Everything

Radiohead | The King of Limbs
TBD Records | March 29, 2011

As I’m sitting here listening to a copy of Radiohead’s latest outing, The King of Limbs and getting ready to make some sort of commentary about it, I wanted to bring up two quick points:

A) Writing a review of a Radiohead album is like asking to be used as a human piñata in every hip neighborhood in the known world, and

B) I have been known for many years as The Guy Who Doesn’t Like Radiohead!

That said … I have always respected Radiohead. I find their melding of Rock and Pop with heavy experimental to be note-worthy and enviable. Their pioneering, along with Einsturzende Neubauten, of new paradigms for distribution and listener involvement in the album making and releasing process is work that might actually save the world, or at least the musical part of it… I mean, I even own a clear vinyl, limited edition 7″ of Creep. Everything about Radiohead screams my name is several different languages. But honestly, and sadly, since Kid A, I have just never actually been able to get into the music itself.

Honestly, The King of Limbs has changed all of that. Sure, some of the elements that have always turned me off are still here: The skittering, distorted jungle/dubstep influenced beats that should have been laid to rest in 1998 are still there, but have been toned back and mixed in to be more just a chaotic element of the overall sound picture rather than a statement in themselves, and are honestly in rather short supply; a good thing in my book. Thom Yorke is still taking everything in a falsetto, but sounds more inside his voice than in some previous releases.

About that falsetto. Yorke, unfortunately, is in the difficult position of having to sing over what are basically soundscapes. Melodically, there is nothing for a singer to hold onto, and it forces the singer to stretch the vocal melodies and lyrics into long, oblique phrases that are hard to get your head around as being ‘vocals’. The voice simply becomes another instrument in the overall sound picture. On the King of Limbs, Yorke not only fills this difficult position with aplomb and taste, but manages to actually make it sound effortless and good. On other Radiohead albums, it sounded like a lot of work. Here, it just comes across as a natural extension of everything else around it, and quite strikingly beautiful actually.

The musical background is fantastic and approaches the best of Eno’s ambient work in it’s simultaneous depth, simplicity, and utter lack of ego. There are no big solos here, no ‘look at what a fantastic Guitarist/Singer I am’. All of the instrumentation, including the voice, works together flawlessly to create a unified sound picture. Radiohead is working together here to create and evolve a definition of what Radiohead is as a unit, and to do justice to their collective concept of sound and music, not to push a collection of amplified personalities. It works beautifully. Guitars, synths, bass and processing fade in and out of each other and you stop listening for distinct parts and just listen to the music as a whole.

OK. As  for the stars. I don’t often give anything a perfect rating. To me, a perfect rating means an album that is not only good, but somehow changes my perception of music, how it’s made, and at best inspires me not only as a listener but as a composer. The King of Limbs did just this for me. While longtime Radiohead fans might disagree, holding up OK Computer or Amnesiac as better albums, King of Limbs for me is a defining moment; the moment where I finally ‘got’ Radiohead. I might actually delve into some of their older releases I have ignored for years.

Smells Like:

Just over a year ago, I learned about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide on the radio:  “Those of us who work on Fresh Air were upset and shocked…” The usually unflappable Terry Gross sounded shaken by the news, having interviewed the enigmatic singer just a month prior. He had told her the story of his southern childhood and its sudden about-face when he was partially paralyzed in a one-car accident. He had played “Flirted With You All My Life,” explaining that the intensely personal and bittersweet tune was a “break-up song with death.” He had even told her about his past attempts at suicide, joking, “it didn’t take.” Vic’s ability to craft stories with quirky wordsmithing and self-deprecating humor came through just as much in his interview as in his songwriting, and Terry Gross, like so many fans he left behind, was clearly charmed.

I first came across Vic Chesnutt in 1993’s Drunk, a carousing album that showcases Vic’s style in full-blown fury. An acquired taste for some listeners, for me his strained vocals over minimalist guitar chording (both aspects were due to the physical consequences of his accident) created a mesmerizing effect. This album swings from eccentric musings to raucous outbursts, and it brought to mind what would happen if David Sedaris were locked in a room too long with Tom Waits and Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Witness the fucked-up glorious spectacle in “Gluefoot”:  “Cross my heart/ Cross my eyes/ Stick a needle in my thigh/ Drop kicked my unscrewed lid and fiddled fiddled fiddled with what’s inside/ A rusty mass of mechinations….” The title track that follows is what might result if that same crew crashed an AA meeting. Denial it ain’t.

I was lucky to see Vic in concert several years later, sharing the stage with his friend Kristen Hersh (of Throwing Muses and 50foot Wave). They took turns playing acoustic songs, one building on a theme from the other.  Both were remarkable, but even Hersh would acknowledge that her poetic mania seemed dim alongside Vic’s scintillating wit, as he joked with the audience and sketched stark images with his lyrics. It is perhaps this latter quality that has attracted the most attention over the years—some have likened his songs to classic southern novels. Whether this is apt or not, he certainly was able to evoke a sense of time and place as so few of his contemporaries can (my favorite example is 2009’s “Sewing Machine,” recalling a childhood in a simpler time).  His songs are sometimes melancholy testaments to decay (as in “Degenerate”), at other times veering toward the downright goofy (“…we were laughing at Dapper Dan/ We were happy as giant clams…We were bumping our birth-marks/ we were happy as lilting larks” –“Society Sue”). As Michael Stipe pointed out, it is the unusual turns of phrase at the core of his songs that make them so oddly compelling.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Vic Chesnutt’s artistry was the company he kept. He became a core member of the Athens, Georgia music scene, accompanied by locals Widespread Panic, and more recently, Elf Power. In 1996, the tribute album Sweet Relief 2 was released, featuring Chesnutt covers by artists ranging from Garbage to Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (!). The fact that so many musicians wanted to pay tribute and collaborate with him, usually in the role of back-up to his idiosyncratic vocals, reveals the level to which he was in reality an artist’s artist. His commercial success was always limited, and he was dogged by financial troubles from past-due medical bills for the remainder of his life. Yet he continued to crank out albums, eighteen in all, and collaborations with The Cowboy Junkies (who just released a tribute album of their own this month) and the ageless Jonathan Richman were in the works. If anything, Vic’s creative energies were on the rise toward end of his life, having released three albums in a year’s stretch. “He was on such a burn,” Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto said to Terri Gross, that he instructed his fellow musicians to not let him have his guitar at night, because he needed rest.  “The music was pouring out of him.”

To me, it is incredibly sad that in such musical genius as Vic Chesnutt’s were also the seeds of his self-annihilation. Apparently, his friends were trying to get him the help he needed, having recognized worrying signs in his escalating behavior, but it arrived too late. He left a community of musicians and fans deeply appreciative of his contributions and long in mourning.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Vagrant Records | February 2011

Polly Jean Harvey has never been an artist cautious in her approach, or particularly concerned with what her listeners might think of her sound. She’s been making her own path in the music world since her debut album, Dry for which Rolling Stone called the then-22-year-old Harvey the year’s Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer. Raw, emotionally-bare, experimental, shocking, but always beautiful, even when the guitars are shredding and the drums are blasting like cannons. Her follow-up, Rid of Me took the back-and-forth of sober beauty and rock bombast to new heights – loud-soft-loud-soft was the sound of the 90s.

Since 1993, PJ Harvey has been recording as a solo artist (without her original trio) but often with songwriting partner, John Parrish and producer Flood. Her latest album is no exception, but instead of a recording in a studio, it was recorded live in a medieval church in Dorset, England. The location adds a haunting spaciousness to the album.

The other addition to the mix is multi-instrumentalist, Mick Harvey (no relation) a founding member of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution and his own solo band. He has an incredible ability to play just the right sounds in just the right spots, loud or quiet. When I look through my album collection, seeing his name in the credits is almost always a guarantee of quality music. Of course, I can say the same thing about PJ Harvey, and I sometimes think of her as the female Nick Cave, another artist who can straddle genres and make timeless works that often explores the dark side of the human soul. Of course, PJ Harvey has worked with both Nick Cave and Mick Harvey numerous times before.

There’s been much spoken in the media about the themes of this album being war, inhumanity and murder, and the way they are sung about in a sometimes girlish sing-song voice with melodies and instrumentation to match. Harvey herself has said that she had done a great deal of research into war, particularly the campaign in Galipoli, but not all of the lyrics are strictly about England’s participation in global conflicts. At times the album sounds like an elegy for the entire modern world. On “The Last Living Rose,” her high, restrained voice seems to rise above the now and become timeless, almost like someone looking back at our society from a bleak and burned-out future. Many of the songs unfurl with a fiery impassioned wail from Harvey that speaks of pain and loss, and maybe thoughts of what could have been.

While many of the songs seem simple at first, they slowly reveal a depth and clarity that can only have been brought forth from an artist in complete control of her craft, having perfected it over the last 20 years. When PJ Harvey and John Parish sing the call-and-response of, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is England’s children” it sounds at once like a gospel chant, a lament, a nursery rhyme, and a hymn. Or maybe a workingman’s folk-song from a by-gone time.

Polly Jean Harvey has created a sad, yet beautiful album, wherein she pushes her voice bravely in a way that sounds neither false nor pretentious, even when at its emotional rawest, or at its most conceptually constrained. I was listening to the album for the third time while watching an online slideshow of the massive protests in Egypt that removed Mubarek, and it created a perfect emotional pairing that brought a bit of a tear to my eyes. Different geographical settings, but very similar emotions.

Smells Like:

Iron and Wine | Kiss Each Other Clean
Warner Brothers | January 2011

It’s easy to look at Iron and Wine musical development in terms of the listening to a radio on a farm.

Sam Beam now lives outside of Austin, but his roots are firmly in the South (born and raised in South Carolina), his early music reflecting Nick Drake-via-Appalachia on songs like “Southern Anthem” (from his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle). Churches, crosses, the countryside and cattle – his low-fi, stripped-down songs like AM-radio lullabies to a rustic life.

But with each subsequent record, Iron and Wine continues to distance itself from Beam’s folk troubadour roots; on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, they’d become more of a band, Beam’s trust in other musicians pushing their recordings into new territory – his radio had added the FM band.

Where Shepherd’s Dog was more sonically ambitious than its predecessors – Kiss Each Other Clean takes this ambition more than a step further – metaphorically embracing XM radio. This provides for interesting, if not always cohesive, results. It’s like a lot of strange new folks have come to visit the farm – providing funky bass lines (“Me and Lazarus”, “Monkeys Uptown”), and Fleetwood Mac-esque vocals and guitar (“Tree by the River”, “Half Moon”), and about as close to Radiohead as Beam will get (on the mini-epic “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me”).

And like The Shepherd’s Dog, the instrumentation continues to become more diverse. Though Beam isn’t quite the genre hopper that, say, Ariel Pink is, it seems as if track is intentionally imbued with a different feel, and a unique instrument to convey it.

There is still some of Beam’s seductive vocal whisper that introduced many to the band (the ubiquitous cover of The Postal Services’ “Such Great Heights”); but this is frequently replaced by the stronger, more confident delivery exhibited on Shepherd’s Dog – and even occasionally a growl (the somewhat out-of-place “Big Burned Hand”).

The record may not have the accessibility of earlier work, or of its new-folk contemporaries (say, The Decemberists’ The King is Dead), but – upon repeated listens, it is a far more cohesive than it initially seems. Its ramshackle held together by solid, if sometimes obscured melodies (and signature occasional F-bomb),  Clean is Beam’s “dirtiest”, if not funnest, record to date.

Smells Like:

Destroyer – Kaputt
Merge Records | 2011

When I was a kid, I remember seeing Barry White on a daytime talk show – curious to know what this bearded, unglamorous looking guy had to offer the entertainment world.

Then I heard him perform something from “Sheet Music” – one of the best album titles of all time, considering the “activities” White worked to stimulate. He was the “Maestro of Love”, and my burgeoning libido – on a primitive level – yearned to emulate him, as well as Marvin Gaye.

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one. Dan Bejar had been the indie world’s Oscar Wilde until now (providing obtuse, abstract, satirical lyrics not only for his band Destroyer, but the New Pornographers as well), his sound sometimes glam, sometimes folk. That is until Kaputt, his band’s latest.

More than a few comparisons will be made to late-era Roxy Music and Steely Dan – which is definitely here. But that influence was more than hinted at on 2009’s Bay of Pigs EP (which is included on Kaputt – the 11:18 epic is a journey through Bejar’s influences).

But the bigger surprise to me is what sounds like the R & B singers of the same era. In the same way that Steely Dan (with their often underappreciated risqué references overlooked) referenced fusion-era jazz sonically while nodding slyly to drug-and-hooker nightlife in their lyrics – Kaputt wears Lou Rawls’ white suit and carries white powder, hangs with sexy backup singers, luring the listener with cocaine-dusted existential angst.

His band’s newest, Kaputt, still showcases his clever wordplay – but he’s a bit more laconic, his words now framed by saxophones, trumpets, synths, and bass lines (oh, the bass lines!) much more suited for late 70’s discotheques then hipster cafes.

And it all somehow works, fantastically. Bejar’s confidence convinces the listener that he – like Barry White – is the guy that the listener should spend the evening with. Bejar’s social criticism – repeating the theme of writing a “Song for America” – is still there. But he’s more suave than sarcastic – Destroyer making love to your mind.

Smells Like

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)

 

Last October’s Apples in Stereo show at Portland’s Mississippi Studios brought home two urgent points:  1) not enough bands seem to have fun playing live and 2) more bands should wear uniforms.

In a town where brooding, flannel-clad folkies vie with irony-crippled hipsters for stage space, the Apples’ unabashed spirit of pop confectionery was a welcome relief. As they took the stage, frontman Robert Schneider grinned at the crowd and said, “Cool!” as if he was genuinely amazed by the fact that people come to hear him play. It was a refrain he repeated throughout the night as Schneider led the band through a frenzied, sometimes sloppy, but always rocking set that spanned the Apples’ nearly 20-year history.

Watching the band’s six members schlep their own gear before their set, you had to conclude that they were in this because they loved it—they’re certainly not living the rich rock star lifestyle, despite having released seven albums since 1995. The band was touring in support of their new album, Travellers in Space and Time, a continuation of their ELO-inflected, keyboard-heavy sound that began to emerge on 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder.

Sporting the “new” lineup that took shape in 2006 (after Schneider and longtime drummer Hilarie Sidney got divorced), the band crammed six members onto the tiny stage, including three keyboards (!), and the indispensable vocoder featured in recent songs like “Dance Floor.” The song is silly and fluffy, and therefore brilliant in the way the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” is brilliant—it’s 100% pure pop, with no apologies and no attempt to make a grand point.

In other words, it’s fun.

And that’s not something I can say for one of the opening bands, Fol Chen, which describes itself on its MySpace page as playing “melodramatic popular song.” (Sadly, I missed the opening set by Portland’s own The Minders.) By turns mopey and precious, the band’s 40-minute set couldn’t even be redeemed by the cool matching red uniforms they wore. Nothing like Nehru collars and epaulets to bring a band’s stage presence up a notch, I have to say. I won’t be getting their album, but if I could find one of those jackets, I’d buy one.

And while we’re on point number 2 (i.e., the benefits of band uniforms), I should mention that the Apples came on stage wearing matching sparkly silver uniforms. Schneider, whose outfit was more like a long silver robe than the jackets worn by his bandmates, announced “We’re the Apples in Stereo, and we’re from the future.” (Because what else says “future” like sparkly silver? Except for maybe vocoders.) Again, there was no real point to it, but it was pretty fun.

After a handful of songs from the new album, the band dipped into several of my favorites, including “Strawberryfire,” “I Can’t Believe,” and “Tin Pan Alley,” as well as great newer songs such as “Same Old Drag” and “Energy.”

Drummer John Dufilho (also of The Deathray Davies, a band you should check out if you don’t know them) gave the encore tune “Tidal Wave” (from the band’s first LP, Fun Trick Noisemaker) a whole lot of extra juice, creating a more tribal, pulsing intro than the one on the album and generally adding a lot more Ringo-ness (to coin a term) to the tune than Hilarie Sidney ever could. (No knocks against Sidney, though. Her work with the High Water Marks the last few years is worth a listen, though it’s probably not as fun as the Apples in Stereo.)

I’m hoping the Apples come through town again soon. If anyone knows of a particularly fun band scheduled to play here soon, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for one of those red jackets.

Here are my selections for Best Albums of 2010 based not so much on what I think should be the best, but what resonated with me and “stuck around” more, causing repeated listening. There were many recordings put out this year that are technically marvelous, interesting and challenging. So, maybe this list should be called my “Favorite Albums of 2010” instead and, because of that, they tend to be a bit more “pop.”

  • New Pornographers – Together
  • Beach House – Teen Dream
  • Broken Bells – s/t
  • MGMT – Congratulations
  • Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
  • Grinderman – Grinderman 2
  • Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
  • LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
  • Maximum Balloon – s/t
  • Unkle – Where Did the Night Fall
  • Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
  • Spoon – Transference
  • Surfer Blood – Astrocoast
  • Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
  • The National – High Violet
  • Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
  • Crystal Castles – s/t
  • Laura Veirs – July Flame
  • Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin
  • Massive Attack – Hegioland

Honorable Mentions: !!!, Eluvium, Yeasayer, Ruby Suns, Brian Eno, Janell Monàe, Arcade Fire, Cee-lo Green, Los Campesinos, Four Tet, First Aid Kit, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Joanna Newsom, Robert Wyatt-Gilad Atzmon-Ros Stephen, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti, Foals (liking more and more), Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene, The Black Keys, Titus Andronicus, and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.

DBD David Bailey Design