eight reviews of music
[Belle & Sebastian, Bright Eyes, Busta Rhymes, Common, Darla 100, Of Montreal, Phish, Wolfie]
by Dave heaton
Belle & Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)
With their fourth album, Belle & Sebastian continue to create pop music which is remarkably affecting and entertaining, which has great melodies, intelligent lyrics and excellent musicianship. They have a way of combining depictions of people and how they behave with feelings and impressions about life and society without ever seeming didactic or judgmental or pretentious. Plus they encapsulate all of that in melodic pop songs as enjoyable as I imagine pop music can be. Basically, Belle & Sebastian has yet to disappoint me one iota; I like every song I've ever heard by them, and their new album Fold Your Hands... is as filled with great songs as any of their previous releases. I love it through and through, and could ramble about it forever if I had the time. I've always had the impression that the members of Belle and Sebastian think of themselves as a musical collective, a group of people sharing ideas and making music together; the press and music fans seem to enjoy focusing mostly on Stuart Murdoch, for whatever reason (need for celebrity icons, the fact that If You're Feeling Sinister, the album that really broke them, featured Murdoch as lead singer so much, etc.). I personally enjoy the songs sung by other vocalists as much as those sung by Murdoch; I like their voices as much as his, and I think the songs are as good. So there's one reason why I love this album so much; Belle and Sebastian are ignoring the naysayers and featuring every member more with every album. What I especially enjoy on this album is not only the chance to hear various voices sing the songs, but the chance to hear them sing so beautifully together. Songs like "The Wrong Girl" and "Family Tree" show that songs not featuring Murdoch can be as catchy and as well-written as those featuring him, but a bunch of the other songs (especially "Women's Realm") show how good Belle & Sebastian are getting at singing together, at blending their voices and singing off each other. Above all, I love this album simply because I love every song on it. Some fit right in with what the band has done in the past; others, like "Beyond the Sun" (a gorgeous number vaguely in the Tom Rapp/Ghost vein) and the sad, soulful breakup song "Don't Leave the Light On," surprised me in a delightful way. So what I'm telling you is: this whole album is sublime.
Bright Eyes, Fevers and Mirrors (Saddle Creek)
Conor Oberst continues to make some really interesting music, under the name Bright Eyes. I really liked his CD Letting Off the Happiness, a varied mix of singer-songwriter styles, including great moody ballads, a few more upbeat rockers (backed by members of Neutral Milk Hotel) and some folksy stuff. On his latest CD, Fevers and Mirrors, he cranks the intensity level way up. The center here is still Oberst's songs, which are both pretty and edgy. He sounds like a kid singing diary entries with all his might. The lyrics are personal musings on life and other big matters, written in a sort of coded poetic language. They mesh neatly with his singing style, how he goes from angry at the world to gentle during the course of a song. That quality gives this album really sweet, moving moments and some pretty scary ones. My favorite songs here are the ones where the lyrics seem more honest and he isn't trying too hard to be "poetic." He has a great knack at writing about daily life in a way that discusses some of the mystery of it (lines like, "Robots water the lawn and everything they touch gets dusted spotless/so they start to believe they haven't touched anything at all/while the cars in the driveway only multiply"). There is also a rather odd, seemingly staged radio interview with Oberst before the last song, something that's interesting the first time but gets annoying after the fifth listen (sort of his version of those annoying "skits" on hip-hop albums). Still, Fevers and Mirrors is stunning at times, and the songs are all really memorable, either for the lyrics, the melodies, or the intense way that he sings, like nothing else matters but getting his words out.
Busta Rhymes, Anarchy (Elektra)
For his latest CD, Busta Rhymes has made the obvious decision to appeal to more of a "street" audience than with his last album (no Janet Jackson duets here), to create the kind of music that'll you hear via your windows shaking at a stop light due to the next car over blaring it in its system. The music here isn't only harder-edged than his previous albums, it also relies on the fairly simple sing-song and call-and-response styles of much of thepopular hip-hop today (Cash Money, Ruff Ryders, etc.). This could be disappointing, awkward or inauthentic, but it isn't. It's unique, interesting and a lot of fun. Though there's nothing here as catchy as his previous hits (like "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" and "Woohah! Got You All in Check"), this is his best album yet, hands down. Busta takes the infectious hip-hop sounds of today and improves on them, with his superior rhyming skills and his knack both at picking talented producers and at helping them create musical tracks that are astoundingly good. Some of today's hottest producers are here, doing what they do best: Jay Dee using spacy sounds and unlikely samples (like Stereolab, for one), Swizz Beatz and Just Blaze making crazy addictive beats, and Large Professor and DJ Scratch and others creating solid, classic hip-hop tracks. And over all of this there is Busta, as energetic as ever, using his unique rhyming style to make some fantastic, down-to-earth hip-hop. I've always loved his style: not just his voice but the way he articulates every word so clearly, no matter how fast he's rapping (and he can rap fast, like on "C'mon All My Niggaz, C'mon All My Bitches"). There's also some great collaborations. Three of the best are right in a row towards the end of the album: "Make Noise," where Lenny Kravitz and Busta make a true rock-rap collaboration (meaning a real mixing of rock and hip-hop sounds into something new, not just someone rapping to a rock track), "Ready For War," where M.O.P. and Busta play off each other's revved-up, hyper styles, and "Why We Die," a collaboration with DMX and Jay-Z, with a crazy "marching band" sound, where Busta gets both of them to reflect on the criminal life more seriously and introspectively than they do on their own releases. Other highlights on this CD include "How Much We Grew," Busta's look back through his life and the friends who've stuck with him, and the batch of songs at the beginning of the CD ("Bladow!!," "Street Shit," "Live It Up," "Fire"), where Busta sets the album's tone by making blazing, tight-as-anything hip-hop. The album's concept is that the world is in a state of anarchy and Busta has come to save the day (and like with his last album, this theme's really only present in the title, the cover art and a few short skits). I don't know if Busta is the hip-hop savior he makes himself out to be (or if hip-hop's even in the need of saving, for that matter) but I do know that this is the best hip-hop album I've heard yet this year, and that it hasn't left my car stereo since I bought it.
Common, Like Water for Chocolate (MCA)
On Common's fourth album, he once again takes the production and the lyrical content up a level, as he's done from each album to the next. The producers and musicians behind Like Water for Chocolate include some of the most soulful and talented in the business. ?uestlove from the Roots is the executive producer, and Jay Dee (half of the Ummah and a member of Slum Village) produced a lot of the tracks. Other people involved, either as producers or guest musicians, include D'Angelo, Fema Kuti, Vinia Mojica, Roy Hargrove, DJ Premier, MC Lyte, Cee-Lo, Black Thought, and Monie Love, so right off you can tell this has the potential to be one hell of an important hip-hop album. Plus Common is one of the most articulate MCs around, whose rhymes have a depth and complexity missing from much hip-hop today. His last album, One Day It'll All Make Sense, was especially filled with both touching, sensitive moments and displays of adept rhyming prowess. So, does Like Water for Chocolate live up to all the potential? Mostly it does. About 80% of it is the best hip-hop album so far this year. Songs like "Cold Blooded" and "Dooint" slam with a funkiness similar to the Roots' great work, and teaming Common with DJ Premier for the first single "The 6th Sense" was a truly inspired decision. Mos Def and Common have great fun playing off each other on "The Questions," Cee-Lo lends his underused singing talent to "A Song For Assata," Common's telling of Assata Shakur's inspirational life story, and Slum Village up my anticipation for their album (yeah, it's out; I just can't afford to buy it yet) through their tight appearance on "Thelonious" (by far the most underrated track on the album). And there's "The Light," one of the more straightforward, touching hip-hop love songs I've heard. The down side comes with a few songs that just drag after the first listen, especially "A Film Called (Pimp)," a duet with MC Lyte which turns inside out the too-esteemed life of a pimp, and "Payback is a Grandmother," a story about finding the thieves who robbed Common's grandmother, which is really similar to some tracks on his last album. Still, overall this album is fantastic. Common's receiving a lot of praise for it, and it is well deserved. He's one of the more interesting MCs out there. This is a man putting himself on CD, in many aspects; on some songs he's the "positive" rapper the press like to portray him as, thoughtfully considering societal situations...but on other songs he projects himself as a regular guy just partying and having fun, or as a "don't mess with me and I won't mess with you" tough guy. This is one of his best qualities, though. He doesn't limit himself to a marketing-defined "persona," but puts out music that truly represents him, in all his dimensions, as contradictory as they might be sometimes.
Darla 100 (Darla)
My jaw is permanently dropped at the expanse of music on this collection, all for the price of one CD! This is Darla Records' 100th releases, and it's a 4-disc celebration of the music they've released thus far, including "greatest hits," singles, songs from their Little Darla Has a Treat For You series (a quarterly survey of what's going on in indie music), and 16 completely new tracks. While this is a supreme delight for those of us who have been following Darla's path through the years, I hope it doesn't escape the hands and ears of people completely unfamiliar with Darla Records, because I can't imagine anyone not getting their money's worth from this. There's 66 songs in all, and I don't have any clue where to begin in describing what's here. First off, between Darla's focus on "drum and bliss" artists (musicians who make electronic dance music with a concentration on melody and ambient beauty, like Junior Varsity km and Technicolor), and their attention to the prettier side of "indie-pop" music around today (groups like Holiday Flyer, Tullycraft, Orange Cake Mix), they put out more really gorgeous pop music than any other label I know. Plus they pay attention to what's going on in the rock side of independent music as well, so in addition to the above-mentioned groups this compilation includes rare or new songs by The Grifters, Guided By Voices, Photon Band and others. There's so much here that I've never heard before, including songs I've never even heard of by bands who I think I follow pretty closely. Other bands on here include Transient Waves, Steward, Sisterhood of Convoluted Thinkers, My Morning Jacket, Sweet Trip, Flowchart, hollAnd, Piano Magic, Heartworms, Fourhead, Color Filter, Mirza, Bright, Those Bastard Souls, Lali Puna and Hydroplane. All in all, there's so much great music here that I must stop writing about it now or else I'll never stop (and this issue will never get finished).
Of Montreal, Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles & Songles Album (Bar None)
I love Of Montreal. Not only do they have these great catchy pop songs, with beautiful melodies and harmonies, but they have a sense for theatre and story. Their songs not only use the Beach Boys and the Kinks and other rock legends as reference points, but also the traditions of children's literature and the theatre world. At times they tell fanciful, bedtime stories in song, with odd characters and plots; other times, they deliver straightforward, emotional messages (like on this CD's "A Celebration of H. Hafe," lead singer Kevin Barnes' message of love to his brother, who does their cover art). Most importantly, they're not afraid to come off as cheesy. Nowadays, so many musicians seem to avoid any sort of personal statement that isn't gloomy or self-deprecating, for fear of being labeled too cheesy. Artists that go the other route, like Of Montreal does by playing countless songs based on the simple notion of expressing love or friendship or gratitude or joy, are in danger of being derided as too inconsequential or silly (for examples, look at the critical reactions to Busytoby's CD, and most of Jonathan Richman's work). Kevin Barnes can sing something like "Dear sweet brother of mine, I feel I should say that all of the things I make with you give my life meaning" and you can tell he means it. Why is that less important than someone telling you how much life sucks? The Horse and Elephant Eatery is Of Montreal's compilation of rare songs, including some from 7"s or compilation albums, some that were bonus tracks on Japanese versions of their albums, and four that are previously unreleased. Compilation albums like this are a great treat for fans, especially those not rich enough to buy every import album and compilation album released. At the same time, this sort of album is a good introduction to what the band is like. The Horse and Elephant Eatery isn't as cohesive as other Of Montreal releases, but it still has a ton of great songs, from story-songs like "Joseph and Alexandra" and "Ira's Brief Life as a Spider" to straightforward heavenly pop songs like "The Problem With April" and "Buried With Me." There's also a great cover of the Kinks' "The World Keeps Going Round" (from The Kink Kontroversy), and two songs written and/or sung by members of the band other than Kevin, the main singer/songwriter: "In the Army Kid" by Andy Gonzales (who now records as The Marshmallow Coast) and "The You I Created" by Dottie Alexander (who is in Summer Hymns). Overall, I think this CD's a lot of fun, for fans and the uninitiated. It makes up for the thrown-together nature of compilation albums with a lot of variety and some absolutely gorgeous songs, which is good enough for me.
Phish, Farmhouse (Elektra)
It isn't hip to like Phish...well, unless you're one of their devout followers (who annoyingly spell everything with a ph). Phish is constantly derided, by critics, music nerds and other supposed experts, as hippie rock, a jam band, art rock, Dead wannabes, Allman Brothers-lite, noodlers, and so on and so on. For me, though, here is one more reason not to trust anyone except my own ears when it comes to music. I think they're a great band, one of the more creative forces in pop music today. The difference between Phish and the other so-called "jam bands" is that Phish base their musical improvisations around songs and not just empty structures that are excuses to "jam." Phish has a ton of great pop/rock songs, with catchy melodies, interesting lyrics, and a nice variety of stylistic flourishes...and they seem to be constantly developing their ability to write a solid pop song which has the space for musical improvisation, instead of a song that just consists of a serious of guitar solos. Their latest CD, Farmhouse, is one of their best in terms of songs. It has two of the catchiest songs I've heard by anyone in a long time, "Farmhouse" and "Heavy Things" (the first single), songs that I can not remove from my head no matter how I try. The thing is, while it's easy to get Britney Spears or something like that stuck in your head, you despise yourself for it and you get so sick of the song that you don't want to hear it ever again. These songs stay in my head for days, and just beg me to play the CD again. I've listened to them both a ton of times and my like of them hasn't decreased an iota. The rest of this CD is top-notch as well. All four members of Phish are accomplished musicians (something usually admitted by even their harshest critics), and here they put that talent to great use, playing beautifully within the fairly confined context of simple pop songs. There are some passages throughout the album that are absolutely gorgeous. Farmhouse has some really pretty, touching ballads, like "Dirt" and "Sleep," and a few more oblique rock numbers, like the vaguely experimental "Piper," where I can't discern one word yet I find myself singing along to the interesting vocal sounds. Overall, Farmhouse is not just another addition to Phish's fine catalog, but a real step ahead. The band members often admit that they're not satisfied with their records, that they can't capture that feeling that their stunning, all-over-the-place concerts have. This is an album they should be really proud of. More than just about all of their other albums, it is a really cohesive, unique musical work without any spacefillers or awkward moments. It's a big shame how many supposed music lovers will dismiss this without hearing any of it, for this is a really enjoyable, interesting album.
Wolife, Wolfie, and the Coat and Hat (Kindercore)
On Wolfie's first two albums, they made the most fantastic summer pop/rock: catchy, happy songs with pretty melodies and harmony vocals, rocking guitar, and slightly silly synthesizer. Apparently after their second CD they were getting a little bored with their formula. So on their new six-song EP, Wolfie, and the Coat and Hat, they take their turn at changing their sound a bit. The change is a great one, mostly because it isn't very drastic of a change. What remains is all of the catchy, fun quality of their previous songs. What is added is some extra rock texture and a little more surprise. Before, once a song started you had a pretty good idea where it would go: catchy verse chorus verse for about two minutes. The band members' other projects, Busytoby and Mathlete had the element of within-song surprise down a little better. Busytoby's album especially has some great mid-song musical changes. Some of Wolfie's new songs (especially "The All Good People" and "Two Birds") have this same quality, where mid-tempo pop shifts into high-gear rock, or where great guitar riffs arrive from nowhere. They're also playing with different rock styles a little more. "It's Hard Luck Being Me" uses (as the title might suggest) some elements of more traditional, blues-based rock. Yet instead of taking that on as a new musical hat (or coat), Wolfie integrates that element into the kind of catchy pop that they're used to playing. What happens, then, adds new elements both to Wolfie's sound and to that traditional blues-rock style. Overall this EP is really great. It has everything I've loved so far about Wolfie, and more; all of this gives great signs for the future as well, since the band doesn't seem to fear change, always a good thing.