new/oldx2: Aimee Mann, Emily Haines, Beirut
Aimee Mann, One More Drifter In The Snow - The ongoing difficulty of being a singer/songwriter noted for continual pains in craftsmanship and the almost parodical sameness of melancholy body of work manifests itself in a lonely title that's exactly what you'd predict from Mann if she were to attempt a Christmas album. Sadly, this isn't exactly Holiday Music To Slit Your Wrists By, but it's a definite recovery from the bland '70s rock of The Forgotten Arm, at least partially remembering the deft, inventive production that elevated Mann above the singer-songwriter crowd in the first place. The downside of being a pop formalist is that you may be attracted to things your audience couldn't care less about; in this case, Mann's perverse desire to tap into '50s easy-listening mode leads to bland renditions of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" jostling up against the characteristic Jon Brion/Michael Penn jangle of "Christmastime," whose light and eccentric instrumentation wears better than Mann's syrup. Straining out from the sap are a perverse rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" backed up by a tuba section, the less sparse but still imaginative take on the normally unbearable "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," and Mann's wise decision to close with "Calling On Mary," a typically morose original. (However, her cover of "White Christmas" isn't nearly as menacing and bizarre as what The Flaming Lips did to it a while back.) Not quite a seasonal antidote (you're still advised to keep Sparks' "Thank God It's Not Christmas" at hand), but not a bad effort.
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, Knives Don't Have Your Back - Without Metric, Emily Haines doesn't exactly go soft. Assembling an ad hoc backing band, she mixes the drums down while swirling around in multi-tracked vocals, diffused guitars and keyboards, and, above all, piano. Which can get monotonous - without her bandmates, Haines' instrumentation isn't nearly as adventurous, making the common singer/songwriter mistake of conflating sparseness with "authenticity." After an exemplary first two tracks, Haines routinely lapses into this tepidness: the album could use more tracks like lead single "Dr. Blind," a fantastically morbid meditation on prescription drug abuse with restrained strings, or "The Lottery," which begins boldly with "I only wanted what everyone wanted since bras started burning up ribs in the '60s" before sending in swooping Scott Walker-strings (mixed down, virtually disappearing after their dramatic intro). Yet her mixing up of the piano and staid drumming over the often fairly inventive arrangements proves why Haines needs her bandmates, who realize they can't survive by moody lyrics and song structure alone. Speaking of Haines' lyrics, they're generally a step up from her work with Metric, refraining from the moronic liberal proselytizing of, say, "Buy this car to drive to work/Drive to work to pay for this car" (as on last year's otherwise excellent "Handshakes"). The kind of album that sounds better mixed into a shuffle than in one block; "Dr. Blind" is, however, essential.
Beirut, Gulag Orkestar - This threw me off from the first track, which sounds like the opening credits to some kind of lost Emir Kusturica movie. There's all manner of ponderous brass (Wikipedia says euphonium is involved live), tambourine, and vocal wailing; it feels like a great unwieldy apparatus mobilizing, and the album rarely loses that cumbersome feeling: you can tell this is a band that isn't going to be doing a lot of movement during the show, although they'd head a plausible small village parade.
Make no mistake: Zach Condon's come up with easily one of the most imaginative albums of the year to still be mistakenly shunted under the catch-all label of "indie rock." Maybe it should've been tagged differently though; the songs are cinematic and weighty, but they're not for me. Reveling in melodies that repeat over and over again (there's that parade again!) while indistinct voices back Condon's distinct, fascinating tenor, it's music that seems more ceremonial than for listening. The exception is "Postcards From Italy," whose wistful floating ukelele and trumpets sound ethereal, which is what I like anyway; then it's back to wheezing accordions and so on. (There's also "Scenic World," which is an exception in a different way, featuring some kind of stupid cheap Casio backing track. Is this irony or just aesthetic indiscrimination?) It takes too much work, but I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt in a vague, abstract sort of way.