Friday, December 17, 2010

The National - High Violet

Go to and read the reast of the top 20 list.

The National reportedly intended to make an optimistic, catchy record as their follow-up to Boxer. Instead, this year's High Violet was every bit as dark as its predecessor. It also ended up every bit as good; indeed, one is hard-pressed to identify the album's premier song because almost all of them are just that damn great. The record arrived with much anticipation and eventually garnered the type of mainstream attention that snags a couple of indie acts each year, yet somehow the band managed to exceed these lofty expectations. We might end up looking back at 2010 as the year we began to take it for granted that every new National album would be as remarkable as the one that came right before it.

Everything about High Violet - from Matt Berninger's suffering-voiced baritone to the band's carefully crafted arrangements - reveals a gravity and seriousness that would make lesser bands sound completely overblown. Moments of black humor notwithstanding, the album is exceptionally and plainly sad, whether it's in the distance felt in songs like "Sorrow" and "London," in images such as "Manhattan valleys of the dead" or in mysterious, ambiguous lyrics like "it takes an ocean not to break." There are few comforts throughout - maybe a little consolation can be found in the comforts of family and on the hints of devotion in closer "Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks" - but Berninger's lyrics mostly center around mental and personal issues exacerbated by lousy trips back home and a lack of drugs to "sort it out."

The album might not receive highest placement on many year-end best-of lists - that honor seems likely to go to a handful of righteously seething New Jersey rockers, a certain Canadian band with a knack for grandiose statements about The State of Man or an ego-centric rapper who lived up to his self-generated hype - but High Violet, like most of the National's output, might age better than any of them. It takes no small amount of guts and skill to make an album so disarmingly honest; the National have plenty of both, delivering yet another album whose timelessness already seems assured.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gonjasufi - "She Gone"

Go to NOW and read the Songs of the Year article.

Sometimes we just need a pissed off song madly conducted by a gruff, snarling voice to get the blood bubbling, and for 2010 we got Gonjasufi's "She Gone." Perhaps the standout track on A Sufi and a Killer, an album so jammed up with genre-busting ideas that it's likely to remain a dizzying mind fuck years from now, the song perfectly captures both the implied and overt violence of the album's most psychotic moments. The track starts off deceptively with a basic acoustic guitar and plainly sung lyrics, but soon degenerates into a whole other beast, with the sufi/killer spitting out lyrics of betrayal and occasionally growling out guttural screams against a demonic keyboard melody and a stabbing guitar that enhance the song's threatening tone.

The song's tale is a familiar one, though it comes with a twist. She's gone for sure, but we never find out to what extent. Is she simply a departed lover or has something far more sinister transpired? Given the lyrics - barked out lines like, "When you're driving down the street/ And acting like you do not know me/ Wondering why your life's incomplete/ And you feel so damn lowly" - it's likely the former, but the song sounds so homicidal that it's tempting to view it in far more macabre terms. Either way, "She Gone" is simply a perfect pseudo-rock song, an ugly mix of emotions building up and boiling over in less than three minutes. Unresolved anger and a score not yet quite settled rarely sounded so good. - Eric Dennis

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Various Artists: Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s

Various Artists
Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s
Rating: 4.6/5.0
Label: Dust-to-Digital

It's easy to see the earliest 20th century roots of that most popular of song topics - love - throughout Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s, though no deep knowledge of music history is needed to enjoy this archival concept album. Consisting of 66 tracks taken from the collection of musician/collector John Heneghan, this set should be immediately accessible for contemporary listeners, even for those who find songs this old exceedingly quaint. Think of it as a 69 Love Songs from another era; like Magnetic Fields' album, Baby explores love from nearly every conceivable angle and says more about the subject than most works of high culture ever have.

Baby appropriately opens with the Bo Carter song that gives this set its name, a wistful, head-in-the-clouds number with simple lines such as, "I'll never believe/ That you belong to me." It sets the template for most of the first disc; in this way, the disc has its fair share of female muses - there's Angeline, Lulu, Little Indian Napanee, Hapa Haole Hula Girl and the more nebulous sweetest girl in town - and even if these women occasionally struggle with fidelity and often bring nothing but misery and sometimes even death to their lovesick admirers or themselves, the first disc is generally the most carefree of the set. There are exceptions - "Dock" Walsh bemoans that he "never knew was misery was" until he met a woman - but mostly these are songs of new love before the bloom is off and domestic warfare begins. "I'm walking on air/ I've left all my blue days behind," Ted Lewis pseudo-sings on "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," a representative slice of the type of love-struck whimsy of this first disc.

The tone changes on the second and third discs, entitled "Lust" and "Contempt," respectively. "Lust" showcases the raunchier side of these old songs, especially in "Pussy" by Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys, perhaps still the standard bearer for double entendre with lines like, "There's one pet I like to pet/ And every evening we get set/ I stroke it every chance I get/ It's my girl's pussy." Elsewhere there are infidelities, sordid affairs, a drunken Irish threesome and generally every type of sexual debauchery one can think of. The final disc is heavy with the lovesick blues and various woeful laments; almost everything goes to shit and the titles say it all: "I'm Gonna Kill Myself," "Left All Alone Again Blues" and "Pretty Mama Blues." A mean streak runs through these songs; all varieties of barbed, if antiquated, insults and general meanness can be found. The object of derision in Bill Carlisle's "I'm Wearin' the Britches Now" is dismissed as a"lousy sow," Robert Hill mocks someone who's "gonna look like a monkey" in old age and Fiddlin' John Carson and His Virginia Reelers cloak a catchy singalong about daily boozing and gambling with some particularly distasteful marital advice: "It's a shame to whup your wife on Sunday/ When you've got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday...." Taken together, these two discs are remarkably cynical and darkly humorous and, maybe because of that, enjoyable as hell.

The scope of Baby ventures far beyond the typical old-timely folk usually favored by such compilations to also include early jazz, blues, bluegrass, brass bands, yodels, dignified urban tunes and ridiculously rural ones, as well as some truly unclassifiable stuff like "I Ain't a Bit Drunk." Much of it is pretty obscure - the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Is Going Wrong" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Corinna Blues" are probably the most "obvious" inclusions - a trait that's sure to appeal to a certain segment of listeners. Its packaging plays up the comedic and caustic tones of these songs; the gatefold shows a happy couple "Before Marriage" sharing an umbrella, and an "After Marriage" photo of them back to back, under separate umbrellas, the man smoking a cigarette and the woman dejectedly staring downward. The lack of simple biographical details and recording information is perplexing, especially for a label that is typically is spot-on in this area. A minor complaint to be sure, and while there are literally thousands of great love songs from the 1920s and 1930s out there, Baby, How Can It Be? is an excellent overview and comes wholeheartedly recommended for both novices and experts alike.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Revisit: Rookie Cop: by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop
by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop is Richard Rosenthal's account of his time spent as an undercover police officer embedded in the Jewish Defense League in the early 1970s. Published in 2000 and chronicling the events of the group's early history, the book still serves as an outstanding insider's view of one of this country's most controversial fringe organizations as well as a snapshot of New York's political, cultural and racial climate during the Cold War. The JDL Rosenthal depicts could be both remarkably incompetent and dangerously motivated, with its key figures defiant in their defense of Jewish interests and advocating the types of provocative actions - confrontational sloganeering and protests, bombings, one attempted hijacking - that would eventually land the JDL a spot on the FBI's register of right-wing terrorist sects.

Rosenthal's back story is the stuff of Hollywood; indeed, it's hard to understand how Rookie Cop hasn't yet been adapted to the silver screen. After a four-year stint in the Air Force where he worked as a Russian language specialist followed by an aborted attempt at college, Rosenthal was accepted into the NYPD but didn't receive a single day of training before being recruited for his undercover assignment. Over the ensuing months Rosenthal would essentially play the role of weapons expert, with direct access to the JDL's leader - the "strong willed, determined, and...forceful" Rabbi Meir Kahane - as well as gain and dutifully report to his law enforcement superiors intimate, first-hand knowledge of the JDL's attempts to acquire and, ultimately, utilize, firearms and bomb-making materials.

Through Rosenthal's book we see individuals driven by a narrowly-defined but broadly applied ideology and the steps they would go to defend that ideology. Though the group may have had its fair share of "a bunch of people who were some combination of fools and neurotics," Rosenthal never discounts the JDL's desire to combat its perceived enemies and their policies, particularly the Soviet Union's refusal to allow Jews to emigrate from the Communist nation. While there are actually some humorous moments in which Rosenthal recalls some of the members' almost caricature-like amateurishness - "inept bomb-making attempts, long hours spent with heavily armed paranoids who hadn't a clue how to handle their firearms" - the JDL undeniably meant business.

Backed by a charismatic, media-savvy leader who once famously preached a policy of "every Jew a .22" and a core following of disaffected, financially struggling men, the JDL made its aims violently clear, attempting to hijack an airline as retribution for an earlier Arab hijacking and later bombing the offices of Sol Hurok, an entertainment mogul who earned the JDL's scorn by arranging for Soviet artists to perform in the United States. The explosion would injure scores of people and leave one person dead: a young Jewish woman.

To Rosenthal's credit, he never sensationalizes his gig as a spy; unlike other true crime memoirs that seem designed to stroke the author's ego and portray said author as a super-badass James Bond hopped up on righteousness and 'roids, Rosenthal's text is understated, humble and meticulously detailed. He harbors no illusions about how laborious and monotonous his job often was, albeit with a degree of risk most of us will never encounter in the workplace. In this way Rosenthal is likeable as both a writer and cop, and though he occasionally weakens his narrative by tangentially offering his views on gun control, wiretapping and various other hot-button topics, for the most part he presents his story without prejudice or judgment. Rookie Cop is never sexy or stylized; it is simply a reliable, informative and responsibly written snapshot of the JDL in its earliest incarnation, as well as an important document in understanding the collective mindset of a collection of zealots.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Orange Juice: Coals to Newcastle

Orange Juice
Coals to Newcastle
Rating: 4.5/5.0
Label: Domino

It takes about seven hours to listen to Coals to Newcastle's six audio discs - tack on more time to plow through the DVD that's also included - but goddamn if it isn't worth almost every last minute. A certain degree of mental fortitude and a whole lot of down time are required, much like listening to 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions or Dylan's bootlegged Rolling Thunder rehearsals, but it's immeasurably enjoyable nonetheless. Compiling the band's complete studio discography and throwing in enough extras to satisfy long-time fans, the box set is an exhaustive and meticulously compiled summary of a band whose influence can still be seen in the best - and, yes, the worst - that current indie has to offer.

Orange Juice's original lineup of Edwyn Collins, James Kirk, David McClymont and Steven Daly has practically been canonized, and rightly so; the first two discs included here, consisting of that foursome's first Postcard recordings and debut Polydor album You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, are nothing less than the sound of modern indie rock being shaped, twisted and perfected. Enough has been written about those early songs to render further commentary superfluous; suffice it say that the band's 1980-1982 work is required listening for anyone even remotely interested in indie history as well as those who think Scottish indie music began with Franz Ferdinand or, for those who are really enlightened, If You're Feeling Sinister. The commercial backlash that followed Orange Juice jumping ship to Polydor now seems both quaint and silly; it's simply a matter of personal taste as to whether a listener prefers the lo-fi Postcard or the polished, glossier Polydor versions of "Falling and Laughing," "Dying Day," "Consolation Prize" and "In a Nutshell," among others. In whatever form, these songs are as close to perfect as music gets.

The band's first lineup change would precede the release of Rip It Up in late 1982, with Daly and Kirk replaced by Zeke Manyika and Malcolm Ross, who had previously produced some of the band's Postcard songs. That album's self-titled track gave Orange Juice their only significant UK charts hit, and the album as a whole found the band abandoning indie-pop in favor of a style that fused funk, soul, reggae and disco. It might be grounds for psychological treatment to claim that Rip It Up trumps the original lineup's work, but there is plenty to like here, particularly the Four Tops' homage "I Can't Help Myself," "A Million Pleading Faces" and "Flesh of My Flesh." In hindsight, the stylistic changes that occurred between You Can't Hide Your Love Forever and Rip It Up are more dramatic than those the distinguish the Postcard recordings from that debut album.

The severely stunted Texas Fever EP was released before Orange Juice was, at least officially, reduced to the duo of Collins and Manyika for the 1984 swan song The Orange Juice. Usually bluntly dismissed as the band's most dismal efforts, Coals might change that perception somewhat. Both recordings are probably best enjoyed in small doses and have plenty of flaws - McClymont and Ross reportedly half-assed the EP's sessions, and "Punch Drunk" and "A Sad Lament" lend that sorry tale credence, while "Scaremonger" and "Salmon Fishing In New York" do the final studio album no favors - but some flashes of brilliance do cut through both records' trendy 1980s' production techniques. Both "Bridge" and "What Presence?!" rival the band's celebrated earlier work, and The Orange Juice is notable for containing some of Collins' most cheerless lyrics.

The band's one-liners are already the stuff of indie legend - "I'll never be man enough for you;" "I hope to God you're not as dumb as you make out;" "What are we/ If not a couple of specks of nothing;" "How I wish I was young again" - while a few stomps through this set show the band was never entirely as fey/campy as they were usually depicted - and as they frequently depicted themselves. Their songs could be as cynical, fatalistic and downright mean as any snarling post-punk band, although the lyrics' biting tones were often obscured by Collins' odd vocal delivery and the songs' peppy arrangements. Orange Juice could rock - check out the 1981 Postcard 7'' version of "Poor Old Soul" and the shambolic live songs that close the first disc - and this collection should dispel the simplistic image of the group as lovesick, twee lads.

Coals to Newcastle warrants a purchase for newcomers as well as those who already own The Glasgow School (2005) alike, despite some overlap with that previous compilation. It corrects the sorry state of disrepair the band's discography has been in for years, the Postcard-era excluded; it also contains a respectable amount of previously unreleased material, adds a bunch more alternate takes, live tracks and miscellany than only an Orange Juice super-freak would already have and tacks on a full disc of BBC radio sessions with stellar versions of some of the band's most representative songs, including "Lovesick" and "Wan Light." The packaging is classy, with vintage photos and enthusiastic, though occasionally cutesy and too-clever, liner notes by Simon Goddard. More live inclusions would have been nice, but Coals to Newcastle is as flawless as such box sets can be. Barring the discovery of previously unknown tunes or good old-fashioned greed, it looks to be the final, definitive word on the band's studio history.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Rating: 4.7/5.0
Label: Columbia

It's practically a tradition that each new Bob Dylan Bootleg Series release will be accompanied by complaints from Dylan freaks (sorry, "aficionados"). Though Dylan Fandom's response to The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 has been largely positive, some predictable grousing about how some classic performances still haven't seen the official light of day and how Columbia over-emphasizes the musician's 1960's work at the expense of his later stuff has surfaced. A quick perusal of Dylan message boards - proceed with extreme caution - also reveals gripes about the release's sound quality, packaging and track order.

Such dissension is difficult to understand, though, as archival releases don't get any better than The Witmark Demos. They have neither the luster nor the mythology of Dylan and the Hawks 1966 or Rolling Thunder 1975/1976, but these demos document a key piece of the 1960's Dylan puzzle, finding the musician moving past his Guthrie-aping days yet still before the "thin, wild, mercury music" of his mid-1960s electric trilogy. In the tradition of Dylan boots the title here is only partly accurate, as this set contains demos for both the Leeds and Witmark publishing houses, a technicality of course and one that doesn't detract in the slightest from the brilliance of the record's songs. These recordings are immediate as we hear Dylan occasionally flub lines and offer various comments about these songs; some of them are mere fragments, but the majority are fully formed and sometimes contain alternate lyrics to what would eventually be included on record.

Though the demos include plenty of the socio-political songs usually associated with early Dylan - "Blowin' In the Wind," "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Masters of War," "Oxford Town," "John Brown, " among many others - they nevertheless suggest that the accepted image of the young Dylan as primarily a topical songwriter isn't entirely accurate. Of course Dylan initially embraced, and unarguably advanced, this depiction, framing himself as a folkie devotee of both Guthrie and mysteriously nicknamed socially-righteous bluesmen that most people hadn't heard of; still, the demos are indicative of an artist whose lyrical scope already extended far beyond sometimes too-simplistic topical ballads. For example, the demos include all varieties of love songs; there are subtly dismissive ones like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Boots of Spanish Leather;" nostalgic, mournful ones like "Bob Dylan's Dream;" and occasionally tender ones like "Girl From the North Country" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Humor and tragedy exist in equal measure; the acerbic bite of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and the pure silliness of "I Shall Be Free" contrast with the personal dramas of "Seven Curses" and "Ballad For a Friend" as well as the global ones of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," all in a manner that belies Dylan's young age at the time of these recordings.

Any serious Dylan fan will have heard some of these songs in various incarnations already, either via the debut 1991 Bootleg Series release or the plainly titled Witmark Years boot. Among such completists there may be a tendency to approach these demos from a too-academic perspective, whether it's in terms of Dylan's debt to archetypal American folk themes or his lyrical evolution; indeed, the poetic intricacies revealed in "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind" are still striking. Such approaches are valid but unnecessary, as this newest Bootleg Series is simply fun to listen to and a perfect snapshot of a young artist with a pile of amazing songs to his name. With any artist whose volume of quality unreleased output surpasses his officially sanctioned material, it's impossible to satisfy everyone as the vaults are purged, but The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 is an essential Bob Dylan release and every bit as captivating as much of his best work.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Elvis Costello: National Ransom

Elvis Costello
National Ransom
Rating: 3.8/5.0
Label: Hear Music

What is there to say about Elvis Costello that hasn't already been said? For over 30 years, critical wits have described him in various too-clever ways; he's been the Angry Young Man, Buddy Holly on Acid and the Bearded Bard, laughable depictions that may have made for good press but still say very little about the musician or his music. His discography has likewise made a mockery of such depictions; while Costello's earliest albums tentatively placed him as a post-punker whose folk tendencies were obscured by his aggressive vocal delivery and the Attractions' manic pace, his last several albums, particularly The Delivery Man and Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, have incorporated elements of jazz, country and Americana.

So it's a guess as to what side of Costello will dominate each new album; during the lead-up to listening to National Ransom, one of Spectrum Culture's writers jokingly asked if I thought it would be Rocker Costello or Wimpy-Crooner Costello. It's actually a bit of both, though the rocking isn't as hard as it could be and the crooning isn't all that wussy. Recorded quickly and including songs that have been part of Costello's recent live shows, Ransom was produced by frequent cohort and former Coward Brother T-Bone Burnett. Featuring contributions from backing bands the Imposters and the Sugarcanes, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller, Leon Russell, Vince Gill and formerly estranged bassist Bruce Thomas (wait, never mind), the album might be Costello's most musically varied, as it genre-jumps like an ADD-addled kid.

It's a scattershot approach that mostly works well. The self-titled album opener and "Five Small Words" are classic Costello rock songs, though the equally up-tempo "The Spell That You Cast" sounds to me like a bad Brutal Youth outtake; as fun as the song is, it tends to feel every bit as slight as something like "Playboy to a Man" or "Luxembourg." There are hints of jazz in "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a song that contains some of the album's best lines ("forgotten man/ Indifferent nation") and, with its references to "slow coaches rolling o'er the moor" and a cowboy singer "mild and bitter from tuberculosis," is presumably about Jimmie Rodgers. Steel guitar features prominently on "I Lost You," "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving" and "Dr. Watson, I Presume," a trio of solid songs that owe a debt to Americana/country every bit as much as Almost Blue did before them. Costello was always a folk singer of sorts at heart - a fact obscured by his pissed-off persona, surly disposition and infamous fixation with exacting revenge through his lyrics - so it's fitting that unadorned and simply-arranged songs like "All These Strangers" and "Bullets for the New-Born King" offer National Ransom's most enduring moments. An acoustic assassin's lament that consists of only Costello and acoustic guitar, "Bullets" interweaves history and geography and contains some of the album's most evocative imagery and will likely age better than some of the album's genre-specific tracks.

Like most Costello albums, the writing is exceptional, with characters like a stage-door Josephine, charlatans and princes, privateers and brigands, a double-agent girl and disgraced priest heading for some unnamed border flittering in and out of these songs. Costello's occasional bouts of verbosity sometimes rear their wordy heads, and shades of North unfortunately creep in on "You Hung the Moon," a song about a dead soldier that's ultimately wrecked by Costello's exaggeratedly theatrical vocals and strings that are laid on pretty thick, but these spots are rare. If National Ransom was a debut album from an indie band with a bizarre name we'd all say it lacks focus and lives too much in the past. But with Costello such absence of uniformity somehow works, and his latest album again confirms that he's simply an expert musician who damn well knows what he's doing, witty critical characterizations be damned.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Rediscover: The Dashboard Saviors: Kitty

The Dashboard Saviors

The Dashboard Saviors released three studio albums in four years - 1992's Kitty, 1993's Spinnin On Down and 1995's Love Sorrow Hatred Madness - before disbanding. Not that many people outside of Athens, GA noticed. The band was met with commercial and critical indifference throughout their brief career; a feature write-up in Rolling Stone's "New Faces" section in December 1992 was the closest the group ever came to sucking at the mainstream teat, and time has done little enhance the band's legacy. Perhaps the supreme insult, Saviors vocalist Todd McBride is better known for his connection to Vic Chesnutt than for his work with his own band: he played with Chesnutt in the La Di Das and also asked the musician to write a song with the line that opens "Isadora Duncan" on Little.

Produced by Peter Buck, Kitty remains an overlooked masterwork, with scratchy, sometimes slightly polished country-rock songs featuring McBride's nasal, reedy vocals and a core group (Michael Gibson on guitar, Rob Veal on bass and John Crist on drums) that does balladry and hard rock equally well. Scattered throughout are contributions from Buck, Mike Mills, John Keane, David Blackmon and Tim White, with Chesnutt providing occasional backing vocals. Much of the album consists of character studies of life in the small-town South; indeed, the shadow of what Chesnutt once described as "that most famous Georgia college town" - or at least how we perceive small towns - looms large over the record.

Its songs are those of everyday small-scale misery where there is nothing romantic about rural life. One would be hard-pressed to find a character more pitiful than the nameless protagonist - a one-time, and one assumes, anonymous musician - of country weeper "A Trailer's a Trailer." Its desolate images - a swig of warm beer, a baby crying above the buzzing of a window fan, a broken-down shitbox Dodge in the yard (of course), a pawned guitar, his inability to correctly sing a song he knows by heart - are accented by fiddle and pedal steel and all convey a seemingly hopeless situation. What prevents the song from being just another clichéd, booze-soaked honky tune are its narrative details: a faded bumper sticker of a shark in sunglasses that deadpans "Ain't life hard;" a domestic fight after "The Cosby Show;" a cigarette lit on a hot plate. By the end of the song the man doesn't have much to show for himself other than some hard-learned wisdom: "A dead end's a dead end/ And a trailer's a trailer/ Even if it's double wide."

Several of Kitty's other characters similarly lead lives on the skids. Images of restlessness and boredom mixed with loneliness are frequent. "Tracy's Calendar" describes the archetypal sad-eyed female, this one apparently with a mental or physical illness, while the disconcertingly jaunty arrangement of "Been Meaning To Do" belies the desperation experienced by someone who wakes up to "another morning in sunshine hell" and can only pathetically "count your blessings and . . . come up short." This type of ennui also defines "Town," a somber ballad that examines how two polar opposites react to the confines of their hometown; delinquent Johnny lights up a Salvation Army box by making a Molotov cocktail from a "Boone's Farm bottle and an Aerosmith T-shirt and some gas from his daddy's car," while "daddy's perfect girl" Julie meets a man with a "greasy frown" and ends up with a ripped dress and "tears in her eyes/ Little bruises on her thighs." They beg for Jesus to get them the hell out; we never find out how their stories end, and we probably don't want to.

"If you think I'm being cynical/ Well yeah, you're probably right," McBride sings on "Cabaret College," and he's not joking. The title act of "Consummation" brings nothing but sadness and is reduced to a series of post-deed excuses - "You'll blame the wine and I'll blame the weather" - while on the combative "Dropping" he rails against a woman who's "dropping your trousers without any shame." Even the album's rare moments of humor are coated in such cynicism. The rollicking "Drivin' Blind" describes a woman who's either got the world by the balls or is cold as hell as she mocks the narrator as nothing more than a "nickel a half dozen" - dude sheepishly agrees - and is unmoved by a man begging for food. The satirical "The Coach's Wife" is driven by White's raucous barroom piano as McBride's ramshackle vocals talk about the title figure, an absolute souse who drinks "gin with champagne chasers" and dreams of a career in politics. Even the album's most tender moments - the childhood remembrances of "G.I. Joe" - are offset by the fact that those simple days exist only in memory. It's fitting that the album ends with the fire-and-brimstone, and probably shady, radio evangelist of "Brother Shiloh Collins."

Available on iTunes but a complete bitch to track down an original copy of, it's likely that for the near future not too many new listeners will come around to Kitty. It's worth the effort to locate a copy though, and of all the great lost Southern rock operas that have come out of Athens, few are better crafted and more deserving of recognition than Kitty.

Monday, October 25, 2010

1877: America's Year of Living Violently: by Michael Bellesiles

1877: America's Year of Living Violently
by Michael Bellesiles
Rating: 2.0/5.0
The New Press

When Michael Bellesiles' Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture was published in 2000, it hit with all the force of a knee to the crotch. That crotch was the cuddly-as-a-teddy-bear National Rifle Association, which got rather rankled by the book's assertion that gun ownership in colonial America was rare and that firearms ownership in the United States became prevalent only during the Civil War era as manufacturing techniques improved and gun prices dropped. While that organization fumed and roared, the accolades poured in for the then-Emory University professor from critics, journalists and fellow historians, with the book ultimately scoring Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize.

Then the bottom fell out. The NRA's reactionary ranting gave way to reasoned examinations from serious historians who no doubt have forgotten more about history than most of us ever bothered to learn; the author would soon be accused of everything from taking quotes out of context to deliberately misquoting his sources and including statements that were historically inaccurate. After a lengthy academic review of the text, Bellesiles would eventually be stripped of his Bancroft and fired from Emory University.

1877: America's Year of Living Violently should prove far less controversial for Bellesiles. The book is a passable, if largely unremarkable, account of all the violent, shitty and otherwise awful events that transpired in that year. The author captures the obvious topics - the continuation of an economic depression that started in 1873, the contested 1876 presidential election that wasn't resolved until January of 1877, Reconstruction's ultimate failure as blacks' rights were eliminated throughout the South as "Redeemer" governments reclaimed power, the labor unrest that would culminate in a series of strikes that summer, westward expansion and the terrible toll it exacted on Native Americans - while giving the reader a marginal sense of the country's political and cultural climate. It rarely offers anything new in terms of historical scholarship, but it's readable and avoids becoming too academically dry.

But a disgraced reputation is difficult to repair, and I found myself nagged by certain doubts as I read 1877. Are Bellesiles' references legitimate and are the quotes accurate? Does he have his facts straight? Is he able to approach American history from an unbiased perspective? It's possible that other readers will have similar doubts, and though Arming America's legacy is more complicated than the extremists who either loathe or worship it admit, a historian's past writings can inform a reader's opinion of that historian's most recent work.

The book is flawed in other ways. Too often Bellesiles' view of history is incredibly simplistic: heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and there is rarely any middle ground. He rightly rakes a few well-deserving individuals over the coals, most noticeably those who used violent methods to restore white power in the South and leaders who used federal troops against striking laborers, but in general the author shows little appreciation for or interest in history's complexities. Bellesiles is prone to the type of generalized statements historians should avoid - "Everyone hated Jimmy Kerrigan, including his wife..." "The Rangers had no more respect for the border with Mexico than they did for human life" "While the rest of the country threw aside the promises of the Constitution when it came to black people, Kansas welcomed them..." The author's transgression here is obvious: he makes sweeping generalizations that can't be proven and assumes that in 1877 all members of a particular group held identical views on these topics and acted in the same way. It's a sloppy and careless approach to history.

Bellesiles also fails to acknowledge developments that don't fit his depiction of 1877 as an orgy of violence and social turmoil that stunted the nation's social progress, including Henry Flipper becoming the first African-American to graduate from West Point, the founding of the American Humane Association or even something as innocuous as the first cantilever bridge being built in Kentucky. It's just another shortcoming in a book whose reductionist account of history is impossible to ignore. Readers who aren't familiar with post-Civil War 19th century America should be warned that there are far more objective studies to be found, while readers who have even the smallest working knowledge of this period are also likely to be unimpressed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Royal Baths: Litanies

Royal Baths
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Woodsist

For anyone in the mood for an album filled with crushing and absolutely all-fucking-encompassing dread, boredom, cynicism, sickness and death, Litanies comes highly recommended. The song titles - "After Death," "Drudgery," "I Detest," "Bad Heart," "Sinister Sunrise" - leave little room for misinterpretation and, with the exception of closing track "Pleasant Feeling," likely aren't meant to be taken ironically. The debut release from San Francisco quartet Royal Baths - Jeremy Cox, Jigmae Baer, Eden Birch and Eva Hannan - it is about as far removed from the psychedelia most frequently associated with the city by the Bay as possible. There is of course nothing wrong with a band that exists in perpetual darkness, but the music that accompanies such brooding must be original enough to offset such a narrow and redundant scope. Litanies is not that album, and all too often the band fails to frame its inner turmoil in anything but recycled sounds.

Unless it's some sort of cosmically-sized coincidence, the band owes a large debt to both the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3. The vocals and especially the arrangements - coated in layers of fuzz and distortion - are reminiscent of those two groups, most noticeably on "Needle and Thread," "Sitting In My Room" and "Pleasant Feeling." For some listeners it might be difficult to get past these similarities - and make those listeners cut their losses and just go straight to the source material - but there are a few promising inclusions here. The album works best in its moments of tension that exist in the vocal interplay of singers Cox and Baer; "After Death," "Nikki Don't," "Drudgery" and "I Detest" contrast leading vocals evoking pure misery with bright and bouncy background harmonies. The effect is unsettling and is easily the most memorable aspect of Litanies. The lyrics fit the tone set by the band's sound; the album is a well of gothic misery with seemingly no bottom, with references to insomnia brought on by being too high and too hot, the "desolate country" and the "malnourished sick" scattered among warnings not to fall in love and cheerless sentiments like "coldness cannot hide the spirit that flutters in fear." Oh happy day indeed.

But the album wallows in such thoughts so much that after a while they lose their impact, and coupled with the songs' heavily derivative sound, it makes for some pretty ponderous listening. Rare is the record that can last for very long in such abject despair; even a renowned master of melancholy like Will Oldham ended I See a Darkness with the hopeful "Raining in Darling," while artists as morose as Bill Callahan and the National at least sometimes couch their songs in sardonic humor.

Royal Baths could learn something from those artists about such nuances and shades of gray throughout Litanies. The band unarguably has impeccable influences and usually makes the most of them, but absent a truly genre-breaking style, clubbing the listener over the head with a barrage of gloom only gets a band so far.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tired Pony: The Place We Ran From

Tired Pony
The Place We Ran From
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Mom + Pop

There is an undeniable whiff of novelty to an Irish musician recording a country and Americana-influenced album; of course, among others from across the pond, an Englishman called Costello has previously done a similar thing and pretty competently at that. Gary Lightbody, best known as the frontman for Snow Patrol, is far less adept at convincingly invoking the spirit of these genres throughout Tired Pony's debut album, The Place We Ran From, a record that plays out like a sopping wet, watered down imitation of the music it claims as its inspiration. There's plenty of sincerity here - not to mention no small amount of admiration for country and Americana - but there's also very little to suggest that Place is anything more than a middling, and dully predictable, foray into America's musical past.

On paper, the album should be barn-stormin' and shit-hot; in addition to Lightbody, Tired Pony includes Snow Patrol collaborators Troy Stewart, Iain Archer and Garret "Jacknife" Lee, Richard Colburn (Belle and Sebastian), Scott McCaughey (of Minus 5 and R.E.M. 2.0) and Peter Buck. The album also boasts contributions from M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel and Editors' Tom Smith. But like so many other supergroup efforts, the whole isn't very good and the parts aren't much better. To be fair there are a few standout moments: Buck's guitar work is masterful; Deschanel's vocals on "Get on the Road" are so good that they sound as if Lightbody wrote the tune with her in mind; Ward provides an appropriately hazy guitar line to "Held in the Arms of Your Words," a soft ballad with a ridiculously nonsensical title; Smith's singing lends an obvious sense of gravity and guilt to "The Good Book," a song of closed-down bars, lonely nights and half-empty glasses of booze. But that's also as close as Lightbody gets to writing a memorable Americana song, though occasionally his lyrics are almost evocative enough to offset the excessively banal arrangements, particularly on "Northwestern Skies," "Dead American Writers" and "The Deepest Ocean There Is."

Though there is no questioning the participants' sincerity in this project and it's clearly not a lark, this same earnestness makes these songs feel painfully straight-laced and stilted. It's collaborative, sure, but the amount of teamwork involved is largely irrelevant when the results are so meager, as in Archer's "I Am a Landslide," which is both exceedingly delicate and more than just a wee bit saccharine. Despite Lightbody's self-stated goal of writing a "twisted love-letter to the States," there is very little here that suggests the result is anything other than another example of formulaic country-infused music.The Place We Ran From ends with several minutes of feedback squall via "Pieces," a much-too-late attempt to apply some sharpness to the album's mostly blunted edges. Lightbody deserves credit for moving away from the personal narratives he churns out with Snow Patrol, but that's of little use here, and Place simply skims along the surface of Americana without really channeling any of its dark, mysterious landscape.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens
The Age of Adz
Rating: 2.3/5.0
Label: Asthmatic Kitty

For many artists there eventually comes an album that, by sheer virtue of how different it is from that musician's most "representative" work, splits fans into two opposing camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. For Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz is likely to be that album. Listeners still pawing their copies of Michigan and Illinois and clinging to that image of Stevens the Banjo Folkie in Angel Wings are gonna be in for a shock, as the record trades in his acoustic eclecticism for an electronic one heavy on beats, reverb, drum machines, assorted artificial sounds and compressed, echoed or otherwise treated vocals. In short, it's tailor-made for howls of indignation from at least one segment of the musician's fans.

What then of the actual content of Adz, putting aside whatever credit - or indie fandom dissension - Stevens will receive in so drastically breaking from Illinois' template? Anyone paying attention to Stevens' previous work shouldn't be entirely surprised by the record, as debut LP A Sun Came as well as parts of the All Delighted People EP hinted at the type of sounds that Adz fully embraces. Ultimately the album is inconsistent: at times ambitious and inventive, but more frequently self-indulgent, overlong and coldly technical. Stevens' electro-tinkering occasionally succeeds, especially in the sparseness of opening track "Futile Devices," the aural explorations of "Too Much," the title track and "I Walked" and the vocal belligerence of "I Want To Be Well," which finds the singer doing his best Thom Yorke impression and spitting out obscenity-laced lines.

At the same time self-editing is apparently not in Stevens' vernacular, and many songs stretch out far longer (and with far too much dicking around) than plenty of sober minds will be able to endure. Indeed Stevens apparently never met a five-minute running time he didn't like on Adz; over half the album eclipses that mark, while the sonic meanderings of songs like "Get Real Get Right," "Vesuvius" and closing track "Impossible Soul," itself 25 minutes long, become increasingly cluttered with repeated listens. The sense of breathing space that Stevens' songs had in the past is missing here, but what's perhaps more frustrating is that nearly every song has brilliant components - a lilting melody or poetic lyric about faith or death, among other topics - that eventually are overpowered by the song's glitch-laden exteriors.

Electronic dabbling frequently has a way of making songs feel distant and hollow, and The Age of Adz is no exception, its thick layers of gadgetry preventing some of its songs from making any type of lyrical connection with the listener. There will of course be a tendency to dismiss all criticism of the album as curmudgeonly reactionary or as a sign of someone stuck in the Illinois-Michigan past, but this is nothing more than an easy out for anyone wishing to downplay its flaws. Certainly there's no questioning the musician's willingness to defy stylistic boundaries - plenty of veteran indie bands could learn a thing or two from Stevens - but Adz all too often fails to reign in its electronic excesses. The result is an album that is too heavy on the artificial and too light on anything precise to compliment the artist's musical wanderlust.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Revisit: Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh

Richard Thompson
Rumor and Sigh

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

Any discussion of Rumor and Sigh invariably starts with "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," generally considered by fans and critics alike to be Richard Thompson's defining song. Set to a traditional English melody and built around a simple folk structure, it tells the story of James Adie - young career criminal, wildly romantic, surprisingly poetic - and Red Molly - the archetypal idealized female, this time with red hair and clad in black leather. As is so often the way in folk music, their relationship seems fated to end tragically, and of course it does. In quick succession Adie gives her a ring, probably stolen, gets himself mortally shotgunned in the chest during a robbery attempt and from his deathbed hallucinates that he sees "angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/ Swooping down from heaven to carry me home" - Heaven's admission requirements are rather lenient in this case. He then gives Molly his motorcycle keys - folk motif/symbol alert! - as his final, dying gesture. It's as close to perfect as a song can get.

But there is much more to Rumor and Sigh than just "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is possibly Thompson's most consistent album since 1982's Shoot Out the Lights. Throughout the album its characters externalize a sense of fatalism and foreboding as they find both their relationships and lives in general going to absolute shit. The first order of business for the freshly paroled ex-con in "I Feel So Good" is to "break somebody's heart tonight," as Thompson sneeringly sings. The situation is reversed in both "Why Must I Plead" and "I Misunderstood; in the latter song the female wears the guise of the flirtatious temptress as she mind fucks the living hell of some schmuck: "I thought she was saying good luck/ She was saying goodbye" he mutters in confusion. Similarly, "Keep Your Distance" imagines the principal actors in some failed love story meeting again by chance. Any thoughts of reconciliation are dashed immediately by the male with a sour remark that stands as one of Thompson's most incisive: "Don't grasp my hand and say 'fate has brought you here today'/ Oh fate is only fooling with us, friend."

Several of Thompson's most effectively humorous songs at least temporarily take this edge off and serve as a nice respite from all the doomed and otherwise dysfunctional relationships that litter the record. Rumor and Sigh actually opens with such a song: "Read About Love" takes sexual incompetence as its subject, adding in just a bit of misogyny. The poor fool narrator doesn't get any sex ed proper; instead, he reads about "love" in smut magazines and a book "written by a doctor with a German name." When he can't perform he knows who to blame, and it's not himself: "So why don't you moan and sigh?/ And why do you sit there and cry?/ I do everything I'm supposed to do/ If something's wrong, then it must be you." A somewhat slight song in Thompson's catalog, "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands" pays homage to Scottish accordion player Jimmy Shand as well as vinyl records as the musician alternates between pieces of nostalgia ("This one's the Beltona brand/ Finest label in the land/ They don't make them like that anymore") and some lighthearted - by Rumor and Sigh's standards at least - barbs about someone's girth and propensity for inebriation. The perverse or bloody events that transpire in the absurdist drama "Psycho Street" - a man beating off on a train, a wife murdered and dissolved in acid - are so over the top and its actors so stupid that it's impossible not to find the song darkly humorous.

Though Mitchell Froom tends to be treated like a human punching back for his production work on Thompson's albums - most infamously on Daring Adventures - the production here is clean and provides just the right amount of polish to Thompson's mostly dour material. Songs like "You Dream Too Much" and "Mother Knows Best" haven't held up over time, but the majority of the album has, and it's probably Thompson's best effort of the 1990s. It might be heresy to argue that it trumps Shoot Out the Lights, but like that masterpiece, it's an album built around crumbling relationships that sounds as relevant in this century as it did in the last one. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" rightly casts a large shadow over both Rumor and Sigh and Thompson's entire career; still, that shouldn't be at the expense of the other remarkable songs included on this album.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Concert Review: The National - The Pageant, St. Louis, 9/30/10

In June of 2007 the National played the Duck Room here in St. Louis, a drafty, windowless, duck-themed basement at this city's beloved Blueberry Hill burger joint. With its austerely gray atmosphere, it could easily be used to stage a performance of Endgame and generally caters to four types of artists: current indie bands on the rise; current indie bands treading water at best; once-mighty bands on a slow, pitiable decline; and Chuck Berry. There was no doubt at the time that the National belonged in that first category. Boxer had recently been released and was beginning to generate Album of the Year buzz, and plenty of people were quickly discovering that Alligator actually wasn't the group's debut LP.

A few years and another remarkable album later, this time High Violet, the National are unarguably one of indie's leading bands, feted in The New York Times, blessed with the Michael Stipe seal of approval and commonly described as being on the cusp of "mainstream" success, whatever that term means in today's mostly radio-less world. Though there was some pre-show pissing and moaning from at least one guy - few things in life compare to being cornered in a bathroom by someone ranting about the band playing a mid-sized club like the Pageant instead of a smaller, more personal venue - such griping is by now expected; every indie band whose listenership increases significantly will always have some myopic fans nostalgic for poorer days long gone.

The venues may have gotten larger, but the band's live show has still managed to retain its intimate, visceral quality even as it has become more polished. Such was the case with the group's most recent St. Louis performance, as the band drew from every LP except the oft-overlooked self-titled debut in their nearly 100-minute set. After a stately opening to "Runaway," most of the songs that followed were louder and longer than their album versions. The two-man horn section of Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome boosted the sound considerably and complemented the Dessner/Devendorf brothers' playing, with "Mistaken for Strangers" (dedicated to some dude named Ron), "Baby, We'll Be Fine," "Slow Show," "The Geese of Beverly Road" and "Fake Empire" all closing with full-bodied instrumental sections. "Available" was given a harsh treatment appropriate for its subject matter, with Berninger of course screaming the closing lyrics over squalls of guitar noise, before the band segued into the closing verse of fellow Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers track "Cardinal Song;" Berninger also punctuated "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Squalor Victoria" and "Abel" with more yelling, precariously swinging the microphone stand in the air on that Alligator track. Elsewhere there was humorous stage banter about the singer's newest nickname - Dick Jagger - and his wife being/not being a cannibal, a bit of palatable guitar-rock-god preening as one or both of the Dessners stepped out for a short guitar solo, Berninger wandering around the stage and a few classically gloomy National moments via "Sorrow" and "London."

The band's encore was brief - three songs - but thrillingly wild. After a faithful version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" that featured Newsome on violin, the band played the expected "Mr. November" - with Berninger roaming far from the stage, climbing on the railing, probably kicking a few drinks over, ending up in the pit and generally covering all corners of the Pageant except its parking lot - and ended with a blistering version of "Terrible Love," the singer standing on the railing nearest to the pit and screaming as anonymous hands either pawed at him or, more civilly, made sure he didn't fall off. Sure such antics are at least partly orchestrated and similar acts of showmanship will probably happen in the next city the band plays, but it was still cool as hell.

This ability to connect with an audience is what makes the National's live show so captivating; like their albums, in concert the band is able to sincerely express the types of everyday highs and lows to which anyone can relate. No surprise then that the night's atmosphere, sometimes something of a wild card given the Pageant's cookie-cutter aesthetics, was subdued but not catatonic, with most of the crowd intent on listening to the songs and not talking through them, the occasional catcalls about what Berninger was drinking notwithstanding. It was as flawless of a performance as I've seen; there were no lulls, deadweight songs or mailed-in efforts, and the guys all played like they were a young band fighting damn hard for an audience and not a marquee act who had the crowd in its pocket from the onset. There's no telling how many folks from that 2007 Duck Room show were in attendance, but if any of them skipped the National's latest stop here with the conviction that a band isn't worth following once its members aren't setting up their own gear, it's their loss. Certainly it's a difficult task to exceed beyond-lofty expectations, but that's exactly what the National did at the Pageant on this night.

by Eric Dennis

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Revisit: Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West

Johnny Cash
Sings the Ballads of the True West

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

In 2010, we know the album title is just plain wrong. The equally romantic and tragic view of the American West that dominates Johnny Cash's Sings the Ballads of the True West is the stuff of old black and white TV shows and movie westerns, where the men were macho and the women were either virtuous (boring) or loose with their morals (preferable). Much like Gone with the Wind once did so much to shape the public's perception of the Civil War South as a time of honorable men, beautiful belles and contented slaves, True West offers a narrow interpretation of an American past that existed - still exists - only on Hollywood stages and in dimestore novels. The "other" West, that of early industrialization, transient workers and immigration, plays no part in Cash's work.

But True West remains among Cash's most consistent concept albums, even if some songs, particularly those with an excess of strings and background singers, sound campy. The album cover of a mustachioed Cash, reclining against a tree and gripping a gun, is also about as hokey as it gets. But what kind of world are we met with in True West? Primarily it is one of death. In the traditional "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," the dying youth with the "pallid lips" begs not to be buried in the middle of fucking nowhere. His wish isn't granted; Cash as narrator here is respectful but coldly matter-of-fact: "In a narrow grave, just six by three/ We buried him there on the lone prairie," he coolly sings. The similarly-themed traditional "Streets of Laredo" also takes as its subject a dying young man who's "done wrong"; what exactly he's done is never stated, but like the figure of "Prairie" he dies with his final request, cold water to drink, unfulfilled. Other songs chosen for True West fit this mold as well: in "A Letter from Home" yet another dying cowboy - already bummed because no one in his family writes to him - croaks with only a stranger and an unread Bible for company, while in Harlan Howard's "The Blizzard" a man traveling the plains is found frozen to death "just a hundred yards from Mary Anne."

Yet however limited its historical scope or understanding may be, history does inform much of the album. It's in these songs where Cash's familiar world of violence, criminals, outlaws and, ever so rarely, heroes is at its most prevalent. Cash performs Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Mr. Garfield" - its subject the assassination in 1881 of the President by Charles J. "Charley" Guiteau - with no small amount of black humor, especially in the dialog between the two brothers who tell the story. Cash approaches Carl Perkins' "The Ballad of Boot Hill" rather differently, portraying Billy Clanton, shot dead in the famous Tombstone gunfight of 1881, as a purely innocent, and altogether tragic, figure (the actual events of what transpired are more ambiguous than Cash suggests). In a shade over four minutes Cash summarizes the bloody life and death of the infamous namesake outlaw of "Hardin Wouldn't Run," though the singer's version infuses the criminal with traces of nobility and bravery (or stupidity, as the fact that he "wouldn't run" is what gets Hardin killed, bullet to the back of the head). Hardin's killer, John Selman, would reportedly shoot him three more times after that head shot; Cash omits this rather brutal, and decidedly less folksy, detail from his narrative.

The accuracy of the Merle Kilgore-penned "Johnny Reb" is likewise dicey; desertion from the Confederate army was frequent, even at the war's early stages, and thus Cash's praise of Southern soldiers who "fought all the way" must be seen as idealized Southern mythmaking. But one gets the sense that Cash, regardless of his exhortations in "Reflections" to see "now and then the West as it really was," was primarily interested in that mythic version of the Old West as he saw it instead of historical objectivity. Throughout the album Cash conjures up a vision of the West that primarily resides only in the American imagination, an ethos that Cash also furthers in the album's liner notes. Some songs from True West would later succeed outside the album's context - most notably, "25 Minutes to Go," which Cash would include on At Folsom Prison - but most of the songs here work best when heard in an album context. True West often blurs that thin line between historical fact and poetic license, but folklore and music have always been intertwined. Few artists have managed to meld these two sometimes-contrasting aspects as well as Johnny Cash, and it's in his abilities as a storyteller that we are still able to appreciate True West as an example of how we remember, and in some cases idealize, our collective history.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interview: Bill Callahan

I interview Bill Callahan here:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hoboes: by Mark Wyman

by Mark Wyman
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Publisher: Hill and Wang

In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, historian Mark Wyman attempts to define the role of the migrant worker in the expansion of the western United States. Centered on the years between the advent of the railroad and the rise of the automobile in the pre-Depression 1920s, the book offers a rather untraditional account of the West's settlement, abandoning the popular depiction of a rip-roarin' wild west of outlaws, cowboys, Indians and hokey Johnny Cash songs in favor of a narrative that places this mass of seasonal workers at the forefront.

At its best, Hoboes provides a mostly sympathetic and thoroughly researched picture of the transients whose grunt work in the fields, farms and orchards of the western United States played a major role in the country's economic growth. Wyman's hobo is not that of the stereotypically shiftless and potentially dangerous loner portrayed in various newspapers of the day. Instead, the author paints a revisionist portrait that is far more balanced, showing how laborers of various stripes - American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican - made the country's agricultural industries possible. With each chapter built around the story of a specific state's economic development, Wyman tells of these workers' hard, anonymous lives: those already below the poverty level and how they endured low pay, long hours, dangerous working and unsanitary living conditions; a public and government whose sympathy for immigrant laborers decreased as the isolationist xenophobia of post-World War I America increased; the physical and psychological tolls such a lifestyle exacted.

Nevertheless, Hoboes cannot be recommended to a general audience. Wyman is first and foremost a historian, exhibiting many of the negative connotations that come along with that. The author's writing style tends to be overly methodical (read: dry) and professorial (read: very dry): if a reader doesn't already have an interest in Western labor history, this book likely won't spark such an interest. Although the text is far less imposing than other labor histories, it too often reads like a textbook or dissertation written solely for the highly-educated and tenured-for-decades academia crowd. Certainly, Wyman again proves himself an authority on this topic, but his writing sometimes feels cold, clinical and occasionally repetitive; the book's final summary pages give a concise recap of Wyman's main arguments, but it could be a difficult task getting to that point for some readers. For a casual audience, the most interesting aspect of Hoboes may be its colorful title.

Hoboes does succeed as a study that asserts the migrant's importance in the development of the West and brings some dignity to the many whose lives and contributions to the United States mostly went unnoticed. Wyman also shows how some of the key features and moral questions of this westward expansion, particularly immigration, continue to remain relevant today. But it's a book best left to the scholars, as it assumes a familiarity with the subject that many readers simply won't have and is written without much flair or personality. Those scholars will have plenty to discuss and debate; the rest of us who tag along could find the ride fairly tedious.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Acorn: No Ghost

The Acorn
No Ghost
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Label: Bella Union

A music fan could be forgiven for being unable to keep these hordes of Canadian bands straight. As her homegrown groups continue to push modern indie in various directions, Canada unarguably has, likely permanently, altered the indie landscape, and coupled with the rise of Internet media, probably has a larger present-day visibility than Athens, Minneapolis, Chicago, DC or Seattle ever did. On the strength of a slew of EPs and debut album Glory Hope Mountain, the Acorn merits consideration as among the country's most inventive bands. That full-length, a collection of songs based on the life of singer Rolf Klausener's Honduran-born mother, joined image-rich lyrics with folk and South American rhythms and instrumentation. To these ears at least, it remains every bit as good as Funeral, You Forgot It in People or Apologies to the Queen Mary.

To the band's credit, they don't try to simply rehash the sound of Glory Hope Mountain for their follow-up; instead, No Ghost is remarkably louder and more aggressive than its predecessor. Recorded in Quebec and Montreal - press material hints at the type of isolation, probably exaggerated, that likewise frame the background to both For Emma, Forever Ago and Hospice - parts of it are miles removed from Glory's acoustically-inclined exoticism. "Cobbled From Dust" opens the album with abrasive guitars and feedback; later on, the title song combines a driving guitar with strings that sound like they're being strangled. "Restoration" deceptively begins as a simple folk song before it picks up momentum and furiously tumbles to a stop. Jeffrey Malecki's heavy drumming propels "I Made the Law" and "Bobcat Goldwraith;" both songs suggest touring with Calexico in 2009 had an effect on the Acorn, especially in the Southwest-style guitar and vocals of the former and in the horns of the latter.

Some of No Ghost retreats to the safe, familiar territory of Glory, and while these songs aren't redundant, none of them are as powerful as something like "Hold Your Breath" or "Crooked Legs." On "Misplaced," Klausener's lilting, almost breezy vocals contrast with the track's desolate tone and lyrics; the equally downcast "Almanac," "On the Line" and final song "Kindling to Cremation" feature some of the band's most understated melodies and vocal harmonies. This approach fails on "Slippery When Wet" - no relation whatsoever to New Jersey's 1980s big-haired native son - another folksy song filled with delicate guitars, even more delicate strings and truly horrid opening lyrics about a panda climbing a tree.

Fortunately, that song is a rare misstep for Klausener as a writer, as most of No Ghost reads as good on paper as it sounds in stereo. Though its songs don't follow an obvious narrative structure like Glory did, much of the album is coated with layers of dust and death, as fatalistic references to bones, hair falling from aging heads, heart attacks, veins, vultures and cauterized cobwebs dominate the songs. No Ghost doesn't necessarily have as many peak moments as Glory, but it doesn't recycle that masterwork either and does enough to suggest that the Acorn's finest effort might still be to come.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Richard Thompson: Dream Attic

Richard Thompson
Dream Attic
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Shout! Factory

In September of 2009, CNN's website published an interview with Richard Thompson under the headline "Richard Thompson, the greatest guitarist you've never heard of." To anyone with the even faintest knowledge of music history, such a headline must have seemed purely absurd, the type of thing aimed entirely at the squares and those corporate desk jockeys who spend their lunch hour on But it's been the easy music journalist's tagline about Thompson for several decades, and I suppose nothing will change it at this point, even if it's mostly bullshit. Though the musician usually only barely scratches the Billboard charts and has made commercial indifference something of an art form, no one can reasonably argue that he's laboring in obscurity either. His shows sell out and his fan base isn't going anywhere until they leave this mortal coil; we're not talking about some starving artist scraping by on peanuts and playing to half-empty dives.

So even if Thompson's latest, the mostly stellar Dream Attic, doesn't make him a household name, that's all right, as it again confirms his standing as one of music's undisputed giants, equally on the level of a Dylan, Springsteen, Waits or Young. With such an extensive back catalog from which to compare, it's too early to definitively say how Dream Attic stacks up against what preceded it, but it has all the characteristics of Thompson's strongest and it's likely years from now it will be considered as one of the musician's most consistent releases. Almost all the major traits that have defined Thompson's albums can be found scattered among its 13 songs. Thompson's biting satirical wit can be found in both leadoff track "The Money Shuffle" and "Here Comes Geordie;" his ability to craft - to borrow his words - wrist-slashing ballads is displayed in "Among the Gorse, Among the Grey" and "Stumble On;" his catalog of murder/crime songs is nicely augmented with "Crimescene" and "Sidney Wells." There are also, of course, deceptively buoyant and catchy songs about dysfunctional relationships and their attendant suspicions and paranoia, in this case "Big Sun Falling in the River." Supported by an ace band that adds horns, strings, percussion and other instrumentation to Thompson's masterful - a true understatement there - guitar work, other songs like "Haul Me Up," "Bad Again" and "If Love Whispers Your Name" should stand up as some of the finest ensemble playing to be had on any Thompson record.

The album was recorded live during a brief West Coast tour in February, and like previous Thompson concert albums the sound and execution are both warmer and more immediate that much of Thompson's studio output, which to me sometimes tend to feel coldly detached and overly produced. Though it's strange that audience applause can be heard before and after only a few songs, Dream Attic unarguably benefits from being recorded live; it's occasionally raw - Thompson's voice cracks on a few tracks - but the musicianship and complete lack of studio embellishments capture what it's like to see Thompson in concert.

Tom Waits has said that his wife jokes that he writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. This statement could easily apply to Thompson as well - minus the Eyeball Kids and the man with missing fingers who plays a strange guitar - and throughout Dream Attic, it's all too easy to overlook its lyrics among all the instrumental prowess both the band and Thompson exhibit. But there is pure lyrical artistry on this release, via the various barbed insults and plain-old sadness in Thompson's writing, especially in something as achingly moving as "I've learned how long the night is when you're gone" or as Cave-level macabre as "Then he took off her clothes and threw them in a pile/ He watched her stand there cold and shivering for a while/ Then he picked up her stocking lying on the floor/ And wrapped it round her neck until she breathed no more."

The album loses some of its steam after that murder song, but overall it's every bit as worthwhile as Thompson's previous live albums. A handful of tracks here would also fit in well on any serious Best of Thompson compilation. If not quite a masterpiece, Dream Attic offers enough of Thompson's alternately acerbic observations and droll humor and a crack band in peak form to make it required listening for both long-time Thompson fans, newbies and, yes, even the suit-and-tie crowd that get by on a steady diet of

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Land of Talk: Cloak and Cipher

Land of Talk
Cloak and Cipher
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek

Just how many catchy, brightly shimmering, guitar-fueled pop choruses can one listener stand? Such is the question raised by Land of Talk's latest album, the so-formulaic-it-hurts Cloak and Cipher. Worse, the album's tendency to drum up these punchy choruses like clockwork and with all the dedication of someone feeding an addiction is not its only flaw, as this repetition also extends to Elizabeth Powell's always enunciated, occasionally barely-above-a-breathy-whisper vocals as well as the mid-tempo pace of most tracks. As such the album is a regression for Land of Talk after a decent EP and somewhat less decent full-length, frequently showing that a good idea done to death is, well, overkill.

The album opens solidly enough with the title track, establishing a gauzy, melody-focused pattern for most of what follows. Even follow-up track "Goaltime Exposure," which stretches past the five-minute mark and essentially revisits the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-more-friggin' chorus approach, is palatable and sometimes contains solid lyrics. But by third song "Quarry Hymns," the jig is up: though its pace slackens from its predecessors, at nearly six minutes it's overlong and Powell's vocals sound like they were misplaced in the mid-'90s female folksinger revival and only recently unearthed by a Lilith Fair fanatic. "Hamburg, Noon" and "Blangee Blee" repeat the same structure as these earlier songs, offering up sing-along lyrics and hummable melodies but very little of anything consequential. The result is an album that is tedious and, coupled with its fairly lengthy running time, one that is likely to test a listener's patience like few albums can.

It's not that that these songs are bad; far from it. Indeed, if I stumbled across one on iPod Shuffle or satellite radio I probably would give it a listen, even if I could live with never hearing it again. True, there are some moments on Cloak and Cipher that at least temporarily stall its overwhelming predictability, as on the slowed-down tempo of "Better and Closer" and "Playita," the distorted vocals and electronics of "The Hate I Won't Commit" and the hard rock guitars of "Swift Coin." Still, a few tricks and embellishments here and there aren't enough to make most of the songs sound anything but excessively similar; it's simply too much of an average thing.

It doesn't help things that Powell tends to sound like almost every sweet-throated female singer who's released an album since 1972. Cloak and Cipher is recommended to be absorbed in small amounts, and perhaps there's a good EP buried in here. But taken as an album it's a difficult listen, not because it's particularly avant garde - far, far from it -but instead because it prefers to club listeners upside the head with choruses laid out like a roadmap. There's nothing wrong with a great chorus, of course, but time shouldn't seem to crawl when listening to a record.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rediscover: brute. - Nine High a Pallet

Nine High a Pallet

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

News of Vic Chesnutt's suicide in late 2009 was followed by numerous career assessments and eulogies for a musician whose mainstream profile was marginal at best. These articles largely focused on Chesnutt's solo work, overlooking his side projects and thus creating an incomplete, though highly sympathetic, appraisal of the artist's life and career. In some ways this is understandable. Though nearly all of his albums featured full-band arrangements, Chesnutt was never really able to shake the media's perception of him as the solitary, weirdo Southern folkie we first heard on Little.

Fifteen years after its release, Nine High a Pallet, Chesnutt's first collaboration with members of Widespread Panic as the lower-cased band brute., stands as perhaps his most successful side project, with the possible exception of the Elf Power-assisted Dark Developments. Recorded over two days in December 1993 and released in September 1995 - the same year as Is the Actor Happy? - the album mixes songs representative of Chesnutt's early 1990s style and subject matter with curiosity pieces (including a Hoyt Axton cover) as well as a few others that deserve consideration as among Chesnutt's best. Several songs could cozy up comfortably to Actor. The first half of "Westport Ferry" consists of guitar, occasional harmonica and pedal steel - immediately reminiscent of "Gravity of the Situation" - while the song's latter half utilizes a quiet-loud dynamic similar to "Free of Hope" and "Strange Language." The song's macabre story is vintage early Chesnutt; in this case, the narrator sings about, "Warm bodies in plastic wrap" and muses over"Brilliant men/...lost in that murky deep." "Cataclysm" closes Pallet on a comparable musical and lyrical note. With phrases like "Bang the hubcap slowly" and "The cataclysm is over/ They've swept away the shards," it's tempting to read the song as autobiographical - another thinly-veiled nod to the car crash that left Chesnutt paralyzed - but the song is ultimately ambiguous. Indeed, we never find out what exactly the cataclysm was, only that the "horror clocks" have been reset and that "the tragic path" has been cleared.

But a large portion of Nine High a Pallet is unlike anything Chesnutt had recorded previously, showing how Widespread Panic's Southern roots rock contributed to Chesnutt's loosest, loudest and most atypical songs up to that point. Severe and shredding electric guitar, bar-room keyboards and heavy percussion drive several songs, especially "Bastards in Bubbles," "George Wallace" and "Good Morning Mr. Hard On," maybe the least subtly-titled song in Chesnutt's entire catalog. "PC" is likewise an anomaly, its circus-like keyboards framing one of Chesnutt's more mocking, if somewhat less vitriolic than normal, put-down songs. The everyday family tale of "Protein Drink/Sewing Machine" ranks as one of Chesnutt's most sludgy, punishing songs, its nine bizarre minutes incorporating fuzzy guitars and echoed, distorted vocals. Chesnutt would eventually include a starker version of "Sewing Machine" on Skitter On Take-Off.

Nine High a Pallet can be considered Chesnutt's first truly "experimental" album; even more so than Drunk, it moves away from the folk-based structures of Little and West of Rome and also hints at the type of songs he'd record with increasing frequency after About To Choke. In light of Chesnutt's suicide some songs are like hard punches to the gut, especially "Blight" ("I set into a downward spiral/ Got an illness that was literally viral") and "Miserable," a tactile song of spider veins, alcohol and vitals that sounds like a thematic cousin to "Lucinda Williams" and "Stupid Preoccupations." There will now be plenty of time to find examples of ominous foreshadowing throughout this catalog, but Chesnutt's music is not a two decades-long suicide note. Nine High a Pallet showcases Chesnutt in top form and, above all else, dispels the popular image of Chesnutt as purely a solo artist.

Friday, September 03, 2010

LouFest 2010

Another Spectrum Culture writer and I attended this year's LouFest in St. Louis.

Take a read and enjoy the pictures here:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cotton Jones: Tall Hours in the Glowstream

Cotton Jones
Tall Hours in the Glowstream
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Suicide Squeeze

The best name an Elephant 6 group never thought of, Cotton Jones Basket Ride reportedly began as a side project for Michael Nau, best known for his work with Page France. With Page France still showing no signs of a pulse as of 2010 - at least we won't have to hear any more nonsense about them being a Christian rock band - this detour has since developed into the musician's main creative avenue. The name would eventually be shortened to the more sensible Cotton Jones by the time of their debut Suicide Squeeze full-length, Paranoid Cocoon, an undervalued album whose psych-folk arrangements, slow, deliberate vocals courtesy of both Nau and fellow Page France member Whitney McGraw and dark-gray, impressionistic imagery marked a clear shift from Page France's indie-pop style and subject matter.

Follow-up album Tall Hours in the Glowstream is almost every bit as good and should make Page France feel even more like a distant memory for anyone still pining for that band's return. Nau and McGraw incorporate almost all of the key elements from Paranoid Cocoon without it ever sounding like a rehash: an atmospheric, smoky mix of organ, synths and steel guitar, occasional touches of lo-fi and two disparate voices that blend well together. Songs like "Sail of the Silver Morning" and "Place at the End of the Street" combine a '60s folk-guitar jangle with percussion, reverb and various other layers of instrumentation, working in various genres without sounding exactly like any of them. The dreamy, ethereal quality that shaped much of Paranoid Cocoon can also be heard on "Song in Numbers," "Dream on Columbia Street," the instrumental "Goethe Nayburs" and "Soft Mountains Shake," the last of which sounds like an undiscovered Peco's Blues outtake. All these songs are defined by an emphasis on melody and structure - the various musicians that play on these songs do a superb job - though each track takes a different approach in how that emphasis plays out.

But perhaps the most immediately recognizable and lasting aspect of Glowstream is how Nau and McGraw utilize their voices, both separately and in tandem. Nau sings in an expressive, pseudo-country twang, while McGraw's softer vocals feel like they float over these songs. Nau's vocals tend to be less muddled and more up front than they were on Paranoid Cocoon, most noticeably on "Somehow To Keep It Going," "Glorylight and Christie" and album highlight "Man Climbs Out of the Winter," a woozy steel guitar song whose lines about the passage of time are among the album's finest and most affecting. McGraw's vocals are likewise more prominent than on previous Cotton Jones records; she sometimes sings alone but more frequently underscores Nau's voice, an approach that succeeds best on album closer "No Things I Need (Like Some Time Ago)."

Out of these vocals come repeated references to mountains, sunbeams, water, flowers, rolling rivers, rain and weather systems. Though nearly every song expresses nostalgia for days long gone and also contain plenty of ecological wonder, they are tempered with images of mortality, aging and, thanks to the way the vocals interact, simple, sad regret. For all of its sonic playfulness, Glowstream is frequently introspective and subdued: "I number the years... I number the hours," Nau says at one point, later repeating a similar sentiment with the equally prosaic, if grammatically incorrect line, "We was feeling about twice our age/ Sitting in the pouring rain." Though it's Page France that first put Nau on that tiny indie map, with songs as good as those of both Paranoid Cocoon and Tall Hours in the Glowstream, it's likely that what began as a side project with a strange name will soon be what both Nau and McGraw can hang their reputations on.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chief: Modern Rituals

Modern Rituals
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Domino

Cynical rule of thumb; the more PR material a critic receives for a band's debut album, the worse said album actually is. Modern Rituals, the debut release from California-by-way-of-NYU band Chief, does nothing to challenge that notion. An extensive bio waxes poetic about melodies packed into the suitcases of the outgoing college boys, obligatory references are made to Neil Young, the Band, Love and the Beach Boys, and an all-for-one, one-for-all sense of band solidarity is emphasized. One would be forgiven for expecting Modern Rituals to be an instrumentally-blazing, genre-busting premier effort from one of indie's most promising young bands.

The actual results are something far different, and something far more disappointing. Over 11 songs, Chief sputters in place, revisiting similar musical turf on nearly every track, never suggesting much more than that its four members have clearly listened to a lot of vintage records from the '60s and '70s. A specific formula is rigidly applied to these mid-tempo rockers: bright, ringing guitars, steady drumming, clean bass lines and California-cool background harmonies. Any real variety can be had only in the album's vocals: primary vocalist Evan Koga sings in a nasal, Tom Petty-lite style, whereas Danny Fujikawa favors a sensitive-folksy voice that recalls Midlake's Tim Smith and a whole army of wounded-heart '70s types.

None of the songs are particularly engrossing, regardless of the vocalist. The arrangements' repetition is just too much to ignore; the opening trio of "The Minute I Saw It," "Nothing's Wrong" and "Wait for You" are one-trick ponies, with "Wait for You" being particularly verbose in its first several lines. In the album's latter half, "Stealing" and "Summer's Day" are likewise leaden and without momentum. The songs Fujikawa sings - "This Land," "You Tell Me" and "Irish Song" - are slower and more acoustic-oriented, but are done in by insipid lyrics ("I'm so tired again/ Can't get out of bed again") and, in the case of "You Tell Me," a saccharine testament to the redemptive power of LOVE. It's of course inevitable that a band will carry its style and similarities from one song to the next, but Modern Rituals most often feels like watching the same movie scene - and a pretty lousy one at that - over and over.

There is some promise here, however rare. "In the Valley" is easily the album's most mature and carefully executed track, a slow-burning ballad that may make listeners wish that Modern Rituals had more songs of its caliber. The album's production does also deserve mention, as it's vibrant, clean and uncluttered, almost a bit of an anomaly among the current indie bands that make sonic mazes of their songs. But that one track and a fairly concise set of arrangements are consolation prizes only, and not much of those at that. The songs' content is purely California stuff, man, and some decent observations are made in these lyrics - Pacific coasts, shining suns, beach breezes and broken down relationships - but whatever merits the lyrics might have are overshadowed by a sameness of sound that is simply impossible to look past.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Dunce: Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Dunce is a series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a book that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never read. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

One of our writers here at Spectrum Culture jokes that no one's actually ever read Crime and Punishment in its entirety, but the embarrassment factor prevents anyone from admitting it. It's not true, of course, but for years I preferred to think that it was. At the least it made me feel a little bit less like an uncultured moron and instead like someone whose Jesuit education still managed to respectably include many novels from the Cliff's Notes series, even if I'll never get the image of Sister Rose misquoting The Great Gatsby's "orgastic" future as "orgasmic" out of my mind. Besides, an education under the auspices of the Jesuits carried with it its own unique definition of crime and punishment. Anyone who's ever had to write Campion's Brag by hand in JUG - that's Justice Under God to you - or has taken a shillelagh to the shins knows what I mean. Raskolnikov's inner turmoil and mental anguish paled by comparison. I even managed to make it through college - with a minor in English - without even catching a whiff of the novel.

I eventually bought Crime and Punishment on November 26, 2002. How do I know that? Because when I dug the book out of basement storage for this feature, the receipt was still halfway through chapter 2, which is where I stopped when I tried to read back then. Eight years and a climb into my early 30s later, I actually can't remember now why I abandoned the book in the midst of one of Marmeladov's drunken ramblings. Sure it's long and its prose undoubtedly loses some of its poetic beauty when it's translated to English - and, if it's possible to criticize a heavyweight like Fyodor Freaking Dostoevsky, parts of it are more melodramatic than daytime soaps - but its concerns and characters are as recognizable and relevant to our modern world as they were in the author's 1860s Russia.

A quick recap for those who think Crime and Punishment is one of "Law and Order's" many spinoffs: Raskolnikov is a dirt-poor ex-student living in the slums of St. Petersburg with an unstylish hat and a Napoleon fixation who once wrote an article expounding a theory that murder is justifiable if it will ultimately benefit humanity. He eventually decides to kill a pawnbroker for her money, alleviating his cash flow problem and expunging someone whom he considers a "vile noxious insect." When the pawnbroker's sister unexpectedly arrives after the former student has axed the pawnbroker, he kills her as well. Raskolnikov then spends his days trying to hold his mental shit together while tons of awful, just awful, things happen to various other characters linked to him: town drunk Marmeladov is trampled by a horse-drawn carriage (he dies); his consumptive wife's health rapidly deteriorates (she dies); the shady sex-hound Svidrigaïlov is rejected by Raskolnikov's sister Dounia and puts a bullet through his temple (brain matter everywhere, you know the rest). At the urging of Sonia, Marmeladov's daughter and a true hooker with a heart of gold, Raskolnikov confesses and is eventually incarcerated in beautiful Siberia.

All joking aside, and as I'm sure at least one literary critic has so eloquently said before, Crime and Punishment is fucking awesome. It works on numerous levels: as a psychological study of a mind in an increasingly fragile state, where Raskolnikov tries to reconcile his perception of himself as a superman genius who's beyond good and evil with his murderous actions; as a detective story filled with suspense and tension; as a character study of various types, whether it's the virtuous prostitute Sonia, the selfless Razuminhin or the sly investigator Porfiry; and as a glimpse into the author's opinions of his birth country's political, cultural, religious and social climate. It's a page-turner without any of the cheap thrills and absurd plot twists that define the majority of popular fiction, as well as a prosaic work that raises questions about the human condition and our moral obligations to one another.

For students of Russian history or modern philosophy the novel is indispensable, but a true masterpiece succeeds based on whether the story it tells can exist outside of the environment in which it was written. Crime and Punishment unarguably still does. Even the epilogue, probably the most criticized aspect of the novel, is integral, as it hints at Raskolnikov's redemption as well as the fidelity that defines us in our best moments. Academia - just not those Jesuits who taught me - worships it for obvious reasons, but this is also a novel worth embracing outside of the halls of higher learning.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill

Beachcomber's Windowsill
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Label: 4AD

Beachcomber's Windowsill is an album with a minor identity crisis. The debut release from British band Stornoway adheres mostly to the type of folk-pop being practiced by scores of indie bands that seem to be multiplying like Gremlins, relying on a focused, narrow approach that usually serves the album well. It's when the band moves into less traditional territory that the album falters, creating the impression of a band that can't quite decide which side of the fence to settle on and isn't yet adept enough to straddle it. To no surprise, this lack of focus occasionally makes Beachcomber's Windowsill stuttering, clumsy and a little bit tentative, but there are enough great songs here to partially offset some of its shortcomings.

Stornoway reportedly takes its name from a town in Scotland no one on this side of the Atlantic has heard of, and they've already received some critical attention for their first single, "Zorbing." Named after that idiot's pursuit of rolling down hills in a giant transparent plastic ball - for added fun, cram several people into the ball - it opens the album and establishes the template for many of the songs that follow: gently swaying vocals, controlled background harmonies, a pastoral guitar/bass/drum foundation, well-timed accents like trumpet and violin and a general fixation with the past and various things meteorological. A sense of daydreaming and contentment defines the song; "The storm has broken/ Heaven's open," Brian Briggs sings. Such contentment is often in short supply on Beachcomber's Windowsill, though; "Fuel Up" starts with the image of a young child in the backseat and ends with that child much older, stumbling through his hometown, "Drunk and...sad for the old times;" "On the Rocks" is bookended by cold Februarys and rainy Decembers; "The End of the Movie" utilizes a simple violin line and understated backing vocals to create what might be the album's simplest and saddest song.

Comparisons to Belle and Sebastian are probably inevitable; the horns on both "Zorbing" and closer "Long-Distance Lullaby" as well the vocals of "Boats and Trains" sound indebted to that band, but these similarities are far less egregious than the detours Stornoway take on other songs. "I Saw You Blink" and "Here Comes the Blackout...!" are both hindered by superfluous keyboards that sound like they ripped straight from the '80s; the kinda-droned vocals on "The Coldharbour Road" don't fit in well with the album's usually upfront singing; the grinding guitars of "Watching Birds" provide a jolt to the album but also feel misplaced compared to the album's primarily folksy mindset. Sometimes even that approach veers off course as well: "We Are the Battery Human" is either a total lark or the most earnestly humorless group sing-along this side of A Mighty Wind. Either way, it's dead weight and among the album's slightest tracks.

The common complaint that there's a masterpiece EP lurking somewhere once all the fat is trimmed applies to Beachcomber's Windowsill. Its best songs are filled with descriptive, unshakable imagery - some hard-luck schmuck staggering home under city streetlights and, conversely, someone tumbling carefree across the earth in a giant orb - even if some songs beg for different arrangements. It might be about time for a moratorium on indie bands singing about summers, beaches and bygone days, but Stornoway does enough here to warrant consideration as among that cluttered scene's more promising newcomers.

Monday, August 09, 2010

David Dondero: # Zero With a Bullet

David Dondero
# Zero With a Bullet
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Team Love

The album cover for David Dondero's # Zero With a Bullet is hideous, featuring the type of amateurish layout one would expect from a suburban garage goth band. A background map displays names like Bitter Creek, Badwater and Wamsutter and actually fits the album's subject matter, but the red font used for both the artist name and album title is reminiscent of a cheap slasher flick or something from the hair-metal 1980s (think Skid Row's self-titled debut and you won't be too far off). Slightly off center is the album cover's point of focus and most egregious image: a Mr. Suit type inside a skeleton - it's metaphorical, see? - that appears to be tacked to the map by its clavicle. Taken as a whole, it's a strong frontrunner for worst album cover of the year.

The actual content of Dondero's latest effort is better. Though it doesn't stray too far from the folk-country of previous records like Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun or Simple Love, Dondero's ability to mix tried-and-true Americana with slightly off-kilter characters and the occasional lyrical diamond usually offsets the album's lack of originality. Geography is once again the dominant figure in Dondero's songs; Oregon, Austin, the Cape Fear River, downtown Laramie, Wyoming and numerous points in every direction are all referenced, as the album literally crisscrosses the country from one song to the next. Other songs offer a veritable checklist of images from roughhouse America, whether it's the American West of the the man in a cowboy hat who sells beer and looks like Wyatt Earp in "It's Peaceful Here," the freight trains of "Carolina Moon" or the trucker's life of the struggling musician recounted in the down-and-out title song.

Bullet has its share of nice instrumental moments, most noticeably in the steel guitar and keyboards of "It's Peaceful Here" and the rapid-fire rhythm of "Wherever You Go." The unabashedly classic rock tones of "Jesus From 12 to 6" give a sharp edge to Dondero's sneering vocals ("I don't trust a goddamn thing that you say"), while by design or coincidence, the arrangement on "Job Boss" recalls Neil Young country songs like "Old King" and "Homegrown." Each song's production is solid and there is little in the way of studio over-embellishments, giving these songs a feel of authenticity that allows the listener to focus on the content.

Most of the album follows a similar pattern, an approach that eventually feels vacuous. It's a safe, middle-of-the-road release, reminiscent of everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Uncle Tupelo, and too frequently little more than just another entry in an already-crowded field. There's no questioning Dondero's skill as a lyricist. Nearly each song includes at least one phrase or image that makes these songs come to life, snippets like, "dice games in the neon lights" or "three sheets to the stagnant air." Coupled with a dose of levity - "Don't Be Eyeballin' My Po'Boy, Boy" exalts that famous Louisiana culinary invention - Dondero brings plenty of wit to # Zero With a Bullet. Still, a lot of wit and a little bit of country twang aren't enough to compensate for an album that plays to its creator's strengths but also sounds like someone simply treading musical water.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Careful: Oh, Light

Oh, Light
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Sounds Super Recordings

Some albums are meant to be listened to alone, as if the quietness of solitude heightens their emotional impact. For me, albums like The Trinity Sessions, The Ghost of Tom Joad or I See a Darkness have always been best enjoyed on a set of headphones or playing at a low volume apart from the crowd. It feels inappropriate - and cheap - to listen to albums like these in front of other people, to say nothing of the fact that doing so would depress the shit out of everyone. Nothing can clear a crowded room of all levity quite like "Mining for Gold," "Sinaloa Cowboys" or "A Minor Place."

Oh, Light, writer/poet/musician Eric Lindley's newest effort under the Careful moniker, carries a similar vibe. It isn't consistently strong enough to be compared to these aforementioned albums, but it is reminiscent of them in terms of tone and, occasionally, style. The album is fairly sparse, its instrumentation usually consisting of guitar and perhaps too-frequent brushes of electronic glitches and other noises, with Lindley's vocals straining and sometimes breaking just barely above a whisper. The album moves deliberately and requires a certain amount of patience and attention from the listener, especially in the languid pacing and vocal phrasing of songs like "I Shot An Apple Off Her Head," "Carnival" and "I Loved a Girl but She Loved Me." Other tracks uniquely blend the acoustic with the experimental, most strikingly on the prolonged tension of "Turns Out" and in the static interference of "New Life." These little accents are enough to distinguish Lindley from the current crop of indie artists working from a similar aesthetic, even if his electronic tendencies are laid on a too thickly in "Every Epiphany," "We Give Up" and "Oi, Etc."

Oh, Light's imagery and lyrics tend to be somewhat oblique and non-linear. There is a heavy emphasis on physiology, as references to fists, eyes, splintered knuckles, breath, hair, body organs sold for money and fingers touching ribs form a sketchy but consistent narrative. Though Lindley is by no means unintelligible, it's sometimes difficult to fully understand what he's saying, an effect that actually adds some mystery to these songs and forces the listener to zero in on a precise phrase like, "There is a lever I can crank/ To pull my skin back tighter/ There is a powerful machine to fill the holes/ Inside my bones and teeth" or something more prosaic like "let's build a monument to memory."

The album is brief, barely cracking 30 minutes, but this brevity works; anything longer might have felt too oppressive or willfully obtuse. There is of course no shortage of solo artists making intimate, home-recorded albums along the lines of Oh, Light, but there is a quality in Lindley's vocals and unobtrusive instrumentals that many of other musicians lack. As clichéd as it sounds, Oh, Light is an album of fragility and beauty that invites reflection and contemplation, foregoing big riffs and bigger vocals for something far more refined, restrained and moving.

(Some copies of the album include demo versions of Oh, Light songs "Carnival," "Scrappy," "Fox and His Friends" and "We Give Up," as well as a few tracks that don't appear on the record. Most of these are even more skeletal than their album counterparts and are well worth seeking out).