Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Playlist: Lambchop

Spectrum Culture ( is running a feature called Playlist, where we pick the "best" song from each of the band's album and write about it. Audio is also included. Go check it out. Here are my contributions:

"Moody Fucker" from Nine/Moody Fucker 7" (1993)

There are fuckers all over the Lambchop catalog, whether it's the little fuckers of "Smuckers" or in this case, the moody fucker from the song of the same name. And Tools in the Dryer is a fucker in its own right: consisting of various B-sides, remixes, live songs, demos and other curiosities from 1987 to 2000, the album is a strong contender for the band's least essential album (yes, even more so than Co-Lab). Indeed, picking a best song from this one was difficult, as much of Tools hasn't aged particularly well. That might sound like an out-of-place comment for a feature whose purpose is to celebrate a band's catalog, but Tools is for diehard fans only. And not too many of them, I'd argue.

So the nod goes to "Moody Fucker," though the band's cover of Vic Chesnutt's "Miss Prissy" runs a close second. Despite its lullaby-worthy arrangement and smoky horns, the song is anything but soothing. Wagner's unapologetically blunt lyrics serve the song well, as lines like "I don't want to cry no more/ How 'bout you" and "Now I'm pounding on the brink/ To be a moody fucker" can be read as mocking, insulting or just maybe a little bit remorseful. It also doesn't succumb to the excess of the lounge-music style that the band has occasionally embraced too affectionately throughout their albums. "Moody Fucker" is a diamond mixed in among a pile of shit, to be sure, but with any band as prolific as Lambchop, that type of thing is probably inevitable but also entirely forgivable.

"All Smiles and Mariachi" from How I Quit Smoking (1996)
What's exactly going on in "All Smiles and Mariachi?" Hell if I know, and Kurt Wagner's not saying either, as the vocalist over the years has revealed details about his songs only sparingly. Whatever its chain of events, the narrator clearly isn't enjoying his present situation, as he tunes his dinner companion out for over 20 minutes, spending the majority of his time, in a line that never ceases to make me chuckle, "Nodding and eating most of the chips." The narrator also drops something off at a house (who the hell knows what), scores donuts afterwards in a fit of euphoria and is happy to find his "services no longer required," whatever those were. It's like listening to a story from a drunkard or small child, only this is a story that never grows stale.

I might have boycotted this playlist - or at least made life hell for Spectrum Culture's editor-in-chief - had "All Smiles and Mariachi" not made the cut. Along with "Suzieju" and, in a pinch, "We Never Argue," it's one of the defining tracks on How I Quit Smoking, the band's 1996 sophomore and, arguably, best album. It contains everything great about early Lambchop: a skewed instrumental take on country music, quirky humor and abstract lyrics that could be read as poetic gibberish, deeply philosophical or maybe a little bit of both. Wagner's cadence and pacing are flawless, while the horns that close the song give it some added Mexicali flavor. All these pieces add up to a song that, while mostly incomprehensible, encapsulates why so many fans consider How I Quit Smoking the band's first masterpiece.

"The Gettysburg Address" from Treasure Chest of the Enemy (2002)
It's worth remembering that Abraham Lincoln reportedly considered his Gettysburg address a failure and was prone to bouts of intense introspection throughout his life. It's a character trait the protagonist of "Gettysburg Address" would likely appreciate. Appearing first on the tour-only CD-R Treasure Chest of the Enemy and again on 2006's odds-and-ends collection The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Pt. 2, "Gettysburg Address" is defined by similar strands of self-doubt and brooding. Whatever historical parallels a listener might try to find here, the song works just as well on a contemporary level, as Wagner provides the type of little lyrical details - hacked-up phlegm, full ashtrays and a sad-sack guy taking out the trash and unable to keep the days straight - that are the hallmarks of a master storyteller.

Built around an opening guitar and piano arrangement and a middle section that adds pedal steel and strings, the song also features some of Wagner's most assured and clearly enunciated vocals. Anyone who complains that all Wagner does is croak and mumble should listen to this one, as his singing here is confident, especially in the song's last verse. "Gettysburg Address" can be read in various ways, whether as a song rooted in American history, a song about the creative process and how a work of art is viewed by its author vs. the public or just as a simple lament about someone's more desperate moments when one's flaws are magnified and the personal becomes almost unbearably public.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Interview with Cloud Speakers

Recently I was interviewed by music aggregator site Check out the link below:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

John Cunningham: 1998-2002

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John Cunningham


Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Ashmont

Few artists who work under the auspices of a label can rightly claim to toil in anonymity in this ultra-information age. Although some musicians remain unknown for a reason - they're excruciatingly awful - it's now far easier to at least find an audience, with a little bit of critical buzz and blogosphere hyperbole sometimes enough to turn a bedroom-tapes troubadour into a star (by indie standards, at least). Those quaint days of finding a good band that very few other people have actually heard of are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

But music webzines and a seemingly infinite number of blogs haven't quite managed to eliminate the concept of the obscure artist entirely. Such is the case with John Cunningham, a British musician whom since 1989 has released a number of critically-celebrated albums that have been commercially ignored in both his homeland and in the United States. Cunningham sings in a voice that falls somewhere between Robert Wyatt and 1990s-period Elvis Costello and has an ability to capture the types of narrative details that make a song meaningful. He supports this voice with a baroque/chamber-pop style that is also sprinkled with elements of jazz and classical music, acknowledging the music that influenced him while also steering it in unpredictable directions. Such qualities usually make listeners take notice, yet for whatever reason notoriety has eluded the musician. It would be an exaggeration to say that Cunningham has a cult following in this country.

Here's hoping 1998-2002 corrects that. This compilation collects the musician's two strongest and most representative albums - Homeless House and Happy-Go-Unlucky - along with one bonus track onto a single disc, providing a perfect snapshot of Cunningham's music at its peak. Homeless House is a masterpiece, containing eight melodic songs of plainly-sung sadness that look to the past with a mixture of regret and disappointment and are immediately accessible and altogether absorbing. Its songs are mood pieces at their most expressive, leaning heavily towards the melancholic and mournful. These moods reveal themselves in a number of ways, whether it's in the acoustic guitar strums that open both "Public Information Song" and "Imitation Time," in the swaying horns and keyboards throughout the record or in how Cunningham delivers heavy lines - "Memories fade like rainfall after snow," "The frozen sky breaks at the edges," "Summertime was never mine" - with an unadorned clarity that gives his lyrics their edge.

If Happy-Go-Unlucky isn't as mesmerizing, it's only by a small margin. Far more ornate than Homeless House, it sporadically feels overly indebted to groups like the Beatles and Fairport Convention and consequently doesn't sound as unique or timeless as the masterwork that preceded it. Its differences from Homeless House are nevertheless striking, especially in the way Cunningham enunciates more clearly and how the songs more consistently rely on horns and organ as their backbone. It's also a brighter and at times more optimistic record, though that sound is deceptive, as the sentiments of "Losing Myself Too," "Way to Go" and "Take Your Time" sharply contrast with their saturated pop arrangements. It's a good album whose shimmer and spark complement Cunningham's voice well; its main sin is that it followed Cunningham's most focused and expertly executed work.

Occasionally even an innovative artist like John Cunningham slips through the commercial cracks, even at a modest indie level. 1998-2002 may or may not bring the musician the stateside recognition that has thus far missed him, but it does at least make his two best albums readily available to anyone interested in hearing them. Those who are already familiar with Cunningham's music know what makes Homeless House and Happy-Go-Unlucky so endearing: both are stellar efforts that pack an emotional punch and that deserve to be heard, regardless of how they've been criminally overlooked in the past.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Deer Tick: The Black Dirt Sessions

all this and more at spectrum culture.

John McCauley III's voice might alienate as many listeners as it draws in. A nasal, gutturally jagged thing that's scratchier than sandpaper and about as smooth as room temperature Natty Light, it's a textbook definition of an acquired musical taste. Anyone who's heard previous Deer Tick albums War Elephant and Born on Flag Day can attest to the uniqueness of McCauley's dusty, Americana-ready voice, as the songs from both albums either succeeded or failed based on whether the singer's vocals could carry them. Similarly, on The Black Dirt Sessions, the Deer Tick leader's voice doesn't caress songs; instead, it attacks them with very little subtlety and with little regard for technical proficiency. And with- like those first two albums- mixed results.

Such roughness sometimes complements McCauley's strand of alt-country and indie rock well on Black Dirt, making what might otherwise sound like an unremarkably safe and backwards-looking album worthy of attention. McCauley's vocals are at their most expressive on tracks like the elegiac piano ballads "Goodbye, Dear Friend" and "Christ Jesus," as well as "Twenty Miles," "The Sad Sun" and "When She Comes Home," all of which are sung with an obvious earnestness and again address McCauley's recurring preoccupation with distance, loneliness and mortality. While McCauley's singing is still the dominant aspect of Black Dirt, the lyrics are more insightful and less overtly monochromatic than those of both War Elephant and Born on Flag Day. McCauley's best lines - "raindrops like bullets on my fragile skin," "I built a kingdom on second chances" - add some complexity and ambiguity to what is, like too many of the genres that inform Black Dirt, largely a lyrically unambiguous release.

But McCauley's unconventional voice and a few great lines aren't enough to offset the album's flaws. The singer's gruffly energetic vocal approach kills a few songs; "Hand In My Hand" and "I Will Not Be Myself" are beaten into vocal submission, with McCauley absolutely obliterating the sonic textures the arrangements try to provide. Other songs, most noticeably album opener "Choir of Angels," "Blood Moon" and "Mange" - the last of which comes complete with a heinous shredding guitar debacle that mercilessly lasts far too long - lock into a similar mid-tempo pace that makes them repetitive and dull. At around 45 minutes, Black Dirt isn't particularly overlong, yet by its second half it starts to feel oppressively so, and certainly far longer than its actual running time.

For John McCauley, Black Dirt marks another respectable release, but it's impossible to shake that pesky feeling that we've heard most of it already, both in his previous Deer Tick albums as well as in the genres from which he now appears to be another in a long line of descendants. There's no shame in a musician playing to his strengths, and clearly three records and a couple of EPs into his career, McCauley knows what suits him best. That doesn't make for mesmerizing listening though, and much of Black Dirt substitutes convention and tradition for where even the smallest touch of risk-taking would count for quite a lot.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Villagers: Becoming a Jackal

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It's difficult to comfortably describe Becoming a Jackal. The album isn't particularly experimental but also doesn't sound like a retread of the singer-songwriter folk and full-band indie rock it recalls. Its production is clean, its arrangements precise and its vocals entirely audible, but its songs aren't likely to ever stumble their way onto commercial mainstream radio. It neither dwells in perpetual darkness nor bullshits that every little thing's gonna be alright. It whimpers as much as it barks and rumbles as much as whispers.

Villagers is fronted by Conor O'Brien, an Irish dude whose profile overseas has been steadily increasing thanks to a well-received album from previous band The Immediate as well as his solo Hollow Kind EP. Across the pond, overwhelmingly positive articles about the musician have made the rounds, with enamored critics euphorically comparing O'Brien to Conor Oberst (close), Elliott Smith (closer), Leonard Cohen (way off) and U2 (way, way off). Such praise is well-founded even if some of these comparisons are not, as Becoming a Jackal is one of 2010's best debut albums and an example of a record that works almost flawlessly from start to finish.

Jackal is defined by a remarkable consistency; written, co-produced and performed by O'Brien with the exception of strings and French horn, its songs sound like integral components of a unified whole, instead of 11 individual songs that just happen to live under one roof. This isn't to say that the songs feel overly similar; they don't, as each varies in both mood and execution. O'Brien interweaves guitar, strings, horns, keyboards and various other instruments throughout, with each song carrying its own distinct tone and pace, whether its in the gothic vision of "I Saw the Dead," the harrowing travelogue of "Home," the piss-off farewell of "Set the Tigers Free" or the nihilistic whirls of "That Day." In "Twenty-Seven Strangers," O'Brien even somehow manages to elevate an acoustic narrative about an exceptionally awful public transportation experience into a statement about life at its most repetitively mundane and our own inevitable worldly demise. With lo-fi becoming increasingly obnoxious as countless bands use technology to deliberately make their vocals unintelligible and their instruments more distorted than a Dylan and the Band Basement Tape - the musical equivalent of buying designer clothing that makes the wearer look like a Bowery bum - Jackal's bright production and emphasis on lyrical clarity come as a welcome relief.

O'Brien's vocals vary from song to song to good effect. On "The Meaning of the Ritual" and "To be Counted Among Men" he sings in a timidly fragile voice that meshes with the songs' sparse arrangements. His vocals seem to almost float on the air on "The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)," but take on sinister undertones on the perilous "Ship of Promises." And then there's "Pieces;" perhaps the album's most enveloping track, it begins with a quivering falsetto and ends with O'Brien howling as strings rise and fall as the song unravels. The singer's vocals manage to hold together somewhat abstract songs that address epic topics - childhood, the past, memories, death and, of course, love - without ever becoming too fatalistic. A conflicting mixture of sincerity and disingenuousness worthy of Will Sheff offers some humor, with O'Brien reeling off earnestly poetic lines like, "True love feeds on absences/ Like pleasure feeds on pain" all while cautioning that he's "selling you my fears" and that he's just "spitting words/ But there's no meaning."

It's an artist's deceit though; there are meanings on Becoming a Jackal, lots of them, and they unfold in the simplest of ways, whether it's in the way O'Brien sings a phrase like "homely sense of disarray" or in how the arrangements emphasize each song's content. Jackal is reminiscent of numerous genres without sounding exactly like any of them; it's impossible to casually write it off as folk-pop or indie-pop or whatever else. All the usual critical clichés apply to O'Brien's record - phrases like "it warrants repeated listens" and "it reveals itself gradually" - and of course don't do justice to just how damn good this debut album truly is. Rare is the debut album that sounds like the work of an artist who's already mastered his craft, but Becoming a Jackal is exactly that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tame Impala: Innerspeaker

read more at Spectrum Culture

Combine three musicians from the hinterlands of Perth with a mixing job from Flaming Lips cohort Dave Fridmann and you get Innerspeaker, a guitar-drenched, modern psychedelic album that is masterfully crafted and magnificently performed. It is also agonizingly dull, locking to an monotonously repetitive pattern and exhibiting vocals that too often feel incidental at best and irrelevant at worst. The debut full-length from Australian band Tame Impala, Innerspeaker is unarguably an audiophile's type of record and one whose techniques and apparent influences invite study and discovery. But as clichéd as this might sound, there's no heart here; the album emphasizes technical brilliance but coats that brilliance in a clinical and cold exterior that absolutely deadens whatever impact the songs might have had.

In their best moments Tame Impala find ways to incorporate a lot of the sounds your parents got high to without it feeling like thievery, melding these echoes of the 1960s past with hints of numerous genres that followed the demise of psychedelia part one. Listeners who fancy themselves music historians will likely have a field day rooting around in these songs for possible links to older bands; "It's Not Meant To Be," "Lucidity" and the instrumental "Jeremy's Storm" are logical starting points, as each song can realistically be said to contain traces of everything from vintage late 1960s psychedelic rock to shoegaze and 1980s indie. With its exceptionally balanced mix - Fridmann puts every layer of instrumentation at about the same level - Innerspeaker sounds epic on a good set of speakers, especially in the sonic explorations of "Desire Be Desire Go," "Expectation" and "The Bold Arrow of Time."

Few albums can skate by solely on sound though, and Innerspeaker isn't one of them. Its songs are excessively precise; lacking even the faintest suggestion of spontaneity, the album eventually sounds like one long, plodding single track, with only minor variations that offer no real sense of risk-taking or even simple variety. The album's latter half, from "Expectation" through closing track "I Don't Really Mind" in particular, bleeds together into an indistinguishable mass of guitar layers and supporting instrumentation. Kevin Parker's vocals do these songs no favors either, as they sometimes actually serve as a distraction and not an enhancement to these songs. While it's forgivable that his voice shares an uncanny similarity to John Lennon, Parker delivers most of his lines in the same deliberate, dreamy, half-intelligible cadence, an approach that quickly wears thin and makes the lyrics largely unimportant as the album's pace drags along.

Innerspeaker's songs are compositionally meticulous but also emotionless, and if an album can be described as professorial, it's this one. Whether by intention or through its own inherent shortcomings, Innerspeaker places musical form above lyrical content. This is nothing new in indie -practitioners like My Bloody Valentine and Sigur Rós have shown that it can be done properly - but it requires something unique in order to connect with an audience and to avoid being inaccessible just for the hell of it. Tame Impala fails to strike such a balance throughout this release, making Innerspeaker an album that tickles the ears but never really engages the mind.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Revisit: Elvis Costello - Mighty Like a Rose

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

Among Elvis Costello's fans and critics, Mighty Like a Rose is frequently considered one of the musician's lesser works, not quite as awful as Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock but nowhere near his "supposedly irreproachable" late 1970s records, as Costello sarcastically remarked in the liner notes to Rose's Rhino reissue. In some ways this degraded standing is understandable, as the album contains several slight songs and a few others that are oddities at best. Contemporary reviews of Mighty Like a Rose were not favorable. Robert Christgau said that "...the good songs are overblown tragedies, the bad ones overblown trifles." Oddly enough, Christgau loved "Playboy to a Man" but hated "The Other Side of Summer." And there's your Dean of American Rock Critics for you. The New Musical Express complained that the albums was "willfully obscure and directionless...the music for the most part is self indulgent and sour, or lazy and glutinously sweet." Even Rolling Stone - by 1991 handing out inflated ratings at breakneck pace - panned the album: "vanished without a trace" is how that rag would later summarily dismiss the album in its Costello overview. As Costello toured in support of the album, many other myopic reviewers fixated on his heavily bearded face, exhibiting all the hallmarks of superficial and disposable rock journalism. Little wonder the album traditionally ranks very low in the Costello discography.

Yet time sometimes has a way of changing how we perceive an album and its place in an artist's canon. Mighty Like a Rose is a good example: the album's arrangements recall Costello's past work but also, and perhaps more interestingly for those who can't get past its weaker moments, hint at what the musician would attempt with varying degrees of success on his later 1990s albums. With their unconventional, swollen arrangements and use of instruments like "beaten things," "big stupid guitar," "industrial jack-ass" and "little foolish organ," songs like "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and "Invasion Hit Parade" now sound like a natural, if less cumbersome, progression from the experimentalism of Spike tracks like "This Town..." and "Miss Macbeth." The influence that classical music and orchestral-worthy ballads would exert on The Juliet Letters, GBH and All This Useless Beauty is hinted at in the keyboard melody of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" as well as the horns that dominate "Harpies Bizarre."

Despite the occasional bout of verbosity and the type of cutesy wordplay that detractors can't quite stomach, the album features some of Costello's best lyrics. Its lyrical tone is predominantly one of disgusted anger, with the singer painting an oppressively cynical view of the world. The Beach Boys send-up that Christgau loathed so much - "The Other Side of Summer" - is remarkably jaded, with its key images of the "Pop princess...Downtown shooting up" and the "Cardboard city and the unwanted birthday" standing in stark contrast to the song's candy-pop arrangement. Costello even throws in a thinly-veiled shot at John Lennon's hallowed "Imagine" for good measure. Similar in tone though far different in execution, the following songs - "Doomsday" and "How to Be Dumb" - continue Costello's ranting. "Doomsday" welcomes the end of the world amid assorted riff-raff worthy of James Ensor, with its jealous husband and the wife who "sleeps in the shirt of a late great country singer," parents cashing in on their child's "abduction" and, eh, a possible reference to Sting. "How to Be Dumb" is likewise laced with as much venom as anything from the musician's 1970s albums. Who cares if some of its shots are cheap and the song occasionally sounds like a harangue, commonly thought to be lobbed in the direction of Attractions bassist and Big Wheel pseudo-philosopher Bruce Thomas? The song still sounds like a vindictive and well-placed thumb to the eye.

No Elvis Costello album is complete without a few sordid love tales, and Mighty Like a Rose is no exception. The type of sleaziness that oozed from earlier songs like "Busy Bodies," "Possession" and "Satellite" is again reflected in the temptresses of "After the Fall" and "All Grown Up" and the scummy male of "Georgie and Her Rival." Though "After the Fall" is most notable for the mesmerizing Spanish guitar played by Tom Waits cohort Marc Ribot and "All Grown Up" finds Costello's vocals absolutely bludgeoning the song's genteel acoustic foundation, both songs are among Costello's most direct, foregoing his recurring tendency to cram too many words into impossible spaces in favor of simple lyrics that actually have room to breathe.

Certainly there are many other facets to Mighty Like a Rose that warrant consideration: its impressive list of contributors, the "agnostic prayer" of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," the record-scratching, long-gone lover of "So Like Candy," the absolute duds that are "Playboy to a Man" and "Sweet Pear." But mostly it's memorable for the musical risks it takes and how it hints at the subjects and styles Costello would revisit throughout the 1990s. It won't ever be regarded as one of the musician's undisputed masterpieces, but it combines enough of Costello at his most musically adventurous and lyrically savage to suggest it deserves a better standing than both critics and fans have historically given it. Those looking to understand the origins of Costello's 1990s albums should start here.