Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 13 (Vampire Weekend – Wolf Parade)

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And a sprint to the finish (which means I’m going proofread-free)!

Vampire Weekend – s/t
The members of Vampire Weekend just dare you to hate them.  They’re a bunch of well-educated, upper-class guys who look less “amiable, troubled Wes Anderson artiste wannabes” and more “obnoxious, privileged Whit Stillman bores”.  They dabble in African music that seems more derived from Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel than from any firsthand experience.  Then there’s that name… that ridiculous name.

But as they throw this stuff in your face, it’s damn near impossible to not like them.  They’re too generous with the hooks, too charmingly enthusastic in their performance, and too self-aware and honest to try to put one over on us – their songs are about love, friendship, campus life and even punctuation (note that I’ve adapted my grammatical rules accordingly for this review).  Even more impressive is that they have a easily-identifiable sound, but never fall back on it at the expense of songs.  While “Oxford Comma,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Mansard Roof” are unmistakeably the work of the same band, you’d never confuse them.  I’m still not sure whether they’ve got a great second album in them, but this is an immensely enjoyable debut.

Vivian Girls – s/t
It’s a common oversimplification about punk rock that “anyone can do it.”  Sure, you can do it.  It’s not hard to pick up an instrument and learn the fundamentals, put something on tape or onstage, and thrash about like you really mean it.  But who cares?  If you’re not going to be good, at least be interesting.  Plenty of technically unskilled artists have made accomplished, brilliant albums – but they used their lack of formal training as an advantage.

The Vivian Girls take the “anyone can do it” ethic and stop there.  There’s absolutely nothing essential about these songs, which are really just sped up versions of 60s girl group style pop with tons of reverb inelegantly applied to everyting.  This is presumably supposed to make us think of Phil Spector’s wall of sound, and it does, but only as a means by which to make unflattering comparisons.

I always feel as though I have to pull punches here when it comes to female artists – this goes back to a conversation that Raina and I often have about the circular nature of women in rock.  In rock music, the ladies have always been outnumbered.  Is there something inherent in the male psyche and missing in the female psyche about this sort of exhibitionism?  Is it a matter of social roles established at an early age?  Is it a matter of the industry not backing the female musicians that are out there?  Hard to say.  But I find it even more condescending that a band like this can make it on the basis of novelty, and it most certainly is the novelty of a girl group that’s driving this train.  This is a bad album.

Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing
I went into this one cold, so I’m reserving judgment, to some extent.  You’d think a hip-hop album (or mixtape – it seems like a fairly dubious distinction in cases like this) featuring a loose conceptual framework based entirely on Seinfeld would be much more than a goof, but Wale does a nice job of balancing the humor you might expect with more lyrically substantial tracks.  The standouts are a condensed version of the Roots’ “Rising Down” (here called, accurately, “The Roots Song Wale Is On”) and “The Kramer,” a sharp riff on Michael Richards’s infamous racist rant that deftly exposes the personal and political ramifications of careless use of the word “nigger.”

The Walkmen – You & Me
For some reason or another, I have every album the Walkmen have released to date (even the Nilsson cover album).  I’ve seen them live twice.  One of these days, I’m convinced they’re going to totally click for me.  As it stands, I tend to like a few songs per album, and this one’s no exception.

The War on Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues
The War on Drugs were suggested to me on the grounds that they combine the rootsy populism of Springsteen or the Replacements with the guitar artiness of Sonic Youth or a shoegaze band.  This seems wrong 0n nearly all counts (aside from a few moments of shoegaze blurriness, but this is mostly backdrop or confined to stretches of abstract noise that separate the songs proper).  If we’re playing comparisons, singer Adam Granduciel reminds me of no one as much as Waterboys frontman, Mike Scott, hitting notes just out of his natural range and projecting earnest belief at every turn.  The band sounds more just like a natural outgrowth of 20 years or so of indie rock – jangly and jagged guitars covered in a gauze of reverb, tasteful percussion, and basslines that drive the songs forward but don’t make much of an impression.

If nothing else, Wagonwheel Blues shows some common ground shared by bands seemingly as disparate as Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire.  To the uninitiated (say, a jazz fan, classical fan, or even maybe a classic rock fan), this is probably what “indie rock” sounds like.  But for those of us who can tell the good from the “eh” when it comes to guitar-based, not-all-that-commercial rock music, this is clearly the “eh”.

Weezer – s/t (Red Album)
So you thought that the worst thing that could happen to Weezer was Rivers Cuomo continuing his descent into utterly insipid lyric writing and hackneyed arrangements?  Well, you’d be part right, since Cuomo, himself, is responsible for more than his share of the low points on this album (there’s a room in rock’n’roll hell reserved for anyone capable of penning “Heart Songs”).  But you probably didn’t even consider what would happen if he started letting the other guys write and sing the songs.  The kindest thing that can be said is that Cuomo, himself, doesn’t have to shoulder all of the blame for this latest tarnishing of the Weezer legacy.

I wondered if I was being too hard on this album when it first came out, but time has revealed that I was going easy on it.  Aside from a few spare riffs (undone by careless, idiotic lyrics in every single case), there’s actually nothing good about it.  I suppose this utter lack of quality would be kind of impressive in its own way if this weren’t the band responsible for two bona fide Great Albums of the 90s.  But as the ratio of great Weezer albums to bad Weezer albums (balanced out primarily by the pretty good Maladroit and a few decent tracks on the green album) continues to shift, it becomes harder and harder to expect much quality to come from this band.

Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
Sometime in mid-2008, I’m pretty sure that we reached a milestone in music history when the number of top 40 pop songs with audible* auto-tune/vocoder effects outnumbered those without.  At this point, it naturally became useless to use clarifying statements such as “you know – like on that Cher song?”  The most unnerving thing about the heavy use of auto-tune is that we don’t like our artists to be lazy.  If you’re a singer, you should be able to hit the notes.

It’s for this very reason that Kanye West’s extravagant use of auto-tune on 808s & Heartbreak is fascinating. It also serves to remind us that any musical tool is only as good or as bad as the artist using it:  anything can be artful in the right context.

West isn’t a singer, he knows it, and he wants you to know it.  He’s a rapper, but rap is not the ideal medium for heartbreak; we like to sing along to heartbreak.  In choosing to sing with the very obvious aid of machines, he’s further exposing his deficiencies and humanity, displaying a vulnerability that we’ve gotten snatches of in songs like “Roses” and even “Through the Wire,” but that has never been central to his work.  808s didn’t get much play as a reinvention, but West going from rapping about what doesn’t kill him to singing about what does is practically the equivalent of P.J. Harvey embracing the piano on last year’s White Chalk.

Even with this in mind, it might be tempting for the cynical to attribute West’s newfound appreciation of heavily auto-tuned singing to bandwagoning if it weren’t for the additional dramatic break he makes from the elaborate production on his previous efforts.  True to its title, 808s & Heartbreak leans heavily on the simplistic beats of the Roland TR-808, with additional, spare tribal drumming adding a primal element.  But, perhaps most bravely, West keeps the keys and samples minimal.  He wants you to notice his voice and he lets it carry most of the melodic weight – he wants you to hear the places where he misses the notes and the auto-tune kicks in.

The whole thing plays like a budget version of Peter Gabriel’s Us, which similarly fuses the electronic and the organic to detail the artist’s personal woes of the time.  It’s the unlikeliest of moves for a guy seemingly driven toward mass appeal (although it seems to be working out for him, anyway), but it’s certainly his most groundbreaking release, musically speaking, and it could even win over non-fans who give it a chance on its own terms.

*  As opposed to pop songs that use auto-tune in less inaudible or non-distracting ways, which I’m pretty sure would put us closer to the 99.999999 percent mark.  The .000001 percent of artists who don’t use it are Neko Case.

Paul Westerberg – 49:00 (and associated singles)
Longtime Westerberg fans like me weren’t quite sure what to make of the ex-Replacements frontman in 2008.  After a year-long layoff resulting from a nasty incident with a screwdriver, he quietly started releasing download-only new material starting with a 49 cent track that was essentially an album’s worth of songs and song parts and continuing through a series of bizarre collages and straightforward singles (full disclosure:  I still haven’t managed to download all of them, since he snuck a few more out at the end of the year).

49:00 (which runs a confusing 43:55)  is generally held to be the biggest and best of these releases and with good reason.  It’s exactly the kind of spontaneous home-recorded singer-songwriter rock that Westerberg’s been putting out for nearly a decade now, but it’s also nothing he’s ever released before.  He’s always been more of a song guy than an album guy – even his albums that hold together best seem like happenstance, as if he just wrote a bunch of great songs, threw them together, and achieved coherence through quality.  But here, that’s thrown into question.  Some of the songs are great, certainly (“Something in My Life is Missing” is essential Westerberg, “Devil Raised a Good Boy” rips along in tribute to Johnny Thunders, and “Everyone’s Stupid” is a cute and sad take on divorce from the kid’s perspective), but about halfway through the album, he pulls out the rug.  Songs abruptly begin and end, play in opposing speakers at the same time, and play quietly in the background during each other.

Maybe it’s reading too much into the intent of a notoriously private artist, but it seems telling that these rips in the fabric of the album start right before and during a remarkably-detailed description of what seems to be Westerberg’s father’s death called (presumably) “Goodnight, Sweet Prince.”  Westerberg has devoted a number of songs to his dad over the last few years, but his shadow seems to loom large over this one.  It’s as if he’s so broken up that he’s just barely able to maintain focus (even as the so-promising new songs fly by unfinished).  Ultimately, the whole thing breaks down into a series of excerpts from cover songs (which led to the album being pulled due to publishing rights), then concludes with an original co-sung with Westerberg’s son, Johnny, an appropriate way to finish an album that seems, in large part, about fathers and sons.

An expansion on the more collage-oriented aspects of 49:00, 3oclockkreep is even weirder than its predecessor.  It begins with a series of difficult-to-place demos (mostly low-key), but eventually settles into a series of snippets presumably recorded during the sessions for the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul, including a bit with Westerberg and Tommy Stinson trying to pull it together to finish a song with Tom Waits (which likely led to the DTAS-era track “Date to Church”).  Most surprisingly, there’s a Westerberg-Waits duet on “We Know the Night,” a song that didn’t see release in any form until 1997’s All for Nothing/Nothing for All ‘Mats compilation.

“Finally Here Once” and “5:05” round out the initial barrage of surprise Westerberg releases.  Solid songs, but probably not as good as some of the treasures buried in 49:00 or the bizarre surprises of 3oclockkreep.

Why? – Alopecia
Getting exhausted here, but I’ll try to squeeze out a few kind words in honor of Why?’s stellar Alopecia (probably fewer than it deserves).  One would assume that middle-class white guys attempting to inject hip-hop into their pop or pop into their hip-hop have some pretty dangerous minefields to avoid.  This gambit could land most in a musical no-man’s-land with either bullshit up-with-people positivism or, in fewer cases (I hope), hard-to-believe fabricated tales from the street.  Fortunately, Why? takes a different path altogether.

Alopecia is a hugely musical album, almost never relying strictly on grooves to get the songs across; in fact, it’s not even overly reliant on catchy choruses, but rather on fully fleshed-out songs.  Check out “Simeon’s Dilemma,” which is catchy as hell, but doesn’t even really have a specific chorus, merely a number of repeated musical motifs.  “Fatalist Palmistry” (probably the least characteristic song of the album in its non-hip-hop-ness and upbeat tone, but one of its best) is driven by a bright, 12-string electric guitar hook.

But despite this musicality, singer Yoni Wolf’s dense lyrics suggest hip-hop in their detail and rhyme schemes.  Even better, he doesn’t just layer on the rhythmic language and tell stories at once impressionistic and detailed, but recurring lines and images bounce around the album (initials embroidered on a towel, characters carved on a palm), lending even greater weight to what may or may not be autobiographical tales.

In short, highly recommended.  My list of “best songs” on Alopecia grows every time I listen to it (although, I still rank “The Hollows,” “These Few Presidents,” and “Fatalist Palmistry” as tops).

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
I’m tired, and it’s the last album, so write your own review in the comments section below.

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Written by Dave

January 31, 2009 at 6:24 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t really get hating on VW for being honest about being upper-class, college-educated white guys, after the decades of upper-class college-educated white guys who’ve tried to pass themselves off as gutter rats. And seriously, if The Hold Steady can get away with writing a song like “And That’s Why You Don’t Associate With Townies” (working title), and not get called on it…?

    Chris Oliver

    February 5, 2009 at 2:41 pm

  2. […] fear of evoking the cheeseball sentiments I just mentioned.  And, after all, I was hesitant in my quite justifiable dismissal of the Vivian Girls last year, specifically because of a curious scarcity of great albums by women last year, so I […]


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