It wouldn’t be surprising if most casual Pollard fans (and even the diehards) on first listen might pass his new album off like the homogenous albums that came during the man’s prolific, yet middlin’-to-good Merge period. One might even retitle the record “Business As Usual.” But listen again—and again—and see that Bob’s foray into self-employment (this is the first for his GBV Inc. label) is truly wiping the slate clean, honing his craft, and coming up with a realized work that rivals anything he’s done in the past decade. Perhaps he’s been privy to the grumbles of discontent claiming the man has released too much material for his own good, wearing his quasi-legendary name thin, and leaving those casuals previously noted searching the back catalog instead of moving forward. For the geeks, though, has there been an album in the 00’s that stands up to the day he dissolved his bread-and-butter group?
On Off to Business Pollard’s fetish with prog pomp and circumstance finally bears fruit. Before these Genesis-inspired excursions out of his comfort zone resulted in laborious bridges hastily grafted onto second-tier melodies, ultimately weighing down the songs in glut. But here, as on the lead single “Weatherman and Skin Goddess” and the fireworks finale “Wealth and Hell-Being,” the synthesis of quirky movements, tangled guitar squiggles and epic riffs seems naturally spun, and subsequently rich harmonies and fist-raising anthems emerge. This is especially true with “The Blondes,” an acoustic and mellotron led ballad that recalls the lilting psychedelia of classically overlooked bands like Spirit and Parachute-era Pretty Things. And when Bob’s privy to shove some indulgence down the gullet—“To the Path!”—the results sound necessary; it’s the rumbling beginning to the album’s third act which balances Townshend-esque bombast with Peter Gabriel’s quixotic lyricism and sense of adventure. The former wandering boy poet is no longer singing about the imagination so much as the intrapersonal. There’s obviously a hard woman in his life, and she’s geared his talk towards justifying his age, complex psychologies and absolute truths.
As if these challenging progressive suites aren’t enough, Off to Business is peppered with Pollard’s quick-fix, spartan-pop. “1 Years Old,” “Western Centipede” and the wah-wah high gloss of “Gratification to Concrete” could easily fit into GBV’s golden age (or better yet, one of his solo sides for Matador), and here add to an already strong collection of songs. Of course Todd Tobias is in tow, playing every instrument and producing, and if there’s any reservation with Off to Business it lies with the milky, sameness of his sonics. Wishing for a shred of tape hiss, flubbed tracks, and some 30-second abstracts is asking for too much these days—those tricks are for (Psycho and) the birds. But that’s merely nitpicking through an album that asserts Robert Pollard might in fact be taken for granted in the indie rock universe; since deciding to do a little editing he’s produced what could blossom into a mid-career renaissance.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Gratification to Concrete”
Lord knows Jason Spaceman (nee Pierce) has been finding inspiration down at the crossroad where the blues and gospel meet as far back as Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3’s sophomore album from 1987. So it doesn’t take a near death experience (Spaceman was hospitalized with double pneumonia during the making of Songs in A&E) for him to see the light, so to speak. However, it seems to have caused him to translate some of that fragility to record, peeling back the heavy sonic gauze in which he’s wrapped those influences for so long.
Following the first of a series of “Harmony” interludes (named in tribute to Harmony Korine, for whose film, Mr. Lonely, Jason recorded the music) that are interspersed throughout the album, “Sweet Talk” reveals Spaceman’s voice at its rawest. While the track makes vague reference to the war, it also conveys a certain amount of bodily vulnerability, so much so that one can almost hear the morphine-drip as the track slowly builds to a hymnlike level. Indeed, the subsequent song, “Death Take Your Fiddle,” is built on the rhythm of a respirator as Spaceman delivers a beautifully simple blues reverie on staring his mortality in the face. Similarly, “Sitting on Fire” is beset with purposefully lethargic vocals, making for a compelling counterpoint to the lyrical refrain of “An old flame still burns in my heart.”
Still, it’s not all so languid. “Baby I’m Just a Fool is a golden mix of melody and vibraphone as Spacemen seemingly delights in his vitality, singing “Heaven it ain’t easy you know I got the scars to show I’m here.” But it’s the interplay of paradoxes that make this record such a gem: gospel joy and blues dirge; life and death; simplicity and symphonic. It may be a vein that runs dry after this record, but Spiritualized has tapped into something truly breathtaking.
With Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket’s profile has now been raised to mega. A band made classic by way of mega-creation, mega-drive and mega-vision. It seems like only yesterday we were touting the big-sky psychedelia of It Still Moves, then the risky experimentation found on Z, and now that they’ve rightfully been established as the world’s greatest live band (a claim with which I’d have to agree), where is there left to go? That question can be answered with a sizable chunk of Urges, a mega-album filled with swirling and stewing guitars, jam- and string-heavy epics and haunting wide-screened folk. And while much of the record sounds familiar, MMJ manages to dodge every preconceived bullet shot at them without completely getting out of the way.
Over the years, Jim James and the boys have absorbed all their united loves with grace; here they go beyond. They assuredly shine from the roots up, having mastered the language of Neil Young, the Band and the Allman Brothers, twisting twang and noodly dinosaur riffs to a massive level of enjoyment. In that mode, things may get redundant when the country-tinged “Sec Walkin’” precedes the Everly Brothers hosted, ’50s prom feel of “Two Halves,” but in the context of the wildly eclectic whole of Urges, both become unique puzzle pieces. Likewise “Thank You Too” and “Smokin’ from Shootin’” tend to form out of retro soft-rock motifs. The former is a breezy, sickly sweet ballad that is potentially James’ finest pop song to date, while the latter slowly bubbles into a Floydian space-out. Despite the band’s penchant for apostrophes and a lead foot on the pedal steel, they always conjure an atmosphere that shows evidence that the band continues to grow.
It’s when Urges goes for broke that it’s safe to call this one a monster. “Remnants” barrels in like a plains tornado, James gasping for air, almost out of breath. It certainly sounds like a stretch—mammoth metal riffs buttressed with bittersweet introspection— but it’s the closest they’ve come in the studio to capturing the sonic monolith they command on stage. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2” flickers and throbs in a stunning cycle of desert soul, and “The Librarian,” though including some questionably goofy lyrics, is a creepy, yet hypnotic pleasure.
An album this sprawling isn’t without missteps (i.e. Tusk). James’ inner-Prince can’t save the embarrassing “Highly Suspicious,” and “Aluminum Park” is a romp without purpose. To say the least though, they’re likely to abandon the falsetto next time round. But these cuts do little to dampen the spirit of anyone indulging in Urge’s mountains and quasars. For My Morning Jacket, these are special times, and this, perhaps their first masterpiece, perfectly reflects that notion.
Kevin J. Elliott
After an album, Road to Rouen, that had the band traveling down a winding path of dimly lit pop, Supergrass returns with a record designed to prove that the one-time teenage upstarts still have plenty of vigor left. It’s their sixth in 14 years and while Diamond Hoo Ha may not exactly have the same gleeful exuberance of debut I Should Coco, it’s festooned with the same bevy of hooks and racing melodies that the band has long made its stock-and-trade.
But leadoff cut, “Diamond Hoo Ha Man,” surely catches one off-guard. With big, bluesy riffs, the song may be derived from the same T. Rex records to which the band has long listened, but it comes by way of the White Stripes, singer Gaz Coombes channeling more Jack White howl than Marc Bolan coo. While a decent display of balls-out brash, it lacks the finesse we’ve come to expect from Supergrass. Fortunately, the band quickly finds its footing, the “Rebel in You” a well stirred cocktail of harmonic refrains, soaring guitar and keyboard tapping. Similarly, “When I Needed You” is a plunky mix of minor chords and piano-led melody, while, with its sugary licks and fat synths, the quirky funk of “Rough Knuckles” is reminiscent of Speaking in Tongues–era Talking Heads.
It seems like every superstar has a secret desire to break away from his or her day job. Actors want to sing, musicians want to act and superstar producers want to take it to the stage. Such is the case for the Neptunes, a.k.a. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Not satisfied with creating platinum hits for other people, they gave their friend Shay Haley a call and formed N.E.R.D. (an acronym for No One Ever Really Dies) in 2001. Now, after a four-year hiatus, N.E.R.D. is back with Seeing Sounds.
There has always been a rock and hip-hop hybrid within N.E.R.D. but Seeing Sounds manages to combine the sounds and lyrical concerns of the first two records, add some more musical styles to the mix and still sound cohesive. Lyrically, there are equal amounts of party time, social commentary and songs for the ladies. It’s a tricky balance because in N.E.R.D. Pharrell is a rapper, a Curtis Mayfield imitator, an R&B crooner and shouty rock cheerleader. On this record it seems not only effortless, but the most natural juxtaposition in the world.
Seeing Sounds seems to be a very loosely themed record based on being able to “see the music.” To be fair, the only time the idea is mentioned is in the intro, where record heatwaves prevent young Pharrell from playing outside. So, he stays in and discovers he can “see sounds.” Awkwardly, this monologue is tacked onto the beginning of the first track “Time For Some Action.” The song starts as a sparse bass and drum workout that slowly adds the Neptunes’ old trademarks of ’60s spy movie guitar with slightly distorted keyboard stabs. But instead of just rehashing old formulas, N.E.R.D. shows what has been added to its musical toolbox since the last record. “Anti Matter” adds touches of drum ’n’ bass breakdowns while Pharrell does his best Dirty South emcee turn on the mic. “Sooner Or Later” goes full tilt Beatles (or is it ELO?) until the extended coda where Brent Paschke, from N.E.R.D’s former touring band Spymob, lays on the guitar heroics.
On this very strong showing, special mention has to be given to “Everybody Nose.” Somehow N.E.R.D. manages to criticize “all the girls standing in the line to the bathroom” and simultaneously create an anthem for those girls. This record may not be the one to finally push Williams and Hugo into the platinum selling stratus of their clients, but it does show that moonlighting can be a good thing.
Dorian S. Ham