Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A jester with angst

Or Give Me Death
Score: 8

Kanye didn't know how good he had it.

His girl might've been a gold digger, but at least she wasn't digging his grave.

David Terry, the man behind Aqueduct, needs to have a talk with his sweetie.

"You say you're not after my money / but lately you've been acting funny / planning my funeral, choosing my coffin," he muses on "You'll Get Yours." The kicker comes when he deadpans, "The black one's nice, but the gray one's fantastic."

With inspired orchestration and more hooks than a pirate party, Or Give Me Death goes for the funny bone often, and it often succeeds.

The Postal Service pop of "Broken Records" seems straight until Terry suddenly switches to vocoder to close out the first chorus.

"Keep It Together," by contrast, lets you know upfront that it wants to play. The cheesy, buoyant synths bring to mind characters running in place or in slow motion on some '70s cop show.

Droll humor abounds in the faux murder ballad (and "The Princess Bride"-referencing) "As You Wish." Mariachi horns serenade until a marching band tempo shoves them off the stage. The persistently peppy snare makes it the most upbeat song about a killer since The Beatles were cracking noggins with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

Terry sets up his vocals so that they counterpoint: one soft and melodic, the other boisterous and discordant. The off-key one is dominant, casually mentioning, "I'll probably kill you in the morning." The other is submissive, with its repetition of "Please" and "As you wish." Later on, the threat changes to "I'll kill you in the morning," and that's followed by a four-part description of how. Of course, before this development, the killer expresses a hankering for Reese's peanut butter cups.

Humor is a tricky thing. Certainly not everyone would find "As You Wish" amusing. Terry even has a song on Or Give Me Death that addresses this fact from a different angle. "Just the Way I Are" casts him as a misunderstood joker. "It's easygoing sarcasm, don't get me wrong, girl," he sings. "My heart is in the right place / but sometimes it's off course."

He recalls times when his goofing around irritated her, for example, asking, "What if we got stuck like this forever?" while they were holding hands. The track hops along with a "Wizard of Oz"-like glee, which underscores the contrary chorus: "It's not the way I am / it's just the way I are" (a sentiment that's more Scarecrow than Tin Man). In the end, he wants to be true to himself but not lose her affection because of it.

Tone goes a long way toward revealing Terry's intentions. If isolated, the lyrics would give the album an entirely different character. Many point to depression, frustration and cynicism. "Keep It Together" includes the line "People never change -- bitch, don't even try." On "Lying in the Bed I've Made," it's "I might be lonely all my life." The pop-punk "Living a Lie," which jumps out of the gates with a formidable riff, advises "It's not living a lie if you're not living at all." But the upbeat music begs to differ.

If life throws you lemons, laugh at them.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not there yet

Norah Jones
Not Too Late
Score: 4

Norah Jones has a nice voice: honeyed but not cloying, soothing but not tiresome.

She also has a knack for interpretation. That's why she can cover Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael, Elvis and Nick Drake and have each come out sounding like her own. Even if she isn't reinventing a song, she's able to absorb its essence, then let her passion for it emanate.

But that's also because she's covering good songs. When the writing is weak, she can slip into listlessness.

Jones' greatest talents don't lie in songwriting. This proves unmistakable on her third album, Not Too Late. 2002's Come Away With Me (the disc that won her all those Grammys) involved Jesse Harris behind the scenes. He wrote or co-wrote nearly a third of its songs, and their partnership inspired a dynamic that was as arresting as it was assured. On 2004's
Feels Like Home
, Harris' role shrank to playing acoustic guitar.
On two songs.

Meanwhile, the contribution of her other collaborator, bassist Lee Alexander, remained constant: roughly three songs per album.

This time, though, Jones took over. She's the principal songwriter on 12 of 13 tracks. Not that it's wrong for her to write her own material, but she stumbles many times leaping to a wider role.

"Thinking About You" feels rudimentary. The lyrics are cliche: "Yesterday I saw the sun shining / And the leaves were falling down softly / My cold hands needed a warm, warm touch / And I was thinking about you." With some ingenuity, the song could work. No luck. Jones and the band play it straight down the middle, as flat as the lyrics.

"Not My Friend" is similarly adrift, although it does feature some curious muted guitar hemorrhaging in the background.

Neither song has a memorable melody, and that makes the other failings of each only more apparent.

Jones doesn't boggle minds with her words. She doesn't have a five-octave voice. She doesn't experiment with synthesizers, samplers or beats. And she favors the soft-and-measured approach more often than not. So, until one of these things changes, melodies are more crucial to her songs.

Unfortunately, the one with the most memorable melody, "My Dear Country," happens to be the one with the most cringeworthy lyrics. "'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out" it begins, before revealing that Election Day, believe it or not, is a even scarier occasion because of a certain outcome at the polls, and because of a certain president. A stagger-step piano tempo sends it toward the schmaltzy conclusion: "I love the things that you've given me / And most of all that I am free / To have a song that I can sing / On election day." Those words might win over the civics professor, but that's about it.

Lyrically, the country-tinged "Little Room" acts like it wants to be sexy (hint: There's a bed). Yet it ends up being silly because of more than 30 seconds of amateurish whistling (by Daru Oda).

The lone song on which someone else did the bulk of the writing, "Sinkin' Soon," shines as the album's finest moment. Jones steps out of her comfort zone and into a slinky, cabaret style, while the band, mostly hushed throughout the album, bursts to life. The plucks of a mandolin take you down to splash in the steerage section, where the water's rising fast. The pots-and-pans percussion and brass come in when the ship starts to list. The coolest trombone ever yelps and simulates drowning.

To be sure, Not Too Late is scattered with small victories: the upright basses played with bows on "Broken," the lyrics on "Little Room," the love-and-war tale with a twist "Wish I Could." Jones summons a wonderful peace on the Sarah McLachlan-indebted "Rosie's Lullaby" over electric organ and a rocking-chair snare groove.

With good songs, Jones is fine. When they fail her, however, she becomes forgettable. Her songs fade into the background. Coffeehouse territory. No more important than the wallpaper.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sweet dreams, mostly

The Shins
Wincing the Night Away
Score: 6

It's a shame Wincing the Night Away didn't exist a few years ago, because several of its songs would have worked well in the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

And there might be a few memories James Mercer would like to erase.

Like the one that prompted him to write "Let's carve my aging face off / Fetch us a knife, start with my eyes / down so the lines form a grimacing smile."

That doesn't come till the end, though. Plus, in the album's dreamlike realm, it's hard to believe any blood could be spilled. Most of the time, the gentle instrumentation and Mercer's lilt
steer the songs closer to a marshmallow world than a world of pain.

"Phantom Limb," the album's first single, is a standard Shins chirper that slowly grows on you until you realize one day that you're unconsciously humming it. It might be the best palate cleanser on corporate radio today. It's also deceptive. It feels like a three-minute song, but it's almost five, thanks to a long outro of Mercer singing "ooooooo-whoa-oh, ooooooo-whoa-oh," with lovely backing vocals by Anita Robinson of Viva Voce.

"Red Rabbits," on the other hand, founders with its half-cooked lullaby: a gunnysack, orphan eyes, sprites "standing up for their rights." It ends with what resembles crowd noise but probably is supposed to be some sort of protest or battle charge from the sprites, who we've apparently been defiling with our urine. Regrettably, the strange lyrics pull attention away from the music. The bridge weaves a beautiful tapestry of violin and lap steel that would have been much better represented if reworked as an instrumental.

Other tracks show the Shins tinkering with their glimmering-pop formula.

On "Pam Berry," a guitar helicopters around as Mercer stretches his vocal range, hitting a lower register, going softer and, ostensibly, tightening his throat. "Spilt Needles" makes good use of treated guitars. "Sealegs" takes a generous swig from the brew marked "funky" --- if not from the bottle, then maybe from a teacup.

Opening track "Sleeping Lessons" burbles like an inverted version of The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman" and floats around in amniotic tranquility before it breaks into a sprint. "Black Wave" favors similar atmospherics, and both bring to mind the frosty blues and grays of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

As it turns out, the Shins didn't need that film. They did one better, infiltrating not only a successful movie's soundtrack, but also a line of dialogue. The film, of course, was "Garden State." And the line was one nobody seems to be able to forget.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 1

Cat Power
The Greatest

Life is an ocean, and Chan Marshall's always treading water.

Melancholia. Abandonment. Loneliness. Alcohol abuse. Self-loathing. Isolation. She knows them all and knows them well. When she sings, her words pour out in a viscous syrup of grief.

Yet for an album that chronicles her darkest hours, it offers a remarkable amount of warmth. Recorded over three months in Memphis, The Greatest carries the imprint of Al Green by way of his guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and other Southern luminaries. Together they salve Marshall's scarred vocals. Call it red-eyed soul.

Buoyed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, "Living Proof" and "Could We" practically amble, which for a Cat Power song is pretty brisk. "Could We," brimming with nostalgia, retraces idealistic days of teenage love: "I'll let you walk me up the street / Back home / Thank you / It was great / Let's make another date."

The title track is beauty and sadness incarnate. What begins as a cautious piano melody with shimmers of pedal steel blossoms into the most lushly orchestrated song in her catalog. A string section weeps, and the background voices echo "the greatest, the greatest, the greatest," as if they're ghosts of the past or thoughts rising from her subconscious.

The "rush of the flood" forces her resignation, though from what is uncertain. The lyrics "Lower me down / Pin me in / Secure the grounds" indicate her ceding control to another, putting herself in someone else's hands. They would seem to hint at her time in the psychiatric ward of Miami's Mount Sinai Medical Center, but The Greatest was recorded before then, so perhaps they foretell it.

Prior to her institutionalization, she often turned to alcohol, and "Lived in Bars" reflects upon those nights of drinking to oblivion. A wheeze of saxophone drifts in like cigarette smoke to join her at the piano. Marshall's hoarse. She's been crying. "There's nothing like living in a bottle," she sings. And that's when you realize the title is positively Freudian. What better word than "bars" could describe how she feels trapped? And whether they're made of iron or glass or her own nerves, they form just as strong a prison.

By the time "Hate" rolls around, she's all alone, guitar twinging in an empty room. Her friends are worried about her. "Do you believe she said that?" goes the call, and the response is heartbreaking: She softly croaks, "I said I hate myself and waaaaauhhhnt to die."

Death also shows up in more subtle ways on The Greatest. In "Islands," she says that if "my sailor" isn't coming back, she'll "sleep eternally." During "The Moon," she asks if the "big bad beautiful you" will still be around "when they put me six feet underground."

On such songs, the accompaniment is skeletal, emphasizing her feeling of isolation. Elsewhere, however, her bandmates accentuate their instruments --- a woozy saxophone at the end of "Willie," fiddle at the beginning of "Empty Shell," organ on "Living Proof" --- as if each tone is a memory or emotion flaring to the surface, then diving back into repression.

"Love & Communication," which even has some heaves of electric guitar, is the busiest piece on the album, and its comparatively bombastic spirit sounds triumphant in light of Marshall's recent months. She's sober now, or at least on the path to sobriety. Her live shows have greater focus and energy. She credits the Memphis Rhythm Band with boosting her confidence and allaying her stage fright. She's doing interviews and recording more material.

When she's surrendering control on the title track to The Greatest, she speaks of a "later parade." With any luck, she's found it.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 2

Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae

The first stop on Corinne Bailey Rae's first U.S. tour was Seattle's Crocodile Cafe. It was July 24, one of the hottest days last summer. If fact, Wikipedia has an entry on the "2006 North American heat wave."

It was close to 100 that day and certainly above that in the stuffy club, which had fans, just not working ones. The water was free. It kinda tasted like chlorine, but I didn't care --- it was iced.

Opening act Gran Bel Fisher looked miserable, sweat soaking through his shirt. "This is the hottest I've ever been in my life," he groaned.

Corinne Bailey Rae, by contrast, just smiled after she took the stage. "It's a bit warm in here, isn't it?" she said, British accent kissing each vowel. The crowd was charmed.

Reinforced by a crack backing band, the willowy singer delivered a set of soul gems, radiating youth and grace. Rae and her band made me feel the way I imagine the people who witnessed early Supremes concerts must have felt.

That feeling courses through her self-titled debut.

It's in the comfy, enveloping bass and the soft, clipped guitar of "Call Me When You Get This." It's in the finger cymbals on "Enchantment." It's in "Trouble Sleeping," which bobs and sways with a red-blooded horn section and has to be one of the most sensuous songs ever written about wanting to
not fall in love. Most of all it's in her voice, an inviting coo with a rumple of huskiness.

"I just wanted to know what it was like, what's it really like to be loved?" she sings on "Call Me When You Get This." "These little volcanoes came as a surprise to me."

Sometimes love isn't as kind. Sometimes it stings, as on the wounded-heart tale "Till It Happens to You." Or it yearns for reciprocation with "my best friend" on "Breathless." Love, in all its forms, is a big part of this album. But even the sad moments will warm you up.