I can't let a new album by Gomez pass without mention. Like a lot of other people, I loved the debut, "Bring It On," but I thought their third record, "In Our Gun," was even better. So I had high hopes for their latest, "Split the Difference," particularly when I heard that Tchad Blake had signed on as producer. The pairing seemed especially appropriate because Blake had been a member of the sadly disbanded Latin Playboys, one of the great unsung bands of the '90s, and a clear influence on Gomez's cornucopia-of-sounds hi-fi production, lo-fi soul blues-rock.
But, although I've been listening to it a fair amount recently, it's an oddly unexceptional album, unfailingly proficient and consistently uninspired. Blake (who, with Mitchell Froom, was half of the greatest non-hip-hop production team of the recent past) remains the best engineer in the business, but as a producer he doesn't seem to have much to offer here. The Junior Kimbrough cover, "Meet Me in the City," and "There It Was" are both worth hearing, but I don't feel quite wholehearted enough about them to include them in this column.
As I write this, I'm watching "Video Clash," the MTV show where viewers vote to decide which video will play next. My momentary pleasure at seeing Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" disappeared when it seemed that horrid Jessica Simpson's horrid cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" was going to beat out Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl." But Beyoncé made a last-minute comeback, restoring my wellness -- although her jerks and jiggles, which I'm sure are meant to look like shivers of unbridled sexual energy, look more absurd and epileptic every time I watch this video. My wellness was then brutally destroyed by Britney's insipid, meandering "Everytime." How she could follow up the brilliance of "Toxic" with bilge like this is beyond me. Things looked up briefly a few minutes ago with Twista's "Overnight Celebrity," but then devolved completely, with the back-to-back awfulness of Ashlee Simpson and Hoobastank.
The bleeding continued over on MTV2, where I found a string of videos (Linkin Park, New Found Glory, Hoobastank again) that work much better with the sound turned off. Just when I was about to give up and flip to the oasis of kitsch that is VH1 Classic, I hit a sweet spot, a nifty hat trick of Modest Mouse, Kanye West and, again, Franz Ferdinand, ending my evening of video watching where it began -- and making me realize what an immense gulf there is between the few good videos in rotation on MTV and the crappy majority.
"Static on the Radio," Jim White, from "Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See"
Jim White is often described as a "Southern gothic" songwriter. The designation is accurate enough, but still somewhat misleading -- to me, "Southern gothic" has come to suggest a set of clichés established long ago in describing Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, et al., and there's something so deeply, effortlessly, authentically strange about White that the term doesn't do him justice. His poetic, fully realized aesthetic, a blend of religious imagery, metaphysics, rural folksiness and surrealist humor, has resulted in many great songs but, so far, no consistently great albums. His new "Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See," despite the presence of producer Joe Henry and guest appearances by great artists like Bill Frisell and Marc Anthony Thompson (Chocolate Genius), is a disappointment: White's writing has a tendency to unfold a little aimlessly, and by the second listen, I was already losing interest in most of the songs, which share a certain toothlessness. But the first track, "Static on the Radio," is near perfect. The most acute pleasure of this song is the interplay between White's voice-inside-your-head whisper and Aimee Mann's voice, which is like no other -- cold and calculating, with a too perfectly controlled vibrato but, paradoxically, extraordinarily intimate and, for me, comforting. (iTunes)
"Shake That Shit" Shawnna, featuring Ludacris, single
It's been a while since we've heard anything from hit-maker supreme Timbaland -- the producer-as-auteur/supergenius talk has been focusing on Kanye -- but last week saw the release of two new Timbaland-produced singles: Brandy's "Turn It Up" and Shawnna's "Shake That Shit." "Turn It Up" doesn't work particularly well - -it's built around a bass line hummed by a male voice, which sounds very cool at the opening of the song, but becomes a muddy distraction once Brandy starts singing. But "Shake That Shit" is a classic, brilliant Timbaland track. All on one chord, as usual, it centers on a four-note riff played on a resonant, nylon-string guitar with juicy, flamenco-style vibrato. The sound is simultaneously rich and (it's a nylon-string guitar, after all) a little wimpy, and it plays off beautifully against Timbaland's thumping, sub-bass heavy style. Up-and-coming female emcee Shawnna and Ludacris rap in a swaggering, rhythmically repetitive style, their voices merging with the beat in a hypnotic, bumping minimalism. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Harmonics," Arnold Dreyblatt and the Orchestra of Excited Strings, Live in Berlin, 1986
Speaking of minimalism, I was thrilled to discover that the composer Arnold Dreyblatt maintains a Web page with an extensive selection of free MP3s available for download. Dreyblatt is a fascinating musician, but he is not particularly well-known, even though he composes "minimalist" music, which remains a hot ticket in the classical music world. Philip Glass and Steve Reich are the most widely recognized living composers (despite Glass' increasingly snooze-inducing, color-by-numbers output), and Terry Riley and LaMonte Young (Dreyblatt's one-time teacher) maintain immense cultish fame, even though neither of them has done much of interest in decades. As a composer, Dreyblatt displays little interest in form, focusing almost entirely on sound, specifically overtones. He performs on a bass strung with unwound steel wire, beating the strings with his bow to get a percussive sound, ringing with overtones. His Orchestra of Excited Strings includes a number of other similarly beaten string instruments and some occasionally very raucous percussion. The slowly unfolding, sonically pristine "Harmonics" is a perfect introduction to his music. If you like what you hear, there's a lot more here to choose from, including the beautiful drone piece, "High Life," which sounds like a less abrasive version of Tony Conrad's music. There are also some tracks with clarinetist Andy Statman soloing, a few more with the astonishing extended-technique vocalist Shelley Hirsch, and "Nodal Excitation," with Dreyblatt performing solo on the bass. Free Download: Harmonics
"Every Fiber," namelessnumberheadman, from "Your Voice Repeating"
This song, while clocking in at under four minutes, contains a number of sounds and styles, but they're all navigated so smoothly that it wasn't until I'd listened to it three or four times that I noticed it was entirely through-composed -- no chorus, no recurring verse structure. Jason Lewis, a member of the Kansas City trio, told me that they were going for "a big, blissed-out buzzing and Midwesternly nostalgic, summertime feeling" on this song, and they got it perfectly. He mentioned Yo La Tengo and the Flaming Lips as influences, and if you add in Grandaddy, you'll have a pretty good idea of where namelessnumberheadman is coming from. All four bands share a taste for experimentation and sonic exploration but retain a core desire, and ability, to write great pop songs. The sounds section of the band's Web page has six other free downloads available. All are worth hearing, but I'm partial to "I Know How You Got Old" and "Locked in the Station." Free Download: Every Fiber
"The End Lights," Bitter Bitter Weeks, from "Revenge"
There is a perpetual glut of acoustic-guitar-strumming singer-songwriters, and each time it seems as though it might become an unacceptably uncool or unbearably clichéd identity, someone comes along to reinvigorate it (recently, the brilliance of Devendra Banhart and the hipster enclave that is the anti-folk community). I fondly dream of a time when the instrument of choice for aspiring singer-songwriters and open-mic junkies might be the kazoo, or perhaps the button accordion, but have sadly seen no significant developments in that direction. Sometimes, though, you come across particularly colorful fish in this stultifying sea of sameness, singer-songwriters who stand out either because, like Banhart, they are so unmistakably different from all the rest or, more frequently, because they are not so much different as perceptibly better. I've only heard two songs by Brian McTear, aka Bitter Bitter Weeks, but if they are representative of his work, he's a perfect example of the second category. He's not the guy who gets up at the open-mic and blows your mind, showing you new and previously unimagined possibilities for the singer-songwriter form (does that guy even exist?). He's the guy who gets up at the open-mic and sounds more or less like all the people who played before him, just with the not insignificant difference that he's actually pleasant to listen to. Free Download: The End Lights