Thursday, July 31, 2008

Magnet-ic Yields, July 08

Three reviews from the current issue of Magnet, which I'm looking forward to reading on the beach this weekend.

Sam Amidon - All is Well (Bedroom Community)

Sam Amidon gets the star billing on this album, but he has little to do with it. It's certainly not a sign of creative bankruptcy to reinterpret an album's worth of antique folk songs, but to do so in such a detached, opiated and nonchalant manner makes you wonder what Amidon finds interesting about these songs in the first place. When he sings, “Got my money in my pocket and my pistol in my hand,” he sounds like he’s genuinely befuddled as to how either ended up on his person, and more than a bit puzzled about what he might possibly do next. His valerian vocals don't commit to the lyrics in the least, not even when trying to resurrect "O Death." “You’ll never go to heaven when you die, little girl,” he cautions, but it sounds entirely inconsequential. That's not to say that the appropriately titled All is Well doesn't have its copacetic charms: it does, all of which stem from producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and orchestrator Nico Muhly. Both are recent Björk confidantes and were behind the scenes of Bonnie Prince Billy’s The Letting Go. Sigurðsson and Muhly treat Amidon as a tabula rasa where they can project their brass and string fantasies onto these folk songs, with occasional electronics situating everything in the 21st century. “Little Johnny Brown” stands out here, primarily due to Muhly’s piano, which provides an ominous pulse underneath, worthy of a John Carpenter soundtrack; Eyvind Kang’s droning viola is equally creepy and Sigurðsson’s subtle electronic shadings provide further disorientation. Amidon sounds like he’s trying his best to maintain calm while surrounded by these ghostly figures; it would be a lot more interesting for everyone if he put up a bit of a fight.

Plants and Animals - Parc Avenue (Secret City)

"It takes a good friend to say you've got your head up your ass," sings guitarist/singer Warren Spicer. Looking at the freaky friends they've assembled for the album's cover shoot—not unlike Devendra Banhart's Cripple Crow—Spicer and his colleagues (drummer Matthew Woodley and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Basque) were likely egged on to push the boundaries of their freaky folk rock wherever their wandering muse desires. That means grabbing any instrument they can wrap their fingers around, inviting rousing brass sections and swirling strings along for the ride, and navigating carefully between African grooves, Harvest backbeats and jam band territory. By the time the album is halfway done, it's not surprisingly at all when they stop a song cold with a piano coda featuring a seven-year-old boy singing in French, or a choral round accompanied by medieval flutes. For a trio who had never played outside of Montreal for the first six years of its existence, Plants and Animals sound like they're ready to stop noodling around and take on the world. It begins on a bombastic note, with a huge choir leaping out of the speakers a mere ten bars into the opening track; soon enough, Spicer starts straining and distorting his high notes much in the same way Win Butler does on Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." (Butler's bandmate Sarah Neufeld provides string arrangements here.) Yet though Parc Avenue is undeniably epic and was two years in the making, Plants and Animals take a refreshingly casual approach to the expansive scope of their sound, stuffing their songs with structural shifts rather than browbeating us with grandiose statements. Lyrically, however, Spicer could stand to make a statement or two—much of his lightweight, rambling narratives don't survive the spontaneity of the moment he scribbled them down. It's a tad shocking, considering the meticulous attention paid to detail elsewhere on the album; it's also the only real indicator that P&A are still emerging from their incubatory period, evolving slowly from the trippy, abstract instrumental band they originated as. As intriguing as it is, Parc Avenue is obviously only a small indication of what this band can do.

Vetiver - Thing of the Past (Gnomonsong)

Releasing a covers album only three albums deep into your discography can be a dicey notion. Yet Vetiver doesn’t have much to lose; they’re a band known more for its associations with others than their own material, having backed up Devendra Banhart, Vashti Bunyan and Gary Louris in recent years (or in the case of Louris’s latest solo tour, recent months). Here, they further confirm their rep as record collector geeks by opening the album with Canadian psych-folk obscurity Elyse Weinberg (ed. note: she's emerging from the woods for this year’s Pop Montreal!), and then proceeding to dip deep into the songbooks of her fellow 60s songwriters such as Garland Jeffreys, Norman Greenbaum and Townes Van Zandt, inviting folkie fogies like Bunyan and Michael Hurley to join them. It’s saying a lot that the most recognizable song here is “The Swimming Song” (written by Loudon Wainwright III for Kate and Anna McGarrigle), and it’s this curatorial taste of the obscure that makes Thing of the Past more than just a romp through campfire favourites you’ve heard a thousand times before. It’s all pleasant enough, especially when producer Thom Monahan bathes everything in analogue tape so that even your MP3 player manages to sounds as warm and fuzzy as those old vinyl records. As tasteful as it all is, one still wonders what it is that Vetiver themselves are bringing to this material other than reverence. Not that it matters when they close things out with Bobby Charles’ “I Must Be In a Good Place Now,” a song that—unlike some of this album’s more inconsequential material—deserves the kind of loving resurrection it receives here.

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