Love This Giant (September 2012) – David Byrne & St. Vincent

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Indie rock pixie Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent, and Talking Heads’ vocalist David Byrne come together to bring us this collaborative one-off, Love This Giant.

The instrumentation on this album is almost exclusively brass, giving the album a texture not unlike the Talking Heads 1988 album Naked.  Overall the songs are peppy, upbeat, and in a way very formulaic, like a brass-heavy pop record.  There is some real lyrical depth here, though.  The vocals suggest, probe, and question, and in “I Should Watch TV”, many of the lyrics are even taken from Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself”.  Go figure.

Clark and Byrne each take a few songs on the album to sing solo, and they team up on the rest.  Both artists have distinctive sounds, and it’s almost uncanny to hear the two sounds mesh.  In an interview, Clark describes Byrne’s music as having a tone that is “a rare combination of paranoid mania and ecstatic joy”, and that tone dominates the feel of the album perhaps more than Clark’s own darkly beautiful music.  Both artists do contribute meaningfully, however, and they seem to bring the best out of each other: Clark makes Byrne’s singing a little more melodic and a little more beautiful, and Byrne grounds Clark’s songwriting and makes it a little more accessible and a little snappier.

As always, Clark reveals herself to be remarkably vocally versatile, alternating between a gentle, breathy, dark tone; a lower, grittier sound; and a more theatrical middle-range that matches Byrne’s own singing style.  Her entrance 45 seconds into the opening track, “Who”, is gorgeous and agile.  Throughout the album she is often multi-tracked—sometimes in octaves, sometimes in unison, and often in harmony (as is her way) —and this gives her vocals an ethereal, floating quality.  In many of the tracks, her voice weaves in and out of the background, enveloping itself around Byrne’s manic lead vocals.

The album is a cool experiment, and although perhaps a little heavy on the horns and saxophones, it features some really catchy and interesting songs.  My favorite tracks: “Who”, “Dinner For Two”, “Ice Age”.  Honorable mention to “The One Who Broke Your Heart”.

I’m seeing these guys tomorrow in concert!  Can’t wait.

The Idler Wheel… (June 2012) – Fiona Apple

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Fiona has always been a love of mine.  I remember several years ago making a playlist of all the artists I wanted to explore that summer—Fiona Apple, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths, The Cure (what a random mix)—and I ended up having to put the other artists on hold because every time I hit a Fiona song, I just wanted more.  There was something about her that demanded my full attention.

Seven years since her last album, Extraordinary Machine (2005), and she has finally come out with something new!  The Idler Wheel… is perhaps her most musically whimsical and experimental album yet.  The first track, “Every Single Night”, starts off with what sounds like a child’s music box.  Throughout the album she plays around with multi-tracking her own voice, sometimes in unison and sometimes in harmony, and the final track, “Hot Knife”, is almost entirely a cappella.  (Fun fact: her sister sings on that track. Cute.)  She also experiments a great deal with percussion.  There is a quick patting like a lap being hit in “Daredevil”, the sound of shoes scraping the ground in “Periphery”, and what sounds like the rhythmic tapping of kitchen appliances to keep the beat in “Jonathan”.  She even adds a slamming door to the end of “Regret”.  These percussive choices really change the feel of songs that otherwise feature only a piano and maybe a cello.

Lyrically, I was impressed.  It is so interesting to see how Fiona has developed over her career, which has been drawn out because of the luxurious amount of time she takes between each album.  On her first album, Tidal (1996) (I was six when that came out), there are songs like “Never Is A Promise” and “Sullen Girl” that are thick with heartbreak and bitterness.  Although her newer album still deals with heavy emotional content, there is a dark humor to her new songs that was not there before, a self-deprecation.  In “Werewolf” she sings, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead / But I admit I provided a full moon. / And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head / But then again I was waving around a bleeding, open wound.”  The piano swings in three-quarter time like an old folk song, a little melancholy but still lighthearted.  She seems older and wiser in these songs, less willing to take herself too seriously.

And, as always, the vocals are remarkable and incredibly versatile.  Throughout the album she goes from a hushed and sultry lower register, to a childlike upper register, to a rant through gritted teeth, to an angry growl, to a shaking, shivering vibrato.  These are definitely the songs of a frantic, agitated mind, and she sings them unrestrainedly.  It is also just wonderful to hear a female singer who proudly swoops to lower notes, and they are beautiful.

Best song on the album: “Valentine”.

In the end, probably not my personal favorite of her albums, but I did enjoy it.  I really respect her musically.  I think she is a crazy person (on NPR she talked about how she buys parenting books so that she can practice “parenting herself”—what!!), but in a way, I think that that feeds into my respect for her music.  She is completely genuine and unafraid.  Her voice is beautiful, and there is a rawness and sincerity to her music that makes it enjoyable even if you are put off by the scraping, tinkling, and whistling in the background.