Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Walkmen- Heaven

You know, in the same way that the comparisons made about Wolf Parade and Destroyer to David Bowie never ring true, I never really saw the U2 influence on The Walkmen. Sure, both bands made music that had a big sense of drama and emotion to it, but only U2 could really be called anthemic.

Until now. Heaven, the new album from The Walkmen, is anthemic...but does it sound like a Walkmen album? Does it matter?

Heaven is the first time The Walkmen have allowed themselves to be so obvious about who they're working with. Meaning that the bright, full sound of producer Phil Ek and the vocal contributions from Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes are as clear as day. Odd to think this was the same band who blended the vocals of the otherwise grating guy from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! so well into one of their songs on their last record that I don't think many people even noticed him. But I digress. The clear-as-day Fleet Foxes influence, aside from the times when Pecknold is singing, is in the way Hamilton Leithauser is approaching vocals this time out. When I saw The Walkmen open for Fleet Foxes last year, he seemed to be trying out a new more powerful style, belting out lyrics and holding onto notes until your heart shook with the full sound of it. This is definitely fully realized on tracks like 'Heaven' and 'The One You Love', and it's hard not to get swept up in their energy and pull. Leithauser's singing may have been rough, and a sticking point for some, in the band's past but on Heaven he sings his heart out.

While The Walkmen may not always sound like The Walkmen on Heaven, the attempts to simultaneously grow and mature their sound are all successes. Song for song, it'd be tough to find a record in the band's discography that can match Heaven. Lisbon comes close though its surf and ethnic flourishes felt self conscious, whereas the variety on display here—from the claustrophobic-and-yet-anthemic 'The Witch', to the solo acoustic ballad 'Southern Heart', to the charging arena rock guitar slashes and clap-a-long drum beat of 'Heartbreaker'--is dizzying even as it all manages to cohere.

In tipping their hat to their classic rock and contemporary influences, The Walkmen have stumbled on a way to make a mature, dad-rock/contented-family-life record just as thrilling and richly rewarding as their previous albums with the aforementioned flourishes and stripped down production style. It may not perhaps grab you as closely and emotionally as their other albums, but like a surprisingly stylish hand-me-down suit from a Grandfather, you know someday you'll grow into it. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Destroyer- Thief

Dan Bejar has always been gifted when it comes to lyrics, but an appropriate musical backing for his early Destroyer records seemed like an afterthought. The City Of Daughters album is held back by short grating instrumentals and the overall sense he's being obtuse and clever just to be obtuse and clever; his albums before that were rough and forgettable things, semi-obscure and best left that way. Streethawk: A Seduction, then, is considered his first true success, a rich record with purposeful and catchy songwriting, though I think this praise also belongs to Thief. Released the same year as the breakthrough debut of The New Pornographers, Destroyer's Thief can't help but sound like a reaction to that band. Perhaps it merely inspired Bejar to care more about melodies and hooks. Either way, sprinkling some classic rock and singer/songwriter influences on his music produced a record that contained songwriting and melodies as beguiling and original as the lyrical voice always had been.

What promise was hinted at on City Of Daughters and earlier is, here, finally achieved. Some have suggested that Thief is also a reaction to Bejar's lack of success, but it's be hard to tell if he's serious or not with his criticisms and witty abstractions on tracks like 'Destroyer's The Temple' and the Pink Floyd nodding 'To The Heart Of The Sun, On The Back Of The Vulture I'll Go.' I always get the feeling Bejar is more interested in how words sound together and the kind of feelings and imagery they can evoke, so any meaning in his songs is up to the listener. Yet there's enough commentary and witticisms about the music business, cryptic as they might be, that he must be attempting to say something, a goal few or none of his other releases share, making Thief a bit of a unique bird for that reason alone.

If there's a chief weakness to Thief, it's that whenever the band gets up to roaring energy on rockers like 'Canadian Lover/Falcon's Escape' and the surf-pop sounding 'City Of Daughters', they always merely smolder when they should burn. I'm not sure if this is the same band used on the Destroyer's Rubies and Trouble In Dreams albums, but by that point the Destroyer band was capable of burning with the best. Thief, on the other hand, feels detached and half-committed: are these songs of sincerity and energy, or irony and apathy?

It could be that this question doesn't matter when applied to Destroyer, yet there's a nagging notion in the back of my head that knows, as much as I like Thief, it's a dress rehearsal for Streethawk: A Seduction, an album superior in every way because it's more relaxed and fun. Bejar has something to prove on it, whereas on Thief he merely has something to say. This could explain the album's weak second half, the anti-climactic title track, and overall lack of focus (those pointless instrumentals and experimental tracks from City Of Daughters still rear their heads), yet I'll still stick up for Thief as the first wholly enjoyable Destroyer album, one that has something to say and says it well more often than not.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beach House- Bloom

Dream-pop is a genre label that I find overly vague and yet also dead-on. Even as it applies to a wide array of bands, it paradoxically fits them all, too. Beach House's music, for instance, seems perfectly encapsulated by the term: it's dream-like, to be sure, suffused with spacious atmospheres and a floating feeling, and it's pop-y, too, because the songs are pretty and catchy.

Bloom is not as immediate and catchy as Teen Dream, but in terms of sheer dreamy atmosphere, no other record they've done matches it. Bloom seems patent-made to be treasured forever with its ancestors, like The Cocteau Twins' Treasure, by people who enjoy gray, rainy afternoons and spend a lot of time alone. The atmosphere and feeling of Bloom is what I imagine Zoloft or cough syrup highs are like, a sort of half-awake reverie; a physical sensation of floating in mid-air as if in a pool of water.

I've had a tricky time falling for this record, chiefly because I think the band are just on a plateau after Teen Dream and have let some of the sharp hooks and melodies slide in favor of the aforementioned atmosphere. However, I have to say, while this band's albums may require more patience than usual, they always pay off. The first few times I listened to Bloom, I thought it was half-finished and lazy. The songs are all longer than four minutes (the shortest one, 'The Hours', is one of the better songs, by the by) and the whole thing required a conscious commitment to listen to on my part instead of the endless replay-ability of Teen Dream and Devotion.

Now, though, the slow burn of tracks like 'Lazuli' and 'Other People' sound less like lazy coasting and more like a confident band maturing further in how they write and structure songs, easing into effortless songwriting style that takes a few listens to reveal itself. This is the level The Walkmen reached with the underrated You & Me, and The National hit with the (slightly) overrated High Violet. Not to mention, there is a lot to be said for basking in the intoxicating glow this band offers. If Bloom isn't as impressive and immediate as Teen Dream, it's still damn impressive, and nearly as good. It just takes some time to, uhm, bloom.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bill Doss (1968-2012)

My first reaction when I read that Bill Doss had died was to text a friend with the news, mentioning that I hoped the band had finished their new album already, or that they would at least go on to finish it without him. A new Olivia Tremor Control record is long overdue, seeing as how they've been 'reunited' for a few years and their last true album was in 1999, but I was still a little bothered that my main concern seemed to be the music and not the man.

However, I think that's how Bill Doss would want it. He and most of his generation, comprising the indie/underground scene of the 90s, were all about the mystery and anonymity of bands. I want to mourn the man but I don't really know him, so it's a strange mixture of feelings. I feel sad but for what, exactly? Well, I suppose I'm sad because this must mean the end of Olivia Tremor Control. It's hard to imagine the band going on with only one creative leader.

Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, in fact, were the perfect musical foils. Doss favored the poppier end of the spectrum, and the music he made with The Sunshine Fix and The Apples (In Stereo) is a testament to this. Hart, on the other hand, was into the psychedelic and experimental end, making most or all of the tape collages and weird sonic elements in the band's sound. Sure, there was always a host of other musicians and friends involved, but Olivia Tremor Control was, at its core, Doss and Hart.

The band usually sounded like two record store employees fixated on the late 60s/early 70s psychedelic/pop scene, but their music never conformed to slavish devotion and imitation. If Music From The Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle sounded like the best lost album of 1968 that never existed, it also sounded like the best lost album of 2008 that never existed, too. Indeed, it's easier to hear newer psychedelic/60s influenced bands  as being more influenced by the groundwork of Olivia Tremor Control than the actual bands of the past. I recently discovered Campfires, for example, whose music is a lot closer to the early lo-fi days of OTC than anything Pink Floyd or Cream ever did.

OTC's music was often about dreams and surreal situations, so much so that I assume Doss was purposefully focusing on things that transcended death and reality. Oddly, Will Cullen Hart announced he had MS a few years ago, so you might assume it was he who wanted to do transcend, or even, as I briefly thought, that it was he who had died. It's easy to explain my confusion since we know so little about the two, it's easy to confuse them. And since we know so little about their personal lives, it's impossible to know what the cause of Doss's death was.

And so I suppose without the explanation for the end of his story, and indeed without any part of story of the man besides the music he left behind, Bill Doss's music must stand in eternity for him.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Beatles Rock Band (Wii)

One of the reasons I love films like Pink Floyd's The Wall and Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same is that they allow me to experience the music of bands I love in a different way. By which I mean, instead of it being a pure audio experience, now there's a strong visual component to go with it. The next logical step, then, is also adding something interactive to the music of bands you love...thus, Rock Band.

I played through the story mode on Medium doing the bass parts, and in spite of my almost-total lack of rhythm, I did just fine. Anyway, it turns out that Paul McCartney is more of a melodic bassist than a rhythmic one. Indeed, playing through all these songs as the Macca gave me a new appreciation for his style. Few bands, even those who make music that sounds like the Beatles, use the bass in quite the same way Paul did.

The progression of the story mode, going through various eras of the band's career, is a brilliant and simple way to structure what would otherwise be a boring endless jukebox of scattered songs that get more difficult as you go. Speaking of difficulty, I did find this chronological approach to make my bass campaign wildly uneven in terms of how hard songs were, though how much of that is due to the bass parts being weird (see above) or my own inept-ness, I suppose I can't say.

What also makes the story mode so unique are the introductory videos to the various eras, as well as the generally colorful, interesting, and psychedelic visuals during songs. Some of these are a bit boring and simple, but inspired sequences like the one for 'I Am The Walrus' make up for it. For what it's worth, I loved the ending animation with the elephant and the sprouting flowers; the way it's followed by credits and a post-credits encore song is the perfect capper.