Antony pushes further and further from the center, and thank God for that. The Crying Light is his (and the Johnsons’) most striking effort. From the cover photo of butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, to the first, fluttering notes of “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground” until the strings fade out at the end of “Everglade,” it’s artful, passionate, and pained.
Angel-voiced Antony wastes no time in setting out his path for us. The album opens with a bizarre paean to death and motherhood, veering from abstract melodies and dissonant chord changes then resolving into pretty, major scales. The players barely stroke their bows against the strings until the last minute of the song, which ends in a dirge. Just as resolutely, Antony switches modes, delivering the art-folk of “Epilepsy Is Dancing.” Again his melodies jump from simple and pleasing to darker shades to the soaring chorus without the benefit of pop-oriented transitions—not that they’re needed.
The Crying Light is full of these oddities and pleasures. The meandering sound of “One Dove” brings to mind Jane Siberry’s weirdest work, full of creaking, squeaking noise. Both “Kiss My Name” and “Dust and Water” feature Antony bouncing around the choruses, enunciating little but nonsense syllables. On the hymn-like title track, Antony reaches to embrace a metaphor big enough for his love. “I was born to adore you,” he begins, but that’s not nearly big enough. So, accompanied by pleading violins, he resolves “to carve your face into the back of the sun.” Somehow though, a few minutes later, he digs even deeper on “Aeon,” coming on like a contra-tenor soul singer, praising eternity and begging the universe to take care of his dear father’s soul.
For full effect, you should dim the lights and get out some candles before hearing “Another World,” the centerpiece of the album. It’s all lingering pauses and tiny gestures of piano and pitch, and it’s one of the loneliest poems ever put to music. Strangely it’s an ode to a place, not a person, but by the time Antony intones “I’m gonna miss the wind, been kissing me so long,” you’ll be in love with it too.
MP3: "Another World"
As if it isn’t next to impossible already to keep up with Robert Pollard’s myriad side-projects and attempts to relive the time spent in a tried and true rock band (see Boston Spaceships), he’s claimed that in 2009 he’ll be releasing a total of six records under various guises. Never one to forsake his word, he’s begun the deluge right off, with The Crawling Distance, an album affixed firmly with his birth name. A good rule of thumb in the Pollard universe is, when in doubt, to gravitate towards the solo records, as from Not In My Airforce to Kid Marine and up to last autumn’s Off to Business, are solid sketches, decidedly more personal sonic novellas, usually trimmed of the indulgently questionable material saved for howling wolf orchestras and motels of fools.
For The Crawling Distance, Pollard dresses in the garb of an aging singer-songwriter, actually somewhat subdued compared to recent efforts, weaving a second-half of lilting prog-balladry in songs like “On Short Wave” (an indie version of Zeppelin’s “The Ocean”) and “Imaginary Queen Anne.” The latter squares the notion that Pollard has settled into lengthy, layered, torch-bearing classic rock—only bit with the quirky twist his mid-career renaissance has produced. In “No Islands” there are echoes of the homespun melancholy that once boosted Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, in which a horizon of gray and concrete outlines the mythic fields of fantasy Pollard imagines. “It’s Easy” is the highlight here, portraying Pollard as working-class hero imbedded in woozy, nearly frame-by-frame melody. The song is striking in that the artist has never sounded calmer and equally as vulnerable.
Of course, conspirator Tim Tobias is still a fixture in Pollard’s pallete, making for goofy grunt-punk like “Cave Zone” and “Silence Be Destroyed.” Yet on The Crawling Distance, along with these surprisingly quieter moments, it all rolls into one quick, satisfying, chunk—wrapped by the Tommy/Sgt. Pepper’s-esque finale “Too Much Fun.” And if fun is what he’s aiming for, I haven’t heard this much from him in some time.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: "Imaginary Queen Anne"
Australian and Clue to Kalo mastermind Mark Mitchell has crafted a small masterpiece of a concept album, which thankfully, need not be listened to with that in mind. It’s all connected, sure, but this wonderful rainbow of pop songs doesn’t need a storyline—or even the central, fictional character—to hold it together.
Nevertheless, each song title on Lily Perdida is appended with a byline (e.g. “By the Parents”), letting you know which of the fictional ingenue’s associates is singing the song. It’s helpful in deciphering the consistently evasive lyrics, and it also lends credence to the shifts from track to track. Indeed, Mitchell sonically adapts to the various viewpoints by changing up the meter and tone of the songs to fit with his carefully chosen instrumentation. As on“Lull for Dear Live,” where Lily’s parents sing, “Sleep sound and safe, child,” we hear glockenshpiel, piano, and a little organ. Other characters get doses of groovy guitars here, a little ’60s swing there, and a healthy bit of french horn in a lot of the nooks and crannies. Mitchell’s tuneful vocals and tasteful drumming help to hold the whole thing together.
Ellen Carey, Mitchell’s frequent duet-partner, also adapts as the occassion demands, channelling Joanna Newsom and Isobell Campbell and ably putting her own stamp on “It’s Here the Story’s Straight” and “Used to the Carrier.” Some of the best moments emerge when the pair teams up and the instruments fade away, leaving room for beautifully sung ostinato phrases, teeming with harmonies that, while certainly lush, sound like the twin singers are on the verge of heartbreak.
Apparantly, the whole thing was recorded on Mitchell’s laptop. It’s a step-forward for laptop-rock then, as Lily Perdida expands the scope of the genre, standing exceptionally tall on its own and proving downright epic by comparison.
MP3: "The Infinite Orphan By the Familiars"
There were high hopes for whatever would come after Dins, the debut from elusive New York quartet Psychic Ills, hopes that the impenetrable psych-jams the bore into atmosphere would peak into something of their own aura, sharper edges and harnessed chaos, instead of another round of overblown recollections of Spacemen 3 and the Elevators’ brown-acid downers. Mirror Eye is not that record, but that possible elation is not dashed, just drawn askew. The Psychic Ills composed their sophomore effort, the same way a band like Bardo Pond conjures majestic blasts, by continually chasing the tail, never fully arriving at a destination, but go-your-own-way psych.
If Mirror Eye were stripped of the Eastern mysticism and the third-eye labyrinths evoked in the guitar and tabla jams—made for the temple and the opium den in equal measures—Psychic Ills would be dealing solely in vaporous dub and drone electronics. Both the 10-minute intro, “Mantis,” and the song’s successor, “Meta,” use rubbery subterranean bass lines and stretched oscillations to lead things into a hypnotic dread, allowing their snaking riffs, echoed chants and communal percussion to weave deceptively in and out of the haze. The only real tune in sight comes with “Fingernail Tea,” but even then the proceedings leave a druggy subconscious imprint rather than a verse and chorus. Still though, it’s a veritable sunrise compared to the album’s sinister incantations. Mirror Eye was likely created as one long meditation piece rather than the JAMC-crusted throwback of singles into which the group could’ve easily leaned, which in context gives the truly improvised moments more substance than mere filler. The answer to the puzzle is found in the ambiguity of the record’s intent. Void of borders, was this just a band simply marveling at the cave paintings, swerving off the beaten path on their way to something more profound?
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: "Fingernail Tea"
This record is a bit country, a little bit indie, a little bit perplexing, and a little bit frustrating. So, is this alt-country? No, we’ve already been through that. Bluegrass-emo, then? Taken on their own, some of these songs would fit into Damian Jurado’s latest set, some others could have come from a Phish member’s solo album. As a group though, they only make sense in context with each other.
Most of the songs on Light Poles and Pines are strong, their melodies would be great for Feist or someone like that, and lyrically they’re definitely above average, even occassionally quite moving. But the performances are what is off-putting. The banjo and pedal steel are glib and unconvincing, and actually get in the way of the songwriting. There are plenty of opportunities for more interesting playing, but the band takes too little advantage of them. When they slow it down on “Isn’t She Awful” and “Bound to Go Home,” it’s impossible to convince myself I haven’t heard the song four dozen times before. Worst of all, the vocals are awfully nasally and after a few tracks they start to really grate.
I was happiest when the ladies took over the singing duties on “Rope Don’t Break” and “Life and Death at Sea,” providing a a more interesting tambre and a nice change of pace. In the background role, the boys come through with soulful pocket harmonies. Another highlight is “Prayer for the Road,” where the indie tendencies give way to a joyful hillbilly stomp. I defintiely hear a washboard, and is someone playing a comb? I hear they’re a heck of a stage band, and this is likely another case of a great live act that nevers sounds as lively on record. That’s too bad, I’d love to hear the energy of “Prayer” bursting out all over the album. Or, the Whale have definitely got a lot of spirit; they’ve got some great hooks; and if they can break out of their bluegrass ghetto, they’ll have the potential to make a classic. This just isn’t it.
MP3: "Call and Response"