Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
In the past, jazz used to be what hip hop or rock are today, which is to say, a mass market, pop culture, and socially relevant genre of music. It survived and remained vital for so long because it kept changing and incorporating elements of other music. However, now jazz has become an element that's incorporated into other types of music. It certainly still exists as its own genre just as blues and reggae do but they, too, are mostly perceived by modern music listeners as elements to add to other kinds of music. Or, at the very least, niche music for small audiences.
During the 80s and 90s, when jazz fusion had burnt itself out and jazz traditionalism had come into prominence, some predicted a new jazz fusion using elements of hip hop and/or electronic music. While this may have happened in some cases, it never really became a thing, so to speak. In fact, what typically happens is the opposite: non-jazz artists sometimes incorporate jazz into their music. This can take the form of anything from the subtle jazz touches on some albums by The Roots or Tortoise to full-on hybrids like Q-Tip's Kamaal The Abstract. In all these cases, however, the jazz part noticeably calls attention to itself, such that you aren't hearing an entirely new style of music so much as you are hearing someone make obvious jazz references.
By that standard, one of the most interesting and unique examples of jazz added to another genre is Squarepusher's Music Is Rotted One Note. It's the sort of record I find myself returning to when I feel burnt out and bored with music, that dreaded “I've heard it all before” sentiment. This album reminds me that there is still a lot of possibilities left: its dark atmosphere and production style feel more akin to something by Burial yet it is arguably Tom Jenkinson's most successful attempt at using his virtuoso bass playing and talent with live drums in an electronic context. The result is something that doesn't sound like jazz, electronic music, or even an electronic musician playing with jazz sounds or tropes.
Music Is Rotted One Note transcends genre labels. There's a seemingly formless, improvised abstraction to the record as a whole, and specifically tracks like 'Circular Flexing', which makes use of rhythmic and melodic elements but never in traditional rhythmic or melodic ways. The drum beats, even the live/non-sampled ones, seem chopped up and edited, as on the stuttering 'Ill Descent.' Meanwhile, chords and riffs on organs have a sound heavily evocative of Miles Davis's late 60s-to-mid-70s electric/fusion sound while also retaining their own feel, half of the time employed for dreamy and atmospheric effect and the other half of the time as punctuations and accents for drum beats or Jenkinson's (sometimes) rapid fire bass lines.
Even with some relatively accessible songs, like 'My Sound', Music Is Rotted One Note defies easy digestion and understanding. It's a record which has no “ah ha!” moment, has no hooks; I'll be damned if, an hour or so after hearing it, I can hum any of the melodies. Nothing about it is easy or obvious yet unlike most difficult or challenging music, its appeal is immediate. It remains a fascinating listen, one that I appreciate more every time I come back to it.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Saturday, September 17, 2011
It's difficult to express the kind of impact Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (hereafter referred to as Dragging) had on my life. “Difficult” because the impact has been subtle; I can't point to any specific revelations or feelings it's given me yet I know it's had an impact all the same. I think about it or hear its songs sometimes when I'm daydreaming or just after I've woken up. There is something profound and moving in the music of Dragging that speaks to me on a level similar to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. In both cases I can specifically define how the music works, how it was made, what genre it belongs to, and so forth, but all this objective talk of the “form” the music takes doesn't begin to capture the subjective experience, its “function” if you will. Yet these are albums that a wide variety of people have very similar subjective experiences with and I think that speaks to the success of the creators to bring their specific visions and ideas to life.
Superficially, Liz Harris's 2011 double album as Grouper, entitled A I A : Alien Observer/A I A : Dream Loss, sounds identical Dragging. She uses the same haunting, ethereal vocals, floating in from the distance on dense fog walls of reverb and delay, and the same indistinct guitar/organ drones, simple repeated melodic motifs, and soundscapes. The total effect is like standing in dense fog with the music seeming to hang in the air and also simultaneously to be slowly drifting away from the listener. So, pretty much like Dragging, then? Kind of. The subjective experience of this double record is quite different from Dragging. The songs on these two albums are longer, less structured, and less traditional. The music feels more unsettled and uncertain than the last album. This mostly comes on Dream Loss, where Harris even brings in some distortion on the noisy 'I Saw A Ray', a track that would seem more at home as an instrumental on a No Age record or perhaps on Wye Oak's recent Civilian.
If Dragging was a water album, Alien Observer and Dream Loss are wind and cave albums. The vocals on the aptly named 'Wind Return' from Dream Loss sound like they were recorded on a portable mic while standing on a windswept beach at dawn, Harris getting louder and less coherent to be heard over the wind and water. The title track of Alien Observer tells a tale of wanting 'to take a spaceship to the stars', which would seem to suggest a spacey sounding track, but it's the simplest arrangement (and shortest song) on the two records. A simple bubbling keyboard line and Harris's almost-discernible vocals come through relatively restrained reverb, suggesting a deep cave either on a high mountain or far under the sea.
By any normal standards, the A I A albums are monotonous and distant-sounding, neither engaging the listener nor providing any memorable songs. Hell, half the time the songs bleed into each other, as 'I Saw A Ray' does into 'Soul Eraser', as if the delineations between tracks are meaningless. Yet judged by the standards of capturing a moment, a feeling, or an atmosphere, Alien Observer and Dream Loss are as perfectly realized as Dragging even if the things they make you think or feel are more vague and less comforting than that record.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Friday, September 16, 2011
Still, I recently let a friend borrow a Miles Davis boxset I own (The Cellar Door Sessions one) and it in turn forced me to finally listen to some electric Miles again. And hot damn!
Some of the by turns peaceful/stormy, Earthy/otherworldly music of Bitches Brew is previewed by this cover, so before you even hear the music you already, somehow, intuitively have a good idea of what it's going to sound like judging by the cover.
Extra points go for this being one of those awesome "the album art wraps around onto the back" covers, using the sweating woman as a sort of hinge between the two.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
It feels like every year a band leaps to the top of blogs and music websites simply by sounding like indie rock from years past. They're not part of any trends, new genres, or approaches to making music. They pretty much just sound like indie rock bands from the 80s or 90s, whether leaning more toward the literate/ironic Pavement, the loose and unhinged mid-to-late 90s Modest Mouse, the noisy guitar workouts of Sonic Youth, or the gold standard loud/quiet/loud dynamics of the Pixies. Granted there are other influences at play, but the end result is usually the same: bands with enjoyable, often exceptionally good, debut records who then fail to deliver the magic again and never get out of a rut. I like to call it Tapes N' Tapes Syndrome.
Yuck get around this problem, at least on their debut, by recording a fairly diverse set of songs, borrowing from many influences but never ripping anyone off. This means that while they sound like the more punishing side of Dinosaur Jr. on 'Get Away' and sludgy album closer 'Rubber', they don't sound like a Dinosaur Jr. cover band. Furthermore, the variety means you can't pin a single band to Yuck's sound, and you can't really label them anything other than the basic 'indie rock' because they range from noise-pop to jangly guitar pop. If you had only heard 'Suicide Policeman', for example, you would think Yuck sound like Yo La Tengo at their most mellow; hell, this track even has what is either marimbas or a xylophone and some horns on it. Then there's 'Suck', which has Built To Spill written all over it, down to the plaintive slide guitar sound. Yet in all these cases Yuck are not copycats so much as they are evoking the sound of other beloved bands.
However, there's a million different bands who sound like other bands, so what precisely makes Yuck so special and one of those most recent darlings of the indie press? It all comes down to songwriting and confidence. Oddly, then, watching live clips of Yuck on YouTube, you would never connect them with this record. They look and sound unrehearsed and nervous; their baby faced frontman looks like he had to fake sick from high school in order to be able to play the show. Give a listen to the album and they're practically a different band, brimming with hooks and self-assurance. Even if they're working inside well established sounds, Yuck are capable enough songwriters to stick out from the crowd.
Yuck won't win any points for originality, and there are going to be those longtime indie rock fans who feel like they're pandering to an audience with this album. As for me, I'm not sure whether what I'm about to say is praise or condemnation, but I'm going to say it anyway: Yuck is the kind of record I want to criticize for sounding too much like other bands yet it does it so well that it almost seems original. And besides, I've listened to this record too many times to talk myself into knocking off a star or two because it sounds like other music I love.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Friday, September 2, 2011
Thursday, September 1, 2011
My original inspiration for doing this blog series about album covers came from a random old booklet that was included with some records I had ordered from Insound.com In it, there was an essay from someone talking about Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, and it really got me to thinking about how certain album covers had filled me with strong feelings, like dread or sadness or love, in a similar way to what the essay was talking about.
I have to confess that for some reason the album art never shows up when I play this album in iTunes, and I don't own the vinyl, so the cover art rarely occurs to me when I listen to the album. The music seems more tranquil and...aquatic than this cover would make you think. It's also a more accessible record than her new double album, but I'll get to that eventually.
I feel like the lighting is what makes this cover work. If it were better lit, it would look like a silly little girl in a Halloween costume pouting at her parents. But with some haze and darkness going on, the little girl becomes a figure of uncertain menace, like coming across Bigfoot in the forest and being unsure how afraid you should be.