Author: Gene

Wire – Red Barked Tree
Pink Flag | January 2011

It’s no irony – Wire stopped being ironic with their inception – that the track “Two Minutes”, on their newest album Red Barked Tree, clocks in at 2:01. As the band’s website declares, they’ve been “confounding expectations” since the release of their debut, 1977’s Pink Flag.

“Two Minutes” is a career-defining moment: one that acknowledges the past (and Pink Flag’s 21 tracks, some under a minute long, were a harbinger for the age of Attention Deficit Disorder, sound bites, channel surfing) – but provides a “welcome to the age of fragmentation” – all while employing one of their signature sounds, industrial punk.

As a fan of the band (not just their debut), it always amused me when someone would declare their affection and appreciation for Pink Flag – as if that’s when Wire stopped defining what would come. Their second incarnation (in the 80’s) would signal the approaching industrial influence in pop music (culminating in records like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless). The yin-yang braintrust of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis have always been ahead of the curve – their music career, to me, an infinite jest at the music industry’s expense.

Their present –and what could be considered third – incarnation (minus founding member/guitarist Bruce Gilbert) addresses, among other things, the aforementioned “fragmentation” (some say fracturization) of society, environmental issues – all very contemporary concerns.

But none of this would matter, really, if the songcraft wasn’t solid. And it is. Sonically, this might be one of Wire’s – dare I say – most listenable and accessible albums, with nods to their prior incarnations, but also some truly epic moments (“Adapt”, with treated piano and horn flourishes, is a thing of beauty), as well as more of the expected-unexpected (acoustic guitar!- on the title track).

Paradoxically, on Red Barked Tree, Wire continues to confound expectations by not confounding their potential audience – and that’s a good thing.

Smells Like:

The Decemberists Make a Prince of a Record

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Capitol | Released January 18, 2011

Let’s face it – the Decemberists aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve fallen into the good graces of literary fans, literate celebrities (oxymoronic as that may be) and people who like pirate AND Victorian references delivered by the bar band that will forego the complimentary drinks until AFTER they’ve played. They’ve created the most clever lyrics this side of Stephen Merritt, and can still threaten to create a children’s book.

Well, I’m part of their target audience (an English teacher who loves Victorian literature!); but, as a long time fan (their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, is still one of my favorite albums), I have to admit to becoming less enthusiastic upon each successive release. Where their sound was still hyper-literate, their fragility was beginning to lose its appeal to me.

So it is with a welcome relief that The King is Dead features a band more comfortable showcasing its musical chops, rather than relegating them to frame Meloy’s wordplay.

Their sound isn’t heavy – like the more aggressive sound of their last release, The Hazards of Love – but simply fuller. Meloy’s often twee, and affected, vocal stylings (its distinctness being a sometimes blessing, sometime curse) have been somewhat tempered here – which might bother some longtime fans…but endear those who weren’t. Though Jenny Conlee has always provided perfectly capable female accompaniment (along with her solid work on keys and organ), there’s no denying that Gillian Welch’s presence brings an air of maturity that Meloy seems to be stepping up to. Their solid chemistry is apparent right off, with opening track “Don’t Carry it All”.

Rumor has it that this record was recorded in (near?) a barn – and that would explain many things, including the overall “twangi-ness” of this their 6th long player. This shows up in “Calamity Song” – where it’s impossible not to hear Peter Buck’s signature guitar sound (recalling Reckoning-era REM), and a more than healthy nod to the Southern roots of Americana. This trend continues with “Rise to Me” – lap steel (Mr. Chris Funk’s handiwork is subtly apparent throughout) carries this tune, with harmonica bookends.

“January Hymn” might be one of the prettiest songs they’ve created – no mean feat, a poetic way to signal the most contemplative season – and the creation of one of their richest records.

In the eyes of this fan, it’s good that the king is dead; long live the Decemberists.

Smells Like:

 

OK, so my internal clock knew it was almost Oscar nomination time (January 25th), and I’m one of those people that still cares (and even throws an Oscar party, where invitees have to bring a dish inspired by a Best Picture nominee – I’m already thinking “True Grits…corny, I know).

I love films, and there are some that are inseparable from the music associated with them. I’ve never been a fan of musicals (I believe they’re the most difficult type of films to do well), but I’ve included a couple.

Just in case you need an inspiration/memory jog, go here.

This is Spinal Tap – it is difficult to say how profound this film has been in ridiculing the music industry, bands in general, documentary filmmaking., and Stonehenge. Hello Cleveland!

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – who knew that a musical about a transvestite could be this good! And gummy bears!

30th Century Man: Scott Walker documentary – the first third of the film is essential viewing, 2nd third for frustrated Romantics like me, the last third for fans of difficult listening (me too!)

I’m Not There – a bizarre but fun look at various actors portraying Bob Dylan in different stages of his life (Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, etc.) – plus, really good covers of his songs!

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Gene Wilder will forever be Willy Wonka – shame on you, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton

Oliver (the musical) – Food! Glorious food!

Buena Vista Social Club – Wim Wenders is one of my favorite filmmakers (see below)

Neil Young: Heart of Gold – a quality job of following one of the cornerstones of American music

Dig! – came because of the Dandy Warhols, stayed because of Brian Jonestown Massacre

24 Hour Party People – more enjoyable glimpse into Factory records, Manchester scene, etc.

O Brother Where Art Thou? – even though the soundtrack become an industry unto itself, the film holds up because of it

Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme

Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders’ marquee film, with a great soundtrack that is actually essential to the film – PLUS appearances by Nick Cave, and Crime and the City Solution. Not for everyone (my dad never slept better, after watching about 20 minutes) – but it rewards patience.

Movies I had higher hopes for:

Control (Joy Division biopic that offers little insight to band beyond the clichés)

Almost Famous (fun but ultimately not as grand as it attempts to be)

 

  1. Broken BellsST
    The best pop songwriter (James Mercer) and producer (Danger Mouse) of the last decade at the height of their game.
  2. The Tallest Man on EarthThe Wild Hunt
    Just when you thought one man and a guitar couldn’t sound fresh.
  3. The GorillazPlastic Beach
    Reveals more on each repeated listening; Damon Albarn taps into the schizophrenia of our times.
  4. Beach House – Teen Dream
    Baltimore twosome’s 3rd long-player adds to the strength of their prior two albums.
  5. Deerhunter Halcyon Digest
    Bradford Cox’s most solid and consistent songwriting to date.
  6. Arcade FireThe Suburbs
    Whether folks like the comparison or not, their earnestness, musicianship and big sound brings to mind a certain Irish band in its heyday.
  7. Tame ImpalaInnerspeaker
    Australian youngsters reveal musical chops beyond their years as they create an album best listened to from beginning to end.
  8. Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen‘……….for the ghosts within’
    Robert Wyatt (and friends) continue to push the boundaries of pop, accompanied by that unique, weather-worn voice.
  9. David SylvianSleepwalkers
    Sylvian takes a break from his avant-pop recent works to cull an “odds and sods” collection of more accessible material that holds together remarkably well.
  10. Eluvium Similes
    Though Eno’s fingerprints are all over this work, Matthew Cooper’s strong songwriting sensibilities and clear talent carry him past his forefathers.
  11. Laura Veirs July Flame
    Subtlety and musicianship separate Ms. Veirs from her (sometimes more commercially successful) singer/songwriter peers.
  12. Field Music – Measure
    This is excellent song-craft at its finest – even as they labor in the shadows of the latest flavor of the month.
  13. The New PornographersTogether
    The strongest effort, from beginning to end, from the Canadian “supergroup”.
  14. Big BoiSir Luscious Left Foot…
    Andre who? Just in case people weren’t already aware of who was responsible for most of the irresistible hooks from Outkast’s work.
  15. Flying LotusCosmogramma
    Kanye who? The adventurous, unpredictable, multi-layered work that some critics keep thinking they’re hearing from Sir Tweet-a-Lot.

Midwest “neo-soul” shines at Portland venue

What’s the difference between folk music and the sounds that Bon Iver produced at Holocene recently? I pondered that as I reveled in the beautiful soundtrack to an introspective life that the band (whose name is a play off of what Francophiles and others know translates to “good winter”) reproduced.

I am not a big fan of the watered-down stuff that passes as folk (the stuff you hear in Starbucks, generally); Justin Vernon’s music captures the human experience as only recording in isolated places – like his father’s Wisconsin hunting cabin – can. But it is music also informed by modern anxieties. Vernon himself refers to his music as “neo-soul”.

So, it was no surprise to learn mid-set that Vernon has a punk-pop band called Michael Jordan, as well. Hearing the edge of Bon Iver’s music emphasized in their live set reminded me of when I saw Iron & Wine in town and witnessed Sam Beam and Co. growl, and not ironically cover New Order. It’s the stuff of early Dylan, where traditional sounds were often the shell of a more disturbing sonic narrative.

But it’s the heartache in Vernon’s voice which is the difference (which, especially live, reminded of a cross between Jeff Buckley’s falsetto and the aforementioned Beam’s raspy world-weariness). Bon Iver found new dynamics in its already subtle fledgling debut For Emma, Forever Ago. When Vernon asked the Holocene crowd to sing along to the refrain from “The Wolves (Act I and II)“, nervous looks abounded. The song ended up becoming a magic moment that somehow produced harmony from a group often more concerned with appearing to be coolly indifferent.

Though For Emma is not a perfect album, it is an early front-runner for my record of the year. In these troubled times, this album reflects my hope that a talented guy from the Midwest might bring a good winter.

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