Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In the Changer: New(ish, Mostly) Stuff Edition

It has been quite a while since I imposed my musical tastes on you for one of my "in the changer" posts. The title itself is anachronistic in many ways. Yes, I still buy cd's, though my music listening is becoming increasingly digital even if I have not been able to make the transition to actually buying my music digitally. I like the idea of having hard copies of music, and someday when my iTunes crashes and my iPod dies or it all mysteriously gets erased I'll be thankful for being the guy who still has my music in some tangible configuration.

This is all stuff that I've listened to a lot in the second half or so of 2009. I imagine this will be a multi-post edition. (And just a reminder: for those of you wondering why the grades end up being so high, these are filtered reviews of music I've been listening to. When people start sending me music indiscriminantly to review, I'll be able to bear fangs. Until then, this is generally stuff I liked over the last few months, even if all of it did not come out this year). Without further ado, here is the first batch:

Amadou & Mariam -- Welcome to Mali: This is my favorite West African music produced by a blind married couple since at least their last album. And it should be yours too. What the hell is it with Mali? Per capita that vast but sparsely populated West African country must produce more great music per capita than any country on earth. A polyrhythmic confluence of blues and pop and jazz and highlife and rock and a melange of African styles, Welcome to Mali continues the run this duo has had over the last decade or so when they first exploded into public consciousness (they have been recording together since the mid-1970s). Use this as your introduction to them and work backward. Grade: A

Arctic Monkeys -- 'Humbug': I think it is a law that all writers who tackle the Arctic Monkeys must refer to them as "lads from Sheffield," so consider that requirement fulfilled. This is their third album and it's good. It also represents a modest but clear attempt at departure. Arctic Monkeys have done well with snide and cynical postpunk-pop songs about suburban pub life and poseurs and the various dipshits one runs across in daily life, especially in suburban pubs. And there is still more than a hint of that here. But 'Humbug' feels a bit brooding, a bit down tempo, a bit sludgy, all of which can probably at least in part be attributed to the production of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. And given that the lads from Sheffield are no longer really lads and they have moved their worldview from Sheffield, change was to be expected. Lead singer Alex Turner writes his own lyrics and he knows his way around a clever phrase. ("What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?" is intended to be rhetorical. I think.) The question becomes whether this will remain a very good little band or whether it will grow to the scale that they promise. 'Humbug' tells me that this is a band in the process of becoming. The question remains: What will they become? Grade: B+

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago: I have one question for Bon Iver and Damian Rice and Cat Power and to a lesser extent Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective and their ilk (Grizzly Bear, eg.) and a whole host of other bands and artists I really do like: What the fuck's up with recording in a whisper? I'll get three minutes into a Damian Rice song before I realize: This shit isn't going to get any louder; it's not all part of a languid introduction that's going to go somewhere. So, Bon, maybe Emma left (I'm assuming she did -- why else would you devote such a mopey effort to her?) because you wouldn't fucking speak up. It's ok to be both introspective and audible. If I want to fall asleep to you or have you as background music, I know how to turn the volume knob (they still have those, right?) down. But now if I put in an AC/DC album, which I am wont to do, glass in my home will shatter when I turn it on because I had to have your damned music cranked up just to hear it at all over the dryer whirring away in the other room. So: Good songs? Check. Nifty instrumentation and interesting vocals? Yep. Folk-indie rock hybrid? Oh yes. A few glorious moments? Yessir. But given that any ambient noise whatsoever makes this album nearly unlistenable, please, pal, next time turn it up just a little? You can be bummed out. Just do it a little louder. Grade: B

Jeff Buckley -- Grace: It's hard to believe that it has been more than 15 years since Buckley's lone studio album in his lifetime came out, scoring tail for a million savvy guys who could get this onto their stereo when they got a girl back to their rooms. The story is familiar: Buckley, the insanely talented progeny of the insanely talented Tim Buckley, revealed his endless promise with this album, only to die tragically swimming in a chennel near the Mississippi, eerily reminiscent of his father's own equally mysterious passing (well, dad died of a drug overdose, but give me some narrative license here). I did not really arrive at this album until about 1999 when I had a girlfriend who was in love with it introduced me to it (thus turning the table on the savvy guys). My thoughts now are just about what my thoughts were then: This guy is insanely talented and the music is in some ways uncategorizable. But it does not quite have the songs. It has moments that are quite sublime within what are supposed to be the songs, and the sings, such as they are, are geared toward these moments of sublime talent. But the whole does not quite cohere. But then came track #6. Hellelujah. You probably know the Leonard Cohen original. The Jeff Buckley version brings tears to my eyes every time. It is one of my single favorite renderings of any kind of music ever. It is nearly perfect, and in the light of what would later transpire, heartbreaking. Grade: B+, Hallelujah: A+

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone: Neko Case is like the super-cool, super-hot chick in your favorite bar, the place where all of the indie bands play when they come into town. Just when you muster up the courage to say something to her, the break between bands is done and she steps on stage as the lead singer of the second band, the one that comes on before the headlining act, a band whose music, but obviously not the personnel, you know. Middle Cyclone is her sixth solo album, something all the more shocking when you realize that she also is part of the glorious collective that is The New Pornographers (and in fact the quality of a New Pornographers album is directly related to the amount of Neko Case contained therein). There was a time when case could easily be slotted into the alt-country/y'alternative category, but Middle Cyclone transcends that limiting category, much as does Wilco's career trajectory after their first album. And like Wilco, Neko Case produces guitar-and-singer-driven rock and pop, in the best traditions of both rock and pop music. She has a clear, strong voice that sings clear, strong songs. But don't kid yourself -- she's going home with someone else tonight, unless she chooses to go home alone. Grade: B+

Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca: How you feel about this album will be directly related to how you feel about "complicated" or "experimental" music. Because Dirty Projectors is a pretty self-consciously difficult band. I am fine with complicated, or at least complex, but "experimental" oftentimes ain't my bag and so I shied away from this album, recommended to me all over the place, for much of the year. This is a band, after all, whose last full-length album recreated a Black Flag album from memory, which strikes me as a bit too meet-cute. Nonetheless, I succumbed, and while the album has not blown my mind it is one that improves on multiple listenings. I could still do without some of the atonality. And sometimes the playing around with key signatures comes across as a bit gratuitous. And in the end I suspect that a lot of people who like this album actually like people knowing they like this album more than they actually like this album. Grade: C+


Slicer said...

Have you listened to or heard of Habib Koite and Bamada from Mali? I saw them live about 5 years ago and it was, without question, the most moving live musical event I have ever witnessed in my life. I won't be able to describe how he connected with this particular audience, but my favorite part was when he told this story about the hotel they were staying at (the show took place in Burlington, Vermont in the middle of February) and one afternoon he decided to leave the hotel to go buy some wine, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt. He told the crowd how the sun was shining brightly and that "in my country, when I see sun, I think 'hot'." I have 4 of their albums and make a point to see them play whenever I can.

Thunderstick said...

Well, any song that the fantastic series "The O.C." used during big emotional moments has to get an A+ and I can remember three times offhand that they used Hallelujah. It was sad when Marissa died...