Review, Peter Gabriel, III/Melt

Permanent Records: Albums From The A.V. Club’s Hall Of Fame

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. III/Melt)

The context: After he split from prog-rock progenitor Genesis in 1975, Peter Gabriel recorded a couple of decent but unfocused solo albums—both simply titled Peter Gabriel—before hitting his groove in a big way in 1980 on his third self-titled disc, usually referred to informally as either III or Melt (in reference to the smeared Polaroid portrait on the cover).

The greatness: Genesis was all about bombastic excess, and Gabriel’s later solo work struck a balance between mainstream pop and world music. But Melt and its follow-up, Security, share more with the contemporaneous Talking Heads albums Remain In Light and Fear Of Music, by exploring themes of paranoia and violence with densely layered, aggressive post-punk production. Gabriel opens the album with the palpably menacing “Intruder,” a disturbing first-person account that a night-stalking creep directs at the listener, whose house he’s breaking into for purposes best left unspoken. “Family Snapshot,” based on the autobiography of the would-be assassin of presidential candidate George Wallace, even engenders some sympathy for its lonely, deluded gunman protagonist, who waits patiently with his rifle for the motorcade to come into range, dreaming of the day he’ll be famous. But Gabriel shows his true colors on the album-closing “Biko,” an elegy for murdered South African activist Stephen Biko. It begins as a dirge, then slowly evolves into a thundering cry for justice: “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher.” Melt is still influential, too, with echoes showing up in songs like TV On The Radio’s “Wash The Day,” which shares the distinctive drumbeat of “Intruder.”

Defining song: “Games Without Frontiers,” which recasts global geopolitical strife as a not-so-innocent children’s game of capture-the-flag.

Originally published March 26, 2007 on Read the complete article.

Random Rules: P.O.S.

Photo: Jeff Luger

The shuffler: Stef Alexander, a.k.a. P.O.S of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. Currently on tour opening for Gym Class Heroes, P.O.S has a busy 2007 planned, with an all-crew Doomtree album and his own third solo disc in the works.

Cage, “Too Heavy For Cherubs”

: I like this a lot. Cage was one of those MCs who, three years ago, you’d hear his records or a new song he had on whatever compilation, and he always had a really dope verse, but it was never stuff I could relate to, or really agree with, necessarily. Until this new record [Hell's Winter], where it seemed like he had some huge stuff happen in his life that made him want to talk about some relatable shit. Whatever it was that did it, it was a good move, ’cause this new record’s the best one he’s ever made, as far as I’m concerned.

The Pharcyde, “Soul Flower (Remix)”

POS: It’s a pretty good song. It’s not my favorite, by any means. I think a weed song’s got to be a really good weed song, if you’re going to have a weed song.

The A.V. Club: What makes a good weed song?

POS: Songs about getting high aren’t typically the best songs. Sometimes they can be fun, but they’re never going to make or break a record for me, [unless] there’s too many of them. A good weed song isn’t necessarily so much about smoking weed, as it is about your day, or about what makes you want to smoke weed, you know? I don’t necessarily cater so often to sad songs, but I like the idea of… I mean, it might seem stupid to say, but… My mom can deal with swearing, and I’ve always been really honest with her, so I like having songs where I can play it for my mom and she can understand what the point is. And if I’ve got a song that’s like “We smoke weed every day, ’cause we crazy high! We love smoking weed and love gettin’ high!”—she’s not really going to be into it, you know? [Laughs.]. But if the song is put together like, “I’ve been working my ass off all day long. What am I looking forward to tonight? Nothing! My girl broke up with me, what am I going to do? I’m going to smoke this joint and relax…” That kind of weed song makes more sense to me. I do love The Pharcyde, though.

Originally published March 20, 2007 on Read the complete article.

Review: Low, Drums And Guns

Even for a band that built its reputation on the quality of its brooding, Low seems particularly worried and preoccupied on Drums And Guns. As the title suggests, the Duluth trio’s eighth studio album explores the timely topic of war and violence, and they don’t seem to like what they find either looking outward or inward. Violence and its consequences lurk behind every lyric, starting from the first line: “All the soldiers are all gonna die, all the babies are all gonna die.” And while it’s obvious that the Iraq War is a primary inspiration for Drums And Guns, it’s far from an overtly political album. Instead, songwriter Alan Sparhawk seems most concerned with war’s ethical and metaphysical toll. Sparhawk’s penchant for introspection leads him to explore his own reaction to the caustic temptations of anger in unsettling lines like “my hand just kills and kills” and “all I can do is fight.” He offers his services to God as a contract killer in “Murderer,” simultaneously delivering a scathing attack on religion’s role in stirring up unrest and an empathic understanding of how even the most peacefully spiritual people can be lured down the wrong path.

Low’s quiet, still songcraft made it the standard-bearer of the slowcore movement in the 1990s, but the move to the indie label Sub Pop for 2005′s The Great Destroyer signaled a major shift to a bigger, louder sound. Teaming the band again with producer Dave Fridmann, Drums And Guns pushes that evolution even further, and what seemed like a radical departure two years ago now sounds like a waystation on the journey to this more disjointed, more fragmented, more demanding, and ultimately more rewarding work. The musical arrangements have an edge and roughness that matches Sparhawk’s words—the reversed guitar on “Breaker” is particularly effective. The darkly textured production sounds more like a typical Steve Albini-produced album than either of the two discs Low previously made with him. It’s slow and somber, but boiling underneath.

Originally published on March 20, 2007. Read the complete article.

Interview: Andrew Bird

Whistler, violinist, and all-around musical polymath Andrew Bird scored his biggest success so far with 2005′s terrific The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, which introduced his offbeat, complex songwriting to a new audience. Shortly afterward, he found a simpatico partner in Minneapolis drummer and loop artist Martin Dosh, who joined Bird on tour and later brought him to Minnesota for the recording of Bird’s follow-up album, the remarkable Armchair Apocrypha. Bird, on tour with Dosh and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the new album, the importance of improvising, and the drawbacks of the minor key.

Originally published on March 13, 2007. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 14 cover songs that are better than the originals

1. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out”
The Lennon/McCartney-penned single “We Can Work It Out” comes from the middle of The Beatles’ most radical creative reinvention, the 1965 shift from the straightforward pop of Help! to the multifaceted Rubber Soul, which would revolutionize their music, and by extension, everybody else’s. So it’s fitting that when Stevie Wonder covered the song on 1970′s Signed, Sealed & Delivered, he was in the middle of a similar transition from Motown’s teenage wunderkind to the socially conscious and superfunky artist he became in the mid-’70s. Wonder’s performance is so powerful, in fact, that it changes the meaning of the song without changing a word. The Beatles’ original is a desperate plea for reconciliation, delivered with passion but little hope. (The song was inspired by Paul McCartney’s fractious, doomed relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher.) But Wonder’s version is all about hope, and his joyous, sizzling funk makes “We Can Work It Out” a promise, not a plea.

3. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, “Way Down In The Hole”
Tom Waits’ offbeat gospel song is one of the highlights of his 1987 disc Frank’s Wild Years, and it’s even better on the subsequent live album Big Time, where Waits interjects a grizzle-voiced sermon about using hydraulic-powered faith-healing to blast the devil out of your soul. But both versions take a mockingly ironic tone toward Waits’ perspective character, a tent-revival preacher promising heaven in exchange for your cash, and neither completely shakes a sense of theatrical artificiality. That’s definitely not the case for gospel group Blind Boys Of Alabama, whose smoking, bluesy rendition of the song on 2001′s Spirit Of The Century hits with genuine fire and fervor. It also picked up added resonance when the producers of HBO’s terrific The Wire used it as the theme song for its first season, perfectly encapsulating the series’ complicated dance with good and evil.

6. Elvis Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”
Nick Lowe’s original version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”, recorded in 1974 with his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, is a minor classic of English pre-punk, and it doesn’t sound terribly different from the one recorded by Lowe’s buddy Elvis Costello five years later. On the plus side, it actually kicks in with some sweet harmonies after the line “where is the harmony, sweet harmony?” On the debit side, there’s Lowe’s dated, hippieish talking bit about how we need to save the world for “the children of a new generation.” Costello’s arrangement is tighter and more assertive, all the better to get right to the point: Why the hell can’t people stop being total bastards to each other? The passionate fury in Costello’s voice transforms “Peace, Love, And Understanding” into a condemnation of humanity’s propensity for cruelty, violence, and war—and elevates it into one of the greatest songs in the rock canon.

Originally published on March 12, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Stevie Wonder, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Elvis Costello, and Langley Schools Music Project. Read the complete article.

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