Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wolf Parade- Expo 86

I'll save you the trouble of looking it up: Expo 86 was the World's Fair held in Vancouver in 1986, and as it would turn out, all the members of Wolf Parade were at it. The band attach no significant correlation between this title and the music on their new album, but finding out that, many years before you met someone, you were both at the same concert or gathering of people has a strange effect on the psyche, as if the roots of some heretofore unseen bond between people was growing and now sprouted from the soil, years later, fully grown and replete with flowers. In this sense, Expo 86 is a wholly appropriate title, since never before has Wolf Parade sounded as solidified and on the same page as a band. Combine that with an energetic and tightly played set of songs that allows itself some room to roam, and you've got what may be their best album yet.

Whatever your opinion of At Mount Zoomer (I've gone back and forth on it a lot myself), I don't think anyone would disagree that it's unfocused and uneven. No, not in the quality of the songs; rather I mean that it plays like a double album that was trimmed down to a single album. The tracks are extremely varied in terms of both song length and sound, and since the album was recorded in two different sessions at two different locations, this uneven, disjointed feel makes perfect sense. Expo 86 is the direct opposite of this: like Frog Eyes's excellent new album, Paul's Tomb: A Triumph, it was recorded mostly live to tape with the band playing in the same room. Co-leaders Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have turned in a batch of tunes that have relatively even lengths and aesthetics, like they're finally writing for the band and not themselves. Not only does this album sound much more unified as a result, there's also the matter of all of the songs having a mid-to-up-tempo pace, making Expo 86 perfect for driving or grooving to with friends. It kicks off with 'Cloud Shadow On The Mountain' which takes no time in setting the barnstorming tone of the record, as if the drum beat and vocals were already going and you have to jump unto a moving bus. The energy and volume don't dip much from here all the way through to the closing 'Cave-O-Sapien', a song that reminds us that six minutes can seem like two if handled properly. As a whole, Expo 86 really does give off the heat of a maximalist, kick-out-the-jams live album with nary a ballad or quiet moment to be found.

“Maximalist” is an adjective that at least Boeckner now identifies with this band, at least according to an interview he did with Pitchfork a couple months ago. Thankfully there's a much stronger focus and sense of tightness to this band's brand of maximalism, so those who disagree with my recent review of Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record should check this one out for an example of dense layers of music and vocals done properly. True, on first listen, it does feel like Wolf Parade have two guitarists, two or three keyboardists, two drummers, one bassist, and two vocalists on every single song. 'Two Men In New Tuxedos' and 'Yulia' in particular are nearly overwhelming with how many things your ears try to pay attention to at the same time. Unlike with Broken Social Scene, though, what initially sounds like cacophony and unnecessary elements soon gives way to intricacies and complexities of melody, rhythm, and texture. As Boeckner put it in the aforementioned interview, “[t]here's a lot of melodies going on within the songs...At any given time, there's five or six counter-melodies running against each other, with the vocals kind of fighting for supremacy.”

Since Expo 86 has an even stronger focus on instrumental chops and full-band interplay than At Mount Zoomer, one could dub it a jammier effort. Indeed, this album does possess a sense of openness and expanse that is superficially close to classic rock and/or jam bands. It's reminiscent of Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, but less traditionally rooted. Boeckner turns in consistently crisp guitar solos, but they don't come off as solos, and Krug's now-patented flights of fancy and counterpoint on keyboards and synths are as dramatic and yet grounded as ever. Meanwhile, stuff like the extended “ooh hoo hoo” vocal outro to 'What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had To Go This Way)' nail home what I'm trying to get at. This is an album that sometimes spools off into tangents, brightening the corners of the room as it wanders about, but it never strikes me as jammy or prog rock show boat-y.

At this point it's clear that the immediacy and nervous energy of their debut was a a fluke rather than the establishment of the Wolf Parade aesthetic. Put onApologies To The Queen Mary now, and you'll hear a group of guys who weren't quite sure what they wanted to sound like and hadn't quite figured out their own identities inside or outside of the band. Expo 86, then, is a band in the full bloom of their confidence, crafting songs that don't instantly stop you dead in your tracks, like, say, 'Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts' did, but do reveal themselves to be just as potent and addictive if patience is one of your virtues (even if it's only in regards to music). Those still wishing Wolf Parade will strip down their sound and song lengths need not apply; those of us who are in it for the long haul with these guys, embracing if not celebrating their changes and development, will find plenty to savor.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LCD Soundsystem- This Is Happening

During the first three minutes of This Is Happening, you will wonder if this is going to be a very different album than Sound Of Silver. Over a minimalist-even-by-Liquid-Liquid's-standards set of percussion and the sloth-like repetition of a piano chord, James Murphy complains about people walking up to him at parties, “present company excepted.” The production is dry and muted, sounding as if someone stuffed cotton into your ears. But then the song comes to life: the beats get harder and funkier, the piano blooms into an insistent synth loop, and Murphy puts some oomph into the lyrics, dropping lines like “just go and throw your little hands out.” Ah, so this is the follow up to Sound Of Silver! The song grooves along until, at, 5:55, it recedes back to the stripped down sound before a sneaky return to the full blooded stuff at 6:35. “Break me into bigger pieces”, Murphy insists in a style/voice reminiscent of David Byrne or perhaps Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer.' For a final time, the song goes to the minimalist style at 8:12 and fades to an undistinguished ending.

This Is Happening's spirit is contained in that first track. To wit: interesting new ideas surrounded by long stretches of been-there, done-that, but-still-enjoyable grooves. and as a whole this album plays like a looser, sloppier, and jammier version of Sound Of Silver. Where that album had an emotional resonance and tight run time, with few extraneous sections that felt like dance breaks, This Is Happening is equal parts promising new directions and warmed over, extended takes on Silver sounds with emphasis on building and riding grooves to the horizon. 'One Touch' is a dance punk throwdown that recalls !!! at their funkiest, while 'Pow Pow' sails on a Talking Heads white boy afro-funk sea, during which Murphy speak-sings about New York City ennui, celebrity, art, etc. 'All I Want' nips the guitar sound whole cloth from the title track of Brian Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets while Murphy declares “all I want is your pity” over and over, eventually begging “take me home” in an exhausted croon that is like an echo of the “take me out tonight” plea from 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' by the Smiths.

The dichotomy between Murphy's persona as a trendsetter hipster out at high falutin' parties and art happenings versus the introspective romantic who just wants to be alone, or anyway, alone with a chick, is the point around which this album, lyrically and musically, rotates. Since he has mentioned in the press that this may be his last album as LCD Soundsystem, this might help explain why This Is Happening feels conflicted and at odds with itself. Ultimately this means that as a danceable, fun party album, This Is Happening is an unqualified success. As a 'listen at home and dig the lyrics and tunes' album, it is less so.

Once you've made peace with the fact that this album is closer in sonics than intent or results to Sound Of Silver, it's easier to pick at what exactly does and doesn't work about it. Sure, I like the danceable songs as much as anyone, but it's the unexpected moments of new musical territory and emotional clarity that make this album one of the year's most uneven and flawed but still rewarding and enjoyable releases. The aforementioned minimalist sections of the opener, 'Dance Yrself Clean,' are exciting and interesting precisely because they're unexpected. Sound Of Silver was such a brilliant album because it ably combined and fused these more (for lack of a better term) experimental and rock-y elements with funky/groovy/danceable stuff. This Is Happening, meanwhile, seems content to keep the two apart, whether it's in separate songs or sections of songs. This means if you're listening to it as a segment of the background music at a party or for straight up dancing, you'll skip over a couple songs; if you're listening to it with your full attention like any good studious music fan will, you'll have to wait for mouthfuls of arty meat between the groovy fun sugary stuff. The closest this album comes to a happy medium is the strident 'Drunk Girls', which feels out of place and is a throwaway of a post-punk pseudo-anthem, and 'Somebody's Calling Me', which is an annoying crawl through shrill synthesizer stabs and awful vocals set to plodding bass and drums. As with Animal Collective's grating wah-wah vocal piece, 'Whaddit I Done', I kind of hate it, but I also kind of love it.

Since two of this album's chiefest flaws are also its long song lengths and overall run time, if 'Drunk Girls' and 'Somebody's Calling Me' had been left on the cutting room floor, This Is Happening would be a more appealing and enjoyable listen. Yet its uneven split between new directions and warmed over echoes of past grooves is still, well, uneven, and not half as good as Sound Of Silver. But in all fairness, if it's taken on its own merits, This Is Happening is a solid album that isn't as cohesive as I'd like, and works far better as a 'dancey party-time' album than 'a headphones and eyes closed on the couch' listen. We know for sure he can do the former. The question, at least to me, is whether he can fully do the latter, as LCD Soundsystem or otherwise.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma

Squarepusher's Music Is Rotted One Note is one of those 'lost' masterpieces that you don't hear talked about all that often these days. Its refreshing synthesis of Miles Davis's electric-era fusion sound with 90s electronic music (specifically, the drum 'n bass and IDM styles that Squarepusher had been working in) makes for one of the most original and thrilling listens in all of electronic music. Squarepusher would mostly abandon this style afterward, though the “folktronica” of Four Tet is a clear descendant, though it may be a case of parallel evolution. Mixing the organic, often jazzy or folky, sounds of guitar, bass, drums, and piano with driving and grooving electronic beats, samples, and keyboards, songs such as 'And They Look Broken Hearted' and 'Hands' off of Rounds sound like someone patching segments of old jazz records together in a post-modern cut-and-paste fashion. The jazz influence on these two projects is even more telling when you know that Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) collaborated with jazz drummer Steve Reid, and Squarepusher is an accomplished bassist who often improvises along with his laptops and electronic gear.

And then there's Flying Lotus. A nephew of John Coltrane, Steven Ellison's new album, Cosmogramma, showcases an artist who has furthered the jazz/electronic dichotomy of Music Is Rotted One Note and Four Tet into strange and fascinating new territory. I'm unfamiliar with his earlier work, but this album is, arguably, more true to the spirit of jazz than the album and artist just mentioned. This's because there's a restless, improvisational feel toCosmogramma that draws as much from avant garde and free jazz as it does the chaotic, fidgety, and never-repetitive music of certain artists and genres of electronic music (you know, the sort of stuff like early kid606 that has you and your friends giggling and typing “LOL so random!” to each other on instant messenger). Such a mix may sound daunting and difficult, but thanks to Flying Lotus's abilities as writer, arranger, programmer, and producer, the album is equally enjoyable to listen to as it is to talk about. An experimental genre fusion thinkpiece that is actually fun and makes you want to nod your head? Madness!

The best musical fusions neither call attention to themselves as novelties nor obviously reveal their constituent parts. In those regards, Cosmogramma is a quiet, underground revolution in electronic music. Mixing jazz (both sampled and live; John Coltrane's son, Ravi, also Flying Lotus's cousin, plays on the album), restless electronic music, videogamey beats and samples, the impressionistic vocals of Thom Yorke and a few others on some tracks, and a hip hop producer's penchant for brewing up memorable grooves and pristine-but-not-clinical production, Flying Lotus has crafted a set of songs that are constantly changing and mutating in a swirlingly intricate but always digestible fashion. It may sound and feel like an electronic album, but it is equally about the improvisational chance taking of jazz, mixing and juxtaposing sounds, melodies, and rhythms in a dense dervish that recalls Miles Davis's legendary Agharta and Pangaea live albums in spirit but not necessarily content.

Cosmogramma primarily sticks to succinct song lengths and a constantly fresh stream of songs that sound of a piece but never repeat ideas, bringing to mind albums with similar formatting, most notably the MF DOOM/Madlib collaboration, Madvillainy. In fact, 'Computer Face/Pure Being' sounds quite a lot like a Madvillainy instrumental, though far busier and with less of a grooving beat to rhyme over. Meanwhile, 'Arkestry' makes a titular nod to Sun Ra while being one of the more jazzy and spacey tracks on the record. 'Pickled' sounds like a Jaco Pastorius bass solo trading blows with a lurching, shuffling electro beat.

The longer songs on Cosmogramma, however, are where its truest sense of discovery lies. '...And The World Laughs With You' so subtly adds, removes, inverts, mixes, and reintroduces sounds and rhythms that it's striking how natural it sounds when heard as background music and during close listening. When Thom Yorke's vocals come in around the 2:44 mark, they don't feel like a spotlight or featured collaboration as most hip hop albums would treat them as. Instead it's much more akin to how El-P described the many guests on his I'll Sleep When You're Dead album: “...little splashes of other peoples[sic] voices, talents, energy used in subtle ways...” Similarly, the female vocals on 'Table Tennis' are reminiscent of Massive Attack or Portishead at their most dreamy, but they're floating over a bedrock of, what else, table tennis found sounds and dense keyboards, all of which are ushered out of the room by a plaintive acoustic guitar at the 2:30 mark.

2010 is shaping up to be one of those bumper crop years for great music, and Flying Lotus has produced one of its freshest and most original. Belonging as much to electronic music as it does jazz and hip hop, Cosmogramma is a brilliant fusion of styles, ideas, and sounds that never comes off as dry and intellectual as genre fusion experiments can. Instead, there's a natural and easygoing spirit to this music that is utterly listenable and alive, felt more in the gut and the heart (and the booty) than the head.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Re: Views On Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record

Here's hoping it's formatted correctly for this page...if not, well, just follow the link to the right to my YouTube page.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Broken Social Scene- Forgiveness Rock Record

Some bands are known only for their sprawl and excess, even if they might have some great music to go along with it. Detractors would say “sprawl and excess” are the only reason why people like prog rock bands of the 70s, but even today, bands like Sunset Rubdown and The Fiery Furnaces are alternately loved and loathed for stepping outside of the three minute pop song format. The big difference between those bands and the sprawl and excess of Broken Social Scene is that there is a clear “leader” or two in those bands, someone to make the call to add or subtract this or that element. So when people say they think Sunset Rubdown is elitist hipster wank, they can point to Spencer Krug as a target for their bile. Broken Social Scene ostensibly have Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, yet Forgiveness Rock Record gives the impression that no one was willing or felt it necessary to pare down this or that song, or remove a few instruments or voices here or there. Restraint and tight running times have never been in this band's playbook, but with sub-par songs and an overstuffed-in-a-bad-way production from John McEntire, it's tough to know where to assign blame.

Assuming we were 'assigning blame' and not reviewing their album, I mean.

As a huge fan of Broken Social Scene's self-titled album, I defend it on the basis of how excellent it really turns out to be when listened to on headphones and with some patience. Yet a big part of its lasting appeal to me is its frequently great songs that aren't always obvious pop tunes. 'Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day)', 'Major Label Debut', and the euphoric rush of 'Superconnected' are all memorable songs, to say nothing of the more immediate tracks 'Fire Eye'd Boy' and '7/4 (Shoreline).' Nothing on Forgiveness Rock Record has anywhere near the catchiness or memorability of these songs, relying on lazy, emptily repeated lyrics as hooks, as on 'Texico Bitches' or the increasingly cliched use of arbitrary swearing with the “ungrateful little motherfuck” line from 'Ungrateful Little Father.'

It doesn't help that all of the album's best material is used up in its first half, so that by the time the charming Sam Prekop of The Sea And Cake shows up on 'Romance To The Grave', it's hard to care, since we've already sat through 50 minutes of the album, not to mention wasted two minutes of this song's run time on instrumental wankery. Worse yet, there is almost no sense of flow or pacing to Forgiveness Rock Record to help alleviate these problems. It may begin very strongly with 'World Sick', but it meanders from there with no discernible pattern or seemingly any care given to what tracks will follow what. The whole thing sounds like the middle of an album with no true peaks or valleys to help give the listener the sense of a journey.

If you really think about it, Broken Social Scene were never a pop band. Their members and collaborators simply come from too many backgrounds to allow this, doubly so when their albums stretch past the hour mark and some of their best songs, like 'Lover's Spit' and 'Almost Crimes', are, respectively, a slow moving ballad and a rocker with a somewhat skronky sax solo. But Forgiveness Rock Record contains their least engaging set of songs ever, often sounding like an indie rock band collaborating with a post-rock collective and trying to marry those different approaches. Which is sort of what this band was and is, I suppose, but it always worked until now. Justin Vernon's collaboration with Collections Of Colonies Of Bees under the moniker Volcano Choir left me with a similar feeling, since it more or less sounds like “the dude from Bon Iver's vocals added into a post-rock group's songs” instead of anything that felt like a natural extension or melding of those disparate sounds. Broken Social Scene used to pull this off, using some post-rock elements in novel, interesting ways. What changed? Well, now the songs sound like an indie rock band and post-rock collective all playing at the same time, with no one there to tell this or that person, “hey, man, you can sit this one out.”

Weak songwriting aside, the huge problems with Forgiveness Rock Record are the suffocating production and the added emphasis on instrumental sections. John McEntire is a great producer in many cases—he helmed one of Stereolab's best, after all—but his shtick isn't helping bands pare down their song lengths and layers of sound. Broken Social Scene was already pretty stuffed and complex when it came to layers of sound but it supported, rather than made up for, a clutch of good-to-great songs. Here, the layers either get in the way of hooks/melodies (there are three separate sets of vocals going on 'Romance To The Grave' alone, not to count the percussion, piano, strings, bass, guitars, keyboards, etc) or make songs drag on pointlessly. For instance, what could have been one of the album's best songs, 'Ungrateful Little Father', is satisfactorily concluded around the 3:30 mark, yet there's three more minutes of aimless instrumental screwing around to sit through.

But hey, didn't I just say this isn't a pop album, and this isn't a pop band? Yes, but this also doesn't work as experimental music or even instrumental music. I kept thinking of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew while listening to this album. There was another set of music that had many musicians and layers of sound on it; even if you didn't know the list of personnel and instruments going in, if you concentrated hard enough, you could pick out, say, an electric and acoustic bassist, or two drummers and a percussionist. But the album is a deftly produced and enjoyable work of genius because Miles Davis and Teo Marcero had a strong overall vision of what they wanted the album to sound like, never worrying about stepping on anyone's toes by splicing various takes of a song together or carefully guiding the players to solo or drop back for awhile. There is no such discipline on Forgiveness Rock Record, and that's a shame. Rather than suffer for being too selfish and stingy with parts, the sheer selflessness of this album means that too many people are on each track doing things that serve neither the songs nor the efficacy of the music. True, this maximal sound is sometimes breathtaking and a visceral rush. But, to paraphrase the famous quote, it is mostly sound and fury that signifies nothing. It's as if Broken Social Scene tried to have their cake and eat it too: they wanted to have some hooks and songs to pull people in, but they also wanted to have tons of layers of sound and lots of instrumental sections. It's possible a band could balance both, but Broken Social Scene aren't that band, at least on this album.

It's a shame to see such an exciting and interesting band fall prey to their worst tendencies, but...here we are. There may be some good moments here and there, but they're utterly lost in a miasma of carelessly piled layers of sound and unnecessarily sprawling songs. Not all bands need a strong leader or two to help craft their music into its best possible shape, as in the case of, say, Godspeed! You Black Emperor. But when a band's albums have a 'members and collaborators' list that reaches toward the two dozen mark, it's a necessity. It would've helped if the songs were anywhere near as good or consistent as their last two albums (no, I'm not counting the “solo” releases by Kevin Drew And Brendan Canning), or if they had worked with a producer who forced them to get rid of half the instruments and voices going on during most of the songs. But as it stands, Forgiveness Rock Record is a frustrating, unrewarding mess of an album, and one of the greatest disappointments I've ever had. Musically speaking.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5