Monday, July 27, 2009

Heavy Hometown: Action Figures

Action Figures is a disjointed and inconsistent work, its songs going in opposite directions that don't always mesh as a whole. The debut album from Midwestern-based trio Heavy Hometown, it undoubtedly covers a lot of musical terrain, though that terrain is somewhat sludgy and occasionally leaves shit all over your shoes. It's saddled with many of the negative connotations associated with a first album; chiefly, a lack of self-editing and a sense of fumbling in the dark, groping for a unique musical voice. Yet for all these faults, there are several truly memorable songs lurking amid the clumsiness. While a bit of self-editing would have resulted in a remarkable EP, what we're ultimately left with is a hit-and-miss first statement from a - cliché alert - promising young band.

The most immediate shortcoming to Action Figures is an inconsistency of style that too often suggests a band picking and choosing from a grab bag of previous eras and genres. Such homage is always a dicey proposition - rare is the album that follows this approach and doesn't sound like a slavish and watered-down pastiche of its forbears - and it kills more than a few tracks here. This most frequently occurs on the more abrasive tracks, which tend to sound like by-rote pastiches of shoegaze, drone and lo fi. Regardless of whether it's by coincidence or intention, "Strange Wave" and "Medicine," with their wall of fuzz and slightly buried and distorted vocals, sound like vintage Jesus and Mary Chain, while "My Ghost (Is The Most)" is reminiscent of a garage band who just got their hands on Nuggets for the first time. Of course it's a crap shoot when a critic tries to pin-point a band's influences, but the similarities here are pretty severe, with these songs sounding like a patchwork of various genres and artists.

Yet other tracks are downright stellar. The album roughly splits lead vocal duties between John Wood and Corey Barnes, and the two vocalists' contrasting styles - Wood's voice is fragile and cracked, while Barnes' is far smoother and deeper - make for some nice moments. Woods' weariness on opener "We Ate The Bug" suggests a vulnerability and detachment worthy of Jason Pierce, the song's sparse electric guitar-based arrangement setting a somber tone. "Haircut Chair" is likewise excellent, with Woods' wavering and shaky voice and his assertion that "{all of our dreams are on the ropes}" especially poignant. By contrast Barnes' singing leans toward something more traditional and straightforward. The country-sway of "Black Bikini" showcases his skills nicely, sounding a little bit like a cross between Jeff Tweedy and Curt Kirkwood. Barnes' voice likewise adds emotion and textures to these songs; "your eyes reflect on everything I do" he sings in a near-baritone on "No Bodies," a line that could be interpreted in any number of ways. The band is at its best when it forgoes drone and distortion in favor of these more subdued and introspective moments, where the instruments can breathe and each vocalist can bend and stretch the lyrics.

As debuts go, Action Figures is promising. Its strongest songs suggest a measured understanding of life's joys and disappointments, its imperfections and perfections - "I still love you Sara Ann/ For the good times and the bad" - and mostly offset the color-by-numbers approach that sounds too familiar and generic for its own good. There's an understated sense of both hope and sadness throughout the album, though sometimes the listener has to sort through some clutter to find such moments.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blue Roses: Blue Roses

Maybe certain albums should be tagged with a Caution: Intensely Serious and Introspective Folksinger Contained Within sticker. An image of an every(wo)man singer armed only with a guitar or with a piano whose keys just beg to be plinked and various sundry stringed instruments waiting patiently in the background could be used to warn listeners of what they can expect. Blue Roses, both the band name and debut album from British artist Laura Groves, offers all the best and worst of modern folk music: understated, carefully crafted melodies whose impact is deadened by an unfortunate excess of maudlin lyrics and overwrought vocals. Like much of the current crop of such performers, Blue Roses sounds firmly rooted in the female singer-songwriter tradition that stretches from Joni Mitchell to Joanna Newsom, with Groves reminiscent of such checkpoints without being redundant. Yet this release is ultimately underwhelming and too often plays like just another entry from that seemingly endless horde of sincere and self-serious musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.

Blue Roses' greatest strength lies in its arrangements; regardless of any vocal or lyrical flaws that plague the album, the songs themselves are arranged beautifully. Various instruments are interwoven nicely, giving the record depth and an almost baroque and ornate feel. "Greatest Thoughts" and "I Wish I..." both seamlessly meld piano with strings; the latter song's shifting tempos are likewise used to great effect. Groves' production abilities salvage parts of other songs as well; "I Am Leaving" mixes synths with the singer's voice layered as background vocals, while the stop-start arrangement and guitar strums of "Can't Sleep" work well together, with Groves' voice more restrained and controlled than it is for most of the album.

Vocals that never find that delicate balance between being unique and ear-piercingly grating have been the bane of many a musician and Groves is no exception. Her singing is often shrill as she flirts with some serious upper ranges, with vocals that are over dramatic and tough to take except in small doses. Groves also tries to cram a shitload of words into spaces too small to hold them, making some songs verbose and cluttered. All of this detracts from the songs' arrangements; Groves' jacked-up, avian vocal flights of fancy on "Cover Your Tracks" and "Doubtful Comforts" are too indulgent to ignore, overcooked and upfront in the mix. Despite having a voice that sounds as sweet as honey when her exertion is low - "Rebecca" is perhaps the best example of this - Groves is instead prone to applying a stranglehold to the high notes. Even the most intriguing melodies are eventually smothered by this approach, with the arrangements' organic nature and the vocals' chirping not sitting particularly well together.

Those who have little patience for music of the nakedly earnest and wounded variety will find plenty to gripe about here, as Groves' broken-heart-on-sleeve lyrics - "I wish that I could photograph my moods" and "Does anyone love me/ 'Cause I asked the deep sea/ But it wouldn't speak to me/ My darling I'm sorry" - are just so twee and tender. Blue Roses' instrumental structures and vocals simply don't work well together; although its songs aren't without their charms, such sincerity and a few expertly formed arrangements aren't enough to offset their shortcomings.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Tiny Vipers: Life on Earth

Life on Earth is an album best listened to in a darkened room, with no distractions, bleating ring-toned cell phones, crying kids, guns, knives or pills nearby. It asks for a quiet setting and careful attention from the listener; overused clichés like "stark" and "brooding" only scratch the surface of how intense and unflinching the album is. Its 10 songs rarely move any faster than a slow, deliberate crawl, with minimal instrumentation accenting Jesy Fortino's wounded and imperfect voice. It's a difficult, unsettling release whose lyrics and arrangements dwell in dark and seemingly permanent shadows. Most songs here sound ready-made for a funeral or existential indie film.

In many respects this isn't surprising. Fortino's 2007 debut as Tiny Vipers, Hands Across the Void, was a challenging, largely morose piece of folk music that demanded similar patience from listeners. Its subject matter was decidedly heavy, with songs like "Shipwreck" and "On This Side" seeking to articulate, if not trying to understand, life's great mysteries. Life on Earth mostly adheres to this approach, its songs preoccupied with many of themes of its predecessor, most songs infused with images of people and places and the passing of time. A somber mood dominates the album; tracks like "Eyes Like Ours," "Development" and "Young God" hint at a restlessness and longing that is at times overwhelming for the listener. Fortino's flawed voice is remarkable despite (or perhaps because of) its imperfections, though it's likely that the vocal takes here won't stop the frequent comparisons to Chan Marshall. The singer's voice takes on a ghostly and chilling quality throughout, existing somewhere in a haze slightly above the songs' sparse arrangements. It's the type of voice that can reduce anyone to a quivering wreck of tears.

Yet ultimately Life on Earth feels too labored over and repetitive for its own good. With most songs adopting similar musical and vocal structures, they eventually blend together into what sounds like a single long piece with minor variations. Though "Time Takes," "Young God" and the title track attempt to change the pace, the album mostly plods along. While Fortino's vocals are certainly unique and expressive, her tendency to over-enunciate is sometimes distracting and likewise kills the songs from gaining any momentum. Despite the album's acoustic foundation, a lack of warmth and immediacy in the production makes its songs detached and clinical, with the listener occasionally feeling like an unwelcome observer to someone trying to keep her shit together. Although the emotions Fortino expresses throughout are undeniably heartfelt, the songs ironically take on the mechanical tone and texture of a museum artifact meant to be studied at a distance, under glass. Coupled with these flaws, the album's long running time - most songs extend well past the five-minute mark - eventually wears thin and feels both overindulgent and unnecessary, with even tracks like the three-minute "CM" built around instrumental passages that quickly become tedious.

Press material for Life on Earth points out that there's a current of hope running through these songs. It's a hard sell, as Fortino's vocals alone make these songs sound mostly hopeless. At its best, Fortino's voice is mesmerizing and can evoke moods and tones without the need for much instrumentation. Still the album suffers under the weight of its own aspirations and lengthy tracks. All the buzzwords used to describe Hands Across the Void still apply here, and while Life on Earth will likely have its supporters, it's an uneven album whose lyrical and vocal intensity is offset by its occasionally ponderous execution.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Foreign Born: Person To Person

say it:

Few words in music criticism - save perhaps for jangly and Dylanesque - have been as overused as "anthemic." At what point it became a critic's prerequisite for any band with arena-ready fat guitar riffs, earnestly-thwacked drums that reverberate to the heavens, melodies that stick in the brain like ear worms and Something Really Important And Humorless To Say, I have no idea. Certainly there's no shortage of bands that fit this bill, whether it's indie objects of desire The Arcade Fire or fossilized but sorta-hanging-on relics like U2 or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It's become a sloppy, cavalier term, carelessly applied to a band's style and consigning said band to a stereotype that's hard to shake but tempting to embrace.

Reviews of Foreign Born's debut album On the Wing were quick to define the band in similar terms. In some ways this was understandable: songs like "Holy Splinter," "The Nights Tall" and "Union Hall" were musically booming and boisterous and thematically earnest and sincere, almost to a fault. Though at times the album was overindulgent and occasionally contained bloated or excessively derivative arrangements, the vocal delivery of Matt Popieluch was frequently enough to offset these shortcomings. The band also spent plenty of time standing on the shoulders of their ancestors throughout On the Wing; if Foreign Born didn't yet have the audience to support that album's big sound, their heart-on-sleeve approach was endearing and suggested only a bit of fine-tuning was needed before the band could be fitted for their Win Butler vests and Bono sunglasses and fully morph into an anthem-spewing behemoth.

Person To Person instead finds the band toning down the bombast in favor of something a bit more restrained, atmospheric and lyrically ambiguous, suggesting the band's style has more in common with the indie pop of The Shins than the anthem rock of Arcade Fire. This isn't to say the band has gone folkie; with the exception of slow burners "Lion's Share" and "Wait In This Chair," the songs here are punchy and vibrant, mirroring the catchy melodies of On the Wing. Yet the band's arena-sized impulses are nicely offset by their pop sensibilities, giving the album a degree of texture and movement that was lacking throughout On the Wing. "Blood Oranges" opens the album with a ringing guitar melody that is insidiously addictive. "That Old Sun," "Vacationing People" and "Can't Keep Time" all feature similarly solid melodies and spot-on background vocals, with Popieluch's vocal quirks sometimes reminiscent of James Mercer. The swampy blues stomp of "Winter Games" sounds a bit like the bastard child of Dylan's "Tombstone Blues;" the band's frantic and determined playing mostly offsets the song's apparent Dylan-aping.

Though all the songs are finely polished, in an album context too often a uniformity of sound creeps in, with the last few songs crawling along and killing the album's front-loaded momentum. "It Grew On You" is largely forgettable, while Popieluch's untreated vocals on "See Us Home" sound far too much like all the Beatles not named Ringo. "Lion's Share" is so - and here's that damn word - jangly that Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe could possibly claim ownership of it. That the song is stronger than anything the remnants of R.E.M. have done this decade is perhaps best left for another time.

Fans and critics wanting to peg Foreign Born as music's next anthem band should probably keep looking. Person To Person isn't a perfect album, but it does show the band augmenting its arena-ready sound with a few subtle shifts: insistent melodies, tight harmonies, tempo changes and lyrics that will allow listeners to form their own misguided interpretations. While not revelatory, these shifts should be enough to keep those half-baked comparisons to Arcade Fire and their anthemic brethren at bay.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Bowerbirds: Upper Air

everyone go to do it every day. like eating an apple.

A listener could be forgiven for finding Bowerbirds' debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse just a bit too preachy and pedantic. Its heavy doses of environmental motifs and occasional sloganeering frequently detracted from the songs' subtle and lush arrangements. Sure we've all done our part to fuck up Mother Earth - Funkadelic already told us that - but the album's steady stream of National Geographic imagery was at times too obvious and humorless for its own good. Despite the band's best intentions, too often the album played like an insipid lecture about nature's startling beauty and its razor-thin fragility. And please remember to recycle.

Upper Air marks a subtle step forward for the band. While Bowerbirds again incorporate heartstring-grabbing melodies, the album branches out to encompass themes that were only hinted at throughout Dark Horse. The blend of folk and Americana first explored on that debut effort is further refined here, with Upper Air sounding a bit less lo-fi and more polished than its predecessor. Several songs begin with a simple acoustic guitar before other instruments are gently added; the guitar strum of opener "House of Diamonds" is eventually supported by understated keyboards and strings, while hushed piano lines are used to great effect on "Northern Lights." The instrumentation is interwoven wonderfully throughout, with Beth Tacular's accordion propelling "Teeth" and "Beneath Your Tree" along, at least as much as an accordion can propel anything. Phil Moore's vocals are similarly evocative; frequently reminiscent of Andrew Bird, he sings unobtrusively and gives the instrumentation room to breathe and sometimes wander. Moore's vocal takes here should eliminate any further comparisons to folkie weirdo Devendra Banhart; Moore's vocals are far more direct and contain none of Banhart's eccentricities or pretentions, and the album is better for it.

While the band hasn't entirely abandoned the lyrical obsessions of Dark Horse - the song titles and album artwork alone dispel any such thoughts - Upper Air comes across as more introspective and less tree-huggingly maudlin, with a focus on life's little dramas, disappointments and joys. A few songs could even be interpreted as unabashed love songs to an actual person and not a tree, rainbow or mountain stream. "Northern Lights" and "Ghost Life" are romantic without being dainty, a precarious balancing act the band successfully walks for most of the album. Though the album's tone is usually one of hope and contentment - "Chimes" is perhaps the best example - hints of mental distress surfaces in several songs, whether it's the "mind...wound so tightly" of "Bright Future" or Moore's assertion that "my conscience is an avalanche" in "Crooked Lust." The album likewise closes on a somber note, with the dirge-like "This Day" sounding both foreboding and funereal, a far cry from the measured optimism of most of the album's other songs.

Part of Bowerbirds' charm on Upper Air is that the band recalls various artists without sounding derivative, whether it's the Calexico-flavored opening to "Beneath Your Tree" or the vocal harmonies in "Bright Future," which wouldn't sound out of place on a Midlake or, if you're really, really desperate, CSNY album. The frequent comparisons to groups like Lavender Diamond and Vetiver are decent starting points, though Upper Air's songs are closer to the Americana of Iron and Wine or The Handsome Family, mostly minus that group's morbid sense of humor. Though it's tempting to view the songs on Upper Air as little more than odes to nature or as a continuation of Dark Horse, such an approach sells the album a little short. With crafted and textured arrangements that never sound tedious or over-produced, Upper Air finds the band moving beyond Dark Horse's confines in favor of something that is both musically and lyrically more complex and consistent.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Rediscover: Tom Lehrer - Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer

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

There are actually some people who will feverishly argue that Tom Lehrer is the best musical satirist to ever walk this mortal coil. These people are, of course, completely right. Though musical comedy is often saddled with stigmas of imbecility, bad puns and obvious punch lines - thanks Weird Al and Stephen Lynch - Lehrer's brand of humor still challenges such notions. In one of music history's more bizarre careers, Lehrer relied on his fairly unspectacular voice and nondescript piano playing to create some of the most humorous, biting and caustic songs of this genre. While not as shocking or subversive they must have sounded back in the day, his first two 1950s studio albums - 1953's Songs by Tom Lehrer and 1959's More of Tom Lehrer - are still funny as hell and culturally relevant. Repackaged and reissued with extras as Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer in 1997, both albums are essential listening for fans of music comedy at its most observant, irreverent and politically incorrect.

Lehrer's back story doesn't read like the stereotypical music biography. Before the age of 20 he had graduated from Harvard with an MA in mathematics and began a teaching career that lasted far longer than his dalliances into the world of music. He worked as a researcher at Los Alamos and spent a few years in the Army in the 1950s, experiences that he'd later incorporate into some of his best songs. The story behind his first album offers more of the DIY aesthetic than countless punk bands in all their raging histrionics; after radio stations refused to play Lehrer's songs due to their perceived risqué subject matter, Lehrer sold the album on his own label around Harvard. Eventually record stores and mail order services picked up the album and its popularity spread.

Several of Lehrer's songs remain firmly rooted in the cultural and political atmosphere of the 1950s. The segregationist South is mocked in "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie," with Lehrer occasionally slipping into an exaggerated good ole boy honky accent as its narrator catalogs his homeland's virtues, at least as he sees them: corn pone, pellagra, poll taxes, medieval laws and "whuppin' slaves and sellin' cotton." Homesick for that land of grits and boll weevils, the narrator looks back to a simpler time as Lehrer uses this fond longing to comically address racial prejudice: "I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen/ And put my white sheet on again/ I ain't seen one good lynchin' in years." The decade's nuclear dread is morbidly addressed in the jaunty "We Will All Go Together When We Go," where Lehrer envisions the mass destruction of humankind as universal bereavement/ An inspiring achievement." The song plays like a bastardized religious revivalist sing-along, with Lehrer ironically singing about communal "complete participation/ In that grand incineration" and summarizing its victims as "three billion hunks of well done steak." Lehrer could be as contemporary and topical as any folksinger, with his brand of humor conveying a message far better than any acoustic guitar-wielding folkie ever did - and without any preaching or overwrought philosophizing.

Like all singer-songwriters, Lehrer wrote his fair share of love songs, but these rarely contained puppy dogs and flowers. When they did, the dog was named Rover and got splattered by a Pontiac and the flower's thorns cut into the skin of an overly-enthusiastic masochist. There's nothing even faintly romantic or sentimental in a Tom Lehrer love song. The twittering-hearted couple of "In Old Mexico" has their trip south of the border derailed by wrecked bowels - "The mariachis would serenade/ And they would not shut up till they were paid/ We ate, we drank and we were merry/ And we got typhoid and dysentery" - while sexual indulgences are taken to an extreme in "The Masochism Tango." Set in that dance's tempo, the song's narrator begs his tormenter to dismember him, fracture his spine, give him a black eye, kick him and "bash in" his brain. Lehrer's incredibly skewed view of love is nowhere more apparent than in "When You Are Old and Gray." Like countless other such songs its sex-crazed and smooth-talking male begs his woman to give it up because they're both young and attractive. And, oh yeah, because, in the man's most heartfelt words: "Say you love and trust me/ For I know you'll disgust me/ When you're old and getting fat." What follows is a rhythmic and lighthearted piano romp in which Lehrer describes all the great things old age offers, including senility, impotence, sterility, expanded waistlines and pretty faces going to shit. Whether the man's heartless and fatalistic ploy helped seal the deal is never disclosed. The songs show Lehrer at his finest: the sentiments expressed are as nasty and cold as they come, but it's impossible not to laugh.

Lehrer tossed plenty of his satirical jabs in the direction of cultural traditions and various institutions throughout these first two albums. In "Be Prepared" he upends the Boy Scouts' "solemn creed" by offering the boys helpful advice like not smoking joints in front of the Scoutmaster - "for he only will insist that they be shared" - and not pimping out their sisters unless they get a cut of the take. With similar panache, in "In Old Mexico" Lehrer uses his deadpan voice to great effect as he tersely reduces the tradition of bullfighting to nothing more than "a lone man facing single-handedly a half a ton of angry pot roast," with its narrator failing to see the beauty of such an event and instead shouting with glee every time a picador is gored.

Lehrer's time in academia likewise inspired some of the albums' best songs. Lehrer isn't much for academic nostalgia on these first two records; if anything, the past is almost always compromised by an individual's beer and Benzedrine-soaked faulty memory. Thus, he needles the college alma mater song in "Bright College Days," reducing the collegiate experience to little more than Chevrolet backseat sex, rampant cheating on papers and exams and incorrectly remembering athletic defeats as noble victories. The typical violent and macho college fight song is turned into a dainty ode to wussiness in "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," where the team is implored to win with a sense of decorum and a flair of sissy: "Let's try not to injure them/ But fight, fight, fight/ Let's not be rough though." Lehrer satirizes academics like himself in "Lobachevsky," where he adopts an exaggerated Russian accent, sets the song to a can-can melody, and tells the story of a mathematician whose mentor informs him of the best way to succeed in mathematics: "plagiarize." The mathematician applies this advice to his first book, which is soon purchased by a movie studio and turned into a film called The Eternal Triangle, "with Ingrid Bergman playing part of Hypotenuse." Slight subject matter with more than a hint of silliness to be sure, the songs offer a nice change of pace from Lehrer's topical songs.

Of course some of Lehrer's songs sound tame by 2009 standards, especially since he never uses those fancy four-letter words to make his point. Still many songs from these albums are as politically incorrect and borderline tasteless today as they were in the 1950s. Perhaps Lehrer's most infamous song, "I Got It From Agnes" is a lovely paean to venereal disease without actually calling it out by name, a frolicking piano line used to tell a curiously upbeat tale of how "it" was spread. Written years before the advent of HIV and AIDS, the song is now both grimly and uncomfortably humorous; in two consecutive lines, Lehrer manages to tie its spread to incest and bestiality: "Max got it from Edith, who gets it every spring/ She got it from her daddy who just gives her everything/ She then gave it to Daniel/ whose spaniel has it now..." If "Agnes" doesn't make modern listeners squirm, "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" likely will, the former song a heartwarming tale of a murderous necrophiliac who just can't let that special woman go, the latter a sprightly ditty about, well, poisoning pigeons in the park. Of course Lehrer isn't serious in this song - one hopes - but its humor is of the blackest kind and likely to offend those who can't accept it as comedy. "We'll murder them all amid laughter and merriment/ Except for the few we take home to experiment/ My pulse will be quickenin'/ With each drop of strychnine/ We need to a pigeon/ It just takes a smidgen," Lehrer says in a forced rhyme scheme, its narrator growing excited as the birds drop. If you ever want to gauge someone's sense of humor, play them these three songs and see what type of reaction you get.

Lehrer essentially took topics that most people were uptight about and pointed out their inherent absurdities; put into a modern perspective, his lighthearted yet keenly observant approach to social commentary wouldn't be out of place on The Daily Show. In many ways no topic was safe from Lehrer's wit on his first two albums, with Lehrer singing about serious subjects without taking them too seriously. Sanctimonious folk music is lampooned in "Irish Ballad," with Lehrer sporting a truly heinous Irish accent as his macabre tale of a psychotic little girl unfolds; "Old Dope Peddler" plays like a loving if sarcastic tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit; "Elements" simply sets the names on the periodic table to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major-General's Song" and manages to suggest that it doesn't take much to appear educated; "Christmas Carol" anticipated that holiday's crass consumerism decades before such sentiments became in vogue. Though in recent years Lehrer has maintained that his songs amounted to little more than "titillating the converted," with only an average voice and decent piano skills he managed to humorously comment on nearly every mundane detail of life. His songs suggest that, despite the intervening years between the 1950s and today, certain aspects of the country haven't changed much - Lehrer's liars, cheaters, perverts, smut pushers and raging racists are still around - and that no aspect of life is off limits for being mocked or satirized.