Imagine a museum where items of so-called high and low culture were displayed equally and together. Imagine George Balanchine walking down Broadway, seeing the flashing lights and incorporating them into a flexing hand-gesture in his ballet Apollo. The latter actually happened. The former never really could, because even if you tried it, the ethos and values of the museum would do something to the low-culture side to make it less like itself.
David Longstreth studied music at Yale, like Charles Ives and Alvin Lucier. You can tell from his vocal harmonies that he spent time toiling over counterpoint exercises. His bumpy rhythms and strenuous melodies are the sounds of a musically literate person pushing against the stock shapes of popular song. And yet Longstreth is a pop musician who loves gospel music, the Eagles and the Andrews Sisters, and respects pop’s imperative to use the simplest terms to express things that may not be simple at all.
His latest songs with Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors are a little plainer than those of 2009’s Bitte Orca, but they don’t sound like anyone else’s because nobody else stirs together high and low in quite the way Longstreth does. The twinned female voices (Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle) singing wordlessly in Gun Has No Trigger could be taken from religious music, yet the tune, the subject (risk-taking) and the title wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond theme. The simple device of switching the voices from a covered “ooo” sound to a flat-open “aaa” at each choral climax instrumentalizes the voices in a way that nobody with a vocoder has ever done. Even the limitations of Longstreth’s wiry voice, as he drives it places where the song needs it to go, convey the idea that he, at least, is willing to take risks.
About To Die establishes a waltz rhythm, then lets bass and drums wrestle against it as Longstreth unwinds another tuneful yet strenuous melody (he’s a bit like Elvis Costello that way). This song also sets out the album’s bifurcated quest most directly, in lines such as: “Where would I ever be without you? / How could I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it?”
Conflating love and spiritual things is at least as old as The Song of Songs, and it fuels numbers such as Dance For You, a sunny invitation to one person that is also a declaration of hunger “for something I can believe.” See What She Seeing begins like Longstreth’s answer to Lover Man (O Where Can You Be?): a search for the right woman over a bed of keyboards, bass bumps and bergamot. Yet the song’s punchline is that even though he can’t find the woman, he “can see what she seeing” in him – the search has changed his consciousness.
Offspring Are Blank takes a quasi-Biblical look at peoples and generation, with a Hebraic-sounding melody. Unto Caesar slides a smooth tune over a rumpled-bed rhythm, the bass constantly off the beat until the chorus yanks it true. Maybe That Was It takes Longstreth’s metrical shell-games to the limit, never letting the tune settle into a regular beat. The Socialites (co-written with Coffman) is a relatively straightforward song about the tyranny of appearances, and Irresponsible Tune is an ode to music, without which “life is pointless, harsh and long.” Like Bertrand Russell’s “useless knowledge,” it sustains us somehow, through records like this one.
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Brian Dunn, the needs-to-known songwriter from Sudbury, barrels at you like a big old 1970s dog or Chrysler. He's written an Americana album about late nights, stormy weather and the simple companionship of your favourite vices and voices, in the absence of other things. There's some Springsteen here, not in any imitative sense, but in Dunn's freeness and knack for robust melodies. Turn on the radio, or the television; let's listen all alone, all together. I think that’s what this Dunn character is saying. Brad Wheeler
Brian Dunn plays Kingston, July 10; Peterborough, Ont., July 11; Ottawa, July 12; Montreal, July 13; Toronto, July 15.
Artists love to talk about taking their music to the next level, but with more than 50 million albums sold, Linkin Park – the alt-rock juggernaut beloved by angsty teenagers and video-game aficionados – is not about to reinvent the joystick. Admittedly, the indie-pop-like shuffle of Castle of Glass and varied, almost Brian Wilson-esque suite Until It Breaks are riskier than they need to be, and enjoyable. But the band’s formula remains little changed on tunes like In My Remains, where Mike Shinoda raps poorly over the effects-laden quiet bits, Chester Bennington scream-grunts over walloping guitars in the chorus, and the gang with the most annoying tics in ’00s pop-rock keep right on parting melancholy bros from their money. Dave Morris
I Like to Keep Myself in Pain
In a just world, Kelly Hogan would be rich and famous, or at least better known. On her new album, this frequent tour partner and backup singer stands front and centre for a dozen songs written mostly for her, and one of her own. Andrew Bird’s We Can’t Have Nice Things takes an understated look at a violent relationship, a theme taken up also in Robyn Hitchcock’s subtly dark title track. In Daddy’s Little Girl, M. Ward makes an imaginative world tour of Frank Sinatra’s brain, and in Dusty Grove, Catherine Irwin (of Freakwater) loads her lyrics with showstoppers. Hogan’s own Golden tacks to the vintage country sound that comes naturally to her, though her biggest performance comes in Vic Chesnutt’s dark and bluesy Ways of the World, another gem on a fine album. Robert Everett-Green
Bach: Goldberg Variations
Janne Rättyä, accordion
The Goldberg Variations have been played on plenty of instruments Bach never had in mind, including the piano, string quartet and the marimba. Here it is on accordion, and while we don’t often laugh when we listen to classical music, I like to think it’s something that should be encouraged. Thus the first wheezing phrases of the aria elicit a chuckle, but one soon gets over the strangeness of the sound. Certainly there are near-ludicrous moments – the snarling trills in the bass, say, and several bumptious, staccato passages that sound like merry-go-round music. But the slow movements in minor mode are unexpectedly moving, some of the more virtuosic movements are gleefully dazzling, and the potpourri of folksongs in the last variation sound absolutely right. Elissa Poole