Friday, January 23, 2009

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 9)?

Neil Young - Tonight's the Night
I know a lot of people think this record is just a bummer, but I absolutely love it. And to counter the idea that all it is is a big downer, you've got two songs two in which Neil expresses his joy about Pegi as his young wife and mother of his kid - "Speakin' Out" and "New Mama" - the latter ending on the words "I'm livin' in a dream land." And the songs that do explore darker, grimmer material - and they are many, lest you think I'm missing the point - are countered and buoyed by these, by the joyous energy of "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" that explodes right on the heels of the melancholy "Borrowed Tune," by the overall framework in which he sings a lament for his friend Bruce Berry but still offers Danny Whitten - both Berry and Whitten dead of drug overdoses by the time of recording of this album - the lead vocal on "Downtown." He's tying together the life-affirming and the skirting-the-edge-of-death, he's offering the idea that having the world on a string don't mean a thing, but knowing that shouldn't prevent you from being living life, that in fact it should strengthen your resolve to see what's good out there. Every song is distinct, makes its mark; it rocks hard, it plays it mellow, it's got meaning, it's got life, death, joy and sadness - how much more can you possibly want from a rock and roll record?

Q-Tip - Amplified
I think this is better than any Tribe Called Quest album (excepting compilations). There, I said it and I mean it. Part of the reason is that the vocals come through loud and clear, never submerged in a smoky aura or underproduced to sink underneath the weight of the beats and samples; part of it is the unity of the minimal style that threads through the record. There’s a varied, yet non-stop rhythmic drive pushing every track, each of which is then decorated with an ornamental sound effect or simple melody to mark it in the mind. Just when you think it’s gone to all beats and voice, a shift in the rhythm or a melodic line will ring through and sweeten things enough to carry you to the next riff. And that’s not even bringing in Q-tip’s mellifluous tones. He really is one of the greats, and he doesn’t need a foil to provide counterpoint – he’s got enough variety on his own. Certainly the rhythmic drive is something this shares with some of the Tribe’s albums, but even on the vaunted Low End Theory I find myself waiting a few tracks for the next great song once one’s over, examining in too much detail, for example, the space between “Butter” and “Check the Rhime.” Here, even the lower-key tracks – like “Things U Do” – give me a charge, and true to the album format they’re propped up and strengthened by their surroundings. I love the Tribe when they’re great, but they were never this consistent for me, never made an album whose whole overshadowed the constituent components. Oh yeah, and “Vivrant Thing” stands for me as the greatest single he’s ever made. Ever.

Lou Reed - Mistrial
Unlike, say, Berlin, the failure here is one of execution, not of inspiration. Songs could be better, sharper, more exciting, but as ideas, as an album concept, it’s a continuation of what he’d been doing over the last three or four records – a way less successful attempt, yeah, but where this is a rough stone that may contain nothing but mica and iron pyrite, Berlin is just an over-polished turd. Whether its surface sheen makes it worth exposure to its rotten core is purely up to you. I’d probably rather dig into this one’s shallower lyrical and musical pleasures – again, a continuation of his adult ruminations on his real-world relationships, and a street level look at contemporary problems of New York and of the country – than the feel-bad vibes and overly ornate production of the earlier record. At least he’s gunning for something that can be construed as a positive, rather than a heavy dose of second-hand pessimism. In the same way that The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts explore the tail end of his “dark” years, this is a counterpart to his explorations of a newer, positive and personal songwriting outlook on the world that starts in New Sensations (or really, in Growing Up in Public, though that one’s got its own problems, starting (and perhaps ending) with a band that's not in synch with him). Despite its bad rep amongst Lou fans, I don’t mind this at all, I dig what he’s striving for even if he falls short of the mark – there are at least three other records of his that leap to mind immediately as ones I would less like to hear. And though it’s out of print on a US available CD, it’s a safe bet that you can always find the vinyl used. And cheap, too.

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