Matt Medlock



Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP Review

Following up a masterpiece is never an easy task, even if you’re the Beatles and you rack them up in a long sequential row. Deerhunter’s Microcastle is one such album, which coupled with the bonus disc, Weird Era Cont., offered the best bargain on instantly classic rock music during all of last year. Whether Deerhunter sensed this or not, they made a choice that is guaranteed to both succeed and fail. Dropping a five-song, fifteen-minute EP ensures that expectations aren’t overwhelming and automatically avoids comparisons to the recent full-length. But because it’s such a short excursion, it’ll be difficult to get the juice flowing for anyone but the faithful; after all, how often does a band’s EPs ever overshadow their long players? After Alice in Chains, any other choice would be highly debatable.

Coming only about seven months after their last effort, the release reeks of B-side cash-in. But the warts-and-all giveaway bug was satisfied by Weird Era. So what does Rainwater Cassette Exchange offer? The title suggests that it’ll be in concert with the practice of swapping tapes of underground bands with friends (if you don’t know what a cassette tape is, ask an older sibling). That is, of course, a joke, but the issue at hand makes the reference curious. Because this is an age of song and album leaks, downloads, websites, fan blogs, forums and any other means of discussing, sharing, stealing, slipping and pirating music, the notion of sharing cassettes with hissy sound and muddy quality seems quite alien. Hell, you can amass quite a bit of knowledge of independent labels and their bands without ever leaving your computer. And Deerhunter’s occasionally lo-fi, frequently fuzzy and always free-minded aesthetic plays into those kind of feelings. If Bradford Cox and crew had recorded fifteen years ago, this set would probably be heard mostly in slightly-sun-melted tapes with scratched casings, Sharpie scribblings over the masking tape label, and that one really bad spot on the recording where the sound warps hideously.

Nostalgia factor aside, it’s both more convenient and kinder to the senses that so much is digital now. No matter how much you cherished the bands you loved but none of your friends even knew about (it was like your own amazing little secret), deep down, you still wanted everyone to hear what only you thought you knew. Rainwater Cassette Exchange won’t be some miracle cult recording, but it does offer more progression than one would expect from such a small break. The Deerhunter best remembered from their early Turn It Up, Faggot and Cryptograms efforts has virtually vanished, replaced by accessible psychedelic noise and garage rock. What we get from the effort should satisfy pretty much everyone who liked Microcastle, but probably won’t blow anyone away; with a lone exception, these songs are best described as solid, agreeable and pleasant, but not a whole lot that’ll get you rushing to pass it around amongst your buddies.

The title track is a haze of heavy-lidded drawling over a monumentally laidback melody that sounds more like the “tropical punk” label than anything produced by Abe Vigoda. Cox begins blurrily muttering, “Two weeks of misery capture my heart and destroy me,” over a melody strange enough to suggest a hallucination. “Disappearing Ink” is the most energetic of the bunch, pouncing right off the bat and churning a simple riff with the most basic transitions available (Strokes with more reverb, I guess). “Circulation” also jams out in the garage, but takes a few left turns along the way to show more ambition than the typically sloppy and brief precursors of that genre, and ends on a mysterious note with a sound collage. “Famous Last Words,” however, drifts at a low register—even when the hi-hats get their workouts, it still feels subdued. It’s a song that might have actually benefited from a cleaner treatment; over Cox’s droning tone and wispy fuzz, it feels half-formed and half-hearted. Coming between the locomotive verve of “Ink” and “Game of Diamonds” wasn’t too smart an idea by rule of comparison.

As for “Diamonds,” it was the only song I knew beforehand, but the version leaked by the band a while back is entirely different than the one here. Once a more typical, reverb-drowned mid-tempo rocker, now it’s driven by acoustic guitar, bongo-style percussion and a piano (elements once masked by the distortion)—by Deerhunter’s standards, it’s whistle clean. Cox murmurs plaintively, “No one ever talked to me/I’d forgotten how to speak/A problem with my chemistry,” without ever evoking piteous whining—the softly rolling rhythm is saved from melodrama. Featuring a sound inconsistent even with the sprawling catch-all of Weird Era, it would have been the most notable cut no matter the result; the fact that it’s nearly perfectly arranged and executed (hence, memorable) even outside of Deerhunter’s diverse canon ensures that it’s no mere fluke.

Neither is the new Deerhunter direction, which may be criticized as softening their edges and making a play for the masses, but those sorts of dismissals seem to forget that good songs aren’t meant to keep you at arms length. I wouldn’t quite call them warm pop yet; there’s not enough staggeringly good stuff here to inspire a teary-eyed embrace anyway. But it’s definitely worth a hearty handshake. And if for nothing else, you can pass along hard copies of this thing to people you know who think that Deerhunter is an arcade game down at the local Buffalo wings joint. Accessible as it is, Rainwater Cassette Exchange will give them a fine entry point.

Jun
15
2009

Misguided Aggression - Hatchala Review

Based on the evidence of their debut EP, (or mini-LP as it’ll likely be known in some circles), I can only assume that the five guys making up Misguided Aggression have listened to a lot of Lamb of God and Meshuggah in the last decade or two. This Canadian quintet splits the difference between them; the four-on-the-floor, grinding slab riffs ring of the former, but angular tempo shifts, tough bass-and-drum barreling, and prog-ish flourishes suggest the experimentalism of the latter. There’s some dilution in the formula—they’re not quite as bone-crushing as LoG, nor are they nearly as adventurous and off-kilter as Meshuggah—but the blend is mostly satisfying. Still, their greatest asset for the time being is brevity, which, of course, is both a good and a bad thing.

Rob Demedeiros takes center stage for Hatchala’s assault, with Ben Dobson and Randy Allcock sharing guitar duties and John Godfrey and Ben Taylor handling the rhythm section. Considering the dual guitar attack, it’s unfortunate that the two don’t play off one another more; more frequently than not, they pound the same riffs on top of each other for a louder but less dynamic sound. The brief instrumental “The Palamnaeusus Fulvipes” shows what they’re capable of, with one of them battering astride the drum and bass while the other flickers at a higher tone underneath. But most of the time, all of the musicians are focused on just one thing: brutal licks and crashing beats. Again, both good and bad.

Demedeiros’ vocals are the sort handed out to almost every metal band now: the death growl, where he shreds his cords pretty much every time his lips part. For the style, he’s up to the task, but the style is the problem. If the intention was to disguise the words, then it worked, which might not have been too terrible an idea. As is the case of most of these extreme metal bands, there’s not a whole lot of originality in the lyrics—they’re as belligerent as the music that surrounds them and always straight to the obvious point, despite frequently being nondescript and unexpressive. “You’re tying the noose around your neck/Mindfucking the hell out of your own God damn fucking head,” screams Demedeiros on “Our Kingdom Come.” Then, on “Pigs in the Market”: “The blood is on the walls/If we still need more bacon/We shall slaughter them all.” They’re not entirely limited to fists, steel and the aftermath, as seen by “pirates and popes [living] with grace” on “Flesh to Gold,” and “Metal Horn Bessy,” which, assuming she’s not an actual cow, is apparently some particularly potent strain of marijuana (since irony is virtually dead in the metal world, it’s impossible to tell if there’s sarcasm in, “Pack me up another bowl/Light that shit up, count to three”).

Some songs leave their mark, though. The leadoff title track segues into “Our Kingdom Come,” chugging on some propulsive percussive riffs that twist on each other at irregular intervals. The bridge breakdown of “Faces of Abomination” is one of the strongest moments, where the melodic thrash leaves the churning behind (though it doesn’t make up for the extended and misshapen line, “A war to fight on chance to right to walk to fall to rise to die”). And the “Fulvipes” instrumental and “Mustard Gas & Roses” offer a brief break from some of the interminable qualities of the riffage—more variety would help them a great deal. Luckily, at about twenty-six minutes, the record ends just before it becomes truly incessant.

Misguided Aggression shows promise, but falls prey to the same diseases infecting far too much metal today—they’ve got the intensity down pat, but where’s the variety? By the time we land on “Metal Horn Bessy”’s interesting but uninspired lock-step riffs that careen off the void between the hammering beats, we’ve just become numb. They’ve shown their love for their heroes (and even touches of hardcore and post-metal), but being amidst the upper echelon of the faceless is nowhere to aspire to. Let’s hope the next outing shows a more confident and more unique band, voicing original ideas instead of their music collections’ “greatest hits.” Still, they probably know their audience better than I do, and I expect the more obsessive (and less-discriminating) metalheads out there will knock the score up at least a point.

Jun
15
2009

Cedric Hints at an At the Drive-In Reunion

atdiThe key word is “hints.” Wipe away the drool, please.

But Cedric Bixler-Zavala told Frederick Blood-Royale (via a feature from Drowned in Sound) that a reunion was possible, which didn’t seem so likely a few years back. Their indefinite hiatus was spurred on by crushing hype, certain "extracurricular" habits inflated during long touring schedules and, most obviously, creative differences. But how many bands that willingly disband at their peaks ever get a chance to answer all those questions of coulda-beens and what-ifs (not counting tour-only reunions)? Hell, I don’t even care. Whatever form it comes in, more At the Drive-In has to be a good thing.

Jun
11
2009
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The Triumphant Return of Futurama

futurama3000No longer a rumor, a spokesperson for 20th Century Fox Television has confirmed that the cable network Comedy Central has ordered 26 new episodes of the beloved cult animated comedy, Futurama. This will no doubt please fans, who have flocked to the program like the series’ paeans are drawn to the Hypnotoad. The decision to bring Futurama back had long been in the rumor mill and hope sprung eternal after Comedy Central picked up the syndication rights to air the original episodes. The show even featured in a series of feature-length DVDs, which were hour-and-a-half movies capable of being split into four separate episodes for television viewing. But with Comedy Central aboard for two thirteen-episode seasons, the show is still very much alive. They will begin airing sometime in 2010.

Jun
10
2009
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Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix Review

Phoenix timed the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart well. With early releases and leaks, it probably could have dropped in March or April, but instead it comes out just as summer is in full bloom (that June 21 date corresponds to science/nature, not mood). And a summer album it is, inspiring grinning and grooving and all-around good times. But Phoenix hasn’t changed what’s most important to establishing the requisite overused title of “Summer Album”—they’ve always been better in small doses than large ones. I don’t have an enormous fondness for the two (of three) full-lengths of theirs I’ve heard before this one (i.e., liked to some marginal degree, but never loved), but they have several killer tracks already (and a few more winking anticipatorily in the last couple months from Wolfgang). Yes, a few new songs will join the ranks of “Run, Run, Run,” “Too Young,” “Everything Is Everything,” “If I Ever Feel Better” and “Consolation Prizes,” but that equals a wonderful summer mix rather than an entire disc you’ll wear out before the leaves change colors. 

They specialize in familiar tricks and melodies and their lyrics are either cryptically truncated or obtrusively simple; shaded observations and rhetorical questions mostly. “Where would you go/Where would you go with a lasso?” is a killer silly hook and “Acres/Visible horizon/Right where it starts and ends/When did we start the end?” is just as indistinguishable yet far more deliberate in being so. As for the music, there’s very little here that’s surprising; even the catchiest songs sound familiar because you’ve heard their inspirations. Usually, it’s not a problem—how often does pop music really surprise, anyway?—but that means that the ones that don’t stick probably never will.

Afraid it sounds like tripe now? Arrangements as clinical as these need clinical detachment to figure out why some work and others don’t. But work some do, and they should get paid overtime. Make no mistake about it—“Lisztomania” is one of the best songs of the year simply because it inspires bodily reaction every time (toe tap subtle or full-on sing-along, whichever you prefer). “1901” and “Lasso” aren’t far back, either. When Thomas Mars goes for a full-blown falsetto (“Fences”) or lets the instruments take over (“Love Like a Sunset Part I”), you’re in a good place, too. It’s when you’re stuck with the same giddily bouncing beats that you suppress a yawn—but if those represent the lesser tracks, we should wish to always be so lucky.

The album is frontloaded with perky blasts of power pop; earliness ensures freshness even on the fifth spin. Lest you feel the monotony of the bubbly times (like a certain recent album from Passion Pit), Phoenix gives you a break with “Love Like a Sunset” in two parts, which somehow involves chattering rhythms (culled from a drum machine? I don’t know) and a searing synth drone—whether they want to explode into Daft Punk around the turn of the millennium or the Who from the early 70s is tough to decide. Either way, it’ll always be amusing to hear Parisians taking on krautrock. “Countdown” abrasively cracks (or croaks?) with steady cymbal flashes so that it’s slightly rougher than the waxy goodness around it. Don’t worry, though; there’s a cute little key twinkle late in the game similar to an Alka Seltzer splashing into ginger ale. I could have used more of these pace changers, but their very existence makes the long haul more palatable. In contrast, “Girlfriend” couldn’t sound more ordinary compared to earlier successes—after multiple album listens, my mind always wanders when it comes on.

But for all of “Sunset”’s unexpected strengths, we’re here for the dizzying thrill, and so we return to the shorter, catchier ones. “Lisztomania” is breathless and devoid of attention as Mars huffs, “So sentimental/Not sentimental, no/Romantic, not discussing it/Darling, I’m down and lonely/When were the fortunate only?” Referring to a “Beatlemania” of sorts nearly two centuries ago where Franz Liszt inspired screaming female fan-demonium, it sums up the band’s appeal—“degrading” themselves to the populism that earns shrieks of delight pitted against the “high art” concept of classical chops and precision. In case you forgot that by the time the album ends, “Armistice” is a fine reminder, slicing the synth sound into the chiming pluck of harpsichord-esque tones and stabbing you with a pounding disco beat. In between, first single “1901” and almost-certainly-future-single “Lasso” ensures the dance party won’t end.

When cursorily defining Phoenix, their correlations (and collaborations) with Air made sense but labels as the French Strokes never sat well—only the disaffected swung to Casablancas but anyone can get down to this stuff (dirty/clean differences are there, too). As if calling it “dance pop” seems to be an insult, maybe it is, but that’s based on point of view. I usually can’t figure how Phoenix wants me to feel by any evidence beyond snappy beats, and I can’t really say I care. Any band that ties relationship metaphors towards lassos isn’t trying to bend the noodle. But an absence of stupidity ensures fizzy times, and though songs like “Girlfriend” and “Rome” didn’t inspire much of a reaction, overall it’s about as good as their last one. Use that as your measuring tape.

Jun
09
2009

Beatles Still the Biggest Rock Band in the World?

beatlesU2 can make the claim. Some time back, it was a slugfest between Guns N’ Roses and Metallica (with Nirvana waiting in the wings). Led Zeppelin and the Who were once certainly in the conversation, but that was before I was even born. How about Pearl Jam? The label could certainly be slapped on the enormous resurgence of Green Day. British acts like Coldplay and Snow Patrol are creeping their way into the conversation. And, of course, no one’s going to thumb his or her nose at the Rolling Stones after some forty-five years. But who is the biggest rock band in the world right now? If you base it solely on record sales in the last decade, the answer is pretty clear: the Beatles. That’s right, the Fab Four. A group that’s been defunct now for nearly forty years and has lost half of its lineup to the Grim Reaper. How is that possible?

Jun
04
2009
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Umphrey's McGee Live Review

The connotation of a “jam band” usually gets wildly different reactions—some love 'em and others can't stand 'em. But while the label usually summons images of crunchy guitars, psychedelic noodling and long, long (and long) musical exercises, “jam band” could really mean any number of musical enterprises that prefer freeform expression over concise pop songs. South Bend's Umphrey's McGee is one such band. They get the Soundstage treatment here on a concert DVD that broadcasts a two hour show recorded in '08 and premiered on PBS on February 5, 2009. No strangers to live shows (or recordings), they've been around since 1997, have released about a half dozen live CDs and DVDs, and play an average of about a hundred shows a year. At this point, they have the finesse and craftsmanship fitting of their multi-faceted nature.

Every good setlist starts a show out on a high note, and this performance peaks early. The first two tracks are “Ocean Billy” and “Higgins.” My knowledge of the band's catalog is a bit limited, but those two are my favorites, and they tear 'em up. “Ocean Billy” stretches on for some twelve minutes (typical of the stereotypical jam band) but never once starts to drag. “Higgins”'s solos are close cousins to the former, so extending the workout with that followup keeps spirits high (and necks cracking to the lurching rhythms). These two songs last more than twenty minutes by themselves, so it was smart to progress from there at a sharp rate—“Got Your Milk (Right Here)” is easily one of the briskest songs of the evening, galloping at a quick clip and satisfying with a catchy rhythm.

After the early triumphs, though, the show starts to crawl. There's an awkward “commercial break,” where a transition forces a screen still of the presentation's name to linger on the screen for a few moments. At this point, the somewhat uglier side of “jam band” nature rises. While there's no doubt over the technical expertise of each of the band members, the extended workouts at this point seem to be searching for a great groove that eludes their grasp. There are keyboard flourishes, a guitar and bass back-and-forth, bongo solo and other interesting little bits that float around without much drive or energy. Wide angle shots that show the crowd in front of the stage embellish this—there's not a lot of bounce in their posture during this section. That they're huddled together on their feet is part of the problem—the DVD advantage is that I was able to watch it sprawled out comfortably. But the fact remains that for about thirty minutes, the music serves better as background niceties instead of an engaging rock show.

Right around the hour mark, the show comes alive once more, especially when the guitarist and keyboardist inch close and let their fingers fly, raising the volume and density both. The energy wanes quickly after that, but the juice gives the next passages a more playful and evocative quality that earlier seemed a bit lugubrious. “Believe the Lie” has a great crunchy stop-start riff (you half-expect a great white to crash the stage) and “Morning Song” has a strong vocal performance from a mostly instrument-driven band, but the second half also has occasional meandering periods where you long for a few more traditional arrangements to reinvigorate you. “Glory” makes for a fine finish, though, and as a four-minute rocker that raises the decibel level and quickens the pulse, it ends the show on a stirring note.

The music itself is strongly influenced by smooth psychedelia, rambling prog rock, jazz and reggae, flecked with hints of ska and soul music. They list the Police as one of their inspirations, which makes sense since there's a taste of Sting in the vocal inflections and the white reggae thump prevails many of the best moments. Other times they sound like Blues Traveler and Yes, the former for the lumbering, bluesy rhythms and the latter for the playful keyboard that really comes alive at several junctures. But really, not many bands sound like Umphrey's McGee, taking the perfectly structured randomization of progressive music and letting it wander in the more spontaneous and improvisational nature of jamming.

Faithful followers of the band will find this to be an essential addition, but the rest of us may mourn a lack of visual delights. Most of the best concert DVDs feature great stage shows, whether they be of the theatrical variety or that of crazy pyrotechnics or sheer enthusiasm by the musicians in a full-bodied performance. But despite instrumental mastery, Umphrey's McGee doesn't really move, and apart from a few moments, the musicians feel sealed off from one another, playing off the music but not each other. As for the stage and backdrop, it's pretty barren except for a few column-like monitors that mostly just graze through bland stills of nature and tic off the band's name. I imagine I could grow to appreciate the songs more, but it will never be a particularly memorable feast for the eyes.

DVD Bonus Features

Two bonus tracks performed at a different venue: “Made to Measure” and “Wizard Burial Ground.” The DVD was captured in High-Definition and mixed in 5.1 Surround.

 

Jun
02
2009

Passion Pit - Manners Review

You would probably have to be truly sour and astringent to completely write off Passion Pit, but cheer probably has its limit. Considering that the group is the byproduct of a Boston fellow with his heart-a-breaking, such endless ebullience is rather puzzling. For the four people out there not in the know, Michael Angelakos cranked out six songs to try and win back his fed up girlfriend. The ploy didn’t work, but the songs were good enough that he was encouraged to post them on his MySpace page. Thus was born the Chunk of Change EP, which led to the recruiting of four others to fill out a full band. And now we have Manners, the debut full-length from Angelakos’ Passion Pit. But where most music inspired by desperation and forlornness tends to be, well, desperate and forlorn, Passion Pit specializes in energy and fizz, electropop with hooks aplenty, falsetto lead vocals and unabashed romanticism. Already you should know if you’re going to like it.

On an individual basis, Passion Pit deserves the buzz label. At least half of these songs have 7” potential, and seem perfectly carved and spliced for your next get-together, whether its for an intimate half dozen or one with speakers facing out of windows to get half the block bouncing. Dance mixes, here they come. Spirited, sprightly and shamelessly chirpy, you’re guaranteed to either love some or hate most. I’ll let your outlook determine that. As for me, there’s a lot to be said for an EP’s inherent brevity.

At eleven songs lasting some forty-five minutes, there’s plenty of swooning goodwill to swallow here. Every song seems to be about love, and unlike that time when Stephen Merritt gave us sixty-nine variations of it, the outlook here is almost unbearably positive—even the lovesick ones sound adorable. Maybe I’m viewing the entire thing like everyone else did of Poppy Cross, but the optimism can be reinforcing at times and elsewhere it just becomes gaudy. Because Angelakos specializes in electronic pop, we know that synths/keyboards are going to be the foundation and there’s simply no room for enough songs that are tuned down or spacious enough to let the soda pop settle. The label of relentless shouldn’t be aimed at material as buoyant and blithe as this and yet the term still applies.

None of this would matter if the tunes were there, and despite the mixed bag results, there are several worthy of adulation. Some work against better instincts—backup vocals from children ought to be one of the most offensive crimes a pop song can commit, but these guys get away with it not once but twice. Those two highlights are “Little Secrets” and “The Reeling”; the former is fast food pop at its most embarrassingly delicious and the latter sticks to your brain for days (trust me). They’re not great compositions, but as empty-headed but joyous dance tunes, they’re both choice cuts. “Folds in Your Hands” is the rare song on the album that truly grows (i.e., deemed borderline filler the first go-round but emerged as a suitably catchy number after a few more laps) and “Seaweed Song” makes up for several miffed opportunities late in the game by closing the disc out on a high note—treacle elevated to hummable audio cotton candy.

So much effervescent enthusiasm goes a long way, so when they take the time to slow things down and build on their synth riffs before breaking out the Technicolor sunbursts, the efforts are immediately noticeable. “Moth’s Wings” could be rewritten as an arena power ballad by the U2s and Coldplays of the world, but serves as a decent palette cleanser after “Secrets.” Then there’s “Swimming in the Flood,” the longest song by a hair, and the one that wanders from their candy-coated trail the furthest. “My eyes have once again been proven wrong, your clouds, your blanket and my pity song…then I lie naked in a rampage, in the flesh, face to face,” could even pass itself off as Cure-lite. It’s one of the least dance-friendly tracks, though it still has a monster chiming hook and it lingers as much as “Reeling.”

Fans may prefer writing off any criticisms as some form of “too-much-of-a-good-thing” belly-aching, but the truth is, that there are three or four songs on here that just aren’t any good. “Make Light” wants a different singer—some may be turned off completely by the high notes, but this was the only case where it truly rankled me, which is strange since it’s the first song. “Let Your Love Grow Tall” brings back the kiddies, but they’re integrated almost as a second thought, failing at the attempt to bring a little extra oomph to a mostly lifeless cut. The trilling warble backing up the overly woozy “Sleepyhead” would sound like Tiny Tim if it weren’t so sugary (and, therefore, leans towards certain cute little singing rodents)—it’s the sort of thing that Hot Chip would rewrite into something worth hearing. This one is particularly disappointing since it also featured on their EP in a less-neutered but still limp version; why repeat the same mistake?

With cynicism and angst coming by the barrelful in music, this sort of thing should be cherished more than I’m capable, but it’s hard to ardently support an album where even a few of the good ones work in a guilty way. No, that’s not fair—guilt should never accompany such exuberance—but it still would have been nice for them to come back to Earth once in a while to say something I actually cared about. “Let your love grow tall/Tall as the grass in the meadow/Or the dunes on the shore,” just ain’t cutting it. Cherishing them solely for the perceptible bliss these guys had simply making the record can only carry you so far despite several infectious memories. Describing this stuff as over-the-top goes without saying, and dangerously encircling self-parody can’t be the wisest of decisions even for a young band, but what else can they give us? We’ll see. I’m still bobbing my head to “The Reeling,” though.

Jun
01
2009

Isis - Wavering Radiant Review

Style over substance, mood over meaning, Isis isn’t spectacularly different from their peers, especially those who wriggle into the bromidically named subgenre of post-metal. Even with a lyric sheet in hand, the songs read as cerebral and prog-ish manifestos of indulgent sprawl, or as some may cheekily coin, mental masturbation. Shuddering waves of textured melodicism and explosive distortion aerobics are actually intertwined, belaying the formula that quiet and loud must be separated by slender margins. I can only assume that the purpose here is to disorient with rarely matched foreboding beauty because you can’t understand what Aaron Turner sings and remains indecipherable on the page—a swirl of arch and bruised anti-poetry that might make you pine for Dan Brown. None of this matters, though, because Wavering Radiant is a swamp, a sinkhole and a glittering grey ocean stretching to infinity. You get stuck in it no matter how hard you struggle and it swallows you whole for some fifty-four minutes. Don’t bring a diving cylinder, though—you want to drown.  

The band’s been around long enough now so that experimentalism can’t capsize them because their technique has been honed razor sharp. But they’ve also followed a career path similar to fellow arty metal legend Tool. After an EP and debut full-length, both acts peaked, finding the perfect correlation between their grasp of spacious melody and love for good crushing riffs and Thor hammer percussion. Since that point, both groups have churned out consistently commendable work (each with one outing that challenged for supremacy), but as they progress, we recognize that there aren’t great new tricks in their arsenal, just different ways of doing what we already know. Staleness is a disease, especially in a genre that is typically monolithic like metal is, but we kinda wish they’d quit itching to indulge their experimental side.

A lot of fans trumpet Isis’ decision to forgo the more traditional route towards song payoff—slowly building, turning the soup into a stew, and finally landing on a climax that can level a mountain. The fact that the songs are generally anti-climactic appeals to them, as most post-rock fans brag about (this album could almost be considered a cousin to latter-era Mogwai). But “Threshold of Transformation” delivers the conclusion we crave; it’s the closer, so it better end with a bang instead of a whimper. This one reminds us of the tougher and meaner days of Isis, one built for satisfying action instead of ponderous murk. The material becomes restless without answers and no matter how appealing long sections of the album are, the ominous tone needs more threat.

At the outset, these long waves of undulating tempos and rippling fields of droning guitars and synth fills are appealing because they seem to point ahead. “Hall of the Dead” is a strong opener, densely composed of churning but unbalanced riffs and lush vibrations circling around behind them. But by the time we reach the nearly eleven-minute “Hand of the Host” (and a two-minute instrumental after that which is really just an outro) the mind starts to wander. Metal, no matter how motivated, artful or forward-thinking it can be, should never be labeled as “background music,” and yet it begins to drift. “Stone to Wake a Serpent” lurches us from the approaching slumber (appropriately named, no?) by re-introducing some punishing walls of guitar. Cleaner than ever, the crystalline distortion could definitely use a little more sludge, but even at their brightest, they inspire a nod of the head (and, occasionally, a fully extended “bang”).

The second half is definitely the more muscular side, and not surprisingly, is the better of the two. The second song, “Ghost Key,” simply reinforces what we already enjoyed from “Hall,” but insists on laboring instead of driving. Compare that to the second-to-last track, “20 Minutes/40 Years,” which contains some of their best quiet-chime guitar tones buoying over echoing synth washes, but they spike the affair with some of the most spine-tingling heavy riffs they’ve produced in several outings. I normally prefer Turner’s singing voice as opposed to his hoarse yelp, but on that occasion, the death snarl was mightily powerful. And that transitions into the thunderous “Threshold,” which closes everything out very strongly.

With all of the carefully nuanced intricacy and imaginative progressions, Isis has never much appealed to those just looking for a little bash-and-crash into their day. But when a band specializes in seven-to-eleven minute epics, the murky passages have to lead to satisfying conclusions. There’s no doubt that they have crafted an album that strives for greatness regularly, but commendable or not, we are struck with complacency more than awe. Since every outing since Oceanic has been labeled as the band’s most accessible, this one is being advertised as the Isis record that should finally see them sell to their potential. But accessibility has never been Isis’ strong suit and this one’s really no better or worse than their last two. Wavering Radiant may have deserved the name Wavering Gradient, since there are plenty of shades here. It’s nice that they’re not defined by the black and white, but sometimes in the mix, you can wind up with bland tones.

May
31
2009

Music Video Corner II

passionpitTime for some more music videos: some recent and some a little older, some from artists ready for the limelight and some from artists already known and proven. If for nothing else, at least you can hear some choice tunes for free. Today, you can watch Passion Pit, Depeche Mode, Phoenix, Silversun Pickups, Moray McLaren, Bat for Lashes and Wild Light. Check them out after the break. The last edition can be seen here.

May
30
2009
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Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest Review

The indie-friendly blogs haven’t been alight like this since Merriweather Post Pavilion at the beginning of the year. Leaks and band fandom helped make up that one’s hype, and the same is applicable here. Several of these songs date back to last year and have been available in some fashion for many months and there's no denying the enthusiasm of Grizzly faithful. Yet the buzz behind each record left me more curious than anticipatory. I didn’t really “get” Animal Collective until Pavilion (and the light that clicked on in my attic flooded the whole house) and while I enjoyed Yellow House and the Friend EP, Grizzly Bear always left me wanting a little more (and fan loyalty was tough even for a typically loyal fanatic like myself to understand). Then I heard “Two Weeks” and it changed.

I knew that “Two Weeks” was going to be Veckatimest’s best song, but I didn’t know it was going to be the most different as well. I thought I saw a different direction to the artful folk rockers, but “Two Weeks” is an anomaly, a striking centerpiece that can’t really be defined as such because what follows it isn’t much more than a more ambitious, studied and form-fitted sampling of their past work.

May
28
2009
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Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

jaybennettJay Bennett died in his sleep Saturday night at the age of 45. Best known for his work with alt country legend Wilco, Bennett was an incredible talent, an oft-described perfectionist and enthusiastic performer. It has been argued that he was the driving force behind Wilco’s expanding musical depth from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, and would frequently work in tandem with Jeff Tweedy for the songwriting of the band’s most important albums, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Immediately after Wilco finished recording YHF, of which Bennett engineered the majority, he was dismissed from the band following rising tensions. Since then, Bennett has released five albums mostly through Undertow Music and has been a force behind the studio glass as a producer, mixer and engineer.

May
25
2009
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Watch Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" Video

grizzlybearAlready hailed as one of the best songs of the year (with no argument from me), Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” isn’t as fresh as most other top-notch tracks of the last five months. The song was debuted nearly a year ago, being performed on Late Show with David Letterman in July 2008. Now, in anticipation of Grizzly Bear’s third full-length, we get a music video for the song. Calling the clip a little creepy and unsettling goes without saying. Best mind-blowing since Cronenberg? Perhaps. It was helmed by famed video director Patrick Daughters (Feist, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kings of Leon, etc.). Check it out below.


May
24
2009
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Eminem - Relapse Review

Judge shock value as you will. Eminem is in character, right? The Marshall Mathers cycle that transforms him into the twisted persona of Slim Shady has already been well-documented, and on Relapse, after fighting several addictions and serving stints in rehab, Mathers emerges on the other side just shy of replenished. But the album is called Relapse, so you know what’s going to happen. And after a nightmare with Dr. West, he wakes up in the middle of the night and before long, he is Slim once again, recalling past grotesqueries in the form of rape, murder and general bloody mayhem, and fantasizing about what he would like to do to up the ante even further. Complaining about homophobia, misogyny, violence and sadism at this point is moot: we’re familiar with Eminem’s antics by now. But a few clever wordplay choices and triple rhyme soliloquies only work when it’s fun, and it’s just not. It’s depressing.

Which isn’t to say that the shocking diatribes are too far-gone. They’re simply tedious, relentless and repetitive. We know his issues with his mom, wife/ex-wife/wife again/ex-wife again, and just women in general. We realize that Slim is merely a character through which he can vent rage and clown the typical list of celebutantes. But this sort of oppressively dark comedy forgot to be funny, and intermittent hostility is preferable to the exhaustive brand, so for roughly two-thirds of the seventy-five minute running time, Eminem is simply spitting profanity for the sake of, again, shock value.

He practically sounds like a kitten when discussing masturbating to Miley Cyrus and sticking foreign objects up Kim Kardashian’s behind because the rest of “3am” is quite literally soaked in blood. The weird fantasy/nightmare scenario of being sexually assaulted by his stepfather in “Insane” goes way beyond uncomfortable. Talking about felching proves the over-the-top position but these characteristics don’t sit well next to terrifyingly realistic depictions of child molestation later on in the third verse. And “Bagpipes from Baghdad” is little more than an effortless attack on Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, and the chorus returns of Baghdad and its bagpipes make no logical sense. Entertainment or embarrassment? That’s the listener’s call, naturally, but the listener deserves better.

Em stalks and kills Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan on “Same Song and Dance,” which is an appropriate title since he’s saying nothing new against the soft targets. I wondered briefly if it was metaphorical—that the “narrator” was personified, and was in fact the same booze and pills that haunted Eminem (and clearly had a negative effect on the starlets’ lives as well). But there’s no hint of that beyond wild theory; I think he’s just enjoying trashing vapid celebrities, the same old song and dance. It’s not even insulting to see him mock the late Christopher Reeve since there’s so little weight to back up his phrasing.

Armed with undeniably strong flow and a sense for out-of-meter rhyme schemes, there’s no doubt that Eminem has the brains to back up the brashness. But the “character” defense isn’t working anymore. I’m not necessarily offended, but he’s offering blood without the meat. Asking for the psychological trauma may be wanting too much, but all there is to glean from most of these offerings is that the pills fucked him up and he’s back to his old sociopathic tricks. Luckily, respite comes late in the LP when he finally offers up more than tiresome, sadistic mockups.

“Medicine Ball” sums up the wayward appeal of this album. Running through another laundry list of shocking topics (rape, abortion, etc.), he announces on the chorus that “it’s time for you to hate me again.” And in the second verse, he deflects shallow criticism of his surface agenda by saying, “I never meant this rhyme to be so offensive/If you weren’t so defensive it wouldn’t be, you’re so sensitive.” But just because this track delegates a violent enthusiasm beyond mere performance anxiety doesn’t mean it makes up for the exasperating misogyny and brutality found throughout. A shame, too, because with the unpredictably solid production and catchy spacing pattern on the beat during the chorus, it’s actually a pretty solid cut. Wish more were like it.

Later on, he successfully details his addiction problems on “Déjà Vu.” “Underground” has some devilish fun sending up a variety of horror movie slashers (though I’m not sure why Edward Scissorhands is in there). Then there’s “Beautiful”; as a relatively uplifting track featuring a generous message and actual singing, it feels out of place in the proceedings. On the outro, he says, “Be proud of who you are, and even if it sounds corny, don’t ever let anyone tell you you ain’t beautiful.” Corny is debatable, but it’s hard to take him at face value considering the vile things that preceded it. Nevertheless, it’s another small winner in spite of the angry broil between refrain lines: “It don’t matter saying you ain’t beautiful/They can all get fucked, just stay true to you.” Guess the antagonism dies hard. But immediately following that song up with Slim bragging about seventeen rapes, four hundred assaults and a quartet of murders just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Production-wise, Dr. Dre is involved in all but one of the tracks, and he brings little more than static, metallic beats that rarely change in tempo or force. But Eminem is a force himself, one of nature and willpower, and he can sound as compelling freestyle as he does over anything suped up in the studio. That is, he can, even if he doesn’t bother to do much all that noteworthy here. I won’t even trash his controversial new nasal inflection, but when he bothers with accents to sound Scottish, Arabic, etc., he just comes off sounding like the sort of inane pranksters he once trashed (i.e., Tom Green). And amidst all of the vividly maladjusted and deplorable brutality, if Eminem can’t be funny, then the act can’t be tolerated. Needing an editor and a therapist goes without saying, but right now he needs better inspiration and more original ideas. I hope the sequel can bring some closure to this mostly meaningless endeavor.

May
20
2009

The Lips Flame On

waynecoynemarsWayne Coyne is the Alien Super Being. Or so he went by that title in Christmas on Mars, a film he also wrote and co-directed. He and the rest of the Flaming Lips also composed the film’s soundtrack. Released at the end of 2008, one would expect the near-fifty year-old musician to take a few breaths after such a daunting task, but not Coyne. He’s also managed to involve himself in a rock band feud, a state rock song controversy and, most notably, a new album planned for release in late summer. Oh, and it’s a double album. No tiptoeing into the twilight years for this star. [Insert Human Torch catchphrase]

May
19
2009
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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1970s

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Continuing on with a celebration of fifty years of great music, we move now into the next decade: the 1970s. The ten year span saw a variety of fresh musical expressions that were merely fetal concepts in the 60s reach the masses in great numbers: punk, disco, prog, glam, funk and arena rock, as well as early forms of electronica and the buds of hip hop. Soul and R&B were fading in both quality and popularity, while from the ruinous ashes of punk and disco’s aftermath came the dance pop and New Wave that would eventually define the next decade. Before you begin, check out the list of the best 60s songs and albums if you’ve missed them. And if you’re caught up, read on to see the Top 100 Songs of the 1970s.

May
17
2009
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Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown Review

I learned some time ago to stop paying close attention to Green Day songs and just let them work their charms over me on the basest of levels. Sometimes they lacked charm (such as the bulk of Warning) and sometimes the masses seemed to miss the point entirely (the reworking of the nasty-edged “Good Riddance” into a song played at tearful sendoffs and post-graduation parties is fitting for borderline cynics like myself, but everyone else?). But mostly Green Day specialized in power chords and suburban zit-faced angst. Novel attempts to buck the trend worked to vastly different degrees, particularly on the massively uneven free-for-all Nimrod, which earned points for sheer absurdism and aspiration. Then sometime in the middle of this decade they tried a political punk opera. You might remember it. How did that work out for them?

May
16
2009
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Bat for Lashes - Two Suns Review

It was tough to gauge Natasha Khan back in 2006 when her Bat for Lashes identity gained notice for a debut single and LP. “What’s a Girl to Do?” was great, the full-length Fur and Gold not so much in consistency, and yet I didn’t quite know what to make of her. Whether or not her persona was the real deal or an aesthete gliding through the motions, it worked, and I didn’t really care which was the truth—either answer would have deflated some of her allure. But Two Suns doesn’t simply dodge the question, but adds new puzzlements to the enigma. Sure, the prowess is still there, but what we get is less absorbing than what the realists could expect and nothing on here matches “Girl.” Worse still, with a more streamlined and electronic-driven sound, a lot of her quirky charisma is drained away. The sounds-worse-than-it-is-caveat: there’s still enough here to not send fans spinning furiously for the real deal.

May
15
2009
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Manchester Orchestra - Mean Everything to Nothing Review

Fans clung to Manchester Orchestra, knowing they had the potential to break through at any moment but fully aware that would tarnish the charm. I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child opened the doors, a scavenger hunt of shapeless importance beyond their grasp and flippant idiosyncrasies that melded with their youth. Could they grow into the big boy pants they bought? Would they focus their obvious talent towards something both more humble and playful? Or would they go the route of far too many promising straight-up rock bands trying to prove commercial viability while still pretending to have the chops as indie upstarts? The jury’s still out, of course (no single effort can judge a band), but I hate to say that this ain’t progress.

Famous for their misleading moniker (they’re five dudes from Atlanta) and heavy thematic concerns despite their relative adolescence, I didn’t completely buy Manchester Orchestra the first time out, but they were raffish and motivated enough to point towards roads unspoiled by those of the league they were casually lumped in with. They recently toured with two of those very “similar” bands (Kings of Leon, Brand New), and while I didn’t believe the correlation then, I’m beginning to see it now. If post-post-grunge could be a genre, this is probably it, with a liberal dash of emo and power pop to change the mood from time to time.

But musically it works. Not “send it to a half dozen friends” good, but engaging in its fundamental appeal—loud, guitar-driven rock music with some catchy hooks and supple grooves along the way. The first half is grunge-pop, played fast and loud, and the second half opens up their sonic palette a bit for a more eclectic range (guess which side is better?). In the midst of the reckless stage cannon fodder, though, is Andy Hull, who is about three steps from becoming insufferable. I take no joy in reporting that, but it’s true.

Right from the start, his cracking voice wavers an entire octave range and back in single syllables on “The Only One.” The nasal scream on the gassy “Pride” never fits into the sagegrass composition, which shuffles itself somewhere into the huge void between cowboy blues and a heavy metal dirge. And on “Shake It Out,” he suddenly surges to a full scream, crying out, “Oh God, you gotta shake it out, shake it out!/You gotta break it down, break it out!” Sound and fury signifying nothing, indeed. Which is a shame, since the signature change in the crumbling bridge after that moment points towards a more ambitious and less transparent direction. It’s Colour and the Shape-lite, and Dave Grohl is a better salesman.

Tough times riddle the front end beyond that, but they’re still pretty digestible. “I’ve Got Friends” flips up the amps and pummels the listener with a crashing wave of guitars and a thunderous rhythm. At first, the barrage felt like a desperate bid for sizable penetration based solely on volume and density, but Chris Freeman’s trilling keys that answer the riffs offer a nice balance, ensuring it’s hooky enough to overlook the bare-shelf playbook. The soft-loud crutch of “In My Teeth” is comfort food, and the impenetrable wall of guitar scuzz on the home stretch is a hell of a drug, but the murky Biblical hooey that can’t be absolved (or ignored) during the calmer verses elicits eye rolls. And since the entire first half is an enfilade of buff riffs and artillery percussion, there’s no wiggle room for the drippy sentiment. By the time they arrive on the gentle opening verse of quickie “100 Dollars,” they don’t sound primed for a whisper ballad—they simply sound exhausted. And halfway through the sub-two-minute song, they break out the guitar pedals and Hull yelps for the rafters.

There’s no denying the power pop punch of “The Only One,” the stadium-sized “Friends,” the Spoon-y stutter rhythm of “Shake It Out,” Robert McDowell’s dinosaur riff of “Pride.” But paying attention between the lines leads to immediate dissatisfaction. Hull’s lyrics are a stormy sea of enigmatically slippery verses and vaguely demonstrative refrains. He talks about the “passive power of truth” on “The Only One” and yet there’s no truth to be gleaned since the whole thing is entirely nondescript. Other moments creak worse than haunted house staircases: “I am the living ghost of what you need/I am everything eternally” (“Shake It Out”).

Even on the more diverse second side, the results are still a bit mixed (again, because of Hull). But by this point, you’ve become accustomed to his unappetizing vocal inflections—it’s the lyrics that still land with a thud. “I Can Feel a Hot One” plays its slowed-down, spacious pace to the point where the words are required to be the driving point, but all Hull has are lines like, “To pray for what I thought were angels/Ended up being ambulances/And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter/She was crying inside your stomach.”

Left with the crunchy melodies to carry us through, the words fade into the reverb. “My Friend Marcus” flusters between heart-on-sleeve emo ballad and arena-sized power ballad, which is tough to do, but manages to skirt mediocrity by melodically balancing the same piano chime against peppy grunge-friendly guitars that they skipped through on “All My Friends.” “Everything to Nothing” could become a real showstopper, especially with the guitar-crashing climax and the hearty sing-a-long blankness of, “You mean everything to nothing/You mean everything to nobody but me.” But then there’s “The River,” which might be even bigger, and has a fan-friendly scream-o chorus that’ll be tough to deride with a couple of $10 beers in your belly.

The fans will still follow Manchester Orchestra, and I’m sure they’ll be more forgiving of Hull’s songwriting than I am. As far as lyrical integrity is concerned, some may point to “Pride,” with its (I hope) metaphorical depictions of lions, cheap tricks, habits and dead necks, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out what Hull was talking about without really reaching. But nobody needs great intellectual ideas to rock out; the problem is that these guys are trying for them at all. If it’s a crisis of faith that has them wading into choppier waters or something else entirely, I can’t fault aspiration, but even the more forgiving should probably find it difficult to care when they lean into slick anthems—look what producer Joe Chiccarelli recently did to the Shins and My Morning Jacket. Hull clearly draws his concepts in rough shades, so where’s the grit to match? But I guess that’s not the problem—it’s the scope.

May
12
2009

20 Years of Summer Movies, A Love/Hate Relationship

car-copterWith the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the 2009 summer movie season has begun. A cursory glance at the upcoming slate of summer releases looks pretty weak this year, but I’m not here to look ahead. Instead, I noticed that we’ve reached the twenty-year anniversary of the “true” summer movie age. Sure, Jaws and Star Wars were the godfathers of the movement, and the close-following summers since that time often saw two or three big releases looking to cash in on the popcorn-munching crowd, but it was 1989 when the summer movie calendar started to become bloated. The large number of crowd-pleasing titles (and bevy of sequels) included the following: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Star Trek V, Lethal Weapon 2, The Abyss, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and, to a lesser extent, The Karate Kid: Part III. So on the Platinum Anniversary of the summer flick phenomenon, I offer a look back at the best and worst the cinemas offered in the last twenty years.

May
08
2009
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