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By Stewart Mason

JULY 20, 1998: 

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The Divine Comedy Casanova (Setanta/Epic)

It starts with the cover. Note singer/songwriter Neil Hannon's wardrobe: leisure suit with collar points parallel to the ground, patterned scarf knotted rakishly around his pasty English neck, shades, ciggie, razor-cut hair, fashionably unshaven. He looks ... well, he looks a right prat, frankly. But dammit, he looks like a prat with a personal aesthetic!

That kinda sums up the Divine Comedy. Like Hannon's obvious hero, late-'60s art-pop weirdo Scott Walker, Hannon has cringeworthy elements, notably his insistence on appearing stylishly decadent: "Something for the Weekend" takes its title from the old British euphemism for buying condoms, while "Becoming More Like Alfie" namechecks the classic 1966 Michael Caine movie about an amoral London swinger. But there's something sorta, well, sweet, about this nostalgie de la boue.

Besides, Hannon's sense of humor saves even his most potentially embarrassing moments: "Weekend" is actually a shaggy-dog story about a couple in bed arguing about a noise downstairs. At the very end of the song, Hannon casually sings, almost as an afterthought, "He went down to the woodshed/They came down hard on his head/Gagged and bound and left for dead/When he woke she was gone with his car and all of his money."

Musically, Casanova is luscious, dripping with orchestral arrangements, female choruses and Broadway-style melodies--"Charge," in fact, cribs a fair bit from The Sound of Music. It is so gorgeous that you can ignore Hannon's lyrical and conceptual pose entirely and just luxuriate in the velvety lushness of it all. It'd still be a wonderful musical experience, but half the fun of Casanova is sitting curled up on the couch with the lyric booklet and a cup of tea playing Spot The Obscure Pop Culture Reference and occasionally saying "Oh, for godsakes" at a couplet like "I come and go through people's love lives/Your place or mine?" Neil Hannon obviously fancies himself quite the charming rogue--the surprising part is how often he's right. !!!!

The Spinanes Arches and Aisles (Sub Pop)

For the Spinanes' third album (the first without half the original duo, drummer Scott Plouf), sole official band member Rebecca Gates did the smart thing. Rather than follow in the minimalist footsteps of 1993's guitar-and-drums Manos and 1996's marginally more fleshed-out Strand, the Portland native (now a Chicagoan) has surrounded herself with a loose-knit group of collaborators to make a full-fledged pop album.

It's a good idea partially because a third album of bare-bones indie pop would sound more like a rut than an artistic statement, but mostly because Gates' new songs are her most subtle and varied yet. The opening "Kid In Candy," with its lush arrangement complete with synthesized strings, and the stunning guitar-and-bass-only "Heisman Stance," which closes the record, only barely resemble each other. Gates' cool, near-husky voice is the main (and sometimes the only) connecting thread through these 11 songs.

Recorded in those twin hotbeds of American indie coolness, lo-fi headquarters Easley Recording in Memphis (The Grifters, Jeff Buckley) and John McEntire's pristine SOMA Electronic Music Studios in Chicago (Tortoise, Stereolab and related projects), Arches and Aisles bridges the gap between funkiness and clinical precision the two studios suggest. The album's actually not lo-fi in the least, but neither is it radio-ready slick; odd noises pop up at unexpected moments, and songs begin and end with barely audible conversation. Meanwhile, in songs like "Kid In Candy" and "Love, the Lazee," McEntire's trademark burbling electronics nicely underpin the guitar pop.

As on previous albums, Gates' elliptical lyrics don't usually add up to anything, though occasional phrases strike your ear and titles like "Slide Your Ass" certainly sound evocative enough. The Sea and Cake's Sam Prekop sings contrapuntal lead on the album's most assertive track, "Reach vs. Speed," making the lyrics that much harder to get a handle on. Still, it's one of the best songs on the album. Gates should duet more often--she has one of those voices that blends well with others. In fact, "plays well with others" is the comment I'd make on this album's report card. Gates should have branched out like this before. !!!!

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