Sunday, April 26, 2009

2007 Album Reviews: H-J

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

PJ Harvey: White Chalk (Island)--The cover photo looks like an Emily Dickinson portrait, so it’s no surprise that the music is Harvey’s quietest and spookiest to date. What is surprising is how relentlessly suicidal it is. Harvey begins the album singing “As soon as I’m left alone, / the devil wanders into my soul” and ends it singing “The first tree will not blossom, / the second will not grow, / the third is almost fallen, / since you betrayed me so.” In between she says hello to darkness her old friend, sings childbirth songs that wouldn’t be out of place in Rosemary’s Baby, wishes she were buried with her dead grandmother, bids her friends a final farewell, and fantasizes about her own rotting bones. The good news is that Harvey isn’t longing for death so much as for the union she sought but didn’t find in love, motherhood, and living happily ever, making death in this context less an attractive option than a last resort. The bad news is that the self-destructively inclined might overlook such subtleties and turn White Chalk into a twenty-first-century “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Rating: Three-and-a-half blue oyster cults out of five.

Joe Henry: Civilians (Anti-)--Ever since Tom Waits or whoever made ramshackle cabaret music a popular halfway house for the semi-talented, its trappings have been over-exploited as shorthand for a generally unbecoming faux exoticism. So it’s sad that on the more-than-semi-talented Joe Henry’s latest album both the title cut and “I Will Write My Book” contribute to the genre. Henry at his best either re-invigorates its cliches (the late-night piano-bar luminosity of “God Only Knows” [not the Beach Boys’], for example) or ignores them altogether (by constructing the first part of the anti-Bush-administration “Our Song” around spotting Willie Mays and his wife in a Home Depot and eavesdropping on their conversation, or by weaving God into almost every song without coming off right-wing hokey or left-wing irreverent). Such details matter because, his considerable songwriting skills notwithstanding, Henry remains an undistinguished singer. Sandpaper earnestness is a dime-a-dozen these days. Rating: Three-and-a-half Madonna-in-laws out of five.

Peter Himmelman: The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep (Himmasongs/Thirty Tigers)--Neither the music (loud singer-songwriter rock) nor the lyrics (two-thirds linear introspection, one-third surreal imagery and-or juxtapositions) will surprise or fail to please anyone familiar with Himmelman’s twenty-year-old body of work, a body unique for its drawing nourishment from that most unlikely of rock-and-roll sources, Orthodox Judaism. The surprise is the accompanying DVD, Rock God, an hour-long documentary tracing the leveling off of Himmelman’s career into touring the club circuit and providing television shows with incidental music. As a study in making potable beverages out of life’s lemons, Rock God will slake the thirst of anyone choking on the dust of his own spinning wheels. As a behind-the-scenes look at what happens when those wheels fall off, it’s hilarious. Rating: Four Sinai-Mountain breakdowns out of five.

Michael Hurley: Ancestral Swamp (Gnomonsong)--Hurley, in keeping with the laid-back pace for which he has long been semi-famous, began recording these eleven songs when he was fifty-nine and finished when he was sixty-four. He is now sixty-five, a ripe old age he’s reached, judging from the sleepy vibe of these performances, by never having met a nap he didn’t like. Accompanied mainly by himself on acoustic guitar, he sings in a lazy, weather-beaten croon of gamblers (“Gambling Charlie”), dying gamblers (“Dying Crapshooter’s Blues”), dying cowboys (“Streets of Laredo”), bums who live in cemeteries and jump out at him from behind tombstones (“Lonesome Graveyard”), and what it’s like to be a “light green fellow” with a foot heavy enough to shake your house (“Light Green Fellow”). He also covers Edgar Allan Poe. At least half the time you can’t understand him. And, like Hurley himself, most of the time you don’t care. Rating: Three-and-a-half El Dorados out of five.

I’m Not There: Original Soundtrack (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)--Hot on the heels of the latest redundant Dylan best-of (title: Dylan, just like his 1973 worst-of) comes this transparently mercenary two-disc Dylan tribute. The roster breaks down along demographically obvious lines--something for those born circa The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine, Calexico, Cat Power), something for those born circa Slow Train Coming (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Tweedy), something for those born circa The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Tom Verlaine, John Doe), something for those born circa the birth of Robert Zimmerman (Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott), and something for those who’ll buy anything baited with a previously unreleased Dylan track (the Basement Tapes-outtake title cut). Of the thirty-four performances, only Antony & the Johnson’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Willie Nelson’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” stink, and if many of the others sound disappointingly similar to Dylan’s originals, they at least sound as if the performers really like the originals. The few genuine surprises are pleasant: “Ring Them Bells” (Stevens) and “Dark Eyes” (Iron & Wine) find new life as full-production numbers, and the Eat the Document trifle “Can’t Leave Her Behind” (Stephen Malkmus and Lee Ranaldo) not only sees the light of day but also provides A.J. Weberman with “evidence” that Dylan is “really” an ass man. None of which makes up for the fact that the album is transparently mercenary. Rating: Obviously three-and-a-half believers out of five.

Jars of Clay: Christmas Songs (Gray Matter/Nettwerk)--This newly recorded album by the Christian-crossover stalwarts follows so closely on the heels of Live Monsters and The Essential Jars of Clay that even core fans might overlook it. They’ll be sorry if they do. Rather than going for the quick kill with a seasonal novelty, the Jars inaugurate their Nettwerk distribution deal with an album that’s as enjoyable and subtly pioneering as the rest of their work. In the company of the seldom-recorded “Love Came Down at Christmas” (Eleanor Garton’s setting of a Christina Rossetti poem) and “Gabriel’s Message,” the frequently recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” (another Rossetti text) have their antique luster restored. And in the company of the Jars’ five thoughtful originals and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” even Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” belongs. Rating: Eleven Days of Christmas out of five.

Ricky Jay Plays Poker (Octone/Legacy)—The deluxe (i.e., expensive) edition comes with a DVD of Jay using sleight of hand to cheat at poker. It’s educational and entertaining, but not nearly as educational and entertaining as the twenty-one poker songs on the CD, many of which are funny, most of which are old and obscure, none of which are by Kenny Rogers, and each of which will have the curious investigating the no-doubt pleasant-surprise-filled catalogue of its performer. Rating: Four card studs out of five.

Jesus H Christ & the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse: Jesus H Christ & The Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (self released)—Admittedly, Risa Mickenberg’s and Joel Shelton’s funny, sardonic, catchy songs cover a narrow terrain—call it the romantic complications of the Ritalin generation, a demographic cut loose from traditional moorings and for whom psychotropic opiates are the religion of the people—but, Jesus H. Christ, do they understand their characters! Whether speaking for or at über-leech women (“Vampire Girls,” “Crazy Guy,” “Vicki Is a Pro”) or a man who’s lowering his standards (“She’s a Six”), Mickenberg/Shelton’s lyrics are detailed enough for accuracy while stopping just short of the “compassion fatigue” they sympathize with in “It’s OK in the USA.” “Some Days” is even sweet, with the songs accompanied by brass suggesting musical affinities from three or four decades before lyrics like these would’ve ever been imagined let alone tolerated. If only Mickenberg didn’t sing as sardonically as she writes. It helps, in other words, to sing pretty when writing mean, something that the Roches (whose “Maid of the Seas” beat Mickenberg/Shelton’s “Do Me” to the theme of lusting after a just-widowed man) have known for years. Rating: Three-and-a-half apocalips out of five.

Eilen Jewell: Letters from Sinners and Strangers (Signature Sounds)--Even if she hadn’t covered Bob Dylan’s “Walking Down the Line,” Jewell would still seem, on the evidence of these songs, to be gunning for an opening slot on the Never-Ending Tour. Not only does her signature sound consist of the sepia-tinted blues, shuffles, and gypsy jazz of which Dylan is enamored, but her gender-role-reversing persona would make her an ideal Joan Baez-like foil for the twenty-first-century Dylan stage. A confessed Bessie Smith worshiper whose singing attests to the influence, Jewell is easier on the ears than Baez ever was and entirely convincing in the claims she stakes to traditionally male terrain: she’s a “rambler,” has “nineteen men” and wants “one more,” hops box cars. Meanwhile her electric guitarist Jerry Miller knows his Hank Marvin, and her cover of Charlie Rich’s “Thanks a Lot” is so sweet you’d swear it was an Everly Brothers cover instead. Rating: Three-and-a-half awakened little Susies out of five.

Norah Jones: Not Too Late (Blue Note)--Stubbornly quiet little thing that she is, it’s no surprise that Jones should battle encroaching dullness, but, except for the two thoughtful topical songs (she’s anti-war, sort of), these slow, acoustic ruminations sound like outtakes from albums one and two. In other words, “Wake Me Up” probably won’t, and “Rosie’s Lullaby” isn’t the only song that will put you to sleep. Rating: Two-and-a-half snooze buttons out of five.

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