We are now officially in the fourth quarter sales market. Department stores have begun to roll out the Christmas decorations, big summer movies are winding their way to the DVD department and some major releases in music are on the horizon for the all-important time in the retail year. It seemed appropriate, then, for me to discuss some of the most recent new releases in my headphones, one of which comes with a lot of expectation and another that exploded unbidden from out of the blue. Intrigued?
Ben Folds, Way to Normal (Epic)
I’ve been a fan of Folds’s work for a long time but find his solo efforts incredibly uneven. His last release, Songs for Silverman, was a leaden, ballad-heavy affair with very few tracks to really grab hold of. The latest, Way to Normal, should have been a return to form but only half succeeds. Sure, he regains a bit of his bounce and more than a bit of his bite, but the songs come from a sticky place: the dissolution of his third marriage, a relationship that informed most of his previous two albums. What you end up with is a lot of songs that make you feel like a friend has borrowed your ear for a while, relating to you how horrible that witch he used to be with has been. All the while, you have a sneaking suspicion that this friend is hardly as innocent as he claims.
I have no idea about the details of Folds’s personal life or how his marriage came apart. With semi-scathing tunes like “Bitch Went Nuts”, “Errant Dog,” and “You Don’t Know Me,” I frankly don’t want to know. Kiss-off and piss-off songs are common fodder in pop music, but they’re easier to take in smaller doses. They’re also easier on the ears when the production isn’t as abrasive as Dennis Herring’s. Tweedly-sounding synths, canned beat construction, occasional distortions that could be mistaken for blown speakers all attempt to frame the tunes in the most modern way, but become tiresome after a while. Worse, “You Don’t Know Me” employs the wonderful Regina Spektor and gives her nothing to really work with. Spektor, like Folds, has harnessed the power of solo voice and piano to great effect, so it’s really disappointing to find that anyone could have contributed her part on this song.
But as is the rule with any Folds release, it’s not all lost. “The Frown Song” revisits the topic of unsatisfying consumerism and status flogging and gets great hooks into you, “Cologne” is just beautiful even if it is part of that undone romantic mode, and the closing “Kylie From Connecticut” has a haunting quality that’s been missing from Folds for the last six or so years. I suppose there’s a light in the distance for Ben, as the recent excitement over the one-shot reunion of the Ben Folds Five seemed to indicate, but Way To Normal serves only as half-light, I’m afraid.
Calexico, Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)
As with Ben Folds, I’ve been a fan of Calexico for a while but was on the fence about their Garden Ruin disc. That release found principals Joey Burns and John Convertino adding a more aggressive rock edge to their widescreen combination of folky, Mariachi infused alt. country pop, and while the songs were certainly there, the arrangements felt like a really tight suit, looked good but certainly didn’t feel quite right. Carried to Dust manages to get back to that core that the fans loved while still integrating a rock hook or two. “Two Silver Trees” creates a folky drive in the verses that bursts full of color in the choruses. “The News About William” does up the southwest balladry the fans crave while “Man Made Lake” adds that ferocity in knowingly subtle ways, something Garden Ruin only managed in fits and starts. A fine return to form that stands toe-to-toe with their best.
Adele, 19 (Columbia)
The UK has been embarrassing the US in terms of soulfulness lately. While our fellow countrymen have been too concerned about fashioning Penthouse Forum letters as their pitiful attempts at classic soul, Brits have been sending out something so close to real that, why not, let’s just admit the music revolution is over and they won it this time. I suppose the trend began with the talented and (presumably) doomed Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, but has been properly championed by Duffy and now Adele. Adele is the dark horse but, among the pack, seems to lead the way in strict terms of getting deep into that space where the voice wraps around the music and takes you in.
Oh, and as the title of the album indicates, the songs were written by her at that tender age of 19. How she pulled off the depth of songs like “Chasing Pavements” and “Hometown Glory” while peers of twice her age are barely able to keep their hands out of their trousers baffles me. I first heard her on NPR’s Weekend Edition where they ran an interview. I had, at first, mistaken her for another single-named Brit, Estelle, whose single “American Boy” irritates me to no end. Upon hearing Adele’s songs I had to suddenly rescind my negativity. Knowing now that they’re two different people, it’s game on.
Another point worth mentioning: the album has been out almost a year. Makes me a little angry that I let it escape my attention this long, so consider this write-up as my grateful penance. As a longtime fan of classic soul from Stax and Motown, as well as the entirety of the Al Green canon, I’m super happy that the genre is coming back in such a big, beautiful and mature way. Pay attention, Americans. The gauntlet has been thrown down by our Eastern neighbors and it’s time to leave the club behind and get back to the real thing.
Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (Tonefloat)
No, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m always excited about new music from the Porcupine Tree/Blackfield/No-Man/Bass Communion leader. This being his first official solo album of new material, it promises to meld his love of classic rock forms with the eccentricities of his dabblings in extreme metal, ambient and drone. Due for release in February, Wilson is prepping an early limited deluxe version in a hardbound book (a’la Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails) through the site insurgentes.org. Looks like I know how I’m spending my birthday money this November.
Marillion, Happiness Is the Road (Intact)
Not to be outdone, longtime neo-prog superheroes Marillion release their latest Happiness Is the Road in late October. It is not one but two albums combined: Essence and The Hard Shoulder. Each volume will be sold as separate editions or you can get both in a double hardbound book, slipcased edition through www.marillion.com. For packaging nerds, it promises to be the gold standard and judging from the clips I’ve heard of the new songs, it sounds like a big winner. I’m excited and have been ever since I pre-ordered it last December. And you thought I didn’t actually like anything, did you?