New albums from Father John Misty and Car Seat Headrest.

 

Pure Comedy, Father John Misty.

Pure Comedy, Father John Misty.

Pure Comedy is the latest album from Father John Misty and it’s as profoundly disappointing as his previous release was impressive. And it’s not hard to see what’s happened.

The penultimate track on that last album, I Love You, Honeybear, reviewed here, is the melodious “Holy Shit”. There, he briefly name-checks many of the Big Issues baring down upon us in these our oh so uncertain times, before breezily dismissing them to ask disingenuously what any of them have to do with all the really important stuff that he has to deal with.

It’s impossible to decide whether he’s being entirely serious, deadpan or a bit of both. Which is what gives the song its charm. And it’s all too easy to imagine what’s happened in the interim.

On the one hand, the commercial success and critical acclaim that that previous album enjoyed mean that the last couple of years must have been a relatively happy time to be Mr. Josh Tillman. And, as fans of Dylan, Shakespeare and pretty much any artist who has ever lived will know, nothing is as creatively stultifying as personal happiness, however briefly endured.

The said culprit.

The said culprit.

And on the other, he’s clearly begun to believe some of the hype surrounding his prowess as an apparently thought-provoking lyricist.

So that the new album sees him musing almost exclusively on those big, heavy themes which were briefly touched upon in “Holy Shit”. Only now, far from wryly acknowledging his own ignorance on any of them, he seems to imagine that he’s suddenly become something of a sage, and any sense of irony has been summarily dismissed. What’s worse, his mellifluous voice, impeccable diction and regal sense of melody mean that it’s quite impossible to escape all of those dreadful lyrics.

Imagine Martin from the Simpsons being set as his homework the task of producing a set of lyrics designed to impress the grown ups. This is what his first draft would have looked like. Not that he’d have ever actually shown them to anyone, obviously.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial.

I studiously avoided the latest Car Seat Headrest album, Teens of Denial. The boys from All Songs Considered, reviewed here, have been so effusive about it these last few months that I’d been thoroughly put off and was quietly hoping to be able to casually dismiss it. There’s a thin line that separates infectious enthusiasm from irritating insistence. So I’m delighted to be able to report that they were right and I was wrong. It really is that good.

There’s a palpable air of early Beck wafting from the tracks collected here. He inhabits a very similar persona to the one that Beck adopted way back when, as a guileless slacker drifting directionless like Pound’s hedonist bereft of purpose, to the tune of a post-punk, new-grunge musical backdrop.

The main man ,Beck.

The main man, Beck.

But as with Beck, the sonic landscape is infinitely more complex than it first appears, and you quickly find yourself disappearing from the song’s casual surfaces into the murky depths below. All of which results in a serious album, from one of the most exciting new artists to emerge for many a moon.

You can see the video for “Vincent”, track 2 from Teens of Denial here

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Sharon Van Etten’s new album “Are We There” Soars.

Sharon Van Etten's Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten has been wowing the good folks at NPR’s All Songs Considered (reviewed earlier here) and the boys from Pitchfork for some time now. Her last album Tramp (2012) was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner and includes a guest appearance from Beirut’s Zach Condon. And in his profile of her in this month’s New Yorker (‘Relaxed Fit”), Sasha Frere-Jones describes her latest album as “astonishing”.  In other words, we’re talking indie royalty here.

Her fourth studio album, Are We There, is a serious piece of work. But on first listen, it seems to be a tad conservative, conventional even. There’s nothing here that we haven’t heard before. Songs of heartache set to pleasing melodies layered with lush harmonies.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

What’s “astonishing” is how the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. These are songs that really ache, and those melodies and harmonies build and grow with every listen. Before you know it, they’re securely lodged in the comfort of your subconscious.

This is the album Van Etten has been building up to. Sonically, she’s come a long way from the hushed confessionals of those early recordings. This is a much fuller sound, but it’s achieved without sacrificing any of the intimacy. On the contrary, the bigger sound amplifies the emotional heft. What’s she’s produced in other words is the ultimate Fleetwood Mac album.

You can see the video for Every Time The Sun Comes Up here.

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Metz’ Debut Album is a Power Punk Hymn to the Art of Noise.

New York’s CMJ Music Marathon is fast becoming this decade’s SXSW. It is in other words where the future sounds of those who have yet to happen are first spotted and duly noted.

Situated around the Lower East side of Manhattan, it inevitably drifts over the bridge and into Brooklyn where so many of today’s most exciting bands seem to be born and bred. And the one that made the biggest noise at this year’s CMJ was Metz, an arresting trio from Toronto.

As the review from the boys from Pitchfork noted, where they got an impressed 8.5 here, the band first surfaced way back in 2007. But it’s only now that they’ve gotten around to releasing their debut album.

And, as their review notes, the time they’ve spent honing their craft and pairing down their sound between then and now is a lesson that all aspiring musos should take heed of. 

Metz deliver raw, undiluted noise. Too disciplined to be called metal, but far too loud to fall into pop, they’ve the ambition and drive of early Nirvana but without any of the latter’s need to please. The result is an explosion of pure adrenalin. 

You can see the suitably angst-ridden video for their hymn to urban alienation “Wet Blanket” here.

And you can hear the All Songs Considered podcast (which you should be listening to every week, and was reviewed by me here) on this year’s CMJ here.

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“Blunderbuss” by Jack White, verily a Prince Amongst Men.

Jack WhiteJack White is Bob Dylan’s much younger and much more industrious baby brother. Incredibly, he very nearly has the great man’s depth of vision and musical scope, but unburdened by the weight of messianic adulation, nice and quietly he’s living the musical dream.

Globally speaking, the White Stripes were little more than A N Other guitar band making a reasonably good living doing their thing. Within the world of music though, they were a phenomenon. A blindingly bright lightening bolt that lit up the night skies in a flash of uncompromising, searing brilliance.

White took that success and ran with it. He formed a couple of satellite bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, launched his record label Third Man Records, and in 2009 bought a building in Nashville which he transformed into a recording hub.

There he’s produced LPs and singles (on vinyl of course) for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, First Aid Kit (reviewed here), Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones and Alabama Shakes (reviewed here) as well as dueting with Norah Jones for three of the tracks on Danger Mouse’s Rome (reviewed here).

But last year The White Stripes officially called it a day. And then a few months later, White and his wife Karen Olson split up, marking the occasion, characteristically, with a divorce party. So this is his first outing as a single man. And there were really only ever two possible outcomes.

Either the Stripes depended for their magic on some intangible alchemical combination of both Meg and Jack. Or, the most potent force in rock will always be Jack White with whoever it is that he’s happens to have paired himself up with that particular morning. Blunderbuss puts that dilemma to bed once and for all.

It’s intriguing, not to say generous, of White to insist that it was Meg who wore the trousers in the band, as he does in Josh Eells’ superb interview in the NY Times here – sited in Pitchfork’s generous review here, not withstanding their skimpy 7.8.

But it’s blindingly obvious that it was he who was the band’s engine, its fuel, transmission and upholsterer. And Blunderbuss is an impressive amalgamation of all of the musical avenues he’s been exploring in all of the many musical projects he’s been involved with to date.

According to the interview he gave to All Songs Considered here, he kept two separate backing bands on hold, an all-male one and an all-female one. And one of the many pleasures that the album affords is trying to spot which one is which.

I’d have a small wager that the funky groves of I’m Shakin’ bespeak a female troupe, and not just because of the lush, Spector-esque female backing vocals, including, again characteristically (of them both) his now ex-wife Olsen.

Whilst it’s impossible not to conclude that the primal propulsion of the majestic single Sixteen Saltines is the work of undiluted machismo – and quite correctly, White positioned this as his track 2. The album would have been quite overwhelmed by it had he begun with it.

This is a proper piece of work from a very serious musician indeed. Quite simply, the man’s royalty.

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NPR’s Pitch-perfect “All Songs Considered” Podcast, Your Weekly Music Fix.

At the end of last year, the terribly clever bean counters at The New York Times decided that what the organization needed was to make it more like a traditional newspaper, and less like something more attuned to the 21st century. So they axed nearly all of their superb podcasts, leaving just a skeletal three. And one of those included in the cull was, alas, the excellent Popcast.

So in January of this year I went in search of a replacement podcast for all things musical, and was quickly pointed in the general direction of NPR’s “All Songs Considered“. And despite only tuning in to it for the last few weeks, I can confidently declare it mandatory listening.

National Public Radio is an enlightened attempt in the US to replicate the (at least original) ethos behind the BBC. It’s a non-profit organization and the programmes that are produced there are made by people because they’re the kinds of programmes that they would like to hear aired, and they rightly assume that there must be others who are similarly curious. They are in other words programmes that are made regardless of ratings.

All Songs Considered is the musical version of one of their most successful shows, All Things Considered, and it first aired on the web a little over ten years ago. It’s chaired by Bob Boilen, who created it, and Robin Hilton, and between them they manage to strike exactly the right balance of careful casualness and quiet planning. You get the impression that you’re eaves-dropping on a private conversation, but one that you’re meant to be over-hearing. And the areas that they cover every week with each of their guest reviewers really are all-encompassing.

A recent edition for instance looked at the collaboration between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the veteran avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Hearing how in awe the former is of the latter, and how unashamedly he echoes him on his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood was a revelation.

In another which focused on electronica, they gave us a taste of the latest project from Joe Goddard, one half of Hot Chip whose The 2 Bears, and yes, they really do dress up and DJ in bear suits, is about to release its debut album.

And it was here too, in an earlier edition again, that I was introduced to the ethereal delights of the bewitching Julianna Barwick, whose album I reviewed here earlier.

Next week they’re previewing this year’s South By Southwest, and the following week they’ll be covering the event proper. SXSW is to music what Sundance is to film. It has in other words become so much a part of the mainstream that referring to it now as being in any way indie is frankly laughable. Nevertheless, it still manages to somehow unearth an undiscovered gem every year.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells (whose follow up album Reign Of Terror has just been released). And on this, its 20th anniversary, it’s unlikely to prove any less illuminating. Either way, the best place to keep tabs on it is All Songs Considered’s pitch-perfect podcast, which you can find here.

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