First, Jeff Buckley (and Bob Dylan)
It’s unusual that Buckley covered Dylan as much as he did, because in a key way the two were polar opposites. Dylan doesn’t, really, give a shit about the music (i mean, yeah, he went electric and country and all that, but mostly, dude cared about the words he was singing, not the guitar he was haphazardly strumming). Buckley was so much more about how he was singing than what he was singing. You could be charitable and call “This is our last goodbye /I hate to feel the love between us die/But it’s over” naturalistic and compelling, but then you’re being charitable and not actually paying attention to the average-quality lyrics. While neither could survive without some attention paid to their chosen neglected element, for Buckley the point was the music, and for Dylan it was the lyrics. So then the way Buckley does Dylan is to turn the performance into a sort of talent show cover; he starts with something familiar and then uses that base to establish himself as a unique entity.
There are three Dylan covers on the expanded version of Buckley’s first release- Live at Sin-e. The story is that Buckley played show after show after show at the small East Village club before going into the studio to record his first (and only completed) studio album, Grace. If you’ve got a 2-hour set and only one hour of original material, you’re not going to fill the rest with banter, so covers it is. What he does on all three of the Dylan covers featured on …Sin-e is blow them up. “I Shall be Released” gets an extra 2+ minutes tacked onto The Band’s studio version. “Just Like a Woman” gets 3 minutes extra. And “If You See Her, Say Hello” goes from Dylan’s somewhat compact 4:49 to a panoramic 8 minutes, 18 seconds- nearly double its original length.
Buckley tells a story with his guitar in that extra space. The lyrics, as Buckley sings them, are more moments in between the musical acts which, for Buckley, really make up the song. Look at how he speeds through two verses of the song between 5:14 and 5:50 just so he can have fun with the blocky, mimicked solo that follows. Then look at how he slows down the last verse to fill the holes in his spiderweb guitar playing. He even repeats the last line because he’s not done sustaining the final chord. Dylan almost never repeats lines! Sacrilege! But also great.
The interesting thing about Orcas is they go in the opposite direction you’d think they would. Thomas Meluch, who normally records under the name Benoit Pioulard carves away from pop music like sea mist, hazily and heavy with wet. His partner in Orcas is ambient composer Rafael Anton Irisarri who plays slow drones under his own name and slow drones hooked up to a large hadron collider under the name The Sight Below. You would expect this band to double up on the figurative. You would expect their recently-released album Yearling to drive you through the cloud forest at 5 am before the sun breaks through, if it even will today. Here’s why you’d expect that-
But nope. This album as much in the clouds as it is breaking through them. For every abstract moment like “Petrichor” there’s a slanted, rushing song like “An Absolute.” For the first time in the history of Meluch’s music, the lyrics here are crystalline, discernible, and seemingly very personal.
I don’t doubt the combined songwriting skills of the two principals of Orcas, but substantial credit has to go to the band(/the album)’s drummer, Michael Lerner. Lerner normally plays drums in the wonderful, rigid power-pop band Telekinesis, and he brings a promptness and collectedness to Orcas that prevents things from ethering too much. It’s a welcome addition which pulls some of the more abstract moments back to the woofer.
Next, The Menzingers
Speaking of drumming (which probably happens more than it should on this blog), here’s a band who have released a great album this year which, the drumming will tell you, owes an Atlantic-sized debt to 90s indie rock. The Menzingers are part of a new(ish), small(ish) group of punk bands (including personal favorites like Cheap Girls, as well as bands like Swearin’ and Fireworks) who borrow elements from the crunchy, loud ’90s rock without sounding derivative or out-of-ideas.
One of the easiest ways you can spot the ’90s on Rented Room,The Menzingers’ most recent album, is the backbeat. Unlike, for example, The Strokes/Interpol-style drumming that became popular in the early 2000s where rhythms were skeletal and austere, the 90s was a time when drumbeats were fun, ornamented, and, in their own over-the-top way, pretty emo. There’s an overflowing of sounds coming from the drum set. These songs had more that what was essential.
To make a broad overstatement, the 90s were when indie(/emo) band were unassuming and the drummers for these bands learned from suburban teachers who used to talk about things like “the pocket” “the grove” and “ghost notes.” The students only half-understood, but they tried hard to replicate these things, because this was what being a good drummer was. Yeah, it’s weird to think of 90s indie rock as grooving, but it did.
This was drumming which existed more independently from the rest of the song than, say the backbeats of modern bands like DIIV or Lower Dens or Chvrches do. Likewise, the drumming on Rented Room is a bit showy and dense, but it is so of the 90s era that it single-highhandedly makes the band in dialog with forebears like Superchunk and Velocity Girl. It makes the album more than just an update or a throwback- it’s a conversation.
and for comparison’s sake
Next, Wet Nurse, The Ponys
i mean, sometimes you need to beat the shit out of a bus shelter.
Now back to our regularly scheduled lack of a schedule.
Here are two I was surprised didn’t make the final cut of my end of 2010 list. They were on the first draft, but, because of one part laziness, two parts hesitance, and a sprig of not-quite-good enough, they fell by the wayside. They are both excellent album in their own way.
Benoit Pioulard is part of a (somewhat-) surprisingly large scene of musician from Southeast Michigan, some loud, some quiet (Windy and Carl) some in between (His Name is Alive) whose sounds, despite their varying locations on the sonic spectrum, share a wispiness that reminds me of pulling apart the separate strands of wet branches. I say “somewhat surprising,” because Southeast Michigan, whether in the state highways of Irish Hills, the 3 AM diners of Romulus, or the (I feel exploitative even typing these next words. forgive me), pavement wiles of Detroit, is a place where wind sometimes seems more powerful than the politicians do. It makes sense to me that the music would reflect that.
Pioulard (the recording name of Thomas Meluch) alternates on his recordings between fuzzy, warm ambient pieces, and sweet, mostly acoustic songs which rise out of that fuzz and hammock themselves in your ears. Last year he released Lasted, the first album where the balance shifts from a preponderance of wordless sounds to more obviously structured songs. Yet, interestingly enough, despite their swelling ranks, the more recognizable “songs” stand out less against the ambiance on Lasted than on Meluch’s previous two albums. This is not an obvious record, and it is not one that screams “favorite” necessarily. It, in my mind, is an album for late nights spent spelunking or bike rides to nowhere in particular, seconds after the rain stops falling.
In a similar sonic direction, Dark Dark Dark’s newest album does exactly what I would’ve hoped it would have; opens up the claustrophobic, dense, near-psychotic vaudeville and bluegrass of their previous album, The Snow Magic. It has one of the best album openers of any album released last year, the galloping “In Your Dreams.” It has several tracks of such perfect melancholy that your smile might mop up your tears. It has wonderful and well thought out lyrics which accompany a wide variety of different musical genres.
However (and I hate to, in any capacity, echo the shitty writing and off-base opinions of Pitchfork) the album is as wildly uneven as it can be wildly good. There are tracks that seem like pure mood building, such as the somber “Something for Myself” or the restless “Right Path.” And, I suppose, I’m going to be the impossible-to-please fan when I say this, but the energy that made The Snow Magic such a brisk listen is gone. My good friend Brandon has remarked that Dark Dark Dark are and will continue to be a live act. Even their lyrics sound better live, he contends, and this is certainly the case on “Right Path,” a track whose energy seems somewhat neutered on this album version. The same is true for “Heavy Heart” and the western-tinged “Say The Word.” On Wild Go, Dark Dark Dark give the songs the space and gravity they deserve, hanging each on a wall with a plaque and appropriate light, but in the process, they turned the album into a museum. It’s a little tough to dance in a museum. I would have loved to have love every track on Wild Go as much as I love it’s highlights. If I did, it might have very well been my favorite album of the year, carried by Nona Maria velvety voice and Marshall LaCount stunted but brutal deliveary, and supported by flute, accordion, drums, upright bass, banjo piano, and guitar. I’ll give you two reasons to buy the album, and will not give you any of the reasons not to.