Monday, April 29, 2013

Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now (2005)

(Secretly Canadian)

I first saw Antony Hegarty in the hot-and-cold Leonard Cohen tribute concert film I'm Your Man and initially was thrown in the best way by his delicately wavering voice and then, when he reached the emotional climax of "If It Be Your Will" and approached it with the high drama of a grand spiritual, dredging something up from the absolute depths of himself, I was sold -- if nothing else, then on his skill as a performer, a sort of hybrid between Aretha Franklin and Bryan Ferry. On finally, years and years later, giving my full attention to his band's signature album, I'm happy to discover plenty more of that same full-bodied singing, which is unmistakably committed and pretty immediately affecting, but unfortunately interrupted a little too often for my tastes.

"Soul" is not the most frequent association we make with modern indie rock; its layers of irony and detachment more often than not prevent such a reading, and when an artist comes across something like sincerity it's seldom in an aesthetic manner comparable to the nearly-indisputably higher, more universal performance art in R&B. Hegarty can't stand up to the giants in the older field but it's truly admirable to hear him try -- and he has an operatic, expressive voice that for a certain contingent of listeners is bound to recall Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards, high praise indeed. He fits best with something like the romantic hopelessness of hushed, intimate opener "Hope There's Someone," a song that sounds as though it's existed for centuries and is merely being interpreted -- underlined by the urgency of Hegarty's transcendentally lovely piano solo. That dramatic closeness is stronger yet on "My Lady Story," a sort of Gregorian chant as reimagined by Aaron Neville -- a remarkable song, brilliantly arranged, but held together by his tremendous voice.

After that, Hegarty unfortunately often lets guests take center stage, and he's got a slew of them: Boy George sings one cut, Devandra Banhart another, and these are his heroes and it's moving to hear him put words and music in their mouths. But it feels as if Hegarty is best when it's just him and the band and little clutter beyond, especially when his thematic fixations of gender identity are so crucial to his lyrics; only Rufus Wainwright really sounds at home on one of Hegarty's songs, believably channeling Sarah Vaughan on the melancholic "What Can I Do?". Without Hegarty's focused and wrapped-around-the-heart voice, you're somewhat overwhelmed by the florid pretensions of his compositions -- which are sometimes great and sometimes dull and always better when he's selling them directly to us, but even at that, the endless parade of lyrical trickery that follows "one day I'll grow up / I'll be a beautiful woman" with the same line only "beautiful girl" and then concludes "for today I am a boy" and some time later, adds "bird girls can fly" grows... tiresome, all fitted to such nebulous song titles as "Man Is the Baby" and "You Are My Sister." You feel at times as if you're meant more to analyze and nod your head at this music than enjoy it.

All that ends up meaning, though, is that the record is extremely frontloaded, with its great joys limited largely to the first two cuts and the climax, "Fistful of Love," which features an awkward Lou Reed introduction then slides into a gloriously minimalistic slowjam not dissimilar to Reed chestnuts like "Coney Island Baby" and "Temporary Thing" but all the more nakedly emotive; Reed's one of our most brilliant singers, but he couldn't have put across anything like the gradual build to the moment when Hegarty seems to be transmitting his lost mind and lifted spirit into the wires of his microphone. As he slips away, as the horns go with him, so do we -- and you can't blame the record for failing to live up to that afterward. There are yet to come the Freddy Mercuryisms of "Find the Rhythm of Your Love" which will delight many, but as soon as the record's over I went back and listened to "Fistful of Love" twice more. And as soon as I post this, I will go and listen to it again. That, for now, is Hegarty's legacy for me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (2013)

(Warner Bros.)


Let's hear it for new wave, and its surprisingly apt straight line to the best and most economically expressive of modern top-40 radio. Having never put on a record by Tegan & Sara before, I find myself immediately moony and wild over the skating-rink Blondie / Vince Clarke memories infused in these ten tightly constructed tunes that could sound easily at home among the most vivacious radio hits of the summer of your choice. The subject is the bullshit of love, of course, but the trick is how its sorrows move your feet along the hardwood floors in your kitchen. Heartthrob, cheeky title and all, makes nothing much of its affinity toward the baseline appeal of the massive hook and the juggernaut chorus; it's pop scholarship sans snobbery, which I guess amounts to... pop?

Take "Goodbye, Goodbye," which cribs Macca's wrenching dissection of that word but the creation in full is like you tuned into some lost Roxette single but it's all somehow new, infused with excitement. Even a crafty modernist explosion like "I'm Not Your Hero" echoes a Bangles drum hook behind its totally unfiltered assertion of independence. The outdated reference points are backgrounded, so what matters about the girl group mannerisms on "I Couldn't Be Your Friend" (so fucking harsh and apt, that title) is that they disguise pain and genuine fraying in the vocals, the way they were once designed to in the elaborate and beautiful constructions that now serves to bring this alive, ticklish groove never faltering. That moment of left-turn self-encouragement on "that would be good for me," I can't seem to stop fixating on it. It towers over me like something I should've always known.

The exuberant arrangements arriving here from a disparate group of producers are heavy on EDM-infected electronics, but enjoy a certain looseness and vulnerability thanks to the brilliantly expressive compositions themselves for an effect not dissimilar to Robyn's recent records. In contrast to Robyn, the Quin sisters both employ a tightly wound, tense vocal style that brushes teasingly up against the backbeats -- hence the new wave comparison and the sense that, for all the ways in which this resembles a blustery late-teens night out musically, the permanence of youth and all that, its wounded lyrics and tentative if soulful and controlled vocals betray nothing so much as adult romantic longing, an appealingly thorny fit especially as the record edges closer to cloudy R&B than pure pop (see "I Was a Fool"). It's a stubborn record in the best way because it owns simultaneously its musical velocity and its conflicted, occasionally blackened attitudes. "How come You Don't Want Me" is a handy example, like the Beatles' "No Reply" filtered through Kylie Minogue or Carly Rae Jepsen, a cry out in dignified radio pain.

Not that these themes are or should be strictly the parlance of moms, young marrieds, and serial monogamists in the working world -- part of the thematic urgency of Heartthrob comes from the same place as a given Phil Spector or Shangri-Las record: the unerring relevance of romantic catharsis, here filtered through lyrics that more often than not feel eerily personal. It's here that I can't help contrasting a song like the blissful opening "Closer," all late-night FM neon, to a group like Goldfrapp who'd do a great job with it but who'd never resist an overriding sarcasm or abstraction. "Closer" doesn't just swipe and snarl with all that talk about treating you like you're oh-so-typical or wondering how to get you underneath me, it grits its teeth and feels it and rattles you like a lightning bolt. How come you don't want me, indeed -- she sees you talking with a different girl, one who's got "nothing to show you," and the most trite of broken hearts is all subline and pure again as those regrets are written in the glittery purple of communal pop-art, teenage symphonies about don't-they-know-it's-the-end-of-the-world because check it out -- and here's the absolute kicker -- we're in our thirties now and it still feels like the bloody end of the world. She's really got nothing to show you, why can't you see? How blind can you be? (The Hi-NRG and teen pop "Now I'm All Messed Up," worthy of the best and most impassioned instances of either, features this lovely moment when the insistence that you go away is matched far in the distance by a begging "please stay," and ain't that love.)

We're big fans of top-40 pop here and not big fans of demeaning it as teen music, or in turn demeaning teen music or teen culture itself; virtually all of our biggest fixations came into prominence as supposed adolescent gruel decried by the establishment. That's an important caveat for the following point: there is something very different within the communal experience of loving a song all of your friends love, and loving something that in a certain contextual way is all yours. Like Big Star's records or any of those power-pop chestnuts that fill your nearest $1 bin, a song like T&S's "Drove Me Wild" manages to sound like it hobnobs cheek to cheek with the music that belongs to everyone, yet somehow it's yours, demanding high volume in the car cursed with solitude or in the limited time awaiting a loved one, maybe who will also want to make memories to the tune of this album, for which it's ripe.

Heartthrob is beholden exclusively to neither its sense of history nor its keen awareness of its own meeting halfway of the mainstream. Let's say for sake of argument that it's as backward looking a record in its manner as one of Camera Obscura's. That's a band I really love and have loved a pretty long time -- but in the hands of Camera Obscura, a more specific range of pop music never makes any attempt to become modernist or universal; it knows to whom it speaks. It will always be "old music" in their hands. I have no prior context for Tegan & Sara here, but on Heartthrob at least, no long-forgotten trend they investigate fails to sound new, unearthed, fresh, exploding with mirrorball frenzy. The sole exceptions are "Love They Say," a '90s alt-rock stadium production that's still a fine song but impresses less than the others, and my personal favorite track, the roaring closer "Shock to the System," which wanders on a space-walk far afield of the familiar. It sort of resembles Talking Heads, I suppose, but in this and other ways is such an outlier it seems to come from a different LP altogether -- slick, strange, and seductive, it really brings out the unadorned pop glories of the rest of these productions by liberating the song, musically, vocally, and lyrically: it relaxes, let's say, despite its enormity of sound. And its advice that we rely on love once in a while... well, that's poetry, like only pop music can be.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958)



In this space we have dissected the evolving career of the Everly Brothers, their move from Cadence to Warner Bros. and their gradual shift from vital if incongruous young pop stars to institutional statesmen, guest stars in their own career. Surely we'll discuss that much more in the future, for this is one of the bands that, all told, means the most to me across the years. But that brings up the equally interesting matter of how the group's first decade of music has morphed with the years, fitting and refitting to changing times and trends. In the same manner as the Beatles, whose progression has been reinterpreted with each decade since they imploded, the utility of the Everlys has changed dramatically by now. Indeed, it's to such an extent that their hits now seem unlikely and incredibly noncommercial, while their riskiest and most eccentric album now seems like it could've come along yesterday.

That album is their second, the ethereal and minimalistic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a defiantly backward-looking production that stands in complete contrast to every conceivable notion of rock & roll in the '50s, within or without the Everlys' own twists upon the genre. Containing no singles and no upbeat selections, it is exactly what its homey title suggests: a flashback to the boys' childhood, of music emanating from their father Ike's guitar and ringing off the walls for years on end. You can almost hear the clatter of those bygone times, the expanse of Kentucky all around -- it can't be stressed enough how far this strays from an LP in the standard pop idiom, how much it flexes its genuine Appalachian origins, and how remarkably prescient this album-length expression of individuality is. And in the era of the indie-folk revival brought forth by artists like Iron & Wine and Horse Feathers, the record seems eerily timeless -- far more so, for instance, than the Byrds' first two records or anything recorded by most of the '60s folk-rockers. The Everlys' great innovation here may be to leave their influences, their literal closest possible influence indeed, unadorned, to present and document like musical archivists. In this sense and in the sense of the pleasure in the beauty of the recording, the album is a major success, and indeed the best of their golden period. Years hence they'd explore these themes again in their finest full-length LP, Roots, but this album captures something simpler and in some ways more effective.

It's no accident that one's mind wanders more to Bill Monroe than to Elvis or Buddy Holly when Phil and Don carefully wander through "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet"; one reason this all is a godsend to the connoisseur of American folk music is its utterly unashamed directness, a clear genealogical bloodline to an earlier period that the band sees fit to leave be. They don't trump these songs up or alter them to fit their own style -- quite the opposite, which might at the time have seemed a disappointment to their many fans (this was the peak of their popularity) or an artistically lazy decision, but on the eve of their departure from Cadence they must clearly have seen this as a golden opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, to acknowledge their true origins. It's fortunate for us that they did so, likely in defiance of all commercial concerns. Those with great love for the Everlys' discography will note that this is more of a piece with their general concerns than it may first appear -- "Oh So Many Years" has the calm, casual romance of something like "Let It Be Me" if fewer friendly flourishes, and "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" is a sweetly weepy moment of "Take a Message to Mary" melodrama. But if these selections clue us in to what sparked these men to their genius in the beginning, it seems incidental compared to its purity as an act of love.

The songs are all traditional pieces, some better known than others, some dating back as far as the seventeenth century, nearly all staples of the early 20th century folk repertoire, but (with the exception of opening "Roving Gambler," at least, and the inexhaustible "Down in the Willow Garden") fading in general cultural presence and influence by 1958. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us likely did little to alter this course at the time, but it quietly planted seeds and its intentions would be echoed later by Bob Dylan and the Band in the late '60s when a return to simplicity and rootsiness would become the order of the day, cosigned by a small army of eager record companies. But no one might ever have rendered, while remaining true to their signature of close harmony and deliberately strummed acoustic guitar, so ghostly and delicate an artifact in the name of this scope of influences. The smoky simplicity of "Roving Gambler" has far less of its impact in the hands of more distant singers like Simon & Garfunkel, who later covered it, and for all the starkness, something happens to you when the voices soar over everything, and tradition becomes something inescapably present.

The same phenomenon of vocals rising, towering immeasurably over miniscule arrangements serve the Brothers well on "Long Time Gone" and "Barbara Allen," but on this record the carefully cultivated blend and complement in Phil and Don is more expressive than ever, as the age-old insights and emotions in these songs do something new to them, to our ears but not to theirs. They know these songs well, they're rattled to their core by them and feel every second of them, they fall in love with them and rebel against them, they hear their upbringing and their early lives in them, and they hear "young man, I think you're dying" in them. It's a remarkably sustained, haunting performance of unflagging intensity. "Haunting" is too trite a word, especially for the goosebump-inducing take on the deeply disturbing Appalachian (but with European origins) murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden," the most singularly Gothic recording in the Everly archives and maybe the most gorgeous, which is saying a good deal.

"Directness" is the operative word for all this. Every song is a good one, logically arranged and passionately sung, and every word in the title is unmistakably true -- and then, so more than ever is every word of the band name. Big friendly block letters on the front cover tell us precisely who these two men are, and it was never more relevant. They are the sons of Ike Everly, who taught them these songs, and they are brothers, and that is significant because the family thematics in "Rockin' Alone (In an Old Rockin' Chair)" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and even "Lightning Express" mean everything, in an impressively unsentimental and matter-of-fact manner. You can hear the history as much as you can hear the place, which is finally explicitly called out in "Kentucky" (though we should mention that only Don was born there, yet it seeps from every note): everything you'd want from purest and most meaningful Americana, a paean to "the dearest land outside of Heaven to me," and without any editorializing on their part except the kind that comes from a tic in the voice and a waver in a high harmony, the essence of a stunningly mature statement about growth, loss and memory from two men, one barely in his twenties and one not there yet.

Cadence Classics: 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)
The Everly Brothers (1958)
Walk Right Back: Warner Years (1960-69)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Foxygen: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (2013)


Hey, these California dudes have the same taste in music as me! Their '60s obsession runs rampant, like they're single-handedly carrying the torch of folk-rockers who try to play drums. On the first cut alone, you can spot every Anglo heavyweight of the relevant period you can likely recall without craning too hard: Zombie harmonies, Beatle guitar chimes, Stones riffs, and horns from across the pond at the Wrecking Crew's station. Why am I not therefore enamored? Lord knows liberal appropriation of things I love has never stopped me from falling for a band before, or else why bother with rock & roll at all?

The answer all comes down to passion, I think, and vitality. The duo of Jon Rado and Sam France is obviously playing on an audience's semi-familiarity with the lovingly recreated sound and approach of the Boomer-era titans they seek to reanimate. But when they play this music, it remains old music; to illustrate as carefully as I can what I mean, if I put a Kinks album on, suddenly that's new music. But We Are the 21st Century Blah Blah Blah Blah never escapes the trappings of an adorable retro throwback; it has no presence to speak of. It's like Turtles sans wit, so all you're left with is cotton candy barroom trills and a lot of ear-teasing compression.

Except in moments like the down-home piano-driven nod to the Band "No Destruction" and the simplistic garage-noise build "Bowling Trophies," Foxygen's songs are lengthy and meandering, and this is by and large deliberate, a product of their labored trickiness that calls to mind one of their few modern reference points, MGMT. I loved that band's Congratulations, which owed just as much to Love and the Zombies as this does (see "Shuggie" for an almost eerie suggestion of the former, only with self-conscious lyrics and a terrible melody), but they came to this sound with a sense of oblique restlessness that Foxygen's on-the-nose, painstaking costume play sorely lacks. There's something lazy about it, and not even just in the way suggested by the fact that the record contains songs called both "Oh Yeah" and "Oh No" (the former coincidentally being the most MGMT-like moment here, the latter being the big Jefferson Airplane drugged-up album closing ballad move).

Alert listeners will also detect more superficial connections to concurrent hip groups -- hipper, if anything -- Girls and Tame Impala: the latter because psychedelia looms so large in the foundation of both bands' sound, the former because of the overly affected vocals and a kind of reverence toward coked-up lethargy that I find sort of befuddling. Sure, you can aurally remake Get Back and Abbey Road in the theatrics of "On Blue Mountain," but the hooky yet obnoxious flamboyant drama that slowly unfolds is more strongly reminiscent of bad prog or, gulp, Red Rose Speedway. That down-your-throat good time sensibility comes with the territory of trying to file a new record in sneakily between Oar and Pet Sounds, and so it goes that the attempted "communal" peak "Shuggie" falls flat, that the imitation-garage gimmickry of the title cut is all too florid to fit snugly on Nuggets. Inescapable indeed that, in terms of both vocals and compositions, these valentines to an era are far more self-serving and hollow than the now-equally musty but remarkably alive work of a band like the La's, whose fixations came with genuine adoration and exuberance.

There is one moment that lands here, though, and it seems nearly accidental. "San Francisco" is so beyond-belief twee that its ridiculous charms become undeniable; you want to hate every note of its pandering, readymade-for-a-She-&-Him-cover cheeriness, but it parks itself halfway between Belle & Sebastain and the Lovin' Spoonful and, despite ludicrous lyrics like "that was many years from now" (ugh, and that's not even as bad as the horrors of "Shuggie"), you fall head over heels for its delightful pop structure and jaunt. You can almost hear the street set being constructed for a Wes Anderson film as you listen, and the reason that's actually tolerable is that something shines through: there is a knowing lilt in that chorus that you just can't get away from, and that's how you know there's intelligent life in here. Someday maybe it will be ready to present us with something a bit more truly inventive and felt.

The Animals: Best Of (1964-65)



There was an abhorrent article by David Gates in Newsweek in 2008 called "It's a White Thing" arguing that white attraction to the music (jazz, blues, rock & roll, and on down the list) made by American blacks is a detached and even self-congratulatory exotic fascination, a symptom of our Western color schism that can never be bridged. The thesis is that the young Caucasian college student who listens to Charlie Parker or Skip James is really doing so out of a combination of trad racial guilt and an impersonal infatuation with a dangerous Other and sense of gritty "authenticity" (Gates' word), a modern-day manifestation of the privileged lady checking out slaves in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus who wants to see "the big black one" fight to the death. The logical conclusion of writer Gates' ideas: white music is for white people, black music is for black.

Thank heavens he's wrong or we unfortunates of Euro descent would have little beyond a lot of bilge to listen to, which isn't to say white people haven't made some dandy music, but outside of classical (which frankly is beyond my depth of non-aesthetic understanding anyway), how many white musical pioneers have we really had? If you excuse Brian Eno, they can't claim to have invented any major genre we listen to in America today. I wouldn't claim to know why this is the case but I don't see how anyone can credibly dispute it. But Gates' thinking has plenty of precedent. Up until not that long ago, Billboard monitored a "Black Music" chart week after week, and it was not unusual to enter a store and see a "Black" section marked off.

It's out of my league to argue about whether racial background factored into the actual creation of art by Miles Davis or Muddy Waters or Stevie Wonder or even Michael Jackson and Berry Gordy. I'm quite sure it did, because you cannot live in the United States without realizing that blackness, rightfully or not, has an inherent and external meaning instantly. It is well in my league, however, to tell you that beyond the entirely understandable pride and inspiration an artist may hold for their heritage, it would make little difference to me if Chuck Berry were white or John Lennon were black. It may, sadly, make a difference in their audience shares, and in a more meaningful sense it may affect the creation and cultural appreciation / appropriation of their art. But I find it obscene to suggest that my enjoyment of the music made by people of a different skintone means more or less to me for some artificial reason, be it guilt or a desire for earthiness -- itself, I would argue, a racist concept, and an absurd one, as we all ultimately originated in the same place.

That idea of universality -- the feeling of music coming from your bones, moving you down to the barest instinct -- applies very fittingly to the Animals' music. Led by the consistent goofball Eric Burdon, his later sins still far ahead, they are not generally labeled as being of a piece with the British Invasion. I would say they matter more today than the Who. To even hear a snippet of the songs on this disc today is to be knocked out, led irresistibly to dance with the world. If the British Invasion -- itself a hugely appealing (across any racial barrier) souffle and distillation of everything revealed by rock & roll in the preceding decade -- were a giant cupcake (bear with me) and the Beatles represented the frosty, flawless icing (sweet but not too sweet, the latter task left to Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clark Five), the Kinks the cream filling, the Rolling Stones the thick marble cake, and the Who (in my analogy) the wrapper, the Animals were the crusty, slightly burnt bottom of the dessert. Anyone who argues the Stones represented the dirty rock & roll of the movement is delusional. I love the Stones, but virtually anything on this compilation outmatches them for grit. And these are just the singles. There are some pop concoctions here: you will know "It's My Life," which is pure British Invasion (and brilliant), as well as "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," both of which are unmistakably undercut with the shade of dirty groove.

To go back to race for a moment, the chief reason my bringing up Gates' article is to excuse something I don't really want to say but feel I must. I think of all of the B.I. bands, the Beatles were in spirit and flavor closest to the rock & roll luminaries -- probably around three fourths of whom were black -- that led the way for them, partially because the Beatles had been playing together the longest and absorbed more of the styles and trends of the '50s than any of their peers. But in terms of raw, uninhibited rock & roll, rhythm & blues sound, the Animals had the knack above anybody else. When Little Richard saw the Beatles for the first time in 1962, he told a Liverpool reporter he was amazed they were white British guys, calling their music "authentic negro." If Richard Penniman and the world at large indeed feel safe using such a descriptor as shorthand for rock & roll (as it once existed and no longer specifically does), so be it; my only protest is that Buddy Holly, too, was pure rock & roll, and probably no one was whiter. These Animals songs are some of the raunchiest rock & roll ever recorded, so steaming they verge on entire other worlds, blues especially.

It is easy enough, of course, to argue that whereas the Beatles were nonchalant about their color and what it meant about them, the Animals embraced it, striving obviously -- as many bands do today -- to sound as much as possible like they were recording music twenty years earlier, and that they as the artists were different people entirely. This meant something altogether different then. It is hard to imagine now a time when country, R&B, rock & roll, and pop were constantly meshing and melding in the most casual of settings. Genres were not the hard line then. Elvis was played on every station. When you hear these songs today, it's impossible to overstate how little anything about them matters except their base, undeniable appeal. Regardless of the authenticity and earthiness of the men recording them, the songs themselves are as authentic and earthy as anything can be. I suppose a case could be made that there is condescension of a kind in Burdon's attempts to mimic his black idols' vocal styles exactly, but there is probably no more pronounced illustration of the fusion of white and black sensibilities in the '60s, of the birth that continues to this day of the oblique cultural reversal, in which artistically we worship our cultural assets while politically and socially we either condemn them or try to pretend they're not there.

I did not listen to the Animals growing up; mine was a Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel household (not mentioning the Beatles, as I assume they are part of nearly every household). I do, however, remember my mom practicing "House of the Rising Sun," a song as ancient and mysterious as some murder ballads, and being intoxicated by the sense of beautiful dread and fear in its chords and melody. It still moves me in a basic and inexplicable way suggestive of enormous power and tragedy. Burdon's voice almost doesn't seem worthy of it; he certainly is more than slightly out of his league on the song, which is ironic since it is the Animals' most popular and successful track, though maybe not because Burdon's modesty adds to the charm and, to repeat a phrase, grit. He more than any electrical current is what identifies it as a record of 1964 and not some ghostly paean lifted from a lost and found 78 from an attic somewhere. You sense history in the song, no matter who plays it, and maybe there's a manner in which it is inappropriate that most of us now know it because of the Animals. The Byrds comparison is needed here; some time before the American band popularized folk rock and decades before our po-mo infatuation with history as style, the Animals electrify and fetishize a Time Before. With this as their signature, like the Byrds, the Animals would forever exist and be known primarily as interpreters, rendering them nearly alone among post-Beatles rock bands.

But the instant the second song, the delirious and rollicking "I'm Cryin'," overtakes, there is no more doubt as to the Animals' intentions. There is an astonishing purity to the songs that follow. If we are able to stretch ourselves in 2008 to make this distinction, it is like a modern take on a greatest hits by some forgotten great rock & roller of the '50s rather than a few kids from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Adding to the ingratiating toughness and rawness is the production style, which -- despite the band's considerable proficiency -- lends them a garage band feel that other B.I. denizens completely lacked, so that they sit comfortably by the down-and-dirty American proto-punk acts of the time: again the seamless fusion of past and future. For the past, you may turn to the amped-up "Around and Around" (Chuck Berry) cover or to the base sexual urges of "Boom Boom"; for the future, "Gonna Send You Back to Walker" is miraculously effective at drawing a line from Robert Johnson to the Buzzcocks. And what's more, Sam Cooke's immortal "Bring It on Home to Me" brings out Burdon's unexpected sweetness, and "I'm in Love Again" -- a Fats Domino cover -- sounds uncannily like the Rolling Stones. And their take on "Story of Bo Diddley," which contemplates the reaction of elder statesmen to the Brit Invasion, suggests they had more of a sense of humor than their doom-and-gloom Vh1 "Behind the Music" profile suggested.

If there's anything more you need out of an album, I don't know what it could possibly be; these songs refute everything about Gates' thesis -- they are pure and good rock & roll, and there is nothing strained or inauthentic about it. I don't know much of anything about the Animals' discography except it's not very big; this sequence is so addictive it may be too good to taint by investigating more, but I know I will anyway because if there's a possibility that more of this exists, I want to hear it.

[This review was written in June 2008 but never posted. My feelings about Burdon's conflicted attitude toward his sources have grown somewhat more complicated since then, and I'm not fully onboard any longer with some of the thoughts about race and music above... but I'm leaving my thoughts as they were above, with just a few edits for clarity.]

Animalism (1966)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (2013)

(Our Dawn)


Progressive rock's gradual invasion of R&B is complete now; we needn't fight it, if The ArchAndroid didn't already convince us it wasn't necessary. Former Bad Boy associate Dawn Richard's phantasmagoric, ethereal solo sophomore effort clinches the transformation -- and not merely because compositions by two members of Genesis are interpolated at various points. The record begins with teasing, ghostly orchestrations calling up "In the Air Tonight" -- a desperate and haunted melody that here serves to introduce us to Richard's fiercely smooth, carefully tentative M.O.: her songs are bottom-heavy and shimmery but twist their various knives in a confident, celebratory manner when the moment calls for it. That confidence is well earned even though Richard enters the world as a self-releasing solo artist without much clout behind her. We have to turn to deep cuts on R&B albums these days to find anything as terrifically bold as the stunt of melding Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" with a hi-NRG backbeat. Richard embraces everything she can think of, and the result is a consistently surprising, affectedly atmospheric record whose ghostly orchestrations and tricky, sensual beats amply reward the nocturnal heart.

Hooks are scattered, but hooks aren't really the point of an album like this anyway. Listen carefully to "Return of a Queen"; though its "do what you want to me" refrain offers concurrent strength and delicacy enough, you're stricken immediately by another, deeper contradiction: musically, it's sparse and direct but also florid, expansive, immersive, and its build into propulsive electro with an "Adorn"-like center is sweeping and feverish, especially in the properly moody setting it deserves. For a quicker primer on Richard's intriguingly warring impulses (war being a constant lyrical theme here, with even sex a "tug of war"), move up closer to "Northern Lights," something akin to Robyn Miller's music from MYST fused with a Jock Jams compilation -- it claps to insanity, peaking in a sharply exhilarating melodic chorus, one of many that are carefully mounted and dispersed by writer-producer Druski (Andrew Scott), who lays the bedrock for Richard's glorious vocal acrobatics. Her singing is perfectly nuanced, glowering and towering without a hint of the cloying easiness of a less adventurous pop singer.

Scott and Richard's taste may or may not be great, but it's certainly interesting, making entertaining and useful hay out of its intense schlockiness -- and as on recent totem albums by Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and Frank Ocean, there's a certain pleasingly calm normalization of verbal and aural weird that artists outside of the R&B genre never seem to find quite so easy and joyous. Yeah, Richard's intricate lyrics aren't too far from Led Zeppelin's tiresome advocacy of fantasy novels, but she at least lives in 'em. When she starts a war on "Riot," it's a statement of purpose with giggly excitement toward the wet 1997 streets evoked by its heap of radio club music influences; the point being that even when she's relatively conventional, she finds excitement in it. And not to bring things back to a rockist platform, but one of the startling things about Goldenheart is its absolute heaviness -- the backlit sci-fi beauty in instant touchstone "Gleaux" boasts a tremendous focus and seriousness as the sex and subversion in its melody get steamrolled by its quixotically manic pace changes; the sound is positively huge, never mind Richard's unwavering voice.

Call it "modernist urban nocturnal pop" if the existing umbrellas don't satisfy you; they don't seem to satisfy Richard, who can exercise so many ideas in so little time it's kind of exhausting. The only song here with full-on outside production, by an outfit called the Fisticuffs who've worked with Miguel and others, is "Tug of War," and what a batshit piece of wonder this is. Initially it's stunningly soft, leaving room for emphasis on the expressive vocal and beat; but as the massive bass takes over, the pleading and strong insistence in Richard and her pure-sex determination to "be the champion" reaches a critical mass even as the song comes to seem ever more felt and layered. Its push and pull drum sound, its gloriously sensual rhythm make the forbidden point that we should be so lucky to deserve "what's coming to you," as she puts it. It's enough to make you wish for an immediate follow-up with a broader string of producers, something I generally don't advocate.

With all this talk of heaviness, we're underselling how fun this record is; its crafty camp and dissonance are the initial attraction and a strong reason to return. "Tug of War" segues splendidly into the great "Ode to You," which builds and releases its frustrated grooves with kiss and seduction, occupying firmly the sense of desire and need that seems so verboten in so much modern rock music. Case in point again, the classicist slow-jam and hot-shit single "86," conventional but sort of glorious and bringing us the killer hook of the whole LP. And remember that Richard herself, though she displays no sense of outsize ego, is a determined and dedicated artist; we don't abide much by the rather sexist "diva" distinction for anybody, but "Goliath" is the kind of showpiece that brings the house down in every capacity -- the size of it fills your head, the rhythmic vocal interactions and overdubs are Marvin Gaye-worthy, and note how Richard never forgets the record's swirling, cohesive motif of that starkness that's only pounded through with the incessant beat.

No doubt describing an album like this can seem reductive; "spacey" doesn't tell you much of anything, nor does the fact that a song with the line "vibrations set the tone" ("Frequency") actually is deliriously fun and sexy and not just silly. If you need a basic rundown on what's going on here, the single won't tell you much. Track down the craziest moment of all here, the Cruella Deville as Laura Nyro nonsense "Pretty Wicked Things" and fall the fuck into it. Distant, intense, almost shapeless, it's high cinematic drama with the wild ambition of contact you'll remember from the girl groups, but nothing like their letter or spirit. Its sweetness and darkness are so playfully skewered, especially in the vocals which "ooooooo" and "ohhhhhhhh" out into oblivion, that you feel like you're gonna lose patience with it any second now, but its muffled goth-soul keeps ingratiating. Leave the record on in the background and you're impressed enough by it already, but pay close attention and it's an absolute jolt.

Richard is going somewhere for sure... but she's not quite there yet. This would be an even more special record had it been pared down a bit, but like so many major R&B releases in the last few years, it's simply too long, to the point of being overwhelming. And in this case, it's also front-loaded, which makes the back half disappointingly forgettable, especially when it drifts into faux-inspirational stuff like the piano-heavy "Warfaire," which is no match for the Des'ree hit it immediately recalls. Cut this down to eleven or twelve songs and it's an enduring, remarkable dark night in, preferably shared with someone good in bed who either has drugs or feels like drugs. That's not to be reductive toward Richard's craft, it's just that her work here is genuinely, uncompromisingly erotic and adventurous, and you'll want all the time you can have with her most breathless and inspired work here. Never see the break of Dawn, indeed.