More heroes than zeros

Carrying on the Beatles' legacy of eclecticism and aesthetic discontinuity. Plus: A Los Lobos album with only one good track on it? It's a sad day indeed.

By Thomas Bartlett

Published May 5, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In last week's column I featured Lansing-Dreiden's "Glass Corridor," and apparently so many of you downloaded it that their Web site was overloaded and stopped working. The site is back up, so if you missed the song last week, you can download it now.

"It's Only Time," the Magnetic Fields, from "i"
I've already written about "It's Only Time" in my profile of Stephin Merritt, but I like it so much that I wanted to include it here as well. It's my favorite song he's ever written, and, more important, it's his favorite song he's ever written. For those who usually find Merritt's music heartless, this is him at his most emotional and most vulnerable, even allowing his voice to crack (intentionally, he told me). More from "i": If you want a dose of Merritt at his wittiest, "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" is great, and has one of those cleverly interlocking, clockwork-like arrangements he's so good at. "I Don't Believe You," "I Don't Really Love You Anymore" and "I Looked All Over Town" are also worth downloading, but otherwise "i" is sadly lackluster, and even boring. No matter: "It's Only Time" is good enough to redeem years of mediocrity -- and it only needs to make up for half a record of it. (RealPlayer)

"Lion Thief," Beta Band, from "Heroes to Zeros"
The Beatles were good in many different ways, but what truly set them apart, for me, was that they were able to take eclecticism, that artistic pestilence, and make it work. Plenty of bands have mined other elements of the Beatles' genius -- the harmonies, the sonic innovations -- and come up with gold. But the Beta Band is one of the few groups I can think of who have managed to follow the Beatles' legacy of eclecticism and aesthetic discontinuity, and make good music out of it. "Heroes to Zeros" is by far the band's best record yet. It's all over the place stylistically, a hyperactive pastiche of the last 50 years of popular music. It works because the band has such a sure hand with arrangements: The album is overloaded with exciting and fascinating sounds, but it's far from an illogical jumble. Instead, each new sound, whether it's a Stevie Wonder clavinet, a George Harrison guitar stab or a plinky Björk harp sound, is held back until exactly the right moment, so that each track unfolds as a series of welcome surprises. The songs are so consistently good that I had a hard time choosing one, but I eventually settled on "Lion Thief" as the one that stands best on its own. But "Heroes to Zeros" is worth hearing from start to finish. (RealPlayer)

"Faultered Ego," On!Air!Library!, from "On!Air!Library!"
On!Air!Library! like to talk about how they don't really fit in with the current New York rock scene, but I think they're being disingenuous. There's a group of young bands, Calla, Asobi Seksu, TV on the Radio, and Interpol among them, who are exploring similar territory. It doesn't much matter where the common thread comes from (My Bloody Valentine? Joy Division? Cocteau Twins? Velvet Underground?), but these bands share a love of dark, droney, ambient noise that seems to be the new sound of NYC rock. Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino appears on this track, from On!Air!Library!'s recent self-titled full-length debut, providing a crisp, stuttering beat that plays nicely against the dark morass of guitars and keyboards. It's that guitar sound that I really love, though, so full of distorted overtones that you can hear each note breaking into glittering shards of sound. Free Download: "Faultered Ego"

"Rita," Los Lobos, from "The Ride"
It's a sad day when I can find only one track worth recommending off of a Los Lobos album. But that day has come. Beneath their obvious brilliance as one of the great rock bands ever assembled, Los Lobos have always hidden the potential to sound like a run-of-the-mill bar band. And on "The Ride," they live that potential to its fullest, but not without a little help from their friends. Of course, they have impeccable taste in friends: The guest vocalists on this album include Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Cafe Tacuba, Ruben Blades and Mavis Staples. But albums stuffed with guest vocalists, no matter how great those vocalists may be, are rarely a good idea, and it's particularly hard to stomach when Los Lobos have an in-house singer as brilliant as David Hidalgo. Luckily, Hidalgo gets a chance to take center stage on "Rita," and he turns in the album's only worthwhile track. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Demons," n.Lannon, from "Chemical Friends"
N.Lannon is the current pseudonym of Nyles Lannon, the guitarist for the band Film School, who has also released electronic music under the name n.ln. "Demons" is from his upcoming "Chemical Friends," to be released by Badman Records in June. I haven't heard the rest of the album, but to judge by this track, it's one to look forward to. This is lovely lap-pop, but with none of the antiseptic coldness that so often comes with the genre. That's partly because of Lannon's close-miked, whisper-in-your-ear singing, but it's mostly because the densely layered sounds are all a bit dirty or distorted -- and distortion may be, in the end, what makes sounds human. If you're interested in his electronic work as n.ln, try "I Never Heard," also available for free download. Free Download: "Demons"

Thomas Bartlett

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

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