Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not - Dinosaur Jr

Dinosaur Jr are one of American indie rock’s most interesting stories. Loud, loose and noisey but with a strong sense of melody, not to mention some some of the best musicianship in the punk scene, they were one of the most beloved bands of the late 80’s underground. Along with many other groups of the era, they signed to a major label and had some commercial success during the early 1990’s when alternative rock was thrust into the mainstream. However by that point, the original band had crumbled due to clashing personalities. So for most of their major label period, the band consisted of guitarist/singer J Mascis and various session musicians, before Mascis finally retired the Dinosaur Jr name in 1997. The story of the band has been well covered and for an engaging and more detailed account of the early history of Dinosaur Jr, I can thoroughly recommend the band’s chapter in Michael Azzerad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life”.

In the early part of this century, after both J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow (also of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion) had embarked on decent solo careers and Azzerad’s book had generated some renewed interest in the band, the original line up of Dinosaur Jr reformed and have just released the 11th studio album with the band’s name on it.

Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, is not an album that you could mistake for a record by any other band. Even down to the cover, toned with copious amounts of purple (Mascis colour of choice), this is clearly a Dinosaur Jr album. Even before the first note, you know what you’re in for. “Goin' Down” has all the hallmarks of a classic Dinosaur Jr song. Chugging power chords, a strong drum beat, Mascis' slack vocals and the beguiling guitar flourishes that he uses to punctuate his songs. As expected there is a powerful solo, delivered in Mascis’ signature style. In fact it’s so much of that style that it seems eerily familiar, perhaps plagiarised from one of the band’s earlier records?

“Tiny” again harks back to the band’s earlier work, this time taking on some of the smoother edges that the band adopted in the 90’s. With it’s catchy, memorable melody it’s easy to guess why this was chosen as the album’s lead single. Whilst “I Told Everyone” and “Good To Know” both serve to prove that Mascis hasn’t lost his ability to write fantastic guitar riffs, his best guitar solo in the first half of the album is reserved for the Lou Barlow penned “Love Is…”, one of Barlow’s two contributions to the album. Not surprisingly, it’s Barlow’s songs that depart the most from what would be considered “The Dinosaur Jr Sound” and feature instrumentation that, in a rare move, steps ever so slightly away from the guitar, bass, drums formula of most of the band’s other songs.

“I Walk For Miles” find’s the band exploring early Black Sabbath territory with a heavier sound than usual. It’s not an unwelcome change of pace and serves as a bit of a break because as soon as “Lost All Day” starts, we are back on familiar ground.

“Knocked Around” and “Mirror” don’t deviate much from what you would expect, though the first half of “Knocked Around” is far softer than the rest of the record. Mascis’ signature guitar tone is still present though, leading the listener to expect (correctly in this case) that soon the gloves will come off and the volume will go up.

The most surprising cut on the album is saved for last. Lou Barlow’s “Left/Right” is a bit more experimental than the rest of the album. There’s some synthesiser drones mixed in and whilst it’s not a total departure from what we’ve come to expect here, there is at least some room for movement.

Overall, I like this album. It fulfils what I want and expect from a Dinosaur Jr album in pretty much every way. But, inevitably perhaps, it’s not their best work. There is nothing here to truly surprise me. The lyrics that focus on social isolation and lost love are the same as they’ve ever been and each song on this album has a well worn, familiar feel to it. The album’s title, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, seems almost prophetic in that there really are only brief glimpses of the musically unexpected on this record.

If Dinosaur Jr were a younger band, this would be anathema. But as a band that have been going for over 30 years on and off, they’ve created a legacy and a signature sound. One that is often imitated but never equalled. It’s not that they’ve never deviated from the formula (check out the trumpet part on 1997’s “I’m Insane”) but after decades together and apart, they seem very much aware of where their strengths lie and they’re going to keep playing to them.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Three Reviews On The Sampler

Over the last couple of months, I've been writing and recording occasional reviews for Radio New Zealand's much loved music review show The Sampler.

The venerated Nick Bollinger, The Sampler's producer, writer and host, has very kindly made room for my reviews and has been incredibly helpful and patient in showing me how to write a decent review for the radio. It turns out that writing words to be spoken out loud is a rather different task than writing them to be read on the page.

Given free reign to pick the new releases I wanted to talk about, I picked the records that resonated with me most in the last few months.

The Driver-By Truckers' American Band, is the political album that 2016 seemed to need. Though it mainly deals with the social pain that America has suffered through over the last few years, it seemed eerily prescient in this of all years. You can hear my review here.

After 2 long years of waiting, the D.D Dumbo album came out this year. Initially I found it difficult to get to grips with, as I was rather attached to the live versions of tracks like "Walrus" (to hear those versions, I highly recommend this great video from NPR). But it grew on me and soon I was happily lost in the dense production and myriad sounds on Utopia Defeated. You can hear my review here. There is also a rather enlightening interview with D.D Dumbo himself by Kirsten Johnstone that is well worth your time.

Finally, I talked about Flock Of Dimes' If You See Me, Say Yes. I've long been a fan of Jenn Wasner's work with Wye Oak, as well as the early Flock Of Dimes singles. She's a brilliant songwriter and musician and this album was a great showcase for those skills as well as, for the first time, her talents as a producer. You can hear my review here.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Engine - American Music Club

American Music Club’s Engine is an album made of  small tragedies. From broken relationships to injured alcoholics, each song catalogues a dark moment in somebody’s life. Right from the very start there is a sense of foreboding. “Big Night”, is a cello and acoustic guitar dirge, that describes a battered but ultimately loving and functioning relationship. Despite the dark, minor key of the song and the opening line of “Big nights are black and blue”, there is a sense of hope in this story, unlike many of the other tracks on this record. 

Whilst Mark Eitzel’s poetically melancholy lyrics throughout Engine serve as the unifying feature of the album, the sound and structure of each song is different from one track to the next. From the rich cello drones of “Big Night” to the sparse guitar of “Mom’s TV” to the feedback squeal of “Art of Love” to the accordion on “This Year”, each song has a unique sound and energy to it. Despite the variance, the different styles and instrumentation work wonderfully with the lyrics and Eitzel’s voice, helping to keep, what at times can be a very dark album, from becoming overwhelming. Credit is also due here to producer Tom Mallon (who went on to work with Thin White Rope as well as engineering Chris Isaak's Wicked Game), for managing to craft the diverse sounds and styles of Engine into a fully cohesive album.

“Outside This Bar” is the album’s stand out song by quite a distance. An energetic (at least in relation to the rest of the album) anthem of angst and booze, the lyrics are an almost Bukowski-esque tale of drunken pain and confusion. With the line “Outside this bar how does anyone survive”, the narrator perfectly demonstrates his sense of entrapment and confusion at how anyone lives a lifestyle different to his own alcohol fuelled existence. The instrumentation and vocal delivery of this track also lends a feeling of anger to the song. It’s as if the desperation on display would lack the impact it has unless it was delivered with such force. The song also features the odd combination of a distorted sounding rhythm guitar and a clean lead guitar, cleverly reversing the classic sound combination that rock bands have used for decades.

“Clouds” traverses similar compositional territory to “Outside This Bar”, with layers of fuzzy guitar sitting below the barely contained contempt in Eitzel's vocals. The gentler “Nightwatchman” has an almost shoegaze feel to it with strummed acoustic chords beneath a chiming lead guitar. “Art of Love” on the other hand is a heavy, chugging monolith of a song that would not have sounded out of place on any number of records coming out of Seattle around the same time. 

The depth and melancholy on display here are a prime example of why American Music Club have the dubious honour of being called the progenitors of “Slowcore”, an overly simplistic term for a series of introspective american indie rock bands. Whilst it's plain to see what inspiration bands like Red House Painters and Idaho have taken from them, the music on Engine is too wide ranging to be held under a single sub-sub-genre. 

This was the San Francisco based band's second album, released in 1987. It marks a significant leap forward from their debut (1985’s The Restless Stranger) presenting them as a band with incredible musical and emotional depth. Whilst it may not be a go to party record, as a listening experience it is completely engrossing. Each song serves almost as a short story and the album as a collection of them.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Courtney Barnett - Solo Show at Slow Boat Records

Courtney Barnett onstage at Slow Boat
Having recently made the move from the UK to New Zealand and just this last week to Wellington, I’m now in the process of familiarising myself with the local music scene (amongst countless other things in my new hometown). Whilst this can often be a hard process to start in a new city, especially when you’re no longer energetic enough go to every gig you see advertised, I’ve found local record shops to be the key. There are countless books, blog posts and documentaries that attest to the fact that if you’re lucky enough to be in a city with a great local record store, then it can be a brilliant resource for discovering what’s going on musically. For me, in Wellington, Slow Boat Records would appear to be that store.

Slow Boat isn’t a well kept secret by any means, in fact it’s somewhat of a New Zealand institution. The longest running independent record store in the country, it’s a favourite spot for serious music nerds, casual fans and visiting musicians alike and boasts a pretty amazing selection of records from all over the world. So it makes perfect sense that Slow Boat is where I saw my first proper gig in New Zealand, a lunchtime, in-store, solo show by Courtney Barnett ahead of her sold out show at Bodega that evening. 

Based in Melbourne, Barnett is a critically acclaimed indie rock musician whose debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”, is a masterpiece of noisey, loose and most importantly clever, alternative rock. The songs on this record, though very well constructed, can at times seem like they’re almost on the verge of collapse due to the energetic but amiable looseness of Barnett’s performance. But it’s always seemed to me that the band dynamic and sound is pretty vital to the music on this record. Her great performances of songs like the wry, dissatisfied “Pedestrian At Best” on various US TV shows did everything to convince me of how good a musician and lyricist Barnett is but also reinforced the notion that these were “band” songs.

So needless to say I was intrigued as to what this solo set would be like as I and about 150 other people crowded amongst the racks at Slow Boat. Right from the start I was struck by how funny Barnett’s lyrics are. As much as I’d admired her storytelling abilities when listening to the record, there was something about seeing these songs performed live that made me and others in the crowd laugh out loud. Lines like “The paramedic thinks I'm clever ‘cause i play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying” - taken from “Avant Gardner” - delivered in Barnett’s deadpan, pretenceless style are so simple and true that it's hard not to find them funny. There is also an emotional honesty to these songs that seems somewhat effortless. The melancholy “Depreston” moves almost seamlessly from a story about house hunting to pondering the life of a woman who’s house is being sold after her death. Somehow it captures perfectly the mix of intrigue, sadness and frustration that those situations can create but without ever feeling forced or overwrought. Barnett was in a genial mood, chatting with crowd, telling funny stories about the origins of her songs and, when she became distracted by it halfway through her rendition of “Dead Fox”, pausing to marvel at a poster advertising an old Bob Dylan and Patti Smith show. When she’d finished and left the stage, the store’s manager returned to thank her and lead the crowd in singing happy birthday to Barnett, who had turned 28 a day or two ago. 

It's safe to say that at no point during the show did I feel the absence of a band. These songs can carry their own weight and are just as effective if they’re played with a full band or by one woman with a telecaster. The fact remains that they are clever and well written and the loose, noisey sound on the record, is just one way they can be performed. Perhaps it’s the definitive way but it’s not by any means the only one.

Courtney Barnett's album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” is available now on iTunes.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Universal Truths And How Records Don't Owe Me Anything

I’ve written about Mark Kozelek’s songwriting before. I have expressed my doubts over the direction his writing has taken in recent years and I have to admit that at his Union Chapel show in 2013, I was ready to write off his next album completely. But, as it turned out, “Benji” was a good record. It was in keeping with the nylon string guitar and spiel of events style of songwriting that Kozelek has insisted upon for the last few years, but in songs such as “Carrisa” some of the emotional depth that had been missing from his more recent tracks had been restored. There were feelings being expressed rather than just a long list of events. It offered me some hope that maybe Kozelek had found sturdier ground in this new song writing territory. I had hopes that this might lead to more considered lyrics or even a move towards his earlier, more traditional style of writing.

With the release of “Universal Truths” however, my confidence is again shaken. Not only is the album another string of events record, which many reviewers are comparing to pages of a diary put to words, but Kozelek seems to have given up on the performance of the songs as well. Throughout the record his vocals are near indecipherable. The opening track even has sections where double tracked vocals are out of time with each other so it sounds like there are several people trying to drown everyone else out. The fact that this record was written and produced within a year of “Benji”, a year where Kozelek has been busy making a fool of himself and arguing with anyone and everyone, shows. All in all, I’m not impressed and it seems that I’m not alone. I enjoyed “Benji”, I enjoyed the joint album he did with The Album Leaf and if he was to produce material of that quality, I would be ok with that. But what do I really want? Honestly, I want a return to the days of “Carry Me Ohio” or even the later day murder-ballad beauty of “You Missed My Heart”. That’s what I’d really like to hear. 
But that’s my problem. Because I paid nothing for this album. I haven’t stolen it from a download site, I didn’t get an advance copy. I don’t own a copy of it at all. But it’s free to listen to on the Sun Kil Moon website. So in listening to this album, I have really lost nothing except the time it took, which I gave up freely. To my mind, when I’m in a situation like this, I can’t be angry at the artist. Yes, he has made a record that does not live up to my expectations of him, but what does that matter? Ultimately if he is happy with this record and is willing to make it available to people to listen to for free ahead of release, then he has fulfilled every criteria he needs to in order to make an album and make it available for purchase. This is one of the great advantages of being a music fan in the internet age. You get to try before you buy. 

In the years before the internet, putting out an album that may or may not be what is expected was a serious risk for both band and label. There was a lot at stake. You had to invest serious money into getting physical copies pressed, distributed and marketed. Then people had to part with their hard earned money to buy them. Putting out an album like “Universal Truths” just a few decades ago would have been a big gamble. There would be a backlash, as there is now. But when people are asked to pay for a record, without hearing it first, as you were back then, does that not then mean that the artist needs to live up to at least some of the expectation? There is no denying that creative freedom and artistic control are important and an artist should be allowed to produce work they feel is truthful to their ideas. But when you are asking people to pay money to purchase that work, for all intents and purposes, on good faith, should you not take the audience into account? I think so. I also think that now that that good faith agreement has been removed from the equation, due to the changes in music consumption caused by the internet, artists have less of a responsibility to cater to the audience with their recordings. Also, because music is so readily available for nothing, smaller artists and even not so small ones are making less money from recorded music all the time. So, if we’re not going to pay people for their work, don’t we at least owe them their creative freedom? How can we demand product for free and then be upset that it’s not what we want, especially when there is so much else out there?

So does all this mean “music was better before the internet because you had to try harder”? No, I don’t think so. Music hasn’t got worse; it’s just become less valuable, because it’s more readily available and far cheaper. Music is a subjective thing. Its worth as art is fluid and all dependent on who is listening. There are still great bands and artists making great music and there always will be. But music is now much easier to produce and distribute. If you have access to the internet, you have a way in which to create and distribute your own music. Without all the risks involved, without the costs and the obstacles, making and distributing music has become an open field that artists have rightly taken advantage of.

We now live in a world where, if you don’t particularly like one album, there will probably be 2 or 3 that came out in the last week that you will love. This is why good music criticism is more important now than ever. Because there is so much out there that you need someone you trust to guide you. To tell you which albums you might like if you liked, this one. But that could be a whole conversation on it’s own. I think it’s great that pretty much every taste is catered to with such great ease now. But that ease does come with a price.

One of the paradoxes of the internet is that it gives people the freedom to express themselves in a multitude of ways but it also invites apathy through attainability. The fact that music is so easily attainable does mean that when you find a record you love, the victory is a little less sweet because you didn’t need to fight so hard. You didn’t have to know a guy who told you what obscure rock magazine to read to see what albums were coming out that month, save up for the album or even go to a record store to buy it. You just had to go on spotify and type a word or two. Or click a link. And that’s amazing. But it does mean that the onus is now on you to build that connection. You have to really pay attention to the music you love, invest your time in it. Make it mean something to you.

Of course you can have opinions on records. In fact, you should, because music doesn’t mean much if it stirs no emotions in you at all. But no artist owes you anything in this day and age where his or her music can be heard for little to nothing. I’m never going to love “Universal Truths”, but I’ll find other records this year that I love, and still don’t have to pay for. As long as Mark Kozelek is happy with the record then it’s really achieved its purpose. He’s the one that put in the work making it. All I had to do was listen for an hour, for free.