Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » June
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Daptone is one of those record labels that consistently puts out the goods. If I were record shopping with a friend and he held up an album with the imprint’s logo and asked what I thought of it, I’d have to give a thumbs up, no matter the album. Not to say all soul and funk is created equal; it certainly isn’t. The Daptone roster doesn’t half step, though, and the The Budos Band is no exception. As a label, Daptone seems to be very specific about quality control. There is an aesthetic which must be followed, and a groove that needs to be present. The Budos Band’s third full-length, simply titled III, explores the boundaries of the label’s sonic bent, this time moving even deeper into influences from Afro-rock, soul-jazz, psychedelia, and late 1960s/early 1970s film soundtracks. Jared Tankel, who plays baritone sax for the band, has recounted that, heading into the studio to record III, he thought Daptone was going to be releasing its first psychedelic doom-rock record. The results, somehow, turned out sounding like a Budos record.

No doubt, The Budos Band’s audience is adventurous enough that they would most likely find a thrill in following these guys into a drastic departure of psychedelic doom-rock. Lucky for those who desire more of what they know and love, though, this album offers up some familiar sounds. The grooves are strong on III, though it’s not quite what one would call danceable music. In theory, these are perfect dance tunes for any cool party. But in reality cool people just don’t dance. III is more like the badass soundtrack playing in a gritty 1970s heist film, when everything goes to slow motion right before the big job.

As there always is on a Budos record, a cover song is here, too. And as always, it’s a flipped version of the original, maybe hard to find at first, but you’ll know it when you hear it. The cover from the first record was Sly & The Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song,” on the second record it was “My Girl,” and on III it’s “Reppirt Yad,” a dark and funky twist on a Beatles classic. I bet you could figure it out just from the name of the song, but if not, then you’ll get it when you hear it.

Fans of previous Budos Band efforts will enjoy the subtle change of direction on this new disc, and those who are just discovering the band will be left wondering, “How many other things have I been missing out on in life?”

It may be hard to believe, but Neil Diamond has been offering his level of swag and finesse for 45 years. At this point, he has become an example, if not a blatant stereotype, of the power of pop music. Radio never stops playing him, and his songs are used in everything from car commercials to sporting and political events. Yet, for younger generations who have grown up regarding his hits as the square, sentimental tunes that their parents (or grandparents) listen to, they may question why they should be curious about Diamond. Question no longer. The Bang Years: 1966-1968 is a fantastic 23-song compilation representing Diamond’s first forays into the pop charts.

Bang was a record label like any other, wanting to become a hit-making imprint by finding artists tailored to fulfill that goal. It makes sense, considering that Bang was founded by Bert Berns (B), Ahmet Ertegun (A), Nesuhi Ertegun (N), and Jerry (Gerald) Wexler (G) – some of the mid-to-late 20th century’s biggest record industry players.  The label was never promoted as an Atlantic subsidiary, but whereas Atlantic had the soul and jazz charts and ATCO covered pop, the ANG portion of Bang’s executives wanted more chart dominance. They achieved this when Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967), The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” (1965), and The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” (1965) each became staples on mainstream radio. Then came Neil Diamond.

While Diamond’s stay on Bang lasted only a few years (1966-68) and ended in frustration on the singer’s part and a protracted legal battle, he quickly became its most popular star. That popularity came at a price, though. The songs on this collection show someone who was not only a singer able to excite and entice, but also a talented songwriter. While Bang felt they had found the perfect pop star in Diamond, the singer-songwriter, who had previously worked as a songwriter in the Brill Building creating hits for the likes of Elvis Presley, The Monkees, and Cliff Richard, didn’t want to merely be a teen sensation. Rather, in the span of these few years, he managed to come up with a catalog of songs that has largely defined his persona to this day. Some of the songs here include “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “The Long Way Home,” and “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (Diamond’s obligatory contribution to the 1960s phenomenon of “I’m a man, but I want to romance little girls” songs).

If you’ve limited your perspective of Neil Diamond to what you hear on oldies radio today, there are two songs here that may surprise you, since outside of Diamondophiles they’re generally not associated with Diamond. The first is “I’m A Believer,” which of course became a massive hit for The Monkees, continues to get airplay today, and for contemporary youth, unfortunately, is forever linked to Smashmouth’s cover version in Shrek (2001). Here, we find the song from the man who put it together, and the passion and devotion in Diamond’s version is much more intense and heartfelt. Then there’s “Red Red Wine,” a song that did not do well for Diamond as a single, but managed to gain an audience through numerous cover versions, including a few by Jamaican soul/reggae performers during the late 1960s (Jimmy James, Tony Tribe). These rocksteady versions were popular in the British ska scene of the period and Tribe’s cover became a favorite of the members of UB40, who would release their own version in 1983. The song went on to become UB40’s biggest hit, and to most readers the song is identified with them today. Here, we get to hear Diamond’s original acoustic ballad, and the conviction and misery he felt over losing a woman he loved, forgetting her with a bottle of wine. Diamond would revive the song in the 1970s when a live version of it appeared on his massive selling live album Hot August Night (MCA, 1972). This song has managed to have a life of its own for six decades, but it’s only now, in 2011, that this compilation makes it possible for the composition to return home.

All of the songs are remastered and presented here in their original mono single mixes and edits, and the recordings sound fresh and vibrant. But what is also impressive about this set are the liner notes, penned by Diamond himself. There has been a bigger-than-life understanding of Diamond over the years, especially after Hot August Nights’ release and his role in the film The Jazz Singer (1980). The perception has helped him cultivate a career which continues to this day, but most of the people who know the hits don’t know the hustle and struggles he endured to reach that success. By leaving Bang, Diamond became a bit more aggressive in his songwriting, a hint of which can be heard in the song that closes this collection, “Shilo.” Once the singer departed from the label, he moved forward and became one of the biggest pop stars of the 20th century, a showman known for the kitsch and glamour of his performances. The liner notes describe a young man ready to explore, and to see a scan of one of his first royalty checks is hilarious, considering that he has gone on to sell over 1115 million record worldwide and no doubt continues to profit wildly from some of the most ubiquitous pop hits of the past 50 years.

The Bang Years: 1966-1968 is something that should be heard and purchased not only by those who may have enjoyed these tracks the first time, but for those who need to know what quality music and songwriting songs like.

There’s a blog called Awesome Tapes from Africa that posts the author’s samples of what happens when Africans actually pick their musical output. The output of the blog has, at times, expanded my idea of African musics. It’s not that the tapes radically alter musical forms, rather it’s that we get to hear voices we don’t usually hear constructing pop musics for a populace with whom we share similar tastes. Take this tape by Ninie: her stuff has the hallmarks of a woman making pop by her own means. It makes me wonder if Peter Gabriel is some type of misogynistic bastard vetoing any original female album from Africa. Or maybe, just maybe, Ninie is that original?

How does this relate to the world of tUnE-yArDs? Well, it’s quite simple. The flush blooms of off kilter pop the U.S. has been producing of late sound a lot like African pop music. Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend: they’re all rooted in Sounds of Soweto, those rare samplers of ethnic pop making it overseas. But tUnE-yArDs, who obviously borrow from soul and gospel too, can at times make the slim confines of those band’s ethnic aesthetics seem simple.

This is music made by someone who is steadfastly open to the world. tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, a white woman from New England, shrieks, shouts, and moves out into the possibilities of music, like Odetta mixing it up with Fela Kuti. But this strategy of multiphreniac bouncing between musical identities becomes tiring. Garbus knows her limits and her musical form, however the eclecticism of her iPod playlist hijacks the show and, ultimately, her musical output lacks a center. Such is a virtue, w h o k i l l is far from boring, but the album’s leaping means it lacks depth. Instead, it stutters between styles like a bag woman humming Beethevon at a metal concert. Like most albums of a similar nature, it comes down to spirituals. tUnE-yArDs is all about faith, a belief in the necessity of dispensing identity into anything and everything deemed suitable. w h o k i l l has the polish of a studio job, but still doesn’t want to settle down into the expected. The latter could be said about a lot of 4AD’s recent signings (Gang Gang Dance, Efterklang, Twin Shadow).

The songs? “My Country” blisters around in psychedelic juxtapositions before breaking into splinters. “Es-so”: not as in love with it, it actually kinda annoys me. “Gangsta” strangely reminds me of Elvis Costello’s straining rages and lyrical output on This Year’s Model, except Garbus faux-gangsta raps like a group of suburban white teenagers pretending to be black. It’s this ability to revert to a kind of infantile vision of pop music and then come back to a professionalism that produces the album’s queerness. These questions of taste and sensibility wrap tUnE-yArDs’ songs in their strange cloak. “Powa” starts off a little alterna-hymnal, Gabrus’ voice slowly growing into itself then switching into a harder chorus, a glam-rock tune being pulled down to our gravity. “Riotriot” begans all simple frail sketches, the guitar walking like a sickly insect before getting brushed off into an explosion of horns. “Bizness,” the single off the album, is just great. I would describe it, but you can just watch the video here.

tUnE-yArDs is one of the few artists that the market and the Internet have simultaneously elected into a prominent position in pop music. Her tapes, her collaborations, and her videos have all managed to capture a nascent interest – growing, for instance, into collaborations with Yoko Ono. Now that Garbus has the tenure of a label and not simply the throwaway fun of an MP3 single, she is still producing pretty good pop. This sophomore album doesn’t quite manage to enchant, but it isn’t straining for ideas either. Rather, Garbus is impassioned by such a variety of tunes that the singer tries to be all at once. That formula often boils down to a focus on a particular genre, but something in her aesthetic, the patchwork of selves and tunes that makes her fame possible, is lasting even when the strategy behind her and like-minded groups increasingly sounds stale.

People know Neil Gaiman’s name for a myriad of different reasons. Sure, to many he’s the man behind The Sandman series, which DC began publishing more than two decades ago. In the years since, however, he’s done so much else that, depending on who you talk to, he could be “best known” for any of a number of things. Some love him as the novelist responsible for Neverwhere and American Gods. Others know him instead as the children’s author whose book Coraline was recently made into an Oscar-nominated animated film. Then there are surely the sci-fi fans who care more about his scripts for Dr. Who episodes than his work in comics. For others it’s probably something else entirely, as there’s plenty to choose from.

Delirium’s Party, which is out now from DC’s Vertigo imprint, blends together a couple of the talents Gaiman is known for without actually having anything to do with the man himself. Written and illustrated by Jill Thompson, Delirium’s Party: A Little Endless Storybook is an all-ages graphic novel featuring the characters Gaiman introduced in the pages of The Sandman. In this new book, the character Dream, who is “the Sandman,” and his six siblings, known as “the Endless,” have a family party. The story is pretty straightforward kids stuff from there, with Delirium, the youngest of of the Endless, throwing the party to try and make a sibling smile.

What’s interesting about this book, and what truly makes it “all ages,” is the fact that the characters featured in it once helped to make comics a more adult pastime. Here though, they get the Muppet Babies treatment, with Thompson painting child-like caricature versions of the seven Endless. It’s a sequel of sorts to The Little Endless Storybook, which Thompson similarly authored and illustrated in 2001. In both books Thompson softens the horror and dark fantasy aspects of The Sandman, while expertly including allusions to and content from the source material itself.

It helps that Thompson’s no stranger to the characters, especially Delirium. In the 1990s she illustrated a Sandman story arc called “Brief Lives” that heavily featured Delirium. Plus, prior to that, Thompson had illustrated a single Sandman issue (#40) which served as the official debut of the “Little Endless” characters. In her 20-plus years in the industry, she’s also drawn for Marvel and Dark Horse, as well as illustrated a number of other DC/Vertigo titles — Swamp Thing, The Invisibles, Books of Magic and Black Orchid, to name a few.

What makes Delirium’s Party so compelling is less the children’s story it tells than its watercolor illustrations. With panels and speech balloons conspicuously absent, Delirium’s Party, not surprisingly, reads more like a children’s book than a graphic novel. The pages alternate between solely prose and full-page illustrations by Thompson. It’s an engaging effect. I spent less time looking over the words than I did taking in the artwork, and I’m sure the experience will be the same for most readers — especially Gaiman fans. For them the fun’s going to be less finding out what makes Delirium’s sister, Desire, smile than deciphering the imagery that serves as simple background on some pages.

For something that uses The Sandman as source material, this book is much less macabre than it could have been. Thompson’s reimagining of the Endless is straightforward enough to stand on its own, but it’s going to be the dedicated Sandman readers who buy this — as well as Thompson’s own fans. In addition to being one of the most well-known female comic book artists working in the industry today, she also has her own series of children’s books, called Scary Godmother.












The focus of this space will be sweatin’ the small stuff: limited-edition runs on cassette tapes, microcassettes, 7-, 10-, and 12-inchers, the occasional book or comic, and any other handmade goods and other artsy extras. Frayed ends and jagged edges will abound, so don’t come around here thinking you’re not going to get cut or bleed or… something worse.

The Autumn Ferment label has a seasonal series going, wherein they, well, you can probably guess, right? The “Winter” entry (300 copies of snow-white 7″ vinyl) is my favorite so far, mainly because its “AA”-side – a name that does, in fact, hit me better than the term B-side – features a dude named FLAKE BROWN delivering some frosty, frank folk vocals that penetrate the ear then freeze out the brain. Fast, steady, tidbit sloppy guitar might just be Flake Brown‘s best weapon, but he’s sharp all ’round. “Bring me a diamond to dig me a pit” he crows on “Cool Is the Snow.” He’s “drunk as the wind” and I know what he’s talking about. Nice. DUSTY STRAY float the listener a nice, in-the-pocket A-side but there’s not much there for me; as is typical, I’d wager “Winter’s Day” is the only song mentioned in this entire column that carries commercial possibilities with it. So I’m guessing it’s going to be pleasing to some people and less so to those on the fringe.

I work at a newspaper copy-editing hub, and I need music that won’t jump into my brain and scream while I’m trying to lay out pages or suss out headlines. KYLE BOBBY DUNN‘s A Young Person’s Guide To is – along with Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America original soundtrack (1984), the Timeout Drawer, and, strangely because I remember being highly critical of them a few years ago, early Unwed Sailor – the perfect music to live my 9-to-5 life to. Dunn‘s double-CD, released on UK ambient/drone/noise label Low Point, is unassuming and bare, a drone record for those who have the patience to invest themselves in soft currents that rarely (if ever) ripple. The subtle delights are often the most rewarding, and Dunn hones in on that and repeats it like a mantra.

It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to hear one line of ITALIC INDIAN’s Drowsy Bruise 12″ (250 copies with collage poster, on Life’s Blood) and ascertain that this group is pretty Out There. You know, Destructo Swarmbots Out There; Secret Mommy Out there; Eric Copeland out there. It does depend on the moment, though; there are several sections of Drowsy Bruise that tinker more than they troubleshoot, several others where the different components of their sound coalesce and you think they could be much better, if only they went with the straight harpoon-to-the-eye. Which is laudable (and audible) whenever Italic Indian do get their sideways beats and upside-down effects to lock into a rhythmic, symbiotic relationship with each other for long periods of time. Overall, I think more is more, and I definitely got less than more from Italic Indian on this one, beautifully flawed as they are. Just a little more action, less traction, no?

What the hell is a jiggawatt? I mean, a Googolplex? No matter, it’s time to play Coleco. Literally, this time around, as ONE IN A GOOGOLPLEX essentially play a 2600 along with the first track or two of the Dropout Cats cassette/CD (limited, but to how many copies I don’t know, on Alchemist). New age like Kitaro yet futuristic like Oneohtrix or Emeralds, but WAIT… there’s a proper song or three on here and they’re painful. I should mention that. One In a Googolplex is the solo project of German synth-and-acoustic-guitar player Sebastian Zimmer, and Dropout Cats reminds me of that A Faulty Chromosome CD: too gawky to look at, not tender enough to make you care. Now the second song in a row is dragging me into the same phone booth with Four Tet and Marcy Playground – this can’t go on, can it? I’m feeling weak, old, grizzled like a choppy T-bone. Hip-hop beats and sad, wistful raps joined with blippety-bloops and awkward, often-out-of-tune guitar tracked overtop; it doesn’t get much worse. What happened to that awesome first cut? Gone, bro.

If you’ve been following Thee Oh Sees – and the attendant sugar-rush of similar acts, from The Beets to Ty Segall – MEDICATION‘s This Town LP (limited edition of 700 on HoZac) will serve as a fresh breath of nicotine-stained air after weeks spent inside a stuffy, non-smoking bar. This Town, appropriately enough in the age of Fuzz Envy and Tascam 388s, might even be lo-fi-er than anything Anton Newcombe has managed, distant enough to be coming from two rooms away and trebly enough to cause headaches and hearing loss. It’s worth it, every goddamn minute of it. Mikey Hyde [pictured above] is as reverent to his idols as many of the solo, home-recorded acts of today, but there’s something more here. For those who thought Brian Jonestown Massacre never really got it right over the course of a full-length album – a theory I just can’t Dig – Medication‘s debut long-player could very well be the treatment they’re looking for. The title track is particularly memorable, its tambourines chirping like drunken crickets and its guitar riff rambling off into perpetuity.

Alight of Night, the 2008 debut from Brooklyn’s Crystal Stilts, was one of the more intriguing indie releases in recent years. While one could categorize the band as garage rock, unlike the millions of bands aping the genre over the years, Crystal Stilts ignore the typical Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Nuggets-inspired fuzz rock template for something much more unique. Alight was full of dark and moody, but impossibly catchy, pop songs. Simple yet effective Velvet Underground style beats and early Jesus and Mary Chain distortion are key ingredients of Crystal Stilts’ sound, but the most striking element is Brad Hargett’s strangely hypnotic monotone vocals. The singing is so distant and ghostly that it sounds as if the frontman was recorded in an echo chamber. The closest approximation of his vocal style is The Damned’s Dave Vanian, when his group veered from an early punk rock sound to 1960s psych during the early 1980s on The Black Album (EMI, 1980) and Strawberries (Bronze, 1982).

Crystal Stilts’ long awaited follow-up, In Love With Oblivion, doesn’t take any drastic sonic detours from their debut, although one does immediately notice that the production is cleaner. The group shows more warmth here, too, with an upfront keyboard sound and some varied tempos. If there was a fault with Alight, it was that the material was a little too similar at times.  “Sycamore Trees” opens this album with a slow building intro, as an almost surf twang blends with some groovy farfisa sounds. Old fans rest assured, though, that when Hargett’s vocals kick in, nothing has changed. The following track, “Through the Floor,” is a huge highlight. With its fuzz rock sound and catchy female backing vocals, the song is a perfect marriage of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and early Jesus and Mary Chain or Black Tambourine.  “Flying Into the Sun” conjures up some of Love’s lush atmospheres (see “Alone Again Or”) while “Silver Sun” explores a The Byrds inflection with some heavenly jangle. Another highlight, “Half A Moon,” sounds like a distant cousin of The Damned’s legendary single “Smash It Up.”

Perhaps the best track of all is “Alien Rivers.” Clocking in at over seven minutes, the song combines the best elements of 1960s psych and even a little 1980s goth with spectacular, spooky keyboards setting the mood and downright scary, almost spoken-word vocals from Hargett. Fans of the aforementioned Damned and the less excessive side of The Doors will love this. I certainly do.

This review article covers the restored and expanded editions of Pearl Jam’s Vs. and Vitalogy albums, originally released in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Epic Records and Legacy Recordings recently co-released each album separately in expanded “Definitive Legacy Editions,” featuring three bonus tracks on each, as well as together in both a three-CD “Deluxe Edition,” featuring a 1994 concert recording on the third disc, and a “Limited Edition Collector’s Box Set.” This review article refers to the three-CD Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition.

Let me begin with an anecdote: A couple years ago, a friend sent me a clip of The Gaslight Anthem covering “State of Love and Trust” while on tour in Italy during early 2009. They introduced it by saying, “This is an old Pearl Jam song.” It’s a joyously lean and ragged performance, even if it lacks some of the finer points of the original (guitarist Mike McCready’s palm-muted arpeggio up into the verse lick, the scaldingly high vibrato bend slashing into the tail end of the last refrain). But more than appreciating The Gaslight Anthem’s take, I found myself thinking back to Pearl Jam themselves covering The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (1971) at the release concert for Cameron Crowe’s Singles, aired on MTV back in 1992.

Back then, singer Eddie Vedder introduced the song by dedicating it to Crowe “because he’s got good taste in music.” Their version was heavy on energy, low on technique. McCready did his best to emulate the burbling synth-line of the original and it became clear towards the end that they had no way to end the song as it does on The Who’s original recording, when violins churn the tempo faster and faster until the song obliterates itself in a wanton Irish jig. So instead, Pearl Jam just thrummed up a lot of noise until Vedder counted them back in on one last chorus. It was instantly my favorite thing Pearl Jam had ever done, which wasn’t surprising, since I was completely besotted with Pearl Jam at the time and nearly everything they did became my new favorite thing. That performance sent me back to listen to Who’s Next (Decca, 1971), just as their cover of “Suggestion” had led me to Fugazi and interviews about their influences had sent me back to Cream, Hendrix, and other classic rock bands. I found myself wondering if there were any impressionable 14 or 15 year olds hearing The Gaslight Anthem covering Pearl Jam who would then go back to check them out, and that’s when it hit me: in 2009 it had been 18 years since the release of the soundtrack to Singles. When Pearl Jam covered “Baba O’Riley,” it had been 20 since the release of Who’s Next.

I was shocked. Realizing that the present day was now as far removed from the beginning of Pearl Jam’s career as the classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s had been in the early 1990s was disquieting, to say the least. Before bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins began fusing elements of 1960 psychedelia and blues rock with 1970s arena rock, I’d viewed my father’s affection for Cream and other classic rock bands with the mild disdain we reserve for music that seems hopelessly outdated. Was it possible that Pearl Jam themselves had now been placed at that arm’s length distance from relevance?

With that question in mind, I’d like to look at the music on the Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition as music, as artifact, and as legacy apart from all the personal drama that surrounded the initial releases of Pearl Jam’s second and third albums. Other reviewers have done a fine job dealing with such things. Let’s just note that over the course of these two records, Pearl Jam were still very much a band trying to figure out who they were – a band attempting to musically reconcile their charming, radio-ready, deeply sentimental side with their convoluted aspirations to be more than just a band. They were also a phenomenally popular band who didn’t seem to enjoy popularity very much, the notion of which today seems rather quaint. When Arcade Fire won a Grammy, they didn’t bat an eyelash but just accepted the award with genuine joy, it seemed.

Pearl Jam’s hand-wringing over ticket prices or making videos seems like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing now, but there are also strictly musical elements present on both 1993’s Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy suggesting a certain unbridgeable gap to our modern age. There’s Dave Abbruzzese’s aggressively ADD approach to drumming, filled with splashes (on “Daughter”), single-stroke high hat rolls (on the live version of “Even Flow” from an April 12, 1994 show in Boston included with the Deluxe Edition), and muscularly un-punk double-stroke kick drum fetish (on Pearl Jam’s cover of The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” from the same live set). There’s Jeff Ament’s stunningly broad bass palette from fretless to 12-string and points in between. I mean, has anyone heard a fretless bass on a rock song in the last 10 years? There are, for Chrissake, guitar solos (although not so much on Vitalogy). Not to mention the vocal histrionics that have Vedder humming and growling nonsense between every other line. Even Vedder’s casual profanity seems of another time. What leads a man to mutter “fuck” under his breath while recording the vocals for “Go”? Can you even imagine such a thing on a Band of Horses or TV On the Radio song?

There are also plainly some ill-advised songs that time has not bettered. The vaguely world-y noodling of “W.M.A.” from Vs. and “Aye Davanita” from Vitalogy sound forced and very nearly colonial nowadays. There’s a vagueness to Pearl Jam’s idea of world music (percussive, bubbling) that seems like a half-formed thought. Couple that with the social justice theme of “W.M.A.” and you have something very strange indeed: a bunch of rich white guys from more or less middle-class upbringings bemoaning police brutality over some djembe like it was going to make a difference. But then, sometimes, their weird mishmash makes a giddy kind of sense, as when the stomping, funky coda of “Rats” injects something strangely New Orleans-esque into Vedder’s rodent ode. Vedder crooning the hook from Michael Jackson’s 1972 hit “Ben” over this outro simply has no right to work as well as it does, but the band’s earnestness has always overshadowed some of their simpler, more fun-loving moments, as on the caustic, biting “Satan’s Bed” from Vitalogy or the Ten (1991) outtake “Dirty Frank.”

“Aye Davanita” commits the double sin of also belonging to the clutch of tossed off, pseudo-experimental tracks that pepper Vitalogy: “Bugs,” “Pry, To,” and the album’s closer, originally called “hey foxymophandlemama, that’s me” but now shortened to “Stupidmop” for this reissue. If only the music – a messy, seven-plus-minute pastiche of guitar noise and aimless drumming set against documentary recordings about spanking – had been similarly edited or even removed.

Of the non-experimental songs, “Glorified G” from Vs. is perhaps the worst offender, a silly anti-gun screed written as a more or less direct fuck-you from Vedder to drummer Abbruzzese, a Texan with a gun collection. Petty bickering songs are sometimes great (viz. Fleetwood Mac and post-Beatles Lennon and McCartney), but when the smart guy with the mic is beating up on the youngest guy in the band who just wants to rattle off paradiddles and ratamacues and make bank for doing it, it just feels mean. And much as it was with Lennon, increasing fame led Vedder to a directly proportional increase in interest in himself on songs like “Blood,” “Not for You,” and “Corduroy.” Heck, he even mentions himself by name in “Blood”: “Paint Ed big / Turn Ed into / one of his enemies.” When these songs work, they’re genuinely impressive; “Corduroy” is Pearl Jam’s finest melodic moment, the constrained range of the verse giving way beautifully to the lilting rise and fall of the chorus. It also transmutes an almost unrelatable experience of fame into universal ambivalence towards generosity – no mean feat. But the lyrical content of “Not For You” and “Blood” is wearying, with Vedder railing against soft targets like the press and fair-weather fans. On the live set included here, he even goes so far as to introduce “Not For You” by saying, “This song is about, uh, people who don’t have taste, but they like us anyways.” Looking back at Pearl Jam now, it’s easy to wonder if Fugazi or The Dead Boys might have had some of the same feelings about Pearl Jam themselves.

Furthermore, what distance has made clear is that Pearl Jam are at their best when Vedder is working in persona. At the time, he was lauded for the personal, confessional nature of his lyrics, but now it’s evident that the band’s greatest triumphs – from “Jeremy” to “Why Go” to “Daughter” to “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” to “Nothingman” (with lyrics by Ament, actually) to “Better Man” – are grounded in Vedder’s ability to tell a story, to make a character breathe. To take just one example, “Elderly Woman” is a model of restraint and sympathy, with Vedder taking on the role of a woman who’s never made it anywhere beyond the bounds of her small town encountering a ghost from her past. The verses are laced with powerful, multi-sensory lines that make the reality of the song felt (“I swear I recognize your breath / Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising”). The emotion of the song rises as the narrator becomes more and more convinced that this “haunting, familiar” face really is who she thinks it is. By the time Vedder peaks with, “By God, it’s been so long / never dreamed you’d return,” we’re ready for them to meet, to talk, to have their moment of reunion. But so smartly, Vedder leaves us before this happens, singing the refrain (“Hearts and thoughts they fade / fade away”) ever softer out of the song. The lingering note of doubt in the chorus leaves us hanging, unsure if this is even the person she thinks it is, or if she actually found the courage to speak. It’s beautifully ambiguous, a real triumph for a songwriter so often associated with heart-on-sleeve moaning and crooning.

But then there are also those aforementioned guitar solos, and Vs. opens with three exceedingly brilliant ones. McCready’s breathless, sprinting lead on “Go” is nonstop fury, his solo on “Animal” a slinkier, guitar-wide tour through bends and double-stops, and his work on “Daughter” is melodic and lovely, sliding in under Vedder’s keening high note and blending toughness with gentleness in much the manner of his heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His work on those three songs alone vaults him into the conversation of great 1990s guitarists, if not to the very forefront of that list. And then, just like that, on Vitalogy the guitar solos all but disappear. “Immortality” is the only track to feature a true improvised solo (as opposed to the melodic break of “Not For You”), perhaps due to the band’s admitted hijacking by Vedder in the wake of the exhausting tours that followed Vs. At the time, I bemoaned McCready’s diminishing importance as a soloist, so it’s surprising to find that whatever Vitalogy lacks in solos, it more than makes up for with songwriting in “Tremor Christ,” “Nothingman,” “Corduroy,” and “Immortality.”

And yet, the 18-year-old me who liked the noodly guitar bits wasn’t wrong either, because Pearl Jam were most interesting when they embodied difficult contradictions, when they were still in the act of becoming and not yet fully formed. The live CD included here finds Abbruzzese rushing nearly every song, but he’s doing it because he’s just so damned excited, and isn’t there something kind of great about that? The band was born, after all, out of the unholy marriage of Gossard and Ament’s leftover Mother Love Bone anthems and Vedder’s passionate, political, and personal words. The late Andrew Wood would have gotten the demo for what would later become “Alive” and written a song about cartoon character superheroes or sultry vixens. Vedder made the main character a hurt, lost young man dealing with his own conflicted sexuality and the fact that he never knew his real father. The creative tension that was so instrumental in the first several Pearl Jam albums was ultimately unsustainable, as any system must seek equilibrium. When the band found itself sometime in 1998, after taking on ex-Soundgardener Matt Cameron as their “forever” drummer, they settled into a comfortable groove of touring a lot and putting out middling albums every couple years. The ensemble achieved a kind of inner peace about being a band, put aside the drama that had Abbruzzese’s drum tech playing on “Satan’s Bed” without Abbruzzese’s knowledge, and stepped gracefully out of relevance to modern music. Few would argue that they’re not happier for it.

But if Pearl Jam were at their best when they were confused, when they were railing outwardly against Ticketmaster and MTV and inwardly against their popularity, trying to reconcile their penchant for the big gesture with their hardhearted desire for integrity and respect (which somehow seem to conflict with each other in rock), then Vs. and Vitalogy must stand as their peak approach and initial descent, respectively. Somewhere between these two records stands their apex as a technically proficient band whose singer wanted to wallow in the gritty simplicity of punk even while writing affecting, lyrical ballads. On these two records, they’re by turns silly, serious, tender, overly earnest, beguilingly catchy, miserably unfunny, furiously raw, frustratingly calculating, young, stupid, smart, lovable, and lamentable. As a teenager, I used to wonder if Pearl Jam would stand the test of time like The Who, Hendrix, Cream, Neil Young, like all those bands that influenced them. I guess The Gaslight Anthem gave me some of the answer, but the Vs./Vitalogy Deluxe Edition shows that sometimes timelessness is overrated and that there’s a lot to be said for being distinctly of one’s time – fretless bass, splashes, guitar solos and all.

Photos: Lance Mercer (courtesy Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment).

I’ll admit it, I don’t worship Robert Pollard or Guided By Voices. Yes, GBV made some of my favorite records, and Pollard’s songwriting often borders on infallible. However, these facts do not corrupt my critical ears or keep me from making sound assessments of the man’s work. For example, Pollard simply makes too many records. Sure, not one of his countless albums is what might be called an embarrassment, but how much is too much? How often have I listened to a post-GBV Pollard album and been bored by its sameness? Yes, I understand most of Pollard’s appeal rests on his ridiculously prolific output, and many of us love the idea of an aging indie genius releasing one off-the-cuff basement masterpiece after another. But, you know what? The clichéd quantity versus quality debate certainly applies here, and, for the record, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

All personal hang-ups aside, I always listen to a new Pollard-related project with an open mind; I wait for its merits to distinguish it from the glut of the rest. Now, what to make of Waving At the Astronauts, his second outing with former GBV bandmate Doug Gillard as Lifeguards? Well, while not essential, it certainly stands as one of the more solid post-GBV releases. Pollard and Gillard couldn’t have picked a better opener than “Paradise Is Not So Bad.” On this summery anthem, big, distorted riffs slice jangly acoustic lines in half as Pollard lets some of his most playful lyrics loose: “Stuck in the middle of the guest list free-for-all debutante ball.” Read that line out loud, and you’ll hear the rolling poeticism that defines most of this song. It’s great fun from start to finish, and Pollard, of course, remains keenly aware of what he and Gillard have created, mumbling “here comes the hit” before the chorus. Unfortunately, “Nobody’s Milk,” the album’s second track, erases some of the breezy, bouncy energy built by the opener. A bit too Joe Walsh for my liking, the song sounds like something you’d hear snippets of in between the table saw squeals coming from your uncle’s garage. You know what I mean: standard classic rock fare for middle-aged white guys on the weekends.

“(Doing The) Math” comes next and adroitly corrects the missteps of “Nobody’s Milk.” With its dark, moody overtones and start/stop dynamics, it moves the listener through a tight, claustrophobic experience to an expansive payoff: a noisy, minute-and-a-half long guitar stagger. This kind of opening up serves the song and album well, as it keeps things away from the Pollard/GBV fallback formula: predictable, revved-up little pop songs. Sure, there are a few more bad decisions here – “Trip the Web” mines similar territory as “Nobody’s Milk” – but Waving At the Astronauts ultimately wins thanks to the bottom of its order: the controlled train wreck of “Keep It In Orbit” and the semi-ridiculous psychedelia of “What Am I?” Long time fans will have nothing to complain about and will probably herald it as a “return to form” (yuck). Pollard/GBV neophytes stand to gain a better understanding of why the Ohioan and his associates sit perched on indie rock’s altar: at their best, these guys can write songs.

On Mia Doi Todd’s ninth project, Cosmic Ocean Ship, the Los Angeles singer/songwriter wears her heart on her handmade sleeve. These 10 tracks – eight originals and two Latin American pop tunes – arrive replete with summery romance, where youthful souls unite on foreign beaches, sip frothy drinks, eat sweet fruits, and look longingly in each others’ eyes as the sun sets. Ostensibly, Todd declares her lanky, loungey 42-minute paean to self-absorbed pleasure to be a plea for peace in times of unrest. Yet, for the most part, Todd turns shaded eyes away from the world’s problems to focus almost exclusively on her personal life, reflecting on family, friendships, and how her heartstrings quiver when she’s with her lover.

Cosmic Ocean Ship is Todd’s strongest effort to date. Her newest material has a sharper consideration than previous recordings which occasionally centered on surrealism. Here, the lyrics are concise and her small combo of musical associates supply a warm, relaxed feel to the instrumental background. Todd’s early work was sometimes noticeably impersonal, with dreamlike narratives and effusive text. Over the years, she’s become more introspective and also more universal: Todd’s oblique navel-gazing has been replaced by confidence and the acceptance she’s speaking to an audience and not to herself (a trap many fledgling singer/songwriters tend to fall into). Todd has largely abandoned aesthetic escapism for a candor which can border on the unnervingly personal. It’s a legacy shared by antecedents such as fellow Southern California soft-rock/folk-popster Joni Mitchell, who continues to be a crucial influence, particularly during breezy “My Baby Lives in Paris,” when Todd uses a higher vocal register than usual and succeeds in being forthright and assured. Todd channels Mitchell by using subtly sophisticated instrumentation (piano, electric bass, brushed cymbals, several stringed instruments). Meanwhile, her lyrics have the trace of a Woodstock-era vibe, as she describes the details of her French amour, including comparisons between flowers blooming and her blossoming ardor and how doves cooing in the morning are similar to her forlorn feelings when departing back to her California home.

There is a resilient Latin American ambiance as well. The gently swaying opening track “Paraty” – referring to the lush Brazilian coastal tourist area – glides along with a sprightly bounce bounded by airy percussion, Todd’s supple guitar strums and her lightly reverbed vocals, lingering at the end of each line. Content is on the thin side – Todd relies on repeating the chorus too much on this cut – but as summer songs go, this is perfectly coifed and adroitly echoes Astrud Gilberto’s 1960s material. “Under the Sun” has a corresponding atmospheric mood, highlighted by Todd’s best singing (she hits her notes with prominent poise and precision) and lissome Latin rhythms. Unfortunately, the piece has Todd’s weakest metaphors, with embarrassingly clumsy analogies about how she is the ocean, her significant other is the land, and also the “salt in my sea, the cream in my coffee, the honey in my tea.” This is the kind of songwriting expected from a high school freshman, not the depth which listeners anticipate from a lyricist with nearly 15 years of experience. Todd’s vocals are also appealingly alluring on “Summer Lover,” which floats with a Laurel Canyon-esque impressionism, less 2011 than 1971 in its invocation of green grass, bright sun, and picnics by the lake.

Todd tries her hand at interpretation on two likable numbers. She brings a translucent psychedelia to Baden Powell’s evocative samba “Canto de Lemanjá,” a tour de force accentuated by Todd’s layered and echoed voice, bowed cello, persistent percussion, and spacy, reverbed electric guitar. It is a stimulating rendition which proves Todd can produce cover versions of other artist’s work with insight. Cosmic Ocean Ship closes with Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” or “Here’s to Life,” famously done by Joan Baez in 1974. Here, Todd dispenses with the traditional instrumental arrangement, stripping the song to its bare essentials of reverbed voice, guitar, and a discreet acoustic bass so she can concentrate on the lyrical inferences on the meaning of existence.

The finest cuts combine Todd’s metaphysical resolve – she earned a philosophy degree from Yale University during the late 1990s – and sincere humanism. The minimalist “La Havana” revisits Todd’s older work by emphasizing terse vocal enunciation, softly strummed guitar chords (beautifully underscored by cello), and lyrics concerning memory, loss, and perception. The comparably constructed “The Rising Tide” harmonizes a graceful folk-pop arrangement with Todd’s examination of “a changing planet, weather, land, ocean and air, [and a] population out of balance.” Her answer – “can we fix it with our love? Can we rise above?” – at first seems a naïve response, but her artistic viewpoint is a positive alternative to violence and other troubles and is ultimately more supportive than cynicism, pessimism, or nihilism.

The brash, brooding “Last Night in Town” opens the Twilight Singers’ new effort Dynamite Steps. Initially, against ominous keyboards, it conjures a noirish mood, until Greg Dulli breaks into the refrain and his voice rises with the guitar’s squelch into something akin to a squeal. Maybe Dulli’s not putting his best foot forward with “Last Night in Town” – the contortions he puts his voice through here can be trying at times. Frankly, he establishes a yelping zone somewhere between Bono and Chris Martin, and visits it a little too often. When the bombast outweighs the otherwise carefully configured atmosphere, he loses listeners. When he restrains himself, however, Dulli more successfully maintains a mood. On the next track “Be Invited,” for example, the former Afghan Whigs singer manages to keep the vibe, though one feels him barely resisting the urge to break into a particularly unattractive flavor of 1980s-style keening. Fortunately, the thudding drums and sinuous strings which accompany him help preserve the escalating sense of tension.

“Waves” starts out stealthily, too, before guitars crash in at about the minute mark and Dulli joins with his own vocal squall. But it’s four songs in when Dynamite Steps really hits its stride. With “Get Lucky,” Dulli largely avoids histrionics while maintaining the grime. The song starts out softly, Dulli singing against slowly drawn cello, until the drums slam in on the second verse, along with strings on the second instance of the chorus. Those same strings soar one moment then scratch the next, when Dulli sings that “there’s a monster in your head.” If this execution sounds rather studied, it’s nonetheless lovely for it. Standout tracks “Gunshots” and “On the Corner” follow, wearing their noirish feel in their titles. Then “She Was Stolen” wheezes to life with the whine of an organ, and as Dulli hints at death or maybe suicide, the guitars and drums stride along at a martial pace.

“Never Seen No Devil” follows and bears a louche, melancholy feel to it with attendant fiddle and banjo contributing to a light country feel. Here, the darkness is laid on thick as Dulli sings of the blowback from revenge and confesses he’s shaking off the demons that are “coming after me.” The Devil makes a couple of cameos here. He’s mentioned in the opener – within the song’s opening bars, even. “The Devil says you can do what you like,” Dulli warns. Considered as a whole, the entire effort proves a dark warning. In fact, there are enough dimly lit corners and lurking evils on Dynamite Steps that the effort practically qualifies as a concept album.

Hovering near the end of the collection, on “The Beginning of the End,” Dulli croons, lapsing into falsetto, “Some creep at night / Some run and hide.” Danger still lurks. Then he closes out this dark arc with the somber title track, his voice stiffening in amber as guitars softly jangle behind him. Gradually the band folds in hand-claps, some wah-wah guitar, and eventually a storm of guitar until we’re still left wandering into a thick gloom, while Dulli proclaims softly, “You’ll love me.” We know better than to believe him. And it’s a fitting end to such a crepuscular album.