Saturday, October 30, 2010

DOOM- Born Like This

Most rappers have a handful of handles to go by; after all, when in doubt, you can fall back on using names as a springboard for the next rhyme. But MF Doom takes this a step further by seemingly going by a different name for every release. He already has a pretty confusing discography to begin with—is the King Gheedorah album technically his, since he only raps on about four of the tracks? What of the Special Herbs series, several of which overlap to a large extent?—and trying to keep it all straight is even worse when you learn he now goes by the name DOOM (remember, all caps when you spell the man's name!) and has dropped the MF part. Normally this kind of titular obscuring annoys the shit out of me, as with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's earlier output, but in the case of an album like Born Like This, DOOM seems the only appropriate choice.

MF Doom's best known albums are probably MM..Food and his collaboration with Madlib, Madvillainy. Both have a very light tone to them, with plenty of samples from old superhero cartoons on the former and a freewheeling, relaxed production style on the latter. Something about society in the five years since those albums were released must have gotten to him, because in 2009, Born Like This was dropped on the world, a gritty, dark record with a harder edge to its production. It may keep some of Doom's whimsical, nerdy references ('Gazzillion Ear' gives us amazing lines about Ernest Goes To Camp and wrestler Jake The Snake) but by and large it's defined by surprisingly angry tracks like 'Rap Ambush' and the unfortunate gay-bashing of 'Batty Boyz.' Hell, he even growls a bit on 'That's That.'

Still, expecting Doom to always be the guy who does albums for Adult Swim cartoons and samples old TV shows was foolish of me. Once I got over the sudden change in tone, Born Like This became a pretty good, mostly enjoyable entry in his discography, but easily my least favorite. This may seem a bit of a paradox, since I do love the production and choice of samples; when Doom gets on a good tear, his lyrics here match his best. But, well, let me approach it from this direction: the album title and samples on 'Cellz' come from poet/author Charles Bukowski. As he's one of my favorites, I was psyched to see what inspiration Doom might take from him. Other than an apathetic, anti-social feel to the album, not very much. Those more familiar with hip hop would similarly be excited to see Doom perform on tracks produced by J Dilla and Madlib, and appear alongside Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, but none of these moments are wholly satisfying, either. What's more, some of these tracks are simply throwaways. 'Bumpy's Message' is only amusing once and (while this may play right into her hands because of a critic baiting line) whoever that is rapping on 'Still Dope' is nowhere near good enough to appear on a Doom album. At all.

If it seems like I've only complained about Born Like This, it's partially because it deserves the criticism. After not releasing any new material for a few years, I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that Born Like This doesn't match his previous output. Mostly, though, it's because this is the kind of album that is an enjoyable, above average listen but doesn't hold up to scrutiny, not to mention comparisons to other Doom releases. The grittier, more violent themes and feel of Born Like This do make it a fascinating record, since Doom normally has a persona closer to a misunderstood masked villain in the line of The Phantom Of The Opera instead of the outright megalomaniacal Dr. Doom...but I'd be lying if I didn't say I miss the man who used to sample old Godzilla movies and rhyme “double chocolate chunk” with “junk in the trunk.”

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Avey Tare- Down There

You've got to feel a bit sorry for Avey Tare. Over the past few years of Animal Collective's rise to (relative) popularity and critical acclaim, much of the focus has been on bandmate Panda Bear. Though he only really started to write songs and sing lead on Strawberry Jam, Panda Bear's name-making solo album,Person Pitch, and sublime contributions to Merriweather Post Pavillion have ensured that most critics, fans, and interview-happy journalists are focused on him. Worse, Avey Tare (real name Dave Portner) recently separated (or divorced, I'm not entirely clear on that) from his wife, Kria Brekkan, best known as a former member of Mum and, with her twin sister, cover star of Belle & Sebastian's Fold Your Hands Child... album. Thus while anticipation is reaching critical mass for Panda Bear's overdue Tomboy album, there was little fanfare when Portner announced Down There a couple months ago.

This perplexes me, since Portner was always the main songwriter for Animal Collective. Even though he's unfairly pegged as the noisy/dissonant/experimental member of the group, if you spend a few minutes with his previous sort-of-solo album, Pullhair Rubeye, or, you know, most of the tracks on Merriweather, you'll soon be reminded of his gentle and/or melodic side. Furthermore, Portner was the guy who wrote the majority of the best known, best loved Animal Collective songs, so why was almost no one, outside of dedicated fans, buzzing about another solo album from him?

Down There, as it turns out, isn't as dissonant and experimental as you may expect. It is less hook-y and song based than the last four Animal Collective albums, to be sure, and he has also retreated to using effects on his vocals and singing in a way that it makes it hard to figure out what he's saying. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is an album that disappears into itself far more than it invites the listener in. There is a listless, airy quality to this music; in general Down There is the sort of record that seems to spend as much time in near-silence or statically hanging in vocal-less electronic ambience as it does treating you to concrete songs, albeit ones with slow feed melodies and hooks. While I do think this heavily electronic and atmospheric aesthetic works for these songs, that doesn't mean the album, by extension, works. Now that I think about it, in some ways it's like the polar opposite of Panda Bear's Person Pitch, all dour and insular and barely there, instead of bright and expansive and maximalist like that masterpiece.

If Down There sounds like anything from the Animal Collective discography, it picks up where the slower, bummed out tracks from Merriweather and the Fall Be Kind EP left off. A better comparison may be that it's the break-up album, other-side-of-the-coin to the love song filled Feels. 'Cemeteries' in particular seems like the evil twin of slow motion psychedelic Feels dreams like 'Daffy Duck' or 'Loch Raven.' To put it yet another way, Down There reminds me a bit of Thom Yorke's solo album, The Eraser, in the sense that you have the ostensible lead musician in a popular, beloved band delivering an underwhelming solo album that sounds as downcast and bedroom born as it probably was. Now, to be fair, I do like The Eraser, and I also like Down There. But in both cases I spent an inordinate amount of time listening, waiting to fall in love as I always had, and never finding much to get excited about. Down There is merely an interesting but partially forgettable album, lacking any of the punch or character of his best Animal Collective music.

Portner has gone on record as saying that he has no intention to tour this material, since singing these songs every night would be like returning to the dark place they came from. So this tells us that Down There is his most personal statement yet, and it also tells us that the record was a catharsis for him. I'll go ahead and add that Down There is an example of a solo album that will only appeal to longtime fans and not those drawn in by the honeyed bliss ofMerriweather. Portner does mostly stick to his less screamy vocal approach on this album, but even then, the melodies and hooks are much less apparent and memorable than on anything he's written in the last five years. Since this record sounds so much like Animal Collective, it's impossible not to compare. To that end, let's just say, even the more immediate, direct, and enjoyable songs, like 'Lucky 1'—with its knotty electronic pulse and Portner's devastating “were you crying?” repeated question—are underwhelming. Even going by other albums or its own standards, Down There is rarely above average.

Sometimes misery and unhappiness can lead to great art. Other times, though, they can lead to a normally peerless artist throwing a pity party and retreating into good-but-unremarkable art. Down There isn't so much a disappointment as it is inessential. Fans will enjoy, maybe even love, this album, but those who were drawn to Animal Collective by their recent more accessible music will find this a thin, unsatisfying listen.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, October 23, 2010

loudQUIETloud: A Film About The Pixies

Unlike many of the classic rock gods and huge stars of the past, the misfits and underground bands (whether it be punks of the 70s, new wave and college rock groups of the 80s, or alternative/indie rock bands of the 90s and 00s) don't cry out for humanizing. Sure, it's still too-easy for critics and fans to put them on pedestals and throw around terms like “genius” and “brilliant”, but when I use such terms it's always with a foot firmly planted in reality. I don't think of these bands as flawless super heroes; I know they have personal problems and likely struggle to make a living. So I don't need to see those problems and struggles revealed in the clear light of day.

Before seeing loudQUIETloud: A Film About The Pixies, I had a vague idea of what the band had been up to since its break-up, and even with my limited knowledge and assumptions, none of it was good. Drummer Dave Lovering and guitarist Joe Santiago had fallen off the face of the earth; Kim Deal put out Breeders albums at a very irregular rate; Black Francis aka Frank Black aka Charles Thompson had a long running solo career, but hadn't seen much acclaim or interest in almost a decade. As the documentary reveals, I wasn't far off. But while loudQUIETloud is valuable for filling in the details of what they've been up to, it unfortunately isn't a wholly satisfying examination of the why's and how's of the reunion.

Setting aside the issue of the band doing it for the money (who could blame them, since like other ahead-of-their-time acts they didn't get nearly enough love and cash back in the day), the band seem most interested in and subsequently shocked by how badly they were missed. Or, in some cases, how much they're now loved and embraced by young people who couldn't have caught them the first time. There's a real touching mini-story arc about a female fan who discovered them via a novel. She's interviewed and plays it a bit cool, but when meeting her heroine, Kim, she loses her composure. She's shown giving Kim her copy of said novel, which is touching and cute, and over the credits footage of her band performing a Pixies song is cut into and out of the actual Pixies playing the same track. This serves as perhaps the best summary of both how influential the Pixies were and still are, and how their music still sounds amazing today. What I mean is, young kids are being directly influenced by them instead of modern indie rock like, say, Wolf Parade or Vampire Weekend.

The personal problems and struggles of the Pixies before and during the reunion are surprisingly mundane. The implication of the unnecessary shots of a shirtless Frank Black is that he has gained considerable weight since the early 90s, and his flagging solo career of rootsy/country-ish music has gotten to the point that he is shown admitting to a producer that most labels have absolutely no interest in him. Kim Deal has struggled with drug and alcohol problems and is bizarrely shown drinking non-alcoholic beer in half the scenes she appears in. At the same time, she lives at home with her mother despite releasing well received Breeders albums with twin sister/care taker Kelley Deal. Joey Santiago, meanwhile, has a family and makes a living with his new band with his wife as well as by doing soundtrack work; he is the most stable and down-to-earth of all the Pixies by far. Perhaps the saddest story is Dave Lovering, who goes from being an eccentric, practically broke magician with long hair to being a harrowed, bald figure by film's end, dealing with his father's recent death by beginning to use pills and booze.

As not enough attention is paid to the break-up of the band or the story behind the union, the main point of loudQUIETloud is their music. The Pixies seem revitalized by performing again. Kim Deal is shown working on new music for the Breeders; Frank Black casually mentions the possibility of new music from the Pixies. Joey Santiago initially struggles with doing a soundtrack while on tour, but it goes better when he invites the Pixies to help out; Dave Lovering seems to have rediscovered music entirely, raving in one scene about how he can't stop listening to music, and in seemingly every scene he has a pair of drum sticks in his hands, banging on this or that surface.

In the midst of all their issues and financial motivation, loudQUIETloud succeeds as a film because it's about the music: the process of playing it, recording it, and loving it. The point seems to be, this is what really matters in the end. Not the break-up or reunion drama; not their personal problems and issues. The people behind the Pixies are fragile and human, but the music they made—that can never be humanized or brought down-to-earth.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sufjan Stevens- Age Of Adz

Age Of Adz is the biggest curveball Sufjan Stevens will ever throw. To label it thus still feels like a bit of an understatement. Since most of us were drawn to Sufjan Stevens by the Michigan and Illinois albums, it was easy to assume he was always going to be the orchestral folk/pop maestro. Indeed, since he originally planned to record an album for all of the 50 States, he seemed destined to stay in this style for the remainder of his career. Moreover, the astonishing quality and originality of these albums made it hard to accept that he might someday leave this sound behind and attempt new things. After all, Illinois is one of the best albums ever made; who wouldn't want 48 more? Right?


Well, no. Deep down we all knew he couldn't deliver on such a promise, though the speed with which he abandoned both the 50 States project and its style is still a surprise, at least to me. Sufjan has been going through a period of personal and creative wandering since roughly 2007, releasing a combination film/album tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to modest fanfare and mostly working behind the scenes at his record label, Asthmatic Kitty. After a short tour last Fall, during which he performed some new, more experimental material, he surprised everyone by releasing a new EP without warning earlier this year. All Delighted People was a welcome return to pop music after the orchestral The BQE, but I found its mix of old style folky songs and new out-there epics to be a mixed bag. Luckily he soon announced a new album...

Which brings us up to speed, and thus to Age Of Adz. Going even further with the heavily electronic and electric guitar based tracks of All Delighted People, this album is easily the most experimental and chance taking of his career (not to mention the year in music). I saw him in concert a week ago, and his ten piece band and stage show often resembled the Flaming Lips as much anything else. The music oozed and breathed with heavy beats, pounding drums, shout-along vocals, deep hooks, and Sufjan switching between guitar spasms, pounding away at a keyboard/sampler, and busting out white boy dance moves. Hell, he even donned sunglasses and used a vocoder/auto-tuner, recalling Kanye West and Daft Punk far more than the tender fellow who crooned about driving to Chicago in a van with his friends.

Whatever you end up feeling about Adz (my friend Pat, a diehard Sufjanian, hated the concert and by extension this new album), it'd be hard to argue that this is one of the last moves anyone expected Sufjan to make. Detractors so often pinned him as a wimp who had a voice like a wounded bird that to hear him throwing around lyrics like “do you wanna dance?” and “I'm not fucking around” would have to be a joke. Yet here we are, and while I laughed a lot at the concert, it was with him instead of at him. Despite the continued apocalyptic dread and the break-up vibe carried over from the EP, which it turns out was inspired by outsider artist Royal Robertson, he sounds and acts like a man who has come out of, or is coming out of, a period of great personal and creative struggles. More crucially, he now sounds and acts like a man who wants to have fun with music while still pushing himself creatively.

The strange dichotomy between the dark subject matter and engaging, fresh music is mirrored in the sound of Age Of Adz. Retaining a good deal more of his orchestral flourishes and sullen acoustic stuff than one might assume, the album nevertheless is undoubtedly all about the heavy electronic stuff. Come to think of it, this album reminds me quite a bit of Owen Pallett's recent Heartland album, combining classical and electronic music as it did. Anyway, at the show, Sufjan thanked the audience for indulging his new material, explaining that he had moved from heavily composed and thought-out music to a more spontaneous and instinctual style based as much on sounds and textures as traditional pop songwriting. To that end, even the shorter, seemingly more “traditional” tracks of Adz are weird by Illinois standards. 'Now That I'm Older' is like being stuck in an echo-y chamber full of vocals, a piano, and some lovingly plucked string instruments; for as many keyboard bloops and swooshes as it has, 'Bad Communication' may as well be a sped up Stereolab song. 'All For Myself' is something else entirely, a damaged electro/choral pop tune that blurts in and out of loudness like a record skipping or a stuttering loop, and reminds me of nothing else in the world except 'Cuckoo Cuckoo' by Animal Collective. Maybe that's grasping at straws, but if you had told me this time last year that I would be comparing Sufjan to Animal Collective, I'd have assumed the album is question is the worst thing ever or the best.

The reason Age Of Adz will go down in history in people's minds as one of those two options is the longer tracks. Listening to the whole album with a good pair of headphones is a good idea, since there's so much detail and density that can otherwise be lost, but for songs like the title track and 'Vesuvius', they're downright mandatory. Sufjan's previous albums utilized dozens of instruments, true, but they rarely sounded as full and powerful as the slow burning hooks and peaks of Adz. And thanks to 'Impossible Soul', this album matches if not bests Illinois in terms of ambition and scope. It initially sounds all over the place and as much of a mess as All Delighted People, but these complaints soon metamorphose into positives. You've really got to sit with Adz and give it a chance. Take a few trips down its strange, all-encompassing highway to get a better sense of its boundaries and it starts to sound more cohesive and sensible than anything this long and out-there has a right to be.

While I don't think Age Of Adz is an unqualified success, it is, if nothing else, the kind of album he needed to make at this point in his life if he still wants to have a career. What I mean is, churning out Illinois sequels would be fine, but it would limit his growth as an artist. Since Adz ends with the 25 minute epic-to-end-all-Sufjan-epics 'Impossible Soul', he has certainly made up his mind regarding growth and trying new things. As a result, this is an exhausting and not always consistent record, but it rewards those open minded listeners who stick with it. Where All Delighted People merely appeased and bored, Adz is sure to elicit extreme reactions: I think it's his best album that isn't called Illinois, and my friend Pat hates it. So there you go.

Age Of Adz is an unwieldly mess of an album; it is flawed, challenging, and indulgent. But Adz is also a fascinating, brilliant, and rewarding monolith from a gifted artist with vision and guts to spare. Whatever your opinion of it, there's no arguing that it is easily the most chance-takingly different record of 2010. Hell, it makes Congratulations by MGMT seem safe by comparison! But I digress. No matter how it will be contextualized by future Sufjan Stevens releases, Adz should rightfully go down in history as one of those moments where an artist threw most of their playbook out the window and made music in a different way, sonically and structurally. This is Sufjan Stevens's Kid A. Grandiose claim that it may be, I can't think of another time in recent memory that someone stepped so far outside of their usual modus operandi but still retained their identity. Anyway, I love Kid A just as much as I do OK Computer, so why can't I love Age Of Adz as much as Illinois? I've got the room in my heart and the time to enjoy both. To paraphrase Sufjan, it's a long life; do you want to dance?

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, October 16, 2010

King Of Kong

One of the downsides of documentaries is that their content can be very ephemeral. I suspect that most of Michael Moore's films will age into irrelevancy as their righteous indignation and anger go from being poignant and timely to strident and outdated. A film following the world record contestants for a classic videogame is much less ambitious than Moore's socio-political potboilers, true, but it nonetheless would be just as moment-in-time because the record is bound to change hands many times after the movie comes out. Indeed, after King Of Kong's release, the record changed hands, and continues to.

However, this is not the focus of the film. The record, and indeed the game being played, are beside the point. It's really about the personalities involved, and the drama they go through before, during, and after the world record attempts, that matters. It's also about the alliances and seemingly devious rules and practices of a competitive, insular scene that few people knew existed. You could therefore accuse King Of Kong of being flagrant in its characterization of Steve Wiebe as the lovable loser, family man, and artistic underdog who is on the outside of the videogame world record scene going up against one of its Goliaths: Billy Mitchell, an egocentric, calculating businessman with a trophy wife. But that all depends who you believe or what you believe. Director Seth Gordon has stated that they actually made Mitchell out to be “lighter” than he really is, but again, who do you believe?

For what it's worth, Wiebe recently reclaimed the top score on Donkey Kong, but this knowledge is boring without the personal struggles and details this documentary gives. Reading the dry fact on Wikipedia isn't exciting without the faces, voices, and drama King Of Kong provides. It struck me as very odd, then, that King Of Kong throws a bait and switch with its climax by showing Wiebe failing at a world record attempt and rolling credits...but actually ending with a baffling coda that delivers the news that Wiebe did eventually succeed. It does this with all the pomp and circumstance of a casual P.S. and blunts its impact in the process. Still, my point remains: it's the rivalry and the political machinations of both sides that are the story here, not who is on top. In other words, it's a character study as much as anything. King Of Kong is full of (to put it mildly) eccentric characters, from the obsequious Brian Kuh, two-fisted-son-of-a-bitch Roy Shildt, to hippie musician/referee Walter Day. You may hate Billy Mitchell by film's end or tire of Wiebe's sad sack personality, but without those elements, the story of the Donkey Kong world record is just as boring as the hot dog eating championships without the “dude comes from nowhere to take it back from the Japanese” story of Joey Chestnut.

If this documentary leaves you feeling mildly unsatisfied, it's probably because there is no true head-to-head competition between Mitchell and Wiebe. They only briefly meet face to face and are never shown playing in person against each other. If King Of Kong had been a fictionalized account, it would undoubtedly have had an epic showdown between the two men. I found myself wishing this was the case since the actual conclusion is the very definition of an anti-climax. Still, I might argue that this lingering disappointment mirrors both Wiebe's own personal history of failures and losses as well as the way everyone in the documentary is bummed that when Mitchell finally shows up to a tournament he refuses to play in front of a crowd or challenge Wiebe directly. The problem of the muted, tossed-in “oh by the way, Wiebe does succeed after all” ending remains, instantly transforming the tone from someone learning to cope with failure while also being finally accepted/acknowledged by his peers, to being an oddly Hollywood-esque happy ending that is about three minutes long and treated with a anti-climactic tone. This weakens the film as a whole and should have been excluded, since the record was bound to change hands multiple times after its release. After all, without success at claiming the record, Wiebe's story is more poignant, affecting, and believable. An ending that says “you may have lost, but you still have your family, your artistic talents, the newly won respect of your peers...and you aren't that douchebag Billy Mitchell” leaves it up to the viewer to decide if this is happy or not. Therefore, it is infinitely better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Walkmen- Lisbon

Remember when you were younger? “Younger” as in, before you had a job and relied on holiday and birthday gifts to get the things that would entertain you for most of the year? It seemed like such a drag at the time, I know, but it was a double edged sword: whether or not the toy/videogame/album/sweater you got was any good, you had to wring every possible milliliter of enjoyment out of it because it was all you were going to get for a long time. I distinctly remember a point in junior high when my music collection consisted of four albums. I liked them all, sure, but more importantly, I had them literally memorized because, other than CDs I borrowed from the library and the radio, they were all the music I had access to. I no longer follow the Foo Fighters and don't own a copy of The Colour And The Shape any more, but even when I merely glance over the tracklisting, I can still hear the songs in my head. As I write this, I'm 26 years old, and I have hundreds of albums at my fingertips, with thousands more available online via legal and illegal means. But how many of those albums can I say I know as well as that damn Foo Fighters one I haven't heard in more than a decade?

I'm not saying I miss those days, mind you. It's just that this is something I've been thinking about lately thanks to Lisbon. See, I listen to a lot of music in the process of trying to stay abreast of new stuff as well as catch up on the old, so I can't possibly spend as much time with each album as I did during my junior high days. In some strange way, though, listening to Lisbon has brought me back to my meager four CD collection era and taught me an important lesson: the best albums aren't the ones that immediately grab you; aren't the ones that grow on you; aren't the ones that signal earthshaking changes in music. No, they're the ones that are so sublime, so flawlessly enjoyable that by their own excellence they compel you to listen over and over until you know them inside and out. You don't have the juvenile desperation and boredom of listening to the same thing for the umpteenth time because it's all you own. Rather, you have the haggard, starving need to hear those certain sounds, those specific turns of phrase and sparkling melodies, because they have captured you: constantly bubbling up, unbidden, from your subconscious while you're at work or doing the dishes.

Hell, the second side of Lisbon just finished playing and my mind is already starting side one again; the meandering guitar line of 'Juveniles' hitches itself to the Walkmen receptors in my brain, a tide of endorphins issued when the “you're one of us, or one of them” refrain comes up. The band's surf rock fascination reaches its peak here, with 'Angela Surf City' and 'Woe Is Me' the most obvious appearances, and much of the album's guitar tone is reminiscent of this music. However, Lisbon is not a surf rock album in the same way Bossanova by the Pixies, though often redolent of surf rock, wasn't one, either. I'd be remiss not to mention the eerie mariachi horns on 'Stranded', a song that has the perfect production and feel to be used in a revisionist Western or eccentric love story. 'While I Shovel The Snow', a languid winter dream that is only vocals and a chiming guitar, contributes further proof that the Walkmen are the undisputed masters of stripped down, no frills music making. Despite an intro suggesting a balls-out rock song like 'The Rat', 'Blue As Your Blood' is actually a haunting bummer ballad with lovely lyrics (“the sky above/is blue as your blood/black is the color of your eyelash/Spanish is the language of your tongue”) and what is arguably Hamilton Leithauser's best vocal performance to date. Speaking of, Lisbon is very similar to Beach House's Teen Dreaminsofar as both are among the year's best albums as well as showcasing their vocalists in full bloom.

Lisbon was named after the city, of course, and this album was inspired by visits the Walkmen took there...though it was recorded in the States. Still, this is the same city that Panda Bear moved to, and inspired his Person Pitch album...though none of it was recorded there, either (as far as I know). I don't meant to compare the two albums, but it does make me wish more bands would go there if this is the kind of music that results. Lisbon is one of those albums...a masterpiece, let's say. It's old fashioned but in a timeless sort of way. It's not flashy or show off-y but nonetheless commands your respect with its graceful, masterful, top-of-their-game song craft. Most tellingly, I can't stop listening to it; unlike my junior high days, it's because I want to rather than because Ihave to.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Deerhunter- Halcyon Digest

On Pitchfork's TV site, you can find a performance of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox performing as his Atlas Sound solo project. Seated, and with only an acoustic guitar and Bob Dylan-style harmonica holder on, he performs an almost funereal selection of songs inside a church, using a loop pedal and various effects to layer and sculpt the music, a strange mix of 60s folk-rock and psychedelic dream-pop. Watching it for the first time, my initial impression of Atlas Sound's Logos as unfinished and skeletal finally made sense. With an acoustic guitar as the music's locus, this was a major departure from the electric and electronic music Cox had been making for years. In this way, Deerhunter's new album, Halcyon Digest, feels as much like an extension of Logos as it does Deerhunter's Microcastle.

As with indie contemporaries such as TV On The Radio and Animal Collective, Deerhunter have charted a musical development that has taken them from their experimental roots to greater and greater degrees of accessibility and pop songwriting. Microcastle and its 'bonus' album Weird Era Cont. are the obvious jumping off point for Halcyon Digest, since they had an even split between the band's earlier shoegazing/dream pop/noisey side and the modern pop stuff. This new one goes all the way toward the pop stuff, so much so that Deerhunter have finally cleaned away enough of the grit and syrupy psychedelic sounds to qualify as a rock band instead of...well, whatever they were before. They may have actually gone a few steps too far in this direction, unfortunately: Halcyon Digest seems stripped down, plain, and samey sounding, as if the band is working in blacks and whites instead of all the colors of the rainbow. The album does throw a curveball from time to time, though this ends up making it feel uneven and disjointed. Opener 'Earthquake' oozes out of the speakers, a woozy haze of vocals and guitar set to a minimalist drum machine. Guitarist Locke Pundt's 'Desire Lines' spirals out into a three minute guitar solo and reminds me of Murray Street-era Sonic Youth. It and 'Earthquake' could easily have fit unto Microcastle, which is a good and bad thing as I'll eventually get to.

Halcyon Digest is, like Cox's previous music, defined by his ever present nostalgia and remembrances. This time out, these themes surface in the music as much as the lyrics. There's a strong 50s/60s vocal pop/girl group feel to most of these songs, albeit filtered through Deerhunter's aesthetic. Remember how the Pixies almost sounded like a surf rock band on Bossnova? Well, Deerhunter almost sound like a 60s band on Halcyon Digest, right down to having a frontman who primarily plays acoustic guitar. 'Don't Cry', 'Sailing', and 'Basement Scene' pick up where Logos tracks 'Sheila' and 'My Halo' (and Deerhunter's own 'Famous Last Words') left off. Cox's harmonica punctuates the propulsive 'Memory Boy', a fun retro-ist quickie; unfortunately, it shares the same very basic drum beat with nearly every track on Halcyon Digest and makes it have a plain, samey feel. Due to this, from time to time the album actually sounds like Deerhunter turning into or wanting to become a stripped down rock band. Think a more overtly retro Walkmen and you're halfway there—the sax solo and use of piano on 'Coronado' are right out of their playbook. What's more, Cox's sometimes muffled, reedy vocal delivery on Halcyon Digest recalls the guy from the Strokes. Which isn't a good thing, just to be clear.

The reason I didn't fall in love with Halcyon Digest, and I suspect many people won't, is that it lacks the unified atmosphere and consistency of earlier Deerhunter albums and EPs. Before I continue, remember that this is still really good music, and it has some of the band's best songs ever in the euphoric 'Helicopter' and Jay Reatard tribute 'He Would Have Laughed.' However, the latter was recorded by Cox separately and should probably have been an Atlas Sound track, thus demonstrating my final point. Halcyon Digest is like some weird hybrid of a Logos sequel and a Microcastle sequel, and this subsequently reveals the differences between the two projects as well as why Cox has kept them separate. Thus you get basic/stripped down tracks like 'Don't Cry' and 'Fountain Stairs' that are good-but-not-great lumped in with 'Earthquake', 'Desire Lines', and 'Helicopter', which sound like evolutionary but not revolutionary steps from Microcastle. As this is the first time you could genuinely call Deerhunter a rock band and not have to qualify it with genre and sub-genre labels, Halcyon Digest strikes me as a transitional album, one that went too far in one direction and yet not nearly far enough to complete said transition.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, October 4, 2010

But I Am Going To Swim In It: Lester Bangs Revisited

Lester Bangs is a name that haunts music journalism, along with other titans such as Nick Kent, Robert Christgau, and Greil Marcus. His greatest influence, at least in my opinion, was in making the process of writing about music—whether it be an album, band profile, concert review, interview, or travelogue—much more personal, informal, and poetic than it used to be. He intellectualized and romanticized music and music listening while also bringing the god-like stars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s down to a human level. Other writers certainly contributed to this trend, but Bangs is most associated with it, to the point where over the past few years some have called for a new Lester Bangs, or more specifically, a Lester Bangs of videogames journalism. However, I have to wonder if these people are basing this desire more on their memories of what he stood for and what his writing was like compared to the actual facts.

Bangs's work is featured in two collections, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Together they serve not as a comprehensive compilation of his work so much as they are a complete sampling of his style. You get the drug fueled gonzo/New Journalism type stuff that is sometimes only tangentially related to music, such as excerpts from his unpublished Drug Punk novel. You get travel stories that humanize The Clash as good, regular guys but far from angelsl a typically first person account of meetings with most of the major forces in reggae/dub at their peak in the 70s in Jamaica; a strange rant about a visit to California. You get concise reviews of albums that are more memorable and interesting than the albums themselves. You get entertaining, sometimes antagonistic, profile/interview pieces on Lou Reed, ELP, Jethro Tull, et. al. You get moving, brilliant examinations of classics like Astral Weeks and The Marble Index. And you get a mountain of phrases and irreverent wordplay that make you want to believe what he says even if history frequently proved him wrong—would anyone alive today really claim that Led Zeppelin and 'Stairway to Heaven' aren't going to be around for hundreds of years?

The reason I wondered whether people remember Bangs more in theory and memory than in practice is that, at least in the cases where it's allowed to get out of hand, his writing is something you end up reading more for his personality (or perhaps the persona he projected to the world) and rambling style than the actual content and what he has to say. A lot of it is borderline unreadable Beat-like writing that you'll indulge once and skip on re-visitings of Psychotic Reactions or Mainlines. This is why people who wonder “where is the new Lester Bangs?” are partially wrong, because he was very much a product of his time and place, and you couldn't get away with today what he often did in the past and still expect to get published, not to mention get interviews.

Bangs acknowledged Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski as influences, and to be sure the former's rambling, hallucinatory prose and the latter's alcoholic, dirty old man persona are part of Bangs, most obviously in pieces like 'Notes On Austin' and 'New Year's Eve', respectively. Sure, blogs might publish this kind of stuff today, and former Pitchfork writer Brent DiCrescenzo was a bald faced Bangs acolyte with his lengthy conceptual/experimental (many would say pretentious) prose, but most modern readers and critics will agree this kind of writing holds no appeal for someone who wants to know what an album is like and if it's any good. There's an answer in the writing, sure, but it takes way too long to get there, has paragraphs that don't seem to relate at all or (like Christgau's often florid intellectualist capsule reviews) are neigh incomprehensible. As for getting interviews, when the modern press does attempt to confront artists today or stand by its writers, it ends up being a mess like the recent M.I.A. piece by Lynn Hirschberg or videogame developers/publishers blacklisting magazines/websites based on unfavorable reviews or coverage.

Of course, I love Bangs, and these two collections are part of what I would consider required reading for anyone with a passing interest in music journalism and criticism in general. The key is not to see Psychotic Reactions and Mainlines as a style guide or handbook for how to write, but as a helpful tool to see that music writing can be more than just “I liked this because it's good. 5 stars. The End.” He's instructive as much for helping you get more personal with writing as he is for knowing how far not to take getting more personal with writing. After all, Bangs seemed to have little concern for the audience digesting what he released...or maybe he had so much regard for them that he didn't water anything down. Whatever the case, his love of and deeply felt personal relationship with music are the most important element of both collections. You get the feeling when you're reading through long sections about how miserable and numb he was feeling at the time that it had more to do with a dearth of good music coming out instead of any social or psychological problems he was having. By this criterion, he was indeed one of the greatest critics of any artform. Critics aren't just consumer guides; we deeply feel and immerse ourselves in art, and when there's a string of crap, it affects us more than we realize. Now, whether Bangs was one of the best writers...well, that's still up for debate.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Grinderman- Grinderman 2

Nick Cave rarely disappoints, so it may sound unfair when I call Grinderman's debut one of 2007's best surprises. It was a surprise not in the sense of how good it was, but simply by its very existence. Had Cave wanted to release the music under his own name, or revive the Bad Seeds, he could have. But by designating a new side project for himself, it freed him to be as raucous and raunchy as he ever had, if not more so. Songs like 'No Pussy Blues' instantly codified the concerns of Grinderman (i.e. getting laid, rocking out), while others, like the title track or 'Man In The Moon', could have been recorded under his own name, though they would never have been conceived by Nick Cave as Nick Cave.

Many see this band as his mid-life crisis, and there is something about it that reminds me of the dirty old man persona of Charles Bukowski, as well as the early parts of Breakfast Of Champions where Kurt Vonnegut talks about how old men end up returning to an adolescent mind state, and includes many silly and vulgar crude drawings in the novel, like an anus, both connotations of a beaver, cows and hamburgers, etc. But I don't know that mid-life crisis is the right way to look at this band, just as according to Cave himself calling it a side project isn't true, either. What I'm getting at is, it took becoming Grinderman, and the Dionysian longings unleashed therein, to go from the usual work, best summarized as a romantic/poetic/intellectual/pious sort of longing, to get (back) to the animalistic/physical/pleasures-of-the-flesh/downright pagan sort of longing.

The difference between the first and second Grinderman albums is ably expressed by how the latter ends and the former begins. 'Love Bomb' draws to a close with (I assume) the Grinderman character so thin and sickly that when his lover tries to pick him up, her fingers go right through him. 'Mickey Mouse And The Goodbye Man', meanwhile, suggests a kind of vampiric/lycanthropic brother to the narrator, eventually corrupting both a female victim (“He sucked her dry”) and said narrator (“we took shelter under her body/and we sucked her and we sucked her and we sucked her dry).” From victim to victimizer, eh? But that suggests a rape-theme to Grinderman 2 that isn't there. Rather it's the frustration and desperation of the debut taken to the next stage, where Grinderman has had a taste but still wants more, realizing in the process that maybe things like romance and love do count. To put it another way, the cover of Grinderman is a masturbating animal, while Grinderman 2 is an animal on the prowl for more. It has a more expansive and searching take on the band's sound as a result, leading to extremes like the wealth of details on the meditative 'What I Know' as well as the full band psychedelic throwdown of album closer 'Bellringer Blues.' All the while, the band's secret asset isn't the songwriting or lyrics, but the instrumentation: a now iconic mix of distorted guitars, shrieking/wailing organs, Warren Ellis's bizarre electrified string instruments, and a punishing bass/drum engine room. If ever there were a band who could record the best cover of 'Sister Ray' possible, Grinderman is it.

Certain albums only make sense and reveal the full depth of their brilliance when you're in the proper state. I can't even hear Nico's The Marble Indexunless I feel depressed, vaguely haunted, or lonely-in-a-paranoid-way. Architecture In Helsinki's In Case We Die is a cloying, quixotic annoyance piece that I can't stand unless I'm in a good mood. Thus I don't think Grinderman 2 will completely make sense unless you're at least a little bit drunk, stoned, or sexually frustrated. 'Heathen Child', the album's first single and video, makes a good case for this. It's a very sensual, surreal song existing outside of the usual Western/Christian tropes, notably mentioning Allah and Buddah but skipping Jesus entirely. Elsewhere Cave delivers some of his most brilliant couplets yet, like “just how long you gunna be my baby?/until you come?” ('When My Baby Comes') and “the spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe's negligee/I give to you” ('Palaces Of Montezuma'). Though the offerings of the latter may be grisly according to our moral standards, to a wayward horny beast like Grinderman it's as romantic as you're liable to get.

If Grinderman concerned itself only with a single base desire, that of getting laid, then Grinderman 2 is the process of an animal coming to terms with the fact that, once one desire is sated, it only opens up a host of new ones. After all, a wolf knows how to have sex instinctively, but things like romance and intellectual/spiritual love aren't encoded in DNA. Hence odd displays of affection like 'Palaces Of Montezuma' that are analogous to pet cats leaving dead mice for you; it's the only currency they understand and can offer you. But I digress. Grinderman 2 may only amount to a four star album when you're straight and sober, but under the influence of booze, drugs, and/or sexual/romantic longing, it suddenly becomes your animal brother, inviting you to suck the blood of a victim, an act no longer as repellant as it used to be. If they won't love you, eat 'em; less competition in the survival of the fittest and you may as well fulfill one hunger.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5