Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 12 (Modest Mouse – National, The)

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Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Oh, the hand-wringing! Isaac Brock and his shipmates have cleaned up their sound and produced an easily-digestible pop product with radio-friendly hooks, and the moans of the cred-obsessed can be heard from shore to shore as the album title proves devastatingly prophetic in some metaphoric, overstated sense. Here’s the secret, though… Modest Mouse is good at pop.

Sure, there are some who dismissed Good News for People Who Love Bad News on the basis of “Float On,” but it was that song and the other, most traditionally pop songs on that album (including “Ocean Breathes Salty,” probably their best work, compositionally and lyrically, to date) that gave it the framework missing from The Moon and Antarctica. Profess your love for “Satin in a Coffin” and “Bukowski” all you want. They’re terrific and are an important element in the overall sound of Good News. But Good News is, at heart, an excellent pop album with some detours into Tom Waits-style out-there-ness, not an eclectic cabaret album with a couple “sellout” pop songs. With that in mind, it’s not that hard to see why the band might decide to further trim its excess and focus energy on its skewed pop leanings. We Were Dead is mostly smooth edges and big production, with Brock’s shaggy, screamy vocals the most apparent carry-over from their early work. Still, the new coat of paint is chipping in strategic spots, like on the percussion, violin and chanted outro of “Parting of the Sensory” – it sounds like an organic move to the traditional, not a concession to radio. But this new cleanliness shifts the focus to Brock’s songwriting, which sometimes pays off big-time. “Missed the Boat” is probably too straightforward to have had a place on previous MM albums, but here it shines, with the help of a guest vocal from the Shins’ James Mercer. “Little Motel” may have been roughened up to make it fit on an older MM album, but here it sounds expansive and pretty, as it should be. The new sound also arguably makes room for Johnny Marr, whose familiar-sounding guitar needs this kind of space to make an impression.

And it all works up to a point. Unfortunately, 14 tracks of skewed pop proves to be too much. It turns out we need those “Satin in a Coffin”s to break up the “Float On”s (and there are a few “Float On” copies on here, chief among them “Education,” and a few that borrow from Good News‘ “The View,” most obviously “Florida” and “We’ve Got Everything,” – fine songs, but we’ve basically heard them before). It’s hard to say what might have worked better. If the band had paired half of these songs with another bunch that hewed closer to the old MM style, the pacing might have been improved, but it would have been Good News Part II. Instead, we got a less characteristic, perfectly good album that misses classic status by including a bit too much material informed by the good stuff from the previous release. I guess that’s not such a bad deal.

Thurston Moore – Trees Outside the Academy

After about a decade of halfway-writing the band off, I’ve tried to get back into Sonic Youth with the last three releases, and mostly failed. They may have gotten back to writing rock-oriented songs, but this new bunch seems oddly undynamic to me, as if their jaw-dropping Sister – Dirty output was some sort of lucky anomaly. It’s as if the band shifted its focus so entirely to keeping its compositional shit together that feel was purged in the interest of some unorthodox conception of “song construction.” The vocal melodies hew too closely to the chord changes and guitar leads, there isn’t all that much tension built, and when there is, the band withholds the expected release. On Moore’s solo album, he seems somewhat more conscious of the highs and lows, relying mostly on acoustic guitar to get his points across, but occasionally allowing the noise to take over (either on guitar or via Samara Lubelski’s violin). These songs may be the prettiest Moore’s ever written, too, so it’s even more invigorating to hear Moore occasionally inject them with the noise associated with old-school Sonic Youth. It’s not enough to get me back on the SY bandwagon (much to my displeasure, since they’re a band I want to like, if only on the basis of that spectacular late 80s, early 90s run), but it’s promising.

Nina Nastasia and Jim White – You Follow Me

Being entirely unfamiliar with Nina Nastasia’s output up to this point, I can’t speak to how the presence of Dirty Three drummer Jim White informs the sound of You Follow Me, but I would guess a fair amount. This is not to downplay the contributions of Nastasia, who, as vocalist and guitarist (and presumably lyricist and chief songwriter, in terms of melody) is largely driving the ship here. But the fluid interplay between guitar, voice, and drums is the truly remarkable thing about the album. Tempos shift, Nastasia’s vocals go from sing-song pretty to authoritative and passionate, and White masterfully fluctuates between a jazzy lightness and a straightforward thump, further emphasized by Steve Albini’s characteristically spare production that makes you feel like you’re about five feet away from an un-mic’ed drumkit. I’m pretty sure there are no overdubs, which is a testament to just how good two skilled musicians can sound when equipped only with acoustic guitar and drums.

The subtlety and swing that Nastasia and White achieve on You Follow Me is practically enough to recommend it, but the songs also have an unusual ominous backwoods folk style, entrenched in a rural Americana that probably never really existed (sort of like PJ Harvey’s feminist Englishwoman take on American blues or Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America take on Dylan – or to use a more recent example, it reminds me a little of Will Oldham’s Superwolf project). Nastasia is a Californian by birth, but there’s some southern gothic stuff happening here by implication if not by direct reference.

It may take a couple listens for You Follow Me to really make an impression, but it’s well worth the patience.

The National – Boxer

Speaking of sleeper albums, there’s no release this year that’s attracted so many “you need to listen to this a lot before you love it” reviews as Boxer. For the record, I liked it right off the bat, but I have to admit that my original reaction was one of slight disappointment.

It took me until 2006 to catch on to 2005’s Alligator, but it turned into one of my favorites of that year after the fact, possibly one of my favorites of the decade. Alligator is one of those rare albums on which everything is perfectly aligned. The lyrics are thoughtful and poetic, but understated. The guitars parts intertwine perfectly, the strings and keys are applied only enough to flesh out the melancholy without evoking sap, and, perhaps unnoticed by many, the drumbeats are actual parts – they change strategically with the flow of the music, but never call attention to themselves.

Now, you can say all of this about Boxer, as well, but Alligator has the advantage in terms of accessibility because it occasionally eschews subtlety entirely and throws pitch-perfect riffs at you (“Mr. November,” “Abel,” and “Lit Up” are the true rockers, but even “All the Wine” sounds like The Stooges compared to most of Boxer). In fact, this dictated expectations for Boxer. The National’s trajectory up to that point showed a band that started slow and subtle, but gradually began incorporating abrasive rock into the mix. The follow-up to Alligator promised to be an even more expansive, more all-over-the-place blockbuster. Instead, they dialed it down.

Even at its most direct, like on the Joy Division-like first single, “Mistaken for Strangers,” the narrators of Boxer are more likely to go out for rails than go off the rails. There’s no screaming, but a lot of resignation; however, what Boxer lacks in obvious passion, it more than makes up for in its adult complexity, from the self-enforced isolation of “Apartment Story” to the romanticism-in-the-face-of-complications of “Fake Empire.” Matt Berninger’s lyrics once again find the balance between specificity and impressionism – the “silvery, silvery Citibank lights” in “Mistaken for Strangers” pins the imagery down to an exact image, but the “uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults” central to the song is abstracted. Berninger’s also become a pro at making long and syllable-heavy lines like “Do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave?” casually hover over the music.

So, in short, I wanted a big rock album from the National, but what I got is, in many ways, far more impressive*. It’s a slow-churning, clearly heartfelt beauty that shows a band unwilling to go the obvious career route. I still give the edge to Alligator, but this is one of the best albums of the year, nonetheless.

* Okay, one slight problem with Boxer or, rather, the songs from Boxer performed live. Because these songs are so downbeat, the band seems inclined to make the endings swell live to lend them the illusion of rocking. It doesn’t work so well. When I saw them a few months back, I kind of wished they’d just dug up more up-tempo tracks from Alligator or Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers rather than try to amp up the end of every Boxer song for the sake of dynamics. It got a little predictable.

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Written by Dave

December 26, 2007 at 3:30 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Okay, just stopping in to say that Nina Nastasia album is fantastic. I get this intensely satisfying, Ani DiFranco-esque vibe off of her. We must dig deeper, indeed…

    Raina

    December 26, 2007 at 4:09 pm

  2. I’m more a fan of the production of The Boxer than the songwriting. Yes, the lyrics are wonderful, but apart from Fake Empires, there aren’t any songs that really grab me.

    But I’m taking into account that most albums take a while to grow on me, let alone this one that a lot of people have called a grower, so we’ll see. The murky production and Matt Berninger’s great voice really add an affecting quality to the lyrics that make it worth repeat trips. I just I wish I didn’t always start to nod off somewhere around “Start a War”

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 27, 2007 at 2:48 am

  3. FYI, it’s just “Boxer,” no “The” (to further distinguish it from the Simon and Garfunkel song, presumably, because the line “Can I get a minute of not being nervous and not thinking of my dick” doesn’t make it clear enough).

    You should give Alligator a try. I’m not sure if I would have given Boxer the time it needed to properly sink in if I hadn’t been waiting for it to make good on the promise of Alligator.

    Dave

    December 27, 2007 at 11:21 am


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