If all goes to plan, in a couple of weeks you’ll be able to hear a new podcast starring Derek Wright and yours truly at Derek’s site: www.linernotesmagazine.com. It’s the third time Derek has invited me to be a part of his regular podcast, and though I’m writing this before recording the thing, I feel it’s safe to say I expect another sharp and fun debate.
Preparing for these podcasts is an intensive thing, particularly with my work schedule. Derek will usually tell me a week or two in advance which albums he wants to review, and since he’s interested in a lot of music that usually passes me by, I have to scramble, familiarizing myself with bands I’ve never heard of and music I’ve never encountered. This time was easier, since I’d previously bought four of the six albums we talked about, but these songs are the only ones I’ve been thinking about for some time now.
Hence, I’m giving you a sneak peek this time out. Below you will find reviews of three of the six albums Derek and I plan to talk about. I’m using the column this week as a way to organize my thoughts, and come up with coherent things to say about each of these albums. If I ramble a little this time out, that’s why – I have yet to form a solid opinion about any of these records, and I’m hoping to firm those opinions up by the time I’m done here.
The podcast is scheduled to hit Derek’s site on September 9. Check it out when it’s available. In the meantime, he has plenty of solo podcasts and writings to keep you interested and entertained.
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First up is Brendan Benson, back with his fourth solo album, My Old, Familiar Friend.
You might be saying to yourself that Benson’s name sounds familiar. In addition to being a swell songwriter and artist in his own right, Benson has recently achieved some measure of fame as a member of the Raconteurs, with Jack White. Of course, everyone who works with Jack White becomes famous, but I can’t blame Benson for feeling like it’s a double-edged sword – the man deserves acclaim all on his own, and the Raconteurs’ two albums have outsold Benson’s solo records by a factor of four to one.
Friend is Benson’s first album since forming the Raconteurs, and he was quoted saying he wanted it to stand on its own merits, which is why he rejected the idea of a front-cover sticker pointing out his more famous association. Well, it looks like ATO Records won that battle, ‘cause my copy of Friend was adorned with such a sticker. While I understand how Benson feels, I’m not upset about it, because anything that gets more people to discover Benson’s brand of blissful guitar-pop is a good thing in my book.
That said, this is not Benson’s best album. (It’s hard to beat the Jason Falkner collaborations of the first two records.) But it is on par with 2005’s The Alternative to Love, and that’s definitely a high standard. It’s an album on which Benson’s gift for melody never (well, rarely) fails him, and his way with a great guitar line and a vocal hook is on ample display. If you’re a Raconteurs fan coming to Benson’s solo work for the first time, you won’t be disappointed in this.
Friend kicks off with one of its best tracks, “A Whole Lot Better.” Using Ben Folds’ rhythm section (bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsey Jamieson), Benson lays down a shimmying guitar riff with some cheesy-awesome organ on top, and spins a tale of indecision and love. The song’s narrator feels “a whole lot better when you’re not around” at song’s beginning, and changes his mind by song’s end. “I fell in love with you, and out of love with you, and back in love with you all in the same day,” Benson sings, in one of the song’s more hummable moments. This tune is a pure pop masterpiece.
“Eyes on the Horizon” is even better. Benson lays on the harmonies and electric piano for a song that’s part Todd Rundgren, part Roger Manning, with a sweet chorus and a theremin-fueled bridge. After that, the record cools off for a few slabs of ‘70s pop balladry. “Garbage Day” is based around the kind of silly-yet-satisfying line you might come up with at three in the morning, all bleary-eyed: “If she throws her heart away, I’ll be there on garbage day.” But it works, because the song is so sweet, Motown strings and all.
Benson falls down on “Feel Like Taking You Home,” an overly repetitive burst of paranoia and libido. But he quickly regains his footing, and brings the amped-up guitars for the album’s second half. After the delicate “You Make a Fool Out of Me,” the record explodes – “Poised and Ready” rocks like a house on fire, and both “Don’t Wanna Talk” and “Misery” rank with Benson’s best, and sound the most like his first two albums. These more upbeat tunes don’t have the complexity of the album’s first half, but their sheer energy carries them.
Only “Lesson Learned” drops the tempo, but album closer “Borrow” picks it right back up. In a way, My Old, Familiar Friend is like two little albums in one, the first a chamber-pop studio extravaganza and the second a more live-sounding rock record. But they’re both great, and as a whole, Friend holds up very well. I’m still not sure why Jack White picked him to collaborate with, but as long as Benson keeps putting out solo material this good, I’m glad he’s got that Raconteurs spotlight shining on him.
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Fair warning: I’m going to discuss Patrick Wolf’s new album The Bachelor now, and I may end up overusing the word “ridiculous.” But it’s the most fitting word I can think of. The Bachelor is the most ridiculous album of 2009. It’s also pretty awesome, if you can stifle your giggles long enough to appreciate what Wolf’s done here.
Let’s back up. Wolf is an English songwriter too idiosyncratic to be in a band. He’s had three previous albums, each one different from the last. His third, The Magic Position, struck a more pop vein, with hints of disco and techno swirled in there as well. It was the first one I heard, and probably swayed my opinion of his more oblique earlier works. Wolf has always had a touch of the dramatic about him, like Bowie with the heart of a theater kid. (His voice is reminiscent of Bowie’s as well.)
Last year, he announced plans for a double album called Battle, and joined up with Bandstocks to help fund it. Bandstocks works on the Marillion method – fans can contribute $20 towards the production of the album, and get their names listed in the liner notes. After the relatively high profile The Magic Position afforded him, fans lined up. But then Wolf decided to split the double record in two, releasing The Bachelor this year and The Conqueror next.
Listening to part one, it’s clear that Wolf felt liberated and emboldened by the ample recording budget his fans gave him. He used it to turn out something that goes so far beyond anything he’s ever done that it’s… well, ridiculous.
The Bachelor is a collection of hero’s-journey ballads, all of them Extremely Serious, in the same way that Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur” was serious. Wolf lavishes string sections and gospel choirs and woodwinds and pianos and crazy-awesome production on these songs, and then, as if they’re not melodramatic enough, he sings them as if he’s performing in Cats, betraying no sense that he knows this thing is nuts. Oh, and amidst all that, there’s actress Tilda Swinton, giving us occasional monologues as The Voice of Hope. Seriously. Oh, so seriously.
Despite its apparent thematic thread, this album is all over the place, both musically and lyrically. (It also suffers from lousy mastering, with gaps appearing where segues should be, which doesn’t help.) “Hard Times” is a goth-rock gallop, Wolf pulling a convincing Brian Ferry while violins poke through the electronic noise. The title track is an Irish lament, a duet with fiddler Eliza Carthy, while “The Vulture” pulls in club guru Alec Empire for an ‘80s-style four-on-the-floor stomp.
Through all of this, the trick is to keep from laughing. This is clearly a very personal record for Wolf, and he’s given it his all. When he screams “WAKE UP!” on “Count of Casualty,” he means it – the song is an emotional rail against war and unnecessary death. So even though your first instinct will be to chuckle, hold that in. Likewise the industrial inanity of “Battle,” with its chugging guitars and idiotic lyrics: “Battle the conservative, battle for your, battle the homophobe, but battle without war,” Wolf spits, as backing vocalists repeat the song’s title behind him. You may not be able to contain your giggles at this one, but as it’s sequenced near the end, you should be okay.
The Bachelor does contain its share of unintentionally funny moments (“Your appetiiiiite, so dangeroooous”), but also plenty of true beauty. “Damaris” feels like a love story starring a god, and it starts small, but builds in intensity, until a choir is urging you to “rise up, rise up.” It’s pretty, in an ‘80s sci-fi soundtrack kind of way. “Who Will” is practically a hymn, sung with restraint over a hushed organ. And “Blackdown” is one of those center-stage-with-the-spotlight-on piano ballads, complete with solo dance section, and it leads into the glorious “The Sun is Often Out.” That one’s all strings, choir and Patrick, and it’s genuinely moving.
That is, if you’re willing to scale these dramatic heights with him. I can’t help but wonder what the people who paid in advance for this insane flight of fancy think of it, particularly if they came aboard with The Magic Position. More than any album this year, The Bachelor requires you to buy into its grand conceits. If you don’t, you probably won’t make it all the way through these 53 minutes, and I’d be willing to bet The Conqueror will be just as difficult for you. But nutty as it is, The Bachelor is a compelling and individualistic journey from a guy who will, hopefully, never realize how completely ridiculous he is.
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I have saved the best for last.
I will admit it: I bought Hospice, the debut album from the Antlers, because Pitchfork told me to. Their review promised me chiming guitars and anthemic songs that reach for the rafters, and I can never get too many of those. Plus, I loved the simple, iconic cover art. I paid my money and I took my chance.
But what I got was far beyond anything I could have expected.
The Antlers is the vehicle for singer/songwriter Peter Silberman, and Hospice began life as a solo project. In a way, it still sounds like one. This is one of the most emotionally devastating records I’ve heard in years, a single-minded exploration of one person’s slow, agonizing death, and its effect on Silberman. Whether anything on Hospice is true is beside the point. It feels true, even if what we’re listening to is a sonic novel.
And it is a novel, in that the entire thing holds together as one piece of music, reaching toward one goal. Pitchfork was wrong – there are very few chiming guitars here, and only one song (“Sylvia”) that aims for the sky. Most of Hospice is simple and sad and pretty, with reverent pianos and gently plucked acoustic guitars making up much of the sound. Silberman’s voice has hints of Jeff Buckley, in its seemingly endless reach, but he uses it most often to quietly observe, not hammer everything home.
Hospice displays an unwavering commitment to telling its story, even if that means including long stretches of quivering mood music. There will be a tendency among some to skip this and head for the “real” songs, but those people will be missing out – Hospice works best, and in fact only works at all, as a 51-minute piece. In its construction, it reminds me of Marillion’s Brave, with everything flowing into everything else, heading for an inevitable, sad and yet uplifting conclusion.
Hospice starts with a prelude, a slow piano crawl over wavering noise, and it sets the tone. The accompanying text gives you the background: our narrator is a hospital worker, and a woman named Sylvia has been sent there to die. She has a terminal disease, and as our narrator meets her in the second track, “Kettering,” he is told there is no saving her. In the song that shares her name, the only obvious single here, Silberling pleads with Sylvia to “let me do my job” as he tries to check her temperature. And in the final verse, he confides that at night, when Sylvia is sleeping, he talks to her, telling her everything about his life.
The seven-minute “Atrophy” is next, and this is the one most will skip. I think it’s amazing. The first three minutes are a quiet, harrowing confessional, Silberman concluding, “I’d happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself.” Then the music turns to clouds, symbolizing the sound of Sylvia’s body deteriorating. The song ends with a dark acoustic coda, Silberman whispering, “Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this, she’s screaming, expiring, and I’m her only witness…”
“Bear” is the light between poles of darkness, a tale of Sylvia’s childhood set to bouncing guitars and pianos. But when Sylvia finally speaks, on the terrifying “Thirteen,” it’s not of better days. “Pull me out, pull me out, can’t you stop all this from happening,” she pleads, and guest Sharon Van Etten’s voice is chilling. Sylvia dies in “Two,” which is subtitled, “I Would Have Saved Her If I Could.” It’s a nimble acoustic piece in which our narrator admits relief amidst the sadness.
These songs, it must be said, are not extraordinary things on their own. They are merely competently constructed – “Two” is very simple, repeating its one melody line again and again for five minutes. But it’s the narrative force that makes them undeniable. The flood of words that makes up “Two” perfectly mirrors the rush of thoughts and emotions it describes, and it’s perfect in its place on the album. Its successor, “Shiva,” is delicate and dark, its lyrics fully exploring the fantasy of “Atrophy,” Silberman taking Sylvia’s place in the hospital. By itself, it is slight and forgettable. In its place on Hospice, it is amazing.
The album’s centerpiece is near its end – the eight-minute “Wake,” in which our narrator decides it is still worth letting people in. He may be damaged by Sylvia’s death, and he is still haunted by it, but he won’t let it rule him. “Some patients can’t be saved, but that burden’s not on you,” Silberman sings, then launches into a repeated refrain: “Don’t let anyone tell you you deserve that.” The song begins quietly, but ends majestically.
But the album doesn’t end there. “Epilogue” is a sparse acoustic piece, set to the tune of “Bear,” our narrator remembering Sylvia in his nightmares. He wakes up, imagining he is still in the hospital, sharing Sylvia’s bed as she sleeps, and it terrifies him. In fact, the last line of the lyric sheet is, “I’m too terrified to speak.” I was initially put off by the last song, coming on the heels of the transcendental “Wake,” but I have come to love it. It’s like the final seconds of The Graduate, when the camera holds for too long on our characters as they turn from joy to fear and uncertainty. Epiphanies and breakthroughs don’t last forever, and our narrator will forever be haunted by his experience.
If all this seems too depressing for you, I can understand that. If someone had suggested to me that perhaps I would like to spend 51 minutes listening to a story about someone dying painfully, I probably would feel the same way. But Hospice is just breathtaking stuff, a sad and spectacular novel in song that remains riveting from first note to last. The first time through, I was stunned, and the second, I was moved to tears.
In a way, I hope the Antlers never make another album, because this singular achievement feels like a one-off, not a debut. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything this heartfelt and emotionally devastating in quite some time. I bought Hospice expecting to like it and file it away, but I can’t stop listening to it. It may not be one of the best albums of the year, but it is certainly one of the most moving. And in many ways, that’s much more important.
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Next week, some Owl City, some David Mead, and maybe some Mew. Don’t forget to check out Derek Wright’s website. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com, and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.