ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND | FEVERS AND MIRRORS | FIGURE 8 | HEARTBREAKER | LIFT YOUR SKINNY FISTS LIKE ANTENNAS TO HEAVEN | PARACHUTES | STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA | SUPREME CLIENTELE
ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND – U2
Ironically enough, I wouldn’t choose this as a desert island record.
Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of\Beautiful Day\Elevation
Ah, familiar ground. Oh – no, I have not heard this album before now. But I know what to expect. Metallica’s Death Magnetic will be the same way. The word “formulaic” sometimes carries an unnecessary sting. I hesitate to brand these bands as such, but they both are, in the best possible sense. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve found their niche and are acutely aware of their strengths.
Though it’s always exciting to finally experience some new, daring, hyped-up music without having any idea what you’re in for, by this point in the reviewing process (I didn’t listen to these records in chronological order), I was more than ready for a trusty old standby. I was tired of having my expectations crushed, altered and subverted; enlightening though those encounters were, they were exhausting as well. On first listen, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was an invigorating, comfortable success. However, it didn’t hold up as well once I judged it with a clearer head.
This much-heralded album finds U2 emerging from a meta-satirical pop-art phase marked by almost wholly electronic experimental dance tunes and strange, prop-laden live shows. So I’ll grant that ATYCLB was a drastic paradigm shift – they pretty much instantaneously carried on with pop as if nothing had changed since Rattle And Hum. It’s an elegant, humble-sounding work, while still making it clear that nearly every song is intended as an anthem. U2 are masters of deception: this record sounds very relaxed and jubilant, even though I’m sure it was made meticulously and tirelessly.
The album’s overall mood and message is one of optimism, brotherhood and pious spirituality so deep and constant that they must have toned it down just a bit to barely keep the LP on the secular side, which probably increased their dividends tenfold. Who can blame them? Mass-market soulfulness pays off far more than religion-specific catharsis. As South Park once brilliantly noted, they probably just had to replace every mention of Jesus with the word “baby” (although neither word is uttered very much here, that anecdote seemed too good to pass up).
U2’s commitment to breaking new ground and broadening their horizons is laudable. Now, these songs are at heart the same stadium-rousing crowd-pleasers and power ballads the band has always written, crossing over to Americana music as they did for their masterpiece The Joshua Tree. What I hadn’t anticipated was that they wisely deviate just enough from the Edge’s increasingly derivative and one-note playing style to really add some cool sounds and touches to their material. Not that the once-astonishing riffmaster is absent – his skills are utilized just enough, adding nuanced counterpoint to the main part of each tune.
Their melodies here never repeat past ideas (though they do recall them), which is unthinkable considering the band had already begun to do that before they veered into electronica. Those Eurobeat influences from the past decade are still noticeable underneath a lot of the melodies. They don’t quite sound completely dated yet, but I bet they will in a couple of years. For now, however, they’re among the most graceful and organic electronic elements I’ve ever heard on a rock record. It’s a mature way to acknowledge the past, while evolving.
After one listen, however, these compositions aren’t enticing anymore. Only a couple tracks here are uptempo, and the rhythm section does next to nothing interesting, which is a shame. They’re still decent confluences of melody and words, but they have no mystique or deeper significance to pique the listener’s curiosity. Everything they have to offer can basically be appropriated in a couple go-rounds. Though the tunes are distinctive and hummable while they’re on, I found myself quickly discarding them for more idiosyncratic, nuanced fare (other than the four hits, which can stay).
Ultimately, U2’s music isn’t aggressive enough, and I don’t mean in the “angry, rough-edged” sense – in today’s world of ever-expanding stimuli and ever-decreasing attention spans, it’s reasonable to expect a composer to offer listeners something unique, punchy and noteworthy. By expertly pilfering just enough from R&B traditions and relying on charisma rather than complexity to carry the songs, they come across as slow and comfortable. But over the course of an album, that style takes its toll. The group has built their reputation enough to be confident just playing a bunch of nice tunes and taking their time, but I think modern listeners expect more. It doesn’t help that the production is weak, sanitizing and equalizing the band’s sound. All this is enough to drag the record down a notch. Yet somehow, the arrangements themselves are remarkably rich, at least compared to the lean, back-to-basics approach I’d expected. It’s a kind of glitzy, streamlined neo-soul.
Alas, Bono and friends were so popular at this point that the LP’s four hit singles oversaturated first world musical culture completely. They became overplayed, passé, and annoying, even though they were initially quite good. Eventually, they just grew to be part of the musical landscape: something easy to ignore and overlook, which seemed like it had always been there.
In particular, the massive product tie-in between the song “Elevation” and the Tomb Raider movie was a double-edged sword – the film-promoting music video was the place where I first heard the hit and grew to love it, but today the merchandising side of it is disgusting, even doubly so because it’s for a film that’s so dumb and dated in retrospect. Hell, triply so because the move was very out of character for U2. But it gave them another successful single, so there you go. At least (apart from the video) the track can be separated from the movie, since it’s not referenced in the lyrics. That brings up another point – the words to this song are absolutely godawful. Still, all things considered, it’s probably their best rocker since “Mysterious Ways”, and a welcome burst of adrenaline on an otherwise lethargic record.
I suppose that brings me to the lyrics, the ultimate downfall of ATYCLB: they’re vaguely philosophical banalities and generically “inspiring” lines which seem tailor-made to work as mushy, top-forty-radio psychobabble. That kind of prose requires no cleverness or craft; it’s so indistinct, people can baselessly and unimaginatively interpret their own meaning from its everyday don’t-think-too-hard platitudes. It reads like a checklist of committee-approved topics proven to be patronizing and politically correct to everyone in the target market. There are very few culture- or ideology-specific verbal references here, which renders each stanza bland and insubstantial. By trying to preach to everyone, Bono ends up communicating with no one. But I’ll be optimistic and say that it was an intentional and successful move to make the songs more universal, because it certainly does that – a Korean housewife would feel just as meh about these statements as a Parisian actor or a Nevada businessman.
Also, a fair amount of the writing veers between being really trivial or incredibly arrogant, and that isn’t good (though it never becomes irritatingly bad). Other times, the song’s messages are clumsy, disjointed and way too on-the-nose. But equally often, they’re wonderfully descriptive and full of optimistic, natural imagery. So it’s a mixed bag, to be certain.
Every once in a while, Bono goes so far over the line of subtlety that he actually hits on some trenchant, moving points. Though his political/social/religious opinions are made abundantly clear, he rarely delivers them vindictively, so there’s that. And he writes them like he fervently and passionately believes in them, delivering his flimsy screeds with an authority and intensity no other waiting room music comes close to. (Yes, ATYCLB marked the point where U2 became so ubiquitous that they invaded most radio formats, including the easy listening ones played in the lobbies of professional businesses.) He even miraculously makes a smug, obvious antiwar song like “Peace On Earth” tolerable.
However, it’s a definite mistake to put all the political, heavy-handed stuff at the end of the record. Though both sides of the lyrics are screaming generalities, I like “New York”’s juxtaposition of America’s idealistic, democratic image and its grimy, everything-that’s-wrong-with-humanity excess. The track’s wake-up call of a brief but badly needed dynamic change is nice too. In other, random news, “Wild Honey” isn’t a cover of the Beach Boys hit, as you might think. I suppose that’s enough about the words. I’ve said all I want to by now.
Although the ever-creative and professional U2 made this album tasteful and enjoyable, it’s still pretty dreary, pompous and unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. But they’re old fogeys who made a slick comeback, so they get props for that. I give All That You Can’t Leave Behind a perfectly respectable ****, with no malice or ill will intended whatsoever. Because one thing that can be said for comfortable familiarity is that it’ll take all the spite out of you.
FEVERS AND MIRRORS – Bright Eyes
“It’s like walking out the door only to discover it’s a window.” Actually, that line has no metaphorical or dramatic significance in the scope of this review – I just thought it sounded cool.
Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh\Sunrise, Sunset\The Center Of the World
The Movement Of A Hand
Fevers And Mirrors is the unruly kid brother of Lifted. It’s sort of a “fans only” album, since some of Conor Oberst’s weaknesses are present here in the early stages of his songwriting career. He’s very experimental and doing naïve, bold things he would never consider these days. But his ambition exceeds his ability, and so he crafts weird shrieking-synth sambas like “The Calendar Hung Itself…” and awkwardly develops ideas he would master later. Unfortunately, having listened to the band’s discography out of order devalues their first attempts, since they sound like cheap ripoffs of the same aesthetic. It’s interesting to hear these dead ends and strange, exciting hints of things that could have been, but the tunes that they’re in, to be honest, wouldn’t be very exciting to the layperson.
Conor goes from (purposefully?) reclusive and lo-fi to brazenly confident and thrilling. He’s still inexperienced and self-indulgent, and the production is pretty good, but still bears too much of the mark of his tape recorder days. The pacing is uneven as well – there’s purely emo time-wasting followed by striking pop philosophy surrounding odd finger-picked ballads. Oberst’s grasp on melody and vocal delivery are sometimes immature, but show promising signs of his later greatness (or in the case of vocals, competence). Everything here illustrates this dichotomy between the novice kid fiddling around in the studio and the tenured musician making a name for himself.
Conor’s lyrics are prophetic and puzzling visions, again hinting at some of the themes of Lifted. By now, I shouldn’t need to go over how much I love his prose. He showcases some of the best writing of his career in “Arienette”, which is regrettably marred by a truly incapable melody. It tellingly reaches the chorus, realizes it should do something memorable and instead sonically fumbles in its efforts. Another unrefined cut, “The Movement Of A Hand”, is a pleasant soundalike of “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” with weaker writing; the latter song is overall the better one.
These tunes are mostly standard Bright Eyes fare and, as in the previous case, sometimes narrowly avert total self-plagiarization. Intricate and deft orchestral arrangements are one of the band’s greatest strengths, and their relative absence here diminishes the album’s excellence. Yet there is some stylistic diversity to be found: for instance, take “The Center Of the World”, an interesting, rocking garage-band dalliance. The aforementioned “The Calendar Hung Itself…” is a shocking, noisy left turn. The competently adapted Fiddler On the Roof cover “Sunrise, Sunset” has an imposing, insistent organ grinder sort of tune. The LP begins with Conor’s clumsiest and most pretentious (and in a way, admirably courageous) introduction, a kid struggling to read a story aloud.
But even formulaic, half-baked Bright Eyes is good stuff, and Fevers does enough things right to justify a modestly high rating. The record’s biggest artistic risk is “An Attempt To Tip the Scales” – a surreal, hilarious, metaphysical, taxing, haunting, confusing, and enlightening head trip. It starts with a normal song that’s one of the best here, and then, two and a half minutes in, peters out into a high-pitched buzzing sound, which is where it will lose some listeners. At that point, the weirdness really begins.
We soon hear what seems to be a radio interview with Conor Oberst. It gets very bizarre very quickly. The interview becomes absurd and starts breaking the fourth wall. Due to the interviewer’s uncannily well-chosen questions, Conor helpfully explains the album’s imagery and themes, and then pokes fun at himself for doing so. He shares autobiographical details that may or may not be true, subtly comments on the mythology of his songs, and trades some bizarre, dreamlike dialogue with the “interviewer”. This mysterious figure’s line delivery is detached and sounds rehearsed, while the discussion itself becomes progressively more fantastical, tangential and fabricated. It crosses the line between self-effacing honesty and tongue-in-cheek self-parody so often that it’s truly impossible to tell which side Oberst ends up on. The track ends with the band about to perform a new composition in the “studio” of the “radio show”, even after suspension of disbelief has been thoroughly violated. For me, this long tune works, and that’s a big plus for the record since “Scales” eats up a lot of its running time.
Basically, everything here is testing the waters for Lifted – it’s an embryonic version of that cluttered classic. I wouldn’t recommend this until you delve into the rest of Bright Eyes’ 2000s discography first. But Fevers And Mirrors is a solid, if not quite great, addition to his body of work.
FIGURE 8 – Elliott Smith
Eight is a magic number.
Stupidity Tries\L.A.\Son Of Sam
Bye, or The Roost and Gondola Man snippets
I’ll always treasure my very first impression of the final record Elliott Smith released in his lifetime: “Now this is how you write an indie pop song about a serial killer!” Sufjan, get your pansy ass over here and examine “Son Of Sam” and maybe you’ll see the overbearing, twee missteps you made on “John Wayne Gacy”. The songs use basically the same elements and share a common perspective (and arguably, try to achieve the same goal), yet they’re executed in very different ways. “Gacy” is nice, but I like “Sam” a lot better. Actually, that could tidily describe my attitude toward the two songwriters – I vastly prefer Smith’s music.
He writes slow-growing, Beatlesque melodies, although they don’t have that same instantly memorable quality the Fab Four could conjure without even trying. In fact, his tunes are convoluted and more generally agreeable than immediate and tidy (with a few exceptions – immaculately catchy pop classics like “L.A.”, “Son Of Sam”, and “Stupidity Tries” – which are, coincidentally, the three I picked for the list above). But they still have an ornate, considered feel (not to mention some splendid hooks), and after two listens, I could definitely start to see the bigger picture. It helps that he exchanges soaring harmonies with his own lead vocal a lot of the time, lending even more counterpoint to the compositions.
Elliott’s flowery melodies are lent some muscle by the instrumentation, which is slightly louder than most singer-songwriter fare. Compared to the troubled troubadour’s previous all-ballad murmurfests, Figure 8 is rollicking and brisk. Well, truthfully, it’s about half-uptempo and half-downer. The slow tracks are no slouch by any means, yet the quality is slightly higher when Elliott plugs in. In any event, the way he develops his songs is also really smart; he paces and changes them enough for each one to stand out, but not so much that their components become tangled and cumbersome. Even if the tunes don’t stick with you the first time around, it’s fun to listen to the music as it shifts and grows. As a bonus, Smith writes mature, thoughtful arrangements that are well-integrated and proficiently played. He has a plethora of cool instruments and parts to show off here, which is about .9 plethoras more than he had in his strummy, low-budget era. This set is fairly diverse, and it also works well as a mood piece. Likewise, the production is clear and (when needed) appropriately lush, another dissimilarity from his formative work.
Like some singer-songwriters, Elliot’s excessive idealism and self-interest can get tiring over the course of the album, but it’s far more tolerable here than Sufjan Stevens’ nauseatingly cutesy, prolonged, circumlocutory flights of fancy. Smith’s artistic vision is akin to Rivers Cuomo in his early days: there is no irony in their music, just a geeky enthusiasm and unselfconsciousness. The melodies of the two eager tunesmiths are earnest, playful, and sweet sing-songy things which are always soothing. Surprisingly, Elliott’s lyrics are moody but never maudlin, and clichés are notably absent. He’s just a humble guy singing pointedly about his conflicts and concerns, while remaining unflappably dedicated to optimism and sincerity. Even when the verses are attacks and criticisms, they’re never too angry or bitter, just resigned and woeful. There’s some standard forlorn lost-love brooding, but it never becomes trite or saccharine. Smith is a confident and capable writer, even reminiscent of Leonard Cohen in his moments of greatest clarity.
Figure 8 is impressive; everything here is an artistic breakthrough and an exponential increase in user-friendliness from previous work. It’s always admirable when an artist successfully and adequately fulfills their ambitions like that. However, it was hard to fully enjoy it at first because I couldn’t escape the connotations of the sniveling, solipsistic image and sound Elliott fostered for an entire generation of crappy indie singer-songwriters. But that’s not a valid criticism, especially since he reworked that whole aesthetic for a new generation and utilized it better than any of his contemporaries. Also, I’ve gotten used to it by now, but his voice initially put me off as a gloomy, hypersensitive, smarmy whine that’s been double-tracked and possibly pitch-corrected to the point of sterile plasticity. I suppose most people would prefer that to a creaking off-key wail, though.
Overall, Figure 8 is the best entry point for a fairly influential and prominent musician. So Elliott Smith gets the rarefied bonus of a slight upward spin toward **** 1/2; a very strong **** 1/2, no less. Pretty good for a dead guy! …What, too soon?
HEARTBREAKER – Ryan Adams
You should always open your album with a short, thoroughly random snippet of a studio argument. I mean, that’s just songwriting technique 101.
Oh, My Sweet Carolina\Come Pick Me Up\Shakedown On 9th Street
To Be the One
Ryan Adams seems to be a weird and welcome figure in modern music – an amalgam of the tasteful, professional crooner (à la Norah Jones) and the ragged, rambling garage bandleader (think Neil Young). His decently well-performed songs are undemanding and jovial. Although Adams’ public image doesn’t quite convey how rootsy he is – believe me, Heartbreaker is basically country balladry.
For starters, his lyrics brilliantly cover the concerns of country music while skirting the clichés and overdone tropes of the genre. You’ll find musings on murder, poverty, work, love, loneliness, revenge, alcoholism, etc., but they’re handled with a very perceptive and idiosyncratic eye. Adams discovers fresh angles to work with in a field that had seemingly run out of them. The impressively authentic imagery and themes reveal his true-blue Southern upbringing and really give a sense of place. Sometimes he’ll phrase his lines in a creative, quaint and poetic way, recalling the glory days of good ol’ boy storytelling. While the music is unobjectionably sophisticated and the songs are competently written, this album isn’t very impressive, unique or lively. It simply sits in a state of accomplished elegance, definitely conveying its performer’s thoughts and emotions, but there’s certainly more effective and resonant music out there.
Which is ironic, since one really admirable thing about Adams’ tunes is their transparency. They’re very easy to assimilate – no irony or surrealism or insane melodies. Approachability is the key. It’s a fairly minimal recording, but what is there is played and produced well. His harmonica playing is fairly pleasant, despite the inherent shrillness of the instrument. However, as is the custom with country music, these ditties are often languorous and take their time to unfold. Speaking of which, does anyone even make western music this genuine anymore? These songs already sound like C&W standards.
Perhaps as a symptom of that unfaltering legitimacy and intimacy, Heartbreaker is sometimes parodically slow and quiet. This is a record almost entirely made of contemplative, homey ballads (some a bit louder than others, but ballads nonetheless). The first half is nice, but eventually things get pretty boring. It’s very convincing and engrossing for a little while, but truthfully, doesn’t have that much of a shelf life. It’s especially wrenching when the first song is so misleading. “To Be Young” is a fun country rock song and probably the only upbeat track here; well, that and the rollicking “Shakedown On 9th Street”. At times, the mix is so barren and empty that it’s simply Ryan singing, unaccompanied, for long periods of time. It’s an off-putting decision, but a bold one. Another minor complaint is that although his voice is expressive and nice – it has an authentic and pronounced twang, albeit one that’s not too distracting – it can’t carry a whole LP on its own. Also, the compositions may place a bit too much emphasis on it, leaving a melodic void in the later tunes.
As stated above, the album suffers greatly from being too long and padded, while only having a couple tricks to fall back on. Putting a ton of snoozers together in a row doesn’t help matters, sending the second half’s quality plummeting to the point where it’s a bunch of indistinguishable, generic tear-in-your-beer laments. There are only a couple of rockers to serve as a respite. Obviously, this becomes trying over fifty-two minutes.
I’d categorize Heartbreaker as more adult contemporary than alternative – not really my cup of tea, but it is a fine country record if you’re interested in the genre. It’s very pristine, pleasant background or mood music, but absolutely nothing about it would warrant the title “one of the decade’s best.” Yet it is eminently likable and good enough, so no hard feelings, Ryan.
LIFT YOUR SKINNY FISTS LIKE ANTENNAS TO HEAVEN – Godspeed You, Black Emperor!
N/A (* 1/2)
This album is so insultingly inadequate and pretentious, it almost breaks through the scale to the other side and becomes kinda silly and fun.
Sleep\Storm\Antennas To Heaven
This record has many similarities to Sigur Rós’ ( ); they’re like two sides of the same pompous, absurd coin. One has a bunch of abhorrently indulgent song “titles”, while the other has an equally abhorrently indulgent lack of titles. This has no lyrics and ( ) might as well not have lyrics. Also, I don’t know whether either one counts as traditional “rock” music, as they both share orchestral and classical ambitions as well as very experimental construction and influences (and yes, this record was made for disdainful quotation marks). As such, I won’t rate either one normally, since it’s unfair to judge them by the standards of modern music.
Aside from whatever purple prose critics spout at you about this record, no matter what esoteric mess you expect, Antennas To Heaven will be surprisingly accessible and palatable. But that’s only because nothing can be more outlandish than one’s imagination. The catch is that this is a classical long-form avant-garde symphony, conducted with some rock instrumentation, and with different melodic concerns. I obviously prefer the more approachable, guitar-oriented sections.
The first track is melodic and serves as a good slow-burn guitar jam, the second one is noisy and uses high-pitched sounds, and the third one’s spacey, bombastic and moody. The fourth is just a bunch of random junk strung together, including the most normal rock-sounding tune here.
This album’s unwieldy structure and length render it unsuitable for certain types of listening, making it that much harder for me to give it a confident grade. Great music can usually exceed in a lot of different circumstances and formats, but saddling Antennas To Heaven with this many problems makes it ridiculous to consider listening to more than once or twice. It’s definitely best to play this LP as atmospheric background music and pay attention to the few coherent spots, since listening attentively to every second is a maddening and fruitless prospect.
PARACHUTES – Coldplay
Teen heartthrobs with the ambition to be something more, but not the requisite talent.
Parachutes or We Never Change
I was actually looking forward to this album a smidgen. According to the critical aura and hype surrounding it, it was a guitar-oriented (!), unpretentious and hooky debut. Indeed, the first track sounds very much unlike the stadium-ballad hit machine Coldplay would soon become. It’s a folksy sketch of a song (don’t get me wrong, it’s still produced very clearly and professionally). After a promising start with a more upbeat sound, Coldplay begins to slip, making long compositions out of short ideas and writing unmemorable, by-the-numbers piano pap. These tracks are lethargic, tedious and stretched to uncomfortable lengths, which are things that can work favorably in the right circumstances but which function as a strike against Parachutes.
I suppose this is more guitar-oriented than A Rush Of Blood To the Head would be, but the way it’s produced, the guitars are all toned so as to disguise themselves. I realize that these dudes want to be laid-back, and it’s not like I’m asking for death metal riffs on their next record, but would it kill them to use a guitar tone that doesn’t sound like a ghost unicorn shooting limp hearts and rainbows out of its ass? Nevertheless, I’m glad the instrumental interplay is more pronounced here than it would be until X + Y. The band is hyperaccessible (as if you didn’t already know) and eager to please, so the songs have a jolly and innocuous nature.
…And here comes the big problem with Coldplay (well, one of a couple big problems): their lyrics. Every line that’s not totally literal seems forced and clumsy. All the sentiments Chris Martin conveys are rote clichés and each verse is filled with starry-eyed inanities. But that’s expected when you deal with these guys. I guess this romantic fluff is polished to a fine sheen, so that counts for something. The set of words to each song is also peculiarly short, as if the band didn’t want to waste our time parroting more worthless dreck they stole from a more intelligent source. When a track is winding down, they’ll simply repeat the few things they’ve already stated.
Another stumbling block is the factor that as a standard-issue teen heartthrob circa 2000, Martin isn’t the most interesting or unique person around. His worldview, and by extension, his music, are fairly bland and milquetoast. The more he tries to reinvent himself as an artist, the more painfully obvious it becomes that he’s essentially the lead singer of a boy band (admittedly a moderately talented, independent and imaginative one) and nothing more. He seems to accept that image as well, despite increasingly awkward fumblings striving for relevance and depth (for more on that, see my Viva La Vida review).
Because of this inescapable persona and its connotations, Martin is out of his element in songs like “Spies”; the song isn’t clumsy or inadequate, but doesn’t make sense because why should a brooding, romantic pop crooner be speaking about spies in prose as contrived as this, especially if it involves such an embarrassingly paper-thin metaphorical device? Just rephrase “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and be on your way, Chris.
The wayward bandleader is also melodically complacent on Parachutes, trudging along and relying on his “bland piano plus falsetto” moneymaking formula rather than strong, inspired songwriting (which nonetheless shows up occasionally, through some divine providence and sheer coincidence). A few tracks succeed because of the welcome intervention of the guitar player, but that’s about it as far as inventiveness goes. The tunes themselves are nice, and there are some that stand out, but it’s a bit too little spread a bit too thin, in my opinion. This group tends to beat good ideas to death through repetition. Their overdramatic, swooning, “catnip for preteen girls” sound was in its infancy on this release, and since it was moderately novel, it’s at its most acceptable here. As a countermeasure, Coldplay would get way better at consistently writing compelling compositions on their next album, whereas Parachutes has a markedly weaker second half. I guess you could call it a “rocky landing”!
I’m so sorry.
STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA – P.J. Harvey
Actually, they’re all more like “Stories From A Pissed-Off Woman”. But if you’re interested in P.J.’s music, you already knew that.
The Whores Hustle And the Hustlers Whore\Good Fortune\This Is Love
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea isn’t necessarily dated, but it does conjure up nostalgic memories of the Riot Grrl era. These songs are melodically and instrumentally mantraic, though they do have different parts so you can sing them and whatnot. (P.J.’s artsy, but she’s not that artsy.) Also, despite their repetition, there’s more going on here than is immediately evident. What’s more, the lyrics repeat a bit too much and are somewhat lacking, yet they’re also as sexually evocative and brazen as Björk’s raciest stuff. Vocally, Harvey has qualities reminiscent of Neko Case and Karen O., although she doesn’t come close to beating either of them at their own game. The awesomely titled sixth song isn’t as good as its name suggests, but it’s serviceable.
Now, if you aren’t as maddeningly nitpicky about reading these reviews as I was, you won’t have noticed that every last one of the sentences in the essay thus far have included a qualifier. It took me forever to spot that stilted analytical schema, but I decided to keep it in, because exactly that kind of hesitation and unfulfilled potential is symptomatic of this work as a whole. Overall, P.J. could have done so much more with the material here. There are noticeable hints of lazy writing and treading water, and when her one compositional gambit is “repeat one phrase”, I get a little irked. I guess the flip side to that is the melodies get overemphasized so much that they’re easily memorable.
This collection is a little bare-bones, and I’m out of stuff to say about it already. What you hear is what you get on this record – there’s little context, nuance or depth. But what’s here is good for fans and novices alike. Stories From the City is nice enough, that’s all. Just nice enough.
SUPREME CLIENTELE – Ghostface Killah
I’d like to see Ghostface’s role model Tony Stark lay down some wax this fresh and entertaining. [Preemptively predicts DJ-ing scene in Iron Man 2]
Nutmeg\Cherchez LaGhost\Apollo Kids
For skits, Clyde Smith and Woodrow the Basehead. For songs, Stroke Of Death.
After the gradual split of the Wu-Tang Clan, its offshoots had to work extra hard to outshine their legendary origin. Arguably, the most successful rebirth of sorts was that of Ghostface Killah. Although his early effort Fishscale was critically revered, it wasn’t from last decade, so I couldn’t review it. But as chance would have it, Supreme Clientele came out at the very beginning of the 2000s and it’s really good.
Tony Starks (one of the rapper’s many stage names, since he frequently compares the Iron Man mythology to his life) has a writing style that’s insanely complex and twisted, with very intelligent references, imagery, wordplay, and storytelling details propelling everything way beyond the pace of the average listener’s attention span. It seems as if he can’t get all the information out of his mouth fast enough. Hitting people with a million things at once is almost always a good tactic for entertainment to use, provided those things are all cool individually.
Without even knowing how deft the words are, the rhyme schemes and rhythms themselves are engaging to listen to. As far as narrative and nuance goes, Ghostface is almost as good as MF DOOM. In fact, his songs are more cogent as meticulous, poetic stories than DOOM’s wordy, stream-of-consciousness style – but in return, they aren’t as original, imaginative or iconoclastic.
Although Supreme Clientele covers the archetypal topics of gangsta rap, rather than transcend them like Outkast, Starks takes the clichés to their highest level of artistry. Also, in a brave move for modern hip-hop which I applaud, there are very few skits to be found here. The one true sketch is actually a rather depressing story instead of the goofy tripe most MCs offer. Though they’re fairly superfluous, the two or three other interstitial songs aren’t annoying in the least, and mostly present old-school sound bites from RZA’s beloved B-movies while developing the metaphor casting Ghostface as Iron Man, which continues throughout the record. The interludes are short as well, showing a marked improvement over the dumb lead-ins and space-wasters other rappers use. Finally, all the skits except the story-based one are wonderfully musical and actually do serve as a refreshing break from the leisurely pace of the album at large. It’s a bold step toward establishing the hip-hop LP as a true, unified, artistic statement.
Unfortunately, Tony didn’t bother to keep it short and simple. Though the song quality is consistent here, Clientele drags too much and like almost every rap record, becomes too long and similar-sounding after a while. There are a few tracks that scream “filler” (mostly the vignettes, which are completely worthless and take a huge chunk out of the rating). Each cut has an excellent musical background, but some tunes repeat and abuse it too much without changing it up. The work as a whole has an old-school sound: dry and organic, with rustic beats, guitar and piano samples.
GK’s tales are peppered with anecdotes, enriched by references and interesting asides that are notably absent from mainstream cookie-cutter gangsta rap. He saves his bragging, stories of violence and brand-name-dropping for times when it’s appropriate (and never relies on them too much, which I appreciate). He’s very honest and level-headed in his assessments of things, including himself – he’s serious here, but doesn’t try to pose as messianic or badass. These hardscrabble life stories hide a genuine wit and intelligence, with wordplay and verbiage that flew by me on first listen, only to impress me on the second when I caught it. A lot of good hip-hop from last decade is like that.
On occasion, certain lines here stand out as not being merely great, but superb, such as when Starks takes the nonsensical Mary Poppins phrase I don’t feel like typing right now and reverses its syllables. Yeah, I know, it might seem like too slight a part of the song to really register as incredible, but small things like that truly inspired me every so often listening to Supreme Clientele.
Ghostface performs a tad bit more of the rhyming himself than is usual on a rap album; some of the supporting parts are performed by his old Wu-Tang Clan groupmates, which makes it harder to classify this lame recording practice as merely farming out the songwriting to some poor sap. Most of the guys in the Clan are good lyricists as well, so that helps. Sometimes they even attempt to sing, even though it doesn’t work and sounds horribly out-of-tune.
Continuing on the guest star tip, RZA does a decent production job by his standards (which, if measured against the quality of most hip-hop producers, would be astronomically higher). Likewise, the other sound engineers on the record rise to the occasion to follow his example, creating works of equal musical value.
These songs are about as good as standard, no-frills rap can reasonably get (like I said, Outkast is better, but their genius is completely beyond genre boundaries and normal comprehension), yet they’re still flawed and a bit too adherent to the weaknesses listed in my rant against the genre. So basically I got the best of both worlds: I was treated to an album that showed me the decade did produce some great honest-to-goodness hip-hop, and I still was able to stand by my credo stating that its musical potential is slightly inferior to that of rock music, if this is indeed the best it has to offer. In any case, Supreme Clientele is an awesome rap recording, if you can get over the handful of problems all rap recordings face.