Steve Wilson. On music.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tommy Stinson - One Man Mutiny (Done to Death Music)

A working musician since the age of thirteen, Tommy Stinson grew up in rock ‘n’ roll. Incredibly, at least for those of us who remember him as the irreverent punk who played bass in the Replacements, Stinson is now a forty-five year old man.

And still very much a working musician. Having watched his brother Bob (Replacements guitarist) and his band self-destruct prepared Stinson for almost anything. How else to explain his having been employed by Axl Rose since 1998 in whatever Axl considers Guns ‘n Roses.

Best known as a sideman, Stinson has a long history as bandleader and solo performer. Between 1992 and 1994 he helmed an outfit called Bash and Pop, whose lone recording Friday Night is Killing Me was a sweet surprise to many ‘Mats fans who figured Paul Westerberg was the only real songwriting talent in the Replacements. Friday was full of rough, but right performances in a loose Faces-Stones idiom and songs sturdy and impassioned enough to stand up to their archetypal moorings.

Stinson’s next outfit Perfect wasn’t. They somehow lacked the immediacy of Friday Night at its best. Honestly, I missed his first truly solo release, Village Gorilla Head, in 2004. Given that I work in the industry and scarcely knew of the album tells you plenty about its lack of distribution and publicity.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

If Mike Nichols were making The Graduate in 2011, he might well ask Fountains of Wayne to provide music. Listen to “The Summer Place” with its Updikean compendium of the discontents of the highest tax bracket, the opening track on the band’s fifth album Sky Full of Holes. “The Summer Place” features a protagonist who waxes nostalgic for her days as a teenage shoplifter while downing large quantities of ‘shrooms to stave off the tedium of life at forty. Briskly paced, “Summer” even suggest Nichol’s original Greek chorus Simon and Garfunkel with its “Hazy Shade of Winter” syncopated urgency.

For fifteen years, over the course of five albums, Fountains of Wayne have delivered well-crafted pop-rock gems with clever, literate lyrics that don’t necessarily shortchange deeper emotions or social commentary. Their second album Utopia Parkway remains a personal favorite. If I’ve played “Troubled Times” or “Amity Gardens” once I’ve played them five hundred times. Welcome Interstate Managers was a worthy successor, yielding their one truly big hit song, “Stacey’s Mom.” Their last record, 2007’s Traffic and Weather, was a comparatively lackluster affair, but Sky Full of Holes finds them in peak pop form while aging gracefully with their protagonists as well as their audience.

Consequently, nothing on Sky Full of Holes has the adolescent nerd preoccupations of Utopia Parkway’s “Red Dragon Tattoo.” The dilemmas of Sky’s characters are more consequential than tattoo selection. In “Action Hero” Chris Collingwood spares the sarcasm button for an empathetic look at a family man living a Walter Mitty existence. But what at first sounds like a simple escapist fantasy is finally the tale of a father confronting real health issues, strapped to an EKG monitor at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Collingwood’s reedy alto, as always, betrays little in terms of obvious emotional range. But by letting his and Adam Schlesinger’s sharply observed lyrics speak for themselves, Collingwood’s discretion speaks volumes.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer (Merge Records)

First things first, I suppose. This comes from the “there’s a bathroom on the right” school of rock lyric mishearing. The first two times I listened to Eleanor Friedberger’s sparkling new record Last Summer I thought she was singing “you promised to take me to the end of the Seventh grade” on track two, “Inn of the Seventh Ray.” Hey, I know, all I had to do was look at the track listing, right? But by golly, before I came to enjoy the real thing (listening properly to the lyrics and all) I constructed a whole emotional world around Ms. Friedberger reconstructing her life, revisiting some pivotal moment in, well, Seventh grade.

Lord, I digress. Of course the real “Inn of the Seventh Ray” is even better. With quiet, urgent repetition Friedberger sings of a certain someone who promised to take her to the titular destination, but who couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t know the way. The mounting disappointment is musically palpable, and the song could be about anything from the obvious (a desired journey never taken) to a metaphor for romantic, erotic, or existential failure.