Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Monday, December 19, 2011
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Look for a video AND a text post officially ranking these albums in a few days. For now, though, here's the alphabetical list of nominees and links to my reviews of each.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Apologies for the lateness of this post. Technically I did have this posted to blip.tv last night but didn't have time to put it here, too. Ah, holidays...and local experimental music shows that keep me out late on work nights!
Monday, December 12, 2011
Whether or not you're as a dedicated fan of his as I am, I'm no longer sure if metrics of “good” or “bad” apply to Carey Mercer's solo project, Blackout Beach. Like Scott Walker's modern music, it has few precedents or points of comparison and so it's hard to tell how good or not it is. You like it because it's successful at what it's trying or because you find it interesting, and you sure aren't going to put it on at a party. Anyway, I don't think it's possible to like Blackout Beach on an album-by-album basis; by now, you're either all in or all out, and Fuck Death will do nothing to change anyone's mind.
Mercer's last two releases, Frog Eyes's Paul's Tomb: A Triumph and Blackout Beach's Skin Of Evil, felt like they belonged in the same headspace even if they sounded little alike. The same dark, intense atmosphere permeated both, many of the same characters haunted both records, and they were made around the same period of time. Naturally, Fuck Death has much more in common with Skin Of Evil, though it does feels of-a-piece with both albums.
Still, this is not Skin Of Evil Part 2 even if the constituent parts sound similar. Mercer is pushing himself to his greatest extremes yet on Fuck Death: at more than 12 minutes, 'Drowning Pigs' is the longest track he's ever made. Similarly, there are very few traditional guitar sounds on Fuck Death as Mercer decided to focus on synthesizers and atmospherics. Perhaps he was inspired by Spencer Krug's Moonface release from earlier this year, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped, where Krug limited himself to primitive organs and drum machines. Or maybe the influence was the other way around. But I digress.
In a press release for Fuck Death, Mercer took a few swipes at the chillwave scene in between explaining that the record focuses on themes of war, beauty, and cowardice. All of this, somehow, makes sense to me after listening to this album off and on for a few weeks. One could make the argument that Blackout Beach is the opposite of chillwave, forcing the listener into discomforting thoughts and environments, like a Lars Von Trier film. After all, there are no hooks or melodies, or anyway, no intentional ones. The way 'Be Forewarned, The Night Has Come' peaks at the end is strangely addictive to these ears, though it's worth noting I genuinely like the No New York compilation, so perhaps I'm skewed as to what is catchy and addictive. As for the war, beauty, and cowardice...I assure you, it's there in the lyrics and the sounds, you just have to keep working at it.
And you'll have to trust me that the work is worth it, because despite the extremes that it goes to, Fuck Death is perhaps the most successful Blackout Beach album yet. Which is my way of saying, it's perhaps the best Blackout Beach album yet. The lengthy, demanding 'Drowning Pigs' seems like pretentious, slapped together dreck until you've heard it a few times with patience in tow. To be honest, it has most of the weakest moments of Fuck Death and lacks the visionary progression of previous Mercer epics, though it still manages to be interesting and also has, yes, some of the album's strongest moments. The bit around the 8:00 mark when he's singing over himself made me realize just how pretty and traditional his voice can sound when he wants it to.
Fuck Death is desolate, lonely music and by extension, it only makes sense when heard on headphones or perhaps curled up in front of the record player with a cigarette and some wine. If any of the above sounds at all compelling, this is the album for you. If you don't always qualify music in terms of 'good' or 'bad', but how 'interesting' or 'successful' it is, Fuck Death may be for you, too.
5 Successful Stars Out Of 5
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Though the album begins with the ringing sound of feedback, Parallax is actually the most accessible and pop oriented release of Bradford Cox's career. However, this doesn't mean it's an easy or mainstream record; it's all a matter of degrees. After all, the last Deerhunter album was the most accessible and pop oriented thing that group has released to date but it's still weirder and more experimental than anything you'd hear on modern rock radio. In the same way, Parallax may lack the abrasive/off-putting elements of Cox's past work but it still manages to be a meaty and eccentric record, moving from classic rock/retro influenced pop songs to dreamy/spacey daydreams with surprising ease and coherency.
As de-facto leader of Deerhunter and solo artist under the Atlas Sound moniker, Cox has quietly become one of the finest songwriters of his generation. A track like 'Angel Is Broken' would be the clear highlight of most other artists' careers but it wouldn't even make my top ten favorites by him. While even I still primarily think of him as the guy who uses lots of effects pedals and always has a druggy bent to his music, the reality is that underneath all that adornment, his songs (at least most of them) boast memorable hooks and affecting lyrics. True, like all of Atlas Sound's recordings, Parallax sounds best on a pair of headphones but this doesn't stop it from also being an album that sounds great in the car or on a stereo. 'Te Amo' is packed with detailed touches that are lost without said headphone listening though it still sports a strong enough hook to trap you on first listen when heard out loud.
After I was left a little cold by Logos, I began to wonder if Cox would continue getting more—for lack of a better term—accessible in his two projects. And I don't mean “accessible” in a good way. True, the main failing of Logos was its lack of focus and the spotlight stealing guests, but it also didn't help that the songs were sometimes too stripped down for their own good. It gave one the impression Cox still wasn't sure what the Atlas Sound project would be. I began to think of it as his tinkering space for where he wanted to take Deerhunter. Parallax, then, represents both a return to spacier/dreamier pastures as well as finally nailing down why Atlas Sound was a separate affair from Deerhunter.
Whereas Deerhunter is more about a full rock band approach, stopping off to try out shoegazer, garage rock, and psych-pop, Atlas Sound as codified on Parallax toes the line between full band, retro influenced pop/rock songs like the title track and 'Mona Lisa' and the staying-in-bed-and-spending-the-day-alone spacey ambient/pop of Atlas Sound's first album. Not that they're always separated. It effectively mixes the two styles, too: the aforementioned 'Te Amo' may be one of the poppiest tracks but there's also all sorts of little flourishes and electronic sounds in the background.
Indeed, the last half of Parallax spends more time drifting off into the ether than it does rocking out, giving the record a sense of progression that makes it a more cohesive listen than the scattershot Logos. The two part finale, 'Quark', is actually more experimental than anything on even Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, the first part a seven minute collage of clattering percussion, spacey looped sounds, and, near the end, some pretty xylophone lines. The shorter second part, meanwhile, blooms beautifully with the sort of bright, gleaming acoustic guitar loops he often uses when playing live as Atlas Sound (check out this performance to see what I mean).
Parallax isn't as special to me as the first album yet I would say that it's a more complete album, succeeding where Logos nearly-failed despite having a wider variety of sounds. It's tempting to call it his most accomplished work to date, but perhaps a better way to think of it is that it's his most finessed and committed work to date. If Atlas Sound always sounded like a sideproject with songs leftover from Deerhunter recording sessions, made on a whim alone by Cox, this should be the record that proves he is putting his all into Atlas Sound, too.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Saturday, December 10, 2011
One of the nice things about prolific bands is that, if you don't like the record they put out this year, all you have to do is wait a year or so, and something new will come out to scratch your itch. In the case of Thee Oh Sees in 2011, however, that wait was a matter of mere months: the recently released Carrion Crawler/The Dream trailed its predecessor by less than half a year. Anyway, let's talk about the first one first, as is accepted custom.
Castlemania sports a more stripped down, recorded-at-home sound than most previous Thee Oh Sees releases, so much so that it wouldn't surprise me if John Dwyer recorded it mostly on his own. So, yeah, it sounds different but that isn't the problem. The weakness of this release is inherent in its production and vibe, which trades the rollicking psych-garage of what I associate with this band for a more song/melody oriented style, Dwyer twisting his voice in a borderline-bratty, nasally direction and simultaneously playing more acoustic guitar. This means the title track and 'Corprophagist' are kind of awesome but also kind of annoying, the mid-fi production working against the band for once. The more song oriented direction also means that the focus is put more on Dwyer's vocals, which aren't really up to these songs. Or anyway, don't always fit them well.
And the songs also kind of don't sound like Thee Oh Sees, which isn't a good or bad thing. Well, it's not a good or bad thing for your average band, but when you're as maddeningly prolific as Dwyer, it makes you seem restless and indecisive. He certainly has never had a problem putting out releases under other names, so why not this one? After all, the few stabs at full-band garage rock on Castlemania sound like half-cooked leftovers from the preceding Warm Slime, almost like he was throwing us a bone to prove it really is an album from Thee Oh Sees and not solo stuff. All of this combined with the acoustic psych-pop tracks like the excellent 'I Need Seed' and the weird stuff like 'Idea For A Rubber Dog' means this album is a mess. Ultimately it's an enjoyable mess yet it's also exhausting and only partially satisfying.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Carrion Crawler/The Dream
Since this release was originally going to be two separate EPs, you might assume it would be even more messy and all-over-the-place than Castlemania. Yet with the full band in tow, including a propulsive two drummer backbone, Carrion Crawler/The Dream ends up being one of the best records Thee Oh Sees have ever put out.
With the emphasis firmly back on recorded-live-style production and energetic dynamics, this record may not sport as many memorable melodies as Castlemania but the hooks and playing more than make up for it. Try listening to 'Wrong Idea' or 'Chem-Farmer' and not wanting to get up and groove, or at the very least, nod your head along. Even though they're primarily instrumental, the pounding drums and choppy guitar lines make these songs some of the most memorable on this album, not to mention some of the finest in the band's catalog to drive or rock out to.
It's those moments of a great rock band in full flight which define Carrion Crawler/The Dream, from the way the band sort of jam their way into the opening of 'Carrion Crawler' to Dwyer's scorched guitar solos and exclamatory screams to the way 'Robber Barons' sounds like Wooden Shjips mixed with White Fence. Dwyer's Castlemania-style vocal delivery is mostly absent on this record, though when it does appear, as on the bass driven 'Crack In Your Eye', it works far better in this context.
Prolificacy doesn't always mean spreading yourself too thin (just ask Robert Pollard), and if anything, Carrion Crawler/The Dream makes the preceding Castlemania all the more interesting because of how different it is. As far as I'm concerned, this band (or even Dwyer alone) could put out two records a year and I'd never get bored because there's always some unique wrinkle going on, whether it's the lengthy title track of Warm Slime or the sparing use of psychedelic effects on tracks like 'You Will See This Dog Before You Die.' Anyway, this is classic Thee Oh Sees all the way, and easily one of the best things they've ever done.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Monday, December 5, 2011
Still, I know my weird music, and I know some weird hip hop via MF DOOM. His Operation: Doomsday preceded The Unseen by a year, and in many ways they feel like long lost cousins. That Madlib would work with DOOM on 2004's Madvillain project speaks to this, sure, but it's also the eccentric style, beats, and samples that both used which make this connection stronger. Well, I mean, the two albums do sample Scooby Doo, so the connection is already strong...though I didn't mean it that literally. It's more like how Madlib's stoned flow and his I-just-inhaled-some-helium voice as alter ego Quasimoto are a perfect foil to DOOM's sleepy and congested style. But I digress.
While Doomsday may have a higher percentage of classic hooks and beats, The Unseen is better overall. It's safe to say, you've never quite heard an album, hip hop or otherwise, that sounds like this. 'Return Of The Loop Digga' is like a miniature epic, stopping in a record store for a skit halfway through before the beat is switched up and the song continues. Sure, Madlib may also showcase some killer beats in a more traditional way, like the addictive organ loop of 'Discipline 99 Pt. 0', but The Unseen is defined by tracks like 'Return Of The Loop Digga' and 'Come On Feet', the latter of which singlehandedly could justify hip hop to an ignorant friend who thinks rap is all posturing, bragging, sex, and violence (watch the video for even more oddness). No, Quasimoto is not as outright weird as, say, Captain Beefheart, but like that legend's most out-there moments, no one else sounds like this, either.
And make no mistake: you will have to go through a slight learning curve to truly dig this record as you would with something by Beefheart. Again, the comparison is as direct as their eccentric learn-to-love-it vocals, but I refer more to how you don't know quite what to make of this music right away. It's true that Madlib never was and never will be a gifted MC, so there isn't an immediate draw there, but his style is a brilliant match for the eccentric, spaced out production. As with Trout Mask Replica, The Unseen will take some patience to unlock. Especially because, like most hip hop albums of its era, The Unseen is 10 to 15 minutes too long.
Hold on, though. Unlike most hip hop albums of its era, The Unseen has made this sprawl into part of the appeal. Where skits become annoying tracks you skip over by the third listen on, say, Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele, Madlib as Quasimoto incorporates them into his songs. Similarly, where there's two or three tracks you could drop from MF DOOM's Operation: Doomsday to make it a better record, there is no obvious filler or weak material here.
The Unseen was supposedly recorded over the course of a weeklong magic mushroom binge, and while that may help explain some of the weirdness going on here, it can't account for the imagination and talent on display. From this 2000 release, Madlib would go on to become one of the most prolific and influential producers/musicians of his generation, and many of his projects would gain greater recognition and praise. Yet The Unseen is a perfect distillation of what makes him so compelling as well as being a perfect case for how much can still be done with hip hop.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Thus Bad As Me is his first proper studio album in seven years and still somehow sounds rushed and half-hearted. It's hard to imagine any fan of Waits being outright disappointed by this record—he has long since become too consistent a songwriter and too unique a performer to turn in a truly bad or dull album—but at the same time, it's hard to imagine anyone truly loving it the way people love Rain Dogs or even Alice . This is music which, at its best, is only good because it reminds you of the past. Moreover, this is the sort of record which, at its worst, is only tolerable because you remember the past. If 'Pay Me' and 'Back In The Crowd' weren't by Tom Waits, they would be amusing on-the-nose Waits parodies...except that they were recorded by him, and they're hollow shadows of what he's done before.
Bad As Me makes consistency into a weakness instead of a virtue just as it makes succinct song lengths into an issue. Much of this album either mimics or mines Waits's past yet as a whole these songs sound less distinct and unique because the production and overall aesthetic is perhaps the most consistent since his jazzy crooner/barfly pre-Swordfishtrombones era. Where 'Big In Japan' was a unique stomping opener to Mule Variations, its descendent here, 'Bad As Me', feels like an obligatory rocking song sandwiched in between two slower, more mellow tracks. Were Waits not singing these songs, they'd be as boring as any cover band playing standards and hits on a Wednesday night in a Minneapolis biker/dive bar. It's his performances that save this album and even then he seems barely invested, as if he's going through the motions.
Waits has been quoted as saying that this would be a collection of short, relatively straightforward material, and perhaps that helps explain why all these songs feel like first or second takes with unfinished, vague arrangements. Waits has never been at his best when he's limiting himself, and it turns out that self-enforced short songs, at least on this record, were not going to help the subpar songwriting. If 'Chicago' were slowed down a bit and allowed to breathe, it could've been a classic track. Likewise, 'Face To The Highway' plays like a sequel to the languid lament of 'Sins Of My Father' yet tries to do so in half the time.
It all comes down to two things: 1) an artist can't release a safe record like this after a seven year break, and 2) you can't spin consistency into a virtue if the songwriting isn't top-of-your-game. As stated above, it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed by Bad As Me, but it's also hard to imagine anyone truly loving it.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5