Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 23 (White Rabbits – Yeasayer)

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And we’ve come to the end of the marathon proper. I’ll probably post a summary sometime in the next few days.

White Rabbits – Fort Nightly

Specializing in piano-heavy, latin-rhythm-accented pop that fits somewhere between Hot Hot Heat and Cold War Kids, White Rabbits don’t inspire much emotion in me one way or the other, so I’m gonna go ahead and skip to the next entry, so as to not lead off with a picture of a band I’m lukewarm on before the jump.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Unfortunately, I’ve grown a little lukewarm on The White Stripes, too, but at least they’re always good for a slick photo, and there’s more to chew on, given their history. I can’t quite explain the White Stripes fatigue I’ve cultivated over the last couple of years. They continue to put out music that’s probably as interesting as anything they ever did in the past, and they’ve even broadened their sound fairly successfully. At the same time, their most diverse, experimental album, Get Behind Me Satan, is probably the one I’ve listened to least, aside from their self-titled debut.

It might be that, as their music continues to evolve, I detect an increase in the distance between Jack White and the words he’s singing. It’s probably a distance that’s always been there, but I keep getting this feeling that he doesn’t really care what he’s saying nearly as much as how his guitar sounds. With some of the most memorable songs on the album being the “fun” tracks, like the Patti Page cover, “Conquest” and the partly spoken-word “Rag and Bone,” the White Stripes seem poised to become the novelty band that they’ve occasionally been accused of being. Still, there are other sonic highlights, like Jack White doing an almost dead-on Robert Plant impression on “Slowly Turning Into You,” the unusually metallic riffs on “Little Cream Soda,” and the title track, which has some uncharacteristically meaty-sounding, if ambiguous, lyrics. Icky Thump gets my non-committal you’ll-like-it-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing award. I can’t bring myself to give them a bad review for putting out an album that, objectively speaking, does what a White Stripes album should do and maybe more, but, at the same time, I wish I had more to recommend it on than principle.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

One of the pleasant experiences of the year was being surprised by the scores of Wilco fans who had the patience to give Sky Blue Sky the chance it deserved. If there were an album this year that screamed, “I’m going to alienate my fanbase,” this unassumingly pretty album was it. On Sky Blue Sky, the overt, audible experimentation that’s seeped into Wilco’s work since Being There gives way to a mellow sprightliness that practically no one saw coming. Since the band became newly energized with a bulked-up lineup that practically threatens (or promises, if you’re like me) to become the Nels Cline show on tour, one could have easily predicted an artier, more explosive Wilco on this album. Instead, it’s practically a naval-gazer, only occasionally mustering up anything more than a polite guitar burst here and there.

So why does this work? Well, Tweedy, Cline, and the rest of the band, who nowadays seem so willing to let it rip onstage, impress by their very restraint. On nearly every track, you can hear the contributions of each instrumentalist, but the parts are so expertly laid out that they never step over each other, make each other redundant, or complicate the songs into showy, ego-stroking jams. This restraint is also reflected in Tweedy’s seemingly autobiographical lyrics, stripped of much of the stream-of-consciousness ambiguity he started developing on Being There and perfected on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The focus is clearly on the charms of domesticity and the fear of losing it (most noticeably on “Please Be Patient With Me” and “Hate It Here”), and, at times, it’s jarringly candid. The simple listing of domestic tasks on “Hate It Here” connects on a human level in a way that a more melodramatic line like “Via Chicago”‘s still-classic “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me” doesn’t.

Still, there’s been so much focus on the 70s AM rock mellowness of Sky Blue Sky that the tics that make Wilco Wilco have been all but overlooked. This may sound laid-back, but it’s not simple. There’s an overt Television influence all over the soaring guitar solos on the album’s best song, “Impossible Germany,” and the spirit of Abbey Road hangs heavy over “Hate It Here” and parts of “Side With the Seeds.” Even stranger still, as Tweedy has pointed out in interviews, Sky Blue Sky is one of the band’s more formally experimental projects; the experimentation is just so masterfully folded into the mix that you don’t hear it on a first pass. While the sonic trickery of YHF and AGIB is on the surface, Sky Blue Sky revels in subtler, more musicianly aspects of the music like unexpected chord changes and brilliant, thoughtful arrangements that make the most out of the six-person lineup. While it’s not my favorite Wilco release (I still prefer YHF, Summerteeth, and probably Being There), the band deserves plenty of praise for defying expectations (in such a modest, quiet way, no less) and still managing to put out a set of great songs.

Patrick Wolf – The Magic Position

The Magic Position starts out as a genre-defying pop album, borrowing from 60s girl groups about as much as it does from 80s synth groups like ABC, and tacking on modern touches like drum loops and charmingly clunky samples. This sound is so compelling and so convincingly sells the album that the fourth track, “The Bluebell” comes off like a minor distraction – a downer among songs like the joyous title track. Unfortunately, it ends up setting the template for much of the rest of the album. Instead of capitalizing on the energy of the first three songs, The Magic Position grinds to a halt at track four and only momentarily regains that sense of fun about six tracks later on “Get Lost.” I’m a fan of low-key depressing music as much as anyone, but Wolf proves so talented at the upbeat stuff (and, as I understand it, it’s this style that’s the new to him on this album, not the dark mood that dominates the album), it’s a shame that the first few tracks only offer the false hope that the album continue in the same vein.

Yeasayer – All Hour Cymbals

While the comparisons floating about mention Animal Collective in relation to All Hour Cymbals, the tone is all wrong, and the tone is key. Yeasayer has the same kitchen sink aesthetic, in some ways, but the mood is far more ominous, less playful. In some respects, it more resembles Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, but where that album gets lost in the dark, but ultimately, beautiful woods, this one often sounds like there are some pretty heavy, pagan sacrificial rites going down at times. Also, I’m pretty sure that All Hour Cymbals is built on live performance with few samples in the mix (though I could be wrong), which makes me think that Security-era Peter Gabriel is a far more apt point of comparison. To its detriment, this is minus the charismatic frontman with the intriguing lyrics. In fact, that’s probably my one complaint about an otherwise excellent album – it’s almost too democratic-minded. Without a center to these rich backing tracks, the songs lack a little identity. Ultimately, though, the dense soundscapes make for perfect background music, if nothing else.

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Written by Dave

January 31, 2008 at 7:05 pm

7 Responses

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  1. White Stripes are probably my favorite band, so naturally I’ll jump to their defense, but I’m pretty in love with Icky Thump. Get Behind Me Satan is their worst album, so I’m not surprised you didn’t listen to it too much, but Icky Thump is the shit. Too bad all the music videos for the album are also shit (particularly “Conquest”).

    Patrick Ripoll

    February 5, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  2. Funny, I always had the perception that consensus was Elephant was the Stripes’ pinnacle, and I find that record workmanlike relative to the rest of their catalog.

    As far as Icky Thump, I’d rate it neck-and-neck with GBMS at this point in time.

    Chavez

    February 9, 2008 at 4:20 pm

  3. This article wasn’t actually recommending White Stripes merely on principle, as it claimed, but on the basis of Jack’s guitar playing and their consistency. The article was illogical.

    I listen to Icky Thump every day. Elephant was a bit up and down.

    Rachel

    February 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm

  4. why?

    Rachel

    February 10, 2008 at 1:38 pm

  5. Good guitar playing only goes so far, and consistency’s only a virtue if it doesn’t sink into repetition. So noting those things doesn’t necessarily equal a recommendation.

    Unfortunately, illogic be damned, Icky Thump kind of bores me, and it might be that I’ve just grown out of the band’s style. That being the case, I recommend Icky Thump on principle because I probably would love it if I enjoyed listening to the band’s old stuff as much as I used to.

    And “why” what?

    Dave

    February 10, 2008 at 4:55 pm

  6. Oh, and Elephant wasn’t their pinnacle. White Blood Cells was.

    Patrick Ripoll

    February 11, 2008 at 12:48 am

  7. At the time, Elephant seemed like a pinnacle to me, since it was the broadest. It opened up their sound a bit, but kept the grit and blues of the early stuff, too. In retrospect, the songs on White Blood Cells hold up better, but “Seven Nation Army,” “The Hardest Button to Button,” “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket,” and the Bacharach cover are hard to deny, even with the apathy I’ve developed toward them, overall.

    Dave

    February 11, 2008 at 9:34 am


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