Sunday, January 1, 2006

Records In Review: Martha And The Muffins--This Is The Ice Age

Martha And The Muffins/M+M have always fallen between the cracks of Canadian music history. Perhaps it was inevitable; after all, they've had a punky-new wave hit single, been perceived as ahtsy (no mean feat with such a dumb band name), split their sound between Toronto, London and New York, and have vocalists who sound like a show-tune singer and an art nerd respectively (you figure out which). In other words, their generic identifiers aren't always easy to isolate. They've certainly never been fully given their due. Fortunately, some reissues have been popping up recently, and Mark and Martha have been playing a few shows, updating the oldies. This Is The Ice Age (1981) was their third and possibly best lp, and this beautifully remastered edition came out last spring.

The first thing that hits you about this album is the sound. Co-produced by a then-industry-toddler Daniel Lanois and the band, it's extremely warm and spacious, with an Eno-like attention to sonic detail and restraint. I'm not an M+M completist and it's been a while since I've heard the old stuff, but I don't remember being awfully impressed by the first couple of Mike Howlett-helmed records, production-wise--trying too hard to sound "new wave." In terms of instrumentation, (electric) piano's always around but there's plenty of room to spare for the bright and generally unfuzzed guitar, watery chorused bass and layer upon layer of keyboards and electronic experimentation. Influences are worn on sleeve, with the aforementioned Bald One, King Crimson and (especially) Talking Heads being the most obvious, but this isn't derivative stuff; the mellow chord progressions and ambience are entirely the band's own, and place them well within the context of the contemporary local scene.

I'll call this record rilly rilly good, 'cos it's maybe one substantial song short of being brilliant (a term I don't throw around lightly). I'm pleasantly surprised how well the single "Women Around The World At Work"has aged; given the subject matter and the fact that it's not a great fit with the surrounding material, being "hookier" and more spastic, it holds its own pretty well (I'm not even as annoyed by the squawking sax as I used to be). "You Sold The Cottage" is the other concession to rocking out here, and it"s squonky and fun. A lot of the material is more pattern-based, which is where the contemporary T. Heads and Crimson comparisons come in. The drums in "Swimming" are very Remain In Light, somewhere between pounding and skittering across the surface, and you've got to give it to Mr. Gane for managing to sound like both Adrian Belew (with the elephantosity--if that IS a guitar) and Robert Fripp (intermittent line/solo) in the same song--and a good one, too. The title track utilizes the same Africanish drum pattern and is the album's high point. What you think is going to be a breezy pop song effortlessly slides into a perfectly paced, hypnotic but detailed raga through which tons of sounds and rhythms pass in and out. "One Day In Paris" follows on the heels of this, rising out of the mist like an aubade, and is as lovely and plaintive a piano and vocal interlude as you're likely to hear. In fact, the quieter stuff is all very good, particularly "Boy Without Filters" which tests Mark's spoken-style vocal abilities to the limit but gets away with it--just. "Jets Seem Slower In London Skies" is a very pretty piano and keys instrumental.

My two minor beefs with the album is the upbeat, positivity-soaked addendum to the otherwise good "Casualties Of Glass" which brings to mind the more annoying aspects of these guys, and the concluding "Three Hundred Years/Chemistry," which is underwritten enough to leave you wanting more, more, MORE! Of the bonus tracks, "I'm No Good At Conversation" is a very good up-tempo number, and "Twenty-Two In Cincinnati" is noodling around. I don't think either were missed on the original album release, but both are welcome here.

I should mention that This Is The Ice Age also has a mega-cool cover featuring a shot of an obscured BMO tower. And it was only $12.99. I'm sorry, why are you still sitting at your computer when you could be out buying this? Highly recommended and immensely listenable.

Records In Review: Medeski Martin & Wood--End Of The World Party (Just In Case)

After due consideration, and consultation with my family, I came to the inevitable conclusion that it was time that I got funky wid it. How delightful to live in a society where you can do this for less than $13!

Medeski Martin & Wood, for those not in the know, are a hot-shot NY instrumental three-piece (keys, drums and bass, respectively) who've been around since the early '90s and who play groove-based fusiony funky stuff. They're fairly traditional in terms of sound, if you strip away the processing, synths and occasional sample. John Medeski is perfectly at home with piano, electric piano, clavinet and organ, and often plays in a punctuated style that's quite guitar-like (perhaps by default, in a three-piece). Chris Wood uses both upright and electric bass impressively, and drummer (not that) Billy Martin is a small-kit player who doesn't stray too often from his syncopated bass drum, snare and hi-hat rhythms.

End Of The World Party is essentially a groove and some chops in search of a brain. I got a similar impression a few years ago from listening to their late '90s album Combustication, which I'd recommend over this one. The playing is top-notch, particularly from Medeski and Wood (Martin's a very detailed drummer, but too restrained; I wish he'd cut loose once in a while), but as is often the case with the genre, structure is not a strong suit and the grooves regularly amble off into noodlesville. I could deal with that better if the hooks and heads (as the jazzebos say) weren't so silly and stereotyped a lot of the time. I honestly can't tell in songs like "Sasa" (fusion hook) and "Queen Bee" (funky hook) if they're taking the piss or no. If yes, then they need to carry it a little bit further to be effective; if not, then there's a definite lack of gray matter on the songwriting front.

"New Planet" and "Curtis" are both pretty good and kick it a little harder than some of the other tracks. The former has a goofy, good-natured bass groove and clavinet and guitar solos, and ends with a processed flute space-out that had me thinking of Gong; the latter's a syncopated fast shuffle-beat thingy with great processed organ as its main point of interest. Other good ones are opener "Anonymous Skulls," which sets orchestral surges and samples to a skulking groove, kind of like Moby with 'tude, and "Reflector," which is as funky, fast and processed as it gets here. The rest of it I can take or leave, being as it's mostly wandering and/or not too clever. "Ice" starts out with a nice atmosphere and an octaved piano line, but doesn't really go anywhere. "Bloody Oil"--message? ya think?--puts a "middle-eastern" pentatonic melody through some interesting turns of production but the musical point is made in the first 30 seconds. I might appreciate "Mami Gato" more if I weren't allergic to most things latin. "Queen Bee" should only be listened to by middle-aged white men dressed in black, wearing berets, and snapping their fingers in time to the beat while ordering lattes.

I wouldn't say that MMW isn't my kind of thing, but I do prefer a little more oomph, directness and/or structure, of the kind that you'd find in another NY funky band from back in the day. I'd like them to sound like they're having a bit more fun with it, too. Recommendation: groovy wallpaper music.

Records In Review: They Might Be Giants--The Spine

Album number ten from inventive weirdo power-pop miniaturists They Might Be Giants. Over-generalize? Moi?

The Spine (2004) is an enjoyable and incredibly easy listen. Compared to the last (non-kids) TMBG album that I'm substantially familiar with, the unkindly (and unfairly) remembered Factory Showroom from the mid-'90s, this one has better flow to it and a fuller utilization of the band sound that helps to level out the more jarring contrasts between John's and John's material. It's also, unfortunately, a little too easy a listen. Masters Linnell and Flansburgh aren't pushing themselves terribly hard here, and it shows in the dearth of really, really A-1 stuff. The second coming of Flood it ain't.

The songwriting is split pretty much down the middle as it usually is, but Linnell's tracks show more boldly (I tend toward his songs, generally speaking; he's off in his own little world, which appeals to me more than Flansburgh's messing about with antique genre expectations). I particularly like the foot-stomper "Thunderbird," which is reminiscent of "Til My Head Falls Off" from Factory Showroom and which contains the immortal lines: "Before you walk you have to learn to crawl/You can't see heaven when you're standing tall." "Wearing A Raincoat" is also really catchy, a string of word-associated similes that lead you back to the beginning, with a lilting melody, moderate tempo and hypnotic feel. But the weird comic classic is without a doubt "Bastard Wants To Hit Me." How else to describe a slick, electropop song with cheezy Cher vocoder and lyrics about being targeted by a random nutcase in a parking lot? Flansburgh's contributions include, as is the custom, a few guitar-hero rockers like the catchy "Prevenge," as well as the odd suave lounge ditty like "I Can't Hide From My Mind." My favorite of his, "Spine/Memo To Human Resources," tends toward the latter camp and has a really nice and relaxed melody.

I can't bitch about the rest of the tracks, 'cos there's not really anything wrong with them per se. In fact, the songcraft on display is impressive, and the respective lyrical styles have developed quite nicely and don't feature quite as much overt goofiness as in days gone by. As I said, it's just a general impression of some of it coming a little to easy to the band. A few of the tracks certainly have antecedents (for "Au Contraire" read "Turn Around"), which diminishes their impact.

If I was to describe The Spine in one sentence, I would call it a letter from an old friend telling you that everybody's doing just fine. And those are nice letters to receive, aren't they? Recommended, for fun and stress-reduction.

Records In Review: Destroyer--Thief

Well, I did say a few months back that I'd be delving into the New Pornographers' and associated members' back catalogues, didn't I? Of course I did. So be quiet and listen, both of you.

Destroyer is the vee-hickle of NP occasional songwriter Dan Bejar. In the Pornographers, he's the indispensable, hippy counterpoint to mainman Carl Newman's tightly-wound and razor-sharp economy. On his own, he's a sardonic, occasionally arch folk troubadour whose music contains echoes of early '70s Elton John and David Bowie, among others (N.B. to any Bowie freaks: I don't wanna hear it), although much less presentational. Thief (1999) is his first full-fledged band album, and it features NPer John Collins on bass and Jason Zumpano, from that band whose name escapes me, on keyboards.

I've been flipping and flopping on this one for a while, but my Considered And Rational Judgment is that Thief would make an extremely good ep; at album length, the static pacing combined with Bejar's nasal recitativo starts to grate. On a song-by-song basis, the material's very good. I particularly like opener "The Temple," which has that EJ country-blues pace and a catchy melody. Bejar does craft some nice vocal melodies, which you might at first overlook 'cos he's very wordy and his singing style very percussive/punctuated. "Mercy" and "To The Heart Of The Sun On The Back Of The Vulture, I'll Go" (I kid you not) are also standouts; on both, the folky thing is balanced by a '90s low-fi approach which works really well.

The rest of the album could use some editing. By the time I got to "Queen of Languages" (track 8 of 13), I was itching for a change of pace and, frankly, for the Pornographers to show up and put some foot to gas pedal. I can't help thinking that this music could have been better realized. It needed to be taken farther away from its folky, solo-performer roots, so as to let the band stretch out more. That said, it does have a lot of charm, which shows well on upbeat tracks like "The Way Of Perpetual Roads." There's a few instrumental/ambient tracks that are nice changes of pace, if unspectacular. I haven't been able to find a lyric sheet, but most of the songs appear to be humorous digs at the music industry or the self-importance of pop singers (as in the title track). They're abstract enough not to be annoying.

Thief probably won't stop me from picking up some of the more recent Destroyer albums, but based on this I prefer Bejar in his other, better-known band, where he doesn't have to be the centre of attention and where his material's interpreted with more gusto. Cautiously recommended.