We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
4 stars (out of 4)
A true alternative band landing squarely in the Top 40? No empirical evidence would've supported such a fact when Modest Mouse broke through a few years back with "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." Even less hard data supports the idea that "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" will be one of the biggest albums of the year -- and not just for critics who don't care if an album sells 1,000 or a few million copies. "Ship " is poised to take Isaac Brock and his far-from-Modest Mouse even closer to the mainstream.
This is something to be entirely excited about, for it has been far too long since we've had some truly exciting rock music that also manages to be populist -- some challenging, weird stuff that one needn't be a socially ostracized musicologist to dig.
None of this is to suggest that "Ship" is anything other than wonderfully strange, of course. The most thrilling news, and the most immediately apparent when you slap this puppy into whatever it is you play music on these days, is the addition of former Smiths/Electronic/The The guitarist Johnny Marr to the ranks of Brock's mice. "Ship" is a guitar record, but not in an over-the-top fashion -- think Television's "Marquee Moon," the The's "Dusk" or Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," all of which are fueled by brilliant guitar work but none of which do so in an obvious way. Brock and Marr bounce off of and buzz around each other wonderfully throughout this record, and the presence of their organically intricate guitar playing provides a wonderful bed for Brock's ejaculatory sing-speak-yell.
As usual, the rhythm section is crisp and taut, and various unexpected sound effects and auxiliary instruments lend color precisely when it's needed most -- check the mid-section of the simply brilliant Tom Waits-goes-psychedelic "Florida" for an example of such incisive attention to detail. Beyond the sonic structuring of the music itself lie Brock's often tortured but never navel-gazing lyrics, which revolve around aquatic themes here, though in an unstudied manner. In an abstract sense, a stiff, salty breeze blows throughout the record, a foreboding sense of inevitable nautical disaster. It's a little freaky.
That "Ship" might actually be considered pop music in 2007 is cause for righteous celebration. Modest Mouse is not making any concessions toward mass popularity here, but it sure looks like the band is going to get it anyway. And that's as it should be.
-- Jeff Miers
On a recent episode of James Woods' TV series "Shark," the hotshot D.A. was accompanying his sleek Angeleno girlfriend to what she described as a "jazz fusion" concert. He was clearly ready to do anything he could get out of the evening -- and, just in the nickof time, came a cell phone call announcing a dead body requiring his immediate attention.
There is a very good reason why jazz fusion enjoys a terrible musical reputation. It is, at its worst, soulless, heartless, brainless, uncreative music that tries to get by with digital pyrotechnics and rock volume levels. The result, at worst, is a maelstrom of notes going nowhere but down (and at maximum velocity).
Which pretty much describes the sad and empty new disc by Hiromi Uehara, whose first disc, "Another Mind," was as phenomenal a debut as any in the last few years of jazz but whose next discs have been progressively more lost.
She is a remarkable pianist with talent and technique to burn. Unfortunately, at the moment, that seems to be what she's doing with both.
You'll find that she and her guitarist, Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski, are most often playing notes by the ton and filling every available space with "sonic bloom" but are not otherwise overly involved in playing music -- which would be all well and good if we were talking about the sonic invention of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix or Karlheinz Stockhausen.But we're not.
-- Jeff Simon
Stand in the Fire
3 1/2 stars
3 1/2 stars
Finally, the Norman Mailer of '70s rock gets his due. Warren Zevon may not have sold asmany records as his pals Jackson Browne and the Eagles, but he never failed to deliver glorious, mini-novellike examinations of American life's dark subconscious, all set to music that balanced inventive, often twisted musical structures against sweaty, swanky and sturdy rock 'n' roll. Zevon presented himself as a perpetual outsider-desperado, and this was no mere act -- the man was indeed a true original, and his perpetual irreverence would have surely prevented him from joining some respectable club, had he ever actually been asked. That would be like Hunter S. Thompson hanging out at a cocktail party with John Grisham. Not gonna happen.
Zevon was undervalued while living, but now that he's gone, Rhino has happily seen fit to tidy up his back catalog, remaster and add bonus tracks to some indelible classics and grant one album -- the scorching live document "Stand in the Fire" -- its first-ever release on CD, if you can believe that. (About time -- my cassette copy is just about shot.)
Only occasionally wrong-headed album production -- mostly on "The Envoy," which is of its time in terms of drum and synthesizer sounds -- dates these Zevon discs, all of which boast pearls from one of the sharpest minds and most pointed tongues of the rock era. The production problems are easy to get over -- just ignore them, and they'll go away. The songs, though, will never leave you once you let them in the door. Consider them the brilliant but slightly troubled houseguest who showed up with no real plan to ever leave.
"Excitable Boy" is Zevon's only true "hit" album, but don't hold this against it. It is, in fact, completely disturbed and disturbing, from the character who spoils Sunday dinner by smearing the pot roast all over his chest in the title song, to the headless ghost of a mercenary-for-hire who haunts his killer in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," through the lovelorn but still sardonic narrator bemoaning his fate in "Accidentally Like a Martyr." More than flawless singer-songwriter fare, this is Raymond Carver-worthy storytelling.
"Stand in the Fire" captures Zevon at what would be the peak of his commercial success, leading a crack band through frenzied takes on some serious classics, including a pouring-gasoline-on-the-fire interpretation of the Zevon-Bruce Springsteen co-write "Jeannie Needs a Shooter."
"The Envoy" is thoughtful, knotty and dense, but some of its finest pleasures are its easiest -- take "The Hula Hula Boys," one of Zevon's most striking ballads, and an affective recounting of cuckoldry that urges both laughter and tears.
Zevon is sorely missed. It's nice to see his catalog getting the attention it deserves.