Before I get into the post proper: look, just give me the “Most Boring Title” award now.
Anyway: here’s a list, with comments and sound files, of the 2007 releases I bought from April through June of this year – which continues to shape up to be a very good year for music.
Björk Volta: A little more song-oriented than her last one, with the usual unusual arrangement touches: sampled foghorns, a brass choir (actually, two of them), stomping feet and crunched branches, etc. The best of it works as well as anything she’s done, while some of it…doesn’t.
The Clientele God Save the Clientele: When I’m in the right mood, I love this stuff. When I’m not, it’s all a blur. Unfortunately, I’m not in that rainswept, late-night mood all that often. Maybe in autumn…
Elk City New Believers: See this post – the links to the tracks are dead, though.
Great Northern Trading Twilight for Daylight: See this post – the links to the tracks are – that’s right – dead.
Charlotte Hatherley The Deep Blue: Another brilliant record from Hatherley. She shows some courage, given her background as a player and purveyor of loudish guitar-pop, in opening her second full-length CD with an atmospheric, keyboard-based instrumental…and it is a bit disconcerting at first. But in fact, she shows that she’s as masterful with a more expansive sound world as she is in more guitar-based writing. She can still do the slightly off-center guitar-rock thing, as “Behave” more than capably demonstrates – but the range she demonstrates in being able to also do the narcotic “Dawn Treader” suggests she might well be the heir of one of her musical idols, Andy Partridge. (The admiration is mutual: he co-wrote this song.)
Je Suis France Afrikan Majik: Read about it here – sorry, linky all gone.
The Marlboro Chorus American Dreamers: Previously addressed here.
Maxïmo Park Our Earthly Pleasures: Not as immediately appealing as their debut CD, still the band is capable of indelible choruses topping punchy and energetic tunes. A bit more keyboards fleshing out the sound here, too. Plus there’s something about singer Paul Smith’s voice and accent that I really like.
Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full: I confess that I’m not terribly familiar with, oh, the last two decades or so of McCartney’s career – but that’s largely because whenever I’d hear bits and pieces of his work during that period, they’d strike me as primarily competent but terribly uninspired. There were some good moments…but he rarely seemed truly committed to making the best art he could. By contrast, Memory Almost Full sounds like the work of an engaged, creative musician. One thing that plagues older musicians is how to deal with current trends: ignore them and you risk old-fogeydom; incorporate them shallowly and your music will seem desperate and dilettante-ish. McCartney avoids these problems by working largely in a classic mode that’s still fairly prevalent practice among current musicians – a mode he himself bears credit for inventing, of course. The other tendency older, successful musicians have is taking for granted the enormous resources available to them, resulting in excessively fussed-over surfaces and credits for eighteen different keyboard players and two separate choirs. Many of the basic tracks here sound home-recorded (in the mode of McCartney’s first two solo albums), and “My Ever Present Past” has pleasingly rough edges in the pinched, snarly guitar tone and clipped drums. Not that everything is simple and basic: “Mr. Bellamy” is one of McCartney’s operetta character sketches (in the manner of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”), featuring an arrangement for a small orchestra. Much has been made of the relatively serious tone of this album: that of an aging man, going through a bitter divorce and having already lost the love of his life. That’s true – and McCartney’s notorious sentimentality is far more astringently cut here than his reputation would suggest. (As an aside, I think that he’s never been as much a sentimentalist as that reputation claims.) The album drags a little bit in the middle, but it ends interestingly: “The End of the End” is the most emotive track on the album (and the one most approaching sentimentality), but it actually earns both its gravitas and its sweetness. A lot of albums would end with a track like that – instead, McCartney ends this one with a roaring, discordant blast called “Nod Your Head” – as if to say “don’t count me out.” And we shouldn’t, either.
Modest Mouse We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank: Kind of a mess. Johnny Marr continues his incredible disappearing act (would you know he’s playing guitar here if he weren’t credited?), and Isaac Brock amplifies all the vocal tics, screams, and general bugged-eye-ness of his singing style to an annoying degree.
The National Boxer: One of those bands that tend to inspire either feverish devotion or a frustrated boredom (the frustration arising from an ability to figure out what the devoted could possibly be hearing). As usual with such divides, I’m not really on either side – although I lean far more toward the devoted end of that spectrum. The band divides, I think, because it doesn’t overvalue “excitement,” and its appeal lies largely in the subtleties of its craft. Take the opening of “Fake Empire“: until the drums come in, nearly two minutes into the song, you’re persuaded the song’s in 4/4 – in fact, all along you’ve been hearing a rolling subdivision of a 3/4 measure (4 groups of 3 sixteenth-notes each, if you’re scoring along at home). That might all be fancy musicians’ play – except for the way it puts you off-center, making you feel things aren’t quite as they seem…and then you listen to the lyrics, which are exactly about that, whether within a relationship or (or, and/or) as a citizen. “Squalor Victoria” puts an early eighties post-punk drum part (heavy on the toms: several tracks use a similar drum set-up) against a gradually building horns-and-strings backdrop. And vocalist Matt Berninger doesn’t overstate: he sounds like a younger, more tuneful, and less jaded Leonard Cohen – again, not something to get the excitable youth over at Pitchfork all aroused. (Oh wait: they gave it an 8.6. That’s okay: I am required by music-blogger regulation to piss on Pitchfork at least once a year. Nothing personal – it’s just business.)
The Ponys Turn the Lights Out: This is a relatively recent acquisition, and one I therefore haven’t really gotten a spin on yet. So far, so good – doesn’t blow me away yet, though.
Mary Timony Band The Shapes We Make: Even though I enjoyed Timony’s odd little quasi-medieval hobbity allegories, I think she’s most effective with a little more direct energy in the music: that is to say, with a band, where she can play off other musicians and highlight the underheralded fact that she’s a wicked clever guitarist. And a very distinctive one as well: both tracks I’ve posted feature solo guitar openings, and both parts are instantly recognizable as being Timony’s playing. And check out the quick little sparkley notes she makes of double-timing the guitar lick near the end of “Rockman”…
Wilco Sky Blue Sky: Seems like everyone I know is holding their nose at this one. I think the problem is that Wilco’s fans (and Wilco’s own musical interests, in fact) come in at least two flavors: there’s the sort of indie-rock experimental group, who started paying attention to Wilco around Summerteeth and, of course, drooled all over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That group reacted fairly positively to A Ghost Is Born, since at least some of the previous album’s experimentation carried over to it…but notice how many songs on Ghost are, essentially, jams. And the fact is, the other half of Wilco’s fanbase is alt-country/Americana-type fans…and they, on the other hand, have been wondering since Summerteeth when Jeff Tweedy was going to get his head out of his ass and write some good ol’ country-folk-rock tunes again.
The first thing that struck me in listening to Sky Blue Sky was how much Tweedy’s voice has come to sound like Jerry Garcia’s. Of course, that’s probably because the rest of this CD sounds astonishingly like the best album the Grateful Dead never put out in the late ’70s. Back to that indie-rock crowd: generally speaking, a severe allergic reaction ensues whenever the Grateful Dead (or, worse, post-Dead “jam bands”) is mentioned.
So is this Wilco’s return to simple, direct songwriting with none of that pesky experimentalism? No: it’s just the experimentation, right on the surface for the last few albums, is more subtly deployed here. Take “Impossible Germany“: the voicing of those three guitars (two of which have almost identical tones) is rather tricky and discordant, not the sort of thing your average bunch of stoned fratboys is going to come up with. Or “Shake It Off” (damn, the rhythm and keyboards are totally Mars Hotel…), which switches up its rhythms in peculiar ways and leads to an instrumental section that, rather than noodle endlessly, sort of stomps around a bit before returning to a calm that, as an aftermath, seems quite deceptive. Speaking of, the album does becalm a bit too often, and while it certainly backs off from the restlessly overt soundscaping of Foxtrot and Ghost, there’s more going on here than casual dismissals of the album’s “boring” sound suggests.
Physical CDs purchased: 7 (2 major-label, 5 indie)
Paid downloads: 5
Other downloads: 1
Promo (mailed to me): 1