Certain Songs: 85-81December 19, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments
(Fat Cat; 2006)
The most distinctive thing about Nina Nastasia is her brevity. No fan of choruses, middle eights or instrumentals, most of her songs clock in at under three minutes. In lesser songwriters, this might suggest a lack of ideas, or show that her songs are underdeveloped. On the contrary, it’s the leanness of Nastasia’s compositions which lends them their power. In On Leaving, she will reel you in; sing you into silence and then cut off your supply. And she will repeat this trick on every single track.
Whilst that’s irritating on the first listen, it’s not long before you appreciate her grace, her discipline and the beautifully sparse soundscapes she fashioned with producer Steve Albini.
The biggest compliment you could pay a musician is to say you’ve never heard enough. In that respect, Nina Nastasia is beautifully cruel.
Key track: Treehouse Song
It might be this generation’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Before Chan Marshall released this gloriously tender, soulful piece of music, she was merely a beguiling but erratic singer whose shows could either be transcendent in their venue-shushing beauty or an awkward, rambly, intoxicated mess. As for her recorded output, it was telling that her previous best album was a selection of cover versions.
Quite what went right in Memphis may remain a secret, but The Greatest completely shattered expectations and provided Cat Power with the finest record of her career. It was an album where she departed from the brittle indie rock arrangements that had been her stock-in-trade and embraced the rich musical history of the south, teaming up with a cast of seasoned session musicians who added trumpets, organs, pedal steel and cello to her smoky-voiced reminisces. The songs themselves sung of dating game disappointments, her battles with alcoholism and that end-of-an-evening wistfulness you get when you go home to an empty house.
On The Greatest , Cat Power finally struck the perfect sound for her voice and developed a set of songs full of pathos, longing & ache. In a decade where many artists tried to update the blues for modern times, this record showed that its roots were still firmly lodged in the heart of the American South.
Key track: Lived in Bars
The Hold Steady
Boys & Girls In America
“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right”, begins Craig Finn on the opening Stuck Between Stations; “boys & girls in America have such a sad time together”. The words were borrowed from another place and another time – Kerouac’s On The Road, to be precise – but the sentiment remains an evocative description of teenage drama & farce both in the United States and beyond.
They are also the words Finn uses as the theme which unifies each narrative of midwestern misadventure: the guy whose girlfriend’s gambling addiction is paying for her drug habit; the girl who’s gotten bored of her boyfriend & just wants to get high alone; the couple who meet whilst recovering in a festival’s chill-out tent. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but never show anything less than the empathy of someone who has probably got many more where these came from.
Meanwhile, the music shamelessly pillages American rock’s storied history: there are Replacements -style guitar jams, E street piano riffs, key changes and sing-a-long choruses. In lesser hands it either be cynical or trite, but the enthusiasm this New York band puts into each perfomance (their live shows are a sensation) makes it sound both sincere and exciting.
Written when Finn was well into his thirties, Boys & Girls in America is not a soundtrack to youth, nor even an attempt to revisit it. Rather, it’s an attempt to recollect youth; to pick over what at the time may have felt momentous & dramatic and rewrite them with the benefit of experience as funny, farcical or sweetly romantic subplots to the long slog of life.
Key track: Stuck Between Stations
Let’s Get Out Of This Country
In some ways, Camera Obscura weren’t made for these times. At the decade’s end you can look at the likes of The Strokes, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse & Death Cab For Cutie and conclude that indie could be a commercial as well as a critical success. Their songs appeared on adverts & film soundtracks, were multiplied millions of times over the internet and they even had some low level contact with celeb mag culture.
It’s worth remembering, though, how different things were at the start of the noughties. When Camera Obscura dropped first single Eighties Fan in 2001, the indie scene was still a marginal & cultish genre which – when compared to the commercial behemoths of Britney, Eminem & Limp Bizkit – must’ve looked like the pasty, sick-looking kid in the corner. When they first arrived, the Glaswegians made the kind of music which was increasingly unloved; their quaint, bookish & polite songs about dilemmas & embarrassments were sung with quiet, reserve and almost apology. It was the kind of stuff which was raved about in the fanzines that nobody read and the twee pop club nights that fewer people were attending. If indie was going mainstream, Camera Obscura looked set to remain on the margins.
But rather than being a secret shared by a devoted few, the band’s career was ascendent for the rest of the decade. On Let’s Get Out Of This Country the band threw off their twee pop comfort blanket & the constant Belle & Sebastian comparisons and produced a record rich in energy & musicality. The production values were dramatically scaled up, with Spector esque arrangements, boistrous brass and glistening strings, whilst Traceyanne Campbell’s voice and songwriting had become much more confident, ranging from sparse, wilting laments to country-tinged swooners and even a few high-tempo romps.
Ever fond of self-deprecation, the band’s previous record was called Underachievers Please Try Harder . When they took their own advice they produced one of the best pop albums of the decade.
Key track: If Looks Could Kill
(Kill Rock Stars; 2005)
The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
There is no central character in this album. Not content to fixate on one anti-hero, Colin Meloy instead sings about a whole parade of malcontents: a ghostly barrowboy who just longs to by his love a fine robe; a writer who’s trying to rid a strayed lover from his thoughts; a sportsman who’s just been humiliated on the field and is haunted by the disappointment on his friends and family’s faces; a forbidden couple in a suicide pact.
No, instead of constructing a character for his audience to follow, Meloy invites the listener to become the picaro, venture through this richly imagined, vaudevillian world and meet all it’s varied, striking characters. Lyrically, there were few albums this decade which could match the imagination this Portland band’s third record, and it was made all the more impressive that Meloy was able to use such unique characters to speak of the more universal themes of embarrassment, sorrow, escape, revenge and love. Musically, it was all very melodic, enjoyable but unremarkable indie rock fare, but it was his skill as a storyteller which elevated his band far above the also-rans.
Key track: The Engine Driver