Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Album at a Glance: The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely


  • Earnest, raucous rock and roll
  • Excellent production, impressive range of songs
  • Jack White

  • several songs miss their mark, or simply fail to captivate.
  • Jack White

The Raconteurs - Rich Kid Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Album at a Glance: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker


  • moving, intensely modern lyricism
  • straddles folk and blues, labeling itself alt-country
  • excellent, intentioned production

  • the album is mostly hits, but the few misses are difficult to ignore
  • much more Ryan Adams much less the Cardinals.
  • specific demographic limits accessibility.

Ryan Adams - To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Akron/Family - Love Is Simple

ALUYES (Arbitrary Lend Us Your Ears Score): 96%

  • thematically strong, cohesive
  • folk style roots progressive rock sound
  • extremely rewarding album (if you bring yourself to it)

  • real real weird (if that's a problem)
  • difficult as background music (you can't not listen to this)

When I play Akron/Family for people, I always put on "Ed is a Portal", and ask them how much fun they think it would've been to help record the track. I do this to eliminate the typical mindset we put ourselves in when listening to new music, judging it by some nebulous criterion the content of which we may not even be aware.

"Ed is a Portal" is the second track from Akron/Family's second album "Love is Simple", and it goes something like this:

A chorus of at least 15 people are singing what sounds like a native american/tribal chant, with a few different simultaneous vocalizations, driven initially by shaken instruments and tambourines. Strings pick up under the voices: a guitar, a banjo. The lead male chanters (the actual four members of Akron/Family) sing out "Ed is a portal... Ed is a portal... and damned if we don't try!" As they finish, the tambourine beat erupts into full drums.

The multi-vocal chanting alternates with a single vocalist slinging paragraphs of cosmic psychedelic lyricry for a cycle or two before all sound is extinguished but a slow clapped beat and a a chant that's almost a yell: "Liquidating hydrogen! Balloons in relief; the mountains are steep!"

At this point, the song immediately downshifts to a single acoustic guitar, perfectly processed, noodling sweetly through a folk melody. A single male vocalist starts singing a fairly coherent verse; the track sounds, if just for a moment, like the Grateful Dead. But inevitably the snare kicks back in, a glockenspiel, a bit of psychedelic synth, and the lyrics get crazier and crazier, and suddenly there's a sample of a man delivering a lecture on primordial mankind.

Without warning it's just the four male vocalists again, chanting to a great hollering crescendo "To all of the places that I have known!" And as the crescendo breaks, the multi-vocal chanting from the first part of the song returns full force. The song sweeps through another round of vocals and horn before ending with one final triumphant "Ed is a Portal."

Only it doesn't. There's still fourty-four seconds of track. A beat of silence, then a drum machine beat building to a single, harmonized, heavily processed quatrain with a slight echo.
"The immortals gently awaken/
all possibilities open unto one another/
and brothers and sisters begin/
to see truly through strata."
The drum beat continues, with the addition of a fire alarm/klaxon/car alarm syncopation for another seven or so seconds, and then silence.

Ok, so I'll grant you Akron/Family is weird, and sometimes when people listen to this it's just too much for them, it's too different. But the solid majority of people I've played this for agree, in this case, different is awesome.

Love is Simple isn't all like "Ed is a Portal". The album consists, in my mind, of two different kinds of songs. The first kind are very simple; the melodies are classic, the instrumentation traditional, the message universally and explicitly about the importance and simplicity of loving your fellow man. The first and last songs on the album belong to this classification, as well as the track that includes the album title as a refrain, called "Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead".

Songs like "Ed is a Portal" belong to the other category. These songs are erratic, incredibly complex, often non-linear, occasionally crowded by overwhelming instrumentation, occasionally devolving into tribal drums and improvised organic mass vocalization. These songs run the gamut in terms of lyricism and instrumentation, from "I've Got Some Friends", which is like a Wordsworth poem but much more rambunctious, to "There's So Many Colors", which starts out as a droning, downtuned chant which transitions into soulful, freeform Hendrix-style guitar, and slips briefly into some light folk vocalization before revealing itself at the end as heavy, dynamic, unstoppable rock.

A song unique on the album is "Pony's O.G.", in that it breaches both categories. There are only eight lines in the lyrics, but the song is primarily a beautiful harmonized melodic vocalization. Mid-way through, it's broken by some alien sounding percussion and a persistant horn, which builds in instrumentation until it sounds like a possessed jazz quartet, which flails itself about frenetically before it looses energy and the initial vocalization rises soothingly from under it.

The song itself is an exercise in contrast: the simple and the complex, the delicate and the chaotic, one simple notion against everything else in the universe, which is why it serves almost as an allegory for the album itself. Love itself is presented as the only stable, trustworthy, pure force amid the storm of our lives. Idealistic, certainly, but refreshing.

Simply put, I love Love is Simple. Musically, it is difficult to label, but it's clean, direct, and intentioned even when it seems spontaneous and organic. There's a heavy folk influence, which I love, moments of unrestrained rock and roll, blues, and a liberal dose of psychedelia. It's not an easy album at times, it certainly pushes the boundaries of traditional musical structure, but if you can handle some strangeness, Love is Simple does not stop satisfying.

Akron/Family - Ed Is A Portal

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hey Dude, Have You Heard... 1

This is the first installment in a semi-regular column entitled "Hey Dude, Have You Heard..."

It's pretty self explanatory. Every few weeks or so, rather than do a full album review, I'm going to give a quick overview of something musical that I think is sweet, and that I think you may not have heard before. And that's that.

Hey dude, have you heard the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Us and Them suite? Basically, it's a recording of one of the most superb symphony orchestras in the world paying homage to some of the finest rock music ever written. It's grandiloquent and spacious and forceful in ways that only dozens of musicians working in concert can be. You've never heard Pink Floyd like this.

The Us and Them suite is a solid selection from the Floyd canon, featuring all the favorites: "Time," "Money", "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2", "Breathe in the Air", et cetera. Some of the performances are fairly true to Pink Floyd form. "Breathe" is fairly textbook, but, like all the songs on the compilation includes some truly phenomenal moments, in this case the initial triumphant burst that signified the opening of the first verse.

However, the London Philharmonic does indeed take some creative licence with several of the tracks. Most notably, "Brick (Part 2)" is a terrific departure from the raucous defiance of the original, it's grit traded for finesse. The LPO version is a stirring, repetitive anthem brimming with a sense of desperation bordering on despair. Which in my opinion is pretty tight.

London Philharmonic Orchestra - Time

Friday, February 20, 2009

Phosphorescent - Pride

It was cold outside when I first heard Matthew Houck sing. I was in an enormous wooden house with about a dozen other young adults, most of them talented musicians, the rest of us avid listeners. Though we were there ostensibly for the purpose of hanging out while those of us in a folk band rehearsed for a show, the natural proclivity of teenagers to drink and smoke and laugh and argue and carouse had rather derailed the rehearsal plan. Amid djembe drumming and banjo noodling, a particularly emaciated guitarist withdrew from an enormous binder one CD. “Hey y’all cut that out and listen to this.” The album was Pride, the (then) recently released LP by freak-folk/country artist Matthew Houck, who has released his last three LP’s under the moniker Phosphorescent. Houck released a Willie Nelson tribute album entitled To Willie just this month, but Pride remains the most recent original work, so I figured I’d best review that instead.

Pride is an extremely cohesive album, in keeping with Houck’s previous work. The album feels like it was cut inside of a small, cozy house well outside of Atlanta, in early mornings and late evenings, through the bleary glory of a hungover sunrise, the gentle haze of good bourbon. The reason for this is evident; that’s how it happened. Houck plays every instrument on the album, and his familiarity shows, but he’s not the only musician who recorded on the album, preferring to recruit a friend here or there. Despite this, Pride is the kind of album with a mood and tone so precise and unique that it could only have come from one artist.

Pride, like almost all of Houck’s work, has been incredibly well received critically, but enjoys less commercial success. But Phosphorescent is the real deal; Houck puts every ounce of himself into this music, and it shows. Thousands of sounds, not a one out of place. If you’re a fan of folk looking for something a little different, or if you’re an Animal Collective returning to folk roots, Phosphorescent is a phenomenal choice, and Pride specifically is certainly worth the buy if you can find it.

Lo-fi, organic, and melancholy to the point of occasional sorrow, Pride takes traditional folk, blues, and ballad structure, combines it with Houck’s simple, compelling songwriting, and then either pursues it classically, or turns it on its head entirely. However, even the tracks in which Houck adheres to traditional form, such as the ballad “my dove, my dove, my lamb,” are composed in an extremely deliberate and complex way, the acoustic and slide guitars sliding over and under a harmonica and an incredibly unobtrusive accordion, punctuated by some sort of maraca of shaker. Coupled with a soft, celestial human choir and the desperate understatement of Houck’s singing, the track is drenched with the same sublime effect the rest of the album can proudly claim.

But not every track is traditionalist. “At death, a proclamation” is simultaneously dark and triumphant, haunting and rousing; short, but perhaps the strongest track on the album. Houck managed this by grounding and driving the song, otherwise an ethereal near-psychedelic musing on death, by recording it over a chance on-site recording of a high school drumline, turning the track into a brief but brilliant anthem with an aggression and a spirit to it that is unmatched by any other track.

Striking a balance between the two is “A Picture of Our Torn-Up Praise,” the album’s opener, and the most upbeat track on the album, which isn’t saying much, considering that despite that fact, the tone it manages to strike resides somewhere between the realms of wistful, hopeful, and whimsical. Houck’s voice is such an instrument in and of itself that his lyrics are at some points obfuscated by his musicality. It’s a common problem on the album, but an entirely forgivable one, because the lyrics, while poetic (I won't be the one when all is said and all is done/ I won't be breathing like you breathe into the light of day/ I'll be in the yard still taking pictures in the dark/ of all our torn up praise), aren’t what’s really important here. The essence of this song, and of the album, lies in the sound, in a way exemplified by the final track, the title track, “Pride”.

“Pride” is an instrumental track that can actually be seen as the outro of the penultimate track, a soft ballad with hard lyrics called “cocaine lights”, if an outro is what you would call a six minute aural soundscape. It carries the basic melody over from the previous track in the form of Houck’s voice layered dozens and dozens of times, each instance meandering in its own slightly different direction, permutating and evolving as the song progresses. The first time I heard it in that big wooden house, and every time since, the track paints a vivid picture of a savanna at night. Maracas hiss like rattlesnakes, and yelps like dogs or jackals sound in the distance, as Houck’s voice shimmers above it all like an aurora borealis, phosphorescent.

"A Picture Of Our Torn-Up Praise"

"at death, a proclamation"


Friday, February 13, 2009

Springsteen - Working On (Yet Another) Dream

A few months ago, amid a nation of tension and anticipation, Bruce Springsteen revealed himself as the October surprise by performing several shows in support of Illinois senator Barack Obama. Barack, you lucky son of a gun. It’s hard to find a performer with a wider audience or a more aggressively American sentiment. Springsteen has traditionally won the hearts and ears of working class America by singing fairly pointedly straight toward them. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination; that kind of transparent honesty was the only thing that made “Born in the USA” an American classic instead of a patronizing, overblown flop. Longtime fans of Springsteen will be gratified to know that he’s still singing to the little guy, and also that he’s still taking it very seriously. The same folks may be a little less pleased to hear that in his latest offering, The Boss has traded the hard-edged, bitter rock of “Born in the USA” for an album dominated by giddy, romantic pop-rock.

Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s sixteenth offering, and let’s be honest, the status he and the E Street Band enjoy means they could release an album filled with static and make a mint anyway. I’m not accusing the Boss of resting on his laurels, but it does perhaps provide an explanation for the sloppy production apparent continually throughout the album. There are some significant issues with volume levels on several tracks, resulting in muddled choruses and walls-of-sound where symphonies should be. On an album like this, shoddy production is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s a shame it had to be this way; there’s not really any excuse for it this late in the game.

As for the content, literally half the songs on the album are about being in love, and this is an extremely generous estimate. Perhaps I’m being affected by my state of mind as a nineteen year old college-aged male, but I found these songs the least enjoyable on the album. The puppy-like exuberance Springsteen displays in songs such as “Kingdom of Days”, in which the Boss keens “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do,” is almost embarrassing in its earnesty, and he displays even more excitement over a clerk in a grocery store in “Queen of the Supermarket”.

The rest of the album contains a few blues-folk offerings, a traditional ballad, and a track written for “The Wrestler,” as well as what I can only assume is Bruce’s version of “The Birthday Song”. The writing on the album is more of what we’ve come to expect from Springsteen, capable, with vivid imagery and an honest quality that is difficult to reproduce, but seriously lacking in subtlety at times, and plagued by the occasional misstep, non sequitur, or straight up silly lyric.

The birthday tune mentioned previously is called “Surprise, Surprise”, and it contains the word “surprise” fifty times, as well as insightful inspirational lyrics such as “when the sun comes out tomorrow/ It'll be the start of a brand new day/ And all that you have wished for I know will come your way”. The chorus manages, in this way, to be simultaneously catchy and obnoxious in the extreme.

I’ve been pretty harsh thus far, but that doesn’t mean that “Working On A Dream” is devoid of value entirely. It’s not all spurious string sections and schmaltz. “Good Eye”, in my opinion the best track on the album, a stands rather alone in that it is a harsh, grungy delta blues-inspired rock song in an album filled with power-pop and arena ballads. “Good Eye” is short, with traditional blues lyrics, and an unstoppable confidence. Production issues here blur the lyrics into the guitar, but really, that’s not such a bad thing.

“Outlaw Pete”, the album’s opening track, is an eight minute ballad about an Appalachian-born bank robber-ne’er do well-folk hero. The track suffers from over-instrumentation, the full-orchestral compliment crowding the sound and obscuring what could have been, frankly, a haunting song, but ends up being simply a fun one.

On the other side of the fun spectrum lies “The Last Carnival”, a gospel-influenced tribute to the late Danny Federici. Springsteen beautifully incorporates a calliope while resisting the temptation to throw an organ-grinder melody into the mix.

Finally, the last track on the album, “The Wrestler”, composed for the film of the same name, is a soft, stirring understated tune, certainly the only case in which the word “understated” can be applied to the album at all. The song is the song of a man struggling with glory lost, coming to an acceptance of the fact that his best days are behind him. “Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat? If you've ever seen that scarecrow then you've seen me.”
Working on A Dream isn’t Springsteen’s best album by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re a fan of the boss, it’s certainly worth a listen. You won’t find anything sublime here, and you won’t find painstakingly crafted musical odysseys filled with carefully crafted soundscapes—but if that’s what you’re looking for, you probably aren’t that into arena rock anyhow.

Bruce Springsteen - The Wrestler