Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 Part 8 (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Shudder to Think)

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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – s/t
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart may not be much more than a predictable sum of influences, but “Belle & Sebastian meets Jesus & Mary Chain” is far from the worst thing you can write about a band.  Occasionally, the J&MC distortion can get in the way of the gentle B&S melodies and (especially) lyrics, but the band fares far better overall than Magnetic Fields, who tried coating their understated pop in the same guitar buzz on Distortion in 2008.  At their best, TPoBPaH manage to make you overlook the fact that most of the songs rely on the same sonic tricks.  “Young Adult Friction,” for instance, touts a melody that no amount of guitar noise can disguise.  (And I’m reasonably sure that the librarian and aspiring librarian in the house haven’t simply been suckered in by lyrics about getting it on in a library – “You put your back to the spines,” indeed.)

Paramore – Brand New Eyes
So help me, I’m a sucker for this band.  As I wrote about their 2007 album, Riot!, “They’re basically a 14-year-old girl’s idea of the most rocking band ever, but I have to admit listening to Riot! (or at least parts of it) far more than a 33-year-old man should be comfortable with.” Update those references by a couple years, and you’ve got my blurb for Brand New Eyes.  It’s a slightly more introspective release than its predecessor, but one that’s still bursting with enough hooks, youthful vigor, and tight musicianship to make you ignore (or place in an appropriately adolescent context) lyrical wtf?s like “It’s just my own opinion, but it’s one that I believe in.”

Like Riot!, Brand New Eyes is immaculately produced and suggests that someone in the band has an ear for arrangement – instruments drop out and come in exactly where they need to, and the backup vocals pour in in all the right places.  Hayley Williams tweaks her delivery just enough so that no two verses or choruses to a song sound exactly the same.  Her voice is stronger this time out, too – the notes she hits on the chorus to “Turn It Off” make the song.

If it suffers by comparison to Riot! in any regard, it may be that their slight toward turn subtlety (and this is very, very relatively speaking) keeps them away from the overtness required for revved-up pop songs like “Misery Business” and “That’s What You Get”.  But it also makes for a more consistent album with room to spare for a couple of uncharacteristic acoustic ballads and a slow, dynamic closer that highlights the band’s jones for 90s melodic guitar bands like Far and the Deftones.

Pearl Jam – Backspacer
The party line on Pearl Jam’s self-titled 2006 album was that it was a return to form – an embrace of their early, straightforward sound, while incorporating the major experimental strides they’d made since.  This may have been slightly overstated at the time, but it stands as a worthy addition to their catalog, notable for how it gives equal time to all facets of the band’s personality.

So if Pearl Jam was the band’s return to its roots, what exactly is Backspacer?  Judging from the number of simple (almost simplistic), up-tempo rock songs, it comes across as another return to roots, but, oddly, these particular roots have never quite been Pearl Jam’s.  While Pearl Jam has occasionally dabbled in basic garage rock (sometimes to career-best-level effect, most notably on Vitalogy), these songs have always been detours – an exuberant unleashing of skillful musicians on material that’s way too easy for them.  They could simplify the material, but not the performances – they were always over-achievers, which led to an endearing messiness as they sought to leave their unique marks on the guitar solos and drum fills.

On Backspacer, they’ve written some of the most uniformly straightforward songs of their career, but the playing is only competent and professional, not enthusiastic.  In some cases (like first single “The Fixer” and “Just Breathe,” which would be just as at home on Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack), the songs get by on writing alone, but the rote performances make it feel like the band’s most ephemeral album.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Popular opinion holds that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is one of the pop albums of the year, and I like the band too much to argue with that position entirely… but for argument’s sake, consider the tracks that aren’t “Lizstomania” and “1901” (two indisputably great songs of 2009) for a moment.  It’s very good stuff, but you wish all of it hit like those two songs, right?  “But what’s the use of developing hypothetical Phoenix albums?” you ask  “Surely, we only have the Phoenix albums we’re dealt.”  Too true.  This is why you should seek out Phoenix’s previous album, It’s Never Been Like That, which is also a slightly imperfect beast, but is front-loaded with five songs that nearly match “Lizstomania” and “1901” in pop appeal (with at least “Long Distance Call” surpassing).

Far be it from me to suggest you not buy Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, though; just plan on picking It’s Never Been Like That up, as well.

R.E.M. – Live at the Olympia
Last year was the first time I can remember caring about new R.E.M. music since the mid-90s.  Accelerate stands as not only the best album they’ve released since Bill Berry left the band, but a reclamation of their rock legacy, complete with a lot of the touches associated with their most assertive work in the late 80s – Mike Mills’ backup vocals; strong, distinctive choruses; and hooks, hooks, hooks.  Personally, I’m just as keen on the early, mumbly albums, and especially the 90s chamber pop, but I’ll happily take R.E.M. in Life’s Rich Pageant/Document mode, and that’s what Accelerate served up for the people (automatically, even).

Live at the Olympia is a 39-song behemoth of a live album, recorded at a set of Dublin shows that served as rehearsals for Accelerate.  That album’s back-to-basics sound was no accident, it appears.  If the selection on Live at the Olympia is truly representative of those shows, the band dug deep into its archives (almost all of the Chronic Town EP!), barely bothered with the hits, and made a good case that at least some of the new material could stand with the fan favorites of old.  The slow and mid-tempo tracks fare the worst of the new material, just as they do on the album, but there’s simply so much here and so much good stuff (including a couple of Accelerate-era discards that should have made the final cut) that it’s hard to notice.  If Accelerate couldn’t sell you on R.E.M.’s renewed (and hopefully not temporary) relevance, Live at the Olympia should.

7 Worlds Collide – The Sun Came Out
Check out the lineup:  Neil, Tim, Sharon, Elroy, and Liam Finn; Johnny Marr; 2/5ths of Radiohead, Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing; most of Wilco; and a bunch of other singer-songwriter types like Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall, and Bic Runga.

Check out the pedigree – in 2001, Neil Finn got together with many of the same people and put out a charming and surprisingly coherent live album called 7 Worlds Collide composed of previously released Crowded House and solo songs, and contributions (new and old) by the other participants.

Check out my disappointment at how much the double album The Sun Came Out (also available as a single disc) doesn’t live up to the promise of all of that.  Much like the new Wilco album (with which it shares a song that’s simply not good enough to require two versions, much less two versions in the same year), it’s so innocuous that it barely registers at all.  There’s something impressively democratic about how the songwriting and lead vocal credits are distributed among the members, with the less popular or proven songwriters (Phil Selway, Don McGlashan, Steinberg, the Finns not named Neil, Tim, and Liam) sharing the spotlight with the bigger names.  But, almost as if they’re afraid of standing out too much, the big names don’t seem to be bringing their A game.

Shudder to Think – Live from Home
To spare me from having to write the back story, read this .  Reader, I did go to that show, stood in the front row, and loved hearing so many songs that I never thought I’d hear live.  But if Shudder to Think, reunion-style, fully met my expectations, it didn’t surpass them, and the same goes for this album, a document of their very brief 2008 tour (which includes a few recordings from the Chicago show, I’m sure, but the liner notes are annoyingly vague in this respect).

Not too surprisingly, the focus of the shows was largely 1994’s Pony Express Record and 1992’s Get Your Goat, but it seemed strange at the time that the band only paid some lip service to its post-Pony Express output (50,000 B.C. and some outstanding soundtrack work).  I’ve since read that Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson consider the soundtrack stuff to be a transitional moment (both went on to do a lot more film work), but it’s still bizarre that the band’s most celebrated lineup, which includes Larson on guitar, managed to reunite for this show and still chose to lean so heavily on pre-Larson songs (including Get Your Goat, but also the band’s earlier work on Ten Spot and Funeral at the Movies).  On Live from Home, 50,000 B.C. is only represented by “Call of the Playground” and “Red House” (although the latter was a Funeral at the Movies remake already), and the soundtrack work is completely absent (unless you count “Day Ditty,” which showed up on the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack, but was also on Funeral at the Movies).  At the show, at least we got Wedren’s pitch-perfect Bowie knockoff, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.

As for the performances, they’re solid, but a little restrained.  Probably a fans-only purchase – newbies should stick to the studio albums.

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Written by Dave

January 21, 2010 at 6:46 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree with the “ephemeral” charge with respect to Backspacer. I reeeeeally wanted to love it, but I seriously cannot get into it at all save for Johnny Guitar.

    It was the same with their 2006 album – a handful of tracks worked for me, but nothing grabbed me like their previous work had, even Riot Act and Binaural (I was lukewarm on the latter for a really long time but I’ve grown to see the error of my ways and it’s one of my favorite PJ albums now).

    I’m kinda hesitant to say that I’ve outgrown them, but…I worry that I might have outgrown them, or maybe vice-versa. Their stuff just doesn’t hit me like it used to, which really bums me out. They were one of the major bands that helped open my eyes to better stuff as a teenager – they hit right alongside the crest of Audiogalaxy/Napster/et al and I dove into the music of all of their influences/cohorts just as voraciously as I did their catalogue at the time, and now I just kinda feel like I’m waving at their music as it goes by.

    Jake

    January 25, 2010 at 12:35 pm


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