Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whiskey Pie On Vacation

It was last minute for me as well, but on Friday I found out that I get this week off of work, so I've also decided to give my writing a rest as well. Which means no Whiskey Pie updates for a week.

In the meantime, why not look back to my Halloween themed updates from last year??

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Album Of The Week: Dr. Dog- Fate

Damn you, Dr. Dog. I was all set to get home from work today and write a review of something cool, obscure, and/or original, like Miles Davis's sorta-hard-to-find Pangaea or the funk/dub instrumental album that the Beastie Boys released a year or two ago. But then I decided to give another listen to Fate and I couldn't deny my feelings any longer: I really, really like this album. Just as we sometimes develop a crush on someone who might not be such a good idea yet there's no way to talk ourselves out of it, I love Fate despite having some reservations about it.

The same day I borrowed Fate from my local library, I also got Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by The Byrds. As you may or may not know, there's a pretty good track on that album called 'One Hundred Years From Now.' On Fate, there's a song called '100 Years'; it actually took me awhile to realize this wasn't a cover of that Byrds track, even though lyrically they're different. Why would I make such an error?? Well, I'm not terribly familiar with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but more importantly, Dr. Dog sound very 60s. Critics often use "Beatles-esque" as shorthand for catchy, interesting pop/rock music, but in the case of Dr. Dog, it's more like a caveat. For instance, the piano and bass sound is often literally ripped right out of a post-Rubber Soul Beatles album. Moreover, both of the singers even sound enough like Lennon and McCartney that you have to wonder if they're doing it on purpose. I mean, christ, their last names are even Leaman and McMicken--not exactly the same last names, but close enough. There's also a strong touch of The Kinks at play on this album. Admittedly, the only Kinks album I own is The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, but the addictive "choo-choo train" vocal hook on 'From' reminds me a lot of that album.

The sad thing is, even though I think Dr. Dog are so closely influenced by The Beatles and other 60s pop bands they could be brought up on criminal charges, I still love their music. I willfully resisted Fate at first because all I could think was "man, how do they get away with this?!" But once I got past that aspect and started actually hearing what I was listening to, I realized what great music was on display. 'Army Of Ancients' has a startling, ragged throated "oh yeah!" chorus set on a backdrop of soul horns. The aforementioned 'From' may start off as one of the most bald-faced Beatles borrowings (thefts??) on the album, but that damn "choo choo train" hook and melody hasn't left my head since I first heard it. And 'Uncovering The Old' hits you with some subtle orchestral flourishes as well as an excellent chorus that's wordy but still quite addictive.

Maybe my reservations about Fate have more to do with me than they do the actual product. I generally prize originality over consistency; I'd rather hear someone attempt something new than do a great job in a well trodden aesthetic. However, Dr. Dog may be starting to change my mind. Every critical and cynical circuit in my wiring is telling me to rip this album apart and declare Dr. Dog a pack of thieves, but Fate is just too damn good, too addictive and enjoyable. Assuming you can get past the glaring influences and borrowed sounds, or you just don't care, than this is a fantastic 60s style pop/rock album.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Final Fantasy VII

I've been trying to think of a good way to go back to some old videogames and music while at the same time getting a semi-regular column going. And so after some time mulling over ideas, I've conflated the two. For 'You Or Your Memory' I'll do just as I said: go back to videogames and music from years past and see how things shake out. Mostly it's a question of whether they still hold up, but I'll be providing some background to give you context and an idea of where I'm coming from.

Having recently purchased a PS3 about a month ago, I was perusing the Playstation Store for old games to play. For some reason Final Fantasy VII jumped out at me, even above Silent Hill 1, a game I've wanted to play for awhile now after loving Silent Hill 2 and, to a lesser extent, 3. Still, FFVII has become such a divisive game over the past 12 years since its release that I wanted to see what I would think of it now.

Ironically enough, the only place I'd played FFVII before was on the PC. I was a brainwashed Nintendo fanboy back in '97 and most of '98, so by the time I got a Playstation I didn't want to go back to FFVII since there were so many newer RPGs coming out. More importantly, though, I bought the pretty awful PC port of FFVII that Eidos did, so there was never any true need for me to pick it up for the Playstation. I say the port was pretty awful because it was. For whatever reason, the FMV played upside down so that the polygonal characters were completely opposite of where they were supposed to be. Cloud would fall "down", but the FMV was flipped so really he was soaring toward the ceiling. Despite this, I recall getting to the very end of the game (thanks to FAQs) but never beating it.

Since the late 90s there has been a tremendous growth in the number of RPG fans, many of whom cut their teeth on FFVII. For a lot of gamers in the West, it was the first Japanese style RPG they had played. However, I was somewhere in the middle between the people who first experience Japanese style RPGs with the original Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES and the aforementioned FFVII generation. My first Japanese RPG experiences were on Genesis with the Shining Force series and on SNES with Final Fantasy VI. Parallel to this, I was playing a lot of great stuff on the PC, though Bioware had yet to revitalize PC RPGs with Baldur's Gate so I didn't have any real sense of Western vs. Japanese RPG design anyway. What I did have, though, was pretty impressive graphics on the PC, which made the primitive 3D characters and pre-rendered backgrounds of FFVII seem a bit off. So when I did finally play FFVII on PC, a game that was ostensibly the first true "next gen" RPG (again, Baldur's Gate wasn't out, and my last RPGs were 16 bit), it seemed more like a weird transitional piece between late SNES RPGs and Playstation and PC titles to come. I'm especially thinking of Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars for "late SNES RPGs" here, a game which also toyed with 3D and pre-rendered backgrounds (or at least, I think it did...)

At any rate, I neither loved nor hated FFVII after my first experience with it. I don't know quite how to explain this, but it ended up being a pretty forgettable game for me. This was back in the time when if I couldn't understand a game's story, I assumed it was because I wasn't smart enough to get it--not that, you know, the game had had an awful translation. So the story and characters didn't especially grip me, the gameplay and character building seemed a bit dumbed down from FFVI, the graphics were odd, and the music was weird, squelchy MIDI shit in a time when PC games seemed to be going for "real" music and orchestration. But still, it was an OK game, and my ambivalence made it unmemorable.

Coming back to it in 2009, my initial enthusiasm saw me make quite a lot of progress in a few days. But I only made it to a bit of the way through disc 2 of FFVII before giving up. While I don't think it's actually a bad game based on its own merits and the standards of its day, it is a rather unfortunate case of a game aging poorly and being done in by its offspring. If one were to make the argument that FFVII was one of the most influential and important titles of the Playstation 1, I'd be hard pressed to argue. Bad translation and awful sounding music aside, so much of what that game did was, at the time, evolutionary if not outright revolutionary. The way CG cutscenes and cinematics were employed, the dynamic 3D battles and camera angles, the lack of censoring or changing Japanese elements (sure they still substituted gibberish for some swearing, but still left multiple shit's and the weird gay bathhouse part in), and the way the game tried for a more serious, pseudo-spiritual/philosophical was all damned cool at the time.

Unfortunately, almost everything about FFVII has not held up. Assuming you're a blind fan who has played the game so many times you don't even see it for what it is, you'll probably never feel that it's less than one of the best games ever made. But I think most people, even those who were blown away by it at the time, will admit that it hasn't aged well. Most of the revolutions it brought to the Japanese RPG archetype have been so improved upon and finessed that I would posit the notion that, with Final Fantasy II being a bit worse, FFVII is probably the least interesting and least playable Final Fantasy game by today's standards. There's a charm and artistry to sprite artwork that never goes away, while early polygonal/3D games like FFVII look like ass by today's standards. At the same time, since FFVII's story was originally kind of a mess made even worse by poor translation, you can't even enjoy it for that today. And the character building system is incredibly boring since all of you're actually building and improving is Materia. Sure, character stats go up with levels, and they learn new Limit Breaks, but all abilities and magic depend on which Materia is equipped to whichever character, effectively making everyone interchangeable. FFVI had something similar with Espers, but they were mostly for summons and spells; the characters had inherent special abilities, however, giving them each more personality and unique-ness in battle.

I'd be curious to see what younger people would think of FFVII. No, I don't mean people who played FFVII when they were 8 or 8. I mean people who didn't play FFVII back in the day at all, people who got into RPGs from latter day Pokemon titles or what have you. Given the context of the rest of the Playstation and Playstation 2 era RPGs (and games in general), I just don't think FFVII holds up in any way: graphics, story, or gameplay. Still, it is a curious time capsule of a game, and one that is crucial for understanding the past as well as the present and future of Japanese RPGs. I will agree on those points, at least; just don't make me play it anymore. FFVII may have been one of the best games of 1997, but it's also one of the worst in 2009.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cryptacize- Mythomania

Sometime in 2007, there started to be a movement among some videogame critics to progress beyond the usual Consumer Reports-style reviews that ticked off the list of Music/Visuals/Controls/Gameplay. Rather, they began to get more overtly subjective and personal in the way that music critics did in the mid-to-late 60s. As a medium matures, its parallel journalism/criticism does, too. And so it came to be that certain phrases or terms were signalled out as useless for consumers; lazy shorthand for things that better writers would explain more explicitly. One of these phrases was "compelling gameplay." This is either a backhanded compliment or a straightforward one and tells the reader nothing. Yet I have to admit that sometimes, even as seasoned and good as my writing skills can be, I sometimes find it impossible to precisely say why I like something, and in the case of music, why I can't stop listening to it.

Still with me?? Good.

is compelling. Sorry, but that's the only way I explain why I keep listening to it and yet don't think it's a great album. But I'll go into more detail just for the sake of argument.

I saw Cryptacize open for Sufjan Stevens earlier this Fall, and while at the time I (and seemingly the rest of the crowd) thought they were ok but not outstanding, something about their music stuck with me. There was something, dare I say, compelling about it. As Cryptacize count Chris Cohen as a member, a man who used to be in Deerhoof, and have a female singer with a cute-ish voice, they kind of remind me of what a more "normal" (for lack of a better term) version of Deerhoof might've sounded like. It's not entirely fair to compare the two bands since they're trying for different things, so I'll just let it drop there.

Anyway, Cryptacize play a brand of slightly playful indie rock. Rather than the jagged chords and unpredictable noise-pop of his days in Deerhoof, here Cohen employs a more grooving 60s style that some have likened to surf music. 'Blue Tears' opens with a borderline ska-like part from him, while 'My Thomania' brings to mind 60s girl groups with its wide eyed vocals and strutting, distorted guitar lines. Meanwhile, 'One Block Wonders' has quickly become one of my most played songs lately. The band opened their set with it at the show I saw, and the way it slowly builds from a simple drum line just turns some kind of key in some kind of lock in my brain.

However, when Cryptacize let Cohen sing or slow things down too much, everything falls apart. 'What You Can't See Is' is the sort of song where you feel embarrassed for the band, with its simplistic sentiments about identity and Cohen's deadpan delivery. Moreover, 'Galvanize' sounds like Beach House on a bad day, lacking any of the great production or rich melodies of that band. All of this just hammers home the uneven quality of Mythomania. There's six pretty good songs here and five weak ones, and while I'm too lazy to attempt my own order, I always get the feeling that the album is poorly paced.

And yet, there is something compelling about Mythomania. I noted in another review that I don't think Clinic's Walking With Thee is a particularly great album yet I used to listen to it a lot and still sometimes do. Well, this's a similar situation. Mythomania is not great but it's got a half dozen good songs and I still keep listening to it every couple days. Call it a compulsion.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Flaming Lips- Embryonic

In the spirit of the double album nature of Embryonic, I've decided to break my review up into a three parts with an intermission after the second part. You know, kind of like a play only with better writing and no acting.

Oh, and by the way, this is going to be a long review, so just skip to the end if you want the Cliff's Notes version.

Part I: Why You Might Hate Embryonic

Though they had a huge hit with 'She Don't Use Jelly' in the mid-90s, The Flaming Lips didn't really become a household name, music-festival-headlining-force until the mid-00s, thanks to The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Those two albums were hardly typical pop music, but they definitely saw the Lips curving their music to a populist, arena friendly, anthemic and fun direction. This wasn't a bad thing; I love those albums and the band deserved all the success and critical adulation. And even though 2006's At War With The Mystics left me a bit underwhelmed, it gave the world a handful more choruses to sing along with the band at their 'insane psychedelic spectacle life affirmingly fun' live shows.

As the band grew more popular, I kind of got the impression that there was a bigger and bigger disconnect between their albums and their live shows. The band make use of some pre-recorded music live, and since there's so much buzz about the crazy costumes, lights, confetti, fake blood, and that big bubble thing that lets Wayne Coyne walk on top of the audience, you get the feeling that, while it's still about the music, it's at least equally as much about the experience of watching the band perform. This isn't bad, but I personally think the albums suffered for it. I suppose I'm mostly talking about At War With The Mystics here, but my point remains.

So, then, we come to Embryonic, an album that pretty much undoes all the crowd pleasing anthemic art rock of everything else the Lips have done for the last 10 years. It's pretty strange to think that 10 years ago they released their most 'pop' album with The Soft Bulletin, and Embryonic is their most experimental. It's debatable whether their early albums were just as experimental and noisy as this, but they sure don't seem like it in retrospect. In fact, Embryonic is evidence of why Dave Fridmann can be a brilliant producer. Just as he helped Sleater-Kinney realize their distorted, loud, classic rock selves with The Woods, he gives the Lips a suitably overdriven and stuffed production for this album. The early Lips releases sound kind of thin and treble-y to me in comparison. But I digress. We were talking about why you might hate Embryonic, weren't we??

Make no mistake: this is not a pop album. The emphasis is less on songs than on sheer totality of sound. This is surely the loudest Lips album, ever, and if you cut your teeth on 'Do You Realize??' or 'Race For The Prize', you'll hate every second of this album. When it's not going for the electric freakouts and thundering bass and drums, it's going for spacious, psychedelic, and slow numbers like 'Gemini Syringes.' I don't know if this is true, but Embryonic feels like it has the least singing and lyrics of any Lips album. Again: if you don't like challenging sounds, non-traditional song structures, and chaotic production, avoid Embryonic at all costs.

Part II: Why You Might Love Embryonic

If, like me, you were left a bit underwhelmed by At War With The Mystics and have been confused at Wayne Coyne's public sort-of-beefs with bands like The Arcade Fire, then Embryonic represents a welcome revitalization. Not since Zaireeka have the Lips taken such a huge chance with their music. For example, every Lips album has awesomely weird and weirdly awesome song titles, but they never end up being as strange and experimental as the names suggest. Ironic, then, that most of Embryonic's song titles are succinct, because the music is a true trip. Granted, this is hardly Trout Mask Replica territory here, but there is a lot of noise, loud instruments of all sorts, punishing drums and fuzzed out bass, and Wayne Coyne singing in ways I've never heard him before. He sounds like Jim Morrison on 'Sagittatius Silver Announcement', and hell, the band even coaxed Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to make animal noises on 'I Can Be A Frog', which is the album's one moment of true levity.

During the press for the release of the album, Coyne mentioned that the some inspirations for it were the electric music of Miles Davis and classic double albums like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The former is most obvious in Embryonic's electric freakouts; during the louder tracks like 'Aquarius Sabotage', they often verge on the out-est moments of Davis's Agharta-era band, minus some funk and R&B influences. Actually, the opening bassline to 'Your Bats' is pretty much the same one from the beginning of Jimi Hendrix's 'If 6 Was 9', which is pretty damn funky when you really think about. Regardless, the influence the band took from that Led Zep double album was in letting it all hang out. For a double album, Embryonic is relatively compact, since each disc is only around 36 minutes, but fun larks like 'I Can Be A Frog' and the falsetto sort-of-ballad 'If' would probably have been left on the cutting room floor if this were a single CD's worth of material. So, yeah, it's good to know that the band was able to include them, since they provide a great contrast to the rest of the album.


Watch Wayne Coyne talk about some time he saw the Northern Lights

Part III: Conclusion

On one hand, I find it hard to recommend Embryonic with as much gusto as I normally would, since I think most people are going to find it a tuneless, loud/noisy or slow/psychedelic mess. On the other hand, I think Embryonic is the best album they've made since The Soft Bulletin. Were I really cynical, I might call Embryonic a calculated attempt to win back critics who might have stopped thinking the Lips were "cool" because they were getting so mainstream and mannered...but ultimately, I guess I don't really care even if that was true. Embryonic is a hell of an album, with, as I mentioned earlier, a "sheer totality of sound" that is borderline overwhelming on first listen.

Embryonic is a ballsy album to put out in this day and age. It's already perverse enough to make a double album, but to also make it the loudest and most experimental thing you've ever done--I would argue it's also their weirdest, mainly because it's not self consciously/ironically weird like their others--is,'s actually kind of funny now that I think about it. Just as I ended up loving Tortoise's Beacons Of Ancestorship because that band was returning to exploring new ideas and the more experimental elements of their music, Embryonic feels, at least in my heart, like a comeback from a band I had mostly written off as fun but not terribly interesting or chance taking. This album is definitely not for everyone, but if that's the worst thing I can think of to say about something then I'm generally sure I have something truly great on my hands.

Cliff's Notes Version

If your favorite Flaming Lips song is something like 'Do You Realize??' and you think the best thing about the Flaming Lips is their psychedelic spectacle live shows, then Embryonic is not for you. If you wish the Lips would make the most experimental, loud, and psychedelic album of their career, and make it a double album, then Embryonic is for you...and you're the sort of person I want to party with you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Video: The Flaming Lips- She Don't Use Jelly

Say what you will about the facelessness of mid 90s alt rock, but wasting an afternoon watching MTV (or watching Beavis and Butthead watch MTV videos) was always a good time. There's a quality to these sort of videos that was by turns surreal and apathetic, as if they were thrown together at the last minute, fueled by hangovers or afternoon bong hits.

Ironic, then, that a Flaming Lips video from this era would be so relatively normal. I mean, the strangest thing about it is Wayne Coyne, who--red/orange hair or not--looks 25 years younger than he does nowadays.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Album Of The Week: Joel Plaskett- Three

You know, I can't really name any great double albums from this decade. Sure, the Flaming Lips are set to release one in a few days, but other than that, I feel like this was mostly the decade of bands either releasing really long single CDs or trimming back to vinyl record-style runtimes of 30 to 45 minutes. Hell, even Radiohead--often derided for pretentiousness and artsy excess--didn't end up releasing Kid A and Amnesiac as the double album they were originally designed to be. So it's kind of astonishing to sit here and see someone releasing not just a double album but a triple album. More astonishing still is the fact that it's a fairly consistent and excellent triple album set.

Judging by the Ashtray Rock album that he put out a few years ago with his Emergency band (an album I have somehow lost), Joel Plaskett is one of Canada's best kept secrets. His voice is somewhere between Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Art Alexasis of Everclear, and Tom Petty, and his rustic tinged music is tangentially related to all of these, between its catchy classicist 70s rock/pop and singer/songwriter styles. Plaskett makes the sort of music that lacks any pretense of gimmick: it initially strikes you as almost vanilla and plain due to its stripped down, back-to-basics instrumentation. But this lack of genre bending and stylistic affectations works in his favor because he's such a consistent songwriter. Some surprising hooks and structures pop up here and there, and even though a lot of his lyrics seem to rhyme (normally this kind of writing gets under my nerves and draws attention to itself), they work for him, somehow.

Three CDs of material may initially seem like a lot, but they're all under 40 minutes and work together thematically as well as sonically. Taking the triple album concept as a starting point, Plaskett fills Three with songs that repeat words, phrases, or numbers in, you guessed it, groups of three. Moreover, the three discs each have a certain feel that I couldn't quite nail down until I read a quote off the Wikipedia entry for the album. Plaskett mentions that the discs represent going away, being alone, and coming home. That is to say, the album has a road weary/road-warrior-musician-on-tour dichotomy.

I've been commuting to work and driving around with Three for a bit over a week now, and here's what I've come up with. Disc one feels like the cautious enthusiasm of someone who doesn't necessarily hate going on tour, but also doesn't have the same youthful vigor of a 20 something anymore. 'Wishful Thinking' is an excellent seven minute romp that underscores this theme for me with its resigned "but if wishful thinking is all I've got/keep on thinking wishful thoughts" lyrics. The song has that Grateful Dead 'Truckin' sense of movement and expanse to it, but is not as unhinged and committed.

Meanwhile, disc two is pure tour blues. I picture Plaskett locked in some hotel room, drinking a bottle of wine and plucking on a guitar while wishing he was home with his friends and family. Maybe I'm projecting too much, but whenever I listen to this disc I get a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness for things that have passed as well as the things that are waiting for you when you return home. 'New Scotland Blues' is particularly affecting, describing a bummed out late October scene of regrets, travel, and moving past a bad love. The lyric "If I sound cold put on some gloves" is pretty damn clever, but I also like the chorus "I play for money/but I sing for free/my New Scotland blues." Going off my Grateful Dead comparison, this disc is definitely the analogue to their Workingman's Dead and American Beauty albums. None of these are strictly depressing and purely acoustic albums, but the vibe of burnt out late nights and singing/drinking your blues away persist.

The final disc is the wild card, suggesting the delirious vibe you get when you've been up too late for too many nights in a row...but the thing you're working towards is worth all the insanity. If you've ever seen a band on the final show of their tour, or anyway on its tail end, you might have an inkling of the feel of the songs here. They all fit together but also somehow contradict each other, from the short 'Precious, Precious, Precious' that serves as a peppier coda to 'Rewind, Rewind, Rewind', to the exhausted 'Lazy Bones', to the bluegrass stomp of 'Rollin', Rollin', Rollin', and the final 'On & On & On', which at twelve minutes is paradoxically too long and too short, seeming to roll one long song and then two shorter and funner songs all into one. It's the sort of thing you imagine the band would end the final show of the tour with, the last rambling energies coursing out through them before they do their final bow and sleep for three days once they get home.

Three is the sort of album review that writes itself once you've decided if it's good or not. On one hand, if it's bad, you can say that the band should've focused on just a single disc of material. On the other hand, if it's good, you find yourself giving a caveat emptor that not every song is great, the album sags in places, or this or that disc is weaker than the others. But anymore I feel like with double and triple albums, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound, and the general flaws and demands of longer works are probably already obvious to you. All of that said, then: Three is a fantastic album even if it may not always hit a home run. It has some weak spots, and disc two is the weakest of the lot because you really have to be in the mood to listen to it. But hey, The White Album is my favorite Beatles album as much for its longwinded-ness and low points as for its best moments, so Three is easy for me to recommend. And love.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Video: Devendra Banhart- Little Yellow spider

Of all the people associated with the psych-folk sub-genre that everyone was atwitter about circa '03/'04, Devendra Banhart is probably still the best fit, not to mention the most committed to the 60s-hippie-updated-for-today vibe. His albums should be evidence enough, but take this video as final proof and...hey, isn't that Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio?? Weird.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Album Of The Week: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah- s/t

Depending on how the rest of the new bands from this decade shake out, I'm thinking about coining a phrase for indie bands who come out of nowhere with a brilliant album, receive a ton of critical praise and blog hype, live on good faith for a year or so, release a disappointing follow-up album, and then drift away on a sea of rumblings about solo projects, hiatuses, and break-ups. "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Syndrome" seems like a pretty good name for it.

So much of this decade has felt ephemeral insofar as feelings towards bands go. Everyone seems to get behind a band or album and then, due to the actions of the band or some unconscious change in groupthink, that band or album receives a vicious backlash. I don't know that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ever really received a vicious sort of backlash, but once their second album turned out to be an aimless, experimental, and forgettable lump, we all sort of forgot they existed. It's hard to believe that it was a bit over four years ago that we were all listening to the band's self titled album over and over again (err, no pun intended). Yet here we are now, in 2009, and I find myself wondering, was I merely taken up in the hype, or is this music still great??

It helps, I believe, to compare this album to their leaden second one, Some Loud Thunder, to figure out why this one is so good. For, yes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is good. I would even go so far as to say that it's great. That's because the album has a sense of forward motion, surprising grooves, and excellent hooks. All things that were almost entirely excised on Some Loud Thunder. Sure, the singer dude's voice is like a more nasally and irritating version of David Byrne in his Talking Heads days, but the band make this into an asset: witness 'The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth', with its vibrant bassline and that cool skittering drum line thing, which trades blows with Alec Ounsworth's stretched, creaking vocals. Especially that excellent moment when he offers "ohh, this boy could use a little sting, alright!" Whereas Some Loud Thunder unwisely tried to make the band experiment with sound and layered textures--simultaneously wasting their gift for fun, head nodding indie rock and turning Ounsworth's vocals into a detriment--Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is rife with excellent catchy pop songs. Admittedly, these are the pop songs of music blogs and indie rock followers, not teens or your parents, but they're pop songs nonetheless.

And for the record, you do not **** with 'Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood.' I am always tempted to end every mixtape with this song, if only for the addictive acoustic guitar part and the "with their sex, and their drugs, and their rock, and rock, and rock and rock and roll, hey!" line at the end.

Really, though, the reason this album was so beloved in 2005 and why it's still great today is that it's just a blast to listen to. I hesitate to resort to such 4th grade jargon as "a blast", but much like Surfer Rosa by the Pixies or Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? by the Unicorns, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a succinct, endlessly listenable, and addictive album; as fun and excellent as indie rock gets without being ironic or co-opting other genres.

Hell, I even like the cheeky-but-annoying-to-some-people first track.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Islands- Vapours

I was surprised to see that Islands had a new album out, seeing as how it's only been a year and change since Arm's Way. Well, one of the original members has re-joined the band, so perhaps this--or the lukewarm reception of the aforementioned album--spurred such a quick turnaround. Whatever the case, here we are with Vapours, an album that is half "step in the right direction" and half "still not quite up to par."

The most noticeable difference about this album is the stripped down production and song lengths. Arm's Way was a bloated-but-interesting attempt at something different, failing more than it succeeded thanks to overstuffed sounds and less emphasis on songwriting and hooks. Vapours ostensibly reverses these qualities: no songs are longer than five minutes and the focus of the album is on stripped down, infectious keyboard heavy synth-pop/new wave. I say "ostensibly" because, as with Arm's Way, I find most of the songs forgettable and pleasant to a boring degree; not "infectious" at all. The Unicorns album and Islands's first, Return To The Sea, were bristling with unique ideas and hooks. If not always peppy and quirky, their songs were at least memorable. There's a sluggish flow and pacing to Vapours that undermines its synth-pop leanings, while the songwriting is, again, not up to par.

There's just something off about most of the tracks on Vapours, as if they start out well or have all the ingredients of great music, but they never quite come together. The ethereal, falsetto vocals of 'On Foreigner' are nice, but they aren't the focus of the track; what should be a razor sharp hook is instead diluted in a sea of plodding, overly verbose pop that comes off as deflated and boring. 'Tender Torture' starts out interestingly enough, with tough guitar chording and cheesy keyboards, but then it just keeps doing the same thing for three more minutes, leaving you waiting for some hook or pay off that never comes.

However, I do think Vapours is a better album than Arm's Way, and this is largely due to its strong finish. 'Heart Beat' delivers on the promise of Islands tackling synth-pop, with a vocoder'd vocal, almost reggae-esque loping guitar line, and insistent melodies. 'The Drums' doesn't have a true hook or chorus, but builds to a satisfying crescendo of sound that gives way to, what else, a drum heavy outro. Then there's the excellent 'EOL', which features the sharp lyric "a building fell on me" that, combined with the music, sounds like a mature ancestor to the younger, more whimsical death/injury obsessed Unicorns album. Vapours ends with 'Everything Is Under Control', all intense drums, echo-y guitars, spacey keyboards and dream-pop blissed out vocals. It actually is the sort of thing that Arm's Way tried to do and failed at, stuffing the production with sounds and atmospherics while placing less emphasis on songwriting. But here, it works, for whatever reason.

Rest assured, Vapours is a better overall album than Arm's Way, but it's still not quite up to the level of Return To The Sea. All personal misgivings about synth-pop aside, Vapours simply doesn't offer enough good, memorable songs to truly ensnare my heart. The last four songs, however, are pretty great, though this leaves me with an uneven impression every time I listen to it. If Arm's Way is a three stars out of five album that I wouldn't recommend, Vapours is at least worth a listen despite a similar score.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Video: Camera Obscura- I Need All The Friends I Can Get

So, they're Scottish and they play catchy indie pop and they're not called Belle & Sebastian?! All kidding aside, I was determined not to like this band because, really, how many twee little groups of people do you need in your life?? Well, call it a miracle that it turns out Camera Obscura are actually really good. Especially this song, which I haven't been able to get out of my head since yesterday morning. Truly a feat since work has been stressful and infuriating lately and all I feel like doing is kicking puppies and flipping off babies.