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NIck Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s newest work with the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, is a daunting affair conceptually and lyrically. The two-disc affair isn’t simply a double album—it’s two albums stuck in the same box—and though it’s easy to see one as simply the “loud” one and the other as the “quiet,” the pairing is interesting at deeper levels as well. Central to both are various Western notions of theology and theism—at the risk of being overly reductive, Abattoir and Lyre representing the mono- and poly- versions of each. Lyrically, Abattoir is the more conventional-sounding in this sense, though it’s never exactly clear if the words—the opening “Get Ready for Love,” for example, is built around the simple hook “Praise Him!”—are bolstered or subverted by the (effectively) overblown gospel choir behind them. Similarly, “Let the Bells Ring” centers on the repeated couplet “Let the bells ring / He is the real thing”—definitely not an original sentiment if sincere, but also not sarcastic enough in tone or delivery to be clearly sardonic.
Musically, Abattoir Blues also muddles reading any clear intentions. At times (“Cannibal’s Hymn” and the title track in particular) this is rock and roll in all its arena-mystic-pot-cloud 1970 glory; drummer Robert Donahoe must have found John Bonham’s drumset on eBay. Elsewhere, the album sounds like over-drugged outtakes from Exile on Main Street—a narrow distinction, perhaps, but one which hints at how Cave & Co. never make it clear if they are trying to say something profound musically or just rock the fuck out. (Extra credit bonus assignment: compare “Hiding All Away” with “Gimme Shelter.”)
This unclear sense of irony is only confounded all the more with The Lyre of Orpheus. Though intentionally opaque and periodically über-theatrical (especially in the opening eponymous track), Lyre is never quite too much to make you cringe or laugh. Indeed, part of what makes it so intriguing is its way of doling out just enough minimalism (“Babe, You Turn Me On” and “Easy Money”) to musically temper the fact that, lyrically, this is an album built from an erudite classical myth (fittingly, perhaps, about a man who can’t make the music he wants) and which dabbles heavily in pagan-bucolic imagery: “The fox chases the rabbit round / the rabbit hides beneath the ground” Cave liltingly observes in “Breathless.” Yet the overall effect is convincing, if at times a little benign; Cave manages to blend convention and allusion seamlessly enough to make this a very spiffy and intriguing album.
Like Trees We Grow Up To Be Satellites
Lazarus departs from the mysteriously intimate and controversially emotional demeanor of his first solo release, Songs For An Unborn Son, with the newest collaborative effort and second full-length Like Trees We Grow Up To Be Satellites. This latest record departs from its precursor’s haunting, depressed melodies to offer a more ethereal, less driven tracklist, displayed through an optimistic lens.
Upon his departure from the acclaimed indie-rock group Tarentel, William Montgomery adopted the Lazarus persona and let his personal styling flow onto CD. Like Trees We Grow Up to be Satellites is less emotionally uncomfortable to the listener than his first album, both lyrically and melodically signaling yet another turn in his musical career. In this CD, Montgomery takes a more mature and experienced outlook on the world around him.
The music of Lazarus is truly only for the indie-rock aficionado. To the untrained ear this music is a less inspired Parachutes, or a less harmonious Sea Change. With its staccato synthesized tambour, poetically upbeat lyrics, but melodiously stilted chords, this is an avant-garde record with a narrow and specialized audience.
The subtitle of this CD, A Backwards America, sums up its lyrical philosophy. Songs such as “This American Dream” and “Yes Roam” contrast a traditional view of the United States with the more realistic tracks “The Poet of Emptiness” and “Breathing in Backwards.” Despite the directly negative connotation that these later titles invoke, the lyrics of these pieces surprisingly provide an actively optimistic attitude.
Put out by Temporary Residence, Lazarus and label-mates Explosions in the Sky (EITS) performed an exhaustive tour of North America in the fall of 2003, and it was on this tour that EITS became permanently affiliated with William Montgomery. While Lazarus accredits his influences to Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, Nirvana and others, much of the material behind the music is inspired by his road experiences while on tour.
Completing the experience of this CD is its release with one of three hundred one-of-a-kind hand-painted disc sleeves. Artist Jeremiah Maddock, who has also done work on the cover of albums by Rumah Sakit and Howard Hello, has used the music on Like Trees as inspiration for the works on each individual sleeve. It is this type of collaboration of life experience, poetry, melody and artwork that adds to the unique allure of this unique record.
—Regina Schwartz The Doldrums
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Gaffiti
That this debut album from L.A.-based solo artist Ariel Pink is being released on the Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label gives some clue to the intention of The Doldrums. It shares with that troupe an affinity for presenting catchy melodies in bizarre ways, but the idea here is more fractured easy listening than campfire sing-along. The album is profoundly lo-fi, sometimes endearingly, sometimes gratingly; it comes across like something eavesdropped and only half-understood, with vocals, keyboards and feedback funneled through such a swampy mix that they often become indistinguishable. It’s in the spirit of ’60s and ’70s AM pop, at least outwardly, but chooses to disrupt any easy payoff with out-of-nowhere tempo swings and awkward vocals. This is music shattered and taped tenuously back together.
“Good Kids Make Bad Grown Ups” starts the album out pleasantly enough, with synthesized strings fluttering around Pink’s echoing vocals, building up a Sunday morning haze that envelops the damp percussion—is it a drum machine or just some dude beatboxing? Lyrically he more recites blurry jingles and scraps of melody than pronounces anything particularly relevant, using his voice as just another instrument in the fray. In tone he alternates here between a fairly lucid baritone and a whining falsetto, a trend that holds up throughout the disc. This tendency toward wild fluctuations gives an effect of purposely pathetic overextension (see the absurd choir-boy-to-demon shift in “Among Dreams”), as if he’s playing every part in a soap opera. He’s shooting for the platonic ideals of theme songs and television commercials, and hitting upon something far darker. In fact darkness is the only real unity, other than production values, that holds the disc together. Most every track is saturated with ghostly echoes and reverb, making for some very uneasy easy listening. The name isn’t just a gag: it really is haunted.
The music is so gleefully esoteric that it can’t be taken at face value and so opaque that it doesn’t make a statement. A decent parallel is early Beck: obscure, illogical, culturally hyper-aware, teetering on the verge of kitsch. It’s a pity Ariel Pink doesn’t have Beck’s talent, or this album might have been a lo-fi classic instead of a half-fleshed out concept. The Doldrums is troglodytic music: the detritus of decades pushed underground and reformed into something unsettling and unfit for the light of day.
(Temporary Residence, LTD.)
It’s unclear just what audience Ned Oldham is going for on his latest release with The Anomoanon. Their albums have always steered closer to the country-rock side of things than those of Ned’s more celebrated brother Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the chief songwriter behind Palace Music, Palace Songs, and Palace Brothers, albums routinely featuring the contributions of Ned and other brother Paul.
But the music of this prolific Appalachian clan has always swung towards confessional lo-fi, notable mostly for guilt obsession and Will’s achy singing than the instrumentation. Ned’s singing is stronger than his brother’s, but his soaring voice never stands in the center of the picture: three songs on their latest, Joji, extend seven minutes in length, and a lot of that time is spent with the band doing their best Grateful Dead.
While the Oldhams have traditionally found their base with the indie community, Ned Oldham seems to make conscious efforts to depart from his brother’s footsteps. If there’s one thing hipsters hate, it’s jam-rock, and while I wouldn’t be so bold as to classify this record so damningly, it’s safe to say that this album would find a friend in a mourning Phish-head much more easily than someone who’s into, say, the Dismemberment Plan. The songs are long, and the songs are slow. Guitar solos, like that in the last three minutes of “Wedding Song”—a musical echo of Palace Music’s “Marriage,” albeit three times as long—keen deep into the later minutes of tracks, which seem to have a hard time ending; most simply fade out over the instrumentation or have all instruments hit a staccato last note in an extremely forced sense of closure.
This is not as to say that at times the Anomoanon isn’t good at what they do; like My Morning Jacket and Wilco, once upon a time, the Anomoanon straddles the divide between the hipster and jam undergrounds, finding little secure fit in either pigeonhole but appealing to both scenes. Though “Mr. Train” borrows from classic-rock railroad mystique, the music is constantly engaging, especially in the driving percussion and high-hat touches and the smooth vocals. Ned can cover a vocal range without his more celebrated brother’s cracks, and for this type of song he’s more effective. Traditional, yes, innovative, no; nonetheless here the music is so relentlessly pleasant that even the most hardened hipster would have to tip his trucker hat. “After Than Before” has no words, but the guitar interplay strikes a conversation that’s consistently interesting, and the instrumental never gives in to any sort of conventional classic-rock structure. The banjos and harmonicas winding out “Green Sea” show the band at their most diverse, in a sparkling mélange that keeps on pushing forward after Oldham’s bit about a cheating lover is up.
Joji is an album that is consistently appealing, if difficult to place, but Ned Oldham’s determination to break apart from his brother’s Catskills vestiges in the indie world is admirable. As to which audience the album best suits, it remains tough to say, but despite the independent label and pedigree, my money, though, is still on my once-Deadhead father.
—Christopher A. Kukstis
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