The Music of The Moment – 1/22/08

Just because I feel like it, I’ve taken up the idea of reviewing more records on this site. Lately I’ve had time, lots of time, and with an operational iPod and turntable I’ve commenced an almost unprecedented march through the mountains of albums I’ve accumulated in the last few months. With football and politics growing stale, I want to highlight some of the auditory wonders keeping me company these days, but I’m not just going to focus on the new jams… essentially, if I want to review a Led Zeppelin record, I will.

For our first installment I’ve got four albums to share with you. Three of which are fairly new, one not so much. Either way, they’re the four albums that are currently burning up my living room, my car and my workplace. Hopefully you’ll notice something you like in here and give it a try, or maybe even a second listen. Either way, I’ll probably be doing quite a bit of it, so please excuse me if you hate it!

Cat Power – Jukebox
Matador
2008

Rating: A

Chan Marshall’s voice is truly a thing of beauty. While countless artists look for inspiration in new technologies, complicated arrangements and bizarre melodic concepts, Marshall’s tones echo a time when smoky jazz clubs roared with rowdy, prohibitionist crowds gasping for more. In Jukebox, Cat Power does exactly what she/they/it should do… spend a few minutes exploring the works of the past and modernizing a few classics, while not “modernizing” them in the least.

From start to finish, Jukebox is as much an atmosphere as it is a record. The exquisitely chosen songs showcase exactly what Cat Power can do, never stepping on toes and often never sounding better. Lee Clayton’s Silver Stallion flows through your speakers, wrapping you in a comfortable hum, while Aretha, Sing One For Me (George Jackson) sees Marshall almost channeling KT Oslin. The album’s closing track, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, is a fragile comedown from a beautiful escape into simple, beautiful music, leaving the audience wishing the soft organ would never end.

Jukebox is truly a precious and timeless record. No album in recent memory has seemed as at home on every turntable and in every iPod, offering common ground for teenagers in ironic t-shirts and their grandparents. While her peers push the boundaries of music in every imaginable direction, I can’t help but think of one line over and over while listening to this record… “This is how music is supposed to sound.” While so many artists expand the landscape of sound in so many ways, Chan Marshall has managed to solidify herself as an iconoclast simply by diving into a dusty pile of records.

Wu-Tang Clan – The 8 Diagrams
Motown/Universal
2007

Rating: A

More than the album itself, the true entertainment in the music community has been watching various reviewers fall all over themselves while attempting to review this album. Often difficult and undeniably RZA’s personal playground, The 8 Diagrams seems to be received as either a modern masterpiece or an egomaniacal disaster. Never wanting to fall on the wrong side of history, critics seem to be playing a delicate game of fence riding, pointing out flaws with one hand while patting the back with another. May the world forgive me if my personal opinion doesn’t fall in line with the historical account of what feels like the very last Wu-Tang album, but I’m casting my vote for “masterpiece.”

The opening lines of Campfire, spectacularly delivered by Method Man, set the stage for a return to the kind of greatness not exhibited by the once competent MC since his debut, Tical. While the years have certainly taken their toll on the legendary hip hop innovators (the commercialization of Method Man, the new career path of RZA, the passing of Old Dirty Bastard), The 8 Diagrams reminds listeners of exactly why these guys were so damned important in the first place. Sadly, we’ve watched Staten Island’s finest become increasingly irrelevant over the years (with the exception of Ghost Face), but in what may be their last collaborative effort, The Wu-Tang Clan sounds as fresh and important as ever.

RZA displays an astounding maturity and unique vision on the album, weaving live instrumentation and psychedelic melodies around the piercing and fiery delivery of some of hip hop’s most legendary and gifted artists. In tracks like Take It Back, the verses almost feel like an epic battle for superiority, often overshadowing the pitch-perfect tracks lying beneath. Experimentation is dying a slow death in mainstream hip hop (if Wu-Tang is even still mainstream hip hop), for every Gnarls Barkley and Outkast we have a dozen Soulja Boys eagerly lined up to be the unbearable flavor of the month. Thankfully we can at least look back at The 8 Diagrams with a misty-eyed fondness for the promise the genre once exhibited, wiping at least some of the dismal 2007 hip hop slate clean.

Glass Candy – B/E/A/T/B/O/X
Italians Do It Better
2007

Rating: B+

The recent success of artists like Calvin Harris, Jamie Lidell, The Scissor Sisters and Goldfrapp has served to usher in a (potentially brief) renaissance of soulful, often full blown disco music. A fairly logical reaction to the mainstream obsession with modern radio nonsense consisting of little more than whiny emo brats and sex obsessed pop-rap fueled by unending hooks and, for lack of a better word, mindless yelling. Enter the disco du juor, Glass Candy.

B/E/A/T/B/O/X is the latest release from Glass Candy, the much heralded (if often mark-missing) superstars of the recently en vogue label, Italians Do It Better. B/E/A/T/B/O/X was created as an accompaniment to the band’s current tour, and offers a peek into the band’s future. Although it often feels somewhat rushed, and offers only 40 minutes of original material, the album is terribly interesting and incredibly relaxed. Ida No’s voice, often run through every imaginable type of effect, is downright charming as it gels with the spacey, retro-modern tone of the album.

While tremendous amounts of groundbreaking work aren’t necessarily present here, B/E/A/T/B/O/X is exciting in its naivety. The tracks often appear to be the missing link between the end of Debbie Harry’s career and the beginning of Madonna’s, while never directly mimicking either artist and the tracks careen between hypnotic and menacing before eventually coasting into the sunset in the fading minutes of Digital Versicolor.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Island Records
1972

Rating: A+
Few albums have ever been made that so accurately and painfully express the feeling of isolation, that capture the essence of a man on the edge and that convey every emotion in between with the fragility of Pink Moon. The album itself could arguably be considered the Britain’s great songwriting masterpiece, as Drake’s delicate, whispery vocals glide across often barely audible guitar plucking and light strums.

Bare and stark are woefully ineffective when describing Drake’s last release, the album sounds less like a man with a guitar and more like the inside of one’s mind as the world collapses around them. Never aggressive and rarely emphatic, Pink Moon almost seems to slide into inexistence from the moment it begins. For an auteur already crowned king of British songwriters, his final release shows a vulnerable little boy expressing himself in the best way he can, perhaps for the first time.

The opening notes of Horn play like the end credits in the tragic film of Nick Drake’s life, each song slightly more haunting than the one before. The album, released in its time, was enough of a revelation to spark an entire generation, looking back it somehow becomes even more powerful. While the world pushed toward experimentation, looking to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground and The Who for the next big thing, Nick Drake actually was the next big thing… just a man with a guitar.

Legend has it that the entire album was recorded in two nights with only Drake and an engineer permitted to enter the darkened studio. The master tapes were dropped off on the desk at Island Records’ corporate offices, Drake placing them there himself before turning to leave, never speaking a word. He walked out, fading away and eventually succumbing to drug addiction a few years later. The mood of a lonely man, trapped in a deteriorating body and isolated from the world is exactly the sound of Pink Moon, one of the true tragic masterpieces of the entire 20th century.

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2 Responses to “The Music of The Moment – 1/22/08”

  1. Brinton Says:

    I love the reference to KT Oslin. You’re dead on with the comparison. Chan Marshall is a great singer who’s coming into a certain maturity (she turned 36 yesterday, ten years younger than KT Oslin when 80’s Ladies came out). I can’t imagine ANYONE hating this album. It has something for everyone.

    As for Nick Drake, I was really only familiar with his name from his appearance on the Royal Tennenbaums soundtrack (I love soundtracks). As somber as “Fly” is, it’s nothing compared to the palpable hopelessness on Pink Moon. It’s a great record, but not for the clinically depressed. If this came out now I’d call it emo and scoff, but this was back in the day when music like this was completely sincere and usually meant the impending death of the artist.

  2. Endlessly Rocking Says:

    Excellent writing. You’ve gotten me excited to check out the Cat Power and Wu-Tang records. Isn’t that’s the great thing about blogging — having a forum to express your enthusiasm about music and whatever else moves you?

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