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Sonic Youth, Adam Freeland, Slim Twig, Rhett Miller and Chuck Prophet

By Brian Baker · June 12th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

They can put a man on the moon, so why can’t someone engineer the 30-hour day? Between writing and planning to write and the administration of my writing and downloading and listening and that other devourer of time, family life, the only thing left to cut into is sleep — 3:30 a.m isn’t a bad time to call it a day, unless you’re waking up five hours later to start the next one.

I’m not a young man anymore, and all-nighters don’t hold quite the same appeal that they did back in college (and during some of my more hectic graphic design projects a mere 15 years ago). Then again, there is something compelling about experiencing music in the middle of the night, on the edge of exhaustion when something completely unexpected crawls into your ears and ignites the last of the fumes you’ve been running on.

I remember huddling around my crappy AM/FM radio late at night, volume low to avoid waking up my grandparents, trying to hold the signal long enough to hear the back-announce of the life-changing song that had just been played on the barely audible college radio station whose transmitter was apparently being powered by a sophomore on a crudely wired stationary bike. Obviously, the thrill of discovery isn’t quite as potent three and a half decades after that initial buzz, but a single song from that period can take me back to that time and place in a heartbeat.

Before I drift any farther down memory lane, best get back to the task at hand. Today’s music won’t wait for yesterday’s ghosts.

Sonic Youth has always been at their best when they’ve walked the razor line between the chaotic noise they instinctively know how to channel and the melodic roar that results from their exquisite control over their instruments and creative demons. The Eternal might well stand as the best of Sonic Youth’s best, an amazing feat for a band 30 years and 16 (official) albums into a wildly eclectic career.

Perhaps as a consequence of Sonic Youth using their SYR imprint as a repository for their more experimental excursions of late, the past few major releases have been touted by the press as “returns to form,” although that seems an odd banner to hang on a band that has proudly and defiantly resisted any kind of identifiable form in the first place. The Eternal, Sonic Youth’s debut for Matador after a long and recently tumultuous relationship with Geffen, could certainly be considered in that light as well, filled as it is with sharp-edge Rock that may be among the band’s most accessible in years.

The Eternal’s opener, “Sacred Trickster,” is a perfect example; angular and disparate guitar chords crash headlong into one another before Thurston Moore settles on a Foo Fighters worthy groove for Kim Gordon to wail away in her Johnette Napolitano-meets-Iggy Pop croon, crafting a thumping Garage Punk anthem with bafflingly cool lyrics (“I wish I could be/music on a tree”), all in a breathtaking two minutes. “Anti-Orgasm” follows a similar tack, stretching the concept into a six-minute mini epic that moves from thrashing Art Rock to Jam tranquility. Throughout the duration of The Eternal, Sonic Youth exhibits the dedication to pushing the sonic envelope that defined their earliest work with the same kind of rejuvenated spirit that has marked the Pixies’ reunion. If that’s a return to form for Sonic Youth, we’re all the better for it.

Adam Freeland has made his bones as a high profile DJ and producer, so when he decided to craft his own album he was determined to make more than just an immediate and ultimately disposable Electronica set. Determined to bring a legitimate Rock vibe to his album, Freeland utilized guitars, real drums, slamming beats and a crazily diverse guest list (Devo’s Jerry Casale, the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, the Distillers’ Brody Dalle, legendary wastoid Tommy Lee) to create the Rocktronic pulse-and-pound of Cope™. On the more traditional dance end, there’s Freeland’s cover of the David Essex Pop classic “Rock On,” with cynically rewritten lyrics and gloriously down tempo soundtrack and the throbbing Techno swing of “Strange Things,” a track that seems like a mutant cross of Depeche Mode and Genesis.

Freeland’s Rock cred comes through on “Borderline,” co-written and sung with desolate passion by Dalle over a metallic wash of synths and thunderous bass, and on “Only a Fool,” Freeland’s wonderfully subdued collaboration with Casale, who knows a thing or 20 about fusing Electronic music to an irresistible Rock/Pop vibe.

Cope™ may find itself stuck between worlds -- too Dance for Rock, too Rock for Dance -- but there’s plenty of each to satisfy the well-rounded listeners in each camp.

Speaking of avant Folktronica, Toronto native/actor/musical provocateur Slim Twig’s debut full-length, Contempt!, offers an album’s worth of proof that the twisted cool of his dual EP project last year -- Derelict Dialect and Vernacular Violence -- were no fluke. Twig himself likes to invoke Brian Eno’s name as a conceptual hero and the wildly experimental sounds emanating from Contempt!, little art damaged sonic passion plays that are disconnected from each other but inextricably tied together, give compelling evidence that the Eno reference is no mere conceit.

Twig sings in a register that calls up Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, but never in the service of anything that could be considered a conventionally structured song. Twig’s “songs” are like the oddly appropriate soundtracks to confounding four dimensional art installations where turning a corner impossibly reveals all sides of an object simultaneously. There are foundational elements of the Blues and Rockabilly skewed by dissonance and streaked with visceral cinematic devices that are both strangely attractive and disturbingly repellent.

Eno is an interesting compass point to attach to Contempt!, but Pere Ubu and Suicide and Tom Waits and James Blood Ulmer and the Residents are equally relevant touchstones in trying to fix Twig’s musical position. Not that he sounds like any of them or is trying to sound like any of them; Slim Twig merely exists in a realm where they all speak the same language but understand each other on a level that defies mere description.

In the press sheet that accompanies Rhett Miller’s new eponymous solo album, he notes that you can tell what his bandmates don’t like about his songwriting by the sound of his solo work, which is typically comprised of the songs that get booted in the band’s democracy. If that’s the case, The Old 97s’ voting majority might want to rethink their strategy, given the strength and depth of Miller’s fourth foray beyond the Americana confines of his regular band gig.

It is neither by accident nor laziness that Miller has christened his new album with his own name; Rhett Miller is an incredibly personal statement lyrically and musically. Coming on the heels of the death of his grandmother and the suicide of his literary hero David Foster Wallace, Miller takes a darkly philosophical angle on “Like Love” (“We all want things that we’ll never afford/Like a house filled with laughter every night”), “Caroline” (“I am my own worst enemy”) and “I Need to Know Where I Stand (“I loved you the most/now it feels like paralysis”), but often sets those melancholy ruminations to an almost spritely pop that Ryan Adams would be glad to own (“If It’s Not Love”). By contrast, some of Miller’s more hopeful messages are couched in his best torch and twang (“Bonfire”).

Then there’s “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore,” the album’s opener where the band plays a visceral electric waltz while Miller cracks in the chorus’ high note in the service of the kind of song that Elvis Costello has made famous, and Miller’s sci-fi Stones homage on “Happy Birthday Don’t Die.” With work this consistently strong, The Old 97s better take care or they’ll vote Rhett Miller right into a permanent solo circumstance.

For those who’ve ever wondered what Phish would sound like decked out in symphony drag and performing a score that runs the gamut from Fantasia wonder to Phantom Empire Trek Wars dramatic expanse to Indiana Jones joy riding to National Geographic translational beauty, Trey Anastasio has provided at least a partial answer with the release of Time Turns Elastic. Collaborating with arranger Don Hart, Anastasio has crafted a soundtrack without accompanying filmic imagery, a trilogy of movements that ebb and flow with the cinematic tension between Hart’s swelling orchestrations and Anastasio’s delicate guitar phrasings.

The album’s opener, “Movement 1,” establishes the instrumental atmosphere of Time Turns Elastic, leading into Anastasio’s vocal turns in “Movement 2.” “Submarine,” the album’s ostensible title track, offers Anastasio through a Rufus Wainwright-conducts-Phish prism of cryptic theatricality while “Landslide” dances and lilts with Knopfleresque fluidity as Hart surrounds Anastasio with a score that suggests Randy Newman’s wry humor, Raymond Scott’s serious whimsy and John Barry’s sophisticated cool.

With “Movement 3,” Anastasio channels his Jazz chops which Hart underpins with more traditional classicism before ultimately returning to the pair’s original Time Turns Elastic themes. As an added bonus, Anastasio closes the album with the acoustic demo that launched the concept in the first place, a sonic sketchpad that only hints at the majesty that Hart ultimately invests in the work. Time Turns Elastic may be a little too esoteric for the casual Phish fan, but the faithful will find much to love in Anastasio’s Rock orchestra pit.

There is a fair case to be made that Chuck Prophet was one of the architects of the budding Americana movement. His addition to the lineup of Green on Red in 1985 facilitated the band’s shift from Psych Pop proponents of L.A.’s Paisley Underground to beacons of desert Rock and the twangy Country spiced Pop that would ultimately earn the Americana tag. After Green on Red dissolved in 1992, Prophet concentrated on his solo career, which he had launched two years previously with his 1990 debut, Brother Aldo.

As per usual, I was combing the racks for some old Leo Kottke when I ran across my vinyl copy of Brother Aldo. The album is available on CD now, but I’m a big lottery win away from buying all of my old vinyl on disc, so I pulled it out to give it the turntable-to-CD-player treatment.

I hadn’t really listened to the album since finding it at Shake It several years ago, so I was amazed as the needle dropped and I heard the sound of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recording together with T Bone Burnett, a decade and a half before they actually did. In fact, I may have fallen hard for the Plant/Krauss project because it subconsciously reminded me of this album. Prophet’s vocal partner on Brother Aldo was his wife Stephanie Finch and, along with a potent cast of studio help (including iconic music figures Spooner Oldham and Scott Matthews), they created a phenomenal little Americana record.

Prophet’s never too far from his love of Dylan, and Brother Aldo starts off with a couple of prime examples in the electric Folk Pop bop of “Look Both Ways” and the Dylan-channels-Willie-Nelson ache of “Rage and Storm.” The Plant/Krauss vibe shows up with a vengeance on the slinky, sexy “Say It Ain’t So;” if the pair ever decides to reprise the magnificence of Raising Sand, they should really cover this song, although in all honesty I don’t know that they could nail it any better than Prophet and Finch in emotive power.

That same atmosphere is woven into “Step Right This Way,” a song Prophet co-wrote with Mare Winningham, and the bluesy “Tune of an Evening,” where Finch taps into her inner Emmylou Harris; either would be equally appropriate for the next Plant/Krauss hootenanny. The twosome breath similar fire into the old Jack Clement chestnut “Queen Bee” while the title track finds Prophet veering more into T Bone Burnett/James McMurtry territory.

I loved Green on Red back in the ’80s, and I’ve followed Chuck’s exploits ever since. I had the chance to talk with him several times — our first conversation was right after the release of The Hurting Business, his 2001 Americana-meets-Beck mash-up — and he’s always been an insightful and hilarious interview subject. Although The Hurting Business sold pretty well, he took a lot of heat from some of his core fans who felt he’d abandoned his Americana roots, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

But in the end Chuck was — and remains — pretty philosophical about the whole deal. This was his perspective on it eight years ago, and I can’t imagine that it’s changed a whole lot in the interim.

“Everybody wants to be loved and accepted,” he said in 2001. “It is a paltry ambition, but I can't imagine one that is more fun. I can’t think of anything more viscerally fun than Rock & Roll. You get to beat up the same songs night after night, you get to make these records, which are heartbreaking to make, and sometimes immoral and sometimes not. If you’ve got a passion for the process, it can be a pretty cool thing to do.”

Amen, Brother Chuck. Testify.


 
 
 
 

 

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