Saturday, October 25, 2008

Music Review - Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments

For anyone who’s still clinging to the image of Vic Chesnutt as a mostly-acoustic Southern gothic folkie, it’s time to give that idea up. Though his earliest albums were often rooted in such sensibilities – debut album Little in particular – there’s always been a strong current of experimentalism and electricity scattered throughout Chesnutt’s canon. Though such songs were usually structured around mostly-acoustic melodies and traditional structures with Chesnutt’s ragged voice often providing a sharp contrast, others like “Drunk” and “Old Hotel” hinted at such harder edges.

Chesnutt’s last couple releases have made these edges more obvious, albeit to mixed results. Ghetto Bells, which to these damaged ears sounded willfully difficult and today still comes across as mostly ponderous and plodding, found the musician experimenting heavily with various musical textures and production techniques. 2007’s North Star Deserter is perhaps Chesnutt’s most musically aggressive and abrasive album to date. Though that album sported the occasional downbeat song, it was overwhelmingly a damn loud record, full of distortion and other noises that made all the windows in the neighborhood shake.

Dark Developments combines these disparate aspects of Chesnutt’s music and also adds some new tricks along the way. Assisted by (genuflect please) Elf Power and frequent backing band, the Amorphous Strums, it’s the most accessible and consistently good album Chesnutt’s released since The Salesman and Bernadette. Those Vicophiles who still prefer his more melodic songs as well as those who take their Vic with a heavy dose of electricity will both be satisfied.

What’s most noticeable on this album is the way subtle melodies and background vocals are mixed with muscular and sometimes harsh musical arrangements. Nearly every song features a full onslaught of such vocals, which both compliment the melodies and reinforce the collaborative nature of the album. You won’t find many “Dodge” moments here; Chesnutt’s voice is usually just one of many throughout these songs. “Teddy Bear,” “Bilocating Dog,” and “And How” are close to being group sing-alongs, though the subject matter is a far cry from your classic community Kumbayas.

Other songs augment these backing vocals with enough distortion, fuzz, and noise to ensure some ruptured eardrums when played at maximum volume. The subtly-titled “Little Fucker” barrels in with harsh and loud guitars like a kick upside the head. “We Are Mean” carries a similarly aggressive tone; the last minute or so of the song is a racket of swirling noise. Whereas North Star Deserter sometimes seemed to intentionally disregard melody just for the sake of clang-boom-steam, even the louder songs this time around accentuate each song’s melody.

Though playing the game of lyrical analysis is always dicey, some themes recur throughout the album. Several songs are built around wholesome things like anger, disgust, and cynicism. Chesnutt sneers a litany of insults in “Little Fucker,” leaving the unnamed F-bomber in question to “Dry up in the sun/Like a raisin/Or a leather skeleton,” derisively concluding, “He’s good riddance.” In the wryly humorous and bouncy “And How,” Chesnutt takes some more shots at a hapless victim, suggesting that the individual “Open up your trash/Then go take a bath/You’ll need one.”

Like many of Chesnutt’s earlier songs, this release is rife with images of death and decay, often accompanied with dark humor. “Stop the Horse” references a possibly deceased politician whose age might now be counted in dirt years, with Chesnutt singing that he “Can already smell the county bloat.” The upbeat singing of “Teddy Bear” betrays the bleak statement that “He ain’t never coming back;” though who or what the Teddy Bear refers to is open to interpretation.

“Bilocating Dog” is pure dark comedy, complete with a morbid sense of humor and skewed rhyme scheme: “Johnny was a terrier/He had his first seizure/At the feet of old Auntie Lee/You should of heard her screaming.” It should also be noted that this emphasis on death is reflected in the album’s artwork; the painting included on the back cover, with its numerous political undertones, is itself worthy of close examination.

Though some of the new songs are occasionally reminiscent of Chesnutt’s previous songs – opening track “Mystery,” with is prominent harmonica and minimal instrumentation, wouldn’t be out of place on Is the Actor Happy? – Dark Developments marks a noticeable stylistic shift for the artist. Chesnutt’s singing becomes more controlled with each subsequent album; the days when he’d stretch a word like “Florida” into 14 syllables accompanied by sparse instrumentation are long gone. With musical and vocal assists from Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums, the album successfully merges Chesnutt’s penchant for melody with his more experimental and electric tendencies.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Music Review - Sleepy John Estes - On 80 Highway

Recorded just three years before his death in 1977 (Elvis Presley wasn’t the only musician of note to die that year), On 80 Highway is a collection of 17 studio tracks by blues vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Sleepy John Estes. Accompanied by longtime cohort Hammie Nixon on vocals, harmonica, and that most underrated of instruments, the kazoo, Estes offers rough and evocative interpretations of traditional songs, as well as a couple of his own songs.

First the obvious: this CD most likely will not appeal to a wide audience; it’s not going to set the charts aflame and it’s probably not going to posthumously catapult Estes into the spotlight. You won’t hear these songs during a particularly heart-wrenching and overwrought emotional moment on one of the many current indistinguishable television dramas, nor will any of these songs make the cut on the next Guitar Hero video game. But for fans of blues music or those simply interested in the rich history of how traditional songs are reinvented and reworked, On 80 Highway is a welcome release.

In many ways the album falls neatly within the boundaries of the blues, both in terms of subject matter and style. Songs like “Holy Spirit,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Do Lord Remember Me” cover familiar religious ground, two versions of “President Kennedy” are reminders as to how the blues could be both topical and political, and songs like “Corrine Corrina’ and “Mary Come On Home” are laments for the gal who got away. The specter of death is overtly invoked in some of the songs – Estes’ aggressive take on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” in particular – while Estes’ own “Brownsville Blues” also hints at mortality. And in true blues fashion, there’s also at least one bawdy and suggestive track as well, in the form of “Potatoe (Dan Quayle alert!) Diggin’ Man.”

The traits that defined Estes as a unique bluesman are apparent throughout the session. His guitar playing, never considered to be outstanding or top-notch, is passable but rough, with the occasional bum chord being noticeable. In many ways this warts-and-all approach actually enhances this release; it captures the singer at a particular moment of time, seemingly unconcerned with such technical shortcomings.

Though Nixon provides excellent textures to many of the songs – his harmonica and kazoo playing ranges from subtle and reserved to frenzied and manic, and also compensates for the singer’s sometimes shaky guitar work – Estes’ unique voice is what really carries these songs. Estes’ approach has often been described as “crying the blues,” which is still an apt description. His voice carries an emotional weight to it; in his mid-70s at the time of this recording, Estes’ voice is plaintive, weathered, and worn.

The album also offers interested fans another chance to revisit Estes’ often-tragic life. Completely blind at the time of this recording, Estes lived in poverty and anonymity in Brownsville, Tennessee for much of his life. Because he tended to sing like an old man, even in his youth, it was assumed that he had been dead for years as he seemingly dropped off the blues map (Samuel Charters and blues historian Bob Koester, who provides liner notes for this release, are credited with “finding” Estes in 1962 and getting him to resume recording and touring). After a long professional recording and touring career that started in the 1920s, Estes died of a stroke in 1977.

While some blues aficionados might argue that On 80 Highway doesn’t carry the power and emotional qualities of Estes’ earlier songs (his recordings for Victor Records, Decca, and Bluebird still sound relevant today), it’s still a welcome release for one of the blues genre’s most enigmatic and fascinating figures.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Music Review - Skeletons - Money

Sometimes you just need a relaxing, gentle and unobtrusively quiet album. Something to calm your nerves, convince you the world isn't heading straight for the shitter and reinforce your belief that the mortal coil to which you're currently attached won't spiral hopelessly out of control as you sleep at night. Something that raises your spirits, keeps the wolves (at least momentarily) at the door, and maybe even brings a few laughs or moments of joy, however fleeting or temporary.

Money, the latest release from indie band Skeletons, is not that album.

Abrasive and jarring, with enough abrupt musical stops, starts and stylistic changes to give the listener an acute case of vertigo, it's an unsettling and disorienting listen. It blends guitars, drums, keyboards and a small army of horns with experimental electronic noises and beats, often mashed into disquieting throb. Yet if you're wired a certain way - and if you're reading this review on this particular website, you probably are - it's an innovative, compelling and addictive album.

The band, founded by lead singer Matt Mehlan and at this time including Jon Leland, Tony Lowe, and Jason McMahon, has certainly traversed such ground previously. 2005's Git and 2007's Lucas both relied heavily on divergent musical styles and movements within their songs; no sooner was a particular melody or rhythm established before it was violently abandoned in favor of a new one. Though both those albums occasionally sounded almost overly clinical in their precision and instrumental contrasts, suggesting an inordinate amount of post-production "fine-tuning," they were still unique enough to warrant some much-deserved attention in indie circles.

For the most part, {Money} is more successful in this atmospheric approach than those two previous albums; it sounds rawer and less polished, even if the press release's claim that the album was recorded live is a tough sell.

The album carries an air of claustrophobia; opening track "Fill My Pockets Full" repeats a monotonous keyboard line against a backdrop of bleating car horns. Other tracks reinforce the sudden and unnerving musical shifts that characterize much of the album. "The Things," "Ripper a.k.a. The Pillows," "Stepper a.k.a. Work" and "Eleven (It'll Rain!)" incorporate horns, drums and guitars with various electronic noises and pulses in a repeating pattern only to short-circuit before the listener has a chance to get grounded, each song shifting to disparate and often violent new musical thoughts. Mehlan's falsetto voice creates an odd effect against the music; at times somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke, he tends to sing at the same pace regardless of the instrumentation.

These various musical ticks and tendencies are most successfully synthesized on the near-12 minute "Booom! (Money)." The song opens with guitars, drums and a shitload of electronic pops and clicks to simulate what sounds like cash registers, Mehlan's voice slightly above the fracas, until the song dissolves into a cacophony of noise that lasts for damn near seven minutes. Through either sheer coincidence or intent, the song (like much of the album) implies a long list of impeccable influences: Velvet Underground, Dub Housing-era Pere Ubu, and especially the Stooges (in this case, "L.A. Blues").

Along with plenty of references to the almighty baksheesh, the lyrics reflect the restlessness and dissatisfaction implied in the song's frequently shifting instrumental textures. "Stepper a.k.a. Work" includes enough angst and pessimism to make every aging flannel-clad grunge obsessive proud. "What I thought I wanted was a little bit of hope," Mehlan deadpans, concluding with the cheery statement that "I'm gonna get paid enough to survive / So that I quit complaining for once in my life."

Other songs imply that coping with daily life requires a fair amount of self-delusion; "There is a simple way to get through the day / If you like magic tricks," Mehlan advises in the choir-like chant of "Unrelentinglessness." The album's outlook is bleak; "The Things" references "dead men stuck to the river's floor," while the album's closing track, with its snarled and distorted repeated warning of "it'll rain", sounds like an unavoidable statement of impending doom. "Get your suntan while you still can," Mehlan warns.

If you're over a certain age and your last name isn't Waits, this album might seem best suited for use in driving brutal dictators out of hiding. Certainly it's a loud and intense album whose many instrumental shifts border on being sadistic. It's disorienting and unsettling, and will likely cause a sustaining ringing in your ears. And that's a good thing.

Music Review – Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

How do I put this? The latest release from Lucinda Williams, Little Honey, drips with enough romantic schmaltz to make Romeo seem like a lightweight and to keep Pepto Bismol in business well into the next millennium. It's the second consecutive underwhelming album from the normally reliable musician; her previous effort, West, was the first real dud of her career and one of the worst directionally-named albums this side of Elvis Costello's pseudo-jazz groaner North. Though Williams bristled in various interviews that fans and critics never really gave that album a fair chance, to these ravaged ears the criticism was mostly well-founded. West was simply a dull and listless album.

As Williams readily acknowledges, many of the songs on Little Honey are unabashedly borne out of recent positive events in her personal life: specifically, she's cuckoo for producer and fiancé Tom Overby. Which is wonderful news; as the old bluesman once sang, everybody needs somebody. But make for an outstanding album it does not.

Opening track "Real Love" kicks off this saccharine fest with rollicking guitars reminiscent of other songs from Williams' back catalog. Throughout the album, the band gives it their best shot (badass drummer Butch Norton in particular), but the song's maudlin sentiment kills any momentum the music attempts to establish. As if to make the song's message painfully clear (for those of you who weren't paying attention), Williams uses the big L word a whopping 28 times.

Other songs also reflect this theme but take a much more deliberate musical approach. "Tears of Joy," "The Knowing," and "Rarity" each plod along at an agonizingly slow pace, with no real payoff. In particular, "Rarity" seems much longer than its already hefty eight-minute running time and ensures that the album's overall pace remains sporadic and dodgy. The three songs also sound remarkably similar, with only the occasional instrumental flourish or background vocal (including some truly over-the-top ones on "Tears of Joy") to distinguish one from the other.

What also makes this album so frustrating is that there are some solid songs scattered amongst the detritus. "Honey Bee" is perhaps the most ballsy and aggressive song Williams has ever recorded. It's damn loud - drums and a whole mess of guitars flail away as the singer practically shouts some suggestive lyrics that would make puritans in the audience blush. "Jailhouse Tears" is a humorous and somewhat poignant story of a "three-time loser" and his long-suffering significant other. Sung as a duet with Costello and wearing its country music influences proudly, the singers each offer their side of the story; Costello's assertion of "Look at me/ I'm clean now" is wryly dismissed by Williams' unconvinced female character: "You're so full of shit."

Other songs such as"If Wishes Were Horses" and "Circles and X's" are supported by gorgeous melodies and deal in the usual topics of broken hearts and fractured relationships that Williams has mined on previous albums. "Circles and X's," written all the way back in 1985 is a moving snapshot of a relationship on the skids and is the album's standout track. "The vows have all been broken" the narrator laments as her man heads for the door, poetically noticing how "sunlight reflects off the silver" on the man's finger.

These moments are unfortunately rare on Little Honey; its meandering and lovey-dovey songs are always lurking around the corner like the crazy uncle you're trying to avoid at the family reunion. And like that crazy uncle, once you run into these songs it's a total buzzkill. This isn't to say that Williams should create Car Wheels On a Gravel Road II either, nor does it mean criticism of this release is nothing more than complaining by Gravel Roadites clamoring for such a sequel. Certainly it's always nice to see an artist with an established reputation and musical style attempt new things, both musically and thematically. But sometimes those attempts fall short of the mark and the results are underwhelming. Little Honey is such an album.

Music Review – Various Artists – Johnny Cash Remixed

At the current rate, the number of posthumous Johnny Cash releases will soon surpass those that were released while the Man in Black was on this mortal coil. Perhaps this is to be expected; the music icon is now a veritable, uh, cash machine, and apparently there's a thirsty market for this material, much of which is previously-available material recycled and repackaged in new formats. These various releases have run the gamut from essential (Personal File is a must for any Cash fan) to the completely pointless (Chapter and Verse is nothing more than a reissued version of Cash reading from the King James bible, and a law should be passed to stop the ongoing flood of Cash Greatest Hits albums).

Johnny Cash Remixed falls somewhere in between. A collection of various hip hop artists performing remixed versions of both Cash standards and a few of his more obscure songs, it's not exactly a curiosity piece, but also isn't required listening for either Cash or rap fans. Equal parts exciting and creative, frustrating and absurd, it's an interesting but uneven take on how Cash's patented spare and stripped down music can be manipulated and bent to fit a completely disparate musical genre.

The most successful remixes are those that attempt to place Cash's songs in a modern context, either by adding lyrics that compliment the original words or by applying various beats, thwacks, and thumps to the melodies. Opening track "I Walk the Line" is reworked by QDT and Snoop Dogg into a mellow take on commitment and walking the straight and narrow. Excusing the usual business where Snoop announces his name at least once in every track he's involved in (which I suspect is actually required by his contract), he adds new lyrics that fit well within the song's context.

Alabama 3's remix of "Leave That Junk Alone," Kennedy's version of "Sugartime" and The Heavy's take on "Doin' My Time" incorporate driving rhythms that place the original songs' somewhat subdued instrumentation much higher in the mix. Alabama 3 also transforms the song into a modern cautionary tale about addiction and excess, with a set of original lyrics that show how some of Cash's most well-worn themes are remarkably similar to those found throughout the hip hop genre. In this version, Cash plays the role of bartender, preacher and all-around voice of reason; it's the album's most creative and striking interpretation as it bridges the vast stylistic differences between country and hip hop to find common ground in a shared subject matter.

The rest of the album's remixes are largely rote: vocals are distorted and clipped, certain lines or phrases are repeated ad nausea and throbbing beats you wouldn't want to hear first thing in the morning in the grip of a hangover continue without mercy. Philip Steir's take on "Get Rhythm" is pure twitchy starts and stops (ironic considering the song's title). Yet perhaps the most egregious offender is Sonny J's remix of "Country Boy." Complete with some truly heinous and overwrought background vocals, it bears a disturbing similarity to Will Smith's "Getting Jiggy With It." If there's a Hell, my guess is that this song is played on an endless loop.

These turds in the Cristal also unintentionally raise those pesky questions about how an icon's musical legacy should be preserved and interpreted posthumously. Though Cash's son John Carter is listed as one the three executive producers, it's probably fair to ask how much more can be bled from the stone. Ignoring the baksheesh-based motives that cynical fans rightly question, the seemingly endless compilations and reissues that are expurgated out on an annual basis still have some merit: if anything, they provide Cash novices with a vast number of starter kits from which to choose.

Nevertheless, it's hard to find much merit in this release. Though a few of the artists included succeed in the difficult balancing act of providing a hip hop perspective on Cash's country songs while also maintaining his overarching themes and characteristics, too many of the tracks are indistinguishable from the generic approaches so often applied to remixes. Fans looking for a consistently good album that reinterprets the music of Johnny Cash will ultimately be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview with Paul Trynka, author of Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed

In his revealing and detailed biography Open Up and Bleed, Paul Trynka examines the life of Jim Osterberg, better known to music fans as Iggy Pop. Trynka, formerly the reviews editor of Mojo magazine from 1999 to 2003, uses both previously-available information and new interviews he conducted to create an exhaustive, informative, and sometimes startling character study of one of music’s most celebrated and notorious personas. In the following interview, Trynka discusses a variety of Iggy-related topics, including the nature of this persona and the toll it took on the musician’s mental state, the musician’s intense ambition and lasting musical legacy, and why an Iggy Pop tune just might be the single worst song of the 1980s.

Blogcritics (BC): A central theme of the book is the contrast between Jim Osterberg as a person and Iggy Pop as a musical persona. In many ways it’s hard to reconcile the polite, articulate, and almost genteel Jim Osterberg vs. the wild madman of Iggy Pop. Do you think it reached a point where the person was indistinguishable from the persona?

Paul Trynka (PT): The classic moment when Jim Osterberg lost control of Iggy Pop was, I think, when he was hospitalized in 1974. Although he was diagnosed with hypomania, a bipolar condition, the psychiatrist who treated him now thinks his problems were simply a product of his extravagant drug intake – and his out of control personae. Of course, it was gratifying to have a clinician confirm what others had suspected, and justify what became a central premise of the book.

BC: What do you think the biggest influences were in shaping this persona? Various people quoted in the book offer up a host of reasons for the musician’s behavior.

PT: Quite simply, it was audience hostility. Jim Osterberg took his ‘art’ very seriously – and when the early audiences rejected him, or mocked him, the Iggy character became a kind of psychic armor. It helped a lot – for a while. But, just as in the best, and worst, horror movies, the creation began to take on a life of its own.

BC: You suggest that maintaining this persona eventually began to take its toll on Osterberg’s mental state.

PT: Well, eventually the man had what was essentially a mental breakdown, and became a forlorn, pathetic figure. But I think it wasn’t so much maintaining the persona that caused the breakdown, as coping with his own apparent failure. Because Jim Osterberg was a very ambitious guy.

BC: This persona is one of the most infamous in music history. In the various interviews and research you conducted for the book, how difficult was it to sort the facts from the myths?

PT: After a while, you develop a nose for the stories that aren’t true, and of course there was endless cross-checking. I felt horrendously guilty about going back to people again and again to refine a story – but did it nonetheless. That said, there were events where different people’s accounts were simply incompatible, so I’d simply choose one person’s version and construct my account from that, mentioning this in the notes. Along the way, I had to drop a lot of juicy stories that turned out to be fictitious – but then I found just as many juicy new ones, including Iggy’s bizarre involvement with voodoo practitioners in Haiti!

BC: The book offers an overall sympathetic depiction of the musician, yet there are still plenty of unflattering moments included.

PT: Of course I felt a duty to be honest, to illustrate a man who was, in terms of dealing with other people, almost entirely selfish. But his gift to other people, to all of us, was his music – and, of course, the person who suffered most in the making of it was himself.

BC: What was the most thrilling or memorable thing about seeing Iggy Pop perform? What was the atmosphere like?

PT: Those who saw him in the 60s and 70s describe a visceral thrill and excitement – and also fear, that sense that anything could happen. Even today, you get a sense of that. I found it absolutely inspiring how he’s still borne along on the music, how this 60 year-old gentleman with a bad limp becomes a carefree child, skipping onto the stage like a spring lamb.

BC: Even now, the way he would confront the audience seems startling. It’s hard to imagine any band today doing this.

PT: I guess I've seen plenty of bands out on the edge, with the sense that it could all fall apart at any moment – that’s what makes music exciting. But these days, it seems like it’s simply a career that’s at stake; in Iggy’s prime, it seemed like it was his life that was at stake.

BC: Many times Iggy Pop seemed on the verge of mainstream success, both with The Stooges and later as a solo artist, yet it eluded him. What do you think were the major factors that contributed to this?

PT: They say pioneers get all the arrows. I think that’s true. It’s generally the band who put a gloss on something new who clean up in the charts. But it’s always the pioneers that are remembered, a decade or two on. Today, who remembers that Pat Boone had more pop hits than Little Richard?

BC: The drug use documented in the book is pretty staggering, and it’s been suggested that The Stooges’ music would have sounded far different without chemical assistance.

PT: A lot of their inspiration came from drugs – they certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same, and likely wouldn’t have sounded as good, without it. But it was a Faustian pact that left two bassists dead, plus plenty of other friends.

BC: David Bowie’s motives in hooking up with Iggy Pop have been questioned for years. What’s your take?

PT: The quick answer is that, first time around, their friendship benefited David, and that second time around, it benefited Iggy. But it’s more complex than that. I think Iggy’s own description of David, when he first met him, is pretty apposite. He called him “a not unkind person.”

BC: Has the Stooges’ limited recorded output somehow enhanced their legacy? Music fans sometimes find the idea of a band that releases a few brilliant albums, lives like complete lunatics for a while, and then flames out quickly quite romantic.

PT: Well, yes, that’s a large part of their appeal, that they had three albums that were, in a fucked-up kind of way, absolutely perfect. We don’t need anything else to justify their existence.

BC: Who did you find was the most surprising band or artist to cite The Stooges as an influence?

PT: I remember Robbie Williams namechecked him to me once. Go figure.

BC: Favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: It changes every day... I'll say Raw Power, because I’m in a London frame of mind at the moment. And the song would be “Success,” which (in the supreme example of ‘critics’ being wannabe musicians) I sang for my wife at our wedding two weeks ago!

BC: Least favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: There is a particularly horrible song called “Happy Man” – a few correspondents have attempted to get me to back down, but I maintain not only is it the worst song in Iggy’s catalogue, it’s one of the worst songs of the 1980s, and that’s saying something.

BC: Any particular favorite stories or anecdotes about Iggy Pop that either did or didn’t get included in the book?

PT: I remember doing a photo shoot with him in the mid 90s, in the Lower East Side on a sweltering hot day. There was a broken fire hydrant spouting water, and we were asking him to splash himself. Some local wags saw what was happening, sneaked up behind with a cold bucket of water and emptied it over him. I still have the photos that show him laughing. Whatever his faults, I can’t imagine anyone else doing the same.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Music Review - Various - 100 Greatest

An ambitious release from the Shout Factory label, 100 Greatest is a collection of, um, 500 audio clips of some of the most memorable and culturally-impacting speeches, events, pop culture figures, sports moments, and sleazy scandals of the last 100-plus years. With a primary focus on Western (i.e., American) history, and featuring an impressive amount of primary source material, it’s an outstanding and nearly exhaustive overview of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the last century.

Organized thematically across five discs (with each disc also available individually), this set is certainly a true niche market item; it’s highly doubtful those crazy kids who are busy listening to Jonas Brothers bootlegs or watching reruns of The Hills for the show’s subtle plot nuances will have much interest in this release. Of course, their teachers will, as will history dweebs (er, fans), pop culture buffs, and those hapless guys everywhere trying to convince their skeptical dates that they are true intellectuals.

Disc 1 focuses on speeches and is perhaps the most engaging piece of this box set. The oratorical masterpieces or otherwise noteworthy speeches one would expect to find are included here – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, FDR’s “Day of Infamy” address after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1968 eulogy for Robert Kennedy, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech at the Democratic National Convention – and are still both emotionally moving and good primers of what it takes to be a persuasive public speaker. Taken as a whole, this disc offers insights into both the art of public speaking and the impact these speeches had on a specific era.

News stories that gripped the world (many before the days of 24-hour news channels) make up disc 2; equal parts uplifting and sobering, this disc alternates between euphoric moments of human achievement and triumph over scumbags and examples of abject horror and tragedy that suggest Darwin might have been wrong. In most cases, the selections chosen paint a vivid picture of how the event was viewed in its immediate aftermath. A palpable sense of joy runs through the entries that recount the fall of the Berlin Wall and VE Day in World War II. Shock and sorrow are apparent when the various broadcasts and reports address tragedies like the 1999 Columbine shootings, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the many assassinations that are recounted here. As an audio record of such events this disc is indispensable, though it frequently makes for unsettling, and emotional, listening.

Disc 3 is a bit dodgier. Billed as the 100 greatest personalities, the disc includes many of the usual suspects – Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill, and, er, Wernher von Braun, among others – but still excludes many historical figures. Perhaps this is inevitable; nevertheless, some the inclusions are fairly questionable – for example, cycling superman Lance Armstrong seems a much better fit on the disc 5. The exclusions could spark some serious debate; pick your favorite historical, musical, or cultural period and you will be able to name several people that “should” have been included.

Disc 4 tackles the 100 greatest scandals, itself a tough task given the seemingly endless nefarious plots, dirty deals, and shady shysters that have dotted the political and cultural landscape of the last 100 years. Undoubtedly there are enough scandals here to make a shady hedge fund manager or crooked politician proud, including the Clarence Thomas affair, the fall of Enron, and perhaps the gold standard of political scandals, the Watergate affair. Yet some of the inclusions are marginal at best, and the focus of the disc is weighted a bit too heavily on recent history; I suppose Alec Baldwin’s now infamous rant to his daughter is included for comedic relief. Other entries aren’t true scandals in the narrowest sense of the word and seem out of place here, such as Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Still, the disc is an enlightening, and in some ways perversely entertaining, look back at the parade of cons, crooks, and cheats that has marched through history.

Disc 5 includes audio clips from that most holy of sacred institutions: sports. Much of the attention is on baseball, including its dramatic highs (Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch in 1954 and gimpy Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run), lows (strikes in both 1981 and 1994), and several events that for some steroidal reason have clearly lost the luster they once had (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historic 1998 seasons). Taken as a whole, this disc shows that some sports events have had a lasting cultural impact, outside of just being fodder for fantasy geeks. One doesn’t need to be a sports fanatic to enjoy this disc.

100 Greatest is a fascinating audio chronicle and is well worth the time it takes to listen to it. Although there are some shortcomings in this release – some of the inclusions and exclusions are debatable, the booklet is somewhat lacking in details, and the clips on each disc aren’t in any sort of chronological order – it is nevertheless a great snapshot of the key events and figures that have shaped modern history.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Music Review - Lambchop - OH (ohio)

Lambchop’s mix of musical genres still likely creates headaches for retailers when the shelves are being stocked. Even though the band’s lineup changes frequently (singer and lyricist Kurt Wagner being the obvious exception), the band has nevertheless developed a signature sound: a challenging and unique blend of country, alternative rock, folk, lounge, jazz, soul, and Antarctic steel drumming (well, maybe not this one yet). Coupled with Wagner’s untraditional voice – sometimes whispered or spoken or sung in such a way that it sounds like the words are being choked out from his throat and might not quite make it –it’s tough to think of many bands that incorporate so many disparate styles without sounding like a wretched mess of noise.

Their latest album, OH (ohio), continues this tradition of genre bending and is perhaps the band’s most melodic and understated album since 1996’s How I Quit Smoking. The first few songs float along at a relaxed, breezy, and mellow pace, with the band establishing both the tempo and instrumental quirks that run through much of the record. Opening track “Ohio” unfolds slowly with a subtle piano and guitar melody, with background vocals accompanying Wagner as he sings a variation on an old country conceit that “green doesn’t matter when you’re blue.” Second song “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed” likewise follows this pattern, utilizing another textured blend of guitar, keyboards, and background vocals.

Other songs have no background vocals but move at a similar restrained pace, this time placing the emphasis on Wagner’s voice as it alternately sings with or in front of the instruments. He kinda sorta croons on “Of Raymond,” which also features subdued horns and keyboards that provide additional textures to the song. “A Hold Of You” and closing song “I Believe In You” are also noticeably downbeat and slow; the former song also shows a touch of irony as Wagner sings that he’s “such a bad enunciator.”

Some of the faster songs provide a nice change of pace for the album. The humorously-titled “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” are two such examples. Yet “Popeye” is a separate beast altogether. The album’s most experimental song – and those who like their Lambchop obtuse will likely get giddy over this one – its first few minutes lull the listener in with quiet keyboards and Wagner’s hushed vocals, unexpectedly giving way to a manic swirl of instrumental noise that comes on like a kick upside the head. Maybe it’s the sound of Popeye finally getting his spinach, who the hell knows.

As is to be expected with a Lambchop album, Wagner’s lyrics are vague. Perhaps not as obtuse as Nixon – supposedly a concept album that even included a related bibliography, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to have any solid connection whatsoever to the former president – the songs are nevertheless wide open to interpretation.

Themes of loneliness, aging, and separation are implied throughout the album, such as in “Ohio” and “Popeye.” Of course, the cause of the narrator’s woe is anyone’s guess; Wagner might as well be singing the blues because he’s lost his favorite trucker hat. “I’m Thinking of a Number (between 1 and 2)” covers this ground as well, albeit with heavy dose of bleakness and a pretty twisted sense of humor. If a sense of devotion is implied (“We can hold one another until the other is gone”), it comes with a catch as Wagner sings that “I won’t tell you that love is a variable thing/like the shape of your ass that I noticed when you walked away from me.”

It’s an interesting balancing act; the songs are detailed enough to offer hints of their themes and broader context, but the listener must be careful to avoid bastardizing the songs with the kind of wild interpretations usually reserved for college lit courses. Telling images and phrases are used to create a mood and provide glimpses into the songs themselves – “newspapers in an empty basket,” “the topography of your mind,” “a cocktail which consisted of his gin and her vermouth” – but only a fool would claim to know exactly what these songs are about.

OH (ohio) is a quietly insistent album. Though Wagner’s unique style of singing will make listeners lean in a bit more closely to understand the words, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though the music retailers still won’t be able to categorize the band.