by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Column 287: Five Above Earl
Reviews of Arcade Fire, new Saddle Creek releases…
I write this crammed into a window seat flying straight into the heart of a hurricane named Earl, but I’m not worried. NYC will protect me. It always has. So if there’s a sense of impending dread throughout these five reviews — a look at the hottest indie release of the year, along with four new, strong albums from our friends at Saddle Creek Records — I blame the weather and anticipation of my long-deserved vacation (or demise). See you on the other side of the storm.
Tim Kasher, The Game of Monogamy (Saddle Creek). Like most of Kasher’s confessional catalog, it’s an examination of his ongoing struggles with guilt. Guilt about his inability to commit, guilt for taking the easy way out, guilt over his unwillingness to accept contentment (“I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die Here”) and guilt over his unwillingness to change in the face of that dreaded contentment (“Cold Love”). Lucky for him, with that guilt comes numbness as a symptom of middle age. There’s a certain sense of inevitable desperation that underlies this entire album, but don’t feel sorry for poor Kasher. He knows (as we all do) that whatever misery he suffers, he brought on himself. Musically, it veers closer to The Good Life than Cursive. Fine. The differentiator is the baroque strings, the upbeat brass that reminds me of Madness, and the cool electronic claps on “Gonna Die Here,” which would be a radio hit in any other universe. His tendency to occasionally throw too many words into a phrase makes for some clumsy moments, but those are few and far between. In the overall Kasher oeuvre, this is a minor, simple, but ultimately satisfying guilt trip.
Azure Ray, Drawing Down the Moon (Saddle Creek) — The question: Is the sum better than its parts? When Azure Ray split up all those years ago, we thought we’d get twice as much goodness as when they were together. Instead, we were treated to some hit-and-miss releases that allowed the girls to experiment with some things they wouldn’t have tried together. Now they’re back, and they’ve brought the best of their separate experiences along with some interesting electronics. Both dabbled with beats (none moreso than Fink’s O+S), and those clicks and pops have given us one of the more upbeat AR albums in their catalog. Even more noticeable is Eric Bachmann’s production and arrangements, especially on those rollicking guitar-picking numbers (“Shouldn’t Have Loved,” “Make Your Heart.”). But in the end, it still comes down to the same soothing, whispering harmonies that defined them from the beginning. The underlying theme: Just getting by, with or without someone else’s heart alongside theirs (Though they’d surely prefer the former. And who, other than Kasher, wouldn’t?). And if you know their personal back stories, it’s fun to try to connect the dots, whether they’re singing about familiar old (and current) boyfriends or not.
Adam Haworth Stephens, We Live on Cliffs (Saddle Creek) — AHS is half of Two Gallants, the singing/guitar playing half. We love 2G songs for their reckless drunken sea-shanty style mixed with wry story telling – sort of like an American version of Pogues meets Gordon Lightfoot. Well, the sea balladeering is long gone on this album. Instead, AHS has opted for a more streamlined, straightforward, AOR approach both in the songwriting and arrangements. In fact, the second track, “Second Mind,” creeps dangerously close to Jack Johnson territory. My take: This solo effort was an opportunity for Stephens to turn things down, smooth them out and try for a more peaceful, easy, mainstream feeling. When he does turn it up, like on driver “Elderwoods,” he can’t help but hold the leash a bit too tightly. The result is a pleasant record that will makes 2G fans yearn for a return to that drunken, piss-soaked pub by the sea.
Land of Talk, Cloak and Cipher (Saddle Creek) — Saddle Creek has its first dream-pop act with these wily Montreal-eans led by dreamy front woman Elizabeth Powell. Their first Creek release, 2007’s Some Are Lakes, was a sneaky comer that required repeated listens before locking in. Not so this follow-up, which leaps out of the gate with its dense, bouncy title track where Powell croons in her husky, sexy voice the indecipherable code: “I won’t redeem another / Lose that.” What’s it mean? Who knows? Just like on the pulsing “Quarry Hymns,” where she coos “Leaving on the hottest day / To sink this quarry under,” you never know what she’s singing about, and you won’t care because you’ll be lost in the layers of the trio’s beautiful pop. There will be the inevitable comparisons to the usual suspects: The Sundays, The Cranberries, Fleetwood Mac, but Land of Talk brings its own mystery to your headphones, its own intensity that none of the others can match.
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge) — Mewing frontman Win Butler may be too smart for his own good — a sad, tortured realist, he’s stuck in a rut, dwelling on the past, on the future and on our current state of affairs. And yet, his music on this, his third album, is as inventive as anything on 2004’s Funeral, certainly moreso than the disappointing Neon Bible. The album is so radio-friendly (in an ’80s sort of way) that it almost slips out of an indie classification into the mainstream. But it’s the songs’ consistently bleak lyrics that will keep any of them from becoming household anthems. The themes: Boredom, lost opportunities, futility, modernism, isolationism, instant nostalgia, and some unforeseen looming apocalypse. All that desolation wrapped in such a pretty package. So yeah, it’s an endearing bummer that’s appropriate for these bummer times we live in, a perfect snapshot of an uncertain world, and dead accurate, but that doesn’t make it any more fun to listen to. My advice: Hang on for the ride and pay attention to the lyrics at your own peril — you may never want to get out of bed in the morning.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.