The Hazards of Love: The Popology Review


Looking through a teleological lens, The Decemberists’s latest LP should surprise no one. Their catalogue has been tending toward proggy song suites since the release of 2004’s shuddering, whip-crack riff on epic poetry, The Tain. However, unlike that record, which matched passages of imperfect melody with cacophonous and savage drumming, Hazards feels—for a record concerning infanticide, rape, and shape-shifting animals—rather too polished. Like Hazards’ shape-shifting William, The Decemberists have completed a transformation of their own, emerging as a troupe of ultra-competent chamber musicians, splicing melodies in a now-predictable pattern.
Meloy has always been an ambitious songsmith, self-satisfied with the wildest rhymes this side of Joanna Newsom [Picaresque’s “The Infanta” features couplets that match ‘palanquin’ with ‘elephant’ and ‘parapets’ with ‘coronets’]. However, Hazards finds Meloy becoming obsessed with structure, taking his conceit of interwoven long songs with even more ferocity. 2006’s The Crane Wife starts at the end with “Crane Wife 3” and revisits the story later, creating an ironic and terrible tension as well as a satisfying cyclical conceit. Here, the four part “Hazards of Love” suite seems to drag.
Ultimately, Hazards is very much a sequel to The Crane Wife, treading much of the same material—metamorphosis, tragic love, rape, and violence—but tracing a tighter focus. Crane Wife spun out into diversions of thematically similar Civil War melodrama and Romeo and Juliet pop bliss to break the monotony of a singular narrative. Those ill-fitting studio delights were tossed off in the fall of 2008 in a small-release singles series, Always the Bridesmaid. And so, Hazards takes itself too seriously for too long—17 interconnected songs with a set dramatis personae—as represented here by particularly strong cameos from Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and My Brightest Diamond’s breathtaking Shara Worden, whose turn as The Queen challenges Meloy’s vocal authority, and brings the band into dark and exciting territory.
While new listeners to the Decemberists might find something to love in Hazards, old fans will have seen all of this coming—with a little dread—from miles away. [I’ll confess my own geekery—I’ve seen Meloy play more than ten times] They will inevitably make Crane Wife comparisons. “Hazards of Love 4” is this album’s denouement “Sons & Daughters.” The rollicking single “The Rake’s Song” sounds like the best parts of “The Island.”  “The Wanting Comes in Waves” rings a little too closely to “Crane Wife 2,” Meloy’s pleading repetition now pretty shopworn territory.
There has always been a delightful tongue-in-cheek bent to The Decemberists—best seen in the self-effacing bombast of “I Was Meant For The Stage” and hilarious schadenfreude of “The Sporting Life.” Their Victorian penny novel vibe has always been as self-conscious as it is enjoyable. There is plenty of excellent material on The Hazards of Love—ammunition enough for one hell of an exhausting live show. But I worry that no matter what kind of structural pyrotechnics Meloy’s conjured up on this latest one, he hasn’t let in enough light.


The Greatest Cover Albums of the Week: Two

The Five Greatest Cover Albums Of The Week
By Devin Bambrick

Paul Baribeau- Darkness On The Edge Of Your Town
Admittedly, part of Bruce Springsteen’s charm is the near magisterial bombast with which he imbues his tales of failure and romance. It’s blue-collar meets arena glitz. Take the production of “Thunder Road,” which, crowded with layers of guitar and harmonica and glockenspiel, lends earnest heroics to the most quotidian narrative. It’s all so gigantic, an epic and fierce monster of a song. A friend of mine characterizes it as the perfect music for driving, and I can’t disagree. There’s so much going on that it seems perverse not to open some windows. And so Paul Baribeau’s mission may seem misguided at first, to strip down Springsteen’s tracks to scrappy acoustic folk-punk screamers. But once you get to his worked-down “Thunder Road,” any listener with a soul will find herself converted. There is such genuine hope in Baribeau’s yelping, messy and insistent over savagely strummed guitar. And then there’s the climax, where Paul and his vocal co-conspirator twist the huge bastard of a saxophone solo into the most charming and beautiful shout-along you’ll ever hear.

Scala & Kolacny Brothers- [Various]
I can readily admit that nothing pleases me like a good gimmick. If you can condense a band or an album into a twenty-word-or-less concept, like “cult-like army of white-robed hippies singing songs about hope,” or “indie rock using Victorian vernacular,” I’m pretty much guaranteed to dig it. In this case, the concept is far too endearing for me to ignore: a Belgian girls’ choir performing pop songs. A lot of the time, the songs are pretty schmaltzy misfires, and so you’re better off cherry-picking tracks off of music blogs. However, of particular interest should be their rendition of The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” which you can whip out when your hipster friends try to impress you with Jose Gonzales’s sensitive-guy reading of the song. You know, the one they used in that Sony commercial.

Johnny Cash- American IV: The Man Comes Around
Yeah yeah, “Hurt,” bla bla. I don’t want to hear it. Johnny’s version of Reznor’s song got massive MTV coverage when he shuffled off the coil, but it’s far from the most interesting thing on the disc. The fourth entry into Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced run of old-man-and-guitar American series remains the strongest of the five (with the sixth somewhere down the railroad track). “Bridge Over Troubled Water” will make you cry, and “In My Life” is one of the strongest Beatles covers I’ve heard, taking on gravitas that would have been impossible for the vivacious four. Sometimes I like to pretend Cash is my grandfather, and this is what he left behind for me.

Colin Meloy- Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins (EP)
Every year, Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists, goes on tour all on his lonesome, performing stripped down versions of his band’s songs. The effect is all over the place, with some songs finding a new energy in the raucous support of a strong contingent of sixteen-year-old girls, others clearly lacking the diverse instrumentation of his backers. To make things interesting, Meloy chooses an artist to plunder and fool with—Morrissey, Shirley Collins, and Sam Cooke. The Collins EP is most solid, as Meloy’s voice suits folk ballads beautifully. After all, many of his own songs find themselves in that particular territory of bootblacks and chimney sweeps. “Barbara Allen,” a sinister creeper in the vain of Meloy’s “The Tain” is a gem, shaking up the wordy song with an intrusive electric guitar.

Rufus Wainwright- Rufus Does Judy, Live At Carnegie Hall
So secure am I in my sexuality that I am willing to recommend to you this song-by-song recreation of a Judy Garland concert. That’s all I’ve got to say on that.

The Five Greatest Cover Albums of the Week: One

The Five Greatest Cover Albums Of The Week
By Devin Bambrick

Incredible Bongo Band- Bongo Rock
At some point, Michael Viner, an enterprising bongo enthusiast, decided that everything sounded better with a whole bunch of additional beats. The result was Bongo Rock. This disc’s a re-release/compilation of Viner’s 70s-era covers of everything from Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” [clocking in at a downright brisk 7:43] to the Stones’ “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction.” But the crown jewel of the collection is the Band’s reworking of the classic surf guitar standard. Viner’s version stands as one of the most sampled songs in the history of popular music. For a fuller background than I can offer here, check out Will Hermes’s New York Times article, “All Rise For The National Anthem of Hip Hop.” Needless to say, you’ll recognize it.

Easy Star All*Stars- Radiodread
The most popular album in the history of head shops, The New Amsterdam Café, and the front lawn on April 20th, this is exactly what the title suggests: a dub reggae cover album of Radiohead songs. “Paranoid Android” is probably the highlight, with blaring trumpets substituting for Greenwood’s savage guitar solo. Playing this album for a group and cataloging the reactions is an easy way to figure out which of your Radiohead-loving friends are pretentious dickwads and which are slightly less pretentious dickwads.

k.d. lang- Hymns of the 49th Parallel
To continue my personal tradition of pulling the Canadian card, I submit the least cool album on this list. No one clad in American Apparel will stop by KRRC if you blast this out of the windows. In fact, your mom would really dig this. But for once, your mom would totally be right. k.d. is a ludicrously good singer, and she brings some new excitement to a mixed bag of Canadian folk songs. She breaks out Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, and the effect is so natural, so far from contrived, that the songs feel like hers.

Nouvelle Vague [self-titled]
Just in case you’re the one person left who hasn’t heard this yet. Really, the concept here far outweighs the quality. There isn’t too much replay value in this, but there’s an absolute and untainted joy in hearing this album for the first time. Bossa nova covers of new wave songs. Really, I feel like that’s all I’ve got to say. Either you’re the kind of person who gets all damp and perky at the thought of groovy, sultry renditions of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Too Drunk To Fuck,” or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, hey, go back to your OK Computer.

Harry Nilsson- Nilsson Sings Newman
Before he was that laughable goofball who was responsible for the saccharine soundtracks for Disney movies, Randy Newman was kind of a badass songwriter. If you don’t believe me, check out “Sail Away,” an acerbic satire in which a slave owner attempts to convince a group of Africans to hop on his ship to the promised land of the United States of America. Sample line? “You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It’s great to be an American.” In 1970, Harry Nilsson—himself a hell of a little songwriter [and favorite musician of The Beatles]—threw together this collection of stripped down covers of Newman’s work. Sold today as a part of a double album—Nilsson Sings Newman and Harry—it’s actually Harry that contains the best Newman cover: a sweet version of one of the greatest pop songs ever written, “Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear.”

On People I May Know

On People I May Know
By Devin Bambrick

Dear Facebook,
We’ve been together for four years now, and we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs. I’ve deactivated. I’ve protested. I bewailed the mini-feed. I have been bitten by countless Vampires, and I have ignored them. I have watched pretentious prats take quizzes and proudly proffer proof on their profiles. I have watched you go from an exclusivist reference website, useful for college students looking for names and numbers to a free-for-all, fully integrated clusterfuck. I can no longer pride myself on my abstinence from the Chlamydic Myspace, so embarrassing you have become. In four years, your only positive addition has been the brilliant Scrabulous, which continues to delay progress on my thesis.
But here we are again. Again, I find myself reeling from another addition to your already-crowded interface. Again, I find myself wondering from which trust-funded enema-pump bouncing around the trampoline and hammock-filled Facebook office came up with this… this…thing. I am speaking, of course, about “People You May Know.”
Facebook, dear Facebook. There are too many people on your pages. There are thousands upon thousands of embarrassing, tasteless photos of people drinking from red plastic cups. There are reams and reams of virtual pages professing love for Donnie Darko and Sigur Ros and Kurosawa. So much posturing! So much desperation!
And so, when I look at my friend count, I am not proud. I do not revel in my popularity. I am not an obsessive collector of online ‘friends.’ I do not need to fill in the gaps in my ‘social network’ by making sure I am connected to every possible node. Maybe I’m an old coot. I certainly feel like I am on some sort of generational cusp. I am terrible at Halo and I can’t text like the freshmen can. But I want online friendship to mean something. I will not add every single person on the website just because. And so I do not understand this latest feature, this attempt to correct the lacunae of the electronic representation of my interactions.
Especially because I don’t like most of the people you’ve suggested to me.
Not all of them are bad. Some of them just slipped through the cracks. Some of them I remain wholly neutral on. But, let’s just say that, sometimes, there might be a reason I’m not interfriends with someone. Maybe it’s petty. Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it’s legitimate. But I don’t need a reminder of their existence every time I sign into you. I know there are people I have not woven an electronic friendship bracelet for. I’m alright with that. Maybe we’ll bump into each other while browsing through photos or groups. Like the old days. And then maybe we’ll friend each other. And then make awkward small talk when we meet each other in real life, maybe making a self-conscious joke about being friends on Facebook but never having really spoken in real life. But this capitalist notion of acquisition, of completion, of voracious interconnectivity, is kind of unnerving.

Five Songs To Get You Through The Night: Get The Party Started

Five Songs To Get You Through The Night
By Devin Bambrick

So let’s say, hypothetically, you’ve found yourself at a party that’s teetering on the boundary between raucous and righteous. You’re feeling pretty frisky, having cashed in your paper on post-pastiche and pre-colonial gestures in Montesquieu’s grade school notebook doodles just hours before.
Good and familiar folks are milling around with their plastic red cups and plastered red faces, and you’re standing by the laptop that’s sputtering out the host’s playlists to no great effect. Nothing inspiring. You nod along politely, suppressing a vomit-tinged burp swelling at your esophagus.
“Paaaartayy!” You yell, a little too loudly, just as the craft of the party hits a sudden air pocket of silence. A passing acquaintance nods politely and smiles a smile of two shots vodka, lemon wedge, pity to taste.
Now! If only something could activate these sloshing molecules! We need some catalyst, some injection to spark some swerve and verve into these stumblers and grumblers. In a word, you want these cats to dance. Thankfully, you’ve got a nano with a potent fiver pulsing to go, a playlist like an animal caged, crazed, and raring. Its powerful contents?
*Los Campesinos- “You! Me! Dancing!” The perfect first gesture on any dance playlist, this song starts with an unassuming and quiet lull of electric guitar, so calm that all of your friends will think the party’s died. But when the track develops with an orchestral build, tension developing with every second, your drunken companions will find themselves transfixed, knees buckling in time, their patience tested, their nerves tickled, their hearts titillated, excruciating, until a sudden and religious pop bursts the song’s hymen with its glorious, pounding hook and stomping drums. When it’s joined by a rocking glockenspiel, you know you’re in good and capable hands.

*MSTRKRFT- “Easy Love.” It’s got our favourite instrument (cowbell) and sounds like the Platonic form of a hipster electronica song, its synth confrontational and winning, its lyrics vocoder-aided and cheesy. MSTRKRFT pulls out all of the tricks of mixing to great effect. Alright, don’t get too excited there, champ. I haven’t seen that move since my freshman year, and the kid who invented had to go on forced medical leave.

*Yelle- “Je Veux Te Voir.” As we have learned from our friends Justice, Daft Punk, and Jacques Derrida, the French know more about booty-shaking than any other nation. That’s why their streets are so wide. For booty-shaking and German tanks. Sounding like some kind of nuclear-powered robot cheerleading squad, Yelle (birthname Julie Budet) is the kind of music you play when everyone’s already going, to take it to that next level of aerobic exertion. The song’s final act is like a dancefloor air raid. What’s best about this song is that this song is impossible to sing along to, putting the focus on the boogie-down.

*Junior Boys- “In The Morning.” Now here’s the song to help you make your move on that beautiful soul across the room, the one wearing a sweet yellow headband. I read that in The Quest that this song is so sexy that it has been banned in all islamofascist countries. Somewhere between unnerving and satisfying, punctuated by breathy moans and suggestive lyrics—“too young” is the song’s refrain—this song will make anything you do seem subtle.

*Justice- “Love-Stoned.” It’s almost unfair, allowing Justin Timberlake and Justice to join forces, an overpowering mixture of dancefloor expertise. Adding a ballsy string section to our boy’s already overpowering single, and accentuating the song’s breakdown with simple piano accompaniment, the Justice remix puts Love-Stoned into the realm of the histrionic. Get out your b-boy and b-girl skills, pop it, lock it, do whatever you can. You can do no wrong with this playing.

Now your party’s started. Pink would be proud. Next week we’ll be discussing Final Fantasy, The Books, and Daft Punk’s Homework.

Five Songs To Get You Through The Night: Another Deadline

Five Songs To Get You Through The Night
By Devin Bambrick

So let’s say, hypothetically, you find yourself locked back in the library, another masochistic deadline staring down at you, its chops bloodied and its fingers quivering in anticipation. Your newborn word count is minimal, pathetic, looking to you for some kind of help. Scads of half-formed thoughts surround you, scribbled on notebooks and matchbooks. A beat throbs from outside your window, an alcohol-fueled thumping of collective rumpus calling you out like so many Student Union sirens. But there will be no dancing tonight. There will be no fun. Brave warrior, you must plug up your ears with your headphones. To quell the nagging sense of panic in your belly, you shuffle together some nice, consistent study tunes. This time you aren’t thinking a frenzied all-nighter—no, this is a slow-burn marathon, and you need to keep pace.
*Godspeed You! Black Emperor: “Storm.” First of all, this track is twenty-two minutes long, an honest-to-God opus with little movements and quiet stretches of beautiful tension. It’s pretty clear that these kids had a bunch of music lessons. The length ought to keep you at your desk and focused for a while, but the track is no waffling walk through rose gardens. Watch as your typing quickens with the tempo and your fingers punch the keys a bit harder with the marching drum crescendos. If you’re alone and like me [and you’re alone like me] you’ll most likely do one of those little fist pumps and whisper “Yeah” every few minutes. “Yeah.”
*Bell Orchestre: “Salvatore Amato.” Another orchestral-influenced jam from a Montreal band, this one’s poppier and cheerier, the kind of thing you can really do some sweet underlining to. Composed of a few Arcade Fire members, Bell Orchestre’s has the same kind of moody, grand, and indulgent feel as their more notable mates—but none of the lyrics to distract you from the task at hand. Oh, and stop leaving the library to smoke those cigarettes.
*múm: “I Can’t Feel My Hand Any More. It’s Alright, Sleep Tight.” There probably is no way to talk about múm without sounding like a pretentious dick. They’re from Iceland, they mix electronic glitch beats with chamber instruments, and their name is all in lower-case. But for atmospheric, slightly unnerving, textured soundscapes, they do a sweet job. Fuck. Alright, let’s try that again. It sounds like the naptime music they will inevitably play in a robot-run nursery to be set up by Miranda July in 2045.
*Electrelane: “Tram 21.” Alright, wake back up, kids. And stop checking your Facebook, even if that dude from high school keeps poking you. From their t’riffic 2006 release, this track’s got swirling organ, cooing vocals, and a washed-out electric guitar, hitting a mix that will make you feel like you’re hanging out in some swank underground club in Albuquerque rather than trying to deconstruct the deconstructionists next to some Physics major wearing sweatpants. Hey! Again with the Facebook. Stop it. How is it going to change your life that your former lab partner saw Monkey Trouble on cable this week and ironically added it to her favorite movies?
*Serge Gainsbourg: “Melody.” Alright, so, on the surface, this song is about a guy hitting a teenage girl on her bike and then seducing her. But Serge is French, and so this is artistic, like putting elephant poop in an art gallery. Now, this is one of those cases where a song is pretty influential (try to listen to Beck’s “Paper Tiger” without hearing this song) but also righteously awesome, matching its raspy folk vocals with full orchestra and electric guitar. And the last lines are worth the price of admission: “Melody Nelson a des cheveux rouges. Et c’est leur couleur naturelle.”
Alright, keep your head down and that word count up. Next week we’ll take a look at Queen, Prince, and Kings of Convenience.

The Best Thing On Television: Yo Gabba Gabba

“My name is Nathaniel! I like to dance!”

Our parents and television retrospectives have long tried to convince us that Sesame Street was, at one point, hip, and that adults reveled in watching the show with their children, presumably chuckling along whenever U2 showed up and did a “Where The Streets Have No Garbage” song or something. While Big Bird et al will always seem a little floppy and, well, PBSish to me, the point is certainly valid for a handful of kids’ shows: sometimes it can be fun for both kids and adults.

College brought about a healthy resurgence of Pee Wee’s popularity for my circle of jaded hipster friends when I got a DVD box set for Christmas. We’d get high and giggle uncontrollably as Paul Reubens extended the realm of acceptability of children’s television to ridiculous lengths, engaging in uncomfortable innuendo, holding the most absurd shots, or simply daring to be absolutely anarchically silly. We’d turn to each other, incredulous, asking “Was this supposed to be for kids?” or exclaiming “I can’t believe my parents let us watch this.”

Of course, the magic with children’s television is that most of the subversion goes over our young little heads. What’s left for the ‘intended’ audience is an abundance of energy, of color, of music.

But what happens when that’s all there is? A number of recent children’s shows have used computer animation and puppetry to dumb down TV into a near acid-trip with lame repeated platitudes or even non-linguistic nonsense. (Here I’m thinking Teletubbies and Boohbah)

Now, much in the same vein, Yo Gabba Gabba is a violently colored, puppets and silly voices kind of show. But it’s also enjoyable for both children and adults, yada yada yada. But here’s the thing: it’s enjoyable on exactly the same level. It is a ludicrous assault on the senses, taking the manifesto “Singing and Dancing to Music is AWESOME” to heart. I wish I were a kid when this came out, so I could have little seizures and flip out in footie pyjamas. And a quick Youtube search will actually yield a bunch of videos shot by parents delighted by the fact that their toddlers are, in fact, rocking the fuck out to YGG.

When they bring on the Aquabats to sing a sweet song in their sweet costumes, my joy is pure and unadulterated. When Elijah Wood teaches us his Puppet Master dance, it doesn’t come off as lame or condescending. It’s just so well done. The show even has Biz Markie, teaching Biz’s beat of the day!

Where I always thought Sesame Street’s attempts at relevance bordered on the pandering and obvious (alright, maybe not this REM joint Furry Happy Monsters), Yo Gabba Gabba’s cultural references are pretty hip–from the frenetic electronic/glitch-pop soundtrack to their 8-bit video game references. And the absolute best thing about the show? Every episode ends with a complete remix of the preceding show. But not just a fast-forward! It’s a full-on, well-orchestrated, often brilliant remix.

Somehow, this is a shiny happy kid’s show made for Portland hipsters. And so every morning I find myself, a 21 year old college student, cereal bowl cradled in my lap, genuinely engaged by Yo Gabba Gabba.