If I keep pushing titles into the following week, I’ll be reviewing a couple hundred CDs in December, which could actually work out pretty well. The release sheets the month before Christmas are skinnier than my 401K returns in 2008, so I’ll need to hold back some material for the lean times. But for now, it’s all feast and no famine. My desk is a veritable groaning board of releases, so let’s dig in.
Chemistry is a funny thing; you never quite know how two or more things might react the first time they’re combined. The same thing holds true in music, and UK jangle Pop outfit brakesbrakesbrakes (or just plain Brakes as they have been edited back home) are a prime example. Not many people would guess that a combination of members culled from proggy Space rockers British Sea Power and psych Pop weirdos Electric Soft Parade would result in the infectious melodicism of Brakes.
On their third album, Touchdown, the quartet pushes out a sound that intersects the contemporary Folk Blues rumble of Gomez (“Red Rag,” “Do You Feel the Same?”) with the gorgeous melodic oddity of the Shins (“Worry About It Later,” “Crush On You”), which often results in a laddish chug reminiscent of Kaiser Chiefs or Oasis (“Ancient Mysteries,” “Hey Hey”) and the shoe-gazing squeal of Jesus and Mary Chain (“Oh! Forever”). Lyrically, frontman Eamon Hamilton offers subtle passages detailing his thoughts on cultural politics or political culture, but the message never overwhelms the Brakes’ compelling and frenetic presentation. A couple more listens like the one I just had and the Brakes could be creeping into my year-end list.
How much more history can Booker T. Jones possibly write into his musical résumé? With his most famous aggregation, the groundbreakingly integrated MGs, Jones brought Memphis Soul to the masses — on their own and as the rhythm section for just about every record released by Stax Records in the ’60s — and they in turn pushed the sound into the upper reaches of the charts, making Booker T and the MGs a household name. Subsequently, Jones moved into the producer’s chair, helming Bill Withers’ Just As I Am and Willie Nelson’s Stardust, among others. In 1992, he and the MGs were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and two years ago, Jones was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
And now at an age when most people are considering retirement options, it only makes sense that Jones should craft the album of his career with the raw Rock/Funk/Soul shimmer and shout of Potato Hole. Of course, the instrumental album’s shout is figurative, as befits the man who pushed wordless Soul into the stratosphere four decades ago. On Potato Hole, Jones stacks the deck in his favor with a backing band that includes Drive By Truckers and Neil Young, who provides guitar on 90% of the album, and then gives them more than enough to work with by writing some of the most viscerally satisfying music of his long and storied career. From the Prog/Funk thunder of Potato Hole’s Deep Purplesque opener, the aptly titled “Pound It Out,” to the simmering Soul stew of “She Breaks,” it’s clear that Jones is absolutely energized by his recording situation and he proves it with funky intensity on each successive track; even his vocal-less take on OutKast’s “Hey Ya” is a gas. The best of a bunch of greatness is the album’s title cut, a slinky, shambling Funk workout that could have been a hit for the MGs 40 years ago or Dennis Coffey 30 years ago or for Booker T. Jones right bloody now.
Three years ago during my last visit to the musical insane asylum known as South By Southwest, I found myself sitting on the roof patio of Maggie Mae’s on Sixth Street during Paste magazine’s afternoon party. I had already run into old Cincinnati friend Danny Reed (show of hands: who remembers the Buddy Bradley Experience?), met World Cafe host David Dye and Spinal Tap bassist Harry Shearer (for our younger readers who don’t get the Tap reference, substitute “voice of Montgomery Burns”), and I assembled a buffet plate of gratis grub and headed for the patio to get some much-needed sustenance.
I found a rare empty table, but within minutes I was joined by a bunch of kids who looked like they were barely out of high school (turned out that was exactly right). They asked if they could sit with me and I said absolutely. As we ate, they asked about my affiliation and what I was covering at the festival and we talked about that for a while. When I asked them a similar question, they announced, “We’re playing here later … we’re called Manchester Orchestra.” One of them dug into his coat pocket and produced an EP, which he gave to me. My schedule was packed that day and I wasn’t able to stick around for their set, but their EP (cleverly titled You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor) later converted me to slobbering fandom, with a sound reminiscent of a Southern-tinged Dashboard Confessional.
In the subsequent three years, the Manchesters have a couple more EPs under their belt as well as their debut full length, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, they’ve played Letterman and Conan, and Gossip Girl has used one of their songs for atmosphere.
Virgin marked a shift for MO, as they turned up the volume and scruffed up their presentation ever so slightly. Their latest, Mean Everything to Nothing, finds the Atlanta quintet moving even farther down the visceral path they began blazing on Virgin, pulsing and careening like a cross between Bare Jr. and Dashboard (“The Only One,” “In My Teeth”), spiced with Kings of Leon’s bluster (“Pride”) and the Shins’ subtlety (“100 Dollars,” “I Can Feel a Hot One”). Frontman Andy Hull has become a formidable songwriter, combining music that is engagingly expansive with lyrics that are raw and intense slices of life’s smallest and most vulnerable moments. Not too shabby for a band whose peer group isn’t even halfway through college yet.
Television is the new radio, and like so many contemporary bands, Chairlift exploited the new paradigm by having their infectious Electro-Pop tune “Bruises” tagged as the sonic identity for Apple’s iPod Nano campaign last year (“I tried to do handstands for you ...”). The Brooklyn-via-Boulder trio’s broad exposure made their indie debut, Does You Inspire You, a huge hit last fall and earned them an opening slot for the similarly hot Vampire Weekend.
Since then, Chairlift signed with Columbia and the first order of business is reissuing Does You Inspire You in remastered form with a pair of unreleased tracks (the psychedelicized “Dixie Gypsy” and the French/English confection “Le Flying Saucer Hat”). The rest of Chairlift’s debut gives much the same impression it did last September, namely of a band that had clearly been inspired by the best elements of the Cocteau Twins, The Cure, Cowboy Junkies and Yaz while incorporating an experimental edginess into their Synth Pop commercialism. “Don’t Give a Damn” sounds like a Hank Williams cover as conceived by Yaz, “Somewhere Around Here” shimmers like a mash-up of the Cocteau Twins and Clem Snide and “Evident Useful” imagines Bjork and Human League in a bubbly collaboration. Whether you like to think while you dance or dance while you think, Chairlift has you covered.
While the Milk & Honey Band might be an unknown entity to most, the band’s latest, Dog Eared Moonlight, is actually their fourth album. It’s also their second album for Andy Partridge’s Ape House label, a fact that raises M&HB’s profile among XTC fans. The group is the branchild of former Levitation guitarist/keyboardist Robert White, who did a pair of albums (1994’s Round the Sun and 2000’s Boy From the Moon), making a huge fan of Andy Partridge in the process. Partridge signed White to his fledgling label and released the third M&HB album, The Secret Life of the Milk and Honey Band, to great acclaim in 2004.
For Dog Eared Moonlight, White continues his pursuit of a sound that hovers in the triangulated harmonic gravity of The Beatles and XTC and Neil Finn, a gorgeous and emotive brand of Pop that is baroque and jazzy and joyous and melancholy. “Maryfaith Autumn” sounds like a summit meeting between Ray Davies and the Moody Blues as they discuss the merits of XTC’s Mummer while “No World at All” glides along on a pedal steel lilt in the service of an ultimately simple yet completely captivating little love song that could have been written by Nick Drake if he’d ever found the smallest measure of happiness. Most of all, Dog Eared Moonlight is a masterpiece of atmospherics as White incorporates perfectly balanced acoustic and electric elements of British Psych Folk and pastoral Pop, managing to craft an album that is stylistically diverse yet beautifully interwoven as a whole.
The technical definition of a supergroup is a band comprised of members from wildly successful outfits who assemble for a side project. Tinted Windows certainly fits that bill on a number of levels, with a lineup that includes vocalist Taylor Hanson, taking a busman’s holiday away from his Pop-crazy brother band, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. Taking the actual commercial success quotient out of the equation, 75 percent of Tinted Windows are still responsible for some of the most infectious, inspired and fist-pumping Pop music made in the last quarter century. From this perspective, Tinted Windows has the presciently prickly feel of a stone cold winner. And if you’re a fan of ’60s/’70s sugar glazed guitar Pop, that feeling is spot on the money.
Tinted Windows fill their eponymous debut with all the effervescent melodicism, razor riffage and harmonic bliss that characterized The Beatles’ best work, not to mention the amped up and influenced generations that followed (the Raspberries, the Knack) and, of course, the bands that contributed their members to the band. In the Windows’ world, there is no economic downturn, no political dissent, no cultural divide, no divisive religious gulfs, just guys with guitars and the confused feelings that have framed the relationship between the sexes for eons. Besides, with this kind of style, who needs substance?
Hanson sings with hormonal glee (“Kind of a Girl,” “Can’t Get a Read on You,” “Without Love”) or stuttering anticipation (“Take Me Back”) or loveworn longing (“Back With You”), while Iha throws around hooks big enough to catch marlin and the heavenly rhythm section of Schlesinger and Carlos anchor it all with the raw sophistication of the early Kinks or Who. It may still be early spring on the calendar, but Tinted Windows has given us the album of the summer.
The last two years have been eventful for Brit Pop/Punk quintet Art Brut. Their sophomore release, last year’s It’s a Bit Complicated, inspired piles of great press (but perhaps not quite as much as their debut, Bang! Bang! Rock ‘N’ Roll) but when EMI released the single “Pump Up the Volume” without consulting them, frontman Eddie Argos embarked on a shock-and-awe blog campaign against his own label that got the band released from their contract.
For their follow-up, Art Brut Vs. Satan, the band continues in the vein of Complicated as Argos recites his pithy lyrical observations over the band’s jittery New Wave/buzzy Punk soundtrack, coming out the other end like a boozy blend of Blue Aeroplanes (without the pervasive seriousness), early XTC (with a bit more loutish attitude) and Wire (without the arty pretense). As usual, Argos’ lyrical observations straddle the line of insightful sincerity and cynical snark (“You like the Beatles and I like the Stones/But those are just records that our parents owned” from “What a Rush”; “Why is everyone trying to sound like U2?/It’s not a very cool thing to do” from “Slap Dash for No Cash”), all of which comes together in the skittering jam of the album’s closer, “Mysterious Bruises,” where Argos details his allergy meds-and-alcohol regimen (“I fought the floor and the floor won”) while the band churns out a reeling clockwork Pop spin on Gang of Four and early Talking Heads for nearly seven and a half minutes. Art Brut reminds us that there’s nothing better than Pop/Punk when it’s got the humor and presence of mind to have a laugh at its own expense.
This week’s vinyl excursion began with a typical hunt for something else, leading me to Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, which I then had to drop in the tray immediately as the soundtrack to my further searching. After Girlfriend concluded, I suddenly had an itch to find the only vinyl I have of Sweet’s — his first two albums, 1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth. After a bit of deliberation, I chose to burn Earth. I love Inside; I originally picked it up because Sweet had co-written songs on the album with Jules Shear and Pal Shazar, and being an enormous sponge for anything associated with Jules I sought it out. That led me Earth three years later, which I liked even more, particularly because of the presence of guitarists Gary Lucas, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, most of Trip Shakespeare (which ultimately morphed into Semisonic in the ’90s) and producer Fred Maher, most of whom eventually showed up on Girlfriend a little over a year later.
There are a great many similarities between Earth and Girlfriend beyond personnel. The divorce that inspired a good deal of Girlfriend’s painful songs was festering in the material on Earth. The lead off track, “Easy,” details a dissolving relationship with the bittersweet observation — applicable to both staying together and breaking up — “We always talked about how hard it was/When really it was so easy,” while Lloyd wraps heartbreakingly sinewy licks around Sweet’s chugging rhythms. It remains one of my favorite Matthew Sweet songs of all time.
A lot of people dismiss these early Sweet efforts because of the pure Pop at the heart of his sound at the time, the slightly too shiny production and the drum/synth programming that dominates the proceedings, all of which are legitimate dings. But I tend to look past those minor flaws when Gary Lucas plays flailing wah wah while Robert Quine plays eviscerating leads on Sweet’s gorgeous ode to love on the shamelessly poppy “Vertigo,” where he likens being in love to the disorienting giddiness of mountain heights. Of course, two songs later, he’s angrily lamenting his love’s gin-soaked indiscretions on “The Alcohol Talking.”
To round out the burn of Earth, I also included a couple of promo EPs I’d gotten, featuring the non-LP songs “Silent City” and “To Understand” and an early demo version of “Divine Intervention,” which would ultimately kick off Girlfriend two years later.
While Earth isn’t among Sweet’s best work (Girlfriend is his masterpiece, and In Reverse and 100% Fun are close seconds), it holds a special place for me because I had it in my collection before Girlfriend came along. In fact, it was the reason I was excited about Girlfriend in the first place. Look past Earth’s cheesy ’80s production quality and you’ll hear the quietly (and not so quietly) powerful beginnings of Matthew Sweet’s ascendancy.