Everything old is new again

Spending the day with Beethoven and why Mystikal really is like James Brown. Plus: Songs from the Silent League, Devendra Banhart, Mocean Worker, and Call and Response.

Thomas Bartlett
April 15, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

The results of my informal Salon music poll, announced in this column last week, provoked some strong reactions -- in fact, I got nearly as much mail in response to the results as I did for the poll itself.

The messages generally fell into three categories. The first, and largest, was of readers assuring me that they don't just listen to indie rock, many even saying that they actively dislike it, and urging me not to focus exclusively on indie rock songs in this column. (Don't worry, I have no intention of doing that.) The second was of people who had taken part in last week's poll and wished they had included some non-indie entries on their list ("I was sort of thinking along the lines of what other people would think was cool before ... but now I feel ashamed, like I was ignoring old, ugly friends in favor of flashy new stuff").


The smallest, and most entertaining, group of responses came from defiant indie fans, offended by my suggestion that there is some worthwhile music on hit radio. Highlights included the syntactically bizarre "You may be, but I'm not an ass. Remember: We don't want no corporate shite. I wouldn't be caught dead listening to 'hit radio,' and neither would my friends and associates," and the deliciously snobby "It's exceedingly rare for me to find a critic in any form of general-audience publication who has more in-depth knowledge than I do," which was apparently supposed to make me feel better about being so ignorant and unadventurous a critic.

A correction from last week's column: I suggested that Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith of Tears for Fears had reunited to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World." Several readers pointed out to me that the reunion has been in the works for a year, long before Jules' version of "Mad World" made such an unexpected splash on the British charts.


"Breathe," the Silent League, from "The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused"
"The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused" is the best album title I've heard in a while, made even better by the gentle irony that the Silent League makes beautifully arranged, orchestral pop. The music is actually not far removed from Mercury Rev, who frontman Justin Russo used to play with. Russo has a high, almost anemic voice, reminiscent of the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, and as with the Lips, there's a fascinating juxtaposition between the thin singing and the band's lush, rich sound. But the Silent League has none of the goofiness that is both the key to the Flaming Lips' charm and the frequent source of its downfall. Russo has a placid, contented personality as a songwriter, and he writes rambling, semi-coherent lyrics that, at their best, approach the clipped, cryptic genius of Lambchop's Kurt Wagner. The occasionally unfocused songwriting could get a little boring if Russo didn't have such a talent for memorable melodies, supported by the gorgeous lines that guitarist Shannon Fields weaves around them. I had a hard time choosing just one song from this record, because so many of them are so good. I've settled on "Breathe" mostly because it's available as a free download, but if you like it, head to Audio Lunchbox, a digital music store that's well worth signing up with, and grab the whole album. You won't be disappointed. Free Download: "Breathe"

"Pussy Pop," Mystikal, single
Dirty South rapper Mystikal is compared to James Brown more often than he is to other rappers, and for good reason. Mystikal doesn't so much rap as he does grunt, growl and holler, with often just a few lines repeated over and over in each song. And like Brown, he can completely dominate a track with an astonishing economy of means -- some ferocious, repetitive chants and the occasional perfectly timed shout. "Pussy Pop," the first single from his upcoming album "Prince of the South," shows Mystikal in good form. And I can't get over how cool that harmonically off-the-wall flute sample is. (iTunes, RealPlayer, Musicmatch)


"Body Breaks," Devendra Banhart, from "Rejoicing in the Hands"
Devendra Banhart is only 21, and "Rejoicing in the Hands" is only his second album, but he's already a legend, and those who have been exposed to his music tend to speak of him with reverence and awe. It probably helps that he looks uncannily like the conventional image of Jesus, but there's more to it than that. He has most often been compared to Syd Barrett, but I think this is less due to the way his music sounds than to the otherworldly, brilliant but unstable aura he projects as a performer. Banhart's music, most of it solo guitar and voice, isn't musically groundbreaking, but emotionally, it's unfamiliar terrain. He has a thing for obscure British folk musicians like Linda Perhacs and Vashti Banyan (who sings on one track on this album), and his angular guitar style recalls the great Burt Jansch. But vocally, he's his own man. Before I ever heard his music, I'd heard descriptions of his warbly voice and trembling vibrato and was reasonably sure I wouldn't like it -- few things turn me off as quickly as excessive vibrato. But the moment I heard him sing, I was sold. The vibrato is pretty intense, but it's also entirely natural and unforced, and perfectly controlled. Like Jeff Buckley, Banhart, without a trace of self-consciousness, does things with his voice that would sound absurd attempted by anyone else, and he makes them work by virtue of unshakable artistic conviction. "Rejoicing in the Hands" won't be released until late April, and as a teaser, Young God Records has put up "Body Breaks" on its Web site. It's one of the better songs on the album, but the magic of Banhart's music works cumulatively, and the whole thing is well worth owning. Free Download: "Body Breaks"


"Right Now," Mocean Worker, from "Enter the Mowo!"
There's a growing body of work combining jazz and electronica, and the best record the fledgling genre had produced, until now, was probably St. Germain's "Tourist." Adam Dorn, aka the Mocean Worker, has bested St. Germain with his new album, "Enter the Mowo!" He's got a great list of guest soloists, both living and dead, including Nina Simone, Bill Frisell, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, David Newman and, on a track that sounds directly inspired by Lamb, Shivaree's excellent vocalist, Ambrosia Parsley. But "Right Now," featuring trumpeter Steve Bernstein, of the popular New York avant-jazz quartet the Sex Mob, is my favorite (and according to his Web page, Dorn's as well). Bernstein has a big, flamboyant trumpet sound, with a retro, big-band feel, and Dorn has him play over a simple 12-bar blues, based around a nice, fat sampled acoustic bass that has the hiss and ambience of an old live jazz record. (iTunes, RealPlayer, Musicmatch)

"Trapped Under Ice," Call and Response, from "Winds Take No Shape"
A sweet indie-pop (emphasis on the "pop") song from California's Call and Response. The band has some of the glossy, bubbly sound of Stereolab, but with none of the sonic originality -- perhaps a better comparison is to the Cardigans. This song has a beautiful melody, particularly that first rising phrase with the lovely turn at the top. I also like the string arrangement, especially the scattered pizzicato section, and the refrigerator poetry lyrics ("Accidental picture promised lightning/ Bending darkened pieces/ Into something warm"). Free Download: "Trapped Under Ice"


In case these five songs aren't enough to keep you busy, here's a little something extra:

A friend pointed me to "9 Beet Stretch," a project by Norwegian conceptual artist Leif Inge, who has taken Beethoven's 9th Symphony and digitally elongated it to last 24 hours, without changing the pitch. I don't know how I haven't heard about this before (the piece has been around since 2002, and looking around on the Web, I see that it's already been covered by the New York Times, the Village Voice, and NPR), but now that I've listened to some of it, I'm hooked.

It's often hard to believe that you're listening to such a familiar piece: Adjacent notes bleed painfully into one another, unexpected dissonances appear, unfamiliar timbres abound. But listening to the symphony turned into glacial walls of sound isn't just interesting; it's also very moving. Inge no doubt chose the 9th Symphony for its iconic status, but I think that almost any symphonic work would have done as well, because listening to this piece is a very purely sonic, not compositional, experience. This is a chance to reacquaint yourself with the awesome sonic powers and possibilities of the symphony orchestra, whether you've become inured to them through too much lite classical radio, or think, like Tom Waits, that no symphonic composition could ever live up to the thrill of hearing an orchestra tuning up. "9 Beet Stretch" is available for free download, broken up into approximately 80-minute chunks, here.

Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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