Saturday, February 26, 2005

Robbers On High Street - "The Price & Style"

These days when I listen to music I'm just looking for any sort of connection, but in my idealistic college days I looked for songs that could speak directly to and for me. I thought that pop music lyrics held the keys to every puzzle in my life. In fact, there was one revelatory morning during my freshman year when I woke up to Wrapped Around Your Finger on the radio and it spoke to me as if Sting specifically wrote it about me. As I scan the lyrics now I'm at a loss as to what it was to which I felt so connected, or even what the song MEANS ("I will turn your face to alabaster"?).

At the time I was interested in a girl who could play me like Earl Scruggs can play the banjo. By that I mean, well. I guess that morning I just got tired of it, and those words: "I'll be, wrapped around your finger" just suddenly meant something.

I think that experience is more common than finding a song that completely says everything you feel. In fact, I think many songs become big hits just because of a line or chorus that connects, regardless of what the verses say. Take Born In The U.S.A. or another Sting composition, Every Breath You Take, as examples. The latter song, as far as I can tell, is narrated by an obsessive ex-lover. But people took it as a passionate love song.

This is the point where I could go into the whole "do lyrics matter?" discussion, but I'll decline to do so. What I will say is that lyrics I like best are ones that are so specific as to not be directly applicable, but still have a bit of universal truth or sentiment as well. Is that too much to ask?

Finally we get to this shuffling, minimal song by New York-based Robbers On High Street. I can't for the life of me figure out what it means. Perhaps it's using a clumsy metaphor of shopping to refer to a love affair. Perhaps that's just how I want to hear it. But as I was walking and hearing these two mantra-like lines: "what I want I just can't have" and "I want to jump in your lake" I couldn't help but feel a complete connection. I'll also decline to detail why this meant so much to me at that moment, and I'll allow it to just be enough that the reason I listen to music was fulfilled, even if only for three minutes.

Album: Tree City (2005)
Fave Moment: The underlying female harmonies.

Monday, February 21, 2005

69. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - Naturally (2005)

Is it possible to take retro too far?

Place Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings latest long player on the stack and hear for yourself. From the opening blast of How Do I Let A Good Man Down? you'll be transported approximately 40 years back in time. In fact, if you were to take even the most cursory of looks at the album art while you listened you could not be blamed for believing that this was a reissue from an obscure and long-forgotten '60s soul group.

But you would be nonetheless mistaken!

Witness: Sharon Jones is a 47-year-old with a powerful, time-worn voice. The Dap-Kings are a group of young men with whimsical psuedonyms like Boogaloo Velez and Binky Griptite. Producer, arranger, writer, and player Bosco Mann is a fellow obviously brimming with ambition. Should it take this many people to make a sound not far removed from the classic Motown groove? I guess so, though Jones is more Martha than Diana.

Like those enduring Motown singles, the lyrics are simple, but illuminate the twistier side of romance. Take that opener How Do I Let A Good Man Down?: Sharon has found herself interested in two men, one gives her "comfort," the other gives her "chills." Take a look at that title again, then take a guess at which one she's going with. My Man Is A Mean Man indicates, beneath a roiling bassline, that perhaps she's chosen poorly.

One thing is clear, Jones is not to be messed with. She may have her weaknesses, as shown on the exes-who-can't-let-go ballad Stranded In Your Love and the rueful closer All Over Again, but she is also a tough cookie. You're Gonna Get It is not a threat of punishment, at least not one you'd hate to suffer. Your Thing Is A Drag is a withering indictment of a man who always wants to go home early and drinks juice instead of liquor. Jones and I wouldn't make a good couple.

But the queen of sass outdoes herself on How Long Do I Have To Wait For You? The song is lyrically interesting because though she sounds fed up, she's obviously still not ready to leave the table. Musically, the song sounds so familiar I'd be surprised if it's not already being used in a pharmacutical advertisement.

As if this wasn't all nostalgic enough, the album package lovingly recreates a time when art direction was headed in a better direction. Try Jones sitting in a blue and gold flowered dress and big hoop earrings, looking out a window. The cover tells us that the CD is "stereo compatible." There's a lauditory essay inside, and the album's 10 songs are split into "Side One" and "Side Two."

There are larger questions at work here, namely the one I opened with. How much artistic validity is there in recreating the past, and does it really even matter? If a lack of originality can produce such a fun listening experience then maybe originality needs to be redefined.

Grade: B
Fave Song: How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

68. Hem - Eveningland (2004)

Sophisticated. Mannered. Ornate. Dreamy. Pure. Lovely.

I'm not just practicing my adjectives and adverbs. I'm getting all the descriptive words out of the way, so I can be clear and direct about Hem and their second album, Eveningland. Hem is an 8-piece folk country band from New York. I say country, but not country in the way of Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. Rather, country in the way of Dusty Springfield of Ray Charles.

I went to see them sound unheard in concert about three weeks ago. After one great opener (the beautiful Dawn Landes) and one bad opener (the petulant David Mead) the band made us wait a good 20 minutes before showing up. Never a fan of tardiness, I was already preparing not to like them. But the minute they took the stage all was forgiven. I had one of those rare concert-going experiences where the performance actually created in me a sense of incredible well-being. In fact, for about five songs I went into my own world and dreamt.

I guess that's why Eveningland is such an appropriate title. The CD is best suited a relaxed mood, a cup of tea, and a comfy chair. Headphones optional, but preferred. That's not to say the music is without teeth. In fact, it can be outright powerful. But power doesn't mean loud. In fact, despite the presence of pedal steel, fiddle, piano, guitar, mandolin, male and female harmonies, and orchestration (if you have 8 people in your band you have to have something for everyone to do) the band's sound is surprisingly hushed. I guess that means everything is in its right place.

And despite the generally dreamy nature of the music, Hem are smart enough to not skimp on the hooks. Almost every song has a chorus that's 5,280 feet wide. The other big selling point of the band is lead singer Sally Ellyson's vocals. All those adjectives I listed above could be used to describe her voice. One friend of mine compared her to Karen Carpenter, and I wouldn't argue too much with that.

Lyrically, the album mostly focuses on that favorite love topic. In fact, it's a very romantic and Romantic album. Highlights include Lucky ("I wouldn't mind lying beside you / the rest of my days"), Receiver ("I'll always love you like I do"), and An Easy One ("But, Baby, hold me now"). My highlight is the cover of Johnny and June Carter Cash's Jackson. The original was a free-spirited, up tempo trifle. Hem slow it down and lend it gravity, even to lines like "We got married in a fever / hotter than a pepper sprout" and "Baby, comb your hair."

Despite a 16 track length (two are instrumental interludes) the album never flags in energy or quality. Even if you're not a fan of country, consider this album for those quiet, reflective moments. If you need more convincing, start over at the beginning.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Jackson