Friday, March 27, 2009

Concert Review: Future Clouds & Radar

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In a city that has only the faintest hint of a music scene with a functioning pulse - though locals still like to boast that the blues originated in St. Louis - and very few quirky concert venues, Off Broadway is one of this town's more unique and reliable places to see a show. It gives off a cool and comfortable vibe, like a neighborhood bar that cross-dresses in concert venue clothes. Pictures of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson giving that most famous of salutes line its brick walls, a mounted antelope head rests above an old time cigarette machine in a venue that's exclusively non-smoking now, various miscellany from the Lemp brewery is scattered throughout, and the sinks in the men's bathroom are stained with a black liquid that, while hinting at something far more sinister, only adds to the charm. A few rows of folding chairs are included almost as an afterthought, while the upstairs section offers a perfect view of the stage below for those concertgoers who'd prefer to avoid the pit and the urchins that swarm there.

My brother and I arrived early enough to catch the tail end of Future Clouds & Radar's sound check. With plenty of time to kill after this minor invasion of band privacy, it was enjoyable just soaking in Off Broadway's aesthetic and engaging in conversation ranging from which artist has the most obnoxious fans (Dylan, and it's not debatable) to deep-seeded childhood fears of being sodomized by the Knights of Columbus (it never happened). As this talk deteriorated we expected people to filter as the show's start time grew closer, but no one really did. Even after second opening act The O's wrapped up, the place was far too empty.

Blame it on the fact that it was a Thursday and that there are few places on earth as miserable as St. Louis in February - if you don't like gray punctuated with occasional bursts of lighter gray, leave now - but the show was, and this is being generous, sparsely attended. Yet those who stayed away missed their chance to see a band that, if there's any justice in the music world, will eventually outgrow the confines of such venues. Drawing heavily from their truly underrated and death-heavy 2008 album Peoria, Future Clouds & Radar played an energetic set that emphasized tight arrangements over the instrumental meanderings and studio effects of both Peoria and their self-titled debut album. Sure, lead singer Robert Harrison sounds eerily like that other band that had a Harrison in it, but in a live setting this similarity was far less pronounced. The atmospheric "Epcot View" featured nice harmonies and emphasized keyboards more than its album version, while "18 Months" was chaotic and heavy with distortion; one dancing fan, still clad in his suit and clutching his beer bottle like a life raft, punctuated with the latter song with some groin-splitting high kicks. Other songs more clearly revealed the melodies that are sometimes buried amid the studio tinkering, especially "Mummified," "The Mortal" and "Drugstore Bust."

Though Harrison may still be best known for his work with previous project Cotton Mather - at least judging from the applause that greeted Kon Tiki track and concert closer "Homefront Cameo" - Future Clouds & Radar seem to be flying under the, well, radar. The band's performance Thursday night was an intriguing showcase in how songs that incorporate studio enhancements and mix musical genres are translated in a live environment. Without exception the songs benefited from this focus, with the band playing a lively set of songs. For those in attendance it was every bit as good as the under appreciated Peoria, and, even better, allowed listeners to hear its songs in a different context. Still it's a shame more people didn't stop by to hear it, the gray St. Louis February be damned. One can't help but think that the "antipathy island" mentioned in "The Mortal" could serve as a fitting summation for the band's tour stop here.

The Weight: The Weight Are Men

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The Weight Are Men sounds completely and hopelessly out of time and out of place. It's the type of generically feeble alt country/Americana hybrid that will send listeners scurrying for the comfort of vintage Uncle Tupelo to help wash the stale countrified taste out of their mouths. Its 10 songs play like a stereotypical laundry list of worn-out clichés and images. Lyin' women, cheatin' women, schemin' women, and the occasional good-hearted woman just waiting at home for her man litter these songs like so many stock characters. Men's hearts are stomped and shat upon and, somewhere I imagine, those men slobber into schooners filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon in shitty juke joints that reek of cigarette smoke and masculine desperation. And of course there's also hard drinkin' - lots of hard drinkin' - and please sir make it cheap whiskey.

A five-piece band fronted by Joseph Plunket on guitar and vocals twangy enough to make your Hee Haw-watching hoosier relatives insanely jealous, The Weight undeniably had ambitious goals with Are Men. The sound is big, bold and full of barroom stomp and holler, with its songs incorporating three-part harmonies, shredding guitar workouts, and macho group vocals. The album is primarily rowdy and boisterous; one can practically hear the shattered chairs and overturned tables as a drunkard is tossed ass-first through a saloon window. The production is suitably punchy, with songs like "Like Me Better," "Closer Than a Friend" and "A Day In the Sun" featuring Plunket's vocals up front in the mix and a heap of guitars, piano, drums, and harmonica thrown in underneath. Most of the album is unabashedly ballsy and macho; the beers in these songs likely come accompanied with a double shot of testosterone.

Perhaps more so than other music genres, alt country and Americana have always required a certain degree of suspension of disbelief; these genres are often rooted in long ago, far away times and places much removed from the people singing about them. When Jay Farrar sang that he was going where there was no Depression, it somehow sounded both relevant and heartfelt, a young kid reinterpreting an American standard and applying it to his contemporary times. What Uncle Tupelo knew is that if a band's going to play music that sounds like it's from a bygone dusty era, you'd damn well better make it convincing. If albums rooted in these genres are judged against such criteria, Are Men is a dismal failure. Its songs and sentiments are simply just not believable, and too often play like little more than a predictable and listless stroll through Americana's back pages. "Sunday Driver" offers played out motifs like a whiskey-swilling lonesome-hearted Georgia boy who's stuck in - where else - that big mean city of New York. The narrator of "A Day In the Sun" begs the operator to put him through to his girl, though no one in the Western world actually relies on phone operators anymore. "Hillbilly Highway" (no shit, that's the song's title) tells the sad-sack tale of a man who vows to return to his mountain town to fetch his beautiful Lilly. Apparently she's a basset hound. And so the album goes, a by-rote walkthrough of music clichés that never gets grounded or goes anywhere.

Certainly part of the album's flaws can be attributed to Plunket's vocal delivery, which can best be described as an extreme country drawl that makes Toby Keith sound like Frank Sinatra. While Plunket's earnestness isn't in doubt, his vocals and subjects are simply too exaggerated to resonate with the listener. Still Are Men's fatal flaw is more basic: we've heard all this before, and we've heard it before in better ways. We've already got Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers, Dave Alvin, Green on Red for those digging a bit deeper, and, if you're really, really desperate, The Bottle Rockets. Are Men offers a procession of booze, broken hearts, and big hooks steeped in Americana; unfortunately, it's doubtful many listeners will want to bother going there.

Rediscover: Angus MacLise: Brain Damage in Oklahoma City

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

As shadowy musical figures go, it's hard to top Angus MacLise. The first drummer in the Velvet Underground's earliest incarnation, the story goes he quit after learning that the band might get paid for a gig in 1965, viewing this as an act of selling out (one wonders how he'd react to the his own catalog finally being issued on CD in 1999 and 2000). Though the story might be apocryphal - over the years the band's members have mentioned that MacLise seemed to operate on his own time in his own world and have also implied that his days with the band were numbered as a result - it has contributed to the legendary depiction of the drummer that still persists among music history's most dedicated fringes. Though MacLise would later briefly play with the band in 1966 and also try to rejoin the group - the always laid back and never domineering Lou Reed refused this request - his time as a member of the Velvets was short.

In many ways MacLise's biography reads like the ultimate example of the wandering artistic spirit and speaks to the joys of a rootless, nomadic existence that still define the popular depiction of the 1960s counterculture. Indeed, MacLise managed to cram more into his 41 years of life than most people do with more time, alternately being described as a composer, percussionist, poet, mystic, shaman and calligrapher. He was well read, studying everything from Haitian drumming to Middle East percussion. He played with La Monte Young's now-celebrated Theater of Eternal Music, a collective that created avant garde music so unlistenable that it was, of course, highly influential; future artists would later temper this approach into something a bit more palatable. In his post-Velvets career he traveled extensively, before settling in Nepal. He'd eventually die in 1979 of tuberculosis.

But does MacLise's recorded output equal the stuff of legend that his life has become? Certainly his work, most of which went unreleased until 20 years after his death, has never had broad appeal and probably never will. To many people, it likely sounds like the type of racket that would be most effective in extricating a third-world dictator from an underground bunker. It's also not hard to imagine albums like The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, Brain Damage in Oklahoma City and The Cloud Doctrine forming the soundtrack to a mentally deranged person's existence. Though MacLise's music is usually lumped into that big swirling mass known as psychedelia, it exists within that genre uneasily and only for lack of a better term. It's either the product of pure genius or a melody-challenged psychopath, with MacLise's songs incorporating chants, droning, electronic fuzz, tribal percussion, various stomps and yelps, and other mind-bending and ear-shredding traits. Even for fans of such music, it's not easy or particularly enjoyable listening; it's usually lo-fi and contains few hints of a reference point that makes even the most inaccessible music somewhat approachable. Spend a day with MacLise's albums and you'll likely feel like your brains have been mixed in a blender.

Brain Damage in Oklahoma City is perhaps MacLise's most representative release. Even so, for listeners not wired a certain way, the album borders on being nothing more than a mess of noise and nonsense, wandering and meandering with no real purpose except to try the listener's patience and mental health. And though even fans - excluding those whose brains were fried decades ago chasing the 1960s dream - would likely admit that it's not something that can be listened to often or as background music, it is worth hearing occasionally. Consisting of recordings the percussionist made between 1967-1970, it's also MacLise's most musically consistent and coherent effort, with its eight pieces (and 70 minute running time) taking the musician's drumming as its centerpiece. The album is bookended by two songs that feature MacLise playing cembalum, with opening song "Another Druid's Nest" also including chants and random thumps that recall Indian music. This chanting repeats on the manic "Haight Riot Mime," with MacLise this time pounding on bongos before the song abruptly cuts off, "Epiphany" augments hand drums with a hypnotic organ pattern, and the aptly titled "Drum Solo" consists of MacLise beating on barrel conga and bongos, again giving the song a primitive flavor.

The album's key tracks are also its most difficult. Clocking in at nearly 45 minutes, the two tracks that comprise "Dreamweapon Benefit for the Oklahoma City Police" are live ensemble works from 1968 that rely on improvisation in its most extreme form; no sane person would attempt to map out the songs' structures, shifts, or changes. Taken together they serve as a nice primer of MacLise's style or particular brand of torture - take your pick - as well as contain major avant garde elements that that still influence musicians today. The song ebbs and flows uneasily, with moments of calm used to steadily build tension, before it explodes and recedes again. Its most memorable parts are primarily chaotic, noisy, and aggressive; a sort of demented chanting rises and falls against MacLise's barrel conga and wife Hetty MacLise's tampura, while Tony Conrad's limp string and Henry Flynt's flute become increasingly abrasive as the song progresses. What it brings to mind is a traffic jam from hell or a set of schizophrenics turned loose in a musical instruments store. While the song sometimes tends to overindulge in its own experimentalism - one could argue that the song is too experimental for its own good, and that you've got to be stoned out of your gourd to really get it - it's a nice summation of MacLise's musical vision.

Setting aside the nagging fact that Brain Damage in Oklahoma City will always remain a cult favorite. Regardless of those cynics who argue that MacLise's music would have been relegated to the dustbin of history if it weren't for his involvement with the Velvets, it still remains one of the clearest examples of late 1960s experimental music. Though its content may not equal the long shadow cast by MacLise's legend, it offers a good opportunity to see MacLise as a musician and artist, not as a mystical figure best known for his extremely brief time with the Velvet Underground.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Alternate Routes: A Sucker's Dream enough said.

After spending a weekend listening to A Sucker's Dream, I needed a few stiff drinks to wash the mainstream radio-friendly taste out of my mouth. The Alternate Routes' latest effort is unabashedly commercial, with a clean production that emphasizes fatass guitar riffs, crisp and up-front vocals, drums punchy enough to make Max Weinberg jealous and anthemic rhythms that beg to be played in front of a packed music club as a relief pitcher takes the mound. The band's style is balls-ahead rock n' roll with a faint hint of country and pop - and that's all in big capital letters - with little room for subtlety, nuance or experimentation. The album doesn't try to map out a new musical vision or strange new language; it's clear the band is more interested in working within the confines of existing styles than in trying to map out new ones.

For the most part this approach works; if you're in the mood for pure rock music with more than a hint of machismo and a twist of humor, you could do a lot worse than A Sucker's Dream. "To the Line" features both shredding guitars and shouted manly-man group vocals, while the title track punctuates this vocal approach with the album's biggest guitar riffs. These bursts of bombast are at least somewhat tempered with several sparse ballads. "Desdemona" includes Patty Griffin and is the album's most disarming and engaging track; built around an acoustic guitar melody and running nearly six minutes, this hushed and reserved song manages to stand out in the sea of decibels that characterizes most of the album. "Already November" takes a similar approach and is held together by a subdued guitar line, with lead singer Tim Warren's vocals occasionally reminiscent of Jeff Tweedy, John Hiatt, Jim James or, less charitably, Edwin McCain at his soulful worst.

Still there's something just a bit too AOR about A Sucker's Dream. While the album's press materials suggest that the band is aware of (and perhaps embraces) these tendencies, on several songs it gets the better of them. "Ain't No Secret" and "All that I See" are both heart-on-sleeve love songs, with overwrought musical and vocal arrangements primed for a television melodrama and with enough syrup to upset even the most cynical stomach. The sentiments expressed are just too close to what you've heard from countless buskers on the promenade or from that subculture of Devendra Banhart-lookalike musicians who frequent the quads across American universities. It's on these moments when the sheen is uber-polished and the lyrics are hopelessly romantic where the album loses the listener's interest.

A Sucker's Dream's experimental moments are rare; aside from the hazy and echoed vocal treatment on "The Future's Nothing New," it offers straightforward rock tunes, with the occasional ballad thrown in. While the songs sound organic and it's somewhat refreshing to see a band simply trying to rock with a mixture of humor, sympathy, hope and determination instead of attempting a grand musical statement and bombing miserably - hell, it's worked for The Hold Steady - the album is ultimately uneven and underwhelming. Too often it simply sounds like overly familiar music just looking for a home right of the dial.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Swan Lake: Enemy Mine

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Enemy Mine shouldn't work as well as it does. The product of three musicians from three different bands with largely contrasting styles - Dan Bejar of Destroyer and sometimes The New Pornographers, Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes - it's a mostly abrasive and dizzying mess of an album. It plays like a veritable indie stew of various musical and lyrical concepts; its nine songs each veer off in their own direction before the listener can ever get grounded. It's a strategy the trio utilized to great effect on debut album Beast Moans, that release succeeding despite (or perhaps because of) each musician's instrumental and vocal eccentricities. Such experimentation and lack of cohesion are too often the hallmarks of a band who thinks their shit doesn't stink as they drown in shameless self-indulgence. Such failed efforts don't dot the indie landscape so much as litter it like stinking refuse, yet Enemy Mine almost flawlessly avoids these pitfalls.

Each musician takes the lead on three songs and provides backup on most of the others, with each man applying his vocal quirks and twitches to songs that are primarily dark and impressionistic. Upon first listen Mercer's vocals are the least accessible and most ragged, with a yelping, wrecked voice of oddly-enunciated syllables occasionally drenched in echo. Though his voice remains difficult even with multiple listens - a smooth crooner Mercer is not - an element of gothic theatricality that strangely holds the listener's attention emerges. Opening song "Spanish Gold, 2044" builds from throbbing percussion, jagged punctuations of guitar and keyboards and chanted background vocals that suggest all three musicians have been drinking from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' well of misery. The song also favors the lyrical ambiguity that surfaces throughout Enemy Mine, with clipped images and phrases - "I left this bullwhip by the nightstand/ Julliard was a thousand miles ago" -suggesting meanings without making anything obvious other than all sort of bad shit's about to go down. The ironically-titled "Peace" features none of that; it augments drums and guitar stabs with backing vocals from Behar and Krug as Mercer howls like a deranged rush-hour street corner preacher.

Krug's vocals are no less interesting. "Paper Lace" opens and ends with acoustic guitar and a subdued synth line, a welcome change of pace after the mania of "Spanish Gold, 2044." If Krug's vocals here are more restrained than what he shows in his Wolf Parade guise, "Settle On Your Skin" has all the hallmarks of that band's sound: driving rhythms moving at breakneck pace, fidgety and somewhat distorted vocals that imply that the microphone's about to be swallowed, and lyrics teeming with the fatigue and insomnia of someone about to go off the rails. Hushed backing vocals support Krug on the piano-driven "A Hand At Dusk;" the closest thing to a ballad the album offers; the song's romantic sickbed sentiment is both humorous and oddly devotional, with Krug singing, "It's getting old, I know, I know/ But I'll hold your hair back when you're sick."

Bejar mostly reins in the vocal exaggerations that have plagued Destroyer's albums to varying degrees ever since masterpiece City of Daughters. Though his vocals lack Mercer's recklessness or Krug's, um, Wolf Parade-essness, Bejar's disciplined low-key approach offers a nice counterpoint to the spasms from Mercer and Krug. While "Ballad Of A Swan Lake, Or, Daniel's Song," with its other-worldly setting and an arrangement that sounds like a cross between a circus song and a funeral march from hell, acts as Bejar's contribution to the album's experimental quality, it's the simplicity of "Heartswarm" that stands out. The album's most melodic song, it's framed by Bejar's direct vocals and an acoustic guitar accented by keyboards, a touch of fuzz, and Mercer's backing vocals. Besides containing Enemy Mine's best lyric - "Do my eyes deceive me/ Or is it truly springtime in Paris for that piece of shit?" - it makes the album's dramatic stylistic shifts most apparent.

Ultimately, Enemy Mine plays like a collaborative effort, and not just because of the album's recurring images of time, distance, death, fractured psyche and assorted acts of violence. Despite each vocalist's singular quirks, each of them leave their mark on each song, with contrasting styles that comfortably fit together when they really shouldn't. The album doesn't so much bend musical genres as it turns them on their heads, shakes their pockets out and kicks them hard in the groin. It's a swirling, disparate tramp through often difficult terrain, but the reward is an album that's both unpredictable and highly original.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

(Don't) Revisit: Black Flag - Damaged

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look. Go see more at

Few classic albums have aged as poorly as Black Flag's Damaged. Now over 25 years since its release, the album's impact on future generations of musicians has far surpassed the staying power of its actual content, giving the album a revered and slavishly worshiped status it might no longer deserve. While its balls-ahead musical arrangements and lyrical sentiments that covered everything from teenage alienation, angst, boredom and frustration to, well, that's about it, marked the high point of the band's career and perhaps hardcore itself, time has not been kind to the album. Though the emotions it expresses are certainly universal - especially in the world of music, where everyone from The Smiths to Bush have tackled these subjects - it now sounds hopelessly anchored to a specific era and genre.

By now Damaged's history can be recited chapter and verse by music's more deranged fringes, but a quick recap is in order:

1. Henry Rollins jumped on stage at one of the band's shows in New York and later fell ass-backwards into becoming the lead vocalist (think Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star).
2. Rollins, with coaching from primary lyricist and SST Records founder Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, recorded his vocals on top of the band's backing tracks.
3. After Unicorn Records refused to issue the album on grounds that it would really, really upset your parents, Ginn released the album on his SST label. Critics went wild with praise, the youth of America got their inner graffiti artist on and spray painted four parallel bars on everything from school notebooks to freeway underpasses, and the authorities and parentals went on red alert and braced for the downfall of Western civilization.
4. In keeping with the true hardcore and anarchic ethos, the band was for a time prevented from using the name "Black Flag" or their logo due to an unseemly legal squabble.
5. The album would later be credited with influencing bands like Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer. Thanks a lot guys.

This isn't to say that Damaged is a bad album; songs like "Rise Above," "Thirsty and Miserable" and "Life of Pain" still stand as some of the clearest and most concise examples of classic Los Angeles hardcore, with Rollins' vocals barked and yelped on top of the band's incessant and pounding sludge. "T.V. Party" even managed to inject some humor into all the misery and rage that coursed through the album's half hour. But that's exactly the problem; as hardcore's defining moment, the album now clearly reveals both the musical and thematic limitations of the genre that persist to this day in smelly garages and dingy concert cellars across the country. Perhaps even more so than early British punk, the West coast brand of hardcore espoused on Damaged by and large emphasized a singular musical and lyrical approach over innovation and variation.

And the album has that in spades, with most songs featuring Rollins' strained and muddy vocals against musical arrangements that, while full of adrenaline and righteous fury, are overly repetitive. In 2009, the album sounds like an artifact of a specific time preserved under glass, not an evolving classic that takes on new meanings or interpretations to later generations of listeners. The album's flaws are also largely early 1980s Los Angeles hardcore's flaws: an overly disciplined and dogmatic adherence to music played loud, fast, hard and severely pissed off, with little room for deviation or improvisation; it's telling that bands that went through their growing pains under the auspices of hardcore - most notably Husker Du, Meat Puppets and the Minutemen - did their best work once they moved past these confines.

Occasionally the fury and outrage beaten into the listener's skull in songs like "Police Story" and "Padded Story" are less than convincing and sound far less threatening to modern listeners; the anxiety the album caused to the powers that be in 1981 seems almost quaint now. This is an inevitable risk for any band that focuses on overt political and social disillusion and hypocrisy; it's the same reason the Clash couldn't convincingly perform "Career Opportunities" after the money rolled in and that Bruce Springsteen's "Mansion on the Hill" now rings hollow. It's a posture that's largely impossible to maintain over the years; regardless of how sincere most of Ginn's lyrics or Rollins' delivery are, such sentiments tend to be viewed with increased skepticism as the album gets dustier. Sometimes Damaged gives off an air of anger rather than actual genuine anger; it's worth mentioning that the album cover is itself an illusion, with the cracked mirror caused by a hammer and Rollins' bloody wrist little more than a combination of coffee and red ink.

That the five-man combination of Ginn/Rollins/Dukowski/Cadena/ROBO conjured up a genre-defining work with Damaged isn't in question. As the West coast hardcore's most recognizable example, it's a reflection of both that movement's best traits - a sense of musical and lyrical urgency mixed with social and political dissatisfaction - and its worst excesses, especially a tendency for sounding excessively dated and repetitive. Like Nirvana's Nevermind, its reputation, influence and long list of disciples have masked its shortcomings. As a key document of music history it's indispensable. As an album that still sounds relevant today, it's greatly flawed.

Handsome Furs: Face Control

Handsome Furs:
Face Control
March 10, 2009 10:35 AM
Handsome Furs

Face Control

Rating: 3.5

Label: Sub Pop

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Ah, that cruel bitch known as the side project. Like the lure of the siren's song, it pulls musicians into its embrace, nuzzles them gently, whispers seductions into their ears and then systematically murders their hard-fought reputation. At its worst, the side project album often comes across as nothing more than an opportunity for artists to indulge their most inflated and overindulgent whims, outside the confines of their full-time band. Of course there are exceptions - Shearwater has gone from an Okkervil River offshoot to a unique and highly original group in its own right, thanks to recent album Rook - but far too often these side projects are ultimately disappointing and carry the stink of being little more than vanity releases.

Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner has so far mostly managed to avoid these pitfalls. Though his side gig known as Handsome Furs, its core consisting of Boeckner and poet-fiancée Alexei Perry, hasn't surpassed his work with those indie darlings, it hasn't hurt his credibility either or led to much fan backlash. Debut album Plague Park was executed well enough, with an emphasis on synthesizers, sparse arrangements, drum machines, and programmed beats. Despite its nine songs occasionally sounding redundant and plodding - monotony reared its ugly head perhaps a bit too much - it offered a nice divergence from Wolf Parade's more frenetic style.

These shortcomings are mostly absent on Face Control. Although the album's approach isn't a dramatic shift from Plague Park, it does add more instrumentation and, thank Christ, changes of pace to the mix. For the most part the songs are more musically varied than those from the debut album, with guitars, shifting tempos, and even a few instrumentals thrown in to complement (or offset, take your pick) the band's foundation of synths and programmed rhythms. The songs are more diverse and interesting than those from Plague Park; only the minimalism of "Legal Tender," "Nyet Spasiba" and "I'm Confused" is immediately reminiscent of that debut effort. "Evangeline" works in some jagged stabbing guitars on top of all those damn synthesizers, with Boeckner's yelping voice more restrained than it is in his Wolf Parade guise. Both "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues" and "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything" are defined by their shifts in rhythm and tempo, with each song relying more on guitars than synths and drum machines. Though sometimes the songs blend together, only one track, the nearly six-minute "Officer of Hearts," is endlessly repetitive and seems much longer than its already ADD-challenging running time. The lyrics mine familiar subjects: the dehumanizing effects of technology, crass commercialism, isolation in an impersonal world, and a general feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction. "Every little thing has been bought and sold," Boeckner says in "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues," which seems an appropriate summation of the album's lyrical approach.

For those few remaining people still interested in album aesthetics and packaging - and I know one of you is out there - the album cover is, well, appallingly bad. An open-mouthed foaming Doberman is set against a red background, with the band's name and album title along the top in a greenish color somewhat reminiscent of snot. Maybe there's some type of inside joke going on here, who knows; but if you're ever looking for an example of the content not matching the packaging, look no further. It's an early favorite for worst album cover of 2009.

Nevertheless, its music is what makes Face Control a worthy release and an improvement over Plague Park. Even better, Boeckner manages to survive this side project with his Wolf Parade reputation still intact.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elvis Perkins - Elvis Perkins In Dearland

Singer-songwriters with a folkie bent like Elvis Perkins walk a precarious line between finding new ways to reinterpret a quaint and staid musical genre and making listeners want to grab their guitars from their dexterous little fingers and smash them like Bluto Blutarsky. Add a penchant for aping Basement Tapes/John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan to the mix and you've got a potential recipe for a disaster of Donovan proportions. To Perkins' credit, he's mostly managed to avoid these pitfalls; debut album Ash Wednesday was an engaging if frequently dark effort that offered songs of both loneliness and implied promise; tracks like "Good Friday" and "While You Were Sleeping" existed in that gray area between utter desolation and the faintest glimmers of hope. Though it wasn't a flawless album - "It's a Sad World After All" flirted with exposing the worst traits of a musician armed only with a guitar and a heavy dose of sincerity - it was a solid initial effort.

Elvis Perkins In Dearland mines similar lyrical territory to that debut effort, but also marks a noticeable shift in both instrumentation and mood. Though the songs mostly remain rooted in an acoustic sensibility - most of them start with guitar or piano, and the harmonica is busted out on more than a few tracks - a small army of horns, strings and various squalls of sound are incorporated to give the album a more frenetic pace. Dearland sounds more like a cohesive band album than a singer-songwriter record with session musicians; bassist Brigham Brough, keyboardist/guitarist Wyndham Boylan-Garnett and drummer Nicholas Kinsey provide nice assists that give that album a definite vibe and consistency.

There's an impressive range of musical styles to these tracks. Songs like "I Heard Your Voice In Dresden," "Chains, Chains, Chains" and "Doomsday" all incorporate horns reminiscent of a grand mariachi marching band, while "Hours Last Stand" veers in the opposite direction; built around a bluesy piano melody, Perkins practically croons the lyrics. Those who suffer nervous twitches at the first reedy puff of a harmonica would be best served to avoid this album, with songs like opener "Shampoo," "Hey" and morose closing track "How's Forever Been Baby" prominently featuring the poor man's harp. Other songs offer unexpected shifts in both style and instrumentation: the gently strummed guitar that opens "Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville" is eventually swallowed up with more horns and harmonica, the song transformed from a dryly humorous folk ballad into something far more pounding and raucous. Only on the distorted vocals and strangled horns of "I'll Be Arriving" does this approach ever really fail; the song is entirely inaccessible and, with its unintelligible lyrics, essentially subverts the album's vocal approach and remains the album's weakest track.

Perkins occasionally crams a pile of words into some fairly small spaces. He doesn't quite walk a tightrope like Elvis Costello, but the songs are sometimes lyrically dense. Though it's difficult not to view these songs in light of Perkins' biography - he's the son of actor Anthony Perkins and 9/11 victim Berry Berenson - the album frequently dwells on farewells, ghostly voices, memories, and glimpses into the past, usually with a mixture of sadness and affection. Perkins' lyrics are subtle and nuanced; any sense of nostalgic contentment is tempered with an equal sense of loss. "I love you more in death/ Than I ever could in life," he sings in "1 2 3 Goodbye," a conflicted sentiment that surfaces throughout the album. Similarly, the stomp and bounce of both "Doomsday" and "Hey" is offset by a dark sense of humor, with Perkins mentioning in the latter song the "cemetery of the century/ But hey, what a starry day..." The stark piano and guitar arrangement of closing track "How's Forever Been Baby" fits the regretful lyrics; it's the album's darkest and perhaps most cynical moment, with Perkins looking back at a relationship that's permanently gone off the rails. These songs offer shades of various emotions and degrees of uncertainty; it's tempered and mature songwriting at its finest.

Though Elvis Perkins In Dearland contains trace amounts of singer-songwriter folksiness, it's nevertheless a stylistically diverse album. Its arrangements burst with musical ideas, with horns and strings adding both tempo and muscle to Perkins' quirky and textured songs. It's catchy without being too slick, emotional without being maudlin, and addictive as hell, a nearly perfect album that never becomes repetitive or predictable.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

Go to and spend some time there. Ignore your kids for a while.

Neko Case's voice floats somewhere between indie pop and the fringes of country music. While it sometimes sounds ripped straight from the pages of the Official Singer-Songwriter Handbook, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's an endearing directness and simplicity in her vocal approach, and if most indie fans are being honest, they would gladly take such traditional accessibility over the overwrought stylings of Sharon Jones or the bordering-on-self-parody mangled garbling of Lucinda Williams any day. Case's voice can be comforting or foreboding, lighthearted or caustic, its smoothness used to accentuate the melodies in her songs.

All of these characteristics are again present on Middle Cyclone, the follow-up to the musician's wildly celebrated Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. It's mostly a solid and steady release, with a few standout tracks that exhibit the confident and self-assured vocals and cryptic lyrics of its predecessor. Still, the final product is somewhat disappointing. Too often the album is far too studied and reserved, with a lack of spontaneity and an excessively clean production that make it both overlong and dully repetitive.

Middle Cyclone's best songs play to Case's strengths as a vocalist and arranger; invariably, these songs favor stripped-down arrangements over the shimmering borderline mainstream pop bombast that plagues other songs. The title track is perhaps the album's finest moment, featuring Case's gorgeous vocals set against a gentle guitar melody played by long-time backing band member Paul Rigby. "The Next Time You Say Forever" augments Case's vocals with two acoustic guitars and an understated cello from Calexico's Joey Burns, and offers sentiments that betray the song's passive and pastoral vibe: "The next times you say 'forever'/ I will punch you in your face." "Magpie To the Morning" rolls along with a countrified rhythm as Case's spoken word vocals transition into one of her more memorable vocal performances, this time supported by M. Ward on guitar and hushed backing vocals from Carolyn Mark, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, and Kelly Hogan.

Yet these aren't enough to compensate for Middle Cyclone's flaws. Too many songs sound forced, overly crafted, and too precious for their own good, with textured studio arrangements offering slickness and sheen where raw emotion and breathing room should be. "This Tornado Loves You," which includes no fewer than 12 participants, is the album's most egregious offender, a swirling miasma of backing vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, strings, drums, and keyboards that sacrifices spontaneity in favor of a saturated, radio-friendly treatment that suggests its players were given little wiggle room for improvisation or going off script. This clinical precision also plagues "The Pharaohs;" not even Garth Hudson on organ is enough to breathe some life into it. Other songs precariously border on sounding like - rip it off fast like a Band-aid - Tuesday night at your local coffeehouse where every singer-songwriter is armed only with a guitar and disconcerting amounts of folkie seriousness. The humor of "People Got a Lotta Nerve" - it's either about caged animals exacting their revenge on their captors, or something far less literal - is deadened both by its AOR leanings (Pieces of You-era Jewel unfortunately comes to mind) and Case's tendency to repeat words until it grates on the listener's nerves: "I'm a man-man-man-man-man-man-eater/ but still you're surprised-prised-prised when I eat you." Two cover songs are included and are curiosity pieces at best, with a saccharine and plodding take of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" suggesting it would have been best served as a b-side or free download.

Case's excellent songwriting and her ability to offer glimpses of a song's intentions without making them painfully obvious sometimes offset Middle Cyclone's weaker moments. While her vocal approach is usually straightforward, the lyrics are suggestive and evocative, with phrases and images - whether it's the "gunpowder eyes" of "Prison Girls" or the "diamond at the bottom of the drain" in "Magpie To the Morning" - keeping the listener's attention where the arrangements might cause it to wander. The lyrics mask some flaws but not all of them; Middle Cyclone is simply too meticulous and predictable to maintain any momentum. Its best moments exist when its songs are at their most vulnerable and unadorned. All too often, such subtlety is bypassed in favor of an army of instrumentation that, while expertly performed by a strong supporting cast, offers only technical expertise where warmth and emotion should be.