why is this ok? a review of band of horses’ 2016 lp

Why Are You OK, 2016, Interscope

I’m admittedly a sucker for Band of Horses. I say this while also saying that they haven’t released a single record I can listen to from beginning to end.

The closest, 2007’s Cease to Begin, is about 70% enjoyable, with a few cuts that were completely redeemed in 2013’s sublime Acoustic at the Ryman bootleg. On the other hand, Infinite Arms, their 2010 LP on Columbia, was easily one of the worst record buys I’ve made in my adult life. Even after a trusted, close friend insisted it rewards repeated listens, I couldn’t do it.

I discovered Acoustic at the Ryman this past fall and it rekindled my love for Ben Bridwell and company, so much so that I decided to give their recent records more consideration. And here we are, with what might be the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had about a record.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Several reviews out there have noted how much of an artistic risk or expansion OK is, and they’re right. After some time in Columbia’s wilderness, Bridwell’s new overlords were Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin. The latter makes sense; Rubin has a proven resume of catapulting, reinventing, rejuvenating or otherwise resurrecting artists and acts.

When you put OK on, you think you’re listening to the former. To me, that’s a problem. Lytle’s aesthetic is all over this record, and heavily so. Grandaddy, a cynical, coarse alt-synth social commentary on modern life often got so wrapped up in its own distorted, sardonic vision of .com America that it parodied itself. Band of Horses is nothing if not a straight-ahead indie rock with a twist of Dixie thrown in for good measure. The result here is what amounts to a split LP that leaves the listener wondering if the sum of Bridwell’s career is merely that he’s an avatar through which his producers have their way.

The opening track, ‘Dull Times/The Moon’, is a droning seven-minute fraternal, conjoined twins track that encapsulates everything that is to come: the front end is an ephemeral electronic lull against hollow, strummed guitars; the back a country-fried genuine rock and roll cut. How the two decided to become one are a complete mystery.

‘Solemn Oath’ is a bright, jangly sound paired against what might or might not be the existential tension between the freedom of bachelordom and a contemplation of what vows like ‘for better or worse’ can mean. A song with such catchy hooks (Bridwell and company ought not be burdened with such dark and cynical lyrics. Such is Lytle’s hallmark, subtle melody with decidedly unsubtle wordplay.

‘Hag’ is what I consider to be the first real Band of Horses cut on the record. Even with the synth work acting as a foundation, the song is an aching, four-minute ballad to love and doubt that would/could/should be handed off to an artist like Damian Jurado to make my eyes drown my face in tears. The live cut performed at WFUV and posted to YouTube should be considered definitive, but the album cut is respectable and carries its own weight.

I publicly decided that, hereafter, ‘Casual Party’ is my anthem for every social engagement I will ever attend. A taut, playful and perfectly crafted pop-rock song, it represents the best of the Lytle-Bridwell collaboration, lyrics that don’t act as a wet blanket against arrangement that invites the listener into the song. Then there’s the video. Ummm, yeah. The video. Video notwithstanding, ‘Casual Party’ mercilessly assaults cocktail hour conversation, and I can’t love it enough.

Then, GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT’S J MASCIS’ MUSIC! Lytle strikes again with a synth beat and the one song on the record that truly rewards repeated listens. And J Mascis inexplicably sings the chorus. It took probably 27 listens before I realized I really liked ‘In a Drawer’.

After a halftime interlude that might as well be a throwaway cut from Grandaddy’s Sumday, we approach the first really unapproachable song on the record. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Lying Under Oak’, beyond that it just doesn’t connect with the listener.

We then get south of the Mason-Dixon with ‘Throw My Mess’, a rollicking fun three-minute cut that is way more enjoyable than it ever should be on a record where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I refer you back to the WFUV session for the definitive version of ‘Whatever, Wherever’, a gorgeous, contemplative little tune devoted to devotion that plays to the band’s strengths while Lytle’s light hand at the controls makes for a solid contribution to the record.

‘Country Teen’ takes us back south, with a little countrypolitan thrown in for good measure; a track that could probably be dropped on a Nash-Vegas FM radio station right now and be in heavy rotation by Tuesday. Another tune that has no business being on this record, but shines in the homestretch. Everything ‘Country Teen’ is, ‘Barrel House’ isn’t: the penultimate track just rings hollow and seems like a cut that might or might not have been on cusp of B-side status.

Then there’s the record’s pensive final cut, ‘Even Still’. Band of Horses has done this before, sneaking a gem in at the end of the record (‘St. Augustine’, on their 2006 debut record.) Rich with religious imagery–on its face unfazed by its confrontation with the divine, yet for those with ears to hear, brutally soul-baring; ‘let this cup pass from me’ comes to mind–and evocative vignettes of the unflinching upshots of failing companionship, ‘Even Still’ is a devastating closing cut that embraces the Lytle-Bridwell hybrid but hints that this might be where the group heads from here. This is not an avatar, as odd as that seems. While it would be just as at home on a Grandaddy record as it is here, it’s decidedly Bridwell’s work.

With so many tracks that either don’t work, are better elsewhere or otherwise seem like an impersonation of the guy in the booth, it’s hard to say I like Why Are You OK. I like songs on it, but I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say I can put it down and put it away like other Band of Horses records. The artistic risks for the most part don’t work: the best songs are the ones where it’s clearly Bridwell at the helm. A tantalizing, frustrating release, with moments that shine and others where reach exceeds grasp.

That said, if ‘Even Still’ is a bellwether for future releases, then OK acts as a dark night of the soul for Band of Horses, with hope for future output to take on more artistic, expansive themes and rescuing them from potential middle-aged mediocrity. Also knowing that the boys are adept at reworking these tunes–and earlier cuts, as well–to be more at home in their Carolina neck of the woods gives one reason to believe that there is an emerging artistic versatility that will only benefit the group moving forward.

Advertisements

now that i’m older: sufjan stevens rewarding years of repeated listens

Sufjan Stevens 'The Age of Adz' 2010

The Age of Adz, 2010, Asthmatic Kitty

What’s the point of reviewing a five-year-old record?

I’m convinced that record reviews really shouldn’t take place for days, weeks, even months after a record is released. Let’s be honest, though, the only reason a record is *ahem* afforded pre-release copies to critics is so that record companies can get free promotion for their products. Music journalism isn’t so much journalism as it is thinly-veiled marketing. Payola, even. (Freeola, perhaps, would be more fitting.) I suppose we could dispense with the modifiers altogether, but that’s another conversation for another day.

Some outfits don’t handle success particularly well; The Flaming Lips put out The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 1999 and 2002, respectively, and have released uneven, even listless, records ever since. (My argument is that the FLips never figured out who they were after Ronald Jones left the band due to mental illness, but again, another conversation for another day.) It’s the best example that comes to mind of a band that toils for years, hits paydirt and immediately proceeds to spiral out of their minds.

After becoming king of the hipster hill with Illinois, or, more cheekily, Come on, feel the Illinoise!, Sufjan Stevens put out a multi-volume Christmas record, a collection of B-sides that might have been better than Illinois actually was, a soundtrack for a stretch of road (The BQE) and then, seemingly out of nowhere, dropped an EP and LP on everyone in 2010: All Delighted People and Adz.

Stevens, a multi-instrumentalist with a hushed tenor and unafraid of unleashing a falsetto that not only conveys earnestness but emotional gravity–to be sure, a rarity in our day–dispensed with the folky trappings and long song titles of previous records and put out an eleven song, heavily-electronic, even-more-heavily-lyricized monster of a record.

 I ordered it when it was released, put it on and, like so many other listeners, was suckered in by the at the time heretofore familiar-sounding ‘Futile Devices’.

Then, Stevens’ rope-a-dope happened. And, indeed, it was ‘Too Much’. Being an idiot, I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t Sufjan Stevens! What the crap?’ Because, clearly, a listening audience knows what the artist is supposed to be doing. I might as well have wrested the axe from Pete Seeger and sought to cut Dylan’s cables myself.

Well, those asinine assumptions severely polluted the accessibility of the album for me. I’d give it a try every so often, and be utterly unable to connect with it. I had people tell me they loved the record, and I’d just shrug and say, ‘I don’t get it.’ And, that’s perfectly OK, provided that one does not get it for reasonable reasons. There are records I sincerely don’t get.

And what doubts were raised by ‘Too Much’ were heightened by the titular track, with its opening synthetic bombast and choral orchestration. And, later, to hear the profane refrain  of ‘I Want to Be Well’ ad nauseam, from a professed Christian, well, that was tough to reconcile.

Yet, there were songs that were truly triumphs in their own right. ‘I Walked’ and ‘Now That I’m Older’ still rank amongst the best back-to-back tracks of any record I’ve heard.

And, now that I’m older, on the other side of any number of major life events and serious personal valleys, it crept into my listening rotation about a month ago, and it’s played through regularly for the past week.

I finally get it: The Age of Adz is, for me, the ultimate ‘rewards repeated listens’ record.

Stevens is, for an emotionally-unstable listener, uncomfortably frank, particularly after only teasing at his personal narrative in prior records, deferring largely to the stories of places and others. I don’t know that Adz is an autobiographical record–then again, everything an artist produces, is in a sense autobiographical–but there is some undeniable dark night of the soul-type introspection going on. Yet, the record never broods or betrays a wallowing sense of self-pity. Then there’s the arrangements: Stevens has crafted his share of layered productions: much of the instrumentation is his own, not unlike Brian Wilson’s work with Pet Sounds. The synth work, melded with acoustic instruments and layers of gorgeous vocals sounds stunning in headphones or a decent rig at home. (It having been the soundtrack to my work week, suffered under the burden of digital streaming and further diminished quality in a substandard headset.

The stereo production is used judiciously–what is it with Michigan artists and their insistence on stereophonics?–but I can’t help but wonder what the record might have sounded like in mono. It’s like wondering what the ’27 Yankees might have done with better starting pitching: futile speculation.

The record takes on an operatic dimension as it progresses, weaving the existential working out of one’s salvation–however that presents itself–against Stevens, the protagonist, and a chorale that seems to act as both conscience and spiritual guide, often unafraid to affirm and urge caution within the same track. As the record progresses, it’s clear that the artist has done something extraordinary: elevating the hipster record to artistic and intellectual transcendence. The inner conflict is palpable, the dueling natures of humankind flow and spasm as, well, we are wont to do. Where one might be understandably startled and even offended at the dual, layered repeated lines of ‘I want to be well’ with ‘I’m not fucking around’, who can say they have never felt the rage that comes with being afflicted along with the earnest desire to be made whole? It may be crude, but it’s honest in a way that does not trivialize sitz im leben. Profanity often cheapens emotion, or puts ignorance on display, particularly in music. That’s a risk the artist takes and, for Stevens, it paid off. Not everyone can do that, and not everyone should try.

The record concludes with a 25-minute operetta of its own, ‘Impossible Soul’. Others have said that one could reasonably listen to the first four or five minutes and be satisfied. I agree, but as a movement of music, it’s a remarkable work worth devoting the full length of the track. Understanding the record as a pseudo-opera makes it much more understandable than as a part of a pop or rock record. Something quite different is happening here.

If the listener is in any way emotionally compromised, The Age of Adz will exploit that compromise and force one to do some searching in the darker corners of the soul. Art will do that, and it will do what it will to bring about catharsis.

In this case, it took five years for it to do that for me. It also happens to be one of the finest records I’ve ever heard.

Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

damien jurado and me and a hoth-like madison night

IMG_20150222_182242

I don’t get to see a lot of shows for any number of reasons:

1) I live in a city that doesn’t attract the kinds of bands or artists I want to see;

2) I have a wife and young children who keep me at home; nothing wrong with that, it’s my sitz im leben;

3) I have a job;

3) I am actively looking for employment suited to my, ahem, unique skill set;

4) The money I have squirreled away needs to be generally protected;

5) Few bands or artists I want to see stop close enough to make a trip…

You get the idea; circumstances needs to align just about perfectly for me to get to see a show. So, when I realized that my tax return was going to be substantial and allowed for a little lateral movement, and I discovered that Damien Jurado was solo touring the Upper Midwest and would be in Madison, Wisconsin’s Majestic Theatre, I had to pull the trigger. wife allowed me to, and for that, I am grateful.

Jurado, a Seattle-based musician who has built a considerable cult following with close to 20 years of recording and touring–and recently surfaced on a more prominent level thanks to his appearance on and contributions to Moby’s Innocents–has been a personal favorite of mine for about 15 years, when I went to a Pedro the Lion-Jurado-TW Walsh show at the legendary First Avenue in Minneapolis. At the time, I was in college and had discovered the laments of David Bazan’s Pedro, which was great brooding music for the brooding tendencies I would default to at the time. Jurado, who was touring in support of his final Sub Pop release, I Break Chairs, made Bazan’s performance expendable.

That voice. It stops you in your tracks, commands your attention, forces you to not just hear, but listen. If you haven’t heard him, do yourself a favor and listen. [This was the song that did it for me live; this is another one that, last night, gripped my soul, but I’m getting ahead of myself.] It’s OK; I can wait.

I’ve seen Jurado perform three times in Madison since that Damascus road experience: twice at High Noon Saloon and once in the basement of Pres House, an old State Street church not far from Bascom Hill. The last time I saw him was about eight years ago. Marriage, relocation(s) and finances not only kept me away from seeing him live but largely from buying records at all. It’s not like I stopped appreciating him–his records and tracks were always welcome appearances on random play–but, like an old friend moved away, we haven’t kept up. Then I picked up 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son on a $5 Amazon digital download sale, put it on my BlackBerry, played it in my vehicle and nearly had to pull the car over halfway through the first track.

Holy crap, I thought. This is absolutely stunning.

‘HOLY CRAP!’ I shouted to myself in the car. (Admit it, you do the same.)

Thus, the relationship IMG_20150222_182403between myself and Damien Jurado’s catalog was renewed. I acquired 2012’s Maraqopa, and was summarily annihilated by that. Jurado reclaimed a spot amongst the ranks of personal favorites, including Bob Dylan, Luxury, Starflyer 59, et al.

My long time show-going partner and dear friend Andy came up from the flatland and met me in frigid Madison yesterday; we hung around town, caught up, the sun began to set and we made our way downtown. Cold blasts in Wisconsin are normally accompanied by a clear, pitch black sky lightly salted with stars. In that picture of the Capitol, the glow isn’t from dusk, but the stark contrast from light and dark. Doors opened at 6.30, there we were at 6.15, the handful of frozen chosen waiting to get into the venue.

We were let in, my ear lobes began to thaw and some other friends and fellow Jurado patrons from here in Stevens Point joined us. After an opener, Jurado came out, sat on a chair and started into his set with one of my personal favorite songs, Maraqopa‘s ‘Working Titles’.

I shot wife a BBM: Instant tinglies. (Thanks again, wife.)

Jurado seldom talks between songs, preferring to tear through sets. In this respect, solo acoustic tours suit him well; he can play what he wants from anywhere in his prolific catalog, rearranging at will. Indeed, while a lot of songs came from recent releases from Saint Bartlett to Brothers and Sisters, he pulled out some older work (‘Ohio’ from 1999’s Rehearsals for Departure) as well as two unreleased songs (‘Newspaper Gown’ and another whose name escapes me at the moment), even mashing up several of his songs into a most tasty medley.

Jurado has always been a good guitar player and distinctive vocalist, but what struck me after a years-long hiatus was how advanced he has become both with his play and the strength of his voice. In recent records, he and producer-collaborator Richard Swift have begun to employ some psychedelic technique with production and using Jurado’s voice as an instrument itself. (‘Silver Donna’, a track that nearly put me in a coma when I heard it on the aforementioned car ride, is a lush example.) He played for about 90 minutes, left the stage, and came out to play a five song (!) encore, wrapping the night up with a perfect bow of ‘Arkansas’ (lyrics like “Fade out/This is where the credits roll our name” seems fitting for a closing number, no?)

He made himself available after the show and was generous with his time with everyone–a very cool gesture, Sondre Lerche was the same when wife and I saw him destroy St. Paul’s Turf Club last October–where I finally made his acquaintance. (Previous efforts at High Noon and Pres House were thwarted preemptively as it appeared to me that approaching him would result in my getting punched out. Ah, my starstruck youth.) I filled in the blanks in my Jurado collection, we chatted for a few moments, he thanked me for being a long-time fan–while grateful for a full house of fans, I’m not sure how many people in attendance are that familiar with Waters Ave. S.–talked quickly about the earlier shows, and were cleared out by a more-than-slightly-inebriated little drunk fan girl who took umbrage with the fact that he was sharing time with me. Apologies to all little drunk fan girls everywhere if 15 years were awkwardly crammed into roughly four minutes.

[“What are you, some kind of Damien Jurado…[too drunk to complete the intended-to-be-insulting remark]?!” may go down in history with the little drunk fan girl at the Lerche show who burst out in tipped frustration waiting in line to meet him, “I don’t mean to be a b—-, but what the f—?!”]

Then, we headed outside. -3º is not warm. Andy and I earnestly walked the two blocks to our cars; it was halfway when I realized that my chest started tightening up and I couldn’t feel my face or fingertips. These arctic winter nights are beautiful…but cold. I started shivering, teeth chattering as we talked about the show, got to the car, and began the defrosting process.

Have you ever tried expediting the warming process from frostbite? It had been a while since I had a strong case of exposure, so I decided it was a good idea to wrap my fingertips in fleece and blow onto them.

That was not a good idea.

My fingertips felt like they were stuck in a kiln for the next 30 minutes. Agony.

***

Quick tangential thoughts on yesterday:

– I may have had the single worst cup of coffee I’ve paid [far too much] for in years at the Capitol location of Colectivo Coffee. Truly hideous.

– Majestic Theatre is a nice venue, good acoustics and great sightlines throughout the main floor, but the soundboard needed a slightly steadier hand. Several instances of mild feedback throughout the night. A solo acoustic show should be fairly easy to manage. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

– Damien Jurado’s tour wraps up this week, with dates in Chicago [TONIGHT!], Champaign tomorrow, Cincinnati, Louisville and Fort Wayne rounding out the week. Get familiar here, buy records here [sorry, Damien, your webstore is down atm].

Photos courtesy the author and a BlackBerry Passport.

IMG_20150222_205030

rearrangements and ultimate concerns

Realizing that most of radio is a vast auditory wasteland with surprisingly inappropriate lyrics for general audiences, wife decided to switch the radio in our minivan to a fate worse than getting down in the club.

Christian radio.

Now, we are [ostensibly] Evangelical Christians; my graduate degree is in Christian Thought and I don’t shy away from my religious orientation. That having been said, Christian radio has been bad for about as long as I can remember. At least, rather than getting down in the club, it’s, um, something supposedly about Jesus.

The trend out of the bowels of Nash-Vegas for the past decade or so has been a decisive blow to any scant shreds of creativity within the realm of Christian music: rearrangement.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: To be sure, there is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music, just as there is no such thing as a Christian book, Christian movie or a Christian coffee shop. These are nouns designed identify their target demographic; it’s not a description of what they are, rather of who they intend to legally extort. I digress.]

There was a time when the occasional rearrangement of an old hymn was a welcomed and interesting sight on any given Sunday in any given church. Now, it’s de rigueur. Few CCM artists perform original material anymore, deferring to ‘worship’ records. Sunday mornings in Evangelical churches are full of the same pap found on the radio, now in perfect synthetic harmony: the radio plays the rearrangements one would hear in church, one hears in church what she’d find on the radio. Never mind that most of what comprises ‘worship’ is either an exercise in miserliness, patently heretical or just plain narcissistic.

And these rearrangements are seldom creative or interesting: perhaps a different lick here, a worship chord bridge there, some cheap throwaway lines added in between verses, a slightly different tempo. Where Amazing Grace was a partnership between Newton and Cowper, an extension of theological perspectives shared with a local congregation–likely without music!!–later put to music–likely pulled from elsewhere!!!–and became a fixture in American Christianity in the Second Great Awakening.

The deeper issue isn’t that Christian musicians and ‘worship leaders’ [/barf] are redressing older songs and pretending it’s creative, but that in changing the tone, it lends itself to further detaching the content and intent from the performance, especially when, in the first place, we Christians already have significant performances issues.

Again, Evangelicals could benefit from not neglecting the work of Paul Tillich: faith is whatever is the object of one’s ultimate concern. The writers of Amazing Grace weren’t looking to write a song, they were drafting a theological statement. Those who perform Macbeth for the Royal Shakespearean Company do so out of passion, not obligation: they memorize to understand and translate to an audience. Can you imagine a droll recitation of Juliet’s balcony monologue?

Those who rearrange and perform do nothing with the content, excepting the insertion of a handful of trite phrases that act as derivative dog whistles. A performance does not lend itself to reflection upon the content. In fact, the fact that we even by and large sing songs imported from the radio–or a hymnal–says that we don’t have much consideration for content at all. Our ultimate concern isn’t a theological orientation but rather in performance: performance on stage, performance in the pews, which can only mean that life away from sacred space is merely performance as well.

We may rearrange our lives in a way that reflects some kind of religious orientation, we may change the key or chord and sprinkle some nice-sounding bumper sticker fodder into our daily conversations, but we still are doing nothing but performing. It’s an act, it might even be method acting, but it’s acting nonetheless.

Over the Christmas holiday, we visited wife’s home church on a Sunday morning. Aside from having one of the best, smoothest Americanos I’ve ever had in my life (no, seriously, professionally trained baristas and professional grade equipment), they led the service off with a song one of the musicians had written. Not only was it a good song, the musicians in that church are disgustingly talented, but refreshing. Here is the spirit of Newton and Cowper, a creation of beauty and a willingness for a solitary voice to boldly make an original theological statement to be reflected upon by the congregation.

Therein lies the difference between a truly Christian life and, well, what anybody else does. The difference between arrangement and rearrangement, between Christ and dead men’s bones.

briefly, musings on truth and the prophetic voice

“He’s made a record not without hope but which doesn’t come with any easy or comforting answers. In that way, the man is clearly still committed to speaking the truth.” — Will Hermes, on Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 record, ‘I’m New Here’

In the age of demagoguery, uncritical orators and even-more-uncritical audiences, hopeless optimism and sarcastic responses to all of the aforementioned, Hermes, a music critic and contributor to National Public Radio, gives us both an antidote to the sweet poison of punditry and, perhaps by accident, a sublime description of the prophetic voice.

Hope, as noted here previously, has no place in the mind of the optimist. It requires a realistic acknowledgement and acceptance of a dire situation; optimists default to a best [possible or otherwise] outcome. Like faith, which requires doubt as a grounding, hope requires the ability to embrace–and reject–despair. Thus, hope often looks anything but Pollyanna-ish, and often is, conveniently or otherwise, mistaken for bitterness, rebellion or heresy.

With that in mind, the hopeful mindset rejects the quick fix or easy, pat answers. With focused attention and analysis, clarity of voice and unapologetic commitment to resolution, hope confronts the messiness of the real for all that it is, rejecting straw men and ideological blindspots, and working toward its own actualization. Those who would pretend to be hopeful we should rightly regard as cynics: those who are ultimately only interested in themselves and their own self-preservation.

To commit one’s self to truth is to necessarily take up the prophetic mantle, to speak to power the injustices of the day and to make a clarion call toward repentance and reconciliation. This is to say that the prophet takes no side, save for the restoration of fair relations amongst the people of a society. Where binary social systems inexorably seek the destruction of or domination over the other and any way and/or means to justify such destruction or domination, the prophet calls all to account with nothing but the truth on his/her side.

There is no such thing as a popular prophet; this is a contradiction in terms. But there is a reason the prophetic voice dominates the narrative of Tanakh, and has an eerie, resonant quality wherever it is found in history, religion, literature, art and, occasionally, in the vulgarities of pop culture: we are people who are for generations so enslaved to fact-based deceit and ideological bias that, while we prefer the lie, we yet elevate truth to a place of honor. Perhaps we do the latter precisely because we are enslaved to the former.

The prophet, like Twain’s classic, is praised but never heeded.

What would happen if we heeded our prophets?