Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Now that he's released the same number of solo albums as he did with Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has proven, if nothing else, that he's still committed to making music as a full-time career. Furthermore, the work he's done with his backing band, The Jicks, has been of a fairly consistent quality and definitely not the work of a man coasting on goodwill from his youth. Wandering between eclectic, song focused releases (his self titled debut and Face The Truth) and guitar-centric, jammy records (Pig Lib, Real Emotional Trash), his post-Pavement work has seen him go as far as he can. Now he's settled into the craftsman phase of his career, making music that never re-invents his sound or innovates but is nevertheless enjoyable.
Mirror Traffic is something of an attempt to combine the two sides of his Jicks-backed solo work. Boasting 15 songs, it's to be expected that it wanders a bit. Anyway, focus and finesse were never one of Malkmus's strongpoints. He's usually at his best when he's wandering to extremes, and this record tries to go to both of his extremes at the same time. So you'd expect that the obvious touchstones for this album would be Pavement's Wowee Zowee and Real Emotional Trash, and you'd be right. Except that, when he made those albums, those extremes were new and fresh. Mirror Traffic is, well, exactly what you'd expect of a new Stephen Malkmus album in 2011.
See, Mirror Traffic is a comfortable record. He's pretty much doing what he's always done, and even when the results can be as good as anything he's ever done, it's still a boring, disinterested album. When Malkmus goes for a big guitar solo, the playing may be as strong as ever, but it doesn't always follow coherently from the song—the way 'Long Hard Book' ends with a solo feels completely half-assed, as if he couldn't think of a good ending so he stuck in a guitar solo. Lyrically, Malkmus has never been the most sensical writer, but there was an oblique logic to his lines. On Mirror Traffic, I always got the impression the music was written first and then he improvised lyrics to fit; 'Share The Red' comes off like a song written around guitar solos, and the embarrassingly bad 'Senator' will rank up there with 'Discretion Grove' and 'Major Leagues' in the pantheon of Malkmus stabs at mainstream acceptance/relevance.
Tellingly, Mirror Traffic is at its best when Malkmus is trying new things. 'No One Is (As I Are Be)' argues compellingly for an all acoustic album from him at some point in his career, with an easygoing backing of skittering snare drum and modest bass lines. The short instrumental 'Jumblegloss' recalls the psychedelic ending to the album version of Pavement's 'Shady Lane' and unfortunately ends right as it seems to be heading for some lyrics. Continuing in his now established tradition of excellent album closers, 'Gorgeous Georgie' makes me wish he would use the Jicks more prominently as vocalists. However, the overall story of this record is one of good-but-redundant rock songs. After the first two tracks you could listen to the album in any order you wish. There's no sense of flow or pacing to where 'Stick Figures In Love', 'Spazz', 'Tune Grief', 'Forever 28', and 'Fall Away' are placed. Which isn't to say they're bad songs, they're simply forgettable and Malkmus sounds like he's going through the motions.
Feelings for Mirror Traffic are going to be all over the place. It's the kind of record where if you've been following Malkmus's career closely, you'll think it's a solid if unremarkable release, one that doesn't see him besting his past or going many new places. If you've only occasionally listened to Malkmus over the years, Mirror Traffic will seem quirky and interesting, sometimes sloppy but still fun.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
I've always thought of the The Walkmen as men of much finesse and ease, of professionalism and self-control. But during the mid-point of their career-so-far they recorded a cover of the entirety of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats. An album written and recorded during their infamous “lost weekend” together, it's a record of reverential tributes to music from their rock 'n roll youths but also one of debauched looseness. The Walkmen's take on the record is a bit more polished and less interesting, but it certainly must've influenced (or was influenced by) their sessions for A Hundred Miles Off.
You see, this is an album that overturns my assumptions about the band. The songwriting isn't consistently strong and finessed. Nearly every song has a claustrophobic/dramatic feel thanks to the pervasive, borderline-dissonant guitar and organ sounds. Recorded during the Fall of 2005 into early 2006, A Hundred Miles Off has a definite 'cabin fever' atmosphere. It's a record for those random work nights where you realize you've been sleeplessly pacing around your apartment and you have to wake up in three hours for work. Much of the time, it has an energetic rush: 'Tenley Town' is the closest they'll ever get to punk rock. This is also a record for those reeling drunken nights when you've recently broken up with someone or are about to. 'All Hands and The Cook' sounds like a nervous breakdown and the lyrics read like fragments from a bitter, rambling email to an ex-girlfriend.
This is a record which, taken on an objective-as-possible critical metric, feels sloppy and tossed off, more akin to something by Pavement than The Walkmen. Yet I feel like this is the kind of album which sits in your collection until that perfect moment when it suddenly seems alive and makes sense to you. In this perfect moment, the chaotic collage art cover and the very-appropriate album title call out to you because you're not feeling like your usual self, either. Indeed, you feel “off”, or more precisely, “a hundred miles off.” Whatever has put you into this state seems deeply analogous to the late night intoxicated dramas of A Hundred Miles Off such that you are finally happy you bought this record.
As this album sits at the point before The Walkmen became consummate professionals on the excellent You & Me, there's a certain bent appeal to hearing them as slightly-younger men who probably drank and spilled their share of beer during the year or so these sessions, and those of their Pussy Cats cover, took place. They were temporarily the kind of guys who went out to bars more than two nights a week, who threw horn sections into their songs for the hell of it; A Hundred Miles Off staggers to a start with the reeling 'Louisiana', mariachi horns and all. Everywhere, but particularly on 'Emma, Get Me A Lemon', Hamilton Leithauser's vocals are at their most pinched and strained, as if he had recorded everything in one take after spending the better part of a day recovering from a hangover while listening to The Basement Tapes and Blonde On Blonde over and over.
A Hundred Miles Off is the weakest record in The Walkmen's career but that's only because this is a “let your hair down” affair. Held to the standards of even their debut, when they were still trying to shake the last remnants of the Jonathan Fire*Eater sound from themselves, it comes up a bit wanting. But you'll note I just said “a bit”, because the more I listen to this album, and the more times I hear it in a mindset of appropriate desperation and unsettled-ness about my life, the more I like it. This is music for times when you aren't so much depressed as you are unhappy. When you're not so much an alcoholic as a temporary lush who can't face harsh reality just yet because it's still too much for a sober mind and heart to deal with.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Coming to prominence as a hushed, bearded indie folker, Sam Beam is still best known as the guy behind the cover of 'Such Great Heights' used in that M&Ms commercial. Barring that, it's also hard to shake the initial impression left by his debut The Creek Drank The Cradle, one of Beam as a rustic, minimalist singer/songwriter who played banjo or acoustic guitar with no accompaniment and had production quality that sounded like it was recorded in a dusty, dilapidated barn on a hand-me-down 4-track. But starting with Our Endless Numbered Days, and especially his EP collaboration with Calexico, Beam moved toward a more full band style that plays strongly to the gypsy/hippie atmosphere of Bonnaroo. His voice simultaneously became more energetic and emotive. No more whispering in the direction of his beard and toes; in fact, on Kiss Each Other Clean he even swears a couple times.
I saw Iron & Wine earlier this Spring, right around the release of Kiss Each Other Clean, and was surprised—in a good way—by this change which I had missed out on. They opened with a grooving version of 'Boy With A Coin' from 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Beam chugging along on an electric guitar with wah-wah pedal and all. His nine-or-so piece band included a drummer and percussionist, and this same expansive and varied collection of instruments carries over to this record (as well as the preceding The Shepherd's Dog). You can be sure that every stock 70s AOR instrument makes an appearance here, whether it be a sax solo (as heard on 'Big Burned Hand'), marimbas and other 'ethnic' percussion instruments, what is either a Clavinet or similarly funky organ, piano, and so on. I'm frankly surprised he didn't work in a harmonica somewhere.
While the chillwave bands are busy evoking memories and feelings of the 1980s, and even Destroyer's recent Kaputt album has a similar 80s style, Beam is stuck in the 70s. The vibe Kiss Each Other Clean goes for reminds me of the sort of music people would drive around their rural small towns to back in that decade, sort of like a less hard rock version of music you could imagine the characters from the movie Dazed And Confused listening to. To give you an example, album closer 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me' makes effective use of its seven minutes, allowing you time to stop at a carryout on the way to a party for cigarettes and cheap beer and get back in the car before the song ends.
As such, Kiss Each Other Clean is the polar opposite of The Creek Drank The Cradle in that it's a 'hang out with your friends' kind of record. You put it on to create a certain vibe. As a consequence, the hooks aren't as strong as they could be because they don't need to be. Beam is painting in broad strokes with a wide palette of sounds at his disposal. This often means while he doesn't lack for ideas as to what sounds to use, the songs sometimes don't add up in memorable ways. Taken as a whole, it's a fine album, and great fun to listen to with a few friends. Indeed, I can certainly attest to the appeal of these songs in concert. However, like the good time grooves of late 70s Grateful Dead live shows, this kind of music doesn't translate well to a studio album.
Over the past few months as I've listened to Kiss Each Other Clean it never stays with me for very long. I've put off writing about it for months because it inspires no strong feelings or ideas in me. I only recently realized this is because it's not trying to. There are no grand statements here; the stakes are low and the songwriting is laid back in a sometimes-formless kind of way. How much you'll enjoy this depends almost entirely on how much you enjoy just chilling with some friends, talking about nothing much of import, simply enjoying the weather and passing the afternoon and/or night without incident. You never remember these times past a week or so later, but that's exactly why you need to have them.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Some bands finally hit their stride after their line-up solidifies around a creative core due to the addition or loss of members. Others because of a style change, a new approach to making music, or any number of other factors. I'm increasingly most impressed by bands who don't radically change anything yet still deliver the best music they've ever made. Whether it's because of a sympatico producer or their first consistently great set of songs, it's comforting to know that not everyone is brilliant straight out of the gate, that it's never too late to turn a corner.
Beach House's Teen Dream was one of the best albums of 2010 despite the fact that the band weren't really doing much different. True, the music was more inviting and bright, but it mainly stuck with their take on dream pop as codified on Devotion. Its greatness lie in the excellent songwriting and engaging vocal performances of Victoria Legrand. Call it finding their voice or maturing as artists. Whatever the label, Wye Oak have taken a similar leap with Civlian even though it sticks close to what they had done before. Singer Jenn Wasner still has that husky/smoky vocal quality akin to, say, PJ Harvey and Nina Nastasia. Meanwhile the music continues to sound like Low with greater loud/quiet dynamics and spikier guitars. Indeed, perhaps a better way to describe them would be like a jam session between Low and Dinosaur Jr. Where Low often go for slow motion minimalism, Wye Oak draw more from dream pop and similar heavily atmospheric music. While not as noisy and overwhelming as shoegazer bands, songs do have moments of intense guitar storms, joyful and cathartic.
In 2009, Wye Oak's The Knot firmly established this aesthetic and came just shy of being their breakthrough; it's the sort of record where I would have a hard time deciding between a four or five star rating. No such handwringing is needed in the case of Civilian. Paralleling similar feelings I had when first listening to Teen Dream, there's an immediate sense that Wye Oak have fully delivered in every possible way. All of the songs are fantastic and both more distinct and more memorable than The Knot. Right off the bat, the band demonstrate greater imagination in songwriting. Album opener 'Two Small Deaths' avoids any expected loud/quiet dynamics, maintaining a mid-tempo movement with clattering percussion and a simple guitar line, blossoming into pretty choruses here and there. 'The Alter' follows and has an up-and-down groove to it, with a gorgeously psychedelic guitar breakdown around the 1:25 mark, all while sounding quite a bit like Beach House thanks to the repeated organ chords. 'Holy Holy' is up next, snarling to life with a noisy guitar right out of the playbook of late 80s/early 90s Sonic Youth.
Even while I find myself comparing Wye Oak to different bands, there remains a nagging voice in my head saying I still haven't nailed down what they sound like. 'Dogs' Eyes' operates under a logic only Wye Oak understands, with loud punishing riffs that would seem to have no place on an album you can compare to Beach House or Low (well, The Great Destroyer aside). At times Civilian sounds like a lost 4AD classic, gothic and folky, songs creeping along like kudzu vine overtaking cemetery gates. At other times, though, there's a glowing, headlong rush to the melodies, to say nothing of the pummeling guitar outbursts, two elements more akin to a band raised on a steady diet of indie rock from the 80s and 90s, when the “rock” part of “indie rock” got as much emphasis as “indie.”
Thus the splendid paradox of Wye Oak: they sound like many other bands, but because of the way they reconfigure these influences and constituent parts, they really don't sound much like other bands. And despite not changing much about their approach to making music or the overall feel of Civilian compared to The Knot, this one is far and away the superior album thanks to a full record's batch of memorable songs.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Musicians today have it really easy. While it's true not everyone has access to a wide variety of instruments, it is still ridiculously easy to make music if you want to. No need to book a studio and prepare songs ahead of time; thanks to computers and readily available software, bedroom auteurs don't even need to spring for cheap 4-tracks anymore. So now, more than ever, self-imposed limitations have a huge effect on how music is made and what the results end up like. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam recently released a solo album of songs written on/for ukelele. Matt Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces is putting out a series of solo albums using one instrument per record. And now Spencer Krug is going down a similar path. One of the most absurdly prolific artists of his generation, having recorded music with fully six different bands in less than ten years, last year he debuted Moonface, the name given to his solo project outside of his main bands, Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown.
Dubbed Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums, it was a single 20 minute track played only on the titular instruments. A demanding and tedious EP, it tests even the patience of hardcore fans such as I. Following on the heels of the indefinite hiatus of Wolf Parade, he now releases another Moonface record, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped. Recorded when he was snowed in at his home during the winter of 2010, the album title, as with the previous EP, alludes to the instrument used, a primitive sounding electronic organ, though the record also has some cheap sounding drum machines. Some reviews have described this album as videogame music/chiptune sounding, but this is talking in terms of pure sound and not the feel of it. I would say this music is more akin to Wolf Parade co-leader Dan Boeckner's side project with his wife, Handsome Furs. While that band goes for a synth-pop dramatic intensity, recalling the purely synthetic sounds of early techno singles, Organ Music has a more atmospheric and trance-like quality, as if Kraftwerk had recorded an album with David Bowie in the early 80s and sang without using robotized voices.
Those who couldn't stand Krug's aesthetic before will find this the latest damning evidence that he is an overrated, pretentious, and self indulgent artist who hipsters talk themselves into enjoying. And even some fans will still dislike this release, thinking it repetitive and monotonous. I concede that is technically true; the songs of Organ Music sound like they started off in a drone/minimalist style before Krug decided to sprinkle in melodies and lyrics. That, to me, is what makes Organ Music a far more interesting and successful release than the Dreamland EP. It helps immensely that this album is only five songs and 37 minutes long, demonstrating that even when he is making dense and “indulgent” music, Krug still has some self control left.
Organ Music sounds to me like something recorded between 10 P.M. and 3 A.M. while drunk on wine and partially stoned, thinking about exes you wish you hadn't blown it with, or friends you haven't seen for two years. These are lengthy songs which slowly build, peak, and recede. Once the drum machine has faded out, the slowly dying haze of the last part of 'Fast Peter' piles on layers of organ into a grand finale. 'Whale Song (Song Instead Of Kiss)' may start off sounding like the opening to an 8-bit Nintendo game, but Krug's addition of more organ lines and double-tracked vocals as the song progresses proves that at this point in his career, he's at his best when he's given a long canvas to paint on. Instead of brush strokes, his non-linear song structures shoot out in grand ellipticals which never fail to resolve themselves in memorable and self-referential ways.
Where the monotony and repetition of the Dreamland EP turned me off, I find Organ Music completely succeeds. Krug's skills as arranger and hook-crafter may be on vacation, but his emotive way of singing oblique narratives and his ability to write surprisingly enjoyable melodies on even the most simple of instruments transforms this record from a boring vanity project into a transcendent and thrilling piece of music. If you are one of the Krug faithful or you want some dense, challenging music that doesn't follow trends or attempt to start any, this record is for you.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
Saturday, August 6, 2011
It's hard to know what to expect out of the Fiery Furnaces. They've never been an easy band to predict in terms of where they're going to go from album to album. Iconoclasts who make the music they want, when they want, the Furnaces avoid as many career cliches as possible. Well, this was true until their last couple albums, which saw them become more straightforward and accessible. I keep waiting for them to get weird and experimental again, to do something totally unexpected, so it's a little surprising to see them predictably continuing on in the same direction with Last Summer.
But wait, this is a solo album, not the next step for the Furnaces. While Matt Friedberger is spending 2011 releasing a series of limited edition solo albums using one instrument at a time, Eleanor is continuing in the retro rock/pop direction set by I'm Going Away and its digital-only companion Take Me Round Again. Last Summer goes further still and ends up being the most accessible and instantly enjoyable recording associated with the band. Mind you, when Matt released his first solo album a few years back, a double record supposedly divided between more 'out there' and experimental tracks (Holy Ghost Language School) and accessible pop songs (Winter Women), things didn't quite shake out as intended on the latter. It still had far too many of the usual weirdo Furnaces tricks—schizophrenic instrumentation, seemingly arbitrary song structures, keyboard freakouts and guitar skronk—to qualify as the sunny/summery pop album it was intended to be.
Last Summer, though, makes good on that intention, sounding less overtly rock than I'm Going Away and less stripped down than Eleanor's covers of I'm Going Away songs on the Take My Round Again release. This record is a nostalgic look back at all summers past, evoking the 1970s all the while. Hell, the cover even looks 70s vintage, matching the look of the Widow City cover but in classy black and white. This is the sort of album you can leave in your car's CD player for days at a time and never tire of; passengers won't ask you to put something else on though they probably won't ask who it is. You might think this means it is a slight and shallow album, but despite its accessibility, Last Summer packs a lot of detail and novel flourishes into its songs to keep you listening. Particular delights include the surprisingly funky, Steely Dan-esque groove of 'Roosevelt Island' and the shimmering peaks of 'I Won't Fall Apart On You Tonight' (which I've convinced myself is an answer song to Bob Dylan's 'Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight').
For good or ill, you will have to pay attention to pick up on the excellent playing on these songs because there is rarely a stretch of time where Eleanor isn't singing. You expect a solo album to showcase someone's talents, but even for a solo album, Last Summer is all Eleanor, all the time. This works to the album's advantage because she has matured so much as a songwriter and vocalist that those who used to grind their teeth at the Fiery Furnaces could easily love this record, just as Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion appealed to those who never liked that band. The aptly named 'Heaven' is like a cheat sheet to her appeal as a singer, a slow shuffling groove supporting her slightly ethereal voice (kind of like a less chanteuse-y/less smoky version of Victoria Legrand from Beach House). Her performance sells the seemingly inconsequential story of a stolen bike on 'Owl's Head Park', infusing it with an affecting sense of being lost, alone, and just wanting to get home to the security of the one you love.
The way that song bleeds into the album closing 'Early Earthquake' is evidence of the fact that Last Summer is an album which manages the rare accomplishment of getting better as it goes and getting better with each listen. Belonging in the company of retro-mining indie-pop acts with a strong female lead like She & Him and Tennis, this is an easy-going, light-but-not-shallow record and one of the year's best surprises.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
While never recording an outright bad album, They Might Be Giants have had a spotty track record over the past decade and a half. Starting with 1996's Factory Showroom, the band relied more on kitsch and sometimes-too-clever concepts for their songs while the sense of professionalism which now wafted from their music seemed more slick than enjoyable. The weirdness and creativity of the band's lyrics and songwriting were in a slump, and so they began to use their full band, utilizing horn sections and guitar solos all over the place, as a crutch to make up the difference, leading to music that—while, again, not terrible—was wildly uneven. I always think of these albums as overlong even though they're just as long, in terms of the number of songs and playtime, as any of the older ones. Really it was a combination of the above factors and poor pacing/sequencing which had done them in and made these records seem like endurance tests. After all, They Might Be Giants will never revolutionize their sound, so it's all about creativity and novelty within the content, not the form.
Join Us is the band's first album since spending the past four years recording children's music, and I have to wonder if this got them back to their roots, when they were 20-somethings making songs with surreal/psychedelic concepts like 'Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head' and 'Purple Toupee.' Indeed, there are songs and moments here that could have easily been done with just the two John's and some cheap equipment: 'Cloisonne' has a linear story to tell, complete with genuinely funny affected voices, cheap sounding drum machines, and simple keyboard chords. One of Join Us's highlights, 'Protagonist', is similarly simple, with half-joking hand claps and backing vocals, all the while recalling the genre flourishes of Flood. The synth-pop of 'The Lady And The Tiger', meanwhile, is straight out of the production of the band's first two albums, as are '2082' and 'Three Might Be Duende', the latter of which has a wonderful strut to it, sounding like a mix between a march and a dance number from...oh I don't know, Robin Hood: Men In Tights.
By and large, however, Join Us feels like it welds their earlier, more creative and bizarre songwriting to the more muscular and expansive full-band sound of their mid-90s-to-present day era. This means that the album suffers from some of the same problems that the last few have, insofar as the lyrics and melodies might be good but the music sometimes sounds samey and oddly faceless. Never fear, though, it's not all about mining the past or repeating mistakes. 'Spoiler Alert' is this record's greatest attempt at breaking new ground, one of the few times you'll hear both Johns singing together throughout a song, trading lines back and forth. Furthermore, I think I might've once referred to Ween as the R-rated counterpart to Weird Al and They Might Be Giants, and I have to wonder if I was on to something after hearing 'Dog Walker', which lifts that band's patented helium-vocals and self-aware hard rock swagger.
If only they had moved away from their full band sound some more, Join Us might've given their best records a run for the money. However at a certain point, horn breakdowns and guitar solos lose their luster, especially when they're used incessantly. They Might Be Giants aren't suffering from it as much as they used to, but I still wish they'd try more new ideas instead of relying so heavily on their band's chops and energy to patch up a lack of ideas. Keep in mind, I'm a huge fan of John Henry (and the re-arrangements done for the live tracks on the underrated Severe Tire Damage are also brilliant) but in those situations the full band were used sparingly to great effect.
Join Us is the band's strongest album in years if only because they spend most of it either mining their most beloved era or trying new things. Unfortunately they didn't go far enough in either direction to completely hook me. Join Us is an almost-excellent record, showing that the band can still summon the old magic, and pull off some new tricks, when they aren't hiding behind their band. It just isn't quite the full comeback I had hoped for and tried to convince myself it was going to be.