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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 4 (Deerhunter – Flight of the Conchords)

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Deerhunter – Microcastle
Quoth me last year re:  Deerhunter’s previous album, Cryptograms:

Hey, the lead singer’s weird-looking!

(Seriously, Pitchfork… drone tracks punctuated by poorly conceived garage rock is “Best New Music”?)

To which I say… whoops?  I haven’t listened to Cryptograms since I wrote that (in all fairness, I’d just listened to Dan Deacon’s Spider-Man of the Rings, an album I despised even more, and this was directly after taking the GRE general exam), and I suspect that it wouldn”t go over much better now, but I’m entirely willing to concede that the critical attention it got last year wasn’t strictly due to the novelty of the unusual-looking tall frontman in the dress.

The critics who championed Deerhunter must be far more perceptive than I am, though, because nothing on Cryptograms prepared me for the dense guitar pop of Microcastle.  The band still dips into the same shoegaze and Sonic Youth bag of  feedback, ambient noise, and reverb, but, here, they aren’t the end, but the means.  They serve songs – songs with hummable melodies and killer dynamics, even.  I don’t even want to go into too much detail on its virtues, since, in spite of its considerable volume, it seems like sort of a fragile thing.  But, in short, the creators of one of my least favorite albums of last year put out one of my favorites of this year.  Can’t wait to hear what they do next.

The Dodos – Visiter
(Aside to Michael:  Raina assures me that you’re reading the blog and, knowing how you feel about this album and what I’m about to do to it, I’d like to preface this mini-review thing by saying that I value our friendship and respect your taste, perplexing as it may sometimes be.  Anyway, I think we agree on Frightened Rabbit, at least.)

Visiter sounds pretty good for a song or two – the acoustic guitars, banjos, and polyrhythmic drums intertwine nicely into an indie rock/world music stew.  The singer has a relatively appealing voice.  But as you keep listening, the Dodos sound more and more aimless, as if they’re capable of coming up with grooves and even the occasional melody, but can’t be bothered to uproot them and place them into actual songs.   Some albums unfold beautifully, showing the many facets of the artist, and only upon hearing the whole thing do you really have the full picture.  This one achieves entropy, instead.  Small snippets are pretty and interesting enough, but the more you hear it, it all runs together into a random, yet undynamic pattern.

Tangent on a general aesthetic topic with which I’ve struggled the last few years:  I think my slight distaste for this album is akin to my far greater distaste for (most) Animal Collective and Fiery Furnaces albums that I’ve heard, even if the three bands aren’t that similar, superficially.  Each strings together parts, but doesn’t have much regard for song structure.  The sum effect comes off to me as experimentation-for-experimentation’s sake and leaves a distinct impression of emotional detachment.  I think there are ways to surmount this, even when dealing with pastiche-oriented art that you’d think would be even more detached (Girl Talk, which is true pastiche, and Of Montreal, which genre-shifts Fiery Furnaces-style all over its new album, both get past this), but I don’t get the impression that The Dodos, Animal Collective, etc. care about it.  They make what they perceive as pretty, unusual music, and that’s enough for them.  As for me, I quote Raina, whom I forced to listen to most of Visiter:  “I don’t get what music like this is supposed to do.”  (She insists that she was drunk when she said it, but that “do” was definitely in italics at the time.  Also, she politely asks Michael not to extract revenge by posting any embarrassing Raina-related stories from high school in the comments below.  I, however, insist that he do so.)

Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
The Drive-By Truckers are no strangers to long albums.  Their big breakthrough came on Southern Rock Opera, a two-disc monster that challenged, inverted, and ultimately reclaimed the cliches of their chosen genre.  Four albums later, they’ve returned to the epic scope of SRO, but with a more scattershot approach.  It’s not too surprising, given that, through the years, they’ve become a much different beast, partly due to now-departed third singer-guitarist-songwriter Jason Isbell.  Southern rock shared space with country ballads, fierce rock’n’roll, and even traces of the southern soul that frontman Patterson Hood’s father played bass on.

Still, on albums like Decoration Day and The Dirty South (two of the best releases of the last decade, no exaggeration), the overall sound was unified by lyrical concerns and the distinctive voices (in the poetic and aural sense) of Hood, Isbell, and Mike Cooley.  Hood was master of the finely-tuned character sketch who wouldn’t flinch at including a metrically bum line if it means nailing the feel, Isbell was the most poetic and melodic at capturing real emotions even when dealing with archetypes, and Cooley ruled at clever turns of phrase and songs about devil-may-care outlaws and losers.

With Isbell gone, it seems like the band is in a sort of flux, much as they might deny it in press materials, and BTCD grab-bag of songs shows it.  Hood and Cooley are expanding their range as songwriters, and undergoing some growing pains, and bassist Shonna Tucker steps up to the plate as a vocalist and songwriter on “Homefield Advantage” and two other songs that don’t work as well with that lame baseball metaphor (Tucker does reasonably well, but all three contributions sound like she’s still finding her footing as a songwriter, if not a singer).

“The Man I Shot” and “The Righteous Path” are terrific Hood-penned Crazy Horse blasts that would nonetheless carry twice the weight with more of the detail he’s so good at (and still brings in spades to “The Opening Act” and the brilliant “Two Daughters and A Beautiful Wife,” his best song of its type since Decoration Day’s “Heathens).  Considerably worse are “You and Your Crystal Meth” and “Goode’s Field Road,” two go-nowheres that might have made decent b-sides.  I guess they can’t all be “The Monument Valley,” the John Ford-citing ballad that closes up shop fittingly.

So it’s up to Cooley to pick up a little more slack than usual, and he does so in a pretty spectacular fashion.  Exceptions like the classic “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” aside, I’ve always been a little more in the Isbell and Hood camp (probably because I’m a pussy or so the die-hards in Cooleyville will tell you).  Only “Bob” falls kind of flat.  Otherwise, the man’s on a roll.  The grab-bag approach suits him, and he goes from happy/sad straight-up country like “Lisa’s Birthday” and “Perfect Timing” to upbeat rockers like “Self-Destructive Zones” and “A Ghost to Most,” which features this stellar, expanded metaphor as a chorus:

Baby, every bone in my body’s gone to jumping
Like they’re gonna come through my skin.
If they could get along without the rest of me, it wouldn’t matter if they did.
But skeletons ain’t got nowhere to stick their money;
Nobody makes britches that size,
and, besides, you’re a ghost to most before they notice
that you ever had a hair or a hide.

So for a first album after a major personnel overhaul (in addition to losing Isbell and bringing Tucker into the songwriting process, John Neff got promoted to full-time guitarist/pedal steel player), it’s pretty good.  But it would probably go over better minus four or five songs.

Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
Background material for the music fan who loves Ennio Morricone and Pelican in equal parts.  (And, yeah, I know they’ve been around way longer than Pelican.)  Good for what it is, but nothing I’d listen to regularly.

Fleet Foxes – s/t and Sun Giant EP
Yeah, I’m the guy who can’t get completely on the Fleet Foxes bandwagon.  I’ll listen to the music, sure, but it tends to wash over me, and I’m inclined to think that’s part of the point.  It’s smooth to the point that it took Raina pointing out how good the simple, but effective imagery in the lyrics of “White Winter Hymnal” is for me to even notice there were lyrics (although I couldn’t deny even beforehand that it’s a standout and one of the best songs of the year just on the basis of those harmony vocals).  So maybe I need to give the whole album a closer listen.  It just seems so typical, being right in line with the My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses thing (although, surprise surprise, it’s quite a bit better than this year’s MMJ album).  But I have to admit that it goes down pretty easy, and I’m probably just too hung up on wanting great music to be more than just variations on what’s already out there.

Flight of the Conchords – s/t

Need I say more?

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Written by Dave

December 16, 2008 at 10:01 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Nice Dave…glad you dig Microcastle. It’s SO fantastic and leaps and bounds better than Cryptograms (although I liked that one more than you originally did).

    Not sure you should try Spiderman of the Rings again. Might want to give it a bit more time. It’s a love it or hate it kinda thing.

    Parker

    December 16, 2008 at 11:04 pm

  2. I swear to God Cooley nicked the vocal cadence on “Bob” from “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta.”

    Chavez

    December 16, 2008 at 11:56 pm

  3. Aww here we go.

    First of all, I am a fan of the Dodos (as you are aware), maybe it has something to do with the fact that I only ever listen to them at work, and the kind of lullabye-ish droning of the album works well there, but I’ve grown pretty fond of the music. It doesn’t hurt that maybe a girl who I have a mild crush on forced it into my hands. THough, I have to say “Walking” is a legitimately great song.

    Second, “Ladies of the World” is a criminally underrated song. If I was running music at our blog, it would definitely have cracked the top ten songs of the year. I listen to it more than I’d like to admit.

    Third, I’m with you on Fleet Foxes. The music just puts me to sleep.

    Fourth, DBT, it took me a LONG time to get into this album, mostly cuz I was pissed that Isbell wasn’t on it. As LD says, it’s definitely a grower, but now I think I like it 2nd after Dirty South. “Daddy Wants a Drink” is a song I listen to a LOT when I’m walking around the city on a dreary, cloudy day.

    Euge

    December 17, 2008 at 9:01 am

  4. Oh, I’m NEVER trying Spiderman of the Rings again. I’ll probably try Cryptograms again, though.

    The vocal cadence on “Bob” may be one of the things that turns me off on it just a little. I don’t hate it, but it seems really slight, kind of like the funny songs from the first couple DBT albums. I mean, there’s some affection for Bob in the song, but it still seems more caricature than characters, and these guys tend to be better than that these days. It’s easily the weak Cooley entry this time around.

    I put Brighter Than Creation’s Dark fourth on the DBT list, but that says more about how good The Dirty South, Decoration Day, and Southern Rock Opera are. Although, come to think of it, I don’t think there are any songs on Brighter that are worse than the Rob Malone songs on SRO – maybe “You and Your Crystal Meth,” but that’s about it.

    Dave

    December 17, 2008 at 9:57 am

  5. I was following the pack
    all swallowed in their coats
    with scarves of red tied ’round their throats
    to keep their little heads
    from fallin’ in the snow
    and I turned ’round and there you go
    and Michael you will fall
    and turn the white snow red as strawberries in summertime.

    I felt that needed to be said. It’s an Imagist poem or a Russian fairytale. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.

    Raina

    December 17, 2008 at 11:09 am

  6. that DBT is in my top 10 only because this member of Cooleyville is very happy with the Cooley tracks (and usually is). I have a hard time finding better political lyrics this year than:

    Saving everybody takes a man on a mission with a swagger that can set the world at ease / Some believe it’s God’s own hand on the trigger and the other dumping water in the streets / Talking tough is easy when it’s other people’s evil / and you’re judging what they do or don’t believe / It seems to me you’d have to have a hole you’re own
    to point a finger at somebody else’s sheet

    brad knapp

    December 17, 2008 at 3:17 pm

  7. Yeah, “Bob” is just a little too cute. The rare Cooley song that doesn’t work for me.

    Chris Oliver

    December 17, 2008 at 6:56 pm

  8. […] – Logos After thoroughly dismissing Deerhunter’s Cryptograms a couple of years ago, I came around on them in a big way with 2008’s Microcastle, a tighter, focused rock album that worked singer/songwriter Bradford Cox’s love […]


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