Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jean on Jean - Jean on Jean

Album Reviews
February 24, 2009

Jean on Jean

Hours turn to days, you know. Molly Schnick won't be getting back the 10 years she spent as cellist with Bay-Area-turned-Brooklyn electro-punks Out Hud, but she's been spending the time since their 2005 breakup with herself again. On the debut of solo project Jean on Jean, Schnick wonders aloud whether she's losing her taste for the nightlife. The answer, based on this strummy bedroom chamber-pop U-turn, is a qualified yes.

Jean on Jean boots almost everything about Schnick's old band, down to the dub-chamber vocal effects and Fall Out Boy-like song titles. The songs themselves convey intimate, everyday experiences with homespun charm. Over the uncharacteristic electronic beats of "Cold Horse", the narrator gets to her train station, then to one of life's forks in the road; "You and I" makes "a sink of party dishes" a metaphor for what's left after lost love. A couple of the most emotionally resonant tracks for me raise the sorts of questions people nearing 30 might jot in their FaceSpace/Twimblr. "Will I ever again own the night?" Schnick asks between castanets and tambourine on "Grown". To which methodical working-stiff lament "Change" appends, "Where is the harm in comfort/ And not going out at night?"

A gentle soul throughout, Schnick layers her endearingly plainspoken vocals over cellos, ramshackle guitars, keyboards, various reverb-coated percussion instruments, and, on wavy beach meditation "Hawaii", even bird noises. The album is almost always more intricate than its modest tone suggests, with the best tracks recalling wallflower tunesmiths from the Zombies' Colin Blunstone to the Softies. (Schnick cites Blunstone and late California folkie Judee Sill as influences; Blunstone's catchier, Sill's twangier, and Jean on Jean can't match either great just yet.) Opener "Tonight", the first video selection, may not quite make you pull over to the side of the road the way its narrator does, but it's right up there with the Headlights' similar 2008 track "Cherry Tulips". Schnick's string arrangements, meanwhile, should grab some fans of Joanna Newsom, Andrew Bird, or Beirut-- see the classically elegant bridge on finale "Finally".

If you can root against Schnick as she goes it alone in such a super vulnerable way, you're an asshole. But that doesn't mean her album is flawless-- pretty sure that's part of the appeal. The one-two punch of "Circle", a folkier number with Schnick's breath as percussion, and "Summer", with 1960s psych-pop keyboards and harmonies, walks the line between minimal and monotonous. For such a pop-tinged album, choruses in general tend to be a bit unremarkable; for such a personal-sounding album, a couple of lyrics ring jarringly un-conversational notes here or there. That Jean on Jean isn't perfect piles heartache on heartache. But it shouldn't stop a small, hopefully devoted cult from cherishing this album. And it shouldn't stop Schnick from trying on her Canadian tuxedo again some other rainy day. For wild nights out, there's still her guest work with ex-!!! guy John Pugh's Free Blood.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Album Reviews
February 20, 2009

Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl

I loved the idea of Astral Weeks before I loved Astral Weeks. I'm sure I'm not alone. Irishman who sang proto-punk "Gloria" and drunken dorm-formal singalong "Brown Eyed Girl" and went on to do Moondance goes into a midtown Manhattan studio with top-notch jazz sessionmen. Pours out stream-of-consciousness stuff about love, rebirth, and a pain that passes all understanding, in an impressionistic folk-jazz-blues idiom that transcends existing rock conventions. Nobody buys it. A decade later, Lester Bangs calls Astral Weeks "a mystical document." In 1995, MOJO ranks it the #2 album of all time; eight years later, Rolling Stone ranks it #19; in between, damn thing finally goes gold. To a hopeless romantic, what's not to love?

Only Astral Weeks the album could live up to Astral Weeks the legend. A 23-year-old Van Morrison howls, he hollers, he cajoles, he grabs hold of the ineffable and caresses its edges, bending and reiterating it like an instrumental virtuoso. Guitarist Jay Berliner (Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), bassist Richard Davis (Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch), and drummer Connie Kay (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) create an improvisatory space for Morrison's haunted freeform meditations; Larry Fallon's overdubs add strings, woodwinds, and harpsichord. You breathe in you breathe out, baby baby baby, way upon way upon, dry your eye your eye your eye, too late to stop now, the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves, I know you're dying. The legend is with the album, and the legend is the album.

Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl was a pair of concerts held last year at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, honoring the legendary album (scheduled to be reprised February 27 and 28 at New York's Theater at Madison Square Garden). Now Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl is also an album honoring the shows that honored that legendary album. Sadly, one thing that this record isn't: legendary.

Astral Weeks was released 40 years, almost to the day, before Van Morrison performed the whole thing live two straight nights last November. "We did the songs and took them somewhere else. Transcended the originals, if you know what I mean." That's Morrison talking to the Associated Press recently. The shows featured guitarist Berliner from the 1968 sessions, along with other previous Morrison collaborators and a full string section; they were generally well-reviewed. As recorded on Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the performances retain the improvisatory approach from the record, right down to changing the song order-- the all-loving, possibly transvestite-themed, vaguely pro-civil-rights hymn "Madame George" now closes, rather than atmospheric mortality rumination "Slim Slow Slider". There's much rejoicing.

I guess you had to be there. On disc, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a bland, bluesy celebration you can afford to miss. Oh, it still consists mostly of great songs-- the two "bonus" tracks slightly less so-- performed with skill, and recorded at fine quality, but it's hard to imagine why anyone other than souvenir-seekers or live-music absolutists would need to listen to this more than once as long as the original LP remains in print. An album brave enough to embrace life in all its ugliness and anguish, right on through to its inevitable end, becomes just another document of the rock'n'roll generation's stubborn confidence it will outlive itself. Sort of like those Dick Clark teeth on the cover.

"I believe I've transcended," Morrison sings on an extended outro to the opening, title track. "Slim Slow Slider" is now jammy, incongruously upbeat, fixed in time and place by the live audience-- some guy loudly cheers the song's placement after a newly percussion-crowded "Beside You". An ignoble thunk disrupts the harpsichord in the left speaker near the start of "Cyprus Avenue", which now inexplicably follows swinger "The Way Young Lovers Do"-- and lacks the dramatic, showstopping interlude described by Bangs, documented on 1974's It's Too Late to Stop Now live LP. Morrison's voice here is heavier, still distinguished, but as he slurs his way through the ordinarily sublime verses of "Sweet Thing" before breaking off for a superfluous harmonica solo, this much is clear: A work of art can withstand the ages. People never do.

A high point is "Ballerina", the possibly prostitute-themed song where Morrison's voice sounds richer and fuller; his growled "get on up!" evokes both James Brown and Morrison's own Brown-esque "good God!" barks back in his youth. "Madame George" ends with Morrison's communal invocation to "get on the train"-- well, actually, it ends with some hokey guy shouting Van Morrison's name over and over into a microphone. Still, better than the drippy bonus track version of "Listen to the Lion", originally from St. Dominic's Preview, where the same dude bellows, "Vaaaan Morrison! The one! The only!" as a saxophone hits barge-like brown notes. If it sounds like I'm overstating my complaints, it's only because listening side by side with Astral Weeks can't help but magnify them. You don't need Pet Sounds Live, either.

There's a case to be made that Astral Weeks, the album, never quite captured Astral Weeks, the idea. Morrison has complained about producer Lewis Merenstein's chosen running order. Then again, he has also denigrated his accompanists and described Astral Weeks as a "rock opera". The repetitions in Morrison's songs carry over to his discography: Prior to Astral Weeks, he recorded other studio versions of "Madame George" and "Beside You". A 10-minute "Slim Slow Slider" was supposedly edited down to 3:18; nothing's set in stone. OK, so maybe what Astral Weeks represents to so many of us can't be perfectly recorded, whether on vinyl or in 1s and 0s-- definitely not in words. But I can feel it in my bones when I listen to the original album (turn it up, so you know it's got soul). When I listen to Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, I just feel lonely, and old.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M. Ward - Hold Time

Album Reviews
February 17, 2009

Hold Time

Matt Ward is no longer at the point in his career where you devote an entire album to the memory of an obscure folk guitar hero. The Portland-based singer, songwriter, and accomplished guitar player is enjoying his highest level of mainstream recognition yet, thanks in no small part to a fine, comfortingly nostalgic collaboration with actress Zooey Deschanel last year as She & Him. He has shared stages with Norah Jones, Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes, and My Morning Jacket. During the presidential primary season, he played a benefit show for Barack Obama.

On Hold Time, Ward loses himself to find himself. With increasingly expansive production and broader lyrical themes, Ward's sixth studio album polishes away a little bit more of the individual character that makes his best recordings so human and rewarding. Paradoxically, that mostly just reinforces Ward's defining trait: a conviction that simple songs can transcend time, and that categorizing music by era can be just as artificial as categorizing music by genre. Ward argues his case pretty convincingly for much of the album, if not quite as eloquently as he has in the past.

Hold Time is not an album-length diatribe about your cable company's understaffed customer-service call centers. "If only I could hold time," Ward's winningly cracked voice sighs wistfully on the title track, a strings-and-piano ballad that sounds like "The Long and Winding Road" and name-checks the Beach Boys compilation Endless Summer. Where 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent was inspired by a memorial service for folk legend John Fahey, 2005's Transistor Radio had the golden age of radio, and 2006's Post-War had wars, Hold Time is conceptually similar to Ward's underrated sophomore album, 2001's End of Amnesia. Back then Ward was helping us remember. Now he's making time stand still, with old sounds, a few old songs, and age-old subjects: love, god, old songs. He also has some indie-famous guest stars.

Bigger arrangements; same folk, rock'n'roll, and Americana roots. With mixing and assistance from Saddle Creek mainstay Mike Mogis, plus strings by Peter Broderick (Horse Feathers, Efterklang), Ward keeps his voice sounding lo-fi even when the production is Phil Spector-sized. "Never Had Nobody Like You" alludes to The Dark Side of the Moon while basically rewriting The Music Man's "Till There Was You" as a stomping glam-rock duet with Deschanel. Ward could've stopped writing "Stars of Leo" early and called it "I Get So High", but to his credit he keeps going; the cascading guitars, vivid verses, and multi-layered percussion make it one of the album's best tracks (though it's not actually "above" the name-checked "Sea of Love"). However, orchestration and vocal overdubs aren't enough to save acoustic strummer "Jailbird" from dying in its cage, despite some twangy, lyrical lead guitar work.

God is the perfect subject for a songwriter of Ward's aspirations toward timelessness. Shuffling guitar hoedown "Fisher of Men" extends one of Jesus' favorite metaphors, while the organ-kissed surfer-folk wisdom of stripped-down "Blake's View" is touching and beautifully phrased, its potentially grating reference to Blake perhaps a way for Ward to distance himself from the song's reassuring sentiments even while offering us comfort in them (pretty close to Transfiguration's "Dead Man", though). "If you're trying to sing an old song/ You're getting all the words wrong," he sings, crediting Paul, whether the Apostle or the Beatle, on strings plus banjo acid-rocker "Epistemology". Grandaddy's Jason Lytle fits well enough into the Wall of Sound on bouncy, clever "To Save Me". Suggested alternate title: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands (So Would It Kill the Motherfucker to Answer a Guy's Prayers?)".

Covers are another way Ward sets Hold Time out of time. One of them sure goes on forever, anyway: a ponderous rendition of country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" with awkward call and response vocals featuring an out-of-place Lucinda Williams. Buddy Holly's "Rave On" matches up nicely with Ward's simple-is-good philosophy, and this laid-back remake is sonically detailed enough (another Deschanel guest spot) to justify itself-- it has nothing on Transfiguration's irony-free cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance", though. Meanwhile, Ward's instrumental take on Billie Holiday-sung jazz standard "I'm a Fool to Want You" is a smoldering guitar showcase recalling Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack work or the solos of Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, who released Ward's debut a decade ago.

Memory is the world's greatest liar. So it's possible that Ward's past albums seem a cut or two above Hold Time only through the rose-tinted lens of hindsight-- sort of like how we've come to romanticize the Old West, say, or previous eras of rock'n'roll. But the new one, although steeped in American music tradition, could use some more of the pioneering spirit that got us here. Hold Time is an enjoyable, well-constructed album, and as good a place as any for newcomers to start-- it just doesn't hold many surprises. If it all seems too familiar to you, too impersonal, try the back catalog. As memory turns to myth, some myths are worth remembering. Not only John Henry, but Prometheus, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

M. Ward - Hold Time

Video / Album Review
ABC News
February 16, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Free Blood - The Singles

Album Reviews
February 11, 2009

The Singles

I know vampires have been killing it lately, but there is such a thing as too much Free Blood. Though not until after sweat, skronk, drugs, sex, cowbells, toms, cello, saxophone, shrieks, falsetto, and an Obama shout-out. At the start of 12"s compilation The Singles, the Brooklyn duo of erstwhile !!! singer/drummer John Pugh and fashion designer Madeline Davy makes more like Free Beer. Downtown no wave takes the L train to Brooklyn dance punk, buys pills instead of that Polish beer, and basement-punk hedonism warps into a studio-funhouse manifesto. Comedown's a doozy, though: remix after interminable remix working buzz into buzzkill and ending up too drunk to screw. Like Jimmy Buffett fans.

The Singles' six originals would make for a disconnected night out, and no doubt an energetic live show, but they're a wild ride in headphones. The unpredictable twists and turns-- the Jack Johnson acoustic-guitar shambling at the end of bass-centered ode to excess "Never Hear Surf Music Again", or the ear-splitting TV on the Radio soulful-rock futurism of "Weekend Condition"-- don't leave much to hold onto, but they're varied and relatively fun. Most of the time, though, Free Blood are closer to the dub-chamber of Gang Gang Dance or the rangey punk-funk of Pugh's prior band, getting kinky with the piano-plinking rhythmic clatter of "Royal Family" or lost in the layered percussion of "Parangatang". Weird contrasts abound: On "Surf Music", Pugh and Davy chant "I'm high" until it sounds like the name of the Buckeye State. On the suggestively undulating "Grumpy", Pugh exclaims, "Obama!" Maybe Ludacris knows what it all means.

The five remixes drag out Free Blood's free-loving freakout without boosting the booty-shaking factor; it's as if The Singles is taking the new President's "set aside childish things" and getting stultifyingly adult with it. "I'm not playing silly games," Pugh sings on "Quick and Painful", still a nice bacchanalian pastiche, but the Hot Chip remix is painfully absent here. Barfly's "Surf Music" remix separates out the instruments and emphasizes a bit of a rock feel with a bass hook that's part the Troggs' "Wild Thing" and part the Breeders' "Cannonball". Scotty Coats and Wes the Mes recognize the expressiveness of Pugh's "Weekend Condition" vocal, then make a screechy version of Jose Feliciano's "Light My Fire" with it. Brothers' "Royal Family" revamp fares best, frosting militaristic house beats with radioactive synths; "Grumpy (Greg Wilson Version)" is serviceable but sleepy space-disco, and "Parangatang (Tim 'Love' Lee Mix)" sounds like your alarm clock or the guy jackhammering outside. Party too long and it gets tedious (I'm told!). Wake up and it gets worse.

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