Monday, November 28, 2005

Laura Veirs-Year Of Meteors

“Year Of Meteors,” Suzanne Vega’s first album since “Days Of Open Hand” is not as good as Beth Orton’s “Carbon Glaciers” and…ok, I’ll stop there. Laura Veirs is the kind of artist that most people have never heard of, but when they do, they’ll automatically think “Haven’t I heard this before?” The answer is yes, but can you really fault an artist for sounding like Suzanne Vega or taking a production tip from Beth Orton? The world is certainly big enough to have more than one folky singer-songwriter or, at least, a producer who melts atmospheric electronica over tried-and-true acoustic guitar strumming.
Where Laura’s last effort, “Carbon Glaciers,” got noticed for being a high quality folk album, “Year Of Meteors” utilizes Veirs’ backing band and sounds almost entirely contrived and lacking chemistry. Ironically, it works on some levels, particularly when the subject matter gets cold and, ahem, spacey. “Galaxies” stands out as one of those examples and is one of those songs that perks your ears as it plays overhead when you’re ordering a white chocolate soy mocha with no whip cream. Before you think I’m being mean, understand that I’ve got a thing for that very overpriced drink and, as a result, absolutely love the song “Galaxies.” It’s just as fucking catchy as, say, “Luka” and a helluva lot less pretentious too.

Speaking of, Veirs gets a little too caught up in her wordsmiths, often ending up in the “what the fuck?” category (“Crawl inside like a honeybee”) but every now and then hitting something clever (“with white spider stars coming down”). When it works, you can overlook her obvious influences and when it doesn’t, you start to wonder what happened to those influences because they did it better the first time.
Since she studied geology, there’s more than a few references to that field (“by your zirconium smile”) and there’s something a little intriguing about that geekiness. Combined with Veirs’ scholastic phrasing and her lack of vocal details, it’s obvious that she has some passion behind her songs even though folksinger was not her first career path choice. But “Year Of Meteors” is just good enough for us to be thankful that she put down the rocks and picked up the hollowbody.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kate Bush-Aerial

Boy howdy! When I was in high school, I had a tremendous crush on Kate Bush. Seriously. I imagined that it was me instead of Houdini she was kissing on the cover of “The Dreaming.” Then I imagined that we would get married and I would tell her how wonderful her new material sounded when she played it for me in the music room of our castle in England.
Things between Kate and I never worked out. She released “The Sensual World” and I got a little bored at how the album wasn’t as challenging as the previous two. Her next effort, “The Red Shoes,” was more of the same and even less inspired.
Then Kate disappeared.

If you’re retardedly obsessed like me, you learned that she had a kid and was focusing her efforts on being a Mother. Last year, I learned that she was hanging around Abbey Road Studios which could only mean that a new Kate album was on the horizon.
“Aerial” marks the first album from her in twelve years and possibly her best in twenty. With that being said, don’t expect it to be another “Dreaming” or “Hounds.” It couldn’t be and most certainly isn’t. Instead, we have another Bush album placed squarely in middle age and a reflection on domestic bliss. While that it itself isn’t adventurous by any stretch of the imagination, enough time has passed in between albums for her new effort to sound refreshing.
The album, broken into two separate discs (“A Sea Of Honey” b/w “A Sky Of Honey”), begins with the single “King Of The Mountain,” an interesting study in Elvis. What’s even more interesting is how she’s finally thrown out the heavy handed production values that’s plagued the vast majority of her work in the past. Analog drums and effect-free guitars back Kate as she manages, using only her voice, to lift the song into familiar, weird territory. It’s the first time we’ve seen her use a subject matter of recent history, as she typically finds comfort in biographical figures from other eras. The follow-up, a song about a man with a deep fascination of numbers (“π”) goes a step further before we get reeled back into middle-of-the-road song structures. “Bertie” is a song about her son (“you bring me so much joy/then you bring me more joy”) and it demonstrates her focus for the past seven years. Then she provides us with probably the strangest topic ever put on a Kate Bush album: washing clothes. As if you could imagine, “Mrs. Bartoluzzi” doesn’t work at all (“Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy/Get that dirty shirty clean”) and it’s quite possibly one of the worst songs on a Kate Bush record.
The second disc is hands-down the winner and it saves “Aerial” from remaining in the adult contemporary section. Like the second side of “Hounds Of Love” (entitled “The Ninth Wave”), “A Sky Of Honey” follows a song-cycle that centers on the dusk til dawn passage of a day. Impeccably constructed, it tinkers with both weirdness and professionalism while (again) repeating the praises of everyday life. It seems that she has had enough time to focus on the things that most of us would tend to overlook. In some ways, it also illustrates that she is no ordinary woman and, perhaps, a tad out of touch with the rest of us. While you and I were getting through this thing called life, it seems that Kate was merely hanging around the estate, birdwatching. By then end of “A Sky Of Honey,” you can hear Kate laughing alongside actual birdcalls. This is the kind of strangeness that has been missing from her last two efforts and probably the reason why fans like me are so tolerant of a twelve year gap.
At forty-seven, Kate’s voice remains strong and vital. It’s the focal point of “Aerial” but it doesn’t receive the workout of some of her earlier work. And like I mentioned before, this is probably the most organic record that Kate has made. It seems that she has finally stopped trying to make a contemporary sounding record and, instead, settled on making an album that reflects her current state of mind. And judging from “Aerial,” it sounds like things are pretty good at the Kate Bush castle.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Old Fart(s) At Play

As the title of this post suggests, I would much rather be writing about the new “comeback” Captain Beefheart album. But then again, one could put up a few microphones next to a Van Vliet canvas while he paints and it might give any new release by The Rolling Stones or Sir Paul McCartney a run for its money. I’m a little bitter about those two: “Undercover Of The Night” was the last new Stones album I gave a shit about (read: twenty-two years ago) and the last McCartney album I ever purchased was “McCartney II” (read: twenty-five years ago).
It seems that every time the Stones release a new album, some dipshit reviewer heralds it as a “return to form.” Like lemmings, we buy it and inevitably become disappointed because it is far from a return to form. What we get is an album that’s a notch above “Dirty Work,” which, as we learned, was the sound of the Stones machine working to stay afloat instead of staying ahead.
Let’s remind ourselves that the Stones will probably never achieve the same caliber as they did with “Some Girls,” “Tattoo You,” and there’s no way they’ll return to their late 60’s/early 70’s incredible run. They’ve got little left to prove and their recent albums seem to be flashpoints (get it?) to get legions ready to fork over even more cash during the subsequent tour.
“A Bigger Bang” is the latest “return to form” Stones album and, no surprise here, it’s not as good as “Tattoo You.” Here’s the thing: it’s probably as good as “Undercover Of The Night” but I’m one of a few people that actually enjoyed that one. I guess that means that I like “A Bigger Bang.”
It starts out with one of the best Stones rockers in recent memory, “Rough Justice.” Mick says the word “cock” in this one, but it’s clearly Keith that holds the balls on this one. Track two, “Let Me Down Slow” keeps things going in the right direction, to the point where you’re getting all hot ‘n bothered that the boys might actually have another really good album in them. Then the album starts spinning its steel wheels.
I suppose track three, “It Won’t Take Long,” isn’t bad, in fairness, it would probably make a great “Voodoo Lounge” track or whatever the hell their last album was called, it just doesn’t give you that “holy shit” feeling the first two cuts do. “Streets Of Love,” which has been pegged as a Mick “Alfie” outtake and, therefore, makes it a piece of shit, didn’t smell like a turd on the run to me. “Rain Fall Down” kept reminding me of “Pretty Beat Up,” which isn’t a bad thing. Then the boys pull of a really good blues song “Back Of My Hand” which makes one wonder why the fuck they don’t do a complete album like this. Add the two Keith tracks (“This Place Is Empty” and the closer “Infamy”) with the cut “Laugh, I Nearly Died,” and you’ve got 9 good songs on a 16 track album. The rest of the album, including the much publicized “Sweet Neo Con” (which sounds like a rush job merely designed for press coverage) is typical “going through the motions” Stones, just like every fucking studio album they’ve done since “Undercover.” Pair the selections down to ten, maybe twelve cuts, and you’d have me posting about how great it is. Instead, it’s a good album that has them going in the right direction, but we’re running out of time waiting for them to deliver one final consistently decent album. The Glimmer Twins really need a third party to trim the fat on these things, which probably is the reason why Keith’s solo albums and Mick “Wandering Spirit” remain my favorite “Stones” album in the past twenty years. They also need Charlie Watts, who is actually the most consistent thing in their cannon; he’s, as always, the band’s secret weapon and if he ever died or decided to leave the band, then the rest should call it a day in his honor.
But fuck it: as long as he’s with ‘em and as long as they keep trying to make albums for the hell of it instead of trying to sound relevant, then I’m all for another new Stones release. It sounds better than most of the shit being released by twenty-something rock acts, or even the artists formally known as Aerosmith.

Let’s move on to Paul McCartney, who’s last awesome album was 1971’s “Ram” and who’s had more of a dry spell than, well, Ringo Star. Again, the critics who have chastised Paul for being a boorish stoner suddenly started praising his latest work “Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.” Paul gave the nob-twiddling duties to one Nigel Godrich who was responsible for Radiohead’s “OK Computer” which sounded like a neat little collaboration on the surface. What we get instead is…a Paul McCartney album. It’s consistent, polite, and focused. It also sounds like what it is: an album recorded by a guy who’s 63 years old. Sure, his voice is in fine form. Sure, he’s a recognized genius. Sure, we’re all kidding ourselves when we think that Wings deserves a second listen.
It’s a very simple and plaintive affair, filled with a lot of reflection. To be honest, it’s not an album that I would find myself playing repeatedly.
Starting off with the spry “Fine Line,” things look good for the cute Beatle; it’s a track that could easily fit on a McCartney album thirty years old. It gets better by “Jenny Wren” which sounds like it could easily fit on a Beatles album forty years old. For these two songs alone, I give a tip of the hat and come close to forgiving Paul before remembering the chorus of “My Brave Face.” Let’s face it, “The Girl Is Mine” is just too easy of a target.
Then my attention span gets antsy, and I’m begging for a little electric guitar. It doesn’t arrive until track eleven, “Promise To You Girl.” That’s my problem, I guess. Listen, I can appreciate how the songcraft is top notch and I respect the fact that he played virtually every note on the album. I just can’t relate to his renewed belief in love (“How Kind Of You”) and how happy the guy seems to be these days. Not “happy” as in “upbeat,” but “happy” as in “it’s good to be Paul.” No shit? Fuck, I’d be happy to be Pete Best.
All bitterness aside, it’s a fine album, but not my cup of tea, which incidently, there’s a song about “English Tea” on the album.
Like the Stones album, this is the kind of album McCartney needs to be encouraged to make from now on. The praise is warranted and welcomed, but the irony is not lost on me how it took a respected, contemporary producer like Godrich to make the first McCartney album sound like he’s comfortable with his age. Call it “O.K. A.A.R.P.”

Monday, November 7, 2005

Spend An Evening With Saddle Creek

I can give you examples of how/why labels like SST, Homestead, Touch & Go, and maybe a few other indie patron saints, were so essential to the national musical landscape. But not once have you heard me give praise to the whole Saddle Creek thing. I probably should get around to doing that. What better chance to come clean than with Saddle Creek’s own masturbatory dvd “PooP” that celebrates all of those responsible for putting Omaha right next to the word “scene.” You had your Athens, GA scene. You had your Seattle, WA scene. It’s a new century, and we’re smack dab in the middle of a Omaha, NE scene. I said Omaha. It’s in Nebraska, for Christsakes.
The same state that gets painted red every fucking fall during college football season. The same state that I speed through just to get by it faster. It took me years to admit that Omaha was pretty cool (home to one of my favorite record stores) and it’s taken me longer to admit that Saddle Creek has got their shit together and is deserving of all the attention that’s being thrown their way.

The dvd “Spend An Evening With Saddle Creek” affectionately compiles the history of the Saddle Creek label and the artists that comprise it. It’s informative and relatively humble, carefully attempting to be both democratic in providing equal time to everyone on the label’s roster while acknowledging that it was essentially the talent of one Conor Oberst that brought the label its national attention in the first place.
So you want to paint me as just another Oberst fanboy? Let me set the record straight: I find the fucker very irritating. His saving grace is that he’s one talented little shit, and from the looks of it, he’s been that way for quite some time. The documentary footage shows a young Oberst performing at local coffeehouses, displaying more enviable smarts than people three times his age. The new Dylan? Fuck you; but there’s no debating that the guy has got an incredible well to feed upon in much the same way as his fellow Midwesterner did some 40 odd years ago. And while Dylan had to travel to the mean streets of N.Y.C. to foster his muse, Oberst is extremely fortunate to have a circle of friends that recognized and fostered his own.
The documentary does a great job of explaining this while capturing these behind the scene’s “aw shucks” support group. They knew the kid was on to something. While others in the same situation may have done more to dissuade or discourage such young will, they very wisely developed him. In some cases, a few musicians even put their own bands and dreams on hold, knowing that he probably had just a bit more of “it” at the age of 13 than they would be able to achieve in their lifetime. It takes a special person to admit that.
Before you disclaim that Saddle Creek is a one trick pony, the documentary highlights labelmates which all seem to have a linear connection with one another. There are several acts on the label deserving of attention: Cursive, The Faint, Slowdown Virginia, all are provided ample footage and screen time. They're all worthy of the spotlight outside of Bright Eyes’ glare. If I recall the SST lineup during their own heyday, I’d say Saddle Creek has got a better batting average.
Probably the most telling story is how selfless everyone. This is a great example of the d.i.y. ethos and what can happen when a scene truly works together at achieving a common goal. I don’t believe the parties involved for a moment started this thing for their own financial gain or to stroke their own egos. Instead, it appears that everyone was a mutual fan and simply wanted to have their music heard. They’ve achieved that, and this is a great tool for other scenes to emulate. The only problem is that most scenes won’t have an Oberst to serve as a building block.