Dearly Beloved
In Which We Stretch a Lame Narrative Device to its Limit

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to stretch a wedding-themed narrative device to its stupid limits. We’re all here, so shall we begin? The sooner we start, the sooner we get this obviously lame idea over with. Here, then, are something old, something new, something borrowed, and something… well, you’ll see:

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Something Old

For a guy who’s been around forever, Richard Thompson doesn’t get a lot of respect. Even from me, apparently – I’ve started this review by, in effect, calling him old.

But hell, Thompson is in his fourth decade as a recording artist, beginning with Fairport Convention in the 1960s, then with his ex-wife Linda, and finally on his own. His roots are in English folk music, but in the decades since striking out as a solo artist, Thompson has displayed an amazing talent for blazing electric guitar. For a while there, every note he played sounded like a smirking middle finger to Eric Clapton and those who think he’s the best of the middle-aged British guitarists. Just listen to the fiery solo that concludes “Hard on Me,” from 1999’s Mock Tudor, for a sterling example of what I’m talking about.

But at heart, he’s never really altered what he does – he tells stories in song, with his rich, resonant voice, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call pretty much everything he’s ever done folk music. Thompson has been consistent for so long that it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever expand his audience much further. Like Bruce Cockburn, Thompson has probably gone as far as he’s going to go, from an industry standpoint, which explains why Capitol Records dropped him in 2001 after more than 12 years of releasing his records. He’s on tiny Cooking Vinyl now, and barring a late-in-life Johnny Cash-style renaissance, he’ll probably stay beneath the radar for the rest of his life.

The news is not all bad, though, because the small label and the lack of commercial pressure has brought out the best in Thompson. It’s doubtful that Capitol would have even released Front Parlour Ballads, his new album – at the very least, they would have asked for a fuller production sound and a radio single, not realizing that the very sparseness of this record is what makes it special. Ballads is almost entirely acoustic, the first time Thompson has unplugged for an entire set of songs since the second disc of You? Me? Us? in 1996. It was recorded in his home studio, and it features only one other musician, percussionist Debra Dobkin.

It’s precisely that intimate, ramshackle quality that sets this record above most of his Capitol output. For starters, the man has a great voice, one that never sat too comfortably atop some of the poppier production of his ‘80s albums. Here it’s the focus, and it allows Thompson the performer to come out. He leads you through his tales, giving you insight with his inflections, and striking at the heart with songs like “Cressida.”

His ability to put the listener in the skins of his characters is a double-edged sword, as always, because Thompson’s songs are often bitter and disturbing. Ballads contains a song about blackmail and adultery (“Should I Betray”), one about how awful it must have been to be on a slave ship (“Row, Boys, Row”), and several about cruel women and the morons who love them. It closes with “When We Were Boys at School,” which concerns the birth of a monster: “All he ever wanted to do was harm, all he ever wanted to be was cruel, at 12 years old Fate marked his brow, and he said, ‘I have a mission now’…” It’s chilling.

There’s very little to conceal the darkness this time – only two songs contain electric guitar, and most of the rest are just Thompson and his acoustic. Such sparseness makes for an extremely effective downbeat record, but a downbeat one nonetheless. Thompson’s fans, however, are used to his fascination with the underbelly of human nature, and will lap this right up. The acoustic work is excellent, the melodies are haunting, and Thompson’s voice is as powerful as ever. Front Parlour Ballads is a superb folk album, the most mesmerizing, captivating work Thompson has released in ages, and though there’s very little light within its black heart, its surface is beautiful and prickly.

And though I’d like to hear Thompson pick up an electric again, I’m glad he’s in a position now to make and release records like this one. He sounds reinvigorated, invested in these songs, and I can’t help but think that it’s down to the nature of the recording, and the freedom from interference it represents. This is how he wants to sound, not how Mitchell Froom and Capitol Records want him to sound, and you can hear it in his voice and his fretwork. It would be a stretch to call this record joyous, but as bitter as the songs are, their author sounds contented, even thrilled, to be playing them. With nearly 40 years of such songs behind him, that’s saying something.

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Something New

This year has been a good one for surprising new discoveries. There’s Sufjan Stevens, of course, whose Illinois continues to make the rest of the year’s music sound uninspired, but he’s been around a while, and it’s only my ignorance that kept me from praising him earlier. But 2005 has been full of new bands that deliver, like the Dissociatives, the Click Five (more on them next week), Mute Math and Waking Ashland. And here’s another one to add to the list: Marjorie Fair, whose debut album Self-Help Serenade is a dreamy triumph.

Though you’ll probably find Marjorie Fair’s album filed under F at your local record store, if you find it at all, it turns out that the name is a cover for singer/songwriter Evan Slamka. (Hey, it’s a better pseudonym than Badly Drawn Boy…) I’m not sure how he did it, but Slamka has assembled quite the cast of musicians to help him out with his debut. It’s produced by Rob Schnapf, who did Elliott Smith’s later records (and, coincidentally, Richard Thompson’s Mock Tudor), and it features contributions by Jon Brion, Patrick Warren, Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Joey Waronker, Roger Manning, Kim Bullard – basically a who’s who of behind-the-scenes pop talent.

With all those names aboard, you might expect old-timey chamber pop, but Slamka has other ideas. Self-Help Serenade is a slow collection of atmospheric guitar-ballads with rich, simple, anthemic choruses. Nearly every song is set to a lazy simmer, which lets the waves of sweet, ringing guitars and rolling backing vocals expand them like sponges. In many ways, Marjorie Fair is reminiscent of Elbow, another band that uses production to explode their small, slow-moving songs, but Slamka doesn’t have the same hangdog sense as Guy Garvey. His world is much brighter.

Still, there’s nothing special about Slamka’s songwriting. His tunes do take some unexpected turns sometimes, like the chorus of “Stare,” but mostly they stick to the basics. No, this album is about performance and sound, and on those scores, it’s sweeping and full and lovely. Slamka’s voice is high and yearning, without slipping into emo territory, and his playing is laced with feeling. But it’s the production that wins half his battles for him. Every song is a glorious burst of color – even something as low-key as “Please Don’t” has ripples of guitar and keyboards behind it, forcefully nudging it.

I don’t mean to suggest that Slamka would be lost without his more seasoned cohorts, because that’s not the case at all. The songs would still be pretty good, and his voice would still soar. It’s just that this record, without the musicians and Schnapf’s wizardry, would merely be good. Instead, it’s extraordinary, a late-night firelight wonder. Just listen to the awesome guitar tones on “Stand in the World,” and then try to imagine the song without them. It would still be good, but not this, and this is great.

So the test will be Marjorie Fair’s second record, or whichever one finds Slamka branching out and producing his own work. If it turns out that he doesn’t have a second Self-Help Serenade in him, I won’t be overly surprised. I will be depressed, though, because this album is pretty damn good. It’s a sterling example of how to make a remarkable record out of less than remarkable songs.

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Something Borrowed

I love the Cowboy Junkies, but I always kind of forget about them.

Since I started the online version of this column in late 2000, the Junkies have released two studio albums and two live documents, one with an excellent DVD, and I haven’t reviewed any of them. I’m not sure why that is, but I have a theory: the Junkies are such a low-key band that their records never really stand up and call attention to themselves. They have a quiet beauty about them that, unfortunately, sometimes just slips right past me.

That’s not to say that what they do isn’t memorable or engrossing. Margo Timmons, all by herself, is reason enough to buy all of their records – her smoky voice is full of mystery and feeling, and it manages to be the center of whatever the band is doing, despite her rarely taking it above a low mumble. The rest of the band, including Margo’s brothers Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, is similarly reserved, and the songs they write are almost always bare-bones, traditional-sounding things. The end result is either quietly captivating, if you like it, or lazy and boring, if you don’t.

I like it, or at least I like it well enough to own everything they’ve ever done, although I rarely pull their albums down off the shelf. When I’m not listening to the Junkies, I can’t think of many reasons why I like their work, but while one of their discs is playing, I can’t think of many reasons why I wouldn’t enjoy it. They’re a performance-based group, no doubt, and their best records have been the ones they’ve done quickly, playing live. Something about the way they play together casts an odd sort of spell, and even when they’re waltzing through the simplest three-chord folk song, I’m taken in.

Seventeen years ago, the Junkies camped out in an old church for a night and recorded what many still consider their best album, The Trinity Sessions. It was mostly composed of covers, and the band even scored a minor hit with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” I don’t think Trinity is their best, simply because over the years, the Timmonses have grown immensely as songwriters and record makers – parts of 2001’s Open, for example, are as creepy and moving as anything on Trinity. But there’s no doubting that the Junkies put their own distinctive stamp on every song they cover.

So why has it taken 17 years to try that experiment again? In our sequel-happy society, you would think that The Trinity Sessions II would have been a no-brainer, but to their credit, the Junkies conducted an idiosyncratic and original career from that point, rarely resting on laurels or slipping back into old tricks. That’s why I don’t mind that their new one, Early 21st Century Blues, is essentially a follow-up to Trinity – it was recorded quickly, played live, and it’s almost all covers.

It’s also a fascinating political statement from a band not known for them. The nine covers and two originals dissect war and its horrors from many different angles, and while the outer slipcase contains a painted peace sign, the actual front cover is a white-on-black quote from Timothy Findley’s book The Wars. Devotees of the band will recognize some of the usual suspects here (songs by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), but some of the choices are surprising, and all of the performances are terrific.

While Dylan’s “License to Kill” and the Grateful Dead staple “Two Soldiers” are done well, the album doesn’t really kick in until “December Skies,” the first original song. It’s here that the Junkies switch on the foreboding atmosphere that they do so well, electric guitars creeping along beneath Margo’s husky vocals, and they keep that minor-key tone going for most of the record. Springsteen’s “You’re Missing” is a devastating highlight, and the band strips George Harrison’s great “Isn’t It a Pity” down to the bone.

But the real surprise is hiding at track 10. What’s billed as a cover of “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” one of John Lennon’s most embarrassingly forthright and repetitive songs, actually is a full-fledged folk-rap reinvention, complete with programmed drums and rhymes by a guy named Rebel. Here is the most openly political volley, with jabs at our “installed” president and the lies woven to justify his war. It’s actually pretty good, once you get over the shock of a Cowboy Junkies hip-hop song.

The Junkies conclude this record with a reading of U2’s “One,” which is quickly becoming that band’s most enduring standard. From Bono, it sounds specific, as if written to one person, but in this context, it’s universal, an impassioned cry for peace: “We’re one, but we’re not the same, we have to carry each other…” It’s a great capper on a stirring record, and while I don’t hold out hope that it will change anyone’s mind, I applaud the Junkies for taking this project on. It’s a surprising act of defiance from a band that many accuse of being too quiet, and I’m glad they made their voices heard.

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Something Belew

Get it? “Something Belew.” Heh. Credit to Dr. Tony Shore for that one. I was originally going to talk about some crappy album here, and call the segment “Something Blew,” but I liked Shore’s pun so much that I had to use it. I’ve been putting off buying the latest solo work from King Crimson’s Adrian Belew for a while now, and this gives me the perfect opportunity to check it out.

Belew is known as an experimental guitarist – you don’t come up with King Crimson by churning out power ballads – and while a lot of his solo stuff has been poppy and catchy, a lot more of it is dissonant and churning, and quite difficult for non-Crimson fans to get into. The more radical side of Belew is in the fore of his new project, a three-album set titled as three sides to the same record. Last year saw Side One, which found Belew jamming with Primus’ Les Claypool and Tool’s Danny Carey, as the trippiest power trio in the history of everything. That album had some beautiful moments, but flew off into atonality more than once.

And now here’s Side Two, a beast of a different color entirely. The whole thing is tricked out with electronic beats and textures, and a clarity of tone that was missing from Side One. It’s not necessarily better, but it is a more pleasant listen – you can hum most of these tunes, especially the spry “Face to Face,” and Belew rarely steps off the reservation into the stuff that makes my fillings hurt. “Asleep” is probably the closest to that Belew here, and it changes and morphs within itself often enough that it’s engaging anyway.

Side Two is mostly instrumental, with what lyrics there are inspired by the form of haiku – short and abstract. There’s a fair amount of odd filler here, too – “Happiness” is kind of useless, as is “Sex Nerve,” and “Then What” is damn annoying – and on a 33-minute album, that’s unfortunate. But here’s the thing – I get the impression that Belew is not considering Side Two a 33-minute album, but the second part of a 100-minute whole. I feel a little premature judging each of these records on their own without Side Three, which should be out this fall.

That’s the money-hungry genius behind this project, and part of the reason I can’t recommend it. It’s clear by this point that Belew is releasing everything he recorded during these sessions – and if he isn’t, I would hate to hear the tunes that didn’t make the cut – and he would have been better off with one consistent hour-long disc. Instead, we have three half-hour excursions, each in its own packaging, for full price. Belew fans are probably going nuts over everything here, and the good stuff on Side Two is certainly worth hearing, but I can’t help thinking that the three-record concept has a lot to do with the $40 or so you’ll have to pay to hear it all.

As I said, though, Crimson fans don’t care – they happily pay for dozens of live recordings and four-disc sets of rehearsals, just to experience Belew and Fripp jamming. In comparison, Side One and Side Two are polished, accomplished works, and Belew is undoubtedly a fantastic guitar player and producer, so if you’re planning on buying the whole trilogy (as I am, admittedly), I can’t blame you. I just wish there was more genius and less filler on these discs to justify their individual existences.

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You may kiss the bride. We’re done. Time for cake and dancing!

Next week, pure pop with the New Pornographers and the Click Five.

See you in line Tuesday morning.