Saturday, July 28, 2007

Travis Morrison Makes Me Feel Like A Freak


Even bigger than the Baconator.

Last year, I saw Travis Morrison's new band, the Hellfighters, and they pulled something I would normally think is completely asshole, playing nothing but new, unreleased tunes. Except every damn one of those new tunes was excellent, and Morrison seemed just as amped for them as he did when I first saw him at the Plan's third to last show ever (now fifth to last I guess). I made a note that he sounded even more like the Talking Heads than ever, and didn't stop checking his website regularly for an update on the album even when he made like his beloved rappers and let the release date slide past 2007.

Today, I was overjoyed to find on travismorrison.com not just an update on the damn thing's release date, but the record, All Y'All, available in full for streaming pleasure. Even when the fans let him down (by mostly heeding Pitchfork's demented advice to ignore Travistan), the man still gives and gives to them.

This was a big gift; the record's amazing, I can attest after three or four plays in a row. Travistan haters can relax. The closest thing to that bugged-out lab experiment is "Snacktime," an endearingly wacky kids' jam that he left off the record itself in favor of a free mp3 download, like some of his other wacky one-offs. Everyone I've played "Snacktime" for hated it, which sucks, but at least I can guarantee them All Y'All's a whole other ball game.

Three major detours differentiate All Y'All from the rest of Morrison's catalogue. First, production. Reunited with Plan guitarist Jason Cadell, who also co-helmed Get Him Eat Him's massive-sounding Arms Down earlier this year, they get a slamming thump out of the Hellfighters, producing a "band"-sounding record with striking heft. Just compare the way the drums and bass slam and thud on "East Side of the River" or "Churchgoer" to say, the more spry and flappy way his old band jellies around on Change. Even the keyboards here are used entirely for rhythm, not atmosphere. Thwocking fart bass and Casio blurps lock in without a hint of say, the airy midi backdrop of "Sentimental Man." The new unit's not an obvious racecar like old rhythm section Eric Axelson and Joe Easley, but they provide a crucial crunch that, as much as I really do love the playful Travistan, Death Cab For Cutie will never possess.

All Y'All's even better. Travistan has all the tunes and sound effects and wordplay, but the new one has a focus, a groove-oriented singlemindedness that makes the second surprise even more successful. This is Travis' attempt an R&B record. Even the Planniest song he's done in ages, "You Make Me Feel Like A Freak" waits on the riff-guitar until the verses are done vamping a jazz-lite Rhodes and a descending bass crinkle that sounds like Soundgarden's "The Day I Tried To Live." Undoubtedly the funkiest music he's ever made, most of the album is taken up by spare, simple synth parts, meaty bass and drum lines, even congas(!) and the strongest singing voice Morrison's managed since Emergency & I at least. Remember how squeaky he was starting to sound on those last two records? Well those stints in his community gospel choir have done wonders for the man. Watch him pull off a postively operatic finish to "Just Didn't Turn Me On," a feat he only pulled off at the coda of Travistan's "My Two Front Teeth Pts. 2-3" using the studio to multiply him into a Spectorian wall of Travises. Here he's so much more Ronnie than Phil, though. There's touches of modern funk, too. The stomping sex dare "Catch Up," features some rapping dude on the hook, and the song barely flinches. All the drum machines and cheesy bongo percussion are so well-integrated into the productions that they just sound like a natural extension of the g-b-d even though they were probably tacked on in ProTools just like Travistan.

And by now you've probably noticed the third thing. Look at those song titles: "I'm Not Supposed To Like You (But)," "Just Didn't Turn Me On," "You Make Me Feel Like A Freak," and the settling-down refrain of the gorgeous "Hawkins' Rock," "Let's build a house / let's build a home together / Up on Hawkins' rock / We can disappear forever." In the true spirit of the soul music he's emulating in his own way, Morrison doesn't try to dance around the new concern for sex and lust and relationships with witty detachment like he did with the Plan. He's over 30, and he's no longer frustrated. In fact, he sounds more satisfied with his life than ever, and the fortress-like stability of his new music proves it even more than Brandon Stousy's Stereogum interview did literally. The muscles of "Hawkins' Rock," or the aggressive "As We Proceed," simply pound where Travistan's best moments ("People Die," "Song for the Orca") diddled.

There's only a few artists who I've come to expect an Album of the Year candidate out of just about every time: Old 97's, PJ Harvey, Eric Bachmann's back on the track, but Travis is riding a better streak than any of them. Pacing himself, unpressured by the temptations of a full-time rock star life, he may outrun Sonic Youth yet, whether the Plan ever re-forms or not.

Travis Morrison Hellfighters - All Y'All (Barsuk): A

Download mp3: Travis Morrison Hellfighters - As We Proceed

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