Albums of the week | New records from Sigur Rós, the Walkmen, Edward Sharpe, Regina Spektor
The Walkmen Heaven
The comfortably languid jangle of “Song for Leigh” struck me immediately as the Walkmen’s R.E.M. song. But that is not the only parallel to Michael Stipe and co. to be found here. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Georgia, but I can recall heated debates in chemistry class over R.E.M. selling out. When the band jumped to Warner Bros. longtime fans freaked out over the amount of polish on the songs. Hell, you could actually understand Stipe’s words! What the hell was that? Of course, R.E.M.’s leap to lucidity began earlier, on the last few IRS releases. Heaven reminds me of one of those mid-era R.E.M. records, in both sonics and emotions. It takes a couple listens to recalibrate to the newfound clarity brought by producer Phil Ek. But it was a necessary move. At some point in life you have to take down the Christmas lights in the apartment and buy some expensive lamps. There is great confidence in how the Walkmen lay off the echo and pare down the arrangements. The stunning “Southern Heart” uses nothing more than an acoustic and Hamilton Leithauser’s denim croon. Leithauser is singing a lot more these days, going for soft and sweet more often than throat polyps, pushing the tunes into the 1950s with doo-wop harmonies and Buddy Holly strumming. Even when the quintet slips back into its trademarked sound, as on “The Witch” (named, I believe, for this Wisconsin radio station), Leithauser sings with a happy longing as if he’s looking through photos of his grandparents when they were young. They’re not rapping with KRS-One yet, but for once I can see them daring to. In the album artwork, the Walkmen are holding their babies, in a way that says to me, “Look at these mouths we have to feed.”
Sigur Rós Valtari
Go read iTunes reviews of Sigur Rós albums. Each one was seemingly written by a quivering father on heroin smoking fine cigars in his den while watching a slo-mo montage of Extreme Makeover Home Edition endings. The sweet, gooey prose is just all a mush of tears, spunk and trite descriptions of Scandinavian landscape and heaven. Basically, it’s impossible to heap praise on the Icelanders without coming across as an utter sap. Like Radiohead’s King of Limbs, Valtari didn’t click with me until I listened to it while lying still, in the dark, like a sap. It’s also the band’s best record in a decade, since Open Parenthesis Close Parenthesis (that’s what we call that, right?). After that third record, Sigur Rós stepped out of the cloaks and fog and became more of a traditional, discernible rock band. That’s all been deconstructed on Valtari, a miasma of choirs, piano, subtle electronics, chimes and (sometimes) Jónsi’s falsetto. The eight songs work at a casual, unmanipulative pace. The epic build thing is cliché at this point. Leave that routine for Explosions in the Sky. This stuff’ll be a motherfucker to pull off live, but everybody sing along now, “Vaaaa-aaaaah-ruuuuuuth!”
Smile A Flash in the Night
Krautrock is one of those genres where the second and third generation disciples have far outnumbered the original practitioners. How many krautrock bands were there originally? Like, four? (Neu, Can, Kraftwerk and Cluster?) Hell, I’ve heard more than four zehr überkrautrockische records this past month. My favorite of the bunch, by far, is this joyous little record from Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John. Though largely instrumental, A Flash in the Night packs more fun and emotional punch than more studied neo-motorik LPs by Lower Dens, “Clean Gloves, Dirty Hands” is Battles minus the jock muscle. The boogie-woogie piano of “Satellite of Love” imagines Conny Plank producing Chubby Checker. The songs all give me the same feeling of David Bowie’s “Speed of Life,” the feeling of walking through a strange city in a state of drunken wonder and alienation.
Regina Spektor What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
Spektor occupies the middle ground between Fiona Apple and Nellie McKay. The Russian immigrant balances cutting autobiographical balladry with theatricality and charmingly batshit flourishes. On “Oh Marcello,” Spektor sings in heavy accents, slips into the chorus “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and then beatboxes. Any artist without her prodigious charisma would send me screaming. Here, I’m captivated. The absurdly summery “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” manages to pull off yé-yé reggae (regg-yé-yé?). The whimsy and politics and grand gestures are held together by her charisma. The best line: “The piano is not firewood yet.” It’s a metaphor in a touching song against death, but it works literally, too. The world has not stopped making new Randy Newmans.
The Supremes At the Copa: Expanded Edition
Most live albums are phonies. The Beach Boys’ Party was cut in a studio. Ramones (It’s Alive) and Kiss (Alive!) revitalized their recordings with overdubs. Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall is a complete re-creation. The Supremes At the Copa is no different, with fresh vocals having been slapped on top. But when you hear the raw tapes, you realize how wise that was and how little that matters. You can bet your beehive wig Diana Ross (or “Diane” as she calls herself here) was put higher in the mix. The thrill here is the backing band, a hot jazz crew. That casts the hits in new settings, shrugging off the wall-of-sound style of the girl-group era. “Stop! In the Name of Love” is a bouncing soul workout. “Baby Love” swing over punchy horns. Not sure if that was Diane’s idea, though she does note, “I’m the intelligent one.”
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Here
Critics tend to run away from Edward Sharpe as they would a Hare Krishna holding a brochure. I understand why. They are happy and quasi-spiritual. Me? I appreciate the chutzpah and the simple sentiments. But as anyone who has seen them can attest, the Zeros have an undeniable magnetism, especially Jade Castrinos, who belts it out like a true believer. For the first time on a record, the Zeros sound like a seasoned band, not an art project. There’s a gather-round-the-microphone feel to this modest and meditative sophomore effort, the first part of an intended double album. Castrinos can be often be heard in the distance, hollering along, too hot for the equipment. The air is warm and earthy. “One Love to Another” sounds as if it were recorded from a mic buried in the belly of an acoustic stand-up bass. Sharpe (Alex Ebert) told me he can hear “Dear Believer” being sampled in “a backyard BBQ hip-hop jam,” and I can hear that. It’s as relaxed as a styrofoam cooler.
This was an extremely packed week. In addition to these releases, I also recommend checking out the new platters from Sun Kil Moon, Lemonade, 2:54, King Tuff, Cadence Weapon, Gemma Ray, Grass Widow and Public Image Ltd. What the hell, music? Space it out.