Matt Medlock



Peter Bjorn and John - Living Thing Review

Ignoring Seaside Rock, their vinyl/digital-only release from last year, Living Thing is Peter Bjorn and John’s follow-up to their widely-lauded 2006 LP, Writer’s Block. If you need a refresher, just think of “Young Folks.” Or, better yet, hear the album in its entirety since they were a lot more interesting than a mere buzz band who did that song that even your mom knows front-to-back. There’s some good news and bad news for the group’s new album. Thankfully, there isn’t a song on here that will be raped and murdered by commercials and pop culture like “Young Folks” was. Unfortunately, there isn’t a song as memorably catchy as “Young Folks” was.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Living Thing is a darker and stiffer journey than the last, one punctuated by knife-like synths, hollow percussion clangs, fuzzed-out fills and vocals that alternate between a particularly trodden and despairing Lennon-esque puncture and reverb-doused warbling. The closest they come to a potential alt-radio hit contains a refrain that blurts, “Hey, shut the fuck up, boy! You are starting to piss me off.” Also hook-friendly is “Nothing to Worry About,” which features the second recent usage of a children’s choir to eerie effect. They chant like The Wall's orphans gone gangster and help kick you in the proverbial head—the murky menace is positively disturbing once you step away from the martial beat.

Other songs feel as vacant as Ian Curtis on a sleepy heroin binge. In fact, “It Don’t Move Me” sounds like the transition that Joy Division made to New Order in the early 80s, from the vacant drone to the chilly, thumping beat. “I’m Losing My Mind” uses spaced-out, angular guitar chords for the verses, but the strut is like a zombie; the creases in the chorus choke up on the mic and a series of four-step beats drive home the agony. “4 out of 5” sounds like the kind of soul-sucking defeat we typically go to There’s a Riot Goin’ On Here for, but not with the same revelatory and triumphant shock.

Even the gentler moments wallow in the murk. Before the chirping synth line takes us into “Blue Period Picasso”’s arms, we get a mashed a cappella shuffle and a match crackle. Even then, the vocals are disembodied except when the upper notes need to get struck by the register. Finger snaps and oohing back-ups help the sentimental mood of “Stay This Way,” but the tempo drags its feet like Eeyore first feeling the effects of a roofie. And the title track sounds like an 80s pop icon (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, etc.) trying out that decade’s hot-button issue of eco-concern and incorporating an Afro-jungle style. Somehow, this isn’t a cover of the ELO song, despite featuring a chorus that states, “It’s a living thing, it’s a terrible thing to lose.” It’s one of the album’s silliest moments, but the chorus will stick to your ribs. That 80s/Africa theme even echoes on the next song (“I Want You”) which finds the vocals styled like Graceland’s Paul Simon.

Any aspirations for dance mixes are nixed pretty quickly, but I doubt they had the intention of getting people on their feet for this one. Their precision and passion for a strong rhythm can’t be denied, but bleakness and introspection doesn’t make for shaking. Instead, they drag out the tempos and let them breathe (or at least try to breathe, like you would if you found yourself in the unenviable position of floating through outer space after you plumb forgot to bring your helmet). Then they coat the rhythms in grime and gauze. This process allows the album to pass by on that first listen so the mood can snag you, but then on the second spin you begin to discover the lock-step percussion on several of them. You’ll never want to start a party with this album, but there are enough head-nodding moments to keep you interested even when they fumble the beat.

If this is the sound of maturation or just the act of an outfit escaping the agonizing pressure and fleet of fair weather fans looking for another “Young Folks,” they succeed in stepping away from that self-made shadow. The eclecticism of Writer’s Block kept us coming back, but they’re more focused here for a stronger ensemble. It’s not a fun record, but neither is it one you’ll balk at returning to on an appropriately austere afternoon. Still, climbing out of that hole must have been a slippery trek. This one shows a wearily beating heart, bleeding black.

Mar
24
2009

Chris Cornell - Scream Review

Curiosity can be more powerful than common sense at times. The pairing of Chris Cornell with Timbaland is such a mind-boggling match that curiosity wins. Even the faintest knowledge of those two should elicit the same reaction from everyone, regardless of what they think of either of them. That reaction is: what the fuck? It’s a combo that even the Grammy committee would likely think too bizarre to ever attempt on their yearly telecast. Is one or the other slumming in different territory? Has Cornell’s stock fallen so far that he’d jump genres and make such a blatantly transparent attempt to ensure that he shifts units? Does Timbaland envision himself so invincible as a producer that he feels like showing off and taking a fallen star to grand new heights? Or have they both lost their freakin' minds?

The album cover not-so-subtly shows Cornell giving up on the guitars that made him a star. The typeface blandly suggests the digital. So has Cornell sold out? That question depends on whether you already think he sold out years ago (or if you even believe that “selling out” qualifies anymore). I think the more appropriate question is whether he’s even trying anymore. His partner in crime certainly isn’t. As far as Timbaland’s uneven output has been, this certainly isn’t his A-game. It sounds phoned in for the most part: ultra-generic dance beats and ultra-obvious electronic tricks. There’s not a single unique stamp across the hour-plus endeavor. Artless, soulless and ultimately pretty dull, this isn’t as awful as it could have been, but it’s still pretty worthless.

For an album called Scream, it’s a true waste of Cornell’s vocal talents to have him almost never raise the tone of his voice beyond a standard-issue R&B/pop warble. Half the time, it’s not even really him. Computers copy and paste his singing towards flat back-ups floating alongside the sleek audio gurgles. The new Auto-Tune fad is used more than once, wasting Cornell’s powerful range that made him a force of nature in the 90s. Maybe screaming his way through Audioslave gunk ruined his ability to belt like a banshee, but drowning any shred of “live performance” in a cesspool of overdubs, fills and knobby synth stabs can’t possibly be the best way to go.

As for Timbaland, the man is so prolific and ubiquitous nowadays that his successes are beginning to seem more like accidents than strokes of genius. Having tried everything under the sun, he was bound to strike gold eventually, which makes all of his failures make more sense in the grand scheme. And to be fair, his efforts were aided by Ryan Tedder, Justin Timberlake and others, which, let’s face it, doesn’t help. But this is Timbaland’s thing and it’s so flippantly half-hearted, I’m reminded of the old SNL sketch that had Frank Sinatra knocking out duets so fast he doesn’t even bother to finish the tunes before moving on. Timbaland probably reserved the rest of his afternoon to counting bills.

The songs themselves can’t quite touch mediocrity but at least they mostly avoid scraping the bottom of utter tripe. The only occasions that they truly embarrass on an individual basis is when unnecessary effects are applied, like the intro fanfare of leadoff “Part of Me,” the Crunk-junk hey-heys of “Watch Out,” and the snippets of Middle Eastern and Irish melodies that never incorporate themselves as anything more than a flashy trick (ditto for a couple of appearances of thrashing electric guitars). Then there’s the late album plug-ins of spare, acoustic pseudo-balladry that suggest that Cornell would be better off going in this direction, but against the rest of Scream, it just sounds like a too-little-too-late crack at bringing gravitas to a slick but muddled dance journey. And they’re incomplete, too—less than a minute of outro noodling and a “secret track” that’s completely unremarkable.

The successes are fleeting and moderate at best. There's the skittering New Wave vibe of “Ground Zero,” a hollow but catchy chorus melody on “Time,” a few brief seconds here and there of Cornell letting his rawk flag fly. But ultimately “Ground Zero” feels too derivative of better inspirations, the words and pile-on of tricks deflate the silly glee of “Time” and every other time Cornell opens his mouth rings of flatness or out-of-his-element desperation. Despite the fact that many of these songs (especially early on) flow into each other quite efficiently, this sounds like music made by compromises and committees. Cornell apparently believes in this stuff but does anyone else?

Not too stunningly, this isn’t merely a case of bad musical choices but also of the lyrical variety. Cornell gets co-writing credit for every song on here, but I have a hard time believing that he would willingly come up with "winners" like, “Pain and suffering will come to those when I get even,” “You need a backbone to roll with the world/You got to get you one to run with the bulls,” and the repeated refrain of, “That bitch ain’t a part of me.” But Cornell boasts credit for most of the songwriting himself (mistake, maybe?) and insists that he was in charge. Going so far as comparing the album to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Queen’s A Night at the Opera suggests that the man might be dangerously insane.

Since it’s so utterly conservative and inoffensive, there are far worse options out there for the consumer to blow a fistful of cash on. But because it isn’t noteworthy in its awfulness, it can’t even rest on the laurels of an epic failure. Therefore, it won’t be remembered years from now as a laughable train wreck like we do of KISS going disco, Eddie Murphy trying his hand at party anthems or Our Lady Peace wanting a career like Creed’s. It just sits there, all shiny and devoid of nutritional value, destined to gather dust in the cheap music house bins for decades to come. So the curiosity won’t kill you, but it’ll never live up to your expectations no matter how high or low they are.

Mar
24
2009

Crap You Probably Shouldn’t See: “I Love College” Music Video

asherrothAbout three months ago, Arya Ponto brought us the awesomely bad music video of Chris Dane Owens’ “Shine on Me.” Today, I bring you the just plain bad music video for Asher Roth’s “I Love College.” Why would I want to share something so offensively awful? Because people must be warned, especially any high school seniors or college-bound youths out there. Someday soon, there’s a frighteningly good chance that this dreck is going to become the “soundtrack” to half the sub-moronic frat houses across the country. Brace yourself.

Mar
24
2009
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The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love Review

It could easily be argued that the Decemberists get away with a cluster of sins that most bands couldn’t commit one at a time and receive exoneration. The prog-folk sound they build bigger and breathier with each new effort could barely be carried out by ELO, the Incredible String Band and Jethro Tull during the anything-goes slumber of the seventies. Their hyper-literate lyricism always contains at least two or three words on each album that sends me in search of a dictionary. No matter how linear their storytelling is (and just as often it’s not), the point of view and speaker is rarely predictable—as told by killers, ghouls, babies and other unreliable narrators. And they flaunt their indie preciousness and musical worldliness both through their catalog of charming songs and their actions off-stage—a potential prize for pre-ordering their latest album is a Baglama Saz that’s been “festooned with signatures” from the band. If you don’t know (and I didn’t), a Baglama Saz is a Turkish three-string banjo-like instrument. Suddenly, the mandolin sounds as generically workmanlike as a bass guitar.

So how does the Decemberists manage to dodge not just one bloated practice but every single one of them at the same time? How have they emerged as one of the most fascinating and brilliantly realized outfits of the decade? How have they discovered a way to safely fly closer to the sun with Icarus wings on each successive release and yet get bolder, brighter and better every time? There’s no clinical or scientific rhyme to the reason; it can be explained no easier than the mirage of life and the finality of death. But they manage to enthrall instead of exacerbate, and no matter the crime committed upon sensibilities of folk rock music, they remain outlaws of daring and heroic nobility.

There is one exception to the rule, though. The Hazards of Love does not earn the “best album yet” stamp that their other full-lengths garnered. As a follow-up to The Crane Wife, even I wasn’t expecting it to best the predecessor. And I certainly wasn’t expecting an album even trickier and more grandiose than what came before. After finishing that last magnum opus, the group planned on focusing their craft on something more direct, discreet, relaxed and simple. The Beatles promised the same thing after Sgt. Pepper. But just as the elephantine curveball to the vow, The White Album, came next for the Fab Four, so too is Hazards of Love even more ambitious and bombastic than their last. And since at first glance it seems to be an aspiration to trump perfection, doom overwhelms. When mediocrity strains for middle-ground results, you get what you expect. But when someone strives for mastery and fails, it can sink careers.

Luckily, Hazards is no failure, though it dangerously flirts with it from time to time. Some passages are more successful than others, mostly in terms of momentum that picks up and ebbs away at several junctures. Normally, these problematic instances can be handled by the conspiracy of the buyer; thanks to modern technology, anyone can reorder an album’s tracks to fit their mood, or simply delete a couple of filler tracks/losers along the way. But The Hazards of Love would be Kryptonite to the stereotypical ADD music fan of today. Instead of being able to snatch a few choice moments off for that day’s iPod mix, Hazards demands start-to-finish listening, and not of the casual background music variety. In a recent debate I had, it was speculated that digital music technology is severely hurting the album concept. This record aims to deflate that fear.

Telling a fantastical tale of lovers, witches, villains, shapeshifters and ghosts, this is actually pretty familiar territory for the Decemberists. And the band wastes little time running the gamut of genre-bending exercises before hitting their stride. We drift through folk rock and melodic chamber pop during the early sequence before getting an earful of muscular power chords that bite and thrash at both climaxes of the menacing “A Bower Scene” (that a two-minute song could actually have two climaxes is no easy feat). Then that song moves directly into a dark country-blues riff for “Won’t Want for Love,” but the refrain glides across dreamy piano pop: “And all this stirring inside my belly/Won't quell my want for love/And I may swoon from all this swaying/But I won't want for love”—the transitions remain reflexive but startlingly smooth. Then it moves towards a reprise of the four-part title track, which all have similar skeletons but never sound the same each time they arise.

Around this time is where the momentum begins to drag a bit. “Isn’t It A Lovely Night” is actually a pretty lovely tune, but its languorous tempo makes it feel a little long after the frantic hard rock edge of “Bower” and “Love” and the mellifluous melody of “The Hazards of Love 2.” Luckily, “The Wanting Comes in Waves” starts slow but intriguing with a percussive line that sounds like a child’s harpsichord but quickly picks up in speed after the first minute and throws in soaring guitars and ethereal ooh-ooh back-ups, and then dissolves into more brawny swagger. My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden plays the queen and tells us, “He was a baby abandoned, entombed in a cradle of clay, and I was a soul who took pity and stole him away and gave him the form of a faun to inhabit.” Chris Funk’s guitar is as belligerent as Queen and Iron Maiden at their heaviest in the 70s, John Moen’s drums rattle and crack like Bonham artillery fire and Worden’s guest vocals are of the Ann Wilson/Joan Jett variety—hard rock fans of that era should lap this one up.

After a soft but atmospheric interlude track (conveniently called “An Interlude”), we press onward to “The Rake’s Song,” a terrific and terrifying conflagration of Colin Meloy’s ghastly acoustic pounce, fuzzy basement-hell distortion and more slambang drum crashes. The tale of the rake is truly monstrous, as he describes murdering the children he had no use for: “Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove/Dawn was easy, she was drowned in the bath/Eziah fought but was easily bested/Burned his body for incurring my wrath.” After that, the “Bower Song” progression is reprised on “The Abduction of Margaret” and the heavy metal roars back in on “The Queen’s Rebuke.” Funk might as well throw another guitar challenge at Stephen Colbert with his fiery prowess on this one; Jenny Conlee’s organ even blazes a series answering calls.

The pace slows again during the next stage with “Annan Water” and “Margaret in Captivity,” but only because what preceded it is as loud and destructive as the Decemberists have ever been. And just when the band seems to have pushed the boundaries too far by introducing a children’s choir on the third act of the title song, the lyrics reflect grim justice that serves the unsettling quality well (it’s even subtitled, “Revenge!”). Laid over Nate Query’s spooky, creaking strings are some skin-crawling tones of dead children returning from the grave, the ones killed by the wretched rake of a father several songs back. Eziah's spectre haunts with, “My sisters drowned and poisoned/All of me reduced to ash/And buried in an urn/But father I return.” And then we finish with the subdued tragic reaches of the fourth “Hazards of Love” as poor Margaret and her lover sink to the bottom of the sea; “With this long last rush of air we speak out vows and sorry whispers/When the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her.”

Unlike The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love doesn’t announce its greatness on that first listen. The cliché is to call it a “grower,” which is indeed true. Its only noteworthy failing answers its greatest strength—as a concept album (bordering on “folk opera”), it lacks the great individual songs to take away and cherish. Even the best ones rarely sound half as good out of context of the rest of the album. Saying this is a fault doesn’t sit easily, I know, but this is a band that’s never failed to deliver a quality track when they tried, and precious few are wonderful enough to inspire cheating the story’s progression and replaying them again and again (though another dozen listens may change my mind). On The Crane Wife, it was as good all the way through as it is when you just want to pick one or two for a quick fix (which happened to be any and every one of ‘em).

The band’s storytelling remains as grandiloquent as ever before, and sacrifices dot-connecting for a largesse of vivid and poetic imagery. It’s not always easy to follow what’s happening (certainly not the first time and not even after multiple passes) and the specifics could be debated. But the Decemberists were always better at mood, whimsy, bleak bloodshed and dark grins than concrete matters. As a narrative, the music fits what’s needed (and goes above and beyond the requirements), but there’s something oddly anti-climactic with the way it ends. As quiet, lamentable tragedy demands soft and sorrowful music to accompany it, it still sounds like a sigh after the thunder that led to that moment. But changing it would probably sound worse, so in the context of what the Decemberists were aiming to do, it works just fine.

Minor quibbles aside, the adventurous spirit of this band doesn’t always guarantee spectacular results, but their attention and ear for a good melody does. Musically, they hardly even sound like the same band that gave us Castaways and Cutouts a mere seven years and four albums ago. But as they continue to push the limits of pomposity to prove that nothing can defeat a good tune, they are playing as tight as ever before. Each band member's piece to the puzzle fits perfectly, the guests serve an important purpose and never feel overbearing (I had trouble figuring out where Jim James and Robyn Hitchcock were even at on the first couple listens) and Tucker Martine’s production continues to expand the layers far past what initially seemed to be the breaking point. I used to think there was a ceiling for this sort of thematic, lyrical and musical ambition, but I’m beginning to wonder if I was completely wrong. Right now, after five truly great albums and likely more ahead, the sky’s the limits for the Decemberists.

Mar
21
2009

Grandmaster Flash - The Bridge: Concept of a Culture Review

Twenty-one years is a long time to wait for anything. That’s a fetus finally being able to ditch his/her fake ID and get into a bar legally. For Grandmaster Flash, twenty-one years is the length of time between his last studio album and his most recent one. He hasn’t been a ghost during that tenure, of course, choosing instead to spend his time mixing, producing and releasing a handful of remix/reprise records along the way. But the legend of Grandmaster Flash cannot be scoffed at. Long before I accepted hip hop as a legitimate musical form I knew and respected the deejay’s body of work, no matter how shallow my knowledge of it was. But in such a gap, the entire face of the genre and industry has undergone more facelifts than the King of Pop. So the natural (and easy) question is: can Grandmaster Flash thrive in the modern world?

To be fair, it’s a loaded question. Time and trend has nothing to do with quality of work. Naturally, the temptation to label certain efforts as old school and new school is strong, but even as an innovator, it’s a difficult task for Flash to keep up with the contemporaries. Considering some of the dreadful directions that the genre has traversed, he should be commended for sticking to his principles and craftsmanship. But he hasn’t been a resilient force as studio leader and marksman during the gap; he preferred to be behind the scenes, a silent partner in a world that gets louder every year with weaker and weaker MCs trying to grab the spotlight. They used to boast about surviving, now they boast about clothing lines and multi-tiered swimming pools, Such frivolities ought not distress Mr. Saddler, but since he titled his long-awaited return to the studio, The Bridge: Concept of a Culture, it’s clear that he aims to mix message with lesson on the past, present and future of his musical livelihood, but mostly to showcase a large and eclectic sampling of that way of life. But what we end up with is a series of unfocused snapshots of what’s wrong with hip hop as a whole.

Like Common’s recent Universal Mind Control, the enormous disappointment of this effort stems about equally from the trifecta of hope, hype and expectations as it does what ends up flowing out of the speakers. The importance and legacy of both Grandmaster Flash and Common are both sealed, but trying to keep up with the Joneses leads to far more painful clichés and headache-inducing disasters than emblematic reflections. Coming from any artist, this is a far below average entry, but coming from Flash, it can’t be viewed as anything but an unmitigated failure. Like Common, Grandmaster Flash doesn’t sound comfortable in these clothes and any attempt to play to his old strengths sounds miserable alone and even worse in context.

Guilty of at least two of hip hop albums’ three cardinal sins—overlength, a tiresome abundance of guests and pointless skits/interludes—The Bridge lacks focus, purpose, consistency and memorable moments. It may not be as reprehensible as, say, irritating fall guy Soulja Boy’s discs, but it’s an even bigger mess. Some might commend Flash for wearing several different aesthetic outfits on this epic effort, but just because it doesn’t become wholly repetitive doesn’t mean that most of his choices are greeted by anything better than shrugs (and usually worse than that). 

Without a modus operandi or unifying style, The Bridge amounts to the strength of the individual cuts. On that, this one comes up well short. “Shine All Day” features Q-Tip in the lead role and sounds like a leftover from his recent Renaissance success. Mixing the maudlin and the masochistic, it’s a cross section of professions of love and devotion with mentions of shorties and booties. The synths are a little flat and Q-Tip sounds more bored than laidback, yet it ends up being one of the least disposable of the bunch. It’s also interesting to hear someone try to rhyme “orange,” but coming up with near-rhymes like “almonds” and “porridge” emphasizes the fact that it sounds like they’re trying too hard.

If you think that Q-Tip’s presence hints at a strong selection of guests, you wouldn’t be mistaken before pooping this into your player. He finds room for famous MCs from a long span, including Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane. But Snoop Dogg sounds like he’s on autopilot even more than Q-Tip, drawling lazily across “Swagger,” a song whose title warns you that it’s in uncomfortable territory for Flash (add to that Lynda Carter’s grating squeak vocals as a counterpoint and you’ve got a debacle). And Big Daddy Kane doesn’t show off his flair for great flow and rhymes, instead settling for silkily drab sub-romanticism opposite Hedonis Da Amazon. It’s better than either of the famously awful Ja Rule/Ashanti duets, but not as much as you’d wish. 

Flash’s deejay skills are on better display when he unites modern science with 80s trends. “Tribute to the Breakdancer” and “Here Come My DJ” feature some of the album’s more interesting productions. The former wraps soaring beats and hints of digi-hooks around the flashy ensemble and the latter contains one of the only instances of scratching, but both are botched by uninspired mic leadership. The rhymes of the former are uninspired and the hey-ho shouting of DJs Kool and Demo on the latter are just tedious.

Comparably, those two are choice cuts next to what’s on the menu during the second half. “Unpredictable” wastes the second appearance from Big Daddy Kane and “Bronx Bombers” mixes electronics and tough-guy posturing into a whole that tries to flaunt the strut of dread in entirely unoriginal ways. Worse still (and worst overall) is a pair of similar and similarly unbearable efforts that also pop up on this side. Terribly tacky and redundant, the arrangements of “Those Chix” and “Can I Take You Higher” shouldn’t even fill up a fans-only B-side throwaway, but with poorly-coordinated lady MCs laying out a series of jaw-droppingly bad verses on top, the skip button will become your savior. 

It’s depressing that the man best known for “The Message” could come up with a seemingly endless full-length that seems to have no message at all. As a summation of myriad styles and sounds, it’s not broad enough to get away with a few missteps nor does the album’s flow suggest a natural evolution. Behind the turntables, Grandmaster Flash can’t be blamed for the poor showing on the mic from the wide range of guest rappers, but as a producer, he is responsible for what ended up on tape and what ended up on the album. If this is a desperate bid to prove his relevancy in today’s climate, he actually comes up short against a litter of sub-par artists. And if, by some unlikely happenstance, The Bridge is some tongue-in-cheek lampoon of what’s torturous of the genre, I gotta give him points for straight-faced satire. Still doesn’t make it worth a listen, though, let alone multiple ones to let the deadpan wisecracks sink in.

Mar
19
2009

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone Review

With one of the most powerful and appealing voices in popular music today, Neko Case owns every song she performs. When she lends her talent to the potent power pop of the New Pornographers, she’s a surge of sunny melody and body-bouncing energy. When she concentrates on her own material, her tone is always the most immediately grabbing part of every song. Repeated listens unearth the instrument method but no studying is required to unpeel the layers of her throat. Even when she draws it back to a warble, there’s no one else in the room that matters.

With the Pornographers, we know how well her voice lends extra oomph and mischief to hook-friendly pop music, but when left alone, she prefers twisted and complex songwriting in the simplest ways possible. Even when the tones lurch from one rustic adventure to the next, it’s a gradient of subtle autumnal harmonies. It is, of course, debatable which one gets the better complement by her presence. Is it best to let her banshee-belt over gentle twangs and tinkling pianos or does that force of nature in her lungs deserve back-up from musical mirth, gusto and muscle?

Mirth can only be found of the wry variety with Case’s solo records. Saying that Middle Cyclone is a bit brighter than most of her other records goes without saying, but it also goes without saying much. She’s always been intensely personal while rarely speaking solely from her own person. Confusing as those statements may sound, it rhymes with the elliptical way she changes from day to night in proximal breaths. Without ever resorting to idiosyncrasies solely invented for the bragging rights of indie preciousness or alt-country swagger, it’s not that she’s enigmatic but rather that she’s the right amount of mysterious and reflective all the while confronting the matter at hand.

The matter at hand here is nature, whether it be of the beast variety or the Mother kind. The album title hints at a storm brewing and we get there quickly on the leadoff track, “The Tornado Loves You.” Envisioning herself as a turbulent twister, she leaves a path of emotional destruction (it could be argued if she’s smitten in ways that are mentally unbalanced or just utterly devoted). On “I Am an Animal,” Case sings about how, “There are things that I’m still so afraid of/But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun/’Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one/And I’m an animal, you’re an animal, too.” She doesn’t stop with her wildlife imagery there—among the many creatures referenced are owls, killer whales, magpies, elephants and doves. And there’s also the sound of birds chirping on “Polar Nettles,” and the last track, which isn’t a song at all, but just a half hour of crickets and frogs.

With Neko at the fore, we’re lucky she can come up with phrases that can be evocative, amusing, biting and melancholic. On “The Next Time You Say Forever,” she snaps, “The next time you say forever, I'll punch you in your face.” But then on the title track, she aches from the heart by saying, “I lie across the path waiting, just for a chance to be a spiderweb trapped in your lashes.” She can even sing of vivid sights in implausible and crooked ways, like when she describes, “Black hands held so high/The vulture wheels and dives/Something on the thermals/Yanked his chain,” during “Magpie to the Morning.” Being widely talented at lyricism certainly helps her since the words and the person delivering them are always the focal point.

But the music doesn’t always drift across the scenery, though. “Prison Girls” has an ominous threat to its richly noir minor key vamp, slow and steady upon the nerves; Case’s words compliment the brooding texture, particularly the vibrant sight of “gunpowder eyes.” The fluttery twang of “Vengeance Is Sleeping” rolls like waves, almost weightless, and is punched apart by the vocals without ever feeling violent or overbearing. There are even times when the music comes close to the same level as Case’s singing, like the rollicking barroom-meets-garage stomp of Red Tide” and the spring of a chiming guitar on “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” which contains one of the album’s few bulging hooks when Case claims to be a “man-man-maneater” (sans memories of Hall & Oates, too).

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that Case’s compositions would suffer if they leaned closer to pop than alt-country, the subtle transitions between verse and chorus are sometimes so faint that they render many songs with an incomplete air upon the first few listens. Until you memorize the movements and phrases, several of them close quite abruptly. It leaves the audience wanting more—songs that end too soon are still preferable to ones that overstay their welcome. But Middle Cyclone can best be described as a showcase for the instrument that is Neko Case far more than any of the ones played by hand or foot. It will require a number of passes to sink in properly. But I could listen to Case sing the most trite of phrases that clack and clatter about on the radio these days without any instrumental melody at all and still come away modestly satisfied.

Mar
16
2009

Handsome Furs - Face Control Review

Most greeted Plague Park with enthusiasm that didn’t match the reaction (including myself). Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner is also one of the leaders of Wolf Parade, a band that specializes in twitchy and nerve-rattling rhythms much in the same way that their Apologies to Queen Mary producer Isaac Brock’s Modest Mouse does. Comparisons between Brock and Boeckner were unyielding but often apt; cut from the same cloth, but not carbon copies. So this Handsome Furs racket was anticipated as another sweaty burst of jangly extremes but arrived as a grim and moody venture across an ungainly technoid wasteland of sandy synths, clinical acoustica and black root storytelling. Reevaluation has been kind to its legacy but it still didn’t ring entirely true. As a side project, it could be forgiven as an outlet for Boeckner’s alter egos and songwriting aspirations, but an occasionally electrifying mixed bag it remained.

With Face Control, though, Boeckner and co-captain Alexei Perry (once engaged to each other, now married) find a successful way to merge the two musical bluffs. Scuzzy, spaced-out atmospherics? They’re right here. But so too is the claustrophobic pulse and snappy tempos that made him famous. There’s a subtle change to the tone; calling it optimistic is laughable, but there is hope draped across these desperate and anguished tunes. And despite a crack and crumble to Boeckner’s vocals, they’re tortured in a way that suggests that he thinks things could be all right after all, just not yet.

Drum machines and keyboard digs propel the rhythms to heightened planes. The creases are crisp, but there’s an undeniably dense texture when the trembling guitars grind distortion beneath the pulse. The hard, hammering thump of “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” beats you into submission, but Boeckner’s vocals are playful like a poltergeist—feverish and cruel but with the sort of frisky smirk that Heath Ledger won an Oscar for. The bookend tracks are the most immediately catchy. “Legal Tender” begins things on a hot panic, words being spat over spiking beats, nervously cracking like Spoon’s “They Never Got You.” And “Radio Kaliningrad” is perhaps the most robust song on the entire record, a track that could find friends in arenas but with a restless groove that’ll keep hips shaking no matter the crowd.

A few curveballs are thrown our way to keep things interesting. “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” ignores the more detached nature of this synthetic structure and builds a fire beneath the machine, evoking the posturing passion of Dire Straits or Rusted Root when they went pop-happy. “I’m Confused” trades back and forth between the image of a guitarist squalling for solo attention and the robotic keys of early-80s electropop acts. “Officer of Hearts” lasts almost six minutes and slows down the beat; the vocals sound like Bono trying out “In the Air Tonight” with a hangover. Even the pair of minute-and-a-half instrumental tracks eschew ambient drones that plug atmosphere into other albums of its style and instead keep things subtly busy and percolating.

Boeckner’s fatalistic but inscrutable storytelling makes sure that the dance-worthy tracks never drift into dark bubblegum. It’s never easy to pin down what he’s trying to say specifically, but song titles alone hint that there’s some Cold War dread going on. But he’s not content to be simply dishing on komrades and opens up for some more universal themes. “Nyet Spasiba” passes on politics for imagery of ships across the sea and freezing water. “Arbat Blues” plays with Communist occupation and merges it with the unsavory practice of “face control” (the act of denying certain less-than-attractive patrons entrance into nightclubs): “There was a guy who came in from the cold/But he’s never gonna get past face control.”

This album’s release date was postponed more than a month while the team scrambled to get permission from New Order to allow a reference on “All We Want” to get approval. It’s fitting that New Order needed to give the green light since Perry’s synthesizer stabs and sparse backdrops are reminiscent of their most darkly emotive moments. And like New Order, they are at their best when they bring emotion and purpose to their mechanical playbooks. Marriage might have given Boeckner and Perry more heart, but the struggle is there too, bubbling up into both the singing and instruments. Bouncing between Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, Boeckner is keeping himself busy, but based on the diminished returns of At Mount Zoomer and the improvements made here, I don’t know which one I’d prefer to see him make a full-time job. I hope he can keep them both going, because Handsome Furs is no longer a mere side project but a venture worthy of acclaim.

Mar
13
2009

Movies That Deserve a Second Life: Action/Adventure Edition

actionWhen referring to a movie that nabbed a second life, typically home video is the savior. There are countless movies that didn’t fare well in their original theatrical runs but have earned a so-called second life thanks to profitable video sales and rentals that make them much stronger than they ever were when they first arrived. Examples of this trend vary greatly, whether you’re referring to genre, era, proliferation (or magnitude of the “second life”) and, of course, how deserving it is. Most that get a boost long after its premiere got where it is now slowly, spread wide by word of mouth and critical re-analysis. Most of them were not well received during the initial run, and many are re-evaluated, and mistakes are mended. Among them: 2001, The Princess Bride, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, Office Space and Dazed and Confused. These are movies that weren’t initially loved  by general consensus (or for some, even liked at all) and/or failed to sell many tickets and seemed doomed to semi-obscurity. But as the years passed, each of them actually gained momentum long after magazines and newspapers stopped mentioning them. Such is the forgiving nature of a “second life.”

Mar
13
2009
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Mr. Corgan Goes to Washington

corgancapitolhillBilly Corgan recently visited Congress to speak to a Senatorial committee in favor of revising an act that would force radio broadcast stations to pay more money for airing music. As it stands now, stations have to pay royalties to songwriters whenever they play a song. If the law (called the Performance Rights Act) is amended, they’ll have to pay both the songwriter(s) and the artist(s) who performed it. So is this an act of stupefying greed on the part of a well-to-do and prolific rock star or an act of fairness to the people who give us songs we all cherish (or loathe, depending on the group/performer)? What Mr. Corgan had to say to Congress and my own analysis are ahead.

Mar
11
2009
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Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 - Goodnight Oslo Review

When someone graduates from stirring young voice to elder statesman, there's always a temptation to write off new material with shrugs. How many artists are better than they were twenty years prior? With precious few exceptions, the answer is none, in no small part to the fact that a lengthy career of relevance in the spotlight usually requires near-classic returns during the pioneer days. Robyn Hitchcock is one such example of this unfortunate but undeniable trend. And along with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Ministry's Bill Rieflin and Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey (which make up Venus 3), they represent a supergroup of sorts that all have similar claims made upon them. All of them found their best years during the 80s, but they are also of that ever-shrinking class that overcame dips during the 90s and the early part of the new millennium to now emerge refurbished and vital once again.

Long associated with quirkiness, surrealism and eccentricity, Robyn's been lumped into the pretentious prestige of “thinking man”'s rock n' roll, as if brainiacs can't appreciate hair metal or morons can't cozy up to Mozart. Along with the Venus 3 lineup, there's also room for several guests, including vocalists of other skewed acts like the Decemberists (Colin Meloy) and Harvey Danger (Sean Nelson). Having all that prolific talent at his beck and call doesn't necessarily mean that Hitchcock is ready for action, though. His blender influence of Bob Dylan's mood and Syd Barrett's kinky lyricism is always present, but Venus 3's broader sound borders on old-fashioned; but is there a better tonic to today's retro/machine overkill? Either way, although there are few numbers on here demanding spin after spin, the worst you can say about any of them is that they're simply “pleasant.”

Beginning with a subdued blues melody, Dixie-ish horns and back-up vocals from Lianne Francis, Hitchcock is a long way from the Soft Boys and Egyptians right off the bat. “What You Is” is a slice of Memphis R&B that doesn't necessarily play to his strengths, but Hitchcock brings a smoky swagger to the song anyhow, forgoing empty wryness for tongue-in-cheek motto-grasping at the refrain. “It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is and what you is is what you are.” Typically, it's a simple and serious message twisted by Hitchcock's screwball tongue/pen.

The 60s aren't ignored elsewhere, though folk rock and harmonic pop is the chief guidepost instead of R&B. Roger McGuinn's guitar sound is found all over this album, and the harmonies seem equally inspired by the Beach Boys and the Hollies, all furnished by the crooked troubador style of Dylan and the eclecticism of '67-'68 Beatles. “Saturday Groovers” reflects all of these signatures into a singular passage, jostling with ba-da-bums, sunny harmonies, the bounce of prettily-distorted guitars, trumpet flares and basic-but-potent percussion. But the offbeat subject matter remains in Hitchcock's vault.

“Your Head Here” meanwhile recalls his own Soft Boys heritage, with more than a hint of a weary but polemic Dylan drag in Hitchcock's own nuanced snarl-to-smirk aesthetic. “Hurry for the Sky” marries a country-western choo-choo shuffle with the same sort of vocal inflection, slightly itchier, twitchier and clinging to well-bottled desperation. As for the title track finale, it begins hinting at apocalyptic menace but winds up as just a rumbling surge that climaxes in an almost quaint way—quaint, that is, after years of inflated arena-friendly barn-burners that mistake massiveness for magnitude.

The concerns of “TLC” follow another 80s legend's recent work. Consumed with the numbing effects of pharmaceuticals, Hitchcock runs through a brief medicine cabinet list (Tryptisol, Librium and Carbitol) in much the same way that Morrissey handled “Something's Squeezing My Skull”'s bridge. But since Morrissey's chugged with anger and this one eerily drifts by in a narcohypnotic haze, it's less redundant than supportive (similar release dates obviously nullifies any accusations of plagiarism).

Not long after Morrissey and Nick Cave gave their best efforts in at least a dime, Hitchcock and crew give us their best in about the same span. Venus 3 were last heard (or, really, first heard) on Ole! Tarantula, one of those “little albums that could,” occasionally dazzling but ultimately uneven. But this one is the comeback, if such a term is even appropriate for Robyn Hitchcock, who has seen plenty of critical acclaim and cult adulation, but minimal sales and little mainstream appeal. He hasn't been in as much control of the medium since the Fegmania! days. It's not in the same league, but it does offer a package worthy of far more than long-time fan submission or outsider curiosity—it's a fine effort no matter how you view the canon or genre.

Mar
09
2009

Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1960s

60ssongsbanner

So begins an ambitious ten-part project reflecting on the best that popular music had to offer in the last fifty years. Each part will present a list of the one hundred best songs or albums that five separate decades had to offer, culminating with the best of this decade at the end of the year (so, roughly one list per month until 2010). I’ll start with the best songs of the 1960s, and work my way ahead through time during the remainder of the year.

Mar
06
2009
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Pre - Epic Fits Review

More people will hate Epic Fits than will enjoy it. Actually, “enjoy it” isn't entirely accurate either. This is sonic meth. And no one takes meth and has a mixed, blasé reaction to it. I suppose the easiest correlation would be to Melt-Banana, the fine Japanese noise rock outfit that gave us Cell-Scape in 2003 (and several other fine records). Using “fine” is, of course, a wry choice. Simply hearing that Epic Fits is going to be a messy noise-punk record won't prepare you any better than knowing what Melt-Banana is all about. This is not music to make you reflect or offer a sing-along. Once again, it's sonic meth. I can only make the guarantee that no matter how you react, it's going to temporarily change you after an extended hit.


Akika Matsuura is your ringleader for this freakish circus, so introduce yourself and don't be shy. She's going to be the one shrieking at you for the next twenty-five minutes. You may call her Exceedingly Good Keex, for that is how she will credit herself. And if you expect to understand more than eight words she screams your way, you're going to be disappointed—not that much you understand makes a lick of sense anyway.


John Art Webb will help you out, though. He adds the salt and vinegar to Keex's sugar rush. He doesn't so much play riffs on his guitar as he takes a cheese shredder to rusty grates and grinds away like he was auditioning for a bad industrial band. Keeping everything tuned low allows him to get away with the aural terrorism; in fact, it lends everything a respectable “basement-made” authority.


Kevin Hendrix, Matthew Warburton and Richard Bennett are going to be the ones making everything slightly more palatable, so you know you're not listening to chaos simply for chaos' sake. Furnishing the limber but repetitive grooves and hammering that relentless rhythm against your skull is what they're up to. Hendrix and Warburton pull double duty with their steel wool basses, keeping everything thumping hard against the pink belly. And Bennett treats his kit like an aggressively naughty child, refusing to stop pounding until the noise around him shuts the hell up.


This pack of rogues isn't content to pawn sleazy on you. They feel an intense need to dress up sweet and simplistic pop in all the punk gear they can muster up at Salvation Army, then smear it with axle grease and push it into a fire pit. They're only a few degrees either way of being lumped in already outrageous circles with either Deerhoof or Ponytail, but they'd rather trash up the place than ever concern themselves with cliques. It's dance music for spastics, riot-springers for the eternally disaffected and muscle relaxants only for the deaf or criminally insane.


Their output typically clocks in under two minutes (with a few spending it all before a minute's even up). Even their “epic,” “Scenes from a 1963 Los Angeles Love-In,” would have been over a lot sooner if the band hadn't decided to piss all over the flames of the corpses they left behind for another three, skull-piercing minutes. Likewise, “Popping Showers” uses every one of its two hundred thirty seconds to rack your nerves and bleed you dry.


But Pre specialize in short, barely-controlled bursts of machine gun fire. While I wouldn't call them one-trick ponies, these quick, frenetic spark showers flow into each other not by musical segue but because each one picks up where the last left off. If you were to listen to this and try to keep up on a pogo stick, you'd have a heart attack before “Slash in the Snakepit” arrived.


Despite their mangled and mutant appetites for destruction, the songs can be damn catchy. “Ace Cock” has a rusty groove similar to Primus' “My Name Is Mud.” You'll flash back to the 80s wasteland on “And Prolapse.” Ditto to “Drool,” which starts out pretty clean but shreds apart any semblance of sanity courtesy of the guitar squeals and Keex's distorted howl. But this isn't an album for cherry picking favorite songs—you begin at track one and, assuming it doesn't break you along the way, you finish it gasping for air.


So if you prefer your pop without a lot of crash and clatter, sample before buying. But Pre has converted a handful along the way, and look to continue leaving rock music a frazzled, smoking ruin. They even recruited Steve Albini for their sophomore full-length; promising, indeed. Apparently bands as hectic and snaggle-toothed as this one need not always collapse beneath the weight of chaos. No matter how feverish they may sound, there's no cure in the world to make them sound any better than they wanna. For now, let this anarchy reign.

Mar
05
2009

Nine Inch Nails on Tour: Could Be the Last Chance

ninlightsMost know by now that Trent Reznor recently announced an indefinite (and possibly permanent) hiatus for his Nine Inch Nails project. It might have seemed odd that the man who was Nine Inch Nails could end it (how exactly does a breakup work when it’s really just one person?), but it most likely means that his touring days may very well be soon behind him. It’s highly doubtful that he will no longer invest himself in writing and recording music, but this might be the last chance anyone has to see him on stage. There is at least one bit of silver lining to the otherwise depressing (but wholly understandable) news: the perchance final tour of Nine Inch Nails will feature Jane’s Addiction.

Mar
05
2009
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School Boy Humor - School Boy Humor Review

It's easy to blame Fall Out Boy for the current crop of emo pop-rockers that clutter up the rock aisle of your favorite record store. Before them, blink-182 was the whipping boy. But as bad as both groups can/could be, at least Fall Out Boy shows flashes of ambition and songwriting complexity. And blink could pen a catchy tune or two amidst albums stuffed with thirteen variations of the same lousy song. School Boy Humor owes a debt in their songcraft to both groups. And their inspirations should thank this Little Rock quintet for making them sound like musical geniuses.


There's a niche for bland and straightforward songwriting in the world (see the recent All American Rejects review), but shrugging off this kind of dreck because other people might like it is kind of like allowing tykes to veg out on brain-rotting junk when they could be watching something like, say, Sesame Street. If you've ever heard a song by Every Avenue, Forever the Sickest Kids, etc., you know what you're getting into. It's not even the style I'm opposed to (though it truly is disheartening) but rather an utter absence of originality, identity and substance.


“Paint Me with Envy” is up first and scribbles out a cheat sheet for the band to follow to the letter for almost every track that follows. Cleanly distorted guitars, oversimplified drum beat taps, two-note bass thumps, superfluous synthesizer gimmicks plugged in just to make the music “soar,” and ultra-generic, sub-frat sing shouting balanced between two vocalists, Phil and Anthony Evans (ahem, blink, ahem). But so what? So they play it completely safe with the instruments they sound like they just picked up two months ago for the first time. Big deal. Maybe they'll have something interesting to say. Nope. “She's dressed to kill so you better stop staring.” “Boy, you know that she isn't like you, she's a little insecure.” And, of course, “Good looks are what you need to have/To make it somewhere in this world/To lead a life you won't end up regretting.” If Evans (whichever one) was attempting to be ironic/sarcastic, he needs to figure out a way not to sound so blandly earnest with his monotonous singing. If not, I don't even know what to say...


Five tracks later, we're treated to something slightly different. Click-stutter drum machines, chilly synth drones and a looping keyboard line fill up the verse background. It's not much of an improvement, but at least it's something disparate. Then the chorus arrives and we're back to track one. Or three. Or eight, two, and so on. Efforts to be even more “important” and “sincere” than before just make everything hit flatter. Japanese dog robots have more heart than this clumsy faux-ballad could ever scrape up.


But wait. After that is “Cheating Myself,” another song that starts off calmly, quiet enough to hear, “We'll sing just a little bit louder/And we won't stop 'til she can't handle it/We'll sing just a little bit slower/So she'll hang on to every single word.” Where's Steve Albini when you need him? Later, after another loud and spotless refrain, the song quiets down again so you won't miss, “So close your eyes girl, and tell me what you see/The lives that we've created were all because of me/So listen closely, girl, 'cause our future is at stake/The reason we are ending is because I give, you take.” It's performed/sung exactly like a second-tier boy band (say, Westlife?). Memo to SBH: if you can't even compete with first-tier boy bands, it's time to go back to the drawing board. Of course, following that song up with a track that opens amid a frosted-tips, sandals-and-shades pseudo rap is good timing; makes the last one actually seem not quite so bad.


And so it goes. Around and around, each one seemingly more tiresome and obnoxious than the last. Even when they “spice” cuts up with airy breaths of quiet, they return to the formula soon enough. Before long, that very attempt to “break things up” becomes even more repetitiously mundane than the shiny power pop they were peddling early on. And whenever they get tired of composing tired takes on heartbreak, they summon a handful of lines that suggest they want to have a little force and weight. But hearing them announce, “You have to fight for what you believe in,” is like watching five guys attempt a coup d'etat armed with Super Soakers.


Just as every song seems even more shapeless than the one that came before, so too does the last song dig further down into their seemingly bottomless hole (discounting a hidden cover that proves that not every album concealing a secret finale can call such a surprise a “bonus”). It's called “What If,” and if you wanted to see these guys' “softer” side, you get what you asked for. Take the same old obvious and oblivious lyricism, throw in a piano, acoustic guitar, electronic chimes and multi-part harmonies. If you can make it all the way through without reaching for the mute button six or seven times, you're a braver man than I.


Now that I've probably devoted more time trying to uncover the band's appeal than they set aside for composing this disaster, I can lay my weary head into folded arms. But there's something to be said about the task of writing these banal little tunes. Writing credit for all but one song is shared by the album's producer/mixer, Geoff Rockwell; a quick glance at his career credits will give you all the info needed on deciding how clueless a choice it was. To save you the chore, one highlight is an assist on a compilation called Punk Goes Crunk. I probably should have warned you not to read that last sentence on a full stomach. Consult your local Yellow Pages for a cleaning crew.


As much as I support emotional honesty in songwriting, there's plenty of reason to go in the other direction. If there was a version of Guitar Hero out there that focused solely on emo pop, these guys would have cut their teeth on that stuff. Assuming not, they still went and hired someone to shave off what little friction there might have been there originally so it could appeal to people who think that N'Sync is “too edgy.” And they plunged into their eighth-grade journals to copy wet-eyed 'tween sentiment into every grimace-worthy stanza. Hearing this for more than nine straight minutes will invariably force the listener to develop a morphine addiction just to make the pain dissipate. Give me noise n' nihilism any day over this trite tripe.

Mar
03
2009

Odawas - The Blue Depths Review

 

If you're to believe the band's blog, the Odawas duo of Michael Tapscott and Isaac Edwards has no patience for Led Zeppelin. Already, I'm at odds with them. More curiously, though, is that they also don't care for Neil Young jams. As unforgivable a thing to say as the Zeppelin comment is, I can at least believe them. But to shrug at Neil Young flies in the very face of The Blue Depths. If Neil Young had hired Tangerine Dream or Vangelis to support him instead of Crazy Horse, it's quite possible that he could have ended up with an album like this one. So, not only am I at odds with them, but I also can't seem to trust them. Tsk, tsk, Odawas.

 

But this is not music to get you riled up, so my fury slowly dissipated to embers. The Blue Depths rolls out of the speakers like a slumbering fog, one far too disinterested to ever appear disheveled and threatening. Notes flicker out like street lamp lights through the mist. And everything is dense, in a way where “atmospheric” would be too obvious and “busy” too inaccurate. This is music to get lost inside, not to pluck apart for hidden meaning or insight. I suspect that many won't be flipping this on intentionally, but rather accidentally by subconscious means, to revert to a specific state of mind and for background music that will keep them interested but never distracted. It's music good for drifting towards sleep, whether watching starlight or snuggled up in bed.

 

Contrary to their use of electronics, though, the album buzzes with feeling and warmth. Because everything is awash in those synthesizers, you hardly even notice the appearance of guitars or strings or harmonicas or bells because they spring naturally from the lush keyboard sounds that drives everything. This might have even been considered a folk record if the organic waves were more rustic than mechanical. But such is the nature of the beast that is classification. Startlingly, all of this noise was created by two people; even when you realize how programming comes into play, the soundscapes they build brick by brick seem impossibly compact but airy for just a pair. And although a lot of it enriches subtly, some of it amazes in its audacity. The harmonica alone wails like it was borrowed from Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.

 

“Swan Song of the Humpback Angler” uses an 80s synth and looping drum machine mix for faint texture; the song is carried by emotive and reverberating vocals that suggest Jim James going New Age. “The Sound of Lies” stakes its place near the record's center and uses a subdued dance beat and piano stabs to keep you from getting entirely lost. It could be found somewhere between a John Hughes score and Digital Ash in a Digtal Urn. “Harmless Lover's Discourse” begins with a slow and gentle strum amid a billowy drone that suggests a big ballad, but blessedly never goes for an obvious hook or sweeping chorus. Standing out for escaping the frequent Vangelis comparison, you elsewhere notice a fluttering synth on “A Boy in the Yard,” a shapeless distorted guitar on “Secrets of the Fall,” and the back-up harmonies that get flattened by digital interference about three minutes in during “The Case of the Great Irish Elk.”

 

Despite these unexpected moments, though, The Blue Depths' chief triumph is uniting all of these divergent sounds and instruments into a coalescent whole. No matter the direction they choose, everything is united by those bedrock whirls, a combo of space-piercing synth flames and velvet waves over a blue-grey sea. The digital effects are rarely ostentatious; it's difficult at times to understand what Tapscott is singing, but his voice remains the musical anchor. On first listen, you may mourn the absence of memorably catchy melodies, but Odawas likely scoffs at such efforts. As the title suggests, they prefer epic and resonant images of lush music passing them by, instead of easily digestible nuggets to fill up your iPod.

 

With romanticism trumping the more absurd electronic skills, Odawas can't be condemned for plasticity. It's not an easy album to grasp, and even after multiple listens, I find that the words often either ring hollow or lend the experience a certain pretentious affectation that the music otherwise narrowly avoids. But with shimmering guitars, redolent harmonicas and lovely string arrangements complementing the sheets of synth echoes, the entire experience remains vibrant. This may not be an album you'll actively seek out on busier days, but it would be tough not to get lost in its balmy spell when you decide to let it unfurl.

 

It's not replacing my Zeppelin LPs, though.

 

Mar
01
2009

U2 - No Line on the Horizon Review

I suspect that U2 will eventually replace the Rolling Stones as being the second-oldest profession on the planet. The Stones may have the deeper catalog, but U2 has just entered their fourth decade and continue to release well-received albums with new songs that fans will clamor for at concerts rather than view as opportunities to visit the lavatory or buy another ten buck beer. But U2 has to be huge at this point in their career; if they were anything less, they'd never get away with what they were up to. Your average rock band could never sell the big drama, soaring sound and ego-fattened sentiments. But U2 is usually forgiven for any amount of obtuse sappiness or self-aggrandizement because they really are the biggest rock band in the world.

 

No Line on the Horizon is their eleventh studio album. Bono and crew have stated that this album will return to a more adventurous frame of mind after a pair of played-too-safe disappointments earlier this decade. And first single, “Get on Your Boots,” for all of its creaky lyricism, is a big glam rock fireball, like post-grunge-meets-Achtung. But “Boots” doesn't sell what is to come. It's misleading. Despite a sprinkling of intriguing (if not always successful) new directions, No Line is mostly just more of the same from a band that may not look their age but is beginning to advance their career like they need walkers just to move forward.

 

Opening with the title track, we're given a reason to look ahead favorably. Verbally-impaired, “No Line on the Horizon” at least manages to move with shiny, chugging speed atop Larry Mullen's martial drums. Even the whoa-ohs, which would have sunk most other songs of its ilk, are so refreshingly integrated into the melody, that it hooks you into place to enjoy all the overcooked charm. But not long after the optimism-boosting leadoff, the band runs through a dead zone rarely matched in their long and storied history. Until “Get on Your Boots” lands in the sixth spot, the rest of the first half is an arduously dull grind, like dragging your feet through a pool of bubbling tar.

 

“Magnificent” promises more than it can deliver, with bass-heavy fuzz squelches à la “No Son of Mine” and a building rhythm that promises some serious thunder. It does have thunder...if you think that arena rock romantics like Journey and Foreigner brought the thunder to their shows. The song's promises of love are confusing, though, since we never get a firm grasp on the narrator, the subject or the magnitude (unless we're to gauge solely on how big the choruses are, in which case U2 is always global). It runs out of energy before the fifth minute passes and one wishes for more prudent editing. But “Magnificent” is a spunky little gem compared to the ultra-laborious “Moment of Surrender,” which traces lines through synthetic dust for seven-and-a-half minutes. Beginning with, “I tied myself with wire/To let the horses run free/Playing with the fire/Until the fire played with me,” it only gets worse from there. Bono doesn't even try to shoehorn his limp lines into meter; better than forcing clunky rhymes, yes, but without a uniform rhythm, it can't even work as an empty-but-catchy number. No matter—it ain't catchy anyway.

 

“Unknown Caller” is up next, and again begins with a drawn out series of faint electronic washes that takes forever to coalesce. Momentum hint: if you're going to subject the audience to more than seven minutes of flat pseudo-balladry, you better get the next one going quick. For all of the track's spacious arrangements and ohh-ing that suggests heart-and-soul feeling, the lyrics fumble over the faux-futurism of everyday technology, uncomfortable bedfellows with any band that aims to attach itself to your estimations of love and faith. Efforts to translate IT lingo into life lessons are unbearable—“Force quit and move to trash” is as cloyingly lame as anything from Plastic Operator's “Folder.” Thoughts of, “Keep the old man away from the computer,” spring up.

 

By the time that “Boots” shows up, you're more willing than ever to forgive Bono's cryptic didacticism. At least it swings with the swagger that a band of U2's magnitude ought to be flashing more often. Instead of being content to sell a perfunctory message or query about the magnitude of life and spirituality, it keeps the fuzz unshaven and throbs with the thrill that marked their last album's brightest moment, “Love and Peace or Else.” It helps that the band gives us that vivacious kick; if I had to suffer Bono's forced (and often bizarre) rhymes with another soppy ballad arrangement, I might have given up right then and there. But “Rockets at the fun fair/Satan loves a bomb scare,” and “You free me from the dark dream/Candy floss ice cream?” It makes you long for a mixing engineer that'll bury Bono's voice beneath the twittery percussion and static.

 

The second half features the more experimental material they hinted at months back. “Stand Up Comedy” traverses a dangerous line with its rowdy rock groove and its “God is love” mantra, but Bono sells it through unexpected simplicity, rarely straining for bloated metaphors, and offering a straightforward and inspiring message. “Fez – Being Born” is No Line's most obvious flirtation with the avant garde. Combining their power pop bread and butter with mysticism, gospel and the occasional non-linear change-up, Bono offers an odd mélange of hotrod bravado, foreign intrigue and insecure helplessness, all of it used in figurative ways to paint a wider but no more specific picture. “Breathe” brings together so many divergent ideas that its partial success is almost a miracle. There's staccato narration, a heartfelt run through of the refrain, Springsteen grit, latter-day Replacements grind, Edge's shimmering guitar, “Beautiful Day” heated glee, soaring bridge...it's like a musical apocalypse where everything shuffles towards grim death and gets mixed up in a huge column of white fire. None of these trickier moments are great, but they at least show greater purpose than the tired tricks they faltered over on the first side.

 

The album ends on a high note, though. “Cedars of Lebanon” is a moody and subtle mood-changer that calmly floats by like many of The Joshua Tree's unsung second half ballads. It even offers lyrical imagery that evokes vivid scenes rather than straining pomp. “Now I've got a head like a lit cigarette/Unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret.” The performance even rings of a weary journeyman, appropriately mirroring the creased-eye observational mood.

 

But a good line like that is in short supply. Instead, we're usually given drably playful phrases like, “You put me on pause/I'm trying to rewind/And replay.” Inflated grand moments like “At the moment of surrender/I'm falling to my knees,” and, “I was born to be with you/In this space and time,” keep the band's sentiments at arm's length. The best rock anthems typically speak more directly; Bono usually sounds like he's speaking for us on subjects we wouldn't bother to consider, and not for lack of insight. They're also better off summoning sights of more earthly treasures like the Atlantic Sea and African sun; when they move towards the stars with, “I've been in every black hole/At the altar of a dark star,” the eyes roll almost as quickly as the stomach.

 

If all the blame could be issued upon Bono's pen, you might have ended up with a decent record anyway—ego can be forgiven in the face of great tunes. But U2 has difficulty in even making big arena rockers and power ballads anymore. The band brings back a familiar trio of producers; Steve Lillywhite knows how to layer on the sheen, but Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are better at more intimate material. Eno's stamp can even be found on the dreadful “Surrender,” an unfortunate miss for the usually reliable legend. And for all the promise of a return to more daring days, U2 actually plumbs into their 80s heyday for inspiration far more often than the 90s. The somber spirituality, the ambient drone pop, the optimism amidst uncontrollable ego...the only thing missing, really, are the fiery political tirades (which get light brushes on tracks like “Boots”). And if they're not being inspired by their own 80s interests, they look to the era's other arena balladeers. In addition to the aforementioned Genesis lift, “I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight” blatantly steals the hook from Journey's “Faithfully.”

 

The disappointment of this record doesn't stem entirely from unfair expectations. It's not even about the direction taken by a once truly viable band. I don't mourn the years of their great albums or unforgettable hits. But the U2 of the new millennium seem distracted by their own glamor and fame. They're no longer U2 the band but rather U2 the institution. They're chiseled figures in an increasingly stale world of popular music. If you found their last two albums to be worthy of the acclaim they found in many circles, there's no reason to dislike this one. It falls lockstep in line with their recent edgeless big pop/rock endeavors. But so little grabs hold on No Line on the Horizon, so little is remembered. The bookends are really good, but the rest ranges from uneven to outright failures. I don't see the sun setting anytime soon on U2's horizon, but I'm beginning to fear that their noteworthy days are long past them now.

 

Feb
28
2009

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Review

Hey, do you miss that brief period around the turn of the decade between the 80s and 90s? Specifically, the pink noise dream pop that was all the rage for all of about three weeks? Do you remember the short-lived bands that made that beautiful music? Here-today-gone-tomorrows like Black Tambourine and Ride (okay, they survived much longer, but their peak period was marked by both brilliance and brevity)? How about bands with more staying power like 14 Iced Bears or early Flaming Lips? Okay, I know you miss My Bloody Valentine. Well, if you think you've heard a hundred bands just like 'em, it's time to make it a hundred-and-one. Say hello to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.


If you think I'm being deliberately sarcastic, I'm not. The fact is, no matter how much you hear of that style, it'll never become tiresome so long as it's done right. For further proof, look at last year. You want something more retro? You had a delicious helping of M83. Something a bit more modern? School of Seven Bills fit the bill. Wanted something a little rougher, a little more lo-fi? There was always Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls (hell, they even share a drummer). But what (besides their music) do all of them have in common? They all had really good releases last year. Why? Because you gotta have it.


And hey, TPOBPAH don't even bother to hide their influences. “Contender” is like early My Bloody Valentine, with sparkling guitar flickers and heavy-lidded vocal droning buried beneath drapes of cotton candy. The organ sound during “Hey Paul”'s bridge is pure Rocketship. You can't miss Tiger Trap on “Come Saturday” nor will fans of the Field Mice be left cold by “This Love Is Fucking Right!” And there are multiple references to groups as diverse as the Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain and Arrogants. But if they lack originality, they make up for it in aesthetic—you'll know right away what the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are bringing to the table, and you'll know even sooner how much you're going to like it.


What's most surprising about their sound is how precise it is. Usually, when a band dabbles in layers of noise, the guitars sound ramshackle and the hooks seem accidental. But here, their jangle couldn't sound more pristine even if played without the fuzz. The catchier songs showcase this better than the others: the pop-tastic climax of “Young Adult Friction,” the keyboard that stabs on every fourth beat of “Stay Alive,” the clean tom pops of “Hey Paul”'s unexpectedly muscular distortion (it might even be a drum machine, it's so perfectly timed), the parting of the clouds for the second verse on “This Love Is Fucking Right!” This doesn't make them sound any more manufactured or less daring; it's proof that they're beyond the luck of the amateurs and they just know how to get things done.


The songwriting also seems to favor wry observation far more than affairs of the heart, something rarely heard of in the realm of twee/dream pop. “Teenager in Love” uses a sweet jingle to mask its bleak story: “And when you'd finally gone/He tells me, 'She was dead all along'/He was wrong, he hadn't lived a day/The way you lived your final days/A teenager in love with Christ and heroin.” Then, on “Gentle Sons,” vivid imagery comes front and center—“You stumble down the diamond path...the sunken eyes you just can't see.” Even when they do express themselves more plaintively, it's about the swell and the cool, not bedroom wishes. “You don't have to dress to please/Perhaps undress for me/I know that when you come we'll be staying in.” The most memorable lines belong to “This Love,” where the words, “Can you go home, look your best friend in the eye?/No, you can't go home after where you slept last night...You're my sister and this love is fucking right,” can be interpreted in different ways, ranging from grimly serious to just plain icky.


Peeling apart the layers to get to the band's pure heart is a waste of time; like all of their ilk, the melodies stick with you because they imitate the haze of dreams, the sweetness of fantasies and the melancholy of reality. Whether it's Kip Berman alone, or if he's joined by keyboardist Peggy Wang-East, the words float from their lips like deep sighs and turn to vapor just slow enough to make out before disappearing in the swirl. Unlike the syllables, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart record songs that will linger with you long after. Following three straight go-throughs while prepping the review, the half-hour after in the quiet of my room never stopped ringing of that crisp jangle buried in gauzy pink flurries. If you can hear a song even when it's not playing, that passes every test there is on whether it should be played again. Hey, you have my word.

Feb
25
2009

U2 Retrospective: Best and Worst

u2With U2 ready to drop their eleventh studio album upon the world (No Line on the Horizon), general anticipation is very high. For long-time fans, it represents a new batch of songs from the so-called “biggest rock band in the world.” For naysayers, it gives them an opportunity to see how U2 could stumble even further from greatness. And for all those in between (including myself), it offers the promise of another chance. While U2's popularity has only grown during this decade, the quality of their last two albums are diminished. But the band has suggested that this will be a return to their edgier, more experimental days, so optimism bubbles freely. Yet this is not about No Line on the Horizon (review forthcoming in a few days); this is a look back on the best and worst that this undeniable musical institution has given us.

Feb
24
2009
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Abe Vigoda - Reviver EP Review

You may be alarmed by the entrance of Reviver. Atypical of Skeleton, we arrive amid a wash of no wave fuzz, creeping rhythms that gurgle in the bathtub and a haunting, disembodied croon that wants to soften the blow of damnation. It sounds like a razor mix of Bowie's early Berlin period (even the voice). So much for the frantic sweat of Abe Vigoda's last release.

 

They lurch ahead a couple of years to Joy Division's final months on “Wild Heart” (a Stevie Nicks cover). Discontent to merely translate it to the experimental rock crowd, they give it an appealing body of glitchcore blips amid a tour guide of faint guitar clicks. Over that they layer grimy distortion that feel like storm clouds tracing across the darkening skies. Michael Vidal sounds less like Bowie here and more like Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt. And at almost six minutes, it's more than twice as long as any song you've come to expect from the band. It's a cover that sounds nothing like the original...and even less like the Abe Vigoda we knew from Skeleton.

 

“Endless Sleeper” is even more out of place, like a segue that wandered in from a recording by Women, Deerhunter or Dirty Projectors. It's post-rock meets shoegaze, and although it lasts less than two minutes, it still serves as an important epilogue to what preceded it. That song, “House,” is what fans might call comfort food. It's darker and dirtier, and could only be referred to as a tired uncle to the itchy kids of their last, but the bloodline is strong. Over a 7/4 rhythm, chiming guitar plucks make up the hook while echoes lead us into a series of gauzy breakdowns. But the rhythm is unmistakable, fumbling spastically with anxiety until the final third when all pretense collapses into a trope of clean chords buried under furry feedback.

 

What makes “The Reaper” such a fitting finish, then, is that it incorporates all of what came before it into one song. The somberness, the stains, the panic, the complacency: all of it slapped across the arrangement with entire disregard for how it might end up sounding. Maybe this comes from a band angry to be constantly overwritten by the achievements of No Age. Skeleton aimed for uniqueness, but instead the band was just compared to their fellow Smell grads (or, even more often, Vampire Weekend).

 

So does this signal some kind of an audio-print press release from the group? A promise to be better than even their fans thought they could be? If nothing else, it proves that they're not content to regurgitate more of the same on their next full-length. What they lack in singularity and flawless record, they make up for in ambition, integration and talent. It seems unlikely that this is merely a collection of songs unfinished or ill-fitting from Skeleton sessions. Like another great EP from earlier this year (Blood Bank), this declares that you ain't seen nothing yet.

 

Feb
23
2009

Morrissey - Years of Refusal Review

Morrissey has seen his fair share of highs and lows since the dissolution of the Smiths, but mostly, his solo material grazed in forgotten but not unattractive pastures. It's not that he wasn't any good; he just wasn't doing much truly noteworthy, particularly since the early 90s. In typical rock star fashion, he kissed-off his critics with snide dismissals and frosty shrugs, but atypically, he did it cleverly, where no matter how much of an ass he might seem to fatuous know-it-alls, he always remained a smartass. Years of Refusal as a whole is among his most scathing and pugnacious efforts, a full-swing f-you to anyone he has dealt with—the ignoble, vacuous or deceitful. As always, he remains that glittering demon of self-seriousness and unabashed ambiguity. It was usually in the musical arrangements that he was flagging: his tongue rarely significantly faltered. And if nothing else, no one can say that Refusal doesn't rock.


It's strange that he had to sever ties with Johnny Marr before he began engaging a more muscular side to rock music. He always served as counterpoint to Marr's stagy guitar prowess; the soulful poet interchangeably tossing out slippery importance and snarky punchlines (as well as the occasional trite aphorism). But he hasn't straddled a rocket like this one in some time. Fear that he may be reserving his own cache of Accelerate-style, late-career explosive shrugs is quickly diminished. The defiant “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” hits the ground running on coals, charges through a rollicking guitar riff and finds Morrissey adding extra grit to, “I'm doing very well/I can block out the present and the past now/I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out/Thank you, drop dead.” Less successful is his perfunctory listing of drugs like he was presenting an alternate, less hedonistic take on “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” but what surrounds this bridge grinds with enough vivacious fury that it's tough to resist.


But this is no forced series of hard rockers to prove that Morrissey's still young and feral at heart. A few songs cook quietly, forming blisters hidden under the calluses. “You Were Good in Your Own Time” seems reflective and autobiographical, but masks its bitter venom in words that ring of hollow tenderness and sorrow—how you handle that tricky maneuver is dependable on how much you like the tune. “When Last I Spoke to Carol,” meanwhile, blossoms with mariachi flames, vivid dreams of Spaghetti Western horns and six-strings. Melodically, it's the album's highlight.


Even the lesser tracks are diminished by wishes of what could have been, not flat results. “Black Cloud” wastes guest Jeff Beck on a predictable chord progression, especially disappointing since Morrissey hones his verbal blade well: “I can choke myself to please you/And I can sink much lower than usual/But there's nothing I can do to make you mind.” “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell” ends with a sudden snuff of a candle; an incomplete wasted opportunity that retains a share of authentic musical excitement. And first single, “I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” is proof that Morrissey can still botch a stuffy acclamation—there's no specific reason at all why he should love Paris instead of any other big, beautiful city. And without an emphatic hook, it's quite the curiosity why he chose this one to help “market” the album.


“It's Not Your Birthday Anymore” is easily the most dangerous effort on the album. Dabbling in synths, quiet/loud dynamics, choruses so towering they threaten to crush every UK arena rocker alive and the very use of “syrupy” and “sentimental” in its lyrics, by all rights it should implode upon itself. But the words are used as an insult, violently sneering, “Did you really think we meant all those syrupy, sentimental things that we said?” Its grasp of drama is shaky—I even wonder if the entire song was written sarcastically—but big doesn't always mean bad, and it coasts on sheer spectacle.


The album closes dependably with “I'm OK by Myself,” a proud and defiant rocker that finds Morrissey shaking free of all of his critics and supporters, suggesting that they can often be one and the same. It's not necessarily a great song, but it is a great finish, displaying how triumphant Morrissey is among all of the discussion surrounding his person and his contributions to the art form. “I don't need you and I never have.” Kinda makes me feel worthless as both a fan and music critic.


Suggesting at this point that the Smiths engaged us with music more carefully nuanced and breathtakingly inventive is worthless. As Morrissey might suggest himself, fuck them. It's in the past. So are the years of uneven recordings from Morrissey free from his bandmates. What about this album? As for the potential that this LP is destined to see constant rotation twenty years from now (like, say, The Queen Is Dead), I doubt it'll hold up. But this is a viable statement from man-as-artist, and as such, is a submission for independence from labels of all kind and distant memories. Should this be one of his final acts of defiance (or an actual swan song), his legacy matters nothing on whether this album desires absorption. It gets my approval even if he doesn't give a rat's ass.

Feb
23
2009


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