I had the unenviable task of reviewing Train on Tuesday night, a band whose hyper-polished, pseudo-spiritual rock has made for some of the worst singles of the last decade or so. I went in with an open mind, though, hoping that their live set was a more organic and enjoyable thing – if those ubiquitous melodies were executed in an honest way, it could have made for a bit of a good time. Not so, sadly. Not only was Train going through the motions during their Town Ballroom set, but its singer, Patrick Monahan, fancied himself a sarcastic card with a voice of an angel. He began the horrifically saccharine ballad “When I Look to the Sky” by asking the crowd to quiet down so he could sing a cappella, without a mic. It was a nice idea, don’t get me wrong – a gift from a singer to his fans that you rarely get at big rock shows. But when it’s done with this kind of material (“Sky” is clearly inspired by Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”), it’s just gross. When it comes to every aspect of the artistic process, from songwriting to recording and performing, Train isn’t interested in leaving the cozy confines of their modern rock station.
On Plastic Beach, the third effort from the virtual space rock/hip hop group Gorillaz, bandleader Damon Albarn has a revelation akin to that of a Jane Austen character. Ever since his band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, Gorillaz has felt like a lark for Albarn, a fun side project that let him scratch his hip hop itch and do other things he couldn’t do with his primary creative outlet, the much-beloved Britpop group Blur. But at some point over the last few years, the singer/songwriter/producer realized that Gorillaz was more than just a cool diversion. Listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that Albarn has realized that his “other” band is the one he was meant to lead.
On paper, the formula is pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs. Get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild, countering their ebullient contributions with chilled-out electronic grooves and Albarn’s levelheaded vocals. But Plastic Beach is something more than its thoroughly entertaining predecessors – it’s the result of a fully realized vision, in which every pop hook, stylistic twist and pseudo-sci-fi moral has its place.
The loose concept behind the album isn’t going to win any fiction prizes, but the idea of the world as an industrial wasteland marked by lifeless, synthetic shores is an effectively harrowing one. And it’s more than enough for Albarn and his star-studded peanut gallery to sink their teeth into, whether it’s Mos Def and Bobby Womack breathing soulful fire into the early-Depeche Mode groove of “Stylo,” De La Soul gleefully rapping about futuristic fast food on “Superfast Jellyfish” or Lou Reed lending his incomparable monotone to the gloriously catchy “Some Kind of Nature.”
For the first time, Albarn has made a record that’s as adventurous and bold as its guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. The magnificent “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap for a track that has an immediacy and personality all its own. And when Albarn follows it up with the emotionally resonant post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s eyes glitter “like factories far away,” it becomes clear that there’s nothing at all cartoonish about these Gorillaz anymore.
Like Emma Woodhouse, Damon Albarn has realized that his real muse was right in front of his face all of these years. And he’s made it awfully hard to not fall in love with Plastic Beach.
Just heard that Mark Linkous, who wrote and recorded fragile, lo-fi head trips of songs under the name Sparklehorse for the last 15 years, took his own life over the weekend. It’s a great loss for fans of honest, ambitiously weird music; I’m selfishly sad that I only have one more Sparklehorse album to look forward to (his label has confirmed that Linkous was almost finished with a new record). While his 1990s work was beautifully grungy, Linkous really came into his own over the last decade, releasing two surefire masterpieces, 2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life and 2006’s Dreamt For Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, both of which smacked of a crackling satellite transmission from a musically gifted man on the moon.
I interviewed Linkous around the release of Dreamt …, and was blown away by his humility. When I shared that I’d been a fan of his for a long time, he thanked me with surprising earnestness. You can check it out here.
The eighth album from Eels, End Times, is its bleakest work yet. And that really says something. Since the band – essentially a one-man show with a rotating mix of instrumentalists rounding it out – released its universally acclaimed second album, Electro-Shock Blues, in 1998, its oeuvre has been dominated by themes of untimely death and nihilistic loneliness. But End Times is different, in two fundamental ways. First, it’s a breakup album, which is new territory for singer/songwriter/bandleader Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”). Second, perhaps because it’s a breakup album, there’s no black humor to be found, something you could always rely on to clear up the stormy skies of prior Eels records. Still, for all of its woebegone self-loathing, End Times mostly works, continuing down the minimalist musical path Everett’s favored on his last few records, and spotlighting his painfully honest, conversational lyrics. “She locked herself in the bathroom again/So I am pissing in the yard,” he sings on the beautifully heartsick “A Line in the Dirt,” bemoaning his self-destructive nature over a plaintive piano. “In My Younger Days” finds the artist grappling with the onset of middle age, finding that it’s tougher to bounce back than it once was. The title track compares the break-up to the rapture over lone, autumnal guitar chords. All of these moments work, however melodramatic they may seem on paper, because the sincerity is palpable in Everett’s lightly graveled voice, as well as his humble arrangements. And if it wasn’t for his pair of attempts at fuzz-rock – especially the jarringly out-of-place, tossed-off-sounding “Paradise Blues” – End Times could be a sad-sack breakup album for the ages, something for miserable hipsters to turn to when they’re feeling especially mopey. If you’re not in the mood to hear a guy falling apart on tape, this album most definitely isn’t for you. But if raw, heart-on-sleeve expression is your bag, and it’s a rainy Sunday morning, you’ll find a lot to love about this relationship apocalypse tale.
This review also appeared in Artvoice. Read it again in a different milieu!
Interested in my thoughts on earlier Eels records? Too bad! Here’s my review of the band’s 2006 live album, Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall.
And my take on the 2005 double-disc Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (#14 on my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s list).
In my latest movie-going ventures, I’ve learned that when adapting a story for the screen, you can have the most state-of-the-art technology and stunning visual sensibilities on your side, and still make a stinker that will bore the most Ritalin-addled child. At the end of the day, a compelling story, simply told, has more flash and dazzle than any CGI effect. Now’s the part where I tell you what to do.
See It: A Single Man
In director Tom Ford’s adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man, there’s plenty of opportunities for swelling melodrama and soapbox shouting. The movie details a day in the life of George Falconer (played with subtle precision by Colin Firth), a British professor at a Los Angeles university in the early-’60s whose world is shattered when his lover dies. His loneliness consumes him, invades his dreams and fogs his mind while giving a lecture about an Aldous Huxley novel. And because his lost love was another man, Falconer has nobody to turn to for solace – even his best friend Charlotte from across the pond (Julianne Moore at her booziest) passes George’s love off as a flight of fancy, arguing that they should have been together instead. Thankfully, Ford has little time for tear-soaked temper tantrums, depicting Falconer’s emotional breakdown as a subterranean entity that drives its host to the brink, and using the character’s suicide attempts as fodder for black humor. By the end, although a light at the end of the tunnel flickers brightly, it’s not enough to save a man who spent his life loving, and mourning, in the shadows.
Flee It: Alice In Wonderland
By the end of Tim Burton’s latest take on a beloved tale, the main character has learned valuable lessons about the kind of life she wants to lead. If only the movie itself could have had such definitive ideas. On paper, of course, Alice In Wonderland seemed a perfect marriage of director and subject matter – a master of modern fairytales reimagining one of the most fantastical stories in all of children’s literature. But perhaps because the match was so perfect, and such a surefire moneymaker, Burton didn’t bother to take the story apart and rebuild it with the loving, critical eye of a fanboy, like he did in Batman, where we were introduced to characters we knew and loved as if we’d never met them before. Here, it’s assumed that you know who The Mad Hatter is, so there’s no point in explaining why he’s mad, beyond showing that he used to have a gig with the White Queen, and now he doesn’t. Johnny Depp is equally disinterested in adding anything to the character, beyond a lazy giggle and a dance sequence that’s the most embarrassing moment of Burton’s career. (Helena Bonham Carter’s spirited, hilarious take on the Red Queen makes Depp’s stumblings all the more glaring.) And the story itself is a hodge-podge of British fantasy cliches – a child finds a magical world, becomes its most famous resident, joins the battle between good and evil, slays a dragon and goes home forever changed. It’s an insult to the deranged brilliance of Lewis Carroll, and makes the 1951 Disney version seem artfully told by comparison. The biggest change of Burton’s adaptation is the addition of C.S. Lewis’ most famous idea to the plot’s gloppy stew – Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who’s been visiting Wonderland since she was six, although it takes her a while to remember that. As she makes her way through this beautifully visualized place, Alice feels like the characters she meets are somewhat familiar, but she can’t quite place them in her mind. Maybe that’s because behind all the fabulous makeup, spot-on costumes and stunning CGI, there are only echoes of real creativity.
I’m about a week late posting these comments about Melissa Ferrick’s show at Babeville’s basement club The Ninth Ward, but you can chalk it up to me still getting my wits back after being thoroughly blown away. Well, not really. You can chalk it up to laziness. Still, the singer/songwriter was in top form, playing beautifully constructed songs and positioning them as one side of a lively conversation. Her guitar playing is magnificently fiery at times; I can’t imagine the calluses she must have. Going in not knowing much about Ferrick, I left with a real desire to hear more, and a feeling that I had just taken part in something genuine. Check my review, if you don’t believe me. And if you don’t feel like clicking, then this paragraph that was cut from the story sums up my thoughts: “After a career that began with lots of mainstream promise, the trappings of stardom proved elusive for Melissa Ferrick. And thank god for that, because this music is too nuanced and heartfelt for cold, cavernous arenas. Its copious charms deserve to be heard up close, by a crowd that’s in the moment, ready to catch her if she falls.”