EZ listening indie bands as well as the pop giants they seek to imitate. She sings in a manner that somewhat recalls Maureen Tucker, or the women who guest on Owen Ashworth's material and always sound like they're having a bit of a laugh and a great day but are utterly heartfelt. The injection of sincerity Radelet provides is so disarming when compared even to relatively mainstream-leaning chillwavers like Ariel Pink that it has little trouble making the first half hour or so of Kill for Love something that almost seems inadvertent -- a shattering and professionally blissful synth-rock record.

A recasting of Neil Young's "Into the Black" as depressive hymnal opens the LP; though it filters the song through the Night Drive machine, it ends up suggesting a fusion of Young's original with his own mournful CSNY cut "Helpless" -- it's a lament. That sadness is retained despite the skittering, enthusiastically bright synthpop tricks on "Back from the Grave" and "The Page," but the band lets loose on the title cut, a statement of purpose that manages (thanks largely to Radelet) to dig for something that isn't trite in its powerful central phrase. Radelet's real showcase is "Lady," a self-duet of sorts that reaches for radio-hook sorcery, and ends up reigning. It's rather shocking how this music that so recently would have been labeled kitschy and retro now sounds entirely, presciently cutting edge.

Those first five cuts would've made a dandy EP, but they're mostly the prologue to what is in the end an overlong series of variations on a droning, obsessive theme. Radelet recedes into the background after the exquisite eight-minute construction "These Streets Will Never Look the Same," and from then on the remaining hour or so functions as a complete, self-reflexive piece that weaves in and out of a straight line. It doesn't hinge on songs or on music, but on texture and wide-eyed focus. You're meant to drift off while it's on, and at times it's such vague and distant music -- despite its perverse attachment to the archaeology of long-ago "hits" -- it feels as if it could float away, right out of Ryan Gosling's window. Nevertheless, Kill for Love begins with a bang and is consistently listenable; Chromatics are talented enough to be doing much more, but they do excel at establishing and sustaining -- for an appalling amount of time, really -- this noise and mood to which they're so clearly attached.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Animals: Animalism (1966)



In a way this is comforting -- I sat down to review a record I loved and came away realizing that it isn't really very good at all. I'm not as stoic in my tastes as I sometimes fear, everyone! It's still "recommended" for now because it was a big deal to me when I discovered it a few years ago, and there's some goodwill left over, but I find myself more than a little uncomfortable with the wheezy blooze on here now. I dig the Animals generally; Eric Burdon himself I'm a little more suspicious of, and since the arrangements here are mostly lite and lazy (the major exception being the brooding variation on "Hit the Road Jack," which is quite lively), his vocals are the main thing I have an issue with.

White pop singers in the '60s were not strangers to a certain racial profiling when they approached black music; even my hero Alex Chilton is guilty of this in the "c'mere chillun" cry on "I Met Her in Church." But what Burdon does seems to me to go beyond a well-intentioned but ultimately problematic tribute and into the realm of juvenilia, just this side of prejudice. There's some of this on the Animals' hits, granted, but without the empty worship of garage rock and British Invasion I had when I approached this album initially and thought it a long-lost jewel, I'm put off by the affectation of a "black blues" sound to which, frankly, Burdon has no right. And before you crow about authenticity being a thoroughly socially-engineered concept, the whole issue here is that Burdon is coasting on that idea, he's singing with a costume, singing in blackface, if you will, because he wants to appear "legitimate" and "real." That's all the dumber when you consider how easy it is to hear Sam Cooke singing "Shake," Little Richard doing "Lucille," Howlin' Wolf doing "Smokestack Lightning." As with a lot of the early Rolling Stones covers, I find myself wondering what the point is except rocker posturing. If I can't excuse the Black Keys, I certainly don't see how I can excuse this.

Why single the Animals out, you ask, when all of the first wave of Brit Inv bands were known for famous and obscure blues and R&B covers? Easy. Compare the Kinks doing "Milk Cow Blues," John Lennon singing Arthur Alexander songs, the Stones doing "Good Times" to Burdon painfully grunting his way through B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby." The other bands use the original songs as a jumping off point within their own emotionally fertile and distinct idiom -- the Beatles especially. They don't attempt to replicate or replace the records they're reviving. I get the vibe here that Burdon is just getting off on himself. Honestly I can't say for sure what I was hearing back in 2008 when I went so far as to plug this record unstoppably to a dozen or more people. Maybe I'll hear it again someday.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)


I've spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why I'm not really responding to this. Lotus Plaza is the solo project of Lockett Pundt from Deerhunter; I loved that band's Halcyon Digest and for me its highlight was the glorious "Desire Lines," possessive of a wonderfully propulsive extended jam-fade and a memorably fractured, insistent chorus. Pundt wrote and sang that cut, and this is in some respects an entire album of songs like it. His writing hasn't faltered, the hooks and licks are oddball, sweetened, detailed, and go down easy.

What's the problem then? Given that cuts like "Strangers," the Kevin Shields-like "White Galactic One," and "Monoliths" are as well-written and rousing as anything Pundt's done for Deerhunter (not for him the subtle pleasures of Bradford Cox's side project Atlas Sound; these songs mean to soar) I have to believe it comes down to production. The songs sound like they've been recorded from too far away, with little aural separation. So their dramatic tensions and bursts of energy don't translate, like they can't quite reach you. It's like the way old Hollywood filmmakers used to put gauze on the lens when they'd shoot closeups of the leading ladies, or to be a bit more direct, like the indistinct "mush" that R.E.M. wanted for Murmur, only with music this pop and "epic"-toned in aspiration, it doesn't come off.

On the bright side, the guitar is terrific for the entire duration, and at times this has the immersive quality of the best jangle-pop circa J&MC or the Church. Something's keeping it too far back, though, and what should be beautiful becomes mostly boring. It is excellent to zone out to, and is perfect for your background dinner-music needs; the more you try to find your way in, though, the more it seems to fall apart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions (1965-67)

(Capitol 2011)

I started collecting Smile bootlegs when I was fourteen years old. Originally I had cassettes sent to me by very kind internet forum members; those are long gone unless they're lurking in unopened boxes someplace. At the moment I think I have three illicit versions of the supposed record, not counting Brian Wilson's solo effort from 2004, on disc and digitally: the Vigotone version (nearly canonical for years, found at CD Alley here in 2003, tipped off by employees at another record store across town), the less well-constructed but better-sounding Sea of Tunes edition, and Purple Chick's latecoming addition to the faux-Smile canon. On top of that I have CDRs of the SOT three-disc boxed set of Smile sessions, and moreover their other three-disc boxed set devoted entirely to "Good Vibrations." There are countless hours of Smile material in this fucking house. Man, I wish I liked that album.

Without hesitation, kudos to Capitol and the Beach Boys for allowing this release to exist in the first place. Seemingly absent of label and producer meddling, this seems as legitimate a release of Smile as could ever be mustered up: it dilutes the evolving idea into an awkward Frankenstein creation, inevitably, but also provides context and doesn't really come across as a failure of imagination: no "this is this, and that is that." It runs the record in the sequence posited by Sea of Tunes and Brian's 2004 solo version, as closely as possible while using extant Beach Boys recordings. This sometimes comes across as very compromised -- the five-minute "Heroes and Villains" stops in its tracks, much like the single, whenever the "bicycle rider" chorus starts, and sharing that trait with "Do You Like Worms" doesn't help -- but is as legitimate a stab at completing decades-old incomplete thoughts as we could expect. No question that reconstruction and the presentation of raw materials (four discs of tracking and vocal sessions, plus various other fragments ranging from psychedelic vignettes and chants to completely discarded song ideas to some wonderfully painful thing called "Teeter Totter Love") are tasteful and immersive, with lots of material I can't say I recall ever hearing in my days of bootleg plundering. (Certainly I never remember catching Brian yelling to his dad to get off his back during the "Child Is Father of the Man" sessions.) Whether such sonic stuntwork and minutiae is worth the trouble and the delving will depend on how you feel about the Smile music itself.

It's not easy to review an album that doesn't exist in finished form, however much closer it may be than was once thought; and despite the way that Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile has been used as a template for interpretations of the material ever since, it seems unfair to transfer aspersions cast at the problems of that album to any attempt to decipher and criticize the Beach Boys' Smile. At any rate, if we can assume that the individual tracks would have resembled what we know of them and that the direction in which the record was headed at the start of 1967 was a real indication of what it was going to sound like, the biggest problem is the same problem with most of the Beach Boys' pre-Pet Sounds records: too much filler. The strongest songs are the ones everyone knows: "Wind Chimes," "Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," "Good Vibrations," "Cabin Essence," "Wonderful" and "Vega-Tables." Those are the seven "real" songs in the package; not insignificantly, all seven of them had been released in some form by the Beach Boys by 1971. Everything else on the purported record revolves around those selections, and most of it rings with a bit of desperation. There are some lovely moments on the many instrumental fragments associated with the project, and some nice little tidbits of inspiration on some of the more incidental pieces Brian and Van Dyke wrote together or that Brian simply appropriated and arranged (I've always been partial to the Dennis-sung "You Were My Sunshine" that accompanies the lovely cello-driven "The Old Master Painter"; and "He Gives Speeches" is a blast, but eclipsed easily by the even weirder rewrite "She's Goin' Bald"). But listening to almost anyone's version of Smile in whatever sequence, you get the impression that it's a handful, maybe an EP's worth, of good to great songs interrupted constantly by noodling nonsense like "Do You Like Worms" and "I Love to Say Da Da." Despite the fact that the "Good Vibrations" prelude "Look" has been in my head for approximately twelve straight years, "Fire" is the only Smile instrumental that rises anywhere close to the standards of Brian's Pet Sounds chestnut "Let's Go Away for Awhile."

A separate issue altogether is the lyrics. Van Dyke Parks would maintain credibly that he was a musical as well as a lyrical collaborator so this is not to dismiss his contributions to Smile, but "Wonderful" and "Vega-Tables" are the only songs on which his wordy contributions click with the band's delivery. The former is just a beautifully written paean to innocence, the latter seems more tuned in to Brian's unpretentious comic sensibility than to Parks' so it works; in both cases Parks stretches himself to try to fit the Beach Boys' existing identity as a band, a self-correction that doesn't seem to be made on most of his other lyrics. Some of the lyrics in "Surf's Up" and "Cabin Essence" are indeed beautiful and well in keeping with the Smile concept, but some of them are overzealous word salad or downright bad -- in "Surf's Up" particularly, it varies literally from line to line -- and while Brian takes to them well enough, the other Beach Boys sound absolutely lost, like Keanu Reeves in a Shakespeare movie. It may sound anti-intellectual, but the Beach Boys' lifelong emotional directness had been a good fit for them for a reason, and so it would remain; in a sense, Mike Love was right to question Parks as a Brian Wilson collaborator. This is not to advocate the endless "Kokomo" retreads Mike would someday participate in and encourage, but just to say that his lyrical work with Brian on, for example, the Wild Honey album resonates more strongly than Smile's strained poetics, which -- who knows -- might have sounded better coming from a source besides a band whose stock in trade and area of expertise was the painful honesty of "Don't Worry Baby" and the like.

The definitive recordings of a lot of this material remain those which found their way to the Beach Boys' actual follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile -- not merely a better record than Smile, but a better record than any painstakingly overworked Theory of Smile. Fragmented, vapid, absent of emotional depth or human lingering, the record as constructed by the engineers in charge here -- basing much of their work on the 2004 Brian Wilson concoction, in turn based on various bootlegs since there's no earthly way a guy like Wilson is going to remember much of what was going through his head when he was twenty-four years old -- is an unholy mess that only works in small doses. There's no doubt that Smile is important to pop mythology (the appeal was always its mystery, and as more mystery is stripped away, it's revealed just how incomplete a notion it really was -- and it's thus hard to listen to it when you can just as easily listen to Friends or something), and extremely influential toward modern indie rock from Sufjan to Panda Bear, but it's a drugged-up collection of limited conceptual notions and musical licks that does nothing to endear itself, providing little time to concentrate on each surreal quirk before moving along with breakneck speed to the next half-baked notion. This has nothing to do with the Beach Boys I love -- I accept that people truly believe Smiley was a failure and an embarrassment, but I will tell you frankly that I cannot bend my mind enough to comprehend that. Smiley is so sweet and deeply felt and beautiful in a small, intimate, oddball manner -- Smile is a tower of labored overreach. Wilson was right to abandon it in progress.

Hardcore fans who've never been part of the bootleg market, especially those who enjoyed the session material on earlier official releases like The Pet Sounds Sessions, are likely to find plenty to get excited over here. It's great that such a contingent was considered important enough to have a release catered to them, though one wonders how long they'd have waited if the record business didn't seem to be choking on its own history at this point. Disregarding my personal biases, The Smile Sessions is an endearingly exhaustive archival release. I just am pretty much past the point when I can spend five hours happily deconstructing music that's only peripherally related to music I actually care about.

But goddamn if I wouldn't still rather listen to this than the new record by the Carl/Dennis-free "Beach Boys." That's one of the things about these guys -- for years I considered them my favorite band of all time (no longer really there, but that's another story), yet every time they're getting a whole bunch of press I feel incredibly alienated from everything about it. I was quoted in the press release for this boxed set last year, in fact, an irony I couldn't help relishing -- though I wasn't named, it was my first-ever pull-quote -- because whenever a lot of people are talking about the Beach Boys I begin to wonder why it seems that what attracts me to them is so different from what everyone else is hearing. The cushy weirdness of the late '60s albums, the simple perfection of the classic singles, the frayed genius of Love You, the extremely odd sense of humor, the angelic emotional range they exhibited at their best, and for heaven's sake, "Surfer Girl" -- those are my Beach Boys. It's probably a compliment to them that they can be so many things to so many different people, so don't think I'm being a spoilsport here, but: I could have listened to the Surfer Girl and Summer Days albums both in full in the time it takes to get through the full freaking hour of "Good Vibrations" outtakes here. Did I mention I don't even like "Good Vibrations" as much as everyone else does? It's all right. Fuck, I'd better stop writing now.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Terry Malts: Killing Time (2012)



Read my Metro Times review.

Once in a while, a straightforward rock album kicks me around completely. This is really the first such example since Male Bonding's Nothing Hurts two years back -- for whatever reason, I have a bit more faith in Terry Malts' ability to do it again. We'll see. But man, I really love just about every cut on this disc. Dunno why it wasn't better-received in other quarters.

An editorial note: as you, uh, may have noticed, I am severely behind on posting entries here. This one along with those around it, for instance, was originally scheduled to go up in late April. I'm working on it, guys. And while it looks like this is only the second record this year I've highly praised, there are a few others, most of which have been covered over at MT and will soon make their way here. After some early hemming and hawing from me this is, in fact, shaping up to be a pretty decent year now. Stay tuned.

Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story (1962-79)



Assuming for just a moment that you're not a baroque diehard, a Spector diehard, or a Spectropop list member, chances are you have vague memories associated with this man's name. Maybe you remember a couple of his film scores, or his work with Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, but despite what seem to have been some strong-willed efforts to the contrary, Jack Nitzsche remained a "man behind the curtain," so to speak, a craftsman rather than a celebrated performer unto himself. Like certain other such people, he was, well, kind of a nut. That nuttiness played a vital role in crafting what we now regard as our collective cultural memory. If you've ever listened to a radio station that's concerned with AM pop of the '60s and '70s, you know what "the Nitzsche sound" is, without realizing it.

A lot of us came to know the name from its presence as credited "arranger" on a host of crucial 45's released by Phil Spector's label, Phillies. Nitzsche along with the Wrecking Crew was an indispensable element of the character in Spector's "Wall of Sound," but as an artist and arranger outside of that fellow pop genius' regime, he proved himself a master not just of rote arrangement but of composing, perfecting, designing the very sound of pop music in one of its peaks as a cultural force. In this 26-track rundown of some major and minor work of his spanning most of two decades, we get it all -- the weird quirks and key changes that characterized Nitzsche's writing, the eccentric love of strain, and most of all, that infatuation with space and a ghostly world apart in his sonics. As much as Spector advocated cacophony, Nitzsche aimed for a kind of precision and aural depth of field, making it rather incredible that they produced such memorable recordings together.

The signature Jack Nitzsche creation is arguably Stevie Wonder's "Castles in the Sand," recorded when Wonder was fourteen years old; it's marked by the seriousness with which it takes the young boy's sorrow and sense of loss, a picture complemented by the sound of the record as much as Wonder's (absolutely brilliant) performance itself. Longing strings stretch up against an unapologetically bright and propulsive rhythm, and the result is one of the most innovative (and surreal) of all classic-era Motown recordings. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that Phil Spector's work wasn't full of emotion -- emotion that may have been contrived in conception but certainly not so in execution -- but the songs on this collection leave their wounds considerably less guarded all the same, at least outwardly. Spector could have never written something like the gorgeously broken "Needles and Pins," here presented in its million-selling Jackie DeShannon incarnation. It's too direct, takes its ideas and feelings too seriously, is teenage as an act of directness, not something reached in a roundabout marketing-director sense. That's no slur on "Be My Baby" and such, but those songs were made by their audience and by their performers -- "Needles and Pins" is astonishingly durable, from the ground up, conceived on paper as just as affecting a piece as it finally was.

Hearing Is Believing is both a delightful nostalgia trip and a constant pleasure, even when it verges on kitsch (long-forgotten selections by Eddie Hodges and the Paris Sisters); it's convenient to be reminded of how strange the '60s truly were, just under the surface. There's of course seriously brilliant work here as well. The Frankie Laine side "Don't Make My Baby Blue" is unexpectedly striking, and it's jaw-dropping to hear Lesley Gore reconceived as some sort of garage rock Nancy Sinatra on "No Matter What You Do." Only the Righteous Brothers slow things down.

It's on the latter reaches of the disc that we wish for more, because Nitzche's writing and arranging have become much more consistent, and because we know how much crucial material we're missing that simply couldn't be included. His work with Tim Buckley and Marianne Faithfull does show up in the form of two expounding classics: "It Happens Every Time" and the legendary "Sister Morphine," respectively. Mink Deville is represented by the scrappily backward-looking "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl," Graham Parker via the wondrous "You Can't Be Too Strong," and while Neil Young is absent, his song "Helpless" is lit up nearly unrecognizably by Buffy Saint-Marie and Crazy Horse (!). Saint-Marie and Faithfull offer two of the most intense vocal performances captured on disc in this era; "Sister Morphine" in particular is a must-hear, miles beyond the Rolling Stones' version.

A soundtrack snippet of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is offered to represent his film work; otherwise we're spared most of Nitzsche's sad decline, which is all well and good, but the disc's sole serious flaw is that it skimps on his work as a performer. One cut makes it, and it's magic: "The Lonely Surfer" manages to be a classic of both the surf and easy-listening (Beautiful Music, that is) genres, no small achievement. The thing is still stunning, enveloping, magnificent, a piece of instrumental mastery, capturing its atmosphere of sadness and sunset so well it could only have come from a deeply troubled romantic place. As with so many of these songs -- "Helpless" above all, perhaps -- it's over far before you're ready for it to be. Maybe, after everything, that's Nitzsche's true legacy: tantalizing brevity. Whatever the case, this disc -- along with the LP The Lonely Surfer if you can find it -- is the perfect primer on this man and makes his case flawlessly.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Julia Holter: Ekstasis (2012)



Good lord, man.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Alexi Murdoch: Four Songs EP (2002)



Ten years later, this self-issued (on CDBaby!), twenty-minute curio remains Alexi Murdoch's most striking release. Despite its modest origins, it accompanies Murdoch's staunchly traditionalist singing and melodies with surprisingly complete and intelligent arrangements that know precisely when to stop and breathe; the same can't really be said for the polished precision of his subsequent work, as shown clearly by the comparative weakness heard in three of these songs when later rerecorded for a larger audience.

It's somewhat overstated at this point, but still inescapable, that Murdoch is in the Nick Drake mold. Really, he sounds uncannily like Drake at times, to the point that we might think of him as a considerably more well-adjusted version of same. Perhaps the major difference, which has turned on or off his primary audience of pseudo-bohemian art-folkies and people who really loved Away We Go, is what a coy showman he is. Though its populace runs on a parallel to, you know, the real one, this is still essentially populist music in the sense that it gives precisely what one wants when putting it on. There are moments, certainly in my life and I'm sure in many, when nothing sounds more right than these hazy, cloudy, relentlessly pretty and rugged anthems-of-quiet. It's hard to explain how deep this can burrow into you, and not many singer-songwriters of any period could achieve that quite this succinctly.

So as I'm sure I've posited before, all this time-stopping, introspective intensity is very likely a put-on because Murdoch knows it works, but that doesn't change that last bit: it works, and he's great at it. This brief record is masterfully paced, to boot, not just in the dive-and-wallow-and-emerge run of the songs but within each of them. There's something mildly magic to the way that the tension of "Blue Mind" never quite breaks, that each half climaxes with a carefully arranged catharsis in which something warm and persuasive and familiar breaks out of everything. At the end there's that humming whispering final act of "Song for You," but my single favorite moment in all of Murdoch's recorded output is that open-armed, humbled, breathlessly direct and resigned "my salvation lies in your love" chorus on this original recording of "Orange Sky." It feels right and true to me, an undramatic evocation of exactly what it says, and it gets me every time.

Time without Consequence (2006)

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Men: Open Your Heart (2012)

(Sacred Bones)


Open Your Heart, the second record by poorly named Brooklyn punks the Men (surely more than one of us remembers the shitty modern rock band of the same name with a radio staple or two from what doesn't seem like a long time ago?), is one of the more exciting and enjoyable rock albums making the rounds at the moment. What's intriguing about it, though, is how expansive it is without reaching far beyond a simple guitar-band setup with slightly outsized college-rock ambitions. Most telling is that with a couple of exceptions, the tunes are far more engaging and pronounced when heard together -- emphasized by the seguing between songs, an increasing rarity in the iTunes age -- than when shuffled around with other material. "Ex-Dreams" skirted right past me when it was sent to me as a promo early this year; as the closing track of this dizzying album, though, the grunging goes somewhere because it's not one of the directions already laid out. Its instructive Sonic Youth melody is more impressive when you consider the ground covered on the rest of the LP.

"Punk" really isn't the half of it -- yet it's all of it. With bedroom laptoppery constantly mining pop's past, now it's the guitar band's turn to appropriate the well-worn and well-loved excesses of Wire (thrashy "Cube"), early My Bloody Valentine ("Please Don't Go Away"), Joy Division ("Oscillation"), Burma and the Buzzcocks ("Open Your Heart"), and the Replacements ("Candy"). Yet everything here identifiably belongs together, pieces of the same band's tangent. The result is a record of pleasing throwback eclecticism that sometimes reaches wonderful heights, all with a certain cozy consistency.

It also sometimes crosses over into what sounds like an unwillingness to focus -- the crass, metallic aggression of "Turn It Around" is just faintly turned around to reveal the glam "Animal," and there's nothing indulgent or excessive but the veering off into other directions gives the faster, more "expected" material a hint of boredom and restlessness, especially when such tracks are mostly clumped together at the beginning and end. Because the instant "Country Song" starts, with its stunning distortion binge contemplatively hunkering down to give you something you'd like to fucking live in, it's whiplash -- culminating in the catharsis of the seven-minute "Oscillation," intense and drowning and eventually gathering itself into an impenetrable roar. Then suddenly, it's off to the anguished drama and oooooohs of "Please Don't Go Away." It's a funhouse restlessness, and it gives the Men an air of mystery that's both ingratiating and frustrating.

No one would really care, for instance, if just any Brooklyn punk band (lord knows there are enough of 'em!) put "Cube" and "Ex-Dreams" and "Animal" all on an album together of songs that were written and recorded in that brash aesthetic. But it feels like a point is being belabored when roughly half the songs on Open Your Heart read in that context and each of the five others is off in its own separate facility and sensibility. That strange imbalance is the only thing that makes this hard to love, and perhaps it's deliberate.

At its best, this is a thrilling album. It shares its title with a song on which the eponymous sentiment seems fully appropriate, a lilting and triumphant love-song melody triumphantly sung and played as a prodding anthem, strongly suggestive of Hüsker Dü (the apocalyptic bridge in particular) -- except these Men are still shouting, begging for acceptance. If they didn't find it already, surely you'll be seduced by "Candy," the best of their gleeful experiments by a considerable margin. The voice is Paul Westerberg, easy, but the writing is all sulking hard-drinking Stones, a Let It Bleed-like, gorgeous countrified anthem so assured and mature and uncompromisingly abrasive it makes you stop in your tracks, and fully recontextualizes all that's around it. Effortless, too, as if made by people who didn't care how it sounded -- it just seems to snap into place.

Of course, being a band that exists, the Men have also heard of the Velvet Underground, and given that the glorious can't-say-enough-about-it "Candy" is such an outlier, the true measure of the Men's (any band's) success is how good their VU moment is. The psyched out "Presence" owes a debt to the 13th Floor Elevators and Galaxie 500 as well, all disaffected drone like a guy pretending not to feel worshipful of the sounds his guitar can generate; the measure of its excellence is how you keep expecting it to break into "Here She Comes Now."

It's hard to say yet if the Men will find a way to either harness the sprawl in a more controlled and ultimately satisfying manner or if they'll simply keep tinkering with song-to-song makeovers like these, but the world can easily be theirs if they want it. Open Your Heart is an arresting document of a gifted, powerful young band at that perfect moment of feeling invincible and infinite -- and willing, naturally, to try just about anything.