Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Love Language – Libraries (Merge)

Pedals, the first track from the Love Language’s sophomore effort (and Merge debut), Libraries, wafts in… softly, at first. Shimmering strings and tinkling keys bring to mind watching fireflies from the back porch, on a sweltering summer night. Then the thud of drum and bass kick in, waves of guitar wash over, and frontman Stuart McLamb’s vocals call… seemingly returning from outer space… and you begin to think that maybe you’re dealing more with a swarm of slightly edgy bees. Their sting comes in the form of bittersweet reminiscing, over love lost and lessons learned, often accompanied by a Motown-via-ghosttown wall-of-sound. I say ghosttown because the effect isn’t quite Motown, but some ghostly, distorted, deeply southern version thereof. The effect is at times downright haunting.

Now, lots of indie bands have been incorporating the Phil Spector thing of late, and it’s impossible not to notice this in Love Language guitarist BJ Burton’s production. But few bands (save the occasional Spoon song) have ever melded it and other elements of 1960s pop so effectively with a 21st century indie ethos as the Love Language does on Libraries. Instead of just aping other eras, they incorporate and build on them.

But a simple melody is timeless, and production aside, this album is full of melodic gems. If you picked up the third track, This Blood Is Our Own, on iTunes yesterday, or on an FM station 25 years ago, or even a crackling AM station 50 years ago, it wouldn’t seem too out of place. The gospel-like verse sings of chasing lightning and being burned (“You chase the storm / and then I follow”), accompanied by soaring strings, which drop into the background as a chorus of “WHOOOO ooh oooh OOOOH” kicks in. The twangy bridge is followed by a moral: “All we've reaped is all that we've known, and now we're buried together". Preach, brother!

Songs like Blue Angel and Anthophobia echo the melodies of 60s acts like the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, and Donovan (even without the Hurdy Gurdy Man reference in Anthophobia)… or perhaps more accurately, they echo those acts’ take on 1920s pop. Nothing new is ever really new, is it? But always, always, with the deep, dark, atmospheric vibe. In Blue Angel, waves -- and what sounds like passing cars recorded through a high school gym window -- wash between a sad, waltzing melody and lyrics of dancing upon the tide, and sinking into the sand.

McLamb’s voice soars throughout… it and the timeless-yet-new melodies are surely the strengths the Love Language. But he often smartly drops it way into the background, to great effect, as in the chorus of Pedals (“loud whispers / are the hardest to… hear”). Other lyrics reveal a heart that’s becoming wisened with experience, as in Pedals (“blown wishes, off the dandelion / the truth is, all these changes take… time”) and Wilmont (“and you want me to haunt you / but you ‘ve started sprouting your wings”).

But Libraries isn’t all pensive and dark. Heart to Tell is a pure pop gem, driven by a jumpy guitar strum and rollicking clapping, stomping and drumming. Feedback, guitar solo, it’s got it all, yet clocks in at less than 2:30. It’s also perhaps the most unabashed love song, pleading for the object of affection to “walk all over me, just don’t you walk away”. Brittany’s Back and Horophones are also upbeat numbers, though upbeat in the way a good Van Morrison number is (still a bit of melancholy there). Still, while Heart to Tell could top any pop chart, the strength of Libraries is when it’s more introspective… which is, thankfully, most of the time.

Libraries was apparently recorded in mid-winter. But it is simply drenched in summer. Not just the lyrics of songs like Blue Angel, Summer Dust, or Wilmont, but the entire FEEL of it. Libraries is, simply, a GREAT summer album. Not one for a day at the beach, or riding around with the car top down. No, as alluded to above, this album is more for sitting on a porch, in stifling heat after dark, having a drink, and doing just about nothing else at all. After all, there are plenty of gorgeous melodies, thoughtful lyrics, and luscious swells on Libraries to keep your languishing brain occupied.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Collective Change

I've been listening to the band Animal Collective quite a lot lately. Oh, I've dabbled. They've always displayed an indie-weird vibe I enjoyed. But with last year's Merriweather Post Pavilion and the follow-up EP, Fall Be Kind, they're really coming into their own. I can't argue with Spin (and apparently a host of others) picking Merriweather as album of the year in 2009.

Which brings me to the point. And that point is, simply, change. Not the change that Animal Collective went through, but the change that I realize I must have gone through to say that an Animal Collective album is the year's best. And by extension, the change I see everyone goes through as their life progresses.

You have to understand... I've always been into music. Very much into music. I've published a music magazine, written a regular music column, DJ'd on college radio, and been to a zillion live shows. But while I was always open-minded, liking everything from jazz to Bollywood to punk to (some) rap, and (some) country, I've always leaned towards indie rock. Indie GUITAR rock. From jumpy, edgy, punk-influenced stuff like Five Eight and Superchunk, to moodier stuff like David Garza or Neutral Milk Hotel. Sure, I could appreciate the creative bombast of Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty, or the genre-bending of Moby's Play. But they never ranked near the top. They were just, well, fun. Indie rock was where it's at.

But as I sit here listening to Fall Be Kind, realizing there's not a guitar in sight, but an awful lot of slow-building -- dare I say, ambient? -- weirdness and sound effects, I wonder: how did it come to this?

One thing that comes to mind is how people change you. Not in a negative kind of way, taking you from yourself, but it the positive way that new people add to your life in ways you could never expect. When I met my wife, I thought "Man, we have so much in common! Even though we were in completely different places 10 years before (she a teenage punk and me a 20-something grad student), we were listening to all the exact same widely varied music, interested in the exact same subjects, and had the exact same off-key approach to life. Yet as I grew to know her better, I realized that she did have all of these exact same interests... but in very different ways. She could hear the same song -- a song that we each had listened to a thousand times before, before we knew each other -- and hear something completely different. She would be focused almost completely upon the vocals, whereas I would hear nothing but the guitar, the melody; lyrics were strictly optional. So, in essence, we were listening to the same thing, but hearing something completely different.

Because we were listening completeley differently.

And that's where the change comes in.

We change, and we grow, when we learn how to see, hear, and feel, things -- through other eyes. from other viewpoints. I think that's what Kristi has taught me. First, through music, and then, through the myriad facets of life. Going back to the music review analogy, I've always preferred bands that took chances, took in what they saw, heard, and learned, and then changed their sounds.

So I don't see why it should be any different from the listener's perspective. I don't see why it should be any different with people. Beyond just music.