Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (March 2006)
C and D: Two guys bro down over some new records
D: I’m looking at the stack of stuff we’re going to talk about and I am noticing an absence this time round of certain records, or styles, that I am particularly fond of. I am worried about the lack of brash super-volume riff-monster guitar and backbeat.
C: Well D, the way I look at it is: We certainly can’t review everything that we come across—who has the energy for that? And we can’t even cover everything that’s obviously worthy—there’s just not enough space. So it’s a bit down to what most interests us at the moment. As Allen Ginsberg pointed out, “Mark Van Doren used to write book reviews for the Herald Tribune and almost every one of the reviews was intelligent and sympathetic; he was always talking about something absolutely marvelous. I said, ‘What do you do with a book you don’t like?’ and he said, ‘Why should I waste my time writing about something I’m not interested in?’” And anyways, don’t worry. There’s some riffs on the way.
D: [Listening to “Sewn One”] Hmm… Could it be the mighty Growing?
C: Close, but no cigar. This is Mountains, a duo from New York who I only recently became aware of because Mr. Plastic Crimewave selected them to play at his 2 Million Tongues festival. Their second album. A nice electrical nature hum. I’ve also been hanging out recently in the mountains, so I feel a special affection for them automatically.
D: An orchestral shower with the warm drone reminiscent of Herr Klaus Schulze on the synthesizer.
C: And then, little acoustic guitar lines and horn tones, foregrounded, or deeply backgrounded. It’s pretty great isn’t it? Total mama nature kids in a low-wattage electronic garden. Reminds me of what Ginsberg’s “great peaceful lovebrain” would sound like, slowly comfortably spinning drifting slowly in eternal wombspace. An alternate soundtrack to Silent Running‘s opening sequence, or a lost instrumental Talk Talk aria…
D: You’ve been on quite a Ginsberg kick lately.
C: [smiles beatifically] Why bother to paraphrase already perfectly put words of wisdom? I say quotate away til we have something new to say… I like to listen to this at Arthur HQ with the windows and front door open, hoping birds will fly by or neighborhood animals will walk in, and we can all be at peace together, for once… Of course, it’s also useful to drown out the car alarms and sirens and lawnmowers and leafblowers and helicopters. It’s not sentimental flashy hot leftbrain human, not cold technical rightbrain robot: strictly ahuman, objective in a naturalist’s sense.
C: Continuing in the rural mode…
D: Psychedelic canyon and meadow music such was made in ye olde ’70s! [starts air guitaring to closing ascending twin electric guitar line of "Seasons Don't Fear the Year"]
C: They’re really nailing that rich acoustic-electric rolling tabla honey harmony sound that all those heavy bands—Sabbath and Zeppelin, especially—used to do, back when all the best musicians were inspired by what the Incredible String Band were doing, and were still able (or willing) to express a feminine side to go with their preening barbarian or depressive wail aspects…
D: [reminisces] When the maidens were fair and wore flowers in their hair instead of covering themselves in tattoos and piercings. I am awaiting Sandy Denny’s entrance at any moment.
C: Total “Battle of Evermore” vibe, especially on “Nice Cuffs.”
D: Nice title. I also like this one: “What Never Was and What Should Have Been.”
C: More like “What Always Is and Will Ever Be.” This is an album without a sell-by date, with a song for every season.
D: [listening to "Shalom of Safed"] Monumental. Like the best parts of Deep Purple and the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd.
C: Making music for horse-drawn sledrides thru the driving snow to the lodge in the distance, where pale ale and a fireplace and friends are…
D: [10 minutes later] Was that all one song?
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across the Land
D: [listening to “Stubborn Stitches”] Could it be Heartless Bastards?
C: Yeah, a little eh? It’s actually the first album from an English band, three blokes with a woman in front who does have a voice not too far from Ms. Bastards, or Ms. The Kills, or Ms. Polly Harvey, or here, on “Darling You’re Mean” …
D: Great title!
C: …which opens like an old Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized tune, she’s got that Hope Sandoval reverbian thing going on, but she doesn’t just mope-pout, she howls too. Pretty standard tunes but a great voice and an interest in building to liftoff, repeatedly. The band reminds me a little of their contemporaries and fellow Englishpeople the 22-20s here and there, which of course takes us back to The Gun Club and X. And I also hear, especially on “You Were Born Inside My heart”…
D: ANOTHER great title!
C: …the sound of Come, of the great Thalia Zedek, an underappreciated true believer voice of blues trauma/”I’m having an episode” rock & roll darkside… This music says: jeans and threads, fringes and belt buckles, whiskey and sunglasses, late nights and tough mornings.
D: They strike me as… promising.
C: What do they promise?
D: Dirty glares, at first. But later? [smiles] Sex with slapping.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad of the Broken Seas
D: [listening to "The False Husband"] Well the obvious recent comparison would be that Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue song on Murder Ballads. Also Serge Gainsbourg and Ms. Bardot, or Lee Hazelwood songs, or Jimmy Webb, or Johnny Cash…
C: It has a classic vintage feel. There’s a real string section (which more artists should do instead of cheaping it out with the synthesizer), and a darkness and a ’60s country and western duet swirl to it, with an almost inappropriately sexkittenish breathy femme voice—
D: Julee Cruise. Or, Marilyn Monroe singing to the president—
C: She’s a better singer than that, but you get the feeling listening to this—
D: [smiling broadly, with raised eyebrows] I get many feelings listening to this—
C: I have no doubt that you do, but anyways you get the feeling that she’s holding back singing, doesn’t trust her voice so much as she should. But her reticence doesn’t hurt her here because the songs are so accomplished, and she’s got Mr. Mark Lanegan, probably our nation’s greatest wounded survivor voice, to harmonize and duet with.
D: And they’re all HER songs! Interesting…
C: Except for “Revolver,” a really spooky nighttime shortness-of-breath anxiety thing written by Lanegan, and a clever reworking of Mr. Cash’s “Ramblin’ Man.” Yeah, how often do you see women writing for men anymore? It’s great. Lullabies and laments, offers and pleas, thoughtfully arranged with appropriate decor: a fiddle here, reverbed tabla there, an instrumental intermission at just the right point.
D: Which could have been a track on the Citay album!
C: And the pop tune here — “Honey Child What Can I Do?” is pure singalong AM radio gold.The album closer—”The Circus Is Leaving Town”—is an all-timer for closing time.
D: This is the kind of heartsong Tom Waits used to write.
C: What a song, what lyrics, what a melody, what a feel. I wish we could run all the lyrics for this: “The party’s over now/stop howling at the moon/you need a different beat/you need a different tune/Remember that old song/we had when we were young/Life was an empty page/the world would write upon/Do you recall the meadow grass, we’d sit and watch the hours pass/ You were such a good girl then/Oh Ruby dry your eyes/The circus is leaving town/Oh Ruby, roll your stockings down…” When Lanegan sings, “You could make me think/the sun sets in the east” and then hums at the end? Whew!
D: That’s when you know a singer knows how good a song is. When he still wants to sing it even when there’s no more words to sing.
C: Obviously, hopefully, this is just the beginning of a beautiful, enduring partnership.
Comfort of Strangers
D: Wow. Total laugh-cry masterpiece triumph to the 32nd degree. And I was never a huge fan. What happened?
C: Maybe a weekend at Esalen helped? Who knows. It’s a huge creative breakthrough, for sure, on every level. There’s more good words in the first minute of the album than most songwriters come up with in their entire career. And the music is tremendous, really dry and warm and thought-out.
D: It’s called craft at service to a group of great songs.
C: Maybe it’s down to the guys she’s working with—Tim Barnes on drums, Jim O’Rourke on other instruments and production—but it seems like they totally gelled creatively in a way where it doesn’t really matter how it happened. I mean, O’Rourke was involved with those Judee Sill records finally seeing the light of day last year, and I can hear echoes of her work here—that melancholy, that minor joy, those major choruses in spite of everything, that lovely canyon feel, etc. So it makes sense. Still… Man, every song is a hit. Listen to the breakdown on the chorus of “Rectify.” Amazing. Only a live band can do that. Same thing on “Shopping Trolley,” which is practically anthemic, with zero cheese content, and “Heart of Soul,” which she just BELTS. Amazing. Bare music, bare soul. I’m crying here!
D: Coffeehouse denizens of America rejoice, we have a new masterpiece to sip our lattes to.
Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
D: [singing along to "Act of the Apostle Part 1] “What would I do in Germany?” I find myself wondering that sometimes.
C: [smugly] I have no doubt that you do.
D: Enough with the sarcasm, you, or there may be damages! [listening to "Another Sunny Day"] Who is this?
C: Belle & Sebastian, from Scotland. Your friend Isobel Campbell used to be in this group.
D: I don’t recall them being this fun.
C: Yeah, it’s total record store pop, isn’t it? Almost like Ween in its variety and craft, when you think about it. Just a ton of styles they didn’t have mastered before: 12-string Byrds country-soul, Gary Glitter glam beat with Sweet-style melodies and harmonies, upbeat melodic Creedence chug rock & roll, a stylish Jam dance number, a Stevie Wonder Synclavier summer sunpop hit, all sung in choirboy stylee. Lotsa great music hall stuff, but it’s all perfect for a stylish afternoon-into-evening garden party.
D: Rufus Wainwright, eat your heart out.
C: Clever observational storytelling lyrics too, which they’ve always done well. “Sukie in the Graveyard” is Sly & the Family Stone-style organ riff funk with Kinks kharacter lyrics and long-line melody. “Funny Little Frog” takes me back to Pulp, who I dearly miss.
D: “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” is an undeniable number one hit in the harmony pop heaven of my inner music-lover mind.
Hello Young Lovers
(In the Red)
C: [listening, slackjawed] …
D: [listening, eyes bulging] …
C: Talk about genius.
D: Talk about masterpiece.
C: How do you even start to talk about this?
D: I’ve never heard anything like it.
C: The best I can say is if you ever liked Sparks—any of their many, many startling inventive endlessly idiosyncratic innovator phases during the last 30 (!) years—this will destroy you. And if you never liked Sparks, ever, you need this, just to know that pop music, pop lyrics, pop personae could be so much…MORE.
D: They should be on the cover of Arthur.
C: Stop the presses!
D: I gotta say I didn’t see this one coming.
C: A surprise knockout in the 20th round! Or, in Sparks’ case, the 20th album.
D: [opens window, yells outside to passers-by] C and D are down for the count! [pause] Again!