Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Devendra Banhart: What Will We Be

lots of good stuff at

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alec Ounsworth: Mo Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Revisit: The Rape of Nanking - by Iris Chang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mason Proper: Olly Oxen Free

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Revisit: Big Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Raincoats: The Raincoats

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revisit: The Worst Hard Time - by Timothy Egan

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 09, 2009

Elvis Costello: Live at the El Mocambo

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

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

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

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

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

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