FAO#21: Spiral Stairs, Lou Barlow, Grant Hart & Jim O’Rourke

fao With some notable exceptions, few long-serving artists can keep going the distance without breaking free from established career patterns.  Whether it is leaving a formative band, moving far away from a milestone album or an influential sound, to sustain creativity for the long-haul musicians have to forge new paths, even if it alienates inherited fan-bases, leads to unhelpful backwards comparisons and means that the same peaks are never reached again.

To paraphrase the peripatetic and late Lee Hazlewood, if you stay too long in the same old place you’ll never get a chance to ride.  And ride on these four following artists have certainly tried to do, even with the baggage of the backstories and parallel commitments forever weighing them down…

Spiral StairsThe Real Feel (Matador/Domino, CD/vinyl 12″ +7”/download)

Spiral Stairs - The Real Feel

Spiral Stairs - The Real Feel

As the second and only occasional singer in the soon-to-reform-on-stage Pavement, Scott Kannberg (AKA Spiral Stairs) has always found it hard to assert himself against his on/off/on again foil Stephen Malkmus.  Even though his first two solo-based albums under the Preston School Of Industry pseudonym were arguably stronger than the debut and sophomore efforts of The Jicks-assisted Malkmus, Kannberg sunk into the shadows, presumed retired until a Pavement reunion finally became too financially enticing to resist.  But just before the latter was recently announced, along came the delivery of this much belated third solo affair under (nearly) his own name.  But whereas Malkmus finally found proper post-Pavement feet with his third LP, Face The Truth, and last year’s jammy Real Emotional Trash, Kannberg seems to have retreated from the soaring melodies and warmth of 2001’s All This Sounds Gas and 2004’s Wilco-aided Monsoon.

Even though all the same ingredients are here – the slurry Americanised Mark E. Smith vocals, the R.E.M.-meets-The Cure guitars and the stompy Pavement-indebted drums – the once thick hearty soup now too often congeals into a stodgy stew.  Whilst the opening “True Love,” with its butch six-string swagger and impassioned vocals, is an arresting start, the omnipresent mid-tempo torpor soon slumps in with the plodding Bunnymen-aping “Call The Ceasefire.”  Whilst balmy backing vocals and bucolic strings elevate the ensuing “Cold Change,” the sludgy “Subiaco Shuffle” and the gloomy “Wharf-Hand Blues” brings things down again.  Although the almost jaunty “Maltese T” flashes up some welcome Brighten The Corners-era Pavementisms, the rest of the album sees no real recovery through the countrified “A Mighty Mighty Fall,” the ugly hardcore of “Stolen Pills,” the 17-second instrumental doodling title-track and the closing overlong prowling of “Blood Money.”  So, while the Preston School Of Industry platters seemed to prove that Scott Kannberg didn’t need Malkmus or the rest of his erstwhile Pavement partners, here on The Real Feel, such assumptions are sadly torn and frayed.  So the upcoming bank-account-inflating invitation to Pavement gigging almost certainly came at the right time.

Lou BarlowGoodnight Unknown (Merge/Domino, CD/vinyl/download)

Lou Barlow - Goodnight Unknown

Lou Barlow - Goodnight Unknown

Having finally hit some overdue paydirt in the reunified Dinosaur Jr. over the last few years, you could have understandably expected Lou Barlow to have let his solo work sit on the backburner.  But ever the restless prolific self-contained songwriter, we should have known that one or two songs on a J Mascis-dominated Dino record wouldn’t suffice for the man behind Sebadoh, Sentridoh and The Folk Implosion.  So along comes the belated follow-up to 2005’s domesticated Emoh solo LP to clear the compositional backlog.  Initially, compared to its carefully considered predecessor, Goodnight Unknown sounds like a scrappier and more rushed affair, especially with the toploaded vintage college-rock introductions of “Sharing” and the titular-song.  But with repeat spins, beginning on the dreamy third track, “Too Much Freedom,” Goodnight Unknown gradually reveals itself to be another low-key Lou Barlow delight.  Rolling back and forth between delicate acoustic ballads (like the spine-tingling “The One I Call” and the tender “Take Advantage”), the rhythmically-fluid electro-organics of Folk Implosion (the rubbery “Gravitate” and the shimmering “I’m Thinking…”) and the occasional ball of fuzz (“One Machine, One Long Fight”), Goodnight Unknown captures Barlow in a reinvigorated and contagious mood, that makes the long wait for a deluxe reissue of Sebadoh’s seminal Bakesale much more bearable.  Sure, the collection could have been cut to a slimmer 10 instead of 14-song sequence, but at this stage in his journey, Lou Barlow has earned the right to a little self-indulgence and some indifference to compromise.

Grant HartHot Wax (Con D’Or/MVD Audio, CD/vinyl/download)

Grant Hart - Hot Wax

Grant Hart - Hot Wax

Since the bloody dissolution of Hüsker Dü in 1987, singing-songwriting drummer Grant Hart has never had it easy.  Hart’s post-Dü path (under his own name and with the short-lived Nova Mob) has been overshadowed by the commercial and critical successes of his erstwhile bandmate Bob Mould (especially with the unit-shifting Sugar), dogged by music press ambivalence and frustrated by ill-fated record label arrangements that have left most of his solo repertoire out-of-print.  Yet slowly it seems, the tide is finally returning to pick Hart up again; with likes of The Hold Steady and The Foo Fighters having both openly acknowledged his influence (with the latter covering his Dü classic “Never Talking To You Again” in concert), slow positive reappraisal of his early solo wares (especially 1989’s one-man Intolerance and Nova Mob’s ambitious 1991 concept LP, The Last Days Of Pompeii), the promise of some retooled reissues, some better organised touring in the pipeline and a one-off live rapprochement with Bob Mould at a medical fundraising show for Soul Asylum’s now-departed Karl Mueller.  The much-delayed Hot Wax therefore has much greater chance of pulling Hart out for some constructive rehabilitation.

Even though it’s not quite the earth-shattering creative rebirth loyal fans might have wished for, Hot Wax is still a creditable return-to-form after 1999’s flawed and murkily-produced Good News For Modern Man. Recorded in Minneapolis and Montreal, with some unexpected help from members of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Silver Mt. Zion and Rank Strangers, Hot Wax is a fertile mix of raggedness and richness, revisiting the garage-rock passages within Intolerance whilst reaching into more beatific baroque-pop terrains.  From the former strand, the results are a tad lopsided.  So whereas the MC5-meets-VU chug-rock of “You’re The Reflection Of The Moon On The Water,” “California Zephyr” and “Sailor Jack” are convincingly energized, the careening “Narcissus Narcissus” and “My Regrets” are over-egged and let-down by rawness turning to sloppiness.  Hart performs better on the ballads overall, where his weathered and torn tones appear less strained and more warming.  The rueful “Schoolbuses Are For Children” feels like a less overwrought and wiser sequel to “No Promise Have I Made” (from Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey); the Weimar Republic waltzing of “I Knew All About You Since Then” is a fleeting yet enduring curveball; and the delightful harmony ‘n’ horn-drenched “Barbara” could happily be mistaken for a lost late-‘60s collaboration between The Beach Boys and The Beatles.  Ultimately, as with his seemingly disorganised approach to business affairs, Hart could have done with a little more benevolent patriarchal direction on Hot Wax from a solid but not overbearing producer, to help apply a little more finesse and ramp up the stronger sides of his talents.  Hopefully this long-player should at least be enough to get Grant Hart back to loving ears that might spark a fuller re-blooming next time around.  For now, it’s just nice to have him back in circulation.

Jim O’RourkeThe Visitor (Drag City, CD/vinyl/download)

Jim O'Rourke - The Visitor

Jim O'Rourke - The Visitor

Whilst all of the above have, to varying degrees, fought hard to dodge being cross-referenced with their past, present and future commitments, Jim O’Rourke has seemingly sought to hide away his idiosyncratic individual gifts amongst the company of others.  With the acclaim and attention advanced to him on back of the art-pop masterpiece Eureka (1999), the twisted electro-acoustic misanthropy of the Halfway To A Threeway EP (also 1999) and the mischievous blues-rock twists of Insignificance (2001), O’Rourke’s role as a kingpin producer and sometime member of Gastr Del Sol was subsumed into his colourful biography.  But apparently uncomfortable with the solo spotlight, O’Rourke cut back on his own music in favour of more covert employment working with Wilco, as one-third of overlooked Wilco spin-off Loose Fur, as a temporary fifth member of Sonic Youth and strangest of all, a musical consultant on Jack Black’s School Of Rock flick.  Finally returning now, with his first proper and widely-available solo album for the best part of a decade, O’Rourke hasn’t, as half-promised/half-hoped-for, cut Eureka – Part II. Instead he’s effectively given us a less demonstrative sequel to 1997’s wordless masterstroke, Bad Timing. But in true perverse O’Rourke fashion, instead of the four-separate lengthy pieces of Bad Timing, he’s gone for a one-track all-or-nothing 38-minute conception.

Despite the fact that the piece is split into several distinctive movements, O’Rourke has forced us to listen to him on his terms only, with a non-negotiable continuity that is both brave and refreshing.  Thankfully however, it’s largely worth the time and effort involved.  Picking his way through John Fahey-like meditations, folk-baroque, banjo-adjoined electronics, Steve Reich-style minimalism and repetition, skeletal freeform jazz, eerie progtronica and Eno-like ambience, O’Rourke may have covered a lot of his favourite and familiar vocal-less territories once more but no-one does it quite as well as he can.  Although even lovers of Bad Timing may struggle to assimilate it all over several sittings, The Visitor is still a rewarding and strange trip for Jim O’Rourke fans that never seems to follow the same route twice, no matter how many times you play it trying to find its final destination.