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Music Reviews June 2005

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE
Nonesuch Records
Released (in North America) September 2004
***** (5 out of 5 stars)

It only took Brian Wilson 37 years to complete SMiLE. It was worth the wait. The legendary co-founder and mastermind of the Beach Boys began and almost finished this project in the summer and autumn of 1966. It was to be the follow-up to his acknowledged masterpiece, Pet Sounds. The new album would be his “teenage symphony to God”, an album that, musically speaking, would capture the essence of a lost ‘Americana’ of yesteryear.

Most of the bed tracks were completed by the winter of 1967. Legal problems with the label, the departure of his lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Brian’s uncertainty as to how to assemble the pieces of the cinematic sound bytes he created into a functional sound collage, and the resistance of some of his vocalist bandmates when they heard the material, stalled the project before it could be completed. When the Beatles’ double-A single Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever was immediately followed by the Sgt. Pepper album, Brian instinctively knew he had lost the production race to deliver the most advanced pop music production of the era, and immediately junked the album.

Decades of depression, uncertainty, drug abuse and mental illness followed.

Miraculously, Brian survived his ordeal, and with the help of Parks, a top-notch new band and the support of his second wife, Melinda, he has recorded a now-completed three-movement version of SMiLE. A few of the songs are familiar, having been released over the years as fragments torn from the whole, yet the assembled work has a cohesion and density few thought Wilson could ever achieve again. Sophisticated, whimsical and at times child-like, this choral work is one of the few orchestral pop albums in which masterpiece is an appropriate term to describe the piece. Flaming Lips, eat your heart out. Essential listening.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE Live
Rhino Records
Released (in North America) May 2005
***** (5 out of 5 stars)

It’s fascinating to watch what finishing SMiLE has done to Brian Wilson. A year prior to its completion, Wilson, 63, had made what many consider to be one of the most miraculous comebacks in history, done in the face of all the well-chronicled personal hardships he has endured: divorce, death and legal scuffles, mental illness plaguing him for most of his adult life, and the heavy toll that the ravages of drug abuse and ill-advised prescription medication have taken on him. Until recently, as wonderful as it was to see one of the greatest American pop composers of the 20th century performing live – back in the saddle – ready to share his music again, one couldn’t help but be aware of the frailties Brian unintentionally exposed to everyone. He continued to appear like an exposed raw nerve, always in danger of being rubbed the wrong way. Even as late as 2002, live on stage, one could see a man still battling his inner demons. One had the feeling that everything could fall apart on stage at any moment, no matter how good his support band was.

Yet flash forward to 2005, with SMiLE in the can for several months now, and you see a transformed man performing this wonderous music live with the vigour and energy of someone twenty years his junior. When Brian Wilson grins on stage during this live performance of this masterpiece, taped last fall at a Los Angeles soundstage, it’s palpable just how much emotional healing has occurred. Finishing this project may have been the best medicine Brian could ever have prescribed himself to heal the life wounds he has carried around his neck like an albatross for over 37 years. His spirit seems visibly lifted and at peace.

Wilson’s 10 piece band are a revelation, capturing all the dynamic grandeur of this rock opera; its intricacies, its power, its strength. The 8-piece Sweden-based Stockholm Strings and Horns add texture and density to the performance, and are an integral part of the live sound. So many instruments are needed to complete the SMiLE pop cycle. It seems almost necessary to have 18 people on stage to accurately represent it.

Sadly, one of the members of the Stockholm Strings and Horns, cellist Markus Sandlund, has since died while on holiday in Phuket in December 2004, there when the tragic tsunami hit. His body wasn’t found until early June 2005.

Wilson has probably never sounded better live. He has reportedly been taking voice lessons to improve what is left of his once three and a half octave range, and he wisely gets his bandmates to take some of the higher notes he can no longer reach. Always the wise and consummate producer, in some cases Brian has bandmates double his voice to strengthen or sweeten specific vocal lines. Considering how great the complex vocal arrangements are, it’s ironic that the song that won the Grammy this spring of 2005 was for the instrumental Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, the piece that so traumatized Brian in 1967 that he chose to shelve it until 2004.

The second disc consists of a comprehensive two hour documentary entitled Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & The Story Of SMiLE. assembled by David Leaf, longtime biographer and friend of Wilson. Leaf takes us through the gripping yet sad story of the SMiLE era of 1966-1967, and wisely chronicles its rebirth in 2003-2004. It remains one of the most fascinating stories in pop history, one with a happy ending few could have expected.

Arcade Fire, Funeral
Merge Records
Released (in North America) September 2004
***** (5 out of 5 stars)

American moves to Montreal. American meets French-Canadian. They fall in love. They start a band. Band members concurrently lose several relatives over a short time period. Deep sadness and mourning ensue. Band pours its collective sadness into songs. Shake well and stir.

What has come out of those series of life events which we all experience at one time of another is an album that deserves to be considered as one of the great achievements in recent popular music.

To the public at large, this band has seemingly come out of nowhere, emerging fully evolved and intact as a studio and live act. They’ve quickly gone from relative obscurity in North America to being on the cover of Time magazine. Music legends like David Bowie, Bjork and David Byrne are flocking to experience their captivating shows.

And with good reason. From the sadness and mourning the various band members have endured has emerged a cinematically triumphant work of longing and regret, joy and euphoria. Somehow this band has captured elements of the essence of what life offers, and has translated this into a musical journey full of low valleys and high precipices. Motifs only hinted at in one song become central melodic themes in another. Subtle accents found on one track become the main hook of another. The ten songs tell a story of sorts, providing an emotional musical journey for the listener that only grows deeper and more meaningful with every listen.

Some music gets through and touches the soul. This is that kind of music. Track nine, called Rebellion, makes this reviewer cry.

Mantler, Landau
Tomlab Records
Released July 2004
**** (4 out of 5 stars)

Mantler, known to his friends as Chris A. Cummings, loves old 70s blue-eyed American soul. He cites Roy Ayers as one of his great influences. One can hear the jazz influence in his chord progressions, with wisps of cottony Bacharach-isms floating by like white clouds in a crystal blue sky. There are definitely hints of Wilsonian references in his light and airy arrangements, but make no mistake, Mantler is an original songwriter. Upon first listen to his latest album, Mantler’s gentle aural vision greets you like an old friend, blanketing you with a warm and inviting smile, then snuggling up to you, holding you close as you sit and enjoy what is to come.

Mantler’s easy Wurlitzer arrangements swirl and envelop, mid-tempo beats cascading and nudging you along as he sings about finding true love in a mall food court, warns us to avoid turning the feeling of regret into a life pattern or language, and celebrates the fact that daybreak arrives for us all.

There are two songs on this album in particular that put Mantler in the fine company of great Canadian songwriters such as Ron Sexsmith, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. Comes A Daybreak and Brook And River mark the arrival of a new and sophisticated voice in song. Cummings will no doubt continue to hone his craft, quietly surprising and soothing his listeners in the coming years. In the meantime, here is a Sunday morning album for the ages.

Juniorboys, Last Exit
KIN Records/Domino Recording Company Ltd.
Released November 2004
**** (four out of five stars)

Dweebs, dorks, nerds and twerps sometimes have the last laugh. Jeremy Greenspan is one such fellow, although the chuckle comes in the form of a quiet confidence and the unassuming assurance he exhibits in his art. Greenspan and fellow musical alchemists Matthew Didemus and J. Dark (who left the band before the album was completed) have crafted an album of retro-sounding, mid-tempo – almost electro – beats. They sound like they could have been lifted and transported from the early 80s, if it were not for the contemporary warmth and sad charm of Greenspan’s whisperingly thin, conversational vocal tone.

Greenspan and cohorts have spent several years perfecting their sound in the reclusive quietude that is Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, honing and crafting their debut, after releasing a couple of EPs in 2003 that went nowhere. Or so they thought. Critics happened upon their work on the internet as the Juniorboys toiled away in their basements, and went apeshit crazy for the music. Soon after, raves started to come in from such venerable British publications like Uncut, Q Magazine, The Guardian and New Music Express. Then the American press discovered them, and the same thing happened again.

A North American tour with Modest Mouse followed. But is the album as good as the critical hype and lauding it has received? It is. Somewhere in the midst of all the Depeche Mode-esque bleeps, seemingly cold blorps, homespun rhythms and basement beats lies an album of discernible warmth and melodic depth.

Not bad for a bunch of  twerps. Takes one to know one. 😉

Low, The Great Destroyer
Sub Pop Records
Released January 2005
***1/2 (three and a half out of five stars)

Dave Fridmann, celebrated producer for Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, seems to be the producer du jour these days for bands who like that bombastic, grand, cinematic sound. Most recently he’s been turning the dials for the Duluth, Minnesota-based band Low.

Many have complained that the sound of Low has changed too drastically under the production reigns of Fridmann. Instead of the slow, spare, austere, almost dirgey sound familiar to Low fans, this album is upbeat, faster, with more harmonies and more of a mid-tempo atmosphere, something Low has, until now, not been know for. It’s really a stupid thing to complain about, considering the quality of the songs, which is really what it comes down to. And the Low ‘atmosphere’ is still intact and apparent in the sonic attitude displayed in songs like California and Death of a Salesman. The nay-sayers are wrong: it still sounds like a Low record. Low has every right to make the kind of record they want. The change in tempo, mood  and tone is a welcome thing, confirming their ability to play in different ranges of styles; styles with which they attack with competence and grace.

The production work is stellar. One notices the expansive drum sound right off the bat upon first listen.

The Great Destroyer is the sound of a band stretching their wings, and looking for ways to expand their repertoire. It’s conjecture, yes, but one does get the sense that they will continue to reach for new things in the coming years. Great package design too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Stereolab, Oscillons from the Anti-Sun
Too Pure Records
Released April 2005
**** 1/2 (four and a half out of five stars)

With the fate of Stereolab in question after the alleged breakup of husband and wife songwriting team Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier, the time seems right to release a compilation of all of their single EPs in a convenient format.

Most songs in this 3 cd and 1 dvd box set never made it onto any of their albums, so for some, this material may seem new. It is on these various b-sides and extraneous tracks where Gane and company experimented most with their sound. Their musical influences: Can, Kraftwerk, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Robert Moog, are readily apparent, but Stereolab has always been good at fusing and integrating their heroes into a workable pastiche, which is why they have always remained fresh and fascinating.

Disc four, the dvd, is the fun one. Many of these videos found here were not aired on mainstream music video channels around the world as they often did not fit the top forty format of the day. So, for many, this will be the first time viewing these arty short films. The live performances from the British program Later with Jools Holland, prove that the band could competently recreate their studio sound in a live setting.

My main quibble is with the packaging. The design is intriguing as usual, but the box is hard to open and easy to tear and damage, and the limited edition loose-leaf stickers, with artwork representing all 8 EPs, while serving to appease the package design completists, are nevertheless flimsy and cheap. A compilation like this deserves a booklet and historical essay as well, another thing missing from this collection.

The music is great though, a lush reminder that for over a decade, Stereolab have been a formidable art band.

Written for Supersweet Magazine, Bangkok/London