Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #65 Big Star - Radio City

Despite their long standing reputation as rock critical darlings, Big Star are still a sorely underrated band. How do I know this? Because, even though everyone I know is familiar with "In the Street," only a handful have any idea who Big Star are, or that the theme song for That 70's Show was an actual song from the actual seventies. I also know because, while playing Rock Band with friends, very few of them have any idea who Alex Chilton is whenever The Replacements song named after him works its way into the rotation. So, what I'm getting at is, even though Big Star's music currently enjoys the biggest audience it has ever known, I can count on my fingers how many of my friends actually knew what I was talking about when I spent a week listening to #1 Record for a week after Alex Chilton's death. As irritating as Big Star's long time anonymity is, however, I guess it's not surprising. The band's entire career, after all, only spanned a few years, and pretty much established that Big Star would always be one of the best bands that not enough people knew about. Bruce Eaton, in his entry into the 33 1/3 series chronicling the creation of Big Star's Radio City, effortlessly cobbles together a fractured narrative of how, exactly, Big Star managed to make such great music that not many people cared about.

From a historical stand point, then, Eaton's take on Radio City is one of the most fascinating and engaging entries in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. By piecing together bits of interviews with band members and other key players in the album's creation—including Alex Chilton, and the late Chris Bell's brother David—we get a compelling picture of how Radio City sprung from Big Star's workman-like desire to keep making music even through a tumultuous period in the band's brief history, and how the record, like its predecessor, failed to find an audience outside of rock critic circles.

The most surprising—and welcome—aspect of Eaton's work is how little the author does to sensationalize this period of the band's career. Despite Chris Bell's strange departure, inner turmoil and frustrations at poor distribution and marketing efforts, the book sticks to the facts of Radio City's creation so as to inform us, without ever coming off as scandalous or overly dramatic. While the book's format—Eaton largely relies on blocks of quotations from interviews from dispassionate parties who seem to have reached peace with the past—certainly lends itself to such a straight forward, but engaging presentation, Eaton's own commentary only serves to tie pieces together, or provide additional context.

The only truly frustrating element of Eaton's volume on Radio City is that it is the single most poorly proofread published book I have ever read. Most of the typos and editing glitches do little to hamper the books readability, but for a volume of around 129 pages (144 if you can't the great pictures at the end) I suspect there are no fewer than 200 editing errors in the book, ranging from missing words (mostly "A's" and "It's") to under-editing interview segments to leave in distracting, unnecessary "likes." While I don't think I've yet to read an entirely error free 33 1/3—hell, I doubt an error free book exists, anywhere—the overwhelming editing issues were certainly frustrating and distracting.

Still, despite the alarming number of glitches in the prose, Eaton's take on Radio City is fascinating and compelling. As a fan of Big Star's music who knew little about the band coming in to the book, I found the book to be quite informative, and, as is often the case, it allowed me to approach a much loved and listened to album with fresh ears.

Friday, May 28, 2010

This is Shitty/Awesome

The drive to The Conservatory--a small, dank, but charming club in Oklahoma City--on Tuesday (May 25th) sure was one vexing omen. Recent inclement weather inundated the area with massive orbs of hail. Seemingly every car in the area had its windows absolutely destroyed, and the same can be said, sadly, of some of the apartments in the area. I was going to see Nobunny, who, later that evening, delivered one of the most downright fun concert performances I have ever witnessed. Decked in only a borderline creepy bunny mask, a ridiculously short jean jacket (clearly tailored for a woman), and his sexy underwear, Nobunny frontman Justin Champlin commanded the stage like a slightly more sane version of Iggy Pop during the last days of The Stooges. Though only fifty people or so were there, I guarantee you nobody in attendance will ever forget their performance. But it wasn't Nobunny who decided to slice away parts of my ear drums this night; no, it was their opener, the Norman, Oklahoma act Shitty/Awesome, who audibly delivered on the hailstrom whose carnage I witnessed on my way to the club.

My first experience with Shitty/Awesome came in mid-March. They were opening for one of my favorite new groups, the Vivian Girls, as well as recent Pitchfork darlings Male Bonding, at The Opolis in Norman. I only arrived at the show early because I just HAD to see a band called Shitty/Awesome on general principle. Much to my pleasant surprise, I quite enjoyed what I heard. Will, the group's lead singer and guitarist, has a voice instantly reminding me of Alan Vega from Suicide or David Thomas from Pere Ubu (Will tells me he has The Cramps' Lux Interior in mind as well when he sings). Musically, the group was a slightly accessible throwback to New York's late-1970s' No Wave scene with goth, shoegaze, and rockabilly overtones. In other words, this was music totally geared for me! The group was selling a cassingle at their merch-table for a mere pittance ($3 maybe?). Despite my extreme dislike of cassettes, I bought it anyway (and, hell, it was limited to only 50 copies). And, as an added bonus, I think it made me say the word "cassingle" out loud in public for the first time since the early 1990s, when I purchased DNA (no, the other DNA) featuring Suzanne Vega's cassingle for "Tom's Diner." Since I actually drive a car from the early 1990s, which still has a tape deck in it, I threw that puppy in the player and loved what I heard. Both songs ("Say So" and "Shreds") were practically inaudible and quite hard on the ears. I mean this in the most complementary way!

In the song "Heavy Duty" by Spinal Tap, David St. Hubbins sings, "I just want to make some eardrums bleed." Well, Shitty/Awesome damn-near made mine explode Tuesday night in The Conservatory, a cavernous place where, in October of last year, The Melvins made sure my tinnitus would never go away by making it twice as bad. What makes Shitty/Awesome so shitty or awesome (at least they give you the choice!) is their unusual stage presence and their blend of musical influences. Lead singer Will rarely looks at the crowd, his microphone titled down at a forty-five degree angle, insuring that he looks up. He jabs at this guitar like he is trying to swat a fly. Their drummer, Travis, immediately reminds one of the Bobby Gillespie era of The Jesus and Mary Chain; well, that is if Bobby's heroin had been switched to crystal meth straight outta Perry, Oklahoma. He plays a small kit, his bass drum positioned behind him (which is a fairly unusual drum kit set up), allowing him the freedom to bang away at the snare with a piston-like precision. Their guitarist Derek also rarely faces the crowd, his back generally toward the audience. The most exciting member of the group on stage is the bassist Joey, who plays with the energy of an NFL middle linebacker tackling The Who's John Entwistle. Together, their look is as dissonant as their sound. Derek is pure indie-rock, Will a less-sequined Elvis Presley, and the rhythm section, some ten minutes into their set, are costumed in pure sweat.

Musically their set resembles air slowly being leaked out of a massive balloon. Anchored by the rhythm section, who are actually quite tight, Will's spikey guitar and manic vocal approach, combined with Derek's purposefully noisy lead lines, pack quite a punch. Their microphones have an inordinate amount of echo on them, so even when they talk between sets, or try to help you out by telling you the names of their songs, there is little chance you will pick them up. So I cannot report to you that "this song" was epic or "that song" lagged. Simply put, their entire set must be taken as a one wall of dance-able white noise jam-packed with old- to middle-school rock n' roll fury. As Will tells me, "All of our songs are about sex or killing yourself." And, really, that's all you need to know about how AWESOME Shitty/Awesome is.

They are slated to release their first 7" this summer. It will contain four tracks and will be released by Guestroom Records.

Shitty/Awesome on myspace
Shitty/Awesome on Facebook

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Daniel Powter's "Bad Day"

Has there ever been a pop hit that anybody could relate to more than Daniel Powter's chart-topping 2005 masterpiece "Bad Day"? I mean, how many times have you opened your Facebook page and read the following update status from one of your friends?: "I forgot to set the alarm and now I'm stuck in traffic. Already having a bad day." These minor setbacks at the beginning of the day--though hilarious to read on Facebook--really can affect the way each one of us proceeds through the next new day. The more embarrassing bad days are never made Facebook Official though: waking up to discover that one is out of clean underwear and will have to go the whole day with that "not-so-fresh feeling" of walking around in public in yesterday's smelly knickers; accidentally bad-mouthing your prospective employer's product during a job interview; or getting a promotion at work only to find out, after being plied with martinis by your bosses and co-workers, that your spouse waited for you to get home to tell you he or she got laid 0ff. Now these sorts of bad days reflect the sort possible only in developed countries. In some parts of the world, a bad day means another day without water or food, having more severe pains in your distended belly, or losing three limbs and being the only survivor in your family of an armed attack by a ruthless state-sponsored militia. Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" reminds us that all of these things are possible with an empathy recalling Walt Whitman's line from "Song of Myself" (1855): "I am the man...I suffered...I was there."

More impressive is that several of the rather ambiguous lines in the verses allude to some of the worst "bad days" in the history of mankind. When Powter sings, "You kick up the leaves and the magic is lost," he is clearly alluding to the Biblical fall of man, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit and became ashamed of his own nakedness. A bad day indeed. "You're faking a smile with a coffee to go," though topically referring to our contemporary culture's NEED for gourmet coffees, obliquely refers to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain having to tell his wife Anne, in the early hours of September 30, 1938, that he had signed the Munich Pact to appease Adolf Hitler and his forces. Easily one of the worst days of the 20th Century. Powter's intertextual brilliance is even more apparent during the chorus, in which he repeats the phrase "bad day" 529126 times, recalling the monotonous ending to The Beatles' "Hey Jude." In that song, Paul McCartney sings, "Hey Jude, don't make it bad / Take a sad song and make it better." Powter pays homage to the ultimate "gets-stuck-in-your-head" song by similarly singing, "You sing a sad song just to turn it around." Powter's grasp of the universality of the "bad day" and the proper way to cope with one--the art of post-modern meditation or chant through repetition in verse--reveals an artistic depth rarely matched in the post-World War II era. While a few of the song's cynical naysayers would have you believe that Powter's utterance of the phrase "bad day" 529126 times inevitably gets stuck in the listener's head--subliminally suggesting that they will indeed have a bad day each time they hear the song--Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" is a testament to and acknowledgment of these kinds of moments in our lives. It also provides us access to the closure we need to get past these "bad days." Oh, and one more thing: bad day.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Late to the Party: Parry Gripp's "For Those About to Shop, We Salute You" (2005)

Far too many fans of underground music are obsessed with the notion of "selling out"; or, the artist they love, with the small but loyal following, signing with a major label or making calculated moves to increase the popularity of their music. In a capitalist society, few, if any, artists are able to make music simply for "the love of music." Instruments are expensive, traveling is expensive, producing T-shirts, CDs, and vinyl records is expensive, life on the road is expensive (and rarely pays that well for all but the most successful acts). Inevitably, concessions will be made. Sure, some groups are better at maintaining a facade of artistic credibility. But believe me you, Fugazi and Crass were just as concerned with the bottom line as The Rolling Stone are. In other words, the notion of "selling out" is a given for 99.99% of all musicians. The Who pursued this logic, however briefly, on their critically acclaimed 1967 LP The Who Sell Out, creating snippets of mock-jingles, linking their songs with excerpts from Radio London to illustrate how they were merely a commodity themselves. That being said, the LP's tracks (like "Armenia City in the Sky" and "I Can See for Miles"), for the most part, are autonomous creations independent of its rather tenuous "concept."

And this is why Parry Gripp's debut CD, For Those About to Shop, We Salute You (2005), is so refreshing and fun. Gripp, the former front-man of the mildly successful pop-punk act Nerf Herder, according to his liner notes for the CD, was asked to produce a few jingles for a waffle-related product after the dissolution of his former group. Though his submissions were rejected, he decided to pursue this path on For Those About to Shop, which has 51 songs and clocks in at a mere 36 minutes in length. It features tracks with titles such as "Great Nachos, Great Price," "This is One Hell of a Truck," "Do You Like Waffles?" "You Need a Beer," "This Sale is Going to Blow Your Mind," "More Blades = Better Shave," and "You Aint Never Drank No Soda Like This One Here." Unlike The Who Sells Out, For Those About to Shop is fully committed to the premise. I mean, nothing sings "sell out" more than actually writing songs to sell products, right?

Gripp's album is a both a celebration and a critique of advertising and conspicuous consumption. It acknowledges advertising's ability to make people feel inadequate so they will be persuaded to buy products that they most likely do not need. It acknowledges how empty this entire process is. However, it is also aware of the rhetorical brilliance of advertising as well as its breadth of artistic influences. On the CD, which draws its title from AC/DC's 1981 LP For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), Gripp's faux-jingles appropriate the styles of a diverse population of musicians, including Al Jolson ("Say Hello To Your Brand New Favorite Pizza" and "You Ain't Never Drank No Soda Like This One Here"), Judas Priest ("Muffler Shop"), Rage Against the Machine ("Health Food Store"), Jerry Reed ("Big Mamma-Jamma"), Johnny Cash ("That Aint Fresh," which advertises a feminine hygiene product!), The Strokes ("Everyone's Dipping"), The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" ("You Need a Beer"), Weezer ("It's the Greatest Deal" and "Hooray for Santa Claus"), doo-wop group The Marcels' version of "Blue Moon" ("Big Sale"), 1990s electronica ("Got to Dip It!"), Yo La Tengo ("This Sale is Gonna Blow Your Mind"), and R.E.M. ("You Need Our Cough Medicine"). Helping make the CD even more entertaining is how convincing Gripp is at tackling this diverse array of musical genres.

Clearly a CD like this isn't made for excessive repeated listens. Hearing fifty different forty-five second long songs for a little more than half and hour can test some listeners' patience. Furthermore, Parry Gripp's voice, in many of these tracks, sounds very similar to "Weird Al" Yankovic, which, for some listeners, may incline them to believe there is no critique here, only blank parody. Clearly, because advertising is such an empty form, only concerned with surface, its emotional content solely existing as an unwieldy and overwhelming delivery of pathos, these songs undoubtedly come across the same way. Woody Allen once said, "Sex without love is a meaningless experience. But as far as meaningless experiences go, it's pretty damn good." To a certain extent, this is a well-suited analogy for For Those About to Shop, We Salute You. It is a fun and infectious musical challenge as empty as the generic products it advertises.

Here is the video for "Great Nachos, Great Price":

Great Nachos, Great Price music video

Dandan | MySpace Video

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Band of Horses - Infinite Arms

If I were Ben Bridwell, I'd want an identity change too. Throughout their history, Bridwell's Band of Horses has drawn comparisons to My Morning Jacket, which makes sense. Neither band has a stable, identifiable sound. Instead, both bands sound like several other bands in a schizophrenic back-and-forth between the spacey experimentation of the Flaming Lips to the alt-country-pop of early Wilco. Band of Horses' debut record, Everything All the Time (2006), drew comparisons to My Morning Jacket from almost every reviewer of almost every music magazine and blog. But what many of these reviews didn’t quite mention was that Everything All the Time sounded like only certain My Morning Jacket songs: The spacey, dream-popesque indie sound laced with a little southern rock and Americana. The follow up, 2007's Cease to Begin, reversed this equation, moving the southern rock and Americana elements to the forefront and pushing the spacey dream-pop to the background. Unfortunately for Bridwell, this sounded a lot like certain other My Morning Jacket songs.

Hence, the need for an identity change. Hence, 2010's Infinite Arms.

While this album will draw fewer obvious comparisons to My Morning Jacket's sound, in a lot of ways it reminds me of the direction MMJ took with their most recent album, Evil Urges (2008): With the exception of a few riskier songs, Evil Urges is a predominantly safe record dominated by a 1970s sound and vanilla songwriting. In a word, dad-rock. Regrettably, the same holds true for Infinite Arms.

On first listen, I was drawn in by Infinite Arms’ two opening tracks. “Factory” begins with a drum roll into swelling strings and acoustic strums that would almost find a place on a Belle & Sebastian record. The minor key hook of the chorus showcases Bridwell’s Americana influences and, though it feels trite to say, the influence of Jim James. “Compliments” is one of the only stomping numbers on the album. Unfortunately, this is one of the few up-tempo moments in an otherwise plodding album. Here Bridwell’s smoky South Carolina voice comes through clearest, though it doesn’t quite fit with the sound of the song. Still, “Compliments,” the first single, is one of the few highlights on the album.

After those first two songs, I had high hopes for the album. I thought, maybe, just maybe, Infinite Arms would live up to the hype from mainstream music reviewers. But then the next eight tracks move us into the vanilla dad-rock sound that dominates the album. The choruses are all catchy but safe and bland. Many of these songs—“Blue Beard,” “On My Way Back Home,” “Dilly”—even transcend dad-rock and begin to approach mom-rock. It’s not Sarah McLachlan, but still the type of music you could play in the car without your mom objecting.

“Older” is the one shining moment in this stretch of dull songs, and it is possibly the strongest song on the album, though I can’t help but think it would be nothing more than a forgettable role player on many albums, including Band of Horses’ first two. At the very least, “Older” is the catchiest song on the album, with crunchy southern rock guitars blending well with Bridwell’s Jim-James-meets-the-Beach-Boys vocals. Here his voice sounds most country, though there’s something unconvincing about it. Sadly, this boy from South Carolina sounds less authentically southern than California-bred John Fogerty ever did.

Just as Infinite Arms begins strong, so it ends, with four of the stronger tracks creating a solid frame around the blandness of the middle bulk of the album. “NW Apt” returns us to the up-tempo stomp of “Compliments,” a welcome return after so many safe down-tempo tracks. Here we get a sense of urgency and a sense of soul the album seemed to lack. Following “NW Apt” is the closing number, “Neighbor,” a slow piano ballad that eventually builds into the only true cathartic moment on the album. This catharsis is a solid way to end an otherwise forgettable album because it leaves us wanting more. But what we want is more of this—more of the album’s highlights, but they are few and far between. Literally.

And that’s the biggest problem with Infinite Arms. While there are a handful of strong songs spaced throughout the album, we have to wade through so many vanilla numbers to get to them, and so many of them seem to run at the same slow tempo with the same songwriting formula. Sure they’re catchy, but they’re predictable. They’re safe. And if I had to sum up the album with one word, it would be “safe.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations"

Webster's Revised New Post-International Dictionary defines a bad introduction as one that "begins with a direct quote from this book." It also defines a vibration as an "oscillation," a "tremor," "a supernatural emanation," and "a general emotional feeling one has from another person or place." Negative vibrations include such devastating naturally occurring phenomena as unintended amplifier feedback, earthquakes, landmine explosions in war-torn countries, and a yellow sports car with unnecessary modifications filled with drunk fraternity boys throwing empty cans of Budweiser & Clamato Chelada at you. Fortunately, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch--in one of 1991's defining musical moments--decided to focus on the positive ones in their definitive New-Jack-Ranch-House-Porch-Swing mega-hit "Good Vibrations."

Though it remains unclear exactly who The Funky Bunch are (their identities have been lost to the ravages of time), there's no doubt who "Marky" Mark Wahlberg is. Brother of the (then) more famous Donnie Wahlberg, of the influential group New Kids on the Block, Mark would go on to make a name for himself as an actor in films such as Boogie Nights, Shooter, and The Departed. But as one revisits "Good Vibrations," the listener is left to wonder if he made the wrong career choice. The song transcends all of its popular counterparts of the era, including Snap's "I've Got the Power," C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat," and Paula Adbul's "Straight Up"--as well as its association with NKOTB, without whom its success might not have ever happened--with this soulful combination of rap, house music, and its lyrical celebration of "good vibrations." Marky Mark's rap praises the good vibrations of house and hip-hop, not "selling out," American multiculturalism, Sunkist orange soda, positivity, and sobriety. Also, when he grunts, "Can you feel it baby?" at the beginning of the track, I've got a hunch--call me crazy--this specific "good vibration" he's talking about is sexual intercourse.

Without a doubt, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations" is the definitive celebration of these positive "supernatural emanations" and the "general emotional feeling[s] one has from another person or place." Its glorious pluralism, fusing Swing (he does shout "Come on swing it" multiple times in the song), the positivity hip-hop of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, House club music, and Soul (with its cunning sample of Loleeta Holloway's "Sweet Sensation") is a thing to behold! Marky Mark's "good vibrations" transcend nepotism and the co-optation of African American and gay male musical expression in a timeless fashion, leaving us all well-vibrated. We can feel it, Marky Mark!

Here's the sexy video even Alfred Hitchcock (or Brian DePalma) would be proud of:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Enjoying Art with a Guilty Conscience

Maybe it was the strong acid we ate in the late 80s and early 90s; possibly it’s the constant 30 mile-per-hour wind filling our ears with the sound of a freight train. Whatever the case, people from Oklahoma love noise rock. Okay that’s a stretch, but people really into music in Oklahoma like noise rock to an unhealthy degree. The late 80s and early 90s saw noise rock reach its pinnacle and all the important bands came through town when I was a young man. Ed Hall, The Cows, Steel Pole Bathtub, Ethyl Meatplow, Morphine, Codeine, The Grifters, Jesus Lizard, Spiritualized--they all stopped in Oklahoma, probably in no small part due to the king of all noise rock bands, The Flaming Lips, hailed from the Sooner state.

The Flaming Lips In a Priest Driven Ambulance record release was my first club show, and may be one of the most notorious concerts of the last 20 years. Yes the stage caught fire. Strips of magnesium were lit and thrown into the audience. Ears bled from the volume coming from the pawn shop amps they played through. People shat their pants from Michael Ivens bass frequencies, while he sat on a folding chair as far to the side of the stage as possible, hiding behind Ray Ban Wayfarers and a balding Afro. (After the show I spied him hiding between the Pepsi machine and a wall, Wayfarers still on in the dark club, looking down at some spot on the ground only he could see.) By the end of that set, as The Flaming Lips closed with a big nasty version of “Under Pressure,” a whole universe of sonic art and abuse opened up to me.

It wasn’t just the sounds though. Each band carried with them a visual aesthetic that was their own. Whether shoe-gazing or manic, they usually had something going on as visually interesting and challenging as the music. At the same club as the Flaming Lips show, a year later, Big Shane and I (little Shane) waited for Amphetamine Reptile Records’ the Cows to play. While waiting we noticed a “retarded” man dressed in a patchwork Goodwill dress jacket sat at a table alone. This was a common enough since the state mental hospital was within easy walking distance of the club where everyone’s sanity was in doubt and served cheap beer--kind of like the institution, but drunk. The guy was creepier than most of the mental ward patients though. He leaned over the table as if he was afraid someone would take it from him. His jacket was so out of fashion that no hipster would wear it, even ironically. Spit fell from his lips as he dribbled beer from a bottle. And he was stone quiet. Nothing is spookier than a crazy guy who refuses to talk to himself. You can’t tell how locked up the gears are in his noggin until the valve explodes. 15 or so minutes go by, the lights go off and the Cows take the stage. I’ll be damned if the sub-normal didn’t have a guitar across his shoulder, still slobbering, this time drooling all over his guitar.

Which leads me to black metal. I was reluctant to even listen to it based on the aesthetics, despite my love for guitars covered in bodily fluids and over-filled clubs located on the second story of a building dangerously close to burning down without a fire exit in sight. I was still feeling guilty for liking some crappy metal in the 80s and didn’t want to set myself up for more embarrassment. Besides--these guys weren’t artists, they were ding dongs too far from America to know what cool really meant. They wore bullet belts, posed with battle axes and wore Kiss-like “corpsepaint” in order to look evil. Then they started murdering each other and I had more reason not to listen to them; they went from uncool to Columbine-like boogeymen. Time went on, and I found myself slowly drawn to the genre. I did like Kiss after all, and they weren’t all convicted killers. After buying Peter Beste’s coffee-table sized photo book True Norwegian Black Metal I was hooked and began downloading all the Darkthrone I could. It was analog to the extreme, as if recorded on a boom box in a leaky basement ankle-deep with water, not unlike the sonic quality of G.G. Allin’s best (???) albums. Not only did I find myself increasingly enjoying the genre, but my interest in noise as sonic experimentation was reinvigorated. Which leads me to Burzum’s latest album Belus.

Before the review I (like every other person who has reviewed the album) feel the need to offer a caveat in order to protect my liberal cred among my peers and soothe my own contradictory ideas about art and artists. To sum it up, sometimes cool people make cool art--Luis Bunuel, George Romero, George Clinton, Merle Haggard. Other times cool people make bad art--I wouldn’t mind having dinner with Bono, Tom Hanks, or Stephen Speilberg, but I’ll be damned if I think anything they’ve ever done in the last 25 years is worth a rat’s crap. Then there are those who either have done and said some downright nasty things, or harbor offensive personal beliefs, but make great art--Ted Nugent (listen to Double Live Gonzo and you’ll be converted), Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Ezra Pound, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, Marina Abromovic, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones... Notice the last list is longer than the first two. And with that I give you Burzum’s new album Belus.

Burzum is the name of the one man black metal project of Varg Vikernes--ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, murderer, and arsonist of 600 year old historic churches. It is also the first album since being paroled for murder and arson. The title of the album comes from the name of the oldest known Pagan god. Vikernes uses the album to tell the folk tale of Belus-- his capture, his descent, and return and its relation to the changing seasons.

If you are not into metal already, this album probably won’t change your opinion. However, if you like your noise mixed with the concept album sensibilities of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin lyrics about Middle Earth sung in Norwegian then you will be in Heaven (or Valhalla or wherever your happy place is).

The album hearkens back to ancient folk tales but also to the 1970s when Prog Rock made people feel that albums could tell coherent stories, and in that sense Burzum is definitely proggy. Sung in Vikernes’ native language, listeners are encouraged to read the English translation of the lyrics found on The music is much less threatening and more coherent knowing the songs are about “tree spirits” “peace” and “solar power.” In fact the lyrics are similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” “The Immigrant Song,” and “No Quarter.”

Musically the songs often sound similar to each other and return to familiar motifs of picked note triads, droning bass, and crashing cymbals. A few songs certainly stand out however. The album opener “Lukans Renkespill” is less a song and more a recording someone playing Yahtzee in a cave (I promise!!). “Belus Doed” has a rock opera feel, similar to the grandiose feel Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh.” “Kaimadalthas Nedstigning” reminds me of the roiling minor chords of Jesus Lizard, while the chanting mid-way through wouldn’t be out of place on a Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil album. “Glemselens Elv” and “Morgenroede” both utilize odd sliding bass lines as drone notes to ground the songs, which makes the constant triad picking more a contrapuntal rather than the focus as it is on most of the album’s other compositions.

Belus is an interesting album, but not an easy album. You might find yourself half-way through it thinking your mp3 player is on repeat and playing the song you just finished. That’s the charm of it though. It is a singular vision of a story as old as European culture. If it were a painting it would be more like Mark Rothko’s later black and gray pieces, which is sort of a let down since Frank Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” seems so much more apropos considering the lyrical content. Given that it is his first album out of prison, it makes sense that Vikernes might be more to raging music and less to nuanced, slower paced tracks. In the future he would do well to utilize a broader palette for other such grandiose stories.

"Picto-view!": Sleigh Bells - Treats

I'd initially wanted to feature a review of Sleigh Bells' debut album Treats as part of our series, "We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks." Alas, the internet gods arranged it so that the album would drop digitally on the unsuspecting masses with physical release date pending. As such, many blogs and websites have already reviewed the album, leaving me in search of a new approach. Ladies and Gentlemen, then, without further ado, here is my first "Picto-view!" (that's short for "picture" "review"). Hopefully it will be the first of many (Note: If any of these pictures are yours and you'd like them removed, please let me know):













Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Beach Boys' "Kokomo"

During their heyday in the early- to mid-1960s, The Beach Boys had been a hit-making novelty act, singing catchy ditties with sun-drenched vocal harmonies all thematically centered around a uniquely Californian concept of "the beach." But it wasn't until some twenty years after the height of their popularity that they reached their full potential with the release of 1988's "Kokomo." The song, released in conjunction with the brilliant Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, took a small chilly city in Northern Indiana and turned it into an imaginary tropical utopia worthy of Aruba and Jamaica. Thanks to this older, wiser group of Beach Boys, just one listen to this unmitigated classic instantly wisps its listeners away to the sexiest, most relaxing tropical vacation of their mildest dreams.

Humans, ever since Yakub sent the earliest white people from the island of Patmos to the caves of Europe, have long sought out paradise here on this blue orb. Whether in an attempt to return to the Garden of Eden or to escape year after year of brutal winters, the notion of a warm, sunny, beach-filled destination, full of youthful vigor, sexual appetite, and the sweet sweet ambrosia of intoxication, has long been desired by mankind. How else would one account for mythical locales--promising warmth, youth, riches, and adventure--like El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Cibola, the City of Atlantis, Bimini, or Club Med? The Beach Boys tap into these universal desires in "Kokomo," a song that transfigured the entire global economy of tourism thanks to its sweet fusion of 1960s surf pop and overbearingly slick 1980s production, complete with reverb-laden tropicalia like steel drums and castanets.

With "Kokomo," they transform a town whose average high temperature in January is 30 degrees Fahrenheit into a sunny haven for alcohol-fueled relaxation. Images of sandals, leis, bikinis, shorts, fruity drinks with multiple umbrellas in them, and a pre-Scientology Tom Cruise magically flipping top-shelf bottles of liquor up in the air immediately creep into one's skull as Mike Love's soothing incantations waft through the listener's ears. Immediately they are placed in a simulation vacationland. According to The Beach Boys, Kokomo is a mythical vacation spot similar to "Aruba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Key Largo, [and] Montego." It should also be noted that Kokomo is exclusively a location for couples. As the group notes, "We'll get there fast and then we'll take it slow" and "We'll put out to sea and perfect our chemistry." For this imaginary vacation to have the most, um, benefits, The Beach Boys also observe that in order to expedite the passion, an optimal amount of alcohol is to be prescribed: "Afternoon delight / cocktails and moonlit nights / That dreamy look in your eye give me a tropical contact high."

While The Beach Boys are known to most people as the cheesy group that produced songs like "Amusement Parks U.S.A.," "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man," "A Day in the Life of a Tree," "Johnny Carson," and "Shortenin' Bread," they reached their full potential with "Kokomo," which proved to be the biggest selling hit record of their career, shipping even more units than "Good Vibrations." Featuring a revitalized lineup--with Full House dynamo John Stamos on steel drums replacing perennially crazed front-man Brian Wilson--"Kokomo" proved that, yes, old people really can contribute something meaningful to society.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: The National - High Violet

I’m going out on a limb here. Making a bold prediction.

Germany will win the World Cup.

Ok, that isn’t really my bold prediction, though it would help me win $150 in our World Cup pool. My bold prediction is The National’s High Violet will be in my top 10 albums of the year in December.

Why is that such a bold prediction? In a year that has already seen amazing releases by artists like Joanna Newsom, Broken Social Scene, and Beach House, as well as newcomers like Surfer Blood, and with albums on the horizon from acts like LCD Soundsystem, MIA, Panda Bear, and rumors of a new Iron & Wine, guessing what’s going to come out at the top of such a strong year for new music is like picking the winner of the World Cup or the NCAA tournament. There’s several favorite contenders and safe picks, but in the end there are going to be out-of-nowhere upsets and disappointments from strong teams. (I’m looking at you, Hold Steady.)

This is also a risky move because it’s early May. Who’s to say that an album that strikes me now won’t have cooled like the weather come December? Like when picking for NCAA tournament brackets (dammit West Virginia!) I’m following my gut. Very seldom does an album catch me on first listen—usually I have to hear something a few times before it sinks in—but High Violet was immediately accessible and moving. On first listen, the album felt familiar but paradoxically brand new. On tenth listen, I find myself falling in love with every song all over again, like octogenarians renewing their vows.

The opening track, “Terrible Love,” sets the tone for the rest of the album. It starts slowly with fuzzy guitars, bright piano, and Matt Berninger’s distinctive warm baritone. The drums’ steady four-on-the-floor beat reveals an urgency to the song, and that feeling of tension continues to build as the band comes together in a tightly-orchestrated bedlam. “Terrible Love” is followed by the appropriately named “Sorrow,” with its chilling chorus of “I don’t want to get over you,” and the catchy but haunting “Anyone’s Ghost.” “A Little Faith” completes the trio of strong but not overly remarkable songs.

The album hits its true stride in the middle with a pair of amazing songs, “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the first single. “Afraid of Everyone” begins with Berninger crooning the chorus over minor key strings and airy backing vocals. When the rest of the band joins in for the first true verse, you realize few songs this bleak have made your foot tap and your head nod to the beat since Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Bloodbuzz Ohio” may be the tightest, strongest song The National have released to date, which is high praise for a band with so many great singles to their name. Not only is the song catchy yet complicated, with all the instruments and voices coming together in a perfect and unified whole, but the lyrics create a sense of place, something sadly lacking in many songs. Here we have a band that originated in Cincinnati before relocating (like everyone else) to Brooklyn singing, “I was carried / to Ohio in a swarm of bees / I never married / but Ohio don’t remember me” and “I never thought about love / when I thought about home.” These lyrics create an image of home tied less to a specific place than to the universal ideal of Home that anyone who has ever truly moved away can identify with, especially if, like Berninger, you never identified this particular place called Home with a feeling of love until you left. While in this scenario the underappreciated former lover is named Ohio, it could as easily be any name we give Home.

Immediately following this song of lost love for Ohio is another song about New York, “Lemon World,” the first weak point in the album. While the verses are complex and moving, the simple repetitive chorus makes “Lemon World” something of a disappointment, especially following the two strongest tracks on the album. Like a lemon sorbet and nice champagne, this track seems to be a palette cleanser between the meaty “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and the delicate flavors of the plodding but beautiful “Runaway.” With “Conversation 16,” we return to main courses, as Berninger sings about leaving “the silver city / cause all the silver girls / gave us black dreams” and how he’s afraid he would eat your brains. Because he’s evil, naturally. “Conversation 16” is the pop song equivalent of a zombie flick, but one of the good ones. Think 28 Days Later instead of The Crazies.

High Violet closes with two of the weaker songs on the album, “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” And when I say “weaker,” I mean the term relatively. Compared to the rest of the album, these last two songs are something of a disappointment. Put instead on most other albums by most other bands, these would be highlights. Not quite singles, but heavy hitting role players. These songs suffer less on their own merits than on the strengths of the rest of the album. Both songs drag a little but have catchy hooks that will get stuck in your head and leave you wanting to listen to High Violet again, which ultimately should be the effect of all closing tracks.

If I can cite any overall fault with High Violet, it is the uniform sound of the album. Other than “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” no songs escape the cohesive sound established on “Terrible Love” and running through “Vanderlyle.” Put in negative terms, many of the songs sound the same. After listening to the album, I often find myself with a chorus stuck in my head, but not the chorus of any particular song. Instead, the lyrics and melody of one song will flow after a few lines into another song. At the same time, I could put this criticism in positive terms. The album functions as a coherent whole with an identity created by its tone and production. And if we evaluate albums based on their effectiveness as albums rather than collections of songs, then this is an excellent album indeed. One of the year’s best, I’m willing to wager.

High Violet is available now from 4AD.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

Ever since James Murphy told Rolling Stone that LCD Soundsystem's upcoming album, This is Happening, might be the band's last, it's been difficult not to listen to the band's output with an ear toward their career arc. The first, self-titled album was the big debut, in many ways, the purest distillation of James Murphy's ideas about sound and music. Sound of Silver, then, was the refined, slightly re-imagined follow up. The album sounded bigger, roomier, the themes were heavier and darker, the melodies pushed a bit harder, and every moment of music felt relevant. So what could we possibly expect from the third album in what could potentially be LCD Soundsystem's nice, round trilogy? I'd hope for an album that grows the band's sound while offering a sense of closure. An album that carries the sonic threads of its predecessors to a logical destination--the arrangements should get bigger and weirder, the melodies catchier, the production sharper. When This is Happening leaked to the internet a few weeks back, I listened for all of the above. In other words, the possibility that This is Happening could be LCD Soundsystem's last album not only raised my expectations for the album, but it also raised the stakes for the album itself. If the record was going to meet my expectations, it seemed, Murphy and co. needed to show up with their A game.

As it turns out, This is Happening meets all of those expectations and, in the process, brings to mind the third film in another trilogy of note: Return of the Jedi. Now, I know that this is an extremely geeky comparison that would make hipsters across America gag in dismay on the alkaline drip at the back of their throats, or do spit takes out of their PBRs, and I also realize that the review I wrote right before this one also used sci fi movies as a point of reference, but hear me out. When Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, it was a fairly successful conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy. Following 1980's dark installment in the trilogy The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi managed to conclude the trilogy's narrative--and all of the character's emotional arcs--in about as satisfying and engaging a way possible. Jedi drew on Empire's darkness to pull in audiences with a sense of unbridled euphoria and release as those flashes of hopelessness and despair from the middle film were conquered with pure, raw excitement and the realization of a mostly happy ending. In just about every way mentioned above, This is Happening parallels Return of the Jedi. Not only does Murphy's latest album follow a darker, heavier album, its sounds and ideas feel like organic extensions from that predecessor. And, while This is Happening could never be confused for a light or unabashedly positive album--when has LCD Soundystem ever been either of those--it certainly signals an uptick from its predecessor's ruminations on mortality and loss.

So, if This is Happening isn't about mortality and loss, what is it about? Well, you know, James Murphy Stuff: alienation, relationships, failed relationships, raw human need, fucking up, having fun, and, perhaps most of all, carving out an okay space to call home somewhere between all of the above drama. In a way, the album feels like a conclusion, the hipster settling down into an uneasy domestication. So, like Sound of Silver, in its own way, This is Happening is still a record about getting older and figuring your shit out, even if none of its songs hang quite as heavy as the previous album's back-to-back masterpieces "Someone Great," and "All My Friends." And though nothing on This is Happening is as heavy or bold as those songs, the new album is still an exquisite addition to LCD Soundsystem's discography, and would definitely make for a good final chapter to this part of James Murphy's career. "Dance Yrself Clean," opens the album with one of Murphy's finest moments, an almost lo-fi prologue that explodes into analogue synth bursts that fizz and burst with buoyant urgency. "All I Want," is a fairly straight forward guitar-driven pop gem that clearly evokes Bowie's "Heroes," as Murphy sings "All I want is your pity." Perhaps the album's finest moment comes with the deliciously soulful "I Can Change," which finds Murphy delivering his finest vocal to date over a lush bed of synthesized textures. Other highlights include the percussive rave-up "Pow Pow," and the Talking Heads inflected "Home."

Of course, were I to go on listing all of the highlights on This is Happening I'd eventually name every song, and probably revisit some of them a second time. As it stands, I've already mentioned five of the album's nine songs, and one of those, "Drunk Girls," I would have mentioned had I not already devoted a blog post to it. That's sort of the whole point though--This is Happening is another exceptional album from LCD Soundsystem, start to finish.

If you're going to take one thing away from this rambling, fog-headed review, it's that This is Happening, while maybe not quite as strong as Sound of Silver, is another astonishingly good entry in LCD Soundsystem's catalog. Even the plodding, unsettling "Somebody's Calling Me," opens up on repeat listens, transcending its claustrophobic (and initially boring) trappings to become an exercise in seasick, paranoid psychadelia. All in all, while I hope that Murphy continues to make music this strong in some form or another, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if LCD Soundsystem went out on This is Happening. And, if this does end up being LCD's last album, I wouldn't be surprised if, a few years down the road, critics and music fans alike look back on the band's three long players as one of the finest trilogies in rock.


LCD Soundsysetm's This is Happening will be available on 5/18 through DFA. You can preorder the album here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

There's something about Flying Lotus's new album, Cosmogramma that reminds me of Blade Runner. When I first saw Blade Runner, right around the time I was twelve, I didn't really enjoy it, or get it. At the time, my appreciation of sci-fi was limited to those two monolithic pop-sci-fi franchises--the "Star Wars/Trek" behemoths--and everything else, especially if it was a little bit dark, didn't interest me all that much. With time, I eased into darker sci-fi through Aliens, then Alien. Long story short, Ridley Scott's dark vision in Alien impressed me so much that I finally revisited Blade Runner, and it's been one of my favorite sci-fi films ever since. Why am I bringing this up now? Why start a review of the new Flying Lotus album with all sorts of rambling about my own interest in sci-fi films, growing up? For two reasons: first, my experience with Flying Lotus was very similar to my experience with Blade Runner; and second, there's something about the way that Cosmogramma sounds and how it's put together that reminds me of Blade Runner. To be more specific, Cosmogramma builds on Flying Lotus's previous outstanding work of building beats and playing electronic textures off of one another, while infusing a bit more of a jazz influence. The combination of these textures gives the album a dark, sci-fi noir kind of vibe--futuristic and claustrophobic, but not at the expense of aggressively accessible beats and arrangements.

Now, before I go on, let me clarify something. In describing Cosmogramma as aggressively accessible, I don't mean it in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, the album doesn't offer much in the way of hooks, strong melodies, or catchy beats. What makes the album accessible though is its sheer audacity in bringing together dense atmospherics with perfectly chosen samples--it's an accessibility that isn't easy, but engaging. The album is accessible only in so far as it urges access, rather than making access easy.

Truth be told, it is the album's ability to urge us inward, to beckon us inside, that illustrates it's true power. This conflict between dense production and engaging textures is apparent from the get go. Album opener "Clock Catcher" assaults listeners with a glitchy barrage of electronic noise before succumbing to ethereal harp, then reverting back into abrasive noise. "Zodiac Shit," starts with delicate keys that give way to an oddly syncopated beat that staggers forward like a push-me-pull-me, a thing with two heads fighting over which direction to turn. What's staggering about the song is that the melodic elements, culled from samples, mostly, work as counter-rhythms, unsettling the beats until they just give up--and all of this happens in less than three minutes. "Arkestry" pushes Flying Lotus's sound even further, grounding it's opening in a jazz drum solo, then layering other textures--a sax solo, harp, and subtle keys--around the solo to come up with one of the slickest sounding jazz based cuts I've heard in years. For a moment, the song almost had me convinced that Jazz isn't dead. Of course, Cosmogramma also has its share of aggressively weird moments, including the unsettling, low-key, electric piano and buried rapping psychedelia of "Satelllliiiiiiiiiteeeee," and the ping pong as beats (don't worry, there are also beats as beats), future-damaged torch song "Table Tennis," with guest vocals from Laura Darlington.

Cosmogramma is a stunning album, there is no doubt about that. Flying Lotus has managed to craft an entirely consistent, and utterly engaging album by building one of the densest, but mot enticing atmospheres to come along in some time. And, while the album is largely dominated by electronics and cyborg-nightmare production, its rare glimpses of humanity--a warm, vintage drum solo, a rare moment of pure acoustic guitar, or harp flourishes--keep the album grounded. It's a testament to Flying Lotus that, this deep into my review, I haven't even mentioned Thom Yorke's guest spot singing on "...And the World Laughs With You." It's a nice enough vocal, but it doesn't make or break the album. Truth is, as with all of the album's guest spots--which includes Thundercat, in addition to Thom Yorke and Laura Darlington--come off as exactly what the record needs. None of the visits are contrived or gimmicky, to the point that, were it not for the album's credits, I'd just have assumed that the guest performances were just additional samples dropped in for effect.

In a year over-saturated with excellent albums, Cosmogramma stands out from the crowd. It isn't just a solid record, it is one of the most fully realized, brilliantly executed albums that we've heard this year. I rarely like to make these kinds of predictions, but having spent several weeks with this leak--and looking forward to picking up a copy on vinyl this week--I can easily see this as a top five album this year. Considering its going up against the likes of Joanna Newsom, LCD Soundsystem and a host of other heavy hitters, that's pretty impressive.


Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma is available on 5/4 from Warp. Also, from what I've seen, this thing's got some exquisite artwork/packaging. Definitely seems worth a pick up.