Saturday, April 1, 2006

Records In Review: Sam Roberts--Chemical City

One of the good things about dreading the worst is that you won't easily be disappointed. But as that middle-class punk in Repo Man said, "It...still...hurts!"

Now, I am a Sam fan, don't get me wrong. I loved the first (proper) ep and very much liked We Were Corn In A Flake. I just felt that the latter (and accompanying live show) represented a musical approach with a short shelf-life, and unfortunately Chemical City does very little to disabuse me of that impression. I haven't read any reviews of this album yet, as is my habit, but just on the off-chance that the words "prog" and "rock" show up in a few of them, I pre-emptively shout "nonsense." A tendency toward long-windedness aside, it's the same fish here, just in different wrappings; or rather, the same beardy scruff with bedroom eyes, just wearing a different t-shirt and playing a little more electric guitar. SR still has his Dylan fetish and he still likes writing and singing shuffle-beat rhythms.

There's always been this pull between the popster and the old-school rocker in Roberts (probably more apparent live than in the studio). On his earlier stuff, this added interest and tension, but here, when he takes the hippie-freak route of longer songs with looser structures, things tend to fall flat. As the yobs say, he's gotta have the hooks! And some economy. The production on the album's better than on WWBIAF; it's harder-driving and less lo-fi. His band, intact bar the drummer from his previous tour, is very energetic and together when they rock out old-school, but not virtuosic, and they don't produce a sound with a lot of internal detail. I find this diminishes the effect of the ensemble playing and crescendos after a while [what are you writing for, Gramophone?--ed]. In any case, definitely an album for high-volume listening, if it's to be listened to at all.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the tracks I like best--two rockers, "Bootleg Saint" and "With A Bullet" and two quieter numbers, "Bridge To Nowhere" and "Uprising Down Under"--are the ones that are the most concise. "Bootleg Saint" is a slow, grungy scorcher with great hooks that begs to be turned up to the proverbial 11. Should be a hit with the stoner crowd. "Bridge" and "Uprising" contain echoes of "No Sleep" and "Taj Mahal" respectively from Flame, and the former would be a good choice for a single, with its bouncy rhythm, nice sing-along chorus and jangly acoustic guitar. "With A Bullet" has a much heavier feel than anything off previous records and balances control and hell-for-leather really well, as well as having some great arrangement and guitar.

The rest of the package ranges from okay to not so great. The pseudo-mystical "The Gate" opens the disc I suppose as a statement of intent, and it's half-successful. It has an attractive energy, but the lyrics are dumb, and the simple chord sequences combined with the loosey-goosey structure create an exemplar of muscle over brains. Smoking a spliff might up the enjoyment factor on this one. "Mind Flood" shows off Roberts' characteristic melodic facility and easy vocal patter, but goes on too long with a meandering instrumental outtro. "Mystified, Heavy" is alright but a bit stiff, particularly on the vocal front. Roberts' lack of variation in vocal delivery is a problem in a couple of places, actually, but particularly on the piano-and-vocals-only finale "A Stone Would Cry Out," which is inoffensive but about as exciting as this. The album low-points are the limp and humourless "An American Draft Dodger In Thunder Bay," and particularly "The Resistance," a definite case of trying too hard whose big musical statement is a switch to double-time. Nice acoustic-y finale part, though, if you haven't hit the fast-forward button already.

Flame wasn't a perfect album by any means, but it had a vibrancy and naivete that helped it get past the occasional duff bit (e.g., "On The Run"). Chemical City is more stylistically cohesive but in the end it just doesn't have enough attention to detail and craft to compensate for the ponderousness. Medium-to-big disappointment.

P.S. If you think I'm being overly critical, note that I didn't take one shot at the ridiculous band photo.

Records In Review: Neko Case--Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Right off the top, a confession: I have time for Neko Case's voice. An awful lot of time. In fact, if I was given to such things, one of my top musico-erotic fantasies would probably involve NC, Maggie Reilly, and a large consignment of Vista Bellas. But that's another subject for another blog.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, which I originally misread as ...Brings The Food (leading to some odd misinterpretations of the lyrics) is the alt-countryish Ms. Case's fourth studio album and it's been getting glowing reviews 'round these parts and has also been moving the odd unit, which is good news. For those unfamiliar with the husky-voiced artist, she's an honorary Canadian (a stint in Vancouver) and perhaps best known as a member of The New Pornographers, of whom I'm greatly enamoured, where she shares the vocal duties with Canuck Guy and Hippie Guy. But there be no power-pop here, fellow! Case's own music utilizes traditional country and folk motifs but comes across as decidedly non-traditional. There's a very dramatic, and often melodramatic side to her songwriting, but it's not Kate Bush dramatic--more of a sense of resignation--and the dynamics are often static and the atmosphere trapped in amber. Add some sonic thickness and you've got a music that's simultaneously pretty and creepy. The songs are generally short and often evanescent, and it's easy to imagine many of them being sung as asides by characters in a musical drama. I'm not exactly a font of knowledge on this genre, so I'm going to write in more general terms than usual, which is probably a better way of dealing with this record anyway.

This is a very good record, but I do have a few problems with it. If I liked everything on Fox Confessor as much as I like my four or five favorite songs, we'd be into rave territory, but life is seldom fair, even for the mere end-user of compact discs. The reliance on dramatics is something I'm not entirely comfortable with. My friend G-Love (Sans Special Sauce), who's more familiar with Case's ouevre than I, finds this aspect of her music (i.e., the end-product of a defined lyrical dramatic persona) slightly hokey. I'm not sure I'd put it in those terms, but I would say that there are times on the record when dramatic considerations and musicality are inversely proportional. I'm thinking here of songs like "Dirty Knife," which has very good bones but is prevented by its episodic nature from really getting going. The music feels almost incidental to the evoked mood. The lyrics are a bit much at times, too, especially when Case is in full wry drama queen mode: "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/I know it's not kind, but my own blood is much too dangerous." Call me judgmental, but I just don't think you should be writing stuff like that when you're in your mid-30s.

At her best, Case combines a strong melody with an exceptional vocal cadence. Two of the three tracks on the album co-written with The Sadies, "The Needle Has Landed" and "Hold On, Hold On" (from whence the cited offending lyric came) are standouts in this regard. They're both upbeat, straight-ahead and slightly twangy, with bouncy and sharp vocal rhythms that have a way of sticking with you for days. "That Teenage Feeling" is a bit kitschy for me, but again the vocal writing and performance is excellent. Other standouts are the cautionary but fatalistic (and creepy) "Maybe Sparrow," which features some nice details of arrangement, the brief bit of atmosphere "A Widow's Toast," and particularly "Star Witness," which is a great example of the aforementioned creepy/pretty thing, especially in the way that the static, loping three-beat verses give way to a beautifully simple chorus melody and some killer harmonies. Again, a bit much on the lyrical front. The rest of the material is of varying quality, mostly good, but the arrangements are uniformly strong and the vocal performances (you sensing a pattern here?) engaging. The second of the three Sadies collaborations, "Lion's Jaws," is my least favorite track, mostly because Case's singing is lacking in subtlety. In general, I'm happier with Fox Confessor when there's less of the dramatics and/or knowing winks at genre getting between me and the music.

Both the album and the songs are shortish, making this an easy listen in addition to being an engaging one. The production's boomy and the vocals reverberant so listening at low-to-mid volume's the thing to do. Recommended, with a couple of provisos.