Monday, December 7, 2009

The Music of 2009.

Another year older...another year smarter (individually), and dumber (mass culturally). Musically, the year was fun and my head is still tingling from the '09 Trail of Dead performances.
'09 saw two spectacular labels celebrate their 20th anniversary. Warp Records released a beautifully designed box set that highlights the incredibly important musical contributions of electronic pioneers like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada.

Merge Records' Score Anniversary subscription was consistently interesting. The compilations ranged from excellent to fair as one would imagine. The covers and remix projects were interesting to listen to with a couple of gems and the design of the set is pretty spiffy. It introduced me to some pretty cool stuff, like Wye Oak, East River Pipe, and made me give The Magnetic Fields the time they deserve. Was it worth the money? eh, probably not, but whatevs.
Despite listening to scads of mind-blowing music this year, watching Oasis finally fold tops my musical moments of 2009. Since 2000, listening to Oasis' music has been like laying in bed listening to a crushed animal bleeding to death out in the street. Without the lethargic shadow of Oasis lingering over the world of rock music, perhaps we will see a much needed jolt of creativity to a stagnant genre.
...Speaking of stagnancy, it's been about half a year (!) since I bothered to compose a self-fulfilling, rambling blog offering, so here's a run down of my top 15 albums of 2009. If you're reading this, it's probably as a follow thru from my (awesomely enjoyable) 2009 compilation CD. If not, shoot me a message, and I'll be sure to send one along to you. There are some tracks that your life will be better for hearing.

First, some honorable mentions: The Antlers - Hospice, The Black Heart Procession - Six, Choir of Young Believers - This is for the White in Your Eyes, Grant Lee Phillips - Little Moon, Maserati - Passages, Modest Mouse - No One's First and You're Next, Duncan Sheik - Whisper House, Superdrag - Industry Giants, Jesse Sykes - The Tempset, Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy, Apse - Climb Up, The Soundtrack of Our Lives - Communion

15) DO MAKE SAY THINK - OTHER TRUTHS For their fifth album, Montreal based Do Make Say Think seem to take stock in their genre. Post-rock, an evolved and culturally relevant version of prog, defined itself by its epic song structures with their ebb and flow of dynamics. For Other Truths, DMST cut four behemoth tracks, one named after each word in the band's name. THe songs themselves play upon this theme. 'Do,' the album's opener, is the most active, moving with defined melodies and the most focused format. 'Make' and 'Say' get pretty wild; horns emerge intermitently and the rythm section carries the album for minutes at a time. By the time 'Think' rolls around, the band approaches a contemplative plateau, leaving the listener drained and exhausted.

14) GRAHAM COXON - THE SPINNING TOP Alas, the rumors of a Blur reunion proved to be unfounded. Nonetheless, '09 was a pretty good year for fans of the Britpop staple band. First, Damon Albarn is a final contender to be the visual director for the London Olympics, the band played a couple of killer shows at Hyde Park, and guitarist Graham Coxon released his finest solo effort just in time for summer. Full of contributions by Robyn Hitchcock, the album has his touches all over it, in that it is a highly cerebral and involved listen. Coxon's former albums covered the musical map from start to finish but lacked an overall coherency. The Spinning Top rectifies that and shows Coxon still learning, still experimenting, and still evolving his sound, while flashing his insturmental skill. Certian to be enshrined as one of his generation's finest guitar players, tracks like 'In the Morning,' and 'Dead Bees,' show his range and 'Brave the Storm,' is perhaps Coxon's best songwriting venture yet on his own.

13) WOJTEK GODZISZ - Godzisz worships the same dark gods of rock that Led Zeppelin an Black Sabbath alluded to in their glory days. Directly citing Aliester Crowley in the liner notes, Godzisz's music is loaded with references to black magic and the dark arts. The naturalistic element of the Wicca dominates his sound though. While his songs most definitely explore the louder end of the rock spectrum, his riffs are as often delivered with violin strings as guitar. His overall focus remains on the melody and with the diverse collection of musicians and insturments he assembles, his self-titled album captivates the listener with an array of auditory spells. A former teen punk with Symposium, Godzisz is hardly recognizable as a solo artist. He's also got the best beard of 2009.

12) THE XX - I can't help feel that in two years time, I'm going to view this album as one of the top 5 of the year. Sexy, and immensely listenable, the XX's pristine album is smooth and dark, recalling the cold beauty of Depeche Mode and the Cure in their primes. Tracks like 'VCR' and 'Fantasy' show a band with a mature, coherent sound with no reliance on formula or repetition. The XX's eponymous debut has lots of sounds that jump out from the audio shadows to surprise you...not scare you, that's not the XX's mission. Musically, the XX is seductive and fantastic and leave the listener wanting more.

11) PREE - A CHOPPING BLOCK - Abstract Americana in the vein of Modest Mouse. An off-centered structure and complex lyrics make D.C. based Pree's debut EP a continually engaging listen. A Chopping Block is all intimate twang and defiant vocals. Pree's label, The Kora Records, a relative newbie, has been continually impressive with their eclectic roster and challenging output.

10) JULIAN CASABLANCAS - PHRAZES FOR THE YOUNG - Definitely didn't see this one coming. The Strokes' Is This It is unquestionably one of the best and most enjoyable albums of the past decade, and Room on Fire is a pretty good record as well but after the tossed off First Impressions of Earth and the middling side projects, I was about ready to write off the Strokes. Casablancas' solo debut is an eye opener and sounds like it took pains to make. Full of wit and candor, the frontman's lyrics are self reflective and set some fairly bitter sentiments over some deceptive jangles. '11th Dimension,' the album's rally piece, finds Casablancas exploring the confines of fame. With his apathetically dripping vocals, it seems like he has to sing some vitriolic material to keep caring and not shut off. 'Tourist,' at the album's tail end, sees him address his urban claustrophobia, quite shocking since The Strokes carry such a heavy New York image. Most impressive is the songwriting skill that Casablancas puts on display. These are quite simply the best tunes he has written and makes me eager to hear some new material from The Strokes themselves who, rumor has it, are presently recording new material.

9) CALIFONE - ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS - The tin can mechanics at work in Califone's music perfectly represent the time. The vestige of naturalism is apparent and frail in their songs. After building a catalog of both senseless noise flux and transcendent beauty, Califone settled in with their last work, Roots and Crowns. All My Friends finds lead singer and songwriter Tim Rutili cobbling songs for film accompaniment while the effects of the prior work linger on. The effect is an extremely visual work and the most spacious record Califone has made to date. The title track plays by the rules here, but the rest of the songs eschew regular structure and wind through the song like a stream. The thing that makes the sound more than just pastoral hymns is the clatter. The curious rhytmic choices that have come to define the band's sound roam the album like isolated storms and refuse to let the listener settle.

8) DOVES - KINGDOM OF RUST - It's difficult to think of Doves as a veteran band. Their music has been consistently excellent since their 2001 debut, sounding both effortless and timeless. Thus, Doves unfortunately fall through too many cracks. Made over a period of four long, active, painstaking years, Kingdom of Rust comports itself with the regal grandeur into which Doves have nurtured their sound. For a three piece, Doves create a massive sound. 'Jetstream' opens the album with an accelerating rush that eases into the window-watching title track serving as the album's first single. While Kingdom of Rust shows the band moving forward, it does find the band treading somewhat carefully at points. 'Winter Hill' shows why Doves so often get the Coldplay comparissons and, for all its blatent accessibility, tracks like '10:03' and 'Lifelines' show the band at their best - experimenting, pushing their insturments to new limits and disregarding conventions to achieve new heights.

7) BALMORHEA - ALL IS WILD, ALL IS SILENT - Balmorhea is a small town in western Texas; an oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. The moniker works well for a band dealing with soundscapes on the level displayed on their second album. Folk elements are stretched to their maximum capacity as the band struts its Sigur Ros influcence while creating their own musical identity and style along the way. Like all good post-rock, All is Wild, All is Silent creates its own rules. Expectations are shot down and directions seem deliberated with each passing measure. One thing that is certain throughout the progression of the album though, is it's determination to maintain its gorgeous, shimmering naturalism and tremendous scope. If Thoreau had a boombox by Walden Pond, this is what he'd be rockin'.

6) VENICE IS SINKING - AZAR - Shoegaze seems to be entering its retro phase. Hailing from the fertile musical base of Athens, GA, Azar finds Venice is Sinking diving into the deep waters of sonic guitar experimentalism. Regardless of their tendency to press the boundaries of melody in the song structure, their earnest orchestrations and tender approaches make their music warm. Like Broken Social Scene, Venice is Sinking never sacrifice the coherency of their idea to try and be prog. Tracks like 'Ryan's Song,' 'Okay,' and 'Wetlands Dance Hall,' show a band with the capacity to write elegant retro-pop, while the repeating 'Azar' tracks thematically placed throughout Azar give it an album-oriented unity.

5) PT WALKLEY - MR.MACY WALKS ALONE - Object lesson: Ambition pays off. Mr.Macy is an album that sounds like it ought to have been recorded by a band that plays arenas nightly. After a DIY build up and well placed patience, Walkley did find himself opening for Weezer at the Hammerstein on Halloween (after the crapsack that is Raditude, take that for what it's worth). Walkley's compositions have hooks that rival the best and call to mind the grandeur of ELO. Instrumentation ranges from horn flourishes to theremin warbling to lap steel slides and Walkley's voice drifts effortlessly between pleasant baritone and lofty falsetto to deliver sweet, sweet melodies. Add in the thematic concept of a sadistic east village hipster and her conspiracy to bump off her father for the $ and you've got the most sheerly enjoyable album of 2009.

4) WYE OAK - THE KNOT - The syrupy, soulful croon of vocalist Jenn Wasner often seems so delicate that it will break underneath the cyclical barrages of distorted guitar that orbit in and out of Wye Oak's compositions. 'For Prayer' and 'Take It In' use an expertly crafted push and pull and strong melodies. Lyrics are often veiled under the thick production, but at certain points, such as the upbeat 'Want for Nothing,' the band becomes almost radio-friendly. The Knot is an appropriate title for this one. In a way it feels like the duo is trying to work something out. At the same time, they get a really good grip on what they're doing at the moment. The band channels Sonic Youth style distortion along with southern folk elements to create something truly enjoyable. An introverted piece, The Knot is very much of a private album, in the sense of its ideal listening environment as well as the slow manner in which it reveals its secrets with each listen.

3) ...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD - CENTURY OF THE SELF - As epic as it gets. Trail of Dead's soundscapes unfurl in levels of detailed dynamics like exploring a vast and unspoiled land. The song structures spiral skyward and the rhythms shake the listener to attention. If you are writing a hymn to a goddess as the band does on 'Ode to Isis,' you'd better make it loud enough that she notice and this record can definitely shake foundations. 'The Bells of Creation' and 'Fields of Coal' show Trail of Dead's talent at maintaining a gripping melody and while going for broke on the volume as well. As I lament the waning appreciation for cover art and visual associations accompanying the music, Trail of Dead continue to be a prime example of why the album cover matters. How do you make so much amazing, righteous, anthemic rock music and still find the time to make epic drawings in BALL POINT PEN?!? Check out songwriter Conrad Keely's fantastic art in a spare moment:

2) BAT FOR LASHES - TWO SUNS The film that accompanies the special edition version of Natasha Khan's sophomore album under the guise of Bat for Lashes, provides a valuable understanding of the content behind the mystery and majesty of Two Suns. Saying that her music is heavily influenced by the '80's kind of misses the point. While a voice reminiscent of Kate Bush at her finest, and a well rendered Cure cover leave little doubt about her musical appetites, the music on Two Suns is a portrait of maturation; growing up to become...well, whatever one becomes. Two Suns chronicles the process of self discovery; the rise to experience trying to come to terms with the explosive feelings of fresh love/lust as on the rhythmic single 'Daniel', and the ingrained hesitancy of being emotionally vulnerable as on the dark pulse of 'Sleep Alone.' Nowhere does she demonstrate her songwriting and performance prowess better than on 'Siren Song,' a desperate plea to the one she loves, displaying a devastating, soul-shaking vocal crescendo so honest it hurts.

1) FEVER RAY - From the cold comfort of 'Triangle Walks' to the vast minimalism of 'Keep the Streets Empty,' Fever Ray's self-titled debut is full of image laden references to the early hours of morning. I'm beginning to find pleasure in being awake at this time of day. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with being conscious at these hours and a transient feeling that lingers for the first few moments when day's first faint light breaks. Fever Ray's album is all about those moments. It is the shroud of darkness itself, but it is also about recognizing that shroud as a layer that can be, and needs to be, shed in order to become fully realized. Synth-heavy and synthetic sounding, the vocals of Karin Dreijer Andersson, also of The Knife, are frosty and detatched on first listen, but grow increasingly accessible with each subsequent spin. Likewise, the lyrics seem totally off-the-cuff to begin with ("I'm very good with plants. When my friends are away, they let me keep the soil moist."), but through deeper analysis, one finds veiled references to the comforts of youth, the importance of personal connections, and the anomie inherent in modern society.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Charles Bock - Beautiful Children

Watching this documentary on 20th Century American literature, the narrators likened the introduction of the papaerback novel to today's ipod fascination. The new publishing format allowed folks (teens mostly) to pass off and trade new ideas, highlighted and dogeared with attractive covers, and gave the beat writers of the era a new vehicle for success. Kerouac and Burroughs novels were locker transients and the written word as they crafted it sculpted an entirely new cultural perspective.
I've got some of those old survivors of the paperback era. They're in pretty sad shape after half a century of readings, but one thing that still impresses is the cover price, usually a meager .95. New paperbacks today run upwards of $20, a further indication of literary elitism. Sure, there's always the library but what loser wants to be seen there?
Too bad really, because there are some contemporary writers who truly do have their finger on the current cultural pulse. Writers whose product is edgy, critical, and deeply observant. Writers who take the familiar language and twist it around their fingers, tie it in knots like a shoelace and hook you like a finely played guitar melody. Chuck Palahniuk leads the pack as far as name recognition goes and his style has inspired a host of new voices. Unfortunately, he has also inspired a host of immitators and Beautiful Children seems as much.
Charles Bock's debut novel Beautiful Children is, at its core, a novel about teenage runaways. Problem being, it winds slow, undulating circuits around the core without ever actually getting there. His characters are meticulously constructed, so much so that they overshadow the plot, slowing the story's pace to a frustrating crawl far too often.
Bock's novel is set in Las Vegas and I first heard of him listening to an NPR interview while driving back from there. Gotta say, having an actual impression of the setting he paints made the reading a lot easier to digest. He paints the town as a character unto itself, which is appropriate. Newell, the missing kid in question only actually goes missing within the last ten pages as the novel is frustratingly out of chronological order. Story threads interweave in uncontrolled, chaotic patterns and Bock's attempts at linear ideas get tangled up in the mess of progression.
Too often Bock relies on pornographic level shock-tactics to entertain his reader instead of solid storytelling. While he can twist a phrase and provide just the right level of controlled imagery for the reader to clutch a scene, it rarely develops into a satisfactory one and that is essentially the problem that hobbles the entire novel.
At one point toward what passes for a climax in the story, a group of kids find themselves at a party in the desert. A band called Not To Be Fucked With plays badly rendered punk rock and the narrating character notes how it's all style before content, the rhythm never in sync with the melodies. In itself, this is a fair summation of the novel. It is dirty, but not in an enjoyably naughty way, just in a gritty, unpleasant way. Ideas remain undeveloped, threads hang loose, and anticipated resolution disolves like whatever Bock has been smoking.
Bock shows promise in his confident manipulation of the language and his characters which ooze verisimilitude, but his style and attitude need maturation that his later works will hopefully develop.
Good thing this one came courtesy of the local library...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All Things Superdrag

So I'm 13 years old, in the miserable pinacle of my awkward phase. I come home from another shitty day at school with a bag full of homework that I'll ignore in favor of rereading comic books. I grab a handfull of Oreos and plop my lazy ass in front of the TV, where I can spend the hour before my mom get home in its warm, mind-numbing glow. And then this comes on...

Holy hell! This video still timewarps me. The escapism that it demonstrates is something that I yearned to achieve day in and day out and I could live vicariously thru John Davis' gusto and attitude that he strutted in the captivating video. It's lost none of its affect. My enthusiasm for grunge was pretty much feigned. It's muddy guitar work and meaningless apathy devalued the music, I felt. Superdrag showed me power-pop with bite. Unlike Weezer, who wore their melodic sensibilities like a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, Superdrag spit it like fire. I have bought Regretfully Yours, the album that features 'Sucked Out' three times, I listen to it so much. When people gush about how much Nevermind blew their pubescent mind, this album is how I relate.

The sweet hooks and sugary choruses are ones that I would later find in the catalogues of The Kinks and, especially, The Zombies. Besides the straight out rockers like 'Sucked Out' and 'Destination Ursa Mojor,' 'Nothing Good is Real' is a hidden gem of a ballad that bowled me over with its massive crescendo and glorious guitar crests. Check it out on the left.
Did I mention I was in my awkward phase? Well, I wrote a typical fan letter to the contact address in the CD booklet and, lo and behold, a few weeks later, in the mail comes a hand written letter from Don Coffey, the band's drummer. To a nerdy teenager in rural Pennsylvania, this is like a visitation from the angel Gabriel. It showed me a whole new type of band that could actually be bothered to let their fans know that they were appreciated.
I got Head Trip in Every Key, the band's sophomore album, the day before it came out at one of the local record shops that would inevitalby be gone soon and that made me feel special. I listened to it on my discman at school during rehearsal for the spring musical and imagined myself as one of the first people listening to the new songs and fell in love with the music and the pretty girl between the headphones on the cover.
The opening track, 'I'm Expanding My Mind,' a breezy and uplifting tune, did what it promised. The glory that is 'Pine Away' made me light-headed, and the epic scale of the finale, 'The Art of Dying' pierced me thru.
After being exposed to so much music, it's rare that things move me like they did in these days of discovery, but 'The Art of Dying,' with its expertly inserted sitar, remains an earth-shaking.
In the Valley of Dying Stars, finds the original band disintegrating, with singer/songwriter John Davis using the album as a means of coping with the loss of his father. The results are mostly dark and brooding as on 'The Warmth of a Tomb,' and 'Unprepared.' A couple of major-chord driven tracks like 'Lighting the Way,' revive some of the more meldoic memories of the band's first two albums. 2003's Last Call for Vitriol, is not a pretty affair. Check out the saving grace number of The Staggering Genius at left as one of the few bright spots on a fractured, meandering collection of songs.
Then, the hiatus and John Davis' born again Christianity. The man who menacingly eyeballed the camera while lighting a cigarette from George Washington's burning face turned to Jesus Christ for help with his solo work. I was not aware that Jesus knew how to play any insturments, but Davis manages to work his presence in pretty smoothly on his two solo works, a self-titled debut and Arrigato, which employ Brian Wilson sized melodies to make the songs so damn enjoyable that you don't even care what the lyrics are preaching. The stregnth of Davis' faith is admirable thru these records and the stregnth of his songs make them more than simply interesting curios for the Superdrag superfan.
And now for the triumphant reutrn:

The thing is, I'm happy to say, I'm not being sarcastic. 'Industry Giants,' takes a couple spins to make it's mark but strightaway with 'Slow to Anger,' Superdrag show they've still got pleanty left in the tank. In a era where many of my teenage favorites are planning their reunions and falling flat on their face (see that old Verve review, and to Spacehog: don't f*ck it up), Superdrag pull it off. 'Industry Giants,' lacks the ultimate cohesion that makes Regretfully Yours the alt-rock juggernaut, but its urgency and energy make it authentic. The single, 'Everything'll Be Made Right,' sounds vintage and thunder-laden. The guitars are as cascading as ever and, with the original lineup back in place, the chemistry comes across in every song.
It's nice to have at least one thing from that awkward period that you can hold onto with pride.

PS - Hooray for the learning curve! I'll try to hook up tracks to all of the music I ramble about from here in.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

N*E*R*D - Seeing Sounds

Guilty pleasures. They are things that approach respectability but fall just short. Their failure is made even more evident by seeing the potential for true greatness right behind the veneer of ambivilance, incinsistency, or silliness. There HAS to be something that is REALLY good in order to make the pleasure large enough to overshadow the guilt or embarassment that comes with it. It's got to be so completely over the top that it overwhelms your better judgement.
Musically, my top three guilty pleasures are (in order): Berlin, Rammstein, and N*E*R*D. There's something, even if it's just one thing, awesome about each of these. Berlin's 'Take my Breath Away' does just that every time I hear it. It's so brilliantly grandiose with its synthesized tubular bells that it doesn't matter how ridiculously sappy it is, it puts on such a convincing facade of true emotion that I will defend it like a knight does a princess. Rammstein's visceral intensity makes me faster when I go running.
N*E*R*D's music worms into you. Pharrell Williams crafts beats and loops in such a way that you truly believe that he does see sounds, as the newest album's title suggests. The sweetness of the beats makes the album go down easily, but the sheer dumbness of some of the tracks still comes thru with bitter obviousness from time to time. When the songs themselves are good, N*E*R*D's tunes rock with the best, but their duds are epic and give their albums a sabatoging inconsistency.
In an era where false artists craft albums full of filler to support an album relying on one or two standout tracks, I wouldn't accuse N*E*R*D of this as it's the same problem that has weighted down each of their albums back to 2003's In Search of... Also, each of the tracks, no matter how bad, feels like it has been slaved over.
Seeing Sounds is half great. Of it's twelve tracks, six of them are so listenable and unique, they invade your mind and take over. Lyrically, N*E*R*D again demonstrates their extreme inconsistency. Pharrell segues between rapping and singing easily, and does both well. While pigeon-holed as rap, N*E*R*D's musical taxedermy defies easy categorization. 'Windows,' for example is sraight away the finest rock song N*E*R*D has recorded. With a Kinks-style guitar hook, and lyrics detailing the character's vouyeristic tendencies, the song feels like the British Invasion revisited by urban America.
'Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom),' is production perfection and conceals its barbs against the chic idiocy of cocaine nightlife well enough to get airplay.
The middle of the album shows N*E*R*D at their peak. Their album art, depicting the members floating thru space, exploring new territory is suddenly fitting. It culminates with 'Happy,' a euphoric number that employs guitar wahs and an infectious beat to overcome any listener hesitancy.
'Happy' is such a standout that it makes the following faltering all the more evident. 'Kill Joy' shows what happens when the production goes haywire and 'Love Bomb' shows that Pharrell would do well to get a second opinion of his lyrics from time to time.
Thru the highs and the lows, N*E*R*D is, at least, authentic. They don't compromise their sound and seemingly pursue their vision to the best of their ability. When the results are good, they can be good enough to make you forget about the clunkers and make you keep hoping for that thoroughly solid album that they keep trying to make.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns & Fever Ray

Looking through the compilation section at the record store the other day, I was struck by a realization and a memory simultaneously. The memory came first: I was in ninth grade, riding the band bus to a parade. The era of the ipod and segregated listening had not yet dawned and so the upper classmen brought a boombox, sat in the back and filled the bus with a dictatorship of sound. This time, it was Rage Against the Machine. While I appreciate the band and their content, they've always been a bit too repetitive for my taste. My friend sitting next to me was a fan of Billy Joel and jazz played on trumpet. He turned and said, "You know, when we get old, classic rock radio is going to really suck."
As I picked up decade-spanning compilations, it was easy to see how we've defined our past half century through its popular music. You will likely never see a '70's compilation without Carole King on it. You will never see an '80's compilation without Duran Duran on it. While Rage Against the Machine won't make it onto too many '90's comps, it'd be better for most of them if they had. While Rage may be too hard for some listeners to deal with, the validity of their music eclipses the buzzbin output of most of their well-remembered contemporaries.
Even if the CD industry weren't bleeding to death, it's hard to imagine a '00's compilation. It's a frightening prospect to consider what passed for popular music over the past decade, and unlike the past few decades, that strong connection between society and its literal rhythm is weak, if not broken. Whereas Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, and others were what the 1980's sounded like, what does it sound like today?

These two albums ARE the contemporary sound. They are both dark but tender, cold but welcoming, progressive yet comfortable. They take familiar elements and build on them, creating vast, moody soundscapes that warp their imagery and structure something completely alternatative. Postemodernism is a gooey term that I don't use often, but it applies to these two works.
Two Suns is Bat for Lashes' second album. On her previous work, Natasha Khan's project sounded like an adapted Black Box Recorder; now her vocals have matured to a transendency exhibited by Kate Bush in her best days. The album opens with some absorbing numbers. 'Glass,' and 'Sleep Alone' are a great one-two opener; deep, dark, and shimmering. The synthesized sounds that create the glittery dance of the music provide the aura that Two Suns is dependent on. After the pop-bliss of 'Daniel,' the album slows down into a series of misty numbers that suggest smoke and mirrors. By this point though, the album has suspended your disbelief and the listening experience is pure magic.

The aesthetic experience of the album is mirrored in, what strikes me as a related work, Fever Ray. Check out the cover art and you'll see the similarities begin immediately with the lone figures acheiving a sort of tactile balance. This is the first album under the name, but Karin Dreijer Andersson, honed her music talents on 2006's exquitise album Silent Shout, by The Knife. The synths here delve deeper and explore darker, more subconscious territory than Bat For Lashes. In a way, Two Suns is a listening exercise for Fever Ray. The synth-drenched soundscapes supplement to form a unique cinematic environment. 'If I Had a Heart' plays like a march for Yeats' rough beast, and is about as radio-unfriendly a "single" as I've ever heard. 'When I Grow Up,' is a wonder in contrast. The imagery is lush and verdant, while the sound is glossy and cascading, the effect reminiscent of Blonde Redhead's trembling, yet strong vocal delivery. 'Dry and Dusty' adds further mass to the album and makes it completely inescapable from there on in. Listening to it is like listening to the music from John Carpenter's '80's flicks with their pulsing, suspenseful sound that is weighted with sinister promises.
Fever Ray is unquestionably a lonely, introverted album. Yet while most artists find either weepy, mopey guitar tunes or angry, shouty guitar tunes the best way to express those feelings, Fever Ray do neither. They create their own lonely sound and it is stupefyingly beautiful. Its bold confrontation of inner feelings in crisis and at odds with one another may be the best audio representation of our current cultural climate I've heard since Neon Bible.
While it certainly would never have gotten played on the band bus' boombox, the best, most defining music NEVER did. As our culture encourages isolation and the boombox's massive speakers die off like dinosaurs to give way to the highly individualized earbuds, Bat for Lashes and Fever Ray prompt musical evolution with a nostalgic look over their shoulder. They pay homage to the sound that brought us here, provide impressions of where "here" is, and look ahead with dark determination.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

David Sedaris - When You Are Engulfed in Flames

In an era of visual media saturation, eliciting a laugh-out-loud response is becoming increasingly harder for the print medium. Humorists have to work twice as hard for diminishing results.
While I often find the actual authenticity of David Sedaris' memoir writings questionable, it doesn't particularly matter whether they are true or not because they COULD happen and that is enough. His pieces, while undoubtably exagerated accounts, provide effective, identifiable associations for the reader.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames shows Sedaris' sharpest, wittiest, and most focused writings to date. The book has a coherency which his earlier books lacked. While this is a collection, there is something about the sequencing of the pieces and the overall flow that ties it together remarkably well.
He hits on familiar areas throughout the book; his familiy, his partner Hugh, childhood memories, and smoking. The final chapter, a longer bit entitled 'The Smoking Section,' is his best writing to date. Laid out with dynamics that are little short of verbally symphonic, he chronicles his struggle to quit smoking, laying out the particular pleasures, the crutch of the patch, and the curious void of self-fulfillment felt afterwards. His fight against nicotine addiction is set against the backdrop of his living experiences in Japan. Overlaying the experiences uniquely connects both subjects and gives each of them greater resonance. As he moves through an alien environment, trying to learn the language well enough to tell the difference between bottles of shampoo and baby lotion, he feels alien to himself without a cigarette between his lips. With humorous and practical examples, he dredges the notions of suffering and the desire for familiarity as he purposefully denies vices disguised as comforts.
Rather than go straight for a laugh, Sedaris nimbly dances with his accounts, using referential humor and honest human connection to paint scenes that pan the entire emotional landscape, often within a single ten page poigniant story.
Bonus points for the predictably awesome Chip Kidd cover.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Soundtrack of Our Lives - Communion

What a pity no one believes that the power of a rock n roll record can change the world anymore. It wasn't too long ago that The Beatles, The Clash, hell, even Nirvana did more than impact the music scene, they broke the genre's self-created boundaries and became cultural mammoths showing what happens when the power of the music is unleashed.
That's not to say that The Soundtrack of our Lives' new album, Communion, is on the same level as London Calling. It is, however, a perfect example of how the new means of marketing and listening to music; digitally, on a track by track basis, rather than for the album's flow and overall message, will not allow an album created as a coherent whole to make such an impact.
Appropriately, this is the sort of ideology that TSOOL lambast against in Communion. Whereas one of the things that bugs me about that last Swedish rock export, Peter, Bjorn, and John, is that it seems almost purposefully in denial of contemporary reality, thumbing its nose at things that can't be laughed at anymore, TSOOL boldly take on these issues from Communion's start to its finish.
Oh, yeah and that end...well, give yourself some time. Communion is a double album that plays for over an hour and a half. Improbably though, there are no clunkers. Not every song reaches the anthemic heights of its brightest spots, but for as long as it is, it maintains its pace like a triumphal march.
Opening, Communion builds slowly up to the throbbing bassline of 'Babel On,' a track that acurately foreshadows the long journey ahead. The pun is apparent if you know the Biblical story. Whereas communication differences may have allowed cultural diversity to thrive, the fact that an omniscient god would prevent a single global tongue is sadistic and purposefully antagonistic. In our shrinking world where communcation breakdowns lead to cultural ideological differences, which lead to more and more global conflicts, a united language would prove undoubtably beneficial. Addressing the issue, lead singer Ebbot Lundberg yawningly sings, "The language that we speak was spread out to complete and communicate as one so turn the towers of Babel on."
A bit more than halfway thru the first disc, the band throws a curveball with a cover of Nick Drake's Fly. While it may not seem a likely fit, TSOOL put a beat behind the weepy folk tune and bring it up to speed with the rest of the album. The song's melancholy is preserved, but only for those listeners who know to look for it as it is covered with cheerful twelve-string guitar and tom tom percussion. The result is a cover that does what its supposed to. It stays respectful to the original but provides a new perspective and toys with fresh insturmentation.
While the first half of Communion keeps its focus on upbeat British invasion style rockers, the second half waxes more acoustic. Focused and precise, the second half showcases some truly beautiful numbers. The last two tracks, Lifeline and The Passover provide a solid capstone, leaving the listener humbled and hopeful. Lifeline is an introspective track that attempts to help the listener locate and establish whatever connection they can in our society of alienation. The Passover is the sound of gray clouds parting to let in golden light.
TSOOL have always been about big sounds, sounds that have always seemed a little derivitive of their British peers. With Communion, their ambition elevates them over all the bands they draw comparisons to; its a career album that shows a band meeting and exceeding their potential.
Communion is an album out of time. The degree of concentrated listening necessary to appreciate its complexity is one that few will ever get. Sad, because TSOOL's substantial messages are sugar coated with some very sweet tunes. Released forty years ago, this album goes side by side with Physical Graffiti, but today will garner a cult following who find themselves personally reflected in its songs. Maybe its better this way.