Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 32)


PICKS

Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas     (Columbia)

The fact that this glacially-paced self-described “manual for living with defeat” by a non-singing 77-year-old “lazy bastard living in a suit” went Top Ten says a great deal about the demographics of music purchasing these days, but it may also reflect a multi-generational longing for gravitas, wisdom, and gallows humor. Because while these mordant tales probably signify most to those listeners closer in years to Cohen’s own, it must also signify to smart youngsters tired of seeing their elders cynically pissing away the world they will someday inherit. As somebody who always preferred Cohen the spare early ‘70s troubadour to Cohen the synthesizer-enhanced scoundrel, these rough hymns do satisfy as music, even if the weathered voice and what that voice is saying counts most. As befits an artist who has doggedly celebrated carnal pleasures while pursuing spiritual solace outside society, his attitude towards religion moves a bit sideways – “help me roll away the stone” indeed, “tell me again when I’ve been to the river” ha ha. Since he’s always sounded old, and since his regrets are tempered with rascality, his sexual fantasies seem far fresher than those of cocksmen half his age, even if “the mirrors don’t lie”. And he retains the poet’s eye that first garnered him attention nearly half a century ago, here best displayed on a lament for post-Katrina New Orleans, in which a banjo floating out to sea takes on a surrealist hue worthy of Magritte even as the tune itself floats along on the lightest of shuffles. 

Charles Gayle Trio, Streets     (Northern Spy)

Homeless for twenty years and a street player for much of that time, a condition supposedly magnified by bouts with mental illness, this tenor saxophone colossus wasn’t a late bloomer, just underrecorded, a condition rectified when 1991’s epochal Touchin’ On Trane deservedly vaulted the fifty-year-old into the free jazz pantheon. That trio date set in motion a release flurry that now exceeds twenty-five albums, few of which match the Coltrane tribute in concentrated energy. And while his sideroads into solo piano haven’t been embarrassments, Gayle’s true calling remains extended performances of stripped-down horn/bass/drums playing improv with no concessions to melody. Sympathizers can follow this vision to the kind of maximalist extreme showcased on Knitting Factory’s 74-minute Repent, in which the shorter of two numbers runs nearly half an hour in length. Or one can note with some skepticism that Gayle’s artistic vision is intrinsically wedded to a religious conviction far less tolerant or sophisticated than those of his two major influences – not within Gayle the humanitarian journey towards self-betterment of a John Coltrane or the mystical visions of an Albert Ayler. This is Old Testament fire-and-brimstone, hewing adamantly to scripture and making a joyful noise to the lord and only the lord, as anyone unlucky enough to have witnessed one of Gayle’s periodic “Streets The Clown” concerts can relate, in which anti-abortion hectoring takes over mere music. So take heart that although Gayle as Clown graces this album’s cover, there’s no overt theology at play aside from a few telling song titles. Seven tracks, all long without being ridiculous about it, nary a melodic theme to be spotted, structureless yet never chaotic, the leader fearlessly playing out of bounds as a rock-solid rhythm duo roils beneath, always in control, even when gripped by ecstasy or holy fear. Gayle the horn man reminds us of the dangers of overpraising the vision of a gifted artist supposedly grappling with madness. I say, praise his lungs. 

NEAR PICKS

A Place To Bury Strangers, Onwards To The Wall     (Dead Oceans)

Nothing here this crew hasn’t done before, if not necessarily better. But it’s been over two years since the fairly amazing Exploding Head, and the only noticeable changes in sound immediately discernable are a slightly greater reliance on reverb and a slightly lesser reliance on balls-out scrawl. “I Lost You” and “So Far Away” slam and pitch with the detached grandeur that make them the only pretenders to the shoegaze throne capable of reminding one what it was like to discover Loveless back on release day. But there’s also a fetishization of 80’s post-punk going on here, from tinny drums and processed vocals to the speedy goth of “Onwards To The Wall”. Not that this band has ever been afraid to flaunt their many glorious influences. It’s just that we expect more from the premier indie noise outfit of our time, and that a 16-minute EP shouldn’t sound like two great singles (tracks 1 and 2) and a couple of B-sides (the rest).

Hospitality, Hospitality     (Merge)

Press kit claims that bewitching vocalist Amber Papini learned how to enunciate via old Psychedelic Furs albums are almost undoubtedly embellished, if not outright lies, and not just because there’s no trace of those slop pop greats amid these pleasant tunes. No idea what this Brooklyn outfit has been doing in the three years since their first and only EP, especially since several of those old songs get trotted out again here in slightly updated form. But while their concerns and sound may seem simply cute, silly, and slight, these folks do actually sing about things now and again – on “Julie,” Papini asks “is it all the debt I owe?” while “Liberal Arts” literally and unironically describes the real-life choices made when one chooses the arts over “law or something more practical,” especially when said artsy types have “no trust fund/ no daddy doctor.” So while I might wish these Camera Obscura fans knew how to cut short a tune as promising as the lengthy “Argonauts,” there’s plenty of things they do right, from the cheery energy of “The Right Profession,” to the echoing dream pop of “Sleepover,” and the perfect melding of horn charts with pop hooks on sublime single “Friends Of Friends”.

BOMBS

Haunted House, Blue Ghost Blues     (Northern Spy)

What Loren Connors and crew achieve with two electric guitars and kanjira frame drum is such a gloriously noisy take on “the blues” it would be nice to overlook the awful undergraduate artsiness of Suzanne Langille’s vocals. When she’s not sobbing about black cats or spirits rattling at the door, the tribal drums and surging feedback create a dense wall of drone, both a departure from Connors’ more spare solo work and yet of a piece with his commitment to radical deconstruction of blues form. But apart from the brief closing number, there’s no escaping those vocals. And this flaw in design is fatal, unless your sympathies for bohemian melodrama allow for humorless declamations like “save yourself, Tom Paine! / repent!” 

The Doozer, Keep It Together     (Woodsist)

One Syd Barrett was enough, don’t you think? And yet any number of followers continue to get the man wrong, focusing on weirdo whimsy rather than the off-kilter Lewis Carroll psychedelia of a Cambridge singer-songwriter. This chap’s from Cambridge, too, although given a blindfold test you might have guessed a charmless Edinburgh suburb – this is some of the tweeist twee pop that ever did twee. With a band stripped of electricity and a drummer forced to use brushes throughout, it plods along on the same graceless tempo for eleven tracks, The Doozer himself emotionlessly intoning lyrics of such deadpan banality they beg to be transcribed, if only because they can’t look any worse on the page than they sound coming out of the speakers: “everywhere I go / there’s a sun setting on the ground / if you only knew / if you only knew / if you only knew”; “I’m on an island / in the middle of the sea / and there’s waves / crashing on the shore”; “I can see you in the stars / burning bri-hi-hi-hi-hi-hight / burning bri-hi-hi-hi-hi-hight”.