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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 9 (Nada Surf – Of Montreal)

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Nada Surf – Lucky
Sometimes, it doesn’t take a ton of originality to make an impression, just a well-developed sense of what to borrow and steal.  While it may come as a surprise to anyone who still associates Nada Surf with the 90s MTV hit, “Popular,” the band has never been hung up on overly obvious formal experiments for the sake of novelty.  They’re a pop band at heart, and Lucky is an unassuming collection of tightly-constructed songs that may even out-class their terrific 2003 release, Let Go, which brought them back into the public eye (relatively speaking).

Full of Byrdsy arpeggiating electric guitars, subtle strings and harmony vocals, and lyrics that mostly just stay out of the way*, Lucky is a boon to those like me who mourn the descent of Fountains of Wayne into kitschy pop culture-dropping and who were disappointed by the last few Matthew Sweet releases.

If this all sounds like faint praise, it might be the nature of the beast.  It’s hard to do justice in writing to an album as simple and… easy… as this.  Lucky won’t challenge you, it doesn’t signal a great shift in the band’s sound, and it won’t win you any indie cred points.  It will, however, entertain you on a first listen and, despite being wholly accessible, it will hold up remarkably well on subsequent listens.

*  Complain if you must, but there’s something to be said for lyrics that stay out of the way in the power-pop genre.  Cheap Trick, Big Star, and Badfinger weren’t always cranking out Leonard Cohen-level gems.  Some of their best songs are hook-showcases with lyrics that sound far better than they look on paper.

The National – The Virginia EP
Packaged with A Skin, A Night, a documentary DVD (disappointingly short on live and studio performances and long on arty wanking by the director), The Virginia EP is basically a fans-oriented album-length collection of b-sides, alternate takes, and live tracks.  There’s not much on here that anyone would want to switch out with the final tracklisting on Boxer (or Alligator, the band’s even-better previous release).  The b-sides sound like b-sides, if impressively developed and arranged ones.  The demos are, unsurprisingly, less fleshed out, although “Tall Saint” is pretty good by The National standards (which means very good by most standards), and the demo version of Boxer‘s “Slow Show” is enlightening in terms of the the song’s development.

Perhaps best are the the live tracks.  The big score is probably the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” (complete with a nice, underlying pulsing rhythm absent from the original), but equally welcome are an energetic live version of “Fake Empire” and an epic 8-minute version of “About Today” from the Cherry Tree EP.  The original is right at home on Cherry Tree, quiet and restrained, but in concert, the band often uses it as a closer, complete with a dynamic build.  Unfortunately, post-Boxer, The National has tended to overuse this trick on many of their more subdued songs live, but isolated, as “About Today” is here, the effect is hypnotic.  When the music drops down, you can practically envision the desperate middle-of-the-night conversation that Matt Berlinger’s insecure narrator begins when he quietly asks, “Hey… are you awake?”

As said above, definitely not an essential for the uninitiated, who should get themselves a copy of Alligator or Boxer, post-haste.  But not a bad add-on for fans, even if you shouldn’t expect the DVD to get much play.

No Age – Nouns
Eh.  I’m surprised this one’s gotten so much attention by the music press.  It’s got plenty of energy, but there’s not much to it.  It’s as if No Age is stuck between wanting to be a straight-up indie guitar-rock act and wanting to tread the noisier, more experimental ground of bands like Liars or Deerhunter (most obviously on the fairly useless instrumental drones, “Keechie” and “Impossible Bouquet”).  They’re not catchy enough to satisfy as the former and not quite sonically innovative enough to satisfy as the latter.   They balance the sides pretty well on “Teen Creeps” and “Sleeper Hold,” but if your taste runs to barely-controlled guitar-noise pop-music like this, you’d probably just be better off buying some Hüsker Dü or Dinosaur Jr.

Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Much like The Hold Steady, The National, and Okkervil River, Of Montreal was faced this year with the challenge of following up a pivotal, critically-acclaimed album that threatened to take the band to the next level.  Each handled this situation differently.  The Hold Steady held steady; rather than treating Boys and Girls in America as a paradigm-shifter, they just kept doing what they’ve always done with a few new tweaks in the formula.  The National took a breather and cleared out the vaults.  Okkervil River released a sequel (more about that in the next post).

In keeping with the bigger-is-better outrageousness of the band’s wild live shows, Of Montreal went even more ambitious.  This is kind of hard to believe after last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a dense, minutely-detailed concept album replete with embarassingly explicit references to frontman Kevin Barnes’s complicated relationship troubles and depression that went from Queen-like pomp to streamlined guitar rock to a lengthy Krautrock-inspired transitional piece to Beck-like electric white boy funk.  But it’s true.

Skeletal Lamping is yet another concept piece of a sort, but instead of straight-up diary entry, Barnes’s romantic and (perhaps mostly) sexual issues are conveyed almost entirely through an alter-ego, Georgie Fruit, a black transexual ex-pop star. Kind of a loose concept for a concept album, you’d think, but Barnes is surprisingly adept at keeping Fruit’s various pursuits interesting (at least in their explicitness, if nothing else).

But the break with Hissing Fauna is more than lyrical.  While there are few isolated snippets of Skeletal Lamping that would surprise any fans of their previous album, the big change is the lack of emphasis on “songs.”  The tracks flow into each other and most are broken up into structure-less song parts.  So as not to sidestep the issue, I’ll admit that I tend to hate this shit.  It’s the Fiery Furnaces trick of coming up with great parts, but not bothering to write songs (and, speaking as someone who’s helped put together countless little ideas into songs, that’s the fucking hard part).

But I like Skeletal Lamping.  There’s something inherently fragmented about the various mini-narratives that make up the Fruit story; the form is perfectly suited to the lyrical concepts being explored.  Plus, Barnes is pretty adept at linking the sonically disparate bits, and he’s certainly gifted at keeping things interesting, although the album comes very close to falling into dullness for a stretch near the end (about halfway through “Plastis Wafers” into “Death is Not a Parallel Move” and for parts of “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants”).

While not as consistently successful as Hissing Fauna, Skeletal Lamping is one of the more weirdly entertaining releases of the year, Fruit’s and Barnes’s psychic turmoil notwithstanding.

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Written by Dave

January 3, 2009 at 6:42 pm

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