Thursday, November 4, 2004
Category: Arts & Entertainment
Leonard Cohen - DEAR HEATHER
Leonard Cohen remains a brilliant lyricist and a legendary folk singer, but his latest release is an exploration of lilting, non-traditional melody that may not bide well with some listeners.
Dear Heather is a varied collection of songs: "On that Day" is Cohen's poetic and understated mediation upon 9/11, "Go No More A-Roving," a slow, sultry interpretation of the Lord Byron poem, and the title track an experiment with chant, delivered in a staccato, almost robotic performance by Cohen along with his back-up singers. With Dear Heather, Cohen serenely continues exploring the artistic vision established through previous albums. The album's construction is rough, completely void of the smooth-jazz production quality which was a point of contention between critics of his last album.
Women feature prominently throughout the album, through Cohen's lyrics, female back-up vocals, and recordings with Sharon Robinson. The gentle self-deprecation in "Because Of" is tender and lasting: "Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery,/Women have been exceptionally kind/to my old age."
Cohen leans away from the more traditional instrumentations of song; most notably, the backbone of each song is the keyboard, not the guitar, and structures the rest of the harmony with tenor sax and Jew harp.
Leonard Cohen is an artist unaffected by pop and trend, so it is unsurprising that the compositions on his new album do not follow the predominant formulas of verse-chorus-verse, or intro-climax-resolution. Many of the songs do not build beyond the breathings of their opening, as Cohen emphasizes poetry over melody. Dear Heather is heady material, and those looking for easy listening or a catchy riff have purchased the wrong album.
Baby Jaymes - THE GHETTO RETRO LP
I'm biased. I'm partial to the older sounds of hip-hop, and find no substance in the current trends of the genre. Oakland's Baby Jaymes, thankfully, has crafted The Ghetto Retro LP with some of the older sounds in mind.
Baby Jaymes shows his talent on the album by continually switching from one genre to another. "Tricks," a song where the bass is more pronounced, take listeners back to rap's earlier days where the sound's heaviness was part of its appeal. Jaymes doesn't spend too long experimenting with rap-influenced tracks before switching to ones with a tasteful mixture of R&B and hip-hop.
There are, however, some important drawbacks on the album that hinders its good vibrations. First of all, there are way too many interludes. Granted, many hip-hop albums use these momentary pauses, but these ones have no particular purpose and kill the album's musical momentum.
"The Black Girl/White Girl Theory" embodies the best of Baby Jaymes. Musically infectious, the artist utilizes the rules of nursery rhyme to produce the catchiest song on the record. Lyrically, Jaymes expresses a quiet frustration on dysfunctional relationships as a consequence of complicated parenting. "You just a black girl, who grew up without your daddy/ Your relationships, they be shady/ But I forgive you when you try to play me/ Just like a white girl/ Who grew up without her father/ Her relationships, they be harder/ But I know she could take it farther."
This is a mature yet retro album. Using some of yesterday's musical trends as a base for a record, Ghetto Retro's energetic mixture of rap, hip-hop, funk and R&B makes this album perfect for the musical collection of listeners who enjoy the combined energy of different musical genres.
Jello Biafra w/ The Melvins - NEVER BREATHE WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE
Never Breathe What You Can't See has all the mixings of a great punk album in our day. The former lead singer of the inexplicably influential Dead Kennedys (Jello Biafra), the artistically glass smashing experience of The Melvins as a backing band, a couple of immense cult followings, and a release date right before a pivotal election. Now what to do with all of this? Hmmm ... make another overdone mediocre political punk record that will win the hearts of all the 13-year-olds who hate their parents.
Sure, they have the heavy roarin' metal riffs of yesteryear clashing against the quick paced three-chord punk that any person could find at a local punk club on a Wednesday night. What would have been commendable on this record is an identifiable presence of The Melvins and the reasons why they are loved so. They seem to be pasted up merely as a band that plays with Biafra's whiny musings. Their big name does make the record look pretty, though.
Even though Biafra's voice sounds as great here as it ever did with the Dead Kennedys, he doesn't even make a decent attempt to show any ability to be original with his lyrics. He addresses the same clichéd problems in our world that 900 million others have. What's worse is that he brushes over those issues in such an offensively miniscule depth that I hope to Allah that the buyers of the CD lived in a cave for the past 20 years. On track 1 though, there are some really cool sounding yells.
The Futureheads - THE FUTUREHEADS
There are plenty of musical heads to be had-talking ones, radio ones, blonde red ones, portis ones-but none quite as orally dexterous as the Futureheads. On their self-titled debut, the blokes of Sunderland deliver a concise and cogent memo: that while one singer is a rock-quirement, four singers make for damn mesmerizing music.
Paradoxically put, the Futureheads are a cappella with attitude and amps. Intricate vocal harmonies hog the spotlight, with hardly a moment unadorned by refrains, syllable fragments or oh-oh-ohs. Sharp staggered guitars sit equally high on the mix-frequently arguing with the singing, and detonating into either a sudden silence or a full-blown melodic seizure.
Album opener "Le Garage" launches straight into one such polyphonic assault. Voices weave in and out, flirt with one another, and abruptly breakdown into an explosion of "Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!". The single "Decent Days and Nights" stutters between distorted stabs and verbal echoes, as if playing a frantic game of red-light/green-light. And on "Stupid and Shallow," the rapid-fire lyric puking, punctuated backup vocals and tremolo axe-work feel not unlike a mechanical device erratically eating out one's aural orifices.
Not surprisingly, the Futureheads also find time to slow down in the midst of all their guitar rape and tonsil abuse. On the benign "Danger of the Water," they take a pure a cappella approach, relying solely on their melodic mouths and the naturally endearing quality of their English accents ("Dane-juh! Watuh!") to create a fluid blanket of harmonies.
Indeed, where most debut albums are at best blemished with musical gems, The Futureheads seems like a truly spectacular adolescent break out. Perhaps the excess of vocals are more seductive than they should be. But certainly, one can't ask for anymore.
Tracker - MUSIC INSPIRED BY "BLANKETS"
In 2003, comics creator Craig Thompson released a massive, multi-hundred page graphic novel, "Blankets." A coming-of-age story focusing on Thompson's relationships with his first love, his younger brother, and fundamentalism during his high school years in Wisconsin, "Blankets" has been one of the foremost works in proving the comics medium as something beyond boyhood fantasies.
Coming out of the alternative comics scene and steeped in self-reflection, "Blankets"'s closest artistic kin is perhaps found in the realm of indie rock. It makes sense, then, that the graphic novel should have a musical accompaniment of some kind, and artist run label FILMguerrero and comics publisher Top Shelf recently released a soundtrack for the novel by Tracker.
A set of eleven instrumentals in the same vein as Yo La Tengo's "The Sounds of the Sounds of Science," the album is surprisingly good. The package seems like a risky venture: "music based upon a young adult-ish story of high school lovers, snow, and emotional intensity" is an equation that could easily devolve into clichéd melodies and straining emo vocals.
Thankfully, Tracker, led by John Askew, recording engineer by profession, steer clear of all of this, sticking to a sound similar to Godspeed You Black Emperor!, only sans fanfare. Vocals, which would undoubtedly deliver hackneyed lyrics, are dropped altogether, focusing on desolate and echoic sound that really makes you feel like having a stroll in a really cold Wisconsin forest. Paired with an overcast day, it takes on added weight.
Although tenuously connected to the graphic novel in terms of content, reading the one while listening to the other does enhance both, so long as one can put the saccharine-ness of it all aside. The album comes with a handsome packaging by Thompson, with a number of beautiful illustrations accompanying the liner notes. But most importantly, the music is good, comics or no comics.
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