Friday, February 12, 2010

Home: Seventeen is now its own food group. Go have some.

Home's latest album, Seventeen, opens with "Hello From Texas," a distorted blast of lo-fi that makes John Darnielle's earliest recordings sound pristine by comparison. It's a bold way to open an album for a band whose following is modest at best...and a good way to lose listeners who may not have the patience to navigate through the various stylistic exercises that comprise the album. If listeners have the attention span to ride it out, though, they'll find plenty to like among the album's 15 tracks, even if Seventeen isn't the band's most consistent release and will likely primarily be of interest only to the band's current fans.

To be sure, the album is far from flawless and may not be fully appreciated by those who aren't familiar with the quartet's brand of indie pop. There's a fair amount of silliness here: middle tracks "Wall Walker," "L-O-V-E" and "Gladdy Glad" all exhibit the sophomoric humor and blatantly simplistic rhyme schemes that occasionally reared their heads on concept album Sexteen, which never could be accused of exactly being subtle anyway. Though these songs become - somewhat - more palatable with repeated listens and certain self-serious indie bands could benefit from Home's example, their goofiness nearly renders them throwaways. "Gladdy Glad" in particular stinks of schmaltz, with a catchy and carnival-like pop arrangement that's weighed down by awkward, sappy lyrics. The song is excessively cute to the point of the listener's annoyance; its attempts at tongue-in-cheek humor fall flat, and it's the type of overly optimistic song that makes its love-struck narrator sound like the most obnoxious and irritating fool in the room.

Seventeen is in many ways a tale of two albums: if the record's lighthearted tracks are mostly forgettable, the band is at its best on the album's more heartfelt and, for lack of a better term, serious tracks. "Pop! Pop!" plays like a passable redux of standard garage rock and album closer "Walking Talking Slab Of Heaven" is a convincing and wonderfully screwed up stab at country music, but a handful of other songs most effectively play to the band's lyrical and instrumental strengths and make the album worth hearing. "Easter Snow" consists of nothing more than a simple acoustic guitar, patches of static interference and understated vocal harmonies that are heavy with a sense of distance and loneliness. It's the album's most conventional and outstanding moment, and - with the images and emotions it invokes - almost unbearably sad. "Any Way That You Go" has a similar tone and style, as the song's unassuming vocals fit the arrangements perfectly. Sometimes less is more, even for a lo-fi band with experimental leanings like Home; both songs exhibit the type of restraint and accessibility that are too frequently missing from much of the album.

Seventeen won't embarrass its creators, but it won't be considered Home's finest moment either. There are several slight and empty songs here that likely should have been omitted for the album's overall benefit, but goddamn, "Easter Snow" is a fantastic track deserving to be heard by a wide audience. One standout track and few other keepers certainly don't make an entire album essential, but these are one more than many other bands cut from a similar cloth as Home ever manage to achieve.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Revisit: Elvis Costello - Spike (Demo Version)

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

Spike is either Elvis Costello's most ambitiously experimental or self-conscious and overindulgent album. Released in 1989 as the musician's Warner Bros. debut - the start of a relationship that would eventually become as contentious and vengeful as one of Costello's songs - the album received a lukewarm critical reception, as numerous critics blasted its musical excesses and alleged lack of lyrical focus and direction. Although he never explicitly agreed with such critiques, even Costello has subsequently acknowledged the record's eccentricities, commenting in the liner notes of the 2001 Rhino reissue that he had the blueprints for five albums in his head and apparently decided to make all of them at once.

If the album still sounds occasionally bloated and over-saturated with instrumentation, the demo versions included in that Rhino reissue offer a fascinating contrast in how Spike's songs are structured and how such embellishments can alter a listener's perceptions of the songs. Eleven of Spike's 15 tracks are presented in demo form, with "Any King's Shilling" being the only notable exclusion. Stripped of the various studio enhancements that still remain the album's most recognizable characteristic, these demos showcase Costello in a solo setting, with only a guitar, occasional keyboards and backing vocals used to flesh out the songs.

The superficial difference is of course obvious: the demos are rougher and - perhaps most importantly - more organic than their crafted and polished album counterparts. Less apparent is how the demo versions transform both the listener's expectations and the album's personality; whereas the official version places an emphasis on the songs' elaborate arrangements and production techniques, the stripped-down demo versions instead force the listener to focus on Costello's lyrics. Indeed, many contemporary reviewers, struggling to figure out just what the hell was going on musically in these songs, only gave cursory mention of the songs' content. Several of the demo versions can be described as social or topical songs, while many others examine the type of sentimental and sordid topics that have appeared in Costello's work for decades, with the contrasting aspects of devotion and infidelity appearing in nearly equal parts.

Though some of Spike's politically-themed songs might have been lost on American audiences - the story that forms the basis of the thinly-veiled anti-capital punishment screed "Let Him Dangle" still isn't exactly well known across the ocean, while "Coal-Train Robberies" is limited by a specific geography - the album contains Costello's angriest and most accessible "protest" song. Costello had a working draft of the anti-Thatcher song "Tramp the Dirt Down" since at least 1985, performing an early incarnation of it at the 1985 Miner's Benefit, before finally committing it to Spike. If the album version is notable for its fury and anger, the demo actually goes further: Costello spits the lyrics out with disgust and rage, a single guitar framing his vocals and no extraneous instrumentation to distract listeners from the song's confrontational tone and razor-sharp lyrical barbs.

Most of the other demos are far more introspective. A sense of the past and familial commitment frames a pair of songs that find Costello at his most affectionate, even if the darkness and tragedy of these songs is impossible to ignore. Free of any excessive layers of instrumentation, images of devotion and attachment can be found throughout "Veronica" (written about Costello's grandmother and her declining mental health) and "Last Boat Leaving" (also inspired by Costello's family history). Costello's vocals make the latter song far more ominous than its Spike counterpart: the narrator forebodingly tells his son that he'll "ever reach the shore" and will likely be forgotten: "When you go to school, son, you'll read my story in history books/ Only they won't mention my name."

Other tracks are far less devotional and the characters much less dignified. Like any good Costello album there's a fair amount of filth and sleaze here, and the famous Costello sneer remains on full display throughout the demos. "...This Town..." presents the stories of a slimy piano player who hits the keys like he was "pawing a dirty book" and a woman who trades blow jobs for stock. The peep show tragi-comedy "Satellite" features a cheating couple whom Costello presents with a mixture of derision and sympathy. It's obvious early on that the affair is fleeting: both conspirators - the intoxicated female for whom "Champagne rolls off her tongue like a second language" and her admirer who undresses her in his mind - are clearly amateurs at such games of deception. By the time the mess has ended, the most the pair can salvage is that "Now they both know what it's like/ Inside a pornographer's trousers." Whereas the album version moves with almost a grand orchestral feel to it, the demo's minimal instrumentation and Costello's vocal delivery fit the subject matter and tone better.

Costello knows full well there are at least two sides to any tale when relationships are involved - a separate article could be written about "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," the album's most complex and nuanced song - and Spike addresses these various sides with both compassion and cynicism. Certainly it's a tough sell arguing that a set of imperfect and informal demos with little instrumentation surpasses a finished product that contains contributions from Mark Ribot, T-Bone Burnett, Michael Blair and Allen Toussaint, among others, but in the case of Spike, that is exactly the case. The original album's strengths and flaws are both inextricably linked, as the album's unconventional styles and arrangements make the songs frequently cluttered and impenetrable, with some of Costello's most pointed, biting and humorous songwriting overlooked as a result. In retrospect the demos hold up much better than their polished album counterparts: their simplicity and sparseness are what make them so fascinating and far superior to the actual album in many respects.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Concert Review: The Rural Alberta Advantage - 12/9/09

February 3, 2010 8:42 AM
It was fucking cold in St. Louis on this particular Wednesday night. With temperatures hovering in the single digits and a large segment of the local population raiding grocery stores as if Thursday morning would bring with it a new Ice Age, the chance of a poorly-attended show at Off Broadway was a strong possibility. Yet despite the usual panic-inducing weather forecasters begging people to stay the fuck inside, enough like-minded indie souls braved the elements to make The Rural Alberta Advantage's second show in St. Louis in 2009 respectably attended.

Mixing songs from the somewhat-underappreciated Hometowns with several new songs and one truly bizarre yet sublime Survivor cover, the trio played a spirited, ramshackle and altogether too brief 45-minute set. The band's setup was rather minimal, as members Nils Edenloff, Paul Banwatt and Amy Cole set up in a straight line toward the front of the stage with only a couple keyboards, an acoustic guitar, small drum kit and various pieces of percussion.

In this live setting the tracks from Hometowns were performed rougher and more aggressive than their more polished album counterparts, suggesting the current critics' depiction of the group as dreamy-eyed, nostalgia-filled Canadian indie-popsters isn't entirely accurate. Most noticeable was the contrast between Banwatt's precise and frenetic drumming and Edenloff's slowed-down vocals on "Don't Haunt This Place" and "Drain the Blood," a juxtaposition that exists on the album but was more noticeable in concert. Cole alternated between keyboards and percussion, sometimes hitting a tambourine set atop a drum or just the drum, adding an extra kick to "In the Summertime" and most other songs. Edenloff's vocals were far-ranging and expressive without coming across as overly emotional, overblown or derivative - enough with the comparisons to Mangum and Meloy already - on slow burners like "The Ballad of the RAA" as well as the blistering, set-closing "The Dethbridge In Lethbridge." Even a take on the goddawful and nauseatingly insipid "Eye of the Tiger" - one of the lowest points in the history of shitty 1980s music - somehow worked, as Edenloff transformed it into something more meaningful and relevant than the bombastic Balboa-recalling original. It wasn't quite as implausible as Richard Thompson singing "Oops!... I Did It Again," but it certainly came close. Three new songs were performed with very little introduction from Edenloff; all three were excellent and suggest the band's next release will be every bit as good as Hometowns.

There is an honesty and sincerity to Hometowns, and the band's stage demeanor similarly came across as equally earnest. Clearly the band knows they've got a damn good set of songs, playing with an intensity and focus that older and more established bands still lack. Skeptics might dismiss the group's subject matter as too limited, and undeniably the Canadian landscape right now defines both the band's catalog and how they are perceived by some fans and critics.

Once the show ended some of the audience clearly wasn't in a hurry to head back outside; it likely wasn't just because of the freezing slaps of winds that waited just outside Off Broadway's front door. It doesn't always require overwrought lyrics and bloated arrangements to convey emotion. Sometimes it can be done with a simple stage presence, imperfectly nasal voice, precise drumming, flourishes of keyboards and percussion and lyrics that say something about both hope and loneliness without dissolving into either extreme pessimism or idiotic optimism, something that The Rural Alberta Advantage clearly already knows.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Moonface: Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums

It's only February, but Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums is already a strong candidate for the most bizarre release of 2010. The second record Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown/Swan Lake member Spencer Krug has released under the Moonface moniker and available only on vinyl or donation-based digital download, it consists of a single 20-minute track heavy on percussion, echoed vocals, instrumental segments and the type of lyrical conceits insufferable college frosh poetry students glom onto after being introduced to John Berryman or various illicit chemicals.

To Krug's credit, the track works much better that it ever really should. Though cynics will likely dismiss the EP as little more than a vanity project that plays to the musician's eccentricities and, again, points to his alleged inability to self-edit, that's being a bit too harsh. The song itself is mostly interesting, and there are enough divergent arrangements and the occasional evocative lyric to somewhat offset its heavyweight, 20-minute run time. In keeping with the EP's painfully obvious theme, the track has an ethereal, dream-like quality to it, particularly in Krug's distant vocals and the percussion's ebb and flow.

Still, this EP is predictably limited and, ultimately, a novelty piece at best. Accessible to a general audience it is not; the track's sonic textures eventually devolve into tedium and overdone repetition, and it likely won't excite many listeners who aren't already familiar with Krug's previous efforts. Its 20 minutes never really manage to say anything other than dreams are fucked up and highly subjective; unless you have an innate Old Testament David skill for interpreting dreams, much of the track comes across as a mundane dream journal at best and nonsense at worst. Either way, Krug rarely offers the listener much incentive to grapple with what's happening on this track. Songs based on and inspired by dreams have been done before; they've been done well and they've been done with mediocre results. All too often the EP falls into that latter category.

Psych students, stoners and those indie types who drool over anything unconventional may embrace this EP, but for those of us who aren't mesmerized by the sleeping man's psyche, this record too often feels like sounds and dreams that never should have left Krug's head.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Midlake: The Courage of Others

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Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther was a pastoral album whose acoustic-minded songs of bandits, log cabins deep in the woods and travelers far from home recalled both the best - and occasionally the worst - of early '70s folk and soft rock. Though it wasn't a landmark album and sometimes flirted with being ridiculously twee, some of its songs - "Head Home," "Roscoe," "It Covers the Hillsides" - were among 2006's best and showed that the Denton, Texas band could borrow from the past without sounding derivative.

It's now been several years since the release of that sophomore album, and though the band hasn't entirely abandoned its roots on its most recent effort, The Courage of Others, the record's starting point is markedly different: in recent interviews frontman Tim Smith has commented how the album was heavily influenced by British folk music, particularly Fairport Convention. That group's style does indeed surface on Courage, most notably in the album's mostly acoustic instrumentation, understated vocal harmonies and copious amounts of dainty flute. For the most part it's a convincing, if subtle, homage that doesn't sound forced; it's not painfully lousy genre dabbling along the lines of the Decemberists indulging their prog-rock perversity at our expense and calling it The Hazards of Love. Its finest moments blend strands of British folk with the Americana of Van Occupanther without sounding like retreads; "Acts of Man" and "Fortune" are as strong as anything the band has recorded. Courage is also executed meticulously and it's clear much consideration went into its sound: the production, arrangements and vocals are precise and carefully separated.

Still, this stylistic shift isn't nearly as dramatic as one might think: most of the songs here, for better or worse, are most reminiscent of their Van Occupanther brethren, and too often sound like the work of a band running in place. These similarities make the album instantly familiar but also expose the album's most glaring weakness: it is, frankly, fucking boring and predictable. It is far too controlled for its own good, and its careful execution sounds excessively clinical. Worse, the album quickly becomes repetitive, as most songs lock into a predictable pattern and never really deviate from it. There is very little spontaneity or variety to be found throughout these 11 songs, as both the group's instrumentals and Smith's vocals sound overly uniform from one track to the next. The much-needed sparks of electricity that "Small Mountain" and "Rulers, Ruling All Things" inject are simply not enough; the result is an album that, although it sounds gorgeous and is executed flawlessly, feels both studied and monotonous.

This is to say nothing of Courage's subject matter, much of which mirrors that of Van Occupanther. Smith's nature-centric fixations and wanderlust are again on full display, with song titles like "Winter Dies," "Small Mountain," "Core of Nature" and "In the Ground" leaving very little doubt as to what the lyricist's preoccupations are. The songs' heavy focus on - groan - man's oneness with nature is exhausting and could give Bowerbirds a serious challenge for most eco-focused band in indie rock. The Courage of Others isn't without its merits, but ultimately it's a bland release that is expertly executed but lacking any sense of adventure or experimentation.