Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (2010) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-07-17 12:31:19. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

For over a decade, Brian Burton has made it his business to strike up some of the most unique alliances between artists and genres, and the results have, to a surprising degree, been both fascinating and entertaining.

Anyone who knows music knows that one or the other is fairly simple to achieve; any project able to be described by both modifiers is impressive.

You will likely have heard of Burton by his nom de plume Danger Mouse — or perhaps, more anonymously, as one half of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, or Danger Doom.  If you are one of the few who read liner notes, then you would also recognize him as the producer of recent albums by Beck and the Black Keys, among others.

If you are reading about him here for the first time, then you will most certainly recognize him as an artist who revels in the blending of elements that otherwise wouldn’t overlap under normal circumstances.  It is his affinity for such ventures, an attribute that would, in the hands of most artists, result in a disconnected collection of tracks, that drives and distinguishes Dark Night of the Soul.

First, it should be established that this record is defined by the “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present” formula (i.e. Danger Mouse on synthesizers and other instruments and Sparklehorse’s multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous on guitars among other analog instruments).  Each track was co-written with a guest artist or band, who then sang the lead vocals.  Film maker David Lynch, who collaborated on the album as a whole, is the only guest to sing lead on more than one track.

By all rights, this should be an effort incapable of cohesion.

Instead, Dark Night of the Soul hinges not on the strength of individual tracks, but rather on the effect achieved by the whole.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

The record is a multi-faceted exploration of the darker sides of humanity and the human psyche.  The first line of the opener, “Revenge,” refers to pain as “a matter of sensation,” the singer directing his lyrics at someone who has “ways of avoiding it all.”  Several tracks later, “Pain” explores the flip side from the perspective of a man — voiced fittingly by Iggy Pop — who “must always feel pain.”

Other songs cover similar ground, notably the latter half’s “Daddy’s Gone” that serves as a thematically relevant flip-side of sorts to “Little Girl,” which came six tracks earlier.  “Insane Lullaby” asserts that “A good life will never be enough,” echoing and extending the sentiment begun earlier in “Angel’s Harp” that “Though you might be walkin’ tall, everybody got a lot to grow.”  Both of these aforementioned track titles draw on the language of soothing religious and children’s music, diction that is belied by the gloomy content of the lyrics.

The final pairing of the album, “Grim Augury” and the title track (tracks 12 and 13), present the final descent into darkness.  Vic Chesnutt’s voicing of the former is additionally haunting following the news of his suicide shortly after recording the song.  His request, then, that his “sweetie” not sing “this sad song, grim augury” seems a moot point, being as it’s an augury after-the-fact for listeners who waited until the recent official release of the album following EMI’s inter-label nonsense.

Still, Chesnutt’s song is perhaps the most dramatic track on the album, lyrically speaking, as he sings: “I was peering in through the picture window.  It was a heart-warming tableau like a Norman Rockwell painting until I zoomed in.”  The haunting scene which he sees is a bloody one and is imbued with portents of violence; up to this point there had only been emotional turmoil and less physical notions of pain.  Even “Just War” could easily be argued in a metaphoric rather than literal sense.

With Chesnutt, there is no question about the “horrible dream” and the true darkness expressed by the track.

In March of this year, four months before the official release of Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous took his own life as well, reportedly by a rifle blast to the chest.  As much as one might accept on an intellectual level that music should be taken for what it is, separate from context, it is difficult to separate the tragic deaths of Linkous and Chesnutt from their performances on this haunting release. (They are, after all, dedicated to the memory of the two artists.)

It is difficult not to listen to these recordings with a renewed sense of their depth.  To be sure, they are not all depressing, but the closest the album comes to upbeat is the reckless tone of “Everytime I’m With You” or the melancholy of “Jaykub.”

So, in the end, you get what you’re promised from the outset, from the title.  It is a bit more serious, a bit more real than most music is able to manage, and it comes at a high price.

The Weekend Review: May 2011 Report

By Chris Moore:

It has recently come to my attention that the “box” format I’ve used on all my Weekend Review posts thus far this year is somewhat incompatible with at least the iPhone Safari browser, possibly with other smart phone interfaces as well.  What was intended to provide organization and aesthetic pleasure actually ended up cutting off my words from clear view on many devices.  So, my thanks to those who pointed that out, and rest assured I’m already brainstorming a format for next year.

As it is, my Weekend Reviews have fallen by the wayside in a year that has seen a significant format change — a blending, as it were, of my full-length reviews (which were, admittedly, perhaps too long) and my “Yes, No, Maybe So” one-sentence reviews (which started out simpler, but ended up having much of the complexity of my five star scale in the full-length reviews; I also pushed the definition of “one-sentence” to the extreme).

I’m excited for the new year to come for me to rededicate myself to the new music reviews in a more manageable manner and on a more regular schedule, yet I couldn’t let the latter two-thirds of the year’s new music slip by without comment.  So, without further ado, here’s my reviews (and many they are!) for May 2011, and I’ll be back soon to squeeze in the remaining months before the end of 2011.  As you can tell, brevity is a virtue as I rush to meet the 1/1/2012 deadline, and I am all the more excited for my end-of-the-year lists, which will be unveiled throughout the first weeks of January 2012.

 

The Schnozzle Sessions (Mike Fusco)

Producer: Mike Fusco

Released: (limited edition)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “I Adore You” & “Do You Have a Sister”

Simply put, The Schnozzle Sessions oozes potential and makes a listener anxious for the blend of catchy tunes, clever and poetic lyricism, and passionate vocalizing that will surely be highlighted on Fusco’s next full studio album, a promise already made good on the “Modern-Day Pocahontas” single released this summer.

 

Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)

Producer: Phil Ek and Fleet Foxes

Released: May 3, 2011

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Helplessness Blues” & “Blue Spotted Tail”

I don’t think the Fleet Foxes are bad, I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about.  I don’t understand the Beach Boys comparisons they’ve been drawing since their breakthrough to the mainstream, a likeness clearly supportable in their lush, gorgeous multi-layered vocals, yet undeserved on the level of the song as a whole.  Fleet Foxes, like many recent bands, seem content to develop sections and lines – what Brian Wilson might have referred to as “feels” in the mid-sixties – and yet to develop no further.  There seems to be little of the creativity in composition that Wilson demonstrated early.  Of course, it was this quest for artistic development and perhaps even perfection that likely drove Wilson off the deep end, so Fleet Foxes are probably smart to keep to their formula, breaking out here and there in standouts like the poetic urgency of the title track and the understated, emotive beauty of songs like “Blue Spotted Tail.”  One might take “The Shrine / An Argument” as sign of greater aspirations, so there is indeed reason to pay hopeful attention for future developments…

I Am Very Far (Okkervil River)

Producer: Will Sheff

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “The Rise” & “Piratess”

There is something about the overall composition of I Am Very Far that smacks of two sticks struck together only a bit too slowly or at a slightly incorrect angle to achieve a spark.  Okkervil River is unsurprisingly strong in their lyricism here, very ambitious and coherent in their instrumentation, and yet something falls flat.  There is passion, but it fails to translate.  In too many places, the album falls into a march and trudges forward, having failed to achieve authentic momentum.  Still, the haunting aura of the album closer “The Rise” hangs over the whole as it fades, leaving an echo of what is possible.

 

Move Like This (The Cars)

Producer: Jacknife Lee & the Cars

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Too Late” & “Sad Song”

Having picked up this album as a passing fancy, feeling badly for how few units seemed to have moved before I found it on the CD store racks, the consistent quality of Move Like This was a pleasant surprise, a shock even.  In an odd way, the synthetic soundscape that the Cars not only rode but also helped to define over two decades ago has resurfaced and provided for this album to be released years after the band’s prime yet still sound remarkably fresh and modern.  The production quality is clear and crisp, the band keeps a fast pace, and Ric Ocasek (returning for the first time since 1988) sounds as vital as ever.

 

Give Till It’s Gone (Ben Harper)

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Don’t Give Up on Me Now” & “I Will Not Be Broken”

If anyone has been guilty of dragging out too little for too long, it is Ben Harper on this album.  Following his significant contribution to last year’s masterful Fistful of Mercy debut, Harper opens with “Don’t Give Up on Me Now,” easily the top track of the release.  However, much of the music that follows is emotive yet more than one track suffers from not knowing when to quit (“Get There From Here,” “Dirty Little Lover”), others from a whiff of autopilot (“Rock N’ Roll is Free,” “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn”), most from a feeling of drifting between the patterns of blues and its close relatives and an urge to be more.

 

Rome: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi)

Producer: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

Released: May 16, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Season’s Trees” & “Two Against One”

As a soundtrack, this album is held to a slightly different standard, one which is frankly difficult for me to calibrate, particularly without having seen the film for which it was designed.  As I had hoped for and expected, Danger Mouse’s presence is clearly felt and the songs with vocals are true gems, particularly “Season’s Trees” and “Two Against One.”  The choice of collaborators is ideal, Norah Jones taking lead on the former and ex-White Strip Jack White on the latter – both provide their unique vocal sound and distinct presence to their respective tracks, which serve to elevate Rome above background music — wonderfully quirky though that background music may otherwise be.

 

The Graduation Ceremony (Joseph Arthur)

Producer: John Alagia & Joseph Arthur

Released: May 23, 2011

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Face in the Crowd” & “This is Still My World”

Particularly in this solo release, it becomes clear just how much Joseph Arthur’s presence was felt on last year’s excellent Fistful of Mercy debut release.  Unlike his bandmate Ben Harper, who seems to delight in a mixture of electric distortion and melancholia, Arthur captures an even deeper sense of loss on this album with a much more finely wrought sense of layering that results in an apparent mastery of mood.  There is a warm, personal atmosphere about this record, one not often achieved outside a live venue, and one that benefits from a multi-layered manipulation of the studio.  The ultimate result, on superbly rendered tracks like “Horses,” is of some pleasing middle ground being achieved between the simple and the overproduced.  Adding a quasi-rock romp like “Midwest” three quarters of the way in is just one of the many winks Arthur makes, hinting at his potential while remaining in the bounds of his project, his sound.

 

Demolished Thoughts (Thurston Moore)

Producer: Beck

Released: May 24, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Benediction” & “Illuminine”

Beck’s presence in the producer’s slot should come as no surprise given the feel and sound of Demolished Thoughts, though leading off with what are arguably the two strongest tracks somehow seems a frantic, freshman move.  Still, on these two tracks alone, and certainly throughout the record, Moore makes good on the laurels he has earned as guitarist for Sonic Youth, among other side projects.  His use of orchestration to accompany him throughout creates a beautifully murky mood and often works as an intricate counterpoint to his acoustic guitar.  Still, the brilliance of “Benediction” and Illuminine” are rarely achieved again, perhaps only fully in “Mina Loy” and “January” at the close of the album.

 

Codes and Keys (Death Cab for Cutie)

Producer: Chris Walla

Released: May 31, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “You Are A Tourist” & “Stay Young, Go Dancing”

While it is pretty much par for the course for me to hate on Death Cab for Cutie, most often via less than cleverly concealed observations of their mediocrity with relation to the praise they invariably receive, and while I initially lumped Codes and Keys in with the bulk of their catalog, I would be remiss if I did not admit that this latest album has softened my typical stance.  There is a certain mastery of atmosphere, a blend of guitars, still prominent in the mixes, with the other, more typical keyboard-based instrumentation of experimentation.  Perhaps their strongest product since Transatlanticism, Codes and Keys consistently maintains a clarity of purpose that is admirable, each track contributing to a sort of unity of effect.  You won’t find me helping to hoist it onto the “Best Album” bandwagon, but I won’t be kicking it off into the ditch either.

 

Ukulele Songs (Eddie Vedder)

Producer: Adam Kasper & Eddie Vedder

Released: May 31, 2011

Rating: 3/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:

Allow me to begin by expounding on my respect for Eddie Vedder both as a performer and as a presence.  If anyone can pull off an album of solo ukulele songs, it is Eddie Vedder.  Of course, had anyone predicted twenty years ago that he would actually put out such a record, most would have laughed.  Or spat.  However, here we are two decades post-Ten and scanning through a 16-track, one-man-ukulele-band album heavily weighted with Vedder-penned tracks, and hardly a Pearl Jam cover among them.  While there was a sort of artistry to the Into the Wild soundtrack, Vedder’s first solo release, that is lacking here, there is also a sense of ownership lacking from that effort that oozes forth here.  It’s hardly the first disc that comes to mind when I get in the car, Ukulele Songs is a stark yet striking effort that fits in just right in the fading twilight of a weekend evening.