Monday, May 31, 2010

70. Good News for People Who Love Bad News

70. Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse (Epic, 2004)

Major-label deals for indie rockers didn’t come as thick and fast in 2000 as they had ten years prior.  It was with some surprise, then, when in that year suburban Seattle’s Modest Mouse wound up on Epic Records.  Since 1994, the group had recorded two full-lengths and four EPs for a smattering of labels including Washington state’s K and Up.  These records emphasized a staccato guitar sound, unpredictable chord changes, and the odd drift into experimental sonics; their most distinctive element, though, has always been the voice of singer/guitarist Isaac Brock.  While capable of straight, melodic singing--sometimes almost like a huskier Daniel Johnston--the raspy-voiced Brock often uses a twitchy, nearly strangulated delivery prone to howls and shouts.  Brock’s lyrics are complexly arranged and often avoid typical verse/chorus structure; alongside the intricate music, this can make for a somewhat claustrophobic effect.  The band’s first Epic effort and third full-length, The Moon & Antarctica (’00), is a dense, hour-long album with an expanded aural palette and a more introspective, melancholy feel than their other material.  It was successful enough to warrant an Epic release of associated tracks, outtakes, and demos, the ’01 EP Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, even though half of that material was previously released on the indie EP Night on the Sun.

Modest Mouse’s fortunes grew even further with their second Epic full-length, Good News for People Who Love Bad News; on the back of unlikely hit single Float On, the album went platinum in just four months.*  Their shortest LP to date at just 48 minutes (its predecessors averaged nearly 70), it is also the brightest and liveliest.  The band now grown to a quartet (and without longtime drummer Jeremiah Green, who would return later in ’04), the instrumentation expanded to include mellotron, pump organ, timpani, and other accents.  The album opens with a ten-second fanfare performed by New Orleans legends Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  The simple nursery-rhyme cadence of the first proper song, The World at Large, eases the listener into the album before third track Float On’s jaunty ode to optimism.  No plain “don’t worry, be happy” embarrassment, its characters get fired, collide with police cars, get scammed by hustlers, and lip off to friends; silver linings prevail, Brock ensuring us “We’ll all float on OK.”  The buoyant second single Ocean Breathes Salty boasts an even poppier score.  A good portion of the album is given to jolly if skewed arrangements; Dance Hall is a frantic stomp, Bukowski an accordion-sweetened lament on bad behavior, and This Devil’s Workday a sinister march backed by the Dirty Dozen.  Closing track The Good Times Are Killing Me features contributions from the Flaming Lips, who also mixed the track.  The sequencing and departure from the band’s usual epic running times is a key asset for Good News, avoiding the listener fatigue marring the group’s other strong releases.  The album’s exceptional follow-up, the ’07 We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, saw the unexpected addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr; though lacking the conviviality of Good News, it is arguably an even stronger album.  The Moon & Antarctica is regarded by many fans as the high-water mark** (also garnering an expanded and remixed ’04 reissue and a 2010 deluxe vinyl reissue); despite all this, at decade’s end Good News for People Who Love Bad News remained the band’s most accessible, enjoyable work.

* See the RIAA database at

** For just one piece of testimony, see a May 2004 Metacritic readers' poll showing the album winning the top spot by a 21% margin at (retrieved May 31, 2010).

Highlights: Ocean Breathes Salty, Bury Me With It, Float On, The View

Sublime bit: The tense build-up and resolution of penultimate track One Chance, running from 1:36 to 1:58.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

71. Bugged

71. Bugged, Babybird (Echo/Roadrunner UK, 2000)

Experimental actor and amateur recordist Stephen Jones spent much of the ’90s making hundreds of solo demos, releasing many in a series of inventive and irreverent lo-fi albums under the moniker Baby Bird.  They revealed Jones to be a natural at numerous styles--ambient instrumentals; aching, falsetto-laden ballads; nutty, Casio-driven pranksterism; and effortlessly catchy pop.  Each came with a postcard asking listeners to vote for their three favorite songs.  Interest brewed in the British press, and after his fourth LP Jones scored record deals in the UK and US. For the big-league debut, Ugly Beautiful (’96), Jones and his touring band recorded slick new versions of songs chosen by the postcard voters; a few new tunes were recorded as well.  One of the new tunes, the bubbly You’re Gorgeous, became a #3 UK hit and the group was temporarily swept up in the commercial tidal wave of Britpop.  After this, Jones issued a fifth solo lo-fi work, Dying Happy (’97); for the next studio album, Jones and the group (less keyboardist Huw Chadbourne) retreated from the high-spirited stylings and chart pressures of Ugly BeautifulThere’s Something Going On (’98) is not short on catchy tunes, but is weighted more heavily toward dark, melancholy material; the album is stronger and more unified than its catch-all predecessor.  No more hits were forthcoming, though, and the group’s US label dropped them without releasing the album; as the Nineties ended, Jones and Babybird returned to cult-act status.

The third Babybird album, Bugged, appeared in the first year of the new decade, the group down to a trio including new member and longtime Babybird engineer and collaborator Matt Hay.  The most energetic, inspired Babybird record to date, the beat-happy Bugged opens boisterously with the thumping, guitar-spiked dance tune The F-Word (later used as theme music for TV chef Gordon Ramsay’s cooking show of the same name).  Eyes in the Back of Your Head and Till You Die follow a similar raucous model, but the album’s most sparkling moments come with its calmer tunes.  Fireflies has a gentle drum loop and simple piano line, its choruses of “If I find them/I’m going to kill them” highlighting Jones’s knack for turning caustic lyrics into pretty melodies.  Wave Your Hands manages to spin a cliche into a beautiful multi-tracked vocal showcase (“Throw our hands in the air/And wave them in the air/Like you just don’t care”).  The album has the plushest arrangements of Jones’s catalog to date; Hay’s programming adds many fine touches, like the synth trumpets in Getaway and strings on All I Want Is Love.  After Bugged, the Aughts saw Jones release three albums under his own name (including two sets of ambient “soundtracks”) and an ’08 double album eponymously credited to Death of the Neighbourhood.  He occasionally revisits the Babybird label, as with the ’06 Between My Ears There’s Nothing but Music; for an ’02 box set of the lo-fi recordings he even made a sixth volume, The Black Album. They all have their moments, but Bugged is his strongest Aughts release by far and a perfect entry point to his complex discography for those unable to locate his classic lo-fi albums.

Highlights: Fireflies, The F-Word, Wave Your Hands, All I Want Is Love

Sublime bit: The shimmering, minimal piano lines that flit through the choruses of Fireflies.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

72. Candylion

72. Candylion, Gruff Rhys (Team Love, 2007)

After more than five years fronting Welsh pranksters Ffa Coffi Pawb and another twelve with the like-minded Super Furry Animals, amiable singer-guitarist (and, with short-lived ’80s group Emily, drummer) Gruff Rhys released his first solo record.  The ’05 Yr Atal Genhedlaeth is a crisp and energetic 29-minute Welsh-language romp played almost entirely by Rhys.  Before his next solo effort, Super Furry Animals released their seventh album LoveKraft (also ’05).  A departure for the band, it was their first to feature substantial songwriting and lead vocals from members other than Rhys.  They also approached the LoveKraft sessions with a new strategy to collect songs that sounded of a piece rather than individually striking, resulting in the rejection of numerous Rhys compositions from the final lineup.  This surplus of songs lent itself to the creation of another Rhys solo record, resulting in Candylion.  While much of Yr Atal Genhedlaeth has a sparse, minimal feel due to its origins as a true solo project, the songs on its follow-up possess more fully realized arrangements, many reminiscent of the eclectic, psychedelic pop of LoveKraftCandylion features a larger supporting cast than Genhedlaeth, most notably the backing vocals of Lisa Jen Brown of Welsh folk-rock group 9Bach on seven tracks.  Like LoveKraft, this second Rhys solo LP was co-produced by Mario Caldato, Jr. (best known for his work on several Beastie Boys albums); also like the work of Rhys’s primary band, most of the album is sung in English.

Candylion is a whimsical effort, its playful sleeve showing a cardboard lion and pictures of Rhys assembling it.  The album opens with a sample of prog group Seventh Wave’s ’74 tune Things to Come, reduced to a short bongo-and-synth theme like a news program’s intro music, and a spoken introduction by Caldato’s wife Samantha: “Welcome to Candylion, an album of songs for acoustic guitar and voice.  But this isn’t a song; this is just the beginning,” before the gentle loping of the title track’s glockenspiel and light-funk drums kicks in.  The Court of King Arthur is a jaunty harmonica-tinged shuffle; Beacon in the Darkness is a shuffling country love song with pedal steel; Now That the Feeling Has Gone has a mischievous arrangement alternating between blithe jazz-combo verses and gloomy, portentous choruses.  Con CariƱo is a pulsing, Spanish-sung lullaby; the latin-flavored Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru, one of two Welsh-sung entries, is the album’s most spirited tune.  An ode to automobile cruising, its repeated title (meaning “driving”) sounds like an English exclamation of “goody goody goody!”  The fun face of Candylion often disguises darker lyrics: the seemingly sugary title track finds Rhys singing “Dreams can come true/Nightmares also...We’re flying in love/Or falling in hate.”  The narrator of Lonesome Words sees “Vultures in the sky/Ready to pounce down/On my corpse one day.”  Cycle of Violence concludes, “Dirty bombs and clean ones/Look the same if you look closely.”  Coming last in the Candylion track list is its most audacious entry.  Starting with another intro by Ms. Caldato (“Candy Airlines welcomes you aboard flight F-U-N”) and taking up a full third of the album’s running time is the 15-minute Skylon!  To a slow-burning, subtle groove, Rhys spins an outlandish, comical tale of a bomb disposal expert who winds up on an airplane stuck next to an actress he despises.  He thwarts a hijacker, diffuses a bomb, ponders letting it explode for “The golden opportunity/To dispose of a TV personality,” but saves the plane; after escaping death together, he falls in love with the actress and they--of course--have a love child.  A rare epic tune that stays amusing after repeated listens, it caps off a fully enjoyable detour from one of the Aughts’ most colorful songwriters.

Highlights: Skylon!, Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru, The Court of King Arthur, Candylion

Sublime bit: The breezy sensuality of Cycle of Violence’s bubbling-brook arrangement, especially the strings and Rhys’s overdubbed harmonies.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

73. 21st Century Man

73. 21st Century Man, Luke Haines (Fantastic Plastic UK, 2009)

Auteurs frontman and pop diarist Luke Haines was the enfant terrible of Britpop, earning a reputation as a self-aggrandizing heir to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, though with a penchant for erudition and withering analysis rather than abstruse ranting and lager consumption.  The Auteurs having disintegrated in ’99, Haines eased into solo work with the ’01 soundtrack to the Paul Tickell film Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (see #101); notwithstanding his solipsistic but dazzling ’03 re-recordings of the Auteurs’ high points on the wry self-celebration Das Capital: The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines and the Auteurs, Haines’s Aughts work saw his narcissistic qualities fade with age.  A few months before 21st Century Man, he issued the ’86-’97 autobiography Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall; its introduction states: “When I sat down to write this memoir I was surprised how much of this stuff was ricocheting about in my subconscious: youth, ambition, failure, depression, excess, spite and stupidity. Now I think it has stopped. I am a recovering egomaniac.”

21st Century Man, like its predecessor Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop (’06; see #118), still encompasses criticism of middle-class life and its weaker-minded participants, societal conditions in England, historical overviews of post-War culture, and himself.  While Rocker depicted ’70s England, 21st Century Man works as a millennial-era assessment informed by the past.  The record opens quietly with Suburban Mourning, a mid-tempo account of a neighborhood so happy that a couple of “Satanists” don’t even feel comfortable there, where people live and die never knowing how bland their lives are.  The lilting Love Letter to London, as pretty a ballad as Haines ever recorded, addresses those who have babies and move away (“We’ll not see them again/It’s just like the Blitz, the countryside groans with the stress and the strain”).  “They said that they loved you/But they used you as a playground/When they were young,” Haines sings, resentful of those who hedonistically suck the city dry before abandoning it when they feel like growing up.  The two-minute oddity White Honky Afro is the catchiest tune here, a tale of a 1979 accident in which Haines was hit by a car and the subsequent unrelated suicide of the driver’s son; the repetitions of its title in each chorus provide the record’s catchiest hooks.  The title track is the album’s finest number, a personal account of post-war 20th Century Britain where “they tried to give us a collective memory” through culture, politics, and folklore, though “now everything’s turned to dust.”  It contains the most stunning line of Haines’s career: “What can you do when you’ve made your masterpiece?/That’s what I did in the Nineties/I was all over the Nineties/Yeah, I was all over in the Nineties.”  In admitting that his star fell over ten years ago, the man who outrageously reviewed his own catalog in the liner notes of Das Capital, giving six of eight albums a five-star ranking, managed to seal up his finest album in a decade with one of the greatest songs of his career.

Highlights: 21st Century Man, White Honky Afro, Love Letter to London, English Southern Man

Sublime bit: The breathless, insistent, and inscrutable refrain of White Honky Afro, coming in four separate rounds during the song’s two minutes.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

74. Rather Ripped

74. Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth (DGC, 2006)

Sessions for the NYC noiseniks’ fourteenth full-length studio LP began with the group once again a four-piece, temporary fifth member Jim O’Rourke (see #77) having left the group after touring behind the ’04 Sonic Nurse. Rather Ripped would be their ninth and final Geffen studio release since their 1990 major-label debut with the company.  Described by Thurston Moore as a “super song record,”* the album boasts an immediacy making for the group’s poppiest, most accessible outing since ’92’s Dirty, even when its handful of ballads are considered.  The urgency of many of the songs comes from stripped-down, streamlined playing largely absent among their last several albums’ pensive art-rock.  The lyrics too suggest a new approach, often skipping a tendency for abstract, beat-poet metaphor.  A handful of songs unflinchingly address relationships, lending the record a theme of domestic scrutiny that was a striking change of pace for Sonic Youth and, though no claim is made to autobiography, particularly interesting considering the real-life marriage of band members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.  The album’s vinyl version, pictured here, came housed in a textless, monochromatic variation of the fully titled blood-red compact disc release, suggesting an old mimeographed punk gig flyer; the outdated computer fonts inside harkened back to ’80s Sonic releases like Master-Dik and The Whitey Album; then, there was the message “goodbye sonic” on side one’s label; all of this provided additional intrigue: one could almost believe the band was giving a nod to the old days before breaking up, until realizing the goodbye message was plastered over an old photo of soon-to-be-former boss David Geffen.  Rather Ripped--named for a long-defunct Berkeley record store--is no bastion of secret symbolism, but simply the decade’s most direct, unfettered Sonic Youth recording.

The album blasts open with two of the most propulsive numbers of the band’s career, the Gordon-sung Reena and Moore’s Incinerate.  Both songs are tightly wound, with straight-on, four-on-the-floor drumming from Steve Shelley and clean, speed-strummed guitar licks by Moore.  “It’s four alarm, girl, there’s nothing to see/Hear the sirens come for me,” Moore sings in Incinerate, immolated by a witchy lover.  Guitarist and third singer Lee Ranaldo contributes Rats, another charged number and the album’s most complex lyric, its three bridges and choruses structured differently like a prose poem, about a toxic push-and-pull relationship always ebbing back to the point “when your love has died/and you rat on me.”  The album’s most uncharacteristic song is the seven-minute, Moore-sung Pink Steam.  It opens with a dark, heady groove, almost bluesy, before an extended guitar solo whose melody echoes the eventual vocal line that does not kick in until the song’s five-minute mark.  The lyric sheet on the band’s Web site (there is none included with the album) denotes the line, “I’m the man who loves you mother,” but this is easily heard as “I’m the man who loves your mother”; taken as the latter, the lyric turns the song into a creepy depiction of preying on a girlfriend’s daughter.  Jams Run Free, a Gordon vocal of an impressionist Moore lyric, provides the album’s centerpiece; “I love/The way/You move/I hope it’s not too late for me,” she sings, the album’s tense interpersonal analyses put on hold for a testimony to sheer feeling.  Ending the record is Moore’s hushed Or, a tender denouement imagining a young fan’s awkward questions to a favorite band: “How long’s the tour?/ What time you guys playing?/ Where you going next?/ What comes first/ The music/ Or the words?”  Sonic Youth’s next studio LP, The Eternal (’09), found them back on an indie label, Matador, continuing to pursue the energetic spirit of Rather Ripped yet coming nowhere close to the ebullience and vitality of their final Geffen album.

* College Music Journal, February 3, 2006.

Highlights: Incinerate, Reena, Jams Run Free, Pink Steam

Sublime bit: Yet another in Moore’s long line of exhilarating arpeggiated guitar solos, running from 3:05 to 3:30 of Incinerate.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

75. Silver & Gold

75. Silver & Gold, Neil Young (Reprise, 2000)

When 2000 dawned, it had been over three years since the last Neil Young studio album--the longest gap of his 31-year solo career.  That record, the pleasingly disjointed ’96 Broken Arrow, came shortly after the death of Young’s friend and producer David Briggs; the two had worked together for 26 years.  A tour with Crazy Horse followed, along with the ’97 double-live Year of the Horse, as of this writing the last full release with his longtime backing band.*  He spent the rest of the ’90s working on two projects: Looking Forward, his first record with Crosby, Stills & Nash since ’88 and only their third studio LP since their ’70 debut; and his 25th solo album, Silver & Gold.  For his first Aughts release, Young returned to the acoustic stylings visited most recently on the ’92 Harvest Moon and several times before, most famously on his ’72 hit album HarvestHarvest loyalists tend to claim any country-leaning Young album as a sequel.  Emphasizing this suspicion for some is the appearance on Silver & Gold of the aforementioned albums’ steel guitarist Ben Keith and backup singer Linda Ronstadt; however, Ronstadt (along with fellow occasional Young collaborator Emmylou Harris) sings on only one song, Red Sun, and Keith’s return speaks not to a planned third part of Harvest but to Young’s tendency to keep a handful of backing bands that he rotates depending on the musical needs of his current project.  Another habit blurring his catalog’s lines is the return to old compositions when the time is right; for Silver & Gold, he revived a pair of unrecorded songs dating to ’82 (the title track) and ’84 (Razor Love), both of which he’d played live in the years since.**

The revisiting of songs almost twenty years old matches the album’s themes of reminiscing and reevaluation.  This is most explicit on Buffalo Springfield Again, the most upbeat number and a candid account of Young’s memories with that group in the late ’60s before their acrimonious breakup (“It ate us up/Now I ain’t sayin’ who was right or wrong”); hearing the group on the radio, Young imagines a reunion, stating “I’d just like to play for the fun we had.”  Parental love is addressed in two songs.  Daddy Went Walkin’ is a warm account of a father’s mundane activities and set of observations--the gathering of firewood, his corduroy pants and plaid shirt, riding in a car with a dog--concluding with an idealized depiction of the father’s love for the mother.  When not reminiscing, Young examines the solidification of existing relationships.  In Red Sun, Young’s narrator imagines a placid future with a lover, adding “I dreamt that my mama and daddy were there.”  Opening cut Good to See You describes reuniting with a lover, its title’s simple sentiment amplified by the deeper emotional resonance of a permanent homecoming.  Distant Camera asserts, “Life is changing everywhere I go/New things and old both disappear/If life is a photograph fading in the mirror/All I want is a song of love to sing to you.”  A line in Without Rings addressing communication failure--“My software’s not compatible with you”--was a howler in a pre-Web 2.0 society, yet resonates more keenly a decade later when so many relationships are mitigated online.  An ambling, amicable album, Silver & Gold was Young’s last strong release before a flaccid six-year stretch, a tender acknowledgment that love is our most precious asset.

* The 2003 album Greendale is credited to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but does not include the entire group.  Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro did not participate due to Young's conclusion that the album required only one guitarist.

** Razor Love is shown on Silver & Gold credits as having a 1987 copyright date; bootleg recordings reveal performances of the song as early as 1984.

Highlights: Good to See You, Buffalo Springfield Again, Razor Love, Distant Camera

Sublime bit: The emotion in the verse endings of “I feel like I know what my life is for” and “I feel like making up for lost time” in Good to See You.
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

76. Loose Fur

76. Loose Fur (Drag City, 2003)

The eponymous debut of Loose Fur, a trio comprising Jeff Tweedy of roots titans Wilco, experimental composer/producer Jim O’Rourke, and indie art-rock drummer Glenn Kotche, came two and a half years after its recording.  In the interim, Wilco endured their record label’s notorious rejection of the ’02 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its eventual release and widespread acclaim, and a line-up change including Kotche’s replacement of longtime drummer Ken Coomer.  The polarization of Wilco’s sound that came with the aggressively experimental Foxtrot made it easy to presume Loose Fur an offshoot of Tweedy’s newfound sonic adventuring; but, it was the other way around.  An unexpected meeting with O’Rourke and Kotche galvanized Tweedy after his increasing dissatisfaction with early Foxtrot sessions.  Invited in May ’00 to perform with an artist of his choosing at Chicago’s Noise Pop Festival, longtime art-music buff Tweedy picked O’Rourke after his recent discovery of the composer’s ’97 album Bad Timing.  O’Rourke suggested including his friend Kotche, and festival rehearsals were so productive that before the live show the three had worked up the skeleton of what would become their debut album.*  Like Bad Timing, which consists of four lengthy instrumentals, Loose Fur finds inspiration in extended soundscapes.  Its six songs running as long as nine minutes, the album takes cues from not only the conceptual work of O’Rourke and Kotche but also from Tweedy’s pop sensibilities and the singer-songwriter tradition occasionally explored by O’Rourke in his solo material (cf. his ’01 LP Insignificance, much of which features the other members of Loose Fur).

Opening cut and aborted Wilco number Laminated Cat begins with O’Rourke’s atmospheric effects and a minimal, mid-tempo Kotche bass-drum beat with skittering handheld percussion.  A detached Tweedy vocal enters nearly a minute later with the ominous line, “Springtime comes and the leaves are back on the trees again/The snipers are harder to see, my friends.”  At the midway point Tweedy’s vocal ends and a cyclical, nearly Krautrock bass-and-guitar groove kicks in; the remainder of the seven minutes focuses on this riff and its variations.  Album closer and third Tweedy vocal Chinese Apple begins as a delicate folk piece with finger-picked acoustic guitar, then bleeds into a two-minute noise interlude before a reprise of the vocal melody and gentle conclusion augmented by a stripped-down O’Rourke piano line.  Liquidation Totale, an instrumental with a banjo part and herky-jerky guitar motif, wends through several short movements before a cacophonous finale.  O’Rourke delivers two lead vocals; Elegant Transaction is a startling replica of ‘70s adult contemporary subverted by lyrics such as “Like urine loves cold slate.”  So Long, draped on a dirge-paced lyric about alienation, is the album’s most avant-garde piece and a percussion showcase for Kotche, a rare rock drummer creative enough to perform compelling solo gigs.  His innovative performance here seems to spur on Tweedy, who contributes equally inspired and challenging electric guitar improvisation before the song concludes with a bucolic “da-da-da” vocal coda from O’Rourke.  The group released a second Aughts LP, the more pop-based and less memorable ’06 Born Again in the USA. The trio’s debut is the keeper.  A challenging oddity, it facilitated Tweedy’s creative rebirth yet stands as a substantial, rewarding piece of new American modernism in its own right.

* For a thorough overview of the collaboration's origins and eventual impact on Tweedy's main band, see chapters 15-16 of Greg Kot's strong biography Wilco: Learning How to Die (Broadway Books, 2004).

Highlights: Laminated Cat, Chinese Apple, Elegant Transaction, You Were Wrong

Sublime bit: That hypnotic groove in the second half of Laminated Cat, especially from 3:35 to 4:45.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

77. Murray Street

77. Murray Street, Sonic Youth (DGC, 2002)

By ’00, noise-rock veterans Sonic Youth had long straddled two worlds--the avant-garde community; and, through its long-term contract with Geffen Records, the pop music scene, MTV, and the mainstream press.  In ’97, the group began a series of experimental, improvisational recordings called Musical Perspectives*, released on their own SYR label and providing a catalog running parallel to their “pop” releases.  By the end of the Nineties, they had released four volumes.  The third, the hour-long, three-song ’98 Invito Al Cielo, was billed to Sonic Youth/Jim O’Rourke.  A longtime producer and musician also active in the pop and underground music communities, O’Rourke became a fixture on nearly all of their releases until joining the band as a full-fledged member in ’01.  His tenure would be limited, leaving the group in ’05, but Sonic Youth recorded two studio albums with him in the line-up; the first of these, Murray Street, is one of the best of the group’s five mainstream Aughts albums.

Sonic Youth titled their ’00 Geffen album NYC Ghosts & Flowers; continuing this contemplation of their home base, they named twelfth full-length Murray Street for the location of their studio.  The 9/11 terror attacks interrupted recording; located three blocks from Ground Zero, the studio sustained some damage.  Though much of the album was written before the disaster, a mixture of sadness and determination informs many songs.**  While Ghosts & Flowers was a spartan and tense but hushed affair, Murray Street is a more organic recording.  The eight-minute Rain on Tin points back to the long jamming that began with the 25-minute The Diamond Sea on ’95’s Washing Machine; confident yet tempered guitar lines replace the abrasive maelstroms of their earlier material.  The song’s eight minutes consist almost entirely of a guitar jam, its clean, spiraling arpeggios reminiscent of NYC forbears Television.  The album’s centerpiece is the Lee Ranaldo contribution Karen Revisited.  A Thousand Leaves (’98) included his song Karen Koltrane, which asked “Are we still together/Will she stay forever”; Karen Revisited, a loose sequel, finds its subject damaged by fast living and peaks with the devastating proclamation of “See you/Some time?/Ask/Me/If/I/CARE!” before melting into a simmering eight-minute noise coda.  The album’s most incongruous tunes are the spasmodic Kim Gordon number Plastic Sun, the shortest song by far at just over two minutes; and Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style, featuring two members of sax-heavy noise outfit and early Sonic Youth contemporaries Borbetomagus, which could’ve fit on their ’92 noise-pop excursion Dirty.  Disconnection Notice is a rumination on the melancholy side of iconoclasm, and the Kim Gordon-sung Sympathy for the Strawberry closes the album with a pensive, almost free-form vocal marked by snatches of beautiful melody.  Inextricably linked to the tragic time in which it was created, Murray Street possesses a humanistic quality not always present on Sonic Youth recordings. It is a quiet and overlooked gem in their expansive catalog.

NOTE: On the vinyl version of the album, the sequence of the CD's third and fourth tracks, Rain on Tin and Karen Revisited, are reversed to fit everything on a single LP; the difference is not pronounced enough to recommend one format over the other.

* Informally, but more commonly, referred to as the SYR series.

** For an in-depth examination of the group's experiences in the aftermath of 9/11, see David Browne's excellent 2008 Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (Da Capo Press), specifically pp. 353-361.

Highlights: Karen Revisited, Rain on Tin, The Empty Page, Sympathy for the Strawberry

Sublime bit: The aforementioned climax of Karen Revisited, coming at the 2:21 mark.
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Friday, May 7, 2010

78. Aw Cmon

78. Aw Cmon, Lambchop (Merge, 2004)

The Aughts began on a high note for Nashville country-soul adventurers Lambchop.  Their ’00 album Nixon was named Album of the Year by UK mag Uncut at a time when the fluctuating confederation of over a dozen members was relatively unknown in their homeland.  ’02 follow-up and somber epic Is a Woman was an artistic breakthrough and their best-produced LP to date.  These albums’ success allowed frontman Kurt Wagner to quit his job laying floors; with his new free time, he embarked on a project to write a song a day.  Wagner still a reticent pop musician after nearly a decade of recording, the project served as a self-legitimization exercise and provided him with enough material for two albums.  In ’03, Lambchop was commissioned to perform a live score to a festival showing of F. W. Murnau’s 1927 silent film Sunrise.  Wagner incorporated his daily songs into that effort, and Lambchop’s ninth album, No You Cmon, would open with an instrumental named for the film.  By 2004, releasing two albums on one day was no longer the dazzling stunt it was in ’91 when Guns ’n’ Roses issued Use Your Illusion I & II or when Bruce Springsteen broke up the E Street Band to unleash ’92 career nadirs Lucky Town and Human Touch.  In ’02, Tom Waits brought dignity to the tactic with fraternal twins Alice and Blood Money.  Lambchop’s UK label, City Slang, released the band’s diptych as a regular double LP with two titles; stateside, however, Aw Cmon and No You Cmon remained two separate entities.

Aw Cmon is the superior of the two albums.  While they are similarly structured, boasting the lushest arrangements of the band’s career to date, uncharacteristically including numerous instrumentals, strengthening their unique amalgamation of soul and the Nashville sound, and operating with a sense of levity absent from their predecessor, Aw Cmon simply possesses stronger and more memorable songs.  No You Cmon is the group’s weakest Aughts effort, an occasionally silly record whose arguable highlight is the quasi-instrumental doo-wop lark Shang a Dang.  Aw Cmon opens with instrumental Being Tyler, starting with a sprightly, mildly funky bassline reminscent of earlier rhythmic Lambchop efforts like their ’98 cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Give Me Your Love before blooming into a breezy orchestral flourish.  Aw Cmon’s other instrumental, Timothy B. Schmidt, wryly named for the Poco/Eagles bassist, is a bouncy, mid-tempo, piano-led pop confection.  Women Help to Create the Kind of Men They Despise climaxes with a slowly chanted vocal line reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s ’67 nutty operetta Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.  “I hate candy/But I like rain,” opens I Hate Candy before gliding into a slinky groove on choruses of “Where’s my little trouble girl/There’s no real trouble, girl.”  Something’s Going On finds Wagner’s voice deeper than ever--going to nearly subwoofer levels on the bridge--his vocals syncopated to the point that they almost function as percussion despite an intricate lyric about anxiety that manages to name check Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles.  The album’s most earnest number, the aching, piano-and-string-laden Steve McQueen, addresses the value of honesty: “Make sure we never ever stand in each other’s way/When you got something that you got to say that’s real/Look to each other.”  Aw Cmon, along with its slighter sister, provides the most fun in Lambchop’s dense Aughts catalog; a playful record, often sensual and occasionally as poignant as their more sober recordings, Aw Cmon demonstrates the band’s increasing virtuosity while remaining true to Wagner’s singular, homespun sense of wonderment.

Highlights: Something’s Going On, Steve McQueen, I Hate Candy, Timothy B. Schmidt

Sublime bit: When Wagner pleads, if ungrammatically, “Take me serious,” 2:48 into Steve McQueen.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

79. ’Sno Angel Like You

79. ’Sno Angel Like You, Howe Gelb (Thrill Jockey, 2006)

When people discuss “Americana” music, the tendency is to think of southern-based, country-inspired tunes--fiddles, twang, the high and lonesome sound.  Howe Gelb may be based in Arizona and his music more evocative of the desert and the sparse southwest, but his work since 1985—solo, collaborative, and with his primary group Giant Sand—qualifies him as one of the longest-running purveyors of Americana.  No stranger to electrified rock yet frequently operating acoustically, Gelb’s labyrinthine catalog covers wide swaths of styles from loose-limbed, rootsy boogie to albums of piano-based instrumentals; he often plays by feel rather than running through deliberately charted material.  He has a penchant for revisiting old works, including reissuing albums with new cover art, titles, and reassembled track listings.  Select any record at random, though, and it will contain at least a handful of rough-hewn gems.  It is this sense of reliability that makes his ’06 album ’Sno Angel Like You all the more special.  Standing tall among his sometimes interchangeable flood of releases, the LP is billed as a solo record—his twelfth, if one counts everything from fan-club items to digital-only EPs—but is notable for featuring Ottawa, Ontario’s Voices of Praise Gospel Choir.  Invited to a blues festival there in ’03, Gelb was transfixed when he saw the choir perform.  Asking their director, Steve Johnston, if it would be possible to record secular music with them, the response was, “Sure, if you keep it positive!”

Gelb took his work with the ten-person, co-ed choir as an opportunity for new music and for reworkings of Giant Sand tunes from as early as ’88, as well as three solo tunes by Gelb’s late best friend, longtime collaborator, and occasional Giant Sand member Rainer Ptacek.  Though presented as a secular record, much of 'Sno Angel contains inspirational messages.  Gelb had long held bigger ideas for some of this material; an earlier version of Get to Leave, from the ’95 Giant Sand oddities LP Backyard Barbeque Broadcast, opens with Gelb saying, “This is a gospel song,” though it resembled nothing of the sort.  'Sno Angel opens almost tentatively with a new version of this tune, carried by a barely-there guitar plucking and a gentle percussive time-keeping, the choir contributing understated harmonies on the choruses; they break into laughter at the end, giving some idea of the good times had during these sessions.  Rather than remaining locked in the full-bore, ecstatic overkill that sometimes plagues modern gospel, Voices of Praise contributes effective accents to the songs: in But I Did Not, they provide a countervocal, following each of Gelb’s accounts of nearly committed sins with a tempered singing of the title; their work in Hey Man and Love Knows (No Borders) is pure soul balladry; the slinky groove of That’s How Things Get Done finds them adding nearly sensual ah-oos before delivering the soulful R&B choruses.  A handful of tunes afford them more traditional gospel-choir duties, the finest being the funky Howlin’ a Gale; the hardest-rocking tune here, it features Gelb on ripping electric guitar and full-throated choruses from the choir.  Those seeking more should check out ’Sno Angel Winging It (Live), an excellent ’09 CD/DVD combo featuring an ’06 Ottawa gig including material from the studio album, one new tune, and yet more reworked Giant Sand songs.  Gelb’s work with Voices of Praise may have been a one-off, but more music from this bountiful collaboration would be welcomed.

Highlights: Howlin’ a Gale, But I Did Not, Neon Filler, That’s How Things Get Done

Sublime bit: The swelling build-up to the first glorious chorus of Howlin’ a Gale, beginning at 1:53.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

80. The Forgotten Arm

80. The Forgotten Arm, Aimee Mann (SuperEgo, 2005)

By 2000, fifteen years had passed since Virginia-born singer-songwriter Aimee Mann and her band ’Til Tuesday had a top-ten hit with the MTV staple Voices Carry.  In the interim, the group released two more albums, including their overlooked final LP, Everything’s Different Now (’88), and Mann issued two solo full-lengths.  Both of her ’90s solo efforts were clouded by record-biz problems; pre-fab major label Imago collapsed a year after releasing her ’93 solo bow Whatever, and ’95’s I’m With Stupid saw her with Geffen who found fault with her inability to reproduce Voices Carry.  Buying out her own contract and clearing the cobwebs with substantial contributions to the score of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’99 film Magnolia, Mann recovered by setting up one of the first artist-run Internet distribution channels for her own music; all of her Aughts work would be released domestically on her own SuperEgo Records.  Her first Aughts LP, the ’00 Bachelor No. 2, was a critical success and best solo work to date.  It proved that alternative business models could be profitable for a major artist, and Mann was a rare example of a video-age pop star whose abandonment of typical industry trappings resulted in some of her finest work.  Next was Lost in Space (’02), a respectable set that holds up better than her ’90s work yet is not as compelling or effortless as its predecessor.  After an ’04 concert outing, Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, came her fifth solo studio LP, The Forgotten Arm.  It was easy to be suspicious of this record.  After the slight step backward of Lost in Space, a concept album about an alcoholic boxer wasn’t the most promising sign.  Even if the concept was just a mechanical trick to drive the writing process, it didn’t matter; The Forgotten Arm turned out to be a highlight of Mann’s career.

John and Caroline meet in the opening track, Dear John, when she sees him boxing at a fair on Mann’s home turf of Richmond.  Caroline reveals almost immediately that “there’s something wrong with me,” while John soon thereafter ups the ante by leaving to go to rehab (Goodbye Caroline).  She stays true to him, even though he’s “Going Through the Motions” and, as another song title describes John’s recalcitrance, “I Can’t Get My Head Around It.”  Their trajectory is predictable, not by any fault of Mann’s but because of the pattern of the addict: promises, relapses, promises.  Caroline and John’s story ends with them reunited once again, in another hotel in yet another city, their love undeniable and Caroline concluding “All I want to do today is make you happy.”  The album is compelling not because of the characters, though, but because of Mann’s sharpened songwriting.  The songs on The Forgotten Arm are some of her most focused, inspired compositions, and the performances are among the most spirited of her solo career to date.  As with all of Mann’s albums, she and her band (here featuring guitarist Jeff Trott) are skillful and polished; the tasteful production of fellow songwriter Joe Henry avoids any charges of wanton slickness.  While on first blush The Forgotten Arm seemed a troubling concept, those who persevered were treated to a triumphant expository accomplishment that, song for song, may be Mann's best album.

Highlights: Goodbye Caroline, Dear John, Video, That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart

Sublime bit: The way Mann’s voice descends on the words “nicotine cloud” at 2:09 of Goodbye Caroline as the song upshifts to its driving coda.
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