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 clich├ęd, 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?