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Ra Ra Riot, Stan Ridgway, Bobby Bare Jr. and BARB

By Brian Baker · September 23rd, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

Albert Einstein was partially right: Time isn’t just relative, it’s actually like a relative.

Time sleeps on your couch and eats your food and doesn’t pay rent and borrows your car and hogs the TV and doesn’t make any worthwhile contribution to the family cause. It just sits there ... passing.

Time is a weird construct for those of us in the deadline-based industry; we’re constantly living in a future that arrived yesterday. Get the interview now that you’ll need in three weeks, get the CDs now that you need to review next month and then get so busy that you don’t touch any of it until the day it’s due. And all that other messiness regarding day-to-day living inserts itself squarely in the middle of your nicely organized week and the whole thing goes to hell in a flaming hatbox.

As John Lennon once rightly noted, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Does it ever. But no matter how crazy it gets at the intersection of Writer Place and Everyday Life Street, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t significantly change any of it. Tweak it a little, sure. Change it, nah.

Oh, there are times when I drift into a quaint fantasy of being on my own, pounding away on an ancient Underwood in a squalid garret, writing my obscure masterpiece while nodding out on laudanum and looking all gaunt chic in my velvet smoking jacket and silk ascot. And then I remember my thousands of CDs and vinyl albums and cassettes and wonder where they would fit in the garret, followed by the fact that I live in the 21st century and that no one has actually written in a garret since Poe. Or even used the word "garret." It means attic.

Besides, I have the Bunker. And a great if chaotic and slightly crazy family and a broad and appropriately bizarre circle of friends. I wouldn’t trade that for a dozen squalid garrets. Or a thousand successfully-met deadlines.

To that point, here’s my latest way-behind review column.

Any band’s sophomore album is a natural evolutionary talking point and generally regarded as proof of the old musical adage that a band takes its whole life to make its first album and nine months to make the second one. In the case of Ra Ra Riot, the evolution is more complex and tragically steered.

Three years ago, the Syracuse, N.Y., sextet was riding high on an intense media buzz after their CMJ and SXSW gigs and glowing reviews for their eponymous six-track debut EP comparing the young Chamber Pop group to R.E.M., U2 and the Smiths. But the ride came to an abrupt end when drummer/lyricist John Pike drowned in the midst of what should have been a triumphant tour. R3 regrouped and, with the support and insistence of Pike’s family, soldiered on, becoming an even stronger unit in the process.

The band’s debut full-length, 2008’s The Rhumb Line, was almost universally praised for its Chamber Emo passion and originality, garnering a rare-for-an-indie four-star review in Rolling Stone. The Rhumb Line also stood as a living memorial to Pike; he had co-written more than half of the album’s songs.

Clearly, Ra Ra Riot will never forget their departed friend, as evidenced by the prominent “For John” in the credits of their new album, The Orchard. At the same time, The Orchard also represents R3’s first album without Pike’s actual input, which, in one sense, could almost classify it as Ra Ra Riot’s second debut. The band still brilliantly marries a sonorous Chamber classicism to an effervescent New Wave pulse, exemplified by the one-two opening punch of the melancholy title track and the manically driven U2/English Beat/Afro Pop pace of “Boy.” With “Too Dramatic,” R3 strikes a Dance Pop pose that handily dismisses Maroon 5’s lightweight and trendy genre attempts, a beating that continues on “Shadowcasting” and “Massachusetts,” where the band folds in the slinky Pop subtlety and careening excitement of The New Pornographers while maintaining their own unique Baroque Pop identity.

On The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot walks the trickiest creative wire of all, namely expanding their existing sonic repertoire while reinforcing the wonderful singularity that got them to this point in the first place.

Wall of Voodoo might well have been little more than a blip on the New Wave radar of the late ’70s and early ’80s if it hadn’t been for the hypnotic menace of frontman Stan Ridgway. With the Voodoos and in his early solo work, Ridgway’s delivered his darkly twisted and cinematically detailed word plays out of the side of his mouth with a distinctive vocal edge and the blackest sense of humor imaginable.

Although Ridgway had always been a creative chameleon, he made a bold musical statement with 1996’s Black Diamond, an album that established the fact that Ridgway had absorbed many influences and wasn’t the least bit interested in merely parroting them. His subsequent work ran the gamut from dark Pop songs with a filmic quality to weirdly ambient soundscapes to actual film scores.

Ridgway’s latest solo album, Neon Mirage, was forged in the furnace of personal tragedy; he lost his father and uncle while recording the album, and violinist Amy Farris, then a part of producer Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women, took her own life in the midst of contributing to the Neon Mirage sessions. Whether by direct inspiration or intuitive prescience, Ridgway’s work on Neon Mirage draws on some of his earliest influences, particularly the Marty Robbins and Hank Williams albums that populated his father’s record collection.

But even as Ridgway explores his inner desert balladeer on “Like a Wanderin’ Star,” “This Town Called Fate” and “Halfway There,” the songs are always steeped in his typical storytelling intricacy and dark melodic appeal, from the Morphine-touched Jazz bleat of “Turn a Blind Eye” to his brilliant spin on Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce” to the vintage Ridgway anti-war lope of “Flag Up On a Pole” and the slinky, kinky noirish detective-theme Blues of “Scavenger Hunt.”

Ridgway’s work is always passionate and completely compelling and Neon Mirage is no exception, but Farris’ tragic suicide, after years of struggling with the tyranny of depression, provides an even more poignant tint to the album, as her final violin performances haunt the album in the best possible way. Neon Mirage is Stan Ridgway at his quixotic best, telling jagged tales of modern life gone wrong with a casual urgency and a novelist’s eye for detail, all set to a soundtrack that soaks up light in a beautiful darkness like polished ebony.

With a relatively famous songwriting/performing father, an early taste of success (at five, the youngest person ever to claim a Grammy nomination for his duet with his father, “Daddy What If”) and a healthy talent of his own, it would have been very easy for Bobby Bare Jr. to slip into the Nashville mainstream and make a safe and lucrative career for himself. Clearly, that eventuality held no interest for Bare, who caroused his way through a pair of chaotic but relatively high profile albums with his first band, the Americana-tinged Indie Rock fervor of Bare Jr., before embarking on a scaled back but no less passionate solo journey, beginning with 2002’s understated Young Criminals’ Starvation League, the title serving as the name of Bare’s subsequent band of rotating talent.

Over the past decade and a half, regardless of the name over the door, Bare has applied raucous volume and a reverent hush to intimately twisted tales of everyday life in song.

For A Storm-A Tree-My Mother’s Head, his first album of new material in four years, Bare explores his full sonic range, from the concussive force of Bare Jr. to the quiet reflection of his solo work and beyond. The album vaults into life with “Your Goat is on Fire,” a swinging, soaring Indie Rock track that points up Bare’s love of The Smiths, followed by the Morrissey/Countrypolitan bounce of “Sad Smile,” the skewed Nashville Pop lilt of “Don’t Go to Chattanooga” and the almost Prog-like majesty of “Swollen But Not the Same.”

Bare’s solo acoustic side is represented by the sparse contemporary murder balladry of “One of Us Has Got to Go,” but it’s the rare quiet moment (other than the slowly building title track, inspired by a storm that wrecked his parents’ home and nearly killed his mother) on an album that bristles with barely tethered emotion and electricity; witness the rollicking swing of “The Sky Is the Ground,” a propulsive Pop barnstormer that incongruously but perfectly details the bike accident that nearly killed Bare’s son.

A Storm-A Tree-My Mother’s Head finds Bobby Bare Jr. swaggering and sweating with a volume and intensity that he hasn’t exhibited over the course of a whole album in a decade. And it is a most welcome return.

Anyone slightly confused by the sonic experimentalism exhibited by Neil Finn’s son Liam over the course of his band and solo career might be forgetting that his Uncle Tim’s Split Enz DNA is coiled up in there as well. As a result, Liam Finn often sounds like an Antipodean take on Brian Eno’s musical direction in the wake of his defection from Roxy Music in the mid-’70s, chock full of sonic weirdness, aggressive Ambience and lyrical pretzel logic underscored by a soundtrack that balances irresistible Pop melodicism and an arty and edgy off-kilter appeal. Those qualities and more are evident on BARB, the name of Finn’s latest project and the title of the group’s debut recording.

Although Finn and his New Zealand cronies claim that BARB is an actual band, the quintet assembled for a lark, booking a studio for four weeks with no songs written and no clear purpose in mind. That lack of planning gives BARB a certain spontaneity as well as a slightly lessened focus. Luckily, with the talent pool involved (the names don’t mean much here but back in NZ, BARB is a much-anticipated supergroup of sorts), the diffused nature of the album is hardly a distraction, as the songs and arrangements that the band came up with on the fly are both poppishly engaging and quirkily satisfying.

“Counting Sheep” is a chip off the old Crowded Enz, while “Leo” (about the talented Mr. DiCaprio, from a pre-schooler’s perspective) bubbles along like a Warm Jets-era Eno outtake and “Not a Bird” sounds like a third of Polyphonic Spree on a wine binge. Finn says that BARB is attempting to channel American Soul music, and there is a case to be made for a certain indie Funk element to the proceedings but that seems to take a back seat to the Art Pop that predominates (the Ambient Noise Pop of “Time to Contemplate,” the boozy Split Enz-meets-contemporary-Indie-Rock dissonance of “Looking Out Through Barb’s Eyes”).

That’s not a criticism by any stretch of the imagination; in these days of young artists being hammered into an existing production template to sound like everything else, BARB is refreshingly unique and distinctly different, just like Uncle Tim Finn’s carnival freaks nearly four decades ago and the generations they’ve inspired ever since.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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