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.