The story of Bill Fox has long been filled with holes. Not only has there been huge gaps in his recorded output, but the Cleveland singer and songwriter has disappeared from public view for years at a time. His first band, The Mice, which he formed with his drumming brother Tommy in 1984, seemed on the verge of greater things when he broke the band up in 1988 and went into hiding. (The story I’ve always heard was that he said he was going to get a pack of cigarettes and left the rest of the band waiting at the airport gate where they were supposed to depart for their first European tour.) He emerged again in the late ’90s, releasing the equally superb Shelter from the Smoke and Transit Byzantium before once again going JD Salinger.
Perhaps (though I doubt it) as a result of a 2007 Believer article that spurred some new interest in his music, Fox came out of hiding a few years ago and began performing in public again. And now here is One Thought Revealed, his first album in nearly 14 years. Helped out by a handful of players on half the album’s tracks, Fox has expanded on his finger-picked folk to create songs of greater ambiance. Indeed, lyrically the record is more obtuse than his other work as well, but it’s no less for it. At only eight songs and 27 minutes, the album is disappointing for its brevity, but tracks like “Evidence” and “Round the World” show his ability to forge big ideas (love, life, etc.) into perfectly formed pop gems still intact. It’s impossible to predict whether this will be the last we hear of Fox for awhile, but just in case, it’s probably best to treasure this record for all that it is.
Damian Jurado’s listeners are used to a certain intimacy with the singer-songwriter, but on Maraqopa, there seems to have been a concerted effort to pull Jurado away from our ears. The resulting distance allows Jurado to fill the frame that he and key collaborator Richard Swift built for their previous outing together (the bar-raising Saint Bartlett) with a broad expanse of roughshod sounds. So they’ve got a children’s choir turning “Life Away from the Garden” into an oddly bleak eulogy for lost innocence. Lead-off “Nothing Is the News” is filled with organs, guitars solos and tons of reverb. The title track is arresting and incredibly gentle, starting with Jurado singing as tenderly as ever, but soon enough he’s wailing from the back of the room. Close listening is rewarded, though, as you pick out subtle touches of percussion and strings buried deep in the corners.
The end of the record, though, is where Jurado and Swift really hit their stride. It’s rare that I get excited about mid-tempo ballads, but on “So On, Nevada,” “Museum of Flight” and “Mountains Still Asleep,” the duo temper their so-called psychedelic urges. Jurado’s ever-more supple vocals take center stage, supported by unexpected flourishes that manage not to overwhelm the melodies. What emerges is a fistful of beautiful songs that work on every level.
MP3: “Nothing Is the News”
The idea of the concept album is enough to invoke involuntary wincing. At this point, it’s a well-established practice, but frankly, not every band has it in them. It can quickly devolve into an overwrought, over-thought mess. On the flipside, it can be so underdeveloped that it just sits there like wilted iceberg lettuce. There’s a very narrow sweet spot that bands have to hit, so there was the potential for disaster when Cursive announced that its seventh album, I Am Gemini, would be a concept record about twin brothers who were separated at birth, Cassius and Pollock, and the question of whether they are split between good and evil or if they are two parts of one whole. At the very least, it seems ripe enough for missteps to necessitate the need for a strong dramaturge.
All things considered, if any band could navigate the potential minefield, it would Cursive. The band, as led by lead singer and lyricist Tim Kaiser, has always had a toe in the concept pool. But for this record Kaiser mapped out the entire story, wrote the songs in sequence and then took the extra step to use the liner notes as a way to present the lyrics as a script complete with stage directions. There was no half-assing with the project.
But all of the extra stuff doesn’t matter if the music doesn’t hold up its part of the bargain. Thankfully, it is a huge relief that I Am Gemini delivers. Musically, it’s more aggressive than the band’s last record, Mama, I’m Swollen. The guitars are appropriately tense and mathematical, with a level of gleeful attack from the rhythm section. It rocks, but it’s not full-throttle all the time. Cursive knows when to ease back, sometime going more moody or even a touch poppy. The narrative is a bit more abstract if you’re navigating the record sans lyric sheet, but within individual songs, Kaiser has a knack for evocative turns of phrase that stand up even if you don’t know the story. I Am Gemini is the type of record that rewards, and even demands, repeated listening.
Dorian S. Ham
Since the day they were born—during the rash of Brit-pop in the early ’90s—the Tindersticks have always been something of an acquired taste. The Nottingham band’s slow-smoked sound blends elements of Northern Soul with the aesthetics of a Leonard Cohen or a Nick Cave. They’ve always worked with just a few dark hues, but they’ve managed to explore every slight difference in those gray shades. As such, albums like 2001’s masterful Can Our Love... and 2008’s Hungry Saw, were supple blends of charred songsmithery and deeply resonant tones.
The Something Rain, the Tindersticks’ latest, is possessed by a similar flavor as its predecessors. Following the gender-bender twist of the spoken “Chocolate,” the band kindles a cool vibe that permeates the rest of the record. Tracks like “A Night So Still” and “Medicine” are built atop vintage mechanized beats that lend a touch of lounge noir ambiance, but the songs are too steeped in the Tindersticks’ terrene tones to sound garish. With dub riddims and horn blurtings juxtaposing with Stuart Staples’ amber croon, “Frozen” is the album’s most jarring track, if only for its high contrast. Otherwise, the tracks on The Something Rain melt together into a masterful work of subtleties.
There’s nothing like a reunion album to elicit snickers from fans of all ages, and in most cases, the band works hard to earn that derision by attempting to update their sound or cash in on current trends. Van Halen, however, has somehow managed to avoid any temptation whatsoever to alter the formula. There’s no ill-advised rap interlude, no techno breakdowns, no acoustic ballads featuring the drummer on vocals, no guest spots from Jack Black or Dave Grohl. This is straight-up, big-riff, guitar-driven rock music, the undeniable return of Eddie Van Halen’s “brown sound” and Diamond Dave’s fully-erect personality. Listening to A Different Kind of Truth, you’d think rock music hadn’t changed a bit since 1978. Indeed, you can safely slide this onto your LP rack right next to 1984 (or better yet, Fair Warning) and pretend that nothing ever happened.
It helps, of course, that nearly half the album was actually conceived in the mid-70s (ancient demos exist for six of the 13 songs), including “Big River” and the inevitable liveset-closer “Beats Workin’,” two of the best throwbacks on the record. But even brand new songs like “China Town” and “As Is” successfully capture the swagger that made the band so magical in the first place. You miss Dave’s gloriously dumb lyrics? “Tattoo” has you covered. You’re dying for one of Eddie’s pyrotechnic guitar solos? There’s one on every track! You wither without Alex’s ride cymbal and double-bass-drum destruction? Wait’ll you hear “Outta Space.” How ’bout one of those classic spoken-word intervals? Try “The Trouble With Never.” Or an over-the-top blues workout? “Stay Frosty” is for you. I’m telling you, it’s all here. And give credit where credit is due: if every rock star were as intuitive as David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen about what their fans want, we wouldn’t spend so much time reading and writing mixed reviews. This definitely isn’t one. Van Halen’s new record is totally rad. Who says nothing stays the same?