Vic Chesnutt wasn’t simply one of the best songwriters of his generation; he was also one of the most idiosyncratic. The Georgia native dreamed up compositions that sounded like they were tailored specifically to his own physical instrument: The melodies were often determined by that froggy croon of his, and he seemed to choose lyrics based on which words he could mispronounce, which vowels he could sustain curiously, and which accents he could shift around. His rhyme schemes were loose and unpredictable, often driven by proper nouns and unexpected combinations of words and ideas. More crucially, he fully inhabited the first-person pronouns of his songs, as if each emanated from a very specific perspective, which meant he could sell a line like “I was in your place of employment, crying in my hummus” with a perfect, unforced balance of the truly tragic and the wonderfully absurd.
The downside, of course, is that Chesnutt’s songs are so tied to his performative abilities that they can be particularly difficult, if not entirely impossible, to cover. As the 1996 tribute album Sweet Relief II proved, his songs are best heard in his own voice, in his own meter, in his own eccentricities. However, if any band should be able to pull off a full album of Chesnutt covers, it ought to be the Cowboy Junkies, who toured with him in the 1990s and played with him on their 2008 release Trinity Revisited.
More to the point, they got their start in the late 1980s as a glorified cover band reimagining signature tracks by Springsteen, the Velvet Underground and Patsy Cline. They’ve proven not only durable—turning a sound defined but also limited by Margo Timmins’ mellifluous vocals into an unlikely quarter-century career—but also adventurous in the way they reinterpret melody and mood.
So it’s almost a shock that Demons isn’t better than it is. The second in their vaguely defined Nomad Series (which kicked off with last year’s Renmin Park), the album collects eleven carefully chosen covers from every corner of Chesnutt’s long career. It’s a fan’s tracklist, eschewing obvious choices for what seem more like personal favorites.
And yet, too many songs fall into a safe midtempo range, which doesn’t give Timmins or the band much to do but plod through turgid runthroughs. Especially in the middle, Demons sags precipitously, sapping the life out of some of these songs. “Ladle” sounds simply dour instead of complexly worried, and Chesnutt’s accusatory lyrics lose their bite, if not their wit. Similarly, “Supernatural” sounds too grounded and workmanlike to live up to its title, and “West of Rome” languishes in this setting, with neither Margo nor guitarist Michael Timmins sounding especially engaged.
For a band so identified with a languid style of folk rock, the Junkies have never shied away from making noise, and in this regard, Michael has always been the band’s unheralded asset—whether chiming in with subdued punctuation on “Betty Lonely” or ripping through a triumphal solo on “Strange Language.” That measured boisterousness suits Chesnutt’s songs well, but the most successful cover here is also the most difficult. “Flirted With You All My Life” has become Chesnutt’s de facto epitaph, plainly and plaintively addressing his attraction to and repulsion from death as he recounts his own suicide attempts.
It’s harrowing and powerful, especially in this sadly posthumous setting, yet it’s the most spirited song on Demons, an upbeat gospel-rock number that wisely and generously eschews commiseration for celebration. Like Chesnutt, the Junkies realize that the song is less about the horrors of death than the joys of life, and they transform it into a fond valedictory, an anti-suicide note that spells out both Chesnutt’s and the Junkies’ musical motivations. He played to keep death away.
Album Review: Yelle – Safari Disco Club
When Yelle arrived on the scene in 2006, it was with “Je Veux Te Voir,” an attitude-packed and hilariously vulgar diss track directed toward rapper Cuizinier for his misogynistic views. The 2007 debut album, Pop Up, spawned two more minor hits with “A Cause des Garçons” and “Ce Jeu.” The French trio, led by singer Julie Budet, established themselves as purveyors of summery electropop. Then, they all but disappeared.
To a certain extent, Yelle have kept busy since their first album, remixing Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and appearing on the Kennedy track “John and Yoko,” as well as covering “Who’s That Girl?” by Robyn. However, in such a fast-paced music environment, no one can afford to take four years between albums unless the result is something that could universally be considered a masterpiece. Yelle’s sophomore release, Safari Disco Club, is a good effort that falls short of legendary status.
They’ve grown out of the youthful spirit of Pop Up, though “C’est Pas Une Vie” packs a bright punch, while “Que Veux-Tu” and “Unillusion” make good use of ’80s pop references. Songs like “Chimie Physique” and “La Musique” are much more mature in tone than anything Yelle have released before. There’s also more actual singing from Budet, rather than the sing-rapping previously employed. Safari Disco Club showcases a more developed act, but it doesn’t sound like four years’ worth of growth. The more subdued approach makes sense, but the songs aren’t as engaging as established fans might expect.
The dance scene has changed drastically since Yelle’s debut. This isn’t to say that producers GrandMarnier and Tepr should have gone for a dubstep approach—it wouldn’t suit Budet’s voice, though “S’Eteint le Soleil” has hints of grimey bass—but in an environment where the fresh-faced Londoner Katy B is poised for a takeover, it’s difficult to see where Yelle’s role is now.
The album sounds solid, with plenty of agile synths to spare, but it’s difficult to see what role it plays; it’s not exactly more of the same, but it may as well be. Safari Disco Club is worth a listen, but it fails to assert itself as something that demands listeners’ attention.
Album Review: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
In the five years since Canadian chamber-rock band Broken Social Scene released its last album, lead Scenester Kevin Drew has ably stepped into indie-stardom, nurturing mass-anticipation for the collective’s upcoming opus.
Enter Forgiveness Rock Record. With the Toronto outfit choosing to explore every bit of the space that their physical largesse affords, the wait has been worth it—even if the album requires a bit of stamina in order to fully grasp the triumph.
Perhaps the group—composed of a fluid membership that often numbers well into double digits—is finally becoming exactly what it is they were likely always going to be: a dramatic, sweeping and engrossing baroque-rock troupe. Besides, it’s not often that a group that has featured a melodica in the past acts as though it’s a power-pop trio, which many of their earlier songs have suggested.
While a lack of sonic cohesion does make itself evident, as the result of a mixed bag of styles that can often distract rather than attract, the significant and unifying thread of Kevin Drew’s Jeff Tweedy-esque, achy vocals equip the entire proceedings with immense heart. Some sort of binding agent is necessary, however, due to the divergent styles showcased. By showing off their skills in Post-rock (“Meet Me in the Basement”), bombastic, arena-anthems (“World Sick”), playful prog (“Chase Scene”) and effective melody making (“Texico Bitches”), it’s quite clear that this is a group that is more comfortable stretching their musical legs than the average listener will likely be sinking their teeth into this album.
Given the amount of time between records, not only is Forgiveness Rock Record an example of good things coming to those who wait, but also, to those who also don’t mind putting forth a little effort to gain great reward.
EP Review: Dan Fisk — Bruises from the Backseat
When an album’s liner notes list multiple banjo players on the same song, you know it’s going to be an enjoyable listen. Dan Fisk has two banjo pickers on“Life and Limb,” from his new solo EP, but that’s not the only thing he’s got going for him on Bruises from the Backseat (out 6/28).
Fisk (an upstate New Yorker who’s spent the past decade in Virginia), has a radio-ready, slightly raspy voice and solid songwriting skills. Album opener “A Thousand Love Songs” is the highlight of the disc, and had it been released fifteen years ago when Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20 were flying up the charts, Fisk would probably be blowing his nose with $20 bills right now.
The EP’s sole cover is a version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine,” which features fellow area singer-songwriter Ted Garber on harmonica. It feels a little out of place among the more mellow tracks on the record, but it’s definitely a fun listen.
Bruises from the Backseat is a promising solo release from Fisk. Let’s hope a full-length record is next.
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