Deconstructive Summer

Metallica activates that dormant part of my 14-year-old brain, taking me back to the summer of 2000 right before high school began. I just started discovering music the previous fall, so everything sounded amazing. I remember downloading the early records off of Gnutella and burning them to CD, or listening to the live record with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the back of my parents minivan on a long road trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I never went to the beach that entire trip, but I DID listen to “Master of Puppets” a lot.

They were the first band outside of the Beatles that introduced me to all types of styles – the breakneck speed of thrash, the ballistic energy of punk, and of course, the majesty of a band called Thin Lizzy. I learned what it was like to obsess over lineup changes, specifically the difference between Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted. I remember my first day at Dundee-Crown High School came the weekend after Newsted left the band. It’s all my friends and I talked about.

For a band that’s maligned (and in many cases, rightfully so), I’ll always have a soft spot whenever I hear they have a new record. This song is pretty fun – I don’t know if it’s a classic by any stretch, but it definitely takes me back to being the guy with bowlcut and braces thinking I’ve discovered something totally mindblowing.

Who am I kidding? I’m STILL that guy.

Lydia Loveless Keeps it Close on “Real”

lydia_loveless_coverI saw Lydia Loveless play a street fest this summer and I was wowed by her presence and power. She’s a complete force of nature, synthesizing sorta-country with sorta-punk but maintaining an edge found in only the most classic singer-songwriters. There is not a whole lot like that.

That feeling of Loveless’s power extends with her records – she has always seemed older and wiser beyond her 25 years. She sings with the strength and world-wearniness of a veteran performer. Just listen to “Crazy” from 2011’s “Indestructible Machine”. There’s some decades-old heartbreak in a song by someone who had just turned 21. That’s continued with 2014’s “Somewhere Else” and with “Real”, due Friday.

“Same to You”, full of crashing chords is a propulsive, arresting opener, and the first single “Longer”, with its power-pop leanings is equally memorable. They’re two great songs back to back. “Heaven” with its dry drum hits and dancing bass lines feel unlike anything in Loveless’s catalog – it feels almost something like you’d hear on 80’s pop radio. This is a good thing.

Still, with these early bright spots, something about this collection feels like it’s a portrait of an artist in transition. “Out On Love” with its atmospheric guitars never really seems to leave the ground, “Bilbao” feels a bit like it plods and has an almost saccharine refrain. These complaints are small, but definitely noticeable.

Loveless has worked with the same producer, Joe Veirs on her last three releases, and while he’s done an admirable job serving her songs thus far, “Real” feels less like a step forward and more like an artist that’s maintaining the status quo. That’s okay for now – but after two back-to-back classics, it feels like a deliberate attempt to not shake too much up. Perhaps she’ll paint with a new sonic palette next time. Regardless, she remains one of the most gifted young artists of her time, and that alone is reason to pay close attention.

“Holy Ghost” Showcases Modern Baseball’s Growth

a4043831127_10Modern Baseball is a great band, but they’re not even as good as they’re going to be.

I saw the Philly-based group recently play a show at Empty Bottle in Chicago to a sold-out crowd. The venue was perfect – it’s a bar that Pitchfork recently said was the “last great indie rock dive bar“. It’s intimate, with great sightlines and plenty of space to move around. The crowd and the band were so excited- most of the guys in the group are in their early 20’s and they looked to be having the time of their lives. Modern Baseball mostly consists of friends who’ve known each other for years. The joy of playing music was so evident. For someone who like me whose youth gets farther in the rear view with each passing day, they represent that ‘playing music with your buddies’ ethos that drew me to bands like them in the first place. I love that.

I’ve been completely enamored with “Holy Ghost”, Modern Baseball’s third album for about a month now. The themes of loss (co-frontman Jake Ewald lost his grandfather) and establishing life after illness (co-frontman Brendan Lukens entered treatment last year for Bipolar disorder) have resonated hugely with me. Ewald and Lukens admittedly took a “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” approach to this album – with Ewald taking the first half of the record while Lukens’s songs taking up the rest. The result is something I can best describe as the most incomplete complete record I’ve heard.

Ewald’s songwriting has evolved hugely over the course of Modern Baseball’s three records- the one-two punch of “Holy Ghost/Wedding Singer” is a group vocal that hits the ground running into a racing textured guitar jam – and “Mass” reminds me so much of the speak-sing of Craig Finn – assumedly this is unintentional. It’s really wonderful.

However, what’s captured me most is the collection of Lukens’s songs – short crashing, shouty punk blasts that seem like they were absolutely willed into existence at the last moment. They’re sudden, blunt and confrontational. His voice sounds warbly, unconfident, the sound of a guy who’s been through hell and back emotionally. I can absolutely sympathize. They almost sort of sound like one big song – from “Breathing in Stereo” to the Killers-esque “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind”, and then “What If…” with the unforgettable hook – “It’s not/what I’m not/it’s what I believe in – It’s not what I’ve got/it’s my peace of mind.” Mental illness is a bitch, and these songs illustrate that in full color.

“Holy Ghost” showcases a band that is growing in leaps and bounds with each record. These dual suites of songs between Ewald and Lukens show that they’re evolving as musicians and lyricists almost quicker than they can record. As they gain more life experience, it will inform the music they make. As evidenced by that show the other night – their audience, including me, is willing to grow with them.

Until then, this is an incredibly tantalizing preview of what’s to come.

When It All Went Red

IMG_0180I saw Cory Branan recently. There’s a song from his show that has stuck with me since I heard it – I don’t think it’s out anywhere, but he sings about a ‘nightmare in America’, which obviously has to do something with the current state of the world.

It’s been a bloody summer. Gun violence is way out of control. Less than two months ago, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history happened at a nightclub in Orlando. 49 people died. It seems like forever ago, because less than a month later two men were killed in individual incidents in Baton Rouge and St. Anthony, Minnesota. A day after that, five police were killed by a gunman in Dallas. These incidents were just the ones we heard about on TV.

That’s one part of it. Donald Trump impossibly, improbably secured the Republican nomination for president, delivering a terrifying speech full of doom and gloom, sounding more a Facist dictator than the leader of the free world, while managing to insult what seems like every group on the planet.

While Trump threatens to unravel the fabric of what truly makes America great, we’re still reeling from the losses of true titans of culture. David Bowie died in January, two days after bowing with his beautiful final record, “Blackstar”, and then Prince lost a private battle with addiction in April. Muhammad Ali died in June. Who takes the place of these legends when their natural lives end? It’s so weird that it’s just happened.

All of these events – just a select few I’ve mentioned – seem so overwhelming and terribly insurmountable. I don’t know if it’s because I’m 30 and just noticing these things more, but you can feel the tension in the air. We all have something to be upset about. It’s something new and more shocking every day to the point where we’re immunized from them. What would capture the global attention decades ago now can pass like a blip in an endless news cycle because there’s immediately something else to worry about.

It feels like a transformative time in history. I’m curious as to see what that looks like on the other end and hope it’s a little less scary than it is now.

Seasons

The only album released in Arthur Russell’s lifetime, 1986’s “World of Echo”, is a staggering, ethereal masterpiece. It’s a look at a wildly underrated artist, almost unknown during the time he lived, creating something so overwhelmingly breathtaking that it is hard to believe it is real.

It’s a record that relies heavily on effected cello and Russell’s paper-thin voice. The result is something that cannot accurately be described by words – you really have to hear it to capture it’s breadth. The results feel nearly elemental – somehow lighter than air but dealing with emotions so much deeper – almost dense. You cannot help but feel totally devastated by the listening experience.

Russell died in 1992 of AIDS. There’s not much footage of him performing outside of these clips. In the intervening years, material has trickled out in one way or another through compliations of his recordings or songs he produced. Lots of it is fractious, with occasional highlights coming to the surface. None of it quite feels like “World of Echo”, a work that for some reason feels strangely spiritual.

Perhaps it is the fact that there’s so little about Arthur Russell available that clips like these are so tremendous. It’s like a fresh blanket of snow. You know what will happen eventually – it’ll melt and evaporate into the air, but damn if it didn’t look pretty for a minute.

“World of Echo” is that last little bit that refuses to melt – a reminder of what happened before the seasons change and it just becomes another memory.

On Pablo, Kanye’s State is Cause for Concern

Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

pabloKanye West has proven peerless in the hip-hop world. No one can quite do what he can in terms of his creative process. Take any two albums in his catalog – the plastic pop-rap of “Graduation” that dives headfirst into remote, cold AutoTune territory of “808’s and Heartbreak,” or the grandeur and maximalism of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to the mechanical grind of “Yeezus”. The left turns are so sharp, so staggering, that any time he’s put out a record we debate endlessly about the merits of his work in contrast to the difficult public persona he’s fashioned over the last decade. For as messy as his personal relationships and personal life seem to be, his records have always been infused with a brilliant cohesion – perfectly crafted, no loose threads. Always a statement.

Until now.

West’s new record, the long-gestating “The Life of Pablo,” was finally released over the weekend after several starts-and-stops, a laundry list of album title changes and diluted by West’s penchant for making headlines for every seemingly ill-advised move. It still staggers, but for a different reason. It’s fractured and often gorgeous, but feels like there’s something deeply alarming, the work of someone that may not quite have command of their mind.

There are GREAT moments on the record, no doubt – the opener “Ultralight Beam” with its gospel choir and brilliant spot by Chance The Rapper, the synthy sweep of “Waves,” and that perfect understated Arthur Russell sample which provides the backbone of “30 Hours”. Some of these without question are Kanye’s best work, but for those, there’s moments where Kanye raps about himself in an acapella track titled, of course, “I Love Kanye”, or the audio-equivalent of a Pollock splatter with “Freestyle 4” with an ominous string sample. With that dichotomy, you can’t help feel like he’s losing the plot a little, and there are moments – like where he talks about being off Lexapro – make the case he’s suffering mental illness.

Perhaps that’s the case. Much of “Pablo” seems to come from a specific type of mania. Moments that masquerade as lucid and in full color, just might be elaborately constructed delusions. The best stuff is euphoric, but the experiments that fail are scary and cause definite concern. Like it or not, West is one of the most – if not the most – vital artists of our time. Hardly anyone with his reach attempts to bridge the gap between art and popular culture, and some may argue he’s the last true titan standing. He ignites the collective consciousness, for better or worse, and that’s important. Here’s hoping that he finds a path to what likely ails him.

But for now, we have “The Life of Pablo”. It’s like a Polaroid developing. Slowly coming into focus, second by second, minute by minute, creating a whole, but never quite crisp, clear and with the depth you’d get from another kind of camera. What finally appears is sort of hazy and dreamlike, telling a story far different than the one captured when the shutter closed.