Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon, Part 20 (Stern, Marnie – Tegan and Sara)

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Marnie Stern – In Advance of the Broken Arm

This year’s marathon has presented few outright challenges for me. It’s been a strong year, and even the stuff that I haven’t liked generally hasn’t been what I’d consider punishing. Okay, A Place to Bury Strangers and Dan Deacon both came kind of close at times, but Marnie Stern’s album is absolutely brutal. It imagines a world in which the hammer-on is a solid foundational idea on which to build a song. Yes, a disproportionate number of tracks on In Advance of the Broken Arm are entirely indebted to the existence of that technique typically restricted to metal guitar solos. So am I saying this is a metal album? Not even close. It’s more like an exercise in which the hammer-on is stripped of all context and looped to create what some might consider “texture” and what most would consider “annoying.” As a bonus, Ms. Stern’s understanding of singing seems at least partially based on what she learned by watching third grade group recitals (EVERYTHING! IS! SHOUTED! AND! THE! NOTES! BARELY! MATTER!). Add to that mix some busy drums, mixed for absolute lack of clarity and thumpiness to fill up that space that really didn’t need filling up, and you’ve got In Advance of the Broken Arm.

Broken Arm disappoints on an entirely other level, as well, due to the fact that rock is so lacking in well-known female guitar virtuosos. Finally there’s one who’s seemingly talented and showy enough to make her guitar-playing a focal point of the music, but she seems intent on making me never want to hear guitars of any sort again.

I don’t like this album.

Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover

Surprisingly, this one I do. I’ve had few positive things to say about Spencer Krug, apart from his great work on Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary. His subsequent work has sounded half-baked to me, as if the songs could have used a little more thought and a little more time. But, after some time, Random Spirit Lover managed to win me over. I still don’t hear the unified work that its champions seem to hear, but I do hear a bunch of very good songs with the occasional forgettable bit mixed in.

One of my problems with Krug’s output has been his tendency to repeat himself, which is probably due to the affected, jerky warble that afflicts all of his songs, be they loud or soft. At his best, he’s able to downplay it just enough to let some nuance float past or to let the music flow where his voice can’t. On “The Courtesan Has Sung,” for instance, the warble’s at full strength on the chanted opening (complete with a round by a doubled Krug and Camilla Wynn Ingr, more vocally prominent here than she was on Shut Up I Am Dreaming), but the song smooths out into a beautiful climax.

I’m still cautious about the Cult of All Things Wolf Parade. There have been some critical declarations made on behalf of every post-Apologies to the Queen Mary release by Krug and Boeckner that are hard to swallow. I suspect that the album-length unity that people are picking up from Random Spirit Lover has a lot more to do with the fact that Krug’s songs happen to sound alike because of his artistic tics than a sustained artistic vision or underlying conceptual goal. But this is a far better album than Shut I Am Dreaming and (sweet Jesus) that Swan Lake album, and makes me think the hardcore Krug fans aren’t completely crazy.

Super Furry Animals – Hey Venus!

I’m a spotty Super Furry Animals fan, only having listened to certain parts of their catalog, so I may be completely wrong about this, but… have these guys gone downhill in a pretty big way since Rings Around the World? I’ve heard Phantom Power is good, but I missed that one. But Love Kraft and now Hey Venus! (presumably because Hey, Zeus! was already soiled when L.A. punk legends X decided to make an ill-advised, mid-90s comeback album) seem listless, as if the band expects the melodies to do the work for them. Though I’d argue that these are marginally better songs than those on Love Kraft, the performances are just as bored-sounding and the boundary-pushing the band did on Rings and earlier albums is all but absent. I’ve listened to Hey Venus! a number of times now and nothing sticks with me at all.

Tegan and Sara – The Con

Tegan and Sara are one of those acts that exists in the periphery of my usual listening habits. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t listen to them more, since they’re exactly up my alley on paper – good hooks, harmony vocals, a slightly eccentric sense of pop songwriting. Maybe it’s that the earnestness they project seems a little too young and self-directed, which is jarring in contrast with the bubbly music (since I don’t have the same problem with more epic-sounding and similarly serious acts like the Arcade Fire). It’s as if their songs’ protagonists need to learn to how to laugh at themselves more. Or maybe the humor’s there, but I’m not picking it up.

Still, that’s just a matter of relatability, which only informs my taste about a quarter of the time, anyway (hey, if I can listen to Seven Swans without being Christian, I can certainly listen to So Jealous without being a serious pair of young lesbian sisters). The Con again makes the case that I should be listening to the band more, despite any misgivings I might have. The songs are very strong here, especially the title track and “Back In Your Head,” and the band’s signature harmonies sound as good (and unmistakable) as ever. I think I felt a similar way about So Jealous when it came out, but I don’t really listen to it very often. Guess we’ll have to see how it pans out.

And, no, I have no idea why I spent so much time picking apart the artists who made the two albums I liked in this post. Maybe I still carried some residual rage from that Marnie Stern album. Which I didn’t like.

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Written by Dave

January 19, 2008 at 9:03 am

One Response

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  1. As a great fan of Wolf Parade, I’m also puzzled by the fanatical love of the Wolf Parade collective. Broekner’s Furs failed to connect with me twice, and the first Sunset album had it’s moments, despite the fact that I like Krug’s broken voice more than the traditional sound of Broekner, and Random Spirit is the closest I have to the greatness of Apologies. In 2-3 months we’ll hear if Pass the Bottle will be a worthy successor, and from what I heard live it just might be.

    Keep up the good work!

    Martin

    January 28, 2008 at 9:12 am


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