Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime

As a rule, I don't like singers who only perform other people's songs. We don't celebrate authors who simply re-tell other writer's stories, and we don't go to galleries to see paintings by artists who blatantly copy other artists, so why should we praise singers who only sing other people's songs?

Bettye LaVette has made me reconsider the value of my rule. LaVette does magical things to other people's songs. She finds things in the originals that none of us knew were there, and she reinvents the songs based on her discoveries.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On the surface, this album is similar to LaVette's first release on Anti Records. On closer listen, though, it feels totally different. This album seems darker and more painful than I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Almost as if LaVette raised her hell, and is now sitting in the aftermath, looking around at how different things have become.

The Scene of the Crime is unquestionably a soul record, but hints of rock and country flow through it. It might be because producer Patterson Hood and most of LaVette's session band are all members of alt-country heavyweights Drive-By Truckers, or it might be because LaVette understands all great music shares a common spirit that transcends categorization. Take a listen to Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and you'll hear how LaVette found the soul inside a great a country song.

And don't even get me started on her rendition of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers". This one gives me chills.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes follow the same basic theme as LaVette's last album: simple design, minimal use of color, a few stark photos, detailed credits, and an essay. The essay is well-written, and it gives me an appreciation for pretty much every person and place that was involved in the making of this record. On the downside, the photos -- mostly of the vintage studio gear from Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios -- are generic, and the striped back cover doesn't make any sense. I guess it's supposed to represent the stripes on a prison uniform, but it just looks like some kind of random, seizure-inducing optical illusion.

Listen if you like: Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Drive-By Truckers

If it were food, it'd be: a late-night shot of whiskey in a lonely Alabama dive bar


Celebration: The Modern Tribe

Three things about Celebration piqued my interest when I first heard of them: they're tight with TV On The Radio, they're on 4AD records, and they're local.

I was excited to hear TV On The Radio's David Sitek work as a producer instead of a band member; 4AD has one of the best track records of any independent label out there; and even though I'm sadly ignorant about the local Baltimore scene, I know we've got more than our fair share of really good bands.

Needless to say, I was very happy when I spotted The Modern Tribe on the shelf at the EPFL.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Celebration sits at a point midway between TV On The Radio and The Creatures. It has the relentless creativity and energy that both bands possess, and it combines the unusual-yet-catchy songwriting of the former with the driving percussion and horns of the latter.

The Modern Tribe gets better with each listen. My initial reactions were lukewarm, but I've been listening to the CD for a few weeks now. I put it in my stereo this morning, and I caught myself singing along with every song and getting more and more excited as the disc progressed. It's the same reaction I had to TV On The Radio's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, which eventually became one of my very favorite albums of the past decade. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if The Modern Tribe ends up having the same kind of hold on me.

As soon as I'm done writing this, I'm heading over to Sound Garden to pick up a copy of The Modern Tribe. I guess that probably speaks louder than any of the words I've written here, doesn't it?

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is bizarre. It looks like some kind of stage set from an awards show or a bad '70s TV variety program. It's got the dancing girls and everything. The text is printed in a metallic gold foil, which is a very nice (and expensive) touch. The thing is, the cover isn't a very good representation of the music. I'm not certain what kind of artwork would best accompany the music, but it's not this. In fact, I almost skipped right over this on the EPFL's shelves, because I assumed it was some sort of dodgy compilation of party tunes.

Listen if you like: TV On The Radio, The Creatures / Siouxsie and the Banshees, PJ Harvey's later albums, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave

If it were food, it'd be: Stuffed jalapeno peppers


Can: Ege Bamyasi

If Can's Tago Mago hadn't completely blown me away, I wouldn't have given Ege Bamyasi a second listen. That's how much I hated it the first time I heard it. But I did listen again, and then I gave it a third listen, and a fourth... and I still hated it.

Eventually, I listened on some great headphones. I heard some nice production tricks and experimental ideas buried in the background. Nice production tricks do not make a great album.

After my sixth listen, I gave up and wrote this review. Needless to say, I'm unimpressed.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Tago Mago is a complicated and challenging album that undeniably rocks. It is one of the best CDs I've checked out from EPFL.

Ege Bamyasi sounds like its dumb little brother.

I'm surprised, because every review I've read says Ege Bamyasi is a great album, 5 stars, perfect introduction to Can, yada yada yada. I don't hear it, though. The band sounds disengaged and uninterested. The songs don't do anything or go anywhere. The improvisation is dull, and the composition is uninspired. It sounds as if Can couldn't decide between being accessible or experimental, so they compromised at some boring point in the middle.

"Sing Swan Song" has the same introspective naval-gazing blandness that characterizes too much of Radiohead's music from the past decade. "One More Night" sounds like a Fela Kuti jam with no fire or passion. "Soup" starts with another dull jam, then inexplicably disintegrates into five minutes of noise that has nothing to do with the first five minutes of the song. (For what it's worth, those five minutes of noise are the most interesting thing on the album, but even they devolve into the kind of generic free-form improvisation that marked the third-rate followers of people like Ornette Coleman and... well... Can.)

The last two songs, "Spoon" and "I'm So Green," are the best on the album. Both are very short and very poppy ("Spoon" was a top 40 hit in Germany), but what's really interesting is hearing how those two songs laid the foundation for the Madchester scene that popped up about 15 years later. It's easy to listen to "I'm So Green" and imagine the Stone Roses or Primal Scream playing it.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Great. Another essay by David Stubbs. This one is filled with gems like, "It was all part of Can's flight from occidental hegemony in rock music." Yeah, man... rock's occidental hegemony really pisses me off.

(For those of you who don't possess a Stubbsian vocabulary, an "occidental hegemony in rock music" basically means that all the rock bands of Europe and America were oppressing the poor, struggling rock bands from the rest of the world. Apparently, when Ege Bamyasi was recorded back in '72, Can was pissed off about the way the IFWR [the International Foundation of Western Rock] was secretly conspiring to crush all of the great Asian, African, and Eastern European rock bands that were on the verge of stripping the evil patriarchal Western Rock Gods of their power.)

Hey Stubbs: how's about I plant my foot in your occidental ass, motherfucker?

Anyway, the liner notes contain Stubbs' essay and a bunch of pictures of the band. The pictures are mildly interesting. The essay isn't. End of story.

Listen if you like: Radiohead's Kid A and/or Amnesiac, early Pink Floyd, Boris, experimental music that's not too experimental.

If it were food, it'd be: canned vegetables