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PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Monday, December 10, 2012
PJ Harvey (2011)

PJ Harvey (2011)

It’s a PJ kinda week/month.

Second album to review by Harvey, and I am still floored by how good she is. It wasn’t like that at first. I thought this album was kinda weird.

Then again, I’ve listened to lots of albums that were weird and they ended up being some of my favorites. Let England Shake has really grown on me. It might like it better than To Bring You My Love. In fact, I think it is.

Stylistically, it’s much different from her past work. It’s sedate, refined, and apocryphal. She uses a lot of imagery that evokes WWI, and war in general. It’s sort of folky and protesty, but not really. Most of the songs feature jangly guitar and piano, and it feels very minimalistic and bare bones (in a good way). Harvey’s voice goes high here, soaring way into the soprano (“On Battleship Hill”). That husky voice of albums past is mostly gone here, and the range really shows her versatility.

The lyrics and mostly somber attitude of the songs make this a contemplative album. The albums carry themes of death, and they lyrics are downright chilling. (“The scent of thyme carried on the wind/Stings my face into remembering/Cruel nature has won again/Cruel nature has won again”).

Harvey’s lyrics here are at her best, in my opinion. She captures the sadness of how pointless all wars seem years after they happen. Wars always seem so important to the people fighting them at the time. It is only looking back, years later, that we wonder what it was all for. The wise among us wonder what it is all for now. It makes me wonder how future generations will judge all the conflicts our political leaders lead us into; the same way, perhaps, we judge the conflicts of WWI as pointless and futile in retrospect?

I will definitely be listening to this a lot more. PJ has release perhaps her greatest treasure with this one. It’s rare that an album makes me think as much as this.

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The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

Sunday, November 25, 2012
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

I write this, actually, while listening to Loaded.

I’ll have to admit this took a while for this one to grow on me. It was hard for me to step beyond the dreamy xylophone (that’s what that instrument is, right?) that opens “Sunday Morning.” What a beautiful song. It evokes what Sunday morning is to me – kind of sad day (maybe because Monday is the next day), but strangely peaceful and slow.

Finally, I’ve given it more of a listen, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums ever. Not only is it a historic album (punk and noise can trace their beginnings here), but it is a very good album that’s still enjoyable today. Because even today, there is nothing else that quite sounds like it.

This album has some rockers: “Waiting for the Man,” and “Run Run Run,” but it’s the more experimental stuff that I really like. I absolutely adore “Venus in Furs” and its S&M themes (“strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”). The lyrics are kind of trashy, but it’s the strings, the beat, and the vibe that absolutely makes this song. I’ve never heard anything like it. It gets even darker with “Heroin” but for some reason that song never struck me as much.

At points the album can get slow and sweet, with “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. It gets downright wtf with the closer track “European Son” where it’s an all out noise fest. Sometimes I feel if Sonic Youth had been a band twenty years earlier they would have been a lot like the Velvet Underground.

Yeah…this is a group I’ll have to check out more. Definitely a treasure of the late sixties/early seventies.

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Portishead – Third

Friday, November 23, 2012
Third (2007)

Third (2007)

This is one of those rare examples of an artist coming back after 10+ years and completely hitting the mark.

Third just might be Portishead’s best work. Why? It’s true of every Portishead album, but there is not a bad track, and Third contains Portishead’s best track, in close contention with “Roads” – “The Rip”.

Like every Portishead released, Third explores themes of alienation, pain, and anger with such alarming beauty. It is a bit experimental compared to Dummy, and maybe less so than Portisheadbut Portishead will always be one of my favorite groups. Beth Gibbons lyrics are pure poetry – only she could pen something so absolutely chilling with such earnest warmth. This is especially evident on “Nylon Smile”: And I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you / And I don’t know what I’d do without you. “The Rip:” In my thoughts I have bled / for the riddles I’ve been fed / another lie moves over.

More than most other artists, Portishead creates this dark ambiance that is hard to qualify with words. Listening is always a wonderfully cathartic experience; when we hear our own fears voiced and explored in Portishead, it’s strangely peaceful. I guess like falling into deep water, to reference the track of the same name?

All I can say is, I really hope they release another.

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Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

Thursday, November 22, 2012
Black Up (2011)

Black Up (2011)

This is easily one of the weirdest albums I have hearkened upon. It is my first foray into experimental hip-hop (at least I have heard nothing quite like it), and if it’s any indicator, I will definitely be coming back to it.

Very eccentric beats, smooth delivery, wonky and dubby and glitchy. I actually got Black Up back in 2011 when it first came out, but it’s taken a few listens to digest. Okay, so it sat in my queue for well over a year, but better late than never, right?

The album is surprisingly short – I notice the ten tracks fly by whenever I listen to it, which might make its experimental nature easier to digest.

To me, what makes this album are the amazing beats. They jump around and force you to focus all your attention. There is also some soul infused into it. I like to think of this album as if post-rock and hip-hop married.

Needless to say, the album is a challenge in a good way. Fans of hip-hop looking for something more out there will not go wrong with his.  Maybe it’s a bit pretentious, but hey, it’s what you get your indie friends to listen to get them into hip-hop.

Highlights: An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum, Recollections of the Wraith, Swerve… The Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)

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Other Lives – Tamer Animals

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Tamer Animals (2211)

Tamer Animals (2211)

I first heard/saw these guys as the opening act for Radiohead earlier this year in Dallas. Even then I was very impressed with their talent, but never gave Tamer Animals a listen until last week.

In my opinion, these guys are the best act in Oklahoma. They deserve much more attention than they currently have. Hailing from Stillwater, they bring that Oklahoma red dirt flavor to blends of folk, indie, with a tinge of arena rock. The music is expansive, even hypnotic. There’s an almost holy aura to it, like a Gregorian chant. It’s really hard to place, but Jesse Tabish’s voice sort of reminds me of Paul Banks or Ian Curtis, and their atmosphere is reminiscent of Radiohead, if Radiohead were earthy and American. There is something soulful and surreal in their delivery.

Besides the usual instruments of drums, bass, and guitar (mostly, if not all, acoustic) there is excellent interspersing of piano and strings.

If you haven’t listened to these guys yet, don’t miss this.

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Soundgarden – King Animal

Monday, November 19, 2012
King Animal (2012)

King Animal (2012)

We live in a time where it’s rare to see a straight up “rock” album recorded. We live in the era of space rock, indie rock, folk rock, electro-rock, etc…

That’s what King Animal is: a straight-up, no frills rock album – guitar, bass, drums, and heavy, heavy riffage. In a way, it’s refreshing in simplicity…but in another way, I kind of wish Soundgarden had pushed the envelope.

I was nervous about this for good reason. Soundgarden’s first album in 15-16 years. I had no idea what to expect, and artists are notorious for going to seed in old age. I could see King Animal going one of two ways: Soundgarden sticking to their signature sound of grungy, doomy riffage, or completely surprising everyone with something off the wall.

They decided to go the safe route. This album is a time capsule. Any of these songs could have fit on any of Soundgarden’s other albums. It’s good, it rocks, don’t get me wrong…clearly Kim Thayil hasn’t lost his touch (even if Cornell’s voice is noticeably weaker). But King Animal doesn’t stand out from the rest of their discography. I was really, really interested to see if any more modern music influenced their sound. From the few listens I’ve had, I would say no.

After all, these guys have had sixteen years to learn, grow, and listen to new stuff that might have influenced their current sound. But then again, perhaps the homage they paid to their old sound was a conscious decision. I read somewhere that there was a lot of disappointment with the release Down on the Upside because of a departure from their signature riffage.

Which would be an understandable decision. If fans have been demanding a new Soundgarden album, how cheated would many have felt if they got something un-Soundgarden-esque?

King Animal is a decent album. I just get this inkling that it could have been so much more. Then again, maybe I should just let Soundgarden be Soundgarden, and enjoy what they have offered up – a great rock album and a fitting tribute to their legacy.

Highlights: “Been Away Too Long”, “Blood on the Valley Floor”, “Black Saturday”, “Rowing”

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Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

Monday, November 19, 2012
Back to Black (2006)

Back to Black (2006)

Amy, Amy, Amy…

It’s been over a year now, and I’m still listening to you. I’ve listened to Back to Black at least once a week since “it” happened. There is not a single bad track.

Yes, I know that “you are no good,” but really, you are very, very good. This album can be deceptive. A few listens, and anyone can catch all the surface meanings. But if you dig deep, you realize how much of a poet Amy was. Especially in “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” and “Wake Up Alone,” she captures the longing and despair of love so well that it is uncanny. She puts you there, in the situation and moment, that you can’t help but feel along with her and get a taste of what we’ve all been through. All I have to do is change all the pronouns to “she,” and it feels like she’s singing about me.

That’s what’s great about Amy – she’s utterly relatable. And then, there are the hooks and the catchy melodies that will not be able to be replicated by anyone else. I loved Amy for her brutal honesty, her grittiness, her not being afraid to be real and call it how it was. I was hoping for a couple more albums out of her. I had to settle for Lioness: Hidden Treasures, I guess. Still, Amy’s leftovers are better than Adele’s chart-toppers (sorry, but that comparison was inevitable).

As a fan of jazz, I could not ask for more out of a songwriter. Hell, even Frank was amazing, but Back to Black was her masterpiece. It deserves all the hype it gets, and more.

Thanks, Amy. You are still missed, by at least this fan.

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