Saturday, April 25, 2009

2006 Album Reviews: V-W

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)

Tom Verlaine: Songs and Other Things (Thrill Jockey)—This fine album’s only flaw is that it continues the former Television leader’s practice (which he began with 1990’s The Wonder) of containing no printed lyrics. Not that his lyrics are indecipherable; it’s just that they’re often worth reading as well as hearing. (Not for nothing did Verlaine, born Miller, rename himself after a poet.) The most quotable couplet is “Never said you were some [expletive deleted] actor. / Yes, there is a hidden factor,” a construction that, its un-Verlaine-like profanity aside, neatly exemplifies his conversationally elliptical style, but others eventually emerge (“Oh, to be summoned by / unseen and sparkling eyes” is rather nice, no?). Anyway, in the end it’s neither the words nor the diaphanously skeletal melodies and rhythms that set him apart so much as his guitar, which sounds like at least a dozen different instruments, every one of which bestows fresh elegance to the art-punk aesthetic. Rating: Four-and-a-half marquee moons out of five.

Tom Verlaine: Around (Thrill Jockey)—Incidental music for a non-existent detective flick set in the twilight zone.

Moise and Alida Viator with EH, LA-BAS!: Creole Fusion (self-release)—The Viator siblings just keep getting better, no doubt in part because they don’t crank out their poly-cultural celebrations assembly-line style but wait until they have enough ideas for a good album. No longer the precocious teens who debuted seven years ago with Mo Belle Creole, they still sing, play, and choose songs with youthful exuberance, making their exploration of “world music” (really, is there any other kind?) seem fun instead of morally noble. Sonny Landreth guests on two tracks, but whether they’re covering songs from Prairie Mamou and Colombia or New Orleans and Spanish Harlem, the Viators and their band are the stars (especially Alida, who plays her violin like a gypsy possessed and sings like someone who loves to). Really, it’s the rare combo, locally bred or otherwise, that can make Argentinean bullfight music sound like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” (“El Matador”), improve “Ain’t Got No Home” with swinging horns and Ventures guitar, or recast “My Boy Lollipop,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “I Like It like That” as the ideal soundtrack for busting pinatas. Verdict: the best party album of the year by a longshot. Rating: Four-and-a-half united nations out of five.

Scott Walker: The Drift (4AD)—With The Drift Scott Walker takes another giant step away from the orchestral pop moodiness of his Walker Brothers and early solo days and toward the brink of the avant-garde abyss into which he has been staring for the last two decades. He simulates meaning with his stream-of-consciousness verse and nightmarish, horror-film atmospherics just often enough to make one hesitant to dismiss him outright. He does himself no favors, however, by restricting his melodies to two or three notes then singing them in a strained, operatic vibrato or by writing lyrics like “Face on / the pale / monkey / nails,” “I’ll punch / a donkey / in the / streets of / Galway,” “Where will / you sleep / my / stomach,” and “Can’t turn / from a / crotch in / the / darkness.” Rating: Two cries and whispers out of five.

Katharine Whalen: Dirty Little Secret (M.C.)—The sticker on the cover proclaiming Whalen’s Squirrel Nut Zippers past is misleading. Other than some exotic rhythms and occasional trumpets, Dirty Little Secret owes nothing to the warmed-over “hot jazz” for which the Zippers became known. Rather, it owes a lot to Whalen’s songwriting partner and producer David Sale, who applies a dark, electronica-tinged veneer to singing that recalls Debbie Harry at her most beguiling, melodies that alternate between really catchy and catchy enough, and lyrics that are often quirky-clever when not clever-quirky. The three best songs are the three most direct: the Whalen-Sale-penned “Meet Me by the Fire” (an infectious tribute to the aphrodisiacal power of kava kava), the Whalen-Sale-penned “Blur” (a ghostly expression of cautious romantic hope), and the Sale-only-penned title cut (undoubtedly the saddest, simplest, and most beautiful song ever written by a man from a female rape victim’s point of view). Rating: Four double takes out of five.

Whodini: Funky Beat: The Best of Whodini (Jive/Legacy)—If Run D.M.C. was first-generation rap’s Messiah, this trio was its John the Baptist.

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