Out of Love Mister Heavenly (SubPop)
It’s a brave or foolhardy band that offers up a new term for the kind of music it does. Mister Heavenly, a new trio consisting of singer-guitarists Nick Thorburn (of Islands) and Ryan Kattner (Man Man) with Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, said in advance of this debut disc that it was on the trail of “doom wop.” That term has run through the critical blogosphere faster than head lice through a kindergarten class, and will stick around much longer. I predict that if this band carries on for 20 years, and ends up playing Clash covers on koto and penny-whistle, its output will forever be known as doom wop.
So what is doom wop? It’s a clever term for the introduction of a sinister enzyme into the benign harmonized pop sounds of the fifties and early sixties. Frank Zappa did it from the inside out, writing for the Penguins and then ironizing their genre with the Mothers of Invention. David Lynch did it in the film Blue Velvet, converting Roy Orbison’s song In Dreams into the terrifying theme for Dennis Hopper’s psychotic episodes. True, that song contains no actual doo wop backing vocals, but neither does most of Mister Heavenly’s Out of Love. The point is to evoke the duck-tail smoothness of that old sound, and then chop it in the knees.
So we get songs like Your Girl, a resonant swinging tune with pizzicato strings and sighing sounds from guitar and voices. It’s the summer of ’61, and a guy’s going for a drive with his girl, but the fawning, vengeful, first-person lyrics lay a prior claim to the girl’s affections. “Got a gashed lip, gotta get that sewn,” Thorburn sings, and you think about someone getting beaten up in the alley behind an old T-bird.
Diddy Eyes lays its skinny-suit harmonizing vocals under a pitch-black lyric about hopeless sexual captivity. Hold My Hand obsessively traces the harmonic sequence known in some quarters as “the 50s progression,” while Thorburn sings “I’ll stroke your hair, put your head on my shoulder” – an apparently straightforward pitch that still manages to sound creepy. It’s the prelude to Thorburn’s more overtly scary turn as a sweet-singing stalker in Harm You. Charlyne poisons the well another way: its clean-cut guitar/piano combo and cantering beat can’t help but get a little dirty when they come into contact with Kattner’s rock-lizard vocals.
I Am a Hologram has the bumpy swagger of early rock’n’roll, which gives a crazy hilarity to its claim of personal insubstantiality. Like the 50s progression, the stiff-fingered rhythm part on piano is a musical flash card for an era when the closest thing to a hologram was what you were supposed to see through the X-ray glasses advertised in comic books.
Reggae Pie has no connection with the period conceit, though its first-person statement of humiliated desire is another take on the theme of Diddy Eyes. This song has a great smouldering feel to it, with its laconic guitar bits and organ offbeats. Its short glide into an apparently happier, almost ecstatic mood only emphasizes the de profundis nature of the rest.
An album shouldn’t feel like a class assignment, and this one fortunately doesn’t always stick to its supposed program. Bronx Sniper is mainly a grinding rock number, and Doom Wop the song has more in common with Nirvana and Black Sabbath than with anything by the Penguins. Maybe that’s a hint for all of us critics, who so love labels. Doom wop is a playful suggestion, not a rule or a stick for beating musicians.
OTHER NEW RELEASES THIS WEEK
Slave Ambient The War on Drugs (Secretly Canadian) 3.5 stars
Adam Granduciel, the footloose Philadelphian behind The War on Drugs, has made a record that buzzes with ambience and rocks scenically, with songs about rambling often sprawling into one other. Baby Missiles borrows Springsteen’s harmonica and rhythmic energy. Elsewhere, with his laidback phrasing and nasal vocals, Granduciel sounds as if he’s caught a cold from Dylan or Petty. But his edges are softer than those fellows; his arrangements more lush. “All roads lead to me,” he sings on Come to the City, the grandest track, “I've been moving, I've been drifting.” The direction of this, The War on Drugs’ second long player (and first without Kurt Vile), is flawless. Brad Wheeler
The War on Drugs play Montreal’s Casa del Popolo, Aug. 23; Toronto’s Drake Hotel, Aug. 24.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 Pathétique; No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 The Tempest; and No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 Appassionata Ingrid Fliter, piano (EMI Classics) 2 stars
The buzz about prize-winning Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter usually has to do with Chopin, which is why we were so curious about her first recording of Beethoven. Fliter's playing certainly broadcasts its originality, from the pedaling, which makes the unaccompanied recitative in the adagio of The Tempest sound like a wind chime, to the melodramatic allegros – Nell tied to the tracks as Dudley Do-Right rushes to the rescue. But theatrical gesture trumps rhetoric, accents lack the context of a clear rhythmic skeleton, the registers are undifferentiated (the sound is actually wooly in the slow movement of the Pathétique) and the texture is sometimes so thick it sounds like a transcription of an orchestral piece. Fliter’s Chopin is idiosyncratic but convincing. Her Beethoven is only idiosyncratic. Elissa Poole
The Horrors Skying (XL/Beggars Group Canada) 3.5 stars
In another, cheekier world, copies of The Horrors’ Skying would come with a warning sticker: “Contains bongos.” But two albums removed from their overhyped garage-punk debut, the much-improved British five-piece has some credibility to spend on whatever they like, whether that means toying with the fabulously stoned aesthetic of rave-era Brit-rock, or smearing viscous, glittering synthesizers all over fine singles like Still Life. Yet relentlessly throbbing tracks like Moving Further Away keep The Horrors firmly in the rock camp, where singer Faris Badwan’s melancholy baritone croon – frequently heard drowning in echo – fits neatly on the post-punk shelf alongside Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. Won over by their creative reinvention, the U.K. press have anointed the band as the next big thing – again. This time, they’re right. Dave Morris
Odd Fellowship Rebekah Higgs (Hidden Pony) 3.5 stars
Higgs’ sophomore release starts off with Little Voice, a title that not only characterizes the Nova Scotia native’s breathy warble, but also suits the toyshop aesthetic of the arrangements. Yet however close to cute she may skate, there’s a worldly-wise undercurrent to the songs that keeps the music from ever becoming cloying. It isn’t just the sadder-but-wiser cast of the lyrics in tunes like Drunk Love or Miserably Together; Higgs’ soundscapes are too dense with harmony and textural detail to ever come off as simple or sweet. Instead, her songs offer a swirling complexity that reflects her vision of love as a garden as apt to offer brambles as bouquets. J.D. Considine