Matt Medlock



Music Video Corner I

thehorrorsWhen MTV finally phased out music videos from its programming, it happened with a shrug more than a scream, as the channel had long ago stopped playing interesting videos, instead settling on one minute clips of videos as voted by teenyboppers on TRL. But once upon a time, on programs like 120 Minutes and, to a lesser extent, Headbangers Ball, they used to play music videos from bands on the rise, ones low on budgets but high on creativity.

Below is an unfocused smattering of videos from buzz bands, some with albums just hitting stores in the past couple of weeks. They include the Crocodiles, Company of Thieves, the Horrors, Torche and Manchester Orchetra. Enjoy.

May
07
2009
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Fever Ray - Fever Ray Review

There’s a temptation to laud something that sounds different than 98% of what’s out there and to pan anything that doesn’t distinguish itself from the pack. There’s also the unwritten rule of thumb that suggests that if it invites comparisons to great work of the past in a favorable manner, it too must be great. Finally, there’s the tricky maneuver where an album needs cohesion and unity but if everything sounds the same, the artist lacks a dynamic sound and is wanting of ideas. I mention this because Fever Ray defies this logic and excels on its own terms. There’s little variety in the songs until multiple listens open up the scope and yet you sense a tonal shift that clashes with necessities of fusion. On top of that, it evokes a flood of memories of past recordings and yet nothing else quite sounds like this.

A lot of those memories tend to gravitate towards the Knife, not surprisingly, the Swedish electronic duo that has begged of obsession despite a prickly nature and has risen to the top of beguiling names in the genre. Fever Ray is the alias of the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, and while her adopted persona striking off for a solo LP doesn’t verify concerns that the pair are done working in tandem, it certainly doesn’t refute them either. It’s worthless to try and decipher what each member brought to the collaboration since, as siblings who take their stands together, Karin and Olof are clearly of similar minds. But if one must make a distinction between Fever Ray and the Knife, the latter was more bass heavy, club-friendly and yet more anti-commercial. Andersson actually allowed journalists to interview her leading to the Fever Ray release (though she remained cryptic and aloof in doing so), but Fever Ray will only appeal to the masses that scorn the derelict stigma of “house” music and wish that the Knife was more gothic. Which is not to say that the Knife fell into that more commonplace category in the least, but this one ventures even further from the norm.

Chilly and creepy, the synths tend to be glacial in tempo and temperature, awash in an intangible dread that’s appropriate for the grim color and art of the cover. There are stabs, chimes and bleeps circulating the mix, but they’re like bubbles popping out of tar, and while providing a contrast to the barren atmosphere, don’t inspire a move towards the dancefloor. Beginning with the vacant and dolorous opening number, one senses oily menace, but the electronics prove to be organic and before long the beats start stamping incessantly. Notes drip, strums echo and the raven-black pools whirl and slosh beneath a barely buried rhythm sustenance. It’s electronic music meant for headphones, not dancehalls.

But it’s not a drag, nor is it prevailingly scary or bleak. And even if the drum machines and wobbling synth percolations don’t aim for heavy and stressed beats, they frequently scratch and weave an indelible texture over the gloomy soundscapes. The overwhelming theme points towards sleeplessness, lost dreams and general fatigue battling malaise, which inhibits emotional response no matter how much her heart begs to release it. But even as the instruments reach for the icy black or rattle steadily beneath an anxious pulse, she remains unbreakably calm—never detached, but the anxiety shows only in the words. 

The affair isn’t entirely murky, though. Emphasizing the norm, “Concrete Walls” and “If I Had a Heart” sink in pits of reverb, the former tribal and the latter goth, and the voice gurgles in the mire no matter the complicated arrangement of the lyrics. But “Triangle Walks” is warmer, with a motif that bends between tropical and oriental, but it arises from fevered desperation: “The night was so long/The day even longer/Lay down for a while/Recollect.” So is “Seven,” where Andersson fondly recalls a “friend who I’ve known since I was seven.” Nevertheless, these moments are fleeting; even on the latter song, the chill of solitude creeps in even as the rhythm grows in density around her. One of the few times that it becomes bothersome is when we hear the sound of pan flutes on “Keep the Streets Empty for Me”—a little too old-world-trilling, especially towards the end of the album after the mood has been securely set. A different manner of leavening might have succeeded better. As it stands, the bleak tone causes the forty-eight minute whole to feel longer and more exhausting than it needs to be, but it’s tougher to determine editing points than it is to endure the whole thing.

Andersson’s vocals are immediately recognizable from her work in the Knife. Lurching from an asexual baritone sigh to a spectral Bjork-ish chirp, the enigmatic changes fit the dramatic mood. She sounds like she chugs poison and dribbles bile, but if black-winged angels could have fangs and be called ethereal all the same, so she would be. She’s not inherently a creature of darkness, and her voice cracks very humanly, but she sounds haunted, forlorn, begging for dreams to return. It’s never easy to pinpoint her precise range since many of the vocal effects are treated by computers, but they integrate into the mysterious scheme; not because they sound mechanical, but because they fittingly sound restless and incapable.

Written around the time of the birth of Andersson’s second child, it’s no surprise that several of these songs seem born out of sleep-deprivation and yawning pleading. Referencing “Dangling feet from window frame” and “In my arms she was so warm” points towards the infant as inspiration, but while there’s no disconnect between mother and child, it’s clear that Andersson sees out of her own eyes and then the baby’s, not from the eyes of an observer noticing the two together. While the accompaniment is plain to see, there’s a loneliness in seeing only from that perspective. You’re not alone, but you see only one, and despite the bond of love and devotion, the selfless demands of the other carve and slice the well-being of the other. There’s joy on Fever Ray, but far more often than not, the recreation of those senses are drowned, which is precisely why it leaves a stain.

May
05
2009

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years Review

The Furries freak show saw signs of splintering earlier this decade as they used the success of Rings Around the World as a springboard towards increasingly bloated electronica-flecked neo-psychedelic hurricanes. Rarely drifting into the ponderous, they still managed to make their tunes lumber more than levitate. Recently, on 2007’s Hey Venus!, they tried to streamline the sound and return to their potent power pop roots for a less navel-gazing and astringent sonic whirlpool, but failed to break through the ceiling of consistently good into occasionally great, which the Furries used to specialize in. Now on their ninth studio LP, we should probably be grateful that the band is still hanging around no matter the diminished results, since long-term bands of worth are so hard to find these days. Even more grateful we should all be because Dark Days/Light Years is their most astonishingly gripping album since their all-time best, 1997’s Radiator.

The album as a whole weaves its spell in subtle and mysterious ways, but the songs gratify immediately. Taken individually, hardly any of them don’t demand a repeat or two right away. But the track sequencing initially seems aloof, pitting epic dirges between zippier numbers and slowly vacating the charms of previous songs into polar reactions a few seconds later. I initially thought it was a just a series of great tracks, poorly placed and begging for a digital swap. But on the third and fourth listen, the nature of these songs fit the turmoil—they are constantly at odds with each other within the barriers of the compositions, so the unnatural flow is a reflection of the progression. Hell, that turbulent communion is right there in the name of the album. The songs have quiet unease; so too should the breaths between them seem jumbled and erratic.

Take the leadoff multi-part epic, “Crazy Naked Girls,” which stomps like heavy glam, swings like vamping funk and gurgles like color-drip psychedelia. The crunchy wah-wah sounds like Cream on a bad acid trip, but the groove and raunchy attitude is Prince-esque. Imagine a sexed-up supercharger howling about, “Crazy, crazy naked girls with nothing on,” who shortsightedly decided to pilot a blimp made of lead. Then the next track, “Mt,” begins quiet with a gentle acoustic guitar and crooning vocals, but carries over the epically dumb drive of the last one by showcasing Gruff Rhys singing the hilariously bong resin-clogged line, “I wasn’t looking for a mountain/There was a mountain/It was a big fucking mountain/So I climbed the mountain.” And lest you be turned away by such bare-knuckle sentiment (or is it bone-headed?), the song quickly turns to stomping again, bass-heavy and brimming with brimstone.

The sultry lounge swing then comes back on the electro-greased, neon nu-disco fetish “Moped Eyes.” But before we get too sexed up again, the Furries navigate through motorik with blood in its heartbeat; “Inaugural Trams” even manages to turn a throwaway German rap into an advantage. In the same way that the Furries’ most ingenious jams were always preciously creeping towards a cliff overlooking the dark sea of overkill, so too does “Trams” succeed mightily against tradition. By the time they pit a reverb-verve pop tune against an eight-minute psychedelic haze dream, you’re ready to start swapping the tracks around to suit your mood.

But the rise and fall of the album’s tone, pace and style is paramount to its success. It only seems to bog down and fly by at different intervals because they know that if too many faster, upbeat songs are front-loaded, they are quickly forgotten when the next one arrives—adding a dirge echoes the last cut’s hooks even as you drift off into dreamland. Similarly, if the long ones bled out and seeped into the next one, you’d find them to be a trudging chore instead of a relaxing tempest.

Exhausting as it might sound, there’s no need for a break before tackling the back end. They manage to live up to the ingeniously tongue-in-cheek song title, “The Best of Neil Diamond,” by delivering a mid-tempo dazzler that manages to be unpredictable even as it constantly returns to the hook-heavy chorus that hammers home the murmuring warble, “Trust but verify.” “Helium Hearts” is gorgeously decadent psych-folk crossed with breathless R&B dressed up as sunshine pop. “Where Do You Wanna Go?” is breezy cotton candy that culminates with a signature-change surprise I won’t spoil here. “Lliwiau Llachar” is another one of their Welsh-language screwballs that again proves that Welsh-speak rolls right off the tongue in lovely ways, but on paper, the hyper-extended words look like someone ate an entire box of Alpha-Bits and took a dump.

Since this is Super Furry Animals, there are destined to be a few brow-crinkling moments along the way, but instead of bordering on obnoxious as they sometimes have in the past, here they’re integrated much better. Instead of grating left turns, they rise almost naturally out of the groove or melody they’re beating to death. And by doing so, they become an advantage—a nice break in the drawn-out sections. A good example is “Cardiff in the Sun,” which begins on slippery footing by aping a spacey Edge riff from any number of recent distended U2 epics, but expands on it before long without turning into mere mockery. Then there’s the extended closer, “Pric,” which is an instrumental that retains vocal parts. Impossible? Give it a listen and you’ll see. I don’t even mind the last three minutes of faintly audible electronic goop—if I’m not in the mood for it, I shut it down and lose nothing from the experience.

With the weird stuff charming again, the intentionally dumb interludes bordering on transcendent and a wealth of great fundamental songs stuffed with juicy hooks beneath the eccentricities, Super Furry Animals sound more invigorated than they have in a long time. They’ve never been content to “phone it in,” but the results could be drastically uneven—the slow ones draining and the quick pop nuggets too faint and forgettable. But a masterstroke of seemingly clunky planning has beefed up the variety on here. More than that, though, nearly every song on here can be cherished alone again and again. Dark Days/Light Years is everything you could ever want from the Furries, and maybe a few things you didn’t know you were missing.

Apr
29
2009

Chairlift - Does You Inspire You Review

One of the few buzz bands of 2008 that didn’t catch a surf-friendly wave of hype, Chairlift just saw their debut LP, Does You Inspire You, get a re-release from Columbia Records (Kanine handled the original release). As is typical of debuts (particularly from Brooklyn’s busy buzz band market), the results were decidedly mixed, but there were more than enough good elements (and songs) to suggest that they have an above average chance of emerging as a truly worthwhile act. The re-release adds a pair of songs in the album’s midsection and expands “Make Your Mind Up” with an extended intro. While my impression of the album as a whole hasn’t changed much in the last eight months, I like it a little better, in no small part because the good songs get fonder treatment the more you relax to them instead of dissecting them for rhyme and reason.

Apr
29
2009
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Decemberists Rock The Colbert Report...Again

meloydecemberistsFor those who missed it, the Decemberists visited The Colbert Report again Monday night. Some might remember the terrific episode a while back when Chris Funk accepted Stephen Colbert's guitar challenge and the two battled for the ultimate prize...a copy of the Decemberists' The Crane Wife. This time, Colbert interviewed Colin Meloy and Chris Funk both for a few minutes and then let the band wail away on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” from their latest full-length, The Hazards of Love. Tragically, the six-and-a-half minute song was obviously too long for the broadcast, so the audience was treated to a shortened version. But the heart of the song remained intact and Shara Worden was on hand to give the same full-throated performance she delivered on the studio version. I was a big fan of the album, so naturally, I’m only so glad to share a snippet of the ambitious concept album for anyone who’s yet to check out the whole thing. Videos of the interview and performance can seen after the break (credit to The Audio Perv for posting them on YouTube).

Apr
28
2009
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Finish the Equation: Billy Corgan + Wrestling = ?

Rock n’ roll and testosterone usually go hand in hand, particularly when the rock stars equate thrashing guitars with smashing personal effects. And speaking of smashing, Billy Corgan had his angsty mitts on quite a few rage rockers over the years. Perhaps the most famous of these is “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” which gave us the prominent line, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” Fits any random act of rebellious violence, yes? Well, what if that act of violence was more controlled…say, faked? What if “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” could coexist with “professional” wrestling? Apparently it can, though the cohabitation is uncomfortable. We know what wrestling brings to the table, but who knows what Billy’s gonna show up with. Turns out, it’s a love for 8 Mile. Or so it seems. Corgan acting like Eminem and half-heartedly promoting a Pay Per View wrestling event? Believe it.

Apr
28
2009
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The Thermals - Now We Can See Review

Oh no, the Thermals are growing up. Not really, but so goes the consensus when a band displays more carefully plotted maneuvering and a sharper eye for polish. No doubt this transition from manic slop to agit-pop will alienate some long-time fans, but so it goes. Responsible for some of the most thrilling and incisive lyrical invectives of the last few years, the Thermals haven’t entirely abandoned their debilitating outlook, but they’re slightly more elegant, more figurative and less accusatory.

All across Now We Can See are moments of pitching glee and cathartic relief, a change of pace from the snarling shards that made up their anti-religion opus, The Body, The Blood, The Machine. More than just a diatribe, it nailed its specific target not out of navel-gazing glibness but rather authentic resistance, and filtered the observations and accusations through more universal appraisals, tying together criticisms into broader jargon that made them more anthemic than bilious. But this time, even their most frenzied and troubling moments are tempered with bursting choruses and whoa-ohs. That doesn’t dull their impact, though; it makes Hutch Harris’ songwriting more palatable by perspective—even if you don’t care about the constant water metaphors being, ahem, salvaged, the tunes are usually rollicking enough to enjoy.

“When I Died” treats a story of wanting to become a fish as something more general, typically being sick of one's environment and just longing to get away. Harris snaps, “Busted and wrecked/Justly infected/My body beyond repair/Had no objection, sir/My only questions were/’Where do I go and will I know when I'm there?’/But I really couldn't say that I cared.” The global warming concerns he once equated with the tale of Noah and his Ark on TBTBTM has returned. But more than that, this album is about escaping the oppressive state, using water not just as a metaphor for freedom, but also as a path to cleansing, a tool for washing away and a medium in which to “swim in circles.” It’s the sort of joyous fantasy we could only dream of a year back when Bush was still the chief. But whether we see through the eyes of the dead or the defeated, the catharsis I mentioned earlier comes like the closing of a coffin lid instead of the exuberant exultation of being unchained and freed. 

If that makes this album sound like a bummer, it’s not. None of this prevents Harris from taking his tightly-wound vocal style and driving the high notes into nasal territory. There’s an undeniable rapturous acclimation in that voice, particularly as the songs strive towards the denouement with irrational cries. Reaching the end of “I Let It Go” finds Harris building off Kathy Foster’s faintly audible vocal accompaniment and ardently sing-shouting, “I looked my fear in the eye/I looked at the water below/I knew I could love or die/I let it go, I let it go.” And there’s no denying that he tramples the line, “Fear is mine, fear is by my side,” with angry young denial on “When I Was Afraid,” thumping the chest and curling a sneer across lips. The lyrics may lean towards clichés once too often on this record, but Harris usually sells them.

There should be little argument that the biggest departure comes in the form of the near-six-minute monster ballad, “At the Bottom of the Sea.” Coasting on a gently fuzzy Sebadoh-style riff and simple drum pattern, it’s actually generously lovely and builds to a fever pitch organically when it lands at the home stretch. Their unusually introspective brand of songwriting (for a band with a claimed cause, that is) works in favor with these sorts of arrangements. Don’t think it will get all logy after this, though—next up is the hyperkinetic “When We Were Alive,” one of the few ragers that revisits past prowess, even if it’s still cleaner than the broken glass enthusiasm they’re known for.

Guaranteed to split camps over this new direction, the Thermals remain capable of delivering fine rock songs when they like. With neither the snarl nor submission that follows the general mood of these sorts of pointed observations, it rarely asks for submitted devotion, but they play both sides with remarkably consistent results. Without the fervor or the climax, we’re just left with some refined rockers that trend towards power pop. That’s fine for the audience, but their claws are sharper than this. I hope it’s not the sound of resignation, but if this is a day off, they’ve earned it and we can share in the relaxation even if the Thermals refuse to drop their guard.

Apr
27
2009

Reissues of the Vaselines and Pixies Catalogs Coming Soon

vaselinesChances are, you know the Vaselines from Kurt Cobain, who was an unabashed and outspoken fan of their work. There’s even a chance that you didn’t know who the Pixies were until Cobain gave them a recommendation (and made good use of the band’s style in his own songwriting). But you know both groups now, and, chances are, you love ‘em. It should be greeted as good news then that the entire catalogs of both outfits are about to be released through snazzy new box sets. Even if you already own all of their studio recordings (and if you’ve read this far, you probably do), there are plenty of extras to whet your appetite, including unreleased demos, live cuts and cool new album art, packaging and liner notes. Chances are, you’re excited now, but I’m taking a lot of chances right now. Read on for details.

Apr
21
2009
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Silversun Pickups - Swoon Review

I’ll be honest: I didn’t really get all of the Smashing Pumpkins comparisons that Silversun Pickups garnered three years back on their debut LP, Carnavas. Sure, there was more than a hint of Corgan nasal delivery going on and the deceptively structured arrangements that seemed free-roaming hinted the way of the Pumpkins, but their sound owed a debt to 90s alternative rock as a whole, not just one band. But even more surprising was that the L.A. outfit was able to benefit instead of being hamstrung by such claims. It’s easy to forget now, with Billy completely losing touch and the “band” failing to capitalize on their reunion by giving fans what they want (or, more importantly, giving them something simply worthwhile), that the Pumpkins were once one of the most electrifying acts in all of music. But Silversun Pickups got down the lush layers of guitars and the enigmatic angst, but never caught on to the musical dynamic that sold the style.

Apr
19
2009
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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Albums of the 1960s

60salbumsbanner

The second in the ten-part series celebrating the best music of the last fifty years, this time we delve into the one hundred best albums of the 1960s. To see the list of the top 100 songs of the same decade, click here. If you're caught up, read on to see what I picked as the best full-lengths of the decade.

Apr
14
2009
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The Balky Mule - The Length of the Rail Review

Alias of Sam Jones (half of the indie duo Crescent), the Balky Mule takes its name from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song called “Balky Mule Blues.” But The Length of the Rail is anything but a blues album, preferring the pluck of an acoustic guitar washed over with keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines and whatever other electronics Jones can get his hands on. He purchased the equipment second-hand for cheap, ensuring that the rusty tones he works out of them never sound as processed or clinical as the genre trends towards. Instead, the noise can be jarring and unstable, percolating nervously along faintly bending lines. And yet Jones doesn’t aim to create abrasion and discomfort—no matter how quirky or distressed the rhythms can be, they’re also serendipitously soothing, like ambience with a rattle fetish.

Apr
12
2009
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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Beware Review

I complain about country artists pawning off their roots for the pop phenomena that made superstars out of the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, so I’d be remiss to not shake my head when someone takes country and stuffs it full of pomp, even if that artist happens to be Will Oldham. Country’s finest moments typically arise from rustic charms and bleeding-heart emotions, almost always the melancholy of the longing or loss of love (or shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). But while Oldham never dresses up these songs with processed hooks and glittering gloss, he does pour on enough syrup to make these songs too sticky to accept at face value. And it’s not even the production and arrangements that make this one a disappointment—it’s in the lyrics. Oldham’s varying range of success in the word department has always ensured some skepticism at face value, but these are some of the flattest and least original phrases he’s ever cooked up. It’s a tragedy almost as grand as the ones he inflates over the course of these thirteen songs.

Beware is a fitting warning for those who approach it. While his faithful will likely applaud such a dramatic choice, it’s not easy to take an album that aspires for lofty measure too seriously. With Oldham once again slipping into his Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona, there’s an artificiality to each exquisitely labored emotive breath, and he lingers too long on sorrows too abstract to understand or too commonplace to take notice. Souping up these tracks with strident back-up vocalists and a cluster of instruments is troubling, and since the album rarely takes flight above a wandering mid-tempo drag, it guarantees a sluggish pace and murky lack of finesse. Sooner or later, you’re going to start wishing there was a power ballad or dance track on here, no matter how much it would derail continuity—that’s a troubling place to be to wish that Oldham would just up and sell out.

On “Heart’s Arms,” he conveys the sense of lovelorn melancholy that’s become typical of country, but draws them out so far over the slovenly tempo that he makes them sound like the most intrinsically devastating laments ever asked: “Why don’t you write me anymore? Have you found something as good just next door?” Then with “I Don’t Belong to Anyone,” he stakes a place in Dolly Parton territory, but layering on the strings, flamenco-lilts and female accompaniment makes what might have been a quaint (but derivative) gem into an overblown gaffe. “There Is Something I Have to Say” is blessedly cleaner, crisper and richer for the absence of instrumental litter; simply because it leaves breathing room defines it as one of the album’s best cuts.

When he goes a bit more up-tempo on “You Don’t Love Me” (with jerking fiddles and handclaps), he does little more than rewrite Tammy Wynette-style ballads, only increasing the quotient of flabby lyricism and the jiggle of overwrought supplements—did those horns need to be so broadly unappealing? When he mourns that, “You say my kissing rates a six on a scale of one to ten/And you wouldn't pass the time with me except you're tired of all your friends,” it’s difficult not to find those two lines to be uncomfortably positioned, vaguely swapping between childish and mature whisperings. Following that is “You Are Lost,” which indeed does get lost as it climbs towards the heavens when it would be much more comfortable on a porch swing. And the more exuberant the music sounds, more often that not, Oldham just sounds even more resigned, like a sage with nothing great to say, so he mumbles beneath the louder choir so he can be drowned out but not be faulted for not trying.

“My Life’s Work” is more successful at “bringing the noise,” with long oohing backups emphasizing the dark drama of the downbeat John Denver-esque ballad. And he gets out of his own way, coveting the spotlight instead of shrinking from it, and belting the regretful but scintillating, “This morning we found no love at all/I bust a hole in the ceiling so the light will flow,” and the passionately delivered (for Oldham, that is) refrain, “I take this load on/It is my life work.” There’s also “Without Work You Have Nothing,” which rolls along lackadaisically on a bed of strings and guitars, assisted by a gentle harmonica and breathy back-ups—the impressive melody not only survives the sonic onslaught, but is also bolstered by its magnanimous gusto. But before that, “I Am Goodbye” is an amusing little trifle that is actually quite fun when culled from its support, but feels contextually out of place from the rest of the record.

Since grandiosity makes the spare charms of country music sound bloated and over-sentimental, Oldham is working with the deck stacked against him. Even if he managed to find proper nuance and intrigue to inflect his writing, they’d still be clumsily overwrought, scouring elsewhere for comparably simplistic skill. It’s not just that there’s a lack of great songs (which there is) but more critically that the album’s production is tainted by too much unnecessary clutter. While a stripped down version wouldn’t notch this one up with Billy’s best efforts, it would certainly make this exercise a little less excruciating. Emerging with a halfway decent album is a bit of a miracle considering the number of mistakes he makes, but that it comes from Oldham marks it just short of devastating.

Apr
12
2009

Mastodon - Crack the Skye Review

Mastodon was anointed early as a savior of metal for the new millennium despite a tendency towards mixed results. Their last two full-lengths, Blood Mountain and Leviathan, each had three or four truly stunning songs on them, but also a fair share of middle of the road cuts that recycle a lot of the same dynamics and riffs and at least a couple that range between head-scratching failures and obnoxiously unbearable gristle. Sometimes exhausting, sometimes tiresome, their attempts to keep the thunder crashing for forty-plus minutes straight was apparently far more daunting than the silly titles they came up with for their songs. They’ve been a good band for many years now, often approaching and reaching greatness, but never with a consistency that would put them firmly into heavy metal royalty.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached their latest, which recruited Brendan O’Brien as a producer. O’Brien has had his hand in more than enough great albums over the years to ensure that his value can’t accurately be applauded, but for Mastodon, it seemed at first glance to be a blatantly transparent move for mainstream acceptance (Blood Mountain did decent business, but not nearly as much as a “hot commodity” band should have). The move reeked of cynical notice; I had visions of Our Lady Peace hiring Bob Rock to turn them into Our Lady Creed. But a cursory glance at the tracklist (and song running times) negated a lot of that anxiety. At seven songs, the album runs nearly fifty minutes, time enough for two double-digit minute epics that would close out each side of the vinyl version. So you know going in that they’re going to be “getting their prog on,” which means a desperate bid for radio favor is far from their minds. Instead, I can only assume that O’Brien was brought on board to assist them in making the most of their talent and scope.

They lose very little of their heaviness, but they increase the returns in intricacy and melodicism. Even the sort of stiff-necked purists who whined about Metallica’s Black Album (and later Load) shouldn’t have too much trouble with this more expansive vision. By letting the stomping rhythm section and the anvil riffs breathe a little, their impact increases in magnitude. It doesn’t bog down into a morass of cranky, over-compressed sludge. Instead it sounds like an homage to the heaviest moments of Rush and King Crimson, and gives metal an appealing neon-opera magnificence, opulent arrangements that still squeeze in enough bone-crunching firebombs to keep the less-discerning headbangers mightily pleased.

Beginning with “Oblivion,” they set the tone for the remainder of the album right off the bat. While Brett Hinds’ central riff gathers momentum until it chugs with the speed of a bullet train, it’s the multi-harmony vocals that set the stage for the twisting and spacious venture ahead. Drummer Brann Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders handle the verses and bridges, letting Hinds’ gravelly growl carry the chorus. The harmonies are helpful—Hinds has a good “metal voice,” but “metal voices” are far too much of a burden to bother with anymore, so easing the tension helps aerate the sometimes impenetrable sonic booms. Instead of a numbing nuclear warhead going off, we’re treated to a series of jolting artillery bombardments—maybe not as apocalyptic-cool, but they lend themselves to the lasting power they struggled with in the past. It’s a fireworks display, and the band didn’t forget to bring along a fog machine and lasers to heighten the ostentatious mood.

“Quintessence” is the best of the non-epics on here, with Hinds and Bill Kelliher dueling with their guitars, spacing out on the bridges and pummeling hard and fast during the chorus. There’s an undeniable hardcore slaughter that they summon during those refrains, standing in direct opposition to the gigantic swirl that surrounds them. Those time-signature switches are the greatest weapon in Mastodon’s arsenal (really, almost any ambitious metal outfit). Without ever locking into a singular pace or groove, you never quite get comfortable, ensuring that no matter how overwhelming the conceit can be, you’re never drawn off to entire disinterest, or worse, slumber.

And the conceit is overwhelming. Their earlier record, Leviathan, being based on Moby Dick now seems positively quaint when compared to the middling tale of someone slipping through a wormhole and emerging in the past, just in time to meet Rasputin. In mentioning the Klysty sect, Dailor explains: “Knowing Rasputin is about to be murdered, they put the young boy's spirit inside of Rasputin. Rasputin goes to usurp the throne of the czar and is murdered by the Yusupovs, and the boy and Rasputin fly out of Rasputin's body up through the crack in the sky and head back.” Nothing is going to bring that one back to Earth, not even when Dailor insists that, “It’s all metaphors for personal shit.” Thank goodness for that, because I was beginning to falter…

Lucky for us, metal has never been a haven for great lyricism, so that kind of grand art-stupidity fits in well with the style. What really matters is the musicianship. On Crack the Skye, no tangent or riff stagnates because they never linger long enough for them to become tedious. Over the course of the record, there are surf riffs, Southern rock rhythms, pseudo-jazz arrangements, synths both dominating the drive and the space in between, vocoder-assisted robot vocals and absurdly huge segments that traverse from nascent to climax in a heartbeat. The bombast is best served on the multi-part epics, “The Czar” and “The Last Baron,” which rip and roar from one complex rhythm to the next, gurgling quietly with the pall of impending doom before crashing with the magnitude of an asteroid obliterating an entire mountain range. Too much of either doesn’t work; they’ve discovered the right amount of each for a tight but unpredictable mix.

Tolerance for pomposity and volume will be required to enjoy Crack the Skye, but there’s no doubt that this is Mastodon’s first front-to-back album that holds up all the way through. An absence of fabulous single-ready compositions matters for nothing; it’s the experience of the whole that will deliver it to fans willing to bend to their critical control. Even questioning whether the concept is too muddled or bizarre doesn’t matter. Nor does an absence of great hooks eliminate the need for immediate replays of certain prog-metal movements. If they remain as unguarded, daring and ferocious as this for the near future, the odds of disappointing fall by the wayside. This is the second huge prog-friendly album in the last couple of weeks to emerge victorious over any semblance of out-of-control pretentious boggling of the minds. They may lack the Decemberists’ range but they can match them muscle for chop. The once dubious genre is (for the moment) as satisfying now as it was when the early-70s first gave it a reason for existing.

Apr
11
2009

Movies That Deserve a Second Life: Comedy Edition

comedyWelcome to another edition of Movies That Deserve a Second Life. If you need a refresher on what I’m referring to by “second life,” check out the Action/Adventure Edition. If you’re caught up, read on to see what funny flics I felt were unfairly ignored/disliked upon its release or have been forgotten in the years since its release.

Apr
06
2009
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The End of Stereolab?

stereolabAfter nineteen years, it seems that Stereolab has come to an end. The London indie rockers have canceled the last few shows on their most recent tour and have announced that they have no future plans to record anything more together. While not explicitly a breakup per se, the suddenness of the announcement (and dodging of planned events, including an Austrian music festival) suggest that it's slightly more serious than a mere hiatus. As far as post-rock is concerned, they were one of the better ones, never forgetting that music, no matter how experimental and off-kilter it may be, still needs to be worth hearing more than once—and, indeed, they recorded a number of great pop songs along the way. So while it's not quite a guaranteed end, the future seems not so bright for the exotic act. You can read manager Martin Pike's statement on Stereolab's website after the break.

Apr
02
2009
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Pearl Jam - Ten (Legacy Edition) Review

It’s been a few years since I’ve dusted off the old reliable, Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut LP. In the last decade, I’ve spun it fewer times than any of their other full-lengths. The reasoning is simple if not terribly sound—I know it front to back all too well. Not just the radio hits, of which there are at least four that can still be heard every day somewhere in the country, but the gems in between, too. I didn’t get sick of it; it just no longer became necessary to play. I could revisit any of the tunes any time I wanted by just sitting in silence and remembering. Most fans can. Hell, even those out there who loathe Pearl Jam can recite the classics, however grudging it might be to do so.

Of all of Pearl Jam’s records, Ten is the most monolithic. It both adheres to and defies the expectations of a first album. They hadn’t yet discovered the sort of band they wanted to be, and there’s an undeniable monotony to some of the classic rock stylings they churned through, particularly on the home stretch when the great ones are in the, ahem, rearviewmirror. The musicianship was stunningly stellar for a new band (though most of them had cut their teeth with other Seattle serpents) but the tricks were singular. Old metal riffs were cleaved of their overt darkness, sliced razor-thin in the uncommonly clean pedals and amps (for a grunge band, that is), the crack-crash drums were efficient but toothless and very few songs didn’t sound like a tweaked arrangement they had just tried out. The heavy moments sounded alike, as did the slower, lighter-waving pieces of the set. And while a couple flew by with the frenzy of punk, they still deliberated over familiar riffs and tuning.

And yet the defiance remained, often against our better judgment. Uncomfortable with the sludgy dinosaur riffs of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains? Bored by the post-punk bleed and clipped nihilism of Nirvana and Mudhoney? Pearl Jam sat comfortably in the middle, playing far faster and smarter than the boorish metal demons and far cleaner and more professional than the gangly fuzzbox gremlins. Pearl Jam weren’t scoffing at the hard rock pioneers but instead invited them in for a beer. Which helps explain why they were able to out-stadium their peers—the bombast was there, but it was reined in by personalities objecting to abstract pandering, filling in the chasm of quality with their slightly less-than-unique brand of play-it-if-it-sounds-good mentality.

Diving into the highs and lows of Ten is pretty much worthless at this point. Everyone owns a copy; even if they haven’t worn it out through repeated listens, I’m sure they can recite it as well as I. The focus is, as it rightfully should be, on this new mix by Brendan O’Brien. O’Brien, who mixed and/or produced virtually every PJ album since their sophomore effort, Vs., transforms the sound of Ten without ever explicitly mutating it. Aside from washing away some of the fuzz, you don’t even catch on right away with what’s different. The changes seem almost segmental, especially to those like me who have feasted on a steady diet of distortion for so long now that the reverb just sounds like a calming hiss. Leaner and cleaner, O’Brien’s Ten is somehow both more muscular to the gut and gentler to the nerves.

On “Alive,” Ed Vedder’s burr lurches above the dual guitars during the early verses, enhancing each drawn out syllable between the ones he spits out fast and feckless. During the climactic peal, Dave Krusen's drums really pop and Mike McCready and Stone Gossard battle gracefully. The keys are crisper on “Black,” but the blustery guitars howl louder, too. Jeff Ament’s bass twinges very audibly during the intro of “Porch.” The silvery riff of “Garden” is now clean enough to eat off of and the crackle in the bridge is like a sheet of firecrackers flickering over the hill. But the changes are generally pretty slight, and rarely distract from the enjoyment of old favorites, nor are they so dramatic that it will divide fans into camps over which mix is superior.

The added B-sides will probably satisfy the faithful but it’s a little disappointing in terms of volume. A number of early PJ classics like “Dirty Frank” and “Yellow Ledbetter” are missing, but fans already have multiple copies of them anyway. Instead, there’s a version of “Brother” with vocals, early demos of venerable Singles soundtrack staples like “State of Love and Trust” and “Breath” (here called “Breath and a Scream”) and a few unreleased takes, including the smoldering “2000 Miles Blues.” For a special edition of a twelve-time platinum release, the promise of bonus material is usually the key selling point, but six is a little slim to prompt the attention. 

As for the multiple editions, the more cost-friendly version with two CDs and a DVD of their MTV Unplugged set seems the best buy for those not wholly fanatical for the flannel warriors. If you’ve got the cash (not likely nowadays), there’s a true ultimate edition that adds four vinyls, a notebook replica and a cassette tape of early material. It’s the kind of stuff that lets the diehards drool over, but doesn’t make too much sense economically. But if there’s a mainstream band still around today that’s worth your obsession, this one’s probably still it. They are the real deal, and proved it even on their first release. The Legacy Edition fills in some of the gaps and gives us an interesting new take on the classic, but this one’s kinda selling artifacts to slack-jaws that are already on board. You know how PJ fans are: it could have just been the old mix and two slightly different B-side versions, but so long as there’s fancy new packaging, it probably would have gone Gold.

Mar
31
2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! Review

When you have Karen O in your arsenal, it could be very easy to fall back on running through the same playbook again and again. Her repertoire of riot grrrl command, Debbie Harry vogue n’ pose, a sultry wail to put most bubblegum pop and R&B princesses to shame and the attitude of the coolest kid you knew in high school allows her the opportunity to ratchet between vamping and gnashing on the same song and always entrance the audience. Feed her anything and she’ll make it sound like hotshit. If you want an attention-grabber, she makes your first team every time.

Mar
29
2009
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"Twilight"—MST3K Style

Last year, a movie called Twilight premiered in theaters some time around Thanksgiving. If you understandably don't remember it, it had something to do with teenage angst and vampires (Ooh, there's a pairing). Reportedly, it did pretty good business, but I decided to skip it. Not my thing. But now I envision a reason to actually sit down and watch the apparent time waster: Mystery Science Theater 3000. Sure, MST has been out of commission for more than a decade now, but there's always RiffTrax or any of the other offshoots. Check out the clip below to see how great a little MST would go over on something that, based on the three minutes on display, is wholly devoid of anything worth sitting through.

Mar
27
2009
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Wavves - Wavvves Review

It is believed to be Kevin Failure who first coined the term “shitgaze.” Obviously an amalgam of the sub-genre of shoegaze and, uh, shit, its use is sometimes derogatory, sometimes affectionate, but always followed by a smirk. Its roster includes numerous recent “buzz bands,” like No Age, Women, Times New Viking, A Place to Bury Strangers and the band that Failure was describing, Psychedelic Horseshit. Even Failure’s own act, Pink Reason, has been labeled as such. It’s nice that they can play nice with each other without being too lovey dovey. However, it’s not so nice that there are so many of them out there right now.

Mar
27
2009
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New Dinosaur Jr. Album and Tour

dinojrThere hadn’t been a comeback like 2007's Beyond in some time. Not only was it the best Dinosaur Jr. album in more than a decade, but it actually rivals You’re Living All Over Me and Bug as being their all-time best, period. So any news about new Dinosaur Jr. is worth a look. The good and the bad: based on some early behind-the-scenes material and reports from the band and management, there’s not going to be a whole lot of innovation on the new record; mostly just the same ol’, same ol’. Which, in the case of the very unique sound of J. Mascis and crew, sounds fine by me.

Mar
25
2009
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