Tuesday, March 30, 2010

90. Damaged

90. Damaged, Lambchop (Merge, 2006)

A lot transpired for Lambchop and leader Kurt Wagner in the thirty months between the ’04 joint release of the Aw Cmon and No You Cmon LPs and their ninth studio work, Damaged.  The fluctuating Nashville collective, often claiming over a dozen members, had made eight studio albums in a decade, each a progression of their meticulous, elegant update of the ’50s Nashville sound melding country with strings and its ’70s Countrypolitan descendent that subtly incorporated soul music.  In ’05 they released the CoLAB EP, a mutual effort with ambient duo Hands Off Cuba--consisting of Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin.  Three of its four tracks find Lambchop tunes rearranged into unrecognizable electronic pieces; this work would figure heavily in the creation of Damaged.  Early ’06 saw two rarities compilations released, both titled The Decline of Country and Western Civilization and featuring different track listings in its US and UK guises.  Most grave, though, was Wagner’s series of health crises including jaw replacement surgery and a bout with prostate cancer.  He recovered, his difficult year informing the typically quotidian lyrics on Damaged.  The album’s inner sleeve features an x-ray of his jaw.

Despite these troubles, Damaged was the lushest, most beautiful Lambchop album to date.  Recorded by their longtime producer Mark Nevers, its sound is more luxurious than that of earlier Lambchop records and is bolstered by string arrangements on three tracks; the songs are linked by electronic interludes constructed by Norris and Martin from samples of the record’s own material.  More subtle than the pieces on CoLAB, they give the album a finespun undercurrent.  Numbering eighteen musicians here, the complex orchestrations of Lambchop circa late-summer ’06 seem to hinge on the understated guitar of William Tyler and the deft piano of Tony Crow.  Wagner’s lived-in baritone is mixed higher on Damaged; on the ’04 albums it was often so low that it disappeared among the accompaniment.  While those LPs featured many upbeat tunes stemming from a Wagner project of writing a song every day for a year, the songs on Damaged stretch out, revealing their more premeditated gestations.  The album opens with its most absorbing number, Paperback Bible.  A literal transcript of a radio call-in show devoted to trading household goods, it exemplifies Wagner’s knack for making the mundane heartbreakingly lovely; Crow’s rationed piano lines appear every minute or two, adding more fragile beauty.  I Would Have Waited Here All Day is a rare male-sung song with a female narrator.  It depicts a woman who spends afternoons at home waiting for her lover to arrive, noting that “The fading sense of anticipation/Is something I’ve come to know”; when he does pull into her driveway, she resignedly concludes “it’s been a lousy day.”  The sole straightforward tune from CoLAB is reprised, here titled Prepared [2], to whose swelling string quartet Wagner declares “I am the most undisciplined of man.”  The closing number, its title taken from the band’s ’06 rarities compilations, is a bombastic, angry survey that takes in the indie-rock blogosphere (“You see your Pitchfork I-rock saviors/And I’m sorry, I still prefer Jim Nabors”), Wagner’s health problems, and KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, each verse concluding with the fuming “Damn, they’re looking ugly to me”; by song’s end, the self-deprecating, romantic Wagner has calmed, quietly concluding “And I’m still alone/But you’re good looking.”  Damaged is a striking album, borne of artistic growth and personal difficulty, and a highlight of Lambchop’s expansive body of work.
Highlights: Paperback Bible, The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Fear, The Rise and Fall of the Letter P

Sublime bit: The entirety of Paperback Bible; or, alternatively, Tony Crow’s sparkling piano lines that run intermittently through that song.
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

91. Enemy Mine

91. Enemy Mine, Swan Lake (Jagjaguwar, 2009)

There is a temptation to call any meeting of individually accomplished musicians a supergroup.  If this is accepted, Swan Lake surely qualifies, if on a smaller scale than, say, Emerson Lake & Palmer.  What Swan Lake shares with the likes of ELP is a love for prog rock--not twenty-minute organ solos, but lapses from typical song structure and a penchant for fantastical, thespian lyricism.  The members come from a clutch of Canadian groups known as wordy, prog-leaning dramatists: Spencer Krug, frontman of Montreal’s Sunset Rubdown and co-leader of Wolf Parade; Carey Mercer, singer/guitarist for Victoria outfit Frog Eyes; and Vancouverite Dan Bejar, occasional lyricist and vocalist for the New Pornographers but most accomplished as the chief of Destroyer.  All have unusual voices.  Krug and Mercer are sometimes hard to distinguish, but Mercer’s voice is the more frantic stripe of tremulous melodrama.  Bejar’s voice is high and reedy.  In Swan Lake, they all take turns singing lead. They have relatively similar writing styles, and before their ’06 debut LP Beast Moans had worked together in various capacities.  Krug served on-and-off in Mercer’s Frog Eyes, and Bejar made an ’05 EP credited to Destroyer but using a Krug-less Frog Eyes as its backing band.  All of this cross-pollination makes collaboration obvious, and Swan Lake retains the feels of its members’ groups while shaping its own sonic identity.  It most closely resembles the swirling, avant-pop theatre of Sunset Rubdown, but is even more arcane and gothic (not goth); Bejar, the strongest lyricist, has in Swan Lake a more oblique template than usually afforded him in his other work, and Mercer’s twitchy, clamorous Frog Eyes outbursts are tempered by Swan Lake’s more deliberate pace.

But what of Enemy Mine, their second LP?  More focused and engaging than Beast Moans, it emphasizes the side project’s long-term viability.  Opening tune Spanish Gold, 2044 builds from a ragtag arrangement like a faltering New Orleans funeral procession into an ostentatious production finding Mercer name-checking Palinurus, Julliard, and Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire before bellowing, “I left this bullwhip/On the nightstand” to Bejar’s wordless, gliding backing vocals.  This is heavy theatre.  One senses an aura of camp, particularly on Mercer’s tunes (the nutty cover art of a courtroom sketch is another giveaway to this triad’s strange humor).  Krug’s Settle on Your Skin is a hyper piano blast and the LP’s most upbeat number.  His second contribution here, Paper Lace, would appear three months later on Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer LP, continuing a Swan Lake habit of blurring the boundaries between the side project and the primary group (Beast Moans included a tune that would reappear, dramatically rearranged, on Destroyer’s Trouble in Dreams LP; the Krug-penned Paper Lace also features the character Jackie, a name that haunts many Bejar compositions).  The album’s most stunning moment comes in Bejar’s Heartswarm.  It opens with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, a heavily reverbed but gentle drum cadence, and a delicate piano figure; Bejar then sings, “Do my eyes deceive me/Or is it truly springtime in Paris for that piece of shit?”  Bejar has a knack for injecting profanity into lyrics without gratuity, and this is about the finest example.  A willfully pretentious lark combining the quirks of three difficult, arty groups, Swan Lake is not for everybody.  Fans of its members’ other bands require these records, though, and at the Aughts’ end the best entry point for Swan Lake remained the perverse delights of Enemy Mine.
Highlights: Heartswarm, Paper Lace, Peace, Spider

Sublime bit: That first line of Heartswarm and its jarring, hilarious juxtaposition of the coarse with the lovely.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

92. Into the Woods

92. Into the Woods, Malcolm Middleton (Chemikal Underground UK, 2005)

Malcolm Middleton toiled for ten years as half of Scottish duo Arab Strap, providing musical accompaniment for longtime pal Aidan Moffat’s bleary-eyed tales of romantic misery.  Over six studio LPs they earned a reputation as humor-filled but forlorn wretches, the tunes often half-paced and drifting with Moffat’s mumbled, nearly spoken vocals giving vulgar accounts of wasted nights and squandered relationships.  Following their fourth LP, both released solo albums.  Middleton’s 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine (’02) rivaled any previous Arab Strap work, revealing a keen songwriting wit yet lyrically rooted in oppressive self-hatred.  Its closing tune, Devil and the Angel, is a signpost for much of his starkly autobiographical solo material--the angel whispers encouragements; the devil tells him, “Malcolm, you’ll never be good at anything/And your songs are shite.”  Middleton reveals it was just a dream, shaking it off to then say that he agrees with the devil.  Arab Strap made two more albums before splitting, with their second solo records sandwiched between.  These final group works were their best, no doubt invigorated by the freedom the two found in their solo careers.

Just four months before Arab Strap’s final studio album, Middleton issued his sophomore LP Into the Woods; it is a striking progression from all of his previous work.  Joined by fellow Scots Barry Burns of Mogwai on piano, Delgados drummer Phil Savage, and Arab Strap collaborator Alan Barr on cello, Middleton produces a set of energetic, whip-smart tunes built on Arab Strap’s electro-folk customs and encompassing full-blown pop orchestrations.  While many songs mine the self-loathing territory of 5:14, they are mitigated by the dynamic arrangements; in moments such as the gently descending verses of Monday Night Nothing, lines like “I need to crash this piece of shit into a tree that fits” are even beautiful.  The album crashes open with the sparkling Break My Heart, a comical forecast of a relationship doomed to either fail--or succeed, but ruin his career.  No Modest Bear incorporates heavy techno-dance beats alongside an uncharacteristically positive lyric to a lover (“No more despair/No more being scared”).  The album’s highlight is Loneliness Shines, its driving choruses filled with swirling walls of electric guitar recalling My Bloody Valentine’s most frenzied shoegazing attacks.  Middleton is a world-class miserablist: he resents seasons (Autumn is a “fucking cunt”), he gets stabbed on Christmas (Burst Noel), and he apologizes for his face (Bear With Me and A Happy Medium).  In A New Heart he sings “I’ve been asked to write a song without a swear word or a slight/At myself or another,” later noting “I almost got accosted by the good old negative.”  His next three Aughts solo albums tempered these indulgences a bit; still, none comes close to the strengths of Into the Woods.  A remarkable confluence of instrumentation and Middleton’s drollery, it bests his former group’s entire catalog and serves as the finest introduction to his prolific solo career.
Highlights: Loneliness Shines, Break My Heart, Monday Night Nothing, No Modest Bear

Sublime bit: Those walls of guitar squall that explode with every chorus of Loneliness Shines.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

93. The Crying Light

93. The Crying Light, Antony and the Johnsons (Secretly Canadian, 2009)

After fifteen years of singing and conceptual performance in the NYC art scene, Antony Hegarty found success with his second studio album, ’05’s I Am a Bird Now.  Controversial winner of the Mercury Prize—an award for UK-only artists, and the England-born Hegarty had lived in the U.S. since age ten—Bird is a nakedly emotional examination of gender identity draped in Hegarty’s ethereal yet muscular croon.  In the years after Bird, Hegarty filled many guest slots, most notably working with Lou Reed as well as serving as vocalist for Andrew Butler’s electro-dance project Hercules and Love Affair on their eponymous ’08 LP.  Hegarty’s personal recording pace is slow at best, however, and when the hotly anticipated The Crying Light arrived it was only his third album in eleven years.

The four-track EP Another World preceded The Crying Light by three months, its title track appearing on both; the two records’ aesthetic presentation echo that of I Am a Bird Now, cloaked in wordless sleeves with stark, monochrome photographs capturing real-life examples of gender fluidity.  While Bird's explorations of sexual identity were housed in a photograph of Warhol transvestite associate Candy Darling, The Crying Light and its related EP show male Japanese conceptual dancer Kazuo Ohno.  Ohno pioneered a highly conceptual style of dance termed butoh, embracing controversial sexual themes as early as the 1950s, its performers often in drag.  Ohno performed into his nineties; confined to a wheelchair and 102 years old at the release of The Crying Light, his work’s trajectory echoes the themes of Hegarty’s LP: nature, the soul, aging, and transmutation. While Bird examined people’s relations to themselves, Light finds its subjects relating not just to the world around them but also to eternity.

Another World’s narrator, readying for death—or perhaps just some type of metamorphosis—says goodbye to temporality.  “I need another world/This one’s nearly gone,” sings Hegarty, suggesting it may not be him that is dying; he lists a dozen things he’ll miss, including sea, snow, bees, and things that grow, before concluding “I’m gonna miss the wind/Been kissing me so long.”  This evocative, romantic hymn is the album’s centerpiece.  The Crying Light’s music is even more delicate than the piano balladry and dark, restrained pop of I Am a Bird Now.  Guitar and bass do figure in the Johnsons’ roster here, but several songs find the group and pianist Hegarty accompanied by a chamber orchestra and the arrangements are beautifully austere.  The record’s feng shui is impeccable; there are 27 musicians credited, yet the album’s sound is never cluttered or overwhelmed by activity.  One Dove, for example, features a variety of percussive crackles, a horn section, and a recorder embellishment, but the song still feels clean and spacious.  Kiss My Name is the album’s mid-tempo pop showpiece, its elegant melodies propelled by a twirling string arpeggio and gentle flutes.  In its sparkling, poppiest moments and soberest ruminations alike, The Crying Light is among the Aughts’ most lovely, gripping sets of songs, and with I Am a Bird Now it forms one of the decade’s most stunning pairs of albums.

Highlights: Kiss My Name, Epilepsy Is Dancing, Aeon, Another World

Sublime bit: Hegarty’s urgent, impassioned repetitions of “That man I love so much” in the closing verses of Aeon, a love song to Father Time.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

94. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

94. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon (Merge, 2007)

Spoon’s sixth long player and final Aughts album, the daftly titled Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, finds the Austin group’s music sharpened and streamlined.  Half fidgety, tight pop songs and half breezy white-boy soul, the record was Spoon’s most concise and economical record to date.  While the junior executive indie rockers’ Aughts catalog consists of four smartly appointed LPs of increasing achievement, these can appear interchangeable to the casual listener; while earlier efforts like the ’01 Girls Can Tell, for example, is built on the same blueprint of taut yet groovy guitar-based backing and Britt Daniel’s obliquely clever lyricism reminiscent of an art-school Elvis Costello, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is more focused, entertaining, and memorable.  As I’ve noted elsewhere (see #108), the Spoon LP you favor may come down to drawing straws; should you decide on this effort, though, the rewards may last longer.

With the group’s lineup in flux at ’05’s Gimme Fiction after the departure of longtime bassist Josh Zarbo and much of that record recorded by Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, Spoon’s Ga lineup is stabilized as a quartet, including bassist Rob Pope of then-dissolved emo veterans the Get Up Kids.  Horn and string guest spots spice up a handful of tunes.  At just over 36 minutes, Ga is about as long as any Spoon album but unlike some of the others it is the kind of record that zips by, begging for another play.  This is in despite of the peculiar placement of The Ghost of You Lingers as the album’s second track; founded on a pounding, one-note piano riff that dominates the song’s three-and-a-half minutes (and whose phonetic approximation provides the album’s title) and with little other sonic meat on its bones apart from a handful of competing, disembodied vocal fragments, the song is long and jarring enough to make listeners with short attention spans turn off the record.  Should the casual listener persevere, the album’s truest reward comes at the third track with a shift to crisp pop mode, continuing at a pithy clip for its remainder.

The band is literate enough to feature a 1963 photo of American sculptor Lee Bontecou on the album cover but classy enough to avoid referential pop-culture overkill in its songs, and much of Daniel’s wordplay on Ga is more abstruse than ever.  Only The Underdog and Finer Feelings offer explicitly linear narratives, the latter an account of a hapless chap from Memphis seeking salvation in the help-wanted or dating sections of the local paper, whichever comes first.  Don’t Make Me a Target, with its “Nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls/That come from a parking lot town,” evokes the slightest whiff of politics.  As important as the album’s lyrics, though, are its arrangements.  Split between the jaunty yet tough-edged pep of tunes like The Underdog (built sunnily on invigorating acoustic guitar, a soft horn arrangement, and handclaps) and the slinky groove of Eddie’s Raga and Don’t You Evah (a cover of a theretofore unreleased song by NYC trio The Natural History), the record is paced brilliantly, at least after the confounding gambit of its second track.  Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is strong while remaining freshly loose and, despite the mix-and-match tenor of Spoon’s catalog, it is as spirited as they'd yet gotten and it makes a respectable choice for the finest record they’d recorded thus far.

Highlights: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb, Don’t You Evah, Finer Feelings, The Underdog

Sublime bit: How each chorus overlaps with the first line of the next verse in Eddie’s Raga, one of a handful of great uses of vocal overdubs.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

95. Fleet Foxes

95. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop, 2008)

The Aughts saw your average musical bedroom putterer, emboldened by the Internet’s democratization of recording and distribution, switch from guitar to computer.  There’s nothing wrong with that; yet, wading through the resultant piles of DIY bleeps and bloops, it’s heartwarming to see people who grew up downloading music and still find resonance in creating it out of wood and steel. Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, led by Robin Pecknold, age 22 at the release of his band’s debut full-length, create a warm and lush acoustic-rooted sound emboldened by moving vocal harmonies.  The band’s work recalls numerous musical ancestors, most notably Crosby, Stills, and Nash, yet never lapses into nostalgia or reactionary posturing.  Their songs are gentle, yet possess a confidence and strength belying their years.

Pecknold and fellow guitarist Skyler Skjelset began playing together in high school, recording prolifically until the desire to incorporate additional instruments necessitated the addition of members.  They recorded an eponymous EP in ’06 to be sold at gigs until the small pressing ran out.  It is the anomaly of the group’s Aughts catalog, most of its arrangements bright and poppy; its execution a tad off-kilter, by decade’s end it pointedly remained officially unavailable.  Its final song, Icicle Tusk, foreshadows the music they would record for Sub Pop: its verses marked by a tempered acoustic guitar figure, a melancholy lilt in Pecknold’s lead vocal, and wrapped in the group vocal harmonies that would carry the band to fame.

The Fleet Foxes LP was preceded by their ’08 Sub Pop debut the Sun Giant EP, recorded after the full-length but issued as a stopgap as to have some more merchandise available on tour.  Both are more intimate and rustic than the ’06 demo.  The LP opens with an a capella fragment influenced by the Southern tradition of Sacred Harp music, a form of group singing with no leader whose concept is reflected in the album’s numerous songs on which Pecknold is not the sole vocalist.  The songs are drenched in reverb, lending the album a cavernous feel and a sense of timelessness.  Pecknold’s lyrics are full of mountains, forests, and the creatures therein, the protagonists often yearning for absent or detached loved ones.  Death is often closeby.  The subject of Your Protector is asked to “lay to die beside me, baby”; the narrator of Meadowlarks asks, “Hummingbird, just let me die/Inside the broken holes of your olive eyes.”  Most poignantly, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song asks, “Dear shadow alive and well, how can the body die?”  The nearly jaunty, almost round-robin White Winter Hymnal beautifully describes dripping blood as turning “the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.”  While the lyrics are frequently morbid or foreboding, the music conjures promise and positivity; the arrangements resplendent with soaring, wordless vocals and exultant guitar lines.  This juxtaposition is seen best in Ragged Wood, which sounds like a cry of victory though its lyrics are about a lover who “Can barely remember you beside me/You should come back home.”  The band’s command of intimate, ageless music earned them much acclaim at an early stage, and Fleet Foxes is one of the most impressive debut albums of the decade.

Highlights: White Winter Hymnal, He Doesn’t Know Why, Ragged Wood, Quiet Houses

Sublime bit: Those spiraling verses of White Winter Hymnal, and the way the wordless vocals kick in after “strawberries in the summertime.”

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

96. White Blood Cells

96. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001; V2, 2002)

The White Stripes became the most successful in a line of two-person, post-punk rock groups ranging from Flat Duo Jets and House of Freaks in the ’80s to Aughts contemporaries the Black Keys, the Kills, and Japandroids. The Detroit-spawned co-eds transcended their garage-blues indie roots to become bona fide rock stars in an era when the Internet-led polarization of the music business made that a harder task than ever. Led by mercurial polymath Jack White, the band is highly conceptual, aware of the power of presentation, and rich in mystique (the once-married couple famously claimed to be siblings). Their effectiveness is due to talent and masterful control of image, not merely reliant on the novelty of being a twosome.

White, born John Gillis, worked as an upholsterer while playing in numerous conceptual local groups. Still working with other bands, he started playing in mid-’97 as the White Stripes with his new wife and novice drummer Meg White. The couple played raw, energetic, punk-inspired blues rock, releasing a debut single in ’98. Gillis’s country-punk outfit Two-Star Tabernacle continued until ’99, the two bands sharing songs including a handful that would end up on White Blood Cells. As late as 2000, he released music outside of his project with White. By then, the White Stripes had released their eponymous debut LP and ’00 follow-up De Stijl was not far behind; for the next five years, though, the White Stripes would be his primary musical project and Gillis would no longer use his given name. The White Stripes (’99) and De Stijl are full of short, biting workouts carried by Jack’s blazing guitar work and Meg’s simple, primal drumming. White’s guitar playing, like his obvious influence Jimmy Page, harkens back to early 20th-century blues; Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell covers appear on the two albums. The band is no mere tribute act, though, and Jack White possesses a wide storytelling range affording his lyrics a theatrical distinctiveness.

The third White Stripes album, White Blood Cells, is a striking progression that earned the duo a major-label deal and their first gold record. The sixteen original songs, most under three minutes long, remain informed by blues while making room for acoustic cowpoke jangle (Hotel Yorba); brash, snotty punk (Fell in Love With a Girl), and gentle, nursery-rhyme balladry (the nearly percussionless We’re Going to Be Friends). The Union Forever is a slow-broiling, oblique interpretation of Citizen Kane, accompanied by an ominous, churning organ background. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground and I Smell a Rat are arch, melodramatic pieces, the latter featuring teasing Spanish guitar arpeggios and almost operatic in its vocal delivery. The entirety of the 50-second Little Room finds Jack’s vocals accompanied only by a pounding, static drumbeat; the album’s closing fragment This Protector is a duet featuring Jack on piano. The variety of musical stylings, the songs’ exhilarating efficiency, and the sharpened dynamic between Jack and Meg make for one of the decade’s strongest albums. The White Stripes would remain compelling throughout the Aughts, releasing three more full-lengths, but their breakthrough effort White Blood Cells remains the finest distillation of their talents.
Highlights: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Fell in Love With a Girl, We’re Going to Be Friends, Offend in Every Way

Sublime bit: The 110 seconds of Fell in Love With a Girl create a breathless excitement, relieved only by Jack White’s between-verse moaning.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

97. The Hungry Saw

97. The Hungry Saw, Tindersticks (Beggars Banquet UK/Constellation US, 2008)

Nottingham group Asphalt Ribbons recorded four EPs from ’87-’91; their brisk pop jangle just missed the rise of Britpop.  After the band’s move to London, Ribbons leader Stuart Staples reformulated the musical approach, regrouping as Tindersticks.  The sextet debuted in ’92, releasing a handful of singles before delivering an eponymous first LP in autumn of the following year.  The new band’s specialty would be somber, introspective balladry led by the gentle baritone of Staples and accompanied by sumptuous arrangements of strings, brass, and woodwinds.  This iconoclastic stance of measured sophistication in a British era of flashy, frantic noisemaking earned them attention that their previous incarnation’s poppier approach was unable to do.  Three double albums in a row, each increasingly proficient yet demanding, led them to near exhaustion after ’97’s Curtains.  Refocusing again, now bringing soul music into their orchestrations, the group’s next three studio LPs would be shorter, more focused efforts.  By ’03, after six studio efforts and two soundtrack albums, the group once again found itself at loggerheads.  Staples released his first two solo works with no sign of new Tindersticks material, and the band appeared finished.  Invited to play a one-off gig at London’s Barbican in September ’06, the original Tindersticks lineup convened for the final time.  While Ribbons veteran Dickon Hinchliffe and two other Tindersticks founding members departed after that concert, Staples and organist David Boulter found a rejuvenated interest in working together under the old banner.  Beginning cautiously with the joint curation of children’s compilation Songs for the Young at Heart, the pair started work in January ’07, with longtime guitarist Neil Fraser, on what would be the seventh Tindersticks long player.

The Hungry Saw features sixteen musicians; their names, including the founding members’, are arranged alphabetically on the credit sheet as if to emphasize the new beginning; it is dedicated to “everyone at the Barbican on 17 September 2006,” confirming the original lineup’s final concert as crucial to the band’s next phase.  This first record by the refurbished Tindersticks is no dramatic departure from its predecessor Waiting for the Moon (’03); string arrangements once written by Hinchliffe are handled here by Lucy Wilkins and Calina de la Mare, and Terry Edwards contributes brass arrangements as he did on earlier works by the group.  The songs still focus on soulful, orchestrated balladry, interspersed with complementary instrumentals composed by Boulter.  While doubtfully intended as such, the lyrics can sometimes be imagined as commentary on the group’s resilient past: “And still we try/To reach for what has gone behind/But they’re here,” Staples sings in Yesterday’s Tomorrows. “Sometimes I wonder about the turns we took to get here,” Staples sings in the closing number, “but our song is carried on the wind.”  Enduring years of effort in various incarnations, with varying levels of acclaim and energy, Tindersticks closed the Aughts as unlikely survivors.  The Hungry Saw revealed the core trio of Staples, Boulter, and Fraser to possess a streamlined vitality despite those turns they took.  The group sounds more spirited here than it had in years, and it is more engaging than half of its predecessors.  A real case can be made that it is their finest album.

Highlights: Yesterday’s Tomorrows, The Hungry Saw, The Turns We Took, The Flicker of a Little Girl

Sublime bit: The climax of Boobar Come Back to Me, beginning when the backing vocals kick in at 2:08 and running through 3:08.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

98. She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke

98. She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke, The Dutchess and the Duke (Hardly Art, 2008)

Plenty of bands willfully mine the past. The Chesterfield Kings and the Fuzztones made careers out of fabricating ’60s garage rock sound and spirit to an extent that the unwitting might think they were ’60s acts. Jellyfish and Redd Kross approached the same nostalgic Zeitgeist, but from a decidedly modern point of view. Countless groups of the ’80s “paisley underground” took cracks at capturing the spirit. Ragtag Seattle outfit the Dutchess and the Duke make no attempt to imitate or pay homage to any scene, yet somehow manage to outdo the bulk of groups who work(ed) desperately to tap the ’60s psyche. The only explicit nod to a cultural past are the placards displayed on the cover of the duo’s debut LP, a familiar signpost to those who’ve seen the Subterranean Homesick Blues sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back, and the occasional use of outmoded lingo like “supersonic jet plane.” The music of their first album, though, feels separate from time, a spiritual cousin of the aforementioned garage apostles yet devoid of mimicry or strained stabs at authenticity.

“Duke” Jesse Lortz and “Dutchess” Kimberly Morrison are veterans of numerous garage, surf, and punk bands, playing together in two of them, the Flying Dutchmen and the Sultans. Weary of that circuit’s party-focused grind, Lortz wrote ten tunes for jangly acoustic guitar and simple percussion--shakers, tambourines, and handclaps--addressing personal topics not compatable with his other projects. Morrison provides vocal counterpoint, adding simple flute to a handful of numbers. The sparse instrumentation and Lortz’s raspy voice, startlingly like Mick Jagger’s, evoke a campfire singalong featuring the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones. If She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke is destined to weather ’60s comparisons, it should be noted that it is no Technicolor pop-sike trip: it instead suggests the grittier days of Haight-Ashbury after the part-time hippies left for suburbia. Many songs are jaunty enough to mask the gloom of Lortz’s lyrics; his characters are often in impossible positions, unsavory binds, or raw malaise. “There’s a boot heel that’s under your chin/That says you ain’t never gonna win,” goes The Prisoner; in Out of Time, Lortz sings of a man who’s “Got an itchy trigger finger sticking in your side/Holds you tight and at that range he ain’t gonna miss you/And no one else will girl cause you’re already dead inside.” Out of Time and Back to Me both casually mention survival prostitution. “Ain’t you sick of hearing things are gonna work out,” asks Out of Time, its narrator frustrated because “Everybody talks a lot of pretty stories/But when they talk you know they don’t even look you in the eye.” The final tune, Armageddon Song, is a rollicking piece featuring group vocals by Lortz, Morrison, and their studio companions that seems to poke fun at the album’s bleak tone, concluding “Everybody knows it, baby/We’re all gonna die.” The next D&D album, ’09’s Sunset/Sunrise, ratcheted up the production values a bit yet isn’t as compelling as the raw debut. It’s hard to imagine that the musically roving Lortz and Morrison will continue long as the Dutchess and the Duke; but, regardless of their longevity, they’ve created one great work in their debut album.

UPDATE: In October 2010, the Dutchess and the Duke indeed announced their intention to split, their final show scheduled for late November 2010 and Lortz going on to a new group called Case Studies.
Highlights: Reservoir Park, Out of Time, Strangers, Mary

Sublime bit: The final minute of swelling choruses of I Am Just a Ghost, the album’s epic showstopper at a mere four-and-a-half minutes.

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