Initial Reactions (2011): Feist, Ryan Adams, Still Corners, Beirut

Feist – Metals – [ind]: If I had to compare Feist’s career trajectory to anyone right now, it would be Norah Jones. What I mean is, after two great albums, she has reached the point where she is running purely on charm and an amazing voice and beginning to suffer from a complacent and narrow vision. Not that I’m trying to hate – that’s not it at all – but quite frankly this album seems to substitute a sort of languid jazziness for songwriting chops. I know she probably got sick to death of "1234", but would it really kill her to throw an upbeat track or two into the mix? Another one like this and who will care? ("Caught a Long Wind", "Bittersweet Melodies", "Get It Wrong, Get It Right")

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire – [++]: This definitely sounds like Adams pre-Cardinals, which, depending on one’s perspective, could go either way. The good news is that Adams sounds a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more balanced, and completely ready to focus on the things he does best. Excellent melodies abound, and there’s a sleepy Saturday morning feel to the album that recalls Love Is Hell and the lovelier, nostalgic moments on Cold Roses. Furthermore, I’m detecting the ghost of Richard Manuel in many of these tunes, which is always a good thing. Overall, I’m thinking that this might be one of the best albums of his career, and it could wind up being one of the best of any artist this year. ("Lucky Now", "Ashes & Fire", "Dirty Rain")

Still Corners – Creatures Of An Hour – [++]: More like Endless Winter! Very atmospheric, ghostly stuff. Pretty nice, though not incredibly original what with the voluminous…VOLUME of atmospheric and pretty post-punk outfits making music these days. Still, Creatures is well executed, and our lady Tessa Murray positively haunts these tunes. It’s like they took the last few Camera Obscura albums and boiled ’em down in The Cure’s early records. Also, sounds like Memoryhouse, but more David Lynch. Should make for some pleasant twilight drives in the darker seasons. Overall, shows promise. And I like the dude’s vision. ("Endless Summer")

Beirut – The Rip Tide – (++): I’ve always loved the "Old World" element in Zach Condon’s outfit, but on this one he indulges a heavier pop element for the better. Condon has such a profound gift for rich, memorable melodies that the synths and such, instead of sounding kitschy or tacky, further highlight the wonderful old/new paradox that makes Condon’s music rise above the fray. A keeper for sure and a possible year end sleeper. ("Santa Fe", "Goshen")

REACTION KEY

[****]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

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Dawn Landes: Fireproof (2007)

Dawn Landes
Fireproof; 2007
Fun Machine Music
My Rating: 77/100
Dawn Landes’ dreamy urbanicana draws from the same Kentucky well as My Morning Jacket’s debut. FIREPROOF, her second full-length, shows the kind of restraint and melodic prowess common to artists like Feist, M. Ward, or Kings of Convenience. Still, unlike her sometimes-cohorts Hem, Landes’ outlook is infused with an off-beat humor and sleepy-eyed optimism that, on first listen, churns imperceptibly below the surface. Give the straight-laced groove of “Bodyguard” a second listen, though, and you’ll soon feel the joy. Landes shines brightest in simplicity. The simple strums and harmonies of “Tired of this Life” are playfully modest, and the afore-mentioned “Bodyguard” sounds like the rhythm was hammered out during recess twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the album sags dramatically in the middle, with novel excursions like “Picture Show” and the unbalanced and awkward “Kids in a Play.” But Landes saves the best for last, closing with a run of four brilliant tracks, including the angelic sway of “Dig Me a Hole” and the last dance of “I’m in Love with the Night.” Bonus points to Landes for her hushed and intimate take on Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”, sneaking it in a few minutes after the star-crossed romance of “You Alone.” FIREPROOF proves that Landes is a big talent, someone with a unique and alluring vision. I expect we’ll be hearing from her for years to come.
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Tracks:
1. Bodyguard (5/5)
2. I Don’t Need No Man (4/5)
3. Tired of this Life (5/5)
4. Twilight (4.5/5)
5. Private Little Hell (4/5)
6. Picture Show (3.5/5)
7. Kids in a Play (3/5)
8. Toy Piano (4/5)
9. Dig Me a Hole (5/5)
10. I’m in Love with the Night (5/5)
11. Goodnight Lover (5/5)
12. You Alone (5/5)

Dawn_Landes___FireproofDawn Landes
Fireproof; 2007
Fun Machine Music

My Rating: 77/100

Dawn Landes’ dreamy urbanicana draws from the same Kentucky well as My Morning Jacket’s debut. FIREPROOF, her second full-length, shows the kind of restraint and melodic prowess common to artists like Feist, M. Ward, or Kings of Convenience. Still, unlike her sometimes-cohorts Hem, Landes’ outlook is infused with an off-beat humor and sleepy-eyed optimism that, on first listen, churns imperceptibly below the surface. Give the straight-laced groove of “Bodyguard” a second listen, though, and you’ll soon feel the joy. Landes shines brightest in simplicity. The simple strums and harmonies of “Tired of this Life” are playfully modest, and the afore-mentioned “Bodyguard” sounds like the rhythm was hammered out during recess twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the album sags dramatically in the middle, with novel excursions like “Picture Show” and the unbalanced and awkward “Kids in a Play.” But Landes saves the best for last, closing with a run of four brilliant tracks, including the angelic sway of “Dig Me a Hole” and the last dance of “I’m in Love with the Night.” Bonus points to Landes for her hushed and intimate take on Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”, sneaking it in a few minutes after the star-crossed romance of “You Alone.” FIREPROOF proves that Landes is a big talent, someone with a unique and alluring vision. I expect we’ll be hearing from her for years to come.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)

Tracks:

1. Bodyguard (5/5)
2. I Don’t Need No Man (4/5)
3. Tired of this Life (5/5)
4. Twilight (4.5/5)
5. Private Little Hell (4/5)
6. Picture Show (3.5/5)
7. Kids in a Play (3/5)
8. Toy Piano (4/5)
9. Dig Me a Hole (5/5)
10. I’m in Love with the Night (5/5)
11. Goodnight Lover (5/5)
12. You Alone (5/5)

Wilco: Wilco (the album) (2009)

wilco_album_390Wilco
Wilco (the album)
Nonesuch; 2009

My Rating: 7/10

It took me a while to get there, but I now consider Wilco’s previous record, SKY BLUE SKY, to rank in the top 3 Wilco albums. SBS initially came off as a bit lazy and disinterested, but after a while I came to see it as Tweedy’s own equivalent to Bob Dylan’s TIME OUT OF MIND, in that it was a clear break from the past in favor of a new and rejuvenating direction. SKY BLUE SKY really is a great record, the sound of a band taking a different approach in the studio and succeeding on all fronts.

That being said, I like WILCO THE ALBUM, especially as it continues in the understated vein of SKY BLUE SKY. Tweedy seems to have completely given up on trying to break our hearts, opting instead to simply sing from his own and let come what may. Pretense seems to be completely gone from his music, and nowhere is that more evident than in the album’s incidental trappings. Bands concerned with continuing to feed some kind of cooler-than-thou image wouldn’t put a two-hump camel on their album cover and don some seriously hideous nudie suits for the album photo shoots. And basketball orange just isn’t the color of pretense, it’s the color of cheese and fire and summertime. Did I mention that these guys named their SEVENTH full-length record after their band, and actually wrote a song about their band being your best friend? The only band that could make this kind of thing pretentious is Pavement, and Wilco ain’t Pavement.

The record opens with “Wilco (the song),” which rivals “Can’t Stand It” for the most upbeat opening track on a Wilco record. Nels Cline delivers a Pixies-esque guitar lead, lending a slight edge to the otherwise good-time groove of the record. The sweet-natured tribute to the fans sends a clear message: this is an album that really doesn’t have much of an agenda. Fair enough!

“Deeper Down” follows, one of a few fairly experimental tracks on the record, featuring a start-and-stop progression. The lyrics appear to be a meditation on mystery, focused on the unsearchable and unattainable both within and without. The lyric progresses happily from “the insult of a kiss” to the “comfort of a kiss,” a signal to some renewed optimism on Tweedy’s part. One can’t help but wonder if this song reflects Tweedy’s own journey as a songwriter. There are many indications that Tweedy, like other artists, has experienced difficulty with the creative process in the past, but his later work, especially the last two albums, suggest that he has reached a certain comfort with his music-making. This appears to be the center that holds “Deeper Down” together. In fact, the start-and-stop structure of the song reflects the old SELAH literary device used in the Psalms, which most scriptural scholars would say probably means “pause and meditate on these words.”

“One Wing” – as in “One wing will never fly” – starts to introduce some sadness to the music, reflecting the dejection of one party after the end of a relationship. Tweedy’s metaphors here are spot on – “We belonged to a bird who cast his shadow on the world” – and while the song does veer off into a bit too much of a groove towards the end, the overall mood provides needed balance to an album that has, thus far, seemed lighter than air.

“Bull Black Nova” comes off like a hybrid of A GHOST IS BORN’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and SKY BLUE SKY’s “Impossible Germany.” The lyric and music complement each other perfectly, reaching a paranoid climax along the theme of an apparently accidental killing. While the death is easy to discern through the numerous references to blood, it’s the sense of being watched that slips just under the radar. A Nova itself is a stellar object, and suns and stars populate the lyrics, as if they were the eyes of God Himself. “Nova” is a definite highlight of the record, one that I expect will feature prominently in the band’s sets for years to come.

Featuring an enjoyable duet with a tragically under-used Leslie Feist, “You and I” lightens the mid-album mood, being the breeziest pop song Tweedy has ever written. In contrast with “One Wing”, track 5 is an optimistic testimony to the mystery of relationship. It vaguely recalls “I’d Rather Dance With You” from fellow Feist-collaborators Kings of Convenience, as the couple agree that “I don’t need to know everything about you.” It’s a winner, but as previously mentioned, with a talent like Feist on board, it’s a shame this one doesn’t reach greater heights.

“You Never Know” continues the shift toward the sunny side of life, infecting your subconscious like something you might have roller-skated to back in grade school. It’s got Big Star, George Harrison, and midwest-bred written all over it, and might be the rootsiest thing Tweedy has written since BEING THERE. Could the positioning in the center of the album suggest a certain centrality to its message?

“Country Disappeared” pulls the plug on the mid-album breeze, drawing big correlations between wars in the third-world and the overwhelming presence of the media in our own. Ultimately a patriotic song (“I won’t take no/I won’t let you go”), it does seem a bit untimely given the election of a presidential candidate for whom Tweedy actively campaigned. Still, it is multi-layered, no mere protest song, and features one of Tweedy’s most soulful vocal performances.

“Solitaire” might be otherwise titled “Song for a Repentant Loner.” Reflecting the message of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” without any of that track’s distracting moralisms, it’s really a nice, simple song featuring understated but fitting instrumentation and excellent dual-tracked vocals. Again, it fits well with the overall theme of the album, and after a few listens, proves itself one of Tweedy’s best compositions, something that might have found its home on SKY BLUE SKY as well.

“I’ll Fight” is the album’s most urgent song, reflecting a deep spiritual dilemma in Tweedy. Whereas only a few albums ago he lackadaisically sang about a “War on War,” “I’ll Fight” is full of vigor and conviction. Strong religious imagery is employed, the narrating voice identifying in several ways with the suffering of Christ. It comes off something like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and is truly a step-forward for Tweedy, exploring the beauty of a life laid down for another versus the emptiness of a life lived without purpose.

“Sonny Feeling” recalls some of BEING THERE’s finer moments; BIG STAR is stamped all over this thing. It’s a life-flashing-before-your-eyes song, with Sonny having to choose between leaving home and seeing the world or staying in her hometown amongst all the “cruel kids.” Coming on the heels of “I’ll Fight’s” study in contrasts, it illuminates something still slightly out of reach with Tweedy, a certain nameless discomfort that keeps popping its head up like a whack-a-mole.

“Everlasting Everything,” a pretty minor-key piano ballad closes out the record in grand fashion, with Tweedy lamenting that “Nothing could mean anything at all.” It’s an exceedingly sad song, where everything that was good and bad is “Gone like a circus, gone like a troubadour.” In the end, Tweedy’s only consolation is to “be glad Everlasting love is all you had.” It’s a fitting close to a record that finds itself stuck somewhere in the middle between a hunger for deep knowledge and the need to take life as it comes. Like “One Wing,” my only contention with the track is that the band doesn’t do more with it.

Overall, this record feels like a summary statement of the band’s first twelve years. I’d call it a mature “AM.” There’s plenty of good material here, in fact it’s pretty consistently good throughout. Tweedy’s lyrics are quite multi-dimensional and genuinely shine within the simple (for Wilco!) production. However, there’s nothing off-the-wall great here, no “Impossible Germany” or “Shot in the Arm” or “Misunderstood” or “Poor Places.” While they’ve thankfully avoided repeating an avant-garde disaster like “Less Than You Think” for two albums now, they could stand to linger a little bit more here and there. It just seems a bit hurried, that’s all.

So with this, a mature AM, here’s to the band delivering a mature BEING THERE next time around.

TRACKS:
1. Wilco (the song) (4.5/5)
2. Deeper Down (3.5/5)
3. One Wing (3/5)
4. Bull Black Nova (4.5/5)
5. You and I (4/5)
6. You Never Know (4.5/5)
7. Country Disappeared (4/5)
8. Solitaire (4.5/5)
9. I’ll Fight (3.5/5)
10. Sonny Feeling (3/5)
11. Everlasting Everything (4/5)