sábado, julio 24, 2010

Deerhunter - "Rainwater Cassette Exchange" (2009) / "Halcyon digest" (2010)

Hipster critics sure have their lips as badly swollen as hemorrhoid-sullied assholes. All of that restless, as consistent as unjustified, ass-kissing should guarantee them that –thus is the abhorrent side-effect of their hype-provoking addictions. Of course, we indie-kids are snotty enough to coat our praises with sufficient sarcasm and elitist detachment so as to bequeath the recipients of said ravings just enough fuel to sustain their hot-air sensation status one short year; yet a quick look at today’s media (read: blogs) will confirm that there are many more sorta-popular bands we feel safe to admit of being “great” now than, say, 15 or 25 years ago. Not to get tangled in an argument concerning how there have always been cool underground artists which failed to find the recognition they deserved, or how new technologies have revolutionized the way we produce and consume music (hence the indie boom) –after all this is nothing but an album review–, we can at least start by agreeing that if Jack White is the last denizen of classic rock in indie-ish territory, and Radiohead, James Murphy, Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire are the transitional heirs of post-punk and early indie/alternative rock, Bradford Cox (of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter fame) ought to have serious chances of being considered the first indie-bred genius, the rightful target of our usual hype-fever brown-nosing. Sure it all is a crass oversimplification (where does Animal Collective fit in there?), but with current indie idols aging fast, we urgently need a mobilizing metaphor this strong, don’t we? Ok, ok. Bear with me; we’ll see if this gets us somewhere.

Restless, hyperactive Bradford Cox ain’t the kind of guy who would tell you about writer’s block or even artistic restraint –he’s never heard of neither. Aside from keeping both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound active (is it 6 albums they’ve released in 3 years?), he uploads dozens of new songs, remixes, mixtapes and similar stuff on his blog with astonishing frequency. Then it should come as no surprise that shortly after the revered double-punch of 2008’s Weird Era Cont. and Microcastle (and Atlas Sound’s no less remarkable Let the blind lead those who can see but cannot feel), Cox would readily present us with a new Deerhunter offering: Rainwater Cassette Exchange. Short but at the same level achieved with the aforementioned albums, for a time available only in the form of cassette tapes, this is the kind of material one masterfully uses to bait fans (and critics) into not losing track of you. But such promotional cleverness doesn’t mean these are the leftovers of an already massive offering, subpar-fillers or undercooked material of Cox’s. No sir.

With a freshly condemned-to-prison Phil Spector –also confirming Cox’s fixation with prefabricated teen pop–, the eponymous opening track lushly hits the Wall of Sound bull’s-eye by coupling the famed Wrecking Crew sound with a Spacemen 3 nugget, pushing the reverb drenched vocals, barraging instrumentation and distorted ambient drones toward an evidently pop ground. “Disappearing Ink” instead recovers the urgency of adolescent punk to project it over a coy German vanguard (Neu!) canvass, a realm where garage-oddity “Famous last words” also inhabits. Back to exotic vintage pop, the surprisingly acoustic “Game of diamonds” evokes the isolated suffering of chemotherapy (or self-destructive behavior) without surrendering its Van Dyke Parks’ era Beach Boys aspirations. Sadly bringing an abrupt end to this EP(?), “Circulation” delves in a swift No Wave-meets-British-Noise-Pop beat which is just long and intense enough to qualify as the peak on this fuzzily memorable dessert to Deerhunter’s 2008 indie banquet.

So where does, in this string of cool-band-references and indie-cred-loaded musings, the genius of Cox show? First and foremost, although you can detect the Velvet Underground-ish, trippy space-rock, run-for-your-life experimentalism, shoegaze enamored blue-print the band is following, it is hard to pin-down where they are getting their sound from. I mean, you can tell what influences they fuse and how they try to pursue them, but it is not easy to spot The Sounds of Young Scotland, No New York or those C-86 compilations playing in the back of their heads while they recorded the album –and that is not something you can tell of every new, hot band (yes, The Drums, I’m looking at you!). True, it doesn’t account for originality, but after a decade of stealing post-punk’s best tricks, it is indeed refreshing in a manner only Ariel Pink would seem capable of giving a run for its money.

Nevertheless, anyone who’s heard Cox’s work knows it is the lyrics that give him the edge over his peers. We obviously do not talk about narrative juggernauts or poetic saplings; brandished by Cox as impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness improvs, truth is his lyrics cannot play down their author’s personality and background (Marfan syndrome, awkward teenage years, etc.) and rely so heavily on personal experience that such condition turns them as in-tune with our times as anything can be. However inflicted with the drowsiness of today’s egocentrism, those lyrics conceal the impeding menace of solitude and decay as well as Jeff Magnum used to do (a still operative knack which “Helicopter”, off Deerhunter’s forthcoming Halcyon digest, proves). Granted, sometimes his lyrics are borderline emo (is that word still in use?) or reveal too much of the freaky innards of a guy that used to talk about his own feces on his blog, but such banal, overtly public confessionalism is a crime that almost commits itself today (do you not have a Facebook account?) and the fact that Cox can turn that into verses lacking a trace of celebratory whim, is the core of his songwriting skill.

Waking up to the blurry, distant sound of a party blasting the Black Eyed Peas’ latest hit might still be our musical bread-and-butter for years to come, but Deerhunter’s aesthetic gamble must stand as an epiphany for any kid growing up in what has been baptized as indie rock’s golden age, as TV on the Radio’s Dear science, song heralded –at least for us who were fresh out of Kindergarten when Pavement, Sonic Youth and Teenage Fanclub were the shit, or who were too Internetless (and busy popping pimples) to pay attention to the turn-of-this-century revivaloution. Sure this is not punk’s generational send-off to boomer rock (bury those hippies already!), but Deerhunter indeed is the first band born and creatively active within indie rock’s dominance, and even if the band or Brandon Cox (or whoever else fits the role) fail to live up to their promise and disappear, it will be bands stemming from this generation that will take indie rock to new places. And that sure will be a golden age. For the time being, while Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest aims to become the first landmark on such a road, taking the spot for the most-eagerly-awaited-Best-Album-contender of the year (sorry Arcade Fire), I am more than ready to put my purple, suppurating hipster-critic lips to the service if it is half as good as Rainwater Cassette Exchange was. So, let the countdown begin.

Harry Nilsson - "Aerial Ballet" (1968)

All hail Uncle Sam. When a Nilsson-obsessed John Lennon called him on the phone to express his admiration, inadvertently identifying him as the man himself (hardly the kind of call a former bank employee could expect), Nilsson quickly repplied by tagging himself as Uncle Sam and, quite possibly, hanging up. By the time Paul McCartney reached him, or he saw the Beatles name-drop him on TV as their favorite American musician, Harry Nilsson must have realized he truly was the most-famous-band-in-the-planet’s favorite act, which potentially put him on the verge of global stardom. Of course, today we know such breakthrough didn’t happen that way; but still, in a year so generous for nostalgia and star-studded tribute albums (Shel Silverstein, Burt Bacharach, Graham Nash, etc.), Harry Nilsson remains conspicuously absent. Such oblivion is indeed strange, given his Tarantino-Scorsese approved pop-culture stature, safe from boomer-commoditization, or his epochal but bright baroque pop, the finest example of which is found on Aerial Ballet (1968). Almost five years from his last indie-rock appearance (via The Walkmen’s 2006 track-by-track appraisal of Nilsson’s Pussy Cats), time seems right for an early-career Harry Nilsson revival –for his 70s material hatches in your nearest oldies station.

Overlooking how he became their protégé-cum-drinking-buddy, or Lennon’s kindred spirit of sorts, Harry Nilsson was known as the American Beatle for a good reason: his songs from the 1967-1968 period. Perfectly baroque, psychedelic-music-hall pop tunes laden with a melodic gist which made the Beatles obsession a two-way affair, those songs encapsulated eccentric narrative chops and moving hooks unlike anything within the bubble-gum spectrum. Think of an Emmitt Rhodes fronted Monkees, add Serge Gainsbourg’s iconoclast infantilism and the self-aware skill for sarcasm that would later become Nilsson’s trademark –which was anything but embryonic on Aerial Ballet, his second proper album (with 1966’s Spotlight on Nilsson being more of a haphazard singles collection)– and you’ll get a glimpse of the fascinating glee found on this album, capable of reaping the perfectly sown seeds of 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

Scraping the circus show gimmickry of his debut, Nilsson kickstarts the album with the playful tunes of “Daddy’s song”, contradictorily wrapping bleak, heavy on daddy-issues lyrics (a signature of Nilsson at the time), with the sounds of an extravagant Broadway pastiche as it could only be found in the Summer of Love aftermath. The same musical traces are found on other songs of the album like “Bath” o “Good Old Desk” –an still unresolved metaphor on divinity or a love song for a trusty piece of furniture–, in a testimonial to Nilsson’s Brill Building-bred skills. But Nilsson excelled in contemporary pop as well, and “Don’t leave me” proofs it by posing as the best Paul McCartney song Macca didn’t write, outdoing Paul Simon’s simile-sppouting ways to express the sadness and longing of a character immersed in an, otherwise pretty ordinary love song; a transcendental capability of Nilsson that the Bacharachian “Together” and “The wailing willow” proof all too well.

Narratively speaking, Nilsson’s prowess lies on the way he was able to imbue his songs with a piercing loneliness, a deep sense of dissatisfaction and regret channeled through the sweetest of pop melodies, something found a-plenty on Aerial Ballet. This we can attest on “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song”, a Scott Walker-esque study of the performer as a tragically public character, or the suicide-note-according-to-Randy-Newman which “I said goodbye to me” is; but also on “Mr. Tinker”, Nilsson’s take on “Eleanor Rigby”, a Revolver link that becomes evident on “One”, an incredible elementary ballad on collapsing relationships that is made a-new, propelled and spurred by a terrifyingly sparse instrumentation and Nilsson’s spooky croon. The peak of this modus operandi comes with the Fred Neil penned “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a beautiful pop song shrouding the permanent schizophrenia of having to trade the errant freedom of happiness pursuit with the losses it always implies, all accentuated by an equally emotional, as-still-as-a-river-can-be arrangement.

With Aerial Ballet far from being a hit, it would take Midnight Cowboy’s soundtrack rediscovery of “Everybody’s Talkin’” to put Nilsson finally on the spotlight. By that time he had already abandoned baroque pop and was on the way to becoming the yin to Warren Zevon’s yang, (in the way Leonard Bernstein was von Karajan’s yin, if such snobbery allowed). Nevertheless, equal amounts of self-sabotage and bad luck would prop the ever-ready-to-do-his-talent-an-alcoholic-disservice Nilsson in a freefall that seemed to have him delighted. But using pranks and Jekyllesque antics to vent out inner ghosts was a Nilsson signature move from the start. It might be true that 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson, and not this, is what he will be remembered for, but Aerial Ballet is the summation of his first years of activity, the result of his formative run with George Tipton and Phil Spector, working as an anonymous songwriter, the full realization of the gleaming, ambitious yet humane pop he pursued through those years. Time would make Nilssson’s lyrics more convolutedly quirky, dirtier and extravagant, as his sound would also move toward a rock-faceted, simpler pop (fortunately as free of the vacuity of arena-rockers as his baroque sobriety was from the rococo madness of the hippie era), but not a bit of his capacity to share his intimate joy, to present his stark sadness as sardonic, playful melodies, would be lost. “He is the something else the Beatles are” said a hyperbolic Derek Taylor in his liner notes for Aerial Ballet; in the time when the wild mercury sound Bob Dylan envisioned himself as a trapeze artist, I’m pretty sure Nilsson would have been pleased to be remembered as a highwire ballerina. And that’s precisely this album’s testament.

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - "Mojo" (2010)

Poor old Tom Petty, kindness is his ruin. In 2008 he wanted to reach out to his original bandmates and offer them some sort of karmic justice, reforming Mudcrutch in an attempt to share a taste of the stardom he achieved with the Heartbreakers, the band he formed right after Mudcrutch disbanded. The result of that was Mudcrutch (2008), an album leaning on the country undertones of Petty’s sound, decidedly retro but rightfully so (after all, it was Tom trying to seize back his mid-70s inflections), while managing to maintain the strengths of Petty’s songwriting. Two years later and back with the Heartbreakers, Mojo finds Petty still on a generosity streak, as this time he has decided to assemble his new album around Mike Campbell’s guitar, taking an authorial sidestep to showcase his band’s skills with a sound that bets hard on blues rock, in an unlikely turn from Petty’s usual style. This time, however, the gamble doesn’t pay-off too well.

Ironically enough, the problem with Mojo is its lack of mojo. Impeccable musically, technically and all –a feat, considering the album was recorded mostly “live” and on single takes, but not a surprise given the accolades of the musicians involved–, the album just doesn’t seem to have a soul, a driving force other than the wish to churn out bluesy riffs and sail a sea of classic rock conventions with the panache of knowing how awesome performers the Heartbreakers are. Take the opening track, “Jefferson Jericho Blues”, a narrative stab at Chicago’s Blues tradition which has everything in the right place (rampant soloing guitars, a steady rhythmic drive, harp riffs, etc) but fails to reveal why a band like this would be interested in cutting its teeth on such run-of-the-mill material. Yet, with its quasi-garage intensity, this is one of the highlights of the album. Apart from adopting the sound of vintage blues rock, Mojo embraces its canonical iconography as well, with lyrics plagued by booze (“Well I don’t drink Coca Cola/But I sure like that old moonshine”, sings Petty in “Candy”, which contains most of the aforementioned clichés), mean women, preachers, old cars and endless highways. Sure that simplicity and straightforwardness mimic the spirit of early electric blues –which Petty cites, along with “southern landscapes”, as the inspiration for the album–, but the real problem is that Petty doesn’t own the songs and, in spite of shining its mastery through them, the band too has troubles inhabiting the material beyond a mere epidermic approach, failing to do what (as past year’s monumental The Live Anthology proves) has always been one of their strengths: a very clever way for re-imagining classic rock staples.

Perhaps “First flash of freedom”, a strange hybrid that sounds a lot like The Doors take on the blues, with its slow-as-melting-ice aura and introspective lyrics, is the only standout; the sole Mojo song that could blend in with the rest of Petty’s songbook. But it is not a matter of weak songwriting, since even on the songs where the band is supposed to be on fire (“I should have known it”) it struggles to ignite. Although after the bland duo of “Candy” and “No reason to cry” (the latter with a bit of the jangly guitars that made Petty famous), “U.S. 41” more clearly transpires Chess Records’ biting genome; thereafter, the band quickly stumbles in the increasingly-washed-out shadow of Jimmy Page’s hard rock riffing (“Takin’ my time”), just to crash in the painfully naïve, mock-reggae of “Don’t pull me over” –the lowest point of the album, for sure.

Fifteen songs later, the mystery still haunts us: Why did Tom Petty suddenly develop a taste for reflecting the past through his music? In the short documentary accompanying the album (found on Petty’s YouTube channel), he explains that he wanted to show people “what [music] the band hears (…) where the band lives when it’s playing for itself”. For this they conjure the names of true heavyweights, as Mike Campbell lists them: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reid, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, in what is a fair attempt at reconciling with a side of rock’s history that the band hasn’t explored. But such rationale forgets that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a rock’n’roll institution on their own. And that’s not a minor detail.

On the other hand, the “going for the roots”/”back to the basics” speech usually conceals the fact that an artist is getting old and revels in past day’s swagger, imagining how it is still possible to connect with his muse by following the wisdom of the ones that came before him. And unless your name is Nick Cave (in which case you deal with age by playing fire-breathing vitriol à la Grinderman), “back to the basics” often means diving in the tried-and-true pool of older music. However, in the case of Petty such a move rings as contradictory by nature, not only as a side effect of blues’ overexposure, but due to Petty’s status as a master of pop tunes which, while rooted in rock tradition, reflect on the feelings of utterly postmodern individuals, capturing the woes and joys of life in suburban environments. The musical style chosen to convey such motifs is just one of multiple creative avenues open for their taking, as Petty sure knows. With an album filled with blues songs lacking in originality, fierceness and else, one is left to wonder if there weren’t other paths, truer to what Petty can do as a musician. Whatever the case, Petty has deemed Mojo to be a simple snapshot –albeit a very forgettable one–, and hopefully it is just that: “A Polaroid more than a painting”. Speaking of which, I still remember going to the barbershop carrying a copy of Damn the torpedoes’ sleeve, telling the barber to style my hair following Petty’s classic bangs. Perhaps sick of looking at the same grinning blonde guy every month, the barber insisted on me getting a picture of myself sporting the haircut instead. I never did it, for you can’t mimic a classic. And that could be the recipe Tom Petty needs to remember right now; he is the classic he is looking for, there is no need to go back to Chicago (or elsewhere, for that matter) to come up with gut-wrenching tunes. All we need in order to feel the same kind of thrill Chess classics give us is the perfect pop of the Heartbreakers. And that’s your mojo, Tom.