Certain Songs: 80 – 76December 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment
The Sophtware Slump
“Adrift again, 2000 man. You lost your maps, you lost the plans”
I’m not sure there’s a single piece of artwork which reflects the music within better than Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump. That displaced keyboard lettering over a stark, dramatic background summarised the lyrical preoccupations of this strange, bewildered, beguiling piece music far better than any critic could.
Like Radiohead’s Ok Computer, this Modesto, CA band’s sophmore album sung of disillusion with all the trappings of modern life: the modems & mobiles, the McDonalds and multi-nationals. Nearly everything Jason Lyte sang about was in a state of disrepair – technology, relationships, old ways of life – and the only thing which was still thriving was a neglected Crystal Lake. Mystical, timeless & pure, it mocked man’s love of flimsy, impermanent affectations and laughed darkly about the looming cost of all this shiny crap. In the days following Copenhagen, it has seemed depressingly relevant.
Key Track: The Crystal Lake
Iron and Wine
The Shepherd’s Dog
(Sub Pop; 2007)
Whether he was whispering into a knackered four-track in his bedroom or riding some full-bodied, elaborate Americana, Sam Beam spent the noughties capturing moods & summoning imagery which seemed far beyond many of his singer-songwriter peers. A former professor of film & photography, Beam wrote songs like a cinematographer; rather producing sine formulaic confessionals, he would use nature & the weather to conjure the thoughts & emotions he wanted to convey.
But whilst this feature of his songwriting had not changed much since his debut, his method of delivery was more ambitious & fully-realised than anything he’d done before. On tracks like House By The Sea & Boy With A Coin, he experimented with new & unexpected rhythms, complex & layered instrumentals. The result was warm, lush, deeply evocative and the highlight of a remarkably consistent career. In just three full-length albums, Iron & Wine has already ridden across more of America’s diverse musical landscape than some artists manage in a lifetime. His admirers can’t wait to see which direction they take next.
Key Track: Innocent Bones
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
The Letting Go
(Drag City; 2006)
Throughout his career, Will Oldham has been described as many things: idiosyncratic, strange, shy, awkward, belligerent, rude, romantic and one of the best songwriters in America. There’s probably some truth to all those descriptions, but the last is simply without question.
The Letting Go was the best record Oldham had produced as Bonnie “Prince” Billy since his breathlessly-acclaimed I See A Darkness. It may also have been the least American-sounding album he’d ever put his name to; recorded in Iceland with one contemporary classical composer and a Bjork collaborator, there are few flourishes of country on this record. Instead, The Letting Go seems a sedate & ponderous take on the more traditional styles of folk, long before the south was captured & the west was tamed.
The result is a quite unfeasibly beautiful record. Producer Valgeir Sigurosson manages to get more subtlety out of a voice that previously sounded either like a mumble or a yelp, Nico Muhly’s string arrangements serve as a serene backdrop to Oldham’s ruminations and Dawn McCarthy’s high-pitched harmonies on tracks like No Bad News are a striking, gorgeous contrast.
After a few rather tedious & self-indulgent outings, this was Bonnie “Prince” Billy knuckling down and adding one more classic to an already bulging canon. The scariest thing is how easy he makes it look.
Key track: No Bad News
For reasons passing understanding, there’s a point during Buck 50 where Dennis Coles decides to rap ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. And then try to say the same thing backwards. Whilst that might sound odd coming out of the mouth of a rapper, Coles has managed to spend the best part of 20 years saying whatever the hell he likes and getting away with it. Indeed, two of the most exciting things about hearing a Ghostface Killah record are (a) hearing Coles’ loud, breackneck, motormouthed delivery, and (b) not knowing quite what’s going to come out of this surreal, stream-of-consciousness rapper’s mouth.
The third thing, of course, is the music, and on his second solo record he assembled some peerless, thrilling & fast-paced beatmaking. Like many records from alumni of the Wu Tang Clan, it pillaged more than its fair share of soul & funk samples, with fierce, piercing horns & triumphant strings laid over some thumping rhythm sections. I don’t know if it’s this that makes Coles sound so excited when he gets to the mic, but the feeling’s mutual.
Key Track: Apollo Kids
The Hold Steady
“There’s gonna come a time”, promises Craig Finn, “when the scene’ll seem less sunny. It’ll probably get druggy and kids’ll seem too skinny.” True enough, but what he neglects to mention in the album’s title track is that that time’s already arrived. Stay Positive opens with the heady excitement of summer: the Lust For Life, the doublewhiskeycokenoice, the evenings spent drinking with friends and the promise that “we’re gonna build something this summer.” By summer’s end, a couple of kids have died; the ‘true scene leaders’ are either staying in or burning out, and a cast of former hedonists start wondering where all the fun went, and what they’re meant to do now.
Whilst Finn’s stories never painted his characters’ lifestyles as guiltless or consequence-free, by writing about a bunch of people who’re fast running of the youth they once exploited, he achieves something you don’t hear much about in rock ‘n roll – a concept album about growing up & moving on. The theme is even matched by the band’s maturing style: tracks like Joke About Jamaica, Both Crosses and Lord I’m Discouraged suggest a change of direction towards slower, story-based songs, and whilst they retain some of their fierce, against-all-odds jubliance (see Slapped Actress or Sequestered in Memphis), there’s a recognition that some of the partying is now through gritted teeth.
Key track: Joke About Jamaica