Josh's Listening Journal, 1/23
And for today... here are some brief takes on three of my very favorite recordings from 2005. (For future reference, these are also available in the Reveal music archives.) Enjoy!
Schmaltz is easy. Sentimentality is a breeze. But joy—real, genuine, lived-in Christian joy? Now that’s tough to pull off in a pop song. Many have tried it, but for every “Beautiful Day” it seems like there are a dozen rewrites of “Everybody Hurts.”
Erin McKeown, like Ron Sexsmith and The Innocence Mission, learns how to do joy. But it took her a few albums to learn the ropes—her last album, Grand, strove for sincerity and hopefulness but ended up sounding irritatingly cheerful and saccharine. Even the music seemed like it was trying too hard—McKeown tried on just about every style imaginable, jumping from guitar pop to Tin Pan Alley without ever hinting at any kind of unifying vision or focus.
But now, on her latest recording, McKeown has come into her own, displaying remarkable powers both as a singer and as a songwriter. We Will Become Like Birds is an astonishing step forward, a pop album of profound poetic focus and depth. Gone are the scattershot stylistic flirtations and cheesy attempts at perkiness that characterized Grand; in their place is a work of art that deserves to be put on the shelf right beside Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann.
Rather than sampling a dozen different genres, McKeown sticks to just one here—breezy, dreamy guitar pop, with flourishes of electric piano and wisps of electronica dancing around the edges. Fuzzy grunge guitars create an impossibly gentle soundscape on the opener, “Aspera.” Cascading synthesizers build into a beautiful climax in “Life on the Moon.” The jazzy “Float” does just what its name says, drifting by with laid-back strumming and whispers of “Hallelujah.” “Bells and Bombs” is a punchy, fists-in-the-air rock number, while “The Golden Dream” is a hazy electronica trance.
McKeown’s lyrics here aren’t just happy—in fact, there’s a surprising amount of heartbreak here—but they’re sincerely joyful. Like The Innocence Mission’s masterful Birds of My Neighborhood, McKeown’s Birds represents hope in the midst of despair, faith born out of trying times. “Aspera” is a survivor’s anthem, celebrating the ways in which hardships help us to grow. “Air” is a prayer for bravery and a lamentation over untaken chances, and the terrific closer, “You Were Right About Everything,” pays homage to the faithful and the courageous. In “Life on the Moon,” science is seen as limited in its usefulness—faith in the unseen is what truly inspires. Has McKeown been drinking some of the same stuff as Andrew Bird?
It all adds up to a perfect summer soundtrack, and a record that’s completely delightful from start to finish. Here McKeown sings with confidence and compassion, and writes full-bodied songs that open themselves up with repeated listens. Now that she’s found her footing, don’t be surprised if she quickly establishes herself as one of our most gifted singer/songwriters.
Fiona Apple’s last boyfriend was a jackass, and she wants you to know it. On her third album, Extraordinary Machine, she plays the dual roles of poet and documentary film maker, recounting a failed relationship with an eye for detail and an ear for snappy metaphors. She’s mad as hornets and she ain’t gonna take it. And, incidentally, she’s made her finest, sharpest album yet, a blistering and heartbreaking tour of betrayal and loss that finds Apple’s musical and lyrical gifts more refined and potent than ever before.
The album almost didn’t happen. Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Machine seemed destined to be one of those albums that was less interesting than its back story; stuck for years behind record label red tape, the original, Jon Brion-produced version was ultimately scrapped and later revamped, this time with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo. Where Brion’s work was busy and overdone—and, to be fair, never finished— Elizondo’s is simpler, tighter, more streamlined, often with a noticeable hip-hop edge. For her part, Apple may have the smoky voice of a jazz chanteuse, but don’t be fooled. She’s no Norah Jones—Apple sings with a cadence, a rhythm and flow that most rap artists would kill for, making each syllable pack a mean punch.
Only two of Brion’s tracks remain on the finished product, the title cut and the closing number, “Waltz (Better than Fine).” These songs are richly orchestrated, with horns, strings, marimbas, and a healthy dose of the usual Brion quirkiness. The rest of the album is leaner and more efficient, but no less stylish or addictive. Apple’s piano playing is forceful and percussive, and Elizondo jacks up the bass in many tracks to give them a propulsive momentum. Songs like “Tymps” benefit from genuine hip-hop beats, while “Parting Gift” and “Red Red Red” are more intimate and sparse. Best of all is “Not About Love,” a monstrous mutant-jazz number that takes as many twists and turns as an Andrew Bird song.
Lyrically, Machine runs the gamut of emotions associated with bad breakups, taking us from denial (the title cut) to the thirst for revenge (“Get Him Back”) to doubt (“Tymps”) to sorrow (“Red Red Red”) to a final note of acceptance and hope (“Waltz”). Many will no doubt find this final cut to be a meaningful conclusion; personally, I don’t take much solace in it. Like REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” Apple’s song is clearly reaching for something meaningful, but, without Christ, there’s nothing in the way of real grace. But she’s obviously searching, fumbling to find something beautiful amidst the chaos—and that in itself can be inspiring—and, if the kaleidoscopic sounds and bright pop colors are any indication, this extraordinary Machine is the soundtrack of a survivor.
On most of his songs, Craig Finn sounds completely wasted. He’s a mad drunk, who half-sings and half-speaks in long, disjointed rambles. Sometimes he’s going off about drug culture, hoodrats and skaters and dealers; sometimes he’s riffing on religion, mumbling about resurrection and the book of Exodus and the glory of Jesus Christ; usually, he’s talking about both, joining the profane and the sacred into a language entirely his own. He’s a barstool preacher who loves the sound of his own voice, and, strangely, you like it too—unpleasant though it may be, the guy’s ramblings are nothing if not compelling.
Were he by himself, Finn would probably sound like a nutcase. But, with a first-rate rock and roll band behind him, Finn’s a dynamic showman, full of fire and zeal, part prophet and part salesman, with his own twisted version of genius. His band, The Hold Steady, breaks little new ground on their sophomore album, Separation Sunday, but, when it comes to driving, propulsive rock music, they’re one of the most thrilling groups recording today. Separation Sunday works with the kind of piledriving momentum that so many other rock albums are lacking; it’s seamless and addictive, making it difficult to listen to just one of two tracks. The whole thing works as a piece, one big, beautiful mess of garage-rock guitars and pounding drums and very few discernable verses or choruses. Splashes of piano provide brief moments of calm for us to catch our breath, and flourishes of E-Street horns add some punctuation, but, overall, this is back-to-basics, bare-bones stuff, played with such ferocious energy that it sounds these guys are discovering rock music for the very first time.
It’s a surprisingly deep work, with much more to it than first meets the eye. Initially, Finn’s weird ramblings and provocative imagery can be hard to wade through, but close inspection reveals that Separation Sunday is really his retelling of the Prodigal Son story. It’s a Springsteen-like narrative of sin and redemption—with more than a few witty asides and strange tangents. The story follows a Catholic girl named Holly—short for Hallelujah—beginning in a gutter and taking us into the heart of drug culture before culminating in a resolution for the ages—“Father, let me tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels.”