Thursday, October 12, 2006

Steve Almaas, Gomez, Catfish Haven, William Bell, British Sea Power

The problem with reviewing albums is that you actually have to listen to them. Or at least you should, and the guilt kicks in when you attempt to slide by with, oh, one listen, or listening to selected snippets of songs you know you didn’t really like very well in the first place. The discerning public demands more! And so you dutifully pay attention, again and again, instead of listening to the new Hold Steady, Beck, and Decemberists albums you’d really like to hear. A pox upon you, Barzin, Rod Stewart, and The Lemonheads!

It’s not that they’re bad (well, okay, Rod Stewart is bad). It’s just that they take up my time. But on the bright side, Rod Stewart is truly horrid, and I will admit that I take a perverse pleasure in slamming him in print. Do ya think he’s sexy? No. Do ya think he’s recorded a single note in the past thirty years in which he’s emotionally invested? No. Etc.

So in addition to Rod the Fraud, I’ve been listening to the following albums, some of which I’ll review, and some of which I won’t. But I’m really looking forward to that new batch of albums from The Hold Steady, The Decemberists, and Beck.

Steve Almaas and Ali Smith – You Showed Me

Almaas was the head wrangler for Beat Rodeo, an ‘80s cowpoke band (back when alt-country was still just country rock). I liked him then, and I like him now. He hooked up with girlfriend Ali Smith on a great duets album in 2002, and he reprises the formula here. And it’s a great formula, too – sweet Gram and Emmylou harmonies, chiming, Byrds-like guitars, and subject matter ranging from original protest anthems to settings of James Joyce poems. Smith’s quivering Girl Group vocals on “The Lonely Sea,” an early Brian Wilson song, and Almaas’ approximation of an entire Beach Boys chorale, is worth the price of admission itself, but there are many more highlights.

Gomez – How We Operate

Like Teenage Fanclub and Travis, Gomez arrived with plenty of buzz via the hype machine, rapidly faded into near obscurity, and are quietly putting out one wonderful album after another. There are three legitimate songwriters here, each with distinctive styles, but they all have an affinity for crafting three-minute guitar-driven pop gems. It’s nothing you haven’t heard a thousand times before. But the quality matters, and these guys deliver consistently high quality.

Catfish Haven – Tell Me

Three white boys from Chicago who want to be Otis Redding. It’s a noble goal, and on the uptempo numbers they nail it. Much R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the attempt. The slower songs are a mess, though. George Hunter, the lead singer, is a poor substitute for Otis as a pleading balladeer, and the hyperventilating act gets old very quickly. It would also help to tune the guitars.

William Bell – New Lease on Life

William Bell was one of the great Stax/Volt soul singers, and his song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is justly regarded as one of the pinnacles of Memphis soul. He’s still plugging away, forty years down the line, and he’s still in fine voice. Sadly, the production here is dismal, and the songwriting itself is lame to the point of embarrassment. Titles like “Playaz Only Love You When They’re Playing” (hello, Stevie Nicks!) tell the story. It’s too bad, because the voice is intact. Where’s Joe Henry when you need him?

British Sea Power – The Decline of British Sea Power, Open Season

I’ve had these two albums for a while now, and haven’t paid that much attention. But I pulled them off the shelf recently, and I’ve enjoyed them immensely. Fans of the cracked eccentricity of The Arcade Fire or The Decemberists will appreciate these literate, quirky tales of Antarctic ice floes, Charles Lindbergh’s plane, and the martyrdom of 16th century nuns. Best recommendation I can offer: Lead singer Yan sings “The occultation of a summer sun/Was burning holes in everyone” and makes it rock. The music sounds familiar in a vague New Wave sense, but never oppressively so. I hear echoes of Interpol, The Cure, Talking Heads, even early, very psychedelic Pink Floyd on the pastoral, lovely “North Hanging Rock.” It’s different. It’s frequently pretty. And it rocks.


Julie Zickefoose said...

Thank you for these reviews. I completely appreciate your sentiments on reviewing albums; I find book reviews just as guilt-ridden; I feel I have to carefully consider each book, even if I don't much like it, in order to give it its due.
Thank you, too, for hating Rod as much as I do. The standards he massacres make me dash to my Chet Baker collection. But oh, so long does he run. And he keeps spawning!

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, that's actually Rod mangling a perfectly great Van Morrison song. So you were singing a cover of a cover. It's really a lovely song that even Rod cannot entirely ruin.