Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Album Review: Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is an intimidating prospect.  16 tracks.  68 minutes.  And, supposedly, the critics' favourite.  It all starts out fine with Ira Kaplan's brief, mainly guitar led instrumental, the bafflingly-titled Return To Hot Chicken, which sadly ends before it really gets going.  However from here things get difficult.  Moby Octopad has a repetitive and somewhat annoying beat before the noisy and somewhat merit-free Sugarcube.  At least from here, Damage represents an improvement in that it mainly drifts along aimlessly with occasional distant guitar rattle.  The noisy, distorted Deeper Into Movies really works well in a ragged, Sonic Youth kind of way.

No Yo La Tengo album is complete without Georgia Hubley doing her spooked-out Mo Tucker routine, and this album doesn't disappoint.  Shadows features Jonathan Marx on tastefully muted trumpet, and the album finishes with her cover of sixties tune My Little Corner of the World.  But perhaps it's the amount of variety contained here that appeals so much to critics.  We get a perfect Belle & Sebastian facsimile on Stockholm Syndrome (though Kaplan can't resist a short distorted guitar solo), yet minutes later they do a garage rock version of The Beach Boys' Little Honda which wouldn't shame the Jesus and Mary Chain, followed up by a sleepy alt-country instrumental Green Arrow, complete with chirping crickets!

The finer tracks are towards the end - the pedal steel-enhanced One PM Again has the breezy, relaxed quality of Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby, while The Lie and How We Told It has a classic 90s YLT sound, a standoffish, muted VU atmosphere and is the equal of anything off their last 3 or 4 albums and definitely the finest track here.  Of course they don't stay put here, they follow this up with the cheesy bossa nova of Center of Gravity and the noisy endurance test of Spec Bebop, before recovering with the penultimate track, the shoegaze-y We're an American Band.

But overall, it's very much a hit and miss album, and if it was the first YLT album I heard I probably wouldn't be arsed checking any more out.  The moral of the story.  The critics, what the f**k do they know??

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Album Review: Mark Eitzel - Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much Baby

Mark Eitzel released his third solo album in 1998.  Despite the sardonic humour of the title, this was a bleak piece of work even for him.  Most of the tracks focused on Eitzel guitar and voice.  And what a voice.  His vocals are as powerful as on any of his other albums, pushed out to the front he sounds impassioned, desperate and at times completely bereft of hope on these tracks.  After the cheery misery of Are You The Trash, proceedings get more downbeat on Xmas Lights Spin.  Picking out a simple, descending guitar part, Eitzel sings of "a man doing an imitation of Satan" on a track with very little seasonal cheer ("St Nicholas left your toys behind at the bar").

The stark music of these tracks is matched perfectly by some pretty downbeat lyrics, sung with an absence of hope but a generous helping of passion.  Auctioneer's Song with its tale of "buried underneath not moving a bone" and White Rosary about a little girl "calling to heaven to take her away from the trap her life turned out to be," with the most minimal of guitar accompaniment, Eitzel literally only plays notes that are absolutely necessary.

If I Had A Gun varies the sonic formula a little, adding Kid Congo Powers on growling electric guitar as Eitzel sings about how if he had one he would "seal my fate with you" over a gloriously miserable picked acoustic guitar.  After this they are joined by a rhythm section of Steve Shelley and James McNew for the world weary Goodbye and the uptempo trio of Queen of No One, Cold Light Of Day and Go Away.

But the acoustic tracks are the heart and sole of the album, showing off Eitzel's incredibly fine guitar picking.  Never mind your Nick Drakes etc, the closing pair of Atico 18 and Sun Smog Seahorse compare favourably with any acoustic melancholia you care to name.

Yep, sure, it's a bit much.  But as well as being a downer, it contains some of Mark Eitzel's prettiest melodies and no frills guitar playing.  Avoid this like the plague unless you like your depression leavened with a heavy dose of bleak misery.  But for the rest of us, enjoy a bravura vocal performance, that's for sure.  A shame he doesn't record his voice like this any more, as similar to his live performance, he inhabits the songs, making them sound like they really matter.