Hey, Mr. AJ: Pavement, Emeralds, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Bettye LaVette, Eminem

Album reviews are divided into six sections: MAXIMUM GOBBLING for the masterpieces; GOBBLE IT for the merely great; WORTH GOBBLING for other good releases; GOBBLE? for those albums which aren’t really good or bad, just sort of okay; DO NOT GOBBLE for the shitty; and RUN, DON’T GOBBLE! for the awful.

QUARANTINE THE PAST: THE BEST OF PAVEMENT
by Pavement

As with most compilations, you could quibble as to why Quarantine the Past exists; Pavement only had five albums, and all the early EP’s were compiled on Westing (By Musket & Sextant). But let’s not quibble, shall we? After more than a decade, Pavement, the seminal 90’s indie band, came together for a reunion tour this year, and Quarantine the Past serves as both a celebration for long-time fans and a primer for new listeners. It’s all here, from Pavement at their most accessible (the sing-along almost-hit “Cut Your Hair”) to the band at their most obscure (“Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” a track singing the praises of R.E.M.); from ephemera (EP cuts like the noisy “Debris Side”) to essentials (like the majestic “Grounded”). And yet for all the weirdness, all the guitar fuzz and noise, Pavement never lose their keen sense of melody. Leader Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics are largely inscrutable; what are you to make of a line like, “And all the sterile striking, it defends an empty dock you cast away”? What you’re to make of it, I presume, is what you make of it. The words may sound nonsensical out of context, but in the way that Malkmus’ voice intertwines with the music and plays off of it, they convey all you need to know. Like any great band, Pavement means different things to different people, and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. My Pavement will likely always be the Pavement of the 1992 masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted, represented here by several great cuts including my two favorites, the oddly wistful “Here” and the glorious “Summer Babe (Winter Version).” But it all works, and despite the growths and strong personalities of each of their albums, it all sits side-by-side perfectly; I hesitate to call it a document because documents are boring, locked rigorously into certain perceptions of time. That’s not Pavement. Pavement remain free of such shackles, their music alive and full of color after all these years.

DOES IT LOOK LIKE I’M HERE?
by Emeralds

When I first heard Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express, I distinctly remember stopping whatever I was doing to rest my head between the speakers, hypnotized and entranced by the sounds I was hearing. Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? is much different both in feel and texture, but I was reminded of Trans Europe Express regardless. Does It Look Like I’m Here? is filled with burbling, babbling synths, a record of detailed sound that offers as much intellectually as it does emotionally. It’s hard to look at the album song by song, as it all feels of a piece, one constantly pulsating wall of synthesizers. It’s true that a song like the mesmerizing “Double Helix” easily worms its way into your brain, but then that could be said of any of the songs here, like the 12-minute epic “Genetic” or the genially persistent opener “Candy Shoppe.” The most evocative piece, though, is likely “Goes By.” Over a bed of beautiful, droning noise, tingling synths slowly accumulate until they sound like water; you could be by a brook or in the middle of a rainforest. The music may be synthetic, but the atmosphere it creates is spacious and natural.

BEFORE TODAY
by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Before Today is a perfectly bizarre album, mishing and mashing the cheesiest melodies, hooks, and synths of 70’s/80’s AM radio into woozy psychedelic pop. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti get down in such a weird way that it’s mostly worth it. The production is gauzy and airy, Pink’s collection of damaged pop songs as inviting as they are alienating. There’ll be a particularly catchy chorus, and sometimes an entire song, like “Beverly Kills,” is an earworm, but then there’ll be an odd sound effect or two that will push you away just as you’re about to get close. On the one hand, it’s so weird it’s funny, like some sort of hipster-ish Frank Zappa record, the retro kitsch and eerie yelps blending together giddily. On the other, though, chillwave–the lo-fi, heavily processed genre Ariel Pink helped spearhead–is, well, chilly. These are songs I could never get close to, not even the intense guitar freak-out on “Butt-House Blondies,” my pick for the album’s strongest cut. And the thing is, I’m not sure Pink wants you to get too close. An interesting listen, if nothing else.

INTERPRETATIONS: THE BRITISH ROCK SONGBOOK
by Bettye LaVette

As the title would suggest, veteran soul singer Betty LaVette performs interpretations of 13 classic British rock songs, and while her voice is fiery and impassioned, her interpretations are mostly listless, coasting on generic soul sound. She takes a crack at some genuine heavy hitters: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Eric Clapton’s “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” et cetera, and not a one of them turns out memorable. She–well, eviscerates is a bit much, but she certainly mangles the Beatles’ “The Word,” taking only certain lyrical phrases from the song itself and then shouting things like, “Lotsa heartshine, y’all!” elsewhere, the slick production doing her band no favors. Material by three of the four solo Beatles can also be found here: her takes on Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” are largely forgettable, though there’s a nice swampy vibe to the latter; on George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity?,” she comes close to hitting the right laidback mark. It’s only on the closing tracks that she really succeeds, her voice opening up and soaring across a heartfelt cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and a live rendition of the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which served as the catalyst for the album’s creation. Those are songs largely dependent on soulful vocals and powerful emotion, and LaVette delivers. On the rest of the set, though, she fumbles, her interpretations reductive and boring.

RECOVERY
by Eminem

Last year’s Relapse, Eminem’s supposed comeback album after a five-year absence during which he almost succumbed to his addictions, found the rapper hitting rock bottom professionally if not personally, whining incessantly about how his junkie addict mom fucked him up, all with a weird sing-rap accent. Now, on Recovery, he’s moved on from his mom and back to the subjects of old: dissing Mariah Carey for no real reason, saying fucked-up shit just to say fucked-up shit, and now that Christopher Reeve is dead, Michael J. Fox is his new handicapped celebrity target. But the problem is that these are the subjects of old. Eminem has run out of things to say or, perhaps more importantly in his case, creative ways to say them. Technically, his flow is mostly great, even if he starts singing all over the place. In going back and listening to some old Em material, I realized that he’s always done the singing thing, only before, it never stood out because as a piece, everything was consistently strong. A lot of this has to do with the production; on the old stuff, the production by Em, Dr. Dre, and others was tight and concise. Starting with Encore, his production has grown increasingly bigger and more commercial, to the point where now it sounds like every other rap record (minus, thankfully, the AutoTune). Some songs barely sound like Eminem at all: for half of “No Love,” it’s Lil Wayne rapping with Em backing him up, occasionally slipping into godawful samples of Haddaway’s “What Is Love”; on the pining love song “Love the Way You Lie,” Rihanna basically turns Eminem into a soft rock balladeer. Let us not even mention “You’re Never Over,” where Eminem sickly croons, “The days are cold/Livin’ without yeeeeeeeeeewwwww-ooh-ooh.” Eminem has always enjoyed dissecting his personality and how the media and the public respond to it (his best song, “The Way I Am,” sums it all up: “I am/Whatever you say I am/If I wasn’t/Then why would I say I am?”), and that continues here, only now it comes off lazy. The self-reflective songs aren’t contemplative, they’re just moody and dull. You never want someone to have unhealthy addictions or overdose on drugs, but why is it that most great artists seem to go downhill rapidly after they kick the habit? In Eminem’s case, at least, I think it’s because now he doesn’t have anything to fight for. He’s stuck raging away in a vacuum, and I don’t think he can tell the difference.

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