Culturespill

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “Elephants at the Door,” Dumbo Gets Mad

9th December


Read nearly anything about Elephants at the Door by Dumbo Gets Mad—the nom de plume adopted by a twenty-something kid out of Northern Italy whose dreamy eyes and killer ‘stache bring to mind some younger, hipper understudy of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood—and you almost certainly will come across the following descriptive: psychedelic. Let’s be clear, Elephants at the Door is a terrific record deserving of much of the praise lavished upon it since “Plumy Tale” blew the fuse box of the music blogosphere last year. But to slap it with the “psychedelic” tag both undermines and mischaracterizes its achievement.

The term “psychedelic” is tossed around so frequently these days it’s become about as helpful a way of describing a band’s sound as “indie.” Anyone who has listened to After Bathing at Baxter’s, Skip Spence’s brilliant Oar, or even “Jugband Blues”—the lone Syd Barrett track on Pink Floyd’s 1968 sophomore effort, A Saucerful of Secrets—knows that genuine psychedelia is not something you bob your head to in your Prius on the way to the wheat grass bar. It’s something you hear before shouting “what the #@*% was that?” and looking funny at the friend who played it for you after lighting another roach.

 

Even some of the most deliberate stabs at psychedelia that emerged from the era in which the sound was invented—records likePet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers—still indulge the abandon, whimsy and discord that comprise the fundament of true psychedelia. What we have in Elephants at the Door, on the other hand, is far more calculated than all that. That it nonetheless keeps the listener dazzled for the span of at least eight of its ten tight tracks is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. Simply put, this is a pop record, and a damned good one. Albeit with elephant noises and a band name taken from the hallucination sequence in the Disney classic Dumbo.

Elephants wastes no time winning you over with its peculiar and warm-hearted charm. Sure, you swear you heard the opening track’s burst of birds and bubbles somewhere on the first MGMT record (Hint: you did). And OK, maybe “Plumy Tale’s” gorgeous organ riff sounds an awful lot like somebody slipped some Ambien into the cocktail that once brought The Caesars’ “Jerk it Out” to an iPod commercial near you. But so what? No record that boasts its influences as abundantly as this one is aiming for originality—and thank God for that, since most records that do are pretty much bound to suck.

Dumbo is not the guy who breaks the ground; he’s the guy who shows up after the ground’s been broken and plants the most amazing daffodils in the cracks left behind. “Ecclectic Prawn” channels Odelay-era Beck while “Why Try” plays like a Portishead track filtered through a Tindersticks song. The ghost of John Bonham haunts several tracks with throbbing drums straight out of “When the Levee Breaks,” and some distinctly Bowie-esque vocals erupt out of the frothing, intergalactic stew that is “Harmony.” With its dueling synthesizers laid over a low-fi feast of jangling guitars and cymbal-heavy drum machine beats, “Harmony” sounds as much at home on a record as it might be in the Labyrinthe Zone of Sonic the Hedgehog.

This is a record for those who stumbled late to the altar of The Flaming Lips upon hearing The Soft Bulletin, music for people who stuck with last year’s Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti record for long enough to recognize its brilliance. Elephants never comes quite as unhinged as either of those records; these songs are composed, tightly packed things that never stray far from their creator’s guiding hand. But Dumbo’s stated affection for Captain Beefheart and his ardent embrace of the “psychedelic” label—however imprecise it may be—suggests that more daring experiments may be on the way. If Elephants is any indication, whatever he comes up with next will be well worth the wait.

Oh, yeah, and you can download the whole thing for free–as long as you promise to Tweet about it first. Check it out here. And if you’re yet to hear the sick “mix tape” Dumbo Gets Mad put out, you owe it to yourself. Check it out over at Anthony Fantano’s blog, The Needle Drop.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “The World Will Follow,” Andi Starr

16th November

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The first time I ever heard of Andi Starr was eight years ago when she emailed to ask if I would review her then-new album Me Beautiful, not because she felt assured that I would lavish it in praise, but specifically because I had just gotten done doing precisely the opposite to Jewel’s horrid 2003 album 0304. If you don’t recall that record, let me first say that I don’t blame you. And now let me remind you that it was the moment in that pop chameleon’s career when she took a stab at passing herself off as some literate Britney Spears, turning in live performances full of trashy clothes and quivering breasts packed into her push-up bra to pair with her stiletto heels and suggestive simper. The music was as substantive as the wardrobe, and the “artist’s” desperation was palpable as she stood at the cliff of her growing irrelevance.

In my review of that album, Starr seemed to have found a scorching critical flame against which to hold her work, and if it turned to ashes in the process, she made it clear that she was perfectly happy to accept that. To her credit, Starr, unlike 99.9% of bands who make their pleas to music bloggers, had actually bothered to read my blog and, even more to her credit, did not bother insisting on her greatness. She was more content to let her music do the talking and allow me to hear what it had to say on my terms, not hers. This was a courage I am yet to find in almost any other band that has emailed me in the eight years since.

The CD ended up in my mailbox days later (Yes, people still sent stuff in the mail back then, and yes, I am one of those prehistoric creatures who still prefers my music in the flesh). I popped the CD into my stereo with the same misgivings I have whenever I listen to music sent to me by a band who wants something from me–that it more likely would bore me than thrill me, that the CD would barely make it past track three before taking its place in my graveyard of albums almost interesting enough to listen to but not really. And that’s when Starr did something else that 99.9% of bands who email me never manage to do–she surprised me.

 

The album stunned me with a spareness and emotional honesty that yielded the kind of songs that call you by your name. At its most vulnerable (desolate tracks like “Elliott” or “Hush”) the album sounded like something recorded outside amid the eerie silence that accompanies the aftermath of a dizzying snowfall, where the ordinary noise of the world–a passing car, a bird–sounds like the only sign of life within a hundred miles of where you stand, but sign enough to get you through the cold night to come. Starr has dropped three EPs and four full-length records since then–this is an artist who works for what she’s after–and in retrospect, releases like the Supergirl EP or the full-length Leaving the White Line sound like blueprints for the fuller, more ambitious production that makes her newest record, The World Will Follow, play like the fruition of more than a decade of labor in the studio.

Starr’s latest disc opens with the wailing and full-bodied sound of the title track as she paints a portrait which, for an artist whose recording career began with the humble accoutrement of an 8-track in her living room, is undoubtedly drawn from personal experience–a dreamer subsisting on Top Ramen, crackers and toast while waiting for the world to catch on. “Do what you love and the world will follow,” Starr sings in a breathy voice as fragile as a spider’s web swinging in a breeze. Throughout the record, Starr’s vocals crack and fade into falsetto one second and boom with a kind of bawling earnestness the next. These songs are the restless tales and prayers of a performer who knows the desire of which she sings in all its depths and detours.

While prior albums for the most part seem committed to a particular mood–the spare atmospherics of Me Beautiful or the jaunty radiance of Supergirl–The World Will Follow roams a broader spectrum of attitudes. Tracks like “Little Bird” or “Ticket-Taker” keep their enthusiasms in check while others like “A Song that Never Dies” or “Happy Ballad” make their nods to a subtle brand of pop that Starr has honed into a sound wholly her own. Starr boasts her influences proudly throughout the record–the discerning listener can hear The Cranberries somewhere off in the distance of “Happy Ballad,” and “Already Gold” flirts with the ghost of Annie Lenox’s “Little Bird.” But Starr does not just pay homage to the bands that made her music possible; she brings some of their apostles to the party herself. Supertramp’s Jesse Seidenberg chimes in with some sweet lap steel here and there, while Jordan Richter, whose production credits include Sixpence None the Richer, lends some synth guitar to the mix.

And just when you think you’ve got Andi Starr figured out, here comes a trippy instrumental in “Water Rising” that keeps you on your guard with its goth-tinged echoes of psychedelia and new-wave. “Water Rising” suggests there may be a hell of a lot more to Andi Starr’s muse than she has let on thus far, and that there may be some fascinating experiments ahead.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Albums to look out for this spring #4: “Dancing Backward in High Heels,” New York Dolls

7th March

 

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By the time David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain eyed each other from across a studio in 2005 to begin sessions on what would be just the third New York Dolls studio album in 35 years, the grizzled survivors of rock ‘n roll excess must have felt like they’d gone through the hell of some inadvertent war and lived to tell about it. For the last two original members of a band whose anarchic brand of glam-punk proved so authentic that labels ran screaming from it like little girls who glimpsed a ghost in the closet, the pieces of themselves that died with their four fallen band mates haunt everything they’ve done since with notions of what might have been. They are the kind of scars you can’t see, except maybe for that distant sadness in Johansen’s angry eyes.

The hazards of the rock ‘n roll life aren’t exactly the horrors literal war, but the history of the New York Dolls really does read like a record of fallen soldiers.

Drummer Billy Murcia lounged unconscious in a bath tub after an overdose in 1972 as a couple of roadies poured hot coffee down his throat, thinking it might revive him and realizing that actually all they’d done is asphyxiated the poor bastard.

20 years from there, guitarist Johnny Thunders crouched under a coffee table of a New Orleans hotel room in the fetal position and died, decades of widely-reported heroin and methadone abuse having culminated in advanced leukemia. By the time cops came to haul off the body, rigor mortis had shaped it “like a pretzel,” according to one eye-witness. “It was awful,” said singer Billy DeVille, who then lived across the street from the hotel. “When the body bag came out, it was shaped like a U.”

Just as sad as the man’s awful and untimely demise is the promise of the work he left behind, which has the uneven quality of a genius gripped in the hindrance of addiction, but also records like So Alone (1978) and the stripped-bare Hurt Me (1984) that you need to get your hands on right this minute if for some ungodly reason you haven’t already.

Months later, Jerry Nolan, who stepped into the Dolls’ lineup after the band lost Murcia, died when he slipped into a coma from which he never recovered while being treated for bacterial meningitis. Nolan had been working with Thunders on a new LP at the time. Maybe that was their last mistake. Maybe to play with the Dolls the first time around was to tempt fate enough, and to tease that ghost yet again was to invite the doom that loomed over the band seemingly from its inception.

 

And then there is perhaps the saddest damned tale of all—the legend of enigmatic bassist Arthur Kane, who dwindled into the life of a volunteer file clerk with the Family History Center at the Los Angeles Temple after the Dolls split for good in the late 1970s. Kane became so consumed by his morose regret over the life that had passed him by he once jumped out of a third-story window, drunk and depressed upon seeing Johansen’s role as the cab driver in the 1989 Bill Murray blockbuster A Ghost of Christmas Past.

Morrissey’s pitch for a reunion changed all that in 2004 when Kane reunited with Johansen and Sylvain to play an emotional comeback gig at the Meltdown Festival in 2004, a dream he’d brooded over for decades. And that’s when Kane found he’d tempted the same fate that claimed the lives of Nolan, Thunders and Murcia, checking himself into a hospital just 22 days later with what he thought was the flu. What he had instead, though, was leukemia. He died just hours after being diagnosed.

 

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Somehow Johansen and Sylvain still found something within themselves strong enough to withstand their memory of all this and record again in 2005. The record that came of it was Someday it Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and perhaps it will, even if the spark the band ignited as kids in the clubs of New York City back in 1971 had dimmed. “Dance Like a Monkey” took its best shot at the anarchic abandon with which the band raged on their now-infamous debut; the harrowing arrangement of “We’re All In Love” punched with what power the band could muster with its two survivors and the new crew they’d assembled–Steve Conte stepping in for Johnny Thunders, bassist Sami Yaffa strapping on Arthur Kane’s shoes, Brian Delaney on drums. Hell, even Bo Diddley put in some licks on “Seventeen.” The record served up a reasonably convincing replica of the band that was, but ultimately it amounted to something Johnny Thunders tried to tell them long ago: you can’t put your arms around a memory.

So they decided to make some new ones of their own rather than revisiting the ones they couldn’t retrieve, bringing back Todd Rundgren, producer of the first record they ever cut, to produce what became the absolutely brilliant and devastating Cuz I Sez So in 2009. The record was nothing if not a stunning resurgence guided by the deft hand of the man who helped bring gems like “Trash” and “Jet Boy” to fruition so long ago.  The title track and the roaring, acoustic number “My World” crunched with all the bruising menace Johansen and the boys brought to the mic back in the day, even if there still was no replacing Johnny T’s trademark Gibson Les Paul. “Drowning” cranked it up to an even grungier decibel, ballads like “Lonely So Long” and “Better Than You” showcased the band’s longstanding admiration for 60s girl group pop acts like The Shangri-las in a way only Rundgren could, and the tender, achingly nostalgic “Making Rain” wept as it played. And lyrically, the record glittered with Johansen’s articulate charm, rhymes like “Happiness” with “acquiesce” and ruminations on “the infinite varieties of agony.”

 

Now they’re back with a third record in six years, Dancing Backward in High Heels, which hits the streets next Tuesday and bears a fuller sound than anything they’ve ever done with thick, funky tsunamis of brass washing over most songs and the muscular production of Jason Hill. On paper, Hill seems like the perfect fit to produce a Dolls record, even if he wasn’t even born when the group cut its debut in 1971. You don’t have to look much farther than All Music Guide’s description of Hill’s band Louis XIV as an outfit known for “irreverent, oversexed lyrics and songwriting that channeled glam, scratchy punk and vintage Rolling Stones” to understand why he ended up manning the console for a band like the Dolls. Quietus describes the new record as “equal parts Phil Spector, The Boss and Bowie,” but mostly it’s Spector’s, um, specter that livens this new batch of material: rolling drum intros jeweled with a flourish of tambourine, horn sections peeled right off of an early Motown record, backup vocals that drip with a sweating affection for the long-gone pop they memorialize, a drowsy organ on “Kids Like You” and “Round & Round She Goes” that would sound right at home on a ? & The Mysterians single.

Simply put, it’s great stuff, and another amazing testament to the staying power of a band that circumstance has beaten to a pulp over the years. But the more you listen, the more you’re willing to let go of your fantasies of the band that might have been and hear the band that is.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Albums to look out for this spring #3: “Last Night on Earth,” Noah and the Whale

2nd March

 

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Apparently the use of whistling and ukulele in pop music was never done before someone hatched the term “twee” to describe indie music that sounded like something other than “indie music.” It was a little happier than an Eels album, a little less nihilistic than a Moldy Peaches track, and a little more aloof than a Bright Eyes song. And so “Twee” became just the jar we needed to capture that renegade firefly and seal it into the confinement of all its critics would allow it to be and no more. Then along came Noah and the Whale with a debut in Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down that indulged all those trappings without the slightest apology–and folks over at places like Pitchfork or The Independent damned them to hell for it in reviews so seething with invective they almost caught fire as you read them.

“That really is the first word that will come into your head when you hear the ukulele, recorder and whistling refrain of their catchy hit ditty, ‘5 Years Time’,” the BBC insisted. “The London folk-pop quartet bites its best sensitive-indie forebears and then pukes up all the most superficial chunks,” Pitchfork bloviated in a gratuitously acerbic review that betrayed the very desperation to be “hip” they criticized the album for. Never mind that the ukulele also was the first instrument ever played by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Or that Paul Simon was whistling along with his stories about hanging with Julio down by the schoolyard a hell of a long time before the snot-nosed Hip Police at Pitchfork were born, a song that plays like a clinic in the kind of sunny, acoustic pop that people too young to know any better mistake for something no one had ever thought of before Belle & Sebastian.

 

But while the folks at Pitchfork and elsewhere lifted their noses in reviews that served no purpose other than to show you how much smarter and more hip they are than you, the duped and lowly Noah and the Whale fan, the band played on with a sophomore release in First Days of Spring that even compelled Pitchfork to whisper a yawning half-praise here and there but, of course, only through the gritted teeth of another absurdly decimalized score as if records were goals kicked in a schoolyard soccer game (this time, a 5.2 to the previous record’s 2.6. Yay.). Too often the critical derision Noah and the Whale have garnered sounds like the juvenile taunting of those skater dudes back in 7th grade who skewered you for listening to Ace of Base while everyone else was listening to Nirvana.

That’s a shame, because the music those critics couldn’t hear over the noise of their egos evinced an emotional honesty and maturity that rivaled just about any so-called “twee” band they cared to name. First Days of Spring documented the human moment in which Charlie Fink stood so deep inside the dark space left behind by his ex–sometime band mate and Mercury Prize winner Laura Marling–that the music he made there yielded a peculiar mix of icy shrieks of violin and the vaguely hopeful honks of brass that colored the decidedly sunnier “Shape of My Heart” from the band’s debut. Then the whole thing crashes to earth in a stirring homage to Neil Young with a surprisingly grungy intrusion of distorted guitar. Or was it “surprising,” really? Perhaps, if it sounded like something you don’t remember bottling in that jar you labeled “twee” long ago and left to its dusty shelf in the underused garage of your taste.

To those of us who heard the band beyond the twee, the song–and the whole album, really–announced the arrival of a group whose aesthetic was still much too restless to be categorized. Maybe their debut sounded like something you heard before, but First Days of Spring turned such a cold shoulder to that initial dip in the shallow end of the pool that even the most intractable critic had to listen with open ears. Now the crew is back with their third release, Last Night on Earth, and a new single in “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” that completes exactly the kind of emotional arc anyone might expect of a kid in his early twenties: the syrupy gush of innocence on World Lays Me Down, the stunned, endearing realization that relationships can really suck on First Days of Spring, and now, of course, the recognition that life goes on.

The new single is a strong and instantly catchy pop ditty about down-and-outers teasing the verge of lost lives, people who “wear their hatred like  a map on their face,” enjoy the taste of brandy a little more than they ought to, and don’t always bother getting to know people before sleeping with them. Musically the track sounds like someone hired the Kinks to play a new-wave slow-dance tune at an early-80s prom. But most of all the song sounds like Mr. Fink talking himself into moving on from heartbreak. “What you don’t have now will come back again,” he argues, “You got heart, and you’re going your own way.” Indeed he is, both personally and musically, and the music he makes in the meantime is worth the listen they can’t seem to get from critics who think they know better.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com