Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #781:
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
Here’s somebody who never made a bad album. Elliott Smith’s albums from the 90s alternate gorgeously harmony-driven, George Harrison-esque pop with austere, sometimes charming but more frequently brooding little vignettes. This one, from 1999, is the only one of his albums that has a fully realized, lushly produced atmosphere from beginning to end, Smith playing virtually all of the instruments himself including the drums. There isn’t any obvious hit single here, but every single one of the fifteen tracks is excellent. Nobody wrote about drugs, or specifically heroin, more elliptically or poetically than this guy; here, he broadened his worldview and it paid off. Lyrically speaking, it’s the high point of his career. Junk Bond Trader was withering when it came out; these days it’s positively scathing, as is the anti-trendoid broadside Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud. There’s also the gently bucolic Someone That I Used to Know; the quaint tack piano pop of In the Lost and Found; the hypnotically crescendoing Everything Means Nothing to Me; the ragtime-tinged Pretty Mary K and LA, which quietly foreshadows the unrest and eventual doom that he’d meet up with there. Elliott Smith was murdered in 2003 in a vicious knife attack. William Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner whose most dubious achievement here was underreporting homicides in order to drive the official murder rate down, did the same thing in Los Angeles; Smith’s case was declared a suicide, even though he’d taken a knife through the chest twice. His killer remains at large. Here’s a random torrent.
Cynical janglerock heaven. Jay Banerjee may be best known at the moment as the creator of Hipster Demolition Night, arguably New York’s best monthly rock event, but he’s also a great tunesmith. On his new album “Ban-er-jee,” Just Like It’s Spelled, he plays all the instruments, Elliott Smith style (aside from a couple of a couple of harmonica and keyboard cameos, anyway). Drawing deeply on the Byrds, the Beatles, the first British invasion and 60s soul music, Banerjee offers a slightly more pop, more straightfoward take on what Elvis Costello has done so well for so long, crafting a series of three-minute gems with a biting lyrical edge. The obvious influence, both guitar- and song-wise, is the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn – like McGuinn, Banerjee plays a Rickenbacker. The tunes here are brisk, with an impatient, scurrying pulse like the Dave Clark Five, with layers of guitar that ring, jangle and chime, throwing off fluorescent washes of magically glimmering overtones as only a Rickenbacker can do.
Lyrically, Banerjee goes for the jugular, sometimes with tongue in cheek but generally not. These are songs for guys. Banerjee’s characters, if they are in fact characters, have no stomach for drama, no patience for indecisive girls holding out for men they’ll never be able to measure up to. And these women don’t get off easy. The funniest and most spot-on cut here is Long Way Home: what the Stooges’ Rich Bitch was to Detroit, 1976, this one is to Brooklyn, 2010, a brutal dismissal of a “dress up doll with a goofy drawl” who finds that she’s no match for New York heartlessness. By contrast, Just Another Day (not the McCartney hit, in case you’re wondering) is equally vicious but far more subtle. Banerjee lets the gentrifier girl’s aimless daily routine slowly unwind: finally awake by noon, “She tells herself if life’s a game, it isn’t hard to play/’Cause all you lose is just another day.”
A handful of the other tracks have obviously pseudonymous womens’ names. Dear Donna, the opening cut, sarcastically rejoices in pissing off the girl’s mother – via suicide note. Kate is rewarded for having “too many feelings” with a memorable Byrds/Beatles amalgam. Lindsay won’t be swayed by any overtures, and her shallow friends may be partially at fault: “They said you pray that I just find someone desperate/Lindsay, all that they say, already I could have guessed it.” Another cut manages to weld the artsy jangle of the Church to a Chuck Berry boogie, with surprisingly effective results. There’s also the early 60s, Roy Orbison-inflected noir pop of Leave Me Alone; See Her Face, the Byrdsiest moment here; and the clanging 60s soul/rock of No Way Girl. Fans of both classic pop and edgy, wounded rock songwriters like Stiv Bators have plenty to sink their teeth into here.
With his band the Heartthrobs, Banerjee rocks a lot harder than he does here: your next chance to see them is the next Hipster Demolition Night at Public Assembly on December 9, starting at 8 with the garage rocking Demands, then Banerjee at 9 followed at 10 by psychedelic rockers Whooping Crane and then oldschool soul stylists the Solid Set. Cover is seven bucks which comes out to less than $2 per act: did we just say that this might be New York’s best monthly rock night, or what?
By the way, for anyone lucky enough to own a turntable, the album’s also available on vinyl.
Dave Wechsler is the founder and accordionist of the marvelously smart, lush Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Pinataland. As The Tyranny of Dave (a tongue-in-cheek comment by poet Genya Turovskaya that he ended up adopting for his solo projects), he released a marvelously brooding travelogue of an album, Vacations, in 2007. His new one The Decline of America, Part One: The Bush Years is a personal rather than a political statement, although the sardonic, occasionally bitter tone of these songs echoes that era’s sadness. Much of this is pretty morose, with a sort of Elliott Smith quality, characteristically melodic chamberpop with a few surprises that come as an unexpected and very welcome jolt of adrenaline. Here Wechsler is joined by his Chicago band – bassist Aaron Zemelko, Cameroonian guitarist Didi Afana, and drummer Ben Gray – along with cameos from cellist Serena Jost, chanteuses Robin Aigner and Anna Soltys and guitarist Ross Bonadonna. What’s best is that Wechsler is offering it as a free download at his bandcamp site.
Months after he wrote the pensive, dynamically shifting 6/8 chamber pop ballad America’s Oldest Home, which opens the album, Wechsler decided it was about 9/11: you decide whether or not he was one of those who knew what was coming before it happened. The second track, Greatest Generation has a blithe, Summerteeth-era Wilco swing – it’s a subtle examination of the personal as political in the wake of 9/11, with a lively choir featuring Codapendency’s Tara Shenoy and Athanasia Sawicz along with Carla Budesinsky, Brittany Petersen and Kate Nylander (ex-Wildcats Marching Band), and trumpeter Megan Beugger.
The 6/8 ballad Abraham Man slowly makes its way to a swirling, off-center cauldron of strings and keyboards; the bouncy Too Late offers a tongue-in-cheek yet resonant look at the consequences of the current depression. The similarly upbeat Chicago River Song, sort of an uncredited Pinataland number, features characteristically incisive, nebulously bluesy lead guitar work from Afana plus vivid violin by Claudia Chopek. Every Damn Light, a Hurricane Katrina narrative, ups the ante with more bluesy, echoey guitar and the ex-Wildcats horn section. The real shocker, and the best number here is When All the Stores are Closed, a swinging early 70s psychedelic blues-rock number unlike anything Wechsler’s ever done before, quite a contrast with the next cut, the ornate chamber pop of Fire Drill, which evokes the elegaic understatement of REM’s Find the River.
The fast, blippy keyboard pop of Raise a Glass camouflages its bitter, sardonic edge. Remember the Maine, an Iraq war parable, sways with minor-key bite and some gorgeously plaintive harmonies from Aigner: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Pierre de Gaillande catalog. The album winds up with the ghostly, organ-fueled Call of the Waters and the similarly regret-tinged oldtimey-flavored Americana ballad Wake Up in Brooklyn. Fans of lyrical, smartly melodic rock from Elvis Costello to the aforementioned Elliott Smith will find plenty to enjoy here: if this is any indication, Tyranny of Dave’s planned volume two is something to look forward to.
Jeremy Messersmith’s third album of smart indie pop continues in the same vein he mined on his first two. This one plays down the death fixation in favor of an upbeat, wistfully tuneful 60s psychedelic pop feel. But unlike the rest of the slavish Beach Boys and Ellliot Smith imitators, Messersmith has established a voice of his own: there’s a depth and a thoughtfulness to his lyrics and a subtly clever wit throughout the tunes and the arrangements, an indication of how successfully he’s immersed himself in intelligent oldschool pop sounds.
The first song here is something of a cross between late 60s English dancehall-style Kinks and Elliott Smith, with some absolutely gorgeous piano/guitar textures on the chorus. The second track, Dillinger Eyes is Badfinger-esque powerpop, followed by the album’s best song, Organ Donor. With a dark, reggae-inflected Watching the Detectives vibe enhanced by brooding strings, it’s a vividly metaphorical look at how we fall apart: “Took my brain to the seminary, never seen again…left my spine at the wedding chapel…” John the Determinist works off a bracing, tense string arrangement that underscores the narrator’s obliviously stubborn OCD vibe. Knots blends an old PiL guitar riff with a string section straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, a feel that returns with the mellotron-driven sympathy-for-the-devil ballad Repo Man, all sad and alone since nobody cares that he’s dead and gone. The funniest track here is the lushly jangly Rickenbacker guitar anthem Deathbed Salesman, its protagonist trying to upscale a potential casket buyer:
You’ve got a reservation
But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to
You won’t feel a thing
All your friends are there already
This is how it has to end…
Fans of the original stuff as well as 60s revivalists like the Essex Green and Love Camp 7 will love this. Jeremy Messersmith plays Joe’s Pub on May 28 at 7 PM. Memo to Messersmith’s publicist; email this anonymously to pitchfork and tell them it’s the long lost Beach Boys album. They won’t be able to tell the difference.
Every day at least for the next week or so, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Monday’s song is #310:
Elliott Smith – Bled White
The best song ever written about scoring heroin, maybe, over gorgeously watery, crescendoing George Harrisonesque guitar played through a Leslie organ speaker. From the XO cd, 1999, mp3s abound
I don’t know what happened to this guy. He just snapped. Maybe it was the bad dayjob – that happens to a lot of people. Whatever the cause, the result was the first instant classic to come out last year, the high point so far in the career of the American Richard Thompson. Ward White is a virtual anomaly among US rock songwriters, a brutally cynical, dazzling wordsmith with equally spectacularly guitar chops and a straight-up rock sensibility. No solipsistic folkie whining here. No cheesy synthesizers or dated 90s trip-hop production. This album ROCKS….quietly. White’s tasteful, minimalist production sets his Bowie-inflected vocals soaring over tersely arranged acoustic and electric guitars and a string quartet. Chamber rock has never been so exhilarating. White’s back catalog, notably his previous release, Lovely Invalids demonstrates a sardonic wit and a wickedly playful, literate lyricism. He never met a pun he could resist (unless the boss asked for one) and employs devices including personification, metonymy and meta in ways that few English-language writers have done outside the covers of a book. Here, he succeeds at being clever without being too clever by half: the substance of this album matches its style, milligram for milligram. I believe that is how bile is measured.
The album opens with the psychopathological Things Kept Falling: “I’m not alone in this,” White taunts. As Mary Lee Kortes has noted, bad relationships are the gift that keeps on giving: and either this guy has had a spectacular streak of bad luck, or he’s a particularly gifted observer. Maybe both. On the album’s title track, he gleefully recounts to an ex how he “mined your broken heart for an album cut.” But no one escapes White’s minesweeper approach to hypocrisy. In the equally gleeful New York supremacist anthem L.A. Is Not the Answer, he takes a swipe at the trendoid lit crowd: “Tell Joe Henry to call me/I haven’t heard from Bill Vollmann in so long…” In Can You Lie?, he mines the irony of duplicitous actor types trying on roles for size for all it’s worth: “I want to know if you can lie convincingly to me/If you break character I’ll see/I will!”
Undertow, with its haunting minor-key chorus is pure symbolism, the booze ebbing back, yet all the while taunting the boozer that sooner or later he’ll fall off the wagon because “you were paralyzed and I set you free.” In the album’s concluding track, So Long, yet another ex will “Call me up, tell me about the weather, how everybody is so thin out there.” White’s terse response is, “I think I’ll extend my visa,” presumably in some distant foreign land.
The album’s centerpiece – and arguably the best song of the year – is Hole In the Head, a particularly timely take on deadend dayjob drudgery. It works equally well as Barbara Ehrenreich-style journalism, mise-en-scene piece and rock tune:
I can’t believe what you say
You’re a liar
Please don’t look so shocked
Hell, you could retire on all you stole
And I’m not gonna look anymore
Unless I’m buying
Tell you the truth, I’m tired of not trying to care in any way
I need this job like a hole in the head
I need a hole in my head to do this job
I need a head for some reason that escapes me now
There’s no escaping you
White’s two guitars and bass (he plays all the instruments) maintain the song’s claustrophobic intensity all the way though to its final ominous, ringing minor chord. Yet there’s more than just spleen here. White knows that banality of evil can sometimes be very funny, if in a blackly humorous way, and there are as many laugh-out-loud jokes on this album as there are instantly recognizable moments for anyone who’s ever been screwed in a relationship or struggled to refrain from decking an obnoxious boss.
Maybe But Probably Not ranks with Armed Forces by Elvis Costello, Mirror Blue by Richard Thompson and Mad Within Reason by LJ Murphy as one of the alltime great pissed-off lyrical rock records. It’s also a trenchant warning not to ever, ever mess with a songwriter. They always get even in the end. By the way, as an interesting bit of trivia, former Scout drummer Nigel Rawles overdubbed drums on many of the songs. For those of you who may be unaware, in modern recording it is customary to record drums before the rest of the band, which is logical enough since the band needs a beat to follow. It’s a credit to White that his timing was good enough for a drummer to follow without stumbling, and it’s a credit to both musicians that they could pull this off and make it sound like a seamless whole.