Wednesday, September 29
(Lost Highway, 2004)
Over the last fifteen years, Elvis Costello has made it increasingly impossible to conceive of his albums in the typical rockological fashion, as the constituent pieces of a recording career, with a traceable trajectory, artistic development from work to work, and so forth. The plethora of trans-genre collaborations and one-off "project records" he's turned out lately has effectively transformed the concept of a regular old Elvis Costello album into a metaphysically nonsensical idea. Even his trumpeted "return to rock" with 2002's When I Was Cruel felt like a distinctly pre-meditated endeavor, "now I'm going to make a rock record," rather than a true regression to the era when he just made records, with songs on them, for their own sake, because that's what Elvises do. (Besides, if anybody was surprised that he would ever make a rock and roll album again, they really, really shouldn't have been.)
And now - released simultaneously with, but bearing no apparent relationship to, his (first) "classical album" - we have the (first, sort of) "roots rock album." It's a little more complicated than that actually – it also happens to be an abortive concept album, in that most of the songs were originally intended as part of a narrative cycle about the titular Man and a trio of women, but El then thought the better of it and did his best to eradicate any trace of that storyline (inexplicably, the names of the relevant characters for each song are still printed in the booklet.) There's also the background tidbit that Elvis traveled to rural Oxford, Mississippi to record the album and soak up Southern culture and atmosphere – presumably to be closer to the source of his influences, but also perhaps, in the search for “authenticity,” straying uncomfortably close to the kind of Essentialist musical tourism for which similarly-statured artists have come under fire in the past. Despite these dingbats, it’s also tempting, considering that it shares a band (the amusingly named Impostors) and certain stylistic elements with that other rock album, just to think of The Delivery Man as what music journalists sometimes call a "follow-up" to Cruel.
Enough! All this contextualizing makes it damn hard to hear the music, even if Costello himself is as guilty as anyone of encouraging the over-intellectualization of his albums. None of the above should matter when the album is actually playing, and as far as I’m concerned, the further I can get it from my mind the better. If you can’t help but find it incongruous or disingenuous for the original geeky post-punker to be trying his hand at slow-cooked backwoods country and blues stylings, consider that Costello has always made his love for American roots music readily manifest in his cover tunes, live and on record, and in his choice collaborators (George Jones, Allen Toussaint, the Fairfield Four, and so on.) Although he’s done work in a similar vein on his own records – most notably on the country covers record Almost Blue (1982), the folk-based and largely acoustic King of America (1986, though thankfully it sounds as little like 1986 as possible), and especially 1995’s Kojak Variety, a deeply personal (and unfairly maligned) set of primarily r’n’b covers – he’s never done an album that laid it all out quite so clearly. In this sense, The Delivery Man sounds like probably the most truthful, appropriate, and genuine album Costello could have made in 2004.
“Roots music” is, of course, a hopelessly vague catch-all phrase encompassing country, blues, gospel, soul, folk, and several others, including rock’n’roll. Although he makes liberal use of each of these diverse styles, Costello never plays the purist, instead simply allowing them to intermingle and fuse agreeably with his recognizable brand of songcraft – sophisticated to be sure, but never offputtingly cerebral. The Impostors, meanwhile, are comfortable enough in each of these idioms to impart the requisite flavor without overstepping the bounds of tastefulness; their playing is enjoyably loose but never sloppy – impeccable across the board. The result is a marvelously cohesive, and deftly executed, batch of songs – never mere genre exercises – that must ultimately be judged on their own merits as the only meaningful gauge of the album’s success.
On that score, the weakest cut here is also the first, a clunky, Cruel-esque warm-up that for all its spirited bluesy hamfisting is not quite interesting enough to accommodate its lack of harmony, minimal melody, and needless Bernstein quoting – although its title, “Button My Lip,” might stand as a paraphrase of, or rebuttal to, this admittedly hypocritical review. Things pick up with the just sublime “Country Darkness,” one of several tunes here that employ of that most soulful of grooves, the tripletty gospel feel (in this case, 9/8 with some hard-to-pin-down amendments.) Indeed, this is far and away the most groove-dominated record Elvis has ever cut, from the playful rockabilly twist of “Monkey to Man” to the slightly seedy, slow-burning 6/8 of the title track. The phantasmallegorical travelogue “Bedlam” rides along on elliptical beat-displacement funk and an indelible blues riff; the spiteful “Needle Time” shifts on a dime from propulsive country rock to a gritty downtempo shuffle. “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” beautifully harmonized by Emmylou Harris, sports an elegant, understated melody that ranks with Costello’s finest ballads; even here Davey Faragher’s gloriously in-pocket bass playing provides an indispensable springboard and rhythmic anchor.
As for the lyrics – a Costello lynchpin – many of them retain the residue of the discarded narrative, which makes this largely a collection of character sketches (“in a certain light, he looked like Elvis”) and point-of-view relationship songs. Though removed referents render some lines more than typically inscrutable, and the profusion of religious imagery (part of that whole Southern thing) is a bit perplexing, most of the lyrics still pack an emotional punch while leaving room for some trademark Costellian barbs (“women would slap you, if you knew any.”)
Conceptual baggage aside, Elvis Costello has displayed so many facets, as a songwriter and a performer, that it’s no longer possible to meaningfully describe any one of them as the “real Elvis.” So although I’m tempted to report that he hasn’t sounded this much like himself in ages, I’ll merely affirm that, he sure as hell hasn’t sounded this self-assured, or this much at home. Were one to posit “the delivery man” as the latest addition to Elvis’ long string of aliases – a fairly ironic move, given his persistent failure to satisfy his fans’ expectations – it would be hard to deny that in this case, at least, he lives up to it.
Of Snowdonia by Dædelus
(Plug Research, 2004)
Given the sheer volume of music that’s out there, it always seems to me like a remarkable feat for an artist to establish a truly unique and distinguishable sound – even leaving aside the question of whether it’s one worth listening for. San Francisco music-maker Daedelus, both with his playfully good-natured IDM releases and in his perhaps more dubious role as hip-hop producer, has developed a consistent and recognizable sonic fingerprint all the more intoxicating for its resistance to description.
Most impressively, he doesn’t do it by limiting his sound palette to a small handful of recurring elements. Discerning and identifying each of the discrete sounds that turn up on Of Snowdonia – approximately Daedelus’ third proper solo full-length – is a daunting task. I’ve managed to count upwards of ten on a single track, several of which appear nowhere else on the album. Although the electronic sounds in his productions – burbles and shy synth lines and programmed percussion – often have a thin or muted cast to them, this mostly serves to let them more effortlessly mingle with the crackly phonograph samples, vocal snippets (both sung and spoken) and legions of traditional, “organic” instruments that Daedelus calls into action, many of which I believe he himself plays: guitars, clarinets, accordions, vibraphones, smoky saxes, bells and chimes and even full orchestral brass flourishes or syrupy film-score strings.
If there is a textural component to Daedelus’ distinctive sound, it relates to the generalized sense of audiophile nostalgia that pervades his music – from its source material to its outward character – making it at once wistful and naïve. Rather than presenting acoustic and analog sounds all spit-polished and digitzed, he lets everything remain slightly murky and imprecise, the better for unlikely encounters and ineffable transpollinations to occur in the muddle. Though similarly dense, Of Snowdonia retains a slightly tighter focus – and a more whimsical attitude – than the intoxicating dreamscape of its predecessor, the acclaimed semi-debut Invention. Still, this is music of liberal accretion, quietly maximalistic, which builds its emotional interest through somewhat absurdist juxtapositions. In its most captivating moments, the elements at interplay seem so personable and charismatic that the listener is tempted to develop little narratives for them, especially when counterintuitive rhythmic combinations are added to the usual dizzying array of sounds.
The brief but shining “Taking Wing,” for example, represents the well-intentioned but inexorably downhill struggle between wakefulness and sleep. Amid analog crackles, distant choral murmuring, and de-sensed fragments of storytime narration, a languorous waltz-time piano lullaby starts up. Its dreamward tranquility is almost immediately disrupted by a jittery, double-time 4/4 breakbeat whose influence soon grows with several additional layers of percussion and a jaunty flute melody. As the elements pile on, though, the peppiness grows unwieldy, and the piano’s stubborn undertow drags the beat down to the seeming compromise of a languid bossa nova. This is interrupted with a couple of start-stop turntable jerks, as though the breakbeat were defiantly struggling to resurface. It does, but only briefly: it soon sputters out, in face of the unswerving piano waltz – now assisted by some disorienting buzzy electronics – and the piano is alone to find a resolution amongst synth swells and digital detritus.
“Something Bells,” the album’s clearest standout, similarly features a “conflict” of sorts between two rhythmically disparate elements: an electro-funky percussion track that falls somewhere in between a martial drum cadence and a vintage hip-hop break, and a borderline inane swingin’ chorus line chipperly declaring: “now the time to sing is out / something bells can ring about.” The juxtaposition of two such perversely giddy and unlikely “combatants” is pretty flawlessly chuckle-inducing in itself, but the tracks real interest come from its cleverly-plotted structure – the occasional interludes of hypnotic, introspective classical guitar figure and meandering bleeps, followed by unexpected surges – and its ingenious harnessing of the energy differential between swing and straight time.
It remains impressive how handily Daedelus can employ this kind of juxtaposition as his central conceit without the compositions coming off as mere novelties. But even avoiding this, a disappointing percentage of the tracks here fail to fully take off. The skittering Squarepusheresque beats on “Aim True,” for instance, never quite manage a meaningful connection to the pensive guitar/accordion lament and claustrophobic strings which form the piece’s emotional center. And nothing here can touch the effervescent “A Touch of Spring,” included on last year’s The Quiet Party EP (where it was erroneously listed as from this then-forthcoming album.) With a few more truly head-turning productions, Of Snowdonia would have easily been one of the year’s most attention-worthy releases – as it stands, it’s still a singularly charming little dream world.
these were written, at least partly, for publication on dusted, to keep my mirah review company. i heartily welcome any suggestions for their improvement (and possibly shortening), especially the elvis one. dusted dude sam sez "I think we are not very excited about covering Elvis Costello" so they may or may not want that one - and i'd like to polish it up real nice before i submit.