Album Reviews

Danger Mouse’s Cinematic Mish-mash Somehow Works

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi | Rome
Capitol Records | May 2011

Upon first listen, there is no denying the influence of the spaghetti-western on Rome, the latest work from super-producer Danger Mouse (Danger/Doom, Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells…the list goes on) and composer Daniele Luppi. But if you go further, the album reveals a film score connection with classic James Bond films; maybe more John Barry then Sergio Leone.

To continue it’s cinematic theme, Rome “casts” singers Jack White and Norah Jones in the lead roles; where White serves as an adequate male voice (think Johnny Depp replacing Clint Eastwood), this album really is more a coming out party for the talented, but heretofore reserved, Norah Jones. Ms. Jones is more than able to serve as the glue between Bond-esque tunes (“Season’s  Trees”, “Black”) and the Ennio Morricone-referencing “The Rose With the Broken Neck”, a tasteful duet with White.

Reportedly recorded in a church, this album has an airiness that sometimes runs the risk of floating away on its influences. There’s a little bit of everything here, and for those familiar with Danger Mouse’s varied and impressive catalog of work, some of this is (intentionally or not) self-referential. String work reminiscent of his work with Beck, vocal arrangements (“The World”) which James Mercer would be happy with in Broken Bells, soulful tempos Cee Lo could have wrapped his pipes around with Gnarls Barkley. Luppi’s contributions seem to give the work a more cosmopolitan, European flair – only adding to its widescreen, epic feel – despite its brevity (clocking in at a little over ½ an hour).

And yet, it still holds together – more so than another Mouse project, Dark Was the Night, his collaboration with director David Lynch and the late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). A short film, Rome is a flick that I enjoy hearing; perhaps White and Jones could even capture on the screen what seems to work in the studio – we’ll probably never know, and that’s ok.

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Beastie Boys | Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Capitol Records | May 2011

I have to admit that I haven’t listened to the previous Beastie Boys’ album, “To the Five Boroughs” so my last exposure to their mix of hip-hop, punk and lounge (yes, lounge!) was with “Hello Nasty” from the late 90s and 2007’s somehwat less satisfying collection of grooving jams, “The Mix Up.”

But, the Beasties are back, and on the surface it’s like they never left. The album’s tracks may at first sound familiar, full of snark and witty word-play, but the textures are more sophisticated and the grooves more indelible than past albums. “Make Some Noise” starts with some noodling 80s sounding keyboard lines then breaks into a perky Super Mario-worthy synth riff with some old school raps that only Ad-rock, Mike D and MCA can deliver – Ad-rock often sounding like an amphetimine-riddled Dana Carvey doing his best George W. Bush and Ross Perot (Hello SEO!)

the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers.

“OK” starts with some chugging synth riffs and then slowly builds with all three Beaties adding their voices to the mix until the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers. “Yeh, yeh, right, right, OK!” It’s this year’s “Intergalactic”. But then it stops short at just under three minutes and moves right into “Too Many Rappers”, a boasting rap heavy on the flange filter that sounds at once serious and toungue in cheek, “Grandpa been wrapping since Eighty-thre-e-ee!” Oy, that old boy is me! Being roughly the same age as the Beastie Boys, I think I must be squarely in their target audience, having just the right perspective of hearing them since their first singles on college radio to their current more rounded sound, and having travelled (maybe) the same expanding musical path.

I can hear hints of TV on the Radio and other contemporary Brooklynites in their more rocking songs like “Lee Majors Come Again” with its fuzzed-out bass, bits and pieces of 70s exploitation soundtracks, and even Parliament on “Funky Donkey” which sounds like a George Clinton outake – it just needs Bootsy on bass to complete the picture. “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” featuring Santogold is a great Summer party song with an infectious melting-pot groove that will appeal to both party boyz and party girlz. Of course, there’s plenty of silly to offset the serious grooves, “Crazy Ass Shit,” and “The Larry Routine” among others.

I could explain how this album is “reportedly” from 2009 and should be called Part One and that Part Two was also recorded but never released, but…you can read all that somewhere else. And you can also read that it was postponed because of Adam Yaunch’s battle with cancer, but let’s just say that he’s beat the big C and we’re very glad. I’m also glad that the Beastie Boys are back with a more nuanced and mature weave to their silly space-age hip-hop fabric.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I’m intimidated by the thought of writing about Nick Cave. There’s something so serious about an artist as complex and celebrated as he is. He’s been performing for decades. He has a dedicated, sophisticated fan base. He invites and inspires extremely thoughtful criticism with every new project.

I can write about Grinderman 2, however. It’s a noisy, kick-ass rock record, and I know my way around that kind of thing.

The opening song, “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” is a perfect choice to start the record.  The rhythm section is strikingly reminiscent of the Jesus Lizard’s finest moments, the guitar playing is vicious, and the vocals are pure Cave. I recently cranked this up on the hi-fi after a bad day at work and it absolutely delivered me from evil. At least, a certain kind of evil.  (The Song “Evil” is also a 100mph banger.) This is not a morally righteous collection of songs.  Sex, Lechery and Violence are front and center in this band.  Nick Cave and AC/DC are from the same country after all.

Of course, being a Cave project, there’s a lot more to it than that. Consider the band name. Contrary to popular imagery, the Grindermen of years past did not depend upon the gratitude of a music-loving public for their livelihood. They sat in one place with those fucking music boxes and tortured everyone in the listening area until their suffering audience finally paid up.  They were notorious for doing it at night, underneath apartment buildings. They were finally outlawed.

The Grinderman songs conjure up lots of unwelcome, undesirable thoughts. Monsters are rampant, victims are found, and the lust is selfish and possessive. It comes to a head during “Kitchenette”. Cave sings his horniness to a married woman. Her husband, the sleeping “executioner”, is “sleeping with a fireman’s axe”. The narrator is not exactly a knight in shining armor; he reminds the hapless wife that she has “the ugliest fuckin’ kids I’ve ever seen”. The men in her life leave much to be desired.

But by the next song, “Palaces of Montezuma”, Cave seems to have faced up to the intolerable Grinderman who dominates the first seven songs of this album. In a beautiful, Bad Seeds-sounding “psychedelic invocation”, Cave exorcizes the monstrous side of his desire and asks for  “precious love to hold”. He seems to have found some serenity.

The final song on the album, “Bellringer Blues”, loops psychedelically towards the conclusion that the haunted, anxious Cave can ultimately manage all of this stuff just fine, thank you, and he is willing to do it on his own terms. He ends the album singing, “It’s okay Joe it’s time to go!”

With Grinderman 2, Nick Cave and his band have recorded a challenging, provocative collection of well-written, well-performed rock ‘n’ roll songs. It looks stripped down and primitive, but it ain’t. It’s actually pretty amazing.

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