I got the word this week that once again, the greatest musical genius of our time would be gracing our shelves with a new record.
And it’s about time – it’s been three years since the pop culture has taken its regular and well-deserved spanking from this guy, who has proved over more than 20 years to be just what the pompous and over-inflated music scene needs. He’s a devastating satirist, but he’s also a terrific musician, and his band is among the best group of pure musicians you’ll find anywhere.
I am, of course, talking about “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Go ahead, laugh – that’s kind of the point. Yankovic is all about taking the piss out of pop music, and the more self-serious the artist he’s lambasting, the sillier the parody he comes up with. But make no mistake, the guy’s a deadly talented musician – just check out “Genius in France” off his last record, Poodle Hat. It’s a brilliant pastiche of Frank Zappa’s sound and style, and just as complex as anything the man himself might have foisted on his backing band. Plus, it’s funny as hell.
So yeah, “Weird Al” Yankovic will return on September 26 with a new record called Straight Outta Lynwood. You can see the cover here. Not included, because of a dispute with Atlantic Records, will be Al’s James Blunt parody “You’re Pitiful,” but you can download that for free from his site. It’s not a home run, but it is pretty funny.
I think it’s appropriate to start this week’s column with Yankovic, because the rest of it concerns Serious Artists, those guys out to Make a Statement and Do Something Meaningful. Yankovic has made a career out of poking holes in music that goes beyond its station as entertainment, but I think there’s a huge difference between the type of empty, ego-centric pop Yankovic slams, and honestly ambitious art. And while these things are all subjective, I think the three albums I have on tap this time are examples of the latter, not the former.
But let’s see, shall we?
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Ambition is a funny thing.
For many critics, all it takes is the word “ambitious” to spark a rabid, frothy rant about how music shouldn’t be pretentious and all “arty.” The truth is, though, I like ambition, especially if the artist in question has the chops to pull off an extraordinary vision. I give musicians points for even trying to accomplish something beyond the norm, and if they actually do accomplish it, well then…
Those moments are kind of what I live for.
Ace Enders, for example, is an ambitious guy. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Enders or his band, the Early November. They’re on tiny Drive-Thru Records, and their previous output has consisted of fairly average post-punk guitar rock with some sweet acoustic overtones. Their debut full-length, The Room’s Too Cold, had some good moments and some not-as-good ones, but it was overall pretty enjoyable.
But it’s the kind of thing I probably would have ignored completely and never heard, under ordinary circumstances. Enders hooked me, however, with news of his band’s second album, The Mother, the Mechanic and the Path. It’s a triple-disc affair, a two-plus-hour rock opera about dysfunctional family relations. That’s right, a triple album. The kind of thing that can either be a self-indulgent mess that goes on forever, or an artistic triumph of style, song and theme.
Even the idea of an album that can’t be contained on one or two discs excites me. I’m always interested in possibly discovering something brilliant, something that catches a wave of inspiration and explores it to its fullest. At the same time, I’m always morbidly fascinated by potential train wrecks, especially ones that reach for the stars and fall depressingly short. Even those projects, however, get credit for trying to step out of the typical, the average, and really Say Something.
The Mother, the Mechanic and the Path is somewhere in the middle, a fantastically ambitious record that ignores boundaries and really goes for broke in terms of its concept. And it’s largely successful, but its occasional missteps and backslides into clichéd territory keep it from being the masterpiece Enders obviously wants it to be. But the thing is, he’s so committed to this thing, so immersed in its possibilities, that he gets me on his side right away. I really like this album, despite its shortcomings.
The album is broken up into threes, and each disc gets its own title. (Go to the head of the class if you guessed them.) The first two are the more traditional – 11 songs each, connected by thematic threads, but not a straight plot. The Mechanic starts things off with a bang – the first three tracks are melodic rock of the highest order, especially “Decoration,” which may be one of my favorite songs in this style.
The Mechanic is the rock disc, told from the point of view of a father working hard to raise his son, while falling out with his wife. “Money in His Hand” sets the tone with a snarling guitar riff and the refrain, “It’s not the heart that makes the man, it’s the money in his hand.” The lyrics explore emotional disconnectedness and communication breakdowns, even if they do so in fairly typical ways. The music stays within well-defined boundaries, and some songs, like “The One That You Hated,” slip into tedium.
But it ends well – “The Car in 20” is a propulsive rocker with a great lead, and the graceful “Figure it Out” concludes the proceedings with sweetness. Enders has said that The Mechanic is the single album the band almost made, and while it’s pretty good, and fans of the band’s earlier material would certainly not have been disappointed with it, I’m very glad they went further.
The Mother is the quieter, more romantic record, opening with the piano piece “My Lack of Skill,” and it’s the superior group of songs. It is, naturally, from the relationship’s other perspective, and is the loving and painful response to The Mechanic’s anger. “Hair” is a world-class pop song about the lies that prop up domestic life, while “Driving South” is a lovely and difficult poem about emotional distance.
There are some missteps here, too, like the overly long “Is It My Fault,” but like The Mechanic, it rebounds by the end. Enders has an appealingly average voice, but he occasionally pushes it into more emotional terrain, as he does on “The Truth Is.” The song’s lyrics describe its music, the singer quivering and demanding more support from the ever-unfolding backing tracks. Only when the band is in at full strength does the mother feel confident enough to speak the truth – “I love you so much it hurts.”
The disc ends with “1000 Times a Day,” a romantic look back at the start of the relationship, and while Enders can’t quite bring himself to switch up the pronouns and take on the part completely, it’s a great summation of the mother’s point of view. The Mother is a superb companion record to The Mechanic, and though with a little trimming they would both have fit on one disc, I find surprisingly few of these 22 songs fit for the bin.
But wait, there’s more. The Path is easily the best and most creative of these discs, an old-fashioned rock opera told from the point of view of this family’s only child. Unlike the other two records, this one is full of dialogue that explicitly spells out the story of the album, interspersed with smaller songs and interludes that explore unfamiliar territory with surprising eloquence. It’s obvious that Enders has listened to a lot of Who albums – this is something Pete Townshend might have done in his younger years.
The album details a series of sessions between the main character, Dean, and his therapist, and maybe it’s my advancing years, but I found a lot of this dialogue trite. The story is like something out of a 20-something’s journal – my dad treated me badly, I ran away, became a father myself and now I’m making the same mistakes my dad made. It’s not like this is a subject that doesn’t deserve exploration, and for the most part Enders explores it well, but it’s the work of a young man in a young band, and it doesn’t quite speak to me. But then, it’s probably not supposed to, and I’m glad Enders got these thoughts out now, before he outgrew them.
Musically, though, The Path is terrific and unpredictable. The Townshend reference is perfect for “Runaway” and its sequel, first-person declarations of independence with furious acoustic guitar backdrops. We get blues (“You Don’t Know What It’s Like”), acoustic folk (“Never Coming Back”) and jazzy cabaret (“Guess What”), but we also get a mock-up of bad teen pop and a punked-up version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” Really. And it works. The instrumentation is wide and varied, with strings, horns and banjos all over the place.
The Path ties it all together thematically as well – many of the dialogue sessions are backed by instrumental versions of other songs on The Mechanic and The Mother, and we get a swell cello version of “Decoration” at a perfect moment. It’s obvious Enders knocked himself out on this third disc, and aside from a needlessly metaphysical conclusion, his efforts have resulted in something kind of extraordinary. It’s especially fascinating since he’s working in a genre that rewards the appearance of ambition, but never gives due to the real stuff. The Path is genuinely ambitious, and could have been embarrassing. Instead, it’s a spellbinding listen, well worth the time it obviously took to complete.
So what’s the verdict? As befitting a three-disc album, The Mother, the Mechanic and the Path is a solid triple, with bonus points for even conceiving something this grand and sweeping. Enders is out on a limb with most of this album – his open sentimentality will be slammed for its triteness, and while at times it’s a fair criticism, his work here is also boldly naked. This is the kind of record that makes or breaks careers, and despite its flaws, I’m glad to support something that takes as many musical and thematic risks as this album does. Ace Enders has me on his side, and I’m excited to see where he goes from here.
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But enough of Americans with ambition, how about those Europeans?
I credit Dr. Tony Shore a lot here, but he deserves it. It was his recommendation (passed along from Tooth and Nail’s Jim Worthen, if I’m not mistaken) that I pick up Mew’s second album, Mew and the Glass-Handed Kites. As with most of Dr. Shore’s recommendations, I resisted initially – this time I was put off by the title, the astonishingly cheesy cover art, and the few seconds of “Circuitry of the Wolf” I listened to. But when the album received a stateside release last week, I picked it up, just so I could rib Shore about his lousy taste.
I am a silly, silly man.
Mew plays an expansive, grand form of space-rock, I suppose, although I don’t know quite how to describe the dramatic, fantastically melodic stuff that fills this album. Mew is from Denmark, and maybe that explains it – I am completely ignorant of the music scene in that part of the world. But this is unlike anything you will find over here.
Glass-Handed Kites plays like a single 54-minute song, one that never seems to run out of surprising melodic shifts. Imagine a Fiery Furnaces album as played by some 1970s art-rock band with Brian Eno on keyboards, maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t stop singing “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” with its circular harmonies, or “Special,” with a chorus to die for. Most of these songs would need some more fleshing out to work on their own, but as parts of a 14-chapter whole, they work brilliantly, smaller bits like “Fox Cub” passing the baton to larger epics like “Apocalypso.”
The record ends with two lovely bits of piano-synth drama, “White Lips Kissed” and the breathtaking “Louise Louisa.” This is one of those albums that makes you feel like you’ve been somewhere when it’s done, and I’m not sure what kind of audience (besides me) there is for a hugely produced hour-long seamless epic piece, but I hope they find this record, because it’s excellent. I’m honestly not sure what I can relate this to – at various times I hear bits of Sigur Ros, Bjork and (in the voice and melodies) the Pet Shop Boys, but that could be just me. You’ll likely hear something completely different.
Also making their U.S. debut is a band I turned Dr. Shore on to: Pure Reason Revolution. They, too, have produced an album-length suite with The Dark Third, which refers to the 33 percent of our lives we spend asleep. Their sound’s a little easier to encapsulate, being a mix of Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys, primarily. But the female singer, the Rush-like riffage here and there, and the overall melodic scope of this thing defy such easy categorization.
The Dark Third glides to life with “Aeropause,” a very Floydian instrumental which segues into “Goshen’s Remains,” adding melody without sacrificing atmosphere. There are prog-like tendencies all over this thing, but mainly, PRR makes space-rock that actually gives a real sense of floating through space. “The Bright Ambassadors of Morning” is the standout, slipping from its winningly harmonized refrain to its pure rocking coda over 11 grand minutes.
PRR is a British outfit, picking up a long and somewhat proud tradition of progressive music from across the pond, and complementing it with traces of American folk and pop music. It’s one of those cases in which a band takes the literal meaning of progressive – music that takes elements from the past and makes something new of them, moving things forward. It’s something we don’t do very often over here in the U.S. of A. – recycling is more our thing, at least musically speaking.
But both PRR and Mew belong to a new wave of musicians, Americans included, eager to push themselves into new areas with challenging compositions and ambitious arrangements. From the aforementioned Fiery Furnaces to the Mars Volta to Sufjan Stevens to Tool to Pain of Salvation to Ester Drang, there’s a whole new crop of bands that expect their audience has the patience and desire to listen to complex, cohesive, lengthy suites that stretch to album length. And it’s refreshing and encouraging – the only sane response for lovers of the album in this age of iPods and single-song downloads is to make albums, ones that can’t be split up or taken apart.
In the end, this is why I love the Early November’s record, and Mew’s, and Pure Reason Revolution’s: they respect the album format, and give me something I can sink my teeth into, thematically speaking. Pretentious artists, to me, are the ones who waste my time. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are pretentious for thinking I would want to sit through two hours of their fair-to-middling California rock. But I would listen, and have listened, to TEN, PRR and Mew again and again, because there’s so much in these records. They demand more of my time, but they reward it.
Next week, Ani Difranco and Matthew Friedberger, speaking of ambitious artists.
See you in line Tuesday morning.