What with so much of one’s summertime attention turned upon synchronized diving, swift-boat veterans and rereading “The DaVinci Code,” sometimes more important things like the season’s best indie rock can go unnoticed. Here are three records that are not to be missed.
Wilco, “A Ghost Is Born”
The opening moments of Wilco’s sixth album are stirring: a whispering electric guitar, a quiet piano riff and then the cigarette-voiced Jeff Tweedy: “When I sat down on the bed next to you / You started to cry.” Two verses later the song spirals lazily into one of the album’s many excellent extended guitar solos, one that recalls vintage Neil Young.
Tweedy’s ear for blending intricate instrumentation with simple hooks and inspired lyricism has never been sharper. On “Hummingbird,” Wilco’s best pop-song to date, he waxes poetic (“A cheap sunset on a television set could upset her / But he never could”) over a hook well-worthy of the Beatles’ “Revolver.”
Other highlights are the sublimely druggy “Hell Is Chrome” and “Company In My Back” (Tweedy, after all, was in the throes of a pain-killer addiction when recording the album). Almost as good are the opener, “At Least That’s What You Said,” and the album’s head-nodding closer, “The Late Greats.”
Besides 12 minutes of practically un-listenable noise added onto the second-to-last song, for which it has earned a bad reputation, “A Ghost Is Born” is an album to enjoy many times over. The band has come a long ways from its alternative-country roots (remember Uncle Tupelo?) and — even more impressively — from 2002’s critically-lauded “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”.
The Magnetic Fields, “I.”
The Magnetic Fields, one of several bands fronted by the adored Stephen Merritt, soared to fame among hip New Yorkers and their brethren with “69 Love Songs,” a three-volume epic of cynical ballads and witty ditties.
Merritt’s urbane humor might be all Cole Porter (“I always say ‘I love you’ when I mean ‘Turn out the light'”), but his musical proclivities are more mid-1980’s than late-1930’s. Many of the Magnetic Fields’ earlier records rely too heavily on Casio keyboards for my liking; even the prettiest songs on “69 Love Songs” take a few listens to get used to.
“I,” the band’s proper follow-up to that momentous work, doesn’t stray far from its subject matter of wounded hearts, but their sound has certainly matured. The record is built around straight-forward instrumentation that is much more instantly-likeable than their earlier material. And all the songs start with the letter I – how clever!
The album opens beautifully with “I Die,” a ballad sung over both bowed and picked strings. I like Merritt’s songs best when they’re played over violins and cellos, or his quiet ukulele. That sound understatedly captures the simple prettiness of his love songs.
Similarly, the band is often at their best when they break away from easy-going pop and venture into uncharted territories. “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin” marries a Bjork-like beat with an aching melody, the jazzy “Infinitely Late At Night” is the sort of song that Tom Waits might make up in an abandoned barroom, and the memorable “I’m Tongue-Tied” sounds like John Lennon covering Bing Crosby.
Here’s a lyric from that song, which ties up the album if any could: “I’m tongue tied and useless, / I’m weak-kneed and brainless, and then / I mumble some jumble / You kiss me, I’m history, / I’m tongue tied and useless again.”
The Fiery Furnaces “Blueberry Boat”
In the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and the Flaming Lips’ “The Soft Bulletin,” the Fiery Furnaces’ second LP is so fiercely creative and weirdly playful that it has been heralded as a masterpiece (and, subsequently, overrated).
The truth lies somewhere in between. Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, who are brother and sister, have created an ambitious song-cycle that is driven by the inspired imagination of a daydreaming child.
“Quay Cur,” the album’s opener, is made up of several different sections woven together ingeniously, albeit bizarrely. The epic track begins with a Trent Reznor-like beat, which is soon mashed into the song’s hiccupping back-drop.
“We hid beneath the barrels of blubber hoping that the rain had passed,” Eleanor Friedberger sings in her innocent falsetto, “But when the wind kept up the rats cut down the rigging off the mast, / And then the rust chewed through the anchor chain and out to sea we’re cast.”
Six minutes later the song’s wall of sound is knocked down, leaving only an acoustic guitar and tambourine for the Friedbergers to sing over. It’s the highlight of the track, and maybe the record.
The title song, “Blueberry Boat,” is even more chaotic, with a jarring musical shift in nearly each of its nine minutes. But neither the song nor the album is a chaotic mess: it is exactly the band’s frenetic energy that allows for such an incredible listening experience.