Archive for January, 2010
Eels – End Times
Emotion isn’t always seen as a positive thing in music. These days, accomplished but detached music is de rigueur, with bands like Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective (but surely an Animal Collective should include a Grizzly Bear?), Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors ruling the roost. I’ve never got the music of these bands. It’s well played and often tuneful, but there is a sterility to their joy. If bands DO dare to show real emotion, it better be a vague feeling of contentment or sadness, but personal statements don’t tend to be accepted as readily in music as they are in something like literature. Memoirs are popular, and the more warts that exist the better. Sure, you get classic ‘break up’ albums, like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks but even these tend to tease the issue rather than tackle it straight on. Maybe this is an attempt to universalise experiences and make it about the general emotions rather than the personal experience. That’s fine (and to carry on the comparison to literature, is done quite regularly in fiction), but it tends to unnecessarily limit the spectrum of musical expression.
Mark ‘E’ Everett and his musical outlet Eels make deeply personal music that does not shy away from specificities. If he sings it, you know it happened to him, and he is uncompromising and squirmingly self-reflective on his songs, painfully aware of his shortcomings as well as those of the world. He does not hide behind metaphor and his lyrics read like straightforward diary entries. This can feel voyeuristic at times and, I fear, does turn some people off his music. For some reason, our society has decided that in most cases repression of this naked emotion is for the best and brush off lyrics and emotions such as Everett’s as too self-conscious, too solipsistic and too teen-angsty – something you should outgrow rather than acknowledge. Maybe this is the case, and I’m sure there are a fair share of well-adjusted people out there. But people like Everett (and me, for that matter) exist too, and writing off these bare (and base) emotions as immature does not change the fact that they still exist. I’m not going to say ‘we all feel like this sometimes’ because I have no way of knowing that. My theory, however, is that people shrug off something so painfully OPEN as the new Eels album End Times because it cuts too close to the bone and reminds people of just how painful, irrational and childish (in good ways and bad) life can sometimes be.
End Times comes as a sort of depressing companion piece to last year’s Hombre Lobo. Where that album tracked the feelings of desire that accompany falling in love (in both requited and unrequited ways), this album traces the death of that love, or at least the death of the relationship built around that love. The results, as that description no doubt attests, are as sad and tuneful as any Eels album, making this another solid entry into the band’s catalogue. The lyrics, which I’ve already discussed in vague terms, seem very personal and earnest and awkwardly open, but that has some positives too. These songs are voyeuristic, to be sure, but they are never sensationalistic, and Everett remains highly skilled at saying things simply and meaningfully. Musically, it’s a stripped-back affair – apparently recorded on a four-track – and is barely ever more than a voice and a guitar. It’s a stark contrast to Hombre Lobo’s brash swagger, but it has a nice immediacy to it, feeling like Everett’s just a friend strumming his thoughts to you on the back porch.
The album opens with the most lyrically positive song, ‘The Beginning’, whose lyrics outline the happy start to a relationship, but it has a guitar structure so plaintive the first 3 seconds of the song could bring a tear to your eye. Gone Man is surprisingly jaunty given its lyrical bites like ‘the epitaph scratched upon my stone: here lies a man who just wanted to be alone’. ‘A Line in the Dirt’ is pretty and recalls Electro-Shock Blues ‘P.S. You Rock My World’, but with harshly confessional lyrics: ‘She locked herself in the bathroom again, so I am pissing in the yard. I have to laugh when I think how far it’s gone, but things aren’t funny any more.’ ‘Little Bird’ probably expresses the mood of the CD the best, musically and lyrically. ‘Little bird, I guess you’re right. I can’t let it take me out without a fight, but right now I can’t see making sense of this world. I just can’t take how very much, goddamn I miss that girl.’
The one downside I should mention, which also held true for Hombre Lobo, is that Eels’ last few releases have become more satisfying lyrically than musically. As with Hombre Lobo, I actually had a chance to peruse the lyrics before I heard the music, and I was blown away by the beautiful simplicity of some of Everett’s lines. Hearing the musical accompaniment for the first time was pleasant, but the songs lack a sort of staying power and distinctiveness that was present in some of the kitchen-sink toyshop symphonies of earlier Eels’ work. Too often he falls back on the ‘man with a guitar’ mould, and while he still knows the way around a nice melody, it can get a bit samey.
All in all, it produces another solid Eels album – nothing more and nothing less. It lacks the ambition of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations and the songs of Daisies for the Galaxy, but it’s still enjoyable, if that’s the right word for such a sad record. I mentioned last week that Everett does have a knack for finding the light in the dark but even that’s a bit tempered on this album. The album ends on a somewhat positive note, with Everett’s final couplet stating ‘one sweet day I’ll be back on my feet/And I’ll be alright’, but the last words put a question mark on that, with him crooning ‘I just gotta get back on my feet’. If this album is as autobiographical as it feels, I sincerely wish Everett all the best, from one human to another.
Lostprophets – The Betrayed
Lostprophets also trade in emotional music, but their new release hews much closer to the true teenaged version, rather than the grown up (which is different than mature or sophisticated) approach of Eels. I appreciate Eels’ honesty and straightforward approach to storytelling, but Lostprophets version sounds a bit too calculated and a bit too put on. Their atrocious lyrics and song titles don’t help. If you’re titling your songs things like ‘It’s Not the End of the World, but I can See It from Here’, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Felon’ and, most egregiously, ‘Next Stop, Atro City’, you’re asking for all the ridicule you may get. For the love of god, please stop.
I think the biggest problem with Lostprophets is that they aim their message at the stadiums and the cosmos, rather than maintaining the intimacy of Eels. That’s fine if it’s done well, but I just think the band lacks the talent to pull off this bombast in a way that doesn’t sound cringeworthy. They had a song on their last album that called upon people to ‘shout it from the rooftops’ and that’s exactly what they aim to do. By attempting to make something so universal and so all-encompassing, this loses its emotional heft and connection to, well, just being human. I’m all for a cause and a mission statement, but sometimes life calls for something a little smaller.
There are some decent moments on the album. ‘Dstryr/Dstryr’ almost sounds like Rage Against the Machine, and some of the songs have some pretty cool electro-noise bits. Overall though, they seem to be getting less mature with every release, which I think is just sad proof that they’re aiming for mass approval rather than solid songs. I mean, they almost sound like Coldplay with a heavy metal drummer with their cascading piano line in closer ‘The Light That Shines Twice as Bright’. There’s nothing really wrong with that (I can stand a certain dose of Coldplay), but if that’s the sound you choose, at least don’t bloody well pretend that you’re ‘The Betrayed’ then.
However, I can’t be too harsh. After all, I have the CD. I don’t know why I like Lostprophets, but I often do. I still think 2004’s Start Something was a stellar example of an emo epic, at least before emo became a bad word (and fans of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate or Death Cab for Cutie for that matter should remember that emo does not have to be all bad).
Spoon – Transference
The other release I was really looking forward to this week was Spoon’s new record, Transference. Spoon are consistent, and consistently good, and this record continues with that winning streak. It does what Spoon do best, combining catchy songwriting with great production and some slightly more experimental bits. While I like the album, it has so far failed to excite me in the same way that their last few records have. Maybe I just need some time with the new album, as Spoon do tend to grow on me, but it feels like it lacks some sort of chemistry – all the elements are there, but the whole isn’t quite as great as all the parts that go into it. Still, if you’re a fan of Spoon it’s definitely worth buying and has some strong songs on it. The persistent beat of ‘The Mystery Zone’ gets stuck in your head and uses the band’s minimalist approach to sound to great effect. The album closes with its strongest song, ‘Nobody Gets Me but You’, with the band doing a lot with very little, getting into a pocket groove-wise and allowing it to build upon itself. It’s not so much about layering more and more on, as it’s just about giving the beat room to breathe. If you’re a Spoon fan, definitely buy it. If you don’t know the band yet, I’d still start with Gimme Fiction or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Hawksley Workman – Meat
Finally, Hawksley Workman’s new release, Meat, came out last week. The man often alternates between folky strumming and electro-glam rock, and this album finds Hawksley in a mood to kick out the jams and rock a bit. Opener ‘Song for Sarah Jane’ is a beautiful little piano ballad and no indication of what’s to come with crunchy bits like (We Ain’t No) Vampire Bats. My favourite track is ‘You Don’t Just Want to Break Me (You Want to Tear Me Apart)’, which is bombastic in the best sort of ways, building to a cathartic and satisfying guitar/choir/glam stomp over its eight minutes. The lyrics to the songs are often quite tender and vulnerable, with the tough-guy exterior of the songs covering up deeper feelings, like the musical equivalent of the schoolyard bully who’s crying on the inside. Workman can be frustratingly prolific at times, sometimes seeming to favour quantity over quality (with his digital releases and EPs included, he clocked 11 albums in the last decade). Given that, Meat shows him in fine form and is his best rocking record since 2003’s Lover/Fighter.
We are Only Riders – The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions
I’ve been a fan of Jeffery Lee Pierce and the Gun Club for about 5 years now. The Gun Club’s raw blend of punk, glam and blues is incredibly exciting when Pierce nailed it, as on their stunning debut, 1981’s Fire of Love. Pierce was a tragic figure, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and dying of a brain aneurysm in 1996, a mostly forgotten blip on the musical landscape. His work has seen a bit of a resurgence recently, as he has fans in high places and has been cited as an influence to people like Jack White and Mark Lanegan. We are Only Riders is a new tribute album to Pierce, featuring performances by musical luminaries such as Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, the Raveonettes, Debbie Harry, Woven Hand’s David Eugene Edwards and others. The tribute features never-before-heard compositions by Pierce, built up and interpreted by the artists, based on a rehearsal tape found by Pierce collaborator Cypress Grove. If you’re unfamiliar with the Gun Club, it’s a strong and accessible introduction to Pierce’s songwriting, and if you’re already a fan it’s a great addition to the Pierce catalogue.
New Music News
A lot has happened in the musical world over the last few weeks. In sad news, rocker Jay Reatard died at the age of 29, with causes currently unconfirmed. I was never really into his music, as, fairly or unfairly, I associate him with the shittily named and shitty sounding no-fi movement, which leaves me feeling a bit cold (why NOT get a decent producer? It does a song no favours to purposefully make it sound tinny and like it was recorded in a cardboard box, and is often only used to disguise the fact that the songwriting is, at best, pedestrian), but it’s always tragic when somebody that young dies.
In other sad, but not exactly tragic, news, Franz Nicolay has announced that he’s left the Hold Steady. As readers may have sussed out by now, I absolutely love the everyday storytelling and rock of the Hold Steady, and Franz Nicolay, a member of the band for the last five years, did a lot to shape the band’s sound, with his keyboards moving them even more into anthemic Springsteen territory. He was a great live presence too, dressed smartly with his twirly mustache, jumping around and often swigging from a bottle of wine. He’ll keep himself busy outside of the Hold Steady crew though, as he’s recently released a solo album, is producing the new album for a band called the Debutante Hour and is soon releasing a collection of stories.
In upcoming album news, Joanna Newsom announced that she’s releasing a new album, and it’s out soon. Have One on Me is the first album for the oddball indie cellist since 2006’s Ys. Also, the New Pornographers announced that they’ll release their new album, Together, on 4 May. See you next week!