Sunday, February 13, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Colin Stetson - New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges

If there is any justice in the world of music criticism, a good deal of the coming months' digital ink is going to be spent covering saxophonist Colin Stetson and his new album New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges. Of the reviews that will be written, many of them will, undoubtedly, hone in on the album's apocalyptic themes, others will talk about his impressive resume (he's played with Tom Waits!, The Arcade Fire!, Lou Reed! etc...), and everyone (and I mean everyone), will marvel at the dude's chops. While all of these are impressive in their own right, I find myself intrigued by another facet of Judges. Before I go on, let me provide some context. In a recent interview with Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal, Stetson talked about how, in lieu of using loops or effects in his recording, he relied on creative microphone placement to achieve the fantastically layered, rich sounds that populate his album:

"I didn't want to just put up a stereo mic in a room and try to get some two-dimensional snapshot of an instrument. The set-up allowed us to capture it in three dimensions so we could then spread out and reshuffle and make our own surreal representation of that performance. There are mics inside the instrument, a contact mic on my throat, and countless mics clustered around the air of the horn and throughout the room. I wanted to make something that was specific to the medium of recording. I want to make albums that are like a Murakami novel or a Terrence Malick film-- something that explicitly states its own world." (Dombal)

Now, in addition to referencing one of my favorite novelists and one of my favorite filmmakers, what intrigues me about Stetson's approach as described in the above quote is his use and definition of space. Stetson's own description of the process as being captured in three-dimensions is compelling, but almost doesn't do justice to the scheme. My own initial thoughts on how to describe this process found me comparing the approach to the creation of bullet-time for The Matrix. But even that doesn't seem to convey the complexity of how this sound is being produced. What I've settled on, then, is that Stetson's album is recorded in four dimensions. Not only is his album "stating its own world," but it is creating a new form of sonic space that accounts for both the placement of sounds in a room, as well as the necessary time for sound to travel to those various microphones. We hear sax moans echoing through the room and more present, immediate growls from the musicians throat fighting for space and the imperceptible gap between each sound's creation. The resulting sound is that of time and space piling on top of each other, of the artist-subject spliced into disparate sounds and forms only to be reassembled into a single performance.

The end result is an utterly engaging and powerful sonic document. Stetson's got chops, and they show. He's also got big ideas, which also show. The sax lines, vocal hums, and pad-slap percussion of "Home," slide into and through each other to produce a haunting and surreal recording. Elsewhere, Stetson's saxophone rumbles, flits, dances, dredges, and moans. Sporadically throughout the album, his performances are complemented by haunting narration--both spoken (Laurie Anderson!) and sung (Shara Worden!)--telling a vague story about end-times. While these moments are equally haunting and surreal, and by no means detract from the album, I'm fairly certain that Stetson's vision and skill would have been enough to carry this collection of songs. Still, the narrative is a nice touch and adds some extra mystery to an already engaging piece of music.


You can pre-order the album from Constellation Records It comes out on 2/22/11.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #76 Kid A

For some reason, I've never really stopped to think about the relationship between music and time. Really, my failure to think about this relationship is a bit odd, surprising even. After all, as Marvin Lin points out in his well-researched, beautifully rendered exploration of Radiohead's Kid A, music is made of time, is time. Music notes themselves--not their placement on a staff, but their shapes and sizes--are nothing more than symbolic divisions of time. To be fair to myself, I know I'm not the only one who hasn't made this connection until now. Many people haven't. And why not? Perhaps because we take the relationship for granted? Or maybe thinking about the relationship between music and time seems like it might be kind of like thinking about the relationship between ice cream and milk--in other words, the connection seems so obvious on the surface that there shouldn't be much to talk about.

Of course, that's not the case or Marvin Lin wouldn't have written such a compelling analysis of Kid A, and I wouldn't be reviewing his book right now. To begin with, I should point out that Lin's entire book isn't about time. Lin does a nice job of balancing an exploration of the album's various contexts, including downloading culture, politics, band dynamics and, capitalism, to the point that, while his conversation of time is certainly the most compelling, Lin sells us on the notion that Kid A is a creature of its contexts. Such a bold assertion might be hard to swallow for some--in particular anyone who champions the notion that great art is timeless--but Lin convinces us so thoroughly of both the timeliness and timelessness of Kid A that the question becomes moot. And what...wait...what just happened there? Ah, of course--see, this entire book is about time but we don't always know it.

Even when Lin isn't explicitly writing about something like music's attempts to subvert linear time by complicating rhythms and challenging traditional song structures, he's writing about the album in its time, and how we have come to understand the album through time, and perhaps most importantly, how spending time on the album can be transcendent.

Lin's book is, without a doubt, a top-tier entry in the 33 1/3 series. Were it not for a few missteps--too much retreading of the talked-to-death Napster years, and an oddly misguided (but well-intentioned) paranoid rant about genetically modified foods--this book could have rivaled Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste for the "best in series" crown. As it stands, Lin's inventive approach to music and time is still one of the series' more compelling entries and one of the few that sent me to the library to track down some of the books and articles quoted within.

Although, a note for the future, Continuum--a works cited list would have been pretty helpful this time out. Why'd you leave us hanging?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pines

I want to try to think about this new Toro y Moi album divorced from its context. After all, while I kind of enjoyed 2010's Causers of This, and had heard plenty about Toro y Moi mastermind Chaz Bundick's contributions to that whole hypnagogic pop thing, neither of those things are going to help us make sense of his latest album, Underneath the Pine. That's not to say the album needs to be made sense of--it doesn't really. It's not obtuse, lo-fi, difficult, obscure, or any of those others terms that are often attached to the hazy brand of pop that Bundick has been rightfully associated with until now. Instead, Underneath the Pine is a lush and finely wrought pop album that combines 70's dancefloor glitz with the warmth of that decade's MOR, singer-songwriter fair with results that take a bit to sink in, but are ultimately both fun and haunting.

The fun comes largely from the song's beats and arrangements--"New Beat" bounces with a faux-funk disco groove, while "Still Sound" lands a bit more in the early 80's post new-wave camp. But one of the things that sets Toro y Moi's latest apart from some of its other retro grab bag contemporaries is that Bundick goes beyond the dance floor in seeking out his points of reference. Take "Before I'm Done," for instance, a gentle psych-lite, pop-folk ballad that works primarily as a mood piece, a brief detour from the glitzy, slick dance pop arrangements that anchor the album, but not the only detour scattered throughout the album. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that, while the detours don't tend to be the album's highlights, they are perhaps the biggest reason that Underneath the Pine holds together so well. "How I Know" is a bit more of a pop tune than "Before I'm Done," but reaches back to less dancey, almost naive brand of sixties pop for its rhythms and harmonies. The arrangements are still characteristically out-of-time, but the song's melody and accompanying harmonies paradoxically manage a rare marriage of sunny pop and haunted nostalgia.

And that is perhaps, regardless of what Toro y Moi does with his production and arrangements, the one reason why Underneath the Pine is an unqualified success, and we have every reason to think that Bundick will remain a relevant force in off-kilter pop music for some time. What Bundick does with melody here, with the subtle textures of his arrangements all while decade-hopping, and with pristine production, is no small feat. In a year that is already starting to characterize itself as the year of the well-executed studio sheen (James Blake? Destroyer? Cut Copy?), Toro y Moi can hang at the top of the heap.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: David Geddes' "Run Joey Run"

In his classic text Politics, the philosopher Aristotle correctly observes, "The notion of a city naturally precedes that of a family or an individual, for the whole must necessarily be prior to the parts, for if you take away the whole man, you cannot say a foot or a hand remains." If this is indeed the case, then we all must live in pretty dysfunctional cities. Aristotle's idealistic view of the family's role in society illustrates an unassailable fact: that it wasn't until quite recently in human history that the family unit became such a source of complete befuddlement for its sharpest psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. A cursory examination of literature and film prior to the 1950s will reveal that ALL families ran swimmingly. However, thanks to Natalie Wood's role as Judy in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause, that all changed. Her father's rejection of her in the film created the perfect conditions for father-daughter dissent globally. In its wake, popular music responded strongly. Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" (1986) and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's gender-neutral masterpiece "Parents Just Don't Understand" (1988) appropriately reflect this new era of fragmentation in the family structure. However, no song better illustrates this rapid devolution of the family unit than David Geddes' "Run Joey Run," a Top Ten hit that took the entire universe by storm in 1975.

"Run Joey Run" relates the story of an Oedipal triangle of desire featuring the narrator Joey, his, um, ex-girlfriend Julie, and Julie's abusive father. After finding out Joey has gotten Julie pregnant, Julie's father vows to kill Joey. However, because of one of these things--a) fate; b) the father's lousy aim; c) a faulty firearm; d) Julie's secret martyr-complex, or; e) a soul-crushing way to learn about the concept of irony--the father misses his intended target, killing his daughter instead. To keep this story from bumming out an entire generation of teenagers, David Geddes--who was, oddly enough, a law student at the time the song became a raging success--successfully deploys some Socratic method (just kidding!) and a little 60s girl-group melodrama to build up tension within the track. The addition of an unidentified female voice in the role of Julie along with a crescendo rivaling The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" (1965) make "Run Joey Run" a cautionary tale about how a combination of abstinence-only education and an asshole dad can lead to fatal shootings. David Geddes' achievement with "Run Joey Run" is to signal the unfortunate shift in family relations in the years after James Dean made straight men lust for him in Rebel Without a Cause in an accessible manner. Its heavy story and violent conclusion are completely undermined by its "I'm going for a hard jog" musical backdrop, and for that it is a brilliant achievement. As Matthew Slaughter (acted by Martin Donovan) says in the film Trust (1990, dir. Hal Hartley), "A family is like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody."

I don't mean to make light of the serious subject matter of this song. If you or anybody you know is being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, please check out the following links:

The Hotline: The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Prevent Child Abuse America