Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Music Review)

All Eternals Deck cover

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

Ever notice that fantasy and science fiction themes are common in movies and books, but most music is strictly limited to realistic stories? What is it that gives us such different expectations in different genres? The Mountain Goats stand alone as a “serious” indie folk band that is as comfortable with monsters and cultists as with personal, realistic characters.

The trick is to treat both extremes with the same seriousness: Deep, often inscrutable lyrics and three-dimensional characters dominate all the songs. The band’s style, with simple instrumentation putting the focus on John Darnielle’s reedy but earnest voice, makes both the complex and the emotional lyrics succeed. Their latest, All Eternals Deck, is a perfect example of this. The liner notes go into detail about the apparently-fictional Tarot deck that the album takes its name from, and the songs feature vampires and cultists prominently. A first-time listener could easily assume that the entire album dealt with the magical, but in fact quite a few songs (such as the obvious “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli”) stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Of course, the stories are deep and interesting in both cases. “Prowl Great Cain” and “Sourdoire Valley Song” provide back-to-back examples, with the first examining the guilty conscience of a grave robber who betrayed a friend, and the second expressing fascination with Neanderthal culture.

“Estate Sale Sign” is arguably an improvement on Jonathan Coulton’s formula, with an intensely nostalgic look through the eyes of an aged cultist selling off his worn-out relics and sacrificial alter. “Damn These Vampires” opens the album with possibly the perfect Mountain Goats song: Featuring a narrator recently turned to vampirism, Darnielle’s voice and the building piano perfectly convey a stark, pained character with only occasional bouts of intense passion to break up a lonely, emotionless existence. But “Never Quite Free” provides a counterpoint to this, with a simple message of hope for a better life despite past tragedies.

If All Eternals Deck has a flaw, it is the inconsistent feel throughout. It’s normal for a Mountain Goats album to feature such wide variety, but so many early songs feature a sense of building doom that it is disappointing for the second half not to offer any pay-off. Despite the hints at a theme, this ends up being a standard collection of Mountain Goats songs. I don’t want to sound ungrateful about that – there are no bad songs here, and the band continues its musical growth from the early lo-fi days, but it often feels on the edge of true greatness, and this is never quite achieved.

Grade: B

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard – Old Devils (Music Review)

Old Devils cover

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard - Old Devils

What the hell is Jon Langford thinking? Admittedly, that’s a question I’ve asked myself before. Usually, though, it’s because his latest experiment didn’t work out right. His effort Old Devils, with a band called Skull Orchard, just sticks safely to the aging-rock-star-makes-mature-songs formula. The last time I reviewed an album of his, I gave it a C- for its poor performances of very good songs. This one, with its competent, nearly enjoyable renditions of mediocre songs, earns the same grade for the exact opposite reasons. This isn’t the Jon Langford I’m used to.

Lyrically, the songs are pretty standard fare. “Book of Your Life” is that “I wish I could be more important to you” song that everyone writes at least once, and “Luxury” portrays the expected old rock star’s concern for our materialistic world. Admittedly, the lyrics remain more oblique than we would expect from most people who go the Phil Collins route, though they rarely hide anything too useful below the surface. (Sample lines from “Luxury”: “I’d do anything to please her/ So I bought that brand new freezer/ And I climbed inside”.) Langford almost seems to be inviting the comparison to washed up performers on songs such as “Getting Used To Uselessness” and “Self Portrait” (a dismissive look back on the life of someone much like Langford).

If you’re looking for standout tracks, “1234 Ever” is a fairly catchy opener. “Pieces of the Past” has the most interesting lyrics on the album, looking at the way our history becomes safe and sanitized even as its evils are perpetuated, but you’ll need to overlook a scenery-chewing voiceover and a slightly stilted delivery from Langford in order to appreciate it. And “Strange Ways to Win Wars” works because it communicates its pacifist message in simple, clean terms that seem a lot less self-important than the typical political song.

Throughout the album, Skull Orchard supports Langford with strong, though not showy, arrangements. I don’t think this album is going to leave anyone excited about the band, but it does seem that they have the skill to help any song reach its full potential. As a backing band that leaves the spotlight on the singer-songwriter, though, they don’t have any tricks that can raise these particular songs above their current level.

Grade: C-

Ida Maria – Fortress ’round My Heart (Music Review)

Fortress 'round My Heart cover

Ida Maria - Fortress 'round My Heart

Ida Maria had one of the best pop songs of 2009 with “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”. Bratty and fun on the surface, it actually revealed a deep insecurity: “I like you so much better when you’re naked/I like me so much better when you’re naked” was a brilliantly simple depiction of a pained, desperate search for validation. Though the song was excellent, I didn’t expect that the music was aimed at me, and I moved on. But encouraged by a friend who described Ida Maria as his favorite guilty pleasure of the year, I finally tried out a used copy of it.

Fortress ’round My Heart is much like “Better When You’re Naked” leads one to expect. Straightforward, punk-lite songs about youth sung by someone just old enough to offer a mature perspective on it, they never reach the highs of that single, but don’t disappoint either. The songs don’t have any great revelations (“it made me realize how much you wanna give away just to feel loved”), but are never embarrassing, either. The tinge of self-awareness and adult knowledge is subtle enough not to bother the teenagers, but makes the songs accessible to their parents as well.

Singer Ida Maria Sivertsen has a voice that manages to sound vulnerable even when it rises to a punk sneer, and is emotional and introspective when she slips into slower ballads. This goes a long way to making the songs successful, though it must also be said that her singing isn’t very strong. The shouts seem as if they’re struggling to be heard over the music, and the quieter stuff is so breathy as to almost fade away. Sivertsen’s voice defines the personality of the songs, but it would be nice if it grows stronger in future albums.

At just over 30 minutes, Fortress ’round My Heart is a little short, but never has time to wear out its welcome. While the songs are light, they are pleasantly varied enough to support that length: The Regina Spektor-esque meandering on “Queen of the World”, the 80’s-tinged dance beat on “Louie”, and the sparse, mournful singing on “Keep Me Warm” all add dimensions to a narrator who seemed simpler on “Better When You’re Naked”. That could be the thing that keeps Ida Maria from being a one-hit wonder. Whether autobiographical or not, the album does build up a consistent narrative personality, and it is one that fans could happily follow through later releases.

Grade: B-

Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (Music Review)

1,000 Years cover

Corin Tucker Band - 1,000 Years

Corin Tucker hasn’t been heard from much since Sleater-Kinney ended. Her long-awaited reappearance, now at the head of The Corin Tucker Band, is sure to thrill some fans and disappoint others. Sleater-Kinney’s final album, The Woods, showed that they didn’t feel beholden to anyone else’s expectations, and so it’s no surprise that the new 1,000 Years rarely sounds like Sleater-Kinney.

Tucker’s voice is still unmistakeable, of course. But she is much more restrained now, usually singing in a low-key, relaxed croon. Occasionally, she slips comfortably into her old hooky vocal catches (in “Half A World Away”) or full-throated rock mode (most notably in the refrainof “Doubt”), but she usually sounds like she expects to be singing for a quiet coffee shop than a raucous crowd.

The band, which includes both a dedicated cellist and violinist, is similarly restrained most of the time. They’re content to try out different sounds on almost every song, starting with a familiar folk-rock but rarely staying there. “Handed Love” builds a bluesy, slightly electronic riff through two quiet minutes before releasing the tension with a half-minute of energy. “1,000 Years” uses a quiet but sinister grinding bass track to give weight to the light acoustic guitar that drives the song, And “Doubt” is simply a balls-out rocker, though its abrupt stop and re-start in the middle makes it less radio-friendly than it seems.

There are a few problems, though. The quiet singing and slow, frequently hesitant music often result in things that feel more like song snippets than complete works. Tucker’s lyrics add to this, with a recurring theme of separation (whether in time or distance) and loss. The narrators grasp for something, but their satisfaction remains as stubbornly out-of-reach as the listener’s. When the lyrics do resolve to specifics, they often go too far to the other extreme. (The last verse of “Half A World Away” explains that it’s literally about a lover gone to deliver aid in Africa. After the bulk of the song is so vague, these eager specifics create an artless contrast.) Overall, Tucker makes an honest attempt at varied, personal topics, but never finds the memorable turns of phrase, revealing lyrics, or hooky sounds that make personal songs successful.

It’s also frustrating that the band can be a little more eager to go loud than Tucker is. Even when they both raise the volume, the music has a tendency to drown out the vocals. Whether this is poor production or an intentional distancing from Sleater-Kinney, it sounds unnatural and draws the attention away from one of the group’s biggest assets.

A lot of talent is evident here, both in Tucker’s solo songwriting and her band’s versatile support. The decision to release this album as “The Corin Tucker Band” rather than simply as a solo “Corin Tucker” was the right one. However, they haven’t yet figured out how to best reach the potential that they show.

Grade: C

The Extra Lens – Undercard (Music Review)

Undercard cover

The liner notes to Undercard cover each song with John Darnielle’s typically playful and pithy commentary. The discussion of “Cruiserweights” provides a context that I use to understand the entire album:

There are people out there who transfer footage of old fights from worn VHS to DVD, and through a couple of these people, I’ve managed to put together a small collection. Half of these fights, if I do not personally watch them, will never be remembered by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. There are tragic heroes, and then there are really tragic heroes, and then there are guys who, knowing that they’re never going to get rich or famous, will nevertheless consent to have most of the bones in their faces broken in front of an auditorium full of other guys who’ve paid to watch it happen.

The song makes good on this description, tenderly describing a boxer’s thoughts as he is beaten to a pulp. But almost every track on this album fits the theme described here, examining events that would be forgotten if they weren’t captured in song. From the literal (the staff in “Only Existing Footage” laboring over a movie that will never be finished) to the figurative (the immigrants of “Programmed Cell Death” furtively meeting as they watch their culture die off), from the mundane (multiple songs about affairs) to the fantastic (a family trying to forget the horror from the deep they uncover on a fishing trip), Undercard captures these quiet moments. If you doubt the value of snapshots such as these, the album closes with the narrator of “Dogs of Clinic 17”, dying of an unnamed medical experiment, reminding you “there’s a light in all of you who hear my song”.

This album itself may be one of those easily lost events. The Extra Lens released their only other album a decade ago, and that was under the name “Extra Glenns”. Undercard would receive more attention if Darnielle released it as a project of his usual band, The Mountain Goats, or if Franklin Bruno associated it with The Human Hearts. But the ephemeral nature of a side project makes these songs all the more poignant.

The songs themselves are as thoughtful and poetic as anything from The Mountain Goats. Bruno handles more complex musical arrangements than Darnielle would make on his own, but this is definitely a lo-fidelity album, more at home with the anti-folk style of The Mountain Goats than the lusher pop sounds of The Human Hearts. The result is something that feels more vital than most official Mountain Goats releases. If Undercard is both about and an example of personal, easily forgotten moments, it makes an excellent case for its own existence.

Grade: B+

Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Music Review)

Showroom of Compassion cover

Cake - Showroom of Compassion

“I’m so sick of you, so sick of me, I don’t want to be with you”, sings John McCrea on “Sick Of You”. Is this a breakup song, or a complaint about his band? If the latter, that would certainly explain the bored, forgettable performance on a song that should at least be charged with some disdainful energy. If you’re wondering how this ended up being the first single off Cake’s new album, the answer is equally disappointing: Showroom of Compassion doesn’t have anything better to offer.

 

Cake’s repertoire has always been marked by energy, experimentation, and the occasional burst of vitriol. This album may still provide the brass instrumentation and McCrea’s signature flat voice, but it no longer feels like a punk masterpiece filtered through a ska-meets-beat-poetry scene. Showroom is at least an improvement over Pressure Chief, their last (7 years past!) effort. But even though this album drops the embarrassing attempts to fit a formula that should be defined by constant change, it doesn’t offer up anything new, either. These songs would universally fit in as filler tracks on on of their other albums.

There is nothing wrong with Cake filler tracks. On other albums, they provided a sort of reassuring charm, painting a picture of a band that was happy with everything they were doing and didn’t see the need to strive for crowd-pleasing hits every moment. However, devoid of these hits, the filler is unavoidably disappointing.

There are hints of a band still looking for ways to evolve. “Federal Funding” offers a glimpse into the sorts of songs a “grown-up” Cake could write two decades after their formation: The low-key lyrics announce “you’ll receive the federal funding, you can add another wing” without a hint of irony, allowing its disgust at this mundane world to come through only as subtext. The song may not be radio-friendly, but it gives us a vision of a band that could evolve to be dangerous and challenging to fans who are now over 30. None of the other songs follow up on this promise, though.

After the disastrous Pressure Chief, this album is vaguely reassuring. It’s still not good, but at least they have reversed their downward slide. Now that they can handle the solid, secondary Cake songs, they only need to come up with a couple standout tracks to create a great album. If they manage this, though, it won’t be until the next try.

Grade: C

 

Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Music Review)

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

To start, let’s get this straight: The King Is Dead is not The Decemberists’ “country album” or “folk album”. It has some elements of those, with an acoustic guitar taking lead and the mandolin, tambourine, and harmonica occasionally appearing as well. But the music never settles for long within the strictures of either genre. If anything, a vague term like “The Decemberists’ Americana album” would work.

It’s obvious why people are looking to define The King Is Dead, though. It’s a startling new direction for the band. While The Decemberists have never been afraid of change, this is a sudden reversal from the sea shanties and gritty 18th-century settings.

Many songs still fit comfortably within our expectations of The Decemberists. “Rox In The Box” is full of winking affectation for a granite mine that’s a full century and several social strata removed from Colin Meloy’s current world, while lifting riffs from the traditional Scottish “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. (It’s also a disturbingly cheerful song about a serious tragedy.) “January Hymn” is a simple song with first-person narration that Meloy’s voice makes intensely personal. But other songs are only identifiably by The Decemberists because of that distinctive voice, and that highlights the boundaries that the band has generally stayed within before: Meloy’s nasal voice has always worked either as a quirk to make his narrators seem human and present, or as a comfortable vehicle for over-literate affectation. Hearing him sing without either of those elements is occasionally jarring. He never strays from his strengths for long enough to make me argue that a different vocalist would be better, but the thought did cross my mind a few times. Fortunately, the songwriting is so consistently strong that any complaints about the vocals seem out of place.

Given that the first few tracks emphasize this departure from the band’s normal sound, it’s obviously intended to be the purpose of the album. These songs break from the clear, story-driven lyrics of the past for more inscrutable meanings, and command their simple Americana instruments to create a powerful, confident wall of sound that would go straight to the top of the pop charts in a slightly different universe. This album deserves to bring in an entirely new set of fans without ever alienating the existing ones.

Knowing The Decemberists, it won’t be more than an album or two before they have shed this style for something new. In a way, that’s too bad. A band could spend its entire career exploring the sonic territory uncovered by The King Is Dead. The catchy, pop-oriented feel mixes with complex instrumentation and lyrics to create one of the best albums of their career.

Grade: A

The Vaselines (Music Review)

Enter the Vaselines cover

The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines

The Vaselines were sort of the Velvet Underground of the late 80’s: Almost no one listened to them at the time, but everyone who did went out and started a band. Today, they are best known as “the band that Nirvana kept covering”. But last year, the Vaselines started getting more attention in their own right. Sub Pop released a retrospective of their past work, as well as their first new album in two decades. It’s late in coming, but the band deserves the increased recognition that they are finally getting.

Listening to Enter The Vaselines, it’s easy to see how they inspired Kurt Cobain and his peers. Though all the songs were recorded in the late 80’s, they sound like they came straight out of 90’s rock radio. It’s also easy to see why they didn’t make a splash on their own. The low budget, DIY performance had very little in common with the polished synth-rock that dominated at the time. All their recorded work, two EPs and one full-length, fits on one CD, leaving the second disk to be filled with demos and live recordings. (This second CD has a couple bright points, but for the most part, it leaves you feeling that you didn’t miss anything by not seeing them at the time. Perhaps that is another reason that the band didn’t achieve immediate fame.)

Most of their best-known songs are on those first two EPs. With very few influences to draw from directly, The Vaselines applied their low-fi approach to anything that crossed their mind. The results include fuzzed-out rock, folk, pop, and even a compelling disco cover. The lyrics are bratty, immature, and often sexual. The kink factor is raised by the way the boy-girl duo took turns with the lead vocals, giving the impression that they were double-teaming the subject of their song.

Their eventual album, Dum Dum, is not quite as memorable as those early songs. That is partly because a full-length release allows space for filler songs, so it doesn’t seem as solid as the earlier EPs. Additionally, by this time the band had settled on a more straightforward rock sound as the source for most of their songs. It was prescient, as most bands would be following that lead a few years later, but the songs don’t feel as varied or memorable as the early ones.

That’s not to say that Dum Dum was bad. Held up next to the songs it inspired a few years later, it still sounds great. Even discounting their influence, these songs are good enough to be remembered alongside the hits of the alternative years. And to be fair, they did experiment with their sound a bit on the album: “No Hope” is a smooth, compelling downer of a song, and “Lovecraft” is a (less successful) droner. But the album is best appreciated for its catchy, bouncing songs like “Sex Sux (Amen)” and “Oliver Twisted”.

Sex With An X cover

The Vaselines - Sex With An X

Sex With An X is a new Vaselines album, in the sense that it’s fronted by the same two people, and they still have a gift for hooky, memorable songs. But the days of The Vaselines are half a lifetime away for them, and they don’t seem to have any desire to recreate that time. The new album neither slavishly follows the original sound nor tries to re-establish their cutting-edge credentials. Instead, this is a comfortable, confident slice of adult-oriented pop music from two middle-aged people who have nothing to prove.

The sound is smooth, and the production is slick, in direct contrast to their late 80’s sound. In some ways, this feels more appropriate for the name “Vaselines” than the original songs. However, they’ve lost the kinky edge that also fit the name. The few songs that mention sex now sound tame (“Feels so right/ It must be wrong for me/ Let’s do it, let’s do it again” goes the title track), and the rest have been replaced by more world-weary breakup songs.

It’s still good, as long as no one holds them to a purist ideal of how the band “should” sound. The songs are not going to inspire a new generation to start their own bands, but if you’re just looking for good, memorable songs, the hit-to-miss ratio is honestly better than Dum Dum’s was. The singers still have a sense of humor, as seen in “Overweight But Over You” and “Ruined” (a self-aware attack on old, washed-up bands), and they cover a wide variety of topics, from “I Hate the 80’s” to “My God’s Bigger Than Your God”.

These two releases are both very good in different ways. Exit The Vaselines is a relic of an under-appreciated classic. It is no longer groundbreaking, but still holds up for anyone who wants more music from that era. Sex With An X is a collection of polished songs that aren’t necessarily trying to be remembered decades later, but that are perfectly fun right now.

Enter The Vaselines: B

Sex With An X: B

The Witmark Demos (Music Review)

The Witmark Demos cover

The Witmark Demos

The latest in Bob Dylan’s official “bootleg series”, The Witmark Demos showcases the demos he recorded at the start of his career. The catch is that, when these were recorded, not even he suspected that this was the first chapter of a folksinging life; instead, Dylan was hoping for success behind the scenes, and was simply recording these so that professional singers would buy them.

This appears to be a new trend for aging singer-songwriters. The Witmark Demos was released only a few months after Kris Kristofferson’s own collection of demos, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. A cynic might claim that they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for nostalgic material to package up and sell. In reality, these releases have a lot of value to people who are interested in the stories behind the songs. The idea of professional singers writing their own material was relatively new in the 1960’s, and the liner notes to Dylan’s release talk extensively about how he was at the forefront of this change.

If you just want to enjoy the songs, you’ll find it uneven. As if in warning, the first disc opens with “Man On The Street”, which Dylan stops abruptly because “I lost the verses”. Other songs are also incomplete (“Do you want this? It’s a drag”) or are interrupted so that Dylan can correct his lyrics. These aren’t necessarily songs that you’ll play over and over.

Don’t worry, though. Most of the songs are complete. They are still simple, with no production and little music other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica (after all, they were just recorded to help potential buyers imagine how they would sound), but Dylan doesn’t sound bad in a no-frills environment. Additionally, it’s impressive to hear how many of his future hits were fleshed out even at that early age. (Note that many are still structured as simple, traditional songs, such as “Rambling, Gambling Willie”. If you only like Dylan at his most complex, and don’t care for folk traditions, this isn’t for you.) Of the 47 tracks on these two discs, about two-thirds of them deserve to be in a Dylan obsessive’s regular rotation, even if they aren’t necessarily as good as the later versions. In fact, fifteen of these songs never made it into any official Dylan release, so they will be exciting to even more casual fans.

Personally, I am one of those casual fans. For me, the collection would have been much more interesting if it focused on those fifteen new songs, and then padded out the rest with other, better outtakes from Dylan’s early years. The collection as a whole is worth listening to a few times for its novelty, but isn’t something I’ll return to. Fortunately, I found the perfect way for someone like me to appreciate this set: I bought it for my brother, a true Dylan completist, and had a few weeks to enjoy it before I passed it on. I highly recommend that you do something similar.

Grade: B-


Eyelid Movies (Music Review)

Eyelid Movies cover

Phantogram - Eyelid Movies

Phantogram distinguishes itself from the electro-pop field with its simplicity. Instead of complex arrangements cutting in and out of epic songs, they are content to weave a few simple strands together. This is both a blessing and a curse on Eyelid Movies: On one hand, these songs are compelling and occasionally even hooky in a way that that very little electronic music manages. On the other hand, once the novelty of the songs wear off, they don’t offer a lot of depth.

The two band members trade off vocal duties throughout the album. Sarah Barthel has a smooth, ethereal voice that grabs the listener’s attention, but never portrays much emotion. They make the right choice to subsume her vocals with the music, making her more of a lead instrument than a singer with a message. Josh Carter’s voice, unfortunately, is much more bland. He only sounds interesting when heavily distorted, as on “Running From the Cops”.

Since vocals are only an intermittent draw in these songs, it doesn’t seem out of place for the lyrics to feel like an afterthought. They are generic but serviceable, never embarrassing the band but also never adding more than an occasional trippy phrase that rises above the mellow sound. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that they had bothered to print the lyrics in the album.

Like the lyrics and vocals, most of the music is also at its best when it is simple and mesmerizing. These songs would be in danger of being nothing more than well-crafted lullabies if it weren’t for the drum tracks. Rising above the rest of the sounds in a way that neither the singers nor other instruments do, the hip-hop influenced beats give the songs a solid structure. When played loud, they sound confident and interesting; when played soft, this harsh backbone melts away and the result can be enjoyed as simple background music. Fans of Portishead should take note of this band.

A few songs are stunning and memorable. Most notably, the openers “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” have unique soundscapes and arresting refrains. “Running From the Cops” is similarly original and manages to provide an exception to the rule of uninteresting lyrics. If Phantogram could have brought that level of craft to this entire album, it would be a classic. Unfortunately, they contented themselves mostly with songs that are only interesting as long as they are new. Once the initial novelty has faded away, most of the album is a little too simple and repetitive to be played loud. At the quiet background-music level, it still works, but that’s hardly a notable accomplishment. I suspect that its qualities (mesmerizing sound, trippy lyrics, and a structure that is fascinating as long as it seems new) make it perfect stoner music, but again, that’s an already-crowded field.

Eyelid Movies is a solid performance from a new band, and I’m curious about where they will go next. I worry that they will take the normal route for a “maturing” electronic band and mix in too many elements that drown out their simple style. If they can focus on the unique sounds that made their best songs such stand-outs, though, they could go far.

Grade: B-