I’m not really sure where 2010 went. But I’ve just bought my tickets back home for the holidays, the temperature is threatening to dip below 35 degrees, and the torrent of great new records has slowed to a trickle. So we must be at the end of the year.
Here’s a complete list of the new albums I’m excited about for the remainder of 2010: Elvis Costello’s National Ransom, Weezer’s Death to False Metal, Bleu’s Four, Cee-Lo Green’s The Ladykiller, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And that’d be it. I’m buying the official release of Mr. Mister’s Pull, and re-releases from Jimi Hendrix and the Church, and I may check out the new My Chemical Romance, because that “Na Na Na” song gets stuck in my head. But after Kanye on November 23, it’s a long, dark tunnel of emptiness until Cake’s new one, Showroom of Compassion, on January 11.
There is one bright light, however. Sometime in December, the Violet Burning is set to release a three-CD set of 33 new songs. I can only go by the videos posted to www.thevioletburning.com, but it seems to be called The Story of Our Lives, and subdivided into three parts: Liebe Uber Alles, Black as Death and The Fantastic Machine. As part of my pre-order, I got to hear rough mixes of six of the new songs, and they’re pretty good, even in this early form.
Unfortunately, it’s probably going to come out too late to make my top 10 list. And if it comes out before January 1, 2011, it’s ineligible for next year’s list. Oh, deadlines, you make my life so complicated. I promise, whenever this thing hits, I’ll do an extensive review of it. The Violet Burning is a criminally undervalued band, and the fact that they even have the chutzpah to create and release a 33-song box set independently is worth praising. If this is as good as their last record, Drop-Dead, the music will be worth fawning over, too.
We shall see. For now, let’s start talking about the final releases of 2010.
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So, for those of you keeping score in the Great Barenaked Ladies Breakup Wars, the score is now Steven Page one, BNL zero.
I honestly didn’t think that would be the case. In breakups like these, where one person walks away from four, my money’s always on the band left behind. In general, all they have to do is pick a new singer and keep on keeping on, and in BNL’s case, they already have Ed Robertson, who sang about half the songs in their catalog anyway. The Ladies will be fine, I thought. Steven Page is going to have some trouble, and will probably be at the mercy of whatever collaborators he chooses.
And then came All in Good Time, the first post-breakup Ladies album, and lo, it was terrible. Maudlin, self-serious, boring, and seemingly obsessed with striking out at Page, it was the lowest point of a long, slow decline. Even the cover photos were depressing, all black and white, their eyes full of melodramatic pain. I liked probably three out of the 14 songs, and finger-pointing diatribes like “You Run Away” and “Golden Boy” got old really quickly.
Those of you dreading the same he-said he-said lameness from Page’s solo debut are in for a treat. The wittily-titled Page One is splendid – Page deftly avoids all the traps his former band fell into, crafting a diverse, delightful romp of a record that never once mentions his old band, and remembers to bring the fun. You remember the Barenaked Ladies at their peak, right? They were fun. This album is like that, but with fewer songs about chimpanzees.
All right, this is actually a remarkably mature pop record, but not in that stuffy, all-work-and-no-play kind of way. Lyrically it takes on life and love and crazy sex and hellish self-loathing, but it does so with wit and verve. The protagonist of “Entourage,” for example, is so empty inside he’s willing to sleep with any famous person, and whoever is hanging around that famous person, and he does so with a cruelty that’s almost art. But the song is joyous, celebrating that emptiness. When Page smirks “Now we’re through with morality, can I sleep with your wife,” it’s chillingly awesome.
The string quartet wonder “All the Young Monogamists” is a terrific piece of work, detailing an illicit relationship between two people who know better than to believe in fidelity as a way of life: “Some of them will just grow tired, some of them will flee, some of them will sleep around, just like you and me.” It ends with beautiful blinders on: “But here we are, monogamists, a-swearing it will last, I know it seems ridiculous considering our pasts, but I will always be true to you…”
“She’s Trying to Save Me” is about the futility of attempting to fix your mate like you fix your house. “Over Joy” is about watching a relationship collapse and being too depressed to stop it. Closer “The Chorus Girl” has a brilliant lyric – whenever Page says the title phrase, he’s talking about the chorus of his own song, as in, “Wait until you hear the chorus, girl.” The song’s about waiting forever for something that never comes, and the beauty is, there is no chorus. “All night alone with my microphone, I never come close to the chorus, girl…”
Given all that, you might think the album is as fun as a term paper, but you’d be wrong. Every song here is a pop gem, and the great thing is, most of them are in very different styles. Single “Indecision” is a classic 1970s-style power pop tune, “Clifton Springs” is a waltz, the aforementioned “Entourage” is an electro-flavored dark dance-a-thon, “Over Joy” sounds like Jeff Lynne, and the great “Leave Her Alone” is a send-up of lounge music. Every song is lushly produced and polished by Page and John Fields, who played most of the instruments themselves. But it doesn’t sound canned. This record’s alive, in ways the BNL album simply isn’t.
This is how you do it. While his old band wallowed in their feelings of betrayal, Steven Page just got on with making great music again. Page One is a triumph, proof that Page is going to be just fine on his own. I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I do (or even at all), so the fact that this record is so well-made, so vibrant, and above all, so much fun is a welcome surprise.
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While we’re on the subject of solo albums…
As far as I know, the Scottish brit-pop quartet Travis is still a going concern. Their last album, Ode to J. Smith, came out in 2008, but they’ve been working on new music since then. So Wreckorder, the debut project from singer Fran Healy, isn’t really an attempt to launch a solo career. Given that, and given the fact that the album sounds exactly like Healy’s work with Travis, one has to ask: what is this for?
And I guess it’s just here to give us another 30 minutes of sweet, echo-laden acoustic pop. Wreckorder is a nice little record, one that could have come out under the Travis name without skipping a beat. (This would have been one of the ones with the band on the cover, photographed from far away. Fans know what I’m talking about.) Healy’s soaring voice is in fine form, his minor-key melodies as lovely as always. “Anything,” the second track, is even something of a Healy classic, its spooky cello melody standing out from the crowd.
Healy pulls in a couple of big-name guest stars, but the record doesn’t really call attention to them. Neko Case graces “Sing Me to Sleep” with her wonderful voice, and the pair intertwines beautifully. And Paul McCartney plays the unobtrusive bass on “As It Comes,” I guess to remind everyone that he used to play bass full time. You’d never know it’s him just by listening. Most of this album, however, is Healy himself, and he acquits himself as a writer and multi-instrumentalist well.
I don’t want this to sound like I don’t enjoy Wreckorder. It’s quite a good little record. I just don’t understand its reason for existing. Healy does nothing here we haven’t heard him do before, and doesn’t lay the groundwork for anything new. It sounds like the product of an experiment: can Fran Healy make a Travis album all by himself? The answer is yes, although I’m not absolutely sure why he tried. Don’t let my confusion keep you from enjoying this, though. When I shut my brain off and just listen, I quite like it.
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Rounding off our trio of solo debuts is Mark Chadwick, lead singer of the Levellers.
Chadwick is easily the least well-known of the three artists on tap this week, but his album is the one I was most interested to hear. The Levellers are an English fiddle-rock outfit, like the Waterboys with a punk edge. I’ve been into them since high school, thanks to my good friend Chris L’Etoile. Two years ago, they released Letters From the Underground, a sustained burst of flailing anger that stands as one of their best records. They’d rediscovered their fire, and their political edge.
So of course, Chadwick’s album, All the Pieces, runs the other direction. It’s almost entirely performed on acoustic guitar, its tempos range from slow to shambling, and without a band around him, Chadwick is frustratingly boring. This is an album content to shuffle back and forth in place, never really hitting on anything special. I like “Satellite” somewhat, and the time-signature shifts in “Indians” and “Elephant Fayre” are interesting. But I can’t remember much else about this album. Which is a shame, really, because Chadwick’s voice is endlessly appealing, and I want to like the songs he’s singing.
This is another solo album that isn’t meant to launch a career. In every way, this is a side project, and it plays like it’s made up of Levellers reject songs. It feels like something Chadwick just had to get out of his system, which is fine, but means I won’t be pulling this off the shelf to play it too often. My fervent hope, now that Chadwick’s done with All the Pieces, is that the Levellers get back into the studio and make the exact opposite of this record.
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Downer ending, sorry about that. Next week, we’ve got Elvis Costello, Bleu and Weezer hitting stores, and what I’ve heard of all three has been terrific. After that, we’re gonna play catch-up as we wind things down for 2010. 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.