Friday, April 30, 2010

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

Rating: B-

Another new album by a band I like that's a little disappointing. Unlike Built To Spill's, Jay Farrar's, and Spoon's latest efforts, Humbug's flaw is not that it's too safe, too little of a departure from what has come before. Humbug does branch out, but it loses a lot of the intensity that made Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare such strong albums. The band's frenetic punk edge is heavier and hazier here, but while the energy translated well live, on the album it falls a little flat.

It's trite to credit / blame changes on the producer, but in this case it's unavoidable: Josh Homme, of Queens Of The Stone Age fame, brings a lot of the QOTSA sound. Opener "My Propeller" sets the tone: after an opening flurry of drums, it falls into a medium-tempo bassy minor-key riff that runs through virtually the whole song. It's not that it sounds bad, though it is pretty generic; the problem is that over such a subdued background, singer / guitarist Alex Turner's voice gets lazy to match, with none of the ferocity or edge that marked the Monkeys' previous efforts. "Fire and the Thud" is another example, a dark, plodding track that doesn't go anywhere until three minutes in.

It's the high points more so than the low points that highlight this issue. The album's best moments are tracks that would fit in nicely on the Monkeys' freshman or sophomore efforts: vicious cut-down "Crying Lightning," ode to a femme fatale "Dangerous Animals," and irreverant social observation "Pretty Visitors." Maybe "Secret Door" is indicative of what the band was trying to do here on the album: the chorus almost sounds like it was pulled from a Suede song, with its Bernard Butler-like spacey guitar solo. The verses match military beat drumming with aggressive, almost hip-hop speed vocals. "Potion Approaching," and "Cornerstone," also have their moments, with some QOTSA spaciness mixed with Monkeys' brashness.

I'll never come down too hard on a band for trying new things. In the Arctic Monkeys' case, it's difficult because there wasn't a lot more they could mine out of the sound in their first two albums. Humbug is a step in an interesting direction, but the Arctic Monkeys need to make sure they don't completely lose their way.

Buy it from Amazon:
Arctic Monkeys Official Site

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Live Review - Infamous Stringdusters 04/28/2010 at Lizard Lounge

I don't have too much to add from the last time I saw them. They're still terrific, still inspired (and inspiring), still at the top of their game. You should see them when they come to your town.

Infamous Stringdusters Official Site

Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie Review - Searching for Elliott Smith

Searching for Elliott Smith, the new documentary on the life of the depressed, enigmatic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, dwells surprisingly little on Smith's music. We learn three things. 1) Smith was always a talented, ambitious songwriter and musician, playing many instruments and unafraid of elaborate chord changes, even at a young age; 2) Smith used to be in a yelly grunge band called "Heatmiser" before deciding he preferred the lower-key sounds he eventually became known for; 3) he had a gift for writing radio-friendly songs, but would constantly strive to muck up anything that sounded remotely commercial.

The film treats this as tragic, telling stories of how Smith had "Young Man's Disease" and couldn't stand success. There's another story of how he became uncomfortable after Courtney Love recognized him backstage at a show. I don't know, that would make me uncomfortable, too. There's no analysis of whether this compulsion to destroy his commercial-sounding tracks made his music better, more personal, more artistically brilliant. I'm not convinced either way, but I know what Lester Bangs would say.

The movie works, because Smith's story is so good, and because some of the interviewees are so compelling. Portland musician and roommate of Smith's Sean Croghan is particularly great, self-aware and ranging from funny to vulnerable in a short period of time. Larry Crane, who co-produced Smith's biggest hit "Miss Misery," is jovial and entertaining. Director Gil Reyes mines some good material out of these interviews, staging almost an argument between Croghan and David McConnell as to how Smith's drug problem should have been handled. At other times, the movie interjects odd animations that fall a flat, but it doesn't detract too much from the story.

I'm left with a thought on a quote Smith had about his album Figure 8: "There's something I liked about the image of a skater going in this endless twisted circle that doesn't have any real endpoint. So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it's just to make this thing as beautiful as they can." In the movie, this is spun as Smith's depressed take on life and making music, but I think in hindsight it's an optimistic way to view his life and work. It's hard to say what the point of his life was, but he did make beautiful music along the way.

Searching for Elliott Smith Office Site

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lester Bangs - Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

In a way, Lester Bangs is the primary inspiration for this blog. Probably nobody has inspired as many rock critics as Lester Bangs. He was so democratic in both his writing style and in his musical aesthetic. He didn't care for journalistic convention, frequently inserting himself into his writing and often letting his "reviews" veer off in tangents that had nothing to do with the work in questions, even imagining fake albums, sometimes by fake bands. He refused to bound by convention in his writing style. In this way, he opened up musical criticism to those who love music, who have strong opinions on music, but who don't merely want to write "I liked X because ..." third-grade-style book reports on albums.

It was not just the structure and style of Bangs' writing that was unconventional. He also railed against the conventional standards of taste in music. Disdaining any conventional rock styling and even lambasting basic principles like instrumental competence or lyrical meaning, he praises bands like Iggy Pop and The Stooges as "[coming] out of an illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style." To Bangs, this was the essence of rock n' roll music: making fucking noise.

Noise is clearly one of the essential elements of rock n' roll, but the element that I think Bangs ignored ("ignored" isn't the right word - "disdained" is more appropriate) is that the spirit of rock n' roll is not just rebellion from traditional music but the confluence of it. Levon Helm talks about this in "The Last Waltz" (a film, unsurprisingly, that Bangs despised), talking about how country, bluegrass, and rhythm & blues all swirled together in the Mississippi Delta, forming what we know of as rock. To Bangs, this was the trappings that real music, good music needs to distance itself from, avoiding or eschewing classical training, knowledge, and sensibility. I see value in both the traditional sense of rock, Bangs' preferred noise, and the synthesis of the two.

Whether you agree with Bangs' take on things or not, he was a unique voice with a compelling style. Sometimes I read his reviews and wanted to argue with him, sometimes I thought he was spot on, but I was always intrigued and entertained. For a critic, I don't think there's a higher compliment.

Buy it from Amazon:
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spoon - Transference

Rating: B-

Like many indie rock fans, I have bands I root for. I want to like their albums. I buy their new offerings when they come out, not even reading reviews first. If the reviews are negative, I am more inclined to trust the artist than the reviewer and give it another listen. There are only a handful of bands in this category for me and Spoon is one.

Why do I like Spoon so much? Is it lead singer Britt Daniel? The New York Times once described Daniel's voice as "like a British guy with a Southern accent and a cold, which means he sounds like a rock star, only more so." Is it their cool, minimal, angular grooves? Is it the blacked-out-hung-over way I found their CD Gimme Fiction in my CD collection with no memory of how it got there? And then the same thing happened with Kill the Moonlight? How can one not feel fated to love a band after that?

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band's 2007 release, was the poppiest and most approachable yet. Rather than using their gifts for repetitive percussion, snarled vocals with cryptic lyrics, and jagged guitar lines to bring us into a seedy uncomfortable place like on many of their earlier efforts, they used them to pump us up, augmented by brass ("The Underdog," "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb"), or John Cougar Mellencamp-style handclaps ("Dont You Evah," "Finer Feelings"). It was a great pop album with terrific variety, ranging from the political "Don't Make Me a Target" to the haunting "The Ghost of You Lingers" to the inspiring "Underdog" to "Black Like Me," maybe the band's most vulnerable moment yet.

Transference is something of a retreat after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. In that way, it's similar to Wilco's most recent effort, Wilco (The Album), another more straight-ahead endeavor after more experimental albums. But where Wilco seemed a summing up of Wilco's recent past, tying them not just to their prior work but also to musical history, Transference just seems like Spoon going back to the well. The songs feel like B-Sides to prior albums - opener "Before Destruction" could slot right between any of the tracks on Girls Can Tell. "Is Love Forever" would fit nicely on Kill the Moonlight. "The Mystery Zone" is one of the album's strongest tracks (despite a bizarre abrupt mid-word cutoff), but it also feels like it was yanked out of Gimme Fiction.

Which isn't to say there aren't strong moments. "Written In Reverse" is catchy as all hell, builds well into a blistering guitar solo, then surprises with a fake ending. "I Saw the Light" features a great instrumental outro, keyed by a Count-Basie-minimalist piano part. These are the only songs that deliver on the spaced-out vibe suggested by their December show I saw. Well, "Nobody Gets Me But You," but it's just kinda boring. But hell, it is a Spoon album - Daniel's voice and angular guitar, catchy rhythms, an air of dirty mystery. But if you're not into Spoon, you can skip this, and if you're not familiar, there are better places to start.

Buy it from Amazon:
Spoon Official Site

Friday, April 2, 2010

Live Review - 4/1/2010 K'Naan / Wale at The House of Blues

Five or six years ago, I had a revelation about hip-hop music. Two events led to this epiphany. One, I happened to be in the UK on business with a fair amount of free time, and I saw an episode of a show called "Chancers." It was a reality show involving underground hip-hop acts who won a contest and were assembled into a reality super-group. There were a couple R&B-type singers, male and female MCs, a producer or two, a DJ, etc., and they were assembling a mix tape for distribution in the US. A couple of the MCs participated in a freestyle contest. It made me think about rap as more a grassroots effort.

That wouldn't have stuck with me too much except for a connection I made with the liner notes to Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, his famous "Royal Albert Hall" concert (which was in fact in Manchester) - this was the concert when Dylan plugged in to the increasing chagrin of the audience, culminating in someone yelling "Judas," attacking Dylan's perceived betrayal of the folk scene. In the liner notes, Dylan explains that he never thought of himself as a folk musician, but when he arrived on the scene in New York in his early 20's with little money, crashing on people's couches, he didn't have the money to get a full band together. But playing a guitar and a harmonica and singing - that he could do on the cheap.

This got me thinking about where a young Bob Dylan would be today, and I thought back to that episode of "Chancers" and the freestyle jams at underground hip-hop venues. They didn't even need guitars! Just lyrical wit, rhythm, talent, and a dream. Just as folk let Dylan jump from sleepy Hibbing, MN to New York's vibrant music scene, hip-hop lets aspiring artists transcend whatever environment (usually urban, usually poor) they grew up in and touch the world.

It was easy to see this effect at work Thursday night at The House of Blues. Leading off was Tabi Bonney, and he reminded the audience that despite opening for a star-studded lineup he was still trying to break out of the struggle. "I've gotta be my own D.J.," he said, fiddling with his laptop before kicking off the reggae-tinged "Rich Kids," "but we dream rich." His tunes weren't breaking any new ground, but the beats were catchy and he had an infectious enthusiasm that was perfect to keep the crowd from getting restless.

John Forte had a very different sound and a very different take on the transformative power of hip-hop. With the Fugees, he had been on top of the world, but after being arrested in 2000 he served seven years in a federal penitentiary. For Forte, hip-hop is his road to redemption. At one point, he had the house turn the lights on the crowd so he could take a picture for posterity; he isn't taking anything for granted now. His lyrics frequently alluded to his incarceration, but he showed a cerebral confidence akin to Chuck D or Mos Def. He slipped between reggae-style singing and rapping, playing guitar all the while. Forte was sitting most of the set and it was definitely lower-key than Bonney's, but some serious basslines kept it from getting too sleepy.

Maybe the best example today of the transformative power of hip-hop - or of music in general - is K'Naan. He grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the worst places on earth. I was impressed when I saw him back at ACL, but he took it to another level Thursday night. He came out in a blistering fury, with a Russian military hat, backed by ferocious drums and electric guitars, culminating in a rocking version of "T.I.A." "This is a gladiator song!" K'Naan exclaimed, trying to get the crowd pumped up. After that, he showed what really makes him unique, taking it down a notch for a few songs. First he brought a group of young people on stage and dedicated "Take a Minute" to a friend of theirs who had died on brain cancer. Then he took things down even lower, asking for silence so he could sing "Somalia" a capella. K'Naan's singing voice can be off-key from time-to-time but he exudes tremendous sincerity. This conflicted tale of his home land showed once again the transformative power of hip-hop ("Do you see why it's amazing when someone comes out of such a dire situation / And learns the English language just to share his observation?").

The highlight was definitely closer "Wavin' Flag," which was nothing short of inspiring. "I'm going to tell a story," K'Naan said, singing a capella verses that explained some of where his story came from, including a horrifying tale of going to the beach with two friends and being shot at, with his friends being killed. K'Naan's upbringing puts American rappers to shame, and as a result he doesn't have to spend all of his tracks rapping about how hard he is. "Wavin' Flag" is a dream for the future: "When I get older / I will be stronger / They'll call me freedom / Just like a wavin' flag." And though he sings with wide-eyed realism ("it can be bleak," he admits), his relentless optimism is completely uplifting: "It's not far away!" he exults in the build-up to the chorus.

That was a tough performance to follow but Wale did a credible job. After the high-falutin' ideals of K'Naan's work, Wale's rhymes seemed a little shallow, but his flow was amazing. And while his upbringing was not the ordeal that K'Naan's was, he avoided the lowest common denominator of gangsta rap. "Nike Boots" is a fine example of Wale's style - at first it sounds like a playful ode to footwear, but he plumbs what it means to be wearing the same shoes as everyone in D.C., and how that connects him to his hometown. D.J. Omega spun a great and diverse set of beats that kept everybody moving.

K'Naan came on stage for the last couple tunes and the respect and healthy competition between him and Wale was entertaining as they traded verses. After a night of seeing the power of hip-hop to transcend and redeem, to transform and uplift, it was great to see two up-and-comers. If rap has not yet landed them on top of the world, it has taken them a pretty good ways.

Tabi Bonney's MySpace
John Forte's Web Site
K'Naan's Web Site
Wale's Web Site