It’s strange to think we’re on the brink of a world without Bright Eyes. For all the polarization and scattershot LPs, it always seemed like the band would forever be an ongoing concern. The records weren’t always grand, and Conor Oberst’s persona could get occasionally unbearable, but we continually returned, news of a new Bright Eyes album always pricking up our ears.
And now we have The People’s Key, the alleged final album in the Bright Eyes annals, and in certain ways it ties up the band’s legacy nicely. Specifically, Oberst can still break some hearts; the stormy piano-ballad “Ladder Song” is pretty much vintage in terms of its base-level traditions. Elsewhere, “Shell Games” hits an “all-together now!” shout-along crescendo that seemed to become more and more important to Oberst as his rock clubs became concert halls. And like most Bright Eyes albums, The People’s Key adopts a strange and unexpected theme that keeps up with the band’s stout ambition. This time we have a post-hippie, sci-fi priest narrating the record as it goes along—to the end where the first thing you hear is an odd little creation myth that includes an alien-crafted Garden of Eden. Naturally, it’s quite confounding and a little jarring, and you end up wondering what exactly Oberst was thinking—you know, kind of like most Bright Eyes albums. The People’s Key is far from being the band’s best work, but it perfectly represents what the band has personified.
Listening to DeVotchKa is like careening around in a chariot fueled by molten chutzpah. The Denver foursome blends Romani, Bolero, Mariachi, Germanic, and Slavic rhythms with indie fervor to create a profoundly nomadic musical experience. Its fifth studio album, 100 Lovers, was produced by Craig Schumacher (Calexico, M. Ward, Neko Case) and recorded in the Arizona desert, and though it offers guest performances by members of Calexico and percussionist Mauro Refosco (David Byrne, Thom Yorke), it spotlights frontman Nick Urata’s thundering desperation through elegantly eerie groans of theremin, trumpet, and accordion.
Following the gypsy folklore to which it pays homage, DeVotchKa’s sound is roving and mysterious. All 12 of 100 Lovers’ songs force you to behold the pleading, warbling tenor bursting from the throat of Urata, whose mammoth soundscapes can also be found in the soundtracks of Little Miss Sunshine, I Love You Phillip Morris, and the television show Weeds. “All the Band in All the Sea” and “100 Other Lovers” harvest the volcanic momentum, the latter of which has been set to a babushka-starring stop-motion video. Bouncy and incandescent and accompanied by a children’s choir, “Exhaustible” is a splendid lone ray of optimism. 100 Lovers is a sublime killer of doldrums that dissects such lucid ephemera as sinking ships and embarrassing grace. Enjoy the 45-minute multicultural ride, and don’t tell Mom you didn’t wear a seatbelt.
Another in the long line of Ian Svenonius’ attempts to answer Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black,” Chain & the Gang are more party than Party, a ways away from Nation of Ulysses and the Make Up’s Marxist liner notes or Weird War’s pharma-cized funk. Possibly due to Svenonius’ recent half-decade-plus of DJing the most fashionable fringe of the soul-stomp scene, this second Chain and the Gang LP makes like the punchier sides of the Standells, not standing too firm from the effects of the medications found in the bathroom at the after-party.
Shuffling in with “Why Not,” you can almost hear the tongue fumbling through Svenonius’ bravely beleaguered dental remnants, while a Monks-like chop minces around. It’s a woozy sonic summation of where Svenonious’ energy level and liver must be right about now. The hardest working man in showbiz, anyone? ’Cause damned if he doesn’t sound as vocally nimble as the Make Up days from there on out as he lays out his best party platter since those days too.
There are fine berm-bouncing swerves into Thunder/Palladin redux duets (“For Practical Reason,” “Bill for the Use of a Body”). The rave-up, “Livin Rough,” gets pretty cuckoo at the end, like Ian is catching up to all that yalping he’s been holding back on as of late. And “Not Good Enough” is a “dub” reprise that shows the Calvin Johnson/K Records connection most clearly.
There is a middle hill to climb, featuring the cheeky “Detroit Music,” that beats a well-raced horse thematically via a rusty funk stomp. And then it goes into a “Part II,” and the point is well taken, if moot, by then. And don’t fret over the trippy “Music’s Not for Everyone.” It’s all downhill from there, in a good, freewheeling way, with the highlight being “I Can’t Get Away,” some Peter Tork-y Monkees, sunny day stuff—well, a sunny day as seen through rubbed hungover eyes.
“Youth Is Wasted on the Young” peters out a bit by the end of its spy movie slink-around, but dig the self-effacement! “Youth is wasted on the young. Wealth is wasted on the rich. Looks are wasted on the beautiful. Oh, that’s just how it is.” And that bit of biography comes well after the hilarious loungey lament, “It’s a Hard Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High).” Even those who were perhaps still debating the seriousness of Svenonius and Co’s sense of humor couldn’t miss these themes. Nor should they, or anyone else, skip the music moving through them.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but by design an album from Win Win should have been a “win win” situation. Win Win is the attempt by Spank Rock founder XXXchange to make a psychedelic rave record with the help of life-long friend Chris Devlin and visual “coordinator” Ryan “Ghostdad” Sciaino. Unfortunately, in an attempt to merge various technologies and sample sources, the trio has made an album resembling the big-budget electro-pop of producers like David Guetta and Mark Ronson. While there’s no harm in making the producer the focal point while a bevy of guest vocals provide the hooks, Win Win seems to lack in overall vision, thus producing something that fails to break much ground. Still, for those wanting an endless stream of club bangers made lovingly by a trio of analog kids, you can’t go wrong with Win Win.
The highlights, though, seem few and far between. The expanded version of “Releaserpm,” starring Gang Gang Dance siren Lizzi Bougatsos was promising, and even truncated here enough to remove the pixilated ascension of the original, it stands as the centerpiece. Unfortunately it’s the dated bump surrounding this track and another high profile appearance from Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip) on the dystopian bliss of “Interleave” that leaves Win Win sounded quite dated. Surely there’s an audience for the clunky and lifeless beats of “Future Again” and “Not Too Late,” but you might mistake them for leftovers from decade-old albums from the Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx, or even worse, the soundtrack to Jersey Shore. The supposed tug-o-war between the trio’s artistic vision and various technologies might be better understood if you take it in all at once; it is best represented in Win Win’s commercial for their debut, as it highlights the audio-visual marriage they’ve concocted. Overall, though, the dichotomy of what has been promised—namely lo-fi sampling and maximalist production values—is a contrast that just doesn’t gel here.
Kevin J. Elliott
We Live in Rented Rooms is the seventh full-length release by East River Pipe, the one-man band masterminded by New Jersey’s FM Cornog. First appearing on the rock horizon in the mid-90s after getting a handle on substance abuse and mental health issues that had left him homeless for a period of time, Cornog’s music veers toward the soft introspective side of melodic pop-rock. Known for his penchant for home recording, Cornog has sometimes been portrayed as the Paul opposite Robert Pollard’s John in an indie-rock rivalry, but while both men came to prominence around the same period of time, Cornog’s subtle, quiet output has always been a long way removed from that of Pollard.
Cornog’s songwriting skills show no sign of having rusted during the five years since the release of the last East River Pipe LP, What Are You On? Indeed, We Live in Rented Rooms sounds reassuringly familiar, with shimmering synths sharing space with clean guitars, electric pianos and drum machines in Cornog’s poignant mini-rock symphonies. Cornog has never been one to follow the trend of using the Tascam as a crutch to generate an album full of hiss and white noise, and it is remarkable how crisp the production is throughout the album. With song titles like “Backroom Deals,” “When You Were Doing Cocaine” and “Conman,” it should come as no surprise that the album’s lyrical content tends to explore the dark underbelly of the world, but it does so with a tasteful restraint that avoids going for shock or becoming preachy.
We Live in Rented Rooms serves as a fine addition to the canon of albums well-suited for late night listening. If it takes another five years for a new East River Pipe album to arrive, this one will be more than good enough to tide us over until then.