Friday, July 30, 2010

Nick Cave- Nocturama

I'm a fan of “give it a decade and give it up” bands. None of them consciously go into it planning to break up by the ten year mark, if not sooner, and there are many exceptions to the rule, but think about it: ten years takes you from the very early Beatles to Let It Be; spans the best era of the Grateful Dead; accounts for the best albums from R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, The Who, Can, etc. Admittedly, you can't really say the same for solo artists, since they tend to have bumpy roads during their storied decades, rarely having consistently great discographies. My point is, bands or artists who are around long enough are bound to release a subpar or outright bad album by sheer statistics. Just look at Bob Dylan. Or Nick Cave.

No album from his vast body of work—at least the parts that I'm familiar with—strikes me as outright bad other than Nocturama. Mind you, this isn't a case of an otherwise good album following and preceding excellent releases, and suffering by comparison. 2001's No More Shall We Part is an underrated, moody album recorded after his recovery from heroin and alcohol abuse, while the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus would be a career highlight for any artist, so sustained is the quality level of songwriting and playing on those discs. No, Nocturama is just a bad album through and through: the lyrics are either insipid or cliched and the music is a confused mess of his older rambunctious style and the newer singer/songwriter stuff. If you're familiar with any of his albums from around this era, the entire album has the half-hearted feel of an uninspired artist going through the motions.

It's difficult to pin down exactly what went wrong, because someone not terribly familiar with his music, or someone not listening with a critical ear, would think that it was a passable if mostly unremarkable release. In other words, it's boring and forgettable. I suppose that is actually the most damning offense of Nocturama. For an artist like Nick Cave, whose albums are frequently among the best of the year every time he comes out with one, each having a unique feel and character all its own, it's the gravest sin to record something that is below average and has no personality to it. The slow ballad tracks, such as 'Still In Love' and 'Right Out Of Your Hand', sound like the microwaved leftovers and C-sides (yes, I meant to type C-sides) from No More Shall We Part, lacking all of its dramatic delivery, novel-like lyrical sketches, and superb arrangements. Meanwhile, the tougher tracks suffer from artificially induced energy and come off as a Nick Cave cover band playing their original material that was “inspired by” the artist they're covering. 'Bring It On' is an unimpeachably lame track by Cave's normal standards, the neutered sound of the instruments due either to non-sympathetic production or apathy. Worst of all, it's hard to believe that the man who kicked our asses with 'Stagger Lee' and 'O'Malley's Bar' could turn in pretenders-to-the-throne like 'Dead Man In My Bed' and 'Babe, I'm On Fire', the latter of which, at almost 15 minutes long, could be half that length and still feel like an eternal, overly repetitive, and ultimately failed attempt to give the album an epic and forceful finale.

To say that most of the lyrics on Nocturama are among Cave's weakest is an understatement. The slightness of 'There Is A Town' and the beaten-like-a-dead-horse obviousness of the metaphor of 'Rock Of Gibraltar' (his/their love is as strong as the titular rock, maaaan!) are all signs of an artist raiding the dregs of his notebook. To be fair, there are some good lines and imagery here and there, such as in 'She Passed By My Window' and 'He Wants You', but they're surrounded by lazy rhymes and cliched sentiments.

It all comes back to the fact that this is Cave's most generic and listless sounding album, lyrically and musically. Even people who like Nocturama, or merely think it's average, would be hard pressed to argue its merits over almost any of the rest of Nick Cave's albums. Assuming you were standing inside his discogra
phy, you could throw a rock forwards or backwards, at any distance, and hit something that is more worth your time and money thanNocturama.
2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sun Kil Moon- Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek is an artist who's output seems increasingly insular. Even as he may record reverential covers of other bands or surface from time to time with a fantastic studio album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, in between he'll put out interchangeable live albums from his solo acoustic tours, printed in limited runs of CD and vinyl to cater to hardcore fans, collector/eBay seller types, or both. As he runs his own record label, Caldo Verde, it's easy to question his motivations: what better way to make money than to do cheap solo acoustic tours and gouge your audience for documents of said tours? Well, maybe I'm naïve, but I don't think Kozelek is that kind of guy. And even if he is, hey, we all need to make a living somehow.

But I was saying something about him being an insular artist, wasn't I? Ah yes. Admiral Fell Promises is his new studio album as Sun Kil Moon, and it is almost stubbornly removed from its era. I say “almost” because I don't think he's even aware of how strikingly bizarre it is to hear a solo acoustic album from a modern artist when the typical listener is ensconced in any number of maximalist music genres, made with all sorts of instruments, samples, loops, effects pedals, and various gew gaws. It's the opposite of Bob Dylan going electric, of Lou Reed releasing Metal Music Machine. It's an artist in 2010 saying, damn it, you are going to sit down and pay attention to my impressionistic, cinematic lyrics, my moody nocturnal voice, and most importantly, my intricate filigrees and plucks on this here nylon stringed guitar. You may prefer “introverted” or “solipsistic” to “insular”, but no one said all art had to be outward looking and cutting edge.

Admiral Fell Promises sounds and feels like a mix of the acoustic guitar epics of Roy Harper's Stormcock, the minimalist grace and melancholia of Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and Pat Metheny's acoustic and baritone guitar album, One Quiet Night. It also reminds me a lot of the acoustic based songs from the last Sun Kil Moon album, April. If that sounds like an obvious point of comparison, understand I mean it more in the sense of the imagery and atmosphere of the lyrics than the music. There's a dreamy, cinematic, often bittersweet romanticism to April that still stuns me. Kozelek has such a way with words in regards to memories of people and places, such that it has the power to make you feel nostalgic for things you haven't experienced, possibly things that no one has. This gift is still going strong here. A travelogue like 'Third And Seneca' perfectly encapsulates this, with juxtapositional wordplay like “blood orange L.A./blood red Arizona.”

With the addition of masterfully played acoustic guitar, these songs are transformed from rambling solo pieces during which the same chords are monotonously played over and over, to something artful and rewarding to spend time with. The intros, outros, fills, bridges, and “solos” of Admiral Fell Promises are easily among Kozelek's richest playing yet, never calling attention to themselves as artificial additions. Instead they are built into tracks as intrinsic things, like the change at 4:35 of 'The Leaning Tree' or the sudden flurry of activity around 2:46 of 'Australian Winter' that comes and goes like a nasty snow squall. Kozelek has never been a slouch when it comes to guitar. Songs For A Blue Guitar is really the place where he came into his own as an electric guitarist, but the track 'Si Paloma' from 2003's Ghosts Of The Great Highway demonstrated a keen ability for fancy acoustic fretwork, with its exotic Spanish character. Though his solo live albums may have also hinted at it, too, his acoustic prowess is the most astonishing thing about Admiral Fell Promises. In a lesser artist's hands, the guitar playing would be too showy and overwhelm the lyrics, or it would be too sparse to serve its dual role as both rhythmic and melodic backing. Yet every song on Admiral is expertly balanced between the two extremes. In fact, this is the sort of album you can put on at a fancy dinner party for background ambience OR use as a soothing companion when you're too depressed to get off the couch for most of the weekend, and it works equally well.

Though it's hard for me not to want another April with both Kozelek's solo acoustic side and his full band electric guitar stuff, it's also hard for me to deny the ethereal grace and depth of an album like Admiral Fell Promises. Yes, as a mood piece, it is sublime. But there is the problem with a release like this: much as I might enjoy it, its style and tone are too sustained and specific to make for a fully great album. You know, like, uhm, April was. Hmmmm...

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Apples In Stereo- Fun Trick Noisemaker

I'm saddened to see that this album has fallen out of print. Somehow being reduced to legally acquiring it through digital download seems antithetical to everything Apples In Stereo are about, not to mention the semi-retro sound of Fun Trick Noisemaker. This is an album you're supposed to hear through the warm snap, crackle, and pop of vinyl, or, at the very least, from the speakers of your car via a CD you borrowed from a friend because you said you liked Olivia Tremor Control and wanted something similar. In the 90s, Fun Trick Noisemaker was spoken of in the same 'instant classic' category as Pavement'sCrooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Built To Spill's Perfect From Now On. Whether it's due to record label issues, public interest, or a bit of both, Fun Trick Noisemaker isn't in print while those two albums are. It's a shame, and I mean “shame” somewhat literally here: it's shameful that such a great album has been forgotten and mistreated like this.

Olivia Tremor Control are the flagship band of Elephant 6, and Neutral Milk Hotel tend to steal all the thunder with their In The Aeroplane Over The Seaalbum, but it was the Apples In Stereo who had the first true recorded output from the collective, as well as one of its earliest and best albums. If nothing else, Fun Trick Noisemaker proved Robert Schneider had a gift for hooky, melodic songwriting. At the same time, the album more or less defined the aesthetic of Elephant 6, with its warm, mid-fi production, intricate 'Wall Of Sound' style layering of sounds, and a strong debt to 60s pop music, specifically the music of The Beatles, Beach Boys, and their many followers. Rather than be a slavish imitation of Pet Sounds or Revolver, however, Fun Trick Noisemaker takes inspiration from that music but is its own thing entirely. You can build on the past without needing to build with the past. 'Tidal Wave' and 'Green Machine' bear a sound that is not so much timeless in the way the Beatles are timeless, but timeless in the sense that they could be from the 60s, the mid 90s, or today.

In fact, it's this album's mix of 60s psychedelic/art pop and early-to-mid 90s indie rock that just does it for me. It's similar to my trembling addiction to Panda Bear's Person Pitch, an album that freely blends a strong 60s vibe with hip hop and electronic music sampling/looping techniques. As for Fun Trick Noisemaker, you could file this somewhere between Pavement and, I dunno, the Zombies and be done with it. 'Pine Away' is exactly what I mean, since its rhythm guitar sound and languid drumming wouldn't be out of place on Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, while the nasally, slightly druggy vocals and melody are redolent of much 60s music. Not that the album is only just this way: 'Glowworm' is all jangle/power pop until the guitar solo, which is pure fuzz distortion. The majestic instrumental 'Innerspace' reminds me of a less jazzy Television, while 'Dots 1-2-3' is full of surging energy that predates the power-pop of The New Pornographers, if not also anticipating the early 00s garage rock revival.

The Apples In Stereo are one of the few Elephant 6 bands that have stayed active from their mid 90s beginnings to present day, so it's a bit odd that their first, and some would argue best, album is out of print. Stuff by Beulah and Elf Power are out of print? Sure, that makes sense. But man, this is Fun Trick Noisemaker we're talking about! Well, here's hoping someone buys the rights to it or it gets a re-print. This album is one of those gems that you happen across during a slow period for music you're interested in, or, say, during a flagging period of interest in and inspiration for writing about music, and it reminds you why you love it so much to begin with.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Frank Zappa-Hot Rats

Frank Zappa is a cult artist through and through, and anyone even mildly aware of his music either loves or despises him. 70s era music critics sneered at his insistence on being called a composer and at his sometimes orchestral musical pretensions, as well as his bathroom humor. Fans like him for those very reasons, though they would put them in more positive terms. No matter which side you fall on, it would be hard to disagree that Zappa was ahead of his time in many ways, whether it was mocking the hippie counterculture, recording a parody album that was also somewhat reverential of its subject (Cruisin' With Ruben & The Jets set the stage not only for Ween's country album, but also, say, XTC's side project as Dukes Of The Stratosphear), or weaving meta-references to other songs, albums, and characters in his vast discography.

Strangely, even those who dislike Zappa or don't know much about him are drawn to Hot Rats. This's because it reveals two sides to the artist that aren't much discussed: Zappa's underrated guitar playing as well as his gift for picking talented musicians to work with. He may never get his due as guitarist since he has that Steve Vai problem where the only people who like him and respect his guitar playing are either armchair guitarists or professionals in their own right. Hell, Steve Vai got his start transcribing Zappa's guitar solos! Anyway, Zappa is neither a flashy nor a coldly intellectual guitar player, and his performances on 'Willie The Pimp' and especially 'Son Of Mr. Green Genes' are restless in their searching complexity and seemingly bottomless well of ideas. If you've ever wanted to listen to extended guitar solos that end up sounding composed because they lack the repetitive “I'm just playing the chorus of the song as a solo” riffs or noodly aimlessness of 99% of the hacks out there, then Zappa is your man, and Hot Rats is definitely the place to start. Sure, his Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar albums are technically better as Zappa soloing goodness, but they're like jumping straight to whiskey when you haven't even tried beer yet. But I digress. Those who only think of Zappa as the pop music prankster behind songs about yellow snow, groupies, and Valley Girl-speak as well as ridiculously, almost unlistenably complex songs will be continually surprised at his improvisational skills and those of the other players on Hot Rats.

As an almost entirely instrumental work, this album is often labelled as jazz-rock or fusion, though this a strange parallel of similar music Miles Davis was concurrently playing around 1969. Some of this is due to the strange recording techniques Zappa made use of, such as tape speed manipulation and sound processing, which give the album its whimsical and playful sounding instrumentation. 'Peaches En Regalia' is most representative of this, since the keyboards and guitars sound almost toy-like in a MIDI sort of way. But mostly the unique-ness of Hot Rats is thanks to the personnel involved, including longtime Zappa sideman Ian Underwood (who turns in a towering sax solo on the epic 'The Gumbo Variations'), Captain Beefheart's trademark raspy vocals on 'Willie The Pimp', and, most crucially, the violinists Jean Luc Ponty and Don 'Sugarcane' Harris. Jazz fusion had made use of electric guitars, saxophones, violins, and keyboards before, but the eclectic context of these songs and the personalities of the performers give Hot Rats a special feel and texture, one that was never captured again even on similar Zappa albums like Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. While it's true that most of Zappa's gifted collaborators and band members never went on to do much without him, there is still something to said for the way he could collect talent and turn it loose on sympathetic musical material.

Hot Rats may be the only Zappa album most people care about, but there's no shame in that. Most cult bands have an album or two that the rest of the world latches onto, and usually for very good reasons. So while you may not have the time or patience to collect everything Zappa released, or, say, listen to every live tape of the Grateful Dead, you can still legitimately enjoy Hot Rats as a unique instrumental rock album just as you can sing along to American Beauty.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The New Pornographers- Mass Romantic

Mass Romantic is a curious case of an album being ahead of its time in terms of trends that have nothing to do with the style of the music contained therein. Examined as the first New Pornographers album, it set the stage for the band's take on power-pop though doesn't hold up as well as the band's subsequent work. Examine as the first Canadian indie album to cross over to the U.S., it was unintentionally predictive of how the last decade would be defined as much by Canadian indie rock as it was American standard bearers old and new.

For whatever reason, I hadn't heard the first New Pornographers album until recently. It isn't a revelatory listen for someone who's followed their music since their second album, Electric Version, but it does clearly lay the foundation for the band's sound. Hooks and melodies immediately find purchase in the listener's mind, whether it be the huge choruses of 'Letter From An Occupant' or with a pinch more subtlety, as with the continually peaking refrains of 'To Wild Homes.' Unfortunately, the lyrics and songwriting variety aren't as strong as they would be on later albums, and as a result some of the songs have a slight, dashed off feel that combines with Mass Romantic's monotonous energy level to drag the album down. 'The Mary Martin Show' is the obvious offender here, and much of the album could be shuffled into any order with no loss of flow or pacing, since it's constantly energetic and loud. Moreover, the production of Mass Romantic is shrill and treble heavy, and as a result the personality of the voices of the band's three vocalists are often lost in a mess of keyboards, organs, guitars, and, often, the backing vocals of the others. Simply put, this is an example of an album deservedly getting praise upon its release for the things it did right, but eventually it's made obsolete when later releases from the same band did everything it does better.

While Mass Romantic may not be the indie classic that it has garnered a reputation as, I would argue that it was inadvertently important for how well it opened the door for Canadian indie rock to emerge as a major creative force. It was released in Canada in 2000 but didn't see official release here until 2003; in the meantime, the album was winning rave reviews in the American press, even giving the band a sold out tour. Subsequent Canadian indie bands that hit it big, like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and Wolf Parade, may not have followed a similar fame curve, but they did share a collective/collaborative make up. As the New Pornographers were a self-styled “supergroup” made up of people who were in other bands or were solo artists in their own right, so too did those aforementioned bands have members who were in other bands or had solo/side projects. This is really quite similar to the way Chicago indie rock and post-rock bands of the 90s operated, though in that case there was nowhere near the level of popularity or attention paid, and often bands were incredibly short lived or extremely obscure, their output hard to track down. Or both. In Canada's case, however, the burgeoning online press and resultant documentation of bands, the prolificacy and quality of the artists, and the good faith support of record companies with modest sales goals were such that you can now busy yourself for a couple months just with the New Pornographers's family tree alone, and most of the albums, EPs, and singles are still in print and relatively easy to find.

Judged as music, Mass Romantic is a fine piece of modern power-pop that was made somewhat redundant by the New Pornographers's next album,Electric Version, which not only improved upon this debut, but arguably perfected their trademark power-pop sound to the extent that by their third album they were already moving away from it. As an early example of one of the major trends of music during the 00s, however, Mass Romantic is a crucial release.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pink Floyd- Dark Side Of The Moon

Driving to a bar after a friend's wedding a couple years ago, someone in the car popped in Dark Side Of The Moon. I was immediately struck both by the notion of how long it must've been since I had listened to it as well as by how much I was enjoying it. I did and do like Pink Floyd, but Dark Side is one of those mythic albums that you feel like you can't even hear any more: it's just too big, too popular, too legendary. Too much has been written about it, and it's similar to most of the output of the Beatles in that it's nearly impossible to experience it for the first time without expectations or a ton of context and information that gets in the way. But something clicked in my head that night about the album that hadn't occurred to me before, and I think it was the simple act of listening to it as a set of great songs that I loved and not as a classic rock monolith.

Pink Floyd's first album is a rightfully beloved cornerstone of 60s psychedelic music, but the band would spend a handful of albums wandering in search of a direction until delivering Dark Side Of The Moon. While I think Floyd's lesser known post-Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, pre-Dark Side era isn't quite as bad as it's often written off as, what is most striking about it is the lack of direction and a strong songwriting focus. Arguably Dark Side is the popular success and creative peak it is because the band were actually writing songs again instead of casting about in a hodgepodge of sonic experiments, extended instrumental stuff, or misguided collections of enforced 'solo' pieces released under the Floyd name. Where Dark Side does dip into experimental stuff—like the proto-techno showpiece 'On The Run', or the iconic wordless vocals from Clare Torry on 'The Great Gig In The Sky'—it serves as a interlude to stitch together the more traditionally anchored songs like 'Time' and 'Money.'

And make no mistake: for all the talk of Dark Side having a reputation as either a stoner album or the one that people use to test out their new stereo systems, this album is the one that established Pink Floyd as being on the level of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles because of its songs. It is hard to point to individual songs as highlights, since most of them flow into each other seamlessly, like how 'Brain Damage' is so chillingly good because of the way it's resolved in 'Eclipse', and how 'Time' calls back to 'Breathe.' But when you really sit down and listen to Dark Side, it's striking how many things you've taken for granted all these years, like the surprisingly funky and lively guitar solo half of 'Any Colour You Like', the atmospheric drum-led intro to 'Time', or the snippets of dialogue taken from interviews with some of the band's roadies and other people who were in Abbey Road at the time. Anyway, the separated-ness of future Floyd classic songs like 'Wish You Were Here' and 'Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2' may make it easier to talk about them as individual songs, but the main song sections of Dark Side tracks are every bit as good.

Despite all the times that classic albums have been built up, broken down, examined, and re-examined, I still find something instructive and enjoyable about them. Just as Paul McCartney's bass playing and the whimsical vibe of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is what stands out the most to me now, when I listen to Dark Side what I hear isn't the trippy keyboards on 'Any Colour You Like' or the spacey echo of the vocals on 'Us And Them.' No, what stands out is how this is a great batch of songs when you get right down to it, and that is always more important than all the historical context and behind-the-scenes tales of recording session trickery in the world.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5