Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy birthday, Johnny Cash!

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks

When I really get into a “discovery” album—meaning either a band’s first effort, or the record that introduces me to a band—I’m often disappointed by the follow-up. Most likely, this is a personal problem, one of expectations, and not the fault of the artists. I say this upfront because I loved Frightened Rabbit’s Midnight Organ Fight (FatCat, 2008)—partially because of the immediacy and intensity of the record, the feeling of four guys playing slightly imperfect but heartfelt indiepop in a room together, and partially because the bitter breakup theme running through the album resonated with my personal problems at the time. While the latter no longer applies, I still find myself able to return to Midnight Organ Fight and engage with the record the same way I did nearly two years ago.

So, ok. I admit it. I came to The Winter of Mixed Drinks (FatCat, 2010) with lofty expectations. I didn’t expect Midnight Organ Fight II: Revenge of the Organ, but I expected the same immediacy, the same intensity as the last album had. I expected the promise of the last album to be somehow fulfilled or at least furthered. On first listening to Mixed Drinks, I was carried away by the pop melodies and the familiar feel of the songs. On second listen, I realized why the songs feel so familiar: All of them would have a place on Snow Patrol’s Final Straw. Depending on your taste, you can read that statement how you choose. On repeated listen, I’ve realized The Winter of Mixed Drinks, though in a lot of ways a more accessible and polished album, fell short of meeting those expectations.

For one, Frightened Rabbit decided to forego the live studio recording of Organ, so this album lacks that intimate feeling of being in the room with the musicians. For another, and this is a direct result of the first, the production on Mixed Drinks seems to take much more focus, resulting in a clean and beautiful album, but one that crosses the line into over-production a few too many times. For yet another, Mixed Drinks lacks a true standout song, like Organ had with “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms.”

“Things,” the opening track on Mixed Drinks, immediately sets a tension that I expected to run through the record. The first 34 seconds consist of low-register fuzz guitar with heavy echo and a piano tinkling in the background before the vocals begin. Once the drums join in the party, the conflict is mounting as Scott Hutchison sings about not needing “things,” the material possessions that get in the way of our interpersonal relationships. “So I’ll shed my clothes,” he says, “shed my flesh down to the bone, and burn the rest.” A powerful statement of stripping oneself bare, and Mixed Drinks is in a lot of ways about flaying ourselves. Later in the chorus, Hutchison sings, “It’s just you I need, you my human heat, and the things are only things, and nothing brings me life, brings me love.” The need for human heat returns us to Organ’s “The Twist’ and Hutchison seems to be exploring similar territory.

This opening track sets up the rest of the album in two key ways. First, it establishes the complex arrangements and production that the rest of the album will follow. “Things” is so layered with instruments that to hear them all requires a focused listening with good headphones. Second, “Things” establishes a tension for the album that we hope will be carried through and fulfilled by the end.

Sadly, that tension is neither carried through nor fulfilled. Immediately following “Things” is the album’s first single, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” a bright, poppy, radio-friendly song whose opening contrasts sharply with the urgency of the first track. The chorus of “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is Hutchison’s attempt to make the “sink or swim” cliché somehow interesting, by repeating the song’s title three times before asking, “are you a man or a bag of sand?” Apparently, this question is so profound that the chorus’s two lines repeat ad nauseam on the album’s seventh track, “Man/Bag of Sand.” This play with cliché also comes up again in the song “Foot Shooter” toward the end of the album. (Bet you can’t guess what that one’s about.)

Following “Swim” are two tracks that begin the Snow Patrol comparison, “The Loneliness and the Scream” and “The Wrestle.” Both tracks have interesting lyrical tension, but their melodies and arrangements leave something wanting, and we’ve moved far from the tension of “Things.” This tension seems to be resumed in “Skip the Youth,” whose long introduction includes building layers of noise and skipping drums that we expect to come to an urgent boil. But when the vocals come in around the 1:45 mark, all that tension evaporates and we’re left with another bright, poppy song that relies on choir-like backing vocals and overwrought sentiments like “All I need is a place to lie. Guess a grave will have to do.” Unfortunately, graves function as a trope throughout the album, leaving that bitter taste of teenage sentiment in my mouth.

The two most immediately accessible songs on the album, “Nothing Like You” and “Living Colour” are both poppy, catchy, and upbeat. “Nothing Like You,” the second single, has those hints of Snow Patrol like earlier tracks did, but its themes of getting over an ex by getting with someone else bring us back to Midnight Organ Fight. “There is nothing like someone new,” Hutchison sings, “and this girl she was nothing like you.” “Living in Colour,” which has Top 40 written all over it, is the poppiest and catchiest offering on the album. On my first listening of the album, this was the song that immediately stood out. On my tenth listening, this is the track I anticipate. Other than “Things,” “Living in Colour” is the song that most resonates. Unfortunately, it is framed by “Not Miserable” and “Yes, I Would,” two slow, plodding but melodic tracks. “Yes, I Would” in particular drags, and seems a disappointing way to end an album that begins with such urgency and tension as “Things” sets up.

Overall, I have to say that Winter of Mixed Drinks is a very pretty album in terms of its songcraft and production, and the addition of strings to nearly every single track adds layers absent from Midnight Organ Fight. The songs are tight and catchy and the arrangements are complex. However, this feels every bit like one of those unfortunate indie crossover albums, where the relatively successful band tries to create mainstream appeal by writing catchy songs with simple and repetitive lyrics and adding strings to every. single. track. While Winter of Mixed Drinks has the potential to far surpass the success Frightened Rabbit achieved with Midnight Organ Fight, ultimately it lacks the staying power of its predecessor.

The Winter of Mixed Drinks is out March 1 in Europe and March 9 in North America, both on FatCat Records. You can preorder the album here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Brighter Side of Darkness' "Love Jones"

Is there anything more beautiful -- or tragic -- than a teenager in love? With their monumental 1972 hit "Love Jones," the short-lived group of Chicago-area teenagers*, Brighter Side of Darkness, answer this question: No, there is not. In fact, love might lead to the destruction of all humanity**, if what Brighter Side of Darkness has to say about it is true. Somehow, though, "Love Jones" ends up resembling the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove in that it makes the end of the world seem totally fun, entertaining, and bearable!

Let us briefly explore these two concepts: love and jones. "Love" is an idea whose history extends all the way back to 1942, when Warner Bros. released the classic motion picture Casablanca. Sources tell me that when two people are in love, they share the most intimate moments and details of their lives, complementing and supplementing each other's daily needs and deepest desires. Apparently, though, when seven people are in love, things get a bit more messy. "Jones," on the other hand, refers to heroin, or an addiction to heroin. Why on Earth would these healthy, sensible fellows compare the blight of a desparate opiate addict with age-old puppy love?

Because it's awesome. That's why! For a group of wet-behind-the-ears young men still walking around in their short pants, they sure seem to be doing quite well in the School of Hard Knocks, but not so well in High School. "Love Jones" sets the scene perfectly, as these sensitive, vulnerable, lusty young men croon silky, heaven-spun harmonies atop a string and horn arrangement that was surely written out by Cupid with rose-scented ink. The lead singer then proceeds to deliver a smooth rap that correctly compares his insatiable love for a particularly striking young lady in one of his classes with a junkie's need for heroin. He sings, "I need you / and the need is so strong / it's like that of a junkie / In other words, baby, I've got to have you." Though familiar with the junkie's plight, which is quite a serious one at that, he isn't really keeping up with his studies. He relates that because of his "love jones" he can't "get [him]self together." He cites the following example: "Like last Friday in class / When Mr. Russell was giving us the test / I was sitting up, staring at you, and daydreaming / I know I failed / A test paper with nothing but my name on it." As we can see, what seems like a story of true love has become tragic. But it is the sweetest of tragedies. The admixture of youthful innocence with the pin-pupilled experience of the heroin addict makes "Love Jones" one of the greatest songs of all time, ever.

*One of their singers was Daryl Lamont, who was all of twelve years old when this record was cut. Apparently the success of The Jackson 5 led to the exploitative creation of this group.

**Here, "the destruction of all humanity" can be taken to mean "failing a test."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Have One on Me - Joanna Newsom

Against my better judgment, I'm going to try to review Joanna Newsom's stunning 3xLP, Have One on Me, after only spending a few days with it. Be forewarned, I don't intend to offer a final conclusion on the album's quality. While I intend to discuss some of its songs, I just don't feel as if I'm deep enough into this album to really read it well. And who can blame me, right? Newsom's latest is over two hours of music spread across three CD's or LP's. That's a lot to take in. If anything, my early reaction to Have One on Me is one of awe. As I listen, I don't hear anything I dislike, and everything seems to fit together, but I feel lost in the album's epic scope. I want to feel as if I can enter into this album and be familiar with it, but that will take some time. My suggestion to you, the listener who goes out and buys a copy of Have One on Me? Listen to it once or twice all the way through, then spend time with each individual disc. Eventually the album will begin to feel familiar.

Of course, the biggest question everyone is asking about Newsom's latest is, "is it worth it?" This is a valid question to ask. Three discs of material is a huge commitment for an audience. The question's answer is simple and to the point: yes. Have One on Me is worth every minute. Early interactions with the album might find listeners longing for the more accessible songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender or the grandiose, epic sweep of Y's, but Newsom has moved beyond both. The new songs are nuanced and complex, less whimsical than Newsom's previous work, but more heartfelt. And while the arrangements aren't as big as Van Dyke Parks's work on Y's, they are rich and subtle, full of motion and surprise. The title track is a constantly evolving tapestry of musical textures, incorporating recorders, banjo, and mandolin. "Baby Birch" introduces a bit of distorted electric guitar into the mix, giving the song a slightly ragged feel. "Good Intentions Paving Company," is driven by pianos, but builds with a pseudo-gospel choir and trombone, elevating the song into the most soulful moment of Newsom's entire catalog. In general, Newsom's use of piano across a handful of Have One on Me's tracks adds a fresh warmth to her songs--"Soft as Chalk," almost sounds jazzy at times and "Occident" is elegant and gloomy. Beyond this new sonic territory, what keeps the album from feeling overblown is what has always made Newsom's work exciting, her complete dedication to sincerity. There isn't a whiff of hipster irony anywhere among Have One on Me's eighteen tracks. Newsom's vision remains pure, and that, above all else, is how she is able to release over two hours of music, all of it engaging.

The album's one fault, at the moment, is that it leans heavily toward mid-tempo harp pieces. At times, the album feels a bit homogeneous. I'm not willing to offer this as a definitive critique yet, however, as "In California," and "No Provenance" have already transformed from "mid-tempo harp songs" to gorgeous ballads, overflowing with artistry and restrained emotion. The keys to these songs are Newsom's matured songwriting, melodic sense and voice. While the songs on Have One on Me are still uniquely Newsom's, it's not difficult to imagine her listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush while writing this album. "In California" finds both influences combined to stunning effect--the song's warm melodies sound like a second cousin to Mitchell's, while the climactic outburst at the song's climax is as dramatic as anything in Bush's catalog.

It's still too soon to really read Have One on Me as any kind of unified text, but that's okay. I, for one, am looking forward to spending some quality time with this album and really getting to know it the way it demands to be known. The task may seem daunting, but the more I ease into the songs, the more impossible an accomplishment Have One on Me sounds like. While I'm not willing to make such a statement yet, Newsom's new album could find itself alongside The Magnetic Fields's 69 Love Songs as the rare triple album that works on every level. Only time will tell, but just the fact that anyone at all is willing to dedicate that sort of time is a pretty good indicator that Have One on Me is a truly special album.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car"

Conventional wisdom assumes that the primary breakthrough of the automobile at the turn of the 20th Century was its ability to get its driver and passengers from Point A to Point B much more quickly than the horse-drawn carriage. WRONGGGGGG! As any auto historian will tell you, the young lovers of those innocent times knew the real secret about cars: it provided a new, slightly covert, even at times comfortable space to "fool around." (Editor's note: You must realize this was waaaaay back when cars did not come predominantly in "economy-sized" models. Today, pretensions to "comfort" during romantic automobile trysts are inaccessible to all but, ironically enough, those who purchase Hummers. Yes, I am available for birthday parties and bar-mitzvahs!) This new thing, this Car, not only reduced travel time, but it significantly reduced a number of embarrassing moments--such as having ones parents or annoying college roommates walk into a bedroom during .... well you get the picture. Its slight spaciousness and its inherent mobility resulted in a new, widespread geographical feature: Lover's Lane. Basically, without the car, many people of my parents' generation would never have been accidentally conceived.

The towering singing sensation of the 1980s, Billy Ocean, is quick to acknowledge this, some 90 years after its invention, in his monumental, Mutt Lange-produced hit, "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car." Never before had soulful poetry of this caliber -- reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's epic In Memoriam A.H.H., or Jimmy Stewart's "Beau" -- centered around this secret sexual underground of the four-wheel motor car. Atop a soulful groove of "Sussidio" horn licks, Kraftwerk beats with plenty of gated reverb, and a vicious, Ayler-esque sax solo during the bridge, Ocean's narrator lusts after an unrequited love who he's longed for ... since he just noticed her walking down the street about fifteen seconds ago. Though he's only known of her beauty for a few quarters of a minute, he would like to invite her, like any proper, courteous, and self-respecting gentleman would, into the backseat of his Porsche 911 (seriously?) for, well, you know what. I don't think I need to remind you all, but according to Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home (1922, Funk and Wagnalls), this is the proper thing to do in this situation. When Billy Ocean sings, "Hey you, get into my car," as the song opens, we are aural witnesses to a perfect, succinct, and completely wholesome example of valiant romantic courtship. In no way at all is this creepy or desperate. His dedication and heartfelt sincerity should set an example for all of those lonely souls longing to know they've met "the one" in less time than it takes to put popcorn into the microwave. For these reasons, and many many more, Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car" remains one of our culture's musical touchstones of the era.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks

Almost a decade ago, Ted Leo opened one of the finest albums of his career with a stunning song that climaxed with the line, "All the songs you hear down here, they have a purpose." This line from "Biomusicology" has proved a fitting mission statement for Leo's career. Leo has a knack for trying to squeeze political action into every corner of every song. At first, the politics were more subdued, a mixture of the personal-is-political, and more overt soap-boxing. As America's political climate soured, though, Leo's songwriting grew increasingly political. Shake the Sheets was an outright protest record, and Living With the Living was a sprawling mess of an album that tried to focus on the personal, but was too bogged down by its own political clutter. That's a shame, because turning back to "Biomusicology," the song's more important lines are the supporting sentiments that follow the above quote: first, "all in all/we can not stop singing"; and second, "but we will ne'er be broken hearted." Why these lines? Because they maintain a sense of political action while focusing inward to the vital, human tendency to seek joy. The song isn't simply a political diatribe, it is about finding spaces in which to maintain one's humanity in a fucked up, dysfunctional culture. These are the kinds of songs where Leo shines and that, at times, make me wonder if he isn't one of our best living songwriters. And of course, Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak are full of such songs. Then there's also the song that many Leo fans consider, not just the finest moment off of Shake the Sheets, but from Leo's entire discography, the personal-is-political pep talk, "Me and Mia," featuring the ecstatic refrain: "Do you believe in something beautiful?/Then get up and be it."

What I'm getting at is that Leo's songs work best when they are about human struggles and interactions, but informed by a political sensibility. The more that politics become a song's focus, the less vital Leo's songs feel. A prime example of this is the hardcore punk inflected "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" off of Living With the Living. The song finds Leo sacrificing the humanity in his songwriting in the name of vitriolic anger. This song also points out another trend in Leo's songwriting: Leo's best songs tend to be informed by a punk sensibility, but never concern themselves too much with sounding "punk." The charm of Leo's earlier work from the 00's is that it synthesizes power pop, punk, folk, and straight up rock and roll into a brilliant and engaging concoction of undeniable pop music.

Which brings us to Leo's latest effort, the forthcoming The Brutalist Bricks. A good chunk of Leo's new album could be described as a satisfying return to form full of songs that, for the most part, leave politics in the background as a context within which the song's characters strive for a better way to live. Musically, the album trends more consistently toward power pop than fans might be used to, but that's okay because the melodies and hooks are consistently strong to match.

The album asserts itself immediately on its urgent opening track, "The Mighty Sparrow." Leo opens the song with a vigorous strum-and-howl, the lyrics pointing both to turbulent global politics and the necessity of human connection: "When the cafe doors exploded I reacted to/Reacted to you..." When the Pharmacists kick in after this brief introduction, they sound tighter and more excited than they have since "Me and Mia." The opening song's momentum carries through the albums first four tracks, resulting in two more highlights, "Ativan Eyes," and "Even Heroes Have to Die." Among the other highlights, there is the two-parted "Bottled in Cork," which moves from a punky, politically minded, power pop intro into a buoyant acoustic jam about sister's having kids and infectious optimism where "a little good will goes a mighty long way," before ending with an exhortation to "tell the bartender/I think I'm falling in love." And let's not forget the bright guitar pop of "Bartolemo and the Buzzing of Bees," built around a slick bass hook and an all around tight performance that reminds us why Leo's Pharmacists are such an impressive live act.

Despite this album's obvious successes, the end product comes off feeling a bit uneven due to a couple of puzzling song and production choices. The album's first cracks become visible on its fourth track, "The Stick." It's one of the "hardest" songs Leo has recorded as of late, and the end result sounds labored and forced. Then there is the album's difficult three song run of "Woke Up Near Chelsea," "One Polaroid a Day," and "Where Was My Brain?" The first takes itself too seriously, as Leo proselytizes, "we are born of despair/we're gonna do it together." "One Polaroid a Day," dealing with an unnamed characters' desire to "control everything," is built on an interesting, light, funk-type rhythm, but Leo sings the song through a hushed whisper in his uncomfortable lower register, making the song somewhat difficult to listen to. Finally, the Ramones-esque "Where Was My Brain?" isn't bad, exactly, but its goofy chorus and bright production feel more like b-side material than a strong deep cut off of a largely exceptional album. In some respects, the unevenness brought on by these songs tempts us to draw more explicit comparisons to Living With the Living, which suffered from wild variation between styles. Fortunately, despite its inconsistencies, The Brutalist Bricks is a much stronger album.

Trying to figure out why certain songs feel out of place on an album isn't an easy thing to do, so I won't try. Perhaps where The Brutalist Bricks goes wrong is in trying too hard to diversify its sound. In this album's case, the attempt took what could have been an out-and-out power pop masterpiece and made it "just" an excellent album with a few awkward moments. After years of listening to Leo, though, I suspect he's not all that worried with making another masterpiece, instead finding satisfaction in making a fun, passionate, sincere album that takes some risks. And, I can honestly say that no matter how little I care to listen to some of the album's weaker tracks, they won't detract from the finer moments. Make of that what you will, I'll chalk this one up as another win for Team Leo.

The Brutalist Bricks by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists is available on March, 9 in the U.S. on Matador Records. You can pre-order the album here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Late to the Party: Nobunny's "Love Visions" (2008)

About six months ago, I was checking out the Killed By Death Records website to hear some more of their wonderful, obscure, punk-rock records of years gone by. I stumbled upon one entry, which was--somewhat unusual for them--a fairly recent release by a group called Sneaky Pinks. Their self-titled EP from 2005 is the brain-child of one Justin Champlin. The songs on this EP are incredibly lo-fi. It wouldn't surprise me if they were recorded in his bedroom. They are extremely simple and incredibly childish (sample lyric from the song "Life Stupid I Stupid": "I want a blow job / I want a hot dog"). But there was something irresistible about this recording that made me want to seek out a fourth-print pressing of it on vinyl.

Fast forward to last week. I went to Guestroom Records in Norman, Oklahoma and saw a record by a "group" called Nobunny, featuring a man--in a black and white photo--wearing a bunny mask in a leather jacket, jeans, and Chucks leaning against a brick wall. The title of the album?: Love Visions. I immediately thought of two things: the first Ramones LP (1976) and the recently-departed Jay Reatard's breakthrough record Blood Visions (2006). The guy behind the counter at the record store confirmed that it was, indeed, Justin Champlin's post-Pinks project so I decided to chance it and spend $15 to buy it on vinyl. I figured if it wasn't any good, it could trade it in later. Plus it came on colored vinyl (my copy being a translucent red), which is always awesome.

Love Visions retains the lo-fi approach of the Sneaky Pinks EP. However, the emphasis shifts from punk rock to early pop/rock n' roll. Like the Ramones, many of these songs seem like they could have been recorded in an alternate-universe version of the late 1950s (one that had drum machines!). What is most striking about this record is the almost conservative naivete of the Champlin's approach. His lyrics seem to come from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy looking for love. There's no lust here; just a refreshingly simple belief in the power of love and rock n' roll. For me, this makes the primary referent for the album The Modern Lovers, not the Ramones.

The songs are absolutely catchy; resistance is futile. "Nobunny Loves You" is supposed to serve as an anthem, and it works quite well, drawing off 60s surf music. "I Know I Know" is one of the album's better cuts, featuring another hum-worthy chorus, and one of THE worst guitar solos ever. It's so bad it's utterly charming, reminding one of the gleeful primitives The Shaggs. Many of the songs are filled "woo-hoos," Phil Spector girl-group beats, and two- to three-chord songs, exemplified by "Somewhere New," "Church Mouse," and "It's True." There are touching little flourishes here and there, like the toy piano solo in "Chuck Berry Holiday." My other favorite is the closer, "Not That Good," wherein the narrator offers juvenile, but completely inoffensive criticism of a popular girl who has snubbed him (sample lyric: "You think you've got the coolest hair / You've got skidmarks in your underwear ... No, you're not that good / No, you're not that good"). And while this music is distinctly lo-fi, it doesn't shred eardrums like the recent "shitgaze" music of groups like Times New Viking (who I'm admittedly a disciple of!), No Age, or Wavvves. It's as if Champlin recorded demos and then decided the songs stood up; that big budget studio trickery was unnecessary. For these reasons, Love Visions is one of the more infectious and down-right fun records I've heard in quite some time.

Here are some relevant Nobunny links:
Nobunny on Myspace
"I am a Girlfriend" on YouTube
"Boneyard" on YouTube

Friday, February 12, 2010

We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks: Aloha - Home Acres

When I first heard Aloha's 2008 EP, Light Works, I wasn't particularly impressed. Here was a band who had spent a decade building a reputation as an exciting, dynamic live act slowing down to offer a handful of hazy, gentle, grown up indie pop songs. On early listens, the EP was lacking because it didn't offer the usual mix of anthems and ballads, of soaring guitars, driving percussion, and exhilarating keyboard parts. Within a few months of the appearance of my lukewarm review of the EP, I'd grown to love it. That's the other thing about Aloha--some of their songs are immediate and urgent, they grab you on first listen and never let go. Some of their other songs, however, need a little more time to grow--ears need a chance to dig the melodies out of the arrangements, to identify the moments that quicken pulses and make the outside world disappear.

Aloha's upcoming album Home Acres has both types of moments in abundance. The album's first song, "Building a Fire," finds Aloha sounding as urgent as ever. Building on top of a throbbing bass line, the song establishes the album's mood and themes--a little bit dark, but shot through with warmth and hope. These elements, with help from the album's gloomy art, combine to create an absorbing and singular aesthetic for the album. The songs are tight and crisp, full of energetic hooks and driving rhythms, but there is always a catch, always something pulling the songs back to Earth, keeping them grounded--but in a good way. In fact, the cynical tractor-beam that keeps the songs from taking unimpeded flight is crucial to providing the tension that makes the songs on Home Acres, not just enjoyable, but downright necessary.

The songs range from the irrepressible ("Moonless March,") to the elegant ("Everything Goes My Way,") as they urgently struggle against themselves toward some sort of transcendence or resolution. "Moonless March," finds Aloha pushing tempo and melody against each other, pushing the hooks to their limits, while "Everything Goes My Way," constantly threatens to give in to its own weight until each appearance of its well-earned, anthemic chorus. Perhaps the album's strongest moment is its final track, "Ruins." While this isn't anything new for Aloha--they have a knack for excellent album closers--"Ruins" pushes the band and album into new territory. Much of the song sounds like quintessential Aloha, Tony Cavallario's simple but effective vocal melody rides on pulsing drums and wandering keyboard lines. But then, as the song reaches its closing moments, Aloha raise the stakes, maintaining the familiar while pushing into pure power-pop territory. All of the layers and textures are still in place, but the end result is the biggest, boldest anthem that Aloha have ever put to tape. Home Acres isn't all big hooks and anthems though, more nuanced, layered pieces like "White Wind," and "I'm in Trouble," give the listener room to breathe, while also providing some of the album's loveliest moments. They don't hit immediately on first listen, but they're worth the extra time and they provide the album with an excellent sense of balance.

More than ten years, five LP's, and a handful of EP's into their career, it's impressive that Aloha don't just manage to sound fresh and vital, but manage to push out from their core sound to create a new, exciting listening experience. In an interview with Stereo Subversion, Cavallario described his thought process in writing the new album as an exercise in considering American prosperity then "stripping that away and thinking of what comes after that." The end result is an album that slips effortlessly between gentle mid-tempo numbers, crisp pop songs, and big anthems, constantly asking us to consider the tension between where we are, and where we could be heading, standing outside of the ruins "waiting for the get-a-way car that never came."

Aloha's Home Acres is out on March 9 on Polyvinyl Records. Preorder the album here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Songs That Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)"

John Parr's theme for the epic 1985 Joel Schumaker vehicle St. Elmo's Fire is a stunningly original pop-hit and a distinctively singular moment in Western Civilization. For centuries, literally, people had yearned for a song that simultaneously addressed the themes of "the mid-life crisis" and patriotism by way of an unusual weather-related metaphor. Herman Melville writes, in his classic novel Moby-Dick, "Who would think, then, that such fine sirens should not regale us with an essence of tune in the inglorious key of crinkled mortality with the fragrance of our holy eagle in flight behind the smoldering lightning of the sea as we grow old?" As a seaman, Melville was very familiar with St. Elmo's Fire, an unusual weather occurrence in which a glow of light emanates from a grounded object during a lightning storm. He was not, however, familiar with St. Elmo, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2001, as the patron saint of tickling. Needless to say, Parr realized this all-too-human desire in this rapturous song that had been part of the human DNA for generations just waiting to be expressed.

To realize this longed-for song, Parr needed some inspiration. He got it from Joel Schumaker and Carl Kurlander, those angelic scribes, who wrote with typewriter ribbons dipped in God's spittle the screenplay for St. Elmo's Fire, a film about aimless rich kids trying to figure out their lives after college and the horrors of doing huge loads of cocaine while locking oneself in a bedroom with the window open during a windstorm. Reading this, Parr remembered a great patriot who once said, "This is America: Home of the Eagle." That was all he needed to complete this piece de resistance. Parr describes a young person, not unlike Demi Moore sixty years ago, who finds "you're all alone" and that "everything has changed." With this queue, Parr launches into one of the finest vocal performances of the ages, drawing on the magical powers of our national scavenger, the Eagle: "I can see a new horizon / Underneath the blazin' sky / I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher." As he sings these immortal lines, he possesses the power of a hundred Celine Dions -- but far less creepy -- hitting octaves that aren't even in a dolphin's vocabulary. Fuse this top-notch vocal performance with the sweet keyboard sounds of the mid-1980s and we are left with a composition for the ages.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Over Analysis: Horton Hears a Horchata

Last week my wife and I were grocery shopping in our local health food store and I decided I needed to buy some horchata. I’d never tried horchata before and, until I’d heard the Vampire Weekend song of the same name, I hadn’t even heard of the stuff. Score one for pop songs.

Maybe the above paragraph sounds kind of strange to you. I mean, I did learn about a sweet rice drink from a pop song and purchased said drink based on the song’s recommendation alone. What makes this stranger is that I don’t feel the need to experience any of the songs other rhymed objects: baraclavas, aranciata, or Masada.
And that's what a great song does—it places us into a moment, asks us to experience something—even if that something is just a catchy hook—and then pushes out from a simple text that we listen to, transcending it's song-ness and integrating itself seamlessly into our daily lives. So what is it, exactly about "Horchata" that give the song this power?

On the surface, the song is simple—the melody is almost childish, the arrangement whimsical, mixing bells and strings with an occasional throbbing drum cadence. What propels "Horchata" to euphoric heights is its emotional core, driven by Ezra Koenig's nostalgia-heavy lyrics, and the song's tension/release/tension structure.

Koenig's lyrics manage to convey dual senses of loss and nostalgia through a use of specific detail, while allowing enough ambiguity that any sort of real clarity is out of reach. Koenig's lyrics recall "pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals," "lips and teeth to ask how [his] day went," and "Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on." Koenig's use of the everyday allows the song's nostalgia an uncommon sincerity—he's not directly reminiscing about an abstract idea or even a person, but we feel the nostalgia through the details.

The song's structure emphasizes these lyrics perfectly. Rather than relying on a traditional chorus/verse/chorus structure, the song builds on a sort of melodic circularity. The first two lyrical movements of the song open with the playful head, "You remember drinking horchata/I'd look psychotic in a baraclava." The whimsical melody and childish innocence of the arrangement, here, sets up the following build. As Koenig delivers fragmented memories, the song's melody shifts between two identical melodic lines that build tension through repetition, followed by a heightened, soaring melodicism for the line "Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten," which is immediately followed by an approximation of the previous two lines. The structure, then, is two lines of building, a line of release, then a retreat back to the building melody. At the conclusion of this pattern in each of its first two appearances, the arrangement explodes into a barrage of drums and vocal "woah's," an easy final release that dissipates the remaining tension, leaving just enough behind to lead into the pattern's reprise.

The song's crucial moment, however, never offers this explicit release. I am, of course, referring to the song's third and fourth melodic cycles. The third time through plays with the same dynamic of tension building, but never offers the final release. Rather, the third cycle empties into a bridge of bells and percussion before jumping straight into the fourth cycle. Here, we're entering into the fourth cycle without the tension of the third ever being fully resolved. The fourth cycle, then, extends the build, repeating the single melodic line through the song's most specific lyrics:

"In December, drinking horchata
I'd look psychotic in a balaclava
Winter's cold is too much to handle
Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals
Years go by and hearts start to harden
Those palms and firs that grew in your garden
Falling down and nearing the rose beds
The roots are shooting up through the tool shed
Those lips and teeth that asked how my day went
Are shouting up through cracks in the pavement"

As Koenig delicately delivers each line, building that tension through repetition, the arrangement adds a lovely flute part, dizzying strings, and a gentle but urgent pulse. The section tricks us into thinking we're heading toward another triumphant moment of release, perhaps the song's biggest moment. Instead, the section's conclusion ends and returns to the main melodic cycle, leaving the tension unresolved.

This tension remains unresolved, even through the song's final tour of the lines: "Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten/Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on." The melody is unchanged, but the song's arrangement achieves a fresh, celebratory tone, a final coda of ecstatic percussion, flute, and strings. This final moment is a mere echo of the release we expect, meaning that the song never resolves its tension—the fact that the song allows its tension to persist after the final note serves to cement the song's cyclical structure. That is the song's power, though it ends, it is unending.

At the conclusion of "Horchata" we are exactly where we started, but have lived the song. We've felt the give and take of tension building and releasing and know that the cycle is unending, a perfect representation of pop music's ability to evoke nostalgia and resonate well into the space between tracks.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Josie Kreuzer's Rockabilly

After talking about rockabilly today, I started thinking about Josie Kreuzer and her band. Josie Kreuzer is from California and is signed with She Devil Records. I bought her two CDs, "Hot Rod Girl" and "As Is" the night I saw her perform at 66 Bowl in Oklahoma City a few years ago. Don't let this photo fool you: what Kreuzer and her band did that night at the bowling alley had even the bowlers stopping to watch. Josie Kreuzer's band unleashed on us. It was a wild, raunchy show. The standouts on "Hot Rod Girl" are "Wild Man," "So-Called Boyfriend" and the bluesy "Ain't Got a Thing." The other CD, "As Is," is pretty solid all the way through. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"

Katy Perry blindsided us with her prophetic genius and soaring, angelic voice in the Summer of 2008 with "I Kissed a Girl." Never before has one single song so powerfully disrupted the paradigms of human sexuality as much as this legendary tune. First off, Perry introduced the mainstream masses--in other words, people like myself--to the notion of girls kissing each other. Stop it! That is unthinkable. Mind-blowing. It was so unthinkable, in fact, that groups like Focus on the Family, the Heritage Foundation, and the Flat Earth Society protested its popularity because it promoted homosexual values. Homosexuality? What is this? I did some research and it turns out that, as it pertains to this song, women have been kissing other women for years. In fact, I discovered that girls have been kissing girls to impress guys--to re-enforce heterosexist values--for years as well. These women are sometimes referred to as "lipstick lesbians." I was shocked to find this out. Apparently they have been kissing each other to impress men since the mid-1980s, reportedly because that is when pornography made the transition from film to videotape. I don't see the connection, but I believe everything Wikipedia tells me. There was even a movie that hit the theaters in the late 1990s called Wild Things that celebrated these shenanigans. There was even a song around the same time with the same name. Who knew?

Okay. Despite my original premise of this song's "introduction" of scandalous behavior--which I have, thanks to my own in-depth research, personally debunked--to the pure and chaste citizens that populate our globe, like your humble narrator, this is still a work of vast artistic grandeur, awash with hundreds of miracles of sonic glory, that I cannot believe has been permitted mainstream radio airplay. Perry's voice during the chorus is so pure that it's not even auto-tuned. That's how her voice naturally sounds! Musically, "I Kissed a Girl" is an innovative blend of Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love" and the vocal styles of Britney Spears and Pink, two seminal performers from pop music's greatest decade. However, the more I think about the revealing lyrics ("I kissed a girl just to try it / I hope my boyfriend don't it / It felt so wrong / It felt so right / Don't mean I'm in love to night"), exposing to the innocent masses (like yours truly) the sexual dynamic already described in the first paragraph of this post, I've come to the conclusion that this song is transcendentally scandalous, but for some reason I can't recall at the moment. If anything, the characterization of this song as advocating "lesbian values" should be protested by lesbians. The song has as much lesbian content as a box of Trojan Magnums.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #28 - "Music From Big Pink: A Novella"

I should have read John Niven's 33 1/3 book on Music From Big Pink a long time ago. I'm a fiction writer. I'm writing a collection of stories about music. I love the 33 1/3 series--so, why did it take me so long to get to this, the 28th entry in the series? Fuck if I know.

It might have something to do with the fact that I haven't listened to The Band in quite a while. Or maybe it's because the other fictional entry into the series that I've read, Joe Pernice's volume on Meat is Murder, wasn't as dazzling as I'd hoped. Or maybe it's just because other books in the series have caught my eye first. Regardless, it's a shame I just now got to this book because it quickly became one of my favorites.

From almost the very fourth (more on this later) page of the novella, John Niven effortlessly portrays a time and place that, according to his author bio, he was barely even alive for. By drawing on fictional characters like the drug dealer protagonist Greg, his love interest Skye, and a handful of other burnouts and drug addicts, Niven breathes fresh breath into the task of rock criticism.

Okay, so maybe this novella isn't criticism in it's strictest sense, but it functions as criticism in a number of ways. Niven's novella celebrates Music From Big Pink, while simultaneously positioning the record within its cultural, historical and social contexts. This isn't just a story about a stoner/dealer who happens to know The Band--it's a story about car crashes and assassinations, being afraid of Albert Grossman and hating Lou Reed, sneaking a peak at Dylan's bible and sticking an ice cube up a dude's ass because he's just OD'd on heroin. Somewhere, within all of this, Music From Big Pink is birthed and becomes a soundtrack of sorts for the protagonists. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Niven's novella is that he never pauses to make us read about the album. Rather, he weaves the album's feel into the fabric of the narrative so that by the novella's end we've experienced the album, and The Band, in a new way. That is exactly what 33 1/3 books should do.

Niven's prose, for the most part, makes the book almost aggressively readable. He nails Greg's voice and doesn't worry too much about dazzling us, relying instead on tight, solid sentences that are unexceptional on their own, but add up to a truly engaging story.

The only real quibble I have with the novella is its tacked-on-feeling frame and the overly abrupt end to the Woodstock section. While these elements were less than satisfying, they weren't disappointing enough to ruin the rest of the narrative. Perhaps that speaks to the strength of the characters that an unsatisfying ending doesn't feel like such a big deal?

By my count, I've only got one more of 33 1/3's fictional entries left, Kate Schatz's entry on PJ Harvey's Rid of Me. I might pick a copy up the next time I see it. Anyway, I'll try to review 33 1/3 books as I finish them. Even the older ones because, well, I really like the series. Even the lesser entries offer something. So, until next time...