by Jeremy Griffin
A review of Bob Schneider’s Burden of Proof
Bob Schneider is tricky. It always seems like the Austin-based songwriter’s best stuff occurs when he’s trying not to be serious. His first album Loneyland is rife with moments like this, instances of tongue-in-cheek silliness that resonate with a peculiar sort of elegance, as is 2006′s Californian and many of his live recordings. Ironically, the times in which Schneider actively strives for meaningfulness tend to result in tunes that are so-so at best. Unfortunately, Burden of Proof is one of the latter.
The songs here aren’t altogether bad, they’re just, well, sort of forgettable. Laden with moody strings–courtesy of the Tosca String Quartet–and minimalist synth beats, the album aspires for a kind of depth that just doesn’t seem to come naturally to Schneider. The opening track “Digging for Icicles” sets a somber tone. The tone isn’t a bad thing in itself, except that its complete bereft of Schneider’s trademark wit and I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think-of-me attitude. Thankfully, we do get a bit of this on tracks like “Wish the Wind Would Blow Me,” a quiet, whimsical love ballad, and “Unpromised Land,” a rollicking testament to youthfulness. This is really the high point of the album; it’s Schneider’s comfort zone, braying hoarsely at the top of his lungs over grinding guitars: “Those freaks you dig/ the ones you call your friends/ the ones who just don’t know/ when the party should end./ They can go to hell./ They can fuck right off./ I mean, Jesus Christ/ haven’t you had enough? Moments like this it’s easy to tell that Schneider is enjoying himself, which has made so much of his previous work so much fun.
Beyond this, however, the album drags. Slow and mournful don’t come easy to Schneider, and I’m not suggesting that he can’t pull it off or that, worse yet, he has some obligation to stick with the “fun” stuff. It’s just that Burden of Proof seems too tidy, too neat and polished to leave an impression. Schneider has no problem pouring his heart out, and there a few very stirring moments on this album, but not enough to elevate it beyond something backgroundish–quaint and enjoyable but ultimately subpar.
A review of Gregory Alan Isakov’s The Weatherman
I don’t actually remember how I came across this guy, only that once I did I was baffled that I hadn’t heard of him sooner. The fifth album from the South African singer-songwriter, Isakov’s The Weatherman is at once gorgeous and heartbreaking, a collection of stunningly beautiful tunes from a remarkably talented artist.
Now, let me be clear: I’m using that word “indie” begrudgingly because, frankly, I hate the term, its ubiquity, the beyond-reproach way it is applied to music that people either don’t know how to review or are too afraid to do so. In the case of The Weatherman, however, it’s applicable: the album was produced and recorded by Isakov himself using outdated analog equipment that lends the album a haunting, echoey resonance. And yes, I realize this isn’t a new thing, this circa early 70s hyper-reverbing you hear in most “indie” music (just like the artist’s Depression-era Dustbowl farmer aesthetic [*eye roll*), but it just somehow works here.
Part of it is the simplicity of the songs: stripped-down and unassuming, most of them follow a charming waltzy rhythm that elevates them (slightly) beyond the typical sad-bastard pace of most indie rock. The album is rich with banjo, guitar, and mandolin strings, all of them complimenting each other, creating a soft, wistful atmosphere. Isakov seems especially interested in the artistic qualities of memory, the ways in which we choose to remember the past, how sometimes it’s even better than the events to which it corresponds, because we can’t change them but we can change the way we remember them. We can reimagine them, we can streamline them through hindsight. Consider the lyrics to “Saint Valentine”:
well, Grace she’s gone, she’s a half-written poem
she went out for cigarettes and never came home
and I swallowed the sun and screamed and wailed
straight down to the dirt so I could find her trail
spread out across the Great Divide
To Isakov, the act of remembering seems poignant and powerful because, I think, that’s really what everything comes down to, a memory. The Weatherman acknowledges loss after the fact, exalting the past rather than mourning it. It’s a heartfelt collection of songs, well-crafted, infinitely listenable.