Sunday, February 22, 2015

I Love You, Honeybear, by Father John Misty (Album of the Week)

There’s a lot going on in Father John Misty’s latest album, “I Love You, Honeybear”, and it may be the most aloof piece of collection of pretty-sounding smart-assery I’ve ever heard.  The whole thing flirts with profundity but won’t walk down the aisle. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin embraces this album.  She says that it reports on the nasty commentary that goes on in one's head, which makes me a bit nervous.  I think it's just her love of bearded troubadours, though.

The music is great – and that’s the main thing.  He’s a drummer, so you get the rhythm you’d expect, but you also get swirling orchestral sounds, synthesizers, background vocals – he brings the full musical palette to bear on this project.  There’s not a dislikeable song on this album, and yet they vary widely in style and approach. 

Most of this album is about romance – sort of.  The key word there is “about”.  It’s not really romantic – there’s a self-conscious distance between the topic and the artist.  Each of the songs (except one – the clever-but out-of-place “Bored in The USA”, which is a Generation Whatever complaint) is a different take on romance. 

Each song has a too-cool-for-school twist that let’s you know the artist is just playing with you.  The title and opening track has “Fuck the world, damn straight malaise.”  “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” has “I haven’t hated/All the same things as somebody else/Since I remember”.  “True Affection” has its title, and this couplet that sums up the whole album, in my view – “When can we talk with a face?/Instead of using all these strange devices”.  Each of the songs is sung through a mask, and never do you get the sense that the artist is being entirely genuine.

Which isn’t to say he isn’t being honest.  The hardest song to listen to is “The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apt.”.  Josh Tillman is Father John Misty’s real name, and the music is pretty but the words are ugly.  “She says, ‘Like, literally music is in the air [she] breathe[s]’/And the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream”.  The whole thing devolves into creepy potential domestic violence in the closing line, “I obliged later on when you begged me to choke y’”. 

I suppose it takes a healthy swig of honesty to write about the annoyance you feel toward your loved one, and to blame her for “hovering all my drugs”, but the rest of the album is making clear that he really loves her, so this one comes off as a nasty account of the flaws that irk the heck out of the artist.  It’s an aspect of a relationship, I suppose, but it’s not how he really feels.  It’s a way of talking about someone, but it’s not really genuine.

All that said, this album is a collection of really interesting, sonically interesting songs.  As I said above, there’s not a dislikeable song on this album.  Each song is clever and sounds great.  That’s an achievement.  Taken as an album, though, it leaves me wondering who the heck Josh Tillman/Father John Misty is, or who he wants to be. 

Next up:  Tangier Sessions, by Sir Richard Bishop

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fear and Saturday Night, by Ryan Bingham (Album of the Week)

Choosing Ryan Bingham’s album “Fear and Saturday Night” to review this week was an easy call.  Through a happy series of lucky breaks, we saw him in 2009 at a small basement club in Breckenridge with a small group of devoted fans who kept handing him and his band shots of whiskey.  He repaid us all with high-energy, country-influenced bar rock and I-don’t-remember-how-many-encores.  During one of the breaks between encores, I was taking a leak while the drummer was at the next urinal.  The guitar sound started up again, and the drummer said, “He’s having a great time.  We’re gonna play all night.” 

In the next few months, his song “The Weary Kind” from the Jeff Bridges movie “Crazy Heart” won an Oscar, and the following summer we saw him at Red Rocks performing with Willie Nelson.  It was a big shift in one year, and recalling that first show is one of my favorite concert memories. Robin and I fell in love with him that first night, and, over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin fairly swoons in her pleasure brought on by this romantic album.

Some great performers are unable to translate their showmanship to a recording.  (I’m looking at you, Paul Thorn), but Ryan Bingham has the musical chops to give you a great experience that makes you feel like you’re at a show.  His gravelly, raspy voice makes every lyric sound like it’s been written after a shot of cheap bourbon after a long drive in the night.  Every now and then, you’ll hear me complain that a given artist needs a little grit  - Ryan Bingham has truckloads of the grit I’m asking for. 

If it weren’t for the grit, this album might be an unbearable helium balloon of Disney songs.  Appropriately for a review on Valentine’s Day weekend, Ryan Bingham has fallen in love, created a family, set his demons aside, and written a thrillingly upbeat album.  Better yet, he presents it in his classic, guitar-driven, gravelly style, and it makes for some really enjoyable music.

It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this album, but the opening track is a great place to start.  The title “Nobody Knows My Trouble” sounds like a classic down and dirty ballad, but, upon listening, you’re greeted with a suspiciously bouncy rhythm, and you learn that nobody knows about his troubles “except for my baby and me”.  With her, the song lets you know he’s been through poverty, drugs and alcohol, but the penultimate verse reports:

Made my way up to the big town
Checked myself into the lost and found
What do you know, my baby come for me
Now I'm living the good life
Away from all of the bad advice
I take every day like it's a paradise
So people stay away from me

Even better, though, this isn’t some bogus fairy tale where a good-hearted woman makes everything wonderful by showering infinite love and mercy on a road-weary man.  In the real world, it takes two to carry the load, and Ryan Bingham shoulders his part of the burden, too.  In “Snow Falls in June”, he assures his lover:

If you ever call my name, I'll come running
When your sorrow sings in pain, I'll be there
If you ever feel a change in your weather
Take shelter with me here

If you ever call my name, I'll come running
When your sorrow sings in pain, I'll be there
If you ever feel a change in your weather
Take shelter with me here
My dear
If the snow is falling in June

The song that really kicked me in the chest – in a good way – is one that comes across as a Tex-Mex, Los Lobos-influenced, accordion-playing rocker.  That’s not normally my favorite style of music, but it’s fun, fun, fun and the lyrics sum it all up for me.  “Adventures of You and Me” recounts a bunch of misadventures – getting stranded in New York, getting mixed up with stoners out West, passing out on a train in New Mexico, and so forth, but every time, they wind up dancing in the streets and having a ball.  Their love of each other and their love of music makes the whole world an adventure, fit for dancing. 

Adventures of you and me will last forever
I'm not too sure about this world
I hope someday it all comes together, baby
Until it does, well, I'm sure glad that you're my girl

Several years ago, Ryan Bingham gave Robin and me an adventure, dancing with abandon in a basement.  Adventures with Robin, listening to live music, will last forever in our memories, and that was a great one.  During the week of Valentine’s Day, I got to listen to Ryan Bingham put to music that feeling I have that I’ll always look forward to fresh adventures and misadventures with my girl. 

Next up:  I Love You, Honeybear, by Father John Misty

Sunday, February 8, 2015

No Cities to Love, by Sleater-Kinney (Album of the Week)

Though Sleater-Kinney has been around for more than 20 years – the band was not on my radar screen at all.  When Robin chose it for this series, I loaded the music on to my computer expecting that Ms. Sleater and Mr. Kinney would be serenading me with chamomile-infused songs about remembered picnics and allegorical gardens.  The album’s title, “No Cities to Love”, promised a countrified, Americana vibe.

The thrill of discovery is sharpened by clueless expectation.

There is no Ms. Sleater or Mr. Kinney.  The music is infused with caffeine and bile, not chamomile.  The songs tackle consumerism, death,  and atomic bombs, not picnics.  And the vibe is more like punk without that genre’s disregard for musical talent.  I was wrong, all wrong, but I’m hooked.

Wikipedia reports that Sleater Kinney Road is a highway exit near Olympia, Washington, where Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and one of a series of drummers started their side project, apart from bands-I-wish-I-heard Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17.  It sounds like a time of jumbling musical experimentation, and Sleater-Kinney found a great sound.

Each of the songs on this short, 33 minute album comes right at you with solid lyrics, yelping vocals and hard-driving rock.  The first song is a favorite of mine.  It portrays the world of a dead-end retail worker, hoping for a ship she knows isn’t coming in.  Here are some highlights from the lyrics – they’re great as presented here, but they come to furious life when belted out as vocals.

It’s 9 a.m.
We must clock in
The system waits for us
I stock the shelves
I work the rows
. . .

We never really checked
We never checked the price tag
When the cost comes in
It’s gonna be high
We love our bargains
We love the prices so low
With the good jobs gone
It’s gonna be raw

. . .

I was blind by the money
I was numb from the greed
I’ll take God when I’m ready
I’ll choose sin till I leave

On paper (or a screen, more likely), that sounds defeated and beaten, but the fight is in the music.  You don’t feel dare feel sorry for the subject of the song, like you might feel for one of Springsteen’s bummed out victims.  Instead, you feel like you want to hook up with some of that sin she’s choosing.  There’s not a shred of moping in Sleater-Kinner land, even if the circumstance might justify it. 

As the last lines of the last song advise, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/Shake it like never before.”

All told, this is kick-ass, inspiring, fun music wrought out of what would reduce most people to despair.  Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin rejoices in her enthusiasm for a band she might have shrunk from back when her musical horizons were contracting.

Next up:  Fear and Saturday Night, by Ryan Bingham