I have been a vegetarian for six days now, and sweet lord, do I want a cheeseburger.
Here’s the story. I work for a decent-sized daily newspaper here in eastern Illinois, one that makes very little distinction between the news and features departments. By that I mean the news writers are the feature writers, and thus have to come up with interesting ideas for stories we can tell in our own voices. One of the many categories of features we have to write is called “Out of My Element,” for which each writer must devise some way of dropping into situations we would never encounter in our normal lives.
Most writers on staff have chosen quick and dirty solutions to this problem – working on a farm for an afternoon, for example, or attending a blind dating service. As for me, I decided that if I have to do one of these, I’m going to use it to improve my life. I know a few people who have chosen the veggie way of life, and they are all thin and healthy. Since the exercise thing isn’t working for me lately, I figured I would change my diet, and find a way to get paid for doing so.
So from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, I have foresworn meat of all types. No steak, no chicken, no fish. I spoke with a couple of dieticians, who steered me away from the vegan thing – I was planning to go full bore, and give up everything produced by an animal, presumably to show what a ballsy man I am, but logic has prevailed. I’m eating eggs, I’m drinking milk. If I liked cheese, I’d be eating that, too. Yesterday I had a fantastic vegetarian omelet, easily the best thing I’ve eaten since starting this process, and with each bite, I thanked my friendly advisors for dissuading me from my macho moment.
So, six days in, and I am starting to wonder why I’m doing this. I have lost four pounds as of this morning, which is good, but goddamn, I want a steak, or a chicken sandwich. I have Garden Burgers to try out this afternoon – not the most inspiring prospect, but I’m already kind of sick of lettuce and carrots. Time to broaden the old horizons. The biggest problems will be Christmas Eve, and my grandmother’s 90th birthday the week before. No doubt my aunt will slave over the stove for days, preparing a sumptuous meal for my grandmother’s party, and I won’t be able to sample much of it at all.
Yeah, this is starting to look more and more like a silly idea. I’ll let you know if I crack.
* * * * *
The dedicated staff here at tm3am does their very best to keep up with the onslaught of new releases each year, but we regret that sometimes, things get by us. This year especially, literally dozens of worthy new records came and went, with nary a mention on this site. Need I point out that tm3am purports to be a comprehensive source for insight on worthwhile new music? We can hardly afford such oversights, especially when faced with such pitiful excuses as “full-time work” and “needing at least an hour’s sleep a night” and “deathly illness.” Did you die? No? Then it wasn’t a deathly illness, was it? Suck it up and keep working!
Anyway, we here at tm3am apologize for the numerous holes in our coverage of what’s hip and new this year, and we assure you that it won’t happen again. Until it does, of course. But the staff members responsible for these missing reviews have been sacked. In fact, the whole staff has been sacked, leaving me to try to make amends all on my own. It’s a rough life, and I beg your pity and indulgence whilst I attempt to catch up on some forgotten gems of 2005.
I do have something of an idea for the final week of the year, something that will allow me to do what I wanted to do last year with my enormous pile of unreviewed CDs, but couldn’t wrap my brain around. I started to type up a huge column, with pithy and full-blooded comments on each one of the 50 or so leftovers from 2004, but the result was so dry and boring that I scrapped it completely and just talked about my new iPod. Which was also dry and boring, but by that time I had no choice but to run with it. The staff member responsible for that lousy decision has also been sacked.
I think I’ve figured out how to make it work, though, so I’ll be trying it on December 28. In the meantime, though, there are a few albums that merit longer discussions, ones that slipped through the cracks earlier this year. Make no mistake – the top 10 list is done (barring an amazing showing from Ryan Adams, who releases 29 the day before I plan to post my picks), and none of these three records will be anywhere near it. But they’re all varying shades of decent, and I really should have mentioned them when they came out.
So, mea culpa, and on with the show:
* * * * *
I am not sure if Supergrass plans to break up anytime soon, but their new album sounds very much like a swan song.
It’s got a really cheeky title, Road to Rouen, that could also be taken as a sign of impending collapse. It features a more serious tone throughout than their last outing, the amazing Life on Other Planets, and includes more strings and horns than any record they have done, as if the band pulled out all the stops for one last triumph. It follows a greatest hits album, the surest sign that a band, especially one with no hits, is searching for ideas. It also concludes with a little ditty called “Fin,” which includes lines like, “I see the end someday,” and, “You know it’s a long way home.”
All signs point to this as a concerted final effort from a dynamite band, one that really should have experienced more success in its decade-plus. On their four previous records, they were cultural assimilators, pulling little bits from here and there and somehow making a coherent whole out of them without sacrificing their core sounds. This isn’t Beck’s standard put-the-‘70s-in-a-blender approach, but rather the reverent and labor-intensive work of true pop connoisseurs. If a bass line was supposed to sound like the Velvet Underground, then by God, it sounded like the Velvet Underground, even if the guitars sounded like Stealers Wheel and the pianos like Elton John.
Road to Rouen is much less that, and much more the serious singer-songwriter side of the band. In fact, the whole album has more than a touch of another band whose name starts with super. There’s more than a little Even in the Quietest Moments to Rouen, especially in its epic first half. The record runs a little more than 35 minutes, but it still manages to pack two huge numbers and an overall sense of scope in its tiny running time. Opener “Tales of Endurance Parts 4, 5 and 6” brings the brass sections to bear, and is an album side in miniature, while first-side closer “Roxy” is a massive undertaking, anchored by Robert Coombes’ electric piano and his brother Gaz’ voice.
The second half, neatly delineated by the cartoon-jazz instrumental “Coffee in the Pot,” is more rollicking, and more standard Supergrass. The title track contains a guitar lick I couldn’t place for the longest time, until I remembered that it’s one my high school band used once. That song and “Kick in the Teeth” provide Rouen with its most energetic seven minutes, as it peters to a close with the down-home “Low C” and the sad “Fin.” There’s a bit of Lennon to “Low C,” and in classic Supergrass form, when Coombes wants his voice to achieve that Lennon effect, it really does.
Still, if this is the last gasp from Supergrass, I’ll be disappointed. They deserve a better record to go out on. This one just doesn’t capture the effervescent, genre-hopping wonder of their best stuff, even if their sense of melody is intact. Road to Rouen contains eight good songs, not counting the “Coffee” break, and it’s just not enough. Some will say that a good album will leave you wanting more. Well, Road to Rouen certainly does that, though not in the best way – it’s a very good 35 minutes, but it should be longer, and it should be better.
* * * * *
Supergrass is at a disadvantage, however – it’s hard to get people to appreciate the merely very good, when you’ve already given them excellence. One sure way to garner great reviews of your work is to suck out loud at the beginning, and then get progressively better, so that your latest record leaves your first few in the dirt. It also helps if you score a chart-busting hit during your suck-out-loud phase, so that the comparison is easily drawn – what good is a shitty debut that no one hears? For the indie-cred thing to work, you need to have a well-known history, an albatross hanging about your neck, so that you can loudly and proudly disown it.
Too cynical? Probably. After all, who would have predicted in 1996 that Nada Surf would ever be any good? They first stormed the scene with their all-too-ironic “Popular,” a caterwauling mess that seemed to slap Thurston Moore across the face with every intoned verse. The rest of their debut record, High/Low, was utterly forgettable, another in a cavalcade of one-hit blunders that seemed to dot the ‘90s like Starbuckses and Wal-Marts. There was nothing there that made me glad I’d heard it, and I got it for free.
After their second album, The Proximity Effect, was ditched by their major label, the sun should have set on their career. But no – this tenacious New York trio struggled to get Proximity released, and then soldiered on, getting better and better as they went. 2002’s Let Go was a kind of revelation, full of semi-sparkling tunes. It was still spotty, but one certainly got the sense that this band was headed somewhere, and it wasn’t the cut-out bin at Sam Goody, or a slot on VH-1’s Bands Reunited.
And now, against all odds, here is Nada Surf’s fourth album, The Weight is a Gift, and it’s their first solid, completely successful effort. It would be easy to pass this off as Nada Surf’s bid for that all-important indie credibility – it’s produced by Chris Walla, of it-band Death Cab for Cutie, and it was released by Barsuk Records, Death Cab’s erstwhile home. The packaging is also a little indie-wonder, consisting of a hand-drawn and cut-out cityscape, but it’s pretty much wonderful just the same.
The thing is, these songs don’t need any additional credibility – they’re great on their own. Weight opens with “Concrete Bed,” one of the year’s sprightliest singles, revolving around the line, “To find someone you love, you’ve got to be someone you love.” By the time you get through the 11 selections on this too-short offering, it becomes clear that this album is the sound of Nada Surf being someone they love.
The bare, acoustic base and ballad-heavy core of Let Go is pretty much gone here, and in its place is a fully formed rock band sound. “Always Love” is a sweet anthem that saves its best melodic punch for the climactic bridge, and lead throat Matthew Caws stretches his voice to limber new heights on “What Is Your Secret” and the lovely “Your Legs Grow.” Throughout, Walla’s production brings out the best in this band, layering great harmonies and pulling delicate sounds from Caws’ guitar. The record ends, too soon, with its punchiest number, “Imaginary Friends.”
I’ve said this before about other bands and other records, but nothing here is going to set the world on fire. It’s just some really good songs, played by a band so excited to have written them that they translate that sense of rebirth to the overall sound. Nada Surf has never sounded better than this, and never come up with a set of tunes this indelible before. Far from the fate of most of their mid-‘90s peers, Nada Surf have found a way to build and get better every time out. This album is one of the year’s most delightful surprises.
* * * * *
It’s easy, with bands like Supergrass and Nada Surf, to be either impressed or disappointed, since neither one has ever strayed far from their basic sound. Not so with Mark Eitzel – you never really know what you’re going to get from this guy. He fronted American Music Club for years, and that band stayed fairly static – their reunion album from last year, Love Songs for Patriots, sounded like it could slot right in with their ‘90s catalog. But Eitzel’s solo career is another matter altogether.
Let’s see. He’s been a jazzy crooner (60 Watt Silver Lining), an acoustic troubadour (Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out Because I Love You Too Much Baby), a techno-ambient songsmith (The Invisible Man), and an interpreter of classic soul numbers (Music for Courage and Confidence). Most recently, he took to reinventing his own work with a group of traditional Greek musicians on The Ugly American. Really, there’s no telling where he will go next.
So what does one make of a new Eitzel album called Candy Ass? Which Mark is going to show up this time? Even the album cover, with its depiction of one of those crapshoot claw games that never net you anything, seems to taunt you, its neon-emblazoned “Good Luck” almost giggling and winking. The title and track listing offer no help. Neither do the liner notes, or rather, what liner notes there are. You either buy this because you’re an Eitzel fan, or you don’t buy it at all.
As it turns out, Candy Ass picks up where The Invisible Man left off, kind of. The acoustic opener “My Pet Rat St. Michael” is deceptive – there isn’t another one like it. The album is roughly half instrumental, with Eitzel exploring the electronic soundscapes that were on the fringes of Invisible, his last album of all-new material. Songs like “Cotton Candy Tenth Power” and “A Loving Tribute to My City” are basically formless, with subtle beats and ambient waves of noise. Elsewhere, he combines the electronics with his penchant for downbeat melancholy – “Homeland Pastoral” is achingly sweet, Eitzel’s hangdog voice grounding the gauzy layers of synthesizers.
Overall, Candy Ass is the most atmospheric record Eitzel has ever made, and I mean that in the sense that it floats away into the air even while it’s playing. Melodies are few and directionless, and his voice only adorns half the songs. What’s left are the textures, and Eitzel seems particularly fascinated with drones this time out, so that the entire record serves as a sleeping pill. When he nearly wakes up, as on “Roll Away My Stone,” the genuine sense of songcraft gets drowned out by the surrounding walls of keyboard noise. He even ends the album on an ironic note – “Guitar Lover” is a six-minute instrumental that contains no guitars at all.
I’m making this album sound intolerable, and it’s not. It’s actually surprisingly effective as a mood piece, but those looking for Mark Eitzel the singer-songwriter may want to look elsewhere, or wait for another AMC album. This is the sad sack at his most experimental, so much so that it sounds like a complete misfire on first listen. Witness the accordions-in-a-car-accident bridge of “Green Eyes,” one of many things here the likes of which Eitzel has never tried before. I eventually grew to like Candy Ass, although I can’t say I understand the motivation behind it. Still, if you’re new to Mark Eitzel, I’d recommend you start somewhere else – anywhere else, actually.
* * * * *
I just found out that Julian Cope’s follow-up to Citizen Cain’d is out – it is, as promised, called Dark Orgasm, and it’s another two-CD affair. A copy is winging its way to me as we speak, though I doubt it will be here in time for next week’s planned look at some late-year mail-order marvels. After that, there’s Beck and Ryan Adams, and the top 10 list. It’s amazing how quickly 2005 disappeared, isn’t it?
I also just tried my first Garden Burger. The bad news is that it doesn’t taste anything like a hamburger, but the good news is that it isn’t at all disgusting. I actually kind of liked it, weird texture and all, although the aftertaste leaves something to be desired. Only 24 days to go…
See you in line Tuesday morning.