30 March 2011

2010: Gil Scott-Heron, Girls

Gil Scott-Heron
I’m Here Now
Released February 9, 2010 (XL Recordings)

Short Notes: The revolution won’t be televised, but it will be reviewed on She’s Making Whoopee in Hell.

Lin: B+

I'm not overly familiar with Scott-Heron's work. I mean, I can name more than two of his songs, which is more than most people can name, but I'm no expert. Still, I'm New Here sounds exactly like it should sound: at the end of these 28 and a half minutes, the album has a great deal of internal coherence. His earlier material always seemed to come out of the jazz heritage. That's jettisoned here for the blues and hip-hop histories, and the music is better for it.

It may make sense, but the album suffers from it's lack of length. There are 15 tracks here, but 6 of them clock in at under 2 minutes and most of the others are around that mark. There are a lot of 'interludes' or other short pieces and, while they're enjoyable for the most part, the album is mostly bereft of actual songs: there's really only 4 here. Granted, the four are excellent -- the phenomenal cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," all tense and foreboding (the way it should be) is the clear highlight -- but they're just not enough. Some albums and EPs can get away with the short length by packing such a punch that the listener is exhausted. Unfortunately, I'm New Here doesn't, leaving me wanting more, and not in a good way.

Brandon: B+

Gil Scott-Heron hasn’t really made a substantial quantity of music in my lifetime, and so simply by releasing a well-received album in 2010, he’s perked my ears. I’m sort of ashamed to admit Mr. Scott-Heron is better known to me by reputation than by his actual recorded output, and I certainly liked this album enough to commit to some future cratedigging.

This is, despite it’s 15 tracks, a short album, with a lot of spoken word and sonic interludes, and only a few fully-formed songs. The best among them, “Me and the Devil,” is a wonderful example of what some eerie hip-hop production can do for the blues--reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s late 1980s work (I’m Your Man), Mr. Scott-Heron brings real grit to a proto-electro, synth-heavy backing track. On the other standout track, “New York is Killing Me,” Mr. Scott-Heron (who has had some well-publicized drug problems, including a stretch of incarceration during the 2000s), sounds much older than his 61 years (can you believe he’s basically my parents’ age? He sounds ancient) brings a low, slurred drawl to the song that flows in lock-step with the minimalist synth-handclaps that form most of the backing track. But as Lin suggests, for as good as the songs are, there isn’t a lot of meat here. This sounds like a fully realized vision, but a very brief one.

Broken Dreams Club

Released November 22, 2010 (True Panther Sounds)

Short Notes: 2009’s indie darlings are back with another strong effort.

Brandon: A

We don’t make it a habit to provide extensive backstory in our reviews here. But most of the half-dozen people who read this blog will be passingly familiar with the weird, amazing story of Girls singer Christopher Owens, who spent most of his life in a particularly manipulative and malicious cult, the Children of God. I bring in up only because it’s directly relevant to the point I want to make here.

From a 2009 interview with Owens in FAQ Magazine:
Were you reading any literature or listening to music made by people outside of the group when you were growing up?
No, I wasn’t. I was in like, performing group with other kids.

Did you sing?
Yeah. Cos they didn’t believe in working, so as soon as there were kids they realized the goldmine of children performing in public. So we did that growing up, my sisters and I both, all of us.

What would you sing?
Songs that were written within the group. Like, nice little Christian songs.

Had you been exposed to other music outside?
No – well, here’s the thing – when I became like, say, thirteen or fourteen years old, and was starting to get into trouble myself and become curious about the outside world, there was already a group of kids that were like my sister’s age, like the first wave of kids. They would have been like, seventeen. And there were guys that would like, record on cassette tapes from the radio, or try to grow their hair out.

Do you remember what songs they recorded?
Yeah, I remember all of them. It was like, Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, Bon Jovi, Lionel Ritchie – like, horribly crappy, but to us that was like amazing, foreign, just crazy, weird shit that we loved. And I learned how to play guitar from these guys. We’d like, learn how to play the songs. And right away, there was a split between everybody our age, like if you were rebellious or not. And everybody cool was obviously rebellious.

And then they did something really stupid when they saw what was happening – like, my older sister left, and a lot of the first, the oldest kids were leaving by the time they were like eighteen years old, and they freaked out. They were like, “Obviously this is what everybody’s gonna do.” So they set up these programs, for the teenagers – they’d send like a hundred of us to these camps, where they’d really focus on trying to make us wanna stay for the rest of our lives.

But it was a huge mistake, because it was like when you send a criminal to prison, and they all just trade secrets and things. Everybody there was interested in being rebellious. So we’d go and it was just like, the coolest place you could be.

From the opening trills of track one, “Thee Oh So Protective One,” it sounds as though Owens and his collaborator and bandmate, Chet “JR” White are trying to catch up with 60 years of rock and roll history, calmly and deliberately trying out new genres, making music that sounds both profoundly intentional yet remarkably naive. There’s the doo-wop by way of Billy Joel of the aforementioned first track, the broken-down twang of the title track, the little exhalations in the opening seconds of “Alright,” and the hazy psychadelic fuzz of “Carolina,” all of which sound complete and fully formed, and yet still like the experiments of a kid still figuring out this pop music thing. And the funny thing is that they’re naturals. The each experiment works on its own terms, sweet and endearing (most of the album) or vaguely menacing (“Carolina”). The strongest track here is the pseudo-Britpop nugget “Heartbreaker,” which is one of the stronger singles I’ve heard thus far for this project. True to its name, it’s an introspective tear-jerker--full of cliches (“I’ve still got a lock of your hair”), but in the hands of Owens and White, still original.

Like their debut LP from 2009, this is a fantastically strong piece of indie pop--short and to the point, but diversely, joyfully experimental. This is the sound of a very interesting band taking another major step forward, and I’m excited to hear more. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

I kinda liked Girls' 2009 release Album -- not enough to listen to in the last 15 months, but enough that I threw it on after this EP as a refresher without much complaint. Broken Dreams Club will probably end up in the same category: I'd have no problems if someone else were to put it on, but I wouldn't do so myself. Which includes a bit of pity, as I think this EP is better than the album. The opener, "Thee Oh So Protective One" reminds me of Elvis Costello which, of course, isn't a bad thing. But my favorite track here is the alt-countryish title track, with some real nice mournful country steel floating over top of it. I could see this track coming from someone like Jason Isbell, though Girls' lead singer Christopher Owens doesn't sound country (at all) in his singing. It's a bit unexpected, but not unpleasant. The other tracks are alright, but not particularly special.

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