11 January 2011

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Black Sleep of Kali, Boston Spaceships

Bonnie Prince Billy & the Cairo Gang
The Wonder Show of the World
Released March 23, 2010 (Drag City)

Short Notes: Will Oldham and collaborators give us a record about families and domestic tranquility (although his wife maybe turns into a zombie on track four).

Brandon: A-

I haven’t really kept up on Will Oldham’s rather prodigious output for a few years now. I attribute this, in no small part, to the fact that all of his albums are pretty consistently similar (a point I’m not the first to make). Without the multiple recording personalities of his stellar mid to late 1990s work, he’s settled to a quiet, folky vibe, with lots of collaborators, good songs, and rather less of the visceral excitement that (for me, at least) characterized the Palace records. This record is solid top to bottom, but without the highs of a lot of his best work. That said, the Bonnie Prince’s best work this decade still features some great songs, and his deadpan, melancolic wit is especially sharp on a number of tracks here, especially my two favorites, “”Troublesome Houses” (track one), and the epic fourth track, “The Sounds are Always Begging.” Rather than describing it, let’s hear it straight from the man:

My wife turned crazy on me one day,
started chopping up the bed.
She looked past me with gaping eyes,
Left me too hard to be scared.
She left, but circled the yard,
All night she haunted the home.
The kids went crazy, life was hard.
The sounds of rings: boom.

I’m willing to entertain alternative interpretations, but I think his wife turned into a zombie--a sexy zombie, by the sound of it. And of course, the weird, pseudo-hashtag rap bit at the end of the verse ties it all together. Recommended, especially if you like clever, well-written songs (and occasionally raunchy--there’s a line on “That’s What Our Love Is” that describes his affection for the, um “smell” of his wife lingering on his moustache, paired with a guitar line reminiscent of, well, James Taylor) of a mellow disposition.

Lin: B-

It wasn't until I looked into it that I realized Will Oldham has been as prodigious as he is. His work under the 'Palace' (et al) monikers is some of my favorite folk music, the raw Appalachian folk matching Oldham's amazing straining vocal style. The first Bonnie 'Prince' Billy LP, 1999's "I See a Darkness" is a justifiable classic. Since then, he's released more than a dozen LPs and who knows how many EPs or one-offs. Why did I not know about this? If this newest one is any indication, the answer is easy: because it's not very good. Well, okay: it's fine and it's pleasant -- Oldham is a good songwriter even when he's not great. But it lacks the vitality of his earliest work, the neutered sound making me more sad than angry. For sure, there are moments here that approach something more (i.e. "With Cornstalks Or Among Them") but there's just too much mediocre work her to recommend more than a cursory listen.

Black Sleep of Kali
Our Slow Decay
Released August 24, 2010 (Small Stone)

Short Notes: Denver metal band continues the trend of reinvigorating metal with big massive riffs.

Brandon: B

So, I like this record a fair bit more than the Black Breath platter we reviewed a few days ago. This record, like most of the metal I could be said to enjoy, falls further on the “heavy” side of the heavy/hard continuum, with big riffs and that characteristically “sludgy” sound that goes all the way back to Sabbath in metal’s DNA. One review I read described it as a “classic” metal record, in the sense that it had the big three metal qualities: “loud, negative, and heavy.” And that’s exactly right. I like the way a record like this sounds--the aggressive guitars, the focus on developing and sustaining riffs--but the lyrics, which, while sung rather than screamed, come off as an afterthought, more developed than high school notebook shit, but pretty cliched. At its best, this record sounds great, but the lack of sonic variety (most of the songs end up in the same place) and the stereotypical metal lyrics make it hard for me to imagine multiple spins. In the end, for all but the Agalloch record, my metal album grades have probably been overgenerous, as I'm certainly deferential to my lack of metal cred/background.

Lin: B

There seems to me a rise in metal over the last few years of the "hard rock" or, perhaps, a reversion back to "classic" heavy metal. I know I'm over generalizing here, but a lot of metal over the last 20 years or so (at least the stuff I listen to) either trace's its roots back to black metal or doom metal. What I'm saying is, there wasn't a whole lot of Sabbath style metal anymore. Starting, perhaps, with Mastodon -- and culminating (currently, at least) in last year's Baroness album -- this is changing. I'm all for it: as good as the Agalloch album is, for instance, its sound isn't going to appeal to as many people as something like this.

Black Sleep of Kali does this hard rock-ish metal very well, even if it lacks the highs needed to make the album a go-to, especially for those not already convinced. I do love this album, despite the relatively low grade: it hits the motifs I love, even if I can recognize that others may not feel the same. This is metal that crunches under its weight -- not the kind that wastes away from within (black metal) or kills with precision (thrash).

Boston Spaceships
Our Cube House Still Rocks
Released September 7, 2010 (Rockathon)

Short Notes: Pretty good pop album suffers under weight of GBV comparisons.

Brandon: B+

As a new Ohioan with indie rock leanings, I feel more sympathy towards Robert Pollard this year than ever before. I’ve never been the biggest of Guided by Voices fans, as I’ve found impatiently skipping past the snippets, the noodling, and the buzzed out little song-turds (he did once name a record King Shit and the Golden Boys, so don’t blame me for a lack of charity) to get to the good stuff somewhat tedious. And since the break-up in 2005, I’ve made no effort at all to follow the man’s releases, opting instead for something I might charitably describe as “a life.” Frankly, I’m not even sure if the man himself has kept up--his own personal discography page is out of date and hard to follow (would it kill you, Bob, it just list the Fading Captain records in chronological order?).

But I did stumble on to a copy of “The Planets Are Blasted,” a 2009 release by Pollard’s “new” band, Boston Spaceships, last spring and was pleasantly surprised. It was tuneful, with some decent pop songs, and remarkably, it didn’t drag on through failed experiment after failed experiment. It was, surprisingly, an ok record. So when I put the newest Boston Spaceships release on the list for this project, I has slightly elevated expectations. And remarkably, ol’ Bobby came through for me. This year, my second favorite former elementary school teacher (love you, Mom!) has finally put out a record that, while not equalling the best of the GBV material by a long shot, is totally worth the trouble for the non-obsessives. This is a fuzzy, 60s-sounding (a little early Who, a little Kinks) pop record with a few duds (“The British and The French”), no remarkable pop successes, but lots and lots of solid tunes. And really, can we ask for anything more? Recommended for fans of guitar pop with a passing (but not obsessive) interest in the GBV back-catalog, or current lo-fi trends in indie pop. Grandpa’s still got it.

Lin: B-
I've not been able to get into GBV, despite the admonishings of friends who make hyperbolic claims like "BEST BAND EVER!" Knowing that this is a Robert Pollard project means that I probably like it less than I should simply because I believe it should be better than it is. But I don't know enough about GBV to say if this is comparable or not, so let me try to just take the album on it's merits. For starters, the second half, starting with "Come On Baby Grace" is far superior to the first half, which did almost nothing for me. "Freedom Rings" sounds like a lost psychadelic Neil Young cut and is my favorite song on the album. If "Freedom" doesn't have that honor, then it goes to The final track ("In The Bathroom (Up 1/2 the Night)"). In between is enjoyable if not particularly memorable 60's-style English pop.

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