[Editor’s note: In honor of Eric Bescak — the music commentator we most aspire to, and our harshest critic — visiting Cincinnati this weekend, we present the first Voreplay in almost three months. Enjoy.]
We went to a show last week for the first time in a long time. We went because it was free. Erin won tickets on WNKU to Tift Merritt and Amos Lee at 20th Century Theater. (One of Erin’s uncanny spiritual gifts is winning free tickets on the radio. She’s done it no less than five times.) We were more excited for Tift than Amos, so we planned to show up at 8, arrived fashionably late (8:20), listened to Tift sing two songs, then stood around for half an hour before agreeing that we were more excited about fresh-pressed lemonade and french fries at Penn Station than hearing Amos Lee.
Here’s what else we’ve been spinning since the last Voreplay:
Big Star, #1 Record/Radio City. One from the vault, which we pulled out for another listen after Alex Chilton recently passed, and after we read this appreciation from Michael Chabon. “They called themselves Big Star and never made it big or found stardom,” Chabon writes, “and there, along with a 2:49 song called ‘September Gurls’ that shimmers and chimes with all the hopeless longing you ever felt for someone you never got to hold or to keep, is the pocket history of power pop.” Chabon also draws an interesting line between power pop and depression:
The second salient feature of power pop, along with its avowed status as a kind of fandom, is that it is happy music—eminently “poppy”—which depends for its power on the cryptic presence, in a lyric or a chord change or a bit of upside-down vocal harmony, of sadness, yearning, even despair. This strand of pop darkness can be found right off the bat, in the founding documents of the genre, like The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” in whose final stanza the song’s narrator discovers that his pinup dream girl has “been dead since 1929,” or The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” where the sadness and yearning are smuggled into the melody, the harmonies, the lyrics, and even the title, which marks the broken place, the gap between the wish and the world. True power pop is rueful and celebratory at the same time, glorifying desire and frustration, which is why so many power-pop songs concern themselves with the subject of Tonight, or Tomorrow Night, or Saturday Night, or some other night that will only be perfect for as long as it can be deferred. Depression stalks the genre, from Brian Wilson and Emitt Rhodes to the dual suicides of Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans; from Big Star’s Chris Bell, who struggled with profound depression right up to the night in 1978 that he crashed his Triumph TR-6 into a telephone pole, to Material Issue’s Jim Ellison and to Doug Hopkins, the lead singer of the Gin Blossoms, suicides alike. All the clouds of power pop are worn inside out to show the silver lining.
Ah, the Gin Blossoms. To be 15, lovesick and miserable again.
Broken Bells, Broken Bells. All the hype for this collaboration between the Shins’ James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) has yielded mostly lukewarm reviews, but Broken Bells has been our most reliable listen of the year so far. While the sound is never far from a spacey Shins album, Mercer and Burton pull off snippets of surprisingly agile sonic ventriloquism: Mercer sounds eerily like Thom Yorke at the beginning of “Sailing to Nowhere,” while the plinky piano melody on “October” is straight out of Elliot Smith’s Figure Eight. When Mercer sings “Was it all for show?” on “The Ghost Inside,” you’d be mistaken for thinking Bono wandered in to the recording session to belt out a line or two.
Dr. Dog, Shame, Shame. More of the same from this Philadelphia outfit. Which is a good thing. Though not, we’re afraid, a great thing. Despite standout tracks “Stranger,” “Shadow People” and “Where’d All The Time Go?” ( “a euphoric farmhouse jam that suggests the Flaming Lips at their most anthemic,” sayeth Pitchfork; the weird loop at the beginning of the song reminds Erin of the Cylon refrain from “Battlestar Galactica”), Shame, Shame doesn’t take the group anywhere new from past efforts, though it’s a tighter, more polished album than usual. As Ben’s brother Dan put it in an Amazon review: “Shame, Shame is no Fate, Fate, but it’ll do do.”
Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back. This should have been a lot more fun. Despite handpicking twelve fine songs from artists ranging from Radiohead to Arcade Fire to Paul Simon, then arranging a full orchestra to accompany him, Peter Gabriel sounds as if he’s singing these songs while lying in bed, or just after taking a Xanax. Boo.
Girls, Album. Good stuff! Girls is actually two boys, and this Album should have made our Best of 2009 list had we not been busy conceiving a child.
Gorillaz, Plastic Beach. Snoop Dogg is just one of many artists who cameo on Plastic Beach; Mos Def, Lou Reed, Gruff Rhys, de la Soul, Little Dragon and something called the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble also appear. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? How does one get into the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? Do they wave a French horn back and forth in front of your eyes and make you recite lines from Mr. Holland’s Opus?
Can you tell we haven’t really listened to this album?
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way. Nobody brings out Ben’s inner black woman like Sharon Jones. I’m through with your window shopping, bay-bay! (Cincinnatians! Jones and the Dap-Kings join The Heavy at the Southgate House on May 17.)
Miles Kurosky, The Desert of Shallow Effects. The former Beulah frontman’s first solo album, and it sounds endearingly like a Beulah album (all the regulars turn up) … but not quite the same. If you have not previously fallen in love with Beulah, here’s what you need to do:
Arrange to pick up a friend at the Newark airport; bonus points if this friend is Seth Swihart. Since your car stereo was stolen, you’ll need a boombox in your backseat (and extra ‘D’ batteries on hand at all times). Proceed west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Pittsburgh and listen to The Coast Is Never Clear on repeat, particularly track eight, “Hey Brother.” If you’re not singing along to the nonsensical chorus and imitating the horn sounds with a grin from ear to ear by the fifth or six listen, well — you may not have a heart.
LCD Soundsystem, “Drunk Girls.” From the forthcoming This Is Happening. When we Friday Recommended it a few weeks back, the official video was not up yet. Now it is. (This is Happening releases May 17, but you can stream it now.)
Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly. Megafaun, Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) former band, are serious about their beards.
There are songs on this album (“The Fade,” “The Longest Day”) that are easy to love, and then there are experimental, improvisational tracks (“Darkest Hour,” “Columns”) that are standoffish and scattered; both sets are equally rewarding. Megafaun blends old sounds and new ones in an unusual, appealing style; this would all be to their credit if not for the fact they are Lakers fans. (An unfortunate — and unfortunately named — blog called “Fuck Yeah Lakers” shows up on their blogroll.)
Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me. Though Newsom’s boyfriend is SNL’s Andy Samberg, none of the songs on this triple disc are about being on a boat or packaging your package as a Christmas gift. So unless you like odd vocal inflections, harps and the lack of auto-tune, this may not be your album. (Confession: We have not listened to it all the way through. We got bored.) (Interesting sidenote: Last spring, Newsom developed vocal chord nodules and couldn’t sing or speak for two months. Why can’t this happen to Glenn Beck?)
She & Him, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Volume 2 (and specifically the video for “In the Sun”) sent us back to Volume 1. Ben is kinder to this duo than Erin, who prefers less Zoe and more M. Those of you who rock out to Volume 2 on drives from Cleveland to Cincinnati in your Honda Odyssey should know that this is what awaits you on Volume 1:
Visqueen, Message to Garcia. You’d be forgiven for giving Visqueen a first listen and wondering if you’d accidentally put a New Pornographers disc in the stereo instead, especially since Neko Case turns up on the first track, “Hand Me Down,” belting out “Come and get your love, bay-bee” over a chorus of horns and guitar. While not as eclectic as The NPs, Visqueen packs a punch and ups the ferocity factor. From the band’s bio page:
Message To Garcia is a collection of Visqueen songs that represents a rock and roll epitaph to front woman Rachel Flotard’s father. … Mr. George E. Flotard was a New York City steamfitter since the mid 1960’s. He fought and loved in Hell’s Kitchen bars on the West Side, and broke all ten fingers twice. He was a strong, red-headed foreman who ordered holes in the ground and fit miles of pipe in a 1970’s Harlem skyline. … Rachel would call her Dad from the road each day. He’d ask if she was “delivering it.” She knew exactly what he meant. And the only answer was “yes.”
You should buy this album. But don’t take our word for it. Take Duff McKagan’s, from Guns N’ Roses! Here’s what he said:
“I listened to this CD last week on a drive through the mountains with my band, and silenced a car full of over-caffeinated men, and perhaps drew a tear or two. Rachel Flotard has written one of the best records that I have heard in a while. Period.”
Next Tuesday: new releases from The New Pornographers, Josh Ritter, Broken Social Scene, Dolly Parton and … da-duh-duhhhhhh! … The Hold Steady.