Saturday, December 18, 2010
Album Review: John Grant - Queen of Denmark (4.5/5)
I was going to include this album in the article I wrote this week about releases from earlier this year, but since it's so good, I decided it deserved its own review. I'd never heard of John Grant until a couple weeks ago when his solo debut, Queen of Denmark, topped Mojo's list of the best albums of the year and also made Q Magazine's top 10.
In interviews, Grant has talked about how personal this album is, delving into the dark corners of his youth and early adulthood to weave songs of gorgeous sadness touching on topics like the difficulty of growing up gay in a homophobic environment and falling in love and having it not work out. In this vein, the album delivers its riches songs. "TC and Honeybear" is a folksy sweet love story, but punches with forceful longing near the end when it appears the title characters will be separated. There's no such will on "Where Dreams Go to Die," where unrequited love leads to resignation or, in the case of the gently tuneful "It's Easier," self delusion as a form of emotional armor. "Caramel" is the only love song that seems to end happily; the respite is brief, for it's followed by "Leopard and Lamb," another lovely downer.
The album isn't purely about heartbreak though, and Grant shows he has a sense of humor too. He titles a song about being an outsider after one of my favorite actresses, "Sigourney Weaver," drawing on her famed turn as Ellen Ripley, always on the run from the aliens. He also name-checks Winona Ryder and "that other guy" from her vampire film, presumably Keanu Reeves, as an opportunity to make fun of their accents in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Quirky "Chicken Bones" has prickly lyrics, but its anger is tempered by its jaunty tune and off-kilter metaphors ("I'm about to explode just like a Wonder Bread bomb"). The persnickety track would be at home on a Scissor Sisters album if its tempo was a little faster. It's followed by another lively piano-backed track, "Silver Platter Club," where he takes a swipe at privileged class who get everything handed to them. His sharpest daggers come out on "Jesus Hates F****ts," during which he rails against all sorts of things that piss him off.
Musically, the arrangements evoke early '70s pop with lots of piano, guitar and string coming together to form strong, nostalgic melodies. Credit for that goes to Midlake, the Texan folk-rock group that is the backing band for this album. They provide an emotional heart to all the songs, even when Grant is singing about seemingly ridiculous things, like extra-terrestrials on "Outer Space," which features era-appropriate synthesizers. Their sense of melody is put to best use on "Marz," my favorite track. The song uses a tune of cinematic scope to pine for the lost innocence of childhood through the metaphor of a candy store Grant frequented as a little boy.
Queen of Denmark is a promising solo turn from an artist taking a new direction after the breakup of his band, The Czars. Importantly, Grant has a great voice--deep and expressive, it just draws you in. He's also willing to be deeply personal in his lyrics. Judging from what he's revealed here, he's got quite a few more stories to share. Whether they continue to have this dark edge or be a little happier, I'm hopeful they will be just as beautiful.
Best: Marz, Sigourney Weaver, TC and Honeybear, Outer Space, Where Dreams Go to Die, It's Easier
Midlake - The Courage of Others (3/5)
Midlake, the backing band for John Grant's Queen of Denmark, is a band in their own right, having released several albums in the last few years. The Courage of Others is their third such outing, an album of lovely melancholy, although not as interesting lyrically as Grant's album. Their acoustic sound and harmonized vocals come together best on "Rulers, Ruling All Things," a definite highlight of the quieter material, growing a bit more robust for its choruses. I also like "Bring Down," which features female vocalist Stephanie Dosen, and while its hardly a love duet (it's rather funereal in its gloom), it's another particularly lovely song. "Small Mountain" gets a bit punchier with its prominent bass line, "Children of the Grounds" has a little more tempo and "The Horn" includes electric guitar, one of the few plugged in instruments. But essentially, the album is folk music for the granola-loving set on a cloudy, rainy day. "Core of Nature" discusses walking through the woods and all sorts of natural metaphors, as if it wasn't clear that was what they were going for here. Best: Rulers Ruling All Things, Bring Down