Known Johnson

October 3, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: Trey Anastasio, the Decemberists, Pernice Brothers

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 11:34 pm

Well, a day late, but you know the old cliché. A day off managed to be too busy to get my new-release thing done – imagine that. That’s always the way it goes, isn’t it? There was something in the news not too long ago about how weekends and free time are so cluttered with projects and work that people don’t rest and often find working weekdays more restful than their weekends. There’s something wrong with that – and yet I can’t say I’m immune from feeling that way, either. And yet, do we actually accomplish much more than we did when we spent time resting? I don’t think I do.

Trey Anastasio – Bar 17: Poor Trey – not only did he get wrapped up in dealing with a major label last year with Shine, he also had to deal with the double-whammy of two decidedly non-fan friendly formats that Columbia insisted on releasing the album through – the shoddy DualDisc format and the now notorious virus-laden copy-protected discs put out by head company Sony. The album suffered on all fronts – the music sounds like it had been relentlessly tampered with until it no longer sounded natural and free, like Phish’s music did – the very aspect his fans enjoyed about their music and wanted to hear him continue to produce in his own music. Well, a year later, Anastasio has fled Columbia for his own label, Sony has been sued numerous times for its copy-protection, and DualDisc is on its death-bed, and we’re all better for it. Trey has put together exactly the kind of album in Bar 17 that fans were expecting with Shine – exuberant and light-hearted, yet serious in the right places. It’s everything that Shine struggled to be. (Psst! If you act quick, you can still snag a copy from Trey’s site with the free 9-song bonus disc.)

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife: I really wondered what the move to a major label, Capitol in this case, from an indie, would do to the Decemberists. Would they turn in something less than stellar, as happened with Death Cab For Cutie on their major label debut, Plans? Or would they stick to their guns and thrive with a bigger budget and more room to experiment in an environment that typically doesn’t allow much wiggle room for that? Happily, it appears the latter is what happened – perhaps Picaresque being a letdown to me (and I know I was one of the few) should have been a sign that this band needed bigger hoops to jump through. Well, they must have found them because The Crane Wife is, simply put, astounding and, in fact, it is a very surprising album to be found as a major label debut – they took a lot of chances. Here we find them exercising the expansive traits first found on the Tain EP, which sadly disappeared with Picaresque – with The Crane Wife we find multi-part songs and two lengthy (we’re talking 12 minutes here) epics. There are even prog-rock inspired keyboard solos (gasp! horror!) in the three part “The Island.” Also be prepared for the Decemberists homage to Talking Heads in the form of “The Perfect Crime #2” – because the music sure sounds a hell of a lot like “New Feeling.” And somehow, despite the horrible cacophony you might imagine in your head, it works.

Most of all, the songwriting has tightened up considerably – where on previous albums I felt like there were times when Colin Meloy employed his seemingly vast knowledge of quaint terms like parapets and pantaloons to cover up an essential lack of dramatic narrative, Meloy has real, effective storylines to play out here. What’s more, while there may be some conceptual narrative tying elements together, the album works like the best concept albums do – as a collection of great songs, rather than a concept held together by trickery and coy re-use of thematic music. It’s too early to say exactly what the concept is, but it isn’t too early to say that this is a bunch of really great songs.

Pernice Brothers – Live A Little: Maybe they tried a little too hard on their previous album, Discover A Lovelier You. I got the sense, at least, that there was a lot of trying and very little effortlessness to that album to achieve the loose, jangly, hazy feeling of 70s pop that pervades the Pernice aesthetic. You can’t pull that kind of sound off – you know the sound I’m talking about, I think – I’m talking about the kind of thing that guys like Sam Prekop and his buddy Archer Prewitt do so well outside of The Sea And Cake (because they’re a little too retro/jazz/pop for comparison.) But here, they make it work and get that kind of breezy gentleness that really makes listening to Live A Little a joy. It’s not a groundbreaking album by any means, but it’s a very pleasant listen and fans of airy pop with great, simple, hooky guitar should give this one a chance. It’s by far the Brothers’ most accomplished work yet.

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