Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Indie-Rock Epics: A Report Card

In the roflcopter over the sea

I just rocked out to Neutral Milk Hotel's universally-lauded, almost decade-old masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea of my own volition for the first time in years (semi-rocking out to snatches of it in Alex's, Greg's or Justin's car does not count). Most people consider it the last great album of the 1900s even though I know 69 Love Songs is better (and somehow, bigger). But there's never really been a band like Neutral Milk Hotel before. The abridged story as I know it is like this. Jeff Magnum, one of the many trippy songwriters of the mysterious faction known as Elephant 6, was living in the Apples In Stereo guy's closet. The two of them played a bunch of strange instruments and he wrote a bunch of strange lyrics and sang in his strange voice and they recorded a strange album, On Avery Island in 1995. The album was okay; it kind of drops out after the first two tracks, but it did test the waters for a much bigger, more important event three years later. That's when they made Aeroplane, a record so emotionally intense, intensely weird, and both intensely and emotionally over the top, with unnameable instruments like zanzithophones and three-part mini-operas and circus instrumentals and random fuzzbass freakouts that somehow hinge on the line "I love you Jesus Christ." And the album was so big, so monumental, that Magnum just decided to quit after it. No nervous breakdown, no strange decline into drugs, just the realization that his musical mission is complete and on to something else, presumably religious. There's never been a career like it before in music, though the My Bloody Valentine guy comes close and his album was almost as good and certainly as acclaimed. Sure it's been hinted at that he's coming back this year or did some new demos in his basement, but what's an estranged indie legend without rumors? It's just so weird, though. Does the guy really think he'll never top it? I mean, he won't, I've heard his demos. But hey, he conceived them. It would be highly unusual for an artist that ambitious to be so self-conscious of his limitations; did he really make five or six attempts at a follow-up and just scrap them for obsolescence?

In any case, his contribution to music history is in stone, and it ain't merely the sweet sounds found within Aeroplane. No, Jeff Magnum's contribution to music history is that he invented the indie-rock epic, unless you count OK Computer as your starting point, which can be argued. But from there came 69 Love Songs, The Soft Bulletin, and next thing you know, bands like Cursive and The Decemberists and the Mountain Goats and the Hold Steady, whose entire rhetoric is making an epic concept rock opera every time out. The last era of that sort of thing was when Rush and Genesis and, Christ, Queenscryche were putting out. And the last time it was a good idea boils down to The Who, and their rock operas weren't even their best records (their new one certainly isn't either). So it's kind of odd that most of this new generation's stabs at it are actually good. For fun, here's a report card grading 25 of the best-loved records of this unabashedly bombastic ilk and my two cents on each (in chronological order of course):

Neutral Milk Hotel - In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

A perfect cycle of valleys and peaks orchestrated to sound like Alice In Wonderland meets Jesus Christ Superstar. Everyone cites the sprawling hymn "Oh Comely" or strained singalong classic "Two-Headed Boy" as the touchstone, but my favorite is far simpler, the propulsive "Ghost" with its sprightly drumrolls and "dee-dee-dee" bridge. Perfectly paced, with a beginning, middle and end that segue like liquid. One of the rare wholes whose parts are truly ironclad and inseperabale. A

The Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Animation Music (1999)

A sophomore slump for Elephant 6. Whereas not a moment goes by on Aeroplane that's not lyrical, or at least songful, even on its two instrumentals, The Olivia Tremor Control surrounds meager songs with more than ten rather un-lyrical sound collages, snippets and tuneless studio coilings. It plays dominatrix with the listener and won't let him cum, assuming one of these mediocre-to-pretty good songs is a fair comparison to an actual orgasm. And none of them are. C

The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin (1999)

Not an indie, but certainly beloved by that audience, The Soft Bulletin is Wayne Coyne's best album because it's the one where he discovered melody. The dizzying array of sound effects, orchestral swellings and lush studiocraft are boosted into the stratosphere of the heavenly by the sweetness of the actual tunes they embolden. His lyrics can be goofy ("The Spiderbite Song") or sappy ("Waiting For A Superman") but sometimes they're actually touching ("Suddenly Everything Has Changed") or inspirational ("Race For The Prize"). Coyne's most humane album, too, a promise only briefly sustained by the sweeping "Do You Realize??" on the slightly overwrought follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, which was even more conceptual in its own right. A-

The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs (1999)

Stephin Merritt is the only songwriter on this list whose tunes are modest on average, always simple when they're elaborately arranged, and the only songwriter on this list besides John Darnielle who makes his craft out of the miniature (no surprise then, that Darnielle's also made an A+ record, Tallahassee). Merritt's delusions of grandeur are special. No other songwriter of his kind has attempted a brave three-disc set that fulfills its title's promise, 69 actual songs, all related to love in one way or another, most often humorously and always smartly. Except for the gorgeous five-minute run of "Sweet Lovin' Man," Merritt's songs are always tiny things from 30 seconds to three minutes, usually with a hummable chorus, some kind of string or banjo accompaniment, a handful of various singers, and usually the cheapest drum machine you can find punching out metronomic numbness underneath. The result is brave, funny, poignant and gorgeous. A+

Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World (2002)

Adored in Britain and marginal here, Super Furry Animals made an expansive opus of britpop plus everything but the kitchen sink that's less fun in retrospect and always self-consciously eclectic. Beatlesque washes like "It's Not The End Of The World" turn into heavy metal robo-crunch like "Receptacle For The Respectable." "No Sympathy" vrooms from symphonic ballad to Aphex Twin apoplexy. "Juxtaposed With U" is the first anti-predjudice song with both Spanish guitar and vocoder. So it's a mess that could be pared down, yeah (especially the dragging "Run, Christian, Run!"), but it's a lovable one. I don't know if it's a good thing or not that it peaks on a power-ballad about Clinton coming inside Monica Lewinsky's mouth. B

Bright Eyes - Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002)

Severely flawed, he opens his career album with a track that will make you shut him off in seconds. "The Big Picture" is almost nine minutes of Bright Eyes parody: weird intro of "found" dialogue, eight minutes of overemoted whining and exaggerated folk-drama to follow. Like anyone with ears, I hated it instantly. Now I find it hilariously tasteless, like The Rapture's Echoes. But the first great track still doesn't happen til track four, "You Will. You Will. You Will. You Will," a perfect country ballad matched by some other sporadic moments of perfection here. "Waste of Paint," "Make War," "Bowl Of Oranges" and "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" should comprise more of the album than they do, but they don't, and even with the anti-hit "Lover I Don't Have To Love" on standby, the album's still half bad. He eventually found politics, melodies, and Emmylou Harris, but not here. B

Godspeed You Black Emperor! - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2002)

I don't do post-rock, except for the occasional interesting noise or two. But at least Tortoise is throwing things at the wall. This orchestra is "mysterious" and "intriguing" because of their name and tracklist-withholding album art? I mean, they have a formula; what's so "post" about that? Find some strange found monologue and cover it in rudimentary instrumental repetitions Steve Reich would call basic, no matter how many different strings are playing the same note at some point. As if this band's music is any less banal because one of their 20-minute "explorations" has "motherfucker" in the title. Five tracks in two discs you don't need. The very first one makes the point, and it peaks around five minutes. C+

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Okay, I'll admit, I fucking loved this when it first came out. But why? In retrospect, I have no idea what felt so revolutionary about it other than the damn label dropping them. Certainly not the ass-boring "Reservations" or the anthem that takes forever only to deliver "I won't be caught calling the pot kettle black" as it's defining credo. "Ashes Of American Flags" and "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" certainly never get better than or live up to the heart-wrenching devastation in their titles, though at least the latter is sonically colorful. That leaves us with the pop songs that the folks who dubbed this a "classic" or, more ludicriously, a "9/11 response record," tend to ignore when blathering about it, namely the stuff that makes it a good album, but not the stuff that makes it a legend. I doubt Reprise would've dropped them if they led with the wistful "Kamera" instead of the, gosh, six minutes of clatter dubbed onto "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," which thank God isn't the fifteen minutes of feedback dubbed onto the wretched follow-up A Ghost Is Born's wretched low point "Less Than You Think." "Heavy Metal Drummer" is, how boring, a sweet love song, and "I'm The Man Who Loves You" a raucous one, at least by Wilco standards. And "Jesus, Etc." is the sweetest tune Jeff Tweedy will ever write, with violins he'll never sing as well as. B+

Cursive - The Ugly Organ (2003)

I'll be brief since the band was kind enough to be. A concept album that works. About the pressures of commandeering a postpunk band no less, and what their hopeless audience expects of you! By a band who hasn't made a record even close to this great before or since. With cello as a lead instrument. 35 flawless minutes that build actual tension, with just one interlude to make you catch your breath before "Butcher The Song," a jagged mountain climb of catharsis that goes off in all different Freudian directions once the title "organ" is introduced. I wish Tim Kasher would grow out of his failed attempts to compare his feelings to excrement and make it work. But otherwise, rock on. A+

Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003)

Like Colin Meloy, I'd love to hate Ben Gibbard, but he's too inconsistent. He's always a pussy, natch, but his melodic sense and lyrical insight 50% of the time are on, on, on. And damn it, his attention to detail will make you laugh, cry, whatever, when he's not just wiping his ass. So "A Lack Of Color," "Expo '86," "Title and Registration," "We Looked Like Giants" and "Death Of An Interior Decorator" might well make you feel something a little extra. The autopilot "The New Year," "Sound Of Settling" and "Lightness" are catchy enough to avoid that stigma. And hey, even the grandiose cheeseburger of a title track gets me all sniffly as it approaches minute six. But "Tiny Vessels" and "Passenger Seat" might remind you why you try to hate this band in the first place, and that's because they can be fucking boring, which can cause some of even the above recommended tracks to leave you feeling a bit nauseous. B+

Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

I'll get it out of the way that this isn't Belle & Sebastian's best record, though it is ridiculously littered with great songs. The buzzed-about "Piazza, New York Catcher" and the ornate title track are fun, but topped by the organ-led, twin-guitar showcase "Stay Loose" and "I'm A Cuckoo," which is so Thin Lizzy it makes Ted Leo sound like .38 Special by comparison. "Step Into My Office, Baby" is their sexiest song ever, and I don't prefer their earlier records because they're shyer. I prefer them because they have even more great songs than this one. A-

Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2003)

Like The Olivia Tremor Control, this faux meeting of minds is a mess on purpose, left for their bass player, of all people, to organize and make something of. He doesn't. At least Olivia Tremor Control mines Beach Boys/Beatles territory that doesn't offend me. These guys start out parodying Sonic Youth, end up tailing the Strokes, and waste alot of unformed ideas in between. I don't know why anyone would call this rock and roll; even their likeable record, last year's funkier Broken Social Scene, has too many overdubs and not enough bite to truly break its own ether, much less new ground for music in general. But despite some titles that would imply otherwise ("Capture The Flag," "You're Still My Fag") this is pointless, and not even fun about it. C-

The Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)

At the time, I thought this was just more theater trash that Pitchfork was hawking. But in retrospect, all those blogalicious overrators were dead on; this is more than just "Bright Eyes with disco breaks" as I originally thought, though that description now reads more like a compliment anyway. Only the dragging "In The Backseat" falls flat, an odd closer for a record that lives for the climax. Favorite moments: the coda of "Tunnels," the coda of "Rebellion (Lies)," and especially, the Bright Eyes-with-disco-breaks ending to the slowly peeled "Crown Of Love." A

The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat (2004)

I also overrated this at the time, too, though I don't know how I stomached 78 minutes of weird noises that cross over to irritating and (very) awkward song changes, though there are striking moments here. The record's two best tracks however, are the clumsy-blues "Straight Street," with its waffley synth breakdown, and the vaudevillian "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found," also the two shortest tracks here. That leaves at least 69 minutes to go, and trust me, you'll be counting. B-

The Decemberists Present Picaresque (2005)

I'm not gonna give in to the pressure those intimidating Rushmore fans and theater geeks (and my girlfriend) are applying and still insist that this perfectly fine record, while solid from top to bottom (well, maybe not very bottom, that "you've got angels in your angles" envoi is pretty dumb"), isn't much fun to listen to over and over, even though it's their most accessible and upbeat record to date (and without any ten-minute suites or two-part adaptations of Japanese folktales, their most pop). Exceptions: "16 Military Wives," the best Decemberists song to date, also a rare political satire that fits Bush like a hunting cap, "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which stands at a wussy mere eight minutes to tell its worded-to-impress whale tale, "Eli, The Barrow Boy," a touching enough love lament to convince me Colin Meloy's thesaurus isn't all worthless. On the whole, though, I suprise myself by preferring the newer and more "epic" The Crane Wife, which takes longer to sink in and won't make you put it away as soon as it does. B+

The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005)

Easier to pigeonhole than the new Incubus record, here's a gang of Springsteen and Zep-riff loving thirtysomethings who like to rock out like their parents did, but resist tired rock-opera trappings like mental illness when they pieced together their storyline for the hopeless Holly Lujah, a reformed drug addicted slut turned good Christian and was arguably better off. Crank it. A

Antony & The Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now (2005)

Antony sings worse than Joanna Newsom with a dentist's drill in her vagina, which keeps me from enjoying just about everything here, even with Lou Reed's help (though Boy George and Devendra Banhart certainly spoil that coup), except for maybe the transvetite's identity confusion anthem "For Today I Am A Boy." The overwrought "Hope There's Someone," however, is not exempt. C

The Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree (2005)

After the gorgeously full-bodied Tallahassee and the impenetrable narrative of We Shall All Be Healed, John Darnielle can make a child abuse record in his sleep. So what if his topics are getting simpler, even this year's grating Get Lonely wielded a "Woke Up New." The breathtaking "Broom People" and "Dilaudid" are far more effective with their literal flourishes than the child-quiet "Dinu Lappiti's Bones" that ruins the sum of the parts. But the parts are mostly great, from the folksy warning "Magpie" to the gripping "Song For Dennis Brown" and the gorgeously understated "Love, Love, Love." Motto: "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me." And he does one last time. A

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)

Stevens' sense of melody is overrated, or at least overarranged. Banjos, even strings, all okay additions to some loosely composed folktunes, but a choir and fluty trills and the works on just about every song gets weary only a few tracks in, and there's more than twenty. This should broaden the effect of the spare "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "John Wayne Gacy Jr.," and it does, but not as much as you'd wish. "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades" and "They Are The Night Zombies!" deserve the gifts they're given, but I'd rather not sit through the sickening "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!" and a dozen of its sugary bretheren to get to them. C+

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)

What, you don't think this is epic? Alec Ounsworth's overblown David Byrne delivery on speed plus the Tom Waits circus of intro "Clap Your Hands!" certainly signal a climbing desperation that overflows on the closing "Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood." A rare thing, arty minimal songs decked out like Arcade Fire explosions. Plus, it catapulted an unknown, unsigned band to stardom at the height of their burgeoning creativity without even a label deal. That's epic enough for me. A-

Animal Collective - Feels (2005)

Like Broken Social Scene, these weirdos make funny noises and loop them until they mean something. Like Broken Social Scene, it works less than they think. And like Bjork, they make said funny noises with their mouths. Tribal this, freak-folk that, not interested either. Start with the cutsier Sung Tongs if you must, but stay away from Here Comes The Indian if you don't want to feel like a sucker. I guess that means they peaked already. B-

Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine (2005)

Not a difficult anti-masterpiece as the ridiculous legend goes, just an intelligent and uncompromising songwriter broadening her strokes and gaining complexity with age. I miss the devious strings that swooped down like buzzards on "Red, Red, Red" in its unreleased form, but the rest here, particularly the click-clacking "Window," almost bouncy "Tymps," and extraordinary title track are enough to justify the legend, even though they're hardly "difficult." A-

Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (2005)

The more I listen closely to snippets of this whole, the more I feel like the whole is worth comprehending. But it fades into the background quite easily when I don't. Lots of worthy ideas here, some even fulfilled: "Measuring Cups" and "Fake Palindromes" certainly bring me back for more. But the whole is too slight nontheless, though I don't deny Bird's talent to hit it out of the park for a whole album eventually. Hone, my friend, hone. B

TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

Edgy because they're an unironic indie band with Black Guys in it. Punk because they cover the Pixies and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, never mind that they picked bad song choices. Clever because they named their debut OK Calculator. Everything you know about TV On The Radio is a lie. They make unexciting drones that pretend 4AD is a better ingredient than Velvet Underground. So fuck these fakes, whose newest crock of shit has the entire world lapping their cum without a single review below an A minus, even four and a half stars from fucking Rolling Stone. Make no mistake, this is boring, frustrating, badly sung, and smarter than you. But you know what a tune is, I hope. C-

Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)

Since her voice was trying enough on twelve normal-sized songs the first time around, five indigestibly long ones could be a pain in the ass. They're not. She's learned to sing, and Van Dyke Parks does the rest, surrounding her with occasionally gorgeous orchestral twists and turns that minimize that fucking harp as much as one could ask. Now if she'd just produce a whole hour as arresting as "Peach, Plum, Pear," she'll be ready for her opus. B


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every opinion you have in this is bullshit. You're tacky and I hate you.

1:46 PM, January 07, 2012  

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