Monday, May 30, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 6.5

Hey, whaddya know, two posts in one day!

Brian Eno- Ambient 1: Music For Airports

The liner notes for Brian Eno's quietly revolutionary Ambient 1: Music For Airports make note of Muzak and his dissatisfaction with music designed as background ambience. There is also the rather famous story of how he was inspired to make this sort of music after being stuck in an airport with bad music playing. One imagines that Ambient 1 is still in use in some airports and other locations today, a rare instance of commercial and creative interests intertwining in a non-exploitative way. None of these things, however, are what interest me most in this ethereal music.

On first listen, Ambient 1 seems to represent music of the most basic and simplistic sort, one of those creations that makes people say "my five year old could do that!" with contempt. As someone who has recently begun to create similar music as a personal challenge, I can tell you that it's not as basic and simplistic as it seems. Certainly anyonecould noodle on a piano for 17 minutes and put some sparse echoes and synth textures under it ('1/1'), but creating something that holds the attention of listeners at multiple levels of concentration is really very difficult. Too minimalist and it becomes unbearably boring on a close headphone listen; too busy and loud and it becomes an obtrusive nuisance which draws too much attention to itself to be used as background ambience.

Creating music that hits the perfect Goldilocks-esque "just right" between the extremes requires patience, control, discipline, trial and error, and imagination. This style of music has many obvious antecedents, from Eno's own prior instrumental music as solo artist and especially with Robert Fripp; minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Erik Satie; film soundtracks; and even to something like Miles Davis's In A Silent Way, which has retroactively been argued as being 'ambient jazz.' Even if this record wasn't the first of its kind, its influence has been the longest lasting. Indeed, the mixed-gender wordless vocals of '1/2' and '2/1' are practically recreated for Tortoise's 'The Lithium Stiffs', while also being an ancestor of the ambiguously gendered vocals on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. Still, if for nothing else, Ambient 1 deserves the full five stars and all its other praise for being both the first purpose-built ambient album as well as for being arguably still the best of its kind.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Friday, May 27, 2011

They Might Be Giants- Flood

We sometimes come to music via strange pathways, don't we? Perhaps an older sister introduces you to the Beatles via a mixtape she made for a family road trip when you were 8. Perhaps a car commercial with a rather lovely and melancholic song revealed Nick Drake to you. Perhaps, too, like many who are around my age you came to the music of They Might Be Giants via the children's cartoon Tiny Toon Adventures. It's sad that I was unaware for years that the animated videos for 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)' and 'Particle Man' weren't just oddly catchy jingles thrown together by the animators of the show. I eventually borrowed John Henry from my local library because I remembered the band's unique name... an album which, it turned out, didn't have those songs on it. Maybe they weren't the band I was thinking of? Rest assured that years later, thanks to the magic of the Internet and the way people catalogue every minute detail of everything ever, I eventually found myself at the end of another strange pathway and Flood was waiting.

You may have done some Internet research about this album, too. Metacritic will do you no good, I'm afraid. And while you could check out Flood on Wikipedia, you'd soon be confused by the mixed-to-negative reviews listed on its entry despite the text stating it is a fan favorite. This is because:
A) It's hard to track down a broad sampling of reviews from 1990
B) Most professional music critics for big magazines, especially around that time, are/were a bunch of idiots with weirdly narrow tastes
C) has some decent writing, but it's mostly filled with iconoclasts who underrate some of the best records of all time, not to mention they frequently praise or dismiss albums with pithy insouciance. See their review of Factory Showroom for a particularly egregious example.

Enough grousing. Let me go ahead and say that Flood is as perfect and as perfectly realized an album as has ever been recorded. The surrealism and strangeness of the first two They Might Be Giants records were tempered a bit, bringing the band's imagination and songwriting skills to their closest coupling. Beginning with one of the band's patented self-referential tunes in the literally introductory track, 'Theme From Flood', They Might Be Giants whip through a strange parade of tunes, ideas, characters, and philosophies, from a nightlight's advice/ode to its owner ('Birdhouse In Your Soul'), an oblique commentary on colonization (or anyway, that's what I think 'Women & Men' is about), a short cowboy ditty wherein someone bellows “minimum wage!” before a whip cracks, and, uhm, whatever the circular song structure of the brilliant piano duet 'Dead' is about (groceries and mortality?). To say that Flood is perfect may seem a tad hyperbolic, however, considering that there is absolutely nothing I would add or remove to make this record better, I think it's a fair claim. Even Flood's lesser songs, the uncharacteristically preachy 'Racist Friend' and the 60s organ-led, lovelorn bitterness of 'Twisting', contribute to the overall flow and feel of the album, especially considering the songs which precede and follow them.

Indeed, Flood was the beginning of the era which saw They Might Be Giants moving away from the almost abrasive weirdness and absurdity of their first two albums into more quirky and cerebral material, not to mention employing a full band in studio and on stage, much to the chagrin of some fans. Yet that doesn't make it the sort of transitional, unsure record which one might expect. It's telling that the band have sometimes performed the album in its entirety as a self-styled cover band, dubbed Sapphire Bullets. Such an act demonstrates a real sureness and awareness on the band's part of the love people have for this music and it's unique to see a group play to that. One might even consider it a precursor to the way the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals led to the Don't Look Back concerts, in which bands perform their 'classic' albums.

But I digress. I hesitate to make claims about definitiveness when it comes to music, but you could hardly do better than Flood if you only want or need one album from They Might Be Giants. As either an introductory tour of their odd (and oddly catchy) art-pop world or your only visit down this strange pathway, Flood is as good as it gets.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 6

I am really learning to hate how's upload process works, but at least I managed to get this up before it was no longer Wednesday!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Essay: An Intro/On Separating An Artist From Their Art

Recent controversies surrounding Tyler, The Creator and the content of his lyrics got me to thinking about the age old problem of separating an artist from their art. This in turn led me to finally introduce a new series to Whiskey Pie, simply titled Essay, in which I plan to get into more in-depth topics relating to music. This will be anything from re-reviews of albums, lengthy essays or personal reflections on albums, or discussion of things relating to music, such as this case.

While I think the hype for Tyler, The Creator and his fellows is a bit overblown, I also think that taking him seriously as a bigot or sexist kind of misses the point, too. Didn't we already go through this with Eminem anyway? There's the real Eminem, let's say, who would never do anything purposefully to hurt gays, and then there's the persona of Eminem featured in his music, a sort of white trash hip hop kid who fucks up a lot and uses bad language. In junior high, my friends and I got in the habit of using 'jew' as a general pejorative term. Looking back, it was immature and racist; none of us were jewish and no one we knew was, either. I'm not saying it was right, but keep in mind, we didn't have anything against Judaism. It was wrong, yes, but it was playful and we were immature 13 year olds. Eminem and Tyler, The Creator speak to those people and they resonate not because they introduce listeners to racist/sexist slang, but because the audience recognizes terms they probably use on a daily basis already.

Awesome album, by the way
Anyway, if you really want to turn this into a race issue, I can point to any number of well respected white artists who've used language just as bad, if not worse. Nick Cave's Murder Ballads album was just such a case. You know he doesn't condone or commit murder in real life, but as an artist with a certain persona, he can explore the elation and joy, from a first person point of view, of murderers. He is literally profiting off of murder and discussion of it, which, even setting aside race, seems worse in my book than using F words or N words. Racism and sexism aren't always acted on, and anyway, words are a safe avenue of expression. I'd rather have my feelings hurt by someone calling me a nerd or a cracker than someone sticking a knife in my back, or to be blown away by a psychopath in a bar as detailed in excruciating detail in Nick Cave's 'O'Malley's Bar.'

All of which eventually gets me to my point: an artist is not always embodying their art. When the South Park guys have a racist Chinese stereotype who mixes up L's and R's and pronounces "city" like "shitty", they are not saying that they despise Asians or that it's OK to mock them. It's simply part of their shtick to push buttons and at this point every group in the world has gotten it good from them.
Awesome episode(s), by the way
I'm reminded, too, about a quote from conservative journalist/writer PJ O'Rourke. I completely forget which show it was on, and I couldn't track down the quote online, but he was on one of those countdowns/interviews on VH1 where they have a random assortment of talking heads spew quotes about this or that, cutting occasionally to period television clips and/or news footage. Anyway, he said something to the effect of, why did everyone think that musicians in the 1960s had all the answers and were going to save the world? He argued they really didn't know anything about politics, besides which, playing music won't really change anything or convince anyone of anything, politically speaking. Magicians and street performers don't know anything about politics, they just know how to make doves appear; they never have and never will change the world or influence politics, so why would musicians?

Kind of a right wing prick, but also kind of hilarious
I would argue that's a gross oversimplification of musicians and the effect they can have on people's lives, not to mention that someone's profession doesn't limit them from doing other things...but it is hard to argue with his main point, which is that the music of the 60s didn't change the world or somehow install the hippie ideal in the world. If music can't get people to care about each other or stop all violence, does it also follow that music can't make people hate each other and start committing violence? That's dubious logic, I realize, but I know this: the only thing music has made me stop is feeling bad about something; the only thing music has made me start doing is feeling better.

Listening to MF DOOM makes me feel better, and he raps about conquering the world. I'm effectively comforted by someone saying they want to rule over me. Well, music is an amazing thing that defies logic. And P.C. language sticklers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues

It's said that a band has their entire lives to record a debut but they are then expected to deliver another record within two years. Even after confidently dubbing Fleet Foxes's self titled album as my favorite of 2008 I was increasingly worried about their second record as the years slipped by. They faced a problem shared by seemingly every band who comes out of nowhere into the comforting arms of critical love and semi-popularity: how much, and what, to change for the sophomore release? Furthermore, is it necessary to even change at all?

They could easily have popped out another version of their debut in '09, but frontman Robin Pecknold's perfectionism and ambitions (and the band's tour schedule) meant that it would take much longer. Following unbearable delay after unbearable delay, expectations became a bit more like concerns. What was taking so long? Would it be a radical departure or merely a super-finessed version of what they had done before? After all, change too much, and they risked alienating fans who weren't fully invested in the band quite yet. The Flaming Lips can put out Embryonic because they're well into their career and don't need to worry about losing some people or getting middling reviews with a noisy, experimental record; their place in history and our hearts is already assured. On the other hand, if the Fleet Foxes change too little, they risk losing all the good will they had built up by taking too long to release something new while simultaneously playing it safe.

In the end, Helplessness Blues is exactly what you'd want in a second Fleet Foxes record. It is more ambitious and experimental yet never loses the band's gift for melodies and vocal harmonies, to which 'Battery Kinzie' and 'Lorelai', respectively, can attest. There's an obvious expansion of instruments employed as well. At times there is an almost Joanna Newsom-esque gypsy/ethnic sound, such as on 'Bedouin Dress' or the short instrumental 'The Cascades', probably inspired by Pecknold opening for her on tour. By and large, though, this is still the group you knew and loved on Fleet Foxes. That was a genuine surprise of a record, coming out of nowhere to top my list in 2008. Helplessness Blues, meanwhile, isn't a surprise, but it contains enough mini-surprises and new wrinkles to delight the listener just as well as their debut. 'The Plains/Bitter Dancer' is perhaps the best example of what this record has to offer, sporting an ambitious structure, gorgeous washes of wordless vocals, piano, flute, and clattering percussion. The one place where the Fleet Foxes falter is in the unnatural and forced saxophone skronk ending to 'The Shrine/An Argument.' Keep in mind, I am the last person to be turned off by noise and experimental elements, but there has to be a coherency to their implementation. In this case, it has no context whatsoever and disappears as quickly and haphazardly as it appeared. It's like some quixotic burst of noise was accidentally copied/pasted from a Deerhoof record when someone's cat jumped up on the computer or mixing console and no one ever caught the error.

Like the albums that followed the break-out records by other bands, the Fleet Foxes had to know that Helplessness Blues wasn't going to be as universally accepted as their debut even if it is as good, possibly better. I would consider Fleet Foxes an unqualified masterpiece. Helplessness, however, is going to require a bit more work and patience (not as much as a follow-up-to-a-break-out like MGMT's Congratulations, though) for fans to fall in love with, and I think it'll require some time before I'm sure what kind of masterpiece it is, assuming it even is one. What I can say for sure, at this point in time, is that it's everything you could want in a sophomore album from this band. It is simply more, and goes deeper than their debut while also ranging farther afield. With the new breadth and depth, though, there are still those moments of borderline-haunting beauty which made you fall in love with them the first time.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Friday, May 13, 2011

Great Album Covers: In Ear Park

Some of the best album covers of course come from existing sources, whether it be public domain pictures from the Civil War, say, or re-contextualized art of some sort. I think the cover for the first Fleet Foxes album was a perfect summation and complement to the music, somehow, and I feel the same about In Ear Park.

Taken from a four picture series by artist/photographer Amelia Bauer, the cover is a close crop of the 4th one shown below. Something about seeing trees in perfect nighttime blackness illuminated by an intense light speaks to me on a subconscious level I can't quite explain. Glance at, say, the 1st one below and you might mistake it for a quick shot of one of the Ents from the Lord of the Rings movies. Glance quickly at the others and you might assume this a photograph someone took of Bigfoot and now you need to look closer to spot him (or her!).

Check out for more amazing art.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 4

Hey, it's episode 4! Posted a little later than I would have liked, but oh well. Great art can't be rushed, so commentary on great art can't be, either...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

TV On The Radio- Nine Types Of Light

TV On The Radio have never wandered far into abstraction, and I think that's a crucial part of why their appeal is more far reaching than many of their indie peers. Even at their darkest, most experimental, and/or most strange, there's always a wink or a half-smile behind the music to keep it resonant, but also, less pretentious. In fact, TV On The Radio are as lacking of pretense as any band ever, so calling Nine Types Of Light their 'love' album is a little lazy. All of their albums have a lot of songs about love, and anyway, they aren't the type to (knowingly) make a concept album. I think it's more that this time out, the politics and social commentary take a backseat. It would be more apt to call this their West Coast/California album.

Fellow former-New Yorkers Liars also recorded an album out that way, last year's Sisterworld. It had the strangest sound of any of their records, welding a glistening sheen to grimy noise, thus at times sounding like a musical complement to American Psycho's “fancy, upper crust 80s culture meets terrible, disgusting violence” atmosphere. Nine Types Of Light, however, ends up being more like an easygoing sequel to Dear Science. Well, if anyone deserves to enjoy the warm weather and persistent sun of California, it's TV On The Radio. Mind you, this was the band who spent two albums with urban East Coast post-turn-of-the-millenium, post-9/11 darkness and paranoia, not to mention appropriately gothic 4AD cover art. Some of the lyrics on Nine Types Of Lightmay prove that TV On The Radio didn't find only warm weather and sunshine out West, but this record lacks any song one could remotely consider dark or experimental.

Which is also the key flaw of Nine Types Of Light. There's no grit or contrast to all of the prettiness, the hooks, the bright blasts of horns, and the grandiose strings. It's like listening to a rose with no thorns; as a result, there's nothing to really stick with you as much as their other albums did. It doesn't help that this is also the first time where the band seem content to sound like their last release. They may not be going in circles and doubling back on the tracks they laid down with Dear Science, but they are certainly still following those tracks, albeit a little off to the side, perpendicular style. Or perhaps it's better to describe this as a victory lap kind of album? Anyway, the hooks, near-top-of-the-game vocal arrangements, and funk of Dear Science are still there, just not as heavy and ambitious as they were last time. Furthermore, since this is an easygoing album, I sometimes get the impression they aren't trying as hard as a result. Album closer 'Caffeinated Consciousness' strikes me as one of their weakest tracks ever, neither providing a satisfying end to the record nor doing much with its basic groove.

In spite of this, TV On The Radio still manage to turn in a pretty good record. Yes, this is the highest praise I can give it: it's a pretty good record. Nine Types Of Light doesn't try to be, and doesn't feel, as “important” and era defining as their previous work. The stakes seem lower this time out; 'New Cannonball Blues' demonstrates that their gift for production and musical arrangements is as sharp as ever, yet the song never reaches the euphoric peak you keep anticipating. Elsewhere, the hip hop delivery of “my repetition/my repetition is this” on the aptly titled 'Repetition' really needs more grit and raw-ness to work properly. Dear Science was as inviting and pop-oriented as this record but the rhythms and harder edged funk rang true. Nine Types Of Lightseems completely smoothed over, comparable to the difference between the harder, more experimental mid 70s jazz fusion of Miles Davis versus the ease and sleepy pastels which would pass for most artists' fusion in the 80s. Nine Types Of Light is the sound of air conditioned rooms, newly paved parking lots, and people in business attire eating at the outdoor tables of expensive restaurants in the mellow late afternoon sun.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with any of those things, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with a rose with no thorns. Still, after a year off and three since the last album, you'd think they would've reminded us why we give them so many accolades instead of taking a victory lap and chilling out West.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 3

Episode 3! We've almost made it a month straight! Technically I had this uploaded last night but didn't have time to post it here til I got home from work. So.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Tallest Man On Earth- The Wild Hunt

Superficially speaking, there has perhaps never been someone who so openly evokes Bob Dylan's early 60s folk output as The Tallest Man On Earth. Though from Sweden, Kristian Matsson's pinched, slightly abrasive, and nasally vocals feel like the work of the former Minnesotan who moved to New York to meet Woody Guthrie and work on his icy cool persona. Yet I said “superficially” for a reason, because past the immediate surface similarity of their voices and the solo acoustic instrumentation, the two artists are quite distinct. Dylan covered and/or stole from the folk music standards while sticking to an acoustic and harmonica; Matsson writes his own material and sometimes employs a banjo, or on The Wild Hunt's stunning closing track, 'Kids On The Run', a piano. All of that said, if the quality of songwriting and impassioned performances on this record are anything to go by, I wouldn't be disappointed if he, too, went electric at some point and then had a long, engaging career like the old master did (and continues to!).

Actually, the more I listen to The Tallest Man On Earth, I also get a Van Morrison hint in the vocals. Matsson pushes his voice further on The Wild Hunt than the debut Shallow Grave, with a power and grace that recalls Astral Weeks, minus some of the jazzy inflections and repeated words/sounds. Perhaps it would be better to say Matsson bellows while Morrison belts. The way he twists around the “but now you're going back, you're going back, you're-or-going back” line on 'You're Going Back' has a Depression era country/folk feel and makes me think of a random YouTube comment about how someone listened to music that was “too hillbilly for the hillbillies.” Meanwhile, there's a worldliness and sophistication to 'King Of Spain' which belies Matsson's Swedish origin. It'd be hard to imagine, say, a David Berman or Justin Vernon writing a line like “but while we're floating in siestas/you search for bottles and for knives” or holding onto the final “the” of the song in a heart-stopping final flourish.

Matsson makes an asset of his limited palette of sounds, crafting one of the finest sophomore albums in recent memory, lacking any true surprises or changes from his debut but improving on it every way. There is an attention to detail and imagination to the arrangements such that, despite their sparseness, they never have the samey-sounding tedium of most stripped down singer/songwriter albums. Matsson's vocals must get the majority of the credit, but his supple, graceful fingerpicking, as well as the buoyant chording on tracks like 'Burden Of Tomorrow', deserve some praise, too. All of this is also to say that The Wild Hunt is the kind of record which makes you just as excited to see where the artist goes next. True, he's already making music that realizes his potential and promise, but I can't help anticipating his next move, too, because this is the sort of album that makes one believe the best is yet to come. His reputation isn't assured just yet, though the cement is being mixed.

Not since For Emma, Forever Ago has a singer/songwriter album seemed so distinctive and consistently great, simultaneously bringing to mind forefathers and deflecting comparisons, too. Whether he goes electric or stays bellowing from behind a banjo for a bit longer, The Wild Hunt will remain the proof that Matsson is a talent of seemingly limitless potential, some of it already realized.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5