Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ike Reilly: Hard Luck Stories

What makes for a good E Street rip-off band? When the 21st century began, copping moves from the Boss suddenly became critically acceptable, as bands like the Hold Steady, Marah and The Gaslight Anthem garnered praise and some mainstream exposure. That never happened for Ike Reilly, and I'm not sure why. He might just be stealing the wrong stuff -- the aforementioned groups mimic the adrenal, fist-pumping sounds of Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A, while Reilly tends towards the looser, more playful early stuff like Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Before Springsteen decided to save your soul with rock and roll he had a loveable persona as a charming, boozy beach-bum poet, a jazzier, more eclectic sound and a propensity for tall tales. That's pretty much the vein that Reilly's been mining for eight albums and counting, with little to show for it besides a small cult following and a bunch of really good songs. But hey, what the hell... Bruce's early stuff didn't sell either at the time, and those albums were terrific too.

"Hard Luck Stories," Reilly's newest record, opens with "Morning Glory," a loose, shaggy pop tune driven by a shuffling backbeat, colored by jammy keyboard flourishes and brief harmonica sighs. It's not a love song, it's a sex song, or more specifically a lack-of-sex song -- the narrator is sleeping on the floor, trying to scheme his way into the bed by morning. The song is clever, fun, and a little bit sleazy -- a pleasant way to start an album that for all its humor and musical jubilation is mostly, true to it's title, a bunch of hard luck stories.

"Lights Out, Anything Goes," is the both album's most infectious tune and its most devastating tale, an obtruse story of a hapless father watching his relationship with his son disintigrate for reasons neither he or the listener quite understand. ("I had a boy, I gave him my name -- he gave it back when he moved away.") The story's tough to parse -- a broken circuit shuts the power in their house, the kid becomes a Jesus freak, at some point there's a dead body somehow involved. But the track is joyous and propulsive, driven by handclaps, a buzzing synth and an ominously stalking Marc Ribot-style guitar line. That's Reilly's trademark dissonance -- rapture and resignation, ecstasy and self-destruction all collide. The baffling nature of the lyrics works perfectly -- the song's narrator can't quite figure out where everything went wrong, and neither can we. Like him (and maybe like Reilly) we're "always mixing up the saviors and the fakers."

Hard Luck Stories isn't a masterpiece -- there are almost as many misses as hits -- but it's a very strong piece of work, filled with good yarns and catchy tunes. He sounds like a slacker, but there's a hidden ambition in Reilly's bohemian bar-room poetry. He's trying to wrap his arms around the whole damn thing: hope, anger, love, death, dissolution, sex -- mundanity and transcendence, dreams and defeat. Hard Luck Stories will be dismissed by most as dad-rock, and I can't really defend it against that charge -- Reilly's most recent influences are older than I am, and I'm closer to thirty than twenty. But Christ, who cares? It all sounds really good; the songs are catchy as hell, and the lyrics stories are dark and funny, big-hearted and well observed, sad and sweet. That ought to be enough.

In "The Ballad of Jack and Haley" an amiable, sunny melody obscures a touching and devastating story of a man passionately devoted to two things: his daughter and the high-grade marijuana plantation he's cultivating in his basement. Jack's a single dad, getting by and getting high until he gets busted and sent upstate and Haley's shipped off to live with her aunt. In his letters Jack writes, "Don't waste your money on ditch-weed, honey, I'll be out before you know, and I'll plant another indoor garden for you and we'll watch it grow." Jack is the iconic Ike Reilly character: full of hopes and schemes and love -- alive, awake and longing -- and doomed to make the same mistake twice.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Best Albums of the Decade

...as determined by science.

50. Black Keys: Thickfreakness
49. Destroyer: Rubies
48. O'Death: Head Home
47. Vic Chesnutt: Skitter on Take-off
46. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black
45. Warren Zevon: The Wind
44. Smog: A River Ain't Too Much to Love
43. Libertines: Up the Bracket
42. Beck: Sea Change
41. Hoots and Hellmouth: The Holy Open Secret
40. Mirah: Advisory Committee
39. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine
38. Dr. Dog: Fate
37. William Shatner: Has Been
36. The Waifs: Up All Night
35. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
34. Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
33. Modest Mouse: Moon and Antarctica
32. Drive-by Truckers: Southern Rock Opera
31. Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock and Roll
30. Mendoza Line: 30 Year Low
29. Eminem: Marshall Mathers LP
28. Franklin Bruno: Kiss Without Makeup
27. Spoon: Gimme Fiction
26. Outkast: Stankonia
25. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois
24. Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists
23. Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker
22. Okkervil River: Stage Names
21. Josh Ritter: Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
20. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere
19. Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone
18. Nick Cave: Murder Ballads
17. Strokes: Is This It
16. Hold Steady: Separation Sunday
15. Dresden Dolls: Dresden Dolls
14. Elliott Smith: Figure 8
13. Bright Eyes: Fevers and Mirrors
12. Brian Wilson: Smile
11. Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping
10. Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
9. Johnny Cash: American Recordings IV
8. M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent
7. Killers: Hot Fuss
6. Tom Waits: Real Gone
5. Radiohead: Kid A
4. Marah: Kids in Philly
3. White Stripes: White Blood Cells
2. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft
1. Arcade Fire: Funeral

Friday, November 20, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: Skitter on Take-off

Up until a few months ago, everybody seemed to have forgotten about Vic Chesnutt. That's kind of a weird thing to say about someone that most people have never heard of, but the singer and guitarist did have a brief moment in the sun -- the indie sun, at least -- in the mid-nineties. At the Cut, released in September, garnered Chesnutt some sudden press, partly because it was a rough, uncompromisingly gut-churning album, partly because it featured Guy Picciotto and members of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Less than a month later, he dropped his follow-up, Skitter on Take-off, like a crumpled receipt fluttering out of his pocket as he reached for his wallet. Lost in the rush of deserved praise for At the Cut, Skitter on Take-off seems to have gone largely unnoticed. That’s a shame, because the album is brilliant.

Where At the Cut was rich and fairly heavy, Skitter on Take-off inhabits a pervasive, haunted emptiness matched only by Smog's Bill Callahan. The entire album sounds off-handed, casual, like Chesnutt is literally making up each song as he goes along. This is underlined by the fractured poetry of his lyrics and his simple but unusual melodic sense. His melodies refuse to resolve, lingering nervously, repeating themselves, but his resigned tone, contemptuous and wounded, animates them with a cold authority. Chesnutt has an affinity for anti-romantic, even ugly turns of phrase like "I was taking little chunks of your love and squirreling them away," lines that read terribly on the page but sound uncomfortably appropriate in his ragged, tremulous voice. “Feast in the time of plague,” he laments on the opener. “You were a beautiful pig.” That's the despairingly practical attitude that pervades the album: mournful and lonesome but harder, wise now, and ready to move on.

Skitter on Take-off
makes astonishing use of silence -- it's everywhere on this record, oppressively still, gathering, and Chesnutt's unadorned music, his warped guitar and thin voice are barely a candle flickering against the black. Jonathan Richman's production is brilliant, and it's hardly even there. Always a master of minimalism, he strips away every ornamentation, every unnecessary element, making the greatest use yet of Chesnutt’s oddly skeletal, almost chord-free plucking style. Richman virtually leaves the state -- Chesnutt sounds so utterly alone on the album that it's hard to believe there actually was a producer, or even another soul within a hundred miles. Outside of some distant brushed drums on a few songs and Richman's mumbled voice on the introduction to “Dimples” (an inclusion that adds to the casual, DIY spirit of the record but ultimately damages its aesthetic of remoteness and alienation), the album is all Vic Chesnutt, a man alone, making a heartsick sound with just enough notes to be considered music. You can feel the hunger, the disquietude and unease in the small muscles of your neck. Skitter on Take-off is not a fun listen -- it's not good background music – but it's very powerful.

It takes an extraordinarily rare talent to compel and captivate with no tools, no tricks, no impressive displays. Chesnutt doesn't perform or entertain -- it sounds like he made the record by mysterious compulsion and he doesn’t even know you’re listening. Skitter on Take-off is in the mode of Robert Johnson's recordings -- quiet, worried-man blues glowing hesitantly in the dark, shaky, uncertain, spare -- just enough song to keep the devil at bay. Barely at bay, and only for the moment, but for the moment that’s enough.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Carrie Underwood: Play On

From the first few slicked-up yet grungy electric guitar chords, we know we’re in for more of the same: angry bad-boyfriend songs and gelatinous ballads, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, everything sounding very, very expensive. The writing is insanely professional, and each track is so thoroughly baited with hooks it’s hard to hear the song underneath. Play On is a focus-group pop album, a hothouse flower, bioengineered at great cost to thrive on S.U.V. radios and in the endless replay of tweenage iTunes. But there’s no great single to be found, so instead it withers and dies.

"Cowboy Casanova," the catchy opening single, is an icy kiss-off to a phony dive-bar Romeo, and it sort of works, as far as it goes. Why? I’m not sure, precisely; this album adheres so slavishly to its (admittedly proven) formula that it's awfully hard to tell what, exactly, the difference between the good songs and bad songs are, since they all sound pretty much the same. So you'll have to take my word for it when I say that "Cowboy Casanova," while foot-tapping and high-spirited, lacks the elemental power of the towering single "Before He Cheats," a very similar rocking psuedo-feminist guilty pleasure, Underwood's greatest achievement to date, a radio monster that demanded to be turned up. An album like this needs exactly one of those to be a success. Play On is a failure.

It’s not all unremittingly awful; generally all the faux-shitkicking glossy country Bon Jovi stuff is half-way listenable. But brother, do the ballads ever suck. Underwood apparently has no volume knob -- she can belt angrily over polished electric guitars or she can belt sweetly over swooning strings. She blows all of her incredibly tenuous feminist credentials on "Mama's Song," which finds her saying, essentially, “Mom, you don’t have to take care of me anymore because I found a man to do it instead.” On "Change" she harangues us tunefully about being a bunch of jerks for not giving more money to charities and panhandlers. “Temporary Home” is a disgustingly manipulative ballad about orphans, single moms and old sick people, and how it’s okay that their lives suck because soon they’ll die and go up to heaven and get to play badminton with Jesus forever and ever. The slow songs on the album have, collectively, the emotional depth of a banana-walnut pancake. They will brook no sadness that can't be instantly transformed into hopeful triumph by a hooky chorus and a multi-tracked vocal.

"Someday When I Stop Loving You" is the sole exception; it's not a particularly good song, a by-the-numbers countrypolitan weeper, but by sheer virtue of being legitimately sad it's incredibly refreshing, a break from the stridently, almost obnoxiously inspirational tone of the record. Underwood can’t sell it, though -- she sings it like she's back on Idol, and the song is nothing but a showcase for her killer pipes. Underneath the everywoman hard-knock posturing, Underwood is a first-place finisher (this was proven on national television); she’s got no idea what to do with a song about losing. And if you’re not ready to lose, maybe country music isn’t the place for you.

But back to the bread and butter: "Songs Like This" is a fairly solid track, another in Underwood's endless array of kiss-offs to bad boyfriends, building to a nice turn of phrase in the chorus. ("If it wasn't for guys like you, there wouldn't be songs like this.") The rocker "Undo It" is probably the best thing on the album, despite being pretty much a wholesale rip-off of Lucinda Williams’ "Joy." We're back into Carrie's comfort zone here -- outside of her looks and her large vocal range, kicking douchebags to the curb seems to be her main talent in life. (What does it say about our culture that our most populist female stars [i.e. Idol winners] seem to find their greatest successes, artistically and commercially, in revenge songs?)

Play On is definitely not good, not horrifyingly bad, and precisely what you imagine it to be. There’s no great single, nothing that even approaches the awesome “Before He Cheats” or half of the stuff that Kelly Clarkson’s been putting out. It’s not going to happen, but it’d be awfully nice if Underwood would look to people like the aforementioned Lucinda Williams – a bad-ass independent woman who wasn’t afraid to show her vulnerability or her sense of humor – as more than a source of pilfered tunes. She needs to start looking around for somewhere to borrow a personality.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Charles Fetherolf: Giants in the Earth

It begins in darkness. Four black horizontal panels, then another four on the facing page. Then two black rectangles of equal size, then a full black splash. We're five entire pages into Charles Fetherolf's "Giants in the Earth," and we've yet to see a single drawing. Then, turning the page, we're faced with a double-spread explosion -- a chaotic spray of white against the dark, flattened and radiating like an egg on a frying pan, encircled by a thin ring expanding ever outwards. It's the act of creation, the beginning -- the Big Bang -- and it seems to have been summoned into existence by the tense and heavy emptiness of the five black pages. Fetherolf took his time, and then he said "let there be white."

"Giants in the Earth," a standalone self-published comic, is a bravura performance that attempts to and largely succeeds at telling a wordless history of the universe and the planet Earth from the dawn of the world to the dawn of man. Milky gasses expand and condense in a void, forming into planetoids. Planetoids attract and collide; one will become the earth, and another will become the moon.

If you paid any attention in your high school biology class, the rest of the story will be largely familiar. Out of the smoldering magma and simmering nutrient bath single-celled organisms form. They eventually become membranous sea creatures, which in turn develop into amphibians and struggle tentatively onto dry land. Reproduction, consumption, mutation, and creation; evolution carries through its mindless, beautiful, myriad pathways, and we watch in silent contemplation.

The concept and storytelling are ambitious and admirable enough, but what really sets "Giants in the Earth" apart from other experimental comics is the raw, simple elegance of Fetherolf’s art, his softness and grace of his inking, the richness and truth he finds in simple, austere images. His art is out of step with the times – there’s nothing hip or modern about it, none of Chris Ware’s sleek intricacy or the photo-realistic high dudgeon of recent superhero books. His work most resembles the late John Buscema: elegant, almost athletic forms, carefully observed and detailed but always spare, never an unnecessary line or shade.

The stubbornly anachronistic nature of Fetherolf’s art (along with his generally unappealing and unrepresentative cover illustrations) might go some way towards explaining why his work hasn’t been met with wider acclaim, but it’s a minor travesty. Why can companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly find space for so many idiosyncratic voices and oddball styles (some of which are, frankly, quite bad), but nothing for an audacious creator working without a net, albeit in a slightly unfashionable style? Fetherolf’s storytelling is masterful, but his use of time and space are his greatest gifts. The images that stick with you are the fraught, tense ones, where a single moment is broken into uneasy slivers: the black tentacles of a menacing octopus wending hungrily and sinuously across a stretch of panels; dinosaurs looking up past the trees at incandescent meteors that arc gracefully down towards their Triassic paradise; a lightning crack that starts a forest fire, set above the haunted eyes of early man.

“Giants in the Earth” is alive, evolving, in constant motion. It’s everything that comics – and art in general – ought to be: a world in miniature. It just so happens that this time, that world is our own.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sondre Lerche: Heartbeat Radio

The Norwegian transplant Sondre Lerche, a music industry veteran at only 27, possesses considerable talent, but his new album Heartbeat Radio finds him working too hard toward no discernible end. The album is about love in its most mundane forms – passing the morning paper back and forth over tea, squabbling, driving, chatting. It’s a minor work for minor moods, but it mostly fails to achieve even its modest intentions.

There's a sort of ill-fitting grandiosity to the overall aesthetic -- strings swoon, Lerche's vocals keen, the arrangements build gradually to thundering crescendos -- but it's an empty largeness, music like an airplane hanger. Why all the drama? These aren't desperate or urgent songs. Lerche's virtues -- tight, varied instrumentation; gentle, literate guitar pop; smart and simple song construction -- are the virtues of smallness and care. The arrangements are admirable – odd, precise, elegant, the many modular transitions sudden yet seamless – but all the passion and bombast feel phony, put-on, manipulative. Lerche leans too hard on his pose as a wounded young Romeo.

The lyrics are barely worth mentioning, neither positive nor negative. Lerche knows how to fit words into song forms, inserting syllables and phrases with the same almost classical-minded precision he brings to his arrangements, but he seems to select words for their crisp and delicate phonetics, their graceful rhymes, with little regard for their meaning. This could work wonderfully if he would really abandon communication, turning his lyrics into tone-poems that interlock, puzzle-like, with his latticework songs, but instead he stays within a very dull mode of heartsick musings and pseudo-sophisticated mumblings. (The one notable exception is “Like Lazenby,” which is built around a baffling but somewhat delightful metaphor about the one-time James Bond.) His delivery is clipped and dry, almost sarcastic, and the conflict between his detachment and the gorgeous, endlessly swooning strings is a little bit intriguing, but I'm not sure that such dissonance is something that Lerche intended.

He’s at his best when he drops the Rufus Wainwright shtick and lets his natural charm and naivety shine through. “Words and Music,” his sunny little slice of Paul McCartney pop, tastes like biting into a cool, ripe orange. It’s the best song on the album, vulnerable and sweet and affectionate. It is, in its way, a masterpiece in miniature, perfect for a certain sort of warm, quiet moment, and it’s likely to find a small but permanent place in my life. It’s the exception, though; in general, the love songs don’t sound urgent, and the heartsick songs sound like they stem from an artful pose rather than any real pain. The aesthetic he seems to be pursuing is elegance at any cost; he achieves it handily, but the price is far too high. He sacrifices truth, sincerity, magic, and danger. While there are enough wonderful arrangements and flashes of brilliance to point the way towards a potential masterwork in the still-young Lerche’s future, Heartbeat Radio isn’t much more than supremely well-constructed background music. The album is smothered by care and clockwork.

The radio plays on and on; the heartbeat flat-lines.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart

It opens with sleigh bells and a jaunty backing choir, and we're off into a fully realized Norman Rockwell painting, complete with roaring fireplace, children in stocking feet, and the jolly old grandpa around whom they've gathered. The grandpa is Bob Dylan, and yes, Bob Dylan is jolly. Holly jolly, even.

From the Currier & Ives-esque cover illustration to the Andrews sisters soundalikes singing backup, Dylan's charity album Christmas in the Heart is a full-on fruitcake. It's earnest and wholehearted and brimming with good cheer. There's a palpable joy in the man's withered croak, as he hobbles his crumbling voice over the some the most familiar terrain in American song. Dylan, he of the sharp jaundiced eyes and love-sick nihilism, has got the Christmas spirit, and he's got it bad.

Self-producing under his oft-used and suddenly very appropriate pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan delivers the most straightforward Christmas album imaginable, dusting off the stalest pop forms, mothballed tropes and hoariest roasted chestnuts of Christmas' past. Outside of a few delightfully bizarre choices – the breakneck accordion polka of “Must Be Santa,” the tinge of a fake Hawaiian accent on “Christmas Island,” the way he sounds like a crazed street-corner vagrant haranguing the children in “Winter Wonderland” – he delivers the kind of lush, chintzy holiday showcase that’s generally better left to the likes of Michael MacDonald. The dissonance between his rough voice and smooth arrangement makes the album feel like something that you imagined in a dream.

It's a double shot of straight sentimental corn syrup, and it's the closest Dylan has come to crooning since "Nashville Skyline," his lovely 1969 country ode to domesticity. The years and cigarettes have had their way with the man's larynx, and he can't match the warm honeycomb baritone that surprised and confused his fans three decades ago – frankly, he often comes off as a lunatic warbling carols with almost terrifying conviction – but nevertheless, his damaged voice is full of warmth and sweetness. "Although it's been said many times, many ways… Merry Christmas to you," he sings, and he sounds like he means it more than Mel Torme ever did. For all the world, the record doesn't feel like a charity album or a goofball lark or an odd experiment -- it just sounds like the work of a dude who really, really loves Christmas.

Dylan doesn't strip the songs down, doesn't transform them into his signature dusted roots music. To the contrary: his smooth, stolid productions make the Bing Crosby versions sound spontaneous and lo-fi. There's something so wonderfully odd about the tension between Dylan's timeworn growl and the thick carpet of garland and wreath lain about him; it's as though a hard-bitten riverboat captain wandered into Macy's on December 23rd and swooned into a Yuletide trance, marveling at everything he saw, convinced that the old alcoholic in the red trim and fake beard was, in fact, Santa Clause. Dylan surrenders himself completely to the corniness, the sentiment, the whole Christmas ham without a wink. He sounds more committed, in fact, than he did on his last couple of albums. Christmas in the Heart is, in no particular order: delightful, silly, intimate in a somewhat phony way, gentle, cornball, crazy, dated, baffling and lovable. It’ll be played in my house throughout the month of December. For all of its goofiness, the record is a big, resounding affirmation: loud and clear, it says “Yes, Virginia.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

O Pioneers!!!: Neon Creeps

O Pioneers!!! may not have many similarities with Walt Whitman, the great American poet from whom they take their name, but do have one thing in common: they are animated with joy. These Houston punks always sound like they're having a hell of a time playing their simple cranked up shout-rock, rendering even lyrics like "Forget about all the depression and all of the debt... I know I'm gonna die from it" anthemic and somehow redemptive. Their palpable pleasure is almost enough to carry their Neon Creeps LP. It's punk with the right attitude, a sense of humor, none of the finger-wagging politics or emo self-seriousness, and just enough melody to carry you from one fist-pumping chorus to the next. They're happy and angry and restless and all of the things a bunch of hopped-up kids should be. You like them, and you want to like their album.

Ultimately, though, it's only okay, marred by too many weirdly annoying moments and precious song titles. (See "Saved by the Bell Was a Super Good Show," the chorus of which is the word "DRAMA" sung over and over again, the singer inexplicably placing the accent on the word's second syllable.) Still, I'd like it if there were more records out there in this quotidian vein -- fleeting, honest, unself-conscious, funny, direct. Even another obnoxious title like "Chris Ryan Added Me on Facebook" obscures one of the most truthful kiss-offs this side of Bob Dylan. ("See I'm older now, and I don't give a damn if I ever talk to you again.") Like I said, I don’t really like the album – Eric Solomon’s voice kind of sucks, some of the tracks go on too long, everything starts to feel kind of samey, etc… But give it a shot anyway, maybe late at night on an empty highway. Your mileage may vary.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Drivin 'N' Cryin: Great American Bubble Factory

Pop music vocals are odd things -- no one has any idea what makes them good. I love Craig Finn, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Jello Biafra, none of whom can sing a lick. Why? I don't really know. I'd like to think it's that they sound personal or truthful or alive, but it's probably just that their tones resonate with something inside my skull. Either way, I won't argue about voices -- the ear has reasons that reason cannot know.

In other words, my problems with "Great American Bubble Factory" by veteran southern rock band Drivin 'N' Cryin are entirely my own -- I just don't like the way this dude sings. His name is Kevin Kinney, and he's still rocking the same adenoidal pop-punk-with-a-twang voice he debuted back in the mid-eighties.

In fact, Drivin 'N’ Cryin sound largely like they did in the Reagan era, aside from a little newly acquired and ill-fitting studio sheen. They're still skillfully mixing hard rock, folk, punk and country -- they're still singing about being broke and pissed, about American rust and spiritual rot. It worked a quarter of a century ago and it works now -- rather than frantically chase the moving zeitgeist, Drivin 'N' Cryin sat stubbornly in place, waiting for the clock to come back around to midnight. It did, and "Great American Bubble Factory" sort of serves as a makeshift concept album about the economic collapse, though its songs of struggle and disappointment, of one step forward and two steps back, could have come from any album in the DNC catalogue.

Though their jaundiced view of late-period capitalism is focused and unflinching, their music is very wide and versatile, wrapping its long arms around Skynyrd, Townes Van Zandt, KISS, the Cars, Brian Wilson, Springsteen and ZZ Top. The sounds can be scattershot, even a little incoherent, but the theme brings it all together. If it ultimately works it’s due to the force of Kinney’s vision, the underdog status he’s entirely earned through decades of trying and failing to bust out of the bar-rock C-list.

The album’s best moments are its unexpected touches: the pedal steel in "I See Georgia" tunelessly dragging down the fretboard, less a musical flourish than the howl of a dying animal; the ragged Beach Boys harmonies in "Get Around Kid"; the soulful and cheesy Eddie Van Halen guitar solos that first make you cringe and then, unexpectedly, move you a little. Even Kinney’s voice, which still bugs me, is undoubtedly his own, wholly unapologetic in its nasal flatness. There’s an stubborn insistence, a sort of sneering southern pride, and it somehow renders their anachronisms and unhip characteristics moot.

“Great American Bubble Factory” is a work of enormous personality and sincerity, a rueful opus trying hard to embrace a hopeless future. We need more art like this, and even if I can't say I really love the album I want to stand up in support of guys like Kinney, men with big battered hearts on their sleeves and hands white-knuckled on the wheel. In the face of an indifferent music industry and a starry-eyed Clinton decade, they adhered to their vision and stuck to their guns: by spending two generations standing perfectly still, Drivin 'N' Crying have somehow found themselves ahead of the game.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Willie Porter: How to Rob a Bank

Willie Porter is best known for his acoustic finger picking, and rightly so – his guitar lines are naturalistic, haunting, difficult and complex without ever turning into any of that boastful nonsense that gets labeled “shredding” or “chops.” He’s got a nice voice too, a rich, rueful baritone that’s both pliable and sturdy. He’s got a way with a simple melody, and his lyrics have an understated, restrained poetry. He brings all of these wonderful qualities to bear on his new LP “How to Rob a Bank,” and as I listened I was almost too busy admiring his craftsmanship to notice that I was kind of bored.

It’s hard to identify exactly what the problem is here, but somehow the record sounds less like an aesthetic object with its own internal life than a demonstration of Porter’s enviable talents. There's an unnecessary sheen to the recordings -- the treble is mixed too low, flattening the arrangements; the over-mixed bass lines are needlessly complex, distracting from the vocals, which sound too multi-tracked. Aural richness is the order of the day, and while it works wonderfully for mellow meditations like the rueful "Learning the Language" or the dreamy ditty "The Lemon Tree," most of Porter's lovely songs could stand to be stripped down, a little more rattle and a little less hum. The harmonies are always pretty, but they're overused. This MOR production doesn't do justice to the organic looseness of these songs, the bluesy honesty of Porter's vocals. Porter needs a producer who isn't afraid to get a little mud on his boots

The best songs are the ones that don't sound so goddamned nice. "How to Rob a Bank," the one legit folk song on the record, steals its sound and content shamelessly from Woody Guthrie -- get a seat on the board of directors is the answer to "how" -- and yet it's the most original and unpredictable track on the record. Something about this cute little throwaway homage loosens Porter, relaxes his pretty voice into a charming chuckle, and the production follows suit, stripping away the stodgy, lulling bass, burping open the tupperware, letting things jangle. Porter must have known he was on to something here – he named the album after the song, and the title promises a much more thrilling ride than it delivers.

I'm picking nits here, only because I think that Porter has a considerable talent, and I hate to see it wasted in albums designed as showcases for his pretty singing and virtuosic guitar playing. It's an easy trap for highly gifted yet traditional-minded musicians to fall into -- precision and clarity become the watchwords, instruments are overdubbed half to death, and you end up with a lot of prettiness and not a lot of life. The music is pressed behind glass.

I don't mean to imply that Porter is just another skillful adult-rock sleepwalker, even if elegantly arranged snoozers like the album closer "Barefoot Reel" might sound that way. There's something vital in his melodies and his guitar lines, and here and there some urgency emerges through the mellow haze that obscures what could have been a terrific album. His lyrics are poetic and searching, as in “Too Big to Sell,” his melancholy ode to the European painters who’ve inspired him. “They broke all the rules and they gambled on love,” he sings of Monet, Rosseau, Van Gogh. But all of those artists were reaching for something invisible and uncanny, something somewhere outside of their grasp. There’s always a price for this kind of hungry and restless ambition – poverty or depression or addiction or an ear – but these artists were willing to pay it. Willie Porter, singing and strumming away inside his comfortable wheelhouse, would do well to heed their example.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Final Thoughts on District 9 [Spoilers]

After a consultation with Dr. Teeth, I've decided to post a few more thoughts on District 9. First and foremost, I want to talk about how great it is to see the moribund science fiction genre getting a facelift. I'm tempted to locate the start of this trend around the 2002 Soderbergh remake of Solaris. Solaris, a 4 hour, thoroughly impenetrable Tarkovsky film from the 1970s, was a pretty huge project to take on. The 2002 remake flopped, but the fact that it was made at all may have been indicative of renewed interest in the genre.

Since then we've had a run of decent-to-great scifi movies: 28 Days Later, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shaun of the Dead, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Serenity, War of the Worlds, Children of Men, Sunshine, Cloverfield, Star Trek IX, Moon, and District 9.

I want to single out Sunshine and District 9 here, because they share a very important similarity: they both fall down on their premise.

The first half of Sunshine is compelling because the crew has so little agency. They're constantly reacting to the latest disaster thrust on them by an uncaring solar system, and that struggle to survive (and concurrent emotional/social accommodations the crew must make) is what keeps the audience involved. Then, inexplicably, they introduce an implausible malefactor into the mix. Not only is it unnecessary, it at odds with the entire tone of the movie up to that point. The change is jarring enough that it takes the audience entirely out of the flow of the movie, resulting in unpleasant metacommentary: why doesn't this dude have any skin and why God why would that make him super-strong?

District 9 also includes some strange shifts in tone. The movie begins as a documentary, and we're introduced to the setting through interviews with experts, witnesses, and of course, Wikus. At some point, however, it becomes impossible to tell the story in documentary form. Wikus goes off the grid and the movie shifts dramatically in tone, becoming an action/adventure flick. That wouldn't be a problem, except that D9 then reverts back to a hybrid format of news/documentary for the final 10-20 minutes. It's an odd choice, as it draws attention to the abrupt shifts in tone without really adding all that much to the movie. The final moments of the movie use documentary interviews to ask really obvious questions (basically, "will there be a sequel?") and tie up a few loose ends. A side effect of this choice is that we lose some of the immediacy of the action (it turns out that a guy tearing shit up in an alien battlesuit is less compelling when seen from a helicopter and framed by a chyron) and the questions posed by the talking heads are glaringly obvious--I'm not sure we needed them asked directly into the camera.

Klosterman Revisited

A long time ago, I wrote something critical about Chuck Klosterman. You can't slag on soccer like this without agitating the blogosphere:

To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer.

Today, while I remain sentimentally attached to the term "Klosterfuck," I'm man enough to admit that I didn't have all the information. I recently finished reading Fargo Rock City, Klosterman's ode to the metal bands of the 1980s.

Fargo Rock City has two things going for it. First, it's sincere. CK is responding to the retrospective condemnation heaped on his childhood heroes by a critical establishment that neither appreciates nor understands the joys of brainless rock and roll. Occasionally that defensive posture leads him into dangerous waters, as it does when he clumsily tries to argue that 80s metal wasn't sexist. The strongest part of the book is the epilogue, where he grapples with the subjectivity of music criticism and the way that same tendency skews his own work.*

That's the second thing that makes the book great. Chuck's voice is so strong that you're always aware that these are his thoughts. To his credit (and in marked contrast to the soccer quote above) he never dresses them up with sham objectivity. In other words, there's room for disagreement without having to defend your position on "enforced equality" or other bullshit terms. It's a fairly simple premise: Chuck Klosterman loves 80s metal and he's going to explain why. What you do with that is up to you.

*He also memorably trashes the idea that your revealed preferences as a 17 year old are indicative of some deeper truth of your being. When you were 17, you were a pain in the ass and that's about it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9 [Spoilers]

Briefly, the plot of District 9 is that an alien mothership drifts to a halt above Johannesburg, and after three months humans penetrate the interior to find a group of starving, malnourished aliens inside. They promptly relocate these unfortunates to the Soweto-like D9. There, tensions build between prawn and human until the government authorizes the mediocre-yet-sinister Multinational United to conduct a second round of resettlement to an encampment 200 miles outside the city.

Now, before I get all serious on you, I'd like to take a moment to reassure you that I did, in the darkness and comfort of the movie theatre, say things like "dude needs an AA for arm-eating" and "what the fuck are you doing Wikus, strap the fuck in!" In neither case did the movie disappoint. As a storming-the-barricades-with-energy-weapons tale of righteous redemption, it's everything you could hope for.

When you dig a little deeper into the scenery, however, District 9 starts to decay a bit.

The film juxtaposes the "honest" savagery of the Nigerian gangsters in D9 against the corporate condescension of MNU. The Nigerians relentlessly and shamelessly exploit the prawns, but they never turn on their own, and they seem to have a pretty sweet racket going on. They get to charge exorbitant prices for cat food, amass alien weaponry, and ritually consume the occasional prawn appendage. It's a living.

In contrast, MNU is possessed of a relentless hunger that's unchecked by any bonds. Throughout the movie, every act of brutality carried out by the Nigerians is matched or exceeded (either in scope or cruelty) by MNU. At the most basic level, this points to a problem of motivational incoherence on the part of MNU. Like the similarly-named Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil series, Multinational United completely embraces the "why do this right when we could do it EVIL?" approach to corporate decisionmaking.

Aside: Resident Evil 2 is the most baldfaced demonstration of that ethos. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Mila Jovovovovovich vehicle, the plot goes something like this: a bumbling Umbrella Corporation strike team unleashes the zombie apocalypse. An Umbrella corporate overlord decides to "handle" the situation by using Raccoon City as a proving ground for their most advanced bioweapon, and their very first test of that weapon involves straight-up murdering the entire Raccoon City police force.

Something rather similar occurs in D9 when the bigwigs decide that they need to liquify every ounce of Wikus' biomass to "get his DNA." (What?) Conveniently, they make this decision over the restrained-but-conscious Wikus, who somewhat predictably hulks out and escapes. It's also worth noting that one of the oligarchs is Wikus' father-in-law, who, two scenes later, demonstrates a heretofore unseen level of cunning by lying to his daughter ("Can I see Wikus?" "No." "Okay.") about her husband's condition. You'd think he might've had the presence of mind to plot the blenderizing of his son-in-law behind closed doors.

In other words, D9 capitalizes on cheap anti-corporate sentiment. Now, I'm not an expert, but in my experience most corporations don't randomly choose to diversify into the lucrative "horrible atrocities" market. The CEO of Whole Foods is not terribly popular at the moment, but not because he announced that he uses the tears of unborn children as a sweetener in the 365 line of products. By the time D9 gets around to MNU's poorly-secured alien corpse-fucking division the movie has already established a rich tapestry of disgusting colonial attitudes around MNU and the entire scene feels unnecessary.

In the end, D9 commits its greatest sin by mapping basic textures onto complicated themes. By the end of the movie we have a white corporate strike team storming a black tribal compound so that they can fuck up a racial/corporate Judas wearing an alien battlesuit.

On the other hand, I would (and did) pay $10 to see that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Neil Hamburger: Western Music and Variety

Western Music and Variety with Neil Hamburger will be shelved under COMEDY, alongside DVDs by George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld and Weird Al Yankovich. Go ahead, watch it all the way through – you won’t laugh once. But that’s okay. Hamburger – or Gregg Turkington, the deep-cover actor who portrays him – couldn’t be less interested in chuckles. He’s after bigger – or at least stranger – game.

But what game is that, exactly? He wants to irritate you, that much is sure. Between his sour, pinched face, his broken comic timing and his baffling jokes (“Why are M&Ms filled with chocolate? Because it would be illegal to fill them with shit.”), watching or listening to him perform is an almost viscerally unpleasant experience, and intentionally so.

He’s been doing this absurdist anti-comedy bit for a while now, and it’s possible he’s beginning to run out of steam. Thus we have Western Music and Variety, in which he dons a bolo tie and Stetson hat and attempts a fairly straightforward C&W western album in his tuneless, warbling screech, punctuating the between-song banter with lines that are less jokes than inexplicable howls of hate. (“Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, finally joined the Mile-High Club… Yeah, he raped a woman in Denver!” Buh-dum-ching.) The bathos of the Hamburger persona feels surprisingly natural in a country music setting. And unlike the jokes, a few of the songs are actually sort of funny. At the very least, we can be grateful that there is now a song entitled "How Can I Still Be Patriotic (When They've Taken Away My Right To Cry)?"

But ultimately, the humor is incidental. Hamburger is less a comedian than he is a piece of performance art, a character study. But it doesn't quite work because he leans too hard on the jokiness of the persona, always reaching for the broadest possible bit of loathsome self-mockery, to the point where Hamburger is clearly a shtick, a one-note joke, not a character we can believe in or engage with.

While Andy Kaufmann’s anti-comedy persona Tony Clifton, Hamburger's closest analogue, was every bit as vile and hateful, he also seemed eerily familiar. Like most great satire, he was a recognizably figure -- the narcissistic, rageful small-time club performer whose overwhelming arrogance and self-love are exceeded only by his self-hate -- pushed barely beyond the boundaries of reality. Turkington, in his eagerness to annoy and disgust, has pushed his Hamburger character too far -- he's continually clearing his throat, gargling phlegm into the microphone, hocking his loogies into the same drink from which he continues to sip. For all the praise he gets from fans and magazines, for all the talk of meta-comedy and envelope pushing, Hamburger is an archetype older than Sophocles: he's the fall guy, the stiff, the bufoon. If we laugh, it's out of relief – bad as we might feel, at least we’re not him.

The most compelling moments are when Hamburger drops the pretense of humor and lashes out at the crowd in authentic anger. "Fuck you, you son of a bitch! Fuck you, you zipper-lips!" he roars at an unamused audience member. There’s something real in his tone, something authentically vengeful and horrifying, and for a moment we can see that the real appeal of Neil Hamburger isn’t comic, it’s tragic. He follows each laughless joke with a weird little beaten-dog whimper, a high-pitched, closed-throated squeak that betrays the bottomless pain underneath the snarling hate. There’s something there – I’m just not sure whether it’s worth digging through all the irritation and unpleasant mugging to find it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel

Legends run the risk of becoming gimmicks. When Aretha Franklin, befitted in her enormous hat, is trotted out at Obama's inauguration to sing the National Anthem, the effect is less musical than it is contextual. It's not about Aretha singing the anthem, it's about "Aretha" singing the "anthem." A voice that's iconic and unique and immediately recognizable can actually become a weakness. The voice will never be subsumed into the music, supporting and communicating the song. You will always be a celebrity first, and an artist second.

Willie Nelson has chosen an odd but effective strategy to combat this mummification of his image: debasement. If he duets with anyone and everyone in earshot, his singing can never become sanctified or inert. In a way, it's a canny strategy. The "legend" tag, while entirely earned and deserved, has always been somewhat at odds with Nelson's low-key persona as the ramblin' singer and guitar-picker, lover of life and devoted pot-head. So he just does everything, devaluing his myth by singing with Rob Thomas and Snoop Dogg, appearing in the Dukes of Hazzard, and campaigning for Kinky Friedman. It takes the pressure off and keeps the mothballs at bay.

His life looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but the resulting art isn't always good. His new album with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel is a nice ride, as far as it goes. It sounds lively in the background -- all swingin' horns and jazz guitar underlying Willie's quicksilver voice -- but there isn't much there to listen to. There are a handful of great moments -- the brass-band carnival on "Hestitation Blues," the goofball joy of hearing Nelson sing lines like "I ain't gonna give nobody none of my jelly-roll" -- and Willie's in rare form throughout, loose as ever, richly amused, making the most unusual phrasings sound natural and obvious. But the album's ultimately predictable, polished, even a little phony. It has nothing to do with the outlaw country that made Nelson a star. It's great stuff for middle-aged people to put on at cocktail parties. I intend this as less of a condemnation than it probably sounds, but I don't mean it as a compliment.

To be fair, there are one or two terrific performances -- "Bring it on Down to my House, Honey" is a legitimately great hootenanny, freewheeling and alive -- but Willie and the Wheelcould have used more of the DIY, punky spirit of Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, which deflated what could have been a staid tribute by cranking everything to eleven, by playing it wild and loose. Asleep at the Wheel are far too expert for all that. A lot of the fun feels like "fun" -- studied, polished replicas of the kind of music that people loved without taking too seriously when it was organic and new. On "Oh! You Pretty Woman," When Jason Roberts sings "she made my heart go boop-boopy-doop" squeaking goofily on the last syllables, it sounds pandering, po-faced, like the mugging, forced mirth of a children's entertainer. It sounds self-conscious; It sounds like a recreation.

Respect and seriousness are poison to this kind of music. There's an almost finger-waggingly schoolmarmish quality to the goings on here, as though we're being told to eat our vegetables, when this stuff should be cotton candy, disposable, lighter than air, teeth-rottingly delightful. Willie brings everything he's got to bear, acquiting himself admirably in an otherwise miscalculated effort. He's the ideal singer for this sort of material -- but a magical voice like his just doesn't belong in such mundane, stilted surroundings.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

500 Days Of Summer

500 Days of Summer is another entry in the catalog of indie-rock movies that, were any of them old enough to join "My Best Friend's Wedding" on the broadcast TV circuit, would be labeled [Comedy/Drama] with [Hipster Themes]. The movie consciously self-defines as a paen to the nostalgia and hip self-awareness of TV and music literate millenials everywhere.

Summer Finn [Zooey Deschanel] and Tom Hanson [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] connect over memories of Knight Rider and boozy karaoke [Here Comes Your Man, by the Pixies] and the film follows their romance through comfortable tropes of twenteen existence: do-nothing jobs that we all suspect are beneath us, but are too lazy to leave. A trip through the Scandinavian depths of Ikea, including a detached, "scenes-from-a-normal-life" tour of the superstore's display rooms. And, of course, record stores.

Let me be clear: I've seen both Transformers movies, and I'll see the G.I. Joe movie--not because I expect (or expected) them to be good, but because they are the touchstones of my childhood. I'm moderately-to-severely annoyed in a summer featuring both a Transformers and a GI Joe movie, neither Arthur Burghardt (Destro, Devastator) nor the shambling corpse of fellow Jersey Boy Chris Latta (Cobra Commander, Starscream) were able to get any work. But, hey, Michael Bay gave Devastator some Trucknutz (tm), so there's that.

In other words, I'm the target audience for 500 Days of Summer, and I enjoyed it. While Zooey Deschanel plays the movie's eponymous character, the real star is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Summer remains a cipher, a cardboard cutout standing in for every quirky, good-looking girl you've ever dated. An early sequence goes to great lengths to establish her as the object of widespread (but undoubtedly non-derivative, authentic, indie-pop-loving) desire. We never really find out why that's the case, and the subtle objectification of Summer is one of the lingering flaws of the movie. As a result, we never truly understand the bond between the two characters; Summer exists as a commodity to be won, enjoyed, and (when lost) recovered.

To some extent, these are flaws inherent in the genre. The schematic of a human relationship is rarely an interesting document, and often lacks the sort of broad appeal that translates into box office success. 500 Days of Summer falters when it tries to straddle that divide, offering both the comforting architecture of a comedy/drama and an elusive whiff of authenticity. The result is jarring--moments of brilliance undermined by a structure that can't quite support them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Modest Mouse: No One's First and You're Next

Modest Mouse’s fourth album, 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, appeared at an odd, off-kilter moment in pop history. The walls between the mainstream and the underground had come unexpectedly tumbling down. Suddenly the freaks were storming the gates and such unlikely stars as the Arcade Fire, the Walkmen and Death Cab for Cutie were garnering radio play and album sales. The cause is unclear – it’s possible that the teen melodrama The OC is a much greater cultural arbiter than most of us would like to admit, or else it’s just a cyclical thing, no different from the grunge explosion that had the record-label suits raiding the Pacific Northwest, signing everybody in a flannel shirt and dirty jeans, or the early seventies, when the hippies and weirdoes reigned supreme. In any case, we had such a moment about five years ago, and it led to the supremely weird spectacle of slouch-eyed, misanthropic indie heroes Modest Mouse being covered by the entire cast of American Idol in a Ford commercial.

Singer Isaac Brock and his band of unmerry men walked right into the bright lights, unblinking. Good News… happened to be their catchiest and most accessible album, but it didn’t represent a major departure from their jerky sound or ramshackle aesthetic of millennial dread, speedball anxiety and gut-bucket poetry. It did boast the single "Float On", an ice cream cone of a song, their most delicious and hopeful track to date, a magical pop number by a little indie band that improbably found its proper home on the radios and in the ears of millions of listeners. But "Float On" was an anomaly – becoming the owners of a smash hit single didn’t turn Modest Mouse into a pop group. By the time their next album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts (!) they were largely back to their old miserablist antics.

Their new album, No One’s First and You’re Next, is a collection of odds and ends, recent singles, B-sides and outtakes. These are leftovers? They don't sound like castoffs to me -- they sound like album tracks. Half of the songs here are as good as anything on We Were Dead…. Impressively, these eight songs that didn’t make it onto the LPs could serve as a primer for Modest Mouse, showing a skillful and idiosyncratic band at the height of its powers.

Brock's trademarks -- his half-swallowed yawp, his catchy little melodies that get bitten off before they're able to resolve -– have been slightly toned down, but they’re still ever-present. "Guilty Cocker Spaniels" is one of the best showcases yet for his charming bozo squawk -- he yelps the talk-song at you, lending the shaggy-dog lyrics a palpable urgency. Brock sounds like the cranky drunk at the end of the bar, holding forth hilariously and slightly annoyingly on his philosophies and grievances, until, out of nowhere, a battalion of Johnny Marr’s buzzing guitars storm the place, nearly drowning out the semi-coherent rambling. It’s an unexpected moment, two unrelated songs suddenly colliding like ships in the night, neither willing to give way to the other; they somehow carry on together, half broken, sailing slowly off into the dark as the pieces fall away.

The rollicking, melodic “Autumn Beds” proves that even on auto-pilot, Modest Mouse can deliver the goods. Armed with little more than a lovely meandering banjo figure, a mellow country-rock rhythm and an endlessly repeated lyric ("We won't be sleeping in our autumn beds."), the track is unassumingly beautiful, pretty in a way that the group rarely is. Brock's increasingly willing to lay down his quirky vocal tics and just sing, reaching for something elegiac and lovely, if only for moments here and there. It’s a track that reminds you just how little these people need in the way of tools. Their usual moves – Brock’s anxious staccato guitar lines and odd vocals, Jeremiah Green’s rubbery, jazz-influenced drumming, strengths on display throughout the record – are conspicuously absent for this one track, and it’s one of their best. Maybe that explains the little grace notes, the sly smiles, the hints of increasing mellowness and accessibility that have begun seeping into Modest Mouse albums. Growing more comfortable with their talents, maybe they’re learning that you don’t always have to work so hard and worry so much. Sometimes, you can just float on.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Waifs: From The Union of Soul

The Waifs are changeless. Their sound -- seemingly born in the dirt, forged on long dusty roads -- emerged fully formed: weathered, lovely and durable. Aussie sisters Vikki Thom and Donna Simpson have a little of the weird old America somewhere in their bones, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Cunningham textures their haunted roots music without flourish, underlining and coloring their powerful yet delicate voices and loose, graceful songs.

There's no formal play, no experimentation, no clever hook. This music is extremely conventional, which is the kiss of death for folk-rock in the freak-dominated aughts. In the nineties pretty pick 'n strum stuff like this had a shot on commercial radio, and the Waifs would fit more comfortably between Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks (though they're far better than either of those) than between Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome. Their strengths are their versatility, their sincerity, their beautiful melodies, their sweet and strong singing -- unhip virtues all. Despite an acclaimed (in Australia) career stretching back for a decade, and a tour opening for Bob Dylan, a search for their name on Pitchfork turns up no results at all. The Waifs have missed their moment. Barring some sudden reinvention of their sound or unexpected shift of the musical tides, they will become no more popular or wealthy than they are this very minute.

On their new live album Live From the Union of Soul they sound less than concerned. To the contrary: there's something valedictory about the tone of the concert, and deservedly so. The Waifs have never garnered the audience they might have, and they probably never will, but over five albums and thirteen years they've built an impressive and wide-ranging catalogue of songs that aspire to be nothing more than beautiful and affecting pieces of music. Their show has a casual and intimate feel, despite what sounds like a fairly large venue. The Simpson sisters are funny and relaxed – they sound utterly at home on the stage, off-handedly improvising new melodies, chuckling mid-lyric, shifting effortlessly between genres and moods.

They make it all sound so easy. A haunting, heartrendingly delicate folk rendition of Paul Kelly's beautiful Australian protest ballad "From Little Things Big Things Grow" sits comfortably alongside the jazz-inflected honeydew-sweet torch song “Stay,” which could have been written at any point in the last hundred years, and the radio-ready country rocker “Take It In.” Their generic pastiche might be scattershot if it weren’t for their tremendous vocals. There's nothing waif-like about these full-throated voices, earthly and belly-deep, haunting and wispy or wild and free. They make modern Americana without bothering to hide their outback inflections. It reminds you just how similar are the American and Australian mythologies: the wide open spaces; the cowboys; the hard livings carved from unforgiving land; the bounties of God and the toll of labor. Just as well that the Waifs have missed their moment: they sing for a vanishing world.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Man And Ball: An Existential Crisis

This can't be happening! Are you real? Am I? Is this just a dream? A nightmare?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Luka Bloom: Eleven Songs

The Irish troubadour Luka Bloom made his name on the back of his unpredictable and electrifying live performances -- a fact that seems almost hard to believe, listening to the polite and peaceful vision represented on his new record, Eleven Songs. You know the stuff: spare, echoing strings and keys, shuffling brushed drums, occasional flourishes of concertina or xylophone, melodic protestations of love and heartsickness and the impossible beauty of it all. It's a familiar formula, to be sure, but it's one that’s been used to great effect by people like Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, John Darnielle, etc... The problem here is that Bloom doesn't have enough personality to make such formulaic proceedings feel interesting or relevant or new.

It's all pleasant enough. Bloom's lovely and supple (if somewhat characterless) voice settles back into the mellow acoustic surroundings, tepidly trying to seduce you or sing you to sleep (in the world of folk-rock balladeers there's not always a difference). The record's few strong moments are the ones that take advantage of the singer’s off-handed, casual vibe; "I Love the World I'm In" is wonderfully understated, slithering in on eerie tom-toms and a furtive, snickering bass line. The prosaic lyrics can't diminish a track this underhandedly atmospheric, and if Bloom spent more of his time trying to hypnotize you with his dreamlike sound, we might have had a good album on our hands. Instead, he relaxes mostly into a half-hearted mid-tempo groove and just lies there, inert.

He can apparently be stirred out of his afternoon nap only in service of some larger social cause, so we get the token rocker "Fire," a forced, cringe-inducing piece of protest music with laughable lyrics like, "We know that we were lied to for another stupid war,” and “Everybody's gone online where nothing is real."

Awful as they are, at least the lines above are startling in their badness -- they make you notice them. The rest of Bloom's words feel cut-and-pasted: portentous and the clichéd, filled with generic pastoral images, inscrutable epigrams, extended metaphors, and more uses of the word "love" than anybody singing love songs should be allowed.

Belittling this album brings me no joy. It feels like Kurt Vonnegut’s description of criticism: donning a full suit of plate-mail to attack an ice cream sundae. If there were ever an innocuous, ingratiating album, undeserving of scorn, Eleven Songs is it -- well arranged, earnest, skillfully recorded, pretty, melodic and graceful. Bloom's talents – his soothing songs, the warmth of the acoustic space they inhabit, his lilting, melodic brogue -- are not insignificant, they're just mundane. You need real strength of personality to pull this stuff off. You need to be saying something or struggling with something -- you need to be able shake people, to make them hear something besides yet another Irish lullaby. Otherwise you end up like Luka Bloom: shooting for Van Morrison, landing on Damien Rice.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Arctic Monkeys: Live at the Apollo

The Arctic Monkeys first appeared on American shores acrest a tidal wave of hype. They were the Band that Blogs Broke, scruffy Scouser kids who'd found a way around the record label payola machine that favored the packaged and processed over the immediate and honest. They'd distributed their album for free online, garnered a few well-placed fawning reviews, played a series of triumphant, sold out London shows, and suddenly they were the latest and greatest Saviors of Rock. With a little help from the independent label Domino, they'd proved that an enormous amount of publicity could be generated almost free of charge. They were the gleeful, punkish David to the lumbering, sickly Goliath of the record industry. Suddenly it seemed that grass roots could grow into tall wheat overnight.

And the story was true, as far as it goes. But despite all the hyperbolic reviews and opinion pieces using the band as an exemplar of how The Internet Will Change Everything Forever, there's not much that's particularly fringey or independent about the Artic Monkey's sound. It's the same brand of fast, sneering guitar rock that's always dominated the post-Libertines UK. Their impressive Horatio Alger story is weakened by the fact that they're precisely the sort of group that would likely have had great success under the the traditional label system -- it just would have taken a little longer. They write catchy tunes with clever lyrics, slam out stiff rhythmic chords on electric guitars, and deliver the goods with a cheeky bounce. And so now, one LP and one EP out from their debut (which the unremittingly hyperbolic, almost self-parodying magazine NME declared the fifth best British album of all time), the fervor has largely died down, leaving a solid, unassuming lad-rock band standing in its wake. And on their newly released DVD, "Live at the Apollo," they come home to Liverpool, still blinking the stardust from their eyes.

Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're still a bit addled from the sudden rush of fortune and glory. Despite all the playful charm of his lyrics and the sardonic sneer of his vocals, lead singer Alex Turner displays exactly zero stage presence, staring blankly out at the crowd, casually tapping his foot with the beat as though he's waiting for a crosstown bus. Director Richard Ayoade seems to be under the impression that Turner has some kind of star quality, because he mostly keeps the camera fixed firmly on the frontman as he stands there, inert. I'm not looking for Pete Townsend windmills and powerslides, here -- is the occasional smile or sneer or shimmy to much to ask? Some bands can be forgiven for aloof, frosty temperaments, but this isn't Radiohead or Sonic Youth or Leonard Cohen -- we're talking about blistering British pop-punk here. A little showmanship and energy are called for. Even when they speed up the tempo to a breakneck pace, it feels less like they're tearing it up than rushing slap-dashthrough their set-list, eyes firmly fixed on the afterparty. "Thank you," Turner mumbles between songs. "I really enjoyed that. No, I mean it. I really mean it." He convinces no one.

It's a shame, because the music isn't half bad. Turner has a way with a stuttering staccato melody and a gift for the clever, biting turn of phrase. The subject matter -- run-ins with cops and classmates, dancefloor hookups, hometown claustrophobia -- is the shallow and adolescent stuff that's at the pulse of rock 'n roll. Turner has a writer's eye for detail and a sharp ear for tuneful storytelling, and he brings both to bear in his up-tempo odes to the gloriously stupid nihilism of youth. It’s a mature and observant mind turned to immature and fleeting subject matter, and the band commits to it, bringing you into their world. For the moment, though, their world seems like a jaded and empty place. Glorious stupidity without pleasure is just joyless yammer. The Arctic Monkeys have been through the full cycle of hype, from fawning to yawning, and they’ve come out the other side hollow and hesitant.

Alex Turner is twenty three years old. What’s that in blog years?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lenny Kravitz: Let Love Rule

I prize innovation far less than most music critics. Though those who push boundaries are to be admired, newness in and of itself has very little to do with quality. In these very pages I have recently praised both Ian Tyson and the Black Crowes for albums that simply execute generic tropes very well, offering nothing new. Novelty is by definition transient. A good album sounds good today, and it’ll sound good in twenty years.

So why do I hate Lenny Kravitz so much? This is the question I pondered as I listened to the 20th anniversary re-issue of his debut album, Let Love Rule. The passing of time should be kind to an inveterate thief like Kravitz. Pop history has a way of blurring in the rearview mirror – what came first and who influenced whom seem to matter less and less. Time often reclaims groups that once seemed shallow and fleeting – it seems almost hard to believe that in their day the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, the Bee Gees and Burt Bacharach were widely considered disposable. Kravitz is a tremendously skilled instrumentalist and an expert showman – he seems like the kind of guy who’s ripe for a critical reappraisal. So why, with each passing year, does his music sound more plastic, inert and – to use a word that invites accusations of rockism – phony?

His virtuosic musicianship might be part of the problem. Kravitz is a one man band and a notorious control freak, rarely allowing other musicians to appear on his albums. Listen to his bluesy piano trills on “My Precious Love,” or his jittery drums on “Flower Child” – the dude can flat-out play. (“Flower Child,” I should note, is actually quite a good song.) He’s a particularly terrific bassist, building his Prince-lite grooves from the ground up. (He may have missed his true calling when he became an eclectic superstar auteur instead of a bad-ass bassist for a grimey funk band.) But for all the monstrous talent on display, his songs feel inorganic, constructed from a blueprint instead of emerging organically. Where Prince is raw and slithering, Kravitz is calculated, clean and precise. If good artists borrow and great artists steal, Kravitz rents by the hour.

And then there are the lyrics. Oh God, the lyrics. The titular “Let Love Rule,” the single that launched Kravitz’s tremendously successful career, informs us that “Love is gentle as a rose, and love can conquer anyone. It’s time to take a stand – brothers and sisters join hands. We’ve got to let love rule!” It’s almost always unflattering to quote song lyrics out of context, but man, it just goes on and on. Six minutes of this tripe? Really, Lenny? He just takes John Lennon’s soggiest epigrams and multiplies them exponentially, with none of the counterbalancing effect of Lennon’s brutal, bloody-sleeved honesty. Twenty years into his career, it’s still the only thing Kravitz has ever sung about: Love is good. We should love. More love please. He seems to believe that this is some kind of radical sentiment. (His last album was the clunkily titled It Is Time For a Love Revolution. Kravitz is apparently as staunchly anti-contraction as he is pro-love.)

This re-issue is a quickie money-maker, without notable bonus features or new songs. The six extra tracks consist of random demos and rough mixes of songs that appeared in better versions on the album proper (do we really need three versions of the interminable “Let Love Rule”?) and a horrifying castrated version of Lennon’s viciously truthful “Cold Turkey.” Where Lennon sings “Cold turkey has got me on the run,” Kravitz amends it to “Cold turkey has got me on the FUCKING run.” And that’s Kravitz in a nutshell – his vision of transcendence is mewling about love, and his vision of edge is dropping an F-bomb.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live

The Black Crowes were the unwitting victims in a minor scandal last year, when Maxim magazine, in a remarkable display of true journalistic integrity, somehow managed to review Warpaint , an album that the band hadn't yet finished recording. When accused of fraudulent reporting, Maxim offered the ridiculous defense that their review was an "educated guess."

While distasteful and unethical, this lapse is somewhat understandable for two reasons. For one thing, I assume that the Maxim offices are filled with distractingly jigglesome fake boobs. (In my imagination they're not even attached to people -- they're just bouncing arbitrarily around the room, like that Star Trek episode with the tribbles.) And for another thing, the Black Crowes sound (as well as their clothes and hair) have been almost completely changeless since the group first appeared. Hilariously, Maxim's uninformed and dishonest review happens to be a fairly accurate assessment of Warpaint .

And now it falls to me to write a review of an album that I really COULD discuss without ever listening to it: Warpaint Live. As the title indicates, it sounds just like Warpaint , except live. (And dressed up with a few covers and back-catalogue tunes.)

Whether you’ll like it depends on whether you like the Black Crowes’ thing: it’s forever 1974. The last 30 years of pop music never happened. The sky is thick with incense, and hippified country-rock rules the airwaves.

I will say, though, that advancing age and a diminishing fan base suit these guys – they began their career affecting the pose of the grizzled, drunken road warriors of rock, and have gradually earned the reputation to which they once pretended. Two and a half decades and a dozen albums deep into their workmanlike careers, they’re as good as they ever were – maybe even a little better.

When they get their hands on a good melody, as in "Josephine," they play the living hell out of it, all earnest, unembarrassed rock-star passion. A warm and pleading vocal is welded to a powerfully simply guitar line, and they speed the whole thing up into a wild Freebird jam at the end. Sure, you’ve heard it before – it sounded good then, and it sounds good now.

Two discs of this stuff, though, starts to feel a little repetitive and formulaic. Verse! Chorus! Pseudo-Page guitar solo! There are a lot of great moments along the way, but the Crowes would do better to follow their myriad influence a little farther down the highways and byways of Aquarian pop. They steal a lot of terrific stuff from the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but they blend it all into their familiar Allman/Zep/Skynyrd axis of searing guitar rock. They've worked hard to perfect the Black Crowes sound, but perfection and complacency are two sides of the same coin.

They're at their best when they lean harder on the Allman side of the equation. The Robert Plant rock star posturing feels a little tired, but the plaintive white-boy soul of Chris Robinson's voice is compelling and enveloping. Tracks like the lovely heartsick ballad “Locust Street,” which sounds for all the world like a great lost Gram Parsons song, makes you wonder why rock bands don’t still write songs this mournful, emotional, and yet restrained. Rich Robinson’s guitar sound is vocal and expressive in a way that’s unfashionable, anachronistic and still moving. The lack of froofy artistry and self-conscious innovation is refreshing – they’re more craftsmen than auteurs. And yet, their arena rock never feels calculated or impersonal; despite their adherence to formula, nothing feels rote or tossed off. After all these years they still play it like they mean it, and that’s saying something.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hoots and Hellmouth: The Holy Open Secret

Who needs a drum kit? The Philadelphia rock/alt-country/gospel outfit Hoots and Hellmouth generally eschew any percussion that can’t be easily transported to the front porch, choosing washboards, tambourines, spoons and footstomps over the usual snare, bass and high hat, yet their sound is no less raucous or irresistibly danceable for the substitution.

Their second album, The Holy Open Secret, is a worthy follow-up to their barn-burning first record. Producer Bill Moriarty has become something of a local Phil Spector, svengali-like in his ability to steer acclaimed homegrown acts to the cusp of national attention. His records with groups like Man Man and Dr. Dog elevated them from the house party and church basement circuit to appearances on network television and reviews in Rolling Stone. In the process he’s developed an idiosyncratic Philadelphia indie rock sound, characterized by constantly shifting instrumental textures, rich harmonies and dense arrangements that somehow still sound chaotic and wild – complex houses of cards, always on the verge of glorious collapse.

Moriarty’s arrangements are a perfect fit for Hoots and Hellmouth’s odd hodgepodge of influences. Despite the tossed off hootenanny atmosphere they cultivate, their songcraft is extremely ambitious, almost schizophrenic in its breadth and reach. “What Good Are Plowshares if We Use Them Like Swords” is a hard, razor-edged Motown single, chugging along on a viciously simple and ominous guitar riff, before segueing into the laughing Tom Waits kitchen sink stomp of “The Family Band.” “You and All of Us” is a wonderful mess: imprecise harmonies, an impossibly catchy, almost rag-time guitar line, and drunken, woozy hollering. The songs come at you from twelve directions at once, and your defenses are useless. They win you over.

The album wrings a lot from the tension between the band’s two songwriters and vocalists, Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray. Hoots’ songs are generally the better ones. His melodies move in more unexpected directions -- the soulful gospel vibe and bluegrass rhythms seem to be his contribution. In comparison, the Hellmouth tracks -- mostly contemplative singer-songwriter ballads -- seem very routine and predictable. Still, with Hoots throwing such a wide variety of sounds into a blender and coldly snarling his way through oblique lyrics, there's something warm and personal about Hellmouth's delivery, his broad chords and dusty melodies, the creakily expansive, oaken timbre of his voice. Amidst all of Hoots' tight arrangements, falsettos, bible quotes and whiplash key changes, a well sung, simply stated lyric like "in this kitchen all I see are a thousand dishes and me" isn’t just prosaic -- it's intimate, familiar, true.

Gray doesn't possess even half of Hoots' impressive talent, but his well-worn folk holds an important place on the record. Without it, Hoots' hyperactive musical imagination and surplus of ideas might grow wearying, even unpleasant.

Hoots is the kite. Hellmouth is the string. The Holy Open Secret tugs you skyward.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ian Tyson: Yellowhead to Yellowstone

It's been an awfully long time since Ian Tyson, as one half of Ian and Sylvia, had a huge hit with the folk-rock ballad "Four Strong Winds." Soon Sylvia left, the record sales dropped, he bought a ranch in Alberta and soldiered on. Thirty five years and over a dozen albums in to his solo career, he releases his new Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories to little fanfare. His voice is muzzled, perpetually tormented by a catch hanging in the back of his throat. He sounds gravelly and raw to the point where you begin to worry about his health. Though there's no indication that Tyson is ill in any way, he sounds like Townes Van Zandt on Sanitarium Blues -- an unassuming country singer in his final days. There's nothing particularly impressive about the album, no pyrotechnics on display. The production is basic and workmanlike and sometimes overly slick. The lyrics aren’t full of wordplay or beautiful imagery. (Some of the lines, in fact, land with a clunk.) And yet somehow Tyson's harrowing, weathered voice and simple, sturdy sensibilities tie the whole thing together into much more than the sum of its parts. The songs are sentimental, but his voice is flinty and unflinching, haunted by ghosts and yet undistracted from the task at hand. It's an unassuming album in praise of unassuming virtues: devotion, resiliency, commitment, care. It's honest and defiant and lovely; it deserves more attention than it will receive.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Golem: Citizen Boris

It’s an increasingly familiar technique: take some traditional form of music, crank up the volume, season with snarling punk rock intensity. What the Pogues did with Celtic balladry, O'Death does with Appalachian hillbilly bluegrass, and Hank Williams III does with his grandfather's flinty country music, the Brooklyn-based group Golem does with that old-time Hebrew sound. To their credit, they stir up a considerably more jumbled concoction than the aforementioned bands. Incorporating Romany folk, accordion-driven klezmer songcraft, and bits of Russian dance-pop, they spit and belt their lyrics in a semi-coherent mix of Yiddish, English and various Slavic languages. (Lead singer Annette Ezekiel seems to be at least septa-lingual.) Their breakneck delivery ends up sounding less like Israel than New York City, or more specifically Brighton Beach -- an atavistic, self-segregated and yet diverse corner of the melting pot.

I've never seen Golem perform, but, based on their albums, I'd wager they put on a hell of a show. Their combination of manic wildness and instrumental density is compelling, and their Jewish/Euro-folk salad approach provides a wide enough variety of moves and textures to keep you guessing. Still, as with many of the bands that use the old folk/punk dialectic, they suffer from being pressed onto compact disc. While live performance favors musicianship, attitude and theatrics, records demand a level of songwriting that Golem can’t quite deliver.

Which is not to say that their new album, Citizen Boris, is entirely free of hummable tunes. “Train Across Ukraine” rides in on rolling drums and wonderfully discordant horns that summon up the chaos of an overcrowded immigrant train-car. “Zingarella,” the world’s most ominous and murderous wedding song, builds to a vicious climax and Aaron Diskin’s voice, sometimes gratingly histrionic, sounds howlingly desperate. There are some fairly half-hearted concept album trappings here about an Eastern European man journeying to the US, but the conceit never quite takes hold, and seems to be dropped halfway through the record. That, really, is indicative the album’s fundamental flaw: though there’s tremendous musicianship on display here, and many moments are joyful, funny and even glorious, in sum the thing feels a bit thrown together, unfinished, half-formed. And their new emphasis on English lyrics, probably intended to garner a wider audience, is ultimately a mistake – it draws attention to the weakness of those lyrics, and underlines what I’ll call the Borat Factor: a creeping feeling that this might all be some kind of condescending joke. (Are the accents fake? I can’t tell, but I’m suspicious that this be an American group doing a skit.) When a band names one of their albums Fresh Off Boat, it’s hard to feel that there’s not a wink lurking somewhere in the background.

They're at their best when they quit it with all the mugging, stop shoving their thick moustaches in your direction, and let their alternately thrilling, menacing and adrenal music carry them away. On the beguiling and lovely Yiddish/English ballad "Come to Me," vocalists Diskin and Ezekiel trade pick-up lines and rebuffs, propositioning one another and dancing off into a haze of shuffling drums and mysterious modal brass melodies. They can't resist carrying every idea to its logical conclusion, though, so they spoil the delicate sensuality and tension of the song by blanketing the ending with Birkin & Gainsbourg-style orgasmic squeals. It’s this relentless need to please, this urge to reach for the nearest punch-line, that likely makes them a riveting live act. It also, unfortunately, prevents Citizen Boris from being much more than a mediocre album.

Rating: 3.5/10

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rusty Truck: Luck's Changing Lanes

There are at least three very good reasons to hate Rusty Truck's album Luck's Changing Lanes without ever listening to it.

1. It's a vanity project from celebrity photographer Mark Seliger, a brazen attempt to cross the line between member of the media and actual celebrity.

2. It's studded with unearned guest appearances from icons like T Bone Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jakob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, Willie Nelson, Rob Thomas, and Gillian Welch. Any album with liner notes that read “Sheryl Crow: Accordion” is not one I’m particularly eager to listen to. It implies that showing off your famous buddies is more important than, you know, finding an actual accordion player. Also: Rob Thomas?

3. Finally, it's the "second album" from Rusty Truck despite containing almost the exact same material included on their debut, Broken Promises. A couple of new songs are tacked on, a bonus disc of music videos is thrown in, and viola! A sophomore album. The decision to repackage the same material under a new title is inexplicable at best, and cravenly calculating at worst. It's hard to think that Seliger's label Rykodisc isn't hoping get a few extra purchases from Rusty Truck fans who don't realize they're buying the same album for a second time.

With all of this weighing against it, I did my best to hate this album. I’m sorry to report that the album ain’t bad. It’s not exactly good either, and it nearly buckles under the weight of Mark Seliger’s Amazing Superfriends, but there’s a fair amount of pleasure to be taken in these melodic, unassuming country songs.

Seliger has a way with a vocal hook and a melancholic turn of phrase. It’s all simplistic, derivative in the extreme, but that somehow becomes a strength. A song like “Never Going Back,” driven by soft pedal-steel and high, lonesome vocals, feels both generic and eternal – it could as easily have been sung by Townes Van Zandt, Conway Twitty, or Garth Brooks. It’s a microcosm of the album as a whole: what it lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and familiarity.

Still, there’s a bizarre feeling of wealth and excess that’s entirely at odds with the mood of these songs. The sound is slick and crystal clear, when these songs would be better served by a sort of hazy back porch low fidelity. Seliger’s high and tuneful voice is rather thin, and producer Jakob Dylan overcompensates by repeatedly overdubbing the vocals, effectively thickening them up and stripping them of immediacy and personality.

And while most of the celebrity cameos are successfully subsumed into the album’s mood – Ms. Crowe, it turns out, plays a perfectly fine accordion – there is one disastrous misstep: on the lovely, heartsick ballad “A Thousand Kisses,” he attempts to duet with Willie Nelson. The moment when Seliger’s voice is replaced by Nelson’s effortlessly affecting twang and jazz-like phrasing, a shiver runs down your spine. And, if you have any taste at all, you suddenly wonder what you’re doing listening to this middle-of-the-road pablum when you could just dig out your copy of “Red Headed Stranger” and crank up the volume on the genuine article.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Today in Awesome, Terrifying Science

Have you ever looked at a cobra and thought, "Okay. I get it. You're creepy, slithery, have big-ass fangs, and your skin makes for some kickin' boots. But you, snake, are simply insufficiently giant-sized."

Well, Gentle Imaginary Reader, your prayers have been answered, presuming you either own a time machine or are reading this blog from the early Cenozoic era. Because scientists in Columbia have discovered the bones of a snake that weighs as much as a car.

Yes, at forty-two feet long and over a ton, the Titanoboa cerrejonensis (Latin for "super evil megasnake of bed-wettingly nightmarish proportions") makes an excellent pet for those of us who look at the Sphinx and see a potential housecat, or look at a beluga whale and see a nice midnight snack. The upside of all this is that we now know what became of the Mayor of Sunnydale.

Seriously, guys, this bastard is huge. Over a ton! A ton is two thousand pounds, which is many, many more pounds than usual for a snake. I bet even you don't weigh that much, Gentle Imaginary Reader, and everyone knows that you're really, really fat.

In conclusion, I want these motherfuckin' snakes out of my motherfuckin' prehistory.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gotta Jet

In the mood for a hilarious piece of hackery? Read William Garvey's spirited Op-Ed defense of corporate jets. Mom, apple pie, baseball, and frivolous corporate spending: the things that make America great.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Blackout Beach: Skin of Evil

Carey Mercer sure has a lot of bands. Frog Eyes; Blue Pine; Swan Lake (his supergroup with Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug, who each have many, many bands of their own); Blackout Beach -- it could be hard to keep track if it weren't for the uniquely odd, disjointed pop sensibility he brings to each of his records. Little shards of melody are jumbled, repeated, strung together, mixed around until they no longer resemble any familiar musical progression. He howls, whispers, thunders, rambles and mumbles, lending his experimental compositions the tone of a drugged-out conversation.

On his new release from his side project (or are they all side projects?) Blackout Beach, "Skin of Evil," Mercer finds a new restraint. His live shows are largely showcases for his massive voice, and he often steps away from the mic, filling the room with his booming, unamplified a capella baritone; but here he finds a quieter, more haunted mood, invoking the choked-out, swooning cabaret theatricality of a Nick Cave or a Scott Walker being strangled by a silk glove.

Though "Skin of Evil" might be called a concept album (or, at under 30 minutes, a concept EP) -- the record supposedly follows the story of a bewitching beauty named Donna, with one song devoted to each of the eight men she leaves in her wake -- the overwhelming feel of the record is atmospheric, not narrative. It's unusually minimal for Mercer, built around bare, echoing guitar chords that lean heavily on the flange pedal and a quietly ticking and whooshing drum machine. The rest is all eerie ornamentation: off-kilter harmonies, distant chords hammered out on a busted bar-room piano, a few washes of howling or buzzing synth.

It's not an easy listen -- Mercer's pop instincts are suppressed even more than usual, and he dials back the vocal pyrotechnics. No longer splitting the difference between opera singer and carnival barker, he comes off here as a sort of bipolar Springsteen on methadone -- strung out, worried, restless, anxious, fidgety, and desperate. And though the album does not exactly demand to be replayed, it does create a captivatingly grim world, somewhere between the Old Testament and a bleakly snow-gray cityscape. "Skin of Evil" is not unlike Mercer himself -- prickly, unfriendly, demanding, but fascinating and compelling just the same.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Brian Wilson: Lucky Old Sun

I, for one, have been enjoying the gradual breakdown of Brian Wilson’s voice. The pure, shimmering tenor of old has weathered and rusted into something more pedestrian. The incredible technical precision is gone, and his tone wobbles as he attempts to hold a high note. But there’s a new warmth and sadness, the kind that can only be attained with age. The almost child-like, innocent tone of his phrasing is the same, but it sounds sun-baked, leathered, faded. The same guy from Pet Sounds is in there somewhere, struggling to express himself through a half-busted larynx and somewhat addled mind. The effect is moving and heartbreaking.

Wilson’s recent song-cycle “Lucky Old Sun” leans heavily on that tension, looking backwards with an aching nostalgia. The album sounds like one long sigh, half joyful and blissed-out, half sorrowful and resigned. In one sense his new record continues the career renaissance that began with the near-perfect “SMiLE” from 2004. In another sense it feels overshadowed by its predecessor, self-consciously dressing up its lovely, simple songs in heavy orchestration and concept-album trappings that seem intended to validate the “genius” tag that’s been applied to Wilson since the mid-sixties. The music is continuous, one song flowing directly into the next or linked together by the album’s most heinous offense, cringe-inducing segments of spoken word poetry celebrating the history and culture of southern California. (No one, and especially not Brian Wilson, should be required to recite lines like “Venice Beach is poppin’, like live shrimp dropped on a hot wok,” and “I mean, are we not all actors, and the whole wide world our stage?”) Unlike “SMiLE,” which was modular, cyclical and deeply, deeply weird, “Lucky Old Sun” sounds like a handful of good-to-great songs haphazardly glued together in an attempt to create the impression of an experimental pop symphony.

His new DVD release of the same title bundles a live-in-the-studio performance of the album with a hackneyed, workmanlike making-of documentary that doubles as a lengthy commercial for Capitol Records. The only interesting moments are the glimpses of Wilson and company at work in the studio, but these segments are frustratingly few and brief. The rest is given over to dozens of talking heads rehashing the same old clichés about Wilson’s tortured genius and his music’s place in the culture, interrupted by pointless and portentous title cards outlining bits of Los Angeles history. Do we really need Billy Bob Thornton to tell us that Wilson’s albums made California sound like a fun place to be? Everyone who’s ever listened to the radio knows it already – but hey, I guess until Bad Santa says it it’s not really true.

The live performance, similarly, doesn’t offer much that couldn’t be heard on the original album. The studio setting is sterile and dull (and not improved by overcompensatingly frenetic camerawork), and Wilson's carefully orchestrated, dense compositions leave no room for improvisation. The only real visual dressings are incredibly cheesy animated/CGI sequences that accompany the terrible, humiliating, awful spoken-word segments, slavishly following the lyrics like a Youtube fan video. (The poem mentions an old beatnik sitting by the side of the road… hm, what image would go well with that? Ooh, I know, let's show an old beatnik sitting by the side of the road!)

Still, there’s a tremendous amount of pleasure to be taken in these songs. For every embarrassing misstep like “Mexican Girl” (“Te quiero muchacha – can’t you see that I want ya?”) there’s a masterful Beach Boys recreation like “Good Kind of Love” or a delightful Dixieland-meets-doo-wop experiment like “California Role.” The tone suddenly shifts on the final song, “Southern California,” a spare, mournful piano ballad that’s raggedly honest, nostalgic and yet powerfully alive. Though the album and DVD performance are both only half-successful experiments, there’s such sensuality, such creativity and elation on display here that we can be sure that “SMiLE” wasn’t a fluke; after years of frustration and banality, Wilson seems to have found his footing as a songwriter, arranger and performer. And though the DVD is almost the dictionary definition of inessential, I’d recommend it to any real Brian Wilson fan. For years we’ve been watching a beloved artist suffer through mental illness and creative drought, and there’s something in the empathy and openness of Wilson’s music that makes many us take his struggles personally. For those who’ve ached and rooted for him over the years, there’s something enormously powerful and redemptive in seeing him as the leader of a huge orchestra, delightedly perched behind his keyboard, joyfully pointing his finger and pumping his fists, rejuvenated, glorying in his position at the center of all this lush, jubilant noise.