Walk on over, but not all over
Image: FabletooA Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise - Phosphorescent
How it trudges through the woods brushing tambourine and tom from its coat ... this song is like that gentle, open-ended film of last year, Old Joy. And not only because Matthew Houck sings something like Will Oldham and is another scraggly bearded dude (though that too). It sounds how summer slides into autumn while we sleep and how we lose the friends of our young adulthood to graduate school and work and love and homes and cars and bank accounts and other cities.* And when we meet again, we're shy and skirt each other's eyes. We speak the different tongues of the foreign far-off lives we now live and fumble for the stilted sign language of rote compliments and old jokes about deadbeat roommates and disastrous hookups. Old jokes that linger awkward as orphans. But if we're lucky--really lucky and determined--we flinty creatures might rub that dead spark and find new jokes to tell and laugh deep again, together, from our softened bellies.
The new Phosphorescent album, Pride (street date Oct. 23) is lovely (wait til you hear "Wolves"!). In 2005, Phosphorescent released a good album (Aw Come Aw Wry) and one of that year's best songs ("I Am a Full Grown Man"). But those didn't quite seem full-grown--still swaddled in influences, I guess. Now Houck sounds to have found his voice. A stupid thing to say, I know, because we always-only have our own voice. It's just a concise way of describing rapprochement following a long estrangement. Myspace
*In "People You Meet," Bishop Allen states it brutal, but sadly correct: The sun may set on friendship/But never on your bills.
I Want You to Walk All Over Me - The Wave Pictures
Here are some true statements, and others that are mere speculation:
When they were first learning to play together, The Wave Pictures performed only Jonathan Richman songs. They hoped for a few seconds, just a few seconds, as great as any few seconds of "Roadrunner."
The Wave Pictures find lyrics in comic strips and on pickle jars, in the margins of algebra textbooks and the bottom of sneakers, in the crooked arrangement of mah jongg tiles and the twitched whiskers of dogs, the dregs of pint glasses and much-pawed copies of risque Edwardian novels. Certainly at the end of relationships.
Here is a seascape that looks like nothing so much as the inner thigh of the girl I never touched. See what I mean?
"I Want You to Walk All Over Me" was written one morning in a frayed bathrobe at a kitchen table covered with toast crumbs, a dirty knife and a half-consumed jar of Guinness Marmite.
The loved and loathed Everett True is the band's fiercest champion. About Dave Tattersall's voice he has said, "I get lost in the sound of sardonic vocals and distorted vocals and smart bittersweet vocals and listening vocals." Listening vocals.
It wasn't the first time someone praised Tattersall's voice. When he was 13, the village church choirmaster favorably noted his "queasy seasick adolescent wobble" and asked if he would sing solo in the Christmas production of Handel's Messiah.
The Mountain Goats and Herman Dune are fans. Reportedly, Coldplay is too.
The Wave Pictures are green and raw and unbound. Their songs make me want to wrap my arms across my chest and spin around the room until I'm dizzy.
From Sophie. Myspace
Also: Charles of Heartache with Hard Work writes passionately about Okkervil River--in concert and on record. I agree that the band is a phenomenal live act and you should see them if you can. And I've been trying to get my head around "John Allyn Smith Sails" for weeks.
And what's more: I love Alison Byrnes' "historical" paintings: Romans & Greeks, Romans & Americans, Americans & Europeans.
And finally: Brooklyn Books of Wonder in The American Scholar. Some interesting things (connecting the dots with Kundera's kitsch), and some rather forced and ludicrous ones (that novels can only illuminate human experience via realism).
Clear the cobwebs
Boots - May or May Not
May or May Not, one of Chicago's best new pop bands (in a city thick with them), fires up the furnace, rolls up the rugs, buffs the banister to a high sheen, clears the cobwebs from the attic and throws itself a big ol' shack-shakin' house party. (And gets dirty all over again.) Guests include the rev and soar of the New Pornographers and the hooks and smarts of hometownies Office and The 1900s. "Boots" is a breathless song of spit and shine and kick, and slippy enough to stage drunk sock-sliding contests to.
For a limited time, you can download the band's new album, A Kaleidoscope of Egos for free from their website. I wrote about May or May Not's song "Bike" a year ago.
Sincerest form and all that
I Am the Unknown - The AliensEssentially the former members of the Beta Band whose name isn't Steve Mason, The Aliens have a similar schizoid manic/melancholy air. The music is frequently at odds with the lyrics, and a persistent undertow of disappointment tugs at the oft-soaring Byrdsian harmonies. And yes, there's that pastiche aesthetic--scraps of Phil Spector, Madchester, funk (-lite), Ray Manzarek, ELO-brand prog, Merseybeat and lotsa references to sunny California pop spanning, say, 1965 -1978. If, unlike the best Beta Band material, it doesn't add up to much of anything, the Aliens still offer some utterly gorgeous moments. "I Am the Unknown" is dense and succulent, like wading into a room of dark, deep-pile carpet, the sweet smell of hashish hanging from high ceilings, heavy-lidded, flushed pink odalisques (male and female) draping the furniture. Unfortunately, the Aliens decide to ID tag the last minute of the song, which only makes me think of their former band's worst ideas. You know, that rap thing.
From Astronomy for Dogs (Amazon), Myspace
Hummingbird - Cocoon
I guess this is as close as you get to sounding like Sufjan without actually being (Michigan-era) Sufjan. Heartfelt whispers, pretty-picked strings, a flute that skips by in the third act. Of course, Cocoon don't sound like members of the flock; as they say, they've been to too many churches, but never believe. Also, they're French. The song is tiny and precious as fuck--invoking just about the most fragile, jewel-like and frankly, irritating, avian and sounding kind of sorry for itself. But I like it (inexplicably). It's a sweet thing and though just a wisp, is actually pretty memorable.
From Panda Mountains. Myspace
One short sleep past
Image: Amanda KavanaughI'm Willin' (Part 1) - The Staple Singers
Centuries before gospel borrowed from the carnal of blues and other secular music, artists were articulating spiritual ecstasy with a slightly more accessible (and mundane) lexicon. Think Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV" (Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me) or Bernini's St. Teresa of the Arched Back and Parted Lips. None of us right here are saints, and from our likely diminished perspective, the pleasure of voluntary and absolute surrender--body or soul--are proportionate. But really we enjoy only an awkward and imperfect grace, a grace of knees and elbows, lurches and stammers. Whatever you believe I think you know this, and it haunts you. It haunts me. (For the record, I consider myself a spiritual person, but not in any organized-religion sense, so I'm absolutely not proselytizing here.) Maybe the Singers' relatively cool and sober responses to Mavis Staples' hot and heavy Lord I'm willing calls is this kind of momento mori. Small reminders. Still, the power and glory of this song is in Mavis singing. In her rich range and the way her voice splinters and sparks on the high notes like flames feasting on dry wood--red and triumphant but also ashen, dejected. In the way she just brushes the humid sway of drums and reverbed guitar with her fingertips, but dances cheek and hip and toes, full-body, eyes squeezed shut in want and need, with something unseen.
Buy Great Day (Amazon, eMusic)
Before she died this week at the much too young age of 36, Megan Matthews wrote for the music blog Moistworks. She did many other things too, including raising a young daughter. But I knew her only from reading her Moistworks posts--some of the best, most thoughtful and inspired writing about music (writing about anything) on the web. Her posts were brave, fierce, humorous, and always voiced with such intense feeling. This morning, the world seems lesser for her absence from it. You can leave condolences and donate to a college fund the Moistworks staff has established for Megan's daughter, here.
Image: Kenneth Rougeau
These Old Shoes - Deer Tick
Oh he's goooood, I'll give him that. Still, I suspect our protagonist is just a cheap bastard, trying to obscure the fact that, in his typical cheap bastard fashion, he bought a bargain seat on a shady, fly-by-night (ha!) airline. "Darlin'", he drawls to his sweetheart, "you don't know what I suffered just to get to you." It's an impressive tall tale consisting of:
But for the days when Alex Chilton crooned, I don't care how much money I gotta spend/Got to back to my baby again.
- A plane crash (two-hour delay on tarmac/napped)
- Train hopping (first stopover in Chicago/grabbed Quizno's sub in terminal)
- Car breakdown (second stopover in Denver/browsed in-flight magazine)
- Hoofing it the rest of the way (waited hour and a half for shuttle bus/too stingy to spring for cab).
From War Elephant (iTunes, eMusic), Myspace
Mirror Blanket - Raccoo-oo-ooonA confession: My attraction to this band is in no small part due to its name. RACCOO-OO-OOON! Racccccccoooooonnnnn!! Racoo-ooo-ooo-ooo-oon!!! Racoo ... erm, sorry. But seriously, the band could play Bulgarian polka or Norweigian death metal and I'd still howl its name at the noonday sun. Raccoo-oo-ooon doesn't. Play polka or metal, I mean. These guys howl plenty, though. And in the interest of full disclosure: This psych-art-noise stuff is a bit of a slog, a tad challenging, not for everyone, etc., etc. But if you're game, there's fun in its improvisational jitter, jerk and shudder, its tin can hammer and hazard lights. There's the sense that anything could happen, and it does sorta. Raccoo-oooo-oooooon!
From Behold Secret Kingdom (Night People), Website
I Wrote Your Name on a Kite - We Are Wolves
You may not realize it from their sharkskin slick synth lines or astringent yelps, but these wolves are really hopeless romantics. I wish I could walk to the pyramids with you, Alex Ortiz sings milk soft in "So Nice, So Cold" on We Are Wolves' new album. If anything could top the ridiculous charm of such a dream date, it might be I wrote your name on a kite. I WROTE YOUR NAME ON A KITE! Swoon and sigh, right? It's sweet and sly-sexy and a little ambiguous--a line like that could go down a dozen different avenues. Men take note: A line like that (and the pyramid one) will work.
From Total Magique (Amazon, eMusic), Myspace
More French pop
Photo: lilunaIl N'y A Pas D'Amour Heureux - Françoise HardyPoet, socialist and one-time Surrealist Louis Aragon likely wrote the refrain il ny'a pas d'amour heureux (essentially, there's no happiness in love) stoic and shrugging and what-can-you-do. But Françoise Hardy sings his scribble (and Georges Bressons' music) with thin skin and handkerchiefs. That the song's sentimental aesthetic -- its lambent flickered piano line, its coos and sighs -- isn't artificial or cloying attests to a) Hardy's star power, and b) paradoxically, the sentimental aesthetic. See, done right, this sort of thing achieves, in the words of Debussy (in a slightly different context--talking about the French art song, mélodie) "a clarity of expression, precision and concentration of form [which are] qualities peculiar to the French genius." Expertly executed, as, say, the genre paintings of Greuze, sentimentality draws you and your empathy into its warm circle of woe and joy, temporarily disarms your critical faculties. Opens you to an otherwise inaccessible beauty.
From Ma Jeunesse Fout Le Camp (Amazon, iTunes)
Also nice: Liz Green, "French Singer" (Myspace stream)
Cat and mouse
Image: miracle moodsI'm Gonna Catch Me a Rat - Fabienne Delsol
Le Roi Des Fourmis - Fabienne Delsol
Fabienne Delsol makes me want to push a button and rewind the year a bit. Just to the beginning of June, just so I can bookend Summer 2007 mixtapes with her saucy nouvelle ye-ye covers and originals. Close hewing to the more historically codified pop genres is risky. Too often it's productive of staid formalist exercises and earnest set pieces of unintentionally amusing anachronism. But Delsol brings such glee and gusto to her songs, such charm! such life! that you fold those concerns neat and stow them away for another day. You're in good hands here.
"I'm Gonna Catch Me a Rat" slinks with Fever and Boots Made for Walking, with sultry swelter and swagger, with a wink of cartooned cat-and-mouse (faux) peril. "Le Roi Des Foumis" (King of the Ants, after this) is a blend of breezed singsong and petulant patent-leathered stamp -- a cheer and lament for the lovelorn and insignificant (proudly insignificant) of this world. But mostly it's about those rumbling runaway drums, their glorious clattering-clack-racket rumpus, their heart-jump and lurch.
From Between You and Me (Amazon, eMusic), Myspace
Another excellent chapter in La Blogothèque's Take Away Show series: Circled by foliage and bathed in Paris sunshine, Gravenhurst's Nick Talbot plays the band's beautifully melodic and melancholy new single, "Trust."
How life can sometimes be
Image: Katherine Chiu
Marry Me - Jesus Licks
Not a cover of the St. Vincent song, this "Marry Me" is, however, as full of surprises: of whim and poesy and good old-fashioned English eccentricity. Dominique Golden sings with a fluttery lilt, like she grows tulips on her tongue and adorns her toes with rings. Like all that's needed to get married is a dress that's clean/for all to see, flowers, a white cake and a band perhaps. A band that threads a flute like gold silk through its nubby weave of acoustic guitar and drums. Except ... this may all be an elaborate fantasy, a daydream. When the song stops short at the altar before the vicar, part of you wonders if maybe this girl doesn't really know this groom-to-be. That if you said to this Mike or Nick or Oliver, "So, I heard you and Dominique are getting married," he might reply, "Dominique? You mean Dominique in accounting? The quiet one?"
Image: Katherine Chiu
The Highwayman - Jesus Licks
Would those backing vocals sound so strange and October-dusk spooky if the mundane clop-clop of the banjo wasn't throwing them into relief? And would her tap-tap (and the echoes) be as shivery, if Golden didn't sing her lines so dream-fogged and demure? An inventive take on the Alfred Noyes poem, it leaves much of the narrative detail out and lets the mood tell the story. Even if you don't understand why a string is tied to a trigger and what the landlord's daughter has to do with a highwayman, you're certain that something bad and bloody is going down.
Buy Highwayman 7" (Post Records), Myspace
Something to remember
Image: James RosenquistGreat Divide - The Cardigans
Closing out the second episode of Mad Men, The Cardigan's "Great Divide" seizes the evanescent unease of what's got to be the best television debut this year. The fleeting, half-psychotic sense that that sweet-voiced little girl will bite you if she gets the chance. That the pink birthday cake is iced with crushed Nembutal. I wasn't looking to get hooked on a new series, but seven hours of OnDemand later and I'm obsessed. AMC's official line:
Set in 1960 New York, the daring new series is about the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising, an ego-driven world where key players make an art of the sell while their private world gets sold.
Sorta. Really, it's more about a bunch of clever 21C television writers (dunno, possibly "ruthlessly competitive") exploiting our ambivalence about the good old/bad old days. You know, admiration for its style: the smart hats and nipped waists; black rotary phones and red lipstick; cocktails and cufflinks; hotel bars and bulleted bustlines. And big heapings of amused horror for everything else: outrageous predatory sexism (and plenty of female complicity); racism, anti-semitism and homophobia; everyone (including pregnant women) smoking all the time (like, every scene), everywhere (including doctor's offices); children not wearing seatbelts; psychiatrists tattling to their patients' husbands; divorcees shunned; desperately bored housewives repressing sexual desire with alcohol and shopping. Which all sounds a bit smug and condescending, like the writers (and you) should know better than to take a gun to some rather obvious barrels of fish. Yet it's all so deliciously abhorrent, you can't keep your mesmerized eyes off it. Your easy seduction is sort of the point.
From First Band on the Moon (Amazon, iTunes)
Yes! No! - Shocking Pinks
You can hear why DFA was so eager to sponsor Nick Harte's (aka Shocking Pinks) work visa this side of the Pacific. The dry snap and hiss of this song's drum base could launch a thousand ESG (or any other early 80s underground disco) tracks. Bout time someone took notice! Shocking Pinks has already released several albums in its home country of New Zealand -- which means they're almost maddeningly impossible to get your hands on if you're not a Kiwi. One of my favorite songs of 2005 was a gutting, atavistic drum and keyboard track called "18," from Shocking Pink's Mathematical Warfare. I'm not sure anything on the new album -- assembled for North American/European consumption of previously released songs -- is quite as good. But even though Harte pilfers the catalogs of everyone from Arthur Russell to New Order to Jesus & Mary Chain (the album's "I Want U Back" is obviously an homage to JAMC, down to the "Be My Baby" drum intro), there are tons of fresh, exciting rhythmic jolts and effectively eerie moods in the collection.
Preorder Shocking Pinks from Amazon, Myspace