Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Scott H. Biram, Jethro Tull, Greg Graffin, T Bone Burnett, Arcade Fire

My music listening patterns typically involve seeking out new music, returning to old favorites, and circling back to revisit music that didn’t receive the proper time and attention on the first pass through. And I’ve been doing a little of all of the above recently.

Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift

Biram takes the White Stripes/Black Keys minimalist approach and does it one better. He’s a one-man band, but he raises such an unholy racket that you’d swear you’re listening to a roomful of garage band incompetents. And I mean incompetents in the best sense of that term. Biram is surely no virtuoso anything – he can’t sing, and he can barely play the guitar – but there’s a primal energy about his three chords distorted through a stack of Marshall amps, and he has the kind of untamed howl and unrefined power that reminds me of blues minimalists like Hound Dog Taylor and John Lee Hooker. But the blues influence is only part of the story. Biram also has a convincing Hank Williams high lonesome tenor that he employs to great effect on several plaintive country originals, and his songwriting aspires to (but doesn’t quite reach) the fever-dream surrealism of mid-‘60s Dylan. In short, he’s raw, raunchy, soulful and poetic. That’s usually a pretty good combination, and it is this time, too.

Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick

Yes, this is one of those dreaded early ‘70s prog rock suites; one song spread out over 45 minutes. But it has several advantages over its bloated brethren: 1) no lengthy drum solos (okay, there’s a two-minute drum solo, but that hardly counts), 2) no sci-fi themes were used in the making of this album, and 3) no mention of elves or dwarves. Sure, the transitions are jarring, but this is really a series of songs disguised as one, and they’re good songs, too, full of Ian Anderson’s melodic gifts and deft acoustic fingerpicking and inscrutable lyrics that seem to make more sense with each passing day. I’ve always heard this album as a poetic anti-war statement, and I still do.

So come on ye childhood heroes
Won't you rise up from the pages of your comic books
Your super crooks
And show us all the way.
Well, make your will and testament.
Won't you join your local government?
We'll have Superman for president
Let Robin save the day.

That still sounds more relevant to me than “Let’s impeach the President.” I love this album. I have for thirty-five years, and I still do.

Greg Graffin – Cold as the Clay

Greg Graffin has a Ph.D. in Zoology from Cornell U., and he’s the lead singer/songwriter for American punk pioneers Bad Religion, so you’d think that Appalachian folk songs wouldn’t be high on the priority list. But he’s recorded a batch of Appalachian folk songs anyway, and they’re mixed in with some originals that sound like they could be ancient Appalachian folk songs. True to his punk roots, there’s nothing slick about the playing, singing, or production, and the whole affair sounds like it could have been recorded by Alan Lomax with a field microphone in some backwoods holler in the 1930s or 1940s. Who knew that this guy aspired to be the male Gillian Welch? Not me. But this is a surprisingly great album.

T Bone Burnett – Twenty Twenty: The Esssential T Bone Burnett

This is a 2-CD, 40-song career retrospective. And even though I was already familiar with 90% of this material, it’s still great to hear it in a new context. The shuffling of the songs seems to have given them new life. I love T Bone’s songwriting:

Will you tell you tell me this riddle:
Who is the father of lies?
Who is the master of half-truth?
What is Madison Avenue?

It is everything you need to get close up
It is in search of an historic Jesus
It is expensive at 50% off

It is a 50 foot long bronzed naked girl
It is a travel poster in a prison cell
It is a wooden nickel in a wishing well

It is a death cult that terrorized the town
It is a love affair that brought a nation down
It is desperate desert battle to the death

Somehow the CCM industry never picked up on the Christian worldview inherent in T Bone’s music. I don’t understand it. Maybe it was the bronzed naked girl.

The Arcade Fire – Funeral

I blame it on Pitchfork. They’re a convenient scapegoat for all the ills of the world: famine, earthquakes, the price of gasoline, Paris Hilton, American Idol. But the fact is that I really don’t like Pitchfork or their condescending, smarmy hipness, and I tend to have an automatic aversion to anything they praise. Funeral is a couple year’s old now, and Pitchfork, of course, hyped it to death. And so I listened, initially with a snarl on my face, and then not much after that. My mistake. For once they got it right, and I’m so glad I took the time to listen again. This is a brilliant album.

The songs are heartbreaking, particularly the devastating “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies).” The four-song “Neighborhood” suite is dazzling in its complexity, beauty, and raw rock power. And Win Butler sings like an even more unhinged David Byrne, and sounds at times like his skull is ready to explode. All of it is endlessly creative and unpredictable, careening off into totally unexpected directions, like the graceful little Motown coda that closes “Wake Up” after four minutes of hypercharged Bowie/Byrne New Wave overemoting. I’ve been listening to this album almost exclusively over the past few days, and I keep uncovering new surprises. This is Exhibit A, at least for this week, for why I care about music.


Mark K. said...

I always liked Tull's Aqualung. Thick as a Brick is good, but if I had to pick between the two, Aqualung wins. But who says you have to pick?

Anonymous said...

Glad you finall climbed on the Arcade Fire train. That is in my top 5 albums of pretty much anytime. It took a few listens before it grabbed me. It has never released me either from it's grip. I am just a bit curious what they can do for their next record. I just hope they don't drown under the expectations.....