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 clich├ęs 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.