Sunday, January 31, 2010

Birds & Batteries: Up to No Good

Birds & Batteries new EP Up to No Good is very seventies – not the familiar hemp-and-Zep era of revivalists like the Black Crowes and Kings of Leon, but the paranoid, coked-out decade of George Romero, Charles Manson and Travis Bickle. They marry jittery Funkadelic guitars to slick drum machine beats and jammy/experimental keyboard flourishes, then blend it all into some kind of ungodly apocalyptic disco. (Their touchstone is clearly Goblin, toward whose cheeseball soundtrack grandeur they aspire.)

The whole thing works better on paper than it does on the record. The EP is filled with some great bits and pieces – the gaspingly manic bass line of “Sneaky Times,” the chiming guitars that spiral down through “The Villain” – which don’t quite fit to form a compelling whole. If the album is a horror movie – which I think is what it wants to be – it’s a great setting, atmospheric cinematography, a few strong performances in search of story with some real scares.

The music is oversaturated and indulgent, though that's not really a criticism – they've clearly built an intentional aesthetic out of oversaturated indulgence. The problem, in fact, is that it’s not indulgent enough – they feel like they're holding back. Cracked-out stuff like this needs to be committed, the teeth need to grind and the pulse needs to jump. There's a slick detachment in the vocals that's probably supposed to be coldly ominous, but it's mostly just boring.

The kiss of death, in other words, and the reason the album doesn’t work for me is this: these guys sound sober.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Susan Boyle: I Dreamed a Dream

It's not so bad, really. Her voice is fairly pretty. The songs are mostly classics. The arrangements don’t drown everything in Splenda. It's not much -- it's a trifle. It is eminently listenable.

None of that can explain the following: Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream was the best-selling album of 2009, and the best-selling debut for a female artist. Ever.

That is, in and of itself, far more interesting than any of the actual music. The album's just a showcase for Ms. Boyle's vocals, which are certainly nice, and surprisingly versatile, if a little dry and fluttery for my tastes. Bur I can't bring myself to believe that this pedestrian voice has sold over three million albums. It seems much more likely -- obvious, even -- that this is more about context than content. Ms. Boyle owes her astonishing success to one legendary viral video. (The album, hilariously, features an "as seen on YOUTUBE!" sticker.)

I hate to be ungentlemanly or crude, but a zeitgeist-defining rush of money and fame like this demands honest evaluation; Susan Boyle has gone multi-platinum thanks to her ugliness. It’s not extraordinary ugliness, just good old-fashioned fifty-something-lady-you-see-at-the-laundromat frump, but by the standards of the music industry that makes her some kind of loathsome, hunchbacked ogre. Like a funhouse-mirror reflection of a traditional pop star, she owes her success not to her talent but to her looks.

Ms. Boyle is the ultimate exemplar of a celebrity culture flipped all topsy-turvy. Long gone are the days of Joe DiMaggio and Elvis and Grace Kelly, great Olympian stars worshipped for their beauty and grace and talent, shrouded in secrecy, far removed from the unwashed rabble below, their feet never touching the base clay. Instead we read articles on TMZ about the size of Tiger Woods’ penis and the chemical contents of Anna Nicole’s corpse. Our stars live in the particle accelerator of the paparazzi panopticon. We watch and cheer as the temple burns. And from the smoldering ash rises Susan Boyle.

In our increasingly narcissistic modern age we have become very sensitive to being out-classed. Boyle is a star with whom we can be comfortable; she won’t make us feel self-conscious about our less-than-flat tummies and unfortunate body hair. And the fact that she’s a good-not-great singer might actually add to her appeal – her singing is strong enough to be pleasing, but not so powerful or skillful that it distracts from the true drama being played out here: the Ugly Duckling story.

It’s an inspirational narrative we’ve so internalized that it almost comes pre-packaged. Watch Ms. Boyle’s YouTube debut carefully. She’s openly mocked by the crowd and the judges, clearly humiliated. But she’s barely two notes into “I Dreamed a Dream” when the palpable disdain turns into rapturous applause. The company line is that she won the audience over with her astonishing talent, but it takes more than a few milliseconds to be moved by a song, or even to know if the singer is any good. Boyle exceeded condescendingly low expectations. Make no mistake, the crowd was applauding the fact that the fat chick managed to start off on-key.

The deification of Susan Boyle has almost nothing to do with Susan Boyle, and everything to do with a culture so childishly eager to believe in miracles that it doesn’t require that they actually be miraculous. We just want to see one of us – the sweaty, schlumpy throng – raised up and covered with garland, and Boyle is half-way talented enough to fill that need. Of course, the irony is that she’s no longer one of us: now she’s a multimillionaire pop star, whose next effort will more than likely be greeted by a great collective yawn.

I Dreamed a Dream finds Ms. Boyle casting about for some kind of musical identity. Is she the husky-voiced, regretful chanteuse of "Cry Me a River?" The fresh-faced, pure-hearted choir girl of "How Great Thou Art?" The operatic Broadway ham of the title track? No, no and no. But that’s okay; we don’t want her to forge an artistic identity. We won’t even let her be Susan Boyle, whoever that actually is. She’s a totem; a patsy; a mirror.

She’s the quintessence of modern celebrity: for better of for worse, Susan Boyle is you and me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Big Eyes Family Players: Warm Room

Warm Room begins with a loose harmony of strings, violins and cellos, as picturesquely ominous as a deep forest on a winter night. Before long the lovely, fluttering melodies are overwhelmed, almost subsumed by a loud, atonal bass drone. The prettiness is in the background -- the centerpiece of the song is that bass note, a changeless hum that forces you to struggle to make out the fragile prettiness underneath.

That's the tension that makes The Big Eyes Family Players so interesting: the graceful richness of classical composition and the haunted simplicity of folk music rub uncomfortably against their avant-garde tendencies, their resistance to melodic resolution, their urge towards oddness and difficulty. They bury their best melodies deep in the mix, under hypnotic cracked harmonies and restless, knotty discord.

It’s an interesting and unusual technique, and it makes for some spectrally memorable moments, as when anxious drums ascend the chiming, sitar-like guitar scaffold of "A Lick and a Promise," or when frozen triplets from a distant piano ring through the cavernous “Woodenwheel.” Ultimately, though, I’m not quite sure what this music is for – it’s too odd and dissonant to sound good in the background, but it’s too simple and repetitive to reward careful listening. More than anything it sounds like the score for a very strange movie, something fantastical and discomfiting, maybe by Jan Svankmajer, or Guillermo Del Toro in a languorously stoned mood. Maybe, in fact, the best use of the record is as something to fall asleep to, an eerie adult lullaby; despite all of its experimentation the record is quite soothing, and its lush empty spaces seem to invite visions and dreams at once uncanny, grotesque and beautiful.