I have four records to tell you about1. They’ve been out long enough for you to shape your own opinions, but I’m here to give you mine. They range from the instantly great to the three listen minimum and a little something in between. This isn’t a March Madness themed review2. These are not the “final four” records by any means. They’re just the four about which I have to tell you.
Titus Andronicus recorded a concept album that’s either about a guy who leaves New Jersey for Boston as told through a metaphor of a Civil War battle or vice versa. It’s really good and rocks your socks off, but throughout I wondered how we got here.
Like TA, a guy named Springsteen rose from the polluted land and water of New Jersey to give his side of the story. This guy – I’ll call him “Bruce” – wrote a record called Nebraska about some kids on a killing spree. It’s really a good record. That and it’s a concept record of the highest order. Bruce tells a story or string of stories that are expertly-pieced together in a way that 99¢ spent at iTunes could never do for you.
From that same state of Nebraska is a Omahan named Conor Oberst3 who has been called the “next, next Dylan” by some. Bruce, of course, was the “next Dylan,” one “next.” Conor has recorded under several monikers and with a couple of bands. One of those bands was Desaparecidos4. In that band, Conor screamed over feedback-excessive guitars about all the injustices of suburban sprawl surrounding his beloved-Omaha. Where Bruce succeeded in telling a narrative about Nebraska from his Jersey perspective, Conor told a global story from his Nebraskan vantage point. Both recordings5 are prime examples of concept albums done right and done with real emotion.
So, when you have a band that sounds like Desaparecidos playing Bruce Springsteen songs, you figure it should work no matter the concept. And it does, sound-wise. The bombastic blue-collar anthems of Springsteen work when screamed over a punk rawk onslaught hard to deny. There are horns, guest speakers6, bagpipes, and a kitchen sink7 for good measure. The Monitor delivers a punch to the gut like few albums have for me over the last several years.
However, as a concept album, the record is a stretch. How a guy moving to Boston from Jersey relates to the most famous naval battle of the Civil War8 is beyond my comprehension. Of course, the band believes in the concept and makes it convincing enough for the listener to play along9. One cannot ignore such conviction, especially when it sounds this good.
To make it simple, go buy this record now. You can buy the other three records mentioned below, but buy this one first.
Quasi used to be be quirky and sad. Somehow, the bitterness in Sam Coomes10 has grown into an anger, nearly to the point of capitulation11. Of course, he hasn’t totally let go of his failures and the resulting anger, but the loss of the roxichord12 alone makes one question God’s existence all together. The anger suits Quasi. So, does a bass player.
I like Quasi’s new direction more with each recording. They’ve eased into a more traditional rock sound, leaving behind the whim and whimsy disguised as despair in their mid-nineties work. As they rock more, the strength of Janet Weiss‘ drumming comes to the forefront. Not since her final Sleater-Kinney album13 have I heard a kit endure more punishment. It’s good to hear, as is Coomes’ underrated songwriting. The roxichorded Quasi allowed Coomes the room to play with cliche and rhyme, crafting fine pop songs, but his adoption of a guitar turned to 11 has expanded their sound beyond the novelty of an organ and birds tweeting14. Even new bass player Joanna Bolme brings some wieght to the songs, making me think for a second that “Little White Horse” is a Mike Watt song15.
This album might just be a case of a must-have for a long-term fan, but I doubt it. Quasi rocks a ton and writes some good hooks. It’s not exactly what the kids are listening to these days with its nod to the Beatles and familiar culprits in the Blues and Punk eras. However, it contains just enough punch to surprise you. Totally worth a listen and absolutely worth a peek when they travel to your town.
The Morning Bender‘s sophomore effort, Big Echo, lost me from the beginning. Their influences are all over the place. It’s hard to pinpoint what they’re doing and whether it’s them or Chris Taylor’s (Grizzly Bear) production work16. So, I did what any self-respecting music fan would do: I listened to it again.
Sometimes the best albums are not fully understood right away. I didn’t get The Soft Bulletin or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the first time around. Those albums are growers. They take time and effort to get, but when you figure it out, it’s worth it. The Soft Bulletin was such a departure from the Lips’ hardcore and grunge-esque days that I felt I had been duped. Then, I saw them support the album live. In the early incarnations of what is now an extravaganza of sorts, the visuals paired with Soft Bulletin material made it rather clear. Coyne’s dramatic, bloody performance and calculated explanations didn’t hurt either17. The Wilco record was just not as alt.country18 as I expected. They built an album out of conceptual tracks and dysfunction, not middle-class cow punk. It took a few listens to get past the limitations of their genre, but I did and was glad. Neither album was easy to hear the first time around. However, the pay-off for giving them additional listens was worth the time.
Now, I don’t think Big Echo is so good that the fourth or tenth listen will blow my mind, but I think it has room to grow. For certain are the lush arrangements and detailed textures within. As mentioned before, the influences are many, but they include Beach Boys, Shins, Lips, etc. So, it generally works. The album has components and complexity that makes the listener want to return in order to give it a fair chance. You should too.
No one gets more out of a few songs and forty-three different pseudonyms than Will Oldham19. Sure, you probably have all these songs in some form or another, but you don’t have this record of a live performance just outside of his hometown Louisville. Oldham, who always seems to have a record out, released this LP under cover of darkness, almost causing me to miss it completely. The record is a grand document of a little gig that inspires reviewers to throw around terms such as “hoot-nanny,” “ramshackle,” and “ramblin’.”20 And it’s lovely. No one croons or writes a tune to croon to like Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy. The band he assembles to pull off the task isn’t too shabby either. When I first played it, I was afraid that I was actually enjoying a Prairie Home Companion. Luckily, there was no mumbling, rambling semi-jokes by Garrison Keillor21 or faceless men frantically trying to make sound effects with kazoos and hallow coconut shells. It was just Billy and his merry band of minstrels.
It’s not ground-breaking22. It won’t make you want everything Will Oldham has ever done. But it will comfort you when snow falls in mid-March or wake you when the sun shines in November.
1We’re up to six now, but those others will wait for another post.
2For two reasons: 1) I hate themed reviews. And 2) I’m avoiding sports as long as possible on this blog.
3I realize some folks have their issues with Oberst, but they really need to review his oeuvre objectively. He’s a hell of a songwriter, lyricist. The hype surrounding him has made this impossible to fairly assess, though. I don’t know that he’s the next Dylan or Springsteen, but he’s a talented wordsmith.
4Originally, this band was supposed to be a hip hop project, but it somehow evolved into hyper-political emo band.
5I’m really not trying to equate Conor Oberst’s side-project to maybe Bruce Springsteen’s greatest achievement on record, but thematically and aesthetically these are good connections in understanding Titus Andronicus.
6That one guy who talks over Hold Steady records about beat poetry and Springsteen utopias lends inside voice to a Whitman poem.
7Not really, but it could have worked.
8Typically, the Battle of Hampton Roads earns this honor. One of the ships involved in this battles was the Monitor. And now you know.
9It’s sort of like when you repeat a lie over and over, so much that it becomes the truth. You know who did that really well? Our last white president was a master at the repeated-lie-becomes-truth-trick.
10Primarily attributed to his divorce from Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, maritally-speaking.
11Judging from Quasi’s recent output and the state of the union, I blame this on our last white president.
12Arguably the best rock instrument that is not a guitar (including bass) or guitar. Sorry, keytar and Hammond B3.
13The Woods is as good a farewell album as there has ever been. Of course, they’ll be back soon enough.
14However, there is a track featuring a howling wolf.
15I mention this only because I have been listening to Ball-Hog or Tugboat? a lot lately.
16Which, by the way, is pretty fantastic. Orchestral, layered, textured, you name it. This guy should do this more often.
17I contend that the early portion of the Lips is by far their best live work. Finally, they were ripping off the Butthole Surfers without being so obvious. The three of them crowded in front of a relatively small projector as it displayed some of the same fractured footage they show today only without all the tomfoolery of bunny costumes and giant, inflatable balls. At that time, it was all about the music and imagery, not the shenanigans.
18This is a term I’ve had a love/hate relationship with for a long time now. Sure, I love me some cow punk/post-punk country music, but I just can’t place my finger on why this is an actual genre. What really constitutes alt.country these days? Magnolia Electric Co? Will Oldham? The reincarnation of Son Volt?
19Will Oldham, Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace, Bonny Billy, Bill, etc.
20None of which I will use here.
21Garrison Keillor is fine, I guess. I just know that when I hear his baritone delivery of a corny joke, half of my Saturday is gone.
22But it’s certainly better than that load of crap Old Joy Oldham starred in as an actor hiking through the woods with his buddy. Gawd! That thing was awful. And he didn’t sing.