Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 22 (The Twilight Sad –

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Sooo close. I finished listening days ago, but it’ll probably take two or three posts to finish up.

The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters

I never got into shoegaze much. Oh, sure, I like me some Swervedriver (the poppier moments), some Verve (which only qualifies by loose definition), some of the other stuff. But, really, when we’re talking about shoegaze, let’s just be frank – we’re mostly talking about My Bloody Valentine and, more specifically, we’re talking about Loveless. For years, I heard this album talked up for its wall-of-sound effect, the immense wash of heavy guitar. When I finally got around to hearing it, it sounded tinny and thin, a little too processed (especially those drums). Yes, I’m coming clean – I don’t like Loveless.

Yet, having heard Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, I now have a better idea of what I wanted those supposedly massive guitars to sound like.

Which is not to say that The Twilight Sad could comfortably be categorized as shoegaze. There’s a little too much movement going on, too much propulsion, and the vocal production, far from being reverb’ed into nothingness, is high and clear in the mix and highlights James Graham’s solid Scottish brogue. But the sound here is absolutely tremendous, surely the envy of any number of aspiring guitarists with boxes full of pedals. I think there are some tricks at play here beyond layers of guitar parts, though – organ and keyboard sneak through, and crash cymbals are high in the mix. Together, though, they create an illusion of a living, fire-breathing monster of guitar noise. It’s as if the members of the band are just barely reigning it in during the quiet parts, and its effortless, natural, unharnessed state is the melodic noise we first hear at around 2:30 of the first track, “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” and that dominates the sublime “Walking for Two Hours.”

In some ways, the unfortunately-named Twilight Sad are a one-trick pony. Once you hear them on blast, the album almost becomes an exercise in waiting for those high-volume good parts. The songs are appealing, but not particularly groundbreaking or even lyrically insightful (though they’re not embarrassing, either). Normally, I wouldn’t recommend a band on the strength of its guitar sound alone, but this is such a good sound. And they’re a pretty good band, otherwise.

John Vanderslice – Emerald City

Six albums into his solo career, John Vanderslice has carved out a peculiar niche for himself. A gifted producer and arranger, Vanderslice records his songs with an obsessive ear for detail that could give Beck a run for his money; however, it’s a credit to those songs, so packed with plot and subtext, that the production never overwhelms. Given what seems to be a perplexing general indifference on the part of his potential fanbase (fans of hyper-literate storytellers like The Decemberists, politicized listeners who can get into Ted Leo, production-centric audiophiles), I have to wonder if this perfect balance cancels out his appeal to some. It shouldn’t.

Vanderslice’s last album, Pixel Revolt, found him at a career peak. Having abandoned the concept-album restrictions he imposed upon himself on Time Travel is Lonely (which was loosely, loosely conceptual), Life and Death of an American Four-Tracker (which was very conceptual), and Cellar Door (again, loosely conceptual – at least in that it had a number of songs based on movies), Pixel Revolt featured one of the most emotionally complex, impressive sets of story-songs in recent memory. Auster-esque examinations of cops and self-identity mingled with ethically-loaded apologies over escaped bunnies, an adapted Shelley poem bumped heads with modern-day meditations on depression and death.

Perhaps most impressive were “Exodus Damage” and “Trance Manual,” the former a survivalist gun nut’s oddly moving take on September 11, the latter an amazingly nuanced and affecting story of an embedded reporter in Iraq ordering a call-girl. Emerald City (the title a reference to the Green Zone in Baghdad) picks up where these songs left off. Vanderslice is back in concept-album territory, but you might not notice it on a first pass.
While his recent work has touched on 9/11 and Iraq, Emerald City is his summation on these topics, with every song a direct or indirect reference to the fallout of the World Trade Center tragedy. Towers, both exploded and intact, recur in the lyrics, and the protagonists are tortured by moral ambiguity, and lose sleep over seemingly true 9/11 conspiracy theories and immigration problems (it’s been suggested that “Central Booking” is an anomalous autobiographical song in the oeuvre of Vanderslice, whose foreign girlfriend went through a lengthy immigration process last year). Even “White Dove,” ostensibly a song about a gruesome child murder becomes a meditation on revenge that fittingly ends up back in Iraq.

At first, Emerald City‘s focus on these themes can seem one-note, but on repeat listens, the album resolves into an impressive accomplishment of sustained focus. As with Pixel Revolt, the songs can stand on their own (though, track-for-track, Pixel Revolt has a pronounced edge), but the way text and subtext add up here makes for a unique kind of concept album that not only eschews plot, but keeps its very status as a concept album intriguingly well-hidden.

Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild Original Soundtrack

Yeah, I know I’m being inconsistent with Once in the Os instead of the Hs for Hansard.

There’s not much on Into the Wild to find particularly surprising, since it features the kind of earnest, anthemic writing that Vedder’s done for years, only on a smaller scale. As Thom Yorke’s Eraser album did for the Radiohead frontman, Into the Wild helps clarify Vedder’s role in the Pearl Jam songwriting process. As one might suspect, he’s the pop and folk guy, with a tendency toward Pete Townshend-esque moments on acoustic guitars, mandolins, etc. There’s nary an odd time signature or impressive guitar solo here.

Still, this album proves that, while Vedder is but one member in a band of collaborators, he’s a pretty darn good songwriter and performer on his own, too. “Rise” or “Guaranteed” should have gotten one of the three Oscar Best Song nominations that Enchanted got instead (though this solves the problem of having to pull for Glen Hansard over Vedder in the category), and his covers of “Hard Sun” (with Corin Tucker) and “Society” (with songwriter, Jerry Hannan) are infused with enough of his personality that they fit in just fine. It’s an entertaining listen, but I haven’t seen the movie yet, and the soundtrack is simple enough that there’s just not all that much to be written about. Good stuff, if you like Pearl Jam. If you don’t, I’m not sure this is quite different enough to turn you around on them.

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars

Wainwright’s baroque pop is an acquired taste for some, but I really took to it on Poses and Want One (and, to a slightly lesser degree, on his first album and Want Two). Release the Stars is more of the same, but there’s a spark missing. A lot of the songs come off as rote retreads (opener “Do I Disappoint You” mines similar big-time musical theater ground as Want One‘s opener, the vastly superior “Oh, What a World”) and, when he stretches, the results are mixed. The simple, but heartfelt, “Going to a Town” is probably the first Wainwright song that could realistically be mistaken for particularly good Billy Joel (just go with me on this… early Billy Joel), if not for its harsh criticism of American politics. “Nobody’s Off the Hook” is Wainwright-by-numbers, but it’s quality Wainwright-by-numbers, and “Tulsa,” about a meeting with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, is cute. I’m tempted to give “Slideshow” a thumbs-up, if only for the notion of the inimitable Richard Thompson soloing over a bed of strings and choir with horn section hits, but the arrangement’s annoyingly much better than the song it accompanies, as if Wainwright’s trying to cover for its relative slightness with a big production.

This is a recurring problem on Release the Stars, unfortunately. It could be that Wainwright was just distracted with his entertaining Judy Garland live tributes, but Release the Stars doesn’t have the songs to support the weight of those big and beautiful arrangements he started using on Want One.

Kanye West – Graduation

My biggest gripe (everyone’s gripe, I suspect) with Late Registration was the sketch filler-to-song quota, and Graduation solves that problem by ditching that sketch stuff entirely. It’s a great move and helps the overall flow. Song-for-song, I’m not sure which I prefer, but I’m actually leaning toward Graduation at the moment. What’s weird is that I don’t have the urge to listen to it as often as I did Late Registration when I first got it, yet the thought of hearing “Touch the Sky” or “Gold Digger” holds little appeal now. I wonder if West’s work just isn’t built to last or if it’s me. Anyway, right now, the first half of Graduation is pretty airtight, despite one of his best songs to date (“Stronger”) going on about two minutes too long, and the second half only falters in a big way on “Drunk and Hot Girls.” So the bottom line is that I enjoy it, but, for some reason, I have trouble getting excited about it (and I know by saying that I risk Kanye, himself, knocking on my door, demanding to take over the writing of this review).


Written by Dave

January 25, 2008 at 10:00 pm

One Response

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  1. That’s about the best summation of Vanderslice’s appeal I’ve seen yet. Great stuff. I actually haven’t gotten a chance to dig in to his newest LP, but I’m a big fan of his. I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Euge (soul)

    January 26, 2008 at 11:02 am

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