Sunday, July 29, 2007

Yes, Miss Vincent, of course I'll be your husband.

St. Vincent
Marry Me
Beggar's Banquet

Rating: Proposals from beautiful woman are very hot. Especially when phrased not as questions, but as commands.

St. Vincent is Annie Clark. Annie Clark has played group member to Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree. She has also been compared to Kate Bush. This doesn't make much sense to me because A) I don't like Kate Bush, and B) that's all I've got.

I hate hate hate comparing rock artists to other, usually more well-known, rock artists. It's generally just lazy, and specifically it's dumb shorthand that only exists in a world where people in suits decide who gets recorded/distributed and who doesn't. In this DIY internet age, we're supposed to be beyond that, right? But we still do it. And by we, I mean I still do it. Because A) I am lazy, and B) I love dumb shorthand. Or is that I{>DSH?

Of course it defeats the purpose when I write it out in both shorthand and longhand. Especially considering I don't get paid to write these reviews, let alone paid by the word. But I digress.

St. Vincent sounds like a cross between ree-ree guitar-land, the lost continent of infamous hand-claps, lush-yet-off-kilter string-town and buddha buddha drum-city. Plus, I like her much better than Kate Bush. Prepare yourself accordingly, because there's quite a bit of stuff going on during Annie Clark's solo debut; Marry Me is a rude marriage of sorts between several indie rock streams from the past few years. It's idiosyncratic, multi-instrumental, quasi-symphonic, occasionally choral, vocally distinct and varied in tempo and tone. In other words, it's packed.

"Jesus Saves, I Spend" is a perfect example. Multi-tracked vocals, inventive drumming, clever song-writing, weird kid and/or high pitched singing, powerful-good guitar riffs, and sleigh bells. But don't think this is Sufjan's XX twin. Because that's a dumb thought. Shame on you and your dumb thought. Remember, we're trying our best not to compare here.

"Your Lips Are Red" is more of the same, only more intense and kind of scary. Screeching string sections denote something is amiss, if I understand my Musical Composition for Dummies manual correctly, and for three minutes this is a really eerie track. But somewhere along the way, it turns really sweet. It's nice to know that Annie Clark is something of a romantic, and she displays those chops over the course of Marry Me quite prominently.

"All My Stars Aligned" is nearly the prettiest girl at the ball. Over tinkling piano keys and what may or may not be a keyboard-produced choir, Clark puts on a show that basically makes me want to propose marriage right back at her. And it helps that she's a damnably fetching young lady. After her only sort-of-boring track ("Apocalypse Song") and a brief piano interlude, she strikes again with "Land Mines," an intense and altogether exquisitely crafted piece that moves from torch to adult contemporary to low-fi symphony to Björk-like heights in just over five minutes.

The last two tracks, "Human Racing" and "What Me Worry" sort of live by a different set of rules than the rest of the album, setting up a jazzy sound that hearkens to what Norah Jones might be doing where she mildly addicted to crack. Note: just mildly addicted. Possibly: more like P.J. Harvey on uppers. Regardless, it's really bewitching stuff, and a nice change of pace from the rest of Marry Me. And if we're lucky, maybe a hint of things to come when Annie Clark gets around to recording again.

Marry Me is one solid piece of freshmen songwriting, and you will most assuredly fail to find a stronger debut solo album in Anno Domini 2007. I can't seem to find the correct words to compliment Ms. Clark sufficiently, other than this is a devastatingly handsome debut.

And, IMHO, much better than Kate Bush.
St. Vincent on MySpace

An alternate rendition of St. Vincent's
"Your Lips Are Red"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Murder! Zombies! Take to the Hills!

The National Lights
The Dead Will Walk, Dear
Bloodshake Records

Rating: Much better than that Zodiac movie with Jake Gyllenhaal. And shorter. And much, much better.

The Dead Will Walk, Dear
comes on slowly. You barely even notice it at first. But little by little, moment by moment, it grabs you. Until suddenly, when you realize it just might be your favorite album of the long, hot summer.

And then, after repeated listens, you notice something else. It's really, really creepy. These songs are about murder; and quite possibly, necrophilia. At the very least, statutory rape. And then you can't decide if it's good or not anymore. But damn if it's no less beautiful.

It's impossible to recognize things like this at first. Case in point, The National Lights sound quite pleasant upon first listen. Maybe a little too folk-pop in places -- Jacob Thomas Bern's voice just a little too clear and AAA friendly -- the sorts of things that make you think "nice album," but not necessarily one you'll be playing a month from now.

Well guess what? I said that, too. And I was wrong. Who doesn't like folk song cycles that may or may not be about a Midwestern serial killer? Not me. Or is that not not me. I can't be sure. About anything anymore, really. Other than this is not a "nice album."

The Dead Will Walk, Dear is a dangerously quiet recording, with plenty of gentle guitar picking, easy accompaniment from organ and lap steel, and the occasional banjo or mandolin bridge. Burn's voice is a little too earnest at times, which makes Sonya Cotton's stunning backing vocals all the more important. They lift the songs from easy fluff-folk to gorgeous, neo-Gothic duets. It's amazing what a little estrogen can do to a song, especially ones as dark as these.

Dead Will Walk's
first two tracks breeze by with barely an ear-prick (unless you attentively pick out the beastly frightening lyrics), but it's track three, "The Dead Will Walk," where things suddenly become interesting. Burn sings of love and loss and murder and lost loves murdered throughout the entire album, but it's track 3's gentle hymn-like organ lines, lazy electric flourishes and well-placed banjo picking make the song hum. Like Rosie Thomas' "Why Waste More Time," the song proves that more can be less can be more. And then it's over in three minutes flat. Bummer.

But what comes next tops it: "O, Ohio." Cotton really steps things up here, with some dazzling backing vocals, accented quite nicely with the sparse sounding lap steel interludes between verses. It's a track that begs to be repeated, over and over and over. "Riverbed" continues the slide guitar trend, albeit with a bit more pep, as Bern sings of floods, drownings and growing old. Two tracks later we find another slice of small town life, "Midwest Town," which glides effortlessly on pump organ for two minutes and thirty-three seconds of near-eschatological new-folk-rapture. Like Dan Deacon for fans of Dirty Linen. Oh so pleasant.

There are missteps. "Buried Treasure" and "The Water Is Wide" are attempts at wicked cheerfulness that mostly fall flat. They're still generally pretty, but in the midst of so much dark matter, they get away from what makes a good folk ballad a good folk ballad -- keeping the music as depressing as the subject matter.

And yet, as much as I like this album, I have the feeling that anyone trying to pull off a project like this is likely more than a little bit pretentious. Maybe that's not my place to say. But I can imagine kids like this in some of my Lit classes in college -- the kind of people who had something good to say every now and again, but who you really had no interest in talking to outside of class. I guess this is what they do after they graduate. Write gorgeously morbid murder sequences. But who am I to judge?

"Swimming in the Swamp" rights the boat, with actual piano. Nearing the end of the album, it's almost a surprise to hear it thrown in, even if it's just a couple of chords every measure. But they do the trick, as we're given another song about water and drowning and death. And I'd like to think the subject matter works, given that the album is only 27 minutes long. Any longer, and there would be too many songs, and too much Southern Gothic, for the album to hold up. Yet it does.

Bern doesn't fall prey to album-lengthening tricks -- like padding his songs -- which happens all too often in folk music. His songs are simple, and don't need three or four verses, or the chorus repeated ad naseum, or guest guitar spots for extended soling. This is simple stuff. And this is dark stuff. Bern admits it with the brevity of his works. And with that brevity, they're better because of it.

The albums closer -- "Killing Swallows" -- tries to toe the quiet-loud line that permeated post punk circa 1989, albeit much mellower. The song consists only of one verse, followed by two minutes of heavy strumming and e-bow histrionics. It's both a terrible closing and a perfect one. It's not a great song, but it works here. And due to Dead Will Walk's conciseness, you barely notice. If you're like me, you're probably already skipping back to previous tracks, trying to decipher lyrics and relive great heights, that's it hard to remember just when this album actually ends.

So maybe it's not a great record, but with so many great moments, and with so much to digest in so little time, you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. If quiet songs of murder and villainy turn you on, then The National Lights are right up your alley.

National Lights' Space (seriously, listen to them, now)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

You Are The One I Adore

Born To Be A Motorcycle
Asthmatic Kitty

Rating: A box full of kittens, playing drums and guitar and assorted brass instruments, with bows and shit in their hair, like Anne Geddes on amphetamines and coke

There are so many bands out there, let me tell you -- as if you didn't know that. But there are. Lots of them are good. Even more of them aren't. And a few are incredible. In the midst of incredibleness, it's not fair that the really good ones somehow wind up with the short end of the stick. They don't get the same press: the love from Spin or Pitchfork or Paste or whomever are the arbiters of incredibility these days. And that's a damn shame.

Bunky are a good case in point. They aren't trying to send the scenster kids into bouts of orgasmic frenzy like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, but what they lack in "indie cred," the sure as hell make up in pop songcraft, as well as actual underground credentials. Bunky is essentially Emily Joyce and Robert Rafter -- both gainfully employed as recording engineers -- and a variety of fellow San Diegoans in support. Their music is basically rock and roll, complete with boy-girl vocals, wailing guitars, erratically imaginative drumming, and the occasional Motown/So-Cal horn section arrangement. There's alot of 50s and 60s rock worship in these pop gems, but enough good-old 21st Century ingenuity so that it don't sound stale or tired. Bunky write pop sings with kick, pop songs with attitude, and pop songs with wide-eyed wonder.

If there were such a thing as Peter, Paul and Mary for 2007, Bunky would be it. Songs like "Chuy," "Gotta Pee" and "Funny Like the Moon" scream Yo La Tengo for the younger set. Maybe that's not a fair comparison, because Bunky are as different from Yo La Tengo as the Tengo are from the Velvet Underground. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess. Bunky make quirky little pop gems that you'd have to try with all your might not to like. It's not worth the effort. And besides, why would you not want to enjoy hella fun romps "Glass of Water"? With Rafter's nasally repeated desire for a cup o'agua followed by some bee-sting guitar fuzz, transitioning nicely into a muted trumpet solo, which leads us into the following track, a faux-attempt at tearjerk-pop appropriately called "Heartbunk."

And they're singable, too. Did I mention that? "Cute Not Beautiful" allows Rafter and Joyce to trade verses -- Rafter's near whisper calling to mind Ira Kaplan at times. But thankfully, Joyce's vocals are all her own, romantically ringing above trumpet and hushed guitar, inducing chills when she reaches high into the register, creating a memorable sort of VU/Diana Ross mashup. It's good stuff by far. And deserving of more attention. Unfortunately the youth-set moved on from truly fun music long ago, sometime when MTV decided sexy was more important than merriment and goofiness, and everyone else just sort of gave up and followed suit.

Thank God no one told Bunky. Though it's too soon to tell if they'll wind up being one of those bands who release good record after good record, hopefully one of these days they'll get their due along with great American bands like the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo. Until then, I guess they'll just be our boisterous little rock 'n' roll secret.

San Diego has got it good.
Bunky's MySpace

Bunky on some FOX programme
(Sadly, one can barely hear the horn section)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Steak of an Album -- minus all the gratutious heart disease.

Pharoahe Monch

Rating: Three Lombardi Trophies in Five Years

I haven't listened to much hip-hop since moving to Vermont. And that's been okay with me. It's not that we're in the midst of a particular dearth of quality hip-hop, it's just that I haven't been much in the mood to slog through so much crap just to find the good stuff. And there is a ton of crap out there. It's not like Indie music, where I know exactly where to go to find new and exciting stuff to plug into. And it doesn't help when some of my favorite hip-hop artists just seem to have lost it -- Talib Kweli, Mos Def, the Roots -- whatever "It" was, and whether or not they ever had "It" (and lost it) or I just tired of their particular sound.

What I do know is this: Pharoahe Monche hasn't dropped an album in eight years. Maybe that's the trick to not losing "It." Dude is ready, set, go for 51 minutes on Desire. It's albums like this the reaffirm my love for hip-hop -- and reaffirm my deep seated hope that this genre has an endless supply of something to say, both to the American public and to popular music, too. So no doubt about it, Monche is one of those rare MCs with words to spare.

After a solid album opener in "Free, " Monch opens up a six-pack of post-Gospel whup-ass with "Desire," keeping the listener engaged with intense production and lines like, My book is a ovary/The pages I lust to turn/My pen's the penis/When I write the ink's the sperm. In the Motown-infused "Push," with vocal guests Showtime and Mela Machinko, and a tight horn arrangement by Tower of Power, you hardly notice that Monch only takes one turn at a mic, allowing his guests to drive the song without overpowering it. His 'cover' of "Welcome to the Terrordome" nearly holds a candle to the original, but it's hard to top Chuck D. Luckily, Monch gets it out of the way early, clearing the way for a number of consistent, ridiculously amazing tracks.

"What It Is" is about as claustrophobic as Desire gets, almost a club track were it not so hard, with a whispered hook and stark, nearly industrial production. "When the Gun Draws," a "message" track (where most socially conscious MCs tend to trip up), is so lyrically engaging with conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory that one can barely tell what it's about. And that's a theme that runs all across the length and breadth of this album. There's so much to unpack, that even after repeated listens, it's still hard to decipher what exactly Monch is actually saying. If Sufjan Stevens is the new Walt Whitman, then Monch might be our James Joyce. He's not quite there yet, but given time (another eight years or so), we just might have a Ulysses on our hands.

From the beat-friendly, boogie-woogie "Body Beat" to twinkle-star, slow-jam "Bar Trap" to the meandering, jazz-hop, symphonic suite "Trilogy," Monche continues to engage the ears and brains of his audience. Even the albums more ponderous moments -- "Hold On" and "So Good" -- have enough nuggets to mine that they can't slow this freight train down. Monche's flow is so textured and bewitching, that it's a disappointment every time the album ends. And unless it's been on repeat for three or four spins already, it easy to skip back to track one and start the whole deal over.

And that's what makes Desire so fan-freaking-tastic. It's addictive without being all-style/no-substance. Desire isn't candy-coated hip-pop. It's red meat. But you wouldn't know it from how many times you keep going back to the well. It's what this listener's been hungry for all year long without even knowing it. And once you've heard it, I've a feeling you won't be able to put it back in the jewel case either.

If only we didn't have to wait so long between albums.
Monch's MySpace

Good-Times Video for "Body Baby"

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Ha hah hah hah ha ha haah! How do you even begin, Tracy? How do you even begin?

Blitzen Trapper
Wild Mountain Nation
Lidkercow Ltd./Sub Pop Records

Rating: Pop quiz, hotshot.
It's 1875. It's 1975. It's both those years and it's 2007, too. Oh, and also, there's a bomb on your bus and you can't go too slow or you get replaced by Jason Patric in the sequel. What do you do, punk? What do you do?

This is my first Blizten Trapper album. It comes on like a punch in the face and leaves like that soaring eagle/hawk/bird of prey on the cover of their disc, gliding on God-made air currents over purple mountains majesty. Man does it ever!

Somehow these guys made two records that totally flew under the radar (self-released, I believe), then BOOM!!! Wild Mountain Nation! It makes me think of a cross between Appalachian Hillbillies and those weird people that lived in the mountains around Gondor in Tolkien's Return of the King. Right? And this is wild man music, for sure. And this is hillbilly music, for sure. And this is Detroit Rock City, for sure. And this is glam-downed punk, for sure. And this is what the late 60s/early 70s sound like in 2007, for sure. Forget all those bands who're trying to recreate Rock's Golden Age. Instead, harken to Blitzen Trapper, and heed their riffs and/or steaming guitar solos! Man oh man do they have a story for you!

And the following is that story. You follow?

"Devil's A-Go-Go": sort of like that bass line from that one P-Diddy song that had Ben Stiller in the video, but bigger and badder and with lots-o-angular gee-tars. But it doesn't come close to defining this album. In fact, no one song can define this album NOR this band. Well, maybe "Proud Mary" does, but that's not even their song. So it doesn't count.

"Wild Mountain Nation": kind of laid-back country rock, but post-punk. No, it doesn't sound like what you have in your head right now. It's mellower. Just listen to it, already.

"Miss Spiritual Tramp": I guess it's sort Nuggets-sey, but not really. More Zep. Oh dude, and with cow bell!

"Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant's Hem": it has these harmonic guitar parts that I could reference better if I had lived and loved in 1973 or something. But I wasn't born yet. So I got nothing for you.

"Wild Mtn. Jam": lo-fi, jug-band blues. With psychedelic leanings. The American Anthology of Folk Music distilled in Kentucky-by-way-of-Haight-Asbury.

"Country Caravan": like Devendra, if he were a cowboy maybe?

My point is this. Your neighbor was right. You should start taking his advice. She probably knows you better than you know yourself. Listen better today than you did yesterday. This music was made for righteous dudes. Like this one time, I overheard these two men talking about a screenplay in a Barnes and Noble outside of L.A. And they were all gossipy about their friend and his girlfriend. Boy, that was stupid. They would not like this album.

But you will.
Blizten-to-the-Trapper's MySpaceSpage

BT's seizure inducing video for "Woof & Warp"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Miss O'Connor waits for no man. And that's a damned fact.

Nora O'Connor
Til The Dawn
Bloodshot Records

Rating: Basically the best album of 2004 that nobody heard in 2004

Nora O'Connor is one of those faces you see and recognize, but only faintly, and only briefly, and then forget that you thought you recognized her in the first place. She doesn't mind. O'Connor has performed as part of two great Chicago indie institutions --
first with the Blacks, then with Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire -- and you probably had nary a clue. And if that resume ain't impressive enough, then how about this? She's also an ordained minister, which, in this correspondent's opinion, comes in handy when writing and performing insurgent-country music.

If at first Miss O'Connor comes off as a cross between a poor (wo)man's Norah Jones and Patty Griffin, then try, try again. She doesn't do the coffee shop thing as well as Jones, nor does she possess the pipes of Griffin, but what she lacks in vocal chops and Starbucks-milieu
, she more than makes up for with an ear for stick-to-your-ribs melodies and hopelessly romantic songwriting. These songs stay with you without really trying. At their heart, they're good ole' country tunes -- but it's the touches of gospel, jazz, blues and mountain music (by way of Chicago, Illinois) that help this too short of an album (at just under 32 minutes) proclaim its greatness to the world. Too bad no one seems to be listening.

From the opening bars of "My Backyard," its clear that Nora O'Connor has no plans for world domination. It's a sweet and tender tribute to hearth and home, one that glides effortlessly over flights of harmonica and Hammond organ. It's followed by "Bottoms", a bluesy fiddle-tune with country harmonies and plenty of barroom heartache. Over the course of nine tracks, O'Connor tempers her country leanings with straight up city/songwriting chops. It works for the most part -- though you wouldn't here me complaining if she leaned a little more West Virginia sometimes.

She still comes through in spades, however: tracks like "OK with Me" and "Nightingale" pack a punch that's rarely heard south of the Mason-Dixon these days -- let alone up-river Mississippi. The latter of the two features some gorgeous fiddle accompaniment by Andrew Bird if I'm not mistaken, who puts his own Bowl-of-Fire-era spin on O'Connor's composition. They make quite a pair. If you get the chance, look around for a pair of other tracks they've done for separate compilations -- "Oh, Sister" and "Two Way Action." If you're a fan of Bird, you won't be disappointed.

All in all, Til the Dawn is brilliant tribute to American music that gives Miss O'Connor plenty of space to shine. It's too bad I didn't hear of it until just recently, otherwise I'd have been enjoying it for going on three years now. And you shouldn't wait neither; go find it quickly, friends. You don't yet know what you're missing.
Miss O'Connor's MySpace Page

"Nightingale," Live from Navy Pier with Kelly Hogan
(Skip ahead to 6:25 remaining)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Perfect Summer! Here We Come!

Matt & Kim

Rating: So Much Fun You Will Puke Upsidedown Frowns From Your Insides For Days & Days & Days, Etc.

Matt & Kim play power pop with synths and drums. And that's about it. They're from Brooklyn, so they probably don't have real problems like normal people, and they most likely aren't still pissed that the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In fact, they were most likely never pissed about the move at all. I would wager that they don't even know where Ebbets Field was located. That's sad.

Their music, that which they craft for performance, in said Brooklyn areas, is not sad. In fact, it's about some of the happiest music ever. Wait, you interrupt, aren't they just another Mates of State rip-off? Well, I guess. But only you'll admit that Mates of State are just another Quasi rip-off. So take that, you dumb snob! Besides, Matt & Kim are to Mates of State what Arrested Development is to the Cosby Show. Or something like that....You know I'm trying to write reviews without mentioning other artists, so why would you bring that up in the first place!? Shut up while I'm writing!

They talk real funny, too. Like Linford and Karen if Karen had a sense of humor. She doesn't. Maybe Linford could marry Matt & Kim? That would be nice.

I wish I could describe their music. Fortunately for us, there is this thing called the internet so I don't have to. MySpace to the rescue! Also, YouTube! Rock on! Yea Yeah! Basically, they rule.

Matt & Kim Myspace

Video for "Yeah Yea," from their Self-Titled release

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Girls play music. Boys fall in love. Girls win again.

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee
Rounder Records

Rating: Fiddles! Fiddles! Like one-million fiddles!

There is such a thing as drop-dead gorgeous toe-tapping bluegrass. And her name is Uncle Earl.

Yes, Alison Krauss is on Rounder Records. And yes, her music is most often terrible. No offence to her and her buds in Union Station, but old-timey music sounds much better when you drop the gloss. And Allie's got gloss in spades.

Which isn't to say that Uncle Earl are a down-home dirty bluegrass band. These four young ladies make for one bad-ass string band, they just also happen to play in tune and sing real pretty, too. They do not, however, try to play pop-bluegrass, which is a good thing, and makes Waterloo, Tennessee a rather compelling mix of standards and originals. As newbie to bluegrass, I can't tell which are which....which is probably the point. It's a record that oozes timelessness and authenticity. If Uncle Earl took that extra low-fi step, you'd probably mistake them for the Stanley Brothers.

Minus the penises, of course.

But enough about the fact that they're all chicks! This band can play! "Wish I Had My Time Again" is a flat-out, foot-stomping barn-burner. It lays low the horrible hordes of invading pop divas lurking from your doorstep to mine in something like two-and-a-half-minutes. The mighty hand of Americana prevails against the wicked! I can't tell you how much I enjoy damn fine fiddle music. So just trust me on this one. It's good.

"Bony on the Isle of St. Helena" turns the tables on their ears, if I may mix my metaphors. There's still a bit of tapping here, but there's also some spare yet gorgeous harmony on this one as well, folks. And knowing me knowing you, you're a sucker for harmony. Admit it. It's not a bad thing.

Over the course of the album, Uncle Earl manage to throw in a few curveballs, too: Some 12-bar blues, shape-note singing, Asian string work, and even a Dylan tune for good measure. Most of the time it works. Occasionally it doesn't. But the fact of the matter remains, if you (A) bought Allie Krauss and EmmyLou records after hearing all that bluegrass music in that one movie with George Clooney, and (B) thought their regular records sucked L-7 weenie, then this is the bluegrass album for you, friend.

So step right up. Rounder Records -- It's not just for 52-year-olds anymore.

(More like 31, give or take a few months.)
Uncle Earl's MySpace

Uncle Earl, Live from Lotus Fest

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The best reason for midnight ever invented. Ever.

The Innocence Mission
We Walked in Song
Badman Recording Co.

Rating: Seven Soft Kisses on Fragrant Downy Pillows

The Innocence Mission are a much-loved band to my near-sweltering ears. At least they would be if it were hot right now. And yet because of fabulous inventions like screens and windows, it's not. This album, however, is hot as hell. At least, as hot as hell as a folk album can be.

Don't ever let it be said that the Innocence Mission are inconsistent. They are (as a matter of fact) anything but. Since 1999, they've released five fantastic recording of majestic folk-pop. No one album blows the others away, though there are standouts. And no one album falls flat, though Christ Is My Hope just might if you're not into Sacred Hymns (I am). We Walked in Song offers more of the same consistency, with just the right amount of dreamy guitar-work, understated bass lines, unobtrusive percussion and wonderful Karen Peris-ness. Mrs Peris' vocals might be an acquired taste to some, but not this Yankee cowboy. Her own stand-out has to be "Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning", which boasts vocal "Ba-Ba-Bop-Bas" from hubby Don (who doubles as guitarist for the band) and some wickedly delicate accordion as well. I guarantee you this: you will not hear a better "Ba-Ba-Bop-Ba" on any other record of 2007, 2008 or 2009.

Many of the Innocence Mission's songs could double as lullabies, but don't let that fool you. There's a quiet intensity on tracks like "Since I Still Tell You My Every Day" and "Over the Moon" that will freaking break your heart. I guess words like "bittersweet" or "wistful" come to mind (guess who needs a thesaurus!), but those could be used for a hundred other bands. The Innocence Mission deserve a genre all their own....and maybe a gold record or two, were this 1972. Alas, it's not. So I guess we get this amazing little band all to ourselves. O America! If only you knew what you were missing!

Yes, Karen. I'm over the moon as well.
The Innocence Mission's MySpace

Video for "I Never Knew You From the Sun,"
from the album Befriended

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fake History. Or Fistory!

I'm trying to catch up with a back post for every week since my first review so that this blog looks like it's alive and not dead. Or derived from animal by-products. Like monkey poop! Man, that shit stinks!

But I'm all out of words for tonight. Bye words!

(Actually posted August 17th)

EDIT: I started adding links to each band's web page and MySpace page so's people can hear some tunes. (8/31)

EDIT 2: New Template! (9/2)

EDIT 3: YouTube Vids!! (9/3)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Something for the Kids who are about to become Parents.

The Avett Brothers
Ramseur Records

Rating: 15 "High Fives" out of Your Mom

There's something special to behold when families make music together. The Carters, the Whites, the Stanley Brothers....even the Danielson Famile. There's something to be said about the bonds between musical families when the book is finally written on the Rise and Fall of New World Folk and Americana Music. (Patent pending.)

Two of the Avett Brothers are actually brothers, so you know right away that their act is part of that sacred musical tradition in the South known as the Family Band. The boys share vocals while handling separate guitar and banjo duties, and years of playing and singing together bring a confluence and immediacy that isn't often found in popular music these days. Imagine, if you will, that Tweedy and Farrar had stuck it out through the 90s and you might get an idea of the mutual musical reciprocity that goes on between these siblings. There's a bass player, too, but he has a different last name so I don't suppose he counts.

The Avett Brothers play music rooted in old-timey folk and bluegrass, but do so clearly aware of the fact that we live in a rock'n'roll, post-punk society. That's not to say they attempt to meld the two traditions ala Uncle Tupelo or Defiance, Ohio. This is their take on traditional American music, coming from two boys who happened to play in rock bands before they wizened up and set themselves on the straight and narrow. There's no agenda here. No one's trying to create new musical genres from scratch. It's just two brothers and buddy playing guitar, banjo and upright bass. And it's pretty damn good.

Emotionalism, the new album from the Brothers Avett sees them shed bits of their post-punk skin, only to replace it with tighter harmonies, folk-easy singable melodies, and yes, the occasional string section. So whether or not you find these things appealing will decide just how exactly you'll respond to their latest offering. At times, dipping their toes in the river of the great, heaving pop-center does them some good. "Salina" bounces between dive-bar, piano ballad to bouncy, toe-tapping masterpiece, then finishes with what (I'm guessing) was supposed to be a poignant orchestral tribute to homesickness. It almost works, but not quite.

The songs are tighter, to be sure, but the Avetts lose some of the Old Weird America flavor from their previous albums in their attempt to be SERIOUS PERFORMERS. Gone are the screams and yelps from old songs like "Colorshow" or "Gimmeakiss." That being said, Emotionalism isn't a complete about face by any means. It's just an intentional focusing on the more traditional sounds of the band's prior recordings. Album opener "Die Die Die" is a great guitar/banjo ditty with some fantastic, high-register harmony vocals, but you can't help hoping for a yelp or a holler or something to really liven the place up. Instead, we get a break with a series of "Doo-doo-doos" that wouldn't sound out of place on a Buddy Holly or New Pornographers ballad. "Die Die Die" is followed by a sweeter, quieter version of itself called "Shame." Here's where the Brothers really go for the saccharine-jugular, singing Shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same. The only thing that keeps it from becoming a parody of itself is how honestly pretty the song really is.

The album really gets going by track three, with "Paranoia in Bb," an tack-piano driven ode to mental illness. If you caught the boys on Conan a couple of weeks ago (or found the video on YouTube), you caught a glimpse of the potential energy this band possesses. The studio version is a little more relaxed, which only seems to heighten the confused tension behind the message of the song. Is it about losing sanity? Is it about falling in love? Is there any difference? The least that can be said about the opening three tracks is that the Avetts haven't lost their sense of humor, leading off with songs about Death, Shame and Paranoia. Ah, the South rises again.

The rest of the album bounces between much of the same. There are same great songs here: The buoyant 50s-rock by way of Eleanor Rigby strings inspired "Will You Return?" The traditional bluegrass meets some faux-Caribbean/Mexicali-madness of "Pretty Girl from San Diego." And the aforementioned "Salina," a Billy Joel/Graham Parsons jukebox mashup.

But overall, while these brothers are great musicians, their almost total devotion to releasing a "pretty record" nearly brings down the whole project. "Living of Love" is a perfect example. It's gorgeous. But the boys don't have the vocals to quite match it's majesty. As a Patty Griffin/Emmylou Harris duet it might work. But the Avetts lose a piece of what really makes them great by focusing on their Nashville influences. They almost pull it off in the finals few bars, with those towering, chill-inducing harmonies, but fall just short. But hey, at least they go out with a bang.

Well, almost. Second-to-last track "Go to Sleep" ought to have closed out this album. It's lazy guitar strum, laid back harmonica and full-family vocal vibe would have been the perfect finishing note for this album. Unfortunately it's not. Instead, we're subjected to one more "quiet" song, which means one more "pretty" song, which makes four of five "pretty" songs too many.

What the Avetts fail to realize (maybe) is that "Go To Sleep", with it's banjo and fiddle and trombone (?) is pretty. I mean, it's goddamn pretty. It's the kind of pretty Ryan Adams hasn't hit since Heartbreaker. Instead, we close with the kind of pretty Ryan Adams still has in him (in spades). It's enough to make you want to grab the Avett Brothers by the short hairs and beg them to smash their guitars or turn up their amps a little more often. You guys rock so well, why would you want to write Whiskeytown B-Sides!

But I digress. Taken on its own, Emotionalism is a powerfully good rock record. But knowing the history and energy of this band, it doesn't quite meet the mark the Avett Brothers have set for themselves on their back-catalog. Oh well. At least it's more entertaining than Sky Blue Sky. In fact, while I'm waking the Avetts from the "pretty" stupor, someone else give Jeff Tweedy a swift kick to the backside, too. Americana's too big to be defined by its syrupy ballads. True American music has so much more to offer. And the Avetts know it.
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Performing "Paranoia in Bb" on Conan