Wednesday, September 19, 2007

more catch-up: Fountains of Wayne, Jason Falkner, Of Montreal, Twilight Sad, Spoon, Kanye West

This one's for Mike, who kept bugging me about it. Thanks Mike.

Fountains Of Wayne, Traffic And Weather - It's taken me eons to write this up; at one point, I planned an epic defense of FoW's body of work. The short version is this: Fountains of Wayne is one of the finest bands in America today. Period. Their music is an admittedly take-it-or-leave-it proposition: either you do or don't enjoy workmanlike power-pop with hooks so huge they could be bullying if you didn't like them. But their lyrics capture life in the suburbs (and, increasingly, in the tri-state area) with unerring precision and a gift for quick character sketches that makes FoW a far more "literary" band than, say, all the unquestioned resurrected archetypes the Decemberists can muster up. Colin Meloy tries to remember his undergrad survey courses; FoW do something new.

Part of their image problem is "Stacy's Mom," whose inexplicable success as a novelty single confused everyone, but mostly me. Which part was the novelty: a well-crafted Cars rip-off on radio stations in 2003, or were people just responding to the gimmicky video? Because the song is entirely of a piece with their work: it's a witty, literate piece of work about misplaced suburban adolescent lust, but it's also a song about living through divorce. ("Ever since your dad walked out your mom could use a guy like me" goes the last line before a swing back into the chorus; how did everyone miss this?) Snidely asserting that "few people are looking to this band for lyrical wit and insight" basically proves you're not a fan; that's exactly why I'm listening. (This review raises another question, one I don't even want to get into: why is it that FoW, of all bands, is so polarizing and inspires such vituperative hatred frequently? They're not exactly fucking Nickelback.)

Traffic And Weather is a multi-listen album, because it initially seems like the band on auto-pilot. Per usual, the thing is so busy with instrumentation and dense mixing that it sounds like crap on small speakers. But while the album doesn't have Welcome Interstate Managers' sprawl and ambition, the songs are almost as good. Only one track is really stomp (the merely unmemorable "Revolving Dora"). Otherwise, FoW are in top form: "Someone To Love" has a ballsy disco track to complement its dead-on portrait of big-city loneliness for those who've just moved ("Seth Shapiro got his law degree/Moved out to Brooklyn from Schenectady, 93/Got some clients in the food industry/Says it's not the money, it's the recipes" has both the feel for NYC's constant new arrivals and exactly the kind of lame joke someone might crack to patheticallyingratiate themselves). And what exactly is the problem with the constant pop-culture references? I think a lot of people are just afraid of admitting how much of daily life takes place in the detritus and ephemera of corporate mediocrity and low cultural reference points; saying that characters talk about Costco or work at La Quinta makes perfect sense to me. FoW locate real emotion in these settings - "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," or on a descending airplane on "Seatbacks and Traytables," a kind of less condescending version of the Talking Heads' seminal "The Big Country." I love this band; whether or not you think the knowingly campy trumpets on "Strapped For Cash" are a good idea or not is your problem, but to dismiss these guys as anything less than (at the very least) solid pop craftsmen who represent every-day lower-middle-class American life with knowing lyrics is nuts. (NB: "New Routine" may be their most ambitious lyrically ambitious song, the storytelling equivalent of Magnolia. As below with Spoon, this could be another song that would make me cry if songs made me cry.)

Jason Falkner, I'm OK...You're OK - Jason Falkner is one of those weird jack-of-all-trades who should be better known. A checkered resume includes pit stops as a session musician for Air, Beck and Aimee Mann, string arrangements for Jet, co-writing nearly half of Brendan Benson's excellent 2002 Lapalco, and participation in the allegedly seminal '90s power-pop groups Three O'Clock, Jellyfish and The Grays. His solo work isn't half-bad either, or at least 1996's Present Author Unknown, an overlooked collection of muscular and intricate pop anthems with all the right influences. I'm OK...You're OK is Falkner's first solo album of original material in eight years, and while it's not as good as my memory of Author Unknown (I don't have a copy, and it's been a while), it's still well worth checking out, if not as an introduction to the man. (It's also inexplicably a Japan-only release at the moment.) Never afraid of lengthy songs, four of the tracks here are over five minutes, and none are under three. Not entirely unjustifiable - "Runaway" has a tasty chorus, although it takes a while to hear it under the complicated layers of synths, discreet accompanying guitars, and all manners of well-mixed stuff. Mostly, Falkner avoids the direct punchy choruses and appeals to your inner studio nerd; obvious choruses are generally sacrificed for the kind of technical crafting that will probably appeal to the same people who loved Air's album earlier this year. It's growing on me, but I don't see this flowering into a classic; it's a demonstration of a craft so refined that maybe only fellow musicians can appreciate it, along with the occasional sop to the hook-happy. (Opener "This Time" is a deceptive example of the latter; with its ebullient trumpet line and harpsichords, it's as epic as pop gets short of Oasis.) It's just good to hear from the dude, frankly. Sooner rather than later next time please.

Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? - A fine, frenzied album. It's taken me awhile to come around on Of Montreal - for a while, I was suffering from the recurring delusion I get from formalist pop bands that all their songs are undistinguishable (The Apples in Stereo and The Strokes were initially barred from my iTunes for the same reason). But this was probably a good starting place for me, because Kevin Barnes has concocted the most overproduced, micro-managed pop record in years: it's not electronica, but none of it sounds real. "We've got to keep our little clique clicking at 130 bpm," Barnes shrieks, and any number of weird rhythm tracks, sounds and studio tricks take him at face value. There's been a lot of gabba about the album's alleged conceptual framework, but the lyrics are pretty straightforward, frightening glimpses into post-break-up depression and attendant promiscuity. Lyrics don't even peak on the nearly 12-minute centerpiece "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal," which has one of the album's funniest/saddest lyrics: "I fell in love with the first girl who could appreciate Georges Bataille" (hipster lit - OK, it's not just that, but you know what I mean - as foolish mating tool). A great angry album, and it's not as sugar-rush happy as it first seems - I haven't listened to it too many times, figuring I'd burn out on it easily, but no - every time, it seems stronger and more muscular.

Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters - I don't have much to say about this. I gave the obligatory three spins and gave up; it's pretty tuneless, and I'm not hearing much new or original going on with the guitar tones or shoegaze aesthetic or whatever the fuck is supposed to be cool about these guys. Nothing personal, I just don't get it.

Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - Now it's clear that Gimme Fiction was a transitional record; at the time, the execrable "Was It You?" and rote "My Mathematical Mind" seemed like products of frustration, with Britt Daniel butting up against the limits of the Spoon sound/near-formula and not sure where to go next. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the pay-off. In some ways Spoon's most challenging, multiple-listen-demanding album since A Series Of Sneaks, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga throws up a number of challenges: almost no choruses ("The Underdog" is the exception, but it's also a single), bi-polar production that swings from the even-more-minimal-than-usual ("The Ghost Of You Lingers" comes off as a ghost of a song at first, little more than reverbed vocals and a few keyboard chords) to the relatively lavish (the swooping strings of closer "Black Like Me"), typically oblique lyrics. But Gx5 isn't just one of Spoon's richest albums musically, mastering both the 3-minute pop song and the longer-form jam; it's also one of Britt Daniel's finest performances lyrically. Look at "Eddie's Raga," a pissy grind where he announces "She told me it's hopeless I'm a slut for the New York Times." Reset some implied punctuation, and it becomes "She told me 'it's hopeless, I'm a slut for the New York Times" - aka, met a girl, wanted to date, but she refuses to leave New York. Occasionally Daniel's lyrics have in the past seemed like needlessly cryptic place-holders, but Gx5 coheres everything. (He's also in great vocal form: listen to how angry he seems when yelling "Right!" before launching into the instrumental break//chorus on "The Underdog." Jon Brion's intentionally unnerving production substitutes brass for a real bassline; it seems incomplete at first, but I came around.) Closer "Black Like Me" might be the single most affecting song they've ever done; hipster misanthropy and emotional neediness run side by side (this is a band that once produced a song with the chorus "You're pleased to meet him NO YOU'RE NOT"), but "Black Like Me" is a plea straight from the heart. "I've been needing someone to take care of me tonight," Daniel begins, in a state of perpetual indecisiveness. "All the weird kids up front/tell me that you know what you want." If songs made me cry, this one would.

Kanye West, Can't Tell Me Nothing - Kanye's surprisingly cohesive and entertaining mixtape is basically a sample of roster of every damn person Kanye has worked with this year. There's not a single dud track, and some songs are wisely chopped up into snippets under two minutes, ensuring there's never a dull moment. (Props for a judicious, seamless mix to Plain Pat, whoever he is.) Highlights include CRS's "Us Placers" - the ad hoc super-group of Lupe Fiasco, Pharell and Kanye taking Thom Yorke's "The Eraser" and transforming it into something special; also Common's "The People," a song with a beat so transcendent that for once I was able to ignore what a pompous jerk Common is. Song that most whet my appetite for the eventual album: Bentley's "C.O.L.O.U.R.S," which sounds like early OutKast and has a killer Lil' Wayne guest verse. Hell, even unknown and generically named quantities like Big Sean sound great. Kanye's occasional, unbalanced rambling between songs might be a deal-breaker for those averse to his personality, but there's a definite fascination to stuff like "Interviews," 3:31 of the man bitching about how interviews misrepresent him, how he's not politically motivated at all, and compares the infamous Jesus "Rolling Stone" cover to a college student playing Jesus in a play. Highly recommended, especially for those who aren't really hip-hop inclined here; there's something here for everyone.

The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
v/a, Do You Trust Your Friends?
The Apples In Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder
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
The Fiery Furnaces, Widow City
Kanye West, Graduation
White Rabbits, Fort Nightly
Bishop Allen, The Broken String


Blogger Eugene said...

It's disappointing that you adore FoW but are so down on the New Pornos, my favorite band on the planet. I say this because I went through a pretty distinct "transition" from the former to the latter a few years ago, and haven't really looked back (though "Traffic and Weather" is fun). I'm grateful for Fountains, because they came around as my music tastes were forming in earnest, and taught me to like "power pop with hooks so huge" etc., and the rest was history. Anyway, I like reading this blog, but the digs at the NPs sting. Have you heard the new Rogue Wave?

8:09 PM  
Anonymous vadim said...

I didn't realize that the NPs had become my perpetual whipping boys - file alongside Arcade Fire and Decemberists as bands I don't really hate, just get annoyed with the constant praise for. (NPs songs I like: "These Are The Fables," "July Jones," "Sing Me Spanish Techno." I'm sure there are others.)

I haven't heard Rogue Wave, ever. Things fall through the cracks.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Really enjoying your posts. Excellent write-up on Spoon -- praise of favored bands need not be balanced by contrarian positioning w/r/t Arcade Fire, Decemberists, and New Pornographers.

What say you on Okkervil River?

Oh, I tried replying to an e-mail you sent me a couple of months back, but it bounced back to me. Just wanted to let you know I didn't intentionally dog you.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous vadim said...

Weird, gmail's normally pretty good...oh well.

I need to listen to that Okkervil River album, huh? It's just sitting there while I listen to Emma Pollock over and over.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Yeah, don't know what happened there. If it wasn't clear, I tried replying to you a couple of months back; it kinda read like I was trying to reply to you now on an old e-mail, which wasn't the case.

Yeah, give the OR album a shot. You'll probably impale it, but who knows.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Fuzz said...

I never ever heard a FOW "hook" that hooked me. Never heard a Wondermints' that didn't. I guess that's just me.

2:01 PM  

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