8 Music Reviews
by dave heaton
Belle and Sebastian, I'm a Cuckoo (Rough Trade)
With one album track and a remix of that same album track, Belle and Sebastian's I'm a Cuckoo EP has only two completely new songs, making it less essential than some of their greatest EPs, the best of which are just as important to their discography as their albums. But hearing "I'm a Cuckoo" outside of its original context, last year's Dear Catastrophe Waitress album, just reminds you of how great a song it is. And the Avalanches' remix of it is so brilliant a reinvention that the track listing as "I'm a Cuckoo (by The Avalanches)" makes perfect sense. They take the song over as their own, using the vocals and the flute melody but then filling the background to the song with African-ish percussion, flutes and other instruments playing a variation on the main melody, and what sounds like a whole crowd of people singing a completely different song, weirdly in harmony with this one. That song's well worth hearing, as are the two B-sides, "Stop, Look and Listen" and "(I Believe In) Travellin' Light." Both roll along in a 1960s hippie-country kind of way, very Byrds-ish and driven by sweet melodies and an 'on the road again' rolling feeling. I'm a Cuckoo might not present four great new songs, like some B&S EPs have, but it's ultimately just as enjoyable.
Imagine that an Air cover band and a Daft Punk cover band were both flying to Mars, but the members got mixed up between spaceships, so when they arrived they had a couple members of each band, plus James Brown's funky drummer (where'd he come from?). They stood and stared at each other in puzzlement, but then they decided to get down to it and improvise. Somebody caught it all on tape, and mailed it to back to Earth so somebody else could release it as the new album from Black Moth Super Rainbow... Ok, that description's a bit convoluted and ridiculous. It also talks around the serious 1970s vibe that BMSR is on, courtesy of the seriously 70s synthesizers at the music's center. And it ignores how futuristic this album sounds, what with a robot who takes over the microphone every few songs to sing about sunshine in a way that makes you think that either the song's about dreaming a year away on a sunny afternoon or it's about nuclear annihilation. And then there's the phonograph fuzz, the crickets and birds that seem to be flying around under the surface, and the way the band casually slips into a low-key funk groove. It's hard to find comparisons (or words, even) that really get how wonderful the gorgeous yet slightly eerie mood of Start a People is. The wizards in Black Moth Super Rainbow are on some mysterious kaleidoscopic plane of existence, and for 16 or so songs they take you there...and it's a crazy, lovely place to be.
Broken Spindles, Fulfilled/Complete (Saddle Creek)
The better portion of Broken Spindles' Fulfilled/Complete is given over to electronic instrumentals that have a very live, organic feel, not to mention strings that sweep in gorgeously, like the theme to a film. Joel Peterson, bassist for the Faint, is Broken Spindles; his interests seem to lie in several places at once - in calming waves of sound, cinematic atmosphere, dark electro dance music, heavy metal guitars, and new-wave synth-pop that's not all that far removed from the Faint. But he blends it all together in a cohesive way, coming up with an album that sounds both forward-looking and comfortable floating in a piano-and-strings lullaby. Fulfilled/Complete is a pretty album, but it has the same dark edge that hovers over the Faint. The album's essence comes for me in instrumental passages that feel both haunted and pretty. The most Faint-like tracks seem a bit redundant, but still don't slow down the album's overall flow, which is like a sci-fi ghost story taking place in one man's head, told through evil synth and heavenly strings.
The Caribbean, William of Orange EP (Hometapes)
The Caribbean's new EP William of Orange is release number 007 for the Florida-based label Hometapes, and damn if the title song doesn't sound like the story of an undercover agent, or at least somebody's who up to something suspect and doesn't want anyone to know. Other songs have secrets, too: missing files, people tailing other people, kidnappings, enigmatic statements. There's always been something a bit shady about this band the Caribeean...the way they disguise themselves as a corporation, the way they effortlessly write beautiful pop songs that exist in their own universe, low-key strange. On William of Orange their sound is more cohesive than ever, which isn't to say monolithic, just consistent. All 5 songs have a hushed, jazzy cool to them, and a crisp, acoustic type of minimalism that makes their songs more mysterious while giving them an intimacy that heightens the impact. It's hard to explain the Caribbean - they exist in their own plane, one maybe even secret agents would have trouble finding. But it's a lovely, eccentric place, with sounds as smooth as James Bond himself, and twice as cool (he's getting old, after all).
Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)
Much of the conversation so far about Iron and Wine's second album Our Endless Numbered Days has been focused on it being more polished, production-wise, than the homemade recordings that formed his debut, 2003's deservedly well-praised The Creek Drank the Cradle. Too much is being made about that, I think, as the differences are negligible to my ears. If anything, Sam Beam's second album as Iron and Wine sounds so much like the first that it'd be hard for me to identify which was which in a blind test. In fact, Our Endless Numbered Days stays largely under the first album's shadow until the seventh track out of twelve. While all of the tracks before it are pleasurable, mining the same Nick Drake/Elliott Smith-ish gentle folk-pop terrain as the previous album and EP, "Radio War" is so focused and pretty, with sparse guitar strumming that hearkens back to early American folk music, that it makes you stand at attention and realize how lovely this album is on its own. From that point on, the songs get better and better, through to the end. It's also around that halfway point that you begin to hear the album not as a bunch of similar-sounding songs, but as a cohesive meditation on the passing of time. For from the first song "On Your Wings" (with the chorus "God give us love in the time that we have") through to the stirring final song "Passing Afternoon" (where the album's title phrase comes from), Our Endless Numbered Days is obsessed with mortality, with the inevitability of death and how bittersweet that makes life's pleasures and pains. It's a theme that works perfectly with the album's gentle melodies (and its tinge of the blues here and there), to create music that's truly heartbreaking in a quiet, humble way. Our Endless Numbered Days might not sound completely fresh to fans of the early albums (or, for that matter, to fans of this type of music), but that matters little once the songs find their way to your heart.
Mirah With the Black Cat Orchestra, To All We Stretch the Open Arm (YoYo Recordings)
To All We Stretch... precedes Mirah's wonderful new album C'mon Miracle; together the albums show the singer/songwriter's increased interest in using music as social protest, as a way of arguing against injustice and for making the world a better place. That's a small part of C'mon Miracle, but here it's the focus, as Mirah leads the Black Cat Orchestra (a cello/accordion/bass/drums combo) through 12 'protest songs', including two Mirah songs and 10 covers. The songs chosen cover a wide spectrum of time, place, and genre - everything from two Kurt Weill songs to a Dylan classic ("Dear Landlord") and Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." What they have in common is they represent artists speaking their minds about society. Here their emotions and messages come across strongly due to Mirah's talent as a singer and song interpreter - she has a lovely singing voice but also an impeccable sense for what's important in the song, musically and content-wise. And the Black Cat Orchestra's relaxed but stirring performances support hers perfectly. Politically minded musicians don't have to be overly serious or aesthetically bland - the best are able to express such sentiments as honestly and gorgeously as they would if performing a song about love or sadness, and that's exactly what Mirah and the Black Cat Orchestra do here. A beautiful album.
Robert Pollard, Fiction Man (Fading Captain Series)
In recent years, Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard has become taken with making collaborative albums where someone else creates all of the music and then gives the tracks to him to sing his own lyrics and melodies over. The best of these so far have taken Pollard's songs into places different from your average GBV album, whether it's more atmospheric, ambient rock and pop on Airport 5's Life Starts Here, more theatrical prog-rock on Lifeguards' Mist King Urth, or Pollard singing over electronic beats on a few tracks of Go Back Snowball's Calling Zero. Fiction Man, a collaboration between Pollard and Todd Tobias, is stranger in the sense that Tobias' music emulates GBV all the way through. If you told me this was a GBV album and that Pollard wrote all the music, I wouldn't question it. Sure, it's not as anthemic overall as a proper GBV album, but the songs fit the mold of GBV, with 60s-ish rockers and odd but affecting brief pop ballads. It's almost as if Tobias set out to make his own version of GBV's history in one album, using riffs, melodies and moods that allude to earlier songs by the band. In that way the album stands as a weird sort of "fiction": it's a 'Robert Pollard' album where the music was molded in Pollard's image for him by someone else. That said, all of that is sort of irrelevant when you're listening. The songs may not seem completely original, but they're fantastic, with Pollard's impeccable melodic sense and surreal but emotional poetry fitting perfectly over GBV-ian music that recalls for listeners all of the band's strengths, from power ("Paradise Style") to heart ("Children Come On") to eccentricity ("Trial of Affliction and Light Sleeping"). There's some great simple gems here, songs that in a minute or two casually overwhelm - especially a handful of more mellow songs that really capture how great a melody-writer Pollard is, and how really moving his melodies alone can be, not to mention his lyrics. Fiction Man is in its own way an even weirder collaboration for Pollard than the other by-mail partnerships, yet the end result sounds more natural. It might not have the razzle-dazzle newness of some of the others, but ultimately it's just as satisfying.
The Spectacular Fantastic, Vortex of Vacancy (Ionik Records)
"I don't really want to be without you baby/you make everything seem like a dream..." Common sentiments elevated by a perfect melody, an honest demeanor, and a nice mix of rock and synthesizers, on "Eskimo," the first track of Vortex of Vacancy. Like New Equations for the Simple Mind, the last album one-man-band Mike Detmer released as the Spectacular Fantastic, Vortex... represents home-made music of the first-rate variety; basically it's an album filled with catchy, sharp, memorable pop-rock songs, and what's better than that? The mood is generally cheery, the hooks get stuck in your brain, and there's not a song that clunks or stalls the album. Reminiscent at times of the most pop of the Elephant 6 bands (The Apples in Stereo in particular), due to its balance of sugary sweetness with rock and roll, and of groups like Sloan that have an anthemic reach, the Specatular Fantastic also has its country and folk sides, particularly on a stretch of songs near the album's end. No matter the style, the songs stick with you (...and that says something when your ears are as overloaded with music as mine are).