Saturday, October 31, 2015

Underachievers Please Try Harder - Camera Obscura

Underachievers Please Try Harder
Camera Obscura
Merge MRG 239

I was very unhappy to read that Carey Lander died of cancer a few weeks ago.  She was the keyboard player for Camera Obscura (she is wearing the white hat in the cover pictures for this album.)  She also did the string arrangements and sang back-up vocals on this record.  I admire this band and have ever since I first heard "Suspended From Class" from this record on KXLU a decade ago.  I bought the CD and loved it so much that I bought it on vinyl as well.  I like all their albums but this is by far my favorite and I have to admit the main reason I love it so much is that it reminds me of their fellow Scots, Belle and Sebastian.  I've never heard any record that sounds more like Belle and Sebastian without actually being by Belle and Sebastian.  Even the cover art looks like a Belle and Sebastian record, hardly a surprise since head Belle, Stuart Murdoch, snapped the pictures.  I don't mean to imply that the album is blatantly imitative of the Belles, it is more that it shares common themes and the splendid chamber pop sound that made those early Belle and Sebastian records so magical.  The record opens with "Suspended From Class" which with its school metaphor, romantic awkwardness and self-deprecating lyrics immediately evokes early Stuart Murdoch.  Tracyanne Campbell has a low key, reserved style of singing but her voice is extremely lovely and sucks me right into the song.  Lander's graceful piano solo is supplemented by Nigel Baillie's delicate trumpet lines giving the song a delightful sound that is right out of the Belles' playbook.  "Keep It Clean" manages to be twee and coolly cutting at the same time, another early Murdoch trait.  The song is propulsive but retains a chamber pop flavor driven by Lander's organ and Kenny McKeeve's reverb laden guitar runs.  "A Sisters Social Agony" is a tender portrait of an indie-minded adolescent with all the corresponding angst that comes with.  You don't hear many pop songs that mention the film director Mike Leigh.  The music evokes early 1960s girl groups and 1950s doo-wop.  Campbell's dreamy vocal carries the song.  "Teenager" is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  It is addressed to a boy who is infatuated with a self-centered girl and the singer's attempt to woo him back.  The song opens with a beat group style guitar run before assuming the shuffling melody that drives the song.  Campbell's vocal is particularly compelling on this tune.  "Before You Cry" is a laid back break-up song.  It has a jaunty country-flavored melody which suits its rather callous lyrics.  John Henderson takes the vocal on the early part of the song before being joined by Campbell for the chorus.  She sings the final verse.  "Your Picture" critiques a narcissistic friend.  Henderson sings this one as well with a lugubrious vocal given extra depth with reverb.  Campbell sings a subdued harmony vocal in parts of the song.  The song is mostly supported by acoustic guitar.  It reminds me of early Leonard Cohen.  Side two opens with "Number One Son" which describes more adolescent romance woes.  It is another one of my favorite cuts.  It is a joyous track with a propulsive beat and a catchy melody that is fleshed out with strings and Baillie's trumpet.  It is the song that sounds the most like Belle and Sebastian on the record.  The poppy, upbeat sound continues with "Let Me Go Home" which is about a wild party with Motown records spinning, guests drinking and couples making out on the stairs.  Henderson sings lead and Lander's piano and McKeeve's jangly guitar runs carry the song which is the happiest track on the album.  Pure pop bliss.  The album slows down for "Books Written For Girls" which chronicles a mismatched romance with misleading appearances and false expectations.  Campbell's plaintive vocal is more emotional than is typical on this record.  I find it entrancing.  There is a lovely steel guitar solo from Wullie Gamble and some sensitive piano playing from Lander.  "Knee Deep at the NPL" describes a fun winter's night out dancing that ends with a couple falling in love.  The NPL refers to National Pop League which was a revered music club in Glasgow.  Campbell has another evocative vocal on this track which is bolstered by a gentle flute solo from Americo Alhucena.  Henderson joins the vocal at the end of the song for a charming polyphonic section.  The album concludes with "Lunar Sea" which is a poetic love song.  Campbell and Henderson sing this gentle song as a duet.  I enjoy McKeeve's rolling guitar riffs throughout the song and the chamber pop sound that makes this track a lovely conclusion for the album.  I adore this album, it is one of my favorites of the 2000s.  I've listened to it a lot in the past ten years and I still find it intensely engaging and charming.  I understand why Camera Obscura moved away from this style as their career progressed, they weren't going to get anywhere sounding so much like Belle and Sebastian.  Heck even Belle and Sebastian do not sound this much like Belle and Sebastian anymore.  I don't consider it a derivative record though, I think the band absorbed the Belles' distinctive style and gave it their own interpretation.  The record is made with intelligence and grace and even though I'm far removed from the youthful perspective that permeates the lyrics, I still find that I relate to it deeply.  Some of that can be attributed to the Tracyanne Campbell's voice which makes the words seem more significant and touching than they might be on paper.  The musical setting also enhances the lyrics, it invests them with feeling and sensitivity.  Carey Lander was a big part of this.  I think her keyboards were the heart of the band's musical sound.  Much of the beauty of their music comes from the tender and thoughtful expressiveness in her playing.  It will be an difficult hole to fill now that she is gone, but I do hope they find a way to carry on.  This one is obviously recommended for Belle and Sebastian fans.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Making Mirrors - Gotye

Making Mirrors
Universal Republic Records  B0016449-01

I first heard Gotye on KCRW which is our local NPR station.  I would describe their playlist as hipster-light.  The song was "Somebody That I Used to Know" and like most of the world I loved it the moment I heard it.  The song was soon in heavy rotation on KCRW and Gotye even did a live set on the air there that I really enjoyed.  Then much to my amazement the song took off and soon it was everywhere including the popular stations that my son liked.  My son loved the song as much as I did and it made me happy to bond with him over it.  In the old days when I was a snob, this kind of massive popular success would have been the kiss of death for me, but now I embraced it.  I was glad the song was everywhere.  I took my son to see Gotye live back in 2012 and we both had a great time.  I think an artist who can bridge generations is special.  Some of the hipsters at work poked fun at me when I mentioned liking the Gotye show, but I could not care less.  I respect Gotye as an artist and I think this album is terrific.  It begins with the introspective "Making Mirrors" which is a dreamy tune that barely lasts a minute.  The album kicks into gear with the propulsive "Easy Way Out" which is one of my favorite cuts.  This song about ennui and difficulty getting away from past feelings is driven by fuzzy guitar riffs.  This song leads into the slinky groove of the "Somebody That I Used to Know" which is the ultimate song about being hung up on the past.  As you probably already know, this song is about the emotional wreckage of a break-up.  It is one of the most potent break-up songs I've ever heard.  Before I heard it a thousand times it used to give me chills with its emotional power.  The most inspired aspect of the song is bringing in Kimbra to provide an alternative viewpoint to the self-pity of the main part of the song.  The side finishes with another uptempo song, the exuberant "Eyes Wide Open."  Powered by resounding drum beats and an impassioned vocal from Gotye, this song chronicles the ecological disaster created by humans indifferent to the consequences.  The B side begins with the electronic pop of "Smoke and Mirrors."  The song is about selling out and artistic integrity, remarkably prescient considering how Gotye's career took off abruptly taking him from cult figure to international superstar.  The song is not directed explicitly at himself and I'm not saying it necessarily applies to him, but I find the issues it raises are interesting in this context.  If nothing else it does show Gotye's artistic awareness and introspective nature.  The mood lifts for the joyous sunshine pop of "I Feel Better."  The song is a paean to love and friendship.  It is not deep, but provides some welcome lightness to the album.  "In Your Light" continues in a similar vein both lyrically and musically as he celebrates the joy love brings him.  Side C opens with "State of the Art" which celebrates Gotye's acquisition of a vintage Lowrey Cotillion electric organ which he uses throughout the song as he lauds its various features.  Gotye combines this old technology with modern electronic devices, distorting his voice as well as using samples to flesh out the smorgasbord of sounds that drive the song.  It is silly but fun unlike the next song, "Don't Worry, We'll Be Watching You."  It is a reggae style electronic song with a plodding, lethargic beat and a foreboding sound to it that matches its creepy lyrics.  It is about trying to leave some controlling organization, probably a religion.  It makes me think of Scientology but it could apply to a lot of things.  Side D begins with "Giving Me a Chance" which is about finding redemption with a loved one.  It is low key romantic electropop.  "Save Me" has an ebullient world music sound bolstered by prominent percussion and an abundance of instrumental overdubs, both analog and electronic.  It is an extremely upbeat song about being redeemed through the power of love.  The records concludes with "Bronte" which is not about the famous sister authors, but rather about a dying pet.  It is a beautiful and delicate song that gives the album an emotional and sensitive ending.  Some people rag on Gotye for being wimpy and whiny, but I admire his emotional honesty and expressiveness.  This record is full of self-doubt and angst for sure, but it also features Gotye's will to find his way and overcome his unhappiness.  I find it moving and uplifting.  Musically it is extremely engaging with a lot more instrumental texture and variety than is typical with electronic music.  Recommended to fans of Lorde.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends - Joe Cocker

With a Little Help From My Friends
Joe Cocker
A&M SP 4182

My belated tribute to Joe Cocker who died last December.  I think it has taken me so long to get around to this because I have mixed feelings about his career.  I have to admit that I hated him when I was a kid.  My introduction to him was his hit single "You Are So Beautiful" which they used to play all the time on the crummy soft-rock/adult contemporary radio stations my father listened to in the car.  That song made my skin crawl.  Then I saw him on "Saturday Night Live" and thought he was ridiculous.  My opinion of him changed in my senior year of high school when I saw "Woodstock" and finally perceived his talent.  I became a fan of his first three albums.  I haven't much interest in him after that.  I've heard tracks from most of his 1970s albums, none of which appeal to me.  His hit single with Jennifer Warren "Up Where We Belong" nauseates me and I've never bothered to explore his post-1970s catalog.  I do like those first three records though, especially this one which was his debut album.  The album consists largely of covers of well-known songs.  My favorite is the title track which of course comes from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."  It boasts an extraordinary and dramatic arrangement that radically transforms the song to the point where it is hardly recognizable as the same song.  Cocker howls his way through the song supported by soulful harmonizing from female background singers with his back-up band (including Jimmy Page) making a racket behind him.  It is an exciting song but I don't consider it an improvement over the original.  I think the song was better served by the charm and warmth that Ringo brought to his performance of the song rather than Cocker's histrionics which overwhelm the message of goodwill and amity at the heart of the lyrics.  I still dig the arrangement, although when I feel like hearing Cocker's version, I usually reach for the "Woodstock" soundtrack album which has an even more over-the-top and kinetic performance.  My other favorite track is a cover of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" which benefits greatly from Cocker's soulful vocal augmented by Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway and Patrice Holloway's strong backing vocals.  I consider this the definitive version of the song.  Cocker comes close to cutting the Animals with his smouldering version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."  I give Eric Burdon the edge for his intensity, but the groove on this arrangement is fabulous.  I'm also impressed by the way Cocker revitalizes the 1926 pop standard "Bye Bye Blackbird."  The song is given a soul-style treatment that makes it sound contemporary and Page contributes a stinging guitar solo that gives it some fire.  Cocker is less successful with a pair of Dylan covers. "I Shall Be Released" seems like a natural fit for him, but I find it dull and over-wrought.  My favorite part of the song is Stevie Winwood's swelling organ lines. "Just Like a Woman" is worse.  The song is undermined by Cocker's exaggerated vocal and a fussy arrangement.  I greatly prefer the simplicity and directness of Dylan's original.  He also covers the comparatively obscure "Do I Still Figure In Your Life" which was a 1967 single by Honeybus.  The song provides a good vehicle for Cocker's impassioned emoting.  There are three original songs that Cocker co-wrote with Chris Stainton which are easily the worst tracks on the record.  I've had this record for decades and played it a bunch of times and I still can't remember any of them even after I've just finished listening to the record.  "Sandpaper Cadillac" is the best of the three thanks to Page's fuzzy guitar riffs and some appealing shifts in tempo.  "Change in Louise" is energetic and reminds me of Procol Harum if Gary Brooker had laryngitis.  "Marjorine" has a music hall flavor to it.  For some reason Cocker chose to sing some of it in a high, almost falsetto voice, that irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The song features both Jimmy Page and Albert Lee on guitar and I'm still bored by it.  I think the weakness of the original songs is emblematic of Cocker's career.  He was a great interpreter, but I don't believe he was a great artist.  He was heavily dependent on outside material and I think Chris Stainton was largely responsible for the imaginative arrangements that make Cocker's first two albums so compelling.  Once Stainton left, Cocker's sound suffered.  Despite my misgivings about his taste and vision, there is no denying that the man was a fantastic singer, among the best of his era.  Even the weaker songs on this album sound wonderful.  Like Janis Joplin, he redefined rock singing by incorporating soul and rhythm and blues techniques into the orthodox style of rock singing creating an intoxicating synthesis that is still thrilling to me 46 years after it was recorded.  Recommended to people who think it would have been cool to hear Ray Charles perform with a loud rock band.