2004, 46-43 Iron & Wine, The Concretes, Camera Obscura and Scissor Sisters

Iron & Wine
The Concretes
Camera Obscura
Scissor Sisters
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Iron & Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days

It would be quite easy to make a hilarious joke about the album's name and its seemingly endless songs - but that would be too easy. The album's name actually shows up in one of the better songs as a lyric. Iron and Wine is a singer/songwriter style group, with heavy influences from bluegrass and folk music, often with a harmony style like Simon & Garfunkel.

The album starts off with a kind of dirty bluegrass feel - like you're in the Old West, but all alone on a ranch with no one for miles and you're starting to go just a little bit crazy. However, it's not strong enough to be an opening song, because it sounds more like music "in-passing" and instead belongs on track 6 or 7. The second song is "Naked as We Came," and is a classic singer-songwriter style love song about living and dying together. It's very touching, but at the same time it plays on very worn out themes - burying your lover and being nekkid as babes.

The first two songs illustrate why reviewing this album was so difficult: it is at once over-repetitive yet haunting, boring yet soothing, and trite yet touching. So in the end it becomes a judgement call: which side wins out? The third song goes for 5:44 and is probably two minutes too long, but includes some really good instrumentation (including a clever vocal bit). "Sunset Soon Forgotten" has some really good melodies. It also includes harmonies that have been on every other track to this point, thus passing from "overused" to "stylistic." "Teeth in the Grass" should have been the album opener.

The real gems on the album are "Naked As We Came" and the last two songs on the album, "Sodom, South Georgia" and "Passing Afternoon" - although "Sodom..." should be about a minute shorter. "Passing Afternoon" nails the mark, though, with a moving chorus and excellent lyrics (which include the album title). Both of these songs contain strong melodies and flow really well - and that's what's missing from the rest album: strong melodies. The rest of the album is very pretty, very well polished, but it suffers from a failure to reach out and grab the listener. The lyrics are pretty well written - visiting familiar themes in a new way - but they fade into the background on the record. As a result, it is pleasant to put on, but concentrating on the music takes a great deal of effort, because the hooks, the melodies, and the lyrics fail to distinguish themselves more often than not. The album would be much better if it were 15 minutes shorter.

Burn it, but with a strong recommendation to do so. Buy it if you are really into super-mellow indie singer/songwriters, or if you like "Sodom, South Georgia" and you don't think it needs to be a minute shorter.

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The Concretes: The Concretes

Here's something for you: A Swedish indie band that sounds like Lou Reed meets Wonderful Smith with hints of a Southern twang - and a horn section. The majority of the songs on the record are mellow, slower songs with a few upbeat pieces with a small horn section. The singer has a very childlike way of singing - the voice itself is not childlike, but the phrasing and way she attacks notes gives the impression of innocence in a way - maybe it's just 'cause she's Swedish.

The instrumentation here isn't as complex as Iron and Wine, but it is necessarily more layered and full. The focus here is more on where I think it should be: on the song. The opening is a plodding yet uplifting song called "Say Something New" that begins with a Velvet Underground-style verse and slowly drags the listener toward the payoff - a chorus that chugs along behind its main hook - and can The Concretes write hooks. These are the kind of songs that, if written thirty years ago would be featured in car commercials and retro movie soundtracks now, and if they had any songs about Vietnam (which they don't), those would have been in Forrest Gump along side "There's Somethin' Happenin' Here," but since they didn't write any songs about Vietnam (they probably would have), their music would probably be behind Woodstock footage, hip teenage romances, and Coca-Cola might have used "New Friend" alongside "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" (but not in place of). But maybe that's exaggerating a bit.

There are a few misses on the album, though, like "Diana Ross" which spends most of its time chugging along with a pseudo-marching style verse and a chorus which sounds really messy with a subpar vocal melody, giving the listener no real incentive not to skip to the next track. "Seems Fine" is nice and upbeat, but is pretty empty beyond that. The last two tracks are equally uninspiring, as well.

This is another difficult album, because the album has so many great moments, but other times it tends to drag on. It almost seems unfair to Iron and Wine if I rate this album higher, because The Concretes is muddy and reverby where Iron and Wine was simple and clean. The difference is that the highs on The Concretes are higher than Our Endless Numbered Days, but the lows are lower - when things get slow and sludgy on this album, it makes Iron and Wine look energetic.

So burn it, I think, with another strong recommendation. Listen to "Lovin Kind," and if it sounds like your cup of tea, get thee to a record store and purchase it.

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Camera Obscura: Underachievers Please Try Harder

This is the second CD title which falls into the mockable category of "fish and barrel." But I will say it, because it reminds me of Beavis and Butthead watching a Pavement video: Camera Obscura please try harder!

Camera Obscura is an entirely harmless lite rock indie girl-fronted band, whose songs for the most part are completely uninspiring. The album starts off with "Suspended From Class" which is probably a cute clever number, but it's so slightly sugary without providing any body that I just don't care. This band does for songwriting what Matchbox 20 does for guitar tones. It's the musical equivalent of tofu. No, tofu tastes good - um, maybe those styrofoam things you find at some Chinese buffets? I don't know.

I do know that a large amount of indie music falls into the mellow, subtle, "boring" category, and that there is boring, and then there is good boring (which isn't actually boring). The good boring can be pretty subtle and if we give it a chance, it kind of worms its way into our brain and we find ourselves really getting into it. Boring just makes you lethargic and maybe a bit weepy but in a very depressing way. And that's not to say depressing music isn't good - the difference is whether the depressing music is cathartic or just makes it feel like Sunday afternoons and the Long, Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

Camera Obscura is definitely the latter, but the album does have a few good points on it. "Books Written For Girls" is a really slow number that actually has some soul. "Number One Son" is a great example of the kind of good song that this band is capable of. It's got a great direction and flow, the song really builds nicely, and it's got one of the only melodies on the album worth singing along to (but it's good!).

I have been told that they are extremely derivative of Belle & Sebastian; I haven't heard too much of them. But I could definitely see Camera Obscura opening up for Belle & Sebastian. And that's what they are: an opening band. This CD sounds like most opening bands I have heard, entirely harmless, boring to wait through, and instantly forgettable.

Skip it. I don't see how they'd end up on the Top 50 list of anything, unless it was the Top 50 Albums You'll Purchase and Totally Forget That You Owned in a Year. The song "Suspended From Class" tells you everything you need to know about the album.

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Scissor Sisters: Scissor Sisters

The sudden change in musical styles was very jarring. Earlier I talked about weird being a double edged sword, and this time it cuts the good way. The Scissors Sisters have style, they're weird, and their music is mostly good.

What's it sound like? I listened to the first song, "Laura" and thought, "Man! This really sounds familiar!" Then, during the next song, "Take Your Mama", I thought, "You know, I think I've heard this on the radio, but that's not what I'm thinking of. What is it...." and then it hit me. The first two songs sound exactly like Maroon 5. Which may be good or bad, depending on your point of view. To me, Maroon 5 is just okay, and I think these songs would be among the better Maroon 5 songs. These are straightforward pop hits, with "Laura" drawing a slight Backstreet Boys influence and "Take Your Mama" sounding like Ben Harper meets Maroon 5. But their sense of humour comes through, talking about how they are gonna take your mama out all night and how you can stay up late because you're grown up.

After this comes one of the more bizarre covers I've heard lately - a version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" that sounds as if the Bee Gees had written it. The Scissor Sisters are a part rock/part pop techno band, and the techno side of the band sounds a little bit like what I call "transvestite techno" - I have no idea what techno people call it - but it sounds like "We Are Family" or "Things Keep Gettin Better" (is that the actual title?). This song is no exception, and I read that the Scissor Sisters started getting attention when clubs would play this mix at dance clubs. When he sings "Relax," it sounds like he will continue, "don't do it, when you want to sock to it." I wasn't sure what to think of this, but I think my eventual verdict is that this song is kinda funny the first couple times, but after that it's just kind of annoying.

The next song, "Mary" is a great piece of work that sounds like a good Elton John song. "Lovers in the Backseat" starts out sounding like something David Bowie would be proud of, but by the chorus it moves to an 80's Madonna/Prince kind of melody - and topic; it's about someone driving two people making out who then takes the car to a private location where they will be undisturbed - except for the driver watching. "Tits on the Radio" is a mediocre piece, and "Filthy/Gorgeous" goes full out glam/techno. I can seriously hear some flamboyant character exclaim "Faaaabulous!" when the music kicks in. The song creeped me out, too - the verse sounds exactly like a song I had made up while goofing off one day in a Fetla jam session. The chorus is hysterical:
FALSETTO: 'Cause you're filthy!
LEFT SPEAKER (low pitch-shifted voice): Filthy!!!
FALSETTO: Oooh, and I'm gorgeous!
RIGHT SPEAKER (think B-52s guy without the lisp): Gorgeous!!!
"Music is the Victim" is a rockabilly song that is mostly catchy, but something about it screams "mediocre" - maybe it's the cheesy electric piano? that the tagline melody isn't strong enough to be repeated the entire chorus? "Better Luck" is another Maroon 5-inspired song whose chours sounds suspiciously like "Lovers in the Backseat." The next song, "It Can't Come Quickly Enough" is just okay, but it's a nice break and it has enough mood and feeling that it sounds nice where it is.

But this disc really wins me over personally on "Return To Oz." I was listening to the album the first time, when this song came on and all of a sudden I heard them talking about Skeksis. This song not only reveals why they covered Pink Floyd (they are clearly influnced by it, especially the chord progression on this song), and it is a song about the Return to Oz - kinda. More like a bad nightmare about the world it is set in. It even talks about the queen with the hundred heads (SPOILER ALERT) - all of her heads are dead, and now she just wanders the hall... It also talks about how the Skeksis "can no longer feel / love or sex appeal." This is a really good song despite the goofy lyrics, most of which are reminiscient of Jethro Tull or Styx, and the vocal melodies are very much like ELO.

This was yet another hard decision, but despite my personal bias against pop influences, this is a good album. I just wish that they would do more of the classic rock-inspired songs and wacky techno than the power pop hits. So, buy it, unless you're like me, in which case, burn it. It's a pretty eclectic album, but "Lovers in the Backseat" contains the most elements from the album as a whole.

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