Thursday, May 21, 2009

Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange

Album Reviews
May 21, 2009

Rainwater Cassette Exchange 

Everybody's dying just to get the disease. Confidential to the celebs in surgical masks: If there's a real pandemic, we're all already born with it. No, not swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox, SARS, or West Nile virus. Not even anthrax, that post-9/11, pre-Iraq War worry most people appeared to forget overnight. The names of the diseases may change, but the panics they generate all represent the same thing: We're gonna die. And we couldn't be more terrified.

It isn't clear whether My Bloody Valentine will get their long-delayed reissues out before the CD dies; if current patterns hold though, Loveless lovers Deerhunter will have released more than enough spaced-out dominance. Many of their songs change drastically from online demo to final incarnation, but Atlanta's noise-pop lightning rods put it all out there. As with Lil Wayne and his workload, it's as if they sense their time here is limited. Please god, nobody mention Ryan Adams.

Although the total output by Deerhunter and various side projects can be uneven, the full band's official Kranky releases have rarely been less than face-melting. Rainwater Cassette Exchange is the fourth Deerhunter-related release on the label since October-- including last year's Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. album pairing plus guitarist Lockett Pundt's recent debut as Lotus Plaza, The Floodlight Collective-- and it's also maybe the slightest to bear the Deerhunter name. Now you hear it, now you don't. What was I just listening to again?

Except, justifiably, Deerhunter have a pretty big name to live up to at this point. And the more you listen to their latest release, the more it rewards you. Rainwater Cassette Exchange is nothing more-- and nothing less-- than five songs, lasting a total of just more than 15 minutes. Ranging from translucent psych-pop to pummeling garage-rock, they're alternately assured and vulnerable, direct and subtle, light and dark. Their repetitions toe the band's usual thin line between hooks and hypnotism. Through it all, we're haunted by disease and, ultimately, our own inevitable death. So many useless bodies.

As the Fluorescent Grey EP was to Cryptograms, so Rainwater Cassette Exchange is to Microcastle. Most of these songs would make sense packaged as a third piece of vinyl alongside Microcastle/Weird Era Cont., though they have less in common with Weird Era's vast sprawl. Like Microcastle, the new EP-- available digitally now, on CD and vinyl June 22-- was recorded with producer Nicolas Vernhes at Brooklyn's Rare Book Room. Also like MicrocastleRainwater Cassette Exchange shifts between delicate 1960s-pop tunefulness and fist-pumping dopamine surges.

"I wanted Microcastle and Weird Era to be a Fall/Winter record," Bradford Cox once wrote in a blog post that has since been deleted. Among the last sounds you'll hear on the current EP is a child's cry of "trick or treat." Whether it's lilting melodies, some new-and-improved vocal harmonies, or Strokes-cum-Magazine stately clangor, Rainwater Cassette Exchange makes with the treats first. Then, as much as Cox likes to downplay the band's lyrics, you notice the ghostly stuff, the warnings of impending mortality. Autumnal material, yeah, but its bleak truths resonate all the more against the budding spring weather outside.

First, the treats. The title track opens the EP with girl-group sugar that helps the reverb-heavy overdrive go down. "Do-oooh-oooh you believe in love at first sight?" Cox sings, his voice beatific, his lyric Beatles-y ("With a Little Help From My Friends", last verse, first line). Three songs-- "Disappearing Ink", "Famous Last Words", and "Circulation"-- are propulsive garage-rock anthems in the style of Microcastle marquee moment "Nothing Ever Happened". The only other track, the lonesome "Game of Diamonds", started life on Deerhunter's blog, where it was drenched in shoegaze distortion. Here it gets a softer arrangement featuring piano and acoustic guitar-- all the better to hear Cox's uniquely engaging vocals, clear and frail and fricative.

It all sounds so harmless, it's a treat to find out we're actually getting tricked. "Rainwater Cassette Exchange" is sort of like Microcastle's "Agoraphobia", had that song's erotically asphyxiated protagonist already been dead, or its arrangement paradoxically sprightlier. "Famous Last Words" opens with a lyric about "your brother bleeding" on the sidewalk, while a wobbly Theremin adds to the eerie October mood. Despite putting an Everly Brothers-esque vocal duet over distorted guitar lines, "Circulation" is about "bad" circulation, and Cox has a heart condition. "Hands reach for my light when it gets dark," it sounds like he's saying, right before the song veers off into two minutes of bittersweet sound collage around where the live version becomes draped with ethereal vocal loops.

If Rainwater Cassette Exchange sounded evanescent to me on first listens, well, so are we. "Time never meant that much to me," Cox sings on "Game of Diamonds", but that's belied not only by Deerhunter's work ethic, but also by words that Cox's emotionally isolated narrator-- Jens Lekman's "It Was a Strange Time in My Life" comes to mind-- repeats elsewhere in the song: "I've counted every grain of sand." Like, our endless numbered days. When Cox sings about lying drunk on the Bowery, it's hard for me not to think of that night he rambled endlessly and flouted New York's smoking laws at the Bowery Ballroom. That stuff'll kill ya, you know.

So what do you think is gonna happen to us now? Are we gonna get younger, happier, prettier? "Nothing can be changed," goes "Famous Last Words", but that isn't exactly true. Consider "Disappearing Ink" a metaphor for the temporariness of it all, and for what's permanent: "Disappearing ink, but the words still sting." After you play a good song, it's gone in the air, but you can still feel it. After you type something stupid on the internet, you can try to delete it, but you can't take it back. That means you and I are gonna live forever. Now those would be famous last words.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jeffrey Lewis - 'Em Are I

Album Reviews
May 19, 2009

'Em Are I

Jonathan Richman put out a single called "You Can Have a Cell Phone That's Okay But Not Me" as a bonus 7" with the vinyl edition of last year's Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild. You could make the same criticisms of it that guys like me tend to make of Jeffrey Lewis-- the recording is almost entirely a delivery system for the words, it's hard to imagine anyone listening to it just for the sounds, and his voice mostly sticks to one or two notes-- but it also happens to be one of my favorite tracks of 2008. Music doesn't have to be about pure sound; used to be it was about emotional connection, too.

"I still don't have a cell phone/ But this seashell gets reception," Lewis sings on "To Be Objectified", a surf-splashed meditation from the neurotic New York singer/songwriter's latest album, 'Em Are I. Like Richman, Lewis is a sharp firsthand observer of what passes for urban bohemia, but one who still puts warts-and-all sincerity before hipster chic. It's an approach that can lead to uneven results, including Lewis' grossly misguided 12 Crass Songs covers disc in 2007. If you're reading this far, though, then Lewis (also, incidentally, an accomplished cartoonist) probably has at least a few songs that will resonate with you.

As on 2006's City & Eastern Songs, Lewis' fourth album of original material again connects best through lyrical details. For instance, Lewis describes the way "a rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft" on "Roll Bus Roll", the album's lush, loping ramshackle-folk reverie about having too much past and leaving the city behind. Wesley Willis never had a Greyhound bus ride like this. The garage-rockers aren't far behind, whether Lewis is mustering up an unusual degree of self-confidence on opener "Slogans" ("Everyone you meet is not better than you") or extending a sadomasochistic but evocative relationship metaphor on "Broken Broken Broken Heart". If the arrangements aren't special in their own right, "Well, it's hard to get too bored/ When you pick the right two chords," as Lewis murmurs on "If Life Exists (?)", before discovering that no number of girlfriends will make him happier.

But graveyard hoedown "Whistle Past the Graveyard" almost ruins some relatively droll commentary about the afterlife with bah-ing backing vocals. Barnyard themes also sink the Pearls Before Swine in-joke on "Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon". Eight-minute jazz-noise freakout "The Upside-Down Cross" eventually gets to lyrics about traveling with various women, but it's not worth the trip; finale "Mini-Theme = Moocher From the Future" mistakes "yesterday to no-terday" for a clever pun. So 'Em Are I is a frontloaded album. But anyone who ever bought a Sebadoh record despite really liking only Lou Barlow's songs should still consider checking it out. (You can prefer Eric Gaffney's songs, that's okay, but not me.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Graham Coxon - The Spinning Top

Album Reviews
May 18, 2009

The Spinning Top 

"It was just like college, only it was a nicer guitar and a nicer lunch," Blur bassist Alex James writes at the end of his 2007 memoir. James is describing his first meeting "in a couple of years" with Graham Coxon, the woohooing Britpop survivors' then-estranged guitarist. That passage was yet another reason for dedicated followers of the band to keep betting on a full Blur reunion, now official. It also gives you a pretty good idea what you can expect from Coxon's seventh solo album: same bittersweet bundle of misery, posher palate.

Coxon is not normally a guy you turn to for easy cubicle listening. In Blur, he was the punkish pedal-stomper with the noisy American indie-rock collection and skateboarding hobby. After Parklife turned the group into pop idols, Coxon was the one who reacted with Kurt Cobain-ish dismay. As a solo artist, he has alternated between post-punk squall and folkie plaintiveness starting with 1998's extremely lo-fi Sky Is Too High-- like so many of the records he would've heard on John Peel's radio show, it was self-released. Longtime Blur producer Stephen Street has helped steer Coxon toward more broadly accessible power-pop on recent albums, most successfully 2004's Happiness in Magazines, without ever quite going middle of the road.

The Spinning Top crashes into the median, and it barely budges for almost 70 trudging minutes. Blur are doing what every once-profitable band does these days-- hi, Led Zeppelin!-- and getting back together. Coxon is doing what so many other formerly fun musicians end up doing once they've exhausted their Satan-bestowed allotment of decent melodies and lyrics: Yes, it's some kind of concept album, apparently telling the story of a man's life from birth to death, though you wouldn't necessarily know it. Street produces again, and Robyn Hitchcock is among the guests, but even they can't make up for repetitive, one-dimensional songs-- mostly sleepy folk, occasionally fuzzy psych. If the sound quality is more consistent than in Coxon's rough early work, that just means when he stretches threadbare ideas past the breaking point, he'll be less likely to wake you.

One thing intact: Coxon's guitar-playing. If his nuanced and head-smackingly emotive fretwork with Blur hasn't already convinced you he's among his generation's great guitarists, the sinuous finger-picking on otherwise fairly forgettable first single "Sorrow's Army" should send you back to "This Is a Low", "Sing", or "Bugman" with fresh ears. Coxon recently told Uncut he's a big fan of English folk guitar gods Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, and Martin Carthy, and he's certainly playing in their style here. On "Perfect Love", Coxon's folk-filigreed acoustic figure joins various Indian instruments to back double-tracked doggerel lyrics vaguely reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee". "Tripping Over" is an interminable lullaby, but that electric guitar is sure purdy for the last minute or two.

Listeners who've heard only Coxon's last couple of rockers, including 2006's Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, might not've been aware of his folkie streak, but it's been almost as much of an open secret as the fact Blur were eventually gonna reunite. "I wish I could bring Nick Drake back to life," Coxon sang on his first non-Blur single, "I Wish". At least back then he had enough faith in his own lo-fi vision not actually to bite the late English folkie-- he left that to Beck. It's hard to imagine the Coxon of a decade ago singing phrases like "baybay" over rootsy verses in between ornamented choruses that get all Bryter Layter about the rain (except in jest, a la Blur B-side "Rednecks"). Likewise, opener "Look Into the Light" is nice enough, emphasizing the guitar's droning harmonics, but I can't decide if I just like it because the melody reminds me of Drake's "Cello Song". Joined by upright bass and piano on tracks like "Feel Alright", which is as bland as its title, The Spinning Top comes closer to Van Morrison, specifically Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. In that case, the slow-motion classical guitar licks on "Far From Everything" are "Beside You" all by its lonesome.

Coxon's main Blur songs, "You're So Great" and "Coffee & TV", could go as long as six minutes without a single wasted note. The Spinning Top keeps spinning its wheels. Second single "In the Morning" sounds like the Beatles' "Blackbird" if it had gone on for eight minutes and if Paul had let George arrange-- not just because Coxon mentions a blackbird, either. "If a diamond hangs in every tree and a life is lost for every leaf can a bird still sing?" he asks. Beats me. Even when the Blur guitarist reminds us that he knows where Syd Barrett lives, as on "Caspian Sea", it's not much more fun than bashing your head against the wall repeating geographical terms until every now and then you see stars. "It's oh so serious/ It's oh so lame," Coxon repeats throughout "If You Want Me", occasionally breaking into Pixies-ish distortion-- serious or not, it is kind of lame.

Blur couldn't really be Blur without Coxon. His guitar helps make Modern Life Is Rubbish modern, keeps 13 from collapsing under its own Donald Duck noises, and steals the show during its one appearance on Think Tank. No Blur without him, either. But it's Damon Albarn who has had the band's most successful solo career, outselling Blur with Gorillaz and going on to even more artistically impressive work with the Good, the Bad & the Queen and then Monkey. James has been writing a weekly newspaper column; drummer Dave Rowntree went into politics. It's probably no coincidence that the song here most worthy of Coxon's past work is called "Humble Man". As James's memoir puts it, Coxon is "brilliantly artistic, but vulnerable." He's still my favorite Blur.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone!

Album Reviews
May 14, 2009

Hey Everyone!

The Denver Westword recently asked Los Campesinos! musical mastermind Tom Campesinos! whether it frustrates him to see reviews that describe his expansively punk-wracked Welsh septet's guitar-and-xylophone pop as "twee." He said it doesn't, explaining, "One of the most important things about any sort of art is an element of humor, and not to take yourself too seriously." Same goes for art appreciation, not that you'd know it most days from us stuffy critics.

Let Marty McFly tell you: The future is heavy. U.S. producer Machine, probably best known for his work with metal musos Lamb of God, has been getting fine work out of bands that make melodic indie rock similar to LC!'s, only... less twee. First up was Birmingham, England's Johnny Foreigner, whose excellent 2008 Waited Up 'Til It Was Light had macho muscle to match its endearing boy-girl singalongs. Now Glaswegian sextet Dananananaykroyd, also under Machine's oversight, follow with another debut liable to unite moshers and librarians. The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know.

On Hey Everyone!, Dananananaykroyd's chopsy dual-drummer approach goes for wrecking-ball guitar leads before fatal LiveJournal entries; your standard, spindly UK indie always meets with something heavier. On "The Greater Than Symbol and the Dash", guitarists Duncan Robertson and David Roy dive from piercing feedback to downers-dosed metal lurch; a pair of cascading drum fills make way for a throat-curdler from the singer (Calum Gunn and co-drummer John Baille Junior share lead duties), who sounds raw and bestial where his peers might come off shrill. "1993" is another scream, splitting time between hardcore thrash and contemplative instrumental passages that recall the 1990s emo likes of Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate. Throughout, Dananananaykroyd fuck with time signatures the way indie-famouser Glaswegians play with words.

Um, then again, there's really no ignoring that ridiculous band name. Which I'm starting to think is as brilliant as I originally thought it was dumb-- another set of not-really-opposites. On the same song, Dananananaykroyd (thanks, Command-V! And thank you, Elwood Blues!) make a defiant mantra out of a decidedly twee-ass phrase: "Turn your hissy fits into sissy hits." Good advice, that, and it works multiple could-be-hit wonders. With its jagged surge and shouts of "say it!", "Pink Sabbath" is less Ozzy, more Mclusky. "Black Wax" makes room in its beautiful-and-stoned Pavement jangle for dramatic backing vocals and agonized yells; the galloping rhythms and rapidfire guitar hooks of first self-effacing "Totally Bone" and then Beatles-citing finale "Song One Puzzle" had me thinking Modest Mouse until they had me thinking, almost, Mastodon. Sissy hit: anti-pep-rally shoutalongs.

For as awesome as Dananananaykroyd are at blasting the bejesus out of some of my favorite bands-- hey, they can even play their instruments!-- it's less clear what they're all about. Hey Everyone! doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve like sloppier Mclusky-ites Japandroids, doesn't reflect every nuance of its scene with the observational acuity of LC!, isn't Mclusky Do Dallas. But in its own combustive way, it's weirdly memorable. The track that initially drew me in, "Infinity Milk", uses ragged sprawl to set off call-and-response vocals about napalm. "These are the days of our fucking lives," exults "Hey James". We used to dream; now we've learned to stop worrying and love the firebomb.

Search This Blog

Press Mentions

"Goes over the top and stays there to very nice effect."
-- David Carr, The New York Times

"I wasn't fully convinced. But I was interested."
-- Rob Walker, The New York Times

" Marc Hogan wrote in Spin..."
-- Maureen Dowd, The New York Times