Monday, February 28, 2005

josh rouse + 2005 update

Here's my take on Josh Rouse's Nashville; the review has both very good parts and very bad parts. I pray for real talent. And more rigorous editing. Oh well...

Brief notes on 2005's other releases that I've heard so far (weird formatting stuff, like some titles being all-caps and others in italics, are due to some of this being copied-and-posted point blank from an internet music geek discussion group, and other stuff being new, and me being lazy):

Mercury Rev, THE SECRET MIGRATION - disappointing, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly where this goes wrong. As a piece of atmosphere, it's mostly right on, since they still know their way around a studio, but there's something bland and enervated about it. If I had to venture a nutsoid theory about why this might be, it would be that the bass lines here are considerably more fluid and bouncy than on DESERTER'S SONGS (I haven't heard ALL IS DREAM, but I gather it's even more stately than SONGS, if that's possible), and that this is a bad thing because DESERTER'S SONGS uses simple bass lines to provide a foundation for a sonic chasm that develops between treble sounds freaking out all over the place and the head-nodding stoner bass. Maybe another thing to think about is that DESERTER'S SONGS is, at heart, an Americana album (those guest appearances from members of The Band give it away; just strip away the synth strings from "Opus 40," and you've got a super-simple drum beat plus organ, and that's all), and this is more of an adult-contemporary type thing. Still, I'm just barely pro on it because it makes nice background music, and because "Across Yer
Ocean" actually is a great song.

...and you will know us by the trail of dead, WORLDS APART - this CD is retarded. I'm partially handicapped because I really haven't listened to Source Tags & Codes; I liked it two years ago, but recent listens haven't done much for me. The lyrics do a lot of damage on their own: "What do you think now of the American dream," sneers Conrad Keely after indicting the usual list of MTV pop stars and deceitful politicians, and the question isn't any more stinging this time than the 12,594 times it was asked before (Keely probably spells it "Amerikan" too). But the music's not great either: opener "Overture" (no, really) cops a rip from Koyaanisqatsi, intentionally or not (along with NIN's "A Warm Place" and A.C. Newman's "The Battle For Straight Time" - weird company), and then promisingly spirals into the punishing opening of "Will You Smile Again." And then the guitars stop raging, some kind of weird stop-start balladry kicks in, and the CD never regains ground, no matter how many bad gospel-vocalist arrangements it throws in. There are isolated nice snatches of sound (I like the thunderous beat on "Let It Dive," which a bud acutely compared to Oasis, which is about right), but the thing's a mess overall. Which is a shame, because I'm normally all about boosting Austin bands. Thank jesus Spoon has a new record coming out soon.

Graham Coxon, HAPPINESS IN MAGAZINES - 10 solid rock-pop songs (11 with the bonus Astralwerks track), plus 2 deviant experiments that go very awry but can easily be cut. And if you think solid pop isn't good enough, why isn't there more of it. Why. Also Coxon can be a clever lyricist on occasion, even if his best moments are all about guitars and girls. Best song: "Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery."

Bright Eyes, DIGITAL ASH IN A DIGITAL URN - None of the songs here is disastrous, but very few of them pull together all the elements in a consistently compelling way (although "I Believe In Symmetry" and closer "Easy Lucky Free," which traffics in the kind of swooning bass-oriented doomed romanticism I'm always a sucker for, are keepers). I had to guess as to what to cut from my iPod and what to keep. Still, I'm inclined to be charitable, since I really like this whole new laptop pop thing (I refuse to play along with the "lappop" moniker assigned by pitchfork, at least just yet - I considered it myself before they started using it but come on; that's just awkward).

Lemon Jelly, '64-'95 - Lemon Jelly are both underrated (because apparently no one knows who they are) and overrated (because they really are just electronica easy-listening). But this is nice and easy, and these guys are capable of true loveliness when they feel like it (see their production for William Shatner on "Together" on his Has Been). And I'll continue to feel inexplicable loyalty for them, despite the fact that they've never truly rocked my world.

Doves, SOME CITIES - THE LAST BROADCAST is one of my all-time favorite records. Just so you know what my level of expectation was. On a few songs they act like they are not gonna save the world with uplifting, monstrously huge songs that sound like U2 if
they didn't suck, but then they realize they are the Doves and that is what they do, so we get monster anthems like "Walk In Fire," which is as it should be. However they have ditched the Sean O'Hagen string arrangements and brass and whatnot, instead embracing murkier recording techniques and especially their guitars (the emphasis on amp noise, manual-labor crescendoes, etc., occasionally reminds me of the Walkmen, if that gives you the idea, though they're obviously nothing like them). A song that should be mentioned as something quite special that does not fit the pre-established Doves template is "The Storm," which is probably the best Morcheeba song never written. There is a woozy, warm string background which is broken up with skips that add to the dreamy feel after they stop being jarring, and are therefore awesome. To reiterate: Doves lose clarity and part of recording budget, gain songs that can be played live with guitars and some awesome new rockers. Ultimately I am slightly underwhelemed because this does not focus on the anthems as much and does not have as much of the expertly arranged bombast I value so highly, but they're mature kids and get to do whatever they want, and more power to them.

The Game, THE DOCUMENTARY - pretty fuckin' fascinating. I've ignored most of the CDs put out by the Aftermath clique, because the spare production associated with the singles of 50 Cent, G-Unit, Lloyd Banks et al. holds zero interest for me (and I've recently finally accepted that I'm 90% about the production and maybe 10% about the actual flow; hence why Nas holds not too much fascination for me most days, despite his expert prowess. The exception that proves the rule is Eminem, but then again I am an angry white child of suburbia, and he did galvanize a moment back in the day.), but this - like, e.g., The Black Album - is a producer's showcase. The line-up alone is drool-worthy (Dr. Dre! Just Blaze! Kanye West! Timbaland!), and for the most part doesn't disappoint. The best and biggest news is that this is some of Dr. Dre's best work in years: on tracks like "Westside Story," standard-issue taunts about how the West Coast is back are enlivened by imaginative touches far from the spare autopilot the Dr. appears to have been on lately (and unfortunately passed on to Eminem); there's even the lush soul-string sample of "Hate It Or Love It," which will hopefully be one of the biggest singles of 2005. Kanye only contributes one track, the soulful and meditative "Dreams" (here Kanye abets The Game's hyperbolic comparisons, which are obscene even by hip-hop's outsized standards: it seems that he, like Martin Luther King Jr. - no, really - has a dream, and the sampled voice backs him up on this); Just Blaze then demonstrates that his like-minded fetish for old samples is quite a different beast, contributing two hugely energizing rave-ups built around funk beats, horns, etc. Eminem comes a cropper - no surprise there, though the little-boy-trying-to-sound-scary taunting of "We Ain't" is still pretty damn embarassing - but, interestingly, the challenge of rapping with him causes the Game to slip right into distinctly Em-esque meter. More surprisingly, Timbaland produces a boring track. Dude!

As far as the Game's actual rhyming skills, he does little to personally justify the hype - albeit a hype fully justified for the actual album, thanks to the beats - but also little to incur the taunting much of the media has given him. He's competent, with an interesting vulnerability that pops out occasionally - a curious, half-formed mixture of gangsta bravado and sentimental shout-outs to brothahoood and family - a seemingly tamped-down misogyny where he wishes to just spend time "just my, my son, and my bitch," and the occasional inspired taunt (my personal favorite: "You niggas is WNBA: all pussies"). Good stuff, with less filler than usual for a rap album. And no skits!

Aqueduct, I SOLD GOLD - totally frustrating. Well-structured pop with good hooks completely undermined by a tinny recording concept - basically just some cheap keyboards, drum machines, and thin guitars. These would sound really good re-recorded by a real band. But was it this "unique" (but bad!) sound that got Aqueduct attention in the first place? What I do like is the acknowledgement, on "Growing Up With GNR," is the admission that all indie culture started at someplace decidedly non-alternative. We need more confessions like that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Appendix: Live Music '04

I meant to write up the measly 8 shows I saw in 2004 on the exhaustive 2004 CD annotations but forgot. Some brief notes:

The Wrens were probably the best live act I saw, which is no surprise since I spent a goodish portion of the year listening to The Meadowlands over and over and slowly realizing that it was, in fact, the best album of 2003 (after 2004 really stopped compelling my attention). They took to the sweaty stage at Emo's and rocked exceptionally for 75 minutes; I only wish it had been longer. Because Meadowlands is long (and quite possibly because their previous album came out in 1996, and is out of print to boot), all but one song was drawn from there. As an expert live band, just enough of each song was changed to make it fascinating for the dedicated listener; on "Ex-Girl Collection," the drummer left so that the expert 3-part guitar attack could let its harmonies shine more cleanly, then coming back onstage. "Ready, bitches?" he asked, and they were. My favorite part, though, was accidental: Emo's is right next to a dance club whose loud beats can bleed over between numbers. When the Wrens picked up on this, they shushed the audience to hear it more clearly and played along. That was awesome.

The inverse opposite of watching the Wrens rock a small crowd of indie elitists was probably seeing Prince rock an arena. Truth be told, I'm not the world's biggest Prince fan: he's done a lot of great work, sure, but he's still pretty rarely my first choice for listening. But most arena acts suck ass, and I'd never been to an arena show and wanted the experience, and I have friends who are huge Prince fans, so I shelled out $50 (this was back before I was a college student and had money). The day of the concert Texas was flash-flooding, so the drive up to San Antonio was far longer than usual and mildly dangerous; we got there just in time to be an hour early. But a Prince show is as tight as you've heard, and the fact that the legendary Maceo Parker was in Prince's band for this leg of the tour didn't hurt at all. Purple Rain was disposed of in a quick song medley - all but that title song itself, of course, which was the final encore. In a tribute to his astonishing ego, Prince had the crowd cheering for a good ten minutes, begging for an encore which of course had to come before actually coming back out. And even I, the guy who doesn't like that song to begin with, suddenly starting screaming at about minute 8: "Come on you motherfucker! Give the people what they want! Do it already!" Prince is an expert in crowd manipulation, and he hires sax players who can look good with all their cleavage hanging out as they simultaneously dance and play; it's a good show.

When Travis came to Austin, they were originally scheduled to play the Austin Music Hall, but I wasn't terribly surprised when the show was moved to the smaller La Zona Rosa at the last minute; Travis is no longer as popular as they were, particularly in the US, and the same corporation owned both venues anyway, so it was no sweat off their back. Jason Falkner - the power-pop workhouse who, in-between multi-tracking his own albums, found the time to tour with Air, record with Beck, collaborate with Brendan Benson, and generally pop up all over the damn place with everything except for new solo material - opened, at first cranking out a few solo one-man-and-electric-guitar numbers before taking out his iPod, which pumped out all the backing tracks he needed. Travis played for two solid hours with scarcely a wasted minute, were startlingly nice and apparently sincere, and skipped most of their crappier material in favor of nearly the entirety of The Man Who, the singles from The Invisible Band, and all the good songs (and then some) from the underrated 12 Memories. Fran Healy was once quoted as saying that Travis's music is like a chair, that you can sit in it. But it turns out you can kinda rock to it too (except for when they deliberately tried to rock out with "All I Wanna Do Is Rock & Roll" and climbed on an amp; that was kinda sweet but ultimately embarassing).

The Sleepy Jackson came to rock SXSW, and played as many sets as possible; I think they actually squeezed in four, which is pretty phenomenal. Their mid-day gig at the Yard Dog Art Gallery (glorified junk yard/"amateur art" space that set up some satisfying deafening speakers in the back, with Budweiser sponsoring the whole thing with free keg beer distributed, by and large, by very nice old ladies) was very cool, mainly because they played so loud that they lost power twice. And apparently once more at their real showcase performance later that day.

And then there was Wilco. I lucked out into a ticket for the second night of their stint at Radio City Music Hall. No disrespect, but it's hard to imagine a less rock-'n-roll venue, which would be OK, except Wilco is an unreconstructed 70s rock band. This was the suspicion any person might've had after hearing most of A Ghost Is Born, and some earlier songs like "Monday" from Being There, which is basically just a redux of the Who's "5:15," horns and all, and it was confirmed in full by Wilco's set: the first thing you saw was that they had two massive keyboards bookending either end of the stage, something that I thought had gone out with the first wave of prog bands. There were also long, would-be epic, and utterly non-ironic guitar solos (the odd but lovely string arrangement on "Hummingbird" stood revealed as actually kind of an ELO-ish solo). And though they played well for a solid two hours, there was something annoying about their audience, an uneven mixture of 40-ish NPR listeners who'd finally found a rock band that spoke to them for the first time in years and slightly insecure hipsters who weren't sure if they shouldn't be running out of the plush interiors back to Williamsburg. Radio City Music Hall is large enough that they cancelled each other out, but their mutual bewilderment revealed itself during an opening set from the Fiery Furnaces: the hipsters would periodically cheer just to establish their cred, despite the fact that the act was conspicuously floating out into the void. Once the 40-somethings figured out that this was the New Face of Rock, or something like it, they wanted to feel like they were at a rock show, not Radio City Music Hall: they hoisted their $5 beers and cheered "Yeah! Rock 'n roll!" Which is the wrong answer to both acts, but whatever.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

you're in the right place

For convenience, the music portion of this site is now in handy blog-type format, which makes it easier for me to update at least this part of the site more often. There will be the links to the review-type things, as well as general quick comments on recent listening, and abstract thinking if I feel like it.

For now: here's every album I heard in 2004, annotated, in preferential order. Compare/contrast with your own top 10, etc. I also have a review of Graham Coxon's new album.