Certain Songs: 95-91December 12, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment
The Undisputed Truth
Though he doubtless hates when writers bring it up, you can’t really talk about Brother Ali’s music without first mentioning the ways he’s unique. A blind, albino Muslim from Minnesota, Ali’s entire output has been shaped by the fact that he won’t fit in any of the little pigeonholes music journalists like to stuff artists into. Stridently anti-bling and about as far away from a gangsta as the rappers who like to play the part, Undisputed Truth finds Ali taking in everything from the mundane to the profound. Just his sheer enthusiasm inflates a rap about domestic bliss & assembling Ikea furniture (Ear to Ear) with almost as much joy as a gushing ode to his son (Faheem); his political tracks (Letter from the Government, Uncle Song Goddam) are fused with the fury of a street humanitarian and his description of the collapse of his first marriage (Walking Away) manages to be hurt, hopeful and honest, but never nasty. Of course, Ali’s identity and lyrical content would all be irrelevant if his rapping was poor or if he rode weak beats, but the combination of a disciplined delivery, multi-layered rhyme schemes and classy 70’s soul & funk samples mean that it’s never a toil to wade through. Never mind debating whether the best rapper alive is white or black; Undisputed Truth makes a strong case that the accolade belongs to someone who’s albino.
Key track: Take Me Home
The Dirty Three
She Has No Strings, Apollo
(Touch & Go; 2003)
One of the best gigs I’ve ever seen happened in a venue not fit for livestock, never mind humans. In 2003, the dank, humid squalour of the Camden Barfly was the setting for a sold-out secret gig by cherished Melbourne trio The Dirty Three. They’d been together for 10 years at that point, graduating from playing local pubs to being one of the premier artists in a genre which became known as ‘post-rock’. They were an absolute sensation live: Warren Ellis treated the violin as if it was sexier, more thrilling and glamourous than any guitar, and would flail and sway and thrash through each song with the zeal of a zealot. Or a madman. His between-song banter was legendary; full of mostly improvised stories about ‘real’-life events which related to the titles of their songs. If they were playing in your town, that really was the only gig in town. On She Has No Strings, Apollo, The Dirty Three were more restrained & polite, but the mix of violin, guitar and free jazz drumming still made for some achingly beautiful music. Ellis had a fondness for saying “you are never alone with The Dirty Three”, as though their music wasn’t an act of commerce – or even art – but of friendship. They were good friends to have.
Key track: No Stranger Than That
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
It bulges with riffs and melodies, mistakes and regrets. It insists on belligerence through the bad times and arm-flailing abandon through the good. It acknowledges character flaws, awkward moments and ill-fated embraces. It understands the routine defeats that make up life in the noughties, but encourages its listeners to make every day an act of defiance. Above all, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the sound of a band empathising with its fan base, demanding they dance through the bad times and make the best of what they’ve got. That all makes for some awfully good rock & roll.
Key track: The Underdog
The Stage Names
“What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man? Unless it’s fiction? Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?
That rhetorical question, shouted over driving guitar chords at the start of “Unless It’s Kicks”, actually epitomises this thrilling record better than any review ever could. On The Stage Names, Okkervil River manage to produce a dynamic rock & roll record which is also deeply literate; stitching together narratives about the treasures and tolls of toiling in a “mid-level band”. The hunger for attention, for love, for food and money and, yes, kicks is all narrated brilliantly, but propelled by a band which joyfully pilfers the best tricks of the American rock canon.
For all the allusions to theatre in the title, it’s a record which is far more influenced by movies than the more mannered, pondrous stage show; the words to A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene or the incredibly clever Our Life Is Not A Movie (Or Maybe) could almost have been written by a cinematographer or screenwriter, so aware are they of the conventions, manipulations and roundabout truths of cinema. Narrating all these tales is Will Sheff, a man for whom singing doesn’t come easily: his voice is either a perpetually unsteady, off-key croon or a exorcising howl. But great rock music has never required great singers, and the fact that he has a fan in gravelly mumbler Lou Reed says a lot. In a decade where the worlds of literature & indie rock started to overlap, The Stage Names proved that you could make music which could be primal, urgent and thoughtful all at once. That’s a lot harder than it looks.
Key track: Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
Letters From Sinners and Strangers
(Signature Sounds; 2007)
It’s a record which reaks of the past. From the antiquated song titles (Heartache Boulevard; High Shelf Booze) to the old time country arrangements, Eilen Jewell’s second album wouldn’t have sounded out of place purring out of a tinny AM radio in the early ’60s, just before America discovered The Beatles, Stones & Beach Boys, and pop was changed forever. But whilst styles can flit in & out of fashion, the themes which are mainstays of country music (despair, self-doubt, heartache) have permanent resonance, and Jewell’s respectful appropriation of sounds gone by means she broaches them with understatement rather than melodrama. Much of this is down to Jewell’s voice; her retrained, matter-of-fact delivery makes the heartbreak she sings of seem mundane, even routine. And therin lies its power.
Key Track: High Shelf Booze