Posts Tagged ‘music reviews


Album Review: Ryan Adams – 1989

It seemed like a joke at the time. Ryan Adams, that laconic, slacker alt-country dude, covering an entire Taylor Swift album. He’s a guy known for being “real” – evoking old Springsteen and Tom Petty tunes, essentially – and Swift is known for being “fake,” which is a way for people to denigrate her for having the audacity to try and make lots and lots of money through her music.

Really, it seemed like a joke.

But now here it is, thirteen covers of Swift, as played by Adams and company. And the whole thing is played so straight you might think it actually is a joke.

Back in the early part of the 2000s, it was briefly a thing for white frat bros to release acoustic covers of hip-hop tunes. Their folk-evoking, deadpan readings were supposed to draw out the ironies in the music, the videos juxtaposing upper-class life against songs about being poor. They tried turning a genre into a farce for a cheap, ugly laugh. By and large, these covers were hot garbage, a tasteless joke people forgot about after a year or two.

I feared Adams’ version would be similar: he’d consciously try and draw on Swift’s image as a pop star to get a cheap laugh, the music a knowing wink to those too cool for school, as it were. But here’s the thing: I didn’t get that impression, not once.

I’ll admit I’m only slightly familiar with Ryan Adams. I’ll also admit I’m kind of a fan of Swift; I’ve written a couple of lengthy pieces about her. But regardless, I like this thing. I like how good Swift’s songs sound in the hands of another artist. I like the emotion Adams has poured into his versions, too. I generally like the arrangements, I like the overall vibe and I even like the cover.

The most interesting thing about this record, and the hype cycle surrounding it, involves the duel roles of Swift and Adams. In one corner, Swift is seen as fake because she works with songwriters and producers to fashion her sound. In the other is Adams, a guy who’s seen as authentic because he has the air of doing it all himself. Somehow, in some eyes, he lends Swift’s music an authenticity she could never attain herself.

It’s all a load of horseshit; to those who think her songs weren’t any good, why do they now sound good in Adams’ hands? You can’t polish a turd, but you can polish a gemstone, ya dig?

The most interesting stuff on this record are the moments where Adams sounds the most like his influences. His version of “Welcome to New York” sounds like a Springsteen outtake while “Style” could fit right near early 80s Pete Townshend. If I remember right, Swift said her concept for 1989 was to make music that evoked the year of her birth; Adams’ version sounds like a requiem for the Album Oriented Rock of that decade.

I think my favourite song on the record is Adams’ reading of “Bad Blood.” The original had a lousy video and was arguably the weakest cut on the record, which was a bummer since it’s one of Swift’s meanest songs, a left cross at Katy Perry buried under chants and a cameo by Kendrick Lamar.

But there isn’t really any malice in Adams’ version; instead he comes off sounding like a jilted ex. He’s turned her song into a plea, simply by reversing the gender roles in the song (and to think – he didn’t even have to change any pronouns!). And in it’s own way, it shows that despite the producers and writers Swift works with, she’s still writing country music – and she’s hitting her stride, too.

For the believers, there won’t be any revelations here. I liked Swift’s 1989 a lot and consequently, I like Adams version a lot, too. For the people too cool to like Swift, but like Adams’ indie cred, maybe they’ll swallow some pride and go buy a record with some seagulls on the cover. And maybe some people will find his version a little repetitive; as good as it is, it does occasionally lose focus and it’s minimal rock band arrangements could drag for some listeners.

It may have started as a joke, but after spending an hour with Adams playing Swift’s music, I’m willing to believe a few things:

  • Adams respects Swift’s music
  • Swift’s songwriting is as strong as it’s ever been
  • This version of 1989 is a strong record, saying as much about the former as it does the latter

Rating: 3.5/5


Sleeping Through Beck’s Morning Phase

I only own two Beck albums and truthfully, I think I only need one. I’ve tried to enjoy his latest, which I’m told is a spiritual partner to Sea Change, my favourite record of his, but it just doesn’t quite grasp me the same way: maybe because it’s not as self-conscious, maybe because he isn’t depressed. Maybe because I only need to hear Sea Change.

I have a weird aversion to Beck’s music. Sometimes – Mutations, Mellow Gold, The Information – it doesn’t do anything for me. Sometimes I find it catchy, but not compelling: I like the first song on Midnite Vultures, but I couldn’t name another song off it if I had to. The only one that’s clicked for me was Sea Change – and even then, I only bought it after hearing The Flaming Lips cover of The Golden Age.

I’ve never regretted buying Sea Change. It was front-heavy, laying it on a little thick with the first few songs: “We’re just holding on to nothing, to see how long nothing lasts,” he sings on Paper Tiger. On the next song, he insists he’s doing fine through tears. So forth and so on. But almost in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. Maybe enjoy is the wrong word: I endured it. It’s never an album I put on when I’m doing fine, but when I’m not, I keep finding myself three or four tracks into before I know what’s up.

So it goes here: it’s not a bad album, but it doesn’t really compel me to put it on. There’s a few songs on the record I like: vaguely Neil Young-ish Country Down; the echoey, mandolin-driven Blue Moon; the quiet, restrained strings and shouted vocals on Don’t Let It Go, but it didn’t grab me by the lapels, either. Between the spacious production, the steel guitars and the acoustic instruments, Morning Phase feels like a conscious attempt at recapturing something from the past, like when Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho a while back.

And like Van Sant’s movie, if you’re trying to recreate the same thing, why shouldn’t I just stick with the original? I don’t listen to Sea Change very often, but it does the trick when I do. Same with Neil Young’s Harvest, another album this one owes a debt to. Morning Phase isn’t depressed it’s downright confident. When he sings lines like “I’m so tired of being alone,” you don’t feel like he’s been alone all that long. Or that he minds it. I suppose I don’t either: it’s no Sea Change, but it’s a lot better than the average Beck album, too.

Rating: 2.5/5. Like so much of Beck’s back catalog, this one’s a couple of great songs lost in a bunch of just okay ones, making an album that doesn’t do anything for me. A handful of songs here – see above – are keepers; I could take or leave the rest. At least he’s back to releasing music, not just releasing it in paper form.

EDIT: Glad to see Kanye and I agreed on this record


Links: St. Vincent’s Digital Dystopia

Been wondering what I’ve been up to lately? Well, over at Bearded Gentlemen Music, I’ve got two takes on the new St. Vincent album, St. Vincent. 

The first, and more relevant, is a review of the new album that takes a look at it’s ominous digital landscape. A taste:

The images of St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark on tour, in the video and even on the cover have an odd sci-fi vibe. On the cover, Clark’s seated on a throne in a sparkling, sci-fi dress and a wild hairdo. In the video for “Digital Witness”, she’s stuck in the corner of a futuristic campus where there are no windows and no plant life. And when she’s on stage, she’s playing a black Music Man Albert Lee guitar on a black, atmospheric set, often wearing a black outfit. Everything seems a lot bleaker these days.

The second, which ran about a week before my review, is a more in-depth look at one specific song (Digital Witness) and it’s accompanying video, which I compare to both her old music and to Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Here’s another taste:

And musically, that’s what’s most striking about “Digital Witness” to me: there’s a utter lack of guitars on the track. Instead, it’s covered in horns and keyboards. While it reminds me a lot of her work with David Byrne, it’s not that far removed from songs like “Marrow” either. And while I can hear a little guitar in the background her playing is never the focus; in fact, after I watched the video a few times, I realized she never touches any instrument in the video.

If you enjoy reading my book stuff, please, check these pieces out!


Mark on Music Classic – Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil

Earlier this year, I managed to track down a copy of Miles Davis’ Cellar Door concerts. It’s six CDs of Davis’ first great electric band – Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett and Airto Moreira – at their best, taking improvised music to places where the Grateful Dead or Phish could only dream of: alternately funky and hard-rocking, sometimes restrained and at others, pounding with a fury. I’ll probably write something about it for Bearded Gentlemen Music in the new year.

Anyway, I was listening to it the other day and remembered I wrote a thing about Live-Evil, the Davis album where parts of those tapes originally ended up, for Flashfact back in the day. I disagree with some of my assessments of it now that I’ve heard the unedited live takes, but I still think Live-Evil is an essential document. The entire, unedited piece follows. Continue reading ‘Mark on Music Classic – Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil’