Levee’s Gonna Break
Catching Up Before the Deluge

It’s been an interesting week for the music biz.

First, we get the news that the Raconteurs, Jack White’s other band, plan to release their second album, Consolers of the Lonely, next week. No advance warning, no set-up marketing, nothing, just a full album ready to consume seven days after it’s announced. The idea, the band says, is to make Consolers available in every format at once, with no hype. You can get it on CD and vinyl, or you can download it from a variety of sources.

While this plan seems to be all about stemming leaks, it has another interesting purpose as well – it levels the playing field between the formats. Since albums end up online sometimes weeks before they appear in stores (or become available to download legally), people naturally turn to the ‘net to hear it first. But if the album is suddenly available everywhere, before the pirates can leak it, will most people shell out money for it? We’ll see.

Another thing we’ll see, as I alluded to earlier, is which format walks away with the prize. Will more people buy it as a download, as a record, or as a CD? Part of that answer, I think, depends on what type of download is offered – MP3s, or superior lossless formats like FLAC. (Or both.) But I hope this experiment shows that the CD is far from dead.

That would be a good lesson for Elvis Costello, who announced his new album, Momofuku, at the end of the week. Reportedly, it’s named after a famous New York noodle bar, which in turn is named after the creator of Ramen, but the title works well as an expletive, similar to the one I uttered when I heard the release strategy. Momofuku is out on April 22 as a download, and as a vinyl record. That’s it. No CD.


This may end up being the first Costello album ever – EVER – that I miss out on. I just can’t support this idea. I think the future of music should be about more choices, not fewer, and Costello is skipping over my format of choice right now. Of course, I say this now, but I’ll probably pony up my cash to download this thing, just because I want to hear it. Which is exactly what Costello wants. He’ll be able to say, “See? We sold as many downloads as we did CDs of the last album!” Of course he will – he’s forcing everyone like me to either buy a turntable or get on board the digital delivery train.

Seriously. What a momofuku.

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I had a rough week, so I’m going to try to be as concise as possible in this column. I have four CDs to review, all of which slipped through the cracks recently, and I’m going to try to quick-hit each one. This also means there’s no Doctor Who review again this week, which I’m sure doesn’t make too many of you sad. But I want to get through them – I’m severely behind right now. Ah well.

We start with Richard Julian, who released his fifth album, Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes, on February 26. Considering that at one time, I never thought we’d see a third Richard Julian album, I was beyond thrilled to plunk down my cash for this. But you may remember I reviewed his fourth, Slow New York, with a bit less breathless enthusiasm than I’d showed for his first three. It was pretty, it was nice, but it wasn’t a great Richard Julian album.

Sunday Morning is a great Richard Julian album.

Here, once again, is everything that makes the man worth checking out. Julian has an appealing sarcastic, cynical worldview, which makes his glimmers of hope shine even more brightly, and a sweet sense of folksy melody that underpins his story-songs perfectly. The cynicism is in full bloom on the opener, “World Keeps On,” which starts with this verse: “They pray in the temples, they pray, sun up, sun down, and what mercy have they found? The world keeps on like this.” It’s harsh and wonderful.

“Spring is Just Around the Corner” sounds like a sunrise in comparison, Julian promising that things will get better, until he gets to the last verse, in which he puts the title phrase into the mouth of the president, and follows it up with a bitter “trust me.” Elsewhere, “Syndicated” bemoans the Americanization of the planet – “We the people, incorporated.” The song is fantastic, a skipping bit of jazz-folk with the unmistakable snap of an acoustic bass beneath Julian’s guitar, and it only gets better when he turns the song on himself – he escapes the planet, only to return because he misses his coffee shops.

The wit of much of this album won’t prepare you for the raw pain of “A Thousand Days,” a personal account of a ruined relationship. “I remember a sadness in her laughter, but the madness that came raging after, it struck without warning,” Julian sings, over nothing more than his mournful acoustic. It’s a difficult listen, but worth it.

There are so many other highlights, like “God III,” which opens with this couplet: “God the third, Jesus’ son, GPA two-point one…” “Man in the Hole” is a classic Julian story-song, this one a parable about a man who digs for treasure until (SPOILER) he finds it, and is unable to climb out of the too-deep hole with it. “If You Stay” is a perfectly blasé plea to a fleeing lover, and closer “Morning Bird” is as pretty as anything he’s ever written.

Sunday Morning was produced by Mitchell Froom, so you know it sounds good, and Froom’s trademark keyboards add a subtle heft to the record. But it’s Julian’s songs that make this as good as it is. After the slight letdown of Slow New York, here is one of America’s most criminally undiscovered talents back at the top of his game. Check him out here. You can click from there to an e-card with four full songs, which ought to be enough to make you a fan.

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Mark Eitzel is another guy more people should know. Perhaps the most genuinely sad songwriter in the world, Eitzel made his mark as the singer and mastermind for San Francisco’s American Music Club. They made seven good-to-great records between 1985 and 1994 before breaking up, and Eitzel was even named Rolling Stone’s songwriter of the year in 1991.

Eitzel embarked on a splendidly random solo career after that, taking on jazz balladry, acoustic folk, electronic soundscapes, covers of old standards, and traditional Greek music. I loved every minute of it, but I can see where he may have left some listeners scratching their heads. Regardless, Eitzel returned to his roots in 2004, reuniting American Music Club and issuing Love Songs for Patriots, a continuation of their dark rock sound.

Now here’s The Golden Age, an album that not only cements the reunion, but elevates it. Where Love Songs was more raucous, Golden Age is a slow hymn of a record, full of gorgeous acoustic ballads and appeals to the lonely soul in all of us. Some have said this sounds more like an Eitzel solo record than a band effort, but I think those people are reacting to the overall subdued feel – this record has a full, glorious tone to it, spare but not sparse.

Eitzel’s songs are like stream-of-consciousness poems set to music, and it’s always amazed me that he’s able to make them memorable despite this. Only the next nine months will tell whether I’ll hear a prettier song this year than “Decibels and Little Pills,” one of Eitzel’s trademark character studies. Although “Sleeping Beauty” comes close, with its delightful harmonies. There are only a couple of uptempo pieces on the entire 13-song affair – the rest is slow, mood-altering, fragile and beautiful.

I was initially suspicious when Eitzel re-formed AMC – reunions are often like trying to go back to high school when you’re 30. But with The Golden Age, Eitzel has proven he’s going to allow his band to age gracefully, and he’s going to write some wonderful little songs as it does. In “Who You Are,” a smooth song of encouragement for a friend, Eitzel laments that “all I can give you is one of my stupid songs.” Well, I don’t know what his friend said, but I’d take it – the songs on The Golden Age are like hazy waking dreams, ones you can’t wait to get back to.

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I have an uneasy relationship with the Mars Volta.

On the one hand, I admire their undeniable musical talent. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is an incredible guitar player, and he has an epic, progressive sensibility mixed with a hundred other influences. Under his musical direction, the band has pioneered a sort of cross between Yes, early Santana and Frank Zappa. And Cedric Bixler Zavala can really belt out these tunes. On paper, the Mars Volta should be on a short list of my favorite modern bands.

But they’re not. Because, on the other hand, their music is so much sound and fury without any real point to it all. The lyrics never make any sense, and songs start and end without much of a journey in between. I liked the debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, partially because I’d never heard a sound quite like this before, but also because the songs were memorable. I gave them a pass on Frances the Mute, despite the fact that they’d filled a fourth of that record with godawful noise, because the insane freak-outs there were fun.

But I didn’t even review Amputechture. Hell, I could barely even get through its nearly 80 minutes of wanking solos and needlessly complex riffing. And the live album, Scabdates… hoo boy. What an unlistenable mess.

Lopez and Zavala have done a few things right with The Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth full-length. For one, they’ve pared their epic excursions down – the longest song here is nine minutes, an eternity for most bands but a marvelous display of restraint for this one. (The longest ones from their last two were 17 and 32 minutes, respectively.) They’ve also summarily dismissed the noise experiments and interludes, focusing on the tightly arranged, spastic rock-funk-salsa-metal they’re known for.

But it hardly matters. Bedlam is another 76-minute monster, and another Mars Volta album I can barely sit through. Again, I admire it – it’s explosive, it’s well-arranged, it’s incredibly hard to play, and it barrels along at a brisk pace for its entire running time. I just can’t imagine why I would want to listen to it repeatedly. In fact, by the end of the sixth track, I found myself wondering why I was listening to it at all.

I don’t want to denigrate the skill with which the Mars Volta guys have crafted this album. It’s a powerhouse, honestly – the songs mostly segue, and the tighter arrangements give tunes like “Wax Simulacra” a boost that no 25-minute slog could have.

But it all means nothing to me. This album is complex to the point of headache-inducing, despite some swell moments, and all that flailing about doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The Mars Volta may very well be the best band on my shit list, and it’s because of their impossible talent and musical ability that I keep buying their records. I’m not sure what it will take to get me to really like one, though – The Bedlam in Goliath sounds like the apex of their journey so far, and if they haven’t sold me with this one, I don’t know how they ever will.

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But that’s okay, because I keep discovering bands I actually do like. Here’s one now: Cassettes Won’t Listen, the one-man project of Brooklyn’s Jason Drake.

I don’t know who originally tipped me off, but it may have been Dr. Tony Shore, so I’ll give him a link just in case. I’m not sure why I’d never heard Drake’s work before, but I can hazard a guess – it’s probably because up until now, everything he’s done has been released digitally through his website. His first foray into CDs is Small-Time Machine, a seven-song EP that, even though it only runs for half an hour, is among my favorite releases of the year so far.

Drake’s work could be called electro, I suppose, but it’s closer to the Postal Service’s brand of electronically-enhanced indie-pop. Opener “Metronomes” sets the stage with its mellow synth tones and clipping beats, Drake’s even voice spinning a memorable melody over them. The song remains somewhat sinister throughout, but it isn’t a patch on the second track, the amazing “Large Radio.” Minor-key synths burble around Drake’s voice at the beginning, but the song builds and builds, until it erupts halfway through. The chorus lyrics are “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa yeah yeah yeah yeah,” but you won’t care because the song is so cool.

And on it goes. All seven songs on this EP are meticulously crafted, dark and pulsing, and there isn’t a weak one among them. I’m not sure what it says about me that it took Drake’s abandonment of the digital revolution to get me to jump aboard, but I’m glad I did. Check out his work here.

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Next week, the deluge begins. On Tuesday alone, I’m buying new ones from the Raconteurs, Gnarls Barkley, Counting Crows, the Cavalera Conspiracy (Max and Igor together again!), Panic at the Disco, Lindsey Buckingham, and A Silver Mt. Zion. And then there’s April, the most ridiculously rich music month I can remember in the last few years. Buckle up. Oh, and next week, I’ll also include the first quarter report for 2008.

See you in line Tuesday morning.