Sunday, April 25, 2010

Old Music: Natalie Merchant's Ophelia (1998)

Ok, let's just get this out of the way right now: I love Natalie Merchant. And if you had guessed that I'm on a NatMer (the nickname I've lovingly given her — only because she's earned it!) kick lately, you'd be absolutely correct.

Leave Your Sleep has left me completely mesmerized.

And because of that, I'm (perhaps a bit obsessively) going back through her catalogue and reassessing why I loved her in the first place.

Well, let's get to the heart of the matter here: way back in high school, I had girl friend (note: not "my" "girlfriend" — though I'm sure I would have liked for that to have happened at the time; and undoubtedly it has more than a little to do with my involvement with this album in the first place) who was rather keen on this album. I liked and respected her enough to the point that I would ditch everything else I was into at the time —that would be OutKast and Blackstar, in case you were wondering— to check an album that not only wasn't even on my radar; it was the sort of thing I actively avoided.

And, yeah, I hated it.

But why?

I had fallen neither in nor out of love... yet.

Besides the fact that it was nothing musically like anything else I was into at the time, there was nothing in the subject matter for me to grasp onto.

Why all the gloom? Why all the downtrodden, sadbastard moods? Why the general Eeyore-like nature of the whole thing?

It depressed the hell out of me, honestly.

I traded it in when that particular acquaintance exited my sphere of association, bought up all the latest indie hip hop 12" singles and I never looked back.

Of course.

When you're 17, this just isn't the sort of music that's rewarding; not to mention, sounds 'cool' coming out of your car in the parking lot before first period.

So, a year or so back when I was in the middle of a serious jangle pop kick, 10,000 Maniacs fell onto my radar. They made some seriously great music, but even through my re-evaluation of a band that I skipped over, one thing stood out to me above everything else, regardless of how much I enjoyed the music: that voice.

Yes, she was —and still is— awesome. Right up there with Morrissey, Otis Redding and Maxwell.

Truly, Natalie Merchant is one of my favorite vocalists ever.

And her performance on Ophelia is what I base a lot of that on.

But let's just get this out there right now: Ophelia is a bummer of an album. If you actually sit and listen to the words, it's downright gloomy. In retrospect, I find it a bit odd that the album is Natalie's most introspective and confrontationally personal that preceded a group of no less heartfelt works that were noticeably more about genre exercising than they were about the songwriter's experience.

She dodges the issue right away with the title track, supposing that the group of personal recollections that follows is nothing more than the memories of characters, but the performances are too specific, too passionate for any astute listener to fall for it.

No, I think, indeed, these are, for better or for worse, the pages of Natalie Merchant's diary being put into song form.

And I say 'for better or for worse' because not everything here is a wonderfully pretty little jangle floatabout; like she's just a Maniac forever. Nope. If Tigerlily implied a bit more of a serious slant and a matured melancholy approach to her music, Ophelia is that approach and philosophy taken to its absolute extreme.

Sure, 'Kind and Generous' was a huge hit. And it's definitely a rather jumpy little pop tune that supposes a lighthearted mood, but one listen to the lyrics and it's obviously that it's about a very intense breakup.

For all its minor keys and dissonant, sad turns, Ophelia has a quality of triumph to it. An aspect of jubilation amongst the emotional chaos. To put it simply: Ophelia is the ultimate breakup album.

Just have a look at the lyrics from 'My Skin':
"O, I need
The darkness
The sweetness
The sadness
The weakness
I need this

I need
A lullaby
A kiss goodnight
Angel sweet
Love of my life
O, I need this

Do you remember the way
That you touched me before
All the trembling sweetness
I loved and adored?

All of that hindsight 'I know I shouldn't but I want it so badly' is gorgeously sung atop a piano and brushstroke drumbeat of the type that has become the ultimate cliche on adult contempo radio by this point. But back then, it wasn't anything more than a really great revival of Carole King's best moments. But it's a bit deeper than that even.

'Frozen Charlotte,' —worthy of its own analytical post on its own— to me, is one of the most amazingly poignant and beautifully heartbroken songs ever written. It's the sort of song where you can just feel the emotional weight pulling down on the musicians as they play it. It's completely unclear to me what it's about. An indefinite departure or perhaps even death itself; it doesn't really matter. It's the sort of deeply meaningful and perfectly articulated song you hear and just know that it will only get better and more beautiful and profound with each passing listen. Probably Natalie's best song, Maniacs or otherwise.

Of its eleven tracks, not one rises above the seeming super fast tempo of 'Kind and Generous' (which can now perhaps be viewed as one of the most misleading singles in pop music history). Indeed, nothing here is as it appears, as on one track in the latter half of the album, Natalie declares herself to be "an effigy, a parody of who I appear to be." Only to conclude, "Put your flaming torches under me."

But, on the very next tune: "I don't care to stay with the living. No, I don't care to stay."

What in the world is going here?

A rootsy little tune that can now be looked at as her first proper foray into folksiness ('When They Ring the Golden Bells') and a passionate symphonic reprise of the title track (as a hidden track) and then it's all over.

So, here's some images from the album liners (make of them what you will):

Speaking through characters or not, Ophelia is NatMer's big artistic difficult second album triumph. The sort of which I seem to love. She was so bummed on this material, the live album documenting its tour only featured one song from the proper album (and not even the hit!).

Of course, I've grown to love this album and it has become easily my favorite NatMer album. Considering her direction into what has been a glorified research into perceived 'simpler' musical times ever since this album, I can't help but think it was the document of a personal experience so painful and personal that she has avoided anything of the sort ever since then, in an attempt at recapturing emotional innocence.

Hard to conjure a smile even this big for a seal of approval for an album that is so perpetually heart wrenching, but the appreciation comes with age.

Here's to hoping we get a sequel to the best one day.

Because it is her best.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Natalie Merchant — Leave Your Sleep

The first instance that Natalie Merchant was going to shed her image of a veteran Lilith Fair alt-popper in favor of a more rootsy, Americana inspired modern day folk interpreter was her 2001 T-Bone Burnett produced album Motherland. It was a strange musical stew, bordering on blue-eyed soul and dark blues rock. While not wholly successful, it was an eye-opener. In context of her previous work with the jangle band 10,000 Maniacs and her solo work which was basically sophisticated adult contempo pop, Motherland was a jolt. To follow it with what was basically her version of a folk standards album, the competent but strictly by the books affair The House Carpenter's Daughter, felt natural and, more than anything else, especially after even a cursory listen to her latest work, a warm up for her proper foray into folk, rag time, Tin pan Alley pop, classic Americana and just all around 'ole timey' music.

Leave Your Sleep is an inexplicably dense album; let's just get that out of the way right now. Through it's two discs and twenty six tracks, the way it jumps styles, the entirety of its lyrics being borrowed from late 19th and early 20th century poems and nursery rhymes and the revolving door cast of musicians backing Natalie up are all signs that would normally point towards an overproduced, cacophonous and catastrophic work. But, through the sweeping orchestrations, the exquisite attention to detail and, through it all, Natalie's commanding vocals —as strong as ever— make for one of the most unified artistic statements I've heard on record in some time.

Accompanied by (quite literally) a small book that details the history of the poets and anonymous words used for the album's lyrics, it feels less like just the next Natalie Merchant album and more like a well-researched statement of purpose for an artist that has reached elder stateswoman status. But to imply that the intellectual aspect of the album is more important to its success than the actual music is inaccurate. Because, musically, even though it's forever stuck in the past, it feels like, for the first time in Natalie's solo catalogue, a labor of love.

Which is not to say that it's inherently her best album or that her previous solo albums are boring, because besides neither statement being true, but Leave Your Sleep is such a departure musically from anything previous and was literally years in the making that it almost dodges comparisons to her previous work, just out of context. I know I'm making it seem like Leave Your Sleep is a total masterpiece, but it does have the essence about it of timelessness and an 'art over commerce' attitude that I just can't deny.

So why not a perfect score?

Well, it's twenty six songs and nearly two hours long. Inherently, perhaps, there's bound to be some less than great material here. And there are some things that are just out of place: things that sound like Motherland rejects that should have stayed that way ("The Peppery Man"), two misguided collabs with the Wynton Marsalis group that sound like caricatures amidst otherwise genuine portrayals of styles ("Bleezer's Ice Cream" and "The Janitor's Boy") and a downright bad attempt at reggae ("Topsyturvey-World"). Couple these sporadic anti-highlights with an album that sounds very intimate, but through the general intimidation of such a deep and lengthy set of songs, inherently prevents such intimacy and you get a mammoth task of a front to back listen every single time.

All that being said, I can't really say this could have been effectively cut down to a single disc album because it's highlights are in excess of the length of a single disc. Sure, I can name the songs I don't like right away, but if I were to list my album highlights, it would just about be everything else. It's fitting that disc one starts with "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience" and "Equestrienne" —two songs of orchestrated youthful, but restrained, enthusiasm— and disc two ends with "Autumn Lullaby", "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child" and "Indian Names" —three songs of elderly advice given through a melancholy hindsight view— because it reflects perfectly the maturity and wisdom that intent listens will reveal.

I expected to hate it, in all honesty. I'm glad I was wrong.

Such warm music. It's definitely something I'll be listening to and taking in completely for a long time to come.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Oscar and Alice again.

Alice has settled in extremely well since last fall...

...wouldn't you say?


Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Durutti Column — A Paean to Wilson

This is one of those albums where, going in, you just know it's going to be good. But, A Paean to Wilson feels even better, even sadder, even more poignant than I could've hoped for in even my prettiest of passionate, longing dreams.

Conceived as a musical tribute to the man who basically gave him a stage when no one else in their right mind would have, Vini Reilly's newest album for the late Tony Wilson is nothing short of hypnotic, immersing music. Pure menacing beauty. Because the album is in tribute to his dearly departed friend, A Paean to Wilson has an air to it of retrospect; a reflection of better days gone by and lonely days to come. Indeed, there is a sense of realization to be heard in this album. As if Tony's untimely and sudden death convinced Vini that he was not long for this world himself and he needed to make a purposeful and definitive statement that summed up all of the best qualities of his past work, while simultaneously capturing why he was still relevant after all these years.

But, make no mistakes, as calculated and programmed as this plan of an album may be, it is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order. Even if you don't know the history, this is gorgeous and redemptive music all around. But, if you do know the history, it is gorgeous, redemptive, heartbreaking and ultimately, glorious music of the most rewarding calibre.

Take a song like 'Requiem' for example. Sure, for Durutti fans, a rehash of an old tune. But, even here, it's played with a new intensity —arguably, an anger— that never would've occurred to most listeners otherwise. I can't even imagine what it would sound like on virgin ears; maybe some sort of dark, trip-hop tinged goth wankery. It is the definitive version of the tune. And thankfully, it's the only revisit to be found here.

'Chant' and 'Stuki' heavily recall the Vini Reilly album from 1989. Irresistible guitar riffs woven around vocal samples with seeming non-effort to create programmed beat-heavy little ditties that manage to be completely catchy and have a completely floating, lighter than air feel of the Column's best work. And it should be pointed out that Vini was actively trying to make music that Tony would have liked, so the complete lack of Vini's vocals, the resurrection of old Durutti alumni John Metcalfe, Keir Stewart and Tim Kellet and the inclusion of the Heaven Sent EP as a bonus disc (from 2005, previously a digital-only release and the first release on Tony's last label, F4); all of that was quite intentional. In fact, Vini states in a rare self-penned sleevenote, "My only objective was to create some music that Tony would thoroughly approve of."

The second half of the clearly-inspired, 70+ minute album is where things go from impressive and good to downright fantastic and pastoral. Starting with 'Brother,' obviously the best use of a Marvin Gaye sample in years and the album's definitive and spiritual centerpiece, and continuing right through the heart wrenching 'How Unbelievable,' it's a quite successful experiment in just how far a musician can carry a singular inspiration and still make music that has a clearly defined goal, but yet, outside of that goal and that context, can still sound absolutely engaging.

It is entirely too easy to get swept up in the clear emotion of this music and look past what Vini Reilly has actually done in terms of this being the next Durutti Column album. If his last album (last year's somewhat stagnant Love in the Time of Recession) was a bit regressive and semi-unimpressive in the face of the great loud/quiet combo of Idiot Savants and Sunlight to Blue...Blue to Blackness, then consider A Paean to Wilson to be the complete fulfillment of everything those two albums promised, and worlds more. At times, the album feels like a unified masterpiece, years in the making, but with Tony Wilson's death just over two years removed and numerous Durutti releases in the interim, that analysis is a bit confusing. How could he have had the time that such thoughtful material required?

I have no answers. All I can say is that it feels like a revelatory album for Vini, and not just because of its muse. Musically, he hasn't sounded this inspired and this good so consistently since the late 80's.

And that's actually more than a little impressive, considering the strength of his albums since Keep Breathing.

Fantastic, poignant, heartbreaking and wonderfully beautiful.

It's his best overall work in years.

(I am actually so damn tempted and close to giving this thing five stars, you wouldn't even believe it)


Friday, April 2, 2010

Albums of the past deacde: 2009

Alright, so this is it. The last year of the decade. As these albums are still very fresh on my mind compared to things released ten years ago, I will be treating this as my proper year-end list for 2009 (a tradition that I've done for the previous two years of this blog's existence). I considered a post summing up the decade with an absolute 'best of the best' sort of post, but why bother. What's here is here. Read through my thoughts on the previous years if you'd like to know what I really thought of my mentionable albums. So, without any further delay, here's the rest of it...

The Appleseed Cast — Sagarmatha

Let's just get this out of the way right now: the band's second best album after Low Level Owl and one of the top ten of the decade, without question. I had a difficult experience with this album at first. The drums were EQ'd and mic'd differently. Chris' vocals were mixed in low with extra intent. Why the buttrock guitar tone at the end of 'South Col'? What the hell, guys? Are you trying to isolate me? Yes, they were, in all truthfulness. They were trying to isolate every person who heard this album into an area of coolly passionate, introspective-obsessed, star gazing wonderment. I mean, bottom line here: wow. They captured the dreamy, chaotic feeling of the self-realization of existing as a single organic being among the vastness of a mostly empty universe quite perfectly for the second time on record. It was released a day before my 28th birthday and I have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that it's only been a part of my life for just over a year at this point. It feels timeless. Poorly mixed-in unintelligible vocals or completely instrumental eight minute tracks, three minute pop songs or six-and-a-half minute long multi-movement epics, it was all here and it still is like a brand new instant classic to me. It's like the perfect extension of Low Level Owl, without the laboring-over of moods. And while Low Level Owl is better because of its consideration for such nuances, Sagarmatha is arguably the more crowd pleasing of the two albums because of its brilliant dichotomy of immediately likable riffs with challenging, ever-evolving soundscapes or obtuse production techniques with honest, minimalist presentations. Truly, if they hadn't already made Low Level Owl, this would be a godlike masterpiece for me. But, as it stands, it's merely the second best album by a band that can lay claim to releasing not one, but three of the decade's most progressive and exceptional albums. I know, in text, that seems drab and anti-climactic to state in such a matter-of-fact way, but I can't even articulate it beyond that; they're just that fucking good.

Death Cab for Cutie — The Open Door EP

I had to get it as soon as possible because it was, essentially, outtakes from Narrow Stairs. It was essentially less produced, but equally as high calibre, material. 'My Mirror Speaks' was the highlight for me. Reminded me of the Smiths more than anything else DCFC has yet done. The tone was jubilant, but the words just as bummed as Narrow Stairs. Overall, it was the sort of super satisfying EP that sounded like the logical extension of its preceding full length. The kind of expectedly great little extra credit project that great bands provide their fans with every so often. Really interested to hear their next move.

Doves — Kingdom of Rust/Instrumentals of Rust

Doves returned from their magnum opus with their most confounding and dense work since Lost Souls. I mean, I really struggled with this one for a good few months. Sure, I picked out a few songs like the title track, 'Spellbound' and the seeming New Order nod 'Compulsion', but for the most part, it was a series of seemingly unrelated, purposely dense mazes of songs whose actual tunes and melodies were seemingly playing hide and seek. A couple months after the proper release of the album, in a move that makes me really question the band's motives, they released a completely instrumental version of the album (on digital download only) titled Instrumentals of Rust. At first, I was cynical as hell. I didn't really care for the album in the first place, and furthermore, why would I want to hear the songs without vocals? Well, eventually, because they are one of my favorite bands, I caved and just went for it. And I'm glad I did. Perhaps hearing the album without vocals was what I needed for the tunes to open up completely, because after familiarizing myself with the songs without vocals, I revisited Kingdom of Rust proper and it sounded like a brand new album to me. It felt like a much more cohesive piece of music as an instrumental album, and knowing that, hearing the vocal version again felt a little more unified and the album just came across as a more understandable piece of art. Context was all it took. Not my favorite Doves album, but I actually consider it a good one after hearing the instrumentals, whereas maybe I would've continued being confused by it if I hadn't.

Jon Hassell — Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street

I find it a little comedic that Jon Hassell is essentially making the same music he was thirty years ago and yet, his music still sounds like nothing else. I mean, it's funny in an awesome way, but it's also a little telling: Jon Hassell is one of the most undervalued talents in modern music (even by me; this was his first new album I had purchased since Blue Screen, so don't feel bad). Of course, I am familiar with him through his work with David Sylvian, and the more I familiarize myself with his work, the more I realize just how influential he was on one of my musical heroes. That says a lot in and of itself. This album, like I said, is maybe a bit less dissonant than 4th World or Vernal Equinox, but sounds like a completely logical peer of those works. The whole thing supposes background music, but close listens reveal stellar improvisation and still the best modern interpretation and just an all around general grip on what Miles Davis was trying to do with his mid-70's ambient improv funk. The title track here is absolutely mammoth and such sparsely beautiful works recall a post-modern classical ideal filtered through the thought of music as not so much of a popular medium, but something that is not meant to be immediately understood, classified or criticized; it simply exists for pure admiration. Making comparisons with early Durutti Column or mid-period Tangerine Dream seems relevant, but limiting, while simultaneously, it makes contemporary 'mellowed out' music peers like Sigur Ros and the likes seem like sick jokes. It's a very, very good album. I truly don't think I've fully grasped its complete quality yet.

Bobby Hutcherson — Wise One

All tunes made popular by, or most closely associated with, John Coltrane. As if this weren't a winning enough combo, Bobby brought in guitarist Anthony Wilson (not the same as that Manchester bloke with a similar namesake) and it accented his usual quartet with a wonderful and equally as beautiful tonal quality. The tunes are done justice in the way that Bobby takes the high road and just plays them in the classiest way possible, but without staying too polite or reserved. I mean, just look at the gripping intro to 'Spiritual' for proof that this band was playing these tunes out of pure respect and admiration — not trying to outdo or even recreate what Trane did with them originally. After a couple all-ballads studio albums, this one felt like an album that Bobby could really sink his teeth into, dig in and get passionate about. It shows when listening to the album, as it sounds like his most inspired soloing on record in years. A truly rewarding later period gem from a master that maybe seemed like he had lost the fire. But, as this album shows, he still has as much fire and class as his classic period.

Maxwell — BLACKsummers'night

I still stand by my original review of it. If anything has changed since then, it's only that I've come to an even deeper understanding of the music. After the hype, the built-up expectations, the excitement and the obsessive listening, BLACKsummers'night stands up right next to Embrya as the contender for Maxwell's (so far) masterpiece. Where Embyra was a super cerebral study in obsession, taken to its absolute musical extremes and dabbling into super layered exquisite overproductions, Now and —even more so— BLACKsummers'night are the logical back to basics presentations. Most of BSN has a live-in-studio feeling to it. With such modest presentation and such short running length, it would possibly spell out inevitable disappointment, but in a twisted move, Maxwell presented eight of his best songs ever and a short instrumental outro. Unconcerned with presenting an overworked double extra credit overlong pseudo-masterpiece, he simply took thirty seven minutes to create some of the most heartfelt and passionate music of the decade. And, with a song like 'Help Somebody,' he created an absolute classic for the ages. I have a hard coming to grips with albums as solid as this one. Its length makes it very easily digestible, but the raw emotion and soul-bearing contained within its content makes the grooves and melodies more than just a likable little pastime. Embrya has the edge, simply because it came first, but BLACKsummers'night seems to be the be statement of purpose for a master humbly asserting his mission statement in preparation for the unleashing of his true apex. A manifesto for a masterpiece. Absolutely one of the best of the decade. God, I love this album.

Radiohead — These Are My Twisted Words (single)

Ok, not an album. But it was a confrontational step sideways in the creative evolution of a band that never seems to stop. And it was free! Seriously, have at it. They just want you to hear it. Maybe not quite as good as 'Weird Fishes,' it certainly would have made that second half of In Rainbows better, wouldn't it? Amongst my songs of the decade.

Sonic Youth — The Eternal

Alright, so here it was: the Youth's first 'real' indie label material in over a decade. And guess what? I thought it was a little underwhelming. It sounded like a more garagey version of Rather Ripped to me. Like, they had the same amount of strong melodies to work with, but they just didn't care as much this time, so they turned up the amps and let it fly. I don't know. It's Sonic Youth and it's still good. It just felt a little overlong and, in a completely see-through attempt at reacting at the last album's 'clean' sound, unnecessarily and gratuitously distortionary and loud. Still, good songs. Presentation left something to desired, but I can now look at the Murray Street/Sonic Nurse/Rather Ripped group of albums as somewhat of an epic trilogy of less and less confrontational — but, contradictory, more poignant material. This album feels to me like Sonic Youth being played by the book and while there's good songs ('Antenna,' for instance, rules), they all have that stock Sonic Youth sound that feels like a total regression in 2009. I like it, but I don't. The bonus materials for Matador's 'Buy Early, Get Now' program were definitely fun though.

David Sylvian — Manafon

A complete return to the bleak themes and mostly accapella nature of Blemish. No drums anywhere and stark, minimalist guitar chords struck randomly amidst glitchy white noise and sporadic acoustic bass pluckings. It's been in my life for a good six months by now and the only song that's really managed to strike a chord with me is the album opener 'Small Metal Gods.' Sweet jesus, that song is good. But man, I thought Kingdom of Rust was impenetrable? This album just may as well not even exist, if that's the measuring stick. I've heard the album dozens of times by now, but feel completely unfamiliar with it, if that tells you anything about it. I have no idea how to articulate this music in text. I like it, but I don't know why. I don't understand it, but I feel like I will eventually. It reminds me of other things, but none of those things make immediate sense when I actually compare them to it. A typically boundary pushing, truly challenging work from one of the musicians whom I would consider amongst 'the unimpeachable.' At this point, I can't even say if it's amongst my favorite anything, but I am still absolutely enthralled by it, which counts for something.

Windimoto — Sinister Beauty

Again, a shout for these guys, because they do it from the heart. 'There Are Better Days For Us' counts among my songs of the decade — as a semi-affiliate of the band or not. It just sounds like one of those classic yearning love songs that you'd swear you heard in your dad's record collection. The rest of the album is good, but it is one of those cases where they basically start the record with their best song ever and the rest of the album begs a bit of a deeper listen to fully appreciate. 'Shake it Down' certainly works one of their better grooves to serious success, while elsewhere 'Three Scenes' is an uncharacteristically downtempo spoken word piece that sounds like perhaps the band's most unintentionally poignant piece yet. Overall, a bit more of an involved listen than Travels, but —perhaps in the grand stereotypical tradition— the great, challenging artistic step forward that the second album is supposed to be.

And there it went. The 'ought whatevers' in my ears as a music dork. Hope you dug it.