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Elk Lake Serenade

This just in: Hayden Still Really Bummed Out.

It's been a decade since Canada's premier mopester was discovered gigging in tiny Toronto clubs by fellow Canuck Neil Young, and though Hayden's sound has become more polished and sure over the years, the message is pretty much the same: Life Is Difficult.

Hayden's life probably more so than the average person's, peopled as it is with ex-lovers, lovers soon to be ex-lovers, lovers who become ex-lovers and then get mauled to death by bears, strangers who are not lovers but nevertheless die in car wrecks, displaced ghosts who would probably like to be lovers get the drift.

Thankfully, Hayden's got a gift for writing pretty songs. His hoarse, quavering voice and compelling, minor-key stories recall the hushed intimacy of a Nick Drake or Damien Jurado. And, like those songwriting touchstones, Hayden's subject matter ain't for the faint.

On Elk Lake Serenade, Hayden examines the sadly transitory nature of love on songs like "Wide Eyes," "Robbed Blind," and "Bearkill" (yup, that's the one with the mauled ex), before switching his attention to the all-too-permanent nature of death on "This Summer," "1939," and "Looking Back to Me."

Heavy stuff, but it's the delivery that leaves an impression. Acoustic guitars form gentle trellises upon which some of Hayden's friends -- among them, Howie Beck (drums), Julie Doiron (vocals), Bryden Baird (trumpet), and Steve Briggs (guitars) -- adorn accents that elevate the songs past the usual fey folkster crud.

Ironically, it's two of the disc's rare upbeat songs -- the insatiably catchy "Hollywood Ending" and the jounce-y homily "Don't Get Down" -- that keep the disc from drowning a listener in a flood of tears. Located at tracks #5 and #10, respectively, each tune serves as an island oasis in an otherwise unrelenting sea of well-wrought misery.

Yet it's those songs that make one wonder what a slightly less-tragic Hayden record would sound like -- but then that wouldn't be Hayden, now would it?

Track to Burn: "Hollywood Ending"
Grade: B --John Schacht

Jim White
Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See
Luaka Bop

Jim White has always defied the Southern gothic/Americana label that he's been saddled with. White's real strength has always been writing hypnotic songs about the struggles of the psyche. Drill A Hole... is White's third and most fully realized project to date. With the help of Joe Henry (who produces), Aimee Mann, M. Ward and even the Barenaked Ladies, White's created a piece that channels a Mule Variations-era Tom Waits writing an opera based on the short stories of Larry Brown. And when it works, oh, how it works. The delicate waltz "That Girl From Brownsville Texas" is a drunken prayer from a suitor who fears he may not be good enough for his beloved. The opener, "Static On The Radio," is a rambling study in confusion and discontent that benefits greatly from Aimee Mann's airy chorus. "Phone Booth In Heaven" is equal parts hopeful and frightened love song to the mother of White's young daughter played over seaside samples and lullabies. At times almost uncomfortably personal and yet somehow always universal, White is unflinching in his attempts to figure out what makes life worth living. Frailty and uncertainty rarely sound this enticing.

Track to Burn: "That Girl from Brownsville Texas"
Grade: A- --Tara E. Flanagan

Five Eight
Five Eight

In 1994, Five Eight was on top of their game. They had released three albums and two cassettes in six years, and had just put out Weirdo, their best album, whose title track was a perfect epithet for singer/guitarist Mike Mantione. His high-pitched vocals and confessional lyrics of tortured self-examination presaged emo by a half-dozen years, riding a dark melodic roar reminiscent of Superchunk on a Birthday Party death trip.

Ten years and only two albums later, Five Eight finally picks up where they left off, with their tightest, most visceral set of songs ever. Without toning down the self-flagellation that drives the lyricism, Mantione displays a measure of perspective that leavens his dark tone. An "accidental concept album," it opens with "Criminal," a parable about a car accident, tracing the vertiginous way what we fear perversely draws us closer. Closing with the line "so deeply scared of dying that we die," it's followed by the punchy pop of "I'm Still Around," which surveys the wreckage he never expected to survive, and then rumbling rocker "Magnetic Fields," which acknowledges "I can't hide from myself." Thus unfolds a cycle of songs dealing with alcoholism ("The Liquor Song"), being a 40-year-old rocker ("Square Peg", "Guitar") and the end of his marriage ("Lousy Decision," "Bad For Us").

The album rocks as hard as prior releases, but there's a crispness and precision that's heretofore been missing. Rarely do bands create their best work fifteen years in, but Mantione's always been the type you picture as the lead in The Tin Drum, and in continuing to bang around, he's finally hit the perfect chord.

Track to Burn: "Criminal"
Grade: A- --Chris Parker

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