Category Archives: Music Reviews

Morrissey covers 12 songs from the 60s and 70s to craft a very 2019 album

Photo from morrisseyofficial.com

In music and film, there’s a certain sweet spot of nostalgia for the middle of the latter half of the 20th century, probably because so many people alive today have lived through it. Hollywood often loads its period pieces of that time, like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice or Starsky and Hutch, with classic songs like “Afternoon Delight,” “Close to You” or “Stayin’ Alive.” But on California Son, Morrissey’s new cover album of 60s and 70s songs, he digs deeper than radio hits to repurpose for his own narrative use, choosing songs that have ties to our own historical moment.

These 12 cover songs come in the wake of Morrissey’s middling 2017 original release Low In High School. But where that album faltered, this album succeeds into breaking into the age of contemporary music releases. On California Son, Morrissey cherry picks tunes that explore the themes of public persona, politics and grieving the loss of love. Through his selection, he demonstrates how a good contemporary cover album should be executed: by shining a new light on overlooked and underrated yet culturally significant compositions.

Vocally, Morrissey glides over these covers’ melodies as smooth as ever, sometimes celebratory, sometimes mournful and sometimes disdainful. Following the triumphant surreality of “Morning Starship,” the opener, and Joni Mitchell’s mythic “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” the tracklist quickly shifts toward songs relating to political and social issues. Dylan’s “Only a Pawn In Their Game” from The Times They Are a-Changin’ leads off this section as a militant rocker, then Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Suffer the Little Children” laments the capitalist rat race over pounding piano bass and finally Phil Och’s “Days of Decision” closes it out, suggesting the world’s current politics are as crucial as during the mid-1960s.

“Only a Pawn…” and “Days of Decision” both share a theme by making reference to the civil rights movement in the American South. Dylan’s song recounts the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi and Och’s the 1964 murder of three other civil rights activists also in Mississippi (the basis for the film Mississippi Burning). Morrissey’s decision to include several songs that promote equality on his new album contrasts his recent decision to wear a For Britain Movement, a right wing British nationalist group, pin on his Jimmy Fallon performance. Perhaps Morrissey has taken a page from Kanye West’s release publicity book, but as far as the album goes, the songs he chose for it are far from reactionary.

Tying into these politically-charged covers, on the album’s closer “Some Say I Got Devil,” Morrissey mirrors himself in the lyrics, also attempting to gain perspective or illuminate his public persona, including his many controversial statements. So, he is undoubtedly aware of the strange dichotomy he’s lately been presenting. As a side note, hearing Morrissey adopt a Bob Dylan cadence is entertaining for any frequent listener, and I’d take Morrissey’s more expressive and ultimately superior cover of “Days of Decision” over Phil Och’s original any day.

As with any Morrissey release, there are a handful of songs about love, lost love and loneliness. Of the bunch, the strongest is the album’s opener, “Morning Starship,” which features Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, who crafts a dense, jubilant and stellar atmosphere more taut than the original and reflective of his band’s own work. The cover does justice to the original version by Jobriath, whom Morrissey has focused on in the past, even compiling a posthumous Jobriath CD release in 2004. The song tells the story of a woman visiting a man in bed in the morning like a kind of reversed Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, “Without a word she said can I come in/and I said well, you’re in already/you might as well sit down and stay a while,” and ends with her leaving him behind to venture somewhere else. The narrator ultimately admits “She’s gone away what can I do/she took the keys/she’s got the clue,” but he ends up feeling grateful for her overall. The powerful synths and stereo guitar bursts anchor down Morrissey’s crooning to create the best highlight of the album.

California Son’s other emotion-based songs don’t quite match the raw energy of “Morning Starship,” but still deliver with the classic Morrissey treatment. Breaking up the political suite, he takes a crack at Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” with singer LP delivering a haunting, saccharine vocal intro that goes, “Your baby doesn’t love you anymore,” and stands out as the most transcendental moment from any of Morrissey’s guests. Also, the vocal climax at the end of the song matches any of Orbison’s many: “In Dreams,” “Crying,” take your pick.

“Wedding Bell Blues” featuring Billie Joe Armstrong and Lydia Night improves with every listen, faithful to the original by The Fifth Dimension, a band more famous for its The 40-Year-Old Virgin-featured hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The cover of Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” is an electric, funk song with a barrage of horns and pleas for love. Lastly of the love-ballad-type songs, Morrissey’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “Lenny’s Tune,” originally written for and about Lenny Bruce, fulfills the album’s quota for the heaviness of grief and loss. The narrator mourns a friend with desperate lines such as, “I lost a friend and I don’t know why.”

Several songs on this cover album were originally penned and sung by women, and Morrissey holds faithful to them, embracing the messages of the originals. On “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” which features a soulful saxophone solo, he sings “Anima rising/Queen of queens/wash my guilt in Eden/wash and balance me.” On “Wedding Bell Blues,” he’s asking some guy named Bill why he hasn’t married him yet, growing impatient. Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon songs both make appearances, maintaining their respective wisdoms about love. And finally on the closing track, Morrissey recontextualizes Melanie’s lyrics, “Some say I got devil/some say I got angel/but I’m just a girl trouble,” comparing her search to be publicly understood to that of his own. Morrissey chooses to embrace his anima and diversifies his body of covers to feature almost as many female voices as male.

On California Son, his first cover album and twelfth solo album overall, Morrissey breathes fresh air into a group of semi-obscure but potent songs about love, equality, acceptance and loss. His performance leaves nothing to be desired, morphing his own vocal style to fit every song, similar to what Bob Dylan did on Shadows In the Night. Joe Chiccarelli’s rich production accompanied with a solid cast of collaborators elevates this Morrissey effort into the modern age of music releases, a step outside the comfort zone of his last few albums. In a statement before the record’s release, collaborator Laura Pergolizzi a.k.a. LP said that Morrissey “is well versed in so many genres and knows deep cuts of artists I thought I knew so much about.” And after several listens of California Son, I’m inclined to agree with her judgement.

4.5/5

By Luke Furman

 

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On his latest offering, Groove Denied, Stephen Malkmus dives headfirst into the electronic rock vibes of yesteryear while never entirely shaking his indie rock roots

Photo from Matador Records

Stephen Malkmus’ signature brand of abstract and non sequitur lyrics can most often be found floating over the instrumentals of Pavement and his own band, The Jicks. Raucous guitars and bombastic drums match his frenetic singing and shrieking crescendos, shirking any notions of predictability.

But on Groove Denied, his long awaited stab at electronic music, Malkmus allows synthesizers, drum machines and loops to bubble to the surface. Over a well-paced 33 minute runtime, Malkmus explores the different eras of electronic music and plugs his own charisma into the digital landscape.

The first three songs on the album, his first solo release without The Jicks since 2001, are the most purely electronic, with the pulsing opener “Belziger Faceplant” resembling Kraftwerk’s wide sound on its outro. Groove Denied owes a heavy influence to krautrock. The cover itself looks as if it could be a supply crate in the Berlin Airlift and the title is an overtly tongue-in-cheek nod to early electronic records and sci-fi.

“Viktor Borgia,” the lead single, is the strongest of the three and purveys a sterile kind of love song, most strikingly in its hook, “Your eyes are like a present/From a peasant oh/And he cherishes them so oh oh.” The song also sums up one of the album’s themes, which is shedding feelings of being an outsider and finding a space of belonging: “We walk into the club/Thank the heavens above/There’s a place we can go.” The song’s synthy musical break is undeniably an earworm.

Groove Denied, like Malkmus’ past records, also has its share of guitar work and even features an glitchy solo on “Come Get Me.” The song marks a sea change on the album where the following songs, save “Forget Your Place,” veer sonically closer to Pavement or The Jicks rather than New Order or Gary Numan. “Forget Your Place” is built around a synthesizer loop and could easily have fit on Panda Bear’s last record. It’s mantra-like titular refrain and lyrics in the verses such as “Sky high in the galleria” and “High plains driftin’” make the song stand out as the most stonerfied on the album. It’s a nice, meditative change-up that lets the album breathe for a moment.

The pivot from pure electronic to electronic indie rock is not necessarily unwelcome. A few of the best songs on the album are more in the style of rock, such as “Rushing the Acid Frat,” “Come Get Me” and “Boss Viscerate.” “Rushing the Acid Frat,” the album’s second single and best song, begins with the lyrics “I had a vision,” which almost feels like a mission statement for the entire album. The live drum playing gives the song an extra sense of life.

The final song, “Grown Nothing,” closes the album with a breezy guitar-based tune that points out how we are all “riding the planet at the same time.” It’s a light, fitting ending to an album with such dense production. It slowly pulls the listener out of all the circuitry and quantization.

Groove Denied’s themes oscillate between love and loneliness. The main lyrics of “Belziger Faceplant” are “I love what you are to me/Easy to see, easy to be,” but just two songs later on “Come Get Me,” Malkmus calls for help, lamenting “Out on a limb here/I can’t walk on a ledge eternal.” Later in the album,“Boss Viscerate” has Malkmus contemplating his lover, saying “I barely tried to understand your grace/The way you occupy prosaic space,” and ends with a little drum machine outro to keep with the theme. But the next song, a “Maggie’s Farm”-type farmworker number called “Ocean of Revenge,” finds him in surrender, saying “I felt so alien in this burnt world/Far away from the fan/I turned rancid.” The lyrics unfurl almost like an internal monologue between confidence and self-doubt.

Despite the premise of Stephen Malkmus making an electronic record seeming kind of gimmicky, the lyrics on Groove Denied are as strong, introspective and charmingly aloof as any of his other releases. In short, he still has feelings and happenings to decipher, even if he deliberately obfuscates what they are. And the music here, all credited to Malkmus, sounds fresh enough to make headway against recent rock and electronic releases while also harkening back to the days of electronic music’s rise. Perhaps a lyric from the modern-sounding track “Love the Door” best explains Malkmus’ purpose on this album of leaving his comfort zone to entertain listeners: “Whatever stupidifics you take from what I am saying here/Carbonate the thrill.”

3.5/5

By Luke Furman

 

Mark Kozelek’s societal frustrations boil over on Sun Kil Moon’s ‘I Also Want to Die in New Orleans,’ his latest musical journal entry

Photo from Caldo Verde Records

For the better half of the past decade, singer Mark Kozelek has refined a style of songwriting that marries folksy guitar-swirled instrumentation with poetic, often painful lyricism.

After releasing two sharply personal records last year, a self-titled under his own name and This Is My Dinner with his band Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek emerges for the first time in 2019 to meditate on his blessings and concerns throughout Sun Kil Moon’s tenth and most politically-charged album I Also Want to Die in New Orleans.

The seemingly sincere title of the album is a play on the 2018 debut album of the rap duo $uicideboy$ titled I Want to Die in New Orleans, but similarities between the two artists end there. Who knows how invested Kozelek is in the Southern duo, but from past compositions such as “The Banjo Song,” it’s established that Mark has lived in New Orleans for a time. But unlike the record that song appears on, the narratives on this record never venture to Louisiana.

With a runtime of nearly an hour and a half, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans matches the length of Sun Kil Moon’s previous release This Is My Dinner, but instead of recounting a dreary European tour, this effort finds Kozelek in a headier space, floating in and out of the present moment without warning of what might come next. The binding element on this album, aside from the uncharacteristically upbeat folk and jazz-tinged instrumentation from Kozelek, Jim White and Donny McCaslin, is the recurring themes and characters in Kozelek’s music. His lyrics create a familiar atmosphere that’s like chatting with a friend over coffee every couple months or so.

On past Sun Kil Moon records, Kozelek has thrown brief jabs at politicians, unnecessary gun violence and technology’s destructive impact on intelligence. On This Is My Dinner’s opening track “This Is Not Possible,” he questioned if the U.S. president belonged in a mental hospital. And on 2013’s heartstring-pulling release Benji, he condemned U.S. gun laws and the loss of innocent lives in “Prayer for Newtown.” But on I Also Want to Die in New Orleans his irritation has reached a boiling point and his anger at societal ignorance is palpable.

Throughout the 15 minutes of what could be called the album’s only single, “Day In America” released February 17, Kozelek recalls learning about the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day 2018. He uses the song to call out the hypocrisy of Republicans who mourn mass shootings but are unwilling to take action for change and he suggests the shooter should be punished in a way akin to Django Unchained. However, Kozelek has the self-awareness to qualify his rage-fueled stance by ending the track with the voice of friend expressing a more nuanced, disconcerting position on tragedy in modern America. Although the track is a bit rambling and detours into associative anecdotal stories, the guitar-heavy “Day In America” is one of the album’s most thought-provoking songs.

Its poignant message is only eclipsed by “Couch Potato,” the album’s other overtly political song. Over beautifully repetitive guitar and horn riffs, “Couch Potato” takes aim at the rapidly changing news cycle and the feigned outrage that people express because of its influence. But Kozelek does not condemn the offended or outraged in a Louis C.K. way, rather, he posits that people should be more concerned with issues that directly affect their lives instead of a bad date Aziz Ansari had. As he states in the song, “Don’t get me wrong/Don’t think I don’t care.” He goes on to express his distaste with the deportation of immigrants, gentrification and the abusive treatment of homeless people in his hometown of San Francisco. He laments, “I don’t mind the pimps and hoes and the bums pissin’ in the alleys and nobody else did/til San Francisco sold its ass to Silicon Valley.” On this song, he’s clearly over “whiny goddamn couch potatoes” and ponders why society is more concerned with becoming inflamed by ultimately insignificant scandals instead what is happening around the corner. It’s the album’s best track.

Despite its bold political statements, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans has its fair share of lighter, softer moments. On “L-48,” the shortest song on the album at 4:51, Kozelek muses about an old Gibson L-48 guitar that he bought for $60 at a garage sale and how a producer, Mark Needham, helped him unlock the potential of the instrument. His cat, Pink, who played a big role in the title track of This Is My Dinner is mentioned here, again.

In the somber opener “Coyote,” he finds beauty in mundane happenings, such as a coyote being rescued and a skunk taking refuge on his estate. The song is reminiscent of his 2018 track “Weed Whacker” in its domesticity. Keeping with the animal theme as evidenced by the cover photo, the fourth track “Cows” is the album’s weakest song, despite containing the obligatory shoutout to Ohio. Just as the title suggests, the lyrics find Kozelek stuck between his appreciation of the tranquil bovine beings and how he regrets eating them, but he does not think he can stop so late in life. One memorable line from the song goes, “From this day forward I solemnly vow/To only once a month sink my teeth in the flesh of a cow” and then he lists all of his favorite meat-serving restaurants. The song employs chant-like background vocals to its advantage but often loses the lead vocals in the mix.

“I’m Not Laughing at You” feels like a holdover from This Is My Dinner. It takes place in Ghent, Belgium and finds Mark being made fun of for being an American in the era of the sitting U.S. president. “I’m not laughing at you/I’m laughing at the country from where you came,” an expatriate Romanian woman tells him. The song ends with a gesture of good human nature, though. A Belgian chef who publicly makes fun of him ends up offering him the best cuts of barbecue lamb. The track feels like the black sheep of this album but still offers a satisfying narrative on top of spacey guitar chords.

Usually an album with a runtime of an hour and a half pushes the human attention span. But the final track on I Also Want to Die in New Orleans titled “Bay of Kotor” and running 23 minutes delivers such an emotional gut punch that it would be a sin to exclude it. If anything, “Cows” or “I’m Not Laughing at You” could have been cut for time.

“Bay of Kotor” is a story-driven masterwork encompassing the time Kozelek spent in Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea when Sun Kil Moon played the 2018 Sea Dance Festival. Over flamenco-style guitar, he sings about feeding sad-looking stray cats tuna and rebuking a server who struck a stray dog accompanying the singer at an outdoor restaurant. “Don’t ever do that again,” he tells him. But what makes this song so striking is the conversations he recalls having with one of the live-in maids at his hotel. He recalls telling her that she is so lucky to live in such a beautiful place by the sea but she replies that her life is “shit,” which leads to a tender emotional crescendo done partially in pure spoken word. The song is also the only on this album to mention Caroline, Kozelek’s longtime girlfriend who appears on many other songs he’s written, although she’s mentioned in name only.

Like nearly every other Sun Kil Moon album, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans is a lot to take in at once. Along with featuring more-prominent horn parts, current politics weigh heaviest on this effort, elevated above all of Mark’s day to day happenings. But the lyrics still manage to delve into the beauty of the mundane and contain several long, internal monologues expressed out loud. I Also Want to Die in New Orleans is another chapter to a continuous puzzle that not even Kozelek can fully comprehend. Like his listeners, he can only meditate on what has happened and why and hope for a satisfying answer. When it comes down to it, who can really make complete sense of life, anyway? We can only ruminate on what is most important to us, whether it’s the disenfranchised, the helpless or, well, cows.

3/5 Stars     

By Luke Furman