Archive for the ‘Alternative’ Category

commonwealthFull disclosure: I am a huge Sloan fan.  Been following them since their debut EP, Peppermint, and fell in love them when they released Coax Me as a single from their masterpiece second album, Twice Removed.  Back in high school, I made a pilgrimage to their headquarters in Halifax (bought the split 7” with Eric’s Trip from Patrick’s hands, then walked across the street to Sam the Record Man and picked up the smashing Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”. Didn’t buy the clear vinyl first pressing of Twice Removed with lyric sheet, though…. Whoops!).

A lot’s happened since then, most notably, we’ve all grown old.  Sloan’s sound has developed from shoegaze, to retro-slacker pop, to 70s rock, to 80s rock, and now into an amalgam all their own.  The key to their shapeshifting and perhaps their longevity, though, has been the fact that all four members write and sing their own songs.  Which leads us to their latest release, Commonwealth.  In an interview last year I believe it was drummer Andrew Scott who mentioned that for an indie band today, you need to do something interesting to convince listeners to actually buy an album.  This time round, they’ve done something interesting for sure: inspired by Kiss’ solo record project in the late 70s, they’ve crafted a double LP with one side each by each member. Oh yeah, and each side is named for a suit of cards and if you order now, you get a custom deck of Sloan playing cards!

To be honest, this isn’t much of a departure.  Beginning with their third LP, One Chord to Another, drummer Andrew began recording his songs in full himself (he had moved from Halifax to Toronto, spent two days in Halifax recording drums for the other boys’ tracks, then returned home to the Big Smoke to record his own, then mailed them in).  It may sound a bit business-like, but it seems to be the glue that has held this band together all these years after a near-implosion amidst big label pressures to dismantle Twice Removed (“Make it sound like Nirvana” the execs said!).

I’ll get to the point – apart from one side, this LP is superb.

The first disc features guitarist Jay Ferguson on side 1 and bassist Chris Murphy on side 2.  In and of itself you’d be hard pressed to find 10 better tracks of power pop.  In a sense, Jay has often been the odd one out in the band.  Never rocking as hard as the others, drummer Andrew once called his songs “fruity”.  Over the years, though, he’s developed a pop sensibility that comes to perfection here.  All those years of hand claps, on-the-beat piano stomping, glistening guitar lines, and ooh-aah harmonies come together magically.  We’ve Come This Far is a quick glam rocker asserting Sloan’s commitment to follow their own path, You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind is a blazing quick pop rocker, Three Sisters flips the coin for a softer, yet still upbeat pop tune, and Cleopatra is one of the catchiest tunes Sloan have ever released.  He wraps up his side with an acoustic ballad, Neither Here Nor There.  Throughout, he upholds his nostalgic romanticism, dreaming of bygone Hollywood, wistful tours of Europe, and the comforts of home.

On the flip side, Chris continues the pop extravaganza with a slightly harder edge.  Closing track You Don’t Excuses to be Good seems to present his view of the Sloan mythology: again, they’ve gone over 20 years as an independent band, blazing their own path and managing to pay the bills without being L.A. superstars.  Get Out is a quick rocker, So Far So Good is a mournful piano ballad with a beautiful switch from minor to major key, and Misty’s Beside Herself is full of clever chord changes and catchy melodies.  It’s opener Carried Away that is the absolute gem of the whole album, though.  In many ways this is the sister track to one of Chris’ past hits, The Other Man.  Where he was once the man a woman was cheating with, now he is the one being cheated on.  Despite the dour subject matter, it’s presented in a perfect 3-and-a-half minute pop tune that will be stuck in your head for a long time.  Absolute perfection.

Side three, unfortunately, is where things go slightly amiss.  Guitarist Patrick Pentland has been behind many of the band’s bigger hits.  He’s got a knack for a catchy rock tune as well as the occasional heartwarming ballad. The bad news is this time out he gives us a mere 4 tracks spanning 12 minutes of sludgy 70s rock lacking any notable hooks, and bogged down by a whole lot of bitterness.  Apparently, Pat is becoming a grumpy old man.  13 (Under a Bad Sign) and Take it Easy are almost indistinguishable, two 70s rockers that drag on, devoid of any notable riffs or solos.  It seems he has been taking his advice to “Take it Easy” too seriously.  I wish a bit more work were given here.  What’s Inside is a sluggish psychedelic ballad with none of the vulnerability that have made past love songs of his (I Can Feel It, It’s In Your Eyes) so charming.  Last, despite being released as the advanced single, Keep Swinging (Downtown) is just boring. It sounds like the stuff they used to toss off as a bonus track for the Japanese release (see Out to Lunch from Navy Blues).  The acoustic outro is interesting, but by this point, I’ve largely lost interest. In terms of lyrical themes, it seems to me that the crustier Pat gets, the more ironic his songs become. “Unkind” was an infection rocker off of 2012’s The Double Cross, but it seems that it’s far more unkind to write a pop single about someone being unkind, than to simply “suck the life out of the room”, as the lover he points his finger at unforgivably does.  Beginning with 2001’s If It Feels Good (another catchy rocker), Patrick has returned time and time again to his laissez-faire manifesto, all the while become nastier towards those who don’t share his carefree ways (ex-girlfriends, believers in 2000 year-old magical carpenters…). I wish he would lighten up a bit or at least put his bitter pill to a memorable riff.

The fourth side, then, is where things get really interesting.  Andrew gives us an epic 18-minute long suite unlike anything Sloan have ever attempted before.  His arc as a songwriter is an interesting one.  He was too timid to sing his sole contribution to their debut album (500 Up on Smeared), so Patrick did the honours.  That tune, however, is the one I revisit the most from their shoegazer days.  Since then, he’s grown in confidence and has a sound all his own.  He tends towards modalism, often sitting on a chord (usually A) for most of a verse or chorus.  He was the first to use tape splicing to build mini-suites.  Where the others tend towards melodic lead guitar, when Andrew pulls out his big old Grestch 6120 (or recently a Telecaster Deluxe), he scratches out wild, unbridled solos.  He can veer towards wordiness (apparently the first draft of People of the Sky had ten+ verses).  He experiments with dissonance.  While some dismiss him as the oddball in the band, he has remained my favourite from day one.  In recent years, though, I have found his contributions somewhat lacking.  On the oft-maligned Pretty Together, I think he reached his apex, contributed three tracks which had a sound as big as a prairie sky.  Then, on Action Pact, he had no songs at all!  Since then, he has been pushing in new directions without, in my opinion, quite getting where he wants to go.  He contributed mostly song fragments to Never Hear the End of It, and then on the last two releases has veered towards Dylanesque lyricism with a couple of experiments in garage rock and reggae along the way.

This time round, though, he gets it absolutely right.  As the title suggests, Forty-Eight Portraits, is influenced as much by his recent explorations as a visual artist as his life as a musician.  He uses the music as a canvas to paint a series of interconnected impressions of life as an independent artist.  He’s grown content raising his kids, hacking out songs in his band, and painting in his garage. Rather than looking down on the rest of the world (hello, Patrick!) invites the world to come along with him – He opens this epic with, “I say we’re going together,” and by the end speaks to the unbelievers, “we’re saying a prayer for you.”  The music moves from abstract piano and dog barking, into driving rock, a ballad duet with Chris, garage riffing, grandiose string passages, a children’s chorus, and then a hard rock instrumental conclusion.  Following the songs many changes takes some getting used to, but is ultimately rewarding.

While Patrick’s side is disappointing, the other three are so inspiring, I have to applaud Sloan and give them a 4.5/5.  Truly excellent.

Kill UncleKill Uncle is one of the more challenging releases in Morrissey’s catalogue. Following the demise of the Smiths, Morrissey had great success continuing to work with producer Stephen Street, in particular producing two timeless singles, Suedehead and Every Day is Like Sunday. Later in his career, he has settled comfortably working with guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer who have penned the bulk of his material since 1992. Kill Uncle, however, is an idiosyncratic, transitional album that spans the gap – along with a handful of singles – between these two fruitful periods. Messy, poorly produced and lacking in a standout song, it was rightly slammed by critics at the time. A recent remaster overseen by Moz himself, however, begs the question, is Kill Uncle worth revisiting? Write-ups in the New Yorker and Pitchfork indicate yes. Me, however, I’m not so sure.

The central problem with Kill Uncle is that it has no idea what it’s supposed to be. On paper, it should work. The album is produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, known for their work with Madness, Elvis Costello and Dexy’s Midnight Runner. Morrissey first turned to them to produce the Street-penned Ouija Board, Ouija Board, an atmospheric number with an absolutely beautiful b-side, Yes, I Am Blind. They also produced the two following singles, November, Spawned a Monster and Piccadilly Palare, carrying on Street’s shimmering pop sound, while adding some appreciated rock muscle. On the production side, then, all bodes well.

The new factor added in the mix is songwriter Mark Nevin, off a hot single, Perfect, with his band Fairground Attraction. Morrissey’s love for Memphis rockabilly was the catalyst that first linked him with Johnny Marr, so you can imagine why he’d want to collaborate with Nevin. Perfect draws together all those wonderful rockabilly elements – a snare-and-brushes shuffle, catchy harmonies, and a reverb and vibrato-laden solo played on an old Gretsch hollowbody. It even finishes on a major sixth chord! Could Nevin, then, be Morrissey’s new Marr?

A glance at the lyric sheet also finds Morrissey in fine form. So many tales of longing and unrequited love. Take Found, Found, Found:

“I do believe that/The more you give your love…/The more you give your trust…/The more you’re bound to lose.”

Or The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye:

“I don’t wanna be judged/I would sooner be Loved/I would sooner be/Just blindly Loved …”

More than once, Morrissey clumsily, and even creepily, fawns over another’s lover (King Leer and Driving Your Girlfriend Home). There are dark tales of the decline of English society – racist violence in Asian Rut, and an uncomfortable testimony from a mute witness in, well, Mute Witness. Morrissey struggles with his outlook on opener Our Frank:

“Somebody stop me/From thinking/From thinking all the time/So bleakly, so bleakly/So bleakly all the time.”

By the end, though, he has come terms with who he is. For Morrissey, his life is about self-expression, having the courage to

“Walk right up to the microphone/And name/All the things you love/All the things that you loathe.”

If that leads to damnation, he’s content with that, because all of his friends will be there anyways (There Is a Place in Hell For Me and My Friends).

Somewhere along the way, though, this album went seriously amiss. The charm of Nevin’s songwriting disappeared, and the crispness of Langer and Winstanley’s sound was muddied and lost, resulting in a schizophrenic mess. On the one hand, you’ve got two songs – Mute Witness and Found, Found, Found – penned by Langer, neither of which would have been out of place on the November, Spawned a Monster single. The first is a driving pop song given edge through plenty of guitar feedback, the second a sleazy dirge, akin to Kiss Me-era Cure rockers.

Langer’s tunes, though, are largely out of place next to Nevin’s new style. The bigger problem, though, is that it’s simply too hard to pin down Nevin’s style. Opening track, Our Frank, is the most akin to Langer, but before long he’s alternating between rockabilly romps – Sing Your Life and King Leer – and the avant-grade pop of Asian Rut and The Harsh Truth. Indeed these latter songs, employing carousing violin leads and carnival-esque pianos draw more on a Birthday Party or Tom Waits influence than the hillbilly sounds of Memphis.

By the time we get into the second side, we’re faced with three tunes in a row, all with a lilting 6/8 time signature. All are interesting in their own right and Smiths fans will appreciate the chiming, echoing guitars found on all of them, but played back to back, they simply drag on and on. The closing piano ballad, There is a Place, is epic in its simplicity, and yet the listener is too worn out by this point to care. I have much the same experience with the Smiths’ final release, as well.

Kill Uncle ReissueIn the recent 2013 reissue, Morrissey has applied his revisionist approach to yet another album, with little success. The revised track listing reflects some understanding of the album’s weaknesses. Originally the second track, Asian Rut sapped the energy built by Our Frank of any momentum. Here it’s bumped into the middle of the set. Likewise, the four slower tracks at the end are now broken up. There is a Place is replaced with a more upbeat guitar-led version from KROQ, and End of the Family Line is shifted to the closing spot. With its false ending, it is effective as the last word.

That said, the new track listing still doesn’t work. The shift from Our Frank’s pop-rock to Sing Your Life’s quirky rockabilly is too abrupt. In the middle, too, we’re given two added b-sides, neither of which contribute to a unified sonic vision. Pashernate Love, taken from 1992’s You’re the One for Me, Fatty, sounds like what it is, an outtake from the more aggressive Your Arsenal. Its theme of rejecting love fits the album, but the music is from a different era (and producer). Likewise, the Herman’s Hermits cover East West is taken from 1989, and sounds like the glossy pop of its day. As a reflection on celebrity, its theme fits alongside Sing Your Life, but the sound is from another era. Elsewhere, the alternate version of There is a Place adds an upbeat spark, but ignores the fact that the original version is the better of the two.

Why, then, didn’t Morrissey turn to Kill Uncle’s own b-sides to give a more balanced approach to the album? The Loop and Pregnant for the Last Time would have added to the rockabilly sound and would have been well-complemented by the acoustic Skin Storm or That’s Entertainment. My Love Life is the jangliest thing Morrissey has released apart from Marr, and could have been the standout single. Swapping these in for Langer’s tunes and the more avant-garde tracks would have given a far more unified sound. Of course, he’s also left I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty on the cutting floor as well, perhaps Morrissey’s most powerful torch song ever. My recommendation for a re-imagining of Kill Uncle would be: A – Our Frank/My Love Life/Sing Your Life/Skin Storm/The Loop/I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty B – Pregnant for the Last Time/King Leer/Driving Your Girlfriend Home/Mute Witness/There is a Place…/(I’m) The End of the Family Line. In fact, as I listen to this line-up in iTunes, it just might rank a 4 or even 5/5!

Ultimately, though, no re-tracking can really save Kill Uncle and it is better accepted for what it is: a flawed, transitional album that simply didn’t work. It would have been better as a deluxe release with the original album followed by the singles and b-sides of the day as bonus tracks, all of which would fit on one disc!

Thankfully, Morrissey redeemed himself on the follow-up Your Arsenal. Producer Mick Ronson got the production right, perfectly balancing aggressive guitars with rockabilly influences, and allowing the right space for a couple of glorious torch songs. Ironically, where Langer and Winstanley couldn’t find room for I’ve Changed my Plea, Ronson turned a similar Levin leftover, I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday, into an absolute showstopper on Your Arsenal.

In the end, I think the problem with Kill Uncle is everyone’s fault. As a vocalist and lyricist, Morrissey depends on co-writers and producers to realize his vision, and he’s had some marvelous collaborations across his career. This includes great singles produced by Langer and Winstanley, and some memorable tunes written by Nevin. When the four came together it simply didn’t work. I can’t imagine the pressure on a green songwriter like Nevin (Fairground Attraction had just released their second album in 1990) being asked to work with the vaunted Morrissey! His tunes are ambitious, but often awkward. As producers, Langer and Winstanley should have reined in the experimentation and helped this new songwriting duo find their esssence. Unfortunately, L&W seem most comfortable replicating the pop sounds Moz created with Street, and simply weren’t up to the task of helping Morrissey find his new sound.

For Morrissey fans, Kill Uncle remains interesting, but any hopes of resurrecting the album that could have been are futile. It is what it is and always shall be… a failed experiment.

2/5

Invisible WayI’m interrupting my walk through Johnny Cash’s Columbia Records catalogue, to pay tribute to a long-time favourite of mine, Low.  On Tuesday, March 19th, Low release The Invisible Way, their 10th full-length album, marking 10 albums in 20 years. Not bad for the survivors of an obscure genre (slowcore) from an obscure place (Duluth).

I came to Low in the mid-90’s when I was part of an e-mail list (remember those?) for fans of the Cure. I was told if you love the stark minimalism of Seventeen Seconds (check!) and Faith (check!), then Low were the band for you. I stumbled across a vinyl copy of their new release, The Curtain Hits the Cast, and picked it up. Unbeknownst to me, this was quite the rarity, featuring two exclusive tracks. Shortly thereafter, a local record shop had the Over the Ocean single, featuring an incredible hypnotic version of Be There (percussion provided by banging on a clothes dryer). I caught them as they passed through Ottawa, for what was the concert of a lifetime: two stellar opening acts (The Wooden Stars, and the sublime Ida), a tiny basement bar, and a set so quiet that my friend fell asleep four feet from the stage (and singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk still apologized for being too loud).

What attracted me to Low was their sheer intensity. Each of their first three albums – I Could Live in Hope, Long Division and Curtain – were singular in vision. Slow as anything I had heard, compelling, quiet, sometimes terrifying, with shining moments of absolute beauty. In fact, many of the things I love about Johnny Cash – minimalism, ringing guitars, and haunting vocals – applied equally to Low. They simply came from different genres in different eras.

Over the years, though, like Cash, Low have sought to broaden their sonic palette. The Songs for a Dead Pilot EP stripped away the reverb, offering a new lo-fi approach at the hands of Steve Albini. He went on to produce the gorgeous chamber pop of Secret Name, further expanded upon and slightly rocked out on Things We Lost in the Fire. 2002’s Trust seemed to round out the era, drawing on elements of all their previous albums. Moving to Sub Pop, they swapped delay pedals for distortion on 2005’s The Great Destroyer. The follow-up, Drums and Guns, was entirely different once again, offering a deconstructionist, electronic approach to a new set of songs. C’Mon was in some ways a return to form, again allowing for gorgeous pop, blissed out distorted jams, and some slower, spacier numbers as well.

For a fan grounded in those earlier releases, each of which offered a stark commitment to a singular sound, their later releases have been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, I have enjoyed many of their experiments, and find all of the elements I first loved about them – the beauty, the snarl, and the serenity – remain. On the other hand, very few of their albums have hung together from beginning to end. Plus there’s always a real stinker of a track somewhere on there (Step anyone?).

The release of The Invisible Way, then leaves me in both anticipation and fear. The production of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is promising (another one of my fave’s, his work with Mavis Staples is a revelation). Advance promotion promised more contributions from drummer/vocalist/wife Mimi (great!) and lots of acoustic guitar and piano (hmmm… but I love Alan’s electric so much).

So what about The Invisible Way? Once again, it offers the “Low sound” from a different vantage. This time, it is driven by softly strummed acoustic and minimally chorded piano. In many ways, this is Low unplugged. It also reflects the warm, clear production style Tweedy has been developing. Where his own 6-man band’s arrangements are dense, he seems to help other artists strip away the layers to get to the essence of their songs. This is a natural fit for Low.

I’m happy to say that Mimi really takes charge on this album. In recent years, she’s offered only 2-3 songs per album. Here she’s on almost half of them. I’ve always loved the roundness of her tone, which blends well with Alan’s frailer sound. Funny thing is, on this album, she’s harmonizing with herself, often three times over. Holy Ghost is probably the peak here – beautiful, stately and lush. The lyrics – some holy ghost keeps me hanging on/i feel the hands/but don’t see anyone – could equally be religious or romantic, expressing her Mormonism in a personal yet universal way.  Four Score is another soft tune, and she closes the album with the reflective To Our Knees. Both of these are pretty, and continue in a spiritual vein, but I find them unmemorable. Often Mimi’s songs stick in your head for days – take the dripping, repetitive chorus of Over the Ocean, or her heartbreaking When You Walked Out on Me – but these ones just float pleasantly through your ears and then move on. As if predicting the risk of boredom, she surprisingly offers two upbeat numbers: the driving So Blue, and the poppy Just Make It Stop. So Blue is the better of the two, the intro builds up with piano-driven octaves walking up a major scale as Alan’s guitar grumbles underneath, making way for Mimi’s angelic voice to burst through the ether. Stop, however, feels really clumsy to me. The melody is catchy (although the chord progression reminds me of Men Without Hats’ I Got the Message), but the pacing feels wrong.

Alan, on the other hand is in an experimental mood. Plastic Cup is acerbic and amusing, a meditation on a future anthropologists confused reflections on present-day drug testing.  The lyrics reflect some of the more bitter moments on The Great Destroyer; if only the brief two-chord instrumental passage developed into a longer jam. Waiting is a piano ballad they’ve been playing live that never really goes anywhere for me.  Lyrically, it reminds of the depression Alan began sharing publicly following Destroyer, and is deeply moving, as if it’s one sufferer reaching out to another: “I can see beyond the smile/cheat and lie/I’m not blind/suicide, I’ll still be here tomorrow.”  Yet musically it tries to reach the heights of past epic numbers like Will the Night, but just doesn’t get there. Clarence White hints at a soul/funk vibe, Mother is an acoustic waltz, and On My Own starts out as a strange take on country, until morphing into a Neil Young-worthy howling rave out… all with the repeated mantra of “happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.”

The songs are all nice in their own right, but not much more than that. Just… nice. For everything I like about this album, I can remember another album where they’ve done it better. The guitar jams are longer and better on Destroyer’s When I Go Deaf or C’Mon’s Everything But Heart. The lush harmonies are sweeter on Secret Name’s Two Step. The pop culture references (the Byrds and Charlton Heston) are more natural on Drums & Gun’s Hatchet. The minimalism is more majestic on Long Division’s Below & Above. The regret is sadder on Pilot’s Hey Chicago.

Thankfully, there’s one perfect song: Amethyst. This song takes their new acoustic approach and drags it through a descending five-chord progression that swirls and swirls into magical oblivion. Together, Alan and Mimi lament, their voices on the verge of disintegration, “the color bleeds, fades to white, what used to be a violent mind.” A perfect Low moment. If only there were more of them this time round…

3.5/5… maybe 4 if I’m feeling generous…