Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Matt Pond PA: The Dark Leaves

Oh, competence! Sweet, dull, well-meaning competence -- you are Matt Pond's greatest virtue and you are the noose around his neck. Look what you have made of this man with a fine melodic ear and an admirable work ethic: you have rendered him catatonic. His pleasant, well-executed milquetoaste yup-folk can barely summon the energy to penetrate the stereo's speakers. Competence, your flawlessly inoffensive siren song has turned a human into a bran muffin.

Matt Pond PA will drive you to the airport. It will loan you twenty bucks when you're down on your luck. It will let you borrow its books and never bug you about returning them. But when you've got a good bottle pf whiskey and a long Friday night stretching out in front of you, it's not the band you call, unless you're looking for a designated driver.

Which is weird, because his new record The Dark Leaves is clearly supposed to be a cigarettes-and-Jack-Daniels kind of thing. From the eerily distorted pastoral scene on the cover to the darker lyrical content and the high school-level poetry in the press kit (in order to make this album Pond apparently "hacked off a piece of his own fate," whatever that means), it seems this album is supposed to be Pond's harrowing dark-night-of-the-soul Nick Drake moment. Instead, it's pretty much more of the same lush, tour-ready indie rock tunes that MPPA has been trafficking since they actually lived in PA.

That's not bad thing, exactly -- despite the almost toxic level of snark in the preceding paragraphs, I think Pond does what he does fairly well, and his work is just as good as or better than that of more famous analogues like Pete Yorn, Sondre Lerche and Badly Drawn Boy. He can construct a catchy mid-tempo shuffle better than most, and his simple pop melodies have an easy momentum buoying them. At his best he blends melancholy folk-rock with infectious, polished pop, as in the catchy opener “Starting.” "Specks" is a bright and hopeful love song with a melody so warm and sweet and pleasant that you want to take it home to meet your parents. "Sparrows" is driven by a jangling chord progression and shambolic tambourine, a chiming guitar solo, a memorably simple sing-along chorus, and a lot of sha-la-las. It's as unassuming as a song can get, and it's the most appealing thing on the record. There’s good stuff buried here and there among the dross, and more than one of these melodies might get stuck in your head.

But even the songs I’ve just praised feel somehow blank and flat. Pond’s strength is also his weakness. One one hand, he clings stubbornly to his radio-ready songwriting chops, unable to lay down his skills for even a moment, to let things bleed and seethe. On the other, he’s too melancholic and disaffected to embrace the transcendent possibilities of empty pop.

The real problem is that The Dark Leaves is a half-measure. Everything on it is somewhere in between. After all these albums, Pond still can’t decide what he wants to be – hell, he’s still got “PA” is in his name despite moving to Brooklyn. He ought to drop the love-sick poses or lose the studio sheen. Strip naked or cinch up his tie. Weep or exult rather than plod tunefully through mid-tempo expressions of his indecision. Anything else is unworthy of our time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Literal Eclipse of the Heart

Warning: this level of hilarity is not for those of weak constitution.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Richie Lawrence: Melancholy Waltz

The songwriter and pianist Richie Lawrence is no newcomer to making records. He’s been sporadically employed as a sideman and session player since the late seventies, with mainstreams groups like the Tim Goodman Band and obscure acts like the theatrical polka act Rotondi. Now he strikes out on his own for the first time with Melancholy Waltz, a mellow singer-songwriter record, and the results are mixed.

His vocals make it immediately clear why he’s never tried to make it as a solo artist before. His voice is flat and dull, and the big, open notes he favors always seem slightly off key. He seems to know this, though, and compensates accordingly – nearly half the tracks are instrumentals, and he doesn’t challenge his vocal chords with tricky melodies or large intervals. This is very much an album by a pianist who happens to do a little singing and accordion playing.

It's hard to think of an album with a warmer, richer piano sound -- put on headphones and it begins to feel as though you're curled up inside the belly of that centenarian baby grand. His voice is too flat and dull to carry the singer-songwriter material, but there's a generosity of spirit in these creaky songs, and no lack of love lavished on the instrumental tones, the plaintive wheeze of the accordion, the easy leaning on weathered, sturdy old melodies. To his credit, he doesn't rely too heavily on his weak vocals, letting the Steinway do most of the talking in its fluent, graceful baritone. His playing is loose and wry, virtuosic but never boastful. The production is crisp and clear, but the songs are barrel-aged and smoky.

It's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination -- it's too predictable and pedestrian for that. But there is something here -- a deeply personal statement of melancholy serenity from a figure who's spent three decades lost on the backstreets and byways of the music industry. Now he's taking his turn in the spotlight, and even if he never quite seems like he belongs there, he stands in it bravely, offering up his unadorned voice and sweetly unpoetic lyrics, his elegant playing and his battered yearnings. Melancholy Waltz is not a particularly great album, but it is a particularly truthful one. And, listening to it now as I watch Philadelphia slowly disappear under a heavy blanket of snow, that seems like more than enough.

Monday, February 8, 2010

In Defense of Jennifer's Body

There's a place in cinema for the shameless roar of the crowd. The vengeful animus that motivates the characters in Inglorious Basterds is the rage born of a complicated, contingent existence shattered by unthinking violence. However, the movie self-consciously avoids engaging the interiority of the characters it presents, presenting them as cut-outs enacting the righteous judgment the Nazis so clearly deserve. (They're Jews, they hate Nazis. The end.) In that, it mirrors the process it depicts.

Jennifer's Body attempts a similar stunt. Like the Basterds, Jennifer has a perfunctory history, but remains a blank slate who isn't so much presented to as inflicted on the audience. And like the Basterds, Jennifer represents a revolt: a fantasy in which the powerless wield the very characteristic that makes the powerless against their oppressors.*

The feminine self as subject is more or less taboo in Hollywood. Women tend to be objects: foils or conquests, always occupying a position of dramatic subservience to men. When they are subjects, the roles fall within a safe rom-com definition of womanhood: marriage, fidelity, motherhood. Female characters that stray outside those boundaries are be demonized within the context of the film. Diablo Cody takes that trope to its absurd conclusion, offering us a female character who is hyper-sexual precisely because she's been turned into a demon. (The how and why of that development is the film's one moment of in-your-face self-awareness.) Notably, Jennifer is also a literal maneater--the male characters barely have time to wriggle out of their skinny jeans before she's chewing off their penis.

There's something refreshing in the lack of pretense.

Put another way, Juno--Diablo Cody's first movie--was erected atop an edifice of bullshit far more tortured than the one underlying Jennifer's Body. The main difference between the two is that Juno taps into our retrospective need to see our teenage selves as more aware, witty and hip than history might indicate. With its leaden dialogue, awkward sexuality, and petty drama, Jennifer's Body approaches the reality of adolescence far more accurately, and is arguably a worse movie because of it. If Juno is a paen to who we wanted to be in high school, Jennifer's Body is who we were.

*A point of clarification: this is not an attempt to draw an equivalence between "female roles in movies" and "Jews during the Holocaust." Rather, the point I'm trying to get at is that both movies trade in ill-defined characters whose main draw seems to be that they are powerful in the narrative in a way that is/was at odds with reality.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rush: Working Men

Rush’s new Working Men is a really odd package – live albums are basically Greatest-Hits-Plus-Crowd-Noise already, and this live album is made of tracks culled from three previous live DVDs and albums, which I guess makes it a Greatest Greatest Hits DVD. Sure, there’s a previously unreleased track (“One Little Victory”), but that’s just another version of a song that’s been on multiple previous live records, and it’s almost indistinguishable from the existing versions. This is back-catalogue flogging and repackaging hoodoo of the highest order.

So who is this album for? Is it a primer for potential Rush fans, listeners who don’t want to leap headfirst into the thick of one of the other live albums, which are all two or three discs long? Is it meant to be a gift from bald-spot-and-ponytail uncles to their metalheaded nephews? That’s certainly the charitable view – the only other demographic I can think of is the small cult so slavishly devoted to Rush that they’ll buy a whole album just because it has a previously unreleased live version of a song they’ve already heard a million times, and marketing to those helpless completists seems almost like taking advantage of the mentally ill. Anyone who likes Rush probably has all these songs already. Anyone who doesn’t like Rush is probably not in the market for Rush products. This DVD could evaporate into thin air and nobody would care but a handful of crazy people.

Should I review the music? I’m tempted not to – it seems like that would be playing right into Atlantic Records’ moneygrubbing hands. Because, yeah, it’s Rush, the most committed power trio since Cream, and they sound pretty damn good, more or less just like they always did. Geddy Lee’s epic howling-chipmunk vocals are entirely undimmed by age, and the many close-ups on Alex Lifeson’s flurrying fingers show that his chops are sharper than ever. Rush are probably the catchiest, most radio-ready prog-rock band there ever was, and working the same style for three decades doesn’t seem to have diminished their joy or enthusiasm at all. There’s a cornily delightful visual appeal to the performance, and the arena-rock trappings – flashing strobe lights, smoke machines, lasers, moving video screens, Neil Peart’s nine-billion-piece drum kit – are at hilarious odds with the three aging music nerds in the middle, cranking up their gloriously precise din. But that’s always been part of Rush’s appeal – watching three nebbishy guys conquer the world with soaring math-rock. Thus, we have the fan-service instrumental close-ups, which are far more worthwhile and impressive than the same shots in concert footage of less virtuosic bands. It’s all in good fun.

There – Atlantic got me. I said a bunch of fairly nice things about this bald-faced cash-grab of a disc. But reader, don’t buy it. Save your money for the stuff Rush puts out on Roadrunner, their new label. If you simply must have it, I might suggest that there are, ahem, cost-free ways of obtaining the contents. If you spend money on this thing, you’re only encouraging the bastards and the bean-counters.