Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 11

So, I uploaded this last night but still isn't listing as being "not ready to watch yet." Here is the link if you want to check over and over because you simply HAVE to watch it now:

Otherwise, I'll post the usual embedded version when it's finally ready on their end.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Low- C'mon

The Rosetta's Stone to knowing what Low's new album is about rests squarely and obviously in its title: C'mon. As in, “come on in” or “follow me.” It's not often a band is so free of pretense and mystery as to what they were going for with a record, so I'm a bit mystified as to why the reviews have been talking about C'mon as a sort of backward looking, consolidating-the-last-few-releases kind of album. There may be strains of Low's older 'slowcore' style on this album, and the crunchy guitar sound certainly tips its hat to The Great Destroyer, but by and large the feel and atmosphere is distinct and different from previous works.

Low have always come off as humorless and unhappy people in their music. If you wouldn't necessarily agree with that (and you shouldn't, because it's inaccurate) I do think it's inarguable that they have always kept a listener at arm's length. Even the legendary intimacy of older releases like Secret Name felt more like you were in the next room, or anyway, that the band were singing/playing for each other and not you. C'mon, by contrast, is open and direct, aimed squarely outward and at the listener. Hopeful and upbeat, not to mention lush and unfailingly melodic, it is just as much of a revolution in the band's sound as The Great Destroyer or Drums and Guns. This time out, however, it's not about the instruments used or the lyrical topics; superficially this does sound like, as I put it above, a backward looking, consolidating kind of album. The revolution here is in the feel and atmosphere.

If C'mon didn't end up being the light and fun record it initially struck me as, it still contains some of the most beautiful and detailed music the band has ever made. 'Especially Me' recalls the indistinct loops and textures of Drums and Guns but replaces those electronic glitches and drones with intricate layers of instruments, from buried vibraphones (at least I think they're vibraphones) to plucked strings to what sounds like a swooning flute or treated organ. The mixing may make this more of a headphones-required record than I would've liked, but the tradeoff is that the vocals are mixed high and in the center. As a lover of husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's voices, whether together or alone, C'mon makes for a nice little gift to me. A sign of this positive change, '$20' sounds a lot like a leftover from the Things We Lost In The Fire or Trust sessions though this time the vocals aren't mixed low or hidden behind a veil of reverb and emotional distance. Now they're singing to you, not at you.

The true failing of C'mon, the thing that keeps me from falling head over heels in love with it, is that the songwriting just isn't there. There's an airy quality to tracks like 'Nightingale' and 'Done', barely there song structures which make more sense with further listens but still seem half-baked. This is ironic considering the four year gap between Drums and Guns and now; you'd think they'd have plenty of good stuff to choose from. This weakness ends up occurring in the middle stretch of the record, full of middling, forgettable material. It sounds lovely and nice while you're listening to it but it doesn't stick with you. This is also one of those rare cases where I think the shortness of a record hurts rather than helps. You're just starting to get into it when it draws to a close with 'Something's Turning Over', the kind of thing C'mon could've used more of, with strong-even-by-Low-standards close harmonies and retro “bah bah bah bah dah” backing vocals. The album's succinctness may leave Low with a strong EP or non-album single up their sleeve yet it leaves the listener with less cards on the table to play with.

True to its more pretty and direct nature, C'mon is full of music that gratifies a certain taste for immediate pleasure, a musical sweet tooth, if you will. Yet, like candy, it's quickly digested and doesn't leave enough of a lasting impression to qualify as true sustenance. There simply isn't enough here, or enough of enduring quality, to make this record as essential or fulfilling as Low's previous works.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Friday, June 24, 2011

Essay: Low In The 00's Pt. 3

This is the final entry in an essay series on Low's albums from Trust to Drums and Guns. Look for a review of their new record, C'mon, sometime this weekend.

Drums and Guns

When a Low album starts off by proclaiming that soldiers, babies, poets, liars, and pretty people “are all gunna die”, you begin to wonder if some mistake has been made somewhere. Surely this must be another of Alan Sparhawk's sideprojects...? But, no, the cover clearly says Low on it. “Well, that was a strange opener, let's see how the next one goes,” you mutter to yourself.

Soon: “...what the hell is with all these loops? Where are the guitars and Mimi Parker's stark drumming? Boy, this is a weird one.”

As alluded to in the last essay, Drums and Guns is a very different sounding record from what Low had done before, even on the former big departure The Great Destroyer. Excepting 'Shots & Ladders' from Trust, some obscure split singles/collaborations, a remix records, and the underrated Songs For A Dead Pilot EP, Low had never explored this sort of musical territory before, doubly so on a main album. If The Great Destroyer could be accurately-but-lazily described as Low's rock album, then Drums and Guns could similarly be labelled their electronic album. Really, the nearest comparison I can think of is the sound of the more experimental/electronic/minimalist tracks from Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. 'Take Your Time' is practically a Radiohead cover, so closely does the piano and tense atmosphere recall that band.

Whether Drum and Guns was a reaction to the second Gulf War (doubtful, since it was a couple years too late to be relevant) or the reception to The Great Destroyer (methinks no; they don't seem like the kind of band to do what they think people will like), Low were moved to craft songs which ooze along on currents of discrete loops, fractured guitar textures, and barely-there drumming. This record's closest kin is found in the less industrial and intense moments from Scott Walker's Tilt and The Drift, the parts where he sounds like he's brooding alone in abandoned cathedrals or muttering eulogies for civilization while the last television and computer screens in some kind of futuristic urban wasteland are flickering toward death, displaying only static or random colors. What I mean is, it may sound like Radiohead circa Kid A, but it feels more lime Scott Walker's recent work.

At the same time, the lyrics tend toward a more outward looking posture than I'm aware Low have had before or since. Even mid-album trifle 'The Hatchet', which helps relieve the tension of the rest of the album and calls back to the funner moments from The Great Destroyer, ostensibly is aimed at some other unnamed band. At any rate, without a doubt a theme of violence runs throughout the record; after all, underneath the olive branch of 'The Hatchet' is the copycat charge that the unnamed band's records “sound a lot like mine.” The brief 'Your Poison' could pass for a 60s political folk song, directly addressing the listener with the old fashioned terminology “good people.” And 'Murderer', if taken at face value, reads like a disturbing prayer from a fanatical/fundamentalist Christian, ready to give back violence in some kind of retribution or revenge against perceived worthy-of-punishment evil in the world.

Drums and Guns is the kind of record which sounds completely original and like a bolt-out-of-the-blue unless you are intimately familiar with the band it comes from and/or the album's influences. Even with reference points like modern day Scott Walker and '00-era Radiohead, though, this music is the most conceptually interesting and accomplished of Low's releases from the last decade. I would still waffle between this and Things We Lost In The Fire as best record from this time frame, but Drums and Guns is much more ambitious without its reach ever exceeding its grasp. If we can posit The Great Destroyer as a kind of shattering of any preconceived notions about who Low are and what kind of music they can make, then Drums and Guns is the sound of the aftermath, fragmented shards of sound that don't qualify as rock or 'slowcore.'

While this is certainly a dark and sometimes disturbing album ('Violent Past' alludes to some kind of strangulation taking place), it still manages to avoid the morose, melancholy, and leaden feel of Low's early music. This is partially thanks to Drums and Guns being the bands shortest album, though mostly it's thanks to the way the band never lets a song drag on too long or have too skeletal of a structure. How much of the indistinct sounds and loops which fill up the background are due to Dave Fridmann is hard to say, though I would imagine he had to have some input, since Drums and Guns sounds very little like the overdriven, raucous The Great Destroyer. In fact, despite the lyrics and droning, distorted organ, 'Violent Past' makes for an uplifting, optimistic sounding album closer.

This sense of optimism, along with a more immediate and melodic aesthetic, would serve the band well, after a four year break, on their 2011 release, C'mon. But that is something I'll be tackling in a forthcoming review...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great Album Covers- Blonde On Blonde

Do yourself a favor sometime and go the Albums section of Bob Dylan's official site. A wall of images greets you, small thumbnails arranged in reverse chronological order. For a man who has more than half a dozen iconic covers under his belt--even the first Greatest Hits is iconic--the one that still sticks out to me is Blonde On Blonde.

During this time it was common for bands to appear on their covers. Sometime in the mid-60s, though, the true art of album covers took off. Sure, jazz artists sometimes used works of art as covers and the like, but pop musicians never before tried new things. The most interesting Beatles cover to me is not the busy-yet-lush-and-detailed Sgt. Pepper's one, but the ultra-minimalist White Album. In fact, if memory serves, it's the only cover they don't appear on.

So why then did I choose one in which the artist does appear? Well, for two reasons. One, Dylan may be on the cover but his name and the album's title aren't. This had to have been one of the first examples of a pop musician not having their name or album title on the cover; it's as if Dylan is trying to get beyond his name and its attached fame, trying to make you dig deeper into the music instead.

And the second reason? I just adore this picture. It's hazy and out of focus, belying the druggy/boozy music contained therein. I don't know when this picture was taken or why, and I want to keep that mystery. This has always been the irony of Dylan to me; I don't really want to know the "real" Dylan like so many do. I prefer the image and the mystery; I prefer the music and lyrics without direct explanations of who/what they're about. This is the sort of record cover that appeals to my imagination, by which I mean, I fill in the blanks myself.

To my mind, he has just emerged from a house with a bad hangover and wishes nothing more than to smoke a cigarette without it making him want to puke before he gets on his motorcycle to head to the recording studio. A press photographer from across a street spies him while getting a coffee at a diner, rushes outside, and snaps a few quick shots with shaky, anxious hands. It's like spotting Bigfoot and knowing you have mere moments to get a clear photo. Dylan squints, annoyed, and heads back inside, deciding to stay home instead. The photographer hurries back to his dark room and develops the photos, impatient all the while, but the only one even halfway usable is still a little out-of-focus and Dylan has a sour look on his face. Still, Dylan's two-fisted-son-of-a-bitch manager Albert Grossman tracks down the photographer's publication and sues to get the photos back. Dylan, in his usual contrarian way, loves the real-ness captured in the photo and decides to use it for his next album cover.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 10

It seemed like locked up while I was uploading the video but as near as I can tell the upload finished before this occurred. Anyway, hey! New episode up early once again. You may have noticed these are usually dated as if they're released on Wednesdays though I usually manage to get them up Tuesday night. So even if they're not always the greatest of content at least I'm always on time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Essay: Low In The 00's Pt. 2

This is the second in an essay series on Low's albums from Trust to Drums and Guns. I'll be posting the final entry on the latter in a few days, and soon after, a review of the band's new album, C'mon. But for today, we look at...

The Great Destroyer

During the three year break from Trust to The Great Destroyer, Low changed record labels, signing on with indie powerhouse Sub Pop as well as putting out the vault clearing b-sides and rarities collection A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief. In 2003 there were rumors about longtime bassist Zak Sally leaving the band, which he eventually did in October of 2005. So, if it could be argued that Low had half-heartedly made some changes on Trust, this new era saw them making good on those unstated promises/threats. Whether or not you view Trust as the start of this new era or a sort of unintentional send-off to their old sound, something fundamental about Low's approach needed to change for them to continue as vital artists instead of becoming the kind of band only diehard fans could love, consistent but never surprising. At a certain point a band has to justify their continued existence with something, well, new and different, otherwise they're just punching a clock and creating art not out of inspiration but out of habit. Or to pay the bills.

Judging by the mixed reception the sudden changes of The Great Destroyer received, it's clear that some were unwilling to enjoy the music on its own merits, lashing out in particular at new producer Dave Fridmann. Bringing him in was just the cherry on top of the drastic differences the band had made; The Great Destroyer could correctly but lazily be considered their rock album. At any rate, Fridmann can be an easy target for derision because he has a profound effect on the bands he works with. His distinctive style, generally lush and often weird/experimental, as well as with a super-loud/distorted production, works well on most of his projects. It also means that he becomes a de-facto new member when he mans the boards for a band. This works extremely well when established groups need a new direction. Sleater-Kinney's The Woods and The Flaming Lips's Embryonic would be lesser records without him. When he works with bands who don't need such tinkering or aren't sympathetic to his style, however, the results are often terrible. To be fair to him, it's just as much the fault of bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Tapes 'N Tapes for coming to the studio with mediocre songs which no amount of production magic could salvage. Still, I think it's undeniable that the whole “it always sounds like someone is playing it through a guitar amplifier with overdrive and gain cranked up” aspect of those albums doesn't help.

As it turned out, The Great Destroyer is a more successful attempt to both progress and remake the band's sound than the preceding Trust, thanks partially to Fridmann's production. The slow and quiet moments still have the magical intimacy which inspired the trend of fans sitting down during Low concerts. On this record, though, they're the pleasant valleys between the brighter, more direct, and more energetic songs and sections of songs. 'Just Stand Back' is a huge departure for Low, effectively sounding like they've become a different band (and they had), all jangly guitar-pop with a much meatier backbone to all the instruments. Speaking of, it finally sounds like Mimi Parker discovered the joy of using a full drum kit more often, something immediately apparent on album opener 'Monkey', her pounding tom-toms ushered in by an ominous synthesizer and acoustic guitar strums.

'On The Edge Of' demonstrates one of the fundamental misunderstandings most people still have about Low, which is that they're only humorless, sexless aesthetes who play slow, quiet, boring music. Well, they do have a sense of humor—how else to explain their genuine love for the Misfits, down to performing some Misfits covers while dressed as the band, putting some of the results as hidden tracks on the A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief box set? Anyway, the hard rocking guitar and drums of this track speak to both the band's classic rock love as well as Sparhawk's numerous obscure side projects, including the bluesy Black Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir, whose 2008 album sounds a lot like the kind of alternative-rock-with-a-capital-R which Low stood in defiance of, if not opposition to, during the 90s and early 00s. Moreover, one of The Great Destroyer's best and most memorable moments is the raucous, transformative peak of 'When I Go Deaf.' The band absolutely live up to the album title here by toying with our expectations until the guitar suddenly roars to life after nearly three minutes of acoustic navel-gazing , thereby silencing any doubts as to whether they could effectively subvert their old style.

As for the sexless part? Not all eroticism is physical; the way Parker and Sparhawk's vocals blend together has the familiarity and lack of self-awareness that only intimate lovers or very dear friends can have. But I digress.

Elsewhere on The Great Destroyer, things don't always go so smoothly. 'Step' is a poor attempt to throw in far too many ideas at once, including a sludgy, distorted guitar, buzzing amplifiers, affected vocals during the intro which sound like they come from a bad dance remix, handclaps, distant twinkling piano, and a boringly obvious acoustic and electric guitar breakdown at the end. 'Broadway (So Many People)' has a melody reminiscent of 'Like A Forest', surrounding it with hushed sections that sound like Parker and Sparhawk are singing inside a giant, echoey cathedral. However the actual result ends up being more like a live version of the song, as the band seem to be heading for a fade out but then kick it back in and continue on for two more minutes of formless vocal ahh's and distracting white noise that nearly swallows up the drums and chunky rhythm guitar. Strangest of all is 'Death Of A Salesman', a self-aware acoustic ditty which seems to have wandered in from another album entirely or escaped its more appropriate fate as a b-side. Then there's 'Pissing', which starts out sounding like an old style Low epic, the cymbals, guitar, and vocals building and building toward some peak until it's all sabotaged by out-of-nowhere distortion that makes the guitar howl and feedback. Then the expected peak never arrives. 'Pissing' is all tension and no release, ending abruptly, and is among the handful of missteps on this album that can't be blamed on the production. These don't ruin the record in the least but they do keep it from being the new-and-different Low's first unqualified success.

The Great Destroyer was a revitalized statement of intent for the band even if, in retrospect, it didn't establish what they would sound like for the rest of their career. That said, it did prove Low could still make great music without relying on their old bag of tricks. It may not rank among their best work, though it is arguably their most important release, the point on which their entire discography turns. Like Radiohead's Kid A, it's an essential listen even if you don't end up enjoying it. “Essential” for the band to make so they could redefine themselves and continue on as a still-vital creative entity. But also “essential” as listening for those who wish to understand what the band is about, to smash through some assumptions, and to uncover how they got from Secret Name to C'mon. In that respect, it's still a transitional work, as Trust was, though The Great Destroyer didn't point to the future as much as it hit the reset button to lay the future wide open.

Possessing just as many tracks as but thankfully 12 minutes leaner than Trust, the more I listen to The Great Destroyer the more it strikes me as being a better version of what I think the band secretly wanted to do with that one. I'd go so far as to say that the much touted rock of 'Canada' sounds restrained once you've heard this record. Whether it took more time, a new label, or a different producer, it is their most rocking album and, until C'mon, passed for their most immediately engaging. Much as credit or blame for this was laid at the feet of Dave Fridmann or their jump to one of the biggest indie labels, I'm not sure they deserve much of it. After only two years off and a new bassist, Low would return with the same producer on the same label though with the very different sounding Drums and Guns.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Essay: Low In The 00's Pt. 1


Having perfected their style with 1999's Secret Name and 2001's Things We Lost In The Fire, it was only natural that the band would try new things in the ensuing decade. Their new album, C'mon, is their most extreme change yet in the sense that it mostly overturns their established aesthetic, savoring the fun of making and listening to inviting, melodic, and sunny tunes. But how did they get there from the well-worn cliché of them as a navel gazing minimalist band who all but defined the slowcore subgenre?

Well, I haven't kept up with Low since 2001, so C'mon came as something of a shock. Even so, examining the three albums I had missed out on has been something I've meant to get around to since starting this blog. In a three part series of essays, I'll be digging into each record one at a time; don't consider any of these reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, I want to take the long view, so to speak, and examine them in the context of the band's history as well as the present.


Low is a consistent band when it comes to putting out records. In fact, it's usually the three year fallows between releases where the major changes take place. The gap between The Curtain Hits The Cast and Secret Name saw the band moving from a pseudo-major label to indie stalwart Kranky, as well as working with sympathetic producer Steve Albini, a man well known for stripped down sounds and raw/live sounding records. He and the more appropriate home at Kranky allowed them to perfect their sound without having a major label breathing down their necks.

As Trust, however, only trailed Things We Lost In The Fire by a year, the most major change is in using producer Tchad Blake, who has an annoying-to-spell first name. Furthermore, he's worked with such a wide variety of artists it's impossible to pin a certain style on him. Unlike Albini or the forthcoming work with Dave Fridmann, then, most of the credit or blame for Trust lays with Low.

This is a classic transitional album with all the problems these kind of records usually have. It's their longest and most expansive work to date, keeping one foot in the older sound while sometimes noticeably nudging themselves to take new steps forward. 'Canada' is the clearest example of what I'm getting at, practically leaping out of the speakers with a fuzzed out bass and the most overt rock song they'd done up to this point. But changes are also demonstrated by the subtle banjo and (what sounds like a) buried horn section on 'In The Drugs'; the incredibly pretty piano solo showcase for Mimi Parker on 'Point Of Disgust'; and the suspended animation drones of 'Shots & Ladders.' This song serves as a kind of blueprint for Drums and Guns, but we'll get to that later.

With four songs over seven minutes long each, Low are no longer celebrating a different approach to making music, with minimalism and spaciousness as the key guiding principles, as they did at their best on past records. Now they're just taking too long to get anywhere. 'John Prine' is the worst offender here. It's not even that it's a bad song; its crime is being way too long and possessing an unsympathetic structure, drowning what could have been a quaint two minute song in the murky depths of their old approach where they would painstakingly build tension or atmosphere over the course of four or five minutes. During the entire course of the album there is also the issue of Mimi Parker's drumming, which is similarly unsympathetic to the arrangements. Playing while standing up with a crash cymbal and snare is brilliant for past masterpieces like 'Two-Step' and 'Closer' but for a beefier song like 'Canada' it comes off as thin and weak, as if she was laying down the click track and they never went back to overdub the real drum parts.

Trust is weighed down by its ties to the band's past. The album title and cover art, to say nothing of the themes of the lyrics, suggest a record about strained personal relationships, though as fans we could also interpret it as the album's defense statement. The band had to know they were trying to get somewhere but hadn't fully made the change, falling back on old tricks to pad out the runtime, as if to say, “not all this new stuff is great, but there's still plenty of the old stuff to help ease you in!”

To these ears, though, it doesn't work. The band must have realized this, too. It's very telling that the music they would go on to make over the next nine years sounds very little like Trust or their past at all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Battles- Gloss Drop

Whether or not you'll enjoy Gloss Drop hinges on two things the band has dropped from their debut: guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton (and his cut-up, looped, digitally processed vocals) and the sense of heavy metal/hard rock raw power that permeated some of their past songs. The first one is the biggest change, as losing Braxton wasn't like a band shuffling bassists; he was a unique element of their sound and their ostensible frontman. As for the second loss, Gloss Drop still manages to rock from time to time, but by and large it is a more freewheeling and fun record, picking up the sort of videogame-esque keyboards and funhouse, genre blending atmosphere of some moments on Mirrored. To put it in the nerdiest way possible, the change from the debut to now is like going from the original Terminator to the liquid metal one from Terminator 2. Gloss Drop is still muscular but more trim, like a long distance runner compared to a linebacker.

Similarly, it keeps taking on different forms to aid its attempts to kill John Connor. No, wait...that's just the liquid metal Terminator. All kidding aside, this record is guest heavy, which is both good and bad. These collaborative songs bring out different elements of Battles's sound (a la the liquid metal Terminator impersonating different humans) thereby exposing the band's ties to various genres and sub-genres. 'Ice Cream' is one of the primary reasons this is a more fun and freewheeling album than Mirrored, boasting an addictive stuttering organ melody on top of a general Summery atmosphere. It also has a surprisingly good groove considering the trio that makes up Battles are mostly known for their past associations with math rock and metal. In the most interesting pairing, Yamantaka Eye of the Boredoms stops by for the lengthy album closer 'Sundome', suggesting a possible new direction for the band as a genre straddling electronic/dub band. I would kill to see what Battles and Eye would do over the course of a collaborative EP or album; of the four guests, he ends up being the best fit as well as most appropriate choice for a dream replacement for Braxton.

To call Gloss Drop a disjointed album feels as much like a slight as it does a compliment. This is where that “guest heavy album is both good and bad” element comes into play. The guests pull the band in different directions and it always sounds more like Battles backing someone instead of them guesting on a Battles track. This causes Gloss Drop to lose the coherency of Mirrored, which, again, is good and bad, since this album is more accessible, grooving, and fun to listen to. Moreover, it's true that what exactly this band is and what they will sound like from release to release has been constantly in flux from the very beginning, so it's a bit unfair to say the guests are causing this. If the band seem less overtly experimental on Gloss Drop, it's only because the songs are more focused and traditional (or what passes for more traditional for this band, anyway), more like the tangible results of completed experiments rather than unedited improvisations or works in progress. Where on their EPs a dissonant, heavily electronic song like 'Rolls Bayce' might have gone on for three or four minutes, here we get by fine with a mere two. Still, the most successful experiments do end up being the collaborations; the songs without vocals invariably feel like pretty good b-sides or even above average Mirrored sequels, in particular 'White Electric.'

Gloss Drop ends up leaving the band's future even more wide open than it already was. This means that it lacks the unified feel and flow of their debut, but the tradeoff is that Gloss Drop is even more of a joy to listen to. This is the kind of album where you can just tell the band had a great time making it, and the guests help lend it a party atmosphere. This doesn't make it a better record, and in a few years time it will either make more or less sense depending on where the band goes next, assuming they ever settle on a direction or two. And you know, I'm not sure it's what they should do to begin with. At any rate, Gloss Drop is not so much a transitional album as one that sees Battles tinkering with their chemical formula before it's even been jotted down, as if a scientist kept adding more and more compounds to the mixture and calling in colleagues for their input. This results in a record that is a hell of a lot of fun to listen to even if it doesn't, as a whole, add up to truly stellar music.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wilco- A.M.

If I may: upon its release, Wilco's A.M. got an undue amount of grief and bad mouthing from every side imaginable. Even members of the band, in particular Jeff Tweedy, regard the album as a failure, inspiring him to craft the massively ambitious follow-up, the double album Being There.

While that may be the only silver lining of this record for most people, I have the strong impression that if anyone bothered to listen to the thing today, with all the Depression/rivalry with Jay Farrar's Son Volt in the distant past, they'd discover a decent little album with some fantastic songs. After all, Wilco often bust out fan favorites 'Casino Queen', 'Box Full Of Letters', and 'Passenger Side' as crowd pleasing stompers during their shows. If three great songs don't exactly a great album make, they do help make it a good one. In other words, A.M. is, depending on your familiarity, not as bad as you remember or not as bad as you've been led to believe.

I would add 'Too Far Apart' to that list of great songs from this album. As this is the only Wilco release on which Brian Henneman appears, his lead guitar playing on this track makes it among the most unique in the Wilco canon for that reason alone, though the mid-60s Dylan-esque organ stabs and ramshackle drumming help make this my pick for most underrated, unknown Wilco song. It's simply a rocking little album closer, unassuming and casual, the sort of thing critics and disappointed music fans probably derided the album as being boring or underwhelming for. Which means to me, it's populist and fun, hard to hate but also difficult to praise or critique in a meaningful way.

Yes, what strikes me most about A.M. is its populist appeal. Not so much as a country-rock record patterned in the rustic-by-way-of-folk-and-rock Bob Dylan/Neil Young style, the album title is also a dead giveaway for the band's aim, making music that would feel welcome next to, say, The Band on a classic rock station. Sure, there's some twang to tracks like the modest 'That's Not The Issue', the record's undiscovered treasure (next to 'Too Far Apart', anyway), featuring some spirited banjo picking and pedal steel guitar licks. Sure, nothing on here hints at the stronger rock, pop, and later, experimental elements that were to come, to say nothing of the forthcoming greater artistic ambition. Yet listen to this in the context of the band's discography as it stands in 2011 and you'll find that, as a whole, A.M. is closer in sound and spirit to Being There than Being There is to Summerteeth and everything after.

This may sound strange, especially coming from someone who generally loathes brainless, feel-good pop music, but even I enjoy modest, good-time music now and again. And A.M. is just that; nothing more, nothing less. Not every song is great or an amazing piece of art but with an album like this, it's unnecessary. Furthermore, it's ironically almost an asset that some of the songs are mediocre because, at a party (the ideal place for such music), it's nice to have a break to get up and grab another beer or greet those lackadaisical friends showing up fashionably late.

All of that said, A.M. is without a doubt Wilco's worst album. Being There is a more artistic and enduring rejiggering of its aesthetic minus the boozy fun-time country-rock swing, as if Tweedy was finally putting in a genuine effort to try. By which I mean, not only to try to best former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar but also to carve his name on the tree of rock history. Whatever record you think he managed to complete both of those with--I wasn't totally sold until A Ghost Is Born, which probably sounds insane--I don't think anyone would claim he did it with the debut. Still, calling A.M. Wilco's worst album is analogous to calling Grizzly Bear's Horn Of Plenty their worst, too. Both are true statements, though those debuts are quite different in spirit and tone from what they would go on to do, to say nothing of personnel changes. Thus I would append the claim to be a variation on the sophomore slump rather than "worst album." So, no, those albums aren't the worst; they're the "freshmen slump" of both bands.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dinosaur Jr.- Farm

For all the comparisons to Neil Young that they've endured over the years, for all the influence they had on the British shoegazer scene of the late 80s/early 90s, the most intriguing thing to me about Dinosaur Jr. is the fact that they've gotten away with being what is essentially a power trio in an underground/indie scene which normally turns its nose up at such things. Really, especially after watching the Live In The Middle East concert film, I think of this band as the Cream of the 80s. It's not a perfect analogy, I admit, yet it's not hard to see the same clash of egos and resentment between bassist and guitarist in both bands.

Of course there's also the music. While Dinosaur Jr. don't sound much like Cream, give a listen to Farm and tell me that I'm wrong in considering them a power trio. The riffs are heavy and memorable, full of fist pumping abandon bested only by J. Mascis's searing, endlessly enjoyable soloing. Though the rhythm section lacks his virtuosity, they are every bit as solid as classic rock benchmarks like Led Zeppelin. Since bassist Lou Barlow spent his time away (from the mid-80s until 2005, when the original Dinosaur Jr. line-up reunited) making music in various bands, he now has the confidence and outside creative outlets to be a perfect foil to Mascis, delivering a couple great tunes per record and playing with creativity and energy. This is, ultimately, Mascis's band, but Barlow and drummer Murph are no longer just along for the ride, doing and playing what they're told to. Now it feels more like a "lesser but equal" situation.

Farm was Dinosaur Jr.'s second album after the reunion, and you get the impression throughout that the band have jumped on the opportunity to rewrite history. It's not hard to imagine this record coming out in some, say, alternate history 1999 where Barlow had stayed in the band through the 80s and 90s. In fact, Barlow's contributions to Farm sound eerily similar to Sebadoh's 1999 album The Sebadoh, down to the punchy, live-sounding production and all. But I digress.

With the pressure of their reunion tour and 'first album back' behind them, there's a real energy to this record which belies the band's enthusiasm for recording and playing music together. While they may have stretched out on stage back in the 80s, Farm feels like the most live and jammy of all of their albums, underscoring and highlighting how power trio-y they are. It's telling that this is the band's longest album ever, doubly so because most of the shortest songs were relegated to the bonus tracks included on the deluxe edition. 'Plans', 'Said The People', and 'I Don't Wanna Go There' all sprawl past the six minute mark, the latter in particular, featuring a soaring guitar solo that seems to last for half of the nearly nine minute runtime.

That sprawl and lack of concision to Farm as a whole means that this isn't the masterstroke it could have been if this were a more song oriented versus performance based record. The songs aren't all fantastic though the music is exceptionally good, if that makes sense. Such a situation cuts both ways, since this is the kind of music which makes you want to listen to it and it alone for the rest of the day. Farm doesn't supplant You're Living All Over Me as the band's high water mark...though you may be surprised how often you end up listening to it.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Essay: Personal Reflections On Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel

Once you reach a certain age and are unmarried, I'm willing to bet that, like me, you have that one person for whom you will eternally pine. They understand you, and more importantly, they accept and love you for who you are whereas no one else can or does. To paraphrase Department of Eagles, no one does it like them. Yet for any number of reasons, things between you both never work out. Perhaps they only see you as a friend. Maybe one or both of you are too fucked up to make things work. Or maybe it's a simple case of them having someone else and not needing you. Whatever it is, your friends and family tell you to stay away, that you'll only receive pain and torment, that you've been down this road before, etc. However, that simple sense of commonality and understanding is so potent a draw you would cut off an ear, Picasso-style, if it would make them love you (or love you again).

A girl, no, a woman I love very much fits in this category. I could never explain how I feel about her in any rational way. Moreover, it's a distinct possibility that I will never be with her in a traditional relationship sense, and we'll come in and out of each other's lives like ships passing in the night. We don't even live in the same State anymore. The point I'm getting at is that I didn't even understand how much Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel meant to me until I introduced her to his music via Pitchfork.TV's mesmerizing live performance of his at a church for their Cemetery Gates series. I was simultaneously introducing her and re-introducing myself to this incredible music. We both became briefly obsessed with the performance, and by extension, his two albums. I never would or could have finally connected with this record if not for her, and I am eternally grateful to both the music and her for it.

To me, Bradford Cox's music in Deerhunter and Atlas Sound is completely tied up in the tension between nostalgia and the present, between accepting one's own weirdness and trying to fit into society, and between concrete emotions and a numbed, druggy indifference. Let The Blind... goes a step further by bringing in his own experiences, in particular his unrequited love for friend/Deerhunter member Locke Pundt and his troubled youth--parental divorce, drug use and abuse, and most importantly for me, his teenage surgeries and hospitalizations for Marfan's Syndrome.

Careful viewers of the Weekly Whiskey video series may have noticed a line-like scar running along the left side of my head. I won't bore you with the details as to its origins; suffice it to say that I had three or four surgeries by the time I was in kindergarten. Those experiences, along with all the feelings and thoughts a child has while facing such things, have shaped me as a person ever since. I'm willing to speculate that Cox would agree that it's not the physical scars I bear, or his emaciated, sickly appearance thanks to Marfan's, which really have the profound, lasting effect on us. Instead, it's all the associated mental and emotional baggage that comes from them and from the reactions of others.

Strange, then, that the first few times I listened to this record, it struck me as numb and detached. It still sometimes strikes me as the kind of music someone who was perpetually stoned (on weed and/or psychedelics and/or prescription meds for insomnia and anxiety) to the point of indifference would make in an attempt to reconnect with their feelings. This was all on the surface, though. Listen carefully to Let The Blind... and his other music in and out of Atlas Sound, and you'll find one of the most self-aware and emotionally connected musicians of our time. Just as Dinosaur Jr. rock harder than almost anyone yet often have nakedly-emotional/personal songs underneath all the blare and distortion, on this album Cox swaddles his feelings in seemingly cold/distant music. The more I listen to this record and the more I decipher the lyrics, though, the more warm and comforting it becomes. Just as the woman I spoke of earlier is one of the handful of people I've ever met who truly understands and accepts me, this is one of the few albums I feel a strong personal connection to. I don't mean this in the broad sense of "wow, I relate to Beatles songs", which play to many people in many vastly different situations. It's much more specific for me and this record. For example, though my own experience with 'sleeping til I threw up' wasn't drug related as on the song 'Ativan', the first time I heard that line goosebumps and tingling shot up my limbs and spine and the memory came roaring back.

What Let The Blind... represents to me is making something creative, positive, and therapeutic out of an abjectly terrible period of one's life. You can get so hung up on your own perceived issues and memories that you don't attempt to do anything about them, to make peace with them and yourself. I'm sure that making music hasn't "cured" Cox, but if it has helped him half as much as Let The Blind... and other albums have helped me, and writing in general has also helped me, perhaps a cure isn't the answer. He and I don't need to force ourselves to become normal people; we have to learn to express ourselves and be OK with who/what we are.

This is an album of purging personal demons, of displaying the most vulnerable and pained memories and pieces of one's self to the world. Most important of all, it's about being unafraid to do so anymore. I would never and could never review this music in any traditional sense because, in some other lifetime and series of events, I might've made this album.

NOTE: I apologize if it seems like I'm attempting to parallel myself and my life to Bradford Cox too much. I don't know him at all except through his music, interviews, and random blog posts I've read. I'm making a lot of assumptions in this essay and I acknowledge that. I'm sure my experiences were not much like his at all, and his were likely far worse, so take it all with a grain of salt.