Monday, December 27, 2010

In The New Year

Whiskey Pie is going on a semi-annual hiatus for various reasons. Until then, listen to The Walkmen until your ears fall off.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiskey Pie's Top 10 Albums Of '10

10) MGMT- Congratulations: “Will I ever make my mind up about this album?” This was one of the questions that was plaguing me all year. I must've started writing rebuttals to my original four star review a half dozen times on both sides of the scale. I was always over-thinking this album and should have gone with my gut feeling originally, so I'm going to do that now: this is a ballsy, psychedelic funhouse of an album that not only lives up to its ridiculous cover but bests it at every turn. Sure, there's no singles as strong as Oracular's best, but the title track and 'Siberian Breaks' especially are all the proof I need that these guys are going to be on the side of serious artists and not just some hipster opportunists.

9) Sufjan Stevens- The Age Of Adz: Unless he really gets crazy, it's hard to imagine Stevens ever recording another album as divisive and different-from-his-previous-work than The Age Of Adz. Sure, it's not the kind of album I can make it all the way through every time I listen to it, but in this case that's not a bad thing. Whether this more experimental and extroverted/dancing-on-stage-unironically Stevens is here to stay or just a temporary phase a la David Bowie or Beck, I can't say for sure. I hope he sticks with it for at least one more album, though, because I have the feeling he could top this in the same way that Illinois topped Michigan.

8) Sun Kil Moon- Admiral Fell Promises: Ultimately, yes, all of my top ten albums of the year are my opinion. But Admiral Fell Promises is such a personal and specific sort of album that I don't foresee any music sites or magazines having it on their year-end lists. When it comes to an artist like Mark Kozelek, you're either all in or all out, and, well, I am definitely all in. Though the sound of this album was predicted by his recent solo acoustic live albums under his own name, Admiral takes his acoustic guitar mastery to an altogether higher level. Utilizing a hypnotic playing style that's half epic acoustic folk a la Roy Harper and half Latin flamenco guitar (as previewed on earlier tracks like 'Si Paloma' and Red House Painters' 'Cabezon'), this is a rich, dense album that demands your full attention but rewards your patience and, some would say, indulgence every step of the way.

7) Vampire Weekend- Contra: At this point Vampire Weekend have supplanted The Shins as my favorite indie pop band. Oh sure, they're labelled Afro-pop or synth pop or whatever, but at their core they're pure indie pop. By which I mean, catchy, melodic songs and deep hooks that never quite leave you even when you set the album aside for a few months. I had all but forgotten how good this album was until I was going back over 2010 releases to make my list, and damn if it didn't immediately re-earn this spot.

6) Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma: Yeah, OK, here's my token electronic album. Whatever. Cosmogramma straddles the line between glitchy, quixotic electro-whatever and instrumental, jazz influenced hip hop...and sounds way more natural and amazing than that awkward description implies. As the man behind Flying Lotus is related to John Coltrane, it only makes sense that Cosmogramma has a jazz player's flair for repeated motifs and improvisational open-ness. Yet it also shows the keen rhythms and ultra-modern sound/production of electronic music and hip hop to make it unique and its own genre entirely.

5) Frog Eyes- Paul's Tomb: A Triumph: I often wonder when the rest of the world will wake up to the fact that Carey Mercer is a genius. That may seem like strident hyperbole, but I truly mean it. No one in the world makes music like him, whether in Frog Eyes, solo as Blackout Beach, or as part of the 'supergroup' Swan Lake. Anyway, I seem to be amongst the few who prefer Paul's Tomb: A Triumph to their earlier albums, so what do I know, right? Well, I know this is a hell of an album, raging and passionate and dense and demanding. And it's an ass kicker of a guitar rock album. If nothing else, go download 'Flower In A Glove', turn it up just below the “lease breaker” volume level on your stereo, and prepare for greatness. And I'll say this: I never thought about making a Wikipedia page for something before, but it's criminal that Paul's Tomb lacks one. Criminal, I say!

4) Wolf Parade- Expo 86: We're a scattered minority, but there are those of us who think that this band just gets better with each album. Expo 86 was recorded live as a full band in the same room, just as Frog Eyes' Paul's Tomb was, and it somehow has an even more live and full bodied sound than that beast. To put it another way, this is as 'live' as it gets without an audience. The songs all go on for a minute too long, which is to say, they're perfectly played and maximalist in their force and interplay, and therefore also exactly long enough. Expo 86 is one of the best indie rock albums to drive to and leaves me wishing more bands would push their labels to record and release live albums.

3) The National- High Violet: High Violet was the reason I got into this band, and while I now hold both Alligator and Boxer near and dear to my music nerd heart, High Violet is an even more accomplished and enjoyable album. Its darker atmosphere led me to compare it to post-punk and/or trip hop bands, and it does lack levity, not to mention any fast paced or energetic material. Yet I can't hold that against it because High Violet is either the band's first masterpiece or yet another masterpiece, depending on if you've heard their last two albums or not.

2) Beach House- Teen Dream: For the majority of the year, I was certain this would be my top pick. While it didn't win out in the end, it is still an incredible album. As I put it in my review,Teen Dream is the kind of album that a band builds a reputation on. Everything that is good about this band is at its utmost best here...” I don't imagine they could record a better album...yet I'm dying to hear them try. If it's half as good as Teen Dream, it'll make my list for whatever year it comes out, too.

1) The Walkmen- Lisbon: I'm reluctant to write too much about this choice because I feel like it's the sort of release that more and more people are going to discover as the years go by and curse themselves for not seeking it out sooner. The problem with a band like this is that their music is so disconnected from trends and hype that it's difficult to get other people excited about them without forcing them to sit still and listen a couple times through one of their albums. Still, The Walkmen are highly regarded by critics, fans, and their peers for good reason: Lisbon is a timeless masterpiece that could just as easily have been released in 1972 as it was 2010. Much as I have grown to love this band over the past few months and dig all of their stuff, nothing they've done before touches Lisbon. The band's “only use what is necessary” minimalist finesse and keen songwriting are at their apex here, and their always-just-under-the-surface-and-now-that-you-hear-it-more-prominently-on-Lisbon-you-can-go-back-and-hear-it-in-their-older-stuff surf rock fascination is in full swing. No, it isn't to say it's a surf rock album, as a majestic track like 'While I Shovel The Snow' and the Spoon-like rhythmic grooves of 'All My Great Designs' will attest. But I have no doubt if they did decide to go for a straight surf rock sound, they would knock it out of the park.

Lisbon is the only album this year that came close to Teen Dream, and not only came close but supplanted it. It gives me no end of pleasure to sit here disproving my comments in my review of Bows + Arrows: Lisbon has been showing up on the top slot of some other year end lists, and they did manage to top Bows + Arrows, too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Panda Bear- Tomboy & You Can Count On Me singles

It seems certain that Panda Bear's much-delayed Tomboy can only be a disappointment, especially to those who are expecting another Person Pitch. Judging by bootlegs of live shows from over the course of 2010, as well as the so-far-released singles, it's going to be a much different beast, full of darker, shorter songs based on guitars and electronics as the main instruments instead of samplers. As a huge fan of Person Pitch, it's hard for me to listen to Panda Bear's newer music and not wish for more versions of 'Take Pills' and 'Good Girl/Carrots.' But since he has continually pushed back the release of Tomboy—in fact, he's not done recording/mixing it yet—I've had more and more time to accept the new direction.

The Tomboy single was the first officially released taste of the album, and neither it nor its b-side, 'Slow Motion', seem like obvious songs for the purpose of introducing the album. However, listening more closely to 'Tomboy' reveals what Panda Bear was getting on about when he said the album would be more guitar based, though the guitar here is employed more as a vocal foil than anything else. There's something Radiohead-esque about its sound and melodic/rhythmic use here; furthermore, the minimalist beats and indistinct background sounds also remind me of that British band's Kid A era music. Panda Bear's vocals are as rich and reverb drenched as ever but lack the Beach Boys/angelic choir effects he used on all of Person Pitch. Aforementioned b-side 'Slow Motion', meanwhile, sticks a little closer to the Person Pitch sound, with a looping beat, repeated sound effects/speech samples, and Panda Bear's honeyed vocals. A good start, all told, but hardly a home run.

Second single You Can Count On Me reveals a much more abstract style. With heavy, vocally emphasized beats and a droning sound, Panda Bear often used this song as a set closer during his 2010 performances. There's something definitive and confident sounding about it. Despite its paucity of sonic elements, it sounds anthemic and full. Unfortunately, he's retreated from the more comprehensible vocal delivery of Animal Collective's last couple releases, so the lyrics are hard to discern. The same goes for 'Alsatian Darn', whose title I'm convinced is a reference to a Tom Goes To The Mayor episode wherein Tom says “darn” instead of “dam.” Anyway, there's a reason this song will (I assume) be relegated to b-side status and won't be included on the album: it's uninspired and half-finished feeling. Lacking a satisfying hook and with an out-of-character amount of lyrics that don't register, it plods along for almost exactly twice as long as 'You Can Count On Me' but is nowhere near as good.

The next single, Last Night At The Jetty, is due to be released digitally in a few days. I can only hope that it restores some of my faith in Panda Bear as a solo artist. Don't mistake what I mean there; I don't think either Tomboy or You Can Count On Me are bad singles. It's more that they're underwhelming, and when combined with the less-then-stellar Down There by Avey Tare, represent a cooling trend on my enthusiasm for the up-til-now impeccable stable of Animal Collective and related side/solo project releases. More importantly, the Tomboy album is now my biggest question mark for 2011: will it still turn out to be great, or will it be one of the biggest disappointments of the year? For now, know that the singles are worth checking out, though I sure wouldn't break the bank for the limited edition vinyl releases.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5 (Combined score)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Great Album Covers: Trout Mask Replica

Sure, you can find innumerable lists of obscure, weird album covers from the 60s through the 80s on various websites and blogs, but by and large they are both weird and terrible at the same time. Not so for Trout Mask Replica, which I owned on CD for years and eventually had to buy on vinyl just to have a bigger version of its cover. That's because it is both weird and fantastic at the same time.

This cover is like a multi-layered puzzle you eventually figure out by listening to the album. Even then, questions remain:

1) Is that a light bulb or something sticking out of the top of his hat?
2) Is that actually Captain Beefheart on the cover?
3) Is that a real trout's head or a really good simulacrum?
4) Why is he cradling it in his hand as if to give it a jaunty "hello" mime?
5) OK, I get that it's a replica of a trout mask. But why would someone need a trout mask to begin with? Furthermore, does this imply that a trout mask uses a real trout, while a replica uses an aforementioned simulacrum?

Yeah, I know it's an absurdist, surreal picture that isn't trying to make sense. One of the things I love about album covers is that they can be vague or abstract and leave a lot up to the viewer. Trout Mask Replica is definitely this way, and I enjoy puzzling over it even though there are no answers to be found.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Eastern Conference Champions- Santa Fe EP/Akustiks EP

Eastern Conference Champions need to finish and release their forthcoming album, Speah-AHH, as soon as possible, and it needs to be great. I say this both because I love their music and think they're capable of even more than these EPs demonstrate and because they're in danger of falling prey to 'Whatever Happened To Them?' syndrome. The band is best known for appearing on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, rubbing elbows with acts of much greater renown and acclaim. Lest they turn into one of those bands whose name you don't recognize on popular soundtrack albums, they need to capitalize on this pseudo-fame and deliver the goods. Anyway, enough career advice...

The Santa Fe EP was released last Fall after Eastern Conference Champions left a major label record deal as well as replaced a band member. Judging by this music, however, they're all the better for it. Despite the annoying cardboard packaging, I found myself returning to this EP again and again as it's been lying around my apartment. The singer sounds like someone who started out imitating Thom Yorke of Radiohead but has now developed his own quirky, nasally indie rock style. He still has that sense of power and grandeur that Yorke does but it's been tempered with restraint and personality. The music, meanwhile, goes from sounding like a fuzzed out power-trio take on indie rock ('Common Sense') to a less classic rock-y Built To Spill ('Bloody Bells') to a less groovey, more harmonica-y take on Spoon circa Girls Can Tell ('Silo'). As a kind of re-introduction of where Eastern Conference Champions were as of last Fall and where they could go, it's as impressive and enjoyable as you could hope for without entering the realm of landmark EPs like TV On The Radio's Young Liars.

Since the band's Speak-AHH album was still unfinished a year later, they decided to record an acoustic EP to tide fans over (and possibly also to take a break from the sessions for the album). The cover art and title are just plain bad, yet the music on Akustiks is, if anything, even more impressive than Santa Fe. By setting aside the indie rock power-trio style, they prove themselves to be shockingly adept at trying out the more beardy and more-liable-to-wear-flannel-unironically style of the hipster/indie rock scene. Which overlaps with my taste, so I guess what I'm trying to say is, this EP is great: these folksy songs showcase the band's softer side as well as their songwriting chops. 'Bristol Road' and 'Timeline' feature vocal harmonies lovely enough to begin approaching indie standard bearers like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, if a bit less powerhouse than the latter, and the pedal steel guitar used on a few of the tracks reminds me of what I wish Band Of Horses had gone for on their second and third albums. The harmonica is also a great touch and leaves me hoping they carry over some of Akustiks' instrumentation over to the forthcoming album. While I would never claim ECC have the most original sound, the strong hooks and songwriting of the buoyant 'Summertime' and the grooving, headlong rush of 'Single Sedative' make originality somewhat irrelevant. I would go so far as to say that I hope they have electric versions of these two songs on Speak-AHH since I'd hate to see them relegated to an EP that many people may never hear.

Ah, but that's music (and independent music especially) for you. The true test of this band, like so many others in the past, will be their new, post-brush-with-fame album. Judging by these two EPs, though, it's more a case of anticipation than it is doubt or worry, at least on my part. Since they're an indie rock band with a lone female member who isn't their bassist, and they successfully pulled off an acoustic EP, I have great faith in Eastern Conference Champions.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5 (for both)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Destroyer- Archer On The Beach EP

After hearing Archer On The Beach, I feel confident in saying that no one quite makes music like Dan Bejar. He comfortably fits into two stylistically different side projects/supergroups: the power-pop of the New Pornographers and the experimental indie rock of Swan Lake. Yet when it comes to his band, Destroyer, it's increasingly difficult to pin down where he's going. His last two albums, Destroyer's Rubies and Trouble In Dreams, perfected and began to ossify his mid-60s-Bob-Dylan-meets-70s-David-Bowie style. Then, for last year's Bay Of Pigs EP, he seemed to toss everything out the window and begin anew. The title track was a 13 minute synth-pop/groove-rock marathon, with plenty of ambience and detachment that carried over more overtly in the other song, 'Ravers', a remake of the song 'Rivers' from Trouble In Dreams.

With Archer On The Beach, Bejar has taken his music to an even more fractured and atmospheric direction. Whether this will be the predominant style on the forthcoming Kaputt album is unknown, but it has certainly raised my expectations and curiosity about it. The two songs on this EP were collaborations with ambient/electronic artists Tim Hecker and Loscil, the latter of whom is the drummer in Destroyer, and who had previously contributed some kind of remix or remake to the Destroyer's Rubies vinyl release. Anyway, Archer On The Beach is interesting because it's arguably not a Destroyer release to begin with. Bejar contributes only lyrics/vocals while the music is entirely from the other two musicians. It seems odd, then, that this was released under the Destroyer name, since other than Bejar, none of the Destroyer band members appear. Well, Loscil does, but he appears under his ambient/electronic name and not his real name as he does when drumming for Destroyer. Confused yet?

The title track of this EP plays like a morose ballad, with lightning storm sound effects, crowd noise, and echoing keyboards creating a foreboding atmosphere that never quite goes anywhere but never feels repetitive. 'Grief Point', meanwhile, is either a remake or reworking of the Loscil song 'The Making Of Grief Point', on which Bejar had appeared. I'm pretty sure it's the same vocal take, and to confuse matters further, the Merge Records website description of this EP says that 'Grief Point' was the original working title of a song called 'Bay Of Pigs.' Whether that was the same 'Bay Of Pigs' from the last EP...well, who knows? Destroyer has so often remade or retitled his songs, and his discography is chock full of meta-references, that it feels futile to figure it out.

What I do know is that Bejar must be going through some kind of artistic crisis not unlike what Sufjan Stevens seems to have gone through over the past four years. Again, according to the Merge site, 'Grief Point' was the first song Bejar made after deciding to never record again. Is this statement hyperbole? Seeing as how the title of the forthcoming album is Kaputt and the cover features the Destroyer band near a cliff (possibly the titular Grief Point?), seemingly considering whether they should jump or not, it strikes me as appropriate that this song seems to be about how he doesn't care about making music any more, and by extension, how pointless making any art is. It's also his first spoken word performance as Destroyer: “I have lost interest in is horrible,” he intones, before the sound of a drink being poured jokingly(?) follows. All the while, the music is nothing more than some unobtrusive synth sounds that are just barely more accompaniment than pure silence, as well as some musique concrete stuff, such as dogs barking and the sound of Bejar shifting in his seat.

It's hard to say how true this spoken word piece is, since Bejar has made a career of writing about all sorts of characters and situations that he has no personal stake in. Is he just messing with us, or is he serious about quitting music? Either way, this EP is a fascinating listen, albeit not a wholly satisfying one. I feel like all of Bejar's releases are key pieces of his mystique, but where Bay Of Pigs was engaging and enjoyable, Archer On The Beach is too given over to ambience and atmosphere, and a questioning of his creative impulse, to feel substantial or rewarding. Had this EP been released under a different name, or with top billing given to the two other artists involved, I may have been more lenient. As it is, though, Archer will only interest the Destroyer faithful, and will only satisfy about half of those.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 29, 2010

Destroyer- Your Blues

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's one of her masterpieces, but PJ Harvey's last album, White Chalk, was a fascinating detour. Whereas before she was always the alt-rock guitar playing goddess, on that album she primarily plays piano, crafting songs that sound like what I imagine Tori Amos at her best must be like. There's a quote on the Wikipedia page for the album attributed to an interview in the magazine The Wire where she says “the great thing about learning a new instrument from scratch is that it [...] liberates your imagination.” I couldn't help but think of Destroyer's Your Blues when I read this quote, because Dan Bejar's sudden use of MIDI instruments and synthesizers on the album now strikes me as a similar situation.

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't heard any of Destroyer's pre-Your Blues albums, so the divide between it and the rest of his discography wasn't as sharp as it would've been. However, now that I know the rest of his albums fall into the 70s-David-Bowie-meets-mid-60s-Bob-Dylan sound, Your Blues is all the curvier of a curveball to throw. Still, last year's Bay Of Pigs EP and the recent Archer On The Beach, which promises to be even more ambient/electronic than the former (though I haven't heard it yet, so we'll see), show that the name Destroyer isn't synonymous with a certain kind of music. But I digress.

Returning to the PJ Harvey quote above: I feel like by forcing himself to give up his backing band and focus primarily on MIDI instrumentation and synthesizers, Bejar become a much more imaginative and skilled songwriter. Oh, sure, contributing songs to the New Pornographers helped, and his lyrics have always been amongst the most dense, intriguing, and self-referential in all of music—I never get tired of reminding people that he has a Wiki devoted to his lyrics—but I think it was only on Your Blues and after that his gift for music bloomed. Of course I have to immediately say that I love all of his earlier stuff that I've heard, but to me they don't match his post-Blues material in terms of arrangements and hooks.

This record's synth-orchestral pop aesthetic is what makes Your Blues the secret masterpiece of Destroyer's career. Since I normally don't go for music that has a cheesy synth-pop or lame MIDI-based sound to it, I was relieved to find Your Blues never sounds cheap or retro. 'An Actor's Revenge' has all the pomp and drama of the best baroque pop music of the past, albeit played on synthesizers instead of actual orchestral instruments. What should sound like schmaltzy plucked strings and over-done tympani hits on 'From Oakland To Warsaw' actually come off as sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment. Yet as brilliant as Your Blues is, I do prefer some of the Frog Eyes-backed reworkings of these songs on the Notorious Lightning & Other Works EP. In particular, on this album 'Don't Become The Thing You Hated' simply has too many unnecessary layers of sound during its middle section. 'Notorious Lightning' is the other prime candidate for best makeover, since it doesn't sound right to me when it's not a nine minute raucous guitar epic. OK, OK, this is supposed to be a review of Your Blues and not a comparison contest with an EP. Moving on...

Your Blues is that rare record that takes huge chances and delivers every step of the way. It is most assuredly the sort of music that will immediately turn off even longtime fans who can't get past the MIDI/synth instruments. I can understand that. Yet when I called it his secret masterpiece, I meant it, because those listeners who get what it is Bejar was going for on this album will truly love it. It may not become your go-to Destroyer album to throw on in an indecisive moment, but it may become your new favorite album for a week or two. And that, in my experience, is something worth investigating.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Eric Dolphy- Out To Lunch

As something of a dilettante to the world of jazz, I hope it still holds some weight that the first time I heard Out To Lunch I didn't know what to make of it. I had a pretty good idea of what avant-garde and free-jazz were about but foreknowledge often can't quite prepare you for what's to come. Even now when I listen to Out To Lunch it sounds like such a refreshingly bizarre album, operating under its own internal logic. The bass on 'Hat and Beard' drones and groans in a way I would call non-jazzy, and the use of bass clarinet and vibraphones on the album seems more in the wheelhouse of a finicky, eccentric singer-songwriter than a jazz band. What I'm getting at is, this record clearly originates from jazz yet sounds very little like what most people think of when you say the word “jazz.”

It's impossible to calculate the influence of Eric Dolphy on future generations of musicians, but I think it's most telling that some of those musicians weren't jazz players. Frank Zappa titled a track on his Weasels Ripped My Flesh album after Dolphy, and I have to speculate that Zappa pal Captain Beefheart was also a fan. Take the most avant-garde, 'out' moments from Trout Mask Replica and they have the sound of free jazz as played by a 60s rock band. Out To Lunch, like that underground masterpiece, is the kind of music that sounds simultaneously freely improvised and out of control while also being structured and tightly played. I can't explain how, but eventually one learns to tell the difference between random nonsense and expressive/freeform music; Out To Lunch is inarguably the latter.

'Gazzelloni' is a kind of Rosetta's Stone to understanding what is going on in this album. Ostensibly the record's most structured and traditional track, the solos on flute, trumpet, and vibes are undercut, accented, challenged, and cheered on by the other instruments. I almost hesitate to call them solos in the strict sense because of the full group improvisatory feel of this music. An impossibly young Tony Williams on drums is the keystone to it all, snapping off militaristic snare lines on many of the songs and dueling, via cymbals, with bassist Richard Davis near the end of 'Gazzelloni.' Still, it's the final two tracks where Dolphy returns to the more traditionally jazz oriented alto sax that things really get cooking. The towering title track has always ironically sounded more to me like the frantic rush of a person doing physical labor rather than the relaxed afternoon eating of someone on a lunch break. Regardless, Freddie Hubbard plays a patient, burning solo while the rhythm section goes absolutely insane around the 4:27 mark, at once atonal and arrhythmic yet melodic and swinging in its own way, like a machine stamping metal parts in a factory.

I find it a little sad and a little prescient that Miles Davis didn't like Eric Dolphy's music. Sad, because I think if Dolphy had lived longer, he and Davis could have learned a lot from each other's music. Prescient, because I think Davis was one of the few musicians who saw that avant-garde and free-jazz weren't so much a portal to getting some place else as they were an end in and of themselves; there was nowhere to really go 'from' this kind of music. Davis ended up fusing rock, funk, blues, and, arguably, electronic music into his form of jazz, which proved to be of more lasting influence and popularity. Yet I think there is still much to learn from the other direction jazz took in the 60s, and Out To Lunch is one of the essential texts to not merely study, but also to enjoy.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 22, 2010

Silver Jews- The Natural Bridge

I'm going through a period of my life where I seem to be talking about music with people way more than usual, as well as thinking about what bands I think they might enjoy. You could argue that this is exactly what I do when I write reviews or non-review posts for my blog, but it's not as personal that way. Anyway, in thinking about what music would appeal to someone and why, I've been toying with the idea that the lasting appeal of certain bands or artists is their lyrics, and these are the kind of bands or artists that people who are into reading/writing are drawn to. It's a theory I can't prove, of course, but the Silver Jews are definitely a band that only people who pay close attention to lyrics could love. Even at their musical best, the Jews rarely entered into the top spots for album of the year contention, and David Berman's voice is as unique and off-putting as they come, a Johnny Cash baritone with more character.

As Berman himself once put it, though, “all my favorite singers couldn't sing.” If this is the kind of sentiment you could see yourself agreeing with, and you think lyrics can carry the weight of an album, then The Natural Bridge is for you. It is, in many ways, the purest Silver Jews album. Due to the collaborators, guests, and involvement of some members of Pavement, all of the other Jews albums lack the pure Berman as heard on this record. The music is at its most basic, a jangly, country tinged indie rock, almost always mid-tempo and mellow. I would go so far as to say that The Natural Bridge is the weakest Jews album from a pure musical standpoint, because it is their one release that skirts closest to the danger that all singer-songwriter style albums face: coming off as poems set to music rather than music that has especially good lyrics. Other Jews albums have engaging, dynamic music, sometimes even with genuine melodies and hooks, as on the masterful American Water. The Natural Bridge, on the other hand, feels at times like a collaboration between a poet and an band. 'Ballad Of Reverend War Character' has fitting accompaniment and I love the lyrics, but musically it sounds like what happens when music is written or improvised in reaction to lyrics rather than music written or improvised alongside the crafting of the lyrics in a symbiotic give-and-take between the two. For further proof of this, see the instrumental, 'The Right To Remain Silent', which is, in terms of its music, this record's most expressive and interesting song. Understand that I'm not saying the music and playing on this album are bad or boring, they just aren't impressive or memorable.

Still, if you're a fan of the Silver Jews, The Natural Bridge is one of the band's most essential releases. This is simply a result of the focus being placed so squarely on Berman's lyrics; they're allowed to carry the weight of the record on their own, and they do so ably. I'm quite serious that Berman could have released this as a spoken word album and it would have been just as great. Since his gruff, raspy baritone is an acquired taste, these songs might even have been better without trying to be music or Berman trying to sing. Every song on this album has a handful of lines that I've posted to my Facebook or quoted to friends. “Guard my bed while the rain turns the ditches to mirrors”, starts 'Pet Politics', “buy a vase of carnations from central Ohio, where the looking machine can't hear us.” The masterful 'Albemarle Station' offers up “there must be a Spanish word for this feeling/the rush I get when I am stealing.” Album closer 'Pretty Eyes' must top the list of “least impressive music paired with most impressive lyrics” in the Jews discography. Every line here is a winner, from “when the governor's heart fails, the state bird falls from its branch” to “all houses dream in blueprints” to “and though final words are hard to devise/I promise I'll always remember your pretty eyes.”

Even if Berman hadn't published a poetry collection in 1999; even if he hadn't disbanded the Silver Jews in 2009 to focus on his other interests; even if he hadn't published a collection of cartoons/drawings, also in 2009, I would still consider him a poet first and musician second. If you're the kind of listener who absolutely must have some sweet melodies and engaging songwriting in your music, then any other Jews album is a better choice. If you're like me, though, and you get off on great writing no matter what form it's delivered in, The Natural Bridge may become your next obsession.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Modest Mouse- Sad Sappy Sucker

There really is a certain fascinating rawness to the early recordings and bootlegs of bands, isn't there? I don't remember where I got this quote from, but someone once said in regards to music that a band has all of their lives to record a debut album; after that, record companies expect the sophomore release within two years. So it is that the early material of bands is often the most scattered and searching of their careers. Sometimes the sound of musicians discovering themselves and their aesthetic can be aimless and infrequently rewarding. However, just as often it either reveals a nascent genius or intriguing possibilities for what the band could have become. Modest Mouse's Sad Sappy Sucker is more of the former than the latter, a key piece of the puzzle that proves their first two albums were no bolts from the blue.

Sad Sappy Sucker has had a storied history. Initially, it was a 15 track album intended for use as Modest Mouse's debut, yet it went unreleased until a year after they signed to a major label, at which point more tracks were added to it. And now it has been re-issued on main Mouse Isaac Brock's Glacial Pace label. As the band have no concrete plans to release an album soon, it seems as good a time as any to return to their beginning.

Compared to the lengthy, dense albums which would come to define Modest Mouse, Sad Sappy Sucker is well, neither lengthy nor dense. As a matter of fact, there's a charming simplicity and leanness to these songs, even at their most elliptical; 'Classy Plastic Lumber' itself goes through three separate parts, from the lo-fi spoken intro to the thrashing mid-section with vocals to the bright, bouncing guitar solo...and back to the thrashing part. All the while, the song never sounds cluttered or willfully complex, and it's over in a bit over two minutes. Existing as a trio for a long time, Modest Mouse were always brilliant at making their songs sound much fuller than they really are, and I mean this even before their budget got bigger on The Moon & Antarctica and they used more overdubs. This gift was already showing up on tracks like 'From Point A To Point B (Infinity)' and especially 'Dukes Up', which sounds like a blueprint for the band's first two albums with its bounding bass lines, flashy-but-not-busy drumming, and Brock's malleable guitar playing, which seems to exist as both rhythm and lead simultaneously.

As is often the case with the early recordings of bands, the real treats on Sad Sappy Sucker come in the surprises that don't quite fit in with the rest of their discography. Generally these are the shorter, more minimalist tracks that sound like they were recorded alone by Brock. 'Think Long' makes a case for the accordion as a great match for morbid lyrics. 'Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?' would have ended the original version of the album with a haunting guitar moaning along for about a minute as Brock repeats the song title over and over. Admittedly, the songs that were added to Sad Sappy Sucker when it was first issued in 2001 are throwaway sketches (reportedly taken from songs Brock had recorded on his answering machine) and demos that never went anywhere. But 'BMX Crash' has a fidelity and organ-like keyboard sound that reminds me of what early Daniel Johnston might have sounded like if he was into drugs instead of religion, while the final three songs are strangely affecting and resonate with me for some reason.

“Make us depressed or just sad/make us happy or something”, Brock songs on 'Sin Gun Chaser', a sentiment that seems strangely direct and artless for a man who would go on to pen quotable lyrics with sophistication and strangeness to spare. There's a reason Mark Kozelek chose to a do a covers album of Modest Mouse songs, but there is also a reason that he chose to only cover one song from Sad Sappy Sucker. A 'for fans only' release through and through, Sucker is better than many early, raw recordings by better bands though I think everyone would agree their eventual actual debut album, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, is indeed better in every way.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5