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Real World/Real Life
What Shelley and Devoto grasped in ‘78 has yet to slip away.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
The kind of album, nay, work of art that some people (or is it only me?) imagine they could make if they could just let go and say what they really mean, but of course it’s not that easy. Mark Kozelek’s words are such a central part of Benji that, however easily decipherable, they demand a lyric sheet. The existence of a lyric sheet where it might seem unnecessary can often be revelatory (remember Basement Jaxx’s Remedy?), and the huge one for Benji (rivaling the table-size foldouts from some of Neil Young’s 70s records, also often wracked with incomprehension) is an odd but unsurprising object, and yet I don’t think it’s meant as a dense, allusive encyclopedia (per the album’s reception) so much as an attempt to visualize the potential energy of Kozelek’s project on one page. Because no matter how hard he tries he can’t convince himself it’s anything but a feeble attempt to come to terms, which makes the fleeting notion, on “Carissa” and elsewhere, that he can give meaning to meaningless deaths, more poignant than deluded. The music’s great, too.
Real Estate – Atlas
They have a song called “It’s Real” and an EP called Reality, and “real” is in their name, so their level of engagement with the real world should be no source of mystery. It’s all they’ve ever cared about, really, and that doesn’t change on Atlas, though the attitude continues to shift in subtle ways. It’s a strange fact, that such beautiful music requires so much patience, but once again I find myself loving the lyrics first, while they help me locate the music’s undertow, its emotional terrain. Still, I’ll ignore that line about “crippling anxiety” and say, for now, that Atlas is a smaller and less anxiety-prone record than Days and contains at least one song of unmitigated joy, the Matt Mondanile instrumental “April’s Song,” which, in ways that are particular to this band and that announce their distinct craft, clearly precludes vocals from its opening seconds.
Maximo Park – Too Much Information
Album no. 5 finds the band move from renewed force to going concern, understandably trading intensity for variety and turning in a thoroughly engaging and repeatable album that, alas, joins Our Earthly Pleasures at the slight end of their discography. Preview track “Brain Cells,” with minimal electronic arrangement and a subdued vocal turn from Paul Smith, suggested an about-face, but it neither defines the album nor is it an outlier, as the only unifying principle here is good taste. A bonus covers EP contains some interesting choices (Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, The Fall, Young Marble Giants, Mazzy Star) and finds Smith, usually a distinctive and high energy performer, making himself a blank canvas and allowing certain qualities of the original singers to color his voice.
Dum Dum Girls – Too True
Album no. 3 would seem a big surprise if it directly followed 2011’s great Only in Dreams, but this band’s trajectory makes no sense without due attention to the EPs, so remember that 2012’s head-clearing End of Daze, if successful (and it was), gave Dee Dee freedom to pursue whatever pop sounds her next set of songs might require. So, she’s a different kind of frontwoman on Too True, less country/soul powerhouse, more Pat Benatar, and there’s an accompanying emphasis on style, drama. Dreams are once again a place of dark romance, not a place of meeting or escape (thank God!). She’s earned it.
The Mary Onettes – Portico
I say it every time out with this band, and I’d be wise to not say it again, so soon, but Portico sounds so watery it’s hard to imagine it connecting the way The Mary Onettes did, right away, the way Islands did, eventually, the way Hit The Waves did, somewhat more eventually. Already I’m wrong, because “Silence Is A Gun” trembles unbearably, and either way, I love the way such a formidable pop group chooses to emphasize ambient qualities, make itself a tenth generation cassette, one of a kind.
Withered Hand – New Gods
In which Dan Willson earns the name troubadour, and strips all lesser songwriters of it: New Gods sounds like it was either recorded in every city of the world across a span of years, or in one neighborhood during a season of improbable misery and triumph. He’s the kind of musician who appears in novels, and New Gods might be the set Scotty Hausmann plays at the end of A Visit from the Goon Squad. [Out 3/25 on Slumberland.]
Tony Molina – Dissed & Dismissed
The shortest power pop songs I’ve ever heard, twelve of them in as many minutes, which makes them effective minimizations of romantic troubles even as they lack nothing in terms of melodic development, soloing, etc. Repeat each one three times and you’d have songs and an album of ordinary length and redundancy, but the way Molina applies punk economy to this intimate kind of music is a big part of his charm. [Out 3/25 on Slumberland.]
Constant Lovers – Experience Feelings
Ringing guitar (via Catherine Wheel’s Chrome? Sonic Youth’s Goo?) just keeps going, delaying context, demanding submission like the extended intro to last year’s Godhead, by label-mates Sandrider. The listener’s ready to allow anything, and the eventual eruption—rumbling bass, vertiginous chord change—is quite a marvel. Finally the vocals arrive, the last announcement of the album’s overall sound, and though I don’t mind the shouting, I find myself dreaming of Constant Lovers as an instrumental band, dreaming of two things: interplay and impeccable production (those sudden silences, so empty). [Out 3/18 on Good To Die.]
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis) – Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Malkmus was in the indomitable and delirious mode of Ken Stringfellow ca. 2011, especially by the time of his nonsensical ad-libbed verses for “Surreal Teenagers” and his awesome, rambling encore, and I’m tempted to say I’ve never loved him more. A number of things—a lovely “Father to a Sister of Thought” and memories of lyric transcription; a spontaneous cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the Malkmusification of its guitar part, one of the supreme convergences of my life; the lyrical matter and undeniable hook of probable set highlight “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster”; two children next to the stage, apparently, to whom the band talked and offered rock show initiation of sorts—kept drawing me toward thoughts of the past, my own early love of Pavement, the appropriateness of their music as children’s music, no weirder or druggier than your average Beatles, no less inventive, colorful, inspiring. But mostly the band’s loose, brilliant rendering of Jagbags and Mirror Traffic cuts, also kid-friendly as far as I’m concerned, kept me in the moment.
Del Shannon – “So Long Baby,” “Do You Want To Dance”
The two greatest revelations on his insanely revelatory Greatest Hits (Rhino, 1990). “Runaway” prepared me for imaginative instrumental breaks, but not via so many different strange and wonderful sounds.
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