Jan 31, 2010

On Giving Up

High Places "On Giving Up"

What happens when a couple of woodland nymphs stumble on a rave in the desert? Do they trade in their satchel of 'shrooms for some E emblazoned with Snoopy's face? Do they shed their beaded skirts for American Apparel spandex? Do they even know how to dance?

These are important questions to ask of High Places because the first single, "On Giving Up," for their new album High Places vs. Mankind finds the band in startling new territory. Formerly, we had a pair of navel-gazers who sounded like regular contributors to Erowid. They made two albums full of sweetly earnest songs devoted to kindergarten classes and banana slugs and stardust.

But now the band (Robert Barber and Mary Pearson) has moved from Brooklyn to L.A., Barber has clearly bought some slicker toys, and Mary Pearson has dropped all the playfulness from her voice. "On Giving Up" is a straight club banger that glows with electric sex. Pearson's deadpan delivery, though, simultaneously depletes and replenishes the song of its overt sexuality. The deep thwack of an 808 and mechanized shudders are going to soundtrack a lot of makeout sessions in the next few months. The lyrics, though, are surely going to give close listeners pause: "Though I have cried/So many times/So many times/It's all because I feel everything that's gone/It's all gone/It's all gone/It's all gone."

The song makes me all the more anxious (in both senses of the word) to hear the album. I'm curious to see whether the song marks a temporary or permanent departure for the band.

High Places vs. Mankind is out April 6 on Thrill Jockey.

Numbers Don't Lie

The Mynabirds "Numbers Don't Lie"

When She and Him release Vol. 2 on March 23, they will most likely be showered with accolades again. I don't think there's a critic, male or female, that could look into Zooey Deschanel's face and tell her that music is too cute by half. And there's no doubt that they deserve quite a bit of this love. But while The Mynabirds' debut is still 3 months out, I already feel bad for the band. The inevitable comparisons to She and Him are tiresome even before they begin.

It's not hard, though, to see the legitimacy of such comparisons. The Mynabirds' lead single "Numbers Don't Lie" is a beautifully produced piece of golden AM pop. But the key difference here is in the voices. Zooey Deschanel's voice is as precious as it is strong. But Laura Burhenn, a golden-haired chanteuse, has a voice that is husky and breathy in equal measure. It croaks and squeaks in all the right places. And the voices ultimately define the tenor of these projects. She and Him is cute in its relentless resurrection of Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry. The knowing little winks at the irony of the project always bothered me (though I did really like the album). But the substance of Burhenn's voice gives the whole song a kind of sincerity that She and Him frequently lacks. She actually sounds like an heir to Springfield or Gentry instead of a reverential tribute artist.

And whereas She and Him dealt primarily in elementary emotional distinctions (I love you or I wish you loved me or I miss you), The Mynabirds paint with a more nuanced brush: "If you want to be right/I will let you be right/You know that the numbers don't lie/Two wrongs will not make it right." Burhenn sounds contentious here; she wants the fight to end so she's willing to compromise but she can't help but pointing out one final time that she's right. This woman is no supplicant to the whims of love.

The Mynabirds' debut What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is out on Saddle Creek on April 27th, which cannot possibly come soon enough.

Jan 29, 2010

Marimba and Shit-Drums

Spencer Krug is certainly going to catch hell for his newest venture. Krug as Moonface, a solo project for the hardest working man in indie rock, has just released the Dreamland EP with a single 20 minute song called "Marimba and Shit-Drums." But at this point in his career, I am down for anything that Spencer Krug is willing to throw my way.

Saying that "Marimba and Shit-Drums" is a single 20 minute song is a little disingenuous. There are really like 4 or 5 songs here that are scaffolded with the same conceptual framework: minimal instrumentation led by a marimba and, um, shit-drums (?), Krug singing the contents of his detailed lucid dream journal. As a guiding concept, it's slightly suspect. Listening to other people's dreams can be like watching a "surreal" student film directed by a burnout who spent most of his budget on the new Mars Volta and a bag of skunk weed. But Krug pulls it off because no one else in indie has access to their unconscious in the same way he does. I'm not sure that they lyrics would stand up to close critical scrutiny, but they're interesting enough to engage any patient listener. Initially, I wanted to work my degrees on the song, but I quickly learned that working over the song is like whispering into a cobweb: it's gone as soon as you talk to it.

Besides the sustained intricacy and interconnectedness of the lyrics, the most remarkable thing about the record is how listenable it is as a piece of music. Talking about the economy of a 20 minute song is patently ridiculous, but "Marimba and Shit-Drums" is thrifty. The marimba does a lot of work here: it carries both the melody and (most of) the percussion with its clear wooden tones. The titular "shit-drums" when they seem to arrive sound like electrified trashcans.A guitar riff pops up every now and then to flex some muscle on behalf of the song. Krug's voice is always at its best when he's locked into a line, repeating it, twisting the words around his mouth. Since we get a few refrains with different accompaniment, these moments stand out because they help ground the listener in something familiar.

I understand that "Marimba and Shit-Drums" will go down into the record as an eccentric side-project. It's an unfortunate fate for someone as gifted as Spencer Krug because his wildest ideas become profitable expressions of his immense talent and willingness to take risks. Not everything that Krug touches turn to gold, but everything he touches is worth listening to enough times to commit it to memory.

Rating: 8/10

You can download the entire song for the price of whatever here. You can buy the 12'' vinyl which comes with Krug's dream journal here.


mp3: Lemonade "Lifted"

Summer has become critical shorthand in the past year for sun-faded tunes that rely on washed out disco beats and nostalgia for teenage drug use. I hate genre designations, but these are . . . sigh . . . your chillwavers, your hypogogic popsters. Actually, hypogogic was a pretty good microgenre title. And despite my gripes with the naming of a (non-existent) genre, the adjective summer really did a fine job of capturing what was going on in these songs. My complaint here, though, is that summer really only captures one specific iteration of the season. Neon Indian is the sound of summer in the suburbs. That heat shimmer throughout the album is the radiation coming off the 7-11 parking lot. The songs are really convincing metaphorical sound: "Deadbeat Summer" sounds like your summers felt.

But now here comes Lemonade to introduce you to literal sound. "Lifted" sounds like, well, a guy yearning on a Caribbean island: steel drums, a little girl's laughter, pool splashes. I can't deny how many times I've listed to this song over the last couple of days. The song is really filled with so many good ideas that come together so nicely that's really a treat to listen to the song, like, a dozen times in a row on 5 separate occasions. Between the irresistible xylophone riff and the steel drum flourishes and the emphatic percussion and the farty synth, the song is just an immensely pleasurable listen. The lyrics are a little cheesy ("I see my whole life come together around you"), but when your musical risks pay off this large you can get away with quite a bit.

Lemonade's new EP Pure Moods comes out 3/9 on True Panther/Matador. Snag it here.

Jan 26, 2010

After the Apocalypse

Four Tet "Angel Echoes

In 2007, Burial (aka William Bevan) imagined the likely soundscape after the collapse of known civilization. Since we will probably form roving tribes of warring hunter, Burial imagines a futuristic war drum tricked out with metallic edges. The drums, programmed to beat in the dark of the night, will rally the warriors for blood. The only vocal arrangements that can be utilized are fragments of lost culture. The surviving shards are digitally woven into the spaces between the dubbed-out beats. The last music on earth, created by those standing on the very edge of a dark precipice, will probably sound a lot like Burial's Untrue.

But what if we make it? What if we stave off the cannibals and the disease and all forms of garishly mechanized death? What does our music sound like then? Four Tet's "Angel Echoes" posits just such a miraculous survival. A bass drum and a hi-hat amble along in 4/4 while faint digital fairies flutter around the mix. Soon a voice rises out of the background, even more fragmented than anything Burial has worked with. But it doesn't sound like the cadence of a futuristic funeral dirge. The voice and its accompanying bells shrug off Burial's incessant grays in favor of color: red and orange and gold and yellow.

You can buy Four Tet's latest album There is Love In You here.

Jan 25, 2010


mp3: Pill Wonder "Restless"

Underwater Peoples continues to infiltrate your playlists like laid back ninjas. This time we get a hazy brew of steel drums, thrift store organs, and a pushy bass drum courtesy of Pill Wonder. The electrified violin (?) threatens to overwhelm the mix, but you're glad to be blinded by its brightness. The song parts ways with you before you get to know it. But it's a great 2 minutes nonetheless. It's nostalgic without being sticky, sentimental with being weepy.

"Restless" can be found on Underwater People's latest compilation, which you can download here or purchase here.

Jan 23, 2010

Beach House - Teen Dream

mp3: Beach House "Norway"
(Courtesy of Sub Pop)

By the time you finish the harrowing and gut-wrenching "Real Love," it is apparent that Teen Dream marks the ascendancy of a great band. Not only is the album the best of Beach House's short but brilliant career, it is also an early candidate for album of the year.

Beach House, good as they are, can be difficult to write about. They don't have a thrilling backstory. They aren't working in any exotic genre. They don't push boundaries or audiences or agendas. And on paper they sound precociously cute: a pair of good looking shut-ins make dreamy, heartbroken lullabies with a drum machine, a gauzy organ, and a mournful tambourine. But there's nothing precious about this band: "You only give me what you don't want no more." There's a bitter edge to a line like that; Stuart Murdoch couldn't sing that line that convincingly. What they lack in talking points and instant hipster identification, they more than make up for in songcraft.

Among their many other virtues, Beach House's songs have a kind of dizzying depthlessness. The endless echoes, the sheer walls of organ, the guitar figures that drift infinitely into space. The steady percussion doesn't tether the band to the ground; it guides them as they float around an ether of their own making. Where the band once sounded windswept and ghosted, they sound clear-eyed and immediate on Teen Dream. Here, Victoria Legrand's voice is less swaddled by the treated haze that garnered all those (lazy) comparisons to Hope Sandoval. More often than not, her voice has a pleasant understated quality about it; she's not about to unleash any vocal runs any time soon. This flatness is actually a blessing: it allows her to remain focused on delivering the emotional timbre of the song without getting caught up in the mechanics of the delivery. But when her voice does rise, it doesn't preen or strut; it soars, conveying the depth of the ache, the uncertainty of her feelings. And a lot of the credit for the band's unique sound should go Alex Scally, the master of the band's instrumentation. He clothes Legrand's voice in arpeggios woozy with reverb.

In many ways, Teen Dream is a breakup album; Legrand is focused on describing the emotional process of separation and all its attending bitterness and relief. She tells a lover on the elegant "Walk in the Park" that "in a matter of time, it would slip from my mind/In and out of my life, you would slip from my mind." The bright tremolo of the song's chorus says everything: she's looking forward to losing these memories. But Legrand is never concerned with drumming up past recriminations. She is a fair ex-lover. Even on the most confrontational moment on the album, "Real Love," Legrand doesn't have an axe to grind. In the final verse, she allows herself to say what's on her mind: "Real love, it finds you somewhere with your back to it." It's stated as a point of fact rather than a pointed accusation.

On the stellar "Silver Soul," Legrand calls love "a sickness, a manic quickness." Love is both an affliction and a drug. And the album is very much concerned with presenting both of these sides. Legrand's ambivalence with the enterprise of love is palpable: when she appears to be falling for someone, she mourns that "it is happening again" over and over and over. By the end of the album, she promises to take care of her lover but quickly adds a pair of qualifications: "I'd take care of you/If you ask me to/In a year or two." The doubt expressed in those last two lines (the final two on the album) are devastating. But earlier, on "10 Mile Stereo," she praises her relationship's constancy: "It can't be gone, we're still right here/It took so long, can't say we heart it all/Limbs parallel, we stood so long we fell/Tear a moment from the days that carry us on forever."

Regardless of her insights into the inner workings of relationships, the thing that makes the album so great is the details. It's the sharpness of her images: "limbs parallel, we stood so long." Without that concrete image of two people literally standing next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, facing some kind of uncertain future, the listener is lost in a moment that is only clear to the singer. Most breakup albums are clouded with too many pronouns and too few antecedents. Great as Sea Change is, it feels almost too personal, too insular to the singer himself. But the best breakup records invite you into the fold. Dylan positions you directly between his wife and him on "Idiot Wind." You can feel the insults whizzing by your ears. Likewise, Legrand keeps the listener as close to the action as possible. This is maybe why the album seems more cinematic than confessional.

Frequently we think of great albums as game changers. These are your mind blowers, your critic silencers. These albums steer the aesthetic of a generation of musicians. These albums show you what can be done in popular music, they show you that the world is a wider place than you once imagined. Albums like Person Pitch or Kid A or Stankonia or Drum's Not Dead or The Cold Vein are quintessential game changers.

Teen Dream isn't a game changer. However, is the first masterpiece of the decade. Masterpieces don't reveal new terrain; they survey and map familiar territory in more detail than before. What sounds like pleasantly sedate dinner party music is actually an extended meditation on the lures and snares of love that is as soothing as it is unnerving. These 10 songs give voice to our gravest doubts and most beguiling contradictions in affairs of the heart.

Rating: 9/10

Jan 22, 2010

Purple and Gold!

The Purple One was so inspired by my Vikings' ruthless performance last week that he wrote and recorded a rousing fight song for the team in a single night. The lyrics are pretty absurd: "We r all amped up like a rock n roll band/Ready 2 celebrate every score/Ready 2 fight the elegant war." I get the sense that Prince doesn't really hasn't watched a lot of football. Elegant war? The National Football League a stunning spectacle that celebrates everything that is good and bad about this country. The oxymoron "elegant war" doesn't begin to cover the contradictions that the NFL carries in its soul.

But I think the song is just further proof that Prince is among the most inspired men on the planet. Literally everything that swings into the orbit of Prince gets translated into a song: sex fiends, various jewels, oddly colored rain, Batman, oral sex, Reagan's Cold War politics, and, evidently, winning football teams. The only place on the planet that seems to be more grotesquely fecund than the Amazon rain forest is Prince's Paisley Park Studios.

Dig out your horned helmet folks because Old Man Favre is going to run roughshod over this snooty little asshole this Sunday. Long reign the purple and gold.

Jan 19, 2010

Spoon - Transference

[Link expired]

Tonight, as I rode home on the bus, I watched a guy play football on his Nintendo DS. Admittedly, it was kind of creepy, but I couldn't stop watching because he was absolutely killing the computer opponent. Every time he had possession, he would score and convert the two extra points. And every time the computer had possession, he would force a fumble or pick off a pass. Turnovers literally on every computer possession. I did see a pretty nice safety, too. I watched the first two quarters of the game. At the half, this guy was up 80 - 0. I'm not kidding. That was the gaudy score that flashed on his screen before it cut to some animated cheerleaders. 80 - 0. I kept wondering how this guy could derive any pleasure playing a game that he had clearly mastered.

Spoon is the guy on the bus running up the score. They will never record a bad album. They will also never record a masterpiece. (Likewise, the guy on the bus will always have a good game; he'll just never play a nail-bitter.) Much as I really do like the band, I will never get worked up for the release of a new album. I was excited to listen to the new album, Transference, on NPR. But the fact of the matter is that Spoon is merely a very good band.

They have become so adept at their brand of white boy soul that they appear almost joyless at times. While I thoroughly enjoy so many of their Spoon formula songs, I find myself attracted to the moments when they seem to challenge themselves. Think about the one or two formal experiments that they allow themselves per album: "Stay Don't Go," "Paper Tiger," "Was It You?" "The Ghost of You Lingers." These are previews of what Spoon could but will never be as a band. They will never record a full album of songs that push them as a band, even as Spoon itself. And, of course, the best moment on Transference is the experimental piece, "Who Makes Your Money." Over a repeated organ chord and the metronomic snap of a snare, Britt Daniel's voice sounds exhausted. But when the woozy chorus hits, with its titular question, he allows himself to improvise his soul man spasms. The details of the song are great: the bass rides low, throbbing darkly underneath that organ, a shaker fills out the song's rangy dynamics. What's so surprising about the song is how comfortable the band sounds in this space. They could push themselves like this more often, but I think they'd rather just opt for the play that will always end in a touchdown.

Last I checked, by the way, the score was 112 - 0 and Transference is good. Shame really.

Rating: 7/10

Jan 17, 2010

Yeasayer - Odd Blood

In the past 24 hours or so I've learned a very hard lesson about Yeasayer. They will probably always and forever be a disappointment to me. The root of this frustration is easy to finger but harder to justify. Basically, Yeasayer aren't the band that I want them to be.

Now, I understand that that's all kinds of unfair. You listen to bands as they are, not as they should be. But what about wanting bands to be all that they could be? That logic suggests that Yeasayer is making decisions that actively squander their limitless talent.


Yeasayer knows how to write patchouli-scented anthems ("Red Cave" and "2080") for hippie communes. This is the band who wrote 'Tightrope," which was arguably the best song on Dark was the Night (which an unstoppable Voltron of indie rock greatness). I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that Yeasayer could write songs like these all day long but, for whatever reason, they're choosing to write MOR indie pop. The fact of the matter is that Odd Blood contains almost nothing that made the band promising on All Hours Cymbals.

The album begins with the tuneless clunker "The Children." Chris Keating's unique voice is given the AutoTune treatment for no ostensible reason. And most of the rest of it doesn't get much better than the opener. Both "Mondegreen" and "Rome" are unsalvageable messes of half-baked ideas that are frankly embarrassing. "Madder Rose" might be the worst offender: it's getting continuous play on a new age/adult contemporary station in a Walgreen's in Sedona, AZ. The endlessly ascending melodies of Yeasayer grow tiresome very quickly. Everything can't be so reverential or glorious. "I Remember" swells and burst with the gas of its own earnestness.

So, what works? "Grizelda" bears the weight of a few listens, although its medieval referent is a morality tale about wifely submissiveness. Elsewhere, "O.N.E." percolates with bubbling synthesizers and a dynamic backbeat. And Keating actually sounds more alive on this track: he's ecstatically bitter, singing "You don't move me anymore/And I'm glad that you don't/'Cause I can't take it anymore." The only real highlight here is the lead single, "Ambling Alp." This is the kind of song that made Yeasayer so initially promising. It's a glorious pep talk ("Stick up for yourself, son!") that takes Joe Louis' career (especially his fights against Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera) as a point of literal inspiration.

This is a crushingly disappointing album, especially considering that Yeasayer participated in my absolute favorite episode of La Blogotheque's Take Away Show. The band (and about a dozen friends) was at the height of their promise, singing "2080" and "Tightrope." Watch the amazing performance right now:

Rating: 4/10

Jan 15, 2010

High Places

My favorite neo-hippies just announced that they are releasing their second album on Thrill Jockey. The title of the record is already in contention for most awesome title of the year: High Places vs. Mankind. This is very exciting because I adored their self-titled debut and their intial release that collected all of their early material, 03/07 - 09/07. If you have to extra scrilla, you should buy their 12'' split with Soft Circle which features nearly 12 minutes of brain-soothing tribalism called "Late Bloomers."

Check out the video for "Late Bloomers" below.

High Places - Late Bloomer from Transformation Surprise on Vimeo.

Jan 14, 2010


mp3: Blastoids "Morning Light"
mp3: Blastoids "Kenny Winker"

The above photo is funny, of course, but it's very misleading. These guys sound nothing like Vice Magazine interns vomiting impressive jets of watery glitter. I was taken aback when I came across the photo on their myspace page while listening to their (FREE!) debut album. From as near as I can tell, they don't make music so much as unleash a cascade of blissed out synthizers and heavily treated vocals. The album, which is impressively produced, is a wonder; a free debut from an unknown band that is already a fully formed entity. "Morning Light," the opening track to Kids Hands Smell Like Glitter, is a gnashing sonic hydra: trance-like synths, four-on-the-floor bass, expressionistic cymbals crashes, chanting voices puntuated by a desparate yell off screen. The song feels both light at heavy in equal measure, delicate and strong at the same time. It's a beguiling opening to an album that offers lots more surprises. The demented Nintendo punk of "Trout Dick," only sounds more horrifying because its next door neighbor is the gauzy and frankly pretty "Mommydaddy." The sad boy dynamics of "For What It's Worth" are more effective because of some very nice percussion work. And the album's highlight is the closing few minutes of "Kenny Winker" (yes, this guy from those great Brad Neely cartoons). All the vocals get washed out in a rush of synthesizers that borders on electronic ecstasy.

Some big boys on the internet weblogs are talking about Blastoids, so these gentlemen from Murfreesboro, TN are (hopefully) about to generate some heat. Make sure you get in on the groundfloor.

Rating: 7/10

Dry Hump

mp3: Twin Sister "Dry Hump"

"Dry Hump" is a pretty incredible title for a song. The phrase is embarrassingly accurate, and the words still ring with shame and frustration. So, when I first saw the title of the song, I was hoping for a much needed ode to the most desperate move in a teenager's erotic repertoire. I didn't quite get that. Instead, I got a strangely addictive song that is as cute as it is cold: "If you're all alone/Bring over your bone[pause]s/and [pause] pay me/Anyway [?] you want to/Pay me." Those are some tantalizing lines that I don't quite understand, but the subtle pauses absolutely make the song for me.

Go grab "Dry Hump" and 3 other songs on a free EP entitled Vampires with Dreaming Kids from the band's homepage.

Later (March), the fivesome from NYC are going to be releasing another EP on Infinite Best Recordings. Go reserve a copy because come SXSW these guys are going to be everywhere. There's even a (shockingly well-produced) trailer for the EP, which you can watch below.

Color Your Life from Twin Sister on Vimeo.

Jan 13, 2010

Jay Reatard

Both Goner and Matador are now confirming that Jay Reatard passed away last night.

That sucks. I wasn't the biggest fan of his, but when he was on he could fucking rip. Check out the video for "Ain't Gonna Save Me" below. I can't think of a better match between sound and image for an artist. Jay Reatard, at his best, sounded like a birthday party riot/water balloon fight.

(via Matador).

Jan 11, 2010

No drums. No hooks. Just new shit.

mp3: Jay Electronica "The Pledge" (the song actually begins some 6 minutes in, past all the spoken stuff)

I find myself worrying about the state of hip hop pretty frequently. Hip hop isn't dead. And any obituaries written about it are factually incorrect. Hip hop lives and breathes like any other music form. But there's no question that it's facing a midlife crisis. The most public faces of hip hop have divorced their wives, blown their annual bonus on a sportscar, and lost touch with their kids in the process. Hip hop is frequently embarrassing. Hip hop has bought and used more Grecian Formula in the past couple years than it's willing to admit.

Hip hop isn't dead. There are signs of life. He's still got his sense of humor (Lil Wayne), he can still be tough as nails (Raekwon). He's still more verbally dextrous than rock'n'roll (Ghostface). And when he puts on a suit with a crispy knotted necktie and a pair of freshly shined shoes, no one can stop him (you tell me . . .). Hip hop still has plenty of cool friends, but very few of them challenge him in the way they once did. They can be just as soft and lazy as he is. Hip hop, if he's serious about hanging around for a while longer, needs some new friends. He needs to think twice before returning Gucci Mane's calls. And he needs to be careful about getting too close to Drake. He needs smarter friends. More disciplined friends. He needs weirder friends. He needs to give Jay Electronica a call. He needs to court him. He needs to hope that Jay is even interested in hanging out with him.

There's a lot in Jay's epic "The Pledge" that could be gimmicky: the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score sampling, the snippets of dialogue from Willy Wonka, the MGM lion's roar. But none of it is. None of it is played for laughs. Jay's seriousness isn't a downer; it's actually kind of exhilarating. What's so goddam great about the samples is that they never take center stage. They're a radically new underpinning to his voice. And, my God, his voice. His flow is classically smooth and effortless. He's very careful about not descending into that verbal abstraction that characterizes so many avant-garde emcees. In fact, he uses an impressionistic verbal paintbrush to create scenes that are almost always internal. Listen to the second movement of the song. Jay describes a genuinely poignant moment of romantic loss that moves effortless back and forth in time, shading both the physicality and sentimentality of the scene. Even his critiques of hip hop (all the rage among dudes without a contract) feel fresh and interesting. Instead attacking the authenticity of his competitors, Jay invents Voodooman, a sort of hip hop effigee that can take all the attacks as a symbol. He's pretty clear, I think, about the role of this Voodooman: "Same old rugged cross/Different crucified messiah."

It's been quite a while since I've been laid out by a killer line like that. Cleverness is never in short supply in hip hop. Jay Electronica isn't clever because a fully formed emcee is beyond mere cleverness.

Dirty Projectors - Ascending Melody

DP's Bitte Orca was my hands-down, without a doubt, favorite album last year. My life is measurably better because "Temecula Sunrise" and "Useful Resource" exist. I'm a bit confused about the free virtual 7'' that they're giving away for free today. I was under the impression that they were being released as part of a Temecula Sunrise EP. But whatever.

"Ascending Melody" is loose, almost jazzy ray of sunshine. The other song, "Emblem of the World," is a bit more interesting. It's a claustrophobic piece of music that gets more tense with each monolithic drum roll. It feels a little embryonic, but Longstreth's fetuses are always smarter and more developed than most other artist's adult children.

Jan 8, 2010

Alex Bleeker and the Freaks

mp3: Alex Bleeker and the Freaks "Animal Tracks"

Between introducing Real Estate to an unsuspecting and unprepared world and laying out a (cheap!) compilation worth both owning and listening to, Underwater Peoples had a better 2009 than you did. Of course, your house was foreclosed upon, you lost faith in your president, the war that you initially supported is now a total drag, and you probably also lost your job. You didn't stand much of a chance against a small start-up label from New Jersey. See those dudes in the pool (the bearded one is Alex Bleeker)? I'm willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that the UP dudes spent most 2009 horsing around in the pool because, for them, it was a never-ending July BBQ for the past 12 months. And in late November UP released their first full length as a label, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks debut.

I've outgrown the guitar solo. I can still worked up over J Mascis' noodling, sure, but by and large I'm more interested in guitars making weird sounds these days. Every now and then, though, someone flings out a solo that catches the ear of the 16 year old that still lives in my brain. So when Alex Bleeker flips on his wah-wah pedal for the exhilirating closing minute of "Prisoner of the Past" I'm back again hanging on every note while my algebra textbook sits open on my desk. I haven't gushed over the pure tonal qualities of a guitar since probably . . . I don't know . . . Cryptograms.

The most immediately attractive song is "Animal Tracks." The solo that begins the song is straight out of the Neil Young playbook: a corn-fed solo that manages to be lean but muscular. It took about 8 spins before I listened closely enough to see that it's actually a romantic little number about sitting on the back porch with a girl, whispering into each other's hair, drinking horsebark (?) root beer. Again, this was always Neil Young's trick, too. "Cowgirl in the Sand" is, after all, just the most massive pick up you've ever heard. In fact, Young (especially around Everybody Knows This is Nowhere) seems to be a sort of spiritual leader of the band; he guides a lot of the aesthetic of the album. It sounds indescribably country without employing any real honky tonk. It's sentimental without being sticky or nostalgic. It's brawny without being overpowering. You get the the sense that "Running Dry" has soundtracked a lot of the bands pre-rehersal meetings.

The best moment they have as a band is the album's opener, "Summer > Epilogue." After a lengthy solo that inaugurates the dozen or so throughout the album, the song quickly shifts gear, moving in big bright open chords that belie Bleeker's woeful lyrics ("Our bodies drifted further along parallel lines"). Once his heart seems sufficiently broken, Bleeker picks up his guitar, lets the feedback swell, and carries on with life by squeezing out another solo.

You can pick up a copy of the album here. Act quickly because only 1,000 were pressed.

Rating: 7/10

Jan 6, 2010


Mates? Rules
  1. I must play Mates? once a week (or once a month. Whichever).

  2. I must write about the first two songs that my iPod's shuffle dials up.

  3. I must try to forge a connection(whatever that means) between the two songs.

  4. If I manage to forge a connection between the songs, then they have been mated.

  5. If the songs cannot be mated, then I have failed as a breeder.
Let's fire up the song smithy.

First Song: Fontella Bass "Rescue Me"
Second Song: Modest Mouse "Head South"

This is certainly an inspired pairing.

After some rigorous research, I discovered that Fontella Bass has a surprisingly interesting (and, admittedly, baffling) backstory. After singing in her church choir (of course, right?) for some years, Bass auditioned for Leon Claxton's carnival on a dare. She was hired and paid $175 a week for the two weeks that the carnival (?) was in St. Louis. When it was time to head to another city, Bass' mother refused to allow her to travel and, according to Bass herself, literally dragged her off the train. Some gentlemen heard her at the carnival and offered her a position playing piano in their band. This band competed with Ike Turner in St. Louis. That's basically where her backstory stops being interesting. I won't get into all the questions I have about Leon Claxton's carnival and logistics of being dragged off a train.

When "Rescue Me" was released by Chicago's Chess Records (who also happened to employ Shel Silverstein!) in 1965, the song sat on the top of the R&B charts for a month. That makes sense to me. Everything about the song is charming, from the palm-muted barre chords to the fat, round horns to the rolling bongos. The bassline is assertive but amiable. Lyrically, it's not a terribly complex song. See, there's this woman in a tight spot (evidently, she's lonely), and she needs a man's love to, you know, rescue her from this spot. While the song practically begs to be processed by your standard undergrad feminist critique machine, I think Fontella Bass is being a bit more coy that it appears on the surface. Listen closely. Bass' voice stays within the most tasteful (and radio-friendly) boundaries. She doesn't sound like a woman in pain. She sounds like a woman who is, um, excited. I get the sense that she's playing the damsel in distress, playing to the ego of her target.

Now, with that romantic ploy in mind, I've listened to "Head South" no less than a dozen times. But I've think I've found a way to convince the two songs that they are, indeed, soul mates. See, they're both songs about desperate solutions to desperate problems. Whereas Bass' problem is, according to her, romantic, Brock sings about the universal problem of every Replacements fan who grew up in a small town. Anywhere's better than here. Bass wants a man; Brock's subject wants palm trees and cut off jeans to compliment his surf rock band. Of course, these are just surface symptoms of larger problems of spirit. Bass is not content enough with herself, and Brock's character isn't content enough with his environment. These songs are pleas for distraction, not actual change.

The diverging point, aside from the basic sonic building blocks of the songs, are their attitudees toward their subject. Bass is embodying the voice of this character. She sings in the first person convincingly enough. But, as if frequently the case with MM, Brock doesn't assume the identity of his subject. He talks about them. He comments and scolds and criticizes and sympathizes. Brock's relationship to his catalogue's citizenry is a bit complicated. I can't tell how Brock feels about our subject in "Head South." The second person can sound so accusatory, and there is an whiff of condescension in Brock's voice. I get the sense that Brock, at one point, resented the people who could marshal enough resources to quit a scene.

The Besnard Lakes - Albatross

mp3: The Besnard Lakes "Albatross"

Few songs in the last couple years have melted my face as thoroughly as The Besnard Lakes' "Devastation." Suffering from years of debilitating tinnitus just to find a way to listen to it a few decibels louder would have been worth it. Now, leading the new LP cart like a triumphant show horse is "Albatross." The Lakes haven't lost any of their perfectly executed rockist gestures: tom rolls, guitar chords that unfurl like American flags on a windy day, oohs and aahs from the men in the back. This is certainly poppier than anything we've heard from them before, but then again this thing is so bullshit free that it's practically a pair of Converse, a bottle of beer, and a slow news day all rolled into one tremendously mellow entity.

Visit the reliably excellent Jagjaguwar for full details on The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night. You can buy the "Albatross" 12'' starting on 2/09.

Super Vacations

mp3: The Void

Evidently, James Joyce's clothes were always in hopeless disrepair. His buttons were loose, and his seams were splitting. But despite the physical state of his clothes, someone remarked in Mary Colum's oral history of Joyce that he was the best dressed man anywhere he went. There was something about the way that clothes hung from his shoulders and hips that made people believe that he was better dressed than he actually was.

The Super Vacations have managed to accomplish the same thing in "The Void" from their newest 7'', Henry. This song is a dapper suit made out of Hawaiian shirts and flower petals. But you don't really notice the gently psychedelic flavor of the song because you're watching it swagger around the room in its polished Chelsea boots. I miss the sandals and boardshorts of their debut LP, but this little gem has me hypnotized.

Dig deep for them.

NEW Music from The Knife

mp3: The Knife "Colouring the Pigeons"

The Knife. Still fucking with your skull like no one else.
Check out the trailer (?) for the electro-opera (!!) below.

Great MCs + Sountrack to The Ocarina of Time = The Orarina of Rhyme

Easy maths on this one.

Both the Jay-Z and the Slim Thug are better than anything like this should be. And the MF Doom just seems to make sense, doesn't it?

<a href="http://teamteamwork.bandcamp.com/album/the-ocarina-of-rhyme">Clipse - Virginia (Lost Woods) by Team Teamwork</a>

Jan 5, 2010

His Clancyness

mp3: His Clancyness "Ottowa Backfired Soon"
Remember that time when you you went over to your rich friend's house while his parents were away for the weekend? You guys spent the afternoon hanging around in the pool. Later, you watched MTV while his older brother went out to get some beer for you (courtesy of the envelope of crisp bills left behind on the kitchen counter). And remember how your friend went to call some friends over for a party that night? You were left alone in the living room with nothing but a Red Hot Chili Peppers video to keep you company. Your head felt tired. Remember how you kind of felt a little sad because you realized that other people would show up and your afternoon would be gone forever?

His Clancyness is able to conjure the sentiment of that moment.

You can pick up a cassette by His Clancyness from Secret Furry Hole.

Jan 4, 2010

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast (Kanine)

mp3: Surfer Blood "Floating Vibes"

Do you remember Tapes n Tapes? Remember, they were that charming little engine that could from Minneapolis. When was the last time you listened to Loons? It's been some time, hasn't it? While TnT were a perfectly fine band (who I bet sounded epically awesome in the Bryant Lake Bowl), they were not a band that was ready to release an album to be scrutinized on the national level. They needed to log some more time in the trenches, focus their disparate energies a bit more, and then record a solid B+ of an album.

Surfer Blood is in this exact same position right now. They have all the potential to be an excellent band, but this is not the album that should be garnering all the praise. At the end of the day, the parts are greater than the sum. As an album, Astro Coast is directionless, lacking even the slightest sense of cohesiveness. However, this little mess of an album is built from quite a few gems.

While "Swim (To Reach the End)," is a reverby blast of pop, "Slow Jabroni" (yeah, that's an Iron Sheik reference) carefully builds its fuzzy argument before it takes off into its loud/gentle pleas to "take it easy on me." "Neighbour Riffs" threatens to confirm some ill-conceived notion that Surfer Blood are making any kind of neo-surf music (leave that to this promising start up). The song is a wonderful 2 minutes of whirlwind, but it only gives the band one more reference point in an album otherwise stuffed with clear references. The high point of the album, though, is "Harmonix." Despite the fact that it sounds remarkably like the opening to Sonic Youth's "Do You Believe in Rapture?" the song shifts and flexes with surprising agility. John Paul Pitts' vocals are at their most versitile and exciting here, swinging from his flat talky verses to the falsetto touched choruses. It's also the most emotionally complex song on a record that is hard to center around any concrete sentiments. I guess "Swim" is channeling some kind of triump (it sure is uplifting enough), but other songs don't have any clear emotional resonence. "Harmonix," though, is at once resentful and whistful, angry and self-reproaching. It's a complex emotional stew to serve your listener, but the band digs the ladel deep enough.

In a few years Surfer Blood will be able to consistently write songs like "Harmonix," but they haven't arrived there yet.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sir Luscious Left Foot

The best hip hop song of 2009 gets the video treatment above.

I don't really understand the hype behind Gucci Mane. However, I can get behind a diamond-encrusted Bart Simpson riding on a pot belly. Big Boi, though, continues to release unparalleled excellence. I can't wait for Sir Luscious Leftfoot: The Son of Dusty Chico. I just hope that it's as good as getting your dick sucked to a Conway Twitty record.

Basic Space

mp3: The xx - Islands (Nosaj Thing Remix)

Admittedly, I don't spend much time searching out and listening to remixes. There are simply too many of them, and many of them seem pointless. But every now and then a servicable remix comes along to remind you what was so great about the original song.

This new remix (courtesy of discoattack) of The xx's blissfully perfect "Islands" highlights just what makes this band so remarkable. Unlike rock, R&B has the luxury of space. Think of the way that soul beats from the 60s and 70s were able to cruise at will, gently touching the gas pedal enough to encourage forward momentum. But contemporary R&B fills in lots of that space with electronic flourshes that give the song a sense of claustrophobia. Just think of Timbaland's layered weirdness that propped up Aaliyah's voice. One of the most appealing aspects of The xx's debut was their ability to provide the illusion of space. The instrumentation was little more than a simply Casio beat and some smooth bass tones. This isn't a wall of sound so much as a fence of sound with regular and predictable openings to see through to the other side. The Nosaj Thing remix fills in those spaces with a hazy beat riding over synth lines that move from twinkling to menacing. Filling in all those spaces with eletronic packing peanuts has choked out all the sexy slink of the original, replacing it with gauzy spook.

You can buy Nosaj Thing's debute LP Drfit here.

Jan 3, 2010

Best of 2009

When the dust has settled on 2009, I think we'll see that it was a very strange year in music. The blogs collectively went breathless for some bands and artists that did little more than remind listeners that hazy Polaroids look cool. A longer, more nuanced list is probably in order, but I will only remember 2009 for these handful of records. There were certainly some remarkable runners-up (espeically Neko Case, Bat for Lashes, Underwater Peoples Compilation, Atlas Sound) but I only have so much juice in these fingers.

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2 - Hip Hop, like life, does not allow for second chances. Once you've fallen off the map, you better hope that your Escalade has a GPS system. But in 2009, The Chef showed up to the party with a couple of old friends clutching a sequel to Only Built 4Cuban Linx like he wasn't 14 years late. Fourteen years. Fourteen years ago, RZA released Liquid Swords. Imagine Bobby Digital releasing the best rap album of the year next year, and you'll understand Raekwon's accomplishment.

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion - Look, MPP is incredible album, but it's still only the 4th best album in Animal Collective's catalog (Feels, Strawberry Jam, Sung Tongs, in that order). I refuse to budge on that judgment, but just understand that that speaks volumes about a band that pulled itself out of arty obscurity to become the most relevant band in America.

Fever Ray - s/t - It took me a little over 2 years to fully digest and appreciate The Knife's Silent Shout, but I could immediately get down with the terrifying videos and scary outfits. The Venetian plague masks didn't make a lick of sense until I heard the inky black drone of the opening chords of "If I Had a Heart." Perhaps more than dozens/hundreds/thousands of glitchy IDM fluxus records (with their accompanying remixes), Fever Ray's album showed us the true potential of electronic instruments. This is avant-garde that isn't so much above your head as it is inside your head.

The XX - s/t - I feel like we're on the verge of a great paradigm shift with R&B. Perhaps more than any other genre, R&B needs a makeover. It needs to hit the gym, drop a couple thou on a new wardrobe, and break up with those half-baked revivalists who are too reverential for their own good (Jamie Lidell, you're an asshole. So are you Mayer Hawthorne). I think more than anything else about this album, I want to see it lead the pack to genuinely reinvent R&B.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz - In the world of YYYs fandom, 2009 will be an important year for one particular reason: with the release of It's Blitz, we finally came to understand that the YYYs' legacy will rest on their remarkable ability to reinvent themselves. With unlimited internal resources, these 3 have reinvented a band that could have released Fever to Tell knockoffs for the next 10 years to easy success and acclaim. Also, they managed to release their best song since "Maps" ("Hysteric"). Oh, they also managed to create the best album art in a career filled with great album covers. Also, it turns out that Nick Zinner knows his way around a synthesizer. Right, and Brian Chase can make the hip kids shimmy with his sticks and skins.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - I resisted this for a long time because a) I never bothered picking up their other albums and b) I was skeptical of the hype. Of course I had heard "Lisztomania" and "1901" but nothing clicked until I heard "Lasso." It all finally dawned on me. Phoenix plays pop music. They write good songs, and they play them well. There's absolutely nothing more to this sticky wallop of a record.

Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport - I first listened to Street Horrrsing on a bus from northern New Hampshire to Boston. The in-ride movie was Chocolat. I watched the entire movie while listening to the album a couple of times. I liked the juxtaposition but never really bothered listening to the record after that day. I was surprised, then, to learn that their followup was the most conventionally gorgeous things I heard all year.

Real Estate - s/t - When all of your Neon Indians/Best Coast/Wavves/Memory Cassette (Tapes?) chillwavers have become old fads gathering dust in the corner of your iPod, Real Estate's debut will still sound like the soundtrack to every great summer memory you ever had. While my fellow Bostonians and I face down another 4 months of winter, I'm fortunate enough to have a summer album that shimmers like the condensation collecting on a bottle of beer from every great backyard barbeque ever.

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest - Consider this: in a year when lo-fi made a strange comeback, one of the most highly lauded albums was a well-recorded and well-produced record of admirable studiocraft. Veckatimest is the sonic equivalent of a dapper boho who writes better poetry than any of his stinky and unkempt peers. Grizzly Bear is leading the crusade to obscure this generation's obsession with half-baked irony with a big-hearted sincerity.

Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer - Let's just deal with the facts. Spencer Krug frequently sounds like an insane Cassanova. He writes cryptic lyrics that make Black Francis' look like Cliff Notes to weirdness. He pens epic shapeshifters that can't sit still long enough to find their groove. Between SunRub, Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, and (apparently) Moonface, he's prolific enough to almost guarantee two albums of material a year for the past 4 years(!). Spencer Krug has managed to turn all of these potential drawbacks into serious advantages. Look, Krug's only legitimate peers right now are Thom Yorke, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Win Butler.

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca - If you predicted that Bitte Orca would be tremendous before even hearing a note of it, then you are a liar. The Dirty Projectors were, at best, a cool little band that made exceedingly weird music. I loved both Rise Above and The Getty Address, but I had no idea that they had something anywhere near an album of the year in them. I first got an inkling that something was afoot when I came across an acoustic live version of "Temecula Sunrise" from an intimate show at the Walker in Minneapolis. Longstreth sounded relaxed in a way that he never had before. Gone were the complex mythopoetics about Don Henley (or something). Here he was singing about the joys of Gatorade and cooperative living. Plus, he managed to bring his beloved finches back. Listen closely: Bitte Orca is the best album since Radiohead dropped In Rainbows on October 10, 2007. And, strangely, much like In Rainbows, Bitte Orca is a breezy album by an otherwise tightwould dude.

Despite the music degree from Yale, Longstreth doesn't expect you to trace the complex time signatures or unusual tunings. Part of his trick here is to hand many of the vocal jobs over to Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, whose voices are so immediately soothing and pleasant that you forget about the filigree of guitar weaving threads around them. Coffman's "Stillness is the Move" is the most immediately likeable song on the record. For her part, Deradoorian gets "Two Doves," which continues Longstreth's unaccountable love affair with traditional (and lovely) love songs that sound as if they were written 80 years ago. When they're not leading their own songs, Coffman and Deradoorian wrap Longstreth's brittle warble in warm blankets of oohs and aahs.

Backup singers? Love songs? Heavy low end beats? I hope that you realize that when you're listening to Bitte Orca you're hearing the most fractured R&B album ever conceived. It's more David Bryne than R. Kelly, sure, but I don't think Longstreth wants you to make those distinctions. Bitte Orca is not smarter pop music, it's just more ambitious.