Music Marathon 2009 Part 9 (Sonic Youth – The Swell Season)
The semester’s started, so I’m squeezing these in where I can…
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
If there’s an ongoing motif of post-2000 Sonic Youth album reviews, it’s the preoccupation with their ever-impending return to form. By “return to form,” reviewers and fans tend to be pretty unanimous in their meaning – we want another album like Daydream Nation. Sure, we music fan types tend to flit around the subject for fear of coming off as nostalgists or being against a band’s artistic growth. But let’s be frank here… Sonic Youth has had at least 15 years of moving away from that style in an attempt at growth, and they’ve kind of blown it. So starting with Murray Street, SY fans were all so taken with the idea of the band backing off on the soundscapes and making with the “Teenage Riot”s that they took any bit of propulsion as a good sign. This kept up through Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped, but in each instance, the performances were too relaxed, the guitars too clean, the vocals melodies harnessed too tightly to the riffs.
On The Eternal, they’re finally loosening up a bit and letting some of those dynamics back into their music. Compared to Sister or Daydream Nation, it’s still pretty tightly wound stuff, but there are moments that conjure 1992 SY on their most muscular rock album, Dirty. “Anti-Orgasm” is a relation to those earlier Kim Gordon-led attack-and-release moments “Drunken Butterfly” and “Swimsuit Issue,” and “Sacred Trickster,” “Thunderclap (for Bobby Pyn),” and “What We Know” fit pretty comfortably next to “Kool Thing” and “Mary-Christ” from Goo.
But all of this comes at a cost. Sonic Youth’s respectable, but inscrutable, forays into experimentation over the last decade and a half may not have been the best listening, but the drawback to falling back on their former sound is that they now sound a little too comfortable. Maybe I expect too much from them, but after a run like Sister, Daydream Nation, Goo, and Dirty, it’s hard not to.
Regina Spektor – Far
Regina Spektor walks the line between charmingly forthright in her idiosyncracies and overly precious. On her breakthrough album, Begin to Hope, this manifested in a song-to-song schizophrenia, with the goofs that missed the mark due to a poorly-conceived lyric or ill-considered musical choice (“Hotel Song” and “That Time”) fighting for space with no-less-distinctive successes like “Samson” and “Better.”
Spektor’s still walking that line on Far, but she’s developed Flying Wallenda-level skills on this particular high wire act. Even the strangest choices (the peak being the dolphin – or are they really seal? – barks on “Folding Chair”) serve the greater whole, and all of those quirks that may have, on first listen, seemed distancing are now turning out to be central to her expression. After all, what’s more appropriate for a melancholy tune about forgetfulness than a nonsensical chorus that unsuccessfully tries to recapture the words to a song (“Eet”)? And sometimes you can say all you need to know about someone is what they do with a lost wallet (“The Wallet”). Spektor’s always had an unusual sense of what makes for a good song subject, but she seems to have turned a corner when it comes to making all of those subjects equally riveting.
Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
Bruce Springsteen has an unlimited number of Get Out of Jail Free cards. Don’t try to argue with me on this, because I’ve got Born to Run; Nebraska; the Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle; Greetings…; and Darkness on the Edge of Town backing me up, and you’ve basically got a couple of mid-life crisis albums and a bummer of an Iraq War album (that was soon invalidated by a more-subversive-than-it’s-given-credit-for collection of trad folk songs). But, as with most of Springsteen’s output this decade (again – Devils and Dust aside), Bruce doesn’t need to lay that card down here… much.
Though Working on a Dream is uneven and its best tracks probably just above average (a slight surprise after the magnificent Magic), it only fumbles dramatically on its opener, “Outlaw Pete,” a long, unwieldy bore with none of the sparkle of his 70s forays into epic songwriting. Most of the rest is Bruce on autopilot, and that’s not so bad – “Kingdom of Days,” “Surprise, Surprise,” “What Love Can Do,” and “My Lucky Day” are appealing rockers, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is cute, and even the much-maligned “Queen of the Supermarket” manages to convey a silly, over-romanticized interest in a checkout clerk without getting into condescending or stalker-y territory (IMO, sidestepping the sentiment that plagues My Morning Jacket’s “Librarian”). Not counting “The Wrestler” (appended here as a bonus track) Springsteen really only brings his A game on “The Last Carnival,” a sequel to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” and a fitting tribute to late bandmate Danny Frederici.
While it’s disappointing that Working on a Dream doesn’t quite live up to the standard set on Magic, it’ll do.
St. Vincent – Actor
Judging by her bizarrely straightforward head shot album covers and unassuming stage demeanor, Annie Clark aka St. Vincent might come off as something less than one of the best, most original, most encouragingly and delightfully fucked up songwriters out there. Don’t be fooled, for she is absolutely all of these things, and if it wasn’t clear on her debut, Marry Me, it definitely is on Actor.
Actor is like Marry Me on steroids, an expansion on the pretty/ugly extremes of that album. Clark apparently listened to a lot of Disney movie music as inspiration for the foundations of these songs, and it shows. There’s usually a strong melody underlying the songs, wispy string arrangements come in and out, and Clark’s voice has a soft innocence to it when she sings in her upper register. But the key is in how Clark plays with these foundations – generally speaking, they’re lullabies gone haywire. The rhythms go jagged, the arrangements get stuffed, the lyrics turn skewed, and the guitars turn gnarly. Of these, the last might be the most impressive – Clark tends to downplay her technical ability and knack for generating skronky sounds from her pedals by thoroughly integrating them with other instruments into a harder-to-identify wall-of-sound, but they noisily inform most of the album’s best songs (“Marrow,” “The Strangers,” “Actor Out of Work”).
If Actor has any drawback, it’s that it’s front-loaded with the loudest and most dynamic songs. It fades out in a four-song (five, if you count the bonus track, “Bicycle”) slow and quiet haze that just doesn’t match up in intensity if it does in quality (oddly, the same was true when I saw her live last year). One of the best of 2009, nonetheless, so you get three videos (two of “Marrow,” because the proper video is so delightfully weird, but the live version is more informative).
The Swell Season – Strict Joy
Hey, do you love the Once soundtrack? I friggin’ love the Once soundtrack. Well, this is a follow-up of sorts, although it seems that the Hansard/Irglova partnership has now expanded somewhat more officially to include Hansard’s friends from his other, longstanding band, The Frames. So it kind of sounds like a down-tempo version of the Frames with a little more piano and Irglova’s vocals added to the mix, plus a sprinkling of Van Morrison soul. It’s perfectly nice background music, but it probably won’t stick with you.