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The Other Side of Summer

By John Brodeur

Back in my school days, a fav orite summer-break habit was to sleep until noon, stay in, and play the hell out of my records while the “normal” kids went outside and “played.” So what; I was pale. If this were then, these would be some of the records I’d probably be spinning ad nauseum this summer. Rather, here are a few MP3 folders that I’ll be accessing on a frequent basis using my personal computer. Music is so boring these days.

St. Vincent

Actor

The most intoxicating record of the season is Annie Clark’s latest wonder. Her songs unfold like black-and-white landscapes, with the harsh light of her soprano saturating the rolling oddities underneath. Clark reportedly was influenced by the music of old Disney films during the recording process; she incorporates those sweeping, sometimes sinister sounds into post-rock and electronic skeletons to make some truly wicked tones. There’s plenty of discord—Clark sings “Paint the black hole blacker” in an overall cautionary tone, warning perhaps of what lies ahead—but the tracks, no matter how cynical, are commercial enough to invite anyone in search of a spectacle. Sure enough, by the ethereal but driving “Actor,” you’re hooked—and just in time for the tense Hitchcockian strings of “Black Rainbow” to set up a cliffhanger for the great second half. You’ll want to hang around to see what happens next.

Jarvis Cocker

Further Complications

It’s hard enough to tell when Jarvis Cocker is being serious; putting his loveable mope to a garage-rock soundtrack only further masks his trademark irony. Since we’re dealing with Brit-rock’s great prankster, it’s possible that, from the title down, he aimed to take the bar down a notch with Further Complications. (His first post-Pulp disc certainly set it quite high.) Indeed, Jarvis tries on a grittier sound than usual at the start, to varying degrees of success: Stooges references (“Homewrecker!”) are generally a good thing; clunky tunes (“Fuckingsong”) are not. He’s at his best on songs that follow in the grand Jarvis tradition: minor epics (“Slush,” the quite funny “I Never Said I Was Deep”) and disco epics, like closer “You’re in My Eyes (Discosong),” which dispenses the mirth over eight-and-a-half filler-free minutes. The second half of Further Complications is a great success; and not just in contrast to the hit-or-miss first half.

 

Bat for Lashes

Two Suns

Natasha Khan is probably thrilled to death or sick and tired of Tori Amos comparisons. Doesn’t matter, they’re not going to go away anytime soon. But Khan’s music, under the name Bat for Lashes, transcends easy labels by expertly incorporating classical, world music, and art-rock themes. There’s a bit of everything on Two Suns, with references to Depeche Mode, Bjork, Genesis, Neil Young and Eurythmics. It really is refreshing to hear a young act pay homage to production elements from ’80s recordings without any kitschy underpinnings, which is what makes the cool, haunting breeze of “Daniel” one of the year’s best singles so far. The album continually pushes boundaries, peaking late with the epic “Pearl’s Dream.” The Broadwayisms of closer “The Big Sleep” almost break the meter on melodrama, but the ship doesn’t sink under the ballast.

 

…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

The Century of Self

Speaking of epics: On their last few releases, Trail of Dead never shied away from putting their label’s money where their mouths were, creating a series of three increasingly outsize, blatantly (some would say too) ambitious records. (I’m generally on the side of big songs and bigger ideas, but I can appreciate the argument.) Early in The Century of Self, they’re out to show that their first post-Interscope release won’t disappoint in that regard. But the massive opening theme of “Giants Causeway” is a little misleading—when the pomp gives way and “Far Pavilions” revisits the driving, call-and-response post-punk of their early releases, you can hear a vitality that’s been not necessarily missing, but glossed over, in the past. It’s a direct result of the band tracking live as opposed to doing endless overdubs, and the songs are bigger than the ideas this time, too: You’ll hear references to Oasis, Jane’s Addiction, even Aerosmith in these new anthems. (Right?) Trail of Dead are ready for a fight, and they outnumber you. Just go along with them.

Jay Bennett

The Palace at 4am (Part I) (with Edward Burch)

Whatever Happened I Apologize

When Palace came out in 2002, I found Jay Bennett’s first post-Wilco disc to be just as worthy of repeated listens, if not dissection, as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (both were released the same day). Bennett was working at the top of his game, having made Wilco sound like Wilco on their two best records, and you can really feel the craft he brought to the table in making these songs, which stem from an eight-year recording collaboration with singer-guitarist Edward Burch. Bennett has an obvious appreciation for Trust-era Elvis Costello, and the chops to take it beyond straight homage. In some regards, it’s Summerteeth II, complete with a George Harrison-esque read of “My Darling.”

Last fall, Bennett issued Whatever Happened I Apologize as a free download through online “label” Rockproper.com. It’s an intimate 10-song set recorded at Bennett’s Pieholden Suite Sound, with the artist’s voice accompanied by just acoustic guitar and occasional organ or bass. Burch makes an appearance on “I’ll Decorate My Love,” the most upbeat of a batch of pretty dark Americana. Dark’s not quite right—he may say he’ll “be glad when it’s over” on “How Dull They Make the Razor,” but he also knows the answer’s not so simple (“In the end I suppose you sink or you swim”). If you liked Joe Pernice circa Scud Mountain Boys, Whatever could be the best free zip file you’ll not spend a dime on this year.

Bennett’s death this week deserves to be more than just a footnote. He was a remarkable musician and songwriter, and either (or both) of these albums would be a good way to acquaint yourself with his talent.


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