Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Plimsouls - Beach Town Confidential (Alive Records)

 Peter Case of the Plimsouls never cared much for the power-pop label. And while the Plimsouls were contemporaries with bands lumped into the punk category the band never self-identified as punk. Of course among their late Seventies/early Eighties peers in the Los Angeles scene there were bands as diverse as X, the Zeros, the Dils, the Germs, and the Alley Cats – all of whom were categorized as punk, only begging the question: what is punk anyway? And its corollary: who cares?

After a decade that spewed forth everything from prog-rock to Malibu singer-songwriters to disco, all the above were rock ‘n’ roll bands. Their shared commitment was to high-energy performance and direct, concise songs. And if energy and succinct songs were the criteria, few bands did it better than the Plimsouls. Their sub-genre inspirations ranged from Merseybeat to rhythm ‘n’ blues to freak-beat. I suppose they got the power-pop label laid on them because they had raw drive (power) and they didn’t sound like unskilled, unschooled half-asses (pop). So, there you go.

They had all the classic elements necessary for rock stardom (songs, looks, etc.), except the Seventies shifted that celestial alignment (see prog-rock, Malibu, disco …) forever. The dream of a universal rock language, the one that cemented the popularity and the legacies of everyone from the Beatle and Stones to the Kinks and the Who had already collapsed into a tower of FM-babble by the time that Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies and the New York Dolls had all (relatively speaking) flopped.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny - Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose (Mute Records)

 People who don’t think like critics sometimes assail them for their obsessions with comparison and reference. They make a point, a marginal one, but a point. If the search for a box to put an artist’s work in sabotages the ability or desire to hear the work itself for what it is – Houston, we have a problem. As someone whose mind works critically my beef is more with people with cloth ears who make facile comparisons based on limited experience, shitty taste or received information … so there. I also don't think the wrestling between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses requires a winner, just a good match. 

 Okay, that preface was provoked by my experience with Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, the debut full-length album from a twenty-one year old artist from Newcastle, England named Beth Jeans Houghton. She and her band the Hooves of Destiny make music that forces you to hear it on its own terms. Comparisons I’ve read of Houghton’s music to artists like Nico and Laura Marling left me wondering if I was listening to the same record. Houghton's soprano, by turns breathy, piercing, sweet is an altogether different instrument compared to Nico or Marling's altos. Nor are her songwriting and arranging tendencies especially similar. Another frequent comparison, to Joni Mitchell, makes some sense. And that presented a bit of a conundrum because I’m not much of Joni Mitchell fan, and I really enjoy YTCN. Proving only that art I’m not nuts about can inspire art I dig.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cate Le Bon - Cyrk (The Control Group)

The palette of Me Oh My, the debut from Cate Le Bon, was stark and to the point. Its appealing, if rudimentary, production values allowed the songs to speak for themselves, and they ranged from the whimsical (“Sad Sad Feet”) to the apocalyptic (“Terror of the Man”). For her follow up, Cryk, the Welsh born singer-songwriter adds layers of instrumental texture and embellishment, making her austere and sturdy songs even more transfixing. Ultimately, though, it’s her sheer self-possession as a singer that makes it hard to divert your attention, rather like the aural equivalent of not being able to take your figurative eyes off of someone.

Much has been made of the Nico influence, so let’s consider that. First, Le Bon’s vocal range is higher; her dynamic range more extreme, and her reliance on and comfort with harmonization are greater (including plenty of self-harmonization). Where the comparison works is with respect to a shared melancholy affect, a certain precise diction (rooted in English perhaps being a second language – Le Bon is also a Welsh speaker), and a tendency to enter and accent just behind the beat. The specter of the Velvet Underground also extends to Le Bon’s musical sensibility. It’s the sound of loud, bright guitars and dissonant keyboards parts, as well as a certain rhythmic lurch, you can hear it in the galloping syncopation of the album’s opening track “Falcon Eyed,” with its “Sister Ray” lurch.

But this is a post-Velvet vision distinctly informed by Le Bon’s roots in Welsh music and culture (and after all, John Cale was a fellow Welshman). Her art just sounds rooted in the Welsh culture. You’d almost have to have visited Wales to understand. It’s something to do with their mixture of hospitality and reserve, welcoming and insularity, the way some greet you warmly in English one moment only to switch languages conspicuously when entering conversation with a nearby friend. I love the Welsh. Part of my bloodline is Welsh. It’s a fascinating place, and some of the best Welsh artists (Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci … Cate Le Bon) have a natural Welsh aura that somehow conveys the country’s curious cross between the connected and the remote. Le Bon first came to prominence as Gruff Rhys’s collaborator on the Neon Neon project. Recorded in Wales and featuring an all, or almost all, Welsh cast, including Meilyr Jones and Gwion Llewellyn from the excellent, if little known, band Race Horses, Cyrk is a distillation of that national sensibility, told through the eyes of a very individual and bohemian female artist.