The National Cathedral, Leica M8 and Noctilux at f/1.
Archive for September, 2008
Sam Beard may have the most pleasant voice in contemporary music, and with his sister’s harmonies adhering to it like a remora on some sleek shark, it falls from the surface to murky depths with unerring certainty. Iron & Wine may be as descriptive a name for the actual music created as any band since, well, how about The Clash?
Last year’s The Shepherd’s Dog made Tulip Frenzy’s Top 10 list, and it was a genuinely great album, some weird amalgam of Whiskeytown and Simon & Garfunkel, with hints of Alejandro Escovedo’s chamber pop and Steve Reich’s gamelan minimalism. What brought me to listen to them intensively in recent weeks has been my fixation with all things Calexico, triggered by their soaring new album, Carried To Dust. It sent me back to the collaboration between Beard and Calexico, the magnificent In the Reigns EP from 2005. And as often happens, when I began to pull on the fishing line, great things arose from the depths, in this case the discovery that Beard has enabled us to purchase first-rate MP3s of Iron & Wine’s live sets over the past few years.
A link from ironandwine.com takes one to playedlastnight.com. Wise is the reader who goes to it and downloads the show Iron & Wine played in Edinburgh last October 29th. (October 29th is a date that has peculiar resonance for us Americans right about now…) Why pick that set? Well, they helpfully feature it, and brother, we can see why.
I’ve never seen the band, and would have figured its live sets to be comprised of delicate, folky acoustic guitar and the singer/songwriter with maybe his sister on vocals. From the sounds of it, the touring band Beard fielded a year ago — don’t know who’s on their current tour — was as complete as Alejandro’s big band — pedal steel, electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. All that’s missing is the string section. If you have loved the band’s three albums, you will find that great rarity: a live album that renders the familiar songs fresh and more memorable than what was captured in the studio.
A few years ago, Pearl Jam started the practice of beating the boots at their own game by releasing every show as a near instantaneously released live album. It’s an act of generosity and wisdom to do so. It’s an interesting choice for a band like Iron & Wine to follow suit. I’m glad they did, and if you download the Edinburgh show, you will be too.
Last point: if you have not bought any of the band’s studio albums, you’d be well served to start here. It’s that good.
For years, I have thought of Jon Pareles as the worst major-media rock critic in America. This isn’t a bias against The New York Times. After all, John Rockwell and Robert Palmer — the latter of whom regrettably is now in the Insect Trust’s Great Jam Session In The Sky — were both good writers and had an impeccable nose for what mattered. I even liked Neil Strauss, before he decided that trying to write the manual on how to pick up girls was his life’s calling. (I’m not kidding.) Kalefa Sanneh could be interesting, though he made a fatal error in trying to hype the Arctic Monkeys as better than they are. And so on and so forth through Ann Powers (we miss her), and Ben Ratliff, etc. But let’s talk about Pareles.
I used to think he wrote every bloody review of a band with a reference to “Mr. Loaf’s guitar vamps,” because vamps — a simple progression of chords, or something like that; I’m no expert on music — was the one quasi-Julliard term he knew. Like he passed his New York Times writing test by putting in the word “vamp,” and then after that, after he, well, vamped during his orals, he vowed, “All my reviews will have the word ‘vamp’ in them at least once!”
But then last night, after writing about Calexico, I picked up the Times’ Arts and Leisure section, and sure enough, there was Mr. Pareles reviewing “Carried to Dust.” I groaned, said to myself, oh no! I bet he writes,”Mr. Burns’ guitar vamps” at least once, and HE DID! Well, he wrote, “Sometimes Calexico is a Southwestern Dire Straights, with Joey Burns whispering over loping, subdued guitar vamps as John Convertino plays his drums with brushes.” (Italics mine.)
And then it hit me. This is all a cry for help! Jon Pareles is a vampire! He was bitten by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, or whatever his name was from The Damned, sometime long ago, and now he yearns for an intervention — for readers of the Times to show up in Times Square with garlic and crosses and all that stuff so as to end his pain. It makes me feel completely differantly. Jon Pareles is still the worst — THE WORST — rock critic in America. But really, folks, he can’t help it. He’s a vampire. (Note to self: track the correlation of his really bad writing with the phases of the moon…)
It’s a warm September evening and you’re driving straight thru from Canyonlands to Tucson. Over there in the eastern part of the sky, the moon’s beginning to rise above one of Monument Valley’s spires, maybe the East Mitten. And of course, the only band you possibly could be playing on the 8 Track in your ’73 Camaro is Calexico.
If, last time around, you wondered what happened to the Mariachi brass, the Keenan-Wynn-in-a-Mexican-bar guitar, that’s because “Garden Ruin” was aimed smack dab in the wrong direction, towards Kansas. In other words, Jayhawks country. But this time, Joey Burns doesn’t stray far from the saguaro, which by the way, recently got Federal protection, as should Calexico, just for being a national damn treasure.
“”Carried To Dust” is the best thing they’ve ever done, either for themselves, or the many friends they’ve backed up — Neko Case, Iron und Wine, just to name a few. It’s a real contender for Tulip Frenzy’s album of the year. Either 2008, the year in which it was released, or 1974, the year it feels like. Here’s why it qualifies: It’s perfect. That’s a technical rock reviewer blogger term. Perfect.
Makes you think of the kid in Blood Meridian — the book, not the band — with his boots covered in blood, underneath the evening redness in the West. Makes you think of Blood Meridian — the band, not the book — with their boots covered in blood, playing on the stage in front of you.
Alternately gorgeous melodies, that spooky Tex-Mex guitar line underneath the brass, and John Convertino’s drumming holding everything together so delicately in this region where one wrong move means death from dehydration, rattlesnakes, bad hombres, you name it. And then there’s the stuff that stuns, the way the sunshine does when you’ve wandered off the trail and the Green River’s still way over there. Plus, they’ve got Pieta Brown singing on “Slowness.” Maybe enough said. After all, in the desert West, there’s not a lot of talking.
If Ed Abbey were still with us — and the world would be a better place for it: can you imagine how he would have howled at the Sarah Palin pick? But we digress. If Ed Abbey were still alive, these guys would be the house band at his Tucson beer bashes. Yeah, they’re that good.
Bob Dylan is the exception that so proves the rule that pop artists have golden ages, and once past them, the best you can hope for is a remembrance of things past. I once was offended when Ira Kaplan told me the Rolling Stones hadn’t put out a really good album since “Exile on Main Street” — this was in 1980, mind you — and notwithstanding the back-to-back delights of “Some Girls” and “Emotional Rescue,” time has proved him right. So even though I hung in there with Elvis for years, through the fat Elvis, and the bearded Elvis, the Kojak-loving Elvis, even the classical Elvis, the truth is that after “Blood and Chocolate,” it was pretty much a curved road downhill. Until the surprising “Momofuku” came out earlier this year.
Naturally, this would be the album I’d take a pass on. Literally, this was the first of his albums I didn’t buy, even the one with the duet with Hall, or maybe it was Oates. And naturally — I discovered to my delight — it’s the best thing he’s done since… well, since “Imperial Bedroom.” Look, it sounds like it could have been recorded in the Dutch studio where he and the Attractions knocked out “Get Happy.” It could be a collection of out-takes from “Armed Forces.” Have a friend who knows Elvis but hasn’t hung in there all these years listen to “Go Away, and ask her when it was recorded, and five will get you ten she says “1978,” not “2008.” It’s really that good.
Live, I enjoyed the transition to Elvis Costello and the Imposters a few years ago, but had not realized on this one Steve Nieve was back on the keyboards. “Momofuku” was recorded in a few weeks, with the story going that Mr. McManus went into the studio without a big plan and… Elvis broke out. Thank God it did. Now Elvis gets to move into the same pantheon as Bob Dylan, he being the master of the late career rally. The Rolling Stones, approximately thirty years without a great album and counting, aren’t even in this league (though their bankers don’t know it.)
Dhani Harrison plays — surprise — guitar and sings. Oh, does he ever play guitar and sing. You know where this story is going.
Thenewno2 — the band name is recognizable to all you Patrick McGoohan fans out there — is a trippy, bluesy LA band with superb studio technique. As the world will soon know better, Dhani Harrison looks so much like George it’s scary, and his guitar technique is taken right off “Abbey Road.” His vocal print would fool an FBI-administered spectrogram. George must have believed in reincarnation, right?
“You Are Here” is a surprisingly fascinating album, with the tone of Howard Devoto’s lamented Luxuria, but without the edge. Rainy day music in a house of ghosts.