Archive for the ‘Country’ Category

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Two Country Albums

March 9, 2009

I am fairly uneducated on the subject of country music. That is mostly because I don’t listen to it, because it doesn’t toot my horn, so to say. I’ve had many people tell me, including Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, that being one of those people who seems to like just about everything except country music makes me ignorant, or a tool. To be honest, I don’t see how that works. If country music bores me, it bores me, and I don’t have to answer to anyone about that. Of course, there is that occasional country song that might make a positive impression on me (see my review for Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s solo album, which contains a lot of my other attitudes about country music). But for the most part, it is a genre I am generally inclined to dislike, unless, like in James Iha’s case, it is categorized as “folk rock” or “alternative country.”

This week I just so happened to be treated to two new releases that could be categorized as “alternative country.” These albums are Middle Cyclone by Neko Case and the self titled album by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Both albums are by solo artists and the similarities between the artists and my relationship with them are quite prominent. They are both members of popular bands, Neko Case being a member of The New Pornographers and Jason Isbell being a former member of The Drive-By Truckers. I have no experience with either solo artist whatsoever, and little to no experience with the bands that they are/were a part of. One of these albums pleased and excited me, and one of them did not. I’d like to review both of them and what they did to make me feel a particular way about them.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Naturally, the first thing that struck me about this album was the cover, and how Tarantino-esque it is. And upon listening to the album, it becomes obvious that the cover is only a bit misleading. Middle Cyclone is an album full of rolling acoustic guitar melodies within short, digestible songs that move fast, and Case is a traveling country samurai. The opening “This Tornado Loves You” is an early highlight, with fast jangly guitars and expressive vocals. The sonic palette she uses is rather expansive, and within the song she pulls several tricks out of her sleeve: airy backing vocals, pizzicato strings, and exciting dynamics. But “Tornado” is only one of the more exciting and upbeat songs on the album, and for the most part, the rest of the songs are outstanding. This is a country album, but not in the form that most people would expect. The most classical country songs here are the two covers, one of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and another of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” As lovely as they are, they are peripheral to Neko Case’s melodies, which are comparatively free form for country music and quite exciting. The singalong “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” the music box simplicity of the title track and the jazzy stomp of “Red Tide” are a few other more memorable pieces. There is another weapon in addition to innovative songcraft that make the album strong; the sword that Case uses to cut through the songs is her vocals, and her delivery is sublime. She sings about many of the typical country topics…hard relationships, acting tough, and the love behind both. But it is the idiosyncratic country melodies and the vitality with which Case sings that keeps our ears glued to our speakers track to track.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

While a sense of subtle danger and adventure is what makes Middle Cyclone such an engaging country album, it is stagnation that conversely makes Jason Isbell’s second solo album so much of a bore. One of my biggest problems with most contemporary country music is this stagnation, immovability, and the sheer fact that I have heard this music before, so why should I bother listening to it again? It just isn’t enough to humbly comment on the changing seasons, or sing about homely charms and hard liquor. ‘We all live in an Airstream trailer ’bout three hundred yards up the lake,’ Isbell sings on the opening “Seven-Mile Island.” ‘Call the doctor, Mary’s goin’ into labor and you can’t raise a baby on shake.’ This may be reality for many Americans, and there is nothing wrong with a strong dose of reality, and this is probably where Isbell shines the most, on the notable “Soldiers Get Strange” in particular, not so much an opinion either way on an issue so much as a keen observation. But the presentation is where this album really lacks. Isbell may be lyrically grounded, but songs like “Cigarettes and Wine” are flat out boring because they follow the same country progressions and trappings which the kinds of people like me, who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ohio curiously turning the radio dial trying to get an interesting frequency more often than expected, simply want to escape from. In the end, the album is simply derivative and dull. Great albums don’t have to do new or innovative things to be successful, but the stagnant genre that Isbell comes from puts it in a different situation. The burden of proof is now on artists like Neko Case and Jason Isbell to convince me that country music is not a hillbilly novelty. In the end, Case wins out, and I will hang on, but artists like Isbell, to truly be successful, need to make a conscious effort to widen their appeal.

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Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous

February 24, 2009
Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous

Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous

I’ve always had a nagging feeling that everything I write about music could be destroyed with four words: “I don’t like this.” All the objective analysis I do of music really doesn’t matter when it comes down to personal taste. I barely ever listen to Rilo Kiley in my free time, because their style of music doesn’t interest me. I’m not much for their genre of “alt-country” that I have heard them described as, although they are probably beyond being pinned in a particular genre at this point. And yet every time I have listened to any of their albums or seen them live, I’ve had my ass kicked. As far as the albums go, this is the one in particular that deserves the brownie points on merit alone of being the most literate and lyrically complex album that I can ever remember hearing, relentless and challenging in its content. Songs ask innumerable questions and provide evidence that can only lead the listener towards their own answers. Trains of thought double back before reaching conclusions, fairy tales of falling in and out of love are spun, and both life and death are celebrated and mourned. Musically this is the strongest disk in the bands catalogue and their strongest display of melodicism, every song memorable. This is an album that I simply could not dismiss how hard I tried, and it didn’t take too long before I didn’t care to anymore. At the first Rilo Kiley concert I went to, I felt like I was the only one not singing along or dancing to the band’s fun, rocking songs. I believe somewhere around the end of the show, Jenny Lewis looked in my direction and may have winked at that sorry looking teenager in the third row (or at least my sorry teenage ass would have wished to believe), before singing another breathtaking chorus. The ride home was at this point was not unfamiliar to my experiences of listening to a Rilo Kiley album. It feels good to be idiosyncratic. I do love this.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley

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Alabama 3 – Hits And Exit Wounds

June 6, 2008

This best of compilation from One Little Indian’s Alabama 3 is as at first glance representative of something ignorant. Anyone who names a song after Johnny Cash or Woody Guthrie is either ignorant or silly, and luckily Alabama 3 are the latter. Any chance of a London based acid house band staying true to musical Americana is slim to none, and if they tried, they would fail. Instead, they shamelessly bastardize it. The key to enjoying Alabama 3 is not taking them too seriously, because if you do, they will probably just anger you.

Alabama 3 are a dance group at heart, and their trick is that they dress up their dance beats with harmonicas, acoustic guitars, and growling country vocals. But less impressive than their style is their biting sense of humor. Throughout the course of this Alabama 3 retrospective, the band openly toys with the ideas of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and macho militant sloganeers, and the state of modern music through dirty lyrics and vocal samples. This sense of humor does little to interfere with the band’s dance sensibilities.

Most of the time, they are in full on ass swinging mode. In particular, Hypo Full of Love, Woke Up This Morning, Mao Tse Tung Said, and Monday Don’t Mean Anything are particularly memorable not because of what they have to say, but because of how danceable they are. But the collection isn’t without its acoustic ballads as well. These two modes of play are fairly interchangable, and some of the bands more tender moments might be dressed up in catchy beats. I don’t know how much I can say for the album as a collection because I am not really familiar with the bands discography, but what is here is fun for what it is, and fans of dance music or anyone with a sense of humor about American styled music should check it out for sure.

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Mojave 3 – Puzzles Like You

January 10, 2007

Puzzles Like You

Yeah yeah, always two steps behind. I’ve heard it before. Whenever I review something that is moderately new, it is always just old enough so that people have gotten over it already. Whatever. I guess it just takes me a while to get acquainted to new stuff, or maybe it just takes me a while to get ahold of new stuff. Either way, if you didn’t know, Mojave 3, pronounced Moh-hah-vee, is Neil Halsteads band, and has been for the past ten years. And for those of you who don’t know who Neil Halstead is, he was the lead songwriter of Slowdive. Mojave 3 has three original members from Slowdive, I believe, so it is essentially the same songwriters doing things in a completely new context. Puzzles Like You is their latest work and it came out earlier in 06. I like it, I’ll admit it, but I’m still struggling to come at grips with it. Being a huge Slowdive fan, I am used to Halsteads songwriting in the shoegaze genre, and to hear this kind of thing still disturbs me, as this is a country/pop album. While even after twenty years Neil Halsteads songwriting ability hasn’t gone down the tubes, I still have some issues with this album, most unfamiliarity, but in the end if you like either country or pop, you will like this a whole lot. I enjoy the pop aspect of it, so I DO like it, but once again, I still have some gripes.

Maybe part of the problem is me, and how I personally react to the music. I can’t help but think Neil Halstead is trying to pretend he is American or something, and I make fun of him for it sometimes. There is nothing wrong with changing your style, especially when you are fricking Neil Halstead and your ability can work in multiple genres. But I just feel robbed somehow. He’s trying to write American styled music and it’s feeling kind of awkward to me. His accent doesn’t always completely fit the music, and it just makes me cringe when he sings “she likes a man with his trousers shorter” in Kill The Lights and then scurries off into an organ diddy. I’m still getting used to this stuff. That’s another part of my problem…I’m so used to Slowdive. They have been one of my personal favorite bands for a long time, and I’m really used to a completely different context of music, so when I hear this I feel like I have been lied to or am being lied to because it is so different. I think part of that is I wasn’t around to hear all of the early Mojave 3 stuff and I’d probably be able to hear the transition. I’m not so sure I have an interest in the transition anyway, though. It’s folk rock, and that’s fine, but no matter how long Neil lives in California and rides the waves and acts like an American folk artist, I still can’t detatch him from Slowdive, nor do I ever want to.

But this is good, better than the other Mojave 3 record I have heard, Out Of Tune, anyway. I’m just… I’m so not used to this shit! I can’t say it any plainer. The good thing about this record is it’s outward poppiness, wereas before the bands goal was more quiet strums and less incessant riffs. More of a sunset kind of thing. Now this is the band in full swing and as good as they have ever been as far as I’m concerned. Even if it’s good though, I feel like I can’t relate to it on a personal level like I could Slowdive. I’ve heard others say that this is a more stripped down Slowdive, with the feelings less burried. BULLSHIT. This is not anywhere close to Slowdive no matter how you slice or dice it. If anything, I feel like Slowdive is more honest and open. For that reason, I would kill for another Slowdive album whereas Mojave 3 I just don’t care so much about. It’s the style. If Neil wants to write music this way, that’s fine. I just SO don’t feel obligated to stop bitching about missing the old style.

To put it more simply and playfully, I find that Slowdive is more night music and Mojave 3 is more daytime music. From what I have heard, each Slowdive or Mojave 3 record can cover a different part of the day. Just A Day feels something like three or four A.M. Souvlaki is ten P.M. while Pygmalion is midnight. Out of Tune is maybe six P.M., depending on the season. Once again, it’s sunset music, and make what you will of that. Puzzles Like You might be one in the afternoon, or maybe just noon. That’s good. It’s a completely different angle, but it’s a good angle. Once again, I can’t come to grips with it. There are some very cool parts of this album, most of them rather Beatles-esque. Some particulars are Ghost Ship Waiting, Puzzles Like You, and To Hold Your Tiny Toes. It’s pop romance, and it’s really good. Almost every song on the album is good.

And that’s the truth of it, it’s a very good album. I’m just not used to this yet, so it deterred my listening experience. You have no idea how hard it is for me to say that this is very good and well written when I feel so naive for believing in Slowdive so much when Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell have moved away from it. Chances are, at least one of these two great bands will speak to you. I’d even go so far as to say both do speak to me. I really just need to lighten up and get used to Mojave 3. It’s a matter of personal preference. Please don’t take my complaints too seriously. They are the words of a man who is simply too touchy, and he needs to change his way of looking at things so that he can enjoy albums that are clearly good, like this. I feel like I’m sitting across a room from an old crush or something, thinking about how much they have changed. Listen to The Mutineer, the fantastic closer. That’s essentially how I feel. I’m warming up to this, and Slowdive fans surely will, but it just takes a little while.

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James Iha – Let It Come Down

August 3, 2006

I said I’d do it, right?

I typically hate anything even vaguely reminiscent of country music. Nothing annoys me more than sitting down in a movie theater all comfortable with my nachos and hearing Toby Keithe or some stupid hillbilly fuck talking about what he would do if he only had three days to live. Because I can tell just from hearing that music that the artist doesn’t care enough about me as a listener to actually produce quality music. But then again, these people lurk in all genres. Which explains why James Blunt is the biggest <female genitalia> on the planet. See? I’m getting angry just thinking about these people. I shouldn’t be angry in a movie theater, unless the movie itself dictates so. I just wanna eat my nachos and enjoy myself.

So why is it that James Iha’s solo album doesn’t annoy me at all when it could easily be considered some kind of country? Well, it’s not contemporary country like what I hear a lot in the theater. And it’s not flat out hick country either, the kind of stuff you hear on Prairie Home Companion (god, please supress these people somehow). So I fail to see how it is really country. Perhaps it is folk of some kind, because folk also bears some resembelance to country, but without the binds that attatch music to the sleazy open plain kind of music. Bob Dylan is folk, and Bob Dylan is not sleazy, mostly because he is a poet and he knows how to write hooks. Let It Come Down has hooks too, and it’s not sleazy, and it’s soft california pop/rock. So I’ll just give in and call this pop/folk.

For the record, James Iha was the guitarist of alternative kings (and queens) the Smashing Pumpkins. He wasn’t that big in the band, mostly because no one except Billy Corgan was. Which is probably why he ended up being a George Harrison type figure, only having contributed a few fantastic songs the the bands work (most of which were b-sides), and co-writing a lot of stuff too. So it’s obvious why the man would want to be able to make a solo album. His songwriting was being pushed back, and there was a lot of stuff he had to say in 1997, when this album was made. And this album has a lot of ideas that could not be covered through scattered Pumpkins appearances.

The main theme of the album is love, but it is clearly discussed and presented in different ways than other people do so throughout the record. Almost like a Beatles album. It’s not sappy, because this guy knows how to write music that he can fit lyrics around, which is a feat that I really respect. And a lot of the songs are very simple in melody as well as lyrics. See The Sun is one such tune with a very simple chord progression and a theme of love that I guarentee the listener has heard before. And yet, it’s… Adorable. And that word is coming from a straight male. I’m not going to pretend, because that’s what it is.

The question is, do I really want adorable when it comes to music? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Here, it’s pretty good, and I honestly have no idea why. Yeah, not all of the album is like this, but this is country. It’s ****ing country, and I like it. The first time I heard this, I literally felt like hitting my head over something. That line, “you know theres no denying” is almost tantalizing, but then the awesome heart warming chorus “see the sun, and what you’re given” is just irresistable. People, bear with me here, because this is about as vulnerable as you will ever see me. It’s desperation. I SHOULD NOT LIKE THIS SONG.

But I do.

But not everything on the album could be considered some form of country. There was only one single off of the album, and it was the first track, Be Strong Now. It’s a very good tune, and it has a toe tapping drive to it, and it almost seems like this shouldn’t be the first song so much as the last because the harmonization is done well enough to make it seem conclusive. Theres a cello in the background too if I’m not mistaken, and it’s very subtle, but it adds to the whole experience. And the lyrics and shy disposition of the vocalist really make it seem like the words are important. I’m not sure that this got much radio play, but it’s totally top 40 material. As are two other equally strong songs, Jealousy and Beauty. Jealousy is just flat out infectious pop, and Mr. Iha even tries to promote the virus with his “doo-doo-doo”s later on. Beauty is also very good, and I’m pretty sure the cello is utilized again.

The album has some quieter numbers too. A personal favorite of mine is Winter, which should probably be played at the said time. It’s a relaxing little musing of a song, and it is more atmosphere music than anything, because the hook isn’t so apparent even though the chords are delightful. Country Girl is another song I feel bad about loving, because it’s just so… Goddam catchy and innocent. It even has “country” in the title. It’s hard to work that into a title and still make the song good in my eyes. It’s more country once again. I’m starting to feel the pain by that part of the album, because it’s right after See The Sun.

The entire mood of the album probably should remind the listener of some open pasture or something in frickin Kentucky, but fortunately it does not. Because Iha does not dwell on trivial matters like other country artists do, and theres a way of reason and poetry to his lyrics. The ****ing Dixie Chicks are going to tell you exactly what they want to say, and that’s annoying to me. If given the chance, they will talk about what they ate for breakfast, or how to milk a cow or something, and if you want them to get deeper, they will tell you exactly how they love taking roads less travelled by and how men constantly break their hearts and eat all the food in their refridgerator. Thankfully enough, the theme of love is upheld throughout this entire album, and it is presented in different enough ways to keep interesting. And this doesn’t really scream hillbilly-nation either. It’s more of an album for suburbia, evidence for which can be found in the Be Strong Now Music video. If this was an album exclusively for people with cowboy hats, a little less (or more, depending on how you look at it) would have been said during this music.

The album isn’t even close to perfect. Three songs are utterly bad. Sound of Love is too sappy even for the most vulnerable part of my mind, Silver String has almost no direction at all (and almost wanders into the contemporary country boundaries a little), and No Ones Gonna Hurt You is way too blunt. But the better parts of this album are enough to make it one of my personal favorites, even if it isn’t really that standout brilliant or revolutionary or anything. A few weeks ago I picked up Billy Corgans solo album. Yes, it’s okay, but it doesn’t have sticking power like this does, and this isn’t even in a genre I like all the time. That shows really good persuasive songwriting power. My question is, why hasn’t this been followed up yet? If it turns out that James Iha is not in the reformed Pumpkins that I have been hearing about so much, I can only hope that another solo album is possible.

Oh yeah, and on a completely different note, I acquired the last three EPs of The Aeroplane flies high. My favorite EP is the 1979 EP, which actually features two James Iha numbers. The better one is The Boy, which is just great pop and might be the best song on the entire box set, probably one of the best songs the Pumpkins have ever done. Try to get that track if you can.