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Pop for the masses


Drag City Records

Not since Lou Reed lost what little of the magic touch he still had after his miraculously beautiful album Magic and Loss in 1990 has such a deep, unpretentiously simple yet intelligent voice made a muse of darkness the way Bill Calahan of the band Smog has. Like most of the prolific artists on Drag City Records, Smog frequently errs on the side of abundance. While it would be hard to match the creeping genius of albums like The Doctor Came at Dawn, Smog's Knock Knock and hand-clappingly close-to-holy song "Cold Blooded Old Times," Calahan's understanding of lyrical mystery and straightforward sub-rock sensibilities provide more than one musical meal on his latest effort, Supper. "What would my wife say if I was married?" Calahan wonders on "Morality." "I never use stairs; just trees," he laconically proclaims on "Ambition" before getting even closer to the point: "Hey, are you still tight with that pharmacist?" There's not much on this album in terms of musical innovation, but if you know what you like, and what you like is low-cal pill poetry set to pretty ditties, then this album is for you.

-- Noel Black

A Promise
Xiu Xiu
5 Rue Christine

I remember a recent discussion with a friend about the merits of classical or art music versus pop music. She said (and I paraphrase) that a big problem with pop music is a lack of dynamic. There's no variation, she said, no dramatic contrast of tempo, theme or intensity to set the soul afire to the high heavens.

I present thee Xiu Xiu and their new CD, A Promise. Caveat emptor: Do not bring this CD to work. Pretty much each one of the tracks disarms you with sparse guitars and whispered vocals, then ... well, hmm. Observe the final track, "Ian Curtis Wishlist," in which, after a subdued intro, vocalist Jamie Stewart lets loose with "Making up my AAAHHHH! Ian Curtis-I-can't-believe-I-said-it WISH list!" Even sans histrionics, this is some creepy malarkey. Nowhere else is this evidenced as well as on their cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," which they give a minimalist (a la Nick Drake's "Know") guitar treatment and a quiet, warbling vocal. Despite its composition, it's the kind of thing that you really, really wouldn't want to wake up to in the wee hours, quite possibly because it sounds like David Lynch background music.

This CD, genre-wise, is industrial in the same way that reality dating shows are awesome: more than occasionally, but probably entirely by coincidence. It's noise rock in the same way that Joe Lieberman is a Democrat: kind of, but, you know, creepier. Recommended if you like scaring your significant other.

-- Brian Arnot

Apple O
Kill Rock Stars

Noise pop's most playful pups have heretofore created some of the most ear-dazzling audio amusement- park rides west of Sonic Youth, and Deerhoof delivers more of the same on Apple O with the exception of a few unbelievably annoying riffs driven home with a headache on Apple O. There's the gorgeous "Apple Bomb," Satomi Matsuzaki's shrill soprano vocals lilting over the post-apocalyptic lyrics: "Your mom/ When the bomb exploded/ Overloaded/ Eaten fruit birthday suit decoded/ I decided/ You would like another mom." And there's the Stereolab meets the Kinks melody on "L'Amour Stories." And the Japan-o-matic "Panda Panda Panda" takes deliberate naivet to its most butcher block. Choppy sonic cognizance in spades here. Definitely for the closely listening listener.

-- Noel Black

Trinity Neon
Imitation Electric Piano
Drag City Records

On the lighter side of noise comes Imitation Electric Piano, bassist Simon Johns' (of Stereolab) latest project. Though you'll hear lots of distant echoes of the Lab in between bars on this understated soundtrack to the galaxy, it is definitely made its own spaceship. Almost entirely instrumental, the CD's jazzier elements sometimes teeter too close to space-age bachelor pad music for me. Nevertheless, it makes nice background music for a bath, or dreaming.

-- Noel Black

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