Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bob Dylan Reviews #10



Bob Dylan Reviews

Album #10, Self Portrait

Columbia Records, 1970


In Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, he writes in the chapter entitled "New Morning," "I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it."

Bob Dylan's, Self Portrait, is one of rock and roll’s most notorious album duds. It’s also one of the few albums in the artist’s canon that few people, critics included, have actually sat down and listened to in its entirety.


Hype is a funny thing. Coming off an impressive run of nine solid, and universally lauded albums in the 1960s, Bob Dylan released an album that puzzled fans, yet again, but also garnered one of the most infamous reviews of any album in rock and roll. Greil Marcus’ scathing Rolling Stone review of the album opens with, "What is this shit?"


Self Portrait is not a great album, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation claims. Self Portrait is, rather, an experimental album, possibly intentionally executed by Dylan to kill some of the spotlight swarming his life.


Let’s take a look at Dylan’s current predicament: In 1966, he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, that no doubt opened his eyes a bit. He was fed up with the media and his fans labeling him the messiah of rock and roll and a voice of his supposed generation. He seemed completely ready to ditch this built up “false persona” in lieu of a normal life with his family in upstate New York.


Nashville Skyline had left listeners and critics, "scratching their heads" as Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume 1. By the end of the decade that made him a star, Dylan was ready to move on. He recalls spreading rumors that he was going to retire from music all together. He took a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore a skull cap in front of the press just so he could be written up as a zionist and ultimately shed the baggage of his followers.


That Self Portrait’s title alludes to Dylan trying to show the world his true side (or perhaps an imagined-self that would send obnoxious his fan-base and critics alike running) shows that once again, Dylan was eager to send a message to the public.


The music on Self Portrait is not bad, it’s just not as good as everything that preceded it.


The 24-song collection is comprised primarily of studio B-sides from the Nashville Skyline sessions, covers of traditional and contemporary folk and rock songs, and a handful of live tracks recorded with The Band at the Isle of Wright Festival.


What’s striking about Self Portrait is that it’s a mish mosh of songs carrying no overlying message or theme, setting it apart from the previous nine records. Nashville Skyline came as a surprise to some but at least it felt like a concise exercise, channeling a love of country music and showcasing a new style of singing. Had Portrait been released solely as a “bootleg record,” much like the still-ongoing Bootleg Series that would eventually arise, the album might not have incited Marcus and others to impale Dylan and call this album the end of his career.


If you look at the year Self Portrait was released, it’s understandable that many fans felt betrayed by Dylan.


1970 saw The Beatles’ breakup, not to mention Simon & Garfunkel (but more on that later). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both bought the farm, and a wave of long-winded progressive art-rock from Europe seemed to be ready to explode. It was a sudden and harsh end of a fruitful decade for rock and roll.


Leading up to the release of Self Portrait Dylan had given the public plenty of warning signs that he was an unpredictable artist unwilling to play into the media’s portrait of his place in the world. Why fans and critics would be that shocked by Portrait remains the album’s biggest mystery.


Self Portrait opens with the enchanting but bizarre “All the Pretty Horses,” which upon first listen must have seemed even more out of left field than Skyline’s introduction of Dylan’s country crooning voice.


“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?" This is how Portrait opens. Sung by three gospel singers and set to swelling strings and a simple guitar riff, the song instantly puzzles the listener, but does so in a surprisingly beautiful way.


Some view the song’s sparse lyrics as a nod to the fact that the album is admittedly void of the epic Dylan songs we’re used to. “How am I supposed to get any riding done?” could easily be mistaken for “How am I supposed to get any writing done?” which some see as Dylan saying that he's done writing the "protest songs" that the masses still expect.


At only two lines, it’s also worth mentioning that this song is the only track on side one that is a Dylan original, the remaining songs being covers and arrangements of traditional folk tunes.


The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” is forgettable but feels like a direct spawn of the Skyline sessions.


“In Search of Little Sadie” gets things moving at the end of side one, and carries into its sister song, “Little Sadie” on side two. The arrangement of a traditional folk ballad about a man coming to grips with the fact that he murdered a woman in cold blood is actually a perfect Dylan song. It wouldn’t have felt out of place on say, John Wesley Harding.


The “Sadie” tracks differ only in terms of instrumental arrangements, and both feature choppy production, again giving the impression that Portrait truly is an officially released collection of outtakes and bootlegs.


“Woogie Boogie” is a fun instrumental that again feels like an extension of the Skyline songs, most notably “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The song builds to an eventual onslaught of brass culminating in a rip-roaring sax outro. The song, which was written by Dylan, is the result of an artist no doubt having fun in the studio. It’s an ode to "the blues" that Dylan so often returns to in his career and is an all around standout track on Portrait.


“Belle Isle,” another arrangement of a traditional folk song, carries on with the crescendo of strings first heard on “All the Tired Horses” and is one of Portrait’s more tender moments, save for the fact that Dylan’s vocals seem off key. Nevertheless, the tale of a man falling in love with a mysterious Celtic maid on "the banks of Belle Isle" is enough to warrant the song’s beautiful orchestral arrangement.


The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a year earlier at the Isle of Wright Festival, is not the best live cut of the song available, but it captures perfectly the time of its recording. The Band’s presence is understood with Garth Hudson’s organ and the backup vocals from Robbie Robertson and company playing a vital role in the late 60s sound.


Self Portrait was officially released before the monstrous double album with The Band, Basement Tapes, but many of the songs on Portrait seem to be rejects or leftovers from those fruitful sessions. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is also an early sign of how Dylan would often deconstruct and alter his songs throughout his career. To this day no single live version of his hits are the same. His music always seems to evolve over time, taking on new forms–sometimes improving, sometimes causing fans to cringe.


The live version of “She Belongs To Me” (taken from the same 1969 concert) is another noteworthy example of this idea. Dylan’s songs take on different lives over his career. It’s an aspect of his music that fascinates some and infuriates others. Still no matter how you feel about it, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t keep things interesting.


Self Portrait’s most famous song, that is to say the only one people seem to reference when talking about the album, is “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” one of the album’s more successful covers and easily one of Dylan’s more underrated songs. Period.


Again blending strings, backup female vocalists, and a simple, albeit off-key vocal style from Dylan, this song seems to be one of several tracks on Portrait that carries a similar style and mood. Combined with “Belle Isle,” “All the Tired Horses,” and “Let It Be Me,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” takes the tenderness of Nashville Skyline and ups the production ante by adding, dare I say, a Phil Spector “wall of soundesque” level of instrumentation.


The song, a cover of a traditional folk song set during the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is an ode to back-country moonshining. Its a romantic portrait of the love of homemade whiskey and a lawlessness that was required to keep this passion alive during a time when the taxman wanted a piece.


Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don't use no green or rotten wood, they'll get you by the smoke
You'll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them just a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Listening to “Copper Kettle” you again get the feeling that, like many of the other folk songs recorded throughout Dylan’s career, this is a song and a setting in America’s past that Dylan cherishes deeply. It chronicles the kind of simple life Dylan yearned for.

Unfortunately unlike “Copper Kettle,” not all of the covers on Self Portrait end up as successful. The most criticized examples being Dylan’s lackluster covers of “Blue Moon” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”

“Blue Moon” is a rock and roll standard that has been covered by a countless array of different musicians. Perhaps Dylan wanted to join the party, perhaps he just likes the song; whatever the reason, Dylan pulls out his “Lay Lady Lay” vocals but does little else to amp up the performance. It’s not that the version is horrible, it’s just boring, predictable and doesn’t bring anything new to the fold.

On Nashville Skyline Dylan’s crooning, soft-toned vocals work best when paired with “Girl From the North Country.” Here he takes one of his immortal classics and sheds new light on an otherwise familiar sound (this move is aided by Johnny Cash of course). Dylan’s “Blue Moon” sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound like, which does the song a disfavor.

On the other hand, Dylan’s rendition of “The Boxer” is one of Self Portrait’s moments that must have really inspired Greil Marcus to famously open his Rolling Stone review with such a harsh choice of words.

Many of posited that “The Boxer” is one of the Dylan’s more humorous offerings. It has been seen as a parody of a song by one of his contemporaries that he either respects or loathes. Some see it merely as Dylan messing around in the studio, possibly while under the influence of something that toys with one’s judgement. Whatever the reasons are for the song’s existence, the fact remains that the cover just doesn’t work.

For starters, Dylan records a duet with himself, channeling both the scratchy Dylan vocals we grew accustomed to throughout the 60s with the country crooning imagined in Nashville. It’s an interesting move that, in this writer’s humble opinion, backs the argument that this is a song in which Dylan is poking fun at “The Boxer,” a classic song recorded by musicians who have truly beautiful voices at their disposal. Whether or not this is a direct response to something personal between Simon and Dylan remains unknown.

Dylan has always had a very subtle sense of humor. It pops up on songs throughout his career, and most notably during his mischievous probing of the media during his now infamous interviews. You don’t have to look farther than Dylan’s most recent album of Christmas songs set to blues and polka music to realize that behind those serious eyes there is a clever and dark sense of humor.

Self Portrait is hardly Dylan’s worst record to date (many argue that its sloppy follow-up compilation of Portrait outtakes, Dylan, is an even more dismal affair) but it still remains one of his most discussed mishaps.

During the eighties Dylan went through creative slumps that produced songs that make the music on Portrait seem like classic Dylan. What Self Portrait teaches us is that the media does in fact have power over listeners.

During the research for this entry I discovered a fan-made documentary on Self Portrait. What’s most striking is how many of the commentators who bash the album have never listened to the record all the way through. This is, of course, a sign of an unsuccessful album, however, when taking into consideration that Self Portrait contains 24 tracks, it should be assumed that amidst the duds there are some high notes.

Had Self Portrait been released simply as a collection of bootlegs and B-sides more people wouldn’t be as quick to follow suit and judge the songs. Countless magazine lists heralding the supposed “Worst Albums of All Time” place Portrait on a pedestal of disdain. Instead, I feel that Self Portrait is one of Dylan’s more curious moments in his career. How else should he have started a new decade? How does one follow a string of immortal, game-changing albums? Dylan would follow Portrait the same year with New Morning, one of the artist’s most underrated albums to date and one that garners this title because it comes in the wake of Portrait’s dismal press.

Self Portrait enabled Dylan to personally diminish the hype revolving around him, ultimately allowing him to start over and take his music into a new direction. He did this when he alienated fans by going electric, he would later do this during his “born again” years, and in the 90s, when his music and style changed so drastically that he worked diligently to attract a completely new fan base to his music.

David Bowie is often labeled a “the chameleon of rock and roll” for his many musical and physical transformations over the years, but its Dylan who really makes the best use of this career concept. For Dylan, the music always came first. The collection of songs on Self Portrait are exactly the kind of songs you would expect Dylan to release. He is a lover of obscure Americana and folk music (his current radio program showcases this passion perfectly) and he has always yearned to shed his musical skin for something new and less obvious.

Self Portrait is possibly Dylan’s most fascinating career move and is an album that demands to be revisited at least once more by skeptics. It’s not perfect but succeeds at capturing a moment in Dylan’s life and musical career. Sure The Basement Tapes is the better double album, but that documents, first and foremost, one of the truly rare and magical musical pairings in rock and roll.

Greil Marcus is a prolific music writer and his admiration for Dylan’s canon is unprecedented, however, one can’t help but think that his now infamous Rolling Stone review might have been the exact response Dylan was looking for at the time. It’s as if he walked right into the trap which makes Dylan’s persona as trickster and media manipulator, all the more intriguing.

6.0/10

Essential Tracks: "All the Tired Horses," "In Search of Little Sadie/Little Sadie," "Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)," "Bell Isle"





Sunday, March 21, 2010

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK NINE

Week 9: Got Me This Song, Ha Ha Ha Ho

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It's a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today



“Ana”
Pixies

Album: Bossanova

1990

4AD


She's my fave

Undressing in the sun

Return to sea - bye

Forgetting everyone

Eleven high

Ride a wave

–”Ana” Pixies


With Bossanova the Pixies made what might be the best modern day surf record. Considering the band hails from Boston, Mass. this feat is all the more impressive.


My appreciation of the Pixies maturated in waves. When I was younger my father passed on to me a cassette rip of Doolittle that his friend had given him. Up until high school, this was my only window into the band. I didn’t appreciate everything on Doolittle at that young age. Lead singer Black Francis’ exercises in primal scream found on tracks like “Tame” or the frightening lyrics on “I Bleed” warranted pushing the fast-forward button on my Walkman.


As for the rest of Doolittle, however, I liked what I heard.


The Pixies are masters at producing seemingly cool sounds. “Monkey Gone To Heaven” was catchy enough to make me utilize the rewind button, “Silver” was eerie, in an intriguing way, and “Mr. Grieves” was just plain weird with Francis’ menacing laughs opening the fast-paced chaos of the song.


Doolittle was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time, and was almost too much to take in. The album is non-sensical at times–pairing familiar pastime musical genres–surf rock, bubble gum pop, traditional hymns–with bizarre, often terrifying surreal lyrics (read: “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs” from the rip-roaring opener “Debaser,” which, as I would later discover in college, brilliantly pairs Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel with rock and roll).


Francis' words aside, the adornment I have for the Pixies and Doolittle has always been attributed to guitarist Joey Santiago’s masterful blending of sound assaulting guitar shredding with Beach Boys era surf rock. While present on all of the band’s records, this style was best put to use on 1990’s Bossanova.


I uncovered the Pixies short, but sweet discography over a long stretch of time. For a long time Doolittle was all I knew (and maybe all I wanted to know). The release of David Fincher’s film Fight Club shed new light on the superb track, “Where Is My Mind,” which ultimately encouraged me to check out both song’s album of origin, 1988‘s Surfer Rosa and also The Pixies debut EP, 1987‘s Come on Pilgrim.


For one reason or another it took another four years, well-into my stint at University, for me to explore Pixies’ latter two efforts, Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Why, you ask? Not sure. Perhaps a band like this should be examined over time.


Attention was first turned to
Bossanova one summer towards the end of University after I raided my cousin’s iTunes music library, which happened to have a handful of random Pixies tunes, including “Ana.”


I remember vividly the moment I first heard the song when it came on while my stereo shuffled through my newly acquired library. I didn’t know at first that it was, in fact, Pixies and Black Francis. The song is a rarity in the band’s canon in that it is the epitome of sleepy beach sounds. If the Beach Boys had ever had a truly menacing trip, they might issued something like this.


Opening with a quick drum crash and build, Santiago’s melodic guitar harmonies come in to set the mood. Enter Francis‘ whispering lyrics as he runs through an acrostic poem about a dreamy surfer girl riding an eleven-foot high wave. Carry the groove on for over two minutes and that's all she wrote.


The song is dark, fairly simple in its music and lyrics, but intoxicating.


It’s safe to say that before I even ventured through the rest of the tracks on Bossanova I was obsessed with “Ana.” It was like a fix for the addict in me. The song was on damn near every mix CD made during my Junior and Senior year of college, and more often than not when it was played, one singular listening was never enough.


Eventually I bought Bossanova and was blown away, yet again by its offerings. The album’s opener, “Celia Ann,” an obscure cover of a Finnish instrumental surf rock band (?!?!?!) called The Surftones, is perhaps Pixies best album opener, besting Doolittle’s “Debaser” and Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine,” respectively, in terms of setting the proper mood for the songs that follow. Bossanova is surf rock, stripped down, run through a wave of distortion and taken to some dark places. It's surfer rock on peyote.


The album is twisted yet brilliant. Loud and jarring at times, then suddenly and without warning, cool and melodic. Its “girlfriend” series of songs–starting with “Cecilia Ann,” followed by the epic “Velouria,” then the concise, angry “Allison,” and finally ending with “Ana–remain four of the band’s greatest songs.


Deeper cuts like the album’s beautiful closer, “Havalina,” the haunting “Down to the Well” or the insanely-energized cluster fuck of sound that is “Rock Music,” don’t require much adornment but get some nonetheless.


Still if I had to pick a favorite on Bossanova and really, in Pixies’ oeuvre, it would have to be “Ana.” The song is simple but musically packs a lot. It’s a song to unwind to. A song best heard at night. It’s on a short list of my favorite driving songs, and has a truly mesmerizing guitar riff.


When listening to Pixies my ranking of which album is the best slides in direct proportion with Joey Santiago’s guitar meanderings. When I discovered Bossanova it was, for a time, number one. Eventually the ridiculous title undoubtedly returned to Doolittle. When I finally got around to uncovering Trompe le Monde, it was a surprising victor, thanks in large part to its standout masterpiece, “Motorway to Roswell,” a moving tale of an alien visitor’s capture and eventual tomb of experimentation told in a way that only the Pixies could.


Sure both Bossanova and Trompe le Monde showed signs of cracks in the band’s infrastructure, most notably the tenuous relationship between Francis and co-singer/songwriter and bass player, Kim Deal. Many are quick to tag the latter two records, primarily when referring to Monde, as essentially Black Francis AKA Frank Black solo albums. While Deal isn’t as present during these records, they’re very much Pixies efforts, especially when you consider Santiago as an essential part of the band’s unique sound.


In the pantheon of rock and roll the Pixies doesn’t demand much more praise than it already receives. The band influenced an entire genre of music. Its blending of music and surrealism is ingenious and Black Francis is a masterful wordsmith. His songs are dark, violent, funny, bizarre, lovely, and, as the cunning linguist recently said in an interview on NPR’s rock and roll radio show, Sound Opinions, he “likes words for word’s sake.”


“Ana” never ceases to blow my mind. It’s a song that I can always turn to if I want to cap a long night. If I smoked cigarettes I’m guessing it would be my favorite smoking song, especially on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. I’m still waiting for someone to utilize the song in a film soundtrack since, like many Pixies tunes, it feels like a score to a “surf noir” film, if such a genre ever came to life. I can always fall back on a Pixies album to take me away from reality for a bit, even if it's to a dark, dark place full of “Stormy Weather” or “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”


Summed up: if, according to Pixies reasoning, “man is 5, the devil is 6, and God is 7” then Pixies is just shy of a perfect 10.


Monday, March 15, 2010


Top Albums of 2009


Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.


The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).


Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.


Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.


St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records


Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We're sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy's Smith and Wesson / We've got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.


Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.


How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow's some kind of stranger

Who I'm not supposed to see


Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can't see the future / But I know it's got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.



Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records


To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.


“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you'd sigh yourself to sleep

When I'd rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.


“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.


Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.


Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records


The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.


The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.


Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”


“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.


Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.


This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.



The Best of the Rest


Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia


The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.


Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records


Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.


The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records


The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”


Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute


Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.