For All My Sisters Review


I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

Thomas Mapfumo’s Shumba

I apologize to those of you that come here a lot for not having written more in the last few days.  This constant cold damp weather in central Texas has finally gotten the best of me.  My head feels like a baloon.  In the meantime I thought I’d post some more music that is worth checking out.  When I’ve been home I have been listening to music from various parts of Africa lately.  Thomas Mapfumo, from Zimbabwe, is one of my favorites.  His album Gwindingwi Rine Shumba is particularly unique, especially in the guitar playing.  The album is a front to back winner, with songs that sound more traditionally like what we often perceive as African pop, and also strange jagged guitar duels like the song above.

Pop Music by Committee

Imagine Dragons Groan Their Way Into the Speakers of Your Dentist’s Office

The above article about the Imagine Dragons made me laugh.  I believe it was Morrissey who asked if all commercial radio stations were playing the same song.  It sure seems like it.  This article not only points out what is wrong with this particular band, but why pop music in general is so bland and forgettable.  A sample:

Okay, the A&R guy would say, excitedly brushing his gel-soaked comb over back into place, sweat pooling in the deep furrows of his spray tanned forehead.  “We need an undercurrent of Coldplay and hip hop, but mix it up with EDM and Autotune, and get some ‘80s synth effects in there. I want handclaps and echo! Drench it with reverb! And make sure it will play well during an NFL game.”

The rest is history. That is, if anybody will ever remember it.

To their credit, that the band has a style a listener can immediately identify is a monumental feat in today’s mostly flat and beige pop music landscape. They should be commended for it.

Unfortunately, that “sound” reads like a greatest hits collection of “things that are or have been trendy” mashed together into a ProTools casserole of “shit the kids will buy if we play it enough on the radio.”

I would much rather spend my time championing things that I believe deserve attention, as most of you that read along will notice.  However, it is also important at times to point out how and why things in our culture are meaningless.

RIP Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore has passed away.  She was best known for the song It’s My Party, one of those songs that will live as long as people are playing pop music.  You probably don’t even need to know the song to have uttered, or to have heard someone utter, the refrain.  The song came out in 1963, but I even remember it making its way out to high school parties in the 90’s, as I’m sure it still does on occasion now.  It is one of those moments of alchemy in pop music when singer and song are combined to create something greater than either.  Although I’ve always loved 1960’s girl pop songs, and I did like this song, I’d be lying if I said it was one of my personal favorites in the genre.  However, it was always there, and will remain for a good long while, and there is something to be said for that.

The Four Tops’ Still Waters Run Deep

The Four Tops’ album Still Waters Run Deep is an soul album that any fan of the genre should check out.  The Four Tops were not known as an album act, as they came to popularity in the singles era.  However, in keeping with the times, they wanted to make an album, a complete statement, and Still Waters Run Deep, which came out in 1970, was their chance.  The album was not a huge commercial success and it would mark their last new release for Motown.  (Surprisingly the album actually came out before Marvin Gaye’s  What’s Going On, which was the Motown album that took soul music into the realm of the concept album in the public consciousness. The Wikipeda page states that the Tops album was an influence on What’s Going On, but I haven’t seen any other info that definitively supports that, though the chronology would make sense.)

It’s a shame that this album was not more successful, and even now not widely known, as it is simply a fantastic piece of pop soul that plays like a complete piece.  Every song bleeds into the next one.  The melodies and arrangements are top notch and Levi Stubbs is as great a soul singer as anyone.  Although the album, as stated, plays as a complete piece, the topic of the songs doesn’t go too far away from the standard Motown fair.  There is something about the arrangements and the innocence the lyrics of the album that reminds me of a soul Pet Sounds.  The songs are largely reflections on human relationships.

One of the reasons I love this album, aside from the strong songwriting and excellent musicianship evident, and the always astounding singing of Stubbs, is the fact that in listening to it one can get a different outlook on one of Motown’s greatest acts. Aside from two minor hits, as Still Water (Love) and It’s All in the Game are featured on some of the Tops’ greatest hits, this album features music you haven’t heard anywhere else in a format that is a great front to back listen.  It also serves as a bridge, musically, between the more pop soul of standard Motown, and the more psychedelic and forward thinking arrangements of later Temptations and Marvin Gaye records.  (It is still extremely melodic and features many nods to 60’s pop, but it branches out in the margins through some of its production touches.)

So here you have a great album from the Motown era that has largely been forgotten.  However, this is a record that truly deserves an audience.  It was shaped by the world around it, by its immediate past, by those searching for the future.  It’s a one off that remains unique to this day.

Terry by Kirsty MacColl

I mentioned Kirsty MacColl in a blog a couple days ago that was about breakup albums.  Because of that I started revisiting her catalog. Kirsty was one of those rare pop artists that could write almost anything and make it work.  Her music goes from the political to the personal.  The way she sang, especially the way she layered harmonies, always gave her an identifiable sound.  This is despite the fact that she was endlessly adventurous and tackled many various different forms of music.  She could go from sugary 60’s pop to minor key ballads.  (Jazz singer Mary Coughlan covered her song Bad.)  She wasn’t afraid to go outside of traditional rock and pop music and would even eventually incorporate club and Latin grooves into her music as well.  Really her whole catalog is fantastic, with a diversity and intelligence that very few artists have.

One of my favorite pure pop songs of all time is her early single Terry.  This is from the period when she was briefly on the Stiff Records label.  This song seems like a homage to the early girl groups of the 60’s.  However, while some of those groups were created by labels, and had men driving their careers, with Kirsty’s knowing wink and devious smile you always rightly got the sense that she was in charge, that no men were going to tell her what to do.  The song is perfectly arranged and the melody is one a jet plane could take off from.   This is pure ecstatic joy captured to tape.

Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, and What I Hope to See More of In Pop

I really like the collaboration between Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna.  It’s nothing more than a pop song, but it is a really good one.  I’ve always liked Paul McCartney, and have long thought Kanye West to be brilliant, especially his Yeezus album.  I haven’t payed much attention to Rihanna, largely because the music she makes seems really generic, although one can see with this song that she can really sing.  I wish pop music would take a hint from this song, that with a great singer and melody you don’t need all of the gimmicks and tricks that reduce artists so often to mere minor characters in their own hits.  I’m not even necessarily talking about big productions vs. the acoustic guitar simplicity of this song.  I love epic productions as much as I love folk songs.  What I mean is that a great pop song should have a strong melody, and that the singer should also be represented in some kind of way where their humanity gets across.  That is so important, that the singer’s voice in a pop song should be allowed to express emotionally what the singer is feeling, and not be covered up in either the production or the mix in a way that makes it seem less human.  I didn’t like the last collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney very much, though I haven’t listened to it a great deal, because the excessive use of autotune bugged me.  I also didn’t think the melody was as strong as this song.  Now I know that West used autotune extensively on his album 808s and Heartbreak, and I actually like that record, but that is because the use of that technique there was specifically to make his singing sound emotionally distant.  I like Daft Punk too, but again what they are doing with autotune is part of their concept and not just part of a trend or to cover up the fact that someone can’t sing.  Autotune is fine if it is used in a way that fits conceptually, but a real human voice, naked in its emotions, will win almost every time.

P.S.  It is a common production trick now to use autotune on a lot of pop songs in a subtle way that is harder to detect to fix flat notes.  I have no idea if this is the case on this song.  I haven’t listened to it on headphones yet, but at least Rhianna’s vocals sound natural. She has great phrasing on this song as well.