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?