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Under Control

Pedro the Lion
Achilles Heel (Jade Tree)

It’s long been said that less is more, and it looks like David Bazan has finally figured that out. Following the thematically bound morality plays of Winners Never Quit and Control (which reportedly took close to a year to record), Bazan, along with multi-instrumentalist TW Walsh, has pared things back and made a more straightforward, relaxed record in Pedro the Lion’s Achilles Heel (due May 25 from Jade Tree). It’s a stretch less dour and abrasive than the heavy-handed Control, which, in retrospect, sounds like a family-values missive from the Bush administration. In fact, Heel sounds almost upbeat at times, a drastic change of pace for Bazan, who probably couldn’t write a genuinely happy song if he were contracted to do so.

Opening with the slow-but-sturdy “Bands With Managers,” where Bazan applies a spine-tingling falsetto to such defeatist prose as “You don’t believe when I say it won’t be alright,” Heel is the closest thing to a straight-up pop record in the Pedro catalog thus far, and while it may seem as if Bazan is wrapping the same sleepy melody around every last chord progression, what a melody it is—just try to turn your attention away from the captivating arc of “Arizona” or the breathtaking harmonies on “The Fleecing.” The bouncy, Armed Forces-era Costello vibe of “Transcontinental” buoys the grim tale of a man recounting his final hours in the wake of a train accident (“Engine severs lower legs/Feel my bruised heart beating/Spinal cord remains intact/Still sending and receiving”), with acoustic guitar and Fender Telecaster (per usual) accompaniment.

Bazan is as economical with words as he is with notes, usually completing his thoughts in about 100 words. Heel’s closing couplet—“My old man always swore that hell would have no flame/Just a front row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away”—could just as well say it all. “I Do” reduces the life cycle to a dreadful, hopeless duty—the wife gives birth, accomplishing “what she was born to do,” while the father has to “bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through.” In the heartbreaking “A Simple Plan,” a father realizes that communism has rendered him unnecessary (at least in his own mind), driving him to suicide. Elsewhere, themes of morality (“Discretion”), faith (“Foregone Conclusions”), and self-abuse (“Keep Swinging”) pervade, and that may just be this album’s thematic adhesive: No matter how strong or grounded we think we are, there’s always something that can break us down. Thanks, Dave, for reminding us of that.

—John Brodeur

Ian Matthews
Valley Hi Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You (Water Music)

One can’t help but ponder why Ian (also spelled Iain) Matthews failed to attain the commercial success of some of his contemporaries. He was the first to abandon Fairport Convention (followed an album later by Sandy Denny and two later by Richard Thompson). He’s worked continuously in the three decades since, hitting the charts only with his band Matthews Southern Comfort and their version of “Woodstock.”

Originally released in 1973 and 1974 on Elektra, Valley Hi and Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You were a pair of smartly conceived albums that should have done as well as Jackson Browne, but didn’t even reach the modest heights of Poco. The former, lackadaisically produced by Michael Nesmith, shows off Matthews’ strengths as an interpreter of other people’s songs. However, he did pen a couple of the set’s strongest numbers, including the opening “Keep on Sailing,” which appeared again the following year on the album that more fully realized his vision, but still failed to make any commercial headway.

It is perhaps because Matthews was known for singing other people’s songs that he didn’t fit the popular format of the day, the often-dreaded singer-songwriter hybrid, and that record labels and radio were uncertain of what to do with him. Well, guess what? These two albums sound better today than most of the early ’70s crop of overtly self-obsessed troubadours. Matthews recognized good material when he heard it, and succeeded in making them his own, from Gene Clark’s “Tried So Hard” to Becker and Fagen’s “Dirty Work.” And were it not for The Eagles’ take-no-prisoners strategy for world domination, Matthews’ version of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” would be the one everyone knows. (Don Henley copped Matthews’ arrangement and took it to the bank before you could say “pact with the devil.”)

—David Greenberger

Ray Conniff
The Essential Ray Conniff (Columbia Legacy)

Someday, someone will write the history of music in the ’90s and aughts, and record that nothing existed but hiphop. Not true, but the winner gets final say. From the late ’50s to early ’60s, when rock & roll was supposedly king—that’s what Rolling Stone says—the three major record labels didn’t give a crap about it. Decca (now Universal) lucked into Buddy Holly, but pushed Bing Crosby reissues. RCA (now BMG) made millions off Elvis Presley, but spent as much corporate energy on Perry Como—and at the time, with his big TV success, this made perfect sense. Columbia (now Sony) spurned the big beat completely in favor of the most carefully crafted, airtight pop baubles of the era.

Which brings us to Ray Conniff, and this lovingly compiled two-disc collection. I was a kid in the ’60s, and Conniff—who died in 2002—seemed like the rankest elevator music. He had a weirdly insular sound combining big-band instrumentation, sweet strings and corny choral arrangements. It lacked danger. It was redolent of a trip to the dentist. Conniff would take pop standards, movie themes and showtunes, and transform them into something that ended up sounding unconvincingly safe.

Forty years later, Conniff sounds surprisingly hip. On his earliest hits, his superb arrangements shine through. “’S Wonderful,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and his own “Walkin’ and Whistlin’ ” have a real pop snap, and are as representative of 1957 as any Presley track. Conniff came out of the big-band era, having been a trombonist-arranger for Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw, but he stripped that lush, complex genre to the bone. Simplicity was key. He employed any instrument he thought appropriate, from pipe organ to harmonica. He learned all the then-popular studio tricks, which added even more distance from the monaural past. The musical result was as utilitarian as a suburban ranch house—only more interesting.

Disc 1 of this set is a gas. Disc 2, which reveals how the astute Conniff stayed commercially relevant into the mid-1970s, is a dud. But let that pass. Believe it or not, Ray Conniff stands the test of time—at least as well as any of his rock & roll contemporaries.

—Shawn Stone

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