Monthly Archives: August 2013
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
As with a lot of great records at the turn of the millennium, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was roundly acclaimed upon its release but generally overlooked when it came time for the best-of lists. And that’s really a shame too, because Damon Gough’s first album as Badly Drawn Boy is a knockout. Mostly due to his narcoleptic vocals, the record feels effortless and intimate, like a collection of bedsit lo-fi. Yet as the swooning horn and string arrangement that begins the album suggest, Bewilderbeast is far more ambitious than it initially lets on. For what’s essentially a debut record from a singer/songwriter, it clocks in at 18 tracks and over an hour long, and Gough plays most of the instruments himself. But aside from some genre-bending and a few production quirks (the goofy hip-hop interlude “Body Rap,” the sound collage on “Cause A Rockslide”), he uses all this skill and musicality in service of small-scale folky indie rock rather than any heady conceptual conceits or alienating experimentation (which, thinking about it now, might be the reason it’s so often overlooked). As a result, it’s a warm, charming, unique set of songs that has a surprising amount of range, with humor and earnestness in roughly equal amounts. There’s the dreamy, floating-on-clouds love song “Magic In The Air;” the obliquely menacing “Everybody’s Stalking” and “Say It Again;” the skipping, understated “Camping Next To Water,” and the touching, country-tinged “Pissing In The Wind,” to name just a few. And though the kitchen sink approach ensures that Bewilderbeast doesn’t really cohere or entirely justify its length, it’s the strength of the songs and their inventive, lively Wulitzer-n-harp-n-everything-else arrangements that keep the thing afloat the whole way through. Particularly in these early days, Gough is often compared to Beck or Harry Nilsson, and those are fair observations to make—all three are folkies who moonlight as musical polyglots—and anybody who finds themselves playing Mutations or Nilsson Schmilsson in heavy rotation will have plenty to fawn over here. And coming in right before the Strokes’ ascension and the rest of the ’80s revival, it just so happens to place a neat capstone on the slacker-rock culture of the ’90s, ushering out the old guard. While Badly Drawn Boy’s later output has its moments (especially on the About A Boy soundtrack, this record’s polished follow-up), he would never make a record as good as this again.
Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Pet Shop Boys are frequently labeled as a synth-pop or new wave group, and while that’s generally correct, it also gives short shrift to how diverse and rich their music can be. From chilly, extended house numbers to keenly observed pop songs to sunny disco cuts with Latin grooves, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have bent around the limitations of dance-pop to create intelligent music that’s as good for mulling over as it is for partying. And while 2013’s Electric isn’t a conscious attempt to touch back on all the different styles the Pet Shop Boys covered during their career, it does serve as a nice reminder that they’re capable of such fun, eclectic dance music. It’s also some of their most consistently energetic work, never turning down the tempo for a ballad or mood piece. Starting things off with the fine, borderline-aggressive house cut, “Axis,” the velocity rarely lets up, even when the album strays from extended pieces. There’s no Actually-styled straight-ahead pop songs here, but Tennant’s carefully honed wit and beautifully glassy voice snake their way throughout, whether it be the triumphant centerpiece, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” the goofy “Bolshy,” or the darkly stylish “Fluorescent.” But what’s remarkable is that for a group nearly three decades old, they can still make these songs sound so distinctive and fresh while using such familiar materials. Hell, even when they invite rapper Example on the urbane, late-night disco of “Thursday,” the two artists feel of a piece instead of musicians awkwardly infringing on a different generation. And if that weren’t enough, they even make a successful stab at a Springsteen cover on the pulsing, club-ready “The Last To Die,” just to show off. Some of this vitality is due to Stuart Price, who co-produces here, to mostly beneficial effect, unifying the disparate threads of the record and painting things over with a shimmering finish. Yet it’s that same gloss that occasionally makes the music here feel calculated and cold in ways that keep the songs from reaching their potential. Certainly, a detached, even ironic, distance is a mainstay of the Boys’ style, but there were always emotions peeking below the surface, emotions that never truly bubble up here, even when the melodies and lyrics suggest they’re supposed to. Still, the material’s generally strong enough to shine through any of the sterilization, and even if isn’t exactly up to the standards of the band’s glory days (which, of course it’s not), Electric is an exciting collection of dance music by any measure. To paraphrase “Vocal,” it’s a record that simply feels right and so young, which, in this case, is more than enough.