These Albums Rule!
These albums suck. This week: Charlie Louvin, Yusef Islam and The Shins
The problem with Charlie Louvin comes not from Louvin himself, but from the cadre of adoring musicians who queued up for cameo appearances. Sure, it’s a great notch on any alt-country or indie rock musician’s belt to have performed a duet with one of the few surviving practitioners of proto-country. But really, do artistes like Tift Merritt, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, and Bright Eyes’ Alex McManus add gravitas to this endeavor? The answer is a resounding no. And the burning question is, where’s Toby Keith?
The most offensive and embarrassing perpetrator on the album is Elvis Costello, who puts the kibosh on “When I Stop Dreaming” with an adenoidal “vibrato” that kills a good song. Then there’s Wilco’s presiding jerk, Jeff Tweedy, whose flat and essentially toneless backing vocals on “Great Atomic Power” add nothing. Will Oldham provides serviceable harmonies on “Knoxville Girl,” but who needs it?
Appearing on two tracks, George Jones is the only suitable guest musician on the album. The other singers merely play Kenny G to Louvin’s Louis Armstrong. Granted, the album is saved by Louvin’s presence. There’s something smarmy and condescending about the cameos. Let’s just hope that these appearances result in a better paycheck for Mr. Louvin.
Then there’s the side of me that’s demanding, expectant—of his other side, Yusuf Islam. I wanted to greet Yusuf on the other side of himself; I was even open to something new and different from the man who renounced music for 28 years while dedicating himself wholly to his Islamic practice.
I had a vision of the perfect comeback album: It was raw, organic, long-steeped in existential meditations, sounding as weatherworn as the dry throat of a wandering ascetic and as smooth as a long-submerged river rock.
Instead, I was disappointed by such overly obvious lyrics as You can’t bargain with the truth/ ’cause whether you’re right or you’re wrong / we’re gonna know what you’ve done. An Other Cup doesn’t even touch upon the pop sensibilities of those former-day Stevens records—and anyway, it’s all slicked up in studio muck.
The one side of me was ready to hop right back on the “Peace Train” and throw my hands up in beatific exaltations. I wanted to let Cat-as-Yusuf crawl back into my heart and curl up like a blissful little purring kitty.
But the other side is stuck back in 1970, thinking I’ll stick to those old gems, rather than this disappointing attempt at a comeback.
Then that doe-eyed Natalie Portman came along with her little headphones and made things complicated. “This song will change your life,” she tells Zach Braff in 2004’s Garden State —an endorsement that simultaneously put The Shins on a pedestal and a chopping block. Sales of the band’s first two albums skyrocketed, but as a consequence, frontman James Mercer became the unwitting Hillary Clinton of the indie scene—a confusingly polarizing heir apparent who shouldn’t rationally excite or offend anybody—but does.
Considering the scrutiny then, Mercer’s first post-Portman Shins album, Wincing the Night Away , is all the more impressive. Masterfully avoiding the two main pitfalls of the “follow-up,” the band neither repeats itself nor dives into an experimental abyss. Instead, the songs represent a very satisfying evolution that ought to appease their loyalists, surprise the newbies, and silence the haters.
The Shins’ chiming ’60s hooks are still in stock (see “Australia,” “Turn On Me”) but the guitars gets respites amid occasional strings and some lovely underwater keyboards—most notably on opening track “Sleeping Lessons” and the Eno-esque “Red Rabbits.” Unlike its two predecessors, Wincing also makes some welcome forays into darker textures and unconventional rhythm patterns, adding a new dynamic behind Mercer’s Brian Wilsonish vocals and Scrabble vocabulary.
No, these songs probably won’t change your life, but you’re still encouraged to listen.