Despite having occupied a spot in the highest tier of the upper echelon of songwriters for more than four decades, Leonard Cohen has not been without his foibles. Albums like Death of a Ladies Man (1977) and Ten New Songs (2001), while not devoid of the singer and poet’s enigmatic charms, failed to show them in their best light, with the former failing sonically and the latter compositionally. Still, at the end of the day, I’ll take Cohen’s lesser work over the dozen of inferior covers of his “Hallelujah” any day.
Fortunately, Old Ideas largely reveals the 77-year-old singer playing to his strengths. The album begins with “Going Home,” a song that starts with the line, “I love to speak with Leonard,” and finds Cohen transcribing the pros and cons of his character from a third-person vantage point before finishing with a summation of, “He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” His tenor has deepened to a husky rumble that seems a distant cousin to that of Tom Waits. As such, tracks like the subsequent “Amen” are exhaled as much as they are sung, his changes in pitch the difference between a gale and a breeze. Musically, the backing is not so much sparse as it is perfectly tanned to a dark unobtrusive hue. It is good to hear Cohen in an organic setting and to hear his own acoustic guitar. Songs like “Darkness,” “Anyhow” and “Crazy to Love You” address his concerns with love and loss in terms more mortal than the grand archetypes of his early work, but are no less poignant for it. With Old Ideas, Cohen has taken his rightful place once again as the master of song.
When Faith No More’s Roddy Bottum introduced Imperial Teen back in the go-go ’90s, there was a fair amount of eyebrow-raising. Faith No More was coming off the particularly aggressive King for a Day, A Fool for a Lifetime, and Imperial Teen’s debut, Seasick, was a mix of super poppy indie rock, punchy punk and honey-glazed harmonizing. It was so far from FNM, it was in a different galaxy. But as FNM imploded and disbanded, Imperial Teen thrived. They released three additional studio albums and a live record. While there became more and more time between records, it was a fairly safe bet that they’d always deliver. Now, after a five-year break and the relatively subdued The Hair, the TV, the Baby & the Band, Imperial Teen has returned with Feel the Sound.
After Faith No More reunited in 2009, it made a type of yin and yang sense that Imperial Teen wouldn’t be that far behind. If Bottum needed FNM to get some aggression out, Imperial Teen was a home for his pop sensibilities. If The Hair was an attempt to reconcile the pull of life and getting older with being in a band, Feel the Sound seems free from such weight. It’s as effervescent as their best work, with a giddy snap that runs through the record. There’s also a continuation of the tradition of the band trading mic duties and harmonies to the point where it’s almost difficult to pinpoint who is singing what and when. The approach emphasizes the band as a whole rather than the individuals’ roles. The only thing missing form Feel the Sound is some punk to dishevel the polished veneer, but that’s nitpicking. After such a restart of the Imperial Teen story, one hopes that it won’t be another five years.
Dorian S. Ham
Irish-born Fionn Regan’s first album, The End of History, showcased an unafraid songwriter with a deep reservoir of poetic feeling to match his knack for simple, catchy melodies. With his second album, The Shadow of an Empire, he hit a wall. Sure, its comparatively raucous sound was well-praised, generally speaking, but I was a Fionn fan, and to me it was the sound of a terribly disappointing sophomore slump. So, is the third try another charm? Yes, mostly.
I’ve always admired the most surprising choices Regan makes. On 100 Acres of Sycamore, there’s a smattering of orchestral percussion at some point in most of the songs. It’s not a big deal, but it’s enough to mix things up. “The Horses Are Asleep” relies on some moaning vocals buried deep in the background, which set a gloomy mood. And the last two tracks on the album are a real departure, featuring almost no decipherable lyrics at all.
It’s hard to imagine Regan will ever match the lightness of touch he had on his debut. It was that whimsical attitude as much as his lyrics that garnered him so many comparisons to Bob Dylan. In its place, though, we get more elaborate arrangements and more personal revelations. Many of these tracks allow additional room for emotion to creep in between his words, whereas it was largely the lilt of his delivery that conveyed his personal investments the first time around. “For a Nightingale,” for example, features both an emotive string section and some of Regan’s most direct lyrics to date: “I would tell you things that I told nobody else. Put your arms inside my jacket. Kiss me on the steps. My little heart would beat when I saw your snow white feet.” Eventually, though, he drops the poetry and just lets some doo-doo-doos express the sentiment. A pretty effective choice, too. It’s possible that Regan perceived this album to have the unfortunate potential to be a step backward after his leap into the electric unknown. Thankfully, he’s avoided those pitfalls and made an album that both he and his longtime fans can adore.
MP3: “100 Acres of Sycamore”
Though the mayhem that acoustic rock created during the late ’90s (yes, DMB) and into the early 2000s (Guster, Ben Folds, etc.) may have given way to disenchantment over the past few years, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a faction of heartbroken Dave Matthews fans that aren’t yearning to relive their college years. Luckily, while other bands have started families and made so much money they are content to tour once a year during the summer, arguably one of the most talented of that early 2000s bunch, Ben Kweller is still hard at work in the studio (despite also getting married and fathering two sons). Go Fly a Kite is Kweller’s first solo album in three years, yet this marks a milestone for him in another way: it’s his first release on his own label, The Noise Company.
Despite the newfound independence, Kweller returns with his token vibrant, easy-going rock that never disappoints, but also rarely stands out. It’s apparent from the outset that the one-time pop-rock wunderkind is sticking to the formula that got him recognized. Syncopated drum beats driven by piano melodies permeate the tracks, but this time around, Kweller has taken on a relatively grown-up vibe. The album begins with a blistering guitar riff that progresses into the love song “Mean to Me,” which emulates, at its best, The Beatles, and at its worst (the chorus), a lame Weezer song. Then there’s some slight CCR influence in the guitar hooks of “Out the Door” and this Southern twang continues with the bluesy “Free.” Yet perhaps the best example of Ben Kweller’s catchy charm comes in the package of an upbeat, Sha Sha–worthy “Full Circle.”
Unfortunately, however, much of the rest of the album is somewhat forgettable, getting lost in the ether of bland piano-driven hooks and a perpetual mellow buzz, namely “Gossip” and “The Rainbow.” While many of the hooks and quirkiness that drove earlier albums are missing, longtime fans will be happy to know that the entire album comes off sounding like a combination of all of his previous works—just not their best moments perhaps.
For a country that’s about the size of Colorado, New Zealand has produced a hell of a lot of exceptional music, much of it spurred by the punk explosion of the late ’70s. The foremost documentarian and exporter of this output has been Flying Nun, the indie label begun in 1981 in Christchurch by a record store owner, Roger Shepherd.
Having bought Flying Nun back from the Warner Music Group in 2009, Shepherd has been rapidly bringing the label back from the brink of extinction. After reissuing albums from its catalog by the Tall Dwarfs, Bailter Space, The 3Ds and others, Shepherd released new records by The Bats and Robert Scott this past year and has a brand new album from the Verlaines scheduled for release. After 30 years, the label seems to be once again thriving, and to mark the anniversary, has issued a two-disc compilation, Tally Ho! Flying Nun’s Greatest Bits.
The album fittingly begins with its title track and second single by The Clean. (Its first single, “Ambivalence” by the Pin Group, is also included here, but that song’s title no doubt didn’t sit right to name the album after.) Indeed, all the label’s prominent acts are represented: The Bats with “North By North,” The Chills with their self-prophesizing “Heavenly Pop Hit,” The Verlaines with “Death and the Maiden,” the Tall Dwarfs with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” and The 3Ds with “Outer Space.” But what was always most remarkable about Flying Nun (and in a broader sense, New Zealand) was the depth of its roster over the decades of its existence. So we also get Doublehappys’ “Needles and Plastic,” a mid-80s updating of “Sister Ray” (VU looms large in the Kiwi aesthetic), as well as the mid-90s pigfucked noise of Solid Gold Hell’s “Bitter Nest” and the frenetic sparkling pop of “This Aching Deal” by the Shocking Pinks (perhaps the last signing before Warner took over). With even a cut from last year’s F in Math EP, Tally Ho! covers a wide swath of great songs and represents something for which we should all be thankful: 30 years of this remarkable label.