I’ve read, seen, and listened to a lot over the last month, but it’s been nigh-impossible to find the time to write about any of it at length. Well, ex-Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau would say, “length, schmength—I’ll get it down in 200 words.” The self-proclaimed “Dean of American Music Critics” talks to PopMatters about his tastes, his writing habits, and what’s coming next.
In his honor—and also to get me off my ass—I’m inaugurating “Quiet Bubble’s Quick Hits,” which will be brief (200 words or less) reviews/summaries/ruminations of the stuff that’s been occupying my time, whether it’s new, new to me, or just rediscovered. As with “Out and about,” this feature will appear monthly. More or less.
This time, it’s an all-music edition. That won’t always be the case. Okay, here we go.
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (2006): Bill Frisell subverts, but oh so quietly. Only he would bring together the most revered jazz bassist of the last 60 years (Carter) and one of avant-garde jazz’s most respected drummers (Motian), and make them run through three country standards. Two of ‘em—“You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—are such hoary chestnuts that you might assume Bill’s gone soft in his middle age. And only Frisell would write such a modern jazz classic as “Ron Carter,” and then not include it on the album that actually features the man playing. But it works. Carter bounces and swaggers cerebrally, Motian understates the case (for once; though he gets a freakout solo on “Eighty-One”), and Frisell meanders his ghostly, surprisingly punchy guitar notes throughout. More direct, witty, and bebop-oriented than we’ve seen from Frisell in a while, the compact trio format suits him. Still not as noisy as in the 1980s, Frisell is still searching for that perfect mix of quietude, whispered beauty, and barely suppressed mania. He comes close here. A
The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America (2006): Bleep out that line about “sucking off each other,” and “Stuck Between Stations” becomes the biggest rock hit of the last five years. Despite the excruciating title, “Chips Ahoy!” is a close second, because of the B-3 organ breakdown in the middle. Craig Finn sings with a intellectual drunkard’s drawl, just sneering enough to let you know that he’s brilliant beneath the bourbon fog. The band owes Bruce Springsteen royalties: those big swooping guitars, quick-turn time signature changes, and run-on sentences with clauses and metaphors piling up on each other like Finn’s got too much to say and he’s running out of time. That’s okay, because “Hot Soft Light” pulls out the wah-wah guitar, and the album’s overall sound is truly corrosive where the E Street Band’s sound is clean and uncluttered. The Hold Steady makes getting wasted, laid, hungover, and destitute sound more fun and more brainy than it really is, and they know it, which makes the effect all the more heartbreaking. A-
Four Tet’s Rounds (2003): Instrumental electronic music lives; who knew? (Just kidding, all you true Aphex Twin fans—all twelve of you.) It sounds more ramshackle and organic—bonafide crackling drums and flaring cymbals, odd sounds that come at asymmetrical moments and collide with the rhythms—than standard-bearers Massive Attack and Portishead. The human voice isn’t heard, not even in samples, which gives the album an untethered, unsettling feel. Perhaps too off-kilter for party background music or as pure dance music, it’s incisive and insinuating enough to serve as good writing music or reading music. Composer Kieran Hebden sure likes jolting you out of good beats with white noise and keyboard fuzz (see: “She Moves She”), though, and “Chia” is one short “experiment” too many. “As Serious As Your Life” actually holds down a groove for a change. “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” has beats filtered through a breathing tube and a lovely piano phrase. Even as I grit my teeth at the album, I can’t get it out of my head. B+
Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One (2000): All other candidates for best rock band of the last ten years or so can sit down and shut the hell up. What’s here is what’s always here: lyrics that cut to the quick; guitar lines that intertwine and dance around each other; and drumwork that’s so impressive and surprising that it smacks you sideways when you just want it to nudge you forward. Familiar metaphors abound, from seeing long-term relationships as boxing matches to rock ’n’ roll as a complicated religion. Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss aren’t just punk, though they include its choppy and jaded rhythms, because they’re fucking tired of all the indie, punk, riot-grrl, and alternative tropes. They lacerate the idea being reduced to the best lady band around (“You’re No Rock ’n’ Roll Fun”), being reduced to shrill feminists (“The Ballad of a Ladyman”), being reduced to being direct (see the weird poetry of “Youth Decay” and the elliptical lyrics running through most of the album). So, AHOTBO is the most confrontational, self-conscious, postmodern album of a band that’s always navel-gazing and looking over its shoulder at the same time. This is the disembowelment of indie rock’s lazy sexism and tired poses that Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville wanted to be. But the latent paranoia’s about the labeling—and the corresponding lyrics that sometimes seemed more like women’s studies dissertations than songs—is finally gone from SK. The band says goodbye to reductionist politics, to hype, to labels, to everything but being the best band it can be. A+
Jeff Buckley’s Grace (1994): Buckley dresses up his ambitious song structures and overwrought lyrics in throaty pretension and artful noise. He’s got a song titled “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” and “Last Goodbye” features lines like “kiss me/ please kiss me/ but kiss me out of desire/ not consolation,” which sorta says it all. His slow-burning, deeply acidic cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is justifiably famous. The title song has a haunting lilt. And, okay, “Last Goodbye” is pretty great after all. Buckley’s voice, so rich and nuanced and wide-ranging and near-gospel, lets him get away with all sorts of pretty-boy over-production—changing vocal styles and octaves with every line, glittery guitar strumming, synthesized string sections, multi-tracked vocals that sound like misguided children’s choirs, slurred and ambient electric guitar—that you’d smack him for otherwise. Too bad we didn’t see the pretty boy become a beautiful man; it’d have been something to hear. Still is. B+
Los Lobos’s By the Light of the Moon (1987): Have owned this one for years, but only properly listened to it once, and even then stupidly dismissed it as “bar rock.” Thank God for my iPod’s shuffle feature. The band finally tires of deciding whether it’s rock, Tejano, Mexican folk, or country, and just mashes everything together into some kind of R&B sound that’s all its own. Add: impressionistic lyrics, David Hidalgo’s soulful vocals (maybe the most criminally under-appreciated voice in modern rock) and Cesar Rosas’s grittier singing. The experimental side that would dominate the band’s 1990s output rears its head a bit—“Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” is led by (I think) a xylophone or a marimba; “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” feels like straight-ahead rock, but its lyrics personify the wind. “Tears of God” and “River of Fools” are among the best ballads of the decade. Los Lobos are great synthesizers of genres, perhaps more so than innovators. Which is a fancy way of saying that every song sounds like every rock song you’ve every heard, and like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A