Sunday, August 30, 2009

Album Of The Week: Sonic Youth- Murray Street

Murray Street may have a naturalistic, innocent, and slightly surreal album cover--why are they under a net?? are they picking some kind of vegetables??--but if ever there's a Sonic Youth album that feels urban, it's this one. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it their "New York album." The band began recording it in August '01 at their studio located on the titular Murray Street, which it turns out is really close to Ground Zero from the September 11th attacks. Take a gander at that back cover, I'm pretty sure that's genuine dust/debris. More than just a sense of spirit and feeling that resulted from this era, Murray Street feels indebted to much of New York's past punk and experimental scenes. In particular, the influence of Television on the extended guitar interplay is a clear touchstone.

It's still a bit odd to me that of all their albums post-Daydream Nation, this one gets the most consistent praise. At its release Murray Street was met with all sorts of "return to form" review quotes. Looking back, I think the band's 90s output is unfairly looked over; I even find that the roundly panned NYC Ghosts & Flowers is interesting. Ironically, despite its title, that album is less of a "New York" feeling album to me, but I digress. For the average listener, Murray Street is arguably the next most indispensable Sonic Youth release. The band had never really clicked with me until I heard it and bought Daydream Nation afterward, so maybe there is something to this.

When I said "it's a bit odd" earlier, I meant in terms of what Murray Street actually is and sounds like. This album was, after all, Sonic Youth at their most jammy, heading through only seven songs in 45 minutes. This isn't an even split of 7ish minutes per song, either: the album ranges from the noisy blast of the two minute 'Plastic Sun' to the extended skronk section and subsequent psychedelic improv of 'Karen Revisited', an 11 minute journey. Yet despite this unevenness, the album is remarkably well paced and listenable. I suppose this is why the album has found near-universal love. It lacks the visceral impact of some of their more pop and popular songs but there's something to be said for a band making the album they want to make, proving that even as they entered their third decade Sonic Youth were still experimenting and following their vision even if it didn't make sense on paper.

For whatever it's worth, I wouldn't consider any of the albums Sonic Youth released in the 90s as being some of the best of that decade. They're good, even great, but they don't feel essential and vital in the way that Murray Street did and continues to. It may not seem like the most obvious choice for new fans to move on to after Daydream Nation, but Murray Street is a near perfect distillation of and argument for Sonic Youth's jammy, psychedelic, and noise tendencies.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca

"Experimental" is one of those nebulous words that we use as shorthand for a lot of complicated ideas. Whenever I hear a band's music described as "experimental" I always assume this is a different way of saying "noisy" or "abrasive." Yet the root of the word--experiment--is closer to what I should be thinking of: music and songs as experiments, as attempts to produce something new or original. Often the most "experimental" music of the past becomes assimilated by culture at large to the point where it ceases to seem so, well, experimental. A good deal of the best albums by the Beatles were pretty experimental for their time but they are usually just described as "pop" music today.

Which brings me to Bitte Orca, an album that splits the difference between "pop" and "experimental" more than any in recent memory. The instruments and vocals of the album are directly out of pop music: sweet melodies and powerful soul/R&B/60s influenced voices. Yet this is filtered through the lens of a searching experimenter, the songs seeming to suddenly shift at the drop of a hat. This brings to mind the "experimental pop" of, say, the Fiery Furnaces, who also similarly play with song structure and time signatures. But Dirty Projectors are far more fractured and herky-jerky and less art/prog rock.

I've been listening to this album as well as the "reimagining" of Black Flag's Damaged that the Dirty Projectors did a few years ago, and I'm still not sure if I like this music or not. It makes a bit more sense and seems less chaotic after a few listens, but I still can't shake the feeling that they didn't go far enough into the pop side with Bitte Orca. For every thrilling moment of unexpected brilliance there's one that falls flat or feels willfully, perversely random. Maybe I just want them to get rid of the experiments, since in my opinion the album's best song is 'Stillness Is The Move', which is the most traditional one here, almost veering toward an electro-R&B groove with sweet female vocals. Furthermore, if you reassembled the pieces of 'Useful Chamber' into a more "standard" format and shaved off a minute or two, you'd have something that's, admittedly, way less interesting but also way more enjoyable.

So, I'm torn on Bitte Orca. I can see what all the other critics are getting on about, praising this album to such great extents, but...I don't know. I feel as though I should enjoy this album more than I do since I usually go in for the "experimental" critical darlings, but half of the time I feel like it's too much work to listen to this album. Granted, their Damaged reworking is more "difficult" and not as successful as most claim it is, but even the steps toward accessibility on Bitte Orca may not be quite enough.

To put it another way, when our children get around to the Dirty Projectors, they'll either hail them as a visionary band or a strange historical curio. Anyway, For my current 2009 money, Bitte Orca is too weird and experimental for the pop crowd and either too pop or not successful enough for the experimental crowd. Maybe I need to keep coming back to this album until it clicks, but every time I listen to it I go back and forth between "this is genius" and "this is wank." Great art often provokes extreme reactions, so I'm going to err on the side of caution and recommend this one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Album Of The Week: Okkervil River- The Stage Names

In a recent interview on Pitchfork, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear remarked about how we can fall into the habit of downloading a bunch of music and not giving most of it a full chance if it doesn't catch us right away. This is as opposed to when we were younger and/or in the pre-Internet days, when we only had access to one album at a time since it's all we could afford. This caused "...[a] really cool thing...where you would be forced to only have that album because you couldn't just download a million more, and you may not have liked every song on it, but then as you started listening to it more and more you'd be like, 'Oh wait, I do like track nine.' You lived with an album, and that doesn't happen as much anymore."

Well, this is something I always think about when I'm going through my iTunes library to trim the fat of albums that I downloaded or borrowed from the local library but never got into. Certainly many albums will never click with you no matter how much you listen to them, but there are those that require some 'living with.' I kind of get the impression that this's the case for most people with Okkervil River. I know it was for me because The Stage Names didn't strike my fancy when I first downloaded it. There just didn't seem to be enough going on: it sounded too classicist and simple, I suppose is how I might've phrased it at the time. But then a friend made a mix CD for me with a single by Okkervil River called 'The President's Dead' and I wound up buying The Stage Names to force myself to give the band another chance.

Ironically I think it's the band's classicism and simplicity that grabbed me on subsequent listens. It's pretty telling that Lou Reed is a fan of the band since Okkervil River's sound is very much a Loaded-era Velvet Underground style, though I would qualify this by saying they don't actually sound much like the Velvets and they aren't so much "classic rock" as "rock." As with many of the albums that I would consider the best of this decade (and The Stage Names belongs on that list), it's the songwriting that sets it apart. It may take you a couple listens to get past the fact that Okkervil River are "just" a rock band, but by that point the songs will have begun to sink in.

The album's best songs are probably the first and last: 'Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe' sets the tone for the dramatic, pseudo-conceptual album (loaded as it is with literary and cinematic allusion), complete with soaring choruses, while 'John Allyn Smith Sails' is a masterpiece of a closer that sneakily finishes up with one-half of a cover of 'Sloop John B.' In between is the surprisingly clever 'Plus Ones' (which mentions a raft of songs with numbers in their titles, such as '99 Luftballoons' and '8 Miles High') and the appropriately named 'Title Track', which is one of those swaggering penultimate songs that really demonstrate the band has confidence and a sense of grandeur up their sleeves.

I still haven't got around to The Stand Ins, this album's partner, but The Stage Names is excellent enough to stand on its own merits. It may not be the most inventive, experimental, fresh, or "hip" album of the 00s, but Okkervil River make simple, excellent rock with brains and balls. And sometimes, that's all you need.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Modest Mouse- The Moon & Antarctica

Modest Mouse's first two albums were ambitious affairs to the point where one wondered where Isaac Brock were go from there. This was doubly interesting because the band signed with Epic for their third album. What would Brock do with major label funding (and pressure) after managing so much with more utilitarian, indie rock tools?? As it turned out, he would produce one of the decade's best albums...and then fall into a steady decline.

But that's a different review. The Moon & Antarctica will seal Brock's name in the history books as a true genius. The album tackles heavy issues of life, death, humanity's place in the universe, and so on. There was always a psychedelic and philosophical undercurrent to Modest Mouse's music but it saw its fullest flowering here. At the same time, the music and production are, respectively, bigger and crisper than before, giving Brock all kinds of new tools and gadgets with which to bring his music to life. Even on the biggest sounding songs from the first two albums, such as 'Cowboy Dan', you never felt like it was impossible for three dudes to play that music. The Moon & Antarctica is a very clear studio masterpiece sort of thing, where no consideration is given for how the band will pull the songs off in a live setting. No wonder the band had to add extra members for the next two albums.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this release is its consistency and variety. Brock was always an underrated and far more interesting songwriter than he was given credit for and now he had the tools to match his ambitions. From the bouncy, danceable 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes' to the spacey 'Gravity Rides Everything' to the downright catchy 'Paper Thin Walls', The Moon & Antarctica visits many disparate styles yet hangs together as a whole. I've always been fascinated by the middle of the album, too: a three song stretch from 'The Cold Part' to 'The Stars Are Projectors' that lingers in the air, thick and dark. I know a lot of people hate this part because they feel it kills the momentum, but if you invest in the album as an experience, it's quite gripping to emerge out the other side into the album's more dynamic final third. Normally I hate albums that are longer than 45ish minutes, but if the band does something interesting with the longer CD format I'm willing to accept it.

On a side note, I don't know what the point of the 2004 re-mastered/expanded edition was, other than cashing in on the hype for the forthcoming Good News For People Who Love Bad News album. It's been too long since I heard the original version, but I don't think the mix is that different. True, I do like the new album cover better (though the original had a nice nod to Wish You Were Here with its shaking hands) but I don't think the bonus tracks are worth the "expanded edition" moniker. They're merely 4 songs from some kind of radio session that add nothing to the album--in fact, the swear words are edited out.

For me, The Moon & Antarctica represents the perfect meeting point between Modest Mouse's old 'weirder and angrier' sound and their modern 'polished and expanded' sound. Though I like bits and pieces of the releases that came after, The Moon & Antarctica is their last unqualified masterpiece and one of the decade's essential releases.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Video: Okkervil River- Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe

Ignore the pseudo-concept that ties together The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins and enjoy the constantly underrated music that Okkervil River makes. I don't know what it is about this band, but I always find their albums underwhelming until the songs begin to burrow into me. Oh well, here's a video for the first song off of The Stage Names.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Album Of The Week: The Microphones- The Glow Pt. 2

Much as I appreciate how countless blogs and music review sites have helped me discover a lot of music that would otherwise have passed me by, I do sometimes long for the chance to discover music on my own, as when I pawed through my parents' vinyl collection, listening to what looked interesting. Furthermore, I appreciate the more direct access that the MySpace's and Twitter's of the world give us to musicians, but there's a real appeal and charm to the reclusive or press shy artist, one who lets the music speak for itself. And though Phil Elvrum (aka Microphones, but nowadays going by the Mount Eerie moniker) isn't that reclusive, there's still a special sense of mystery and other-ness to The Glow Pt. 2.

I accidentally bought this album way back in 2001. Somewhere I had seen it compared to Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and, forgetting the name of what I was really looking for, I settled for The Glow Pt. 2, hoping it was what I couldn't remember. Even though Aeroplane is deserving of all of its cult-like love, this album ended up meaning more to me because I didn't know anything about it. I didn't recognize any of the names in the liner notes and the record label didn't ring a bell, either, so to me there was an outsider art quality to the album. Maybe it helps if you know that in 2001, the most underground stuff I was listening to was Tortoise and Mogwai (this being the era of post-rock).

It's hard to describe this album because while it holds together as a brilliant hour-long monolith, the music never seems to stick to one easily definable style. This is at the heart of its appeal to me. Often sticking to a lo-fi indie rock and singer/songwriter base, the album also makes use of unexpected elements, like a brass section ('The Moon'), ominous film soundtrack style orchestral stuff ('(Something)'), and experimental noise-rock ('Samurai Sword'). Helping tie of all this together are a prevalent theme of nature (I was tempted to call this "the indie rock version of Leaves Of Grass" but thought better of it) as well as barely audible ship fog horn sounds. Combined with the intimate, imperfect, and naturalist production, listening to the album is not unlike daydreaming on a sunny day while clouds and storms sometimes roll through, every so often the forlorn moan of a fog horn rearing its head.

While writing this review, I've been trying to figure out why I've never sought out anything else by Phil Elvrum. I love this album and think it's one of the most unique and underappreciated gems of this decade. So why don't I want more?? Well, I think it's because I need The Glow Pt. 2 to remain a mystery, to retain a sense of singular-ness. I want its odd-yet-poetic acoustic paens to nature, its long silences and loud spikes, its "I hope you have a pair of headphones on hand" production, and its indefinable atmosphere to remain just a little beyond me. Too often I want everything explained in great detail, or to be easily defined, and because of this things lose their appeal. After eight years, I still don't know what label to apply to this music and I don't know all that much more about Phil Elvrum. And I like it that way.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dead Space

Dead Space (360)
"Dead space" is the small bit of air that doesn't do anything in the inhale/exhale exchange of gases during respiration. One wonders whether the developers chose this term for the title of their game because of the portions of it that take place in the vacuum of space or because it sounded like a cool title for a sci fi/horror game. I guess the origins of its name don't really matter, but the more I think about it, the more generic it sounds. It's like setting your game in a fantasy world's forest and calling it "Arbor & Elves" or something. This "generic" feel is an undercurrent for my feelings about the game because, while I liked it and felt compelled to finish it, I could never shake the feeling that 90% of what's good about it is cribbed from other, more original games.

Dead Space reviewed well at the time of its release. Which makes sense because it is a mechanically and technically sound title, looking and playing very well...but it has no heart, soul, or spark of originality. To put it another way, on an objective level, this game is excellent and one of the best of this generation. But the 'feel' of it and the ideas at play are hollow and shallow. I imagine people sitting around listing games/movies they loved, eventually deciding to make something literally formulaic from those starting points: the setting of the Event Horizon movie, the basic gameplay of Resident Evil 4, the plot of most sci fi/horror movies and games, and so on.
For a game that tries to be scary, it never is. Dead Space relies so heavily on 'jump' scares that by the end of the first chapter of the game, you start predicting when the next creature will jump out. Will it be when you cross a certain part of the room, when you pick up this item, when you're in the middle of doing a puzzle, etc.?? There are some attempts at a more psychological horror style--whispering voices, weird noises, the lights going off--but since the game is so easy and your weapons so powerful, you never once feel truly vulnerable. You're guaranteed to die more often to the cheap deaths that result from puzzles, such as giant industrial fans or incinerators.

Still, a game being easy isn't a bad thing in my book, since I'm a wimp. What really got to me was how awful the story is. For starters, you see every single plot twist coming a mile away, and they're all such cliches that they seem like a parody. It was a bit odd when I mentally guesses most of the plot ahead of time, hoping the game wouldn't play out in such a trite way. Oddest of all is how the game gives too much detail about the origins of the monsters and the ominous 'Marker' object that caused this whole mess. Seeing as how the explanation given is really, really, stupid, I kind of wish that had stuck with more mystery. I also wish the game would have taken a lesson from the Metroid series and made you play through the bulk of the game alone, without a bunch of annoying radio chatter. In fact, for a game that tries so hard to be a 'serious' horror game, it not only fails at being scary but it fails at giving you a suspension of disbelief. Various parts of it stick as as very "videogamey", from the way you begin and end each chapter with a tram ride and an explanation of the various gadgets you'll need to find/fix, to the way convenient save points and Stasis recharge stations are located right near tough areas or Stasis based puzzles. Resident Evil 4 got away with "videogamey" elements because it had a smirking sense of self awareness. Dead Space tries to be believable, which merely serves to underscore its ridiculous moments.

And for what it's worth, Dead Space has one of the lamest, cheapest endings of all time, an attempt at one final scare that caused me to say "what the fuck??" out loud. Especially since this takes place after the main character has dramatically taken off his helmet, an action which has no impact at all since we haven't seem his face or heard his voice until now. I mean, the guy doesn't even physically emote when things are happening.
Despite all of this, I found something engaging about the experience. Again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the game looks and plays great. The graphics aren't outstanding, but they are quite good, and all of the lighting (or lack thereof) is well done. Moreover, the controls quickly become second nature, allowing you to expertly slice up enemies. The game's much touted "HUD-less" design is effective but more of a successful experiment than the next step in evolution for videogames. All Dead Space did was move health bars and power meters from the corners of the screen to the back of the main character. And shooting monsters' limbs off instead of their heads doesn't feel that different, ultimately, since its an arbitrary, nonsensical thing to begin with. After all, you shoot enemies in the head because that's where the most vital organ of all is located. Why would cutting off a couple tentacles spell instant death for a beast but not plugging it in the brain?? Anyway, if you're like me, you either maxed out a weapon pretty quickly and could just fire away at random until stuff died or you used the gun that shoots a remote control saw blade, which easily dices up foes.

What works best in Dead Space are its original elements: the zero gravity and vacuum of space sections. Granted, things like this have been done in games before, but they're very enjoyable in Dead Space. A few are frustrating or drag on too long (and the game always predictably throws enemies at you during them) but as a whole, they're the best things Dead Space has going for it. They give the game what little character and freshness it has to the point where I wish the entire game took place in zero-G.
Still, after finishing Dead Space I was left with mixed feelings. The plot sucked but the game looked and played well; the original elements were mostly interesting but some of them were more cosmetic changes than meaningful; it had an OK atmosphere but it wasn't truly scary. Well, I went back and re-played the demo of Resident Evil 5 yesterday and I figured out why I stuck with Dead Space til the end: because it reminds me of other, better, more original games. The audiologs and spooky atmosphere are right out of, say, BioShock and Doom 3. The gameplay--right down to the shop and upgrade mechanics--is from Resident Evil 4. And the story is rote sci fi/horror. I still ought to play the full game of Resident Evil 5 to make my final analysis of it (despite what I said in my old post about its demo, I kind of want to play it now), but thinking about it now, Dead Space is one of those games that people play to tide them over until something else comes out. Dead Space has a real "me too" feel to it, adding/changing just enough to not qualify as a straight copy but not doing enough to distinguish itself as truly original and un-formulaic. It's not a bad game by any means, and I'm curious to see how the sequels turn out, but it's hard to shake the feeling that most of its critical and commercial success is due to the fact that it came out well after Resident Evil 4, when people were still hungry for this sort of thing, and also before Resident Evil 5, when Capcom went back to the RE4 well for this generation of consoles.

So, yeah. Dead Space is one of those 4 out of 5 experiences, not as good or original as it could've been but mechanically sound and with a couple neat ideas of its own. It's a game that previewed extremely well, reviewed extremely well, but in hindsight it isn't fully deserving of its success or praise.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Joanna Newsom- Ys

There's no better introduction to Ys than its cover, which depicts Joanna Newsom in some kind of medieval parlor. The artwork is ripe with symbols and/or things that we don't really recognize anymore: a crow holding a piece of fruit; a small hand-held scythe; a framed moth held with the pinky finger extended; various flowers. Perhaps most telling of all is the winding path in the background that heads up a distant mountain. There's something fantastical about it all, and the spellbinding orchestral folk epics that Newsom weaves (with the help of her harp, naturally) sound not unlike something that might've been glimpsed in the background of the Lord Of The Rings films.

Indeed, there's a timelessness to Ys that I find hard to qualtify. Which is ironic because its pedigree is unimpeachably modern, like something a music critic or rock snob dreamed up: Van Dyke Parks co-produced and did the orchestral arrangements; Steve Albini recorded the vocals and harp; Jim O'Rourke mixed it; it was mastered at Abbey Road. Yet the music belongs to no obvious era. Joanna Newsom is often lumped in with the freak folk/new psych-folk groups of this decade, but the only thing she has in common, say, Devendra Banhart or Animal Collective's Sung Tongs is a similar atmosphere that recalls late 60s music but doesn't sound retro or vintage. To put it another way, there's no new technology or genre that's emerged since the 60s that was needed to make this music. What needed to happen was for a gifted musician and songwriter like Joanna Newsom to come along.

Ys is made up of five lengthy songs that recall the soundtracks to fantasy epics. Even the lyric booklet has a fantasy look to it, with a design that could pass for a special edition to some long forgotten Tolkien novel. What's more, the paragraphs and paragraphs of lyrics suggest it's some poetry tract from the 15th century with themes and subjects of nature and animals appearing again and again.

Still, the most unique element of Ys is Newsom's voice and harp. The latter perfectly suits the music while the former is going to do more than the long/wordy nature of the songs to turn people off. To put it charitably, her voice is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Detractors describe her as sounding like a little girl who can't really control her voice; fey and affected in a bad way. There is some truth to this, but like most acquired tastes, once you begin to enjoy Newsom's voice, you really begin to enjoy it. Even when she reaches too far and her voice creaks and cracks, this gives it a realistic, passionate edge (in fact, I imagine the naturalist "we do this live and in as few takes as possible" Steve Albini talking her into leaving them in). Yes, the harp and orchestral flourishes may be what draws you in. But its Newsom's voice and lyrics that steal the show, particularly couplets like this from the towering, near 17 minute 'Only Skin':

The cities we passed were a flickering wasteland,
but his hand, in my hand, made them hale and harmless

While down in the lowlands, the crops are all coming;
we have everything

Life is thundering blissful towards death

in a stampede
of his fumbling green gentleness

Some albums were great in the time period they were released but aged badly, fading in both influence and popularity over time (a lot of early 90s electronic music). Other albums were great upon release and managed to live beyond the era or genre they helped define (Nirvana's Nevermind). Rarest of all are the albums that don't really fit in with their era or any specific genre, that have a singular sound and timeless quality. Ys is without a doubt in this category; anyone with a desire for something uniqueshould give it a listen. Actually, might want to make that "a few listens."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interpol- Turn On The Bright Lights

I can't listen to Turn On The Bright Lights and not wish I wasn't hearing it at a conversation-ruining volume in some kind of upscale bar in one of America's major cities. It seems tailor made for young urban(e) types who actually dress up to go out, who pay way too much money for drinks at clubs where all the lighting is mostly neon--or at the very least, every color except white. I picture myself walking down a New York City sidewalk, drunk but with my heart soaring after meeting a girl at a bar, staring at the neon lights reflected in rain puddles underneath my feet, with songs like 'The New' in my head.

Though Interpol have more or less squandered their potential and critical standing by now, Turn On The Bright Lights will stand as one of the finest debut albums from this decade. 1980s post-punk bands like the godhead Joy Division are always brought up when discussing this album, but frankly Interpol mostly compare to them more in the sense of atmosphere than sound. True, they both have unspoken darkness and cold-ness, but Joy Division's music has a frozen, austere detachment to it while Interpol feels merely cold and cerebral, all intellect and wit. To put it another way, Joy Division's music makes you want to lay on the floor in a dark bedroom and shoot heroin; Interpol makes you want to lean on the bar at some expensive nightclub, sipping a martini between cracking high brow jokes with some immaculate blonde.

Anyway, Interpol may personify these certain scenes and places for me, but their debut album is rich with hooks and excellent production that helps them be great no matter when I listen to it, nighttime or clubs be damned. A lot of the "feel" and darkness that I get off this album is due to the 80s style post-punk production, which emphasizes the bass and drums though it smartly doesn't compress and digitize the drums in the way that I despise most 80s albums for. Moreover, the guitar is often used as a textural instrument in ways that help the band shake the "80s throwback" accusation, whether it's the elegant shoegazer-esque lines on 'NYC' or the borderline post-rock vibes I get off songs like 'Leif Erikson.' Unfortunately, the rhythmic guitar chording on songs like 'Say Hello To Angels' temporarily got Interpol pegged in with the then-smoldering "new garage rock" wave of bands like The Strokes...

...but with hindsight, it feels like Turn On The Bright Light has become an even more singular work, kind of like Radiohead's The Bends was shoved in with the Brit Pop movement but lived beyond it. I would even go so far as to say (even though I admit I haven't kept up past their second album) that Interpol are one of those bands who manage to release one great work but are never able to successfully produce something that's as good or even different-but-also-great. Anyway, this is still a fantastic album and worthy of all the praise it's gotten since its release.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Album Of The Week: Destroyer- Destroyer's Rubies

Something about the cover of Destroyer's Rubies has always captured my imagination. There's something strongly Dylan-esque about it, with Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) popping up in the lower left and a mysterious woman in the background, all set against the backdrop of a Bohemian-looking apartment stuffed with books and interesting furniture. Some nice sunlight is coming in through the window and the whole thing has a very naturalist look to it even though, like Dylan's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, it's unclear whether it was staged or not.

In any case, this Dylan-vibe continues to the music and lyrics. Rubies and its follow-up Trouble In Dreams are similar to Dylan's mid 60s folk/rock/singer/songwriter phase, meaning lots of pianos, organs, and electric guitars. Yet Where Dylan knitted surrealist/absurdist pastiches with his lyrics, Bejar, while similarly odd, has a style that weaves a self-referential tapestry of various characters, locations, and situations as well as literary, musical, and mythological references. It's no wonder there's a Wiki devoted to him. For instance, someone named 'Priest' is referred to in three different songs on Rubies, while there are many meta-nods to other Destroyer songs and albums ("your blues" shows up in two songs, which was the name of the album before Rubies).

This is all well and good, but you don't need to know any of this to enjoy the album. Moreover it doesn't so much copy Dylan as fit in the long line of singer/songwriters with keen ears for the way words can sound, how voices and lyrics can deliver meaning. Also, as evidenced by his work with the New Pornographers, Bejar has a gift for pop songwriting. Though he's a bit more subdued outside of that band, Rubie's is still bursting with incredible songwriting of the highest caliber. 'Rubies' opens the album, a nine minute epic that keeps twisting and turning, never sounding repetitive despite repeating itself a few times. 'Painter In Your Pocket' has an almost expressionistic backing of organs, (what sound like) bowed or e-bowed guitars, and tom-toms. The loose 'Sick Priest Learns To Last Forever' is rollicking fun that reminds me of both the Grateful Dead's bluesy early 70s jams like 'Easy Wind' and some of the more insouciant moments of Bob Dylan's infamous '66 "Royal Albert Hall" bootleg (which actually took place in Manchester, dontchaknow). Finally, 'A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point' is just one of those quintessential Destroyer songs, with an overly verbose title/main lyric, lots and lots of wordless/incomprehensible "la la la" and "da da da" singing, and endlessly quotable lines. My favorite being:

The sun sets at the speed of light
So I thought I also might leave this
Port of woe on tall ships made of snow invading the sun

Destroyer's Rubies can kind of sneak up on you. It's a very classicist singer/songwriter sort of album, and nothing about it initially struck me as groundbreaking or particularly gripping. But in the end, the songwriting wins you over, something evidence by the fact that Trouble In Dreams is very similar, sound and aesthetic-wise, but nowhere near as good. And now that I think about it, Rubies is one of the albums I've probably listened to more than any other from this decade. I so rarely think of it when compiling mental lists or recommendations for people to listen to, so let me get it down now: Destroyer's Rubies is front-to-back enjoyable and one of the best albums of this decade, a work I never tire of and return to over and over like a favorite book or film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Know I haven't been good with updating lately, but various things keep conspiring to rob my free time of posting. And I just haven't felt like writing much of anything lately, so...

Anyway, I'm going to see the Fleet Foxes tomorrow night, so here's a video and below that, a reprint of my review of their album.

It's all well and good to listen to experimental and challenging music, music with grime, sweat, and blood caked unto every note...but sometimes you need a reminder of what else is out there. Music that is impossibly catchy, un-apologetically classicist in its songwriting while still being successful, or music that strives to uplift because it's just so damn beautiful. This kind of music is often unassuming in its greatness, in my opinion, because its immediacy has me wondering "is that it??" before realizing I don't need to apply the same scrutiny and work into appreciating it as I would the aforementioned "experimental, challenging" music.

The debut, self-titled album from Fleet Foxes resists this kind of criticism and desire to dig deeper. It makes you embarrassed of your critical faculties because it has a natural, organic, and pure beauty, as if complaining about it would be like complaining about a waterfall or a rose bush growing next to a farmhouse. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to say about it, so don't go away just yet.

While listening to Fleet Foxes I'm instantly reminded of what I think is half the reason most people hate indie/underground bands: the vocals. While I subscribe to the immortal words of David Berman of the Silver Jews--"All my favorite singers couldn't sing"--I can't pretend that some, or even most, people feel this way. Having a unique voice gives a band character and makes it more memorable, but this isn't what most listeners want. They want something appropriate to the music and a bit more...obvious, whether it be angry grunting set to metal or the flat speak-singing most rappers employ. While the singer of the Fleet Foxes may not have much personality, this is one of the prettiest albums in recent memory due solely to the vocal performances. Recalling Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young), the gold standard of harmonized vocals in rock music, Fleet Foxes also draw comparisons to contemporaries like My Morning Jacket and Band Of Horses. In case you don't follow, this means that the album is stuffed to bursting with soaring melodies and heartbreakingly pretty harmonies. Even if the singer is kind of faceless, he has to be for this kind of approach to work.

Though the music of Fleet Foxes is steeped in Americana, rustic folk, and classic rock, the whole thing reminds me a lot of the Flaming Lips's The Soft Bulletin in the way it uses staggeringly pretty orchestrated music to talk about dark lyrical themes. You don't really notice it at first, but on this album death is a recurring theme, along with general Appalachian malaise and introspection. 'He Doesn't Know Why', despite its prettiness, is the lament of a sibling for a brother who has been gone for two years, and who has been humbled by the world:
Penniless and tired with your hair grown long
I was looking at you there and your face looked wrong
memory is a fickle siren's song
I didn't understand
But, lyrics aside, the album is as pretty as I keep saying, the sort of music you idealize in your head when you use words like "lush", "ornate", and "gorgeous" to describe other bands or albums. Even the mostly instrumental 'Heard Them Stirring', which effectively uses wordless vocals in a way similar-to-but-entirely-different-from Animal Collective, is beautiful. Speaking of Animal Collective, some have noted their influence on this band though I suspect all they mean is a similar focus on using vocals in unique ways, as evidenced by the Collective-esque "row row row your boat" style of the singing on 'White Winter Hymnal', which is probably the most lush, ornate, and gorgeous song ever written about watching someone collapse from unnamed wounds and turn the snow "red as strawberries in the summertime." It's also worth praising the album for playing it loose with song structure, particularly the opener 'Sun It Rises', which begins with an a-capella section before the song proper begins, eventually closing things with a tacked on guitar outro that sounds like it might be beginning a different song before dropping out.

Fleet Foxes have here crafted one of the best debut albums in recent memory, containing some obvious influences but doing new and interesting things with them. Though normally I loathe bands repeating themselves, I wouldn't mind if Fleet Foxes released another album or two that was largely similar to this. After all, Fleet Foxes is like a countryside vacation simply too satisfying and too relaxing to never want to repeat.