You Are Free
If I had to propose a theory as to why self-consciously primitive artists either rule or suck, it would be, maybe appropriately, a basic one: the good ones (or, hell, at least the ones that I'm always coming back to) are good storytellers. No, great storytellers. Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" is just the same chords repeated for eight minutes--no solos, no variation. But it's a full-fledged story with multiple characters, and a gripping one at that. Liz Phair, for all the absurd Rolling Stones references people impose on her, isn't all that hot a musician. But she's a damn fine writer (vid. "Divorce Song"). The Sex Pistols were a one-note band, but in John Lydon they had maybe the best apocalyptic writer in the English language since Jonathan Edwards.
Cat Power, née Chan Marshall, hangs flat writing on primitive riffs, and it just implodes: "baby, black is all you see, don't you want to be free?" I'd type out the rest of "Babydoll," but you'd stop reading. Or take "Names," five thumbnail descriptions of kids who were fucked up when they were young ("her father would come to her in the night/she was 12 years old"), which ends with "i [sic] don't know where they are." See! They're just names now. Man's inhumanity to man, or singer-songwriter's inhumanity to subject. (I feel like a jerk for bringing it up, but does anyone miss "Luka" now?) Take away its intentionally drab melody and production (she's too sad, see, to make it a pop song), and you've got "Pieces of You."
You Are Free (I should have known then) has its moments. You should know that they don't include any by Eddie Vedder, whose acclaimed cameos would be unrecognizable if his name weren't in the liner notes. He's less singing than he is breathing. The moments are, yes, there. They're just so infrequent and relatively uneventful that they don't justify the dullsville poetry-reading crap that surrounds them. In fairness, she's pulled off a couple true gems in the past, "Cross Bones Style" and "Nude as the News" come to mind. But there's not much in You Are Free that dispels the impression that she's Jewel for indie kids who will fall for a waifish brunette with a waifish voice because she's too real to write anything that's not an acquired taste. I like my musicians to make music and my writers to write, but doing both isn't an excuse to half-ass both.
Let's play Good Actor or Just Funny-Looking? Ed Harris? Just bald. Edward James Olmos? Just really weird-looking. Forest Whitaker? Good actor. Willem Dafoe? Rivaled only by E.J. Olmos in his outward weirdness. Malkovich? Just bald. Gary Busey? The question is moot: He's actually a muskrat. Now, this is very entertaining, but how does it relate to the Warlocks, an L.A. nu-psych band? Let me see if I can explain this.
Warlocks lead singer Bobby Hecksher used to be in Charles Brown Superstar, which means absolutely nothing to me. He apparently also played guitar on Stereopathetic Soul Manure, which is akin to saying you're the guy who holds the chair while the other guy hits it with the bumper from an old Chevy on a Tom Waits record. At least I think it's akin to that. And I didn't explain anything in that paragraph. Let's roll it back and try again.
Are the Warlocks good, or just unconventional? On the surface of things, there's nothing to merit a close inspection of the album. Most reviews cite VU as a notable influence. What is this, the '90s? Also getting some "Sonic Youth" here and there. That would explain the odd minute of nothing but feedback here and there. I'll trot out my favorite criticism of experimental rock music, namely that sometimes, the experiment fails.
So things aren't looking too good for the Warlocks, except for the silly coincidence that when they're not being weird, they're actually pretty good. The album is inconsistent, but when they cut out the cheap-acid histrionics and just play music, the end product is well-produced, tasteful psychedelia. Granted, that only happened twice on this 10-song album, but they're weird hippie drug abuse people. Ty Cobb was only drunk half the time and he hit .400, so .200 isn't bad for the Warlocks. Phoenix Album is far from perfect, but "Shake the Dope Out" and "Baby Blue" make me think one day, the Warlocks might release another inconsistent, good-in-small-doses album. So they're Forest Whitaker. The VU thing, the feedback, the drug references, all just a beard. But check to see if they shaved before you buy the next record.
Saturday Looks Good To Me
All Your Summer Songs
Polyvinyl Records Co.
Bands like Beulah and the Essex Green illustrate that Pet Sounds' shadow still looms large over the world of indie pop. Unfortunately, there has been a glut of second-rate imitators that have given this revivalist aesthetic bad name.
Thankfully, Saturday Looks Good To Me reinvigorates the genre with All Your Summer Songs. Their latest album, reminiscent of the Beach Boys and also some more recent bands like the Ladybug Transistor, is pure bliss. From the joyous horns and organ of "Underwater Heartbeat" to the gurgling atmospherics of "Ambulance," SLGTM never hit a false note.
Beulah's music can be overly cloying, and their accompanying lyrics overly ironic--two traps that SLGTM deftly avoids. While the crystalline melody of "Caught" sounds a bit too much like F.A.O. Schwartz Christmas music, and the chorus of the title track is a bit too literal, the good on this album outweighs the bad a hundredfold. Interested parties would do well to listen to "Meet Me by the Water," a lovely track incorporating retro guitars with poignant girly vocals that implore, "Dance with me/Beneath the circuitry." If sunny California pop needed a savior, then here it is.
Pity poor Massive Attack. For a while there, it looked like the Bristol trip-hop band didn't have a chance of surviving into the 21st century. First, one of its founding members, Mushroom, left in a huff of "creative differences." Then other trip-hop acts, like Tricky and Portishead, either went mainstream or dropped off the map entirely.
But with 100th Window, Massive Attack has returned in top form. Between this album and their last one, Mezzanine, the band has obviously been influenced by Radiohead's efforts in deconstructing music. This newest CD is filled with beeps, boops, and other random noises, all woven sonorously into their trademark bass lines to create, if not Massive Attack's best album (there will always be a special place in my heart for Mezzanine), certainly their most interesting.
There is one problem with the album, and it comes from Sinead O'Connor on guest vocals. She follows up her rather lackluster work on Moby's 18 with an equally poor effort here. Fortunately, the music survives her singing, except on "A Prayer for England," easily the album's worst song. She can carry a tune, but her voice simply doesn't fit with the music.
However, songs like "Future Proof" and "Butterfly Effect" favorably recall their previous efforts like "Group Four" or "Dissolved Girl." The tempo for these newer songs is slower and more ambient, without the occasional fast industrial riffs of Mezzanine, but it all works perfectly in context.
100th Window is, at its heart, a sonic evolution. What started out as music for the Bristol dance scene has grown into something far deeper. The rhythms of this album tend to be unconducive to dance, but something about the orchestration, the melding of voice and samples and instruments, touches on a deeper emotional level. This is sound as a landscape, sound that creates its own world.
In the film version of High Fidelity, John Cusack's character places Massive Attack's "Protection" at the top of one of his endless top five lists. With 100th Window, Massive Attack proves that it still belongs at the zenith of musical lists, for both record store geeks and regular listeners.
Love and Death
Warner Brothers Records
The Sun are the latest Midwest band to make good. The Ohio foursome relocated to Los Angeles in hot pursuit of a record deal and left sunny California with a Warner Brothers contract in hand. The band also boasts strong Chicago ties, having recorded their debut EP, Love and Death, with former Wilco member Jay Walter Bennett handling both production and accommodations--the EP was recorded at his home studio. Until my friend reminded me, I had actually forgotten that I saw the band open for The Music a couple of months ago. (As you can see, they made quite the impression.) After a few moments, I was able to recall the lead singer's rather spasmodic performance, as he yelped and convulsed his way through a fairly standard pop-punk set. His scrappy energy was the best that could be said for the band.
The EP doesn't do much to sway my initial judgment; however, Bennett's production work does make the songs go down without much of a fuss. Bennett accentuates the familiar garage buzz with the odd effect or peal of feedback, propping up some of the less engaging melodies with smart distractions. There's one genuinely great song among the six featured here entitled "Carry It All," which hints at potential this young band may not even be aware of yet. It's all part of the growing process I suppose. But why Warner would want to baby-sit when there are so many bands out there ripe and ready for major label deals is beyond me.
lullaby for liquid pig
For you college kids out there looking for some music to get bummed out to, Lisa Germano is your artist of choice. However, if it's musical and thematic variety that you crave, you may want to look somewhere other than her new full-length. Though she carries quite a prestigious pedigree, having earned the praise and respect of artists such as David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, Germano's album of melancholic folk-rock cannot match those musical pioneers in terms of bold experimentation. Though interesting for the first few tunes, the album becomes stuck in a lyrical and musical rut from which it never fully emerges.
On her sixth solo LP, this veteran violinist for a handful of John Mellencamp records envelopes us with layer upon layer of studio atmospherics, making her bitter lyrical pill easier to swallow. Her vocal style matches this ethereal beauty, as it transitions between varying degrees of breathiness, sometimes raspy and slurred, other times sing-songy and crystalline. Germano certainly has a lot of pain to share, as the lyrics focus on the neediness and isolation of someone struggling with personal demons. For expressing those feelings of desperation, Germano's music should, in theory, be the perfect conduit.
The album contains much of the Pro-Tools fuzz and distortion so famously prominent on recent Radiohead and Wilco albums. However, Germano's songs, already melodically and lyrically repetitive, often get buried under these sonic embellishments, rendering her intended sentiments limp. There are only so many self-obsessed hallucinatory ditties you can handle, anyway. Perhaps this album isn't so great for communal bum trips after all; it's better as accompaniment for an afternoon nap.
Danger! High Voltage
beggars XI Recording
All you need to know about the Electric Six is contained in the majesty of a lyric from their song "I Lost Control (of My Rock and Roll)." To wit: "I like the nightlife/Do you like the nightlife?/I like to party/Do you like to party?/I like my body/Do you like my body?" From these words, it is clear that for this band the fun comes in making music that is, at its root, ridiculous.
Hailing from Detroit, that musical hotbed recently revived through the music of the White Stripes and Eminem, the Electric Six are, in fact, a quintet originally known as the Wildbunch. I am not sure if their sound changed one iota when the band changed names. However, this new incarnation as the Electric Six (or E6, as their fans call them) has yielded one fun disco-rock single ("Danger! High Voltage") and its remix, as well as the two garage-rockers that accompany it on this disc. E6 employs electronic bleeps and squeaks, fierce guitars, and the vocal histrionics of lead singer Dick Valentine to great effect. They even get a strong dose of credibility on the single, as none other than Jack White of the White Stripes joins Valentine on vocals.
At first I was skeptical of the intentions of E6. But after a few listens to these four songs, I am convinced of the sheer power that comes from playing sexy, over-the-top rock music. This is a band that embraces all of the standard rock clichés, and comes away the victor. If you give them a chance, they'll have you yelping "Fire in the disco!" as well.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
The double album in hip-hop is rarely attempted and never really pulled off. While Tupac's All Eyez On Me, Biggie's Life After Death, and Wu-Tang's Forever were all commercial successes, most would argue that each would have worked better as a single album, eliminating the filler and producing something near-perfect. However, The Blueprint 2 wouldn't make a perfect single album, EP, or even deluxe single--it's all filler. Despite its billing as a "sequel," all the soul that made the original Blueprint work is absent. Although Jay wisely employs a wide array of producers, nearly every beat ends up feeling shallow and conventional. Usually dependable producers such as Timbaland, Kanye West, and The Neptunes sound like they tried too hard, producing shallow imitations of their previous work. Jay doesn't try to spice things up very much either. Rather than deviate from the solipsistic ballads and clichéd gangster-isms explored on his previous six albums, Jay depends on featured artists to create variety. If a track works, it's because of the guests--"The Watcher II" because of the great Rakim verse and Dre beat, "Poppin Tags" because of Outkast and Twista, etc. Jay-Z does sound lyrically invigorated on several songs, but the subject matter is so stale it's hard to notice. At this point in Jay-Z's career, does he really need to make more songs celebrating his name ("Hovi Baby")? And does he really need to remake a Tupac song with Destiny's Child for a first single ("03 Bonnie & Clyde")? There is one really bright spot on the album. "Meet The Parents" is a clever, dramatic storytelling track that shows Jay is perfectly capable of producing something incredible, but has too many dollar signs in eyes. Ultimately, The Blueprint 2 is the type of album you listen to for two weeks and never pick up again. And it's a shame.