Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Fontana SRF 67610
I attended the Serge Gainsbourg tribute at the Hollywood Bowl a few days ago. The highlight was the performance of the entire "Histoire de Melody Nelson" album with a choir and an orchestra conducted by Jean-Claude Vannier who collaborated on the original album. That was spectacular. Another highlight for me was Beck performing some of Gainsbourg's songs written for France Gall although alas not my two favorites, "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" or "Les Petits ballons." My other favorite moment consisted of Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl tackling Gainsbourg's most famous song, "Je t'aime...moi non plus." Lennon seemed rather sheepish about the whole thing mumbling his part without much enthusiasm but Muhl went all out in a remarkable performance. The song was considered scandalous when it came out, but many in the crowd at the Bowl giggled all the way through it, Philistines! Okay, maybe they are right, it is a pretty silly song, but I still find it mesmerizing. This is the 1970 American version of the French album "Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg" which was released in 1969. It has an identical track listing but different cover art. "Je t'aime...moi non plus" kicks off the album. Gainsbourg originally recorded it with Brigitte Bardot but she refused to allow it to be released (although she changed her mind many years later and I prefer that version myself.) If you've never heard this song, it basically consists of Jane Birkin cooing that she loves Serge, breathing heavily and making orgasmic noises while Gainsbourg is saying that he doesn't love her either while commenting on the status of his impending orgasm over some trippy 60s lounge pop dominated by languid organ lines. It is pretty steamy stuff although anyone who has listened to late 70s disco music might wonder what all the fuss was about since orgasmic cooing is about as ubiquitous as synthesizers with that stuff. Gainsbourg practically made a career out of shocking people and would go on to make records celebrating sex with a teenager ("Melodie Nelson"), sado-masochism ("Love On the Beat") and finally incest enlisting his own daughter to duet with him on "Lemon Incest." "Je t'aime...moi non plus" seems tame in comparison. The next song on the album is the far more conventional "L'anamour" which Gainsbourg sings by himself. The title is a made up word that signifies non-love or the absence of love and I believe the song is about fear of commitment. Birkin sings "Orang-Outang" which I think is the worst song on the album. She sings the song in an irritating little girl voice and the lyrics are equally childish. It is about a girl who prefers to sleep with her orangutan doll rather than charming boys driving Ford Mustangs. It seems innocent enough although with Gainsbourg it is easy to imagine he means something more creepy. I believe that "Sous le soleil exactement" was written for the 1967 television film, "Anna" starring Anna Karina. I have that film's soundtrack on CD with Karina singing the song and I prefer it to the version here which is sung by Gainsbourg. Nonetheless it is a charming song driven by a big thumping bass line like a lot of Gainsbourg's music in this period. "18-39" is sung by Birkin. The title refers to the years between the World Wars and it makes references to the dances and music of that era and how the people who danced to it are either dead or well on their way to being dead. It is a sardonic and gloomy song, but the music is very upbeat, a jazzy music hall-type melody. Side one concludes with the delightful "69 année érotique." It is like Gainsbourg's version of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" as he describes crossing between France and England with his English love, Birkin. It is full of the clever word play and double entendres that Gainsbourg specialized in. He sings the verses and Birkin croons the chorus. There is another great bass line driving the song supported by some lovely orchestration. Side two begins with a song in a similar musical vein, "Jane B." The lounge pop tune is based on a prelude by Chopin. Birkin sings the song which begins with a description of her and ends with her lying murdered by the side of a road, a truly weird song. "Elisa" is pretty weird too, Gainsbourg asks the title character to search for lice in his hair which is probably a pop music first. He also makes reference to being 40 years old to her 20 which corresponds to the age difference between him and Birkin. The tune is another jaunty music hall-type song, it sounds utterly old-fashioned and conventional in contrast to the outre lyrics. "Le canari est sur le balcon" is about a woman committing suicide. It is a pretty folk rock tune that Birkin sweetly sings as if she doesn't know what she is singing about. I imagine that that was intentional, Gainsbourg likes going against the grain in his music. It reminds me of the original version of the next song, "Les sucettes" which was first performed by France Gall when she was a teenager. The song had been a big hit but also took advantage of Gall's innocence. She had believed that the song was about lollipops but it is really a thinly veiled description of oral sex. Gainsbourg's version is sung in a lecherous tone that makes his intent obvious. There is a nice growling guitar line throughout the song which is the most rock-like song on the album. The album concludes with the moody, heavily orchestrated "Manon" which is about jealousy and infidelity I believe, Gainsbourg sings of his love/hate relationship with the title character. It is the style of song that the French refer to as a "chanson" typical of someone like Charles Aznavour or Gainsbourg himself earlier in his career. This album is ultimately too narcissistic and self-absorbed to be completely satisfying to me. It reminds me of the records John and Yoko made together around the same time although without the sweetness. Gainsbourg is too preoccupied with being provocative to be a romantic songwriter. Even when he is seemingly sincere, I suspect he's up to something. Musically I find this album very engaging and the lyrical content is original that's for sure. Gainsbourg was undoubtedly a pop genius but he was also kind of an asshole so his music is interesting but ultimately a bit alienating too. This record isn't all that easy to find, but the French version was reissued in America on vinyl last year and since it has superior packaging, it makes an excellent alternative. Recommended for Jean-Luc Godard fans.
Friday, August 26, 2011
The Mojo Men were part of the first generation of San Francisco bands that paved the way for the San Francisco Sound without ever really being a part of it. I first encountered them on the original "Nuggets" comp which featured their classic 1967 single "Sit Down I Think I Love You." That song's delicious blending of chamber pop and sunshine pop resulted in one of the most infectious and delightful songs of its era. I loved it so much I sought out the original Reprise Records 45 just to hear the B-side, the very fine "Don't Leave Me Crying Like Before." It remains one of my favorite singles of all time. This is the sole album by the Mojo Men although by this time they had shortened their name to Mojo. Like their fellow early San Francisco band, the Charlatans, their album came out too late, after the band was already on the downside of their career. I'll never understand why Reprise never released an album by them earlier than this. Anyone who has heard the Sundazed comps of the Mojo Men's Reprise material knows how good that music was. Warner Bros. saw fit to release 3 albums by their Autumn Records contemporaries The Beau Brummels and no less than 4 albums by the far less talented Harper's Bizarre (known as the Tikis on Autumn) but just a few singles by the Mojo Men. Some of the Reprise material ended up on this album and if you have the Sundazed CD "Sit Down...It's The Mojo Men" you will have heard eight of the ten tracks on this album already, only "Candle To Burn" and "I Can't Let Go" are not included on it. That is unfortunate because "Candle To Burn" is an excellent song with some lovely orchestration. I consider it one of their best songs. "I Can't Let Go" is a weaker song but like "Candle To Burn" it features an impressive arrangement with orchestration that makes it sound more sophisticated than it really is. Parts of this album sounds like the Mamas and the Papas which might have been a good idea in 1966 but a dubious choice in 1968. Their influence is evident in the arrangements and harmonies on "Make You At Home," and especially "New York City" which could be an answer song to the Mamas and the Papas" "Twelve-Thirty." "New York City" is a memorable song, but it is so derivative that it doesn't do much for Mojo's artistic credibility. "Evelyn Hope" is the most interesting song on the record with a compelling guitar line from Paul Curcio and a psychedelic feel to it that is the closest they come to the San Francisco Sound on this album. When Jan Errico starts wailing at the end I'm reminded of Grace Slick with the Great Society. The gothic lyrics are derived from the poem of the same name by Robert Browning (although he is given no credit.) "Beside Me" is one of my favorite songs on the record. Errico's haunting vocal on this alluring chamber pop song really sends me. It is a slow, smoldering song reminiscent of "Don't Leave Me Crying Like Before." There is also a chamber pop feel to "Flower of Love" which has a complex structure with numerous tempo changes. "Not Too Old To Start Crying" is a mix of folk-rock and chamber pop. It is a conventional pop song but it has a compelling beat, a passionate vocal from Jim Alaimo and an arrangement that gives it some depth. "Free Ride" is one of the punchier songs on the record with a soulful brass arrangement and I like the flower power lyrics. "Whatever Happened to Happy" is the only song on the album that was not written by the team of Jim Alaimo and Jan Errico, it was written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon of "Happy Together" fame. It is first rate commercial pop and I don't know why it wasn't a hit. Even though it doesn't represent the band as well as the Sundazed CDs do, I really enjoy this record, there isn't a bad song on it. Alaimo and Errico had a lot of chemistry as singers and the arrangements are consistently interesting and appealing. This album deserves to be better known, as do the Mojo Men, they had a lot of talent. "Mojo Magic" isn't all that easy to find but the Sundazed comps are and the two that feature the post-Autumn recordings with Jan Errico are both excellent. If you are a fan of the early San Francisco Sound, chamber pop or sunshine pop, you will probably enjoy these recordings. Recommended for people who prefer "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off" to "Crown of Creation."
Thursday, August 25, 2011
I bought this at the Okkervil River concert at the Wiltern awhile ago. It was the first time that I saw them live and I was blown away. I like their albums but they only hint at the power they unleash live. When Will Sheff walked out on stage he looked like an assistant professor at a liberal arts college, but when the music started he morphed into Otis Redding. What a passionate performer, he totally rocks. This is their best record to date, which is a good sign, they just keep getting better. My picture does not really show how lovely the album package is. The cover is embossed and the colors are really vibrant. It is a two record set, but side four consists of a beautiful etching rather than music. The music on the record is just as impressive as the packaging. It features erudite and poetic lyrics harnessed to music with remarkable anthemic power to produce extraordinary songs of great depth and feeling. It is a very dark album, full of blood and violence. I count at least three songs that make reference to slit throats. The album begins menacingly enough with "The Valley" where the driving, insistent beat of the music accompanies lyrics describing rock and roll casualties with horror film imagery. The use of strings on this song enhances its creepiness. "Piratess" has a more seductive, sexy vibe to it but the lyrics are just as dark with their depiction of a femme fatale. "Rider" is my favorite song on the album, a soaring and vibrant song coupled with surreal, apocalyptic lyrics. The music on here is really powerful, it practically sounds like an orchestra is playing. It is the bleakest song addressed to an infant that I've heard since Richard Thompson's "The End of the Rainbow." "Lay of the Last Survivor" offers no respite from the gloom as it opens with a girl discovering her father's dead body and continues on downward from there, full of fear, grief and surrender. In contrast to the dark lyrics the music is exquisite even soothing in places full of warmth and rich instrumentation courtesy of the woodwinds. "White Shadow Waltz" is one of the best songs on the record. It sounds nothing like a waltz, the music has a driving beat with surging strings and keyboards and martial drumming that is again symphonic in its splendor and strength. The song seems to be about some monstrous female creature, I'm not sure what it means, but the imagery is amazing. The wall of sound returns for the pounding "We Need a Myth." The grandiose music reinforces the urgency of the lyrics which search for something to believe in. "Hanging From a Hit" is the opposite of its predessor. It is a slow, delicate song driven by an unusual piano sound and a moving vocal depicting an illicit romance. "Show Yourself" continues the stripped down sound of the previous song although with some interesting instrumental effects at the beginning. It is a dreamy song that becomes more intense as it develops. "Your Past Life as a Blast" is an exuberant love song, it is one of my favorite songs on the record, I like the way the lyrics build on each other and it provides some relief from the dark tone of the album. The dramatic "Wake and Be Fine" returns to the recurrent theme of dream versus reality that permeates the album. It is a very impressive song with another passionate almost distraught vocal from Sheff and some lovely instrumentation. The concluding song "The Rise" is again orchestral in its instrumental richness. It's wintry lyrics provide a fittingly gloomy yet majestic conclusion to the album. Despite the darkness, I love this album. I've been listening to it obsessively all summer long and it still impresses me every time I spin it. It is the best album I've heard this year and I would not be at all surprised if it became a classic. It places Okkervil River among the very best bands in America right now and I can't wait for them to make another album (or to come back to town for another show.) Recommended for fans of My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire, this record combines the best aspects of all three of them.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire
P. W. Elverum & Sun Ltd. ELV019
This album comes packaged in the large double sided poster depicted above. There is no cardboard record sleeve, just a paper sleeve for the record (which is pressed on clear vinyl) and a plastic album sleeve for the entire package. I bought it from the Elverum website. I could have saved the price of shipping by buying it from Phil Elverum himself when I saw Mount Eerie and Key Losers in concert a couple of months ago, but I foolishly didn't think to bring much money with me. Elverum showed up at the merch table with a big crate full of vinyl from Mount Eerie and his previous band, the Microphones, but I spent my money on the Key Losers album instead, partly because Katy Davidson was throwing in her previous album as well but also because Davidson was open and friendly and Elverum was sitting at the merch table looking like a guy waiting to see the dentist. Anyway it was a really impressive show. As a performer Elverum is as taciturn as they come, but the music was so compelling and powerful that I didn't mind. Elverum played what I think was a vibraphone as well as an enormous gong supported by Nicholas Krgovich on keyboards and a woman whose name I did not catch also playing keyboards. The music was not rock nor was it folk, it was a mesmerizing, droning almost abstract sort of music that defies easy description. It sounded quite different from the Microphones which is where I first encountered Elverum. I liked the Microphones, but not so much that I noticed right away when Elverum abandoned that name and started using Mount Eerie for the name of his musical efforts. This particular album sounds more like the Microphones than Elverum's current music. It has mostly an ethereal folky sound. Julie Doiron (formerly of the beloved indie band Eric's Trip) shares vocals with Elverum and Fred Squire plays guitar. I don't have a problem with Elverum's voice, but I like Doiron's better and find her voice a lot warmer as well. I was reminded of Elverum's collaborations with Khaela Maricich and Mirah back in the Microphones days. Doiron brightens up the music considerably. This is particularly noticeable on their duet "Lost Wisdom" which is my favorite song on the album. It is a haunting and poetic song that reminds me of early Leonard Cohen and I find that the interplay between Elverum's low key vocal and Doiron's more emotional singing very alluring. "Voice In Headphones" features Elverum singing the verses while Doiron sings the chorus with the chorus overlapping the verses in a contrapuntal arrangement. It sounds gorgeous. "You Swan, Go On" is an exquisite song of lost love and personal growth mostly sung by Elverum. Doiron takes the lead on "Who?" which is about loss. Side two opens with "Flaming Home" which is a bleak song depicting a deteriorating relationship sung beautifully as a duet. "What?" echoes "Who?" in its structure but whereas the former song examines the emptiness left behind by lost love in a series of questions, this song asks a series of questions describing the sensory overload of one in love and dazzled by one's partner. "If We Knew..." is sung by Doiron and features a series of epigrams about fear and uncertainty. It is another one of my favorite songs on the record, I find the guitar playing on this track to among the loveliest on the album. "With My Hands Out" displays Elverum's gift for writing enigmatic lyrics with striking imagery that create strong impressions in the listener. "O My Heart" features some more memorable guitar work and a delicate duet vocal singing metaphorical lyrics that might be kind of corny in less sensitive hands, but instead it is one of the best songs on the record, very moving. The album concludes gloomily with "Grave Robbers" which has dark lyrics and creepy imagery although the music is light and the vocal duet is as pretty as any on the record. The music on this album has a consistent tone and mood, but it is not monotonous and I find it unfailingly engaging. It is ideally suited for moments when you are feeling introspective and thoughtful, rainy afternoons or late at night sipping a glass of wine. Elverum is an extremely intelligent songwriter and his music is challenging and adventurous, I've never heard a boring or lackluster piece of music from him. Recommended for Nick Drake fans whose favorite album is "Pink Moon."
Sunday, August 14, 2011
All Over The Place
Columbia BFC 39220
It has been a while since my last post. I was on vacation up in Alaska. Alaska is awesome but I never found a record store there so I doubt that I'll ever be moving there. Despite its many faults, Southern California is a record lover's dream. There are lots of record stores and the live music scene is tremendous. If I had the time, money and stamina, I could see a good show just about every night. The area has also produced a lot of terrific bands, including the Bangles who started just a couple of miles from my home. I recently saw the Bangles in concert. Michael Steele was not there and she was replaced by a male bassist and with a guy on keyboards as well, so I guess they aren't really a girl group anymore. The concert was a pleasant surprise. The old songs sounded great and the new songs didn't suck. The ladies may be getting older but they can still bring it, if you don't believe me you should check out their electrifying cover of the Nazz's "Open My Eyes." I enjoyed the show so much, it got me to dig out this album and give it a spin. It is my favorite of their original albums even though it was the least successful commercially. It may not have produced any hits, but it should have, "Hero Takes A Fall" is one of their best songs, it is so catchy and compelling, it has classic single written all over it. The album is not marred by any sappy Susanna Hoffs ballads and it has a cleaner, less fussy sound than their later albums. Most of the record was written by Vicki Peterson who has clearly listened to lots of 1960s records. "James" sounds like Petula Clark crossed with the Monkees. "All About You" sounds like the Jan Errico era Mojo Men crossed with the Byrds. The Hoffs-Peterson song, "Dover Beach" is an enchanting mixture of folk-rock and power pop with an alluring Hoffs vocal and some stinging guitar from Peterson. It concludes an absolutely flawless side of music. Side two kicks off with the chiming opening guitar line of "Tell Me" before letting loose with some of the hardest rocking music on the record. It sounds like Paul Revere and the Raiders crossed with the Leaves. "Restless" is another driving rocker that sounds like the Mamas and the Papas crossed with the early Jefferson Airplane. "He's Got a Secret" is less rooted in the 60s aside from the vocal harmonies. It has a nice guitar solo but is otherwise undistinguished. "Silent Treatment" is another rocker with a New Wave flavor. It reminds me of the Go-Go's. It is a slight song, but the powerful guitar riffs make it engaging. "More Than Meets the Eye" is the quietest song on the record, the guitars and drums are replaced by violins, rarely a good idea. I find it boring and it ends an otherwise fun record with a bit of a downer. The Bangles have always had excellent taste in covers and this record is no exception. Side one offers a faithful version of the Merry-Go-Round's classic "Live" and side two has Kimberley Rew's immortal "Going Down To Liverpool." It is not quite up to the Katrina and the Waves version but only because Debbi Peterson can't compete with Katrina Leskanich as a vocalist. You could make a case that this record is too derivative to be considered great, but I don't care. I love the music of the 1960s and if the Bangles love that music too, I'm on their side. I do think it is a delightful record and it makes me happy whenever I give it a spin which is more than I can say for most records from the mid-1980s. Recommended for people who think the Three O'Clock were a better band than the Police.