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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rocking Owls and ringing bells





(Jade Tree Records) 




Owls is more or less than the sum of its parts, depending on how you look at it. Although comprised of the same bunch of yahoos who made up acclaimed bands Cap'n Jazz and Joan of Arc, the musical approach of Owls is more melodic than the noisy post-punk of Cap'n Jazz and more raw than the electronic emocore of Joan of Arc. Stripping away the computers and drum machines that characterized the later work of Joan, they are thus reborn, like some kind of emo phoenix, as a stripped-down four-person rock combo called Owls. 




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Although the instruments are familiar, the music is different from anything these guys have ever done. Guitarist Victor Villareal no longer lets chords ring; they're abbreviated into tight, tinkling individual notes so erratic they drive the songs as much as Mike Kinsella's heavy drumwork. The songs on Owls lurch ahead and fall backwards without warning, creating a kinetic type of music that's rarely seen on the indie-rock circuit. 




As for the singing, the song remains more or less the same: few choruses, a lot of codas. Vocalist Tim Kinsella's blown-speaker vocals alternate between gentle warbling and cathartic caterwauling, somehow neither overpowering the other. The lyrics often ramble on like an erstwhile Pavement song, which sometimes leads to flashes of that band's characteristic wit ('I know it must be rough, you're so much smarter than your friends'), albeit with an edge that Malkmus and company could never have nailed down.  




Densely atmospheric, sparse at times and occasionally damn catchy, Owls is a consistently solid debut from four grizzled indie veterans who, thankfully, keep evolving. This is their finest incarnation yet.  
















From the opening refrain of harmonica and finger-picking, it's quite obvious who Ethan Daniel Davidson's heroes are. With a voice like a young Dylan, socially conscious lyrics Woody Guthrie could be proud of, and a sound that echoes the vast bleakness of Springsteen's Nebraska, Davidson's latest effort, Ring Them Bells, showcases a convoluted mix of inventive songwriting and tongue-in-cheek humor. Unfortunately, he tries to do too many things and loses direction throughout the album, resulting in biting protest songs rubbing shoulders with laughable novelties. 




In an effort to pay homage to his idols, the album kicks off with 'How Long,' a melancholic societal lament that draws much more from the aforementioned Dylan than he would like to admit. As his bright voice invitingly pleads 'How long must we roam / till each one has a home / tell me how long will that be'? one could easily imagine a throng of hippies joining in chorus. Though Davidson's eclecticism and songwriting skills shine as he continues with the gorgeous sing-along title track and haunting 'South-east Alaska Panhandle Ballad,' this spirit of protest and freedom continues throughout the album. 




As good as Davidson is at singing about esoteric liberties, his normally sharp and intelligent songwriting fails him later in the album. In 'Cops Kill Rights Dead,' a folk drawl about various injustices committed by New York City police officers, he mentions the murder of Amadou Diallo in passing: 'From his home in the Bronx / he was approached by four cops / who fired 41 shots at his life and liberty.' His protests continue in 'Brian Deneke,' a spoken-sung narrative about the death of an outcast in a small town: 'A hero to the disaffected, misfit, alienated, outcast youth of Amarillo / Who'd been beat-up and bruised by the kids in the white baseball caps / who'd been put-down and abused by the kids in the white baseball caps.' Obviously, these were definite tragedies, but rather than question any societal influences of such behavior (as Springsteen did magnificently in '41 Shots'), Davidson seems content to just immaturely blame all the bad people in the world, whether they be corrupt policemen or 'the kids in the white baseball caps.'  




This cloud could very well cast a dark shadow over the album, but Davidson's sense of humor becomes a welcome respite from his oft ham-fisted melodrama. 'Talkin' Holy War Blues' mixes a serious message about tolerance with a light-hearted wit recounting Davidson's real-life trials of being a Jew with a Muslim girlfriend: 'I set up a checkpoint with 12 Israeli guards right at the bedroom door / and though we both cosigned on the lease, she only gets 13 percent of the floor.' But as clever as his humor is, it can also turn on him, as 'Gus the Magic Drag Queen' proves. Supposedly a parable of modern love, Davidson begins a downward spiral and, before long, begins embarrassingly singing of press-on rubber breasts and dresses by Versaci.  




To say that Ring Them Bells is eclectic is something of an understatement. Ethan Daniel Davidson is a man of many faces: a beautiful singer-songwriter, a sharp comedian and a social activist. The fact that he takes a step in the wrong direction every once in a while is entirely forgivable, and whatever shortcomings Davidson has doesn't overshadow the fact that he is quite a talented musician, and that this is quite an enjoyable album. 














(Lost Highway Records) 




Depending on what press releases and periodicals you believe, Ryan Adams was either supposed to have saved country music with the release of Gold, or have burned out brilliantly, Cobain-style, or both. It doesn't look like he's done either.  




It's not hard to see where these expectations came from. Adams has been seen as a critical genius for some time now, never more so than on his first solo album, Heartbreaker, an understated, mostly acoustic trip through one of Adams' longer relationships. Even though that album showed only a passing similarity to the country stylings of Adams' old band Whiskeytown, no one, it seemed, wanted to believe that he'd left country behind for good.  




Maybe he hasn't, but it's almost nowhere to be found on Gold. What was once a man alone with his guitar is now a man backed by everything imaginable, from string sections to a gospel choir. It's a change, and Gold is the sound of Adams trying to figure out how to use it best.  




Unfortunately, many of the songs on Gold run together, indistinguishable due to common, almost rote sentiments of lost love and forsaken promises. It's familiar territory for Adams, and no doubt for most of his fans as well. 'Firecracker,' 'Gonna Make You Love Me' and 'Nobody Girl' are all fine songs, at times both rollicking and delicate, but they're songs Adams has sung over and over in one form or another and seem more like obligatory placekeepers than unique statements. 




At times, though, he hits it right on. 'Sylvia Plath' may be the best song Adams has ever written, full of emotional complexities that never fall into clich??. 'She'd ash on the carpet, and slip me a pill, then she'd get me pretty loaded on gin' he sings of the poet, cooing over a beautifully simple piano melody that will remind anyone why there's so much hype around this guy. 'La Cienga Just Smiled' and 'Wild Flowers' are both classic songs of love and loneliness, sparingly arranged, which highlight Adams' voice nicely. As strong as his songwriting can be, Adams' best asset is and always will be his voice, a dead-sexy blend of cigarettes, bourbon and Carolina twang that curls and falls all throughout his songs.  




At 74 minutes and 16 songs, Gold hits and misses, but it's a solid, often beautiful document of a talented artist finding his voice through trial and error. Gold shows that the voice that made Whiskeytown's music memorable is just now finding itself, with the best yet to come. 




























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