Here Comes the Rain Again
So they put our lawn in this week, right? You’ve seen how this is done – the grass arrives planted in strips of dirt, which are placed on the barren lot like carpeting. Given a few days, the grass will take root, adhering the strips to the ground. Works in theory.
Unless, of course, you get a torrential rainstorm or five.
My area of Maryland has had seven rain-free Fridays since December, apparently, so I guess we should have expected this. Our lawn is now mostly washed away, and what’s left has a riverbed running through it. Seriously, it looks like the Tigris and Euphrates met in our yard. I spoke with a neighbor the other day, and apparently, we’re the talk of the neighborhood. I keep seeing pieces of our lawn on the side of the road, some three or four houses down from ours. I get really weird looks from people when I claim these hunks of dirt and grass and drag them back to our house. It’s all a big disaster.
This column is late again, I know, but look at it – it’s huge. Gi-normous. It won’t be this long again for a couple of months, so enjoy it now. (Wait, the sexual connotations really took a strange turn with that last one, didn’t they?)
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Well, the wonders of digital downloading have made possible another first – this is the only time I’ve ever written two different reviews of the same album. You may remember that I previously gushed over Radiohead’s sixth record, Hail to the Thief, based on a rough draft I’d downloaded two months before the release date. You may also remember that the band freaked out when they heard the versions that had escaped to the public, posting angry diatribes on their website and other message boards.
They’re early, unmixed roughs, they said.
Some of them aren’t even finished, they said.
Don’t judge the album by these versions, because the real thing is so much better, they said.
The official version of Hail to the Thief came out on June 10, and it just ain’t that different. Oh, there are minor things – some of the haunting harmonies have now been equalized, and the twittering drum beat that runs through “Sit Down Stand Up” has now been extended to provide the less-inspiring introduction – but honestly, they didn’t do very much. No matter what the band may say, these tracks were almost in their finished form when they were leaked, and only the most discerning listener could spot the differences.
I admit that I was bothered by some of the tiny changes at first, especially the meddling with Thom Yorke’s awe-inspiring vocal tracks this time out. The band and producer Nigel Godrich cut back the surprising three-part harmony in “We Suck Young Blood” that I liked so much, and gave less emphasis to my favorite melodies in “I Will” – mostly as a result of picking one of the three Yorke tracks as the lead vocal, relegating the other two to backing vocal status. I liked ’em all, dammit. But overall, making the switch to thinking of the official version as, well, the official version is quite simple.
And amazingly, I think my appreciation for this record has grown since I last rambled on about it. Hail to the Thief is undoubtedly Radiohead’s third-best album, combining the spacy atmospherics of Kid A with the melodic sense of The Bends. There’s no question that the band set out to make a pop album this time, and even though the result is not what anyone might deem pop, the songs are there, and that makes all the difference.
I do have reservations about Thief. Nothing on OK Computer, still reigning champion of the Radiohead catalog, sounds like the band gave up on it halfway through. The songs on Thief are certainly realized, but not fully realized in some cases. Partway through “Where I End and You Begin,” for example, I find myself wishing the band would do something with the terrific groove they’ve laid down instead of just carrying it to a conclusion. The same goes for the swirling “Sit Down Stand Up,” which builds to an explosion and then abruptly stops, or “The Gloaming,” which rides its jittery percussion and single melody to the end.
Minor quibbles, of course, when Radiohead have provided us with stunners like the soaring “Sail to the Moon,” the energetic “Go to Sleep” and the gloriously off-kilter “We Suck Young Blood.” And waiting at the end of the record, after the processed metallic drone of “Myxomatosis,” is perhaps the loveliest song the band has ever written. “Scatterbrain” is deceptively simple – just bass, clean guitar, drums and that amazing voice – but its melancholy melody is the very definition of haunting. On a record full of very good songs, “Scatterbrain” is the one truly great one.
One big difference between the two versions is the clarity of the vocals on the official release – plus, the lyrics have been printed in the booklet for the first time since OK Computer. Despite the title, it wasn’t immediately apparent before just how political this record is. It’s brimming with references to George W. Bush and his war of American might, which gives Yorke’s trademark paranoia an impending doom on which to focus this time. “It is too late now,” he mutters on “2+2=5,” before screaming, “because you have not been paying attention,” a clear finger-wag towards the complacent public. The middle third of “Sit Down Stand Up” centers on the line, “We can wipe you out anytime,” and “The Gloaming” features a paraphrase of Bush’s central rhetoric: “Murderers, you’re murderers, we are not the same as you.”
Given that framing, even the sweetest and most upbeat numbers here take on a potentially political subtext. “Go to Sleep,” for example, is about those who ignore atrocity – “I’m going to go to sleep and let this wash all over me…” Similarly, “I Will” deals with parental love, and details the thoughts of a father forced to hide underground with his children. Though Yorke doesn’t specify from what the family is hiding, enough context is provided by the surrounding songs to suggest a theme. Even “A Punchup at a Wedding”… well, no, that’s about a punchup at a wedding. But still.
The album’s major drawback is that despite the overarching theme, it sounds like 14 songs on a disc as opposed to a cohesive album. Even Kid A hung together better than this one does, but Thief‘s fractured versatility only lends to its air of scattered, raining doom. The second review isn’t much different from the first, I’m afraid: Hail to the Thief is certainly Radiohead’s best work in years, and ranks as one of the high points of aught three thus far. Just when you thought it was safe to write them off.
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A Whole Lot of Shoot, a Little Bit of Nanny
I don’t exactly understand my undying love for the music of Mark Oliver Everett, the man called E, and his one-man band, Eels. He seems to possess very few of the qualities I admire in other artists, and a whole bunch of the qualities I despise in other artists. Yet here we are, at studio album number five for the Eels, and I just can’t stop loving this stuff.
Okay, right off the bat I need to point out that there was no way E would make an album worthy of the title he selected for this one: Shootenanny! is just too wonderful for words. What’s interesting is that the title seems to have been selected at random – the album doesn’t even try to live up to it. In fact, considering that E is known as a Beck-style mix artist who plays with sound more than with structure, Shootenanny! is rather restrained.
That’s not to say it isn’t interesting, however. It’s just that E has stripped away virtually everything that his detractors say he’s hiding behind – Shootenanny! contains no trippy beats, no samples, no processed guitar textures, and no brassy horn sections. Embellishments are few and subtle here, leaving 13 guitar-driven ditties that focus on being uncomplicated yet engaging. E writes simple songs about loneliness and pain, but this is the first time he’s let the production remain as simple as the composition.
And while I generally recoil from simple as if receiving an electric shock, it works here. After years of writing folk songs with the word “blues” in the title, E has finally discovered the real thing on this record – “All In a Day’s Work,” “Agony” and “Lone Wolf” all draw from nifty blues figures. (Unsurprisingly, character study “Restraining Order Blues” is a folk song…) Elsewhere, E offers revved-up power pop on single “Saturday Morning,” “Dirty Girl” and “Wrong About Bobby.”
The bulk of the album, though, is given over to delicately strummed laments, the kind at which he’s excelled since his debut. E is all about finding glimmers of joy amidst crushing pain – see his two-album treatise on dealing with the loss of family members (Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy) for an unparalleled example – and here he sings about “Rock Hard Times” and “Numbered Days” with his trademark silver-lined gloom. Though “Fashion Awards” centers around the line “We’ll blow off our heads in despair,” E gently reminds you in the closing track that “Somebody Loves You.” And even that song is suffused in melancholy, as E notes at one point that “no one pays you to sit around and think about how you’ll die.” (No one but Dreamworks Records, apparently…)
Once again, E has balanced the sweet and sad with finesse and grace. Though Shootenanny! has the feel of a rushed-out release, and some of the songs are a bit more simple than they had to be, it’s never less than engaging, and is sometimes downright delightful. E is about as idiosyncratic and honest as a mainstream performer can be, especially one who’s played Lollapalooza, and his prolific nature and refusal to coddle the middle of the road make him a fascinating one to follow.
For example, if you really want to hear an album that sounds like a shootenanny, check out I Am the Messiah, the debut from MC Honky. Officially, MC Honky is a 50-something Los Angelean DJ with a style he’s termed “self-help rap.” He’s the first and only artist so far that E has offered to produce, and the pair is scheduled to tour together in the fall.
Unofficially, of course, MC Honky is E, and I Am the Messiah is his solo project. And it’s here that he lets his inner Beck out to play, with hilarious results. “A Good Day to Be You,” for instance, samples a string quartet and splices it with a jittery beat and the funniest Daily Affirmations-style voice-over you can imagine. “You’re well-read,” the voice croons. “You’re smart, but you don’t make me feel stupid. Thank you.” Beck even gets a shout-out (or a one-up) with the hysterical “Three Turntables and Two Microphones.”
But wait, there’s more. Everett’s third album of 2003 (so far) is his haunting score to the film Levity, which also includes two new Eels songs. The score itself is lovely and off-kilter, much like the Eels’ forays into ambient instrumentals. It’s a measure of E’s bizarre skill that he can release three projects within months of each other, under three different names, and craft them so that they sound like the work of three separate artists. Anyone who can do that is someone worth watching, methinks, and so far, E hasn’t let me down. After 11 releases, it still feels like E’s career is just beginning.
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Radio Jesus Superstar
Last time I reviewed a Michael Pritzl project (last year’s Gravity Show album Fabulous Like You), I got an e-mail from the man himself, taking me to task for not giving him full credit for what was essentially a solo record. Even though I’m reviewing his band this time, I’m not going to make that same mistake. The Violet Burning is Pritzl’s project, through and through, guided by his vision, songs and voice. The band is, and has always been, a reflection of Pritzl – his musical ideas and his heartfelt spirituality.
And since Pritzl is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, it stands to reason that his band reflects this. Everything TVB has done has striven for beauty and wonder, grace and compassion. Those are strange words to use to describe a rock band, but it’s true – even at their most epic, TVB’s crashing waves of sound caress rather than slap. Their records are designed to build you up, to approximate the awe of seeing and believing something grander and lovelier.
It should be no surprise that TVB began as a worship band, even though they drifted from those roots somewhat on their major-label self-titled album. Recent Pritzl projects like the Gravity Show and TVB’s Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart have showcased their evolution towards a more radio-friendly sound, but lyrically, TVB have been circling back to those worship roots for some time now. The two aesthetics finally reach their apex on This Is the Moment, the just-released seventh Violet Burning album, and it sounds for all the world like the best modern worship album you’ve ever heard.
That’s assuming you’ve heard modern worship albums, of course. They’re all the rage now in the Christian music industry, with the likes of SonicFlood and Waterdeep crafting whole careers out of singing sweet pop songs to Jesus. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, even if it isn’t my cup of tea, except that most of the modern worship trend has suspicious motivations. Most of it feels to this cynical soul like cashing in on a craze, rather than honest spiritual outpouring.
And now here’s Michael Pritzl, delivering an album full of small, heavily produced, Christian-radio-ready pop songs like “Heaven Holds My Heart” and “Lord, Rescue Me,” all but begging for a shot at mainstream success. You might be tempted to cry sellout, but for two very important things. First, The Violet Burning was ahead of the modern worship trend by about a decade, and second, they’ve been organically evolving into this for several albums now. For all its calculated sound, This Is the Moment feels like an accurate portrayal of where Pritzl is now, and any attending success is coincidental. Pritzl just happens to be playing what’s in vogue at the moment, but he’d likely be playing it anyway.
The record itself is very enjoyable, if you’re able to roll with two things – glossy mainstream production and up-front Christianity. The first is Pritzl’s choice, and may actually turn off longtime fans of the band weaned on atmospheric epics. The second, however, is simply who Pritzl is, and songs like this are just as honest and personal for him as those of any confessional folkie. The difference is that this time, they’re all dressed up and ready to take on the world.
I say more power to ’em. Any amount of mainstream success can only be good for the band and their label, tiny Northern Records. Listening to Moment, you’d never know it’s from a shoestring indie label, so clean and shiny is the production by Pritzl and TVB and Cush guitarist Andy Prickett. The rockers rock – opener “Lovesick” is a powerhouse, and “I’m Not Letting Go” is a standout – but Pritzl has always been better at slow, affecting tunes, and starting with track six, you get half an album’s worth of them. Best is closer “Manta Rae” (not the Prayer Chain song, meaning that Prickett has now played on two songs with that title), but the entire second half of Moment gently soars on Pritzl’s awesome voice.
I hope this blatant stab at Christian radio works for them – that institution could only be improved by embracing TVB. In fact, if Northern is smart, they’ll press up singles for “Everywhere I Go” and highlight “Lost Without You Near Me” and send them to every Christian radio station they can find. When a band this good wants success this badly, one can only hope they succeed. But even if they don’t, the record is exactly what it intends to be – an enjoyable and often moving modern worship record, with an honest heart bigger than the whole industry they’re trying to conquer.
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A Very Different Drummer
When drummers decide they want to sing, it hardly ever turns out well.
Don’t you wish, for example, that Phil Collins had kept his mouth shut and stuck with pounding the skins for Genesis? He would have spared us years of goopy pop crap from that formerly excellent progressive band, and we never would have had to deal with his whole sad solo career. No “Sussudio,” no “Groovy Kind of Love,” no Tarzan song. I’m happier just thinking about it.
Wayne Everett’s never been just a drummer, though. Oh, sure, he’s been the man behind the kit for several bands, including Starflyer 59 and the Prayer Chain. In fact, his percussion work on Prayer Chain records, especially Mercury, is uniformly astonishing. But there’s always been more to Everett, and he got the chance to show it off with his post-Prayer Chain band, the Lassie Foundation. He sang, wrote songs, produced and guided the band through two great albums and a slew of EPs, turning out dramatic (some might say melodramatic) guitar-driven rock with an epic edge.
And now Everett has finally put his name on the front cover. Kingsqueens is Everett’s solo debut, on which he wrote or co-wrote all the songs, co-produced with Frank Lenz, sang, and played drums and guitar. It’s been a slow process getting him out front to bask in the spotlight, but one listen to the album and you’ll be glad he’s there.
Far from the noisy heights of any of his former bands, Kingsqueens is something of an indie-rock classic, full of color and light but never losing its accessible, approachable sound. Even though it’s his first solo project, Everett has packed the album with musicians, including sax players, trumpet players and backing vocalists. “Mor Far,” for example, is rooted in gospel-style soul thanks to a choir of backing vocalists and a sweet horn section. “Bring Your Ship” has analog synthesizers swirling in and out of it, as well as xylophones and other mallet percussion.
Everett’s songs are sweetly tuneful, rooted in classic pop, and perfectly suited to the album’s diverse production. There isn’t a depressing moment here – Kingsqueens is a pop album that remembers when pop was supposed to feel good. As a singer, Everett doesn’t suffer from drummer-itis, either. He has an impressive range, crooning “Lucky Skies” in a sweet lower register while letting his falsetto soar on “I Can See Jail.” He places his nine new songs next to a complete reworking of the Prayer Chain’s “Chalk,” done with acoustic guitars and a loping gait.
Kingsqueens isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s another success for Northern Records and a fine achievement for Wayne Everett. I’ve just realized that he’s the second Everett I’ve recommended in one column, and there are similarities – both E and Wayne are better known for their work in bands, and both have just signed their names to solo projects after long periods in those bands. Both write and play idiosyncratic pop music from the fringes, but while E usually uses his to make you feel as bad as he can, Everett’s album is a breath of joyful air.
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Both Sides Now
And I think, though I’ve not totally decided yet, that I’ve saved the best for last.
I’m talking about Grandaddy, and here’s where I need to send a major shout-out to Chad Verrill once again. Chad gave me my first exposure to Grandaddy’s terrific second album, The Sophtware Slump, and without him I may never have heard these guys. Their third album, Sumday, has just been released to no fanfare, and I remain baffled as to how the Flaming Lips have racked up accolades for doing just this type of thing, only without writing compelling songs like these or arranging them nearly as well.
Grandaddy is Jason Lytle’s band – he writes the songs, produces the records, plays many instruments and sings everything. Lytle also obviously remembers vinyl, and appreciates the particular skill it takes to arrange an album for two sides. That’s why this record was originally intended for release on two CDs, each about 25 minutes – Sumday is absolutely divided into two sides. In fact, had record company finances not prevailed and forced the band to abandon that plan, it would have been a fascinating experiment. As it is, those who don’t know the story and don’t remember vinyl will probably be surprised at the abrupt shift in tone at track seven.
The first half of Sumday (or side one) is entirely engaging strummed indie-pop, for lack of a better description. Everything is propelled by the quarter-note beat, and with that limitation firmly in place, Lytle has written some delightful tunes and spiced them up with atmospherics and synthesizers. It’s hard not to think of these six songs as six movements of one long piece, so similar do they all sound. That’s not a bad thing in this case – it’s a sustained mood that really works, punctuated by great pop songs like “El Caminos in the West” and one genuine epic in “Lost On Yer Merry Way.”
Had they carried this mood through the second half, Sumday would fall far short of Sophtware, but side two takes off on wings borrowed from Brian Wilson. We get pianos, crashing percussion, synthesized orchestration and a sense of drama all but missing from side one. “Yeah is What We Had” works as a transition of sorts, incorporating some of those production flourishes, but by “The Saddest Vacant Lot in All The World,” we’re in epic pop wonderland.
And really, there isn’t a stretch of songs in the Flaming Lips catalog that can compare with the final three tunes on Sumday. “OK With My Decay” is a big, sad delight that leads into the bigger “The Warming Sun” before crashing into piano-driven finality with “The Final Push to the Sum,” and by the end, you’ve been carried somewhere and back, and you’re dizzy from the trip.
The Lips even borrowed Grandaddy’s pet theme of technology lost in a world of humans for Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and did a crushingly inferior job of it. Here Lytle uses mechanical breakdown as a metaphor for emotional breakdown, and achieves that rarest of lyrical accomplishments – finding new ways to describe a broken heart. If Sumday is less immediately astounding than Sophtware, it grows in significance with each listen, particularly the ambitious second half. Why Grandaddy isn’t at the top of critics’ lists like their less talented contemporaries is beyond me. This album is more than recommended – if you’re into well-crafted and thoughtful rock music of any stripe, it’s mandatory.
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I’m still not as caught up on recent releases as I’d like to be, but I think this will do for now. Coming up look for an examination of selling out with Liz Phair and Jewel, a bit about Led Zeppelin’s mammoth new live record, and reviews of Type O Negative, Guster, Mark Eitzel, the Alarm and Spock’s Beard. Coming in August is Sloan’s new one, called Action Pact – love that name – and what will likely be Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind. Oh, and expect a diatribe about art and commerce when Jane’s Addiction returns with Strays.
See you in line Tuesday morning.