Saturday, November 29, 2008
This three song teaser from this Detroit quintet shows that the Zoos not only share a band member with Pas/Cal, they share a sensibility. This is fey pop with a flourish.
Indeed, the classically inspired keyboard part that ornaments “Below the Old House” sounds like it could have been used on a Yes record. Instead, it serves as an instrumental hook on an unfolding song that uses dynamics well and has a real sense of drama.
Another weighty keyboard line from Will Yates gets “Speak Well of Manderlay”, with the band building up to a crescendo, with hard beating drums and vigorously strummed guitars contrasting with the floating melody. Where Pas/Cal evinces a strong Kinks vibe, the Zoos sound to me like a band that is a bit more in step with some of the ‘70s art-poppers like 10CC, Sparks and Genesis. I suppose part of it is the grandeur that suffuses all three of these tunes. Which is not to be mistaken for pomp or prog, heaven forbid.
The last track, “On Large Amusement”, is haunting and atmospheric, showing off a totally different side of the band. The downcast guitars still have that grandeur I mentioned earlier. Although this is a pithy number is has a real emotional weight to it, just by the sweep of the guitar and piano chords.
From a musical standpoint, this rates highly. I can only see the band sharpening its approach, and the songwriting is ambitious but accessible. Where I'd like to see the band pick it up a bit is in the lyric department. The lyrics don't quite connect at times, either coming off as too obscure or lacking in the memorable phrase department. To put it another way, the words are okay, but the music is very good, so I'd like to see the words move up to equal the tuneage. Because that would be quite something.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Jon Langford is a Chicago treasure. Ever since he relocated The Mekons here, he’s reliably cranked out song after song of politically aware folk-rock, which then gets transformed into whatever style he and his mates are working in at the time. It might be the rock or country of The Mekons, the twangy garage of the Waco Brothers, the western swing of The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, or perhaps something different on a Langford solo project.
The Katjonband was foreshadowed at the Touch & Go Records 25th Anniversary Festival at the Hideout in Chicago. There, Langford did a short set with Kat Bornefeld, the spectacular drummer for The Ex. And, pun totally intended, she’s the ‘X’ factor here, as her creative percussion takes Langford’s music into some new areas.
The album is bookended by songs that show how Kat’s drumming brings a fresh snap to Langford songs that tread upon familiar territory. Or rather, familiar but necessary territory, as Langford looks out for the little guy and calls out tyranny where he sees it.
The album opener, “Do You?”, is insinuating as hell, with Bornefeld pounding out the polyrhythm, with Langford jabbing at his guitar in sympathy. The two chew on buzzwords and cliches in a call-and-response duet, showing that cynicism can be funky and full of frivolity.
It takes a while for closer “Red Flag” to hit full force. The song starts off with a Gang Of Four-esque guitar squall and then builds the atmosphere, as Bornefeld’s soft drumming gets faster and faster and Langford keeps pace on the guitar. The song then settles into ranting vocals and smash-and-crash drumming with a seething militaristic fury underneath. The song simmers and boils over in appealing fashion.
And the appeal is more than musical. The delightful “Conquered” is a melodic duet with Langford playing the imperialist lover and Bornefeld the occupied nation. The lyrics are quite clever. But they don’t push the colonialism disguised as a dysfunctional romantic relationship card too hard, helped by Bornefeld’s appealing vocals. She has a stately quality to her voice and a real warmth, and she and Langford have true chemistry.
“Crackheads Beware” has a real poppy appeal. The song has a subtle ‘70s R & B bounce to it, aided by Bornefeld’s crisp drumming and a terrific guitar hook, aided by the easy to sing to tag line: “howling along/with the popular song.” This is pretty fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something.
While the bread and butter of this disc are the drums/guitar work outs where these two really cook (another example of this is “Machine Gun & the Ugly Doll”), but the duo also finds some time for jazzy twanging (“Moonscape Dave”), a dramatic rendering of a traditional folk song (“Albion”), and a nice mid-tempo country love (or not-in-love) song (“Hey You Don’t Love Me”).
This disc is so good, that I hope that it isn’t a one shot. But can Kat and Jon carve out the time from their busy schedules?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I could quibble with plenty of the choices, but, for the most part, they hit on a lot of great singers, missed on some (as if 100 is a large enough list), and had a few objectionable selections. But I don't want to go into all that.
There is only one bone that I wish to pick. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney made the list. But I heartily disagree with the panelists on the rankings. John Lennon came in at number five and Paul McCartney at number eleven.
Lennon v. McCartney is smart versus cute, style versus substance, "Imagine" versus "Silly Love Songs". And I think it clouds some people's judgment on the talents of these two giants.
McCartney has been so pigeonholed as a lightweight, causing people to disregard his awesome talent. Yes, Macca has penned some dire lyrics, but he also wrote "Yesterday", "Penny Lane" and "Hey Jude" (which he wrote, ultimately, because Mr. Lennon wasn't exactly father-of-the-year to Julian), just to name three fairly smart rock songs.
And let's not forget that McCartney is arguably the best bass player in rock history. I'm not saying he is the best, but if you made a Top 5, after John Entwistle and Paulie, you would get a wide range of nominees.
Finally, McCartney is an incredible singer. He can sing rock, he can sing with soul, he can sing the mooniest pop song (and has often), he can croon, and he does so effortlessly. Or should I say, he can be at peak intensity on a classic like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and if you watch him, there are no histrionics. He can just hit the right level every time.
Now John Lennon was a great rock 'n' roll singer. His hoarse, blow out version of Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" is just Exhibit A, as Lennon was an intense presence on rockers and ballads. And as The Beatles went from rock and pop to more experimental stuff, Lennon was a definitive vocalist.
But saying all that, Paul McCartney is a better singer than John Lennon. Or most rock singers ever -- very few could do as much as McCartney. I realize this should be something left to the ear of the beholder, but I'd really have to hear a compelling explanation as to why someone would think Lennon was better. Like, for example, "I'm Yoko Ono." I could understand that.
But what do I know? If I was in charge of the list, Robin Zander of Cheap Trick would be in the top 10, and Brian Connolly of Sweet and Russell Mael of Sparks wouldn't be too far behind.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
It’s hard to keep up with the various twists and turns in Hawksley Workman’s career, especially because his records aren’t released here in the States. Here’s a singer-songwriter who can pen some pretty mainstream material, who is also capable of over-the-top rock of great cleverness.
On his second album, (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, Workman emphasized the rock persona a bit more and was rewarded with success both in his home country and certain parts of Europe. But his attempt to consolidate the success with another rock album, Lover/Fighter, fell a bit short, as the rock was a lot more conventional.
He then got back to his singer-songwriter on the delicate Treeful Of Starling. And now, in 2008, Workman has released two albums. Between The Beautifuls came out earlier this year, and it’s the most accessible full length that he’s put out yet.
The album is blessed with basic songcraft. Workman's vocals are a wonder. He has such an effortless range and a certain quirkiness that makes him so distinctive. While he's capable of slyness and cleverness, on Beautifuls, he is achingly sincere, without becoming cloying.
This is evident on the lovely "All the Trees Are Hers". The song is grounded in a simple piano part, augmented by gentle guitars, a pedal steel and some synthesized strings. The melody always seems to be reaching, even moreso on the passionate middle eight. The song is steeped in nature imagery, a motif that is found often on the album.
Such imagery is also used, to a lesser degree, on "September Lilly". Spanish guitar mixes with more weepy pedal steel, on a song that sounds something like a standard. This is a song of pure devotion, with Workman vacillating between doubt, wondering if he's "beautiful enough/for you to kiss me true," while also noting that "I see your dark side/I see the reasons." What mainly comes through is he wants her, oddly noting that "you're fragrant and lovely/like an ending."
The romantic streak gets even wider on "Oh You Delicate Heart". The song is tender with spare instrumentation and Workman's voice at the front of the mix. It's very intimate and a great showcase for his expressive vocals. Again, as with "September Lilly", the melody is so classic that it sounds like this song came from an earlier era.
But don't think that Workman has become a simp. Not many other balladeers would center a song around the line "Don't fuck around anymore," as Hawksley does on "Pomengrate Daffodil". He isn't joking, his voice straining early on. The song then accelerates into a gallop for a good while, a peppy piece of piano pop, before heading into a dramatic bravado ending, with Workman pulling out all of the stops.
These three songs provide some contrast to the more energetic material on Manlicious. The album bursts out of the gate with the sexy, guitar fueled "When You Gonna Flower?". This song has a gigantic fuzzy guitar riff and a rumbling rhythm, and Workman moves from insinuating vocals to pure passionate shouting. Meanwhile, little keyboard and guitar bits are brought in for variation on the almighty riff. A great start.
That is one of two tunes that Workman co-wrote with John Southworth. The other one is a delightful slice of '80s styled pop called "Kissing Girls (You Shouldn't Kiss)". It sounds like Private Eyes era Hall & Oates, with an automatic chorus and fluid bass lines.
Another somewhat retro-ish track is "Lonely People". It starts off with an a capella chorus before the mid-tempo beat gets going. But for Workman's vocal acrobatics, this is a very mainstream sounding track (think The Cars circa Heartbeat City without the Ric Ocasek lyrics). Then the harmony vocals kick in on the chorus, followed by crunchy guitars and it doesn't matter, because the song works so well.
The album ends with "Fatty Wants To Dance", which, true to its title, has a good beat to move to and poppin' funk bass. It's kind of a dumb song, but it's also fun, and by this point, Workman has earned the right to get stupid.
All in all, it's pretty impressive that Workman can put out one stellar album, and follow it up with a pretty good effort in the same year. Workman has always been prolific, even selling discs of unreleased material at shows. These two albums show that he should make sure that all of his recordings are widely available, even if no one in the U.S. is smart enough to put his stuff out here.
Friday, November 21, 2008
So we finally have a legitimate release of a full Clash live show. It’s too bad it’s not one of the best Clash live shows.
This recording is taken from the 1982 gig where our heroes opened for The Who. This was the Combat Rock era, when the band was at the peak of its popularity. But the band was splintering, for both musical and personal reasons.
One thing that is immediately striking is the composition of the set list: Early single/first album: 2 songs; Give ‘Em Enough Rope: 2; London Calling: 5; later single: 1; Sandinista: 2; Combat Rock: 2. This gives you an idea of where the band’s collective head was at around this time.
As shows go, this certainly wasn’t a bad one, but I’m sure most big Clash fans have heard a prior bootleg that has a lot more going for it. I think that Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune makes a good point that Terry Chimes (a/k/a Tory Crimes) taking over for Topper Headon lead to a drop off in the drumming. Chimes is alright, but, for the most part, he was not very forceful.
This would explain why most of the better performances during the gig were songs like "The Guns of Brixton" and the blended pair "The Magnificent Seven" and "Armagideon Time". Here, the rhythms were funkier and Chimes seems to take to them more. Yes, this does seem odd, since Chimes cut his teeth on the earlier powerhouse rocking material from 1977.
That being said, "Spanish Bombs" isn’t exactly a burner, and it’s the worst performance on the album. It sounds like it’s in the wrong key and the band can’t get a handle on how to tackle it (more forceful? more chipper?). Yet this is followed by a pretty good take on "Clampdown".
The other disappointment on the album is "London Calling". Granted, this song is so perfect on album, that recreating its magnitude on stage was never easy. Still, the band sounds tentative.
I don’t think this is due to lack of commitment or engagement. It’s hard to imagine Joe Strummer ever being less than intense, and Mick Jones is spirited in his vocal turns. I think it’s more a by-product of playing in such an unwieldy venue. You can hear the cheers in the background, but this had to be a crowd that mixed in fans with some geezers looking at their watches and wondering when the guys with broad accents and combat duds would get off the stage for The Who.
This is fairly entertaining, but I hope that someday, some better full gigs come out legitimately. Until then, I’ve got a 1979 show from the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago to enjoy.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This California quartet has its sound down. This is Jangle Pop 101 with a minor in harmony vocals. The first name that comes to mind when hearing The Parties is The Byrds. This is followed by great harmony groups such as The Hollies and The Searchers. While I don’t think the harmonies here rise to that standard, they are pretty good.
The band has enough personality, reflected both in the playing and the compositions, to make this a fine listen. This is demonstrated on “Breaking Hearts”, which brings the jangle to a fevered pitch. In a manner similar to The Last, The Parties play this dramatic tune with a great deal of intensity (especially in the lead vocal), which makes the hooks hit that much harder.
Speaking of hitting hard, “Radio” is a spirited number with a strong guitar riff propelling the proceedings. This song actually has two strong hooks, one in the bridge to the chorus, and then the chorus itself, which relies on riding a rhythm guitar and call-and-response vocals. This song also illustrates the superb production on the record. Chris Dunn and the band should take a bow, as they guys take stereo separation seriously, in a way that allows every instrument to get its due.
The second half of the record is stronger than the more-than-fine first, on the strength of songs like “Waterfall” (which comes close to the great lost Hollies song bliss of the like minded band The Resonars), the pretty folk rocking “Gotta Get Out”, and the Grip Weed-ish (Grip Weedy?) “Damned By the Sunshine”.
Again, let me reiterate how well recorded this is. Of course, if the songs weren’t so good, that wouldn’t matter much, I suppose.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
About all I remember from the interview is that near the end, I heard some pounding on the outside door. It was a Saturday and the outer door was locked and my friend Dale needed me to open it. I wrapped up the interview quickly. I only remember one quote, when Christgau told me that punk rock saved his life. I understand that more now then I did then.
I should note that I read the book back then, but somewhere along the way, I loaned it out and lost it. I found it earlier this year at a record store in Wrigleyville. It became my bathroom reader for the past few months.
Finishing the book made me think it was list time. This isn't anything close to definitive. It's just 10 rock books that I really dig.
1. Songbook -- Nick Hornby: Like Hornby's best novels, the British writer manages to be breezy and insightful at the same time. Here, Hornby burrows into his favorite songs, explaining just what it is about them that makes them so special. In so doing, he avoids tying the tunes to specific memories. No, he looks at the musical and lyrical qualities. There are so many great observations about pop music in this book, the type that seem to elude many rock critics.
2. Lone Star Swing -- Duncan McLean: I like Western Swing music, but it's not a major passion of mine. But it was for McLean. After winning a tidy sum as a literary prize, McLean decided to use the money to travel to Texas, to go to a celebration of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing. Before getting to his final destination, he drove across the backroads of Texas, talking to musicians who were there during the genre's heyday. The book is both a travelogue and a musical education. And when McLean finally gets to watch some of the surviving Texas Playboys (Bob Wills's band) perform, the way he describes the thrill of it...if you're a passionate music fan, you'll understand.
3. Rick Johnson Reader -- Rick Johnson: I missed the Dave Marsh-Lester Bangs era of Creem. I think the era that followed is too easily dismissed. The magazine continued with its piss take attitude. And no one exemplified it more than the Bard of Macomb, Rick Johnson. This book actually has more of the work he did for local presses in Illinois than Creem (which means we need a full Creem volume II!), and the reviews here show that Johnson was in the vein of Bangs, but much, much funnier. Moreover, reading a slew of his reviews, I admired how structured and thoughtful his writing was, even at its silliest. Moreover, he challenged mainstream critics, showing appreciation for hammer and tongs hard rock, when it was good, and soft pop. His agenda was making you laugh and good music.
4. Are You Ready Steve? -- Steve Priest: This is not the best written book. But if you wondered it would be like having a few pints with the bass player for Sweet while he told tales of sex, drugs, sex, drugs, and some rock 'n' roll, this book does the trick. Priest always came across as impish on stage, and that persona comes across in the book. Sweet was my first favorite band with such an unusual transition from bubblegum stars to hard rockers, and Priest discusses that. However, the book is a bit more focused on the lifestyle, but that's fine. That's what I'd expect at the pub.
5. Trouser Press Record Guide -- Ira Robbins, et. al: There have been other record guides, but none have as much consistent writing and quality criticism. You don't need the books (there were a number of editions), as the entries are now available at www.trouserpress.com.
6. Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth -- Kim Cooper & David Smay, et. al: This collection of essays on bubblegum music gets off to a rocky start, weighed down by candy puns and multiple references to the use of double entendres in bubblegum. But get past that and you get a lot of nifty observations and histories of teenybop rock from the '60s to now. I bought a few records based on this book, which says something right there.
7. Lost In The Grooves -- Kim Cooper & David Smay, et. al: The Scram Magazine team's second anthology is even better. The premise is simple -- have a bunch of oddball writers and musicians write about their favorite obscure albums. Considering the number of contributors, the consistency of the writing is quite good. Moreover, the pure enthusiasm for music radiates from just about every page. And, even moreso than Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, I discovered a lot of great music that I had never heard of.
8. What Was The First Rock 'n' Roll Record -- Jim Dawson And Steve Propes: The authors look at fifty different songs in a semi-serious attempt to crown a song as the first rock 'n' roll platter. I say semi-serious not because this is jokey, but because the authors acknowledge that you can't really make that determination. So this book really looks at key songs in the development of the music, showing the evolution of blues, jazz and country as they mutated and crossbred into rock 'n' roll. The research is good and the authors really capture the excitement of these sides.
9. TV-A-Go-Go -- Jake Austen: Austen is the man behind the 'zine Rocktober, which looks at rock music from obscure and unusual angles. But Austen isn't just some really smart fanboy; he's an academic who happens to love his subject. The book is a series of essays on the relationship between rock music and television. Austen really knows his stuff and this book made me rethink the relationship between the home audience and what's coming over the tube. And he also made me realize why American Idol is popular (which is not the same as making me watch it). This is a very smart book, but it's also really entertaining.
10. Christgau's Consumer Guide -- Robert Christgau: For all of his quirks, Christgau was an astute critic who was, amongst American rock writers, on the ground floor of recognizing all sorts of movements that other mainstream crits missed. Moreover, he had a defined aesthetic. And though his writing became pretty opaque, that wasn't true during the '70s, as the prose is vibrant.
Okay. Fire away.
Friday, November 14, 2008
While probably still best known as the leader of Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn has built quite the resume as a solo artist. After I picked up his latest, I realized I have almost all of his solo releases. I guess I’m a bigger fan than I thought.
And Wynn seems to getting better with every album. His last studio album, Tick...Tick...Tick, was an explosive rock platter. This new album is a pure songwriting album. In the liner notes, Wynn details how producer Chris Eckman (founder of The Walkabouts) had Wynn come out to Eckman’s home studio in Slovenia. Eckman sought to boil Wynn’s songs down to an essence -- just Steve and his guitar.
But this wasn’t just something out of the Rick Rubin with a classic artist playbook. After recording these songs in a spartan manner, phase two of the recording involved adding whatever other elements would be needed to enhance the song, whether it be strings from a Czech orchestra, or Chris (ex-Green On Red) Cacavas’s keyboards, or percussion from Linda Pitmon.
The resulting disc might be Wynn’s best yet. Of course, this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve written those words in a review of a Wynn album. That’s because he’s that good.
The album mixes eloquent and inspiring tracks with just enough of Wynn’s rock leanings. Early on, Wynn illustrates his capacity for the grand gesture on “Manhattan Faultline”. This bittersweet symphony uses the notion of an NYC earthquake zone as a metaphor for a relationship that falls apart all of the sudden.
The song is stately and dignified, with majestic chords and matching lead guitar accompaniment. The track steadily builds and when the strings kick in and Pitmon joins in with backing vocals on the choruses, an enveloping wistfulness transpires. Meanwhile, Wynn is philosophical without being overwrought: “You’d think at a certain point in your life/you’ve learned everything that you’re going to learn/but sparks lead to fires and fires lead to ashes/at least you know for sure you’ve been burned.”
Wynn gets a bit heavier on “When We Talk About Forever”. This is another track with string accompaniment, bolstering a folk structure that is somewhat similar to some of T-Bone Burnett’s early work, with a dollop of Lou Reed thrown in. It’s a lovely song about commitment, which fuses a measure of joy with a sober sense of the task that any couple knows is lying ahead. This is a mature and thoughtful piece of music.
Wynn shows the ability to mess with what he does well on the audacious “Annie and Me”. The song starts off as a spirited acoustic gallop, a tale of two teenagers who merrily live in a world of casual sex and petty crime. This could have appeared on other Wynn albums. But then the song then shifts into a totally different mood, with a slower tempo. In this second part of the song, and it appears that the protagonist is now older and full of regret, as if the upbeat part of the song is actually a flashback. This interlude comes to an end, with Kirk (Dumptruck) Swan’s twangy guitar in overdrive, and the defiant lyrics of the first part now meaning something entirely different.
On “Love Me Anyway”, Wynn looks at trust issues. Specifically, how tough it is to open up to someone: “Tightly wound and careful/surreptitiously/knowing that you’re knowing/only part of me/love me anyway.” These uneasy feelings are set to a slinky and funky blues rock rhythm, as if the music is supplying the intimacy the protagonist is seeking. Wynn is full of wisdom, observing about love “if it seems that easy/you’re not doing it properly.”
What makes this such a wholly satisfying album is that Wynn is at his peak as a lyricist, looking a personal relationships with acuity, wit and empathy, and expressing himself in terse phrases that cut to the heart rather than merely sound glib. The carefully crafted music gels with the lyrics to the point where they seem to be organically connected.
I’ve been steadily listening to this album for about two months and I’m still finding new nuances that add to my enjoyment. This record is one of the stellar achievements of 2008.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The low key electro-funk of this British band is pretty insinuating. Funk is a hot music and they play it cool, without sounding stiff. You can certainly dance to it. But can you mix funk with Kraut rock?
The deadpan approach extends to the vocals and the simplistic lyrics. How simple? Fujiya & Miyagi are probably only a notch or two above the mechanistic German ‘70s disco band Silver Convention. This approach is both a help and a hindrance. On one hand, the minimalism makes it catchy. On the other hand, the songs often convey their message in the first two minutes or so. Then it’s all up to the groove. And this is where the chilly vibe may hurt some of the tracks. Funk grooves work because they cook. They stir the listener. The measured approach of F & M makes this likeable but makes it hard to get fully engaged.
So the album is a bit of a mixed bag. A few songs announce the groove and then don't really go anywhere. This includes songs like "Pussyfooting", "Knickerbocker" and "Pickpocket". They all have enough to be memorable, but, as I alluded to earlier, after about 90 seconds, I've heard all I need to hear.
This is especially true of "Pickpocket", which has exceedingly stupid lyrics, even relative to the rest of the words on the album. "Why do you put your hands into other people's pockets," David Best sings in his typically muted voice. I dunno David, maybe because he can't convince people to buy his CDs? Illegal downloading is a bitch, you know.
Not all of the grooves run out of steam for me. "Sore Thumb" sounds like a demo for an old Shriekback tune, with a nice hook, as the groove stops for Best to sing, "My favorite song is "Strange Times"/sticks out like a sore thumb." The instrumental break rides the beat while some poor man's Bernie Worrell keyboards work their magic.
And "Uh" is the song that deserves an extended 12" mix for the clubs. Lee Adams' drums are crisp and the entire quartet commits to the rhythm, and the rhythm rewards them. Thumbs up.
My other fave rave is the one real change up on the album, "Goosebumps". This is a pretty slow song, with spacey electronic backing. If Wire collaborated with Goldfrapp, it would have sounded something like this. It's the classic chilly yet warm vibe that you can get from well deployed electronics, and Best's whispering vocals are perfect for the track. This is one of two tracks which show how F & M can become more well-rounded.
The other is the instrumental that closes the album, "Hundreds & Thousands". This track demonstrates the potential Fujiya & Miyagi have as a four piece band. Steve Lewis plays some simple keyboard lines, with compelling melodies, contrasting with the metronomic rhythm track. I'd love to hear more songs in this vein.
I generally enjoy the basic Fujiya & Miyagi sound, but the band's base sound does not wear well over the course of an entire album. The tracks that deviate from the formula show the potential for growth. Of course, there is also the matter of the lyrics, but one thing at a time.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
When Ben Folds broke on the scene, he was a piano popster with a bit of an attitude. Not edge, but attitude. He was truly sophomoric as his energetic songs seemed to capture the world of a 20-year old guy and the rationalizations and foolishness that go along with it.
Folds quickly added dimension to his persona, with the hit single “Brick” showing off a mature lyricist and a tunesmith capable of achingly good work. And that second dimension has been his only addition. He’s either a smart ass or a sensitive guy.
And the smart ass thing is losing a lot of its appeal. This new Folds album is frustrating, as his clever arrangements and melodic ingenuity are still winning. But his writing has become increasingly insular, as if he has lost some of his purpose. There has always been a tension between the smart ass and the sensitive, and as the smart ass gets more annoying, the sensitive seems to sound a lot more insincere.
I just don't know what to make of a song like "Errant Dog", where Ben gripes over a rollicking piano part about a canine pain-in-the-ass. But it seems like Folds is intent on seeing what he can rhyme with the word "bitch" or coming up with lines like "sometimes I wonder why I put up with his shit/if I could, I would become a lesbian." Yeah, Ben, whatever.
Album opener "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)" is another strained exercise in cleverness. The song is about Ben falling down on stage, apparently into an orchestra pit, in Hiroshima. This tale is told pretty straightforwardly, and, as it stands, it's not very compelling. So Folds spices things up, as indicated in the title, by setting his mundane words to an homage to Elton John's "Benny and the Jets". Okay, that's not bad source material, I suppose. But the whole thing never coalesces.
I do enjoy a couple of Folds's snarkfests, though I'm digging one of them grudgingly. A spoken word set up somehow makes "Bitch Went Nuts" tolerable, despite Folds potty mouthed for the sake of being potty mouthed lyrics (look, I'm no prude, but Folds' willing use of so many FCC unfriendly words robs them of any power). In the intro, the Asian accented narrator (who's a bit less offensive than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's) explains that when a women breaks up with a guy, she'll attribute it to specific problems with the guy. But whenever a guy break up with a gal, she went nuts. This is true more often than most guys might want to admit. So I laugh in spite of myself.
Then there's "Free Coffee", in which Folds makes the observation that being rich and famous affords one more privileges than when one is not, even though, because one is rich and famous, the perks are unnecessary. This unremarkable observation is made in an unremarkable fashion.
But the music is sublime. Folds plays pretty piano figures on top of a ridiculously inventive percussion track that mixes drums, electronics, sound effects and who knows what else. Man, it sounds great on headphones. This is simply cool.
Folds saves his softer side for the end of the album. But neither "Effington" or "Kylie From Connecticut" fully connect, even though both are infused with solid Folds melodies. "Effington" is lush wide screen pop, as Folds moons over the joys of a small town life that he is not living. The song seems to attempt to cross breed a little Burt Bacharach sophistication with Billy Joel drama. This song sort of works for me, again, because of the terrific music. But I'm baffled why Folds decides to sing about the Illinois town of Effington, Illinois, when there's a real Effingham, Illinois, and, more importantly, why he felt the need to devote the first verse to singing about people "effing" in their cars, yards and trailers. Well, maybe not baffled, but the immaturity is a drag.
"Kylie" comes off a bit better. It's about a housewife who clings to love from 35 years past. The narrative lays out some details and otherwise leaves a whole lot of blanks that I wish he had filled in. So much drama is built up and I don't think the words full resolve it. The song has a nifty instrumental break, where a heavy Folds piano weaves in with a great string arrangement.
This really typifies the frustration I have with this album. Folds would benefit from a producer who could pull out the best of what he can do. He is capable of true insight and fabulous music. Yet it only comes through intermittently. There are tracks here that simply work well, like "You Don't Know Me", which has a cameo from Regina Spektor, and the boppin' "The Frown Song". But there simply aren't enough of them. And that just shouldn't be the case.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I hadn’t heard anything from this veteran band in quite a while, so this album is a pleasant surprise. The King is a classic purveyor of college radio rock. The music isn’t explicitly pop, but it doesn’t burrow into any trendy genre. Instead, the emphasis is on intelligent songwriting with strong melodies. Often, this sort of band might lack some vocal personality, relying on hooks and guitar lines to draw the listener in. Who else falls in this category? Let me give you two examples, Dumptruck and Kingsbury Manx.
The band has two frontmen, for lack of a better term, who share such a common sensibility that they are practically interchangeable. Matt Hunter and Petyon Pinkerton, the latter who is familiar to many as the lead guitarist for Pernice Brothers, have warm voices that fit the low key tunes.
Low key doesn’t mean boring. Far from it. What makes these songs work is the precise interplay between the instruments, particularly Hunter and Pinkerton’s guitars. While many of these songs would probably sound fairly good on a couple of acoustics, the guitarists and the rhythm section really shape them into something really compelling.
Nothing is more compelling than "Eight Steps Closer". This song is a classic example of building tension to a climax. The two lead guitars play tense leads with a wan melody on top. Meanwhile, J.J. O’Connell is in near metronome mode on his drum kit. Eventually, the song moves into a more forceful melody with equally strong guitars. And then it’s back to that prickly feeling. One of the best tracks I’ve heard all year.
It’s followed by "After the After Hours". Here, a reverbed guitar part is offset by some acoustic noodling. The main hook of the song is a series of quickly strummed chords, which abruptly halt. I get the impression that these guys devote a lot time to the underpinnings of these songs, and then figure out the melody and the lyrical thrust. This song is steeped in atmosphere and the band builds on it very effectively.
One song that let’s the melody take the lead is "Fall Prey". It is a piano driven pop song that comes from the same territory as Harry Nilsson and Kevin Tihista. The King constructs the song a bit more loosely, and the tight pop construction of the chorus makes the stretching out of the song more than tolerable.
I don’t have enough of the band’s albums to assess where this ranks in the catalog. But if they have better albums than this, it’s incumbent on me to check them out.