Review: Death of a Ladies Man Monday, Aug 25 2008 

Death of a Ladies’ Man is the most problematic Leonard Cohen album in that is should be fantastic. It’s a superhero team up of the possibly murderous Phil Spector and the incomparable man himself Leonard Cohen. The album is pretty much a wild debacle, though, and for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on why. It’s the most troubling of modern paradox. You listen and it is like milimetres, nay nanometres! from being a Genghis Khan-like triumph and somehow that makes it a Nero-like misadventure.  This is my attempt to cut the Gordian Knot and maybe tear a famous blue raincoat or two.

I was driving through Oakland on highway 880 after work with L.C. grumbling away on the stereo as he so often does. Trucks are whizzing by, the sunshine is beating down on the bay to my right, and evidently a ladies’ man is dying in the circuits of my car. Then it hits me. The problem with Death of a Ladies’ Man is that it makes Leonard Cohen vulnerable.

Usually he speaks from a place of such authority even when he is wistful (So Long, Marianne) or pleading (Lady Midnight). His emotions are sorted, if painful, and he tells us how it is. This Leonard Cohen, however, is asking. On memories for example he sings from the perspective of a desperate teenager who, for all his false bravado, puts him in thrall of “the tallest and the blondest girl”

I think much of this reversal has origin in Phil Spector’s production choices. The wall of sound technique smooths out the gravitas from Leonard’s voice. The girl-groupesque instrumentals (eg long and plaintive saxophone solos, crescendoing brass) create a sense of trying too hard (Paper Thin Hotel and Iodine especially). Cohen’s poetry is best served by a minimal fuss that frame the narrative rather than coloring it. Even later albums with their synthesizers and smooth jazz function as a sort of afterthought, a house of cards that pedestals a golden trophy. Spector’s bombast is simply out of sync with the understated and powerful aesthetic we love from Leonard Cohen.

There some great moments. True Love Leaves No Traces is more restrained and sentimental in a compelling way. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-on is charmingly weird and makes you want to be just as erotically confused. Memories will make you go “wtf? this is totally awesome— I think?”

And that’s the way I see it, at least.


In Our Bedroom After the War, Stars Tuesday, May 20 2008 

Listening to Stars can be a very humanizing experience; it’s pop that will make you a little uncomfortable when you realize how much you like it. I’m not trying to say that they function like anything close to a guilty pleasure, but the jaune jeunesse put a lot of effort into avoiding conventional expression these days. Too often sincerity is roughly correlated to gaucherie, but Stars doesn’t care. Barricade, for example , is violence in a slow-motion of minor piano chords and phrases like “the love died, but the hate can’t fade.” Familiar yes, but never wincing because Torquil Campbell’s ardent uncertainty creates a satisfying tension. A tension that exists between the artifice we use to set ourselves apart and the common feelings that draw us together. The album is filled with characters trying to make themselves bigger, more important in one-hundred different ways: drugs, revenge, confessions, games, mutual parisitism, but the stronger trope is how an undercurrent of loneliness drives all of this.

In Our Bedroom After the War offers a refreshing form of musical atheism where songs take place in the confines of the real. We are not on dusty train tracks with semi-mystical geriatrics that populate alt-country, nor the hyper-cities consisting solely of cocktail parties, art openings, and alienation of most other Rock. Mostly we are in the space where life’s trivial props take on meanings just as large as escapist vistas: the space between lovers.Take Me To The Riot describes the anxiety of drug-fueled locomotion, but the buoy on a sea of cash and pills is still a human connection implied by the imperative title. Personal is a masterful duet between Campbell and Millan that is a back and forth straight from Craigslist: when a “wanted: single F, under 33” is found and then stood up the listener is just as lost as she is to say what happened. The story examines what happens when connections miss in a context that is eminently repeatable, but with an intelligence that keeps it out of the realm of novelty by begging the question, “is it you or me?” In the end it doesn’t matter because one outcome means we are as bad as our insecurities tell us we are, or that another’s will keep them from appreciating us.

This strikes at the drama of what is common and the futility of trying to transcend it. There is too much telling us that what we feel is not good enough, not sophisticated, and pop songs like those found on In Our Bedroom After the War are the perfect riposte. As a form they are supposed to be disposable. yet as a subject they make up what is perhaps most important. The best example is the opus Window Bird with its sinister bass hook that mimics a departing lover’s steps, and a late-game instrumental fist fight that reminds us who we’re dealing with, all set in contrast to Millan’s vulnerable whisper.

There’s an attractive self-awareness about the whole project. It might be a little embarrassing to like or get caught singing in the car, but there isn’t really a choice because it’s so compelling. An ethos that is captured in the band’s merchandise, specifically a badge proclaiming “stars is for fags.” A number among which this author is proud to be counted.

Girls and Weather, The Rumble Strips Monday, May 19 2008 

Listening to the debut album Girls and Weather from Devon England’s The Rumble Strips it’s hard to remember the last time a record was this fun. The last one was probably Guitar Romantic by the ill-fated Exploding Hearts. Like the Exploding Hearts this is music for losers who know how to party. Front man Charlie Waller delves straight into self-deprecation on the opener “No Soul” but keeps things above the maudlin water with energetic delivery and support from the band’s prominent brass section. It’s a rare quality and requires delicate balance to be upbeat about your flaws, and the Rumble Strips manage to straddle the line for most of the dozen or so tracks. Not to mention being able to use so much brass without getting stuck in Ska ridiculousness or free jazz abstraction. Think The Jam and Adam Ant rather than The Specials.

“Motorcycle” shows just how far The Rumble Strips are willing to go in the service of bums and couch potatoes. Waller and the boys weave the story of a boy on his bike dreaming its a roaring chopper. In any other hands it would be completely cheesy, but Waller’s soaring falsetto and the pumping horns make you want to ride right along with a baseball card in your spokes. “Oh Creole” is the closest they get to playing straight tragedy with lyrics like, “a tear rolls down his face/ he licks and lips and tastes/ Whiskey that you just can’t waste” But it’s not enough to keep us from tapping our feet even if we do want to find out “when was the start of when it all went bad”

The album drags a little in the second half, and it would be easy to tire of their antics after “Time” and “Clouds” (Two songs in a row that begin with “one, two, three, four” is a little much even for a fromagier like Waller) if they didn’t make up for it by finishing strong. Still, they can’t quite live up to the irresistible numbers that make up the first six tracks. Six amazing songs and four good ones is no small feat these days.

So when you wrap your fingers firm around Girls and Weather, smash your alarm clock with a hammer and go pick it up. And when The Rumble Strips come to your town grab the hand of someone who doesn’t like you and don’t be afraid to dance like a fool.

Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais Monday, May 19 2008 

On I found a download of live songs by Okkervil River one of which includes a cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s famous Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais. It’s translated into the English and yet somehow remains a rather capable version. The hook is there and one’s body begins to sway but unlike in Serge’s masterpiece we don’t stop. I’ve got some problems with this much of the struggle of the original is lost in gauche American playfulness.

The North American hipster comes to say he’s leaving for the sensitive man street-cred and the song he can sing about it to the next drunk girl who thinks she’s going to open a boutique of her homemade bags. The way Will Sheff translates and belts out the most conflicted lines makes them seem almost sarcastic, agressive. Also the addition of the “too many teardrops for one heart to be cryin'” trope from ? and the Mysterians 69 Tears feeds into the revised: “I’m leaving you and you’re broken up about it? Lame.” theme of the song acting as a pedestrian contrast to the Verlaine allusions from the original.

With Serge (given that we’ve kept up with our high school French) we weren’t sure who he was trying to convince when he said our tears can change nothing. But here, now, we’re not Serge Gainsbourg are we? We’re some douche who’s gonna go thumb through LP’s and stare at pretty girls on BART. And she’s not going to cry or suffocate, she’s just not going to return our calls.

It’s fucking bullshit but here we are on the bad wind, but rather than Verlaine’s “vent mauvaise” we are on the bad electric wind that connects our computers and our cellphones that we’ve left on silent while we plot out how not to care about one another. In our inbox there’s a text that says: “I txt 2 say im goin yr tears can chng nothn.”

I’m asking: Is that the best we can hope for? and I think Will Sheff is too.