First things first: has everyone heard the new Sufjan Stevens songs?
I’ve looked ahead to the end of the year (hard to believe we’re in September already), and there are only two upcoming albums I’m out-of-my-skin excited for. The first is Lonely Avenue, by Ben Folds with novelist Nick Hornby, and that’s out on September 28. The second is The Age of Adz, by Sufjan Stevens, out October 12.
Even had I not heard a note of it, I’d still be fascinated by The Age of Adz, Sufjan’s official follow-up to my favorite album of the last decade, Illinois. But now that I have heard where he’s going with this, I’m practically shaking with anticipation. The two songs he’s released from this record are called “Too Much” and “I Walked,” and both are available on his Bandcamp site. Those who loved the quirky, warm, organic music Stevens made on Michigan and Illinois are in for a shock.
Stevens has embraced electronics here, but he’s done it in a way I’ve never heard. “Too Much” is my favorite of the two. It’s nearly seven minutes long, it’s in 7/4 time, and for the first three and a half minutes, there are no instruments that are not electronic. Blipping synths construct a leaning tower of interlocking parts while computer drums whirr and explode in the background. Stevens’ voice is still fragile and lovely, and it works really well in this setting.
But halfway through, the song erupts – the strings and horns come in, and this song does something I’ve been waiting for since 1997: it takes the technorchestral ball dropped by Bjork’s Homogenic and runs with it. I praised Stevens for not taking some radical and ill-advised leap with All Delighted People, his first album of the year, but this… this is a massive step forward, and I’m eating my words. It may be too much to hope for, but it sounds like one of our most ambitious and remarkable musicians has found new ground to explore, and has made a strange and beautiful masterpiece. We’ll see.
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I tried an interesting experiment this week, and I think it went well.
I got my copy of Weezer’s new album, Hurley, on Friday, and decided to live-tweet my first impressions of it. It was a surprising amount of fun, although my biggest mistake was doing it on the spur of the moment, on a night when most people weren’t home. I’ve had several people tell me they liked the idea, and wished they could have taken part. So I’m definitely going to do it again, most likely with the two records mentioned above, and I’ll give everyone plenty of advance warning. If you want to follow along and jump in, I’m at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
I like having those first impressions out there, though, because they often contrast with the more considered opinions that make their way into this column. When it came time to officially review Hurley, I found I’d changed my mind on a few of the songs, and on the overall tone of the record. One way or another, though, I think those of us who review music on a regular basis should get on our knees and thank Rivers Cuomo for being so damn interesting.
Too often, I’ll sit down to write about an album and find I have nothing to say about it, other than, “Here’s 10 songs I sort of like.” That never happens with Weezer, because Cuomo cannily gives us so many hooks to hang a review on. Observe: Weezer’s eighth album is called Hurley, and its cover is just a big picture of actor Jorge Garcia, who portrayed Hugo “Hurley” Reyes on Lost. It’s an album of collaborations, featuring songs co-written by Ryan Adams, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, Linda Perry, and Mac Davis, who penned “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto” for Elvis Presley. And it features vocal contributions by Johnny Knoxville, Wee-Man and Steve-O, and a mandolin part played by Michael Cera.
See? You’re already fascinated, right? I haven’t even gotten to the part where Weezer ditched Geffen Records for punk stalwarts Epitaph (Really? Epitaph??), or the bit where Rivers wrote a song called “Where’s My Sex?” that turns out to be about socks. You haven’t listened to a single song and already I’d bet this album has more going for it, in terms of curiosity, than anything else you’ve heard this year. That’s the sign of a savvy marketing mind. Rivers knows you want to watch him self-destruct, to walk that tightrope between brilliant and idiotic, and he does it very well.
But at the end of the day, Hurley is 10 songs on a piece of plastic, and they have to be good, or all the other stuff means nothing. Are they? Well, some of them are.
Cuomo is billing Hurley as a return to the more honest and poignant songwriting of his Pinkerton days. He does this a lot, and it’s never true. Hurley is certainly a deeper record than last year’s Raditude, which I loved for its devil-may-care catchiness and goofy sense of fun. When Cuomo gets all sentimental and introspective, his work starts to suffer – see Make Believe and the worst parts of the Red Album. But Hurley largely avoids this trap. The majority of its songs are slam-bang pop tunes with memorable choruses and a sense of energy that, before Raditude, had been missing for a long time.
This is definitely a rawer and less polished effort. The guitars buzz, the analog keyboards slice through the din, and Cuomo sings like his life depends on it. That vitality saves even the worst offenders on Hurley, and there are several. I’m guessing that part of that newfound energy comes from Cuomo’s collaborations this time. Only two of these songs are solo Cuomo creations. On the others, he worked with a wide selection of songwriters – pro hit-makers like Perry and Desmond Child and Greg Wells, and also left-field artists like Adams, Wilson and No Doubt’s Tony Kanal.
This potpourri makes for a pretty diverse album, despite the overall rock vibe. The Dan Wilson track, “Ruling Me,” is my favorite, a spunky, catchy, classic Weezer tune. It’s simple, but you’ll remember it. Similarly, “Hang On,” co-written by Rick Nowels (he’s worked with Madonna and Jewel and Nelly Furtado), is a big, wonderful pop song, with some Levellers-esque touches. (Here’s Cera with his mandolin, and also Tony Berg with his hurdy-gurdy.)
These two tracks are probably the closest to what you expect from Weezer these days. But listen to Cuomo’s collaboration with Ryan Adams, “Run Away.” It starts with a muffled piano melody, then morphs into a mid-tempo piece that wouldn’t have been out of place on Adams’ Love is Hell album. Closer “Time Flies” pulls off a similar trick. This is the one co-written by Mac Davis, and it’s an acoustic stomp recorded cheaply, like an old folk tune. The bass drum distorts, the guitar strings buzz, and Cuomo’s voice drops in and out. Yet somehow, it really works.
The biggest problem, as always, is Cuomo’s lyrics. Somewhere around Make Believe, he decided to forego any complexity in his words, and since then, they’ve all been at around a fifth grade level. Here’s a quick test for you. At one point in “Ruling Me,” Cuomo sings, “We first met in the lunchroom, my ocular nerve went, Pop! Zoom!” If you think this is funny and charming, you’ll be okay with most of Hurley. I think it walks that clever/stupid line David St. Hubbins was talking about. If you think that lyric is retarded, you probably should stay away from “Smart Girls.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: “Where did all these smart girls come from? Someone tell me how to get me some!”
There’s no song here that better illustrates Rivers Cuomo’s tumble into inanity than “Where’s My Sex?” It’s an entire song inspired by his young daughter’s inability to say the word “socks,” and it wastes its kickass riff with lyrics like this: “I can’t go outside without my sex, it’s cold outside and my toes get wet…” I’m sure Cuomo giggled his way through this in the studio, but it’s just jaw-droppingly lame, especially on repeat listens.
But I have to say, like Raditude, this one definitely invites those repeat listens. It would be easy to think Cuomo is kidding, or wasting his potential, but I think he’s at that stage in his life where he just wants to have fun. Hurley finds him sharing that Weezer joy with as many people as he can – the whole Jackass crew shouts along to first single “Memories,” and appears in the video – and the resulting record, while it stumbles here and there, is a loose and limber ball of fun. On first listen, I liked about half of it, but after a few spins, I think Hurley is a perfectly imperfect modern Weezer record.
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While preparing to review the new self-titled album from Interpol, I went back and listened to their whole catalog. And I came to a startling conclusion, one I’m sure very few others share: their celebrated debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, is the worst Interpol album.
It’s muddy, it’s directionless, and it contains only a couple of songs. Not just good songs, but songs. Paul Banks sounds unmoored, given no melodies to work with, and the band in general sounds uninspired. For some reason, though, this album is considrerd the benchmark for Interpol, the height they never hit again. I don’t get it. I think they immediately improved, vastly, with Antics, and while Our Love to Admire isn’t quite as good, it does get more ambitious, and parts of it work very well. The accepted wisdom is that Bright Lights is the pinnacle, but I think even Banks’ solo album as Julian Plenti is better.
All that is my way of saying that my view on Interpol, the band’s return to shapeless, vibe-y semi-songs, is probably not going to jibe with the majority. Even so, I like it more than Bright Lights, still the winner and world champion worst Interpol record. This is the band’s first for Matador since their debut, and their last album with bassist Carlos Dengler, who left shortly after its completion. Perhaps it’s subconscious, but the bass work is right up front in the mix, and sounds excellent. The overall sound is crisp and clear, and when these songs work, they sound great.
Unfortunately, that’s not too often. Opener “Success” is the template, a mid-tempo dirge that stays in the same little box for its entire running time. With minor exceptions, these songs are a conscious return to the “classic” Interpol style – somewhat creepy, atmospheric, intertwining snaky guitar lines with agile bass runs, and few memorable melodies. Not only are they not doing anything new here, they’ve backslid, trying to erase the progress of the last two records. Sonically, that’s not the case – there are keyboards all over this thing, and big, big walls of sound. But when it comes to songwriting, they’re back where they started.
Only one of these songs is truly great, and you’ve probably already heard it. “Barricade” begins in a nondescript way, with a repeated guitar figure and a thumping bass line, but when it slams into the chorus, it’s one of those involuntary-fist-pump moments. Banks shifts that inimitable tenor into overdrive, and the band follows suit. “Barricade” is a tour de force, one of Interpol’s finest, which makes the more solemn second half all the more dispiriting. The final two songs just peter out, not making any impression at all.
As I said, though, my opinion probably isn’t going to match up with the majority. If you still think Turn On the Bright Lights is the brass ring for which Interpol should be reaching, you may like the self-titled album more than I did. Me, I liked hearing them write compelling choruses, songs with bite, songs with left turns and energy and verve. There are precious few of those on Interpol, and I think that’s a shame.
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Who woulda thunk it – Robert Plant has nicely transitioned into a dignified elder statesman.
Yes, the man who once yelped “squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg” is now, at age 62, a calmer, almost regal interpreter of rock’s long history. It’s been an interesting thing to watch. Plant garnered some well-deserved respect with Raising Sand, his album of duets with Alison Krauss, and now seems determined to surround himself with collaborators who will treat his worn, yet still supple voice with an earthy respect.
So here’s Band of Joy, Plant’s ninth solo album, and he’s hooked up with venerated songwriter and Nashville legend Buddy Miller. You can’t get more earthy and respectful than that. Miller’s beautiful guitar is all over this album, and Plant’s voice matches it perfectly. You’d expect this pair to dig up some traditional songs and play them with dusty honesty, and they do – “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Some Day” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” are etched into the pages of history, and Plant and Miller do them gorgeous justice.
But they take on some surprises here as well – songs by Los Lobos (“Angel Dance”), Richard Thompson (“House of Cards”) and the late, great Townes Van Zandt (“Harm’s Swift Way”). Every one is performed with reverence. Perhaps the biggest shock comes in the form of two songs from Low’s The Great Destroyer, “Silver Rider” and “Monkey.” They certainly stand out here amidst the folk songs and pretty laments, but they’re marvelous. “Silver Rider,” particularly, is a beautiful ocean of rippling guitar, over which Plant sings like an angel.
With all that, I think my favorite thing here is the stomping take on “You Can’t Buy My Love,” written by Bobby and Billy Babineaux and popularized by Barbara Lynn in 1965. Buddy Miller just tears the roof off, ripping through one snorting lead line after another. And yet, when Plant and Miller take it down, and tackle more ethereal pieces, the results are just as striking. “Harm’s Swift Way” is lovely, all acoustics and bendy pedal steels, and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a far cry from the original (and Michael Roe’s recent version), riding a minor-key banjo and a cavernous bass drum into folksy bliss.
There’s just nothing bad about Band of Joy. It’s taken Robert Plant a long time to get to the point where a record like this sounds authentic coming from him, but it does. He’s taken his voice down many a dusty road, and each of those experiences has shaped it into the fine, weathered instrument it is today. He’s ready for these songs now, in a way he wouldn’t have been 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. He’s earned the respect due him with Band of Joy, and I hope he stays on this path for a long time to come.
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Next week, some things I didn’t get to this week, like the Walkmen, the Vaselines and Brandon Flowers, along with some new stuff, like Serj Tankian. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.