frantic catch-up: Howe Gelb, Darkel, Built To Spill, Voxtrot
Howe Gelb, 'Sno Angel Like You - A definite grower. I'm not familiar with Gelb's work in Giant Sand, which I guess means I'm lacking context. Oh well. On first spin, this sounded like boringly sparse semi-blues with a gimmicky gospel choir kicking in at key points. Yes, gospel choirs are a much-abused tool, but Gelb exercises commendable restraint. (Too much really; you kind of wish he'd taken some cues from Blur's awesome "Tender" or Elbow's commendable "Ribcage," but whatever. And why should the Brits have a monopoly on gospel choirs anyway?) Most of the songs are terse, but the long ones really take off, starting with the third track, "But I Did Not," the title of which is the repeated response to Gelb's litany of avoided temptations. Most of the real barn-burners are in the back half (although along the way there's a brief stop for "That's How Things Get Done," which from title onwards sounds like nothing so much as latter-day David Byrne). If you're in a hurry, just try the last 5 tracks, from "Howlin' A Gale" to "Chore Of Enchantment." They do all the things gospel and blues are frequently described as doing (sounding weary and uplifting at the same time) but so rarely actually do for me.
Darkel, Darkel - This didn't get mixed reviews. It got a few passes and a ton of vitriol, and frankly I'm not seeing it. Sure, nothing here matches either the level of songwriting sophistication or audio detail on any of Air's albums (this is the solo debut of one half of Air, if you haven't heard). And? This is a solid pop album that runs the gamut from perky-without-being-annoying ("TV Destroy," "My Own Sun") - something not even Belle & Sebastian pull off all the time - to sentimental-without-being-maudlin ("Some Men," "How Brave You Are"), plus some nondescript filler and one flat-out retarded track ("Earth," a 6:37 pseudo-funk jam with lots of unnecessary echo effects as Darkel repeats "We belong to the earth, doesn't belong to us" over and over) that still isn't that annoying. All in a zippy 44 minutes. It's the guilty pop pleasure of the year: too well-crafted not to work, too insubstantial and rotely assembled to love. This is what I listen to when I want fun without effort; unlike, say, Camera Obscura, it's the same ride from first to last listen.
Built To Spill, You In Reverse - I'll keep this brief, seeing as I don't have an extensive history with BTS. When bands have a long and storied history that I'm almost totally unfamiliar with, I tend not to listen to their new albums until I have at least some familiarity with their past work; hence, I still haven't gotten around to Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped and Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass yet. But I did finally get around to Perfect From Now On earlier this year, which lived up to its title. But it wasn't a promise BTS could keep apparently: there's none of Perfect's majesty of either songwriting or production here. Instead, Doug Martsch's thin voice runs rampant over equally thinly recorded full band. It takes 2 minutes for him to arrive on opener "Goin' Against Your Mind" as the band tortures the same two chords over and over. And while it's a tribute to the band's skill that they keep these same chords for nearly 9 minutes without ever getting too annoying, they never really take off either: they offer coordinated instrumental attacks and guitar solos with and without distortion, and all the while never get close to the simple majesty of the gradually swelling opening of "Randy Described Eternity." And though some tracks fare better than others - "Traces" and "Liar" are satisfying back-to-back tracks - nothing really breaks from the pack, and eventually I'm listening to a 6-minute '70s-esque rocker called "Wherever You Go" and wondering if I'll ever even bother introducing myself to Neil Young's catalog. It's all kind of bland, establishing a few chords at the beginning of the song and then never deviating - none of the dramatic shifts of, say, "I Would Hurt A Fly," and no instrumentation as dramatic as that song's cello. ("Mess With Time" actually has a late-breaking change-up, but at that point it's too late-breaking to matter.) It's music like this sometimes makes me sympathize with what anti-rockists are going on about.
Voxtrot, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP/Your Biggest Fan CD-S - Just serving (over)due notice that these guys will easily make my top 10 for the year through devious means: the EP has 5 tracks, the CD-S has 3, and combined they form perhaps the finest half-hour of 2006 pop. Voxtrot's specialty is writing songs with double-barreled choruses: the first one is good enough, but what follows knocks it out of the anthemic park. It's a neat trick, and Voxtrot is less obvious about it than their obvious forbears in Britpop; "Rise Up In The Dirt" from the EP and "Trouble" from the CD-S both pull this off neatly, though they can also handle the elegiac/sentimental/other songs quite well, and are skilled at arranging brass and strings to boot. Basically, they're the best thing to come out of Austin since Spoon, and I can't wait for their full-length. (But skip their 2005 EP Raised By Wolves, which finds the band not yet having figured its strengths and making all kinds of mistakes: letting nearly all the songs drone on to 5 minutes instead of practicing concision, blatantly ripping off The Smiths on "The Start of Something" and, worse yet, Placebo's vocals on "Missing Pieces." Lead singer Ramesh Srivastava hasn't yet figured out that his biggest asset is his clear, piercing voice, instead occasionally cloaking it in muffled recording.)