Thursday, October 27, 2011

Great Album Covers: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The first Velvet Underground was one of those fine meetings of high art (Andy Warhol, who probably wouldn't consider himself high art, but he sure wasn't blue collar) and low art (The Velvet Underground, led by the poet of the streets and urban decay himself, Lou Reed). It's hard to imagine a rock band getting away with what they did with the backing of Warhol, but then again, he was only really involved at the start. The second record was way more experimental and dissonant, for starters...

But I digress. I find it kind of odd that there doesn't seem to be a definitive version of this cover. Some omit any text at all. Some have Andy Warhol's name but not the name of the band; some have it the other way around. Some add the famous "peel slowly and see" small text near the stem of the banana. Some even have a special peel off sticker, revealing a naked bright pink inner banana once the skin sticker is off.

In any case, the use of existing paintings or photographs usually makes for great album covers, but I like this one the most. I think it was one of the first cases where an established artist made something new for an album cover and didn't simply allow them to use an old work. Though I could be wrong, as I'm not too familiar with Warhol's history.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cymbals Eat Guitars- Lenses Alien

Divorced of the context of little green men in flying saucers, “alien” is a word both simple and provocative. It's a more extreme version of “foreign”, really, in that something which is alien is so unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, you have no context for it. What I mean is, I don't know anything about, say, Bollywood films, but despite their foreignness I can still understand them in the context of other movies. Something truly alien would be utterly unknowable from any context I could approach it.

In that regard, the new album from Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien, possesses an intriguing title. The “Alien” part draws your immediate intention but it's the “Lenses” part that is key. This music isn't so utterly foreign as to be unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, yet it does offer some strange, non-traditional songs which take time to understand. This is a record of blurry photographs of UFOs or abstract art, things which could be upside down or sideways for all you know. It's also a record which never seems to add up or make sense, constantly eluding you and only offering a few standard choruses or hooks to latch onto. Lyrics bubble to the surface of your consciousness as you listen to it, only the last few evocative words of a given line such as “everything, everything changes”, “corner store clerk, who never looked up”, and “milky cataracts peel(?)” managing to catch your attention as you drift along.

Mind you, in the case of Lenses Alien, this elusive, formless quality is pulled off with ease, suggesting that my initial worries about the band being a touch too derivative were groundless. I've listened to this album a dozen or so times but it keeps surprising me with its twists and turns. Much like Sunset Rubdown's excellent Random Spirit Lover, this is a record bursting with winding linear songs. Rarely is a section, hook, or chorus repeated, meaning you'll have to listen to it a few times and take it all in as a whole work rather than a collection of songs. Furthermore, Lenses Alien may peak with its epic opening track, but the way the rest of the songs flow together and are paced, the record may as well just be one long song anyway.

Lenses Alien is Cymbals Eat Guitars coming into their own. It may not be their masterpiece, because I think they have still better things ahead of them, but it is at least the band shedding most of their obvious influences and establishing their sound. While Why There Are Mountains may boast more and better hooks, Lenses Alien is the stronger and more interesting album. I'm most impressed that this record also turned out to be the band pushing themselves while still leaving in those dreamy, catatonia-inducing wall-of-sound things they conjure up every few songs—I think they do it at least twice on 'Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)', in fact—without turning into arch-experimentalists who alienate (pun intended) their audience.

Lenses Alien is a perfect follow-up to a flawed and not wholly original sounding debut. It leaves me confident in where the band are now and genuinely interested in their future. While not an outright masterpiece, it is easily one of 2011's most accomplished records.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 27

A Sonic Youth-focused episode thanks to recent news that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are separating.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Real Estate- Days

Early October this year was an Indian Summer, as it were, in my part of Ohio. This means that in the morning it was quite brisk and you needed a medium-thickness jacket; when you got off work, the weather was in the 70s and the sunshine, so very good feeling, seemed like Mother Nature was winking at you. It was one of those week or so periods of time where I sat in an old leather chair by my open window, smoking clove cigars, slowly getting drunk on cheap sangria, and beginning to read something I instantly knew I was going to adore (in this case, The Sandman). The cherry on top of this perfect weather and week or so kind-of-a-bender was first hearing an album like Days and falling in love with a band like Real Estate.

Looking back at my review of the band's self-titled debut, I summed up my feelings thusly: “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.” On first listen, this also summarized my feelings toward the band's new record, Days. I was ready to write my four star review and say the band were even closer to making their masterpiece. “Maybe next time, fellas,” I thought, “now let's go see how the new album by The Field turned out...” However, something funny happened on a recent warm October night: I fell in love with Real Estate.

In the review quoted above, I noted a similarity between Real Estate and The Sea and Cake. This feels more pronounced on Days because the band are drifting further from their psychedelic/surf-rock leaning debut into straight up groove-rock built around the bright, shimmering interplay of Real Estate's guitarists. To put it another way, Real Estate's debut sounds best in Spring and Summer; Days will still sound groovy, mellow, and amazing when Fall finally settles in, and on through Winter. Indeed, Real Estate are more or less turning out to be the heir apparent to The Sea and Cake, minus some of the jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythmic influences of that veteran Chicago band but adding a hypnotic interplay between the guitarists. It's like Television if Television had had two amazing rhythm guitarists instead of two amazing lead guitarists.

As Days is the kind of record which starts pretty good and gets better as it goes, you can bet it also reaches its natural peak with the elongated ending of 'All The Same', hinting at a jammier side of the band than is apparent on their albums or, judging by a live bootleg from 2010 I recently heard, their concerts. One of the album's best songs, 'Wonder Years', is a jangle-pop gem possessing a title which nods to the somehow-80s-evoking scene the band has sometimes been lumped in with. If Real Estate haven't exactly won the attention and sales of better known somehow-80s-evoking acts like Washed Out, Best Coast, or Kurt Vile, Days shows that they have still outstripped them all in terms of nailing down a unique and (seemingly) definitive sound. Call it “coming into their own.” Call it “producing their first great record” or whatever else. No matter the label, it's still the sound of a band realizing their potential.

Days is such a confident and endlessly enjoyable record that one hopes the band don't stray too far from it for awhile. At first, it may come off as lightweight and samey-sounding until, on further spins, something suddenly clicks and you find yourself listening to it over and over for a week straight. These are songs which start off “pretty good” and soon bloom into addictive little tunes you can't get enough of. “Lightweight” it may be...but so are summer shandies and featherweight boxers. But I digress. Days is one of the year's most unassuming and greatest successes. Highly recommended.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wilco- The Whole Love

At some point in the past decade, Wilco went from being America's #1 forward thinking, progressive, experimental-pop band behind a string of masterpieces to... being America's #1 backward looking, hard touring, dad-rock band behind kind-of-OK craftsman-like work of Sky Blue Sky (underrated! secretly awesome!) and the kind-of-self titled Wilco (The Album). Whether this transition took place as a result of Jeff Tweedy's successful rehab, or just as a natural growth of the band itself, it's hard to say. What I do know is that Wilco has, with The Whole Love, gone from one of those bands-I-love-to-love to being one of those bands-I-still-want-to-love-but-don't.

Wilco (The Album) left me a bit bored. I also can't seem to remember many songs from it, other than the meta-titled 'Wilco (The Song)' and experimental throwback 'Bull Black Nova', a sort of more nervous/anxious sequel to the superior 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' from A Ghost Is Born. See, Wilco are at their best when they're reaching or expanding, and to see them spend another album coasting is a disappointment. The only new-sounding experimental parts of The Whole Love essentially boil down to the first and last tracks, which showcase Wilco's jammy, guitar-heroics side ('Art Of Almost') and their multi-part, slow-build epic stuff ('One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)'). In between, though, it's just a lot of Wilco sounding like Wilco all thrown into a blender together. 'I Might' recalls the retro, raucous edge of some Summerteeth and Being There tracks mixed with some Sky Blue Sky looseness. 'Black Moon', meanwhile, sounds like a mix between the haunted ballads of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (in particular 'Radio Cure') with the jaunty stuff of A.M.

All told, however, this album is neither a step forward nor a modest return to form. I hate feeling this way about The Whole Love because it has got some excellent songs, such as career highlights like 'Born Alone' and the wonderfully, well, jaunty 'Capitol City' which could pass for a 1930s pop tune. Indeed, there's nothing inherently wrong with this record at all. It's simply that, if this is what passes for experimental and/or new from Wilco, they aren't really trying any more. A lesser band could never pull off a track like 'Rising Red Lung', but Wilco somehow turn it into an oddly unmemorable reminder of better moments from their past. Lyrically, The Whole Love leans toward the less abstract and has a close to 50/50 split between passable verses and forgivable clunkers. It isn't that Jeff Tweedy isn't trying, he just doesn't seem to be trying very hard.

Which is precisely the core of my issue with The Whole Love. It isn't the band sounding like this or that album one at a time, as it was on Wilco (The Album), so much as it is Wilco kind of smashing all of their old albums together and odd combinations of those coming out here and there. The more I listen to it, the more I like it, admittedly. 'Whole Love', maudlin lyrics aside, is simply too much fun to pass up. But the album as a whole also increasingly feels like if I give this record a full score it would be like rewarding someone for winning a race by coasting for the last half-mile just to show off how much of a lead they had. Yes, Wilco, you used to forward thinking; you used to be so far ahead of us back in 2001-2004. But we've long since caught up.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Essay: Only A Fan Could Love Quebec

Like many similar bands from the “alternative” era, (like, say, Primus), Ween were a really weird band in the early 90s who didn't fit in with grunge or alternative rock. They still benefitted from the willingness of major labels during that time to sign any band they perceived as being alternative and with a chance of having a hit song. Ween's brush with the mainstream came from their single 'Push th' Little Daisies' though celebrity fans like South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker certainly helped.

Ween's time on a major label (Elektra) saw the band, much like They Might Be Giants, moving away from their acerbically strange, 4-track, just-the-two-of-us-playing-everything-and-using-cheap-equipment aesthetic into music that, while still odd and far away from their labelmates, became more polished and professional sounding. Concurrently, Ween pushed their gift for genre experiments as far as it could go, putting out an album of legit country music, 12 Golden Country Greats, and a (loosely) nautical themed homage to the progressive rock they grew up on, The Mollusk. This all culminated with White Pepper in 2000, a succinct record of accessible tunes and some classic rock nods. Ween left Elektra shortly after its release, supposedly due to the label putting out the Paintin' The Town Brown: Ween Live 1990-1998 release, which they had intended for their then-new Chocodog label.

Back on their own, so to speak, Ween seem to have been inspired to return to their roots. This is mainly apparent in the Shinola, Vol. 1 collection, which gathered together outtakes from the band's past. However, the band also went back to their earlier sound for their next album of new material, 2003's Quebec, an album only a fan could love. It's certainly possible that you could lay it on someone who didn't know a thing about Ween and they might 'get' it, or even like it, but the combination of weird lyrics and concepts with weird music means the average listener will wonder what the hell they're listening to. To be fair, Quebec is more akin to White Pepper than Pod, sonically speaking, yet it's still got enough outright bizarre songs and such a variety of styles that it's among the band's most varied and demanding albums.

Demanding” is indeed a good way to put it because, with 15 tracks in 55 minutes, Quebec never stops throwing curveballs at you. Ween produce some of their best genre experiments here, whether it's the jam band twangy groove of 'Chocolate Town', the Pink Floyd nod 'Captain', or the dreamy psychedelia of 'Alcan Road.' More importantly, there's also Ween following their impulse for off-the-wall pastiches ('Zoloft' sounds like lounge music married to easy listening pop music filtered through, well, drugs) or indescribable oddities with primitive sounding instrumentation, like the drum machine grind of 'So Many People In The Neighborhood' or the fake-out endings of the instrumental 'The Fucked Jam.' Somehow it manages to hold together as a cohesive record and not a slapdash collection of disparate tracks.

Quebec may not qualify as the band's best album; it certainly doesn't qualify as their weirdest. Nevertheless, it's the sort of record only a fan could love: only someone intimately familiar with Ween's discography could make much sense out of this sprawling, diverse, and seemingly random record.