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Home · Articles · Music · I Shall Be Released · The New Pornographers, Josh Ritter, Paul Weller, Tonic, Walter Schreifels and Greg Laswell

The New Pornographers, Josh Ritter, Paul Weller, Tonic, Walter Schreifels and Greg Laswell

By Brian Baker · May 13th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

I’m drained, boys and girls. This posting is wicked late due to a veritable shitstorm of deadlines this past week, which have included five features and four interviews, plus a variety of smaller items including MidPoint Music Festival preparations and research for perhaps four to five additional interviews next week.

Then there’s the annual Mother’s Day scramble and the standard stuff that needs doing around the house, and I’m almost too bleary to address my off-topic anger over the defeat of the Lakota school levy (my daughter is a special needs student in the district) and my disgust over the tearful apology offered by odious View Nazi Elisabeth Hasselbeck to ESPN reporter Erin Andrews for suggesting that her convicted stalker could have seen almost as much of Andrews by way of her Dancing With the Stars costumes as he did by peeping at her through holes in hotel walls.

That’s dangerously close to the old “She was asking for it” defense of rapists, and Hasselbeck’s boorish remarks are evidence that her Christian Right moral arrogance goes hand-in-hand with her social/cultural ignorance. Like a good many imperious Bible-wavers, Hasselbeck bemoans the lack of Christian morality in the world with a maddening religious superiority that's ultimately undercut by the completely immoral manner in which she presents her narrowly considered opinions. When will The View bounce this Tea Party dipshit so she can get her own Fox News talk show, spout this crap to her marginalized audience and wind up as Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nominee on the Nice-House-But-Nobody’s-Home ticket? (Oh, and that tearful apology where she said she phoned Andrews to say she was so, so sorry? Never happened, according to Andrews.)

There, now I’m not so tired. But you’re here for the music … scroll on.

A.C. Newman should be studied by science in an attempt to discover the secret of his dual creative successes as the primary spark plug for The New Pornographers and as a solo artist. Newman and the Pornographers are riding an unprecedented hot streak since their 2001 debut, Mass Romantic, with the band notching four consecutive albums that have garnered considerable acclaim with a pair of equally adored solo projects tossed in for good measure. The streak becomes even more impressive when you factor in the work of other Pornographers, which includes Kathryn Calder’s Immaculate Machine, Neko Case’s exquisite catalog and Dan Bejar’s wonderfully weird Destroyer. Each successive Pornographers album has shown some impressive level of maturation while still operating within the Beatles-meets-The Move-meets-Indie Rock paradigm that has defined them from the start, achieving the almost impossible feat of evolving without alienating their fan base.

The Porns’ fifth album, Together, continues the band’s unparalleled string of studio excellence while furthering the concrete-instrument-and-arrangement approach of 2007’s baroque Pop and inexplicably misunderstood Challengers. Together’s sound seems more moodily reflective and less frenetically adrenalized, an atmosphere reinforced by a sonorous cello; even Case’s normally exuberant appearances are more restrained (“The Crash Years,” “My Shepherd”). And yet there is an irresistible, contemporized ’60s Pop energy on Together, even in the album’s more subdued context (“Your Hands Together,” “We End Up Together”).

Newman’s quirky and perfectly indecipherable wordplay is heightened by his gorgeous melodies (the darkly bouncy “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” the ABBA-tributes-Sgt. Pepper lilt of “A Bit Out of My Bed”) and are, as always, wonderfully counterpointed by Bejar’s equally odd contributions (“Silver Jenny Dollar,” “If You Can’t Seem My Mirrors,” “Daughters of Sorrow”).

Together is the pinnacle of The New Pornographers’ growth and evolution, at least until they grow and evolve a little more next time out.

Perhaps because he caught his childhood love of music at least in part from Nashville Skyline, Josh Ritter has been subjected to Bob Dylan comparisons for most of his career. Not that those comparisons have been unwarranted; Ritter’s Folk constructions on his first five albums over the past 10 years, whether electric or acoustic, and his lyrical cadence have been more than a little reminiscent of Hibbing’s favorite son.

On his sixth album, So Runs the World Away, Ritter expands his palette in every conceivable direction. His Dylanesque qualities peek through on occasion (“Orbital”), as does his equally longstanding admiration of Johnny Cash (“Folk Bloodbath”), but Ritter’s Leonard Cohen references come to the forefront on World, particularly when he finds a lovely, melancholy melody and repeats it hypnotically (“The Curse,” “Another New World,” “See How Man Was Made”).

Ritter also touches on the exquisite Pop songcraft of Paul Simon (“Lock”), the atmospheric delicacy and passionate power of Jeff Buckley (“Change of Time,” “The Remnant”) and the dark reflective nature of Nick Cave (“Rattling Locks”), all of it channeled through Ritter’s contemporarily colored Folk prism.

Elsewhere, “Southern Pacifica” has the gently swaying rhythm of a Clem Snide ballad, “Lantern” pulses with the Folk/Rock potential of a Nils Lofgren/Bruce Springsteen collaboration and the seven-minute epic “Another New World” combines all of Ritter’s musical gifts in a modern sea shanty about old exploration as guided by Brian Eno.

Like any great chef, Josh Ritter isn’t defined by the ingredients he uses, but what he creates with them in his own unique kitchen.

Discussions on the topics of musical reinvention and exploration are generally dominated by marquee names like David Bowie, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, U2 and Radiohead, but Paul Weller wouldn’t be out of place in that renowned company. The Jam’s mod Punk verve and the Style Council’s cocktail Jazz Pop cool represented a broad sonic spectrum, but Weller’s solo career has been even more wildly navigated, from his early Small Faces/Traffic-flavored Folk Rock direction to his more pastoral Folk Pop musings to his viscerally modern updating of his early work.

On his last two studio albums, 2005’s As Is Now and 2008’s 22 Dreams, Weller synthesized his early Punk/Pop freneticism with the subdued yet bristling reflection of his later work to create two of the best album’s in Weller’s already impressive catalog.

Anyone up for a trilogy? On Wake Up the Nation, Weller ratchets up the intensity to near Jam-levels and sounds positively rejuvenated in the process. The album’s opener, “Moonshine,” powered by the thunderous beat of ex-Move drummer Bev Bevan, crackles and kicks with the giddy abandon of a lost Elvis Costello and the Attractions track, while the swaggering title track breathes mature fire like the Buzzcocks’ second coming.

Weller never forgets his solo evolution either, from the Kinks/Faces swing of “No Tears to Cry” to the melodic Psych Pop discord of “Andromeda” to the magical misery tourism of “Find the Torch, Burn the Plans.” At the same time, there is a sense of experimentalism and playful invention to Wake Up the Nation, a lyrical acidity that rivals Graham Parker and incredible musical support from the likes of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, David Bowie pianist Mike Garson and ex-Jam bassist Bruce Foxton.

Wake Up the Nation is more than just a great Paul Weller album, it’s a sonic manifesto, a promise that he can revisit the past, reinvent it for the present and kick it flailing into the future.

A dozen years ago, Tonic began laying the foundation for what appeared to be the next great Rock success story. After a three year period of new-band dues-paying, the Los Angeles quartet released their debut album, Lemon Parade, in 1996 to critical acclaim and commercial acceptance; the album notched platinum sales and its massive hit single, “If You Could Only See,” was the most played song of 1998. In rapid succession, Tonic turned out two more stellar studio albums — 1999’s Sugar, 2002’s Head On Straight — and the 1999 Live and Enhanced CD EP. The band’s early success and relentless work ethic cost them original drummer Kevin Shepherd and bassist Dan Rothchild, who was replaced by Dan Lavery (the drum slot remained a rotating position). With albums charting high and tracks making their way into films, television and tribute albums, Tonic seemed poised to become the next great American band, but the grind took its toll and the core trio — guitarist/vocalist Emerson Hart, guitarist Jeff Russo and bassist Dan Lavery — announced their hiatus after the 2004 tour for Head On Straight.

In the subsequent six years, the three musicians have each achieved some measure of success; Russo composed for television and film and recorded with his band Low Stars, Lavery built a studio and toured with The Revisionists and The Fray and Hart released his debut solo album, 2007’s Cigarettes & Gasoline after writing “Generations,” the brilliant theme song from television’s criminally ignored American Dreams. Two years ago, the trio reassembled to tour in support of a greatest hits collection and the results were satisfying enough for them to begin working toward a new album.

Eight years after their last album of new material, Tonic finally emerges with the appropriately titled Tonic, not missing a step and sounding as though they’d never been away. “Release Me,” the album’s lead-off track and first single, is classic Tonic; anthemic Rock with a crystalline Pop edge, the perfect blend of contemporary power and texture and Beatlesque classicism. That formula is in full bloom on Tonic, from the gently explosive “I Want It to Be” and the Lennon/McCartney-in-Wonderland bounce of “Send a Message” to the gorgeous balladeering of “Resolve” and the infectious bridging of decades in “Precious Little Bird.”

Not many bands could come back with anything better than a mediocre effort after an eight-year hiatus, but Tonic’s eponymous new album shows them in complete control of their already well proven abilities as masters of both rousing, effective Rock and evocatively heartfelt Pop.

Frontmen of blistering Punk outfits making a sensitive turn toward an edgy, scuffed-heart-on-a-dirty-sleeve direction with their solo careers is certainly nothing new; Paul Westerberg, Eef Barzelay, Mike Herrera and Ian MacKaye all fit the template. With the release of the acoustic yet still powerful An Open Letter to the Scene, Walter Schreifels — whose résumé includes entries like Gorilla Biscuits, CIV, Youth of Today, the brutal Punk of Quicksand and the kinder, gentler Alt.Rock of Rival Schools — joins the roll call of his likeminded peer group.

On Open Letter, Schreifels inhabits the role of acoustic Folk/Pop troubadour while still managing to touch on his Punk/Hardcore past. His stripped-back yet still bristling cover of Agnostic Front’s “Society Suckers” vibrates with anthemic Hardcore power even in Schreifel’s unplugged arrangement, and he gives a similar treatment to his own “Don’t Gotta Prove It,” originally done by CIV.

Throughout Open Letter, Schreifels reinterprets his Punk roots with Indie Folk/Pop melodicism, from the Freedy Johnstonesque weary beauty of “Arthur Lee’s Lullabye” and the Ryan Adams swagger of “Save the Saveables” to the Wilco-tinged expanse of “Shootout” and the Bill Mallonee-meets-Paul Westerberg lilt of “Wild Pandas.”

An Open Letter to the Scene may not appeal to those among Schreifels’ fan base who miss the sonic nutkick of CIV and Quicksand, but his new solo persona is a kick of a much subtler and more satisfying variety. In other news, Schreifels has stated that he would like to do another solo album before the end of the year and that the new Rival Schools album is imminent. Stay tuned.

I have no idea if Greg Laswell is a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but the show’s creators are clearly a fan of his; Laswell’s songs have been used in the show six times to date, including “Off I Go” on last year’s season finale, and a fresh version of which appears on Laswell’s new album and wrap-up of his love-and-loss trilogy, Take a Bow. The Long Beach, Calif.-based singer/songwriter/producer self-released his debut, 2003’s Good Movie, which led to his signing with Vanguard, a bit of good fortune that happened to coincide with the end of Laswell’s marriage. His major label debut, 2006’s Through Toledo, documented his despair and depression over the failure of his relationship and began his emotionally-wrought album cycle that continued with 2008’s hopeful yet melancholy Three Flights from Alto Nido and now concludes with the often effervescent but still reflective Take a Bow.

Laswell starts the album with the propulsive “Take Everything,” a jumping little Pop/Rock gem that exudes the dour joy of a Stephin Merritt/Owl City collaboration, its bouncy soundtrack balanced by its lyrical resignation (“Go on and take everything from me and more”). If “Take Everything” had been the template for Take a Bow, with minor variations in mood and tempo defining the album, this would be a really good release. But Laswell, a multi-instrumentalist who played a healthy portion of the music on the album, is much more interested in expanding his sonic palette with Take a Bow, which he does with a vengeance, from the piano Pop balladry of “My Fight (For You)” to The National-tinged “Lie to Me” to the lyrical and musical confrontation in the Radiohead-channels-Kurt-Weill bluster of “Come Clean.”

Although Laswell’s heartbreak happened over five years ago, he continues to mine great songs from that sad period and he may be creatively connected to the event for the duration of his career. But there are a couple of important facets to Take a Bow; first, there are clear indications that Laswell is looking back with some measure of acceptance (“Around the Bend,” “You, Now,” “In Front of Me”) and second, he’s exploring a broad spectrum of sonic possibilities, from expansive Beach Boys harmonies to Jon Brion-like baroque Pop wonder to beautifully crafted Beatlesque classicism informed by contemporary Pop angst.

Taken as a whole, Take a Bow is an amazingly diverse musical statement on heartbreak and healing, evidence of Greg Laswell’s gift for songs and melodies and sentiments that mourn and rejoice with equal passion.

 
 
 
 

 

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