Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Music Review)

Trancendental Youth cover

The Mountain Goats – Trancendental Youth

As a new father myself, I have a lot of respect for The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Transcendental Youth is his first release since the birth of his son, but he didn’t suddenly become soft and sentimental. Instead, this is a collection of honest songs about the difficulties of life, with the chance for happiness found at the end of a gauntlet. As a lesson for his child, it’s honest and refreshing, with the bit of hope it holds out being completely believable.

These songs are the most grounded in reality since The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, and while the songs aren’t all obviously about youth, the songs make sense if you imagine confused teens narrating each one. From a drug addict to a schizophrenic runaway, Darnielle narrates these without any implied judgment: These are their stories, and they don’t need some adult songwriter inserting his own judgment. And to the extent that Darnielle does have an opinion about this, his repeated theme is that everyone needs to figure out their own path: “Spent Gladiator 2”, the one song that strays slightly outside modern realism, is about bloodied gladiators and besieged villagers just trying to survive, with the obvious implication that childhood is equally epic and dangerous. (Its lyrics are echoed in the advice of “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)”, with lines such as “play with matches if you think you need to play with matches… just stay alive”.)

Musically, this is what you’d expect from a modern Mountain Goats album. Post-anti-folk, if there is such a thing, Darnielle’s voice mixes a poet’s confidence with a human’s frailty. The music is simple, but emphasizes the emotions in the songs, especially the tension and desperation. This album adds a horn section to many of the songs, which add an effective flourish when singing about the triumph of living through another day.

Transcendental Youth doesn’t have as many standout hits as recent Mountain Goats albums Heretic Pride or All Eternals Deck, but it has a clarity of vision that those ones lack. Darnielle’s son didn’t change his art, but it helped him hone the worldview he’s been describing for years. Youth is a painful struggle, but it’s worth surviving. This album captures that.

Grade: B+


Two New Releases from Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Music Review)

Psychedelic Pill cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young and Crazy Horse got back together this year for their first joint album in a decade. The result, Psychedelic Pill, is long enough for two CDs despite having only nine tracks total. It’s the kind of sprawling mess we’d expect from the band, for good or for ill. In this case, it’s somewhat disappointing. The music is still excellent, with carefully-sloppy jams that have aged much better than the grunge scene they inspired, but they can’t find anything to sing about.

The twenty-seven minute opener, “Driftin’ Back”, epitomizes the album. Young opens with “Hey now now hey now now, I’m driftin’ back”, an explicit callback to past hits. It’s the only good lyrical choice in the song, which otherwise has awkward statements like “I used to dig Picasso, then a big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper”. Those would be difficult lines to sing in any song, but Young spits them out like he’s not even trying. Fortunately, the singing is sparse during this half hour, and most of it is taken up by a pleasant, if forgettable, groove.

The other long, winding songs are a little more successful lyrically, though still not up to the hits of the past. There are also several short, punchier songs to add variety: The reverb heavy title track is fun, but the extra alternate mix is unnecessary. “Twisted Road” may be the only unqualified success on the album, though admittedly that’s because of its limited vision: That song is a quick, heartfelt ode to the past yet again, this time referring to Dylan and the Grateful Dead as his “old-time music”.

Americana cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

It’s kind of funny that they used that term, because Neil Young and Crazy Horse also released an album with their renditions of actual “old-time music”. Called Americana, it’s obviously a warm-up exercise for a band, with in-studio discussion between songs and a variety of approaches. Though a few attempts aren’t successful, the results are frequently excellent. That shouldn’t be a surprise: If Psychedelic Pill provides a great performance of mediocre songs, then of course they could apply themselves well to time-tested classics.

Crazy Horse’s meandering style doesn’t always work well with these more direct folk songs. “Clementine”, for example, is actually a simple joke (I bet you didn’t know that!), but in their hands it becomes more of a drawn-out shaggy dog story, and while their version of “Tom Dula” has an excellent build-up, the tension they create actually gets dropped a couple times over its eight-minute length. But in  “Gallows Pole” and “Travel On”, the band finds the perfect mix of their style with the songs’ needs. They travel outside their comfort zone on “Get A Job” with an energetic vocal arrangement that has more in common with barbershop quartets than grunge rock. And while it’s difficult to take “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” seriously today, they perform “Jesus’ Chariot” with a fervor fit for a revival service. I find “This Land Is Your Land” and “High Flyin’ Bird” to be pretty bland, but the only true misstep is “God Save the Queen”, which they merge with “America the Beautiful” in a way that honors neither song.

Most people I’ve talked to were disappointed with Americana, but I don’t agree at all. I think that a lot of people have trouble seeing through the clichés that these songs have become, but fortunately Young was able to do so. It may be uneven, but the successes easily justify the whole project. Neil Young and Crazy Horse did release an album worth buying this year, but it’s not the one that you might expect.

Psychedelic Pill: C+

Americana: B


Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Pop

Finishing up my quick reviews of older albums, here are the “pop” ones. For me, that term still usually refers to stuff fairly outside the mainstream. If it can’t be described as rock or country, but it does fit into modern American expectations of music styles, it counts as pop. (The only possible exception would be rap/hip-hop. That hasn’t become an issue yet, because I don’t buy much of it. I will have to deal with that categorization before long, though.)

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Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Music Review)

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions cover

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

With digital music the new standard, CDs and their packaging have gone sharply downhill in quality over the past few years. Unless something makes it “special”, such as collectors’ editions or vinyl, physical media is an afterthought. But as the new reissue of Mermaid Avenue shows, even the deluxe releases may be trending downhill.

Mermaid Avenue certainly deserves an upscale release, especially as part of this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded these unfinished songs of Guthrie’s only fifteen years ago, but they have already become a central part of the man’s legend: Playful and serious, sexual and political, Guthrie comes across as a much more well-rounded person than anyone ever knew, and his lyrics still feel fresh in today’s folk scene. The project seemed to bring out the best in all participants, especially Bragg, whose solo work rarely lives up to his potential. The first album was the strongest of the project, but the second is still a minor classic on its own.

The main selling point of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is that it contains a new third album. While not quite as strong as the first two, it’s worthy of release on its own. The problem, though, is that there’s no way to get it on its own. All three must be bought together at a $40 MSRP, even though you probably own at least one of the others already. That “deluxe packaging” is simply a fold-out cardboard case whose promised “booklet” is an introductory letter and the lyrics to all the songs. It also comes with The Man In The Sand, a (previously released) documentary on the making of the original album. This is worth watching once: The people and music are interesting enough to carry the piece through, despite its fluffy marketing nature. But there’s little depth or conflict to make it worth returning to. (A part near the end covers conflicts about which songs and mixes to put on the album, but it both starts and ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with no more knowledge than what the musicians were willing to say to the camera.)

That mainly leaves album number three to justify this. And it does, more or less. So many good songs were still available that it doesn’t feel like scraps from the cutting room floor. There may be a few more filler songs on it, and it feels a little less like a complete album, but it could just be that I’m comparing something new to comfortable old classics. There are several great new songs, including the rousing folk-punk “My Thirty Thousand” and the Occupy-relevant “The Jolly Banker”. If there’s a complaint, it’s that many of the best songs have already been released as promos or in the She Came Along To Me EP years ago. It feels like a blatant money-grab that you can only get this as part of a larger set.

And that’s where the recommendation lies. Packaged like a simple “triple-length album”, but priced as if you’re buying three separate ones, this is neither the deluxe edition the project deserved nor the sale that might have made sense for music from the 1990s. If you have neither Mermaid Avenue volume yet, then buying this set is a no-brainer. But if you already have some of the music, this just isn’t worth it.

Grade: B-


Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Music Review)

Mirror Traffic cover

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Every few years, Stephen Malkmus comes out of hiding to remind you that he’s still cooler than you will ever be. His albums with The Jicks, like that high school friend you desperately looked up to, remain as effortless and confident as ever. But after staying unchanged for years, you eventually start to understand that that friend could stand to mature a little.

Mirror Traffic comments on Malkmus’ persona like no other album he’s made. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” pokes fun at himself with lyrics like, “I cannot even do one sit-up. Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie. I’m busy hanging out and spending your money.” A couple breakup songs treat the subject matter with a casual disregard for commitment. Specifically, “All Over Gently” can be seen as either fun or cruel, depending on whether the other party agrees with his opinion that it’s time for her to leave with no hard feelings. And though the political satire of “Senator” is arguably new territory for Malkmus, it’s really an experiment in what how slacker lifestyle would fit in with corrupt politicians.

In fact, Jicks albums can now be described entirely in terms of what has come before. Mirror Traffic is as poppy as their debut album, but with the full sound and varied instrumentation of Face the Truth. The experimentation of Pig Lib is almost nonexistent now, though the meandering jams of Real Emotional Trash have remained even in the shorter pop songs.

It is, honestly, one of the band’s stronger efforts. The Jicks are honing one sound rather than looking for new ones, and there is a perfectionist streak hidden behind their casual front. The production and performances are near-perfect, and they keep building on the tricks that worked best in the past. I do complain that the albums have started to feel similar, but I have to admit that no song directly copies a previous one.

Mirror Traffic is something of a milestone, in that Malkmus has now released as many albums with The Jicks as he did with Pavement. But while it was a sign of stagnation when Pavement’s releases started sounding similar, it seems that The Jicks will be content to play with their sound forever. There is good and bad in that, but they get away with it because new albums only appear every few years. That friend who hasn’t changed since youth might not be a good person to have around every day, but if he can only show up as rarely as this band does, you’ll keep looking forward to the next time.

Grade: B


New Albums from Tennis and Islands

Not only have a been a little slow about reviewing music lately, but the albums I have been reviewing are still all from 2011 or earlier. I ended the year with a huge backlist that I’m still working through, and the first time that I went to buy new music this year wasn’t until Record Store Day. Even then, it took me a little over a month before I was ready to review the first two albums I bought. Both of them needed a lot of time before my opinion settled.

Young & Old cover

Tennis – Young & Old

Tennis’ album Young & Old took me some time to evaluate because it comes across as such light, forgettable pop that I didn’t believe it had much substance at first. But at this time, I can say that it stays interesting. I’ve tried putting it aside for over a week, and when I listen to it again, it’s familiar and welcome, not at all like an album that wears out its welcome.

Alaina Moore’s vocals are gentle and innocent, and the music supports a vision of the wide-eyed naivety of 60’s pop. Her lyrics have a cynical bite, though. Songs like “Dreaming” sound like odes to youthful love, but the refrain of “I’m dreaming I can still believe in you” make the narrator seem foolish and willfully blind. Maybe the happiest-sounding, most memorable hook of the album is Moore’s apparently-joyful announcement that “paradise is all around, but happiness is never found.”

The band never seems to be intentionally satirizing the optimistic songs that they mimic. See “Traveling,” for example: The song doesn’t shy from the fears and dangers of initially falling in love, but paint them sympathetically. The impression is that Moore is exploring these themes because they are personally relevant. When she opens one song with “a sensitive heart, you’re doomed from the start,” she could easily be talking to herself.

If you only buy one collection of light, upbeat songs about love this year (and really, would you need to buy more?), Young & Old is your best bet.

Grade: B

A Sleep & A Forgetting cover

Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting (Yes, the album art is hard to see)

There was a very different reason for why I waited so long before reviewing the new album from Islands. I love the band’s old work, especially their 2008 masterpiece Arm’s Way, and it’s hard to accept that their glory days may be over. Oh, A Sleep & A Forgetting is still a good album, but it never escapes the shadow of their best work.

In the past few years, the band has replaced youthful impishness with staid indie pop. It’s solid and enjoyable, but doesn’t highlight the interests that make their vocals so unique: Death, disaster, and the mechanics of the physical body are obsessions for the band, though they’re examined with macabre humor and clever wordplay.

The extremes of old are gone along with the catchier music. Instead of post-apocalyptic tribes looking for shelter or tiny gnomes devouring people, this album opens with several songs questioning reality: “In a Dream (it Seemed Real)” ties this theme to the album title, and the ideas of “This is Not a Song” carry forward to the next track, whose opening line is “this is not a band”.

It’s an appropriate concept for an Islands album, though it rarely rises above the basic ideas to come up with anything truly insightful or funny. They need more concepts like “No Crying”, an investigation into whether there’s something wrong with the narrator for not feeling bad when listening to sad songs. Even silly little ideas like “Can’t Feel My Face” (which suggests that the feeling leaves for “a better place”) would help. That line may not have their modern sophistication, but it provides a catchy lyrical hook to an album that feels a little dry most of the time.

A Sleep is a solid album, with plenty of decent songs and an unusual take on the lyrics. If this were my first Islands album, I’d probably be intrigued. As it is, though, I already know what the band is capable of, so I don’t need to see hints of it. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would regret this purchase, but that’s partly because it doesn’t make a very strong impression at all. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the forgettable pop album that I worried Tennis would deliver.

Grade: C+

The Builders And The Butchers – Dead Reckoning (Music Review)

Dead Reckoning cover

The Builders And The Butchers - Dead Reckoning

With their folk-rock sound and nasally, somewhat lost voice, The Builders And The Butchers are immediately reminiscent of fellow Portlanders The Decemberists. But where The Decemberists rely heavily on affectations of past eras, this band is rooted firmly in a modern, or maybe recently-passed, alternative sound. More importantly, their vocals don’t have nearly the range of Colin Meloy, and maintain a consistently whiny sound throughout. I was ready to dismiss them in the first few minutes, but before long, they started to grow on me.

The cover to Dead Reckoning, with its realistic but overly-saturated cartoon of a dead boy (as well as the back, filled with penny-eyed children being rowed off to their fate) makes a good summary of the band’s themes. The depressing and angstful lyrics contrast with upbeat, forward-moving music, and the whole thing is a little too exaggerated to feel the emotions personally. The band has an excellent ear for pop, although their sound has never been mainstream, and this brand of wrist-cutting flamboyance went out of style after The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails.The back of the Dead Reckoning case

This is a band whose “Lullaby” starts with “It’s time we made ashes of our bones”, and who performs a song called “Rotten To The Core” as if it’s a dancy interpretation of Tom Waits’ cynical Blood Money album. The songs feature a huge variety of instruments (with a unique beat that comes from two people sharing a single drum set), but the results are always simple and repetitive, sometimes with a bit of a waltz or a march to them, and other times just with a stark beat to emphasize the disasters envisioned in the lyrics. Apocalyptic visions are where the singing sounds most at home, reaching manic heights with the proclamation “there’s a battle in the sky between God and the Devil” or warnings about monsters in the sea. Other songs (especially the opening “I Broke The Vein” and the closing “Family Tree”) are more personal, with a quavering narrator explaining his own pain, but the wider cinematic scale sounds the most appropriate to the band.

Though these examples may sound depressing, this is a fun album. It functions as a light, folksy call to arms for a fantasy war that doesn’t actually touch the listener personally. The Builders And The Butchers provide an unusual form of escapism, with a catchy style that sounds full and epic even when featuring mainly acoustic instruments. It’s a unique experience.

Grade: B