Thursday, July 31, 2008

Band of Horses- Cease To Begin

There's a phrase I often hear people begin statements with: "More of the same, but..." Taken on its own, this fragment doesn't explicitly declare a negative or positive conclusion. No, you need to finish it to add that in: "More of the same, but better" or "more of the same, but worse." As I am a cynic and lazy, I get bored of things really easily. It's not that I have ADD, it's that I know there's so much else out there to experience--movies, books, things I should be writing, videogames, conversations with friends and loved ones--that I feel I can't spare a moment on something that is "more of the same." To me, "more of the same" always implicitly means "more of the same, but worse" because most of life (like our jobs, eating, taking a shower, etc.) is more of the same. I don't know about you, but everyday I go to the bathroom and it's "more of the same", and even when it's "more of the same, but better" it's still not great.

It may seem like I'm rambling (I am), but this "more of the same" concept has captured my imagination as I listen to Cease To Begin. Personally, I think Band of Horses's first album is a bit overrated. While I like it a lot, it pretty much defines the '4 stars out of 5' rating for me because it's a good little album for what it is but it's never seemed as astonishing and fantastic as some reviewers have made it out to be. In short, Band of Horses are a 'second tier' band for me, "second tier" being bands that make good little albums that I like but don't rouse me enough from my couch to accost passersby in the street. With all of that said, then: Cease To Begin is more of the same. Just, "more of the same", mind you; not better, not worse.

Again, "more of the same" implies "bad" and "boring" to me, so let me be completely clear. Cease To Begin is every bit as good as Everything All The Time, but both albums are pretty similar. This isn't "more of the same, but different"; it's "more of the same, but equal." The band itself and some critics have pointed out that Cease To Begin is a touch more 'rustic' than their debut, but this mostly amounts to, say, honky tonk piano and handclaps on 'General Specific.' Since the album was recorded in the Carolinas, where the band currently resides, I expected more of the local flavor, but whatever. If anything Cease To Begin solidifies Band of Horses's sound, a blend best summed up by this awkward chunk of words: "My Morning Jacket's singer meets Built To Spill's clean upper register guitars, minus guitar solos and longer songs, plus a dash of country." Other than having a bit more country, the only detectable difference for me was that the album has more...confidence, for lack of a better word. The vagaries continue: the songs feel more majestic and...nocturnal, where on Everything All The Time there seemed to be a...humbleness and afternoon-ish-ness about the whole thing. But not a lazy country summer day kind of afternoon; rather, more of a 'concert taking place between 4 and sundown' kind of vibe. I wish I could be more specific, so let me offer this. Where Everything All The Time ended with the short acoustic singalong 'St. Augustine', Cease closes with a slow motion, moondance, slide guitar totin' ballad in 'Window Blues.'

While I could see someone making a case for one of these two albums as 'superior' to the other, I am not that person. I'm just not that into this band to really prefer one over the other. I think most of us are best off flipping a coin and picking one or the other. Cease To Begin may get some credit for not being a disappointing sophomore effort, but to these ears it's similar enough to their debut to almost (almost) make me want to call the band out for playing it safe. Cease To Begin is another solid '4 stars out of 5' set of songs from a band who may never surprise me but at least make a point of not letting me down.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Album of the Week/Primer: Beck part 10- Modern Guilt

Counting Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot In The Grave, which some people don't, Modern Guilt marks Beck's 10th album. It's at this point in most long-running careers that the double digit milestone causes an artist to rip everything up and start again. But, since Beck has made a career out of stylistic jumps, what is he to do?? It turns out, what he does is record the most concise album of his career, and one that revitalizes his art after a few albums of standing still.

While I liked The Information, there's no denying that Modern Guilt is a superior album in every regard. It is almost half the length of The Information and bursting with new ideas and fantastic songs. There isn't a dud to be had here. Along with Radiohead's In Rainbows, a later career, ultra-tight and concise album that saw the band lightening the mood a bit, Modern Guilt hones Beck's songwriting to a fine point and marries his increasingly dark and paranoid lyrics to a bedrock combination of late 60s garage rock and modern day hip hop. Some of this new sound must come from producer Danger Mouse, who rose to prominence based on his mash-up of the Beatles's White Album (1968) and Jay Z's The Black Album (2003).

Many critics have remarked about the dark nature of the lyrics on Modern Guilt, what with its obsessions over the environment, death, age, etc. Those of us who've been paying attention to the sub-text of albums post-Sea Change have noticed this encroaching heaviness. At any rate, Modern Guilt is the most successful at tackling these themes because Beck is at the center of these songs at all times. Guero and The Information had a tendency toward burying Beck beneath a whiz-bang crust of samples, funky beats, atmospherics, and cryptic, hard-to-make-out vocals. Modern Guilt is a relatively straightforward album for Beck, by contrast, because his lyrics are generally easy to hear and understand, while the music itself is stripped down even further than The Information. Frequently making use of a 60s garage rock backing of guitar, bass, and percussion, Beck and Danger Mouse also offer drum machines, keyboards, and discrete loops/samples when necessary.

Modern Guilt's true contribution to Beck's discography is in bringing back the Beck of effortless melodies and catchy songs. Going back to Midnite Vultures and working your way forward, it quickly becomes apparent how few new ideas Beck was having. Modern Guilt is endlessly inventive, with melodies, rhythms, and hooks packed inside of each other. Even the less immediate songs like 'Chemtrails' (a slow burning, gradually building psychedelic ballad) and 'Replica' (with its glitchy electronic beats that sound more like something off an Autechre album) contain more new and great ideas than The Information, which I felt contained a few interesting new ideas, but still not enough. As usual, though, the true appeal of a Beck album is the upbeat songs, and Modern Guilt is no slouch here, with the addictive 'Gamma Ray', the incessant beat of the title track, and the ultra-distorted 'Profanity Prayers' which opens up like a flower during its chorus.

One only hopes that other long-going artists will follow the lead of Radiohead and Beck in creating half-hour-ish albums of such clarity and inventiveness. Only time will tell if Modern Guilt spells a rebirth, a renaissance, for Beck's art. Whatever the case may turn out to be, we're left with one of the most pleasing and immediately enjoyable albums in his discography.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Video: Bjork- Human Behaviour

An easy way to tell if someone is worthy to be your friend is to show them this video and note their reaction. If they don't like it, they aren't worthy.

I remember seeing this video back when it was first on TV, and even as a kid I thought it was incredible. I'm a big fan of videos that attempt to move to the music, rather than just being something totally unrelated or the band lipsynching and miming along to the music. This video takes it to the next level by presenting you with dream-like visual images that stick in your head, such as the hypnotic walking motion of the bear. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Michel Gondry is a genius.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Complainer: Pandora

People are always going on about artificial intelligence, but I'd personally be more interested in hearing what kind of music AI would write. Almost all of our response to music is based on emotion, and even the most mechanical, precise, and sterile electronic music provokes some response other than intellectual fascination. Would music created by AI appeal to humans on any level?? Would it even sound like music to us??

I bring this up because Pandora attempts to reduce music down to its scientific components and then recommend music to you based on that. Unfortunately, music is not chemistry, so where two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen will always make water, "electric rock instrumentation" and "minor key tonality" can create, apparently, 'Mushroom' by Can and--I kid you not--'Once Upon A Time In The West' by the Dire Straits. Apparently, 'Debaser' by the Pixies and 'God Save The Queen' by the Sex Pistols share similar music/molecular components, too.

To be fair, that last set of songs sound vaguely similar, but you'll never see any human comparing the two in any way. They come from different motivations and different aesthetic sensibilities, and conjure up different emotional resonances in the listener. What, then, to make of a band that radically changes sounds from album to album?? I had enough problems with Animal Collective, because Pandora played 'Leaf House' and then found stuff similar to its strange, skewed folk (giving me a TV On the Radio track that is vocal focused, a Devendra Banhart psych-folk nugget, and finally a Magnetic Fields song...which I heard 5 seconds of before Pandora tried to get me to register) while most of the band's music is more electric and layered. I can't even imagine what would happen if I put Beck in.

Now, I realize that Pandora is free. And it does help people find new music. But even if you go by 'song' instead of 'artist', it'll turn up weird results like those mentioned above. Hey, I like the Magnetic Fields just fine, but they don't sound anything like the Animal Collective. This is what happens when we let science determine what music is made up of. Pandora is great, like so much science, in theory, but in actual use and trials it fails completely.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Album of the Week: Grizzly Bear- Yellow House

Sorry to get all 'New Journalism' on you, but I've been going through a period of writer's block for the past few months. It's mostly been affecting my fiction output, but right now I find myself yet again spending a drowsy afternoon trying desperately to decide what to write. Which ended up working nicely, because Yellow House is a perfect album for drowsy afternoons.

It's not that this album lacks dynamics, or plays out like a leisurely summer rainstorm, all gentle-white-noise washing out from the speakers and caressing your ear drums. No, it's more that somewhere along the line I end up categorizing most albums as belonging to a specific time of day, or a specific emotional mindset, or what have you. I can't, for instance, listen to The Marble Index by Nico unless I'm vaguely depressed, in a catatonic kind of way, and have my shades drawn. I can't listen to Architecture In Helsinki unless I'm hopped up on caffeine and/or something diabetes inducing, like a mound of Pixie stick powder large enough to rival the final scene of Scarface. But I digress. Even the songs on Yellow House that rouse themselves above a drowsy-afternoon-energy-level don't shock the listener into hypnagogic jerks, unlike, say, almost every post-rock album ever recorded. You're sailing along nicely on marshmallow boats of clipped snare drums, ponderous guitars, and bathysphere deep bass when the band decides to hit a crescendo or a wall of noise suddenly arrives as if spun loose from a Lightning Bolt album. Meanwhile, Yellow House offers logical spikes, more akin to neighbors slamming their car doors down the block while your left arm dangles off the couch or your roommate arriving home, realizing you're half-asleep, and trying to very quietly sneak past without disturbing you.

Were I hard pressed to describe Grizzly Bear's music, I would have to resort to the lazy 'psych-folk' genre. Primarily acoustic instrument based, but played in a dreamy/psychedelic fashion. The problem is that the 'psych-folk' genre encompasses such disparate, modern-day musicians as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Animal Collective. Problematically, only Sung Tongs by the latter could be considered 'psych-folk', maybe Campfire Songs, too, but whatever. The point is that Yellow House has a similar reverential attitude toward reverb, repetitive acoustic guitar, and pastoral-but-not-honky-tonky-country-kind-of-pastoral atmospherics. The album also reminds me of the post-rock-by-way-of-acoustic-instruments vibe that Roots and Crowns by Califone gives off.

Yellow House is the kind of album you'll need to spend some time with before it truly engrosses you. The problem with albums like this--of the drowsy afternoon breed in total, actually--is that a full accounting of their strengths can only be calculated while your energy level synchs up. As I said earlier, it's not that Yellow House is a slow IV drip of an album, but it doesn't have enough quick, punchy dynamic songs to catch a cursory listener's ear. Spend a drowsy afternoon or two listening to the full album (don't feel bad if you fall asleep for awhile, it's part of the charm) and its deliberate, thoughtful pacing and restraint will blossom. 'On A Neck, On A Spit', the best example of what I mean, initially seems a schizophrenic work that gets markedly better in its second half where the tempo picks up and we are catapulted into a maximalist groove, with gushing walls of sound and vocal choruses of the "oooohhhhh----ahhhhh"-ish sort. I would also point to the obvious 'Knife', a song which the listener is immediately drawn into, with its big vocals and almost shoegazer-esque guitar soundscapes before the minute-and-a-half outro of cinematic piano and clattering percussion. Lest I forget the drowsy bulk of the album, which I've been mumbling about all along: the haunting chill of 'Central And Remote', the whistle-fortified vocal harmonics of 'Plans', and the aptly named 'Lullabye', which, though it is the second song, establishes the emotional and energy-level status quo for the remainder of the album.

Frankly I think a lot of people were mystified as to why this album was getting such praise two years ago. It is one of those releases that most people are going to listen to once or twice, pick out the obvious, more direct songs, discard everything else, and wonder why the rest of us are so in love with the whole package. In this miss-matched era of MetaCritic scores determining what music fans go after and those people downloading ten albums at a time and only giving two of those a chance because they immediately gratify, Yellow House is doomed to failure. Those of us willing to give albums like this a chance will be writing dazzled reviews, reviews that are then read by puzzled listeners who hear a stray track from poor Grizzly Bear on an iTunes shuffle in between, say, Vampire Weekend and the Hold Steady. But, if you're like me, you spend a lot of drowsy afternoons bored and alone, and Yellow House is a perfect complement for it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Video: The Beatles- I Am The Walrus

I'm not sure what the current consensus is on Magical Mystery Tour. It seems like every few years, people (ok, hipsters and critics) go back and forth on it. Pretentious, nonsensical piece of shit, or brilliant absurdist/surrealist art film?? I tend to fall toward the latter, and on certain days I would be inclined to argue that the Magical Mystery Tour album (especially in its filled out U.S. version, not the original British EP) is a better summer of love/psychedelic touchstone than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I base a good deal of this argument on this part of the movie: the video for 'I Am The Walrus.' Not only is the song insane and one of the best experimental pop tunes ever written, the bizarre costumes and movements of the Beatles themselves throughout it will become images that remain with you for at least a day or so, wondering how much pot and LSD you would need to come up with something equally fascinating.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 9- The Information

Between the release of Guero (and its remix sibling Guerolito) and the release of The Information Beck did an interview with Wired magazine talking about the future of the album as a format. Though The Information was released with some of these ideas--the blank cover to be "designed" by the listener, the full set of silly on-the-cheap videos that came with the initial batch of discs or could be easily accessed on video sites--it was only with the Deluxe Edition, released last year, that the album truly felt "complete" to Beck's vision.

This edition of the album comes with all 4 possible sticker sets one could have gotten with the original release, as well as a disc collecting the remixes done for the album, as well as a handful of b-sides/outtakes. Beck's new concept for the album was thus set: it would be up to listener how he or she experienced the album. They could make their own version of it between the combination of "official" tracks, the b-sides/outtakes, and the remixes. They could watch the videos. They could make their own cover and liner artwork. The concept seemed to be that an artist would create an unfinished package of music and artwork and would leave it up to the listener (and other artists, judging by the remixes) to "finish" the album.

On paper and theoretically, this sounds intelligent and forward thinking. In practice, it's either lazy or pretentious. You see, people have been making their own versions of albums for years. It's a famous thought experiment/argument starter to have people create a one-CD version of the Beatles' White Album, and as soon as people could record albums to their own cassette tapes they were cherry picking their favorite songs. As for the "create your own artwork!!" thing it's a gimmick; admittedly a kind of neat one, because anytime you give the public the tools to make something they'll turn out things you never thought of...but it's still a gimmick. The biggest problem I have with the concept is that I'm not a musician or a producer. I want artists to finish their album and present me with a completed work rather than trying to bring me into their process, however skeletally. You really want me to help you make an album, give me full access to your master tapes, let me help edit/write your lyrics, allow me to choose between different professionally rendered covers, etc.

I've gone three paragraphs without even getting to the music yet, which is exactly why I want to begin the meat of my review by saying that The Information is Beck's most misunderstood and complicated album. Misunderstood because it's neither another Odelay-also ran like Guero nor is it a return to the somber Sea Change, which was produced by Nigel Godrich (who, I'll awkwardly note, is the producer of this album as well). Rather, The Information is something like a step in a new direction for Beck even though it doesn't sound radically different. And The Information is Beck's most complicated album for two reasons: all of the above paragraphs of album deep thoughts and the fact that it is derived from multiple sessions over the years, dating from the end of Sea Change to concurrent with Guero and possibly beyond. If you take Beck's word for it, The Information was recorded, off and on, from late 2003 to early 2006. Somewhere in there, he got with the Dust Brothers and recorded Guero.

Ironically, then, The Information is more cohesive and consistent than Guero. Part of this credit must, one supposes, go to Nigel Godrich, who has a history of helping bands get simultaneously more experimental but also tighter at the same time (at least, that's how I see it). Anyway, The Information is a deceptive album because all the press surrounding it would have you believe it's either another party-time Odelay sequel or a mixture of Guero and Sea Change because of its lyrical darkness and equal measure of party and mellow songs. However, The Information represents for Beck a step in some new directions because of its (relative) minimalism and lack of samples. Doing a side-by-side comparison of Guero and The Information, almost all of the songs on the latter lack samples and have significantly less sound elements going at a time. Witness 'Motorcade', which is a minimalist electronic piece that has the same twinkling piano feel as Radiohead's 'Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.' Witness 'Cellphone's Dead', which is built on a melody borrowed from Herbie Hancock's 'Chameleon' and therefore isn't built on an explicit sample of another song, unlike Guero's 'E-Pro.' Not that Beck has to produce all live instrumentation to be good, of course, but The Information is truly cohesive where Guero failed because it borrows ideas and influences instead of directly lifting them. For those keeping score at home, this is also why Mutations and Midnite Vultures were so successful: Beck is better at making new things of borrowed ideas than he is at making new things from directly copied ideas. Hell, I liked 'E-Pro', but mostly because I like the riff from 'So What'Cha Want' by the Beastie Boys. To put it further, 'Cellphone's Dead' and Odelay borrow ideas but don't use them in total to make a song. 'E-Pro' is almost all about that stolen riff.

Moreso than anything else, you really get the feeling that the details of The Information were sweated upon and fretted over even if Beck ended up throwing the whole thing to the public in a muddled mess of "it's the future, today!! Make your own version!!" conceits. Since the album took--or so we're told--almost three years to finish, the songs have a careful attention to melodies, sounds, and rhythm that often felt arbitrary or lacking on Guero. At the same time, The Information has a kind of stoned flow to it. Watching the video version of the album today, I got the sense that the arbitrary, silliness of the costumes and actions were done under the influence of something. Notably, the album's middle is mellow, psychedelic, and slow. After the superb strut of 'Nausea' we get the one-two-three combo of 'Dark Star', 'Movie Theme' (as close to dream-pop as Beck will ever get), and 'We Dance Alone', the latter of which unites hip hop and musique concrete psychedelia. As for new directions for Beck, there's the glitchy stop-start rap rant '1000 BPM', which most people seem to hate but I think is brilliant, and the way 'Strange Apparition' starts off kind of generically before morphing into a slower, chunkier beast halfway through. Thankfully there's plenty of Beck's gift for melody to hold our hand, in particular the underappreciated 'New Round', which has a Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat vocal circular at various points in the song. And the finale, 'The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton' is easily the most lucid and bizarre of Beck's career despite a history of ending albums with hidden bonus tracks that shouldn't exist because they throw caution to the wind and frequently don't fit the tone of the album proper.

I don't meant to get people too excited about this album. It's not exactly a career renaissance, but it's better than both Sea Change and Guero. Even with the addition of the extras this deluxe edition brings, it's still no masterpiece. The bonus three songs that, if put on the album would have made it more party-like and too similar to Guero, are not better than what was on the "official" tracklisting, while the remix disc is entirely dependent on how much you like remixes and electronic music. I actually don't know what the point of Beck remixes are, since you'll only like them if you expressly like those artists contributing them OR you just want a longer, dancier version of songs that are already danceable. Even David Sitek's remix of a non-danceable track (namely 'Dark Star') only works if you like his production work and/or his band TV on the Radio.

The Information, in its Deluxe Edition, is a fascinating point of discussion for music critics even though, as I said, I feel like it was a miscalculation (Beck seems to have felt the same way, since his new album, Modern Guilt, is an old fashioned, lean-and-mean 35ish minutes of music with a definite cover and tracklisting). If you aren't a hardcore fan (who will want the Deluxe Edition, because, well, they want everything related to Beck), you'd be just fine getting the normal CD version or even stripping all the artifice away and grabbing the music directly off iTunes or the digital music store of your choice.

When all is said and done, we must come down to the point of whether or not all the extra ideas and concepts tied to The Information made it better. Well, just listening to the "project" as a piece of music, they didn't. All the best songs made the "official" tracklisting, in a great sequence, and the extra bits (remixes and videos) are totally inessential. As I just got done saying, you may actually be better off just downloading this off iTunes so you can appreciate the album for what it is as music instead of a new concept for the album as an ongoing "project" that fans participate in. It's not that I hate the idea of an artist putting more, or even some, control of their music in the hands of listeners. It's just that this was a misguided attempt and something that people have been able to do for years. Furthermore, all this extra baggage distracts from the album itself. Which is a solid Beck album, when all is said and done, and one that corrected most of the problems I had with Guero.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Album of the Week: Tom Waits- Swordfishtrombones

There are many great lines from 'Pulp Fiction.' Every time I see the movie, I latch unto one quote or another. It's a movie where the visual action captures the imagination just as much as the dialogue. On the last viewing, the line "I'm an American honey, our names don't mean s%^&" caught my interest. Most American bands really have this same unpretentious attitude toward their music even if they perform under high falutin' names. American rock bands of the same era as that film, like Guided By Voices, showed us that being almost accidentally great is better than British rock bands striving for and demanding praise but falling far short of actual greatness. You know, like Oasis.

Tom Waits embodies the American artist for me, because you get the distinct impression that even when he's making serious 'art' he still has a sense of humor about it. He also isn't affected by trends in music. I personally think the 1980s was the worst decade of music so far because I can't stand how albums from that era sound. The ultra-slick, clinical, plasticky, and synthetic sound of it all. The way bass and drums don't sound right. But Swordfishtrombones has a unique, timeless aesthetic, just as Waits's other albums afterward owe no obvious debt to any genre or trend. Furthermore, 'Pretentious' is one of the last words I would associate with the man. If you sat down and talked to Tom Waits about his songcraft or his approach to his art, I imagine he would just shrug and say he's an entertainer like any other trying to make a buck while recording the kind of music he wants to.

However, it's easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing such artists. Swordfishtrombones has some interesting stories behind its creation, and sits at the tipping point of Tom Waits's career between his earlier late-night jazz club, alcohol soaked singer/songwriter albums and his later lucid junkyard, Captain Beefheart-inspired excursions. But the best way to approach the album is to experience it without context. To go back to the Captain Beefheart thread and tug until its loose, the first time I listened to Trout Mask Replica I didn't know anything about it, other than that my friend said it was a legendarily weird and 'out there' album. It's rare that I hear an album which shocks me so utterly I have no way of describing it. And we all know that a critic's worst fear is to be unable to make easy, lazy comparisons to other music. Whoops...forget you read that.

The thing that really strikes me about Swordfishtrombones is how play-like it is. Not play-like as in childish and fun, but as in "like a stage play." I know that it was the first of a trilogy of albums that would eventually see Waits writing a musical with his wife called 'Frank's Wild Years', but even without that knowledge the album is incredibly visual and theatrical. There is just something about its spacious production (it's like you can feel the streets and scenes he's singing about), the variety of instrumentation, the stripped down number of instruments used, and the odd sounds on display that create powerful imagery in my head. As with 'Pulp Fiction's visuals and dialogue, Swordfishtrombones's lyrics and music are equally great. So, yeah, I always picture the album playing out on a stage in my head. I don't mean a concert, though; moreso I see Waits on stage with his band members coming on and off as required, with sets and lightning and everything. The three instrumentals give some traveling time or scene changes to the "story" I imagine going on, in particular the hushed curtain fall of 'Rainbirds', a beautiful mostly-solo piano piece.

Swordfishtrombones still fascinates today for two musical reasons. One is, as I said above, the instruments used. Waits employs what you'll so often see referred to as a junkyard orchestra on this album, with all kinds of things that sound like percussion, guitar, bass, etc. but in warped or twisted ways. The marimbas--another idea borrowed from Captain Beefheart, which gave such interesting texture to his Lick My Decals Off, Baby--accordions, harmoniums, and bagpipes give the album a very, very distinctive sound. But unlike many bands who used non-traditional music in a rock context, none of it feels gimmicky or forced. These odd sounds shade and highlight the songs. The second reason Swordfishtrombones captures a listener is Tom Waits's voice. He never was a traditionally 'good' singer on his barroom crooner albums like Small Change, favoring a raspy baritone, but with this album he absolutely sets his voice free, howling and shrieking and contorting along with the characters and songs. Again, a debt is owed to Captain Beefheart here. But whereas Trout Mask Replica sounds like Howlin' Wolf fronting a surrealist rock band that aspires to free jazz from time to time, Swordfishtrombones sounds like an ex-barfly piano man leading an ethnic, European folk music band that aspires to rock music from time to time. How else to describe the angry rant of '16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six', with its percussion seemingly played on baking sheets, steam pipes, pots, and pans while a bassist and guitarist try to be heard over the clangor. Or the majestic march step, brass-band-parade-through-town of 'In The Neighborhood.' Or the B-3 organ smooth jazz spoken word of 'Frank's Wild Years', displaying Waits's personality, humor, and skill with words. Or the smoky piano ballad 'Soldier's Things', which feels to me like a final nod of the hat (with raised drink in hand) to the first phase of his career.

Swordfishtrombones is an album I find impossible to criticize. Rain Dogs is a very similar sequel that I also like immensely, but at 19 songs it drags a bit. No such problems with Swordfishtrombones. It often shows up on 'best of' lists by magazines and websites, and once you're a fan, it's easy to feel the same way.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Destroyer- Notorious Lightning and Other Works EP

Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar) got away with one of the most fascinating conceits in modern music with his Your Blues album. On paper, I should hate it: an album recorded with synthesizers and keyboards instead of a band. However, the result was a stunning synth-orchestra with some of Destroyer's best songs and arrangements yet. Once you get past the instruments, it's a thrilling pop album. Then, when it came time to tour the album, Bejar pulled another trick out of his sleeve: his backing band wouldn't be a battery of keyboards, MIDI controllers, and sequencers, but Canada's off-kilter rock band Frog Eyes.

Clearly Bejar enjoyed this tour and collaboration, because not only did he issue this EP of studio versions of those live arrangements but also continued to work with Frog Eyes's leader Carey Mercer, most specifically in the Swan Lake project with sometime-Frog Eyes member/Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade member Spencer Krug.

The inevitable question becomes: are these re-imaginings superior to the original?? This is a problematic question for a few reasons. One, it implies that one has to be superior to the other. You can like both the subtle MIDI orchestra of the Your Blues album and the reptilian brain-stem distortions of Notorious Lightning. Two, the question can be taken on a case-by-case basis. I prefer the surging, guitar powered 'An Actor's Revenge' to the original, but 'The Music Lovers' fares better as a delicate sip of synthesizer wine than it does a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. Third, and lastly, the question brings up another question: is this how Bejar wanted the songs to sound originally, but decided to re-do them in a synthesizer orchestra?? Basically, the possibility exists that he always wanted the songs to be careening-off-the-rails and Your Blues was the re-imagining rather than vice versa.

Anyway, even if you don't like any of these Frog Eyes-enhanced versions, this is ideally what I want from an EP. So many bands squander the potential of this musical format, either by releasing glorified singles or weighing them down with unnecessary remixes. Rather, I like EPs made up of all new material. Maybe the band recorded some good stuff, but it didn't function in the context of an album proper. Or maybe, as in this case, the songs twisted into strange new shapes during the tour and merited an official studio document.

At any rate, I find Notorious Lightning and Other Works a fascinating listen even if, ultimately, the Your Blues album is the true masterpiece of the two. Again, that's not to say I can't like both. There's room in my life for both the full band stomp of the Notorious 'Your Blues' (with surprisingly ornate keyboards that hint back to the original version) and the reverb drenched, synthesizer-flugelhorn led Your Blues version. It's strange for me to end a review this way, but if you don't like this EP, you should try the album. And if you simply can't get past the MIDI-ified album, then try the EP.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Complainer: Virtual Console

Welcome to the first entry of my new column, The Complainer. In this column I will selfishly and egotistically complain about things that are bothering me. Sometimes it will be stuff you find amazingly obvious, amazingly petty, or just amazingly amazing. Let's begin, shall we??

Nintendo is a company that somehow inspires in me great loyalty and a fervent belief in their new consoles before doing their best to squander my devotion. To be fair, this pattern has only emerged during the Nintendo 64 days and onward, but it's something I've fallen for time and again. Nintendo announces a new and innovative product, and I beat my chest (sometimes with both fists in a tribute to Donkey Kong) and offer up my guttural approval...then it comes out, I'm intensely happy with it for a short period of time before the reality sets in. First party games come out too slowly, and third party games are by and large garbage or can be had on other consoles. All of this is excepting their handhelds, which always build incredible software libraries despite, ironically, spotty first party support.

With the Nintendo Wii, this pattern took a new turn. A sharp, dangerously-curvy-on-the-side-of-a-mountain-turn. Not only has third party support all but dried up, Nintendo has irritating elements in place which make their first foray into console online play a frustrating experience. Friend Codes are awful, and Nintendo's continuous, slave-like devotion to their reputation as the "family friendly" console company creates a kind of ultra-safe, ultra-anonymous online experience that defeats the entire purpose of playing online. Sure, you don't get the opposite side of the spectrum (namely, the griefing and casual racism/sexism of Xbox Live) but is it worth it?? There's a happy medium somewhere. Why does every single game need its own Friend Code?? Why can't my console's Wii Code be my Friend Code for everything??

But I digress. What really gets my dander up is their complete failure to make the Virtual Console into what it could have been. Don't get me wrong. I know I can't expect every company to release every old game--especially SquareEnix, who would be more content to remake or repackage their big name releases--but I am totally mystified as to the process Nintendo goes through in deciding what will come out next. Their typically draconian relationship with the press and gaming community at large means that what gets released every Monday is a mystery to everyone. Insofar as part of the purpose of, I dunno, letting the press and others know ahead of time about game releases plays into the symbiotic relationship of publisher and press (we let you know about a game before its release, you help 'advertise' it), why does Nintendo feel it's in their best interest to withhold release schedules?? I honestly have no idea how they decide what is released when, because sometimes they seem to get the idea ("maybe we should release Metroid and Super Metroid around the time Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is coming out for Wii??") but then other times waste the opportunity (maybe there are licensing issues to work out, but the original Smash Brothers for N64 should have been a no-brainer to release near Smash Brothers Brawl). My impression is that a blindfolded employee is led to room where he or she must first try to dodge three baseballs (for every baseball they don't get hit with, a title is released) and then stumble to a wall where every potential Virtual Console title is written on yellow sticky notes. Whichever one (or two, or three) they touch first (and second, and maybe third) is then released.

I won't bother to go back and pick on the awful, awful titles they've released. What I will do is suggest you go look up the list of "comfirmed but not yet released" titles for Virtual Console on Wikipedia. There are genuine classic titles like Earthbound (a series that Nintendo of America seems to inexplicably hate and wish everyday that the throng of fans would shut up and go away), Phantasy Star IV (a Genesis RPG that's always been expensive to obtain), Shining Force II (my love!!), Mega Man 2 (now that interest has been piqued by the announcement of Mega Man 9, why not release it??), and Super Dodge Ball.

Also on the list are Boogerman and Clayfighter 63 1/3, two games that should never be played by anyone, ever, and should be painfully euthanized and taken off the release list. Sadly, they will probably see release before anything anyone who isn't legally too stupid to operate a motor vehicle would want.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 8- Guero

You could be forgiven for calling Guero a "return to form." This is exactly the sort of thing reviewers usually mean when they play this card: an artist/band returning to what made him/her/them so beloved in the first place. Problematically, Beck is beloved not just for Odelay, so calling this album "a return to form" is technically incorrect. It's a return to the Odelay sound, and while I do like the album, something has always escaped me. Something I can't put my finger on; some intangible quality that means I don't enjoy the album nearly as much as I might have. Something that goes beyond "it's a slightly different and ultimately weaker retread of Odelay."

It's dangerous for an artist to take inspiration from him or herself. 'Dangerous' being a relative word, allow me to explain. Not dangerous in the sense of a bomb or gun being dangerous, or a serial killer on the loose being dangerous; dangerous in the sense that it rarely works out and makes the artist seem narcissistic. It's acceptable for people to take inspiration from others--after all, Guero's opener 'E-Pro' is based on a sample of the Beastie Boys--but it seems egotistical to take inspiration from your own work. Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way, though. Guero wasn't inspired by Odelay. Moreso I get the feeling that Beck, after a couple albums of exploring his whims and various, unique aesthetic directions, felt he had nowhere else to go. So, why not return to your roots?? If anyone could record a newer, better Odelay, Beck would be the safest bet.

The Beck of 2005 is not the Beck of 1996, for better or worse. A decade of other projects, of incredibly varying character and sonic direction, show influences on Beck's modern-day-Odelay. I don't want to imply that Guero needed to be all new ideas for it to succeed; if anyone had the right to record a "consolidating all the strengths of my last few releases" album, it was Beck. Unfortunately the combination of the sounds of Mutations, Midnite Vultures, and Sea Change doesn't quite match up to the free wheeling levity of Odelay. Guero is a darker and weightier album that sinks beneath the waves as much as it manages to float above them.

Guero gets off to a great start with the two-hit combo of 'E-Pro' and 'Que Onda Guero', both songs that tip their hat back to the incredibly fun sample-fests of Odelay. Things quickly detour with 'Girl', one of the most surprisingly stripped down and catchy pop songs of Beck's career. This is really more of a full band pop/rock song driven by guitars than it is a loop and sample heavy Odelay-ish track. 'Missing' harkens back to both Sea Change and Mutations, the former for its depressed lyrics and string saturated atmosphere, the latter for its Brazilian/Tropicalia-style percussion. 'Black Tambourine' is a slight, mid-tempo bass fest that makes little impression. Stripped of a few elements, 'Earthquake Weather' could have fit neatly on Sea Change, with its ponderous flow and "these days I barely get by"-slow motion chorus. 'Hell Yes' attempts to restart the album with a Midnite Vultures-esque funk/rap shot-in-the-arm before 'Broken Drum', the album's worst track, quickly kills the momentum. This song, with no changes at all, could have fit unto the end of Sea Change, and no one would have batted an eye. Look, Odelay had some sad and searching songs, too, but they were inventive and interesting. 'Broken Drum' drags and drags and doesn't give the listener enough to latch unto. 'Scarecrow' is fun and catchy if unremarkable, while 'Go It Alone' is the most strikingly new idea on the whole album, with its addictive groove (partially courtesy of Jack White on bass) and percussion-heavy sound.

With the album's last stretch I realize why I don't like Guero as much as I might. I said earlier that Guero is a slightly different and ultimately weaker retread of Odelay, and it is. But in bringing up the "taking inspiration from himself" idea, I think this issue with the album comes to a head on this last stretch. The main difference between the two albums is that Odelay is much more fun and much sillier than Guero. You never really know what Odelay will throw at you next, whereas Guero is pretty tame in comparison, and also manages to remake Odelay into a methodical, almost death obsessed album. The pallor of Sea Change hasn't quite left Beck's system and it infects Guero for the worse even when he tries to fashion it into new forms, like the chain-gang blues of 'Farewell Ride.' Return to Guero after hearing Odelay again, and it's shocking how reserved and introverted Guero really is in comparison. Especially once you get past the obvious funmakers of 'E-Pro', 'Que Onda Guero', and 'Hell Yes.'

Ultimately, I'm continually surprised at how little Guero holds up to my memory. I always go into it remembering it as a newer Odelay, but by the time its over, I'm left with the impression that it's an inferior follow-up to Odelay with incongruous lyrical themes and musical content. Guero's reputation is largely built on less than half of its contents, and though I don't think it's a complete waste, it's also not exceptional. Guero represents the first time Beck began to repeat himself, and though this is not automatically damning, I certainly feel like he could have done better.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Video: Ween- Voodoo Lady

I know many people would disagree, but I like to think of the 90s as the best time for music...videos. Music videos. Yeah.

The reason I like the decade's music videos so much is their willingness to try anything. If you go back to Beavis and Butt-Head, you'll quickly realize how completely bizarre most bands's videos were. Ween are a fairly bizarre band in their own right, but this video is a pretty good Cliff's Notes for the decade's video output. You can just imagine the director saying that they're going to film the band underwater, but not in a pool or the ocean; no, it's going to be a weird, orange-ish, womb-like scene. And something with the shadows and air-distortions of fire. And...well, just watch it.

You can thank me later for not posting their video for 'Push Th' Little Daisies', which has a helium-voiced chorus that will embed itself in your mind just like I embedded this YouTube video in my blog. Wait, what??

Friday, July 11, 2008

Denis Dyack, Please Stop

Thank heavens for 1Up writer Shawn Elliott, who provides an intelligent, succinct counter-argument to all the stuff Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights, developer of soon-to-be-released Too Human, has been yammering about for the past few weeks. (Note: click the title of this post to read Elliott's blog I'm referring to)

While I admire Dyack for being so high-falutin' with his ideas and ideals, I can't help but feel he's putting way too much time and effort into worrying what critics and message board denizens have to say about his game. It feels like he's trying to use all kinds of philosophical/social concepts to try to dismantle how both function, forgetting that message boards are basically the modern day, mass equivalent of a bunch of people getting together to talk shit and when you use the Internet you sign up for this kind of thing (and need to develop some thick skin and a sense of humor), and that critics should have no basis on your "art" whatsoever. I'm sorry you don't like that they are putting criticisms into their previews, but we consumers find those kind of things useful. All kinds of movies that get bad reviews from critics still are blockbusters and loved by many, so why worry about critics ruining the reception of your game before its release?? You're doing more harm than good to public perception of your product if you spend most of its ramp-up-to-release making yourself look like a pompous ass.

In the end, I really wish Dyack could keep his mouth shut and let his game speak for itself. Almost everyone else manages to do it. But I suppose if I had spent way too long developing what amounts to Diablo II with a cyber-Norse reskinning, I might be more defensive, too.

And yeah, I haven't played the game and I said that to be a jerk.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Album of the Week: Wolf Parade- At Mount Zoomer

I was out for a jog the other day, and as usual, I didn't have music on. Maybe I'm alone in this regard, but I can't concentrate on music while exercising, so I developed the habit of listening to podcasts. For some reason I can concentrate on human speech while jogging--in fact, it takes me out of the physicality of exercise so I'm not always thinking "I'm tired, I'm sore, how much longer??" I don't remember what exact podcast or topic within said podcast spurred the thought, but I started to think about how very few artists these days manage to create equally brilliant second and third albums. Is this a process of the Internet-age hype machine burning out bands before their time or are we, as consumers, more apt to get bored with something and move on because of the acceleration of culture?? Or is it just the age old "you have forever to make your first album, and very few bands can create something equally good and interesting on the next try"?? This isn't a completely original idea, I realize, but I want to take it a step further: is it the bands who let us down with their subsequent albums or are we too critical of albums that are too different or too similar to the first, and thus unable to follow a band's career and grow naturally with them??

This may be a sign of my own increasing cynicism and critical-ness, but, myopically, so far 2008 has been a mixed bag for music. We've had some good albums, true, but new releases by a few of my favorite artists have been disappointing--specifically, Islands, Silver Jews, and Destroyer. None of those albums are the 'second' album by each band, but they all felt like let downs because they were either too different or too similar to what had come before. At the very least, I can't imagine anyone arguing that that these albums are the best thing each band has done. This holds true for other second albums/subsequent albums I've been listening to lately: Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket, Walk It Off by Tapes 'N Tapes, Cease To Begin by Band of Horses, and Some Loud Thunder by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Some of these came as let downs, but even the ones I like I would never posit as better than their forebearers.

This whole concept of "following up hugely successful albums" has plagued bands for decades, but it's also been something many, many other critics have picked at in regards to their reviews. On one hand, I want to recommend Some Loud Thunder because it's a good album with interesting songs that grow on you. On the other hand, most people aren't obsessive music collectors like me, and will only want the best album by a band, so I have to sit here and say "well, it's not as good as their debut..." I think Destroyer's recent Trouble In Dreams is an inferior, samey follow-up to Destroyer's Rubies, but if a fan came to that album first, would it seem so weak?? Half of music reviewing and criticism should be supporting and explaining albums that other people might not know or understand, but the other half should also be a consumer guide that goes beyond personal opinion.

At least, in theory.

See, an album like At Mount Zoomer throws a wrench into my plans, because while I absolutely adore Apologies to the Queen Mary, the band's debut, I am genuinely torn between the two. At Mount Zoomer sounds like the same band--the same omnipresent keyboards and crunchy guitars, driving/taut percussion, and the affected, impassioned vocals of Dan Broeckner and Spencer Krug--but it has entirely different aims. Where Apologies to the Queen Mary was a masterpiece of relatively concise songwriting and a modern day indie rock touchstone, At Mount Zoomer is a more nuanced, complex, and expansive album. It feels and sounds like a travel album, painting portraits of places and scenes while motion is maintained. If you've ever driven by people arguing and started to write their story in your head, or had a quick series of dreams about imaginary romances while afternoon napping, you have a good idea of the kind of things this album shows to you lyrically. It's not entirely removed from the first album, but it doesn't have the same goosebump inducing poetics that Queen Mary does. Instead, Zoomer's goosebumps come from a combination of word sounds and the music itself.

The big difference, musically, between At Mount Zoomer and Apologies to the Queen Mary is that the songs are longer and more instrumentally focused. This isn't to say that it's a guitar solo heavy, jamming album ala Stephen Malkmus's Real Emotional Trash or a prog rock influenced workout like, err, basically every Fiery Furnaces's album except their first. No, what this album does is allow the songs to breathe when they need to. Apologies to the Queen Mary is an intense, upfront album that rarely stops long enough to let you exhale. On Zoomer, if a song doesn't always need percussion, guitars, and keyboards piled on top of each other, it doesn't have it. If it needs a delicate moment (or three) of only one or two elements of sound going, it gets it, such as the halfway mark of the superb 'An Animal In Your Care', wherein everything dies away and the song enters its catchier second half, building from a simple keyboard melody to a majestic climax. Moreover, if a song needs the instruments to carry the emotional weight of a song, they do. Epic album closer 'Kissing The Beehive' puts faith in the listener to hang on through the instrumental sections because the melodic concepts and ideas they sail upon will pay dividends when the vocals come back in. Think Let It Be by the Beatles, not in a "back to basics, classic classic rock" kind of way, but in the way that, say, the full band is playing together and playing off of each other in the intro to 'Dig A Pony.' This song is also worthy of praise for being the first time it truly becomes apparent how sympathetic Boeckner and Krug are as vocal foils.

Speaking of which: At Mount Zoomer is a significant step forward for Boeckner as a singer and a songwriter. Though I confess to not having heard his Handsome Furs side project, I have always considered myself more of a Krug kind of guy, since I thought he had the better batch of songs on Apologies. Here, however, Boeckner's work is just as good--if not potentially better--than Krug's, in particular 'The Grey Estates', with its circular, merry-go-round feel and intricate lyrics. Of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention 'Fine Young Cannibals', presumably named after that band because of the falsetto vocals Boeckner employs. I also like the strange, barely-there saxophone solo that ends the song. Perhaps, then, a minor difference between the two albums is that Krug had a higher batting average on the debut while Boeckner does on the sophomore release.

At Mount Zoomer sits in a weird place because it's not likely to win over anyone, and those that Wolf Parade already had are apt to either love it, as I do, or feel like it's a let down. Moreover, you're likely to meet people who like Wolf Parade but not Sunset Rubdown; people who like Handsome Furs but not Wolf Parade; people who like Sunset Rubdown but not Wolf Parade; people who like At Mount Zoomer but not Apologies to the Queen Mary and so on. Taste, as a subjective force, is such a strange thing. I want to be able to play the consumer guide and end this review by saying that At Mount Zoomer is better or worse than Apologies to the Queen Mary, yet the more I listen to it, the more I can't choose. Let me try to sum all of this up, then. At Mount Zoomer is not the place fans should start, but I feel it has enough of its own life and character that fans will be richly rewarded for giving it a try. In short: equally as good, but for different reasons.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Video: Joy Division- Love Will Tear Us Apart

I'm not sure if it's because I'm not British or I hate how many 80s albums sound/were produced, but I've never been a huge Joy Division fan. I do like them and own both of their albums; however I've never really thought of them as amazing.

I will concede that 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' is a great single and a pretty good video. There's just something about that keyboard riff and the way Ian Curtis moves that haunt the viewer. I wish I could've found a better quality copy of the video, but eh...such is piracy via YouTube.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 7- Sea Change

When you're going through a depression, it's hard to create anything. The few things you do manage to finish seem awful and needlessly miserable, as if the ideas are there but the energy and life are missing. You don't feel like being around anyone, and while they would never tell you this, nobody feels like being around you. Depressed people aren't fun. So one could be forgiven for thinking that Sea Change is a mediocre album because it's not very fun to listen to a guy whisper and whine about his ex and how sad the world seems. The critical re-evaluation goes something like, the album captures being depressed so well that it is, in itself, like a miserable person who isn't fun to be around.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. I have wrestled with Sea Change since its release, at first thinking it was brilliant, then boring, then awful, then merely good, then brilliant again. I wish that I could attribute my changing opinion of the album to my own changing relationship and emotional statuses, but I think it's more a matter of my being more or less forgiving of flaws. Anyway, let's be serious: Rolling Stone gave this album 5 stars and called it Beck's best album. That's enough to raise anyone's alarm.

The reason I don't like Sea Change is that it's just not that good. Not completely bad, but not that good. It begins with the overstuffed, suffocating production (this is the only time I think Nigel Godrich made an album worse instead of better) and ends with the scattershot songwriting quality. The album begins and ends well with the pristine melancholia of 'The Golden Age' and the stripped down, acoustic 'Side of the Road', but in between the songs are a very mixed bag. The strings on 'Paper Tiger' add nothing to the song and are mixed way too high. Similarly, the overblown and bloated 'Lonesome Tears' has schmaltzy strings and feels like it goes on for twice as long as it does. 'Lost Cause' is really good, with its fingerpicking guitar and Beck's voice right up front and all the ancillary swirls of sound and synthesized touches relegated to the background. Similarly, the added elements to the re-recorded 'It's All In Your Mind' (released a few years earlier as a stripped down single) emphasize the emotional impact of the song. The album's most surprising and successful moment of depression and stuffed production comes in 'Round The Bend', a freefloating string-led dirge. Unfortunately, 'Little One' piles on instruments during the choruses, going for the obvious when it should, I dunno, try something else. I genuinely like the parts of this song that don't go the easy route, though it's here that I want to make mention of the fact that I think this album is one of Beck's poorest as a vocalist. As we've established, this is his sad sack album, but his delivery of lyrics is often mumbled, muffled, or just generally drained of any creativity or emotion. Nick Drake and Elliott Smith recorded a lot of sad albums, too, but their vocals were often the biggest draw.

I would almost wager that, as time goes on and people reevaluate Beck's discography, Sea Change will be understood as the mediocre and overproduced album that it is. Blood on the Tracks, an album of bummed out, post-breakup catharsis (whether you believe it was personal or not), was highly praised on release, and reevaluations of Bob Dylan's music have kept it toward the top of the pile. I don't see this happening with Sea Change. My opinion has varied wildly about it over the years, but now it's settled, hourglass-style, into a half empty/half full glass.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 6- Midnite Vultures

There are certain albums that I'm embarrassed to play, not because I don't think I should like them but because other people will get the wrong idea about me. It's all well and good to say that what you like doesn't determine what you are like, but it has to have some bearing on your personality, doesn't it?? I like Midnite Vultures but I don't like it as an ironic wink-and-an-eyebrow-raise to sexy music. I like it because, somewhere deep inside of all of us, there's a sexy freak waiting to bump and grind in dance clubs and take off his or her clothes while purring dirty things to strangers.

So, yeah, Midnite Vultures is embarrassing to play with other people in your car or the same room. I suspect it could go either way with a girlfriend, though it never occurred to me to see when I had them. This album is embarrassing because, even in today's increasingly more open social atmosphere, sexuality is still a very private thing. It's something you mostly do alone, or with one other person (maybe more than one, if you frequently attend orgires or one of those guys I see in male/female/female threesome videos). In the same way that you can be totally absorbed in a romantic scene in a movie and have it ruined when someone else walks into the room, Midnite Vultures seems overblown and ridiculous when someone who isn't feeling it happens by and gives you a critical glare.

But let's push aside the naysayers and put on some cologne (or perfume) and our sexiest silk boxers (panties), because when you are ready to get down--whether this means dancing or knocking boots...well, I'll leave that to you--then Midnite Vultures will be ready for you. The album can be lazily summarized as Beck's exercise in funk, R&B, electronic music (mostly 'Get Real Paid'), and soul. However, the result is less pastiche and more his unique take and reconstruction than anything else. The closest the album comes to obvious-ness is 'Debra', an over the top slow jam about wanting to get with a girl named Jenny and her sister, who he thinks is named Debra. Purportedly, on tours during this era, a bed was lowered from the ceiling for this song. Classy.

Midnite Vultures quickly makes its intentions known with the opener 'Sexx Laws', in which Beck confesses/brags that he's a full grown man who's not afraid to cry, but that he also wants to defy the logic of all sex laws. Metaphorically speaking. Er, wait, no, literally speaking. 'Sexx Laws' is the perfect way to kick off the record because while it seems obvious and easy on first listen, it soon reveals interesting touches, like the banjo during the outro. 'Nicotine & Gravy', despite having an booty shaking groove, also manages to rhyme 'Israeli' with 'lazy' and 'gravy. 'Get Real Paid' recalls both Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, only, you know, sexy. Sexier?? Ah well. Any song with a roboticized Beck pleading with you "touch my a$$ if you're qualified" is a good one. 'Hollywood Freaks' brings in a shot or two of hip hop to keep the party bouncing, while 'Beautiful Way' is a soulful late-album ballad with Beth Orton dueting in her sultry way.

All told, Midnite Vultures is an almost masterpiece, and an interesting left turn from an artist who's entire career seemed to be built on odd left turns. If Midnite Vultures doesn't quite stand up to repeated listens like Odelay and Mutations do, well, it's not supposed to. This is an album you throw on when you're in the mood, or trying to get someone else in the mood. This also happens to be the last wholly party-centric Beck album; later Odelay-sequels Guero and The Information add noticeable shades of darkness and sobriety. But we'll get to that later. For now, pour another drink, loosen your tie, and have fun.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Holy Crap, Chrono Trigger for DS!!

I know I shouldn't be this excited about what is essentially a port of a game I played the crap out of more than 10 years ago, but come on...Chrono Trigger is on my short list of "best RPG ever."
I sometimes regret trading in my SNES and the fine RPGs I had for it (complete copies of Earthbound with strategy guide, Final Fantasy III (VI), and Chrono Trigger!!) but it allowed me to buy and enjoy the ill-fated Dreamcast, which was hugely enjoyable. Still, I miss my SNES and the awesome packaging mid 90s RPGs came in.
How can you not love this cover?? Sure, it's inaccurate--Marle doesn't cast Fire magic, and I don't think you fight Heckran in the snow--but it gives you a pretty good idea of what's in store. That is to say, a kick ass RPG. Between the Diablo III announcement and this, I guess I need to put off those suicide plans for another few years, ho ho ho!!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Album of the Week: Natalie Portman's Shaved Head- Glistening Pleasure

I hated high school. Normally I wouldn't make a point of starting a review with a bit of personal history, especially one so mundane, but I think it's important to my reaction to Glistening Pleasure. You see, when I went to high school, there were no cool artsy, indie chicks. I was a man on an island. Imagine my surprise when I got to college, and it seemed like half the people I met dressed in clever t-shirts and told tales of whistling the Pixies. After a year or two of this, it got to be kind of annoying. Partially because I didn't feel quite so unique anymore, but mostly because I felt like I had missed out on something in high school. To put it simply: where were the cool indie chicks I was supposed to be dating then?? Such a waste, because by the time I got to college, they were mostly done with guys like me. Luckily, I would prove to be strange and interesting enough that they could get past the skinny indie rock boy exterior. But I digress.

Glistening Pleasure provides a taste of what high school might have been like if I had been born somewhere else. If I had had the awesome indie music and weird, absurdist worldview, but also had known the euphoria of young love. This is what the album captures to me. Strange that I love this album so much, because based on the album artwork, I was so determined to hate it. It's like everything I find irritating about indie bands, all in one place. The ridiculous, unwieldly name; the "let's all dress in thrift store outfits and generally try to look like douchebags"; the "ha ha ha, so random!! so crazy!!" cover art; the 'clever' song titles like 'Beard Lust', 'Holding Hands In the Shower', and 'Sophisticated Side Ponytail.' However, I quickly came to the realization that for some people, all of this stuff is new and clever. I remember doing similar things in high school, when my microcosmic view of the world--despite the Internet--didn't allow for the fact that other people bought thriftstore clothes or ironically appreciated bad things. But I can't hold it against Natalie Portman's Shaved Head because even though all of this is ancillary, it actually fits their music aesthetic. I'd go so far as to say that if they didn't have the stupid name and "we're so fun!! crazy!!" thing going on, I wouldn't like them as much.

Let's get one thing straight, though. Since I left high school, I've turned into a cynical, bitter old man. I've grown old and disappointed with life before I'm supposed to. When I see young kids...specifically, when I see the young kids in Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, I unconsciously sneer. But I think a healthy portion of that sneer is jealously, because I wish I was still so full of life and energy. I wish I could dress like an idiot and play catchy synth-pop. I wish I was still a skinny beanpole instead of a skinny beanpole with a post-college alcohol paunch/starving-African-child-with-potbelly physique. Anyway.

Glistening Pleasure is one of the few synth-pop albums I actually like. Indeed, love. I've tried to give bands like Hot Chip, the Klaxons, CSS, YACHT, etc. chances before, but they just don't do it for me. The difference with Natalie Portman's Shaved Head is that their songs have enough hooks, melodies, and ideas that I can get past the kitschy retro keyboard-led music and just enjoy myself. Listening to the album is like attending the ideal senior prom; perhaps a better way to put it is that every song is a party you want to attend. Putting it on reminded me of hearing Beck's Midnite Vultures for the first time: just that constantly fun and strikingly-original-despite-building-from-obvious-influences sexy funk R&B dance party vibe. I don't want to like it--everything in my curmudgeonly, Tom Waits-inebreiated brain screams out "no!!"--but I do. Perhaps best of all, the band have clearly taken cues from other keyboard-heavy bands like the Fiery Furnaces, The Unicorns, and Of Montreal in that the songs aren't all straightforward chorus/bridge/chorus formulas, and they make equally good use of guitars. 'Hush Hush' is the best example of this, with its falsetto singing, 60s garage rock style rhythm guitar, and the brief respite that comes near the two-minute mark in which most of the instruments die away and the singer lowers his voice. Also, OK, I'll admit that 'Beard Lust' is fantastic, and sounds like something you might hear in an episode of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!

The highest praise I can give Natalie Portman's Shaved Head is that I wanted to hate them but ended up loving them. The slightly-lower-but-still-high praise I can give them is that they melted my black-iceberg-heart a little bit with their incredible music. Everytime I've questioned giving this Album of the Week, I listen to it again, and am reminded of how vivid and entertaining Glistening Pleasure truly is.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 5- Mutations

Mutations was one of the very first CDs I ever bought. It's kind of surreal to be sitting here, a decade later, writing a review of it. I've listened to the album so often that I have almost ceased to hear it anymore; it's become part of my DNA. Mutations, along with Radiohead's OK Computer, was the album that led me to fall in love with music and the idea of an album as a unified work of art instead of just a collection of songs. Returning to the album after a decade of enjoyment, its richness and appeal are sharper than ever.

It may or may not be telling that Beck wanted to release this album exclusively on Bong Load Custom Records. When signing his record deal with Geffen, Beck stipulated that should he choose to, he would be allowed to release albums on indie labels and Geffen couldn't do anything about it. They seemed to feel differently, and Beck sued the label for releasing Mutations against his wishes, and all manner of lawsuits between Beck, Bong Load Custom, and Geffen were filed. I assume it was settled out of court because I've never been able to find more information on the matter. At any rate, does Beck's desire to release Mutations on an indie label show that he didn't have much faith in the album, or was it for a different reason??

My assumption is that Beck felt he could continue as he had before his success with the 'Loser' single, not to mention the Odelay album. Remember that he had released two albums on indie labels before, one of which was the blues/folk/indie One Foot In The Grave. It seems to me that his plan was to release a big, mainstream appealing fun record, like Odelay and Mellow Gold had been, and then supplement with albums on indie labels as his whimsy carried him. To be sure, Mutations has more in common with the hardcore-fans-only One Foot In The Grave, but sales and reviews both proved that even on a major label Mutations was brilliant, earning Beck a Grammy for 'Best Alternative Music Peformance.'

The sound of Mutations is radically different from Odelay, but at the same time it's removed from its closest sibling One Foot In The Grave. Where that album stuck to a mostly acoustic blues/folk sound, with some indie rock bits thrown in for good measure, Mutations embraces a full band singer/songwriter canvas and paints it with colors and techniques borrowed from country, blues, folk, bossa nova, tropicalia, psychedelia, and classic late 60s/early 70s pop/rock. With Radiohead uber-producer Nigel Godrich in tow, the whole thing has a clean sheen that nevertheless doesn't get in the way of the more rustic and spontaneous feel on hand. That is to say, when keyboards and odd sound burbles appear, they drift in naturally. At any rate, gone are the genre mash-ups and sample-heavy sound of Odelay. It must have come as a shock to people who were only familiar with 'Loser' and Odelay.

Most shocking of all, however, is just how good Mutations is. While I have always liked this album, now I fully notice just how texturally and melodically rich it is. The production is full and thick, but never suffocatingly dense; every instrument and sound has a space all its own to demonstrate its purpose. Nothing is arbitrarily slapped on: I suspect even the casual studio chatter opening of 'Sing It Again' was planned. Even so, the songs are the true stars here, from the honky tonk, piano-and-harmonica goodness of 'Canceled Check' to the mournful 'Dead Melodies' with its delicate acoustic guitar fingerpicking to the drunken waltz of 'Sing It Again' to the staggering, reeling fun of 'Bottle of Blues', which has Beck seemingly making it up as he goes along. Even the odd man out, the, uhh...tropical 'Tropicalia' somehow fits, with its strange cuica sounds and chilled out, almost-Muzak horn section. On a side note, this is the song that I heard on a TV commercial for the album which made me want to buy it.

I want to make a quick mention of the lyrics for this album because I think they're the finest in Beck's career. Before this point, his lyrics ranged from the fairly-straightforward to absurdist word jumbles that sound cool. With Mutations his songwriting took a more lucid and poetic turn, with lyrics of true depth that aren't immediately obvious but also aren't inscrutable nonsense. It's not that Beck's lyrics were necessarily bad before Mutations, or that they would be afterward, but this is definitely his best album in terms of the words alone.

The lasting impression about Mutations is that it was just something Beck made for the fun of it. Reportedly it only took two weeks to record, with Beck working on one song per day until it was completed. Fa