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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 10 (Okkervil River – R.E.M.)

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Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
This review will be relatively short, since we have a little blog project coming up involving this album, but it probably deserves a few words here, as well.  The Stand Ins is the album I’ve listened to the most this year, and it’s most certainly my favorite.  Will Sheff continues the smart, poetic exploration of mid-level fame and artistic inspiration that he began on last year’s The Stage Names and his band further expands their musical palette into Dylanesque electric folk (“Singer-Songwriter”), low-key soul (“Starry Stairs”), and new wave pop (“Pop Lie”).  It both entertains on a first spin and yields additional rewards with every additional listen.

But all of this comes with a caveat.  I don’t know if I’d recommend it solely on its own merits, because its power might not hold up minus the thematic groundwork laid on The Stage Names.  Both are entirely satisfying as separate pieces of work, but some of the satisfaction gained from listening to The Stand Ins is hugely enhanced by prior exposure to The Stage Names.  Think of it as The Godfather series of indie rock.  While Godfather fans go back and forth on whether the first or second movie is the better film, I think none of them would make the argument that the second could exist without the first (and we’ll leave part III out of it until Okkervil River caps off their series of related works with an inferior conclusion to the trilogy in 15 years).  So it is with The Stand Ins and The Stage Names.  The logical solution, of course, is to buy both.

Amanda Palmer – Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
When Jack White first announced a few years ago that he’d be making an album without Meg, there was some speculation about how a Jack White album minus Meg could be anything other than The White Stripes with a different backing band.  After all, the primary songwriter in a band, especially a duo, dictates the sound, right?  As we found when we finally heard the Raconteurs, this was only partially true.  Besides the fact that White shares songwriting responsibilities in that band, his contributions suggest that he’s aware of what constitutes White Stripes mode and non-White Stripes mode.

So it goes on the first solo album by Amanda Palmer, vocalist, pianist, and primary songwriter in The Dresden Dolls, a duo with a sound as distinctive in its dark humor and rock cabaret sound as that of White’s band.  Unlike White, though, Palmer tweaks her primary band’s sound on her side-project without the aid of a consistent group of bandmates to give it new direction.

There might be some mistaking Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (a title that should instantly endear the album to Twin Peaks fans) for a Dresden Dolls release, but only based on first impressions.  There’s Palmer’s immediately-recognizable voice, deep and commanding, but always ready to break into a strategic shriek; there’s the piano, alternately finessed and loudly thumped; and there’s the subject matter – psychosis, angst, suicide, sex, etc.

But this is surface stuff.  Who Killed Amanda Palmer? is probably more diverse than anything the Dolls have released to date.  The ballads are more lush and seemingly heartfelt (perhaps given more weight by string arrangements and other add-ons contributed by Ben Folds, who proves a savvy producer).  There have been some game attempts at pop songwriting on Dolls albums, but Palmer’s never penned songs as hook-laden as “Leeds United” and, perversely, “Oasis,” a sunny ode to abortion.

The album may not be absolutely essential listening and, if Palmer’s never done it for you in the Dresden Dolls, it won’t make you a convert, but it’s fun hearing her stretch a bit.

Portishead – Third
Speaking of stretching, Portishead do quite a bit of it themselves on Third and show us what a comeback should be.  When news came that the trio would be releasing their first album in over a decade this year, there was considerable excitement, but excitement that I couldn’t fully buy into.  After all, I had the first two albums, and while they’re pretty terrific, one only needs so much music that sounds like that, right?  As interesting as Dummy and the self-titled album are, texturally, there’s just not a lot of differentiation there.

Apparently, the band had the same concerns, because Third is the sound of Portishead keeping everything that works about their old sound, but not content to let it dictate the terms of what they can do.  So we hear them experimenting with faster tempos (the funky “Silence” and “We Carry On,” which comes off like a Silver Apples tribute), spare acoustic swaying (“Deep Water”), and jarring rhythm experiments (“Machine Gun”).  Even the songs that most resemble the band’s old work have new twists, like the steady groove on the end of “The Rip.”  It’s precisely this collision of familiar and strange that makes Third a logical continuation and a startlingly fresh and diverse addition to their ouevre.

R.E.M. – Accellerate
Did anyone else expect R.E.M. to pull themselves out of the post-Bill Berry slump?  I didn’t.  I especially didn’t expect that the album to do it would sound like it could practically fit between Life’s Rich Pageant and DocumentAccellerate is, by no means, a Great R.E.M. album, but it’s probably the first good one they’ve made since New Adventures in Hi-Fi (which was released back in… 1996?  Really???), so I’m willing to excuse its faults, among them the curiously underwritten* ballads “Houston” and “Until the Day is Done” and “Mr. Richards,” a rocker that doesn’t even come close to its mid-tempo brethren, “Finest Worksong” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

Most surprising is that this is a straight-up rock album, something R.E.M. hasn’t really attempted since Monster and hasn’t really done well since the late 80s (not that some of their superb 90s work didn’t have a few rock songs in the mix).   Aside from the brief interruption of a piano intro on “Hollow Man,” the first four songs are all overdriven guitar, fast tempos, and Mike Mills backup vocals (perhaps the most welcome return of a mostly-absent element in a huge band since the Edge brought back the “helicopter guitars”).  It’s no coincidence that “Supernatural Superserious,” which pushes Mills’ backup melody to the very limits of what could be considered backup, is the band’s best rock single since I don’t know when.

As said, it’s not among the band’s best albums (it may even deserve additional demerits for having one of their worst album covers ever), but it sounds like they’re finally figuring out what they do best again, and that’s exciting enough.

*  “Curiously” underwritten, because I recall Peter Buck saying, on one occasion, something to the effect that it was easier to write fast songs than slow songs, but it was hard to write good fast songs.  It’s weird that the ballads on Accellerate are easily the weakest.  Where the heck are the guys who wrote “Nightswimming,” “Country Feedback,” or, heck, even “At My Most Beautiful,” one of the only classic post-Berry songs?


Written by Dave

January 7, 2009 at 7:39 pm

6 Responses

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  1. “(perhaps the most welcome return of a mostly-absent element in a huge band since the Edge brought back the “helicopter guitars”)” Day-um, I thought I was prone to tortured rock-crit sentences, but I’ve been absolutely schooled. But I agree that it’s strange how the ballads don’t really come across very well on this album. I guess their mind was just elsewhere. Those aren’t bad songs, they’re just not memorable. (Could we quibble that “Until the Day is Done” is more of a slow-tempo rock song? It sort of works better in that context, with the guitar heroics and all.)

    Chris Oliver

    January 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm

  2. Yeah, I struggled with making that comparison clear and eventually just went with wordy over graceful.

    You may be on to something. The problem with the ostensible ballads may be that the band treats them like slow-tempo rock songs. It’s the same problem I have with Monster – they’re stuck in one mode, and it hurts songs that might benefit from a different approach. Life’s Rich Pageant has “These Days” and “Begin the Begin,” but it also has “Swan Swan H,” y’know?


    January 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  3. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was from 1996.

    Don’t ya hate when time sneaks up on you like that?


    January 11, 2009 at 2:42 pm

  4. When did the Edge bring back helicopter guitars?

    Phil from the boards

    January 13, 2009 at 3:19 pm

  5. Guess it was less the helicopter guitars, specifically and more the late 80s sound, generally, on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But as Chris pointed out, the sentence was tortured enough already without getting into even more specifics.


    January 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm

  6. Ah, I was asking more out of ignorance and curiosity – I haven’t heard U2’s albums from maybe the last decade.

    Phil from the boards

    January 14, 2009 at 1:52 pm

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