Fevers and Mirrors
Pop Culture Detos Sept 2000
Best of 2000
||Garrick Jones|| And the most innovative and beautiful albums of 2000 thus far are - born from America's yesterday-Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are, Smog's Dongs of Sevotion, Lambchop's Nixon, Bright Eyes' 'Fevers and Mirrors, and, awaiting the upcoming release of original music, Cat Power's The Cover Record. These albums represent America's catchiest and most compelling of the year thus far, and they represent triumphs of each band's edge-of-the-envelope songwriting and compositional styles, by cradling themselves within a dynamic channeling of blues and bluegrass, from turn of the century death ballads to seventies soul. They foster a sense of alterable, and modern, Americana, while pushing their work to masterful ground.
These newest albums reap the benefits of a decade of genre bending developments by these very bands, and others. The ticket has been punched. The stage has been set for-like Elton John says!-a sad song. Allowed this, kids are playing the slide guitar along side space-age keyboard, and whispering love 'n death ballads on the L Train. Musicians such as Chan Marshall can now get up on stage and play simple, to the heart, to the point. The one-liner of country appropriation, for instance, has been surpassed by a mythological folk-devil stance. Appropriation and authenticity are shrugged off in masterful orchestration.
In the early nineties, Dave Berman and the flipside of Pavement formed the Silver Jews. Music started as basement- tape-guitar-pounds-set-to-poetry, as Smog began as well, but quickly developed into crystal clear twang recitals (with the best lyrics of the last decade and counting). So too did Uncle Tupelo quickly develop an amazingly raw, countrified sound that was older than Nashville Country, and deeper. With a song about, not coal mines, but his love of the Mekons, Will Oldham, his brothers, and Palace kicked off a recording career of fuzzy ballads that were more the simple reflections of a country boy than classic or timeless, and compelling for it. Depth and mystery was developed in wrapping the most personal reflections in a shroud of history.
And ten years ago, there was Slint. Slint made fearsomely dramatic the emotion of everyday. Rock-out beauty was found in new places-in chanting prose, in long, quiet but fervent progressions. And pieces of music, turns in the music, the drama of the music, became better than unevocative indie-rock slam throughs. They composed an expansion of the nihilistic fury of the late eighties sounds of Bitch Magnet, Steve Albini's (a producer of theirs) bands, and Sonic Youth.
Indie rock was split right down the middle, felled to earth. Its innards now are devoured by a kajillion-or-so (but never enough) bands, from those on last years dreamy and tenuous SugarFree Records soundtrack of Michael Galinsky's life-of-the-indie-rocker picturebook, Scraps, on which Blazing Rains whispers, maybe from the back of a pickup truck somewhere, "Starting to share a vision/We're starting to see how things fit together..." to Harmony Korine's stupidly thunderous ensemble unit (whose name I forget, but who toured with Red Krayola late last year. Maybe you saw the show. Harmony wore a plastic hound dog mask and the flutist was draped in a giant-size Dixie flag). But where the new terrain cradles mastery is in the infusive folk-devil orchestrations of Smog, the Dirty Three, Lambchop-stars from Nebraska, Georgia, Tennessee, Down Under-country kids bringing new life and a new complexity to this edge of the envelope. Year 2000, with heart and a twang, a wimpy and a bang.
SMOG (Drag City Records) Smog's Dongs of Sevotion throws Bill Callahan's monotone poetic bits into the open. Backup singers, (the Dongettes) wearing big white cowboy hats in the recording studio, spell out "B-L-O-O-D-F-L-O-W! Bloodflow! Bloodflow! In this beautiful world, hold on with a grip so tight. It damns my blood makes my head fell light-Hey! Hey!" Backup jaw harp twangs right along to an Indian war chant rhyme, in be-bop time. The music is structured as richly as Callahan's lyrics throughout the album, which is a production just as brilliant as his best previous albums, but the most masterful by far of the lot, through the looking glass of a dozen compositional and referent and self-referent layers. And it is all about the second track, "Dress Sexy at My Funeral (For the First Time in Your Life)" - a song startlingly triumphant from its story's acceptance of death. Yes, Callahan is dead, and his wife is having a bit too much fun at his funeral. "Wink at the minister.. Tell them about how I gave to charity, and most of all don't forget about the time we did it on the beach with fireworks above us...and in the very graveyard..." Sincere and full, self-deprecating while thought-provoking (you smile to the song just as you think your own self dead), the song achieves what for ten years has made Smog one of the most interesting bands in the country, and takes them to new levels. Added here are words, choruses, and hilarious backup jingles that were seemingly left out of past songs. By riding old rhythm and blues guitar riffs (notes previously left out), song structure and story themes are given richness and clarity. The music is tremulous beyond its content; it is tremulous in it's makeup. It cannot be classified as indie or art rock. It transcends a rock out and hoe down. It is Emmy Lou Harris + Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye + Nick Drake, Leornard Cohen + Neil Diamond.
The referential stylization in these albums are their lynchpins, just as Jim O'Rourke has grabbed onto stylings to provide an experimental framework, on recent albums. On 1997's all-acoustic Bad Timing (which shares musicians with Smog), a spirit is evoked of travel and determination through a rich orchestration of the ol' pedal steel guitar. As opposed to what comes from the more space-age sounds of O'Rourke's Tortoise and upcoming Mice Parade albums, a rhythm of life is portrayed with instruments typically second fiddle (so to speak) to traditional formulations.
O'Rourke's 1999 Eureka, takes on the same singularly and quietly driven tone with more stylistic appropriations, and many more nuances. "They'll be joy and there'll be laughter. After a taken, a take-off, a given, something big is what I'm after now. Yes, its what I'm living for" is the chorus of "Something Big," a song which IS a mid-sixties bachelor pad tune. Of course, what is amazing about the song is that it's 2000, and it's Jim O'Rourke. And what is said is understood to be as much embarrassing as it is cutely positive. A diddling guitar dances in the interludes between each verse of the second track, "Ghost Ship in a Storm," making fun of the man who dies, over and over. "Its just my luck I get hit by a car while carrying the cake. Cherries dripping on the cement. Bride and Groom on my face." 'Eureka' is beautiful sophistication, with its pants around its ankles. Along with the first track, a nine minute epic tribute, stating the one line over and over, "Women of the world take over," this is the best album starter of last year.
LAMBCHOP (Merge Records) Lambchop, whose songs are in the Country Hall of Fame library (as silly as this might sound), is even whiter than Jim O'Rourke, but funkier. Kurt Wagner and his dozen plus musicians create a mood that beats Wagner's manly singing with a Cinderella broomstick. His lyrical delivery lets go of tapestry, gratuity, sticks to the story, and rides a grand ship of drippy space-ship symphonics, creating, in its wake, purely distinct anthemic rock-outs. This latest release, Nixon, is not kitsch, but it is amazing that Wagner's gritty voice can skate over this love potion treading. At the best of moments, he waxes momentum where few musicians have gone before. It's a thrill-ride, quiet and loud at the same time, big and small, Curtis Mayfield AND George Jones.
But for the cutting edge to be a scene so formally laid? So referential, conceptual, so-gimmicky? What is clear on these albums is, as it is on that other 2000 masterpiece, Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, that on the one hand we have complex orchestrations - a pastiche of styles, sounds, jokes, stops, and on the other hand, we have the plainest, most touching stories and tones. While it is not enough for these musicians to dawn blind-sides and play washboard and spoon, neo-yodeling about momma's arm falling off, it is equally impossible for these musicians to convey their tales without utilizing historical precedence, because they speak of themes that run very deep in American musical history.
DIRTY THREE (Touch and Go) From the dirty nation of Australia, has come Dirty Three, whose lead-man violinist plays with the carnie-march, ghost town ballad original, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Cave being perhaps THE upholder and original innovator of the contemporary vitality of pre-industrial American music). Dirty Three has the simplest feel of this lot. Their latest album, Whatever You Love, You Are, quiets you down, pulls up your bridges, and pushes you into tomorrow. Instrumental orchestration evoking much more than the sum of the three, begging for reflection, and decision. It is similar to O'Rourke's "Bad Timing," and not unlike many other albums being produced within the scene, in that it would be netherworldly abstraction but for the simple instruments chosen, and the evocative, somehow humane, songwriting. The album is humble and unpresumptuous, yet it holds the same form of build-up-to-ecstatic-fervency of the Velvet Underground on some tracks. On others, like "Some Summers They Drop Like Flies," the violin, set against the halting guitar and drums, dances around itself in a slow trot. It dances and it goes nowhere, and you see your own meagerness.
CAT POWER (Matador) By sensuous and strong chops and firmly to-the-point orchestration, any question of stylistic schizophrenia is dismissed with Chan Marshall's Cat Power. Cat Power's earlier work, as on Myra Lee, is more Sonic Youth than Tarnation. (And for that matter Neko Case started as a punk singer. And for that case so too did Elliot Smith. And for that matter so did I.) Moon Pix, her last album of original songs, of 1998, with the guitar of Dirty Three's Mick Turner, is two steps more bluegrass-simple than previous work, and one step more a pastiche of figuratively used instrumentation. "Never give up. If you're looking for something easy you might as well give it up. One time they will confess one thing next time they will confess the next. Let us hold fast to sayin' the same thing." With thunder erupting around her, guitar cowering near her, itself stuttering. "Its so hard to go into the city 'cause you wanna say hey I love you to everybody... Must be the colors and the kiss that keep me alive, cause the music is boring me to death, 'cause I want to go right away to a January night, I built a shack with an old friend. He was someone I could learn from. He was someone I could become." Covers she does on this album are of Hank Williams and a traditional "Moonshiner" ("If drinkin' don't kill me then I don't know what will.. You're already in hell. I wish we could go to hell"). The beauty of Moon Pix is its relentless presentation of spirit within cruelty. This and the preceding 1996 What Would the Community Think are gorgeous and powerful albums, each progressing from the last, but there remained the question of distilling sounds to match wit, to keep honest and simple.
The Covers Record is more relentlessly to-her-point than these previous albums, allowing no passive listening. She allows herself objective, compositional freedom, it would seem, by the very fact that the songs were written by others. This album is no longer the didactic one-track indie pulse and one-track coalminer's daughter. The pulsing, fuzzy guitar of old Cat Powers (like Smog) has let go of its total hold and is joined and manicured by CONCEPT. The new albums are orchestrations of many sounds in the perspective of humor and harmony. These orchestrations are the speed of walk, and voice, of feeling and its personal contextual ramifications. Not the speed of machine, or instrument. Similar to what Johnny Cash achieved on his Grammy Award winning 1994 American Recordings, in its timelessness.
BRIGHT EYES (Saddle Creek) Even when these macabre ballads rock out, as with Bright Eyes' latest album, Fevers and Mirrors, they still play as soulful and eternal. Like what we found on Neutral Milk Hotel's self-titled 1997 masterpiece, Conor Oberst has a disarmingly touched voice that has wrapped gorgeous stories in lullaby hymnal, halting, erupting, swooning, with music that is so well produced the album plays as one long string of chimes and strums. Innocent instruments are implicated in the wrongs of Conor's stories, and by this, the whole world is implicated. "Watch it all dissolve into a single second. Try to write it into one perfect song.. 'cause that's all that you'll get, cause you're here, then you're gone. Singing 'I believe that lovers should be tied together. Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather...'" ("A Perfect Sonnet," from the EP, "Every Day and Every Night"). This album will stop you in your tracks as the most heartfelt album you've heard in years, and more importantly the triumph of a voice and his guitar. The album ends with a (we hope) mock radio interview, in which, through the painful detail of an artist under uncaring scrutiny, we are reminded of the pain and madness that comes with being an oddity deep in the heart of a land that admonishes normalcy. "So the neighborhood is dimming... While the cars in the driveways only multiply. They are lost in their houses. I have heard them sing in the shower and making speeches to their sister on the telephone. Saying 'you come home. Darling, you come here. Don't stay so far away from me...' So lets hold up our fists to the flame in the sky, to block out the light that is reaching for our eyes."
These albums are of a genre whose closest cousins are incestuous mixes such as art rock and country music, but they as well add a storytelling bravado that gives listeners (if your average song is the story of one night) the day before and the morning after. Musically nothing is ignored and lyrically nothing is hidden. What these albums have done is reroute music history to make themselves the deserved direct descendants of delta blues and bluegrass of the '20s and '30s.
In the mid-sixties, post-Guthrie folk exploded from thirty years of waiting for a receptive audience, and it fused the "This Land is Your Land" protest song with the Washington Square protest movement and Appalachian folk song with Beat-inspired musings. These folk singer kids, such as Dylan, held history, and the future of the country, in their hands.
Just as Guthrie was hitting it big in the '20s, country music was picked from the tide pools of America and plunckered down into the recording studio. In the late '60s, the in-full-swing folk scene reconditioned country, namely with Harry Smith's "Anthology of Folk Music," which canonized, as timeless Americana, an array of music from the '20s to the '60s. Country then began to inform the popular rock scene beyond folk with Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris. And while Nashville was "country," all the while there was this whole other Americana thing going on.
So it keeps creeping up. In the eighties, the bands X and the Mekons brought country to punk and populist art. In the nineties, Uncle Tupelo flipped up onto every college kid's dorm room floor, and the latest of floodgates were opened. Nashville Country was now considered "the classics." Today, contemporary Nashville Country sells millions of records with "artists" such as the Dixie Chicks, while independent labels such as Bloodshot Records maintain a stance of traditionalism. But what makes it alright for slide guitars to creep up on every album north side of the Mason Dixon line? Why is it that I get pushed around by German fashion models at Will Oldham shows? Why did Clinton get elected, in part, by playing the down-home hillbilly role, but evade scrutiny from Paula Jones by saying, "Drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park and see what you're gonna get?" Why admire that authenticity missing of the contemporary Nashville song writing machine? Well, if you don't want to be thrown to the dustbin for being the same old morose side of indie rock, why not?
But why not innovation from those musicians who've been making a go at alternative country for years? Don't they have lineage rights? Wilco, Jeff Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo offshoot, has a good part of the nation clapping along. Many other bands, including offshoots from those firsts, however, don't seem to be able to graduate from those Texas Swing and hillbilly hoedown hits they had on their first albums. New albums neither inspire nor surprise.
Are purity and authenticity the new devils of pop culture, holding too tight a leash on artistry, and relegating artists to purveyors of market-ready postmodern rehash? Creedence Clearwater Revival, as Pavement's singer Steve Malkmus has written, is purity. Seems ridiculous, but brings up a very interesting point. CCR respectfully hybridized previous sounds to make their own, for their own time. CCR holds inspiration for what we will find on the other side of that cultural ogre, multiculturalism (and perhaps its best intended aim). Authenticity, multiculturalism's foot soldier, illicits oppressive cultural stasis. It makes no sense, for instance, that Americana be a stagnant form. By definition, it should be near as dynamic as current culture itself. And after all, all of these classifications of music-rock, country, blues, jazz-are bastard children of a mishmash of influences. So die authenticity!
The new music of Smog et al. is the bridge from authentic purveyance and postmodern pastiche to hybridization, and to more pressing issues of class consciousness, morality, and eternal beauty. And best of all, all these bands are doing is making awesome, rockin' (so to speak) albums. The witticism of Smog, the simplicity of Cat Power, the pastiche of Lambchop. The Americana moniker is deserved by these bands because they capture an enormous lineage within gorgeous flight and fancy. Guitars without distortion, singers singing. old styles, played in new ways.
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