May 172010

Clearsignals, Stars Lost Your Name

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Artist: Clearsignals
Album: Stars Lost Your Name
Label: N/A
Release Date: Wednesday, 2010.3.24
Score: 9/10

So you really need to go check out this album. It’s called Stars Lost Your Name and the artist, John C. Worsley, bills himself for this album as Clearsignals. The album is full of spacey electronica that drifts seamlessly between the atmospheric and the tribal, without ever losing any interest or energy.

The album as a whole is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is its pacing and arrangement, which take the listener from warped atmospherics (“cygnus ob2-12”), through rambling electronica (“bellatrix”) and a single melancholy vocal track (“beta lyrae”) and back again. The final track, “Eta Centauri” feels like the soundtrack to an infinitely long walk through a desert wasteland on an aggressively alien planet. And I mean that in the best way possible.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, cohesive work. It feels like music meant to accompany something, though I don’t really know what that something might be. I can say that it serves admirably as music to write to, as long as what you’re writing is strange and introspective. It also works great for coding to as long as the code you’re writing is arcane enough that you won’t find it in any patterns book.

However you feel about electronic music, the album is worth a listen. If you’re already a fan of electronic music and need music to chill to, or just something to soundtrack the work at hand, then this will definitely fit the bill. It’s at turns wistful, melancholy, plodding, and spacey, and the overall album flows naturally while still being rich and well-crafted enough that it never gets boring.

In short, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Apr 282010

The Shondes, My Dear One

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Artist: The Shondes
Album: My Dear One
Label: Fanatic Records
Release Date: Tueday, 2010.5.4
Score: 9.5/10

I’ve often harped on the importance of Sophomore albums. They’re easily important as first and last albums, and perhaps even more so if the band wants to have any sort of longevity. So it’s my pleasure to say that the second album from The Shondes is good. Really damned good.

Loyal readers (there have to be at least a few of you) will remember that The Shondes released one of my favorite albums of 2008. That debut (Red Sea) was one of the most original and important albums of the year. It was also awesomely fun and rocked pretty damned hard.

Well, The Shondes’ sophomore effort is about to hit the market and, thanks to the good folks at Fanatic Records, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten my hot little hands on a copy. And it’s flat-out awesome. It’s every bit as excellent as their first album.

The instrumentation and pacing of the new album are much as they were in the last one. Energetic, mid-tempo rock songs with a lyrical focus and plenty of tasty instrumental hooks. (For the record, the violin/guitar/bass/drums instrumentation works far better than I would ever have imagined.)

The Shondes themselves claim that it’s a break up album. But I genuinely think it’s more than that. I think it speaks to a deeper, more visceral human experience. While most of the songs are framed in terms of the end of a relationship, I think that it’s really more of a heartbreak album. Heartbreak is a more universal human experience, and I think it’s one that My Dear One speaks to well extremely well. Songs like “Nothing Glows” powerfully evoke the sick, sad greying effect of heartbreak. The notion that one’s “bruises don’t turn black and blue” is a particularly effective image for the fact that it shows just how dulling heartbreak can be.

The lyrical focus of the Shondes’ sound lends itself particularly well to this album. Songs like “You Ought to Be Ashamed” profit from my lyrical breaks and a melody that’s carried (or at least matched) in the vocals. This is largely to the credit of Louisa Rachel Solomon, who provides most of the album’s vocals and whose dusky, dextrous voice is powerful and expressive throughout the entire album. (Though for a particularly good example, give a listen to “Miami”.) Also notable are the vocals that Elijah Olberman contributes to the album (“The Coming Night” and “All the Good Things”). Olberman’s smooth, expressive voice has a wonderfully androgynous quality.

As in the first album, Temim Fruchter’s drumming is rock solid. Fruchter reminds me of some of the best jazz drummers I’ve heard, adding energy and style to a song while never stealing the show. (Cf. “Fire Again” and Fruchter’s rambling, snare-heavy lines.) Solomon’s bass work is similarly solid and unobtrusive.

The only lineup change since the first album is the replacement of Ian Brannigan with an artist named Fureigh. Fureigh’s style is remarkably similar to Brannigan’s, and meshes well with the rest of the band.

My only major complaints about the album are with regards to the production quality. The whole album seems to have a flat, muted sound to it. This saps it of some of the energy it would otherwise have. This is particularly noticeable (unfortunately) on the lead title track. While this sound grew on me somewhat, I feel like the album could have profited from a brighter, cleaner sound and less post-production sophistry.

My Dear One is great rock album. It’s raw, emotional, and gutsy as hell. Songs like “Let’s Make It Beautiful” show how well the Shondes can take classic Rock forms and give them a unique sound and form to create something new and interesting. This album is well worth the price, both for fans of the first Shondes album and for people who love rock and want to hear something that’s genuinely new.

Nov 162009

A. A. Bondy, When the Devil’s Loose

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Artist: A. A. Bondy

Album: When the Devil’s Loose

Label: Fat Possum

Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.9.1

Score: 10/10

I’ve often ranted on this blog about the importance of the sophomore album.  While debut albums are, undoubtedly, critical, the second release from an artist serves as a predictor of possible staying power and is a better indication of an artist’s potential than any other album.  A lot of bands have great debuts.  Very few have great follow ups.  Those than have a good second release usually have a bright musical career ahead of them.

My fetishism for second albums, then, means that I’m often nervous to hear those produced by artists whose debuts I fell in love with.  In the case of A. A. Bondy, I really needn’t have worried, though.  Bondy’s sophomore effort, When the Devil’s Loose is a beautiful, well-crafted folk album, which does a great job of showcasing Bondy’s deft compositional talent and evocative lyrics.  From start to finish, it is cohesive, well-written, and masterfully performed.

The album’s thematic elements are established well by the opening track, “The Mightiest of Guns”.  This is true both of the songs complex, guitar-centered musical qualities, as well as its lyrical focus on chance and the inescapable nature of fate.  These lyrical images, especially those of fate, occur throughout the album, deftly woven into many of the songs, without ever feeling forced.

As with his last album, Bondy’s guitar work forms the musical backbone of the album.  And while When the Devil’s Loose features a more lush, layered sound than his first album, the guitar-centered aesthetic is still very much there.  This is probably best heard on the stripped-down, solemn tune “Oh the Vampyre”.  The solo, finger-picked guitar provides a bitter-sweet melody to support Bondy’s sad, self-effacing lyrics.

The somber solo guitar work of “Oh the Vampyre” is, however, the exception rather than the rule.  Probably the major musical innovation that Bondy displays on When the Devil’s Loose is his embracing of a full four-piece backing band.  This lends some much-needed depth to songs like the rambling, swaying “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”, which benefits greatly from the musical layers that a full band provides.

The album closes on “The Coal Hits the Fire”, which is the slowest, most somber song on the disc.  While I wasn’t initially a fan of the track, it’s definitely grown on me.  Its slow, melancholy plod seems a strange choice to end the album, but after a few listens through, it does make a strange sort of musical sense.  Its evocative descriptions of departure and its lackadaisical pacing make a nice, fitting closer.

When the Devil’s Loose is a fantastic album that, along with its predecessor American Hearts, establish A. A. Bondy as one of the most promising voices of contemporary American folk music.  I highly recommend it, with no reservations whatsoever.  It’s a must-have for anyone who likes modern folk music, and definitely an album that everyone should consider adding to their collection.

Jun 122008

Portishead, Third

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Artist: Portishead

Album: Third


Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.29

Score: 9/10

After a hiatus of more than a decade, British trip-hop combo Portishead have finally realeased their third studio album.  The appropriately-named Third picks up where their eponymous sophomore album left off.  And while the band won’t be winning any points for titular originality, they certainly make up for their lake of creative nomenclature with an excellent disc which turns out to be worth the wait.

Right from the off, Portishead get right back to craft the same dark, groovy tunes with the album opener “Silence.”  To say that “Silence” is recorded or performed feels off the mark.  Rather, the song is constructed.  Its meticulously layered drums and strings combined with the relentless, repetitive guitar lines give interweave meticulously and the end result is positively infectious.  By the time they drop away to reveal Beth Gibbons’ trilling vocals, the trip-hop tapestry that the band has created has entirely sucked in the listener.

Portishead also take some detours into near-ambience to show that they are still perfectly capable of creating lush, dark soundscapes.  The last track on the album, “Threads”, is a sorrowful, meditative tune which grows from a simple bass-heavy intro into a polyphony overlapping voices, instrumentation, and effects.  It then fades away into a series mournful, rumbling, scooping noises which remind me of an alpenhorn played through an overdriven amp.

One track that was a complete surprise for me was “Deep Waters”.  I was so taken aback when I first heard it that I had to double check my playlist to make sure that I hadn’t accidently added some strange M. Ward cover.  The brief, twangy folk tune is so unlike Portishead that it’s almost jarring.  And yet it’s simple, sincere and utterly gorgeous.

Which makes the immediate transition from jangly strings and vocal harmonies to the glowering industrial beats of “Machine Gun” just that much more jarring.  It’s a little like M. Ward opening for Nine Inch Nails; they’re both great bands, but the switch from one to the other takes one hell of a musical clutch.

As a whole, the album is Portishead through and through.  So little has changed that it sounds as if the span between Portishead and Third might as well have been 10 months as 10 years.  The melodies are simple and brooding.  The percussion and beats are at turns extremely groovy and tastefully understated.  The samples and effects, while occasionally a bit cumbersome, are usually put to good effect.

In short, if Portishead fans don’t already have this album, then they absolutely need to get it.  Anyone who appreciates the so-called “Bristol Sound” or dark, brooding music which wears its electronica influences on its sleeve, then Third is a must-have.  For everyone else, it’s definitely worth a try.  If you’re the shop-by-song sort of person (which increasingly many people are these days, though that’s a rant/essay for another day), then start with “Silence” and “Hunter”.  These two opening tracks give a pretty good introduction to both the up-tempo, danceable and the more introspective, shoe-gazing portions of the album, respectively.   Whatever your inclination towards Portishead, one thing is for sure: despite their decade-long absence from their musical scene, they are still very much on top of their game.

Jun 052008

Artist: The Flight of the Conchords

Album: The Flight of the Conchords

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.22

Score: 7/10

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A couple of guys from New Zealand pick up some guitars and . . . oh, so you’ve heard the album. Which is a bit of a problem, because once you’ve heard it once or twice, the punch lines really lose their impact. Really it’s the problem with a lot of humor-focused music: Weird Al Yankovich Syndrome. The songs are hilarious the first time, grin-inducing the second, and can be considered good if they don’t elicit eye rolling by the third or fourth time you hear them.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem with the debut album from comedy music duo Flight of the Conchords. While this collection of goofy humor and campy genre-parodies is certainly well-done and, at times, hilarious, it gets old quickly. Once you’ve heard all the punchlines, innuendos, and quips, the album loses its luster.

Which isn’t to say that they do their schtick poorly. Quite to the contrary, they’ve got some hilarious tunes and some clever lyrics. (E. g. “you’ve lost perspective like a painting by Escher” or my personal favorite “Do they smoke grass out in space, or do they smoke astro-turf?”) The song-writing duo obviously know how to quip. Unfortunately the occasion bon mot does not a great album make. It certainly helps, but without much else to recommend it, it’s hard to justify listening through the noise to get to the few clever bits.

In stark contrast with the moments of lyrical brilliance, are the times when, having seemingly run out of ideas, the duo simply fills in with non-sequitors, gibberish, and extremely strained end-rhymes. But because it’s a faux-sincere genre parody, it’s meant to be ironic, rather than just artistically lazy. One example of this is the random, entirely non-sensical refernce to a dead budgie in “Leggy Blonde” or the majority of the song “Boom”. (Though, to be fair, “Boom” does have on of the most wry-smile-inducing lines on the album: “She’s so hot, she’s making me sexist. Bitch.”)

One thing which poses a problem for the album musically is that many of the songs are genre parodies. Genre parodies have to be cliched enough that they’re instantly recognizable. This means that, after the lyrics have worn thin, the music isn’t enough to draw the listener back in. Once the overly-sincere social commentary of “Think About It” fades into triteness, the boogie rhythms and synth lines aren’t enough to keep one coming back because we’ve all heard those melodies (or extremely similar ones) before. Once the novelty of Clement and McKenzie riffing on David Bowie in “Bowie in Space” wears off, all you’re really left with is a medley of Bowie parodies and a couple of references to the old glam rocker’s nipples.

The debut from Flight of the Conchords is sharp, clever, and downright hilarious. Unfortunately, once you’ve heard all the punchlines, there isn’t much reason to hit play again. Fortunately, with cheap downloads of the album available via, one needn’t lay down too much cash for an amusing 40 minutes of musical comedy material.

Apr 242008

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Label: Mute Reviews

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.8

Score: 10/10

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the fourteenth studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is proof positive that the venerable group is as powerful and talented now as they’ve ever been. The album ties together the dark narrative style of Cave’s lyrics with mythic themes with dark, dirty melodies and complex, evocative arrangements to create a grimly beautiful package. It packs a surreal, visceral punch while still being exceptionally listenable and aesthetically engaging.

One interesting aspect of the album is that it covers the whole breadth of the band’s various styles. While songs like “More News From Nowhere” or “Moonland” walk a fine line between abstract impressionism and absurdity. Others, like the funky “Today’s Lesson” capitalize on Cave’s ability as a storyteller to deliver powerful narratives with strongly mythic overtones. Still others, like “We Call Upon the Author” display a glibly literate sensibility.

As always, however, Cave is at his strongest when he’s spinning apologues. Cave’s ability to create and relay fables is, at times, stunning. One excellent example of this is the title and lead track (and first single off the album), “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”. This groovy retelling of the Lazarus (called Larry) myth looks at it from Lazarus’ point of view. He shows a crazed Lazarus self-destructing and ending up back in the grave. As Cave astutely points out Lazarus “never asked to be raised up from the tomb.” As Lazarus is entreated in the chorus to “dig [himself] back in the hole”, the song portrays a man who doesn’t actually want to be saved and asks the question “what do we really know of the dead and who actually cares?”

The album also has several less narrative, more imagistic songs. The hollow-sounding, muted “Night of the Lotus Eaters”, for instance, is a psychedelic portrait of heroin use (a topic with which Nick Cave has some experience). The lyrics hint punningly at drug abuse (“Get ready to shoot yourself / Grab your sap and your heater”) while painting a fatalistic picture of the “night of the lotus eaters”. The dark bass hook which melodically underpins the entire song sets a dark, vaguely exotic mood, while harmonies and percussion parts flesh out the surreal, almost apocalyptic sound.

While the album is, like most Bad Seeds albums, extremely lyrically-driven, the instrumental work is also quite extraordinary. The compositions are intricate and engaging, without losing anything in the way of casual listening. Martyn Casey’s bass work is infectiously hooky where it’s prominent (“Jesus on the Moon” and “Today’s Lesson”) and solidly supportive where it’s not (“More News From Nowhere”). Mick Harvey’s guitar work is superb throughout the album. The percussion work is solid and groovy.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a perfect display of what a group talented, passionate, experienced musicians can do. It’s at turns chilling, grin-inducing, and thought-provoking, and it’s a great listen throughout. For me, it was a welcome change from the decidedly hit-or-miss Grinderman album that Cave put out last year. It’s highly recommended both for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fans and those who might like dark, groovy, lyric-driven rock. Put simply, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a smart, fun album that proves not only the Nick Cave and Co. can rock, but that they’re still capable of producing truly brilliant material.

Apr 032008

Yael Naim, Yael Naim

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Artist: Yael Naim

Album: Yael Naim

Label: Atlantic Records

Release Date: 2008.3.18

Score: 9/10

Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim’s self-titled major label debut is a refreshingly original and well-crafted album, which, I have to confess, I wasn’t really expecting.  As the saying goes (or ought to): “never just a disc by its single.”  Whereas the history-making (the first song by an Israeli artist to make it into the American charts) single “New Soul” is a well-crafted, bouncy, piano-driven pop tune, the album is fairly wide-ranging.  Aside from the three languages in which Ms. Naim sings with apparent fluency, the album draws obvious musical influences from folk, jazz, and modern pop (just to name a few) and blends them into something truly original.

The album evokes something of the earnest jazziness of the Antifolk movement.  Songs like the bluesy, exotic “Shelcha” remind me a bit of Regina Spektor’s more recent efforts.  Its dark, mournful sound (to which Naim’s lilting vocals are unexpectedly well-suited) is served well by understated melodies carried in the piano and guitar and relaxed, brush-heavy drums.  Combine this with the foreign (to me) cadence of the Hebrew in which half the song is sung, and it makes for a listening experience that is as interesting as it is enchanting.

Another song that grabbed me is the waltz-time album opener “Paris”.  Once again, part of my interest is probably do the radically unfamiliar cadences of the Hebrew lyrics.  But even beyond that, Naim’s husky voice and the simple, waltzing guitar backing creates a beautiful, almost wistful sound.

As a sidenote, why do so many people cover bad songs?  Some songs just plain suck.  Hackneyed lyrics, lame melodies, weak harmonies, etc.  There’s only so much you can do with such a song without turning it into, essentially, a whole different song.  Britney Spears’ song “Toxic” is one such.  The lyrics are melodramatic and stilted (they’re good compared to some of Spears’ other work, but that’s not saying much), the melody is uninteresting, and the harmonies and backing parts on the original are almost painfully bad at times.

So why did Yael Naim, an artist with some obvious vocal and songwriting talent, cover it on her album?  There’s only so much even the most skilled artist can do with such a carp tune and, to her credit, Naim dresses it up in her dark, husky voice as best she can.  Slowing the tune down and adding slow, snare-laden drums behind it was a nice touch, but it’s still not that great a tune.  It’s a damn site better than the original, but the lyrics are still eye-roll-inducing and the melody’s still boring.  (That being said, I have to admit, I kind of like the static combined with the random flute parts.  That was kind of a cool touch.)  I don’t know, perhaps I’m unduly prejudiced against songs like “Toxic” (I have a particular dislike for that tune, so it galls me whenever it gets covered, yet again), but it seems like there’s a lot better tunes out there with which an artist as talented as Yael Naim could do something truly amazing.

Yael Naim’s self-titled album is really a testament to the artist.  It does a great job of showing off Naim’s vocal ability and her talent for writing beautiful, simple melodies.  Her use of multiple languages (English, Hebrew, and French are all represented) and her blending of several different genre influences make for a sound which is just different enough to be intriguing without, I imagine, losing too many listeners by totally leaving behind Western pop sensibility.  Simply put, the album is a well-crafted, diverse album that shows off a great new artist on the pop scene.  It’s definitely worth a listen and is highly recommended.

Mar 202008

Artist: Flogging Molly
Album: Float
Label: Side One Dummy
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.3.4
Score: 8.5/10

Flogging Molly’s fourth studio album, Float, is a return to form for the band, after 2004’s more slightly more experimental album, Within a Mile of Home. Float features the same sort of solid, energetic Celt rock that fans will be well familiar with, minus some of the genre-blurring goofiness of their last album. This gives it an overall feel much closer to Drunken Lullabies than their more recent Within a Mile of Home.

“Lightning Storm”, for example wouldn’t sound out of place on Swagger or Drunken Lullabies, with its fast-paced, snare-driven drums and sweeping, brogued vocal lines. It effortlessly combines Gaelic-sounding violins with thick guitar power chords and shows off the band’s ability to seamlessly combine the two disparate styles. “On The Back of a Broken Dream” makes good use of rattling, energetic drums and smooth vocal lines to create a similarly effective combination.

As with previous albums, two the band’s biggest strengths are Dave King’s powerful, expressive voice and his distinctive lyrical style. As with previous releases, the lyrics often have a political theme, and usually a fairly straight-forward one at that (“there’s a government whip cracked across your back”). Where the lyrics aren’t political, they cover themes familiar to Flogging Molly fans: love, loss, alienation and the ex patriot experience.

Musically, while sounding closer to their earlier work than their last album, Float seems to make heavier use of Flogging Molly’s Celtic folk roots than previous albums. On most tunes, the electric guitars are relegated to harmonic support and musical texture. Melodies are primarily carried in the vocal and violin lines and the drums are syncopated and snare-heavy. The net effect is that Float is decidedly more of a folk album than it is a rock album, and much more so than its aesthetic predecessors, Drunken Lullabies and Swagger.

Overall, Float, feels like a much mature album than Flogging Molly’s previous works. All of the elements which seemed to be at times at odds with one another come together remarkably well in this latest effort. Swagger‘s blustery rock enthusiasm, Drunken Lullabies‘ political bend and lyrical emphasis, and Within a Mile of Home‘s decided folk slant have all been woven together in a much better crafted manner. Whereas Drunken Lullabies often feels didactic and Within a Mile of Home strikes many as just flat goofy, Float is a well-crafted, well-executed album that brings together a lot of different elements and makes out of them a whole musical cloth.

That being said, Float will not break new ground for fans, but it will give them exactly what they love about Flogging Molly: energetic, well-crafted Celt Rock. Those not familiar with Flogging Molly may want to start with their (in my opinion) superior debut, Swagger before grabbing Float. That being said, Float is a fantastic album which any fan of the genre is likely to enjoy.

Jan 222008

Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Red Sea
Label: N/A (Self-Released)
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.1.8
Score: 8.5/10

The Red Sea, the debut album from The Shondes was pretty obviously cooked up for the express purpose of making me dance around my room in my boxers at four in the morning. Between its driving, punk-influenced beats; its lilting, exotic violin melodies; and its crying, Dolores O’Riordan-esque lyrics, it’s basically a designer musical drug. And I’ve been doing big, fat lines of it for a week now, and loving every minute of it.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m so addicted is because it hits a lot of my musical buttons. Punk influences? Check. Slick melodic hooks? Check. Complete disregard for genre boundaries? Check. Wrap all that and more up in a tight, well-presented package and it’s a fair guarantee that I’ll be mainlining it for quite awhile. Unfortunately for the Shondes, not everyone shares my same set of musical cravings, but even without sharing my musical aesthetic, there’s a lot in The Red Sea for any listener.

Songs like “Winter”, for example, with its brooding, jangly guitar lines, soaring vocal lines, and interesting lyrical images is not only a good listen, but warrants coming back for several listens. Similarly, the energetic “At The Water” is a song that begs to be put on repeat, not only for its rollicking energy, but also for the fact that it’s melodically and lyrically rich enough to reward repeat listening. This depth is not limited to a few tunes, but rather is endemic to the album, which features excellent songwriting, catchy melodies, and (with a few exceptions, such as the heavy-handed “What Love Is”) engaging lyrics.

Probably the most interest aspects of the album, however, are not strictly compositional, but rather stylistic. The Shondes have managed to take a diverse set of influences and weave them together into something truly new and unique. On “Don’t Whisper”, for example, exotic, folky violin lines support growling guitars and wailing lyrics to create a song which obviously borrows widely from the musical spectrum, including punk, classic rock, and folk to create something which is intriguing and new. The whole album draws musically from wide enough sources that many individual aspects feel familiar, while the whole is something altogether new and different.
This blending of so many different genres is used to great effect most of the time, though there are times when drawing together so many stylistic threads seems to have gotten in the way. The result is that, while The Red Sea really is a great album, it tends to get a bit confused and muddy at times. “Let’s Go” is a prime example of this. It tries too hard to be too many things at once and winds up sounding a bit like a bar brawl between the Ramones and the Cranberries as reinterpreted by a modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein. That is to say that it’s odd, and quirky, and if it ran with any one of its musical themes, it could be really cool. As it is, it’s random to the point of incoherence.

The Red Sea is a great album from a promising new band, with a unique sound and a hell of a lot of talent. And while it is undoubtedly rough or muddled at times, it’s an impressive first release from a group of great musicians. It’s well worth price ($10 from the band’s MySpace via MySpace’s SnoCap download service) and a sure sign that The Shondes are a band to listen for in the future.

Jan 102008

Philip Glass, Book of Longing

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Artist: Philip Glass
Album: Book of Longing
Label: Orange Mountain Music
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.12.11
Score: 4/10

There’s a joke that’s circulated for years amongst music geeks. It goes something like this: “Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?
“Philip Glass. … Knock Knock.”

So when I first heard the Philip Glass was going to be doing a song cycle based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, I was of a bit of a mixed mind about it. On the one hand, both are quite talented musicians, so a collaborative project might be interesting and hell, it might actually be Philip Glass breaking new territory. On the other hand, that sounds like the kind of dangerous combination that might descend into self-important, self-referential musical blatherings. Alas, the result of the collaboration just goes to show that talented musical minds can, in fact, get together and create something so bad that it almost hurts to listen to. A valuable, if unfortunate lesson, I suppose.

First of all, in a song cycle as lyrically-driven as Book of Longing, the text from which the songs are constructed is of paramount importance. One CAN make good songs out of crap lyrics (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, for example, has nonsensical, ridiculous lyrics and it’s one of the best songs of the late 20th century) but when the lyrics are the point of the whole project, it’s pretty damn important that they be pretty good. Quite frankly, I didn’t think that would be a problem. Leonard Cohen, after all, is the man who penned both “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Hallelujah”, two of the most moving, powerful, and brilliant songs in modern music. The man has proved that he can write with pathos, genius, and craft. Which makes it all the sadder that in Book of Longing he just, well, doesn’t. The lyrics (all taken from a book of Cohen’s poetry by the same name) are usually trite and/or vague and where they aren’t either of those they’re rambling and pointless.

Furthermore, where the lyrics do display some measure of cleverness or insight, it almost always goes unsupported. An example is the song “You Go Your Way”, which features the lines “You go your way/I’ll go your way, too.” That, friends, is a brilliant lyrical hook. In the talented hands of someone like Cohen it could well be developed into a song of amazing depth. Those lines, however, are the only lines in the song. It is, as the poet Dennis Held refers to them, a “notebook line”; it’s the kind of cool little quip that one thinks of and immediately jots down for use later. The trick is, however, to actually go back later and use them in something appropriately larger.

For the most part, however, Cohen’s lyrics are simply subpar. Cheap, grasping end-rhymes
are the norm, the meter is forced, and the subject matter is generally treated only shallowly. Even songs which have the potential to deal with deep topics, such as the song “Not a Jew”, about Cohen’s Jewish identity, simply fail to do so. “Not a Jew” again demonstrates that there is some of Cohen’s wit and cleverness in these lyrics, but not enough of his effort to really make them something worth listening to. The lines “Anyone who says/I’m not a Jew/is not a Jew” could developed into a commentary on racial identity. Instead they just come off sounding like a petty schoolyard rebuke.

Musically, Book of Longing definitely has its moments. Philip Glass is a talented composer and he knows how to write a good score. Glass is also famous for becoming enamored with and subsequently running into the ground certain musical motifs. His compositional style tends to be repetitive, both within and between compositions, giving his songs (like his contemporary John Williams) a sort of “heard one, heard them all” reputation. Book of Longing is no exception, and any Glass fans hoping that a new collaborative project will have lead him to great, revolutionary inspiration will be sadly disappointed. The scoring is relatively uninspired and the vocal performances are forced. Lines, both musical and lyrical, sound to have had significant violence done to them in order to get them to fit in with the rest of the score and the whole thing sounds choppy and disjointed.

The vocal scoring, especially, leaves a lot to be desired. To be fair, I’d imagine it’s hard to get lines like “The Lord is such a monkey/He’s such a woman, too” (“This Morning I Woke Up Again”) or “Puppet me and/Puppet you/Puppet German/Puppet Jew” (“Puppet Time”) to fit with the kind of serious-sounding, epic orchestral scoring that Glass is so good at. This doesn’t change the fact, though, that the finished product isn’t all that good. The lyrics don’t fit the music (despite the best efforts of some very talented singers), and neither the words nor the music are the best work of their respective creators. The final product is more cringe-inducing than anything else.

In the end, Book of Longing is simply proof that genius and inspiration are not constants and that collaborations will not always be even as good as the sum of their parts. Anyone wanting to listen to the Leonard Cohen’s lyrics or Philip Glass’ music are far better off picking up copies of Cohen’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts. Both are excellent examples (though not, by any means, the only examples) of a musical luminary in top form, and both are far better than this unfortunate mess of a collaboration.