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The University of Hartford

Music and Culture of the
NEW DEPRESSION
By Kevin "Moondog" O'Toole

My “ratings” pledge
Since I end up dividing my free time between music and films (as well as other occasional media), this column is not always about music. I feel free occasionally to kibitz (though perhaps only at year end) about some of the worst movies out there, as well as the best.
Oh, and this column’s title... well, when I first renamed this column a few years back, I had only the slightest idea that our economy could be mismanaged to that extent.  Then $4+ a gallon gas, bank failures, foreclosures... well, it may not be the last time I strain to be ironic and manage to be an accidental Cassandra... but read up and enjoy anyway!
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Let’s go back to 2007.  I frankly got a bit testy with prog rock/ metal perpetrators Porcupine Tree.  Fear of a Blank Planet, while well produced and with some excellent musicianship, failed to work as a concept album with me.  Steven Wilson was trying to tell the story of “...this kind of terminally bored kid, anywhere between 10 and 15 years old, who spends all his daylight hours in his bedroom with the curtains closed, playing on his PlayStation, listening to his iPod, texting his friends on his cell phone, looking at hardcore pornography on the Internet, downloading music, films, news, violence...” (quote above from an interview in Revolver in May of 2007).  What emerged was thematically derivative, and, more importantly, bland, at least by comparison to the fantasy and spiritual themes of 2005’s Deadwing and the looser thematic framework that seemed to be the basis of 2002’s In Absentia.  Also missing on Planet was a sense of irony, or anything strongly resembling a sense of humor.  Not to mention his commandeering of the album title Fear of a Black Planet, a far better album by Public Enemy.

 
2009 Roadrunner Records

Forward to now: The Incident (Roadrunner, 2009) marks the fourth in a quartet of albums that have featured, and benefited from the drumming of Gavin Harrison (who replaced Chris Maitland since In Absentia).  The story concept that takes up the fifty-five minutes of disc one (the “title track”, which is made up of fourteen smaller ones) seems to involve a coming of age story, the setting of which is inspired (in part) by the raid on the polygamist Yearning for Zion community of West Texas.  This time Wilson has grabbed at some meatier subject matter: The Incident was also inspired by the detachment with which many people absorb mass media, contrasting the violently enforces intimacy and reality of a car accident.  It also contrasts said accident with the realization of the modern world thrust upon someone raised in an insular religious community.
The loud metal dynamics in the opening chords of “Occam’s Razor” which opens the album is first contrasted by more delicate guitar sounds, soon followed by the ambient electronic murmurings that could be literal ghosts as much as they could be chattering media talking heads.
Of course, “Occam’s Razor” is the theory that, between any two competing answers to a question or problem, the simplest is best, which feeds back into the coming of age themes of the album, as the main character is confronted with an entirely alien worldview, with unsuspected complexities.
“The Blind House” presents the frightened p.o.v. of religious zealotry in the age of television and rock and roll (more specifically, the post-“summer of love” age as echoed in the climactic “Time Flies”).  “Great Expectations” describes naive feelings of optimism and hope, beginning to be contradicted by a haunted sense of the rigid societal limitations that warp or imprison desires.  “Kneel and Disconnect” and “Drawing the Line” find the young hero of the piece asserting his readiness to transcend the community, which flows (or perhaps, crashes) right into “The Incident.”
In “The Incident,” Wilson allows irony to creep back into his writing, as the song parallels the crushing realities of growing up, and disillusionment from a shattered faith, with the violence of a car crash, resolving in a
This leads right into the more obviously ironic “Your Unpleasant Family,”  which begins with the accusatory line “Your unpleasant family/ smashed up my car... your unpleasant family/ how vile they are..”.
“Time Flies” is a remembrance of childhood innocence tinged with regret.  Despite its’ sense of loss and failure, I think it comes off better than last album’s similar “Sentimental,” and with more compassion for its’ subject.
“Octane Twisted” marks the further descent of the main character into regret.  In “The Seance,” he makes a stab at ridding himself of his ghosts, but finds that letting them go leaves him with nothing at all to hang on to.  I Drive the Hearse marks the character’s final descent, through pride and into denial of his lost innocence and passion.
If all this sounds heavy... well it is, but that’s okay.  The compositions (mostly by Wilson, sometimes with P-Tree) leave ample room for rocking instrumental stretches (i.e., short pieces like “Degree Zero of Liberty” and “Circle of Manias”), with Wilson’s alternatively grinding and hauntingly ambient guitar, and rhythm work (from bassist Colin Edwin and Harrison) that ties everything together and drives it along nicely.  Vocally, Wilson still has his limitations, but he delivers his readings here with an earnestness that is engaging (as opposed to the indifference of Planet).  Wilson’s compositions are pretty basic, spare things, too, but they also benefit from the ambient contributions and accents of keyboardist Richard Barbieri, that conjur sounds of vibraphones, marimbas, mellotrons and piano just where each is needed.
The album is (as hinted above) a two disc affair.  The EP that comprises disc two is just under twenty-one minutes with four more songs that fall outside the previous disc’s song cycle/ opera.  “Flicker” opens with beautiful keyboard lines from Barbieri and some of the richest harmonies I’ve ever heard Wilson deliver.  “Bonnie the Cat” teeters deliriously on top of Harrison and Edwin’s rhythm work, as a sort of hard rocking, fitful funk; and, yes, Wilson can get funky and should more often (for an example, go hunting for his solo cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times,” released last year as part of a limited run release.  The EP ends with two more brief tales of disconnect and longing, the haunted “Black Dahlia” (what it has to do with the Los Angeles murder mystery is anyone’s guess) and the more rocking “Remember Me Lover.”
In The Incident, I think Wilson discovers just a bit more of his soul again, just enough to leaven and humanize the main story’s characters and situations, and delivers an album that tells a reasonably involving story and rocks effectively.  Play in loud doses as needed.

 

TV on the Radio is another band that I arrived a little late for (though I started hearing their stuff in 2007).  Their Dear Science which dropped in 2008 was a full blown mindblower like I had hoped for, linking prog rock with soul, hip-hop, Brian Eno-like experiments and great lyrics and vocals.
Apparently, TVotR have announced a year long hiatus, leaving one of their driving forces, Kyp Malone, time to work on his solo effort, Rain Machine (self-titled release, Anti, 2009).

2009 Anti Records

True to some of the more prog-rock tendencies of TVotR, Malone does not offer an easy listen.  Also true to the best of that tradition, listening offers rewards.  Malone’s vocals deliver alternating lo-fi murmurs, pain-filled groans, Gospel fervor and soulful falsettos, often in the same song (as on “Smiling Black Faces” or “Hold You Holy”).  Malone mostly avoids TVotR’s electronic manipulations and horns here (except for singing harmony with himself, naturally), in favor of an overall folkier sound, with acoustic guitars hand drums and handclaps.
Gospel influences also wind their way thru in “Love Won’t Save You” (“not the Love you’re Thinking of” intones Malone, as he often comes close to recalling Richard Thompson’s vocal style).
The high-pitched hurdygurdy drone of “Driftwood Heart” seems to set up a sea shanty feel, but develops into a love idyll something more like a folk attempt at Shuggie Otis’ “Outta My Head,” or Two Nice Girls’ acoustic-ish version of Sonic Youth’s “Cotton Crown” (sic).
“Desparate Bitch” may seem like it’s simply heading into misogynistic territory, but it really begins with a hidden, and beautiful guitar instrumental tucked between track 6 and 7 (was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever the last CD to try a trick like this??).  The track proper begins to sound almost like early Simon and Garfunkel, in a musing about items of passion (love, music, art, etc.) traded in for filthy lucre, and develops into a more dissonant and defiant statement of artistic resistance.
The album ends with the folky love song “Winter Song,” with it’s acoustic guitars, mandolin and banjo. Vocally, however, Malone is more reminiscent here of the dynamics of Jeff Buckley or Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts.
TVotR fans will dig this the most, I think.  That said, there is much to admire in the risktaking that Kyp Malone regularly engages in with and without his bandmates.  Walking that wire can be fun or the listeners, too.

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Listen for three hours of new and rare sounds every Friday on the Friday Gothic Blimp Works- “Call It Thing” at Midnight ET after Friday Accent on Jazz, and tune into Culture Dogs every Sunday night at 8 PM ET for an hour about films on the local scene and at your local video peddler, with myself and Sam Hatch.  Listen live at 91.3 FM WWUH, 89.9 WAPJ Torrington and wwuh.org.  Culture Dogs also podcasts thru culturedogs.org.
Peace, Kevin

 

 

Copyright©WWUH: November / December Program Guide, 2009

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