Bad Ideas Beautifully Realized (Ben Donnelly)
This year, I got lost in plenty of records, but they didn't always work perfectly. They had moments that made me cringe. The misfires weren't filler. With newer artists, the album might sketch out an impressive sound, then force in ideas that didn't work. With the veterans, they'd succeed in new directions, then fall back into safer territory that would have been just fine on their earlier discs. The lapses may have made me shake my head, but these records displayed curiosity and confidence. And sometimes the moments that made me cringe at first made me smile later on. That's a lot more interesting than consistency.
It's appropriate that Joanna Newsom is the artist of the moment, because she treads so close to the ridiculous. She is confounding in her obsessions, which suggest a bodice-bound Renaissance Festival organizer. While she's unique, it's not like her music doesn't have contemporary analogues - Fiery Furnaces play with meandering long forms and Devendra Banhart skips over arpeggios with the same soft-headed wonder. It's just that she's so much better at it, and demands even more. From a distance, her warbling is strange, the cascading interior rhymes are whimsy. But up close it makes sense. The music may not sound like rock, but she's every bit the rock star, a true eccentric in the mold of Elvis, John and Yoko, Brian Wilson, or Jack White. She's seeing things. She's hearing things. It will be interesting to see how she'll be viewed in a few years, after the landscape she's introducing has been explored and cataloged by the rest of us.
Some of these artists don't cast a spell so strong. Their seams are exposed. But they're each making something that is personal and new, and turned my head around.
Each new Neko Case release seems heavier than the last and heightens expectations for the next. Mainstream stardom has seemed inevitable for some time now. But for one reason or another, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood didn't fulfill any prophecies. At this point, there isn't much country left in her alt.country, and one could argue that her move away from roots has undermined her birdsong voice. But I'd suggest that as powerful as her voice is, there's a surliness there that is the real source (and limit) of her appeal. Her production on the album isn't always flattering, soaking songs in reverb and multitracking the vocals as if she's burying a secret. The title track of the album, with its slow marching snare and layers of tremolo, is like Cocteau Twins brought into focus. For a 36-year-old vagabond, 4AD is probably closer to her true roots than golden era Nashville. What this album made me realize is that she's completely overlooked as a lyricist. "Star Witness" might be the best song she's ever created. She ties together a big chorus like "Hey when she sings like she does" with evocative details like "Hey pretty baby get high with me / We can go to my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby." It's a long story of a lost lover that seems both anthemic and specific, a "Tangled Up in Blue" that never escapes some chilly northern town.
Nina Nastasia has already made a few perfect albums of sparse and menacing ballads. Like some other fans, I was surprised that On Leaving was driven by brief songs with simple chords. None of the tracks have her signature sound - a dirge that crumbles into a slow melody. But this felt more like a detour than a new direction. I've heard that some of the material was dusted off from early in her career. That might explain why tracks like "Dumb I Am" and "Lee" are conventional singer-songwriter stuff, unappealingly insecure and introspective. But she's successful as ever for the rest of the record. "Our Day Trip" follows an afternoon of skipping work and skinny dipping out in the country. It ends the with observation "You had so much more ambition," transforming the preceding carefree narrative into a lament. She plays both guitar and piano on most of the tracks. It's as though the acoustic strumming represents the past, and the stark piano improvisations are the misgivings of dredging up old memories. "Treehouse Song" reaches all the way back to childhood, and it's the one spot where the piano becomes lush and rolling, like the only moment that can be recalled with safety and comfort.
Tarantella is a Denver band that moves through similar territory as Case and Nastasia. Kal Cahoone, Tarentella's singer, was married to an Argentine soundtrack composer. Upon her estrangement, she returned to the USA and took up music herself. She fell in with John Rumley, who handcrafts guitars and plays in the traditional-minded rockabilly band Slim Cesna's Auto Club. As you'd expect from the back story, some of the songs are in Spanish, some have a European feel, and some ride the open range. That history could be a Sunday morning public radio segment, and it sounds like a formula for music more tasteful than interesting.
Fortunately, there's something odd with Tarentella. Their album Esquilitos is pretty on the surface, but it's a pretty face who's eyes don't quite line up. Their darkness is over the top. Jew's Harp shows up a little too often. Much of the guitar work is Spaghetti Western, as would be expected, but the track "Mesa Gringa" goes so far as to incorporate Morricone's grunting-Indian-braves-in-the-distance. Cahoon's vocals are laconic in the lightest moments, and descend into the positively narcotic. There's the sense that during the instrumental passages, she's nodded off. As the record rolls along, ever more awkward influences creep in, culminating in "Dame Fuego," driven by prog keyboards that climax with a synthesiser and powerchord riff that would segue cleanly between Survivor and Toto. I was introduced to that particular song by my local college station, and the deejay yanked it before it finished. They've been mixing strange things with the Americana for a while in Denver, but this is the strangest yet.
A lot of music that's fascinated me lately has a corpselike dreariness. I hesitate to call it Goth, but only because that subculture still seems a bit silly. Of course, the original subculture was aware of its absurdity, and still found ways to be affecting. Is this the Death Revival? I sense that, just as early-'80s hardcore has come back as a fashionable influence, musicians are drawing the best bits from a style that got trapped in cliche a long time ago. Last year, there were great albums by Adult, Celebration and Veronica Lipgloss that didn't mind screeching with a Siouxsie death rattle. It made me think: invest in chorus effect manufacturers, someone is going to make an epic of treated guitar.
Entrance did it. Every song on Prayer of Death dwells on the topic of dying. Guy Blakeslee's project risks coming across like a bad Bauhaus tribute, but it's convincing all the way. It's a soup of treble, flanged guitars, amplified sitars, haunted voices and glittery hooks. Imagine that in 1970, Marc Bolan fell in with George Harrison rather than Ringo Starr, and upped his hippy mysticism, instead of dropping it. The guitar leads resemble Harrison's fizzy honky-tonk playing, but tangle with sludgy crawls. It's a metallic rethinking of All Things Must Pass. It may not hold deep insights, buy its morbid sincerity never calls for lightening up, either.
There's 18 people involved with Dark Meat, and when packed into two touring vans, they go by Dark Meat Vomit Lasers Family Band. The full name accounts for some of the subgroups within. Beyond the four-piece rock outfit, there's a horn section, female backing singers and extra percussionists. The core sound isn't radical. It's trusty southern rock. That blueprint could lead to a jam band vibe, but - just like in their name - vomit shows up in the middle. "When I left the place the walls were lined with skulls," Jimmy McHugh sings on "Angel of Meth." He's got a bad outlook on life and a squawk to his vocals like Mark Arm of Mudhoney. The trip these guys provide is often soaring and accessible. But if they clenched their teeth and didn't breathe steady, there's a sense that the trip would get very ugly indeed. The large cast that supports Universal Indians implies a happy community, yet the songwriting feels like the effort of one person. Rather than getting epic support for his vision, McHugh sounds lost in the circus. And that only emphasizes the confusion and amusement in his delivery. Ordinary elements add up to something more for this band.
Pittsburgh's Dirty Faces were a bit like their beloved Steelers, finally getting their act together after years of solid play, and coming through with a bunch of songs that had loudness and pathos worthy of Raw Power. The best songs on Get Right With God ache with a losers look on life. Eagles of Death Metal had a sunny take on the same '70s riffing. Death by Sexy is willfully dumb, but intricately arranged, and never smirks. Both bands have a take on garage rock that's devoid of any Nuggets R'n'B feel. They both fixate on protopunk boogie and bluster, but know that it takes more than blunt energy to carry a song. Dirty Faces' strategy is to be a bit smarter and sadder than the source. The Eagles' just keep grinning, grooving and lightening the beat to make way for the next wallop.
Epsilons, on the other hand, work within the Nuggets style of garage punk. Still teens, they somehow avoid sounding bratty, even when exhorting that girl to please take off her pantyhose. It's a plea for mercy! They replace the Farfisa organ with thrift shop Casio, and it's enough to bust the formula and make it fresh. Battleship slice and dice Regan-era hardcore in a similar way, upping the paranoia and exasperation. Both records are a blur, and are best played straight through. The prime tracks shatter the hardest when they crest over the churning mess.
My single favorite moment of raw rock came from duo Jaguaro. "Strut" has swinging caveman drums, a slinky guitar riff and mouthbreather vocals drunk on lust. The other tracks on their EP, An Evening with Jaguaro present a looser and noisier dementia. "Strut" is instant fun.
The anonymous electronic producers known as Various hit huge highs and lows. The World Is Gone opens with the crispy dub-paced beats that run through the whole record. But that first song is paired with a smug spoken-word spiel. It sounds like the insufferable collective of 1990s wet blankets known as Consolidated. There's no way my ears could conquer the cringeworthiness of that move. Then it cuts to a pastoral acoustic number with a more solemn vocalist, slipping in a groove after the mood is established. Nice. The air thickens and the dub feel comes to the fore, culminating in their masterful triphop-folk single, "Hater." They roll through these permutations for the rest of the record, making The World Is Gone as scattershot as an actual V/A collection.
The Gossip sums up my year of listening best of all. They started with a LP that discards the guitar crunch and garage gospel that had gotten them noticed. The problem with Standing in the Way of Control is that it can't quite decide what it wants to do, other than leave behind the lo-fidelity ghetto. There's some stabs at cleaner indie rock, spare white funk and torch balladry. They're good songs, but they wilt next to the two huge disco numbers that sit in the middle of the record, "Your Mangled Heart" and "Listen Up." When I reviewed the album at the beginning of the year, I noted that a remix of the title track cluttered up the minimalist heart of this band. Still, I couldn't stop listening to "Listen Up."
Well, mid-summer they released an EP of "Listen Up" remixes that proved me entirely wrong. The version by Touch of Class lays on every mash-up gimmick imaginable, from the stutter riff of Blondie's "Call Me," to a cold stop in the middle, to backwards siren washes. They tack on a straight-faced cover of an Aaliyah slo-jam. And I found myself thinking that there's no reason they couldn't be a huge pop band. Beth Ditto has pipes to match any mainstream diva, and a lot more depth. There's no law saying her kind of talent has to be overlooked. Then I catch the video for "Listen Up." Set in an apartment full of nerd girls, Ditto sits in a corner, practicing her knitting, finally getting up to demurely sway her heavy frame and gobble down a pizza. It's funny and provocative. It possibly disqualifies them from participating in the strict sex stereotypes of the pop world, but it made me love the song even more. An EP for "Your Mangled Heart" followed, adding two more worthy songs to their catalog. Seems like they're gunning to become the only band that matters, and who am I to say it's not within their reach.
(Here is a link to an mp3 mix of some of the songs discussed:
By Ben Donnelly