Saturday, June 29, 2013

Time To Go - The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86

Compilation albums are tricky things, particularly when it's a label comp. The best are often done by labels with a trademark sound, one that balances variety with an overt unifying aesthetic. The label comps put out by bigger, more diverse labels like Matador suffer from sounding like promotional mixes made for radio stations because most of the acts sound too different from each other. One of the best comps in recent times was the Welcome Home/Diggin' The Universe release from the Woodsist label. It's a touchstone for modern indie bands influenced by 60s psychedelic music, but also reveals how much these bands are stretching beyond the boundaries of similar older movements, like the Paisley Underground scene in American and the one in New Zealand centered around the Flying Nun label.

It's this latter group that's featured on last year's compilation Time To Go - The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86. And like the Woodsist comp, it focuses on the more experimental/psychedelic products of the label with a surprising variety of sounds. The one thing all of these bands have in common is that they're just as influenced by the acid fried 60s psychedelic rock as they were arty/druggy/dark bands like the Velvet Underground and 70s punk and post-punk. The noisy clangor of 'I Just Can't Stop' by the Gordons feels like a New Zealand cousin of contemporary 80s Sonic Youth. 'It's Cold Outside' by Victor Dimisich Band has a singer that croons like Bob Dylan during his country era, fronting a drunk and slowed down Felt. 'Psychic Discharge' by Max Block is a short interlude for melting instruments and stoned babbling. And then there's a song that approximates a sloppy early 90s Pavement cover of a Husker Du song ('Some Fantasy' by Doublehappys), which is better than that sounds.

The American Paisley Underground scene of the 80s got most of the attention, but Time To Go shows that we've been looking in the wrong place all this time. I've always found the Paisley Underground stuff to be overrated and forgettable. By contrast, the more I keep hearing of similar music from this period from New Zealand, the more I'm convinced 80s music wasn't as universally bad as I'd believed. Whereas I've been wearing out the Welcome Home comp because it's endlessly listenable, with a keen sense of flow and pacing, the Time To Go comp is essential for those reasons and because it's revelatory. I highly recommend getting the vinyl version: from the cover art to the liner notes to the fact it comes on two records with a MP3 download coupon, it's everything a vinyl compilation should be.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dylanology- Another Side Of Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

Recorded in one long night session while reportedly finishing off a couple bottles of wine, Another Side Of Bob Dylan couldn't possibly have a more accurate title. The record is a casual and more personal affair by far than The Times They Are a-Changin', released at the beginning of the same year (1964). That Another Side followed it by only eight months is all the evidence you need that even with a tossed off and raw record like this, Dylan had begun one of the most legendary stretches in all of recorded history.

It's always been too tempting for me to skip ahead to the next three albums because they're some of my all time favorites. But missing out on Another Side Of Bob Dylan would mean passing over the initial bloom of Dylan as pop star (no longer a mere folkie) and unique artist. Actually most of Dylan's albums from this era kind of bleed into each other. With a punched up full band arrangement, it's easy to imagine the songs of Another Side alongside the best of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde.

Dylan had apparently experienced psychedelic drugs and Rimbaud by the recording of Another Side, and the increasing abstract and visionary lyrical content on display is almost haunting. You can practically hear the late night drunk and inspired mindset in his voice and occasional loopy musicianship. He was certainly getting rather post-modern and self-aware; it's hard to imagine the serious folkie of his last album writing lines like those on the winking 'I Shall Be Free No. 10.' Just as Stephen Spielberg sometimes has to do serious arty movies to get it out of his system before going back to the popcorn fun stuff, it's almost as if Dylan had to make a dark, political album to get it all out of his system to plunge ahead.

I might go so far as to argue that Another Side Of Bob Dylan is one of his hidden gems, because it isn't as well known as most of his stuff from this period. Until I finally sat down to give this album my full attention, I missed out on what a stunning set of songs it is. 'Chimes Of Freedom' sounds like a man possessed, a kind of surreal/imagistic celebration and bittersweet view of the ongoing civil movements of the time—and also a prototype for future epics like 'Desolation Row.' Mostly though, Dylan is puttering around with smirking abstractions and silly imagery. 'I Shall Be Free No. 10' is Dylan's version of those rare nights where you reach that point while drunk and/or stoned enough that you ramble out loud to yourself and make up weird little songs. It even predates Will Smith's 'I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson' for jokingly calling out a boxer the singer clearly has no chance against.

The sound and atmosphere of Another Side Of Bob Dylan makes me think of the novel Steppenwolf. It's the sound of someone who grew old and far too serious before his time trying to reconnect with his former youth, idealism, and sense of fun. Of course, the guy in Steppenwolf screws it up. But as the left-in laughs on some of the songs, the long and purposefully overblown harmonica solos on 'Ballad In Plain D', and the “I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now” lyric of 'My Back Pages' all demonstrate, Bob Dylan had done it; he had reconnected. It wouldn't be long before the slidewhistles of 'Highway 61 Revisited' and the drunken crowd on 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35' cheering to the calls of “everybody must get stoned!”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Deerhoof- Breakup Song

Let's return to 2012. Obama re-elected, the world didn't end, and the much longed for new season of Arrested Development began filming. A year unlike any other aside from one crucial way: there was a new Deerhoof album. Breakup Song is the 11th full length the band have released since their 1999 debut, and folows its predecessor, 2011's Deerhoof Vs. Evil. A short and frenetic record, it plays like the other side of the coin, staying in the same relative style over its 11 songs. It's almost as if Deerhoof have settled into the same prolific, creative groove they occupied the mid 00s, producing a string of guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop records that made them one of those “love it/hate it” bands that provoked arguments between hipster friends.

The huge difference with modern-Hoof is that they're are no longer just a guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop band. Over the last half decade, they've been adding in keyboards, samples, and other modern sounding electronic flourishes, sounding like something formed from a combination of the weirdest synth-pop band of all time and a noisy San Francisco psych-rock band. While there's certainly nothing on Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Song that is remotely as abrasive as their beloved mid 00s output, it's also true that it's easy to write them off as 'light' and 'pop leaning' without giving them their full due. If anything, one could view these two records as the band finally folding the styles of Friend Opportunity and the Green Cosmos EP into their post-The Runners Four style.

Part of me wishes Deerhoof would've taken a couple years off and combined the best bits of Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Songs into a modern sequel to The Runners Four. However, this would make for an exhausting listen. For all its variety wrung out of largely the same instrumentation, The Runners Four holds together perfectly and also works on a song-by-song basis. Breakup Songs by contrast, if blown out to twice its runtime, would be grating and tiring by the time you got to the last third. There's simply too much packed into songs this short. So what would they sound like if Deerhoof had slowed things down and, in general, stop trying so hard? Probably a more electronic sounding version The Runners Four.

Now that Deerhoof are free to use whatever instruments and musical styles they want to, it's kind of odd how they've lost some of their imagination and uniqueness. Taken in 20 or 30 second increments, the songs of Breakup Song might seem very different from each other; in actual listening conditions, however, they all kind of run together. Every song seemingly has to whip through three or four tricks of sound or structure before the band are satisfied. When you do this over and over, it stops being interesting and starts making everything sound the same.

If they didn't make their songs unpredictable and frenetic all the time, if they took a few breaths and let song arrangements develop organically, they might make something truly great again. Deerhoof keep putting out albums that don't sound like anyone else and I should love them for it. Instead, I keep thinking “well, maybe next time they'll get all of it right.” Offend Maggie and onward, every release is somehow unsatisfying and unmemorable but never bad enough to merit scorn.

Really, the main problem with the last few Deerhoof records is that they don't stick with me in the same way that their earlier works did. They're weird, but they're only weird in a cloying, self-aware way, like a death metal cover of a J-pop song, or Low playing a set of Misfits covers for a Halloween show. Back in the day you'd stumble on Deerhoof and you couldn't tell if they were playing their instruments very badly or extremely well; eventually you realized you didn't care either way. Now their music gives off the impression that everything is so easy to them that they're paradoxically trying too hard to compensate for it. There is still that same visceral rush and whimsical, devil-may-care abandon to the music they're producing these days, making these albums undeniably Deerhoof in spite of how different they sound compared to Apple O'...but I'm perpetually left wishing they would stop trying to push ahead and take a breather.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Bloody Valentine- m b v

On m b v Vs. Loveless

It's impossible to listen to m b v without the weight of years of expectations pressing down on it. Keep in mind, other bands have taken a long time to make albums, but usually it's because they completely dissolved or had legal troubles that prevented them from releasing music. In the case of My Bloody Valentine, however, we'd been promised a follow-up to 1991's Loveless since at least 1993, and kept on being promised one, even after most of the band members left around 1997. Compounding this issue of how long it took is that m b v isn't just one of those albums that took forever to be's also the follow-up to Loveless, widely regarded as one of the best albums ever made, every bit as influential and unique sounding today as it ever was. Even setting aside the context of history and expectations, m b v is neither the next step after Loveless, nor is it in the same league as Loveless in terms of influence and uniqueness.

On m b v As 'The Next Album From My Bloody Valentine'

I don't want this to turn into a critique of m b v which compares it to Loveless and finds it wanting in every regard. Not to mention, I don't mean to praise Loveless as though it's a flawless gem that makes everything else irrelevant. So while you can't really improve on Loveless, you can still do a lot of interesting things with the ideas and sounds therein...and that's basically what m b v is. Perhaps the easiest way to get past the years of waiting and lofty expectations is to think of m b v as 'the next album from My Bloody Valentine', and not as 'the sequel to Loveless.' That album will always be the gold standard of this kind of music, so take it as a sign of how good m b v is that I like it better than Isn't Anything and every other shoegazer album I've heard.

On How m b v Differs From Loveless

m b v lacks the cohesive, hypnotic flow of that 1991 classic and focuses more on self-contained sonic worlds. The variety of sounds is more akin to Isn't Anything and the recently released EP's 1988-1991. On the first few listens you'll probably be like me and peg m b v as sounding like a less memorable, less overtly melodic take on Loveless. The best way I can think to explain it is that m b v is one of those albums that slightly disappoints until you get over your expectations and let it grow on you. I'm reminded of Grizzly Bear's Shields, an album that did nothing to dispel the notion that Veckatimest is their best work but one that nonetheless grew on me because, not in spite of, it being less inviting and immediate. I don't think of m b v or Shields as challenging, per se, more that they are concerned with overall sound and feel rather than songwriting and genre innovation. Thus, in spite of its density and consistency of sound Loveless is a more memorable experience while m b v is, in some ways, more satisfying because it requires some patience and focus. Like Shields, it's more dreamy, hypnotic, atmospheric, less obviously structured than the band's previous work.

On m b v As Great And Allowing Yourself To 'Hear' It

Yes, I side with the camp who thinks that m b v is a great album. I'm not sure if it was “worth the wait”, since the way it ended up coming out felt so arbitrary and surreal, and I had long since given up on any new My Bloody Valentine music. Anyway, m b v may pale in comparison to the Loveless II I always heard in my head—for me, it would've been a mix between Loveless and the ambient techno of Boards Of Canada—but this is a fantastic record by any point of comparison aside from Loveless. If m b v had been released by another band, they'd have been praised to the heavens and derided in equal measure for using Loveless as a blueprint and doing something almost as good. As it stands, we finally got a new album from My Bloody Valentine and it's really damn good if you allow yourself to hear it for what it is. I suspect most of the people who find m b v disappointing or underwhelming are stuck in the mindset of wanting it to be something it's not.

On m b v As Early Birthday Gift To Me/On Wrinkles New & Old

I turned 29 in mid-February. Discovering the new wrinkles in My Bloody Valentine's sound, and how Kevin Shields folds them expertly into the established aesthetic, is one of the best early birthday gifts I've ever gotten. The clearest and most effective addition is the drum-n-bass beats on album closer 'Wonder 2', though the Stereolab influence other reviewers have spotted on 'Is This And Yes' is a close runner-up. Even when the band just kind of sounds like Loveless, as on 'In Another Way', with its booming drum loops and guitars that are simultaneously noisy and hypnotic, they do it better than anyone else. So: m b v is like Loveless but it isn't Loveless.

On m b v Vs. Loveless (Again)

No one can ever top Loveless. It's a perfect example of its genre yet is more unique and 'outside' of genre labels than anything else in said genre. It's like Bitches Brew; that album is jazz fusion, yet it's utterly unique and 'outside' of jazz fusion, too. You could listen to Loveless forever and never suss out where some of the sounds came from, or how all the elements came into place just so such that what would otherwise have been a great album became a timeless masterpiece. Loveless will always be a mystery you can't quite figure out, and that's part of its appeal and greatness. m b v is still a bit mysterious, but only in the way that most shoegazer albums are with their psychedelic guitar effects, vocals buried in the mix, and focus on dense sound over traditional loud/quiet/loud rock songwriting. So while you can “solve” m b v—that's a jet plane sample buried in 'Wonder 2' producing that flanger effect, right? you'll still want to keep listening to it because it's god damn good....

...and who knows how long we'll have to wait for the follow-up.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dylanology- The Times They Are a-Changin'

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

Although recorded before the assassination of JFK, The Times They Are a-Changin' can't help but feel like a solemn and serious response to that event and the continuing struggle of the Civl Rights movement. Indeed, I don't think you could fully understand what the early to mid 60s were like without hearing this album, since it is interwoven with the fabric of its time. Keep in mind, this is the post-Beatnik pre-Hippie era, a very short timespan that's easy to pass over because the cultural artifacts from either side of it are better known.

The Times They Are a-Changin' as a whole feels like Dylan realizing the fight will be long and hard. Even before JFK's death and the public outcry following an infamous, inebriated speech delivered while receiving the Tom Paine award (during which he said he 'saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald), Dylan was displaying cynicism and weariness far beyond his years. Those unfamiliar with the early phase of Dylan's career might be shocked at how dark Times often is. Look up the story behind 'Ballad Of Hollis Brown' and 'Only A Pawn In Their Game' or take a listen to 'One Too Many Mornings', the latter of which would've made a great cover for Nick Drake. These songs are a bummer. There's no answers or hope to be had in these tales. On his first two records, Dylan leavened the serious/political stuff with some witty wordplay or contrasted them with a few lighter songs; not so much here. Consider the two songs with “blues” in the title from the preceding record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. They're among the most fun and whimsical on that album, while 'North Country Blues' from Times is a depressing folk song about the ruin of a woman, a town, or both.

Since I've never really cared for politics being mixed into music, I find The Times They Are a-Changin' to be among Dylan's least enjoyable records. I'm not saying I disagree with its point of view, since I'd have to be a racist monster not to. Aside from 'Boots Of Spanish Leather' and the bitter but fun 'When The Ship Comes In', though, the entire record is far too dire and preachy for its own good. There is something to be said for expressing these feelings and telling the stories that need to be told to show the injustice of the world, but this also leaves Times feeling like a historical artifact, or even like rhetoric instead of music.

This era saw the beginning of American youth becoming deeply involved in politics, and Dylan was no different, it's tough to blame him for making a record like this. After all, if he had been focused on 15th century French poetry or horse racing, he'd have made songs about that instead. Times is a commentary on its environment in the same way other politically charged records from other countries and eras become touchstones for their era. The problem for me is that, while you can still enjoy There's A Riot Going On or some of Bob Marley's political stuff, The Times They Are a-Changin' has such a sparse musical style that once you've gotten the message, so to speak, it's not a great record on sheer musical/songwriting terms. Since Dylan immediately moved away from this 'voice of a generation' persona, never again focusing so sharply on political material, one has to wonder if he felt the same.

You often hear people describe great art or artists as timeless, and Dylan has produced more than his share of timeless art. However, the opposite is sometimes true. Great art or artists can be timely, and Times was timely (pardon the pun). As with his first album, the songs have not stood the test of time and feel very much 'of their time.' This doesn't mean it's a bad record by any means, just that modern listeners will have to do some research and contextualizing to fully grasp the impact this must've had when released in January of 1964. This strange period of time—post-Bob Dylan becoming famous/post-JFK assassination and pre-Beatles arriving in America/pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964—is captured eerily well on The Times They Are a-Changin' even if it doesn't make for a comforting, fun, or hopeful listen.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

JJ DOOM- Key To The Kuffs

After a prolific period in the early '00s, DOOM has become one of those artists who releases full albums so rarely that each one can't help but feel like a major event. Even setting aside the long promised collaboration with Ghostface Killah and the follow-up to Madvillainy, it's already going on four years since DOOM released a proper album of his own. For now, Key To The Kuffs is as close as we'll get. Expectations may have been unreasonably high for something that was more casually and rapidly finished than almost any DOOM project ever, but this doesn't change how muddled and just-below-standards the actual product is.

Produced by Jneiro Jarel, the collaboration dubbed JJ DOOM is the kind of DOOM record you can set your watch to. It's almost like a sampler platter of everything DOOM records have done in the past but without the same spark of inspiration and originality. The general British theme of the whole project was apparently inspired by DOOM's troubles with returning to the U.S. due to visa problems after a 2010 U.K. tour (not to mention, he was born there and has many fans/collaborators from that country) yet this theme isn't as focused as the food theme of MM..Food or the monster movie samples that unified the underrated King Geedorah project. Just as the production and rhymes aren't as good as past DOOM records, this attempt at a unified theme is hampered by the fact that it's been done before, and done better.

Lest this whole thing degenerate into a compare-and-contrast bitch fest, let me just skip to the chase and say that Key To The Kuffs is worthy of hanging in there with DOOM's impressive discography even if it isn't one of the highlights. If you're a fan of the Supervillain, you'll enjoy this record. Jneiro Jarel's production leans on programmed beats and electronic flourishes, recalling the best moments of the Viktor Vaughn records while also having its own feel. As I'm not familiar with his work outside of JJ DOOM, I can't speak to how much he brought to this project, except to say that he's as good a fit as Danger Mouse but not the dream team match-up of Madvillain. Meanwhile, DOOM's rhymes can be as sharp as ever, they just aren't always. I don't think this is a case of, “hey, at this point in his career, we're so used to him that a lot of this stuff can feel like he's going through the motions even if he isn't.” Indeed, I'd only nominate 'Guv'nor' and 'Bite The Thong' from this album to go down in history with DOOM's career highlights.

Despite the attempt at a unifying theme and production style, JJ DOOM ends up being the most schizophrenic and least satisfying project in DOOM's discography. I want to love it but that's not the same as actually loving it. To put it another way, whenever I listen to it, I do genuinely enjoy it...then when I sit down to collect my thoughts, I only remember flaws and things that bug me. The most egregious problem is that the record starts off so strongly and shrugs to a close. On first listen, you'd be forgiven for thinking Key To The Kuffs is brilliant, charging out of the gate as it does with a classic DOOM-style one-two punch of an opening instrumental that sets the tone followed by a commanding track with DOOM letting loose in peak form...but then the album ends with a tossed off one-two punch of the forgettable “could've gone anywhere on the album” instrumental 'Viberian Sun, Pt. II' and the mediocre 'Wash Your Hands.' The latter of which doesn't even feel like a proper closing song until the last 45 seconds of the track are abruptly highjacked by vocal samples in an attempt to tie the whole record together.

We had to wait so many years for a new DOOM full length and what we got wasn't so much the next version of Madvillainy (or even Born Like This) as it is a fun but casual record that doesn't dim the reputations of JJ or DOOM but does nothing to brighten them, either. Key To The Kuffs throws you for a loop because it starts out so strongly, seeming to have a sense of flow and purpose, and then peters to a close as carelessly as a free mixtape download. Again, perhaps my expectations do continue to color my perspective; after all, I do like this record when all is said and done, and I've listened to it off and on since its release. It's just that what I wanted was a full dinner and what I got instead was someone trying to pass off soup and salad as a meal. And while I'm no longer certain DOOM is hungry (in the 'rap game' sense of being hungry), I sure am.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Dylanology: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

In perhaps the most clear example ever of avoiding a sophomore slump, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is leaps and bounds better than the debut it followed. With this release, Dylan went from being a gifted but immature folk artist and unproven songwriter to a nascent genius and 'generational spokesman.' It's clear from just the tracklisting and writing credits that he had come a long way in little under a year. Whereas Bob Dylan, despite its title, had few Dylan originals, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was almost entirely originals.

Some would argue that Dylan never topped Freewheelin' in terms of songwriting originality and maturity. While it is a hell of a sophomore effort, I'm not sure Freewheelin' would crack my top 5 Dylan albums. This says more about my taste and the wealth of excellent other choices from his catalogue than it does the album itself. Indeed, the mix of political and personal songs on Dylan's second album is perhaps unsurpassed in his 'back pages', so to speak, as far as balancing the serious with the whimsical. 'Masters Of War' is as polemic as he ever got, while 'Talkin' World War III Blues' is as close to a Shel Silverstein-esque parody of a “talkin' blues” archetypal folk/blues song as he could allow himself.

There are other lighthearted delights and impressive social commentary to be had. 'Corrina, Corrina', one of the few covers, has a lovely full band arrangement that wouldn't be out of place on future records like Blonde On Blonde or Love & Theft. Seeming to reference the album cover photo and drop a couple self-deprecating winks, 'Bob Dylan's Blues' may just be the most post-modern 60s folk song ever written. Meanwhile, the rich imagery and lamenting refrains of 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' are the kind of direction he would increasingly go in.

From this point, Bob Dylan would only expand further outward with the social consciousness showcased on the following record, the dire and serious The Times They Are a-Changin'. He moves the opposite direction on the next record, returning to more personal lyrics and lighter fare with the appropriately titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan. But we'll get to those some other time. The point is, a good alternate title for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan might be Both Sides Of Bob Dylan, because, here, that's pretty much what you're getting, at least thematically. Not to yet again foreshadow, but the eventual Bringing It All Back Home will give us both sides of Bob Dylan, at least musically. But I digress.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ducktails- The Flower Lane

If Matt Mondanile were around in the early 90s, there's no doubt he'd have been lumped in with the Stephen Malkmus. He'd get labelled a generational spokesman and slacker prince even though, in actual fact, both men are actually trying in every sense of the word. In interviews they may seem like they barely care and don't take themselves seriously, yet their music is a testament to the idea that what looks effortless and apathetic is often a result of fertile, unobstructed creativity. Malkmus pooled his love of cryptic lyrics, The Fall, sports, California, and noisy pop to eventually become the hipster king we know and love. He's still vital yet he's long since crested the hill. Mondanile, meanwhile, is just about to get to the middle of his journey.

After unintentionally getting swept into the chillwave scene along with bands like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, Mondanile spent the last Ducktails record, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics, with one foot in the past and one in the future. Perhaps it took the ascendance of his 'main' band, Real Estate, to spur him to do something more expansive and focused with Ducktails...? In any case, The Flower Lane sees him take command of a full backing band and various guests, wrangling them all onto a record that remakes Ducktails into something more akin to Panda Bear's “separate but equal” solo stuff outside of Animal Collective.

This means The Flower Lane is really god damn good.

If we're going with the premise that Ducktails are essentially a band now and no longer solo, The Flower Lane could be qualified as the true debut of Ducktails, since until now it was Mondanile fiddling around by himself with guitar psychedelics, electronic soundscapes, and scruffy vocals. Mind you, the leap achieved by The Flower Lane is one of overall sound rather than atmosphere. It's still somewhat retro and nostalgic and feels like a Ducktails album feels...but it sounds different. Ducktails to me always straddled the chillwave scene and the scene occupied by modern psychedelic contemporaries like the Black Angels, Mac DeMarco, The Fresh & Onlys, etc. The 'new' Ducktails are still both to an extent while also nodding to modern synth-pop and defunct brothers-in-arms like The Clean and the Flying Nun record label contingent.

Oddly I think The Flower Lane works as well as it does because it barely resembles the Ducktails of old. More than just putting out a polished version of Ducktails III, Matt Mondanile is also trying new things and doing them well. The syrupy guitar solo on 'Planet Phrom' reminds me of a particularly good Felt or Feelies tune, while the '80s digital delay sound on the horns of 'Under Cover' tips a hat to Destroyer's recent Kaputt. Anyway, if The Flower Lane doesn't sound enough like the old Ducktails you know and love, that's only a bad thing if you just want 30 more versions of 'Killin' The Vibe' and 'Welcome Home (I'm Back).' And yes, sometimes I, too, could go for more of those.


Still, there's no denying how far Ducktails has come. Try comparing songs like the mildly funky 'Assistant Director' to the repetitive, simple, bored-stoned-guy-screwing-around vibe of older stuff like 'Beach Point Pleasant.' No more lo-fi drum beats and guitars ran through a multitude of effects to make up for musical inability/apathy on this record! Now it's more like a sampler platter of saxophones, funky pianos/organs, gleaming neon synth sounds, and female vocals sprayed across a web of jingle-jangle guitars, lucid ruminations, and one of the most reverent and spot-on covers I've ever heard ('Planet Phrom'). With The Flower Lane Matt Mondanile has proven he's a songwriter and artist every bit as capable and imaginative as his better known contemporaries. We may not look back on this one as his masterpiece, but at the very least it's a big step in that direction.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dylanology: Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

I've always been curious to listen through Bob Dylan's albums in chronological order. Part of the reason is that without forcing myself to, I don't think I'd ever listen to most of his stuff. The Christian era is perennially at the bottom of my list of albums I need to get to, and the early folk stuff never appealed to me until recently. All of that said, Bob Dylan is a solid if mostly debut folk album. History, and what Dylan went on to do, has increased its significance in the 50+ years since its release. This kind of thing often results in albums that modern listeners will be bored or underwhelmed by because they sound so sparse and basic.

In which case, it's best to do some research and contextualize Bob Dylan in terms of the other music and folk stuff being released at the time. In this regard, what sets Dylan apart is his amicable performances and song selection. Since he hadn't yet blossomed as a songwriter, his debut is notable mostly for the influences it reveals. The pre-rock n' roll music he would later adopt as an aesthetic from 2001's Love & Theft onward is glimpsed here, and it's worth noting that a track from this record, 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down', shows up in a commanding, remade barrelhouse rock form on the legendary 1966 “Judas!” concert as captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Reworking songs into new arrangements would go on to become the standard template for Dylan's live shows, something anyone who's caught him on his modern 'Never Ending Tour' will know. But I digress.

If you're the sort of person who loves Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Elliott Smith's first few albums, and The Tallest Man On Earth, I think you'd be wise to seek out early Dylan immediately. You may find it same-y, if not formulaic, but as with any narrow music style, a great performer can wring a lot out of a little. Bob Dylan does this. And Bob Dylan certainly does this.

Though largely made of covers or harmonica/acoustic guitar based rearrangements of traditional songs, it's a record that foreshadows the breadth of Dylan's eventual talent. On his debut he mostly gets by leaning on rough charm: the harmonica and vocal affectations were in already place, and I don't think he gets enough credit as a guitarist. Listen to 'Highway 51' for some impressive strumming.

It's curious to hear the young Dylan singing all these old, dark songs about issues that probably haven't effected him personally. As Dylan aged and life threw some curveballs his way, it's almost as if he grew into the pre-rock-era songs he always treasured. It's similar to how in the mid to late 70s, Jerry Garcia became the troubled old man in so many of the songs he used to somewhat-convincingly sing during the first few years of the Grateful Dead. As Dylan toured with the Dead as his back-up band, this similarity is even more striking...

Anyway, the songs! 'Talkin' New York' is the first instance of a specific style of song in which he speak-sings a story between breaks for harmonica and guitar, with a meta-narrative that this time out fictionalizes his arrival in New York City. 'Song To Woody' tips a hat to Woody Guthrie and has taken on a symbolic quality ever since, as if he's simultaneously eulogizing Woody and his generation while also acknowledging he won't live to see the troubles and the triumphs to come during the rest of the 60s. 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' is a spooky nocturne, its heavy imagery brought to life by Dylan's vocals and wild, woozy sliding accents on guitar.

The two songs summarize what is great and slightly underwhelming about Bob Dylan. There aren't enough original songs by Dylan to truly judge him as a songwriter, but any simplistic lyrics or formulaic arrangements are salvaged by his committed performances and impressive musicianship.