albums: The Broken West, Justice, Wilco + mid-year top 8
Goes without saying I'm behind as usual...someone needs to start paying me:
The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On - I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to write about The Broken West's eminently enjoyable debut, surely the finest development in by-the-book power-pop since, I dunno, Brendan Benson started writing choruses. The real question is whether or not this genre appeals to you at all: big, blatantly catchy choruses that refuse to leave your head, sneering lead singers who assert themselves like American Gallagher brothers, relentless riffs, no breathing room except for ballads. And, lest we forget, never too innovative: unlike The New Pornographers (who I mostly find too clever for their own good, what with the chord changes every two measures and completely gibberish lyrics), The Broken West don't have a whole lot on their mind besides, you know, girls and place-holder lyrics. Opener "On The Bubble" makes like a less annoying New Pornos song, spazzy with the piano chords and chord-changing chorus but not self-consciously complex. Like Oasis (whom, please note, they really don't sound anything like), The Broken West are consciously anti-intellectual, and if that makes their songs slightly more interchangeable and less interesting than the clever Mr. Benson, "So It Goes" - and despite the allusions to Beckett (in the album title) and Vonnegut (in that song title), they're not fooling anyone. They're not clever, but they're satisfying, and competent enough musicians that it's not really a guilty pleasure.
Justice, † - Justice are funny guys. On "Genesis," the opening track of their unpronouncable debut, they begin with a blast of pissy brass that sounds for all the world like the UFO-human dialogue at the end of Close Encounters gone very hostile. Then they turn it into a dance track, exploding tension into a joke. Allegedly, micro-house types are horrified by Justice's thudding unsubtlety, but I think they're kind of geniuses. (Also micro-house is boring.) Certainly this is the best dance CD I've heard (out of, like, 4) since Daft Punk's Discovery; in fact, these guys sound more like the old Daft Punk than the real article does these days. Much has been made of the boys' willingness to play hard and fast with the nasty-sounding aggressive synths, but this really isn't a harsh CD at all. Take "Let There Be Light," initially an aggressive concoction of frantic high-hats and warbling synths; after the tense opening and middle comes the lovely cooldown, where Justice pour on the baroque melodies and sound for all the world like the end of some anime apocalypse sequence, when our heroes can finally relax while everything blows up. This is pure junk, executed with lots of wit and intelligence, and I kind of love it - enough to even overlook the hipster-illiterate pretension of the title.
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky - Wilco's shockingly good late-period album has come in for a lot of whining about how Jeff Tweedy's finally indulged his inner dad-/classic-/whatever- rock tendencies. In other words, he's gone conservative, letting out his inner NPR-listening soccer dad. What crap. A few reasons that Sky Blue Sky is anything but rote, by-the-numbers classic rock redux:
1) John Vanderslice gets it exactly right: "It's very flat-sounding in a way. It's extremely neutral, instrumentation wise. Nothing's pushed in the low end." What Wilco's done is assert the primacy of recording without conscious "production," and, bizarrely, that makes Sky Blue Sky almost sound over-produced. It's been a long time since I've heard a record this dead-sounding - maybe some of Bishop Allen's EPs from last year indulge this tendency, but those are basically home-recorded demos. What's important about this neutrality is that it's the very opposite of "rocking out": there's no heavy drums, primal thudding bass, or any of what I think of as classic rock - defined here as anything that might appear on the Dazed And Confused soundtrack. Pitchfork compared this to the Eagles; listen to "Hotel California" (aka the only Eagles song anyone my age knows) and try to keep a straight face. That thing is manipulated and artificial as fuck.
2) In other words, some of the melodies and interesting might seem classic - the Grateful Dead Americana of "Walken," for example, with its interlocking guitar solo duels that trade off riffs, or "Please Be Patient With Me," an old-fashioned ballad with plaintive acoustic guitar that's nowhere close to emo confessional - but Wilco's approach might as well be labeled "passive rock." Jeff Tweedy's lyrics are every bit as unassertive as the music: songs are called things like "Please Be Patient With Me," and Tweedy's worldview is typically morose, reminding us that we're all going to die on "On and On and On" and, on album peak "Hate It Here," musing on trying to keep his life going after his wife's gone. "I even learned how to use the washing machine," he opines, before yelling "I hate it here!" This is not the stuff of rock 'n roll, in my opinion. Pitchfork labels these moments "domestic," and they mean it in a bad way, but what exactly is wrong with inverting classic rock's lyrical template?
3) These songs are fucking hard. This is not the thudding, simplistic Americana of The Band; these are intricate, well-developed songs with multiple, speedy chord changes.
4) This album is tuneful, gorgeous, absorbing, and generally wonderful. Suck it, haters; not everything needs the Jim O'Rourke finishing touch, OK? I'm as surprised as the next guy - I found a lot of A Ghost Is Born to be heavy on the rote, rock-and-solo songs - but this is just right. It's not better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth, but I'm frankly shocked that a band perpetually this close to bland roots rock succeeds so often.
Top 8 (this year's PRO albums):
1. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
2. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
3. The National, Alligator [grew on me in a big way, as I sort of predicted]
4. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic And Weather
5. Menomena, Friend And Foe
6. Rufus Wainwright, Release The Stars
7. The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen
8. Justice, †
The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
Fountains Of Wayne, Traffic And Weather
v/a, Do You Trust Your Friends?
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Kanye West, Can't Tell Me Nothing
The Apples In Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder
Bishop Allen, The Broken String
Elliott Smith, New Moon
T.I. T.I. Vs. T.I.P.
Ola Podrida, Ola Podrida
The Clientele, God Bless The Clientele
Fujiya & Miyagi, Transparent Things
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
Jason Falkner, I'm OK...You're OK