The Last Dog and Pony Show
With enough sweet hooks to gaff a pod of whales, The Last Dog and Pony Show delivers everything that a clever record should. Unlike Peter Murphy and Morrissey, two other cutting-edge lead singers whose work since leaving their groundbreaking Eighties groups has consisted mainly of watered-down drivel, Mould is operating at the top of his form. His latest demonstrates that there were indeed truly great pop songs in the making buried beneath the sonic maelstrom that was HYsker DY and that he's now mature enough to completely flesh them out. While putting his own spin on everyday problems, he avoids the trite trappings of so-called alterna-pop bands such as Matchbox 20. His songs don't insult your intelligence; they reward it.
Mould's most recent tour was reportedly his last to be built around the sound of an electric guitar, but there's no need to worry: "New #1," a stunning opener highlighted by an unplugged twelve-string and a beautiful cello, bodes well for the future. An acoustic is also in the forefront of "Vaporub," a superb tale about an imperfect man ("Now the smell of Vaporub comes over me/All the shame of weakness builds again/Rules and expectations I can't follow anymore/I became the person that I am"). On the rollicking "First Drag of the Day," meanwhile, Mould combines an organ with his guitar to come up with a pleasing Sugar-esque ditty.
Not everything follows a predictable formula. "Megamanic," for instance, is a hysterical attempt at Massive Attack-style trip-hop that can be appreciated for its eccentricity alone. But the closing effort, "Along the Way," finds Mould making the most of his well-established strengths. A companion piece to "New #1," the composition allows Mould to examine the traps into which people in flawed relationships can easily fall ("Bullshitting me, bullshitting you/To the point where no one cares/With everything so far away from where it ought to be/I guess it's safer there"). Time has not tempered his ability to make substantial music with meaningful lyrics; it has merely mellowed the dislocated guitar-rock sound that reached its apogee on Black Sheets of Rain. With The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould delivers a recording that should fill many a mainstream pop band with jealousy, proving in the process that the candle that burns twice as bright can burn twice as long.
On her third album, this reputed hometown favorite of Chicago cabarets provides background soundage that's almost nice enough to do nightcap duty at a post-industrial art space. She offers versions of the Tom Jones hit "She's a Lady" (without a gender change) and the Doors' "Light My Fire" (sans the organ; it's really funny), and her own pop-culture lyrics display the kind of wit that makes for a nice fit with the lounge genre. So, too, do the bass-drums-guitars-keyboards textures heard throughout her jazz-turned-art songs, which pit velvety studio spaciness against equally velvety dissonance. (There's also an admittedly pretty chorale Barber imported to sing some beloved e.e. cummings lines.) But even though these qualities should add up to a terrific album, they don't quite. Barber's forgettable melodies aren't helped by the singing those Chicagoans pay to hear: Her voice has huskiness and agility, but her affected groans and drawn-out phrases aren't so much dark as artificially tanned. I can't tell if she's trying to attract members of the cigar-and-martini set or put them on.
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Devotion & Doubt, Buckner's 1997 masterpiece, turned up on many critics' best-of-the-year lists, and with good reason: The singer-songwriter's sparse but hefty compositions were literate and elemental yet accessible. Moreover, his examination of his own cyclical romances regularly hit upon universal truths, and his ability to find redemption in loss proved to be quietly inspiring. The pedal-steel flourishes he added for emphasis clinched the deal, making Devotion the type of album that caused some listeners to cry in their beers and others to pull themselves together long enough to give it another spin.
In many respects, Since, Buckner's latest, is a very different recording, if only because he's surrounded himself with a full band and adhered to more conventional song structures. Fortunately, the new album shares with its predecessor a handful of themes and a high level of quality. Guest luminaries such as Tortoise drummer John McEntire and Son Volt pedal-steel guitarist Eric Haywood don't undercut Buckner's songs; rather, they allow him to broaden his musical range. Electric-guitar-driven songs such as "Believer" and "Jewelbomb" are just as carefully crafted as his previous efforts, but they sport a newfound sense of urgency. Likewise, "The Ocean Cliff Clearing" and "Once" delve deeply into matters of the heart even though they're far removed from the whisper-thin confessionals that dominate Devotion. Buckner's convictions seem firmer than before, and his conclusions are far less dour. The propulsive "Goner w/Souvenir" is downright uplifting, while "Slept" delivers hope along with the strains of a delicate, melancholy acoustic guitar.
If there's a knock against Buckner, it's that he's sometimes too acutely aware of his own suffering--a trait that would be cloying in the hands of a lesser artist. However, Since proves for the second consecutive time that he's capable of making people care about his pain.