Playing Catch-up…

In addition to all the reviews we’ve posted this year, we’re obviously going to miss a lot of records; there’s too many coming at us from too many different angles. So, in true “rock magazine” style, here’s some less-than-a-hundred-word reviews. Seeing as I’ve always considered short, capsulized reviews to be rather half-assed, I’m going to mix it up with grades and such, so consider this somewhat of a progress report as well. We are a third of the way through the year, y’know…

cymbals

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains (self-released; January 20th, 2009)

Being as much as an homage to the ’90s as it can without any of the band members being old enough to remember Pavement or Sebadoh (who I hear a lot of in this record), these four recent high school grads’ debut Why There Are Mountains toes the line between noise/shoegaze and straight-up alt-rock; every song on the record has intricately layered instrumentation, draped in anthemic guitars with just enough of the lo-fi aesthetic to give it a savvy street cred. Oh, and it’s insanely listenable as well. Grade: 8/10

iran

Iran – Dissolver (Narnack Records; released February 3rd, 2009)

I’m going to have to claim ignorance on two fronts: 1) Iran has two previous albums I’ve never heard, and 2) TV On The Radio guitarist Kyp Malone has been in this band since before hitting it big with TVOTR. Now that that’s out of the way, can I also mention Dave Sitek (of who? TVOTR, of course) produced this record. Let’s see how many more times I can mention TVOTR in this review. Who does Iran sound like? A poor man’s TVOTR. Which band has been one of my favorites over the last five years? TVOTR. You know, I don’t think I’m being fair here. I love TVOTR, and if Iran is like a stripped-down (read: watered-down) version of TVOTR I should love Iran‘s Dissolver as much, right? Well, not quite- this is just a good album, not great like Dear Science or Return To Cookie Mountain or Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. But better than OK Calculator Grade: 6/10

spearin

Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project (Arts&Crafts Records; released February 10th, 2009)

Spiritually uplifting, a celebration of life; the joy of living, rejoice ye for the gifts ye hath been blessed with. That’s the basic message behind Spearin‘s side project (he of Canadian post-rock heavyweights Do Make Say Think). It’s a series of interviews set to music (classical, jazzy, rock, etc.) with seven of Spearin‘s neighbors in his Toronto neighborhood, asking them, in effect; what is happiness? The responses are amazing; ranging from an elderly Jamaican woman’s musings on love, a deaf woman hearing for the first time, ideas of “happy” from some school-age children and an older Indian gentleman; their responses are varied but the result is heartwarming. Grade: 8/10

qs115lp jacket.indd

Sholi – Sholi (Quarterstick Records; released February 17th, 2009)

The drumming on this record stands out the most upon the first listen, courtesy of Jonathon Bafus. Then upon the second listen, it’s become more of a prog-rock record, courtesy of Payam Bavafa‘s churning guitars finely interwoven into Eric Ruud‘s bass. Upon third listen the acoustic and stripped-down sections jump out to me; this is really just an electric folk record. Fourth listen; the lyrics grab hold of my attention, there’s a struggle, suffering and rejoicing. Fifth listen; this is one of the best albums of the year- it’s got some noisy sections, some weird time signatures and abrupt tempo changes, structured both around experimental elements and pop textures, all the while produced by Deerhoof‘s Greg Saunier. Grade: 9/10

cursive

Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen (Saddle Creek Records; released March 10th, 2009)

I love Cursive‘s records; I love concept albums and they’re the only “emo” band I can listen to without kvetching into the little wastebasket behind me. That being said, I’d also love to see Tim Kasher branch out a bit and get off the whole “god/religion/evolution/sex/mistrust/etc.” vibe he seems to re-hash album after album, basically he just changes the characters but the concept is about the same every time. Not a bad thing, not a great thing. An average thing… Grade: 6/10

mirah

Mirah – (a)spera (K Records; released March 10th, 2009)

Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn has carved out a nice little niche of a career crafting tales of love and loss over lushly orchestrated instrumentation; it’s a wonder she’s still somewhat under the radar. I figure the Starbucks’ set would be eating this stuff out of the palm of her hand, but I guess she’ll have to toil away in relative obscurity, just for us who care. Where C’mon Miracle felt like a more fully realized and cohesive album, (a)spera feels slightly more eclectic in its scope. The track Education is pretty lovely, ain’t it? Grade: 6/10

elvis

Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland (XL Recordings; released March 10th, 2009)

Mr. Perkins comes back with sophomore record and a new recipe: less depression and more horns! I gotta stop comparing artists’ last record to their new one. Okay, this is the last review I’m using that tired formula. Where Ash Wednesday was understandably about death, loss and grief (in a nutshell: Perkins lost his father to AIDS in 1992 and his mother to the 9/11 attacks); Elvis Perkins In Dearland is about life, love and in his words, having “no interest in making Ash Wednesday II. After the dust had settled I was weary, worn and confused…” So he wrote this record with his band, and the result is a more comprehensive primer to what Perkins can do. Grade: 8/10

chijimi

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Chijimi EP (Drag City Records; released March 17th, 2009)

This is a four-song EP released with the limited edition 10″ vinyl, so I didn’t get an advance copy. I wish I did, because Beware would’ve gotten a better review with these four stunners tacked on the end; instead it’s here as an EP release. There’s also alternate covers to this record, another something I didn’t know. I guess Will just wants to stay a few steps ahead of his audience, which I’m also totally okay with. I’m okay with these tracks as stand-alones, they fit with Beware but on their own they’re gorgeous little Americana-folk ditties. Champion sounds as if it was recorded in a shipping container; echoes, reverb and hand drums make it creepy. And satisfying. Grade: 9/10

mono

Mono – Hymn To The Immortal Wind (Temporary Residence Limited; released March 24th, 2009)

I was turned on to this band watching their DVD The Sky Remains The Same As Ever and was blown away- but that’s to be expected of a band on the same label as Explosions In The Sky and Eluvium. That’s kind of what I’d describe this band like, a cross between those two projects; powerful and violent, yet elegant and ambient- quiet passages into building tensions leading up to an explosive release, all the while seamless segues and beautiful cinematic grandeur. Grade: 8/10

swan

Swan Lake – Enemy Mine (Jagjaguwar Records; released March 24th, 2009)

A supergroup that’s not so super; not as great as the sum of its parts, sadly. I love Dan Bejar and his Destroyer (I’m offended that he doesn’t show up on this record until the third track), am somewhat anti- about Spencer Krug‘s Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade and have to claim indifference towards Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach). I was just saying to someone the other day how I love singers with unconventional voices (Joanna Newsom, Colin Meloy, etc.) and they mentioned Spencer Krug. Meh, I said. “You don’t like Sunset Rubdown?” they responded. I meh’d them again. In fact, I’m listening to Enemy Mine right now, and all I can say is “meh, meh, meh”. Grade: meh

pjh

PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By (Island Records; released March 31st, 2009)

PJ Harvey may just be the hardest working woman in rock; I don’t think she ever calls in sick. And longtime collaborator John Parish gets equal billing on this record- after all, he wrote all the music and performed it all, Miss Harvey wrote the lyrics and sang ’em all. This album is not for the faint of heart; there are teeth hidden in the grass- the title track has enough vitriol in it for two records worth; it’s like getting simultaneously kicked in the balls and punched in the ear. Some tracks are limp and languorous, while others have moxie for days. Grade: 7/10

…so that’s just the first installment of half-assed record reviews from yours truly. Stay tuned for more. Something tells me I won’t ever catch up…

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy @ The Fillmore, San Francisco- March 30th, 2009

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

with Pillars & Tongues

The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA

March 30th, 2009


You know, I have unrealistic expectations of music.

I imagine there’s supposed to be this community built up around albums and musicians; you may have gathered as a reader of this website that this is a community I love very much and I take very seriously (most of the time). I have what you might say is an un-natural attachment to music, this attachment is so important and vital to me that I actually write about it for free. I think it’s because I don’t have a whole lot of passion for many other things; when you find something as authentic as the feeling music creates inside you, then you just gravitate towards that and life works itself out in the meantime.

There’s a strong bond that’s supposed to be formed between artist and listener; probably because when it’s made from the heart there’s a whole set of real emotions attached to creating music and then performing it- which is why I attend concerts in the first place, why I more or less “get off” on it.

Will Oldham is so acutely aware of the bond he’s created with his fans, so in tune with his art and the feeling it gives that there’s no doubt in my mind it’s just as amazing an experience for him to let us into his world as it is for us to let him in to ours. (That’s a pretty awkward sentence but I can’t re-word it to actively convey what it is I’m trying to say; I guess I’m muddling the whole thing with too many words…)

Anyway, Monday night at The Fillmore was one of those moments when the circuit was completed- performer and audience in communion as one. I’ve read that Will Oldham created his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy character out of the necessity for creating a space where he can step outside his normal world and “be” an actor while on stage, in order to deliver the best performance possible. Says the Bonnie persona in a recent interview:

I think it was just created by the fact that there was “somebody” being interacted with that I started to recognize. There were two things… people treating a person as a person but I didn’t know that there was a person yet.

Part actor, part musician, part comedian; Will (or Bonnie) gave the best performance he could possibly bring- he was bright, funny, serious, sad, mellow, excitable- in short, I got what I paid for. And more, courtesy of the superb supporting cast: Cheyenne Mize on vocals and violin, Josh Abrams on bass, Jim White on drums, Emmett Kelly on guitar and Jon Kempf on mandolin. Also, openers Pillars & Tongues helped out on the encore.

No setlist- I was too much into being a fan and enjoying myself to try to keep an accurate list of songs. Someone probably is going to post it on setlist.fm.

I do have pics…

bpb1

bpb2

bpb3

bpb4

bpb5

bpb6

bpb7

bpb8

bpb9

bpb10

bpb11

bpb12

bpb13

bpb14

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware

bpb

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware (Drag City Records; released March 17th, 2009)

How exactly do I approach a Will Oldham record review? I can say even if it totally sucked, I’d still find it immensely entertaining; that’s how much I love the man. I should’ve gave this review to someone else to do, but just seeing the announcement of the release date back in November had me salivating profusely. I can add this disclaimer: it’s unfairly biased.

Now that that’s all out of the way, here goes…

Beware, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s seven-thousandth release (not really- more like 22 full-lengths and 21 EPs) is a tale of two sides. The first side is more jovial and upbeat, the flip side is “classic” Bonnie, as in melancholic, honest and fragile. The entire album is ambitious in its scope; there’s a whole bunch of new instruments and dips into some un-chartered territory stylistically.

Drag City has afforded Mr. Oldham the luxury of being able to re-invent himself with every release- and with every new offering, his voice has been steadily maturing. A fuller, more realized (dare I say more confident) sound emanates from his vocal chords here on Beware; gone is the thin, anxious warble that’s so endeared Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to his listener’s ears. Also rounding out his musical vision here is an extension of what we’ve heard on his last three records (and came together in perfect harmony on last year’s stellar Lie Down In The Light), a masterfully produced album with female accompaniment.

A lot of this record operates under the assumption that you’re familiar with the scope of his previous work; he re-visits a lot of themes from antecedent albums- longing for lost love (You Are Lost & You Can’t Hurt Me Now), self-deprecation (Beware Your Only Friend & You Don’t Love Me), death (Death Final & I Am Goodbye) and children (I Don’t Belong To Anyone). If you’re seeing a common theme here, eight of the thirteen songs have I, me or my in their title and four more with you or your in their title. This is as autobiographical as it gets, so it wouldn’t hurt to delve into Will‘s back catalog…

…but it can also be a good starting point for beginners.

This album is aptly titled Beware, and I’m noticing that if there’s one thing Oldham does with deft precision is naming his records exactly as they should be. I See A Darkness (morbid and depressive), Master & Everyone (God and spirituality), The Letting Go (estrangement and divisiveness), Lie Down In the Light (in title, it’s probably the antithesis of I See A Darkness, it has a quality of luminous radiance) and Beware acts as a warning; Bonnie Billy is going to again bare his soul to you, and if you don’t like it- you were warned.

Psychological profiling aside; let’s get into the actual music- channeling the Countrypolitan and Nashville Sound of the ’60s and ’70s through Chet Atkins, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, et al- it has a really polished, country feel replete with excellent backing from the standard instruments: dobros, mandolins, fiddles, laid-back percussion, etc. It sounds as if it was recorded by the best and brightest session musicians waiting backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, circa 1973. Musically, it’s akin to that record he did with actual Nashville session mainstays, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music– I don’t agree with a lot of critic’s unfair treatment of that record; he’s allowed to cover himself, they’re his fucking songs, he can do whatever he wants with them, schmaltzy or not.

Anyway, tangents aside; this is a good record. Not great, I’d put it towards the bottom half of his musical output. But when you’ve written something like 250 songs over the past seventeen years, there’s bound to be some misses. If anything positive can be said about this record, it’s that Mr. Oldham is trying (quite successfully) to draw you in closer to his world; there’s an unspoken bond between the performer and his audience that’s so real and indestructable, his imprint is felt all over the music world. No one can do it like Bonnie, no one even comes close- so for him to step out of his comfort zone and deliver an album so shortly after his last shows his versatility. It also proves to me that him stepping out of his comfort zone is his comfort zone…

…which leaves me to wonder: is Will Oldham in search of one perfect, distinct sound or can he keep delving into different facets of Americana, mining it for aural gold?

Tracklisting:

01  Beware Your Only Friend
02  You Can’t Hurt Me Now
03  My Life’s Work
04  Death Final
05  Heart’s Arms
06  You Don’t Love Me
07  You Are Lost
08  I Won’t Ask Again
09  I Don’t Belong to Anyone
10  There Is Something I Have to Say
11  I Am Goodbye
12  Without Work, You Have Nothing
13  Afraid Ain’t Me

Bonnie Prince Billy