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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

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Warm Slime,” Thee Oh Sees

16th December

 

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If Thee Oh Sees were a dorm room, it would be half-a-foot deep in paper plates stained with pizza grease and have a kitchen sink so bloated with the foul and crusted silverware of meals long past that it belches at you when you pass by. It also would likely reek of some unmentionable mixture of urine, unclean dogs and neglected laundry. And we may need to toss in a few condom wrappers thrown to the floor, walls yellowing with stains of bong smoke, and perhaps a stash of happy mushrooms hidden somewhere under the bunk.

Welcome, my friends, to the music of Thee Oh Sees.

This rioting pack of garage-psych brats hails from San Francisco, and they’re hell-bent on simultaneously resurrecting and razing the cultural stomping ground once lorded over by acts like The Sonics, The Electric Prunes, The Count Five and The Trashmen. The ‘60s script these kids read from is one they’ve studied hard and know by rote, even down to their propensity for cutting a new record every eight minutes or so (six LPs in the past three years alone, and a record in Warm Slime which they claim to have recorded in a single day).

The Kinks released three new albums in 1965 alone, and The Rolling Stones, not to be out done, released four new albums of their own that year as young bands scrambled to stuff the insatiable maws of slave-drivers back at the ranch of one big label or another. Thee Oh Sees don’t even have a distributor, no less a big-label slave-driver, but their Wikipedia discography reveals an extended rap sheet of LPs, EPs, 7-inch releases and the revolving door of labels they’ve thrown them to.

To top it all off, John Dwyer, the epicenter of this calamity who seems only to have gathered a band around him as an afterthought, has paraded through seven prior bands before arriving at the one he’s with. And even then he can’t seem to settle on a name.

“From the OCS to the OhSees to Thee Oh Sees, John Dwyer . . . has molted band names like some rare endangered bird determined to shake off pursuers,” Jayson Greene of Pitchfork remarks.

No wonder their video for “Meat Step Lively” from 2009’s Help seems to serve the sole purpose of inducing an epileptic seizure.

But in Warm Slime Thee Oh Sees have the record The Black Keys and White Stripes thought they’d been making all these years but were never unhinged enough to deliver. The record is an unrelenting siege of distortion, reverb and rage filtered through the sieve of the long-gone garage gods they worship in song. “I Was Denied” is a glorious romp that laces Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” with a few tabs of acid and sends it on its exceedingly merry way. The turbulent “Castiatic Tackle” amps up The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” to a decipel even those godfathers of psychobilly didn’t know they had in them. And the title track clocks in at nearly 14 minutes of blistering abandon that will leave you panting for more.

These guys’ fingers may be dirty with the dust of your grandma’s vinyl collection, but with records like Help and Dog Poison in 2009 and now Warm Slime this past May, they leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this most certainly is not your grandma’s rock ‘n roll.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com