Friday, January 30, 2009
What is this album about? That's the question that has kept me coming back to this album, something that I never thought I would like so much even when I heard it first in the shadow of a newly-wrought appreciation for oaklandazulasylum and Elephant Eyelash. On every listen, a new line stands out and seems to colour the whole differently, but then on closer inspection it all disappears, like some imagined structure in the clouds of the cover.
It's impossible to pin down, or I find it impossible anyway. There's so much to it. For one thing, death is unavoidable on Alopecia, no matter where you look. The first line: "I'm not a ladies man, I'm a landmine, filming my own fake death". On 'Fatalist Palmistry', he sleeps on his back "because it's good for the spine (and coffin rehearsal)". On 'The Song of the Sad Assassin', Yoni and the perpetual female "you" find a dead body floating in water, and wrap its wound anyway.
So that's the first step. It's about death. But that's just a black background to paint on. All human existence is about death. There are layers still to unwrap. The other universal which is omnipresent on Alopecia is sex, as seen inside the head of Yoni Wolf. Everyone's normal is someone else's perverted, but some of the lyrics challenge by most standards. "I'll suck the marrow out and rape your hollow bones, Yoni". "I never said I didn't have syphilis, Miss Listless". "Stalker's my whole style, and if I get caught, I'll deny."
Now sex and death are universal, and obviously they've been done to death [ugh] but when they're unearthed in such a bizarre and obsessive manner, it's hard not to see things differently. Need more ingredients? Try Christian imagery. Son of a rabbi, talking about a past or future girlfriend as the "female young messiah", "what the church-folk mean by the good news" on 'Simeon's Dilemma'. It gets thicker than that, though. Perhaps aware of the trade-off sometimes known as 'selling out', or perhaps for some other unknowable reason, the martyr references are nothing short of messianic. "If I get lost, or die on a cross, at least I wasn't born in a manger." "Does the cock crow thrice until someone is denied?"
I'm not going to get any further with that sort of approach, I doubt. New parts will reveal themselves, but there'll never be a whole. That's the thing about lyrics like this. To twist the meaning of what one of the ghostly fathers said about language, it has both a social and an individual aspect. Social is what we can get.
It's the sex, the death, the weirdly incongruous religious imagery. But individual is what we miss, and what we can never know. When you write a diary, you write, first and last, to yourself. And that's what Why? is. That's why it'll never be see-through. It might not even be see-through to Yoni. It really is something literary though, and it makes me a little sad to think back to those fist-pumping fans singing back to him about raping his hollow bones at Andrew's Lane. If you say it yourself, maybe it's a personal sort poetry. If someone else says it to you... isn't it a threat?
Friday, January 23, 2009
Word on the street has it that the album format is dead, and that pick ‘n’ mix downloading from mp3 megastores like iTunes and eMusic is the way of the future. Well, even if you’re naïve enough to believe that money will continue to change hands as the generations who have never had to pay for music march resolutely on, you’d have to be pretty deluded or incredibly narcissistic to believe that you’d be able to play God with an album and come out the better for it, telling from 30 second previews which songs are worth having and which are likely to be skipped over anyway. Like, on your iPod.
If you do believe that, though, I doubt you’d have much fun with Skeletal Lamping. Following up what seemed to be a perfect synthesis of the Pop Song and incredibly complex, cerebral structures and lyrics on ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’ (my erstwhile favourite album, though a late challenger may have emerged), Skeletal Lamping eschews the ultimately superficial shell that is the 2-6 minute song. If you were trying to figure out which songs you’d like from 30 second samples on Skeletal Lamping, you’d literally only be hearing about a quarter of the songs, or ‘sketches’ as they might more properly be called.
The concept, as I grasp it, is as follows: Kevin Barnes comes up with what is known in the trade (maybe) as a “bit”. Normally, this would be hewn through hard labour into something approaching a four-minute song. But on Skeletal Lamping, the bit exists in its own right. It segues into another bit, which could be completely different. This process repeats, and occasionally bits might reappear, or an extended sketch which goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus might show up, but the net result is, at the end of an hour or so, a fairly volatile mass of styles.
Could be terrible. Probably sounds terrible. Some people did think it was terrible, perhaps misguidedly expecting that most sacred of taboos, a repeat of the last record. It’s not terrible though. It is, very basically, a mind map. 50%, say, of Kevin Barnes’ mind is reasonably funky. 20-30% is concentrated in doe-eyed pop, some of which crosses over into the 50% funk. Sometimes he turns into Aladdin Sane for about a minute and a half. Sometimes he’s normal and he sings nostalgic love songs. Sometimes he is fucked up and sings from the perspective of a middle-aged pre-op transvestite named Georgie Fruit, who you may have met in the latter stages of Hissing Fauna.
The pieces of the jigsaw often don’t make sense in isolation. But of course they don’t. Who has ever looked at a single jigsaw piece and exclaimed in recognition of genius? That doesn’t happen. It’s a mind-map. It doesn’t make sense by itself. It makes sense as a whole, though, and probably gives a clearer picture of a particularly interesting person/character/person than any of Of Montreal’s previous efforts did, even though they weren’t half as veiled. At moments there is unbearable tension, such as a pitch-black invocation of the ubiquitous “ladies of the spread” who overlook Georgie’s existence. At other moments, there is reckless, screwy disco abandon that would seem like kids’ TV if you hadn’t heard the half-hour of music that came before.
Cokemachineglow said there weren’t moments of transcendence. I got into an argument about this, and shorn of the weapons of sobriety and reasoned detachment, I did what I always do. I got vaguely hysterical and threw my hands to heaven. There are moments of transcendence. So many. First track, Nonpareil of Favor. Its title is a fucking moment of transcendence in itself. Anyone who uses words that are almost exclusive to Macbeth in the title of a song is permanently invited to my house (familiarity with my sometimes musical project is not expected – but about 75% of the songs have Shakespeare references, mostly to Macbeth). The measuredness of the build-up is transcendent. Kevin/Georgie celebrating a love realised in the first (and only) verse is transcendent. Turning the first corner of the album is transcendent in itself, and the sleaze of the second sketch is, through contrast with the first one, transcendent too.
But let anyone stand in front of me and tell me that the three minute wig-out that follows is not transcendent. It struck me (on a bus, as these things are wont to do) that the wig-out at the end of Nonpareil of Favor is both a representation of chaos in the perceptible universe in general and inside the head of Kevin/Georgie. That somebody can make noise sound like something that specific and that complex is surely a sign of genius?
I realise that this review moreso than probably any of the other album reviews I’ve done here is based totally on a subjective view of the album. But in the end, every review is subjective. This CD, complete with David Barnes’ insanely detailed, analogous-to-the-music fold-out cover art, took over my life for a while. So it commands this place. The only question I have: how do you follow this?
Friday, January 16, 2009
How important is style to music? I don't mean style in the sense of the 'skinny jeans and tight t-shirts' that the bouncers of certain London "indie-rock" club nights require. I mean the layers, the arrangements, the how of the music. Its realisation. The fact that there is a piano playing that melody instead of a flute. The fact that that word is slurred, rather than sounded properly.
It's probably a society-wide assumption that style is something that goes on top of music, especially in the essentially post-punk landscape of indie music. I first came across that idea reading about poetry and the debates various crusty Oxbridge types had about the concrete universals and intrinsic beauty or values, below rhyme and rhythm, below the mere words.I thought it was missing the point then, and I think it's missing the point now, in the context of music. There's no such thing as style in that sense. It's not a paint that you put over some song that you've plucked from the ether, or your arse, depending on how flighty your aspirations. The song is its style, nothing more.
And it's from this theoretical standpoint (very sorry about all that, casual observer) that I oppose the criticism that Beach House's songs are boring, samey plods with an interminably sickly layer of style-paint coating them. These songs are made up of their lush organ sounds, reverb-soaked guitar lines and misted spider-web shakers. In the very same way that Times New Viking aren't a noise band with pop songs underneath, but a band with great noisy pop songs, Beach House aren't playing regular songs and then making them pristine and pretty with layers. It's a house, if you'll excuse the pun, built from the ground up. An impressionist faces a blank canvas and ends up with a masterpiece. He doesn't just colour in between the lines.
It's another world. There's a truth somewhere in those low organ chords that seem like they came from nowhere and have nowhere to go. Victoria Legrand's voice, reminiscent of Nico, gives her romantic evocations a sense of nobility that few peers manage. The album feels like a dream, a Xanadu trip, even though it's largely about domestic love. There's also something to be said for its timelessness. It could pass as a 60s album if it tried, but it doesn't sound derivative or retro. That's a surefire sign, I think, that it will last.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Being but a young hopper still in the trial and error stages of his trade on the tough street corners of alternative and indie music 2008 taught me one particularly harsh lesson: As soon as you strongly define your music taste it changes instanteneously. I could rightly be accused of dilletantism given the amount of genre-hopping my pallete did this year- From Julian Cope-recommended Krautrock for breakfast to a Lydia Lunch of no-wave noise rock, a three-course dinner of funk, soul and hip-hop, before ending the day with a nightcap of DC hardcore punk.
Perusing most end of year lists leaves me feeling awfully inobservant. I can't see the charms in Fleet Foxes, the brilliance of Bon Iver, consistency enough in TV on the Radio to warrant a lofty position in the top of most charts. Am I missing something? When I went to form my own list I could find very few releases from 2008 that actually left me feeling the gurgling of excitement deep down in my ribcage sparked off by contact with pure brilliance (though Hair Police, Marnie Stern, Mahjongg, and Indian Jewelry all made my ears perk up). The album that truly left an indelible imprint on my musical consciousness, that made me want to delve into back catalogues, order in special editions to Road Records, hunt out every iota of biographical information, and explore every incendiary note of every explosive song was a less recent release.
23 Skidoo- Seven Songs (Reissue)
If I had the privelege of writing this particular entry this time last year !!! progenitors Outhud and their spontaneous and combustible album 'S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D.' would be tip top of my 2007 (But Not 2007) list. To my less educated earbuds the NYC outfit were the first of their kind- alchemists of punk, funk, ambient, industrial noise rock, and ethnic polyrhythm, and hypnotists extraordinaire. It was akin to a soap plotline then when I discovered Outhud were not the fathers of the recent NYC punk-funk movement they'd been telling me they were- A revelation from Uncle Simon Reynolds and a subsequent DNA test revealed that the babydaddy was, in fact, British post-punk band 23 Skidoo. Sounding something like Cabaret Voltaire beating the shit out of Fela Kuti down a Sheffield backstreet with a gamelan, Skidoo will sound instantly recognizable to anybody who's heard !!!'s “Must Be The Moon” dropped in an indie disco- It's the same template minus the twerpy vocals and trippy lyrics. In fact, if those protruding lumps at the side of your head are functioning correctly you'll have directly heard 23 Skidoo: The Chemical Brothers cloned their song “Coup” to create ubiquitous big beat gangbang “Block-Rocking Beats”. More relevantly to the music released this year I found cropping up on my 'to find on Rapidshare' list their far-reaching influence radiates through bands like Mahjongg, Yeasayer, Gang Gang Dance, Not Squares; any band of white boys incorporating “black” music into their patchwork.
However, while there's a readily-available list of bands that sound like Skidoo today, those bands bravely staking out new territory and chalking up new chemical equations on the blackboard of the musical landscape while still creating something distinctly pop-orientated are as rare as kedang drums. In this aspect they share most in common with the toast of 2007: Battles. Experimental in the least alienating and masturbatory sense, populist, mindful of craft, and blending together a full platter of familiar ingredients to create an entirely new dish. No band, for me, cooked up such a storm in 2008.
Friday, January 9, 2009
MatadorI just watched a documentary made by a very embittered middle-aged man about the obsession of record-collecting, the individuals who indulge in it, and what they sacrifice to do so. When offered "warmth" as an explanation as to why one would accumulate 20,000 LPs, one collector retold something that Geddy Lee (of the prog band Rush, who you never have to listen to) explained to him: vinyl isn't really warmer. The light distortion is just creating that impression, and he only prefers it to CD because it is recreating a recording embedded in his mind.Those sound waves that Neil Young claims are missing - they're just being filled up with the crackle of static and pick-up buzz. It's a self-created myth of nostalgia for a youth on the bedroom floor, a fondness for the ritual maybe, but nothing more.
It's an interesting thought. "Warm". What does that even mean, in a musical context? How do you describe it? Is cold something like Merriweather Post Pavilion, where every note occupies its own space and the entire song is preserved in crystal? Is warm... Times New Viking?
It certainly fits with Geddy Lee's theory. Live, Times New Viking are a reasonably polite, guitar-led indie pop band. It has elements of Flying Nun kiwi lo-fi, elements of surf rock, elements of 60s beat bands. Obvious elements of Yo La Tengo's moments of smaller scope. But on record, it becomes something transcendent. Because Times New Viking create noise. They create those in-between waves, the static. They do it on purpose, too. This isn't like the Royal Trux or something like that, people kicking their guitars and groaning. These are good, catchy songs. Recorded clean. And then forced, like the weight of the world turning coal into diamonds, into this muddle of colliding music, this mess.
When you can barely hear lyrics, the phrases you think you hear become so much more important. It's the same thing that made Murmur by REM so great, and that gets people through the sonar-bleep Sigur Rós songs while they wait for the drama to build again. Drop Out equates getting up late and being a wreck so perfectly, even if it doesn't mean to, that I can't wake up at 5 ever again without hearing it. And My Head? I'm not sure what's wrong with my head, but I know there's something, and it was probably caused by the noise.
Songs like The End Of All Things are made into something unreal by the gain-knob abuse. It sounds like the song that plays out over the credits after the actual, factual apocalypse... "that's all for everyone, that's all for you". And when the noise cuts out, the smoke clears and you can survey what is left of your house and your possessions (and your hearing, after half an hour of this on headphones)... there are about five seconds when you can see into the heart of all of this, and you know that it makes sense. I don't know why. I can't tell you why, just like I got the why of it wrong when I did my initial review for Analogue. It just makes sense.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Kill Rock Stars
It's hard to say anything about Deerhoof that hasn't been said before. These guys are hardened vets of the highest rank. Satomi Matsuzaki and Greg Saunier plus others have been making genuinely fantastic albums with a barely plausible regularity, given their complexity, for a decade and change. Their music is a dichotomy. It's pop in its purest, most child-like sense, the sort of thing you could put on at 10 o'clock in the morning over Play-Do figures dancing in a meadow and have some sort of success with those aged 2-5. But it's also experimental, almost avant garde. And these two senses don't trade places. They exist simultaneously, in a captivating sort of musical messianic duality.
To be honest, I'm not really qualified to talk about Deerhoof on their own terms. Most people aren't, I would think. To talk about Offend Maggie in purely indie rock terms is probably as off-base as that Beatles review where he talks about their augmented shifts. But I don't know anything about Ornette Coleman. So I have to say that, when you jam an absolutely manic musical genius drummer/songwriter into a band with a Japanese woman who was essentially hired because she was quiet but who turned out pretty well, you get weird things. Like the Large Hadron Collider. And about as inexplicable to the man on the street.
So, some specifics about Offend Maggie then. It's probably the most focused album they've ever made. The guitars sound more in charge than ever, and the rhythm makes a serious point of upsetting that authority. Many of the songs are perfect. Offend Maggie the song is fussy but articulated, folky but assured. Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back is the best knowingly insane song Deerhoof have ever knowingly included. Snoopy Waves skips around with some fantastic riffs that I can only describe as groovy. On This Is God Speaking, God has nothing interesting to say, or if he does, it pales in comparison to the instrumental genius on every song surrounding it. Man has come too far.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Kill Rock StarsWhen Women As Lovers was released, it was billed as the most accessible Xiu Xiu album yet. There are several reasons to support this assertion: one might be that every song is melodically-based, a departure from the frictive noise pieces that have appeared and sometimes defined the band's albums to date. You could also point to overtly accessible songs: the cover of Under Pressure, with vocal duties split between the worldly Michael Gira, the enchantingly innocent-sounding Caralee McElroy and the manic homosexual street preacher style of Jamie Stewart himself. No Friend Oh! with its pop chorus and non-difficult melodies is another example. However. However, however, however.
Who could be taken in by this idle talk? Women As Lovers might seem consumable, but it's not, and it's probably not meant to be. It is, as with everything from Jamie Stewart, concerned with the unbearable heaviness of existence. Torture in Guantanamo. His dead father's sex life. Intolerance. Percoset. Self-consciousness. Loneliness. In a voice that could be used to terrorise children into bed for fear of being cut into pieces and taken away in a black bag. This is heavily depressing stuff to listen to, and no doubt it's heavily depressing stuff to make.
But that's why Xiu Xiu exist. Seekers of happiness stroll no further. Women As Lovers is everything bad, set in high contrast on a stage with nightmarish gargoyles carved where the gold leaf and pegasi should bed. When it leaves itself room to seethe, like on Master Of The Bump (Kurt Stambaugh I Can Feel The Soil Falling Over My Head), it evokes empathy. When it builds itself up in balls of tension, it calls forth a more inexplicable sense of sadness. But the emotion never ceases, like a bumpy rollercoaster that only goes down. Music as nightmare.
9. El Guincho - Alegranza
Young TurksIt's a rare treat to be able to use words like "spectacular" or "extravaganza" about an album that is even remotely listenable. Imagine the joy, then, of finding Barcelona resident El Guincho's Alegranza. Straddling the hitherto underrated no-man's-land between latter-day Animal Collective and tropicalia compilations, Alegranza is essentially a beach party in a can, the soundtrack to an imaginary ur-summer. The result of applying lo-fi looping techniques to the cheesiest of musical sources is an unrelenting, swirling, euphoric experience. It is not mere reckelss abandon, however, with the same notes of childish wonder (and a couple of melodies) from Panda Bear's Person Pitch making appearances. The highlight, Kalise, is repetitive almost to the point of infuriation for three and a half minutes, until it recedes without warning into a chorus that approaches anaesthesis in its fulfilled joyousness. Just like the inevitable but slightly embarrassing situation of involuntarily singing random words that sound vaguely like the original Spanish, any words I use to try to explain how much fun El Guincho is on a sunny day are meaningless. Alegranza means joy. In translation I mean. But you get what I'm saying.
((This is from Analogue. Last one from there, I promise.))
8. Jeremy Jay - A Place Where We Could Go
KTake the Everly Brothers. Strain off their smile for the benefit of Good Christian Television Viewers, and remove the harmonies. Put more reverb on everything. Then imagine what would happen if a very strange, soft-spoken Patrick Wolf-esque Californian in a v-neck and tie took the first verse of any classic song and just repeated the lines with more and more emphasis every time. There's something very ordinary about Jeremy Jay's music, referential as it is to 50s teen drama ballads, David Bowie, Buddy Holly, Jonathan Richman and French chanteuses. But there's also something spectacularly surreal about it. Maybe that's what an absence of audible influences from after 1972 will do.
Jeremy Jay is as tall and thin as a Topman model, and to be honest, he looks exactly like one. Jeremy Jay grew up in California but for some reason his family was Francophone within the household. Jeremy Jay is on K Records. Jeremy Jay seems like a cookie-cutter hyper-literate bohemian type, but a brief MySpace exchange revealed that he's not much of a speller. There's a lot that doesn't make sense about Jeremy Jay, and that's what makes him so impossibly intriguing. I mean, what is this guy picturing when he closes his eyes and listens to his own music? Much more pertinently, what should the listener be picturing?
The mystery of Jeremy Jay is a part of what endeared him to me. But he definitely doesn't lack the songs to back it up. Beautiful Rebel and Heavenly Creatures as a tandem would blow the shit out of most of the crackly remasters they sell in infomercials late at night on the lesser channels. Escape To Aspen, just like everything on the album, seems barely held together with thread, but it is still toe-tappingly catchy and strangely beautiful. But the title track is the highlight. "We'll meet super late. And we'll go for a walk. Dream kisses. Danger. Romance. No-one knows." Not sung, but spoken urgently. Is he poking fun at himself or is he serious? Does it matter?
7. So Cow - I'm Siding With My Captors
Covert BearIf success in music came proportional to merit instead of by fickle democratic means, So Cow would be sitting on a multi-platinum catalogue, appearing on "OMG! The 90s!" specials on Channel 4 and marrying Zooey Deschanel. Alas.
What are the best Irish albums ever? Loveless? U2? Something by that glut of late 80s bands that are held in such high esteem? I've got a suggestion. Nobody would ever print this in a broadsheet, but I'm Siding With My Captors is genuinely up there. It's short, seamless and literally spotless in terms of the absence of chaff. There is no such thing as a highlight, because there aren't any low points. Only the style of delivery changes.
Greetings is a plaintive, self-doubting, heartrending love song, perfectly measured over two minutes, and it would be perfect for radio in a parallel universe. On the more unwieldy end of the guitar pop is the 52 second One Hundred Helens, a semi-surreal and deceptively unhurried piece enumerating the Helens on So Cow's street.
Shackleton is another in the line of Brian Kelly songs about inadequacy and love, led by a wavering synth-organ sound over what sounds like a Casio preset drum track. "One day I'll write the song you deserve babe, I'll give it all I have/One day I'll write the song you require, until then, la-la-la".
Lines like that are the overt signs, but throughout the all-too-brief 29 minutes of the album, there is an all-pervasive sadness that sets it apart from These Truly Are End Times. These aren't character songs, and they're not all that cased in metaphor either. It documents a life, not just lyrically, but in the reverb-soaked chords, the impossibly knotted riffs over weird bar lengths, the progressions that feel just slightly wrong. I probably say this online at the same rate that poverty claims victims in the developing world, but So Cow is the real thing . Though I am confident that ongoing lack of recognition will thankfully still provide no obstacle to his making albums as good as this.