Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Feelies — Here Before

Sometimes, when things just work, they work. You notice similarities, maybe even repetitions, but why complain about fixing something that clearly isn't broken?

Enter Glenn Mercer after the last song: "Thanks a lot. We're the Feelies."

I mean, sheesh, just a warning up front: I don't have a lot to say about this album, but I have absolutely no doubts in my mind that anyone who loved albums two (the Good Earth), three (Only Life) and four (Time for a Witness) by these guys will put this new one on and not be saying to themselves by the third track, 'Why'd you wait so damn long!'

Because it makes sense that —besides the fact that this is the exact same lineup that has played on all of the band's albums except Crazy Rhythms— this sounds like it came out just a few years after Time for a Witness. In the best possible way, too. Because nobody creates those beautiful layers of pure jangle with out of key, isolated weirdo lyrics on top like the Feelies do it.

The brilliantly titled Here Before is just the fifth Feelies album in just over thirty years of existence. As someone who became aware of them in the early 2000's and gave up looking for any of their increasingly hard to find albums a few years later, I was blown away in 2009 by the proper reissues of the band's first two albums. Both albums struck me as really timeless and I was genuinely surprised at how well they fit in with everything else I was into at the time; contemporary or not.

So, it makes sense that a band that has such a grasp on such a timeless sound could reunite twenty years after their previous album and sound just as assured, just as enduring and —most of all— just as great as they ever did in their initial run.

True, if you've heard any of the second, third or fourth Feelies albums, you're in for no surprises on Here Before. But, with R.E.M. having a midlife crisis the size of an entire county and the Ocean Blue likely disbanded for good this time, isn't it just plain old wonderful and life-affirming to hear one of the definitive American jangle bands bang one out, in classic style, like it was 1988? I say an enthusiastic yes.

And jeesh, is it just me, or is there like three or four songs on this thing that sound like Good Earth outtakes?

Songs like 'Should Be Gone' (harmony vocals!!), 'Morning Comes', 'Again Today' (pedal steel!!???!!) and 'Bluer Skies' sound straight from the band's classic period and this starts to be less of a, "Hey, let's reunite for old time's sake" sort of album and more like a, "We can make a real statement with a new album" set.

Meditative jangle.

They've quickly become one of my favorite bands of all time since the reissues a couple years ago, but after studying through their back catalogue and really properly listening to everything with pure open ears and appreciation can I really hear this new album the way I do now. It's a really awesome thing to hear Glenn's guitar tone at the beginning of 'On and On' perfectly recreate the tone heard on 'Slipping (Into Something)' and it somehow feels redemptive. Like this is what the band was building to all along: a new album of completely old ideas after twenty years of silence that, at once, proves to everyone once and for all that they were (or rather, ARE) top tier songwriters and tuned into a fresh and undying sound all along.

Really fantastic stuff.


PJ Harvey — Let England Shake

So, a bit of my personal Harvey history before we get into this one: I was introduced to her music through my now ex-wife. I came to thoroughly love her and her music. She always came across to me as a 'pure' musician — one who was in it for the pure creativity and expression of writing a song. As poppy as she was at times, PJH was never about anything more than the pureness of writing a resonating song. She reminds me of Mark Burgess and the Chameleons very much in this respect.

PJ's last decade was an interesting one. I loved Uh Huh Her (eventually) and White Chalk and I was very underwhelmed with the second PJH + John Parish album. I sometimes feel like she can get too artsy for own good, but when she really sticks to her base of writing personal lyrics and dissonantly catchy melodies, she can create this singular world of lo-fi chamber pop that teeters on the fine line between self-indulgence and total brilliance.

File this one under the latter.

And I have to admit that, yes, I like that it's an infinitely more poppy album than anything she's done since Stories From the City, roughly a decade ago. There's tons of clean, jangly guitars and every song here has a clear, defined hook. Horn sections, xylophones and even harmony vocals (thanks John Parish!) all augment the usual PJH playbook (minus the calling card 'rock out' moment which is noticeably absent, and yet not missed) and it generally and genuinely feels a little bit revelatory on songs like the mini-epic 'All & Everyone.'

As far as the words on the album, I have to feel like the musical backing is so quiet and restrained because the lyrics are so poignant and heartfelt. Shying away from romantic matters of human relations, Let England Shake is instead a melancholy love letter lamenting the rise and fall (ok, mostly the fall) of Great Britain. Sure, she's getting political here. But it doesn't feel forced. Make no mistake, she loves her country and the word "England" appears in the title or the chorus of no less than a fourth of the album's songs. This feels like a natural and authentic expression of outcry from a person who loves their country and has seen it venture down the wrong path for too long (example lyric: 'I am a withered vine reaching from the country that I love. England, you leave a taste. A bitter one.'). And it's fitting that PJ hasn't, for a long time, sounded as passionate and just flat out real as she does on this album. And it took getting political for her to recapture it.

So, yeah. It's bittersweet. She loves her country enough to criticize it to pieces but never to leave it for anyone else to claim. But, PJ being the articulate person she is, a lot of the songs here (I'm mainly thinking of 'All & Everyone' and possibly the album highlight 'In the Dark Places') could be applied to any of the contemporary world's developed countries that are meddling in political wars abroad while the situation domestically deteriorates.

If nothing else, it's a real shocker how much of a folk rock vibe this album has. Specifically speaking, I was very reminded of the Pentangle and Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention throughout numerous listens to this album (hell, throw Rocket Cottage-era Steeleye Span in there too). It's got an undeniable political bent to it, but there's also a weird, almost torchy aspect to some of the songs here. And you can't deny how much John Parish just sounds like John Renbourn (exhibit a: 'The Colour of the Earth').

Overall, christ on crutch is it good.

Sweet molasses on a pancake. Filling, satisfying and lasting. But, maybe a buttermilk pancake as the case may be here.

Because I have to think that it would still sound tremendously sad even if it wasn't a parting gift from my now ex-wife.

Ouch for me.

Yay for PJ making maybe her best (and most diverse) album in over a decade.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Repetitive Grooves and Ambient Moods

a/k/a Slow down and dream on

Twenty five songs and nearly two hours of things I find pretty and fun and happy and relaxing.

1) R.E.M. — 'Airportman' (1998)
2) The American Analog Set — 'Born on the Cusp' (2005)
3) Red House Painters — 'Mistress' (1993)
4) Kitchens of Distinction — 'Under the Sky, Inside the Sea' (1990)
5) Midsummer — 'Tempests' (2002)
6) The Cure — 'Uyea Sound' (1992)
7) The Ocean Blue — 'Falling Through the Ice' (1991)
8) Dream Academy — 'In Places on the Run' (1985)
9) The Appleseed Cast — 'Take' (2001)
10) The Wake — 'Send Them Away' (1985)
11) Sigur Rós — 'Von' (1997)
12) Death Cab for Cutie — 'Stability' (2002)
13) Codeine — 'D' (1990)
14) The Coctails — 'Circles' (1994)
15) Nightmares on Wax — 'Morse' (2000)
16) The Durutti Column — 'Future Perfect' (1996)
17) Tracey Thorn — 'Small Town Girl' (1982)
18) Slowdive — 'In Mind' (1994)
19) Coastal — 'Her Refelction in Chrome' (2000)
20) Slovenly — 'Myer's Dark' (1987)
21) The Sea and Cake — 'Pages' (2008)
22) Sonic Youth — 'Pink Steam' (2006)
23) The Chameleons — 'I'll Remember' (1986)
24) Björk — 'Headphones (0 Remix)'
25) David Sylvian — 'Darkest Dreaming' (1999)

Download link.


Monday, April 11, 2011

The Appleseed Cast — Middle States EP

Well, I guess I should air out my bias before we even get going here: it should be no secret that the Appleseed Cast is one of my favorite bands by this point. Let's just get this out of the way right now: a four star review for them is like a twenty eight star review for review for anyone else. So yeah, they're at least seven times better than your favorite band.

With the first three tracks on this thing, they perfectly recapture the endless song cycle mood of Low Level Owl.

Simultaneously, they have combined the catchy, riffy aspect of Peregrine.

So, basically, they have successfully figured out a way to perfect their craft.

'End Frigate Constellation' sounded like a puzzle the first time I heard it when they played it live, but I clearly remember the "Waiting for the night" lyric and thinking to myself, "That's where the song will come together on record."

And, sure enough, there it is.

Followed by a full-on assault of warm distortion. Awesome.

The 'Interlude' ties it together with the EP's title track and I can't even say right now what I really think of that song. When they played it live (and when I heard it for the first time), I got goosebumps. A downright jangly foundation and truly relevant observation on "Growing older" combine atop a decidedly 'new' approach to an Appleseed Cast song and I'm sold. After numerous listens through the EP, I'm convinced it's one of the best things they've ever done. It's an incredible song; we'll just leave it at that.

The last track, 'Three Rivers', is a fifteen minute instrumental epic that is surprisingly devoid of any real buildup. Instead, it's way more Krautrock in its philosophy as it feels more like a restrained jam than an actual composition. Still, these guys could just jam for three hours and it would probably be, at the very least, an interesting curiosity of a recording. If releasing tapes of jam sessions is what it takes for them to finally become prolific, then so be it. My least favorite of the new material, but still worth hearing every time.

I like 'Three Rivers', but there's a reason the proper songs are up front. Those two songs on their own would've made for a seriously tantalizing seven inch single. But leave it up to these guys to bridge the songs with a super heady (yet still, completely valid) between song noise bit and an extended noodle of a song and make the whole package sound cohesive and like a piece unto itself. Even a barely thirty minute EP becomes an engaging, rewarding listen every single time with this band.

If nothing else, this officially has my expectations for their next album in the exosphere — as if said expectations weren't high enough already. Just hearing that their new material actually has the potential to be better than what preceded it —with the exception of the title track, which is already there— is confirmation enough that they are, without question, one of the best bands in the world.

Heroically good.

Right fucking on.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Homemade Ceviche

Ceviche is lime-cooked fish. And, when done right, it is tasty. I used this recipe as a starting point. Used fresh catfish and left out the parsley, bell peppers and olive oil. Added two cucumbers and extra tomatoes and cilantro, served it traditional style on a tostada and here's the end product:

Delicious! And EASY — that's the best part.