Saturday, January 30, 2010

Seaspin- Reverser EP & Dios- We Are Dios

At least once every couple years, it seems as though I come across a band that can best be described with a sentence that begins: "Like My Bloody Valentine, but...." For example, M83--at least initially--were like My Bloody Valentine, but more electronic. Well, Seaspin are like My Bloody Valentine but....hmmm...but what?

I think I'll go with, like My Bloody Valentine but not as intense. There's a borderline-suffocating quality to Loveless, a constant totality of sound that is overwhelming in a good way. Reverser, however, falls closer to Isn't Anything: still shoegazer-y, but also of a piece with the clarity and bliss of dream pop. It helps that Seaspin have clear female vocals mixed right up front rather than burying them in the mix like a lot of these kind of bands would. And call me crazy, but the singer reminds me of one of the women from Luscious Jackson.

Songs like 'Give Yourself' are almost slavish in their devotion to the My Bloody Valentine formula, so how much imitation is sincere flattery versus how much it's shameless theft will depend on your particular moral compass. Personally, I love this kind of music so it's hard for me to be too mad; it's not as if every random dude and his cousin is forming shoegazer/dream pop bands. Besides, the title track to this EP shows Seaspin might be more than just a pretty good follower of a truly great band. It has strong hooks and lightens the ear shattering guitar walls enough to let the band's melodic side shine through. This track could easily pass for out-and-out indie rock, and if the rest of the EP had less shoegazer-y noise I might be writing about how Seaspin sounds like Sleater-Kinney or Rainer Maria instead.

Deerhunter and Seapin both draw huge influence from My Bloody Valentine, but there's a true sense of originality and great songwriting with Deerhunter. Much as I like this EP, I find it hard to recommend enthusiastically because I like it more for who it sounds like than what it is.

With the press write-up that comes with their album, We Are Dios, the band happily declare:

dios do not sing about cars, surfing, and/or high school.
dios sing about ridiculousness, illicit substances, and going crazy.
CONCLUSION = dios resemble the Beach Boys of Smile, not “Fun, Fun, Fun."

An interesting way of putting things, but one that doesn't hold up in a court of (music) law. From the legendary bootlegs circulating for decades to the eventual completed project in 2004, Smile may have been the most ambitious and overtly druggy album that the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson ever worked on, but it was still a very focused and tight pop album at its heart. Nothing about it is nearly as weird and stoned as you may have imagined before hearing it, and by both today's standards and the standards of albums that actually came out during its initial release window, it's a pretty tame and accessible release. Despite his pot and acid induced/increased madness, Brian Wilson was still a brilliant composer with a laser-like focus for melody and tunes.

By contrast, Dios are overtly trying to be sloppy and stoned with their music while hearkening back to the psychedelic head trips of the mid to late 60s. None of the songs seem to fit standard chorus/verse/chorus structures, often drifting off into other songs or studio chatter/ambiance.
This approach works for the band as often as it doesn't, and We Are Dios is the sort of release that is neither good nor bad enough to warrant much of a reaction. At its best moments--like the early Flaming Lips-esque 'Toss My Cookies', as well as the consistently strong vocal harmonies throughout and the closing track 'It Will Feel Good', which sounds like Deserter's Songs era Mercury Rev--the album reveals a band capable of some great things.

"Capable" is not the same as "achieving", however. If Dios have any greatness, it is mainly in their sound and approximating the greatness of other bands. Their songwriting is never strong and consistent enough to be memorable, and all of the best songs and moments end up reminding you of other bands. Dios are good, and We Are Dios can be almost-great at certain times, but it is neither very original nor truly exceptional.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beach House- Teen Dream

The cover to Beach House's Devotion has the duo sitting at a fancy dining room table, an orangey red glow given off by candles. Immaculately arranged in front of them are almost perfectly symmetrical objects, right down to the way their hands are positioned. At the very center is a delicious looking cake with the album title on it, flanked by the band's name in wooden letters. It's one of the most memorable album covers in recent memory, but it also captures the dreamy atmosphere of their music almost perfectly. At its warmest moments, Beach House's style has been like an aural approximation of how a room feels during a birthday party with only the candles for light.

However, Beach House's debut and Devotion had their share of coldness and emotional distance, too. This gave the aforementioned 'warm', melodic moments a distinctly memorable contrasting quality that is rare in music. Wha I mean is, a tonal/atmospheric contrast instead of the usual loud/quiet/loud or fast/slow/fast ones. The self titled debut was mostly drowsy and cold, but memorable for songs like 'Auburn And Ivory.' In many ways this track felt like the blueprint for the sophomore release, Devotion: it subsists on chilly keyboards and detached vocals until that astounding moment after the 3:00 mark when singer Victoria Legrand, spurred by a guitar, rises out of her torpor to declare "she says,: 'I'll wait for you, I'll wait for once'" before retreating immediately. Devotion, then, nudged the band progressively toward less atmosphere and a more direct, emotional style of songwriting, and was an excellent album for it. But Teen Dream takes this trend even further, while at the same time focusing ever more on the commanding vocal performances of Legrand.

I'll just come out and say that I've only been listening to Teen Dream for less than 24 hours and it's already going to be on my list for album of the year. It isn't so much a quantum leap over Devotion as it is a perfection and progression of it. The songwriting alone is at that level where, as you listen to the album for the first couple times, you keep thinking to yourself "oh, this is probably going to be my favorite song"...and you keep thinking it...and you keep thinking it, over and over again. I make no exaggeration when I say that there isn't a bad song here. It starts so strongly with 'Zebra', heavenly "ahhh" backing vocals and all, that you're worried the album can't sustain this level of quality...but then it does, and does....and does...and does, all the way to 'Take Care', which is quite possibly the finest straight up love song the band has ever done. And for an album that has no song under four minutes long, it's impressive how succinct and well paced Teen Dream is.

The biggest and best change on Teen Dream is the increased focus and centering of songs around Legrand's vocals. Going back to the band's debut, it's interesting how reserved she sounds, and how her vocals are often used as part of the overall feel and atmosphere of the songs: one more instrument in the mix, rather than the centerpiece. Well, Teen Dream is unfailingly 'warm' in tone, unabashedly melodic, and unquestionably focused on Legrand. Every essential melody comes from her voice, which is the smartest move the band could've made, since she has become a much more expressive and varied singer since Devotion. Perhaps it was in her all along but it didn't work for the older songs, who knows. I'm tempted to use terms like "powerhouse" for a song like 'Better Times', where she shows more range and imagination in delivery than she did on all of Beach House's debut. The bit at 2:33...well, you'll see.

Uhm, hear.

Teen Dream is the kind of album that a band builds a reputation on. Everything that is good about this band is at its utmost best here, fully revealing not just a duo with a distinctive style, but also one with a surprising amount of diversity within said style. Frankly it's impossible to imagine anyone covering anything from this album and doing it justice. A song like 'Real Love' losing Victoria Legrand's voice would be all but ruined; I can't think of anyone else that could sing "boo, boo, boo" and make you really feel it instead of thinking it was silly. Teen Dream isn't a huge leap from their previous work, but, like Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, it's at least several large steps, leaving the listener in love with what is and impatient to hear what may be.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Vampire Weekend- Contra

Am I alone in thinking that it's insane that Contra debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts? Who is rushing out to buy albums in January, anyway? Well, OK, as weird as the situation may be, it's understandable. Vampire Weekend's debut was an addictive indie pop affair that borrowed bits from reggae and world music via Africa. Paul Simon's Graceland was a big touchpoint for most people, though honestly I hear that comparison much more strongly on Contra. Mostly I'm just surprised that a band on an indie label could become so popular and inspire such loyalty after only one release. Even the fairly similar Shins took two albums and prominent placement in a popular movie to get this huge...

The biggest difference from Vampire Weekend to Contra is more about the instruments featured than any kind of stylistic shifts or songwriting approach alteration. Contra maintains the same startlingly high level of memorable and catchy songs as the band's debut, but this time out the band has mostly put down the guitars and picked up keyboards, drum machines, and even what is either a vocoder or auto-tuning on 'California English.' At first this change really turned me off. For various reasons, I don't really like synth-pop, not to mention the kind of 80s production where drums always sound muffled and synthetic and the bass has that rounded-but-flat tone to it. What's more, Contra really does bring the Graceland comparisons into sharp relief: tracks like 'Taxi Cab' and 'White Sky' have the kind of fingertapping, pop and lock rapid fire guitar and bass work that made that album so distinctive.

Once I embraced the change, however, I found Contra to be an excellent release, and a worthy follow-up to Vampire Weekend. Petty and temporary though this may be, my only complaint is that Vampire Weekend once again released such an obvious summer album in the cold grip of January. The effervescent bounce of 'Holiday' doesn't seem quite right when you're sitting in your car in the morning, shivering and sipping coffee from a travel mug. But I digress. The more I've listened to Contra, the more I find myself wondering if it's actually better than their debut. The album closer 'I Think Ur A Contra' alone displays a great deal of growth and maturity in songwriting; with its low piano notes and ominous tone it kind of reminds me of 'Those To Come' by the Shins.

Yes, I may actually like this one more than their debut. I suppose I'll reserve judgment for my usual year end listmaking, but keeping in mind that I'm not the hugest fan of either synth-pop or Graceland, it should be pretty telling that I'm already considering it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Favorite Albums Of The 00s (Part 2) & (Part 3)

Sorry for the lateness. As you'll see in the third video, I've been having all sorts of issues with my computer and Internet lately. Anyway, they're finally done. Should have a written review up tomorrow. And yes, from now on the videos won't be lists.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Van Morrison- Astral Weeks

Assuming I had the time and money, I would probably become a wine snob. I really enjoy all of the almost ritualistic steps that go into tasting and enjoying wine. At least in this country, wine isn't really the drink of the common man; it's not something where you get home from work and think "I'll have a glass or two of wine." Nah, you reach for the cheap, domestic cans of beer. Wine, though....that's something that you have to take your time with, and savor. In my mind, then, wine is analogous to tea or novels or books of poetry in that same way. Likewise, an album such as Astral Weeks calls for close attention and a relaxed mood. Loose and jazzy, impressionistic and poetic, it's music that would make a fine companion for an evening with a bottle of wine.

Astral Weeks is yet one more reason why I would argue that the 60s remain the definitive decade for music, and the 'album' as a general concept. Obviously since I spend the majority of my time with current bands and releases, I'm always tempted to point out all the equally good music from the 90s and 00s. But there's just no getting around the groundbreaking work of The Beatles, not to mention lesser known, still-to-this-day-unique works like Astral Weeks that I feel compelled to write about. Why? Because I think most people, specifically younger people, don't always get around to this kind of stuff. They should, dagnabbit, because good music is good forever. Moreover, there's simply no other album in history that sounds quite like this; jazzy but not jazz, folky/singer songwriter-y without being folk/singer-songwriter, soulful but not soul, loose and improvised but sounding strictly composed and tightly played...yes, dagnabbit, good stuff all around...why in my day, we had to go to stores and ask if they had a copy and when it might be back in stock...hmmm...yes, the album...very good...excellent music and well played...and then there's the poetic lyrics and impassioned vocal performances of Van Morrison, including that moment on the lengthy 'Madam George' where he twists into a lyrical cyclone of "the love to loves the love that loves to love..." (or something to that effect).

I understand why people wouldn't dig this music. It's not immediate and forceful in the way that, say, Led Zeppelin's 'Heartbreaker' is. You play that for any young man and he's ready to get in a bar fight even if he doesn't know what a bar is yet. But for those of us who also nurture a gentler side, a predisposition to certain things that aren't traditonally considered masculine...we are capable of enjoying this kind of music as much as the 'Heartbreakers' of the world, finding just as much energy and power in the soulful, poetic white boy if Astral Weeks, backed as he is by flutes, strings, classical-style acoustic guitar, double-bass, and understated drums.

There's a line in The Rock Snob's Dictionary about Nick Drake, that he is "discovered each year by college freshpersons of delicate constitution." This is supposed to be a joke at the expense of either Drake or his fans (maybe both), but I take it to heart. Just as Led Zeppelin were able to bring in some sensitivity and English folk into their music, not all young men need to constantly worship paint peelingly, grass killingly loud electric guitars and teeth rattling bass lines from club anthems to be "tough." Elvis Costello titled an album Mighty Like A Rose; Van Morrison dedicates seven minutes of Astal Weeks to the song 'Ballerina', and if you know anything about ballet, you know that it requires an equal mix of grace and strength. Don't football players sometimes study ballet to be better at the game, or did TV lie to me again? Anyway, though I'm not expert on the subject, and I can't speak to Morrison's views, I can't help but see the parallel to this kind of music. As he puts it:

But if it gets to you
And you feel like you can't go on
All you gotta do
is ring a bell
and step right up
just like a ballerina

Like a ballerina, the music of Astral Weeks seems frail and delicate on the surface; it moves too easily and seemingly pushed around by outside forces. Yet underneath it all is a restrained power that sometimes lashes out, whether it's a jazzy exclamation from the bass or Morrison putting some extra oomph into his delivery.

But, I get it. Some people will never want to read a book of poetry, or savor a bottle of wine, or lay on the floor with some couch cushions listening to vinyl records. Or think of ballet as something other than fruity and lame. Or, you know...fall in love with Astral Weeks. But I do. Er, did. Even today, the album remains a powerful and unique work.

One only wishes it was as well known as Morrison's hit song 'Brown Eyed Girl.'

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Favorite Albums Of The 00s (Part 1)

Yeah, I'm putting this up a day early because I have to go to the dentist tomorrow after work. Also, I am completely engrossed in Dragon Age: Origins for 360 and find it hard to care about a schedule. Part 2 definitely won't be up until next Tuesday, though, and after this I don't plan on doing any videos of lists for a looong time. It's probably for the best that I start out with the longest and most involved videos, no?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sebadoh- The Sebadoh

Well, what better way to dip my toes into the fresh bathwater of 2010 than to review an album from 1999? I always end up spending the first couple months of every new year playing catch up on years past, and I simultaneously start re-thinking how I approach reviews and my writing in general. 1999 is my personal Year Zero, you could say, since it was when I started reading music magazines and websites, though I rarely checked them against my own feelings as I do now. It's downright quaint to dig up '99 era reviews of The Sebadoh from Pitchfork,, or Amazon. Similarly, I think back to the kind of reviews I was writing in high school, college, and even last year. Speaking of, I saw a copy of this album on vinyl for months on end at my local record store, for only $11, but by the time I didn't see enough other albums I wanted and tried to find it, it was gone.

Alas, cruel fate. Perhaps the world was trying to tell me something?

Anyway, for whatever reason, The Sebadoh has some coincidental relationships to my life, yet it never formed any lasting impression on me when I fgot it from the library in 2000. As my first exposure to "indie rock", it was something of a non-event. I remember thinking that the songs weren't catchy enough though I was impressed by the loud and thick sounding guitars. It made me think of the way that you could always hear the bass and guitar pretty definitely and separately in classic rock like Led Zeppelin, and I couldn't understand why so many modern bands mostly buried the bass in the mix. Returning to the album today, after I've spent most of the last decade getting really into music, and indie rock in particular, it's odd how different I feel about it now. I guess it's a sign of how much I've changed?

Lest this review become too introspective, I'll dig into the album now by saying that, while I'm not very familiar with Sebadoh's discography, the modern day version of me likes The Sebadoh. The guitars that so impressed the teenage version of Greg still hit home; in fact, the production may be my favorite thing about the album. The best way I can think to describe it is that it sounds like a clear bootleg, particularly on the mid-fi sounding 'Cuban', which has an off-kilter bass/drum groove that doesn't sound like the classicist "indie rock" that Sebadoh stood for. The overall sound is LOUD but without the kind of distortion and clipping that's associated with the mid-to-late 00's production style of Dave Fridmann. Moreover, the bass is almost always given a powerful kick from some kind of fuzz or overdrive pedal, to the point where I end up mistaking it for a second guitar. It actually reminds me a lot of, say, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or Sleater-Kinney, both of whom (if memory serves) have two guitarists but one of them tunes down to a bassy/mid-range sound. This incredibly loud, bass-y production reaches its peak on 'So Long': whenever I play this in my car, I feel like one of those obnoxious people blowing out their subwoofer to prove how cool they are. It gets that deep and bone rattling.

The Sebadoh isn't all throttling indie rock, though. Some of the tracks make subtle use of keyboards and electronic effects, like the appropriately propulsive opener 'It's All You' or the excellent 'Colorblind', both album highlights. There's also the expected Lou Barlow ballad-type mopers about relationships, but those are my least favorite songs here. The Sebadoh sounds more cohesive and is more consistent than the only other Sebadoh album I've heard, Harmacy, but this is a band that often suffers from the divide between its main songwriters. I never get the sense that Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein were competitive in the least, so they pretty much stick to their own comfortable styles and subjects without trying to outdo one another. Without even a de-facto leader, Sebadoh's albums sound a bit too concerned with equal billing and "we'll take turns." Much as I hate to admit it, bands often need one strong creative personality to make them truly great. I don't mean this to sound like an insult, but: it's pretty telling that Barlow is better known as "the bassist for Dinosaur Jr." and Loewenstein has lately been spending his time as the touring bassist for the Fiery Furnaces. Compare Sebadoh and its songwriters to other, better known contemporaries--Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Doug Martsch of Built To Spill--and you get a similar takeaway.

Ironically, while I may like The Sebadoh more today than I did as a teen, my original assessment is still fairly accurate: the production and overall sound is awesome, but the songwriting isn't quite there. Don't mistake this for a sudden reversal of opinion after I've spent a few paragraphs making nice. It is a really good album, but it's not a "classic." There's a reason it was Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain which got me into indie rock and not The Sebadoh.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Whiskey Pie In 2010

Since Whiskey Pie has been around for a couple years, and it launched at the start of January of '08, I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want to do with this blog. So, I'm going to take this opportunity to lay out the changes I have in mind.

First of all, those 'Best Albums of 2009' videos are only the beginning of video content for Whiskey Pie. I bought an actual microphone this past weekend, so they'll at least sound good from now on. However, making videos takes at least three times as long as a typical written post, so this also means that I will be doing less posts per week. My initial plan is to do one written post and one video per week, but we'll see how this goes.

Furthermore, I won't be doing any more 'Album Of The Week' or music video posts. They just aren't necessary, especially with my one written/one video posting schedule. I'm not sure how many of the other special category posts I'll be doing--Your Or Your Memory and the like. Probably I'll adapt the old ones or create new ones that work better with videos.

I also want to try to do more posts on movies (and especially) videogames in 2010. I think I've gotten pretty good about consistently well written and interesting music reviews and posts, but I'm always trying to challenge myself with my writing, and trying more reviews, criticism, and features about other forms of entertainment is something I absolutely need to do.

I'm still learning my way through what I want to do with videos, especially as far as what is entertaining enough to watch/listen to with the kind of voice and style I have, so the format of the videos will likely vary a bit until I figure out what seems best. At the same time, I want to keep the quality of the writing and content as high as it's been. I don't want to do super short videos with dumbed down content. Sure, shorter videos are easier to make, but if I'm just showing a picture of the album cover, yelling "it sucks!", and then rolling credits, that's not very good. In fact, you might say it sucks.

OK, enough rambling. Look for written posts on Thursdays and videos on Tuesdays.