Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fantasia: Side Effects of You (2013)



The calculation of Fantasia's Side Effects of You is not cynical, but a testament that this brilliant singer is acutely aware of the audience to whom she is singing, nearly a decade after she rose to fame. Like so many artists who essentially came of age under a microscope with a spotlight attached, Fantasia has begun to court what some A&R executive years ago decided was an "adult" audience, except she's good at it -- that is to say, this record, her fifth, is what's known as "tasteful." What a pity that this is so often a debit. Side Effects may lack the freshness of the best and sprightliest R&B of our time, but it's about as well-crafted and pleasurable an album as money can buy in 2013.

The superficial key to the record's appeal is that Fantasia's eclectic performance style and the production by Harmony Samuels (who handles all but one cut) dabble heartily in the trends, radio-friendly and otherwise, of the present period but also feels, as does Fantasia, a kinship with the now-classic '90s hits of Mary J. Blige, Babyface, Toni Braxton, TLC and even En Vogue (whose best song, "Don't Let Go (Love)," is specifically referenced on "End of Me"). The result has an almost casually broad appeal, best indicated in the album's very first moments: through a cloud of modernist white noise emerges a perfect integration of atmospheric, vaguely paranoid R&B with Samuels' actual banger and Fantasia's florid invocation of her influences. Extrapolating a bit, even the mainstream pop-embracing single "Without Me" has a stretched and skewed hook, eschewing its natural sweetness for the stark sound of an unforgiving club floor.

The more interesting way of putting this -- and its actual impact on the music -- is that it as a whole is a glittery and glamorous affair but also chilled, almost methodical. Fantasia and her producer never stop aiming for the massiveness of beat; even the slow-jams that coat over half the album are designed to slam rather brutally, and suggestively. If you know even a little about Fantasia as a person, you can sense why she's attracted to the kind of tension that makes her mask a disturbing anthem of escape and getaway like "If I Was a Bird" with pretty little keyboard trills and doublespeak. She receives no writing credit on the bold, heroic, amply romantic "Lighthouse" but it contains one of my favorite lines in any pop song this year: "I'll always be the same for you / I'll never ever change for you," which when you really think about it is a challenge to conventional sexual politics as fueled by wordplay as the Kinks' "Lola" or Smokey Robinson's "Whatever Makes You Happy. That speaks somewhat to a theme. Fantasia also doesn't seem to have handled any of the music or lyrics for the title cut, which is probably a credit to her as it stretches its prescription-drug metaphor to its absolute unintentionally amusing limit, but that's where she and the epic sweep and rawness of her voice come in: she makes the thing mean something, desperation, loss, the sensation of being entirely alone. When she sings of taking three pills a day to help her smile, it strikes you to the core even if she's only kind of going there.

That's still dark shit, although not really dark shit by the standards of pop music if you spend much time with it, and it's hardly Phil Spector -- it takes no pleasure in its pain except as a means to escape into the rich emotion of a towering vocal. Side Effects touches on lighter matters, like the sonic nostalgia of "In Deep" and the excellent "Lose to Win" (which picks up the "Adorn" torch for early '80s non-Minneapolis R&B appropriation), but its undaunted strikes against misogyny mark a strong contrast against, say, Blurred Lines or even Big Boi's albums. Or even the work of Janelle Monae, who for all her brilliance tends not to hit these matters head-on or with quite Fantasia's determined fierceness. The mere presence of "Girl Talk," nothing more than a skit that consists of Fantasia chatting with a few friends, places the bro-filled attitudes of the average pop record in stark relief by mere virtue of having women talking about making sure their dudes understand how important their careers are. Of course, they're still talking about dudes, but the point stands. And all this can finally erupt in the total apocalypse of feeling on "End of Me." Her confidence absolute, she dismisses with demons with aplomb and grace in a genre that unfairly tends not to be taken seriously on such points.

The fast ones here have an impeccable relentlessness well suited to Fantasia's nuanced, cooled-down vocals. Within a minute she's righteously announcing herself as lady, woman, mother, daughter with no cutting down of any named role, and an expectation that every part of herself is to be accepted, loved, desired when relevant. Big KRIT -- remember when we were really excited about him? -- shows up but seems beside the point. The story is, again, Fantasia's ownership and control of her own desire, especially on the drilling, invasively snappy electro "Change Your Mind" and the terrific "Get It Right," which sees her exercising some splendid Mary Wells-style raspiness.

Nevertheless, the album never quite betters its second track, "Ain't All Bad," a relentless circa-1997 groove and the rare great song that keeps getting greater, nastier, goofier but not dumber ("never eva eva eva let you go oh oh oh oh oh"). Yeah, yeah, a great production that splices a chopped-up, tricky verse with a sweet and silky chorus, but its cabaret bassline and theatricality are pure schlock in the best way -- as divinely impressive as when Fantasia is just belting out grievances in the show-stopping manner of Fiona Apple. The final effect is all pop-hypnotic, just fabulous. Fantasia's not sold that many records or garnered a spectacular level of post-Idol attention outside R&B-devoted circles, but she's wearing the crown of a massive star and it suits her well. She's major whether we're listening or not.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu (2013)

(Ribbon Music)


47 year-old Syrian dabke singer Souleyman has exercised in an unbroken tradition of poetic party music -- derived from traditional Middle Eastern songforms -- for decades, and one can be forgiven if it seems as though the fascination by various alt-rock luminaries with his work (Damon Albarn, Björk, and now Four Tet) carries the tiniest hint of cynicism. After hearing this record, I sampled a few of the hundreds of bootleg recordings of Souleyman enthusiastically belting at weddings and thought of how the last thing his sophisticated, exuberant music needs is to be appropriated as mere flavor for someone's rock festival or, worse yet, rock record or indie label.

Happily, Four Tet, acting as producer for Wenu Wenu, captures Souleyman without compromise and without covering up or smoothing out his almost confrontationally celebratory repertoire of spiritually exhilarating, bombastic gulps, yelps and wails. Souleyman is always as subservient to melody as any pop singer -- which perhaps anticipates his popularity in the West -- but he has ferociously commanding and virtuosic way with a tune. Speeding up, slowing down, guttural and sweet in rapid succession, he seems often to be singing both above and below the melody but engaging with it beautifully. I can't comment with great intelligence upon the lyrics, sung in at least three languages, but despite the fact that all seven of these cuts are rapid-fire body music, Souleyman's voice in and of itself expresses a spectacular range of emotional thought, accessible and challenging at once.

Four Tet's own records are hit and miss, especially lately, so much as when Beck took on Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM back in 2010, it must be said that it's a relief he subsumes his own preference toward slick repetition and sonic gimmickry in favor of helping to craft a record that's truly stylistically adventurous, in and outside the context of nonwestern music courting an American audience. The legacy of Wenu Wenu as a part of what's likely to become a massive recorded legacy is just how well it captures the sophistication and courageous weirdness of Souleyman's vocal interactions with the brilliant keyboardist Rizan Sa'id, whose work here is sufficiently staggering that there are times he seems to deserve the role of session leader more than Souleyman himself. As traditionalist as this music is, the layering Kieran Hebden parses out without interfering with the band interplay and the wiry, playful, sometimes even menacing keyboard lines of Sa'id spin it into something that seems quite new, and entirely unique.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ciara (2013)



This is the one of the best R&B albums in recent memory. At a time when even so many good records in and out of the mainstream of the genre go on too long and get overblown or overly reliant on a specific style, Ciara is a brilliant antidote in three important ways: it is substantial but quite brief, running under forty minutes which increases its immediacy and the desire to return to it; it is mostly pounding body music with a couple of well-placed ballads that aren't turgid or meandering (no cut exceeds four and a half minutes); and more than anything, it's extremely well sequenced.

This is one of the few modern records with the courage to build upon itself, starting out with an introductory bang but allowing its songs to grow ever more propulsive and exciting until achieving a full-on climax with the last two songs. There are some who may think that "I'm Out," for all intents and purposes a Nicki Minaj song with mere flavorful intrusions by Ciara herself, is the moment that plays all the powerful cards here. But Ciara boasts something rare these days: it's surprising, and consistently so.

Born in Texas but hailing from the fringes of a healthy pop scene in Atlanta, Ciara has long been an adventurous performer with a splendid range of influences. Her voice is similar to Aaliyah's -- quite startling company to be in -- but in the high-concept performance art elements of her aesthetic restlessness, she more readily calls Madonna and Prince to mind, though she already seems to be compromising less than even the boldest performers within the mainstream. In interviews she's mentioned Missy Elliott, and this seems apt. After a string of good records that were commercial mediocrities, Ciara has come to rely on her own brand-building instead of depending upon a label to allow her to develop -- because as you know, they don't really do that anymore. She's moved from LaFace to Epic on what seem to be better terms, and the result is a confident and gigantic leap forward.

Ciara is a party album, but like Prince's 1999 it captures the full range in intensity of a heated night -- beginning with track number two, every selection is a bit more intense than the last, even if not necessarily faster (as opposed to something like Purple Rain or Janelle Monae's ArchAndroid that changes pace and tone repeatedly). You don't need to hear these songs all together to appreciate them singularly -- that collision of soft and hard on "Sophomore," sensual "make Mama proud" bridge versus sneering "so soft my skin so soft my booty" chorus, is as easy and liberating on its own as the youthfully charged, savory "Read My Lips" -- but what's impressive is that the varied, across-the-spectrum smorgasbord of production styles, innovative and dated (and experimental in both directions), complement one another so well that you find yourself preferring to hear this material all in conjunction.

The material on the first half isn't any less appealing or striking than the rest, it's just that it's a gathering of energies, even the hit "Body Party" and the yearning "Where You Go," which might at first seem an outlier. But with "Super Turnt Up" -- which is indeed -- the album kicks into tirelessly playful overdrive, shutting up and driving drunk on "DUI" then spilling into pop-blissful club catharsis on the instant classic "Livin' It Up" and the holy-fuck perfection of the New Romantic-derived "Overdose," maybe the banger of the year.

Through it all, what makes it magic is less the writing and economy -- however endearing -- and mostly Ciara's joyous and expressively nuanced voice, which she wraps around everything with enthusiasm and fully trustworthy passion. But yes, some major part of the brilliance of Ciara is it's the work of a performer who knows her audience, and who means to give an intense and quick dose of thrill that leaves the head spinning, wondering what the fuck just happened. Ten minutes shorter and it wouldn't be enough. Longer and it wouldn't work. As it is, it keeps you stranded on the dance floor wanting more, all the more anxious to play it again.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Julie Ruin: Run Fast (2013)



And here it is, the hardest album of the decade to turn off. Go ahead and try it; set Run Fast, the first official LP of Kathleen Hanna's new band the Julie Ruin (though she used the name for an apparently avant garde-ish side project back in the '90s), playing on your turntable or laptop or whatever and try to persuade yourself to shut the thing off after track two or three. Track eleven, even. Impossible. The thing is such a damn unrepressed, unfiltered joy that it's a true act of self-denial not to give it your full attention and make yourself a space in your probably messy work area for a small dance party, solo or otherwise.

It's so fucking reductive to classify this as "riot grrl revenge" or whatnot, which isn't meant as a knock on Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, L7, Sleater-Kinney, whatever other bands you might classify under a label that was once very necessary to point up the changeover in '90s rock that happened underneath the distraction of all the now-irrelevant grunge sludge doldrums. Those are great bands and the trend of women asserting their place in the rock sphere without apology was and is worth commenting on -- but at this point, why gender it? Even some pro critics have asserted Run Fast as music "for girls," and it may be true (and is perfectly reasonable) that women seeking jump-start rhythms and top-of-lungs exuberance are a prime target audience. No objection to that. Objection to the idea that music needs to be condescended to, ghettoized, or "classified" strictly as a result of the gender of three of the four members of the band. This is rock & roll music played by women, and it's okay to be heartened by that. It is not "female rock & roll music."

Hanna's presence, of course, inevitably brings forth the riot grrl response; she's a genuine giant in the alternative popverse and has been for a couple of decades now. Sidelined for a good while by a serious illness, mostly silent for several years, she put together this new band in 2010 and unfurled it with a bang on this triumphant, consistently wonderful debut record that aims itself squarely at those without a point of reference in the '90s lineage of the music. It's not meant necessarily for Bikini Kill fans, though they'll almost certainly dig it, or those who witnessed firsthand the gradual sickening standardization of rock radio in the '90s that briefly made room for imaginative, exciting music like this and then buried it all in a macho sea of Staind and Pearl Jam clones. If anything, the better moment for the Julie Ruin is now, when most of us are no longer reliant on the same tastemakers to find our music -- tastemakers still, but a larger number of them. To lay out influences and origins and pages and pages of ancestral context for Understanding the Julie Ruin seems completely pointless, an unnecessary roadblock in what is finally a pure shot of pleasure that one appreciates immediately and then increasingly so with further listening (and dancing).

More than anything, this music seems timeless, evocative as much of core rock & roll skewed by bands in the '60s -- the restless good humor and playful, warped pop of the Remains or the Raiders and the slapdash "let's make noise" giddiness of Sam the Sham or early Love (compare the shout-into-sweetness of "You I'll Be Following" or sheer chaos of "7 & 7 Is") -- as the more obvious punk references: the Slits, X-Ray Spex, the Adverts. My first emotional thought was one of the bands I've most passionately championed over the last few years, the Swedish shouty punkers Love Is All, who of course were informed in large part by the very music Hanna was making back in the '90s. I don't know if Hanna has even heard LIA's records, but what makes Run Fast so special, I think, is that beyond the aesthetic similarities, it shares Love Is All's open-hearted passion and sense of the spectacular. There is less open yearning and romance in Run Fast, and the writing owes more to hallowed, blistering '50s rock & roll, but I feel the same kinship with these shout-along words and indelible melodies, and the absolute vibrance and enthusiasm both bands share. Who won't be singing along by the end of the very first cut, "Oh Come On"? Probably nobody who's much fun to hang out with, frankly.

That timelessness is fulfilled not just by the splendidly straight-ahead, banged-out perfection of the band itself but the way they so readily interpret and carry to the brink of bliss the songs Hanna's written. She has a way with a pop construction, and there are so many delightful tics and cathartic peaks in these songs it's hard to name highlights without getting overwhelmed. Numbers two and three, the clever surf-rock snarl "Ha Ha Ha" and magnificent Spectorian creation "Just My Kind," are so phenomenal I first mistook the album for being slightly front-loaded, but at this point it's clear that were the record to begin with any three of its thirteen selections one would initially have the same impression, simply because the band's sound is so immediately appealing and the hit to the jugular takes a bit to wear off.

As it happens, heard over and over again, the album doesn't let up, and one three-minute perfection strikes back and follows another. (The only lengthier song until the dramatic closer "Run Fast" is a delightful keyboard interlude called "Goodnight Goodbye.") These shouts and melodies certainly have a little anger and distress in them, but your overriding impression is of their joy, alive and pure at their simplest and most complex ("Kids in NY," a sort of hipster-targeting "White Riot"; the partially spoken-word and poetic "South Coast Plaza"; the towering title cut). No weak cuts here, all electric and enormous, maddening and crazed guitar rock -- with well-placed shots of synth and propulsion. They don't make 'em this fun nearly often enough, and it sometimes takes a brilliant veteran to have the focus and experience to provide us with an insight that deep.


[I don't usually do this, but read this excellent interview with Hanna if you have the time. Then buy the fuck out of this fabulous record, please.]

One-sentence reviews #11

Hope you don't mind these things, cause there's at least two more on the way.

The Range
Nonfiction (2013)

(Donky Pitch)

One of those pleasant enough electronic records that seems to exist at all only in the spheres of certain very specific reviewers; needless to say, it ain't easy for the rest of us to see what they're on about but maybe we're the crazy ones.


Los Campesinos!
No Blues (2013)

(Wichita Recordings)

Hyperenthusiastic pseudo-arena rockers have invited comparisons to Fang Island, Titus Andronicus, Arcade Fire, etc. and are too sweet and sincere to be super-annoying, but their bombast doesn't have much backing it up except a lot of heart and maybe that's plenty.


Kasey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park (2013)

(Mercury Nashville)

Made a conscious decision to dabble in one of my few forbidden genres this year, pop-country (metal will not be joining it, sorry), and came away with some respect for a gifted performer like Musgraves but the conclusion that the on-the-nose lyricism and flat polish of the production just ain't for me.


Mutual Benefit
Love's Crushing Diamond (2013)

(Other Music)

RECOMMENDED - Flowery, gorgeous little nothing is hypnotic in all its pillowy layers and breathy detail, better yet as diverting but unintrusive ambiance.


Wild Light (2013)

(Superball Music)

I prefer my background music (uh, sorry, "math rock") to avoid constantly asserting its machismo, thanks.


Pistol Annies
Annie Up (2013)

(RCA Nashville)

See Musgraves above, although the Annies' songs are a little better, the singing less spontaneous and interesting.


DJ Rashad
Double Cup (2013)


!! CAUTION !! - Chicago footwork DJ is probably capable of making you dance if you're very high, but I can verify that he can irritate the living shit out of you while sober.


Youth Lagoon
Wondrous Bughouse (2013)

(Fat Possum)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! - Following an inoffensive debut I came around eventually to thinking was slightly better than decent as these dream pop-ish things go, here we go full-bore with moony, self-regarding nonsense along the lines of These New Puritans -- yo, "indie" "rock" people: this is why they hate us.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

David Bowie: The Next Day (2013)



The long absence of a luminary is something that tends to deserve the respect of the rock & roll audience. As much as we can commend Ringo Starr for even showing up for his recording dates, what observer doesn't prefer the career path of the man or woman of few words, who pops back upon the radar only when s/he has something to contribute? Of course, public figures laying low inevitably create death rumors, health rumors, retirement rumors, you name it. David Bowie hasn't played a show since 2003, has only made sporadic public appearances since then, but suddenly with barely any lead time for the thinkpiece brigade to start speculating, there was The Next Day, recorded in secret and in utter routine as though not a day had passed since the LP its cover coyly references. Bowie was prolific for three full decades and more, even if everyone from planet to shining planet acknowledges that the fire underneath him during the '70s was never to be repeated. Whether you cottoned to Let's Dance and all thereafter or not, The Next Day comes across as a major shock. Not merely a respectable return to form, it's one of the best records in Bowie's catalog -- the hiatus has done wonders.

What's so remarkable about it? Well, it's the voice, first of all. Not exactly youthful but by no means a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen growl, it retains much of the old yelpy and freaky registers alike. Secondly and perhaps most crucially, the writing: it's top-caliber whether you consider this as a new record by some new guy (no new guy would be this bold, adventurous, or fearlessly individualistic out of the gate) or a proper addition to the Bowie library, requiring no veteran's-rights apology in either case. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is anthemic night-drive perfection down to every oooooh, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" the playful doo wop we never knew to expect, "How Does the Grass Grow?" a tremendous creation out of messy melody and restless procession of sonic and musical ideas. Thirdly, the performances, arrangement, production. It's unmistakably Bowie, unmistakably Tony Visconti, but also new: complex and detailed, synthy and organic, its hopelessness and chaos so well organized. "Art rock" (remember when that was the phrase?) is back in good hands out of nowhere. "Your maid is new, and your accent too / but your fears are as old as the world," goes "Love Is Lost."

Maybe the point of all this is that so much less has changed than we think, but an even cursory listen to the maximized sound of these songs indicates that they will age with infinitely more grace than many modern records, many of Bowie's own records from the '80s and onward -- that's sonics, really, playful and tricky but never falling down a synthetic ProTools rabbit hole, never burying itself in the gimmicks of meaningless guest spots and bones thrown to some label executive's idea of modern love. As it must always in Bowie's body of work, paranoia wins out. Enthusiastic paranoia, dramatized and played with precision and natural depth, all filtered through the unerring sensibilities of a giant who remains such, disappearance and floundering or no. It was clear by the time the first single, "Where Are We Now," showed up like a Stevie Wonder ballroom dance imbued with brutal cyncism. It's clear on "Valentine's Day," a power pop power riffage marathon about murder. It's the '60s again, or the '70s, and not, thankyouverymuch, because it sounds like 'em.

The Next Day is lengthy -- after ten full years, there's a fair bit of ground to cover -- but after roaring out of the gate with the dirty ass rock & roll of the title cut and the filthy, horny "Dirty Boys," it never really falters, retaining its pace and curious sense of disorientation all the way to the arid, terrifying "Heat," this record's variation on Talking Heads' "The Overload," the kind of audacious '80s experiment that owed everything to Bowie. Everything cycles around, of course, and now Bowie is just another musician saying his piece, taking cues from others and trying to further the envelope a little just like everyone... except that most 66 year-olds don't even know where the envelope is, much less do they have any idea how or why they should push it. Which is not to discount or defame them, just to point out that by Bowie's determination to issue a strong record he cares deeply about, he's ahead of the game once again. We missed his voice in this modern era so much it would have been OK if the record was merely decent. Instead he's given us something that holds its own against several albums that altered the course of rock music. It's a different time but still, we can't get enough of that doomsday song.

Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (1970)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The records Neil Young made in the '70s are infallible. Sometimes lightning is just behind an artist. As good as Everybody Knows This is Nowhere had been, its follow-up seems to come up from the soil -- a dream of magic conjured from the ashen end of the 1960s. After the Gold Rush is an album whose final ethereal impact as a collection of hardened but gentle folk-rock tunes, written and sung to virtual perfection, is so timeless it can be surprising to learn how much of a document of its era it really is: written on acid trips, based partially on a psychedelic "unproduced screenplay" that sounds no more dreadful than many counterculture movies of the period that did get made. That's part of what has made Young a giant -- his work is too universal to be tangled up in such concerns and technicalities as time, place, intention.

The song "After the Gold Rush," for example, is either an LSD song or a veiled commentary about the environment, the industrial age and the future -- but every line of it means something whether we care to dully parse out the entire song's intentions or not. Its dreamlike piano line, one of many on the outskirts of ghostly familiarity played on the LP by Nils Lofgren, has the mournful quality of a "Let It Be" or "Moonlight Mile." It feels like something Young discovered rather than wrote, something that's singing him -- and forty years later, its mournful nostalgia is unquestionably permanent.

It's the quietest song on Side One (but not the smallest, that would be the sensual and intimate "Till the Morning Comes") but serves as its emotional climax much as the stunning "I Believe in You" is for the back half. "Gold Rush" is sung in an undaunted, plaintive falsetto, "I Believe in You" has more gruffness but is a more vulnerable and direct lyric and performance. This contrast is, as many have noted, likely the culmination of Young's increasingly varied career path in the prior year, performing with Crazy Horse as well as the folkier CSNY, wherein his talent so outpaced that of his bandmates that there's still some bitterness in some quarters that "Helpless" made it onto one of their records and not his own.

The Other Neil Young is in evidence here as well, as it was on the unlikely and hard-hitting CSNY protest single "Ohio." "Southern Man" -- one of the best-sounding performances ever recorded in rock history -- and "When You Dance I Can Really Love" are no less enormous despite being dwarfed by the quieter, heart-stopping acoustic pieces. "Southern Man" is a violent elegy for the Old South, "When You Dance" a note-perfect rocker, romance writ large. Both lay a roadmap for Young's mastery to come through the rest of the decade, and both sound a world away from the AM pop of the celebrated Harvest, which would appear two years later.

There are no extrapolated jams here, no lengthy guitar stabbings designed to annoy the George Harrisons of the world, only Young's flawless way with a melody accompanied always by his idiosyncratic but quite beautiful voice, capable of hyper-enthusiasm and soulfulness as much as the darkness befitting many of his despairing words. Young dabbles in abstraction for the most part, and this is generally his best lyrical work (the title cut, the choral ballad "Birds," the trifling earworm "Cripple Creek Fairy") but as he would subsequently prove time and time again, he is the master of a surface-level appreciation of heartbreak that can provide solace to anyone at the end of any given rope.

Issued as a single some time earlier, a lovely cover of Don Gibson's "Oh, Lonesome Me" reveals the source of the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long" before exorcising angst with haromnica, and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" expresses a sentiment so bitterly honest it's a wonder no one had beaten him to it. The words are no more a monument to great poetry than Gibson's, but in either case, Young's cooing and calling atop the bed of piano and acoustic guitar is about the truest sort of breakup comfort possible. Just three albums into his solo career, his writing in terms of both words and music has already vastly eclipsed his estimable work with Buffalo Springfield, and his performances are at peak-level mastery.

The joy of Young in this period is the tightrope he walks: a song like "Tell Me Why" is fragile and beautiful but presented with utter confidence that makes it more reassuring, more moving. And "Don't Let It Bring You Down" has a reflective Crazy Horse menace about it, but the chaos is softened and the music breathes. Young cultivates those, like Lofgren and bassist Greg Reeves, who can appreciate, justify and maximize the emotional potential of his songs. After the Gold Rush is a truly magnificent record and, one assumes, one for which the primary appeal and immediacy has not changed since release. The longing, sad, beautiful prism through which it sees the world is absent some of the desperation of Young's other large handful of truly great records, but it would be surprising to meet a music lover who could not be led through a dark night by its warmth and monochrome splendor.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

[Editorial note: Last pre-millennial album review here until 2014. The new release rush for 2013 begins in the next few hours. This blog will be kicking into overdrive with about two reviews per day until the middle of December. If I miss a day, there will be three the next two days, etc. Because I got a late start for various boring reasons, I sidelined the pending reviews of older records (except this and the prior two because they were already half-done). Quick shoutout to postponed reviews of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Yo La Tengo and Camera Obscura times two that will now appear in January.]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Parliament: Up for the Down Stroke (1974)



Trying to make sense of the varied history of Funkadelic and their slightly poppier psuedonym Parliament is a confusing enough process that most of even the group's most virulent acolytes give up and consider them all the same band. Up for the Down Stroke is Parliament, I guess, because of personnel makeup and label and other boring stuff. But also because it's more polished and immediately pleasurable than anything else under George Clinton's aegis up to this point, and its leaps and bounds in the direction of accessibility are obvious from the first moments, when its hedonistic wet groove of an anthem, suffused with James Brown horns, comes pounding out of the speakers ready to lurch any party violently out of dignified black-tie adulthood, into the realm of the late-night weird. "Up for the Down Stroke," the song, is the kind of thing that is pleasurable and impressive in deep-seated enough ways that you wonder what on earth is going on in the inner world of someone who doesn't love it.

Then, when you dissect it, your deeper ponderings are about what could drive Clinton and his cohorts -- who here reach what may have been their peak era as a band built on intricate jamming, rude and confrontational vocal acrobatics, and the most novel kind of interplay -- to render their own idea of steaming, bombed-out soul music and perverse pop from a series of ideas that sometimes seem only barely strung together. The haphazardness of the catchphrase-driven writing (meaning both the words and the hooks) and the strange stop-start, sometimes astoundingly warped rhythms remains so unique and unapologetically individual that even on a record like this that anyone who truly loves rock & roll is likely to enjoy, your head can explode at the group's singularity.

That the brilliance of that priceless single is stretched for the full length of an LP is miracle enough; Parliament and Funkadelic would both improve on this album in later years, but not by much. Listen carefully to the crafty oddness and loving perversity of Clinton, enabled plenty by the contributions of dream-team keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins. It's true that his frayed-revival voice, taking cues from both Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Sly Stone, is effective and digestible largely because of the incredibly consistency of the simmering, funked-out rhythm section that never misses a beat behind him. But Clinton was more than just the great gatherer of talent that history so readily records. It took a flair for both sweetness and bite to write "I Wanna Testify"; it took a genius to transfer it to 1974 Casablanca Records nastiness.

It's a wonderful sideline in the history book about Clinton longing to be written that Parliament's only peers were Funkadelic. In any guise they were harder and slinkier than Ohio Players, vastly livelier than Earth, Wind and Fire -- and their imagination was equaled only by their influences and the hip hop that would rise in their wake. All this is apparent on even the most dubious moments of Down Stroke, which comes on like a big statement of purpose now. The generally startling sense of pessimism and despair common to so much '70s soul is downright apocalyptic when this record tries it on, evoking Bobby Womack on "Presence of a Brain," Henry Mancini on the glorious "All Your Goodies Are Gone," a piano-driven breakup treatise that trades heartache for surrealism and ends up failing to conquer the former with the latter, which is all the better.

Clinton was still fascinated in this period by the string-heavy schmaltz of movie music and AM pop, moreover with classical (dig the baroque production on "I Just Got Back"), but even if his demented yet relaxed, crooning psychedelia seems to have more in common with the Fifth Dimension or (gulp) Klaatu than the 13th Floor Elevators, his stretching interest in such matters creates a fascinating tension. Instead of pretentious or mocking of its high-minded ideas, this music is intriguing, mysterious and personal -- meaning to tease all manner of what some would deem higher and lower pleasures. Clinton would just label them all pleasures. Some critics and fans dismiss the nine-minute "The Goose," a slab of eagerly intoned sensuality with tricky guitar like "Some Kinda Love" by someone with technical chops, but its calm spaceyness -- not paranoid, just happy as a monkey with a peanut machine -- and extrapolation into a disorienting wander sound today like an entirely willful burnout: an expression of the joy of yet another kind of flag-waving eccentricity.

Clinton can meet such charges of deliberate, honest-to-god confound by just being himself; he's the kind of artist you don't want to learn to control himself or rein anything in -- but you quickly learn, especially on this specific record (a sort of Rosetta Stone of his career as a whole) that this supposed spontaneous loopiness is entirely intentional and as controlled as a Bob Clampett cartoon -- the music just wouldn't be any good otherwise, but here it is: messy, dark, banging, mindbendingly sexy.

"Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good" is how you explain Clinton and whatever you wish to call his band in six solid minutes of ecstasy. You get the loverboy stuff here, the political stuff (a General Motors allusion!), you get the heart-stopping synthesis of vocal and Worrell that turn the line "make you feel goOODOoOOOOOooOOOOOD early in the morning" into the orgasm that begat Prince. You get a choir of voices in the background like warped Temptations, beautifully ugly guitar attacks like stoned-and-happy Hendrix, and you get a masterful piece of raw hookery and musicianship that stretches atop its groove and just sits there until you're done with it. The point of Up for the Down Stroke is that it illustrates more handily than any other album what funk was for: it was user-friendly avant garde, a new thing, a still-new thing.

Osmium (1970)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)



Funeral was a record of the moment; you could only get away with it once in a lifetime. The benefactors of this lifetime were a merry collection of wandering Canadians (by way of Texas, New Hampshire, Haiti, you name it) led by husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne; the quaintly named Arcade Fire's technical amateurishness (none of them can play their instruments very well, and if you've heard them attempt anyone else's songs as cover versions, you know they lack even the chops of the average bar band) was compensated for in kind by their enthusiasm and chutzpah -- put simply, by the way that they seemed like overexcited young adults just like you and me trying to make good on a dream. It's useful to read the Merge Records history volume Our Noise to find how a series of nothing more than mere coincidences led to the creation of Funeral and a decade's worth of yearning for the moment of Funeral to somehow occur again, which it cannot.

What a sight they were then! Those of us who were disgusted by the shrugging disaffection of the indie rock scene circa 2003 and 2004 were sufficiently thrown by Butler's closed-eyes, soul-stirred growling, Chassagne's unfettered bouncings around the room and the rest of the band's widescreen shouting, pounding, shaking that it wasn't uncommon to assume they were some sort of post-modern gag. One of my few memories of the band from the actual year of their explosion is of hearing "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and thinking it was some 120 Minutes band doing a song for a Disney movie. Which wasn't far off, of course; Funeral is especially focused on childhood (at least three songs coulda been in an earlier adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are), and on an absence of filtering -- among other things, it sees no shame in feeling good, the building and building in this first song and its wooooo, wooooo peak an oblique pop catharsis that the Pitchfork brigade gave themselves permission to enjoy.

And this in the year that bands like Radio 4, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol were not just making waves in the alternative circles but getting MTV airplay. At least one of those was a really good band, but all three typified the blackened mood of the times: Joy Division and Television without the high stakes or the emotional intensity. Arcade Fire, of course, were not alone in changing that; this was also the year that the beauty-subservient Walkmen, genuine personable oddball Joanna Newsom and actual old-world singer-songwriters John Darnielle and Sam Beam broke into something like the indie mainstream, Modest Mouse into the mainstream at large. But Funeral was by a longshot the highest profile dimming of the slanty-eyed, disaffected dreadpop. That doesn't make it the beginning of a movement, just an easy marker of a changing attitude. "Laika" (sorry, could never remember which neighborhood was which) has an accordion, for heaven's sake.

"Laika" actually sounds like the popular indie rock of the time, just slightly opened up. That probably wasn't a marketing tool but it could've been a brilliant one, so slightly skewing the perceptions at the time of what you would be noticed and pointed out least for listening to in the post-Blank Wave Arcade period. Its persuasive, sing-song lullaby melody is contrasted handily by "Power Out," the big rock move of the first half whose crazy, shouted enthusiasm is also just a few paces off from sounding perfectly at home with semi-pop rock music of the prior few years. The sweet lilts and sad driving memories here and there are thus neatly offset, although "7 Kettles" is an unmistakable indication of where the band's heart truly was: a hypnotic ballad built on a simple, repeated riff, it plays in harrowing, half-remembered images ("all the neighbors startin' up a fight") and goofy clichés ("watched pot," ugh).

But the back half of the record, freed of some of the conceptual weight, is more telling. "In the Back Seat" is Chassagne's sweet enough Björk attempt, except unsubtle and a little clunky -- altogether fearless. Chassagne also sings lead on what may still be the band's best song, the loping bass dance and enthusiastically hazy "Haiti," forecasting the half-sung half-yelped mastery of Love Is All in a couple of years, to Vampire Weekend's accused co-opting of international and ceremonial music in a few more. "Wake Up" presumably needs no introduction, again stocking up on phrases that sound stupid beyond purpose in isolation but attain a strange weight as sung by Butler ("look out for love"; "my heart's colder and I can see that it's a lie") as it borrows the affected, united bravado of the Police and a barroom Springsteen singalong. Both that major keynote and the prior "Crown of Love" feature surprising, explosive tempo changes that are delightfully manic and uncool, and this after "Crown of Love" already moved from a plodding introduction into a weird, mournful Jerry Butler power play. All of this, you must understand, is performed seamlessly, each song logically giving way to the next and all of it playing with what every critic in America fell over themselves to cite as, uh, a complete lack of irony.

It's strange that we ever think to praise things for an absence of irony; smarminess is one thing, but most of us equate irony with nothing less than the essence of wit and humor, and the abstraction that makes most art interesting and worthwhile. "Sincerity" seems a more apt phrase for what Funeral brought forth and what made it change the indie rock conversation, if hardly the fabric of anything larger. For many listeners, it was not so much the "beginning of a new age," in Lou Reed's phrase, as the last gasp of the way we all used to catch up with and experience music. There would be hip hop and pop records that would have far greater impact than this one and would carry forward the sense of community once so important to the pop experience, but Funeral may indeed be the last straightforward, guitar-based rock record distributed the old-fashioned way that was in some sense a communal discovery.

And as you know, it owns that distinction proudly -- from the football chanting of "Une année sans lumiere" (good lord, were they serious?) to the arm-waving burst of a tower of wordless wailing on "Wake Up," it sounds like a communal experience. It also predicates much of its gravity not on any kind of illusions about its own depth (we'd say "pretension" but we've been instructed to put that word on hiatus) but on a sense of wonder melded with unabashed melodrama. Where have we heard that before, eh? Oh, U2 and the Alarm, sure, and Springsteen, but what made Arcade Fire a wonderful entity in 2004 -- and to some extent now, although they've changed direction quite drastically since then -- was that they put Shadow Morton in the Bush era. These songs may not be about crying yourself to sleep because your mom doesn't want you dating that boy, but the proud traditions of girl group pop are carried forth anyway, especially to anyone who grew up in such a manner as to have once longed for the ability to dig a hole to a friend's bedroom where you could hide from your parents' fighting, or to have experienced that pang of conscious stupidity that marked first love for so many of us. There's an innocence to these feelings, and to their expression, that is reassuring on one's discovery of the record and remains a comfort on each subsequent visit.

With the mild exception of Lesley Gore, who did sing about independence and jealousy from a more grown-up standpoint, the Shangri-Las and their peers never really sought to capture the experience of forming into adulthood, more specifically of marrying, coping with aging and death, and starting a family. Arcade Fire deserve kudos for their poetic struggles with disconnection, love and regret even if they express them far more strongly musically than lyrically -- whereas melodrama in rock & roll typically signifies either youthful naivete or political upheaval, for this band it has always been a pretext for shedding a fear of one own's skin, of one's personal failings and destiny. It seems as if the message many listeners received from Funeral was that they were allowed to be excited about something, and allowed to decide how they reacted to it. That's a silly thing to learn from a rock band, or is it?

By Neon Bible just three years later, the illusion would all be shattered; politics would intrude, the band would become slightly better, the songs considerably more complete and well-crafted, and the production and arrangements meatier, more confident. But it's hard not to understand why some have been disappointed with every move Arcade Fire have made since this well-timed moment of clarity and intensity, or why the band went crawling back to a number of the same images from a more adult perspective on the flabbier The Suburbs, which hit #1 and won a Grammy probably not for its own content, good as it was, but for the memories of late nights listening to Funeral instilled in the by-now-late-twentysomethings who heard it, absorbed by osmosis into the culture at large.

I personally missed Funeral's moment. I heard Neon Bible fairly quickly and fell hard for it (I go back and forth but I'm pretty sure it still means more to me than this), but never got around to listening to its predecessor until nearly five years after its release, and yet one curious effect of its particular magic is that I feel like I was there when it was at its most popular and hard-hitting. I can sense completely what its dogged champions are hearing in it, and this is a good sign for its longevity. It was probably easy to roll your eyes at this album at the time, as it always is for a band this unflappably earnest, and there's considerable merit to the idea that we all ("we" being theoretical here) overrated the album in 2004 -- that it's so familiar and second-nature in its disciples that there's no real point in listening to it, and anyway it's always playing better and stronger than we remember in our own heads anyway.

But you're supposed to pick up Funeral and fall hard for it and then scoff at yourself for being taken in by its excesses and brightly colored, wide-eyed ferocity a few years later. You're supposed to realize that maybe you were indulging in this and feeling really cool about it because you sort of missed your Pearl Jam records and longed for something that didn't seem to be sonically shrugging its shoulders all the time but lord knows you didn't want to be seen carting Ten around, but now you realize it's okay to listen to whatever you want and you like Pearl Jam again. (Full disclosure: I still don't care for Pearl Jam.) Then maybe you get philosophical and Funeral comes out of the woodwork again and you realize that its value in venting your pumped-up excitement and misty-eyed self-pity are rock & roll at its highest, purest, most useful and good-hearted. Whatever. The point is that this same cycle is just as likely to start in 2013 as it was in 2004. Funeral is here to stay, and we needn't feel left out if we missed its extraordinary center-stage moment of glory. It starts all over again as soon as we press play.

Arcade Fire EP (2003)
Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)

Bilal: A Love Surreal (2013)


2013 has been, as we'll see in the coming weeks, a banner year for R&B. At no other recent time that I'm aware of has one popular genre so completely eclipsed all others in both innovation and universal appeal. Yet that does not erase the Male Problem of soul music, which is less egregious that rock's Male Problem but equally frustrating -- that is the sense that the presently empowered generation has produced few male voices of note that fall neither into the trap of misogyny and nastiness either pervasive or oblivious (see Robin Thicke; The-Dream) or a complete blandness and absence of identity (see John Legend). In between the two extremes lie brilliant performers like Miguel and Frank Ocean whose problems are more earthy and technical: they simply haven't yet mastered the quality control part of their careers, which gives the eager busyness of their output an air of unprofessionalism.

Bilal is a professional. Only slightly more prolific than the legendarily scarce D'Angelo, he has typically until now made his name as a mildly eccentric progenitor of "alternative" soul, a niche eagerly co-opted by several major labels in the early 2000s that nevertheless went basically nowhere, despite some success for potentially major stars like Angie Stone, Macy Gray and Jill Scott. This was itself an outgrowth of the neo-soul of the '80s, and Bilal's early records were nearly indistinguishable from that format despite a sonic upgrade informed by the blockbuster work of Sade and Janet Jackson in the intervening years.

Bilal strives for the same female-dominated audience as these performers -- which isn't a meaningful distinction except that it speaks somewhat to Bilal's stylistic interests: his machismo is strictly erotic, his records groove rather than grind, and he is not invested in the rapey crassness or stony ambiance of someone like the Weeknd. Good on him, to that extent, but it would be nice if his albums had at least some of the distinguished strangeness and arid, out-of-time storminess of the Weeknd's. There was a time when so many male soul singers were sex-obsessed and musically restless but still managed to show respect for the partners they sang about, who were on equal footing in terms of both desirability and capacity for desire.

A Love Surreal -- fifteen demerits for any musician who puts him- or herself in that hallowed category, by the way -- falls short of its influences because Bilal has no driving personality. He is a good songwriter and an excellent singer, although his upper register is a little husky and weak, but as much as he has audibly studied the innovative spurts and staggers of Prince (whose voice he occasionally imitates impressively) and Quincy Jones, his work seems to only find time for a real sense of adventure and invention as an afterthought. It all seems like such formal, respectful funk, more in the vein of Prince's excessively relaxed early-'00s work than his relentlessly stunning peak material. At least one song, "The Flow," comes on like Prince decided to write a jingle for a JCPenny back to school sale in 1995. Maybe that's a compliment, though.

The arrangements here are splendidly disorienting, which is a good match for the romantic content of the songs, articulated by much business about how much he loves your shoes ("West Side Girl") or a good bit of pensive dirty talk ("Longing and Waiting") that refreshingly celebrates the sexiness of consent. Not much here about getting women drunk to drag them home against their will, and plenty of intelligent and sly lyrics instead, but it's unfortunate that the tradeoff seems to be lite-jazz rambles (which are sometimes tempered, at least, by stilted and weird beats like that of the catchy "Back to Love") and the preponderance of slow slow sloooooooow jams. Those are by no means bad, but the frames of reference called to mind are surprisingly dull and, well, unsexy: Bon Iver on the weird fantasy/sci-fi soundscape "Right at the Core," Steely Dan on the majorly hooky "Astray," and... John Denver, of all people, or maybe (let's be generous) the Commodores on the melodic folk-rock AM radio schmaltz of "Lost for Now."

The most confident of the slow ones is the aforementioned "Longing and Waiting," and it implies a better direction with its slight variance and disarming use of murmured come-on dialogue, fused with hard guitar and a falsetto closer to Bilal's earlier work. That sensuality-dripping voice also appears on "Astray" and it seems to be Bilal's greatest technical asset, the mood around which his jazz-friendly pipes wrap most readily. But an entire album like the bass-heavy Quiet Storm piece "Winning Hand" could be nice too; despite the catchphrase-heavy lyrics, it scratches the kind of itch you tend to imagine was the idea in the beginning, and its baroque harp and synth trills bring in the proper measure of weirdness befitting the record's title. Generally, though, "surreal" in this context means playing to the same stoned audience enjoyed by the likes of the Weeknd and AraabMuzik; "Climbing" -- one of the few cuts here not at least partially produced by Bilal -- does go all the way with its circular groove, but its cloudy griminess already sounds dated, and it just isn't what this particular artist is best at.

A Love Surreal can't be counted as a failure, but it inherits a problem familiar to the ambient and neo-soul influences it flaunts, and not at all the luminaries Bilal himself has always striven to emulate: heard in the background, it's pleasant and agreeable. Up close, it's boring. Overprofessional and excessively polished, it's a noble and respectable record that could be so much more, but as it stands it just doesn't stay in the mind for very long.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Rolling Stones: 12 x 5 (1964)



The Rolling Stones' U.S. discography is messy and haphazard but -- I think -- more fun and familiar to most Americans; they've never quite managed the canon-replacement tactic that the Beatles and the Kinks pulled off. That having been said, we will eventually examine the band's canonical UK discography, but for now: there's no "equivalent" to 12 x 5 in England. It's a bewildering construction that consists of two singles and their b-sides, a few scattered tunes from the band's second UK album, and the contents of an EP called Five by Five. Despite its chronologically confusing nature, it serves as a frenetic snapshot of the Stones in mid-1964, already progressing beyond the tepid and tentative R&B of England's Newest Hit Makers.

This is where the band begins to really sing, to attain confidence and to come across as a less juvenile outlet -- the beginnings of an intimidating force. The Chuck Berry cover "Around and Around" and the exploratory rooting around in blues origins typified by Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" and their own composition "Good Times, Bad Times" show off some hint of a maturity and even sensuality that's hard to detect on the band's earlier, overly eager stumblings. "Around and Around," while it's no match for Berry's searing cut, even carries a bit of stuntwork in its arrangement and production -- the echoes of a distantly rollicking piano subsume all else until the song becomes a rumbling, restless wall of noise, the first evidence of an icon: the "bigness" of this band's sound.

Not that the tentative falterings are all gone; the Stones never had much of a way with rockabilly, so it's little surprise that their take on Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q" just sits there. The great comedic moment, though, is an adorably bad "Under the Boardwalk" which indicates little of lasting consequence beyond proving for future generations that Mick Jagger is not a crooner, and not a singer who can ever put across the life-dependent grace of a Johnny Moore, who famously and masterfully performed the Drifters' original under every imaginable kind of emotional duress. This is not really a criticism of the Stones, any more than it's a criticism of the Kinks that they couldn't pull off "Dancing in the Street." Less than two years into their career (context note: by the time the Stones became a functioning band, the Beatles had been one for over half a decade), they simply did not yet know their strengths.

Completely by accident, 12 x 5 captures more than one vital discovery to their development. The band's own composition "Empty Heart" -- that's like an empty life, in case you're wondering how closely the boys were listening to those blues records -- offers the most pronounced emphasis yet on rhythm guitar, which would finally be the Stones' sonic legacy. On "Congratulations" and a roaring revision of Wilson Pickett's "If You Need Me," they expose for the first time the depth of their way with a ballad. And if Jagger and Richards aren't exactly masterful tunesmiths just yet, let's give them the delightful shoutalong of "Grown Up Wrong," a perfect and flagrantly dishonest statement of purpose.

For American fans, the operative legacy of 12 x 5 is its introduction of two major moments, neither written by the band. "Time Is on My Side" presumably needs no introduction, but this record includes its superior and unfortunately sidelined organ-driven variant, which boasts not only a better arrangement but a stronger band and vocal performance, again an early investigation of Jagger's limited but expressive sensitivity as a singer. But "It's All Over Now" is the peak here by nearly every standard. Bobby Womack's lyric and composition are brilliant and unassailable, but the Stones do indeed make it their own, with a dusty, busy and aggressive blues-rock deconstruction that's more assured than anything prior, peaking with Keith Richards' manic, utterly peerless guitar solo. This is the moment when the Rolling Stones pulled out in front. It still sounds as strong as ever -- sneering, apathetic, dismissive, glorious. Rock & roll.

England's Newest Hit Makers (1964)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Terry Malts: Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere (2013)


Though it's fair to say that Terry Malts were one of the very, very few guitar bands to come across my desk when I was a paid critic that I really believed in, I can't say I'm heartbroken or surprised that their follow-up to the splendid debut Killing Time is a bit pedestrian and joyless. The worst thing I can really say about it is that it sounds like a set of b-sides from the same recording sessions, and the best thing is that it sounds like the San Francisco semi-thrashers and punk traditionalists are at least open to trying new things in the studio; you couldn't mistake the labored apathy of this LP for the well-practiced whatever of that one. Unfortunately, that's not a high compliment.

I doubt it's the band's fault. The trio's curious interplay is still just as interesting and slightly off-kilter as it was on the first go-round: Phil Benson splits time between rumbling basslines and charmingly tossed-off, deadpan vocals in the unmistakable vein of Joey Ramone with a touch more self-aware arrogance. The ringing, distorted guitar of Corey Cunningham, who writes most of the music, is the real voice of the band, and it's no wonder that the cleverly titled Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere (the album's second best joke behind the song title "Comfortably Dumb") emphasizes guitar so heavily. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of songs this time, and maybe just because there weren't a lot of top-caliber new ones ready in time. Slumberland put out the band's sophomore record barely a year after their first; these are the economics of a rock band in 2013. You stop swimming and generating product for half a second and you drown.

In the process, though, a young band like this at such a crucial moment can lose sight of the elements that make them really distinctive. Beyond the Ramones, Diodes and Dickies comparisons, Killing Time had the brashness, abandon and joyous crassness of the Replacements. The riffs, only part of the story then, are now louder than ever but less clean and spontaneous, and the intelligently goofy lyrics and singing are either less intelligent and goofy or buried in an overly busy mix, or both. The initial hook for many discovering Killing Time last year was its periodic wandering into a sunny, lilting charm that maintained full-throttle pace, as on the instant classic "Tumble Down." We get wisps of that when "Two Faces" takes off on its ooooh bridge, but generally its vocals are muddy and distant, and sadly the signal to noise ratio is balanced no more persuasively elsewhere.

If Killing Time was a punk record with pop and new wave elements, this is certainly dead-square in the post-punk mold, but aside from announcing "death don't scare me," they don't really take to these stylistics. The band sounds tired and the songs are rote; Benson's digging his own grave when he sings about not being able to wake up on "Life's a Dream." Enthusiasm appears in strange places, like the half-baked "They're Feeding" and the extremely repetitive rocker "Walking Without You." Hooks are few and far between here, coming after a record overflowing with them. Of all the selections here, "Well Adjusted," Bangles riff and all, most closely resembles something from Killing Time, although "So Serious" is essentially a less clever rewrite of "No Good for You" and "No Tomorrow" puts a weird optimistic spin on the Malts' heretofore familiar style.

That's the strange thing. On a record split halfway between imitations of Killing Time and weak, half-finished attempts at moving in a new direction, the band doesn't really sound at home in either mode of communication. One assumes this is because they haven't really had time to fully develop these ideas yet, and that's a pity. I'd be perfectly happy with another record very similar to the last one, or with one that runs with the melodic sophistication of "I Was Not There," the shoegaze influence of "Comfortably Dumb" or the gentle charm of "Buy Buy Baby," but this mishmash just seems like a disappointing overextension. I hope a band with this much potential wit and imagination isn't already getting discouraged, though it's kind of hard to blame them.

Killing Time (2012)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

One-sentence reviews #10

Chance the Rapper
Acid Rap


Iiiiiiiiiiit's wacky!


The Black Light (1998)


Since I like the Iron & Wine set so much, I desperately wanted to find this more interesting than it is -- my suspicion is that, as with Lambchop, I'm just not listening to the right stuff, because it's not hitting me very strongly and just seems to meander off into nowhere, at length.


Muchacho (2013)

(Dead Oceans)

!! CAUTION !! - Comically bland, like Dire Straits with keyboards, with at least one song ("Song for Zula") so plainly designed to be played over the credits of a teen drama that it already has been (The Spectacular Now).


Marnie Stern
The Chronicles of Marnia (2013)

(Kill Rock Stars)

"Proof of Life" is great, "You Don't Turn Down" is nearly, but this is just too repetitive, a near-miss from a great talent.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Ultimate Arthur Alexander (1961-75)

(Razor & Tie)


If you're like the person writing this a month ago, your knowledge of Arthur Alexander extends exclusively to a rich legacy of cover versions by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Dean Martin to the Hollies to Johnny Rivers to Pearl Jam, but above all else by the Beatles. John Lennon was a major, passionate champion of Alexander's work and he was nearly as palpably influenced by him as he was by Buddy Holly -- everyone knows "Anna" from Please Please Me but harder core Beatles fans will remember the BBC renditions of "A Shot of Rhythm & Blues" and "Soldier of Love" as well as their barely audible but audibly brilliant version of "Where Have You Been (All My Life)" recorded on their last night in Hamburg. If that's all you know of Alexander, well, you must hear this as soon as possible, and you are in for a breathtaking treat.

Lennon's preoccupation with Alexander was, it turns out, fully justified. It's now clear that he was an unsung giant of early '60s soul music; particularly interesting is his innovative hybrid of R&B and country music of the period, which is analogous to -- but far less slick than -- Ray Charles' fusions of the same era. The twanging "I Hang My Head and Cry" is a prime example, while the beautiful "Go Home Girl" scarcely even qualifies as hybrid anything: it's straight country, with a gentle and crooning voice well suited for it. Indeed, Alexander, who continued performing until his death in 1993, was an ambitious stylist much like Charles but strongly informed by the more romantic impulses of Sam Cooke and Jerry Butler.

Unfortunately, like far too many luminaries of his era, Alexander was never fully appreciated despite scoring several hits and permanently winning the heart of a legend like Lennon. He spent a lot of his last few decades as a bus driver; periodic returns to a music career were generally spurred on by renewed interest that grew out of the Beatles connection. When a heart attack felled him, he had just scored a deal with Nonesuch and released a comeback record. Even then, it seems that his greatness was still a well-kept secret.

Some of Alexander's clout was regional. Not surprisingly given the Stax-anticipating sound of the plucky and enthusiastic 1963 cut "Keep Her Guessing," he fit snugly into the southern-soul fabric and helped to put the Alabama studio Fame on the map as a generator of hot R&B singles. The majority of the songs collected on this lovingly mastered disc were initially released as singles on Dot. With the exception of the major hit "You Better Move On," most of them never went much of anywhere, the irony being that now the idea of finding a 45 with "Soldier of Love" on one side and "Where Have You Been" on the other is too thrilling for even a casual collector to imagine.

"You Better Move On" deserves its top-40 legend, although given its scope of influence one is surprised to learn it charted no higher than #24. With a maxed-out sound and relaxed, rumbling arrangement, it's taken to dizzy heights by Alexander's wounded voice and melody, which owes a bit to the massive Leiber-Stoller hit "Save the Last Dance for Me" recorded by the Drifters a year earlier but arguably betters it with its more convincing pain, and would itself be unmistakably rewritten by the Kinks as "Something Better Beginning" and covered memorably by the Stones. A comparison to the brilliant but far more restrained Drifters single underlines Alexander's gifts as a singer and writer; he proves himself one of the best singers of resignation. Although this has little evidence of his country & western leanings, there are elements of that aching sadness and, crucially, a curious acceptance of failure, a theme repeated again and again on his singles: listen to the way he encourages his former wife-to-be to walk away and join her new lover on "Anna," or his begging his best friend's lover not to fall in love with him on the exhilaratingly old-world Nashville chorus of "Call Me Lonesome." There is a begrudging poetry to all of this sadness.

Like a lot of these songs, "Call Me Lonesome" was written by Alexander himself and is an interesting document of his evolution after the Beatles picked up on his craft and likely generated a few hefty paychecks for him (or at least -- let's be realistic -- for his publishers). The song's acoustic arrangement, all intimacy and precision, betrays a bit of a Beatles influence, in fact, a delightful instance of reinventors passing a torch back and forth. Thoughts will most often turn to the Beatles at a less opportune moment, sadly; Alexander's own original version of "Anna" is actually one of the weaker cuts here, less impassioned and despairing than Lennon's take, hardly an unusual situation for early Beatles cover material. It must be remembered, however, that Alexander entirely wrote the song and thus was responsible for its impressively nuanced psychological tightrope of self-defeat and reluctant romantic cuckolding. Like so many of his own compositions, it's quite a hell of a song, with not just a lovely melody and arrangement but an exceptionally good lyric.

It's important to note, still, that much like Lennon, Alexander was often at his best as an interpreter of others' material. That he didn't write "You Don't Care" is genuinely surprising; that it did not burn up the pop charts is mind-blowing. A ridiculously soulful vocal line, with one of those shots of blues and a shattering subservience to melody that somehow doesn't dilute its spontaneous display of emotion, comes across as merely one element of a genuinely perfect pop production: sheer grit on the verses, towering bliss on the chorus. The ferocious electric guitar work by George Tomsco strongly recalls Lowman Pauling's searing work on sides like "Don't Let It Be in Vain" -- indeed, the entire song could easily have been a lost recording by Pauling's great group the "5" Royales, impossibly high praise to anyone who's heard their King singles. "You Don't Care" is close to the peak of Alexander's work as heard here, but it miraculously has some competition.

That's strictly because it doesn't cover a substantial part of what really drove Alexander's best efforts. Despite his aforementioned anticipation of the Stax sound, he is not a singer like Otis Redding or James Brown whose focus is upon finding opportunities to cut loose. But nor is he stilted or flat; he's florid like Sam Cooke, and his finest material attains a genuine poignance and beauty. The spiritual "Detroit City (I Wanna Go Home)" is the sort of song that seems always to have existed, waiting to be discovered. Completely unpretentious and direct, stunningly moving and ethereal, it has the time-stopping quality of Cooke's album Night Beat. There's a moment when his voice cracks. If by that point on this compilation you have not been convinced that Alexander is one of the greatest singers of the '60s, you will then likely lose your remaining defenses.

The more obvious examples of this grace and beauty are "Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)" and "Where Have You Been (All My Life)," about which, well, what do you even say? Alexander was the original performer of both songs but wrote neither, yet for all the utility and firepower of both, it's immediately hard to imagine anyone else ever doing them justice. The oft-covered "Soldier of Love" was certainly never better than here, with an almost supernatural power to its arrangement and the way it swings and lilts; it is the sort of rock & roll song for which "glorious" does not seem like too strong or lofty a phrase, and the sort that seems to invite all sorts of imaginative thoughts about the evenings it can and should light up and embellish. We must not ignore the lyrics, which sound so stupid theoretically but become a sensual plea for understanding in Alexander's interpretation and thus the basis for an unassailable love song.

"Where Have You Been," the b-side of "Soldier," may be Alexander's best recording, and from the first time one hears it, it becomes hard to conceive of how it has managed to escape wider attention. It opens with a goofy piano trill before Alexander overtakes the proceedings with a gently sung, charismatic take on Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill's splendidly literate but direct rundown of a romantic history that has built and built and now reaches higher and higher. The way that Alexander interprets the title line, it seems not like an empty proposition of puppy love but as a head-spinning chronicle of real amazement at the never-before-realized possibilities of a great romance. That this song isn't the first dance at every wedding in the world is some sort of crime, and that's before you even reach the piano solo and the way it all climbs back in and somehow goes bigger. Like "Detroit City" or "You Better Move On," it's a perfect recording of everything that's right and lovely about pop music, and soul music in particular; it opens as a small miracle and only grows more engrossing, more ecstatic.

Quite apart from the general excellence of the material -- no weak cuts here -- and the commendable way it renders one anxious to hear as much of Alexander's output as possible, Ultimate goes the extra mile to become a truly great collection, for a few reasons. The sound quality is top-caliber thanks to the mastering job by Phill Brown and Bill Inglot, no surprise from this label; the only way you can make these songs sound better is by seeking out pristine copies of the original singles, not likely to happen affordably. The compilers have also concentrated heavily on Alexander's strengths, mostly focusing on ballads, while giving some indication of his range, solving the problem inherent to a lot of attempts to put, say, Otis Redding's "hits" on a single disc.

So to show Alexander's rollicking side, we get the undeservedly obscure "A Shot of Rhythm & Blues," wherein he gets the can't-help-its and he can't sit down, and the Isley Brothers-like "Pretty Girls Everywhere." His playful blues persuasions are explored on the fine "Black Night," and he takes an atypically upbeat tack on the grinding piano soul of "Whole Lot of Trouble." Perhaps most interestingly, R&T include two cuts from the '70s: "Every Day I Have to Cry Some" (melancholy sweet stuff in the Bill Withers mold) and "In the Middle of It All," which show how he adapted his crescendo-building and flawlessly sweet voice to changing styles rather effectively. And with only sixteen songs in forty-five minutes, the album covers all of the bases without overwhelming a newcomer. The Ultimate Arthur Alexander is exemplary in every respect, and is honestly one of the best discoveries I have made since starting this blog. I urge you to check it out; you'll want to carry it with you everywhere.