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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 1 (Adams, Ryan – Blitzen Trapper)

with 4 comments

So for those of you unfamiliar with this annual project of mine, here’s the deal: I will listen to every 2008-released album that I own in alphabetical order (by artist, naturally). To complicate matters, I don’t skip the ones I hated on first listen, and I will force myself to write something about every single one of them. I’m too lazy to count albums, but, according to my iPod, this amounts to 931 songs. It’s been a mediocre year for music, so I’ve planted a few landmines (genres that are outside of my comfort zone, albums that I haven’t listened to yet, etc.) to keep things interesting.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinology
It’s complicated being a Ryan Adams fan. Even the staunchest supporters of the ex-Whiskeytown frontman have to acknowledge the enormous quality gap between the guy’s best and worst work, and Cardinology’s first few tracks might be enough to convince us that the album will end up on the better side of that chasm. “Born Into a Light,” “Go Easy,” and “Fix It” would almost sound at home on last year’s wonderful Easy, Tiger, which was refreshingly non-committal when it came to settling on genre.

Adams’s worst work has always come off as disingenuous, as if he were experimenting with styles with no regard for quality, originality, or a personal stamp, but Easy, Tiger featured a more confident artist playing the best songs he had at the moment, dropping some of the more contrived aspects of his songwriting that came out in some of his post-Gold releases. Unfortunately, Cardinology doesn’t quite hold up. After the winning opening, Adams starts peppering the set with silly U2-esque rockers that could have fit on the soulless Rock’n’Roll and ballads that blend into each other. The piano-driven “Stop” is a fine closer, but it’s too little, too late. In its better moments, it seems to acknowledge the Easy, Tiger format of diversity over commitment to genre. As such, Cardinology is still roughly a step in the right direction, but it can only be considered a slight disappointment after its immediate predecessor .

Beach House Devotion
I listened to this yesterday and don’t remember any songs from it. Considering that this is ostensibly a quiet, melody-laden pop album, and I can’t recall any hooks, I’d have to say that Devotion fails. If there are any Beach House fans reading this, can you explain to me how this is different from New Age music in musical variety and/or intent?

The Black Keys Attack & Release

The story goes that many of the songs on Attack & Release were originally destined to be on a collaboration between The Black Keys and Ike Turner. It makes perfect sense, because the whole album is rooted in a gritty R&B that you’d have to think would fit a guy like Turner pretty well, and the parts that aren’t overtly bluesy are still built on killer blues riffs (“Strange Times” channels Zeppelin via Queens of the Stone Age). So, in other words, it’s very effective at what it does. I guess my problem is that what it does is basically recycle a genre with which I’m only on okay terms. The blues is dependent on a foundation of musical and lyrical tropes that staunchly refuse to be innovated upon to any great degree, so when you hear a blues-influenced album, you’re basically going to get more of the same, and if you’re only so-so on that “same,” it’s sort of a lost cause. I love the innovators who manage to bring something new to the genre (or debase it, depending on your taste for it), like Zeppelin, P.J. Harvey, etc., but the Black Keys play it a little too close to the template for them to go in my regular rotation.

Black Mountain – In the Future
Black Mountain is similarly blues-inflected in that their obvious chief influences are 70s hard rock and metal bands (and there’s blues in them thar riffs). But, for some reason, there’s something refreshing about In the Future. It may be the marvelously full guitar sound or the fact that they don’t shy away from proggy keys or song lengths. Or maybe it’s that, despite sounding like they’d be perfectly at home on rock radio-ready in 1977, they’re an anomaly now – a stoner rock band with melodic skills; a heavy band with a lead singer (two, in fact – one female!) who actually sings; and a hard rock band that’s no joke, but still relatively angst-free.

Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Time to be smug (don’t worry – I’ll be contrite later, when I get to Deerhunter). Last year, I covered Blitzen Trapper’s Wild Mountain Nation in the Marathon and mentioned that they sounded like a band confusingly trapped between their traditional rock leanings and an unwieldy post-punk angularity. Well, they de-emphasized the latter and proved me totally right:  their follow-up, Furr, may be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, an album that sonically references late-period Beatles (in the same way that recent Wilco does), 70s folk-rock, and even some of the sloppy post-punk (I think?) stuff that was so distracting on Wild Mountain Nation, but to much better effect. Best of all, the album never stays in one place too long, but flows seamlessly from one great track to the next. Listen to “Gold for Bread” into “Furr” into “God & Suicide.” Any one of these would make for a great stand-alone single, but, taken together, you basically have Furr in a nutshell, and you’ll just want more. Blitzen Trapper still aren’t an infallible band. The lyrics to “Black River Killer” are a little too on-the-nose, and the band overestimates the effectiveness of self-consciously sloppy performance on “Love U,” which otherwise might have made a nicely loud contrast to the overtly Neil Young-influenced “Not Your Lover,” which precedes it. But it’s still the best folk-rock-inspired indie-style album of the year (sorry, Fleet Foxes).


Written by Dave

December 9, 2008 at 10:48 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Your review of Cardinology was disappointing, if only because I didn’t get all the praise Easy Tiger got and was hearing that this newest one was even better than its predecessor. Listening to Heartbreaker or even Pneumonia is pretty sad these days, just hearing the raw potential Adams early on, knowing it would ultimately be squandered. If only he could divorce himself from the whole trying so hard to show everyone how he doesn’t really care–Westerberg could at least write catchy tunes while doing it–he could maybe focus his efforts on creating that personal stamp. Hiding behind genrebusting dilutes intimacy and warmth, which is what made this early work so amazing.


    December 15, 2008 at 12:10 pm

  2. Yeah, I’m very much in the Heartbreaker/Pneumonia camp, too (not uncommon amongst Adams fans). I think he hit some of that warmth on Easy, Tiger, but it seems that he has to actually fight back the urge to do the rote genre experiments these days.

    The new one really goes off the rails with the fourth track, “Magick,” which is probably the dumbest, most vacant rock song he’s ever written that wasn’t clearly meant to be funny (like “Halloweenhead”). It makes some of the songs on Rock’n’Roll seem deep. Plus, he spells “magick” with a “k.” Jesus.


    December 15, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  3. I just picked up that Black Mountain album a week or so ago, and…man. That’s good stuff.

    Of course now that all of the Best (Insert Thing Here) of 2008 lists are out, I’ll inevitably end up freaking out about everything that I missed, resulting in me spending lots of money at the end of the year and through most of January to pick up odds and ends and then breathlessly harp about how awesome the album that came out in March of ’08 is.


    December 16, 2008 at 5:55 pm

  4. I totally don’t get Beach House either. Do. Not. Get. Boring as hell is giving hell not enough credit, even in the “No Exit” trapped with three people I can’t stand kinda way.

    I really liked the last Blitzen Trapper album and have been tentative in picking up the newest (mixed reviews) but I think your review seals the deal. It’s time to pick it up!


    December 16, 2008 at 11:08 pm

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