Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The death of selling out? Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping

Selling out may or may not exist, but "indie" music is a thing of the past. Once a label that referred to a bunch of bands mainly comprised of dorky white guys in their 20s loading barely functional Econoline vans to play small club shows across the country and recording guitar rock albums on shoestring budgets, the term has now become one of umbrella, encompassing jangly pop, grunge, metal, electronica, rap and even jazz. These days, "indie" is generally just the necessary stepping stone to mainstream acceptance, a precedence set in the late 80s and early 90s that has more or less infested today's current music scene - not an artistic lifestyle that requires doing promotion, performance, recording etc., with the most minimum of costs for maximum efficiency and creative output.

Case in point: Of Montreal, a flagship indie band (and honorary Elephant 6 member), had their show in New York this month feature a segment with leader/mastermind Kevin Barnes prowling the stage atop a fucking white horse.

Unless he's riding that horse between venues to save money on gas, I doubt that this is an example of what Mike Watt called "jamming econo."

Of Montreal caught my attention last year when Mr. Barnes wrote a long blog where he attempted to explain that "Selling Out Isn't Possible." The blog came in the face of some rather negative criticism for his/the band's providing a cheerful little jingle to Outback Steakhouse. I was fairly certain that Smashmouth effectively disproved Barnes' title argument ten years ago, but I held back contempt long enough to lay into his opening paragraph:
Are you a sell out? Yes. Don't let it bother you though, cause apparently I am also a sell out, and so are your parents and everyone you've ever known. The only way to avoid selling out is to live like a savage all alone in the wilderness. The moment you attempt to live within the confines of a social order, you become a sell out. Once you attempt to coexist you sell out. If that's true, then selling out is a good thing. It is an important thing. If we didn't do it, we'd be fucked, quite literally, by everyone bigger than us physically who found us fuckable.
At which point I closed the window and wrote off the man's career, much as I did Jack White's in 2006 when I learned, after reading a couple early interviews where he said he had no interest in selling out, that he had agreed to do a Coke commercial and attempted to soften the blow by calling it a "unique songwriting opportunity." A 60-second song for a giant paycheck sounded like a fairly commonplace opportunity to me. (Curiously, he hasn't made a good album since.)

Look, selling out - in moderation, not excess - doesn't bother me. Like Kev pointed out, almost everyone does it - my parents, your parents, your heroes, my heroes (They Might Be Giants, Mark E Smith, Stephin Merritt, Sly Stone, etc). It is a romantic thought to think that all art should be sacrosanct, untouchable by the commercial industry, and that true artists can't be bought at any price. But the truth is artists are looking for their paychecks as well; most of them just don't get them every couple weeks, which makes easy, plentiful money all the more attractive. I get angry when an artist who previously considered himself above the practice caves and tries to explain it away. I get angry when bands that have had mid-level exposure for under a year in the "indie world" are already doing promos (e.g. Hold Steady, Tapes 'N Tapes). And I get angry when artists who clearly sold out - for whatever reason, I don't care - write essays in attempts to prove that selling out doesn't exist because everybody else is doing it, and it's one of the few ways to make money as an "indie" band. So the practice exists but it doesn't? Bullshit.

Funny thing, though - I hadn't even listened to an Of Montreal record at the time. So it was with much trepidation I began investigating the band's recent career this past summer, beginning with an iTunes purchase of last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Why? I read a Tape Op article with Barnes, where he spoke of the inspiring creative process that goes into his records, many of which have been recorded by him alone, with a ridiculously simple setup onto a laptop computer. I was surprised to find many of the more recent albums (sadly, I haven't found a used copy of Sunlandic Twins, so I'm missing a link) to be adept spaz-pop explorations. I was unsurprised to find much of it not particularly remarkable - as a lot of merely enjoyable music gets labeled these days - but I hold particular affection for 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic. The two "full band" records I got from a friend (Gay Parade and Adhil's Arboretum) irritated me to the point of never listening to either of them past their fifth song. But whatever the case, it was clear I had underestimated Barnes and his enterprise.

This year, all eyes - even mine! - are on Of Montreal. Their stage shows continue to get more elaborate and ridiculous and pull bigger crowds. Their last album was a confessional hit and had the song "Gronlandic Edit," a single that encapsulated all the angst, anxiety confusion and depression one could conjure up from the words "on my own," while melting it away with the most danceable, bassy groove imaginable. They sold out but ended up with more fans anyway. And even Rolling Stone are creaming their drawers over the new album.

And what about the new album, you ask? It's more than a little tied in with that whole "sellout" debacle, as Barnes let us know last year in his treatise: "I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, 'well, I'll show them who is a sellout, I'm going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!'" That sort of naive kneejerk reaction would leave him open to all kinds of sarcasm and scorn from heavier critics, but my feeling on such ambition was simple - go make the record that way! I love music, and I want to hear what someone's version of the freakiest, most interesting, record ever is, always!

Well, Skeletal Lamping is not Trout Mask Replica, so it lost the bid for "freakiest, most interesting" etc. (You may wonder, is Beefheart's magnum opus really the high water mark for that kind of thing? The answer is unequivocally yes.) However, it is a unique album that will divide a lot of people's opinion and polarize the band's fanbase. It is the sound of someone trying desperately to not write anything approaching a hit single, or anything else that could be used to sell grilled beef. It's the product of somebody who has too many ideas too quickly. And, perhaps most importantly, it's the result of a music-lover having fun with music.

But is the damn thing any good? If you read every other fucking review on this album you'll find out it's about a black bisexual transsexual named Geordie Fruit, blah blah blah....in summation, the album allegedly centers around some preposterous sexually-charged themes that result in all kinds of plot lines and character developments throughout the album that are impossible to follow (at least for me), and therefore not really important to the music itself. But the idea is a wonderful distraction for reviewers who want to avoid the actual contents of the record - the kind of people who would have seen Bowie for Ziggy. So no answers derived from this fairly minor sideshow.

The truth is, Skeletal Lamping is both a daring, inventive album full of expert pop hooks and also a pretentious, bloated failure with not one memorable tune on the whole thing. You will read reviews that say one of these two things, but both hold.

How? Much of it has to do with the ADD construction of the individual songs. Barnes let himself run away with his imagination, building up 30-second to 2-minute chunks of songs and digitally pasting them together. Sounds like plenty of fun, but listening to it is both exhilarating and a chore. Since pop music (a game I assume Of Montreal is still engaged in) relies upon some degree of repetition for success (Phil Spector, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Steve Reich have all relied upon this simple technique), the overt multiple-personality disorder inherent in almost all of Skeletal Lamping makes good and bad hooks vaporize from memory as soon as the iPod moves onto the next track. Perhaps Barnes' rapid-fire songcraft is meant to suggest the kind of sexual promiscuity the character whats-his-name is engaged in - why get attached to a cheap fuck if you have another one waiting in the adjoining motel room?

I don't give a fuck if songs are short and move on quickly to completely different type of song, which is why I'm an enormous GBV fan. But Lamping leaves you no time to breathe - once you hit play on "Nonpareil of Favor," the album expects you to strap in for the rest of the ride, segueing from one song to the next - hell, segueing in the MIDDLE of songs - instantly. So when I finished "Id Engager" today, I sat in silence for a minute or so, and realized I couldn't recall one hook from the near hundreds I had just listened to. Like cramming too much for a test too late in the game, I couldn't remember a damn thing.

However, I did remember that among the careening choruses, verses and bridges there were sections of sublime musicmaking, moments where I felt myself and Barnes relax for a moment to enjoy pure tunage, free of pretension or disconnected plots. Perhaps when he eased up on the 10 tracks of falsetto, or felt content to put in a blessed 30 seconds of instrumental interlude. Provocative sexual lyrics that mention metaphorical dick-sucking, real pleasure-pusses and crystal meth cooking will grate on those approaching this album with a bit of trepidation, but for me they provided respite from the churn of song after idea after fragment with moments of joyful irreverence and levity. Skeletal Lamping, consequently, is at its best and most memorable when its audible that Barnes is enjoying himself and not simply on manic songwriting overdrive.

A side note should be made that the production here is officially not doing Of Montreal any favors. Every record since Barnes went digital (Satanic Panic) has run the risk of sounding a tad cookie-cutter, with vacuous drum loops and midrangy synths often dominating mixes. Considering the spontaneity of his writing and recording, I suppose this is a necessary evil, but as far as I can tell, Lamping is the fourth record that exists within this sonic range. Even though I hear the band experiment with a couple more plugins on Logic here and there and hark, is that a real drum kit I hear on the third from last track? - it's baby steps to expand the current Of Montreal sound, which is becoming increasingly cauterized with each successive album. Danger! Multiple-album monotony has threatened everyone from AC/DC to the Ramones to Pavement to the Beastie Boys, and it reflects poorly in each case.

If Barnes' main mission in Skeletal Lamping was to make an album that doesn't sound like the work of a sellout, he should be congratulated - this album has nothing approaching a jingle (and very little approaching a single), and its sexually baiting lyrics will stop the unadventurous indie-curious crowd in their tracks. Call it attractive career suicide - at the record store, anyway, since I don't see people boycotting the group's onstage extravaganzas any time soon. Past that, however, his successes are questionable. I commend Barnes for trying something truly adventurous in the wake of unexpected mainstream acceptance, as well as extending this sense of adventure to the album's packaging. But stripping all pretense away, I care about the music. In this case the music is frustrating, unnecessarily complex, occasionally rewarding and too scattered to achieve classic status. This album will be panned, triumphed and misunderstood, and it deserves all three reactions. My advice? Don't write it off, but don't make it something it's not. I think time will come to acknowledge the album as one of pop music's more curious and infuriating experiments. That's right - pop, not indie.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Escape from Amoeba: A day at Mystery Train, Amherst, MA (10/14)

On vacation, I really do enjoy hitting the local used record shops, even if they suck. Northampton, MA for instance: both Turn It Up! and Dynamite are just kind of lacking, for whatever reason, but I've visited them multiple times. What separates the good from the bad? Part of it is the music they play (there's nothing like overcompressed "emo" guitar that stunts my desire to browse), part of it is selection (indiscriminating buyers, plain old bad taste, etc), but I also suspect that it might be a case of "got it or don't got it." Which would prevent me from trying to set one up for the time being - you know, besides the fact that "nobody buys CDs anymore" and Amazon is allegedly killing small businesses one at a time.

Last time I came out to Massachusetts I visited both the aforementioned Northampton retailers and bought nothing. On my last day there, I was in an Amherst Ben & Jerry's across the street from a much more appealing hole-in-the-wall used record place, Mystery Train. Closed, naturally - fuck. I vowed on my next visit I would comb the place, as in my judging-a-book-from-its-cover glance, the location seemed more than promising.

This afternoon, it did not disappoint. Music? Check - they were playing Os Mutantes when I walked in, later switching to something sounding vaguely Middle Eastern. And the selection was there. A modest heap of used CDs are scattered throughout the store's corners, making it easy for me to go for a general look-see for anything appealing, rather than limiting a search to a few artists, as I tend to do at Amoeba. I came up with seven titles of interest, but due to my recent irresponsible spendthriftery (a post on a particularly lavish week will appear soon when I can come to terms with it), I swore to limit myself, and luckily a CD player where you could actually test out the goddam things (sadly, a rarity nowadays) was handy to help me in doing so. Hence, I decided against Too High to Die by the Meat Puppets (90s nostalgia isn't talking to me these days), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (holding out for a vinyl copy even though I love the album), O'Rourke's Tamper (not sure if I love his ambient stuff and he's repeatedly stated dissatisfaction with that particular record) and Andrew W.K.'s The Wolf (I'm a seasonal record buyer. I just don't feel like kicking ass, puking and partying this time of year).

What's more, I was looking for a really good album I hadn't heard before, or at least something that would expand my horizons a little bit. It's hard to buy all five-star albums, or to constantly select something that's been woefully underrated for years or whatever, and it seems to get harder with the larger volume of albums you buy. Or perhaps I just haven't been giving my recent purchases the attention they deserve. Or perhaps I'm just entering "the middle" as Steve Albini so irritatingly put it in his well-written but typically kind of infuriating introduction to the wonderful new Tape Op book I got in the mail. Is nothing exciting anymore and I'm getting old? Maybe it's best to relax and just listen to some fuckin' jams, man...

Neil Young - Neil Young

When I took this one to the counter, the guy checking me out said, "Have you heard this one before? This is probably my favorite."

"Really?" I said, reassured of my purchase.

"Yeah, this or Trans {the Kraftwerk-aping 1983 flop that was one of the reasons Young got sued by his own record company - Ed.}." Oops.

I think that every one of these first self-titled solo albums follow a certain pattern. How many can I think of right now...Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Stephen Malkmus, this one...The stories are usually similar, too: most talented (and often most cantankerous) songwriter leaves group, makes tentative-sounding eponymous record, goes onto the rest of their career. Writing this, I wish there was a Roky Erickson that could have been cut in 1975, but until that time machine gets going, that will have to remain a wish. Instrumentation has to include one thing slightly envelope-pushing, but not too much. Tasteful, subdued drumming. Ensemble - preferably female - backup vocals, always. And songwriting that demonstrates both versatility and crossover appeal.

Even though Neil Young has all these things, it's still just kind of a weird record. Why include two instrumentals, one of which you didn't even write, on such an album? The album even starts with one of them, and elsewhere, vocals are a bit buried under a backing that's not quite psychedelic but also not quite the country-rocking hybrid Young would concoct just a year later that would more or less dominate the rest of his career. Really, Neil Young sounds of its time and not of its time, and like one of those "first solo albums" and not at the same time. Hell, it doesn't really sound like the Buffalo Springfield (aside from maybe "The Old Laughing Lady") but it also doesn't sound like NY & Crazy Horse. And thank God Almighty, it doesn't sound like CSNY, because I fucking hate them.

This is a tricky little record and in terms of a "seasonal buy," I really scored points with my fickle nervous system. Moody, double-tracked quavering vocals wander through some of the best lyrics Young would ever write in a mix that includes direct-injected distorted guitar lines, some kind of synthesizer (dunno which) and some pretty funky bass lines (which of course you wouldn't hear on later Young albums when handled by Billy "one-note" Talbot). Young would later decry this album as "more overdubbed than played," which, unbeknownst to him, was the future of music. But it's interesting to hear him thrust into such a scenario outside of what was to become his comfort zone, the late-night-jam-session record making method. He succeeds, however reluctantly. The results sound akin to proto-MBV at times, and I'm not just saying that because the band played "I've Been Waiting For You" over the PA before I saw them at the Santa Monica Civic this month. (SKULLFUCKINGLY LOUD)

Highlights include "Waiting for You," which I've heard covered by Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies (best one) and David Bowie. "I've Loved Her So Long" is probably the best-written song on the album, augmented by a surprisingly tasteful (read: not overdone) Jack Nietzche string arrangement that pushes the "blue-eyed soul" envelope effectively. Closer "Last Trip to Tulsa" provides a not-boring 9 minute acoustic run at Neil's own version of Bob D's "111th dream" (or whatever number it is, you know the song, and I think there was another one just like it on another Dylan album, too). And "The Loner" just sounds cool. Looking forward to more listens in the coming days. Now, I'm even considering giving Trans a try.

No Age: A Compilation of SST Instrumental Music

With A Compilation, formerly mediocre LA rock band No Age display more originality and vitality than could have been expected from a band with their amount of imagination and talent. Here, fronting as such fictional bands as "Black Flag," "Lee Renaldo," "Steve Fisk" and other, even zanier monikers like "Gone," "Frith & Kaiser" and "Elliot Sharp," the band defies critics who have labeled them "boring," "unoriginal," "careerist" and "like Husker Du stripped of anything exciting or entertaining" with riveting punk rock inspired instrumentals...

Forgive the Mark Prindle-ism. I'll admit this thing caught my eye because it shares a name with the current toast-of-the-town rockers who are the reason the same groups are at the Smell every week and just released a truly po-dunk record that bafflingly got great reviews everywhere. Then the subtitle grabbed me: "SST Instrumental Music?" I love SST just as much as the No Agers, who, in typical arrogance, claimed to be starting the same type of community for this generation at the increasingly unexciting Smell. But how much instrumental music had I really heard come out of the label? Uh, the instrumentals on Double Nickels on the Dime, maybe one or two that I could stand off Family Man, the handful of one-minute excursions on Meat Puppets II...you get the idea. I glanced at the back and saw a wide range of artists, including some pretty funny-sounding unknowns like "Blind Idiot God" and "Paper Bag." I rememered how, as a 6-year old music obsessive, instrumentals were often my favorites on any given album (e.g. Magical Mystery Tour's "Flying"). My inner Michael Harkin said "Go for it, B." It made the cut.

Some of the compilation is dominated by dated drum machines that have gated reverb and big-sounding toms, and other songs feature drumkits that might as well be those drum machines, but shit, we're talking about the mid-80s here - so we can forgive era-related gaffes in favor of good music. Surprisingly, Lawndale (never heard of them before) sound more Greg Ginn than the Greg Ginn bands on here. But both the Black Flag and Gone tracks are standouts, as well, mainly because Ginn was a hell of a guitar player, and a fucking weird one too. (He might still be, for all I know, but I don't even download the free stuff from current-day SST.) Great tracks include Lee Renaldo's all too short noise segue "Florida Power" and Beat Happening/Mudhoney producer Steve Fisk's room-sound experiment "Johnny Smoke 'Swamp Thing,'" probably notable for being the only two tracks on the record that don't use digital reverb. Lawndale's kind of disturbing "March of the Melted Army" also scored big, and the rest will require further listening - which an album of this scope really deserves. It's amazing to consider what a cross-section of truly talented people SST once had, and this bizarre gem is a testament to it, and a good find.

I don't know if No Age named themselves after this record and I don't give a shit.

Songs you should be listening to instead of that shit you're actually listening to:
"Never Gonna Leave You" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"No No No, I Won't Come (Go) Down No More," "Pool Hall Clickety Clack" - Michael Hurley
"Kangaroo," "Jesus Christ" - Big Star
"Toppin" - Sex-S
"The Rain" - Missy Elliott

Bonus Massachusetts Celebrity Sighting:
J MASCIS at a Thai restaurant in Northampton!!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Solo Albums Week (mainly ex-Big Starz)

I Am The Cosmos - Chris Bell

Nathaniel, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Whaaat, he says Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert is better than this album! The fuck! Sherbert sounds like it was recorded in less time it take to listen to it, and Bell spent years perfecting Cosmos - he wasn't even done when he wrapped his car around a telephone poll...

Bartholomew, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Have you ever heard the expression, "you can't polish a turd?"

Nathaniel - Excuse me? This was his life's work! Bell's last years were a tragedy - he poured everything he had into his music, only to find disappointment and failure at every turn. Those beautiful, magestic pop opuses are the only testament to what could have been after #1 Record.

Bartholomew - Well, not only is #1 Record my least favorite Big Star album, I find Bell's confessional songwriting maudlin at times and Beatles-aping at best. While I retract my "lipstick on a pig"-style insult, I maintain that this record simply isn't as good as Chilton's 1979 mess. It's not as fun. Chilton remains a man who follows his own star regardless of critical backlash, but he's happy and among the living. Bell is dead and made one critically acclaimed (still not commercially successful, just like Big Star, cheese!) album - released after he died. You tell me which one you'd rather.

Nate - If I wanted my favorite musical acts happy, I'd be spinning Weezer's Make Believe and Weezer (3rd edition) all fucking day.

I can't review this album, because I can't listen to it. Even after I listened to Pink Floyd for three years and even went so far as to attempt to like The Final Cut; even after Joy Division dominated my every waking breath for a year in high school; even after Forever Changes by Love became one of my top 10 of all time; even though I currently love driving around to Tonight's The Night; I know I can say this with full confidence:

It's too depressing.

Perhaps if I wasn't so into rock history, this wouldn't be the case, and this album would just seem like a maudlin mediocre Beatles-esque exercise in wrist-slashing. But because I know that Bell was a struggling young singer/songwriter who lived with his parents most of his life and never found any of the success he had so sought after, his songs are lent a deeper meaning that for me, a 20-something musician currently living with his parents, makes this album impossible to listen to. In case you don't know the story, his brother penned most of the saga, involving drug problems, a drain on family funds and various attempts at rehabilitation through recording in exotic European locales, just so you can get the whole picture.

But even at that, I mean, come on! The tempos are at a crawl, too many of the songs have that G-chord drone thing that Big Star always does ad nauseum, everything's compressed from here to Abbey Road and then I have to endure lyrics like "I know you're mine/He treats you nice/It's suicide/I know, I tried it twice" before Bell starts manically proselytizing. Where's the fucking gun, you know? First time I cut it off at that track - "Better Save Yourself," on which the music almost props up the clinical depression of the lyrics. Today I got to track 4, whatever it's called. Bell co-wrote some of my favorite Big Star songs - "O My Soul" and "Back of a Car" spring to mind (although, mysteriously he remains uncredited) - but as for this album, if there is a great song in there, it's buried under broken dreams. I definitely don't listen to "happy music" all the time, but I Am The Cosmos has got me saying "Choose life!"

Like Flies on Sherbert - Alex Chilton

All-Music gave this a rare one-star review. Wanna see?

"On the strength of his Big Star releases from the early 1970s and a host of live performances he gave during the latter half of the 1970s, Alex Chilton had rightly become a rock connoisseur's darling and an inspiration to independent-label bands throughout the United States. Despite all this favorable attention, he would not return to the studio until 1980. Sadly, this release is a dreadful disappointment. Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound. Chilton's false-start vocal on "Boogie Shoes" is simply left in without correction. Many of the songs here stop dead or fall apart rather than ending properly. Instrumental playing is universally slipshod and boorish, and vocals are sloppy and lackluster. A cover of the Lonnie Mack hit "I've Had It" contains vocals that, without exaggeration, sound like a group of tavern inebriates trying to sing. An attempt to burlesque Elvis Presley's vocal excesses in "Girl After Girl" misfires badly. A few of Chilton's songs here, such as "My Rival" and "Hook or Crook," aren't bad in their own right and would have been listenable had they been performed and produced better. Regrettably, this album cannot be recommended under any circumstances."

Don't you love it when All-Music has a strong negative opinion on something? Sadly, it's often misplaced. Case in point: the original one-star rating they gave to Los Lobos' Colossal Head, which was actually one of the band's best and most inventive records, where they said that it was impossible to tell if the songs were any good - again, due to the production. Or their panning (two stars) of Beck's Midnite Vultures, claiming that everything after "Hollywood Freaks" sounded like a parody, because the aforementioned track sounded too much like a parody of gangsta rap. The question begs, why not just skip the fucking song and see how the rest of the album sounds without it? Both ratings have since been inflated to three stars. Yes, I do read All-Music that often.

Like Flies On Sherbert is indeed a mess, but it's a fun, drunken mess that suggests a white There's a Riot Goin' On vibe, and precludes the fun, drunken mess GBV would make ten years later (Before it seems like I made too grand a statement, I'm pretty sure this album is not as good as Riot.). A full spin from the cold perfectionism of Big Star's records, here, rhythm guitars are mixed too high, vocals are forgotten, abrasive or just plain weird and synthesizers inflict pain. Also, the drummer is fucking gone....Hey, and the songs are pretty great - check the psycho-killer stomp of "My Rival," the completely pedophile evil of "Hey! Little Child" or the Dixie-flavored Eno-imitation of "I've Had It." This album is sonically, musically and lyrically fucked - on purpose. The brazen "fuck you" that the record gives off is, I'm guessing, a big reason why it still sounds pretty fresh to these ears. Remember, Chilton did produce the Cramps. This sounds nothing like the Cramps, but rather an old dog doing new tricks. Much like Fleetwood Mac's best song ever, "The Ledge," I would guess this is Alex Chilton's interpretation of "new wave" or "punk." It still sounds like rootsy, rockabilly and New Orleans-influenced rock but with a more aggressive, abrasive edge that's fairly irresistible for someone like me. Highly recommended if you like records that surprise you.

Feudalist Tarts-No Sex - Alex Chilton

I like artists that do their own thing. Alex Chilton seems to do that. Critics have marred him for "wasting his talent," which basically means "Why didn't you keep making Big Star records, even after Big Star broke up?" Of course, once he reformed Big Star they got mixed reviews. The guy can write great songs, it's true. But does he always feel like it? No - I read an interview where he said he maybe had five new songs ready to record a week before he was to enter a studio to make his next album. In the same interview he professed to enjoy his life, and went about doing so by spending half a year making enough money to take the rest of the year off. This is not your burning-loins, innovative songwriter type. He is, in the words of Douglas Adams, "just this guy, you know?" Or as Chilton has put it, a "musical performer."

And Feudalist Tarts sounds like an album made by someone like that. By which I mean it's lazy, uninventive, and boring. Flaccid R & B tune follows limp excuse for boogie and so on. Opener "Tee Ne Nee Ni Noo" is playful and fun, most likely on the merits of being first on the album before the trick wears out - which, believe me, is pretty quick. AIDS-paranoia number "No Sex," in addition to being the most interesting title on the album's back cover, is the album's best tune, if for nothing else, the opportunity to hear Chilton spout, "Come on baby/Fuck me and die." The sound is monochromatic and free of things like dynamics or brilliance. Horns fart in and out - who gives a shit? Hell, I like R & B - good R & B, like the kind my friend Sam just made me a compilation from. The kind that has soul and effort going into it. This sounds like a quick grab at one of those European paychecks handed to the artist in recognition of past achievements. I played this one from start to finish at work and apologized to my co-worker afterwards. This is the one I wouldn't recommend unless you really don't have anything better to do. But you do.

Tom Verlaine - Tom Verlaine

I bought this album with much enthusiasm. I even bought it new, because Amoeba didn't have a used copy. As soon as I walked out the door, however, I realized, "Oh shit - I don't even like the second half of Adventure that much, what was I thinking?"

What I was thinking was that this album has the song "Kingdom Come." Heard it? You probably did, because Bowie did an amazing cover of it for Scary Monsters. Verlaine was supposed to be the lead guitar player on that record but - I believe, due to some personality conflict - this was not to be, and instead Robert Fripp came in and (once again) poured awesome over everything. One day I listened to that track four times in a row. "Why don't I have that first Tom Verlaine solo album?" I thought. "I love Television. And I fucking love this song."

Well, this might come as a big shock, but the album's not as good as anything Television did in the 70s. I would say ever, but I don't own 1992's Television and I fucking hated the one song I heard off of it, the Burroughs-invoking "Call Mr. Lee." But I still like Tom Verlaine. There's something comforting about it, and it goes down like applesauce. At the same time, there's also nothing too inventive, envelope-pushing, or urgent about the affair. But that's okay. It feels good to hear Verlaine's goat-bleating voice coming through as quirkily as ever over rock struts that recall Stax/Volt and the Velvet Underground at the same time. Yeah, just like Television, but what do you want? He wrote almost all the songs himself.

(Reminds me a bit of a story I heard about Stephen Malkmus' first solo album. He was trying to get it to "not sound like Pavement," using a complete different set of musicians, production and songwriting techniques, but realized this was impossible at the album's completion. No shit, man! If you write and sing all the songs and then play almost all the instruments yourself, it's going to be fairly impossible to make your solo album sound different from your "band"'s records. BTC reissue next month yeah!)

"Kingdom Come" is, obviously, a standout, but Veraline plays it far cooler than Bowie's operatic performance, for better or worse. "Yonki Time" is kind of incomprehensible but harmless fun. "Last Night" is gorgeous and "Breaking in My Heart" is plenty of fun to hear the interplay between Verlaine and guitarist Ricky Wilson (of the B-52s). Wish they could have made a whole album with Wilson as the guitar foil. The whole album has an especially autumnal aura, and I have a feeling this will be one I return to and discover more from the next time I'm ill in bed.

Naturally, this is only a dent in what I've actually purchased over the past month. In fact, I'm a bit ashamed at the volume of additions to my already impossible-to-move collection here, but when you give up cigarettes and coffee, you need to indulge your remaining addictions more thoroughly. It's science. More later.

I listen to these songs a lot lately:
"Roll Another Number," "Albuquerque" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
"100,000 Fireflies," "Desert Island" - the Magnetic Fields
"Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors)" - the 6ths
"Nagasaki" - Django Reinhardt
"Brainstorm" - Hawkwind
"Hold On To the Rail" - the Great Unwashed

and they'll fuck you up