Saturday, November 19, 2011

ASTRAL WEEKS - Van Morrison (1968)

I don't know how else to say it - Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is the most timeless album in rock 'n' roll.

With the possible exceptions of Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? or The Rolling Stones's Exile On Main Street, I don't think there's another album I've listened to more in my lifetime, and yet, no matter how many times my wife or I throw this record on, something we still do regularly, it never, ever feels dated or old.
Much of this comes from the album's unique design. 

Generated entirely from acoustic instruments, and born mostly of Morrison's childhood rooting in Celtic folk and American jazz, there's no technological or stylistic bent to the music that links the album to any specific era in rock 'n' roll.  But it's the records introspective, deeply personal, at times even inscrutable if the whole album sprung forth fully formed straight from Morrison's subconscious (or his gut)...that is the main source of Astral Weeks's ageless power.

Which is a delicious irony, given the arbitrary manner in which the album was actually made. 

Recorded in just two and a half sessions in September and October of 1968, with a supremely talented group of jazz musicians led by upright bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay, Morrison provided little to no instruction for his band.  Instead, he isolated himself in a separate booth with his acoustic guitar, telling the other musicians, most whom he had just met, to simply "play whatever you feel as long as you stay out of my way."

But out of that directionless freedom came pure magic.

Anchored by Davis's astonishing bass, the resulting sound was a stunning, ethereal flow of interweaving flourishes that, while often lighter than air, seemed a perfect accompaniment to Morrison as he exposed raw his mystic soul.

Lyrically, much of the material was very dark and should have been controversial...from Slim Slow Slider's meditation on death, to the sad Belfast transvestite character study Madame George, to the even more troubling Cyprus Avenue, which puts us right in the head of a conflicted potential pedophile as he sits in wait for a young school girl...but the music had such hypnotic pull, controversy never arose.

This was also the album that established Van as having no parallel when it comes to drawing out the ending to a song.

Most of Astral Weeks's longer songs peak quite early, often before the halfway point, then gradually diminish over several spellbinding minutes as Morrison recants phrases and sentences as if slowly slipping into a trance.  And we, the listeners, are pulled right into that state with him.

Finally, of course, there's Van's voice. 

High on the short list of contemporary music's all-time great singers, it's an understatement to call Morrison's soulful, explosive vocals here a tour de force.  His visceral singing on Cyprus Avenue alone puts this album in elite company, and his performance on Astral Weeks's other seven tracks is every bit as strong.

One of the most gorgeous, singular, and mysterious albums ever put to vinyl, Astral Weeks an is absolute must own.

Status: Highest Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing, Cyprus Avenue, Madame George.

Here's a music-only video for one of my all-time favorite tracks, opener Astral Weeks.

Component Breakdown:
1. Astral Weeks - 10
2. Beside You - 7
3. Sweet Thing - 10
4. Cyprus Avenue - 10
5. The Way Young Lovers Do - 10
6. Madame George - 10
7. Ballerina - 9
8. Slim Slow Slider - 9
Intangibles - Through The Roof!

What are your thoughts on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.  Let readers know!

Friday, November 18, 2011

YUCK (2011)

Here we go, folks, head first into the inevitable 90s revival that's sure to dominate much of the next ten years.

And first out of the gate, with their very promising self-titled debut, is the ridiculously young London-based band Yuck.

Composed of three lads and two ladies, most whom have yet to reach legal drinking age in the States, their album has received widely disparate reviews. On the negative side, critics bemoan the album's derivative recreation of just about every 90s fuzz-rock trope.

On the positive side, the side I am decidedly on, is praise for just how perfectly the band pulls it off.

Give this album a spin and you'll hear the blatant influence of 90s acts such as Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Belle & Sebastian, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, and Jesus and the Mary Chain...oh, and did I mention Dinosaur Jr...all rendered with loving accuracy.

But further countering the "derivative" argument, I've always felt there's a flip side, and that's the impact of stylistic crystallization that can only come in hindsight.  Let's not forget, one of the most derivative artists in all of history was William Shakespeare, and he did okay.

Obviously, I'm not elevating Yuck to Shakespearean status, at least not yet, but just as many of the Aught's 80s focused bands...acts like Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem, Robyn, Cut//Copy, Wolf Parade, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Wild Beasts, and The National...delivered an album or albums that were just as good if not better than those of their 80s influences, Yuck comes at this project having spent their whole lives absorbing and mastering the fine points of the style before laying down their first note.

And from the opening moments of first track Get Away, it's clear this band has the genre down cold. 

Excellent, efficient fuzz rockers bleed into moody, shoegazey ballads then bleed back into fuzz rockers with such clarity of purpose that the album almost plays as a greatest hits compilation for the entire decade.  The energy and quality drops of some as the band explores slower, sludgier tempos on the album's back half, but its first six tracks play as strong as the opening half of any release in 2011.

Personal favorites include the instantly iconic The Wall (sure to be a festival crowd pleaser for years to come), the downright nasty Sonic Youth distillation Operation, and the gorgeous Suicide Policeman, which starts off unassuming and then slays with some plaintive Belle & Sebastian-flavored brass.

Otherwise, there's not much to say. 

If the forces of mass culture insist we spend the next ten years revisiting the sounds of the 90s, I can't imagine getting off to a more satisfying start than with Yuck.

Status: Strong Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: The Wall, Holing Out, Suicide Policeman, Operation.

Here's the official video for Get Away.

Component Breakdown:
1. Get Away - 9
2. The Wall - 9
3. Shook Down - 8
4. Holing Out - 9
5. Suicide Policeman - 9
6. Georgia - 8 -
7. Suck - 7
8. Stutter - 7
9. Operation - 9
10. Sunday - 7
11. Rose Gives A Lilly - 6
12. Rubber - 7
Intangibles - Above Average

What are your thoughts on Yuck?  Let readers know!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Second Half Comeback: Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears At The Los Angeles Echoplex November 11, 2011

A big fan of their excellent second album, 2011's Scandalous, and having been wowed by their knock-out Coachella set this previous April, I was more than excited for the opportunity of see what Austin, Texas blues/funk outfit Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears could do with a headlining slot.

Heading out with my wife and several neighborhood friends as part of my birthday celebration, that enthusiasm turned to wary concern the moment I entered the Echoplex for my very first time. 

Simply put, the basement-level Echoplex is a dump, one of those intentionally gritty, slightly punky dive bars that just happens to have a stage, much in the vein of Chicago's Metro or Empty Bottle, but with far worse sight lines as large weight-bearing columns start to reach for the ceiling just twenty feet back from the stage.

And unfortunately, the acoustics would prove even worse.

Taking the stage at 11:15, the Honeybears soon discovered the room offered few sweet spots where a band can effectively deliver their sound. 

Up close, the mix was throbbing and muddled, but move just fifty feet back and the venue's low ceiling all but erased Black Joe's vocals and the band's marvelous brass section. 

Making matters worse...the band chose to heavily back-load their setlist. 

All their biggest booty-shakers and jams were held in reserve, leaving the first forty minutes filled with still engaging and rocking but comparatively weaker numbers such as I'm Gonna Leave You, Black Snake, Jesus Took My Hand, and their cover version of Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down. Try as the band might, given all the acoustic issues, they just couldn't get things to gel, something even Joe noted when he asked about twenty minutes in "You guys having a good time tonight? Cause I don't see none of you moving at all."

Here's the one fan captured video I've found from the show, which was taken in this problematic earlier portion of the set.

But then, at the halfway point, things suddenly kicked into gear. 

The tech team seemed to finally get a handle on the room's acoustics just as the band launched into a very strong rendition of Mustang Ranch, and from that point on it was just a funk orgy as most of the bands A+ material...Living In The Jungle, Booty City, Sugarfoot, and You've Been Lyin'...followed in quick succession. 

After one or two more numbers, the band left the stage, then came back out for a hysterical, lengthy cover of the Rivington's The Birds The Word.  It proved to be a fine, playful, satisfying end, finally displaying this band at its best on a night when getting to that point seemed very much in doubt.

Still, sound problems aside, the longer set did expose some of the band's limitations that their shorter Coachella set did not. 

First, Joe has a ways to go as a front man.

In front of an eager crowd like one gets at Coachella, all one really needs to do is play one's best, but here, in a shitty venue with all those audio troubles, combined with the standard-fare only half-engaged LA crowd, more banter and interaction would have gone a long ways towards pulling the audience into the show. 

Also, the longer show length suggested the band may not yet having enough top quality material to sustain much more than a forty-minute set, though as an act they certainly show the potential of generating that additional material within their next couple of releases, and more balanced sequencing on this night would have surely helped.

But the biggest issue facing the band is one of identity. 

The name is Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears, but to me, this band works best as a pure ensemble.

Joe isn't a classic front and center soul singer like James Brown, whom he's often compared to, or contemporary soul ass-kickers of note like Sharon Jones.  While more crowd interaction would have been nice, musically on this night he was trying to grab too much of the spotlight...taking several guitar leads on the night when a superior guitarist was standing just feet to his right.  This band works best when the emphasis is on their interplay, rather than its talented but not tremendously charismatic frontman.  Hopefully they'll get these kinks worked out and find the right balance, because overall, this band is still full of promise...when they're hitting their peak, there are few rock/funk acts better.

Of the night's opening acts, only caught a few minutes of punkers Dikes Of Holland, can't say they did much for me. 

Rolling Stone Magazine cover photo contest winners Sheepdogs took the middle slot.  At first their earnest recreations of early 70s classic and Southern-Fried rock felt corny and derivative, but the hirsute band definitely has instrumental and vocal chops, and by the end of their set, particularly on a fantastic Santana-ish second to last number, my friends and I were fast becoming fans.

Monday, November 14, 2011

SMOTHER - Wild Beasts (2011)

The cover to Wild Beasts's latest release, the thematically air-tight Smother, depicts a number of distinctly colored, transparent feathers flattened atop one another and clipped by a diamond border.

You can discern the outline and texture of each individual feather if you work hard enough to see through all the color blends and overlaps, but for the most part, the sense of any single element is lost in the couplings.

And so it is for the human protagonists and antagonists of Smother, an album wholly locked in on the suffocating nature of sexual desire. 

On the surface, the album seems designed to viscerally convey that heart-stopping loss of breath one feels when in the initial throes of passion.  The voices play almost whisper soft, the music is achingly restrained, but a wave of intense emotion always seems on the verge of surging forth. 

But on a deeper level, Smother seems to be after something more profound...the inevitable loss of self that occurs with any romantic pairing. 

The Smashing Pumpkins's Billy Corgan put it far less subtlety twenty years ago when he bellowed "Love is suicide!", but Smother is similarly obsessed with just how much will we savagely take or consciously sacrifice in the service of carnal urges and love.  Deftly rendered lyrical images of predatory domination (Lion's Share, Plaything) and willful sublimation (Bed Of Nails, Invisible, Reach A Bit Further) abound...friends and family are jettisoned, cherished possessions and pastimes are casually tossed aside, elemental life goals are abandoned...all to sate uncontrollable flames of lust that threaten to burn away all we were before.

Ironically, despite the strong, mature manner in which these themes are explored, I suspect it will be the musicianship that brings most listeners into the fold. 

For three albums now, Wild Beasts have been honing in and refining one very specific, compelling sound, a sound that seems a perfect fit for the band's personnel, and that seems destined to sustain them for many albums to come.

Anchored in gorgeous, chimey, slightly jazzy 80s textures that weave and flow effortlessly around the band's two disparate but wonderfully compatible voices...guitarist Hayden Thorpe's highly idiosyncratic falsetto (think of the drag queen theatrics of an Antony or Queen's Freddie Mercury, but with a more masculine vibe), and Tom Flemming's yearning, richly earthbound, slightly Gabriel-esque baritone...there's little that sonically differentiates Smother from the band's equally excellent previous release Two Dancers, save for each album's disciplined adherence to theme.

Two Dancers, with its violent, almost Clockwork Orange-ish tales of hedonistic English hooligan's run amok, allowed itself a more dynamic, flamboyant design.  The songs had a greater sense of build, of unpredictability, of catharsis.

But with Smother, the emphasis is solely on the burn, not release, and as a result, much like on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, the peaks and valleys are intentionally flattened until the album's very end. 

In the Suburbs, that moment of release came with The Suburbs Part Two (Mountains Beyond Mountains), with the album's protagonist finally breaking free of her spiritual confines and finding other similarly minded souls.  Here, it comes (literally and figuratively) with final track End Comes Too Soon, but in a brilliant follow through on theme, the song skips the moment of sexual release, instead jumping in post-coital as the yearnings, and then the very relationship, start to fade.  Then, after a minute long drift into near nothingness, the song reemerges exultantly, implying the phoenix-like rebirth of self that comes at the end of a relationship, even as one continues to long for the overwhelming emotional connection that has been lost.

It is just one of the many sophisticated highlights on this understated, immaculately produced album, one of the smartest...and best...that 2011 has to offer.

Status: Strong Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Bed Of Nails, Loop The Loop, Invisible, Reach A Bit Further.

Here's the official video for Bed Of Nails.  Be sure to check out the killer vocal bridge at the 2:03 mark!

Component Breakdown:
1. Lion's Share - 8
2. Bed Of Nails - 9
3. Deeper - 8
4. Loop the Loop - 9
5. Plaything - 8
6. Invisible - 9
7. Albatross - 7
8. Reach A Bit Further - 9
9. Burning - 8
10. End Come Too Soon - 9
Intangibles - High.

What are your thoughts on Wild Beasts's Smother? Let readers know!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

ZONOSCOPE - Cut//Copy (2011)

Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot recently stated following Cut//Copy's summer performance at The Pitchfork Music Festival that he felt the band seemed just one hit song away, one 1901 or Listzomania, from a Phoenix-like mass market breakthrough.

My suggestion to listeners is "Why wait?"

They may not have the hit single yet, but with the release of Zonoscope, the Australian lads have proven for two albums in a row now that they're basically the best 80s flavored electronic/dance act out there not named Daft Punk, Robyn, or LCD Soundsystem, and are quite possibly the most broadly appealing bunch of the lot.

Following on the heels of their excellent 2008 release In Ghost Colours, Zonoscope is just another winning collection of electronic numbers given the warmest/poppiest of spins.  The high points are maybe a touch lower this time out, but the album boasts a slightly more muscular, consistent, and streamlined approach that more than compensates.

And once again, though not composed of conventionally great singers, the band's secret weapon remains their inventive, sly backing vocals, which seem to incorporate just about every sophisticated trick from the 80's new wave canon.

Highlights include the urgent, John Hughes-y opener Need You Now; best track Where I'm Going, which somehow seems to simultaneously reference classic Beach Boys, the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again and The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, all while still delivering the requisite dance-rock punch; the buoyant Alisa; the Men At Work-flavored Take Me Over, and fifteen-minute closer Sun God, which hits a muscular LCD Soundsystem-like groove and never lets up.

But too much emphasis on individual highlights misses the point. 

This is one of the most enjoyable front-to-back listens of the year. 

It might be a bit on the disposable side...these upbeat songs aren't cut of a stock that sticks with you much after a listen...but conversely, the album is a tremendous grower.

It's sounded better to me every time I've given it a spin, it always puts me in a good mood, and frankly, I can't wait to throw it on again.

Status: Strong Recommend

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Need You Now, Where I'm Going, Pharaohs & Pyramids, Alisa.

Here's the official video for album opener Need You Now.

Component Breakdown:
1. Need You Now - 8
2. Take Me Over - 8
3. Where I'm Going - 9
4. Pharaohs & Pyramids - 9
5. Blink And You'll Miss A Revolution - 8
6. Strange Nostalgia For The Future - 8
7. This Is All We've Got - 7
8. Alisa - 9
9. Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat - 7
10. Corner Of The Sky - 8
11. Sun God - 8
Intangibles - Slyly High.

What are your thoughts on Cut//Copy's Zonoscope?  Let readers know!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

LET ENGLAND SHAKE - PJ Harvey (2011)

"War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again."

Somehow, it seems fitting that this review of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake follows my review of Sufjan Stevens's The Age Of Adz.  Both rate among the top-most exercises in artistic ambition rock has produced over the last few years, and taken together, the two albums perfectly illustrate the hair's-breadth difference between abject failure and glorified success when one follows one's muse.

Stevens makes one critical error in deciding to mirror his subject's battle with schizophrenia by adding a cacophonous layer of electronics to an already richly detailed work, and the whole affair collapses under the weight of its overstuffed design.

Harvey makes several equally unusual, potentially treacherous choices in her unflinching, despairing, time-traveling examination of war's impact on her beloved sing exclusively in her odd, disembodied upper register to imply the sad but distant gaze of Mother Earth; to incorporate jarring, incongruous samples into her otherwise naturalistic songs to suggest the clash of cultures...but here the choices magically coalesce, resulting in a bona fide masterpiece.

Spare and folk-oriented in design, with the bulk of its instrumentation limited to simple acoustic or electric guitar lines, a touch of brass or keys, and a ubiquitous auto harp, Let England Shake is a moving, and consistently surprising musical experience.

But lyrically, it is not for the faint of heart.

As made clear, the subject here is war, or better put, the hopeless cycle of human suffering brought on by the love for one's land that inevitably leads to an unchecked patriotism that inevitably leads to war.

Harvey takes on the subject from all sides in plain-spoken language and graphic detail...the clueless pols who make the decisions in The Words That Maketh Murder, the wailing mothers whose sorrow over children lost is matched only by their fervent willingness to continue the patriotic fight in England, the irreparable damage left in wars aftermath in The Glorious Land ("What is the glorious fruit of our land? / The fruit is deformed children!")...but the bulk of the album occurs in the trenches, as Harvey pit stops through time to visit several of the most horrendous battles in Britain's centuries long military history, and put us right alongside the common foot soldiers to share in their misery and terror.

Think of the album as the British, folk-rock equivalent to the most potent moments of Steven Speilberg's Saving Private Ryan, but with that flawed movie's mawkish bookends and pedantic monologues removed, and you start to get a sense what Harvey has accomplished.

And like Ryan, I think it's wrong to classify Let England Shake as a protest album. 

Harvey is far too edgy and cutting an artist to get sucked into false optimism. 

War, in her eyes, is eternal, an inexorable part of the human condition. There is no end to the cycle. 

All she can do in moral response is bear empathetic witness to those who have been trampled in war's wake.

Obviously, the risk to this approach of returning to the same heightened emotional territory again and again is diminishing returns, but Harvey fully counters this risk through a fantastic effort of musical variation. 

Though wonderfully cohesive as a whole, no album this year better differentiates its individual songs.

Track after track stands alone with a clear, unique personality, a distinct, crisp structure, and the subtleties of design in this album are genuinely stunning.

Check out the way Harvey effortlessly shifts from bone-weary march to frightened chaos to hopeless funeral dirge as her soldiers realize they are all about to meet their fated end in All And Everyone, or the way a reggae sample is used to evoke both the otherworldly flavor of the ransacked Iraqi village and the lack of concern among the invading British and American troops in Written On The Forehead, or how the melodies of both George Of The Jungle and Summertime Blues are incorporated to suggest the trivial callousness with which England's past leaders have made decisions that went on to cost thousands of lives. 

Truth be told, though I have liked a handful of other albums a bit more over the last six years, I cannot think of another album so confidently devoid of artistic misstep since Sleater-Kinney's The Woods dropped in 2005.

Though tremendous challenging, Let England Shake isn't just a great's rock 'n' roll as art of the highest order, and hands down the best album of 2011.

Status: Highest Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: This Glorious Land, All And Everyone, Hanging In The Wire, Written On The Forehead.

Here's the video for the album's one foray into contemporary times, Written On The Forehead.

Component Breakdown:
1. Let England Shake - 8
2. The Last Living Rose - 9
3. The Glorious Land - 10
4. The Words That Maketh Murder - 9
5. All And Everyone - 10
6. On Battleship Hill - 9
7. England - 9
8. In The Dark Places - 10
9. Bitter Branches - 8
10. Hanging In The Wire - 10
11. Written On The Forehead - 10
12. The Colour Of The Earth - 8
Intangibles - Very High.

What are your thoughts on PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. Let readers know!