Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Both Girls Hoax Revealed

I have been listening to the self-titled album from Both Girls. It's a fine electronica/folkie kind of album, with surprisingly literate lyrics for people who play around with synthesizers. And there's a song about Ohio. You should buy it, and you can do so right here.

But something puzzled me all along, left me uneasy, staring up at the ceiling at 3:00 a.m., trying to unravel the mystery. There was a certain hint of je ne sais quoi in the vocal timbre that simply didn't jive with the title. Now, these are lovely girls, but they have surprisingly deep voices. And I became suspicious.

After several weeks of sleuthing, careful analysis of vocal tics, painstakingly meticulous reseach into the lowest limits that the female voice can reach, and Google searches on the term "Both Girls," I can now reveal the shocking truth. Both girls are ... well, you be the judge. Take a look at this:

I know, the evidence is circumstantial at best. These are half faces. They could be anybody. But they are most emphatically not girls. Not even bearded women can grow hair like that dude on the right. And although the fuzzy down on that "girl" on the left could theoretically be grown by a woman, "she" just doesn't look like a girl, does she?

So enjoy the album. It's a good one. But I thought it proper to warn you so you're not taken in by this hoax. Both Girls, my ass.

Steve Earle -- I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

My review of Steve Earle's latest album at Christianity Today.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Glasvegas -- Euphoric Heartbreak

Glasvegas' sophomore album Euphoric Heartbreak falls victim to all the sophomore slump stereotypes. Bigger budgets mean more studio tricks, popularity leads to self-importance, and all the good songs got used up the first time. It's rarely a good formula, and it isn't this time, either.

The self-titled debut revealed a hungry Glasgow band that played to its strengths -- big, earnest anthems about grinding poverty, single-parent families, social workers, pints, skirts, and gang warfare. It was the world the band knew, and they put it across with buzzing Jesus and Mary Chain guitars and a singer who could out-emote Bono. For Euphoric Heartbreak they've hired U2 mastermind Flood to handle the production duties, and Flood does what he does, slathering on the synths, playing tricks with reverb, and generally smothering everything that made the band special in the first place. Just as problematic is lead singer/songwriter James Allan's newfound tendency to replace what he knows with Generic Uplifting Anthems. One is called "The World Is Yours." One is called "You," which features the stirring chorus of "You, You, You." One is called "Shine Like Stars," where James assures us that "Yesterday all my happiness seemed so far away/Now it looks as though it's here to stay." One hopes that Paul McCartney is feeling charitable. Then there's the puzzling "Lots Sometimes," during which Allan repeats the title mantra (I think about you lots sometimes/I wonder if you ever loved me at all lots sometimes) some thirty or forty times. That's lots and lots and lots. Too much, particularly for a phrase that is awkward from the start.

It's all deeply disappointing. To his credit, Allan still has those wall-rattling vocal chords, and he still declaims in a thick Scots brogue that mercifully obscures many of the more wince-inducing lyrics. But the frothy bombast of Euphoric Heartbreak is a major misstep. There is heartbreak here, all right, but precious little euphoria that doesn't seem forced and artificial.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Forty Odd Years

Finally, Loudon gets his own boxed set -- Forty Odd Years, 5 discs and 87 tracks, out in May. It's about time. Better known these days as the father of Rufus and Martha, Loudon Wainwright III has simply compiled one of the great, underappreciated catalogs in contemporary music. I've written about him before. I'm sure I'll write about him again. That's because he never fails to astonish me in his ability to peel back the layers of propriety and respectability and say the things that really go on in human relationships. This isn't warts-'n-all songwriting. Hell, this is probing the cancer at the heart of families, and putting the malignant cells under the microscope. God bless him and his dysfunctional life.

Last week I attended a family affair
And a few remarked upon my recent growth of facial hair
You look just like your father did
With that beard someone said
I answered back I am him
Even though my old man's dead
I didn't want to be him
Well at first I did
When I loved & looked up to him
As a little kid

He sent me to his old school
I was a numeral with his name
And he gave me this gold signet ring
And he wore one just the same

And I guess that I believed him
And probably it was true
When he told me I was just like him
That's what some fathers do

But a father's always older
And my dad was rather tall
Who says size doesn't matter
He was big & I was small

I needed to be big enough
To be someone someday
And I learned I had to beat him
And that was the only way

I learned I had to fight him
My own flesh blood bone & kin
But I felt I was just like him
Can a man's son be his twin?

First we fought for my mother
That afforded little joy
When he left she was heart broken
And I was still their little boy
But I started to get bigger
And to win the ugly game
When I made a little money
And I got a bit of fame

And I saw how this could wound him
Yes this could do the trick
And if I made it big enough
I could kill him off quick
But how can you murder someone
In a way that they don't die?
I didn't want to kill him
That would be suicide

I got frightened so I backed off
I let up and I was through
And in the end he did himself in
Usually that's what we do

I'm alive and he is dead
And neither of us won
It's spoiled for the victor
Once the vanquishing is done
A man becomes immortal
Through his daughter or his son
But when he fears his legacy
A man can come undone

And the beard is a reminder
I'm a living part of him
Although my father's dead and gone
I'm his surviving twin

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Unthanks -- Last

This may be the second golden age of British folk music. Nothing against Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span, but there’s no need to hearken back to the glory days of the early 1970s to find adventurous folk-based music pouring out of Albion. Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling have the more commercial folk-pop side covered. Johnny Flynn continues to ply his wry, literate songs as a Dickensian ragamuffin. Kate Rusby holds down the Trad Nightingale post quite admirably. And Alasdair Roberts continues to spin out his cockeyed tales of knights, fair damsels, and metaphysical conundrums.

Last, the latest album from The Unthanks – yes, Unthank being the surname of sisters Rachel and Becky – belongs in that storied company. Like 2009’s Here’s The Tender Coming, Last is firmly based in Trad Britfolk territory, but that foundation is twisted and subverted in fascinating and lovely ways. Song titles like “The Gallowgate Lad” and “My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up” clearly point out the ancient nature of the proceedings, but those looking for a straight Trad album will be surprised. The songs invariably receive a stately, elegiac treatment from producer, pianist, and arranger Adrian McNally (Rachel’s husband), and the resulting austere chamber music and measured, mid-tempo arrangements often bear striking resemblance to American slowcore band Low.

Rachel and Becky sing, of course, and their voices, whether trading solo verses or entwined in those incomparable sibling harmonies, are nothing short of breathtaking. The northern coal country accents are so thick that it is often difficult to follow the narratives, but it doesn’t require a lyrics sheet to hear the melancholic beauty of the sublime singing, or the unrelenting sadness that drifts through these songs. Duskier and rougher than the comparatively airy Kate Rusby, the sisters manage to convey both the idiosyncratic burr of their native Northumbria and a luminous soul. This is wonderful singing.

The songs are variations on a theme, whether they come from ancient sources, Tom Waits (“No One Knows I’m Gone”), King Crimson (“Starless”), or Northumbrian songwriters Alex Glasgow or Jon Redfern. Life is short. Tragedy is always just around the corner. Love is fleeting. And yet something remains. This is bittersweet music written from a hard country, and it looks unflinchingly at inexplicable events and still manages to hold out for beauty and goodness. I’ll take that formula any day, or any century, and Last is built to live up to its title. These are gorgeous songs that will remain long after the latest flavor of the month has disappeared.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The summer of 1976 was a shitty time. Don’t let any Bicentennial nostalgist tell you differently. The U.S. had just been thrashed in Vietnam, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and Gerald Ford presided over a deeply disgruntled nation.

Musically, it was a shitty time, too. Hippie dinosaur bands still roamed the planet, unwilling to accept the fact that they were irrelevant. The radio was dominated by corporate rockers like Journey and Styx and insipid pop stars like The Carpenters, America, and Tony Orlando and Dawn. Punk may have been bubbling up in places like Manhattan and London, but in Ohio we didn’t know about it. And on the home front, my girlfriend had broken up with me, my parents were in the midst of an endlessly messy relational breakdown, and I was working 60 or 70 hours per week at Red Lobster, peeling shrimp and cleaning toilets, generally with a handwashing in between, all so that I could go back to college in the fall. It was still better than being at home.

The one bright spot was Stevie Wonder. Stevie had been a bright spot for a while by that point, and he was in the midst of a string of albums that would define his greatness. Sometime during that summer I heard “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Sir Duke,” the two singles from Songs In The Key of Life, and they more than helped me cope. Then a couple months later, safely ensconced back in the dorm in Athens, Ohio, the album came out, and promptly blew my mind. Stevie was all over the place on this sprawling, 2-album set. He got funky. He got jazzy. He got supremely soulful. And he wrote love songs and social protest songs that were equally great. Thirty-five years later, Songs In the Key of Life remains one of my favorite albums. I played it again yesterday, and remembered 1976 all over again. Auld lang syne, and good riddance. But thank God for Stevie.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Favorite Ten Books?

Anybody want to play?

Collected Stories -- Flannery O'Connor

Jayber Crow -- Wendell Berry

Infinite Jest -- David Foster Wallace

Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens

The Brothers Karamazov -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

The Lord of the Rings -- J.R.R. Tolkien

The Heart of the Matter -- Graham Greene

Silas Marner -- George Eliot

The Moviegoer -- Walker Percy

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Peace Like a River

My essay about a great hymn, and its relationship to March Madness, at Image Journal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury Band - American Legacies

Bluegrass and Dixieland together? Believe it. Here's a link to my Paste review of the new Del McCoury Band/Preservation Hall Jazz Band album American Legacies.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

New April Albums

There is so much great music being made on every front. And so little of it gets played in places where people might actually hear it, or talk about it. So I’ll try to write about it. It’s not much, but it’s what I’ve got. Here are some superb albums that have been or will be released in the mid-March to late-April timeframe. Today’s edition is brought to you by the letters A, B, C, and D. Life is busy, but I’ll try to get to the remaining 22 letters as well.

Amor de Dias – Street of the Love of Days Amor de Dias is Alasdair MacLean from melancholic psych-poppers The Clientele and Spanish vocalist/instrumentalist Lupe Núñez-Fernández of the indie pop duo Pipas. The spirit of the 1960s hovers over this music, but the spirit is split fairly schizophrenically between chamber popsters like The Left Banke and Love and the tropicalia of Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66. I’m a big fan of The Clientele, so MacLean’s ethereally lovely songs are the highlights for me, but Núñez-Fernández’s bossa nova interludes offer a fun and bracing change.

Baby Dee – Regifted Light Baby Dee’s played harp in Central Park in a bear costume, was a church organist, and was a featured performer as a hermaphrodite in a Coney Island sideshow. Now, forget all that. Mention of that backstory is both inevitable and misleading. The music here is so lovely, the sentiments so open and gentle, that the expected camp (and there is a bit) fades to near irrelevance. This is a predominantly instrumental album, with Rachmaninov sturm and drang piano passages meeting bassoon, cello, and glockenspiel. When Baby Dee does sing (on four of the twelve songs), her voice is ravaged and the words are a healing balm. Like the mysterious pagan/Christian moon of the title track, these songs have been packaged up and offered as a gift. I, for one, am happy to receive it.

Brad Mehldau – Live in Marciac Another Brad Mehldau live album, this time a solo effort. And two CDs of solo piano at that. Uh-oh. Solo jazz piano albums run the serious risk of turning into snoozefests. But there’s no need to worry here. In typical eclectic fashion, Mehlau covers the Great American Songbook (Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein), the expected rock /indie touchstones (Nirvana, Lennon and McCartney, Nick Drake, Radiohead), and several shimmeringly beautiful originals. It’s yet another gorgeous and outrageously creative album from one of our most technically dazzling and adventurous jazz pianists.

Brave Irene – Brave Irene Rose Melberg is something of a Twee superstar, with previous recording stints in Tiger Trap, Go Sailor, The Softies, and under her own name. This time she fronts an all-girl band, and if the resulting songs on this short 8-song EP are still beholden to ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las, the guitars and swirling organ are straight out of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Kiwi pop from the likes of The Clean, The Chills, and The Bats. That is, and always will be, a superb combination.

Chris Bathgate – Salt Year My favorite of the myriad recent entries in the singer/songwriter department. Bathgate’s music could loosely be described as “folk,” although he mixes in enough mandolin and electric guitar to keep it interesting. He’s also a poet, and that’s what separates him from the nondescript masses. This is a sad song cycle about a bad year of relational breakdowns. It’s been done a thousand times before. But because he’s a poet, Bathgate stamps his own personality on the dour proceedings.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s a Corporate World I receive a lot of music; far more than I have time to listen to. So sometimes a gimmick is needed to get my attention. In this case, the name of the band worked just fine. Who are these jokers? Well, yes, they’re jokers. But they’re also really talented popsters, with massive hooks lurking beneath those synth lines. They’re really funny, and they’re all set to become the MGMT of 2011.

Dropkick Murphys – Going Out in Style Boston’s Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys make the same album again and again. And yes, that's Celtic with a K sound, not with an S sound, you Beantown basketball fans. The thing is, it’s a really great album, and on Going Out in Style they continue to mix The Clash with banjos and bagpipes. That’s just fine with me. This time Bruce Springsteen drops by to sing on “Peg o’ My Heart.” That’s just fine with me, too.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Ezra Furman and The Harpoons -- Mysterious Power

One of my favorite young singer/songwriters, poet/punk Ezra Furman, has a new album out. You can read my review at Paste.