This season, country & western has been reborn under an eccentric sign:
The Elf Queen, Joanna Newsom, and her redoubtable harp have trumped the dreaded sophomore slump, in company with such heavyweights from the sonic arena as Van Dyke Parks, Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke. The freaky-folk singer-songwriter's other main collaborator -- unnamed and intangible -- is English folk artist Kit Williams. With southern gentleman Parks' legendary arrangement skills in her arsenal and Williams as visual abettor, Newsom expands her repertoire somewhat on highlights "Emily" and "Cosmia," definitely improving on her too-twee debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Not that the epic scope never falls short of the glory.
Considering the typically poor critical response to Rufus Wainwright's oeuvre to date, I do wonder at the ready gushing reception of Ys with its beyond fey lyrical references to "yarrow, heather and hollyhock," awful atolls, spelunking and Sisyphus. Ys, referring to a mythical Breton city consumed by deluge, should be theoretically denounced by pasty rock crits seeking to distance themselves from un-cool Dungeons & Dragons and prog-championing pasts. But one never knows, does one? Certainly, Ys purveys odd California cool, a simultaneously anachronistic and industrial version of western essentialism wherein the sacred feminine, hyper-literate poesy and Astral Weeks-worthy string-and-horn orchestration can easily coexist with the rugged, woodsy landscapes of that state's eco chic laureate Jack London. Ys is a potent antidote to the all too visceral workaday of California's dystopia of Hollyweird excess and ethnic strife in patchwork slums amidst unchecked urban sprawl.
When Charlie Louvin's brother Ira died, he could have simply given up his career. It would've been simple enough: although the late 1960s saw pop turning toward a distinctly tumbleweed aesthetic in the wake of Bob Dylan's woodshedding in Woodstock (see John Wesley Harding), young Americans tended to despise Music Row country and its related demographics in their reactionary hipness -- plus, Louvin would never be able to replicate the inchoate brilliance of the duos famous filial harmonies. Besides, the Louvin Brothers had already released their iconic -- both for its song themes and unintentionally hilarious/hideous album cover -- Satan Is Real.
Yet 'Bama Charlie Louvin was obviously made of sterner, true American stock and thus has soldiered on. The country singer-guitarist's latest, self-titled release on Tompkins Square is a triumph, beautifully produced by Lambchop honcho/alt-Nashvillain Mark Nevers. And a roster of heavyweights drop by: George Jones, Will Oldham, Jeff Tweedy, Tom T. Hall, Elvis Costello et al. For an artist whose first paying job was a county fair on the 4th of July, 1940, and joined the Opry in 1955, Louvin is never overshadowed, kicking it robust.
THE BIRD AND THE BEE: The mystery of bird and bee relationships plays out on the debut of a new LA-based pop duo of the same name. I'm assuming that SoCal rock scion Inara George is the receptive songbird due to her clarion-like voice, and that her Captain Manyhands partner, multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin, is the bee -- for that insect is notoriously industrious and what is its stinger but phallic?
The Bird and the Bee (Blue Note) is indie-pop that's meta-literate on the sonic tip and playful, unafraid of theatrics recalling the mid-60s glory days of LA symphonics from the likes of the Bacharach-David firm and the brassy border sounds of Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes. It's nature ... inspired: quirky, spiky lyrics, nightingale harmonies, downtempo beats -- all recombining to formulate a new jazz standard.
With its chiming, keening vocalizing and horn-drenched pomp, the stunning and lachrymose "I'm A Broken Heart" is one more than fitting for my circumstances and one of my favorite songs of 2006. The song's the equivalent of gossamer midsummer madness -- the most perpetual state of my internal landscape -- lazy horn trills limning an illusory, sun-struck armoire in which to hide one's aching heart away. "I'm A Broken Heart" is depressing in the way only showers can be in that sun-kissed city of quartz on the edge of the desert.
Just as the New Weird American scene makes the pastoral chic anew and California the center of the planet's hip gravitational pull, the Bird and the Bee has suitably labored to construct an aural utopia wherein dollybirds can frolic amongst daisies, drum & bass could get in touch with its organic psych-rock and discothéque roots.
This is imaginary theme music for 21st century singing cowboys trapped vise-like between the hipster urban jungle and ex-urban sprawl overrun by obese Ugly Americans partial to strip malls, replete with widescreen emotions. And Inara George (repping the East Si-i-i-i-de!) is this pop moment's preeminent spirit of dark stardom. Hope that the Bird and the Bee get a-go-go to an electric ballroom near you real soon.