Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 10 (Lambert, Miranda – Lekman, Jens)

with 11 comments

Almost caught up…

Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I’m kind of fascinated by tokenism. Every music listener engages in it, because it’s simply impossible to listen to every kind of music. Instead, we cherry-pick what we hear is the best in those genres with which we’re unfamiliar. This topic has come up before in the hip-hop entries and it would probably come up more if there were any straight-up jazz or classical releases on this list, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever written about a legitimately popular, mainstream country album. The thing is I’m not the only indie-minded guy writing about it. Stylus had extremely kind words for it on its October farewell/year-end list. Since then, I’ve seen kind words about it from other indie-minded sites and magazines (Pitchfork! “Gunpowder & Lead!” Ninetieth best track of the year!). But I’m conflicted. I don’t know much about this genre, and I typically don’t like what I hear from it. Is Lambert the best they’ve got to offer, or is the indie-listening public (I incriminate myself here, incidentally) ready to swallow whatever we’re told to give off the impression of being egalitarian?

On its own terms, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is catchy, Lambert has a nice, fluid voice, and fun turns-of-phrase abound (though her phrasing goes a long way in selling lines like “She looked at my man like he didn’t have on a stitch; Somebody tell that girl to step up to the plate – I wanna pitch”). It doesn’t hurt that she has good taste in collaborators and material (Gillian Welch/David Rawling’s “Dry Town” is a high point, Patty Griffin’s “Getting Ready” suffers only by comparison with Griffin’s own version, also released this year). Thankfully, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seems rooted in mainstream country mostly by virtue of crisp production and an obvious predilection for songs about being a sassy, badass country gal (to her credit, she does this with more aplomb than Gretchen Wilson and the other sassy, badass country gals with whom I admittedly have less than a passing acquaintance). To sum up, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sounds pretty good to me, especially “Dry Town” and “Gunpowder & Lead,” but I have no idea what this means. Is it a good enough album within its genre that it works for non-fans? Is it an album that purposefully moves outside the parameters of the genre to attract a broader fanbase? Or is it totally representative of its genre, but it just so happens that we Decemberist-lovin,’ Pitchfork-readin,’ clunky glasses-wearin’ (figuratively – I wear contacts) indie types are engaging in a little random tokenism? I’ve got no idea.

Lavender Diamond – Imagine Our Love

Oh, come on. Does anyone really need this? Never has whimsy sounded so fucking boring.

Bettye Lavette – The Scene of the Crime

My expectations got in the way on this a little, which is probably a little odd, considering I’d never even heard of Bettye Lavette before. However, someone had the good sense to hook the 61-year-old Lavette up with the Drive-By Truckers and, in my Lavette-ignorant book, that ups the stakes. Lavette’s history as a young, promising soul singer whose career was cut short due to a shelved album in the early 70s, then revived in the 90s is undeniably compelling and an illustration of how this sort of thing could profoundly affect artistic careers in the pre-net world (now, you just release the damn thing online, your fans start a writing campaign, you wait until Paul Thomas Anderson writes a movie around it, or, if you’re Wilco, you just wait until a different label of the same parent corporation signs you). But a great story doesn’t always translate into a great album [though it does translate into a pretty good song, Patterson Hood’s sole contribution to the album, “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)”]. Lavette’s voice, a Tina Turner-esque husky rasp, sounds a little shot. The songs are fine, but not all that remarkable, and the backing tracks are unobtrusive (suitably so, I guess you could argue) and lacking DBT’s usual fire. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t make me buy the “forgotten legend” mythology (a mythology Lavette, herself, seems to buy into, judging from the interviews I’ve read – okay, my opinion’s been a little tainted there).

LCD Soundsystem – The Sound of Silver

Really? This is the album that everyone’s so impressed with? What strikes me isn’t that it’s terrible, because it’s certainly not, but that it’s just kind of okay. I’m used to not getting near-universally-praised albums, but, more often than not, they’re actually off-putting, like Deerhunter and Animal Collective. But this isn’t really off-putting at all. The Sound of Silver never even comes close to grating, but it doesn’t exactly soar, either. At its best, it shows what James Murphy is listening to. “Someone Great” is fine, but does it do anything that the Human League didn’t do? I kind of like “Time to Get Away,” but is he really saying anything new with it, or is he just having fun doing his charmingly off-key Prince impression over a Talking Heads style rhythm track? I’ll probably listen to The Sound of Silver some more, but I don’t get the huge buzz.

Jens Lekman – Night Falls on Kortedala

Now, the buzz on this one makes perfect sense to me. On his prior releases, Lekman proved himself an endearing personality, gifted tunesmith, and brilliant pasticheur (not in the “derivative” sense, either – his deceptively home-grown pop songs are cleverly and seamlessly constructed from samples). Night Falls on Kortedala is his finest achievement thus far, though, marrying the superior songcraft he sporadically displayed on the EPs and singles collection, You’re So Silent, Jens to the more cohesive, consistent feel of When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog.

Lekman is an old-school, embarrassingly heart-on-sleeve romantic (a lot like Jonathan Richman with a budget), who’s not afraid to go on at length about his first kiss (“And I Remember Every Kiss” and “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar”) or devote the album’s most direct and funniest love song not to the object of his affection, but to a lesbian friend for whom he serves as a beard (“Postcard to Nina”). Genre-hopping (from gentle, 60s soul to light funk and disco to ornate folk pop to 50s rock’n’roll) comes as naturally to Lekman as it does to Stephen Merritt, an artist to whom he’s often compared, but there’s something more unified about Lekman’s work. It’s as if his very playfulness hovers over the proceedings, speeding up the tempos on a whim (seriously – who the heck does this in pop music, much less in pop music driven by samples?), cuing the strings and horns, and somehow managing to keep the ego of an artist who writes such frankly autobiographical songs so thoroughly in check. It’s the friendliest album of the year, and it’s not even a bit cloying for it.

Okay! Finally caught up. Ted Leo’s up next.

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Written by Dave

December 18, 2007 at 4:29 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Nothing more to say re: Lekman.

    I think I can add in on Lambert, though. My guilty secret is the fact that I listen to country radio every morning in the shower. Having heard only what Lambert has released to radio as singles, I have to say that she doesn’t really stand out from the current crop of pop-country artists that I hear every morning, and I mean that as a compliment to the genre.

    While most music on the radio seems to get increasingly worse (MORE navelgazing, MORE overt sexless sexuality, MORE aimless anger, NICKELBACK, etc.) country has actually improved. A list of some reasons why:
    1) The production is usually fantastic.
    2) The songs cover a broader range of emotions than other genres. This is its biggest strength, simply because I find it refreshing to hear songs about being happy, songs about a family that aren’t about abuse, songs about love that aren’t overwrought ballads, etc.
    3) It’s barely recognizable as country anymore. Sure, you’ll hear more about pickup trucks and farms and the like than you will in any other genre, but the influences you’ll hear in most songs have as much to do with Merle Haggard as they do with standard pop production. I think this works to its credit…old country had succumbed to the “my ol’ lady ran over my dawg!” jokes. Though that breed of music may have led to some legends (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and their ilk) it also made the music something of a joke. I don’t think that would be a fair classification anymore.
    4) Country seems to focus more on lyrics than other pop genres. Maybe simply because there’s no Timbaland or thrasing guitars to compensate. Of course, when a song with terrible lyrics makes it, you notice all the more. Also, I generally like story-based songs, and country has plenty of them. It’s almost like getting The Decemberists without the amazing vocabulary.

    I don’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. It can be cringe-inducingly jingoistic, its tropes are really obvious, and you get the feeling that a lot of artists know this and use it to exploit the genre (and produce awful music that I have to listen to every other morning).

    In summary: I don’t want to watch The Fountain every night, and I don’t want to listen to Destroyer every day. Sometimes I want to watch Crank, and sometimes I want to listen to country. I would absolutely defend it for those purposes.

    Lyndon

    December 18, 2007 at 4:54 pm

  2. Wasn’t LCD’s “All My Friends” Pitchfork’s #1 song? Strange.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 18, 2007 at 7:13 pm

  3. It’s definitely in your best interest to check out Bettye’s last album “I’ve got my own hell to raise” it is incredible. The only major downside is that it’s all covers. Here’s the tracklist:

    1. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Sinead O’Connor) Listen Listen
    2. Joy (Lucinda Williams) Listen Listen
    3. Down To Zero (Joan Armatrading) Listen Listen
    4. The High Road (Sharon Robinson) Listen Listen
    5. On The Surface (Rosanne Cash) Listen Listen
    6. Just Say So (Cathy Majeski/John Scott Sherrill) Listen Listen
    7. Little Sparrow (Dolly Parton) Listen Listen
    8. How Am I Different (Aimee Mann) Listen Listen
    9. Only Time Will Tell Me (Toni Brown) Listen Listen
    10. Sleep To Dream (Fiona Apple)

    bradknapp.com

    December 18, 2007 at 8:02 pm

  4. oops, I should have seen those “listen listen” things from the amazon page I copied the text from. Too bad your blog doesn’t have a link widget, does it accept straight html if I embed it in a comment?

    bradknapp.com

    December 18, 2007 at 8:03 pm

  5. Same here about LCD Soundsystem. I heard so much about this album, and I find listening to it is only enjoyable when it’s total background music. And “All My Friends” disappointed the holy hell out of me, what a letdown. I wouldn’t even consider it the best on the album, though on first thought I couldn’t name a better one…so yeah. Call me a naysayer.

    Euge (soul)

    December 18, 2007 at 8:45 pm

  6. Hey, Brad –

    Now you’ve got me curious about it. I’m guessing this won’t work. We’re still finding our way around WordPress. It’s easy to use, but a flexible, robust HTML editor it’s not, even for blog posts.

    That’s a pretty excellent track list from Lavette’s last album. Isn’t the new one all covers, too (with the exception fo the Hood/Lavette song)? They’re just lesser-known covers.

    Dave

    December 19, 2007 at 8:17 am

  7. Hey, it worked! Okay, so we’re one up on a number of the blogs I read. I take back what I said about WordPress, though you’re right – widgets would be nice.

    Dave

    December 19, 2007 at 8:21 am

  8. WRT LCD Soundsystem, I’m just blown away by how not blown away I am. I almost find it more fulfilling when these adored albums turn out to be thoroughly off-putting, so I can at least acknowledge that there’s something extreme going on that I just can’t get into. In this case, it’s not the emperor’s not wearing any clothes; it’s that he’s just wearing a comfortable pair of jeans and a t-shirt (probably ironic). He looks fine, but I don’t get what people see in him.

    Thanks for the country music insight, Lyndon. I’ve always considered it a detriment that commercial country music doesn’t sound like old school country, but I suppose there were plenty of old-timers who weren’t Cash, Nelson, Williams, etc. and perfectly content to make “ol’ lady ran over my dawg” songs. The strain of country that runs through the Byrds/Parsons to Uncle Tupelo/Whiskeytown/Old 97s/etc. (which sounds more “authentic” than the countrified pop music I’ve heard on commercial country radio) tends to emphasize the GOOD stuff, so I blank out on the dumb stuff.

    Dave

    December 19, 2007 at 8:33 am

  9. I’d kill for another good Old 97’s album. “Salome” still shows up on a ridiculously high percentage of the mix cds that I make for friends.

    Lyndon

    December 19, 2007 at 9:45 am

  10. Re: Miranda Lambert
    I like her album, but it goes pretty far into pop country territory, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Unlike Lyndon, as far as I’m concerned the success of Kenny Rogers launched a hegemonic, lowest common denominator (or LCD, make of that what you will) assault that nearly wiped out “real” country.

    I came to country by way of traditional R&B, starting as a wee strip of a lad with Led Zepp, Clapton, “Sticky Fingers” and the Allman Brothers Band and gradually reverse-engineering my taste through James Brown and Ledbelly and John Lee Hooker to Buddy Guy and Motown, then working back through traditional country sounds. So Johnny Cash, Hank the elder, Merle, Faron Young, Buck Owens, and Patsy Cline are more my cup o’ country tea.

    I like Lambert’s album for many of the reasons Dave noted, and particularly her voice and attitude and the strength of the songs. Compare what she does to the finer works of Shania Twain or Travis Tritt or, god help me, Toby Keith and you can see there is no comparison. She (with more or less influence from producers, I don’t know) seems to get more of what country music is about on a musical and emotional level. She’s not trying to sell beer or pickups, god bless her.

    But where I’ve been able to sell alt-country/Neil Young/blues fans on Dwight Yoakam or Lucinda Williams or even the Dixie Chicks I wouldn’t even bother with Lambert. She’s just too “country” in the modern, negative sense of the word.

    BrianM

    January 29, 2008 at 11:26 pm

  11. Yeah, that’s kind of the impression I get. Being far more of the Neil Young/alt-country set who prefers the old stuff when I listen to country at all, I automatically get nervous when I hear that modern country overpronounced twang and spotless production. And I did get that twitch listening to Lambert’s album, but I got past it, which speaks well of her voice and the songwriting.

    It would be nice to hear her with a rawer sound, but I suspect that success has come to her too easily for her to want to put out a Lucinda Williams/Steve Earle-style stripped-down, gritty album. Although considering how much I really hated Lucinda Williams’ new album (not reviewed here, because I checked it out of the library, thankfully, and didn’t buy a copy), maybe production isn’t always the key.

    Dave

    January 30, 2008 at 8:33 am


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