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"