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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 8 (Monáe, Janelle – My Morning Jacket)

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Janelle Monáe – Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition)
Possibly the only artist on the Bad Boy roster who even vaguely evokes Of Montreal, Monáe is tough to categorize.  Metropolis: The Chase Suite, the first EP release of a planned four-part deal, is a bizarro mix of commercial R&B, orchestrated pop a la 60s James Bond theme songs, and the most consciously cheesy elements of 80s top 40 new wave, fitted with a dystopian sci-fi lyrical framework.  In short, she’s trying to do a lot here. Probably too much.

While it’s easy to admire Monáe’s ambition and her elastic, pretty voice, she never sounds quite at home with her lyrical concept of choice, and it hurts her delivery.  Maybe this is sort of a nerdy hair to split, but all of the robots, aliens, and futuristic totalitarians running around on The Chase Suite seem more cute than imposing.  It’s as if Monáe’s only exposure to these things was through general cultural osmosis rather than the kind of interest that might inspire one to crack a book or watch a movie (even the Fritz Lang one that gives her suite its title).  It’s all cliché, no passion, insight, or clever twists, aside from the very notion of a pop singer covering the territory that David Bowie hit in more interesting ways on Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, etc.

Oddly, the special edition of this EP (the non-special edition was released in 2007) makes the suite’s deficiencies even plainer.  Monáe shows her soul and musical theater roots on the completely non-sci-fi-related “Mr. President” and a nice, straightforward cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”  Ambition is great, but sometimes it needs to be tempered with just a little restraint.

Bob Mould – District Line
Once upon a time, Bob Mould released Workbook, one of those “got me through high school” albums for young Dave, so I would have been inclined to cut the guy a lot of slack if he’d needed it.  The thing is, up until the early 00s, he seldom did.  After Workbook came the divinely crunchy Black Sheets of Rain, four quality releases from his fuzzed-out pop band Sugar, a decent self-titled album, and, perhaps best of all, the underrated Last Dog and Pony Show (and this is to say nothing of his pioneering early work with Hüsker Dü).

But 2002 brought Modulate, an electronic-rock hybrid, that left me asking, as Greil Marcus did about Dylan’s Self-Portrait, “What is this shit?”  Nope, I didn’t have the slack to cover this new turn in Mould’s sound.  Don’t get me wrong here – it wasn’t the electronic stuff that bothered me.  It was that Mould didn’t seem to know how to embrace all of these new possibilities without being ham-handed – canned drum beats with no subtlety, token distorted guitars that floated above sequenced beats without being integrated, haphazardly-applied vocal effects…

Since then, Mould has learned to integrate things more artfully.  His last album, Body of Song, wasn’t exactly a return to form, but the vocoder/auto-tune vocals were used more sparingly, the drums were live (and, even better, by Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, who also plays on District Line).  The songwriting maintained some spottiness from his dabblings with electronic and club music, but his de-emphasis on the electronics that never really suited the songs was welcome.

On District Line, Mould mainly just holds his ground.  The electronics are further de-emphasized, the songs are good, but generally not among his classics (although “Stupid Now” is pretty great, vocal effects and all, and both “The Silence Between Us” and “Very Temporary” could practically fit on a Sugar album).

As on the last couple albums, Mould also plunders his own archives for a song that kind of fits*, but kind of just makes you wish he were writing them like he used to.

*  On Modulate, he re-made “Trade,” a Hüsker-era rarity, into a relentlessly annoying club track (complete with Cher “Believe” vocal); on Body of Song, he resurrected “High Fidelity,” which he’d been playing live for years; here, he officially releases “Walls in Time,” a demo that’s been available on bootlegs since Workbook.

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
All things considered, I’m a fairly recent convert to The Mountain Goats.  Which is to say, I’ve been listening to John Darnielle’s albums for a couple years and have six or seven albums by him, but feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface.  Still, with this limited knowledge in place, I think I can throw the claim out that this is my second-favorite of his next to 2005’s sad, funny autobiographical concept album, The Sunset Tree.

For years, Darnielle made his name on lo-fi boombox recordings, but I like that he’s embraced production and additional instrumentation in recent years, especially due to his choice of the idiosyncratic John Vanderslice and Scott Solter as producers.  While the production remains non-intrusive, the little touches like the extra fuzzed-out hi-hat (at least, I think that’s what it is) on the chorus of “Autoclave” give character to Darnielle’s simple, skeletal songs.

But Darnielle’s never been an innovator when it comes to the musical aspect of songwriting, and I’m not sure he wants to be – if his songs are skeletal, it’s so our attention can be drawn to the taut muscles and thin skin of his carefully-worded lyrics.  And what are those songs about?  Well, I’ll let Darnielle and Jeffrey Lewis do them justice that I probably can’t do.  But know that the power of this album comes from the fact that the grim fate of the protagonist in the title track is belied entirely by the marvelously triumphant music, and so it goes throughout.  It’s a true grower, too; you’ll forget that you have it for months at a time, but once you put it on, you’ll discover yet another fantastic song.

My Brightest Diamond – A Thousand Shark’s Teeth
It’s probably largely unwarranted, but Shara Worden (AKA My Brightest Diamond) may be the artist I root for above all others to make a great album who has yet to release an even above-average one.  You need look no further than this clip of her doing a spectacular Roy Orbison cover for the reason why this is:

She’s, thus far, the only artist I’ve heard with an undeniable Jeff Buckley influence who has the voice and sensitivity toward vocal dynamics to pull it off without sounding like a joke.  Classically trained and clearly not afraid to plunder from the right places (Buckley, Björk, cabaret and classical music), Worden seems to have everything going for her.  This formula should automatically equal success.  Unfortunately, the songs keep getting in the way.

As was the case with My Brightest Diamond’s first album, Bring Me the Workhorse, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth starts with a dramatic rocker, “Inside a Boy,” that fails only due to some thoroughly clunky lyrics (and, curiously, Bring Me the Workhorse‘s opener “Something of an End” and “Inside…” both turn, to some extent, on the word “crashing,” which Worden, an American artist, inexplicably and distractingly pronounces with a slight roll to the “r”).  And, in both cases, you think the overblown lyrics are just affectation you can get past for the sake of Worden’s elaborate and unusual arrangements and gorgeous vocal delivery, as long as the music stays engaging.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t, especially on Shark’s Teeth.  After “Inside a Boy,” the music takes a sharp turn toward the dull.  It’s such an amorphous blob of undercooked song ideas that even the second-rate Debut-era Björk homage, “The Apple” is a welcome respite until you figure out that it’s a second-rate Debut-era Björk homage.

I’m still pulling for Worden, though.  Both of her studio albums sound like works-in-progress, as if she’s figuring out her style.  I think she’s nailed that, but it’ll take far better songs than these to make that classic album I think she may have in her.

My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
Let’s get this out of the way, not just because it nicely encapsulates the problem with one of the more problematic songs on Evil Urges, but because more people should read Raina’s spot-on analysis.

I’m not even sure how to follow it up, frankly, but there are 12 other songs on Evil Urges, so they probably merit some attention.  Much has been made of MMJ’s ever-growing number of stylistic experiments like the pop of the title track, the dance beat that drives the over-8-minute “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2,” and, most of all, “Highly Suspicious,” an ostensibly funny Cameo/Prince hybrid with a vocal bit on the chorus that sounds remarkably like Joseph Gribble on King of the Hill.  But these aren’t really the problem with Evil Urges.  They’re practically novelties, which leaves the heavy lifting to tracks that stick a little more closely to formula.  Unfortunately, they’re not up to the task.

“I’m Amazed” and “Two Halves” might come closest to capturing the guitar-pop side of the band, but they don’t hold a candle to older songs like “The Way That He Sings” and “Wordless Chorus.”  “Two Halves” also suffers in light of the band’s shying away from their previous reliance on reverb’ed vocals, which previously hid some of Jim James’s reliance on tired rhymes and generally lazy lyric-writing.  And while “Smokin’ from Shootin'” is a nice addition to the band’s repertoire of slow builders, “Thank You Too,” “Sec Walkin,'” and “Look At You” barely register as anything more than MMJ-by-numbers ballads, and “Aluminum Park” is just an okay rocker in the mold of Z‘s far superior “What a Wonderful Man.”  In a weird sequencing choice, it’s followed by the album’s other hard-rocker, “Remnants,” which is actually pretty good.

But, seriously, “Librarian”?  Guh.


Written by Dave

December 30, 2008 at 6:24 pm

One Response

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  1. […] sticks with me at all.  The sound isn’t all that removed from his last album, Heretic Pride, which I reviewed very positively last year, so I can’t figure out what the problem is.  I do like “Genesis 3:23,” though.  […]

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