Monday, March 20, 2006

Neko Case/Fox Confessor Brings the Flood/7.4 -- Catfish Haven/Please Come Back/7.6--Destroyer/Destroyer's Rubies/8.5

Like most of readers, I listen to bunches of different CDs at a time - typically, I'm switching between four or five recent releases for review or just enjoyment. I listen while driving to work, taking a walk or washing the dishes. Occasionally, I get the luxury of flopping down on the sofa to soak up a CD, but not often enough. I have an mp3 player and can dial up one of hundreds of old records, but occasionally I plonk myself in front of my stereo and play favorite sides from vinyl. In short, I'm constantly listening to music and every record that I listen to is flavored by whatever else I'm listening to. Also, I've noticed that the coincidences of when records are released color that listening experience. Consequently, when I respond to a Pitchfork review, I sometimes need to put on blinders and focus just on the record and the review. However, a particularly dense patch of releases this month has tangled up these three records for me, requiring me to write them up together.

Tying together Destroyer's and Neko Case's latest releases makes some sense. Both are members of the New Pornographers with prominent solo careers. Both write rich, nuanced pop songs influenced by past styles. Both records have earned immediate critical praise. Musically, there are some significant differences. Dan Behar is far more influenced by 60's and 70's rock; Neko Case draws on Country and Western music. Also, Neko Case's voice is a more breathtaking instrument. Both records draw from me an equal degree of awe at the songwriting, performance and production that has created them.

However, no matter how much I listen and re-listen to these records, I find myself going back to Catfish Haven's EP Please Come Back.

Confessional only in the most roundabout sense, Case's songs set up strange anecdotal skeletons that beg listeners to connect the dots between.

while Destroyer's Rubies is by no means a flawless record, its most glaring flaws are for the most part mercifully self-contained.

I mostly agree with the PFM reviews for Destroyer's Rubies and Fox Confessor... I could go after LeMay for his post-collegiate vocabulary; we Tuningforkistas get frequent flyer miles for purple prose as well. However, I had to chuckle reading Dombal's review that was critical of Case's lyrics in one of the most purple sentences imaginable -

the rapturous belter's high-minded lyrical aspirations often undermine her throat's unhindered veracity.

While Dombal's language is a little overrich for my tastes, he makes a good point - no matter how lovely the lyrics or rich the melody, Fox Confessor doesn't give you anything hummable. The album is beautiful, thoughtful and complex - however, it didn't quite hook me.

I would expand that observation to Destroyer's Rubies as well. 3000 Flowers and Painter In Your Pocket have the most catchy melodies to my ears. However, the record is a little overwhelmed by its own brilliance. Sure there's some moments of wit, but occasionally they don't quite resonate emotionally. Take as an example, the oft-cited line "Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd" - yep, it's a clever dig at album rock, but clever isn't the same as emotion to me. That's not to say that the whole album is bereft of emotion - however, sometimes the brilliance of the songwriting gets in the way.

Now, a lack of singalongs does not make either of these two records bad. I'd give each an even 7.4 - well, maybe I'd give Destroyer an extra tenth because it name checks an early My Bloody Valentine EP. Both reward a listener who's willing to sit quietly and listen closely - the kind of thing music critics do for a living. However, that awe-inspiring craftsmanship means that you have to put some time into these records. Please don't leave them on as background music; they deserve attention.

Take away quirky instrumentation, genre experiments, and yelping vocals; what's left in the modern guitar band's arsenal? Catfish Haven remind us: Tuneful, passionate singing, lucid songwriting, and engaging riffs.

On the other hand, Catfish Haven's six track EP compels me to listen to it. Catfish Haven's recipe is simple - guitar, bass, drums, a whiskey-voiced singer and lots of love songs. While the band's name hints at a Southern influence, their music is really just rooted in Rock and its prior influences. If Catfish Haven are Southern, they're Southern in the way that Big Star was Southern. My ears hear traces of great minimalist rock and roll from Big Star to early Replacements to The Minutemen to Nirvana. Don't believe me on the last one? Listen to About A Girl from Nirvana's Unplugged then Still Hungover from Catfish Haven - you'll get it (yep, it's something I've tried on my digi-music-thingy already).

My only beef with the Pitchfork review is that it's too brief and a little too low. If there is some rule that an EP can't get an 8.0, then Please Come Back solidly breaks that rule. In fact, Brian Howe seemed a little more enthused about the record on a blog than on PFM. My only advice to Brian would be my advice to all of PFM's writers - share your love for a record with us. We know you all are smart - we like even better to hear from other people that adore music.

As an extra, you can go to Catfish Haven's website and download two of the standout tracks - Please Come Back and Madalin - along with an early version of Still Hungover and Paper Thin, a track from their earlier EP. Still Hungover was originally titled Too Hungover To Headbang - a great title, but not quite right for the song. The earlier version also has a slightly different production which made me appreciate the new version on the record even more.