Thursday, April 29, 2010

Vetiver- Tight Knit

An admittedly egotistical thought experiment I sometimes indulge in: assuming I have children, what will they think of my music? Will they react to different parts of it in varying ways as they grow up, as I did with my parents' music, initially hating Jimi Hendrix and Steely Dan but growing to love both? Will they puzzle over the covers to, say, Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam and Deerhoof's Milk Man as I did with my father's copies of Little Feat's Down On The Farm and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here? More importantly, what albums and artists will not only stand the test of time, but connect with them and their peer group? Sure, I can say this or that band that I like will “stand the test of time”, but that will only really be true for me and certain members of my generation. You can bet that the legends like Miles Davis and The Beatles will endure, since they have, but there's really no telling which of the music I love will last, and what will become forgotten and (more) obscure. Will I be a cranky middle aged man, posting on whatever future versions of Internet message boards are like, lamenting the fact that no one cares about Wolf Parade anymore?

Vetiver's Tight Knit seems crafted to be timeless; I can practically see my daughter (or son) puzzlingly asking me if it was actually released in 2009 or if it was some kind of re-issue (I'm assuming my children will be as music nerdy as me, and will actually care about such things). However, I should say that by “timeless” I don't really mean it like people normally do, in a. I would argue that Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest is timeless, both because it's an amazing album and because it doesn't belong to an obvious genre from an obvious era, like, say, 80s synth-pop or 70s funk. Tight Knit, then, is timeless in the sense that there's an easy going and mellow charm to its acoustic guitar based music that makes one think “mid-to-late 60s” as much as the “late 00s.” Due to this sound, and the band's ties to Devendra Banhart, they're most often lumped in with psych-folk...but they lack Devendra Banhart's quirks and weirdness, as well as not being particularly psychedelic, and certainly not folk by the strict definition of purists. Anyway, my point is, there's no fancy genre flourishes or easily labelled “style” to Vetiver that would make my daughter (or son) ask me why I don't own more death metal or electro-clash.

You'll notice I used the word “charm” a bit ago. It's a word I rarely find myself going to in the context of music reviews. I don't really know why; maybe I don't conflate personality traits with music like some people do. Whatever the case, Tight Knit is a charming album. Maybe it's because I had been listening to a lot of The Sea And Cake before I heard this album, but it does remind me of the way their music doesn't elicit particularly strong reactions from me, but I keep listening to it and end up adoring it. I would say that I liked Tight Knit the first time I heard it, but with return trips its subtleties and personality have, here's that word again, charmed me. The almost-groovy loping rhythm and melodies of 'Sister' are in no hurry to get anywhere, and the album as a whole carries the feel of music that could go on twice as long as it does and still be enjoyable. You can almost picture the band vamping on this song for 15 minutes in the studio while they're finishing their 3rd beer and waiting for the BBQ to be done. Tight Knit is also an album that surprises from time to time, whether it's the emphatic drums, solid electric rhythm guitar, and graceful vocal melodies of 'More Of This' which sounds like Belle & Sebastian covering a song from the first Strokes album, or the dreamy, nocturnal 'Down From Above', a rustic counterpart to Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.

There is an unassuming excellence to this music that defies both your expectations and subsequent affection for it. Due to its timeless sound, its lack of stylistic flourishes, its total sidestepping of wringing emotional reactions or wrangling the modern Zeitgeist, Tight Knit is just a damn near perfect gem of an album that will probably never win any awards (it would retroactively edge out Album by Girls on my top 10 of '09, for what that's worth) but will, hopefully, be uncovered by listeners digging past the big names for something less known in the years and decades to come. If one of those people happens to be one of my children, well, that'd be groovy, as my Dad used to say with a faint hint of sincerity in his voice.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dr. Dog- Shame, Shame

Saying that a band has made an album where they sound like themselves probably seems like an idiotic thing to most people who don't read a lot of music criticism. But it's a case of using a phrase in a non-literal way as a shorthand for a longwinded explanation about how a band is getting comfortable in their own skin, aren't attempting a dramatic change in their sound, and so on. However, in the case of a band like Dr. Dog, who are equally praised and derided for how closely they sound like various classic rock bands (mostly the rock/pop of The Beatles and Kinks with a healthy rustic undercurrent from The Byrds or Crosby, Stills, and Nash), “sounding like themselves” means they've finally absorbed their influences and are charting their own path.

It took many months of further listening, and recently seeing the band live, to finally admit the fact that I think Dr. Dog's
Fate is the five star album I thought it might be. I struggled with the fact that Dr. Dog seemed to have just taken ideas and sounds whole cloth from their influences while not bringing much originality to the table, but the songs on Fate are just so damn catchy and enjoyable that after enough time, I didn't care anymore. I had no such reservations about Shame, Shame: from opener 'Stranger', with its excellent bass and drum groove, to the buoyant 'Later', to the raucous sing along 'Jackie Wants A Black Eye', Dr. Dog sound equally as inspired as they did on Fate, but without nearly as much of the baggage associated with sounding too much like other bands. Vocalists Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken are even more comfortable in their own skin this time out; though they both have voices that are achey and slightly rustic in their own ways, they are distinctive and complementary enough to work brilliantly in the same band. Kind of like Lennon and McCartney, really.

The band remarked that for
Shame, Shame they were interested in recording in a different way, with simpler arrangements and a live-r sound. Tt's odd, then, that to me these songs sound more polished and intricate than this kind of recording environment would suggest. Both 'I Only Wear Blue' and 'Someday' have subtlety and relative intricacy to their arrangements that wouldn't strike one as naturally translating to a live show. Still, the energy and playing on the album is undeniably strong throughout, and Shame, Shame is packed with guitar heavy material that definitely fits better with the band-as-a-touring-entity rather than band-as-a-recording-entity. If the hooks and melodies aren't quite as strong on this one as they were on Fate, well, it's a necessary trade-off for the funner songs and heftier sound. Kind of like Let It Be compared to the studio perfectionist Abbey Road, really.

Ah, but there I go again with the comparisons to other bands. But at least I'm speaking in
comparisons instead of direct borrowing, which is, finally, an unfair charge to make against Dr. Dog. Sure, it took them much longer than other bands to shed their influences, but they're finally sounding like themselves instead of other bands. Shame, Shame proves they're in the midst of a winning streak of studio releases, and, for what it's worth, the show I saw recently proved that they're a well oiled live band, to boot. While I didn't like Wilco's Wilco (The Album) that much, there is something to be said for a veteran band sounding like themselves on album and having a confident, commanding live show to back it up.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Field Music- Field Music (Measure)

“Too much of a good thing” has taken on a different connotation in the age of digital music, since you can line up the entire discography of a band and listen straight through without having to lift a finger once you click 'play.' On one hand, our attention span and willingness to listen to an album as a singular work has decreased greatly: it's too tempting to cherrypick your favorite songs and make your own playlist or mix CD. On the other hand, it's become easier than ever to listen to music at any time, so giving a new release your proper attention and patience is more likely to happen. Similarly, it's easier to listen to a band's output as one long block, or to skip around for comparing and contrasting. Thus, bands releasing long albums is a different matter now, since if they're listened to in the context of the rest of the band's discography, it all becomes one long mass of music and not so discrete and self contained.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, it's something I've been thinking a lot about while listening to and writing reviews of Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me and Field Music's Field Music (Measure). Both are long releases, with the former being a triple album and the latter a double. The huge difference is that Joanna Newsom's release suffers from inconsistency and monotonous-ness while Field Music's problem is that it's too much of a good thing. Perhaps most listeners won't see that as a problem, but I do. At least in this case.

2007's Tones Of Town was a tight and focused album, heavily influenced by 60s pop/rock. Tracks like 'A House Is Not A Home' and 'Working To Work' contained hooks that creep up in your subconscious mind at random times, causing you to hum and tap a hard surface while waiting somewhere for something or someone, or to stumble over the lyrics while singing in the shower. Field Music (Measure), then, is the band's double album heavily indebted to 70s music, specifically AOR classic rock. The songs are much more guitar led and often feature crunchy riffs and licks, totally making the listener forget that the band is led by Scottish brothers who look more like impossibly skinny coffee shop baristas than rock stars. 'Each Time Is A New Time' has a grooving guitar and drums interplay that seems more akin to a White Stripes cover of a 70s staple than anything else. Also, the funky, lurching 'Let's Write A Book' kind of reminds me of David Bowie taking a detour in the land of the Fiery Furnaces circa Widow City, their take on 70s music.

That said, the album's second half (or second disc, if you prefer) goes more toward the arty side of 70s music. 'Curves Of The Needle' is a mini-prog rock experiment, alternating near silent piano balladry with restrained full band bursts. 'Precious Plans' sounds like a calm, pastoral interlude on a double album by, say, The Who or Pink Floyd, complete with string section. Speaking of Floyd, their shadow is cast on 'Something Familiar', most evidently at the 2:00 mark, which even has a loping piano line and extended guitar solo (I guess you'd call it a solo) that has David Gilmour written all over it. Album closer 'It's About Time' is the most arty track of all, however, since it starts off sounding like a typically great lead in to a Field Music song but unfortunately then spends most of its 9+ minute length in tedious musique concrete punctuated by string section stabs from time to time and eventually complete silence...and then goes back to musique concrete. It's an unfulfilling and questionable ending to an otherwise consistently enjoyable album, and makes The Beatles's 'Revolution #9' seem like a work of engaging songwriting.

But there's still that matter of “too much of a good thing.” For most listeners, the reason they might like this one less than Tones Of Town will be due more to the shift in sound from taut, memorable 60s style pop/rock tunes to 70s classic rock swagger and arty AOR. For me, though, it's more about the digestibility of a double album, though I do also prefer the poppier style of Tones. Yes, you could argue that most bands can feel like too much of a good thing when you listen to all their albums from end to end, but there's some other X element beyond the stylistic change and too-much-of-a-good-thing-ness that makes me enjoy Field Music (Measure) less than I probably should. It's something about the songs themselves and the way they're played and orchestrated. The arrangements and playing are deceptively complex while sounding uncluttered and simple, so the songs are melodious and enjoyable but not as outright catchy and addictive as Tones Of Town. But even then, I'm not sure that's the X element I feel when I listen to it...But I digress.

Listened to in the context of the rest of their releases in one long block, Field Music (Measure) is a perfectly fine and consistently excellent release. But taken on its own, it's an exhausting listen that leaves me restless a bit of the way into the second half (or second disc, if you prefer). Whatever that X element is that I can't put my finger on doesn't really matter, I suppose, since sometimes you just don't like something as much as you want to. It's how I still feel about Alien 3 after half a dozen viewings over almost as many years.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Re: Views On MGMT's Congratulations

I really wish I could figure out why my blog doesn't automatically format itself to fit the videos correctly, but so far I am clueless. Again, click the link to the right to see them properly.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Sea And Cake- Oui

Even for a band with a streak of consistency, Oui has always felt like the most special and outstanding of all of The Sea and Cake's releases. The elements of their sound and songwriting were well in place by the time of its release The group's 90s output established their mellow, jazzy, and ethnic-tinged music before increasing the electronic influences with 1997's The Fawn. After a three year break, they returned in 2000 with this album, which expertly fuses the earlier, more guitar-heavy-and-jazzy vibe and their newer electronic focus. But it's more than that. It's also the songwriting, the pacing, and the flow that lends Oui a perfect shine.

It's impossible to be stressed out or unhappy while listening to The Sea and Cake. Their's is a style with no tension, angst, or conflict; even at its most engaging, energetic, and propulsive, there's an easy going vibe that wrangles the music into a smooth breeze instead of an unpleasant gust. Yet Oui is their most laid back and relaxing album of all. Sure, all of their stuff has a Spring and Summer feel to it, but Oui practically demands you be reclined, if not entirely vertical, and for the weather, at a bare minimum, to be in the mid 60s and at least partially sunny.

The album may start with the one-two punch of 'Afternoon Speaker' and 'All The Photos', arguably the strongest opening salvo of a The Sea and Cake album ever, but the lengthy third track 'You Beautiful Bastard' soon takes things down a notch. An instrumental, its patient guitar interplay and steady-as-she-goes cymbals bring to mind laying on a raft at the beach or napping in a hammock. The ebb and flow of the volume levels on 'The Colony Room', from Sam Prekop's mellow “dum de dum, duh duh dum” wordless scat-like singing to the swells of guitar, drums, and organ, would be enough to seal it as one of the band's high points, but then they go ahead and throw in a tasteful horns-and-orchestra interjection at the 2:20 mark. I would be remiss not to mention the intricately played 'I Missed The Glance', which grooves along nicely in the band's trademark breezy-and-jazzy-with-touches-of-electronics style before transforming roughly halfway through for a more minimalist and cinematic coda.

For an album I've come to regard as so stellar, I wish I had a lot more to say about Oui. But by its very easy going, relaxing nature, it resists lengthy analysis and deep critical machinations. It's just The Sea and Cake's best album; there's no weak or forgettable songs and it flows so well you barely notice it's over when it is. That's as good as I can do; trying to burrow deeper would be like trying to explain why I love laying on my couch on Sunday afternoons, feeling the breeze coming from the windows, occasionally getting up to sip a Cherry Coke (on ice, naturally), and not having a care in the world.Oui is one of those unassuming masterpieces that never makes lists from websites and magazines, but will hit the spot in the way no other album can when you're in the right mood and the weather is just peachy.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Favorite Games: Earthbound

Another new video series? Sure!

Incidentally, if the videos ever don't play right on this blog, just follow the link (over on the right!) to my YouTube page to see them properly.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Liars- Sisterworld

Despite the great reviews it got, I've always been a bit underwhelmed by Liars's self titled album. It's not a bad album by any means, but compared toDrum's Not Dead, which had a conceptual and musical unity, flow, and pacing, it seems scattershot and unfocused. That it came out only a year afterDrum's belies its quick production, and though some of it was by far the most accessible music the band had ever made, there was also stuff like 'Leather Prowler' and 'The Dumb In Rain': dark, cacophonous counterpoints which would send those drawn in by 'Houseclouds' running in the other direction.

Sisterworld is something else entirely. It has a conceptual unity like Drum's Not Dead but lacks that masterpiece's flow and bi-polar divide between the textural, dreamier tracks and the percussion heavy, experimental stuff. Instead, Sisterworld has its own strange internal logic and sound. Opener 'Scissor' sounds like Liars compatriots TV On The Radio at first, with only vocals to drawn the listener in. Subtle orchestral instruments fade in, increasing in volume until the band kicks in at 1:41 and hey, it's a Liars song after all! The remainder of the album plays out with similar strange juxtapositions and literally sounds like nothing else I've heard before. The subtle or overt orchestral elements mix with the band's sound surprisingly well, and as a whole Sisterworld is the sort of thing that, on paper, shouldn't work.

It's a testament to how far the band have come as songwriters and arrangers of sound elements that the album actually does work. Something like the punishing drum and guitar caterwaul of 'Scarecrows On A Killer Slant' shouldn't be as weirdly catchy as it is, especially when the band is screaming "stand them in the street with a gun/and then kill them all!" Yet it sticks in your head as memorable and hooks you from first listen. Likewise, album closer 'Too Much, Too Much' somehow is able to make Disney-esque clarinet and bassoon (at least, that's what I think they are) flourishes back up the dreamy keyboards and guitar atmospheres in a sensical, enjoyable way.

If Drum's Not Dead was their drum heavy album, Sisterworld usually doesn't use them, or does in simpler ways. 'The Overachievers' reminds me of the beat to Can's 'Oh Yeah' sped up and thrown into a blender with late 80s Sonic Youth at their noisiest and most strident. 'Drip', by contrast, only resorts to a subtle percussive bit that sounds like someone tapping on the rim of a snare as a texture rather than a propulsive rhythm; meanwhile, the loops of sound and menacing vocals lend a supernatural horror vibe, with singer Angus Andrew wondering "when will I awake/from this dormant sleep/to eat" like some kind of Cthulu-esque monster, older than time itself.

Like a lot of the really fantastic and interesting indie rock coming out for the past few years, it's hard to categorize or describe what Liars accomplished onSisterworld. Like the challenging but rewarding R&B tinged experimental pop of Bitte Orca by the Dirty Projectors, you end up giving paradoxical, contradictory descriptions and praise. This album is not accessible, but if you have a predilection toward more challenging material, you'll be like me and think that 'Scarecrows On A Killer Slant' is a great single. The somehow-it-works use of orchestral elements on the album puts it in a different place from even the rest of the Liars's discography even if, for the most part, it definitely sounds like the work of the same band who made Drum's Not Dead andLiars. Taking the title literally, Sisterworld really does feel like it belongs to its own time and space removed from our own world even if it has enough similar elements to our world to make sense.

See? It's all paradoxical: Sisterworld is experimental and challenging, but weirdly catchy and memorable; the way it uses orchestral elements to mix with the band's pounding drum rhythms and heavily processed guitars and keyboards shouldn't work, but it does; it sounds quite unlike anything else out there, even from Liars, though it still retains their personality and isn't a huge departure from the previous two albums in some ways. Man, I give up. I'm just going in circles now. Here's the "too long, didn't read" version: Sisterworld is possibly the best album Liars have ever done, and one of best albums of 2010 so far.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Forgiveness, Please

Sorry, no video this week. My weekend was too busy and all of those everyday things I put off because of said busy-ness are now calling in their favors, so to speak.

If you want to see a video of me doing laundry and cleaning my apartment, I guess I could post that....?

Yeah, didn't think so.

There will be the usual written post on Thursday, so please look forward to it!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blackout Beach- Skin Of Evil

Unable to sleep one night a few weeks ago, my frazzled, restless mind had me tossing and turning before I gave up and retrieved my iPod from its resting place on the floor near my bed. "May as well listen to something new," I thought, and curiously I flicked my fingers and tapped until Blackout Beach's Skin Of Evil began. A drum machine spat out a pulsing, off-kilter beat before atmospheric guitar shards came in, followed by subtle, choir-like "ahhh ohhhs." Then Carey Mercer's singular voice arrived on stage, as if in mid-sentence already: "And I think there was men before me/who were too scrambled/by Donna's awesome, awesome power." Spellbound by what I was hearing from an artist I thought I knew well enough from his other projects, I listened to the whole thing, spellbound. Oh, I eventually got to sleep, too.

"Spellbound" is a word people sometimes use without really meaning what they think it means. It's like how you say "today was the worst day ever!" when you have very likely had much worse days. But "spellbinding" is exactly how I would describe
Skin Of Evil. It is such a unique piece of music, and casts a kind of spell over me such that I forget about everything else except it: I'm no longer hungry or tired or sad, I'm just absorbing it like a sponge. Some concerts have been this way for me, and I'm sure other people can relate to that. But it's rare that an album so engrosses me that I find it difficult to listen to as background music while driving or writing.

Though it's a very strange, non-traditional sounding one, Carey Mercer's main band, Frog Eyes, is very definitely a rock band. Guitars, driving drum beats, supporting bass and keyboards, and vocals: a traditional rock set-up even if it's in the service of crazy sounding music. Blackout Beach is something else entirely, though. The music is far more fractured, experimental, and non-traditional than Frog Eyes, bringing to mind adjectives like "atmospheric" and "cinematic" though employing the same instruments as Frog Eyes. The guitars have a distorted, echoey sound that makes them sound like storm clouds gathering silently-but-menacingly over Mercer on 'The Roman' or like searing metallic shards on 'Astoria, Menthol Lite, Hilltop, Wave Of Evil, 1982.' Most notable of all, however, is the fact that drums and percussion are used very sparingly. This lends
Skin Of Evil even more of a groundless, airy feel in sharp contrast to the martial, monolithic Frog Eyes beats. When it is employed, it's usually in free jazz like patterns and explosions, matching the fragmented guitars, such as on 'William, The Crowd, It's William.' Mercer's vocals are, if possible, even more free of rhythm and structure than they are in Frog Eyes, though without any of the usual screaming and yelling stuff.

In fact, the use of female vocals to mix with his on the album is one of its most distinctive features; 'Nineteen, One God, One Dull Star' is downright lovely for it affectingly traditional, ballad-like beginning, though it eventually becomes something darker and stranger. Those two words apply to the films of David Lynch, too, and I can't help but picture some of the scenes from his movies when I listen to
Skin Of Evil. In a video I made about all of Mercer's albums with his various bands, I said that this album sounded like the soundtrack to an unreleased David Lynch film, and I meant it. There's some kind of story at work here--the names William, Sophia, and Donna are mentioned frequently--but I have no idea what it's about. I do know it takes place only on overcast gray afternoons, full moon nights, and chilly early mornings. At least, that's what the music makes me imagine.

It's safe to say that there's really nothing I've heard that sounds like
Skin Of Evil. I can't think of any bands or albums that are similar, and it's pretty telling that my only other reference point is the films of David Lynch. It could be I'm simply missing out on some obvious influences due to my limited knowledge, but I'd prefer to think this album really is as unique as it seems to be. Dark, cinematic, and spellbinding, Skin Of Evil is a work of visionary genius, proving Mercer's talent is greater than even I realized.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5