Friday, November 30, 2012

Playlist of the Week: A Dozen Damn Fine Souls

Joyful noise.

Like many in my generation, I was a collector from a young age.  Comic books, football cards, Civil War books and artifacts, unrequited schoolboy loves--you name it and I hoarded it.  I did, however, lament the fact that neither of my parents had a golden stash of something cool or rare or valuable that you always heard about some guy's mom finding under a bunch of dusty old blankets in an attic somewhere.  You know, the kind of Indiana Jones-esque treasure find that would have me set for life so I could move out and surround myself with lots of cool toys and books and chicks who dug that sorta thing.

Instead, I grew up in a home where the garage was utilzed for two primary purposes: A) as the place for the "other" refrigerator--home to my mom's Tab cola and occasionally the boxed wine and B) as the de-facto storage space for the accumulated junk--old toys, clothes, and boxes full of boxes as far as I could tell.

Other than the tired old "food on the table/roof over my head" offering, I wasn't certain that either of my parents had anything to offer of financial or cultural relevance to me.  I've heard from many of you about how "cool" your parents' taste in music was.  Well up until the age of about thirty, I was convinced that at best, popular music was an "agree to disagree" subject between myself and my parents.  My mom and dad weren't "cool" and thus I knew I'd have to carry the burden of "cool"  for the family.  I never feared such vital responsibility.

But all of that changed a few years ago.  Upon acquiring a turntable as a housewarming gift, I found myself desirous of records of any and all kinds.  Seemingly overnight, I was open to music new and old from a myriad of genres.  I wanted classical music, opera, spoken word, old blues and any form of pop music was newly intriguing.  On a trip to my childhood home, my mother (still not certain WHY I'd want records in a digital world) informed me that there were a couple of boxes in the garage full of old records--many of which had been there since my parents had built the house in 1976.  I quickly hauled the boxes out to our living room and found a combination of both my mother's old records mixed with a few of my stepfather's.

And what I discovered was the long, lost treasure I had longed for as a kid.  Dozens of old soul and R&B records from the 60's and 70's--most in amazingly pristine condition.  From The Temptations, to Otis, to the Four Tops, Arthur Conley, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Isaac Hayes, Al Green--you name it.  It was a treasure trove of classic soul music.  While the collection was littered with other pop and classical selections, it was the greatness of the soul and R&B records my mother posessed that excited and surprised me most.

It was a revelation and the enthusiasm I gushed seemed to somewhat floor my mother.  Ever since, we've bonded over our shared love of Motown and Stax legends and now there isn't a single yard/garage sale where my mother isn't furiously hunting for records.  The discovery of this vinyl bounty, while immediately gratifying, humbled and educated me in the long term.  It turns out that my mom A) was, in fact, my age at some point in her life B) had taste in popular music that was EXCELLENT and C) I realized it was arrogant and short-sighted to be oblivious to A and B for so many years.

Tangible signs that our parents were once "people" in the way that we know ourselves to be is often disconcerting.  But for me, it's been an opportunity to bond over something where there's so much shared love--the gift of great music.  As our parents age along with us, reminders of their mortality can be jarring and more frequent.  But it is the reminders of their humanity that we have such a great opportunity to embrace.  And when that humanity has a soundtrack?  I would contend there's nothing better in this life.

Everyone else, press the play button in the box below the track listing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Re-Visitation #2: "The Idler Wheel..." by Fiona Apple

The Idler Wheel is Wiser than doing something "conventional" and using a one or two-word title like "Tidal" which clearly caused that album to suffer so let's just see how long we can keep this bit going and going and going when the pawn hits the something or other

To summarize in case you're new to the blog...

Q: So what's this "2012 Re-visitation" bit?

A: Since we're nearing the end of 2012 and approaching that all-important "year-end-best-of-list-making" season, it's time to revisit some key albums that may have slipped past me and/or were hyped and I purchased but then accidentally ignored and/or didn't ignore but didn't really invest in and if I'm gonna write about music I should probably put the work in.  Also, I said I was gonna write more and since I'm always a man of my word at least 40% of the time, it's your lucky day.

2012 Re-visitation #2: The Idler Wheel... by Fiona Apple (click HERE for Spotify stream)

One-sentence knee-jerk re-visitation reaction on this album: There's a lot to like about Fiona Apple--she just wants to make you work to find it.  A little too much.

The pros: Uniqueness.  Unlike so many female artists/musicians working today, Fiona Apple's vocal signature and preference for variable (sometimes schizophrenically so) time signatures and rhythms means that when you hear her, you KNOW it's HER.  Her voice never fails to be raw and authentically passionate while still remaining largely inviting.  She oozes sexuality, but seriously so--and largely avoids becoming a caricature.  As a straight male listener, I am both turned on and frightened by the sound of her.  She could (and probably would) find a way to crush me--and I'd probably let her.  Most of the aforementioned qualities are part of the Fiona Apple "package" and like her previous work, they are mostly apparent here.

The cons: In a single word--inaccessibility.  In most of the reviews I've read praising this album, you see the following sentiment essentially repeated over and over: "Idler Wheel is her most challenging work yet, but that's what makes it so rewarding."  And while this is a valid opinion, "challenging" in a music review often translates into "obtuse, inaccessible, or 'I don't get it, so it must be deep as hell!' ".  I agree that there is plenty of depth and complex lyrical, melodic, and certainly rhythmic layers here.  But there's also an absolute dearth of pop hooks available on Idler.  Yes, I want "challenge" as a listener, but I also want something that plants itself in my brain in conjunction with that "challenge".  Something that combines clever wordplay and melody.  In short, depth does not preclude hooks--a fact that is apparent in large swaths on Tidal and When the Pawn but for whatever reason is largely absent here.  The songs are interesting, but not particularly memorable.  Stilted, variable percussion, pounding pianos, and metaphors for how angry/detached/impervious Fiona Apple may be can only go so far.  They make for challenging songs, but not necessarily songs I feel compelled to revisit.  And while the rate of re-visitation (hey, that's the name of this post!) isn't a comprehensive gauge for an album's merit, it certainly counts for quite a bit in my final analysis.

Final verdict: The key thing to remember is that there are few artists whose new work I'm more interested hearing upon release more than Fiona Apple's.  This is certainly helped by the fact that she goes long periods between records, but her natural talent, acquired skill, and consistent desire to challenge herself and the listener remain the guiding principles behind my evaluation of her.  Having said that, she's created an album that isn't as bad as the haters say it is, but is certainly not as great as the larger online music critic community claims it to be.  It is BECAUSE I believe she's so talented that I'm willing to call this album what it really is--a well-made, thoughtfully-produced utterly forgettable album.  Fiona Apple is at her best when she is transforming pop music with her lyrical, vocal, and compositional brilliance as opposed to completely subverting it--as if creating an album devoid of singles is somehow a virtuous accomplishment much less an artistic objective.  Asking the listener to form an emotional attachment to her emotional detachment/angst is one thing.  Asking the listener to ultimately do so without a little bit more of the sustainably engaging elements found in her previous work is a much bigger request.  For those of you who think I'm unfairly clamoring for "Criminal" or singles in general, I'd argue that Fiona Apple is being sold short much more by you than me.  Making artistically-engaging, depth-fueled music that is also occasionally integrated with the right amount of pop sensibility does not necessarily require the sacrifice of one for the other.  I know this because Fiona Apple has been so adept at doing this very thing so often in the past.  

Highlight Tracks: "Valentine", "Werewolf", "Anything We Want"

Low-light Tracks: "Left Alone" "Periphery", "Regret"

MJRMB Rating: 3.0 of out 5

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Playlist of the Week: A Dozen Givings of Thank

My plan of attack is tasty.

A dozen songs for you since I'm so full of pre-Thanksgiving heat so hard right now it's not even funny.  The next installment of my "2012 Revisitations" series is coming this week since after all the eating and football and yelling at your parents for being pushy about your life/career/ and/or how their lingering resentment over the 2012 election is getting old and them yelling at you for not moving fast enough toward marriage/kids/professional advancement/home ownership and eating leftovers and being bored with Black Friday since you're smart enough to shop online and you don't need to go out and deal with that beating but yet your other friends are out of town, lying about being busy and/or needing to spend time with the aforementioned family, you're gonna need some reading material.  Never fear, I've got you so so so covered as I take a deeper look at the exhausting to type so I'll cut and paste The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple so that you don't have to/can listen to for the first time/again and then thank me/send me a gift basket.

So until then, here is a long overdue playlist of music featuring (I think it's safe to say) absolutely ZERO American Music Award nominees including.  Highlights include:

  • New music from Oberhofer--an indie pop spazz hailing from the Pacific Northwest who I'm sure is living in Brooklyn by now but that's okay because the music is engaging and anxious and magnetic. Big thanks to the lovely Lori Smith for pointing me toward a new rad discovery.
  • "Quality" by Copperheads--an excellent track from their tone-committed, uncompromisingly hard-charging debut Apocalyptic Behavior. Yes, the record label I own produced this. Yes, I am proud because I know all the hard work put into making it.  Simply stated, I would own/promote/love this even if the aforementioned statements weren't true. I have discovered the primal, passionate truth that late 70's punk and post-punk pre-cursors (think The Fall, early Joy Division, Buzzcocks) were attempting to convey--and their new prophet is Copperheads.  Don't believe me?  Read a review.
  • New track from Real Estate's Matthew Mondanile and his side project Ducktails.  If you like the smooth chillwaved pace of Real Estate with a few more twists, turns, and audible layers, you'll enjoy the retro-bend of "The Flower Lane".
  • "Honey Joy" by Royal Headache.  This Aussie rock outfit plays super lo-fi, pop-tinged rock 'n' roll with something you've rarely heard--a singer with the vocal stylings more often found in 60's soul records.  The approach takes a lot of old elements and makes something--if not uniquely new--at the very minimum joyous in its execution.

Everyone else, press the play button in the box below the track listing.