2005, 26-23 The Decemberists, Alan Braxe and Friends, The Mountain Goats and Ladytron

The Decemberists
Alan Braxe and Friends
The Mountain Goats
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The Decemberists: Picaresque

I don't think I've yet reviewed an album with a name that is nearly as fitting as this. Really, 75% of my job is finished because the title of the album describes it so perfectly. What's this music like? Picaresque. I was also honestly shocked to hear this music coming out of my speakers because I originally thought the title of the album was Picardesque. Actually, I had more expected the Decemberists to sound like the Shins, because they're an indie band, and hey, that's what indie bands sound like. Instead, they're more like the bard from some medieval province or maybe from a local community dinner theater. So much of their style seems like it was conceived in the basement of some mother's house by her son playing D&D with his other D&D friends. Don't get me wrong; it doesn't reach the ridiculous, but it certainly has a bombastic baroque feel with lyrics that include such buzzwords as "maiden", "prince", "duchess", "palanquin", and "betrothed". In a word, it's picaresque.

A band like this in California would produce something pagan and hippy (like My Barbarian). A band like this in New York would produce satanic metal, and a band like this in the Midwest might produce something nerd-core. But in the fertile indie ground of Portland, they produce something gilded and unique. (However, before Isaac claims yet another victory for the Pacific Northwest, I should point out that lead guitarist Chris Funk — as seen on The Colbert Report — is from the other Northwest - Northwest Indiana, specifically my hometown of Valparaiso.) The album starts off with the epic "The Infanta", telling a story about princes and dukes and whatever, I'm still not sure what he's saying. But it's exciting, melodic, and the East Indies influenced style makes you feel like you're watching an old 70s film like Lawrence of Arabia or The King and I or something similarly exotic. I also want to note that while his voice is not perfect by any means, it's still an excellent voice that is made better simply by the singer's confidence. It's put up front in the mix and is clear and understandable, something you don't see too often in modern music.

The rest of the album is a journey and interesting to listen to. Sometimes it's the album's lyrics, sometimes it's the music alone that is engaging. It helps that The Decemberists are excellent storytellers, like "The Sporting Life", a song odd in that it doesn't talk about the exotic, but rather football, in telling the story of a young high school player who injures himself on the field. A very innocuous-seeming scene, but it's told in a simple yet engaging fashion. But taken too far, it can backfire: the lowest point on the album comes in "Espionage", a very long story about a spy and his lover. The song starts off well enough, but it drags on with a plodding verse. After you think the song might end, it inexplicably spirals into a failed attempt at some kind of string crescendo which ends in more of the verse. It's disappointing, because the song would have really worked with some editing.

Other than the length of some songs, I can't find any fault with this album other than the basic style, which might be off-putting to some people. But if the idea of hearing about people shipwrecked inside of a whale or about royal court intrigue doesn't bother you, then you should definitely buy Picaresque.

The word Picaresque is used to refer to a certain kind of swashbuckling narrative of grand guignol and global adventure popular in the mid-eighteenth century. And, oddly enough, when you crack this sucker open you get exactly what it says on the tin, minus the eighteenth century part. (Although there're songs on here that would've gone down a storm in the dockside taverns of Liverpool, back in the day.) You also get the best album we've had so far, rife with tales of bloody revenge, international espionage, double suicide, and love affairs that last beyond the grave. And it's all constructed with the rhythm and the narrative of the whole shebang in mind, which is particularly welcome in these trying times, now that the idea of the record album as a cohesive unit seems to be on its way out. Again.

We open with a galloping drumbeat that tells you that we mean business - that this cute, literary little band has grander intentions this time and is going to wipe the floor with you. And the opener, "The Intafada", is a stunner, a five minute description of a royal procession bearing a holy babe plucked from the water in a basket. That's it - no context provided, just intense martial climax after climax. The Decemberist's sound, beyond being flecked through with horns and bowed bass and accordion, is notable for its sense of rhythmic and dynamic tension -- this song starts out loud, gets louder, straps on some hilariously over the top spaghetti western arpeggios, gets even louder and then slows to a halt for a brief, yearning glance at the prince's virgin bride. And then it gets louder still. And then it's straight into the double suicide, with the perversely catchy "We Both Go Down Together", which is part shanty, part irish lilt, part piano rock and contains melodic hooks that burrow into your head. This story of a love that could never be sets the tone for the rest of the album, ushering in the tone of romantic doom that will see us through to the end, where in the ethereally beautiful "Angels" we are treated to a more metaphorical drowning.

It's hard to pick out highlights because the album's dripping with them. Check out "The Sporting Life", a tale of failure on the football field that is redolent of Belle & Sebastian's high-school-forever aesthetic and sounds just enough like something off of "If You're Feeling Sinister" that we know it's a homage, without ever feeling like anything but a Decemberists song. (You don't get banjo in B&S.) This whole album actually reminds me of that band's underrated comeback album "Dear Catastrophe Waitress"... there's the same willingness to experiment, the same far-reaching narratives, and the same half-serious sophistication, but "Picaresque" is far more cohesive and thus far more successful. It balances its higher and more ludicrous flights of fancy with songs of bracing immediacy. The epic cold war romance "Espionage" is full of crazed stylistic tailbacks and about-faces, starting and stopping and building and falling until it lands eventually in a Glass-ian minimalist cul-de-sac which explodes into the one moment on the album where the vocals aren't pushed to the fore, drowned instead in a storm of noise. Then, after the stripped-down ghost song "Lost At Sea" to clear our palates, we have "16 by 32", a triumphant stomp-along protest song about the war in Iraq, which could stand alone as a radio single if it weren't so caustic. This balance of the high-flown with the direct serves the album very well indeed, and nowhere better than with "Bus Mall" and "The Mariners' Song", the last big songs on the album, which are placed right next to each other because isolated they would be overwhelming, the first from sheer poignancy and the second from pure swashbucking ridiculousness. The first is a story of teenage runaways who turn to prostitution (and is probably more affecting to me because it's set in Portland and I recognize the places he mentions and the sort of kids he's describing.) The second is about a revenge-crazed sailor who is swallowed by a whale, only to find himself sharing the thing's cavernous belly with the very man who brought about his mother's untimely demise. Either might be over the top if they weren't juxtaposed so closely. As it is, it just feels like Colin Meloy flexing his compositional muscles, particularly because after the whale we get the stark intimacy of "Angels", proving that the bastard can write love songs that don't involve civil war captains or selkies.

The last thing I want to mention about the album is that it has a song that functions as a kind of mission statement. "Engine Driver", which references both the Who and "Wichita Lineman", is about a man trying to escape his overpowering love for a girl by diving into story after story and character and character. He is "a writer, a writer of fictions", a line and a conceit which so disgusted me when I first heard this album last year that I shelved it and didn't give it a second look until I had to review it here. You might have the same reaction... it's almost as easy to hate Colin for his cleverness as it is to be swept along by his stories. I'm in a different place now than I was then, and I think this is easily among the top five albums of '05, and that you should buy it. But it ain't for everyone, not even always for me. But just for the chance that you can allow yourself to be caught and dazzled by it you should give it a shot.

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Alan Braxe and Friends: The Upper Cuts

It's electronic music again, and yet again, I feel wholly inadequate to judge as I've never had the urge to put on techno outside of video games or a dance hall. I just don't think it's the right kind of music for studying, and it just lulls me to sleep when I am driving. Alan Braxe is definitely techno, though, and it's the good kind of techno: it isn't overly repetitive, not pretentious, and it does this without being really poppy. Some of the songs sound like what I like to call "transvestite techno", which basically sounds like the theme song to "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy". Imagine a techno version of "We Are Family" and you'll have an idea of what I mean. The songs that do have vocals are just simple affirmations of the song title itself, as if the song was reminding you what it was called. People who pay attention to popular culture may remember "Music Sounds Better With You", released in 1998. That's right, it's another singles collection.

All arguments about whether singles collections should even be reviewed aside, after hearing this, my only experience with Mr. Braxe, perhaps he is best served to the general public as a Best Of collection. Those of us who are not versed in techno can experience the highlights of his career without being turned off by what is — as having a singles collection affirms — a bunch of mediocre filler along the way.

If you aren't familiar with Mr. Braxe, like myself, he seems to have a very distinct style. His recordings push the high end of the EQ, and his synth pads give you a very distinct feeling: the feeling of being awake at 5am in the countryside. His sparse arrangments and chords are exceedingly natural, like an incarnation of techno wandering the moors. On "Intro", there is a repeated "woo-ooh" that bears a striking resemblance to a Bob White's call, normally heard at 6am in Indiana while waiting for the school bus. This is music to play a 10 year old driving video game to until 4 in the morning. It's music to make coffee to, if you were so inclined.

Overall, if this were not a singles compilation, I would advise the techno enthusiast to hastily purchase this CD, and the layman to burn it. But seeing as how this is a singles collection, the enthusiast probably already has all of these songs already, which would lead me to suggest to you to burn the CD.

The second track on this album is a song called "In Love With You", which is an electronic track, made of three piano chords, electro tones, something that sounds like a backup soul singer crossed with a vacuum cleaner, and some dude with a (please don't say scandinavian) french accent singing the words 'in love with you' over and over and over and over again in his best discofied quaver. Four and a half minutes of this, interrupted only by a small bridge where Mr. Vacuum briefly takes over. Then there's "Music Sounds Better With You", which is basically the same concept, except everything's crammed through a phaser so it all feels slightly nauseous and out of time.

God deliver me from these neo-discophytes and their broken-record stylings. The loops that drive these tracks are usually less than two seconds long -- the tedium bores into the brain as the phased vocals swirl in and out. This is less music than counter-insurgency black ops -- I bet there's an entire section for it in the new prisoner interrogation guidelines. The only thing that saves it from being outright torture is the occasional funky bassline that worms its way in to taunt you with its musicality.

Where were the hippoisie when my favorite band decided that disco-electronica was in again and did it with actual songwriting? You didn't care. You didn't dig the emotion. You didn't dig the beats, which were easily on a par with this numbingly same-y crap. If you couldn't dance to it without a measly thought in your brains it wasn't cool enough for you. You let them die, and now you shovel up crap like this, which is hip because it's European.

Yeah. If overuse of phasing and tremolo were a crime, these people would be shot at dawn, with the overuse of canned handclaps cited by the prosecution as an aggravating factor. May you rot, Alan Braxe! How do you make a hip-hop song so limp and unrappable that the MC sinks into it like a man being swallowed by a vat of thick porridge when you refuse to use any loop longer than five seconds? It must be a christmas miracle. (That's Track 11 for those of you foolish enough to still be listening at that point in the album). Skip! Skip! Skip!

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The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree

John Darnielle is probably sick of being compared to Neutral Milk Hotel by now. To be fair, the Decemberists are more like them, but the fact is that he's part of the family. I recently listened to Aeroplane Over The Sea, because I felt I wouldn't have the indie cred required to review albums like this unless I was well-versed in the "best album of the 90s". So I can say that the comparison is apt. See, Neutral Milk Hotel exploded sometime in the 90s, and today we're still picking pieces of them up: The Decemberists, The Long Winters, The Weakerthans, John Vanderslice, and yes, The Mountain Goats. Personally, I enjoy NMH a lot, but not enough to get too excited about them. I'm told (by Isaac) that a large draw of NMH is their lyrics. The same holds true for the Mountain Goats, especially among the more literarally minded. Darnielle even recently collaborated with John Vanderslice and contributed lyrics on The Pixel Revolt.

As good as the lyrics might be, they're also the biggest problem. One of the complaints I've heard levied against Pavement (don't worry, I'm getting to The Mountain Goats) is that they "sound like a bunch of indie dorks making it up as they go along." This applies equally well to The Mountain Goats as well: Darnielle sounds like he's just singing whatever crap comes off the top of his head. Oh, he's most definitely not; the lyrics, taken separately, are quite good. The problem is that the man has an annoying, and to my ears, wrong approach to meter. Most of the time he sounds like he's trying to cram as many syllables into a phrase as possible just so he doesn't have to violate the sanctity of his lyrics. What I imagine to be Darnielle's creative process is this: first, he figures out a tune on the guitar, improvising lyrics and coming up with some kind of hook. He then takes that hook and writes a poem around it that has no relation to the song whatsoever. The result sounds like someone trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. In the end, the music is great, the lyrics are great, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

But this is a criticism that can be levied against The Mountain Goats in general; it doesn't address this specific album. This album has a much higher production quality than I was expecting; it's slick, like you would expect from say, a Broadway album. I say this because "Dance Music" sounds like it comes direct from the Rent soundtrack. Overall, the arrangements are well thought out, especially for music which is at its heart simple singer/songwriter acoustic ballads. If there is a problem in the music, it's cello-driven pieces that are reminiscent of old Beatles song but sound incongruous with Darnielle's voice and the album as a whole.

I'm not familiar with The Mountain Goats' other work, but this is an expertly made, detailed, and closely crafted album at the very least. So that leads me to a conflict: if it were up to most fans of indie rock, they would tell you to buy it. If it were up to me (and it is), I would tell you to just skip this album. But I suppose that you need to hear the Mountain Goats at least once before deciding your position on them, so ultimately, I would suggest an averaged burn.

I am not a member of the cult of John Darnielle -- I never passed around any of his cassettes, was never inspired to make my own ultra lo-fi pop songs, felt no particular joy or pain when he was discovered by the rest of the world. So I come to this music as an outsider. The only exposure I've had to Mr. Darnielle, in fact, is in his lyrical contributions to John Vanderslice's recent albums, which haven't stuck out for me much one way or the other. So prepare yourself here for the thoughts of a Mountain Goats virgin.

So this guy turns out to be a classically poppy songwriter with a great voice and consistently interesting lyrics. Also he has a song here called "Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod", which beats out Cursed Realms (Of The Winterdemons) and Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed as the best song title of 2005 so far. There are shades of They Might Be Giants in here, although I'm not sure wherefrom they come, since this stuff isn't as musically complex and is far, far more emotionally committed. I think it's just the general air of nerdiness, a certain kind of cool-but-dorky-dad quality in the vocals. And that's what you really have to latch onto with this guy - his voice, his passion, his delivery. The music itself is resolutely pleasant but unremarkable, and the production is intentionally haphazard. It has, occasionally, dat ole chimera Pop Sensibility padding around its bones, but I could do with a little more movement, a little more complexity, a little more ache to go with the tape hum. And then there's the problem of repetition - there's not much structurally, musically or even melodically that separates "Up The Wolves" from "This Year" or "Broom People".

Darnielle's at his best when he's at his least cartoonish, as on the affecting album closer "Pale Green Things" and the death-meditation "Song For Dennis Brown". The appeal of this music is in the emotion packed into each song, and the more stridently dorky Darnielle gets the harder it gets to access that feeling, and one's attention drifts to the music, which is only good insofar as it supports the vocals, and then things get boring. There are some exceptions - the dumb sunny pop of "Dance Music" buoys up two little vignettes about destructive relationships in a wonderful, sour-sweet mix. This is another case where the best songs on the album achieve a unique beauty that makes me see why people could fall in love with this artist and follow him to the grave, but where the merely solid tunes leave me uninspired. I'd rather listen to the Decemberists -- Darnielle has a better voice, and I believe the stories he's telling me are true, where Colin is obviously telling a bunch of fibs. But I'd rather have insincerity delivered in layers of musical complexity than sincerity served on a half-warmed pop platter. If you will. If you tend the other way (and there are many good folk who do), this stuff's for you.

So. As a whole, the endeavor feels slight, and that's the recipe for a burn, in my book -- you should check it out, if only to hear the way Darnielle acts the vocals on "Dilaudid".

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Ladytron: The Witching Hour

There's very few things a band named "Ladytron" could sound like, and Ladytron sounds like one of them. There are three possibilities: a sexy funk band, an 80s riot grrl punk band with emphasis on synth, and a female lead goth techno band. Ladytron falls in the final category. Unfortunately, they also sound like the kind of goth techno band that writes music in Garage Band in their living room on their iMac. Not that that's such a horrible thing (MOD writers can be quite good sometimes; witness Unreal Tournament), but the vocals are insultingly plain and uninflected and the sounds are about as run of the mill as you can get. So in that sense, it resembles music only technically: a great deal of care has gone into each song (each song has a lot of layers and is carefully planned out) and there is the traditional verse/chorus pattern, but it's so uninspired as to cause drowsiness. Personally, I'm actually kind of offended at how mediocre this music is.

In a weird way, I get the feeling that the kind of person who is into this might also be into Morissey too. The music has a kind of unique indie 80s feel, covered by a depressing shroud of gray that reminds me of the feeling you get when you watched crappy 80s bands with horrible stage presence on cheesy 80s videos with cheesy background effects, like everyone is kind of surrounded red thanks to "edge-detect" technology. I say Morissey, though, because both Morissey and Ladytron have, from a certain perspective, a particular quality of lameness. But there's a certain kind of charm that has the potential to cause a completely inexplicable snowballing of appreciation, as if somehow the performer has found a way to trasmit that 'indie' feeling: the feeling that you are the only one on the planet who might like this person because your musical tastes are just that eclectic, but at the same time you feel that there might be others like you, so you wear your Smiths shirt as a beacon. I'm not saying that such a feeling is childish or even undesirable, I'm just saying that both Morissey and Ladytron are able to hypnotize certain listeners into feeling it.

That said, Ladytron was an absolute trial to sludge through. Every single track sounds vaguely the same, with a few exceptions like "Fighting In Built Up Areas", and the last couple songs, "White Light Generation" and "All The Way". But these aren't nearly impactful enough to make up for 12 songs worth of Ladytron. Even the album title, "The Witching Hour" is a let down. It's more like the "Watching Late Night Infomercials Hour", though I suppose both of those are around midnight. So unless you are a fan of mellow techno that is mellow due soley to its mediocrity rather than its aural quality, I would suggest the music fan skip Ladytron.

You know how I mentioned in passing that my favorite band (while it lived - bis, for those of you not in the know) died because nobody wanted to listen to their darkly atmospheric disco electronica? They were apparently ahead of their time. Ladytron is death disco of the highest order (though not as good by virtue of not being Scottish) and as a result I can't help but like it, all the while cursing the fickleness of taste-makers everywhere. What makes it better than the Alan Braxe is that a) these are songs, rather than looping exercises, and b) that the phaser has been ditched for guitar-borne distortion. In other words, it's a band, not a concept.

That being said, this stuff still ain't all that great, and its presence this far up the list is kind of perplexing. There are some really awful songs pushed up right near the front of the album, like "International Dateline", which mates the rhythm from 'lust for life' to a melody line that's nearly identical to the first track of the album and then opens with the flat-affect girl singer intoning "Woke up in the evening / to the sound of the screaming / through the walls it was bleeding / all over me." Awww. That album opener, though, is a corker, insistent and driving, if just as gothy, with raw-edged guitars mated with choked-off back-mixed electronic squirts to create a grimy wall of sound. The vocalist is at her best when she's at her most sugary, drenched in reverb and twisting her vowels like a teen idol, rubbing up against a backing track that takes no prisoners and chugs forward dumbly, a juggernaut with sharp corners. This band can't do spare, they can't do dynamic variation, they can't do start/stop. When they try they fail badly. But when they start punching and don't let up til the song exhausts itself, they succeed. I dig the swooping guitar effects and driving beats on mid-album tracks like "Sugar" and "Fighting In Built Up Areas", the latter of which is sung in russian, which improves matters tremendously. The album really picks up around that time, with lyrics like "If I give you sugar, will you give me / something elusive and temporary", which beats the hell out of bleeding walls. Break out the minor chords and let's have a doom dance party -- we can wear pancake makeup and cherry lipstick and glow-bracelets.

But when they slow down the beats, take out the guitars and try to bring the floaty melodic vocals, things get depressing. "Soft Power", which sounds like an outtake from a Castlevania soundtrack, is a great example. Without the driving beat or the hard-panned guitars all the wind goes out of their sails.

In short, when Ladytron plays to its strengths and goes over the top it works. You can bop your head to it, you can score your revenge fantasies to it, you can run in the woods and rip out the throats of small animals. Thank god they have a decent drummer, even though they've recorded him in such a way that he sounds as tinny as a machine -- it's the fills that keeps music like this thing going, enabling swoops and crescendos to go as they should. (Or maybe it is a machine, and it's good programming. Either way.) There's a stretch of songs, from "Sugar" to "Weekend", that I enjoy greatly, and "High Rise", the opening track, has made its way onto a couple mix tapes of mine. But the rest of it fails to reach my hindbrain and the rational part of me can see it for what it is -- trashy electronica with plastic fangs on. A burn, here, and that's generous.

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