Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Playlist: October

In 2011, St. Vincent became the patron saint of avant-garde indie pop. To my ears, St. Vincent's Strange Mercy is one of the year's very best records. (It's on the 4AD label and it was produced by John Congleton, who produced Shearwater's The Golden Archipelago.) As you may know, St. Vincent is the nom de plume of 29-year-old singer-songwriter Annie Clark. This is her third album of strange art-rock and memorable melodies. She can pen a great pop tune—the third song on her album, "Cheerleader," is one of the best choruses you'll hear all year—and yet subvert it with an unsettling lyric and an unusual arrangement.

Her demure prettiness masks an off-center dark side. In the video for the lead single from the album, "Cruel" (which sounds like Abba on acid) Clark portrays a woman who is kidnapped by an ordinary looking family. The kidnapper and his young son and daughter dress her up as a suburban housewife and make her play the role of a mother figure as they subject her to unimaginable acts of cruelty. At the end of the video, they bury her alive in a grave.

The album opener, "Chloe in the Afternoon," references the Eric Rohmer film of the same name about a married man's illicit affair. The song's slinky and sensual chorus sits at odds with the abrasive guitar of the verses. Unlike the titular character of the film, this Chloe likes to incorporate a "black lacquered horse-hair whip" in her foreplay. In other words, you're not going to hear an X Factor contestant cover this one anytime soon.

There's also a song called "Surgeon" which starts off with the suggestive lyric, "I spent the summer on my back" but soon takes a darker turn as she sings, "I need a surgeon/to come cut me open." She sings that line and over and over again as if she's in the throes of ecstasy. The effect is at once unsettling and thrilling at the same time. It's a killer tune. The whole album is full of them.

Oh, and St. Vincent demolishes the myth that girls can't play guitar. Check out this live-in-the-studio version of "Surgeon" (above) and marvel at her finger gymnastics on the fretboard. (You can watch the full live session, consisting of four songs, here.)

This is St. Vincent's third album and it's her breakout. To quote one of her songs, "it's gonna be a champagne year" for her.

I've been on a major The Waterboys kick this month. The band's seminal single, "The Whole of the Moon," was one of the first 7" singles I ever bought. I've been a fan ever since and own just about everything that the band's principal singer-songwriter, Mike Scott, has ever done. When I interviewed Mike Scott a decade ago, it was a most delightful experience. The Scotsman was warm and enthusiastic, talking about his love of Oprah and his spiritual outlook on life.

Though The Waterboys remain a great live act, I had come to believe that their studio albums would never scale the heights of albums such as A Pagan Place, This is the Sea, Fisherman's Blues and Dream Harder. The band's 2000 album, A Rock in a Weary Land, felt strained and clunky even though its title track is one of the band's very best songs. Book of Lightning (2007) had its charms but it, too, was far from the band's glory days. All of which made the band's new album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, a revelation. It's the band's best work since 1993's Dream Harder.

For An Appointment with Mr. Yeats Mike Scott has set the poetry of W.B. Yeats to music. It's not the first time that Scott—a fine poet in his own right—has created a musical adaptation of a Yeats poem. The band's classic 1988 album, Fisherman's Blues, includes Yeats's "A Stolen Child" and Dream Harder includes "Love and Death."

An Appointment with Mr. Yeats sees The Waterboys return to "the big music" they created on their first three albums. Large canvas stuff with heavenward singing. That's apparent from the get go with the epic opener, "The Hosting of the Shee" and "A Full Moon in March." But even though this rock music draws on instrumentation such as oboe, trombone, flute, sax and strings, this is no retread of the band's old 1980s sound. It's a fresh iteration of the big music. Key to the band's sound is longtime fiddle player Steve Wickham who first appeared on Fisherman's Blues. Here, Wickham adds lyrical notes to songs such as "Sweet Dancer," ethereal lead lines to songs such as "The Lake of Innisfree" and torrid soloing on the album highlight "Land of the Mist and Snow."

Mike Scott sounds rejuvenated throughout the album. He's seldom sounded as soulful as he does on "Song of the Wandering Aengus" and "Let the Earth Bear Witness."

I've been so enthralled with the record that I've revisited most of the band's back catalog. I was pleasantly surprised by the band's 2003 record Universal Hall. I didn't take to the album upon its release and had only listened to it once. It's a largely acoustic record and my impression of it at the time was that it was rather dull. How wrong I was. Upon revisiting Universal Hall all these years later, I heard it with new ears. It's a quiet album, for the most part, that reward close listening. It also has far more textures and colors than I had remembered. The first half of the album is acoustic. The second half of the record includes the great electric-pulse rocker "See the Light" and "E.B.O.L." (Eternal Beam of Love) is The Waterboys at its finest.

Finally, I'd like to recommend you check out an Israeli songwriter named Liam Modlin. An old friend of mine named Brian Segal, a man of impeccable music taste, turned me on the Liam's talents—thanks Brian—and I can't wait for Liam to produce his first album. For a taste of what to expect, watch the great video to the song "Faceless" below.

Albums currently in rotation:
  • I Break Horses—Hearts (2011)
  • Lantern of the Lakes—Lantern of the Lakes (2011)
  • The Waterboys—An Appointment with Mr. Yeats (2011), Universal Hall (2003), Dream Harder (1993), A Pagan Place (1983).
  • Robbie Robertson—How to Become Clairvoyant (2011), Music for the Native Americans (1994), Contact from the Underground of Red Boy (1998)
  • Rory Gallagher—Irish Tour '74 (1974)
  • Chris Isaak—Beyond the Sun (2011) 
  • Pearl Jam—Backspacer (2009)
  • FeistMetals (2011)
  • Levin Torn White—Levin Torn White (2011)
  • Björk—Biophilia (2011)
  • Riverside—Second Life Syndrome (2005)
  • Evanescence—Evanescence (2011)
Songs + EPs currently in rotation:
  • Pearl Jam—Olé (2011)
  • Steven Wilson—Postcard EP (2011)
  • Liam Modlin—Faceless (2011)