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February 25, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Music | February 25, 2009 |

We’ve got it all today. Whimsical British girl-pop? Literary barroom alt-country? Douchetastic Crap Rock? You got it, buddy.

bennichols.jpgBen Nichols: The Last Pale Light In The West
[Rebel Group]

Ben Nichols, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the drawling, sprawling alt-country outfit Lucero has done something remarkable. He’s created a concept album that sums up an epic tale of murder and betrayal, he’s done it gloriously, and he’s done it with only seven songs. The Last Pale Light In The West is an homage / musical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian. The source material is a brutally violent Western tale of the scalp-hunting, Indian killing Glanton Gang.

A bare-bones affair, The Last Pale Light In The West features Nichols singing and playing acoustic guitar, and has dashes of mourning, woeful pedal steel, piano and occasional electric guitar, as well as a surprisingly soulful accordion here and there as well. It’s the perfect vehicle for Nichol’s gravelly, hard-life voice — upon listening to him, you can’t help but conjure images of tumbleweeds, sand and whiskey. But what will keep you coming back for more are the lyrics — check out any of Lucero’s seven albums for backup to that statement. But here we have grim, yet darkly beautiful lyrics to accompany a much less rock-heavy track list.

“Toadvine,” a piece that focuses on the character of the same name, features a gentle piano melody and some elegant guitar picking and pedal-steel. It tells a wicked tale, as they all are, and features ghastly, vengeful lyrics sung in a sorrowful rasp (“They took my ears in Omaha / I thought me dead but I weren’t at all / And I left them bleeding in the mud / They ran in me for horse thievery / Between my eyes for all to see / And I left them bleeding in the mud”)

Each of the seven songs features incredibly intricate instruments, powerful lyrics and Nichols’ trademark growl, and the seven songs force you to look at each part individually as well as as a whole. Take “Davy Brown”, with it’s hand-claps, bracing accordion intro and simple yet effective guitar-strumming. It’s another tale of bad men and dastardly deeds (“Davy Brown, Davy Brown / Where ya gonna be when the hammer comes down? / Can you outshoot the Devil? Outrun his hounds? / Ain’t nothing to it but to stay above ground”) that revels in its own darkness.

“Last Pale Night In The West”

Ben Nichols has created a minor masterpiece with The Last Pale Light In The West. He’s given a harsh, gruesome and complex story a soundtrack, and done so without pretense and with soul. If anything, it feels like a missing chapter.

lilyallen.jpgLily Allen: It’s Not Me, It’s You
[Parlophone / Capitol Records]

Some friends of mine went to see He’s Just Not That Into You not long ago, and were delighted to see other audience members, like them, greet the film’s emotional scenes with gales of laughter. I suppose inadvertent comedy is something you’ll settle for when you’ve paid your entrance fee and there’s nothing else on offer to appreciate. So perhaps it’s a good thing that the opening track on Lily Allen’s second album made me cackle out loud. Entitled ‘Everyone’s At It’, this is Allen’s searing look at drug-addicted Britain. “Why can’t we all, all just be honest/Admit to ourselves that everyone’s on it?” she ponders. “From grown politicians to young adolescents / Prescribing themselves antidepressants.” OMFG Lily - you’re, like, so right about drugs and shit! It’s totally not cool!

I suppose what makes me lol is that Allen’s words are so ham-fisted; she is absolutely unsuited to penning a devastating state-of-the-world dissection. She may be the cleverest girl in the playground, with all the charisma and the sarcastic put-downs — but she can’t write an essay. It’s hard to put your finger on what is so roflably bad about her writing — but I think it’s to do with how overly stated everything is: she has no flair for hints or subtlety; she relies on cliché to construct her sentences (“little do they know”; “chip on my shoulder”, etc). Chiefly, she has no vision - she is unable to see outside of her own boring bubble. This is what endeared her to critics in the past, since the spoilt little girl’s honest, snappy account of her sex life and going out to clubs and so on was fresh and unpretentious. But this doesn’t give her much of a platform for observing the world’s ills. I mean, actually, to answer some issues raised in ‘Everyone’s At It’: no, not everyone’s on drugs. I would say that a vast predominance of people is not on drugs, in fact. And ways to ‘tackle the problem’, as Allen states it, go beyond merely owning up to one’s own addiction - but perhaps talking about the role of education and ways to fight peer-pressure to conform to adult types from a young age, is not zingy enough for her.

“The Fear”

This lyrical meh-ness extends to most other songs: “The Fear” is written, with huge daubs of irony, from the viewpoint of someone with a vapid, apolitical life. But the prose is so hideous: “I am a weapon of massive consumption”, she writes at one point. And in “I Could Say” she says, “Everything was always about being cool” and “Now you’ve gone it’s like I’ve been let out of my cage” (which she rhymes with “the whole wide world’s my stage”). See what I mean about cliché? The song “22” bemoans the very modern problem of ageism “It’s sad but it’s true / How society says her life’s already over” she notes - and, later on, “It seems so unlikely in this day and age”. I just find these observations so trite, so heavy-handed, so tell-don’t-show; so embarrassing.

However, the music that accompanies those particular blandishments is actually pleasingly peppery: a swinging, finger-clicky pop number with jazzy piano and fairground-y sounds. And many of the other songs here display perfectly decent pop production, verging on the good. In fact, this is quite classy electro-pop: there are good synth-lines and snappy beats throughout; “Back To The Start”, for instance, has a really excellent shuffle and techno sound to it, while “Not Gonna Happen” has a lovely accordion and organ -inflected sprightliness. But the reason I focus on Allen’s lyrics is that they take centre stage; partly because the music isn’t good enough to blot out the lyrics, partly because she declaims in the manner of a celebrated wordsmith. No-one complains that Girls Aloud’s lyrics are crap, but that’s because their music is really, unapologetically fun: Allen wants the best of both worlds, but still there’s nothing here that’s as good as “The Promise”.

thornley.jpgThornley: Tiny Pictures
[604 Records]

A Google search for “Thornley Tiny Pictures” turns up—as the very first hit—a CHARTattack article entitled “Thornley’s Tiny Pictures Reeks Of Nickelback.” 604 Records is Chad Kroeger’s label; Nickelback’s drummer plays on all but one track of the album, and Kroeger himself co-wrote one of the songs. And oh, sweet jeebus does the first half of this record stink of that influence.

It’s a nearly unforgivable tease that Tiny Pictures, Thornley’s second post-Big Wreck release, starts off with promise; “Underneath the Radar” is a pretty good song. Sadly, Thornley pulls the rug out from under the listener’s feet for the following five songs, from the blandness of “Changes” to the ill-advised shoehorning of “Man Overboard” into a chorus, and into the godawful “Your Song,” penned by Thornley and Kroeger. Hearing this abomination for the first time, once the lyrics came in, the only thing I could think was: “Holy shit, can this guy not write another melody structure?” I won’t subject you to the song, but trust me when I say that it sounds like every Nickelback song you’ve ever heard on the radio. The lead single, “Make Believe,” is just as generic (despite having been co-written by Dave Genn, former guitarist of the excellent Matthew Good Band).

The record’s second half is slightly better but takes on a totally different tone, becoming a little darker and almost bluesy at times. “Might Be The End” is certainly the strongest track on Tiny Pictures, even if it sounds yanked from the middle of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” “Conscience & Consequence” and “All Fall Down” show the most prominent flashes of Thornley’s Big Wreck songwriting, while “Better Side of Me” feels like a sub-par Dave Grohl song (which is better than a top-notch Kroeger song). Another lifeless ballad precedes a solid-enough closing track, “Another Memory.”

Sadly, the relative strength of Tiny Pictures’ second half isn’t enough to atone for the sins of the first. The uneven tone of the record quashes any potential enthusiasm long before a decent note hits the listener’s ear. After the crushing disappointment of the first six songs, the most I emotion I could muster for the rest was a shrug and a sigh. It seems that Ian Thornley isn’t quite sure what he wants at this stage of his career; he’d like some mainstream recognition and success, but he’s not quite ready to sacrifice his own style for total lite-rock immersion. So he tries to integrate the two, and ends up producing a record that commits the cardinal sin of rock music—it’s just fucking boring. Say what you will about Big Wreck, but they were undeniably daring. Thornley doesn’t seem confident enough these days to continue to be himself, and so he lets inferior musicians sully his solo work. It’s a shame, really.

Know what? I can’t resist. Just listen to the first minute-five. That’s all. Share my pain, won’t you?

Why?! Seriously: WHY CAN YOU NOT WRITE A DIFFERENT MELODY, Chad Kroeger, O King of Douche?! Why must you continue to infect rock and roll with your awfulness? And oh, sweet mercy, the lyrics in the chorus…

“You could waste your time in the sunshine every day
but the sun doesn’t shine on you like I do
The stars in the sky can fall for you night and day
but they’re not gonna fall for you like I do”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go clean my ears with a knitting needle.
Sean K.

Pajiba Music

Lily Allen Has Very Important Things To Say, People

Wednesday Music Reviews / Pajiba Music Writers

Music | February 25, 2009 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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