Friday, June 24, 2005

MUSIC: Three for Thursday

CDs, CDs, I love the CDs and I refuse to grow up and get an iPod like everybody else. Here's three moderate to completely obscure recent purchases that are worth checking out:

The Mountain Goats, "The Sunset Tree"
The Mountain Goats are underground heroes close to breaking through (heck, The New Yorker wrote about them recently). I got turned onto them by largeheartedboy and others and have become a big fan. The "Goats" is a misnomer - there's basically one goat, John Darnielle, and his one-man band is insanely prolific, having put out hundreds of songs in just a few years. The sound is a kind of folky strum, often just Darnielle and a guitar, although recent albums have added more elaborate backing instrumentation to great effect. But the main instrument is Darnielle's voice and his direct, intense lyrics about love and redemption, which insists you listen to it. It's a nasal, hypnotic, raw neo-Violent Femmes, kind of love-it or hate-it sound. I definitely fall on the "love it" side — like few current singers, Darnielle really demands you listen to the words and gives the feeling that what he's saying is the most important thing in the world right now. This latest album is heavily autobiographical, dealing with Darnielle's fear and abuse at the hands of his late stepfather. Despite that heavy feeling, "The Sunset Tree" is never too dark, and falls back on the theme of music as savior. The songs "This Year" and "Dance Music" are worth the price of admission alone — "This Year," with its chorus of, "I will make it through this year if it kills me," and its windswept, getting-the-hell-out-of-this-town anthemic feel, makes it a contender for my favorite tune of the year. Darnielle's about telling portraits in miniature, lyrics sculpting detail out of the air -- take this couplet from one of his earlier songs, "International Small Arms Traffic Blues":
"Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania
Trucks loaded down with weapons
Crossing over every night"

"The Sunset Tree" is cathartic despite of or perhaps because of the subject matter, and leaves you feeling refreshed and hopeful. Good stuff.

James Kochalka Superstar, "Our Most Beloved"
Vermont's James Kochalka is probably better known as the cult cartoon creator with the absolutely groovy online daily diary strip (collected in the massive "American Elf" book), but besides all that, he's also a rock superstar. Or at least, a pretend one. "Our Most Beloved" culls the choice bits from several underground albums Kochalka and his friends have released over the years, and put them out on big ol' Rhino Records. His sound is loose, silly, sometimes profane and playful, like They Might Be Giants with an 8-year-old's sense of humor. But it's also insanely catchy, with tunes like the classic "Monkey Vs. Robot," "Breaking Stuff" and "Bad Astronaut" as surreal flights of fancy through Kochalka's mind. It's great music for kids, as long as they don't quite get the more adult elements of Kochalka's tunes (F'r instance, "Talk To The Wookie" is, um, not so much about "Star Wars" and more about, um, a sex act). Long-term, I'm not sure how the novelty tracks on this CD will hold up -- sometimes discs like this are fun for a while and then get old. But underneath the silliness Kochalka has a solid grasp on tunes and "hooks" -- frankly, I'm just jealous of a guy that can RAWK and draw!

Colin Hay, "Going Somewhere"
You know who Colin Hay is. The lead voice of '80s "Down Under" rock combo Men At Work, he's managed to stay a surprisingly strong and soulful songwriter long past his one-hit wonder days. I'm a total unapologetic Men At Work geek and periodically check out the solo work of Hay, who's still recording (and has made some nifty song cameos on TV's groovy "Scrubs"). This acoustic collection offers a nice roundup of Hay's world-weary, enjoyably quirky sound, all sung pretty much solo with acoustic guitar for accompaniment. A few lesser-known Men At Work songs get reimagined, as well as a variety of tunes from his past 20 years or so of solo work. It's on the mellow side, but I enjoy the skewed, wry and refreshingly humble tunes, such as "Beautiful World" (great lyrics, quoted above in my logo sig this week), "Waiting For My Real Life To Begin" or "Looking For Jack." If you're an '80s child who remembers Men At Work fondly, this is a nice reintroduction to their frontman that isn't just an exercise in nostalgia.

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