Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The War On Drugs- Slave Ambient

The War On Drugs, at least on Slave Ambient, are a hard band to describe. Certainly their ironic, post-modern name belies something about their music, but the actual constituent parts don't make sense when described. The singer has a 80s Tom Petty/Bob Dylan thing going on, and many of the songs take on a majestic/anthemic feel which some describe as being like Bruce Springsteen though Arcade Fire is probably a more apt (or at least more modern) comparison. However, this is all filtered through a shimmering, noodle-y, and guitar heavy sound. It's not so much ambient as spacey and not so much stoned as joyful.

Slave Ambient would already be an unqualified success simply because it features one of the most distinctive sounding bands in recent memory pulling off their songs with confidence far beyond their years. That it is also one of the year's best albums further cements the sense that The War On Drugs have achieved something truly great here. This is a record with a sense of expanse and emotional resonance, but in a way opposite to similarly expansive/emotional albums like Modest Mouse's The Moon & Antarctica or The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Where those records are exhausting and draining, akin to a therapy session or intense drug experience, Slave Ambient is like a couple hours spent in a coffee shop catching up with an ex-girlfriend and putting the past to rest. You leave this album feeling rejuvenated, and that is something worth celebrating.

It's worth emphasizing, too, that this is indeed an album and not a ramshackle collection of songs. The instrumental interludes, sometimes separated onto distinct tracks like 'The Animator' and 'City Reprise #12', give the album a flow and sprawl that make it feel performed instead of recorded. To be sure, individual songs work well on their own, too. 'Baby Missiles' genuinely sounds like 'Walk Of Life' by the Dire Straits sped up a bit and filtered through some chemicals, while six minute album centerpiece 'Your Love Is Calling My Name' is like a sampler platter of everything this band does and does well.

Still, to paraphrase the old saying, it's the journey that matters and not the stops along the way. Slave Ambient is most impressive when taken in all at once because it manages to sprawl and yet to be consistent; it manages to be spacey and weird yet anthemic and immediate. This is an album's album: Slave Ambient is one of the most complete and satisfying releases of 2011. Like many of the best albums of this year, it's the sound of a band coming into their own, delivering their first great record.

Emphasis on the “first.”
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 28, 2011

Woods- Sun and Shade

As by far the most jam oriented and Grateful Dead influenced of their peers, Woods are also notable for being something like leaders of the current retro influenced psychedelic/garage rock/freak folk scene of bands like Real Estate, White Fence, The Black Angels, Thee Oh Sees, Crystal Stilts, and others. Between their singer's high pitched, nasally voice and a penchant for leaving in the weird stuff and loose improvisations on their studio albums, Woods have always struggled with the same problem the Dead used to: how to craft excellent studio records but leave in all the interesting bits and long song lengths from their inspired live shows.

The band's last record, At Echo House, saw Woods deliver a short, focused collection of memorable tunes. It's the band's most accessible and immediately enjoyable yet. Ironically, this also means it's the least interesting. There's a homemade, scattershot brilliance to even the band's debut, At Rear House, which works because of those odd left turns and rambling instrumental parts. The band seem to have felt the same way, since Sun and Shade brings this stuff back with two long tracks though the majority is still in the slightly trippy folk/rock style they perfected on At Echo House. This time out on the pop tunes, however, singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl pushes his voice toward further traditional prettiness, with his eerie, melancholic delivery on 'Wouldn't Waste' making it one of the record's most memorable tracks.

While all of this makes Sun and Shade the most complete demonstration of what makes Woods such a great band, it also makes Sun and Shade jumbled and only partially satisfying. It's jumbled because the stark difference between a short pop song like 'What Faces The Sheet' and the seven minute krautrock jam 'Out of the Eye' is never resolved by any tracks which bridge the gap between the two. Hell, it almost feels like someone slipped a couple live tracks onto a studio album to see if anyone would notice. Sun and Shade is only partially satisfying because you don't get quite enough of either side of the band's sound, and what you do get isn't always top-of-their-game material. No pop tune here bests what they've done before, while 'Sol y Sombra' never justifies its nine minute run time, sounding for all the world like an aimless Animal Collective improvisation circa Sung Tongs or Campfire Songs.

Which is also to say, Sun and Shade may be jumbled and it may be only partially satisfying, but it is at least more interesting than At Echo Lake, which is either a good thing or bad thing depending on what you want from this band.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Field- Looping State Of Mind

Like many great musicians, The Field is defined by a series of paradoxes that don't need explanation or resolution in order to enjoy his music. While primarily using digital and synthetic sound sources, the music never feels robotic or unnatural. It is technically electronic music made with computers and the like, yet it has a blissed out atmosphere that genuinely owes more to guitar toting dream pop and (the less noisy) shoegazer bands than it does ambient techno or microhouse.

The final paradox is that, if listened to back to back to back, all three of The Field's albums sound very similar yet all have their own sense of flow and movement which makes each unique. From Here We Go Sublime set the standard and established the sound. It was and remains a very special record for me, and is one of the few situations where I deeply love an album but can't bring myself to write about it for fear of defining what the magic is and thus losing it. Anyway, the second album, Yesterday and Today, is more of the same but goes to greater extremes in both rhythm and texture. Looping State Of Mind, meanwhile, partially tips its hat with its title. These are songs which repeat incessantly like loops and certainly help to alter your state of mind, yet they aren't as repetitive as they initially seem and the blissed out/stoned atmosphere is undercut by a more heavily rhythmic and earthy sound than you'll initially notice. The basslines alone on the opening track will testify to that, and make a surprisingly good foil to the dreamy washes of synthesizer which made Sublime so unique. In fact, Looping argues well for turning The Field into a two or three member live unit, with a drummer and bassist to groove along as The Field does his usual magic.

All of that said, Looping State Of Mind isn't the evolutionary next step you might hope for. The Field is still primarily mining the shimmering, minimalist ambient-techno he patented with From Here We Go Sublime. 'It's Up There' could pass for a remix of 'Silent', though I do mean that in the best way possible. Even in those moments where The Field seems to be directly referencing himself, it's always through a gauzy filter or battery of effects and loops to alter the entire dynamic of a track. It helps that even the lengthy daydreams like 'Arpeggiated Love' have heavier beats than From Here We Go Sublime. This keeps your body tethered securely to the Earth even as your mind floats away, a little trick The Field may have picked up from The Orb, who also knew the value of mixing up persistent, deep rhythms with spacey, stoned textures and loops.

The Field already had legendary status based solely on From Here We Go Sublime alone. With Looping State Of Mind, he has inarguably secured this position. Looping doesn't have the sense of newness and special-ness of Sublime and he really needs to try something new with the next one, but sometimes consistency and modest changes are all you really need to have a fruitful career and to produce top tier work.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Feist- Metals

It's rare to see an artist draw close to commercial success and mass acceptance after years of relative obscurity and proceed to make the best, most chance-taking album of their career. For all intents and purposes, however, that's precisely what Metals represents. After being known as “the chick who sings in Broken Social Scene” and “the chick who did that 1-2-3-4 song”, Feist has at last arrived, at least in my book, with this new record.

This isn't to say that The Reminder wasn't a work of finesse and ambition, or that reviews for Metals have been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, The Reminder was one of those indie albums that became massively popular yet backed up its accessible songwriting with genuine artistry. Metals, by contrast, has had no big single to sell it to the public and it sits at a respectable but not overwhelming 80 on Metacritic. All of that said, I think this album's cache will only improve with time. It feels carefully constructed and meticulously arranged such that there's no “ah ha!” song or moment. Love, if it comes at all, comes gradually.

The best way I can think to explain my reaction to this album is to say that Metals is a record which initially promises the moon and eventually delivers it though it still doesn't completely satisfy. Every time I listen to it now, I can think of no obvious flaws or problems. I can, as objectively as is possible in this situation, say that Metals is the best album Feist could have made. So why haven't I completely fallen for it?

Feist, especially on Metals, reminds me of a less distant Tori Amos or a less depressed Cat Power, though the best basis for comparison is PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?, a similarly expansive and experimental record. It's the kind of album where the artist considers it their most personal work and greatest achievement yet it usually ranks low on critic and fan lists. Metals may or may not suffer a similar fate as Is This Desire?, becoming the oblique black sheep of Feist's discography, but I do know I share a similar attitude to both records insofar as I enjoy them but they never became...essential to me. Essential for the artists to make, certainly, but not vital works that I return to again and again as the years go by. Whether or not the artists would agree, to me albums like Is This Desire? and Metals feel insular and complete onto themselves. A listener is not needed, to put it another way.

While Is This Desire? went for non-traditional song structures and electronic flourishes, Metals goes for more of an ambitious orchestral/baroque singer/songwriter sound. There may be some simple delights, such as the understated 'Bittersweet Melodies' and 'Cicadas & Gulls', which is so stripped down compared to the rest of the record it seems like a demo. Yet the main story of Metals is that of reach and ambition. Layered vocal arrangements are everywhere, with 'The Circle Married The Line' sounding downright choral, and the general atmosphere of this album makes me imagine it was recorded in an abandoned cathedral in remotest England on a rare sunny day.

Metals may not end up being her greatest critical or commercial success, but it is undeniably the record where she announces, even if she may have a hit single here or there, she is still an artist first and foremost. Feist has now joined the rank of similar left-of-commercial singer/songwriter types from the past. Metals is not her version of, say, Rain Dogs or Murder Ballads, but it does demonstrate that she is still growing and evolving.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 32

As usual, this is going up later than I planned but...hey, it's nearly Thanksgiving, gimme a break here. After a couple food comas from the meal itself and leftovers for days, you'll forgive me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wild Flag- Wild Flag

Oddly enough, I sat down to begin writing this review while (unknowingly) wearing a Sleater-Kinney t-shirt, and I suppose that's all the context you need to understand my anticipation for this album. The Woods left me thinking Sleater-Kinney were heading in a new direction until the announcement of their indefinite hiatus. Nothing short of a true reunion will sate me, so it's best to take this review with all of that in mind.

Wild Flag, while not a full blown reunion, features two ex-members of Sleater-Kinney and thus is as close as you can get without bringing Corin Tucker in. Moreover, the self titled debut from Wild Flag sounds so similar, it might as well be a Sleater-Kinney record in disguise. It's a hell of a lot more like that band than Corin Tucker's solo record, to boot.

Indeed, even if there were no members of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, they are still the most obvious point of comparison, so let's see if we can nail down the exact records Wild Flag sounds like. Well, to be fair, the addition of organ on some tracks gives Wild Flag a novel, yet not outright fresh, sound. Wild Flag really need to make more use of it if they want to distance themselves from the past. Most of these tracks could be taken straight from sessions for either The Woods ( 'Black Tiles' and, in particular, 'Racehorse', with its heavy hitting low end, fuzzy production, and six minute plus runtime) or The Hot Rock (the tense, introspective, dark, and philosophical songs like 'Something Came Over Me' and 'Electric Band' nod to it most of all). This isn't a bad thing, since those are my two favorite Sleater-Kinney albums...

...but it also leaves me wondering why I'm not listening to those albums instead, which is a bad thing. Despite the strength of these songs and the more straightforward, immediate indie rock Wild Flag employs, I can never shake the feeling that it's more appropriate to label Wild Flag a Sleater-Kinney side project than a supergroup or band in its own right. Make no mistake, if the organ solo on 'Future Crimes' were played on a guitar instead, and Corin Tucker was around to provide backing vocals, it would be a Sleater-Kinney song. I don't mean “would sound like one”, I mean literally would be a Sleater-Kinney song. Wild Flag is a side project or different band in the same way Madvillain is a side project or different band for MF DOOM, which is to say, they barely sound different despite having some different people involved.

When Wild Flag are cooking on all cylinders, such as during the jam in the middle of the aforementioned 'Racehorse', there's a weird, new-ish thrill to the band. But I said “new-ish” and not “new” for a reason. To put it another way, Wild Flag is more like a drug you use to help with withdrawal symptoms and not an outright cure for addiction to Sleater-Kinney. If there were a different overall aesthetic or even more organ dueling with the guitar, it would make all the difference. But I digress. The notion “it's almost as good as a proper new Sleater-Kinney album” is all I think you need to know about Wild Flag to determine whether or not it's for you.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Great Album Covers: Parallax

It has been a year of very memorable album covers, from the classic 4AD aping cover of Wye Oak's Civilian to the crying crude drawing of Panda Bear's Tomboy to the oblique, borderline-suicidal looking cover of Destroyer's Kaputt. None, however, seems as in tune with its musical content as this.

Atlas Sound is Bradford Cox's solo project outside of Deerhunter, and his covers have featured deformed looking men with Marfan's syndrome-like bodies similar to Cox's own (I think Logos may even have him on the cover). This one, however, glamorizes Cox in a classic 50s/60s pop-vocalist way, with a washed out color style. Yet as close as he is to the camera on the cover, and thus to the mellow and accessible as Parallax is as an's all still quite distant and confused. Cox is deliberately averting his gaze, or perhaps he's distracted with a thought of someone or something from the past. Also note that he is still half in darkness.

Anyway, maybe I'm over-analyzing again. All that artsy intellectual ruminating aside, it is a hell of a great cover. And a hell of a great record. But that is a blog entry for another time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Weekly Whiskey Episode 31

A 'classic' style episode with introductory ramblings, 2007 retrospective segment, and a brief talk-through of records I bought recently.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Washed Out- Within and Without

Is it harder to overcome a ubiquitous, beloved song or a critically acclaimed debut? Ask the hundreds of “one hit wonders” from the past and the answer becomes obvious. This problem becomes deeper when said song either belongs to or helps define a certain scene or subgenre of music. In this regard, Washed Out's career has mostly amounted to being known as one of the main pillars of chillwave as well as being the guy who made the music ('Feel It All Around') that Portlandia uses for its theme song.

Even setting aside whether or not he'll ever top 'Feel It All Around', it's obvious that Within and Without is destined to either disappoint or please only those who want more of the same. To be sure, there is no song here as good as 'Feel It All Around', and even this record's best moments don't top what he's done before. I will concede that they do often meet the level of his preceding material if only because they sound practically the same.

That's no exaggeration. The main difference between this album and the previous EPs is that the production is even more smooth and bright. Tracks like 'Before' and 'Eyes Be Closed' are the audio equivalent of when you bump up the exposure time on a camera and everything becomes blindingly bright and, er, washed out. What's more, even while the lyrics may occasionally be dark or unsettled, the music goes down as smooth as a particularly sweet German-style white wine. Sometimes, contradictory lyrics and music can work well...but not here.

As for the smoothness part, that's the other minor new wrinkle on Within and Without: most of the harder beats and murky lo-fi/mid-fi production of the EPs are gone. In their place Washed Out has taken a few steps closer to out-and-out synth-pop, albeit a spaced out, slow motion, and dreamy kind of synth-pop. Unfortunately, this sounds much more interesting and memorable than it is. Even when he's attempting something new, as on the electric piano ballad 'A Dedication', the music has a curious ability to be forgotten soon after. When there are hooks, they don't so much sink into you as they pass right through; more like arrows than hooks, really. If you'll allow a bit of autobiography, I'll note here that I listened to this record at least three times before starting this review and I still can't name a song or hum a melody without having to consult iTunes.

Within and Without is an enjoyable, impossible to hate record even if it does have arrows-instead-of-hooks which neither cause pain nor get your attention. Without any rough edges or imperfections, this record ends up being the hipster equivalent of smooth jazz or muzak. It's the perfect soundtrack for American Apparel magazine advertisements or the fifth or sixth day of a staycation, when you're almost looking forward to going back to work because you've been sleeping too much.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Girls- Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Of all the retro influenced indie bands on the way up, Girls have the most interesting backstory, leader Christopher Owens having grown up as part of a religious cult. Yet for all the drama surrounding the band's past and the reportedly drug fueled making of their debut, Album, they've been a relatively forgettable band for me. At times on their Album they sounded like a more glossy and professional version of Wavves (like on 'Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker'). With more listens, my opinion of it has dulled slightly over the past couple years. By and large the band's reach surpassed their grasp, giving their music the feeling of a group trying on other sounds instead of forging their own.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost continues this “trying on sounds” feel though it is more successful at it. 'Die' posits the band as Black Mountain-esque 70s inspired rockers though not as beefy or slavishly retro. If Girls still haven't perfected their own sound, this record is at least entertaining because they're trying on some new hats and doing it well. Moreso than the debut, this is a record of ambition. It's telling that only three of the songs are less than four minutes long, with 'Vomit', 'Just A Song', and 'Forgiveness' offering just enough ideas and wrinkles to justify their length. Meanwhile, tracks 'Saying I Love You' and 'Magic' continue Girls's reverence for classic 70s AM pop music, though they sound too similar to Album and their influences to be true standouts.

Unlike many of their retro influenced contemporaries, Girls lack any true experimental, psychedelic, or noisy influences. This isn't to say their music is always easy or simple, as the above mentioned long songs testify to...yet even at their most extreme, the songs of Father, Son, Holy Ghost are more akin to, say, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? or the less extreme bizarro moments of A Wizard, A True Star than they are other 70s experimental pop like Brian Eno's solo albums. Where Rundgren tipped his cap to 1950s/1960s R&B, Girls do so to the music of his era. Rundgren, however, put enough weird elements and eccentric lyrics in those albums to make them far more than just barely-original songs aping the past. Unfortunately, I still get this feeling when I listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost, even if it is, yes, a bit better than their debut at avoiding it.

Actually, that's a good summation of Girls' second album as a whole: it's a bit better than their debut. It took me more time to get tired of it, and as a whole it's, well, better. But only by a bit. Considering the wild backstory as mentioned in the opening of this review, it's a little disconcerting how, well, orderly and normal the band's albums have been so far. If the band would forge more of their own identity or go off in some weird directions, they might be capable of something truly great.
4 Pooly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Monday, November 7, 2011

Madlib- Shades Of Blue (Unedited)

Just a short review tonight while I work on all the other Essays and reviews I've got going on. Think of this as a trifle; a side project of my normal reviews, if you will. That's a good state of mind to have when also doing something like listening to Madlib's Shades Of Blue, his "invasion"/remix of Blue Note records' vaults. But that's a bit unfair, actually, because even with high expectations, a wet dream like letting someone like Madlib have full access to a jazz label's catalogue turns out to be better than it has any right to be.

Allow me an example of just what I'm babbling about. MF DOOM is a sometimes-prolific artist, and his long running Special Herbs series of instrumental tracks from his various albums and producing gigs is the kind of interesting-but-inessential trifle I mean. They function pretty well as albums in their own right, the sort of kind you might spin when a friend is over and only a couple times a year listen to on your own. It's not as good as hearing the finished products with rappers over them, in the same way that Madlib's tracks here should be "not as good" as hearing them fleshed out with rappers.

However, Madlib's old friend J Dilla likely taught him something about instrumental hip hop with the legendary Donuts, because these songs are even more fleshed out and enjoyable than you'd expect judging by, say, early Madlib circa The Unseen by Quasimoto or mid-period Madlib as heard on Madvillainy by Madvillain. But enough of that technical crap. Madlib finds some deep grooves and head nodding hooks in some unlikely places in those vaults. It's the kind of stuff most MCs would kill to rap over but not be good enough for. A non-rapping appearance by even the formidable MF DOOM on one of the tracks also speaks to how complete Shades Of Blue is without MCs.

Anyway, it comes on two records, so you know the sound quality and mastering is great. And if you're a fan of Madlib, you're probably a record hound who knows what a difference that makes. Or anyway, you're probably a record hound who'd dig this album a lot.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Essay: Three Stray Thoughts (Unedited)

1) I've recently been digging into more hip hop, and between discovering the joys of Wu-Tang solo albums via Ghostface Killah and finally getting into the Madlib Blue Note jazz remix record I have, I've been setting aside the reviews and/or other albums I meant to be working on right now to enter into one of these pure discovery periods. What I mean is, I'm listening to music as a pure listener/fan and not a critic. I'm not worrying about whether or not I'm going to review something; I'm not thinking about things I want to say or pose about it.

I think this is how Madlib always makes music.

The dude is ridiculously prolific, to be sure, but I get the feeling for him it's all about pure creation when making music and pure enjoyment when listening to it.

Madlib's debut as his alter ego Quasimoto, called The Unseen, is one of the weirdest hip hop records I've ever heard. It has such a sluggish, slow motion/stoned flow to it...even if you're perfectly sober, it seems to last for two hours. It's an album of scope and variety such that one track, even on your first listen, is bound to hook you and keep you coming back until you love it all.

2) I'm working on a series of essays to discuss and define all those bands like the Vivian Girls, Thee Oh Sees, Black Angels, Woods, Wavves, White Fence, Wooden Shjips, Crystal Stilts, Best Coast, Surfer Blood, Kurt Vile (to some extent), The War On Drugs, Ducktails, Real Estate, Girls, Beach Fossils, etc. I feel like they all have a certain retro vibe in common even though they all sound different.

It's got me to thinking about what sets apart certain bands from other similar bands. How do we define sound in terms of differences? I feel like I resort to vague explanations like “they're more jammy” or “they're more noisy”, but in the end, aren't all genre labels just vague explanations? You could take any genre or subgenre and find a few bands that don't precisely fit your parameters. Yet it's a paradox because without genre labels or vague explanations, it's almost impossible to talk about music in any meaningful way.

3) Lately I've been thinking about doing more posts about non-music topics, so let me use this opportunity to say that the weird CGI Resident Evil movie is on Netflix instant streaming, and that it's well worth a watch if you're a fan of the series. It practically feels like watching a Let's Play of a Resident Evil game, or perhaps an hour and a half or so of cutscenes from a game edited into a movie.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011