(EDITOR'S NOTE: Because it's so good, we've decided to spread around the music reviews from our Brian Baker's regular I Shall Be Released column, so keep a look out for regular reviews of recent releases throughout the week. Brian's reviews of older titles released in the past several months that readers may have missed will be its own separate blog feature now, BackBlog. Welcome to the first installment.)
Last year, Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon and longtime cohort/GA guitar tech Ian Perkins translated their old school habit of enlightening each other to new and different music into a new and different side project which they dubbed The Horrible Crowes. Looking to explore completely unique aspects of their sonic identity, Fallon and Perkins dug into fairly esoteric sections of their record collections to find the inspirations and influences that sparked their creative cores on Elsie, their debut Horrible Crowes release.Although Fallon is the first to admit his devotion to Bruce Springsteen and his desire to translate the Boss’ epic populist Rock into a punkier context with Gaslight Anthem, one of his avowed second line influences isTthe Afghan Whigs. It is that twisted soul mutation that informs the dark, mysterious core of the Horrible Crowes, from the quiet dread of “Last Rites” to the seductive Greg Dulli croon of “Sugar” to the soft Whigsian explosion of “Go Tell Everybody.” There are other melancholy textures on Elsie, as well; shades of Nick Cave and Tom Waits tint the backgrounds (“Go Tell Everybody,” “Mary Ann,” “Cherry Blossoms”) and the hushed tumult of the National and Paul Westerberg bubbles up through the mix (“Cherry Blossoms,” “Ladykiller,” “Blood Loss”), while Fallon’s lyrics paint a somber scene. There are even slight returns to Fallon’s Springsteen altar (“Behold the Hurricane,” “Crush”) but even when he and Perkins lean toward Gaslight Anthem territory, they work to maintain a clear distance between GA and the Crowes.
Like Dulli, Fallon can go from a tortured whisper to a visceral shriek in a matter of seconds, and his and Perkins’ guitar work and arrangements mirror that ability on the music side. In some ways, the Horrible Crowes’ Elsie is like Fallon’s take on Nebraska, a stripped back testament that’s too dark to take out with any frequency but is just right for an occasional cathartic howl.Amber Nash and Jordan Neff met at an Oktoberfest party four years ago and within weeks were personally involved and professionally linked in a ukelele-centric Folk/Bluegrass duo that they dubbed Shiny and the Spoon (which one is Shiny and which is the Spoon has long been a matter of debate, and one gets the impression it’s a shifting definition between the two). For a spell, both Nash and Neff were roll-called as members of Magnolia Mountain, but they broke ranks last year to concentrate on SATS and the most immediate result of that increase in time and energy is Ferris Wheel, the duo’s debut full-length.At first blush, Nash and Neff seem like a standard issue Folk duo, but SATS is far from typical. “Snowflake,” the lead-off track on Ferris Wheel, is a good example of what sets them apart. Although a strummed acoustic guitar intro and lightly touched upright bass suggest a familiar structure, Nash’s tremulous upper register vocal is more reminiscent of ’60s AM radio Pop chicks and contemporary Indie Folk/Rock chanteuses. But the pair quickly slides into a swirling atmospheric soundscape and “Snowflake” begins to breathe with a compelling and melancholy sigh that transcends their chosen genre.
Of course, not every song on Ferris Wheel follows this template, but it stakes a sonic claim that exponentially expands Shiny and the Spoon’s parameters. It happens again at Ferris Wheel’s midpoint when Nash and Neff offer their spectacular Indie Folk version of a-ha’s Synth Pop hit “Take On Me,” and continues on “Run,” which mixes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and a mariachi interlude. On “Killin’ the Flower,” Nash croons with the traditional modernism of k.d. lang while the pair constructs a Country soundtrack that swings its legs from Charlie Rich’s piano bench, while the title track glitters subtly as panned gold with an electric undercurrent to accompany the moody Folk/Pop that floats just above the counterpoint.
Ferris Wheel is a magnificent benchmark for Shiny and the Spoon, establishing the duo as acolytes of the dusty past and visionaries of a bright future.Lana Del Rey’s often somnambulist performance on Saturday Night Live recently was her introduction to most of the country and if the bloggers and commentators are to be believed, it was a poor first impression to say the least. Del Rey has become a lightning rod for criticism and Born to Die, her quasi-debut album (she released an album in 2010 under her given name, Lizzy Grant) has been unflatteringly painted with an equally broad brush as a result.
Del Rey has been denigrated as a passionless huckster in a lot of reviews that cite her less than dynamic SNL performance and that’s a shame because Born to Die is a slinky Indie Electro Lounge exercise in sonic seduction.
Musically, Del Rey offers jazzy melodies that pulse with an Indie Rock edge and girl group snap, underscored by sampled orchestrations, beatbox rhythms and Tom Waitsian tool-shed atmospherics, while her vocal presence is a suggestive approximation of Kate Bush’s kooky swoop, Julee Cruise’s sultry whisper, Cyndi Lauper’s babydoll chirp and Marianne Faithfull’s youthful rasp.
She has referred to herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which seems like a fair assessment. Sonically, there is a hypnotic continuity of tempo on Born to Die, a turn-off to some but an interesting counterpoint to the diversity of Del Rey’s song subjects, from the disturbing sexual dysfunction of “Off to the Races” and the hymnal Pop of “Video Games” to the Britney Spears thump and bump of “National Anthem” and the gauzy Angelo Badalamenti/Lee Hazelwood/Neptunes lost love moan of “Blue Jeans.” Del Rey might not have been ready for SNL’s prime time performance but Born to Die is clear evidence that she is most assuredly a musical force to be reckoned with going forward, regardless of the haters’ poisonous opinions to the contrary.
Click on for reviews of releases by Hank III, Lindsey Buckingham and Mike Doughty.