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.
“I’m flexible” is a funny phrase, stretched between one meaning and its opposite. “I’m flexible” can be an acrobat who’s also a trapeze artist and a contortionist who eats fire and bends legs behind their head. It can the baseball player whose face adorns giant banners outside of the hometown stadium because, somehow, he hits, pitches, catches, and plays shortstop like he was meant for each role separately. It can be Craig Wedren and his band Shudder to Think, whose voice leaps octaves and whose songs are all about fireworks, only fireworks set off dangerously close to your head. Taking equal doses of punk, post-punk, glam, and a not-yet-really-in-existence genre known as math rock, the band were admired by many but loved by few because the time when they were active, the 90s, was not a time when a punk kid would listen to bowie or when a Joy Division fan would own up to liking Rites of Spring.
Shudder to Think were the best kind of musical anomaly, the kind that’s not a flash in the pan. Instead the group managed to create a deep, complicated back catalog with wonderful diversity. Especially in their tenure of Dischord, Shudder to Think wrote aggressive, often-hostile songs, but I can’t help but smile when I listen to them. “X-French Tee Shirt”, the first single off their major label debut, their major label debut, is a grinding, slithering song which features exactly one chord.
Like I said, though, “I’m Flexible” can also be anonymous, pliant, background, a doormat. “Hey, nobody wants to work the Saturday night shift at the pizza place? I can do it, I’m Flexible.” “No, I don’t need a cut in the earnings of the screenplay I wrote. I’m flexible on that point.” etc. And that’s not what you would have pictured from a band with as much personality as Shudder to Think. But their last recorded material, the soundtrack to the 1998 art-house film First Love, Last Rites finds the band reigning it back. A lot.
This isn’t to say the album isn’t diverse and plenty weird and plenty fun and end-to-end brilliant, it’s just to say it sounds like the work of 13 different bands, not one Shudder to Think. The band’s signature traits- changing time signatures, repetition that borders on grating, a vocalist who sounds like he’s getting his arms pulled off by horses, are nowhere to be found on First Love, Last Rites. I’ve never seen the movie which the soundtrack stems from, but I know that it is based off a short story collection by Ian McEwan, so perhaps that explains the album’s scattered sound.
Part of the reason this doesn’t feel like a Shudder to Think album is because Craig Wedren’s vocals are only on three of the tracks, one of them a rerecording of a song which Jeff Buckley sings on earlier in the album. As good of a voice as Wedren has, his version sounds flat in comparison to Buckleys. On the bulk of the album, Shudder to Think act as a backing band to some of the biggest indie acts of the 90s. The album works so well because Shudder to Think wrote songs so perfectly tailored to each guest singer; and so the singer puts everything he or she has into it.
On“When I Was Born, I Was Bored” Billy Corgan’s sneers so well you will wish that Smashing Pumpkins wrote more punk songs. On “Speed of Love” John Doe gets to sing the exact country ballad he’d been aiming for since X broke up. Jeff Buckley gets to channel Stax R&B on opener “I Want Someone Badly”. Liz Phair gets to sing like a 50s pop star, with her thin voice perfectly reflecting the coy, sarcastic words she’s singing. Robin Zander gets the most spectacularly poppy song that Cheap Trick never wrote. Nina Person from the Cardigans sings a touching, intimate lullaby backed only by a ukulele. Matt Johnson from The The (Remember “This is The Day”? If not, it’s time for you to rewatch Empire Records.) gets to sounds crazy swampy and backwoods-y.
And, most surprising of all, the always stoic and serious married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low get to vamp the fuck out on a hilarious Crystals homage (replete with awesome spoken word introduction). Every track sounds fun, but every track also sounds committed and professional. This isn’t just people messing around with a major label budget.
And so you get flexibility at the other extreme and see that ceding ego doesn’t mean things fall apart. If Shudder to Think had tried to play every track on First Love, Last Rites, the album would have failed. Here’s a band which began with an insurmountable personality and ended on a high note because they were able to subvert that.
“I Want To Love Someone Badly (Feat. Jeff Buckley)” “When I Was Born, I Was Bored (Feat. Billy Corgan)” “Appalachian Lullaby (Feat Nina Persson)” and “Just Really Want To See You (Feat. Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker)” are all from Shudder To Think’s soundtrack to the movie First Love, Last Rites.
And more summer songs!
And more summer shows!
- The across-the-board-exceptional-looking Square Roots Fest is happening up in Lincoln Square this weekend.
- John Langford wants to tell you a story at the Hideout this friday.
- White Magic play the Burlington on Saturday.
- Joan of Arc play something mysterious called the Swerp Mansion on the 27th!
- Aesop Rock plays the Metro on the 28th.