Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sound ‘Round: Rosanne Cash / Against Me!

Learning lessons about themselves.

Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread (Blue Note / Universal)

Rosanne CashDon’t buy the hype of her thirteenth album somehow being her closest to home. Apparently referencing your father’s Arkansas birthplace and namedropping the city of Memphis equates to a genealogy survey. What does it mean when she plugs her not-so-southern retreats in Paris and Barcelona, she’s privileged? Like most songwriters from her generation, she’s a capable lyricist who too often succumbs to her own corniness and mistakes vagueness for wit. Think Bonnie Raitt without the playfulness. All snark aside, she’s too seasoned and slick a professional to record a turkey. Six of the 11 songs work to varying degrees of success for various reasons: A hook here, a worthy couplet there or a deceptive melodic turn you can’t stop humming. Though the whole thing leans monotone by the end, she wears her brevity well – a trait she inherited from Johnny, I’m sure. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Etta’s Tune” / “A Feather’s Not A Bird” / “Modern Blue

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble Music)

Against Me1Tom Gabel’s first album as Laura Jane Grace is brave for its uncompromising and detailed take on a struggle the worst kind of cynic believes is a publicity stunt: As if she premeditated her hardships to boost sales numbers. And while this isn’t quite the transcendent achievement some have gushed about, it’s still an achievement nonetheless. Her lyrics are unapologetically dark and rightfully so. Here’s a heartbreaker from the opening title track: “They don’t see you like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot.” This is a first person account of someone wrestling with their new identity to cathartic results. Musically, however, it’s rather upbeat. A majority of these 10 fist-pumping anthems are in a major key and not one eclipses the 3:30 mark. It’s misery as pop as therapy in bite-sized capsules. Still, for the subject matter being so emotionally charged, I wish the tunes peaked more. A few well timed crescendos would have complimented Grace’s superbly performed and heartfelt vocals. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: True Trans Soul Rebel” / “Paralytic States” / “Transgender Dysphoria Blues

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Sound ‘Round: The Pixies / Burial

Brief forays into good enough. The Pixies – EP2 (self-released)

the pixies - ep2 The second in a series of five EPs, Black Francis continues to disappoint and frustrate those who wish he had stopped chipping away at his legacy years ago. Me, I’m not invested enough to give a shit. I prefer songs over monuments, and three of these four offerings fit the bill. Toss out the unbecoming howl and turgid AC/DC stomp of “Blue Eyed Hexe,” and what’s left is a tight-knit trio of hooks and pop-punk professionalism. “Magdalena” is eerily tranquil in its melodicism but rhythmically steadfast. “Snakes” marches to the reverb of tremolo guitars and a sturdy chorus, and “Greens and Blues” is so damn catchy it’s an early Song of the Year candidate. Nothing here is historic, but it’s satisfying for those who covet tunes above all. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Greens and Blues” / “Snakes

Burial – Rival Dealer (Hyberdub, 2013)

burial - rival dealerWilliam Bevan’s seventh EP is his most ambitious and his easiest to like for reasons that have nothing to do with the music. Sampled throughout the three songs are clips and sound bites from victims of bullying who tell the listener it is O.K. to be you. Indisputably noble, for sure. When it comes to his hauntingly colorless style of dub step however, there’s less bite. The pair of 10-minute sloggers begins well – forceful and with purpose – but each melts into a pool of motionless goop as their running time expands. Perhaps the aim is to disarm new ears and add focus to the lyrics. But undercutting the music takes away from the impact of the message. Bevan has his cake, he just doesn’t eat it. GRADE: B+

Key Track: Rival Dealer

Sound ‘Round: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks / Hard Working Americans

They are who we thought they were
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador)stephen malkmus and the jicks - wig out at jagbagsMalkmus’ sixth album with The Jicks marks one more than he recorded with Pavement. Closer to 50 than 40, he’s neither cozying up to cool nor straining for hipness or relevancy. The goal is to simply do things on his terms: basement guitars aplenty, quippy one-liners, deadpan humor and nostalgia for his younger and more vulnerable years when the music was pure, man. “We grew up listening to all the music from the best decade ever,” he declares on “Lariat” which name checks the Grateful Dead while paying homage to Steely Dan’s longue rock. He’s got his eye on the past, sure, but he’s not consumed by it. Ever playful and upbeat, the melodies are nimble, Malkmus’ sing-song vocals come off boyish, betraying his age and his penchant for brevity – only three songs cross four minutes – makes this highly listenable album his best solo effort yet. He’s having more fun than he’s had in years. Ask him if he misses his old band. Go on. I dare ya. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Lariat” / “Houston Hades” / “Chartjunk”

Hard Working Americans – Hard Working Americans (Melvin Records)

hard working americans - hard working americansA mid-career renaissance refashioned Todd Snider from a burnout with a funny bone into one of America’s formidable songwriters. His subject matter concerns the poor and middle class, but his wit and zippy wordplay lends lightheartedness to his solemn leftist leanings. His previous solo release, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, was a culmination of his biting brand of country blues and a poignant skewering of the nation’s poo-poo economy. His latest venture is a victory lap. The lyrics belong to Gilliam Welch, Randy Newman, Hayes Carll and others while the musicianship has been leased to members of Widespread Panic, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Great American Taxi. “I’ve been standing in between [the songwriters and the musicians] and thinking that the people in each [world] were meant for each other,” Snider says. The lyrics work fine as they concern matters explored in Snider’s own material. The small surprise and subsequent victory is the restraint in the music. Each of these 11 songs is taut and light on jam – which is good. Save the mushrooms for the stage. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Down to the Well” / “Mountain Song” / “Welfare Music”

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The sound and the furyNeil Young – Live at the Cellar Door (Reprise, 2013)

neil young - live at the cellar doorThe latest in Young’s archives performance series is culled from six solo gigs at a compact D.C. club in December, 1970. The bulk of these 13 songs are found on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) and After The Gold Rush (1970). The blocky guitar arrangements of the former are softened by Young’s preoccupation with the piano – a nine-foot Steinway provided by the venue. The bare-bones attitude of the latter are enhanced by Young’s brooding demeanor – he was addicted to pain pills at the time and still troubled by the fallout of Buffalo Springfield. Blame it on the editing, Young’s disposition, a bored audience, the post-‘60s hangover or a combination of all four, but the pacing is too business casual: in and out in as straight a line as possible. His lone attempt at humor comes before the finale. “This song is about dope,” he says as he rakes the piano strings for a disharmonious effect. “It’s mostly about grass.” The audience laughs. “You’d laugh too if this is what you did for a living.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “After the Gold Rush” / “Old Man” / “Tell Me Why”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968)

jimi henrix - electric ladylandOnly a genius and a visionary could pull off a record this adventurous: psychedelic blues jams, playful Brit-rock, melancholic pop, sci-fi prog, stoned jazz and volcanic feedback are all encompassed on a 75 minute double album that never outstays its welcome. Only a studied studio man could weather the circumstances. Frustrated with Hendrix’s laissez-faire schedule and intake of drugs, bassist Noel Redding and manager Chas Chandler quit midway through recording. Steve Winwood, Buddy Miles, Al Kooper, Jack Casady and the Sweet Inspirations make guest appearances, but Jimi’s towering presence renders their respective cameos afterthoughts. Only the most brilliant axe man of all time could propel his genre into the future with such tenacity. As he cut down mountains with the edge of his hand, The Who were riding the magic bus, The Beatles were misguided in India, The Stones were stuck with the blues and Clapton stumbled into a heroin addiction. This is a masterpiece only Jimi Hendrix could make. His guitar playing is powerful, inventive and sublime. His colorful lyrics are the best they would ever be. His ambition is audacious as his talent. His vocals are playful and resolute. His final album released in his lifetime is his greatest testament. What a hell of a way to burn out. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” / “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” / “Crosstown Traffic

Sound ‘Round: Marvin Gaye / Everclear

Breakup albums

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (Tamla, 1978)

marvin gaye - here, my dearIntended as a lark, Gaye’s somber toast to a ruinous marriage is his greatest conceptual achievement. Brief backstory: Caught in a nasty divorce with Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown founder, Berry, this double album was realized by a judge and Gaye’s lawyer. The advance and royalties would line Gordy’s pocket and Gaye was free. Designed to be a court ordered toss-off, Gaye’s meticulousness and exacting production birthed one of pop’s most bizarre releases. He had made, and would continue to make, better singles. But never again would his artistic vision be as cohesive nor his lyrics simultaneously honest, sadly poetic and oddly humorous. As he ponders in the subtle groove of “Is That Enough” – “Somebody tell me please, tell me please / Why do I have to pay attorney fees?” At 70 minutes, the record is as messy as the legal proceedings which spawned it, and Gaye – one of pop’s elite vocal talents – neglects melodic structure and instead relies on coldhearted machismo. “I guess all I have to say is that this album is dedicated to you,” he says in the opener. “I hope you’re happy / There’s a lot of truth in it.” Vindictive, but brilliant. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Is That Enough” / “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” / “Anger

Everclear – Songs From An American Movie Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile (Capitol, 2000)

everclear - learning how to smileThe album that exposed Art Alexakis as an accidental post-grunge hero doubles as a showcase for his songwriting savvy. He says it best on the nostalgic novelty single “A.M. Radio” which samples Jean Knight: “I like pop. I like soul. I like rock, but I never liked disco.” And so it is on his band’s most hook-laden release he pays tribute to the sounds of his youth. While his guitar-driven efforts in the ‘90s owed much to Cheap Trick, Petty and Springsteen, here Alexakis cozies up to Van Morrison, John Prine and Otis Redding – piling on strings, brass, keys, banjos and ukuleles. The first installment of a two-volume song cycle dealing with divorce and rekindled romance, he eats Chinese and watches porn, gets arrested for pushing drugs and finds joy in his daughter’s laughter. The most sentimental moment, however, comes on “Wonderful,” where he details a crumbling marriage from the perspective of an emotionally devastated child. Though the album’s eclectic sound is a curve ball in their discography, it’s a genuine attempt at an honest pop record – something the assholes in Maroon 5 know nothing about. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Wonderful” / “Learning How to Smile” / “Otis Redding