Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Great Album Covers: Double Nickels On The Dime

This is one of those accidentally great album covers, not in the sense that the picture was an accident, but in that a relatively modest band with a relatively modest idea produced something timeless and near-perfect. A half-joke at the expense of the hit song 'I Can't Drive 55', this cover shows bassist Mike Watt driving at exactly 55 and headed toward the band's beloved hometown, San Pedro.

The first time I saw this cover, I thought it was a picture from the 50s. Watt and the car seem oddly button-down and conservative, and his obvious smile--magically, his smiling eyes are in focus in the rearview mirror--seems to be ironically saying that driving the speed limit was a good time, after all.

By curious coincidence, this album is filed next to Cookin' At The Plugged Nickel by Miles Davis in my collection. Cookin' with double nickels...?


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Destroyer- Kaputt

You've got to hand it to Dan Bejar. You think he's going to zig, but you know he doesn't do things that way, so then you think he's going to zag, and then it turns out he actually is going to zig, after all. What the hell am I talking about, you ask? As if to prove yet again how unpredictable and obtuse he is, it turned out that the musical direction Bejar (aka Destroyer) took on his 2009 EP, Bay Of Pigs, would also be the one he stuck with for his next album and not something else entirely. Moreover, in between these releases was the primarily ambient collaboration with Loscil and Tim Hecker on last year's Archer On The Beach EP, which further confused matters by NOT being much like either Pigs or the eventual album, Kaputt...though one of the tracks, 'Grief Point', originally had the working title 'Bay Of Pigs.' Whew! All of this is ultimately irrelevant, however, because Kaputt is so damn good, and so damn stylized, that it harkens back to the synth-pop/MIDI-orchestra of Your Blues more than anything else. And it isn't really much like that album at all, other than superficially.

As someone who generally can't stand how 80s music sounds, I hope it's significant that I think Kaputt is going to be on many album of the year lists, including mine. Unlike the nostalgic chill wave/hypnogogic music of bands like Neon Indian, Ariel Pink, and Toro Y Moi, Kaputt fully embraces the sound and aesthetic of early-to-mid 80s music instead of merely embracing the warm glow of your memories of the 80s filtered through drugs and modern electronics. What this means is Kaputt is always swathed in a dreamy fog machine atmosphere, always caught up in a dancefloor reverie straight out of a New Wave dance club, with back up singers, trumpet and saxophone solos, a mid-tempo groove, and impressionistic neon keyboards and synthesizers all over the place. Bejar's lyrics remain as memorable and quotable as ever, though they too evoke the 80s, with the title track painting a picture of “wasting your days, chasing some girls/alright, chasing cocaine/through the back rooms of the world all night.”

Kaputt is as unpredictable a follow-up to the unfocused and singer-songwritery Trouble In Dreams as Your Blues was to its predecessor, the jammy and indulgent This Night. It also ends up being an atmospheric, mood setting album, the sort of record where most of the songs kind of sound the same, and you could easily switch the lyrics between them and it wouldn't matter...yet somehow, this isn't a bad thing. In fact, the “I wrote a song for America” lyrical call out on the title track, and its forming of the basis for the 'Song For America' track, is well within Bejar's usual meta-music wheelhouse. You get the sense that he doesn't consider his songs or lyrics as discrete entities, and that his music is—and always was—about the big picture, the overall feel. Given that the shortened version of 'Bay Of Pigs' on Kaputt is referred to with the subtitle 'Detail', I would even suggest that Bejar is more interested in comparing his work to paintings or literature than anything else. Anyone who has ever flipped through those big coffee table book collections of paintings by, say, Salvador Dali, will know that often the close-ups taken from paintings are referred to as 'Detail of...' Moreover, I could see Bejar referring to a demo as, say, 'Study For Bay Of Pigs' just as artists call sketches for eventual paintings or artwork 'studies.' Similarly, in a press release list of 22 things a listener might want to know to understand the album, Bejar makes as many references to non-musical influences and ideas as he does to musical ones. This includes, tellingly, “[t]he superiority of poetry and plays...”

If Destroyer's last two albums can be described as red wine albums, full of loose 70s classic rock and inspired poetic singer-songwriter-isms, then Kaputt is definitely a white wine (if not specifically a champagne) album. The lengthy instrumental intro to 'Suicide Demo For Kara Walker', complete with flute(!), as well as the other places where the record is content to yield the floor to saxophone and trumpet intros, interludes, and outros, recalls immaculate mid 70s to mid 80s sophisticated pop by, I dunno...Steely Dan. This record is the kind you can put on while cooking dinner, puttering around your apartment, or enjoying a romantic evening with a significant other. I don't mean that as a slight; Kaputt isn't ambient music or only enjoyable while half-heard, though those aforementioned instrumental parts and the easy-listening (also not intended as a slight!) make it just as perfect for close listening as they do for background noise.

Kaputt doesn't sound like the rest of his discography, and it may be a dead end in the same way the style of Your Blues was immediately abandoned after its release. Yet Kaputt is as visionary and satisfying a dead end as that synth-heavy record was, perhaps even more so because of its consistency in both songwriting and the finessed, spot-on playing from all contributors. This album is so good that I certainly hope he's still not serious about retiring from music, as he's been vaguely hinting at for the past couple years, because Kaputt is as fresh and vital a release as we're likely to get from anyone this year. Highly recommended.

(Note: assuming it's not a limited edition print run, like so many of his releases, I would emphatically recommend picking up the vinyl version of Kaputt. It comes with 20ish minutes of bonus material on side C, though strangely it's almost entirely the music of one of the band members, and mostly instrumental, to boot. Coming between 'Song For America' and 'Bay Of Pigs (Detail)' as it does, 'The Laziest River'--which is broken up into discrete sections on the record but not on the digital download included with the vinyl version, because Bejar loves to confuse people—goes even further into instrumental 80s soft-rock reveries than the rest of the album, providing a nice chance to leave the album to, say, run to the store for more wine or move from the couch to the bedroom, depending on if you're alone or not).

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Deerhoof- Deerhoof Vs. Evil

Admission of guilt time: in retrospect, I overrated Deerhoof's last album, Offend Maggie. Of all of their post 2003 records, it's the one that stuck with me the least, and I could never pinpoint what causes this. Perhaps if I listened to it in the shuffled-around-vinyl-tracklisting format? Hmm, nope. It finally took their new release, Deerhoof Vs. Evil, to help me understand my lack of love for their last one: Offend Maggie is good but unsatisfying; solid but underwhelming. I'm sorry to say that similar problems arise with Vs. Evil, though to a greater extent and in slightly different ways.

The first thing that'll strike you about Vs. Evil is how varied and lush it sounds. Moreso than even the de-facto double album, The Runners Four, this is Deerhoof at their most searching and expansive. They've brought back a good deal of the keyboard heavy electro-experiments of the Green Cosmos EP as well as the art-damaged pop of Friend Opportunity and cut all of this with the hard edged riffs, stop on a dime time spastic song structures, and sing-song-vocals-married-to-noise-pop of their older material. Which means a genuinely lovely acoustic track like 'No One Asked To Dance' juts up against the flashy krautrock-meets-Led Zeppelin-meets-prog-rock-keyboards instrumental 'Let's Dance The Jet', which in turn is succeeded by 'Super Duper Rescue Heads!', one of the band's best attempts at writing a mangled pop song. Meanwhile, much credit for the lushness must go to the band for producing Vs. Evilthemselves, since having two or so years to futz with layers of sound let them produce their most detailed record ever. It took my a close listen on headphones to begin to enjoy this one, so if you're still struggling to “get” this one, I recommend that approach.

With credit for lushness must also come the main blame for the shortcomings of Deerhoof Vs. Evil. There's an album title by the Doobie Brothers called “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and this is something that comes up in my head while listening to Vs Evil. Understand that Deerhoof were never ones to sit down and write a straight up pop song; they always throw in some unexpected noise or turn-on-a-dime song structures to throw you off, while the lyrics are simplistic sing along fodder (a la 'Panda Panda Panda') or poetic/surreal pidgin English (a la 'Siriustar'). On Vs. Evil, these vices-now-habits are starting to get in the way of their music because there is just as often a feeling of “been there, done that” to this album as there is a sense of newness and discovery. There are certain rhythmic, textural, and melodic tropes that are lifted almost wholesale from past Deerhoof releases. The cadence and general feel of 'Hey I Can' is heavily reminiscent of 'Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back', made even worse by the grating repetition of single words as lyrics. Furthermore, the last minute or so of 'Behold A Marvel In The Darkness' is what you'd make if someone tasked you with recording a Deerhoof parody, while 'The Merry Barracks' is practically a Cliff's Notes to their entire discography.

Due to the unfortunate marriage of new ideas and re-packaged old ones, Deerhoof Vs. Evil suffers from its variety instead of being boosted by it. To say the album lacks a sense of flow and cohesion still feels inadequate. Years ago, I remember reading an interview with drummer Greg Saunier about how the band always argued and sweated over the tracklisting of their albums. I don't mean to be insulting though I'm going to say it: perhaps they shouldn't if this is the best they can do. The first and last songs feel like they're appropriately placed while everything in between comes off like a particularly good b-side/outtakes collection instead of a proper studio album with careful pacing and flow.

Deerhoof Vs. Evil is going to be one of those albums that divides its audience. Much of your enjoyment or lack thereof will depend on your familiarity with their music, and how far you're willing to indulge their vices-now-habits in pursuit of appreciating the new ideas on this record. I have a feeling I'm going to be revisiting this album from time to time and completely changing my opinion of it, though I don't see that as a bad thing. True, as with Offend Maggie I am left feeling oddly underwhelmed and unsatisfied with this one. But it's been some time since a record confounded me and I was compelled to stick with it past writing a review. Vs. Evil is worth a listen for that reason alone even though I have strong reservations about it.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Real Estate- s/t

It's strange to me that nostalgia for the 80s has only recently begun to infect indie rock. If the so-called hypnogogic/chillwave sub-genre is all about nostalgia and evoking the 80s while sounding purposefully retro, then the psychedelic pop of Real Estate and similar bands sounds like some alternate history where the 60s psychedelic culture grew out of surf rock and wasn't based primarily on blues and folk idioms. The result is bands that may sound or look hippie-ish, and in the case of Woods, they even stretch out their songs with elongated improvisations like the Grateful Dead, but they aren't really hippies, and their music isn't consciously retro. Hell, you may mistake Woods for 60s holdouts, but their label is one of the few actually putting out albums on cassette. So are they retro/nostalgic for the 60s or the 80s?

There is nothing overtly retro sounding about Real Estate. The syrupy smooth guitars may be signs of 60s worship, but this is just on first listen. The band's self titled debut is every bit as close to less obvious points of comparison, like the dream-pop/slowcore of Galaxie 500 as well as a host of early-to-late-90s indie rock of a hazy, relaxed variety, like Eric's Trip. What's more, the opening of 'Atlantic City' reminds me a bit of the 'surf' version of 'Wave Of Mutilation' by the Pixies. But I digress.

There's an easy going vibe to Real Estate that I find infectious. Whereas The Sea and Cake, long running masters of the indie rock easy-going-vibe category, have an austerity and experimental nature to their music, Real Estate are like the guys who record on a thrift store 4-track, spend their weekends drinking beer and smoking pot, and pen lyrics about the behavior of suburban dogs (the aptly titled 'Suburban Dogs') or conversational snippets like "Budweiser, Sprite, do you feel alright?" ('Suburban Beverage'). The repetitive, hypnotic jam that closes this latter track is among the album's highlights. It keeps threatening to pick up speed and self-destruct, but the band keep riding the groove and adding minor changes here and there without ever truly achieving lift-off.

The instrumental 'Let's Rock The Beach' is at the heart of what this album is about. If you've listened to enough music, this track will be instantly familiar, falling into popular melodic tropes and rhythmic dynamics as the guitarists dance around each other. It's exceptionally well done yet somehow unremarkable. By extension, this covers my feelings for the album, too. 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.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Great Album Covers: April

The last two album covers by Sun Kil Moon can serve as signifiers for the focus of the lyrics inside. While last year's Admiral Fell Promises featured a hazy view from a window, hinting at that album's sense of being on-the-move and watching the world while not always becoming directly involved, 2008's April looks like a particularly artsy photo from an antiques store. Or, more likely, the nice lighting above the dinner table in someone's house.

Mark Kozelek's lyrics evoke those introspective, dramatic moments that occur when you're in a relationship or getting over one. In particular, the kind of realizations you have while unable to sleep and staring at the fancy lights in your dining room. You know, kind of like the cover of the album.

Even without all of that in mind, this is still a really lovely cover. I've used it as my desktop background at work for a couple years.