Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project"

We've reached the last month of the year and I've been revisiting a lot of what I've been listening to over the past eleven months.  That includes the albums that I've been overlooking, and PJ Harvey's most recent is certainly one of them.

When this album was released, I found it somewhat offputting and quickly filed it away.  Musically, it was undoubtedly PJ Harvey at or near the peak of her powers.  Her voice remains uncannily potent even after twenty five years as a major recording artist, conveying rage, defiance, and empathy in equal parts, better than just about any other songwriter in music.  The album also contains her bluesiest work in two decades, with "The Wheel" as a standout that comes closer to recreating the feel of "To Bring You My Live" more than anything she's recorded since.  There are no shortage of anthemic choruses, and the rage against the dying of the light (and Walmart sized corporations) that is "The Community of Hope" ranks among her very best album openers.

However, I couldn't get past the notion that PJ Harvey is trying a bit too hard to make a statement, resorting to political tourism and acting as a vehicle for the ambitions of others, rather than writing about what she truly feels in her heart.  "Let England Shake" looked at war and imperialism through the eyes of First World War soldiers, which only could have come from the mind of an English soul attuned with the beauty and serenity of the countryside.  And even then, nobody else possessed the genius to see things from that angle. On "The Hope Six Demolition Project", she's parachuted into complex political landscapes, and as an outsider, she's well-meaning but impressionable.  Her reportage lacks the nuance of "Let England Shake" and even many of her third person, character-driven writing (e.g. most of "Is This Desire").

Community leaders in Washington were supposedly upset at her labeling their neighbourhoods as shitholes on "The Community of Hope".  Lines like these come off like they were fed to her by local guides with a personal or political agenda.  PJ Harvey rarely throws out lines to shock just for the sake of it, she's been above those kind of gimmicky quote-bait lyrics for her entire career.   It concludes with "they're gonna put a Wal-Mart here" which actually works to bring the song to a rousing conclusion, but is also as subtle as Wal-Mart itself.  Corporations are running America and trampling on the poor -- how unoriginal and exactly the kind of giftwrapped story that can be easily fed to foreigners looking to confirm their biases about America.  Look, I'm not saying that sentiment isn't correct, but PJ Harvey used to always find ways to look beyond the completely obvious, either to peer into the souls of her subjects deeper that her contemporaries would dare to, or to say the obvious in a decidedly non-obvious and unique way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

Days later, and it's still sinking in. We've become uncomfortably used to dealing with the deaths of A-list musicians this year.  But much like David Bowie's death, the clues were all there, left behind in Cohen's words and music, and we somehow didn't see it coming.  How can somebody leave behind such great art in the face of death, and maintain this type of poise and dignity until the very end?  Us ordinary folks may never understand it.  

Cohen's remarkable final act is now well known.  His former manager stole most of his life savings, and Cohen embarked on a massive, years long set of world tours to rebuild his fortune.  If he hadn't nearly been bankrupted, does he live out a quiet retirement, releasing the occasional studio album to mild acclaim by a fanbase and critical establishment that had more or less forgotten about him when he became a recluse in the mid 90's?  Instead of that alternate reality, he not only rebuilt his retirement fund but also his musical legacy.  Would the obituaries have placed him second to Bob Dylan among rock era lyricists (I have seen this written over the past week) if that tour hadn't happened?  Would he have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 without the newfound sympathy and interest in his music in the wake of the management scandal?  He'd been eligible for fifteen years and people weren't exactly up in arms about why he hadn't been elected.  The Leonard Cohen of 2005 hadn't released an album in over a decade, and had been widely assumed to have fallen off the deep end due to his years long stint in a Buddhist monastery.  

But you also have to wonder about the toll that years of touring took out of the body of a man in his late 70's.  He was meditating for hours per day in the monastery well into his 60's, so he was obviously of sound mind and body.  You still have to think that without his misfortunes, he stays at home all these years and is still with us.  He unknowingly traded that for a pile of riches he'll never get to enjoy and a "legacy".  Cohen never cultivated any kind of legacy and only people who lionize the 27 Club give a crap about legacies as they pertain to unforeseen death, but without that tour, the headlines probably read "'Hallelujah' composer dies" rather than the stuff you've been reading this past week.

Speaking of "Hallelujah", what happens if John Cale doesn't overhaul the song in 1991 and turn it into the now familiar piano led ballad?  The radio staple from the "I'm Your Fan" compilation was REM's version of "First We Take Manhattan".  This was "Out of Time" era REM, who were suddenly one of the biggest acts in music and were played on the radio across multiple formats.  Before "The Future", and before "Closing Time" inexplicably became a minor hit at the height of grunge and the years long Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey run of pop chart domination, Leonard Cohen was a relic with a covers album, not too different from the "Red Hot and Blue" covers album of Cole Porter songs that was released the previous year.  U2's "Night and Day" was the "hit" song from that album, because like REM on "I'm Your Fan", they were the biggest stars on an album filled mostly with cult acts.  There was no comeback for Cole Porter, who had been dead for decades, but at the same time there wasn't exactly a rush to cover more of his songs from that point on.  

In 1991, John Cale and Leonard Cohen were nearly the same artist, "legacy" wise.  Their styles are nothing alike, but in stature, they could be grouped with the likes of Patti Smith as the kind of artists major labels used to keep around to increase their cred among the weekend paper reading intelligentsia.  Other musicians would cite them as an influence, which also was considered important when building a roster of artists for your label.  Both were arguably far bigger in Europe than in North America.  A few years later, and Cale was arguably still ahead -- Cohen made "The Future", but Cale reformed the Velvet Underground and toured the world.  Could anyone have predicted how their careers would diverge from then on?  Cale has remained active for the past two decades, Cohen disappeared for years but eventually became a megastar anyway, who would have known?


Friday, November 11, 2016

Moderat, Autarkic, Noga Erez live at Hangar 11, Tel Aviv

Toronto music fans will remember the Warehouse (later the Kool Haus), which hosted countless international acts in spite of having the worst acoustics of any major music venue in the city.  I personally found the sound to be OK if you were down near the front, but at the back, sound was lost throughout the cavernous expanse of the venue, choked off by the many pillars spread around, vanishing into the high ceilings.  Hangar 11 is a similar venue for mid sized (~ 2000 persons) concerts and conventions, located on some prized real estate in the ultra cool Tel Aviv port, and "features" even worse sound that the Kool Haus ever had, at least as far as I can remember.

Noga Erez's version of "soulful" vocals over bruising electronic beats and live percussion was pleasant enough, although it felt like a million similar opening acts I've seen at other live shows.  Autarkic, however, was the perfect warm up act for this crowd.  He's obviously studied his LCD Soundsystem records well, memorizing every last ironic lyric delivered with pithy nonchalance, and every bumping intro building into electronic freakouts.  It was hipster techno extraordinaire, delivered to an impressive variety of vintage Tel Aviv freakos and hipsters whose ages spanned over four decades as far as I could tell.  Even I was starting to get won over by his set, although I'd never listen to this stuff at home.

I'd waited seven years to finally see Moderat live (although I've seen Modeselektor twice) and nothing about their show was disappointing. Unfortunately, I can only dream of how much better it could have been in a venue with decent sound, where guitar techs know how to do proper sound checks and the bass doesn't sound distorted nearly beyond recognition.  During songs that were lighter on the bass it wasn't too distracting, but "Intruder" (to name the most egregious example) was completely ruined by the wall of watery, distorted bass vibrations that blanketed the song.

Nonetheless, their nearly two hour set couldn't have been executed any better.  The visuals started out in minimal black and white, casting the band in stunning black silhouttes.  Colour started seeping into the occasional song, mainly in monochrome, before "No. 22" closed the main set in a blitz of kaleidoscopic colour.  A good half of their set was built around the subtle, R&B tinged downtempo techno of their third album.  But "Milk" is an exception in their catalog, a ten minute slow building clubland epic that destroyed when played live, as you'd expect.  Their more expansive, breakdown filled songs ("Running", "No. 22") were the highlights for me, even though I've come around on their new album since the start of the year.  If the end of the trilogy really represents the end for Moderat as a studio project, their album stands as the best advertisement possible for forward thinking pop artists looking to collaborate with electronic music producers.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Kate Bush Story (BBC documentary)

There are certain strains of pop music that I have come to appreciate a lot more than I once did.  The music stands apart as more time passes and nothing that sounds even remotely like it comes along.
These notions are repeatedly highlighted in this short BBC documentary about the career of Kate Bush (there is also a two hour version that I haven't yet seen).  It's hard to imagine something as strange and adventurous as "Wuthering Heights" or "Running Up That Hill" on the radio today.  Even after countless listens to "Wuthering Heights" over the years, the first appearance of the chorus always catches me by surprise.  Her vocal acrobatics and complete lack of melodic repetition during the first verse throws off one's sense of timing.  One expects four lines with convenient rhyming, and a line or two in the bridge to build to the chorus in an obvious way.  "Wuthering Heights" begins as a love/hate letter to an old flame without any clear structure and then boom, the chorus descends as if parachuted in from a completely different song. 

At that point in time, Bush seemed to take her cues from the unpredictability of 70's prog music.  "Running Up that Hill" takes a different approach, anchored by a consistent, predictable rhythm while the verses churn along before sliding gracefully into the chorus. 

This is the first time I had seen clips of Bush's 1979 tour, and I was surprised to see how much of a complete performer she was.  Merging pop with high performance art was particularly visionary stuff for 1979, especially for an artist who had never toured before and had barely even sung on stage outside of her brother's pub band.  And it was yet another reminder that the days of recording artists who can retire from the road to make "challenging" albums for major labels are long gone.

The documentary doesn't reveal anything about Bush that her fans wouldn't already know.  The point is more about featuring celebrity musicians (Elton John, Brett Anderson, Tricky) and their musings on Bush's music.  The most interesting comment for me was from Tricky, who focused on the "breathing my mother in" line from "Breathing" and attributed his entire career to that line.  That one line neatly summarizes how he'd internalized his feelings about his mother (who he never knew) and tried to express them, one suffocating song at a time.  Another interesting comment came from Steve Coogan, who quoted a line that Byron once said of Keats -- "Keats writes about what he imagines, I write about what I lived".  Bush is like Keats in this instance, writing character driven songs because she felt they were more interesting than anything in her life.  However, Bush would go on to write a number of personal songs too.  And then it struck me that PJ Harvey, most notably over the past ten years, is the closest we might get to a second Kate Bush.  Harvey excels at writing personal songs too, and when she gets bored of that, she also writes songs about historial/literary characters with dark political overtones with unconventional musical arrangements.