Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Whiskey Pie Presents The Best of Whiskey Pie 2008 (A Whiskey Pie Production)

I started Whiskey Pie along with CJ at the beginning of 2008. Though he dropped out of the site for various reasons, I think I speak for both of us when I say that my only goal was to try to stick with something for once, to update it fairly consistently, and not to give up. I don't want to get too self-congratulatory, but throughout 2008 I was able to post at least a couple times a week on top of the other writing I was doing; not only that, I'm genuinely proud of some of the writing I did this year.

Anyway, I'm going to take this chance to look back on Whiskey Pie in 2008 and link some of the posts I was particularly proud of. Also, I'm going to Cleveland for New Year's and will take the rest of the week off, so new Whiskey Pie posts will start on this upcoming Monday (coincidentally, I'm starting a second job that day, too).

Look-A-Likes: When Whiskey Pie began, I was still getting back into the swing of coming up with something to write every week, but this feature was an idea I had had for some time. It might even have dated back to when I was still in college and writing for the paper. Anyway, I think my look-a-likes are pretty on the mark.

Super Mario Galaxy: I don't do a lot of videogame stuff on this site, mainly because I don't play enough games to feel truly confident in my critical faculties for the artform. But I feel like everything I wanted to say about this game I managed to squeeze in without doing the boring consumer report style review.

Bukowski On Film: Barfly Vs. Factotum: I'm a huge fan of Charles Bukowski, so it was interesting to finally see the movies he wrote/are based on him. I thought this came off pretty well.

A Guide To World of Warcraft Classes: I really enjoyed writing this article because I was heavily into WoW at the time. Now it just seems like a bad attempt at a Something Awful post. Still, I think the pictures are kind of funny and I don't do as much overt attempts at humor on Whiskey Pie anymore.

Video: Tom Waits- God's Away On Business: OK, I just wanted to get people to go watch this video because I think it's badass.

New Pornographers- Challengers: As I say in the review itself, I find it hard to write negative reviews but I think I did a decent job with this one.

Album of the Week: Spoon- Girls Can Tell: I try not to get too digressive or background informationy with my reviews and I think I achieved a good balance here while still digging into the album itself.

Why I Quit World of Warcraft: Maybe I should've let this article stew for a week or so while I made a few more edit passes at it. As it stands, I managed to get down everything I wanted to say as coherently as possible.

Primer: Beck Part 8- Guero: When I begin writing any of my Primer entries on bands, this is the kind of 'review' I strive for. Something that places the work in the context of the band or artist's discography but doesn't devolve into a constant series of "this isn't as good as" or "this is better than" statements with hardly a mention of the album itself.

Shadow of the Colossus: If I could write something like this everyday, I would be pretty damn happy with myself. I so clearly remember editing this post and thinking it was one of the best critiques/re-evaluations of something I had ever written. I'm still really proud of it, too.

The Jesus and Mary Chain- Psychocandy: Sometimes in writing a review, I'm working through my feelings about the album as much as I am trying to write a competent critique of it. I go into it without a clear positive or negative slant in mind but in the process of writing and thinking, I end up with something like this.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: This is one of those critical think pieces I do from time to time. I know a lot of people don't bother with these since they are like reading someone thinking out loud, but I find them a healthy by-product of the critic's diet. Or maybe that should be 'the critic's masturbation.'

Halloween: Film Round-Up 1: In case you couldn't tell, I love Halloween and had a blast doing all the Halloween-y content throughout October. This was the first batch of mini-film reviews I did, and it was probably the best. Starting this series caused me to begin watching way more movies than I had been, thereby reigniting my love for film in general.

Primer: Phish Part 6/Album of the Week- Billy Breathes
: While I was writing the Primer entries on Phish, I was making a conscious effort to balance the music critic part of me and the mindless fan part of me. This was probably the point where the two were most equal.

Album of the Week: Elliott Smith- Either/Or: It was only after I finished writing this review and began editing that I realized I hadn't said very much about the music or the songs. Yet as someone who commented on this review said, I still managed to capture the feel of the thing. This is the same as the Shadow of the Colossus post, because I wish that every time I sat down to write something like this came out.

Half-Life: Again, even though I don't write a lot about videogames, I think I did a great job of talking about this game on its 10 year anniversary without devolving into "the graphics were good, the sound was OK, the controls are too loose, etc."

David Lynch's Inland Empire: Every single time I had seen Inland Empire before writing this I ended up drunk by the end of it. So it was enlightening to watch it during a drying out period and to know that it still doesn't make a lot of sense if you're stone cold sober. Still, I enjoyed writing this review and I think it helped me collect my feelings about it and Lynch's work in general.

Stephen Malkmus- Stephen Malkmus: I try to avoid concept reviews because they tow a fine line between smarmy/pretentious and fun/intelligent. Hopefully you think, as I do, that I ended up with the latter.

That ended up being a lot more posts than I thought. Well, Happy New Year everybody. Here's hoping I have as many highlights when 2009 draws to a close...

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008 Part 2

8) Stephen Malkmus- Real Emotional Trash
Call me a super fan. Say that I have a man-crush on Stephen Malkmus. Whatever. Much as I love Pavement and wish Malkmus would get the boys back together, I'm not a fool. Those days are gone and Malkmus is wisely following his own muse from album to album. Real Emotional Trash takes Malkmus's flirtations with guitar heroics and the jam scene to its inevitable conclusion, adding ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss to level out the bottom end. The result is less Phish or the extended moments of Led Zepplin than it is the Malkmus-ian aesthetic we've come to love but with even more emphasis on guitar-led improvisation than Pig Lib. The lengthy title track was one of this year's best joyrides.

7) Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago
I think I said it best in my review: "It's always easy for me to forget albums like this when I'm discussing my 'best of the year' lists with the other music nerds and obsessives. These kinds of records, well, they don't change the world, create new genres, or instantly make scenes and sound-alikes sprout up in their wake. No, For Emma, Forever Ago is a familiar but fantastic pleasure, like spending a day off with a pot of tea, a new novel, and a rainstorm. The environment is well known but the novel is not. So it is with this album. It's one of the 2008's best (though technically it was self-released in 2007, so...) and a low key, strongly human piece of loss, pain, and recovery."

6) Portishead- Third
While I mostly fixated on the "comeback of the year!!" aspect of this release, one thing that's been sticking in the back of my mind has finally come out. Third reminded me of why I love electronic music. If accused of favoring rock above all other forms of music, I would concede the point. But albums like Third drop into my lap like a needy cat and whaddya know, I love electronic music, too. Using the tried and true "drum/synth loops with a vocalist" style as set in stone during the trip hop era, Third takes everything in a darker, more overtly synthetic direction while still remaining true to the band's feel and way with a song. Darker, more dissonant...it's like the soundtrack to Children of Men.

5) Wolf Parade- At Mount Zoomer
I wrote a really clumsy, music critic navel gazing kind of review for this album, but I think my point still stands: this album is every bit as good as their debut if you give it enough time. At Mount Zoomer seemed to be a pretty divisive release and while I fully understand why, I still think it's great if taken on its own terms. It doesn't have any songs as immediately stunning and memorable as 'I'll Believe In Anything', but it's got more variety and takes more chances. That counts for something in my book.

4) Sun Kil Moon- April
Had I ever listened to a Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon (or even a Mark Kozelek solo release) album before April, I'm not sure I would have thought this album was so good. Maybe it was his worst release?? Well, having now gone back and picked up a good deal of Kozelek's work under those various monikers, I can safely say that April is still one of my favorites of the year. There's just something about his voice, his way with words, and the Neil Young-esque combination of skeletal acoustic ballads and extended guitar rockers that I can't get enough of. That the album is so long and I don't get bored halfway through speaks to its quality.

3) TV On The Radio- Dear Science
If Return To Cookie Mountain was the breakout release that Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes should have been, then Dear Science firmly entrenches TV On The Radio in the upper echelons of the indie rock world. The album is poppier, more polished, and more accessible than previous releases yet none of these are knocks against it. If anything, TV On The Radio have improved their way with vocals and their trademark hard-to-describe production, mixing hip hop, electronic, experimental, jazz, and indie rock textures, melodies, and rhythms into a magnificent soup. There's something quintessentially American about the band, at least the "classless, colorless" America that I hold as an ideal; between these guys and Barack Obama winning the election, this suburban white boy is happy to see that this country isn't as racist, conservative, and racially divisive as I thought.

2) Deerhunter- Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
Yes, I haven't reviewed the "bonus album" that comes with Microcastle. But that doesn't change the fact that Microcastle itself is an incredible achievement for the band. As with the above TV On The Radio release, it polished and opened up the band's pop influences while still being very Deerhunter-y. Were I a lazy critic, I would say that all the pop songs ended up on the album while all the psychedelic/shoegazer stuff ended up on Weird Era Cont. But that's not entirely true. Weird Era Cont. is more like a midway point between Cryptograms and Microcastle. But I digress. As a one-two punch, the twin release from Deerhunter is brilliant noise pop and 2008's best bang-for-the-buck.

1) Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes (and the Sun Giant EP)
While Deerhunter officially paired their two releases from this year, the Fleet Foxes indirectly paired their EP with the self titled debut. As good as Sun Giant is, it can't help but feel like an appetizer for the album. I'm trying to keep my hyperbole in check here, but Fleet Foxes is the most fully formed and brilliant debut in recent memory. We're talking Surfer Rosa "fully formed and brilliant debut" territory here. If this were 2003 or 2004, Fleet Foxes would have been lumped in with the psych-folk movement. As it is, the band's phenomenally gorgeous vocal harmonies (here comes the Beach Boys comparison...!!) recall the old masters the Beach Boys while their music gathers from old Americana staples like folk and country as well as the tried and true classic rock and singer/songwriter soundscapes. Yet for as many reference points as you might have for the band, it doesn't change the fact that these songs are good beyond description. Well, there's that hyperbole sneaking in. So: album of the year. The end.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008 Part 1

16) Beck - Modern Guilt
While he hasn't been releasing flat out bad music, Beck's cache has been muddled in recent years by a series of merely good albums with few surprises. Though it wasn't on the same level of the return of Portishead, Modern Guilt was one of my main surprises of 2008. The album sounds fresh and new, borrowing from modern day hip hop and 60s pop/rock and producing a concise, polished album of great songs.

15) and 14) Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster.../We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
While I haven't gotten around to reviewing these yet, Los Campesinos have, with the two albums they released this year, proven themselves to be as consistent and catchy as indie pop bands twice their age. The band deftly walk the indie rock line between sincerity and irony: song titles like '...And We Roll Our Eyes In Unison' may read more like titles of bad MySpace poetry but in actuality are damn good songs crammed with ideas and hooks. Fans of Belle & Sebastian and Architecture In Helsinki need apply.

13) The Dodos - Visiter
You initial point of reference for this album will probably be Animal Collective circa Sung Tongs, but The Dodos are much less psychedelic and drone-y and much more energetic and buoyant. The songs match intricate acoustic guitar to spastic, flailing percussion that recalls all sorts of exotic African/non-Western influences. All of this is more impressive because The Dodos are only a duo yet produce full bodied music ripe with dense production.

12) Atlas Sound - Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel
While Deerhunter gave their noise/pop a restraint and polish with their album from 2008, Bradford Cox explored the electronic, ambient, and dream-pop headspaces with his 'solo' work under the Atlas Sound moniker. Let The Blind... makes for a hell of a headphones album, all glistening synthesizers, looped guitars, and longing, pained vocals. While not as immediately impressive as most of the albums on my list from this year, this one has been a return pleasure for me since its release very early in 2008.

11) Deerhoof - Offend Maggie
Deerhoof get better with time just as much as they stay good. Offend Maggie wisely adds a second guitarist to the line-up after an album with only one, bringing the band back to their 'classic' sound circa Milk Man and Runner's Four while still adding new wrinkles and twists to their now established sound. I suspect this new line-up have something even better ahead of them, but Offend Maggie is a damn good new beginning.

10) No Age - Nouns
Bands like No Age are the reason I haven't given up on music or hung myself. What I mean is, if you had asked me who No Age were at the start of 2008 I wouldn't have had a clue. Yet here I am, a few days before 2009 begins, and a band I had never heard of is on my list of best albums of 2008. This is why I love music: that endless discovery of new, great bands. That rush of new-ness coupled with excellence. Nouns is such a succinct, effortless slab of noise-pop that it's easy to underrate it in the grand scheme of things. My Bloody Valentine may never release another album or if they do it might be crap, but that's OK. Bands like No Age ensure that noise-pop will always have a future. And, err, a present.

9) Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
It's odd to revisit this music in the middle of winter because it's so quintessentially made for the warmer months, when you hear about breezes instead of wind chill factors and at the very worst you might have to wear jeans instead of shorts. Nevermind that this was one of the most hyped up and talked about releases of the first part of 2008. Nevermind all the comparisons to Afro-pop and Paul Simon's Graceland. Mind, though, how infectious and addictive this album is.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Video: The Beach Boys- Little Saint Nick

Even though Christmas is my least favorite holiday, I'll post this video because this is one of the few awesome holiday songs.

No updates tomorrow, of course.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Deerhunter- Microcastle

The one thing I took away from the Pink Floyd documentary Live At Pompeii wasn't that they were actually a great live band (they were, but that's not what I'm getting at). No, it was that, before Dark Side of the Moon, they were often criticized for being slaves to their technology. Roger Waters tries to deflect this, but there really was a leap from what had come before to the album they were about to release. Nobody thinks of Dark Side of the Moon as a compromising, sell out-style album yet it made the band far more popular and financially successful than they were before. Their music was still pretty odd, druggy and art rock-y and whatnot, but now it was paired with some instantly recognizable and memorable songs. Now, I'm not trying to compare Microcastle to Pink Floyd's legendary masterpiece, but I am trying to compare a criticism I've had for Deerhunter and a lot of other indie bands who pride themselves on textures, noise, and sheer awesome sound: where's the songs, guys?? Stripped of any electronics, Dark Side of the Moon would still be incredible music. And the same goes for Microcastle.

I used to always cringe when I heard that the new album from a band was more 'pop', for lack of a better term, than their previous releases. But if TV On The Radio's Dear Science taught me anything, it's that sometimes a little levity and polish goes a long way. Often the limits imposed on something force you to be more creative. David Lynch's more mainstream works are just as fascinating as his headtrip/surrealisms because he's got to make a sensical story. With Microcastle, Deerhunter wanted to focus on the 'microstructure' of songwriting and to have shorter, more concise songs, too.

This statement isn't going to make a lot of sense until I explain it, but: I've always suspected that I should love Deerhunter's Cryptograms more than I do. The same can be said for the solo album by Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, which also came out this year under the name Atlas Sound. Cryptograms and Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel explore the territories of shoegazer, indie rock, ambient, dream-pop, and electronic music to varying extents and account for some of the most thrilling and interesting music of the last two years. Yet it took Microcastle to retroactively sell me on them because, as good as they are, they sometimes struck me as pastiche albums. You hear so many obvious influences on them that you begin to question whether the music is really that good or if it just reminds you so much of music you love you want to give it a pass. Microcastle, too, brings up obvious influences but it proves something that always lay under the psychedelic noise-pop of Cryptograms and the daydream ambient ballads of Let The Blind...: Bradford Cox is an incredible songwriter. After Dark Side of the Moon, no one thought of Pink Floyd as the lava lamp soundtrack/weird sound effects band. After Microcastle, no one will think of Deerhunter as only the shoegazer/dream pop lovers that they are. As thrilling as the guitar assault of Cryptograms was, as mesmerizing as the electronic textures of Let The Blind... was, they still had incredible songs under the hood.

The best way to describe Microcastle is to say that it's Deerhunter's 60s album. It still maintains their trademark sound of My Bloody Valentine meets Sonic Youth-at-their-druggiest meets experimental 70s pop ala Brian Eno and David Bowie. Now, though, they've peeled back a layer of experimentalism and let the songs breath. Even at its heaviest and noisiest, Microcastle is a pop album...though that's a relative concept. Play this for the average listener and it would still be druggy, noisey, and/or weird. As for my, the first time I heard the album I thought it was oddly plain. But I was mistaking restraint and an attention to moment-to-moment detail for what initially struck me as the band removing all the cool shoegazer and krautrock stuff. Whatever your initial impression may be, after a couple spins the hooks and sheer effortlessness of Microcastle completely win you over. And when I say it's their 60s album I mean it in terms of the pop edge of the thing as much as I do the production. If the songs of Cryptograms sounded like a dozen guitars layered on top of each other, Microcastle sounds like something that was recorded on an old fashioned four-or-eight-track tape machine. To put it another way, when the patented Deerhunter walls of sound crowd around you on this album, it serves the song and it sounds like it's being played live instead of processed and dropped on top of other tracks via ProTools.

If the opening track--with its slow descending guitar melody--sounds like something that could've easily fit on Cryptograms, then the next track 'Agoraphobia' lets you know what kind of album this'll really be. Written by one of the band's guitarists, it's downright melodic and classicist, recalling some long lost 80s art-pop band you've never heard of. 'Never Stops', with its repetitive-but-not-in-a-bad-way structure, demonstrates the strength of Bradford Cox's songwriting skill, adding layers of guitar squall on the chorus before stripping back down to the simple backing without missing a beat. The title track is a minimalist solo lament by Cox with only a guitar to keep him company until the 2:25 mark, when the drums kick in and we have a ripping rock song that reminds me of a slightly slowed down version of Brian Eno's 'Needles In The Camel's Eye.' Piano is used to haunting effect on 'Green Jacket', while the closer 'Twilight At Carbon Lake' has the same slow jam arpeggio style as Radiohead's 'A Wolf At The Door' but ends with an astonishing guitar climax that is Deerhunter at their shoegazer best. Perhaps the album's best song is the downright twangy 'Saved By Old Times', which borrows acoustic guitar, what sounds like a 12 string Rickenbacker, and a galloping chorus from the best Beatles song circa 1965 never written. Oh, and it's got a bizarre sound collage around the two minute mark that somehow works.

Really, though, what I find most impressive about Microcastle is how much I keep finding to love about it. The general idea is that difficult/experimental albums should reward repeat listening, but this album is great example to the contrary. It's Deerhunter's most accessible and 'pop' album yet, and while that's still a relative concept, Microcastle is all the more incredible for having such depth. Every song has some detail or hook that'll peek your interest on the next listen and, like Cryptograms, it still all holds together like a cohesive work. Without a doubt in my mind, Microcastle is a fantastic album and the best thing Bradford Cox and company have done to date. Essential listening for anyone wondering whether all of us indie rock/music obsessives are full of it or not.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Album of the Week: Portishead- Third

There's something to be said for bands growing into their music. The Grateful Dead were young men in the 60s, singing about drinking and hard times, and at some point they grew into this kind of music until it broke your heart to listen to Jerry Garcia sing a ballad. It stopped sounding like snotty youngsters idealizing old bluesmen from the 40s and started sounding like old men who had been through a lot. Similarly, rhe last time the world saw Portishead, they were ten years younger and seemed to be playing at jazz club ambience, 60s film noir, and longing torch songs. Sure, their guitarist Adrian Utley fit in but he was already 40ish, had played in many jazz bands, wore dark sunglasses, and looked mysterious. Seductress Beth Gibbons--who I always picture in my head as sitting on a stool and chain-smoking--and music master Geoff Barrow looked a bit young for the whole thing. Now, though, it would all fit perfectly. The band have been gone for ten years, have presumably been through a lot, and just their sheer absence underscores the feel of their music.

Ironically, then, their 'comeback' album, Third, distances itself from their trademark style. Gone is the soundtrack/filmic feel, the 60s soul/jazz vibe, and the genre defining trip hop-isms. Right when you think they're old enough to authentically fit with that stuff they give you this dark, experimental, and complex electronic album, which brings them fully into the 21st century. They no longer sound like refugees who wish it was the 60s. Now they're down with the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the present. This is downtempo electronic music for all times and seasons.

Who could've predicted that Portishead would really return this year?? Furthermore, who could've predicted that their new album would be so good, so essential?? I mean, for god's sake...a trip hop album in 2008 that is one of the best albums of the year?? You sure you don't mean 1998?? But no, Third is from this year, and it's excellent. Trip hop is vital again. For those about to nod along slowly while sipping scotch and smoking cigarettes, we salute you.

Though a cursory listen to this album will still sound like Portishead, their style has shifted. It's a much more dramatic change from the first two albums than Portishead was from Dummy. No longer does the music feel like it's built on samples or borrowed atmosphere. Third is still based around electronic loops and Beth's stellar vocals but the loops are neither the jazz/soul samples of the first album nor the "live band, recorded to vinyl, and then sampled" style of the second. Third sounds and feels like the least organic of their albums because of it, but it gains a complexity for it.

The music of Third is simultaneously denser and more free than what came before. Take, for example, 'We Carry On', which could be a cover of a Silver Apples song in another lifetime; at some point a guitar solo comes in to lighten the heavy pounding of the drums and organ. The superb 'Machine Gun' recalls vintage Bjork. The beats land like, well, gun shots and explosions, but there's enough silence and space before and after their impact to make the punch that much more impactful. The real treasure of the album, though, is hearing what they have next up their sleeves. There are all sorts of brilliant touches, genuine surprises here and there that make one imagine they spent on a long, long time crafting these songs. 'Magic Doors' has a successfully non-funky cowbell loop and some incredibly dramatic piano chording...and then there's the insane free jazz horn breakdown around the 2:30 mark. 'Deep Water', the album's biggest surprise, is a completely acoustic lament that lets the listener come up for air. And 'Nylon Smile' has a warping psychedelic synthesizer loop and detailed production that reminds me of something Radiohead might've recorded circa Kid A.

If Third wasn't 2008's biggest surprise, I don't know what was. Not only did Portishead release a new album...not only was it good...not only was it arguably their best album yet...it ended up being one of the year's best releases. Though hardcore fans may wish the band would return to their previous style--especially now that they're older and it seems like it would be more 'authentic' now--Third shows that they're capable of other, greater things.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Of Montreal- Skeletal Lamping

The only thing I can say after listening to this album is, what the hell?? Keep in mind I am not averse to difficult albums or stylistic changes. But wow, is this album a mess. And not in a good way. Indie rock isn't exactly synonymous with sexiness, and while it's not averse to irony and kitsch, it's kind of mystifying to see someone take all of this to a ridiculous extreme. Everything about Skeletal Lamping makes me uncomfortable: that it's a concept album about Kevin Barnes's alter ego, a middle aged, African American transsexual named Georgie Fruit; that it expands on the nascent funk, R&B, and sex obsessed elements of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? to an extreme; that it unsuccessfully attempts a breakthrough in songform by making songs into mini-epics and having most of them segue into each other.

I admire the bravery of this release but that doesn't change the fact that the whole thing comes off like something a friend might joke about while drunk. "Hey man, my alter ego is a black transsexual...and he's middle aged...and I'm going to write an album about that and have it be all funky and like Prince and stuff...awesome, right??" Maybe it's just me, but that's not really the thing I think of when I think Of Montreal. Sure, there was a lot of sex and a good deal of Prince-esque R&B with falsetto vocals on Hissing Fauna but it wasn't the main course and it was done tastefully. By contrast, Skeletal Lamping is downright pornographic and it's like an entire album of Kevin Barnes trying to be something he's not.

There are moments scattered across these 15 songs that almost equal Hissing Fauna, but that's all they are: moments. Certain bands can get away with this schizophrenic, mini-epic songwriting style. The Fiery Furnaces spring immediately to mind, but I'm also thinking about the last Sunset Rubdown album, Random Spirit Lover, which similarly played with form and some of the songs flowed into each other. But the Fiery Furnaces have been doing their thing long enough that they know the difference between something that rewards repeat listening and something that is, seemingly, changing arbitrarily and unnecessarily. After all, not every Fiery Furnaces song is made up of three or more smaller snippets. They develop ideas as they naturally demand, letting some songs bloom into sweet ballads and others crash down the mountain of ideas. Yet on Skeletal Lamping the moments of genuine greatness are watered down by a morass of needless repetition or jarring changes. I can really do without hearing Kevin Barnes scream for no reason or repeat "we can do it softcore" over and over. As for Sunset Rubdown, well, that album just gets better with each listen. I still don't have a handle on Skeletal Lamping and there isn't enough to latch unto to make me want to go back. On a side note, what's with putting 'Id Engager', the lead single, on the end of the album?? Furthermore, why is this song the single?? It's not catchy and honestly pretty terrible.

But let's put all of this beard stroking music critic stuff in the cupboard and talk about this matter as fans. As with Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea by the Silver Jews and Arm's Way by Islands, two other 2008 releases I wasn't keen on, the initial impression is simple-but-vague disappointment. You know how sometimes you get the new whatever by whichever band, author, movie director, etc. you love, and you experience it for the first time and then sit there going "well, that wasn't very good"?? That's exactly what the two above albums and this one leave me with when I listen to them. I don't like this one nearly as much Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? and even on its own terms it's sub-par. It's hard for me to imagine anyone but the most hardcore Of Montreal fans listening to this and thinking it's their best work.

Skeletal Lamping wouldn't be quite so bad if the music was good. I have a lot of problems with the concept and the lyrics--I can't overstate how stupid the Georgie Fruit 'character' is and how embarrassing the lyrics get--but the music is also weak. As I said earlier, there are some great moments here or there but the end result is an album that doesn't feel like either a set of 15 songs or an unified whole. Rather, it's a scattershot effort with precious few highs. Kevin Barners's idea was to have an album packed with all kinds of brilliant song-ettes that flowed into each other and constantly changed, but the actual product comes off like a sprawling mess with very little flow or logic. This idea can work but it has to be done well. I don't want to come off as a broken record, but these mini-epics made up of smaller songs just aren't that good. Moreover, while Skeletal Lamping is actually shorter than Hissing Fauna it feels much longer.

Writing this review was my way of coming to terms with and defining my dislike for Skeletal Lamping but even if my reasons don't sway you, the simple reality is that the only people who are going to like this album are those who adore this band and can overlook/enjoy its flaws. I really wanted to love this album, too. It seemed like the kind of thing I should by all rights love: "hey, it's Of Montreal doing the Fiery Furnaces!!" Unfortunately, the songform experimentation is mostly a failure and the 'concept' and lyrics are awful. Maybe the next one will pull it off. I just hope Kevin Barnes ditches the Prince worship and lame concepts and gets back to writing great songs. I can't believe I'm typing this, but Skeletal Lamping may well be the biggest let down of 2008.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Album of the Week: TV On The Radio- Dear Science

Way back in 2003, TV On The Radio fired a shot across the bow of indie rock with the Young Liars EP. Here was something that sounded so completely new and fresh yet so fully formed that it felt like one of those once-a-decade, 'bolt from the blue' debuts. With four incredible originals and an impossibly good doo wop cover of 'Mr. Grieves' by the Pixies, the band's potential seemed limitless. If their full length debut Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes wasn't quite the homerun that we anticipated, then TV On The Radio proved they were worth all the love with 2006's Return To Cookie Mountain, one of--if not the--best album of that year. And so here were are two years later with another album, another scrapbook full of critical praise, and appearances on year end 'best of 2008' lists.

Listening to Dear Science for the past day or so since finally getting it, I can't help but comment on the band itself. Here is a group of men in a quintessentially American way, multi-racial and belonging to no definitive genre. Yet the music they do draw from--rock, post-punk, electronic music, funk, soul, hip hop, and even jazz--is also quintessentially American, too. While a band's origin shouldn't matter, I still feel indelible patriotism for TV On The Radio. Go team!!

Dear Science is a deliriously enjoyable listen, one that starts out catchy and smooth and then just gets deeper and more addictive from there. TV On The Radio spent most of Return To Cookie Mountain experimenting with their sound, producing music that was dark, complex, and rewarding but not necessarily immediately enjoyable. Dear Science is a far more accessible album but doesn't sacrifice depth or intricacy for it. With In Rainbows Radiohead proved that making more accessible, immediate music wasn't automatically artistic resignation and a grasp for the mainstream. Besides, if anything, TV On The Radio's skill in both the background details of production and the obvious foreground of the vocals has gotten better. Return To Cookie Mountain and their previous efforts had excellent vocals--given that the band has two gifted, unique vocalists in Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe--but Dear Science is, well, more excellent still. And David Sitek, as both band member and producer, surrounds the songs in subtle sound loops and atmospherics that have become just as much the group's signature.

So, yes, Dear Science is a much more 'pop' album that what has come before. But it's all the better for it. The album has a fun funky vibe to it, especially on songs like 'Golden Age' and 'Red Dress.' Then there's the album closer 'Lover's Day', which is more or less their version of a Prince ode to, err, making love. The album's subject material is fundamentally as nervous, worried, and searching as Return To Cookie Mountain but it's cast against lighter, more danceable songs. The most immediate comparison I have is Beck's Modern Guilt, which set songs full of worry and darkness to the catchiest and most consistently good music Beck has made in a long time. Both have that same lean-but-dense hip hop/rock/electronic sound, too. But I digress. Dear Science is just as brilliant with the slower side of things, as on the string-section-enhanced, mostly percussion-less 'Family Tree' which slowly flowers into a beautiful lament or 'Love Dog' which kind of sounds like TV On The Radio doing trip hop.

I still need more time with Dear Science to decide if it's album of the year. And to decide if it's better than Return To Cookie Mountain. But I think it speaks volumes for how good Dear Science is that I'm already considering it in those two ways after only a couple days of listening while other music critics, who've had it longer, are placing it high up--or on the top--of their 'best of 2008' lists. But, whatever. Dear Science is an album that re-affirms one's love for music. It's TV On The Radio's most immediate and accessible album but still has everything that makes them great. A must hear.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Video: The Pipettes- ABC

While I may love and treasure the whole indie rock/underground/whatever-you-want-to-call-it scene, it is not without sins. Sometimes, gimmicky bands are loved and praised based solely on the same things we hold against other 'scenes' of music. Hence the Pipettes, a throw-back to the all girl bubblegum pop of the 50s and 60s.

I'm not inherently posed to revivalism, but this kind of music doesn't really need revisiting. The era of monolithic girl groups who don't write their own songs, don't play the instruments, and have ever changing line-ups is long gone, and for good reason. It would be another thing if The Pipettes brought anything modern to the form, other than actually writing the songs, but as near as I can tell it's just about exploiting the cute-ness of the girls and being a constant come on to shy, awkward indie rock dudes like me. That seems to be the implication of 'ABC' anyway, though I care about neither math nor science and I do in fact know about XTC (as well as ecstasy) so...whatever. Kitschy retreads of music from years past are clever but they aren't automatically great.

The first thing I thought when I saw this video was, wow, here's someone trying to undo everything that bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikink Kill accomplished.

Also, this video reminds me of that pink haired chick from the Esurance ads.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Games of 2008

As someone who doesn't own a 360, PS3, or PC capable of running anything cutting edge, I mostly watch and follow the videogame industry from the outside. While I can't give personal accounts for the majority of the big games that came out this year, I can attempt an overview and retrospective.

There was a lot of talk toward the end of 2007 about how it was one of the best years for gaming in history. Certainly it was a strong year, with titles like Super Mario Galaxy, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, BioShock, Mass Effect, the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Persona 3, and Assassin's Creed all garnering strong sales and interesting critical discourse. Yet 2008 has been equally strong: Grand Theft Auto IV, LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears of War 2, Mirror's Edge, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Fallout 3, Fable 2, Dead Space, Soul Calibur IV, Left 4 Dead, Persona 4, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft, Devil May Cry 4, Resistance 2, Valkyria Chronicles, Prince of Persia, and No More Heroes all came out this year. Now that we're effectively two years into this console cycle, all the big titles are starting to flood in.

The thing that most immediately sticks out in my mind about 2008 is how few of the 'big' titles of the year were original IPs. It's true that this is the case for most years, but 2008 moreso than others. Look how many numbers are in that list. Even Smash Brothers and Prince of Persia, despite lacking numbers, are sequels. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one could argue that if 2007 wasn't a stronger year, it at least had more originality. Portal and BioShock alone were amazing and new, unlike anything we had played before. At the same time, the industry is growing both in terms of breadth and depth. It really is starting to resemble the movie industry with each year, such that you get mass market games, family games, triple AAA blockbusters, and hardcore niche games that resemble the small budget/indie film scene.

Whatever the end of this generation is like, I feel like 2008 was the year the Playstation 3 began to come into its own and the Wii to wane, at least from a hardcore gamer's standpoint. With three excellent exclusive titles--Metal Gear Solid IV, LittleBigPlanet, and Valkyria Chronicles--the PS3 is finally shaping up to be a system worth owning. At the same time, the Wii has hit its peak with the releases of the inevitable Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing sequels. But all of them are barely different from their Gamecube incarnations. Thus the dilemma of Nintendo: they do such a good job of making sure that they release a title from their major franchises on each new platform, but they rarely take any chances with them or establish new IPs. With games/non-games like Wii Fit and Wii Music coming out this year, and Wii Play still being one of the top sellers for the console, one has to wonder why anyone would bother developing for the Wii. Original games aimed at the hardcore like No More Heroes and Zak and Wiki do alright, but looking forward to 2009, there isn't much to devour. MadWorld, sure, but what else??

As for the 360, Microsoft continues to do their best to diversify the lineup. Even if they aren't selling as well as the Wii, you have to hand it to the company for doing much better this time out. Yes, the Red Ring of Death continues to be a problem, and they still ought to make Xbox Live free...but gamewise, they're hitting it out of the park. Starting with the original Xbox they've done fantastic with courting PC developers to focus on the console experience and so a lot of the exclusive titles would, in another lifetime, have been PC only or console ports. Meanwhile, Microsoft has tried to win a foothold in Japan with RPGs of relative quality like Tales of Vesperia and Lost Odyssey. And both the classic and indie titles released on the Live store have been like love letters to the hardcore gamer, from thought provoking original titles like Braid to much-desired ports of classic games like Rez, Ikaruga, Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and the original Soul Calibur. Meanwhile, they're also trying to appeal to the Wii crowd with things like Lips and the New Xbox Experience, with its Mii-aping Avatars and NetFlix. The 360 may suffer at times from this "we need to appeal to everyone at the same time" approach, but that strategy worked pretty well for the PS2.

I don't have much to say about the PC or PS2. I broke down and bought The Orange Box two weeks ago and am loving that, but otherwise I'm out of the loop. The PC as a platform has been going through a strange period of change, with the Steam download service leading the charge into the new era of digital delivery and not using DRM. The PS2 is nearing the end of its life but seems to still get at least one gem per year, with Persona 4 being a surprisingly quick sequel and one of the year's most unsung games. That it is probably the best jRPG of the year says a lot about how slow Japan has been to embrace the 'next gen' consoles.

On the portable front, the PSP is still a dumping place for ports, but 2008, as with the PS3, saw the handheld getting exclusives like God of War: Chains of Olympus, Patapon, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The DS has an excellent back catalog of great games but spent most of 2008 coasting on good will and excellent ports. Still, it had a slew of either excellent new IPs or sequels, such as Professor Layton and the Curious Village, The World Ends With You, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Space Invaders Extreme, and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. And you can't be mad at a system that had ports of Dragon Quest IV and Chrono Trigger in the same year.

The last thing I want to talk about is the ever evolving arena of games criticism. I don't know that, score-wise, people are getting tougher on games. But overall, critics are doing a better job critiquing both the minute details of games as well as the big picture aspects. It's no longer unacceptable to say you don't like big new titles like Mirror's Edge as long as you can intelligently explain why. Sadly, this is something that most often only comes through on podcasts, personal blogs, and streaming video shows, but at least it comes. Gone are the days where everyone would give every new Final Fantasy or Zelda level title a near perfect or perfect score and no complaints or misgivings would be aired. As the level of an artform increases, so must criticism and a thoughtful response to said art. I not only look forward to 2009 games like Heavy Rain, but I look forward to what critics will have to say. Cheers.

(Note: throughout the remainder of 2008, I'll be posting a handful of retrospective articles like this. They'll all have the tag '2008.' I'll be on vacation for a bit toward the end of the year, so I'll probably just post an article or two looking back on the first year of Whiskey Pie at that point)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Animal Collective- Water Curses EP

The release of the next Animal Collective album is a bit over a month away as I write this, and while I look forward to it with great anticipation, the entire process of waiting for another release has me thinking about this band and why I love them so much. If you're merely the fan of a band, it suffices to say that you just like them and that's that. But if you're a critic like me, attempting to qualify your enjoyment can sometimes leave you speechless. Or word-less. Whatever. Often I become so taken with a movie, album, or videogame that I can't put into words why I like it until some time has passed. Or maybe I'm just so far down the rabbit hole that I haven't even given any thought as to the "why" of it all.

Well, let's step back and use Water Curses as a jumping off point for why I like this band. It's a neat four song EP, all unreleased songs that come from the sessions for last year's Strawberry Jam. In the same way that the People EP was like a last taste of the Feels album, I suppose. But I digress. I think a song by song breakdown is in order, and I'll use each to give a reason why I love this band:

1) Water Curses: Animal Collective releases, starting with Sung Tongs, have begun with incredibly strong opening tracks, and it's nice to see this practice carried over to an EP. This song has a bubbly feel, full of momentum and revelry. There's plenty of electronic wooshes, melodies, and snappy drum machines for the ear to enjoy; the effervescent vocals of Avey Tare and Panda Bear swoop, climb, dive, and twirl around the music, reminding me again that one of the things this band does best is push what vocals can do. Love them or hate them, the way this band uses vocals is instantly recognizable and uniquely them. Hey presto, reason one.

2) Street Flash: My initial impression of this song was that it was way too minimalist and slow for its own good. Reverbed organ chords hold the time while Avey Tare sermonizes to us through the inexplicable fog punctured occasionally by sound loops. As the song comes into focus the vocals are treated with a wah-pedal. Then we come to the startling moment where he asks "what's that twitching/is it still alive??" and the "alive" lyric is screamed. So, reason number two: the unexpected. Nothing is ever entirely predictable in an Animal Collective song. There is repetition in their music, yes, but also change--sudden change or gradual change. And any band that can master a feeling of repetition while also utilizing sudden or gradual change is endlessly listenable.

3) Cobwebs: Many have latched unto the "we're not going underground"/"I'm not going underground" line from this song, perhaps in response to dubious claims that Strawberry Jam was leaning further toward mainstream pop music than they ever had before. But the important lyric to me is "the more I move the less I'm free" bit and the gorgeous chant of the song's title that proceeds it. That is the stinger of the song, not the obvious supposed-commentary on their music. I love the lack of obvious-ness about their music. There's never an easy lyric or rhyme, never a rote chorus or bridge. And the meanings of the songs...you might think you know what it's "about" but on closer inspection it turns up something different.

4) Seal Eyeing: This one flows out of the end of 'Cobwebs' on a cloud of gurgling water sounds and the beautiful piano that begins right off the bat gives me a picture in my head of the band floating on lily pads on a pond and playing the song. A slight, meditative, and ambient mood piece, 'Seal Eyeing' reminds one that the band's music runs the gamut from up-tempo/happy/rocking fare like 'Water Curses' and 'Peacebone' to the slower/trippier/sadder pieces like this and 'Cuckoo Cuckoo.' This is the last reason I love the band. Like any great artist, they can switch tone and style yet still maintain consistent quality and an unique aesthetic. Even if he isn't known for it, Stephen King gets funny or romantic sometimes, after all.

Animal Collective have been making music since the beginning of this decade and it's surprising what a significant portion of that time has felt defined by them. With each successive release their cache increases more and more. While their EPs have never been quite up to the same standard as their albums, Water Curses changes all that. It feels like a companion piece to Strawberry Jam in the way People didn't to Feels yet still retains a feel and pacing of its own. Not only that, it's the best and most consistent EP of their career. You can tell they must have agonized over these four songs because they're all very good but don't fit in with Strawberry Jam as well as that set of songs did together.

Lucky for us we have the EP format. Luckier still that bands like Animal Collective take advantage of its artistic potential.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Album of the Week: Sun Kil Moon- April

I spent a good deal of my early romance with music seeking out very specific kinds of music. I had a certain sound or style that I heard in my head and I couldn't rest until I found a band like it. But now that I've been listening to music "seriously" for a decade, I find myself more open to letting things come to me as they will. I go to the library and get an album by so-and-so because the name sounds familiar from a review or recommendation of a friend. Or I buy an album I know almost nothing about based on the cover or the group's name or the record label or something else, so I experience it with little or no expectations. And in this process of equally seeking out music as I let it discover me, I often find that I'm experiencing and enjoying music I never knew I wanted or never thought I would enjoy.

Sun Kil Moon is a band that I never thought I would enjoy because, on paper, there's nothing special going on. It's very deliberate music, existing in that sadcore/slowcore sub-sub-genre between indie rock and folk/singer/songwriter, recalling both the introspective rock of the third Velvet Underground album and the sad-but-not-depressing folk of Nick Drake. I love this style of music but I find it hard to get excited about. It's kind of like how the other day at the library I got the new Indiana Jones movie and Gus Van Sant's Gerry, one a fun action movie and the other a meditative, naturalistic film where two guys wander through beautiful southwestern/western scenery for what feels like two hours and not much happens. I would say that I enjoyed Indiana Jones more, whatever 'enjoyed' means in this context, but I found Gerry much more rewarding. There's more to think about with it; more new experiences; more to remember. This is exactly how I feel about April: it's not an album I expect to force on other people and I'll probably never cherrypick songs from it for mix tapes. Yet listening to it for almost a month now, off and on, I find it so much more rewarding and meaningful than most of the music I've heard this year.

April contains the kind of music you have to give yourself over to completely. It's made for overcast gray afternoons when you're too tired, bored, or depressed to get up, so you just lay on the floor or couch with the album on repeat. The songs sketch amazingly cinematic scenes of lonely introspection or dreamlike love. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these songs are like short stories or films, succinct but full of rich, imaginative detail. And again I will admit that, on paper, April doesn't look appealing because the songs are long and the album goes on for 77-some minutes. But once you're in the sweep of the thing, it's irresistible. Though April sounds nothing like them, its songs have the same peculiar ability that 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'Stairway To Heaven', and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' have, to be long but never feel long, to never overstay their welcome. Sure, they're repetitive, but ask any fan of electronic music about repetition: there's good repetition and then there's bad repetition. What, to one listener, seems boring will seem hypnotic and entrancing to another.

What makes the album so good, then?? Well, there are astonishing moments of pure delight on April. 'Tonight In Bilbao' chimes along for eight minutes before the song switches a gear for the last minute-and-a-half with a delicately plucked guitar melody. The album opens strongly with 'Lost Verses', which sounds a bit like Led Zeppelin's 'That's The Way', letting you know right away what a gorgeous, singular voice Mark Kozelek has...and then the full on guitar jam kicks in. 'Like The River', a duet with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, is every bit as lovely as you might imagine. 'Tonight The Sky' splits the difference between Neil Young's 'Down By The River' and The Velvet Underground's 'Some Kinda Love', particularly the lengthy guitar workouts of the live versions of both. And 'Heron Blue' has beautiful acoustic guitar solos that remind one of classical music.

Certain music can hold you transfixed, unable or at least unwilling to turn it off until it's finished. This is the kind of power April has over me. I listen to a lot of music and a lot of different music, so it takes something really special to stick with me for as long as this album has. I have to confess that normally after I write a review of something I move onto something else right away. But I still want to listen to this album some more. It's the sort of sleeper release that'll show up on end-of-the-year 'best of' lists but still won't get the attention and sales it deserves just by its very nature. You'll see it stocked at Best Buy or your local record store and vaguely recall reading something about it but you'll put it back in favor of something else. Maybe you'll get around to it in a few months. Or a few years. Sun Kil Moon, and Mark Kozelek's work in general, is the kind of stuff you can spend a lifetime putting off in favor of other things. But whenever you manage it, April will be waiting for you, ready to hold you in its spell.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pavement- Brighten The Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition

For a lot of bands, the ten year mark is the time when they start to look around and question what they're doing. There's a palpable sense of momentum running out. Maybe the muse stops coming as often as she did. Maybe they just get tired of being around the same people all the time. Whatever the case is, the band members are ten years older, too, and those kind of milestones make you question everything around you. I'm about two months away from turning 25--a quarter century old, yeesh--and I was just talking to a longtime friend last night about the past. Through a haze of scotch and nostalgia, I remember telling her that I live my life in the present and the past; the future is a terrifying unknown to me.

These are all the kind of things I think about when I listen to Brighten The Corners. In my review of the non-deluxe edition of the album I said that "[i]t's Pavement's most mature album in many ways, from the mostly mannered songs and arrangements to the lyrical subjects that frequently mention marriage, growing old, and changes in general." Writing about the album those months ago I was looking forward to the forthcoming reissue to give me some more context for it, to maybe help me appreciate it better. Well, my feeling about the original Brighten The Corners remains the same. It's Pavement's weakest album and their least interesting. But the extra material included here is worth discussing for two reasons:

1) It is much more rambunctious and messy than the album
2) It represents the beginning of the end of Pavement

If you pre-ordered the so-called Nicene Creed Edition of Brighten The Corners, it came with an unreleased live album on vinyl. Since it was such a limited release and doesn't come with every copy I won't get into it too greatly. I wish it had been included with every copy of the album, though, since it's so good. Despite the scattered live songs on the other deluxe reissues and the shows on the Slow Century DVD, we've never been given a good snapshot of live Pavement pre-'99. Wherever this show was recorded in Europe in '97, the versions of the songs played on it are loose and fun, again hinting that sometimes Pavement's loose and sloppy approach to shows could produce brilliance. As for the extras included on the 2 CD set, well, they're spotty at best.

The most confusing aspect of this reissue to me, initially, was that a good deal of the b-sides and outtakes included here date from the Terror Twilight era. What I've since realized is that--and this gets into the second point I wanted to make--the band were already beginning to dissolve at this point. The two best extras on the first CD--'And Then (The Hexx)' and 'Harness Your Hopes'--come from b-sides from the single for 'Spit On A Stranger', which is from the Terror Twilight album. Was the band so starved for material that they dug back into the Corners sessions?? It seems so. This is made clearer by the general poorness of the other outtakes and b-sides. 'Westie Can Drum' and 'Roll With The Wind' are fun but rough, reminding one of the Wowee Zowee era.

The second CD flies off the rails entirely, showing Pavement at their best and worst. 'Slowly Typed' is an interesting, country romp version of 'Type Slowly' while 'Cherry Area' is a frustrating, stuttering, and apathetic electro-grind alternate version of 'Embassy Row.' Meanwhile, the four covers range in quality from good to pointless ('The Killing Moon' is good, 'Oddity' is decent synth-pop, 'It's A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl' and 'The Classical' are only worth a single listen). Of the remainder, only the "psych" into to 'Embassy Row', a jammy live take on 'Type Slowly', and the playful 'Grave Architecture' are revelatory. One assumes they were serious about the 'clearing the vaults' idea by including the two versions of the band's attempt to "play" the Space Ghost "theme", because only hardcore fans like your's truly would be patient enough to sit through five minutes of Pavement flailing around and making noise.

I can't help coming away from this deluxe edition feeling disappointed. But I think most of that has to do with my expectations and not the product. I wanted something more, I guess, than the usual lot of b-sides, outtakes, and live material. For what it's worth, the essay included in the booklet is unnecessary and useless, especially compared to the other reissues, which had decent essays and/or notes from the band members. And I guess that lies at the heart of why I find this whole package a let down. Brighten The Corners has always struck me as not particularly interesting and the bonus material included here is a mess, not up to the general quality of previous reissues. Really the best thing about it is the live album but you had to pre-order it and have a way of playing a vinyl record to enjoy it. But I digress...

The Nicene Creed edition of Brighten The Corners is currently available for only two dollars more than the standard edition on Amazon.com. Even the most casual Pavement fan will find the extra disc-and-a-half of bonus material worth that kind of money. Yet I still have reservations about the album itself. You can read my in-depth take on it elsewhere, but suffice it to say that a three star album with a mixed bag of extra material only gets bumped up to four at best. This is really more of quantity over quality thing, but if you're a fan of the band it's worth it. And I can't wait to see what they do for the inevitably reissue of Terror Twilight in a year or two...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Video: Sun Kil Moon- Last Tide

Nine times out of ten, fan made videos on YouTube are garbage. Even the ones made for Garbage songs are garbage. But every so often I find one that actually works, says something on its own while also saying something about the music, too.

This fan made video for 'Last Tide' by Sun Kil Moon does that. Even though it ends abruptly it perfectly captures what I feel and see in my head when I hear this song, and the music of Sun Kil Moon in general. I've been meaning to write a review of April by this band for a few weeks now. I feel like this is the final impetus to do it.
p.s. The blog by the guy who made this video is amazing, too.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stephen Malkmus- Stephen Malkmus

Dear Stephen Malkmus:

As I write this letter, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of a package containing the expanded reissue of your former band Pavement's album Brighten The Corners. It comes with an unreleased live album (on vinyl, no less!!) that was supposed to have been released between Corners and Terror Twilight. In some strange way I think I'm looking forward to this reissue more than the other ones because, honestly, Brighten The Corners has always been my least favorite Pavement album and '96 to '98 are the era I know the least about. This had me thinking, too, about your other band, the Jicks, and the "solo" albums you've done since Pavement with them. And I realized that your first, self-titled "solo" album is my least favorite of the bunch so far but that I also am the least familiar with it.

So I decided to give it another listen and take some notes, to give some form to my feelings about the album and why I can only remember a handful of songs from it. I'm sending you this letter because I think I need to karmically balance my endless stream of love letters with some criticism.

Stephen Malkmus is a strange album. Actually, what I meant to say is, it's a confused album. You originally called it 'Swedish Reggae.' And it was supposed to be billed as simply 'The Jicks' with your name nowhere on the package. Finally, it was a self-titled "solo" release even though people stress that it's not really "solo." Except that the line-up of the Jicks keeps changing from album to album and...Yeah, see what I mean?? I really wish you had kept the original title, it was great. The use or not of the new band name doesn't matter much to me but did you really need to have a picture of yourself on the cover?? It's lazy and expected that an artist's first solo album would be both self-titled and have a picture of them on the cover. At least you didn't go the Peter Gabriel route and self-title your first four solo albums...

Trying to give concrete details of the misgivings I have for this album is tough. It's just a general sense of malaise, as if you threw everything at a wall and saw what stuck. Stephen Malkmus has some fantastic songs--'Church On White' is a brilliant psychedelic ballad, 'The Hook' is cowbell driven fun, and 'Vague Space' is a relaxed late album gem with a great chorus--but the rest stream by without much impact. 'Troubbble' is a ill-advised return to the short Pavement pieces like 'Serpentine Pad'; 'Pink India' flails around for almost six minutes in search of a direction; 'Trojan Curfew' sounds like a bad Built To Spill b-side; the best part about the overblown MOR rocker 'Discretion Grove' is the cool drum loop that opens it...The album has the feel of an artist pulled in two directions at once, toward more mannered classicist rock/pop via ballads and guitar solos but also toward the usual slew of surreal lyrics and unexpected surprises. I rarely break down an album song by song, but my lasting impression of Stephen Malkmus is that it's half great and half sub-par. It's a transitional album through and through, Mr. Malkmus (can I call you Stephen??), and while they make for interesting listens they usually aren't especially good.

I don't mean to sound overly harsh, but we're most critical of those we love. I like your first "solo" album but I don't love it. You definitely developed the nascent ideas of this release with your next three solo releases, which are all excellent. Here's hoping my package gets here today. I hope you and your family are doing well and that you have a lovely holiday season.

Your fan,

Greg Lytle
p.s. Any chance of a reissue for that Crust Brothers album?? For the title alone, Marquee Mark should never go out of print.

From the "you can't make this stuff up" file: the package came as I was editing this review. Weird.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Album of the Week: No Age- Nouns

There's a phenomenon for cases of moderate to severe hypothermia known as "paradoxical undressing." There are theories as to why it happens (maybe the intense cold affects the part of the brain that regulates body temperature or maybe blood vessels give out from exertion and thus a surge of blood reaches the limbs and warms them) but since it doesn't happen to every victim and it's dangerous to test, scientists still aren't sure. The first time I heard about this I was reminded of how you're actually more in danger in the desert with less clothing on because lots of light clothing will shield your skin from the sun and keep you from getting sunstroke and sunburn as quickly as you would otherwise. I bring both of these up because it reminds me of the strange phenomenon of listening to noise-y music: you get so used to the ugliness of it that it wraps around to pretty. I don't know why it happens, but I think some immoral parent should raise their children on atonal noise and then expose them to pretty harmonies and see what the results are.

Anyway, this very notion lies at the heart of the noise pop masterpiece Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, an album that is every bit as loud and piercing as the Velvet Underground's best but is somehow incredibly beautiful and warm. I suppose noise and feedback themselves aren't inherently cold or warm, ugly or pretty. It's all in how it's used. This is a lesson that the band No Age have taken to heart.

Nouns is interesting and successful in the way that all the best noise-pop is: it plays with the borders between the inherent dichotomy of the genre itself while maintaining a unique, singular sound. Though only a duo, No Age recall bigger, better-known bands like the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine and noise-pop elder statesmen like Sonic Youth. Where they differentiate themselves is with their use of noise, electronics, and the dynamics of a two-person band. Unlike the less successful noise-pop of Times New Viking, No Age understand that you don't need awful production to make your songs seem experimental and dense. Even with the poppier moments like 'Here Should Be My Home' the album shows an understanding of what makes this kind of music fascinating and timeless; as I alluded to earlier, the best noise-pop concerns itself with the borders between things like noise and pop (duh), warmth and coldness, loud and quiet, ugly and pretty, machine and natural. The instrumentals of Nouns are perhaps the best place to note this, particularly 'Impossible Bouquet' which has an Animal Collective-circa-Sung Tongs acoustic guitar buried in a hive of guitar loops and electronic noise. And while I don't know the words too well, I find the songs with vocals surprisingly catchy despite being buried in fuzz or distortion. Again, Times New Viking are the opposite of the spectrum, a place where I can't really hear their songs and what little comes through doesn't leave an impression.

Nouns is one of those great albums that improves with each listen while giving you the notion that the best is still ahead. I like to call this 'The Bends effect', named after the second album by Radiohead. I loved The Bends but in the context of the rest of that band's discography it comes off like an engagement ring rather than the wedding, honeymoon, or marriage. Wherever No Age end up from here, Nouns will remain an excellent piece of beautiful noise-pop and one of 2008's best "unexpected, from out of left field" releases.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

David Lynch's Inland Empire

Inland Empire (2006)
When you watch a David Lynch movie for the first time, there's always that scene or moment when the film takes the plunge down the rabbit hole, so to speak. You tell yourself that you're going to keep a mental catalog of all the characters, events, locations, and story elements that have taken place so far, and you're not going to let the plot lose you this time. But then, before you know it, characters are suddenly entirely different people, or seem to be. Or you're in scenes with characters you've never seen before who talk about cryptic subjects. You lose track of whether this is a dream or a fantasy or a nightmare. And then you give up any chance of puzzling it all out, content to let the images, emotions, and scenes wash over you. Moreover, I'm not sure there's any overriding plot to Inland Empire that one is supposed to decode. I'm not even sure David Lynch knows precisely what is always taking place. But then again, that's never been the point of his movies.
Film is primarily a visual medium. How the shots are composed and lit, how the camera moves, what the camera focuses on, where the actors and the sets are and how they move and interact...all these concepts are ways of conveying not only story to the viewer, but also meaning. Some directors are well known for being incredible with their style and unique vision. Others are content to let film be another way of telling a story which could just as easily be a book. I love Kevin Smith, but even he will admit that he's not an ambitious director. Yet his 'style' fits his films well. What I'm getting at here is, David Lynch is one of those auteur directors who make masterful use of film as a visual medium. To watch his work is to see his vision and his vision alone. He almost always writes the screenplay and either writes himself or handpicks the music that is used. As someone who writes fiction, I know how hard it can be to get down exactly what you see/feel in your head. Even if you dislike what David Lynch films are, you can at least admire that he's able to get things from his head unto film as well as he does.
Inland Empire is a three hour epic and feels equally like a summation of Lynch's career up until that point as it raises new possibilities for his future. It starts out as the story of the filming of a cursed movie before becoming a strange series of somehow interconnected scenes centered around the various personas of lead actress Laura Dern. It seems to weave a spiderweb of realities in which, after a point, we're never sure if what we're watching is the actors in real life, the actors in the movie, a movie about the making of a movie, or the fantasies/dreams of the different characters. Inland Empire is a dense, difficult work but I find myself returning to it, as I do all of Lynch's films, because it's like nothing I've ever experienced.
The most interesting visual aspect of Inland Empire is the use of digital film. This gives it a glossy, hyper-realistic look which helps underscore the movie's themes of reality vs. fiction and how films affect the actors. It's as if you're watching the behind-the-scenes footage of a movie while also watching the movie at the same time. The 'movie' being made in Inland Empire--something about adultery in the south--bleeds over into the actors' lives. One scene has Dern laughing and saying "this sounds like a line from the movie" and then we see that she thought they were in reality but were filming a scene. There's a another scene early in the film where a mysterious old Polish woman comes calling on Laura Dern's actress persona. I always get the feeling that they were never in the same room together. Dern's responses and reactions don't quite match the woman's, as if Lynch were interviewing her and then cut in the old woman later. Again, it's like behind-the-scenes footage mixing with the film itself. Meanwhile, Inland Empire occasionally cuts to seemingly unrelated scenes with three people in rabbit heads who have stilted, vague dialogue. And there's a crying girl who watches those rabbits and the ongoing film and who ends up murdering one of Dern's personas with a screwdriver...but then that turns out to be a scene from the movie being made and...yeah, it's all very confusing.
While watching the movie for the third time the other night, a phrase kept repeating in my head: "watching someone else's dreams." The film's tagline is "a woman in trouble", which is barely adequate to describe the "plot." More helpful and relevant to my phrase is a quote that Lynch offered, taken from one of the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text: "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe." Going along with my dreamlike interpretation, David Lynch is a well known practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. Less informed viewers might watch his films and think their bizarre, absurdist plots were the work of a drug addled mind. Rather, I feel like Lynch brings back images, ideas, and feelings from his dream-life and what he experiences in meditative trips. How else to explain the hypnotic, beautiful, and terrifying look of this film and the events that take place??
Is Inland Empire a good movie?? I'm not sure. It sounds presumptuous to say this, but I don't know that you can apply typical critical metrics to it. Three hours sounds like a lot of time yet it passes so quickly and you still won't really "know" what happened. While I may like some of Lynch's films better than others, I think the success or failure of his work rests less on the usual meters of a movie's success or failure and more on how much they stick with you. I'm drawn into Lynch's world (or whichever world he's made this time) for two hours or more and, when I'm through, how much of that world sticks with me, and has me thinking about it, is my measure of success. For the majority of the population, Inland Empire will be a baffling, pretentious, overlong art film that makes no sense and never goes anywhere. But I'm still thinking about the movie, and the characters, and the arresting, hypnotic images it presents. Inland Empire might just be Lynch's magnum opus. Highly recommended.