Tag Archives: music of 2014

Spinning Presently: Jack White’s Lazaretto

It’s been awhile since I’ve been on board the Jack White train. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked him, my interest in his stuff just seems to be on a sine wave that moves incidentally with his releases. As soon as I heard Get Behind Me, Satan, I collected all the White Stripes albums I could (save their self-titled debut) and followed them until the high point they went out on, Icky Thump. Both Raconteurs’ albums I couldn’t get enough of, and I dug a couple of cuts from the Dead Weather’s two LPs, but that was about it. I was sort of ready to close the Jack White chapter for awhile. When White’s first actual solo album, Blunderbuss, came out, I did pick it up because I knew it would be something that I’d want eventually, but at the time I never really was able to give it the time of day, and that still colours my perception of it (apart from the infectious “Love Interruption”). I have no doubt that will change in the very near future, however, as I have listened to Lazaretto, and it is fantastic.

The very first impression I get upon listening to this album is that White is super happy to be free of the restraints that he had created for himself in the White Stripes. It was Meg on Drums and Jack playing one, maybe two other instruments over top. When Lazaretto starts with “Three Women”, he throws everything down on the table and molds it into a frenetic whole, over the skeleton of a straight-up blues song, his stock-in-trade since debuting. The heavily distorted organ that delivers the riff with an extended time signature sets the tone, as the distortion on this album is such that it in no mean feat to identify the instrument being played. Organ, guitar, piano, electric piano, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle – throw some synths in there, and you just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride. White has assembled quite a band to back him on all but the final song here (a solo acoustic number, as is tradition), giving him so many more moving pieces to work with; you gotta wonder if he was dreaming up the near orchestral sweep of “Would You Fight For My Love?” while pounding away at the three chords in “Jumble, Jumble”.

Though he is by far most associated with the guitar, the piano feels like it very much makes up the backbone of the album, peeking through at the end of every line and bashing away time behind every chorus, very much expressing the cute and coy riffs he never quite got to on the blocky chord bashing he did with his piano in the Stripes. It lends to the ‘open’ feel the record has. If you can throw layer after layer on top without worrying about limits, you could do worse that having a core piano track, which makes it feel as if White has moved into the “songwriter/arranger” role, moreso than the solo bluesman feel when he wields the guitar (though it is deployed handily for solos), as keeping track of everything that’s going on here is quite a feat in itself. On “Lazaretto” itself, White spits lyric upon lyric over top of a bassline of no lean distortion and a slick rhythm with no relief for its cymbals. The song eventually breaks apart from its rather mean feel to make way for a fiddle soloing on top of the bassline, which seems to come completely from left field, but not necessarily out of place.

In my experience, Jack White likes to hide a gem further down the track list, and Lazaretto is no exception. Right from the introduction of the electronically treated fake laughter to the headbangin’ riff, “That Black Bat Licorice” is a hell of a lot of fun. “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/Just a buncha propaganda to make my fingers histrionic” howls Jack before adding “Like this”, as he introduces a quick little high-string guitar riff; “and this” and unleashing the riff again with all the instruments crashing down and down on the same target. He screams about how “I never liked that black bat licorice” over it all, another in the list of little phrases that White uses that gives everything that specific, detailed flavour that you’re not personally familiar with but you know means something to him (as in “Lazaretto”, where he talks about “making models of humans out of coffee and cotton”).

Even though there are a couple of tracks in the middle of the record that drag a little for me (“Entitlement” in particular doesn’t feel as vulnerable as it ought to. There’s a lot going on, which is the record’s M.O., but it doesn’t suit the humble vocal), Lazaretto is a fantastic record and I would definitely argue one of White’s best, regardless of the band associated with it. The feeling that anything can come down the line and that the instruments effortlessly tag in and out while hanging onto a cohesive whole is incredibly exciting and White is a fantastic master of ceremonies while still being able to write a hell of a tune and a hell of a riff.

“Three Women”:

“Lazaretto”:

“That Black Bat Licorice”:

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Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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