Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon, Part 8 (Grinderman – I’m Not There OST)

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So much to write about, so little time… until now, that is. As of yesterday, I’m a free man for the rest of the year. I somehow saved up enough vacation time this year that the last of December will be completely work-free. But enough about that… I’m about twelve albums behind.

Grinderman – s/t

From the first three tracks on Grinderman, you might guess that it was exactly what was promised – a tough, angry, stripped-down Nick Cave album we haven’t seen the likes of in a few years. But as the songs pile up, you start to realize that’s only partially correct. It’s certainly stripped down, and the songs have an underwritten, almost-improvised quality that differentiate them a little from the Bad Seeds albums of the last ten years or so. But, despite the band name (which has a nicer ring than Bad Seeds Minus Four, I suppose), they’re generally no more lyrically or musically extreme than parts of 2004’s Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues, and some of the slower songs, like “Chain of Flowers” could have appeared on any recent Bad Seeds album with a little more arrangement. Oddly enough, I think I like even his most direct, rock-oriented songs to be more fleshed out, too, so Grinderman sounds a little thin to my ears. Still, I can’t really deny that they sound pretty darn good as-is and tossed-off enough to justify the small ensemble approach. The songs on Grinderman feel very much like an appetizer to tide us over until the next Seeds album in 2008, but they’re cocktail franks or Swedish meatballs, not a lousy cheese dip, so it’s hard to complain too much. Plus, you’ve gotta love the facial hair decisions.

The Handsome Furs – Plague Park

My reviews tend to be skeptical and reactionary when it comes to certain indie bands du jour, so I’ll get this out of the way — I really liked Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary. It was a fine, skewed pop album with a good number of infectious songs and a couple of singers with warbly voices that both somehow threatened to turn into Isaac Brock parodies at times. But it worked like crazy – it was probably one of the better releases of that year. That said, I think there’s some incredible overpraise being directed toward Spencer Krug (he of Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes, Fifths of Seven… probably a few more that the Krug-obsessed have already canonized on first-listen) and Dan Boeckner (he of The Handsome Furs). As capable as both members are of writing great songs, more often than not, their work comes across as unfocused and spread far too thin. Like Ryan Adams and the Smashing Pumpkins, these guys just don’t know when to stop releasing half-finished, ill-conceived material. Plague Park is no exception. With Boeckner being accompanied only by his wife, Alexei Perry, on keys and drum machine, the songs here sound like a set of demos for the actual Handsome Furs debut album. The spottiness of the songwriting only adds to this feel. When they hit, as on “The Radio’s Hot Sun” and “Cannot Get Started” (one of the few tracks on which the stilted drum machine rhythm adds to the feel), they really hit. But, too often, Plague Park is a slog. I anxiously await the new Wolf Parade album, since I think the two warbly guys bring the best out of each other and, perhaps more importantly, encourage each other to leave their worst for the inevitable rarities collection.

PJ Harvey – White Chalk

I remember when To Bring You My Love was hailed as an amazing transformation, with the formerly fierce, guitar-wielding Harvey taking on the role of red-dressed seductress and balladeer. In retrospect, it seems far less amazing, since Harvey’s so seamlessly integrated all of her musical personalities into albums like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (probably her standout in terms of inclusiveness). But, even when considered from the perspective that it was a major change for Harvey, the jump from Rid of Me to To Bring You My Love seems small compared to the jump from Uh Huh Her to White Chalk. It’s not enough that Harvey’s primary instrument is now piano (an instrument with which she’s admitted to being fairly unfamiliar), but she’s once again revised her musical persona and sings in a high range we’ve never heard before. Both help get across an unnerving feeling of sanity slipping, of poor health, and of imminent death. In fact, while Harvey has largely dropped the musical and lyrical blues references that marked her first few albums, this is the one that most captures the hellhounds on her trail. White Chalk is not only the boldest musical redefining of the year, it’s an album that continues to get better and better (if not less creepy) with each listen.

Hot Hot Heat – Happiness, Ltd.

If not for Make Up the Breakdown, Hot Hot Heat’s first album in its present incarnation, every subsequent release would probably have been greeted with the inexplicable music mag next-big-thing hype that’s greeted so-so pop bands like Arctic Monkeys, Tapes’n’Tapes, etc. Happiness, Ltd. and the band’s previous album, Elevator, are… just fine. They maintain some of the quirk of Make Up the Breakdown, add radio-friendly polish, and, in the case of Happiness, even feature some attempts at a U2-lite epic quality (sort of like the Killers, minus the unintentionally hilarious straight-faced Springsteen posing). But so much is lost in this streamlining. The angular, off-time changes are all but gone, and the guitars have lost their jaggedness. I don’t have a problem with bands embracing their pop instincts — in fact, Modest Mouse became infinitely more interesting on Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But Hot Hot Heat’s move toward a more mainstream sound continues to boggle, since Make Up the Breakdown not only featured their only pseudo-hit in “Bandages,” but managed to sound, at once, radio-friendly and slightly off-kilter. They sacrificed more than they gained by correcting that kilter (what’s a kilter, anyway?). Happiness, Ltd. is pleasant, but fundamentally useless in comparison with the band’s best work.

I’m Not There (Original Soundtrack)

Tribute albums get a bad rap. Sure, the bad outnumber the good by a healthy margin, but when the elements all come together, you get The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young and the Sweet Relief tribute to Victoria Williams (which improves on many of the originals). I’m Not There, the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ idiosyncratic filmic tribute to the mythology of Bob Dylan, is right up there with the best.

The soundtrack to Haynes’ earlier Velvet Goldmine seamlessly combined classic glam rock tracks with modern artists covering songs from the era and marvelously approximating the style — like the movie, it reconstructed the glam scene, keeping the symbology and stories, but shuffling them into something new. At its best, the I’m Not There soundtrack similarly conjures an alternate universe in which Dylan’s songs are not married to a particular style he used, but to the myths surrounding his various personas. The best example of this is in some of the Calexico-backed tracks (“Goin’ to Acapulco” with Jim James, “Dark Eyes” with Iron and Wine, “One More Cup of Coffee” with Roger McGuinn, “Senor” with Willie Nelson). The rustic southwestern flair of each of these songs is brought out as if in an effort to place them in the Richard Gere/Billy section of the film, which basically puts Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America concept onscreen. By having John Doe covering both “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine Last Night” (written long before Dylan’s born-again phase) and “Pressing On” (written during it), Haynes aligns the two eras to emphasize the biblical in Dylan’s work, which manifests in Christian Bale’s Pastor John section of the movie. Doe does a terrifically earnest job at both.

In fact, most of the performers here contribute great performances, from Mason Jennings doing a superb, straightforward job on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to Sufjan Stevens doing a characteristically ornate “Ring Them Bells” to the Hold Steady doing early Springsteen doing Dylan on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová on a spirited “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to Antony and the Johnson’s doing pretty much the exact opposite of what Guns’n’Roses did with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” There are, unfortunately, a few missteps that stick too close to the originals, and many of these are surprisingly contributed by the Million Dollar Bashers, an all-star band featuring Lee Ranaldo, Nels Cline, Smokey Hormel, and Tom Verlaine on guitar with notables like Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus, and Karen O lending their vocals. You’d think a band with this pedigree would be a little more experimental, but it’s really only on the Verlaine-sung “Cold Irons Bound” that the weird shines through. Still, for a two-disc set, I’m Not There is far more good than bad and makes for compulsive listening.


Written by Dave

December 15, 2007 at 11:17 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I’m super interested in Antony and the Johnsons’ take on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, so I’ll probably try to pick this up once my library gets it in (for some reason, they get nearly every film soundtrack released).

    Also, I just finished your mix CD for the exchange last night. I nearly killed myself making it, remaking it, re-arranging, re-re-re-re-re-arranging etc. It wasn’t until I found your blog that I realised that our musical tastes are very different and I shouldn’t worry too much about it that I was finally able to put together a mix that I felt good about.

    I hope you like lo-fi.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 16, 2007 at 10:44 am

  2. Those first two sentences of your PJ Harvey blurb are dead on.

    Euge (soul)

    December 17, 2007 at 11:24 am

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