Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ryan Adams: Cardinology

I fell for Ryan Adam's first solo record, Heartbreaker, in 2001. Its fragility, passion and melancholy aestheticism were a perfect match for my post-adolescent depressed narcissism. With no pretense of formal innovation or lyrical brilliance, Adams offered up his sadness and vulnerability unadorned, achieving a kind of haunted fragility that’s profoundly rare outside of Nick Drake albums. Also, there was "To Be Young," which is still the only piece of music I've ever heard which successfully rips off the wild mercury sound of Highway 61, even outdoing it in some ways. Though Adams' voice made me hesitate -- as an obsessive fan of Dylan and Lou Reed, I distrusted its ease and prettiness -- there was something truly despairing and brave about the record, a desperately life-like quality that I still hear when I play it today.

Which is what makes it so difficult to review his new snooze-fest Cardinology; aside from the addition of the Cardinals, the terrific backing band he's worked with on his past several albums, it's not notably different from Heartbreaker. Adams is still plumbing the depths of his melancholy with loose, mid-tempo country that splits the difference between alt- and trad-. It's just that those depths seem a little shallower every time. The Adams pose -- the wounded, beautiful Romeo -- has always seemed a little bit silly, but the old Adams drew strength from it, stubbornly insisting that you believe in his personal drama. Now he just sounds tired, stultifyingly confident, eminently nice. Melodic and pleasant to a fault, the orchestration always rises to a calculated swell at just the right moment. There's none of the undercurrent of real pain and self-loathing that gave Heartbreaker its depth. A perfectly serviceable turn of phrase like "Look what I did to you, look what you did to me," is sung without real emotion – instead there’s a sort of singerly “passion” that's now his rote style. What did he do to her? Because it sounds like he just bored her and wasted her time. The Adams portrayed on this album sure ain't a heartbreaker. If Kevin Barnes wants to fuck you, Ryan Adams seems to want you to soothe his furrowed brow with a damp washcloth. His method of seduction is to appeal to the worried mother in women.

There are sparks of life here and there. “Evergreen” is a haunter built around a lovely guitar figure, slinking into your brain and stubbornly remaining there when the rest of Cardinology has been forgotten (i.e. five minutes after the album stops playing), and “Magick”, the sole tonal shift on the whole damned album, is a cheerful, likeably disposable arena-rocker that would have sounded more at home on the failed-but-fascinating Rock N Roll. (As Adams' career has gone further and further awry, his most critically reviled albums, experiments like the Love is Hell EP and the aforementioned Rock N Roll, have consistently been his most engaged and interesting.) But mostly the thing just lies there, dead in the water. Which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that Adams clearly has oceans of talent, a fine melodic ear, and strong craftsmanship. He releases more albums than anyone this side of Robert Pollard, and while his prolificacy is in some ways a compelling display, one that clearly speaks to a love of song writing, it also might explain why he continually makes the most obvious choices, why his style has become easy to the point of soporific. Adams can write songs like this in his sleep -- on this album it sounds as though maybe he did. His fluency with generic styles and tricks, once a strength, has become a crutch.

Pity, pity the poor Cardinals. They're the best backing band a guy could ask for -- tight enough to play loose, Band-like in their versatility, Dead-like in their ability to make long, noodling solos interesting and compelling. And here they are, locked in holy matrimony to this tired hack.

I understand why this music is popular. (Adams' popularity seems to be steadily growing, and I imagine if he didn't flood the market with so much product every year his albums would chart much higher.) It's relentlessly pretty, always well-crafted, and asks nothing of you, not even your attention. It's great music for people who don't want to feel anything, but don't yet want to admit that they've lost the ability to feel. That's why Adams seems to have replaced Jeff Buckley as the singer-of-choice for dramatic TV montages -- music that's truly affecting would distract the viewer from, say, a Zack Braff monologue summing up an episode of Scrubs. The music on Cardinology is perfect for such moments; it's in an emotional mode without possessing any affecting content. It's less a sensual experience than a familiar emotive cue for the listener.

The music is so empty that it attains a kind of apocalyptic mood -- one imagines that in the end times, when pop is gone, rock is gone, punk and rap and jazz are gone, music this mind-numbingly dull, picturesque and automated will linger on, permanent as polystyrene, scoring the slow and endless fall of ash onto the dry, dissipated earth.

"The war is over," Adams sings over and over again in the refrain of "Sink Ships." No, Ryan, it's not. You've just stopped fighting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Concert Calendar Updated

We've got a whole new batch of great events up on the calendar. These good-to-bad-ass shows should keep your mojo rising up through Thanksgiving. I'll be expanding it as more dates are announced. I do it all for you, my gentle imaginary reader.

The can't-miss dates for me are Of Montreal on Halloween (I hear their stage show includes a live horse), The Hold Steady with Drive-by Truckers at the Electric Factory (schlubby middle-aged populist rock stars unite!), and Dr. Dog's triumphant return to the city of brotherly love on November 28th. I hope to see you there. (Though seeing imaginary readers may be cause for concern.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping

"It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

That's H.L. Mencken elucidating with precision my attitude towards music criticism. Actually, that's my attitude towards GOOD music criticism -- flap and doodle, marked by a grandeur of badness, is the state towards which music criticism aspires. "But," you, gentle imaginary reader, say, "aren't you Dr. Teeth, that guy who writes all the lame music reviews on this site?" Yes, but I m also that guy who smokes cigarettes and masturbates regularly; a compulsion is a compulsion, and like a good nicotine rush or lesbian porn-induced orgasm, a rumbling, bumbling crawl through an abysm of pish can be a very nice, if hollow, pleasure. I'm old enough now that I no longer expect rock albums to save my life -- I'm perfectly comfortable, most of the time, with using them as nothing more than sensual treats, intellectual curiosities, and occasions for extended bloviation.

But sometimes an album refuses to be reviewed. A record feels too big and artful and strange to be crammed into a four hundred word essay. You find yourself unable to assume that unearned voice of authority that makes criticism comfortable. So you write a largely incoherent, rambling introduction riffing on H.L. Mencken in order to delay the inevitable. Then you write a bizarrely self-aware second paragraph discussing your first paragraph to delay it further. All because you don't want to write a review that's less criticism than shrill, hyperbolic hucksterism.

I should really stop here. One shouldn't review an album while still in the puppy days of salad love. It's the music critic's equivalent of going to the supermarket hungry: you come home and realize that your shopping bags are filled with nothing but Oreos and adjectives. (Third paragraph now, and still no mention of the album. I'm starting to think I can make it all the way through this thing without talking about anything but myself.) So, please, don't think of the following as a music review. Think of it as an exhortation, a shill, a terrorist demand.


The odd, pop-minded non-Canadian band Of Montreal tread into odder, funkier territory on their wondrous new record Skeletal Lamping, released today on Polyvinyl. Structured less as a traditional album than a series of mash-ups, frontman and general mastermind Kevin Barnes spits hooks at a breakneck pace, rarely slowing long enough for his jagged little shards of song to sink in or even fully register. The fifteen tracks on the disc seem to be divided somewhat randomly, and perhaps a more accurate track listing would reveal the album as hundreds of tiny songs, united by their thematic elements: sex, psychosis, paranoia, sex, the multiplicity of perception, and sex. Gleefully blowing the doors off of the polite mausoleum that much of indie rock has become, Barnes crafts a vision of human sexuality that's both titillating and frightening in its candor and danger. Prince-like in both his obsessive, live-wire sexuality and his ability to craft impossibly itchy, spine-tingling hooks, he's pulling a Justin Timberlake for the hipster set: he's bringing sexy back.

As with all Of Montreal albums, there's a fair amount of cognitive dissonance between the delectably catchy sound of the music and the tortured, schizoid nature of the lyrics. Unlike their previous records, though, here this stylistic tic works in sync with their conceptual vision. Like sex itself, the album is overwhelmingly pleasurable, but anyone who looks a little deeper can see what's underpinning the ecstasy: a complex cocktail of fear, guilt and desperation, so ugly that it attains a weirdly transcendent beauty. A lyric like "I confess to being quite charmed by your feminine effects; you're the only one with whom I would role-play Oedipus Rex," reads as funny and gross on the page, but coming in the middle of the garden of sensual delights that is "Plastis Wafers," it sounds complex, disturbing and admirable in its honesty. There's an intense sexual narcissism about the album -- rather than navel gazing perhaps we should call it penis gazing -- but it's a necessary narcissism, a narcissism without which this level of dizzying self-examination and -awareness would not be possible.

In my usual reviews, this would be the moment when I attempted to describe the sound of the music, perhaps using phrases like "glissando bass lines" or "cascading piano arpeggios" to create the illusion that I know what the fuck I'm talking about. But on an album as instrumentally rich, multifarious and fractured as Skeletal Lamping, it's almost impossible to do (at least in a few paragraphs). Shifting styles as quickly and easily as he does sexual identities, Barnes will ram a disco earworm head on into an Abbey Road piano singalong, then suddenly deke into a nasty, bass-driven, white-boy funk jam, all in the space of two minutes. There’s no way this should work, and at best I should be describing it as some sort of glorious mess, but somehow there’s nothing remotely messy about this record. There’s a unity and coherence to Skeletal Lamping that belies the modular, restlessly ADD construction. It’s a rich treasure trove of wildly different sounds and moods and melodies, yet somehow it feels all of a piece, a Major Work in the sense that people used to use to discuss new albums by the Beach Boys or Beatles, back when widely accessible pop was taken seriously as art. Lately the bands that are taken seriously have become the ivory tower bands, locked far away from the mindless masses, performing impressive feats of musical esotericism for their enlightened listeners. Bands like Deerhoof and No Age and Grizzly Bear, all of whom have in-born tendencies towards excellent pop, tend to smother those instincts in alienating dissonance by way of apologia, as though they feel guilty for their ability to give pleasure. Kevin Barnes, though, is a showman at heart, and his drive to entertain is at least as strong as his drive to challenge his audience. Based on its construction, Skeletal Lamping should be a frustrating, difficult album -- melodic and rhythmic fragments that would qualify as major discoveries for most bands, around which singles and even entire albums could be built, are thrown away in a few seconds -- but the sheer volume of musical ideas contained on the record is staggering and awesome, as is Barnes’ willingness to treat magical, hypnotic melodies as mere ornamentation, appearing and then immediately vanishing into the flood. There's hardly anything resembling a chorus on the record -- once a section is over, it's generally gone for good, as though with this much ground to cover there's no time to reprise anything. In most songs a line like "I want to make you come two hundred times a day" would sound like a joke or a silly boast, but, coming from the creator of an album this sensually rich and dense, it sounds like a good-faith promise.

I suspect that, due to the incredibly bizarre, explicit lyrical content and unusual construction, Skeletal Lamping will not find the wide, boundary-crossing audience it deserves. We will continue to live in an indie-rock landscape in which Art is for the educated and the masochistic, and pop is not supposed to have experimentation, depth or meaning. I’d like to hear "Plastis Wafers" remixed to blare in hip-hop clubs, "Id Engager" in regular rotation on top forty radio. That’s why this is less a review than a form of advertising – I really want you to go out and buy this album. I want the masses to embrace the unusual in a way that they haven’t since the release of OK Computer. Otherwise, this strange and beautiful album will be relegated to the indie rock fans, who will doubtless be suspicious of its overwhelming melodic appeal and immediacy. (Like everybody’s favorite hipster douchebags, Pitchfork, who just hours ago rated it a mediocre 5.9. Sorry, did I say hipster douchebags? I meant to say “hire me please!”)

So, to reiterate: reviews are dumb, and I’m a shill, but don’t let that stop you from going to the store on and buying a copy of Skeletal Lamping. Buy several copies. Give them to your friends as gifts. Keep two for yourself, so you can listen to it in the bedroom and kitchen at the same time. Normally here I’d try to find some clever or poetic line with which to sum up my review, but I’m not trying to be a writer right now; I’m just a fan, telling you about something he loves. So I’ll sign off, in the manner of obsessive, hectoring fans, by repeating myself: buy this album. Even if it doesn't make you come two hundred times a day, it’ll make you feel alive.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Division Series

Over at the Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a series of thoughts about the AL/NLDS, and is vaguely in favor of increasing the series to seven games.

I have to agree, and not because I think it's unfair but rather because I find it psychologically boring. There's so little development to the series. A couple of bum starts and suddenly you're in do-or-die territory. Great baseball stories barely have time to take root before they're resolved. Now, I don't have a problem with the way the various DSs played out. The Angels stranded an absurd number of runners against the Sox and gave up a 3 run single (the first ever in postseason history) by failing to call a ball in shallow center. Kendrick (a culprit in that play) also bobbled an easy DP opportunity that brought a run around to score. I'm not saying that John Lackey's whining is justified but I understand where he's coming from. The Cubs flat-out sucked and the White Sox just weren't up to handling the Rays.

Now, I'm hoping for a little Yankees methadone in the WS, with Torre finally completing his first Mandarin hand ("Mandhands") with a Dodgers ring. Although I doubt Torre could've managed the '08 Yankees to the postseason this year, it still hurts a little to see his craggy face in the dugout for another team. I think, however, it'll be Phillies/Rays in the Serious, with the Rays walking away with it all. And quite honestly, I'm fine with that, since the Rays worst-to-first story in the AL East is a narrative I can get behind. I'm sure the novelty will wear off in a few years. The ALCS should be a lot of fun. It'll be interesting to see whether an injured Beckett and a lights-out Lester can handle the depth and strength of the Rays.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Postseason

As every member of this blog has been postseason disenfranchised, I think I can say this after the NLDS LA/CHI game 2: WHAT THE FUCK CUBBIES, GROW A PAIR! Also, as much as the Mets have suffered in the past two years, consider the travail of Yankees fans everywhere. This is the first time we've had to deal with missing the postseason since the early-to-mid 90's. You guys can't possibly understand what that feels like. It's like pulling your head up from a bump of coke, looking around and realizing your life is a shambles. The Mets have been passed out in the gutter since 2000, so they're used to it.