Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the Table

I don't have a tremendous amount to say about the disorganized and barely rehearsed "Velvet Underground tribute" we left early on Friday night, and I'm still absorbing a stack of local CD's. I would like to share my thoughts on the new Spoon record, but I'm holding out until my girlfriend buys the vinyl. I did hear most of the new Vampire Weekend! Here's what I've been listening to this week.

Contra, Vampire Weekend A few songs in their new dance-club style register ("Giving Up the Gun"), but changing the instrumentation doesn't really mask the fact that all of their songs have exactly two parts. I like the songs that sound the most like the first record ("White Sky," also the name of a wonderful Archer Prewitt album of which Vampire Weekend are probably not aware) and I'm unclear as to why they would deliberately mute their bassist and their drummer in favor of clicking loops since by a wide margin those are the two best musicians in the band. It seems as if they were trying quite self-consciously to "expand" just enough to appease critics while maintaining their following. As far as post-millennial hype bands go, the model to follow is the Strokes' Room on Fire. The band sounds the same as on the first record, but brawnier and more polished; the songs are much stronger. To a certain extent Vampire Weekend went through a similar process before their proper debut, since their early online recordings were so widely scrutinized. I get why they were ready to move on, but listening to them try too hard is not fun. Contra resembles First Impressions of Earth a lot more than Room on Fire: low on energy, fussy, rather antiseptic.

Yessongs, Yes My relationship with Yes dates to a very specific and memorable weekend in Wyoming, of all places, when a van accident stranded me overnight with Missouri's So Many Dynamos. Their keyboard player was not at all interested in hearing me fulminate about the greatness of Genesis when my experience with Yes was so limited. There's a comparable 80's iceberg effect with both bands. Their most famous pop singles are not even remotely related to their artfully long-winded 70's album statements. I still favor Genesis's pop side, but after I found my way back to Colorado I acquired Close to the Edge and Fragile and The Yes Album and I've been listening to all of those pretty regularly for a few years now. One of the wonderful things about 70's progressive music is that it's never at all difficult to walk into a used record store, spend less than $10, and come out with the entire significant release history of a major band. And usually in pristine condition, as if they'd never been played! I wonder why. Were Steely Dan the 70's equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club? Were their records accessories to be left around to be seen rather than listened to? One wonders. In any event there's no excuse not to have all of Yes's 70's studio albums since they populate dollar bins like no artist this side of Streisand. The ludicrously overblown triple-LP live Yessongs, though, is not for the uninitiated. In theory extended versions of the best material from the best three Yes records performed by their two best lineups should be thrilling, but Yessongs is just too much. Not every song needs multiple additional keyboard solos, and drum showcases are almost never interesting on record. The poor recording quality isn't that big of a problem (it kind of helps to underline how well the band gives each instrument its own space, especially Chris Squire's proto-Petersson muscle bass) but the meticulous layered vocal production style that became their signature isn't really possible on stage. As a result Yessongs to someone very familiar with the studio records sounds like a really technically skilled tribute band more so than the genuine article. The "Starship Trooper" jam (skip to the third record) is worth a dollar, though.

Communication Breaks, Track Star A San Francisco band that I went to see obsessively (at least 10 times) when I was in college, I was overjoyed to find Track Star's first LP waiting unassumingly in the "miscellaneous T" section at Backspin. Listening to Communication Breaks ten years on, it's easy to see why I went so crazy about these guys. They cross the Feelies with (really early) Tool! How great is that? The album shows additional dimension that their live shows didn't, with a number of shorter songs that try different rhythms and styles, and several that defy expectations by starting soft and then not getting incredibly loud. With two downtuned guitars and a clockwork marvel of a drummer (he never plays fills, ever) the band doesn't lose sight of their chief strength, which is songs like "Revenge Fantasy" that begin with delicate strumming and whispered vocals then explode into enraged, barely coherent volume abuse. Important detail that might be missed if you never saw them live: They have two lead singers who swap songs. They sound a lot alike in terms of their singing styles but turn out to have distinctive songwriting approaches. Communication Breaks is worth listening to enough to pick apart the differences.

Heaven Only Knows, Teddy Pendergrass I've been carting this album around for years without ever having listened to it -- one of my mom's students bought it for me at a garage sale. As an eighth grader during the 90's, I suppose he figured that as a record collector I would be happy to receive vinyl of any kind. Well, belatedly, I am, as Pendergrass passed away last week and I was able to celebrate his memory without getting out of bed. I've been listening to Stevie Wonder's Innervisions a lot lately and it seemed a tad incongruous how the standout tracks of this 1983 Pendergrass record ("Heaven Only Knows" and the splendidly titled "You and Me for Right Now") are soaked in the mid-70's Wonder style, all warm analog synths and nuanced live rhythm section performances. It illustrates how much music changed (for the worse) between 1973 and 1983 that the presence of these elements on Heaven Only Knows immediately betrays the album's mongrel origins. Pendergrass was in a life-threatening auto accident in 1982; this is the second of two odds-and-sods collections Philadelphia International Records squeezed out while he was recuperating to fulfill demand. Frankly an album of rejected 70's Pendergrass is preferable to first-choice 80's stuff, as that was the time when the music industry curiously decided to begin delegating the creation of "soul" music to computers. What's more, if you're so inclined you can go through track by track and try and guess in exactly which year it was recorded on the basis of the synth tones.

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