Tag Archives: Reviewed

Chris Staples – Golden Age

Chris Staples_HeadshotI maintain a playlist called Golden that pulls together a bunch of songs that give me fall shivers and nostalgic heartstring tugs. There’s loads of Beck’s Sea Change, Kurt Vile’s Walking on a Pretty Day, Steve Gunn’s Sundowner, Elliott Smith, Damien Jurado, Lord Huron, and now…Chris Staples.

Staples’ new album, Golden Age, shares more in common with those songs and that feeling than its title. There’s a type of sadness, without being maudlin. And maybe that’s to be expected. After a rough patch where Staples was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that resulted in pancreas failure, a bike accident that required surgery, and the dissolution of a long-term relationship, Chris Staples is afforded some sad bastard time.

But that’s what’s great about this record: it’s not sad bastard music. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE me some of that. But Staples’ album maintains a bit of pop bounce with lovely melodies and simple production. It’s been described as a “subtle” record, which I guess is as good anything I would come up to describe the production. Because subtlety implies hidden complexity, and this record has that in spades.

Give a listen to lead off track “Relatively Permanent” and tell me you aren’t ready to sit down with Chris, have a beer, and talk about where you grew up.

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Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

While some alt-country old skoolers jumped onboard in Whiskeytown, most of us starting riding Ryan Adams’ crazy train with the release of his first solo album Heartbreaker. And ever since, we’ve been waiting for the return, leading reviewers to alternately hail or deride subsequent albums in light of that near-perfect debut.

It’s unfair to the work and particularly unfair to the artist to hold up an early epiphany as proof that it’s all down hill from here, but Ryan Adams made an art of fucking up for a while by releasing multiple, scattered and schizophrenic albums and generally being a goof. But maybe that’s the luxury afforded early success? As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said:

The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fair years to waste, years that I can’t honestly say I regret, in the seeking of the eternal Carnival by the Sea.

But we all eventually grow up and get back to work. With his latest release, the lovely and restrained Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams delivers on the promise we glimpsed on Heartbreaker. That’s not to say it’s as good—or heaven forbid, better!—than Heartbreaker but that it shares the same focus on finely crafted songs, simple production and a welcomed lack of pretense. It’s simply a good album from a great American songwriter, and isn’t that what we’ve always wanted?


Video: Ashes & Fire (Acoustic Promo)


Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Deerhunter - Halcyon DigestpgDeerhunterHalcyon Digest (4AD)

The prolific output of Deerhunter should at least get you to notice them, but it’s the band’s consistency that will convert you. They’re one of a select few that is able to combine successfully their art-rock tendencies with melodic fortitude.

Normally, this sense of melody comes in the form of reverberated cavestomps that sound like fractured, Nuggets-era musings on death, drugs, and disturbing characters.

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The Boxing Lesson – Wild Streaks and Windy Days

The Boxing Lesson - Wild Streaks and Windy DaysThe Boxing LessonWild Streaks & Windy Nights (Self Released) I like big, dramatic rock if it’s guitar heavy and not so much on the orchestral tip. Where Richard Ashcroft went so terribly wrong after leaving Verve was that he forgot how great guitars are. Turn them UP and I will gladly follow your overwrought story into hell.

Austin, Texas’ own The Boxing Lesson seems to have learned their own lesson by employing massive guitar swells and heavy riffs to carry songs that could otherwise end up sounding like so much soggy eggs. There’s an uncomfortable reliance on synth patches that don’t quite hit the spooky post-neo-psychedelia of Kasabian—in fact, they edge a little too close to Aldo Nova in spots for my comfort—but they do know how to push their Pro-Co Turbo Rat to the limit.

This album won’t change your life but it will remind you to change your strings and turn up to eleven once in a while.

The Boxing Lesson: MySpace, YouTube, CDBaby.

Mew – And The Glass Handed Kites

Mew - And the Glass Handed KitesMewAnd the Glass Handed Kites (Sony)

I really want this album to be stronger than it actually is: a forgettable throwback to those halcyon days when the term “shoegazer” was somewhat novel and when bands effectively created epic swells with nothing more than feedback, guitar pedals, and a dash of studio trickery.

It’s not that I’m against “epic swells,” and Lord knows that I’ve listened to enough Spiritualized and Pink Floyd to appreciate symphonic arrangements. What I do have a problem with is a band that teases me with lush atmospheres, hinting at My Bloody Valentine the entire time, and with barely a hint of the guitar leaving Cape Canaveral’s launch pad. If you’re going to come off as a “space rock” band, then for God’s sake, leave the atmosphere and don’t forget to actually rock when you’re weightless. Mew takes their influences and somehow manages to completely devoid them of any bite. What’s left is the equivalent of leaving an opened two-liter bottle of Coke in the fridge for a week: cold, flat and with plenty of sugar.

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Scritti Politti – White Bread Black Beer

Scritti Politti - White Bread Black BeerScritti PolittiWhite Bread Black Beer (Nonesuch)

Pop For Romantic Literary Theorists. . . .

There is a concept that sometimes arises that has it that in order for a work for art to be completely understood, it is necessary to have contingent knowledge associated with that particular work, knowledge of such things as context and references and suchlike. The Thing-In-Itself may be a whole, or complete, but by having the contingent knowledge it becomes, quite possibly, something else because one’s relationship with the work changes by having a more thorough or informed understanding of what it is. The greater the level of contingent knowledge, the greater the acuteness of assessment.

All of which is to say that Green Gartside may be too clever by half.

Once a member of Scritti Politti, Gartside now is Scritti Politti. White Bread Black Beer is performed by Gartside in its entirety. As he is not, apparently, some sort of musical polymathic virtuoso (think Todd Rundgren), this Emersonian self-reliance makes the instrumental backings of Gartside’s plaintive vocal renderings much weaker than those on the group’s earlier work (that is, when it was a group), especially 1989’s Provision, which brought in no less than Miles Davis to play trumpet on some cuts. Gartside’s synth sounds just don’t have the same resonance—to put it with profound understatement. But his layering of vocals, especially on “Mrs. Hughes,” is evidence that he’s in Brian Wilson terrain, despite the fact that SoCal is a long, long way from Wales.

While some people undoubtedly dismiss Scritti Politti’s work as pop, which it is, it is pop that, in effect, undermines pop. Or so it sets out to do. Which brings us back to the contingent knowledge. Like the name of the band, glommed from early 20th century Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Or the fact that lyrics have referenced Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Derrida, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This is not pop territory. On the disc at hand, the opening track, “The Boom Boom Bap” is quite possibly a variation on the zaum style that was pioneered by the Russian Futurists or a rendering of the type of sound poetry that was performed by Kurt Schwitters. Or consider this lyric from “Petrococadollar” (can you say “portmanteau word?”): “If you don’t have the wherewithal / You don’t need the why.” Few—if any—pop lyricists would even know how to spell wherewithal, to say nothing of using it in a tune.

While it is good to have some new Scritti since the last release, Anomie & Bonhomie of 1999 (yes, there’s that lit-studies major approach at it again), it is a bit disappointing that there is too much Wonder and not enough Guinness. Still, “Robin Hood” (which is not ostensibly a paean to the redistribution of wealth) is almost a Scritti Politti anthem, and it’s about time there’s been one of those.

MP3: “Throw”

Alanis Morissette – The Collection

Alanis Morissette - The CollectionAlanis MorissetteThe Collection (Maverick)

I’m breaking up with Alanis. I’m serious, man. This time, it’s for good. I just can’t stand her fucking whining anymore.

Yeah, it was great, back when we first met. When I used to hear her on the radio on those shitty alternative stations when I was driving in the car. I’d always listen and maybe even sing along.

Yeah, I ought to have fucking known right then.

It was good after that too though. Like when I downloaded “Thank U” from Napster. When it would pop up on my iPod from time to time, I’d always smile.

I even liked “Dogma.” That’s how fucked up over her I was.

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People In Planes – As Far As the Eye Can See

People In Planes - As Far As the Eye Can SeePeople In PlanesAs Far As the Eye Can See (Wind-Up)

A major problem in entertainment today is the lack of originality. Such is the case with the Welsh group People In Planes. They come across as a new Muse or Snow Patrol, which of course begs the question: do we need a new Muse or Snow Patrol? Especially one with shamefully bad lyrics.

People In Planes’ debut, As Far As the Eye Can See, comes roaring in with the bad-ass, coked-out “Barracuda,” begging, “Don’t let me pull over / My senses rely on the finest wine / The quickest time.” Um…what? When they try to get deep, it’s even worse. “Falling by the Wayside” and “Penny” read like passages from a teenager’s poetry notebook. Here, even the music can’t pull it out of the realm of the mundane. Album closer, “Narcoleptic,” is a weak Incubus impression with the chorus: “Must be narcoleptic / Can’t help the way I am (I’m so tired).” Thanks for making us wade through the entire album for that.

The syncopated tonic scale that decorates “Rush” tries to hide lines such as, “Beware of the professional / You won’t get me on / My bicycle with you.” That’s pretty much how it goes with the whole album: raging, kick-ass rock (replete with time and key changes a la Muse) masking a lyrical quagmire. The album’s not all bad: “For Miles Around (Scratch To Void)” is a fine Muse rip-off, and the first single, “If You Talk Too Much (My Head Will Explode)” is interesting enough (mp3). The effort is there, but there are too many inane lyrics and overproduced choruses to make much of an impact. Maybe next time.

Prefuse 73 – Security Screenings

Prefuse 73 - Security ScreeningsPrefuse 73Security Screenings (Warp)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Scott Herren’s work as Prefuse 73 is his ability to get so much mileage out of such a specific sound. There is no denying a Prefuse track when you hear one, yet without wholesale turnover each of his albums has a different tone to it. His breakthrough One Word Extinguisher shot high on critical praise and word-of-mouth about its inspiration, a fractured relationship that led Herren to isolating himself in the studio to create what most consider his masterpiece. The general public seemed to be turned off by the Surrounded By Silence, the cameo-laden follow-up, which was loosely disjointed compared to the cohesive Extinguisher. The variety of guests and Herren’s choice to contextualize his sound within their respective worlds instead of making them adapt to his hurt the record’s strength overall, in the eyes of some (not me, Scott…I’ve been with you the whole way). Security Screenings, the un-follow-up to Silence (a full-length that is disguising itself as a companion disc) and perhaps last (?) Prefuse album, finds Herren for the most part keeping to himself—and he sounds more miserable here than on One Word Extinguisher.

There were signs of heartbreak throughout Extinguisher in the more textured tracks, but the album contained more than a few bangers to break the concept that otherwise earmarked the album. Screenings sounds sad, lonely, and defeated. Herren mostly eschews the hip-hop sensibilities that marked his former work in favor of gentler, more deliberate production. You might go so far as to call Security Screenings minimalist—at least as minimalist as the typically bombastic glitch-hop pioneer can get. Herren, who typically bombards soothing sampling with kitchen sink-style production techniques, turns down the backing chaos and allows ambience to take control.

“Creating Cyclical Headaches” is the lone noisy exception, the product of Prefuse and kindred soul Four Tet together. You can break the track in two and see who contributed what—an ornate synth melody (the type that would fit right in on Everything Ecstatic) bubbles at the surface before being buried under an avalanche of white noise and drones. The other guest is Tunde from TV on the Radio, who provides the type of appearance that most would have preferred on Silence. Tunde intonates various syllabic pitches which Herren, as has become custom, edits and layers into the rest of the mix, making Tunde’s presence completely unrecognizable without a glimpse of the liner notes.

If this is in fact the last Prefuse album—Herren has posted some pretty cryptic messages on his website regarding the end of the Prefuse era—the producer has chosen to go out with a sign instead of a bang. He no longer commands attention, which is a position I’d imagine Herren is more comfortable with. He’s never been impressed by his success, and doesn’t seem to need it either. After all, this is the man who moved to Spain, the apex of glitch-hop (sarcasm!), and put out a Spanish folk album after One Word Extinguisher blew up. He’s never been one to pander to the press, and he stood especially strong in the wake of negativity that followed Silence. However, one has to wonder if the reaction of releasing another album mostly devoid of guest appearances within a year of Silence was to satisfy some who weren’t happy with all of the outsiders clouding Herren’s last album. He even throws a brief clip of one of Silence‘s detractors questioning Herren about all of the albums guests. I’m unsure if this is an example of self-deprecating humor, an attempt to draw attention to the rectification of the supposed flaw of Herren’s last album, or a combination of both. Either way, it seems like something’s bugging Herren, as Screenings is the most plodding, isolated album in his career. Still, for anyone who has followed the career of Prefuse 73, it sounds familiar and serves as a reminder—despite the presence of Savath & Savalas, Piano Overlord, or any of Scott Herren’s other aliases, Prefuse 73 has built something from scratch.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

Belle and Sebastian - The Life PursuitBelle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador)

For better or for worse, the Belle & Sebastian of your older sibling’s college days are long gone. The elegant lo-fi tweeisms have given way under an avalanche of sugary-sweet power pop. Take the blind test, and you could easily mistake The Life Pursuit for a New Pornographers album.

Not even the group’s previous release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, can prepare listeners for what The Life Pursuit offers. Stuart Murdoch has proven his worth as a songwriter in the past, and on Waitress he began to adapt his skills into new terrain for the Scottish group.

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