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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

Introducing: Bastard Lovechild of Rock ‘N Roll

10th February

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You think you know what you’re in for when “Boy You Need Jesus,” the opening track of Bastard Love Child of Rock ‘n Roll’s debut EP, BimBom, erupts with its frenzied delirium of cymbals and slide guitar, vaguely psychedelic vocals that echo like strange voices from the other side of a canyon at night, and a blast of organ that brings it all home with such aplomb you actually wonder if that’s Augie Meyers on the stool.

You think it’s a young band that’s listened to lots of early Zeppelin and White Stripes, digs the stream-of-consciousness abandon of a Neil Young guitar solo, and actually knows what they mean when they toss around terms like “Psychedelia”—that it’s a sacred and glittering temple inhabited by the likes of Moby Grape, The Seeds, or Quicksilver Messenger Service, and not the sorry crutch it’s become for big-label bands groping for any hip cloak to dress their music in.

You would think these things—and on all accounts you would be right. But you also would be tempted to believe that you’ve just surmised the extent of all this Florida duo has to offer—that they’re a pair of young rockers flicking on their lighters at the altar of the long-gone bands they worship, and that’s that. And you would be wrong. Dead wrong.

“Boy You Need Jesus” fades into the second track’s galactic freak-out of synths that sound like a chorus of crying ghosts. One can hear Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright shaking his head in his grave, muttering “Why didn’t I ever think of that!?” The track plays with all the gusto that its epiphanic title promises–“Hallelujah I’ve Been BLORRN Again,” it’s called–and it keeps I Monster’s “Hey Mrs.” chained to the kitchen sink of its ambition, only without the predictability and polish that those beat masters bring to their club-quaking trip-hop.

Several tracks on BimBom play like many songs packaged into one. It’s no secret that most debut EPs document the sound of a young band on the verge of discovering the identity they’re searching for, and, in a way, BimBom is no exception.  The opener’s conventional blues-rock with a hankering for psychedelia gives way to that gorgeous, psych-synth weirdness of “Hallelujah”; “Seven Sisters,” the track for which the band recently completed the video above, calls to mind the haunting soundscape with which Led Zeppelin’s “In The Evening” begins; the shuffling, jazzy licks and percussion of “My Blushing Grape” or “My Poor Delisa” would make just as much sense on some lost Sade record; and the blistering romper “Booty Making Mama Shakin'” glazes its anthemic riffs in a coating of space rock.

“Booty Makin” raises hell with more of the gloriously snotty licks these guys delight in one minute, and dims the lights with the jangling flutters of guitar that call the whole thing softly home the next. The EP is at once bipolar and measured, as self-contained as it is likely to burst. It’s tempting to suggest that Adam Winn and Chris Hess, the brainchildren behind BLORR who prefer the stage names “Cookie Sugarhips” and “Hot Damn Sweet Huckleberry Winn,” have more ideas than they know what to do with, as the record radiates in all directions at once like some sonic solar storm. But by the time the hammering percussion and piercing guitars of its dreamy closer wrap these nine tracks in their fluorescent ribbon, you hear at last the cohesive vision that’s sewn these songs together all along–a vision as committed to looking back at the pioneers that made it possible as it is to thrusting into the future whose road they paved.

This is no typical EP that meanders through a grab-bag of sounds in the hope that something sticks; this is the work of a band that knows what it wants to do and isn’t afraid to do it. And if these nine tracks prove anything for sure, it’s that they’re having a hell of a lot of fun in the meantime.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “July Flame,” Laura Veirs

23rd December

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You don’t know it yet, but you are already a fan of Laura Veirs. You’ve fixed dinner or cleaned the house with the television braying somewhere off in the background when that LG Optimus cell phone commercial came on, and suddenly the song in the ad was no longer off in the distance. Suddenly Veirs’s voice rushed into the forefront of your mind like the memory of a lover long gone; nostalgia mixed love and loss into some sweet melancholy you’d like to hold onto for a while, maybe forever. You didn’t know it then, but you were listening to the opening track of Laura Veirs’s July Flame, and it’s about time you did know. It’s About time a lot of people know, actually, about this magnificently gifted singer/songwriter out of Portland, Ore.

Several songs on July Flame play like love letters to summer–songs like “Summer is the Champion,” “The Sun is King” or the brilliant title track, which easily ranks among the finest songs of the year as it gathers into an angered sea of haunted strings and backup vocals. “Can I call you mine, can I call you mine” Veirs intones as the track pulls you deeper into the whirlpool of its longing. Elsewhere on the record, the pluck of a banjo reverberates through the open space of the song like someone calling your name from across a cave, the acoustic guitar Veirs strums is recorded with such clarity as to be made of crystal, and her wistful piano work on tracks like “Little Deuschutes” is enough to bruise the heart in the manner of Aimee Man’s “Wise Up” or Nick Cave’s “We Came Along this Road.”

The songs don’t so much bring to mind the season they celebrate as they do the first flower to pierce the melting snow of a long but waning winter. These are songs of renewal, of some emotional torment lived through and left behind, of a yearning as painful as it is alluring. They tell tales of a life lived fully enough to have tempted the dangers of the heart and survived in fighting form, of pain stared down until it turned to poetry. “Sure is hard to dance across the room when you’ve got one foot on the floor and one foot outside the door,” Veirs sings on “Little Deuschutes.” “I want nothing more than to dance with you.” These songs embrace a desire that is as dazzling as it is destructive, and through them all Veirs works toward an understanding that you don’t get one without the other.

Veirs’s Wikipedia page reports that the singer did not “listen seriously” to the folk, classical and pop music that surrounded her in childhood until she reached her 20s. The music she makes today demonstrates that when she did start to “listen seriously,” she didn’t just listen–she absorbed every chord and lyric like a dish rag under a faucet. “Summer is the Champion” borrows the thumping drums and piano of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” before waltzing off with a horn section that evokes the devastating close of Tom Waits’s “Earth Died Screaming.”The undercurrent of percussion on the title track resembles the opening moments of “Mental” by The Eels. And her gorgeous voice is borne of a heritage that includes Natalie Merchant, Iris Dement and Jennifer Warnes. But even as this pageant of influences parades through Veirs’s songs, the record as a whole remains entirely her own and begs for another listen the second it’s over.

Click here for Laura Veirs’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Le Noise,” Neil Young

19th December

 

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No matter how many “Best Albums of 2010″ lists you read on the web this month, somehow you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re reading the same one over and over again. There’s a pretty good reason for that: You are, and it’s sad. Most lists read like they were composed by a cadre of 20-something Vampire Weekend roadies who crowded the local wheat grass bar and nursed their flax and spirulina smoothies as they chattered in passing about music. In most cases the albums they discuss reflect only a narrow sliver of the year’s creative bounty. And almost invariably, they acknowledge only bands that are at least as young if not younger than they are, bands they overheard fellow pseudo hipsters praising over Venti Spelnda-sweetened extra dry skim-milk Americanos, or bands whose music sounds like somebody just blasted three pterodactyls out of the sky all at once with a thousand-pound nail gun.

That’s one of many reasons why Neil Young’s Le Noise is both right for the cultural moment in which it was released and why, pitted against so many of the year’s lesser but lauded records, it smacks of a creative desperation that in eight brief tracks obliterates the pervading cynicism and emotional catatonia of the “indie only” crowd that has ignored it. These songs were all recorded in one or two takes so as not to dilute the immediacy of the creative impulse from which they emerged, and that Young has managed at age 65 and after countless records to do something he has never done before–a solo electric album–is a testament to the restlessness of his muse and to his enduring standing as one of rock ‘n roll’s genuine mavericks.

Young has been crucified for that very “restlessness” over the past decade, as uneven and therefore characteristically fascinating releases like Are You Passionate, Greendale or Fork in the Road earned a reception which, like Le Noise, exposes even his most longstanding fans as crybabies who hold him personally responsible for the fact that it’s not 1972 anymore.  Even the most casual glance at customer reviews of Le Noise on Amazon.com reveals a host of whiners crying that it doesn’t sound enough like something they heard when they were 12 and their mothers still sported beehive hairdos.  It’s not enough like On the Beach, or it doesn’t sound like Harvest, or it isn’t the same as Rust Never Sleeps. They don’t hear a “Pocahontas” or a “Cortez the Killer.” Many of these complaints begin with “I’m the biggest Neil Young fan in the world, but . . .”

And that’s just it: How on earth any self-proclaimed “fan” of Neil Young cannot exalt in the rich and anthemic riffs that open “Sign of Love” or “Angry World” on this album is utterly mystifying (to say nothing of the fact that the two acoustic offerings on this record, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” are among the most stirring acoustic songs the man has done since the days of “Pardon My Heart” or “Look out for My Love“). If anything, these “fans” are the sort who mistake art for an anodyne, who think music should always palliate and never challenge, who bristle at authenticity because it doesn’t croon the lullaby that plays in the background of their nostalgic fantasies of long-gone days.

Dylan put together a documentary called Don’t Look Back in 1965 as he fumed across the world on a tour that saw fans shout “Judas!” because he wouldn’t play the monkey to their organ grinder, pounding them with “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” when they paid to hear him sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” all night long. Le Noise is the latest evidence that Neil Young took the man’s advice. Fans endowed with the courage to look forward with him will hear in Le Noise the work of a creative spirit as much at war with itself today as it was when he was just the kid who played guitar for Buffalo Springfield.

Daniel Lanois’s presence on the project could have been an unadulterated disaster because Neil Young’ s music is a dish best served raw, and Lanois’s brand of voodoo atmospherics is anything but undercooked. But it turns out that it was Lanois’s idea to amp up the acoustic album Neil intended to record and turn it into a solo electric set instead. There are times when Lanois just can’t help himself, as he drags out the opening stunner “Walk With Me” with what seems like an eternity of aimless reverb and distortion that serves no purpose other than to lengthen an album that otherwise might have lasted no longer than a drink of water. But elsewhere he is pleased to step back from the songs and let the rage of “Old Black” have the floor.

The first six tracks here–from the primal, Rust-era grunge of “Walk With Me” and “Angry World” to the lonely reverbarations of Neil’s acoustic guitar on the desolate “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”–blaze with a creative fury that is at once disquieting and restorative. “Hitchhiker” and “Rumblin'” add nothing to what is achieved in the songs that precede them but it is at least nice to finally hear an official version of “Hitchhiker,” even if it falls well short of the majesty of the live acoustic version fans have come to know and love.

You won’t find Le Noise on the “Best of 2010″ list over at (enter favorite smarmy indie music blog here), but you will find it on the minds of music lovers a generation from now while so many fly-by-night bands currently enjoying a loving spotlight dwindle into the dusk of their momentary celebrity.The material on Le Noise boasts the strength, urgency and variety of Young’s finest records, and when the smoke of its mixed reception clears, it may well be ranked in that company.

Click here for Neil Young’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com