Saturday, December 23, 2006

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.)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

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.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

more belated capsules: Camera Obscura, M. Ward, Man Man

Camera Obscura, Let's Get Out Of This Country - Camera Obscura live in some kind of pop culture vidiot universe where it is OK to have virtually damn near every song start from a reference point and build to an actual emotion: the opener "Lloyd I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" is a shoutout to Lloyd Cole's "Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?", followed by the punning "Tears For Affairs" and two tracks later by a heartfelt tribute to the obscurely remembered "Dory Previn."

It's all misleading frippery though: Camera Obscura aren't smart-ass formalists reshuffling modes, nor do they really mine reference points for all their worth, never truly recontextualizing them. (It's the musical equivalent of hanging obscure film poster in the background of scenes — where no one but other cultists will recognize them — for no real reason other than to score geek reference points.) They write pretty songs, but the album is challenging, densely laced with distant-sounding drums and wavery organs that sound slightly out-of-tune. Camera Obscura take long (minute+) instrumental breaks, spaces which seem empty at first but expand with repeated listens; there are few more gorgeous moments in pop music this year than the extended trumpet solo over quiet drums and interlaced rhythm guitars that open "Razzle Dazzle Rose." It all sounds like vinyl, slightly warped on the turntable.

Frequent comparisons to Belle & Sebastian are dead wrong. B&S is a more complex, ironic band; Tracyanne Campbell is self-consciously morose (check out her deadpan in the video for "Lloyd," which is one of the best of the year) as opposed to Stuart Murdoch's perpetual feyness (and recently assumed ebullience), and her brand of romantic depression is less unisex than the horny boys and girls B&S chronicle. She's definitely female in her songwriting voice ("Razzle Dazzle Rose" is the color she'll choose for courage; somehow I don't relate), which is kind of refreshing. Overall, a super-strong album.

M. Ward, Post-War - Not as strong as last year's transcendent Transistor Radio, Post-War is more organized, which is kind of a drag: I prefer M. Ward in ADD mode. (He also works better with a conceptual hook: Post-War's arc and sequencing are harder to follow.) The songs sound better out of context, but, of course, they're all pretty uniformly strong. Highlights include a storming Daniel Johnston cover ("To Go Home") and the smart-ass singalong of "Magic Trick," the best track of the include-a-sarcastic-cheering-audience genre since the Eels' "Going Fetal." A compelling album, but not a very warm one.

Man Man, Six Demon Bag - I hear this works better live. Regardless: starts off nicely enough with the gloomy "Feathers," all C-minor piano chords with a bunch of what sounds like drunk morose sailors sea-chanteying in unison. But then "Engwish Bwudd" kicks in with the same idiots yelling how all they want is to be a "shovelly-bobbly-gobbledy-boo," which is exactly as cutesy and annoying as it sounds. It almost never lets up from that point, a hyperactive cabaret of drunk, precious art school students muttering to themselves and trying hard to let loose. Maybe they really are madmen live, but this shit is just like a spazzy 5-year-old: you kinda want to smack them and tell them to relax. Gogol Bordello serves all my drunk cabaret needs, thanks. (When they push the sloppiness to extremes, as on "Push The Eagle's Stomach," they end up sounding like a peculiarly emasculated Blood Brothers, which doesn't help any.) Exception: "Van Helsing Boombox," which is lovely, contemplative, mournful and deserves your immediate attention. But it's an anomaly.