Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 36

Drum roll, please...
(Note: I was having a bear of a time getting to work last night, so if the video is still screwed up, I'll fix it when I get home from work today)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 35

Apologies for the lateness of this post. Technically I did have this posted to last night but didn't have time to put it here, too. Ah, holidays...and local experimental music shows that keep me out late on work nights!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blackout Beach- Fuck Death

Whether or not you're as a dedicated fan of his as I am, I'm no longer sure if metrics of “good” or “bad” apply to Carey Mercer's solo project, Blackout Beach. Like Scott Walker's modern music, it has few precedents or points of comparison and so it's hard to tell how good or not it is. You like it because it's successful at what it's trying or because you find it interesting, and you sure aren't going to put it on at a party. Anyway, I don't think it's possible to like Blackout Beach on an album-by-album basis; by now, you're either all in or all out, and Fuck Death will do nothing to change anyone's mind.

Mercer's last two releases, Frog Eyes's Paul's Tomb: A Triumph and Blackout Beach's Skin Of Evil, felt like they belonged in the same headspace even if they sounded little alike. The same dark, intense atmosphere permeated both, many of the same characters haunted both records, and they were made around the same period of time. Naturally, Fuck Death has much more in common with Skin Of Evil, though it does feels of-a-piece with both albums.

Still, this is not Skin Of Evil Part 2 even if the constituent parts sound similar. Mercer is pushing himself to his greatest extremes yet on Fuck Death: at more than 12 minutes, 'Drowning Pigs' is the longest track he's ever made. Similarly, there are very few traditional guitar sounds on Fuck Death as Mercer decided to focus on synthesizers and atmospherics. Perhaps he was inspired by Spencer Krug's Moonface release from earlier this year, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped, where Krug limited himself to primitive organs and drum machines. Or maybe the influence was the other way around. But I digress.

In a press release for Fuck Death, Mercer took a few swipes at the chillwave scene in between explaining that the record focuses on themes of war, beauty, and cowardice. All of this, somehow, makes sense to me after listening to this album off and on for a few weeks. One could make the argument that Blackout Beach is the opposite of chillwave, forcing the listener into discomforting thoughts and environments, like a Lars Von Trier film. After all, there are no hooks or melodies, or anyway, no intentional ones. The way 'Be Forewarned, The Night Has Come' peaks at the end is strangely addictive to these ears, though it's worth noting I genuinely like the No New York compilation, so perhaps I'm skewed as to what is catchy and addictive. As for the war, beauty, and cowardice...I assure you, it's there in the lyrics and the sounds, you just have to keep working at it.

And you'll have to trust me that the work is worth it, because despite the extremes that it goes to, Fuck Death is perhaps the most successful Blackout Beach album yet. Which is my way of saying, it's perhaps the best Blackout Beach album yet. The lengthy, demanding 'Drowning Pigs' seems like pretentious, slapped together dreck until you've heard it a few times with patience in tow. To be honest, it has most of the weakest moments of Fuck Death and lacks the visionary progression of previous Mercer epics, though it still manages to be interesting and also has, yes, some of the album's strongest moments. The bit around the 8:00 mark when he's singing over himself made me realize just how pretty and traditional his voice can sound when he wants it to.

Fuck Death is desolate, lonely music and by extension, it only makes sense when heard on headphones or perhaps curled up in front of the record player with a cigarette and some wine. If any of the above sounds at all compelling, this is the album for you. If you don't always qualify music in terms of 'good' or 'bad', but how 'interesting' or 'successful' it is, Fuck Death may be for you, too.

 5 Successful Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Atlas Sound- Parallax

Though the album begins with the ringing sound of feedback, Parallax is actually the most accessible and pop oriented release of Bradford Cox's career. However, this doesn't mean it's an easy or mainstream record; it's all a matter of degrees. After all, the last Deerhunter album was the most accessible and pop oriented thing that group has released to date but it's still weirder and more experimental than anything you'd hear on modern rock radio. In the same way, Parallax may lack the abrasive/off-putting elements of Cox's past work but it still manages to be a meaty and eccentric record, moving from classic rock/retro influenced pop songs to dreamy/spacey daydreams with surprising ease and coherency.

As de-facto leader of Deerhunter and solo artist under the Atlas Sound moniker, Cox has quietly become one of the finest songwriters of his generation. A track like 'Angel Is Broken' would be the clear highlight of most other artists' careers but it wouldn't even make my top ten favorites by him. While even I still primarily think of him as the guy who uses lots of effects pedals and always has a druggy bent to his music, the reality is that underneath all that adornment, his songs (at least most of them) boast memorable hooks and affecting lyrics. True, like all of Atlas Sound's recordings, Parallax sounds best on a pair of headphones but this doesn't stop it from also being an album that sounds great in the car or on a stereo. 'Te Amo' is packed with detailed touches that are lost without said headphone listening though it still sports a strong enough hook to trap you on first listen when heard out loud.

After I was left a little cold by Logos, I began to wonder if Cox would continue getting more—for lack of a better term—accessible in his two projects. And I don't mean “accessible” in a good way. True, the main failing of Logos was its lack of focus and the spotlight stealing guests, but it also didn't help that the songs were sometimes too stripped down for their own good. It gave one the impression Cox still wasn't sure what the Atlas Sound project would be. I began to think of it as his tinkering space for where he wanted to take Deerhunter. Parallax, then, represents both a return to spacier/dreamier pastures as well as finally nailing down why Atlas Sound was a separate affair from Deerhunter.

Whereas Deerhunter is more about a full rock band approach, stopping off to try out shoegazer, garage rock, and psych-pop, Atlas Sound as codified on Parallax toes the line between full band, retro influenced pop/rock songs like the title track and 'Mona Lisa' and the staying-in-bed-and-spending-the-day-alone spacey ambient/pop of Atlas Sound's first album. Not that they're always separated. It effectively mixes the two styles, too: the aforementioned 'Te Amo' may be one of the poppiest tracks but there's also all sorts of little flourishes and electronic sounds in the background.

Indeed, the last half of Parallax spends more time drifting off into the ether than it does rocking out, giving the record a sense of progression that makes it a more cohesive listen than the scattershot Logos. The two part finale, 'Quark', is actually more experimental than anything on even Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, the first part a seven minute collage of clattering percussion, spacey looped sounds, and, near the end, some pretty xylophone lines. The shorter second part, meanwhile, blooms beautifully with the sort of bright, gleaming acoustic guitar loops he often uses when playing live as Atlas Sound (check out this performance to see what I mean).

Parallax isn't as special to me as the first album yet I would say that it's a more complete album, succeeding where Logos nearly-failed despite having a wider variety of sounds. It's tempting to call it his most accomplished work to date, but perhaps a better way to think of it is that it's his most finessed and committed work to date. If Atlas Sound always sounded like a sideproject with songs leftover from Deerhunter recording sessions, made on a whim alone by Cox, this should be the record that proves he is putting his all into Atlas Sound, too.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thee Oh Sees- Castlemania and Carrion Crawler/The Dream


One of the nice things about prolific bands is that, if you don't like the record they put out this year, all you have to do is wait a year or so, and something new will come out to scratch your itch. In the case of Thee Oh Sees in 2011, however, that wait was a matter of mere months: the recently released Carrion Crawler/The Dream trailed its predecessor by less than half a year. Anyway, let's talk about the first one first, as is accepted custom.

Castlemania sports a more stripped down, recorded-at-home sound than most previous Thee Oh Sees releases, so much so that it wouldn't surprise me if John Dwyer recorded it mostly on his own. So, yeah, it sounds different but that isn't the problem. The weakness of this release is inherent in its production and vibe, which trades the rollicking psych-garage of what I associate with this band for a more song/melody oriented style, Dwyer twisting his voice in a borderline-bratty, nasally direction and simultaneously playing more acoustic guitar. This means the title track and 'Corprophagist' are kind of awesome but also kind of annoying, the mid-fi production working against the band for once. The more song oriented direction also means that the focus is put more on Dwyer's vocals, which aren't really up to these songs. Or anyway, don't always fit them well.

And the songs also kind of don't sound like Thee Oh Sees, which isn't a good or bad thing. Well, it's not a good or bad thing for your average band, but when you're as maddeningly prolific as Dwyer, it makes you seem restless and indecisive. He certainly has never had a problem putting out releases under other names, so why not this one? After all, the few stabs at full-band garage rock on Castlemania sound like half-cooked leftovers from the preceding Warm Slime, almost like he was throwing us a bone to prove it really is an album from Thee Oh Sees and not solo stuff. All of this combined with the acoustic psych-pop tracks like the excellent 'I Need Seed' and the weird stuff like 'Idea For A Rubber Dog' means this album is a mess. Ultimately it's an enjoyable mess yet it's also exhausting and only partially satisfying.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Carrion Crawler/The Dream

Since this release was originally going to be two separate EPs, you might assume it would be even more messy and all-over-the-place than Castlemania. Yet with the full band in tow, including a propulsive two drummer backbone, Carrion Crawler/The Dream ends up being one of the best records Thee Oh Sees have ever put out.

With the emphasis firmly back on recorded-live-style production and energetic dynamics, this record may not sport as many memorable melodies as Castlemania but the hooks and playing more than make up for it. Try listening to 'Wrong Idea' or 'Chem-Farmer' and not wanting to get up and groove, or at the very least, nod your head along. Even though they're primarily instrumental, the pounding drums and choppy guitar lines make these songs some of the most memorable on this album, not to mention some of the finest in the band's catalog to drive or rock out to.

It's those moments of a great rock band in full flight which define Carrion Crawler/The Dream, from the way the band sort of jam their way into the opening of 'Carrion Crawler' to Dwyer's scorched guitar solos and exclamatory screams to the way 'Robber Barons' sounds like Wooden Shjips mixed with White Fence. Dwyer's Castlemania-style vocal delivery is mostly absent on this record, though when it does appear, as on the bass driven 'Crack In Your Eye', it works far better in this context.

Prolificacy doesn't always mean spreading yourself too thin (just ask Robert Pollard), and if anything, Carrion Crawler/The Dream makes the preceding Castlemania all the more interesting because of how different it is. As far as I'm concerned, this band (or even Dwyer alone) could put out two records a year and I'd never get bored because there's always some unique wrinkle going on, whether it's the lengthy title track of Warm Slime or the sparing use of psychedelic effects on tracks like 'You Will See This Dog Before You Die.' Anyway, this is classic Thee Oh Sees all the way, and easily one of the best things they've ever done.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Quasimoto- The Unseen

To say that The Unseen is the weirdest hip hop album I've ever heard feels like I'm simultaneously damning it with faint praise as well as making a statement about hip hop in general. To be fair, The Unseen is weird, but that's not why it's great (though it is one of the reasons). And while it is the weirdest hip hop record I've heard, that's not really saying much, since I'm a dilettante when it comes to this stuff.

Still, I know my weird music, and I know some weird hip hop via MF DOOM. His Operation: Doomsday preceded The Unseen by a year, and in many ways they feel like long lost cousins. That Madlib would work with DOOM on 2004's Madvillain project speaks to this, sure, but it's also the eccentric style, beats, and samples that both used which make this connection stronger. Well, I mean, the two albums do sample Scooby Doo, so the connection is already strong...though I didn't mean it that literally. It's more like how Madlib's stoned flow and his I-just-inhaled-some-helium voice as alter ego Quasimoto are a perfect foil to DOOM's sleepy and congested style. But I digress.

While Doomsday may have a higher percentage of classic hooks and beats, The Unseen is better overall. It's safe to say, you've never quite heard an album, hip hop or otherwise, that sounds like this. 'Return Of The Loop Digga' is like a miniature epic, stopping in a record store for a skit halfway through before the beat is switched up and the song continues. Sure, Madlib may also showcase some killer beats in a more traditional way, like the addictive organ loop of 'Discipline 99 Pt. 0', but The Unseen is defined by tracks like 'Return Of The Loop Digga' and 'Come On Feet', the latter of which singlehandedly could justify hip hop to an ignorant friend who thinks rap is all posturing, bragging, sex, and violence (watch the video for even more oddness). No, Quasimoto is not as outright weird as, say, Captain Beefheart, but like that legend's most out-there moments, no one else sounds like this, either.

And make no mistake: you will have to go through a slight learning curve to truly dig this record as you would with something by Beefheart. Again, the comparison is as direct as their eccentric learn-to-love-it vocals, but I refer more to how you don't know quite what to make of this music right away. It's true that Madlib never was and never will be a gifted MC, so there isn't an immediate draw there, but his style is a brilliant match for the eccentric, spaced out production. As with Trout Mask Replica, The Unseen will take some patience to unlock. Especially because, like most hip hop albums of its era, The Unseen is 10 to 15 minutes too long.

Hold on, though. Unlike most hip hop albums of its era, The Unseen has made this sprawl into part of the appeal. Where skits become annoying tracks you skip over by the third listen on, say, Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele, Madlib as Quasimoto incorporates them into his songs. Similarly, where there's two or three tracks you could drop from MF DOOM's Operation: Doomsday to make it a better record, there is no obvious filler or weak material here.

The Unseen was supposedly recorded over the course of a weeklong magic mushroom binge, and while that may help explain some of the weirdness going on here, it can't account for the imagination and talent on display. From this 2000 release, Madlib would go on to become one of the most prolific and influential producers/musicians of his generation, and many of his projects would gain greater recognition and praise. Yet The Unseen is a perfect distillation of what makes him so compelling as well as being a perfect case for how much can still be done with hip hop.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tom Waits- Bad As Me

Like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits has, over the past 20 years, grown into his aesthetic. Both artists spent years playing at being eccentric old men with bruised, whiskey soaked voices, mining pre-rock 'n roll music to craft their own unique blends of roadhouse R&B, country, folk, blues, and various ethnic idioms. Now they're both well into their 60s (actually, Dylan is 70!) and have, in a manner of speaking, become their personas, right down to long periods without new releases, meaning every record feels like an unexpected gift from a mercurial Grandfather or uncle you see once every few years. This is especially true of Waits, who spent the first half of the last decade releasing three well received studio albums and an exhaustive (but essential) three CD set of odds n' sods, then mostly puttering around touring and doing this or that.

Thus Bad As Me is his first proper studio album in seven years and still somehow sounds rushed and half-hearted. It's hard to imagine any fan of Waits being outright disappointed by this record—he has long since become too consistent a songwriter and too unique a performer to turn in a truly bad or dull album—but at the same time, it's hard to imagine anyone truly loving it the way people love Rain Dogs or even Alice . This is music which, at its best, is only good because it reminds you of the past. Moreover, this is the sort of record which, at its worst, is only tolerable because you remember the past. If 'Pay Me' and 'Back In The Crowd' weren't by Tom Waits, they would be amusing on-the-nose Waits parodies...except that they were recorded by him, and they're hollow shadows of what he's done before.

Bad As Me makes consistency into a weakness instead of a virtue just as it makes succinct song lengths into an issue. Much of this album either mimics or mines Waits's past yet as a whole these songs sound less distinct and unique because the production and overall aesthetic is perhaps the most consistent since his jazzy crooner/barfly pre-Swordfishtrombones era. Where 'Big In Japan' was a unique stomping opener to Mule Variations, its descendent here, 'Bad As Me', feels like an obligatory rocking song sandwiched in between two slower, more mellow tracks. Were Waits not singing these songs, they'd be as boring as any cover band playing standards and hits on a Wednesday night in a Minneapolis biker/dive bar. It's his performances that save this album and even then he seems barely invested, as if he's going through the motions.

Waits has been quoted as saying that this would be a collection of short, relatively straightforward material, and perhaps that helps explain why all these songs feel like first or second takes with unfinished, vague arrangements. Waits has never been at his best when he's limiting himself, and it turns out that self-enforced short songs, at least on this record, were not going to help the subpar songwriting. If 'Chicago' were slowed down a bit and allowed to breathe, it could've been a classic track. Likewise, 'Face To The Highway' plays like a sequel to the languid lament of 'Sins Of My Father' yet tries to do so in half the time.

It all comes down to two things: 1) an artist can't release a safe record like this after a seven year break, and 2) you can't spin consistency into a virtue if the songwriting isn't top-of-your-game. As stated above, it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed by Bad As Me, but it's also hard to imagine anyone truly loving it.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The War On Drugs- Slave Ambient

The War On Drugs, at least on Slave Ambient, are a hard band to describe. Certainly their ironic, post-modern name belies something about their music, but the actual constituent parts don't make sense when described. The singer has a 80s Tom Petty/Bob Dylan thing going on, and many of the songs take on a majestic/anthemic feel which some describe as being like Bruce Springsteen though Arcade Fire is probably a more apt (or at least more modern) comparison. However, this is all filtered through a shimmering, noodle-y, and guitar heavy sound. It's not so much ambient as spacey and not so much stoned as joyful.

Slave Ambient would already be an unqualified success simply because it features one of the most distinctive sounding bands in recent memory pulling off their songs with confidence far beyond their years. That it is also one of the year's best albums further cements the sense that The War On Drugs have achieved something truly great here. This is a record with a sense of expanse and emotional resonance, but in a way opposite to similarly expansive/emotional albums like Modest Mouse's The Moon & Antarctica or The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Where those records are exhausting and draining, akin to a therapy session or intense drug experience, Slave Ambient is like a couple hours spent in a coffee shop catching up with an ex-girlfriend and putting the past to rest. You leave this album feeling rejuvenated, and that is something worth celebrating.

It's worth emphasizing, too, that this is indeed an album and not a ramshackle collection of songs. The instrumental interludes, sometimes separated onto distinct tracks like 'The Animator' and 'City Reprise #12', give the album a flow and sprawl that make it feel performed instead of recorded. To be sure, individual songs work well on their own, too. 'Baby Missiles' genuinely sounds like 'Walk Of Life' by the Dire Straits sped up a bit and filtered through some chemicals, while six minute album centerpiece 'Your Love Is Calling My Name' is like a sampler platter of everything this band does and does well.

Still, to paraphrase the old saying, it's the journey that matters and not the stops along the way. Slave Ambient is most impressive when taken in all at once because it manages to sprawl and yet to be consistent; it manages to be spacey and weird yet anthemic and immediate. This is an album's album: Slave Ambient is one of the most complete and satisfying releases of 2011. Like many of the best albums of this year, it's the sound of a band coming into their own, delivering their first great record.

Emphasis on the “first.”
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 28, 2011

Woods- Sun and Shade

As by far the most jam oriented and Grateful Dead influenced of their peers, Woods are also notable for being something like leaders of the current retro influenced psychedelic/garage rock/freak folk scene of bands like Real Estate, White Fence, The Black Angels, Thee Oh Sees, Crystal Stilts, and others. Between their singer's high pitched, nasally voice and a penchant for leaving in the weird stuff and loose improvisations on their studio albums, Woods have always struggled with the same problem the Dead used to: how to craft excellent studio records but leave in all the interesting bits and long song lengths from their inspired live shows.

The band's last record, At Echo House, saw Woods deliver a short, focused collection of memorable tunes. It's the band's most accessible and immediately enjoyable yet. Ironically, this also means it's the least interesting. There's a homemade, scattershot brilliance to even the band's debut, At Rear House, which works because of those odd left turns and rambling instrumental parts. The band seem to have felt the same way, since Sun and Shade brings this stuff back with two long tracks though the majority is still in the slightly trippy folk/rock style they perfected on At Echo House. This time out on the pop tunes, however, singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl pushes his voice toward further traditional prettiness, with his eerie, melancholic delivery on 'Wouldn't Waste' making it one of the record's most memorable tracks.

While all of this makes Sun and Shade the most complete demonstration of what makes Woods such a great band, it also makes Sun and Shade jumbled and only partially satisfying. It's jumbled because the stark difference between a short pop song like 'What Faces The Sheet' and the seven minute krautrock jam 'Out of the Eye' is never resolved by any tracks which bridge the gap between the two. Hell, it almost feels like someone slipped a couple live tracks onto a studio album to see if anyone would notice. Sun and Shade is only partially satisfying because you don't get quite enough of either side of the band's sound, and what you do get isn't always top-of-their-game material. No pop tune here bests what they've done before, while 'Sol y Sombra' never justifies its nine minute run time, sounding for all the world like an aimless Animal Collective improvisation circa Sung Tongs or Campfire Songs.

Which is also to say, Sun and Shade may be jumbled and it may be only partially satisfying, but it is at least more interesting than At Echo Lake, which is either a good thing or bad thing depending on what you want from this band.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Field- Looping State Of Mind

Like many great musicians, The Field is defined by a series of paradoxes that don't need explanation or resolution in order to enjoy his music. While primarily using digital and synthetic sound sources, the music never feels robotic or unnatural. It is technically electronic music made with computers and the like, yet it has a blissed out atmosphere that genuinely owes more to guitar toting dream pop and (the less noisy) shoegazer bands than it does ambient techno or microhouse.

The final paradox is that, if listened to back to back to back, all three of The Field's albums sound very similar yet all have their own sense of flow and movement which makes each unique. From Here We Go Sublime set the standard and established the sound. It was and remains a very special record for me, and is one of the few situations where I deeply love an album but can't bring myself to write about it for fear of defining what the magic is and thus losing it. Anyway, the second album, Yesterday and Today, is more of the same but goes to greater extremes in both rhythm and texture. Looping State Of Mind, meanwhile, partially tips its hat with its title. These are songs which repeat incessantly like loops and certainly help to alter your state of mind, yet they aren't as repetitive as they initially seem and the blissed out/stoned atmosphere is undercut by a more heavily rhythmic and earthy sound than you'll initially notice. The basslines alone on the opening track will testify to that, and make a surprisingly good foil to the dreamy washes of synthesizer which made Sublime so unique. In fact, Looping argues well for turning The Field into a two or three member live unit, with a drummer and bassist to groove along as The Field does his usual magic.

All of that said, Looping State Of Mind isn't the evolutionary next step you might hope for. The Field is still primarily mining the shimmering, minimalist ambient-techno he patented with From Here We Go Sublime. 'It's Up There' could pass for a remix of 'Silent', though I do mean that in the best way possible. Even in those moments where The Field seems to be directly referencing himself, it's always through a gauzy filter or battery of effects and loops to alter the entire dynamic of a track. It helps that even the lengthy daydreams like 'Arpeggiated Love' have heavier beats than From Here We Go Sublime. This keeps your body tethered securely to the Earth even as your mind floats away, a little trick The Field may have picked up from The Orb, who also knew the value of mixing up persistent, deep rhythms with spacey, stoned textures and loops.

The Field already had legendary status based solely on From Here We Go Sublime alone. With Looping State Of Mind, he has inarguably secured this position. Looping doesn't have the sense of newness and special-ness of Sublime and he really needs to try something new with the next one, but sometimes consistency and modest changes are all you really need to have a fruitful career and to produce top tier work.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Feist- Metals

It's rare to see an artist draw close to commercial success and mass acceptance after years of relative obscurity and proceed to make the best, most chance-taking album of their career. For all intents and purposes, however, that's precisely what Metals represents. After being known as “the chick who sings in Broken Social Scene” and “the chick who did that 1-2-3-4 song”, Feist has at last arrived, at least in my book, with this new record.

This isn't to say that The Reminder wasn't a work of finesse and ambition, or that reviews for Metals have been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, The Reminder was one of those indie albums that became massively popular yet backed up its accessible songwriting with genuine artistry. Metals, by contrast, has had no big single to sell it to the public and it sits at a respectable but not overwhelming 80 on Metacritic. All of that said, I think this album's cache will only improve with time. It feels carefully constructed and meticulously arranged such that there's no “ah ha!” song or moment. Love, if it comes at all, comes gradually.

The best way I can think to explain my reaction to this album is to say that Metals is a record which initially promises the moon and eventually delivers it though it still doesn't completely satisfy. Every time I listen to it now, I can think of no obvious flaws or problems. I can, as objectively as is possible in this situation, say that Metals is the best album Feist could have made. So why haven't I completely fallen for it?

Feist, especially on Metals, reminds me of a less distant Tori Amos or a less depressed Cat Power, though the best basis for comparison is PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?, a similarly expansive and experimental record. It's the kind of album where the artist considers it their most personal work and greatest achievement yet it usually ranks low on critic and fan lists. Metals may or may not suffer a similar fate as Is This Desire?, becoming the oblique black sheep of Feist's discography, but I do know I share a similar attitude to both records insofar as I enjoy them but they never became...essential to me. Essential for the artists to make, certainly, but not vital works that I return to again and again as the years go by. Whether or not the artists would agree, to me albums like Is This Desire? and Metals feel insular and complete onto themselves. A listener is not needed, to put it another way.

While Is This Desire? went for non-traditional song structures and electronic flourishes, Metals goes for more of an ambitious orchestral/baroque singer/songwriter sound. There may be some simple delights, such as the understated 'Bittersweet Melodies' and 'Cicadas & Gulls', which is so stripped down compared to the rest of the record it seems like a demo. Yet the main story of Metals is that of reach and ambition. Layered vocal arrangements are everywhere, with 'The Circle Married The Line' sounding downright choral, and the general atmosphere of this album makes me imagine it was recorded in an abandoned cathedral in remotest England on a rare sunny day.

Metals may not end up being her greatest critical or commercial success, but it is undeniably the record where she announces, even if she may have a hit single here or there, she is still an artist first and foremost. Feist has now joined the rank of similar left-of-commercial singer/songwriter types from the past. Metals is not her version of, say, Rain Dogs or Murder Ballads, but it does demonstrate that she is still growing and evolving.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 32

As usual, this is going up later than I planned but...hey, it's nearly Thanksgiving, gimme a break here. After a couple food comas from the meal itself and leftovers for days, you'll forgive me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wild Flag- Wild Flag

Oddly enough, I sat down to begin writing this review while (unknowingly) wearing a Sleater-Kinney t-shirt, and I suppose that's all the context you need to understand my anticipation for this album. The Woods left me thinking Sleater-Kinney were heading in a new direction until the announcement of their indefinite hiatus. Nothing short of a true reunion will sate me, so it's best to take this review with all of that in mind.

Wild Flag, while not a full blown reunion, features two ex-members of Sleater-Kinney and thus is as close as you can get without bringing Corin Tucker in. Moreover, the self titled debut from Wild Flag sounds so similar, it might as well be a Sleater-Kinney record in disguise. It's a hell of a lot more like that band than Corin Tucker's solo record, to boot.

Indeed, even if there were no members of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, they are still the most obvious point of comparison, so let's see if we can nail down the exact records Wild Flag sounds like. Well, to be fair, the addition of organ on some tracks gives Wild Flag a novel, yet not outright fresh, sound. Wild Flag really need to make more use of it if they want to distance themselves from the past. Most of these tracks could be taken straight from sessions for either The Woods ( 'Black Tiles' and, in particular, 'Racehorse', with its heavy hitting low end, fuzzy production, and six minute plus runtime) or The Hot Rock (the tense, introspective, dark, and philosophical songs like 'Something Came Over Me' and 'Electric Band' nod to it most of all). This isn't a bad thing, since those are my two favorite Sleater-Kinney albums...

...but it also leaves me wondering why I'm not listening to those albums instead, which is a bad thing. Despite the strength of these songs and the more straightforward, immediate indie rock Wild Flag employs, I can never shake the feeling that it's more appropriate to label Wild Flag a Sleater-Kinney side project than a supergroup or band in its own right. Make no mistake, if the organ solo on 'Future Crimes' were played on a guitar instead, and Corin Tucker was around to provide backing vocals, it would be a Sleater-Kinney song. I don't mean “would sound like one”, I mean literally would be a Sleater-Kinney song. Wild Flag is a side project or different band in the same way Madvillain is a side project or different band for MF DOOM, which is to say, they barely sound different despite having some different people involved.

When Wild Flag are cooking on all cylinders, such as during the jam in the middle of the aforementioned 'Racehorse', there's a weird, new-ish thrill to the band. But I said “new-ish” and not “new” for a reason. To put it another way, Wild Flag is more like a drug you use to help with withdrawal symptoms and not an outright cure for addiction to Sleater-Kinney. If there were a different overall aesthetic or even more organ dueling with the guitar, it would make all the difference. But I digress. The notion “it's almost as good as a proper new Sleater-Kinney album” is all I think you need to know about Wild Flag to determine whether or not it's for you.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Great Album Covers: Parallax

It has been a year of very memorable album covers, from the classic 4AD aping cover of Wye Oak's Civilian to the crying crude drawing of Panda Bear's Tomboy to the oblique, borderline-suicidal looking cover of Destroyer's Kaputt. None, however, seems as in tune with its musical content as this.

Atlas Sound is Bradford Cox's solo project outside of Deerhunter, and his covers have featured deformed looking men with Marfan's syndrome-like bodies similar to Cox's own (I think Logos may even have him on the cover). This one, however, glamorizes Cox in a classic 50s/60s pop-vocalist way, with a washed out color style. Yet as close as he is to the camera on the cover, and thus to the mellow and accessible as Parallax is as an's all still quite distant and confused. Cox is deliberately averting his gaze, or perhaps he's distracted with a thought of someone or something from the past. Also note that he is still half in darkness.

Anyway, maybe I'm over-analyzing again. All that artsy intellectual ruminating aside, it is a hell of a great cover. And a hell of a great record. But that is a blog entry for another time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 31

A 'classic' style episode with introductory ramblings, 2007 retrospective segment, and a brief talk-through of records I bought recently.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Washed Out- Within and Without

Is it harder to overcome a ubiquitous, beloved song or a critically acclaimed debut? Ask the hundreds of “one hit wonders” from the past and the answer becomes obvious. This problem becomes deeper when said song either belongs to or helps define a certain scene or subgenre of music. In this regard, Washed Out's career has mostly amounted to being known as one of the main pillars of chillwave as well as being the guy who made the music ('Feel It All Around') that Portlandia uses for its theme song.

Even setting aside whether or not he'll ever top 'Feel It All Around', it's obvious that Within and Without is destined to either disappoint or please only those who want more of the same. To be sure, there is no song here as good as 'Feel It All Around', and even this record's best moments don't top what he's done before. I will concede that they do often meet the level of his preceding material if only because they sound practically the same.

That's no exaggeration. The main difference between this album and the previous EPs is that the production is even more smooth and bright. Tracks like 'Before' and 'Eyes Be Closed' are the audio equivalent of when you bump up the exposure time on a camera and everything becomes blindingly bright and, er, washed out. What's more, even while the lyrics may occasionally be dark or unsettled, the music goes down as smooth as a particularly sweet German-style white wine. Sometimes, contradictory lyrics and music can work well...but not here.

As for the smoothness part, that's the other minor new wrinkle on Within and Without: most of the harder beats and murky lo-fi/mid-fi production of the EPs are gone. In their place Washed Out has taken a few steps closer to out-and-out synth-pop, albeit a spaced out, slow motion, and dreamy kind of synth-pop. Unfortunately, this sounds much more interesting and memorable than it is. Even when he's attempting something new, as on the electric piano ballad 'A Dedication', the music has a curious ability to be forgotten soon after. When there are hooks, they don't so much sink into you as they pass right through; more like arrows than hooks, really. If you'll allow a bit of autobiography, I'll note here that I listened to this record at least three times before starting this review and I still can't name a song or hum a melody without having to consult iTunes.

Within and Without is an enjoyable, impossible to hate record even if it does have arrows-instead-of-hooks which neither cause pain nor get your attention. Without any rough edges or imperfections, this record ends up being the hipster equivalent of smooth jazz or muzak. It's the perfect soundtrack for American Apparel magazine advertisements or the fifth or sixth day of a staycation, when you're almost looking forward to going back to work because you've been sleeping too much.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Girls- Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Of all the retro influenced indie bands on the way up, Girls have the most interesting backstory, leader Christopher Owens having grown up as part of a religious cult. Yet for all the drama surrounding the band's past and the reportedly drug fueled making of their debut, Album, they've been a relatively forgettable band for me. At times on their Album they sounded like a more glossy and professional version of Wavves (like on 'Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker'). With more listens, my opinion of it has dulled slightly over the past couple years. By and large the band's reach surpassed their grasp, giving their music the feeling of a group trying on other sounds instead of forging their own.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost continues this “trying on sounds” feel though it is more successful at it. 'Die' posits the band as Black Mountain-esque 70s inspired rockers though not as beefy or slavishly retro. If Girls still haven't perfected their own sound, this record is at least entertaining because they're trying on some new hats and doing it well. Moreso than the debut, this is a record of ambition. It's telling that only three of the songs are less than four minutes long, with 'Vomit', 'Just A Song', and 'Forgiveness' offering just enough ideas and wrinkles to justify their length. Meanwhile, tracks 'Saying I Love You' and 'Magic' continue Girls's reverence for classic 70s AM pop music, though they sound too similar to Album and their influences to be true standouts.

Unlike many of their retro influenced contemporaries, Girls lack any true experimental, psychedelic, or noisy influences. This isn't to say their music is always easy or simple, as the above mentioned long songs testify to...yet even at their most extreme, the songs of Father, Son, Holy Ghost are more akin to, say, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? or the less extreme bizarro moments of A Wizard, A True Star than they are other 70s experimental pop like Brian Eno's solo albums. Where Rundgren tipped his cap to 1950s/1960s R&B, Girls do so to the music of his era. Rundgren, however, put enough weird elements and eccentric lyrics in those albums to make them far more than just barely-original songs aping the past. Unfortunately, I still get this feeling when I listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost, even if it is, yes, a bit better than their debut at avoiding it.

Actually, that's a good summation of Girls' second album as a whole: it's a bit better than their debut. It took me more time to get tired of it, and as a whole it's, well, better. But only by a bit. Considering the wild backstory as mentioned in the opening of this review, it's a little disconcerting how, well, orderly and normal the band's albums have been so far. If the band would forge more of their own identity or go off in some weird directions, they might be capable of something truly great.
4 Pooly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 7, 2011

Madlib- Shades Of Blue (Unedited)

Just a short review tonight while I work on all the other Essays and reviews I've got going on. Think of this as a trifle; a side project of my normal reviews, if you will. That's a good state of mind to have when also doing something like listening to Madlib's Shades Of Blue, his "invasion"/remix of Blue Note records' vaults. But that's a bit unfair, actually, because even with high expectations, a wet dream like letting someone like Madlib have full access to a jazz label's catalogue turns out to be better than it has any right to be.

Allow me an example of just what I'm babbling about. MF DOOM is a sometimes-prolific artist, and his long running Special Herbs series of instrumental tracks from his various albums and producing gigs is the kind of interesting-but-inessential trifle I mean. They function pretty well as albums in their own right, the sort of kind you might spin when a friend is over and only a couple times a year listen to on your own. It's not as good as hearing the finished products with rappers over them, in the same way that Madlib's tracks here should be "not as good" as hearing them fleshed out with rappers.

However, Madlib's old friend J Dilla likely taught him something about instrumental hip hop with the legendary Donuts, because these songs are even more fleshed out and enjoyable than you'd expect judging by, say, early Madlib circa The Unseen by Quasimoto or mid-period Madlib as heard on Madvillainy by Madvillain. But enough of that technical crap. Madlib finds some deep grooves and head nodding hooks in some unlikely places in those vaults. It's the kind of stuff most MCs would kill to rap over but not be good enough for. A non-rapping appearance by even the formidable MF DOOM on one of the tracks also speaks to how complete Shades Of Blue is without MCs.

Anyway, it comes on two records, so you know the sound quality and mastering is great. And if you're a fan of Madlib, you're probably a record hound who knows what a difference that makes. Or anyway, you're probably a record hound who'd dig this album a lot.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Essay: Three Stray Thoughts (Unedited)

1) I've recently been digging into more hip hop, and between discovering the joys of Wu-Tang solo albums via Ghostface Killah and finally getting into the Madlib Blue Note jazz remix record I have, I've been setting aside the reviews and/or other albums I meant to be working on right now to enter into one of these pure discovery periods. What I mean is, I'm listening to music as a pure listener/fan and not a critic. I'm not worrying about whether or not I'm going to review something; I'm not thinking about things I want to say or pose about it.

I think this is how Madlib always makes music.

The dude is ridiculously prolific, to be sure, but I get the feeling for him it's all about pure creation when making music and pure enjoyment when listening to it.

Madlib's debut as his alter ego Quasimoto, called The Unseen, is one of the weirdest hip hop records I've ever heard. It has such a sluggish, slow motion/stoned flow to it...even if you're perfectly sober, it seems to last for two hours. It's an album of scope and variety such that one track, even on your first listen, is bound to hook you and keep you coming back until you love it all.

2) I'm working on a series of essays to discuss and define all those bands like the Vivian Girls, Thee Oh Sees, Black Angels, Woods, Wavves, White Fence, Wooden Shjips, Crystal Stilts, Best Coast, Surfer Blood, Kurt Vile (to some extent), The War On Drugs, Ducktails, Real Estate, Girls, Beach Fossils, etc. I feel like they all have a certain retro vibe in common even though they all sound different.

It's got me to thinking about what sets apart certain bands from other similar bands. How do we define sound in terms of differences? I feel like I resort to vague explanations like “they're more jammy” or “they're more noisy”, but in the end, aren't all genre labels just vague explanations? You could take any genre or subgenre and find a few bands that don't precisely fit your parameters. Yet it's a paradox because without genre labels or vague explanations, it's almost impossible to talk about music in any meaningful way.

3) Lately I've been thinking about doing more posts about non-music topics, so let me use this opportunity to say that the weird CGI Resident Evil movie is on Netflix instant streaming, and that it's well worth a watch if you're a fan of the series. It practically feels like watching a Let's Play of a Resident Evil game, or perhaps an hour and a half or so of cutscenes from a game edited into a movie.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Great Album Covers: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The first Velvet Underground was one of those fine meetings of high art (Andy Warhol, who probably wouldn't consider himself high art, but he sure wasn't blue collar) and low art (The Velvet Underground, led by the poet of the streets and urban decay himself, Lou Reed). It's hard to imagine a rock band getting away with what they did with the backing of Warhol, but then again, he was only really involved at the start. The second record was way more experimental and dissonant, for starters...

But I digress. I find it kind of odd that there doesn't seem to be a definitive version of this cover. Some omit any text at all. Some have Andy Warhol's name but not the name of the band; some have it the other way around. Some add the famous "peel slowly and see" small text near the stem of the banana. Some even have a special peel off sticker, revealing a naked bright pink inner banana once the skin sticker is off.

In any case, the use of existing paintings or photographs usually makes for great album covers, but I like this one the most. I think it was one of the first cases where an established artist made something new for an album cover and didn't simply allow them to use an old work. Though I could be wrong, as I'm not too familiar with Warhol's history.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cymbals Eat Guitars- Lenses Alien

Divorced of the context of little green men in flying saucers, “alien” is a word both simple and provocative. It's a more extreme version of “foreign”, really, in that something which is alien is so unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, you have no context for it. What I mean is, I don't know anything about, say, Bollywood films, but despite their foreignness I can still understand them in the context of other movies. Something truly alien would be utterly unknowable from any context I could approach it.

In that regard, the new album from Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien, possesses an intriguing title. The “Alien” part draws your immediate intention but it's the “Lenses” part that is key. This music isn't so utterly foreign as to be unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, yet it does offer some strange, non-traditional songs which take time to understand. This is a record of blurry photographs of UFOs or abstract art, things which could be upside down or sideways for all you know. It's also a record which never seems to add up or make sense, constantly eluding you and only offering a few standard choruses or hooks to latch onto. Lyrics bubble to the surface of your consciousness as you listen to it, only the last few evocative words of a given line such as “everything, everything changes”, “corner store clerk, who never looked up”, and “milky cataracts peel(?)” managing to catch your attention as you drift along.

Mind you, in the case of Lenses Alien, this elusive, formless quality is pulled off with ease, suggesting that my initial worries about the band being a touch too derivative were groundless. I've listened to this album a dozen or so times but it keeps surprising me with its twists and turns. Much like Sunset Rubdown's excellent Random Spirit Lover, this is a record bursting with winding linear songs. Rarely is a section, hook, or chorus repeated, meaning you'll have to listen to it a few times and take it all in as a whole work rather than a collection of songs. Furthermore, Lenses Alien may peak with its epic opening track, but the way the rest of the songs flow together and are paced, the record may as well just be one long song anyway.

Lenses Alien is Cymbals Eat Guitars coming into their own. It may not be their masterpiece, because I think they have still better things ahead of them, but it is at least the band shedding most of their obvious influences and establishing their sound. While Why There Are Mountains may boast more and better hooks, Lenses Alien is the stronger and more interesting album. I'm most impressed that this record also turned out to be the band pushing themselves while still leaving in those dreamy, catatonia-inducing wall-of-sound things they conjure up every few songs—I think they do it at least twice on 'Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)', in fact—without turning into arch-experimentalists who alienate (pun intended) their audience.

Lenses Alien is a perfect follow-up to a flawed and not wholly original sounding debut. It leaves me confident in where the band are now and genuinely interested in their future. While not an outright masterpiece, it is easily one of 2011's most accomplished records.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 27

A Sonic Youth-focused episode thanks to recent news that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are separating.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Real Estate- Days

Early October this year was an Indian Summer, as it were, in my part of Ohio. This means that in the morning it was quite brisk and you needed a medium-thickness jacket; when you got off work, the weather was in the 70s and the sunshine, so very good feeling, seemed like Mother Nature was winking at you. It was one of those week or so periods of time where I sat in an old leather chair by my open window, smoking clove cigars, slowly getting drunk on cheap sangria, and beginning to read something I instantly knew I was going to adore (in this case, The Sandman). The cherry on top of this perfect weather and week or so kind-of-a-bender was first hearing an album like Days and falling in love with a band like Real Estate.

Looking back at my review of the band's self-titled debut, I summed up my feelings thusly: “Real Estate is the sort of enjoyable, low stakes indie album with a refreshing lack of pretense or artifice that will never win awards or change the world. Impossible to hate, difficult to fully love, Real Estate is a good little album, endlessly playable but only rarely remarkable.” On first listen, this also summarized my feelings toward the band's new record, Days. I was ready to write my four star review and say the band were even closer to making their masterpiece. “Maybe next time, fellas,” I thought, “now let's go see how the new album by The Field turned out...” However, something funny happened on a recent warm October night: I fell in love with Real Estate.

In the review quoted above, I noted a similarity between Real Estate and The Sea and Cake. This feels more pronounced on Days because the band are drifting further from their psychedelic/surf-rock leaning debut into straight up groove-rock built around the bright, shimmering interplay of Real Estate's guitarists. To put it another way, Real Estate's debut sounds best in Spring and Summer; Days will still sound groovy, mellow, and amazing when Fall finally settles in, and on through Winter. Indeed, Real Estate are more or less turning out to be the heir apparent to The Sea and Cake, minus some of the jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythmic influences of that veteran Chicago band but adding a hypnotic interplay between the guitarists. It's like Television if Television had had two amazing rhythm guitarists instead of two amazing lead guitarists.

As Days is the kind of record which starts pretty good and gets better as it goes, you can bet it also reaches its natural peak with the elongated ending of 'All The Same', hinting at a jammier side of the band than is apparent on their albums or, judging by a live bootleg from 2010 I recently heard, their concerts. One of the album's best songs, 'Wonder Years', is a jangle-pop gem possessing a title which nods to the somehow-80s-evoking scene the band has sometimes been lumped in with. If Real Estate haven't exactly won the attention and sales of better known somehow-80s-evoking acts like Washed Out, Best Coast, or Kurt Vile, Days shows that they have still outstripped them all in terms of nailing down a unique and (seemingly) definitive sound. Call it “coming into their own.” Call it “producing their first great record” or whatever else. No matter the label, it's still the sound of a band realizing their potential.

Days is such a confident and endlessly enjoyable record that one hopes the band don't stray too far from it for awhile. At first, it may come off as lightweight and samey-sounding until, on further spins, something suddenly clicks and you find yourself listening to it over and over for a week straight. These are songs which start off “pretty good” and soon bloom into addictive little tunes you can't get enough of. “Lightweight” it may be...but so are summer shandies and featherweight boxers. But I digress. Days is one of the year's most unassuming and greatest successes. Highly recommended.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wilco- The Whole Love

At some point in the past decade, Wilco went from being America's #1 forward thinking, progressive, experimental-pop band behind a string of masterpieces to... being America's #1 backward looking, hard touring, dad-rock band behind kind-of-OK craftsman-like work of Sky Blue Sky (underrated! secretly awesome!) and the kind-of-self titled Wilco (The Album). Whether this transition took place as a result of Jeff Tweedy's successful rehab, or just as a natural growth of the band itself, it's hard to say. What I do know is that Wilco has, with The Whole Love, gone from one of those bands-I-love-to-love to being one of those bands-I-still-want-to-love-but-don't.

Wilco (The Album) left me a bit bored. I also can't seem to remember many songs from it, other than the meta-titled 'Wilco (The Song)' and experimental throwback 'Bull Black Nova', a sort of more nervous/anxious sequel to the superior 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' from A Ghost Is Born. See, Wilco are at their best when they're reaching or expanding, and to see them spend another album coasting is a disappointment. The only new-sounding experimental parts of The Whole Love essentially boil down to the first and last tracks, which showcase Wilco's jammy, guitar-heroics side ('Art Of Almost') and their multi-part, slow-build epic stuff ('One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)'). In between, though, it's just a lot of Wilco sounding like Wilco all thrown into a blender together. 'I Might' recalls the retro, raucous edge of some Summerteeth and Being There tracks mixed with some Sky Blue Sky looseness. 'Black Moon', meanwhile, sounds like a mix between the haunted ballads of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (in particular 'Radio Cure') with the jaunty stuff of A.M.

All told, however, this album is neither a step forward nor a modest return to form. I hate feeling this way about The Whole Love because it has got some excellent songs, such as career highlights like 'Born Alone' and the wonderfully, well, jaunty 'Capitol City' which could pass for a 1930s pop tune. Indeed, there's nothing inherently wrong with this record at all. It's simply that, if this is what passes for experimental and/or new from Wilco, they aren't really trying any more. A lesser band could never pull off a track like 'Rising Red Lung', but Wilco somehow turn it into an oddly unmemorable reminder of better moments from their past. Lyrically, The Whole Love leans toward the less abstract and has a close to 50/50 split between passable verses and forgivable clunkers. It isn't that Jeff Tweedy isn't trying, he just doesn't seem to be trying very hard.

Which is precisely the core of my issue with The Whole Love. It isn't the band sounding like this or that album one at a time, as it was on Wilco (The Album), so much as it is Wilco kind of smashing all of their old albums together and odd combinations of those coming out here and there. The more I listen to it, the more I like it, admittedly. 'Whole Love', maudlin lyrics aside, is simply too much fun to pass up. But the album as a whole also increasingly feels like if I give this record a full score it would be like rewarding someone for winning a race by coasting for the last half-mile just to show off how much of a lead they had. Yes, Wilco, you used to forward thinking; you used to be so far ahead of us back in 2001-2004. But we've long since caught up.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Essay: Only A Fan Could Love Quebec

Like many similar bands from the “alternative” era, (like, say, Primus), Ween were a really weird band in the early 90s who didn't fit in with grunge or alternative rock. They still benefitted from the willingness of major labels during that time to sign any band they perceived as being alternative and with a chance of having a hit song. Ween's brush with the mainstream came from their single 'Push th' Little Daisies' though celebrity fans like South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker certainly helped.

Ween's time on a major label (Elektra) saw the band, much like They Might Be Giants, moving away from their acerbically strange, 4-track, just-the-two-of-us-playing-everything-and-using-cheap-equipment aesthetic into music that, while still odd and far away from their labelmates, became more polished and professional sounding. Concurrently, Ween pushed their gift for genre experiments as far as it could go, putting out an album of legit country music, 12 Golden Country Greats, and a (loosely) nautical themed homage to the progressive rock they grew up on, The Mollusk. This all culminated with White Pepper in 2000, a succinct record of accessible tunes and some classic rock nods. Ween left Elektra shortly after its release, supposedly due to the label putting out the Paintin' The Town Brown: Ween Live 1990-1998 release, which they had intended for their then-new Chocodog label.

Back on their own, so to speak, Ween seem to have been inspired to return to their roots. This is mainly apparent in the Shinola, Vol. 1 collection, which gathered together outtakes from the band's past. However, the band also went back to their earlier sound for their next album of new material, 2003's Quebec, an album only a fan could love. It's certainly possible that you could lay it on someone who didn't know a thing about Ween and they might 'get' it, or even like it, but the combination of weird lyrics and concepts with weird music means the average listener will wonder what the hell they're listening to. To be fair, Quebec is more akin to White Pepper than Pod, sonically speaking, yet it's still got enough outright bizarre songs and such a variety of styles that it's among the band's most varied and demanding albums.

Demanding” is indeed a good way to put it because, with 15 tracks in 55 minutes, Quebec never stops throwing curveballs at you. Ween produce some of their best genre experiments here, whether it's the jam band twangy groove of 'Chocolate Town', the Pink Floyd nod 'Captain', or the dreamy psychedelia of 'Alcan Road.' More importantly, there's also Ween following their impulse for off-the-wall pastiches ('Zoloft' sounds like lounge music married to easy listening pop music filtered through, well, drugs) or indescribable oddities with primitive sounding instrumentation, like the drum machine grind of 'So Many People In The Neighborhood' or the fake-out endings of the instrumental 'The Fucked Jam.' Somehow it manages to hold together as a cohesive record and not a slapdash collection of disparate tracks.

Quebec may not qualify as the band's best album; it certainly doesn't qualify as their weirdest. Nevertheless, it's the sort of record only a fan could love: only someone intimately familiar with Ween's discography could make much sense out of this sprawling, diverse, and seemingly random record.