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Friday, February 24, 2006

Click on this bbc link and watch all three performances by Joanna Newsom. Start with "Peach, Plum, Pear." I went out and bought the album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and have been listening to it daily for a week. Here's a Pitchfork review of the album, and a Newsom interview.

The album was released back in 2004, and had escaped my attention until a couple of weeks back when I heard a cut - "Peach..." on a friend's ipod. I walked to my pc and ordered the album. I do this all the time, impulsively plunk down money for an entire album on the basis of an infatuation with one song, and the majority of time I quickly discover why the record company picked that particular song to promote and radio stations to play. My rec room is full of cds that haven't been spun since the second week I owned them. This one, it's been ripped to the home and work pcs, and is in the short rotation in the car. I like it that much.

As the BBC link implies, Newsom is associated with bands like Animal Collective and singers like Devendra Banhart or, as the BBC calls it, "the New Weird America," a somewhat purposely (I assume) ironic label since Animal and Banhart and Newsom are producing folk-tinged music with relatively simple instrumentation. To produce naive music in a time of computer loops and easy sampling and elaborate production in itself isn't new or weird, but when combined with what seems to be a genuine wonder at the pleasure of making the music, there is a charming joy of discovery emanating from the songs. Note I do not say "innocence." Why this is "new" and "weird" - and those are certainly adjectives that apply to Newsom and Animal Collective - warrants further listening and thinking. (And I'm going to revisit Banhart - his Cripple Crow of last fall left me indifferent, and I'm not all the familiar with his earlier.)

But here's what hooked me: her voice reminded me of, of, of.... I couldn't figure it out. It took me days. How soon we forget: Victoria Williams. The wonder of hearing a single song - I discover a new artist that intrigues me, I rediscover a musician whose music I used to adore.

Dance, Monkey

I confess to having heard, thinking back, a few Arctic Monkeys songs before I knew they were Arctic Monkey songs, and I neither liked nor disliked them - they sound like another variant on the Bloc Party Kaiser Chiefs Franz Ferdinand 80s raiding party line of impossibly lanky stupidly haircutted bands. They all riff on Joy Division and early Cure and all the bands that were important to me when I was in my 20s, so I enjoy the songs as much for the pings they elicit in my memories as for the music itself, which I hasten to add can be quite good on occasion.

But when I'm told:
the hyperbolic wags have outdone themselves with the breathless buzz surrounding the Arctic Monkeys, an ascendant post-punk quartet that is, apparently, the greatest U.K. band since the Sex Pistols -- or at the very least, since the Stone Roses. Or Oasis. Or maybe the Verve or the Libertines.

Whatever. NME magazine recently declared the Monkeys' debut, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," the fifth-greatest British album ever . According to this heretical new NME math, the Monkeys are greater than the Beatles.

my instincts immediately shift to the suspicion that I'm being worked. The reviewer concedes The Arctic Monkeys aren't that good, but the album is:

brash and boisterous, (and)... crackles with unbridled adolescent energy -- so much so that it often sounds as though it's about to combust. It's the most exciting new album to have roared through my headphones since, well, the start of this year (whatever that's worth).

All Things Considered has an audio review broadcast Tuesday. They make much of the band being young and from Sheffield, a midlands city gone to decay with the decline of the British steel industry, claiming The AMs speak to British youth in ways their rivals do not. So here is a band hyped for both its music and its street credibility. That they are not, in fact, mannequin good-looking (like the ridiculously pretty The Strokes) also feeds the street cred. Here's a Guardian review that implies that The AMs' hype has a bit to do with the DIY/internet angle (much like CYHSY). Here's a Salon review of a live show.

I still neither like nor dislike the music enough to advocate anything more than trying it yourself, but I do find it interesting that a band making relatively similar and not distinctively (to me) superior music to a whole passel of bands working the same lineage is generating a press buzz aimed at superstarring the band. Almost every review I've read compares the AMs to the same bands and mentions their Sheffield background, which means that reviewers around the world are hearing some superlative quality in the music of The AMs that elevates their music above those bands to which they're compared, but also means that the fact that the AMs come from an urban-poor economic background somehow more deeply authenticates their sound. My guess, and it's a guess only, is that the latter has more oomph, if for no other reason than it grants weight to the genre as a whole - it's not a bunch of upper-middle class college kids playing at angst and anger. The DIY angle serves to demonstrate that the AMs aren't a prepackaged band produced to mimic a sound record companies think will sell.

All of which to say, I am predisposed to distrust the hype, often at the band's music's expense. The emphasis on the reviews of the AMs is not on the music but on the band. I wonder if Bloc Party had been from the crumbling Sheffield and its members promoted as angry sons of laid-off steelworkers seeking meaning in post-industrial Britain their music would be just as praised. I'm not saying The AMs' music is not good - it leaves me relatively indifferent, but that's taste. And I acknowledge, even pride myself, that this type of hype - "the fifth greatest British album ever(?)" - makes me suspicious. I acknowledge that I'm petty enough to resent being told to love this album or else. I wonder if there are as many people who can't judge The AMs' music fairly because they've bought the hype as there are people like me who can't judge The AMs' fairly because they won't.

* * * * *
Have another High Violets song. I like this one I posted earlier much better, but....

Things Amongst the Busyness

I've been asked: When am I going to write about the new Beth Orton? Now, I suppose.

It's fine. Really. Here's the thing: she is perfectly entitled to make the album she wants to make, the way she wants it to sound. She said, in an interview between live performances of songs she did on KEXP back on January 9, that she wants to pare down her sound, make it, eventually, as part of her musical evolution, "just me and my guitar." Comfort of Strangers isn't just Orton and her guitar, but it is audibly less airy and mysterious and beeping and booping and loopy and mystical and spooky and forlornly wispy than her previous albums. Think of the two versions of the title cut from the album Central Reservation, one sparse and acoustic and folk, the other textured and layered and filled to bursting with sound. To me, the first is a fine song, the second a fabulous creation.

In one of my first posts here I wrote about the new Eno album and my response to it, wondering about what responsibility I had as a long listener to Eno in the expectations I brought to a new album. I've written that I love Beth Orton. And while there are clear differences between Eno and Orton, both in their music and in their respective importance in music history, there is one key difference in my reactions to both of their new albums: Eno left me blah because he hadn't changed his sound, Orton left me blah because she has. Which means I feel a greater responsibility to revisit Comfort of Strangers, relisten a few more times at least. If she, as an artist, makes a conscious move to a different sound then I, as a fan and advocate, need to be sure it's not just my expectations that have been disappointed when the new music leaves me underwhelmed. I need to give the music a chance to underwhelm me itself.


There is a new collection of William Gass essays just published. Those of you who perked up at the mention of William Gaddis over on the mothership can get to a review and my take here.


Hey, here's an listen to the great Television song Marquee Moon.