Monday, April 17, 2006

new(ish) albums update: Neko Case, Fiery Furnaces

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood Like many others, I first became aware of Case as the only remotely soulful element in the otherwise completely plastic sheen of the too-clever-by-half New Pornographers. I have some sympathy for the power-pop collective's goals (and I may actually end up liking A.C. Newman's solo work any minute now), but mostly the super-busy songs struck me as needlessly complicated in a lot of cases; without Case's belted vocals, they might've been a lost cause entirely. Of course, in the indie-rock sphere being a good technical singer (in the "American Idol" sense) is mostly a pointless cause — which is obviously a large part of indie rock's democratic appeal — but if you can actually sing in addition to writing killer songs (as opposed to being on "Idol," where singing means a multi-octave range of shit) you're almost unstoppable.

On Fox Confessor, which critical consensus seems to agree is a major breakthrough for Case, thoughtful, complicated songwriting never takes a backseat to Case's vocals, stunning though they are. The opening trio of songs is especially potent. "Margaret vs. Pauline" is a winding, seemingly easy shuffle of a song with piano solos on the fringes from The Band's Garth Hudson which — like much of the album — makes what's extremely difficult seem effortless. The melody is laid-back, but the lyrics bitterly contrast the two girls: "One left a sweater sitting on the train/and the other lost three fingers at the cannery."

Next comes lead single "Star Witness," which is impressive both for nailing the bitterness of a desperate relationship between two needy souls (a come-on like "Hey pretty baby come get high with me/We can stay at my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby" is especially heartwrenching) and because — according to a Case interview on pitchfork — the song is actually about her witnessing a boy shot to death in front of her in a misplaced instance of gang violence. I didn't know this for the first month of listening to the song, which now seems almost unbearably sad: the song's title actually makes sense, and the line "There's glass in my thermos and blood on my jeans" isn't just a testament to drunk partying but something far worse.

Coming on the tail of these two songs is "Hold On, Hold On," which proves that Case understands promiscuity all-too-well. "I leave the party at 3 a.m./Alone, thank God," she notes. I wish I'd had this song around senior year of high school, when it might've leavened some of my spring-semester embarassment, or at least offered a sympathetic response.

The rest of the album is slightly more challenging to get into, at least at first: there's two songs that are just a minute-plus, the production can be dense and obfuscatory (particularly w/regard to the guitars), and the lyrics remain largely oblique. But Fox Confessor rewards close repeated listening more than any other album this year, mashing rock guitars and string arrangements with its alt-country foundation. The results are both modest and stunning. As of now, this is the Album of the Year.

Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea I don't have much to say about this album, partially because the Furnaces seem to invite so much exhaustive comment that anything I have to say is redundant. For my money, this is the Furnaces' most accessible album yet — even more so than EP — partially because Matthew Friedberger has quelled his meaningless, inexplicable obsession with pointless alliteration, and partially because there's more hooks than ever and less pure noise freak-outs. Of course, "normal" for the Fiery Furnaces is still way out in the country away from everyone else, which is a good thing: they're the token weird band that I'm really into (a role the annoying Deerhoof increasingly seem to be filling in a lot of people's lives; WTF?). There's plenty of backwards vocals, and the lyrics that are comprehensible are suspiciously obsessed with the workings of big-business (maybe an ironic reflection of the Furnaces' knowledge that they'll never hit it big); there's also squelchy techno beats from hell while Eleanor gets kidnapped by rogue CPAs ("They told me they wanted to balance my checkbook" has never sounded more sinister) and disco drums in the most inappropriate places. (None of the drums here are natural; everything's panned left and right ceaselessly.) The results are fascinating, but not as frustratingly, intimidatingly digressive as Blueberry Boat. Also features their first completely straightforward song (even "Here Comes The Summer" had weird guitars), "Benton Harbor Blues Again," which is lovely melancholy that could fit it on Beck's Mutations without anyone blinking an eye.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not — After a long period where every NME-hyped British buzz band could be dismissed without even listening (hi Razorlight, Ordinary Boys et al.), things got serious in 2002 when The Libertines actually struck gold and Franz Ferdinand followed suit soon after. Suddenly the British music press seems possibly semi-reputable again for something other than sheer entertainment value, and the Arctic Monkeys are their newest progeny. On first listen, Whatever sounds like pretty much every trendoid Brit band of the moment: snotty accent, punk-y arrangements, a heightened sense of social class. Not bad, but if they're wanting any level of fame higher than Stars of CCTV, they might need more, and repeated listening reveals it, to a point.

The good news is that the Monkeys display startling talent at one flash point, and provide a number of highlights in the middle of their other songs; no outright stinkers here. Said flash point is penultimate number "When The Sun Goes Down," which starts off observing a prostitute ("She don't do major credit cards/I doubt she does receipts/It's all not quite legitimate") and a potential client ("He's a scumbag, don't you know!") over mellow strummed guitar, before the tension between the breezy music and harsh lyrics explodes into disco-punk fury.

Otherwise, it's a mixed bag: just about every song has galvanizing moments of rhythmic band interplay, but few of them hold up from beginning to end. The much-touted lyrics can be sharp - "Fake Tales Of San Francisco," a weary rejection of hipster tales of travel abroad, is a keeper of a title all on its own - but they're still not worth the comparisons with the acute class analysis and storytelling of Pulp and The Streets. Word on the street suggests that the Monkeys are only getting stronger in their concert arrangements, which makes me wonder how solid this CD could've been if they'd only waited 6 months to record it. The bottom line is that the Monkeys are promising, but I rarely listen to the whole thing start to finish: there's too many similar-sounding songs back to back without the exceptional hooks to differentiate them sufficiently. But the hype has it at least half-right.

The Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics - Once I worshipped the Lips. I discovered The Soft Bulletin sometime around 10th grade, and Clouds Taste Metallic shortly thereafter; both still seem like stone-cold masterpieces. But Yoshimi was kind of a monotonous bummer (albeit one with fantastic singles), and the intervening four years offered few clues as to what would come next; some of the songs on the Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell EP suggested a return to space-y rock, but most of the time their movements were non-committal.

Turns out their reverent live covers of' '70s rock standards - like their instrumentally note-for-note rendition of "War Pigs" on Austin City Limits, with Cat Power fucking up the vocals - were no fluke. Mystics is drenched in classic rock, from the multi-tracked vocal camp of opener "The YeahYeahYeah Song" onwards. Sometimes it's a good thing - like the soft disco rock of "Mr. Ambulance Driver" or mellow album closer "Goin' On," opening with an electric piano miked so you can hear the keys being depressed - and sometimes it's more dubious, as in the minute-and-a-half of acoustic guitar noodling that closes "It Overtakes Me/The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small...Do I Stand A Chance?"

Only one track is downright unlistenable - "Free Radicals," a shrill, ill-timed Prince tribute - while the rest is generally increasingly entertaining the more you listen. The last thing the album is is monotonous, and one wonders how the legions of new Lips fans, accustomed to Yoshimi's mellow vibes, will react to such a far-ranging album, especially when things get really weird (like on "Pompeii am Gotterdammerung," whose unbelievably Floyd-ian title is matched by a cavalcade of marching flutes, or "The Wizard Turns On," a surprisingly fun Miles Davis instrumental tribute). Myself, I like it well enough, but asking the Lips to match their 90s peak at this point seems unfair - especially when the Wayne Coyne who once constructed metaphors so goofy that they hid his essential cosmic stoner questions perfectly (my favorite is probably on "They Punctured My Yolk," which uses a space mission as an exceedingly moving break-up metaphor, culminating in the hearetbreaking line "And as your ship blasts off in the distance/My world gets smaller") has proceeded to the blunt statements of this album ("They see the sun go down, but they never see it rise"). They're a different band now than when I loved them, which is fair enough, considering they're unexpectedly now one of the longest-running groups in rock history - 23 years and counting. The fact that they're still relevant and interesting at all is a minor miracle in itself.

Cat Power, The Greatest - Well, she's no Muhammad Ali. I haven't listened to much Cat Power, to be honest, but I like everything I've heard off You Are Free, so it's no surprise that my favorite song here is the stripped-down "Hate," where Marshall sings "I hate myself and I want to die" over and over. Everything else here is a concept pre-sold for music critics: white indie rock girl gets old soul session musicians, cuts a hybrid indie-soul album accordingly. Opener "The Greatest" is actually pretty lovely, mixing the old horns with a string arrangement straight out of "Moon River," but a lot of the following tracks are nice but bland, fading into interchangeable horn arrangements and bland lyrics. I differentiated the songs the more I listened, but they're still not exceptional.

Hell, I had to bash at least one critically acclaimed album in this post. So there it is.