Sunday, May 26, 2013

Yo La Tengo- I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Whenever I meet new people and introduce them to music they haven't heard before, I try to go back and remember what it was like for me to hear it for the first time. These memories rarely stick for me at 29, since I tend to get albums in batches and thus don't have those meaningful, singular experiences with music as often as I used to. So, while I can remember the first time I heard Sgt. Pepper's (waiting in my parents' car during a family post-Christmas shopping trip, and continuing on the ride home), I can't bring back anything specific about I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, in spite of it being one of the best albums of the 90s and one of my personal favorites, too. It's as if it was always there playing in the background during my life, even in, say, 1988 as I discovered Nintendo and Ninja Turtles.

Yo La Tengo was a similar—if I may borrow some Turtles parlance—radical discovery for me circa 2001, when I borrowed And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out from the local library based on a glowing review I'd read somewhere online. It took me awhile to come around to it, and in retrospect, I can see why. I just wasn't into such mellow, druggy music back then, and it's not terribly representative of the band's usual sound, which is more immediate and energetic. But I digress.

Back to I Can Hear The Heart..., which is the opposite of And Then Nothing... because it is the most representative Yo La Tengo album. By which I mean, it has some of everything the band had done well up to that point...and it was the initial showcase of the (at the time) new Yo La Tengo style, with their ability to slip into different musical genres/moods over the course of a long album while still keeping it unified and well-paced, somehow.

Setting aside the obvious classic of 'Autumn Sweater', the album is more about the overall flow from song to song than it is about individual moments. Noise pop tracks like 'Sugarcube' and 'Deeper Into Movies' would fit comfortably on Painful or Electr-O-Pura and prove the band still had the Velvet Underground in their bones. Meanwhile, there's also a smorgasbord of other styles to sample: the narcoleptic/nocturnal 'Green Arrow', mellow countrified pop of 'One PM Again', samba/Brazilian vocal pop of 'Center Of Gravity', the lengthy psychedelic noise/drone 'Spec Bebop', and the introductory instrumental 'Return To Hot Chicken', which sets the mood perfectly. Scattered in there are underrated gems like bassist James McNew's 'Stockholm Syndrome' and a Jesus And Mary Chain inspired rampage through 'Little Honda' by the Beach Boys.

I suppose this brings me to my opening, about what it's like listening to this album for the first time. Well, the best way I could put it to someone else is that it's like hearing one of the most underrated indie bands of the 90s continuously switch styles over 68 minutes, all while producing a distinctive set of songs that are never less than great and sometimes more than classic.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Animal Collective- Centipede Hz

There are so many factors going on with Centipede Hz that I could have spent the months since its release hitting one topic at a time and still not be out of talking points. It's an album that's worthy of an exhaustive, in-depth examination at some point, but this is not that time. I still don't have a complete grasp on everything about this album, and the mixed reviews it received from others only underscores my uncertainty. For instance, all and/or any of the following statements have felt true to me at one time or another:
  1. Centipede Hz is neither a misunderstood masterpiece, nor is it an unmitigated disaster,
  2. It has the most unique production style, songwriting, and overall structure of any Animal Collective album,
  3. It has the most accurate cover art of any album in recent memory, because it sounds like it looks: a druggy, borderline-amateurish mess with way too many layers,
  4. Centipede Hz is overlong, overproduced, and overwritten,
  5. Some of these songs are almost as good as the band's past high water marks,
  6. Most of these songs are muddled and forgettable

Centipede Hz frustrates me the most because it doesn't neatly fit into the usual slots. It's not great, it's not shit, and yet it's also not average or middling. It's a mess, and I don't mean that in a positive or negative way. It just is a mess. Perhaps the best explanation is that Centipede Hz feels like if a band made polished studio versions of formless demos without allowing themselves any editing or re-writing. In terms of overall sound, you can tell they spent a lot of time and effort making this record, but in terms of overall feel, it comes off like something thrown together over the course of a long weekend with too many drugs and not enough sleep. And then, in the end, they kind of gave up and put out whatever they had done without listening to it while sober and well-rested. For example, 'Wide Eyed', sung (badly) by guitarist Deakin, is like a joke of what someone imagines Merriweather Post Pavilion sounds like; clearer heads and more honest egos would have snipped it from the tracklisting. Yet the production details and transitions into and out of it from its neighboring songs are part of what makes Centipede Hz such an interesting record, and so in a sense it's one of the essential pieces of the Centipede mess.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Animal Collective returning to their experimental roots. On the surface that is true but it's also a lazy, ill-fitting conceit to explain what this record sounds like. After all, it's not the sound the band uses but what they shape that sound into that matters--adding some feedback to Loaded wouldn't make it White Light/White Heat. To put it another way, Feels and Strawberry Jam can be just as abrasive and “experimental” as their first few records, but the accessible framework that supports those sounds/textures makes the songs enjoyable. Centipede Hz tries to have it both ways and fails miserably. An experimental take on their modern sound without the noise and unexpected elements is boring, while enjoyable melodies without compelling, addictive songwriting is even more boring. Even the best tracks, 'Pulleys' and 'Today's Supernatural', sound like they're trying to cram all the sonic details and detritus of Strawberry Jam into four or five minutes and they're almost ruined as a result. Performed live, with layers stripped away, they could be classics.

So I have to ask: is Centipede Hz a live album trying to be a studio album? After all, the simplified hooks and melodies, planted inside a swampy electro-psychedelic production that does them only some favors, seem more fit for energetic performance and sing-a-longs than concentrated headphone listening. All of the songs run together and kind of sound the same, something Animal Collective have always purposefully done in concerts to make the transitions between old songs and newer material less jarring. As such, Centipede Hz is worth a listen just for how very dense the layers are, how the whole album's production gives it a unified flow, and how the songs play off each other. This focus on atmosphere, flow, and production reveals the band as being at a crossroads in their evolution. Having progressed as far as they could as songwriters and emotive vocalists, they're returning to the world of ideas and textures that they sprang from. The issue is that Centipede Hz didn't end up sounding very good when the ideas went from paper to product...which just goes to show you that while you can focus on ideas and textures, you can't use those tricks to make up for weak, half-finished songwriting.

After accusing them of that, it may seem strange to say that the songs of Centipede Hz are, if anything, overwritten. Wait, how can they be both half-finished and overwritten? Well, this comes down to one of the chief flaws of the record: the vocals. Not only have the band taken significant steps backward as songwriters, their vocals have suffered, too. Avey Tare still hasn't shaken the bummer vibes of his Down There album, and Panda Bear seems barely invested in the proceedings at all because (pick your favorite theory):

  1. He used all his good ideas on Tomboy,
  1. He forgot he was more than the drummer,
  1. He was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome during the recording sessions. 

This is all compounded by the fact that there are constant vocals going on during every song. When there are breaks, as on 'Monkey Riches' or during the transitions between songs, all it does is remind you of similar, much better moments from the past. Anyway, adding in one or two 'breathing room' instrumentals would make a huge difference because Centipede Hz comes off as the album version of that friend you have who dominates every conversation. You know the one: he or she has so many ideas and thoughts that they can't say things fast enough, and they don't give you a chance to respond or process. But I digress.

Radiohead's King Of Limbs continually comes to mind when thinking about, but not listening to, Centipede Hz. It, too, is a confusing, half-finished-sounding record from a band with an otherwise excellent winning streak. It, too, is going to be that album in the band's discography that is talked about much more than listened to, by turns savaged and shrugged off by critics and fans alike. As with Limbs, Centipede Hz (regardless of its band's pedigree) is interesting enough to prevent an outright dismissal.

But just barely.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Miles Davis- Agharta & Pangaea

I've gotten in the habit of listening to CDs through my TV via my Playstation 3, largely because I have a pretty decent 2.1 speaker set-up. As a result I've come to enjoy the visualizer with the changing, spinning shots of Earth in Space. It feels like the perfect way to listen to Miles Davis's 1975 end-of-an-era double live albums, Agharta and Pangaea because:

  1. they're named after a legendary city said to dwell inside the Earth's core and a theoretical supercontinent of the Earth in pre-historic times,
  2. they're equally spacey and Earth-y, like most of Miles's fusion era,
  3. along with the visualizer, they share a sense of things constantly shifting and changing yet also often seeming to stand still

As far as I know, it's still hard to track down copies of these albums. The early 90s CDs I have of each are plagued by muddy, poorly mixed sound, especially on Pangaea. I don't know if it's something endemic to the original live tapes or what. However, as with a bootleg tape of a particularly crackling show by the Grateful Dead, even poor sound quality can't hold back the essence of the music. And words like “essence” definitely spring to mind, since the stuff Miles Davis was doing live on stage in 1974 and 1975 was some spooky, voodoo, psychedelic, acid/funk/rock jazzy shit. There are moments of deep improvisation that recall other contemporary stuff that was being done by bands as disparate as the Grateful Dead, Fela Kuti, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson.

Miles was truly doing his own thing with his band, though. There are minutes at a time where you would never guess it's a Miles Davis album, since his trademark trumpet is only sparingly employed. And even when it is, it's usually run through a wah-wah pedal, making it more akin to guitar with the way he uses it to slash and yelp across the soundscape. This, along with the more often employed (and more divisive) screeching stabs he hammers out on the organ, seem to be as much about Miles contributing to the grooves as it is about directing the energy and movement of the band. Keep in mind, too, that this is Miles without a true keyboard player and with two guitarists and an electric bassist.

Thus by the recording of Agharta and Pangaea on February 1, 1975, most traditional jazz fans and critics had turned their backs on Miles. It's true he didn't have the trumpet chops he used to but there's no denying his vision and the totality of it. Some credit always has to go to producer Teo Marcero for his extensive edits and work on Miles's fusion-era studio albums, but presumably he had little say on the material on these live albums other than to record or mix them. So in a sense this is the purest music of this era for Miles, and certainly the closest he got to fully purging all the European influences from his band and, to paraphrase the man himself, getting down into 'some deep African things.' The band moves effortlessly between the textures and varying energy of Bitches BrewA Tribute To Jack Johnson, and On The Corner while only a few times actually playing any of the songs or basic themes from those records.

I'm not sure I would say this makes Agharta and Pangaea better than the well known studio stuff. There's no denying the genius of Miles Davis and producer Teo Marcero in constructing the finished products mentioned above; side one of Jack Johnson and the title track of Bitches Brew are all the evidence you need. Interesting, then, that most of Miles's fusion-era records were pieced together from long studio improvisations and jams. The most direct route, for those interested in this sort of thing, comes in comparing Live/Evil (which mixes in studio material and isn't strictly live) to the excellent The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 boxset, from which the live stuff was culled.

Agharta and Pangaea, however, are in a league of their own. This is alchemical music: the flaws and moments that don't work are constantly overshadowed by the sense of exploring the unknown corners where the borders between genres meet. I'd be interested to hear what Teo and Miles would have done if they had chopped these live recordings up into a studio album or something like Live/Evil. This means they aren't as consistently good as they could be with some studio edits, though the trade-off is that they feel more...authentic. Raw, perhaps, is a better word. They're like Miles's version of a Fela Kuti album: these songs are so long and morphing that it's nearly impossible to discuss the music itself. In that regard, you'll usually just get totally lost in the grooves and atmospheres, which is something I wish I could say more often.