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