Thursday, July 28, 2011
Friday, July 22, 2011
I've been listening to Women's self titled debut and their 2010 sophomore release Public Strain off and on for the past month, but for whatever reason, I haven't felt compelled to write reviews about either. I'm not saying I never will, it's just that I'd rather talk about both of them together, and the format of a review doesn't allow this. So instead I felt like doing an essay and free-associating about some of the things this music has made me think and feel.
On Women As A Canadian Band
It's unique that Women have such a generic name, since their music is anything but. More unique still is the fact that Women are a Canadian noise-pop band. It should be clear to anyone who's given it any thought that last decade was primarily the story of the rise of Canada as a major player in music, especially indie. Canada and some of its major cities were to the 00s what Seattle and Chicago were in the 90s, though Canada's cultural relevance burned less bright and has thus lasted longer. Yet the majority of these Canadian bands—Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, etc—are all in the same ballpark as each other, sonically speaking. Women, along with Frog Eyes, are one of those rare cases where a band who would never be seen on the cover of Spin still got some success and exposure. In Women's case, they have much more in common with American noise-pop from last decade. Which brings me to my next tangent.
On Women & No Age Part I
No Age were one of the other noise-pop bands who came up age in the 00s. Though No Age and Women share a sub-genre label, they really don't sound much alike when listened to back-to-back. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, it's the little things, the little differences. For all the dreamy and/or psychedelic interludes on their records, No Age are much more of a rock and/or punk band. There's a reason they shared a stage with Bob Moulder of Husker Du fame, another band who ostensibly were punk (hardcore, anyway) but ventured outside those confines. Women, by contrast, are a bit harder to pin down. Their self titled debut is indebted to much 60s pop though it leans more toward the “flowers of evil in bloom” of the Velvet Underground side of the 60s pop world. But then there's tracks like 'Black Rice' and the acoustic 'Group Transport Hall' which don't even qualify as noise-pop. On the other hand, 'Lawncare' descends into what could only be termed noise, period, and album closer 'Flashlights' sounds more like a furious improvisation from a live bootleg than a song proper. Yes, No Age and Women are noise-pop, but beyond that, they resist easy summarization.
On Women & No Age Part II/Public Strain
Whereas No Age's second album, Everything In Between, went for an expansion of the sound of their debut (note: Weirdo Rippers doesn't count as their debut, since it was made up of previously released EP tracks), simultaneously more noisy, poppy, weird, melodic, dreamy, and psychedelic depending on the song, Women took a different tact with Public Strain. If their first record could be lazily dubbed their 60s album, their sophomore release is more like their late 70s/early 80s album. Don't be thrown off by the hypnotic, drum-less opener 'Can't You See', a song I'm borderline obsessed with. No, Public Strain is more of a post-punk kind of vibe.
While their first album often tended toward a sunny and partially cloudy atmosphere, Public Strain belongs entirely to the night. The bass is more upfront in this songs, and the production is much cleaner and detailed than the lo-to-mid-fi of Women. I would roughly summarize this sound as Joy Division meets early Sonic Youth but that's really stretching it. The hazy slow-mo of 'Penal Colony' doesn't sound like either band, and 'Bells' is like a more palatable sequel to 'Woodbine' from the first album. Still, the krautrock groove of 'China Steps' sounds like Bad Moon Rising-era Sonic Youth covering Can's 'Mushroomhead', and everywhere the singer's emotionless, flat vocals are taken straight from Ian Curtis's playbook though less, let's say, uhm...theatrical.
I often find myself going through phases when writing about music in which I inadvertently repeat the same handful of phrases over and over again. True, it's mostly drawn from the usual critical shorthand, like “it grows on you”, or “a headphones album”, or “sophomore slump.” That kind of thing. But “timeless” as a term and “timelessness” as a concept are things I try to use sparingly and only when I can be very explicit about what I mean. I would consider both Women and Public Strain to be timeless in the sense that, while they belong to a codified sub-genre of music and evoke certain eras of music, they don't really belong to a specific scene or time period. Women could easily have come out on a small label in 1969 from a band influenced by the first two Velvet Underground albums and the summertime, feelgood pop hits of the day. Public Strain could have come out in 1985 from a band influenced by Joy Division and Sonic Youth. These are crude approximations, but I hope they make sense.
Outro/The Future Of Women
It's too bad that Women are on an indefinite hiatus. They're a band who have already realized some potential but still have so much more I think they could achieve. Much like how early releases from many groups are excellent but eventually overshadowed by later albums, I feel like Women have it in them to release their version of a Daydream Nation. The closing song of Public Strain, 'Eyesore', points to them following the same path Sonic Youth took in the mid-to-late 80s, allowing their songs to stretch a bit, becoming more jammy and improvisational but not in a hippie jam band sort of way. This is one of those tracks that seems like it could just go on and on, fading out before the playtime reaches double digits. Anyway, given another record or two (and perhaps a line-up shuffle, change of label, or a sympathetic producer), I think Women could reach the top tier of indie bands, noise-pop, Canadian, or otherwise.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Still, this isn't to besmirch those joyous and novel records which seem to come out of nowhere to delight your atrophied musical worldview. James Blake's debut album has been such an occasion for me. Grafting together influences as complementary but disparate as dubstep, R&B, the vocoder-heavy vocals of Daft Punk (or perhaps Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak is a better point of comparison), and Jamie Lidell's Multiply, also a kind of one-man samples-and-loops thing, though Lidell leans more toward funk and soul. James Blake could also be considered a first or second cousin of the xx's self titled album, if only because that record's minimalist white-people R&B helps contextualize this record (something Blake has acknowledged in the press).
Blake combines all of these together in his own unique way, crafting one of those accidental masterpieces which sneak up on you until, after enough listens, you're hearing the songs in your head while doing the dishes or waiting for friends at a bar. By paring his music down to the barest of bones, he achieves a downright Low-esque minimalism though in an entirely different genre. His cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love' starts out absolutely skeletal, a barely-there piano and his unaffected voice eventually joined by skittering drum beats and altered vocal samples. The next track, 'Give Me My Month', does away with any electronic elements at all, the record's most naked moment, a piano-and-vocals ballad which sounds like a less falsetto Antony.
Some complaints have been leveled at the repetition of some songs, particularly 'I Never Learnt To Share.' Blake may extend its sole lyric beyond its limit, but repetition has always been a hallmark of minimalist music. Criticizing this song for repeating a single vocal phrase for too long is missing the point; the production and way all of the sounds progress until the electro-grind peak belies the fact that James Blake is as appropriate for headphones as it is the usual R&B method of putting it on a boombox surrounded by candles as a seduction aid. Not to mention this is one of those cases where one's distaste for a song has more to do with not liking something instead of the fault lying with the song or the artist. But I digress.
I suspect that this record may be a one-off triumph for Blake, since it's difficult to imagine him going anywhere with this sound now that he's simultaneously invented and perfected it. This is the promise and the curse of hybrid music, I suppose. Just to be clear, this doesn't diminish how outstanding James Blake truly is. It's an album which makes you realize there is still much territory to explore in music. Even though, in theory, it sounds similar to other things you're familiar with, the actual product sounds original and fresh.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Those fans of Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago who find themselves confused by his new album should bear in mind that Justin Vernon didn't really plan for any of this to happen. Bon Iver was likely intended as a one-off fluke to purge some feelings Vernon had as a result of the break-up of a band and a relationship. It was an album that, in all probability, should have been relegated to the obscure dustbin of history, embraced by the two thousand or so who happened upon it, while his next musical project would have been his real ticket to fame. But sometimes quality wins out, even for a modest singer/songwriter album, and so Vernon was catapulted to the top of the indie heap and further still, collaborating with Kanye West and having his debut album praised by luminaries as unlikely as Moby. Still, it's probably best to think of Bon Iver, Bon Iver as the “next project from Justin Vernon” and not as “the follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago.”
On first listen, this is an album of seemingly formless tracks, as if Vernon was attempting to hybridize ambient/post-rock with singer/songwriter-isms but missed the mark entirely. Indeed, this record often bears more resemblance to his collaboration with Collections Of Colonies Of Bees released under the Volcano Choir name than it does the debut. However, like Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover, another album of intricate songs which work best as a whole instead of as discrete tracks, Bon Iver, Bon Iver eventually reveals its secrets, its own sense of internal logic. Still, this music is not as radical a departure as other bands have attempted. It's more akin to MGMT's Congratulations or Radiohead's Kid A in terms of a fairly popular band changing their approach to music without radically altering the feel or tone of said music. Bon Iver is still making contemplative and bittersweet stuff albeit with slightly more abstraction in form and content. 'Calgary' in particular keeps threatening to achieve some kind of emotional peak that never arrives, sounding instead to these ears like Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes' on quaaludes and/or pot. A similar 80s vibe overwhelms 'Beth/Rest', a song I either hate or love every time I hear it, sounding like (I'm not making this up) the closing ballad to an 80s film.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver doesn't trade in hooks or immediate emotional resonance. You'll need to work at it in many listening situations, whether just-this-side-of-too-loud in your car or at barely audible levels while reading a book on your couch. Furthermore, the greater diversity of instrumentation and ideas, along with a fantastic use of Vernon's now-patented falsetto, proves, if nothing else, that he is neither standing still nor throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Repeat listens reveal as many differences as similarities. The dreamy waltz of 'Michicant' could easily have fit onto the chilly Midwestern laments of For Emma, Forever Ago. 'Wash.' is, somehow, even more stripped down than anything from Bon Iver's debut, mainly relying on minimalist piano and faint acoustic guitar, with some swelling strings to provide needed emotional punctuations. If this is a record more about moments and ideas than songs or hooks, then 'Wash.' contains some of Bon Iver, Bon Iver's greatest triumphs, calling back to the intimacy of the debut but approaching from a different direction entirely.
Whether Vernon has here succeeded at establishing his artistic longevity, I don't know. I do know that his artistic credibility is without question; as with MGMT's Congratulations, this is a clear case of someone protesting to the world, “I am an artist interested in being creative and not just capitalizing on good will to make a quick buck.” Even if you ultimately don't like or understand Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the notion that Vernon isn't going to kowtow to the mainstream and remake the same kind of album over and over should be enough assurance to ride out a perceived misstep. As for me, I think this is a ballsy album that everyone should hear, unique and vital, the kind of thing that re-teaches me that I haven't heard it all when it comes to music.