January is typically a slow month for me, given the slightly lighter tour schedules that generally accompany the post-holiday, winter weather doldrums. And yet I find myself in the midst of a veritable shitstorm of assignments and deadlines and interviews and reviews and pre-planning and executing.
Perhaps it’s a sign of a better 2010 to come. Some of my outlets that tightened belts last year seem to be letting them back out a notch or two. In late 2009 I was fortunate enough to welcome a new publication into my freelance schedule, and they seem fully prepared to keep me busy with three or four features a month.
All of this is great news for my checking account, but it’s also going to keep me busier than a one-legged extra in a Jackie Chan movie. I will endeavor to keep pace with the (hopefully) huge volume of work that appears to be rolling down the hill at a mildly alarming speed.
To that end, I offer you some humble musings on the subject of four interesting and quite satisfying discs that hit the shelves, both real and virtual, this very week. And while on this tangential subject, allow me to take a moment to remind everyone that, although the convenience of ordering on-line is a modern miracle, it wouldn’t kill you to push away from the computer, get in the car and spend a few of your hard earned dollars with your nearby indie record store.
Personal interaction is becoming as rare as moderate politics. Take a stroll into an indie record shop, pick up a new or used album in your favorite format and talk to a real human today.
A sad postscript: As I was fact checking online and finishing up this post, I came across a news report on the death of Canadian chanteuse Kate McGarrigle. Although she was a Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter who came to prominence in the ’70s in a Folk duo with her sister Anna, Kate was perhaps more widely known as Loudon Wainwright’s ex-wife and the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. The family performed together in various permutations and sometimes all together (as documented on 1998’s amazing McGarrigle Hour album).
Kate sang with Rufus and Martha at a benefit in London just six weeks ago for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, the charity she established two years ago after her own cancer diagnosis. Kate was 63, and the Northern Lights are a little dimmer tonight for her absence from the world.
Mark Oliver Everett doesn’t feel the slightest hesitation about baring his soul, whether in his old persona of A Man Called E or in his better-known sonic disguise as Eels. And Everett’s particular genius is in the casually devastating manner that he attaches his well-worn heart to his plainly visible sleeve, making it so painfully and beautifully universal that by the end of a song or an album, you’d swear that you were looking at your own crumbling heart and your own tear-and-snot-stained sleeve and that it was your mournful voice rising over the sweetly melancholy baroque Pop soundtrack that he routinely constructs out of a raven’s-nest aggregation of Randy Newman’s cynical classicism, Beck’s Hip Hop Folk Pop magic, Brian Wilson’s orchestrated genius and The Beatles’ reinforced Rock chassis. Everett is that good and better.
Everett has proven many times to be a flawless documentarian on the pain of modern living. His 1993 E album, Broken Toy Shop, was the soundtrack to a young man’s early heartache, and his 1998 Eels masterpiece, Electro-Shock Blues, came in the harrowing aftermath of his mother’s cancer diagnosis, the deaths of several friends and his sister’s suicide.
The Eels’ latest missive, End Times, doesn’t concern itself with the Mayan calendar or Revelations prophecies but with the more personal apocalypse of the demise of a relationship and the universal desperation of today’s world.
On the heels of his reverie on fresh love comes the percolating Rock of “Gone Man,” its first line and spirit lifted from the Rolling Stones, “She used to love me but it’s all over now.” More telling is the gorgeous piano balladry of “A Line in the Dirt” and its heartbreakingly humorous opening; “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 anymore.” Anyone who has gone through a break-up, one of life’s most painful experiences, will instantly recognize that moment of finding humor in the bleakest situations.
The title track equates the end-of-the-world rants of a homeless man with the emptiness of a lover’s abandonment over a Dylanesque accompaniment, and “Paradise Blues” pounds with Blues/Pop fervor while making the case that his departing love is an emotional suicide bomber. Everett doesn’t shift blame, shouldering plenty of the responsibility for the end of the relationship, and End Times isn’t relentlessly depressing as he finds both humor and hope in the process.
Like Electro-Shock Blues, End Times isn’t always an easy listen but it’s rewarding and may well stand among the best of the Eels’ stellar catalog.
If the name Pearl Aday doesn’t strike a chord with you, then you’re not likely to fire up any memory sparks for her stepfather, Marvin Lee Aday. Unless you do a quick Google check and realize that Pearl’s pappy is none other than Meat Loaf, the side of beef with one of the most distinctively strong voices in Rock. There was a time when Meat required an oxygen tank in his tour rider so that he could hit the mask offstage and sustain those notes without passing out. And should you dismiss the power of Mr. Loaf, consider that his 1977 hit Bat Out of Hell consistently remained in the Top 10 of catalog sales when Billboard started tracking those figures and was certainly selling similar units long before.
One listen to Pearl’s debut solo album, Little Immaculate White Fox, and it’s clear that the kickass apple doesn’t fall far from daddy’s power vocal tree. Even though she and Meat Loaf don’t share a bloodline, Pearl picked up some serious skills by osmosis. She’s done her share of backing vocals for the old man’s Neverland Express touring band, as well as stints with Mtley Cre and unrecorded L.A. band Stella.
Pearl is also the name of Pearl Aday’s band, featuring the members of Mother Superior and her husband, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, and Little Immaculate White Fox is a testament to Aday’s amazing personal and professional lineage. There are moments of Pop Metal fury (“Check Out Charlie”), Stonesy Blues swagger (“My Heart Isn’t In It”), Southern Rock boogie (“Worth Defending”) and melodic Hard Rock fist-pump (“Rock Child,” “Love Pyre”). Above the band’s frenetic thunder is Aday’s voice, a husky howl that is more than a little reminiscent of Meat Loaf’s old duet partner Ellen Foley.
Little Immactulate White Fox might not be a groundbreaking musical achievement, but it is unapologetically loud, proud and unbowed Rock & Roll and that, when you come down to it, is the best kind.
From the outset, Motion City Soundtrack has effectively balanced Pop’s melodic jaunt, Punk’s visceral punch and New Wave’s jittery cool. Utilizing equal measures of bracing guitars and soaring synthesizers, the Minneapolis quintet has turned out a string of energetic and satisfying albums and EPs, particularly its engaging sophomore album, 2005’s Commit This to Memory, produced by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus. MCS’s last album, 2007’s Even If It Kills Me, found the band in a more deliberate frame of mind creatively, and while it was a good set, it suffered from a slight lack of spontaneity.
MCS gets back to that atmosphere on their latest album and major label debut, My Dinosaur Life. Reteaming with Hoppus behind the board, MCS got an unexpected dose of reality when drummer Tony Thaxton broke his arm on the eve of the band’s L.A. sessions to track the new album. Because of that, Thaxton was forced to do his drum parts last, a process that typically begins most albums. The delay in getting a firm start allowed the rest of the band to tweak their existing songs and write a couple of new ones.
Perhaps as a result of all this last minute retooling, My Dinosaur Life finds MCS broadening their sonic range while getting back to a more visceral, freewheeling approach; “Worker Bee” starts with a Loudon Wainwright melancholy strum then jumps into frenetic MCS-meets-They Might Be Giants mode, “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” pulses with of combination of Cheap Trick energy and Ben Folds humor, “Disappear” sounds like R.E.M. in self-administered electro-shock therapy, and “Delirium” and “Pulp Fiction” bristle with the off kilter guitars-and-synth verve of MCS’ earliest work.
From the moment Spoon has had two albums to compare, their next one has been a reaction to its last one, not with the conscious deliberation of a product in front of a focus group, but in an organic creative fashion that has guaranteed a fascinatingly diverse catalog.
Spoon’s last album, the almost universally beloved Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was bold and lush and confident, by Spoon standards, so it stands to reason that its follow-up would veer sharply in the other direction. Reason couldn’t be more right — Transference is a charming collection of lightly polished demos and sparsely arranged tracks that doesn’t stray far from frontman Britt Daniel’s songwriting template and excellent track record. At least part of the elegant desolation of Transference is due to the absence of longtime producer Mike McCarthy, but not out of any sense of dissatisfaction; Daniel has publicly avowed his love for McCarthy’s work, particularly on Ga Ga. For Daniel, the reaction on Transference was to spend considerably less time revising songs after demoing the original flash of inspiration.
Daniel’s gorgeous piano ballad “Goodnight Laura” has the easy melodicism and simple execution of the best song Paul McCartney never wrote and the swaggering “Trouble Comes Running” is punctuated by Daniel’s unsweetened basement guitar banging. In the moments when Daniel and the band (keyboardist Eric Harvey, bassist Rob Pope, drummer Jim Eno) fill out the sound, it’s with an impressive sense of economy and restraint. “Who Makes Your Money” bounces along on a shimmery stripped-down Pop groove and “Written in Reverse” may be the closest thing to a definition of classic Spoon as the album has to offer.
If Spoon were still ensnared by the major label chains they so luckily escaped when Elektra unceremoniously dumped them a decade ago, Transference would be the album that the suits would absolutely not understand as the follow-up to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and would likely get them dumped all over again. Which, of course, means it’s a perfect Spoon album.