Monday, October 19, 2009

Langhorne Slim - Be Set Free

If the record's cover art isn't telling, then perhaps its guest list is. When Langhorne Slim first made the switch to Kemado Records last year with his second full-length, the effort came out sounding solid but somewhat lacking in the energy of his live set, a feat that's only been accomplished thus far with his muddy Electric Love Letter EP of 2004. He's stayed loyal to Malachi DeLorenzo (also his drummer) in the recording process from day one, but his newest album, produced as a ridiculously layered piece of pop by Decemberist Chris Funk, is miles from his live show, which – while appealing to the tamer indie set – really hurts him, given what he's capable of.

The point that's impossible to dodge is that Langhorne Slim is at his best when he's on his own. He's a true punk spirit, and can singlehandedly fill a stage with his nasal wail; it certainly wouldn't hurt if this demonstration were set to tape for the space of an LP. The War Eagles, DeLorenzo and upright bass player Paul DeFiglia, actually kept up with him quite well on stage, building upon his energy rather than being left to the roles of backing musicians, qualifying the trio as a great team, though the greater strength remained on stage and not necessarily on record.

Now, on Be Set Free, Slim's unfortunately hurt by all the would-be enhancements that completely bury his energy. Sam Kassirer, who (alongside DeLorenzo) played a heavy role in the recording process of Slim's previous record, is now the band's pianist, adding a painful dream sequence quality to the already-sappy “I Love You, But Goodbye.” “Say Yes” almost comes off as something the Decemberists might have recorded, were it not for the lack of a historical geek-out, and “For a Little While” is a really dull, semi-sultry rock ballad that just doesn't belong. “Yer Wrong” completely snatches – wait for it – “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Blown Your Mind” relies on a piano melody fit more for Regina Spektor than a less-than-believable Slim.

As for those other guests, Slim's duet with Heartless Bastards frontlady Erika Wennerstrom on “Leaving My Love” does work well, though the production process has upped the cheese factor by giving too much volume to DeLorenzo's drumming – he's fantastic but his part is a bore here – and experimenting with strings in a way that worked for Jon Brion and Fiona Apple but competes with and overpowers Slim. “Land of Dreams” is pleasant enough but a waste of Laura Veirs, and DeFiglia's replacement on bass, Jeff Ratner, is literally impossible to spot anywhere on the record. Really, the best songs here, the title track and “Back to the Wild,” are those that would have fit perfectly on previous Langhorne Slim records; it's unfortunate that this album, which will likely launch him, while much deserved, is less representative of the artist than the producer.

Taste that potential!

Langhorne Slim - Be Set Free
Langhorne Slim - Yer Wrong (yes, but you simply won't understand, otherwise)
Purchase Be Set Free
Or see him on tour RIGHT NOW.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - The Doomsday EP

Elvis Perkins has never quite had another “While You Were Sleeping,” but his willingness to experiment is admirable, and here, on the Doomsday EP, he dips into everything from classic electric blues and rock ‘n’ roll (the somewhat generic “Stop Drop Rock and Roll”) to retro rhythm and blues (“Stay Zombie Stay,” which is just begging for a recurring “rollin’” from Ike Turner) to call and response (“Weeping Mary,” originally written in 1859 by J.P. Reese).

Doomsday is a bit lackluster on the whole, sort of done in good fun, perhaps compiled for kicks in spare time. But the musicianship of Perkins and his band is at its best when a little eerie, the EP opening and closing with “Doomsday” and six-minute counterpart “Slow Doomsday,” one influenced by polka and Dixieland jazz, its dreary end (the original version) like a tragic, drunken tale out of New Orleans. And on “Gypsy Davy,” where all sorts of minor details are best heard through headphones, those creaks and howls, Perkins’ James Taylor-meets-Jeff Mangum voice takes on a touch of a Judy Garland quiver from a slight distance. A little charming, a little tragic.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Slow Doomsday
Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Weeping Mary
Pre-order the Doomsday EP

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mission of Burma - The Sound the Speed the Light

Now on their third studio album since the close of their long hiatus, Mission of Burma have aged scarily well, and with The Sound the Speed the Light they are, in their early 50s, as perfectly sloppy and punk rock as they were in the 1980s.

“1, 2, 3, Partyy!” [sic] is among the group’s best “pop” songs, excessively listenable, Roger Miller’s guitar skipping all over the place. “One Day We Will Live There,” choppy with testosterone, would actually work quite well on 2006’s The Obliterati, and “Forget Yourself” and “Comes Undone” remind quite a bit, in their noodling guitar and dramatic buildup, of …Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes (though the order of any coincidental similarity or influence should be apparent).

Vocals, taken from each member, are alternately playful and booming, with a confidence that only occurs with age, indicating that there was actually some enjoyment in recording. Whereas the fantastic but top-heavy The Obliterati found Peter Prescott’s drumming a new (albeit welcome) focal point, The Sound is heavy on guitar, more consistent, and much closer to some of the band’s best work from its early career.

Mission of Burma - Forget Yourself
Preview and purchase The Sound the Speed the Light

Friday, October 9, 2009

Orenda Fink - Ask the Night

I imagine Orenda Fink to be the timid, polite, perhaps humorless type, one who sits in her basement recording space among friends and says, after experimenting with a few minor chords, Oh, that riff is sort of weird – let’s see what we can do with it. Maybe she even uses the word neat. But she writes a good folk song, and while the Southern Gothic thing is getting a bit tired, it’s been a pleasure to hear her quirks and watch her blossom since Azure Ray.

Ask the Night is sort of a concept album which first asks, “Why is the night sad?” and rounds itself out when the moon answers this question to the beat of a setting sun at album’s conclusion. The record’s not perfect – Isaac Brock’s angry lisp makes for an awkward backing vocal track on “High Ground,” and “The Garden” smacks of the Indigo Girls (“Love and peace will fill your heart?” Really, now.). But there are some really lovely bluegrass touches, and the recordings themselves feel rather intimate, particularly when Fink is alone with her guitar.

Orenda Fink - High Ground
Orenda Fink - Wind
Purchase Ask the Night