Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite Albums of the Year

My choices for albums of the year. Go to for the full list.

13. Dinosaur Jr.
At least one indie reunion didn't destroy the band's legacy in the process. If 2007's Beyond demonstrated that the trio could reunite without wrecking its reputation, this year's Farm proved it was no fluke. Whereas other bands have tried to recreate their classic sound and failed miserably, Dinosaur Jr. didn't even attempt to rehash its past on Farm; those expecting a redux of You're Living All Over Me or Bug were surely disappointed. Instead, the album played to the band's strengths while still sounding original and unique: the intricate guitar workouts, bass and drums of songs like "I Want You To Know," "Plans," "Over It" and "Pieces" couldn't be mistaken for any other band, and never felt forced or redundant.
J. Mascis won't ever be confused with a smooth crooner, but his vocals and lyrics were as evocative as anything from the band's back catalog, especially on slow burners "See You" and "Said the People." Myopic listeners may have tended to zero in on the band's instrumentals - and really, who could blame them? - but Farm contained some of the strongest lyrics and vocals to grace a Dinosaur Jr. album. In a year that regrettably saw too many ill-conceived and poorly executed band reunions, Farm proved such efforts can result in something more than a shitty single and even shittier album. For once, a reunited band didn't simply mail it in; with Farm Dinosaur Jr. created an album that came damn close to matching their best work. -

4. The Antlers
The Antlers created one of this year's - if not this decade's - most complex and profound albums with Hospice, an elegy to loss and remembrance as well as a statement of hope in the face of tragedy. Regardless of the actual events that inspired the record - in interviews lyricist Peter Silberman has downplayed much of the mythology now attached to Hospice - the album is most notable for its dense and varied musical template and richly poetic lyrics. Built around inter-connected storylines of a terminal cancer patient and a disintegrating relationship, Hospice remains a deeply moving album whose standing as one of indie's most fully realized works is assured.
Its songs are alternately devastating and uplifting; empty cancer ward beds, childhood nightmares and dissolution of relationships are contrasted with hopeful defiance and to an extent, guarded optimism. Events are mentioned but the story's complete picture remains elusive and dreamlike, as perspectives and timelines shift to the point that most songs are left open to the listener's interpretation. Silberman's voice and the band's layered instrumentals hold the songs together, never settling on one style for very long but still giving the album an overall tone and consistency.
The world of Hospice is one of transience and fragility, but also one of devotion and, however tentative, optimism. Its characters down mortality and separation squarely and honestly; the album doesn't bullshit and never gives in to resignation. With Hospice, The Antlers managed to take something deeply personal and shape it into a truly universal album. As 2009 ends, the album still is quite simply that type of rare work that serves as a reminder of just how powerful, heartbreaking and comforting music can be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Album of the Decade....

More at

Andrew Bird

The Mysterious Production of Eggs

[Righteous Babe; 2005]

Nearly five years after its release, Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs remains one of the few albums from this decade that sounds unlike anything that came before it. Three years in the making, the record marked a dramatic stylistic shift for its creator; instead of repeating or even refining the mostly pastoral sounds of Weather Systems, Bird instead created a sprawling album of layered instrumentation, evocative arrangements and expert lyricism. Addressing predominantly dark subject matter with a mixture of sympathy, defiance and dry humor, the record managed to sound both timeless and timely, a quality that has only increased in subsequent years.

Though Bird's vocals still draw mostly inaccurate comparisons to everyone from Paul Simon to Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley, Eggs' instrumental foundation is still difficult to categorize. Restrained songs like "Sovay," "MX Missiles" and "Masterfade" are defined by images of mortality and childhood memories as they bend and sway against Bird's careful arrangements, while the blasts of instrumentation that begin and end the morbidly humorous "Fake Palindromes" are largely unlike anything Bird had recorded up to that point. Violin, glockenspiel, guitar and other instruments are applied throughout, yet the album never sounds overly manufactured; even Bird's frequent whistling never feels self-conscious.

Eggs forgoes linear narratives in favor of striking images and clever wordplay. Though it's a bit dicey to call the album prophetic, its relevance to this decade is immediately recognizable: greedy bastards cash in at others' expense, soldiers march off to war, the economy and its financial institutions crumble. Yet even if the world Bird depicts throughout Eggs is markedly bleak, most of its fatalism is tempered with optimism or, at least, benign acceptance. In this way, the apocalypse of "Tables and Chairs" is greeted not with despair but instead with a celebration, complete with dancing bears, a band, Adderall and, of course, snacks, while "Opposite Day" envisions a new social order where society's grunts take charge and the powers-that-be find themselves incarcerated or in hell.

Andrew Bird released a string of outstanding albums this decade - the idyllic Weather Systems, the expansive Armchair Apocrypha and this year's solid Noble Beast - and while each effort demonstrated a different side of Bird's musical vision, none of these records matched The Mysterious Production of Eggs in both depth and ambition. A nuanced album whose charismatic lyrical vagaries and instrumental flourishes never deteriorate into excess or pretentiousness, it stands as one of this decade's most singular, focused and inscrutable releases. - Eric Dennis

Andrew Bird - Effigy

Go to for the full list of our choices for this year's best songs.

Built around layers of looped violins eventually fading into an acoustic guitar and one of Andrew Bird's most striking violin instrumentals, "Effigy" is a song of loneliness and isolation. Whatever the song's specifics exactly are - ostensibly it's about a lone drinker at a bar who's short on companionship but long on existential laments, but with Bird, how the hell can anyone be sure? - it is simply one of this year's most powerful and relevant songs.

On paper the song's lyrics are dark enough, but its understated instrumentation and Bird's vocal delivery make the character's situation seem that much more tragic. A few key lyrics add to the track's poignancy; specifically, Bird's reference to "fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone," suggests that communication and social interaction are not among the man's strong suits. Perhaps as bleak a song as Bird has recorded, it offers little sense of resolution or hope. Time isn't on anyone's side and there's nothing romantic about a solitary life for a "man who's lost his way/ Slips away." It's not the first time Bird has written about such things, but the song is among his most direct and moving. "Effigy"'s arrangements, lyrics and vocals fit together perfectly, resulting in one of this year's most touching songs.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Jawbox: For Your Own Special Sweetheart (reissue) is a great website. go there. tell your friends. tell your enemies.

Such was the fury and self-righteous outrage when Jawbox left fabled indie label Dischord Records and signed with Atlantic, that some fans - exhibiting the type of reactionary lunacy that still surfaces every time an indie darling makes the major label jump - boycotted the group's albums and dismissed the band as corporate sell-outs. Probably most of those principled punks and humorless DC-scene elitists have come around by now; the band's Atlantic debut, 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, remains both Jawbox's finest hour and one of the decade's defining releases. How in the hell this album went out of print is unexplainable, and it's both ironic and fitting that Sweetheart has finally been reissued by the label that lost the band to the majors in the first place.

Though Jawbox's major label output was minimal - the band managed just two albums before Atlantic dropped them - Sweetheart still demonstrates that a band can indeed do its best work under the auspices, watchful eyes and stuffed wallets of a major label without having to sanitize and neuter its sound. While the mid-1990s had its share of indie bands whose edges were softened and polished before the ink on that major label contract could even dry, Jawbox isn't one of them. True, Sweetheart is far more accessible and polished than the Dischord-issued punk blasts Grippe and Novelty, but in this case the sheen applied throughout still works: the songs' lyricism, vocal quirks and precise arrangements easily offset any alleged commercial concessions. J. Robbins' singing alternates between the menacing snarls of "FF=66," "Cruel Swing" and "Cooling Card" and the mostly straightforward alt-rock vocals of "Savory," "Breathe" and "LS/MFT," while Robbins' and Bill Barbot's guitars and Zach Barocas' drums each form essential pieces of the songs' composition. Such arrangements can sometimes sound overly studied and rehearsed - and without question Sweetheart is the band's most meticulously produced record - but the band retains enough of its abrasiveness and tension to render such potential pitfalls non-existent. This tension likewise extends to the songs' content; though the album's lyrics have routinely been overlooked in favor of their structures, the lyrics are as integral as any of the album's guitar bursts or pounded drums. "Motorist," for example, takes the familiar rock motif of a car crash and manages to capture its impact in only a few simple lines: "When you examined the wreck what did you see/ Glass everywhere and wheels still spinning free."

Unlike many such reissues, this version is worth a purchase for both fans that have the original album as well as those who have yet to hear Sweetheart. Purists might object to the album being tinkered with at all, but Bob Weston's remastering job is mostly welcome. Barocas' drums in particular are more pronounced in the mix, giving the songs more muscle without entirely altering their overall makeup. The volume is also a bit punchier and louder than the original release, which is good news for an iPod generation that will likely be deaf by the age of 40 anyway. The Savory EP is tacked on after "Whitney Walks," and though none of its songs surpass anything from the album proper, it's nice to have a more complete picture of the band at its best. The only misstep - a minor one, to be sure - is that the cover art was bafflingly changed from the album's original image of a blow-up doll to that of a marble sculpture. Some things are better just left alone.

The majors may have devoured plenty of bands throughout the 1990s, but Jawbox won't ever be counted among them. However briefly, the group managed to refine their sound and still retain the characteristics that originally endeared them to the DC music scene. If it came at the price of alienating some indie fans who would by default piss on anything even remotely mainstream, so be it. Some people can't be told, but for the rest of us, this reissue of a true landmark 1990s album solidifies Jawbox's place as one of that decade's most inventive and singularly focused groups.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Concert Review: Lucinda Williams

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO 10/17/09

It took exactly one song for the intoxicated requests to start. After Lucinda Williams opened her St. Louis concert with a soulfully garbled solo acoustic take of "Motherless Children," a rather forceful demand for "Drunken Angel" was shouted from the pit area. Other requests punctuated the breaks between songs throughout Williams' mesmerizing two and half hour performance at the Pageant - "Lake Charles," "Joy," "Are You Alright?" (a glutton for punishment, there) - and even if such things are standard and expected for a Williams show, it still doesn't make them any less annoying or unnecessary.

Perhaps such fans were unaware of the approach Williams and her expert backing band (a Doug Pettibone-less Buick 6) have taken on their current tour. Featuring a chronologically arranged setlist, these shows have the feel of a career retrospective, with Williams digging into her back catalog for songs that have been in her repertoire for years as well as a few rarities. If the crowd's expectations and what Williams had planned didn't always jive - especially in the concert's mostly down-tempo first hour, it was clear that more than a few fidgety and vocal concertgoers were expecting a full-on rock concert - the show was nevertheless memorable, with the singer turning in her most assured and confident performance in St. Louis since her 2003 stop at the same venue.

Although any such chronological format runs the risk of disintegrating into a mere nostalgia trip or Kumbaya community sing-along, there were enough surprises in song selection and wrinkles in the arrangements to keep things interesting. The first hour or so emphasized the musician's folk and blues roots: Williams' Folkways years were represented by the aforementioned opener, Robert Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind" and "Happy Woman Blues," while her self-titled Rough Trade debut was revisited with a pitch-perfect full-band version of "Crescent City," a country-inflected "Big Red Sun Blues" and a stripped down take on "Side of the Road." Only a scant two songs from the underappreciated Sweet Old World were offered, neither of which were particularly inspired; if there's an additional complaint here, it's that both songs - "Little Angel, Little Brother" and "Pineola" - were again performed with little deviation from their album versions and have grown a little stale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most generous selection of songs came from Williams' three best albums:Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence and, despite the occasional dud, World Without Tears. Weeper ballads like "Greenville," "Lake Charles" and "Blue" were intermixed with the muscular, aggressive blasts the band applied to "I Lost It," "Out of Touch" and "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings." Guitarists Chet Lyster and Eric Schermerhorn and bassist David Sutton played masterfully across the board, while goateed monster drummer Butch Norton was particularly savage, pounding away at his drum kit as if he'd just discovered that it slept with his woman.

The main set somewhat limped to the finish. Recent songs "Unsuffer Me" and "Tears of Joy" sounded as lifeless in concert as they do on record, with both lazy blues crawlers standing in sharp contrast to the mocking and nasty tones the band applied to the vitriolic "Come On" and set-closing "Honey Bee." Still, such missteps were rare, and, after a three-song encore, the curtain closed on a fitting end to the band's tour and one of Williams' most engaging and least predictable St. Louis concerts.

With only a few exceptions, the performance itself was almost always flawless, with both Williams and her superb backing band breathing passion and energy into both the reliable standbys and lost gems from her back catalog. Though Williams' standing as a critics' darling has taken a hit with the dual disappointments of West and Little Honey, she still knows how to translate her songs to a live setting and there is a power to her ragged voice live that isn't always captured on record. If this chronological show confirmed anything, it's that most of Lucinda Williams' songs have aged well and rightly continue to find an audience based on the strength of their content and the often wrenching and conflicted emotions they express.

by Eric Dennis
[Photos: Lindsey Best]

1. Motherless Children
2. Rambling On My Mind (Robert Johnson)
3. Happy Woman Blues
4. Crescent City
5. Big Red Sun Blues
6. Side of the Road
7. Little Angel, Little Brother
8. Pineola
9. Greenville
10. I Lost It
11. Lake Charles
12. Still I Long for Your Kiss
13. Blue
14. Out of Touch
15. Essence
16. Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings
17. Righteously
18. Unsuffer Me
19. Come On
20. Tears of Joy
21. Honey Bee

22. Nothing in Rambling (Memphis Minnie)
23. Joy
24. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Interview: Peter Silberman of The Antlers

There are lots of good interviews at

Few albums in recent years have elicited such visceral responses from both fans and critics as Hospice, the stunning full-length debut from The Antlers. Currently on tour in support of the album, guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Peter Silberman was kind enough to spend some time with us discussing the album's origins, what the "self isolation" back story that surrounds the album actually means and whether he's comfortable with the various interpretations Hospice has received.

SC: Thanks for taking some time to talk today. By now it's been well documented that the narrative in Hospice centers on the relationship between a hospital worker and a girl/woman dying of cancer. Do you consider this a concept album, or are you hesitant to define the album in those terms?

PS: I'm hesitant to call it that but I'm not sure why. The album's a story, and the story's about a concept. Sure, it's a concept record. I think the songs can exist on their own, independent of the record, but they don't necessarily make sense that way.

SC: Was this storyline already defined before you began the record or did it only start to take shape as the songs were being written?

PS: It was a little of both. The real sequence of events had just wrapped up before the album was started. Turning it into a different kind of story happened alongside the writing.

SC: Most reviews have mentioned that you wrote these songs after a couple years of social isolation. Is that just the type of interesting footnote critics love or did it influence the songs?

PS: I don't even know anymore. I wonder what people think "isolation" actually means. I wasn't in a sensory deprivation tank or in a cabin in the woods. It's gotten out of hand. What happened: I stopped talking to my friends. Why that happened: that's explained in the record.

SC: Perspectives and timelines shift from song to song, and certain events are mentioned but it's sometimes difficult to piece the story together.

PS: Well, Hospice is sort of told like a dream, where things are constantly transforming and confusing, time is arbitrary and illogical, locations become different locations. The record's about life becoming indistinguishable from a dream, or in this case, recurring nightmares.

SC: Various reviews have offered different interpretations of exactly what's happening in Hospice. Are you concerned about these songs being misinterpreted?

PS: People are totally free to call it however they like. I don't want to dictate what this album means to someone else. I only worry when people get carried away with the truth behind the record's events and decide something as concrete as "Hospice is about Peter Silberman's dead girlfriend." Not necessarily true.

SC: While there's a heavy sense of loss throughout the album, it never becomes oppressive and hope isn't necessarily lost.

PS: I never wanted to create something hopeless. I was trying to work through something by making this album, and nothing would have been fixed had it ended at the bottom.

SC: The album is pretty layered and the arrangements and vocals never settle on any one style for very long. What was the recording process like?

PS: The vocals were the last to be recorded, and were recorded frustratingly over the course of one weekend upstate. The rest of the time, the record was being recorded in my apartment with two microphones and very little space for a little over a year. It was actually a lot of fun, though it felt like a failure throughout a good deal of it.

SC: Are you surprised by the attention the album has received despite having very little publicity behind it?

PS: I'm surprised every day that things have reached the point they have. I never expected this record to get to this many people. I'm really happy about that.

SC: What considerations come into play when you try to translate these songs to a live setting?

PS: We're pretty much constantly on tour right now, and we've adapted most of the songs to sound different than they do on record. That keeps us going and engaged, to be changing these songs and sounds, making the live show bigger and washier.

SC: If there's a single takeaway theme to Hospice - something to cut through all the various interpretations - what is it?

PS: The end of guilt.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Real Estate: Real Estate

spend your Thanksgiving visiting

Patience is a virtue, and listeners will likely need plenty of it throughout Real Estate's self-titled full-length. It's not that the album is overly long; at just 10 songs and right around 40 minutes, it's not particularly over-indulgent or tediously meandering. It's not that the album is awful or directionless either: clearly the New Jersey band knew what type of sound they were going for throughout the record. Nearly every song consists of opening and closing instrumental sections of varying lengths, fluid guitar lines from Matt Mondanile and the echoed and mostly buried vocals of Martin Courtney.

Only one small problem: the band repeats that formula for the entire album with the type of narrow-minded determination usually reserved for zealots and psychopaths. Individual songs mostly work by themselves, but when evaluated in an album context, this release quickly becomes monotonous and repetitive. To be sure, Real Estate has its moments - "Black Lake" is the album's standout track, its languid pace and distant vocals undeniably evocative and mysterious - but mostly the album crumbles under the weight of its own predictability. The album's charm doesn't last for long: "Fake Blues," "Green River," "Let's Rock the Beach" and "Suburban Beverage" are all built from a remarkably similar template, as each begins with an instrumental lead-in before giving way to various guitar/bass/drum patterns and Courtney's frequently hazy vocals.

Most of the tracks on Real Estate unfold gradually, with no peaks or valleys or moments of tension or resolution. Quite simply its parts are greater than the whole; on their own, songs like "Snow Days" and "Suburban Dogs" offer carefully crafted arrangements and ghostly vocals that sometimes sound like they were recorded underwater. That these songs offer various moods, tones and textures is undeniable. Yet there is just not enough variation to complement these songs' ethereal and nostalgic qualities, and eventually the album collectively becomes fairly ponderous and plodding. Courtney's vocals, buried in the mix to varying degrees, are essentially treated as another instrument, a trick that likewise works for a while before feeling a bit played out.

Of course, we're living in a digital music age where a solid song or two can be isolated from an album and added to a listener's iPod playlist, with those songs sounding all the better for it. Still, Real Estate likely isn't meant to be a collection of singles. There's a logic and consistency to its songs - not to mention plenty of references to beaches, water, lakes, seasons and suburbia - that musically and thematically link its tracks. Yet there are landmines with such a defined scope, and if you're a band that locks into a specific formula, the arrangements and vocals sure as hell better have enough wrinkles to remain interesting and unconventional. All too often such variations are missing from Real Estate, the result being an album whose deliberate pace and mostly uniform sound eventually overstay their welcome.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Jesus Lizard Reissues

The major labels who treat album reissues as just another way to cheaply recycle and profitably repackage an artist's most celebrated work could learn a thing or two from Touch and Go. Quite simply, the indie label's Jesus Lizard reissues are about as flawless as such releases can be. Though the timing of the label's campaign might make cynics take notice - the original releases aren't out of print, the remastering job by Steve Albini and Bob Weston isn't really noticeable and these reissues come at a time when a reformed Jesus Lizard is performing live to receptive audiences - the care and attention paid to these reissues more than offset any reservations listeners might have about shelling out for the albums. For those not familiar with the Jesus Lizard, the reissues will serve as an ideal overview of the band, while hardcore fans who know there is no better insult than calling someone a mouth-breather should be satisfied with the bonus tracks and the releases' overall aesthetic.

Enough clever metaphors have been used over the years to describe Goat and Liar to make additional commentary redundant. It's enough to say that both albums contain the band's blend of deranged vocals and scathing, stop-start arrangements at their most precise and tense; filled with ugly sentiments and even uglier characters, these albums remain essential pieces of 1990s indie rock. Only a fool would bother to argue that one album is significantly stronger than the other. If this reissue series suggests anything, it's that the records that bookended Goat and Liar deserve a bit more attention. Very few sane fans will argue that the Pure EP, Head and final Touch and Go album Down belong in the same class as Goat and Liar; still, these less-celebrated releases have aged remarkably well and offer traces of the sound the band perfected on those two classic albums. Though Yow's vocals don't quite have the maniacal frenzy of tracks like "Boilermaker," "Seasick," "Karpis" or "Rope" and the EP sometimes exposes a tentative vocalist, the singer's guttural howls and strangled cries on "Bloody Mary," "Starlet" and "Killer McHann" are the stuff of loony bins and state penitentiaries and hint at the unhinged and uncontrolled vocal spasms Yow would employ throughout Goat and Liar.

In contrast the band's taut and sharp arrangements in many ways were solidified early on; starting with Head and continuing through Down, the three-man wrecking crew of David Wm. Sims, Mac McNeilly and Duane Denison delivered music free of frills, extraneous notes or other needless diversions. Of course, the most focused and violently concise songs are found on Goat and Liar, but early songs like "Good Thing," "Waxeater" and "One Evening" all bear the trio's machine-like efficiency. Select tracks from the erratic Down - with its relatively audible vocals and somewhat polished sound, it's arguably the band's most straightforward record - likewise feature the trio's propulsive rhythms and textures. The contrast between Yow's meandering vocals and the band's exact instrumentals still sounds jarring and disorienting.

If there are any complaints to be made, it's that each disc includes a scant number of bonus tracks and that a complete live show might have been preferable to the few live songs captured here. Yet these drawbacks are minor and forgivable. Yow sings like an untreated schizophrenic on live versions of "Bloody Mary," "Killer McHann," "Seasick," "Lady Shoes" and "Monkey Trick;" perfunctory demos of "Dancing Naked Ladies," "Gladiator" and "Boilermaker" are nevertheless intriguing and Down is rounded out with four tracks that would have fit in nicely on that album, particularly "Glamorous" and "Deaf as a Bat." Each reissue is nattily packaged with vintage photos, reproductions of posters, ticket stubs and other miscellany and anecdotes and ramblings from Yow, McNeilly and Denison. Even the requisite mythologizing essays are worth reading, even if the authors' somewhat-fawning superlatives stop just short of arguing that the band could turn shit to gold.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a heavyweight band whose records now get to take the victory lap they were never afforded in the '90s, at least commercially. Goat and Liar still stand as the band's finest works, but for those interested in diving into the aggression and depravity of these songs, either for the first time or once again, all of these reissued albums are required listening.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Song of the Decade: Tom Waits - Barcarolle

"Barcarolle" by Tom Waits (2002)

Trying to pick one song as the aughts' best is a fool's task: for every song a critic chooses, at least one reader will likely wonder why the hell the writer made that bizarre selection. Setting all this aside, the criteria I used was simple: of all the songs I heard this decade, Tom Waits' "Barcarolle" is the only one that I can still listen to at any time, in any mood, at any place and never even become momentarily bored or underwhelmed.

At first glance (hell, even at second and third glance) "Barcarolle" is an unlikely candidate for this feature. The song didn't define the decade in any appreciable way, nor did it bend, reshape, or obliterate any genres. It wasn't created against the backdrop of the past 10 years' key events - 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a crippled economy - and didn't capture the bleakness and dread that defined most of this fucked up Bush-Cheney debacle of a decade. Even in the Tom Waits catalog the song is routinely dismissed as a decent song and not much more. Except for a few performances in 1992's coolly-received play Alice, Waits didn't get around to releasing it until 2002's album of the same name, and even then it was tucked away toward the end of the record. Still, the song carries with it a beauty and fragility that was rarely matched throughout the decade.

The song, like most tracks from Alice, takes as its subject the devotion/illicit obsession Lewis Carroll carries around for the young Alice Liddell. It forgoes the vocal barking and musical clang usually associated with the musician in favor a beautifully subtle approach. The arrangement is wonderfully understated and among the most evocative Waits has recorded; a perfect blend of bass, piano, violin, and saxophone, each instrument is used to evoke a definite mood. Waits' vocals are likewise restrained, with none of the lunatic wailing that has sometimes bordered on self-parody.

In addition to the song's larger themes of devotion and obsession, "Barcarolle" is a moving rumination on mortality and aging. The idealized girl "skating on the ice/ In a glass in the hands of a man/ That she kissed on the train" will be young but for a moment, a truth the older narrator has already discovered but of which the girl seems naively unaware. Set against images that surface in Waits' songs like clockwork, time passes indifferently and the simple joys of youth give way to the effects of time: "...the branches bend down/ To the ground here to swing on/ I'm lost in the blond summer grass/ And the train whistle blows/ And the carnival goes/ Till there's only the tickets and crows here/ And the grass will all grow back."

With an arrangement that could soften even the most jaded heart, "Barcarolle" offers a poetic take on life's fleeting nature and little tragedies. Time moves on, with or without us, it suggests, with a steady indifference. It's also, quite simply, the one song from this decade I'd choose to listen to above all others. - Eric Dennis

Friday, November 06, 2009

Bad Santa

go read the rest of Spectrum Culture's review of the best films of the decade at

Few movies have managed to turn a tried-and-true genre on its head as irreverently and successfully as Bad Santa. The 2003 comedy is everything that It's A Wonderful Life and other maudlin, sentimental holiday drivel is not: unrepentantly crude, excessively lewd and cynical even as it embraces, however slightly, a bit of yuletide optimism. Along the way there are countless other incidents to remind viewers that this isn't your mother's Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie and that Clarence sure as hell won't be getting his wings: anal sex, a suicide attempt, murder, attempted murder, massive amounts of greed - among other vices - and copious amounts of unique and colorful profanity.

The main character - the perpetually drunk and horny con artist/thief Willie Stokes, played with convincing lasciviousness by Billy Bob Thornton - subverts the popular depiction of the everyman hero that has defined most holiday films. While almost every other such character has a flaw or two, Willie's are magnified to the point of comedic excess: his gig as a mall Santa is punctuated by drunken violent outbursts (on one occasion he waylays a reindeer display), blatant ogling of the mall's female customers, one self-pissing incident and a nihilistic streak that lessens but never really goes away.

Any concessions to the Christmas spirit come with perverse and violent twists. As the movie unfolds we see through several simple acts of kindness that, underneath the crusty, booze-soaked exterior, Willie just may be a caring person after all: he teaches The Kid (later revealed to have the unfortunate name Thurman Merman) how to defend himself by beating the tar out of a bully, while his relationship with bartender Sue progresses from him grabbing her ass as she hangs up ornaments to one of home-cooked meals and other trappings of domestic bliss. Hell, he even takes a hail of gunfire from the Phoenix Police Department as he delivers a stolen stuffed pink elephant to the boy's home, risking his life to fulfill Thurman's somewhat bizarre Christmas wish.

As the Christmas season seems to start earlier each year - my local Target broke out the decorations, artificial trees and obnoxious ornaments in early September - Bad Santa speaks to the dread and pessimism countless people feel as Christmas consumes various aspects of daily life. For such contemporary viewers the film is both hilarious and sobering: it's easy to see something of ourselves in both Willie's boorish behavior and his eventual redemption. While most Americans have been raised on a steady diet of innocuous and inane holiday movies, Bad Santa shows that films from this genre can be vulgar and obnoxious without resorting to overly emotional characters and weepy holiday sentiments. - Eric Dennis

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Concert Review: Built to Spill

plenty more good stuff at

If there was ever a band whose sound and stage demeanor perfectly fit the now-dead and practically buried Mississippi Nights (there's always talk of the venue reopening again in a new location, but it won't be the same), it's Built to Spill. Like a shitty and humid St. Louis summer followed by an equally shitty but freezing St. Louis winter, a Built to Spill show on the Landing was practically a given. And without exception these concerts were always memorable: a well-worn and smoke-filled venue packed to the point where you just knew fire codes were being violated, a temperature that seemed to hover around 120 degrees, alcohol flowing like water, a disturbing number of bearded Doug Martsch wannabes all intent on headbanging the night away and the band onstage absolutely pulverizing their songs at tinnitus-inducing volumes.

So perhaps it was inevitable that the band's recent performance at the Pageant - one of the most antiseptic and bland concert night clubs any city has to offer - lacked much of the edge and atmosphere that characterized those Mississippi Nights shows. Certainly there were a few remnants of that old Landing vibe: nearly every song was greeted by hollers of approval and a disconcerting number of air guitarists perfecting their technique, the bearded legions of Martsch disciples turned out in force again and many fans in the pit seemed involved in some test of mortality to see who could chain-smoke their lungs tar-black the fastest. Still, the Pageant's stilted and utterly lifeless environs had the predictable effect, as it often felt like the band was being observed as if specimens under glass.

This isn't to say that Built to Spill gave a lackluster or underwhelming effort. The band itself again demonstrated why they are so strong in a live setting, even if Martsch and co. are about as nondescript and unassuming as it gets. The band dipped into its back catalog often throughout the 90-minute set, with songs like "Distopian Dream Girl," "The Plan," "Sidewalk," and "You Were Right" all featuring furious guitar arrangements, a fairly bouncy and twitchy Martsch and drums that somehow cut through this guitar onslaught. Martsch's reedy-thin voice usually takes a backseat to his guitar work, but the singer's expressive vocals carried more restrained tunes like "Reasons" and "Car," both songs reminding the audience that Martsch is a damn good songwriter and not just one of music's finest guitarists. The band did what they could to let the music speak for itself against the Pageant's clinical setup: new track "Hindsight," from new album There Is No Enemy, offered something new for the lifers, there were no ornate backdrops or wild light shows and Martsch didn't patronize the audience with reminders to visit the merch table and didn't even bother to shill for the new album. The band clearly wanted to focus on the music - Martsch said little to the audience aside from a few sincere words of thanks - and it was refreshing to see a band that still puts substance over flash.

Though this wasn't the first time Built to Spill has played the Pageant, it still feels like an awkward fit. The Pageant's spartan aesthetic might suit other bands well, particularly those who clutter the stage with props and other gimmicks. Although no one is likely expecting this mid-size club to have the personality and charm of the city's smaller, more intimate and undeniably more inviting venues, there is very little that gives the Pageant any local flavor at all. To the sound crew's credit, the sound was as good as I've ever heard at the Pageant, with Martsch's vocals clearly audible and the songs' lengthy instrumental flights sounding particularly balanced and precise. Yet a dull setting has a way of sucking the life out of a room, despite an audience's rapt attention and the band bringing some of its best songs to the dance. Perhaps it's at least partly nostalgia for one of St. Louis' most sorely missed venues, but it's likely that more than a few fans left the Pageant wishing Mississippi Nights was still around to give the band its proper due.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nirvana: Bleach (reissue)

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Bleach remains Nirvana's most inconsistent and least appreciated album, a tiny and wobbly baby step for a band whose legacy and permanent pop culture presence are both assured (as long as Kurt Cobain's likeness continues to be used for grotesque commercial purposes, at least). Certainly, Bleach is flawed like no other Nirvana release, with both circumstances and Cobain himself contributing to the record's unwanted bastard child status. Two different drummers (neither of them named Dave Grohl) were utilized during the recording sessions, while Cobain was consistently dismissive of the final product, attributing its sludgy sound to label pressures for the band to conform to a specific rock style and frequently discounting the lyrics as little more than hastily thrown-together words that he didn't particularly agonize over. If Cobain never exactly disowned the record, his attitude toward it was ambivalent at best. His self-deprecating introduction to "About a Girl" during the band's 1994 MTV Unplugged performance - besides making the track seem far more obscure than it actually was - nevertheless contained an element of truth: in the wake of Nevermind blowing up, scorching the musical landscape in its wake, Nirvana's awkward and occasionally clumsy debut album would always be overshadowed by the behemoth that was Nevermind.

Though Bleach is still an uneven and fumbling album 20 years after its initial release, Sub Pop's superb reissue suggests a re-examination of the record is in order. Although time hasn't transformed this debut into a lost gem, it hasn't hopelessly dated these songs either, and several tracks are (almost) as good as anything that would later surface on Nevermind and In Utero. First the obvious: the thick-and-plodding instrumentation, bloated big-rock riffing, barely-competent pre-Dave Grohl drumming and affected vocals that doom certain songs show all the markings of a band struggling to find a unique voice. Bleach's second half, from "Swap Meet" through album closer "Downer," continues to feel monotonously repetitive and aimless. Still, there are traces of brilliance here, and with the benefit of hindsight, several songs - "About a Girl," "Negative Creep," "Blew" and "School" - clearly point towards the mostly mainstream-ready sound (let's be honest) the band would achieve on its next two studio releases. If this reissue doesn't exactly wash the stink off the album as a whole, it does at least make the case that its best songs offset these duds.

More revelatory and satisfying is the February 9, 1990 live show that immediately follows. A soundboard recording from Portland's Pine Street Theatre, the sound quality is flawless, easily surpassing previous versions of this show that have circulated on bootleg, revealing a vocalist and bassist who have both outgrown the sonic confines and stylistic constraints of its budget-conscious debut album. Though six of the 11 songs come from Bleach, they differ significantly from their album counterparts; gone are the metallic, muddy arrangements, Krist Novoselic's oppressive bass and Cobain's exaggerated vocals, replaced instead with the first hints of the more focused and direct live sound the band would effectively employ until its demise. Though the band hadn't yet hit upon its classic lineup - the much-maligned Chad Channing is still on drums - the duo's progress, at least in this live setting, is striking. Most noticeably, Cobain's guitar is less grimy than it was on Bleach, and his scorched vocals surpass the tortured and sometimes clownish singing style of that debut album.

Though this show likely won't ever enter the Nirvana pantheon as among the group's best (Reading 1992, Halloween and New Year's Eve 1991) or most infamous (Rome 1994), there is still plenty to like throughout this brief 40-minute, feedback-laden set, in particular Cobain's sing-screaming on "School," "Blew," "Spank Thru" and "Dive," as well as the aggressive cover versions of "Love Buzz" and "Molly's Lips." It's a glimpse into a mostly unknown band playing toward the bottom of the bill, before the massive commercial success of Nevermind briefly made them The Single Most Important Band in the History of Recorded Sound. Skeptics who still can't get past Bleach's shortcomings will find little to gripe about with this show; trimmed of that album's fat, it's simply a blistering rock show and essential listening for any Nirvana fan.

The reissue is rounded out with a booklet of previously-unreleased band photos that should tickle the buying bone of fans who expect such reissues to do more than just thoughtlessly repackage the original release. Coupled with a clearly audible remastering job from Bleach producer Jack Endino, the original album and Portland show offer a fairly complete picture of Nirvana circa 1990. Although this reissue likely won't change the popular consensus of Bleach as the band's least consistent work, it does show how quickly Cobain and Novoselic had moved past that album's limitations, especially in a live setting. The band isn't yet the mighty beast that would be unleashed in 1991, but this reissue offers a compelling snapshot of a band whose creativity, ambition and, for better or worse, mainstream success would soon reshape the 1990s musical landscape.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Devendra Banhart: What Will We Be

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Depending on a listener's point of view, the typical Devendra Banhart album can be interpreted as either a uniquely ambitious exercise in genre manipulation or a gaudy testament to a musician's self-indulgent musical whims and pretentions. The artist has flirted with the type of experimentalism that critics and indie types adore and mainstream audiences loathe, earning his fair share of both loyalists and detractors along the way. Such an approach has, perhaps not surprisingly, yielded mixed results; 2004's Rejoicing in the Hands belongs in any serious discussion of the decade's best releases, whereas 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, with its near 70-minute running time and genre workouts that inadvertently border on parody, suggested the musician's eccentricities and a paucity of self-editing had gotten the better of him.

Although What Will We Be, Banhart's latest effort and major label debut, still mostly adheres to the template he has followed throughout his career, it is also his most musically straightforward and direct record to date. The album is focused in a way that was absent among Thunder Canyon's excesses, though Banhart's lyrics are as enigmatic as ever. Most songs rely on guitars, piano and drums to lock into a mid-tempo pace that emphasizes restrained vocals, melody and finely crafted instrumentation over his sometimes obtuse style-shifting tendencies. Opener "Can't Help," "Goin' Back to the Place" and "Angelika" are instantly memorable and sound better with repeated listens, with the backing band that also appeared on Thunder Canyon giving these tracks atmosphere and color. The balladry and lyricism of "Meet Me At Lookout Point" are as evocative as anything you'll find in Banhart's back catalog, with Banhart's vocals more conventional than what fans and critics might expect. If Thunder Canyon's seemingly directionless wanderings too often gave the impression of a vocalist and band still trying to figure each other out, such flaws do not surface here, as most songs' instrumental arrangements show the group can be steady and understated without being dull.

This isn't to say that the album is primed for mainstream commercial appeal; it's indeed difficult to imagine many of these songs appealing to a broad audience. Still, this primarily direct approach suits Banhart well, and it's ironic that What Will We Be's least engaging and successful inclusions are those in which the musician attempts the genre exercises for which he's best known. "Brindo," "Wiliamdzi," "Rats," "Foolin" and "Baby" border on being lifeless pastiche and do little more than again demonstrate Banhart's capacity for contrasting musical styles. Although Banhart has made his name bending such disparate genres, these songs sound strangely out of place and make the album seem overly drawn out.

Although it doesn't quite measure up to Rejoicing in the Hands or even parts of Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart's latest effort is a respectable rebound from the missteps that ultimately doomed Thunder Canyon. Of course, there will be skeptics who can't get past the fact that someone as unclassifiable as Banhart now toils under the auspices of a major label (get ready for critics to renew that long-dead argument about whether an indie artist can do quality work once the jump is made to a major label). Fans willing to look past that major label stigma will find plenty to like here, as What Will We Be succeeds in finding the middle ground between Banhart's folk sensibilities and his fascination with divergent musical forms and structures.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alec Ounsworth: Mo Beauty

An indie musician from Philadelphia walks into a New Orleans studio and records a quasi-Southern Gothic album with a small army of Crescent City players. What has the potential to be an unmitigated disaster instead results in one of this year's most varied and intriguing releases. Although cynics might see Mo Beauty, the sprawling "solo" debut from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth, as little more than a vanity project or a fleeting stylistic diversion, its songs are uniformly strong and its style is wonderfully dynamic and original, even if Ounsworth's vocals are an acquired taste and almost certain to limit the record's chances of widespread appeal.

Though Mo Beauty features an unconventional set of contributors whose backgrounds and styles sharply contrast with Ounsworth's and the album is primarily culled from the musician's older material, the record holds together remarkably well. A barrage of various guitars, horns, synthesizers, drums, pianos and keyboards is used to create songs that are alternately raucous and exuberant - and always impossible to guess just where the hell the players will take each one. Guitars, drums and a swampy organ give "Bones in the Grave" an appropriately sinister tone, while "Me and You, Watson" moves with a martial drum rhythm and muffled organ. A trio of songs smack in the middle of the album - "That is Not my Home (after Bruegel)," "Idiots in the Rain" and "South Philadelphia (Drug Days)" - are all punctuated with drums, keyboards and numerous trombones that defy easy categorization. Despite the songs' seemingly meandering arrangements, there is a sense of control and craft to them, as each song sounds carefully rehearsed and executed but not overly produced.

For all the charms and eccentricities of these tracks, the quieter and more traditionally-arranged tunes offer the album's most emotional and gripping moments. Built around an acoustic guitar, stately piano and quiet baritone sax, "Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (song for New Orleans)" is the album's most accessible and memorable track. With its references to "rain and fire" and "high tides" and Ounsworth's understated vocals, the song plays like a contemporary elegy to this Southern city. "What Fun" moves at a faster but mostly deliberate pace, its acoustic guitars and organs accenting the song's wistful and nostalgic (or is that just bitterness?) feel and a pedal steel guitar mixed with an organ lending a dusty time-worn element to the song.

Ounsworth's vocals are suitably unconventional; he doesn't sing so much as nasally wheeze the words out. Sometimes these vocals threaten to go off the rails as Ounsworth crams words into some tight spaces - check out the singer's sporadic slurring on "Me and You, Watson," "Idiots in the Rain" and opener "Modern Girl (with scissors)," as if he's fighting to keep pace with the band behind him - but even in these cases the vocals are more exciting and unpredictable than pretentious or affected. The lyrics are likewise evocative, with specific phrases and images - "pages ripped from some holy book," "like an ordinary citizen tied up in the trunk of a car," "counting cars in South New Jersey" - offering enough ambiguity without feeling deliberately obtuse (though I swear the "all this useless beauty" line that shows up in "Modern Girl" has been used somewhere before...).

Those still clutching their dog-eared copies of CYHSY's self-titled debut should be placated, as Mo Beauty shares that album's spirit of genre-hopping without sounding derivative or intentionally difficult. If there's a stigma about an indie artist branching out for a solo foray, Ounsworth dispels such thoughts throughout this album, even if calling this album a solo effort is misleading. Mo Beauty moves with its own unique logic, its influences and intentions present but not oppressively so. What had the potential to be yet another exercise in gross self-indulgence best relegated to the boneyard of failed albums is instead one of this year's most creative and unclassifiable efforts.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Revisit: The Rape of Nanking - by Iris Chang

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

November 9, 2009 marks five years since author Iris Chang, after a long battle with depression, committed suicide by putting a bullet through her mouth. By all accounts Chang's mental health had been in decline in the months leading up to her death: she suffered from nervous breakdowns, sleep deprivation and mood swings that medication didn't correct, while research she was conducting for a study about the Bataan Death March reportedly increased her bouts of depression. All clichés aside, it was a tragic end to one of the most promising and polarizing writers of recent years.

Chang's legacy is primarily tied to The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Originally published in 1997 on the 60th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre during the second Sino-Japanese War, the book has the distinction of being the first English-language non-fiction account of one of the 20th century's darkest moments. While the massacre has long remained a source of intense debate and contention throughout Asia - much like the Holocaust and Armenian genocides, it has given birth to its own subculture of reactionaries who deny anything ever happened - Chang's study greatly contributed to raising its visibility in the States. Though for the most part the massacre remains on the outskirts of general knowledge in America, the book reached a wide audience and its lasting impact cannot be denied.

The book's greatest strengths stem from both Chang's direct writing style and the substantial number of Nanking survivors who contributed to her narrative. Chang never slips into a professorial mode - in a fit of academic snobbery, some critics would later attack the book because Chang wasn't a trained historian - and she avoids what's commonly referred to as the Goddamn Boring Approach to History. The author expertly conveys the atmosphere and political spirit of Asia as World War II approached, providing a detailed overview for readers whose knowledge of Nanking is cursory. Chang brings an obvious sense of compassion and pity for the Chinese victims of the massacre to this examination; it's worth mentioning that Chang's grandparents successfully fled the massacre and later shared their stories with the author when she was still a child. Survivor accounts are used throughout the book to devastating effect. Regardless of however faulty the human memory is, the stories recounted by the massacre's survivors go a long way in giving the reader a sense of the cultural tensions between Japan and China in the years leading up to World War II and how those tensions played out once Nanking was occupied. Journals written by two humanitarian aid workers in Nanking likewise give credibility to the massacre's scope and also offer a Western perspective on the slaughter.

Perhaps not surprisingly, few recent non-fiction books have evoked such visceral responses like The Rape of Nanking. As the book continued to sell in large numbers and inspire fierce debate, Chang's fame nearly rose to levels usually reserved for pop princesses and starlet actresses, with the author appearing on various talk shows and magazine covers. Gushing reviews poured in as Chang was given the A-list celebrity treatment, as respected newspapers, academic journals and bearded professors heaped praise upon the book's scope and the author's ability to vividly recount the horrible events that had largely been ignored by the Western world. Indeed, one of the most telling and memorable aspects of the book is how it ties the massacre into a century punctuated by similar atrocities, a trait that was identified and emphasized by the more perceptive of these reviews. With the backing of such high-profile reviews, the Nanking massacre became a cause célèbre of sorts: Chang embarked on a lengthy book tour and various speaking engagements, while some members of Congress - exhibiting the type of political savvy that's in big supply for such issues - advocated a resolution requesting an official apology from the Japanese government. It's easy to see why Chang's book evoked such responses from usually reserved and straight-laced critics, academics and politicians: The Rape of Nanking is a moving and thorough account that speaks to the violent side of human nature as well as the dignity and determination of Nanking's victims.

Yet it's impossible to consider the book above reproach. While some of its detractors clearly have political or ideological agendas that drive their criticism - most notoriously, there is a small but vocal minority who claim the entire Nanking story is fabricated - several concerns about the book's accuracy and research methods are valid. Chang sometimes lets her emotions and personal beliefs get in the way of objective historical reporting, while her amateur psychological analysis of the Japanese mindset comes precariously close to racial stereotyping. Chang's contention that Japan hasn't done enough to acknowledge Nanking is open to debate: she fails to acknowledge conciliatory steps like a 1995 government resolution and apologies from high-ranking Japanese officials, and also ignores the fact that Japanese-language works - including some memoirs by Japanese soldiers present at Nanking - continue to objectively examine the origins and impacts of the massacre. Chang's death toll numbers have likewise been called into question; the author's estimation of over 300,000 murders was challenged by both Nanking deniers and those who acknowledge the atrocities but consider such numbers grossly inflated.

Perhaps the true impact of The Rape of Nanking can be found beyond both the effusive praise and often-pointed criticism of the last 10-plus years. Chang's work unquestionably introduced many Western readers to these events for the first time, contributing to a better understanding and more complete picture of a world that would soon erupt into global warfare. The book speaks to how the past continues to shape relations between countries and how such tensions persist due to events from decades ago. Though Chang's methods can be questioned and her study sometimes tramples the fine line between reasoned argument and a writer's overzealousness, her book ranks among the most thought-provoking historical narratives ever penned. The success of The Rape of Nanking came at a cost to its author - death threats from extremists were common, while she too often viewed any criticism of the book as a personal attack - but the book has become one of those rare historical accounts that transcends academia and finds a broad audience among readers mostly unfamiliar with its story.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mason Proper: Olly Oxen Free

Olly Oxen Free is a difficult album to fully embrace and is by no means a whimsical or particularly easy listening experience. The second record from Ypsilanti-based band Mason Proper, it never settles on any particular musical style for long, instead trying and discarding approaches with a seemingly perverse glee. The result is an uneven album that is sometimes painfully lacking in focus and direction, but is at other times the work of a wonderfully experimental band just starting to find its voice. Though this album suggests that the band hasn't quite yet moved past a tendency to stand on the shoulders of a few musical giants, it nevertheless is a pleasantly eccentric record that becomes more palatable with repeated listens.
Initially it's tempting to dismiss Olly Oxen Free as a bastardized, inferior clone of TV On the Radio's wildly-celebrated Return To Cookie Mountain. Besides enlisting the help of Cookie Mountain producer Chris Coady, the band is apparently cut from a similar cloth on songs like "Only a Moment" and "Fog." Similarities to other artists are likewise either a clear indication of the band's influences or an amazing mind-fuck of a coincidence: Jonathan Visger's left-of-center vocal tendencies and the band's copious use of various studio embellishments on tracks like "Safe for the Time Being" and "In the Mirror" resemble outtakes from Radiohead's {Kid A}, while Visger's yelps that kick off "Alone" sound ripped from the Frank Black playbook. Whether it's homage or pastiche is up for debate.
Still, there are enough unconventional quirks here to show the band has creativity to spare and that their best work is yet to come. Mason Proper ambitiously covers a wide range of musical terrain, and in its best moments, this approach gives the album some personality and color. Opener "Fog" features refreshingly restrained keyboards and unassuming guitars, while "Point A to Point B" and "Out Dragging the River" are infectious pieces of indie pop, with nice harmonies, unobtrusive atmospheric flourishes, shimmering guitars and vocals that forgo the twitchiness that occasionally rears its spastic head. Musical and lyrical knives are brought out occasionally as well: the angular and piercing guitars of "Lock and Key" are accented by a few well-placed vocal darts, while "Shiny" features driving guitars - we'll let all the random blips and bleeps that add nothing to the song slide - and sneering vocals from Visger.
For the most part, these stylistic swings hold up and make for a satisfying, though sometimes overly derivative, listen. Though post-production clutter and studio embellishments doom certain songs - witness the remedial quasi-funk of "Only a Moment," complete with mildly distorted vocals and enough instrumentation to make the listener beg for a simple acoustic tune -Olly Oxen Free periodically succeeds because it never settles on any one musical concept for very long. If the album unintentionally tempts the listener to focus only on identifying the band's apparent influences, beyond such games a few intriguing tracks prove the band has originality to burn. It won't send listeners into convulsions of hysteria and likewise won't make critics swoon, but it's a solid enough effort from a young band. For right now, at least, that's good enough.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Revisit: Big Black

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look. read them all at

The album title is probably enough to still keep most nervous onlookers away. Released in 1987, Big Black's Songs About Fucking was a fitting swan song for a band whose records unapologetically and brashly explored the seediest and most disturbing of human tendencies and perversions. With songs covering topics that few other bands would have the balls (or perhaps good taste) to take on - indiscriminate violence, sexual dominance, South American torture techniques - the album is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull. Few records have a sound that fits the subject matter as well as this one, with the album incorporating the trademarks early industrial music that would eventually be hijacked by a seemingly endless piss stream of Big Black imitators and Steve Albini wannabes. As uncompromising now as it was when it was released over 20 years ago, Songs About Fucking is among the most direct albums to slither its way from the sordid underbelly of any decade.

By 1987 Big Black had achieved a certain level of indie notoriety and infamy. "Vocalist" Albini had already earned a reputation as one the surliest and sharpest-tongued critics of mainstream music, the record industry and anything else that dared to stumble into his cross-hairs. Much of this abrasive, in-your-face approach has become the stuff of Big Black legend: the Headache EP's original artwork with its gruesome photos of an alleged car crash victim's head split in two; Atomizer's parade of bored-as-hell small-town suicidal arsonists, child molesters, killers and societal bottom feeders; the band's fiercely-defended indie ideals; a pounding drum machine coupled with guitars and deranged vocals that either left listeners running for cover or wanting more.

Songs About Fucking synthesizes everything brutal, challenging and memorable about Big Black better than any of the band's previous EPs or even the holy grail of Atomizer. While that first full length record sometimes sounded like a nihilist film set to music as it offered its fair share of depravity - "Jordan, Minnesota," "Kerosene" and "Fists of Love" for example - Songs About Fucking was the band's most focused, cohesive and thought-provoking work. The album is essentially a sensory assault with few peers in '80s indie: against the persistent and throbbing drum machine Roland TR-606 (credited in the liner notes as a band member), Santiago Durango's and Albini's guitars are malevolently precise, while Dave Riley's bass adds to this tension. Albini's vocals, variously barked or simply spat out and delivered with a mixture of malice and rage, are alternately buried in the mix to be rendered incomprehensible or just audible enough to require careful listening; the listener's eardrums pay the price when trying to decipher who's dying or killing, getting screwed over or just plain screwed, or some combination of all of these. After the warm-up of "The Power of Independent Trucking" and a cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model," the rest of the album rushes by in a blitz; from "Bad Penny" to "King of the Jews," the album's manic pace never eases. It's a litany of horrors that never relents, with only one song - the twisted fairy tale of "Kitty Empire" - eclipsing the three-minute mark. A good thing perhaps: any longer and the album's metallic dissonance might have become repetitive, predictable or more than one person can take.

While other albums deemed confrontational upon their release now sound tame by comparison, Songs About Fucking's content is still unnerving. Albini almost too-convincingly inhabits the minds of the album's villains in various first-person narratives. The sadist of "Precious Thing" says that "I would like to wrap your hair round your neck like a noose/ I would like to wrap your legs around my neck like a lock," while the narrator of "Bad Penny" is remorseless as he boasts of the revenge he's exacted via the oldest weapon known to man ("I think I fucked your girlfriend once/ Maybe twice, I don't remember/ Then I fucked all your friend's girlfriends/ Now they hate you"). For as blunt as such songs are, they almost pale in comparison to "Fish Fry," hands down the album's most chilling track. An appalling ditty about a murderer "hosin' out the cab of his pickup truck" who's "got his 8-track playin' really fuckin' loud" after heaving his victim into a pond, Albini's vocals vacillate between an observer's journalistic detachment or cop talk ("she's wearin' his bootprint on her forehead") and the killer's rationale for his actions: "sometimes you know you want to fuck somebody up/ Sometimes you just want to fuck." Coupled with the song's tough arrangement, Albini's delivery is sinister like few other songs can claim to be, with these venom-laced vocals an unholy union of spite and disgust.

At some point an ambitious critic will show how these songs fit within the American folk murder ballad tradition (setting aside the sound and liberal use of F-bombs, the similarities between Big Black's songs and, say, "Stagger Lee" are intriguing) but, for now, Songs About Fucking can be seen as a number of different things: a warped inversion of the love song taken to its nastiest extreme; an intentionally provocative record from a group whose frontman clearly mastered the art of the put down; a crowning achievement from a band who manipulates its artistic license to spit in the face of what's considered appropriate subject matter, all the while blurring the line between a band's persona and its musical content. Of course there are plenty of objectionable acts throughout Songs About Fucking, but perhaps that's the point. It's simply an album of ugly events, characters and desires set to a devastatingly appropriate soundtrack of pummeling guitars and a jacked-up drum machine. It makes no apologies for its content and sometimes precariously seems to revel in its thick layer of filth and violence. The social commentary here is of the most cynical kind, suggesting that the line between civility and our darkest impulses is thin. Though Albini would go on to be better known for his "recording" work with numerous bands and a younger generation would eventually get their grubby paws on Big Black's sound and deaden it enough for mass consumption, Songs About Fucking puts all of those imposters to shame. It still ranks among the most complex and unforgiving albums to emerge from the 1980s.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Raincoats: The Raincoats

Although The Raincoats don't exactly qualify as an entirely unheralded post-punk band, in many ways they were never afforded the broad critical acclaim their music warranted. Relying on an odd mixture of sometimes-shouted, sometimes-spoken vocals, intricate vocals and harmonies that floated above and underneath each other, as well as arrangements that fell somewhere between abrasive and bouncy, the band quietly released a series of remarkable albums that were met with little commercial fanfare and polite, but modest critical reception. The group seemed destined for little more than a cult following until Kurt Cobain, in the type of patronage that did wonders for other bands, offered his endorsement in the Insecticide liner notes. It's no coincidence that the band's albums were soon thereafter reissued by Rough Trade in 1993, with Cobain and Sonic Youth screecher/killer of songs Kim Gordon offering their fan boy-like thoughts on the band as part of these reissues.

Kill Rock Stars' vinyl-only reissue of The Raincoats' self-titled 1979 debut confirms that the record deserves a spot among the most essential post-punk releases. The Raincoats has aged remarkably well and shows none of the musical shortcomings and idiotic posturing that have made numerous albums that arose from punk's ashes unlistenable and downright laughable. While time has a way of cruelly exposing an album's flaws, there is very little to quibble about with The Raincoats, even 30 years after its original release.

Though the band's members - Ana DaSilva, Gina Birch, Vicky Aspinall and one-time Joe Strummer girlfriend/Slits drummer Palmolive - were clearly products of the British punk scene, a second glance at the album reveals that the band had more in common with groups like Pere Ubu and the Pop Group than the myopic and musically-stunted British punk rockers with whom they are usually associated. The album still defies easy categorization. With its chanted vocals and searing guitars, the band's first single, "Fairytale in the Supermarket," - added as the leading track on this reissue, though it wasn't included on the original LP - is reminiscent of the Clash circa 1977, but the remaining songs are far more diverse. Though some past reviews never got much further than gushing about the novelty of an all-female group covering Ray Davies' "Lola," the album's best moments occur in the band's original material. Songs like "No Side To Fall In," "Off Duty Trip" and "Adventures Close to Home" juxtapose rough vocals with hypnotic harmonies and repeated phrases with layers of instrumentation that incorporate elements of punk, folk and 1960 garage rock. Though the lyrics aren't incidental, the band was clearly equally interested in how words and phrases could be manipulated to create unique sounds.

In retrospect, the album sounds far less harsh and severe than it likely did in 1979. Even the record's most experimental moments - the tempo shifts and shouted vocals of "Life on the Line," Lara Logic's squealing saxophone on "Black and White," Aspinall's piercing violin squawks on "The Void," "You're a Million" and "In Love" - are tempered by a range of musical styles and textures that relieve some of the songs' fairly desperate sentiments and avant-garde tendencies. While a vinyl-only reissue will likely find only a limited audience, it nevertheless allows listeners to place The Raincoats and their addictive debut within a broader context of both its influences and later bands that would claim it as inspiration. The Raincoats is now, quite simply, a classic album and one of the most thrilling debuts to emerge from the post-punk era.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revisit: The Worst Hard Time - by Timothy Egan

One of the enduring images of the Great Depression is that of the Dust Bowl migrant family heading for any point west, their rickety jalopy packed and heavy with whatever the dust storms hadn't yet destroyed. While this image has been forever etched into Americans' understanding of the Depression - due in no small part to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie's songs of the triumphs and tribulations of these Dust Bowl refugees - it's nevertheless a bit misleading. The overwhelming majority of people who experienced the Dust Bowl actually never pulled up their stakes and instead simply did their best to survive this country's worst environmental disaster, as Timothy Egan points out in his stunning and heartbreaking The Worst Hard Time. Originally published in 2006, the book is quite simply historical writing of the best kind: vibrant, engrossing, well researched and carefully crafted.

It's become fashionable for various news media to flippantly compare the United States' current economic recession to that of the Great Depression. Though Egan's book was published well before the economy went into the crapper, the author's exploration of the Depression's causes will sound familiar to contemporary readers: banks loaned massive amounts of money with reckless abandon as settlers across the Great Plains spent wildly, giving very little thought to the possibility of a market downturn or that the bottom would ever fall out. Yet what becomes clear is that no financial plunges or declines in standards of living have yet to even come close to what Dust Bowl families experienced: farms that grew nothing, wheat prices falling until they couldn't get any lower, years without any income, a nearly-five year drought, tumbleweed and thistle for food, dust storms so frequent they practically became part of daily life, dust pneumonia in the lungs. "The dust always found a way in...dust dominated life" Egan writes, later pointing out that the dust storms were sometimes strong enough to carry to New York and even the White House.

Written like a great novel, with none of the monotony and detachment that plague countless historical studies, The Worst Hard Time is essentially an elegy to both those who suffered through the Depression in the heartland as well as the American spirit, with all its flaws, vitality, dignity and contradictions. In this way, Egan points out that the dusters were primarily the result of massive over-plowing, where the once-grassy land was beaten to shit by both well-meaning citizens and "suitcase farmers" interested only in making a killing before leaving town, without losing any sense of sympathy for the Dust Bowl's true victims. Indeed, some of the stories recounted here are the stuff of true tragedy: a Nebraska farmer's diary records his struggle to simply survive and find any meaning in a jobless and joyless life; Russian immigrants desperately try to retain a sense of identity on the unforgiving plains; a Boise City family suffers the death of its matriarch and her youngest great-granddaughter within a few hours of each other.

The Worst Hard Time is far more than just another book about the Depression. While its focus is on those who experienced the Dust Bowl at its harshest and most punishing, its scope is broader and its themes are universal. It's about how Americans ravaged by the Depression coped with an unforgiving landscape fallowed by overzealous farming and its consequences, maintained a sense of dignity and identity against impossible odds and attempted to survive in long-ago places like Dalhart, Texas and Inavale, Nebraska. As the number of Dust Bowl survivors becomes fewer each year, it's likely their story will be relegated to the history books and as fodder for academics. The Worst Hard Time shows that their story, while of a specific time and place, is universal and relevant to modern readers.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Elvis Costello: Live at the El Mocambo

The Elvis Costello reissue machine continues to hum along relentlessly. After the Rykodisc reissues of 1993-1995 did a serviceable job in re-examining Costello's back catalog, these were eventually bested by Rhino's stunning series, which, to use the technical term, kicked major ass. With their classy packaging, carefully considered artwork and humorous, honest and revealing Costello-penned liner notes, this collection of outtakes, live cuts, alternate versions and failed experiments appeared to be the final word on all things Costello. Not so fast. Since then, the artist's work has been repackaged several times over, in products ranging from interesting to entirely pointless. While another release of both My Aim Is True and This Year's Model from Hip-O each included a second disc with a live show - in addition to a plethora of bland outtakes, forgettable demos and other travesties - they at least offered something not previously commercially available. Other efforts, such as a pricey box set of singles and another pressing of the musician's studio albums, have been less forgivable, especially in an era where CD sales continue to plummet and music has been effectively reduced to little more than pieces of digital data.

Hip-O's reissue of Live at the El Mocambo will likely do nothing to change the skeptical minds of fans who have long since dismissed such artifacts as little more than mercenary cash grabs. While the performance is amazing, this release offers nothing new and too often plays like just another thoughtless, recycled rehash from a label short on both new ideas and any real interest in giving fans something of merit. Though Hip-O is quick to point out that the concert was previously only available in limited quantities as a promo album and later as part of the 2 ½ Years box set, this recording is about as difficult to track down as a right-wing health care reform reactionary; the El Mocambo show is perhaps Costello and the Attractions' most bootlegged concert. This latest repackaged dud shows the complete lack of imagination, creativity, and bang-for-your-buck that we've all, unfortunately, come to expect from music labels.

Enough has been written about the El Mocambo performance to render additional commentary redundant; suffice it to say that it's a defining moment in the group's history. At the least, this reissue confirms that the show's reputation as among the foursome's best is well-deserved. The tentativeness that crept into the group in late 1977 shows- check out the Nashville Rooms concert included in the MAIT deluxe edition for a band struggling to mesh- is long gone here, with Costello spitting out various barbed insults, insinuations and put-downs while Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas add musical venom to the mix. It's simply the sound of four guys with a jaw-dropping set of songs and the right chemistry- of a few different kinds, I'd guess.

One of the charms about this tape has always been its roughness. Costello's voice occasionally dominates the mix as the singer practically swallows the microphone in a rush to spit out various accusations and insults, most noticeably on "Mystery Dance," "Welcome to the Working Week" and "Miracle Man," while the Attractions' instruments alternately complement each other and fight for supremacy. The crowd remains wired and idiotically vocal for most of the show, while Costello engages in the requisite but mostly mild audience baiting (though his tone becomes fairly malevolent right before the band deconstructs "Pump It Up" with the help of Martin Belmont). A common shortcoming of any live disc is that it lacks a visual element, but a definite sense of atmosphere is palpable here: the crowd's amped-up disposition lasts for the show's duration (the infamous "yeehaw" concertgoer who yelps throughout and who, perhaps appropriately, makes his presence most known during "Less Than Zero," is still audible). While there is no appreciable difference in sound quality (maybe it's a little louder) on this release versus that of either its 2 ½ Years or bootleg predecessors, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Yet a scintillating performance and decent packaging job (Look, kids! Pictures!) aren't enough to justify the reissue's complete lack of bonus material. There's simply no incentive for fans who already own this record to purchase it again: four songs performed with Belmont and Nick Lowe are excluded, and there are no soundchecks, interviews, or, Christ, songs from the following night's show at the same club to make the package more attractive. With the June 1978 Hollywood High concert - parts of which were already included in Rhino's Armed Forces version - reportedly next up for release, Hip-O needs to move beyond simply repackaging previously released performances and start rewarding Costello's fans for their patience and patronage, many of whom are likely developing nervous tics at that very mention of the word reissue. A wealth of vintage Costello and the Attractions shows circulate on bootleg, and if done right, this ongoing live concert campaign could provide plenty of treats for long-time fans as well as those who only know Costello as the twitchy weirdo from the Austin Powers movie.

And so the latest iteration of Live at the El Mocambo is simply another underwhelming and useless Costello reissue, of which it's hard not to conclude that Hip-O either has no real clue what music fans look for in a reissue or isn't particularly interested in finding out. Whether a listener has heard this show before or not isn't the point: there is a way to accommodate both lifers and newbies and make both feel like a record label isn't roughly shaking their pockets out like a goon squad street tough. While this 1978 performance belongs on any list of essential post-punk live shows, Hip-O's uninspired release is ultimately a failed hatchet job. It's about as attractive as sea amoeba - though it's worth noting that, unlike this release, sea amoeba serves a purpose - and suggests listeners better have low expectations for future entries in "The Costello Show."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rediscover: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

if the Confederacy had won, there's wouldn't be a so be thankful.

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

"What if?" is perhaps the most common, if largely pointless and entirely speculative, question raised about the American Civil War (or, for those stuck in an antebellum mindset, "The War of Northern Aggression"). Despite its inherent absurdity, this question's bastard offspring - the alternative history genre - remains popular, as people of a certain persuasion will never tire of fantasized accounts of how Lee's rout of them foul Yankees at Gettysburg reshaped the course of American history for the better.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America begins with this familiar premise of a victorious Johnny Reb army but presents the aftermath in a far different light. Directed by Kevin Willmott, this 2004 mockumentary depicts America as a slave-owning and homogeneous Christian nation of the worst kind, its citizens convinced of their racial superiority and its government dominated by leaders singularly dedicated to maintaining the segregationist status quo. Cynical without being preachy and never prone to bouts of self-righteous proselytizing, C.S.A. is alternative history that is humorous, sobering and provocative.

C.S.A. is presented as a British Broadcasting Service documentary finally being aired on American television after a couple years of censorship; hinting at the prevalence of American xenophobia, the network warns that the documentary "is of foreign origin" and "may be unsuitable for children and servants." The film is presented from three different and usually contrasting perspectives. In his objective and detached tone, the British narrator actually advances the central theme of how racial prejudices become ingrained in a given society. Historian Sherman Hoyle, portrayed with just the right amount of exaggerated Southern mannerisms by Rupert Pate, advances the official party line and offers a window into how the Confederacy's legacy has been sanitized and white-washed for mass consumption. University of Montreal professor Patricia Johnson, convincingly played by Evamarii Johnson, is essentially the voice of dissent, her calm and matter-of-fact demeanor exposing the many social injustices that followed in the wake of the Union's surrender in 1864.

Willmott subtly inverts and reshapes the country's history based on actual events. In this way, the Great Depression is ended not by an increase in manufacturing brought on by World War II, but instead by a revived slave trade, while December 7, 1941 is marked by an American attack against Japan as part of the nation's "divinely ordained quest for world domination." Willmott mixes actual reel footage with doctored or invented footage to telling effect. Abraham Lincoln is shown as a frail and defeated old man in 1905, as the historian Hoyle describes the former president as a "lonely and bitter man...almost entirely forgotten by history." Viewers are shown clips of Adolf Hitler's visit to the Confederate States in 1935; the narrator later notes that the country opposed Hitler's eradication of the Jews, instead favoring their enslavement. Demonstrating a sardonic and pessimistic humor of the darkest kind, Willmott suggests that the Confederacy's brand of racial superiority was closely mirrored by that of Hitler's. Willmott's alternative world is also notable for what it excludes: there is no Civil Rights movement or cultural advancements to speak of, the obvious implication being that the systematic persecution of minority groups would have been inevitable had the South actually won the Civil War.

Equally suggestive are the commercials and PSAs that offer glimpses into contemporary Confederate life. Slavery drives the economy in various ways, with most of the products, services and advertisements being presented ironically with a nostalgic quaintness. Several commercials focus on the trappings of fine American living: a spot for Confederate Family Insurance, its logo a dignified image of Jefferson Davis, features a pretty wife, wide-eyed daughter and smiling slave, while viewers are later reminded to tune into the next episode of American Homes and Plantations. Others are more low brow: Sambo Motor Oil is the best way to keep your authentic "Dukes of Hazzard"-model General Lee running, while a law enforcement reality program called Runaway is accompanied by a bluegrass variation of Cops' well-known theme music. Astonishingly, not all these products are as far-fetched or exaggerated as one would think. As the movie closes, it's noted that Darkie Toothpaste and the Coon Chicken Inn actually existed; in the latter case, the restaurant's entrance was that of a wide-grinning train porter.

C.S.A. isn't just a study piece for academics, as this challenging gem is thoroughly compelling and manages to avoid becoming pedantic or dogmatic. It's a film about consolidation of power and how a country's history is framed by the victors. Regardless of whatever euphemisms Southern sympathizers have used over the years to justify the Confederacy's motives - "states rights," "Southern independence" - Willmott suggests this mythologizing has masked one of the defining features of the Civil War-era South: the institutionalized belief of Caucasian superiority and its possible impacts. Whether this forecasted vision of America is accurate - indeed, it presumes that the Confederacy had a realistic chance of winning the war and ignores the fact that slavery was already in decline as the war started - is irrelevant and of course impossible to prove or disprove; in his exaggerated depiction of a country segmented along racial lines, Willmott simply follows the Confederate philosophy to its logical conclusion. With a blend of satire and social commentary, C.S.A. ultimately concludes that America would have been a far less progressive, tolerant and culturally relevant nation had the South prevailed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut

read more kick-arse stuff at

If as a culture we prefer to keep our mortality at a safe and comfortable distance, such an approach has never found its way into Vic Chesnutt's music. The musician whom Michael Stipe rushed into a recording studio for fear of Chesnutt's songs never getting recorded has now been plugging along for more than 20 years, reminding us of our ultimate demise with a mixture of humor, pathos, derision and sympathy. Amid all the bizarre weirdos, tragic figures and other conflicted characters that populate Chesnutt's songs, death has been among the most frequent themes in his music. In most cases these meditations on the Great Beyond have been accompanied by the musician's darkly cynical humor, whether it's in the starkly arranged suicide lament of "Florida," the ancestral invocations of "Aunt Avis" or the poor, "coldest cadaver in the state," who meets an icy and altogether unpleasant end in "Mr. Reilly."

Chesnutt again stares down death throughout much of At the Cut. The suicide fantasy of "When The Bottom Fell Out" can be interpreted either literally or metaphorically; minimally arranged with just Chesnutt on acoustic guitar, its narrator describing himself hurling toward the earth, sardonically quoting Woody Guthrie on the way down ("So long/ It's been good to know ye"), eventually crashing into "that verdant grass." "Flirted With You All My Life," an alternately strong-willed and cowering address to death, is impossible not to view as autobiographical, with references to both Chesnutt's own suicide attempts ("I flirted with you all my life/ Even kissed you once or twice") and a friend's suicide (perhaps the poet John Seawright or Steve Buczko, who "hit those nails on the head" in "Florida"). The song is ultimately ambivalent; though the singer realizes that he's not ready to die, the last image we're left with is of Chesnutt's "cancer sick" mother reduced to begging for death to come.

A sense of remembrance ties several songs together. Though these tracks stop short of consolation, they nevertheless imply that there's some comfort to be found in such fleeting memories. Chesnutt offers a somewhat uncharacteristically straightforward vocal approach on the delicate "Concord Country Jubilee" as he recalls a series of childhood events and images - scraped knees, homemade ice cream and an adolescent kiss - that take place within the innocent atmosphere of a county fair. Chesnutt's grandmother, a frequent figure in the musician's songs, makes an appearance in the sparsely arranged and truly heartbreaking "Granny," in which Chesnutt recalls snippets of phrases and mundane everyday details from his beloved grandmother. The song speaks to the sense of loss that is felt throughout the album as well as the tight bond that unites family members across different generations. When Chesnutt quotes his grandmother - "You are the light of my life/ And the beat of my heart-" it's both tender and troubling, the type of simple phrase from a loved one that we all carry in our minds and remember with both affection and a sometimes unshakable sadness.

Musically, At the Cut recalls both Chesnutt's folk leanings as well as the jagged edges that dominated North Start Deserter. In some ways this isn't surprising, as the singer sometimes carries songs with him for years before they land on an album (some fans may recognize "Coward," "When The Bottom Fell Out" and "Granny" from various live recordings). Regardless, the album is better balanced than Deserter, which sometimes sounded overly abrasive just for the hell of it. Deserter collaborators, including members of A Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi and producer Howard Bilerman again give the album muscle: after a tentative beginning, "Coward" explodes with an imposing wall of noise and severe strings that cut and stab, "Philip Guston (with Clark Coolidge)" finds Chesnutt snarling his vocals over a flood of guitars and the hacking-the-shit-out-of-a-tree tale of "Chinaberry Tree" is suitably aggressive and tense. A flood of images cascades over squalls of guitars and piercing strings in "It Is What It Is," which in many ways sounds like an updated version of the atheist declarations of "Speed Racer:" "I'm not a pagan/ I don't worship anything/ Not gods that don't exist/ Nor the sun which is oblivious/... And I don't need stone altars/ To help me hedge my bet/ Against the looming blackness."

This assertion is perhaps At the Cut's most singular vow of defiance in an album littered with conflicting emotions. Mortality and memories flood its songs in an unnerving mix of hope and despair, determination and defeat, and Chesnutt's self-described tendency towards being "painfully nostalgic" takes on a more urgent tone throughout the album. Though a few songs never quite emerge from these dark shadows - the falsetto singing of "We Hovered With Short Wings" deadens one of Chesnutt's more poetic efforts, while "Chain" is the record's least memorable track - this release contains an affecting and moving set of songs that mostly plays to Chesnutt's strengths as a musician and lyricist. While its inclusions offer numerous parallels to Chesnutt's back catalog, rarely have his songs sounded so unflinching. When it comes to songs about dying and the past Vic Chesnutt has never bullshitted. Judging from this album, it's clear he doesn't plan to start that anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Damon & Naomi: The Sub Pop Years

everyone cool is going to they told me so.

The Sub Pop Years will try the patience of even the most enthusiastic and sympathetic Damon & Naomi fan. At 15 tracks and over 70 minutes, it paradoxically showcases everything great about the duo's blend of understated arrangements and hazy atmospherics, while also exposing the group's tendency to hit on a formula and repeat it well past the point of decency. The result is a steady, if largely underwhelming and predictable compilation that serves as a passable introduction to the duo for the uninitiated but offers nothing for long-time fans wanting to view the duo's body of work from a new perspective.

At its best, The Sub Pop Years confirms that Damon & Naomi's greatest strength has always been their ability to craft melodies, accentuating them with layered instrumental accents and ethereal vocals. Drawing from material from the band's four Sub Pop efforts - The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi, Playback Singers, Damon & Naomi with Ghost and Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian - nearly every song is expertly arranged and executed. The best tracks here - "Forgot to Get High," "In the Sun" and "How Long" - unfold deliberately, maintaining their dreamy dispositions without resorting to needless embellishments or clutter. This compilation is at least a reminder that the two are masters of utilizing music to create moods and convey tones.

Despite these charms, the release is ultimately a disappointment that's plagued with many of the shortcomings that listeners have come to expect from such compilations. The band's first (and some would argue, most consistent) post-Galaxie 500 effort, More Sad Hits, is excluded, as it was released prior to the band joining the Sub Pop stable. The result is an incomplete overview: neophytes looking for a good starting point will miss one key piece of the puzzle, while long-time fans will likewise have little incentive to purchase the album, as there are no outtakes, b-sides, alternate versions or even botched cover songs to whet such appetites.

The track order is equally perplexing and doesn't appear to follow any appreciable or recognizable pattern, with the songs sequenced randomly. Though the duo will never be accused of experimenting wildly with new styles - in hindsight, the overdubs and other embellishments of with Ghost weren't a dramatic departure for the band - they have made some minimal stylistic changes throughout the years, and a chronological running order might have made this evolution, however slight, more apparent.

There's also plenty to quibble about regarding the songs chosen: nine of the 15 tracks are drawn from with Ghost and Siren, which haven't aged particularly well and still border on being tediously monotonous. Most of the selections are cut from a very similar cloth - falsetto vocals, gentle arrangements, simple and inoffensive flourishes - and quickly become repetitive. Ultimately, The Sub Pop Years reaffirms that Damon & Naomi have always been best served in small doses. Though the duo hasn't exactly remained musically static since Galaxie 500 disbanded, such shifts have been via small, careful steps and not giant leaps. Such an approach is reliable and safe but makes for an unsurprising and mostly inessential retrospective. With nothing new included on this release - surely there's some worthy material in a vault somewhere - and a heavy emphasis on the band's less enthralling records, casual fans will get only part of the story, while lifers will have already heard it all before.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Brown Recluse [sings]: The Soft Skin EP

go to again. and again.

As music fans, many of us tend to approach the EP with all the disdain and loathing usually reserved for a contagious disease or a crazy uncle, and in many cases for good reason. Numerous EPs have been executed poorly and were rightly met with a critical and commercial thud, these releases often being little more than a rushed and hurried document of a young band blindly groping in the dark and getting nowhere. Though there are exceptions, too often it's hard to shake the feeling that an EP offers nothing more than a band's scraps, droppings and rancid leftovers.

The Soft Skin EP, a concise and infectious piece of indie pop from (currently) five-piece band Brown Recluse [sings], shows that this stigma doesn't always apply. If one of the goals of an EP is to spark interest in a band and whet a listener's appetite for a full-length album, The Soft Skin is a success. Though it's difficult to get too amped up about this EP due to its length - its 4 songs barely break the 11-minute mark - it does enough to confirm the band knows how to present its stylistic strengths on record.

It's likely that The Soft Skin will be most listeners' first introduction to the band. Though Brown Recluse [sings] eventually received a proper but belated label release for their 2006 EP, Black Sunday, their previous efforts were self-released in extremely limited quantities. For those unfamiliar with the band, this new EP is a worthwhile starting point. The band's bouncy and dreamy arrangements recall Os Mutantes and especially Belle & Sebastian; the latter band's influence finds its way both into Timothy Meskers' vocals and the songs' frequent use of horns. Each song is insidiously catchy, though in a good way; both opener "Rotten Tangerines" and closer "Contour and Context" display hints of country rhythm liberally mixed with horns, while "Night Train" offers a nice blend of keyboards, horns and backing vocals and "Rainy Saturday" rolls along with a quirky vocal and musical cadence. Meskers' vocals are occasionally deceptive, as sometimes the song's sentiments - "the pressures of the working world" hang ominously in "Rainy Saturday," for example - sharply contrast with the songs' upbeat arrangements.

The question now is whether Brown Recluse [sings] can sustain its style over the course of an album without sounding repetitive or derivative. This EP is certainly promising; there are no sour notes and the self-indulgent pretentiousness that plagues countless indie acts is entirely absent here. While the band's sound and approach aren't revolutionary or even very experimental, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Soft Skin might just be a tiny little taste when listeners want a great big gulp, but the band's latest EP is solid and surprising enough to both separate Brown Recluse [sings] from the hordes of like-minded bands and suggest that they have potential to spare.