erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Beulah, Yoko (Velocette)

Beulah's 2001 album The Coast Is Never Clear was described time and again as an upbeat, summer album, despite lyrics about death and heartbreak that were as lonely as the stark of winter. That was true to an extent of their previous two albums as well, but the full, orchestral sound and amazing melodies gave offered an especially bright sound to cover up the heartache within. With their fourth album Yoko, the group has stripped their sound down, removing most of the embellishments (though not all, there's gorgeous strings and horns on a few songs), and in doing so has made it impossible for listeners to miss the hurt in the songs, which this time focus on one particular area of pain: what we do to each other for the sake of love. Even the melodies are moodier on about half the songs, with Miles Kurosky singing in a toned-down way that echoes the feelings of the song. Yoko is a musical picture of that feeling that you've reached the end of the line and there's nowhere else to go. It's filled with desperate people and their wishes. "You're fragile, you're bound to self-destruct," Kurosky sings on the first song; it's a sentiment that could apply to the people inhabiting any of Yoko's songs. Beulah still write some of the sweetest melodies you'll hear, but the people living in their songs have had the sweetness drained out of them. "Behind every lonely mile there lies another mile just for you," Kurosky sings on the last song. With every step is nothing but hurt.

The Books, The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab)

As someone who grew up going to Disney World almost every summer for vacation, I've often thought that somebody should use the format of a theme park ride to do something truly weird--to build something with that same imaginative spirit, but with more mystery and strangeness (and less commercialism). To me, the music created by the Books is the sonic equivalent of that theme park that I always dreamed of. The duo take components from everywhere and do things with them that you wouldn't believe. To wander through either of their two albums is to feel blissfully lost and confused. As the duo's second album The Lemon of Pink opens, you hear a woman saying "the lemon of pink...flowing velvet" while other voices cough, mumble, whisper and croon sweet-nothings, sax and violins appear and are quickly cut away, and a banjo player picks a sweet melody. Everything sounds cut-up but still flows together. Voices and sounds come and go, but a melody runs through; this is still a pop song, as schizoid as it first appears to be. The Lemon of Pink is flooded with voices (some speaking, some singing) and sounds that are often hard to identify; not far into the album you'll begin to wonder, "how many sound samples do these guys have, and where do they get them all?" Yet the album is also filled with calm, gorgeous melodies and moods. The Books don't just play with recorded sound, they skillfully play guitar and violin too, and blend it all together into unique music that is both gentle, atmospheric folk and a jigsaw puzzle made from fragments of sound grabbed out of the air. This is an adventure ride like you wouldn't believe, but it's also as emotionally stirring as you'd want music to be. It hints at a myriad of ideas, circumstances, and places at once while enveloping you in music that's as comforting as it is bizarre. This is the real Magic Kingdom. {Note: for another mind-joggling experience, check out their web site, a curious extension of their music that you can get just as lost in.}

The Capitol Years, Pussyfootin (Full Frame Records)

The Capitol Years' Pussyfootin is miles removed in style and demeanor from their recent full-band Jewelry Store EP, a rocked-up mini-extravaganza. Recorded in 2000, before the EP, but just released now, Pussyfootin is a trip backwards in terms of chronology and a longer trip back in terms of musical tradition. It sounds like Capitol Years singer/guitarist Shai Halperin, who at the time was the whole band, holed up in his home in Philadelphia to write and record some old-fashioned country-folk songs. A photo inside the cover shows a handful of old harmonicas laid out side by side; on the album he puts them to good use, along with an acoustic guitar and his rugged but expressive voice. Reminiscent at various times of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the more recent, similar time-trips taken by ex-Mice frontman Bill Fox, Pussyfootin''s songs feel both old and new; he's tripping through a traditional song style, but the album has a force and sense of presence that makes you feel like you're there. It shares an immediacy and impact with The Capitol Years' recent arena rock songs, even though there's an expanse between them in terms of mood. This is a low-light, late-night-by-yourself album of low-key but haunting songs to fill the empty spaces with. That said, there's traces of both Mick Jagger and Bob Pollard in Halperin's voice on "Those Who Suck Will Blow," and several songs bear a hazy trace of psychedelia that make the album feel like a dream. But even with the predominant folk sound, it never feels like a rocker putting on a musical Halloween costume--these are still honest, raw, affecting songs.

The Decemberists, Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars)

With their second album Her Majesty The Decemberists have taken their surreal, literary form of pop music and broadened it in ways that are exceedingly satisfying. Their first two releases, an EP called 5 Songs and an album called Castaways and Cutouts, introduced music fans to Colin Meloy's gift at melody-writing and the unique world in which his songs reside, an out-of-time place that's populated by pirates, chimney sweeps and royalty but just as often bears the concerns and stories of the modern era. The lyrics on Her Majesty blur those lines more thoroughly, with a song about ghosts haunting sailors living side by side with a hate letter to modern-day Los Angeles, while retaining the wit and unearthly feeling that marked previous Decemberists lyrics. Musically, the group is pushing forward even more noticeably. The songwriting on Her Majesty is more mature and the way they perform the songs is more diverse. Wurlitzers whirl, lap steel glides along, there's an extra touch of grace from "Her Majesty's String Quartet" and much more. The songs are stretched out in a way that makes them emotionally potent beyond their minutes; witness not just the seven-minute epic "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground," but also how much feeling and tenderness exudes from the stark, off-beat love song "Red Right Ankle," which is half as long. A truly majestic album that's filled with all sorts of arresting moods, sounds and ideas, Her Majesty is a lovely work from a group that deserves all of the attention they're starting to receive.

Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (Temporary Residence Ltd)

No one's so far given an easy-to-use name for the sort of instrumental music played by Mogwai, the Dirty Three, etc. that is in any way useful. But if I mention those groups, you know what I'm talking about: atmospheric and dynamic music that's like the score to an imagined film, like classical music that's been infused with the spirit of punk rock. The Austin, Texas-based quartet Explosions in the Sky play music along those same lines: gorgeous pieces that build and expand and sweep over you. Their songs are tightly constructed with guitars, bass, and drums but feel open, with ample room left between the notes for mystery. Their latest album The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is absolutely spellbinding, the sort of music that slowly and effortlessly pulls you along until your feet lift off the ground and you float gently away. For all the power contained within--for the band does catch these songs ablaze--there's a gentleness to the music that betrays a hopefulness about life and the world which is a far cry from the gloom-and-doom prophecies of musically like-minded ensemble Godspeed You Black Emperor. The guitars delicately build something beautiful together; when they then explode and shred together, it feels like a further building and creating, not a destructive act at all. The album titles tells you that the earth isn't a cold dead place, and the music will make you believe it.

The Gay, You Know the Rules (Mint Records)

So a handful of Vancouver-based musicians get together to form a supergroup that'll knock everyone's socks off…no, I'm not talking about the New Pornographers, though they share a producer. This is the Gay, a 5-member group with a lineage in groups like Vancouver Nights, Maow, the Tennessee Twin, and Superconductor. Their debut full-length You Know the Rules is a bouncy pop album with a full sound, with multiple singers and instruments like piano and accordion augmenting the usual rock format. It's a friendly affair filled with catchy-as-hell songs performed with passion and an overriding air that this is a bunch of friends having fun singing together and playing together. Their songs are straightforward musically but lyrically a bit evasive; from the song about the "opulent canine" onward, they've got me on the edge of my seat with confusion. But the melodies hook me in another way, as does the overall style of a band which can rock up an accordion as well as they do. They mystify me, but consider me hooked.

Lyrics Born, Later That Day… (Quannum)

At the start of Lyrics Born's Later That Day…, the MC wakes up in the middle of the night, haunted by bill collectors and war-obsessed, would-be dictator politicians. From then on the album is like a hip-hop version of 24, taking you through a day in the life of Lyrics Born. It covers everything from the difficulty of getting out of bed when you have little hope for your life or the world and the annoyances of living day to day (and, in a series of humorous moments, the annoyances of telemarketer calls and the automated customer service menus you get when you call your bank) to the joys of losing yourself in nightlife. A riveting performer with a unique vocal delivery that's somewhere between rapping, singing, growling and preaching in front of a congregation, Lyrics Born leads you through the trials and pleasures of life with both a sense of humor and genuine insight into the world around us. It's a fun and serious ride, plus a seriously funky one. Lyrics Born rhymes fast and low, and then sings in a funked-up, rambunctious voice, all over thick basslines and drums worthy of a James Brown workout. Mostly produced by Lyrics Born himself, the album also includes a dazzling appearance by Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5 (on "Do That There") and rock-flavored production by DJ D Sharp ("Pack Up"), plus some funk-rock musicianship courtesy of the instrumental band the Poets of Rhythm. The tracks consistently hit hard while also being essentially bright and energetic in a very Californian way. Lyrics Born's Quannum companions Gift of Gab and Lateef the Truth Speaker make appearances (the latter and Lyrics Born have recorded together as Latryx, as on their innovative 1997 album The Album), and the whole album manages to feel both like a wild party and a bold introspective look at one person's life.

Teenage Fanclub, Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds (Jetset Records)

Teenage Fanclub have always proved that it's possible for a band to wear its influences on its sleeve and still make original music that's uniquely affecting, filled with heart and spirit. Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds: A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub proves that better than any of their other albums, as it comes off as a true best-of. That's always a subjective thing, which is one of the reasons I usually resist greatest-hits albums, but here the song selection strikes me as impeccable, and the album is sequenced and edited together perfectly, so that you could mistake it as an album of new material if you didn't know better…which can't be said of most greatest hits albums, which bear the awkwardness of taking a photo of a 5-year-old and one of the same person at 15 and trying to pass them both off as current. Four Thousand… goes from the group's first release, the more ragged rocker A Catholic Education through the smoother pop-rock sounds of their most recent albums without feeling like a mishmash. Three new songs are even slipped in there. Passing off brand-new songs as "greatest hits" is another trend I usually hate, but these stand right up with the rest of the songs-especially "Did I Say," a stirring love song that has a melody that stands out even on an album filled with great melodies. Coming up with great melodies worthy of the bands they worshipped (Big Star, the Byrds, the Beatles) is one of Teenage Fanclub's strengths; another is the way so many of their best songs ("Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From," "Hang On," "What You Do To Me") probe the complexities of life and love in deeply emotional ways with simple words and tunes. Four Thousand… makes me want to run out and listen to every Teenage Fanclub record ever released, even the ones I previously thought were only so-so. I guess that's the purpose of greatest-hits albums; this time it worked on me.

The Trouble Dolls, Sticky (Half a Cow)

As much as music fans tend to slave over song lyrics and study them like they were the Bible, sometimes the best songs are the ones that make you sing along even though you have no earthly idea what they're about. The Trouble Dolls' debut full-length Sticky opens with one of those, a 2-1/2 minute power-pop song with old-fashioned handclaps called "7:05." What's going on at 7:05? You got me…hey, would you play that song again? The Trouble Dolls are a rock trio from New York City who love big hooks and riffs and snappy melodies. There's something a bit dramatic about the energy behind their songs (think Redd Kross dramatic, not Sondheim dramatic), like they live to put on a really big show, a rock show you'll remember. But Sticky has plenty of quieter moments, too, and as the album continues you're just as likely to appreciate them for writing well-put-together pop ballads that aim at your heart ("I Don't Know Anything At All," "Something Blue Amazed Me") as you are admire them for their spunk. By the album's end, you realize The Trouble Dolls are less interested in crafting one particular aesthetic than in writing songs you'll remember. And though every song here doesn't blow me away, Sticky has enough to keep me singing happily to myself for a while, which sometimes is all you need.

Yo La Tengo, Today Is the Day (Matador)

The members of Yo La Tengo sure are jokers. Their new EP Today Is the Day has a great front cover that makes it look like an old jazz album, and a great psychedelic band photo on the back that has you expecting some crazy, far-out free jazz. Then the CD kicks off with a couple of songs that rock louder than most of the songs on their last two albums put together, and you realize the joke's on you. But who's complaining, really? Yo La Tengo are one of the best American rock bands cause they know when not to rock…they understand the great feeling you can get from quiet, low-key music, music that does not rock. But they also can rock with the best of them, and Today Is the Day's first two songs prove it. First is the title track, which takes a pretty tune from Summer Sun and rocks it up like it was an Electro-pura outtake. Then there's "Styles of the Times," a great fuzzy rocker in that same vein. "Outsmartener" capitalizes on the promise of the cover art while keeping the guitar-rock feeling of the first two tracks by steering you through a maze of sound that has a dreamy melody, freak-out horns from William Parker, and an overall feeling that you're in the middle of a messed-up car chase. An earnest cover of British folkie Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" (a touching eulogy for a heroin-addicted friend), and a snazzy instrumental called "Dr Crash" continue the EP, before it closes with a final reminder that Yo La Tengo are songwriting pros who are continually blurring the line between what's rock and what isn't: a slow, haunting acoustic cover of "Cherry Chapstick," which in its original form was the only straightforward rock song they've put on an album since 1997. Another fantastic Yo La Tengo record.

Issue 17, November 2003

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