Sequence Alignment ~ Music Reviews


A Good Book by Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant - Leave Your SleepIt's been a long time since a hardcover book has won over my eyes and hands over a computer screen of some kind. I am usually yoked to my Macbook, iPhone, or HD TV, so it was quite a surprise to me that a CD lyrics book measuring four-inches by four- inches would take a hold and not leave my captivity for an hour and forty minutes.

I'm sure it was well in her intentions to have a CD lyric book be this kind of treasure, but I'm not sure she ever realized the state the digital age has wrought on my generation. Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep has brought me back to my earliest music memories of record players, LP covers, cassette players and complete music immersion. I felt as if I had travelled back to my parents family room in 1986 putting a record on, feeling the gritty grooves of black vinyl, and listening to the brief static foreplay as the music slowly spun in.

Digital music has tried to create this kind of interactivity with varied success. Apple created iTunes LP, eMusic has lists and lists of exploration buttons, artists' website splash and flash video across your web browsers. Most of this is impressive, if easily ignored by mundane music -- and that is where Natalie Merchant changes the conversation.

In what is perhaps the most purposeful collection of songs I've heard in over a decade, Merchant has managed to create an album that requires no explanation, but leaves you seeking one. Leave Your Sleep consists of two discs filled with 19th and 20th century poems set to music. It took five years to develop with over 100 hundred musicians contributing to the oft-folk inspired sounds.

Merchant has always been a successful songstress with a unique, evocative voice and style. I've never been a committed fan, though I've rarely skipped her tracks on the radio or iTunes shuffle. However, as she describes in the lyric book, "It is the most ambitious project I have ever attempted or even dared to conceive," I find myself drawn to the concept for it's sheer audacity. Merchant takes on the challenge of bringing the written word to song — a feat tried by many — but rarely successful.

Leave Your Sleep brings nuance to unfamiliar poems, and Merchant's song-writing has never been stronger. You won't find pop hits like Jealousy or Carnival, but those tracks would be woefully out of place. What you do find is a musical journey, a journal wretched out of ink and into music, alive in the process of translation. I found myself listening intently while pouring through these very visual poems.

Leave Your SleepI went from line to line, poem to poem, song to song, and found each carefully crafted and enjoyable. The pages echoed in my ears, and Merchant's voice brought a new dimension to these written works. In poems/songs such as The Peppery Man, Merchant pulls on different genres to create a beautifully orchestrated track that is easily accessible, meaningful, and lasting — no small accomplishment in today's music scene.

I won't go into detail of the literary works or their meanings on Leave Your Sleep — that is best left to each listener and their own biases. There is much to explore, and Merchant lets you listen to a great album while doing so. This collection deserves at least an hour of your undivided attention. Turn the screen off, dust off the CD player, and turn these four-inch by four-inch pages as Merchant weaves centuries of words into a beautiful album worth every un-digitized note.

Links: Read Watch Listen - Leave Your Sleep
Pearl Jam: Backspacer

In what may be the most successful return to the 90s in this new millenium, Pearl Jam's Backspacer is a short-but-sweet-trip down memory without sounding dated or redone. Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, Backspacer takes to the gamut coloring every shade from soulful alt-rock to screamining torment through precious love ballads.

The album feels like three distinct pieces woven together by the bands concrete musicality and lead-singer Eddie Vedders emotionally rich voice. There are the rockers, the life ballads, and the alt-unclassified tracks that comprise the 11-track disc. Songs like Just Breathe and Unthought Known showcase what Pearl Jam is known for: music that moves. These two tracks harken back to the days of Jeremy and Parachutes, yet offer some new instrumentation that provokes a deeper connection.

In what is my favorite moment on the album, Eddie Vedder confides his philosophies of life and death in the closing track The End. When he asks (almost pines) "What were all those dreams we made those many years ago?", it's almost as if Eddie is on his death bed surrounded by black and white photos of by-gone eras. If this is his call to the 90s, he has succeeded in re-capturing the vitality of that musical memory.

Links: Backspacer Short Film
Neko's Case for Country

Neko Case - Kimmel CenterA mandolin, a banjo, and a xylophone walk into a bar in Philadelphia...perhaps the best way to start a Neko Case review is to focus on the fact that she is a country act well-disguised as an alt-chick songstress. Bringing her entourage of southern performers to an urban audience, Neko Case managed to put a swing step and drawl into an appreciative audience Wednesday night at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

With the launch of her new album, Middle Cyclone, Neko Case makes a great case for country music. She swirls and spins and over-melodizes to create a collection of country hits destined to be embraced by indie music fans. Let's call this alt-country as not to offend and confuse the Pitchfork gang. The songs have remarkable hooks that serve Neko's wide vocal range. Middle Cyclone will probably land in my top 10 albums for 2009, and it is a worthy successor to The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

She brought that voice to her performance Wednesday night, firing on all cylinders and harmonizing with her talented backup singer. She ticked off song after song with the melody driven hits such "This Tornado Loves You", "Middle Cyclone", and her previous album's opening track "Margaret vs Pauline." As she sailed through the main set, her onstage banter with her co-host kept the audience laughing. The main set's closing track "This Tornado Loves You" capped off an exhilarating hour of country sounds done right. Once she came back out for an encore, the audience stayed standing and swung left and right to "The Train from Kansas City".

I had the distinct opportunity of introducing Neko Case to one of my friends - conscious of the fact this was going to be a country show. We are both indie/alternative fans to the core, and we were both enticed by the meaningful sounds Neko offered. I was thrilled with her ability to translate lush and layered tracks to a live performance. The songs sounded deep, and she even surpassed many of the album cuts with effective instrumentation. She picked up electric and acoustic guitars and strummed a mandolin for a few tracks.

After Wednesday, Neko proved that country music is all soul and harmony - and this Philadelphian felt right at home.

ps Happy Birthday, Kate!

Links: Neko Case Travelogue


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