Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Revisit: Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

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

It's understandable why so many music fans and critics think Neutral Milk Hotel's impact on indie music starts and ends with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Simply put, Aeroplane is still one of music's defining aural documents, one of those few albums where all the gushing, awe and open-jawed wonder seem entirely appropriate and somehow insufficient. Ten years on from its initial release, it's still hard to put its beauty and heartbreak, promise and despair, specter of death and promise of rebirth, into perspective. Perhaps to Jeff Mangum's discomfort, the album continues to inspire a borderline psychotic devotion among indie fans; it's the type of album that can reduce even the most cynical and callous bastard to an emotional and quivering wreck.

Yet many of the themes and musical concepts that define Aeroplane were first explored, with often darker and bleaker tones, on debut album On Avery Island. Though the album bears the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker, in many ways this is misleading, as future band members Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes and Scott Spillane weren't involved. The album's main driving forces were Mangum, who played drums, guitar, keyboards and a small army of various other instruments, and Robert Schneider, who played bass and organ as well as crafted the album's horn arrangements. Released in 1996, just a short time before Aeroplane would unexpectedly saddle Mangum with a huge fucking albatross around his neck for life, the album's lo-fi experimentation has aged remarkably well and can now be seen as an intriguing and tantalizing first step toward the style and substance perfected on Aeroplane.

Indeed, the groundwork for the often disparate musical styles blended to such devastating effect on Aeroplane can be found on this debut effort. It alternates between moments of straightforward folksiness stripped bare and sections of wailing horns, loops, fuzz and other hallmarks of lo-fi. "A Baby For Pree" features nothing more than Mangum and an acoustic guitar, while the hazy "Three Peaches" augments this guitar with understated drones and ghostly background vocals. Other songs veer wildly in the opposite direction; fuzz and horns run wild on "Song Against Sex" and "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone," both of which wouldn't sound out of place on Aeroplane. Other songs exist somewhere in between these extremes. The acoustic foundations of both "Naomi" and "Where You'll Find Me Now" are propelled along by drums and keyboards, each song precariously dangling somewhere between traditional folk and obtuse experimentation. On Avery Island maintains a delicate balance between these often contradictory elements; if Aeroplane managed to walk that tight rope perfectly - and inspire a rabid fan base in the process - here the results are more jagged and fractured but no less fascinating. There is little breathing room throughout On Avery Island, its avalanche of instrumentation thrown together into a dizzying whole.

While Aeroplane at least implies that there's light to cut through the darkness, On Avery Island is startling for its overall somber mood. While many of the one-word lyrical obsessions that would define Aeroplane are present - childhood, sex, death - On Avery Island deals heavily in darkness and despair. Though one must tread lightly when examining Mangum's lyrics, some patterns do emerge. Images equal parts haunting and surreal are often thrown together uneasily; the nightmare soundscape of opener "Song Against Sex" is especially jarring, invoking everything from a hanging dead man from whom fishes fly out from his hands to an apocalyptic vision of fire engulfing the trees. Similar horrors recur throughout the album, most notably on "A Baby For Pree," which features Mangum's most tender singing and a horrific central image of a woman swimming in her babies on a bathroom floor.

Nearly every song carries with it a sense of finality, usually in the form of death creeping in or someone wandering in isolation. While listeners could find bits of comfort in Aeroplane's lyrical textures, here the songs have very little hint of that; close the lid and shovel the dirt on top. The narrator in "You've Passed" is fatalistic in the first degree, an unnamed woman's death bringing on a bout of regret and brooding that doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon: "But now I should have told you/ When your eyes were alive and awake/ Always in life we all must make this mistake/ And so I go it alone." "April 8" in many ways sounds like the song's companion piece, its narrator taking stock of his life and having very little to show for it: "Always a lonely widow/ Half awake and sleeping on my feet/ I'm of age but have no children/ No quarter phone booth calls to home/ Just late-night television/ Inside my bedroom all alone." While the album isn't completely morose, with both "Someone Is Waiting" and "Three Peaches" offering a sense of devotion and even romantic sentimentality, in most respects its songs are pensive and lacking Aeroplane's implied determination in the face of despair, however buried or muddled that might have been.

Though On Avery Island will likely always be overshadowed by the album that followed it, it still remains a key piece of the Neutral Milk Hotel story. Musically and lyrically it laid the foundations for what would be more fully refined and realized on Aeroplane. While its concepts are smaller - there's little along the lines of Anne Frank connecting these songs - it is in many cases equally emotional and creative. A small window of hope exists in Aeroplane, and the listener is free to determine whether that window is opening or closing. In On Avery Island it's impossible to shake the feeling that this window is slammed shut and probably won't ever open again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Concert Review: Lucero/Titus Andronicus

Off Broadway, St. Louis, MO, 4/9/09

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It's all fun and games until two chicks get into a fight and even the band onstage comments about it. Such was the atmosphere as Lucero slogged through their headlining set at Off Broadway on a rainy Thursday night in St. Louis. Playing to a capacity crowd that consisted of an odd mix of obvious Lucero fans (trucker hats on heads and Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys clutched to hands) and indie kids looking like drowned hoody-wearing rats, the band definitely delighted its hardcore contingent of dedicated fans, cat fights be damned.

Yet the veteran band was completely upstaged by opening act Titus Andronicus, a band that hails from Glen Rock, New Jersey and has been receiving a borderline-psychotic amount of critical praise for their debut album The Airing Of Grievances. Playing St. Louis for the second time in just a few months (the band opened for Los Campesinos! in February), the band tore through most of the album in a manically aggressive and wonderfully ear-numbing 40-minute set. Though Grievances is far from polished - its lo-fi production at times recalls bands like Galaxie 500 and Neutral Milk Hotel - it does contain catchy and insistent melodies amid all the fracas and righteous outrage. The band's performance went one step further, bludgeoning any hints of subtlety with a few guitars, drums, keyboards and an occasional harmonica.

Several songs featured keyboards more prominently than their album counterparts from Grievances. This approach started with opening song "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus'" and was repeated on both "My Time Outside The Womb" and "Joset Of Nazareth's Blues," with lead vocalist Patrick Stickles a bundle of twitches and spasms as he pounded away on his keyboards or guitar. Other songs were built around more pronounced backing vocals, especially on "No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future," where Stickles' vocals approximated something between howling and barking. The band closed with album opener "Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ," its few lines of lyrics seemingly spat out quickly so that the band could explode one more time. But enough of these dry bullshit technical details; simply put, the band must be seen live to be truly appreciated. On this particular night Titus Andronicus alternated between moments of bottled-up tension and release that the album approximates, especially on "No Future." It was an unpredictable mixture of seemingly choreographed moments - some well-timed jumps and guitar-faces-of-pain on both "Titus Andronicus" and "Titus Andronicus Forever," for example - and moments where it looked like the band could go off the rails at any point. It was a tightrope walk between sloppiness and precision from a band whose live show here was like a jack-booted kick upside the head. And that's a good thing.

After a brief break Lucero took the stage, still looking like the motley collection of tattooed badasses you've either been warned about or aspire to become. From the onset it was obvious the vibe had changed; whereas Titus Andronicus was likely largely unknown to at least some of those in attendance and played accordingly, Lucero essentially acted as the master of ceremonies for a massive community sing-along. The band and its blend of punk-country has always inspired a fanatical (wait...dedicated) following, so perhaps this was to be expected. All the trademarks of the standard Lucero show were present: raised and pumping fists, Ben Nichols' countrified and scratchy-voiced drawl, tons of requests from the audience, at least one intoxicated moron repeatedly muscling people out of his way in the pit, and big fat anthemic guitar riffs. Still the band's set lacked passion and energy, with the exception of the pre-fight entertainment of "Nights Like These" and a driving version of "Sixteen." The band as a whole remained largely stationary for most of the night, which made them seem even more sedate after Titus Andronicus' furious performance. Though the jacked-up crowd clearly enjoyed itself, too often it felt like Lucero was simply preaching to the converted, where both audience and musicians were simply going through the motions of what they are each expected to do in such an environment.

Certainly the lousy sound didn't help Lucero's case either. Though the mix was far from perfect for Titus Andronicus, it still fit the band's aesthetic and the lyrics were about as intelligible as they are on Grievances. Take that for what it's worth. Nichols' vocals remained buried in the murk for much of the night, a disappointment since much of what makes albums like Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers and Tennessee worthwhile are the singer's ragged yet emotive vocals. If you didn't know the words going in, you sure as hell weren't going to learn them now. The cult of Lucero likely went home happy, but for those who don't quite get what the fuss and singular dedication from fans is all about, it's doubtful that this performance convinced them.

Lucero always bring a workmanlike professionalism to their shows; they've been touring relentlessly for years and know the ropes. Yet sometimes such an approach is overshadowed by a band that's rough around the edges and isn't note-perfect. Lucero's legion of fans may have had an enjoyable time Thursday night, but Titus Andronicus delivered a performance that showed why so many music fans and critics are going batshit crazy for them.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Saddest Songs Ever

Go to http://spectrumculture.com/2009/05/now-aint-the-time-for-your-tears-the-saddest-music-in-the-world.html for the complete article. Do it now. Look both ways before crossing the street.

In the meantime, here's my entry. Enjoy.

Nothing quite cuts through the sunny disposition of an eternal optimist like a depressing song. Forget all the joy, happiness, peace, harmony and the rest of that shit that music inspires in listeners; those emotions are easy. When a song can make listeners sob softly or catatonically stare at their shoes and ponder life's utter bleakness, that's when a song is truly special. Whether it's Richard Thompson telling a small child that there's nothing at the end of the rainbow or Tom Waits asking us to hang down our heads for sorrow, we all have songs that affect us in a certain way. So grab the tissues and open up those tear ducts as Spectrum Culture's staff presents their choices for most depressing song ever.

Okkervil River- "Savannah Smiles"
from The Stage Names (2007)
"Savannah Smiles" takes as its subject Shannon Wilsey, a porno actress who traded under the stage name Savannah. By 1994, after appearing in hundreds of skin flicks, she was dead at the age of 23, shooting herself in the head hours after an automobile accident left her with a broken noise and facial lacerations. Wilsey's was a short and tragic life - her parents divorced when she was two years old, she had a miscarriage before turning 18, and large amounts of her porno dollars went to support her drug habit - and, all cynicism aside, consisted of the type of stuff ripe for lyrical interpretation.
In Okkervil River's The Stage Names, an album whose inherent despair and sadness are largely offset by up-tempo and precise instrumentation, "Savannah Smiles" is its bleakest and most heartbreaking track, sung from the point of view of Wilsey's father struggling to come to terms with the contrast of the daughter he thought he knew and the adult she's becoming. In an album where somehow even a song about the suicide of poet John Berryman carries a tone of liberation, maybe even optimism, there's none of that here. Singer Will Sheff assumes the father's persona and sings in a world-weary and utterly defeated voice as he tries to reconcile the "baby doll" he knew with her far-different adult version. The father accidentally discovers his daughter's diary - why he's rooting around in her room at midnight and how he "didn't know what it might be until it was open" are never explained - only to immediately regret his decision after reading only one page. We never find out what the father read, but it's clearly nothing good: "Talk about your big mistakes/ Hey Shan, nice going" is all he can muster as he's left staring at photos of his daughter when she was eight years old. There are, of course, "no tears in her eyes" in those pictures.
Sheff's vocal approach and lyrics are enough to turn anyone into a sobbing wreck; even the fall sky is gray and the song on the radio offers no comfort, for chrissakes. What's equally devastating is the song's arrangement. Occasional guitar strums, strings, xylophone and what sounds like a ticking clock are subtly blended together to haunting effect. Unlike many of Okkervil River's other songs, "Savannah Smiles" has no major musical highs or crushing lows; it just counts the days away slowly as the distance between the girl a father knew and the adult she is becomes greater and greater. Where portions of Black Sheep Boy could be faulted for being melodramatic, here the song's restraint actually heightens its impact.
Certainly Okkervil River has recorded its fair share of ultra-depressing songs; "A Stone" and "Song Of Our So-Called Friend" immediately come to mind. Hell, Black Sheep Boy should have been packaged with a case of tissues so listeners could dry their tears as they listened to it. Still, with its pitiable narrator, tired vocals and mournful arrangement, it's one of the darkest and most hopeless songs from this, or any, decade. -

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Revisit: Warren Zevon: Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy

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It's perhaps morbidly appropriate that it took the news of Warren Zevon's cancer diagnosis in 2002 to re-introduce the musician to the general music public. For a brief period, it looked like Zevon was finally going to be afforded the mainstream attention he briefly flirted with early in his career. A high profile VH1 documentary chronicled his battle against cancer as well as the making of final album The Wind, including cameos from top tier musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and, um, Billy Bob Thornton; various critics who had written Zevon off years ago weaseled up to the bar to sing his praises one more time; Bob Dylan even "covered" "Mutineer," "Boom Boom Mancini" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" as standard entries in his concert setlists throughout 2003.

Now five years removed from his death, Zevon's place as one of music's more innovative and uncompromising artists is secure. An artist who straddled the line between cult favorite and household name, the popular yet somewhat stereotypical image of Zevon that still persists to this day is that of an unhinged artist with a strong nihilistic streak and hardass persona, albeit with a mordant sense of humor; writing songs about cattle dying of brucellosis and giving albums thinly veiled titles like My Ride's Here will have that effect on your image. Though his later work was spotty at best, his two 1970s albums - 1976's self-titled effort and 1978's Excitable Boy - have aged remarkably well and include all the hallmarks that make Zevon's music still so intriguing. In many ways these two albums laid out the template Zevon would follow throughout his career, mixing hell-raising songs about drunkards, sex hounds, random acts of brutality, and other wholesome characters and activities, with too frequently overlooked piano-based pseudo ballads.

Certainly this image of Zevon as a death-fixated lunatic recklessly careening headfirst into oblivion is largely attributable to these two releases; if the songs left any doubt about Zevon's own volatility, Crystal Zevon's recently-published oral history took care of that. Several tracks are as manic as Zevon's accepted persona, with jagged guitars, keyboards, percussion, and synthesizers used to stir up a holy racket behind Zevon's vocals. The macho posturing and boastful promiscuity of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" go hand-in-hand with the narrator cozying up to a railroad track and waiting in vain for the train to do its worst." "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" shares a similar sentiment, the narrator's addled brain and body fueled by "heartbreak motor oil," "Bombay gin" and unspecified medication; a .38 Special is substituted for the railroad tracks in this case. Both songs are unapologetically seedy; the listener can practically smell the mixture of booze and skank.

The albums' violence and fatalistic overtones are heightened by the trademark dark humor that Zevon utilized for much of his career. This is especially true of "Excitable Boy" and "Werewolves of London," where Zevon somehow successfully tells stories about psychopathic butchers with a twisted brand of comedy. The bouncy piano-based arrangements and howling vocals of both tracks - tap your feet as that cage made of bones is built - set both songs as musical pulp fictions and show that neither song is meant to be taken too seriously. Of course Zevon's villains are the worst kind of evil; the Excitable Boy bites a movie usher's leg, shows he's not much of a prom date by killing Little Susie, and worst of all, spills pot roast all over himself, while the Werewolf is a debonair, piƱa colada-drinking, slyly ruthless killer. It's musical dark comedy at its best; the near-gospel backing vocals on "Excitable Boy" drip with cheesiness, and it's impossible not to laugh when Zevon deadpans how a "little old lady got mutilated late last night" in "Werewolves."

Yet there's a subtlety and warmth to these albums that is all too often overlooked. Though it's a stretch to lump Zevon into that glut of sensitive singer-songwriters from the 1970s - slumming around with an uber-wussy Jackson Browne doesn't make Zevon guilty by association - several songs are striking for the raw emotions they convey. "Hasten Down the Wind" is a borderline saccharine ode to a relationship in shambles, saved by David Lindley's slide guitar and Zevon's near-falsetto singing. "Accidentally Like a Martyr" follows a similar arc on Excitable Boy, offering a combination of regret, confusion, and loneliness under a sunless sky. The debauched lifestyle referenced, if not wholly endorsed, throughout both albums is flipped around on "Carmelita" and "Desperados Under the Eaves." "Carmelita, built around Zevon's electric piano and flamenco-styled guitars from Waddy Wachtel and Lindley, is a primarily bleak depiction of a heroin junkie on the ropes, his typewriter pawned for more dope and his methadone fix cut off by the county. "Desperados" is similarly oppressive, with a pissed off sun and trees "like crucified thieves" to match; its narrator "still waking up in the morning with shaking hands" is presumably in the grips of chemical detox. Though these songs contain some very dry humor, all are predominantly dark and stand in sharp contrast to the albums' more raucous moments.

All of this ignores the frequently topical nature of both Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy. Indeed, a thesis could be written on the socio-political themes of the revenge tale masterfully laid out in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." And this isn't to suggest that Zevon should be seen as a broken-hearted balladeer. The musician's enduring legacy will likely remain tied to his better known and harder-edged songs. After all, we like our musical heroes reckless and borderline insane, traits that Zevon had in spades both on record and in his life; with Zevon it was a lot of masculine boasting and Bacchus-like drinking. Still, there's a wider range of emotions on these albums that goes far beyond this popular legacy. Though even the albums' quieter moments contain heavy doses of fatalism, they offer a different perspective on Warren Zevon in both the 1970s and throughout his career.