It's a hit!

The "song of the year" from a "redheaded love object"? Plus: Nonsensical piano doodles from John Cale and climactic music from a Japanese instrumental rock band -- free!

By Thomas Bartlett

Published September 8, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

After a busy few weeks of rehearsing and searching for protest songs, my pile of CDs to listen to has grown to a truly ridiculous size. In that pile is Björk's "Medulla," which was sent to me late, and which I've still only had time to give a cursory listen. I care too much about Björk to say anything substantial about the record now, except that so far I'm mildly disappointed in it, but I'll certainly write about it here soon.

There are a lot of exciting new records coming out between now and the end of the calendar year, as the release schedule heats up for holiday shopping. Billboard ran an article Monday about the commercial heavy-hitters (Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Good Charlotte, Destiny's Child, Ludacris, Alan Jackson, U2 and more) who have releases planned in the next few months. Plenty to look forward to there (and also plenty not to look forward to ... I like to remember Chris Rock at last year's Video Music Awards saying, "Good Charlotte? More like a mediocre Green Day"), but I'm a bit more excited about the upcoming records from Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Nas and Beck.

A lot has been written recently about Rilo Kiley's "More Adventurous," almost all of it positive, but nothing quite as enthusiastically, fawningly over-the-top as what came from the pen of the Village Voice's grouchy old Robert Christgau. Maybe Christgau's critical faculties are a little too easily blinded by the sight of a young, beautiful girl. Not that Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis doesn't deserve praise, but you have to wonder when he says of her record "there won't be a better song album this year," calls one of her songs "song of the year," and calls her a "redheaded love object" and a "wet dream for indie boys." (Sorry to say, I have it on good authority that she's already seeing someone.)

The song Christgau is so excited about is "It's a Hit," which would have fit nicely into last week's protest song column (it compares Bush to a chimpanzee). I actually think it's one of the weaker songs on the record (a record I'm still on the fence about; the lyrics often seem clumsy, but the melodies just keep sticking in my head), but hey, it's free.

"Zen," John Cale, from "HoboSapiens"
John Cale's brilliance as a producer and as a member of the Velvet Underground is indisputable, but what I've heard of his solo work in the past left me cold. For someone who's been involved in so many exciting musical projects (including the Dream Syndicate, with La Monte Young and Tony Conrad), his own rock albums are oddly generic and studiously boring -- they often sound like blind attempts at accessibility by someone with no pop sense whatsoever. The melodies are mushy and meandering, the hooks toothless. "Zen," the opening track from "HoboSapiens" (released last year on EMI, and rereleased Tuesday by OrMusic), doesn't sidestep Cale's tendency to meander, but instead, and to great effect, embraces it. The melody is completely shapeless, and there's nothing even trying to be a hook here, so you can focus on the two things that matter: the sample-heavy, harmonically ambiguous backdrop (with some nice nonsense piano doodles), and Cale's poetic lyrics: "It's midnight/ And our silver-tongued obsessions come at us out of the dark/ Scrambling to be recognized before tearing themselves apart." Free download: "Zen"

"Halcyon (Beautiful Days)," Mono, from "Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined"
Mono is a Japanese instrumental rock band, in the sweeping, unrelentingly solemn mode of Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor (there's an exclamation point in there somewhere, but I've given up keeping track of where it goes). This music is all about swells and fades, the imperceptibly building, gathering storm of a crescendo, and the inevitable deafening climax -- and I can attest that in live performance, this band does work up to frighteningly loud volumes. On record, though, the volume is more "Oh, the grandeur!" and less "Ouch, my head hurts." Free download: "Halcyon (Beautiful Days)"

"What Do We Call Love?" Sainte Chapelle, from "Soon to Fail"
Sainte Chapelle is a Chicago-based duo made up of guitarist/vocalist Dan Schneider and drummer Gary Pyskacek. They play simple, repetitive, folky music that's modestly ambitious but nicely effective at setting a wistful, pastel-shaded mood. The blues-derived but not bluesy fingerpicking of Nick Drake is the most obvious influence on Schneider's guitar playing, which dominates Sainte Chapelle's sound. "What Do We Call Love?" is from their upcoming "Soon to Fail," as is the lovely instrumental "In Search of Skip," also available for free download. Free download: "What Do We Call Love?"

"Metro Pictures," the Mendoza Line, from "Fortune"
That this band takes a certain amount of pride in being amateurish is evident from its name, a tribute to baseball player Mario Mendoza, whose lifetime batting average is considered the absolute lowest acceptable in major league play. Mendoza Line concerts are messy, drunken and irresistible -- but, not surprisingly, the sort of reckless party atmosphere they create is difficult to capture on record. And without that atmosphere, it becomes uncomfortably clear that most of their songs are actually not particularly good. This has never been more evident than on their latest, and most boring, release, "Fortune." But like the Replacements, the Mendoza Line's most obvious precedent in the ethos of amateurishness, they occasionally pull out an achingly beautiful, moving song. Most of their gems are the work of Tim Bracy, one of the band's three singer-songwriters. Bracy's singing style is an impressively accurate impression of Bob Dylan circa 1966, and his writing pretty much follows suit. While "Metro Pictures" is not among his most cogent, or even intelligible, songs (not as good as 2002's "Damn Good Disguise," and certainly not as good as "The Queen of England," one of the most emotionally devastating songs I know, and available from iTunes), it's well worth a listen. Free download: "Metro Pictures"

"Will Adam," Sam Amidon, from "Home Alone Inside My Head"
(Full disclosure: Sam Amidon is my best friend, so you could say that I'm not an unbiased judge of his work.) Sam almost always has a cheap old tape recorder with him, which he uses to record musical ideas and spontaneous improvisations when they come to him. Out of many hours of tape recorded last spring, he's edited together a record called "Home Alone Inside My Head," which is, he says, "about improvisation, old-time music, field recordings and 'outsider' music." That's a fair description of the elements in play here, but all four of them are refracted through Sam's authentically, effortlessly strange aesthetic. On "Will Adams," he takes an old-time American fiddle tune, starts by playing it fairly straight and then seamlessly transforms it into a focused, tonally rich study in minimalism. Another highlight is "TuvaCobainBanjoSong." The title tells you everything you need to know: Sam, while playing the banjo, tries to replicate the timbre of Kurt Cobain's voice and then to push it into the multitone territory of a Tuvan throat singer. (Note that Sam meant for the record to be listened to in its entirety, and the effect of the whole, an intimate audio diary that also happens to be a coherent and fully realized musical statement, is far greater than the sum of its parts. The entirety of "Home Alone Inside My Head" can be downloaded here.) Free download: "Will Adam"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.

Thomas Bartlett

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

MORE FROM Thomas Bartlett

Related Topics ------------------------------------------