11 July 2005

Review Desk

A Review Desk shortstack. New music, two-year-old music, and a brand new Norwegian literary import. From Norway.


The Sunset Tree, The Mountain Goats
For fourteen years, John Darnielle has been singing in a voice that wavers between anger, bitterness, humor and resolve, and he's been singing about people that don't exist, narratives that make him the closest thing to a novelist music has. Until recently he was accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and tape hiss. This is the third album he's recorded in a proper studio, backed by more or less a full band, but it's different than every one of his past efforts in more than instrumentation. The fiction, still clinging on in the semi-autobiographical We Shall All Be Healed, is gone. Darnielle writes now directly and indirectly about his childhood at the "strong and thick-veined hands" of his abusive stepfather, who died in 2004. Darnielle's fictions have always been raw and as likely to make you laugh as they are to make you crumble; here the humor is thinner, ready to give way. The album is not difficult to listen to - the arrangements are nearly flawless, from a textured mandolin to background piano to the choppy cello and violin on "Dilaudid" - and the story is gracefully told if wrenching. It's from the perspective of Darnielle's 17-year-old self, alternately rebellious, desperate, and cowed - a photo album of memories and moments. On "Dance Music," he retreats to his bedroom during an argument and, lying next to his small record player "learns what the volume knob is for." He plots ineffectual adolescent revenge. He drinks scotch and punches his videogame console. He drives home, knowing what waits for him every night. The songs stop abruptly, as if there is one more verse that he can't bring himself to sing. It is hard to think of another contemporary songwriter who could have pulled this off with such honesty and grace.

The Slow Wonder, AC Newman
Carl Newman is best known for his work with fellow Canadians the New Pornographers, who have released two albums of breathless power-pop that goes down like a slab of rock candy: polyphonic choruses, triple-tracked guitars, enough massive hooks for six songs melted down into one. His first solo effort, The Slow Wonder, is a little more restrained, though it doesn't sacrifice the old sugar rush - see "On The Table," with its pretty background piano bits, crunching guitars, and massed backup vocalists, or the scraping cello hook that anchors "Town Halo." For that matter, just try not shouting along to the multitracked cry of "Game on!" that punctuates "35 In the Shade." Even more noteworthy, however, might be the slower moments. The stately, booming "Cloud Prayer" is pitch-perfect soundtrack to a thunderstorm. The awkwardly titled "Drink To Me Babe, Then" is a melencholy ballad, with some spacey whistling and a big guitar in for the bridge. The album is brief but its effects are lasting. There is no fat here, and quite a bit to wonder at.


Tales of Protection, by Erik Fosnes Hansen
Norwegian author Erik Fosnes Hansen unites four separate stories -about a dying industrialist in contemporary Norway, a 19th century Baltic lighthouse keeper, miraculous paintings in Renaissance Italy, and a mining engineer posted to Ceylon in the 1937 - in a sweeping new novel (recently translated into English by Nadia Christensen) that only builds in power as it progresses. Underneath it all lies what he calls early on "the music behind the music," the force of coincidence, of luck, of sudden change. The separate sections lean up against each other in surprising ways, gently revealing common themes - illness, aging, song, and the power of small transformation - without forcing them into ruin. They are punctuated by moments of giddy strangeness that verge on revelatory - a treatise on bees by a blind scientist, an medieval encounter with the Devil, a midair interview with two swifts, the ruminations of a dead man lying in his coffin. Inventively narrated, stunningly executed, entertaining and intellectual, it is a read to savor.

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