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Thursday, May 12, 2005 12:13 pm

sound patrol 5-12-05

Master mumbler makes magnificent music

art2078
South San Gabriel The Carlton Chronicles: Not until the Operation’s Through (Misra)

Will Johnson is the indie-rock equivalent of Joyce Carol Oates, cranking out a seemingly endless supply of songs for his various musical personae: cerebral head-bangers for Centro-matic, rawboned alt-folk for his solo ventures, and delirious countrified pop for South San Gabriel, a band that comprises all four members of Centro-matic plus a rotating cast of guest musicians. As with Oates, the quality of Johnson’s work is so consistently excellent that it seems petty to carp about his prodigious output: Although keeping up is sometimes a challenge, the rewards are rich for those who bother.

The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation’s Through, the third SSG release, is no exception — at least in sonic terms. Thematically, however, it’s something of a risk: a song cycle from the point of view of a sick cat, the titular Carlton, whose delights and misadventures are elliptically recounted over the course of the CD’s nine tracks. If you ask me or my kitty-daddy, there can never be too many songs about cats (discounting dumb rockabilly slang and euphemisms for female genitalia, of course). But if you’re one of those sorry ailurophobes who can’t appreciate the finer points of feline consciousness, never fear, because the concept isn’t something that you could possibly divine without a lyric sheet. Johnson is a master mumbler — imagine a Murmur-era Michael Stipe with a mouth full of cough syrup and a head full of codeine — and the few decipherable lines that emerge are oblique and evocative enough to apply to almost anyone or anything.

Ultimately, the success of the album depends on the music, which, true to form, is unremittingly gorgeous. Johnson and his compatriots lay out iridescent doper vistas glimmering with pedal-steel guitars, banjos, vibraphones, organs, synths, multitracked vocal harmonies, and stray bursts of Zuma-worthy feedback. Despite the layers of instrumentation, producer/engineer (and drummer extraordinaire) Matt Pence keeps the feel spacious and loose, with a trippy lucidity that makes Johnson’s gnomic wordplay seem profound even at its most impenetrable.

Make no mistake: Nouvelle Vague is a gimmick, but, as gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one. French DJ/producer/multiinstrumentalists Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux took 14 songs from the late-’70s/early-’80s postpunk canon, tricked them out with bossa nova arrangements, and turned them over to a bunch of sweet-throated Eurobabes who, if the press kit is to be believed, had never heard the originals. As fate would have it, nouvelle vague and bossa nova both mean “new wave,” although the Portuguese term refers not to skinny ties and such but to a distinctively Brazilian genre that combines gentle tropical rhythms, melancholy lyrics, and early-’60s West Coast jazz progressions. With her wispy voice, languid phrasing, and ingenuous good looks, Astrud Gilberto was the anti-diva who epitomized this aesthetic; Nouvelle Vague’s eight rotating lead vocalists (only one of whom is actually Brazilian) are all heavily in her debt.

Obviously the recontextualization changes everything, and not always for the better. In its original incarnation, the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” is a dub-drenched, punk-powered paean to class warfare. Nouvelle Vague’s rendition, by contrast, is merely pleasant in a lobotomized-sex-kitten kind of way. The cover of XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” is more successful; its wistful melody underscores the cynical lyrics instead of defanging them. Best of all, though, is the cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk Too F**k,” wherein French chanteuse Camille giggles and slurs her way through a litany of filth, transforming the frenetic self-loathing of the SoCal hardcore staple into something that’s sexy and playful, not just horny and dumb.

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