Matt Medlock



CD Impressions: November 27, 2009

cdimpressions

Welcome to another edition of CD Impressions, the bi-weekly feature at JPP that allows the music writers to offer brief opinions and critiques on recent albums. We've been off a few weeks too many but we're back with a new group of recent albums to make quick remarks about. This time, read about the latest releases from experimental rockers F-ck Buttons, the feisty noise rock outfit Pre, L.A. hard rockers Something to Burn, trip hop legends Massive Attack, and Aussie classic rock torch-bearers Wolfmother.

Nov
27
2009
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A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head Review

Days are precious, people. Any minute could be your last. Do we really need another shoegaze album for 2009? Musicians look back twenty years for nostalgia revivalism, so it should be predictable that it feels like 1989 all over again, with one high-decibel screeching outfit dropping their latest toxic-by-demand release on the world after another. Back then, it was mostly the Brits doing it, but now the Yanks are leading the march. Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers offers little on the original side, offers a lot on the volume side. What we know of them hasn’t changed much since our last visit, and timing is inconsequential. No, I don’t need another screeching shoegaze album right now, but there’s always something to be said for the process of flattering a good melody with extra care and finesse and than flattening the shit out of it with effects pedals from hell’s gaping maw.

Nov
11
2009
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A Soundtrack for Your Halloween

halloweenHorror movies and haunted houses are usually good for some frightful fun around Halloween, but they’re not as useful if you need a little atmosphere music when handing out candy to trick-or-treaters or a soundtrack for a dress-up Hallow’s Eve bash. For that, you’re going to need the appropriate tunes pumping out of your stereo. Below, I’ve assembled a fairly eclectic tracklist that should keep the chills and the grins coming all night long.

Oct
29
2009
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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Albums of the 1990s

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Update: A grievous omission has been rectified at #23.

To some, the end of the 90s signaled the end of the album era. With the rise of the Internet, mp3s were the wave of the future, not LPs, and all the new software (shuffling playlists!) and hardware (iPods!) completely changed the way we listen to music—you don’t like half of the songs on an album? Delete ‘em and make your own EP! But even if that’s true, the 90s offered a terrific last gasp, and the first (and perhaps last) time when music on popular radio could match the stuff on the college stations. Of course, it helped that I grew up in the suburbs before file sharing was the rage, so the majority of the stuff I bought and listened to during the decade was major label-accepted. Even though my plate grew much wider playing catch up during this decade, the fact remains—there was a time when modern rock radio and MTV actually played good music. And even the stuff out of the norm wasn’t really that far removed from the catapulting alternative scene among the masses. But that makes this a confounding list in its honesty—there’s stuff on here gobbled up by consumers that critics loathed right next to semi-obscure stuff that became fodder for “name dropping” among the elite that the average listener will never give a chance. Luckily, that whole Internet “fad” I mentioned earlier has corrected some of those injustices and access is nearly unlimited. Poised to satisfy and upset many in equal amounts, here are the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s.

Oct
28
2009
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CD Impressions: October 19, 2009

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Welcome to another edition of CD Impressions, the bi-weekly feature at JPP that allows the music writers to offer brief opinions and critiques on recent albums. On the plate this fortnight are reviews for new records from post-hardcore legend Thrice, veteran guitar rockers Built to Spill, the moody and oblique Italian trio Father Murphy, and noise pop provocateurs No Age.

Oct
19
2009
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Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II Review

Album sequels are a double-edged sword—they inspire immediate anticipation and virtually guarantee a quick response, but they also wall in the ambition of an artist so he/she will remain faithful and the hype of expectations can be ruinous if the results don’t astonish. Adding to that languishing hype is postponement—Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II arrives at least two years too late, which annoyed some and disinterested others (remember the relatively minor ripples caused by Chinese Democracy where a tidal wave would have been inevitable ten years before?). If time alone had been the key factor (though we know better) then polish and perfectionism are instant virtues. If writer’s block were even conceivable for a man of Raekwon’s range and talent, we could better understand. But mostly it was feuding with labels and collaborators and overall dissatisfaction; if this be the yields, viva dissent.

Picking up right where the first Cuban Linx left off, “The Return of the North Star” is a continuation reuniting that Barry White sample and Popa Wu’s teacher/philosopher character. BT’s production is seeped in the Far East cinematic sound (with its conversational sensei style, you could easily mistake it for an audio clip from a roughhouse blaxploitation flic paying homage to kung fu). J Dilla’s slashing, metallic synth strings cut through that haze on the next track, the posse cut “House of Flying Daggers.” Inspectah Deck come stomping in, spitting, “No respect for the cops and laws/In the land where your own blood brother still plot for yours/Seen things that'll drop your jaw.” Raekwon follows on his own verse with the kind of brutal fire we haven’t heard from the Chef since, well, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

But it’s not to last—as Pt. II dominates bleakness over boasting, the confrontational energy would have been ill-suited. Older, wiser (but still not settled), Raekwon spends most of the album serving as a weary reporter and admonished promoter, an eyewitness and an instigator. His first person accounts of crack den shootouts (“Baggin’ Crack”) and drug dealer murders (“Sonny’s Missing”) are brutal and authentic enough without the force. Raekwon’s rhyme schemes are complex and twisting, and he obviously pored over them with great ear for detail; nevertheless, his (s)low-key, almost meandering style just can’t compare to the visceral impact of his in-your-face rhyming from “Flying Daggers.” It’s the ebbing of that momentum that’s one of the few faults with this disc—some segments start to drag over more than seventy minutes. Luckily, his storytelling skills are as strong as ever, and with only a few exceptions, every track produces a vivid snapshot or whole slice of this grim and unsettling life.

Lending balance to this predicament is Ghostface Killah, who again appears with some frequency as he did on the original Linx. His verses on “Flying Daggers,” “Penetentiary” and, especially, “Cold Outside” (easily the best of Raekwon’s own Icewater Productions’ tracks), are all sharp—on the latter, he raps, “Holiday season is here and I'm vexed/Who the f-ck made Christmas up?/I'm f-cking broke, it ain't making no sense/Newports are $7.50, a box of Huggies is off the meat rack.” The chemistry between the Chef and Tony Starks is still palpable, an id and superego pairing that serves both sides of each story’s coin. In addition to Ghostface and Deck, every other Wu member (besides U-God) shows up for a guest or two, and the spirit of Ol’ Dirty Bastard is enlivened on “Ason Jones”; played for heart more than laughs makes it a superior cut despite a surprisingly non-descript looping beat from J Dilla.

The album is not without its less effective moments. Weak chorus hooks on “Catalina” and “We Will Rob You” (obviously, a nod to and pattern lift from the stomping Queen anthem) fail to elevate beyond serving as time killers between solid verses. This is especially unfortunate on the latter as samples from Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” inject revitalized energy on the back end. The language of “Gihad” is frustratingly scattershot: amusing joke one moment (“She take a bone like a rib-eye steak at Ruth’s Chris”), profanely blasé the next (“Spit drippin’ down my balls, she slobber me/That’s right, suck that dick, get it hard for me”). And despite his solid production on “Black Mozart,” RZA also takes a turn on the mic and pays weak tribute to ODB by emulating the Dirt McGirk persona during the bridge. But these missteps are mere flaws to otherwise redeemable cuts—the bigger problem is overlength as interest begins to wane during the midsection. But just as you think its wearing out its welcome, the album roars back strong with the final three: the Dr. Dre-helmed “About Me” (with a better-than-average uncredited appearance from Busta Rhymes), “Mean Streets” with a killer beat and dense soundscape, and “Kiss the Ring,” which, believe it or not, borrows from Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The finale also provides the album with a broad, anthemic rhyme for Deck to deliver on the refrain—“When I step inside, kiss the ring, Wu Familia, La Cosa Nostra, it’s our thing.”

Raekwon seemed to be biding his time since 1995 when his Only Built 4 Cuban Linx put him among the elite of Wu’s MCs. Since that time, his two other solo projects (Immobilarity, The Lex Diamond Story) barely registered among both the fanbase and the critical community. The notion of a follow-up might seem to the more cynical as a blatant attempt to cash in on past glory, but despite the fact that much of Pt. II seems to be reiterating a lot of the same themes and tales, it’s as inspired and blazing as anything in the Shaolin canon since Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele. Familiarity may hamstring its surprise factor (eclectic subjects and settings aren’t one of the Clan’s strong suits), but along with Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, this handily represents hip hop’s best effort of an admittedly weak year. And with the inclusion of so many Wu-circling guests, it might even make up for the mixed returns of the last three group records. If Raekwon likes to brag that he makes movies for his ears, then this Mafioso joint can rest comfortably between De Palma and Coppola.

Oct
19
2009

The xx - XX Review

There comes an unspecific point in xx when you realize the xx aren’t going to be making enormous strides. It’s somewhere around the sixth or seventh song, but it could easily have surfaced on the fourth one or it could still rattle around as a possibility right before the final note drifts out. It’s not a smack-you-in-the-face realization, more of a gentle, instinctive one, and you smile because of it. Groups are often (and not always unfairly) criticized for taking too few chances and running over the same overworn material ad nauseum over the course of an entire LP, but we leave complete-record artifice as a bruise to anything except for “concept album.” This is not a concept album, at least not a narrowly defined one, but I was delighted that by the last few songs it became almost predictable in mapping out what they had in store for me. With an almost casual austerity, the xx has fashioned a very convincing reason to appreciate the negative space in the music you listen to—and to invest money in a high-grade set of headphones.

Evoking in different ways the post-punk minimalism of Young Marble Giants and the dark, love-starved chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian, the xx are mostly exciting in quiet ways, as aftertaste, or the kind of thrill that crawls up on you so deliberately that it’s the reactive gooseflesh that alarms you of an intruder. The word (and variants of) “subtlety” will no doubt be batted around like a kitten-pawed ball of yarn in all discussions surrounding this disc, so I will drop it from the vocabulary from here on out—luckily, there’s a thesaurus built right into the program I use for typing. But you can’t blame us; how would you describe music that can be appreciated on that first spin but earn a worthy rediscovery the next day on the fourth spin? I told you this stuff is subtle quietly cunning.

But back to that first statement, the one about how the xx aren’t going to be making enormous strides. By that, I mean that they don’t fall victim to the debut album cliché—throwing whatever they have on hand at the audience and sees what sticks. For a first record, xx is remarkably assured and confident, as if it was kismet that these four would come together for the same purpose, know exactly what they wanted, and wasted no time with early singles and EPs to get an idea of how they should evolve their sound (hell, they even self-produced this thing). The lack of strides comes with a minor price—there’s not an immediate, gimmicky song to sell—but with a mighty reward as recompense—flash-in-the-what? Nah, not them.

The xx might be four strong (Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, Baria Qureshi, Jamie Smith), but the music they create is quintessentially spare, built of styles rippling with organic dubstep and echo-reverbed dance, but shrouded in a nocturnal gloom fitting of the album’s striking (and strikingly simple) cover art. The songs tweak their formula but they never abandon it altogether—their lyrical ruminations rarely wander far afield and, aside from a broken beat here and there and ebbing tension between voice and instrument, they all sound like gradients of the same basic composition. That composition aches of the monochromatic glow of low-key IDM as built by a quartet still exploring their goth punk records (Joy Division honed to a pinpoint, sparkling like stars in the night sky). And how simple? The busiest guitar line would have served as a keyboard hook flourish for most of their predecessors (“Shelter”).

Most of xx’s songs work the bedroom mood. A morphine-drip synth wash fills out “Fantasy,” “Wicked Game”-esque guitar chords plug the void on “Infinity,” a rumbling bass drum thump brings you into “Intro.” Elsewhere, little snatches of instrumental vibrancy are fondly noticed and remembered (the twinkling xylophone of “VCR,” the stuttered rhythm of “Heart Skipped a Beat,” Daniel Kessler-esque guitars on both “Night Time” and “Crystalised”), but xx’s biggest draw comes in the form of Croft and Sim’s twin vocals. Hers is breathy, seductive and more traditional; his are reedy, heavy-lidded and low on range. Of course, the pairing allows a compliment that makes one seem sweeter than it is and the other richer than it probably ever could be—duets from the agreeable nearly elevated to extraordinary. That promotion of worth applies to the lyrics as well; taken on their own, lines like, “I am yours now so now I don't ever have to leave,” seem boilerplate, but reduced to the essential of breathless emotion and laid into conversational back-and-forth between both singers, they become (gulp) winsome.

The hype for xx sort of came out of nowhere without trade paper leaks and trendy band stories/gimmicks; in other words, this is the sort of swelling praise that’s trustworthy. With the Peter Hook basslines and the husky sexuality of Croft’s voice, they could have been the next craze. Instead, they decided to concentrate on their first album, plan each insinuating move with methodical precision, and deliver as impressive an entrance as we’ve seen in a few years. Even while they work in restrained shades, individual songs are captured and cherished (favorites: “Islands,” “Shelter,” “VCR,” “Crystalised”), but you won’t be itching to chop it up and sprinkle some gems onto an iPod mix. Instead, you bring the disc with you for lonely late-night drives or put it on in your room for midnight ambiance. The songs may be primarily about the instant gratification of sex, but your relationship to xx should soon blossom into true love.

Oct
09
2009

CONCERT REVIEW: Built to Spill / Disco Doom @ Southgate House (Newport, KY)

builttospillThe balding and the beard I’m accustomed to, but I’ll always get a kick out of the way Doug Martsch moves. With just his guitar speaking (or howling) to the crowd, his head’s usually down and his body is stiff, almost timid. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his entire frame gives a little spasm and his neck rolls around wildly and suddenly he’s the most exuberant man in the room with the body language of a Ritalin-deprived child getting a triple dose of Pixy Stix.

Built to Spill in concert is much like that still-to-spazz interplay posture in the same spaces. The idea of “Neil Young-ian” jams typically sound yawns unless they come from Neil Young, but Built to Spill make them as potent and exciting as sub-three minute spiky power pop. The setlist was low on the band’s terrific shorter nuggets, but when they burned bright for six, seven, eight or more minutes, it had the infectious fire of two or three of those little gems strung out with a melodic motif for connective tissue. And in the noise-dense atmosphere of a crowded but intimate musical venue, the reverb was a constant peal broken by the alternate chime of a cleaner guitar, the clanging rhythm section (bassist Brett Nelson was a beast that night) and Martsch’s charming vocal whine. 

Oct
06
2009
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Listen to Vampire Weekend's New Song "Horchata"

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Contra, the eagerly anticipated sophomore LP from New York-based indie rockers Vampire Weekend, isn’t going to land in stores until next year (January 12, 2010 in the States, to be exact, or the day before if you live in the UK), but you can get a jump on it by listening to the album’s leadoff track, “Horchata,” right now. The new song is big on unexpected instrumentation (vibraphone and xylophone and probably other unusual bits) but is as immediately catchy as almost anything on the band’s self-titled debut from last year. For those who don’t know what horchata is, it’s a drink that varies in recipe from different locales, typically made from some combination of nuts, seeds, barley and/or sugar. The exotic temperament of the rhythm (a VW specialty) is fitting then, as is Ezra Koenig’s rhyme of the titular beverage with “balaclava.” Details and links below.

Oct
05
2009
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CD Impressions: October 4, 2009

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Welcome to another edition of CD Impressions, the bi-weekly feature at JPP that allows the music writers to offer brief opinions and critiques on recent albums. This time, we’re pleased to present capsule reviews for releases from experimental rockers MadLove, electronic dance-rock duo Datarock, stylish Mexican guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela, and English indie rockers the Maccabees.

Oct
05
2009
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From the Archives: Art Brut's "It's a Bit Complicated"

from-the-archives

Hey, a new Franz Ferdinand album? Oh wait, it's Art Brut. Seriously, can it get any closer? I guarantee you play "Pump the Volume" to the average Franzie and he'll swear up and down that it's gotta be them. Even the vocal inflection sounds ridiculously alike. It may seem unfair to criticize Art Brut for sounding like Franz Ferdinand (and Bloc Party, for that matter) when Franz borrowed heavily from all sorts of other groups…and the fact that all these acts sprang up at roughly the same time. But the UK is so full of these bands now that someone needs to stop them. Preferably now because in about twenty minutes I'm going to be sick of all of ‘em.

Oct
04
2009
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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1990s

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Oh, we’re getting close now. But before we can get to what we’ve all been waiting for with the best of the 2000s, let’s take some time to peruse the decade that influenced my passion for music. Because it was the era that I “came of age” with the form, this is also my favorite collection of all five groups (not best, mind, but favorite). Even slumming in mediocrity gives a minor thrill purely for the memory (hell, I own dozens of mediocre records from the era that, gosh darn it, I still kinda like). And since the majority of the first hundred or so CDs I bought came from the 90s, that means I’ve played and replayed the songs and albums from this span more than any other. And yet, as it is by necessity, there have been countless records during the decade that I only discovered after the new millennium began; I even deemed to include a handful I only finally got around to in the last few years. But with familiarity and previously close-minded preferences making their presence known, it was difficult to abandon so many “classic” songs I was weaned on. While I continue to stress eclecticism (no artist had more than three entries this time), it’s not difficult to discern where I came from based on the evidence below.

Sep
28
2009
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Music Video Corner V

speechdebelleTime for another edition of Music Video Corner where JPP shares recent videos from a variety of artists. The clips on hand this time come from indie singer/songwriter St. Vincent, art rockers Mew, Mercury Prize-winning rapper Speech Debelle, garage punk outfit Johnny Foreigner, dance pop trio Chew Lips and seasoned alt-rockers Eels. The classic video this time comes courtesy of Britain’s Placebo (indeed, mediocre bands can produce great videos). Check them all out after the break.

Sep
27
2009
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Pearl Jam - Backspacer Review

I’ll do my best to spare you the shallow and utterly predictable analysis of the long and storied history of Pearl Jam and the forces both internal and external that brought them here, but after nine studio LPs, bucketloads of B-sides and innumerable live recordings available to buy, it’s really, really hard not to do a little reminiscin’ and comparin’. After all, they do lay claim to two seemingly impossible points of pride in tandem—they have an obsessive cult of fans that “get them” the way the mainstream doesn’t and they were inarguably the biggest rock band of the 90s. But their story’s just not interesting enough to outsiders for so much time spent in the studio and on the road—it would be the blandest Behind the Music ever aired (or is that show off the air now?). Where are the bandmate smackdowns? The drug overdoses? The run-ins with the law? The ill-fated experiment with disco music? Oh wait, they’re just a rock band, as if that’s somehow an insult. Sure, they’re a politically active one with a message, but all the bullshit that clutters up even the greatest acts in pop music history just isn’t there.

Sep
21
2009
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CD Impressions: September 19, 2009

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Welcome to another edition of CD Impressions, the bi-weekly feature at JPP that allows the music writers to offer brief opinions and critiques on recent albums. On the plate this time are the latest releases from prog-rockers the Mars Volta, the noisy garage outfit Japandroids, screamo vets Poison the Well, rapper Kid Cudi, and bluesy alt-rockers Band of Skulls.

Sep
19
2009
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The Antlers - Hospice Review

I was probably a little rough on the Antlers’ 2007 EP In the Attic of the Universe. Early raves suggested that Peter Silberman had used isolation to wring out his heart and deliver a moving, uncompromising record (copy and paste and relocate to Wisconsin for the more deserved applause of Justin Vernon's Bon Iver debut). But the results in my mind were wrinkled and elusive, only three real songs in the seven tracks, produced in unnecessarily long and aimless “sweeps”—the extra bits felt flabby and pretentious, the meat more often underwhelming than stirring. Aside from “The Universe Is Going to Catch You,” there was virtually no substance, and the anticipated brilliance turned out to be an elaborate sleight-of-hand (or the grimmest, most straight-faced parody imaginable). But before you lash out at my negative opinion, let me say that I wish that I hadn’t deleted it from my hard drive two years ago (after downloading it for free from the band’s website); based on the lovely, heartbreaking returns of Hospice, I’m beginning to wonder how right or wrong I was.

It seems equally easy to scoff at or gush over Hospice. The hard-bitten will keep it at arm’s length and snidely dismiss it as trite treacle, a tearjerker-of-the-week from the Hallmark Company so artificial in genuine action and response that it feels plotted by a hungry robot that subsists only on salty human tears. The easily-broken romantics will need two boxes of tissues and a resuscitation from a paramedic as their heart dangerously palpitates and they become dehydrated from too many hours spent crying. This is an album about a woman dying of bone cancer and the home-care worker who falls in love with her, marries her, and then watches her slowly die. It is a detail painfully close to my own heart at the moment as my grandfather suffers terribly from the same affliction. Yet it is not in the personal reflection that found me falling off my guard, but rather the great strides in both lyricism and songcraft taken by Silberman that is worthy of the praise.

The unnecessary tangents of Universe are replaced here by beneficial intrusions of quiet stillness and dense, searing noise. There’s gradient to be found, but mostly Hospice is dominated by lonesome, melancholy ambience and busy, blustery releases. Even with the occasional relief of faint humor and humanity, the songs are too downtrodden to be declared anthemic, but there are hidden hooks and catchy melodies to find—the Arcade Fire-esque “Sylvia” and the spry guitar bounce of “Bear” chief among them. While the tone and tremor still suggests a “bedroom recording,” the empty found-sound posturing of Universe has fallen away, replaced by spare studio collages, modulated and varied instrumental performances, and a full band presence. Silberman recently expanded the Antlers from a solo act/alias to a trio (adding Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci); nevertheless, it still sounds like a whole team of engineers and multi-instrumentalists were hard at work on this album. Even the smallest, most composed passages bubble and bristle subtly with tender ache. Intimacy still rules most of the way, but it feels like a shared experience for an entire community of mourners and storytellers.

After an instrumental prologue (appropriately called “Prologue”), “Kettering” introduces us to the two characters: the narrator with “an unpayable debt” and the patient who’s been “abused by the bone that refused” her. The relationship is uncomfortable at first—“When I was checking vitals/I suggested a smile/You didn’t talk for a while/You were freezing/You said you hated my tone/It made you feels so alone/So you told me I had to be leaving.” But something compels him to stay, and eventually the abuse he suffers is far kinder to his nerves than the self-defeat of the terminal woman. On “Sylvia,” over big, crashing guitars that shoots Silberman into the stratosphere, he shouts, “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven/Go back to screaming and cursing/Remind me again how everyone betrayed you.” The only intimacy is shared when Sylvia’s suffering is temporarily staved off by sleep; it’s the only time he talks to her: “That’s when I tell you everything/And I imagine that somehow you’re going to hear me.”

The appropriately named “Atrophy” witnesses the association blooming full. Desperate and helpless, during the coda he moans, “Someone, oh, anyone, tell me how to stop this/She’s screaming, expiring, and I’m her only witness/I’m freezing, infected and rigid in that room inside her/No one’s gonna come as long as I lay still in bed beside her.” And on “Two,” the narrator gets the ice water thrown in his face—“In the middle of the night I was sleeping sitting up/When a doctor came to tell me, ‘Enough is enough’.” Silberman’s voice almost cracks on the next song (“Shiva”) as he describes, “Suddenly every machine stopped at once/And the monitors beeped the last time/Hundreds of thousands of hospital beds/And all of them empty but mine.” The shared burden amplified on “Two” aggravates the broken narrator’s suffering. Over a choir of ethereal keys and a forlorn acoustic strum, he murmurs, “My face became yours/My femur was breaking in half/The sensation was scissors and too much to scream/So instead I just started to laugh.”

If “Shiva” devastates, then “Wake” provides the catharsis. But the catharsis is still haunted; the narrator will never get over the loss, and he learns that dealing with it is the only way forward. The reminder still lingers of how he opened himself to the terminal patient and widened the breach for this flood of sinking sadness—“It was easier to lock the doors and kill the phones than to show my skin/Because the hardest thing is never to repent for someone else/It’s letting people in”—but ultimately his message is that the burden is not too great to summon the generosity of an emotional and physical connection with anyone. Nevertheless, her spirit returns to him night after night during the epilogue (again, appropriately named “Epilogue”) and we realize that loss can never be shaken away.

Detaching myself from the complex but unbearably heartrending emotional drama unfolded by Silberman proved impossible considering the details of the disease, but its themes are just universal enough to alleviate that discomfort all the while it added new grave hurt to my psyche. The relentless helplessness isn’t quite numbing but even the rare rays of light are followed by even darker clouds to knock you back down with an extra bruise. It’s not without its minor flaws: The abortion reality/metaphor of “Bear” isn’t integrated as well as it could have been—on its own, it’s a terrific track, but the story becomes a little muddled at this point. And while individually, they all work well, the emotional abyss it carves into your heart could have used a little more invigoration to counter the deterioration. Would that have upset the elegiac sadness of the album? Perhaps, but if it was handled with the same deft touch that Silberman frequently displays across Hospice, it could have solidified and intensified an already near-perfect album. As such, it is difficult, depressing, uncompromising and cripplingly heartfelt—a great record if you’re in the mood to cry all afternoon.

Sep
17
2009

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug Review

Stateside, Arctic Monkeys went from no-names to SNL musical guest in about a month’s time. That’s an unfair disadvantage. Anything short of fourth greatest rock band on the planet would have earned them a vicious backlash. But instead of hisses and groans, Arctic Monkeys mostly elicited shrugs. There was nothing there to get agitated and vitriolic about, but figuring out why the hype was theirs to squander in the first place proves trickier than spotting a monkey making a home around the North Pole. Oasis paired with the Libertines, UK’s own Strokes…however you liked to define them, their identity was as indistinct and unoriginal as their sound. Making for an okay spin ensured you could always find their record on your shelf if needed, but that need rarely arose. I assumed I had heard the last of them after two mediocre records.

But then there was the news that earned a half-hearted raise of the brow: Arctic Monkeys co-produced by Joshua Homme. There’s a guy who can slur his words, look stoned straight out of his gourd, and drag riffs like he just polished off a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and make it into a spellbinding show. Who better to show these slovenly lads a thing or two about grabbing an audience without grabbing a can of polish? I will do my best to ignore the spiraling disappointment resulting from the optimism—expectations should not figure heavily into an outlook—but it’s very difficult to forgive the frequently dreary and rote results.

I once found their more raucous side (of the dance rock/post-punk variety) to be a bit too empty and lackluster for the blitz; on Humbug, I yearn for empty thrash. Dark and brooding I can handle with unvarnished (and inappropriate) glee, but this stuff seems half-hearted and overrun with shadowless gloom. Could Homme’s (and James Ford’s) production be to blame? Emphasizing atmosphere over vigor certainly seems to be the widespread fault to the album’s sound. There’s no ache and thrust to Alex Turner’s voice, just morose disinterest. When the riffs move towards tough and angular, they’re bottled by a cranky haze and tepid peyote mind scrambles so it sounds like the band’s simply going through the motions. The material that reads more energetic can sound wayward and boggy; the more introspective semi-ballad moments are, more often than not, simply torpid. They wanted hard, dense, contorted and menacing; they usually ended up with bleakly bland.

Leadoff “Propellor” certainly leads you astray of this at the outset with rat-a-tat drums. The slowed down tempo inside reveals one of their better low-key melodies, perched on the border between the American Southwest and Mexico, perfectly suited for Homme’s desert-dwelling persona. But first single, “Crying Lightning,” which pretends to be a robust and bouncy rocker, is overwhelmed by noodling Western psychedelia guitar whirls that are ill-suited to the steady beat and shapeless lyrics, whether they’re strange metaphors (“With folded arms you occupy the bench like toothache”) or bizarre imagery (“You like to aggravate the ice cream man on rainy afternoons”). Blank, but mildly catchy for their style, and thus far there didn’t seem to be a huge difference between this and their last two albums. The seesaw riffs of “Potion Approaching,” the punchy but aimless rhythm of “Pretty Visitors” and the livelier portion of the bassline in “Dangerous Animals” are kin, too. But the further in you delve, the less fun it becomes.

“Fun” isn’t a proper descriptor for the effort—these Arctic Monkeys want you to hear their maturity, not their vitality—but morbid and grim can indeed be a good time if it exhilarates on the starkest of levels. But songs like “Secret Door” and “Cornerstone” are creaky and overly familiar of better 60s psych-rock engineers and “Fire and the Thud” is almost painfully limp. The equally leaden and indistinct lyrics don’t help much—after this stuff, the silly spelling exercise of “Dangerous Animals” seems almost charming.

With its eerie guitar echo effects and above average lyrical makeup, “Dance Little Liar” could have been one of the peaks, but it’s choking on exhaust before the almost five-minute composition is spent. The more-than-five-minute closer, “The Jeweller’s Hands,” is just as endless, mired in murky keyboards and sagebrush, almost-Spanish guitar plucks that try for evocative but wind up tiresome in the long haul. In these shades, the overdriven, near-punk exercises of Favourite Worst Nightmare are sounding quite lively all of a sudden.

The most memorable moments off of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not were usually the mid-tempo numbers (“Riot Van,” “A Certain Romance”) because they hinted that Arctic Monkeys might be more than just the latest new-fangled post-punk import (or export, depending on where you live). By their sophomore release, that position had reversed, as only the fast and catchy rockers were noticeable. On Humbug, they blend the pointed with the blunt, the fist-pumping with the pocket-folding, and aim from the dancefloor to the sitting room. Fans may be more receptive (though I contend it’s a style thing and not a prejudice thing) but I suspect that only the most forgiving will say that this new step is already working—“promising” or (the unspecific) “interesting” are more likely. But a step it is, not a fully-fledged work worthy of acclaim. Time will tell if is going to be one of those “transition albums”; if so, Humbug is chockfull of growing pains.

Sep
04
2009

CD Impressions: September 5, 2009

cdimpressions

Welcome to another edition of CD Impressions, the bi-weekly feature at JPP that allows the music writers to offer brief opinions and critiques on recent albums. This time, we present another good, bad and ugly selection of releases, including the latest LPs from Eyes Set to Kill, the Fruit Bats, Endless Hallway, Third Eye Blind and Tartufi.

Sep
04
2009
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From the Archives: Foo Fighters' "Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace"

from-the-archives

The cover art of Foo's ESP&G reminds one of their 1995 self-titled debut: muted background, centered layout, a weapon overwhelming the space. But if you go in hoping for some of the old Foo magic, you'll be sadly disappointed. We've come to accept the fact that the Foo of old is gone, which is surprising considering how little the band seems to evolve anymore. They try new tricks each time out, sure, but it's all in the same framework as ever. Everything is primed for mass consumption. It's arena-friendly in the sort of way that would make bands like Kansas and Foreigner proud. The productions are slick and uncorrupted. There's so little breathing room in each radio-friendly nugget because they're designed with the same sort of affection we would hope for, but not in the way that we would hope for. Even the softest and gentlest ballads sound like little more than very subdued anthems.

Sep
04
2009
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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s

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The minor misconception is that the 80s was a wasteland of trashy party rawk, bad pop, worse dance and musical trends that rivaled the fashions as being the most garish monstrosity of the pop culture-intensified decade. But the fact is, there was plenty of great music out there, you just needed to know where to look; more often than not, that meant leaving the mall and seeking out the basement floor music shop nearest to you. Also more often than not, the decade’s big sellers were big busts (or just plain mediocre). Of the one hundred top-selling albums of the decade, only eight were good enough to find room on this list (for those who care to keep count: numbers 2, 17, 18, 24, 36, 42, 45 and 56). But despite vapid trends, novelty curios, image-dominant programming, and a whole lot of flash-in-the-pans, there were some thrillingly great albums to hear, buy and cherish. Here are the hundred best.

Aug
30
2009
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