Silkworm, It’ll Be Cool (Touch And Go)

Silkworm - It'll Be Cool Silkworm
It'll Be Cool
Touch And Go
By: Eric Greenwood

Silkworm records come and go every few years. Touch and Go just keeps releasing them out of habit, I suppose. They never make much of a splash, and barely anyone even notices, apart from longtime fans. I imagine they press and sell the same amount every time. And, honestly, I don't know that I would even like them had I not followed the band for so long to experience its nuanced growth since classic records like Libertine and In The West blew my mind a decade ago.

Having been along for the ride, though, I relish the subtle changes and self-references and meandering melodies that have shaped the band since its classically underrated 1998 album, Blueblood. To hear It'll Be Cool as your first Silkworm record might not make a fan out of you. The band's lingering noise-rock roots serve as mere foundational tools to convey its evolving brand of classic modern rock, and just hearing the end result in its current incarnation might scare away today's indie rock neophyte with an ear for trendy dance-punk.

Silkworm has morphed into a strange beast over the last decade. The shrillness of Tim Midgett's lumbering bass lines still cut right through the mix, and Andy Cohen's meaty riffage still borders on the tinge of metal. Together they sound jagged and piercing. Steve Albini is on board once again to ensure that the drums take up as much space on the tape as possible, which is always appreciated. He's the perfect engineer for Silkworm's big, burly sound.

But Silkworm's songs have turned into rough-hewn ballads disguised as workhorse art. "Don't Look Back" is a rare aggressor with Midgett's idiosyncratic wail leading the charge. "Insomnia" and "Something Hyper" scale back the pace and tension, but the drunken bar room feel is just as raucous as if they were rockers. Whether the lyrics are dry or self-effacing or even esoteric, Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett know how to pull you into their strange yet insightful headspaces.

Yeah, it's another Silkworm record. It's not the band's best and it's not the band's worst. It rocks in its own unique, world-weary way. I'll listen to it over and over for a few weeks, learn its intricacies, and then file it with the others. And Silkworm will always be one of my favorite bands.

U2, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (Island)

U2 - How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb U2
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Island
By: Eric Greenwood

After spending the bulk of the '90's experimenting itself into a caricatural hole, U2 responded to tapering record sales and a hopelessly cartoonish persona with a self-proclaimed return to form on 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Wisely, the band ditched the disco rock synthesis of 1997's catastrophic Pop for the big-hearted anthems that made it famously sentimental in the mid-'80's.

All That You Can't Leave Behind fulfilled its back to post-punk roots promise musically, especially on the uncharacteristically optimistic single, "Beautiful Day", the main riff of which ranks up with the band's finest. U2 actually sounded like a rock band for the first time since 1990's Achtung Baby, and it reinvigorated both its focus and teetering fanbase, despite the compromising lack of envelope pushing.

Bono's self-righteous musings have always sounded better when he's being earnest than when he's winking at you behind blue-tinted sunglasses and a pedantic sneer and shaking the pope's hand. His grandiosity is both a blessing and a curse. U2 wouldn't be the world's biggest band were it not for Bono's crusade for the oppressed and the less fortunate, but his lyrics often crack under the weight of the world that he carries on his shoulders like an anointed martyr.

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb continues U2's campaign to win back the fans it ostracized for a decade with its gratuitous devolution into electro-rock fusion. The first single, "Vertigo", is a guitar-driven rocker with an infectious hook (the soulless hawking of Apple's iPod notwithstanding). The melancholic cloud that hovered above the band in its heyday may have dissipated, but what "Vertigo" lacks in mystery it makes up for in rollicking bravura. It's not so bad.

The rest of the album suffers from too much open-faced honesty and a serious lack of intensity. Bono's "had enough of romantic love" and just wants "a miracle drug", presumably to cure Aids. While that's all well and good, it doesn't make for arresting music. For some reason, clichés are easier to spill when you pass 40. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb tries to recapture U2's underdog status as the world's rock and roll saviors, but it's just too ordinary to rekindle a movement for aging do-gooders. Your uncle will think this is hip shit, but that's why you have college radio.

Le Tigre, This Island (Universal)

Le Tigre - This Island Le Tigre
This Island
Universal
By: Eric Greenwood

Le Tigre is sort of like a minor fender bender. You might crane your neck around to catch a glimpse of the damage, if you're bored, but you won't feel left out if you don't because, after all, it's only a fender bender. On its third album and *spoiler alert* major label debut, this trio of cruddy DIY electroclash wannabes sleepwalk through another batch of shrill, politically motivated anthems. Kathleen Hanna's girlish yelp grates more than usual, practically bereft of charm, and her bandmates can barely write a functional song much less play one. The riot grrl punk ethos died the moment these girls signed up with Universal Records. And the screeching, unlistenable cover of The Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" is the final nail in the coffin.

Travis Morrison, Travistan (Barsuk)

Travis Morrison - Travistan Travis Morrison
Travistan
Barsuk
By: Eric Greenwood

I really didn't want to hate this record, especially after all the hyperbolic negative hype. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt because, well, Travis Morrison made some damn good records in his stint with The Dismemberment Plan (most notably 1999's tour de force, Emergency and I), but, God, this is just an awful display of gratuitous self-indulgence. Travis Morrison has clearly lost his mind.

In The Dismemberment Plan, Morrison's sometimes-cheesy musings were couched by either some spastic time-change or a flit of electronics that made his embarrassing uncle humor more palatable. Now that he's all by himself, his voice sounds completely naked and his ghastly lyrics have an unprecedented spotlight.

Without The Dismemberment Plan's Wall of Voodoo-meets-Talking Heads twist on college rock, Travis Morrison is kind of a goon. In this ill-fated attempt at folksy storytelling, Morrison's hokey, do-gooder, choirboy voice sounds sorely out of context. It skips right over indie nerd charm and lands squarely in the shit pile.

The four scattered "Get Me Off This Coin" interludes are gooberish alternative history lessons with Morrison's lispy lilt playing a guess the President game. One of these cringe-inducing interludes might be passable but by the third, when that chirpy, do-de-do guitar theme starts, I'm ready to break out my bag of hammers.

Your head would have to be so far up your own ass to think that songs like "My Two Front Teeth, Parts 2 and 3" and "People Die" were worthy of public consumption. Lyrically, Morrison drops lines that smell so bad you can't help but blush out of vicarious embarrassment. And everyone knows there's no worse feeling than being embarrassed for someone else. It can't be that bad? The chorus of the former song is "all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."

The irony is that Morrison's lyrics were the most daring aspect of The Dismemberment Plan's hyper-kinetic rock, especially on the band's swan song album, 2002's moody and affecting Change. His wordy stories were often clunky and too honest, but they had an unmistakable charm and his melodic gifts always elevated his lyrical gaffes. Here, Morrison's trying so hard to recapture that charisma that it backfires. It's like he's overcompensating for losing his experimental backing band, and there's not a memorable melody to be found.

The Dismemberment Plan's urgency leveled out Morrison's masculinity, and as a solo artist he sounds effete and deflated. Travistan employs dilettantish hints of funk, soul, indie rock, jangly pop, and folksy storytelling, but for as many ideas as Morrison seems to have, the album feels flat and unfinished. There's no spark or flow. It's a confusing dead-end road full of tone-deaf humor and sorely misplaced erudition.

Delays, Faded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade)

Delays - Faded Seaside Glamour Delays
Faded Seaside Glamour
Rough Trade
By: Eric Greenwood

One of Rough Trade's recent signings, Delays, harkens back to that brief period in the early '90's when fuzzed-out guitars married Byrds-esque harmonies. Shoegazer rock: Bands that stood still and stared at the floor while they played incredibly loud, feedback-drenched rock with varying degrees of melodic intensity. It's a silly name, but, like most modern rock epithets, it's stuck in the public's consciousness. Ride, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, even The Jesus and Marychain to an extent, all fall under that unfortunate shortcut to thinking. Thankfully, the music is typically much better than the name implies.

Delays is nostalgic for such a specific strand of the shoegazer movement it almost seems stuck in some anachronistic time warp. Greg Gilbert's voice ranges from a girlish falsetto to a cheesy faux rock rasp. His chirping voice is such a spectacle at times, you won't know whether to laugh or punch a hole in the wall. The best song by far is the single, "Nearer Than Heaven", wherein the band sounds a tad too much like The La's, but its utterly infectious all the same. Foppish haircuts, gauzy '60's harmonies, shimmering guitars…you know the drill. It's a mite too gentle for my blood. Actually, it annoys the piss out of me after about five minutes, but if you can stomach that guy's hiccupping lilt, you may lose your Sunday soaked in reverb.

Elvis Costello, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)

Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man Elvis Costello
The Delivery Man
Lost Highway
By: Eric Greenwood

It's hard to put the beat down on Elvis Costello. I mean, look at what he's done for us. He's made misogyny "artistic." He's given bad teeth a good name. He's duetted with Darryl Hall. Ok, so he doesn't always hit a home run, but in the grand scheme of things, he's done way more good than bad, as long as you let the good count twice. The expanded version of This Year's Model alone tramples years' worth of new age wankery. But then again, if his current trend of dabbling in any whim that strikes his fancy continues, the bad could catch up in a hurry, and we might remember him for his bloated pretentiousness instead of his badass rebelliousness (and his red shoes).

Elvis Costello puts out two kinds of records: Traditional rock and roll records and stuffy compositional works. The latter of which are almost always mediocre, only garnering any attention at all because of the name stamped on the front and the novelty that lies therein. Costello's rock records are typically his saving grace, give or take. The Delivery Man is Costello's quick follow-up to 2002's underrated When I Was Cruel, and it avoids the slick pop production of his more commercial work in favor of dirty, live-sounding, bluesy rock. And for that reason alone it succeeds on a level many of his pop records have failed.

After the jazz-lite, heart-on-the-sleeve atrociousness of last year's North and the concurrent release of this year's Il Sogno, the man needs to roll up his sleeves and let it rock a bit. And The Delivery Man pretty much, well, delivers. As always, Costello surrounds himself with stellar musicians (two-thirds of the Attractions are intact), who know his ticks well enough to predict his every move on the guitar. That goes double for keyboardist Steve Nieve, who has been the backbone of so many classic Costello albums and live shows.

The bristle of the opener, "Button My Lip", sounds loose and unhinged. Costello's voice is as aggravated and harsh as it's ever been. It's hard not to imagine this musical environment being somewhat forced, even with the angry years that made Costello famous under his belt. British musicians have been copping American blues and southern flair for decades, but that smug, dilettantish attitude that folks like Sting and Peter Gabriel and even Bono, to an extent, purvey has always unnerved me. Costello's proclivity for such "look how many musical hats I can wear" projects of late betray a fondness for that type of "I'm an artist" bullshit that makes a mockery of so many once-great rockers.

Overlooking the pompousness of being schooled in the blues by a wobbly Englishman, The Delivery Man is a solid, albeit slightly over-learned and patronizing, collection of bluesy rock. There's no denying Costello's penchant for clever wordplay. The man can make the most awkward rhyming couplet sound genuinely inspired. Even though "Country Darkness" bears a striking resemblance to his classic "Little Triggers", Costello makes it stand out with his pugnacious delivery and bizarre rhyming scheme where "solve" and "bulb" ostensibly make a clean rhyming verse.

"Monkey To Man" is another tongue in cheek single from the master of bile. Costello briefly betrays the raw theme of the record for a few well-placed overdubs. As always, his voice sounds even more urgent when he double-tracks it, but studio trickery is practically non-existent here. Thankfully, Costello aborted the concept album approach that he had flirted with for these songs, so they have a less heady feel, though compositionally, they are studious and exact. Madonna's forced vibrato is to Costello's pedantic pop song.

The duets with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams are more distracting than effective. Williams' affected twang sounds laughably out of place on "There's A Story In Your Voice." Costello never fares well with vocal collaborators. His voice sticks out like a sore thumb, and it should be left alone. The temptation to flavor these songs with genuine southern girls must have been overwhelming for Costello, though, as he is a dilettante with a perfectionist's bent.

It's pointless to hold The Delivery Man up to pre-1982 Costello because it won't rank, but up against the bloated latter half of his career it makes a significant dent. It's not a clichéd return to form; it's just a good Elvis Costello record, of which there are dozens.

Elliott Smith, From A Basement On The Hill (Anti)

Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill Elliott Smith
From A Basement On The Hill
Anti
By: Eric Greenwood

Elliott Smith died of two stab wounds to the heart just over a year ago in his Los Angeles apartment. Whether those stab wounds were self-inflicted or the result of someone else’s rage is irrelevant. Smith is dead, and he left behind his final album, From a Basement on the Hill, only half-finished. Posthumous albums are so hard to accept into artists’ cannons, as too many questions linger as to what could have been had they seen them to fruition.

So, there will always be an asterisk by From a Basement on the Hill since it isn’t truly a Smith album. It’s a compromised ‹ yet close ‹ approximation made by engineers delegated by the arbiters of Smith’s estate. Even with so many unanswered questions as to what Smith intended for his sixth album, it holds its own against even his sparsest and most intimate work.

Despite its bombastic production and elaborate arrangements, XO has always been my favorite Smith album. Most of his die-hard fans dismiss it simply because it was his cleanest and most commercial outing, but the songwriting soared with countless, effortless melodies and memorable hooks, proving Smith to be a talent above and beyond what his lo-fi recordings could ever have predicted. His hushed, angelic voice married well with the Beatles-inspired production and his melancholic outlook held steadfast amidst such catchy harmonies.

His second major-label effort, Figure 8, sounded forced and flat compared to its predecessor, but it still outshone most of the singer-songwriter drivel that bubbled up in the indie rock community around that time. In the four years since Figure 8, Smith worked with several producers on what would become From a Basement on the Hill. Ironically, Rob Schnapf, whom Smith had worked with for years, finished the mixes, despite the fact that Smith hadn’t worked with him at all on this album.

In the months directly preceding his death, Smith had been obsessed with The Beatles’ White album and wanted From a Basement on the Hill to reflect that album’s jarring diversity. His songwriting had always hailed from the shadows of John Lennon’s darker compositions, so emulating The Beatles came naturally without sounding deliberate or awkward, and the influence is deeply embedded here.

From a Basement on the Hill won’t impact music on any level even remotely resembling that of the White album, of course, but it is still a work of staggering beauty. Smith’s multi-dimensional songwriting is in top form. From glimmering rockers like “Coast to Coast” to prophetic confessionals like “A Fond Farewell,” Smith showcases his musical prowess with whispered harmonies and dark, self-deprecating lyrics. Though, it’s probably tainted by unknowing yet well-meaning collaborators, From a Basement on the Hill elevates Smith’s legacy to an echelon that few songwriters ever achieve in life or death