Matt Medlock



...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - The Century of Self Review

Approach to a new Trail of Dead record requires a certain amount of skepticism now. The terrible blow of disappointment that greeted 2005's Worlds Apart can't accurately be described. It shouldn't have been so shocking; after all, they mix it up in a way that offers very little middle ground. They rarely tiptoe into a pool but choose instead to dive in headfirst, not even bothering to look down and make sure there's water in it first. They should be applauded for such grand ambition, but that doesn't necessarily mean the returns are worthy of encores. As good as Source Tags & Codes was is approximately how bad So Divided was. So while they've already left a legacy that contains one more great album than most other bands could ever hope for, it's not easy to forgive their epic failures. Otherwise we'd look favorably on bands like Korn for their brief shining moments floating in a sea of crap.

But no one would compare AYWKUBTTOD to Korn. One is content to carry on meekly, limping ahead towards the destination of complete irrelevancy, while the other tries, really tries, dammit. No matter what you thought of past efforts, you can't fault them for not giving it their all. With Century of Self, they're freed from the big label pressure and have slipped out of their studio skin. Instead of relying on mechanical piecing and overdubs, they just play their songs live. It sounds that way, too. They've lost none of their volume or bombast, but they're clearly more interested in being a less unwieldy Dream Theater than a chop-cut pressing from a pack of electro-rock Meatloafs.

Opening with the apocalyptic rumble and grandiose synths of “Giants Causeway,” you can tell that they're no longer trying to form fit and polish their output anymore (the fault of Interscope or Conrad Keely's inflated self-importance?). Following that is “Far Pavilions,” which plugs the shattered steel wool punk coat of My Vitriol into an arrangement that tends towards arena-friendly prog-metal. To little astonishment, when it's wheezing like 80s Pink Floyd it drags, but so long as the vocals flatten us with velocity and volume, the rawk squawk surges into your chest. But on “Bells of Creation,” Keely can't figure out whether he wants to imitate Perry Farrell or Dennis DeYoung, so he sort of does both; luckily, the bordering-on-traditional chiming rock arrangement works.

Back-to-back six-and-a-half minute epics “Isis Unveiled” and “Halcyon Days” are tumescent firework displays, freed not merely of limitations but also of logic. Gargantuan doesn't begin to describe them; they each contain entire album's worth of crescendos and moneyshots. It might be unfair to say that if Michael Bay was a songwriter he'd come up with these dinosaurs, but it's fitting with his adoration of bigger-is-better and nothing-small-shall-ever-clutter-my-path mentality. Luckily, there are (brief) moments of clarity where we can catch our breath—minus the doomful pound, the center of “Isis” wisps along and there's an odd ethereal flutter dug out in the middle of “Halcyon.” But they're not without truly stirring moments. The last minute-and-a-half of “Isis” should come with a hundred foot flame column and the centerpiece of “Halcyon” sounds like the Sistine Chapel had a soundtrack (if God was wearing a faded Rush tee).

Elsewhere, “Luna Park” wants to get the crowd to lift up their lighters, but it gets pretty exhausting before reaching the feverish climax. “Pictures of an Only Child” sounds like a more artful cover of any generic modern rock power ballad. “An August Theme” is a serviceable segue, but since it's one of the more interesting segments in the second half, it needs to last more than a minute to wind up being worthwhile. The second half of closer, “Insatiable (Two),” is bigger than the piano ruckus that preceded it, but it still ends the album on more whimper than roar.

Sequencing is certainly questionable. The first half is dominated by rock songs so behemoth that they laugh at Chinese Democracy for being so modest and the second side has a lot of drippy, widescreen ballads. They don't become predictable with this separation, necessarily, but there's no doubt that mixing them up would aid the momentum. Plus, they're clearly in better control of a piano line when it's wading through an ocean of guitar pedals and piston-heavy percussion than when its bathed solely in soft blue light. To witness how much muscle they can summon, look towards the album's end. “Ascending”'s explosive opening is much more effective just because it follows the sluggish piano shortie, “Insatiable (One).”

I expect this to be ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's most hotly debated album yet. I imagine there are plenty who'll anoint this the favorite for album of the year consideration while others will still mope that it can't touch Source Tags. I float somewhere in the middle. No, it's not nearly as good as their 2002 opus, but I don't consider that to be a failing of this album; it's clearly from the same band, but no one could consider most of these songs to be arty experimental punk anymore. And it's certainly not a great album, even if a few individual moments approach such flowery acclaim. The best way to tell if you'll enjoy this effort is to ask yourself how well you can tolerate the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. If you haven't fled the room, check it out.

Feb
19
2009

Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You Review

Sadly, promises aren't always kept. What Lily Allen gave us two years back wasn't particularly noteworthy, but it was still promising. We could forgive her the faults because she was young and inexperienced. Even now at twenty-three, we can't really expect a wealth of insight and intrigue from her. But the hype's gotta go somewhere, and considering how dismissive she is of her own value (and an interest in even continuing the charade of songstress), maybe she needs to take some time off to reflect. Alright, Still didn't deliver the goods, but we still saw the spark, and it had its share of fine moments to make the uneven creation palatable. But the fact that, of late, her press quotes garner more attention than her music should have warned us that maybe her droll candidness was one of the few things she actually had to offer.


It's not fair to blame her for being overly naïve, but there's a place for innocence in music that she's not filling. It's Not Me, It's You isn't a big statement record by any means, but she does tackle enough unrelated topics to suggest that she's aspiring for more gravity than is usually afforded a young pop darling. I don't know if she seeks the offstage spotlight, but she's two (hundred) bad choices from becoming another Amy Winehouse. But being a tabloid fixture doesn't negate talent, and she has a nice enough voice and worked among a modestly successful staff of soundmakers, but maturation was greatly needed to fill in the void between the glib and the bland. In other words, for every zinger she summoned in the studio, a groaner was right around the corner.


If Allen indulges in too many acknowledgements to the fast life, you can't scorn her for her love of a good time. But transforming these experiences into seriocomic meditations don't exist; at times, she's just as vapid as the trash we Americans are inexplicably obsessed with. During first single, “The Fear,” she sardonically describes life as getting out of control, as if she's fed up with materialism and one-too-many-flashbulbs in her grill, but they're artless ruminations. No matter how tongue-in-cheek she's trying to be with, “But it doesn't matter 'cause I'm packing plastic/And that's what makes my life so fucking fantastic,” there's no wry response to this self-conscious pose-and-strut mimicry. If she's speaking as the narrator (which may be true considering some of her off-hand comments fervently recorded by the gossip rags), she only seems more hopeless to be taking note of it and offering nothing than a flashy pop song to give self-effacing credence to such rumors. Otherwise, she just sounds like any number of spoiled celebutantes “wanting” help so long as they can sleep in on the check-in morning after partying at some club until 5 am.


Her curiosity about the ugliness of such scenes (and the drug culture in general) is blunted by 9th grade prose. At one point during “Everyone's At It,” she actually asks, “Now how can we start to tackle the problem if you don't put your hands up and admit you're on it?” Could it be forgiven in favor of an infectious melody? Not when the track's liquid synths rest against the monolithic ones the Killers fell in love with. Competing against each other might have bolstered each other, but without a seamless transition, they're a pair of limp hooks instead of one memorable one. The shiny grooves don't improve elsewhere. “Never Gonna Happen”'s verses are detached Europop chill but the song erupts at the refrain into a circus siren with ABBA as ringleader. Even the mostly respectable freedom-of-a-breakup track, “I Could Say,” begins like a ballad-in-the-wings before bursting with club-friendly glitter; at least it finds Allen being sincere.


“Not Fair” rides on a galloping country-western pastiche (halfway between John Ford and Rawhide) sparkled with slick big city wealth. A saloon piano later appears on “22,” but serving as the bridge between the pouncing pop segments makes it stand out for all the wrong reasons. But these Wild West inspirations are wasted on what Allen's up to; the former finds her moping about her wonderful young guy who lacks stamina in bed and the latter mourns the poor aging woman sick of one night stands, desperate for a steady. Complications that ring of modern day superficiality reacts poorly to the dusty twang no matter how much its leavened by a squishy production scrub.


I'll always support a song that bends Bush over a proverbial knee, but the lyricism of “Fuck You” is unimaginative. “So you say it's not okay to be gay/Well I think you're just evil/You're just some racist who can't tie my laces/Your point of view is medieval.” Cheers to the sentiment, but that's all the insight offered? Still, it's worth it just to hear the hilarious chorus that features a sweetly peppy delivery of, “Fuck you! Fuck you very very much.” The second run through of that refrain expands, allowing for repeats of the kiss-off in an even squeakier voice, somewhere between Alvin and a Powerpuff Girl. Kiddie keys plink out the melody in a way that forces it into the novelty bin; after all, it's certainly not a children's song. That such a bizarre misstep winds up as one of the album's most memorable moments simply because of its too-ridiculous-to-believe audaciousness is depressing.


Who'd Have Known” is better, with Zero 7-style airiness curdling into bubbly pop when she picks up her voice from the floor. Her typical snarkiness even evaporates to make room for youthful optimism. She needn't always wear the costume of the lovelorn maiden but it's a more appropriate mood to evoke than creased sarcasm—the music needs more bite to sell a tart smirk. And “Back to the Start” is deliriously goofy fun so long as you don't bother listening close; think Garbage's happier pop on speed. It helps that the choruses fly by so breathlessly that you can't understand all of what she's singing. Unfortunately the slowed-down bridge is painful: “This is not just a song/I intend to put these words into action/I hope that it sums up the way that I feel to your satisfaction.”


The lowpoint belongs to “Him,” which again takes a meaty topic worthy of discussion (God witnessing what has become of mankind) but is executed with zero insight and even less subtlety. Among the hideously limp lines are, “Do you think his favorite type of human is Caucasian?/Do you reckon he's ever been done for tax evasion?” and, “I don't imagine he's ever been suicidal/His favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival.” Ouch.


If Allen is indeed “defining the times” (as more than one has suggested), I suppose it's fitting. In a culture obsessed with celebrity gossip mags, reality TV and “bummed-out rich kids” cable dramas, Allen's rote lyricism and producer Greg Kurstin's overprocessed electropop fit the mold. But you know she's not one of them, at least not in spirit. Just as she's a few bad choices from the Britney cellar, she's also a few good ones from ingénue integrity. Talking about recording this album, she said: “Greg builds the chords up and I just sing along and make up the words.” Yeah, I think I see the problem with this process. No matter the admissions of naïvety, I'm convinced she can, too. 

Feb
18
2009

A Quick Glance at Upcoming Music Releases

It's a lot harder to find information about upcoming music than it is for movies. Most of what music fans have to go on comes from press releases, leaked songs and the rarely reliable rumor bin, but it requires an enormous effort to keep movie details under wraps. So while most movie buffs can tell you about a dozen or more films scheduled to open a year from now, virtually all studio sessions are subject to enormous variations and tons of TBAs (album name, tracklist, producers/guests, release dates, etc.). But the next couple of months will see some potentially great ones ready to land, so here's a look ahead at some hotly anticipated upcoming releases. Of course, release dates are occasionally prone to change, but as of now, here's how they stand:

Feb
17
2009
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Heartless Bastards - The Mountain Review

Best known for their ragged blues rock sound, Heartless Bastards manage a difficult feat on their third full-length, The Mountain. They change their base of operations, perform an overhaul on their sound and rub sandpaper across their noisy friction without abandoning their revivalism identity...and distance themselves even further from what is accepted on national radio. This isn't a play for corporate acceptance or cashing in for exposure. It's the result of a band in transition—different lineup and location. They may not seek to reinvent the wheel, but they're loosening up their grasp and wandering down different avenues with cocksure pride. Their garage roots have thinned out now: more often than not they sound like the Band or My Morning Jacket, not the Kinks or Kills. Now they're an eclectic rock band that remains a stripped down power trio but with a much broader sound to enhance their reputation (they even find room for steel pedal, mandolin and more) .

But it's also not an entirely successful move. I don't mind the new polish—a few tracks wouldn't work as well with all the grit and gristle attached. The tragedy is that focusing fodder meant for extended jams makes things either sound mechanically plotted or dreadfully slow. In the case of The Mountain, the tempo is frequently moody and pensive, which can read at times as plodding and lugubrious. “Hold Your Head High” moves like a sickly elephant and saps away the energy that had built up before it. “Nothing Seems the Same” begins and ends with a lot of percussive fire—Dave Colvin's rattling hi-hats and crash cymbals navigating between the toms that get thwacked as if John Bonham's spirit wandered into the studio. In the middle, the pace picks up but fizzles just as fast. The stretches between these peaks lumber and drone turgidly—this song isn't a mountain, it's an entire range of peaks and valleys.

Some blame could certainly be issued against the title track, which opens up the album and sets the bar unfairly high. The guitar might as well belong to Neil Young, and the rest of the instruments feel plugged in by Crazy Horse refugees. It even sounds like it could have fit into Rust Never Sleeps; good enough, in fact, to stand alongside great ones like “Thrasher” and “Sedan Delivery.” That a power trio could make such a full band sound is mightily impressive. And with its searing psychedelic slopes and crackling thunder tops, it earns its name and can't possibly crumble beneath the weight. This one glares at the remaining monolithic jams and sneers at them for being so feckless.

But The Mountain isn't just a big heavy-blues-rock record, nor does Heartless Bastards plumb the same sources ad nauseum (like Wolfmother did with Zeppelin and Sabbath). There's as much gentle whisper as incendiary roar here. While they dabbled at times with folk inspiration in the past, they push the boundaries into that region with some frequency now. “So Quiet” is a quaint folk waltz and “Had to Go” adds bluegrass banjo twang and dusty fiddles to those dreamy qualities. They're awfully delicate and spare to compete with the band's biggest draw—Erika Wennerstrom's voice. She has a Rita Coolidge meets PJ Harvey vibe going for her, and she's always most electrifying when she lets those pipes steam and wail at full force. So even when she brings it back to earth for the woodsy endeavors, it's still too demonstrative to rest easily with the mountain cabin folk rock. But when the instruments are alone during a lengthy flight, the song excels. At seven-and-a-half minutes, “Had to Go” is the longest track on here, but the jaunty banjo and fiddle add eccentric new tangled notes repeatedly during the drawn out second half; far bolder and more enriched than a lot of their earlier heavy dirges.

Elsewhere, “Be So Happy” is a sparse, mid-tempo acoustic number that gives us a breath following the enormous opener. The lyrics are likably simple, hearkening to the days of bearded pros drinking from jugs and venturing into the forest without sharing the typical hippie ideals. Wennerstrom sells every moment: “I could be so sweet if I just quit being so sour...I'm gonna see what tomorrow brings/I'm gonna take it to the world outside...Oh, I'm longing to be/Out in the sweet unknown.” “Out at Sea” is a tough rocker that sounds like it could have fit in on a Sleater-Kinney or Breeders record; one of the few efforts that feels leftover from their more garage-and-punk-blues roots. “Early in the Morning” is also quick and confrontational, sizzling long enough so when it calms down and lets Wennerstrom drawl, “I am on my own, am on my own,” you know the bridge until the next savage moment will be compelling. And closer “Sway” ups the tempo from earlier long rockers by a single beat—and feels shorter by half despite closing in on six minutes.

Despite the evidence of the bookend tracks, Heartless Bastards are better off shitkicking through the heavier moments and breaking them up with their impeccably arranged acoustic numbers. If they can figure out a way to make the spaces in the heavier material breathe without wheezing, they could be a truly complete package. But until then, they're missing a key ingredient to how they want to write songs. Despite the trouble spots, The Mountain is a worthwhile effort, but revisiting stale material keeps it from becoming essential. Luckily, we live in the digital age and you can edit without compunction. After that, it'll be as towering and imposing as its name suggests.

Feb
15
2009

A Differing Perspective on the Grammys

thomOur reliable music editor, Tyler Barlass, summed up the 51st Grammys yesterday. Here's his take on the show. But what I found odd was that while I agreed with most of his opinions in some way, my overall view on the night's telecast was quite different. So I offer a differing perspective on music's “biggest night.”

Feb
10
2009
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Oscar's Biggest Blunders

oscaroopsAs we creep closer to the 2009 Academy Awards, prognosticators look back as much as forward to try and determine who the favorites will be. By looking back, I mean to suggest that past Academy choices perhaps unfairly paint them in a certain light, and support the group's predictability and oft-whispered bias. For instance, feel good films generally trump depressors. Oscar loves a comeback story almost as much as they love to reward seasoned veterans with lead acting awards and fresh faces in the supporting roles (particularly supporting actress). And despite a requisite surprise or two every year, they mostly play it safe. Usually painfully boringly safe. That, and the fact they get it wrong more often than they get it right. So I present a glance at the ten most egregiously shortsighted Oscars ever given.

Feb
07
2009
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The Von Bondies - Love, Hate and Then There's You Review

Sometimes getting dumped is just what you need. Not necessarily in terms of a romantic relationship, but more specifically, being dropped from a label. Almost always the result of dwindling sales/interest or album procrastination, the release of the Von Bondies from Warner's roster signaled a potential band collapse. As of now, it's been nearly five years since their last full-length and even longer since that famous Jack White/Jason Stollsteimer scrap. So there was more than enough time for Stollsteimer and his mates to collect their thoughts and put an “A” effort into their third disc. Unfortunately, in that same time span, what's been the vogue has changed rather jarringly, and the garage power pop revival is no longer in full swing. But no matter: 2004's Pawn Shoppe Heart was a closer cousin to the Cult and a constrained Gun Club than the Strokes and White Stripes. And even though what's “in” matters nothing for a record's quality, nor does a stylistic retreat signal an absence of ideas or confidence, Love, Hate and Then There's You doesn't suggest that getting the axe from the big leagues is inspiring a more unique and dangerous voice.

I doubt I'm going out on a limb by suggesting that co-producer Butch Walker was as much in charge with the band's new sound as anyone else. The temptation to recruit a man responsible for keeping unimpressive acts like Simple Plan, Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne on the radio must have been tough to resist. After all, we all know what it's like after getting dumped. Wouldn't the best revenge be for you to become bigger after the split than you ever in your ex's company? But a quick glance at Walker's résumé let's you know what sacrifices you're going to have to make. Actually, the more you think about it, it's quite a miracle they ended up with a halfway decent album at all.

And make no mistake about it—Walker's fingerprints are all over this one. But just because it shines like something fresh off a manufacturing press doesn't necessarily mean that it should be tossed right into the garbage bin. It begins pretty well with a hollow drum echo and a standard nu-wave angular guitar jive, leading to the flag-waving chorus of “This Is Our Perfect Crime.” But it offers absolutely no surprises, from the automated lockstep click between verse and refrain, the entirely-too-clean and predictable bridge and the anthemic cry, “We are the spark/We are the grit...We are the underground.” Even as I figuratively opened up my chest and saw their fingers playing my keys for all they were worth, the urge to cheerfully sing along wormed its way up to my throat. If the lyrics hadn't been so boring, I might have even willingly succumbed.


Glowering and yowling his way through most of these tunes, Stollsteimer doesn't seem to be listening to how the rest of Von Bondies are playing. “21st Birthday” sounds like a Cheap Trick knock-off with equal parts fizz and fuzz, but ol' Jason is too preoccupied sneering into the mic and declaring, “Never gonna live to see your 21st birthday/Never gonna have to see her pretty face again.” “Chancer” has one of more interesting musical arsenals on the album, featuring complicated and speedy skin pounding from drummer Don Blum, but the words couldn't be more generic if it was written by Diane freakin' Warren. Bassist Leann Banks joins in the fun by half-heartedly shouting, “Hey now, hey now, take it to the other side”; Stollsteimer answers with, “You don't look so cool but you look so alive.” Based on the lyrics, I wonder if Jack White's fists did more than just surface damage to the Bondies' frontman. Even when the music becomes urgent in performance, they just sound like a lot of other bands charging through similar material. The quick rocker “She's Dead to Me” leaps out of the gate with undisciplined swagger (before wheezing through the next minute), but the Nirvana riff intro is far too familiar to overlook—QotSA's “3s & 7s” suffered a similar crisis.

Even their sinister side has been declawed. On “Shut Your Mouth,” Stollsteimer begins both verses with, “Go to sleep little baby and shut your mouth,” and proceeds to blow a kiss-off to his critics. Draping the next track, “Pale Bride,” in dark notes of mystery doesn't help sell the bland leadoff verse, “Here she comes/My pale bride/Makes it so that I don't try anymore/All dressed in white/Sad to see that I don't care anymore,” especially when the vocals leap an octave on the repetitive but melodic chorus. It's not just the pen that's reduced to bland formula; even the singing rings with less big gig gusto and more tired rehearsal.

A punchy rhythm helps “Accidents Will Happen” stand out among all of the toothless riffs on the second half, but by that point the energy has severely waned—even at less than thirty-six minutes, the album can become a chore, especially on the second and third go around. Positioned at the end is an unexpected breather from all of the pristinely cluttered pop-punk arrangements. It is “Modern Saints,” which opens with drum echoes and chiming synths. But by then, you know that the band's being played like a harp by the producers, so it's no surprise at all to see the track grow into a huge arena stomper. I should have lost interest by the time Stollsteimer passionately belted out his bridge to nowhere, but since it was a change of pace, I wondered if it was simply too much of a good thing that hampered all of the big stadium rock records from last year. A few replays negated that theory.

The only real surprise in store for the Von Bondies' audience comes from how carefully plotted and routine the album is. Despite their label blues, this effort sounds like the sort of LP that the majors would love to print a quarter million of with hardly a blink. The once feverish, violent and ultimately cathartic musical attack has been toned back to allow for more glitter than grit. Not a problem if they continue to rip through the rhythm section and crank out some sharp lines and honest pleas, but they trade that in for lamentations and posturing. Playing loud and fast doesn't compensate for plastered shape and rigid control. Some of the songs are even kinda catchy but rarely memorable; where's the juice? For the Von Bondies, sing-along choruses and hyperactive hooks shouldn't be the chief concern. They should spend more time trying to figure out how to sell what they're doing as the real deal. I guess I'm too cautious a consumer.

Feb
05
2009

Ty Segall - Ty Segall Review

Those who don't know who Ty Segall is will probably be taken back by the first thirty seconds of his self-titled album. And even though I knew who he was (and knew what to expect), the transition from reality to this damaged fantasy is still jarring. I usually snicker at what passes for “garage rock” these days: bands with numerous tricks and a slick production staff to wring out every merry hook and faucet drip beat. It's polished post-punk or power pop or...well, anything but garage. This, on the other hand, is what it should be—so messy and raw that you can't imagine it being recorded anywhere but in an oil-slick, paint can-festooned, dust-and-grease-burnt garage. Not the clean ones with stained wood shelves, pretty new tricycles and electric doors, but the ones where kids huddle in the cramped corners to huff glue and old Buicks go to die.

If you've heard a raucous, tooth-rattling garage band in the last few years, chances are, you've heard Ty Segall in some capacity. Like John Dwyer, he hops in and out of bands faster than the Stilt went through mattresses. If you're familiar with the Traditional Fools or Thee Oh Sees or Epsilons or Party Fowl or the Perverts (and more), then you've heard Segall play. Even if you haven't, any sampling of the Black Lips, Coachwhips, Foxboro Hot Tubs, Detroit Cobras, Mr. Airplane Man, Dirtbombs, Sic Alps, Ariel Pink or the more vitriolic pieces in Rhino's Nuggets series will give you a good idea. Or, lacking that, imagine Jack White and Iggy Pop and add a lot more muddy gravel. I list these bands for a reason—interchangeable identity. Sure, you can cherish one straight to your scolded heart, but you'll never be at a loss to explain who they sound like. Good garage rock can be hard to find but you know it when you hear it. Because the style requires utter simplicity, mimicry can be found by a dozen bands practicing less than ten blocks from where you live. It doesn't mean they're gonna make it, doesn't even mean they're any good, but its sound can't be mistaken and anyone can give it a shot.

Ty Segall's solo effort isn't a case of spotlight-grabbing ego nourishment, though. This isn't a leader ordering around his dirty-haired bandmates with a sneer and mic swing. Ty Segall is the act. It's a one man band. And he's not just layering different instrument tracks and mapping the whole thing (i.e., “producing”). He's the only guy in there, slapping out simple drum patterns on floor toms and bass drums while wringing out all the splintered life of a murky electric guitar and then howling into the microphone. Yes, it's noisy as hell, but simplicity gives the tunes breathing space; the gaps are engorged with distinct audio hiss that vibrate with the last echo. But make no mistake about it—this may be as lo-fi as it gets, but the sound is never tinny or canned. It sounds like the guy's pummeling these songs out in the same room you're in. You know, the scum-crusted garage, where your glue high is getting interrupted by some jerk causing a racket with trash can lids and rusted pipes.

There may be only one thing on the menu, but Segall cooks it up in different ways. Swampy blues, snotty punk, scuzz rock, grungy psychedelia and black fuzz are all swirled about and each track gets slathered up with one or another as the focal point. Grimy ballads like “Watching You” and “An Ill Jest” break things up, but Segall prefers low-key raves like the hungry highpoint, “The Drag,” the sprinting groove of “Oh Mary” and the feverish trainwreck that is “Don't Do It.” He also finds time to run through a Ramones number (“You Should Never Have Opened That Door”); dig that ear-splitting scream. But good track placement keeps the more caustic and clattering segments at an even pace. “You're Not Me” even offers a few archly melodic moments that eases the song's mid-tempo friction. The chorus builds up to him spitting the song title by letting him belt out a few ooh-ooh-oohs beforehand.

The distortion keeps the audio snagging on previous notes, but like any good trash rock number, the filth and fuzz give them a grizzled charm. It's tough to imagine clean versions of these songs, and it's unlikely that a twinkling cover would do them justice. The vocals are so scruffy and ragged that, apart from a few choruses and the quieter numbers, what he says is usually incomprehensible. Based on what little I did understand (and what's typical of the sub-genre), it's neither revelatory nor embarrassing—a lot of yeas, nos, let's gos, etc. These are stylistic choices, naturally, so it's just as tough to blame him for keeping thought at a distance as it is to blame him for going with what's appropriate. Gut reaction needs no insight.

 

Gut reaction is Ty Segall's selling point, actually. While the songs grew on me still after the fourth and fifth listen (at only about twenty-four minutes, it's a speedy endeavor), you'll know right away whether you'll enjoy it. Segall plays it straight and authentic, so it's all about your tolerance for gritty, threadbare rock music. It's thoroughly uncomplicated, which lends itself to benefits and debits both. But if you ever need to stomp your boots, he'll give you the beat.

Feb
04
2009

Sidney Poitier Collection Review

Some might initially be disappointed by the lineup of the Sidney Poitier Collection. Most of Poitier's landmark films were released by United Artists or Columbia Pictures (In the Heat of the Night, A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies in the Field, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, To Sir, With Love, etc.). And since this is a Warner Bros. package, one could feel inclined to pass it up and hope for a different set to be released in the future. But while two of the films included in this collection lack greatness, the other two belong in the library of any avid film lover, whether you like Poitier or not (but who doesn't?). And since all of these films were difficult (if not impossible) to find on DVD before now, it's worth the purchase. Reviews of the four films follow:


SOMETHING OF VALUE

A dramatization of the real life events of the Mau Mau revolution, this film opens with the statement, “When we take away the customs, culture and religion of a people, we better replace it with 'something of value'.” Its epilogue features the Winston Churchill quote, “The problems of East Africa, are the problems of the world.” In between, you get what you'd expect from such noble but inflated messages. Something of Value is an earnest and well-intentioned effort, but lacks character depth and concedes too much ground to self-importance. It calls for tolerance and brotherhood, but in every way that it succeeds, it comes up short somewhere else.

Peter (Rock Hudson) and Kimani (Poitier) treated each other as brothers as they were growing up, but as adults things have changed. Kimani, tired of being treated by others as a lesser, escapes to the wild lands and joins a group of rebels seeking to rid Africa of European settlers. Naturally, Peter and his fellow white colonialists come to odds against the rebels, leading to the expected dramatic tensions. The history lesson, no matter how glossed over and simplified it might be, is still detailed and intriguing enough to garner the audience's attention, especially when it concentrates on Kimani's burdensome conflict of conscience as he strikes back against people he once considered to be a second family. Brutal scenes of massacre are surprisingly potent considering the film's age and Poitier and Juano Hernandez (as one of the rebel leaders) are very good in deeply layered roles.

The other side of the conflict is less compelling. Peter is given little moral complexity; he might as well be elevated to sainthood. His fiancée, Holly (Dana Wynter), is a role more obligatory than enriching—she looks pretty but hardly has a thought in that pretty head. And Michael Pate plays Joe Matson, whose very role comes with the subtitle “Vengeful White Settler.” We know too little of him to make him an effective villain, so instead he's just a hissable cardboard cutout. Wendy Hiller has a few good scenes as a grieving widow trying to retain her dignity, but she's mostly forgotten when off screen.

The uneven dynamic between the two opposing forces creates little dilemma for the viewer; while the movie is never preachy, there's no doubt how the filmmakers want us to feel. (SPOILERS) And sadly, the finale doesn't succeed entirely because Poitier's character is let down by the script's requirement for him to be too irrational in his fury. It lets Peter off the hook for fighting Kimani—there's no potential damnation of his “white knight” role after Kimani dies. It might have also been more effective if we'd seen more scenes early on between Hudson and Poitier, so the sundering of their friendship would have gripped our emotions better. Its lack renders the confrontation standard issue. (END SPOILERS)

A flawed motion picture, it is still worth watching to see Poitier play an African (instead of an African-American) and for the segments among the Mau Mau and the surprisingly grim action sequences. But consider this a missed opportunity with the weight of bookending words seeking a firmer, more complex treatment.


A WARM DECEMBER

A Warm December
is the collection's only entry to also be directed by Poitier, and the only one filmed in color. Unfortunately, it's also easily the weakest. Poitier plays a widowed doctor who moonlights as a motorcycle racer (seriously) spending time in London with his young daughter, Stefanie (Yvette Curtis). While in London, he meets the mysterious Catherine (Esther Anderson) and they fall in love, only for Poitier to discover she has sickle cell anemia. Cue the waterworks.

Actually, it's not as soppy as it could have been, but minimal chemistry between the stars and an uneven tone elicits more yawns than sobs. It also starts out like an espionage-happy Hitchcock potboiler as Poitier observes several men following Catherine around and she continually appears and disappears from his life. But all of the barely-there suspense is a red herring as her predicament is practically routine—she's just being followed around by doctors and assistants to her ambassador uncle, and she's simply keeping him at arms length because she knows she probably has little time left.

Poitier is disappointingly bland (especially for someone playing a doctor, motorbiker and widow), Anderson is lovely but miffs most of her big scenes and Curtis is merely okay even for a child actor. There's little doubt that the screenplay was heavily inspired by Love Story, and I also suspect that Poitier's interest as both an actor and director for the project was inspired by the film's “lesson” about sickle cell anemia. But its sentiment is as old-fashioned as the very 70s wardrobe, hairstyles and score. Not a total disaster, but it's the only one in the box set that can be skipped entirely.


A PATCH OF BLUE

Just as it's a thin line between clever and stupid, so too is the line separating sentiment from overripe melodrama. A Patch of Blue treads that line very carefully, but not once does it stumble onto the unbearable side. Elizabeth Hartman stars as Selina, a blind 18-year-old girl living with an oppressive, abusive bigot of a mother named Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and her drunk grandfather (Wallace Ford). Selina's life is confined to the crummy apartment she lives in, never given the education or experience to enter the outside world in her condition. But when she's allowed to spend a day in the park by herself (slaving over necklace threading, no less), she makes the acquaintance of Gordon Ralfe (Poitier). Selina and Gordon begin a tentative friendship that blossoms into more. What could easily have devolved into histrionic goop emerges as the set's most winning surprise.

Gordon is cautious about his new friend while Selina plunges headlong into it—she's so happy to find someone who is kind to her that natural defenses refuse to rise. But the screenplay is delicate about Selina's flowering. When Gordon gives her a pair of sunglasses to hide her scarred eyes, what might have seemed a superficial act of vanity turns into an opportunity for her self-esteem to grow: she becomes considerably more confident upon such a small act. And Gordon's defensiveness is altogether human. When Gordon's brother asks him about her, he says that he's helping her because he pitied her, refusing to acknowledge that he's come to care for the girl. And while Selina falls for Gordon far before he does, the protectiveness and fatherly role he initiated gradually turns to one of more equal devotion. The scene where he learns that she was raped by one of her mother's friends is difficult to bear, but both of the performances sell each nuance, both in confiding and reacting.

Rose-Ann and Ole Pa (the grandfather) could have easily become caricatures, but the actors find the root of their deplorable views and play them perfectly. Winters won an Academy Award as the vicious shrew, but we sense that her cruelty stems less from ignorance and mindless hatred than it is to the sick, self-aggrandizing lift afforded someone who belittles others. She and the grandfather are, quite frankly, “white trash,” so they bully Selina so they can feel superiority. Ole Pa is a defeated man, one who spends as much time in the bottle as out of it, and while he's far gentler than Rose-Ann, the malice of disinterest can be just as powerful as that of scolding.

Released in 1965, A Patch of Blue was likely considered a very provocative film. It features one of the earliest onscreen interracial kisses, and while the camera shows only what's needed, the scene where young Selina is blinded (by a bottle thrown by Rose-Ann that missed its target) and raped are stark and chilling. The film's tagline, “Love is color-blind,” refers to the relationship's symbolic treatment. Selina doesn't know that Gordon is black, so she can learn to love him free of prejudice. But Gordon's recognition of others glaring at them when the two are seen in public influences his hesitance. (SPOILERS) At the end, after he's arranged for her to be entered into a school for the blind, he promises that he will visit her, all the while fearing that they can never be happy together so long as the streets are full of despicable racists. It makes the concluding moments bittersweet and hopeful even as we know that the ending doesn't suggest a likelihood of happiness. Interestingly, the book on which this film was based ended very differently. When Selina discovers that Gordon is black, she rejects him, giving the message an entirely different, archly pessimistic spin. Considering how the film had been played up to that point, preserving the original ending would have ruined the film. But a movie with a slightly different tone could have sold the caustic original, allowing for a rare instance where a skewed remake might be truly rewarding. (END SPOILERS)


EDGE OF THE CITY

Edge of the City is the second jewel of the box set, a gritty drama about fear, unlikely friendship and corruption. John Cassavettes stars as Axel North, a man running from his past who ends up working on the NYC waterfront as a stevedore. As a longshoreman, he encounters a hard-nosed, degenerate foreman (Jack Warden) and an optimistic, friendly worker named Tommy (Poitier). Axel resists Tommy at first, but he's worn down by the man's charisma, charm and generosity. As their friendship grows, so does the animosity of the corrupt foreman. As tensions grow at work, Axel slowly reveals his past to Tommy, explaining why he's on the run. And as Axel finds his life settling comfortably, even tentatively approaching a romance with a woman named Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), we know that things are about to reach a feverish boil.

There's little doubt that the script was inspired in some way by the classic, On the Waterfront. Both deal with union corruption and the final confrontation echoes the earlier film quite closely. In fact, every time the foreman was called by name (Charlie), I couldn't help but think of Brando and Steiger. There's even the eerie parallel between the directors: Waterfront's Elia Kazan was known to have cooperated with HUAC; Edge's Martin Ritt was blacklisted. But both films stand on their own quite well, and while Waterfront can't be touched, Edge of the City remains a tense, sobering and very believable drama. The acting is excellent across the board, including Ruby Dee as Tommy's wife, and a memorable fight between workers brandishing hooks in the warehouse is appropriately intense.

While not flawless (the final shot wanted more, or at least something more satisfying), it's still a superb effort that deserves a wider audience. And perhaps most astonishingly, Poitier's status as an African-American is usually only subtly referred to. Charlie the foreman may dislike Tommy because of his race, but the growing hatred comes about because Tommy plays it so easy and carefree. That a film in the 50s could feature such a fine friendship between a white man and black man without striking explicit nerves is a noteworthy feat. Nevertheless, integration remains a point of interest, one that is treated with looks more than words. A movie that can move you both quietly and aggressively is one to be treasured.

DVD Bonus Features

The set's extras are rather stingy. Three of them only feature a trailer and English and French subtitles. A Patch of Blue contains a trailer, stills gallery, an edited filmography and essay about Poitier, and a list of awards, as well as commentary by director Guy Green (and English/French subtitles). But the four features will keep you so busy, you'll hardly care.

Feb
03
2009

Dead by Wednesday - The Killing Project Review

I think it's about time to lay metal's death growl to rest. It's unpleasant to the ears and adds nothing to the force or emotion of heavy songs. Its use reminds me of the lesson in debating: you don't raise your voice in order to emphasize your point—if what you're saying is potent, a whisper would serve. I mention this because Dead by Wednesday's The Killing Project couldn't start on more uncertain ground than with leadoff, “Pawns.” On the first run through, my hopes were dashed as it hobbled its way toward the finish line. The three-and-a-half minutes felt like six and, fearful that the rest of the album would follow the lead, felt defeated upon recognizing what lay in my near future. Singer Ceschi Ramos has the instrument, but he was misusing in it distressing ways.

But my doubts were premature. The title track was up next, opening with a traditional old-school riff and then switching between screams and fast, borderline-rap verse-to-chorus vocals. I don't know which was written first, the words or the music, but each support the other as it stop-starts a half dozen times before the end. These agile rhythm shifts are this band's best selling point, so the more Zappa in their bloodline the better. It's no surprise, then, that the album's best bets come during the meat of the lineup. “Liberty” may lack a great hook, but separating the more punishing start and finish is a memorable stretch that was clearly influenced by the harmonic psychedelia of 1966 Beatles/Beach Boys. “Chosen” opens and closes with evocative echoes and tribal drums; even the vocals are (temporarily) calm and melodic—Ramos is joined by Candiria's Carley Coma. The refrains also feature smooth melodies underneath the harder guitar assault. “Violent Tradition” is an anti-organized religion tirade that's musically straight out of the System of a Down playbook, with hardcore enthusiasm replacing SoaD's near-operatic crescendos and Middle East-tinged rhythms. “Declaration of Inhumanity” closes out the mostly strong first half with a gentle, folkish arrangement eventually giving way to flashes of electric guitars, a rough-rumble backbeat and frenzied singing. But with the softer qualities still acting as a guide (even during the heavier sections), it makes the otherwise abrasive throat-shredding a bit softer yet with stronger contrast that amplifies the serenity and frenzy of both styles.

Unfortunately, the good times can't last as side two begins. “Another World” is relatively nimble in vibrating between speedy riffs and a slower, thrashier tempo, but instead of the death growl, we're treated to a barrage of death howls (the difference being that one has a low pitch while the other is high; both will permanently damage larynges, though). Either way, I can't understand a damn word being said, and the promo CD offered no lyric sheet, so I can't deduce whether the intentions were good enough for me to suffer through it. Flipping back and forth between the growl and howl becomes fairly standard issue after that. “Break the Walls” and “Part of Me” both distill metaphors to their most basic in their rage against the machine of socio-political concerns, so the vocal terrors that intend to compliment simply deter the already viscous momentum. Musically, they sound like arrangements that could have been penned by Slayer or Pantera on an off day (with dashes of DRI, of course). Up next, “Society's Blood”'s attempt to blend extreme and doom just makes the slower sections feel turgid and the faster moments over-caffeinated. Part two ends on a high note with “Fractured,” another expressive and adventurous track, but it's too little too late since so many sluggish tracks before it drained away almost all interest and enthusiasm.

The musicians are all sound in their performance, even if the songwriting can become unbearably stale at a few junctures. Special notice goes to drummer Opus who helps keep the rhythms on even the tepid numbers pushing forward. But Ramos' attempts at vocal variety emphasizes the albums wild highs and lows. He can be electrifying, but just as often, you sarcastically wish there were more instrumentals. As for the words he sings, when they're not overly obscured by an unflattering vocal performance, they're typically of the sledgehammer variety—big, hard-hitting and obvious. “Restitution for the good of man/This is the final stand.” “I feel like a part of me has died/And there's no room to build.” This simplistic method may be preferable to true nihilism or mindless aggression, but it's nothing we haven't heard a hundred times from other hardcore and metal outfits. More focus might have helped, too: these guys attack everything under the sun to various degrees of success. “Violent Tradition” is probably the highlight, with slightly more introspective and non-literal phrases like, “My god is not your god/My god is invisible.”

When the musicians are allowed to nourish good ideas into technically impressive and melodically strong headbangers, Dead by Wednesday excels in their often interchangeable niche. But too many sound like any other faceless hardcore rockers. The fusion of punk and metal isn't novel anymore sheerly for its own sake—it needs to work on more intricate and cerebral levels. The highs of The Killing Project suggests that this band could one day emerge as a major contender, but until they learn to leave the generic stuff behind them, they'll just be an interesting outfit struggling against the weight of routine. Less-discriminating moshpit aficionados will probably love it, but not enough on here strikes my visceral nerve consistently enough for me to consider this record as anything better than an uneven mess that can be edited down to a really good EP.

Feb
01
2009

Cheech & Chong: Still Smokin' Review

I'm not sure why Hollywood thinks that stand-up comedians will automatically translate their charm and humor onto the big screen. Some comedians manage the transition (early Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy chief among them), but most land flat. The outrageous ones are neutered and the more family-friendly comics get stuck in 90-minute sitcoms (where their appeal might be better served). Bill Cosby had a good run on television, but his movies are famously inept. Chris Rock is mostly thrown into formulaic PG-13 comedies that don't play to his strengths. Even the master Richard Pryor failed to squeeze more than a couple of yuks out of any of his movies not featuring his famous foil, Gene Wilder. Part of the problem, I'm sure, is because they're not in their natural element of riffing a series of conversational jokes and one-liners. Rodney Dangerfield was hilarious in Caddyshack because he basically just showed up in scenes and ran off one great line after another—he more or less played himself. Most comics aren't character-based, but in movies, they usually play characters. So when they go through stand-up schtick, the amusement may pick up, but the moments frequently feel out of place in the midst of the story.

Cheech & Chong, though, weren't a normal stand-up team. They worked bits and sketches and played a variety of oddball characters on-stage and for several comedy albums. Since none were fit for a feature length, it was probably a safe assumption that a movie composed of their amusing skits would be good enough. Even Up in Smoke, easily their funniest film, had dry stretches and suffered from severe momentum problems (good times to pack another bowl?). So to keep things moving, filling a movie with unrelated vignettes seemed like a good way to keep things from becoming stale and predictable. But since their routine didn't offer the cohesion that allowed Monty Python and Kids in the Hall to make that transition to feature films, it needed to be strung along by an unimpressive device.

In the case of Still Smokin, their fifth film, everything builds towards a comedy concert in Amsterdam—everything else is delivered via barely-diverting ventures and frequent dreams/flashbacks. The duo arrives in the Netherlands at the beginning of the film, they do various things in the hotel and the city, and then the movie culminates with twenty-minutes of their show. Story matters for nothing in these sorts of comedies, so complaining that there's little to tie it all together is moot. All that matters is if it's funny. But even if you don't compare it to the occasionally uproarious Up in Smoke, this effort frequently comes up short.

The first time Cheech Marin is mistaken for Burt Reynolds is worth a smile, but the gag is terribly worn out through repeated use. Seeing someone eat a salad of marijuana leaves gets a chuckle, but their visit to an Amsterdam restaurant goes nowhere, lacking a payoff to the bumpy ride. Tommy Chong accidentally shooting himself gets a laugh because it's a sudden surprise to their typically lackadaisical delivery. The pantomiming in the overlong wrestling sketch is also amusing, but resorting to an extended gag about stretching someone's testicles lessens the brief appeal. These few bright spots are all short-lived and are surrounded by deserts of ho-hum languor.

Still Smokin can boast that it's not painfully unfunny, but denying its dullness is tougher. Most of the bits simply don't work. The E.T., the Extra-Testicle gag wasn't any good the first time, but it goes on for about another five minutes of Cheech running around trying to get into a pretty maid's skirt. The payoff to all of this is that she wears both Cheech and Chong out with her sexual prowess—that's it? And while I wouldn't expect a skit about homosexuals to be tasteful from these two, did it have to be so yawn-inducing? They apparently thought the butch-feminine act would be enough, forgetting to make them actually say funny things. And the dope-a-thon was rife with possibilities but the sketch goes on and on, again leading to nothing substantial. If there's no punchline, the journey better be worth taking. For the most part, Still Smokin's comedic mash-ups are as inert as your brain after smoking too much weed.

I know that breaking down a joke defeats the way it works, but trying to understand how Cheech and Chong thought these drawn-out situations would get laughs is truly a tough endeavor. I could blame it on a lack of a nimble mind from too many joints, but they've delivered in more recent fare (Robert Rodriguez movies, That 70s Show). Plus, there's not even that much pot humor in this one. As for the concert footage, it's no more inspired than what preceded it; listen to one of their old records instead.

The extras are paltry. A theatrical trailer is all you get on the DVD. The feature is presented in widescreen in Dolby Digital with the option for English subtitles. And because it's part of the “I Love the 80s” collection, a four-track CD can be found inside. It's not too shabby of a playlist either: Echo & the Bunnymen's classic “Lips Like Sugar” is the choice cut and everyone likes INXS' “Need You Tonight.” The other two are not so great: “Chains of Love” was one of the weakest songs on Erasure's otherwise solid The Innocents album and a-ha's “Take on Me” may be a decade institution, but it was always pretty mediocre and time hasn't seen it improve much.

Jan
30
2009

Antony & the Johnsons - The Crying Light Review

It's not always a criticism to say that you don't want to listen to a certain album. Some music requires an investment you're just not willing to make at all times. Sometimes you want strong rhythms and supple hooks to just nod your head along to. And it's not likely that you're always in the mood to submit your heart to music that's guaranteed to make you feel lonely, sad and helpless. Such is The Crying Light, an album of such naked honesty and emotional resonance that it should never appear on the playlist of anyone with a prescription to antidepressants. Antony Hegarty doesn't seek to bring you down, mind you. But in telling the truth of his interests and experience, you'd have to be made of stone to not mentally curl up into a fetal position before the last delicate note escapes the speakers.

Hegarty kept busy last year with his group's Another World EP and a handful of vocal appearances on Hercules and Love Affair's self-titled album (the single, “Blind,” appeared high on my list of 2008's best songs). If by some slender chance your first experience with Hegarty is “Blind,” do not enter into the arms of The Crying Light with the same expectations. That tremulous voice is easily recognized (sadder, more fragile, but still wavering with all of the soul's vulnerabilities) but you won't want to boogie down to this record. Antony & the Johnsons is a band that requires cozy comforts for reflection—if he ever appears in an arena-sized venue (not likely), you might as well not even show up if you're back more than ten rows. And now that he's finally delivered the follow-up full-length to 2005's I Am a Bird Now, an opportunity to see him perform may soon come your way (he already did several shows before the album's release).

Although Crying Light makes for a relatively diffusive companion to Bird, that's no reason to dismiss one out of hand. Comparatively, Bird seemed like a warm-up to his center stage performance. Guest stars like Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and Boy George floated through the record with so little attention-calling that it became easy to wonder about Hegarty's relationship with that proverbial spotlight. Early on, there was speculation (and subtle admissions) that he wasn't entirely comfortable in his own skin. With so much focus on his memorable guests, Hegarty was able to take small steps out onto the enclosed space of the almost claustrophobically intimate environment he has built for himself. While there is no doubt that Antony & the Johnson's music is rich and evocative, it's so quietly subsistent that Hegarty's vocal tremble may come off as uncomfortable and ill-prepared to anyone not properly listening. Those who suspect he lacks the chops to command, though, need only hear the contents of his mind and heart to feel the graze of pain arriving on each breath.

Which brings me back to my previous admission that this is not going to be an easy listen to absorb. If you're looking for a good time (and we all do to various degrees),  skip this one until you find yourself in a comfortably contemplative state of mind. The music doesn't gallop towards you with momentous anxiety; it haunts as delicate as the voice that perches above all. The strings have no room for syrup when they're as dusky and razor thin as these. The woodwinds offer no grand fanfare but instead pretend that the funereal sessions truly are mourning a man's loss. And the famed piano aches beneath casual fingertips while those hammers hit so calmly that they seem more afterthought than musical fulcrum. Excepting the fluttering finale of “Kiss My Name,” the first truly notable tonal increase doesn't arrive until the seventh track, and even that is short-lived. The central two minutes of that song only sound lively because of the foreboding melancholy that anticipated it;  immediately after, it returns to the cellar with morose strokes and sighs.

But Crying Light's impact comes mostly from Hegarty's wounded words, the baring of a speculative man stuck in the eternal questions that bridge the great gulf of the human experience. Even the triumphs are of understated sadness, as exemplified on “Aeon”: “Oh, his heart enjoyed/Restores eyes alloyed/Carry me through the olden void...Aeon’s eyes forlorn/He contains the storm/He’s the pasture of my dawn.” And as the celebration evaporates into sorrow, the knowledge of futility's approach wraps us up in its poetic yet straightforward spell; “Hold my father/For it is myself/Without him I wouldn’t exist...Hold that man/In your tender clutch/Hold that man I love so much.”

“Another World” (a transfer from last year's EP) is less personal but expresses itself in ways both simplistic and explicit. “I'm gonna miss the sea/I'm gonna miss the snow/I'm gonna miss the bees/I miss the things that grow.” Initially, it seems to be a suicide note coda, but I estimate it revolves around the agony of Mother Earth. On “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground,” his unbreakable sorrow is almost interrupted by the angry surge that turns against the very heart that bleeds in cause. “No one knows why she did the things she done/Ocean, swallow me now.” Even then, he keeps up the trilling falsetto; fangs never bare themselves here.

Hegarty's grasp of this sparse but ultra-dramatic tendency could not have been an easy feat. Upon mere glance, everything from the music to the vocals and the lyrics read like pretentious and drippy melodrama. It requires a first-person experience with all elements coalescing in your ears to understand how well he establishes and commits to the heart-on-sleeve performance. Finale “Everglade,” one of the most stirring musical numbers, contains sentence fragments that beg an eye roll. But when you hear him warble about “peeping in a parlour of trees,” the sun playing “crystal with my eyes,” and finally, “Fingers kiss the string/Mouth taste the blade/Of everglade,” it's impossible not to be moved by a profound faith in his honest intentions. I may play this album less than all other great records this year, but when I find myself in tune with his sad but affecting world, I know I'll always emerge on the other side moved.

Jan
29
2009

Indies Climbing the Charts

andrew_bird Thanks to the Internet Age, being an indie no longer means that small-but-dedicated acclaim and loyalty is the best that you can reasonably aspire to. With mp3s circulating over incredible physical distances at incredible speed, small upstarts could see glory come practically overnight. And the Billboard 200 offers further proof that being out of the mainstream doesn't automatically regulate you to independently-owned music shops and tapes circulating among friends and colleagues. Believe it or not, three warmly-received indie records made big splashes this week on the charts. And they were all considerable jumps compared to the last chart placing the groups had. So what's next? Getting signed to a major label? I can't fault them for that should the opportunity arise, but just remember: does anyone reminisce about R.E.M.'s 90s releases with the same fondness as they do for the IRS days?

Jan
28
2009
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Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP Review

Much has already been made about Bon Iver and the debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. About how it was recorded in a log cabin, was a solo effort for Justin Vernon despite “full band” aspirations, and, mostly, that it was very good. Filling the void until the next full-length is the Blood Bank EP, a four-track collection. While I certainly can't speak for Vernon about the qualities of the next Bon Iver album, I'm making the not so bold prediction that this EP is a gateway. Emma was as isolated and wintry as anything one could expect from a group called Bon Iver (did Vernon drop the “H” in fear that too many would mispronounce it?); again, the one-man-in-a-log-cabin thing will do that to you. But Blood Bank features a leftover from his one-man-show—the title track (but with back-up vocals added)—and then three more that hint at new directions. No doubt, it will remain Vernon's vision, but this seems to be a shift towards a larger sound. Worry not, Emma fans; even with the assistance it's still in a similar vein as Vernon's last effort. It's a bit warmer and slightly less damaged, but there's little on here that'll upset the Bon Iver faithful.

Chief among those minimal surprises is the final song, “Woods,” which applies Auto-Tuning to the vocals (or is it a vocoder?). Supplanted into the usual rustic folk/pop patiches that Bon Iver sews together so well, its digital echo probably would have sounded awful against an organic landscape. But “Woods” is blessedly a cappella, repeating the same lines over and over: “I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind, I'm building a still to slow down the time.” The mechanical fluttering still makes this closer no less out of place. But its existence implies that this EP is more than just an epilogue to his debut; i.e. a small batch of songs that either didn't fit into Emma or were left incomplete until now. As an experiment, it may end up being a noteworthy footnote to Vernon's early career, but I see no hint of this method being applied to future recordings. Those who admire experiments may sigh disappointed at this suspicion, but most will probably be relieved.

But before that unexpected loveliness is a song that Vernon said he couldn't fit onto Emma: the leadoff, "Blood Bank." Presented in a straightforward fashion, its tale of getting stuck in the snow with a girl (after donating blood—hence, the name) will already be familiar to fans. As Vernon expands the sound with back-ups, he manages the difficult feat of building richer harmonies while staying just as intimate as ever before. Like Iron & Wine before and Fleet Foxes since, if you close your eyes, you'd swear that Vernon was right there in your bedroom...or wherever you happen to be while listening. Just beware if you flip it on in the car; who wants to constantly check the rearview mirror for a sneak in the backseat?

"Beach Baby” and “Babys” are more elusive. The former finds Vernon murmuring in a falsetto, “When you're out, tell your lucky one/To know that you'll leave/But you don't lock when you're fleeing/I'd like not to hear keys/Only hold 'til your coffee warms/But don't hurry and speed.” Then on “Babys,” as a fast and relentless 4/4 piano closes in the walls for the listener, he gets louder and drunker with curious fire. “Summer comes to multiply/To multiply/And I/I'm the Carnival of Peace/I'll probably start a fleet/With no apologies.” Along with “Woods,” this one makes up the second half of Blood Bank and showcases a different side for Bon Iver. With better integration, they could be effective additions to the larger sound. For now, though, the first side remains the more expressive and inviting.

Considering it's only four songs, it might be tough for non-diehards to be excited about this shortie. But it is easy to wave a flag or two for the wonderful songs. It's evidence that Vernon's success on Emma wasn't predicated upon its circumstances; clearly from the same mind, of course, but indicating an unexpected vector for the future. The label suggests that this collection builds a metaphorical fire to get one through a bitter cold evening. If this represents a thaw, only the mind of a northerner could consider this an end to the frost. Let's just hope he never melts altogether.

Jan
26
2009

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast Review

I named Andrew Bird's last full-length, Armchair Apocrypha, the best album of 2007, an opinion shared by few if any. It marked the second year in a row that a complex but elegant pop record with a predilection towards hyper-literate lyricism left the rest in the dust (though the race was a lot closer that year than in '06 when The Crane Wife towered over the competition). But more tellingly, it was the second year in a row in which the ambitions of each act reached their unnatural apex. Both efforts were soaring, sprawling, sophisticated (to borrow a handful of quote line buzz words), but never fell victim to the mechanical hooks and forced melodrama that hamstrings many other "big" songs (typically, widescreen arena-rock anthems). But with the stirring but stable masterwork of Apocrypha, the realization that going forward seemed an impossible endeavor left a disquieting melancholy. It seems that the only direction available to Bird was down.

But even if Noble Beast doesn't elicit the same emotional outpour as Apocrypha, the lesson that eternal expansion isn't always the wise next-step strategy is supported by these results. Both albums witness Bird returning to the Bowl of Fire sonic ambitions; still introspective, but with a rich texture that suggests the efforts of many musicians—even the sparsely instrumented slow-tempo tracks. While naked, heart-on-the-sleeve storytelling can benefit some artists (compare Nebraska to Born in the U.S.A.), Bird seemed to prevail best when his clever rhymes were supported by subtly busy melodies. But the key there is “subtly”; they're never too cluttered to let in air every now and then. Usually the richness is provided via customarily quiet chamber pop means—twinkling keys, mournful strings and woodwinds, etc.—keeping even the densest arrangements astonishingly intimate.

Consider “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” a track not entirely dissimilar to Thom Yorke's output, especially late-90s Radiohead. “Robot” would lean uncomfortably against most of the other tracks, but by slipping it in at the midsection and bookending it with a couple of short ambient instrumentals, Bird is free to tackle a modern expressionistic slant only hinted at in earlier arrangements without sacrificing the momentum of proximity. Sequencing alone doesn't bolster the experiment; Bird leads us to that moment even in song segments both preceding and following. The gentle folk/country roots of “Nomenclature” gives way to a gauzy basement of fuzz before continuing towards “Robot.” After, the first few seconds of “Anonanimal”'s severe violin hiss sound plucked from Jonny Greenwood's excellent There Will Be Blood score (heard again on “On Ho!” and others). And progressing through “Anonimal” is a bit reminiscent of hitting the sudden eruptions that made “Paranoid Android” such a remarkable song—far gentler and more playful, but with more left turns than a homerun hitter would likely see in an entire doubleheader.

But this is not Bird's dalliance with the avant-garde, mind you. As stated earlier, this one tightens his Apocrypha ambitions even while giving the opportunity to explore his limitations (if there are any) as a songwriter. Those adventures are nestled in the center pocket; towards the album's ends are more typical Bird exercises. “Natural Disaster” revolves around near-apocalyptic nightmares but the melody is so low-key, it could be described as an acoustic folk waltz. “Oh No” finds Bird trying to replicate the indie pop masterstrokes of  hook-heavy Apocrypha cuts like “Fiery Crash” and “Plasticities”; coming up just short is less a criticism of this quaintly catchy gem than it is a reminder of the feathery brilliance of its predecessors. The epic “Souverian” is as complex as “Anonanimal,” but each shift springs naturally from what preceded it. It starts with a wistful whistle, unfolds into a pretty piano ballad and then hops off the bench to stomp its proverbial feet before sitting back down and then climbing aboard a ship and setting off into thick morning fog. And his fine violin-plucking skills are on display on the effervescent “Tenuousness,” which is much needed since it also contains a rare lyrical misstep—the forced historical rhymes are just too precisely whimsical to work.

Just as this album (like all of Bird's records) is easily defined by the “grower” cliché, so too does Noble Beast grow as it drifts along. Considering how well he integrates songs in the midsection and home stretch, it's tough not to notice his sequencing gaffes on the first side. After the whistle-happy pop track “Oh No,” we're immediately bogged down by the six-and-a-half minute “Masterswarm,” perhaps the weakest song on the entire disc. It's a true tragedy that it fails to come together since it appropriates a variety of intriguing ideas, fusing together bits of flamenco, jazz and samba. A tempo lift is provided after that with “Fitz & Dizzyspells,” an inordinately spry and bouncy toe-tapper that nonetheless fails to play to Bird's strengths—a small winner but not one destined to encourage too many to get up and boogie. And placing the languid, pastoral “Effigy” after that brings Beast to another unfortunate lumbering crawl. Sprinkling them elsewhere might nourish their worth, but they're still modestly underwhelming low points in an otherwise strong batch.

Despite those minor misgivings, Bird remains at the fore of the so-called adult alternative singer/songwriter cluster (the sort that are halfway between Rufus Wainwright  and the Shins). And even the lesser moments land just shy of the mark—performed live with more room to breathe and evolve, they could be exquisite. Though it can't quite meet the heights of Armchair Apocrypha, it earns its place alongside The Swimming Hour and The Mysterious Production of Eggs as another prime Andrew Bird effort. Taking his lyrical marriage of the emotive and the idiosyncratic and shuffling them into his warmly atmospheric melodies; there's no one else quite like him.

Jan
21
2009

Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel Review

Late of the Pier’s Fantasy Black Channel has finally landed in the States after appearing in the UK last August. It would be easy to joke that it’s further procrastination from a band that spent an inordinately long amount of time preparing their debut album (they’ve been around for more than seven years). Before then, they had a series of singles. Considering that LotP stuffed four of them into the tracklist—five, if you count the one released just before the album release—it would be even easier to write off the record as just a batch of closed-off, to-the-ceiling ravers. But they’re no one-trick-ponies, these fellas. Each of their hits are of the same breed, but there is no conveyor-belt similarity in their style. But considering their genre and influences, you wouldn’t be off base in assuming that this record has its share of highs and lows.

Beginning with the highs, “Bathroom Gurgle” was the song that first thrust the spotlight in their direction. It’s inventively convoluted, swinging its proverbial hips in opposite directions every sixty seconds or so. And singer Samuel Eastgate slinks in and out of a Prince falsetto so naturally, it’s tempting to diagnose him with the same faux-multiple personality disorder afflicting Kevin Barnes/Georgie Fruit (I’d even assume it was actually Fruit that Eastgate was channeling if this didn’t predate Skeletal Lamping). Nevertheless, “Gurgle” is relatively unwound and serpentine compared to most of the rest, making it a welcome reprieve at the album’s end. Being darn catchy doesn’t hurt either.

Unconventional may describe “Gurgle,” but not so much what preceded it—in fact, safer-hand moments overwhelm other unexpected tangents. Aside from the lurching (and mildly irritating) stutter of “The Bears Are Coming” and the brief but gleefully unpredictable instrumental, “VW,” every song makes maximal use of hooks and shake-happy beats. As a result, the jittery electronic gargles that play out the codas of “Broken,” “Whitesnake” and others feel all too superfluous. But danceable synth-pop isn’t the keystone here; more often than not, it’s the angular post-punk rhythms that dominate second impressions. In fact, LotP could be considered a Gang of Four/XTC revivalist with a healthy dose of nostalgic futurism (and the occasional wink towards Afro-beat).

But fear not: even when they stick to the paths already tread by a hundred other bands, they usually manage to deliver mostly solid work. The midsection is stuffed with better-than-passable fare like “Random Firl,” “Heartbeat” and “Focker.” None of them are particularly great (or even that memorable), but they zip by in two or three minutes, and they’d get any nerd disco on the planet jumping. More ambitious (and obvious) muse adulation can be uneven, though. “The Enemy Are the Future” and “Broken” are both space-glam Bowie, particularly in the way Eastgate treats the vocals—derivative but well done. But when they borrow wholesale, the urge to put on the better inspirations can be overwhelming. “Whitesnake”’s intro pilfers freely from Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia,” the arcade squelches on “Bears” is no longer novel thanks to Crystal Castles, Postal Service, etc., and their infatuation with recent winning acts like the Rapture and Klaxons can be vexing when they can’t pull it off as effortlessly as they did.

When you’re caught up in the momentum of the funky dance rockers, it’s tough to complain about these inconsistencies. But just as second looks expose the flaws in their musical attack, paying attention to the lyrics can lead to grimaces on the dancefloor. Eastgate sings as if always in mid-strut, but the words are typically hollow. You don’t expect much insight in these sorts of electro-rock raves, but everything is blurted out in one of three varieties. “Space and the Woods” conveniently offers all three in a handsome package. There’s vague and creaky pseudo-poetry (“Suicide is in my blood/It always was/But it doesn't evaporate in the light anymore”), narcissistic boasting (“I'm shit hot, so say what you think about me/I'm not gonna cry cuz I don't care”) and slapdash mélanges of narration and posturing (“Late on a Monday night/I'm on the grapevine/Beating around the bush/Adds to the bassline/Thinking about the time/When I was dancing slow/And out of control”). A shame, too, because “Space” has the most anthemic synth line on the entire disc.

Despite being the singer, Eastgate isn’t really the star of the show. That honor would have to go to producer Erol Alkan, a DJ and remix veteran. Without his efforts, LotP would almost undoubtedly stumble over their post-punk mashes. While hardly novel, the professional mixing and polish keeps one foot firmly in the camp of the Numans and Enos. But while numerous recent bands have done it both better and worse, originality isn’t the key to the success of this so-called “nu-rave” niche. That requirement goes to how well it rattles inside your head. Some moments landed with a thud, but more often than not, my head thumped along without complaint. That’s all I need. For now.

Jan
15
2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion Review

Faithful readers of JPP’s music reviews probably already know that I’m not an Animal Collective fan. It’s been impossible not to recognize the burgeoning and passionate following this group has cultivated over the last nine years, but witnessing their infatuation always left me confused, exasperated even. I can’t admit to playing fair—I’ve only heard two of their albums all the way through (and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch). But little in those two albums made me eager to seek out any more. Sung Tongs had its share of bright moments, but there were too many off-putting passages that dragged on and on to give cause to repeat the entire thing again and again. The other was Here Comes the Indian, one of the most painful full-lengths I’ve ever had to endure; if it wasn’t making me cringe, it was putting me to sleep. I wouldn’t even hesitate to compare it to Metal Machine Music—yes, that bad.

Assuming now that the AC followers have recovered from their apoplexy, I will continue. There was never a doubt in my mind that the four members of Animal Collective (even during the slog of Indian) had vast amounts of talent in each of their persons. Just because I despised it didn’t mean I wasn’t aware that someone would find it quite fascinating. Quite a few, in fact, as my first experience with them was spurred on by the growing acclaim they received from many critics and fans. But it perplexed me as to why anyone would prefer folk/pop scrambled into chaos when there was “normal” folk/pop out there to hear.

There’s certainly room for experimentation in the music community; hell, I encourage every artist out there to venture from the beaten path from time to time. But there has to be method to the madness, and too often I felt like AC was just screwing around. They know how to pen a good tune, but they also know how to spoil it all by throwing in ear-splitting noises, feverish yelping bleats and droning on and on until even the decent ones become tiresome before the final fade. Consider the result of a hastily organized Glenn Branca/Philip Glass fantasy collaboration. Or more specifically, they reminded me of Fiery Furnaces at their most rambling; it was almost as if they were bored with doing what everyone else wished they could do with half the ease, so they tried doing things that no one should ever attempt. Comparably, they made early Sonic Youth sound as pop-pro as the Raspberries.

But the hype surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion could not be easily dismissed. The buildup to its release (out now on vinyl, available on CD on Jan. 20) has even surpassed Dear Science. And early word was about as enthusiastic as anyone could hope for. The blogophiles threw around “masterpiece” enough to dull its definition, and hearing that it was AC’s best effort to date made me snicker silently that such a feat wouldn’t be that newsworthy. But sooner or later, the hype can’t be resisted. And as I read multiple comparisons to the Beach Boys and that it would be a history-making record, I began to wear down. More than one even suggested that this album would be this generation’s Pet Sounds; a ludicrous thing to say (is there a movie out there that’ll be this generation’s Citizen Kane?), but one that nevertheless gave me pause. And as soon as I heard that this one would go down as AC’s “pop” album, my optimism grew. Maybe, at long last, they’d get out of their own avant-garde way and deliver something both accessible and adventurous. An end to their bad-trip psychedelia and a shift towards something more appropriately mind-altering and thoroughly incandescent.

For once, the Animal Collective fans are mostly right. No, this won’t “change” pop music the way some say OK Computer did a decade ago, but the hype is appropriately directed. Merriweather is indeed the crossroads of the norm and the alternative. They remain idiosyncratic, experimental and even freakish in their approach, but everything is leavened with dreamy psychedelia, droning electronic loops, rattling African beats and harmonious vocals. It’s the next logical step for a band growing under a widening spotlight—but they’re doing it backwards. Instead of escaping from the derivations of their inspirations like almost every other band does, they’re beginning to show their colors more clearly by paying careful homage to those they love. It’s still a form of maturation, but done in a way that would make Benjamin Button feel less lonely.

So who do they love? It doesn’t take Kreskin to figure out from Person Pitch that it’s Brian Wilson. I’m pretty shaky on the Pet Sounds comparison, but there’s no doubt that there’s some Beach Boys in this bunch, particularly the way they treat the vocals. Avey Tare’s previous deranged vocal spasms are a thing of the past; now he (Dave Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) work together to create an ethereal echo that drifts along with the music. More recent similarities relate to Mercury Rev, early Björk and the Flaming Lips. Their demonstrative affection for their psychedelic and harmonic pop brethren shouldn’t be too surprising; the album title came from the name of a Maryland music venue they used to frequent in their youth.

The track that most will gravitate towards is no doubt “My Girls.” Starting with a chugging synth pattern that owes more than a little to Kraftwerk, it gradually builds steam with the addition of untold numbers of miscellaneous sounds (tying to figure out what was used on this album would be as harrying and worthless as trying to discern why). Portner and Lennox drift along a sunny California melody and evoke Wilson strongest on this one. The climax is expectedly subdued—they engage their hookiest moments the way shoegaze and drone do: minimal fanfare. Nevertheless, there’s a clear structure in place on “Girls,” and one that insists on order in exchange for their typically chaotic constructs. Reining in their eccentricities may disappoint some of the band’s faithful, but this song will win over everyone, whether devotee, detractor or anyone in between.

Among the other highlights is “Summertime Clothes,” one that succeeds in large part to the group’s typically odd, plain-faced and sometimes seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrical creations. Deciphering the cryptic messages is next to impossible, but there’s something primitively suggestive about lines like, “Soak my head in the sink for a while/Chills on my neck and it makes me smile,” and, “Forehead is leaking, but hey, she squeaks.” And when they slow things down (making what they’re saying more vital to our enjoyment), they manage the curiously endearing statement, “I locked my bones and trapped my feet/I told them I found them a place to be/And stick like candy in your teeth/When you lose your faith in me,” during “No More Runnin’.”

The bookends are particularly strong. “In the Flowers” is a slowly unfolding opener, beginning with looping grunts that sound like a pig snorting through slop and culminating at the halfway point when the song takes an ecstatic right turn and soars like the anthem that so many others try and fail to craft. At the album's end, “Brothersport” is misleading. It opens with an Afro-Caribbean jangle and the cry, “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat,” is delivered with all the quirky, chattering enthusiasm of early They Might Be Giants. But the song reveals itself to be about the consolation and aide of a sibling over their shared father’s passing. In the middle, a peculiar siren sound loops over electronic beeping; that its presence doesn’t detract from the listener’s enjoyment of the more hook-friendly and bouncy passages proves that the band is firing on all cylinders.

If Merriweather just lands short of true greatness, an abundance of wealth can certainly be considered for blame. At almost 55 minutes, it’s an exhausting listen, especially since they keep things sonically busy for pretty much the entire length. And even though each selection attains its own singularity through some trick (the didgeridoo sound on “Lion in a Coma, the parasitic tempo of “No More Runnin’,” the unusual organ flares on “Daily Routine,” etc.), there’s an undeniable sameness to the percolating expressiveness sandwiched into the gaps of the repeating cyclical rhythms. And the Wilson-esque vocalizing never lets up; no doubt, it makes Merriweather more unified and album-y, but a change of pace would have breathed life into the mildly limp midsection. Of the lot, though, only the late-60s languid psychedelia pastiche of “Bluish” doesn’t meet the high water mark established early on.

Guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb) reportedly didn’t contribute to Merriweather, though I doubt his absence had an effect on the band’s refreshing new aesthetic. Instead, I think it’s the exhaustion of their limitless ideals. Much like Sonic Youth eventually found ways to make their experimentalism sound both arty and catchy after a few years of tinkering, I suspect that AC have recently discovered there’s a way to make music that’s cluttered and clean, noisy and melodic. No matter the connotation (derision or affection), if this is their “pop” record, I hope they become eccentric pop darlings. In fact, the album impressed me enough to return to those older records and see if I could appreciate them better. And, yes, Sung Tongs and Person Pitch both rose a notch in my mind; rambling and dysfunctional they remain, but with enough slow-growth charm to warrant some greater fraction of their combined praise. Ten minutes of skipping around Indian, though, proved that some things never change. I’ll stick with Merriweather Post Pavilion, an unexpectedly terrific release that sets up this new year at unfairly high expectations.

Jan
12
2009

Led Zeppelin Planning a Tour and New Album…Without Robert Plant

robplantMany bands have decided to attempt the seemingly impossible feat of replacing a lead singer, but few succeed. For every Brian Johnson there are two dozen Paul Rodgerses and Gary Cherones and Tony Martins making us roll our eyes. Sometimes it’s barely an issue, particularly for smaller bands or ones yet to hit it big (or ones where vocals have little influence). But as NME recently reported, Led Zeppelin is strongly considering going on the road and even recording a new album without Robert Plant on vocals. If the reports validate themselves in the future and plans proceed as expected, this will be soon become known as the stupidest fucking decision in the history of rock and roll.

Jan
08
2009
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Ron Asheton (1948-2009)

ronasheton03Less than two months after the death of Mitch Mitchell, the world loses another oft-unsung musical genius, Ron Asheton. He was found dead this morning at his home in Ann Arbor, MI; the initial reported cause of death was listed as a heart attack. It's unclear if it was drug-related, but no one suspects foul play. When discovered, Asheton had been dead for several days, with estimates suggesting that he passed either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day at the age of 60. 2009 is already off to a shitty start.

Jan
06
2009
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Glasvegas - A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like a Kiss) Review

As music fans drag their proverbial feet during the dregs of holiday-timed release morass, it’s fitting that they should consider that old faithful standby: the Christmas album. Not the bite-sized gift between LPs for faithful fans that some bands are generous enough to hand out, but those usually disposable batch of carol standards crooned by artists both diva and dust. The ones that are spinned repeatedly while you sip on eggnog and make small talk with people you haven’t seen in a year’s time. Somehow both priceless and worthless, they’re never played outside of December, but only Christmas music overkill will have you reaching for a hammer to smash them to bits. Which brings us to Glasvegas, which has the temerity to give fans something halfway in between: it’s not an album full of carols nor is it a single/B-side series for the devoted. It’s five originals and a version of “Silent Night.” Everything’s wintry and sparkling but there’s far more gloom than cheer in this chestnut. I guess it’s a holiday gift for the desolate…or something like that.

We shouldn’t really be surprised that a band that adores implementing chiming bells would see fit to releasing a Christmas album—an obsession with Phil Spector’s Christmas compilation bore the fruit of this bonus release. This is, after all, a band that takes the Walkmen sonic ideology and pushes it even further. But with the exception of their “Silent Night” (pedantically crediting it with the subtitle, “Noapte de Vis”), there’s no overt Christmas expression on here. Yes, their use of choral accompaniment on “Careful What You Wish For” sounds ridiculous if not for the frosty furrow, but keep in mind that the song that follows is called “Fuck You, It’s Over.” The holiday breakup tale times that one appropriately, but the glow of a Christmas tree probably shouldn’t be accompanied by the sound of the usually-dulcet James Allan filling his throat with the venom to spout that kiss off.

So “Silent Night” becomes the extraneous eccentricity. Their sole inspiration in tinkering with the familiar standby is to coat the arrangement in a light veneer of reverb (far less opaque than their usual output). Otherwise, it’s actually disappointingly straightforward—and out of place, as a result. Elsewhere, Glasvegas is economically running through their routine. “Fuck You” and the muddled homeless-on-Xmas ballad, “Cruel Moon,” are close cousins to songs from Glasvegas. The emotive single, “Please Come Back Home,” is punchier and poppier, and as 80s as leg warmers and mullets. Minor surprises: Rab Allan takes his Kevin Shields shtick and spikes it with a healthy dose of Edge and the title track has a less cluttered arrangement and finds the vocals dusted with a faint Spanish tongue-roll. But mostly it’s just a huge, snowy pile of reverb overlaid with cascading chimes so relentless that the Crystals might raise a collective eyebrow.

You can’t really fault them for self-important affectation; the album was mostly recorded in an old cathedral in Transylvanina—not on mere whim. If they want to be significant, blessed are we so long as they avoid the widescreen choruses of arena anthems. Let their sentimental output be filtered through gauze and then dashed with glitter. A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like a Kiss) is precisely as ostentatious as one would expect from that title, but it’s a mini-LP packaged with their debut full-length. So it’s for fans only. And as someone who found that debut to be impressionable, though not particularly laudatory, I gets what I expects. What should anyone anticipate from a “Christmas album” performed by a pack of dejected Scots? Just be prepared to get buried in melodious fuzz—just the time of year to have your snow shovel ready.

Jan
04
2009


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