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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 – Part 3 (Camera Obscura – Cursive)

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Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
I just realized I’m only in the C’s, and I’ve already probably given the impression that I considered this a great year for rock music.  That’s probably misleading.  There was actually very little that really thrilled me.  There was, however, a fair amount that adequately entertained me, and sometimes that’s all you need.  My Maudlin Career isn’t going to blow anyone’s doors off, but it’s a small, smart, and tuneful album that’s easy to devour on a first listen, but doesn’t get boring on subsequent listens.  Being only familiar with the band by reputation, I was fully expecting their Belle & Sebastian-isms, but I wasn’t prepared for how well they reinterpret that sound, ground it even more in classic 60s pop, and basically mine the same territory that She & Him do to bigger, better effect.  And just when you think it’s all candy-coated despair, at very end, they unload “Honey in the Sun,” one of the brashest, most joyous-sounding proclamations of love this year. 

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
On some of Middle Cyclone‘s most impressive moments, Neko Case gives voice to the natural world in its most awesome, fear-inspiring manifestations.  Killer whales, a lovestruck tornado, and Mother Nature herself all make appearances, and with a less powerful presence at the helm, it would be tempting to pass these off as mere devices – metaphors for all-too-human foibles.  But as Case made clear on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and reinforces here, she’s not uncomfortable with fables and anthropomorphizing.  She doesn’t need to pass her tornado off as a stand-in – in “This Tornado Loves You,” she is a goddamn self-aware tornado, and she’s coming this way! All of those animals chomping down on fresh human in “People Got A Lotta Nerve”?  Those aren’t a cute way of illustrating relationship troubles – it’s the food chain asserting itself.  And, I think Case would argue, people got a lotta nerve thinking of ourselves as any better than the tigers, foxes, and whales that populate her songs in the first place – “I’m an animal,” she sings here in one of Cyclone‘s big showpieces.  “You’re an animal, too.”

It’s not all bluster; like nature, itself, Middle Cyclone is dynamic, probably moreso than any Neko Case album to date.  The tracks that emphasize the louder, more rockist Case are all winners, and while not all of the more subdued tracks that are more in line with the sound of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, surpass that amazing album’s best moments, they’re more of the same, which is hardly a bad thing in this case.  The dark “Prison Girls” and the longing title track are classic Case, and her cover of one of my favorite Harry Nilsson songs, “Don’t Forget Me,” is practically as good as the original.

If Middle Cyclone feels like a lesser accomplishment than Fox Confessor, it may only be because Fox Confessor carried the surprise of Case settling into an assured, original writing style that played to all of her vocal strengths.  Middle Cyclone is proof that she knows when she’s on to something.

Kelly Clarkson – All I Ever Wanted
It’s probably some cosmic coincidence that I’m covering pop radio’s preeminent big female rock voice with indie rock’s.  Look, can we all agree that “Since U Been Gone” is one of the best pop rock songs of the last 10 years?  If you can’t, you might consider skipping this review, because, frankly, all evaluations of Clarkson’s subsequent work must necessarily start from this basic universal truth.

Okay, that said, I gave Clarkson’s Breakaway a shot, and “Since U Been Gone” and maybe another couple of tracks aside, it was pretty disappointing.  I totally skipped My December, although I’m curious and may eventually get around to it.  But when Clarkson put out the very “Since U Been Gone”-like “My Life Would Suck Without You” and then followed it up with the even better “I Do Not Hook Up” (which has me reconsidering my whole position on Katy Perry, who co-wrote it), I figured it was time to give Clarkson another try as an album artist.

As Raina remarked as we listened to it for the first time, radio pop albums are weird.  There are a lot of writers, and they play with a lot of different tried-and-true styles in the expectation that something will stick to the charts.  In addition to the singles I knew (the aforementioned rock tunes, and the “Halo” rewrite “Already Gone”*), there’s Pink-like dance pop (“If I Can’t Have You”), Top 40 country style ballads (“Cry”), and, so help me, a title song that so completely references Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” musically that the writers (among them an ex-member of Color Me Badd – Color Me Fucking Badd) seem to have felt morally obligated to start the song with the winking line “tear up the photographs.”

So, in short, the material is all over the place.  It’s hard to evaluate an album as a whole when it’s clearly designed to be taken apart and doled out in little pieces.  But Clarkson sounds great on the whole thing, and the various producers know enough not to throw too many audible effects on her tremendous voice (see video below – the woman can belt and hit those high notes).  Plus, she seems to be including more radio-friendly rockers these days, which highlights her talents.

I’ll close with a random observation – who elevates teen colloquialisms with the grandeur that Clarkson does?  “I’m so moving on” from “Since U Been Gone,” the use of the frank and unpoetic term “suck” in the chorus of an enormous guitar anthem, proclaiming that she will defiantly not “hook up” in a song about finding something deeper (which I’m sure the celibacy movement is misinterpreting and repurposing as we speak)…  It’s easy to use terms like this in understated humor or to toss them off in a verse somewhere, but to balance a whole song on one and make it work?  That’s some pretty amazing Ronnie Spector/Darlene Love stuff happening there.

*  Kelly, I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce…  eh, you know where I’m going with this.

Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane
I’m something of a Costello apologist, but the guy’s put out enough average or subpar material this decade that the scales have fallen from my eyes enough to consider his work critically.  I almost skipped the acoustic, country-flavored Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane entirely after reading some of the mediocre reviews and finding out that it wasn’t quite the King of America Part II that I’d originally heard it was going to be.  But I saw him live this summer (an Imposters-backed show that only featured a couple of the songs from this album) and tried it out on Lala, and thought it might bear some repeat listens.

As it turns out, it’s not the utter failure that some critics named it, but it’s also too slight to really hit like his best work.  Still, its best song, the goofy “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” may be its slightest, while Costello’s attempts to be a little more serious just sort of float right by.

Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen
Man, this is disappointing.  Starting with Domestica, Cursive has had such a consistent track record, with each album or EP either improving or, at the very least, innovating upon the last lyrically and musically.  WIth their last album, Happy Hollow, the band started experimenting with horns and chief songwriter Tim Kasher, until then a great self-mythologizing solipsist on the level of Greg Dulli, started looking outward and proved to be capable of creating detailed and affecting, if occasionally cliche’ed, character sketches.  The songs amounted to a powerful Spoon River Anthology-type review of a repressive small town that took aim at hypocrisy while staying sympathetic to the plights of the city souls stuck there, the young people preyed on by their flag-waving families, and the gay priest caught between his theology and desire.

So what does Mama, I’m Swollen have to offer?  Mosty a bunch of vague bullshit about a guy who can’t commit and/or grow up (he even clumsily revisits the Pinocchio trope he used in “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” on “Donkeys”).  And the music?  Probably the most straightforward and least interesting they’ve produced since the 90s.  I guess it’s not all bad (see video below for one of the highlights).  If this were the first Cursive album I’d heard I might be less annoyed with it, but this is a huge drop-off for these guys – an almost total lyrical and musical regression.


Written by Dave

December 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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