Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The New Pornographers - Together

Rating: C+

Sometimes there comes a point in a band's career where they haven't changed, and maybe you haven't changed, but your tolerance of them has. Or maybe that's just a polite way to say they need to start doing some different shit. This is where I am with The New Pornographers. I really enjoyed their previous albums, from Mass Romantic to Twin Cinema to their most recent offering, Challengers. But somewhere along the line, The New Pornographers' music just stopped hitting me in the same way.

The band has never been an album band, really. It's a little bit silly to throw around the term supergroup when you're largely talking about bands few have heard of, but when you have three songwriting voices - A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar (of Destroyer), and Neko Case - you're not going to write 12 songs that are thematically linked, at least not very easily. So it comes down to the singles - are there those couple songs that just grab me and force me to listen to them over and over? I'm afraid not. There's no "Bleeding Heart Show," "Sing Me Spanish Techno," or "Myriad Harbour." I've listened through this album a dozen times, and nothing grabs me. Sure, there are a couple catchy tunes - "Crash Years" and "Silver Jenny Dollar" in particular - but nothing that's having me push the repeat button on my iPod or look up the lyrics on the web.

Particularly disappointing is the reduction of A.C. Newman's voice over the last couple albums. When solo effort The Slow Wonder came out in 2004, followed by Twin Cinema, it seemed like he was going to be an important voice in indie songwriting over the next decade. Instead, his writing has taken a backseat to Bejar's and Case's over the last couple albums. I'm not going to play armchair psychologist; I'm just going to say, "Mr. Newman, please step it up. Your contributions are required to make the next great New Pornographers album."

Buy it from Amazon:
The New Pornographers Official Site

Monday, September 20, 2010

Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Rating: A-

Let me start by saying that So Runs the World Away has two of the most beautiful tragic love songs I've ever heard - and one ("The Curse") tells of a romance between a mummy and the Egyptologist who finds him, while the other ("Another New World") tells of somewhat fictionalized Christopher Columbus and his love for his ship The Annabel Lee. These two tracks alone make the album worth picking up, but it has several more standout tracks - up-tempo tunes in "Lantern" and "Long Shadows," a dark lullabye in "Folk Bloodbath," even a menacing stomp worthy of Jack White in "Ratting Locks."

But "The Curse" and "Another New World" - wow. "The Curse" opens with a mummy seeing the woman who discovers him, and the poetry in this verse is breathtaking - "after thousands of years, what a face to wake up to" and "Under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart / Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating" are two lines. As the mummy and the Egyptologist begin their relationship - spending nights together in the museum where he spends days in a glass display case - she begins to wear down physically as the curse implied by the song's title takes hold. As the mummy gains strength, he travels out into the world, becoming a celebrity along with the Egyptologist. She asks the mummy three times if he's cursed but he only answers "I think that I'm cured." Finally, in the last verse it's revealed that the mummy suspected he was cursed all along. Despite this deception (which ultimately leads to her death) and the implication that the mummy is unfaithful, he is a sympathetic character. After all, having literally been awoken from thousands of years by the sight of her, how could he not love her, even though it would destroy her?

The love in "Another New World," though not literally romantic, is no less destructive or poignant. An aging explorer, suggested to be Christopher Columbus, embarks on a grand journey on his beautiful ship the Annabel Lee to find another world world in the Arctic Circle. When the boat is stuck in the ice and snow and the crew all dies, he is left alone in the Annabel Lee, chopping up her mainsail and burning it for warmth. The cruelty of this act is not lost on the narrator, who anthropomorphizes the ship with lines like "she gave up her body to me" and "I burned her to keep me alive every night / In the loving embrace of her hull." Ultimately he saved, but "won't call it rescue ... [or] pretend that the search for another new world / Was well worth the burning of mine." The song is sung gently over a finger-picked guitar line, the musical starkness echoing the "vast glassy desert of arsenic white."

I'm big into great songwriting, and while I've heard good things about Josh Ritter, I was blown away by So Runs the World Away. It is trite to say songwriting is like poetry, but here it's true. I also see the fantastical prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There aren't many higher compliments.

Buy it from Amazon:
So Runs The World Away
Josh Ritter Official Site

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The National - High Violet

Rating: A-

I feel like reprising my review of LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening. Everything I said about that album applies here: it's hard for me to judge High Violet without comparing it to The National's last effort, Boxer. That album, like LCD Soundsystem's Sound Of Silver, was one of my favorite records of 2007. High Violet, like This is Happening, maybe doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor but is nonetheless a damn fine album.

Among the highlights: the fuzz-laden opener "Terrible Love," with its haunting refrain "It takes an ocean not to break"; middle track "Bloodbuzz Ohio," which apes the rhythm section of Boxer's "Brainy" but can be forgiven because Matt Berninger's baritone carries us "to Ohio in a swarm of bees"; and album closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," which moves from stark quiet to lush string backings and back.

I'd count their lyrics among the strong points of The National, but like many great lyricists, Berninger isn't confined by having his lyrics make sense. Take the cryptically-titled "Conversation 16." Like in Boxer's "Slow Show," the protagonist is a a self-loathing loser. But while in "Slow Show" he felt socially awkward ("Can I get a minute of not being nervous / And not thinking of my dick?"), here he feels morally reprehensible ("I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'Cause I'm evil") ... or something. Maybe he's a zombie. The verses, with lyrics like "We live on coffee and flowers / Try not to wonder what the weather will be" don't really enlighten us further.

There's nothing wrong with cryptic lyrics; many of the greatest songwriters have been at the same time the most inscrutable (I'm looking in your direction, Mr. Dylan). The trick with The National is that they make the cryptic lyrics seem direct and personal. After listening to Boxer it became hard to listen to Interpol, a band with a lot of sonic similarities; their lyrics just seemed shallow compared to The National's. But I don't know if that's really true; I think it's all in Berninger's delivery. Closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" probably shows this the strongest - there's no story in the lyrics at all, just a vague sense of being lonely and wanting love. But the chorus, backed by harmony vocals (one of the few changes on High Violet in a sonic sense) and strings rises and rises, falling back to Berninger plaintively crying "I'll explain everything to the geeks." I don't have any idea what that means, but Berninger convinces me it means something to him. And maybe that's all that matters.

Buy it from Amazon:
High Violet
The National Official Site