Friday, January 30, 2009

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast

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Though none of Andrew Bird's previous releases can be characterized as straightforward, Noble Beast is probably his most challenging and least immediately accessible record to date. Previous efforts like Weather Systems and The Mysterious Production of Eggs usually offered guideposts that suggested where the songs were heading; even though these songs weren't redundant, they were usually rooted in a common musical sensibility that allowed the listener to keep his bearings as he navigated the vagaries of Bird's bizarre and often darkly humorous musical world. Yet Noble Beast is a whole other, um, beast. If previous release Armchair Apocrypha occasionally found both Bird becoming more impressionistic and non-linear, Noble Beast pushes that approach considerably. Upon initial listens it sounds like the equivalent of being lost in the woods while being pursued by a whistling, ill-rhyming violin player prone to fits of lyrical abstraction.

The album walks a fine line between obliqueness and willful obtuseness. Certainly some of its songs never quite catch fire even after repeated airings, suggesting that a certain amount of self-editing on Bird's part might have improved the album. At a shade under 55 minutes, it's one of Bird's longest, and occasionally seems even longer. Mimicking the approach taken on his previous albums, a few short instrumentals are included; though these are all nice enough and remind the listener of Bird's well-documented musical training, at most they offer a brief respite from the album's more difficult moments. "Tenuousness" relies on Bird's tendency towards wordplay and rhyming to a fault and is too clever for its own good. Though Bird bristles at such comparisons, the vocals and instrumentals on "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" are overly reminiscent of Thom Yorke and Radiohead, though in Bird's case this probably more attributed to the quirks in his vocal delivery than any type of intentional homage to the band.

Noble Beast's charms unfold slowly, given time to settle in the listener's ears. While the album does require a certain degree of patience from the listener, a number of its songs are as inventive as anything Bird has recorded. Eventually the songs sound far less random and scattershot that they initially appear, with Bird's patented approach of violin, guitar, loops, and whistling - a helluva lot of whistling - utilized to good effect. Opening track "Oh No" begins with a violin melody that is soon accompanied by piano and a good bout of whistling, "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" is as up-tempo and danceable a song as it gets (for Suzuki-trained violinists at least), the near-epic "Nomenclature" features some of Bird's most urgent and soaring vocals, and the gorgeous arrangement of "Souverian" is built around a jaunty piano and vocal take that wouldn't sound out of place on Bird's previous albums. Other songs like "Effigy" are more subdued and almost acoustic; perhaps Noble Beast's most striking moment, it includes a pseudo-flamenco guitar melody and an old-timey violin arrangement that nicely augments Bird's sardonic and deadpan vocals.

Bird's lyrics are more cryptic than on his previous efforts, with specific evocative phrases suggesting various images and meanings. Only a fool would claim to fully understand the songs' themes or intentions; Tom Waits' well-worn concert joke that the only things adults talk about are food, sickness and death is somewhat applicable here. Bird's usual obsessions - flightless animals, personal reckonings, apocalypse, childhood memories, mortality, myths, superstitions, history's long-gone empires - are again present, often accompanied by rhyme schemes that are either brilliant or overly academic, depending on your point of view. Yet in many ways this lyrical ambiguity fits the songs well and gives them added depth. Though it's not the masterpiece Andrew Bird has hinted at since Weather Systems, there's a gradually unfolding mystery and beauty to Noble Beast.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Revisit: The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency and I

originally published at go check that site out. show some love.

If the rotting corpses of the Jesus and Mary Chain can be taken out of storage and dusted off for a reunion tour that bizarrely includes some stage time with Scarlet Johansson, I suppose a Dismemberment Plan reunion is still possible. After calling it quits in 2003, the band reunited briefly in 2007, though this was little more than a one-off occasion and, unfortunately, not the triumphant return of one of indie rock's most sorely missed bands. If the Washington, D.C. band's history is indeed finished, their legacy as one of music's more creative and inventive bands seems assured, due in large part to their landmark album Emergency & I.

Now nearly 10 years after its initial release, back in those heady days when people actually paid for albums and carried their music around in cumbersome things called jewel cases, Emergency & I still sounds relevant and entirely original. Whereas other albums from around this time that received similar effusive praise - Midnite Vultures and Kid A come to mind - have since lost their appeal thanks in large part to their experimental excesses, Emergency & I still stands as one of those rare near-perfect albums. That the band had the good sense to get the hell out before they had a chance to wreck their legacy a la the Sex Pistols might have something to do with it; regardless, for those of us who have played the shit out of this album over the years, it never gets stale or repetitive.

The album mixes and blends a dizzying array of musical genres and styles, without coming across as a disjointed, schizophrenic mess. Indeed no two songs sound exactly the same; on Emergency &I the Plan distillates everything from hip-hop to R&B to mope rock into a whole other beast. In interviews, and perhaps with varying degrees of sincerity, lead singer Travis Morrison would compare the band's sound to acts such as Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Talking Heads. It was somehow both completely accurate and woefully inadequate.

Though Morrison's vocals often recall a less snarky version of Stephen Malkmus, the band's overall sound is much harder to define. It's subtly evocative of so many bands and genres, yet sounds exactly like none of them. Though the term "dance-punk" has occasionally been tossed around to describe Emergency & I, that's little more than a clever label that sounds nice and doesn't mean a damn thing. Certainly the album recalls a broad range of artists, including Television ("A Life of Possibilities"), a perverse mix of Pixies and Prince ("I Love a Magician"), and Pavement (closing track "Back and Forth," with its rapidly spoken vocals and insistent musical arrangement, sounds like a companion piece to Pavement's "Conduit for Sale"). The songs are stylistically diverse, often jumping from genre to genre. The sparse percussion that dominates the first few minutes of "You Are Invited" eventually gets swallowed up by drums and guitars, and "The City" builds slowly, ultimately peaking with Morrison's reedy and strained vocals. It's an album of studio wizardry and tricks whose songs incorporate elements of funk, hip hop, and hardcore. "I Love a Magician" and "Girl O'Clock" still defy categorization.

Beneath the album's mostly upbeat arrangements and frequent flashes of humor are fairly dour lyrics. Though it's not entirely accurate to describe Emergency & I as a breakup album, - such a term implies that it's something akin to Blood On the Tracks - several songs do focus on this theme. Sometimes this topic is addressed with humor. "Gyroscope" unfolds as a tale about how each combatant in a recently disintegrated relationship is handling the fallout. It's a song of mutual self-delusion; while the female copes by "wearing too much lipstick tonight/ A little black dress a little too tight" and the male convinces himself that "the reminders don't bother him in the least/ The Jekyll and Hyde shit will finally cease," it's merely a front, with Morrison promising some sour emotions later on: "If you spin fast enough than maybe the broken pieces of your heart will stay together/ But some things I've seen lately make me doubt it."Other songs are simply achingly sad. "The City" is perhaps the album's most wrenching song, equal parts regret and resignation.

Other songs are heavy with restlessness, boredom, loneliness, and apathy; anyone who spent their mid-twenties shuttling between a downtown office building and a shitty apartment can sympathize here. Two of the album's more reserved and melodic songs - "Spider In the Snow" and "The Jitters" - are also the album's bleakest. "Spider In the Snow" is a depiction of complete dissatisfaction with life's daily mundane routine; the song's character is essentially killing time, his primary comfort a heavy dose of cynicism. "The Jitters" expresses similar sentiments, with its narrator thoroughly beaten down and airing a laundry list of complaints: "Always tired, need a nap/ I have to make myself brush my teeth/ I've made a list of everything I've ever owned/ When the days bring nothing new/ and the sound of laughter makes you sick." Such images of indifference and resignation course throughout the album; now stare at your shoes and sob quietly.

Emergency & I remains one of the few albums where it's hard to not totally geek out like a drooling, hero-worshipping fanboy. Its musical influences are far-ranging and diverse, with these reference points distilled into a style that sounds as unique today as it did in 1999. Of course by now the album has been praised and analyzed to death by eager fans and critics alike, yet it somehow still seems insufficient. All these borderline psychotic reviews still can only hint at what makes this album so engaging and original.

by Eric Whelchel

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cut Off Your Hands - You and I

You and I has all the components to be an outstanding release: its songs are frenetic and punchy, with driving, hook-laden rhythms, ringing guitars, pounding drums and melodies too obvious to miss. Because of these qualities, it's not hard to imagine these songs being played to packed, sweaty clubs or even arenas full of 20-something fist-pumpers. The album is as arena rock friendly as indie pop gets. Now all that Cut Off Your Hands needs are the arenas.

Nevertheless, this debut album from the New Zealand-based foursome is overwhelmingly dull, listless and repetitive. It's often difficult to distinguish its songs from the work of other bands tramping similar ground, with the album resembling something that sounds like an immature, clumsy copulation between Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. The same formulaic and overly generic blueprint is utilized ad nauseam: songs like "Happy As Can Be," "It Doesn't Matter" and "Closed Eyes" sound like little more than a band going through the motions of what indie pop is expected to sound like. There's not necessarily anything wrong with a band sticking to a certain style - you could reasonably argue that this is actually what most artists do - but when that style offers few tricks or surprises, it makes for a bland and monotonous album.

Arena rock music carries with it the stigma of being impersonal, with anthemic chords and mailed-in lyrics substituted for where a heart should be. You and I frequently shares these flaws. Although the lyrics contain a narrative arc that explores heavy things like religious doubt, childhood nostalgia, death and failed, fucked up relationships, the songs sound as if they're sung from the point of view a distant, and entirely disconnected, observer. A thick layer of disinterest kills songs like "Oh Girl" and "Turn Cold," where Nick Johnston's vocals are practically robotic in their lack of emotion. Any momentum gained by the music is negated by this all-too-passive and detached vocal delivery.

Two songs veer dramatically in an acoustic direction and suggest that Cut Off Your Hands is capable of more than by-rote pastiche. "In the Name of Jesus Christ" features sparse guitars, strings and hushed background vocals as it reflects on the role of religion in childhood with a mixture of sincerity and mostly cynicism. Despite the sense of community mentioned in the song, the narrator can't help but sardonically note that the religious conversion of a "reformed thug" still didn't prevent his daughter from getting pregnant at 15 or his wife from getting cancer. Closing track "Daniel" likewise relies on a gentle guitar melody and minimal additional instrumentation; here, Johnston's singing is powerful and moving. The song expresses a fatalistic and bleak sentiment about both life and religion, with Johnston singing about someone who dies of cancer "despite the prayers of his church and of his wife and his kids."

You and I too often sounds like a mediocre distillation of recent indie music trends, with the majority of its songs adhering to this predictable template. Despite its undeniably catchy arrangements, the album creates the impression of a band trying to be willfully indifferent. Only when the band strips away this icy exterior does the album ever really connect with the listener.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rediscover - Now It's Overhead - Fall Back Open

Originally published at Go there.

Released in 2004 to lukewarm reviews, Fall Back Open offers up a heavy dose of postmodern emo anxiety. The sophomore effort from Now It's Overhead places an emphasis on atmospheric textures and production techniques that help accentuate the album's bleak lyrics and dark tone. Though it's certainly not a landmark album and its influences are readily apparent, it also never wanders off listlessly down the path of obtuse experimentation or bloated self-indulgence. Nearly five years after the fact, it sounds better and more relevant than it did upon its initial release.

The musicians that recorded the album under the moniker Now It's Overheard are perhaps best known for their work in other projects. Lead singer and lyricist Andy LeMaster has played as a member of Bright Eyes' backing band and has produced a horde of albums through his Chase Park Transduction recording studio. Athenians (studies show approximately 30% of all musicians are from Athens) Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor are members in Azure Ray, and drummer Clay Leverett has played in a number of Athens bands.

Still, Now It's Overhead circa Fall Back Open was primarily a vehicle for LeMaster's musical vision, which was hinted at on the band's debut album but more fully formed with this second release. In describing the album - and forgiving the hint of over-seriousness - LeMaster has stated that it "deals with seeking fulfillment and searching for something and realizing that what you've found isn't it." How an album with such a theme didn't ride a bullet to the top of the charts and land the band on TRL playing grabass with Carson Daly is beyond me.

Many of the lyrics drip with insecurity and an unhealthy mixture of futility, boredom and angst; the kicks sought after in these songs are short lived and usually result in serious mental anguish and brooding about mortality. Much of the album plays like a trip inside the psyche of someone who's damn close to, to use the clinical term, cracking up. With a nasal singing voice that sounds a restrained Jeff Mangum, LeMaster expresses these vulnerabilities without sounding excessively pansy-ass or melodramatic.

Opening track "Wait In a Line" evokes a sweaty nightclub scene of blinking lights and drunk chicks vomiting into seedy bathroom stalls, with LeMaster sardonically noting that despite the temporary diversions granted by these nighttime dalliances, "Gravity catches up." On its surface "Surrender" is an ambivalent love song, but also hints at an unspecified and seemingly inevitable personal disaster: Perhaps the album's most jarring track, "Reverse" lets the listener know that the bastards are at the gate and will probably break through. It's a picture of someone unable to fight off various unnamed threats; best just to admit defeat now before it gets any more difficult. Even the album's ballads wallow in such murk. Master of morose Conor Oberst provides backing vocals on the title track, a depiction of someone mired in a particularly unpleasant comedown. It's the morning after with all the shame, guilt, regret, and cuts and scrapes it brings.

The musical arrangements enhance the songs' textures and give them additional depth. Heavy with reverb and layered instruments (including synthesizers that don't massacre the songs), and occasionally reminiscent of bands like Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine, the sound itself is still hard to neatly define. Songs like "Wait In a Line," "Surrender," "Profile," and "Reverse" are compressed and jittery, with stabbing guitars and pulsing rhythms that complement the tensions that are played out in the lyrics and contribute to the songs' dark undertones. Other songs are far more hazy and smoky. The title track, "Turn & Go," and album closer "A Little Consolation" feature more subtle and reserved arrangements that add some much needed variation to the album's sometimes too-uniform sound.

"It was a long year and I wasted it/ Now each breath's getting shorter," LeMaster laments above a mostly acoustic melody on "The Decision Made Itself." It's a nice summation of the album as a whole; tension and boredom surface time and time again. Any distractions - the searing club lights of "Wait In a Line" or the adults-only classifieds of "Profile" - are always temporary diversions that fix nothing. Successfully navigating that fine line between emo and overly emotional, Fall Back Open is an atmospheric snapshot of anxiety and the inability to escape it.

Titus Andronicus - The Airing of Grievances

Originally published at Go to that site. Now dammit.

Taking their name from one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays -not from a porno queen - Titus Andronicus' debut effort The Airing of Grievances was an unrelenting and pounding album that played like repeated jack-booted kicks upside the head. Upon its original release on the Troubleman Unlimited label in 2008, it received effusive praise from a decent number of fans and critics. Violent, nihilistic, and exceedingly bleak, it was one of the year's most austere and uncompromising albums. With cultural references ranging from their hometown of Glen Rock, New Jersey to Albert Camus, Greek mythology, and Flemish painters, as well as containing enough existential dread to rival Ian Curtis, it was one of the year's most viscerally jarring albums. Now remastered (bullshit unless you have ears with the sensitivity of a bat, but no matter) and reissued by XL Recordings, indie music fans or those woefully angst-ridden suburban kids who are not yet familiar with the album have another chance to discover it.

Though the vocal traits of lead singer Patrick Stickles have been compared to Conor Oberst, to my ears he sounds closer to a more riled up cross between Paul Westerberg and David Yow. The vocals throughout Airing are tinny, muddy and occasionally indecipherable, with Stickles variously screaming, shouting and yelping above the band's manic playing. The lyrics are extraordinarily dark, often vacillating between moments of righteous anger, fuck-it-all boredom and morose brooding about mortality.

Opening track "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" references Hunter S. Thompson's well-known novel as Stickles lobs his first grenade of the album: "Should the shit hit the fan, I just pray you will not be spared." On other songs Stickles sounds completely resigned and tired beyond his years. This monotony is acknowledged in the almost-melodramatic "No Future Part 1," with Stickles commenting that "I know that I say this every night/ But I don't think I've ever been so tired of life." And if this emo sentiment somehow escapes the listener's notice, Stickles drives the point home later in the song, cheerfully saying that, "This world seems like a nice place to visit/ But I don't want to live in it." On Airing such boredom strolls hand-in-hand with mordant comments about the meaningless of life.

The song's arrangements prevent these lyrics from reading like the overwrought work of a freshman Intro to Philosophy student who doesn't realize how miserable he is until Camus tells him so. Many songs begin deceptively quiet and almost acoustic in nature, but eventually dissolve into something far more sinister and jagged. The album begins with a simple guitar, before the gates are blown open and the song is swallowed up by swirling pianos and horns. This pattern is repeated often: "Joset of Nazareth's Blues" begins with a harmonica line reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, but is soon jackknifed by Stickles' strained vocals, while "No Future Part 1" starts with an atmospheric rhythm that is eventually suffocated by the band's frantic sound. The arrangements are varied and expansive, evocative of many disparate musical trends without being derivative .

The band's home state of New Jersey is referenced several times and is used to accentuate the album's agitated and claustrophobic tone. Or, more accurately, the blue-collar, hardscrabble, industrial shithole image of the state that's been depicted in everything from the poetry of William Carlos Williams to the music of Springsteen to every "Cops" episode that seems to take place on the dingiest streets of Passaic. As listeners we'd probably be having a hardy, cynical indie laugh if these songs were written by a bunch of Abercrombie-clad rebels from Bel-Air. But with New Jersey as the backdrop - especially in lyrics that reminisce back to childhood, presumably before things got even more horribly derailed - the album's utter desolation is entirely believable.

The Airing of Grievances deals heavily in the dark stuff. Even its few instances of humor are meant to be taken with a mournful shrug, not a wry smile. Of course, the fatalistic ethos that runs through many of its songs isn't anything new in music. Where the album ultimately succeeds, and what makes it so compelling, is in its ability to convey this ethos without sounding laughably over-dramatic.

by Eric Whelchel

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A.C. Newman - Get Guilty

When the frontman of an indie band with a trademark style refined and polished over the course of several releases staggers out of the gates for a solo album, the temptation is to view such a release as little more than a vanity project. Is it fair? Of course not, but it makes for an easy starting point and potentially some obnoxiously lazy music journalism. For A.C. Newman, that reference point is indie juggernaut the New Pornographers, who on albums like Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema have developed their own unique brand of catchy and infectious indie pop. Just ask University of Phoenix.

Get Guilty is the second solo release from Newman. Recorded in the summer of 2008 at Brooklyn's Seaside Lounge and featuring contributions from John Wurster (Superchunk/Mountain Goats), Mates of State and Nicole Atkins, the album is unique enough to distinguish it as something more than an incidental one-off side project. Though the musical arrangements, vocals and production techniques are sometimes overly reminiscent of the New Pornographers, overall it's a solid album that includes enough variations to set it apart from Newman's work with the band.

Of course, these similarities to the New Pornographers aren't necessarily drawbacks; some of the songs that mine the band's up-tempo mix of guitars, keyboards, drums and backing vocals are catchy as hell. Newman clearly knows how to write and record memorable singles, even if none of these songs will ever get a whiff of mainstream commercial airplay. Songs like opener "There Are Maybe 10 or 12," "Changeling (Get Guilty)," "Prophets" and "Submarines of Stockholm" wouldn't sound out of place on a New Pornographers record. Accusations of potential complacency aside - Newman certainly isn't trying to create a new musical language or deal in wild experimentation on Get Guilty - most of the album's songs are well crafted enough to excuse any excessive similarities to his work with the New Pornographers.

Nevertheless there are several subtle stylistic differences that become more apparent after multiple listens. In general, Newman's vocals sound more up front in the mix and less treated than usual; when his voice isn't layered, it actually carries some emotion, in particular on "There are Maybe 10 or 12," Young Atlantis" and closer "All Of My Days and All Of My Days Off." The album also moves at a more relaxed pace than most New Pornographers songs, with the songs also being given more breathing room to develop. Whereas sometimes the New Pornographers can drown their songs with layers of instruments - with mediocre recent album Challengers being a frequent offender - Newman instead emphasizes individual instruments this time around. "Prophets" begins with a sparse piano and acoustic guitar, "Changeling (Get Guilty)" is built around a nice piano melody and punchy background vocals, violins mark the beginning of "Young Atlantis, and "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" uses acoustic guitars to create a driving, insistent rhythm.

Though Newman's lyrics sometimes tend to be somewhat obtuse and open-ended, a wry sense of humor and self-deprecation surfaces on some songs. "I will die with my foot in my mouth," Newman deadpans at one point. The opening song can be heard as either mocking or playful as it promises some helpful advice, but with a catch: "There are maybe 10 or 12 things I could teach you/ After that well I think you're on your own/ And that wasn't the opening line/ It was the tenth or the twelfth/make of that what you will." Other songs (specifically the album closer) are heavy on romantic sentiment; thankfully, these songs aren't maudlin and the nausea quotient remains low.

For the most part, Get Guilty doesn't really find A.C. Newman wandering too far from his comfort zone. Its style and vocal arrangements are mostly familiar, though there are some subtle shifts that those with sensitive ears will notice. Even so, Newman's ability to write catchy songs with recurring but not overly bombastic hooks hasn't diminished in the least.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The National - Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers

Rediscover: The National
Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers

Originally published at Go visit that site. Don't make me tell you again.

Though The National's reputation is usually staked to recent albums Alligator and Boxer, many of the lyrical themes and musical styles that have garnered the band so much attention were first explored on sophomore release Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Released in 2003, the album marked a noticeable shift in both songwriting and instrumental dexterity for the band after their sometimes moving but clumsy self-titled debut. Whereas that debut effort was firmly grounded in Americana and country and sounded like a band still searching to find its own style, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers marked the group's first great leap forward and laid the foundation for the widely praised albums that would later follow.

Essentially a series of sketches about relationships in various states of disintegration, many of the songs certainly live up to the album's title. Opener "Cardinal Song" immediately sets a bleak tone with its quiet backing vocals, deliberate pace, and mournful violins, as its narrator ostensibly talks to himself and offers advice that is probably less than helpful: "Never tell the one you want that you do/ Save it for the deathbed/ When you know you kept her wanting you/....Never say you miss her/ Never say a word." "90-Mile Water Wall" again relies on violins and Matt Berninger's weary baritone to craft a snapshot of a person either simply wanting to escape someone's steely gaze or to get the hell out of a crumbling mess of a relationship: "I'm waiting for a 90-mile water wall/ To take me out of your view/ I'm looking for a trap door trigger/ To drop me out of your view."

The album ends with two similar dark ballads. Against a disarmingly gentle melody, the wounded narrator of "Patterns of Fairytales" is left behind to pour over the wreckage of another failed go of it, even as he suspects his partner has other things to occupy her time: "Tonight there isn't any light under your door/ I guess you must be somewhere breathing/ Where skin and everything still know what they are for/ And blood remembers where to go." Closing song "Lucky You" displays a similar sense of bitterness. Backed by an acoustic guitar and piano that builds throughout the song, and featuring some of the band's most proficient playing, this time the man can only watch helplessly as another woman brazenly flaunts her infidelity in his face as she heads for the door: "You clean yourself to meet/ The man who isn't me/ You're putting on a shirt/ A shirt I'll never see/ The letter's in your coat/ But no one's in your head."

Yet what saves Sad Songs from devolving into an emo weep fest of overindulgent self-pity is the way both the lyrics and instruments are used to convey a wider range of complex and ugly emotions. Several songs evoke an aggression and violence in stark contrast to the torch burners mentioned previously; with their jagged guitars, insistent drums, and a heavy dose of screamed vocals, a trio of songs - "Slipping Husband," "Murder Me Rachael" and "Available" - burst with anger and rage.

Other songs exist uneasily in a space somewhere between these tales of loss and revenge. A general feeling of fatigue and resignation, which the band would later examine in Boxer, is palpable throughout the album. "We look younger than we feel/ And older than we are/ Now nobody's funny," Berninger deadpans in the atmospheric, country-tinged "It Never Happened." The subject in the lament of "Trophy Wife" discovers that promiscuity is tiresome and, in this case, debilitating: "One time you were a good rabbit/ To all the girls/ And all their lovely mothers/ You tried a piece of everything/ Now nothing turns you on." Similarly, the entendre of macho boasting in "Fashion Coat" sounds like wishful thinking from a man too worn out to care about his shortcomings: "I'll do everything to you," he brags, before the zinger comes, "but I can hardly come." The song closes with a sentiment of defeatism and boredom that contrasts with its shimmering melody, with Berninger singing "I die fast in this city/ Outside I die slow/ Everywhere I am is just another thing without you in it."

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is a lonely and angry album. Equal parts brooding and pissed off, its characters alternately react with resignation or rage at the various infidelities and insults lobbed like grenades into their lives. There's little sense of hope in these songs; those relationships that haven't yet mercifully ended are clearly heading toward disaster. Of course it's tempting to view these songs as Berninger exorcising his personal demons, but such an approach is narrow-minded and kills the universal emotions that are expressed in these songs. The band's playing also shows a confidence that was occasionally lacking on the debut album; it's the first time the band was able to consistently evoke often disparate moods through these arrangements. Though it never received as much critical attention or praise as either of those albums, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is a harrowing and brilliant album that explores the darker side of relationships.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Music Review - The Gourds - Haymaker!

Originally published at Go visit that site. Every day. You will get a treat if you do.

Over the course of albums like Stadium Blitzer, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig and Noble Creatures, the Gourds have mapped out their own unique and often bizarre musical style. Though most commonly thrown into that giant vat of music described as "roots," the band's sonic palette is far more expansive than that and equally difficult to categorize. Elements of country and folk ride shotgun with snatches of bluegrass and blues, resulting in a concoction steeped in traditional music yet still highly original and inventive.

Though The Gourds' reputation is primarily staked to its energetic and raucous live shows - or perhaps to its cover version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" - the band's studio work has always been solid and dependable. Now closing in on their 15th year as a band, The Gourds, still consisting of Jimmy Smith, Kevin 'Shinyribs' Russell, Keith Langford, Max Johnston, and Claude Bernard, clearly know their way around a recording studio. There still isn't a single dud album to their name.

The band's latest product, Haymaker!, keeps that streak going. A brisk-paced album of 14 songs, it's undeniably high energy and fast-moving; Russell recently commented that the band's goal for the album was to capture the feeling of their live shows in a studio environment. In this respect the album is mostly successful. Tracks like "Country Love," "Country Gal," "Shreveport," "Fossil Contender," and "New Dues" rock and sway with a looseness that gives the songs a live quality, minus of course the broken beer bottles and intoxicated trucker-hat-wearing fans that pop up at the band's concerts. Most of the songs nicely play to the band's ability to synthesize a world of various musical genres. "All the Way to Jericho" rolls along with an airy country arrangement and subtle background vocals and harmonies, the unabashedly romantic "Valentine" plays like a country slow dance in a dilapidated barn, and closing song "Tighter" is driven by a guitar melody that recalls the Byrds and early R.E.M.

Nevertheless, Haymaker! is somewhat disappointing. The band rarely ventures into uncharted waters; though the majority of the songs are good enough, the spirit of adventure and risk taking that The Gourds have brought to both previous releases and live shows is largely absent. For the band's more dedicated and hardcore fans - and really, is there any other kind when we're talking about The Gourds? - the album offers few surprises and it's hard not to feel like we've heard this story before. Occasionally Haymaker! also becomes tedious and repetitive; sometimes the songs blend into each other if the listener isn't paying careful attention. It's hard to tell where "Tex-Mex Mile" ends and where next song "Blanket Show" begins, while the character sketches of "Bridgett" and "Thurman" feature undeniably similar vocal and musical arrangements.

Still, any new release from The Gourds is worth hearing. To their credit, the band continues to operate on the fringes of so many different musical styles that it's still hard to neatly categorize or cynically typecast them. Though Haymaker! is less engaging and surprising than some of The Gourds' previous releases, at its best it still serves as a nice reminder of the band's unique ability to blend country, folk, bluegrass, and other various elements into something that somehow sounds both traditional and wholly original.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Second Chance: The Clash - Give 'Em Enough Rope

Originally published at Go visit that site. Go. Now.

A common assessment of Give 'Em Enough Rope usually goes something like this: after the fury and righteous anger of the Clash's landmark debut album, hot shot producer Sandy Pearlman got his AOR hooks into the band. Either overwhelmed by Pearlman, or cynically taking its first major crack at breaking into the mainstream (especially in the United States), or simply unable to match the focused aggression of their first release, the band eventually delivered a slick, meandering, and ultimately disappointing, sophomore effort.

There's only one problem with this evaluation of Give 'Em Enough Rope: it misses the point. Looking back on the band's career, the album should be seen as a stepping stone for the synthesis of musical styles that would be most fully realized on London Calling. It showed the Clash moving far beyond the narrow stylistic confines of punk, and serves as a bridge between their one-dimensional debut album and the epic sprawl of London Calling.

Though it might sound like heresy, 30 years after its release the band's self-titled and much revered debut album sounds dated and irrelevant. Whatever the album's merits, most of its songs are heavy on punk posturing and macho threats, circa 1976-1977. The various rants and screeds evoked on songs like "White Riot," "I'm So Bored with the USA" and "London's Burning" started a tradition of oversimplified (and, it could be argued, careless) political sloganeering that would plague the band throughout their career. Other songs now play as unrelentingly repetitive and tedious; punk ethos be damned, songs like "Janie Jones," "What's My Name," and "Career Opportunities" all sound like the work of a band trying to religiously adhere to the Year Zero concept that was fashionable at the time.

Now that I've probably lost whatever little credibility I have left among the Clash faithful by blasting a supposedly classic album, I'll at least try to explain why I consider Give 'Em Enough Rope a far more interesting and engaging album. I'll be the first to admit that this album has its share of dead weight: songs like "Guns On the Roof," "Last Gang In Town," and "Cheapskates" all take a silly badass stance and come across as innocuous and forced chest thumping.

Still, Give 'Em Enough Rope is far more musically experimental than their debut and has much in common with London Calling. With its keyboards and laid-back rhythm, "Julie's In the Drug Squad" sounds like an early version of "Jimmy Jazz", while "Drug-Stabbing Time" and "All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" wouldn't sound out of place on London Calling. Overtly political songs like "Safe European Home," "English Civil War," and "Tommy Gun" are more textured and developed than the majority of the songs from the debut album, where the band's social outrage was usually expressed through Joe Strummer's oh-so-punk snarling vocals.

There's a diversity of style, arrangements, and lyrical concepts here that are mostly absent from the Us Vs. Them mantras on The Clash. To astute listeners who weren't busy gobbing on their punk heroes, Give 'Em Enough Rope was a sign of things to come for the Clash. While many of their peers would remain mired in the punk maelstrom and never move past a musical vision that insisted musical proficiency and artistic expression couldn't co-exist (at least in UK punk), every one of the band's subsequent releases incorporated various genres and musical concepts.

Give 'Em Enough Rope isn't a perfect album; it displays some of the band's lack of self-editing that would later make Sandinista such a frustrating and bloated affair. Yet knowing the trajectory the band's career and later albums would take, it offers the first real hints of the Clash's ability to successfully meld disparate musical styles. If The Clash tried to create the impression of four British punks who couldn't play their instruments (only accurate in Paul Simonon's case), on Give 'Em Enough Rope the Clash took their initial steps in moving past the homogeneous sound that defined both that album and early UK punk.

by Eric Whelchel

Monday, January 05, 2009

Top 10 of 2003 - Five Years Later published an interesting list today of the top ten albums of 2003, five years later.

Go check it out at the link below. Then go tell your friends and tell them to tell their friends and enemies about the site.