This continues the previous music post, which I didn’t finish ‘cos of my own laziness.
The Hold Steady, Stay Positive
Sometimes, I buy a batch of CDs and nothing really stands out for me. There may be some songs or stretches of songs that I like, but sometimes I find, to my dismay, that I’ve ended up with a batch of discs that just don’t do it for me (to evoke a classic moment in Spaceballs). I’m starting to wonder if this recent music-acquisition excursion is one of those, or if it’s just that I bought a bunch of albums whose merits are not evident on first listen.
In the case of this joint, I’m leaning toward the latter. I bought the HS’s previous album, Boys and Girls in America, shortly after its 2006 release and thought: meh. The musical backing was tight, the sound and texture of the music was great–like Springsteen dropping a set at CBGB’s instead of a Jersey dive–and the lyrics were effective, variously sentimental, rueful, and funny (like me!). But what was a real deal-breaker was singer Craig Finn’s voice: a kind of mushmouthed ramble that fell behind the beat and rushed ahead of it, never really in sync with it.
So I traded the album in. But then, when it started popping up on year end Best Of lists, I caved in and bought it again (I love disposable income). I gave it a bit more patience this time, and found that, y’know what, I actually really liked it. Finn’s apathetic, careless performance was (I found) ideally suited to the tales his songs tell of disaffected wastrels bumming and slumming through the Minneapolis club and punk scenes.
So I was kind of disappointed when I heard some early tracks from this disc and didn’t really dig them. Now that I’ve bought the album, I think I know what the problem might be. Much of the album seems like too much of the same thing: big choruses, big guitars, sloppy vocals (though here a little sharper). Yet nothing stands out amidst all the bigness of this album; when every track is a sweeping anthem, it’s hard to get a feel for the moves the album wants to make. It’s all highs and no lows, there’s no dynamism here.
Hmmph. I’ll keep listening and see if I can’t find a way into this album too.
To be fair, though, it’s a damn sight better than Weezer’s latest.
Oh, and you know what? I’m not at all inclined toward optimism or positive thinking, and I’d never get a tattoo ‘cos I’m terrified of needles (I almost fainted when I got my ear pierced), but the logo here on Stay Positive would be bitchin’ design for a tat.
Rockabye Baby!, Lullaby Renditions of Coldplay; Christopher O’Riley, True Love Waits: CR Plays Radiohead
So it’s come to this. My tastes have metastasized to such an extent that I’m not even buying original music anymore–just pastiches and covers of the music I already love.
I kid (mostly). A while back, I heard the Rockabye Baby Radiohead album, and goshdangit I really liked it. This isn’t just alt-rock played slow or played quiet, but a reworking of the original music into a radically different musical setting; the series uses “glockspiel, vibraphone, mellotron, and other instruments” to craft these tracks. The effect, on the RH disc at least, is something that is both familiar and otherworldly. (Although, in all honesty, the Radiohead disc is kind of creepy, because I can’t help but hear the songs being used as backdrop for a bedtime story about a hellish, soulless, technocratic dystopia–the kind I image Thom Yorke tells his kids every night: “Now go to sleep, loves, and in the morning when you wake up your souldwill be replaced by a clockwork machine.”)
That creep-out effect is lessened somewhat on the Coldplay disc, no doubt because Coldplay’s songs don’t tread the same dark waters that Radiohead’s do. The album is pleasant, but not as revelatory as the Radiohead disc because Coldplay do the sort of lush, mellow, lullaby balladry thing anyway–why wouldn’t one just put in A Rush of Blood to the Head or X & Y anyway? I’ll keep it, ‘cos it’s good background music . . . but I don’t recommend it as highly as the Radiohead disc.
(A quick peek at the Rockabye Baby website reveals they have a much larger selection than I would have figured. I think I’d like to hear the following: The Cure, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork, Pixies–maybe on the Pixies, but the rest might be sweet.)
The other album shown here, the Christopher O’Riley joint, is a classical-piano take on Radiohead tracks. Yes, it is. If you can imagine classical piano + Radiohead, you know exactly what this album is like. I read on the ultimate, indisputable source for all knowledge that O’Riley has a background in jazz piano, and I think that’s kind of what’s lacking here: a sense of improvisation or innovation that would suit the material stylistically, both in terms of Radiohead being experimental and in the sense of being a more stylistically interesting album than this. As is, it’s like you’ve stumbled into alt-rockdom’s only fern bar, and O’Riley is at the keys and taking requests.
(I also read that O’Riley is turning into a kind of cottage-industry of this alt-rock piano tribute crap, with another Radiohead disc and an Elliott Smith one to boot–I am not at all surprised, then, that a Nick Drake disc is soon to follow. Ooh, ooh . . . maybe this can be a drinking game or something: everytime O’Riley releases a maudlin, mediocre album based on the work of a fallen cult musical hero, everyone takes a shot. I bet Jeff Buckley is next.)
You are like broccoli, Nova, and William S. Burroughs. While I am sure you would agree with alacrity to the last of these, you perhaps do not understand the validity of the comparison of all three. It is this: like broccoli, Nova, and Burroughs, you are something that people I like and respect get really into, that I have tried–honestly, sincerely tried–to enjoy and appreciate, but have always been lukewarm toward despite my ambitions and efforts.
I get your whole thing: look, the dumpsters of pop culture have been strewn about and refashioned into bold new postmodern sonic landscapes!! Gosh!! I also think your work is often dull, plodding, largely free of melody, and I think your stream-of-consciousness lyrics are actually kind of stupid. Yes, “Where It’s At” and “The Devil’s Haircut” are kind of cool, but the rest of Odelay is practically unlistenable. As are Mutations, Guero, and One Foot in the Grave.
The one album where I think you’re consistently strong is, interestingly, your least-typical work: Sea Change. Granted, I have a fondness for lovelorn ballads of heartbreak and heartache, but what makes these songs work is (a) melodies that are actual melodies and not just the sound of someone dropping the silverware drawer repeatedly, and (b) lyrics that seem to come from a real person with real feelings and junk, not from the Junk Culture Irony-Bot 2000.
So your new album, Modern Guilt, is something I hadn’t expected: an album that seems to blend the heartfelt lyrical craft of Sea Change with the sonic settings of most of your other work (here provided by Gnarls Barkley maestro Danger Mouse). The production here doesn’t always work; it’s too easy to pin the aural backdrop to the 1960s or 70s sounds they’re meant to evoke–the backgrounds here seem more motivated by you wanting to show off (again) how great your LP collection is than by a real attempt to make the songs seems whole and organic. But these backdrops here are just that: backdrops for what appear to be real songs, not just your usual crap of nonsense lyrics and herky-jerky beats. So I’ll give it another chance, and see if I can’t warm to it the way I did Sea Change. But I’m not making any promises.
(Maybe we can compromise if you would release a greatest hits or best of comp. I always feel like a fraud for not liking you more, but I think I could be satisfied with a nice best of. Please?)
Hugs and kisses to Marissa and the kids.
I’ve got three turntables and two microphones, sucka!