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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 Part 6 (Grizzly Bear – Iron & Wine)

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Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
After two albums that left me completely bored, I finally came around on Grizzly Bear this year, initially on the basis of a tight, rhythmic performance of “Cheerleader” on Jimmy Fallon show.  It took me by surprise, since I’d previously associated Grizzly Bear with a lethargic gauziness that spread out over all of their material, obscuring the songs that everyone else seemed to rave about.  But that live version of “Cheerleader” popped in the right places, the harmonies were in the service of a nicely formed song, and Ed Droste’s voice finally made an impression (both primary singers for Grizzly Bear always sounded relatively anonymous and flavorless to me – one guy sounded a little more like Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam than the other, and that was about as far as I could go to discerning their character). 

Upon buying Veckatimest, I was disappointed to find that “Cheerleader” was considerably more subdued on the album… but soon it didn’t matter, because “Cheerleader” turned out to be a strong enough song to work in both contexts.  And, even better, it was no anomaly.  If I was disappointed in the lack of rhythm in the studio version of “Cheerleader,” the punchy “Two Weeks” more than made up for it.  Plus, these stabs at a more direct style put the floaty stuff that’s more reminiscent of their old material into an understandable context for a pop guy like me.  The contrast makes for a great, well-rounded album.

P.J. Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By
Perhaps more than any major female vocalist today, P.J. Harvey isn’t afraid to get ugly for the sake of a song.  Right from the start, she would whisper, shriek, and shout to get the point across, but it’s only in recent years that she’s really taken to pushing her vocal and instrumental limits in deliberately non-musical directions to make musical points.  In other words, despite having an elementary understanding of the piano and being known for having a relatively low range, if she thinks it’ll best serve the songs, she’ll put out a piano-driven album (White Chalk) that forces her to sing in a quavering near-falsetto.  And it’ll be good!

It’s probably unfair to John Parish to focus too much on Harvey, since she didn’t write the music or play any of the instruments on A Woman A Man Walked By, but her presence is enormous here – for better or worse.  The album’s success is on her shoulders, and, unfortunately, she doesn’t quite pull it off, perhaps specifically because she had too much room for experimentation without having to concern herself with the music.  The tired droning on “April,” the squeals and hollers on “A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Children Go,” and the deliberately tuneless moaning on “Pig Will Not” seem to be excess for the sake of excess.  Perhaps for once, Harvey fares best when she plays it relatively safe like on album opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a polished gem in the Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea mold.

Patterson Hood – Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs)
If you’re a Drive-By Truckers fan, you’ve been hearing about Murdering Oscar for years and were probably even familiar with a song or two from it years before its release (it seems like “Grandaddy”‘s been out there for ages).  So despite the wait, it never had much of an air of mystery to it and perhaps that’s part of why it feels so predictable.  Despite the solo album tag, Hood doesn’t deviate from his usual DBT style much here (aside from going a little heavier on the Crazy Horse-isms and the lyrics on fatherhood) and even employs some of his bandmates for backing.

So you get a few simple, heartfelt ballads, like “Pride of the Yankees” and “Grandaddy,” a couple of mid-tempo rockers that sound kind of similar (“Pollyana” and “I Understand Now”), and some forgettable throwaways like “She’s a Little Randy” and “Foolish Young Bastard.”  Best of all is probably “Heavy and Hanging,” a suitably slow and guitar-heavy relic that Hood apparently wrote shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  Hood once mentioned something about “(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon” on DBT’s Decoration Day originally being part of a planned power-pop-oriented set of songs he wrote after his divorce.  I’d love to hear him focus on a genre like that; both Oscar and Hood’s first solo album, Killers and Stars, sound scattershot – too many influences spread over too much time in development.

(Apparently, “Heavy and Hanging” was featured on Criminal Minds, and this is the only decent-sounding clip of it on Youtube.  So please enjoy the song and the lovely picture of what I assume is a fine cast (never seen it).  Hey, it’s Joe Mantegna!)

Ida Maria – Fortress ’round My Heart
When Raina bought this album, I was kind of skeptical.  I’d heard “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” a couple times, and it was cute, but in a souvenir shop kind of way.  It was a charming little knicknack that seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s still sitting in the bag a few months later and you eventually forget to put it wherever it is you’d originally planned on displaying it, and you’re definitely glad you didn’t get nine more similar items at the time, since they’d still be sitting in that bag, too.

But, then again, some of the best pop songs ever were disposable by design, and it’s often up to us to give them a chance to work their cheap power over us.  After a few listens, I don’t think Fortress is destined to be one of those pop albums for the ages (in my or others’ estimation), but it’s quite good and a lot better than that seashell art you bought at the shore some years ago.  “…Naked” and “Oh My God” are the high energy attention-grabbers, but I’m pretty taken with “Stella” (about a hooker, a drug dealer, and God… I think), too, and Ida Maria’s appealingly scratchy voice works surprisingly well on the ballads, as well.

Iron & Wine – Around the Well
A two-disc set of b-sides and outtakes by an artist who generally demands close listening… where to begin?   Since coming around in a big way on Iron & Wine’s big game-changer, The Shepherd’s Dog (and this took a while), I’ve gotten less interested in Sam Beam’s earlier, stripped-down stuff.  Since this era takes up a large part of this set, I haven’t given any of the songs on Around the Well the attention they likely deserve, including the later stuff.  I particularly like the epic “The Trapeze Swinger,” though.  And the covers (all in the early, Sam Beam-only mode) are nice:  Flaming Lips’ “Waiting for Superman,” New Order’s “Love Vigilantes,” and Beam’s infamous contribution to film and commercial, the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.”

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Written by Dave

January 7, 2010 at 3:45 pm

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