It’s been just over eight months since Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) released her sophomore album Sprinter, and I’m fairly certain she hasn’t left the road since then. At the very least, as of this past weekend she’s played three shows in Chicago over that time period – easily more than most non-local artists. I’d argue it’s the town that keeps drawing her back, but exceptional circumstances such as a tour opening for Garbage likely brought her back sooner than anticipated. This particular time she was asked to return for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, a multi-day, multi-venue event focused on raising the profiles of up-and-coming bands/musicians. This is also known as “something for Chicagoans to do in the dead of winter when concert season is slow.” For the record, it’s a great way to pass the time with plenty of great live music. The triple bill of Torres, Palehound and Julien Baker is just a small testament to that, as all three left a sharp impression on 2015 with highly personal, emotionally devastating albums. It made me concerned I’d be walking out of Lincoln Hall on Friday night a shell of a human being, my insides shredded from so much anguish. Thankfully that wasn’t entirely the case.
The night began with an opening solo set from Julien Baker. Her debut album Sprained Ankle earned her a place on many “Best of” lists last year, with special attention paid to her powerful and raw lyrics delivered with the nuance of a strong gut punch. In a stunning six song set, Baker wrenched every bit of emotion from each moment. The packed room stood in hushed silence as the weight and beauty slowly became too much to bear. It was an incredibly compelling example of how a performer can fully connect with an audience and even drive a few to tears. My own eyes began to well up towards the end, and that’s a rarity. The 19-year-old Baker is undoubtedly a talent worth following with a long career ahead of her. This was her first-ever show in Chicago, and judging by how many people bought her record at the end of the night, it certainly won’t be her last.
After the delicate sadness that was Julien Baker’s set, it seemed like Palehound wanted to deal with serious emotional fallout in a completely different way. Very few of their songs could be considered delicate, instead opting for a much darker, angrier tone spiked with heavier ’90s style grunge guitars in the vein of Hole or (most accurately) Speedy Ortiz. Ellen Kempner doesn’t take relationships lightly, so getting emotionally wounded after a break-up fosters aggression and resentment rather than clear-cut sadness and depression. That’s what the record Dry Food is all about, and it hits hard. So too does the band’s live show. While Kempner played a few songs solo with just her and an electric guitar, a majority of the time she was joined by a bassist and drummer who helped flesh out many of the songs and give those wounds an extra little twist of the knife. The trio dynamic also allowed Kempner to take some sonic detours on songs like “Easy” and “Molly” with some solos that really gave the crowd a taste of her profoundly excellent guitar skills. While it certainly left me impressed in the first half of the set, things calmed down a bit towards the end, which would’ve been disappointing if this alternate side wasn’t equally as compelling. At one point we were treated to a new song she hadn’t played live before, taking care to note that it was written more recently when someone new had come into her life and changed her outlook in a more positive direction. It was just about the only love song that would be played all evening, and offered a glimpse into where Palehound might be headed next. No matter how things progress in terms of content or subject matter, the band made it pretty clear on Friday night that they are highly talented and a force to be reckoned with now and in the future. Don’t be surprised if you hear plenty about them in 2016 and beyond.
The biggest benefit of touring incessantly is that you develop a much stronger stage presence. That is to say you learn what works and what doesn’t to help create the best, most entertaining and engaging version of your live show as possible. Given that Mackenzie Scott spent a majority of her time on the road in 2015, it makes perfect sense that she’s all the better performer because of it. When I caught her last May, it was mere weeks after the release of Sprinter and there were clear indications she was still feeling things out a bit with the new songs. These are growing pains every artist goes through, and some handle it much better than others. In the case of Torres, eight months ago she sounded great and put on a confident, strong show, but a few small things like the set list could have used some adjustment. Specifically, the overall pacing was a little off, and there were a few moments when it felt like Scott was holding back just a bit. For all I know it could have been the circumstances of that particular day, mixing things up on tour for the sake of variety. No matter the factors, by all accounts the set on Friday at Lincoln Hall represented an increase in consistency and showmanship.
The somewhat ironic thing is that the set list was nearly the same as the previous Torres show last May, just the order of the songs had changed slightly. That served well to even everything out and create a clearer path from start to finish. From the slow burn opening salvos of “Mother Earth, father God” through the clawing descent of “The Harshest Light,” the nine song set felt very much like a journey into and out of darkness. The 1-2-3 punch of “New Skin,” Cowboy Guilt” and “Sprinter” slammed with the force and subtlety of a wrecking ball, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. The weight of these songs also physically manifested itself through Scott’s body as she visibly trembled during the more intense moments of the set. This was particularly prominent during the back-to-back combination of “Son, You Are No Island” and “Strange Hellos,” the former of which was all underlying dread and the latter of which was all powerful, fiery release. For those few loudly punctuated minutes, everyone in the room was rapt with attention as the walls were painted with sheer ferocity and self-confidence. This was Torres at her most vital, suddenly coming into focus and finding her footing after wandering around lost in the darkness. Such a captivating catharsis contributed to what was the best Torres show I’ve seen to date. Can’t wait for the next one.
Tag: singer-songwriter Page 1 of 2
More so than any other day of the week, concerts on Sunday nights have a tendency to be absolutely terrible. It’s not so much the artist that’s performing, rather the crowd itself as the start of a new work week and Monday looms over us like the Sword of Damocles. Nobody wants to drag themselves out to a show at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, knowing full well they’ll wind up back home well after midnight and likely sleep deprived the next day. Mondays are already bad enough. Yet like any other night of the week, shows still happen and people still go to them, however begrudgingly. And so it was that more than a thousand people packed into the legendary Metro on Sunday night for a sold out show with The War on Drugs and Mark McGuire. They may not have been the most excited or enthusiastic bunch walking in (it’s just an observation and not a criticism), but walking out was a completely different story. The entire evening was a revelation, in the greatest and most unexpected ways.
I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half immersed in Mark McGuire’s latest album Along the Way, which is just one release of many that he’s been involved with these last few years. It is his first solo effort since officially splitting with his experimental rock band Emeralds last year, and displays an impressive leap in style and composition that he’s never attempted previously. His older stuff played around with various guitars and effects pedals without much else thrown in. Between the electronic samples, drum machines, synths, piano and mandolins, among others, McGuire suddenly sounds like he’s got an army backing him up. If you thought recreating all that in a live setting would require a few additional band members, you’d be wrong. He came out on stage by himself, and thanks to intricate looping techniques, pedals and other triggers, the whole thing wound up being a pretty impressive display of one man’s talents. It yielded a surprise or two along the way as well, in particular a fair number of songs I thought made use of synths and keyboards were actually done by piling effects onto his guitar. I can’t recall the last time my ears were fooled in such a way. And to some degree it makes his material even better than before, because there’s a greater complexity in how it all comes together. Watching it happen before your very eyes is a real selling point too. I’ve been to so many shows where a truly solo artist does simple recreations of songs that are part of his or her catalog and it’s so normal you could call it boring. With a little bit of flair and a high wire risk level though, it’s the exact opposite. You watch intently as new passages get added to old songs, and subconsciously wonder what might happen if something went wrong. Thankfully McGuire is that sort of risk-taking artist, and it made for a remarkably compelling set.
The War on Drugs set up and soundchecked all their own equipment. That says something about a band, particularly when they’ve reached a certain level of popularity where they can hire somebody to do that job for them. Perhaps it’s a DIY attitude or a high degree of perfectionism, but whatever the reason, they should keep it up because they really have never sounded better. All the levels were perfect and it was one of the best mixed shows I’ve heard in a long time. Beyond sonic perfection, the band is also filled with extremely talented musicians who know that performing live is about more than just faithfully recreating what you hear on record. The War on Drugs don’t have the most energetic catalog in the world, and translating that into a show that doesn’t put you to sleep could be considered quite the challenge. In fact, at one point a handful of songs into the set, someone in the crowd yelled at the band to “pick up the pace a little bit,” and they responded by launching into their biggest hit and highest energy songs to date, “Red Eyes.” Sure, things could feel a little slow and lackadaisical at times, but they were never boring or bland for a single second.
One of the ways I judge any live show is by an unofficial measuring index known as the “goose bump factor.” If I get goose bumps, or a little bit of tingling down my spine at any point during a set, that’s a very positive sign that a band is doing something right. If it happens multiple times, there’s something truly special and maybe even unforgettable about the performance. There were several goose bump moments during The War on Drugs’ set, particularly during most of the songs off their excellent new record Lost in the Dream. In some cases, as with “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind,” the live versions actually somehow sounded even better than they do on the album. The band only skipped one track from that record, and mixed in a handful of tracks from 2011’s Slave Ambient, plus covers of songs from Bill Fay and John Lennon. The covers might have been the weakest moments in the set, partly because the original versions are considered classics on their own right, and partly because they didn’t fit in quite so seamlessly with everything else. Yet none of it was bad or even mediocre. This band is far too talented to let that happen.
As the show started to reach the 90 minute mark, frontman Adam Granduciel asked the crowd for permission to skip the traditional encore so they could just keep playing. “We could say good night, leave the stage for two minutes while everybody cheered, and then return to say we have a few more songs to play for you,” he said, “or we could just not do that and play those songs anyways.” So they played onward, finally wrapping things up after close to two hours. A small portion of the crowd left before then, likely because the show had stretched past midnight and work or school was coming early the next morning. Those who stayed for the full experience walked out in very good spirits (far better than going in, from what I could tell), and I heard nothing but praise about the show. Indeed, it was pretty incredible. Dare I say one of the best concert experiences I’ve had in quite awhile. And just like that, I can’t wait for The War on Drugs to come back so we can do it all over again.
Under the Pressure
I Was There
Eyes to the Wind
I Hear You Calling (Bill Fay cover)
Lost In The Dream
Mind Games (John Lennon cover)
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Come to the City
Black Water Falls
Over the course of four albums, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) has undergone a complete transformation. This fact is most evident in her album covers, the first two being self-portraits displaying what might best be described as wide-eyed innocence. Her new album is self-titled and once again features a photo of her on the cover, only this time her hair has gone from black to white and she sits atop a throne in an ornate dress, a look of power and control on her face. So too has her subject matter focus evolved from miserable suburban housewives and the curse of domesticity to powerful tyrants and society’s weaknesses when it comes to facing such leaders. In essence she’s been writing songs about the oppressed this entire time, but she expands to a greater and more epic scope with each new record. It’s similar to how her skills and sonic palette have grown in that time, as she always offers up something different to engage the listener and keep us guessing.
More so than anything she’s done previously, on St. Vincent Clark plays around with all sorts of digital sounds and effects. That’s clear right from the opening track “Rattlesnake,” where her guitar doesn’t even show up until well past the halfway mark. And while there’s plenty of examples of digital prevalence on this record (almost ironically, not so much on the song titled “Digital Witness”), it’s perhaps most obvious on the skittering, almost science fiction dystopian “Bring Me Your Loves.” What’s missing? Well, the ornate orchestration that permeated much of her first two records is all but gone, though 2011’s Strange Mercy certainly started that decline. Her buzz saw guitar solos have also largely started to take a back seat as well, though when they do show up as on “Huey Newton” they’re so completely distorted and compounded with effects you might not even recognize that’s the instrument you’re hearing.
In a sense, it can sometimes feel like a waste of talent if Clark isn’t using the greatest tool at her disposal on pretty much every track. What ultimately makes it okay is how she fills in those spaces previously occupied by guitar solos with other things and strong songwriting so you don’t notice nearly as much. Slightly more worrisome is how little St. Vincent has to share in terms of innovation and general evolution. The album is different because it emphasizes other elements and concepts, but none of it is anything we really haven’t heard from Clark in some different capacity. As the song title from her 2009 album Actor implies, what she’s giving us is “Just the Same But Brand New.” On the plus side though, absolutely none of the record feels stale or disappointing. It also couldn’t have come from any other artist. Annie Clark has reached a level of comfortable confidence that many other artists spend entire careers searching for. Whether this self-titled album marks the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next, it’s a defining moment for one of today’s smartest and most compelling rock stars.
When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.
If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.
Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.
There are more breakup albums out there than can probably be counted at this point, yet the pain and loss of love remains one of the most fascinating topics to explore through music. Artists wouldn’t keep making albums about it if that weren’t the case. Of course writing a breakup album is in itself therapy, a means of dissecting the good and the bad and figuring out just where things went wrong. Scout Niblett appears to know this on her new album It’s Up to Emma, her seventh full length which also turns out to be one of her strongest. Through it’s nine tracks, it traverses the five stages of grief only to come out the other side resilient and empowered once more. Of course it doesn’t necessarily go through those stages in order, which is why the opening track “Gun” is a slow, angry build to a violent end. In a sense it’s about somebody losing their mind over another person’s betrayal, and it’s only emphasized further by distorted, grunge-filtered solo guitar strums and punishing drums. Once we’re dragged into this pit of despair, and essentially following a character that’s difficult to relate to unless you’re a crazy, emotionally unstable person whenever one of your romantic endeavors peters out, there’s the question raised as to why we’d want to take this journey at all. What’s surprising is how this messy relatonship post-mortem slowly changes our perceptions and draws us in despite our reservations. The vulnerability on display via “My Man” sells you this heartbreak by appealing to your empathetic side. This female narrator that Niblett embodies sacrificed everything for this love, and it didn’t work out in the end. We almost want to root for her hopes of rebuilding the failed relationship on “Second Chance Dreams,” but they end up being exactly as the third word of the title suggests. The depression at work in “All Night Long” is harrowing, with pleads to find a way to move past the mental torture of the breakup. The way the guitar and drums interact with one another mirrors those lyrical and vocal cues in such a way that they become the other end of an imaginary conversation.
As It’s Up to Emma spirals towards its inevitable conclusion, “Could This Possibly Be?” comes in like a reality check, pulling us out of this downward spiral to take a step back to better examine exactly why the narrator keeps torturing herself about this guy. It is when she realizes some painful truths about herself that she also finds acceptance on “What Can I Do?”, leading to not necessarily a happy ending to this tumultuous record, but one where there’s a visible light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the plotline and themes explored on this album, it’s fascinating from an overall instrumental perspective as well. If you’re familiar with previous Niblett records then there’s definitely some familiarity in the sparse blues-style approach she uses here, though this being her first record in 10 years without Steve Albini behind the board there’s a little more polish in the arrangements. The guitars don’t always sound completely scuzzed up, but do retain a certain early ’90s flavor that makes them comparable to that of Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Nirvana (Unplugged) and Sonic Youth. This is a record that uses silence as a weapon too. Because the narrator is a woman left all alone with her own thoughts and memories of this past relationship, most songs primarily feature a single strummed guitar and vocals, almost definitely performed by Niblett live inside an empty studio. There’s greater power and emotional depth in such an approach, which is practically a requirement here, and the occasional aggressive drums or string section serve only as accoutrements to try and heighten what’s already there. The combination of all these various factors and elements really help make It’s Up to Emma one of Niblett’s most powerful and accessible records to date. Go ahead and put another great breakup album on the big board.
St. Patrick’s Day is a big party holiday. Just take one good look in any bar and you’ll likely see it packed with people drinking green beer. Call it tradition or whatever else you want, so long as there’s an excuse to have kegs and eggs at eight in the morning. This year the holiday fell on a Sunday, which with most people having work the next morning, might make you think things would be calmer. Not so much the case, from my experience. The reason I bring it up is because many probably woke up with a severe hangover on Monday morning, which led to a long day of vowing to never drink again. That wasn’t my Monday, but for many of my friends it was. It’s telling that none of them were available to attend an evening of girls with guitars on Monday night at the Empty Bottle. The two bands on the bill were Supercute! and Kate Nash, a show that had been sold out for months in advance. Before the show, I found myself asking, “Is Kate Nash really that popular?” because honestly I know very few people that might consider themselves fans of hers, and those that are tend to reference her debut Made of Bricks more than anything else. She came out of the stew of Myspace discovered artists back in the mid-00s and sort of followed in Lily Allen’s footsteps but as more of a second or third fiddle to her “fuck you” pop star act. Yet here we are in 2013, and Allen is all but a faded memory having retired from music a couple years back. Meanwhile Nash presses onward and carves her own unique path and apparently a die hard fan base with it. I’ve liked all her records, but also tend to forget about them after six months. I went to the show for a couple reasons: 1) Nash has a new record out called Girl Talk that’s pretty good. 2) I’ve never seen her perform live before, and that’s something I’ve been meaning to do. 3) Supercute! was opening for her, and I was particularly interested in hearing what they would have to offer.
So let’s start with Supercute!, because they were first up for the evening. If you’ve never heard of Supercute! before, they’re an all-teen, all-girl four piece band from NYC. Their ages range from as young as 13 to as old as 19. The band was started in 2009 by Rachel Trachtenburg (who played drums as a member of The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players starting at age six) and her friend Julia Cumming. They wrote some goofy songs about candy and boys and such together using ukuleles and keyboards, which then led to performances and studio recordings. They’ve only expanded from there, adding new members and releasing singles and building a fan base show by show. Kate Nash has been a Trachtenburg family friend for several years, and she’s really taken Supercute! under her wing and done most of her touring with them in recent years. Nash also produced their debut album DON’T PoP MY BUBBLE, which will officially be released on June 11th. In their short 20 minute set, they mostly stuck to new material, though some of what qualifies as “new” they’ve been playing live for quite awhile now. Still, even the songs they’ve been performing for years got some new life injected into them thanks to their beefed up and more aggressive approach. The ukuleles and keyboards are still present, but play much less of a prominent role thanks to the addition of bass and electric guitars. Their songs, while often lighthearted and goofy, were also thrown a little off-kilter into a darker and more psychedelic territory. It’s fascinating because the girls have on these colorful outfits and makeup, and you’ll wind up with their songs in your head, but your brain is equal parts impressed and scared. While they’re clearly very talented and have a big future ahead of them, there’s also a weird sense of concern that maybe they’re growing up a little too fast. You could say they’re almost a modern-day version of The Runaways, though not as brash or sexualized. Their live show is solid, but also needs a little bit of fine tuning that will work itself out the more they tour. I may not be anywhere near the teenage girl demographic that Supercute! are aiming their music towards, but I still enjoyed and appreciated their set. Others in the 21+ crowd did as well, as I overheard a guy behind me say to his friend in near disbelief, “They were really good.” So chalk up another ringing endorsement for this band, they’re one to keep an eye on.
Oh, what can I say about Kate Nash? She’s an absolute delight, and it’s easy to understand why her fans are so devoted to her. Devoted to the point where they crowd funded her new album Girl Talk after she fell from the graces of a major label record deal for wanting to take a different direction with her sound. It’s eerily similar to what Amanda Palmer pulled off a few months earlier, though Nash didn’t get a million dollars in donations like Palmer did. In the end it really doesn’t matter how much money you make, so long as you make enough to keep doing what you want to do. And now the completely liberated Nash wants to play the bass and prove she can rock just as hard as any guy. To me, such an evolution was inevitable for her and I had no doubt she could pull it off, but apparently her label was looking for the next Regina Spektor instead of the next Courtney Love. Okay so she’s not a hot mess with more drugs and alcohol in her veins than blood, but she does have a similar vocal range to pull off syrupy sweet one moment and a rage-filled wail the next. That balance of dark and light is all over her new album, and in essence bled into her live show as well. She started with “Sister” and its deep bass line, which eventually turns into a raucous punk rock groove complete with some guttural vocal acrobatics. That sort of visceral and cutting anger boiled to the surface more than a few times throughout the show, in particular on songs like “I Just Love You More,” the old b-side “Model Behaviour” and her cover of FIDLAR’s “Cocaine,” which she retitled “Grrrl Gang.” Much of it was rather “riot grrrl” in nature, with Nash and her all-female backing band really making the most of their talents by taking even the poppiest songs and dirtying them up a bit. “Foundations” is the song that brought her to the attention to a lot of people in ’06-’07, and while she’s basically obligated to perform it at all her shows from here to eternity, she by no means has to keep it in the same bubblegum piano pop arena of the recorded version. The guitars don’t exactly transform the song into something entirely different, they just bring some additional forcefulness and speed that strips some of the charm but allows the lyrics to take more precedence, which is kind of nice.
Obviously a fair amount of the set list was populated with Girl Talk tracks as that’s what this tour is supporting, but everything else was a great mixture of older material, rarities and covers. Her take on “My Chinchilla,” a song by early ’90s Canadian indie pop girl band Cub (which counted Neko Case as a member for a brief period) felt like it was made for her to sing, as is blended so effortlessly with her charming and witty personality. Her between song banter was one of the show’s greatest highlights, and made all the more amusing by members of the crowd yelling things at her. “I just really want to touch you!” a girl at the front of the stage yelled. Nash thought for a moment, then wandered over to her and extended her arm, which the girl touched for a brief moment. “It’s been awhile [since somebody touched me],” Nash said with a wink after it happened. A couple songs later, someone (apparently a man) threw a bra on stage. “Oh wow, thank you,” Nash said sarcastically before following up with, “By the way, what kind of man brings a bra with him to throw on stage?” That’s the sort of vibe you get from people late on a Monday night after St. Patrick’s Day I guess. When she wasn’t busy interacting with the crowd, she also told funny stories like the time she accidentally knocked out one of her front teeth. But one of the things that really struck me was how she also took a few moments to talk about the charity she’s working with called Because I am a Girl. It’s a campaign designed to protect and empower women in developing countries and provide them opportunities they might not normally have to achieve their dreams. I am not a woman nor do I live in a developing country, but I admire the cause and hope you’ll consider donating. Hopefully you’ll also consider donating to the well-being of Kate Nash’s career by buying her new record or going to see a show. While I’ve always liked her music, I’ve never been as passionate about it as I have been with other artists. Now that I’ve seen her perform, I walked away an even bigger fan than I was going in. It’s always a great show when something like that happens.
Buy Girl Talk from Amazon
See the set list and tour dates after the jump!
The evolution of Christopher Owens has been interesting and strange when you really think about it. Everyone likes to mention the time he spent growing up in a cult, probably because it makes for an interesting back story to the music that his band Girls would go on to make. Across two full lengths and an EP, the way that band transitioned from breezy and brash drug-fueled pop to psychedelic and hazy Pink Floydian pop was a thing of beauty. It gave off the impression that while there were other members of Girls, Owens really came into his own as a frontman during those formative years and distinguished himself among his peers. When Owens suddenly announced he was leaving the band in mid-2012, the main question everyone asked was why, because they had become so successful and respected. Subsequently and in promotion for his debut solo album Lysandre, the explanation becomes much clearer: there were no other permanent members of Girls besides JR White, and the revolving door of musicians was exactly what Owens didn’t want Girls to be. Better to make a record on your own the way you want to make it, and then play it live with a backing band that’s not expected to be anything more. So now more in control of his career than ever before, Owens continues to dream big from a conceptual standpoint while going a bit smaller when it comes to the music itself.
Lysandre is a smartly written and composed album that pretty much details the ups and downs of a relationship he had during the early days of Girls. He focused almost exclusively on women throughout Girls’ catalogue, so it’s no surprise that theme continues on his first solo record. Yet unlike songs about “Laura” and “Lauren Marie” and “Myrna” and “Jamie Marie,” this is an album about one person in particular, given the name Lysandre to protect the innocent. It’s also a very sonically linked record that rewards those that pay close attention from start to finish. “Lysandre’s Theme” is the :38 introduction to the album, and that melody pops up again in almost every other song that follows. The repetition stays with you, even as all the other parts around it move in unfamiliar and different directions.
Speaking of different directions, it’s understandable that Owens might want to distance himself from the scrappy prog/psych-rock sound of Girls, which is perhaps why this album presents a shift towards more acoustic and spare arrangements to create simplistic pop songs and ballads. You get a song like “Here We Go,” which starts off very lush and beautiful with an acoustic guitar and Owens staying so calm his vocals are almost a whisper. Lovely as it is, about halfway through a flute enters the mix and flutters around the melody in a very distracting way. It’s enough to pull you out of the song and make you question why it needs to be there at all. The same can be said for a saxophone on “New York City,” a startlingly cheery pop song whose lyrics are about desperation, poverty, drugs and violence – basically the antithesis of what it sounds like. It’d be one thing if the track was a sly attempt at subversive humor, but there’s no indication Owens is having a laugh or trying to be ironic, which in turn takes away any meaningful points trying to be made. In the end it just feels a little uncomfortable. Of course nothing quite compares to “Riviera Rock,” the strange reggae instrumental that sits at the center of the album and comes off like a cross between elevator muzak and the intermission music they used to play when they took breaks in the middle of movies. It’s the album’s true WTF moment, and likely only exists to help pad out the album’s run time, which wraps up at an extremely lean 28 minutes.
For the handful of faults that Lysandre has, there’s also a handful of very good things to help balance them out. Unlike the poorly managed mixing of “Here We Go,” “A Broken Heart” actually manages to pull off an acoustic ballad complete with a flute that doesn’t sound overbearing or enters the song from out of nowhere. Owens’ vocal also hits on just the right amount of tenderness and vulnerability that’s required for the subject matter at hand. The bouncy and fun “Here We Go Again” doesn’t make any real missteps either, and is a great reminder that Owens is still happy to write pop songs in the vein of some of Girls’ best like “Lust for Life” and “Honey Bunny.” The second half of the album is actually quite strong on the whole, and moments like “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener,” “Everywhere You Knew” and “Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue)” are very grounded and connect on their themes of unease, depression and ultimately acceptance with a strong dose of resolve.
When you really think about the good vs. the bad on Lysandre, along with its length, it becomes apparent that Owens would have been smarter to have just released this as a 5-6 song EP rather than a full length album. It would have been a whole lot stronger in that compact arrangement with all the fat trimmed out of it. Yet there’s still something admirable about how Owens treats this record as more of a sounding board than something he’s deadly serious about. His goal was to separate himself from the work he’d done previously in Girls and try to string together some intelligently crafted song experiments in the form of a concept album. In those things he succeeded. While it may alienate some and disappoint others, it’s important to recognize that he’s still trying to find his own voice and sound, and those growing pains might take a bit. Don’t worry though, because Owens has made it clear he’s not going anywhere or plans to stop making music any time soon. With that in mind, it’s likely Lysandre will be seen as a brief detour on his path towards greatness.
The worst thing about the new Bat for Lashes record The Haunted Man is its cover art. That’s not to say the Ryan McGinley photo featuring a fully nude Natasha Khan wearing an equally nude man as a shawl that covers up her private parts is bad or even distasteful. It is the opposite in fact, a work of high-minded art that’s absolutely representative of the sort of music you will find within. Only the best cover art work will achieve such prominence. So what, in turn, makes it the worst thing about this album? Because the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it is, “ooh, provocative and sexy!” and that’s not what this music is. Meanwhile some 16-year-old boy with a parental locked internet connection is filing it away somewhere to fulfill his own dark desires. The point being, that while this is one of the smartest and most beautiful album covers to come along in a while, most won’t see it that way. In fact, the controversial nature of it sucks all the attention away from the actual music, which absolutely is smart and beautiful. It’s also hopelessly raw and sparse in spite of the multi-instrumental set pieces and full orchestration contained within. Khan’s bravura vocals handle most of the intense emotion, and the peeling back of echoes, reverb and other treatments that were thrown in on her last album Two Suns allows you to connect better with the true human underneath that window dressing.
Of course you listen to a track like the opener “Lilies” and the combination of synths and strings borders on overbearing until her voice cuts through the dissonance and soars when she sings the line, “Thank God I’m alive!” Where the true heart of The Haunted Man really lies is in the sobering piano and vocal pairing on “Laura.” At what might as well be called the center point of the record, the song sits on an island all its own as we’re told all about the amazing Laura, who’s “more than a superstar.” The better we come to know her through the lyrics and the way she’s described, the more we begin to believe in such a mythical creature. If you thought Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” was a perfect piano ballad single, “Laura” should satisfy in almost equal measure. And wouldn’t you know it, both songs were co-written by Justin Parker. For fans of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” there’s more familiarity to be found via the single “All Your Gold.” The two tracks feature the same basic rhythm pattern and structure, along with the inevitable malaise that comes with the ending of a relationship. The chorus to “All Your Gold” even features the line, “There was someone that I knew before,” which to some will seem just a little too on the nose. The Bat for Lashes track is arguably the better one though, removing any theatricality and cutting straight to the bone in its words and composition. Really any comparisons you draw from this record, to the points where some of the synth-baiting electronic textures come across as remarkably M83-ish or the very Kate Bush-ian nature contained in most everything Khan does, are great reference points.
But in the end that’s ALL they are: windows into a world of music we might otherwise not fully understand or grasp. See, Bat for Lashes is so much more than a collection of things that sound like other things. Khan is a true original, and the words she writes, along with the intense emotion that echoes in her voice through every note, set her apart from any similarly-minded music peers. “Oh Yeah” is a great example of this. Many a person has tried to fill a void in their life via sex, but few artists have accurately echoed that tumultuous period as well as Khan does here. “I’m looking for a lover to climb inside / Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom” makes for one of the most overtly sexual choruses since the tUnE-yArDs song “Powa” from 2011. Like that song, there’s a newfound sense of freedom and excitement in the vocals that pushes the listener into believing this remedy will finally create a sense of wholeness, however temporary. The point being that while the solution to 99% of life’s problems isn’t sex, for the five minutes of that song Khan earnestly wants to believe it is, and so do we.
As with any sexual encounter, there’s a certain amount of baggage that each person brings to the table that stems from past relationships and past experiences. It points to the more overarching theme of The Haunted Man, which is that we’re all living with ghosts whether we like it or not. Of course those ghosts are metaphorical, but we still allow them to weigh on our spirits. They go beyond the flesh of our bodies and can’t be covered up no matter how many layers of clothes we wear. This record is filled with those ghosts, “Laura” and “Marilyn” among them, but what’s most important is how Khan deals with it. Instead of letting their fates and legacies align with hers, she gets acquainted with her demons and finds the path to managing them without losing sight of her own identity. It makes for a great life lesson, and an even better record.
If you do even a little bit of reading about Cat Power’s new album Sun, you’re almost guaranteed to be exposed to a few key details. Yes, the album was written in the wake of her breakup with actor Giovanni Ribisi. Yes, her finances wound up in shambles and she nearly had to declare bankruptcy. She plays almost every instrument on the album and produced it almost entirely on her own because she didn’t have money to pay other people. Let’s also not forget about her battles with alcoholism and stage fright, to the point where up until a few years ago going to a Cat Power show involved the risk of it not happening at all or shutting down early. You’ll hear all these things, many of which are intended to provide back story and increase your interest in the final product that is this new record. What you can really call them are distractions from what’s actually happening in the music. Forget what you’ve read before this and throw away your expectations. Chan Marshall has just pulled a 180 on us, and there’s no way to prepare for it.
Okay, so maybe “180” and “no way to prepare” are a little extreme in the case of Sun. After all her last album of original material, The Greatest, was a sonic shift in itself, as she recruited Louisiana’s Dirty Delta Blues Band to fill out her sparse acoustic guitar or piano arrangements in very classic ways. She also conquered her stage fright and became an enigmatic frontwoman exuding confidence and stability even though her personal life was anything but. While her sound has evolved again and the backing band is gone, Marshall puts her confidence on display more than ever before on the new album. Its cover features her with a rainbow shining across her face, and that plus the album title push forward the idea that these songs are the calm after a stormy career thus far. They sound that way too, beaming with more positivity and excitement than ever, and stepping out from the shadows of a black and white past into the full-on technicolor of 2012. This is the first Cat Power album to ever sound like it belongs in this particular era, and that step away from classic or more traditional sounds serves her even better than you might expect.
A very small part of how Sun sounds is likely due to the work of Phillipe Zdar, a French dance producer who’s worked with everyone from Phoenix to Cut Copy to Beastie Boys. He mastered this record and made small production tweaks to it without being too heavy handed or glossy. Its lack of shine actually adds to the overall charm of these songs, which otherwise might have suffered from sounding too clean-cut. Marshall’s very hands-on approach to this album probably benefits her in the long run, and it’s all the more admirable how far she steps outside her comfort zone to evolve. After recording a number of songs for this record and playing them for a friend, Marshall decided to toss them out because she was told they sounded sad and “like old Cat Power.” To her, this new album isn’t supposed to be anything short of a rebirth, a signal that her life and priorities have changed. The dynamic scope and lyrics of Sun go a long way towards proving that too.
On the Cat Power song “Colors and the Kids” off her 1998 classic Moon Pix, Marshall sang, “When we were teenagers, we wanted to be the sky.” Now much older and wiser, she echoes a similar sentiment on Sun‘s opening track “Cherokee,” with a chorus of, “Bury me, marry me to the sky.” While the more recent “sky” reference is actually about death, you can use the metaphor of marriage as a union where two become one to tie it in referentially to the earlier song. Stylistically though, “Cherokee” more calls to mind “Cross Bones Style” in both tempo and lyrical structure. The mechanical drum beat and the repeated mantra that is the chorus are equally gripping in both songs, though “Cherokee” goes places and innovates in a different sort of way. Starting with the electric guitar, then adding piano through the verses, the electronica elements show up in the chorus to take things to a whole new level complete with some chainsaw-like effects and even an eagle cry that may or may not be cheesy. No matter, because the song works as one of the poppiest and most engaging Cat Power songs to date.
The first third of Sun is actually very aesthetically pleasing and hit-oriented. Warbling synths and skittering beats feel right at home alongside some grinding electric guitar on the title track. Of course the lyrics also include a not-so-sly reference to the classic Beatles tune “Here Comes the Sun.” The light piano pop of “Ruin” is actually deceptive as the lyrics are about social justice and starvation, with a hook that includes the lines, “Bitchin’/ Complainin’/ From people who ain’t got shit to eat.” On “3,6,9” synths and handclaps lead an awfully catchy hook that sounds like it should be used in a future hip hop song. There may or may not be a reference to Lil Jon’s “Get Low” or Shirley Ellis’ “The Clapping Song” in the lyrics, but Marshall insists she wrote them after waking up with a really bad hangover, which makes sense with references to wine and the subtle suggestion of alcoholism. AutoTune also gets a little cameo via some of the vocal overdubs and at the very end of the song, where she quite indistinguishably repeats two words that many speculate are “Fuck me.”
Sun‘s midsection is more challenging on the ears as it moves away from easier pop melodies and into a slower, more experimental range. The record actually needs songs like “Always on My Own” and “Human Being” to keep you on your toes a bit and show off some extra artistic flourishes. Not everything works perfectly, but credit goes to Marshall for what’s really an admirable effort. By the time “Manhattan” kicks in with its lonely drum machine beats and looped piano chords, you’ve been transported to a different but no less important final third of the album. The buzzy and robotic “Silent Machine” adds some much needed energy to things after a few downtempo tracks, but it’s the 11 minutes of “Nothin But Time” that makes the biggest statement on the entire record. Written for the teenage daughter of her ex Giovanni Ribisi, the song is an ethereal pep talk that’s inspired and passionate and bears the markings of a classic track like David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Iggy Pop contributes some guest vocals on the second half of the song, and the way he shouts, “You Wanna live!” is like a slap in the face to anybody that’s ever considered killing themselves. Amid the many positive messages Marshall tries to push out there on this album that speak of the human condition with the vibe that we’re all in this together, it’s perhaps this most direct and deeply personal track that offers the best and wisest guidance. Very few tracks that soar upwards of eight or so minutes are actually worth the time to listen all the way through, but this is one that’s absolutely worth the investment.
While “Nothin But Time” would have made a fitting end to Sun, “Peace and Love” provides one last jolt of…something. It’s not an overtly weird song, but the electric guitar bounce and the very rhythmic way Marshall recites the lyrics turn it into an almost hip hop track. There’s not really an ounce of sincerity in it unlike so much of the rest of the record, and you can almost envision Marshall smiling and winking while she spouts out lines like, “100,000 hits on the internet/ But that don’t mean shit.” Such levity is welcome, because though you can’t really say the album is heavy-handed and dark in the least, it still lacks genuine fun to go along with the positive vibes. For once, it’s great to hear a Cat Power record that moves past everything she’s created in the past. Moon Pix and You Are Free are just two of a few important records in Cat Power’s nine album oeuvre, granted that status because of the times in which they were released and the emotion and grace in Marshall’s vocals and lyrics. Sun doesn’t deserve praise because it breaks the mold, but because it does so without fear and a reliance on anything or anyone. Also because it does everything well. Marshall proves herself to be a talent that can defy expectations and surprise us even seventeen years into her career. That’s a rarity worth celebrating.
The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.
The first time I saw and heard Sharon Van Etten was at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, in which she had the “honor” of being the first artist to perform that year. The issue of course is that at 3PM on a Friday afternoon, most attendees were either still at work or simply hadn’t made their way past the front gates yet. In other words, it made for one of the most sparsely attended sets of the weekend. Those that were there in time though were treated to one of the most endearing sets of the 3-day fest and a proper introduction to a major new singer-songwriter talent. Her first proper album Epic had not yet been released, and she had no backing band, so the reality of it was one woman playing a bunch of songs nobody had heard before to a crowd of about 100 people. And you know what? You could barely hear a sound other than what was coming out of the speakers. That’s not because they were loud, but because everyone was quiet and attentive and completely taken in by a truly lone wolf performance. In the middle of it, one of the strings on her guitar broke, and she didn’t have a replacement, so Modest Mouse (headlining that night) lent her one of theirs. Effortlessly charming was a good way to describe it, and in some ways that set suggested the birth of a star. Epic would go on to critical praise and moderate success, and Van Etten made a whole lot of important friends thanks in no small part to incessant touring.
The National’s Aaron Dessner was one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest supporters, and was so swayed by the Epic track “Love More” that he performed a cover of it at the 2010 MusicNow Festival with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That developed into a friendship and a working collaboration, as Dessner produced Van Etten’s new record Tramp. The recording sessions were sporadic over a year, scheduled between touring responsibilities for the both of them. Van Etten also found herself courted by a record label or two, eventually choosing to sign with indie superlabel Jagjaguwar, which is a strong match to her style of music and increased visibility. She chose to title her new album Tramp as a comment on the transient lifestyle she’s been leading the last couple years. Touring is one aspect of it, but she’s also not had a permanent residence in awhile, instead bouncing from couch to couch, friend to friend and sublet to sublet when she needs to stay anywhere for longer than a day or two. As she puts it, the decision ultimately came down to either paying rent on an apartment, or keeping her backing band. Things have been better in recent months however, and she’s been able to find a place in Brooklyn to call home even as she prepares to hit the road for another few months of touring in support of the album.
Things are also getting better on record as well, as Tramp sees Van Etten truly growing out her voice and overall sound into a much stronger and more collaborative effort overall. For the first time, she truly sounds comfortable in her own skin, as if she just needed the right people around her to get all the pieces perfectly in place. She’s been building towards such a sonic revelation across her previous two releases, and now that she’s finally reached that healthy place seems more determined than ever to make it count for something. Opening track “Warsaw” holds a remarkably dark bounce to it, the main electric guitar chords bearing a surprisingly strong resemblance to some of the more angular approaches used by Nirvana in reworking some of their songs for the Unplugged record. Perhaps the song that best echoes Van Etten’s growth is first single “Serpents”, which is a beast of a composition that intertwines multiple guitar parts, militaristic drumming from Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and full-on overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s beautiful and sad, but has serious muscle to it, a display of aggression that was only been hinted at up until that point. Not everything on the album is so intricately constructed and energetic though. The balladry of “Kevin’s” comes soberingly close to the sparse solo guitar and vocal of Van Etten’s earlier material, as does the late album drama of “Ask”. Other songs like “All I Can” and “I’m Wrong” take a more subtle approach and build steadily over their duration. The bright energy and use of ukulele on “Leonard” brings a decidedly Beirut-esque feel to the track, and it’s almost a disappointment when a horn section doesn’t emerge to buttress the melody. But speaking of Beirut, Zach Condon does make a guest appearance on the equally ukulele driven “We Are Fine”, a song about overcoming social anxiety. The track’s positive message is that much more engaging and beautiful thanks to Condon’s backing harmonies and solo vocal on a verse. Additional contributions come from Julianna Barwick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others, and each does a superb job whether you notice their presence or not.
At the core of Tramp are Van Etten’s lyrics, the topics of which haven’t really changed much since her earliest days. Romance tends to be her favorite vice, and the highs and mostly lows of relationships is something she continues to explore. On “Give Out” she bluntly sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/or why I’ll need to leave.” Yet sometimes she takes the blame for a failed relationship herself, as on “Leonard” when she musters up the courage to say, “I am bad at loving you.” One thing you’re almost guaranteed with any Sharon Van Etten record is that she’ll be very frank and up front about her thoughts and emotions. It’s just nice at times to not have to wade through symbols and extraneous wordplay while trying to decipher the songwriter’s true intentions. And Sad though many of the sentiments might be, often made sadder by the heartbreak evident in Van Etten’s voice, this album isn’t about the destruction of relationships. It’s actually about the lessons we learn in the aftermath of those tragic moments. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she confesses on “All I Can”, the implication being that the wounds of past loves will hopefully assist in finding someone new and better. Couple that with a song like “We Are Fine” and the theme becomes moving on and forward. Funny, because Van Etten is not only doing that lyrically but sonically as well, and the combination makes for her finest record to date. She’s come quite a long way from just a couple years ago playing unreleased music all alone on a festival stage. To say she’s earned the success that continues to come her way would be quite an understatement.
Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.
“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.
One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.
The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.
Click past the jump to stream the entire album for a limited time.
January 14, 2009: Ryan Adams posts a missive on his website. In it, he explained a decision to quit making music and blogging, citing a number of reasons including being away from loved ones while on tour, health issues, intense pressure and criticism from the media/fans/record labels, and the general loss of his dignity. He had come down with Meniere’s Disease, which affects the inner ear and causes everything from vertigo to tinnitus to hearing loss to general balance trouble. That’s not an easy thing to deal with, particularly as a musician. As part of stepping away from music, Adams got engaged to and then quickly married his long-time girlfriend Mandy Moore. and for awhile it seemed he was making good on his word and had fully quit the music industry.Yet in spite of that, Adams kept tooling around behind the scenes to pump out plenty of previously unreleased music for fans. Last spring Adams put out a heavy metal record called “Orion” on vinyl only via his Pax-Am label. The album was reportedly one of many things Adams recorded prior to his quitting music. Then came “Cardinals III/IV”, a compilation of unreleased material from his time with The Cardinals from back in 2006. Rumor had it there was plenty more material where that came from. If you truly believed that Adams was done with music though, it must have come as something of a surprise when just last month he announced that he was releasing a brand new solo record and would be going out on tour in support of it. “Ashes & Fire” is the title of the new album, his first official release without The Cardinals since 2005. His time with The Cardinals may be officially over, but apparently he intends to carry on making music in whatever capacity he so desires.
Early reports about “Ashes & Fire” seemed to suggest that this was a record in which Ryan Adams returns to his roots. That is to say, he’s taking the much more plainspoken, man-and-his-acoustic-guitar approach rather than something that has the full force of a band behind it or is largely electric in nature. Clearly then, it’s not quite the livelier alt-country sound he’d established with The Cardinals, nor was it the more electrified rock approach he pushed on his last solo releases “Love Is Hell” and “Rock N Roll”. No, to get that sparse, rootsy folk sound, he’d need to return to his first two records, “Heartbreaker” and “Gold”. As luck would have it, they’re also his two most popular and best records to date. In taking on such a task there’s are some inevitable flaws that go along with it. The Ryan Adams of 10 years ago is by no means the Ryan Adams of today. The sad, introspective young man has been replaced by a much more content and married guy on the verge of middle age. The headspace is different, for one. Trends in music have changed too, though honestly there’s probably always a place for a smart, Dylanesque folk singer. But there’s also the thought that perhaps Adams is backtracking with the very purposeful idea of reclaiming success and widespread popularity, that the progressive musical strides he’s made over the last decade apparently mean little to nothing to him. Adams’ last several records may not have been very good, but that doesn’t mean they were devoid of good ideas or new twists on old sounds. There may be a certain comfort in returning to your old stomping grounds, but is there really a point if you’re not going to apply a fresh perspective to it rather than simply revert to your prior ways? These are all things that should be asked of “Ashes & Fire” from the very beginning, and that’s not even bringing up Adams’ frustrations with record labels and fans.
The pressure is on Adams with “Ashes & Fire”, and not just because he doesn’t have a full band backing him up anymore. Though distributed through Capitol Records, this is the first record Adams has had total control over in awhile. Not that he was bending to the whims of executives at Universal Records the entire time, even if he implied as much in the blog post where he quit music. At first glance though, “Ashes & Fire” is a very interesting, if not lightly flawed record that is pretty much the best thing he’s done in years, even if it comes nowhere close to those gorgeously auspicious introductions we got with his first two albums. “I’m just looking through the rubble/trying to find out who we were,” Adams bluntly states on opening track “Dirty Rain”. He may be talking about a failed relationship, but the sentiment doubles as he attempts to rekindle the romance he once had with his fans. The very hushed and pure acoustic guitar and vocal opening of the track is heartening as well, a reminder of the days when it truly was just Adams doing all the work. Some light organ gets sprinkled in towards the end, but doesn’t distract from the overall song’s temprament, which is a good thing. Not so great is the production on the record, which to be fair is great overall but possibly just a little too polished. You can hear the occasional breath taken between words or the sound of fingers sliding up and down the neck of a guitar, but a record such as this truly benefits from raw and essentially minimal production. By no means does it have to be lo-fi to the point where the recording sounds damaged, but a more roughshod feel just works better in folk recordings such as this one. At least producer Glyn Johns doesn’t make Adams sound inhumanly perfect, so it makes the album easier to connect with a wider audience.
For the casual Ryan Adams fans, “Ashes & Fire” has a couple faster tempo tracks to help make a traditionally slow and sad trip a little less so. The title track isn’t going to get you energized for the day ahead, but it will get your toe tapping at least a little. The biggest overall track on the album comes from “Chains of Love”, which skips along good-naturedly and incorporates a string section that feels reminiscent of something you might hear on “Gold”. It’s no “New York, New York” or even “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”, but the adult contemporary crowd should find some satisfaction with it as the most marketable, radio friendly thing here. “Lucky Now” also was smartly chosen as the album’s first single, as it doesn’t quite have the energy, but remains one of the record’s best slow burners with a hook that sticks with you more than anything else. The track also contains one of the record’s other begrudgingly backwards-looking lyrics, as this time Adams asks, “Are we really who we used to be?/Am I really who I was?” That aside, the positive message contained within the song is that time and love can heal wounds, among other things. It’s a testament to Adams’ path as a musician, from his depressed, heartbroken and drug-influenced early days through his cleaned up, sober married life today.
The biggest difference between the Ryan Adams of 2001 and the Ryan Adams of 2011 is how he writes his songs. The personal demons and issues have been set aside for the most part, making way for more abstract thoughts and third person narratives. Along with the title “Ashes & Fire”, there are plenty of other elements that make their way into these songs, from “Dirty Rain” to “Rocks” and the “Invisible Riverside”. Those are just the song titles, but the lyrics are about those things too, along with light and shadow and a few other similar bits. They’re mostly used in metaphor, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned from them as well if you pay close enough attention. Yet most of the lyrics are broad about nature, seeming to say a whole lot but in reality saying very little. Too often he relies on old or bland cliches to get his point across, when he used to do exceptionally well with the turn of a phrase. At least he’s not giving us platitudes or rhetoric that pretends to be intelligent. In that respect, it’s better than his records with The Cardinals. Actually there’s a lot of things about “Ashes & Fire” that make it better than almost all of what he’s put out in the last decade. Ryan Adams was almost always a better musician when on his own versus when he’d collaborate with a full band (not speaking of the Whiskeytown days). For a guy that appears to be ready to start the third phase of his career, this record isn’t a bad way to kick it off. Adams may not reclaim the critical praise and fan base he once had, but there’s still an unerring sense he’s got plenty of great music left to give the world.
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For years now, we’ve stood by and simply watched (or listened) as Matthew Friedberger unleashed solo record after solo record during brief breaks from his main band The Fiery Furnaces, of which he is a main part of along with his sister Eleanor. Well, technically speaking, Matthew has only released a couple solo albums, the double discer that was “Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School” back in 2006. This year though he’s freaking out and unleashing 8 albums of original material as part of a project called “Solos”, where he spends an entire record with just a single instrument and his own voice. If you separate out all of those various LPs in addition to the ones still forthcoming in 2011, he’ll have put out more solo full lengths than he has with The Fiery Furnaces. All the while, Eleanor Friedberger has done nothing on her own, leaving many curious as to what she might come up with were she to pursue such a path. Well, wonder no more, because last summer she recorded her first solo album. Now here we are, one year later, and that record is finally out, and very naturally titled “Last Summer”.
Anyone that’s ever heard a Fiery Furnaces album before knows what Eleanor is like behind the microphone. Her vocals are done in an almost sing-speak fashion, and that’s primarily due to the extensive amount of lyrics she’s got to spit out within the confines of a typical song. She writes the stuff too, and tells stories both real and fictional concerning her own life or the lives of others. On “Last Summer”, those hallmarks remain, though the stories she tells across this album are 100% true things that have happened to her. Not that it makes much of a difference in the end, except in making close analysis of the lyrics that much more poignant. She talks about a failed attempt to rekindle an old relationship on opening track and first single “My Mistakes”, even though the song itself is such a delightful slice of synth pop pie that you’d imagine it’d have to be about something more upbeat and fun. On the funky “Roosevelt Island” she details a trip she made to the New York neighborhood, leading off with an anecdote about encountering a doppelganger. “We saw a picture of a girl with the same hair and I posed next to her/Made a great photo but I never thought I’d see her again/Didn’t really ever want to see her again,” she sings with the most rapid-fire delivery possible. Dealing with the specific time frame of when the album was recorded, “Glitter Gold Year” mentions 2010 many a time, to the point where Eleanor begins to play around with just HOW she sings it. But she’s also apparently not happy with said “glitter gold year”, beacuse she also often repeats, “you said it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s worse”. Seeing as how “Last Summer” is a recording of tales from 2010, there most definitely is no way that’s getting erased anymore, not that we’d want it to anyways. Even the most experienced New Yorker can sometimes get lost in such a large city, and “Owl’s Head Park” is an amusing tale about how going to pick up a custom-made bicycle left her at the titular park and unsure of how to get home. “The boys on the F train said that frame was fresh/it was the color blue/but I didn’t know my way/so I couldn’t get home to you,” are a few lines that emphasize just how Friedberger is able to keep a plot moving along while also providing miniscule details that enhance what’s already there. It’s a big part of what makes The Fiery Furnaces so unique and exciting, and it plays the same role on her solo effort, though with slightly different sonic results.
The two separate Friedberger halves of The Fiery Furnaces work so well together because of how their individual dynamics come into play. Matthew is the guy who puts together all the weird sonic experiments, while Eleanor writes and sings behind those avant-pop sounds. Rare is the Fiery Furnaces track that is straightforward and simply structured. The closest moments you’ll get to pure pop from the band comes through in tracks like “Single Again,” “Here Comes the Summer”, “Benton Harbor Blues” and “Tropical Iceland”. If you loved those moments, or if they’re some of the only songs you actually like from the band because the rest is too strange, then “Last Summer” is the record you’ve been waiting for. The songs almost always hold a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, and the oddest instrument used is either the saxophone or harmonica. Actually, the saxophone solo that closes out “Owl’s Head Park” is one of the most fascinating moments on an album that’s by no means lacking in them. The vibe is very much 70s pop throughout, and various aspects of it show up on certain tracks. “Roosevelt Island” mines the territory of past greats like Stevie Wonder or The Commodores. There’s a nice bit of psychedelia on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, particularly when Eleanor’s vocals are hit with the echo effect and the synths are bleeping about like they’re floating within that same ether. “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight” has some more fun with the vocals, creating some splendid backing harmonies that essentially make it a girl group song. And a pair of beautiful acoustic guitar-based folk ballads turn up as well courtesy of “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “One-Month Marathon”. Though there are obviously some personal instrumental touches in there, at their core they recall some of the amazing folk records from artists like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. There may be a mixture of diverse styles across these 10 tracks, but Eleanor’s own quirks along with a serious knack for crafting memorable hooks makes everything work, even if she never pushes too far in one direction or the other.
Weighing “Last Summer” against all the other music with a Friedberger name stamped on it is a tough thing to do. Matthew’s influence has undoubtedly been a good on for the sake of originality and experimentation, but there’s something to be said for exceptionally strong writing and powerfully addictive pop songs. “My Mistakes” factors in pretty well to be one of the best, catchiest things you’ll hear this calendar year, and there’s a secret sort of delight to be had from condensing the weirdness of The Fiery Furnaces into something wholly pure and easily digestible. The mood of the album too, given its summer release date, makes for a perfect soundtrack to one of those lazy days hanging out at home with the sunshine streaming in through the windows. Yeah it works best in summer, but even in the winter it can probably be used to warm you up a little bit and bring out that innate longing to travel to the Inn of the Seventh Ray or ride the Cyclone on Coney Island. These may be Eleanor’s memories of things that have happened to her, but the way that she spins those tales tend to put us there with her. Honestly, there are far worse ways to spend your money and 40 minutes of your life. While the album likely lacks the staying power of a “Blueberry Boat”, the immediacy and lack of a learning curve make it special in its own way. Matthew may be releasing 8 albums this year, but it’s doubtful that any one of them will be as lovely and wonderful as “Last Summer” is.