Strap yourselves in, folks, it’s gonna be a long one.
I usually like to give myself at least a week with any new release before I write about it. I think it’s much easier to properly assess music, and one’s own reaction to it, given time and repeated listens. But we’ve just started what promises to be the most expensive, relentless couple of new release months in a long, long time. I want to get to as many of these as I can, and that means, in order to keep my head above water, I’m going to have to form my opinions and get them out there faster than I’d normally like.
Still, I did form pretty strong impressions of all of these records the first time through, so I’m comfortable with what you’re about to read. If I do happen to change my mind in the coming weeks about any of them, I’ll be sure to let you know. For now, here’s a quick roundup of some new things I’ve bought recently. Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle. We’re off.
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I’m still not sure what to make of the Hold Steady.
I first heard them four years ago, when I picked up Boys and Girls in America on a recommendation. I enjoyed their Springsteen-but-louder sound – I actually found myself pumping my fist in the air a couple of times – but I figured they probably couldn’t keep that style going for too long. Springsteen ran out of ideas more than a decade ago, and no matter how much I liked their imitation once, if this band repeats it too often they run the risk of becoming the alt-rock Bon Jovi.
Apparently, Craig Finn and his merry band agree with me, because over their subsequent two efforts, they’ve clearly been going somewhere else. The problem is, they’re not quite there yet. Stay Postitve cranked up the amps and emphasized the band’s punk roots, and now the new Heaven is Whenever goes the opposite direction, slowing things down and veering away from their stock-in-trade anthems.
And the lack of soaring choruses simply doesn’t work. This album is front-loaded with its most obvious, insipid rockers. “The Sweet Part of the City” is (dare I say it) boring, and “Soft in the Center” isn’t much better. These are basic, three-chords-and-a-thesaurus tunes, and while Finn still has a way with a description and a turn of phrase, the music puts me to sleep. Things improve slightly with the more mellow “The Weekenders” and the down-and-dirty “The Smidge,” but this album doesn’t really get going until track five, “Rock Problems.”
It’s here that the Hold Steady brings back the old anthemic sound, and it’s still stirring. “I just can’t sympathize with your rock and roll problems,” Finn spits, then replies to himself, “Isn’t this what we wanted? Some major rock and roll problems?” Then the guitar solo (in harmony!) comes in, and all is right in the Hold Steady world. Now, I’m certainly not advocating a full-time return to their Boys and Girls sound, but here, after four fair-to-middling meanders, it works.
And somehow, it makes the following experiments more palatable. “We Can Get Together” is the album’s slowest and most sincere, and its wonderful coda gives the album its title: “Heaven is whenever we can get together, sit down on your floor and listen to your records.” There’s no chorus, but this will do. “Hurricane J” rocks like a house on fire, complete with “woah-oh” backing vocals, and “Barely Breathing” takes on a bit of a jazzy rhythm that works well. There are horns and clarinets on this one, and they slot right into the sound. But those are the good ones, all lumped together.
The album ends with a massive orchestrated epic called “A Slight Discomfort,” and it’s everything that’s good and bad about the new directions taken here. It’s like no Hold Steady song ever written, starting off drowned in reverb and ending with a wall of sound, and it’s clearly meant to be the last song to end all last songs. But for most of its 7:14, it’s pretty boring – its chorus is not sufficiently different from its verses, its connective tissue is paper-thin, and its two-chords-repeated-forever second half had me reaching for the stop button.
Finn and company are clearly trying not to be “that anthem band” any more, setting out for undiscovered countries. But if Heaven is Whenever is any indication, the big working-class singalong is what they do best. When they try other things, the results are, let’s say, less than spectacular. This album is obviously a transitional effort – you can all but see the cocoon being spun – but until they get where they’re going, I’m not convinced they’re going to make an album as good as Boys and Girls in America. I want them to change and grow, but I want them to get better at the same time, and as of this record, they’re not.
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I really like the idea of the New Pornographers.
They’re a collective of like-minded musicians, each with their own well-regarded projects, who come together once every couple of years, totally without ego, to collaborate on sweet pop songs. Neko Case has her own successful solo career going, as does Carl Newman (on a smaller scale), and Dan Bejar has both Destroyer and Swan Lake on his docket. And yet, when they join forces, they’re like a family. Well, like a family that likes each other. No one hogs the spotlight, no one saves the good songs for their own records, everyone works together in perfect harmony.
That ideal carries me through even their weaker efforts, and 2007’s Challengers was certainly weak. Slow, sluggish, nearly devoid of interesting melodies, it was a disappointing follow-up to the Pornographers’ masterpiece, Twin Cinema. Thankfully, the ship seems righted with the just-released Together, and I have to think the album title was chosen to emphasize the members’ revitalized commitment to this band. When they’re on, the Pornographers are awesome.
They’re frequently on here. The first few tracks are wonderful, especially “Crash Years,” with its smack-you-if-you’re-not-ready strings, and “Your Hands,” a pulse-pounder with a great rhythm. By this point in the record, you’ll notice that the Pornographers share vocals a lot more on this album than in the past, harmonizing with each other and even trading off lines mid-song. It’s indicative of the bond that this album celebrates.
Still and all, I don’t think this record quite rises to the level of the first three. None of these songs are lousy, or forgettable, but none of them stand up and force me to notice them either. “Up in the Dark” is probably my favorite, mainly for its killer acoustic riffing and Case’s delightful vocals on the chorus – it’s like something Yes might have once written. “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” is the prettiest New Porn song in some time (Case really shines on this one), and closer “We End Up Together” finishes things on a joyous round robin. But I don’t remember much about songs like “A Bite Out of My Bed” or “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk.”
Together is a solid little pop album, crafted with love, and sweetened with strong vocals from our three stars. (Yes, there are five other Pornographers, but come on. We’re here for Case, Newman and Bejar.) There’s nothing wrong with it at all, but now that the bond between them is strengthened, I expect great things in the future.
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I know this is cause to take away my indie cred card (once again), but I’m digging Hanson’s new single, “Thinkin’ Bout Somethin’.” It’s the first single from their fifth album, Shout it Out, and it has an appealing Jackson 5 vibe to it. The horns are all kinds of sweet, too.
I’ve liked Hanson for a while, and been impressed with their transformation into genuine soul-rock songwriters. But every time I bring them up, someone asks me about “MMM-Bop,” as if the Hanson siblings are all still pre-teens. They’re dealing with it better than I am, honestly – they seem to have embraced their tween-pop past, while at the same time remaining cooly confident in their new material. That’s a healthy attitude, but I bet they’re sick of hearing about “MMM-Bop” too.
I told you that story to tell you this one: I bet New York trio Nada Surf is just as sick of hearing about “Popular.” It must be galling that this half-spoken novelty song is still the only hit Nada Surf has ever scored, despite going on to make one excellent album after another over the last 15 years. Lucky for us, they keep soldiering on, delivering sweet guitar-pop wonders and ignoring the critics who want to drag them back into the ‘90s.
Their sixth album is another winner. Its title is a palindrome – If I Had a Hi-Fi – and it contains 12 superb covers, from sources well-known and obscure. In fact, I only knew a couple of these songs, so as far as I’m concerned, this may as well be a new album of Nada Surf tunes. That’s not to say they don’t mine some famous catalogs. The band puts a joyous spin on Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” and cranks out a rip-snorting version of the Moody Blues’ “Question.” I’m also fond of their take on Spoon’s “The Agony of Lafitte.” And most surprisingly, they do Kate Bush’s great “Love and Anger” as jangle-pop, wonderfully.
But I’d never heard the rest of these tunes, and considering the amount of work it would take to track the originals down, these versions may well be the only ones I ever experience. That’s just fine by me, because they all make wonderful Nada Surf numbers. Bill Fox’s “Electrocution” starts things off with a lovely melody – it’s kind of amazing what a good singer Matthew Caws has turned out to be – and the Dwight Twilley Band’s “You Were So Warm” could fit on any one of Nada Surf’s last three albums.
Caws sings in French for Coralie Clement’s “Bye Bye Beaute,” and in Spanish for Mercromina’s “Evolucion.” The band gets precious on instrumental closer “I Remembered What I was Going to Say,” by Caws’ sister’s band, the Silly Pillows. Throughout this record, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot are rock-solid. (Elliot’s percussion work on “Agony of Lafitte” is a fine tribute to Spoon’s original.)
I know I’ve merely described this record instead of really digging in, but there isn’t much to say. Nada Surf plays simple and simply appealing rock, and they’ve made each of these songs their own. This is another fine record from these guys, and if you haven’t caught up with them since their flannel days, you definitely should.
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And speaking of covers, we have this: a full-album run-through of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon by Oklahoma’s favorite sons, the Flaming Lips.
Actually, the full title of this thing is The Flaming Lips & Stardeath and White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, which is quite the mouthful, but tells you all you need to know. Stardeath and White Dwarfs is led by Dennis Coyne, brother of Lips main man Wayne Coyne, and they’re cut from the same cloth. What we have here is two of the weirdest bands of our time paying tribute to one of the weirdest records ever to top the Billboard charts, by one of the weirdest bands of their time. It all fits.
I’m just not sure why it exists, and it’s up to the album itself to convince me it should. I’ve heard The Dark Side of the Moon probably 400 times, and I’ve become rather sick of catching songs from it on classic rock radio through the years. Even so, the original record is an absolute masterpiece, a perfect mix of studio craft, songwork and theme. It’s awesome as it is, so why would we need another version?
Granted, this is very different. There’s an appealing looseness to this take, where the original Dark Side was almost clinically precise. The Lips do their blatty-drum psych-rock thing all over “Breathe,” slicing up those watery slide guitar lines with jagged, noisy screeches. “On the Run” is completely rewritten as a guitar piece with occasional splashes of synth color. Peaches sings the wordless vocal lines of “The Great Gig in the Sky” admirably, while the Lips play a crazy-ass loudloudLOUD groove behind her. Henry Rollins is here to speak all the background mutterings, including the closing “matter of fact it’s all dark.”
While “Money” and “Us and Them,” perhaps the most recognizable of these songs, remain largely unchanged, the bizarre instrumentation (and Wayne Coyne’s vocal distortion) add a new twist. “Us and Them,” in particular, works well here, but it’s hard to mess up that song. It’s just lovely, no matter how you do it. And Stardeath essentially recites “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” (albeit quite a bit louder), ending this album much like Floyd ended theirs.
In the end, then, this doesn’t quite justify its own existence. It’s a fun little exercise, a slightly weirder spin on an already weird piece of music, but nothing essential. That doesn’t stop it from being fun, of course, but I’d like to hear the Lips take on something that isn’t quite as well-known, and bring a lot more of their own oddness to it. When I feel like hearing The Dark Side of the Moon, I’m probably not going to reach for this version too often.
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We are rushing headlong toward the end of my Top 20 of the 2000s list. Are you excited? Settle down, soldier, here’s the next installment.
#4. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002).
It’s tempting to think of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as overrated. It got an initial burst of critical acclaim when Warner Bros. refused to release it, finally shuffling it off to subsidiary Nonesuch. Many folks, myself included, gave it that little extra bit of cachet for sticking it to the man – for an album Warner didn’t like much, they certainly spent a lot of money on it, even paying for it twice. That’s a great rock and roll story.
Another is the feud (and eventual split) between Wilco leaders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which came to a head while creating Yankee. If you’re interested in that, it’s documented in wince-inducing detail in the terrific film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. But neither of these stories are about the music on the disc, and some have suggested that the legend of this record gets more attention than its content. Let’s rectify that right now, shall we?
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album unlike any other I own. Without question, its troubled creation contributed to its haunted tone, but even if I’d never seen the movie or heard the stories, this album would still freak me out. It was recorded before September 11, 2001, but no other piece of music so effectively captures what it was like to live in a post-9/11 world, where the ground could disappear from under your feet at any second, and you were hurtling along toward an uncertain future at speeds you couldn’t control.
The Wilco boys had already established themselves as traditionalists on their dynamite first two albums, and they took aim at that notion on their third, the sloppy-yet-satisfying Summerteeth. But nothing could have prepared their audience for Yankee, the album on which they shot for the stratosphere. Remarkably, they did so without abandoning their American rock and pop roots – it’s the production, the sense in every note of something hovering over the proceedings, waiting to strike, that makes this record what it is. Songs like “War on War” are fairly straightforward, but the chiming alien piano, chilling bursts of noise, and random reverbed banjo layered on top take it somewhere else. It’s like the world is the same, but it has also changed irrevocably.
That’s not to say the songs are weak. On the contrary, melodic wonders like “Jesus Etc.” are Tweedy and Bennett at their best. But had they simply recorded these songs as a live band, this would have been merely the best Wilco album. Instead, they did everything they could to make this album sound… well, off. In places, it feels like it’s falling apart as you listen to it. Even breezy rocker “I’m the Man Who Loves You” leaves you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s beautifully made, and beautifully unnerving.
At moments here, Tweedy references events he could not have seen coming, like the bit in “Jesus Etc.” about tall buildings shaking and sad voices escaping. It’s an eerily prescient record, which only adds to its spookiness. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaves you with an unnamable, inexplicable dread, as if the band knows something of the future, and isn’t telling. It is one of the most perfectly-crafted works of the decade, a series of disconnected songs that sound like a single thought. This album ends with its sweetest and most unsettling song, “Reservations,” on which Tweedy sings about how nothing in the world makes sense, but he has one thing to cling to. It is perhaps Wilco’s most resonant moment.
It’s become clear in the ensuing years that Yankee is also the Last Great Wilco Album. After Bennett’s departure, Tweedy grew lazy, and started throwing in the weirdness just for the sake of it. On Yankee, every freaked-out moment makes sense in context, but nothing can explain or justify the 12 minutes of white noise that marred follow-up A Ghost is Born, or the total lack of compelling songwriting on Wilco’s later records. They’re still a fine band, but they’ll never again truly mean something, like they did in 2002. And Bennett’s death last year was like sealing that fate, once and for all.
It’s almost like this is the album Tweedy and company were born to make. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds like 2002 to me, while seeming timeless. More than any other album I heard, it encapsulates the wonder and dread of the first half of the 2000s – it is immediately familiar, and yet alien. It’s a world we’ve all lived in, but it’s never looked like this before. It is uncertain, unpredictable, like the moment just before the roller coaster begins its sickening descent. None of us were sure what the next day would bring, and everything we thought we knew seemed strange and distant.
That Wilco captured this unintentionally, before the world changed, is somehow miraculous. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album unlike any other, and even its creators had no idea what it would mean. That’s the best kind of magic – the accidental kind. In some ways, it’s the only kind there is, and as we rise from our beds each morning, stepping out into the unknown, all we can do is hope for it.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.