Death, “Where Do We Go From Here”

New to me. Detroit youths in 1971 decide to play rock rather than funk. Maybe they took some cues from the Stooges. They say Alice Cooper was a big influence. In 1975 Clive Davis funded recording sessions which yielded seven songs, but he insisted they change their name. They refused and he walked away.

In 1976 the band released a 45 with two songs in an edition of 500 copies.

Life was lived, and moved on. Fast forward 20 years, the children of members of Death form a band playing Death’s songs. They sign with Drag City and the record is finally released. The band reforms, though on original member has passed, and they record a new album and tour. A film is made about them.

Nice.

First Take: Haim, Dwight Yoakam, Drake

Haim are three sisters from Los Angeles who don’t appear to be related to the actor Corey Haim. They were in a band with their parents when they were younger, playing cover tunes at charity events, and two of the sisters were in a band called Valli Girls, that apparently had a Pat Benatar/Madonna vibe and had some success. But I’m not writing about them because of that. The review in the New York Times this morning, by Jon Caramanica, was so positive, evoking Benatar and Madonna and Sheena Easton and Laura Branigan, and finishing: “Thanks to its overwhelming and triumphant exuberance and the care with which it embraces its palette of influences, Haim has made itself impossible to hate,” that I got a little excited. It sounded like it might be good.

Playing the record the first time, I was stunned by the giant machine of a production that envelopes it, full of synths and booming drums, spastic tempo changes and processed voices erupting out of nowhere. The following video illustrates the issue. It starts with a few girls in a band. Haim. The feel is indy, the sound is spare, airy, and then suddenly the music builds, there’s a shot of the band playing together in a small room and that’s when it hit me: they aren’t making any of the many noises in the mix. They’re overwhelmed by all the other stuff, and the center of the song stops being the singer and her words and her bandmates, and becomes all the blinks, handclaps, moans, bleeps, boops and everything else that has nothing to do with being a band (but does have a lot to do with making a certain kind of giant pop record).

At heart these are simple songs that may or may not have value as such. There’s no way to tell. But they are certainly overwhelmed by the apparatus that surrounds them here. This is different than 80s rock, which used its big production to pump up big songs as songs. There were a lot of cheesy arrangements in the 80s, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” wasn’t subtle, but the big arrangements complemented the songs. There was verse, chorus, and bridge, and a sound that lashed the hook to one part of it and jammed it into the part of your brain that can’t resist. Fire away! This is different.

I went and did some reading about Haim, gleaned the above biographical facts, and lots more about how much they love Fleetwood Mac, but also love modern R&B sounds and are trying to combine them together. And it is that modern style, with hooks on top of hooks, scores of little hooks, that are, for me, just too much icing on the Frappuccino Mocha Latte with Caramel Pretzels, or whatever. Caramanica was sort of right. When the Haims aren’t being overwhelmed by the production, there isn’t much to hate. But the bits that are likeable are often long gone before you can grab hold.

I saw Dwight Yoakam and his band about 10 years ago and he put on a great live show. The band was tight, who doesn’t like pedal steel playing, and his tunes are tuneful, rhythmic, at least professional and sometimes personal. But listening to the record he was pumping then, I had the same problem I’ve always had with him. I can’t find emotional entry into his technically sharp and smart and catchy songs.

What impressed me that night was that there were plenty of people at Irving Plaza who were freaked out of their mind to be at this show. They LOVED Dwight, knew every one of his songs and sang along, and couldn’t believe their good fortune being there. And I wondered why? I’ve been listening to him for a long time, since the early 80s I guess, and the formula hasn’t changed. This greatest hits disk is a collection of Dwight’s songs since 2000. I find the arrangements tight, like classical California Country music (Dwight says his musical father is Buck Owens) melded with a clean LA studio sound, but I felt shut out and distant about the songs until Willie Nelson started singing on the third track. Suddenly the sun rose, the flowers bloomed, the doob was passed, and I felt at home and welcome. This was revelatory. The next song is sung by Michelle Branch, and the same deal. I liked it! Afterwards, back to the same old Dwight, kind of like hitting your head against the window of an appealing but locked car.

I can’t blame Dwight, it may well be me (so many were loving him at Irving Plaza), but if you have a similar reaction, welcome to the club. And I think it is Dwight. He’s smart, he’s talented, he’s clever, but he’s just not there as a performer. To me, anyways.

Drake has a new album. I know he’s perhaps the most popular rap artist in the world, which is understandable because he’s Canadian and they have the best vocalists up there, no matter the genre. Right?

The only way I can explain his popularity is that he liberally steals good ideas from other people. He’s got a malleable and kind of silky tenor. If you were dumbstruck you might find him seductive even. I think he’s good looking, but don’t quote me on that.

I don’t want to get all cranky, but if your music is deliberative and unoriginal and your words are banal and self serving, what have you got? Your good looks?

The song “Own It” actually sounds great, if it wasn’t for Drake and his lyrics here I could buy the mix. But my issue with hip hop is that as an avenue off the street it’s a dark hard crucible. People make execrable decisions, demonstrate awful values, because it’s a world of be bold or go home. And it’s a world that values hardness and dark stories. Somehow Drake has made it work in spades, those his stories seem more privileged than hard, but in any case he doesn’t have to go home. I can’t explain it, but I can judge. He is like the Celine Dion of rap. It sounds good, the emotions are big, but nobody ever actually had them. Or if they did it was because they don’t understand this world at all.

The elpee’s first song, “Tuscan Leather,” is built on a speeded up sample that is a Kanye West signature from years ago. Unoriginal, unfocused, and fine to steal if you do something with it. But what’s the story on this track? I don’t know. But Drake must dig it to place it first, so here it is:

Drake is not cake.

First Take: Insta Pop, Kings of Leon, Nirvana

I’m a fan of Icona Pop‘s “We Love It,” which is a deft melding of Jesus and Mary Chain guitars with cheesy Europop rhythms and bleats and other goofy sounds, topped with a cheerleaderish infectious chorus. To their credit, too, the current single, “All Night,” is plenty catchy if not nearly so fresh. But listening to the album is a little like eating pop rocks while hopping on a pogo stick. The thing that makes the mostly-twinned vocals on “We Love It” sound so happy, enthusiastic, and attractive, in a small measure, quickly causes overdose as the same vocal timbre reappears, hardly wavering, on song after song after song. Recommended in small doses at lunchtime or afterschool discos.

I’ve never been a fan of Kings of Leon, who always seemed to have way too much reputation for the unrelenting dullness of their sound. I would read about their southern-rock style, I’d think of Skynrd or Tucker and give them another listen, only to be bewildered by why anyone would play this boring stuff a second time. I mean, if you’re going to make dull rock you better have killer lyrics, and they didn’t. They didn’t come close. Yet, spurred by a growing audience (and no doubt ambitious management weasels), they puffed up and went kind of U2 or Coldplay, full of arena grandeur—without a thought in their atmospheric heads, and that didn’t go so well. Now, after a couple years off they’re back, supposedly leaner and meaner. Nah, and not smarter either.

I remember the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” while driving through Rhode Island one sunny day, which was the first time I became aware of Nirvana. I remember the second time, too, at the Palladium with a bunch of friends, waiting for Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Mekons to play. We commented then that it was a helluva song. A really good video came out and lots of other people thought so, too, and one of the music’s historic bands was created out of sudden pop flames. In Utero, which has been rereleased in a 20th Anniversary deluxe set, was the followup to Nevermind, the album that couldn’t contain “Smells,” if you know what I mean. It was, it turned out, the last collection of Kurt Cobain songs released while he was alive. It has been remixed by Steve Albini, who says he really just added back in some tracks that were left off by accident originally. It also contains the 1993 original Albini mixes of Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies, which had been cleaned up by the record company because they were to be the elpee’s singles. That and lots of other extra stuff is of interest, of course, but hardly essential or revelatory. To my taste, each Nirvana record got more self conscious, and I prefer my heavy navel-gazing hard rock less self conscious than more, but all three albums (and Incesticide, too) are brilliant, essential rock albums by a band that somehow managed to make hard challenging sometimes radical sounds embraceable.

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.

First Take: New music from September 10th


I think John Legend‘s “Get Lifted” is one of the great records of the current millennium. It could be classified as neo-soul, a genre that is meant to appeal to grown ups drinking wine (or even better champagne) and talking just a little dirty while waiting for the hot tub (or lube) to warm up, but the thing is that the songs are sexy, the sound starts with old soul and gospel and, surprisingly, surprise. The words flow full of new ideas (or old ideas cleverly reframed) and often a hint of edge or menace that make the mix of rhythm and melody sound fresh, redolent of musical and lyrical pleasure. Perhaps no subsequent record could stand up to that monumental achievement, but on first listen the new Legend, “Future of Love,” is a mess of cliche and sappy melodies, with treacly arrangements and tired melodic and lyrical ideas. Legend was a singer songwriter who seemed early on to have the chops and sensibility of Sam Cooke, smooth melodicism, sexy charm, and a bit of righteous indignation, but in hindsight perhaps the excellent taste might be better attributed to his producer and partner, Kanye West. “Wake Up,” Legend’s elpee of protest song covers with the Roots released last year is mostly charming, if too often a little staid, but after the excessively polite third album, “Evolver,” offered welcome affirmation that this was a man with a political, socially-engaged heart. But this new disk made me question my love (is the future of love disdain?) for his first two albums. A quick relisten to “Get Lifted” again confirms its greatness. The new record has none of that going on at all.


I was never a Nine Inch Nails fan, so I’m not qualified to compare the new record, “Hesitation Marks,” to the rest of their/his oeuvre. What is striking here is that these songs are very much songs, full of electronic textures and details in the background, but with plaintive simple vocals on top. It isn’t that the vocals or the arrangements don’t relate, but they have very distinct and different aural profiles. The music is hard edged and polished, machine music, even when it careers toward the emotional, while the vocals are plaintive, all too human, the opposite of hard. Not out of tune, but a bit warbly and textured by throat and tongue. The contrast has the effect of foregrounding the lyrics, which unfortunately all seem to be rhyming couplet cliches. I remember the driven sense of NiN’s MTV hits back in the day that some powerful interpersonal dynamic was at stake. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, though I wouldn’t mind hearing vocal free versions of some of these tracks. They might work well in a soundtrack.


I’m one of the few people in North America who just doesn’t get the appeal of Arcade Fire, who have a new single out called “Reflektor.” I’ve tried to get into them a number of times and just can’t get past the superficial similarities with Talking Heads, whose “Stop Making Sense” live album seems to be a huge influence. In any case, I listen to Arcade Fire and I often hear the Heads, only not nearly as good or interesting. Maybe that’s because the vocals are sludgy and dull, regardless of the lyrics. I’m not someone who needs lyrical meaning to make a song, but I do need the vocals to somehow sound like they deserve to be there. I can’t judge the lyrics of Arcade Fire, I haven’t been able to get into them, but I can judge that the singer doesn’t make we want to hear more. If you like Arcade Fire you’ll probably love Reflektor, it has the big textured sound of the band, but be aware that it also has the prosaic vocals that smudge into a blur running through the middle. I get the impression they’re supposed to signify passion, but I hear anything but.


According to Mick Jones this is the last package of product the Clash will be releasing. It’s primary raison d’etre is complete remixes/remastering of all the old records. This particular linked package of “Sound System” has a bunch of video which may be worthwhile to you or not, and you may or not have most of these tracks. There is a bunch of live and studio stuff that is “new,” though the band never held much back, so it’s unlikely (I haven’t listened to it all) that it’s essential. The bottom line here is that this is one of the greatest of bands of all time, and if you don’t know about all that they did, you should.

Peter