Now Hear This 

Reviews of new releases by Camper Van Beethoven, The Libertines, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Brian Wilson, and "Discovered, Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston."

Always fond of artistic ventures, CVB tackles here the most "artistic" of all rock ideas - the rock opera. "New Roman Times" ostensibly tells the tale of a soldier's journey within a futuristic America. A libretto sketches out the imaginative storyline, which involves cabals, cryptic transmissions, a coup d'etat in California and a resistance group called CVB. Without a film to assist, listeners may have trouble linking it all up and appreciating it fully, but there's plenty of strong music here to enjoy.

Instrumental guitar rave-up "Sons of the New Golden West" references the angularity of art-punk group Television, the histrionics of hair rock and the joyful abandon of an Eastern European wedding celebration. "51-7" is a straight-up rocker and the likely first single, with a nod to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." "That Gum You Like is Back in Style" offers gorgeous pedal-steel guitar and a lovely melody — a likely country hit if country music were more open-minded. On "Might Makes Right," a ska-infused march, the splash of cymbals is a particular pleasure, as is Lowery's crafty way of mixing humor and mindlessness with dead seriousness. Late in the record, "Discotheque CVB" has an otherworldly Star Wars lounge feel to it, with futuristic synth beats and a variety of impressive guitar work.

True to form, CVB's "New Roman Times" is a genre-bending high-concept affair, with all the elements and impressive musicianship one would expect from these indie rock heroes. In one sense, it's as if CVB never left. In another, it's as if they've brought more to the table than ever before. **** — Andy Garrigue

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker play the Back the Bottom Relief Concert on N orth. 18th Street in Shockoe Bottom on Nov. 14 from 1-5 p.m. Tickets $10-$25. For more information go to www.riverdistrict.richmond.com.

The Libertines "The Libertines" (Rough Trade)

The Libertines are Britain's most talked-about band right now, but for all the wrong reasons. The songwriting partnership of guitarists Carl Bart and Pete Doherty lies in a very public state of ruin thanks to Doherty's prodigous heroin intake.

It's amazing that their latest album was recorded at all. Security guards were required in the studio to prevent fights — not exactly a recipe for success — and the confident swagger that earned them the label "The British Strokes" after the 2003 debut "Up The Bracket" seems to have evaporated. In its place is a more uncertain, introspective attitude, and, fittingly for a self-titled album, most of the songs concern Bart and Doherty's love/hate relationship.

This could have made for a fascinating concept, but it seems the foursome, which also includes a drummer and bass player, spent more time fighting than writing. On both "The Man Who Would Be King" and "The Last Post On The Bugle" there are "la la la's" where there should be lyrics, and the jagged, off-key guitar parts and sparse production values succeed only in making this sound like a collection of demos.

The high points occur where Bart and Doherty either put their differences aside or address them directly. The opening track has the two men trading the line "You can't stand me now." And on "Tomblands" they share the microphone for an inspired urban sea-shanty duet, but these are too few and far between to make "The Libertines" satisfying. It would be a minor tragedy if this serves as the band's epitaph. **1/2 — Daryl Grove

Medeski, Martin & Wood, "End of the World Party (Just in Case)" (Blue Note)

The Medeski, Martin & Wood discography displays an increasing fascination with hip-hop and electronica that reached its zenith in the late '90s with two remix EPs ("Bubblehouse" and "Combustication Remixes"). But as the band moved from collaborating with DJs to knob-twisting themselves, MMW's compositions grew self-indulgent. The collage of samples and turntables on 2002's "Uninvisible" obscured the signature grooves that made the band's prior work ripe for remixing.

"End of the World Party" is a return that will please fans of their mid-'90s organ-grinders "Friday Afternoon in the Universe" and "Shack-Man." Chris Wood's bass furiously weave the songs together. Though concise compared to the group's renowned live jams, the four- and five-minute tracks on "Party" began as onstage improvisations and retain an organic feel.

That's not to say the electronica influence is out the window. With the help of producer John King of the Dust Brothers, it's been absorbed into the group's playing instead of layered on top. This is most evident in John Medeski's vast and mostly vintage keyboard arsenal, but also apparent in Billy Martin's drumming. On "Midnight Poppies/Crooked Birds" a Moog bubbles over drum-and-bass style percussion.

Guitarist Marc Ribot contributes to several tracks, and Sex Mob slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who arranged horns on MMW's '91 debut, returns with saxophonist/bandmate Briggan Krauss on the funky blues "Sasa."

The album displays the trio's genre-blurring range, but, as a consequence, some of the less-commanding songs blur together. *** — Nathan Lott

Various Artists "Discovered, Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston" (Gammon Records)

There's a tendency to regard art by the mentally ill as a window to a strange new world. While singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston's manic depression incapacitated him to varying degrees, the oddest thing about his music may be its accessibility. Johnston's highly personal lyrics are honest, his melodies easy to hum, and his arrangements simple (he often records alone, accompanying himself on guitar or keyboard).

But Johnston's quirky, high-pitched singing isn't for everyone, so his gift is clearest when others cover his songs. Johnston has long benefited from attention paid him by peers — Kurt Cobain's fanship helped land him a brief major-label deal in the early '90s. For this compilation, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous assembled a cast of 18 bands to pay tribute with their versions of some of Johnston's best tunes.

Musical misfits like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano (great bubbly version of "Impossible Love"), Jad Fair (teaming with Teenage Fanclub for the rockabilly affirmation "My Life is Starting Over Again"), and Bright Eyes (who contribute a melancholy "Devil Town") seem especially sympathetic to Johnston's aesthetic, which is so often about the pain of not fitting in. Beck's world-weary take on "True Love Will Find You in the End" and Tom Waits' intense reading of "King Kong" (recorded in the noisy style of his new album) are highlights from bigger names. Excellent liner notes in which the artists explain their selections and a second CD containing Johnston's originals are the tasty icing on this generous and lovingly prepared package. ****— Mark Richardson

Brian Wilson "Smile" (Nonesuch Records)

One might think Brian Wilson would have lost a few steps over the years. One might think that "Smile," Wilson's wildly ambitious "teenage symphony to God," wouldn't live up to the hype as a long-lost masterpiece — after all, he started it back in 1966. But "Smile" is all it was cracked up to be.

The first gorgeous harmonies of "Our Prayer" reminded me of the part in Amadeus when Salieri relives the memory of hearing Mozart for the first time — it is awe-inspiring music of such beauty that it sounds as if it came from the heavens. As in a true symphony, we hear references to the theme of "Heroes and Villains" after it appears, as well as recurring hints of "Good Vibrations," until the album closes with a new but faithful version.

While some of Van Dyke Parks' lyrics, written in the '60s, are hard to digest, and some moments may seem overly rapturous or silly or psychedelic, this album begs to be heard as a whole. "Smile" actually exceeds most Beach Boys fare, and Wilson, rather than battling inner demons, impending madness and second-guessers as he was in 1966, was in a very supportive space this time around, resulting in a superior vocal performance.

"Smile" was pop music's legendary unfinished symphony, and now it is done, captured at last for posterity as its creator ***** — A.G.

"The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio" by Keith Badman (Backbeat Books)

The history of the Beach Boys brought some memorable times. The band released four albums in 1964 and scored its first No. 1 hit, "I Get Around." In 1966, the groundbreaking album "Pet Sounds" was released, and writing began for the "Smile" album. Count the fall of 2004 as another highpoint. On Sept. 28 "Smile" was finally released, supported by a Brian Wilson tour. And October brought the publication of the ultimate band biography.

Keith Badman's book fills the gap in Beach Boys memorabilia with a chronological approach to the band's history. This is not a fawning appreciation, but a historical text with more than 100 photos and an exhaustive record of the band's activities up to 1976. Badman provides a day-by-day accounting of studio dates, concert appearances, television appearances and band-member antics and romances. Set lists are provided, as are studio musician lists, solo album track lists, studio logs, chart positions and a careful noting of which tracks were deemed best during the recording process. We're privy to the inspirations behind certain songs, background on unreleased tracks and excerpts from press reviews.

As would be expected, there's a tremendous amount about the band's central figure, Brian Wilson. Wilson is shown warts and all, highlighting his passion and genius for music, but not sparing candid accounts of his nervous breakdowns and his agonizingly slow creative process. Highlights: the endless sessions for "Good Vibrations" painstakingly detailed. Complaints: photo captions are too small and often far from the photo. Overall: Fascinating, easy to read and fun, fun, fun for the Beach Boys fan. **** — A.G.

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