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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 7 (Juniper Tar – MGMT)

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Superstuffed, pre-holiday blowout edition!

Juniper Tar – To the Trees
This is probably the most obscure pick on the list, if only because these guys are local.  This is a fact that I point out reluctantly and only to acknowledge the potential difficulty in finding it in stores (it’s on iTunes, though!), because, frankly, people tend to ignore recommendations when it comes to local bands, so let me start with this:  to the non-locals reading, these guys are, honest to goodness, worth your attention.

In a year that saw gentle, folksy roots-rock championed in the form of Fleet Foxes among others, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t a resurgence so much as an acknowledgment of this influence’s continued relevancy.  Juniper Tar taps into some of the same Americana, but with an ear toward crunchy dynamics and extended song structures.  The lion’s share of the songs run longer than five minutes, with a few practically coming across as mini-epics.

Still, this tendency toward the grandiose in both volume and song length doesn’t take away a bit from the nuance in the quiet moments and the pretty vocal harmonies.  As I mentioned in this earlier post on the band, two obvious comparison points are Uncle Tupelo (mostly in the dynamics – think “Whiskey Bottle” or “Sauget Wind”) and Amnesia-era Whiskeytown (in the vocals, which curiously sound a bit like early Ryan Adams, heavy on the world-weariness and smoothed-out rasp, but little like current Ryan Adams, radio-polished and quick to jump to falsetto).  But Juniper Tar emphasizes the ethereal and cinematic far more than either of those bands; they don’t seem content to be just an Americana band.  If this is just another iteration of Gram Parson’s “cosmic American music,” it leans toward the cosmic side.  Considering the number of other, better-known artists operating in roughly the same backwoods as these guys, it’s impressive how different Juniper Tar manages to sound.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists  – Rapid Response EP
A solid EP for a solid purpose.  Leo and his band recorded and released Rapid Response in an effort to raise money for those arrested in St. Paul during the RNC earlier this year.  Available on iTunes, the proceeds are now going directly to Food Not Bombs Minneapolis and Democracy Now.  As for the music, what we’ve got are two Leo originals and two obscure punk covers.  The cover of Amebix’s “Nobody’s Driving” is b-side level stuff, but driving Leo original “Paranoia (Never Enough)” and the immensely catchy “I Got Your Number” (originally by Cock Sparrer, a band with which I’m entirely unfamiliar) should be reason enough to download it, even minus the cause.

Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
Maybe it was too much to expect Lewis’s second solo album to successfully fuse the country-soul of her first to the myriad pop styles that her full-time band, Rilo Kiley, gamely experimented with on last year’s Under the Blacklight.  But even without that specific hope in place, Acid Tongue is a downer coming from Lewis.

The songs barely register until about halfway through the album with the title track, a nice return to the acoustic country-folk storytelling of Rabbit Fur Coat.  This is a big problem because among those initial tracks is the multi-part “The Next Messiah,” which wastes almost nine minutes on a bunch of semi-songs that aren’t good enough to stand on their own and don’t add up to much collectively, either.

But things do improve.  After “Acid Tongue” comes “See Fernando,” a propulsive stomper, and “Carpetbaggers,” a Johnathan Rice-penned duet with Elvis Costello, and the better ballads of an album all too heavy on slow songs are positioned near the end.

Under the Blacklight was blasted in some quarters for being messy in its appropriation of unexpected styles for Lewis and her bandmates; however, that album had unity in its sense of fun.  The spirit of exploration gave it a through-line.  The through-line on Acid Tongue should be obvious, given the stricter adherence to a singular style, but, at best, it sounds like a collection of songs that should have been spread out on other, more interesting albums.

The Magnetic Fields – Distortion
Stephin Merritt has got nothing to prove as a songwriter, at this point.  He’s got his style, which is to say, he’s got his own twist on a myriad of styles, and  no one else writes songs that sound like his.  So it would be enough for him to continue to release albums of these witty, touching songs with melodies that stick with you for days, but the man likes a challenge, which is admirable.  The big one, of course, was writing and recording the epic 69 Love Songs, which is notable not just for its scope, but its quality.  He’s now in the middle of a “no synth” trilogy, which has so far yielded the wonderful i, a pop album that differed from his past work only in its emphasis on guitars and strings.

Distortion strays much further from Merritt’s usual aesthetic, but, cheekily, it heads directly into the sound of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 classic, Psychocandy, which paired songs of girl-group simplicity with a dense wall of guitar fuzz, bare-bones drum machine tracks, and mounds of reverb.  It’s a cute choice, but one that doesn’t do Merritt’s songs justice.  On Psychocandy, the sound basically carries the whole show – the songs are pretty, but insubstantial.  Merritt’s songs often sound insubstantial, but their typical lightness allows for clever arrangement choices and, most importantly, puts the emphasis on the Cole Porter-worthy lyrical quips.  On Distortion, the style too often gets in the way of the substance.  In some ways, it sounds like a J&MC-fixated jokey cover version of a “real” Magnetic Fields album; I’d prefer to hear that album.

Man Man – Rabbit Habbits
As with Man Man’s previous album, Six Demon Bag, the equation here is:  (late 80s/early 90s Tom Waits – the lyrical insight) x (Mr. Bungle – Mike Patton’s vocal range and forays into metal).  I’d guess they’re still worth seeing live, just as they were at the time of that album, but with such a unique (if almost wholly borrowed) style, it’s hard to gauge improvement, album-to-album.  Assuming no abrupt moves into Europop, they just sort of are, so if you like their other stuff, you’ll like this.  I’d still rather listen to Rain Dogs.

Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Of course, one might assume that Mates of State, like Man Man, also just “are.”  They’re a keys’n’drums, wife’n’husband, dueling vocal indie pop band, after all, and you wouldn’t think this would lead to much in terms of progress or even universal appear.  But this assumption would be wrong.  As was the case with their previous album, Bring It Back, Re-Arrange Us shows Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel increasingly capable of cranking out tuneful, compelling variations on some of the same themes.  And while the results are probably more easily hear than explained, I think I can safely say that, as good as Bring It Back is, Re-Arrange Us is even better.

It’s, perhaps, too easy to read “autobiographical” into lyrics like “You write the good songs, baby/I’ll write them until the end” and “I like the old songs better” (a complaint among longtime Mates of State fans who still haven’t gotten over Gardner’s switch to piano over organ as her primary instrument).  But, even at their most seemingly personal, they’re actually pretty impressionistic, which pulls Re-Arrange Us out of the self-obsessed, confessional ghetto that some might be tempted to place it in.

Re-Arrange Us might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  It’s earnest, well-adjusted, and adult.  It’s relatively free of melodramatic angst.  It’s also the product of a happily-married couple who have managed to balance touring, recording, and raising kids, which is probably anathema to music fans who naively assume that art can come only from the discontented.  Anyone who’s made it past this adolescent conception of taste should give one of the best pure pop albums of the year a listen.

MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Oracular Spectacular has made an awful lot of year-end best-of lists this year, but scan the write-ups and you’ll notice something curious:  barely any of them mention any songs other than “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids.”  In fact, people who profess to love the album seldom mention anything other than these three songs.  You know why?  It’s because, as fun as those three singles are, the rest of the album’s not very good.  Download those and skip everything else.


Written by Dave

December 24, 2008 at 6:18 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I didn’t even bother with that Mates of State album this year. I’m only vaguely familiar with them (I’m acquainted with about five of their songs on my iPod) but I’ll be giving this a listen. You seem to be one of the few who had positive remarks about it as well, another reason my interest is piqued.

    And MGMT put on a terrific live show when I saw them at ACL Fest this year. Too bad those three songs are the only thing I can remember from that album though.

    Andrew Eaton

    December 28, 2008 at 4:14 pm

  2. For whatever reason, the Mates of State album didn’t even seem to get reviewed much.

    The most notable review may have been one published by the Onion’s AV Club. It was written by a non-regular there, who not only critiqued it negatively, but did a pretty bad job of talking about the album instead of the marital and parental status of its creators. In subsequent columns, it came out that almost every other music writer on the AV Club staff loves Re-Arrange Us, but that guy just happened to get the assignment to write it up.


    December 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm

  3. Wasn’t Justin Waddell’s avatar on the boards the R-AU cover for awhile? Did I imagine that?

    Also, though not a cut from the album, Justice’s remix of “Electric Feel” is pretty great. I think I like that version a little bit more. Though to be fair, I’m a Justice fan so there ya go.

    Andrew Eaton

    December 29, 2008 at 9:03 pm

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