Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Wilco- Wilco (The Album)

Rating: 7.5
Released: June 30, 2009

What's more unexpected than doing what's expected?

Which is to say that more than 14 years since this Chicago band released their debut, Wilco continues to defy expectations.

Their latest (peep the camel cover!) is as close to a career retrospective as you're going to get at this point in the group's career, capturing the arc of frontman Jeff Tweedy's ever-finicky muse.

From country rock (1995's A.M.) to heartland Sonic Youth-disciples (1996's Being There) to indie poppers (1999's Summerteeth) to would-be industry killers (2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) to minimalist Krautrock (2002's A Ghost Is Born) and back again (2004's Sky Blue Sky), the only thing that's remained consistent about Tweedy's evolving songcraft is its quality.

I defy you to find a subpar record in Wilco's catalogue, other than its fledgling debut, and there's an argument to be made in defense of that LP as well.

2002's YHF is, by all accounts including the Salmon's, the band's high-water mark to date.

A near-perfect distillation of Radiohead-esque atmospherics with a beating country heart, YHF set the bar for post-Radiohead American acts, and it set it pretty high with 12 songs documenting a disintegrating relationship under the guise of a coming-and-going radio signal.

The band, ever cagey, has yet to make a sequel to YHF, opting instead for Crazy Horse guitar antics and spacey, country rock.

Seems at this point in their careers that Wilco, now a little older than most indie rockers, could take a deep breath and look back.

Enter Wilco (The Album).

The songs are as solid as ever, if not more subtle, revealing their charms over repeated listens.

"Deeper Down" isn't going to blow you away, but it's shifting soundscapes and straining pedal-steel overlay are as lovely as music gets. See the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis segue as a side of Wilco you've never seen.

The self-titled album opener and ethos-spouting "You Never Know" are the obvious singles, three-minute blasts of mid-tempo hoodie songs with certified grade-A choruses.

"Come on children, you're acting like children/every generation thinks it's the end of the world," the ever-ascerbic Tweedy sings at one moment, responding moments later with an "I don't care anymore" hook over Beatles-fuzz and harmonized slide guitars.

The real stars here are "Bull Black Nova" and "One Wing," the former a paranoid, chiming growler with a dank underbelly of purring guitar and the latter being the best Wilco power ballad you'll ever hear.

Recent addition Nels Cline remains a versatile gem, filling in Tweedy's most sparse moments with post-punk guitar heroics.

You get the sense that Cline, like refined genius Richard Thompson, could give you a searing guitar solo at any time, but he picks his spots.

His gentler moments - the eerie closing tones of "Everlasting" - are as effective as the harder tones of the aforementioned "Bull Black Nova."

Tweedy's none-too-precious vocals are as essential as ever, imparting a world-weary authenticity to even the biggest songs.

"I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight for you/I'll kill, I'll kill, I'll kill for you," Tweedy sings in the aptly-titled "I'll Fight."

In Tweedy's hands, it's an interesting, if not chilling, statement. Imagine those words sung by a silver-throated pop star and you can see the danger for overkill.

Not everything here hits the bulls-eye. The pretty Feist duet "You And I" sometimes strays dangerously close to schmaltz, and rocker "Sunny Feeling" feels oddly shallow after several listens.

But the road, much like the bumpy airplane flight of "Sunny Feeling," hasn't been easy for Wilco.

Members defected, sued Tweedy and then died. Tweedy faced and overcame a dependency on prescription painkillers. Record labels deemed them "unsellable" and dropped them.

But for all the storm clouds that once hovered around the band, the future seems awfully bright for this fantastic, potent giant of a band and its omnipresent leader Tweedy.

Float on, brother.

- SoR

Friday, June 26, 2009

Last Days of Michael Jackson: Aug. 29, 1958-June 25, 2009

It could be said that Michael Jackson died long ago.

Sometime around the first accusation of child molestation, guilty or not, Michael Jackson, the megastar with the highest-selling album of all time, became Michael Jackson, world-class oddball.

Gone was the white glove. Gone was the Sgt. Pepper coat. Gone was the awe-inspiring moonwalk.

What we had left to devour was a scarecrow with an eroding face, piles of financial trouble and questions about his sexual preferences.

Still, the disturbing news that one of pop music's greatest ambassadors died from what appears to be cardiac arrest is a sad conclusion to a strange tale.

Michael's legacy, like Elvis', will always reside somewhere in limbo. Here was a personality and a fame worth noting.

His musical output, spotty in the latter years, remains the strongest testament to his greatness.

MJ needed only three albums and a bucket of jaw-dropping music videos to make the 1980s his playground. His peak LP Thriller redefines chart-topping, thanks to three massive smash singles in "Thriller," "Beat It" and "Billy Jean."

The three tracks run back to back to back on the album. By the time you turned that record over, MJ had already laid the blueprint for the perfect pop song and made one of the greatest party songs laid to tape (I'm looking at you "Thriller").

The music deserves a thorough analysis, and it's gotten it many times. But considering MJ on his LPs and singles alone isn't enough.

Check out the music videos. Mini-movies with professional actors, sets, costumes and rigorously practiced choreography.

It's not hard to look at every popular dancer after Thriller and see something of MJ.

His career as a world-conscious philanthropist set the standard for generous celebrities, and the millions he donated in his arc have done untold good.

Yes, there are the messy issues. MJ fit the profile of a child molester to the tee, and his free-spending lifestyle leaves millions in debt behind.

But if we are to look at life as an equation, MJ probably comes out on the positive end, and the only thing about his mysterious life not bookended with question marks is his output.

That tremendous, stellar musical output. Pour one out for Michael and put on "Thriller," you'll probably never hear a pop song that breaks more generational and racial boundaries than this one.

As a reminder of his greatness, here's MJ's performance of Billie Jean at Motown's 25th anniversary celebration in 1983. The dancing around the 3:40 mark is nothing short of magical.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Live Review: TV On The Radio

June 11, 2009
TV On The Radio at Amos' Southend
Charlotte, N.C.

Band Rating: 9.0
Venue Rating: 5.0

So I'm staring Kyp Malone (above) in the face.

The TV On The Radio bassist and vocalist, who is not unlike a panda bear in appearance, has a Frederick Douglass-style beard and he's wearing what looks like a tunic.

His band has just put on a solid and occasionally great show marred by subpar acoustics.

I'm in this business to interview rock stars and listen to great music, but oddly enough, the only thing I can think to say to one of the architects of 2008's best LP (see Dear Science) is, "Great show!"

"Thank you," he replies, smiling shyly. He shuffles his feet for a moment, hugs an excited fan, and walks nervously back to the band's tour bus.

Amazing that one of the most overwhelming records in a decade comes from such a muted guy.

All personality quips aside, TVOTR's stopover in Charlotte (they're scheduled to play today at Bonnaroo) is a rare treat for a city that can't seem to find the right venue for the medium-range acts who tend to make the best records these days.

Respect to Amos' Southend for bringing the group here, although the squat, two-story building with the muddy equalization did little for TVOTR's very fetching sound.

The set list hit the highlights of the Brooklyn band's ever-expanding sound, which runs the gamut of Joy Division stomp to Radiohead atmospherics and Parliamentary funk.

Playing live, TVOTR uses the opportunity to stretch out on their moody tunes, which didn't coalesce into something resembling pop music until last year's aforementioned and truly outstanding Dear Science.

The band opened with the tender "Love Dog" before whipping up frenzied takes on "Wolf Like Me" and "Halfway Home."

Throughout, frontman Tunde Adebimpe blew out the be-hoodied hipsters with his elastic, Arthur Lee-style tenor and frantic stage presence.

If you can hear TVOTR - and by that I mean, hear them without shoddy acoustics - you'll hear a great band with a big future.

Here's hoping Charlotte can find more places to fit rising stars like Malone, Adebimpe and company.

- SoR

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: Mos Def - The Ecstatic

Rating: 7.8
Released: June 9, 2009
Downtown Records

A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing Mos Def's comeback The Ecstatic.

Two days ago, I started with a rating hovering somewhere around a 6.

But each time I queued the record up, what before seemed like a jumbled mess of foreign instruments, breakbeats and tone-deaf choruses now sounded like a pitch-perfect love letter to planet Earth.

Suffice to say, Mos Def's latest is somewhere around an 8 for me today.

This is why I listen to LPs multiple times before I dare to make some form of a critical assessment.

Aside from his award-winning Hollywood output, a stellar guest turn here and there (I'm looking at "Two Words" from Kanye West's debut) and a pair of mish mash albums, the actor/rapper (we've got a slashie here) has been quiet in recent years.

Flash back to 1999. Mos Def was just the latest hip hop savior with a smooth flow, social awareness and penchant for experimentation.

His collaboration with Talib Kweli and soulful solo turn Black On Both Sides made the Brooklyn-born MC a breath of fresh air for hip hop fans exhausted by lyrical beef and gunplay.

It wasn't long before Hollywood stole Mos Def away. Our loss, but the good news is he's back in the studio and trying a little harder, at least for now.

The Ecstatic is just that, ecstatic.

These are good times for left-leaning political pariahs with street cred, although Mos Def doesn't let the good times hamper his skill for bucking the system. See Common's goofy Universal Mind Control if you want to see how happiness can sometimes dull a once sharp wit.

If you think Mos Def is satisfied with having the first black president in office, look no further than the album-opening Malcolm X monologue on the need for extremism. It would seem there is more work to be done.

"Ecstatic, ecstatic, ecstatic," he chants moments later.

What follows is roughly 45 minutes of Middle Eastern instruments, electro-tinged hip hop, antique Madlib samples and Mos Def's ruminating, anti-gangsta presence.

"Sometimes it's too hard to sit still/ things are so passionate, times are so real/ sometimes I try to chill mellow down blowin smoke/ smile on my face but it's really no joke/ you feel it in the streets the people breathe without hope," he raps over classic film scores on the outstanding "Auditorium."

The recipe for comeback success in rap often involves a good producer. In Mos Def's case, he's got six - Madlib, Preservation, Chad Hugo, Mr. Flash, J Dilla, and Madlib's brother Oh No - and they're all up to the task.

Madlib and Preservation provide the best beats, the latter cooking up a storm in the grainy minimalist "Quiet Dog Bite Hard."

Mos Def seems most at home on the simple, jazz-infused samples, although multiple tracks showcase a traveler's flair for world-savvy pop, including the MC's ode to hotels "The Embassy."

Still, The Ecstatic isn't perfect.

There probably isn't much of an audience for Mos Def's tuneless singing on Latin ballad "No Hay Nada Mas," and electronic stompers like "Life In Marvelous Times" seem oddly out of place on an album that only occasionally masquerades as pop.

Mos Def might be front and center on the big screen, but he seems more comfy trolling the hip hop underground.

Perhaps best of all is his 90-second manifesto "Priority," a mellow builder that sums up all things Mos Def.

"Top priority: Peace before everything/God before anything/love before anything/real before everything/home before anyplace," he riffs in street preacher mode.

The proof is in the pudding.
Acts like Eminem and Lil Wayne may be the body of hip hop, but MCs like Mos Def are its soul.

- SoR

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Rating: 8.3
Released: May 26, 2009

Bringin' pretty back.

That could be the second title for Brooklyn four-piece Grizzly Bear's latest, and greatest, album to date.

The lovely Veckatimest is the band's most adventurous, and oddly enough, most accessible LP in its catalog.

It's no surprise that the record finds Grizzly frontman Daniel Rossen sometimes eschewing the sparse arrangements of past work for the wrought pop ambition of last year's gem In Ear Park, a riveting listen from Rossen side project Department of Eagles.

With some bands, you ask for a redefinition of sound to prove growth. Not the case here.

Veckatimest is largely a refining of Grizzly Bear's spooky, folk aesthetic. Where previous albums were sleepy and at once forgettable, Veckatimest is anything but.

The woozy dreamscapes are still here, but the melodies stick like fly paper and the Pet Sounds horns and symphonics make it sound like a classic.

Case in point: The Bear has never recorded a pop song as memorable as "Two Weeks," or as blissful as "Cheerleader."

Rossen's delicate voice and airy harmonies still sound like the backdrop for "Wizard of Oz," and two seconds of any Grizzly song remains enough to identify the protagonists.

"While You Wait For The Others" is a triumph, employing smoky guitars and breathy vocal acrobatics like seasoned veterans. It's enough to make you forget these babyfaced folkers are twenty-somethings.

"They'll try, they all try/to keep us apart," Rossen laments on "I Live With You," a psychedelic, lonesome call for an estranged lover.

With tunes like these, Grizzly Bear isn't likely to remain lonely too long.

Heartily recommended, Veckatimest is one of the first great albums this year.

- SoR

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hop on Pop: Live Acts to Catch in June

Hot month for live music.

Here's a listing of acts playing in the North Carolina region in the month of June.

Most notable is TV On The Radio's (left) sweep through Charlotte and Atlanta.

The Brooklyn band had the top album of last year in my humble opinion and they've earned a reputation as a ferocious live act.

I can guarantee the Salmon will be there, although not without some temptation from TVOTR's Brooklyn contemporaries Grizzly Bear.

Grizzly Bear's playing that night at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill.

Also look out for Band of Horses' stop in Charlotte's always delightful Neighborhood Theatre.

The Peaches show in Chapel Hill promises to be an eyecatcher too.

June 9: Phish, Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville
June 10: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte
June 11: Grizzly Bear, Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill
June 11: TV On The Radio, Amos' Southend, Charlotte
June 12: Jenny Lewis, Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill
June 12: Yardwork, Milestone, Charlotte
June 13: TV On The Radio, Tabernacle, Atlanta
June 15: Sunset Rubdown, Local 506, Chapel Hill
June 16: Band of Horses, The Orange Peel, Asheville
June 16: Peaches, Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill
June 17: Band of Horses, The Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte
June 20: Camera Obscura, Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill

- SoR