I tried a little experiment the other day.
I mentioned in my review of Radiohead’s disappointing new wank-fest that the band’s last two albums (Kid A and Amnesiac), recorded simultaneously and originally planned as a double album, would work much better edited down to a strong single disc. Well, guess what. It works.
My edit runs 53 minutes, plenty short enough for a single disc and plenty long enough to be considered an album. I called it Kid Amnesia, and I’ve found myself reaching for this edit far more often than either of the records it came from. It’s still pretty weak, but it flows surprisingly well and sets the paranoid mood the group seemed to be after.
In case you’re curious, here’s my running order: “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song,” “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “You and Whose Army,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Idioteque,” “Morning Bell,” “Dollars and Cents” and “How to Disappear Completely.”
Radiohead fans who might want to try this are encouraged to send me their running orders, should they differ from mine. This, naturally, flies right in the face of my philosophy of listening to an artist’s work the way they intended it, and I’m working on a rationalization for this lapse as we speak. (Well, as you speak, if you’re reading this out loud.) I’ll let you know what I come up with.
I promised a long-assed column this week, and here it is. I hope to play catch-up on about half a dozen new things. I’ve broken the column up into bite-sized, digestible chunks for you if you just don’t want to commit to reading the whole thing at once. That’s just the kind of considerate guy I am. You’re welcome.
Okay, here we go.
In what’s being termed the Battle of the Brit-Poppers (by someone, somewhere, I’m sure), Radiohead’s Amnesiac is being followed up one week later by Radiohead wannabes Travis’ third album. It’s no contest, really. While Radiohead have wallowed in ego for the past two releases, Travis have named their delightfully ego-free release The Invisible Band. While Radiohead were off in the stratosphere somewhere praying to the atmosphere faeries, Travis were writing songs to hang their atmospheres on. While it once may have been true that Travis at their best couldn’t outdo Radiohead at their worst, these two new releases prove that’s no longer the case.
One reason that it’s hard to knock Travis is that they’re such a nice band. Everything they do is grounded in contentment and happiness. Even when Fran Healy is bemoaning his current state of affairs, he does so with such a sunny outlook that you’re pulling for the guy to get over his minor slump. (See their big hit, “Why Does it Always Rain on Me.”) While I often wish something bad would happen to my favorite artists to inspire them artistically, I find it’s impossible to bear Healy and the boys any ill will. They’re so honestly, genuinely sweet that I feel like an ass for criticizing them.
I will, though, but only a little. Travis’ songwriting is fairly stagnant on The Invisible Band, gaining no ground from their wonderful breakthrough, The Man Who. The guitars still shimmer and shine, Healy’s voice still soars without whining, and the lyrics are (with a few exceptions) typically sunny. This album exhibits exactly zero growth.
Travis fans everywhere may breathe a sigh of relief at that. They didn’t forge ahead with some grand artistic vision, they didn’t embrace electronic beats and blips, and they certainly didn’t use their popular platform to engage the ills of the world. They’re just four blokes who like to make lighter-than-air pop music, and it shows through winningly. There’s not a moment of The Invisible Band that breaks new ground, but there’s not a moment when you’re wishing it would.
I want to say a few things about Nigel Godrich, the album’s producer. I just found out that this guy is only 27 years old. That’s my age. Godrich has, over the past few years, impressed me more than any other producer working. I’ll check something out just because he had something to do with it. (Even the last two Radiohead records sounded impeccable – the fact that the songs were lacking isn’t Godrich’s fault.) The Invisible Band is another perfect production, filled with beautiful touches that only this guy seems to bring to his work. Finding out that he’s the same age as me gives me the same feeling I got when I learned how old Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane. He’s too young to be this brilliant.
Godrich’s input is paramount to this record’s success. Like he did with The Man Who, Godrich has woven glorious sound tapestries out of Healy’s simple songs and elevated the whole project. What was cloying on their first record (called Good Feeling – don’t seek it out, it’s not worth it) is delightfully earnest here. Healy bases whole songs on sentiments like “let the caged bird go free” (“The Cage”) and “the grass is never greener on the other side” (“Side”). The first track is about convincing his girlfriend to sing in front of him. Really. There’s even a track called “Dear Diary,” which, like the rest of this band’s output, is totally irony-free.
What sounds sickeningly sweet on paper is refreshingly honest on record. Try not to sing along with “Flowers in the Window” or “Indefinitely,” a lighter-raiser if ever there was one. And brace yourself for “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song,” a layered epic whose chorus actually goes “You’ve got the glue, so I’m gonna give my heart to you.” I’m telling you, it works, and you won’t crack up once.
Travis does step over their own line once on this disc, in the relatively haunting “Last Train.” Over a great organ bed from Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner, Healy moans, “I’m gonna buy a gun, gonna shoot everything, everyone, and then I’m coming for you.” In context, “Last Train” is a jarring piece of work, one that might point to future artistic experimentation. In almost any other case, this might be a good thing, but a few more miserable sentiments might have cast a fatal pall over The Invisible Band. Very few groups these days sound happy to be happy, and losing one of them would be tragic.
Near the end of this record, Healy sings, “I’m gonna be here indefinitely.” For Travis fans like myself who love their silly little epics, let’s hope he means it.
And on the sixth try, they got it right.
Rufus Wainwright’s second album, Poses, has blown through six release dates in the last year. Certain fans of his terrific first album wondered if the follow-up actually existed and would ever be released. Fret no more, because here it is, and man, was it worth the wait.
Rufus Wainwright sounds like no other current performer. God bless Dreamworks Records for finding this guy and setting him up with a record contract. I doubt any profitable label would have touched him with a 10-foot stock option. Dreamworks is one of those integrated companies that can indulge artistry. They make enough money on their film projects to float the recording careers of non-sellers like Eels, Creeper Lagoon and Wainwright. When one of their bands hits (like Lifehouse has), it’s cause for celebration.
I don’t see Wainwright making a similar commercial splash, but regardless, he’s made one of the best records of the year so far. Poses is several leaps above his self-titled debut, both in songwriting and production. His voice has even improved immensely, with all the minor quirks smoothed out into a soaring even tone.
Ah, it’s the songs, though, those glorious, dramatic, Broadway-ready songs. Imagine a dandily-dressed young lad sitting on a barstool center stage, with a spotlight softly illuminating him, as he sings “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” with a bittersweet grin. “Cigarettes and chocolate milk, these are just a couple of my cravings, everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me…”
Every song on Poses seems to flow forth from the mouth of a fully realized character in a well-written play. How many of these characters may be Wainwright himself we’re left to guess, as he dances his voice atop these lovely piano musings, just out of reach. His lyrics are a dance as well, skirting their subjects (and the characters who sing them) with artful grace.
Song after song, Wainwright achieves near-perfection. It’s like he’s performing a revue of the best of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Ira Newbern, and yet they’re all originals (except for his cover of his dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy”). He even slips into Sondheim territory once with “Evil Angel.” These are lovely, dance-on-air pieces of music, filled with strings and dramatic shifts. Even when he piles on more typical pop instrumentation, like guitars and drums, he maintains that classic sense about his work.
For all its traditional leanings, Poses is a series of modern riddles, speaking obliquely through character studies on what it means to be young, gay and style-conscious. Wainwright’s point of view is one you don’t find very often in the pop music field, and that’s as refreshing as his attitude about what, exactly, constitutes pop music in the first place. His songs, if nothing else, certainly hearken back to the origins of the pop song, and drag that sound into the modern world with a dapper elegance.
The long and short of it is, Poses is terrific. Rufus Wainwright certainly didn’t need much improvement, and the fact that he did improve, immensely, makes this album a lock for the Top 10 List. I can only hope that his songs endure as long as those of his influences, because they deserve to.
About a month ago, I brought a little stereo system into work, because as anyone who’s known me for more than a day or two knows, I can’t live for very long without music. I didn’t set up this CD player at my desk specifically to drive my co-workers batty, but it sure has had that effect. I listen to some weird shit, as sports writer Gale Cavness, who sits to my left, can attest.
Gale’s a dyed-in-the-wool music fan who hasn’t liked much of anything from the last few decades. He’s into Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and the like, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. He just happens to have the misfortune of sitting next to the writer of a new music column. He’s been very good, all things considered, about rarely telling me to shut my damn noise off.
I told you all that to tell you this. I can remember just one time that Gale asked me to turn my music up. I can also remember just one time that he requested a certain album. It just happened to be the same album both times, and that album just happened to be Michael Roe’s Safe as Milk.
In my experience, anyone who hears Michael Roe ends up liking his stuff. As I mentioned when reviewing his live record It’s for You, Roe’s career has been long and varied. Though his solo material is wonderful (especially the aforementioned Safe as Milk), he’s best known as the voice and guitar of the 77s. That band’s career has been marked by terrific songwriting, solid albums and interminably long waits between those albums. The last one, Tom Tom Blues, was in 1995.
In true feast or famine tradition, there have been four new 77s discs over the last few months, culminating in the release of their new full-length album A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows. First came an EP (cleverly titled EP) described as a taste of the new record. Then came Radioactive Singles, a bunch of remixes of tracks off the new album. Then, after Golden Field blew its third release date, came the aptly named Late, a collection of everything from the EP, most of Radioactive Singles and a few new things. Then, finally, the album itself. Late makes the two that preceded it redundant, so that and the new album are all you need to catch up.
I’ve heard it said that the 77s have been creating a season cycle with their records, and that theory holds up. They started as a summery blues-rock band, slowly darkening their sound over their first three albums. Pray Naked from 1992 was largely as gentle and sad as an autumn rain, and the follow-up, Drowning with Land in Sight, raged like a winter storm. Spring sprung with Tom Tom Blues, a more optimistic record, and now the group has come full circle with Golden Field, the happiest, sunniest album since their debut.
Fans of Roe’s solo work will probably be surprised at how loud Golden Field is, but this band has always rocked. They became a trio with Tom Tom, and Golden Field is the sound of that trio having a grand old time. Even the slower tracks, like “There Forever,” end up swimming in electric guitars, and when they lock into a groove, like they do on “Mean Green Season,” they don’t sound anywhere near their mid-40s. Which they are, of course.
Highlights include the single “Mr. Magoo,” a fun rocker that begins with the line, “I may be Mr. Magoo but I see through you,” and “Down From You,” one of the most energetic and melodic pieces in the band’s catalog. A standout is “Related,” which sounds like nothing the band has done before. It’s all jacked-up hip hop beats and phased guitars, and it works, though nothing else on Golden Field even tries to be that modern. Roe and company save the best for last with the ironically titled closer “Begin,” a classic Roe semi-acoustic piece.
As good as Golden Field is, I have to mention my vague sense of disappointment with it. The songs are decent, but they’re not extraordinary. Roe never really cuts loose with a solo here, and I could listen to him play guitar all day and not get bored. The album is solid, quick and raucous, but it’s nowhere near as good as the 77s can get. It still ranks higher than a good 80% of what’s out there now, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the band.
For that, you should get Late. The five songs from the EP are definitely extraordinary, especially the opener, “Unbalanced,” which contains one of Roe’s best lines: “You’re so inviting but I still can’t come.” “The Years Go Down” exists in a state of divine fury, and it’s balanced off by the sweet “Sevens.” Where Golden Field sticks to one style throughout, the EP flits from mood to mood marvelously.
The alternate takes of “Flowers in the Sand,” “Outskirts” and “You Still Love Me” from Tom Tom Blues are all superior versions, particularly “Flowers,” with its stripped-down instrumentation and terrific guitar work. The 77s’ version of Daniel Amos’ “Shotgun Angel” is note-perfect. Late closes with three outtakes from It’s for You, including a longer, better version of “Go With God, But Go.”
If you want to check out Michael Roe and the 77s, and you do, my recommendation is to snag Late first. It’s an almost-perfect document of the different styles this band does so well, and of the guitar-playing master at its helm. Last time I mentioned Roe, I couldn’t recommend a starting point. If nothing else, Late provides that, and Golden Field thankfully continues the band’s sterling output. The 77s may be the best band you’ve never heard.
Speaking of bands you’ve never heard, there’s a new Starflyer 59 album. Starflyer fans are encouraged to write me, for two reasons. First, I don’t think there are that many of you out there, and second, if you dig this band, you’re probably pretty interesting.
Leave Here a Stranger is Starflyer’s sixth full-length album on tiny Tooth and Nail Records. (They’ve also released three EPs, a host of singles and a box set that collects ‘em all.) They’re a great example of mutual loyalty between company and band. Starflyer’s self-titled debut was the third album to come out on Tooth and Nail, and the new one is almost the 200th. Along the way, T&N broke MxPx big, losing them to A&M Records, and they’ve nearly done the same with a half-dozen of their other acts, but not Starflyer, even though they’d get my vote for Most Likely to Succeed. Jason Martin (the brains behind the band) is happy with Tooth and Nail, and they’re happy with him.
Plus, Martin gets to record and release deep, bizarre pop records like Leave Here a Stranger. A calliope of often-depressing lyrics and vocals atop bright, swirling accompaniment, Stranger is the group’s most fully realized effort. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering it’s a collaboration between Martin and ignored genius producer Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs, Swirling Eddies, and a host of production credits). Taylor elevates Martin’s signature guitar lines and vintage keyboard sounds from cheese to magnificence.
Not that Martin hasn’t always been magnificent on his own. The first three Starflyer albums have some of the thickest, heaviest, slowest guitars you’ll ever find, layered atop each other in a near-infinite blanket. With album four, The Fashion Focus, Martin dropped the guitars and focused on acoustics and synths, maintaining his high melodic standard. The new Starflyer sound hasn’t really coalesced until now. Leave Here a Stranger is a quirky, soaring suite, and the only complaint Starflyer fans should have with it is the same one they’ve had all along: it’s over too quickly.
I don’t usually review soundtracks, but this one’s really hooked me, largely because of the movie it accompanies. I’m talking about Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling wonderama, Moulin Rouge.
I highly recommend seeing the movie before hearing the soundtrack, but then, I highly recommend seeing the movie anyway. I can scarcely believe this thing got made at all, and I’d have liked to have sat in on the original pitch: “I want to make a modern musical that sucks up the last 100 years of popular songs and Cuisinarts them, and I’d like it to look like a drug-addled live-action cartoon with, oh, three times the regular number of cuts, and I want the actors to do all their own singing, and by the way, let’s release it opposite Pearl Harbor. What do you say?”
I say bravo, Baz. This is the type of film that makes you want to applaud after every musical number, and most of those numbers are present on the soundtrack. Most exciting to me is the inclusion of the “Elephant Love Medley,” which needs no explanation for those who’ve seen the film, and will get none from me for those who haven’t. I spent the whole scene with a wild, manic grin on my face. This movie is a music lover’s dream.
The soundtrack’s not so bad itself. The highlights are, of course, the film’s sly rewrites of classic (and not-so-classic) pop tunes, but apart from the film, the soundtrack features Bono’s great rendition of “Children of the Revolution,” Fatboy Slim’s reworking of Jim Broadbent’s lines in “Because We Can,” Beck’s terrific take on David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” and the aforementioned and always brilliant Rufus Wainwright’s “Complainte de la Butte,” in which he proves that he rules in any language. (That was quite the run-on sentence, huh?)
Baz Luhrmann even adds dramatic heft to newly-written trifles like “Come What May.” If you can see the film and still dismiss this fluff as weightless, I’d be surprised. Luhrmann has tapped into what makes a popular tune work, what makes one cry at a silly love song, what makes one agree wholeheartedly with the most banal statements of passion uttered by pop singers. In so doing, he’s given new life to the most ephemeral, disposable music of the last century. The film is a heartfelt work of wonder that doesn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a false note.
And the soundtrack ain’t half bad, either.
Damn, huh? Could I possibly babble any more?
Next time, it’s an all New England throwdown with new releases by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones. Be there or be…not there. Um, whatever.
See you in line Tuesday morning.