Saturday, April 30, 2011

Panda Bear- Tomboy

Panda Bear's Person Pitch wasn't just another album. It has that intangible special-ness that separates the great albums from the masterpieces, albums that not only make year end lists and 'best of decade' lists, but also—and perhaps most crucially—personal lists of favorite albums by both fans and critics.Panda Bear's much anticipated new album, Tomboy, will likely make many lists for best of 2011 even though I don't think it will be as beloved and embraced as Pitch was. I will still be thinking about, listening to, and recommending Person Pitch for decades to come; Tomboy, perhaps not as much.

Whereas Pitch felt like something special, one of those once in a lifetime records that will go down in history, Tomboy is, let's say, more of a 'normal' album. It's excellent music yet it lacks that utterly unique sound and special-ness that made Pitch such an immediate and lasting delight. First things first, though:Tomboy is not a sequel to Person Pitch. Secondly, you can rest assured that, even though all but one of the tracks he's released on 7” singles leading up toTomboy's release appear on it, too, they have different enough mixing, sonic elements either brought to the fore or pushed to the background, that you won't feel fleeced. They're the same songs following the same structure, true, but 'Surfer's Hymn', for instance, is much improved on the album, sounding less electronic and claustrophobic, the extra set of buried vocals excised entirely.

Lastly, Tomboy follows in the pattern of fellow Animal Collective member Avey Tare's 2010 solo release, Down There, in that it's a surprisingly dark record. Whereas Down There was going for a “hellish swamp” vibe according to Tare, following his divorce as it did, Tomboy feels more insular and inner-troubled. During the record's latter half, I get a mental image of Panda Bear sitting alone in a basement studio with no windows, particularly during 'Scheherezade' and its looming, cinematic piano chords. Hell, the extreme reverb he uses on his voice during this track makes it sound like he's stuck inside a well.

Or hiding in a cave. It seems the man who once admonished listeners that he didn't want us to take pills anymore may still be struggling with unnamed internal issues. In fact, the general theme of Tomboy seems to be about pulling back and focusing on yourself and the ones you love. Ironically, then,Tomboy is more listener friendly and inviting than Person Pitch. The melodies and hooks come frequently and in intriguing ways on the album's first half, including one of his most impressive vocals ever on the soaring 'Last Night At The Jetty.' As said before, this album is also more 'normal' than Person Pitchwhich further adds to the listener-friendly-ness, by which I mean, the songs are shorter and self-contained. Nothing here is as slow burn-y and trance inducing as Pitch centerpieces 'Bros' and 'Good Girl/Carrots', and nothing is as unique and indescribable as 'I'm Not' or 'Comfy In Nautica.' Yet for all the talk ofTomboy being a more guitar oriented album, this descriptor proved as accurate as Radiohead's claim that Amnesiac would be more of a guitar album than Kid A. It was, to a degree, but very little on this record sounds much like guitars as used by most rock bands, even by Radiohead in fact, other than the one on the title track. Rather the guitar is employed as another textural tool in Panda Bear's arsenal and ends up making the music sound more mechanical—that is to say, programmed and sampled and looped and tinkered with via computers—than the organic sounding Person Pitch.

With this in mind, the best touchstone for Tomboy is the stuff Bradford Cox of Deerhunter has been doing as Atlas Sound, that kind of “solo artist but using lots of guitar pedals and electronics to fill out his sound” sort of thing. Indeed, Panda Bear guested on the last Atlas Sound album, and if you took the vocals away, I could see Atlas Sound producing something like 'Alsatian Darn.' Still, only Panda Bear could pull off these vocals, and only he would have the guts to follow a buoyant pop song like 'Last Night At The Jetty' with what is ostensibly the album's most dissonant track, the aptly named 'Drone', which I recall being more abrasive on the 7” single version. Anyway, if Panda Bear wanted to shake the notion that he's the 'pop' member of Animal Collective while Avey Tare is the 'noise/experimental' guy, I guess he should've made an album more like Down There.

Or even Danse Manatee.

Not that I think he really cares about such a perception, since he's clearly too busy recording, touring, spending time with his family, and/or doing drugs to have time to worry about such things. What's more, whatever darkness crept into Tomboy isn't likely to last. Though not as special as Person Pitch, this record is a must-hear; though not as bright as Person Pitch, this record still ends with the impression of having come through darkness rather than leaving us still stuck in it. The final redemptive washes of 'Benfica' fade away like the pervasive crashing-waves sounds heard throughout the album, and Panda Bear gets up to leave his basement studio, ready to start the long wait til his next batch of music begins to form. What am I most looking forward to from him next? A new Jane album, obviously.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Radiohead- The King Of Limbs

I have to take this album very personally not because I was/am a huge Radiohead fan and so I take all of their stuff personally, but because they decided to release King Of Limbs on my birthday this year. I mean, come on. It was even originally scheduled for the 19th and they bumped it up a day. I don't believe in god, but that seems like divine providence or intervention or something.

Still, I took my time getting around to King Of Limbs. My passion for the band waned once they began to take too long between releases, not to mention I discovered hundreds of other bands I enjoyed just as much as them. King Of Limbs had gotten the usual load of good reviews, though a bit more mixed this time, and so I put off listening to it, assured that they wouldn't let me down. After all, I didn't jump on In Rainbows right away, and it had been a nice surprise: easily the briskest and most inviting record they had ever made. Yet King Of Limbs promised to be even more brisk than In Rainbows, and something about its borderline-whimsical release, announced out of the blue mere days before its release, and subsequent lack-of-hype made, me think it was going to be something it's not.

By now you've probably seen that I only gave this album three stars out of five. I want you to keep in mind what such a rating means, or should mean. Not that the music is bad or not worth hearing, just that it fails to excel or is kind of average. I want to stress this because what I'm about to say may sting: King Of Limbs is a lazy album from a band who arguably may be running out of steam, but who are inarguably coasting at this point in their career.

Realistically, neither Hail To The Thief nor In Rainbows were huge leaps for Radiohead in the way that their second, third, and fourth albums had been. So don't think that I dislike King Of Limbs because it failed to be Important-with-a-capital-i. Rather it's because the band hardly sounds like it's trying. They're still as gifted as ever at production details and always-perfect choice of instruments and mixing, particularly on the opener 'Bloom' and the menacing organ that builds throughout 'Feral.' But the songs are completely lacking this time out. It's as if they focused on ideas, textures, and tones while leaving melody and hooks at the door. I keep waiting for the songs to reach that peak or moment when everything finally clicks into place, yet at its best Limbs never manages to shake the impression that it was recorded in a hurry and with very little finesse. On a background-music, half-paying-attention kind of listen, Limbssucceeds, but as an album composed of discrete songs you focus on intently, it almost-fails. Certainly the more abstract moments of Kid A aren't as catchy as something from The Bends, but they were memorable and unique.

I think Limbs tries to combine In Rainbows with Kid A and it fails because the songs just aren't there. A band sounding like itself and not “going” or “progressing” anywhere is fine, as long as the songs are good. Hell, Amnesiac was taken from the same recording sessions as Kid A so it was “just Radiohead sounding like Radiohead”, too. However, it's an excellent album in its own right because the songs and ideas are there. Limbs may work for people who aren't overly familiar with Radiohead, but as soon as they go backwards in the band's discography, everything on this record is bested by the past.

The only song I can remember from King Of Limbs, 'Give Up The Ghost', sticks out to me because it sounds like something the Fleet Foxes might do on the album that will come after Helplessness Blues. Otherwise I can't imagine longtime fans finding a lot of new favorites on Limbs, and I would say that not even comparing this music to their past high water marks. Even on its own merits, it's strange how mediocre and slight it all sounds. Ultimately this is music that has only inspired further ambivalence about the band on my part. I can't shake the feeling that they were just kind of messing about in the studio for a year or so without giving it much thought or effort and decided to release the results out of sheer inertia. Let's just say, I can't imagine waiting four years for a new album from any other band and not being furious that it sounds so half-assed. I never thought I would say this, but I think Radiohead have reached that post-Abbey Road, post-The Wall phase of their career where they have nothing left to say and it may be time to hang it up or take more than four years off between releases.

3 Poorly Dran Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 1

Well, here is episode one of what will be a weekly video from me! As explained in the video, some weeks it may be a review, or a list, or a feature, or maybe even a concert review. Or maybe I'll do the videos of my CD collection! Nah, probably not. But still, check back next week for the next episode, and all the scattered written content in between.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

J. Dilla- Donuts

There's some kind of eerie coincidence to the fact that J. Dilla died three days after the release of Donuts. As by far the purest example of his talents as producer/vinyl digging obscure sample user/beat maker, Donuts doesn't have any of the distracting posturing and bragging of the much loved Jaylib collaboration, Champion Sound, and was also fully finished by Dilla himself, whereas the majority of the material released since his death has been finished by others. There's an awareness of mortality that pervades the record, as if he knew this would probably be his chance to really prove what he could do, to make his masterpiece, with no MCs or outside help to take any credit away from him.

Donuts feels like it was made to be timeless instead of timely, to continue to influence music makers for decades to come and not merely to start a trend or short lived subgenre. It is an almost overwhelming collection, fully 31 tracks in 43 minutes, rarely staying in one place for long, though the horn break on 'Glazed' repeats to comedic effect. In general this album is not so much a mixtape of sketches for songs or unfinished loops/beats as it is a fully formed instrumental hip hop album, equally of-a-piece with 'sampledelica' albums like The Avalanches' Since I Left You as it is underground contemporaries like Madlib, not to mention obvious pre-cursors like DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... and the Dust Brothers' production on Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay. Which is all a long winded way of saying that Donuts feels entirely organic despite being sample based. Even the use of cut-up vocal samples on 'Airworks' and 'Stepson Of The Clapper' have a coherency which seems almost narrative, as if Dilla is re-purposing a commercial jingle to talk about something more spiritual.

While the title was apparently chosen just because he liked donuts, I feel like it's an effective-though-abstract way of describing the album's sound. 'The Twister (Huh, What)' settles into an extended, circular groove after the first 20 seconds, and in general the record has a sugary, glossy production, all combining to give the impression of, well, the music as delicious donuts spinning out of the speakers. Hmmmm maybe that's just because I'm hungry and writing this in the morning. But I digress. One can see J. Dilla's Donuts as the more soul-based, pop-leaning counterpart to Madlib's work on theMadvillainy album, which also used short songs and an eclectic stable of sample sources. Though he, too, can pull from, say, Frank Zappa as Madlib does,Donuts tends more toward the sort of soft focus horn sections and orchestral breaks that go hand in hand with 70s soul and R&B records, which definitely helps the impression of this album as having that 'sugary, glossy' sound I described earlier.

Both as an influence and as a source of beats, Donuts continues to be a presence five years after its release. J. Dilla will undoubtedly be one of those artists that we'll look back on as both ahead of his time and having died before his time, leaving a tantalizing blueprint for future hip hop producers, and really, musicians of all stripes to either follow or take influence from. Donuts is arguably the purest distillation of his genius, having none of his so-so rapping or guest MCs to get in the way. A must hear.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Video: Greg's Record Collection Pt. 3

Oh my gaw', it's finally done! This was a bitch to upload due to my connection crapping out TWICE into the hours long upload. But it's done now, dagnabbit!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Great Album Covers: Standards

With the dominance of the CD as the musical format of choice in the 90s and early 00s, I feel like less care and imagination were taken for album covers. Since the CD was the primary format, it made for smaller, often less interesting covers. A band's music videos and magazine interview pictorials became more important to drawing people in than word of mouth or, indeed, an album's cover. So why not just have a visual pun on the album's title as a cover, or a blinged out, fisheye picture of a rapper with a bunch of shiny words in a gold font around him?

Still, during this time there were some bands putting out interesting or noteworthy album covers. Tortoise's in particular I recall always being drawn to, even in CD form. With the exception of It's All Around You, I love every one of the covers they've had for all of their releases, even the cool B&W photo of an accident scene on the A Lazarus Taxon boxset.

Standards is probably my favorite of all, however. As an instrumental band, it's strange to see such a political cover, suggesting perhaps that something wasn't right about our country. Moreover, the chopped up, Photoshopped U.S. flag on the cover hints at the jittery, heavily electronic sound of the music contained within.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Walkmen- You & Me

Driving home from a girlfriend's apartment after almost no sleep on some morning this past November, the dawning realization that things weren't going to work between us was somehow literally mirrored by the overcast November morning's lack of sunshine. I had been listening to You & Me by The Walkmen the night before yet it took until this moment for the record to hit home. Inarguably the band's most relationship focused album, its by turns defeated, ecstatic, romantic, cynical, and world-weary music seemed to perfectly encapsulate the things I was feeling. On 'New Country', Hamilton Leithauser sang "I'm back on my own/don't worry about me/I got no more baggage", and it was as if someone I had never met was telling me how I would eventually feel.

After the claustrophobic production of A Hundred Miles Off and the sloppy, just-for-fun cover of the entire Pussycats album by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, The Walkmen recorded You & Me, a much more intimate, sparse, and finessed album. Songs on their first two albums demonstrated that the band were often at their best when as few instruments as possible were employed; while the full band sound of A Hundred Miles Off worked for the most part, its songs seemed less distinct and memorable. Some critics and listeners mistake the sound of You & Me for being too mellow but I always think of it as the band finally maturing to the point where their fascination with classic 60s and 70s albums and nuanced, inventive playing fully blossomed. Why? Well, because they had finally grown into it. No longer were they 20-something New Yorkers playing at being too old and tired of the night life. Now they embodied it.
There is a genuine maturity to this record, a difficult to define sense of craft and professionalism that never comes at the cost of sounding too intellectual and cold. I must've listened to 'Donde Esta La Playa' a dozen times in a row while driving to work on certain mornings, the detailed, spacious production allowing Matt Barrick's criminally underappreciated skills as a drummer to shine, his tom-toms sounding somewhere between a jazz drummer and slow motion surf rock. Elsewhere, Leithauser is given plenty of room to himself on 'Long Time Ahead Of Us', the other instruments low in the mix, his every inflection and pause between lyrics timed for maximum effect. The Walkmen of the first three albums were a great band, but You & Me was the point where they began to make music for the ages. Bows + Arrows felt very timely; You & Me feels timeless.

No one makes records like The Walkmen, so it's safe to say that no one makes relationship-y albums like them, either. I suspect that each listener will get something different out of You & Me, the lyrics and atmosphere broad enough that you can latch onto the swagger and confidence of 'In The New Year' and the romantic pledge of 'Red Moon' and miss out on the break-up stuff entirely. The spacious, detailed production and bare-minimum-instruments-necessary songwriting can also reflect different states of being, whether it's a kind of simulacra of the loss and new emptiness you feel or a soundtrack that gives the world a hopeful, wide open feel, as if you were listening to it in a house you just bought that has no furniture or furnishings so that all sounds are echoed and a bit larger-than-life.

Lisbon and Bows + Arrows are The Walkmen's true masterpieces, and indeed, part of why I love You & Me is that sometimes it sounds like a dry run forLisbon, in particular the brass section on 'Canadian Girl' that points to the spectral horns that haunt Lisbon's 'Stranded.' Yet I listen to You & Me more often because it means more to me, has become for me what Blood On The Tracks was for Dylan fans back in the 70s. This is music for that moment when you wake up in the morning and have briefly forgotten that you no longer have a girlfriend. This is music for people who react to loss by turning insular and wanting to travel the world. This is music for lonely Sunday nights and defeated Monday mornings. Yet this, too, is music for accepting yourself and starting to put the pieces back together. It's music for wanting to compare a new love's beauty to something, and you're only able to grasp for a strange line like how (to paraphrase 'Red Moon') on this night she shines like the steel on your knife. It's music for knowing you can never see someone again for your own good, and finally accepting this must be.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5