Invincible Summer (Warner Bros.)
I have my own associations with summer. Going to lifeguard station 15 with my mother, my sister, and an orange boogie board with a black fiberglass bottom. We’d eat McDonald’s out of the bag, Quarter Pounders sweating from the heat, large fries sprinkled with salty granules of hot sand. I’d swivel my medium Coke into a flat plane of sand in front of my towel and watch beads of condensation slide down the side of the cup until they gathered into dark bubbles of mud on the beach.
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The Consequences of Falling
I was born in the summer, which means summer birthdays: me in a green Lacoste shirt and Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts, twirling my hair into knots, my grandmother giving me a pound of crisp bacon in place of a birthday cake. Go-carts and magic shows. Mononucleosis and soap operas in air-conditioned living rooms.
This is also true: No one I know has ever died in the summer. I’ve had grandparents die in the winter and friends die in the fall. And that one year my mother was diagnosed with cancer, but months after summer had ended.
So I used to look forward to summer. It was a time when everything made the sense it was supposed to. As a student, I would rely on the break from the school year — it brought release and emancipation, but also order and stability, three months of nothingness with a clear beginning and end. Controlled liberation, liberation with a discernible limit.
Now summer is when I fall apart, when my footing slips away, when my center stops holding and I swing out, further and further out, in circles of disintegration and dissolution. I still crave the sunshine and the specifically summer way flies swarm over blades of baking grass. But now that sunshine and those flies also signal a personal paralysis that feels just as organic to the season as long weekends and folding chairs. (And there’s this: I flash to Joan Didion’s decision to leave New York for Los Angeles, enunciated in her great essay “Goodbye to All That,” about how she “could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty,” hurt the ones she loved and cried in elevators. “I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure that I understand now,” Didion wrote, “but I understood that year.” Didion was 28. So am I).
What I get now is that summer has an underbelly, the defeat that is its built-in twin. Which — Didion’s despair, my defeat — is what is missing from k.d. lang’s Invincible Summer, an album that is not simply a summer album in that it’s made for and released in summer, but a summer album in that it tries, very hard, to be summer, an album that strives to capture the archetype of summer in its sound. It is bright and buoyant at nearly every turn, and swoons with bursts of crisp air and the glow of dry, orange days.
But because lang is still new to Southern California, she has yet to realize the illusion, or better, the lie of her summer’s invincibility. She is still working with the summer of an Anglo-California myth that has since been spoiled for me — the summer that is endless, the one that has surfboards and good vibrations and harmonies that reach out for the warmth of a sun that can just as easily burn. “Sweet, sweet burn of sun and summer wind,” she sings. This is lang’s summer: She reads Camus, has flings, falls in love with an “extraordinary thing,” swims the ocean as a love metaphor, connects “the beauty of desire” to “basking in the sun.”
Invincible Summer conflates summer with the hope of love, the whim of it, the possibility of it, the healing, balmlike passion of it. And it’s hard not to join her, not to take solace in the way lang loses herself in it. In the album’s cover photograph, the sun doesn’t simply shine on her, it shines through her, its glare becoming part of her face and the shadows that obscure it. There is desperately poetic optimism here (“Only love brings you down/Only love can bring you back around”). There is blinding bliss and gushing hyperbole. She knows how silly a line like “When we collide a cannon has exploded” sounds. She doesn’t care.
I suppose there was a time when this kind of summer singing meant something to me, but not anymore. All I think of when I hear it is what it strives to ignore. That summer is also when love can die, when the person sitting next to you on the beach as fireworks fly over a seaside Ferris wheel can turn as cold as ocean water disappearing into white foam under a winter moon.
THE DANDY WARHOLS
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia (Capitol)
The Dandy Warhols
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Imagine blending the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, the Kinks, the Byrds, the Doors and, for that matter, just about every pop touchstone of the last 35 years into a seamless composite, and you have something akin to the Dandy Warhols, the smartest backward-gazing band in the world. That’s a tall order even for a self-consciously retro project, but these slacker-fabulous Portlandians wear their ’60s/’70s-radio influences as comfortably as those cherry vintage threads they score in each town along their tours.
The dull heat of spaghetti-Western trumpets in the lead single, “Godless,” sets the tone for Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, a quiveringly cinematic album larger than the sum of its psychedelic Brit Invasion parts: Guitars jangle and get strummed, drums lope and gallop lazily, while sweet organ harmonies bathe this welter of pop-culture signifiers in golden smog. Strutting Jagger-lipped and chisel-featured, Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Pete Holmström are as cocky as any self-respecting next-big-things oughta be: “I feel cool as shit cuz I got no thoughts keeping me down” (“Solid”); or cruel, with the taunt to an aging sexpot in “Horse Pills”: “He’s a Spanish fly/that bucks like a Stallion . . . butt’s getting bigger, do you think he’ll notice maybe?/That’s okay, don’t worry ’bout it, baby”), both rapped Beckishly in sleepy voices with morning cigs. Flouting the rule that no pop song should be more than five minutes long, “Mohammed,” “Nietzsche” and the angels’-choir “Sleep” actually glisten more the longer they smolder. And thanks to foxy keyboardist Zia McCabe’s synth whimsy, you can see why all those ex-Elastica and -Blur fans across the pond are digging so hard on these thrift-store fops.
There isn’t the slightest pause between any of the tracks on Thirteen Tales, just one big schmeer of good-rockin’ vibes cresting and troughing for the length of this ode to, well, hipness. Which sounds a tad gross, but dig this lyric from “Bohemian Like You”: “So what do you do?/Oh, yeah, I wait tables, too/No, I haven’t heard your band/because you guys are kinda new.” See? Coolness doesn’t have to mean coldness. (Andrew Lentz)
Serious Tam (Real World)
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There’s a story that, as a child, future singer-songwriter George Mamua Telek nibbled a sacred betel nut and bridged his dreams to the tales of his ancestors, providing the inspiration for his euphonic, mellifluous music. That might sound far-fetched, but there’s no doubting the ethereal quality of Telek’s creations. Widely respected in his native Papua New Guinea, where he represents the heritage of the Tolai culture, Telek has also toured extensively in Australia since 1990. But it wasn’t until last year that he recorded Serious Tam at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios for a debut U.S. release, collaborating with David Bridie of the now-defunct Australian band Not Drowning Waving.
The finished product establishes Telek as the Deep Forest of Papua New Guinea. Swirling vocal harmonies, traditional Tolai drums (the hourglass-shaped kundu and the wooden, oblong garamut), acoustic guitars and Telek’s own uplifting timbre forge a finely wrought synthesis of the world and pop-rock genres. The album opens with the unobtrusive rhythms of “Midal,” a sensual and charming work blended with background synth smoothers à la Brian Eno. “To Pol” and the title track sharply depart from the cool Melanesian beat the album opens with, bordering the lines of Dylan’s earthy, acoustic melodies. The most memorable interlude is the lullaby “Tolili,” a Tolai fisherman’s tune consisting solely of Telek’s kaleidoscopic voice and the sounds of the tropical forest.
Serious Tam hovers between the tranquil soundscapes of ambient music and twangy folk-rock for troubadours at heart, and is sure to propel Telek’s name beyond the coral reefs of the Pacific. Difficult to categorize, perhaps it will best be known as the uplifting album essential for your Monday-morning commute. (Melissa Chan)
Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs
With more fuzz than fuss and packing sound experiments that resemble everything from TV static to squeaky windshield wipers, Vainly Clutching is a far cry from the cuddly whimsy of last year’s A Dream in Sound. As the title suggests, this collection of early cuts is a gory, groping, delicious mess, the first dozen tracks culled from the band’s debut LP, back in ’95 (only 250 vinyl copies were pressed), and the remaining five off the previously unreleased The Winter Hawk EP.
In the grand tradition of basement pitch-benders everywhere, Elf Power prove anew that you can make a helluva lotta noise with a four-track, a six-string and a gaggle of your closest buddies. Their manner of mayhem is a bit more subdued, though, than most holey-sneakered college kids’. Layered vocals are whispered or mumbled, the sarcasm and ennui muted, the snarling amps turned down a notch. If many indie debuts resemble Jackson Pollock’s splattered extravaganzas, this one is Malevich’s Black Square, understated yet ominous — a mood evident in titles like “Slither Hither” and “Arachnid Dungeon Attack” (3.5 minutes of droning guitar dissonance). The band’s choices of cover songs are clear indications of both their lo-fi origins (a killer rendition of the Dwarves’ “Drug Store”) and their surreal, more melodic future (Robyn Hitchcock’s “Surgery”).
There are a few other hints of the Elves to come — Julian Koster (of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Music Tapes) chimes in with a Moog, and violins, flutes, organs and accordions pepper the album. But every note is filtered through the bare, defiant buzz of gritty basement blowouts, garage-sale couches and invincible youth. (Kristin Fiore)