Reviews for the Playlouder.com website for the month of June 2007.
Every actor wants to be a musician; every musician wants to be an actor. More often than not this cliché may bear out the artist in question’s desire to spread their creative wings in a medium that challenges them but equally often the results of this desire can appear misguided at best and at worst can seem massive errors of judgement. For every Vincent Gallo that can effortless move from screen to canvas to record there is a Keanu Reeves, Russell Grant or Steven Segal who’s success and talent in one discipline seemingly blinds any sense of self-critique in their efforts in another.
So it was with a fair sense of trepidation that I slipped this disc into the CD player but not a full cold sweat for several reasons: unlike the Gladiator, Kung Fu ‘master’ and shop mannequin mentioned above Pagoda’s leader and sole songwriter, Michael Pitt, has consistently appeared in films of fair artistic merit directed by the likes of Larry Clark (Bully), Bernand Bertoluci (The Dreamers) and most pertinently as Kurt Kobain in his final hours in Gus Van Sandt’s Last Days. Secondly the label on the sleeve of this debut album from Pitt’s band is that of Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! a stable whose roster is hand-picked by the usually impeccable Moore and features innovative and progressive avant and underground acts such as Lambsbread, Awesome Colour and 16 Bitch Pile Up. It is said that Thurston met Pitt on the set of Last Day’s where he was acting as a musical consultant, Van Sant encouraged Pitt to play a song for Moore and the rendition of the this album’s opening track Lesson Learned was so convincing that Moore asked Pitt to record an LP on the spot.
On evidence of the record that Pitt has gone on to produce the qualities that so impressed Moore are not immediately clear. For someone who has portrayed Kobain it is perhaps not wholly surprising that both the ghosts of early 90’s Seattle and the music that in turn influenced that movement loom large in the band’s sound. It is a record that is not in thrall to but rather wrapped in the sound of Nirvana and The Pixies. Rather than take and recreate it appears almost to pastiche and imitate. The album’s artwork in it’s gaffa tape and hand-scrawled, journal-like notebook lyrics certainly adheres to the visual aesthetic and sonically both Lesson Learned and Amego flit with ease from a quiet walking skronk to the anguished, amped growl that served Kobain and Black Francis so well.
However the anguish lacks a sense of authenticity and is further undermined by frankly awful lyrics: “oh medicate me/feel my pain/love me know that/I’m insane” or “So now I’m here/And I used to be there/it was before that I was unhappy but now I am numb”. Ouch. But not quite as moving as Amego’s crescendo: “Blah blah blah blah/Blah blah blah blah/Blah blah blah blah/Weapon of mass destruction”. Ok.
While the band make a pretty great sound particularly during the chorus sections the overuse of strings in Death To Birth and the needlessly drawn out closer I Do add an unnecessary pomp and the drummer seems obsessed with adding fills at every opportunity that fan the listener like an annoying moth.
It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom though as the guitars are soaked in a nice fuzz, the riffs move the songs along nicely (particularly during Voices) and Pitt’s voice certainly has potential. The commitment that wowed Moore is perhaps to some extent Pitt’s undoing as the over-earnestness translates on record as a tad contrived. Apparently the Pagoda that recorded this album has been replaced entirely by Pitt (must have been that drummer) and the new unit are looking to cut a record soon which is a project to be looked forward to. The concept of these songs being played live is also something that could certainly be anticipated as the youthful and raw energy would undoubtedly be embraced by audiences so it’s all OK Michael: time enough to skive from the day job yet.
My Ion Trust
Two albums that have been a huge disappointment and letdown on a personal level in recent(ish) months have been the new efforts from Wilco and Sparklehorse. Both are bands that operated with an initial blueprint of melodic alt-country rock but skewed and re-invigorated it with sonic innovation that created a wide-eyed sense of wonder at the possibilities of the supposedly limited canvas conventional rock supplies it’s practitioners. Listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Good Morning Spider for the first time felt like the first time you had ever opened your eyes or breathed fresh air. Their latest efforts however seemed stunted, limited by the very parameters they once vaulted with such ease.
Knowing little about Minus Story and having little to no expectation possibly lead to the overly joyous experience of listening to My Ion Trust for the first time. Here are a band that have succeeded where Wilco and Sparklehorse have failed in their latest efforts: they have created a widescreen, bright-eyed record of originality that celebrates the very happiness of being alive. It is a record of anthemic and orchestral pop laced with a youthful, hopeful vocal and a gritty, guitar-led base that underpins the melodic synth and key chimes and patterns while the whole affair is swept along by spacious but firm drumming that is simultaneously reminiscent of both Queen and the Glitter Band.
Jordan Geiger’s occasionally distorted vocal is one of the first things to hit the listener and his slightly nasal Midwestern lilt is perfect for the optimistic, inspirational choruses, it is as at home crooning a sweet Sufjan Stevens-esque falsetto during Pretty In The Night as it is coming across as the bastard child of Stephen Malkmus and Tunde Adebimpe on rollicking opener proper Aaron which, after the delicate instrumental led introduction track In Line, sets the tone and template for the album to come: the lead guitar creates frenetic melody lines as the keys and rhythm section all dip during the hushed verse before all storm into the chorus creating a joyous racket which somehow never leaves a sense of melody behind even when scattered saxophones enter the fray adding to the beatific sense of chaos.
It all sounds like Explosions In The Sky playing from the Arcade Fire’s crib sheet but somehow managing to play with a complete lack of pretension or saccharine mass-appeal and only a beautiful innocence and immediacy that feels like flying through the clouds at unattainable speed or driving alone through the desert fist in the air at a midnight moon. Seriously this is one of the most uninhibited, joyous records I’ve heard in ages, it brings together ensemble pop, uninhibited chorus structure and a sheer sense of beauty that is all too rarely produced in convincing balance. Album centrepiece The Battle Of Our Lives is perhaps the most realised manifestation of the Minus Story’s vision and listening to it repeatedly only made me lust for more. Honest, original and moving: a triumph.
Amber Webber and Joshua Wells don’t always play beautiful, chilling folky, alt-country vignettes. They are both moonlighting members of cosmic, space-country rockers Black Mountain who have wowed and terrified audiences for the past few years with a succession of wonderfully oblique, whigged out rock records played at tremendous volume creating a formidable live spectacle.
In comparison to their main creative outlet this debut disc of recordings as Lightning Dust sees the duo retreat from any sense of bombast to produce quiet, sparse and affecting songs that seem almost an introverted retreat from the Black Mountain recordings. A quiet, brooding inner monologue of sombre and occasionally chilling tracks which benefit from the spartan nature of their arrangement.
The instrumentation relies principally on piano, organ and Amber Webber’s voice. Although there is currently a raft of female vocals flooding the racks in the nu/wyrd folk sense Webber’s is something a step apart from the Nadler’s and Newsom’s. Hers is a far more gothic and haunted instrument riddled with experience that is more akin in affect rather than tone to the male deliveries of Jason Molina or Mark Kozelek and is both perfectly suited to this project as well being it’s greatest asset. One spin of Highway should easily convince as Webber’s wrenched vocal heckles goosebumbps over a creeping cello and organ score.
Album opener Listened On very much sets the sombre, chilly tone that is taken to it’s most extreme on the frankly scary tracks Heaven and Breathe. While the aforementioned majestic and forlorn Highway is perhaps the albums highlight the record throws up a few surprises that allow for a let up in the gothic, cinematic sense of tension that the majority of the album builds. Wind Me Up is the most severe stylistic departure offering an upbeat, major-key roller while Jump In features a powerful use of a call and return vocal that builds to a dramatic conclusion and album closer Days Go By offers a plodding beat that eddies like a slow rolling river and brings to mind latter period Gram Parsons both in arrangement and lyrical theme.
At just over 30 minutes Lightning Dust’s debut effort represents a compact but powerful set of sketches that will hopefully be returned to very soon.