Heave-ho: Tom Waits’ Bad As Me

A musician whose first album purchased remains the prohibitive favorite, Waits hooked me with 1992’s Bone Machine, a clanking, clattering, nightmare that mitigates its Southern gothic cornpone and oleaginous melodic sense with consistently fresh percussion. Hooked me, but didn’t keep me; last year Rain Dogs finally revealed itself as the turning point album its reputation suggests. I like to remind fans of the existence of Rod Stewart’s Top Five cover of “Downtown Train” because Stewart and producer Trevor Horn embrace the original’s night-of-a-thousand-stars mawk instead of relying on an admittedly fetching Robert Quine guitar line to mitigate Waits’ wet croak.

Bad As Me will satisfy the faithful. “Raised Right Men” is another iteration of Rain Dogs‘ “Big Black Mariah,” down to the vowels-only singing. Without checking the credits of “Last Leaf,” it’s obvious that the Keith Richards-anchored “That Feel” from 1992 served as a sonic forebear. The album’s second third adduces Waits’ weakness for ballads. Rod Stewart, calmly nesting in the warmth of the Great American Songbook, probably won’t cover any of them though, which is doubly piteous: not only doesn’t Rod care much for contemporary songcraft, but Waits, whose albums now debut in the top forty (and whose 2006 comp went gold), no longer needs the publishing income. He’s a Great American Master already, down to his heaves and belches. So let me reserve special praise for a particularly odorous belch: “Hell Broke Luce,” in which Waits’ decision to repeat key nouns over the usual clattering drums and scrub board guitar sounds more necessary than it did in 1999 when I suppose we all agreed Mule Variations represented his best bid for canocity.

The limits of fandom: “indie adult contemporary”

Welcome to indie adult contemporary:

But if there is a consensus about what counts as respectable, adult music in 2011, [Wilco, Neko Case, Bon Iver, and Feist] are surely a part of it: While more people consider pop music inherently silly than enjoy it, few assaults are leveled at the seriousness or artistic value of this stuff. It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it. If this sounds close to the definition of what was once considered “adult contemporary,” well, that’s precisely the territory bands like Wilco have spent the past decade colonizing, often entirely by accident. One good indicator of this norm’s normalness? The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it. These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they’ve taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple.

A couple of points. Firstly, I don’t believe the platitude that great art must be subversive; not only is what is subversive to you banal to me, but if subversion were our ne plus ultra, then our bookshelves and hard drives would groan with the number of first novels and albums contained therein (besides, how often do we listen to Gang of Four?). As a listener who must note gender and sexuality in the performance, I often fixate on bright, agreeable surfaces anyway.  Secondly, in his genial way Nitsuh Abebe withholds blame; he recognizes that taxonomy gets people defensive enough already. Besides, in 1991 anybody who cared about Sting (and they were plenty) bought The Soul Cages without worrying about genre or, ominously, what the purchase signified. Hold it a moment – aren’t Wilco and Radiohead fans defensive creatures? If I make the leap to link Abebe-defined indie adult contemporary to the “middlebrow” sensibility, as defined by Dwight MacDonald and Clement Greenberg, then surely Radiohead’s attempts at seriousness belong in this category? I’m engaging in taxonomy too: in their last three albums Wilco, to their credit, haven’t tried for Serious Art so much as limning the possibilities of tasteful noodle rock. Only their most devoted fans will vouch for the differences between The Whole Love and Sky Blue Sky; as for Sting, his heart might swell with pride at the thought that there was a tinker’s damn of difference between The Soul Cages and ...Nothing Like the Sun. That Wilco and Radiohead bore me has little to do with the requirements of fandom: valuing distinctions among songs or albums that the rest of us consider banal. I’ll accept the same criticism regarding The-Dream, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, the Mountain Goats, Drive-By Truckers, Robert Forster, or the other contemporary  acts I love.

Pumped up licks: Foster The People – Torches

The last time a “modern rock” song inched at such a slug’s pace up to pop respectability was “Mr. Brightside,” but Foster The People do one better: by casting two vestigial guys as the fuckmuffins and singer/auteur Mark Foster as the ugly dork, they destroy the Bryan Ferry Dictum.  “Mr. Brightside” is the better song because Brandon Flowers wrote verses instead of one fantastic chorus, which is all “Pumped Up Kicks” has going for it. But FTP (a much cooler acronym than STP’s!) can also claim several negative virtues: a singer so whey-voiced that Animal Collective’s Avey Tare sounds like Solomon Burke in comparison; a knack for purloining second-tier indie bands who never broke as spectacularly before a pop audience (Peter Bjorn and John must rue the day they came up with the whistle hook from “Young Kids” just so FTP can lift it);  gunky synth hooks and drum programming fey enough for gay boys and foxy enough for the straight girls which outnumber everyone else at FTP’s shows; and an ear for the ludicrous hook, from “ooh-la-la/I’m falling in love” to the one called “Hustling (Life on the Nickel),” which offers what sounds like sixty-seven children singing the first word but sounds like AWESOMEAWESOME instead. Finally, FTP remind me that MGMT offer the kinds of ideas other bands improve on, as Frank Ocean proved in “Nature Feels” a few months ago.

I see “Flock of Seagulls” stamped on these guys’ waxed foreheads, but the confidence with which FTP assert their ephemeral qualities and their to-the-manor-born diffidence won me over (another koan: “You know it’s funny how freedom can make us feel contained/Even when the muscles in our legs aren’t used to all the walking”). They offer nothing but a reified take on a post-(Geoerge) Bush indie ethos which already sounds plenty reified to me. Get’em while they’re still hot.

Autumn EP roundup

Wussy – Strawberry

The best tune  is an unhinged bit of  Lisa Walker churn-rock called “Chicken,” in which the usually demure singer/guitarist shouts a series of anguished questions over the usual power chords and a thick string section. The marital tension in which she and husband/singer Chuck Cleaver traffic usually plays out at Georgia Hubley-Ira Kaplan levels of hushed intimacy. No more. Imagine Linda Thompson finally giving Richard what-for.

Jens Lekman – An Argument With Myself

Last month I wondered about the title track: “Is this the first time anybody purloins musical ideas from Rei Momo-era David Byrne?” This month it still just sits there. So does “A Promise.” The synthetic reggae of “So This Guy at My Office” emits a mild frisson around its title conceit. The keeper is a valentine to Kirsten Dunst propelled by a delicious mandolin riff and violin duet, and Lekman’s ambivalent embrace of a city which in normal times won’t cop to starstruck Hollywood fans and VIP lines, developments which turn him into “My City Was Gone”-era Chrissie Hynde: “They turn the youth center into a casino/They drew a swastika in your cappuccino.” I’ve had my own cavils about this Swedish indie star and his dolorous voice but he sure loves writing songs from unexpected angles, and he’s slowly developing a voice to match.

Givin’ the world some bonhomie: Kid Creole

Late to the lifeboat party, I bought my first Kid Creole and the Coconuts album in 2008. A compilation of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, leader August Darnell’s more profitable disco-era project, didn’t impress me as much as the numbers on 1982’s Wise Guys. And numbers they were — productions in the Old Hollywood sense, reminding me of Buster Poindexter and solo David Byrne but with a ironical deployment of call-and-response female vocalists and horn section. A decaying world peeked beneath the giddy textures, which Darnell’s tunes didn’t mitigate (Machine’s “There But For The Grace of God Go I” is closer to life during wartime than the contemporaneous Talking Heads song). Their new album I Wake Up Screaming, produced by Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler, sounds grateful instead of angry, but formally it’s close to unimpeachable. Andy Beta’s interview with the Kid depicts the travails of being almost famous — an insoluble dilemma but a reflexive one too, if you consider how often Darnell’s own songs almost veered off script from rave-up to editorial (check out 1987’s “Part of My Design”).

Musicsexlovesoundz: Wild Flag

I’ve been too hard on Carrie Brownstein since she published an entry in her “Monitor Mix” column for NPR on the shallowness of Madonna. Naturally — she sang “Entertain” on Sleater Kinney’s 2005 swan song The Woods and “Combat Rock” on 2002’s One Beat. I didn’t mind their didacticism — Sleater Kinney were at their best at their most hortatory — but Brownstein sang them as if she aimed to kill fun, which is strange considering that Sleater Kinney made the line “I’ve found a way to put the fun back in sin” resonate like a prayer in 1997.

Her new project Wild Flag flirts with self-righteousness too, and it’s in these failed conceptual moments that I miss Corin Tucker most; she never sang like Mark Hollis with tonsillitis. But on most songs Brownstein’s new band can handle her dynamics and chordal shifts. On “Boom,” Helium guitarist Mary Timony does all kinds of cool sliding movements up and down the fret while Minders’ keyboardist Rebecca Cole injects organ riffs at correct intervals (another highlight: her Jimmy Destri-worthy work on “Endless Talk”). The glue, as usual, is drummer Janet Weiss, whose performance overall reminds me of how shitty a bandleader Stephen Malkmus has become. Brownstein is so in love with music that at least a third of Wild Flag’s tunes pledge troth to it as muse. For anyone else this would bespeak insularity, but Brownstein formed part of the trio responsible for “Words & Guitar,” “You’re No Rock N Roll Fun” — musicsexlovesoundz I’m still listening to.

Takin’ thrills: Pistol Annies

A friend who snagged a review copy of Miranda Lambert’s forthcoming album called it lackluster, which is a pity; even on the hysterically overmixed Revolution the country artist still sounded like she was searching for nuances in familiar material or finding buried strength in the new. Maybe Lambert exhausted her energy recording the terrific Pistol Annies side project, an album called Hell on Heels recorded with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. This minor record provides some of the year’s most consistent pleasure.

My review for The Quietus here.

Ashes of American bands: Wilco and 2002

Although I’d been publishing reviews for a couple of years, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the first album since Moby’s Everything is Wrong whose acclaim mystified me; it marked the first onset of self-doubt. From the song about the heavy metal band which doesn’t sound as if the songwriters had ever heard heavy metal to the opener that recontextualized Saul Bellow as pseudo-triumphalist drivel through a miasma of redundant instruments and mixing board effects, I hated the album on first listen. That whole summer, anticipating that its subtleties would reveal themselves, I played and played it. It worked: the ghostly emanations in Jeff Tweedy’s found their correlative in his lethargic singing; he couldn’t be bothered to bother (of course one of the songs is called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” [italics mine]). The band whose romantic impulses gained heft when accompanying Billy Bragg’s voice and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics had succumbed to an acedia unbecoming for an act that in 2002 represented all that was best of dark and light in American indie.

But I learned quickly that nothing centers the mind more quickly than another bad acclaimed record. When Beck released Sea Change a few months later and I disliked it too (I didn’t hate it; it was just a garish nullity, as triumphant a Dada gesture as Beck has ever recorded if you care to listen to it this way), the crisis yielded to a trust in first impressions. By a stroke of good fortune Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sea Change were the top two records of the year, according to The Village Voice. This farrago inspired a dandy Robert Christgau quip: “Wilco’s drummer is Ken Coomer–you could look it up, and I bet you’ll still have to.”

I still count 2002 as a personal triumph: finances secure, teaching becoming and remaining a lark, the coalescing of my sexuality, dancing all night to stuff like “Hot in Herre” (take off all your clothes), “Hate to Say I Told You So” (sounds better than ever) and “House of Jealous Lovers” (just okay). On the album end I still adore the Mekons’ OOOH!, DJ Shadow’s The Private Press (exactly the right kind of introspection), and Missy Elliott’s Under Construction. These three records envision transcendence as personal testimony validated by community. As Marxists recording in the era most beholden to the free market  in recorded history, the Mekons howled and ineptly strummed electric folk hymns. Missy drew explicit lines between herself and Heavy D and other artists from back in the day. Meanwhile Shadow was so hounded by influences that he planted his own family tree. The singles chart burbled one grinder after another. Beside “Work It,” “Grindin’,” “Lose Yourself,” “Like I Love You,” and “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” the likes of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights and Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi something or other sounded entombed — gestures from another era. Beck, Interpol, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s linguistic, musical, and philosophical distance from me didn’t help; the age difference (I was twenty-six) made reconciliation impossible. I was learning that happiness is harder, much harder, to evoke than despair. This is known as the New Order Dictum; this is why lots of us tip our hats to Joy Division but grin stupidly and sweat our asses off to New Order.

The leak of the new album and yet another discussion of Wilco’s merits by former Stylus colleagues inspired this post. Although “I Might” deepened Wilco’s fealty to late seventies George Harrison professionalism, I’m willing to give them another listen. I’ve liked several songs these guys have released since 2002, especially the ones in which Tweedy trusts his guitar over his larynx. But as Stephen Malkmus understands now and the late George Harrison learned when Gerald Ford ran the executive branch, nothing paralyzes an artist more effectively than an audience, swollen and enthusiastic beyond comprehension, anticipating a change in direction. If you’re Malkmus you submit to a capitulation of sorts: you hire the creator of Sea Change as producer (who’d already proven his chops on several Marianne Faithfull recordings and Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, his own inarticulate but more moving Sea Change). Malkmus, Beck, and Wilco’s happiness is in the roteness of mannerisms; their self-sufficiency motivates cults but little else.

I’m sick of being misread: Stephen Malkmus

The solid musicianship and songwriting on Mirror Traffic force me to ask: does Stephen Malkmus suck now or did I forgive his annoyances? I started to notice them when he wrote a song called “(Do Not Feed the) Oysters” in 2003, a gormless metaphor draped over a raucous hook. Please note the cute parentheses too; that’s how Malkmus thinks these days.

Here’s my review in The Quietus.

Whoo! – The Rapture

I won’t know until December whether I’ll play The Rapture’s In the Grace of Your Love as much as Pieces of the People We Love, whose release if I remember occasioned some snickering and didn’t cause half the impact of the second album and its putatively epochal but okay “House of Jealous Lovers” (a sound in search of a vocal and proper disco beat, but don’t tell Pitchfork). I miss strophes as batshit as “”Whoo! Alright — Yeah… Uh Huh” or “First Gear.” Where the 2006 album relied on the propulsion of rather straightforward post-post punk recombinations of Luke Jenner’s guitar and a tumbling rhythm section, In the Grace of Your Love embraces most of the dismissals hurled at the act over the years: goofiness, deplorable singing, the tension between arena rock and arena disco. Indeed, I still think Jenner isn’t up to the task of singing the likes of “Roller Coaster” and “Sail Away,” especially when his band can’t decide whether to leave him screaming by himself into the mic or helping him carve a Latin-indebted post-house groove as infectious as “How Deep is Your Love.”  Jenner whines and mewls — unfortunate traits in a band of any configuration. But The Rapture, curious beyond its post-9/11 DFA origin, ventures far afield for accordion noises (“Come Back To Me”) and a superb horn arrangement on what can best be described as Kid Creole meets Public Image Ltd collision that is “Never Die Again.” Even “Roller Coaster” boasts a bass line and guitar solo more sinuous than the competition (is there any?).  Post-punk lives!

Lovebuzz: Thurston Moore

Finally catching up with the Thurston Moore solo album Demolished Thoughts, released a couple months ago, I was first struck by how well producer Beck Hansen, shaping the best corrective to his own soporific Sea Change, arranges the kind of string arrangements which can rumble like thunderclaps, accompany a melody line played by Moore’s acoustic guitar (“Mina Loy”), or swoop in like birds of prey at the sight of carrion (“Circulation”). Beck and Moore are on to something here: they’ve recorded the American version of a late sixties Caetano Veloso record, with Moore whispering romantic goop as if screaming skulls and Lydia Lunch duets were the childish things he hid in the attic with the KISS dolls (on “Mina Loy” the closing refrain is actually “without shame”) — or maybe he just discovered the Dean Wareham of 2002’s Romantica. Not enough “Catholic Block” in this here thing, though (“Would you like to fuck?”); lethargy often cripples Moore’s melodies. Without the power of the full Sonic Youth behind him, these sweet nothings dissolve into a prettiness that occasionally rises to the contemplative heights of A Thousand Leaves‘ “Hits of Sunshine” — a contemplation of the object so intense that it acquires a spiritual dimension. “Illuminine” rises to that level: a kinder version of 2006’s “Incinerate” that isn’t gentler.

As for Beck, he’s next heard producing Steve Malkmus and the Jicks’ Mirror Traffic.