The difference in modeling your collegiate-pop sound after Paul Simon, rather than David Byrne, is more than the distance from Jo’Burg to Rio: Vampire Weekend’s first two albums were suffused with a wistful sense that the questions they posed had answers out there somewhere, and that time would eventually allow them to catch up with Simon’s wry cynicism, contrasted with Byrne’s conviction that age and experience would never make the world any less morphically strange. Album three actually does find them catching up to Simon with a vengeance, as Ezra Koenig and his merry band of twentysomethings come up with musings on time, death, and finality that could have come right out of septuagenarian Simon’s 2011 So Beautiful or So What (or pretty much anything the guy’s written since “Richard Corey” or “Leaves That Are Green”). I mean, if the title of lead single “Diane Young” wasn’t enough of a tipoff, try “Back back / Way back I used to front,” or “Does it bother you / The long click of a ticking clock?” But if they’re writing like a bunch of old dudes kicking you off their lawn, the album’s musicianship has the enthusiasm of a gaggle of musical magpies: they may have appropriated licks, lines, and riffs from predecessors as varied as Simon, Devo, Tinariwen, Roy Orbison, Dick Dale, Fela Kuti, Grover Washington, Bread, Lennon and McCartney, and Byrne himself, but they’ve developed an almost scary ability to blend them into a propulsive worldbeat pop that takes big strides from the first two albums, while never sounding like anyone but their morbidly age-obsessed selves.
Since this column was in limbo for almost half of 2013, every now and again I’ll try to give my thoughts on key releases that came out earlier in the year, while we were sleeping.
Given that Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker, and Doug Yule are still around, this revival of the Raw Power era Stooges probably only qualifies as the second most interesting/unlikely reunion of a seminal American rock and roll band that we could have hoped for. But points to 66-year-young Jimmy Osterberg for actually pulling it off. And for the second time: when 1970’s Fun House flopped, Iggy shuffled the original Stooges lineup, moving guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and bringing in James Williamson’s buzzsaw guitar. And while Williamson’s rejoining the band today is due principally to Asheton’s 2009 death, it’s possible that the indifferent response to 2007’s original Stooges reunion, The Weirdness, might have something to do with it, as well: maybe he’d give this new record the same tightly focused asskicking he brought to Raw Power.
And played back to back with that 1973 classic, Ready to Die gets off to an encouraging start: the sonic roar of “Burn” shits all over David Bowie’s thin production of Raw Power (Iggy, quoted in 1973: “That fucking carrot-top ruined my album!“), and Iggy’s insistence that he (and “they”) are “taking over!” suggests a renewed belief in his band’s ability to step up. “Sex and Money” follows, with original Stooge saxman Steve Mackay squawking and squonking against female chorus and handclaps. But here the driven manifesto of “Burn” is already giving way to a too-easy burnout ennui: “I’m looking for a reason to live / Sex and money / I’ve only got two things to give / Sex and money.” And even without the unfortunate timing of Newtown, “If I had a fucking gun / I could shoot at everyone” just plays as the worst kind of cheapjack pissed-off weirdo’s plaint, while “DD’s” tit obsession might have been funny from a kid just discovering the things, but it’s borderline creepy from a guy as smart (and, um… well, old) as Iggy. The Stooges were never really about chops, so three luded-out acoustic ballads feels like a couple too many, though playing “Spot the musical references” in “The Departed,” is kind of amusing-which is probably not what they had in mind for a song written as a farewell to the late Asheton. Not an album to change your life, but throw about half of it into your Stooges playlist and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when “Dirty Deal” or the title cut pop up.
ODDBALL JAZZ DEPARTMENT
I was at a music festival a couple of years ago where Hugh Laurie was appearing, and I walked past a group of German tourists perusing the program and exchanging astonished looks with each other: “Doktor Haus?” “Ja, Ja! Doktor Haus!” English-speaking audiences were just as baffled by his 2010 release Let Them Talk, in which Laurie took on vintage blues and Tin Pan Alley songs, in an unabashed singing style that sounded less like Dr. House than a cross between Bertie Wooster and Al Jolson, and not even Laurie’s cheerfully forthright perspective on his unsuitedness to the material (“No gypsy woman told my mother anything on the day I was born“) entirely excused his phrasing of “Josh’a fit de baddle ub Jay-ree-ko.” But when he shut up and played, Laurie demonstrated an astonishing pianistic technique that ranged from New Orleans boogie-woogie to flat-out classical fantasia, with no sense of stretch or strain. For better or worse, Didn’t It Rain racks up a bonus-ball with more of the same: “The St. Louis Blues” opens with three minutes of gorgeous interplay between Laurie’s piano and his hot-cha Copper Bottom Band, before settling into more of his awkward “de ol’ folks at home” vocal phrasing. But once you get used to his singing, his playing is always a delight, with every track offering some new aspect of it. He also spreads out the singing duties this time: guest vocalist Gaby Moreno isn’t much more idiomatic than Laurie, but she has great fun with “The Weed Smoker’s Dream,” while Jean McClain kicks ass on “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” and the two team up for a powerhouse reading of Sister Rosetta’s title song, with Laurie’s rock-bottom left hand and wild riffing driving it home. In the end, a fun and funky musical celebration, and Laurie’s dryly funny liner notes are a nice reminder of a nearly forgotten memento of the LP era.
Caro Emerald is a singer from Holland whose debut, Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor, was almost the mirror image of Laurie’s first album: where he turned a titanic talent loose on material with little to no regard to anything but his own enjoyment, Emerald applied her nice-enough little voice to a carefully chosen concept: vintage big-band/standards-style vocal music, underlain with modern beats, retro spy-movie arrangements, lashings of acid jazz, and lush up-to-date production values: she was like a one-woman “Verve Remixed” collection. The trick with high concept is that when it doesn’t grow, it can ossify pretty quickly: where Vampire Weekend seems to be taking that to heart, Emerald’s long-gestating followup to her debut (apart from a live recording issued in late 2011) finds her repeating herself, sometimes almost note for note. The slinky noir of “The Other Woman” gets recycled as “Black Valentine,” and despite speaking English like a native, there’s no way this petite Dutch girl gets away with the rapping on “Pack Up The Louie” unscathed. “Coming Back As A Man” is slyly funny, and “Excuse My French” has lots of fierce sass; if nothing on The Shocking Miss Emerald is quite as insanely catchy as the first album’s breakout “That Man,” it’s an entertaining companion piece from a singer whose greatest gifts are conceptual, not vocal. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for eventual Album Number Three.
Other Notable 5/14 Releases
A- Agnetha Faltskog
Abra Kadavar- Kadavar
Black Pudding- Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood
Dark & Dirty Mile- Jason Boland & Stragglers
Elvis Club- Del Lords
The Greatest Generation- The Wonder Years
How Mercy Looks From Here- Amy Grant
Kingdom of Conspiracy- Immolation
Lip Lock- Eve
Love Is Everything-George Strait
Love Will… -Trace Adkins
Mouths of Madness- Orchid
NOW What?! -Deep Purple
One of Us Is the Killer- The Dillinger Escape Plan
Onyx -Pop Evil
Promises- Boxer Rebellion
Secondhand Rapture- MS MR
Silver Wilkinson- Bibio
Sing to the Moon- Laura Mvula
Spirityouall- Bob Mcferrin
Tug of War- Red Line Chemistry
Ungrateful- Escape the Fate