Ken Johnson examines music from Elvis Costello, The Necks, Drive by Truckers and ‘Low’ Double Negative
Elvis Costello and the Impostors, “Look Now”—I’ve always had more respect than genuine lust for EC’s post-1980’s records, which is to say that while one can’t help but be impressed by his lyricism and his intellect, there’s a certain clinical, overly-stylized quality to his later work. Likewise, I’ve always had some issues with his voice, which worked fine for his Angry Young Man/New Wave phase but is less convincing for the sophisticated-pop of his later records.
These preconceptions notwithstanding, I was looking forward to his latest, “Look Now”, which has been widely touted as his finest work in decades and a worthy sequel to his baroque 1982 masterpeice, “Imperial Bedroom.”
To be quite fair, “Look Now” is quite an ambitious undertaking, as he deploys all manners of strings, horns, mostly gratuitous female backing vox and bossa nova and soul flourishes to recreate the giant, romantic sound of a Phil Spector or Burt Bachrach (who co-writes three songs here). Sadly, most of it doesn’t work. His lyrics (many written from a feminist perspective) are, as expected, wistful and incisive but the grandiose orchestrations can’t obscure the fact that the melodies sorely lack focus and hooks—these songs tend to fade from memory a soon as you hear ‘em.
Original Attractions pianist Steve Neive in particular overplays on nearly every track; the whole thing tends to lumber instead of swing. Costello’s vocals, again, are problematic—often strained, with imperfect relation to pitch and reliant on his unnatural, tremulous vibrato—one imagines how much better these songs would sound with less fussy arrangements and a great singer at the mic (think Ronnie Isley or Aaron Neville). Only when he exercises some restraint, as on the comparatively stripped-down Stripping Paper, Isabelle in Tears and the genuinely pretty Photographs Can Lie, does the record flow. As usual, he tends to sound his best when he’s not trying so hard to make a grand statement. Overall, A+ for effort; fewer accolades for outcome.
Notes on sound quality: Production is big and hyper-busy, in the manner of a Broadway soundtrack, and open-sounding but somewhat digital-bright and not especially natural-sounding; strings in particular seem tacked-on. (multi, multi track). As noted above, keyboards are mixed forward and are overemphasized, while Costello’s guitars are curiously subdued and often barely audible. The soundstage is very wide and high, however.
Low, “Double Negative”- husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker virtually invented the slow core genre, which meshes the dark, distorted folk of Velvet Underground with the quiet ambience of Eno and early Pink Floyd.
With impeccable spooky harmonies and skillful use of noise and silence, they transcended most of their peers by never losing sight of tight songcraft –they didn’t sacrifice hooks and memorable (if opaque) lyrics for mere atmospherics.
This latest (their 15th or so), marks something of a departure for them; largely eschewing traditional song structure for sonic experimentation, brooding dissonance and electronic flourishes. The trademark harmony vocals are still present, though subdued and often distorted and unintelligible; however, they’ll surprise you with moments of unembellished beauty, such as the acoustic “Dancing and Fire” and the keening, almost soulful “Always Trying to Work it Out.”
Much of the rest of the album sounds more like mantras than songs, with long drones and ambient passages, though they throw in enough studio effects (pounding drums, abrasive electronics, treated piano) to keep this from floating into the ozone. In general, this is a disc best absorbed in one sitting (for all the sonic trickery the overall effect is much more cohesive and less schizophrenic than you’d expect) and a great, if unsettling listen.
Notes on sound quality: overall a densely arranged and dark-toned recording; however instruments and voices are well-separated and accurately placed on stage; uncompressed and open-sounding despite heavy deployment of electronics, echo and reverb, and multitrack mixing!
Drive-ByTruckers, “American Band —Here is another band I’ve admired from a distance, their prior Skynyrd-worshipping discs have always struck me as earnest and well-performed, but somehow lacking the natural fire and fury of their idols and a tad collegiate, as if they wrote the lyrics in little notebooks. This one, however, is the real deal, with instantly memorable songs which achieve the rare balance of being both overtly political while simultaneously rocking like hell!
Subject matter (race, violence, despair) is uniformly dark but only rarely (as on the overlong, oversensitive “What It Means”). Virtually all these songs have a big riff, a smart turn of phrase and enough rhythmic crunch to keep you immersed.
The heaviest and best things on the record are the opener, Ramon Casiano (with fact-based lyrics about dirty dealings at the border and a trio of searing guitar solos so primal you wonder why no one’s played them before) . The anthemic closer is ‘Baggage’, which wouldn’t sound out of place on “Rust Never Sleeps”.
The songs in between are mostly quieter and more somber in tone, though no less cathartic; you respond to this viscerally even if you tune out the lyrics. Second guitarist Mike Cooley in particular nails his tunes and seems to have arrived as a major songwriter.
Notes on sound quality: Well produced, warm sounding and sparingly arranged, with minimal, unobtrusive keyboards and plenty of cleanly-recorded, slightly raw guitars. Vocals tend to be pushed back slightly and guitars pushed forward in the mix; instrument placement is precise. Drums and cymbals have a lot of snap. This is a good headphone recording.
The Necks,” Body”— previously unknown to me, this Aussie improv trio covers what sounds like the entire history of experimental jazz in the course of a single 56 minute composition.
Opening with a fairly traditional, spare piano/bass/drums vamp (think Bad Plus or Craig Taborn), the piece mutates at around the 15:00 mark to a monotonic organ-fueled drone ala LaMonte Young, abruptly shifting ten minutes later to a long, heavy Mahavishnu-like fusion guitar jam before reverting to an eerie, hypnotic, almost New Age piano and percussion mood piece. For all its disparate elements, shifting moods and loud/soft dynamics, the band retains a surprisingly coherent, unforced groove; largely eschewing solos and flash in favor of rhythm and beat.
They perform as a single, syncopated unit rather than disparate players. Arguably, to minimalist/avant garde for jazz purists and too pounding/percussive for chill, this is a challenging, hard to-categorize work, though really well done and highly recommended to those who have outgrown the mainstream.
Notes on sound quality: a very natural, “analog sounding” performance, without much studio enhancement or coloration; this approximates how I’d assume these guys would sound live. Perhaps because the performers are so tight, the dynamic range of the recording is relatively compressed, with a midrange focus and limited extension at both ends; warm and pleasant overall
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