Monday, August 07, 2006

A Little Rain Never Hurt No-One

Well it certainly blessed us with a fantastic Grand Prix (just when it was most needed), and the rain in London this weekend has mercifully lowered the temperature. I was not designed for tropical heat!

Musically, I have caved in to a somewhat guilty pleasure this week. There's always one chart R&B album that I can't resist in any given year, and the spectacular 'In My Own Words' from the unfathomably smooth Ne-Yo is my album of choice for 2006. It's almost absurdly cheesy, and Ne-Yo himself is ludicrously self-confident to the point of self-parody. He clearly sees himself as something of a ladies' man, but with the earthy morals to know that he will have to commit when he settles down. Most hilariously of all, he has spectacularly resurrected the use of the word 'sex' as a verb. In one brilliant lyric he says 'Maybe it's the wrinkle over your nose, when you make your angry face/that makes me want to take off all your clothes/and sex you all over the place'. Perhaps even better is 'When I'm sexing her, I call your name/And I know it's wrong!'. The boy is clearly too young to remember Color Me Badd.

Ne-Yo's vocal style is a refined take on the smooth and seductive approach of R Kelly, and it's refreshing to hear some modern R&B that actually places more emphasis on melody than vocal acrobatics. This is particularly true of the excellent singles 'So Sick' and 'Sexy Love', with their minimal arrangements but slick production and infectious choruses. Ne-Yo's feel for mid-tempo sultry soul is surprisingly well judged, as on the superb 'When You're Mad' and 'Get Down Like That'. There are inevitably some rather horrific token ballads, clustered towards the end, which means the quality control drops a little. Still, this is a minor quibble with an album that is shameless, entertaining and easy on the ear.

On a much more serious note, the dependably prolific Lambchop return with 'Damaged'. Much has already been written about Kurt Wagner's recent cancer scare and how it may have influenced the bleaker tone of this record. It certainly abandons the rather summery sound of the double 'Aw C'Mon/No You C'Mon', but that doesn't necessarily mean it can be summed up as 'Nixon Mk II'. Actually, it rather successfully marries the smoother production values of the 'C'Mon' set with the rigorously controlled dynamic restraint of 'Is A Woman'. This rather brings home exactly how fickle the world of music criticism can be. When 'C'Mon' was released, I remember a whole batch of reviews bemoaning 'Is A Woman' for its supposed tedium, and hailing the double set as a return to form. Now critics are hailing 'Damaged' as the band's best record to date for its mysterious calm!

I don't think this is Lambchop's greatest achievement by any means. Its biggest flaw is that it simply isn't as rhythmically interesting as their best work. Wagner's unusual rhythm guitar style, a subtle but significant feature of both 'Nixon' and 'Is A Woman' has now been backgrounded in favour of the more sedate pluckings of William Tyler. Perhaps aiming for a classic southern soul sound, the tempos are mostly slow, and some of the tracks plod a little too politely. There's nothing as unexpectedly groovy as 'd scott parsley' or their cover of Curtis Mayfield's 'Give Me Your Love' to pierce the ethereal bubble created by these songs.

That being said, there are definitely major songs here, and Wagner has continued to refine his unique (to some, probably frustratingly obtuse) vocal style into something fascinating and powerful. The result is that this music is paradoxically both elusive and elucidating. Wagner continues to find great emotional resonance in the small details of everyday life, whilst easily graspable songwriting conventions (melodies, hooks etc) are frequently underplayed. This is most clearly sensed in the opening 'Paperback Bible', inspired by a radio 'swap shop' show where listeners are invited to share their unwanted items. Wagner's musing on the strange items put up for auction is beautifully developed. The song is ushered in by a pitchless wave of noise, and Wagner's delicate vocal requires the band to create their most reverently hushed atmosphere. It's a remarkable song.

The album peaks in the middle with a trio of superb songs. 'A Day Without Glasses' is sublime, with Paul Niehaus' steel guitar pushed to the foreground. 'Beers Before The Barbican' and 'I Would Have Waited Here All Day' are two of Wagner's most brilliantly sustained lyrics - chorusless prose-poems of considerable power and density. During 'Beers...', Wagner muses just-the-right-side-of- sentimentally on a former lover's qualities ('Your dress is perfect/Your shoes are strictly you/Your speech is articulate/And your eyes were too' - note the sudden change of tense, as if he suddenly realises this relationship is consigned to the past), before zooming in on a mutual experience taking acid. The whole song seems written in the form of an unsent letter ('I know I'll never send this/but you know we never talk of heavy things/if we get a chance to see each other in the future/I am sure we'll find a way to deal with it') and is deeply affecting. 'I Would Have Waited Here..' is a gospel lament, originally written for Candi Staton (her brilliant 'His Hands' album was produced by Lambchop's Mark Nevers), for which Wagner does not reverse the genders (retaining the 'you'll be drying off your dick' lyric that caused Staton to reject the song). It's a deceptively simple song about waiting for a lover to return home, but its lyrics cloak a wealth of sadness ('The afternoon is a study in stagnation/Seems I haven't moved an inch'), ending with the payoff 'it's been a lousy day'. It's Wagner at his very best.

This is a better record than the 'C'Mon' set, with more considered arrangements. The strings are carefully incorporated into each song this time, rather than overpowering the group dynamic with excessive flourishes. Kurt Wagner also remains one of the most inspired and original songwriters currently at work. It is, however, a more oppressively rigorous record than 'Is A Woman', and the thunderous drama of the closing 'The Decline Of Country and Western Civilisation' makes for a welcome surprise. It repays close attention (it could otherwise blend comfortably into the background), and repeated listens. Incidentally, the whole package is a thing of great beauty, the deluxe edition presented in a fold out digipack with a lovingly designed lyric booklet with artwork as mysterious and beautiful as the songs themselves.

No comments: