Album reviews


February 6, 2005


Marianne Faithfull, “Before the Poison” (Anti-) [3.5 stars]

One of an all-too-small handful of rock legends who have continued to grow artistically without staying mired in the sounds of their ’60s and ’70s heydays—Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Paul Jones and Brian Eno among them—Marianne Faithfull remains a vibrant and vital artist who consistently explores challenging new sounds with nary a hint of nostalgia.

Credit Faithfull’s enduring curiosity, a serious streak of perverse contrarianism and her well-honed ability to seek collaborators who highlight her biggest assets: that sandpaper voice, a smoky sensuality and a tough-as-nails proto-punk attitude. Faithfull doesn’t deny her need for co-conspirators—“My friends have always been there/To help me shape my crooked features/My friends have picked me up again,” she sings on her newest disc—and the most inspired helpers this time out include PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, who both owe a considerable debt to and are well in tune with the more brooding and gothic aspects of her sensibility.

Rife with gently picked acoustic guitars and sawing violins, “Before the Poison” is a moodier, sparer and much more introspective effort than 1999’s “Vagabond Ways” or 2002’s “Kissin’ Time,” which found Mick Jagger’s long-ago paramour playfully flirting with alt-rock heroes a third her age, Billy Corgan, Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn among them. Blur’s erstwhile frontman is back again, giving Faithfull a classically bucolic but subtly foreboding slice of English folk-rock called “Last Song.” But it is once again a testament to the 58-year-old singer and lyricist’s talents that none of co-writers or duet partners ever overshadow the Grande Dame herself, and the album feels 100-percent Faithfull, claiming a place beside her best recordings.


Low, “The Great Destroyer” (Sub Pop) [3.5 stars]

While Yo La Tengo claims a place in the rock pantheon as the indie underground’s favorite married-couple combo and its most popular example of how many varied colors can still be wrung out of guitar, bass and drums played with a minimum of technical ability, the lower-key Low has matched all of that group’s accomplishments in recent years, and proved just as resilient, inventive and enduring.

On its seventh album, the Duluth, MN trio continues the move away from the somnambulant and extremely understated “slowcore” sounds of its earliest albums that began a few years ago when it started working with Chicagoan Steve Albini. Critical shorthand at the time held that Low had finally turned up its amps and started to rock out, but the variations on its basic sound have actually been much more subtle than that. Abrupt dynamic shifts were always part of its mix, and the revelations of recent discs have more to do with the quality of Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Zak Sally’s songwriting.

Though he’s known for the lush orchestral sounds that he brings to the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, producer Dave Fridmann works a lot like Albini, simply setting up his microphones to capture the best sounds possible as Low does what Low does best: Performing stark, minimalist but always surprisingly layered compositions such as “California,” “Death of a Salesman” and “Broadway (So Many People),” which continue to draw from an apparently bottomless well of dark poetic images and sneakily infectious melodies.