Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Talking Heads: Fear of Music (1979)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

It seems that most bands have a record which, even without the aid of a discography, is clearly a transitional moment between a pair of seminal efforts. The Beatles have their Help!, Stevie Wonder his Fulfilligness' First Finale, the Replacements their Tim, Radiohead their OK Computer. In many cases the "happy medium" record, blending the virtues of early work and later experimentation, could be argued as the definitive work of an artist and frequently is a fan's common choice for artistic peak. Fear of Music is one such recording, and despite lukewarm critical reception upon release, it has become one of Talking Heads' most renowned albums. In their second set with Brian Eno behind the dials, the Heads begin to run afoul of their original sound, tweaking their work with ambitious production, arrangement, and mystique. Fear of Music is the closest this band would ever come to a concept album, and it lays the cards on the table. Every song is a David Byrne discourse on why something should be feared. Fear of mind, paper, cities, memories, air, heaven, animals, guitars, drugs.

Anything human and warm about Byrne on the previous two records has, in line with the disturbing finish to "The Big Country," been eradicated. He is a paranoid nutcase, tolerant of nothing and resentful, terrified, and skeptical of everything. The results can be funny ("I know the animals are laughing at us!") but are more often scary ("I'll be here all the time / I can never quit"), and what's most distressing is how by the end of it he has begun to almost make sense to us, so accustomed have we become to his barking, cartoonish philosophies. Not many other album in the annals of conventional rock music have become as notorious as this one for its lyrics alone. The opening track, "I Zimbra," is a nonsense poem by dadaist Hugo Ball set to music, and it's the most optimistic thing here. Elsewhere Byrne doubts everyone and everything, and he no longer raises himself as a good example (the playful David of the last album who demanded "Please respect my opinions, they'll be respected someday" is gone). On "Cities" his quest for a new home turns into an epic journey that leaves him barely gripping his sanity. "Do I smell? I smell home cooking / It's only the river! It's only the river!"

Byrne is still more or less himself on the first half, and with the exception of "I Zimbra" and "Cities," so is the band, elevating Talking Heads: 77-style material with slick Eno polish ("Paper" is practically a rewrite of "Tentative Decisions"); they come close to being the first band to create sensuality through punk on "Mind," and hint at their polyrhythmic future on the oddly laid-back, lyrically prophetic "Life During Wartime." "Cities" expands upon the dramatic instrumentation of "Found a Job" in full color, with appropriately creepy sirens signaling the start and finish of the number.

"Memories Can't Wait" marks the breaking point, and even on compact disc it divides this record in half. Standing with "Lady Godiva's Operation" as one of the few truly horrifying pop songs, it casts Byrne's mind as an endless "party" (a very New York theme repeated on "Heaven") and immerses us in it with backward loops and plenty of otherworldly effects that emphasize the thematic displacement. The line "Everything is very quiet" returns us to the warmth of the guitars but we are no less disrupted. It's hard to discern how much sequencing played a role in the execution of the record, but the songs after this point are nowhere close to anything the Heads had done before. Brian Eno goes for full-force pop treatment on the B-movie soundscape of "Air," with Byrne sounding alternately like Willy Wonka and an infuriated politician, explaining the dangers of oxygen. He has similarly potent ideas against most living creatures on "Animals," a stark and angular song matched by another raging diatribe. On paper it's hilarious -- "They like to laugh at people / They're setting a bad example" -- but there's so much conviction behind it that you feel yourself repelled by Byrne's indignation. At the same time, particularly today, you relate to the blind need to blame everything around you for increasing insecurity. In a terrible way, he's not acting abnormally.

"Electric Guitar" is a more precise production, with an amusing tuba line, but the band is dining on themselves, shunning their medium in a satirical sense but with that same curious sincerity. "Never listen to electric guitar," Byrne orders. Far from the working-class ideal of rock & roll, the persona is suspicious of the capabilities of pop music and, breaking all the walls around him where he sits, breaks to us his devastating conclusion: "Someone controls electric guitar." The moment inevitably recalls the climax of John Lennon's young career: "I don't believe in Beatles."

Meanwhile, there's "Heaven," one of the most endearing songs in the Heads' catalog; again a party that never ends, again the challenge and boredom of excess and ultimately the fear that comes from not understanding, which in this case translates to believing every myth handed to you. It's far from a shunning of religious thought, but it is a subtle celebration of humanism, a glimmer of hope amid the tirades. Eno allows Byrne to sing within his range, giving us a performance that's beautiful and moving but still witty and not free of anger and doubt. As usual, what makes this such an outstanding ballad -- one of the finest of its time -- is the refusal to tone down Frantz and Weymouth, who pound their way through it, one of the many reasons the Stop Making Sense performance can't hold a candle.

The song that leaves the threatening final impression, "Drugs," also disturbs more than any other track from Fear of Music, including "Memories Can't Wait." This closing song -- oppressively bare and claustrophobic, sounding unlike any other pop song of its time but still very clearly the work of Brian Eno -- leaves us hopeless. Byrne has searched in every dark corner of the world and has found solace nowhere; the only thing that's apparent to him is insanity, and it's starting to be the only thing that makes any sense. After World War I, the reaction to nonsense was to conquer it with nonsense. When we hear this man railing about the reasons he hates everything he sees, we know we are witnessing something facetious and silly, but we are also witnessing a shred of something real and thought-provoking. Byrne himself claimed decades later that these early lyrics are the window into not so much a disturbed soul as a truly confused and desperate mind. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fear of Music is how beautifully it fits in with the following album, Remain in Light, which finds the resolution and a bleak dead end. (Speaking in Tongues escapes through the roof.)

He had the answer at the beginning: "Drugs won't change you... religion won't change you." Moreover, Hugo Ball had the answer in "I Zimbra." This opening song was recorded after everything else, and it shows, its surrealism happy and reeling, the leaping arrangement and bizarre vocal treatment capitalizing on an Afrocentric tendency that would pay off on Remain in Light. Eno's importance to the record and to all three of his albums with the Heads can't really be overstated; the recordings fit in as much with his career as with theirs, and no two ways about it: he is their perfect match. He has their sense of adventure, their ambition, their delicacy, and their restraint. He was not tilting the band so much in a specific direction as guiding them along their way. Fear of Music is a wonderful experience because, in every nuance from Harrison, Weymouth, Frantz, and Byrne, plus Eno, we can sense the often bleak but always lively power of each moment, and we can observe the emergence of a musical wisdom that would produce a landmark in pop culture, Remain in Light. On its own terms, Fear is a story that may leave a person drained -- it's not the undeniable masterpiece the other two Eno records are --, but if you can appreciate its nervous humor and the buried fun of it all, it's a trip worth taking constantly.

[Written and originally posted on my old webpage in 2004, when I was 19. Thus: please forgive any sloppiness.]

Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites (1975-92)
Bonus Rarities and Outtakes (1975-92)
Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
More Sons About Buildings and Food (1978)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Yo La Tengo: Fade (2013)



That the quickest Yo La Tengo album in nearly two decades is also the most meditative and subtle pretty much ever is the kind of giddy irony that works for the band that never wants anyone to have any clue of what they're doing next. Way back when I reviewed Popular Songs here, I predicted that the only way the Band That Can Do Anything (and would shortly thereafter prove my point by going on a tour that involved them, among other things, acting out a Judge Judy episode on stage) could really progress at this point was to go full-bore on tightly constructed pop music, because my feeling was that with their 2009 record they'd come as close as they ever had to doing something that was somewhat expected of them. I was partially right, anyway, and correctly surmised that the band's time with longtime producer Roger Moutenot was nearing its end (for the moment), as it happens replaced by John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea & Cake, but I missed the point. That is that Yo La Tengo's impression of a pop record is still different from anyone else's. The order of the day on their thirteenth (!) album can be summed up thusly: lushness, intimacy, and concision. All three are, in this form at least, new for this band. Presumably I don't have to tell you that Yo La Tengo at this point have a last-band-standing mythology working in their favor, particularly with the symbolic loss last year of Sonic Youth, R.E.M. the year before. In turn I don't have to tell you that a band that formed in 1984 finding new definitions of anything is a rock & roll miracle of a kind. Nor do I have to tell you I think this is pretty much the best band in the world, still, and yet I'm surprising myself by how interesting and surprising I find the new direction they've taken here.

I often wonder what would happen if you could somehow interact with circa-1987 Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan and find out what they'd think of Yo La Tengo now. YLT today seems so far flung from the noisy folk-rock outfit of nearly three decades ago; as is often stated, the Yo La Tengo aesthetic we associate so strongly with the band was affixed to them with the release of Painful, wherein Ira lowered his voice, the guitars acquired a drone, and the songs took a mighty step forward. It was their first Matador album, the first album in which bassist James McNew participated extensively in rehearsals and composition (he's on May I Sing with Me but came aboard midway through the process), and most importantly to us here, their first with Moutenot. The band has played down their break with the longtime producer and I see no reason to doubt their word that there's nothing acrimonious about his absence, but its effect on their music feels more significant than they're letting on. Moutenot oversaw the band's recorded work as they achieved what is, to me at least, a kind of absolute rock band perfection. The run of albums from Electr-o-Pura through I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is, to my knowledge, unsurpassed as five-in-a-row masterpieces go. Certainly in indie rock, and I'd say in rock music as a whole if I didn't think you people would yell at me.

Replacing Moutenot could just be a symbolic leap out of a slight rut, much as recording Popular Songs in Hoboken instead of Nashville may have been. There are far clearer musical consequences to this choice, however. They were evident as soon as "Before We Run" was issued as the first true preview track ("Stupid Things" had received a 12" release but was an alternate take), awash in arena rock drums, sadly wheezing horns, and a towering arrangement. I wasn't disappointed by Popular Songs, but it felt like the first YLT record since the Matador move that wasn't a radical departure from its predecessor; I was fine with this, actually, because I could've contended with another lifetime of records as well-written and charming as Popular Songs, which stuck with the Beat Your Ass conceit of a mixtape crawl through someone's obscure record collection, a set of songs that sounded so different from one another as to be virtually unrecognizable as the same band. They would balk at this, of course, even though I consider it a virtue they share with just a handful of other artists (the Clash and the Beatles, for starters) -- McNew has said that whenever they're playing together, it sounds to him like Yo La Tengo.

With Fade now before us, we can pick out a few things that point the way forward on Popular Songs -- Richard Evans' string arrangements were a radical addition that provided for a defiantly new dimension in "Here to Fall" and "If It's True"; an increasing fearlessness toward pop bliss, resisting all impulse to drench "I'm on My Way" and "When It's Dark" in any kind of distancing feedback or even so much as a wild guitar solo, permeated not just Popular Songs but portions of Beat Your Ass ("Beanbag Chair," "Mr. Tough"). Most interesting of all is the new resistance to the jumbled pop-shuffle madness that once seemed to drive the sequencing of the band's records. Popular Songs divided itself cleanly between carefully composed tunes on sides one and two, sprawling meditation and fury on three and four. Fade takes an analogous key from the Beach Boys' album Today!: the (sort-of) rockers on side one, the ballads on side two, and hey, a Yo La Tengo album that fits on one slab on vinyl!

The left turn comes instead at the way the band now delivers these sounds, the quietest possible staredown at any sense of stagnation. It's not just the new producer that makes you think of Painful here; there's a deliberate sense of turnaround in the way these songs are written, sung and arranged. Ira says that the band talked him out of a complete change in his vocal style, but the fact that he had an impulse to try such a thing says a great deal; his singing changed completely between May I Sing with Me and Painful, with his nasal scream of "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss" yore never to be heard again. Now he transitions from the speaking-voice mumble and squinty falsetto of "The Crying of Lot G" and "Here to Fall" to a voice that is genuinely, unaffectedly gentle and lilting, even on the fast ones. It's most immediately evident on the sealed-off funk of "Well You Better," which has him bopping along fearlessly until reaching into an upper register for a "please make up your mind" refrain that's frayed with need and desire, emotions he's previously communicated best on nearly spoken word pieces like "My Heart's Reflection" and "Don't Have to Be So Sad."

Kaplan is 56 years old, approximately the same age as Paul McCartney when he recorded, uh, Flaming Pie (remember that one?). But he is stretching himself, perhaps as never before. Hear it again on "Is That Enough" -- the first time he sings the line "If that matters, it's to very few," the warmth that exudes from him is such that you can hear him cracking a smile. "I'll Be Around" is not the Spinners song, which they've now taken to covering on stage, but Kaplan's shyly loving croon is quite possibly his best and most emotional vocal performance ever. Hubley sings three cuts this time out and while "Before We Run" is already proving far stronger live than on record, as she fastens herself to its hooks and valleys, on "Cornelia and Jane" she nearly matches her husband's peak on the prior song, hitting a high note that as of 2000 she wasn't daring to attempt. So can it be that much as Painful was an album about lowering one's head and learning how to sing in a mutter, Fade is about self-exposure?

Either way, the music calls back just as readily to Painful in both its transitional implications and its completeness unto itself. Several YLT albums have featured a consistent enough production style, though few of them have sounded this technically polished, with both And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Summer Sun alienating a few fans with their whisper-quiet sonics. Fade is more varied than those records in composition style, but its low background buzz and hum is a close match for Painful's nocturnal squall, lending this the distinction of being the band's most effortlessly cohesive recording since 1993, and that's despite its absurd traversing from anthemic calling-card to Motown soul to Stax funk to indie hiss to krautrock (that's just the first half). After living with the record for several months and now hearing it laid out on LP, the portions that seemed slow or perhaps too ponderously distant have revealed themselves gradually, have snuck up on me, until I see this as not just an immense improvement on Popular (which, again, I loved) but as the most significant change of pace for this band in years.

The songs, only one of which even approaches seven minutes: Opening immediate signature tune "Ohm" bursts out and quite deliberately casts the rest of the album in its shadow; the communal vocals, the twisting melody, and the sense of celebration despite the resigned words being sung -- all gorgeous, and one of the best things they've ever recorded. The catchiness and pop purity of "Is That Enough" and from-the-"Sugarcube"-school "Paddle Forward" are enhanced by familiarity, especially the former, whose ringing guitar, buzzing hook, and wound-up girl-group peppiness compress the adventures of PopSongs into a single delectable cut. "Well You Better" is the point at which McEntire most clearly asserts himself, amping up the organ and the tricky rhythm track and separating them to the point of disorientation, near-claustrophobia, and immensely pleasurable R&B minimalism. Something else new -- the romantically precise guitar line on "Stupid Things" and the same song's viciously persistent beat, all quite noisy and charged but melding beautifully together into a loving quiet storm of aggro-loverboy beats and singing. Their work's never been so beautiful, and then you get to the second half.

As on Painful, side two finds Yo La Tengo fully enveloping themselves in sound, arguably at the expense of distinctive tunes. But that's only how it seems at first. I admit that it was so long before I warmed to "Two Trains" and its strange "big" sound and barely-perceptible rhythm that I may as well say I didn't, but I do now find it an immersive and autumnal and all that sort of introspective stuff. "The Point of It" scores for me on double-tracking and (stunning) lyrics alone, and "Before We Run" has set me agog now with its final minute of dropout-into-horns and "Nowhere Near"-style rebuild, all with a sense of coming up for air. But the key to this half and really to the entire album is in "I'll Be Around" and "Cornelia and Jane." They're both beautiful, as we've mentioned. The delicate guitars of "Around" are like nothing we've heard from this band, signaling a willingness to cop to comfortable pretty just as much as "Mr. Tough" was a surrender to pop impulse. Somewhere in the midst of these two songs, time seems to sort of stop for a bit, and "Cornelia and Jane" has an expansive heaviness to match McNew's "Black Flowers," but what's remarkable is that all its brass and baroque can't even match the lushness Georgia alone provides in her singing.

But the softness of these songs and Fade overall is given much of its power by the album's thematic fixations, which verbally emit that same sense of warmth that's ever-increasingly become a primary reason for the size of this particular band's cult and its devotion. In 2011, Ira Kaplan suffered an apparently major health scare, the nature of which has (quite understandably) never been publicly disclosed. The ordinarily volatile guitarist was forced to spend a few shows sitting down, graciously emailing fans warning them not to expect the typical semi-psychotic strangling of guitars during "I Heard You Looking" and "Blue Line Swinger." There's no way for us to know if this incident had any effect on Fade's lyrics -- it's none of our business, even -- but it's certainly hard to imagine that it didn't. Hubley's "Cornelia & Jane" (possibly named for couple of a streets in Greenwich Village) in particular has the pensive agony of a fretful partner (Kaplan wrote all but one lyric on Fade but hasn't indicated which isn't his, so I could easily be offbase): "Too many sirens, they keep you up at night / Sit back and hold your ears / How will we hold back our tears?" and "How can we hold onto you?"

And gradually, the rest of the words fall into place. Read "Ohm" as philosophy of life, acceptance of death, acknowledgement of the series of moments that's really all we get: "But nothing ever stays the same / Nothing's explained / The higher we go, the longer we fly / 'Cause this is it for all we know / So say goodnight to me / And lose no more time / Resisting the flow." And then "The Point of It," either the sardonic response to being a creatively active band with potential years still ahead of it that's had a paper gravestone of a biography now penned about it, or more importantly, the indicator of this couple and this band's shaky but assured contentment as they come to terms with the fact of aging: "Say that we’re afraid / Say the night is close / Honey, that’s okay / If we’re getting old / If we’re not so strong / If our story’s told / That’s the point of being loved." And as the serious emotional range and depth of all this hits you, all you can think is: they can't be here forever. I can only speak for myself here -- I dunno what I will do without them. But that's not, as the song goes, the point either. The point is we're all getting old, closer to death, closer to our own slow fade, and that's why we wake up in the morning. I'm surprised by how much I suddenly find that I needed to hear that at this point in my life.

Popular Songs (2009)
Stupid Things EP (2012)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The B-52's: Party Mix EP (1981)

(Warner Bros.)

An odd and somewhat mysterious sideline between albums two and three of the kings and queens of art-pop diminishing returns. Pro: it emphasizes both what's great about them -- their humor and giddiness, for sure; not sure I ever before noticed how funny "Party Out of Bounds" is -- and does play up the strengths of the songs on Wild Planet. Con: it circumvents and cuts down the tunes on the superior first album, and it's sort of barely a remix record (is "Private Idaho" even different at all?) and as lots of critics pointed out, trying to make naturally danceable music more danceable is a bit of a fool's errand. The B-52's music is too loose and sparse to lend itself well to a process of combing and revision like this.

It's not really the EP's fault that remixing practices in the early '80s, especially for (semi-)mainstream rock bands, weren't what they are now, to say the least. "Lava" is an odd enough choice that fooling around with it yields no ill result, but "Give Me Back My Man" and "Dance This Mess Around" are such perfect constructions in their original form that the Party Mix! dial-downs feel like violations. In the latter case, you get an interesting enough dissection but it just makes you want desperately to listen to the original song. But "Give Me Back My Man" is kind of a disaster here, broadening the song by a full three minutes and repeating its absurd chorus about fish and candy so much that it crosses over into grating and meaningless; it's so labored it sounds like something they'd have put on Cosmic Thing (sorry) and by the end you're perfectly willing to fire shots at the soundsystem.

"52 Girls" suffers less -- I sort of enjoy hearing the guitars expanded and permitted to lord over everything, even though the artificial separation again overemphasizes the lyrics. Lots of questions remain, like why no "Rock Lobster" or "Planet Claire," either of which would make perfect sense in this context. And I understand that I'm handicapped by reviewing this based on the compact disc, paired with the all-original EP Mesopotamia. Evidently the original 12" release is actually a good deal more inventive, stringing the songs into a sort of early megamix format. Warners copped out for the CD version. So who's to blame when the party gets poorly planned? The label, probs.

The B-52's (1979)
Wild Planet (1980)

Björk: Volta (2007)



Considerably better than I remembered it being, this is undoubtedly Björk-lite -- but whereas I used to define that as meaning that it was less stridently individualistic than her other work, I now regard it as being perhaps her most out-and-out "fun" record. Though I'd fallen casually hard for Selmasongs and Medulla in previous years, it was during the promotion and touring cycle for Volta that I became a devoted fan, resulting perhaps in my sentimental attachment to its warped, colorful grooves. Really, its best function is as a collection of agreeable Björk ideas and concepts that just don't necessarily form a coherent whole -- drop most of its songs somewhere in the middle of Vespertine and you won't notice a severe dip in quality.

You will, however, notice that the ever-restless auteur has discovered and wrapped herself around industrial dance music, the influence of which is the real story here despite Timbaland's far-and-wide ballyhooed involvement. There's a lot of this on the two keynote protest songs -- I guess they're protest songs, I dunno: "Earth Intruders" and "Declare Independence" amount to a kind of defiant nonconformity that's sort of quaint in its simplicity, at least by this artist's standards. It's like she read some Embrace Your Quirk self-help manual. You barely need to hear either song to know where they're headed; the titles say everything. "Intruders," the opener, is anthemic cartoon-army march; "Independence" toys with international affairs in 3D world. It's as direct as Björk's ever been, to the point that she got in hilarious hot water for singing it with political-hotbed dedications around the world, but its giddy pretensions to revolution are hard to look upon as dangerous. "Don't let them do that to you," she chants like she's on a PSA, and six years have failed to dull the ability of the "make your own flag" refrain to make me chuckle. Then again, there is menace and chaos here -- it just feels a little safe.

Not so for the best of the industrial-infected cuts, "Wanderlust," a truly blown-out production mixed awkwardly and brilliantly with a sweet, soaring melody. The most sinister of these songs, though, is also the most plodding -- the Radiohead ("National Anthem")-like Satanic funeral march of "Vertebrae by Vertebrae," to which the stark and rainy "Pneumonia" seems a mere coda. That song-to-song relationship is striking, the sense of prelude and resolution, because Volta as a whole seems so curiously haphazard in terms of design and sequence. Each track seems its own world unto itself with little sense of contrast and larger rhythm working outward. Maybe that's why these songs seem better on your Björk Spotify playlist than they do when heard end-to-end.

We'd better talk about Timbaland, though, and I do love Timbaland; in the vein of his gloriously busy configurations with Missy Elliott, the joyous industrial-pop piece "Innocence" has genuine hooks and a dancefloor abrasiveness that sound like all the best things that "Björk collaborating with Timbaland" might suggest in your imagination. For all his name involvement and all the pop appeal of the song itself, its grit and dirtiness are to be praised; her voice cracks and the arrangement hurls itself out in a fit of the anti-slick. Not that you can tell, but the lyrics are more from the motivational section: "Fear is a powerful drug / Overcome it and you can do anything!"

The non-Timbaland arrangements are, oddly enough, typically riskier and less obvious. Though it's easily argued that African and Asian music had already long been in Björk's orbit and lexicon, Volta does make some advancements here, particularly on the percussive and sensual "Hope" and the frayed lullaby "I See Who You Are." Yet on the whole, the weirdly sunny optimism on these songs is far more a consequence of the ever-growing nuance of Björk's vocals, which are better than ever before here (and would improve yet more on the otherwise merely pleasant Biophilia). Her interaction with the brass -- oh, that's the other thing about Volta: horns, lots and lots of horns -- on "Wanderlust" is nearly as endearing as the double-tracking that renders her joy that much more audible in her performance. And her duet with Antony Hegarty "The Dull Flame of Desire" may have nothing on "I've Seen It All," but it's maybe the most fascinatingly oddball Björk moment of the last decade. This is Hallmark crooning, an artifact of the purest saccharine branches of baroque pop, delivered with almost militaristic precision and sincerity. What? It's a mark of Volta's MO, I suppose (and Björk's career in general), that its strangest and most surprising moment is the one that'd seem most conventional in any other context. But in sum -- you know who you are and whether you need this.

Selmasongs (2000)
Biophilia (2011)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind EP (2009)


I thought maybe I might find short-form Animal Collective a bit easier to take, but this just makes me feel more alienated. Trimming the musical-chair museum in Merriweather Post Pavilion down to five cuts, it mostly tours the two sparring elements then dominating the band's music -- the wormy, elastic rhythms and bleats and the towering prog-Brian Wilson vocal walls. I can sense how impressive it'd be to the right ears. To these, an Animal Collective EP just means hitting the skip button half as many times. Edging close to giving up on these dudes; just not my scene apparently.

Sung Tongs (2004)

The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (2008)

(Blue Note)


When this came out -- or rather, when it leaked, for I was a less conscientious music lover then -- I was as deep as I've ever been in a long-running fixation on elevator music. That is, easy listening, Beautiful Music, lounge, whatever the currently in-vogue or most descriptive expression is. To say that Inara George and Greg Kurstin's sophomore album is awash in this strange subculture is to keep a needlessly safe distance; this was the music of people as obsessed as I was. George's voice is perfect for the genre, and Kurstin gets details of spacey, cushiony late '50s early '60s production as right as only a connoisseur ever could. Even the album cover is right -- looks like one of those Jackie Gleason collections on Capitol. Of course, there are more pronounced beats than Les Baxter would've probably allowed, and the Design for Dreaming aeronautics are circumvented somewhat by George's consistently earthy lyrics, but a perfect imitation would be pointless anyway.

That the songs on Ray Guns are not nearly as good as those on the Bird and the Bee's eponymous 2007 debut probably bothered some people. Whatever. I admit I lose a little patience somewhere in the third minute of "Lifespan of a Fly" and that I can only hum or sing along to three of these songs ("Polite Dance Song," "Love Letter to Japan," "Birthday"), two of which were previously released. At its best, though, this picks up somewhere in the range of early Cardigans or the Susan Anway-era Magnetic Fields, even if the compositions aren't half as sophisticated. "My Love," for instance, is perfect Bert Kaempfert by way of Supreme Beings of Leisure, with George taking on a sci-fi lilt; "Diamond Dave" brings it on like Bacharach-David backing Peggy Lee; "Ray Gun" is only maybe two shades too light to be a 1960s Bond theme.

The rest runs together, to be honest, but I skip nothing. George was my favorite part of the first record, and here it's the opposite. Behind her relative inanities, Kurstin is my hero for presenting all this sweetness and light with such a convicted and intricate conflation of homages to film music and Percy Faith and cotton-candy AM pop. Those who disdain "record collector rock" are advised to stay as far away as possible, and those who expect an army of endless hooks are advised to pick up something from Camera Obscura in lieu of this. But then again, whatever you pay for this is worth the money just for "Love Letter to Japan," a ridiculously cheery four-on-the-floor that sounds a bit like a travel agency commercial circa 1997-by-way-of-1962. And "Birthday" and "Polite Dance Song," as you probably already know, are two of the wittiest and most instantly appealing pop tunes of recent vintage. I think I'm justified in my irrational affection here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Marvin Gaye: I Want You (1976)



The line on this highly idiosyncratic follow-up to Let's Get It On now is that it's the most influential Marvin Gaye record, and in the wake of crossover appeals by the likes of Miguel and Frank Ocean I'm begrudgingly starting to agree. Begrudgingly because Here My Dear is the masterpiece and it still has yet to really get its due, but I Want You remains an intriguing bridge of the gap between the grinding loverboy anthems of Let's Get It On and the carefully constructed, insular navel-gazing of Here. It also soars expansively as a single unit and resists being pulled apart into individual songs, which is frequently the mark of a truly great LP -- a distinction I'd stop short of, if only because I think this is the least compelling Gaye record of the '70s in songwriting terms.

Not in any other sense, however. I Want You is not, as was bizarrely and dismissively proclaimed at the time, a disco record. (Nor should "disco record" have ever been an automatic negative criticism, but I digress.) Its big conceit is that it's aimed squarely at the now largely forgotten but highly prescient Quiet Storm radio format, kind of a precursor to the dredged-into-groove slow jam R&B that bloggers sometimes label "progressive." This is music that's completely weird but in a thoroughly ingratiating, immediately appealing sense. It's a singular experience -- variations on a theme delving further and further into itself, a cohesive and erotic near-dirge that blends together as if one song with various movements.

The first movement is inevitably the most remembered, if largely because it was a #1 hit in the U.S. The title cut is an effective introduction to the album's lopsided, lush mixing and production, a smooth celebration of Wall of Sound sex into which Gaye buries himself. His vocals are wholly different than anything in his prior catalog, even if his gorgeous self-backing and self-harmonizing make him unmistakable. Throughout the record, he never once deliberately lifts himself above the din of orchestral and choral and pounding ambiance, rather doing his best to become completely a part of it. Run back to, say, "Come Get to This" and you sense both what's unusual about I Want You and the reason for its controversy: it never offers such a satisfying moment of balls-out catharsis, no belted-out vocal melody. The opener itself doesn't even come across as having separate hooks, choruses, etc., even though it does; it feels like just a calmly compressed ball of sensual energy. Many mistook this for robotic apathy. In the post-shoegaze, post-ambient era, it's easier to understand what intrigued Gaye about the vagueness of this music. Audiences, for their part, responded in kind without delay; the single and album were both major successes, if not quite on the previous scale.

Gaye's seductively casual vocal performances, initially jarring, quickly become enough of an asset that hearing killer-smooth "After the Dance" first without them and then at the encore with his input is like a climactic embrace. God bless him for never once neglecting his natural doo wop inflections, for finding a way to infuse desperation into even towers of detached soul and jazz-funk like "Feel All My Love Inside," "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again," and "Since I Had You" (even the titles run suggestively together). Even if the record can't stand fully up to its two gigantic predecessors, hey, all the explicit orgasmic sex is more aesthetically direct and centric upon female pleasure than on Get It On, which is some progress, and the filler is far better than on What's Going On, as though he's learned to even goof off beautifully.

The sense of cumulative power in the album as a whole is inescapable. You keep expecting the tension to break with some full-on "Mercy Mercy Me" or "You Sure Love to Ball" juggernaut but it ever does, just keeps brewing and stewing and tweaking itself. I nominate one moment, though, as being clearly a fixture and creation apart from the rest. "Come Live with Me Angel" is the one I Want You cut that probably belongs in the pantheon of introductory Gaye; the chorally driven groove laid down by his wall of singing props up an intimate and sensual refrain, the strongest and most irresistibly offbeat of the record. But even this has the feel of being tossed off, so evocative of its era and its own sort of sweetness, and hence it's the exception that proves the rule. If you came to Gaye via a best-of or a What's Going On and you're expecting those sorts of pleasure, this song might be key to understanding the more specific appeal and brilliance of I Want You. Once you drop your baggage, lay the needle down, and delve completely into the LP, preferably with a nearby sympathetic lover, nothing has to make sense except the filling of your ears with this masterly beauty. And how wonderful that Gaye's work is still revealing itself, layers peeling away and influence ever reassured, after so many decades.

What's Going On (1971)
Let's Get It On (1973)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (2006)



David Byrne mentioned at some point that he and the rest of Talking Heads hired Jonathan Demme because they thought of Stop Making Sense as an actual story rather than just a concert, of the mannered, tightly-wound, ultra-dignified suited businessman (portrayed by Byrne himself) gradually loosening up and embracing the stranger, kinkier parts of himself. The arms stretch out and expand out into a dancing orb of rhythm. In that case, taking Belle & Sebastian's career as an equal but lengthier narrative, The Life Pursuit comes up someplace around "Girlfriend Is Better." We can be even more specific and point up the cathartic release of everything. "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" isn't merely Murdoch's oblique but irresistible conception of a "hit," it's a climactic moment in the all-stops-out power of a band with whom one does not associate the word "power." All apart from its sense of celebration and danger, there's the feeling that it's a defining of what "pop" itself can mean in the context of the archetypal Indie Rock Group and all its exorcisms of a person's unfitting furies. And therefore its listeners'.

There are no complex polyrhythms, no African percussion, but in Stuart Murdoch's world, the cutting of the cord translates to a sunny burst of power pop that expands upon the bookish, witty, snooty and sad eccentricity of yore. No less eccentric, though; eccentric in its bliss, fervent in the same, this album is a joyous experience. When my mom heard it she said it reminded her of Simon & Garfunkel, and maybe that was always on the tip of Murdoch's senses, but this aesthetic compliment hit me sideways: the reason I love this record so much, one reason anyway, is that it sounds like something my parents would've loved and played when I was growing up -- a fixture to be filed in between Bridge Over Troubled Water and, I dunno, Rumours.

It's not even a progression, exactly. Probably a minority of B&S fans are going to argue with you if you elect If You're Feeling Sinister as their signature moment. There was never much room for improvement from that reference point of immaculately precise, detailed and fussy but gently emotive desperation. Murdoch nailed the simultaneous detachment and passion of the hipster persona before anyone had even noticed he was in the room, before the signal was even ringing far out of Glasgow. But in perfectly appropriate fashion, cassette dubs were made and swept around, crushes were made and broken, a minor league legend was born that by the new decade would coalesce into a major cult. And where did you go? The Boy with the Arab Strap, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, and Dear Catastrophe Waitress all have their defenders (this particular individual included in the latter two cases), but after Sinister, Life Pursuit is easily the group's most indelible, deeply persuasive creation -- and impressively separate, expansive beyond that earlier touchstone. Yet big important secret things remain the same in a number of degrees: it's all still dusty and baroque and gawky, because what would be the point otherwise?

Still, even if one was well versed in the grandiose AM maneuvers of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and its outrageous earworm bids "Step into My Office, Baby" and "I'm a Cuckoo," it was maybe an inevitable shock to the system to hear what amounts to K.C. & the Sunshine Band, bursting with that weird vast clear-as-anything reverb, on "Act of the Apostle I." The voices come in and it's Brian Wilson shit; the chorus and bridge and we're into the groove with Spanky & Our Gang, maybe? It's still Stuart Murdoch in all his winking preoccupations, young female characters late to class and they know it, with every bit of nonconfrontational joy and curiosity, and not a trace of Knack condescension. Later we come back to all this for the big Kinks move; "Act of the Apostle II" expands on all this like a naive "Shangri La," the build back into the original melody frankly glorious.

The Kinks are an easy, maybe lazy comparison to make in regard to Belle & Sebastian, but their ghosts are everywhere you look on Life Pursuit, particularly the wisps of their last three '60s albums which always seemed more boorish, less polite than Murdoch could ever allow. No longer true -- the cyclical "Dress Up in You" is admittedly a stirringly quiet and pregnant lift of sorts from Something Else's "Two Sisters," but otherwise the Kinks evoked so pleasingly here are the Kinks straddling the gulf between "You Really Got Me" and "She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina." That is, the crunchy and bawdy, angsty nightclubbers of "Dead End Street" and "She's Got Everything." Maybe your first thought about that maxed-out rhythm guitar on "The Blues Are Still Blue" is T-Rex, maybe "Another Sunny Day" calls the Records' "Starry Eyes" to mind almost subliminally, and maybe "White Collar Boy" is like clapping Gary Glitter backed by the New York Dolls, but what all these connect-the-dots games have in common is their Anglophilia, and Murdoch's closest brethren in the rock sourcebook is so vividly Ray Davies that by "Funny Little Frog" his chirpy little voice even sounds nearly indistinguishable from his potential mentor. The Kinks' sly humor and melodic smarts had a cerebral impact on lots of indie rock, from Davies' sometime backing band Yo La Tengo down to the Decemberists' livelier moments, but Belle & Sebastian seem to get the letter unnervingly right here with its jolts of pleasure and its sometimes-kinda-but-not-necessarily-totally serious obsessiveness, even conservatism.

On closer "Mornington Crescent," however, Murdoch gets something more foreboding out of Davies' valentines to old-fashioned solitude. It's a wistful, slow ride off into an anti-"Waterloo Sunset" that reveals the crushed downside to a constant pursual of contentment and security, the faded punk posters of arrested development. "We're a little too free," he concludes, a strangely unnerving cap to an often delightful record. There's evidence earlier here of the darkness in his preoccupations, even if it takes a dozen or more times through all this ridiculous cheeriness to scope it out. Pay mind to the coded message of "The Blues Are Still Blue," a goofily metaphorical chronicle of a long-term relationship whose only driving force is mutual destruction and futile sadness. "Funny Little Frog" is an actually haunting missive from the familiar territory of unrequited obsession, here with an unwitting muse. Ringing out with all the horns and bells and whistles of a '60s Wall of Sound, its main attraction is nevertheless one of Murdoch's strongest and most tortured vocals ever, all desperate and croaking. "My eyesight's fading, my hearing's dim / I can't get insured for the state I'm in / I'm a danger to myself, I've been starting fights / At the party at the club on a Saturday night" is not quite "tales of drunkenness and cruelty," but it comes from the same eerie place of stunted masculinity.

And maybe no one but Belle & Sebastian could lay out the postmortem of a summer love like this: "I thought it was for real; babies, rings and fools kneeling / And words of pledging trust and lifetimes stretching forever / So what went wrong? It was a lie, it crumbled apart / Ghost figures of past, present, future haunting the heart." But here's the rub -- the words are there if you want, and they're mostly well-written (we will momentarily excuse the song that rhymes "slave" with "Dave" and "bitch" with "rich"), but the songs barely need them. That same tune, "Another Sunny Day," blasts in like George Harrison cutting himself loose for once, and then the backing vocals kick in with their fuck-all, and "your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds," which, fine, is a line we do need. I'm saying that the deeper, more pressing and immeasurable pleasures of The Life Pursuit are all musical, that its immediate jugular effect is of more lasting meaning and utility than any of Murdoch's cleverly worded, cleverly jaded themes. The tunes are richer when you have some idea what they're about, but in contrast to the group's earliest works, they don't necessarily require such attention for maximum impact.

So what The Life Pursuit really means to me is blasting out "The Blues Are Still Blue" -- which lord knows I should've taken advantage of when I used to spin records at a laundromat -- and screaming along to "BABY I LOVE YOUR FACE" with my girlfriend. The song's deadly accurate lyrics capture a fragmenting relationship with uncomfortable ease, but in the moment all we care is its absolute bliss of pop hookery. I know semi-hoodlum anthem "White Collar Boy" is a giant valentine to Breathless and If... and Zero for Conduct but all I hear is that fuzz and the cleverly embedded Queen references. Spit in your gin and get on your bike, indeed. The most beautiful and urgent of the fast ones is "We Are the Sleepyheads," and I don't know if it's about cultish weirdos or being in a slightly semipopular band or going to Bible study but I'll tell you that its screaming guitars and oddball arrangement mean enough to me that I almost don't remember a time before it, which is a Beatles-level achievement.

The lesser cuts, whether kiddie singalong or Bill Withers ripoff, have greater merit cumulatively, too, and separated from their lethal sarcasm. Murdoch's always had a talent for getting wound up in himself like this, but he's learned to make it musical. I perk up in "Dress Up in You" every time they do that trick in which everything drops out except his voice, for starters. And I'm only categorizing "To Be Myself Completely" as lesser because I assume it's taken for granted since it's sung by sideman Stevie Jackson. I personally love its splendid Motown lift, like a Smiths variation on "Hitsville UK." Or one of those Dave Schramm cuts on Ride the Tiger.

Still, ignore anything about the massive, gently driving "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" at your peril. This is our sequel to "Piazza, New York Catcher" in the sense that it's the Belle & Sebastian tune of its period that I can't help wanting impulsively to sing along with, every word, and the blending of lyric to melody is on some sort of a higher level. Its plot hinges on a line of coke, a broken date, and person-to-person warmth and relief. You might be the village joke but you can listen to my stereo. Take a walk as you follow me. (For years I thought he said "bother" which I like better.) And I suppose it makes some sort of a point that B&S follow all this with the downtrodden reflection of "Mornington Crescent," but their alienated character here finds her redemption: she pushes back her fringe and finds herself the person she wanted to be. It's a triumph, it's all the best sorts of feelings in the world set to obliquely perfect pop, and it seals The Life Pursuit as a classic of its kind. Maybe the fact that the album's tentative despair tries and fails to spoil it plays a role in how much this music brightens me up every time. I feel an incredible kinship with this record, and I'll tell you all about it someday.

Write About Love (2010)