Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common (Music Review)

We the Common cover

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common

Thao Nguyen has a voice that mixes simple honesty with a winking cleverness. With stripped down instrumentation and a slight reverb added to her singing, it’s attention-grabbing. Nguyen’s utter confidence and uncomplicated voice make her into an indie success story. However, on We the Common, performing as Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, she rarely sticks to that basic winning formula.

Admittedly, it would get a little repetitive if she never did more than that. The epitome of the simple folksy style that pulled me in is “Kindness Be Conceived”, a twee duet with Joanna Newsom. It’s hooky and adorable, but no one would want to listen to variations on that for a forty minutes. The best model for her would be the opening track, “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)”. It starts and ends with Nguyen on her guitar, alternately representing a vulnerable woman and a united people (the song apparently inspired by the story of someone she met when visiting a woman’s prison). In the middle, the band joins her with a slowly building beat and a wall of sound to fortify the conviction that she presents. I want to hear more songs like that.

Otherwise, the really compelling moments come and go throughout the tracks. The Get Down Stay Down are talented and versatile, but so varied that the album has no consistency beyond Nguyen’s voice. (The band is perhaps nothing more than a rotating cast brought in to fulfill her vision, as fourteen other performers are credited, not counting the ones who contribute only background vocals.) There’s no commonality between the slow-as-molasses “Clouds For Brains” and the clanking mechanical soundscape of “City”. Elsewhere, some songs are bouncy and poppy, while others throw in a soulful saxophone or even organ. The vocals are intriguing in almost every case, and even most of the weaker songs would make me curious about the rest of the album if I heard them in isolation. Put together, though, the album only sporadically lives up to the potential that the pieces promise.

Grade: B-


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Music Review)

Push the Sky Away cover

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

This blog mixes reviews of artists I’ve known for a long time with ones that are new to me. I’ve often wondered if I’m consistent in my approach to these categories. I think I am overall, but there are ways I can be skewed in either direction. Nick Cave is an excellent example. As a big fan of for years, and I’m able to find things to like even in his less popular works. On the other hand, when I already know of the best options he presents, it’s difficult to get excited about the ones that don’t reach those heights. His new album, Push the Sky Away, falls into that category: It has good moments, and if this were my first exposure to him, it might be enough to make me look into his other works. But compared to what a Nick Cave album should be, I know that it’s especially weak. There’s no reason to recommend this, especially when it follows on the heels of the excellent Dig, Lazarus, Dig!

The main problem is that it feels reserved. Cave has always been defined by a fearless, if not outright foolish, extremism. Whether talking about love, hate, joy, or angst, his lyrics and The Bad Seeds’ accompaniment is always over the top. Here, he seems comfortable in the persona of an aging crooner, taking no risks and refusing to lose control. I’ve described his music as a “psychological exorcism” before, but this would be better suited for a dinner party.

The Bad Seeds’ membership has always been in flux, but with Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey gone, the only prominent musician left is Warren Ellis. Possibly because of this, many of the songs do a great job of evoking a darker, threatening atmosphere behind their gentle sounds. The good moments fall into that category, with repeated lines like “you grow old, and you grow cold” or “we know who you are, we know where you live, and we know there’s no need to forgive”. Cave doesn’t always go for that dark, quiet approach, though, and he has nothing else for the other songs. Effectively, only one dimension is fleshed out here. At the very least, Cave needs to add a guitarist to the group next time.

“Finishing Jubilee Street” is the one exception, an interesting track whose appeal comes from its novelty instead. It’s not one to listen to repeatedly, but it’s interesting in a blog-post-as-song sort of way. (It’s a simple story, and repeating refrain, inspired by a dream Cave claims to have had after he wrote another song on the album.) Otherwise, Push the Sky Away features the least experimentation or artistic restlessness of any Cave album ever. He has good lines (“she had a history but no past”), execrable lines (“I was the match that would fire up her snatch”), and everything in between, along with a strange approach to naming songs: The titles “We No Who U R” and “We Real Cool” sound off, fitting in neither with Cave’s established persona or the style he adapted here.

As I said at the start, Push the Sky Away is certainly not bad. There’s half of a good album here, with some quiet, evocative examples of a mature Nick Cave. But that portion doesn’t offer a lot of variety, and the rest is forgettable. He’s set the standard by which albums like this should be measured, and this one isn’t necessary given what else is available.

Grade: C+


Eels – Wonderful, Glorious (Music Review)

Wonderful, Glorious cover

Eels – Wonderful, Glorious

Eels’ confessional lyrics are a welcome relief from the ironic detachment and guarded personalities of today. The band has even been given credit for inspiring the emo scene, but frontman E always stayed oblivious to the trends around him. His consistency through two decades of changing styles probably explains why the band is still around, but it does get repetitive at times. With their three-album “trilogy” in 2009 and 2010, I found myself losing interest very suddenly. But after taking a few more years off, I’m relieved to be enjoying their new album. I can’t say for sure whether Wonderful, Glorious is truly better, or if I just needed to ignore a couple albums so that they would sound fresh again, but I’m happy either way.

Wonderful, Glorious is still not one of the band’s stronger albums. Eels have seemed less musically adventurous since drummer Butch’s departure in 2003, and this one finds them consistently in their “nerdy white guy blues” mode. It’s comfortable, though, and it seems to encourage the most direct lyrics yet. If anything, E crosses into the territory of corny clichés, with songs like “You’re My Friend” and “Stick Together”. (Sample lines: “Yeah, you’re my friend/ Coming through again and again/ Your good will I never will betray”, and “It’s very clear we make a winning team/ We gotta stick together”.) E’s confident lack of coolness comes through for him, though, and he makes even those lines (ok, almost all lines except those) work. Despite playing it safe musically, it appears that this first theme-less album since 2005 freed E to write natural-sounding lyrics again. And as silly as those quotes may sound, long-term fans will appreciate the fact that he finally seems happy and comfortable with his life.

That matters. At this point, checking in with E is one of the main reasons to buy an Eels album. It’s sort of like keeping up with your favorite blog: You don’t expect the author to surprise you with innovations all the time, but it’s still worthwhile to keep up with their life. (Admittedly, buying an album is different than reading a blog. But this way, you get music, too!) Wonderful, Glorious features both the every-day moments and the mundane life changes. (“Bombs Away”, for example, is about the decision to be louder and more assertive.) As long as they don’t appear very frequently, I could keep enjoying Eels albums like this for a long time.

Grade: B


The Vaccines – Come of Age (Music Review)

Vaccines - Come of Age cover

The Vaccines – Come of Age

Don’t be fooled by the title of The Vaccines’ sophomore album, Come of Age. As the opening song explains, “When you’re young and bored and twenty-four and don’t know who you are no more, there’s no hope and it’s hard to come of age”. In fact, expect to hear sentiments like that frequently throughout the album. The band’s consistent message is that they’re confused, aimless, and are going to let you down.

Despite that, the songs actually sound too self-aware to be written by their callow narrator. The Vaccines sing about being young and stupid, rather than from the experience of being young and stupid. It’s a comfortable topic, and the songs flow by mostly inoffensively. The one exception is “I Wish I Was A Girl”, which definitely seems to come from an oblivious boy’s perception of what a girl’s life must be like. Depending on your perspective, it is either offensively ignorant of real people’s problems, or an accurate slice-of-life from their age group. For me, it splits the difference and ends up being an easily-forgettable track near the end.

Not much of the album is forgettable, though. This is Brit-pop at its catchiest. The band smoothed out the extremes of the last album, with none of the Ramones impersonations and much less of the slow “youth-soul”. In their place are much more consistent British guitar anthems. None of it is as startling or refreshing as the band’s initial hits, but it’s too slick and hook-filled to complain about.

I finished my review of that first album by worrying that their youthful burst of energy was going to burn out before they could put together a follow-up work. By that standard, Come of Age is a relief even if it doesn’t hit the same highs. The slick performance and winking lyrics of this new album feel a bit more smooth and calculated than what we had before, but they also give us some excellent pop anthems. The real test will be in what their next release sounds like. I could craft a narrative in which this is a natural progression of the band’s style, or one in which this is a cynical retreat to safe, test-marketed music. I’m not worrying about that too much at the moment, though; I just plan to enjoy Come of Age until the next album comes out.

Grade: B


Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Music Review)

 Kill My Blues cover

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues

The Corin Tucker Band’s debut established themselves as a distinct entity from Sleater-Kinney, but unfortunately that was the best thing that could be said about it. They returned this year with Kill My Blues, which apparently tries to correct course by front-loading all the energetic songs for maximum Sleater-Kinney nostalgia. It even seems intended as an introduction for people who missed the last album, with Tucker explaining at the start that she’s been gone a while but is returned. Despite all that, the band still hasn’t found itself.

That Sleater-Kinney nostalgia is a powerful force, of course. “Neskowin” and “I Don’t Wanna Go”, especially, build up a lot of goodwill. Energetic and letting Tucker’s voice go all-out, these could practically be outtakes from her old band. They cover difficult territory, with the former about discovering herself as a teen and the latter about a loved one’s illness. They may not provide many details, but it’s easy to ignore that for a time.

The songs are consistently vague, though. It’s usually good for an album to offer one or two like “Joey” and “None Like You”, containing a personal message that the listeners will not fully follow. Those help to flesh out the band’s overall personality by giving a glimpse into the full life that they live. Maybe the problem here is that almost all of those songs are like that: These are personal messages not aimed at the listener, and if you’re not part of Tucker’s life, there just isn’t enough here to make the rest of us feel invested in it.

Worse, the few times the songs get a little more specific, they feel generic. “Blood, Bones. and Sand” is all about the feeling of having a child, but it doesn’t find anything original to say about the subject. The first track, “Groundhog Day”, asks if we’re all still trying to move society forward and admits to some guilt over dropping out of the public eye for a few years instead of continuing the fight. It’s appropriate to that song that she doesn’t find a resolution, but it still feels like another incomplete idea because the rest of the album never tries to engage in those themes at all. That first song allows basically no excuse for ignoring those fights, but then she just sings about loved ones and writes borderline-nonsense lines like “You can rent me a burro we’ll live off of churros/Let’s freak like we’re pharaohs/I’ll be your sparrow tonight”.

The band still offers a variety of styles to back up Tucker. However, the faster songs actually make the band feel a bit less varied than they were before. Their technique on those tracks is generally a fast, unvaried beat with competent indie rock riffs echoing it closely.

Corin Tucker will always be a star to some of us. Even so, her new band can’t achieve more than intermittently interesting songs. Two albums in, they haven’t figured out how to make their style work.

Grade: C


Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Music Review)

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats cover

Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

Regina Spektor has a strange position in the indie pop scene. Wildly experimental, but also seriously sentimental and unironic, these two sides sometimes collide unexpectedly. When she tried to promote her previous album with “Laughing With”, for example, fans expecting a clever deconstruction of life reacted like it was an especially bad email forward from their mothers. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats doesn’t have anything that extreme, but Spektor continues to flit happily around the whole spectrum. There’s no sign that she sees a difference between the straightforward ballad of “How” (a heart-on-her-sleeve elegy for a relationship) and the flights of fancy in “All the Rowboats” (anthropomorphizing items in a museum). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl of experimental pop, she seems to find meaning in a creative worldview that others see as a strict contradiction.

In Cheap Seats, Spektor seems more settled in to her role than ever. No longer trying the chaotic variety of tricks she used in Soviet Kitsch, but also without the pop stardom attempts of Begin To Hope, she just sings the songs she wants. Her music is becoming consistently good, but I miss the misfires that used to go along with her biggest successes. Hopefully something pushes her out of her comfort zone soon.

In the meantime, it’s hard to complain about the work she’s delivering, A couple songs err on the overly-sincere side (“Ballad of a Politician” has nothing new to say about its subject matter), and there are just a couple flights of experimentation: “Oh Marcello” is full of quick-spoken lines about a woman whose fortune teller warned her that her son would grow up to be a killer, but with a slow, heartfelt chorus lifted directly from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. With Biblical references and a little beatboxing mixed in, it creates an unexpectedly beautiful patchwork.

Almost all the songs fall solidly between those, though: Piano-based with electronic accompaniment and clear production, they rely mainly on Spektor’s classical background and beautiful voice to communicate her worldview in quirky ways. She sings about “the pain of knowing that true love exists” and muses on a piano’s suitability as firewood during a song about mortality. Not for the first time, one of the album’s strongest tracks (“Ne Me Quitte Pas” in this case) is a reworking of one of her songs from her early days.

The open-eyed sentimentality and unique styles make Spektor as fascinating as she is divisive. I’m one of the people who likes her, so much so that I expect to keep enjoying her albums even if she continues her slow movement away from the styles I like the most.

Grade: B


Three Poet-Songwriters (Music Review)

2012 saw new albums by three of the Twentieth Century’s leading poet-songwriters. None were bad, though their quality did vary. Here are the reviews.

Old Ideas cover

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen’s output has been uneven: He predominantly writes poems and relies on others to make them work as songs. (He’s also the artist I’m least familiar with in this article. His only other album that I know well is Songs, and even his fans tell me not to bother with many of the others.) Fortunately, Old Ideas is one of the good ones. The music perfectly fits the plainspoken art of the lyrics, with understated backup singers and a gentle, introspective rhythm. It would be easy to give Cohen’s music a pretentious choral flair to recognize his status, or the stripped-down plucking of a starving artist busking on a corner. By splitting the difference between the two, Old Ideas’ music emphasizes the ways both apply to him while avoiding the pitfalls of either extreme.

Cohen always had an old soul, but as an old man still has some youthful restlessness. The “old ideas” of the album title are sex, love, pain, and death, and the songs feel like they could have come from any point in his lifetime. Cohen’s lyrics are direct and grounded in reality, creating evocative images with straightforward language. For example, a troubled relationship puts its members “on different sides of a line nobody drew”. Even when he moves away from literal reality, it’s not very far: The “broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea” is one of a couple tracks which treat “darkness” as a literal force that can invade us. The only literary conceit is in the standout opening track, when the muse speaks directly to us to explain how it forces Cohen to deliver these poems.

I listened to this album repeatedly, sure that I was missing out on the true depth of the songs. Eventually, I realized that their surface appearance was the extent of it. Old Ideas features no more and no less than songs distilled down to their beautiful essence. It’s not everything that some people claim this master can deliver, but it’s very good.

Grade: B

Tempest cover

Bob Dylan – Tempest

Bob Dylan: Tempest

The modern era of Bob Dylan began with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and seemed like it would be a brief final phase for him. But after fifteen years and five albums, it is obvious that this is one of the most powerful eras of his long career. This man never sounded like he had anything to prove, but he is more confident than ever.

Don’t expect the wordplay or verbal gymnastics of the young Dylan. He has embraced the old-time sounds from before he was even born, and plays it fairly straight. The genius of most of these songs is not his unique fingerprint, but the feeling that you’re finally hearing the best songs of the early 20th century. (There are catchy lines, like “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” and “if I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”, but he’s not trying to reveal the human condition here.) The band provides bluesy folk with an energetic bounce, and Dylan’s voice is fuller than ever before.

Dylan’s an old man now, and his songs embrace it, but he isn’t quietly facing the end of life. As the title implies, nearly all songs involve tempests of some sort or another. From brawls to romantic tiffs, Dylan’s persona is that deeply passionate old man as likely to pick a fight over his “flat-chested junkie whore” as he is to sacrifice everything for his loved ones.

The classic song topics are all here, from trains to love to murder, and they often capture those archetypes perfectly. Consider “Tin Angel”, based on the trope of a king tracking down the wife who ran off for love. The title track is his take on the sinking of the Titanic, a forgotten topic that used to be as common as dance songs are today. Much has been made of the fact that this song is fourteen minutes long, but what I haven’t heard anyone point out is that it feels like it flows by in five. It’s as if Dylan is trying to personally make up for the loss of Titanic songs in our culture, and accomplishes it in a single track. (With verses ranging from serious to comedic, this is also the closest Dylan comes to exploring greater meaning. The songs about the Titanic were fundamentally about making sense of tragedy.)

Tempest stands among the best of Dylan’s long, accomplished career. If you like Dylan or traditional music, this is a must-have. If you don’t, consider this your gateway.

Grade: A

Banga cover

Patti Smith – Banga

Patti Smith: Banga

Though known as the preeminent “punk poet”, Patti Smith has spent the better part of her career as a folk-pop poet. She doesn’t often hit the highs of her youth, but this hasn’t been a bad move for her: Smith has a good singing voice, and it conveys her fervent passions as well as her punk songs did. Banga, her first album of new music in eight years, has only a few hints of rock. This may disappoint anyone who knows Smith mainly from her 1970’s work, but it could be her most consistently pretty album ever.

However, it also feels like one of her less meaningful albums. Smith always has a lot to convey, and if it’s easy to call her an idealistic hippie, she does find creative and honest ways to express those ideals. None of the songs in Banga directly touched me, though, and the meanings to many are obscured. (Where they are obvious, they are less impressive than past works. The discovery of the Americas comes up a few times, with a focus on the peaceful “Eden” that it offered. I am uncomfortable with the patronizing “noble savage” attitude that some people take towards Native Americans.)

What really makes this album worthwhile is the CD booklet. (Hopefully you didn’t already buy it digitally…) Featuring a six-page essay, plus photos, it helps to put the album in context. While the other two albums I’m reviewing here feel disconnected from the modern world, her inspirations ranged from old friends to Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov to The Hunger Games. Some explanations help a lot (such as knowing that “This Is The Girl” eulogizes Amy Winehouse), while others don’t at all (I’m not familiar with most of the works that inspired Smith, and while “Nine” was written as a birthday present for Johnny Depp, I don’t hear any of that in the song). Even so, Smith’s writing and photography are always a pleasure.

Smith’s plans aren’t always well-executed (“Constantine’s Dream” is an improvised speech about Constantine’s conversion, Christopher Columbus, and Smith’s research into artists they inspired, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in its ten minutes), but her conviction and songwriting remain strong. The album’s main weakness is the ever-more obscure reference points Smith has, even when she draws from pop culture. Fans will find plenty of meaning to unpack. To others, this is a collection of beautiful-sounding songs, but they will feel surprisingly slight.

Grade: B-