The Listening Post: March-June 2014

Music to fade out the long, cold winter, slide through spring, and crash into summer.

  • Morning PhaseBeck. The most instantly noticeable thing about the latest offering from Beck is the sound. It is crystalline in its clarity, with a precise separation among instruments; each individual note can be heard clearly, as if the band was playing in your living room through the world’s greatest sound system. In other words, it sounds almost exactly like Beck’s 2002 masterwork Sea Change. In fact, the similarity in the sound is so striking a casual listener could easily believe that both albums were recorded at the same time, in the same studio, by the same producer. But Morning Phase is Beck’s album, even if the production borrows very heavily from Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich’s sonic palette. Beck has described this album as his “1970s California-sound, singer-songwriter” album, but it’s definitely not that. There are barely any trace elements of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, James Taylor, or any of the other artists associated with that state and that decade. There is a hint of Byrds in the vocals, especially in the the layered voices of songs like “Heart Is A Drum”, and the prominent acoustic guitar that provides the musical accompaniment for the songs was the weapon of choice for the sensitive songwriters. But this is Beck, so there are all sorts of odd elements thrown into the mix. Synthesizers swish in like wind, chimes ring, understated piano fills gaps. It’s a very laid back album, perfect for early Sunday mornings, but it also takes a few listens to get into. At first listen, the songs blend together in a sleepy, indistinguishable mélange. The deeper the listener goes, the more treasures the album reveals. Beck’s vocals are stunning throughout, and the instrumentation is lush and layered. Morning Phase contains nothing as strikingly brilliant as Sea Change‘s best moments, but it is never less than a warm and beautiful listening experience.
    Grade: B+
  • Flip Yer WigHüsker Dü. The first album that proved Hüsker Dü was more than just noisy thrash punk rockers was the sweeping double album rock opera Zen Arcade, but it was the two albums that followed that really set the band apart. The second of these albums, Flip Yer Wig, is a loud, in-your-face, distorted punk album that further explores the territory the band was staking out on Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. That territory was pure pop music. Long before Nirvana became famous for doing the same thing, Bob Mould and Grant Hart were writing songs that combined chainsaw guitars and wall of noise production with Beatles melodies, and the effect is thrilling. Hüsker Dü had put aside the sheer noise of their earliest recordings and had fully embraced the idea that punk rock could be bracing and loud but also tuneful. At first listen, Flip Yer Wig can be very disorienting and alienating, but if given the chance the melodies start to rise from the distortion. Despite the ferocity of its attack, Flip Yer Wig is one of the catchiest albums of the 1980s. The band would go even further in this direction on subsequent albums, though they never lost that punk edge. At this stage there are still a few songs here that serve as reminders of the band’s origins in the hardcore punk scene. “The Wit and the Wisdom” is an instrumental noisefest that’s a throwback to the Zen Arcade-era, and the less said about the mercifully brief “The Baby Song” the better. But those flaws are no match for the pop music perfection of “Makes No Sense At All”, “Games”, “Green Eyes”, and “Flexible Flyer”, or the pummeling “Hate Paper Doll”, “Every Everything”, and “Divide and Conquer”. There’s even the quasi-psychedelic closer “Don’t Know Yet” to strengthen the band’s ties to 1960s pop music. Hüsker Dü was never music for the faint of heart: this is loud and very aggressive music. But they were blessed by having two superior songwriters in Bob Mould and Grant Hart, who were on the same page and who shared the same love of pop. At a time when it was frowned on in punk circles, Hüsker Dü proved that punk could be as melodic as pop without sacrificing one ounce of edge. In doing so, they were one of the bands that made the world safe for the alternative rock explosion of the early-90s.
    Grade: A
  • You Were RightBrendan Benson. Jack White has talked about how in the Detroit rock scene of the late 1990s, a scene that included the White Stripes, all of the songwriters on the scene wanted to be Brendan Benson. With good reason. Jack White has gone on to prove himself the (far) superior talent, but Benson’s innate tunefulness and songwriting savvy are so well-honed that he’s nearly incapable of writing a truly awful song. You Were Right, his latest album, is another collection of the power pop gems that Benson seems to have in unending supply. The biggest criticism of Benson (similar to Paul McCartney) is that the lesser songs in his canon are the ones where it seems like he rushed or failed to put on the finishing touches. His worst songs have half-baked lyrics or lackluster melodies, both problems that could be fixed if he put in a little more effort. There are a few of these songs on each of his solo albums, but they’re easily overwhelmed by the good stuff. You Were Right is not as strong as his previous album, What Kind Of World, but it’s still a success. The biggest problem with this album is that many of the performances seem uninspired. All of Benson’s hallmarks are on display here: catchy choruses, dark and funny lyrics, harmonies, melodies, strong vocals. But the production seems somehow thin, as if the album was a collection of professionally recorded demos. Benson’s power pop was always more closely aligned with the early Who singles or Badfinger’s harder rocking moments, but on this album he sounds more like bands like the Shoes or Pezband. That’s not a bad thing at all; these are solid, catchy tunes. What’s missing is the fire that drove the best of his earlier work. Some of You Were Right is truly great, especially the first three songs (“It’s Your Choice”, “Rejuvenate Me”, and “As Of Tonight”) and all of it is an easy and pleasurable listening experience. But Benson is suffering from the curse of high expectations. His fans expect a home run almost every time, so it can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment when he only hits a double.
    Grade: B
  • Dig Out Your SoulOasis. The final album by Britain’s most tuneful yobs is a return to form, yet retains striking differences from the Oasis of Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? fame. What’s mostly gone are the giant, stadium-sized hooks that made the earlier albums the best that Britpop had to offer. There’s no “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Champagne Supernova” here. This has the curious effect of making Dig Out Your Soul sound more like a lost album by The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Of course, TSOOL was a great band in their own right, so that doesn’t mean the album’s bad. In fact, the first half of it is extraordinarily good. The first five songs are probably the best sustained chunk of music Oasis released after their stunning odds-and-sods compilation The Masterplan. “Bag It Up”, “The Turning”, and especially “Waiting For The Rapture” and “The Shock Of The Lightning” are all excellent songs, and “I’m Outta Time” is nearly that good. It’s the second half of the album that disappoints. None of it is bad, but the second half simply doesn’t equal the first. There are some fine moments here: “Ain’t Got Nothing” rises to the peak of the first songs, and “Falling Down” and “To Be Where There’s Life” are also very good. But “(Get Off Your) High Horse, Lady” is mediocre, and the two songs that end the album do so on a low note: “The Nature of Reality” and “Soldier On” are listless and uninspired. It’s a shame that the Gallagher brothers weren’t able to sustain the quality of those first songs. Had they done so, Dig Out Your Soul would sit nicely alongside Definitely Maybe.
    Grade: B+
  • Fables of the Reconstruction: The Athens DemosR.E.M. In 1985, R.E.M. issued a direct challenge to their fans. After two brilliant albums of muted music and indecipherable, elliptical lyrics, the mighty Murmur and Reckoning, their third album sounded like it came from another band. This other band shared some of R.E.M.’s tendencies (mumbled vocals, inscrutable lyrics) but Fables Of The Reconstruction was a collection of often bizarre folk tales, layered with odd sounds and effects. At the time some were calling it R.E.M.’s “psychedelic” album, though that’s not anywhere close to the mark. That’s what makes this disc so interesting. Packaged as part of the 25th anniversary release of Fables, The Athens Demos collects rough versions of the songs from Fables, plus demos of B-sides and songs that turned up on later albums. What’s surprising here is that so many of the songs that appeared on Fables already have the stranger elements in place: the weird sonic textures that sounded like they were dreamed up in the studio with producer Joe Boyd are mostly present and accounted for in these rough studio recordings. In some cases the lyrics are not complete, or are slightly different, but most of the music is right there in the early stages. Yet the remarkable thing here is that the songs sound like the band that recorded Reckoning playing the songs from Fables. The feel and overall sound of the demos is far closer to the earliest R.E.M. material. Joe Boyd kept the weirdness of the songs, but applied a lot of polish to the recordings. Fables sounded clean, but the demos sound more like Murmur than the finished product. None of the recordings here are as good as those on the final album: lyrics are flubbed or not there, and the quality of the recordings themselves is rushed and sloppy. But The Athens Demos gives insight to the growth and songwriting process of the best band of the 1980s. This is most evident on “Throw Those Trolls Away”, a genuinely terrible song with really bad lyrics that one year later would emerge, significantly altered, as the ferocious “I Believe” on Lifes Rich Pageant. The Athens Demos are not essential listening, and won’t make anyone forget the spectacular Fables, but for those fans who are interested in the process of writing and recording, or who always wanted to hear what Fables might have sounded like if Mitch Easter had been kept as their producer, it’s worth a few spins.
    Grade: B
  • Sunday At Devil DirtIsobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. The co-founder of Belle & Sebastian, the lovely Isobel Campbell is a dark, dark lady. To look at her is to see a stunning blonde beauty, but to hear her music is to dive deeply into a modern folk blues. For a series of albums she’s turned over the main vocal duties to former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan. His voice, gruff and soaked in whiskey and cigarettes, provides the perfect vehicle for Campbell’s tales. It would be easy to mistake these albums for Lanegan’s solo work. Lightly picked acoustic guitars, throbbing bass, strings, and barely there drums provide the majority of the musical accompaniment, but it is the vocals that carry the album. Lanegan’s voice is deep and resonant, the sound of a man haunted by his past even as he tries desperately to escape it. Campbell is the ghost that haunts him. She sings like a memory feels. Her voice is ethereal, whispering, seeming to come from nowhere but the farthest reaches of the listener’s mind. She’s not so much partnering with Lanegan here as she is providing a balance: she is his opposite vocally, even if both draw their lyrical inspiration from the same dark places. She is the sole writer of these songs, but takes the lead vocal only on one song (the terrifying “Shotgun Blues”). But it’s not fair to say that she is merely a backing singer or a harmony vocal. She may not be as prominent as Lanegan, but it’s Campbell that drives the album. Sunday At Devil Dirt is a fine collection of modern folk ballads, complete with tales of wandering, loneliness, infidelity, murder, and death. Campbell even goes to the source of all dark literature by rewriting Edgar Allan Poe on “The Raven”. This is about as far away from “commercial” music as you can get; it won’t be playing on the radio any time soon. The songs here tap into something much older, and much more satisfying. It can be a challenging listen, and isn’t the sort of thing you put on at the family barbecue. This is music for the night, when the ghosts come out.
    Grade: A
  • The Golden Age Of GlitterSweet Apple. The indie/alternative rock “supergroup” Sweet Apple is to 1970s arena rock as the Rutles are to the Beatles: both a loving tribute and a band that can stand on their own material, however derivative it may be. Their second album plows the same field as the first, though the accent here is more on power pop; there’s nothing as gargantuan as the first album’s “Blindfold” or “Do You Remember?”, but all of the elements are still firmly in place. Heavy guitars? Check. Catchy choruses? Got ’em. The obligatory acoustic number to show your sensitive side? Right there at track 4. Arena-shaking vocals? Of course. “Wish You Could Stay”, featuring a cameo from Mark Lanegan, starts the album on a very high note. It may be the best song the band has ever done, a near perfect combination of heavy guitar and pop sensibilities. Of course this means the rest of the album falls short of that intro. The band wears their influences on their sleeves, but the influence is one of sound. They don’t sound like Zeppelin or the Who or Queen or Grand Funk Railroad. They sound like all of them at the same time. The one exception, oddly enough, is “We Are Ruins” which practically channels the Brian Jonestown Massacre. As side projects go, Sweet Apple is a good one. The band is clearly having a lot of fun playing in the style of the music they grew up listening to and, while The Golden Age of Glitter may fall a bit short of their first album Love & Desperation, it’s still a nice reminder of just how good the 1970s could be when it came to rock and roll excess. There are no Golden Gods in Sweet Apple, but there are clearly four guys who spent their childhoods kneeling at that altar.
    Grade: B
  • Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete SessionsR.E.M. Way back in 1984, R.E.M. appeared on an MTV show called The Cutting Edge, which focused on underground bands. They were interviewed and performed a few songs acoustically. In 1991, R.E.M. was one of the most popular bands in the world, riding very high with the success of “Losing My Religion” and, unfortunately, “Shiny Happy People”. They once again took their acoustic instruments to MTV, this time appearing on the show Unplugged. In 2001, R.E.M. was past their peak and had assumed the role of elder statesmen, but once again took to Unplugged. Now that they are no longer a working band, they have released a complete compilation of both of these later performances, and the album serves as a reminder of just how potent R.E.M. could be. The 1991 performance with the original band is better. The band is loose, the songs are powerful, and there’s a very intimate feel to it. Not everything works (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” falls flat when stripped down) but some things work unexpectedly well (“Radio Song”). The rest is a trip through then-recent R.E.M. history. The accent is on the newer material; with the exception of a shimmering “Perfect Circle”, a cover of the Troggs hit “Love Is All Around” and the obscure B-side “Fretless”, all of the songs came from their four most recent albums. This is the band in the middle of their glory years, and they knew it. In the 2001 performance, drummer Bill Berry is gone and the new material is not as strong. Still, there are six songs from their then-current album Reveal, plus another three from the previous album, Up, and all nine of those performances prove what I’ve long suspected: R.E.M. was writing very good songs, and losing their way during the recording process. The songs from Reveal and Up benefit greatly from these performances. The album versions sound sterile and cold, but in these performances it’s possible to hear the same band that had appeared on Unplugged ten years earlier. But the heart of the 2001 set is the classic R.E.M. in the middle: “Losing My Religion” (the only song to appear in both performances), “The One I Love”, “South Central Rain”, “Country Feedback” (which works beautifully), “Cuyahoga”, and the indescribably gorgeous “Find The River”. These songs simply outshine everything that surrounds them, but the important thing is that the newer songs sound like they fit in, even if they’re not quite as good. This is not true of the album versions. Oddly, the most organic song on Up, “At My Most Beautiful”, lies limply and sucks the air out of the room, but the heavily electronic “Sad Professor” shines in the stripped down format. R.E.M. lost a lot when Bill Berry left, but Unplugged reveals that the songs they were writing in the wake of his departure were still of an exceptionally high caliber, and deserving of better treatment than what they got in the recording studio.
    Grade: A+ (1991 show)
    Grade: B+ (2001 show)


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