Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 1 (Adams, Ryan – Arcade Fire)

with 7 comments

For the past couple years, I’ve made it a December(-ish) tradition to re-visit every newly released album I’ve acquired (bought, downloaded, copied) since the beginning of the year. I listen to them in alphabetical order, and I write a mini-review of each one. To make it interesting, I don’t skip the albums I hated on first listen or even those that I expect I’ll continue to hate for years to come. Such is my dedication to the project. I’m already a few days behind with the write-ups, so in the interest of kicking this thing off, let’s… um… kick this thing off.

Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger

I’m very happy to report that this year’s marathon started well. I can’t claim to have been a Ryan Adams fan since the Whiskeytown days, but I’ve been following him since his first (and best) solo album, Heartbreaker. After Heartbreaker, its impressively expansive follow-up, Gold, and Whiskeytown’s stellar, posthumously-released final album, Pneumonia, Adams managed to release approximately 2,173 discs, never bothering to take inventory of his strengths and just be consistent, damn it. It’s as if the freedom that must have informed those first glorious solo releases just went unchecked, leading to bad 80s pop (Rock’n’Roll), lots of Grateful Dead-ly dullness (Cold Roses), and some occasional frustratingly almost-great moments (the Love is Hell EPs, Jacksonville City Nights).

Anyway, that’s a hell of a lead-up, but it’s the context that makes Easy Tiger such a marvel. It’s the Ryan Adams of Gold, who knew that genre-hopping was perfectly fine, as long as the material is good, and this material is great. Even when he dips into the well that informed Cold Roses, like on “Goodnight, Rose,” it doesn’t sound like he’s emulating the Dead. The silly lyrics and call-out of “guitar solo” on “Halloweenhead” sound like Adams is in on the guitar heroic jokes, unlike on Rock’n’Roll. And the country influences, as much classic country as Gram Parsons-influenced alt-country, have never sounded as heartfelt and unfiltered in his ouevre. Easy Tiger is most shocking in its consistent goodness. Let’s hope he can keep it up.

Against Me! – New Wave

I was only vaguely familiar with Against Me! before this year. Generic, punky name, un-punky adherence to acoustic guitars. I was intrigued by the notion that this was their “sellout” disc, which can mean, for some bands, a watering down, but can mean, for others, a more mature grasp of songwriting and the conscious desire to find a new audience. Having not heard much of their old work, I’m at a loss for how different this might sound. It’s pretty catchy, well-constructed pop-punk. Having expected something closer to Fall-Out Boy or something, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of twiddly guitars and screamy vocals. Instead, vocalist Tom Gabel bears more of a sonic resemblance to Dexter Holland of the Offspring (credit where credit’s due – Raina caught this first). He doesn’t quite scream, but sing-shouts in a vaguely melodic, but a little-too-unvaried bark. Specifically because of this, the clear high point is “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” an anthemic (well, this album seldom gets out of anthemic mode, actually) duet with Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara. Her contribution smooths out Gabel’s rough and unvaried delivery, and, unfortunately, makes the rest of the album sound a little too weighed down by that delivery.

Akron/Family – Love is Simple

Most impressive about this band is that they’ve been embraced by the indie crowd. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way necessarily, because what they do should probably have an audience. It’s just that that audience was into Rusted Root, Widespread Panic, and Phish back in the day (or the Dead, I guess, to bring them up yet again). In fact, I was kind of exhausted by the end of Love is Simple. To be honest, I didn’t let the lyrics sink in (I’m guessing that a song titled “Ed is a Portal” probably isn’t going to yield too many sharp insights), but the music has an unfettered joy to it that I interpret as either ironic or medicated. Not my thing.

See how quirky we are???Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

Okay, that unfettered joy thing I mentioned above? Same here, but moreso. I know these guys have bulletproof indie rock cred, and I’m honestly not being iconoclastic here to prove some kind of point, but I don’t get the Animal Collective “thing.” These guys are obviously clever and can put together some seriously thick and impressive sound collages (I’ll get to Panda Bear’s solo album later). But the screams, the bad falsettos, the bubbly noises, the pounding eighth notes that characterize so many songs on Strawberry Jam. The whole thing seems designed to annoy (and check out the picture above – how annoying is that???). Meticulously designed, in fact, which I suppose puts it over similarly confrontational, but more improvised works like Metal Machine Music. But I wouldn’t really want to listen to either for enjoyment.

The Apples in Stereo – New Magnetic Wonder

A perfect example of the downfalls of the album in the post-vinyl, post-cassette era, New Magnetic Wonder is a 24-track behemoth of nice, modest pop songs with fine melodies, simplistic lyrics that just avoid being dumb, and memorable choruses. But the length kills it. The good songs are followed by weaker songs or short, throwaway atmospheric pieces that don’t work for this type of pop album. All of the peaks are eventually leveled out, as the truly catchy stuff is revealed to be not all that different from throwaways. There’s no reason for non-concept albums to be this long (and even that’s not necessary – their fellow Elephant Six band, Of Montreal, pulled off the concept album of the year in half the tracks), unless they’re called London Calling.

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Not to sell Neon Bible short, but Arcade Fire is a band that’s best experienced live. As with Funeral, I enjoyed Neon Bible when I first got it, but I don’t think I really understood it until I saw the songs performed onstage. That said, it’s still one of the year’s best. For a band that made its name on its large lineup and straightforward lyrics, there was a surprising amount of subtlety once you got past the bluster on Funeral. This subtlety is even more apparent on Neon Bible, even as the lyrics become more direct. It’s in the arrangement of the backing vocals; the way that piano, xylophone and percussion parts creep in and out of various songs, the strings that casually drift over the whole thing. As far as the lyrics go, I’ve heard some criticism of this new U2-like tendency toward the grand emotional statement – I’ve got no problem with it. The disconnect with music of this size would be too great for a Stephen Malkmus or an Elvis Costello. This requires a Bonoist’s sense of proportion, whether the actual muse being invoked is David Byrne or Bruce Springsteen. By the way, did anyone else see this Springsteen turn coming after Funeral? I certainly didn’t, and I’m anxious to see where exactly a band can go after they’ve paid homage to Byrne, Bowie, and Springsteen, and, amazingly, they’ve all paid it back.

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Written by Dave

November 26, 2007 at 10:09 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Well, I’ll take your hint from the CHUD boards and step in as the first commenter. I’m sure there will be more to follow. Oh, I’m The LD

    A few quick thoughts:

    Easy Tiger was a good album and a step forward for Adams as an artist. At the same time, it doesn’t do nearly as much for me as Jacksonville City Nights, but I think that’s just a matter of genre preference. I did get the chance to see him live this fall, and I was stunned that his voice is as good in person as it is on an album. It’s always come across as fairly delicate on his albums, and I assumed that he benefited from some some Logic Studio magic.

    Animal Collective…whatever. I still love “Grass” off of “Feels” (I think). I just wanted to agree that the guy in the bunny suit is the most annoying thing I’ve ever seen. Also, there is a pretty interesting interview with Panda Bear in last month’s issue of The Believer that gives some interesting insights into his creative process.

    You nailed Apples in Stereo. I have it on my computer here at work, and I just can’t be bothered to listen to it. I know some of it is good, but it’s too much of a slog to find it, so I can’t be bothered.

    As for The Arcade Fire, I’ve discussed it ad nauseum on CHUD. I think I need to see them live before I try an rethink the album.

    Thanks for starting the blog, I always need good reading at work.

    Lyndon

    November 29, 2007 at 9:56 am

  2. Jeff/Parker here,

    I think you nailed most of these albums with the exception of The Besnard Lakes (as I bitched further on the CHUD forum). It’s interesting that you compare lyrics on Neon Bible with U2 and Bono. I agree with you to a certain extent, but I just read a great reevaluation review of The Joshua Tree at Slant and they go into great detail about how absolutely stupid some of the lyrics are. To quote their review, which begins by explaining how the trips to South and North America were inpiration for the Joshua Tree, “Beautiful sights will bring out the cornball in most anyone, and Bono’s earnestness is perfectly supported by Eno’s extraordinary production work; rarely has a work of art been so majestic and yet so stupid.”

    Arcade Fire aren’t quite in the stupid boat yet, but some of the lyrics on My Body is a Cage and Black Mirror hinge on forehead-slapping bad while I thought the lyrics on Funeral were riskier and more poetic, even on anthems like Wake Up. In both cases, what makes them work is the conviction of the singer and the band, which is why your thought about seeing Arcade Fire live is so dead on. They’re pretty much the ultimate live band because they play every performance of every song as if it could be their last, occasional dumb lyric and all. And even though they maybe stumble on their lines, you can’t fault them for their emotional earnestness or ideas.

    Looking forward to more, Dave! Sorry to ramble.

    Jeff

    November 29, 2007 at 4:22 pm

  3. I remember having to defend Funeral against accusations of poor lyric writing when it came out (especially the really simple rhyme stuff on “Wake Up”), so I don’t think it’s anything new that their lyrics don’t scan so well on paper. It’s absolutely Butler’s conviction that puts them across, just as it was always Bono’s conviction that put across many of U2’s lyrics ( Joshua Tree just may be his lyrical peak, and a lot of those words still get by strictly due to delivery – but what delivery it is!).

    As for the U2 comparisons, I was riffing off of Kevin Drew’s comments in a Pitchfork interview from earlier this week. He didn’t directly cite the Arcade Fire, but he and the interviewer were bemoaning the “U2-ness” of a lot of current bands, which I took to be an indictment of big, earnest (maybe even a little dumb) songwriting. Aside from maybe the Killers (who do it poorly), the only band that really came to mind was the Arcade Fire. Considering Drew’s album from this year, which fails on a lot of levels IMO and is, at times, just as anthemic in all-but-lyrics as the bands he’s slamming, it kind of bugged me.

    Dave

    November 30, 2007 at 8:47 am

  4. Here’s hoping the birds aren’t too fascinated by their reflections to continue the year in review.

    I just had to chime in on mention of Kevin Drew and mention that “Gang Bang Suicide” is one of my least favorite songs of the year. I don’t know how that slipped through onto an album, but it certainly removes his ability to criticize other albums for their lyrical content.

    Lyndon

    December 4, 2007 at 12:47 pm

  5. Peacebone is a great song. The rest of Strawberry Jam is a great big waste of time.

    Neon Bible: Better than Funeral. There, I said it. Maybe my love of Springsteen is clouding my judgement (likely) or maybe my judgement just isn’t that good to begin with (more likely) but I listen to Neon Bible more than I listen to Funeral.

    Speaking of Funeral, make a playlist where Haiti is followed by Power Out. The transition between the two is fantastic (they’re the same tempo!).

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 16, 2007 at 10:53 am

  6. […] Trapper, Music, Music Marathon 2008, Ryan Adams |   So for those of you unfamiliar with this annual project of mine, here’s the deal: I will listen to every 2008-released album that I own in alphabetical order (by […]

  7. […] celebratory vocals; and that constant wash of echo over everything made it a challenge, and, when Strawberry Jam upped the ante on some of their least appealing elements in 2007, I was puzzled ….  Yet that same year, AC’s Panda Bear released Person Pitch, an album that took all of the […]


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