Friday, January 30, 2009

Loose Fur- Born Again In The USA

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky divided a lot of people because it wasn't another experimental, Big Important Rock Album like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born were. Rather, it's an easy going, classic rock, 70s worshipping release, and once you get past what you expected it to be and enjoy it for what it is, Sky Blue Sky is actually every bit as good as Wilco's best. Still, it's not as if it came out of nowhere. In fact, if you have been paying attention to what Tweedy was doing outside of Wilco--or read between the lines of A Ghost Is Born's more immediate, catchy songs--you'd have been prepared for it.

I'm resisting the urge to say that Loose Fur's albums are like a preview of where Wilco is going, but their two releases make for an easy cause and effect relationship. Though not released until 2003, Loose Fur's first self titled album was recorded in 2000, during the recording process for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Comparing the two, you really get the sense that Loose Fur unblocked whatever problems Tweedy was having with Wilco. Though Loose Fur is more overtly experimental and at the same time not as consistent or excellent as Yankee, the sound of the two albums isn't that different. The same could be said for Born Again In The USA, which was released a year before Sky Blue Sky but approximates its 70s sound and classic rock just as equally.

By the time of this recording, Loose Fur's three members had a very familial working relationship--Jim O'Rourke had produced or worked on a couple Wilco albums while both Glen Kotche and Jeff Tweedy are in Wilco. Like its predecessor, Born Again In The USA isn't as good as the related Wilco album, but it has a low key, relaxed charm all its own. Guitars are the obvious centerpiece of this album and nearly every song has some outstanding playing on it. Tweedy and O'Rourke remind us both of their chops and their way with a song; though O'Rourke only sings two, it's nice to hear him again since he's spent most of this decade off the mic. Tweedy, meanwhile, reveals the playful side that's emerged lately both in his music and in his personality/stage presence. 'The Ruling Class' is a jaunty tune and sees him singing about a Christ-like figure (or maybe Christ himself, returned) shootin' smack and smokin' crack. And as usual I've got to give some token appreciation for the efforts of Kotche, always showing the difference between simply being a drummer and being a master musician/session musician, doing what he can to add to the music, never getting in the way. In fact, I'll go one step further and say that he is a deceptive drummer because what he's playing, despite filling the usual role of holding down the groove/rhythm of a song and keeping time, is much more complex and interesting than it initially seems.

If forced to pinpoint what exactly it is about this album that makes it merely above average, an interesting side project but not as good as Wilco's main stuff, I'd have to give two reasons. The first is 'Wreckroom.' While it is eight minutes of mostly interesting music, it doesn't quite gel with the rest of the album. In the same way that I like 'Less Than You Think' on A Ghost Is Born but rarely listen to it, 'Wreckroom's extended outro of swirling, pealing guitar space never works for me. The second reason is that, well, this is just a side project, ultimately. I don't want to insinuate that Tweedy saves up his 'A' game for Wilco because I like these songs a lot and he's not holding back. But due to the way these songs are played and what they are, they don't have the panache and punch that Wilco does. Loose Fur get by on a lot of charm and "we just did this because we enjoy playing together and it was fun" on Born Again In The USA. Anyway, when are side projects ever taken as seriously and loved as deeply as the main stuff?? It's pretty rare. Loose Fur was an album about risk taking and sonic discovery and though I do like it better than Born Again, that's a matter of personal taste. The two albums are trying for different things and succeed at them. On Born Again, they aren't trying to push themselves; it doesn't have the sense of experimentalism and searching that made Loose Fur so interesting and worth hearing. But, again, this isn't trying to be that. Just as Sky Blue Sky was a good old fashioned rock album at its heart, Born Again is a good old fashioned rock side project, where a few guys from other bands or what have you get together to hang out and play music together because they like each other.

Born Again In The USA may not have the freshness and historical importance that the first album did, but that doesn't diminish it in any way. It's a nice companion piece to Sky Blue Sky, at any rate, and an above average album in its own right. Since you'll come to this via one of the three people involved, there's little chance it will blow you away in the same way the main projects do, but it's still great music for fans.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Album of the Week: Pink Floyd- Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

It might seem kind of obvious to review a Pink Floyd album--what's next, Greg, taking a crack at the Beatles??--but of all the Pink Floyd albums most people think they remember, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the most slippery. It is timelessly fascinating in its strange-ness. While most people know Pink Floyd because of the Dark Side Of The Moon and after era, even those who are aware that they were a band who released music as early as 1966 probably don't know just how out there Piper was and remains.

See, I was playing this album at work the other day, and anytime I play something I know they haven't heard before, I always hear it through their ears. It's like giving an oral report to the class and feeling intensely self conscious, only now it's your music you're hearing through others instead of seeing yourself through their eyes. Though no one made any comments to the effect, imagining myself hearing this album for the first time really struck home how bizarre this album is. Yes, by the time this album was released psychedelic music was starting to become a known quantity, but even compared to the 'psychedelic' offerings of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is one, dare I say, trippy album: songs about space, gnomes, scarecrows...eerie, druggy music with extended instrumental passages, otherwordly studio effects and sounds never heard by sober men. Why, that awful demonic duck cackling at the end of 'Bike' is enough to freak people out four decades later.

Of course, most of this can be credited to the visionary Syd Barrett, who semi-accidentally took enough acid, wrote enough weird songs, and then subsequently burned out in just such a way that he almost singlehandedly wrote the book on British psychedelia, which has always been--at least in my limited knowledge--more whimsical than its American counterpart. One must keep in mind that, Bob Dylan's breakthroughs not withstanding, it was considered very bizarre to write songs about the above mentioned material. Hell, one of Pink Floyd's earliest singles was about a guy who stole women's underwear off clotheslines. But if nothing else, the total effect of Piper is of the twin voyages of psychedelia: into the inner self and into outer space. Everyone probably knows 'Bike', 'Interstellar Overdrive', and 'Astronomy Domine', but what about the philosophical, time and nature examining 'Chapter 24'?? And the animal-like screeching at the beginning of 'Pow R. Toc H.', an instrumental that sounds like little else in music history, which so enraptured a younger version of me he used to write the song's title in his notebooks over and over?? And the Tolkien-esque fantasy pastiche of 'Matilda Mother', which flies into the atmosphere, if not outer space, on ethereal, stoned keyboards and guitar??

This is where splitting hairs becomes a necessary evil, because while Dark Side Of The Moon and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn are both considered druggy albums, and they both come from the same band, there are enough differences between them as if to render them incompatible. Yeah, they sound enough alike to make sense, but the Pink Floyd of '67 and the Pink Floyd of '73 were entirely different bands, arguably. While Dark Side is stoner friendly, Piper has extremes of 'cute' and 'experimental' more akin to an acid trip. Dark Side is huge arena rock, intelligent and monolithic; Piper is simply surreal and otherworldly.

The best testament I can give for an album like this is that it's so weird, fascinating, and great that you won't even need drugs. And the last time I found myself describing an album like that, it was Trout Mask Replica...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Video: Black Flag- 'TV Party'

As a young man, I was always intimidated by Black Flag and 'hardcore' punk. But then I saw this video and realized I had nothing to fear. I'm not sure if this video was actually made back when the song first came out, but if nothing else it's always a blast to see pre-sanity Henry Rollins overacting like an idiot.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Andrew Bird- Noble Beast (and Useless Creatures)

Probably all the people who've fallen in love with Andrew Bird's music because of his last two albums (2005's The Mysterious Production Of Eggs and 2007's Armchair Apocrypha) will buy Noble Beast, listen to it a few times, decide that it's just not as good as those two albums, and never listen to it again. Such is the fate of the rising-in-popularity artist who zigs when the audience expects him to zag. Except that the people who end up not liking this album won't really understand why, won't realize any zigging took place. Noble Beast isn't as good as Armchair Apocrypha, but it's going for a different thing. And this difference is responsible for why people will disappointed-ly listen to Noble Beast.

The difference?? Well, Armchair Apocrypha and to a lesser extent The Mysterious Production Of Eggs were all about the full sound a studio could provide; Armchair in particular had huge, majestic songs that crested and peaked, arrived at thrilling choruses with instruments piled all over the place. In comparison, Noble Beast focuses on extending Bird's gift for brainy wordplay and rich, patient songwriting. No other album in his career is filled with such explicitly complex and witty lyrics, offering all sorts of tongue twisters and obscure words/references. While it's true that Noble Beast has its share of songs that match Armchair's ability to be both catchy and seemingly epic--in particular, 'Anonanimal' and 'Fitz & Dizzyspells'--the majority of the tracks are given over to mid-tempo paced, mellow material that emphasize Bird's way with words and his extensive use of stringed instruments, specifically violin and acoustic guitar. It's a perfectly good album assuming you're the sort of listener who will patiently dissect the lyrics and sip the fine wine of the song structures.

In an interview with The Onion's A.V. Club a week or so ago, Bird suggested that his next album might be a 'band album', referring to the threesome he tours with. In addition, he posits that Noble Beast hearkens back to the sound of Weather Systems, his first 'solo' album, recorded during the long birthing process for The Mysterious Production Of Eggs. Weather Systems has a similar sound to Noble Beast though I wouldn't make too much of a connection since they were recorded so far apart. What I do want to connect here is that an album recorded with his touring band would be a thrilling thing given the evidence of both Noble Beast and its 'companion' disc, Useless Creatures. Only available in the deluxe edition of Noble Beast, Creatures is an all instrumental album that pushes Bird's music to its most fascinating and experimental state yet. For those not aware, Bird often employs live looping in his performances, using various electronics and stompbox pedals to create loops of guitar, violin, vocals, and his (in)famous whistling, building songs piece by piece. Useless Creatures is the most pure version of this yet. Though mostly solo, he is occasionally joined by Glenn Kotche on percussion (of Wilco fame) and Todd Sickafoose on double bass (a jazz bassist in his own right, but perhaps best known for working with Ani Difranco and on Trey Anastasio's Bar 17 album). Useless Creatures is like some strange mash up of indie rock, modern classical music, jazz, and experimental music. Bird loops and distorts his violin, whistles, and acoustic guitar in some fascinating ways here, and his solo improvisations as well as group interplay reveal him to be a potent musician in addition to the witty, intricate songwriter we've always known. Were Bird to somehow apply these kind of textures, melodies, and rhythms to the sort of songs on Noble Beast, he would really have something transcendent on his hands.

As a total package, the deluxe edition of Noble Beast that includes Useless Creatures is excellent and a must hear for fans of Bird's music. However, as a standalone entity, there's no getting around the fact that Noble Beast isn't as good as Armchair Apocrypha. It's a different kind of album, yes, but even by it's own standards Noble Beast is no masterpiece. I must stress, however, that Noble Beast is far from a let down, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans, particularly if they're willing to splurge for the deluxe edition with the fascinating Useless Creatures.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nina Nastasia & Jim White- You Follow Me

On the way home from work I was listening to Animal Collective's first album, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. The album was billed under 'Avey Tare and Panda Bear' though it was technically Avey Tare's album. However, he felt Panda Bear's percussion and drumming were so crucial that he decided to give him co-billing. The nature of such collaboration is an interesting one: a duo of someone (who will be entirely responsible for the melodic content) and a drummer/percussionist. On that album, while Avey Tare is off in his own wonderland of synthesizers, acoustic guitars, noise loops, bass sounds, and yelps, Panda Bear employs brushes on the drums, giving them a soft, sprightly feel that matches the eerie, experimental nature of the music. Still, I don't know that I'd say the drumming/percussion is an essential element of the album. It's only about 1/3 of the overall sound and you wouldn't lose much if it was gone. With You Follow Me, though, Nina Nastasia gave Jim White co-billing both because it was a collaboration between the two and because his drumming is as important as Nastasia's acoustic guitar and singing.

You Follow Me is the sort of music I might be moved to describe as fascinating if not quite transcendent. The problem--if this is a problem--is that I'm not sure White's drumming makes the songs better. Panda Bear's drumming made the aforementioned album better, but I don't know if White's does. Certainly it's easy to listen to this album and imagine he wasn't there, that it was a stripped down Nina Nastasia only release, but again, I'm not sure it would make the songs better. What he does make them is different, more challenging and experimental than they might have been otherwise. While Nastasia sticks to her acoustic guitar and voice, White employs a rolling, freeform, improvisational style that accents and weaves around Nastasia. It is drumming as texture and reactionary duetist more than it is the traditional role of a drummer as time keeper or source of rhythm. An initial impression of the album will probably strike you as sounding like they recorded these songs live and the first takes were used; Nastasia sounds well rehearsed (these are her songs, after all) with White being the obvious spontaneous element, seemingly having not heard these songs before recording.

When the two work well together, the album is excellent, sublime music. 'In The Evening' is a mid-album shot in the arm, with White pounding out a scattershot beat skidding along Nastasia's chunky guitar chords and powerful vocals. 'Late Night' sees her working from near silent restraint to full on howls, White's drumming matching her move for move. And 'I Write Down Lists' is the most successful meeting point of White's more free improv drumming and Nastasia's very deliberate songwriting--she never goes for the easy lyric or obvious chorus, White never goes for the obvious beat or fill. Overall, it's a testament to the skills of these two as musicians that You Follow Me's collaborative conceit works as often as it does, that they manage to wring such variety and fullness of sound out of just drums, vocals, and acoustic guitar.

However, the trouble comes when the two don't work well together. At its worst, the album comes off like Nastasia singing a song on her own and then letting Jim White donate free jazz drumming to the project, overdubbing his drums in real time at a later date. Then she used his first attempts to support and accent each song but never let him get enough of a feel for her songs to nail them all 100%. 'Our Discussion' would've been a lovely meditation on cynicism from the viewpoint of a jaded romantic ("I don't believe in the wisdom of stone" is great stuff) except for White's incessant banging and rattling in the background, bringing to mind a modified version of your Mother's advice: if you can't play anything nice, don't play anything at all. Otherwise the moments where the two don't quite hook up are scattered here or there across the album; a slight hesitation or seemingly too early/too late accent or fill from White, usually.

I would really have to hear a version of this album without White's drumming to decide if it improves the music or not, but then that would be missing the point. You Follow Me is entirely about the collaboration between Nastasia and White, and this is the sort of interesting experiment of a release that must be judged by the metric of whether it succeeds more often than it fails.

And it does.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Do Videogames Need To Be Fun??

Though I think videogames are still in their infancy as an artform, things like this, and the responses that they get from the community, get me wondering again about this whole 'games as art' thing. Should they even try to be art?? If in order to be art they become less 'fun', isn't this a self-defeating action, since people don't want to play things that aren't fun??

All forms of art have many works within their fields that you wouldn't consider 'art.' There are many paintings, films, books, albums, etc. that are meant purely for entertainment; even if the creator's intent is for something like 'art', sometimes the work still ends up being quite less. We don't have conversations about whether novels or albums are art because they're well established forms, yet a good majority of the products of both are just entertainment. They aren't trying to 'say' anything but that's not their aim. They're just trying to be 'fun.' But videogames are not a well established and accepted form of art, so we have these kind of debates. Anyway, they've got 'games' in their name, so shouldn't videogames just try to be fun?? If somebody brought a board game to you and said "this isn't exactly fun, but it's an incredible experience", what would your reaction be??

Anyway, games as an artform are problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the thing that makes them different--interactivity--also limits their audience and cultural impact. Certainly some novels can take just as long to read as some games do to play, but novels are still quite passive compared to videogames and cost less money. There's a much larger monetary and time investment for videogames, and the more time that goes on, the less money I have to spend on them and the less time I'm willing to invest on them. This isn't me "outgrowing" an infantile hobby. I'm just old enough to the point where 'everything else' eats up most of my free time, and I don't really want to spend $50 on a game and potentially not like it or get stuck/frustrated at a certain point. Anyway, quantity is always less desirable to me than quality, so knowing a game is 30 hours long isn't a plus. Oddly, then, people always complain when the newest $60 game has less than X hours of gameplay, as if quantity always trumps quality. But that's a side issue.

What I was trying to get at was that, in order for games to function as art, the designer/creator must make something with their own vision in mind but also the eventual player. Music is primarily an auditory medium, movies are primarily a visual medium; videogames make use of both of these, but the interactivity sets them apart. Using interactivity to tell a story, to 'say' something, is quite difficult because you've got to keep the audience in mind. Anyone with eyes can look at a painting, anyone with ears can listen to music. And while it's true that you still can't make those people think about what they experienced, it's still a passive activity. Playing a videogame can be like controlling a movie, depending on how much choice you let the player have, but the danger comes in giving the player too much freedom or too little. Moreover, depending on how the game is designed, you might get stuck on a certain point and give up. Sure you can read 150 pages into a novel and give up, but you still spent less time and money on it, and you stopped because the content was bad. You didn't stop because there was a difficult boss you couldn't beat. But this all comes back to the art vs. fun thing, in a round-a-bout way, because if you make a game too easy people complain that it might as well play itself, but if you make it too hard then most people won't experience the whole thing and the whole point of making a game is that someone will get to experience it. Imagine if all the people who watched Memento only got halfway through it.

The second problem with videogames as an artform is that the audience seems to think this is an either/or proposition. On one hand you get the people who are always mocking the 'artsy' games because they're "not fun" to play. On the other hand you get the people who look at every new action or sports game while rolling their eyes and wondering when we can move on to the next phase of videogames, leaving behind the childish associations in the process. Well, both groups have valid opinions, but they're both wrong, too. As I said earlier, there's room enough in every form of art for the sheer entertainment stuff and the high brow stuff. Admittedly I'm being a bit reductionist here, because there's a lot of overlap between the two camps. Somewhere between a symphony and the Spice Girls lies the Beatles. Or something like that. Anyway, there may be some validity to this argument, because, again, the gamer audience only has so much time and money. If you're buying Gears Of War 2 and Dead Space, it probably means you aren't playing Little Big Planet and Mirror's Edge. Yes, the success of a piece of crap mainstream film like Wild Hogs doesn't ruin the chances of, I dunno, The Darjeeling Limited from being made or making money. But the film audience is much larger and films ask for much less time and money to experience them.

The last problem I see with videogames is their sheer ephemeral nature. This is something that doesn't get addressed much, but videogames are a bleeding edge, blink-and-you-miss-it entertainment medium. To be fair, it's not as though every album, painting, book, movie, or TV show ever released is readily available, but because of the way the videogame industry operates--the way it costs a lot of money to develop and publish games, the way new platforms come out every 5-6 years or so--it quickly becomes hard to go back. Services like the Virtual Console on the Nintendo Wii make some classic titles available again, but it's not the same as playing those games when they came out. You can still get copies of Casablanca and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band today, and while they may be on DVD and CD instead of their original film and vinyl record formats, it's still the same content, ultimately. Due to all the ways licensing and publishing work, I can't go back to Silent Hill 1 after playing the new one because the first one was available on the first Playstation, and neither Silent Hill 1 nor the Playstation 1 are available in stores anymore. Yeah, I can get them off eBay, maybe, but at stupid prices. Maybe this is just how videogames as a medium will be, but it limits their cultural impact and lasting power. If you want to know the history, aesthetics, and semiotics of a medium, you have to be able to access their past as well as their present. This is not even to mention online-only games, or games with a heavy online component. Can you intelligently talk about Quake II or the original Phantasy Star Online without having played them in their hey-day?? Sure, a lot of novels, albums, and films haven't aged well and were only extraordinary in their day, but this problem is much worse with videogames.

I don't know that it's even possible to 'review' a lot of games these days, because they change over time. The critical approach of a reviewing a work as released isn't as viable anymore. The original Mario for NES will always be fun because it's always the same game. You can't make the same judgments based on World of Warcraft, because the game it was at launch, the game it was when the expansions were released, and the game it will be a year from's all the same game, all those changes and additions mean it technically isn't. It's as if we need a new critical approach to match what videogames are. Things like podcasts and blogs may not have the same cache and official-ness as a magazine or newspaper review, but they're more consistent with both the audience and the medium. You don't need to sit down and approach a videogame from either the "is this art??" or the "is this fun??" viewpoint, basing your review/critique on "what is this game trying to say/how does it make me feel??" or "the graphics are good/the controls are stiff" metrics. But I digress.

A lot of this post is just me wondering out loud and trying to answer the questions for myself. I still do think videogames are capable of being art, but there's many problems with it, too. It's got a long way to go until it's respected and understood by the general populace and even by its own audience. I bought a copy of House Of Leaves today and it's not as if you see people posting about how it's boring, difficult, and not fun to read all over the Internet. But a game like Flower?? Of course. No one's complaining that House Of Leaves costs too much or takes only a few hours to read, but that's exactly what you see with Flower.

But let's return to my original question: do videogames need to be fun?? Well, we could get really philosophical and ask what "fun" is, since it's a subjective term and we all have different ideas of which things are fun and which aren't. Maybe the way to answer this is to ask a different question: do videogames need to be art?? Of course not. Films don't need to be art or fun. The general consensus for so long has been that videogames are supposed to be fun and if they fail at that, then they aren't any good. But this is a mindset that has persisted because the first few generations of videogames weren't trying to be anything else other than, well, fun. In order to move forward, I think this is one of the things that the audience needs to understand and something that needs to be made clear to the populace at large. Videogames can be fun, but they don't need to be. Videogames can be art, but they don't need to be. Videogames can be both, even, but they don't need to be both.

It's perfectly fine to want videogames that are art. Or videogames that are fun. But demanding that all of them be one or another is pointless. Videogames as an art form have a lot of inherent problems (as does videogame criticism and reviewing), but that doesn't mean they can't be art or shouldn't try to be.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Album of the Week: Jim O'Rourke- Eureka

Jim O'Rourke recently turned 40, Eureka is about to turn 10, and I had a dream a few nights ago where for some reason I was obsessed with buying another album by Gastr Del I took all of these things as signs that I ought to review this album. To be perfectly honest I hadn't listened to it--and I mean really listened to it, not 'one of the songs came up on my iTunes shuffle' listened--for probably over two years. Eureka never really comes up when I'm talking about music to people I've recently met or when I'm thinking of things to review. It's a quiet, unassuming album that usually stays in its place on my shelf, the CD case tucked between Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Smith, my eyes acknowledging its presence as I scan by but I think "nah, not today" to myself for the 600th day in a row. I don't know why this is; it's a good album. Damn good, even. But it's just not the sort of thing you find yourself reaching for when you can't decide what to listen to on the way to work or while you're home and need some background music.

Eureka is a curious, interesting little orchestral pop album. While O'Rourke's previous release, Bad Timing, had a lot of intricate acoustic guitar picking on top of some orchestrated music, it was entirely instrumental. But Eureka drops the acoustic guitar workouts, picks up the orchestral pop flag, and runs away at full speed, humming tunes to itself along the way, crafting music that often sounds like a film soundtrack when O'Rourke isn't singing. It's a fascinating album since it comes from a guy mostly known for helping birth Wilco's 'difficult' masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mucking about with Sonic Youth for half of this decade, and producing/remixing a bunch of people. Though he's worked with a surprising number of singer/songwriter types and pop-leaning artists, I still mainly think of him as belonging to the artsy, experimental, and avant garde fringes. And it doesn't help that the cover art for Eureka is strange as all get out--it looks like something you'd expect from Xiu Xiu and not a nice, relaxing orchestral pop album...

At only 8 tracks but 43ish minutes, you have to figure that there's more going on here than just Beach Boys, Phil Spector, or Burt Bacharach-isms--though, ironically, there's a cover of Bacharach's 'Something Big', made even more ironic because it's done with absolute sincerity and is one of the album's best moments. Anyway, Eureka is for the patient music listener, which isn't to say it's 'slow.' Rather, the rewards come from listening to the whole thing and enjoying it as an entire work instead of a series of discrete songs with incessant hooks or repeated choruses. It's orchestral pop, so there are some hooks and choruses, but as I said earlier, it often sounds like soundtrack music. Just as often as it erupts into singing and lyrics, it slowly blooms into upbeat, melodic instrumental music or explores subdued moods. And I always remember the album as having way more singing than it does for some reason. That's probably because there's something very lyrical to this music at all times, the way the strings and brass are used to suggest singing, or even the way a wordless 'bah bah bah' chorus is employed on 'Please Patronise Our Sponsors.' Which is too bad, actually, because Jim O'Rourke has a surprisingly excellent and emotive voice. There's something very warm about it, and it's disappointing that the moment it gets used most is on the album closer, 'Happy Holidays', which is less than two minutes long. Ah well, there's always his songs for Loose Fu. And his other album, Insignificance, which I haven't heard.

But I digress. This is one of those albums that has just a special atmosphere to it. For me, it's evocative of that moment when the wine starts to get to you during the holidays and you suddenly feel entirely too sentimental about your past and too content with your current life. Or when you, for whatever reason, think about your current significant other and just knowing they're in your life gives you a sudden shot of magic and awe about life and love. These moments of euphoria don't last very long, but Eureka is their soundtrack. When I listen to it, words like 'pristine', 'ornate', 'meticulous', and 'romantic' come to mind. Assuming I have a wedding, I might have to insist it be played at the reception. Or in the getaway car with my bride.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Video: Animal Collective- 'My Girls'

Someday I really need to see these guys live. Still, this is the ideal of what their 'performance' video should be: yes, it's them playing the song/miming along to it, but they're mostly black silhouettes and...well, you'll see. This video is psychedelic and beautiful and matches the song perfectly. It's weirdly thrilling to watch people twiddle with samplers and drum machines, but I guess that's why people go to dance clubs.

p.s. You bought their new album already, right??

EDIT: Sorry, had to fix the video.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Boards of Canada- In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country EP

It's too bad that this EP is usually overpriced and generally unknown because it makes for a pretty good introduction to Boards Of Canada. It doesn't have the sense of discovery that their first EP Twoism did because that was their first 'official' release and was incredibly hard to find for almost 5 years. What it does have, though, is Boards of Canada at their most ambient and languid while still, somehow, making for a concise 24 minute Cliff's Notes version of one of their albums.

Released at a nice middle distance between 1998's stunning debut Music Has The Right To Children and 2002's darker but, arguably, better Geogaddi, the In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country EP can't really be called a stepping stone release between the two. And it's also not a case of the Scottish duo (recently revealed to be brothers) clearing out the vaults. No, this is one of those rare cases where an EP stands on its own as a musical statement. All of the group's trademarks are here: the 60s/70s keyboards/samplers, obsession with dark/creepy things (most of this EP is given over to allusions to the Branch Davidians), child-like whimsy, and a healthy bedrock of ambient techno a la The Orb.

In A Beautiful Place... is, as stated earlier, Boards of Canada at their most ambient and slow moving. These four tracks still have beats and rhythms, but they are mellow and melodic more than anything else. 'Kid For Today' has a skittering beat and droning keyboards, a narcotic drip of a song that feels like it goes on for 15 minutes but never overstays its welcome. 'Amo Bishop Roden' moves from formless, ethereal chords to a true drum beat before dropping this for an ambient ending. The title track, with the oddly disturbing vocal samples of children and a Branch Davidian slogan spoken by a computer altered voice, is rightfully considered one of the best songs Boards of Canada have ever done. I originally heard this track on the very first All Tomorrow's Parties compilation and it's exactly what made me get into this group. At any rate, its minimalist drum loop, ghostly vocal samples, and synthesizer chords that sound like fog rolling in and out or maybe clouds going overheard on a really windy day...sorry. What I was trying to say was, this is a quintessential BoC song. EP closer 'Zoetrope' has an off-kilter, disintegrating keyboard loop that sounds like a remix of a science film soundtrack from the 80s about astronomy. This is BoC at their most pretty and melodic, and there's something of a child-like beauty and wonder about it, almost heartbreaking in its simple-but-effective sound.

The only real barrier to your entry of this EP should be the price. I've never seen it for cheaper than $7-8 at any store, and it's often more. Though there's a lot to love here--four tracks at 24 minutes isn't a bad meal, musically speaking--I'm not sure it's worth quite that much. However, if you grab it from iTunes or another digital music store like Amazon, it shouldn't cost you anymore than $5. iTunes even has it in the DRM-free iTunes Plus format for $3.96 as I write this. If you're a hardcore fan and simply must have a physical copy, it's good enough to justify $8 or more. The rest of us should be content with the digital copy. And content we will be: In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country is a fantastic EP and a good way to introduce others to this band's unique sound and addictive quality.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On First Listen: Nina Nastasia & Jim White- You Follow Me

I had heard Nina Nastasia's name mentioned on a message board a long time ago. I think it was in a thread about Steve Albini and given the man's obvious pedigree (well, obvious to anyone who has followed underground/indie music anytime during the past 20+ years), it made me file the name away for later investigation. Moreover, most of her albums have garnered generally good reviews and she's got those kind of album covers and album titles that smack of witty, moody, and interesting singer/songwriter-ish music. Throw Jim White into the mix--a surprisingly prolific drummer mainly known for his work as a member of the group The Dirty Three--and You Follow Me has been an album I have had in the back of my head for what seems like years. As she's signed to Fat Cat, who annoyingly release vinyl versions of albums in short overpriced print runs in the U.S., I finally broke down and got it from iTunes. But only because it was available there DRM-free through the iTunes Plus thing and I had a $15 gift card from Christmas to burn. On with the show:

1) I've Been Out Walking: Already it's apparent that Nastasia has a keen sense for how songs can be put together, how words can be sung and in what cadence they can be delivered. Already, too, it's apparent that this album is as collaborative as the co-billing suggests. Jim White is one of those drummers who shifts his playing to fit the musical project rather than having a definitive style. Here he takes a more immediate place on stage, his beats and accents as much keeping time as they are keeping up with Nastasia's voice and guitar.

2) I Write Down Lists: This song seems to weave in and out like waves before hitting a marching stride and then dying to nothing again. I'm getting a very improvisational vibe from this album so far, which is not something I expected. This is actually a bit more experimental and challenging than just your average singer/songwriter album, which would have someone signing nice or sad songs against a boring, typical singer/songwriter backing. This is an album as much about the interplay of Nastasia's guitar and White's drums as it is the words and melodies.

3) Odd Said The Doe: This song reminds me of something Cat Power or Mark Kozelek might sing. Maybe Cat Power covering a Mark Kozelek song. Man, White is really going to town on drums. It's quite jazzy and impressionistic. For just an acoustic guitar and drum kit, it's astonishing how much these two are able to do. Such power, such restraint. It's very elemental sounding.

4) The Day I Would Bury You: These songs have an unhinged feel to them, as if they weren't 'songs' with easily defined song 'structures' so much as they are confessions, non-rhymed free poems, stream of consciousness short stories, or dreams jotted down as the memory fades upon waking.

5) Our Discussion: On this track, White's drumming feels like chaotic, pointless sound that works against the song rather than for it. But as it rattles away in the background it begins to seem like a rainstorm pattering on the windows and roof as Nastasia sings to us. All along he listens carefully to her, pulling back as she does and firing back up as she does, too.

6) In The Evening: A song full of swagger. A lesser artist would begin or end the album with this. Again, it's amazing what a full sound they can get out of such minimalist and acoustic means.

7) There Is No Train: I'm trying to think of a good comparison for the sound of this album, but nothing is coming to mind. The way White plays in, around, and outside of what Nastasia is doing is unique and strange.

8) Late Night: Similar to the way a Sun Kil Moon song can move from delicate acoustics to full on rock power, 'Late Night' works from Nastasia practically whispering to a huge crescendo of volume and energy over and over. Nastasia has the sort of voice that reminds you of a few other people but with intense performances like this she surely becomes her own entirely.

9) How Will You Love Me: Listening to this album makes me think of all the loves I've had and all the loves I've yet to have. It's full of incredible emotion, giving you all kinds of scenes and visuals from very little.

10) I Come After You: This is a hell of a way to end an album. Really has a sense of vibrancy and finality to it. The album was shorter than I expected and it's left me wanting more.

First impression?? This is a really fascinating album. Not at all what I was expecting. It'll take a few listens to truly 'get' what's going on here between Jim White's jazzy/improvisational drumming and Nastasia's wide range of vocals and acoustic guitar strumming. Look for a full review soon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Album of the Week: Sleater-Kinney- The Hot Rock

'Dark', 'mature', 'complex', and 'difficult' are all terms that often get applied to The Hot Rock. It doesn't have the relatively straightforward, more punk rock influenced sound of their earlier releases but it also doesn't bear the pop or classic rock influences of their later work. No, The Hot Rock sits at the point where the band really started to push their songwriting and musicianship to the fore, bringing forward the influence of Television's interlocking dual guitar interplay and indie rock's willingness to mess with a band's established sound. The subject matter is indeed 'darker', more 'mature', more 'complex', and more 'difficult', but given the right listener and/or the right amount of time, The Hot Rock reveals itself as an album full of memorable songs and intricate guitar rock.

Sleater-Kinney's unique sound is due as much to who they are as it is to their approach to music. Often lumped in with but not fully accepted as part of the early-to-mid 90s riot grrl scene, the band feature a unique two guitar/one drummer set up, with both Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker tuning their guitars down to give them a more bass-y sound. Drummer Janet Weiss has a classic rock heft to her style but still fits in well within the odd, off-kilter arrangements of the band. At the same time, Brownstein's and Tucker's vocals contrasted, Brownstein handling lead vocals with her at times violent wails and emotive power, while Tucker often added sweet relief and counter lines to the main vocals.

The Hot Rock spends all of its first half laying down a heavy gauntlet of ideas and complex rock, songs like 'God Is A Number' questioning both God and science and 'End Of You', which references The Odyssey. With 'Don't Talk Like' the album enters its second half where the band shows tremendous growth: this song says so much about the disintegration of a relationship while remaining quite vague. 'Get Up' examines the frailty of the human body as well as death and the afterlife; similarly, 'The Size Of Our Love', a slow lament, seems to be the story of being in love with someone dying of cancer, possibly even the narrator having cancer as well. Finally, there's 'Quarter To Three', which is the most devastating relationship song the band ever wrote, with its character finally giving up on a love and "goin' to bed at a quarter to three/finally tired, finally empty."

Though I do love Dig Me Out and the rest of the albums of their's that I've heard, I'll always think of The Hot Rock as Sleater-Kinney's best album. It's not their most popular, their most listenable, or their most surprising, but it is their most complex, most interesting, and most rewarding.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shuffling II

Right, then. It's another installment of Shuffling!!

1) The State by Destroyer: I'm beginning to wonder if I was too hard on Trouble In Dreams when I reviewed it. Subsequent visits to it have revealed an album that is perfectly fine and borderline great on its own terms. But it bears the unfortunate mark of following in the wake of Destroyer's Rubies, an album that I trust future generations will dig from their parents' iTunes libraries or whatever future people are using just as I dug Bringing It All Back Home from my parents's record collections. Anyway, this song is really damn good. I adore the moment around the 2:20 mark where the organ dies away and Dan Bejar comes back in full force. It's magical and one of those effortlessly brilliant songwriting moments that I listen to so much music for in order to experience it as often as possible.

2) Jenny by Sleater-Kinney: One of my friends (Hi, Pat) had a girlfriend named Jenny. I also had a crush on a girl in junior high and her name was Jenny. Somehow I had forgotten about that until just now. Well, anyway, Sleater-Kinney are awesome as usual. This song is almost plodding for them, with a wall of background guitar noise and those crunchy mid 90s indie rock sounding guitars that make me weep with joy. I used to worry about whether or not I like this band so much because they were women, but screw it. It doesn't matter what sex you are if you make music this good.

3) Bite Marks by Atlas Sound: Just as John Lennon's voice had a distinctive sound when ran through a reverb unit, whatever effects are always on Bradford Cox's voice make it unique and all his own. He has a very specific way of singing that's both flat/emotionless and, paradoxically, very emotive and either beautiful or painful. In another decade or so, I think critics and music fans will come to the conclusion that the stuff he's doing within Deerhunter and with his 'solo' project Atlas Sound is essential noise pop, and to this decade what My Bloody Valentine was to the late 80s and early 90s. This song has the same quality that My Bloody Valentine did, of being painfully noisy/loud while also being pretty and entrancing.

4) 61e.CR by Autechre: I remember once drunkenly telling a friend on AIM that Aphex Twin/Richard D. James would be known and appreciated throughout history like Beethoven and the Beatles are today. I think what I meant was how forward thinking and visionary his music is. That kind of thing can equally apply to Autechre, who release an album every so often that is 5 to 10 years ahead of what we're capable of appreciating. I think that their modern music works best for me when I think of it in terms of experimental beatmaking and texture creation instead of the old ambient techno/IDM thing of rhythms and melodies. Draft 7.30 only made sense to me when I thought of it as like a series of austere sonic sculptures instead of an album of songs. Songs like '61e.CR' are named like obscure computer files or viruses and sound like Autechre recorded an album of straightforward techno with block rocking beats and then remixed the whole thing to a ridiculous degree. Still, this song manages a relatively follow-able beat, like funk or hip hop made by/for the cold logic of computers.

5) Winter by The Dodos: What got The Dodos's foot in the door was releasing an album that was compared to Animal Collective circa Sung Tongs. But what kept them in my parlor as they sold me on their music were songs like this, which have a pounding primitive rhythm and incessant acoustic guitar but never sound repetitive or annoying. If Animal Collective can/have approximated organic techno music--making repetitive, highly rhythmic music with acoustic instruments and other sounds that aren't typically associated with the genre--then The Dodos picked up the thread of Sung Tongs, making music that is entirely acoustic but operates like techno would. Kind of. Well, this is still a great song and apropos given the weather in Ohio lately.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Video: Stereolab- Fluorescences

Just as Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the essential Stereolab album, 'Fluorescences' is probably the most essential Stereolab song. It contains most, if not all, of the elements that make this band so glorious and original.

And whaddya know, the video for it is pretty good, too. Dig the groovy colors and retro computers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Stereolab- Emperor Tomato Ketchup

By either coincidence or fate, I've had two conversations with two different people over the past three days about Stereolab. I'm taking it as a sign that it's time for me to write something about this band because, well, I've always meant to get around to it and I end up putting it off for something else. They're interesting to talk about and listen to, always a plus for critics who usually only get one or the other. But I haven't written about them because I find them hard to pontificate on due to the fact that I think of them on a song by song basis more than anything. Which brings me to my main point: Stereolab are a band that have never released a 100% great album.

In one of the conversations I had about Stereolab in the past few days, it occurred to me that while I liked the band a lot, I mostly listened to their stuff on shuffle. Part of the blame for this--if, indeed, blame needs to factor into the equation--can be laid at the feet of the band, who revel in their huge, convoluted back catalogue, full of obscure singles, EPs, and rare compilation tracks that are occasionally collected on CDs months or years after the fact. However, most of the blame is probably mine, since I only own a few vertical slices of their discography and can't knowledgeably tell you that Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the very best. Still, I've always felt that their music benefited from the shuffle approach. The band probably intend to record albums as singular works, self contained and such, but I don't think they're terribly successful at it. Stereolab are a band who release overly long albums every time they release one and it dulls the impact somewhat. At this point I really wish they would just bite the bullet and either trim one down by 15 minutes or go for a double album.

However, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is as close as we're likely get to a 100% great album from Stereolab. It's kind of sad that the last wholly excellent release from a band is 13 years old, but hey: it's better than nothing. This brings me to my next point: if you want to get into Stereolab, you should either just own this album or try to own every single thing possible by them. They're definitely a collector's band--all those singles, EPs, compilation tracks, boxsets, etc. are a pretty good earmark for that--but if all you want is the short story version of the Stereolab 12 novel epic, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is your best bet. It's got everything that makes Stereolab Stereolab: healthy helpings of French lyrics, Marxist lyrical undertones, krautrock beats, 70s keyboard/synthesizer worship and extensive use thereof, sweet female vocals, 60s pop/psychedelic/experimental sonics, and a paradoxical helping of retro-futurist aesthetics. Stereolab's sound is so distinctive that basically any of their songs is instantly recognizable even though their music is surprisingly diverse. One need only take a three day vacation into the Oscillons From The Anti-Sun boxset to know that.

Every time I come back to this album I always come away with the impression that Emperor Tomato Ketchup is just a half step away from true greatness. Yet I think it's more a factor of how/why I listen to this band than it is the inherent quality of the release. Everyone else--even those who don't follow the band--regards this album as the group's masterpiece, so take my ramblings as one man's graffiti on the wall of greatness. After returning to the album yet again on the commute to and from work today, I can see it their way at last. Every one of these 13 songs is great and has its own feel while still fitting into the greater whole--'Noise Of Carpet' is a fast, punk-with-keyboards rocker, 'Tomorrow Is Already Here' starts from very simple guitar and drums but keeps adding complexity in a glorious slowburn, 'Spark Plug' rides a funky groove for 2:30 (which is either just long enough or ten minutes too short, depending on who you ask). Song by song, it's as flawless a slab of sound as the band has ever made. But there's just something about it that makes me hesitate to give it too glowing a review. Again, maybe the way I love this band is just on a song by song, shuffle play basis. Maybe I'm not programmed to enjoy this kind of music on an album basis. But I've always been the "albums are a cohesive work of art!!" guy, so this leads me to believe it's something else. Maybe this album is just lacking that X factor that separates the above average from the truly great. Maybe Stereolab are just the sort of band who are fantastic song by song but because of their aesthetic or their approach to creating art, they haven't made/aren't capable of making a grand statement.

I still like Emperor Tomato Ketchup a lot. But in my book, it's no masterpiece. The true masterpiece is the grand continuum of Stereolab's oeuvre. Well, maybe this is a case where I'm out of step with the majority and I need to accept that.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Shuffling I

OK, we all know that when I post videos, they're the quickest entries to whip up for Whiskey Pie. But the real world being what it is, my time being as finite as it is--especially now that I have two jobs--I can't post intensive material every day. So rather than post nothing, I decided to just whip up a new column I can break out whenever I want to write something but am too tired/braindead to bother with something meatier.

And so, Shuffling; a new column series where I--you may have guessed it!!--put my digital music software of choice on random shuffle and talk about the first five songs that come up as I listen to them.

Apologies in advance for the rough nature of this post, but I've been away from home from roughly 7 this morning to 9 tonight and as I'm writing this I'm getting progressively drunker. Yes, this is the kind of professionalism and intelligence you demand from Whiskey Pie...
Nevermind that bit. I went back edited the post.

1) Leave Your Effects Where They're Easily Seen by Spoon: This comes from the bonus disc of random studio scribbles, experiments, and outtakes that was released with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. As such, there isn't much to talk about. It has plodding, lo fi guitar and the singer whining out something or other that I can't make out. An auspicious start indeed.

2) Gazzelloni by Eric Dolphy: I'm far from an expert on jazz, but I've got enough of an appreciation for strange things to love Out To Lunch, which is an experimental odyssey through free jazz and 'out' playing. Beyond that kind of bare description, it's an album of unique textures. If I recall correctly, there's no piano on the album at all, which is rare for an album of this period. 'Gazzelloni' will sound like random soloing and chaotic bass/drums to the uninitiated but is like sweet textural, rhythmic, and melodic honey to people like me, who don't need easily defined song structures and chords to get by. If you don't think that flute and vibraphone can be avant garde, you've never listened to this song.

3) Da Funk/Daftendirekt by Daft Punk: As an on and off fan of Phish and the Grateful Dead, I'm always excited to see bands utilize the live setting to do more than just play a straightforward set of their songs. Daft Punk, of all people, seem to have taken this directive to heart, but rather than from the angle of jazz musicians they come to it from the DJ set angle, mixing their own songs together and mashing them up in new and interesting ways. Alive 2007 is not-so-secretly one of the best live albums that's ever emerged from the electronic music field, and even if you only know Daft Punk's name because of that "one more time" song, it's a brilliant example of why this kind of music can be so addictive and euphoric. I have to confess that I don't really know either of the songs being smashed together here, but now that the shot of whiskey and half of a can of PBR are taking effect after a full day at both of my jobs (it's a long, boring story) I feel like I can relate to the rave kids of the 90s who stayed up all night dancing while rolling on ecstasy and then went into their jobs the next morning with little to no sleep. And then did it all over again the next night. On a side note, wasn't Kanye West's using a Daft Punk sample for that one hit song kind of like a modern day echo of Afrika Bambaataa using a Kraftwerk sample?? I think so.

4) Alphonse Mambo by The Mountain Goats: Huh, harmonica, eh?? This is one of the few early-ish Mountain Goats songs that doesn't sound like it was recorded into a boombox. I'm still a little underwhelmed by the last Mountain Goats album, but John Darnielle is the kind of artist who has such a huge back catalog, and continues to release new stuff, that you're never disappointed for very long. Good but not great.

5) Let's Get Lost by Elliott Smith: I don't know if we will or can ever hear From A Basement On The Hill without always thinking about his death. We'll always have that context even if we try to put it out of our heads and judge the music on its own merits. It's a decent enough album, but it still has that unmistakable feel of something that was finished after an artist's death. Kind of like how Stephen Spielberg "finished" 'A.I.' after Stanley Kubrick died. Wait, what??....The last year or so of Smith's life was a confused mess and I'm not sure we'll really know if he killed himself or was stabbed by an intruder/assassin. Whatever the case, I think the album's title is very evocative and this song's stripped down production hearkens back to his first few albums.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Album of the Week: Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion

How often do you really listen to an album and your opinion ends up completely changing on it?? Normally my take away of an album is generally in line with my first impression, if a bit stronger. If I don't like it on the first spin I usually end up hating it. If I like it, I usually end up loving it. But I can't think of the last time my feeling about an album made a complete turn-around. It's all the more strange because I'm a huge Animal Collective fan and since I trust their taste and ability, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I would love Merriweather Post Pavilion. The idea of them releasing a sub par or even outright bad album is as likely as Radiohead releasing one at this point. Yet on New Year's Eve, as I was driving to Cleveland to spend the night and a few days at a friend's house, I listened to Merriweather for the first time and hated it.

Perhaps hated is too strong, but I was certainly confused by what I heard. My initial impression was utter disappointment. It seemed like the band were going against their strengths, trying to make an electronic album, stuffed with overwhelming bass and confusing walls of synthesizer, drum machines, and spaced out vocals. In retrospect a lot of this might have been due to my car's stereo system, which tends to emphasize the bottom end of music way more than necessary and leave the mid and upper range muddled. Whatever the case, it wasn't until I had listened to Merriweather Post Pavilion on my laptop with iTunes's visualizer and a few more times in my car that I got it: this album is indeed Animal Collective's electronic album, but it's also a ballsy, psychedelic, and incredibly beautiful headphone album.

I've seen a few reviews that cite this as Animal Collective's pop album, but that's not entirely true. The biggest change from albums past is that the screams and noisy elements are entirely gone. The music is every bit as experimental and weird as before, but the band are emphasizing their gift for intricate vocals, unexpected sounds, strangely addictive melodies, and that indescribable ability their music has to be both repetitive and continually changing, always engaging the listener with new ideas as well as tweaks of familiar sounds. It might sound like lazy critic shorthand to say that there's bits and pieces of almost all of their albums on this one, but it's true. If pressed to give a succinct short description, I'd say this album is like an electronic version of Sung Tongs smashed together with Panda Bear's Person Pitch but less sample heavy.

Allow me to develop that. Sung Tongs was Animal Collective's breakthrough album, a duo album done by Avey Tare and Panda Bear in the freak folk style, all droney/strum-happy acoustic guitars, Beach Boys druggy vocal harmonies, primitive/minimalist drums, and child-like wonder. Literally, since 'Sweet Road' was used in a crayon commercial. But I digress. Person Pitch, then: it was like Panda Bear's coming out party. He was always a crucial element of Animal Collective, but most of their albums belong to Avey Tare. Think of your favorite tracks from previous albums, and there's a good chance it's Avey Tare singing most of it. On Merriweather Post Pavilion Panda Bear spends just as much time on lead vocals as Avey. At the same time, the way these two intertwine and harmonize has gotten better than ever. This, too, hearkens back to Sung Tongs, which was probably the last album where they sang together so much. In fact, one of this album's most unexpected treats is 'Guys Eyes', a song I thought was the weakest until I "got" that it was all about the way their voices work together. What at first seems like a confusing jumble of overlapping vocals eventually resolves into a beautiful harmony of the chorus "what I want to."

I normally try to talk some about the music of an album instead of purely about the ideas or my own reaction to it, describing sound as best I can with words, but in this case I don't want to spoil anything for anyone. I hesitate to let my enthusiasm get the best of me--after all, I'm a professional critic, and I'm above such "emotions" harrumph harrumph--but Merriweather Post Pavilion is all about the experience of hearing these songs for yourself. Every song is a unique, singular entity but they all work together as a cohesive whole. Every time the album ends, I get a little sad. It's as if the movie is over and I have to go back to real life. Or, maybe, since the album is named after a concert venue, it's like going home after a concert...

...bah, OK, I can't resist talking about two of the songs. 'Brothersport' ends the album, and it's the strongest final song they've ever made. Yes, even better than 'Turn Into Something.' It is pure euphoria in audio form, the band's vocal chants and squiggly keyboard/sound loops trading dance moves with bumping bass blurts, skittering shakers, and drum breaks. And 'Bluish' is a syrup thick psychedelic space ballad, Avey Tare drawing galaxies in the sky while we all float around hoping we never have to come down from this high. With its unashamed love song romantics, it hints back to the 'love' album, Feels, which was pretty much all about Avey Tare's feelings for Kria Brekkan (and for what it's worth, the album they made together, Pullhair Rubeye, is awesome if an acquired taste). I really want to tell you about orgasmic peaks of 'Lion In A Coma', the relaxing 'No More Runnin', the Panda Bear showcase 'My Girls' which thematically picks up where 'Chores' from Strawberry Jam left off no, bad Greg!! You said you wouldn't, after all...

One of the true measures of a great album is whether you enjoy it more over time instead of getting tired of it. Merriweather Post Pavilion gets better and better with every listen, the sounds and melodies becoming embedded in your DNA. It's far too soon to tell whether this album will become a classic, but I'm already willing to declare it the best album Animal Collective have made so far, and though we're barely into the year, it's going to end up on my 2009 'best of' list without question. The only question, really, is where Animal Collective will go from here. It's something I wondered after I heard Feels and Strawberry Jam, but for the first time I can honestly say that I don't really care where they go, because I'll follow them anywhere they want to go. Merriweather Post Pavilion isn't a career maker like Sung Tongs was, but it's the next step up: it's a legend maker; a modern day masterpiece. Let me say it as directly as possible: buy this album.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Well, anyone who follows games journalism probably already knows that UGO has bought out, fired almost all of the people who made 1UP what it was, and shuttered EGM. I didn't even work there, but this news has made me by turns furious and despondent. I don't want it to be over, but it is. Sure, those people aren't dead, but most of the podcasts I loved are now gone as is a convenient one stop shop for decent games journalism.

1UP was like the last great big media bastion of games journalism. IGN and Gamespot are still around, but IGN has always been garbage and Gamespot has been going down the tubes for a couple years. Now I guess I have to get my gaming news and reviews from Giant Bomb. And, eventually, whatever websites/podcasts the ex-1UP folks start.

Anyway, I think Jeff Green said it best in his recent blog post, so I'll just link that.

Though the staff who remain are good writers, I can't imagine the kind of survivor guilt they must have on top of losing most of their best friends/co-workers. Yes, isn't going away but it's not really the same anymore. And with EGM closing one wonders when the era of gaming magazines will end.

At any rate, this is probably the most fitting send off video I could find for the site:

p.s. Fuck UGO in their most painful area.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Video: Busta Rhymes- Gimme Some More

There's something sublimely strange about some of the music videos that Hype Williams made in the mid-to-late 90s. I mean, would it be wrong to say that the fisheye lens was the best thing that ever happened to rap videos??

A few of Busta's other videos from this era, along with Missy Elliott's 'The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)', form a kind of surreal, absurdist time capsule of an era when the economy was strong, the worst thing our President had done was getting a blowjob or three, and many were content to spend their weekend afternoons high as hell watching rap videos. God Bless America. From Wikipedia:
"The music video for "Gimme Some More" was directed by Hype Williams along with Busta Rhymes himself, credited as Busta Remo. Like much of Busta's ealier music videos, it is shot through fish-eye lens in slow motion and is largely absurdist in nature. Opening up with a Looney Toons-like intro, the video begins with Busta Rhymes narrating in the background, recalling how he once bumped his head as a child. A little boy portraying Busta as a child acts this out. A woman runs out of house to the aid of Busta, asking him—as Busta narrates—"Did you bump your head?" Busta says, "Yeah..." The woman then asks, "So that means you gon' switch it on 'em?", with Busta replying, "Yeah...Flip Mode...Flip Mode is the greatest!" Suddenly, the child turns into a hideous, little blue monster and chases the woman around and throughout the house. The story is intercut with scenes of Busta Rhymes and other members of Flip Mode Squad in outrageous costumes and situations. Busta is seen as a boxer, stock broker, police officer, miner, pistol-toting Texan, body builder, pimp and a person tied up about to get run over by a train. The video ends on an unresolved cliffhanger, with the woman trapped on top of a refrigerator and the monster climbing closer and closer towards her."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Field Music- Tones of Town

Well, this review is going to start off awfully digressive. You see, I'm finally back from a combination vacation/writing hiatus, and while it seems like just yesterday that I was reading year end lists (and writing some of my own), new things are already starting to come out. What's more, I started a second job today, so not only is it a new year, my life schedule is all wonky. As it stands, I'll have to work my way up to my old rate and quality. Maybe. Anyway, January...:everyone thinks of January as a time of new beginnings; we don't really associate it with much in the way of the arts. Most videogames are released in the Fall to coincide with the shop-happy holidays, movies saturate the Summer with, er, summer blockbusters and save the arsty/prestige movies for Fall or Winter. Music seems to stand alone as the venue where bands release music at their whim and not the dictates of their record company to make money or win awards. As I've been trying to seriously keep up with music for awhile now, every year there seems to be one or two albums that are released this month, surprising anyone who's still busy trying to catch up on the previous year or not expecting anything truly great yet. I like to refer to these situations as the 'January Surprise.' 2007 seemed to have a very strong start. I could probably think of more examples, but January 2007 saw a decent amount of albums I would consider to be great, including Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity, Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Menomena's Friend and Foe, and The Shins's Wincing The Night Away. Most if not all of those came out on the same day; ah, synchronicity, my old friend. January 2007 also gave us Tones of Town by Field Music, which is one of the most criminally unsung and unknown indie pop albums this side of everything Beat Happening ever released.

I can't fathom why it is that bands like this don't get the popular audience they richly deserve. I suppose the mass audience for this type of music has long since gone. They're content to stick to R&B, hip hop, and whatever garbage strand of hard rock is on the radio today. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As for indie rock/twee pop/underground/experimental/whatever music nerds like me, we'll happily eat this stuff up. Besides, there's something awfully paradoxical inherent to indie pop now, and really there always has been. It's pop music but it's not popular music. It's pop in the sense that it's reminiscent of pop music from the 60s and 70s. So using 'pop' as a term to denote anything other than 'popular' music is technically false. But it's easy shorthand for 'music that is reminiscent of pop music from the 60s and 70s' and I'm all about that kind of succinct shorthard. My reviews are longwinded enough as it is.

Field Music are yet another reason to be a happy indie pop fan during this decade. The 90s weren't awful for indie pop music, but other than Belle & Sebastian I can't think of any really fantastic indie pop bands from that decade. Perhaps that's just my ignorance talking, though. Or maybe I'm just a reductionist dilettante. I think I will be, and right now I'll trace back the beginning of the blooming of indie pop during this decade to the release of Oh, Inverted World by the Shins in 2001 along with the trickledown effect of Belle & Sebastian. Still, I'm not sure there's any unifying aesthetic to bands like the Shins, Los Campesinos!, Field Music, The Decemberists, I'm From Barcelona, Jens Lekman, and Vampire Weekend other than the fact that you can claim they're indie pop and no one throws too much of a fit. To the average listener they may sound alike, but saying Vampire Weekend are the same as Field Music is like saying Miller High Life is the same as Guiness. Both fine beers, by the way.

Tones of Town was met with much critical acclaim on its release but was subsequently swallowed in the ensuing 11-tidal-wave-like months of music of 2007, including juggernauts like Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and uhhh Stars of the Lid. Anyway, Tones of Town is really, really damn good, and like those bands above it's all because of one thing: the music is catchy but it never gets annoying. 'Inventive' is one of those words that comes to mind when you discuss great indie pop not because these bands are changing the world but because they're putting unique spins on a seemingly set-in-stone musical form. Witness the opening track of this album, which has a chugging Paul McCartney-esque pop feel and then collapses into a vibraphone led cooldown that makes one wonder what Tortoise would've sounded like if they had grown up listening to Steely Dan and Elvis Costello. Or something like that. 'Sit Tight' has a whip tight drum groove, all staccato punctuations doing battle with sweet guitars, retro organ, melodic bass, and even a jaunty piano solo. The title track has a dreamy, psychedelic sugar glaze all over it, as if you spent 30 seconds listening to that packet of jam at Bob Evans instead of eating it, before going off on a few tangents while possessing that rare ability to sound far more simple and straightforward than it really is. 'A House Is Not A Home' namechecks the title of that classic Love song 'A House Is Not A Motel' and has a piano and string led progression with unexpected twists and turns that reminds one of, well, the Beatles. And that's just the first four songs, too. I hesitate to use the phrase "every song is a highlight" because even I always roll my eyes when I see it in reviews, but it is absolutely true here. Assuming you still rolled your eyes, have this: Tones of Town is the kind of deliriously fun, immediately engaging, endlessly listenable and enjoyable pop album that you remember in your head as having way more handclaps than it really does.

You have to give this record a chance. I know that on paper it sounds like a lot you've heard before. It uses the exact same elements that indie pop bands have since they grew up listening to the Beatles--strings, lots of piano, more hooks than a boxing match (sorry)--but it uses them so well that they seem fresh all over again. If you've ever complained that the kind of music the indie rock world loves is overrated experimental crap, then Field Music is here to remind you that we like a sweet dose of pop, too.