Archive | April 2009

Review: PJ Harvey & John Parish — A Woman A Man Walked By

I know this review is coming two weeks after the album’s release, but gosh durn it, I got an opinion and it needs to be expressed!

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On their first collaboration since 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point, Harvey and Parish play their hand a little too early; the first track, the sleek rocker “Black Hearted Love,” is easily the strongest cut on the album, but one that would have sounded more at home on Harvey’s Stories from the City — Stories from the Sea.  Maybe I just have a short attention span these days, but the entire album seems to crumble after the first three songs and wander off into a dark, murky territory.  Keith Phipps of the AV Club was dead-on in his assertion that the album “heads in several directions at once, all of them intriguing, few of them fully satisfying.”  All of these directions are fairly represented in the first three tracks: the glossy and heartfelt “Black Hearted Love,” the hillbilly freakout of “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” and “Leaving California,” a song that revolves slowly like the creepiest carousel in the world.  This last song finds Harvey singing well beyond her range, her soprano reduced to a quivery wisp reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’.

It’s a strength of the album that, after only a few spins, I can remember each song as a distinct entity (which is more than I can say for Harvey’s last solo album, the solid but underwhelming White Chalk).  Each track creates its own atmosphere, but individually they never congeal into much melody or structure.  “Pig Will Not” and the previously-mentioned “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” show Harvey pulling out the dirty growl and yowl she hasn’t used much since Dance Hall and To Bring You My Love, which might come as a pleasant surprise to those who miss her rawer work from the Rid of Me days.  The title track is her most disturbing performance since Dance Hall’s “Taut;” Harvey chants repeatedly in a masculine groan, “I want your fucking ass!” before reeling into hysterical shrieks.  Her creaky vocals on “April” are an interesting experiment, but a reminder why many people have found her to be off-putting over the years.

The strangest juxtaposition on the album occurs between the barking and pounding tantrum of “Pig Will Not,” and the next song, “Passionless, Pointless,” which reveals Harvey at her most toothless.  On its own, it might be a beautiful and aching love song, but after the storm, it simply sounds deflated, weak.  The first few tracks and the last few bookend the record relatively well, but everything in the middle gets a little gooey.  Harvey and Parish’s collaborations are always promising (he writes the music, she provides lyrics) but they never seem to try for consistency, a fact that usually leads to their ultimate downfall.  

Download: “Black Hearted Love” by P.J. Harvey & John Parish

Purchase at Insound

Empire of the Sun…

… has the greatest music videos ever made.  This Australian band, a collaboration between Luke Steele of The Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of Pnau, seem to fall somewhere between MGMT and Flight of the Conchords (except I think they might be serious).

Video for “Walking on a Dream”

Music video for “We Are the People”

And just when I thought Jonathan Rhys Meyers had cornered the market on making one feel turned on and creeped out at the same time, there’s Luke Steele, who is kind of gorgeous but also kind of disturbing.

Guilty Pleasure Entry No. 1: The Danish Edition

Once upon a time there were two popular bands in Denmark, Swan Lee and Mew. They were both very respectable bands, even if Swan Lee was a little on the poppy side. Then something magical happened: Johan Wolhert, Mew’s bass-player and Pernille Rosendahl, Swan Lee’s glamorous lead singer, fell in love and had a baby, and thus, Swan Lee dissolved and Wolhert quit the band to spend more time with his new family.

After a while, Rosendahl and Wolhert decided that they wanted to make an entirely different kind of beautiful music together and, lo, The Storm was born. Fans were anxious. What would happen when beloved members of two beloved Danish bands put their heads, hearts, and basslines together in song?

Now, before we get into the monstrous birth that was The Storm’s first album Where the Storm Meets the Ground (think about that title for awhile), I want to talk about Mew. I love this band; they’re kooky, they’re arty, they seem relatively smart and self-aware — even if their sincerity and ambition sometimes makes them a little uncool with the hipster crowd. It doesn’t hurt that they’re good-looking, too. In their younger days, they were downright boy-band cute, complete with label-ready personalities: the shy one, the funny one, the sexy one, the boy next door, etc..

And speaking of boy-bands, I want to talk about one of Mew’s earliest singles, “Mica,” from their lost second album released in 2000, Half the World is Watching Me (only re-released last year after being out of print for awhile). File this song under What Were You Thinking? The sublime Europop ridiculousness of this song is only matched by the even more sublime ridiculousness of the video. Are they serious? Are they kidding? Who knows! You can never tell with Mew. No doubt the same man who could sing “But if there’s a glitch, you’re an ostrich,” with a straight face on “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” is also dead serious about killer androids and world peace.

The most endearing part of the video is lead singer Jonas Bjerre, who is notoriously skittish and withdrawn, because he clearly has no idea what to do with himself on camera. You can practically see the terror in his giant kewpie-doll eyes.  Check out the amazing subtitles, too, a cult favorite among Mew fans.

I love watching this video even though no amount of hipster irony can make it okay.  It makes me laugh, brightens my day, but there’s still a good deal of embarrassment in that laughter.  It’s the kind of song/video that makes you question the band, whether or not every other good idea they’ve ever had was some kind of massive fluke.  Is this the true face of Mew?

So while you’re all processing that, let’s get back to The Storm. When they debuted themselves, playing “Drops in the Ocean” live on a Danish TV show, I’d like to think that the world stood in shock (and awe) at the sheer awfulness. Wolhert’s personal style aside (I’ll deal with that later), the marching band drums, the Metallica-lite guitar riffs, and Rosendahl’s pop diva attitude combined into one melty, stringy, cheesy mess.

Naturally, I had to have this album.

Sometimes when I’m in the car by myself, like say, commuting to Tupelo, I put on Where the Storm Meets the Ground and belt out the lyrics to “Drops in the Ocean” (I’ve memorized every word), and then I bray along with “Lullaby,” “The Beauty of Small Things,” and “The Table’s Turning.”  After a while, I even become convinced that it’s not so bad, that some of the songs, like “Lay Down Your Head,” are actually half decent.  Whenever my mind starts down this train of thought, I have to stop and ask myself: “Would I listen to this music in front of people I know and admire?”  I only reveal my affection for The Storm when I can’t help but geek out a little, and now I’m confessing it to all of you.

So what’s the connection I’m trying to make between The Storm and Mew’s silly misstep so many years ago?  I’m pretty sure that an over-the-top pop song like “Mica” is the work of Bjerre, who, after all, is in touch with both his inner child and his inner cheeseball.  During that phase in the band’s history, he frequently admitted to loving musicals (Annie? Seriously?)  How else to explain that song, which is mostly an anomaly in the Mew catalogue, along with its sister songs “King Christian” and the piano-rock ditty (think Ben Folds on crack) “Saliva,” a song so saccharine that you’ll cringe yourself to death before the second chorus.  But now that we’ve seen what The Storm can do and what Wolhert’s songwriting is like, it’s tempting to blame him instead.  I do like Johan.  Trashing his music feels bad because he seems like an affable and articulate guy — and hey! he even recorded once with Elliott Smith on a cover of “Hey Jude” that has yet to see the light of day — but ever since he started dressing like a death pirate from outer space, fans have started to wonder if he wasn’t the Ringo to Bjerre’s John and Madsen’s Paul (bad analogy, sorry).  It will be interesting to see what happens on Mew’s upcoming album (out sometime in June) without Wolhert’s influence.

Essential Non-Essentials, Final Round … for now

This is the last of the wisdoms I have for you. Go off into the world and do with it what you will, and always remember that knowledge is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The sad part is that the list only contained eight entries.  I guess breadth isn’t really my strong point — I’m a depth kind of girl. So, lookie:

Augie March Strange Bird

This Australian band has barely made it stateside — only one album, 2007’s Moo, You Bloody Choir is available on iTunes, and Amazon turns up mostly imports — but their albums are worth finding if you have the means.  Moo may have captured the critics’ attention, but it’s Strange Bird, the previous album, that wins my oddball beauty competition.  Assembled of band members ranging from literature lovers to trained jazz players, one might expect them to sound like another quirky, lit-inspired group, The Decemberists; Augie March’s songs, however, often have a mythic quality — never falling into camp, but not taking themselves too seriously, either.

The melodies of Strange Bird are fuzzy and nostalgic.  The slower songs sound like lullabies half-forgotten, or lost battle hymns, and the faster tracks often play like rowdy, drunken pub songs.  But despite the traditional bent that the song-writing sometimes takes, they never seem cliche or overly familiar.  The melodies are fairly linear, deceptively simple; complexity comes in the arrangement of the instruments, building tension by adding layer after layer, until the songs come to a dizzying finish.  Songwriter/lead-singer Glenn Richards also has a pretty impressive voice that moves easily between whispers and wails — although, I can’t for the life of me discern the lyrics through his mumbly enunciation.  They’re most assuredly literary.

Download: Augie March — The Vineyard

 

And Honorable Mention:

Mia Doi ToddThe Golden State

Far from essential, but at least listen to a track for that voice.  That rich, haunted, and completely devastating voice that quieted a New Orleans bar when she opened for The Folk Implosion several years ago (she also sang on their track “Chained to the Moon,” from One Part Lullaby).  Her lyrics are too “tortured art student” for my tastes, and the mournful melodies are such a match for the voice that listening to more than one song might send someone into a spiraling depression.  But this is a pretty song.

Download: Mia Doi Todd — The Growing Pains

Review: Camera Obscura — My Maudlin Career

With their previous album, Let’s Get Out of this Country, Camera Obscura finally stepped out of the shadow of Belle & Sebastian (and the inevitable comparisons that came when Stuart Murdoch produced their very first single) to come into their own. Country delivered more than just the twee charm of its predecessors and displayed an impressive ear for consistent pop song-writing. The just-released My Maudlin Career continues the band’s evolution without straying far from the style that has already become familiar.  

Vocalist/guitarist Tracyanne Campbell, who used to sing with such bored affectation on earlier songs like “Eighties Fan,” and “Suspended from Class,” sounds much more impassioned these days, but maintains her same breeziness. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the album’s lead single and opening track, the jubilant “French Navy,” which finds Campbell adding trills and flourishes to her normally stripped-down delivery. Elsewhere, as in slower songs like “James” and the country-tinged twang of “Forests and Sands,” she sounds tired, but the strain lends a layer of soulfulness.

My Maudlin Career is a shimmering, well-orchestrated album; tinkling bells are scattered throughout for a touch of magic, but never intrusive or schmaltzy.  Strings swell to such show-stopping levels in nearly every song that, after a while, it’s a relief to hear only a lone, mournful fiddle lingering in the background of “Other Towns and Cities.”  All the trappings we’ve come to expect from Camera Obscura are present: the Sunday school pianos, horns, and classic radio guitar riffs.  To be sure, some moments on the album sound familiar.  The title track reminded me of a slower, less raucous version of “If Looks Could Kill” from the last album, and “Honey in the Sun” echoed “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” but the band isn’t so much repeating itself as refining.

Some highlights: “Swans” opens with a delirious nursery-rhyme hook that threads through the song, “You Told a Lie,” navigates seamlessly between a sunny verse with a polka bass line and a hushed chorus punctuated by plucked violins.  The previously-mentioned “French Navy” is pure pop heaven, easily my favorite song. But the artfulness of the album’s arrangements really get to shine in the closing track “Honey in the Sun;” the song takes off on instrumental breakdowns between verses, even after it seems that Campbell has urged the melody as far as it will go.  Where Let’s Get Out of This Country ended with the ambient set piece “Razzle Dazzle Rose,” Career takes us out with a cheerful romp, a triumphant ending to an album about not wanting “to be sad again.”

Download “French Navy”

Purchase at InSound

Show Review: Lou Barlow at Off-Square Books, April 18th

The surreal part of having Lou Barlow play in my town, at my local bookstore, is how normal it seemed.  The spacious bookstore, with its mismatched and shabby chairs, resident cat Mamacita, and handfuls of browsers wandering in to linger over books, actually proved to be the perfect setting for Barlow’s living-room charisma.  Though he denies having any kind of showmanship, he has an ease and familiarity with a room full of strangers that can only be reached after nearly 25 years of performing. The show started at three-thirty in the afternoon, part of a new gig series started by bookstore employee David Swider.  Because the event was early, free and open to the public (and on a game-day, no less), I worried the crowd might be restless or disrespectful, but aside from a few toddlers frolicking in front of the stage, which Barlow remarked at one point was “unbelievably cute,” the show was quiet and intimate.

He played the classics, mostly Sebadoh tunes from the Bakesale and Harmacy era, including “Skull,” “Rebound,” “Magnet’s Coil,” a valiant attempt at “License to Confuse,” which was aborted halfway through, “On Fire,” “Too Pure,” and “Willing to Wait.”  He also played a couple of songs from the new Dinosaur Jr. album (as Dino was playing a show at Proud Larry’s later that night), due out in June, as well as a handful of new songs from his upcoming solo album.  He did, upon request, play a lovely and hushed version of “Spoiled,” and made a lot of people intensely happy with the old favorite, “Brand New Love.”  He took requests but turned several down, explaining that this was the first solo show he’d played in awhile and that many of the older songs had been written for his four-string guitar. One smartass shouted out “Zone Doubt,” which is actually a Lowenstein-penned Sebadoh song.  I asked him to play the Folk Implosion song “No Need to Worry,” which he struggled to remember for a little bit, remarking to the audience, “You guys don’t mind if I do this? Just trying to figure things out?”  He gave up and played another song, but came back later and played the first half of my request.  “I really wish I could remember how to play this,” he said. He rounded out the show with “Love is Stronger” from The Sebadoh, and a “happy” song I wasn’t familiar with, that he claimed was the “resolution to the situation” of “Love is Stronger.”  

Although he couldn’t really play any of the songs I requested, I was satisfied with the show; it reminded me why I’ve always admired this songwriter who is “so laid-back, but so uptight,” but also showed how he has evolved over the years.  He’s older, wiser, more confident, and recently has started to stretch himself a little more vocally, reaching into the upper ranges.  It was good to see him again, after so many years.

Essential Non-Essentials, Part 2

Under ByenSamme Stof Som Stof

I encountered this interesting band from Denmark while lurking over at the Mew forum, as I like to do sometimes.  Most Scandinavian artists choose to sing in English these days for better marketability, but Under Byen is a rare band that prefers their native Danish.  The music is moody and fractured, the songs lack hooks and, sometimes, a clear melody, but the dark experimentalism feels organic; most of the percussion instruments sound suspiciously like kitchenware — the clink of spoons, rattle of a baking sheet interplay with frenzied cellos.  The singer purrs, sounding an awful lot like Bjork in one of her Icelandic fits.  I suspect there’s a more subtle drama at work that I’m missing because of the language barrier, but the sensuality in the strange sounds and, more importantly, in the spaces between sounds, reveals itself after repeat listens.

Download: Under Byen — Af Samme Stof Som Stof  (You can find the rest of the album on iTunes)

Michael PennMP4

Penn isn’t quite as well-known as his wife Aimee Mann, but he’s been a solo artist for a few years longer and has established himself as a well-respected pop craftsman.  Musically, he treads some ground that would be familiar to anyone who knows Mann’s aesthetic (or really, any artist in Jon Brion‘s orbit), except that he’s slightly more cerebral, with lyrics that can be frustratingly opaque yet simple as nursery rhymes.  MP4 was released in 2000, the same year as Mann’s excellent Bachelor No. 2, and while it’s not necessarily Penn’s strongest effort, the record arrived at a time when the couple was at a creative peak of synchronicity (he sings backup for her, she sings backup for him).  Penn’s music should be required listening for anyone who likes Aimee Mann and wants more of that dry, intelligent chamber pop.

Actually, I just found this kickass video from Penn’s 1997 album Resigned, which was apparently directed by P.T. Anderson (and yes, Michael is brother to Sean.  Michael’s better looking).

April March

April March is an interesting case: real name Elinor Blake, former animator for the Ren and Stimpy Show, she takes on the persona of a French ingenue in her bouncy, 60s go-go inspired music.  Her uneven catalogue is filled with cutesy, girly numbers made for Francophiles who’ve listened to way too much Serge Gainsbourg, but there’s an unselfconscious glee in the music that can be very infectious.  I can’t really recommend one album; Chick Habit is one of the strongest with the recognizable title track, an English re-creation of Gainsbourg’s “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” which is also covered here in the original French.  “Chick Habit” has been featured in a couple of off-beat movies, namely But I’m a Cheerleader and Tarantino’s Death Proof. Another highlight in April March’s discography is April March and Los Cincos, a collaborative effort that takes the listener on a nostalgic romp through a wintry landscape.  She’s also super adorable.