Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Richard Swift - Dressed Up For The Letdown

I am 90% sure that time travel never has been (and never will be) true. The 10% that believes it will happen some day is split as such:
1. That someday, someone will actually build a working flux capacitor.
2. How else can you explain the music of Richard Swift?
It’s not just his influences. Everyone has influences…some people just make them a bit more obvious than others. Just by listening to this album you can pick out a number of influences, mainly The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and a little bit of Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville thrown in for good measure.
Yet Swift’s music seems a little different, as if he didn’t record these today. Listening to this album makes me think that he actually was an artist from the ‘20s that was completely ahead of his time. His music has that timeless feeling to it.
Perhaps that’s what draws me to him, the fact that he’s so difficult to pin down. This album could’ve been recorded anytime in the 1900s and it wouldn’t have really felt that out of place.
This album actually a feels a bit like a combination of his previous two. The Novelist was a short (less than 20 minutes) album comprised of songs that sounded like they came straight out of the ‘20s. It was a stripped down album that seemed to have been recorded alone in his apartment (more than likely by the light of a sole, oil burning lamp in the corner) late at night, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, his window overlooking a deserted cobblestone street.
His second album, Walking Without Effort had a bit more to it. More instrumentation, more orchestration, more modern sounding (even that “modern” tag only took it as far as 1987). The sound of the ‘20s was all but gone.
On this, his third album, he seems to have found a great mixture of past and present. The album kicks off with “Dressed Up For The Letdown”, a song that starts in a fashion eerily similar to Tom Waits’ Bone Machine…a severely slowed down skiffle beat, with a chorus of ghosts in the background. It’s a simple, bare-bones song, propelled only by a guitar and that beat. Somewhere around the two-and-a-half minute mark a trumpet comes in. Not much else in the song changes at that point, but you can almost feel a change in the mood, like something better is coming along.
And it does, with the very next track, “The Songs of National Freedom”, which starts out with a bright, upbeat piano line (reminiscent of “Martha My Dear”) and the opening lines of “We’ve seen the rain we’ve seen the sunshine/Darlin’ you and I could never be wrong”. It’s a hopeful, summery song, and really sounds almost directly taken from the Lennon/McCartney songbook.
“Kisses for the Misses” is pop music at its finest. A big, vaudeville piano opens the song, which is promptly backed with a simple drum beat and hand claps.
“P.S. It All Falls Down” is probably my favorite track on the album. It’s an upbeat, piano-driven pop song, culminating in one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory.
There are precious few missteps on the album, and even those aren’t of the “I need to skip that track NOW” variety. The most obvious (to me, anyway) is the song “Most Of What I Know”. The song itself is actually pretty good, up until the repeating line “Your love will keep my heart alive”. Now, this line, in and of itself, isn’t really all that bad. In fact, it’s backed with a pretty cool drum breakdown. It’s the fact that every time this line comes up in the song he repeats it roughly 500 times. It just gets a bit old after a while.
The same rule applies to “The Million Dollar Baby”, only it’s not quite as over the top. He just keeps repeating, “I wish I was dead most of the time/But I don’t really mean it.” Again, it’s not as over the top as the previously mentioned song, but, by the end of it, you just kind of want to tell him to stop.
Aside from those couple of moments, though, this really is quite a good album. It proves, once again, that Richard Swift is helping to keep the art of the pop song alive and well in an age where that talent seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Rating: 8.3

Essential Tracks: “Kisses for the Misses”, “Artist & Repertoire”

Favorite Tracks: “The Songs of National Freedom”, “P.S. It All Falls Down”

Check out Mr. Swift's website here

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bob Dylan - Modern Times

Everyone salivates when Dylan puts out a new album. When Time Out of Mind came out in 1997, everyone called it one the best recordings in his catalog (which is saying a lot). Then, when he released Love and Theft in 2001, they said the same thing. “Amazing, amazing stuff.” (If I remember correctly, both of those albums got a perfect 5 star review from Rolling Stone…an honor only a handful of albums through the years have received.)
Now, I’m a pretty big Dylan fan, and I didn’t really think either of those albums were anything special. Sure, they had their moments, but I wouldn’t classify them as great albums. If anyone else would’ve recorded those albums, no one would’ve given them a second glance, much less a Grammy for album of the year (which he received for Time Out of Mind).
So you can just imagine what I thought when, just last year, he released a new album, immediately heralded by critics as one of the best albums he’s ever released. “Here we go again.”
But, when I finally listened to it, I fell in love with it…from the very first blues lick. Musically I guess it’s not too far from what he was doing with the previous couple of albums, but it seems to work a little better on this album. Perhaps it’s a little more cohesive. Perhaps it’s a little more spontaneous…like he was recording just for the heck of it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about this album makes it better than those other two.
At first look (and even getting through the album the first couple of times), it seems like a rambling, meandering album. Only one song clocks in less than 5 minutes (“Someday Baby”), and even that one just barely makes it at 4:55. The upbeat blues songs are long…the slower ballads are long. But, once you get into it, you don’t really notice the length of the songs…you just know that you love what’s coming through your speakers. I can’t really imagine these songs being any shorter and still make sense.
This album shows that Dylan still has it. He’s not some washed-up, used-to-be-great artist. This is the work of someone who, after all these years, still has a number of things in his creative and musical tank. For all of us music lovers, that’s a pretty exciting thought.

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “Thunder on the Mountain”, “Spirit on the Water”

Favorite Tracks: “When the Deal Goes Down”, “Someday Baby”, “Workingman’s Blues #2”
Check out Dylan's website here

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

For those of you who are unaware, The Decemberists are an intellectual band. The lead singer (Colin Meloy) has a degree in creative writing. But, if you didn’t know that already, you’d find out soon enough. It seems that it’s all the band talks about.
That’s one reason why I’ve never been able to get into them, even though the cool kids, or those-in-the-know have always (ALWAYS) touted them as the band. The band that transcends other bands. The band that is more about crafting difficult to understand lyrics than they are about making a good song…like Dylan, except a little more self-conscious. That’s not to say that their music isn’t good. In fact, their music is one of the high points…even if it does seem as though they’re trying too hard.
While previous albums seemed to be based around old English music (sea chanteys and whatnot) and traditional Celtic music, they seem to have gone the route of 70s prog-rockers on this album. Their older musical sensibilities are still there, but there’s more of a sheen around it this time. The second track (the epic, 12-minute-plus, 3 part “The Island”) weaves all of this together. Listen. Can you hear the members of Yes telling each other that they’re still relevant? Do you see the members of Emerson, Lake and Palmer nodding silently in the background? If you can’t, you’re just not trying hard enough. But still, beneath that heavy 70s sound, you can hear the sound of a traditional Celtic group kicking it. Celtic prog-rock? It’s not just a dream anymore…it’s a reality.
“Yankee Bayonet” is a nice little acoustic-driven pop song…but it seems like an outtake from a recent R.E.M. album…except without Stipe’s vocal range.
“The Perfect Crime No. 2” is a completely unabashed, keyboard-driven 70s rock song. You could really pick any group from that era you want…it sounds like all of them. That’s not to say that it’s a poorly done song or anything…there’s just not an original note in it (I think they stole the bass line and guitar solo from a Pink Floyd session).
“O Valencia!” is definitely the high point of the album…and there’s not even anything that amazing about it. It’s a cool rock song with a great chorus (that I can’t get out of my head, no matter how hard I try).
Despite everything I’ve said, I don’t hate it…I just don’t like it very much. I think I figured out my problem with them though. I really wouldn’t care so much that Colin has a degree in creative writing if he just wrote good songs with that background. My problem is that he writes songs with the intent of drawing attention to the fact that he has a degree in creative writing. He writes intellectual songs for the sake of writing intellectual songs, as opposed to writing a song for the sake of writing a song.
Oh yeah…I’m not a big fan of his voice, either.

Rating: 4.2

Favorite Song: “O Valencia!”

Check out their website here