Owing to the constraints of this blog’s format, which coupled with my own unique laziness has resulted in embarrassingly epic gaps, as well as what I’d like to hope is a maturation beyond the featured style, I’m closing down 5 Records to make way for a newer, freer blog – Kill Me With Sound. Feel free to follow me; updates WILL be more reliable.
Nevertheless, stay tuned here if you’ve liked what you’ve seen, because there will be five further 5 Records entries reflecting a listening project I’m embarking on, staggered throughout the year. After which I’ll say goodbye and shift 100% of my writing efforts to the other tumblr and any Real Gigs I’m lucky enough to stumble into.
Thanks so much for any readership, regular or intermittent. You’ve been lovely. Check out the new blog! I’ll see you over here soon enough.
Owing to the constraints of this blog’s format, which coupled with my own unique laziness has resulted in embarrassingly epic gaps, as well as what I’d like to hope is a maturation beyond the featured style, I’m closing down 5 Records to make way for a newer, freer blog – Kill Me With Sound. Feel free to follow me; updates WILL be more reliable.
#1’s AKA empire burlesque
1. Flo Rida, “Whistle”
Unlike the girls below (or, say, Taio Cruz), we don’t look to Flo Rida for ebullient missilefuls of production firework and songwriting prowess – given the pretty good “Low” and the very bad “Right Round”, I was under the impression we looked to him for brain-free club-igniting face-punches. So what we have here is a pretty fetching folk-pop melody married to the usual boisterous, class-free (but in tune!) vocals and a lyric that you only aren’t sure is about blow jobs because 1) what he-man boastmonkey compares his cock to a piece of hollow plastic whose silhouette pretty accurately resembles freakishly small junk? and 2) if you suck on a whistle it just kinda wheezes. (I assume the latter doesn’t need to be explained to Flo Rida, or anybody.) So it’s a waste, even if what it wastes is hardly groundbreaking. Plenty pleasant, sure, but that this musclehead’s whistle song kicks a zillion times less ass than Britney Spears’ or Maroon 5’s has gotta feel pretty emasculating.
2. Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know”
When I first caught this flipping through stations it stayed my hand; the collage of touches from which its strange sonic swaddle is built is both undeniably original and deeply seductive. And yet there was something about suddenly realizing it wasn’t a rare-bird R&B jam but an alabaster Eurosmoothie one-shot that significantly hindered my enthusiasm about it. Seriously: it may sound ludicrous, but a certain aspect of the fullness of Gotye’s tone on the chorus made me think this was an R&B song the first casual time through, which racist or no would’ve made this more gently iconoclastic in an era where pop music is as stylistically bifurcated by skin tone as ever. (I also thought Bon Iver was black when I heard “Skinny Love”, and would be sociologically compelled rather than merely bored and pissed off if he was – Stew knows what I’m talking about.) Now that I’ve been more thoroughly acquainted I hear thinness, a light tinge of novelty, homogenization and an overall hedged edge. Commendably earthtoned on its surface, it’s nevertheless all covert robotics, and with so little fire and fuel that its semitechno rigidness emerges as uncanny-valley aridity. But though it would’ve been subsumed with a cool laugh by New Order or the Cure in 1985, it’s leagues more inventive and no more banal than Peter Gabriel in 1986. As a relevant aside, I now recognize that Gotye’s Sting-sans-sting voice is only conflated with Gabriel’s because his face is painted in a kind of Genesis way in the video (he’s also naked; shades of the “Modern Love” 7”?). And said video also fleshes out what now compels me most about the song – Kimbra’s white-lion wails.
3. Katy Perry, “Part of Me”
No Billboard parasite alive is as adept at harnessing crystal shards of pure joy into a righteous cascade of pristinely-placed predictable sounds as Dr. Luke is. But like all of his beautifully shameless forbears from ABBA onward, he expects you to hear past the plot, and since it hinges on the mouthpiece this can get awfully tricky. My current position is none of the good Dr.’s charges is nearly as bland as Katy Perry, the cultural antidote to Gaga’s motions toward a norm of autonomous pop empires, and from a disengaged distance I figured this new number one as another confoundingly celebrated slice of total banality. Even at Katy’s most effervescently cheesy – dystopian wet T-shirt slam “I Kissed a Girl”, rainbow champagne firehose “California Gurls”, prom-theme volcano “Teenage Dream”, Plan 9 wet dream “E.T.”, all of which would be tacky shit without the M.D.’s horse sense and all of which are masterpieces – her hits seem to lazily feign inspiration, unlike the dizzying torrent of visionary kitsch on which Britney, Beyoncé, Ke$ha and Gaga have spent Katy’s entire career riding to the top of the pops. By the time of the forced-smirk “Lovefool” rip of “Last Friday Night”, a desperately innocuous paean to reckless teen abandon featuring the most dubious ménage a trois ever casually alluded to, I figured this all-American Listerine smurfette as the primary caregiver to the artier-than-ever pop machine’s unkillable mercenary spirit (since nobody buys into the Biebs). But like two plays later Luke had his hooks in me again, and the song powered my workouts without even making me miss the too-big-to-hate video. Stupid is stupid, but unfolding like he layers it, it’s hard to feel insulted by. This one is a different beast – once I chose to turn it up and focus I found myself pleasantly surprised when the remorselessly fucking generic melody line disappeared into a collection of ra-ra minor chords. It didn’t take much beyond that observation for me to realize this was supposed to be the unrealistically generic Russell kissoff, and the idea that Katy’s personal travails would so dictate what comes up next on her assembly line bugs me like it should anybody else. But lyrics aside (“now look at me I’m sparkling/a firework of dancing flame/you won’t ever put me out again”, etc., and the “diamond ring” line makes me wonder if her mind might yet be blown by “Bachelor Kisses”), it’s as rousing and gorgeous as formula can be, its mote of keyboards shimmering underneath in all the right spots, its guitars a programmatic powercharge in no need of distortion, and its coup de grace graciously literal, an androgynous sampled “NO” that’s less football cheer than jarring Fingerprinceianprefab dada.
4. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
5. Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Getting Back Together”
How to try and communicate the virtues of two killer songs whose merits are built to be self-evident to a public made extra suspicious by 9/11 and the onslaught of Republican torment that followed? Through tangly prose and links to the videos so’s you can spend hours in front of them ‘til they’ve done you in like the Entertainment in Infinite Jest. Here goes: though predisposed to the conclusion by a patriotism exclusively motivated by my country’s pop/art history, I’m totally comfortable with the fact that these shamelessly (yep) mercenary (of course) melodic (well duh) manipulations (but what isn’t really), the most life-affirming and spirit-embiggening I’ve heard in another year lousy with contenders, increase my faith in American capitalism (well not really but I’m at least willing to hear it out now), not only because I’m confident their respective mouthpieces believe in these songs past their paychecks but because I feel pretty secure that neither artist would stab me in the back while I’m tying my shoes. Still, as should go without saying, it’s mostly because it takes absolutely no work to enjoy them, even the verses and bridges and middle bits, which these days even a whiz kid like RedOne knows he can throw away without pissing his proponents too far off. These tunes wield their melodies like battle-axes and then stab you in the ass with a hypodermic full of happiness before you can flee; they’re designed to have you cornered and smiling like you’re on the cover of Black Flag’s Six Pack EP. The ray of pleasure each offers is scientifically measurable and philosophically reasoned, and more runner’s high than sugar rush in both cases because overdosing on them is good for you. The keys to each’s success are front-center and foolproof – that Watershed-honoring keyboard riff in “Call Me Maybe”, fleshed out so beautifully on melodica (?) by the Roots, or the flawlessly arranged holes in “We Are Never Getting Back Together” first made clear by that sumptuous guitar sample. But it all comes down to the melodies, the one which ascends to heaven and frenches God being “Call Me Maybe” even if the effortless snake-and-ladder opening of “We Are Never Getting Back Together” comes real close. Nothing wrong with either’s lyrics, either – hear how Jepsen dexterously sidesteps hammering her clichés while mixing metaphors with a grace young Elvis Costello would’ve killed for, and doing just as well as him re: poetry (“pennies and dimes for a kiss”, ahh) before sliding into one of the most rewarding snatches of doggerel-hook this side of Wings (“before you came into my life/I missed you so bad”). Taylor’s lyrics stay a little more earthbound (she’s a master of pop plainspeech even if those new sunglasses are a little hoity) but they’re as agreeable as perfunctory gets, and as for that semi-notorious “indie record” line, for a non-intellectual non-aesthete like her it constitutes both heroic self-awareness and anti-establishment hell-yeah – Merriweather Post Pavillion may be chicer than Speak Now, but it sure isn’t better, and that the majority miss this fact gives her a right to the jab. Back to back, these tracks are seven minutes in heaven with Mata Hari, and then of course comes the plastic-sword-plus-maraschino-cherry of those two adorably stupid videos, my affection for which I’m pretty certain is no more than 5% motivated by a reflex attraction to the bad actresses for whom they were purchased.
P.S. I’m reminded that CRJ is Canadian. But we made her, & she let us.
1. Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
From the beginning, it’s almost as if he’s been daring himself to succumb to easy-listening clichés, right up to that wall of strings he gave himself to polevault over on the start of what used to be his latest and greatest album. But not until last year’s EP, which followed a few years of silence we now know were devoted to hashing out a heartbreak, did perfect clarity and unencumbered sincerity seem like priorities. The lamplit streets of Jens’ deeply romantic songs, melodic and innocent as a rule, have always been foggy with his cute penchant for subversion, a well-wielded method of both coping with and refusing to hide his innate self-consciousness that kept his sweet sounds from choking on their own saccharine. Up until now, his thing was throwing a darkly comic twist at you – birthday-spoiling Jehovah’s Witnesses, a severed fingertip, the casually crooned “though I fucked up” that nearly justifies the Broadway bombast of the aforementioned opener. Additionally, what kept this Brill Building emulator underground beyond anachronism and geography was the ethereal distance that came with his DIY production methods, not unlike even formal-er formalist Stephin Merritt’s fuzzy, buzzy early records. Now he’s ironed all that out, and with it went the deliberate weirdness – he’s lived and loved long enough not to need to hide behind such tricks, and now he’s perfected the art of the autobiographical narrative, unspooling a set of shaggy-dog sketches bedecked with beautifully literary facets, and never once sidestepping whatever universal emotion each is keyed to. At first I admit I missed the jarringly surrealist strokes he used to get off on, particularly since this music is smoother and more deliberated over than his usual choice of syrup, a less complex Aja or more organic Boys & Girls with a similar penchant for those tasty, jazzy chords he cutely identifies for us in the closer – chords his younger, woolier music never needed to be as gorgeous as it always unfailingly was. But it’s not that he’s abandoned his uniqueness for serious pastures; he’s simply found a place for it without needing to make any bones about the way he really feels. In a way, he’s a far cannier brand of unique: In the Wee Small Hours made no room for nuances like the subtlest, politest jab at Republicans ever sung, or a protagonist so down on his lady-luck a female possum refuses to eat out of his hand. Blood on the Tracks never incorporated an outside-the-box touch like the laugh in the penultimate number that elevates this record’s scope to the absolutely cinematic. This is not a normal singer-songwriter confessional, but what it stands to document is an ever-lovelorn savant auteur who came out of a crushing rejection having learned how to be comfortable being human. So warm, so witty, this nouveau Jens would certainly admit he owes as much to Stephin Merritt as Tracey Thorn, but post-69 Love Songs Merritt couldn’t do something this good if he tried, and that’s primarily because he refuses to learn how too.
2. Best Coast, The Only Place
Like Elizabeth Morris, who’s a more gifted writer if a less commanding singer, Bethany Cosentino has every right to crisp up her production the second time around if she feels like it (or can afford it) – pop as direct and ebullient as Crazy For You’s tends to sound best torpedoed over gated drums and couched in siren synths anyway, as great singles from “Money Changes Everything” to “Call Me Maybe” have long made clear. But like Morris, Cosentino has settled for the less-thrilling well-oiled rock combo produced (by megapro Jon Brion, oddly sedate here) like it’s performing right there in your ear, devoid of murk or fuzz or bleed or anything but perfunctory imperfections. It’s not an innately exciting sound qua sound, especially absent guitar anarchy, and like Morris once more, Bethany’s also failed to supply a second round of the kind of tunes worth shedding that kind of sunlight on. And it would be stupid to deny that much of the magic of breakout track “Boyfriend”, beyond its hook (the kind that comes to songwriters on clouds or during showers when they least expect it), was in the inferno-over-the ocean grunge of its production, a lo-fi or faux-lo-fi distance that via generous pop gremlins wrung out every ounce of golden atmosphere from a fairly unimaginative, if automatically enjoyable, piece of writing. What Bethany pens is classicist pop like Christopher Owens’ – obvious but reliable chords and simple-for-simple’s sake (i.e. not technically unpretentious) lyrics because that’s what they take away from the 60s radio chestnuts they prefer to more complex categories. But both young writers miss that the key to such stuff is writing smarter than it seems. They get that there’s usually another dimension or two there, and occasionally stumble on a canny change/line or two themselves, but their senses of focus and craft wouldn’t beat a Buddah Records bubblegum smash – they share no evident notion of how to program a song so that it builds and transcends and sounds deceptively basic, rather than mistaking the basic for a virtue in and of itself. If they were punk rockers, the latter would be acceptable, but both chose to ditch that tendency the second time around. And of course it makes a difference that none of The Only Place’s songs are half as immediate or indelible as “Boyfriend”, because in Bethany’s preferred mode of expression those are the primary measurements of success – would you respect the Beach Boys (or the Archies) if they never smiled or wrote the kind of choruses capable of compelling unselfserious road-trip singalongs? Certainly none of the ways she chooses to articulate her pain, throughout a set of lyrics’ whose cleverness-free plainness made me angry and impatient for a while, do much to bolster melodies as by-rote as Selena Gomez or Katy Perry, and much less concerned with the jugular than either run-of-the-miller. Eventually the diamonds-on-the-water pastorality of “The Only Place” and the beautiful, broken languidity of “How They Want Me to Be” embed themselves in your pleasure zone, and others may follow, if with a deficit of fulfillment. But eventually is only okay when your work is deep enough to be worth the time it takes. (I’m totally crushed out on the album cover, though.)
3. Rhett Miller, The Dreamer
“He sounds more like Malkmus than ever,” mused Alfred Soto about Mirror Traffic last year, “and it makes me shiver”. Somehow I feel the same way about Rhett and his new set of nice dreams – odd how every increase in professionalism and sincerity brings out the cloy in those distinctively friendly pipes. Naturally, I don’t prefer the uptick in convention that accompanies his Old 97-less albums, where he lays on the straight-faced love-man shtick like fun or self-effacement don’t sell records. After not cottoning to this one, I figured he should beat everybody to the punch and call the next go-it-aloner The Narcissist, and throw his fans for a loop by coming up with a set of songs completely devoid of self-pity, even the clever or manufactured (a good word for all his solo efforts) kind. I even had an idea for a good backing band, one guaranteed to cook more than the ones he tends to hire when his ego needs its regular fix. All that mostly came to me after a few tiptoes through “Lost Without You”, which has the effect of reducing one of our greatest modern writers to a self-parodist in five crafty and completely unsurprising minutes. But then I noticed he still had a way with a down-to-earth turn of phrase (“all I do is look around”, pretty funny), and that the modestly delivered text between the chorus tropes was as imaginative as any scrap of the plainspeech that made him famous. So it’s not instant, mostly because of a more streamlined and un-rockified country sound than usual, yet it’s as hooky, formulaic and brilliant as ever. It may be at once the most beautiful thing he’s ever rendered and the most unremarkable effort he’s ever turned in. But it would be silly of me to expect him to try and break his mold when he’s still so deft with it – wouldn’t it?
4. The Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
Whereas Jens and Rhett and Betheny swear by form, graceful fallen mango Dave Longstreth favors deconstruction above anything else, and not because he has a way with it or because it strengthens his message. His strangeness for strangeness’ sake has always lacked detectable justification – he’s not fun weird like Jonathan Richman or arty weird like Dylan or poetic weird like Neil Young or sexy weird like Kate Bush or soulful weird like Marvin Gaye or kinetic weird like Captain Beefheart or unpreventably weird like the Shaggs, and he earns none of those comparisons the way some of his better weirder 21st century peers do because he doesn’t care about making himself all that felt in the first place. Strengths – a marvelous melodic fragment, a cool touch, those great girls everybody knows he never uses enough – surface like he’s Loch Ness: briefly and intermittently, with no real or lasting payoff. But as weirdos-for-no-reason-who-refuse-to-shut-up go, he could certainly be less pleasant, especially on this album, where the concept seems to be a scavenger hunt for the most ingratiating sounds possible without succumbing to the artistic compromise of catchiness (something he fails at occasionally – “about to DIIIIIIiiie” echoes affably in my head every time I think about the record). Like anything else, if you put it on often enough you’ll eventually memorize it, and once the kinship is established it sure beats the haughty insularity of most art-rock – it’s earthier, more thoughtful, funnier, humbler, pretentious without being pompous (a feat, if not one worth attempting too often), and as a soundtrack to a gorgeous day plus perfect mood it turns into something like life affirmation, albeit from aliens who only get likable when they smoke up and let their tentacles down. The open heart is clear from the start – “he was made to love her/she was made to love him/and their offspring loved them”, wails the first song – but it’s hallmarked by a naïveté you’re never entirely certain is intentional. However, certain brands of naïveté are not only harmless but charming – think of eight-year-olds, for instance, or the Beach Boys, conspicuously referenced herein. Sure, “there is an answer / I haven’t found it / but I will keep dancing ‘til I do” hardly improves upon the dew-eyed humanity of its source, that granddaddy of all affected simpleton think-too-much Pet Sounds, which never once dared to pollute its poesy with a word like “impregnable”. But the album makes its wiggy way toward the same timeworn conclusion: that love is all you need to make it through whatever you’re tangled up in, with only a marginal loss in loveliness. One big, crooked smile.
5. Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram
At first this was received as an abomination: a frivolous, weightless betrayal of the oceanic significance the Beatles had bestowed upon the world of pop music (they capped that canon with Abbey Road, but never mind). After a while of suffering through far worse consequences of the post-Fabs fissure (Klaatu, Badfinger, nearly every subsequent Paulie platter), the consensus was readjusted, probably with a bit of national pride on the part of the often daft ‘90s Brit Brigade, and so the archetypal trifle became some unheralded ragamuffin masterpiece. And of course, a sensible assessment would put it somewhere in the tolerant middle – a modestly brilliant, supremely inventive DIY-pop oddity that’s humbler than Todd Rundgren, more dynamic than the Shoes, a lot more cohesive than the Dirty Projectors and as devoid of depth as it is offense. The twin thrills of harmony and revolution the Beatles saved the world with are supplanted by a solipsism and domesticity rendered as flawlessly as the obsessive super-talent who dreamt these songs up while high could manage, and as long as you abandon hope of uncovering any significance (which isn’t the same as meaning), it’s hard to find a melodic snatch that doesn’t explode with the same cracked joy as anything on the White Album. “Jealous Guy” and “Oh Yoko!” may mean more, may be miles more vital, but they can’t provide a pleasure quite like that of spending weeks unpacking these tricky, twisty arrangements, and don’t toss up hundreds of tiny melodic snatches that would soar in any Beatles track upon which a little more time was spent. That’s the problem, of course, and the quintessential Paul criticism – all that talent, all those keen ideas, wasted on a laziness fueled by pot, money, marital bliss and the loss of his band. But this album is so far from desultory, boring, or uninspired even if a few of the selections err smug or mannered; all Paul ever meant was for you to put your headphones on and smile away, and his great failing on later albums was an inability to make good on the aural incentive. So what if Ram’s pleasure is essentially statistical, genetically devoid of soul; that doesn’t mean “Too Many People” isn’t thrilling, or “Dear Boy” isn’t enthralling, or “Monkberry Moon Delight” isn’t delightful, or the polarizing “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is any worse a nonsensical catalyst for impromptu car trip choruses than “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And whether that valentine-day artist credit is paycheck trick, piety, condescension, johnandyoko one-upmanship or actual accurate description, Linda’s endearing honk is integrated as expertly into the crude-charm textures as anything else Paul lays his fingers on.
1. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
I’ve read a few complaints among the critics I trust most, both self-styled and professional, that Frank’s drawn too uncritical an account of a privileged lifestyle on a few of these tracks – namely the two songs conceptually conjoined by an imagined Mama Breaux monologue that rings pretty apt in the golden age of wealth inequality. And for me, this is the lefty equivalent of the surprisingly muted right-wing uproar over the wunderkind’s decision to thematically emphasize a uniquely casual sexuality shift, confined just about completely to inarticulate nasties in search of relevant comments sections. Though the stunning secret debut nostalgia, ULTRA’s panoply of personal plaints did err fairly universal (the kid knew how to do heartache) or at least sympathetic (a dad and teenage wife who chose not to stick around), all Frank ever offered was unvarnished honesty about himself, and that’s exactly what he gives us here, with an undimmed quotient of the same miraculous clear eye. While the ache still sings through his smoothed-over-Stevie pipes when he senses it’s time to ease up a bit on his expert delicacy, an apparent financial upgrade after years of plugging away at what he’d always known he was born to do frees him up to nail a shimmering sonic daydream that’s every bit as becalming and transportive as Another Green World. Though similarly temperate throughout, it’s still littered with poignant little sunbursts of pink-sky sound aimed to mollify your ears into a state of near-nirvana – that feather-descent spiral of backing vocals in “Sierra Leone”, the iridescent keyboard hook that beautifies “Lost”, the impossibly moving return of an outkast who ditches his trademark flamboyance and offers Frank a dose of the virtuoso texture he can’t conjure up himself on “Pink Matter”. Not all of these aural pastures resonate flawlessly as songs; where nostalgia favored craft over flow, its writerly winners given unity by a mere voice and the click of a tape deck, this one’s all about the atmosphere, a sumptuous gestalt that only peaks when it’s time to nail a point. Which you never miss when he does, because he’s fine-tuned a perfect hook for each – “if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”, “super rich kids with nothing but loose ends”, or his subtly breathtaking message to a lover he dubs Forrest Gump: “you run my mind, boy”. On the soul-saturated “Sweet Life” (the best song no matter what its first line insinuates), he sums up the taste of fortune with perfect poetic economy as “mango, peaches and lime”, and still quickly concludes what remains beyond his Watch the Throne uncles – that a luxurious existence is no reliable means to the “real love” he’s made his beast of burden since album one. By the end of album two, he’s not so sure women are either, and his refusal to pigeonhole his foray across that line isn’t so much a victory for LGBT culture as it is a triumphant display of his (and my) generation’s main merit: the capacity for an undaunted open mind.
2. OFWGKTA, The OF Tape Vol. 2
What makes Tyler the Creator’s music offensive isn’t the content – this is a post-Marshall Mathers world, after all. It’s how confident he is that his own take on the public-enemy shtick reimagined so excitingly by Eminem is equally epochal, coupled with the fact that his only modification on said shtick is to filter out the humor, hooks and spit game. Trouble is, he’s being covered in the critical mainstream, esp. the faux-underground, like he is that epochal, and so this hour-long revue from Tyler and (mostly) his buddies gets the kind of chain-packing push for which Frank Ocean’s visionary shit was barely given a chance. The one true talent amid their motley ranks, languid linguistic wizard Earl Sweatshirt, remains mostly MIA. And while the other Odd Future guys don’t sound like Tyler, their only modification on his shtick is to filter out the only things he has going for him: narrative conviction and personality. Which leaves us with a collection of tedious and unexceptional tracks into whose clunky, ho-hum ether even Frank’s little bitty pretty one can’t help but float away. It’s not that they’re old enough to know better – it’s that they’ve been at it for long enough to have picked up a few tricks by now. Or at least humility, a pop sense and something worth saying.
3. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do*
She’s only worked her way up as a composer since her irrefutably gifted (if also irrefutably formative) debut, getting wiser, weirder and more enticing with every set of songs. But what’s always made Fiona Apple great isn’t her poetry, which walks a willful tightrope between ingenious and ridiculous, or her music, whose tenacious foot in the same blues-tinged cabaret mold every so often betrays a shortfall of imagination. It’s that voice, a spot-on, emotive, guttural rasp-croon that’s nevertheless distinctly female, and as sensual and aggressive as any pipes possessed by a member of that sexiest and strongest gender. Always threatening to burst into sobs or tear your throat out, she sashays across her range with an acrobatic confidence, and it’s the single most compelling element of a body of work that’s never been for lack of wit or drive or craft or dynamics or brilliance or (sometimes) genius. The two albums that came before this one, at seven and six year intervals, are classics, the elder a full-throated surrealist torch-pop tour of fractured romance and general existential dissatisfaction, the latter a simmering genre-straddle about… well, the same things, but glistening with an effortless complexity and heroic self-awareness. But this is the first that screams with pure identity, a broken-mirror update from a psyche that’s becoming ever more comfortable with itself the less stable its host feels. Tumbling over carefully if not fussily selected chords, whatever clusters effect the most balanced blend of lovely and dissonant, and gavotting on the shoulders of a percussionist who has as much fun indulging his insanity as she does, why she’s loosened her control and freed her fucked-up soul so is a fallacious question; it’s all control, all shrewd precision, a woman out of time and mind devoting a tableau to a decidedly human madness she’s more secure with than those who swallow it down and let it fester. Tom Waits, hardly a phony, sounds burlesque by comparison. And if the sound seems unnavigable at first, keep your ears out for magnificent snatches of casual poetry that remind you how good at this she is – “this is where the pain comes in / like a second skeleton / trying to fit beneath the skin”; “I’m amorous but out of reach / a still-life drawing of a peach”; “just tolerate my little fists tugging on your forest chest”; and of course “if I’m a pad of butter he’s a hot knife” – the most exciting and inviting song on the album. Moreover, when a dubious line comes along, like the much-quoted hot piss/feathers couplet, the titanic vocalist gives forth with a righteous “aaaaaAAAAAAAAAuhh” and crushes your objections into powder. Rock ’n’ roll.
4. Allo Darlin’, Europe
Forged from the simplest set of patchwork squares, and rendered luminous by nothing more than reverb, melody and spirit, the first Allo Darlin’ bore all the unprepossessing beauty of later-period Go-Betweens, Elizabeth Morris being another intellectual-by-nature who sees vitality no clearer than through the prism of the most elemental pop. And yet her palette was broader even if her tricks were too received to make her quite as miraculous – she shone the lights of sources as seemingly divergent as Afropop and Weezer (the linking element between all three is a penchant for pairings of Is IVs and Vs) on the products of her thoughtful muse, resulting in ten songs that breathed a contagious ebullience and unique eccentricity into perfect respect for the tradition. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cleverness and zest so simultaneously exuberant and orderly. Here, the playfulness has been largely supplanted with rumination, and the cuteness she knew exactly how to wield without undercutting herself with a steely maturity she’s still working on making profound. She confirms the Go-Betweens influence in the title of the best song, but it isn’t the best because it sounds like them (much less the Maytals) – it’s because she sets the lyric she’s worked the hardest on to a set of chords which flesh out their poignancy as filtered through a classic teary trick, the delicate ukulele strum. The skill of “Tallulah” isn’t absent from the other songs, most especially the wistful, hungry “People Say” (perfect lyrics) and the starry-eyed title track (perfectly lyrical), but Michael Tatum of Downloader’s Diary had it exactly right when he invoked Go-Between Grant McLennan’s solo album Horsebreaker Star as a comparison, except insofar as he identified it as a positive thing. Like the flawed classic Star, which lays a lot harder on the hooks, the production here is slick in an anonymously organic way, which rarely serves to rivet when the material is so understated; if you’re gonna shoot for crisp sonics, then go all the way, like Watershed, whose radio-aimed sheen was so incandescent it ended up the most distinctly exultant thing in McLennan’s entire discography. And like Star, Europe is the sound of a lot of beatific melodies shimmering around you without ever really turning you on or making themselves felt, and no matter how often you play it you still don’t feel as dazzled or touched by any of them as you were by Allo Darlin’ marginals like the chin-up bliss of “What Will Be Will Be”, or the startlingly sexy “Let’s Go Swimming”. None of these songs are startlingly anything – they’re just very good, and not quite as very good as Morris’ first set. No, MT, she doesn’t need a Forster to offset her splendorous melodics with kinetic angularity. She just needs the kind of inspiration and self-confidence that powered her first songs, and in the transition from youth to adulthood – ostensibly what all her new songs are about – those are the hardest things to hold on to.
5. Regina Spektor, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
The reason Pitchfork and college radio stations acknowledge Regina Spektor’s existence and not Taylor Swift’s, even if the latter is becoming far more bellicose and adventurous than the former, is because Regina started out not as the easy-listening pro she’s evolved into but as a category-free curiosity. She did always have a somewhat definitive penchant for (astutely appropriated) syrup, and she’s still pretty wacky – check out how she holds your attention through the otherwise deadening “Open”. But cute has its limits when its only vessels are a sweet soprano and a slowly fingered baby grand, and it might make sense for her proponents to ask themselves just how much is too much. My vote is the moment she punctuates the downy, ad libitum intro to “The Party” with a dead serious “you taste like birthday / you look like new year”, though on a sunnier day I might not feel so bugged. But in general, this is much too tempered as compared to previous platters that were never exactly wild, but never exactly as in-the-box as this often feels. Not only have the intermittent punk raveups, electronic experiments and even vocal gymnastics of old been dulled, her best ideas don’t give you half as much pause as her most traditional prior triumphs (“Better”, “Samson”, “Wallet”, “Laughing With”). There’s a good song about leaving your small town and making it big yoked to a chord progression they tested for effectiveness long ago, an intriguing and fairly successful experiment wherein she combines The Godfather and the Animals for whatever reason, a great lyric about how hard the people in paintings have it (no recession-era blues for Regina, not that she’s obligated, although she does do one called “Ballad of a Politician”), and a soaring, gospelly ballad that hits higher heights than “Field Below” on account of a melody that both ranks with and resembles something from the Great American Songbook. The pick hit, however, is also one where it feels like she’s making fun of herself, a gorgeous, uplifting, vaguely ska-inflected electronic poptune from one of her early CD-Rs replete with French chorus and capped with a gloriously silly outro that goes as follows: “I love Paris in the rain/I love Paris in the rain/I love/I love/in the rain”. And though Regina always had 13-year-old girly girls with diaries full of poems barely less deft than hers in mind, it’s never a good sign when one is inclined to give points for self-parody. She’s always been a pleasure, but that hint of anarchy that kept her strange and exciting has essentially evaporated. And though she hasn’t lost the eccentric energy that keeps her cotton candy sweet, she ought to remember that the eccentric energy which usually accompanies a little something called rock would suit her fidelity to whimsy quite nicely.
*I would like credit for typing this title from memory without being totally sure about it (well, okay, I added a “the” before “Whipping Cords”; makes more rhythmic sense out loud, doesn’t it?)
1. Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Define this record by its three ingenious, flawlessly incisive recession songs – a succinct and bullshit-free people’s history, a bad-luck ballad manufactured to validate a sweeping designation of “bad people”, and the one that climaxes with “what’s keeping me from killing this [rich] guy?/takin’ his shit?” – and it comes off like the rabble-rousing anthemic masterpiece the put-upon left has been choking down its bile waiting to sing along with. Yet it’s fallacious to characterize any of Snider’s undeniably felt righteous indignation as anger; all he’s armed with is a keen-eyed empathy that verges into sympathy when the situation warrants it, through which he filters fictional accounts of various unchecked passions he knows when to render his own distance from clear, as with that “what he called” qualification in “Crazy Woman Blues”. Snider admires the vigilance and vitriol that comes from failing to secure your portion of the land of opportunity’s opportunity, especially when it’s someone else’s fault, and he’s unafraid to say that he gets the accompanying impulse for reactionary violence. But as a writer first and foremost, he never dodges an objective gander at both sides, acknowledging in the very first song that the twin poisons of class and religion were borne from a self-defense imperative to survival in (somewhat) more barbaric times. When his own points emerge, tolerance is his only message, and like the best satiric humanists the types he inhabits are never the subject of mockery. This is most impressively illustrated with “Kids”, officially “Precious Little Miracles” (they don’t call him Snider for nothin’): though the boomer narrator is allowed a passing and far from unrealistic line about low-rise pants and offensive hat to match, the full extent of the ribbing is contained in its wryly old-timey music, which in its sheer beauty covertly serves to disprove myths about Snider’s own melodic limitations. No, previous generations cannot adequately comprehend the bleak-future shitstorm currently clouding the judgment of the current one – but at the end of the day, cleaning up parks and working a bunch of skits up aren’t half-bad cures for directionless despondency, particularly the kind that leads to a belief that revenge is the best revenge. And “buckle down and love us” works just as well as a potential plea from the have-nots to the haves, or from any human to another. Add to all the topical triumphs a message-bolstering barroom weeper borrowed from Jimmy Buffett, a cute breakup tune which deepens over time, a melodic-pop wonder that functions as an ode to both soul mates and the Stones, and a big finish essayed as expertly as the other nine, and you end up with a masterpiece that belongs to everybody, regardless of financial bracket, from the most unpretentious intellectual in all of rock ‘n’ roll.
2. s / s / s, Beak & Claw
Say this for Sufjan Stevens – for a guy whose ’05 public embrace should by all rights have compelled him into a holding pattern of twee-folk hell, he’s set up some serious shop off the sellout grid, spending time once dedicated to paying tribute to 48 other states floating around a pillowtown of inarguably original, if often less than riveting, atmospheric electronica. But far more significantly, he’s got a hell of a taste for collaborators, which if it wasn’t clear before is highlighted beautifully by this incredible EP, an ethereal twenty minutes with the scope of an epic soundtrack. Though there’s a rawness and ghostliness to Son Lux’s music Sufjan’s lacks, as well as a baroque stuffiness that renders them kindred spirits, the marriage of both sensibilities is seamless in the best possible way, two affectations of dreams that fall just short of a certain surreal power merging into one captivating, shimmering aural reverie. And though both artists can fall victim to a tendency to get lost up their own asses, they were awfully sharp in anchoring their heavenly noise to the plainspeech of sage Serengeti, multifaceted mastermind of the Kenny Dennis and Grimm Teachaz records. His words complement the wistful, willowy sonics with an earthbound wisdom splendorously illuminated by the fractured-yet-soothing cinematic/existential dream in which they exist. As Serengeti spins autobiography while Stevens interjects aphorisms, the result is pure majesty, a subtle suite about growing up that effortlessly echoes the universally understood magic of the experience. Its conclusion inhabits an even sweeter sphere of brilliance – the uncanny “Octomom”, wherein Everyman Protagonist grows up for good by serving as stepfather to his former prom date’s media-hounded ward. Said song’s casual envisioning of that ubiquitous national freakshow-feature as the object of a another real live human being’s real live love reminds us how crucial it is in this particular American moment that the younger subculture subsumes the culture whose thumb it’s under – reflexive judgment and media-perpetuated moral scavenging are received behaviors if they’re there at all. What all this amounts to is woozy indie soundscaping in service of true profundity, an idea it’s amazing it took this long to achieve.
3. Withered Hand, Heart Heart
Good News could’ve easily gone down as one of rock history’s great career sole-shots without sacrificing a cent of prestige, a brokenhearted and -voiced personal history of transcendent thematic thoroughness as devised by a guy who didn’t sound like he’d be alive the next time you visited. Fortunately, this teeny-weeny EP verifies that Dan Willson is hardly cracked beyond repair; he’s even conscious of the only thing his last record left him needing to prove, that thing being whether or not he has a way with a relentless rock-out rhythm section. Turns out he does, and though the whoa-oh-ohs and heart! heart!s of the first track do remind me a little of Arcade Fire’s jubilant juvenilia, the smart schizo structure, warbly grunge guitars and (especially as well as obviously) fantastic lyrics burn those concerns away to ash and nothing. Whether or not the tunes resurface on a sophomore classic or merely serve as Willson’s standing proof that he was made to cut a perfect platter every two or three years in perpetuity, they’re his way of informing us he’s not just some unwittingly prodigious freak novelty. The remix, meanwhile, must be his way of informing us he’s got a sense of humor, or at least that his fondness for weirdness isn’t exclusive to the brand he was born with.
4. Jack White, Blunderbuss
5. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Two things changed when Bruce Springsteen hit the 21st century. For all his mid-heyday pigeonholing as bellower-in-chief for the common man, the ‘00s were the first decade in which he fully shouldered the myth bestowed upon him by regular Joes who saw their reflections in populist character sketches from “Badlands” on, a solidified commitment the twin can’t-ignore NYC tragedies of Amadou Diallo and 9/11 were primarily responsible for. Since then, he’s put out five studio albums of mildly fluctuating social-consciousness overtone, and with each his heroic status has faded slightly in the collective imagination. Which brings us to change #2: after three decades of brilliantly disguising his status as pop’s most gifted dork behind that boundless energy, unparalleled passion and studied cool, Bruce Springsteen attained his dinosaurhood, something that has tended to happen to rock’s originals around the time of their 30th anniversary and Hall of Fame induction even if they kick off the period with a comeback as keen as The Rising. The man’s affinity for corn made sense when he was young and spry and his peers were wielding worse clichés; now it only serves to distract prospective younger fans from the brains and brotherly love behind a lark like “Queen of the Supermarket”. But though his inextricable seriousness and the lack of irony he prefers to operate with have lent his recent albums the accompanying requirement of more and more grains of salt, there are moments when that unflagging conviction is exactly what an occasion calls for – watch his appropriation of “41 Shots” as a commentary on the Trayvon Martin case and try to see through your tears as he steps away from the mic, still mouthing that chorus. Since Working on a Dream, America has become a country defined by a misfortune it isn’t used to, and since die-hard lefties aren’t all cynical intellectuals, there’s a class of disenfranchised folk in dire need of a Springsteen CD as right-on as the last few haven’t been to soundtrack their humble, righteous rage. And on a recession album that’s no less artful than Todd Snider’s for being more sincere and less clever, he delivers it, going for the gut with enough force to stifle most objections to his built-in sentimentality. Welding his usual vocabulary of stadium-rock clichés to a couple of new stylistic shades as invigorating as they are silly – a surplus of Poguesy stomp, a retro notion of “modern” informing several beats, even a passage of rap he wisely delegates to somebody else – the sounds are all markedly livelier and less by-rote than on any of his recent offerings, and all of it works. Meanwhile, the lyrics nail it over and over in the most adeptly unadventurous ways possible, every track keyed to a phrase often penetrating, sometimes heartrending and usually a little of both. I could try to cerebrally color this analysis by polysyllabically probing for additional contours and deficiencies, but really, sometimes rocking and meaning it are all you need to forge a masterpiece.