New Pornographers, Challengers
Curious critical trajectory, that of Challengers. When “My Rights Versus Yours” and “Myriad Harbor” started circulating in June, I heard only rabid praise. Those that bought the album via Matador’s Buy Early Get Now program seemed similarly enthusiastic. Then when the album hit bricks-and-mortar stores in August and the reviews started hitting officially, the response seemed to get a lot more tepid. Suddenly I was reading that it was their worst album, that it lacked all the energy that made everyone love the New Pornographers in the first place.
I read all this without hearing the album, which I didn’t actually pick up until two weeks ago. I’ll admit that on first listen I was slightly disappointed—it doesn’t sound like Mass Romantic or Electric Version—but on repeated listens I’ve come to find Challengers to be the most rewarding NP album thus far. That’s not to say it’s the best album—the immediate gratification of the first two albums is hard to deny—but it is a composed album, with peaks and valleys, left turns and home stretches. The band obviously took tentative steps into new territory on Twin Cinema, and Challengers sees them occupying that space with greater confidence.
Appreciating this album is an exercise in analyzing your own expectations. Shortly after buying the album, I read Rob Mitchum’s Pitchfork review, which I think sums up the tone of disappointment I’ve heard in other quarters. It’s been nagging at me each time I listen to Challengers, mostly because it claims that Neko Case is “wasted” on ballads and seems to think the only truly successful songs are the rocket-propelled “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” and “Mutiny, I Promise You,” both of which are terrific and, not coincidentally, the only two tracks that could be placed seamlessly within any previous NP album.
It’s a legitimate fanboy urge to wish the band would just keep making Mass Romantic over and over again, but in the long term that’s a losing proposition. Personally, I need only need look at my longtime favorite of favorites, the Pernice Brothers, who have churned out album after album with diminishing returns because they refuse to take new risks. With album #4, the New Pornographers were on the verge of taking the same path. Instead they turned in a record more varied than anything they’ve ever done, and contrary to Mitchum’s critique, I’d argue further that Challengers might feature some of Case’s best work with the group, and further that "Challengers" is possibly the best song on the entire album. It strikes me as the most lyrically mature thing the band has ever done, and the trajectory of the song itself, which Mitchum feels suffers because it has “no peaks,” fits perfectly the melancholy lyrics and Case’s spot-on delivery.
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Speaking of, Spoon is a band that faces the similar, ahem, challenge as the New Pornographers and the Pernice Brothers. And for better or worse Spoon made another Spoon album. For worse: it kept me from rushing out to buy it because I knew what to expect. For better: it’s a great Spoon album. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is one of my favorite albums of the year, though that doesn’t change the fact that Spoon albums have become different from each other only by degrees. The band is in danger of painting themselves into a corner—sounding like no one else but sounding like themselves too often. Songs like the excellent "The Ghost of You Lingers" hint that there might be a truly challenging album inside Britt Daniels; I hope he commits it to tape some time soon.
[Related, I liked a lot of what Green Pea-ness had to say about the album. In fact I like a lot of what’s being written at that blog, though it seems to have gone into hibernation as soon as I discovered it. Here’s hoping new posts come along soon.]
The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo
I first got into the Byrds a few years ago, and have been casually picking up the rest of their albums as they appeared in the used bin at Amoeba. After a long period of finding only miscellaneous collections of repackaged singles, I hit upon The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo within just a couple weeks. Now that casual interest has become a full-blown obsession.
The Byrds' evolution from folkies to country-rock fusionists on Sweetheart is no secret. Much has been said about the lasting influence of that album. But in the context of the Byrds’ own evolution in sound, apart from their effect on future generations of alt-country bands, I find The Notorious Byrd Brothers to be a much more interesting album. Unlike their previous albums, there is no standout track, no obvious single that anchors the rest of the record. Rather, the whole album moves from track to track very fluidly, in a way that sets an overall mood more so than previous efforts. So the peaks are not as high, but the album works much better as a piece in itself. It’s not just a collection of songs.
Previously I gave you “Draft Morning,” probably my favorite song on the album. Today, give "Change is Now" a try. It's a song that is usually considered to be foreshadowing of where the band was headed with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. In fact I think the country elements on Notorious are a more interesting type of country fusion, in that it fused country elements with the Byrds sound more subtly than on Sweetheart. Sweetheart is a great album, but it is such a break from the previous records that it’s hard to love it coming from the perspective of being a Byrds fan—as opposed to coming to the album as a fan of Gram Parsons, or looking for the roots of alt-country, or in any other way into the the album that doesn’t put the pre-Sweetheart Byrds first. Parsons's voice and songwriting are so distinct from Roger McGuinn’s or Chris Hillman’s that many of the songs feel wedged in. He just doesn't feel like a Byrd; when he sings lead, no one is singing harmony. And what is a Byrds song without harmonies? Perhaps unsurprisingly then, my favorite songs turned out to be the Dylan covers: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and "Nothing was Delivered."
Elvis Costello, Imperial Bedroom
I’ve long been under the impression that I should love Elvis Costello. I have My Aim is True, which I like, and I have a greatest hits package, which I like. Like, not love. In both cases I’ve found Costello to be fantastic song by song, but too many in a row just tires me out. I assumed I just had the “wrong” album to really make it click for me. So a friend of mine gave me This Year’s Model and Imperial Bedroom to try out. Like a magnet, I was pulled to This Year’s Model; something about Costello’s oeuvre has bred me to believe that the earlier the album the better, that you just can’t go wrong with the 70s stuff. But the same thing happened. Track by track: like it; like it; like it; like it. Album? Exhausted by the middle somewhere. I set it aside and was about to accept Costello for what he obviously was: someone I liked on shuffle, on mixes.
But there was Imperial Bedroom, with its awful early-80s album cover, timidly asking to be given its own fair shake. I put it on my iPod and listened to it straight through on a long walk. Suddenly, the key turned in the lock.
Maybe “suddenly” isn’t the right word: my first listen was tentative enjoyment. There are some screamingly 80s moments on this album—check that fretless bass on “Shabby Doll,” for instance—but at any rate this was a different Elvis, one that encouraged me to keep coming back to it. Many long walks later, Imperial Bedroom has become one of my favorite discoveries of the year. Like Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apochrypha, the album was a grower. On first listen I immediately loved the first two songs; on the next listen I loved the third song; and so on. I don’t love the entire album—I had to deselect “Long Honeymoon,” “Almost Blue,” and “Town Crier” in order for the album to have the kind of momentum that suits me. Those few tracks aside, I’ve been singing “Tears Before Bedtime” (which I gave you before) “Pidgin English,” and "The Loved Ones" regularly for two months now.
The best part about Imperial Bedroom is that it’s allowed me to return to This Year’s Model and My Aim is True and find a way to appreciate them in a way I wasn’t able to before. I’ve found my point of entry: I needed to find the Elvis that was a confident songwriter, able to uncurl his lip and knock the attitude down a notch or two. The songs on Imperial Bedroom are really allowed to speak for themselves. That’s not to say the earlier songs aren’t confidently done; but there is a certain sheen to that early stuff—was it merely his youth?— that kept me at arms length.
David Bowie, Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
Though Ziggy Stardust didn’t have quite as profound an effect on me as Imperial Bedroom, it did provide a nearly identical epiphany for Bowie as I had for Costello. Previously I had Hunky Dory and a greatest hits album. Same as Elvis: I liked all of it but didn’t feel any sense of urgency in picking up more Bowie albums. The same friend that proffered the Costello records threw in Ziggy Stardust as a bonus—an album I’ve always meant to get and just never got around to. That’s the problem with so many “blind spot” albums—they feel so familiar, it’s difficult to put the money on the counter when you’re at the record store looking for something new. But like I said last week, something about hearing a classic album in the order as it was intended opens new doors. I saw Bowie in a new light, not least because Ziggy opens with the fucking epic "Five Years"—a song so dramatic you’d think it more fitting as a closer. Instead it sets the tone for an album that, while never getting as dramatic as that opening song, is still full of daring material. (Incidentally, in the context of the other albums I’m listening to concurrently with this one, this whole album just makes Roger McGuinn’s “Space Odyssey,” the closing track on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, look like pathetic amateur tripe. Truly one of the worst Byrds songs recorded.)
The Beatles, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour
You might have gathered from my post last week that, among other things, I’ve recently picked up a couple Beatles albums. Yes indeed. Both Help! and Magical Mystery Tour illustrate one point I was trying to make in that post—the idea of understanding a band not only through an album but through a discography. Help!, for one, captures the band in transition from their Chuck Berry-inspired early albums to all those that came later, when the influences of their contemporaries started filtering in. The title track, "I Need You," and "Another Girl" are all straightforward pop, but both Lennon and McCartney also contributed songs that went for emotional notes never before hit on a Beatles album, Lennon with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and McCartney, of course, with “Yesterday.” They give Help! a depth that simply didn’t exist on prior albums.
Meanwhile Magical Mystery Tour is a curious album for showing how much better the band was getting, yet also showing how tiresome their absurdity was becoming. Magical Mystery Tour is, to these ears, better than Sgt. Peppers, yet it suffers for coming second. Lennon in particular turns in some terrific work. "Blue Jay Way" was the surprise on the record for me—a rare Beatles song I’d never heard before, and one that is equal parts earworm and experiment.
Those are my best purchases of the last few months; what were yours? Let me know what's been keeping you occupied this summer.
Tomorrow, the rest of July–September; Wednesday, the worst of the bunch and the best of the year so far; Thursday, a look at what's coming out before the year is over.