Thursday, June 23, 2005

Reinventing The Wheel

I've not been spending much money on music lately (mainly because I don't have much to spend!) - but two albums which cautiously reshape established formulas have struggled to leave my CD player in the last few weeks.

The first and most heavily publicised is 'Get Behind Me Satan', the latest effort from The White Stripes. The packaging retains the band's love for stylised artwork, and the music still fits neatly into their defiantly minimalist framework. Yet, as many reviews have suggested, there's something different lurking here too. Partially, it's the instrumentation - although the idea that Jack White has abandoned the guitar is slightly misleading. There's certainly much less of the sharp, aggressive electric fretwork, and much more acoustic strumming. There's also plenty of piano. White has used this before, usually for the slightly twee side of the band's catalogue, but here he uses the piano as a full bodied rhythmic instrument, and the result is some of the band's most driving and insistent work. The critics perhaps make rather too much of the marimba, which sounds wonderful, but appears only on one track.

So is this a crisis of confidence or a bold new direction? I don't think it's really the latter - this is still recognisably a White Stripes album, just a more difficult and unusual one. Quirkiness has been amplified on a number of tracks - 'Red Rain' and 'The Nurse' both have familiar and exhilirating bursts of guitar noise, but the comfortable elements are refracted through a distorting lens of woozy weirdness. Both tracks are excellent, the latter sounding particularly exotic. 'Little Ghost' is a breakneck bluegrass hoedown - I'd like to think White gained the inspiration from it from The Broken Family Band, although I doubt he's familiar with Cambridge's finest.

Elsewhere, 'My Doorbell' is outstanding, a rare example of Meg's rudimentary drumming making for a simple, effective groove. The vocal phrasing is crisp, and the thudding piano chords and weight and energy. They replay the same trick for 'The Denial Twist', demonstrating how easy it would have been to make a rather repetetive album. All credit to Jack and Meg that they have resisted this temptation and have instead opted for confounding variety - 'Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)' is a brilliantly mournful stately ballad and 'Take, Take, Take' with its depiction of an encounter with Rita Hayworth, is one of the album's most singular and evocative moments.

Sometimes its hard to know whether Jack White lovingly recreates traditional forms, or whether he is actually parodying them. This is a particular problem with the final track 'I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)', a gospel tinged blues that hits all the right buttons, both with its lyrics and melody, but has a slightly detached, possibly ironic tone. It could be the perfect kiss-off, or it could be a clue to the band's approach for the whole of 'Get Behind Me Satan'. Turned over within a matter of weeks, was this a calculated gambit, or an unrestrained bit of fun that actually managed to secure a commercial release?

Either way, it's an intriguing, fascinating record - and one that they probably needed to make. The single 'Blue Orchid' suggested they were all too happy to remake 'Seven Nation Army' all over again - but this has not proved to be the case. Here, they show a willingness to do as much as they can within their aesthetic, and actually begin to show some real creative drive. That their most ambitious record also appears to be their least pre-conceived record to date shows that they have managed to retain all that made them special - an instinctive appreciation for the visceral force of blues-inspired music, a howling, primal form that still serves them well, even in quirkier, more muted form.

Earlier this year I crafted a highly critical review of 'Trials and Errors', a live album and the first official release from Jason Molina's new band Magnolia Electric Co. To these ears, the performances seemed stodgy and mostly overlong, and it did not bode well for the forthcoming studio album. That record has now been granted a full UK release. Entitled 'What Comes After The Blues', it is by some considerably distance the most accessible album that Molina has penned to date, and is likely to put yet more distance between him and his friend and mentor Will Oldham. It also comes as a merciful relief that it is also an absolutely fantastic record.

Not always known for his sensitivity in production techniques, somehow Steve Albinini has managed to muffle the colossal and insensitive drum thud that marred the live album. In fact, much of the playing here, whilst frequently exhuberant and spirited, is a great deal more subtle than I had expected. Even the most conventional tracks, where Molina's current Neil Young fixation is most apparent, have a wistful melodic appeal and are arranged with more restraint and care than anything on 'Trials and Errors'. 'The Dark Don't Hide It' opens the album with a sugar rush of chiming guitars and slide solos, along with a strident, almost infectious melody. It's a powerful statement, but actually somewhat misleading for the rest of the album. Elsewhere, Molina appears more reflective and less blustery.

There are two superb examples of this - the eerie and mysterious 'Hard To Love A Man', which is beautifully performed to emphasise its ambiguities. More familiar is the charming, melancholy 'Leave The City', which bears a slight resemblance to Scott Mackenzie's 'If You're Going To San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)', but manages to find its own distinctive voice by virtue of some beguling trumpet melodies.

Lyrically, this is clearly an unashamed attempt at capturing the great American vernacular. There are numerous references to highways, roads and north stars which place this firmly in Springsteen territory. The inspiration, according to Molina himself, was Hank Williams' 'I Have Seen The Light', a statement made explicit in the concluding song, cunningly titled 'I Have Not Seen The Light'.

The album is structured so that the calmer, acoustic moments come towards the end. This is not a structuring policy I would expect to appreciate - but it works surprisingly well here, as it allows the album to develop an increasingly elegiac mood. The final few tracks will be familiar to long-term Molina fans, but they are more immediate and less elusive than anything on 'The Lioness' or 'Didn't It Rain'. 'Hammer Down' and 'North Star Blues' are particularly memorable.

Throughout Jennie Benford plays a very effective Emmylou Harris to Molina's Gram Parsons, and she even contributes one quite remarkable song, the genuinely moving 'Night Shift Lullaby', which may as well have been written especially for me! The tone is vulnerable and delicate throughout, but Molina's voice appears to have assumed a new force, which works very well wheh paired with Benford's sweet harmonies.

The title 'What Comes After The Blues' is also illuminating. This is not a blues album as such, but it is full of the resonances, cadences and wisdom of traditional American music. Molina has now firmly placed himself in a songwriting tradition (that of Dylan, Young and Springsteen) and, as such, 'What Comes After The Blues' may be unfairly dismissed as his most conventional work. This would be a mistake, however. There is still some of the raw brilliance of the later Songs:Ohia albums here and plenty of Molina's distinctive way with mood and atmosphere. A remarkable album.

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