3 recently heard albums
Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy - What is it about this album that annoys me so much? Okkervil River should have everything going in their favor: a frontman who used to work at the video store I go to in Austin, an opening slot for the Wrens last year where they held their own (which impressed me), literate lyrics, a lo-fi approach to recording that still carefully considers transitions between songs and arrangements (a variety of trumpets, strings, cello, and ambient sound recordings). And yet. Something about Black Sheep Boy annoys me intensely. Is it (choose one):
a) the fact that the record's central conceit (the titular Black Sheep Boy, who recurs as a metaphor for failed expectations, charmed losers, and the rest of Will Robinson Sheff's cast of characters and themes) isn't nearly as flexible, all-absorbing, or clever as Sheff seems to think it is? No matter how often his name is invoked, the appropriate gravitas just won't kick in.
b) the related fact that Sheff's lyrics, while literate and etc., are not nearly as awesome as Sheff would like. "The loveliest words, whispered and heard, you like all these things/But though you like all these things/You love a stone, you love a stone/Because it's smooth" is clever enough, but I wouldn't arrange a whole, whiny-vocals song around it.
c) the fact that, though the instrumentation is as clever as previously mentioned, somehow still seems designed to highlight said unremarkable emo poetry.
d) the fact that "Get Big" is a thoroughly unremarkable male-female duet, hoping for Tindersticks heft but settling for considerably less, and boasts the repeated, obnoxious, cutesy lyric "get big, little kid," which is apparently Sheff's way annoying endearment for his girlfriend.
e) the fact that the pop grind of "The Latest Toughs" is the only song on the album that works all the way through as a song.
Yeah. Something like all of those.
Saint Etienne, Tales From Turnpike House - I'm late to the music-critic party that is Saint Etienne, which makes rumors that this may be their last album all the more troublesome. This is a concept album, which is no big deal; the concept is just the rise and fall of a particular neighborhood, which means the album revels in observational details. First there's jangly opener "Sun In My Morning," which is exactly as cheerful as it sounds like, and then there's a tour de force of different pop song types: synth-powered neo-Pulp clone "Lightning Strikes Twice," bouncy pseudo-disco infidelity narrative "A Good Thing," chanteuse ballad "Side Streets" (about the need for urban renewal, no less), minimalist instrumental interlude "The Birdman of EC1," etc. Only a few songs fail to impress ("Slow Down At The Castle" has impressive harpsichord icing but no hook, "Last Orders For Gary Stead" has an impressively surly arrangement but also no hook), but generally these guys are wicked awesome pop formalists. Apparently I've been missing out.
The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan - Ah yes: the other album that came out the day Coldplay restarted their mission to take over the world. Sounding more or less like a logical extension of previous albums, Get Behind Me stretches hard, and falls on its ass frequently. Let's see: there's a bizarro exercise in glockenspiel and falsetto that turns into an unremarkable heavy guitar workout ("Red Rain"), Meg being even more off-key than ever ("Passive Manipulation"), the irredeemably sloppy primitive blues workout ("Instinct Blues") which hearkens back to the bad old days of the first album. But also: the jaunty "My Doorbell" and "The Denial Twist," the downright jangly "Take, Take, Take," and the fun old-school country "Little Ghost." It's a drag to listen to all the way through, and breaks the remarkable streak of De Stijl, White Blood Cells, and Elephant, but it's never less than ambitious, and proves that Jack White is still far too smart to ever succomb to the temptations of rote blues rock.
Recently I picked up a used $5.95 copy of the Delgados' The Great Eastern. It is so awesome. I am bummed anew that they broke up.