THE ECSTATIC | GET GUILTY | THE HAZARDS OF LOVE | MIDDLE CYCLONE | WILCO (THE ALBUM)
THE ECSTATIC – Mos Def
Mos the Majestic, making mad multisyllabic, memorable mantras. Meanwhile, mouthfuls of magic, and mucho meaty melodies materialize. Moreover, my man masters musical mise-en-scène. (Memo to myself: mention the myriad of marvelous moments.)
Pistola\Life In Marvelous Times\Auditorium
Quiet Dog Bite Hard
Time is weird. One example: recent works of art aren’t usually labeled classics soon after they’re released due to some sort of temporal prejudice. (Availability heuristic, to be precise.) So the reviews of relatively recent albums have me in a tight spot – I guess you’ll just have to take my word that some of them will stand as watermarks of 2000s music. After all, the best art withstands the test of time.
Now, please excuse me while I go on a bit of a tangent. In my opinion, there is one basic hurdle hip-hop faces before it acquires the amount of respectability and potential that rock music has: authorship. That’s a misleading statement, though, because “authorship” defines everything about an artist’s creative process and the final product. More rappers need to take control of every facet of their work and make it a form of personal expression, rather than rely on things outside themselves. This perspective on authorship is often called the “Auteur theory” (“auteur” is French for author). As I said, there are many aspects to full authorship: creativity, intimacy, originality, talent, idiosyncrasy, and others. I’ll go into them further here, and you may be able to see where hip-hop is stagnating, and where The Ecstatic wonderfully succeeds.
Firstly, sonic and thematic diversity are too frequently overlooked in rap – it’s no secret that the genre relies far too heavily on monotonous, amelodic rhythms and beats. Even though a few pioneers have bravely and skillfully infused harmony into the mix, the standard for the genre is still way too predictable and simplistic to reach the conceptual and compositional heights of the best rock music. Likewise, the style needs to have a broader range of topics and a larger emotional palette to be able to branch out the way rock has. Basically, variety and eccentricity demonstrate that the artist is not satisfied with having their ideas homogenized, limited or compromised.
Furthermore, the creative components of many hip-hop songs are often samples. This is technically stolen material, whose presence generally requires far less creativity on the musician’s part, interestingly placed though the sounds may be. Also, instrumental prowess and technical depth are usually not a factor in rap. Some of the time, lesser MCs won’t perform their own music or even have anything to do with it. Nor will they arrange its recording, farming those duties out to others. To really be in charge of their own vision, they need a consistent presence behind the boards, if not doing it themselves.
It seems that raw personality is downplayed in hip-hop. I don’t mean to say that the style doesn’t have its fair share of intriguing characters, but the majority of them are one-note – exaggerated façades which are actually quite limited in their machismo and braggadocio. It would behoove the genre to get rid of those stereotypes and clichés and open up to appropriating all kinds of perspectives and opinions. That would make the personal stamp of each artist more distinctive and worthwhile, leading to a greater claim over authorship of something unique.
If the musician was in control of every aspect of their song and could claim the whole product was their creative property alone, then that problem would be solved. The final piece of the puzzle would ideally be recording the music samples based on original material. So basically, the rapper would start recording the LP the way a rock band does. Then, once everything had been put together, they could rhyme on top of it. Boom – auteur theory in effect! See, it’s not hard.
Now for the actual topic at hand. Does The Ecstatic measure up to these standards of artistic excellence? Well, it handles some of these challenges. Right off the bat, it seemed like this would be New Danger, except tightened up and trimmed. That prediction was pretty much dead on. Could it mean I’m getting better at this whole “reviewing” thing?
Anyway, this release does indeed compress the earlier record’s peaks and valleys into a more consistently entertaining set. Every track is wonderfully compact and short, and the album offers all kinds of varied experiences. Mos Def successfully assembles a worldview out of his own observations, outside references, all kinds of musical content and instrumentation, varying song construction and length, a few well-chosen guest stars, and different thematic concerns, all presented in his drawling, spiritual vocal delivery. That isn’t meant to suggest that these ingredients are hastily thrown together; though very fast-paced and contrasting, every element here is assembled with care and dignity.
It is a shocking, fun ride, though. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next, from a hallucinogenic pitch-shifted conversation between heat-packing pilots to a sweltering, confusing Arabian-string-and-guitar-drenched tale of intrigue to incoherent refrains, childhood memories, unusual metaphors and imagery, and – why not? – a guitar riff, tuba, and synth-powered singalong. Oh yeah, also a song Mos sings that’s entirely in Spanish, with Flamenco guitar for effect.
To my delight, each of these tracks are sonically worlds apart, the samples are distinct and obscure, and Def’s vocal samples establish his opinions rather than mythologize him.
The production is thrillingly dense and scattered, with strains of many different genres. It skips from lush new wave to messy garage rock to dry lounge jazz. Furthermore, a lot of the music is original and organic – the synths are tastefully applied, not used as a crutch dictated by current trends. Mos sings frequently, and his voice is thankfully something other than terrible. Moreover, the three guest spots are exceptionally well-utilized and awesome, while still deferring to the man in charge.
The lyrics herein range from virtuosic and slippery to spazzy and insubstantial; however, they’re never so bad as to diminish the work as a whole. It’s more like a few relatively tame and unremarkable spots in an overall excellent stream of consciousness. Even when they’re immaterial and unnecessary, Mos keeps his flow and top-notch rhyme schemes going, never slowing down the onslaught of ideas: there are lamentations, jokes, philosophy, autobiographical narratives, working-class parables, and more.
This record may be brazenly challenging and odd, but the man behind it remains thoughtful, calm and nuanced. It’s rap that’s far removed from the boisterous immaturity of the mainstream scene. Ecstatic is as adventurous as Outkast’s craziest work, while remaining somewhat more grounded and sensible.
Def has stumbled upon a powerful, effective formula: although some of his output is fairly pedestrian, he keeps everything so short and succinct that even the compositions with two or three measly ideas seem like a fun detour time and time again. There are barely any trademarks of typical hip-hop to be found, and the result is glorious. The tracks are easily assimilated, and the loops and beats don’t get old, besides a few strange, tacked-on spoken outros that last too long.
So, returning to auteur theory, I suggest that The Ecstatic couldn’t have been made by anyone but Mos Def. He may not have flawlessly undertaken all the steps necessary for full authorship and creative vision, but he put forth a ton of effort and came close enough. Seriously, this is a staggering achievement. It’s a pastiche of cool stuff that works well together as a kaleidoscopic, strangely structured fever dream of word-association and personal anecdotes. It continues Danger’s mold-breaking, but without its more overblown deviations. Best of all, Mos tightened up the whole affair, and crammed twice as much content into it. This may be the one time where my initial impression of a record was proven completely correct. And I couldn’t be happier.
GET GUILTY – A.C. Newman
Funny story: I was initially in such a hurry to finish this review that I forgot to write a tagline. That’s what these are called, by the way. Taglines. They’re supposed to be clever references or jokes that pump you up for the review. Are they working?
There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve\The Palace At 4 A.M.\Prophets
This is it. It’s all finally over. I have my life back. This is the last review I did chronologically, and I saved it for when I was done with everything else. I knew that at the very least, a Carl Newman solo album would be a moderately enjoyable reward. And here we are, treasured reader! Let’s get to it!
As I’ve clarified numerous times for NP-related material, A.C.’s songs are all exceptionally ornate, purposeful, inspired, diverse and irresistible compared to anything else in their field. But for critical and analytical purposes, I’m rating this record relative to his other output, which has far higher standards, and by that measure, it can’t help but fall short. Even his weakest tunes are quite solid, but sometimes, that’s all Get Guilty has going for it.
This LP is definitely less lo-fi than Slow Wonder; it’s full of baroque touches, and a complete, talented ensemble plays on it. It’s produced well, with a crapload of different cool sounds and far-reaching styles. In terms of peppiness, it’s somewhere between Twin Cinema and Challengers. The slow songs aren’t necessarily ballads, but rather midtempo marches of pomp and circumstance. Even the weaker tracks aren’t lacking for distinctiveness or polish; their hooks are just less compelling. The album as a whole is too linear, with not enough focus on complexity and interplay. There’s a whole band there this time, Carl – use them to their fullest potential!
All the compositions have melodic arcs, but some follow Newman’s now-predictable pattern of awkwardly twisting old schemas in needlessly complex ways to make them sound fresh. There are instrumental fills, unexpected key changes, ponderous details and some joyful energy, but they don’t always memorably cohere the way his best material does. Plus, they can be a bit redundant, with repetitive choruses padding out the last thirty seconds of a few tracks, whereas everything would normally seem perfectly placed.
On the positive side, A.C. does a good job keeping himself from rewriting old stuff, though this material is recognizably his and nobody else’s. The melodies and arrangements aren’t tired, but the structure, ambiguity and general mood are. (So are the instrumental tones; this guy loves him some E-bow.) I guess this is what the New Pornographers would sound like if they were a bit less exciting and creative – still fun and inventive, but more of a personal interest than an all-time great band.
Come to think of it, I’ve never given Carl’s prose its fair share of credit. Get Guilty’s lyrics are the same mysterious, ruminative puzzles he always comes up with. But they make for great refrains! Casual, approachable everyday thoughts turn into distinctive, unusual metaphors, which spill over into mythological yarn-spinning. What keeps his writing from being Beck-esque nonsense are the clear, personal emotions that regularly show through to humanize the words. They make just enough sense that the listener can relate, while creating their own narrative.
Since my creativity is totally sapped, I’ll just go track by track now. “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve” is a shimmery, Greco-Roman meta-power ballad. “The Heartbreak Rides” features laconic guitars with keyboards and percussion bleeding through. It builds and holds anticipation spectacularly, releasing the tension in an amplified, sing-song bridge. “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer” has the stilted, odd martial rhythms and structure more commonly associated with Dan Bejar. But like The Slow Wonder’s “Most Of Us Prizefighters”, it’s Newman’s acoustic-rocking tribute to his New Pornographers bandmate. “Prophets” is a delicate, wondrous thing – a pristine blast of emotion and harmony, in the form of a twisty, arpeggiated new wave hymn.
Then comes “Submarines Of Stockholm”, a dynamic folk stomper that could have been a NP original, if only because it offers an integral and dynamic role to each member of the band. “Thunderbolts”, in contrast, doesn’t do anything Carl hasn’t done better before. It’s not atrocious, but it’s kind of redundant in this context, vaguely recasting elements from Slow Wonder tunes into a clunky, hesitant format. “The Palace At 4 A.M.”, a typical joyful jam band pop anthem, is vaguely reverbed and otherwise straightforward. The record’s disjointed pseudo-title track, “The Changeling (Get Guilty)”, consists of a good-natured (but by now, pedestrian) folky verse, an awkward acoustic pause, and a horn-blasting vamp whose hook reminds me of some forgotten Nineties nugget. There’s also a half-hearted noise guitar solo, but solos aren’t really the focus here.
Moving on, “Elemental” is breezy, meandering psych-folk which is hurt simply by dint of not being nearly as uptempo or immediately hummable as the other songs. A similar case is the following “Young Atlantis”, a mournful shanty whose vocal part jerks up and down without presenting anything new. It’s an orchestral waltz recalling Challengers, only duller and less detailed. “The Collected Works”, a rowdy, noisy glam rock number, doesn’t rock as hard as it should. Maybe it’s just collective exhaustion from track after track of pleasant, but not-all-there songwriting. The tune is lackluster, only really picking up for the decent chorus, and it’s filled with ill-fitting flourishes that distract from the melody. Finally, “All Of My Days And All Of My Days Off” is a rollicking piano pop number that is at once hypnotic and peppy, finishing the LP off nicely.
All this hesitant description may make the album sound like a flop, but again, I’m comparing it to the New Pornographers’ stellar classics. It’s not as good as those, but it’s respectable, appealing music in its own right. Furthermore, out of caution and a desire to show that I really stand by my other ratings, I’m downgrading this one a bit since it’s the runt of the litter. By my count, only a few compositions on Get Guilty are top-tier successes of spine-tingling pop greatness. But the rest is no slouch! It’s good enough to blur the distinction of that absolute top level and have me wondering whether a few more shouldn’t be included.
So there you have it! I hope these reviews have been helpful/enjoyable/informative/intriguing to you, and thanks again for reading! …Now, on to more reviews, since this is awkwardly placed in the middle of the post! Oops.
THE HAZARDS OF LOVE – the Decemberists
Concept album slump – 0; Decemberists – 2.
The Hazards Of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)\The Rake’s Song\The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid
For interludes, Prelude or The Queen’s Approach. For songs, Margaret In Captivity.
After albums of tepid rap and noncommittal indie, I was dying to listen to this. It was one of the few sure things on my agenda. I was saving it until I couldn’t take modern music anymore. I was pleased to discover that The Hazards Of Love doesn’t disappoint.
All the stumbling blocks and corny parts of rock operas, the Decemberists manage to make stylish and fresh (except one, which I’ll cover later). The music has all the hallmarks of excellent Seventies rock; it’s straightforward, with ingenious, easy-to-remember melodies and arrangements. The band uses a truckload of instruments to their fullest potential, and the pristine production is constantly engaging. There are a plethora of singers playing the different characters, and they’re all great, providing further diversity if you dislike Colin Meloy’s voice.
The main themes are all very distinct and malleable, which is good since they’re mutated and transposed at various points over the course of the record. They’re invigorating and insidiously catchy, plus they get repeated and redefined just the right amount at tolerable intervals. The music transmogrifies fluidly from one motif to the next, as the folksy “Hazards” tune switches to a mod-rock variation for “A Bower Scene”.
Meloy only produces two or three basic melodic figures for each song and harps on them relentlessly, but the relative quickness of the tracks, their dissimilarity to each other, and their rich, gradual development soften the blow (not to mention the fact that those parts are usually awesome). I mean, despite its single-track structure and simplistic riff, “The Rake’s Song” is still a peppy, karaoke-worthy chronicle of insane, remorseless infanticide.
“Isn’t It A Lovely Night?” is an affable chanson, and one of several refreshing standalone tracks that don’t rework or reprise a main musical theme. “The Hazards Of Love 3 (Revenge!)” has the best eerie children’s choir I’ve heard in a rock opera since The Wall. (It’s a narrow category, I’ll admit.) There are other tunes I could name, like the awesome rocker/power ballad “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”, but I’ll stop there.
A couple of times, there’s a vague, ominous sense of ripoff – “Margaret In Captivity”’s guitar nicks the opening riff of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”, of all things, and “Annan Water” sounds like the rest of the album’s tunes all smushed together into paste, with only the barest of distinctive features (it’s still pretty good, though!). But for the most part, the Decemberists make all these genres they’re familiar with somehow seem like nothing else they’ve ever done.
Hazards definitely bridges the gap between thrillingly theatrical and somewhat compact and restrained. It distinguishes itself from The Crane Wife to boot, relying less on crescendo. In terms of both quality and heaviness, this record kicks ass a surprising number of times.
Okay, so the plot itself doesn’t make a lick of sense, but the characters are all there to tie it together. The vignettes they’re in logically cohere, but the narrative just doesn’t fit together as a whole. Following from one song to the next is a snap, but trying to parse the whole album is a task for the truly insane. Though it won’t be enough to deter you from the exemplary melodies, as a legitimate flaw within the work, I’m obligated to knock the LP down a little. Plus, it’s a little too breezy for a concept record, if that makes any sense – it doesn’t bother me personally, but I can see how some would think the work’s highfalutin inspiration muddles what would have been a bunch of great pop songs. To me, Meloy’s overblown verbiage and constant use of ten-dollar words is warranted and untroubling, simply because it suits so well the bloviant, Medieval frame of mind from which all his music seems to come.
Overall, The Hazards Of Love is in close competition with American Idiot for the title of freshest, most exciting story album in ages (at least musically speaking). Yes, it’s a bit bloated and totally incomprehensible, but it’s lots of fun and it’s easy to listen to. Another hit for the Decemberists!
MIDDLE CYCLONE – Neko Case
Foxy composer brings the gold.
This Tornado Loves You\People Got A Lotta Nerve\Red Tide
Marais La Nuit, or for real songs, The Next Time You Say Forever
Each time I listen to Middle Cyclone, I expect its freshness and unforeseen quality to wear off. They never do. This album is an absolute delight. It’s a mystical and earthy collection of incredibly well-written, homespun songs. They all come from the same sensibility, but each track has its own distinctive touches and is easy to pick out from the pack. At first, the record sort of dreamily floats by more than it engages, but it is a very pleasant, unique listen and every tune has at least one memorable part. The second time around, the peripheral “pleasant-sounding” sections become defined and the previously memorable parts become really striking and excellent. After that, it’s all familiar, yet surprising melodic goodness.
Every composition has its sonic similarities with the others (not to mention with Case’s older songs), but each successive one defies all logic and makes Neko’s sort-of formula sound intriguing and novel all over again, redoubling the charisma and depth the previous tune had. The sequencing is also perfected, delivering exactly what the album needs at that point and nothing more. Each track is brisk, lush and beautiful and none of them grow tiring for even a second. They might all be the product of a single mind, but static is one thing they’re not – there’s blues, country, folk, new wave, power pop, and soul here for the listener to wander through.
Case’s songs are intriguing narrative sketches that last as long as they need to, and they’re all painlessly and replayably short. Their structures are very meandering and odd, but that’s tempered by the steady arrangements and the inclusion of at least a couple good repeating hooks in each tune. Around those hooks is a semipermeable mess of verses, prechoruses, and who knows what else. There’s a certain logic and organization about them, or else they wouldn’t work at all – it’s just that they only have little snatches of melody and memorable component parts rather than being a unified, precise organism. But that’s fine, since Neko writes with her own inimitable and interesting method that’s always fun to listen to. Furthermore, her voice proves more than interesting enough to listen to in the interim while you pick up on all the details. She has absolutely peerless pipes, which carry these songs even though they’re good enough to stand on their own. The vocals develop a different identity with each new track, dictating and dominating the proceedings with absolute beauty and conviction. The wispy, vocally based way she makes music may bore some individuals, but there’s no denying she realizes that style perfectly here.
The Virginian firebrand’s backing band is likewise immaculate and provides ample counterpoint to her singing. This bunch of talented performers conjures a plethora of interesting sounds here which impressed me at first, and awed me once I realized just how much was going on. This is an expansion and retooling of the sound Case perfected on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Much like everything else here, Middle Cyclone’s lyrics are flat-out impressive. If you’re into the story-oriented songwriting tradition and are looking for an artist to lay out their meaning in no uncertain terms, but with creativity and truly timeless literary elegance, there are only two options: the musicians who do so in a pretentious, graceless, irritating manner (Death Cab For Cutie, et al.); and the others who do so like it came to them in a fit of divine inspiration. The latter camp of naturalistic geniuses is the proud home of Neko Case. She melds startling, dreamlike images with statements and details of purpose and clarity until the two become intertwined to serve the needs of the song and unrelentingly capture the listener’s interest. Nothing ever becomes a long-winded, tedious character study, nor goes to the other extreme of asinine Dylanesque nonsense. There’s even a subtle Riot Grrl influence due to the fact that in several songs, Neko sings from the perspective of powerful animals and forces of nature anthropomorphized. That conceit makes her a vengeful, mighty presence that’s not without sympathy and majesty. Given her independent and brassy disposition, formidable musical talent and flawless vocal ability, these metaphors are very fitting, not to mention cleverly integrated.
Middle Cyclone is a high watermark of maturity and taste. It has no visible weaknesses, so any ill will toward it could mostly be attributed to a general disinterest in the genre. It’s an invigorating record that can be enjoyed in many different contexts, whether put on as summery background music or dissected analytically for hours on end. I enjoy it frequently and compulsively. That is perhaps the key factor here – it’s all well and good if an album is thought out and respectable, but if it just sits there being stately and unengaging, it can’t be that great. It’s an understatement to say that Middle Cyclone delivers. I return to it constantly, desperate for its pure entertainment value. By the time I reach the thirty-minute ambient closer “Marais La Nuit” (a field recording of crickets that is – crucially – easy to skip and disregard), I never regret a single second of the experience. It’s the sound of a brisk gust of wind, of the weeping rain, of intense lightning and quizzical mockingbirds, of a crackling fire, of a heart breaking and mending itself, of a whole musical world being fleshed out… it’s the sound of instinctive, inborn songwriting greatness, and I could listen to it until the cows come home.
WILCO (THE ALBUM) – Wilco
The title says it all.
One Wing\Wilco (The Song)\Bull Black Nova
Wilco (The Album) finds the titular band with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose, writing songs that are as frenzied and noisy as their early years, as ornate and studious as their golden years, and as ruminative and loose as their past couple of albums. They’ve come full circle, having learned a lot about how to construct perfectly balanced, satisfying compositions with incredibly subtle detail and impressive sonic experimentation, while retaining basic melodic structures. That’s two levels of enjoyment I get out of this stuff; I just wish these tunes had more in the way of hooks. Being as it is a sort of summation of their career up to this point, they take the best parts of past efforts and mix them together in a new context to purify the essence of classic Wilco.
However nice it is to get a “retrospective record”, such a venture only provokes comparisons to older tunes. All of these reflections are adept, but none surpass the originals they try to imitate. There’s nothing here that will earn any new fans. With this all-encompassing overview, it seems Jeff Tweedy’s skills are fading, but he ably masks that entropy for one last quality outing.
Wilco is about as casual as Sky Blue Sky, but it’s also far more expansive and diverse. They call upon all of the guises they’ve gone through over the years. Some songs are conceptual and skewed (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), with baroque pop influences amidst other strange styles (Summerteeth). There’s some soul-searching and barren yet beguiling terrain (A Ghost Is Born), but there are also stunning full-band Americana set pieces, (Sky Blue Sky). At times, the group is more energetic and whimsical than they’ve been in ages (Being There), as well as having a slightly rawer edge in a couple tracks (A.M.), which is surprising and fun because we haven’t seen these guys do rough-and-tumble fare in a while. Their continued chemistry and interplay is a pretty neat trick, considering only two original members remain in the lineup. Furthermore, Jeff is in rare form here, singing with unbridled force, sweetness and accuracy.
At this point, I suppose I’m convinced that Jeff Tweedy is a musical visionary. That being said, he appears to have a few screws starting to come loose, what with egregiously name-dropping Eminem, and foisting labored puns on the listener. On other tracks, he seems to be self-consciously pushing the limits of surrealism and alternating that with overly trite and cutesy sentiments. The lyrical quality must not have had time to settle, leaving a very unequal distribution. It’s acceptable and fairly easy to ignore, but makes me slightly uneasy if I’m reading along with the album booklet. However, the accomplished craftsmanship and tastefulness of the LP make up for its occasional lapses in melody or originality. There’s nothing massively wrong here. It just doesn’t have that certain magic that makes me want to replay it.
Jeff and company still have barrelfuls of ideas, and have yet to stagnate. However, the material is still deeply rooted in Wilco territory. All of Tweedy’s recurrent themes, concerns and moods are present here; all his melodic and structural tendencies persist and continue to be fun. Only the bonus track “Dark Neon”, a playful and psychedelic pop ditty, hints toward a new direction. There is a definite sense of treading water and settling for merely good when greatness was possible.
Without a knowledge of the group’s other releases and general career arc, this would be a stellar record. As it is, the only glaring misstep is the melody of “I’ll Fight”, which is naggingly similar to “On And On And On” from Sky Blue Sky. “You Never Know” would be the album’s best cut, if not for the shameless nicking of guitar lines from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (it may be a homage, but it’s still a very uninspired homage). The highlights are the fun, rollicking title track (a triple threat of band/song/album name synchrony!) and the extraordinarily tense “Bull Black Nova”. Screw “Less Than You Think” – this is how you compellingly and thrillingly convey severe delusion, anxiety and pain in a song format! Crazy, manic, searing guitars chug and bristle all over each other, as Tweedy builds his vocal performance to a shouting climax.
For better or worse, this quintessentially American band has finally settled in and gotten content with their own identity. This LP finds them casting off all the pressures and mindsets of their tumultuous path into the rock canon, along with the ensuing demons and miracles, successes and tragedies. After Wilco, Jeff Tweedy and his band are starting over again.
It’s a triumphant, if mildly lazy, record. Wilco still loves us.