New American Language
Like the title implies, Dan Bern's most recent album speaks of his dream for a new American language.
Unfortunately, this new language sounds a lot like the old Bob Dylan.
Bern appropriates many of Dylan's trademarks as his own. The most obvious example is his nasal raspy vocal style a la young Dylan. He makes no attempt to mask the influence, and it is actually used to serve his songs well -- from the serious philosophical debate of "God Said No" to the criminal loner's story in "Tape," the raspy delivery injects some earnestness into the songs.
Bern's style of writing also feels heavily influenced. Nowhere is this more obvious than "Thanksgiving Day Parade." The song is a mock folk epic in the style of Dylan's "Desolation Row."
In the same way that Dylan included cultural staples like Robin Hood and Einstein, Bern takes on Michelangelo and the pope. The song falls short of capturing Dylan's imagination but gets the form dead on. That's not to say that Bern's music is without merit.
If you ignore the vocals, "God Said No" is a good indicator of Bern as a unique voice. The song recounts an imagined conversation with God in which the narrator wants to go back in time to save Kurt Cobain, kill Hitler and prevent Jesus from being crucified. God replies "no" to these pleas because he says the narrator would just end up doing nothing: "If I let you go/If you really found him/Walking with the cross/You would stare/Your tongue no longer working."
The confrontation of "God Said No" is one of which the old fashioned Dylan would never conceive -- whether this album is a Dylan tribute or rip-off, Bern desperately needed to continue the album more in the "God Said No" vein.
But to no avail. Even the painted artwork of New American Language bears a cringe-inducing similarity to the modernist cover of Dylan's Self Portrait.
Some may see all of Bern's Dylanizing as a sort of tribute, but he doesn't formally acknowledge this in any way. Perhaps a more salient critique is with Dylan still alive and releasing quality work like Love and Theft -- why do we need a second rate impersonator?
Of course the Dylan influence has been widely noted by critics and often dismissed because of a nostalgia for early era Dylan. In the past, critics and audiences alike have delighted in Bern's witty songwriting and folksy earnestness, but maybe New American Language should serve as a reminder that Bern has potential to create a language he can finally call his own.
By James Russ
Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Chris Thile composes well-crafted musical themes on Not All Who Wander Are Lost. He writes notes that tease the next to follow its lead, one melody lilting and pushing into another.
This is the kind of music that restores faith in the music industry when one has lost hope that true musical talent truly exists in a world where everything has already been done.
Thile, the young mandolin player from the wildly popular bluegrass group Nickel Creek, has woven an impressive musical tapestry that has notes of purity, sensuality, joy and regret all at the same time. A talented player he is, but his true gift is in masterful and heartfelt composition. Each track on the album has a story carved into each circulating melody line.
To carry such dense musicality, an all-star line up of musicians has joined Thile on this album. Banjo icon Bela Fleck plays on six of the 12 tracks, and an impressive lineup of other legends appears and make this album a testament to virtuosos of the nonclassical tradition.
But the album could appeal to classical aficionados as well as more mainstream audiences -- it teases and pulls on every emotion you have. Delicate tracks, like the heartbreaking "Laurie De' Tullins," sound like quiet eternal lamentations, like spiderwebs swaying in the dark.
As good as these tracks are, Thile's refusal to create a repetitively sleepy album is refreshing. "Riddles in the Dark" boasts a rollicking collaboration between Thile and Fleck, and the track careens through immaculate rhythm interchanges and makes impossible musical passages look like a cakewalk.
Thile continually displays the beauty found in simple melodies and complex instrumentation. Tracks like "Sinai to Canaan" are lilting and epic journeys through imaginary landscapes that feel more real than everyday life.
This album never becomes predictable, as its elusive nature leaves much to discover. Tracks that move in a circular and classic fashion follow those that weave and snap through the completely unexpected.
With a little jazz, a little bluegrass, a little flamenco, a great deal of talent and a whole lot of fun, this album is one of the best examples of originality and classic appeal to hit the mainstream in quite a while. This is an album that will surpass and raise your musical expectations.
By Brooks Firth
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult
The Reincarnation of Luna
Shock value isn't all it's cracked up to be.
A trippy mix of techno and industrial with vocal clips thrown in just for kicks, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult has a quasi-evil sound -- imagine Nine Inch Nails on acid at a rave and you will get a good idea of what the band's latest LP, The Reincarnation of Luna sounds like.
But the album's "evil" motif is laughable. The band's best moments, ironically, are the ones where the forces of evil take a break and the music takes priority.
With synthesizers as the only detectable instrument, the band is capable of a wide range of sounds, which creep up your spine or literally roll around the inside of your head.
Raspy and wicked vocals climb above the hypnotic techno beats of sounds that mimic everything from Indian flutes to the inner workings of a supercomputer. In "Asylum Disciple" the band bridges from chirping birds to something like water being vacuumed through a telephone.
The album could stand as a powerful mix if not for the ridiculous samples thrown in. In an attempt to sound diabolical, the Kult blasts quotes like "I hear voices on the radio/From the devil" that are more amusing than they are nightmare-inducing.
In contrast, the digital manipulation and production make some of the clips sound just plain cool. Properly used in "Theme de Luna" and "Hour of Zero," the samples are rhythmic and haunting instead of silly and trite.
It's important to realize the album is more than an excuse to stay away from drugs. Balanced between creepy, wild fits of contrasting sounds and somewhat melodic interludes are a few tracks that relax on the album's pervasive intensity. "Temptation Serenade" and "Bettie" in particular have soothing, rolling rhythms that still maintain the trippy overtones. Set against the pounding beats and auditory overload of "Radio Silicon" and "The Kult Konnection," some songs are actually relaxing.
Despite its ludicrous and forced "satanic" vibe, The Reincarnation of Luna is good at what it means to be. With beats to dance to and wonderful production, the album is a perfect couple for strobe lights and glow sticks.
By Nick Parker
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