This is a follow-up to last week’s post, in which I prattled on a bit about the reasons for my flagging desire to buy new music. I blamed it on a number of different factors, including the economy, the weather, iGreed, psychotic behavior, boredom, third-world pirates, the government, even The Beatles.
Truth is, it’s me, and I know it. I’m to blame and no one else. I’m keeping me from being myself. As Confucius said, “Man who jumps off cliff, jumps to conclusion.” And, perhaps more to the point: “An archer, having missed the bull’s-eye, seeks the cause in himself.”
So, midway through last week I bent back my bow, loaded an arrowful of humility, took aim and shot myself at the nearest Target — and made purchase: The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists, a new-music trifling I’ve wanted for a month.
I’ve only spun it a few times, so it may be premature for me to offer a review, but suffice to say that I’m both enamored of and frustrated by this 17-part rock “musical.” In some ways this ambitious record falls in line with this ever-evolving band’s other narratively constructed releases, from individual songs like the nine-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge” to full-blown concept records like The Tain and The Crane Wife, their last full-length. There’s plenty of amazing, well-crafted music being played, in a wide range of styles, from acoustic-folk and indie-pop to prog-rock and heavy metal — sort of like the Bee Gees’ Odessa meets Death Cab for Cutie meets Jethro Tull (though, luckily, no flamboyant flouting) meets Uriah Heep. And the lyrics, with plot-lines featuring the usual damsels distressed, maidens undone, rascals on the loose, lusting rakes, etc., haven’t been more poignant.
But (and this is a weak stance) there are few stand-out songs. So much of Hazards seems to run together, and I suppose that’s intentional: one must listen to this record in its entirety in order to appreciate the full sweep of the drama and emotions at play, etc. But I would prefer to have a few cuts to play independently, too — in a party mix, for instance. Don’t get me wrong, the first single, “The Rake’s Song,” busts out furiously and stands up on its own quite well. I also really like the melancholy “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” and the final tune, “Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” is one of the loveliest they’ve recorded. But I’m missing the companion to “O Valencia!”, for instance, which offered brief respite from the ravages of the “The Crane Wife” cycle. Am I being too picky, too demanding? Maybe, but perhaps that is one of the hazards of being a fan of a band like The Decemberists.
Of course, there are still many more new releases I would like to put my hands on — I’ve heard good things about the new Doves record, for example, and Fork in the Road, Neil Young’s road-raging rock-rant. But for now, I’m going to continue to play the songs I’ve been accumulating for free, either via email or podcast subscription, or by slogging through Internet music blogs. As I wrote a few days ago, most of what I’ve picked up and listened to I’ve liked and can recommend to you, realizing that it’s probably music by groups you have never heard of. (And, since it’s mostly cost-light, you can afford to disagree with me.)
So here you go, in near-alphabetical order, the backside of last week’s new must-have-recordings hodgepodge — new songs by relative no-names that I’m willing to bet will quickly top your list of get-to-know names — along with some thoughts on who or what they sound like, in case that helps. Be sure you click on the links to stream or download each of the songs.
(Note: I got a little over-enthusiastic last week, and my brief “Taxman” relief effort quickly became, well, too taxing. So I decided to post it in two parts in a single week. Unfortunately, I lost my Internet connection for nearly two days and didn’t make my deadline. So, in a fit of laziness, I just sat on it and am posting it now for this week, instead. The first installment can be found here, in case you missed it.)
Malajube, “Ursuline,” Labyrinthes. This song, by a “power pop” quartet from Quebec, is practically an instrumental — the only singing (en Francais?) is provided by a chorus of voices — and has so many chord and tempo changes that it evolves into several different songs over the course of about seven minutes. Luckily, it is also beautifully arranged, lush, and incredibly appealing. Magnifique!
Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, “Anchors Dropped,” Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. As the name of this Seattle-based five-piece might imply, this song is an auditory non sequitur, a jumble of disparate influences and styles that ally and war with each other, erupt, and fall back together. Here, I hear everything from the nervous, edgy rhythms of The Feelies, the mathematical song-structuring of The Meat Puppets or Built to Spill, the plaintive vocals of an Arcade Fire, some fluid, Allman-flavored dueling guitar licks, and an ambitious, energetic jam-band sensibility that ties together all the loose ends.
North Twin, “Clear as Day,” Stronger at the Broken Places. If you like your rock and roll a little country-fried, then git yerself this here song. Complete with a driving, honky-tonkin’ backbeat, grinding chord changes, fuzzy guitar noodling, and a searing mariachi trumpet solo, this tune tips its hat to the great redneck chestnuts like, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and even “Rawhide.” Giddy-up!
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “Stay Alive,” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. In just a little under five minutes, this song by a young New York quartet provides an aural history of British Invasion music from the past two decades — name-checking everyone from Joy Division, The Smiths, and The Cure to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Belle and Sebastian, and My Bloody Valentine, among others. It’s at once atmospheric, charming, quirky, lush, twee, loud — and invigorating. Also, be sure to pick up other cuts by the band here, including “Come Saturday” and “Everything With You.”
Papercuts, “Future Primitive,” You Can Have What You Want. This is an immediately appealing, aptly titled song full of contradictions — an upbeat sadness; hazy, deep-down-in-the-hollow vocals and clear, bright, vintage-instrumentation; a spare, stripped-down rhythm flowing under layers of syrupy strings; etc. It’s an answer to the question, what if Beach House did a tribute to The Zombies?
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, “Up to Our Nex,” Goodnight Oslo. The psychedelic folk-rocker (and ’80s holdover) is back with the sophomore release from his relatively new band, which features Peter Buck of R.E.M. on guitar. And he’s up to his old tricks on this, the first single — jangly guitars, beehive harmonies, crazy bongo-beats, lots of wah-wah-ing, bizarre lyrics, and a few surprises, like banjo-picking and groovy, swelling Memphis horns. It’s out of this world.
Say Hi, “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh,” Oohs & Ahhs. Surprisingly, Eric Elbogen, the man behind Say Hi, is out with another record less than a year after his last. And although this song does not represent much of a departure from his standard formula — downbeat, whispery vocals, a simple guitar-strum-and-drum rhythm, periodic keyboards, and some spacey effects — it’s as ineffably appealing as anything else he’s produced. And that’s something to get excited about.
See Me River, “Ed Jackson,” The Great Unwashed. The double-time, chug-a-chug rhythm and circular guitar picking create a sense of forward motion here, and I can imagine a video shot through the window of a car moving through the city. I don’t know much about this Seattle five-piece, but their sound reminds me of Winter Hours, a disbanded band I miss dearly, and there’s a Gordon Lightfoot-ed feel you can sense in the singer’s voice (or maybe it’s Leonard Cohen, but only because he says the name “Marianne” in the chorus), if you can read my mind.
Sin Fang Bous, “Melt Down the Knives,” Clangour. This song opens like an updated, slightly more upbeat version of “White Wedding,” but then it (thankfully) slips into something more sinister and solemn, like “A Forest.” It’s a brief peek at an alluring new-to-me band from Iceland that I plan to call on again.
Miike Snow, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” Burial. Miike (yes, there are two “i’s”) Snow is actually a Swedish trio of hip remixers who create fun, appealing, witty dance-party music. For instance, their recasting of this song, one of my favorite cuts from Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut, sounds a bit like R2D2 leading the cantina band in Star Wars. If you like this ditty, be sure to pick up the other songs and remixes here.
Surf City, “Dickshakers Union,” Surf City. I don’t know what to make of this song’s name (well, I do, and I don’t wish to say), but it makes for a fun, tribal-beating, spaced-out dance tune — by a New Zealand four-piece — that sounds like music Dick Dale would have made if he had joined the B-52’s.
The Thermals, “Now We Can See,” Now We Can See. This Portland, Ore.-based band is one of the few punk/thrash acts playing today that can carry off being extremely political and sounding incredibly melodic. This song is energetic and forceful, meaningful and enjoyable. Give it a listen and you will see why I like them so much.
Threatmantics, “Big Man,” Upbeat Love. The members of this Welsh trio certainly don’t pull any punches, either with their name or their music. In fact, this song is a little like rock-and-roll with brass knuckles on. Their influences here are obvious — Ian Curtis, The Fall, The Sex Pistols — and it takes a big man to deny they play heavy, grinding, thumping, loud music. Turn it up!
J. Tillman, “Steel on Steel,” Vacilando Territory Blues. Although this song starts out swirling and swinging toward a Burt Bacharach saccharine skyline, there’s enough husky vocalizing from Tillman (drummer for Fleet Foxes), Dead-influenced countrified guitar, and heavy keyboard swells to keep it firmly grounded through to the end.
Vetiver, “Everyday,” Tight Knit. Here’s a sunny little ditty to lighten your springtime. It follows a basic singer-songwriter formula — jaunty acoustic guitar strumming, laid-back vocals, gentle tambourine, an easy, brushed-drum shuffle — and yet it can fix a multitude of emotional ills. It’s become a one-a-day for me.
Kurt Vile, “My Best Friends (Don’t Even Pass This),” God Is Saying This to You? When all you hear is a man and a guitar, with lots of reverb, it’s too tempting not to make comparisons to the musical antecedents. On this catchy little lo-fi number, I’d say Vile falls in line between a not-so-sunny James Taylor and a slightly more upbeat Bob Dylan. At least, this is what I’m saying to you.
The Von Bondies, “Pale Bride,” Love, Hate and Then There’s You. Here’s another band that has picked up the spiky, “edgy” guitar that U2 threw down and walked away from years ago. But these Detroit-based musicians arrange their tune with a looser, more elastic structure to keep it interesting, with just enough pop elan to separate it from the typical post-punk pout. Hearing this song will make you “care” once again.
Well, that concludes my not-so-brief new-music interlude. I hope you found something you liked (if you didn’t, it’s your own damn fault, as my father would say). I’ll be back on schedule next week. Until then, please leave a comment and let me know what you think of my choices, or feel free to suggest others.