Several of my favorites have new albums out:
- Leading the pack, the Mountain Goats’ latest, Get Lonely, lives up to its title via a series of hushed, introspective tracks that create a landscape of desolation. Through headphones, these songs — many delivered in a fragile falsetto that might be echoing over a Martian moraine — feel almost unbearably intimate. This album has none of the rollicking word-party spirit that propelled its triptych of predecessors — Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree — and as such it is far less immediately winning. (For a hit of the more uptempo Goats spirit, there’s “Babylon Springs,” a superb five-song EP the Goats released last winter.) But it’s powerful and memorable. John Darnielle (whose writing and singing leads the band of two) plainly had no interest in repeating any kind of formula, so instead of trying to build on the considerable success of Sunset Tree, he’s decided to take us down a dark road in winter. It’s a bleakly moving trip.
At an in-store show last week at Amoeba in the Haight, down the street from my old Cole Valley home, Darnielle talked about his difficulties writing this new batch of songs, which started out as a song-cycle about monsters before evolving inward. He elaborates in this L.A. Times piece about the making of the new album:
There had been something in the personal responses of audiences and correspondents that made a total return to older styles seem dishonest. These songs did not feel dishonest. They came from some sad and frightened place, and felt like natural heirs to their predecessors…
Writing with these priorities in mind is a new thing for me because I used to put all my focus on just telling a good story and trust any issues of tone to resolve themselves. New priorities replacing old ones is the constant process of writing for me; maybe this time next year I’ll want to write about imaginary kingdoms under the Earth instead of flesh-and-blood people walking desperately across its surface.
- Then there is the new disc from The Long Winters, Putting the Days to Bed — a more consistently, rockingly upbeat set of songs than its wonderfully motley predecessor, When I Pretend to Fall. Warmly, tunefully distorted guitar clothes the bones of John Roderick’s opaquely bitter songs; this time out, though, the pop spring overpowers the resentment, and even when he’s snarling out the “Positively Fourth Street”-esque put-downs of “Rich Wife,” he sounds like he’s having a blast:
now tell me is your high horse
getting a little hard to ride?
And your little bit on the side
getting harder to find?
When you get restless at night
but it’s too late to start
and there’s nothing left to eat in this house
but your heart
I’m thoroughly enjoying Putting the Days to Bed, even though it’s less musically adventurous than both When I Pretend and the wonderful Ultimatum EP.
- The prolific Frank Black is back with more Nashville recordings. I wasn’t in love with Black’s first Nashville batch, last year’s Honeycomb; it’s not that I don’t like Black turning to country — it’s just that Honeycomb sounded a bit listless, and Black’s singing was strangely restrained, in some places entirely numbed-out. On the new double-CD, Fast Man/Raider Man, Black sounds more engaged again, and the whole set has more crackle. (Rolling Stone talks to Black here.) It’s a lot of music, and I can’t say I’ve yet found any of it as immediately great as the long run of Frank Black and the Catholics albums. But I’ll give it time.
- Meanwhile, out here on the Internets, there’s a flood of amateur virtuosity. If you haven’t already read Virginia Heffernan’s superb New York Times piece tracking down the nimble-fingered guitarist behind that amazing Pachelbel-Canon-goes-electric Youtube video, do so now.
This process of influence, imitation and inspiration may bedevil the those who despair at the future of copyright but is heartening to connoisseurs of classical music. Peter Robles, a composer who also manages classical musicians, points out that the process of online dissemination — players watching one another’s videos, recording their own — multiplies the channels by which musical innovation has always circulated. Baroque music, after all, was meant to be performed and enjoyed in private rooms, at close range, where others could observe the musicians’ technique. “That’s how people learned how to play Bach,” Mr. Robles said. “The music wasn’t written down. You just picked it up from other musicians.”
…That educational imperative is a big part of the “Canon Rock” phenomenon. When guitarists upload their renditions, they often ask that viewers be blunt: What are they doing wrong? How can they improve? When I asked Mr. Lim the reason he didn’t show his face on his video, he wrote, “Main purpose of my recording is to hear the other’s suggestions about my playing.” He added, “I think play is more significant than appearance. Therefore I want the others to focus on my fingering and sound. Furthermore I know I’m not that handsome.”