First Take: Yoko, Elvis and MGMT

In a week in which Yoko Ono and Elvis Costello both have new releases, let’s start with Elvis covering Yoko. I like the Costello version for its warm vocals, he goes for warmth, and its relative brevity. Yoko’s version is much more muscular in a disco sense, where the music comes from, but also much more brittle and fragile vocally.

As for “Take Me to the Land of Hell,” Yoko’s new elpee, what can you say? Yoko is a significant visual and performance artist who was married to one of the Beatles, and made records with one of the Beatles. They slept together, too. She has artistic vision, vast resources, and an admirable fearlessness. I sampled tracks on this record, put off at times by sometimes weird vocals, sometimes bad poetry, and most often awful and inappropriate disco/dance tracks. Those vast resources, it seems to me, would be well spent finding awesome collaborators who could make really interesting music that could serve as a potent setting for Yoko’s lyrical thoughts. The Plastic Ono Band on the record seems to be  Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Yuko Araki (mi-gu) and Jared Samuel (Invisible Familiars). All I can say is that the first eight tracks irked me because of the mismatch of dance tracks and Yoko’s voice, but once I got to the title track I grooved. Suddenly, with simpler and statelier settings, Yoko and her words, singing and music seemed to be in synch.

EDIT: Now, looking through YouTube, it seems that the producers and maybe the backing bands on different tracks are different. On Bad Dancer, for instance, Mike D and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys get a credit. There’s another on which tUnE-yArDs is credited. I’m not sure that makes either song better, but it does make their failures harder to explain.

The Roots always sound great. Elvis Costello is a great songwriter with a rather sweeping delta of tunes, the many best of which hit the channel. His songwriting never flags energetically, but given how many records he’s released it should not be surprising that he’s got a fairly extensive catalog of tunes that may pleasure but are far from essential. When I heard the title song from his new one with the Roots, “Walk Us Uptown,” I feared this disk would end up on the play once and file pile. Here was lots of groove, but what the heck was he going on about? Tragically and hiply, Costello has a homely voice that is never going to be the first choice for all vocals, and certainly doesn’t elevate Walk Us Uptown. But his is an able and essential sound for his best songs, one of which is “Sugar Won’t Work,” the elpees second track, which is swampy and evocative of, um, swamp and has a psychedelic groove. It pleases. This isn’t the place for a track by track description, but attention should be paid to “Stick Out Your Tongue,” which is a reworking of the darkly minimalist “Pills and Soap,” from his Punch the Clock album released in the 80s. Nice line, “you can turn these obsessions into careers.” And “She Might Be A Grenade” is one of quite a few examples of collaboration that kick ass. Costello is working hard here, to earn the band and the groove, and if not all the tunes are perfect, all earn our attention. Stick out your tongue.

Oh, also, I’m a total sucker for the City Lights Books design of the elpee cover. This is getting many plays from me going forward. Buy this stuff here:

So, the biggest release of the week is MGMT, which is a band that aspires to XTC lushness (from what I read). MGMT burst on the scene in 2007 with three atypical hit singles, but since (and here) have layered a profusion of sounds over pretty standard beats and mostly buried vocals (with no such interesting words when you can hear them) to make something you might call neo-psychedelic not-pop pop music. It sounds like music that wants to be liked and wants to taken seriously, but is too ornate and static to really engage. “Your Life Is a Lie,” is perhaps the most poppy tune here, and many of the sounds are pretty nice. While none of the album is bad or misbegotten, all of it makes me impatient and wanting to move on.

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