Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Change of venue

So I have moved once again and am now operating out of Seattle. I really hope things work out and that I can stay awhile. Moving is so much work! I'll be rolling out my top 10 soon. Just a few more days left in the year. When I start posting them, go ahead and share your top 10 in the comments area, if you want. Here's to a better year (and to Obama)!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sourer times

Score: 6

The release came at the worst possible time seasonally: spring. Flowers blossoming, sun shining, dewdrops sparkling --- and Third, a bitter cry coughed up in a wasteland.

And yet the album doesn't make a good hibernating companion, either, even with winter threatening an early visit.

Displaying its birth order in its name, Third represents Portishead's return after a decade of inactivity. That time span also saw little in the way of side projects, Beth Gibbons' 2002 collaboration with Rustin Man, Out of Season, being the lone pursuit to bear LP fruit (not counting albums on which Geoff Barrow or Adrian Utley served as producer, and there weren't even many of those).

Perhaps more crucially, Portishead became legends in that time, recognized as trip-hop architects, canonized by critics, and later revered by Gnarls Barkley and others, who cited the band as an influence. Though they hadn't broken up, the hiatus began to cement itself as it stretched year after year, making it easier to view Portishead's work with the same finality accorded to bands long gone, rather than as a current, unfolding creative endeavor.

So it's understandable that Portishead might elect to make significant changes before delivering their first album of the new millennium. It's just disappointing that their new direction plays against their strengths.

The haunting beauty of Portishead, and of Dummy especially, has been jettisoned, and any remnants of it remember only the haunting part. Gibbons' voice, which moved with liquidity around those chilled-out beatscapes, now contends with a punishing, militaristic presence that shrivels it.

First single "Machine Gun" unleashes a pummeling of pom-pom-pom-poms, each vicious enough to be a whip snap, as Gibbons despairs, unable to connect with "a savior come my way." "We Carry On" conducts a forced march with a synth loop and a martial snare, repeating like a mantra of negation. The quiet acoustic guitar plaint that opens "Small" gives way to the contortions of a demented organ.

"Third" is a gnarled skin of loose ends: the fragile, would-be hymn of "Deep Water," complete with ukulele and barbershop-esque guest backing vocals, is flotsam bobbing up awkwardly between the electronic rough trade of "Machine Gun" and "We Carry On." "Silence" cuts off prematurely, yanking us out of its hypnotic rhythm and into the chime that starts off the much slower "Hunter." Gibbons' acoustic moments recall the dark folk of Out of Season but are undigested asides, insufficiently incorporated.

Highlights "The Rip" and "Magic Doors" show that in the 21st century, Portishead still have the power to transfix. "The Rip" lays its delicate Iz-like acoustic picking over a low, alien whirring, and as it grabs Gibbons' last pre-bridge lyric and draws it out over the next minute, the track builds with toms and an electronic pulse, until she re-enters with the next verse. The hurdy gurdy-outfitted "Magic Doors" wobbles at first, but Portishead nail the piece together with perfectly timed Rhodes piano. It's a resounding clangor of safety in a disquieting world.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bit torrents

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles
Score: 9

If you grew up in the late '70s or in the '80s, chances are you spent a fair amount of time playing video games. And as you exercised your thumbs --- or your wrists, if you had a joystick --- your brain soaked up all that repetitive theme music.

As Crystal Castles, Ethan Kath and Alice Glass of Toronto take an experimental approach to music making, one of their tools being sounds from a modified Atari. It's a key launch point for whatever strikes their fancy. On their first full-length, that's a compelling agglomeration of rock freakouts, ambient techno, pitch-shifted vocals and creative samples.

Kath, who does the music, employs synths, sequencers and circuit bending. Glass, the singer, revels in the emotional purge of a shriek. Kath's manipulation enables Crystal Castles to change and rearrange those bleeps and blips and burbles, marshaling them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Witness his chopping and splicing on "Untrust Us" (sampling Death From Above 1979) and "Crimewave" (sampling Health).

In the frantic "Xxzxcuzx Me," Glass excoriates the mike over machine-gun beats as circuitry spasms around her. "Knights," which begins with a deep synth bassline and a metronomic clicking, drenches its druggy vocal line with distorted keys. "Untrust Us" builds its humming chant over a pattern of synth bloops, bringing in a faint buzzing in advance of the chorus. The buzzing, like a garage band at only a hundredth the volume, is nearly subliminal. Until the end of the song, that is, when it kicks into the foreground at full volume.

More than the half the tracks on Crystal Castles are uptempo numbers indebted to house, techno and electro-pop. "1991" palpitates with binary beats, fervidly pulsing before sliding into "Vanished," a relative breather. The vocals you hear on "Vanished" come not from Kath but from an extended sample of Australian band Van She. The instrumentals and songs with sampled vocals buffer the acid in Glass' strangled yelps and cries, providing variety and lending stability.

But just when you think you've sized them up, Crystal Castles reveal the surprise among surprises, "Tell Me What to Swallow." All vapor and gossamer, it shows that Glass can sing -- like an angel even, when she's awash in overdubs. Profane, meet sacred.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Now Scything: Kaki King,

Beach House, Gavin Rossdale

Kaki King
Dreaming of Revenge
Score: 6

When Kaki King lets her fingers do the talking, it's easy to listen. The guitar mag perennial can handle plenty of instruments, and in addition to her weapon of choice, she wields bass and percussion here. Her voice, on the other hand, is a different body, comparable to a foreign medium through which she passes gingerly. Her slight, colorless vocals distract the listener and seem to pull her from her stringed world. When spoken in short bursts, as on "Pull Me Out Alive," they work better with her tapping technique; drawn out, as on the plaintive "Life Being What It Is," they steer the focus onto her weakest element. Smartly, Dreaming of Revenge is largely an instrumental album, with seven of its 11 tracks vocal-free. Take in the scrabbling and snapping of "Bone Chaos in the Castle" and the way King caresses sighs out of lap steel and electric alike on "Montreal," and you might see what the guitar magazines have been going on about.

Beach House
Score: 5

If you're jonesing for a feel-good song, don't turn to Beach House. (That'd be the Beach BOYS you're looking for.) No, the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally pretty much stick to ... well, they don't really do sad songs, either. Devotion, like their self-titled debut two years earlier, wanders a perpetually socked-in soundscape of keyboards, reverb and organ thrum. If it could take shape, it would definitely be a plateau. There's a sense of depression to Legrand's songs of domestic life, as if she experienced sadness once but is numb to it now and is trying to reclaim it. In "All the Years," for instance, she describes "sitting on a rock, just / waiting for a key / to sleep inside the house / of old serenity." Devotion's mixing job plays up the band's haziness, but that doesn't flatter the material. Scally's guitar rarely rises above murk level. Legrand's vocals are difficult to pick out even when they aren't vying with a lot of instruments, and the lyrics are often opaque. "Astronaut," a somewhat psychedelic liaison, is really the only reason to read the liner notes. The mantralike chorus of "Gila" provides a much-needed hook; outside that, there's not much to latch onto.

Gavin Rossdale
Score: 4

Fellow Brit Mike Skinner of The Streets once declared, "I make bangers, not anthems." Gavin Rossdale does the opposite. Post-Bush and post-Institute, he shoots for the stadiums. Virtually every song on his solo debut tries to make grand statements (or at least big sounds) out of whatever's on his mind. Those things, regrettably, come out dressed in generic lyrics and verse-chorus-verse structures, which betray the effort Rossdale puts into his vocals. The imbalance between action and emotion culminates in a chorus that goes, in part, "Better get in my car and drive." It doesn't help that the phrase is preceded by "caught in a landslide," 'cause if you're caught in a landslide, you can't very well drive, though we can presume it's a metaphor (or maybe both are metaphors). Dave Stewart of Eurythmics worked with Rossdale in writing three songs ("Future World," "Another Night in the Hills," "Beauty in the Beast"), and Shirley Manson and Katy Perry contribute backing vocals, but their collective influence barely registers. If there's a sophomore slump in Rossdale's future, he won't have far to fall.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Follow them into the dark

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Score: 7

Ben Gibbard writes drama, not comedy. But even with that in mind, the songs on Death Cab for Cutie's sixth album run notably darker than those on Narrow Stairs' nearest predecessor, 2005's Plans. And with fewer melodic entry points, the album isn't easy to get into.

Now four years removed from their indie-label days with Barsuk and enjoying a higher profile than ever before, Death Cab took a minor risk by making a less accessible album. Of course, it's obvious they weren't weren't too concerned with its commercial appeal, judging by the length of the first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart." Giving commercial radio stations an eight-minute-plus song is a good way to get ignored. Yet the single found a strong radio presence, even if many stations evaded the time commitment by playing an abbreviated version.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" showcases a lesser-known talent of Death Cab: the long song. Back in 2002, the steadfast trudge of the Stability EP's title track --- likely influenced by slowcore pioneers Codeine, for whom Gibbard has expressed admiration --- demonstrated that the band could lock in a mood and keep a song interesting even in lengthy instrumental passages. The plangent title track to Transatlanticism and an extended version of "We Looked Like Giants" on the The John Byrd E.P. proved this was no fluke.

At first, "I Will Possess Your Heart" seems to fit with Gibbard's other portraits of bittersweet romance: It's just a fellow following his heart, hoping for the best, eager to please and earnest to prove. But the second verse exposes the man as more than persistent, beginning with "there are days when outside your window / I see my reflection as I slowly pass." The way this development creeps up on the listener pairs well with the night-driving groove of Nick Harmer's bass and the canter of Jason McGerr's drums in the 4 1/2-minute instrumental opening section, almost as if they're a harbinger of the window-peeping to come. In retrospect, the title itself hints at the character's intentions. He's not going to win your heart; he's going to possess your heart. This guy's not taking no for an answer. He's going to get what he wants, possibly by force, if it comes to that.

Though this drift into seaminess is probably the only moment that will make some younger Death Cab fans squirm, Narrow Stairs has plenty of cobwebs in its corners. If they were about the same person, "Cath" and "You Can Do Better Than Me" could be successive chapters following a meek lonelyheart: "You can do better than me -- hey, wait, Cath! I'm better than that guy!" And the brooding guitars of "Talking Bird" and feedback that hangs in "Bixby Canyon Bridge" convey definite friction.

Musically, "No Sunlight" is deceptively bright, with a surf guitar prancing and with piano highlights that glisten like dewy pie cherries. It's Gibbard's youth, all footloose and fancy-free. Until the clouds roll in. "The optimist died inside of me," he declares, even as the track remains happily upbeat. It's akin to Transatlanticism's "The Sound of Settling," a giddy sing-along that began, improbably, with the lyrics "I've got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots." "Long Division," farther along Narrow Stairs, keeps similar company. Building itself on bass throbs and an oblong chord progression, the hooky Photo Album throwback is likely to join "Baba O'Riley" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" in the hall of mistaken song titles, thanks to a repetitive chorus involving the word "remainder."

Still, the darkness has brought some stumbles. Tabla proves an odd fit (go figure) with Gibbard's vocals and the band's standard instrumental toolbox, disabling "Pity and Fear," though the Indian percussion works better for them when it's largely covered up by electric guitars. Puzzlingly, the track spikes in volume, then immediately cuts off, followed only a second later by the deliberate guitar tones of the last song, "The Ice Is Getting Thinner." The album has good pacing and logical sequencing up to this point, making it that much more frustrating of a decision.

The album closer leaves us on a pensive note. Returning to nature metaphors, Gibbard tells how two people have grown apart with time, not unlike ice floes. "We're not the same, dear, as we used to be / the seasons have changed and so have we."

The same holds true for Death Cab.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

As the Crow flies

Sheryl Crow
Score: 5

Somewhere between the
time Sheryl Crow went
from mold-scraping and french toast-serving to
Kid Rock-dating (and dumping), her earth went fallow. Conflict and passion leached, she sang a could-be ode to tanning. 2005's glossy and conventional Wildflower didn't help matters. This time around, she comes armed with some serious fodder, namely a broken-off engagement, a recovery from cancer, and an adopted son. Yet for all the creative possibility these topics offer, Crow often proves unable to convert that to a powerful performance.

In "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)," for instance, her exam-table entreaties are fairly flat despite the gravity of the situation, and when her multitracked voice is used for an overlapping effect, the result doesn't resemble mortal pleading, but surface-level whining.

"Diamond Ring" is a small improvement: Over the stagger of a kick-snare beat, Crow recalls how her push to get married was the catalyst in dissolving a relationship (with Lance Armstrong, in all likelihood). An organ churns for the chorus as Crow tests her pipes. It's a rare instance of her singing forcefully and reaching for high notes, and it's one of the better songs she's written this decade. Unfortunately, it seems as if she's concentrating on hitting her notes rather than conveying the emotion that she clearly must feel. As a result, she can't quite pull off the pathos. The raw song itself, however, is good enough to become a standard. Assuming Crow's plight is common enough to invite feelings of solidarity, it will be interesting to hear what other artists bring to "Diamond Ring" in the future.

The life change that does produce a solid performance is "Lullaby for Wyatt," a tender tribute to her baby son, in which she expresses premature worries along with the standard pledges of parental caring. "How do I keep you from losing your way?" she wonders, "Hope you'll go out and you'll come back someday." What could have been a treacle cradlesong instead achieves a rounder quality, more representative of the sweep of emotions brought on by new parenthood.

In general, the sparer the song on Detours, the better Crow fares, and vice versa. The title track and "Drunk with the Thought of You," both largely acoustic numbers, whisper their wings with Beatle dust, hinting at Crow's Fab Four appreciation (she covered "Mother Nature's Son" for the "I Am Sam" soundtrack and "Here Comes the Sun" for the "Bee Movie" soundtrack). By contrast, the hippie-dippy "Out of Our Heads" grafts a torpid Euro house beat to slide guitar and accordion, and the percussion for "Love Is All There Is" sounds too canned.

From the beginning, when the loud, pro-studio "Shine Over Babylon" rudely tailgates the pretty, lo-fi folk of "God Bless This Mess," it's apparent that Detours is muddled. But the album's not without its moments.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Burning the book of love

The Long Blondes
Score: 10

Romantic strife is The Long Blondes' stock-in-trade, but Couples affords the topic an inflamed sense of urgency, writhing as if dunked in turpentine. Kate Jackson, the album's principal voice, bounds through tales of curdled love, yowling here, sashaying there, as the rest of the band shake the dust off new wave and disco, assimilating them into their tightly wound rock 'n' roll.

The lyrics, nearly all written by lead guitarist Dorian Cox, examine the intrigue inherent in affairs: the emotional twisting and turning that upends lives and turns people into marionettes.

"Too Clever by Half" swivels to an R&B rhythm and outlines a "Closer"-style web of betrayal: "You both planned to leave your lovers and run off with each other / and leave us to look like fools." Jackson delivers the lines seductively, her character's coquettishness meant to draw the cheater close. Clearly possessing the upper hand and knowing it, she savors the moment, her words exposing themselves as a taunt. Then she sticks the knife in: "When you and her were out, I would go 'round to his house / and I don't have to tell you what we did next."

The roles are somewhat reversed in "Round the Hairpin," which throws a rented car into the equation. He's at the wheel. She's at his mercy. A keyboard lurches and buoys, combining with drummer Screech Louder's snare taps to lock in the trajectory, weaving back and forth, back and forth. When the taps give way to crashes, it's the terror pounding in the passenger's head. "Don't let me die," she pleads (possibly a last-minute ad-lib by Jackson, since the phrase isn't listed in the liner notes for the song). The driver's response, spoken by Cox and barely audible over the now-screaming guitars, is a chilling ramble, complete with, "If I can't have you, I don't want nobody / If I can't have you, I don't want to live."

Similarly, the woman at the pub in "The Couples" feels that failed love has sucked the life out of her. Now jaded, she clings to her self-pity as she watches the guys and gals. "People have the nerve to tell me that they're lonely," she moans to herself, "You're not lonely --- I am, baby."

All of this is heavy stuff, but Couples is a hemorrhage you can dance to. The slinky bass line of "Too Clever by Half" invites you to strut, and "Guilt" demands more, its disco-indebted beat and humming keyboards poppy enough to be a floor-filler. When it comes to vocals, bassist Reenie Hollis and guitarist-keyboardist Emma Chaplin add to the variety, providing the shouted chorus on "Here Comes the Serious Bit" and backing vocals elsewhere.

The final track, "I'm Going to Hell," is a towering inferno of a rock song -- huge enough to be a Broadway production -- with piano pounding worthy of at least a few puffs of "Great Balls of Fire." "I don't watch soap operas," one of the cheaters confesses, "maybe I should / I need to know if being the bad guy's any good." Everything about the song goes for broke: musically, vocally, thematically. It goes for the throat and hits the heart instead.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Soul sides

My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges
Score: 10

A brave step into uncertain territory, Evil Urges proves, first and foremost, that Jim James can sound great even without the echo that has swathed and reinforced his voice on previous albums. It also proves that My Morning Jacket have legs beyond their rollicking jams, delivering song after song of accessible, well-crafted, traditionally styled rock.

From the get-go, Evil Urges indicates that it will be a far different listen than its predecessors. The soul style that James dabbled in on 2005's Z now takes center stage, with him heavily favoring his upper register on the first three songs. The change is all the more drastic because his voice is no longer echo-drenched. It's odd to hear to his notes without sustain; it gives a feeling of directness, and it might be an attempt to achieve a new level of intimacy, putting the listener in the room with James rather than on the other end of a grain silo. On the ballad "Thank You Too!," James tells a loved one, "you really saw my naked heart / you really brought out the 'naked' part." He could just as easily have been talking about his voice.

"Highly Suspicious" shows us another side. Like a kid who suddenly discovers he can holler, James has a ball with his falsetto, swooping around and climbing. He even cackles, the closest approximation being the witch in Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." And though James' vocals in the title track suggest Smokey Robinson, Jackson might be the nearest influence to James' burgeoning soul-man side (go back and listen to him "hoo!" on Z's "Wordless Chorus").

That opening trio --- "Evil Urges," "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1" and "Highly Suspicious" --- is the biggest surprise, but My Morning Jacket don't shift into their standard structure until later; "I'm Amazed" seems like a long-lost Lynyrd Skynyrd cousin, and "Thank You Too!" covets the power ballads of the '70s. "Sec Walkin," the first to resemble their past work, breaks out the Rhodes for a droopy excursion. But about when James' sentiment nears moping, on the hunt for "eyes that hypnotize and sparkle," a voice behind him repeats "sparkle" and begins to shadow him or harmonize with him periodically.

It's one of the signs on Evil Urges that the role of James' bandmates is expanding. Not only do bassist Two-Tone Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster play their parts masterfully and help shape James' songs, but Koster and Broemel also lay down backing vocals on more than a few cuts. Those vary from the bright additions to "Sec Walkin" to an affected, comical gruffness on "Highly Suspicious" to more-traditional accompaniment elsewhere. This development increases My Morning Jacket's repertoire and opens the door to even more options in the future.

So where will they head next? One possibility could be greater experimentation with song structures and narrative threads, as hinted by "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1" and its companion piece. Both concern a craving for human connection, and the second side of the song proceeds past the longing glances of the first, to a precipice. Despite the song being about the thrill of new love, James isn't so much basking in it as he is hanging on for dear life. The chorus is a dual expression of joy and fear: "Ohhhhhhhh! This feeling, it is wonderful! Don't you ever turn it ahh-a-ahh-a-ahhhhhff!"

If his love was guaranteed, there'd be no need to plead for it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Now Scything: She & Him,

Counting Crows, N.E.R.D.

She & Him
Volume One
Score: 9

These days, when an actress decides to dive into singing and songwriting, often the best you can hope for is collective amnesia. But unlike Ashlee Simpson, Juliette Lewis, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan or Scarlett Johansson, Zooey Deschanel has tapped into a vein of musical talent. Collaborating with M. Ward (but you can call him Him), Deschanel demonstrates a keen ear for melody and a knack for country-tinged pop delivered in the style of Patsy Cline. Whether covering "You Really Got a Hold on Me" or chirping her way through originals, Deschanel sings with a purity of spirit that recalls a bygone era. (The whistling on "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" is more likely to evoke "The Andy Griffith Show" than Peter Bjorn and John -- not that PB&J aren't pure themselves.) On "Black Hole," for example, Deschanel lays out her melancholy simply: "I'm alone on a bicycle for two." And "I Was Made for You" shows that, with some smart multitracking, she can pull off nimble harmonies worthy of The Angels (of "My Boyfriend's Back" fame). M. Ward, who produced the succinct Volume One and contributed guitar and vocals, doubtlessly played a big role in achieving the album's vintage sound. The warm and dusty overtones might as well be sunbeams shining in from an attic window.

Counting Crows
Saturday Nights
& Sunday Mornings

Score: 5

Thanks to pop culture, we know Saturday night's all right for fighting, drinking, carousing, canoodling and otherwise blowing off steam. And Sunday's the day of regret and hangover and phone-checking. Between the seven of them, the members of Counting Crows no doubt had plenty of personal experience to draw from in creating Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. For a while, it looked as if Counting Crows were winding down, having released a greatest-hits collection in 2003, Films About Ghosts: The Best Of, and a concert disc in 2006, New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall, which was compiled from shows performed more than three years earlier. Yet here they are. Naturally, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings speaks to both sides of its title, loading the first half with rock bluster and the second half with quieter fare. (Turn off the amps, break out the banjo and the piano.) The album would have been right at home when cassettes were the order of the day. It's brave to lead off with a song that references Christopher Columbus and borrows from a mnemonic device about him sailing "the ocean blue," but Adam Duritz has kept good care of his voice, and he sells "1492" with his earnestness. He also has a hit in the resigned "You Can't Count on Me," care of a catchy chorus. Given the time that's passed since Counting Crows' last studio album, 2002's Hard Candy, it's remarkable how little has changed stylistically, though the caliber of their songs in general started to sag before the new millennium. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings works as a quasi-concept album, but you won't necessarily want it to serve as your soundtrack to Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Seeing Sounds
Score: 7

In one of their many farces, comedy band Flight of the Conchords had their way
with a song style praised
the world over: the sex jam. But if "Business Time" took away any of the style's mojo, even for just a few minutes, consider it taken back. N.E.R.D.'s "Time for Some Action" is a lust-not-love instant classic, or would be if it weren't attached to an intro of Pharrell Williams talking about a supernatural ability he discovered in the shower (see album title). In an odd but effective pairing, The Hives supply the bassy bump 'n' grind and the deep, throaty hook as Williams indulges his inner lothario. Seeing Sounds, though, has more than that to offer. The second half is a garden of delights, from the Red Hot Chili Pepper-ish funk metal of "Kill Joy" to the extended chorus and guitar heroics of "Sooner or Later." Turn down the bed, but save some energy for the rest of the show.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

He loves the '80s

Score: 5

A song called "Teen Angst" appeared on Anthony Gonzalez's last nonseries album, the masterwork
Before the Dawn Heals Us
this time around, the topic carries a lot more weight. Saturdays=Youth is Gonzalez's homage to the '80s, particularly to synthesizer-heavy British rock.

"Graveyard Girl" bears the unmistakable influence of New Order, guitars chiming over synth strings and a brisk tempo. But the bridge goes overboard, yielding the floor to the title character, who, with a school bell ringing in the background, proceeds to drown us in melodrama:

"I'm gonna jump the walls and run. I wonder if they'll miss me. I won't miss them. The cemetery is my home; I want to be a part of it, invisible even to the night. Then I'll read poetry to the stones. Maybe one day I could be one of them: wise and silent, waiting for someone to love me, waiting for someone to kiss me. I'm 15 years old, and I feel it's already too late to live. Don't you?"
The monologue reduces her to a stereotypically irrational teenager, removing any intrigue from her graveyard fascination. It's precisely the sort of move that's at odds with Gonzalez's wistfulness, making him seem more of a patronizing adult than the kindred spirit he means to be.

Many of the vocals come courtesy of Morgan Kibby, a classically trained Los Angeles-based musician with whom he's collaborating. Also on hand is brother Yann, who helps with the songwriting, and drummer Loic Maurin in an expanded role, also contributing guitar, bass and keyboards this time around.

Saturdays=Youth continues Gonzalez's retreat from his early instrumental works, as well as his movement toward conventional song structures. Gone are the choirs of Before the Dawn Heals Us. Gone, too, are the noisy jaunts, leaving Saturdays=Youth fairly homogeneous.

As on past M83 releases, the final track is of epic length: 11-plus minutes. The problem is that there's too little variation in "Midnight Souls Still Remain" to support its runtime. The moody synth drone, registering somewhere between Brian Eno and Angelo Badalamenti, doesn't function as a climax; it simply stretches on for what seems like an arbitrarily long time, then drops off.

Also frustrating is the album's cover, a tableau of characters with uncanny resemblance to those featured in coming-of-age movies set in the '80s. Ever seen "The Breakfast Club"? Even if you've seen the box, you'll get it. Ever seen "Donnie Darko"? Really, a guy in skeleton pajamas?! The only way that could be more obvious is to have the dude with the neck chain appear as a giant menacing rabbit.

Gonzalez would have done better to try subtlety. His nostalgia for the '80s is genuine, and his mimicry of some of the decade's British rock touchstones (Tears for Fears, Kate Bush) is skilled, but his heavy-handed approach doesn't do justice to him or his inspirations.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Victims of excess

The Gutter Twins
Score: 5

Hearing a name like the Gutter Twins, you'd be forgiven if you pictured two grizzled dirtbags sitting at the bar, doing shots of whatever burned the most. And you wouldn't be far off. Now, "dirtbag" isn't necessarily a term befitting Greg Dulli or Mark Lanegan, but both have played the role on their albums, and their choice of words here plays up that image. (A "saturnalia," for instance, is equivalent to a bacchanalia, which is basically a drunken orgy.)

As far as team-ups go, they make an intriguing pair: Dulli, the self-immolating womanizer; Lanegan, the haunted rogue. Dulli, the alabaster-soul smoothie; Lanegan, the craggy baritone.

"The Stations" starts out promising, with Lanegan singing lead and with Dulli's backing vocal coming in after the first verse. But right before the one-minute mark, Dulli joins Lanegan at the forefront. And as the track piles on --- a cello, a second electric guitar part, harder snare-playing, harder cymbal-playing, a louder string part --- Dulli and Lanegan belt out their lines as if playing a game of chicken.

Maybe it's because they've spent so much time as frontmen over their careers, but when they sing lead simultaneously, they clash more often than they mesh. The big-and-loud arrangements exacerbate this, making Saturnalia overbearing. This is a shame, because many of the songs have pleasant melodies and had potential. If given a different setting, or with a few tweaks to the vocal parts, some could be quite good.

It brings to mind Lanegan's work with Isobel Campbell. If 2006's Ballad of the Broken Seas had spent its time crashing and booming, their intricate balance of masculinity and femininity would have been lost amid the din.

Whenever Dulli and Lanegan dial it down, as on "The Body," their voices blend better, imparting a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. Likewise, the tracks with more modest accompaniment ("Seven Stories Underground," "Who Will Lead Us?") keep the focus on the album's main appeal: the Twins' interplay.

With two strong personalities, there's no need for heaps of bombast; it simply becomes a distraction.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Music from or inspired by ...

Last Night
Score: 5

Moby has already had what could be considered a full life cycle, going from obscurity to club fixture to cult figure to household name to household name that never comes up.

Last Night attempts to step back to his early '90s club days, but it lacks the hyperkinetic energy of "Drop a Beat" or "Electricity." His female vocalists, too, are more subdued. Compare "The Stars" to "Ah Ah" or "Go," both on his 1992 self-titled release. "The Stars," somewhat of a combination of those tracks, uses a quick cut of a crowd cheering (playing the role of the "Go!" chant) and replaces the quasi-gospel "Ah ah" with the quasi-gospel "I see the stars." Near the end of its midsection, vaguely eerie synths --- not unlike the "Twin Peaks" ones he sampled to great effect in "Go" --- sneak in.

The main sample of "257.Zero" should be so lucky. A woman, possibly an air-traffic controller, intones, "Two, five, seven." Then, "Two, five, seven." And again, "Two, five, seven." And finally ... "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, zero."

Maybe there's a cool dance Moby could do with it and an audience, but it's dead on record.

"Everyday It's 1989" is one of the few tracks that does justice to his earlier works. The piano run and the crisp beats build each other up as a diva hollers and the synth layers beam in like lasers.

By contrast, "Alice" and "I Love to Move in Here" don't resemble what he's done before. Instead they point, perhaps, to Moby's next creative stage. Both are collaborations. "I Love to Move in Here" shimmies with a Brazilian rhythm, and versatile session vocalist Chrissi Poland provides Reddi Wip-light coos that flank an underwhelming appearance by Grandmaster Caz, whose old-school detour lasts for all of 40 seconds. "Alice," a foray into hard-edged territory, bristles with bass feedback and features the show-stealing flow of MC Aynzli of Nigerian group 419 Squad.

Moby's smart to pass the mike to his guests. Hotel foundered in part because he sang lead on almost every track. Although he can carry punk rock-styled songs, like Play's "Machete" and Animal Rights' "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," his voice remains the weakest of his attributes. His strongest might be his strings. Moby's strings have always kissed the sky.

In the liner notes, Moby writes that Last Night is about two things: "trying to take 24 years of going out in nyc and condensing it into a 65 minute record" and "trying to condense an 8 hour night into just over an hour of music."

On the first count, the album misses by a mile. In no way does it approach the variety and scope his statement implies. New York City birthed whole archetypes of music that aren't represented here. Of course, this is Moby's album, and he can interpret that 24-year orgy of sounds as he sees fit. He comes closer to his second goal, as Last Night holds to the basic structure of a dance mix, building up the tempo, then bearing down or easing back, depending on whether it's time for a breather (although its last third locks you in the chillout room). Again, though, it's in Moby's hands how that hour plays out, and considering that Last Night is on the New Releases shelf, there's a good chance this is exactly how he wanted it to sound.

But the theme seems like window dressing when you consider that all those years and styles and nights and venues, when boiled down and shaped into songs, all come out sounding like Moby. Whether it's the mystérieux intrigue of "Hyenas" or the stately contemplation of "Mothers of the Night," there's no way you'd mistake the songs for anyone else. Then again, maybe that's the point.

Archives at your fingertips

I wasn't completely satisfied with Blogger's archiving system, so I created an easier way for you to access past reviews. Now you can check out any you missed the first time around, or any you want to revisit, or any that catch your eye.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

New tricks (and new hoes)

for an old Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Ego Trippin'
Score: 6

Big Snoopy's gettin' long in the toothy. Outlasting gangstas and canines alike, Snoop Dogg asserts his longevity on his ninth album proper. Over 21 tracks and nearly 80 minutes, he shows that, if anything, he still has lots of energy.

Ego Trippin' runs the gamut, from the house-party bass bumpin' of "Sets Up" to the chipmunk soul of "Those Gurlz"; from the piano clank of "Deez Hollywood Nights" to the back-porch acoustic strum of the Everlast-assisted "My Medicine." "Cool" is a dead ringer for Prince, all synth vamps and drum machine. Snoop and a crew of producers traffic in familiar templates, but they do it with considerable skill, making Ego Trippin' a relatively streamlined grab bag.

Rumor was, Snoop was going to sing on this one, and while his parts aren't unmistakable --- he's not trying to outdo Ne-Yo here --- he does occasionally rest his rap to play with vocoder and some studio treatments. And you can hear his naked voice behind the cabaret chorus line in "Deez Hollywood Nights."

'Course, with his smooth, blunted flow and his outsize personality, it's not like he needed any new tricks up his sleeve. But we'll take 'em. It's fun to hear his Prince, since both have such a special connection to the bedroom. Snoop decides to go the extra mile for his partner, devoting a track to ... well, it's called "Sexual Eruption."

Overall, though, it's clear Snoop hasn't gone soft (so to speak). His No. 1 concern is still Snoop D-O-Double-G, and most women don't advance beyond the status of playthings.

It seems a bit incongruous that he details his sexual exploits with the hoes, then dedicates a song or two to the wife. He even refers to her by name on "One Chance (Make It Good)": "Shante, what more can I say? / But, baby, look at us today / Your husband's a boss, the kids is cute / The king of the coast with a gang of loot."

In "Gangsta Like Me," which blares cinematic horns for drama, he tells of a fan inspired by "my nasty video," otherwise known as his Hustler film "Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle." He doesn't turn her down, but he makes sure to note, "We can do our thing, but you can't be wifey."

Did the encounter really happen? There's Snoop the person, and there's Snoop the persona. There's fact, and there's fiction. But with this album, the line is all blurry. Within the first minute of Ego Trippin', Snoop alludes to his TV show, "Snoop Dogg's Father Hood." "Neva Have 2 Worry" gives us the CliffsNotes version of his career. In "Deez Hollywood Nights," he says of Jessica Alba, Jessica Simpson and Jessica Biel, "I let 'em all come to my back table / Roll up and lick the paper if they able." And that wily Leonardo Di Caprio "slide me new hoes everywhere we go."

Regardless of whether that's true, the expansion of Snoop's fame through the years has made more of his boasts plausible. His real life now competes with his larger-than-life character in the way of extravagance. Snoop has appeared in "Training Day" with Denzel Washington. He has his own line of hot dogs. On the Showtime hit "Weeds," he's played himself. (Is that even acting anymore? Their script would be tied to your reality!) He's made it as a rapper, an actor, a TV star and a porn director. The memoirs can't be far behind.

No, wait: They already came out. Nine years ago.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Now Scything: Mike Doughty,

The Raveonettes, Goldfrapp

Mike Doughty
Golden Delicious
Score: 5

Relax, James Van Der Beek, you're off the hook. Ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty isn't busting up a Starbucks this time around. But aside from that, Golden Delicious could be Part II of Haughty Melodic. It's another round of sunny pop melodies with a liberal helping of quirkiness and acoustic guitar. Doughty hasn't forgotten the days of El Oso, throwing in Spanish ("Wednesday [No Se Apoye]") and quasi-rap ("More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle"). And his favorite triumvirate --- women, cars and food --- remains intact. Soul Coughing fans will probably miss the inventive musicianship, but Doughty's moved on. He's mellowed out, favoring the schoolhouse nostalgia of "27 Jennifers" over the rumpled brio of "I Miss the Girl." If you want it black, you'll have to go somewhere else.

The Raveonettes
Lust Lust Lust
Score: 7

Lust Lust Lust expands the playbook of Danish duo Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, if only slightly. Their Jesus and Mary Chain idolatry continues full-tilt, but on a few occasions the Raveonettes use conspicuous beats to punch up their songs. Lead-off track "Aly, Walk with Me" doesn't so much walk as swaggers, the kick-kick-snare rhythm giving it body. Overall, though, this album, like their others, is all about guitar. The Raveonettes work on two levels: fuzzy and fuzzier. Usually they favor a gentle approach, relying greatly on reverb to construct their sound net. But in "Aly, Walk with Me," they unleash torrents of distortion. The aggression is a welcome constrast to the rut of similarity they can sometimes trap themselves in. The album's real treat is "You Want the Candy," a sparkling euphoria of chimes over surf-rock guitar. Each chorus delivers another rush of Pixy Stix rapture. Of course, it's not as innocent as it comes on, with "I hooked myself on you" and "I plowed my way through hell" being a good indication that when the Raveonettes sing, "Gimme some C," the C doesn't stand for chocolate.

Seventh Tree
Score: 4

Restless as always, Goldfrapp make their fourth album another transformation. They shed their Supernature nightclub gear, take the back door, and step straight into a field of dewy wheat stalks. Wait a minute: Where'd the field come from? In the holodeck world of Seventh Tree, images are transitory. Sounds, too. Forgettable, in other words. Principally soft and airy, Seventh Tree whiles away its 40-some minutes drifting through a pastoral landscape. But the easy-listening strings and acoustic guitars can't shake the electronic touches that peek through like cracks in the simulation.

Introducing ... Now Scything

I'm pleased to announce a new feature today, Now Scything. Now Scything will be comprised of condensed reviews, and it will run less frequently than my standard reviews. This will provide a greater variety in review form, and it will allow me to cover more albums.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Doing the twist

The Magnetic Fields
Score: 7

Distortion takes many forms on The Magnetic Fields' follow-up to 2004's i. Naturally, there's the noise component: reverb, feedback, collision, convergence. But there's also ideological distortion.

On "California Girls," and on many other memory-teasing pop songs, band leader Stephin Merritt scoops out the messages we thought we knew and pours in his own. Merritt rejects the Beach Boys' portrayal of California girls as beings worthy of lust and fascination, and he channels his contempt for their carefree lives into a song designed to evoke idyllic, early-'60s surf rock. Manipulating that fun-in-the-sun vibe, he assails California girls as vapid, cruel, social climbers embodying plastic perfection.

Though he wrote the song, collaborator Shirley Simms sings it, a gender switch that obfuscates the writer's identity and intent. It's no longer a man bashing women; it's a woman bashing women. Or is it? We never find out the character's gender. In any case, Simms' sweetness disguises the bitter lyrics, making the chorus, "I hate California girls," as inviting as a piece of cherry pie. And because of that, when the song enters "Scream" territory, implying the use of "battle ax" literally as well as figuratively, it doesn't jolt us.

Merritt uses these tactics throughout Distortion. For "Too Drunk to Dream," he turns what could have been a Saturday night party song into a bludgeoning night of drug abuse.

It's catchy.

Lyrically, though, it describes a vacuum of self-destruction. Similarly, "Drive On, Driver" soars on an REO Speedwagon-esque melody, despite being about a character crushed to learn that his inamorata (or her inamorata) has stood him (or her) up. The sexual ambiguity echoes the album cover, a symbol of a man attached to a background of hot pink, a symbolically feminine color.

Merritt is shrewd to alternate vocal duties with Simms, keeping his sepulchral bass from overwhelming the album's balance. His dour croak on "Old Fools" would be a heavy weight to bear if not for Simms' chipper foil on "The Nun's Litany." In that song, a nun has thoughts that would make her sisters run for confession. She says she longs for a life as, among other things, a topless waitress, a go-go dancer, a dominatrix and a porn star.

The fact that the longings of the nun were written by an openly gay man and routed out the mouth of a woman puts a number of twists on the song, and it opens the way for questions about gender politics and suppression in the name of religion. We gain perspective on the nun's wish to be a brothel worker when she adds, "I've always been treated like one."

Like the movie "Far from Heaven," Merritt's songs pull back history's whitewashed curtain to reveal all sorts of repressed realities: homosexuality, depression, loneliness, animal sacrifice.

Who knew they sounded so good together?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Drive-By Truckers
Brighter Than Creation's Dark
Score: 7

Those Truckers sure can spin a tale. Split up into four "sides," Brighter Than Creation's Dark fills its more than 75 minutes with characters from smalltown America. Meet Lisa, the party girl who keeps turning 21. Meet Bob, the middle-age misfit who cares for his "mess" of a mother. Meet soldier Tony's worried wife. Nobody has it easy.

In a place where there's more dust than money, these folks and others grapple with circumstance and personal demons. "Daddy Needs a Drink" peels away a layer each time Patterson Hood rasps a reason why Daddy needs one, exposing the fact that Daddy's always drinking.

Bassist Shonna Tucker takes the mike for "The Purgatory Line," about waiting and waiting and waiting to find Mr. Right. The barest accompaniment gives the song texture and dimension. A few chimes from Spooner Oldham's Rhodes totter into a great expanse, a drone and a muffled kick drum its only guides. "This ain't exactly hell," Tucker sings, "It sure as hell ain't heaven."

On the side farther from heaven would be "You and Your Crystal Meth," a tale of an all-consuming addiction. Family ties and a friendship, like brain cells, disintegrate and slough away as the character becomes more dead than alive, going without food and sleep. Hood tells it from the point of view of a former friend who condemns the junkie.

"The Purgatory Line" and "You and Your Crystal Meth" stray from the band's reliable mix of Southern rock, alt-country and traditional country, creating soundscapes notable for their restraint. The latter uses just a treated piano and pedal steel to support Hood's vocals. Both tracks indicate the Truckers' willingness to carve out more room to roam, and go a long way toward keeping the album unpredictable.

Of course, their specialty involves riffage, and the three-guitar shred attack of "That Man I Shot" makes it the album's de facto centerpiece. The "I" in the song, a man in a foreign land (likely a soldier or a peacekeeper), finds himself haunted after killing an assailant in self-defense. Long after the adrenaline has subsided, the scene replays in the survivor's mind. He grapples with his actions. Did that guy have a family, too? Was he just protecting his turf? "Maybe I was in his yard," he ponders. Merely a pawn in a war, he struggles to reconcile his conscience --- even questioning his sanity --- and finds the big picture to be an unacceptable shade of gray.

In another guitar-driven song worthy of discussion, "The Righteous Path," Hood tells of two men, lifelong friends. One is successful but faces serious financial problems. The other is a walking disaster: ex-wives, abandoned kids, trouble with the law. Both believe they're on the right track. And though the successful one says his friend isn't even close, he believes there's only "a thin thin line" between their situations.

When the road of life involves going "80 miles an hour with a worn-out map," it's easy to see why.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Exploring the space

Some People Have
Real Problems

Score: 6

The third full-length from Sia shows that she's progressing as a solo artist. The Australian singer, now probably most notable for her hit "Breathe Me," anchored some of the best songs on Zero 7's early albums. When she's away from her electronica collaborators, she's free to explore the space beyond their chillout framework. Sometimes that leads to unexpected pleasures. Sometimes it leads to pitfalls. Some People Have Real Problems has some of both.

In many cases, Sia pushes herself vocally, pulling off brassy bellows and soaring melodies in addition to the easy-and-deliberate style that is her hallmark. It's a surprise, considering the aural yarn that is her standard range, always soft and lightly frayed.

She rises to the challenge delivered by the opening of "Day Too Soon," a gentle lope put forth by her rhythm section of bassist Sam Dixon, drummer Joey Waronker, guitarist Gus Seyffert, and keyboardists Ed Stevens and Larry Goldings. It calls for some heat, and Sia brings a warmth that, while not quite soul, is closer to neo-soul than to pop. This carries into the next track, "You Have Been Loved," a slow-burner that Sia squeezes even more feeling out of.

"Electric Bird" and "Beautiful Calm Driving" similarly find her testing the waters, both having choruses requiring plenty of lung power. "Electric Bird" likewise features a bevy of horns that adds vigor and boldness to Sia's feathered symbolism.

Other songs, it's clear, were no sweat. "Little Black Sandals" harkens back to her Zero 7 contributions, and the bass line and drum tempo could have been lifted from any one of their albums. "Lullaby" turns down the lights with its guitar and piano parts played ever so delicately. The way Sia's voice wavers on a few verses fits the Kinks cover "I Go to Sleep," and the string section is a nice touch.

Throughout the album, though, Sia gives up ground here and there. "Playground" has a fidgety chorus. "Death by Chocolate" goes overboard (the line "tears on your pillow" is an early warning) as Sia and a choir have a Celine Dion flashback, which isn't bad per se, but the song isn't dramatic enough to merit it, nor is it melodramatic enough to be boosted into the realm of camp. Still, it's better than "Academia," a jumble of mixed metaphors ("And if you are a number, you're infinity plus one / And if I am four words, then I am 'Needing of your love'").

Clearly, ambition doesn't guarantee good songs, but it does help a singer grow. And Sia has definitely grown.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Crystal chandeliers in the ceiling

and holes in the bloody floor

Kate Nash
Made of Bricks
Score: 4

Kate Nash, a 20-year-old British singer-songwriter, projects that she's an ordinary girl fascinated by the world. Her small world, that is.

She frets about boys. She analyzes herself. She watches "CSI." No detail is too insignificant, no anecdote too inconsequential to mention. In "Mouthwash," she feels obligated to tell us, "I use mouthwash / Sometimes I floss / I've got a family / And I drink cups of tea." She's obviously self-absorbed.

Is the average British girl-next-door type self-absorbed? Maybe. But the trivialities of Nash's life are a lot more interesting to her than to, probably, anybody else. "We Get On" shares a pulled-from-a-diary account of how she used to swallow her tongue around this guy because he was so amazing, and how she shook his hand once and how she felt a spark but she couldn't ask him for his phone number and then she saw him at a party but he was kissing this other girl and so she cried and got drunk and cried some more.

"We Get On" tells a common enough tale (she's common, remember?), and it displays Nash's main stylistic traits. Her vocals lie somewhere between Feist's warbling and Lily Allen's speak-singing, and she frequently ramps up her speech or slows it down, either cramming in more verses than the tempo would dictate or stretching out each note. Usually, there's no thematic reason for this, so it just comes off as capricious. ("We Get On," despite its shortcomings, is one of the few instances that her delivery complements the subject matter.) The accompaniment tends to be a chipper piano loop joined by live and programmed instruments. Many sound keyboard-produced, giving Made of Bricks a made-in-your-bedroom quality even though the production is anything but lo-fi.

Along with this, the album often feels juvenile and self-indulgent, due in large part to Nash's choice of words and lack of restraint. In "Mariella," she rattles off her faults, starting with "I'm heavy-handed, to say the least." When she follows that with "I'm far too loud," she yells "loud," unintentionally making the first of her criticisms ring true. Later, when the song's piano plod turns to a jig, she mimics the chant of Mariella, a girl who glued her lips together: "Yeah, I'm neva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-
eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva / Yeah, I'm neva-eva-eva-eva-eva-
eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva / Yeah, I'm neva-eva-eva-
eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva-eva / Gonna unglue my lips from bein' together." And on the chant goes.

Nash also seems delighted to pepper her speech with unnecessary vulgarities, as though she's just learned to curse and is eager for a reaction. Even if all you did was scan the song titles on Made of Bricks, you might get that impression. The chorus of "Dickhead" is as follows: "Why you bein' a dickhead for? / Stop bein' a dickhead / Why you bein' a dickhead for? / You're just fuckin' up situations."

When Nash chooses to express herself in more grown-up ways, she succeeds in creating some worthy pop songs. "Foundations," about the ways she and her beau pick at each other, glistens as it piles acoustic and electric guitar atop handclaps, piano and a metronome. "Pumpkin Soup" hits a sweet spot, with a big hook abetted by smartly sampled beats and horn blares. "Merry Happy," while a bit longer than it needs to be, packs an enjoyable da-doot-do chorus. And the violin-accented "Nicest Thing" unfurls a disarming honesty when, after describing nearly a dozen wishes relating to a crush, Nash says, "Basically ... I wish that you loved me."

Still, all those songs but "Merry Happy" were co-written, whereas Nash wrote the rest of Made of Bricks herself. If we can assume this isn't a coincidence, then she would benefit greatly from more time collaborating and less time working solo. Why watch "CSI" alone?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The sound of settling in

Cat Power
Score: 7

As she did on The Covers Record, Chan Marshall is back to reinterpreting and personalizing others' songs. And like The Covers Record, she doesn't exempt her own material.

With the Memphis Rhythm Band out (though Mabon "Teenie" Hodges guests), Marshall collaborates with Judah Bauer on guitar, Erik Paparazzi on bass, Jim White on drums and Gregg Foreman on piano and organ. Among the guests are Matt Sweeney (Zwan, Chavez) and organist Spooner Oldham.

Jukebox has a looser feel than previous Cat Power albums, partly because many songs sound almost live and partly because Marshall demonstrates fewer despondent moments. At the beginning of "Aretha, Sing One for Me," she can even be heard in the studio saying "It's rolling" in response to someone whistling. She also appears to have ceded more control to her bandmates, being credited on the album only for vocals and some arrangements. Perhaps allowing them to take care of the instruments has allowed her to relax a bit.

Of course, you wouldn't know it by the first track. In "New York," she refashions the ode to the Big Apple that Frank Sinatra made famous. Now it's a pensive statement. Instead of a horn section cheering, a keyboard paces around. Instead of punctuating the syllables and lines, Marshall sidles through them. Sinatra took his time, soaking up the spotlight; Marshall doesn't linger.

Two minutes later, she's slipping into something more comfortable: "Ramblin' (Wo)man," a tweak of the Hank Williams standard, and a slower tempo that she seems to welcome. Since the instrumentation changes little from "New York" to "Ramblin' (Wo)man" and the switch between them is so fast, the unsuspecting listener might confuse the two for the same song. Given the quickness of the shift, that might have been the band's intent. The combo is akin to a two-part rock song without being one.

Marshall's take on George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me" and Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" don't go over as well. Both are brisker and louder than the songs around them, which isn't by itself a bad thing. In fact, their placement on Jukebox, as No. 5 and No. 8, is a prudent sequencing move. The trouble is that Marshall's hoarse wisp of a voice isn't enough to carry the bigger sounds. The punch of guitar and drums on "I Believe in You" proves too forceful, overpowering her vocals rather than amplifying them. "Aretha, Sing One for Me" mismatches her fairly stiff delivery with a wriggling organ straight out of the Stax catalog. Since Marshall doesn't play off it, or otherwise demonstrate soul, the song falls flat. (She fares better with a stripped-down treatment of James Brown's "Lost Someone.")

As usual, the quiet realm is where Marshall's most-penetrating songs reside. "Metal Heart" and "Song to Bobby," both originals, find her dealing with internal conflicts. "Metal Heart," which in itself incorporates two lines from the hymn "Amazing Grace," previously appeared on Moon Pix. Here, it's unsheathed from its aimless guitar shuffle and muddy multitracked vocals, and it shines anew as a piano-driven piece. When Marshall sings, "Metal heart, you're not hiding / metal heart, you're not worth a thing," it's almost anthemic.

"Song to Bobby," about finally professing an undying love, finds Marshall, who contributed to the I'm Not There soundtrack, in full-on Dylan mode. Along with his inflection, she rolls out lyrics like this:

"Oh how I wanted to tell you
That I was just only 400 miles away
Who could believe that you were calling?
I was in deceit: I was 400 miles behind"

And doing another folk icon proud, she and the band add a different dimension to Joni Mitchell's "Blue." The clarity in the original is replaced by a drift through moral ambiguity. Key to this version, besides Marshall's languid delivery, are the murky synths, which imply a clouded mind. Their haze envelopes Marshall as she stares at hedonism's bloated underbelly of "acid, booze, and ass / needles, guns, and grass."

All right, she's not going there. She's just having a look around.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Change of venue

Don't Fear The Reaper is officially operating out of Kent now. Yep, I moved north and will soon be diving into this thing called 2008 (which has been getting mixed reviews but which I have high hopes for).

Leap years are good by default. What did you do with your extra 24 hours?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 1

Mono in VCF
Mono in VCF

Darkly beautiful, the music of Mono in VCF melds baroque pop with shoegazer and psychedelic ventures, always with a cosmopolitan appreciation for style and nuance.

On their debut album, the Tacoma, Wash.-based band explore a swirl of love, loss, melancholy and death. The clipped guitar, wet bass plucks and undulations of Moog synthesizer set the tone in opener "Escape City Scrapers" as singer Kim Miller imagines liberating herself from rainclouds and concrete. The mood is cool but sensuous and unhurried, like a lucid dream unfolding.

This mood permeates the next two tracks, "Spider Rotation" and "Masha." In the plaintive "Masha," Miller sings, "I thought I felt a feeling / but my daydream hit the ceiling."

The words sprang from the mind of Hunter Lea, the band's principal songwriter. Lea leaves the vocals to Miller, except for on "In Los Angeles," a Nancy-and-Lee-style ballad in which he duets with her. The other male voice, which appears on two songs, belongs to Terry Jacks, who co-founded the '70s band the Poppy Family. Mono in VCF pay tribute to him by covering his song "There's No Blood in Bone," the album's midpoint.

The sequencing on Mono in VCF enhances the song cycle, moving from synths to acoustic guitar and back, taking into account tempo and texture. "In Los Angeles" scuffs out a groove. "There's No Blood in Bone" whips up a froth. And the majesty of "Chanteuse" calms it down before the dire kismet of "Death of a Spark" sets in.

Standout "The Only One" is built to captivate, with its bass tones and a music-box-style piano ascending and descending like Escher's famous stairway image.

"If you wanna rip my heart out, go ahead
Go, get on, get it over with
If the sight of blood should make you sick
I'll do my best to bleed under my skin"

The way Miller's seductive vocals glide through torture suggests a gallows humor, and the lyrics reinforce the track's circularity. In the first chorus, it's "I know you're not the only one for me"; but in the second chorus, that changes to "You know you're not the only one for me." This opens a range of possibilities.

Perhaps it's a lover confronted with infidelity, or a different kind of betrayal. Perhaps the second chorus is her response. Perhaps the first chorus is a discovery or a personal revelation and the second chorus signifies a transference of knowledge. Perhaps she told him; perhaps he came to the conclusion on his own. Perhaps the betrayal is double-sided.

The final chorus is even more provocative:

I know I'm not the only one
I know you're not the only one
You know you're not the only one
for me

It's like a movie with a scene lost on the cutting-room floor.

And all the better for it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 2

The Pipettes
We Are the Pipettes
[International version]

It was a match made in Britain.

Solo artist and promoter Monster Bobby (Bobby Barry) paired singers and musicians from the Brighton scene, hoping to tap into clubgoers' lasting affection for '60s girl-group pop. He ended up with star attractions the Pipettes and a backing band for them, the Cassette.

After a bit of lineup shifting in the early days --- to be expected in any large group --- the Pipettes number Gwenno (Gwenno Saunders), Rosay (Rose Dougall) and RiotBecki (Becki Stephens), and the Cassette consist of Monster Bobby on guitar, Jon (Jon Falcone) on bass, Jason (Jason Adelinia) on drums and Seb (Seb Falcone) on keyboards. Together they write songs that recapture the energy, charm, innocence and moxie of groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals.

"Pull Shapes," for instance, extols the virtue of dancing. "Dance with me and we'll be alright," Gwenno sings, with Rosay and RiotBecki providing harmonies. Their enthusiastic delivery, combined with the steady arm of the Cassette, builds up a feeling of euphoria until it sounds like the string section is doing pirouettes.

"Pull Shapes," in essence, is the mission statement of We Are the Pipettes, an album filled with references to dancing. And the music is designed to get you moving. Out of 16 tracks, 13 are uptempo; three are midtempo. All are catchy and hook-laden, beaming the kind of joy that only love could touch.

Love, naturally, is the album's other major theme. Whether it's two wallflowers finding each other ("A Winter's Sky") or getting fed up enough to cut a guy loose ("Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me"), the emotion shows many of its expressions. In "Tell Me What You Want," RiotBecki scolds a boy for making eyes at her, but only because she prefers people to be upfront rather than mysterious. Her take: If you're going to stare, at least come talk to me. "You could be mine," she teases.

Oh yes, they can and do flirt. It's one of many talents in the Pipettes' arsenal. Gwenno, RiotBecki and Rosay have a chemistry that belies their short time together. The skill and ease of their vocal interplay adds sparkle to every song on We Are the Pipettes.

Strangely, the album underwent a remixing job and repackaging before being distributed internationally in 2007. Greg Wells, who specializes in slick, processed pop, did the mixing job and produced two bonus tracks for the release.

While not on the level of the Beatles' Let It Be and Let It Be ... Naked, the differences in the British version and the international version of We Are the Pipettes are numerous and give each a distinct character. Honestly, the covers tell you a lot about the music inside: The British version is proper and graceful. The international version is bigger and louder.

It's counterintuitive that a band birthed from '60s nostalgia would benefit from a modernistic recording instead of one in the tradition of Phil Spector, which is what the British version follows. Nevertheless, Wells' version has its pleasures. "Judy," a tale about befriending a rebellious girl, benefits from Wells' emphasis on bass and percussion. The horns, too, come across as more robust. "ABC" also gets a shot in the arm from his treatment.

The drawback to Wells' mix job is that Seb's keyboards are significantly muffled and many of the background flourishes are buried. You'll have a harder time hearing the crowd effect on "Pull Shapes" and Gwenno's ba-bop-bop-ba backing vocals in "Dirty Mind," though you can hear both distinctly on the British version. When the Pipettes use a lot of backing vocals in quick succession, the extra compression on the international version smooshes them together. That means if you're listening to "One Night Stand" on the British version, the vocals will have good definition, but if you're listening to the international version, it's tougher to make out the phrases.

Ultimately, however, songcraft and personality are what carry this album. When Rosay sings "I woke up with a smile / Oh, I nearly started screaming / That I love you," the exhilaration is contagious. We Are the Pipettes radiates delight regardless of the version.

Buy them both.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 3

In Rainbows

Just as it takes sun and rain to make a rainbow, it took The Bends and Hail to the Thief to make In Rainbows.

Integrating their live instrumentation with their programmables, Radiohead focus on refinement this time around rather than pioneering. After all, the business model was trailblazing enough.

In Rainbows is lean and brisk, clocking in at just over 40 minutes, and Phil Selway's live drums inject the album with a spryness not matched since their formative years. Whether it's the top-notch snare playing of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" or the cymbals-and-shakers treatment of "Reckoner," he makes his presence felt. On the symbolic album-opener "15 Step," he shares the stage with the sampler, abetting its plips and plops, but by the end of the song, the sampler is overpowered, just one element in a multilayered force.

Here and there within those layers, you'll find breadcrumbs leading to the past. The programming in "15 Step" recalls that of Hail to the Thief's "Backdrifts," although the former jumps around more and the latter had that tunnel-vision synth. "Bodysnatchers" revels in the rawness and guitar skronk of "My Iron Lung." "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" lays slow vocals by Thom Yorke over a fast rhythm in the style of "Where I End and You Begin."

Radiohead's approach on In Rainbows hews more to the straightforward songwriting of the Bends era than to the experimentation of their recent years. There's even a love song or two. "I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover," Yorke sings on the spare "House of Cards," encouraging a woman to put her worries to bed (and climb in with him). It's a surprising sentiment from a man long cast as distant and distracted. Kid A certainly heightened that impression. As Radiohead journeyed into the world of computers, they --- and Yorke, especially --- picked up an asexual frost. "House of Cards" feels like the thaw.

Like "House of Cards," "All I Need" concerns a romantic pursuit, although the warped piano tones warn from the start that this one isn't as benign. Over trip-hop beats, Yorke voices his cravings: You. You. You! But there are signs of peril everywhere, from the classic moth-flame analogy to his second-guessing that "It’s all wrong / It’s all right / It’s all wrong / It’s all right."

Even if In Rainbows has a lighter feel overall than most of its predecessors, its conclusion comes draped in a funeral cloak. "Videotape" takes its inspiration from two places: people's treasured memories and people's widespread fear of death. Or, if you apply them to sayings, it might be a combination of "If the Lord took me tomorrow, I'd die a happy man" and "If you're watching this tape, then I'm already dead."

As piano keys tremble, Yorke plays the role of a dying man who records his final words for someone to witness later, for, as he says, "I can't do it face to face." Backward drum rolls and a chorus of ghostly Yorkes ratchet up the tension. The drum rolls, in particular, add an eerieness to the track, sounding more like a shoe tumbling off a dresser than sticks hitting the skins. But "Videotape" is a complicated thing, for in this dark place the doomed man focuses on what has just passed, "the most perfect day I've ever seen."

Not that any of this fear-and-death stuff should come as a surprise. It is Radiohead. Look how they ended The Bends and Hail to the Thief.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 4

The Arcade Fire
Neon Bible

Can I get a witness?!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 5

Lily Allen
Alright, Still

479,895 MySpace fans can't be wrong.

(OK, they could be, but they're not.)

Alright, Still is a creative, good-humored debut with a summery splash, and Lily Allen comes across as a firecracker, a brat and a well-meaning sister. But she's a lovable protagonist
to root for in any form.

In "Knock 'Em Out," she's a social commentator. She jokes about a common plight for ladies in pubs and clubs: unwanted advances from guys who just can't take a hint. As a breezy piano run intermixes with sax honks and busy electro beats, Allen explains the song's premise in a monologue, almost as if "Knock 'Em Out" were a blurb in a women's magazine. Switching her point of view, she creates a scenario and jumps in and out of the scene, adding asides and the peeved woman's inner thoughts. She starts to rattle off sample excuses but cracks up at "my house is on fire."

"Knock 'Em Out" wins points for pulling off exposition and snap shifts in perspective, but it's also comedic. I mean, what can you do when the pest won't go away? The fact that the consideration of knocking someone out even enters her mind is hilarious, because it's totally not based in reality. And the consideration of walking away is the second thing to come to her!

Allen's other song set in a club, "Friday Night," is equally impressive. The backbeat of "Friday Night" sounds like what you'd hear outside a club: that heavy, lub-dub bass thump. In this one, Allen goes out for a night on the town, and nothing goes as planned. The wait's long. She gets hassled by a girl on the guest list. She gets hassled by security.

"Look me
up and down
I don't
make a sound"

Allen's backing vocals correspond to the action described in the song, climbing and descending. You can just picture her standing there: lips tightly pursed, eyes locked forward, seething somewhere deep inside.

So, naturally, when she gets into the club, it's not a fun, carefree experience. One thing after another gets under her skin, and when some girls try to push by her, she pushes back, ready to rumble. In "Knock 'Em Out," the mention of violence was outlandish and played for laughs; here it hints at her volatile emotional state.

That could be due to the suite of songs on Alright, Still referencing a breakup that unleashed a whorl of feelings. Anger is a big one.

"Not Big" disses Mr. Ex, impugning his manhood and chalking up his shortcomings. Though glockenspiel and Allen's sing-song chorus imply only that mischief is afoot, "Not Big" aims to hurt, particularly when she threatens, "Let's see how you feel in a couple of weeks / when I work my way through your mates." Similarly, the reggae-inflected "Smile" harbors a vindictive kernel under its sunny exterior.

"Littlest Things," though, takes Allen back to the good times, long before the breakup. Alas, the memories bring with them a fresh zing of heartache, the wistful strings fleshing that out. "Sometimes I find myself sittin' back and reminiscin'," she confesses, "especially when I have to watch other people kissin'."


Monday, January 28, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 6


"You think it's tough now? Come to Africa." The words of M.I.A. tourmate Afrikan Boy burn a hole through our middling concerns.

A little overweight?

Africa has famine.

Looming recession?

Africa has widespread poverty.

Mortgage market mess?

Africa has slums, million-person slums.

The war in Iraq?

Africa has lots of wars. Take your pick.

"You can't touch me, like leprosy."

Africa has leprosy.

The guest rap on "Hussel" is a fragment of what's going on on Kala, M.I.A.'s second album. Kala takes the Earth and covers it in highlighter. India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Burma, Angola, Somalia and Mozambique get shout-outs. M.I.A. recorded songs on four continents, and she draws from hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, Bollywood, the Middle East and aboriginal music. In this way, the album is a celebration of culture, a bridge to the unfamiliar. Through Kala, a hip-hop fan might discover world music, and an M.I.A. fan might discover the Pixies, whose "Where Is My Mind?" lyrics she adapts in "20 Dollar."

Organic and synthetic collide. Shouts and didgeridoo meet synths and samplers. "Bird Flu" explodes in a clatter of percussion, clucking and children's voices. Auwwwk!! Auwwwk!! The chickens are everywhere as people hassle M.I.A. about her credentials.

Met with so much chaos and hardship, "Jimmy" is joyous escapism, pairing waltzing strings with a percolating disco beat and Hindi-inspired singing. A woman pines for the desirable Jimmy Aaja, though her whimpers at the end indicate that her love will go unrequited.

Like "Jimmy," "The Turn" also could be considered escapist, but it wields a different kind of dissociative power. It brings on vertigo with woozy synths, scattershot hand drums and a disembodied rap posse.

The world of Kala is the Third World, the First World and the world of M.I.A. The three interweave, as does the theme of money. In perhaps all worlds, money is a thing to covet and to loathe, to kill for and to die for. "20 Dollar" tells us that $20 is the going rate for AK-47s in Africa. In "Hussel," the character does terrible things to get money, which she then sends to her far-away family. "I hate money 'cause it makes me numb," she says.

Guns, the unofficial fundraisers, burst out of the lyrics and into the music. Cocking adds tension to the chant "Hands up, guns out!" in "World Town," about destitute people pushed to the brink. "Paper Planes" takes the technique further, filling the choruses with gunshots.

But "Paper Planes," patterned after the ruthlessness of gangsta rap, says something deeper. In the context of Kala, it subverts the braggadocio of thug life to show that, no matter the country, it's still bullets and blood, just different faces falling lifeless to the ground.

There's no glamour in the slaughter. It's not about power; it's about powerlessness.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 7

Rilo Kiley
Under the Blacklight

In Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley is Fleetwood Mac. Jenny Lewis is Stevie Nicks. Blake Sennett is Lindsey Buckingham. California is California, as sunny and as seedy as it was in the '70s.

With romantic friction and a power struggle at play, Lewis and Sennett pull Rilo Kiley away from their plainer, somewhat rangy beginnings and toward the streamlined, studio-polished pop-rock that their parents might have listened to. "Dreamworld," in particular, would sound right at home sandwiched between Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. The Lewis-Sennett vocal interplay, along with the steady beat and easy wash of electric guitar, recalls Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." (Perhaps the title itself is an homage.)

Lewis, consciously or unconsciously, has picked up Nicks' vocal characteristics. That's apparent on "Close Call," in which her post-chorus flourishes fall somewhere between a coo and a yodel. The stylistic fusion adds impact and catchiness to Rilo Kiley's sound.

Like any number of classic California albums, Under the Blacklight has enough shine to give you a tan. "Silver Lining" finds its chirpy guitar in another '70s touchstone, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The island-flavored "Dejalo" breaks out the steel drums. "Breakin' Up" and "Give a Little Love" skip along to synth and chime.

And when the sun goes down, the action's just getting started. Lewis' vocals squirm as the rhythm section thrusts on "The Moneymaker," about people selling their bodies for cash. A little later, the title track guides us through the valley (probably the San Fernando Valley), where the moon and the night sky make that black light at the club look like nothin'. "15" and its swell of horns bring a teen girl into the picture. She's a knockout. And a man "deep like a graveyard" who gets tangled up with her finds out that she's only ... well, you know. Then again, he might have had an inkling of her age, as Lewis characterizes him as "a spider on the web."

For casual listeners nodding along to the music, learning of tension between Lewis and Sennett might come as a surprise. But there are plenty of hints of strife in the lyrics, as there were in some Fleetwood Mac recordings. Nicks and Buckingham quit the band twice and returned twice, along with making solo albums and handling other business during full-band hiatuses.

Like Nicks and Buckingham, Lewis and Sennett have spent time apart, working on albums where they call the shots (and maybe try to outdo each other). Lewis collaborated with the Watson Twins on Rabbit Fur Coat, released in 2006. Sennett led The Elected in the creation of 2004's Me First and 2006's Sun, Sun, Sun.

So although the implications are twofold when Lewis sings, "Are we breakin' up?", the question shouldn't be that scary. Because even if Rilo Kiley do break up, chances are they'll get back together.

Assuming, of course, that they're still Fleetwood Mac.