Culturespill » 2008 » July

Meet Peter Salett

7th July

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Every once in a while and usually out of the blue, an artist comes along who seems so uninterested in being anyone other than who he is that even some of your most favorite bands seem like pretenders by comparison. I think of J.J. Cale back in 2004 on his first tour in forever and with a rare new album in stores, uttering not a single word about the new material and playing not one track from the CD the whole damned night. I think of The Velvet Underground, Bell & Sebastian, Josh Rouse, Mark Knopfler—artists whose only objective is to be true to their own vision despite any cost that authenticity may entail. But it’s time to put those Bright Eyes CDs back on the rack and check out a new guy on the block (well, new-ish—you just haven’t heard of him yet): Peter Salett, whose promising new album, In the Ocean of the Stars, is due out July 22nd.

Even bands of such indisputable integrity as Velvet Underground or Belle & Sebastian can seem stuck in a bit of a shtick after a while; that you can so assuredly turn to them at any time to deliver exactly the kind of sound your latest mood craves is great, but it’s also the kind of reliability that mars the work of bands who cling to what works rather than challenging themselves to expand their creative arsenals. Soon, that favorite band of yours just doesn’t catch you off guard any more; every song’s move and gesture inhabits its own permanent room in your memory, and you start to wonder where the groove went.

That’s when you turn to artists like Peter Salett, whose work at once appeases and surprises, delivering a steady serving of cool-minded folk pop that’s laced with the occasional, unanticipated flourish—a distant twang of lap steel silvers the edges of the song, or the funky tear of an amped-up guitar fractures a ballad’s fragile beauty to reveal something even more powerful and, it turns out, wholly unexpected. Suddenly you remember what it felt like when you fell in love with that one favorite band all those years ago.


Peter Salett: “With Anybody Else,” After A While (2004)

Unlike most of those established favorites, though, there’s something mildly brazen in Salett’s delivery that promises to never go stale. Listening to an entire album of his—a rare feat in this age of the mp3—reveals a range of impressive breadth and confidence. “Heart of Mine,” featured on the soundtrack for 2000’s Ben Stiller flick Keeping the Faith (yes, Salett’s been at it for a while now—question is, where have you been?), smacks of a kind of wizened Ben Folds or the charged piano pop of Mark Malman. But just when a folk-pop masterpiece like “With Anybody Else” tempts you to suspect that you’ve got Salett’s number, he digs for the devastating depths of “What A Beautiful Dancer” from his upcoming Ocean of the Stars, an uncharacteristically rocking tune that incorporates elements of surf rock and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse into his bright acoustic brand of indie pop. It’s a trippy piece of rock ‘n roll that picks up where the last Sparklehorse album left off–think “Mountains” or “Knives of Summertime.”

Like “Heart of Mine,” Salett’s new single, “Miss You,” sleepwalks breezily into a gorgeous acoustic soundscape that floats through its too-brief couple of minutes by force of its own mildly embittered longing. As if to make the much-needed suggestion that “indie” isn’t necessarily synonymous with self-loathing, though, Salett is careful not to linger in those sentiments too long. He quickly rebounds (oh, the puns!) with the sweetened melancholy of spare pieces like “Safe” or the album-closing “Sunshine,” a tune that captures the wistful daydreams of Salett’s sound and songwriting as accurately as anything he’s put to tape. Ocean of the Stars doesn’t depart in any measurable way from Salett’s proven recipe of laid back folk-pop with the occasional edge you never saw coming, but that’s because he neither needs nor intends to change. He is who he is. And, anyway, with a musical palate as wide as his, there’s really nowhere to depart to that he hasn’t already been.

The Perils of Political Songwriting

4th July

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Steve Earle

Few albums illustrate the dangers of an intersection between politics and art more profoundly than Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now. Earle, a pioneer of so called “alt-country,” busted out of a stint in prison for drug and firearm charges to send his career soaring with a ferocious, spare comeback album called Train-A-Comin’ in 1995, scoring himself a Grammy the following year. Not bad for a guy who, only months prior, couldn’t shake his taste for heroin and called a cage home. A disciple of the legendary Townes Van Zandt, Earle’s brand of country ditched the women-and-whiskey cliches of old Nashville and replaced it not with the painfully unlistenable bullshit that town’s major studios crank out now–you know, riding a cowboy to save a horse and the Honky Tonk Ba Donky Donk (Hank Williams winces in his grave)–but rather with a new attitude and something different to say, fusing country with a rap sheet and a bad attitude that sold as well on Broadway as it did on Music Row.

Then came the Bush administration, and, as is the case with many of us, something snapped. Albums like Jerusalem and the aforementioned Revolution preached more than they played, delivering lectures laid over music about the policies of the F.C.C. and war without end. These positions are all perfectly commendable, and they happen to coincide with mine. But with some exceptions (the blistering “Amerika V 6.0,” for instance) both the music and the message were compromised–the calm of the painter’s palette chucked for the fire of the pulpit–and the result is often a crude and condescending misfortune.


Steve Earle: “Oxycontin Blues,” Washington Square Serenade (2007)

Thankfully, Revolution Starts Now offers just enough redeeming moments to spare it from the utter failure it might have been, but the problem was that Earle had spent so many years demonstrating that he was capable of so much more than this, both as a composer and a writer. The politics are not the problem–and certainly not with me; I’m as lefty as lefty gets–the problem is that the many convenient and tossed-off details indulged throughout Revolution illustrate the risks any songwriter runs when appropriating their chosen craft for the purposes of political statement. The songs betray an otherwise prolific imagination, as Earle’s constant geography lesson — Baghdad, Basra, Kandahar –confine Revolution Starts Now to a much smaller range of ideas and emotions than Earle usually settles for, exactly the risk any songwriter takes when they know what they want to say before they even put a single word to paper. That’s probably what Milan Kundera meant when she said that “to be a writer doesn’t mean to preach a truth; it means to discover a truth.” Earle knows this, and that’s why Revolution was as surprising as it was disappointing, and a stark contrast to the brilliant return to form on last year’s Washington Square Serenade.

Works like Guitar Town, Copperhead Road and especially Transcendental Blues defied categorization with the broadness of their moods, sounds and ambitions; Revolution, by contrast, could quite easily be billed as Steve Earle’s “Iraq album.” It starts off familiarly enough: the distinctive thump and twang of the bellicose title track recalls past glories such as “NYC,” “Tanneytown” and “I Feel Alright,” and the instrumentation on the talking song, “Warrior” or the eloquent “I Thought You Should Know” are stirring enough, but so much of the album languishes in a sea of uninspired arrangements that wallow in over-written political invective. Clumsy and mawkish portraits such as the story of “Bobby” who “Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl / A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world” really take away from the profound sentiments of such Earle staples as “Lonelier Than This” or “Christmas in Washington.” And remarks such as “yours for the motherfuckin’ revolution” or “Fuck the FCC / Fuck the CIA”–however justified they may be (and they are) probably do more to discredit those who speak out against the unspeakable and costly hubris of the Bush II era. It’s not that Earle’s political material isn’t true–it most certainly is true, and those who wish to argue with the man ought to do it to his face at their own risk–it’s that albums like Jerusalem and Revolution simply sell the man’s talents short, cornering his voice into merely a single aspect of its expression.


Steve Earle: “Tanneytown,” El Corazon (2000)

Not surprisingly, Earle becomes far more articulate when he separates the politics from the art. “Comin’ Around” and “I Thought You Should Know,” conveying moving portraits of scorned lovers overcoming their fear to give it another try, are easily Revolution’s finest moments, warm stories that look past the cliches to find the compassion, as authentic as they are anthemic. Clearly, songwriters who wear their politics on their sleeve walk a difficult balance. That Earle’s more recent Washington Square Serenade is so much more powerful–and so wholly absent of the kind of posturing described above–ought to serve as an instructive admonishment to younger songwriters who mistake art for a platform. Sometimes it can work–somehow Allen Ginsberg pulled it off fifty years ago, and even though Reagan didn’t quite get it, so did Springsteen in 1984–but if such a balance isn’t struck often, it’s because it can hardly be struck at all.

The White Stripes: The Elephant in the Room

2nd July

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Browse any number of music forums and message boards around the web sometime and search for threads related to The White Stripes. Invariably you will find a growing chorus of fans who fell in love with the post-punk sublimity of De Stijl and, to a lesser extent, the breakthrough White Blood Cells, only to be almost entirely alienated by the rotten egg they laid in 2003 with the muddled catastrophe of Elephant. Now with Icky Thump living up only to the first word of its title with the occasional exception (the title track among them), it seems as if the momentary streak of brilliance they offered on Get Behind Me Satan–a wild and stunningly successful departure from the tired recipe of previous albums–was merely a passing tease.

It’s surely no surprise that their major-label debut–Icky Thump–interrupted what Satan foreshadowed: a stretching of the band’s creative boundaries that left them to explore as broad a range of possibilities as ever before. In keeping with the kind of anxieties that accompany major-label debuts by established bands (as in Death Cab’s pitiful Plans, their first LP for Atlantic), Icky Thump sounded like the timid product of sessions in which the band tried their damnedest to sound like the band their label wanted–and so the album went in two different directions at once, with one foot on the beaten path of all the band had done before and the other in the more eccentric arrangements Jack White showcased on Get Behind Me Satan.

Satan qualifies as a rock ‘n roll landmark and is at once the band’s most daring and accessible piece of work–and if you think that’s an easy balance to strike, you try it, tough guy. But of all the band’s 6 albums, one stands alone as the turning point that we didn’t have the hindsight to see for what it was at the time: 2003’s Elephant, a total crapper of an album from start to finish that rivals only the more recent Icky Thump in indulgence and unlistenability.

After firmly establishing themselves as the undisputed rock ‘n roll resurrection by 2003, The White Stripes answered their growing frenzy of devotees with one dud of an album. A band that, just a year prior, was universally hailed as a much-welcome throwback to a sound long dead, the stripped down guitar/drums duo from Detroit seemed about as interested in fanning the flames of their growing fame as a 25-year-old Neil Young. “That album put me in the middle of the road, so I headed for the ditch,” Young, who followed up 1972’s monumental Harvest with the deliberately inaccessible Time Fades Away in 1973, explained years later. Young has since called it his worst album and, to this day, has refused to release it on CD (it remains a vinyl-only collector’s gem.) It seems that the White Stripes are up to much of the same thing on the careless, uninspired and puerile albums Elephant and Icky Thump.


The White Stripes: “Blue Orchid,” Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

What were addictive and delightfully anachronistic rockers on De Stijl and White Blood Cells have given way to a drab collections of clunkers that sound more like sloppy, half-baked demos and outtakes. Taut, muscular collections doused in blues and grit such as De Stijl demonstrated a mammoth potential, rekindling the hopes of long-time subscribers to the “rock is dead” mantra. The orgasmic cacophony that emerged from Meg White’s sizzling drums and Jack White’s guitar and uncanny wail produced a sound that resounded with improbable richness and fervor. It was hardly unfamiliar but still, somehow, distinctive. From gorgeous rock ballads like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to raucous jams like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or the brain-searing “Let’s Build A Home,” Meg and Jack White, knowingly or not, had taken the fate of rock ‘n roll into their hands.

Beginning with an unlikely bass line complimented by Meg’s angry, thumping drums, Elephant serves as a mighty tease. Just as it seems that The Stripes had at last discovered a sound of even deeper texture and richness without compromising their essential minimalism, the album unfolds into so much noise and nonsense. Song after song rings hollow, as Jack’s lazy guitar simply mimes old motions while the downright irreverent snap of Meg’s drumming is conspicuously dormant. A shrieking, murky chorus ruins the aimless “There’s Just No Home For You Here,” while “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” sounds, at best, like an anemic stepchild to superior ballads from past albums, such as “Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.”

Perhaps Elephant‘s most egregious moment comes on the pseudo-poetic “In The Cold Cold Night,” on which Meg White sounds entirely foolish, lending a self-conscious and timid croon to lines so juvenile as to be the stuff of bad teen angst poetry:

I saw you standing on the corner,On the edge of a burning light,

I saw you standing on the corner,

Come to me again in the cold cold night…

“I don’t care what other people say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” she continues to the plucking of a guitar lick that sounds like a ragged attempt at nailing down a Harry Mancini riff.


The White Stripes: “Well it’s True That We Love One Another,” Elephant (2003)

As with most rock ‘n roll mishaps, though, a few gems emerge from the rubble of an unfortunate album. The explosive “Seven Nation Army” resounds with such energy and purpose as to seem like the work of another band altogether. The mean-eyed “The Hardest Button to Button” would crack an indulgent smile from the mouth of any AC/DC die-hard, and a flicker of soul ignites the piano-drenched “I Want To Be The Boy”–a sound the band would extend to such astonishing effect on Get Behind Me Satan.

Overall, however, the once formidable White Stripes seem to have morphed into a joke that few others are cool enough to get. “Just say Jack do you adore me,” Meg slurs on the silly, throwaway tune recorded with punk-rocker Holly Golightly, “It’s True That We Love One Another.” “Well I really would Holly but love really bores me” Jack answers. Judging from the remarkably listless Elephant, one wonders whether the music, too, bores poor Jack.

Icky Thump and Elephant are the modern-day equivalents of Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, two underwhelming albums the Stones slapped together in the stunned aftermath of Exile on Main Street, that enduring masterpiece they released in 1972. Only fleeting glimpses of The Stones’ genius emerged from that point on–a tight tune somewhere on Tattoo You or a surprising sign of grit on more recent rock-outs like “Gunface” or “Dangerous Beauty.” If it’s true that history repeats itself, it’s a safe bet to expect only fleeting glimpses of brilliance from The Stripes going forward, yet another now-legendary rock band we once so trustingly relied on for an escape from the mindless doldrums of FM radio.


The Rolling Stones: “Gunface,” Bridges to Babylon (1997)