Monday, January 15, 2007

Cat Power: Yusuf's An Other Cup

Writing reviews is tricky. While I’d like to be as objective as possible, it’s impossible to take a convincing stance without resorting to my own tastes, at least to some degree. As always, I try to be as open-minded as possible, but as with all criticism, take it with a grain of salt.

I was sent Yusuf’s An Other Cup by Amy and Steve from Buzztone, and I’d like to thank them for their patience, professionalism and, of course, the album. To be frank, I would not have picked it up on my own. Yusuf, better known as Cat Stevens, occupies a hazy stratosphere, legendary status in the musical world, one that's really quite disparate from my more obscure tastes (I suppose that's what we call another disclaimer). While he hit his peak in the 1970s, Yusuf remains an icon. Even if I had not been made aware of the album, I probably would have some vague sense of its release. Not only did he garner a high profile appearance on KCRW, but the video for "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" was playing on the Italian music channels in Florence (pictures upcoming), and a browse through a music store the other day revealed that the album is #65 on whatever arbitrary sales chart was used. And yet, there's comparatively minimal noise (or more accurately, hype) in the environment that I frequent.

There's undoubtedly a generation gap, but it seems that an aura of past success has little worth in the new musical landscape. Again, this is a product of perspective, but it seems that with the advent of internet music saturation, there are no universally "essential" artists, but any staples are derived esoterically. It's been said that some of these songs sound like the Cat Stevens of yore, and while this may appeal to existing fans, it's a bit insignificant for the newcomer. But more important than nostalgia, or criticism for that matter, is the matter of taste. Yusuf possesses a warm, comforting voice, which is complemented nicely by acoustic guitar, and should appeal to those who enjoy their singing-songwriting with a healthy dose of twang. But while I can overcome the absence of a pretty female vocal and synthesizer, what strikes me is a lack of tension. While Yusuf’s philanthropic contributions should not be lessened, complacency exists within the album.

While it may seem unfair to have heightened expectations from singer-songwriter types while praising, say, ambient techno in its cold, detached form, this distinction arises from the artist. As with most of his peers, Yusuf uses songwriting as the foundation for his craft, and any attempts to analyze his work must inevitably reference lyrics. As I’m generally not fixated on this aspect of music (after all, I’m a big proponent of electronica and shoegaze), this incompatibility has definitely lessened my appreciation of the album. This is not necessarily a deathblow to all enjoyment, but when the music is taken without considering literary aspects, it seeps into the generic.

However, even the lyrics do little to redeem the work for me. Again, there’s no real conflict to get excited about. An Other Cup seeks universality by adopting a sunny outlook, religious in origin but with broad references easily adopted by any sect. There’s nothing wrong with optimism, but this homogeny really lessens the significance of the album. In other words, he’s no Neil Young. But it’s not simply the ideology, but the methodology that I find disagreeable. I find some songs, not merely apolitical, but downright cringe-worthy. “In The End,” for example, does not merely adopt a one-dimensional outlook, but features the lines, “‘Cause one day you’re gonna die/And good’s going high/And evil’s going down.” Ouch.

It’s not to say that the album is without redeeming features. Opener “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” is a fine opener and develops nicely, with a horn. Single “Heaven/Where True Love Goes” is the definite highlight of the album, evolving into a multi-harmony surge and what may very well be a full string section. While I think “I Think I See The Light” is also rather simplistic, the addition of hand claps and pretty adequate musicianship makes up for the unremarkable lyrics. Yet, these few decent tracks don’t do nearly enough for me, especially when the two interludes, “Whispers From A Spiritual Garden” and “When Butterflies Leave” sound suspiciously like filler.

I’d like to say that it’s not him; it’s me. My favorite albums are generally depressing, or at least conflicted (Antics, Dummy, Mezzanine) or super-hooky (Electric Version, Heaven or Las Vegas, Room Noises) or both (Witching Hour). An Other Cup is really none of these, and it did very little for me. In any case, I’m still glad I went through the process, as I learned a bit more about myself and my relationship with music. But now it’s your turn. If you have any interest at all in this album, there are many places where you can go without committing. AMG has a more enthusiastic review, and Metacritic has many more. Stream the video for “Heaven,” as both the label and I agree that it’s the best of the bunch, and a few more tracks at the official page. Check out that KCRW set for an interview and a bunch of live tracks. If you’re totally enraptured, proceed.

Buy: Here

Or anywhere, it’s not as if I get a royalty. But seriously, this is completely a matter of personal inclination. This blog is all about the free exchange, and I don’t mean piracy. It’s free because you have the power to choose what to hear, read and buy. You might even be better off checking out his earlier work first; I hear Tea for the Tillerman is pretty okay. Good luck!

Incidentally, if you or the artist you represent have a recommendation for me, email (or even IM) me and I'll give you some contact info. I'll definitely give everything I'm sent an honest listen.

Previously: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55

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