Thursday, March 31, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
It’s one thing for a band to cop the performance style of R.E.M. and make something half-assed as a result. It’s something else, entirely, when the band whose style people are copping to make crappy albums are copping the copping of those bands to make something supremely shitty. R.E.M. are supposed to be this influential band that was a bastion of pre-indie rock (and they are), but on their newest album, Collapse Into Now, they sound downright amateurish, stripping the elements that made them unique of all pretense. Not a ballast can be found on Collapse Into Now to keep it from preening into a big dumb STATEMENT of an album.
So where to start? Music: Collapse Into Now suffers from the same ailment that struck The Hold Steady’s most recent album, Heaven Is Whenever, in that the lack of variety in the guitars makes it sound far too dense and monolithic. The guitar and bass work of Peter Buck and Mike Millis, respectively, is decent, but the production on their instruments is nauseating in its lack of dynamics.
Lyrics: Oh boy, here we go. Never have I ever heard such a decent album bogged down by such awful lyrics. Michael Stipe has written some fantastic songs in the past, but, on Collapse Into Now, he seems to take himself so seriously, he not only believes he can get away with reciting inane poetry like, “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” and “This is not a parable / This is a terrible,” but believes that it is high-end art to be analyzed and admired. Over a pseudo-shanty built upon accordion and acoustic guitar, Stipe breathes solemnly, “The kids have a new take / A new take on faith,” with the utmost intention of having you hang on his every word, but that heavy-handedness is laughable to even consider taking seriously. “Mine Smell Like Honey” pairs inane lyrics with an even more inane song title, “Walk It Back” tries and fails miserably to form a chorus around a clumsy phrase and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is just as bad as its title would suggest.
Collapse Into Now even has somewhat of an arc of shitty lyrics, climaxing on final track, “Blue,” by far the worst song on the album. In it, Stipe lets loose in a five-minute, distorted, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, slinging the type of non sequitur vomit that could only come from someone who doesn’t think anyone would be smart enough to read into a single line or phrase. “Yellow circus left the stakes a broken ropes world’s useless mug / The ties that bind, ha ha / I can be a bad poet / Street poet / Shit poet / Kind poet too,” and he goes on like this for a few more stanzas before Peter Buck coos a soft refuge, but not for long, as we’re thrust back into the fray of Stipe’s pretentious psyche. That’s right, pretentious. “Blue” is so awful, it could make you lose faith in what R.E.M. has become over the past decade. It confronts you, directly, with the possibility that the band may believe significantly more than just their own hype.
It is in this regard that Collapse Into Now sounds like the work of an R.E.M. cover band, because it masterfully takes the notable aspects of the group and exaggerates them into agonizing caricatures. When Stipe sings in a lower register, he has a habit of trailing off his notes, making them sound, intentionally or not, much more poignant than any logic garnered from his lyrics could justify. He sounds like what my Michael Stipe impression would sound like if I wanted him to sound conceited and provincial. It’s surprising to hear such labored drivel from a group as respected as R.E.M. I’ve heard some heinous ‘90’s rehashing in my time, but it is a genuine disappointment to hear such a stalwart so spectacularly spin out as badly as the band does on Collapse Into Now.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
After every live show, Pearl Jam give audience members a code to download a bootleg of the concert they saw online as a souvenir. They are produced respectably and are excellent time capsules for those few hours. Live on Ten Legs, the live album that has been released in conjunction with the twentieth anniversary of the release of the band’s debut album, Ten, sounds like one of these bootlegs. Which is fine, because the album is a decent recording of the group at their high consistency, playing a set that they could have played anywhere, split evenly between deep cuts and reworkings of old hits and closing with the one-two punch of “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter.” However, Live on Ten Legs does not sound like the live commemoration of my favorite album of the 90’s. The instrumentation, the audience and Vedder’s voice, which, after twenty years of torture, can still scream the “RHINESTONES” line in “Unthought Known” with particular vigor, are great. But I don’t see the point of Live on Ten Legs if it’s mixed with the purpose of being just another live album to be listened to by people who probably already own something very similar to it (not to mention the fact that only two song in the set are from the album it’s honoring). The only significant value in Live on Ten Legs is that the band plays a few songs from Backspacer amiably, but, with a career as consistent and lively as Pearl Jam’s, the group can afford to be less modest. B
Matisyahu is probably the only modern artist that got started through a live album. Released in 2006, Live at Stubbs took the assured music of the Hasidic rapper’s debut and put it in a setting where it sounded distinct and better, and reached widespread attention from many, myself included, as a result. Four years later, and with two more albums under his belt (the abysmal Youth and the underrated Light), Matisyahu returns to Texas to bookend this chapter of his career, and it sounds pretty good. The set is evenly distributed between his three albums and the guy and his dub trio perform it energetically. He references the first Live at Stubbs by taking some of its most notable rhymes like that of “King Without a Crown” and “Aish Tamid” and injects them into newer songs, to good effect. My only complaint is that, although the Youth songs sound better in this context, they are still ham-fisted and overwrought. Their presence drags Live at Stubbs Vol. 2 down from excellent to still very good. Fans will like it for the performances of new songs like “Youth” and “One Day”, but I would still suggest the first Live at Stubbs for an excellent introduction to the man’s work. B+
Jònsi - Live at the Wiltern
Your enjoyment of Live at the Wiltern is under the assumption that you have not heard Jònsi's other live album, Go Live, which was released less than three months before Live at the Wiltern. If you have, Live at the Wiltern is useless, because both live albums feature the exact same setlist and feature extremely similar performances. The only reason I’m talking about this and not Go Live is because I dropped the ball on listening to Go Live and Jònsi was kind enough to give me another chance to rate a Jònsi live album. Those looking for new interpretations of Jonsi’s material from his debut, Go, will be disappointed, as Jònsi partakes in almost no stage banter or experimentation throughout his hour and a half long set. Those looking for a rousing field test of Go will also be disappointed, as Jònsi makes its songs even more pensive, “Animal Arithmetic,” the second half of “Around Us” and the bass drum at the end of “Icicle Sleeves” being the only exceptions. More than anything else, Live at the Wiltern stands as proof to naysayers that Jònsi's performance on Go was not all auto-tune and studio finickry. I don’t know if it convinces me to see the guy live anytime soon, but Live at the Wiltern is a pretty good representation of an excellent album, which should more than satiate the live album’s intended audience. B
Bob Marley - Live Forever: The Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh, PA, September 23rd, 1980
Much has been written about the sonic change Lykke Li has made since her 2008 debut, Youth Novels. Where her first album was a set of quiet, unobtrusive love songs, Wounded Rhymes, her newest, is mostly raucous and rousing. Its backdrops are filled with romping shakers and toms, creating a sound that is primal, slinky and sexy, adjectives that few would have used to describe her work on Youth Novels. The interim between albums has yielded some significant image changes for Lykke as well. Her performances in support of Wounded Rhymes feature her in a black leather poncho with matching shorts and boots, her dark hair pulled back behind her head to look like a masculine crew cut. It would appear that Lykke’s transformation from shy songstress to boisterous vixen has been drastic, but organic. However, although Lykke may have made all the right moves in tweaking her appearance and her songs, something just doesn’t seem right to complete either picture. For however Lykke may try to extricate herself from the image of her first album, her vocal presence on Wounded Rhymes is still suited for the soft and calm, and, more often than not, her attempts to betray that are off-putting and awkward.
It’s unfortunate to say, because, basically, I am accusing Lykke Li of evolving as an artist. But, time and time again, when she moves out of her comfort zone, Wounded Rhymes comes off as just that: uncomfortable. The danceable toms and circus organ riff in first track, “Youth Knows No Pain,” provide excellent scenery for the image Li attempts to convey on the album. And it works right up until she takes the mic for the verses and chorus. When that occurs, though, her innocuous croon drags the song down more than if it were performed by a singer with a more dynamic voice. “I Follow Rivers” is a great song, Lykke notwithstanding, but it suffers from the same problems. Lykke’s accompaniment is convincing, but her voice doesn’t sell it past that vital last stretch. Much ink has been used up on the “I’m your prostitute / You gon’ get some” line in “Get Some,” but, when Lykke sings it, it sounds just about as evil as if the ETrade baby sang it.
The good news is that Wounded Rhymes is split evenly between the new and old Lykke. Where her sexuality may be forced in songs like “Rich Kids Blues,” her turns in quieter contexts are minimalist and sincere. In a song like “I Know Places,” she sounds more confident with just an acoustic guitar supporting her than all the maladroit posturing on Wounded Rhymes combined. When she evokes sadness as a lover in “Sadness in a Blessing,” it comes off as mature and heartbreaking, especially at the ending of the chorus, when Lykke concludes, “Sadness, I’m your girl.” These songs all deal with crushing amounts of disappointment and loneliness (“All my love is unrequited” goes one song’s chorus) and their brilliance in silence make the bloated songs of Wounded Rhymes sound more like overcompensation than fun.
In her song for the Twilight soundtrack, “Possibility,” Lykke Li embodied vulnerability with little more than a piano and some brooms, and, two years later, Wounded Rhymes proves that she can still pull off moments of such beauty. All the album’s quiet songs are excellent and the ones that strike a middle ground between that and the brashness of “Get Some” are good as well. Wounded Rhymes isn’t so much a misstep as a great album with a few songs that jump the gun. Lykke Li is one of those artists whose moderation suits them best, and, although I can respect the polarizing tracks of Wounded Rhymes, none of them appear without some unfortunate consequence.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Friday, March 11, 2011
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Toro Y Moi’s debut album, Causers of This, came out on the tide of haze that was late-2009 chillwave, and made no bones about what sound it was going for. It was dance-obsessed, sample heavy, and, all in all, above average. What turned Causers of This into an album worth listening to, though, were main man Chaz Bundick’s production skills. His technique of phasing out the music on each downbeat of a song is exhilarating to me, now, as it was when I reviewed the album, last year. It was also excellent foresight on Bundick’s part for where electronic music was going in the ensuing year, as albums like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and Baths’s Cerulean would utilize the technique to similarly great effect.
Cut to a year later, and Bundick has released his second album under the Toro Y Moi moniker. Whatever you may think of Underneath the Pine, it’s tough to deny that Bundick’s songwriting has matured significantly in the scant year he’s had to make new music. Where Causers of This had a more homogenous, just-for-kicks attitude towards its fluid interchange of electronics and live instruments, Underneath the Pine seems to be more comfortable in its own skin, relying much less on samples and more on Bundick’s voice. Bundick appears to have a better footing on what the Toro Y Moi sound is extricated from the chillwave movement that has long since passed. With Underneath the Pine, Toro Y Moi appears to be pressing all the right buttons in transitioning from a precocious beat-slider to an indie rock mellow machine.
That being said, Underneath the Pine, from a quality point of view, is not very different from Causers of This. In fact, despite a clearer focus in performance, I favor Causers of This slightly more. This is due to a few things, but what is most notable is that Underneath the Pine lacks that “pull the rug out from under you” style of production that, as I said before, improved Causers of This from decent to above average. The production of Underneath the Pine is straightforward, creating a live feel that treats Bundick’s voice as a focal point rather than just another instrument. The only time this is not the case is in “Good Hold”, when the song’s melody is smooshed into one of the speakers. It’s a surprising moment, and, consistent to form, the song's the most thrilling track on Underneath the Pine. The rest of the album lacks such surprises, and is less interesting as a result.
Also, as I mentioned before, Underneath the Pine concentrates more on Bundick’s voice. Despite adorning it with many interweaving harmonies, the album does little to distract from the fact that Bundick’s vocal presence just isn’t very strong. As he did on Causers of This, Bundick sounds squeamish and noncommittal, fitting the music decently well, but giving each track a blasé quality that I’m sorry to inform is present to some extent on all of Underneath the Pine’s tracks. While nothing on the album is especially damning, with no strong vocal hooks for the listener to latch onto, much of Underneath the Pine cannot help but sink into anonymity.
That isn’t to say, though, that Underneath the Pine is an especially bad album. In a way, its songs are better than those of Causers of This, because the Toro Y Moi of that album relied on those aforementioned production flourishes to buoy songs that otherwise would have been boring. The chorus of voices on “How I Know” and “Elise” and the bassline to “Still Sound” are inventive and indicative of a heightening in songwriting prowess for Bundick. There’s more to be valued in individual songs on Underneath the Pine than for Causers of This, and Bundick’s improvement in that regard indicates creativity to spare for future releases. However, I don’t see Underneath the Pine turning more heads than Toro Y Moi’s debut, and, to be honest, Toro Y Moi’s debut didn’t turn many heads to begin with. Underneath the Pine may lean too heavily on mood instead of hooks, but its rewards far outnumber its flaws, so, at its very base, it’s consistent.
If I told you that Bayside were an emo-leaning pop punk band that’s been touring off the MTV2-watching, misplaced-angst crowd for about seven years now, you might think that a rating such as the one up there would be appropriate. The truth is, I reluctantly regard Killing Time as “meh,” because I actually love the genre of music that bands like Bayside play. There’s something about those compressed guitar chords and feminine singing that gets me more enjoyment than I should when I come across a band that can perform it without succumbing to the immaturity that is incumbent upon that genre of music. Songs like The Starting Line’s “Best of Me” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” can seem to some like empty calories, but they are some of my favorite songs of the past decade. On their fifth album, Bayside do not get close to achieving this feat. Despite having most of the musicianship and looks of an MTV Spring Break act that I could respect, their flaws are the very same ones that have befallen countless bands before them.
On Killing Time, Bayside sound like a harder edge Motion City Soundtrack in more ways than one. Both groups write music nowadays with production that shines them of imperfections like marble and Anthony Raneri has a very Justin Pierre-like boyish shrill. However, what puts Killing Time into more of the ballpark of Motion City Soundtrack’s unconscionable dud, My Dinosaur Life, rather than that same group’s saving grace, “Everything Is Alright,” is that Raneri cannot resist attempting to be lyrically clever, a decision that often bears the brunt of my criticism of Killing Time. Raneri sounds overbearing when he boasts about writing a song about apathy in “Sinking and Swimming in Long Island” and snidely (at least to him) chastising a former lover with the comment, “I gave you all / You gave me less” in “Sick Sick Sick.” In Killing Time, Raneri calls girls “cyanide perfume” and “the black ice on my way home” and makes a chorus out of the line “Mona Lisa you’ve really done something / Done a number on all of my organs.” While these phrases could be worse (after all, they could be Motion City Soundtrack lyrics), they’re still terribly awkward, and damnit if they don’t take me out of the album every time I try to give it a chance.If Killing Time will serve any purpose for me in the future, it will be as background music for a time when I get sick of replaying my copy of Bleed American for my emo-punk fix. Guitarist Jack O’Shea should be proud of his work on the album, because his riffs and arrangements are catchy and original, even brandishing some serious soloing chops on songs like “Already Gone” and “The Wrong Way,” but Bayside, as a group, cannot seem to overcome the lyrical pettiness that inevitably makes them sound unprofessional, no matter how much they compress those guitars. If you don’t take much stake in lyrics, I would recommend Killing Time. However, I’m more content to continue to wait for another group that can write hooks like Bayside and still cover most of their bases at the same time.
Degeneration Street hits the mark for an above-average rock album so fucking well, there is barely a thing I could say about it that wouldn’t sound inane or contrived.
(Metaphor, adjective, metaphor, analogy, adjective)
The Dears sometimes sound like an Arcade Fire cover band fronted by Kele Okereke of Bloc Party.
(Influences romanticismofthepast influences romanticismofthepast influences)
It works quite well most of the time; “5 Chords” is the best track and its arrangements would not sound out of place on Neon Bible.
But, sometimes, the emulations become too overt as Degeneration Street gets through its second half.
(CONVERSATIONAL. Do it then smile, do it then smile)
Geez, those lyrics are bleak, amirite?!
(HoW tHe FuCk Is AnYoNe SuPpOsEd To KnOw iF YoU LiKeD iT oR nOt If YoU dOn’T ExPlIcItElY sTaTe WhEtHeR yOu WoUlD rEcOmMeNd It?)
I recommend Degeneration Street, even if the fact that reviewing 35 albums in three weeks has stretched my writing ability disconsolately thin within an inch of its lifeEe!
* * *
Bear with me, folks. They can’t all be winners.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The concept of a lo-fi double album fascinates me. The idea of making a sprawling LP of scrappy garage rock tunes that only barely clock in at two minutes seems to me like the biggest musical oxymoron since The Ramones started singing about Nazis over major chords and “hey ho”’s. Napa Asylum, the third album from San Francisco group Sic Alps, has often been analogized as the garage rock Exile on Main St., and those comparisons are warranted. Napa Asylum is a surprisingly consistent collection of ramshackle love songs, and the first lo-fi album that can be safely called an “experience record.”
One might also be reminded of London Calling when I describe Napa Asylum as a sprawling record, but Sic Alps’s work on their album is far from it, in form. Where The Clash used their record space to experiment with different genres, Sic Alps strictly play simple rock songs that are most similar in style and fidelity to The Velvet Underground. Never on Napa Asylum does the group stray from that line. In fact, due to the brevity of most of the songs on the album, Sic Alps usually keep you engaged by implementing one indelible hook per track. Sometimes, it’s the annoying repetition of “eat” in “Eat Happy” or the playful guitar pull-offs in “Zeppo Epp.” It’s a risky strategy, as it would be nearly impossible to defend against arguments that claim the album’s songs are one-dimensional, but, more often than not, Napa Asylum is entertaining as it progresses in sound from acoustic to distorted to ambient to acoustic, again.
Less than a handful of Napa Asylum’s songs run over three minutes long, the first of which arrives ten tracks into the album. One would assume these few songs would be the album’s highlights, as the group would have more time to develop more than just a hook, but they are no more affecting than the rest of Napa Asylum. “The First White Man To Touch California Soil” is probably the most realized track of the bunch, even featuring a guitar solo within its ragged bluster, but “Ball of Fame,” a cute ditty in which singer, Mike Donovan, warns a girl she “better play the game,” is just as memorable, and, at just over a minute, is little more than a third of “First Man”’s track length.
Ultimately, I may enjoy the concept of Napa Asylum better than the actual music. All the album’s tunes are great, but its source material can seem overwrought at times, and the short track lengths occasionally turn promising gems into transitional missed opportunities. Still, it’s hard to complain about an album as reliable as Napa Asylum. It’s far from revolutionary, but it’s one of the most replayable lo-fi albums I’ve ever heard. I may have my qualms, but I would not mind if Sic Alps kept releasing workhorses like Napa Asylum that can keep you satisfied at a low production cost.
Monday, March 7, 2011
On his debut album, New York electronic artist, Nicolas Jaar, finds himself in a stylistic bind. No matter how effectively he tries to split the difference between slinking dance music and minimalist techno, he cannot end up drawing comparisons to either Matthew Dear for the former or James Blake for the latter. On songs like “Keep Me There” and “Problems With the Sun,” Jaar employs a deep and bubbly vibrato that has significant interest value, but one that reminds me far too much of Matthew Dear’s work on his 2010 album, Black City. Similarly, the slower songs of Space Is Only Noise, like opener, “Colomb,” are spare with dabblings of handclaps and light bass, but I cannot listen to them and not think of the shy dubstep of James Blake’s newest self-titled release. It also doesn’t help that Jaar heavily auto-tunes his voice on “Colomb,” which only draws more attention to Blake’s use of it on his album, which was employed to significantly greater effect.
Space Is Only Noise is a very good album, but what holds it back from being excellent, aside from that originality issue, is that Jaar utilizes a certain restraint that tempers the album’s material to the point where the most rambunctious numbers are seriously lacking in the exploitation of their inherent creepiness. “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See” is the album’s focal point, and rightfully so, as it is the only song in which we see Jaar let loose, railing off non sequiturs in that Dear-like intonation like “Replace the word ‘space’ with ‘drink’ and forget it/Space is only noise if you can see.” “Grab a calculator and fix yourself” is such a gloriously random line in the song, and Jaar does not waste it by diluting the listener’s singular mood with calming falling-sea-shells-on-a-window-sill percussion that was characteristic of Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, as he does on much of Space Is Only Noise. Jaar clearly knows what he’s doing here, but he needs to figure out how that “what” is going to be different from that of the formative electronic artists making music these days. Space Is Only Noise is a good start, but one that indicates some clear space for improvement. And if that space is only noise, then Jaar can just tune my critiques out… but that’s only if he can see them, and I’m not sure that he can. God I hate when I get punny.
So, apparently, the guy who is East River Pipe, Fred Cornog, has been building a music career by making one-off albums in the basement studio of his New Jersey home and giving them to a label, whereupon they are released to the public and the man has no obligation to leave his family or his actual occupation to tour or do any promotional work, whatsoever. With that knowledge in mind, We Live in Rented Rooms, Cornog’s first album in five years, pretty much sounds like it came from a guy who makes one-off albums in a basement in New Jersey between stints at an actual work place; his newest is passive, mundane, and painfully boring.
We Live in Rented Rooms is a near spitting image of the vaguely electronic hipster pop that Eels has been making for more than a decade, except Cornog has an even more voracious penchant for awkward lyrics. In fact, the only thing that makes the album stand out at all is the fact that Cornog feels the need to accompany his bland folk songs with lyrical concepts that do not fit the material at all. Album opener, “Backroom Deals” attempts to simplify the government’s reaction to the financial crisis through the repetition of the title in only the most vaporous way. Not only does it come off as shallow (which I can’t necessarily blame him for, as nothing really rhymes with “no-credit default swaps”), but it doesn’t even sound like Cornog believes what he’s saying, as if he’d just walked into a studio and figured he’d make something up while he strummed his gui-tar for a couple minutes.
“Conman” has similar political aspirations. It’s difficult to tell what the point Cornog’s trying to make when he sings, “The priest’s making love on his knees,” but it’s just as well, as I come out of the song not giving a rat’s ass as to what it could possibly mean, anyway.
Such is the plight of We Live in Rented Rooms. If it weren’t for Cornog’s numerous lyrical gaffes, the album would be a pointless listen. At least it’s a little interesting to see how the guy screws up the revenge ballad concept of “Payback Time” (He’s cacophonous right out the gate when he leads off with the line “Yeah, I saw you with the commandant”) and the resemblance of “Tommy Made a Movie” to a minor-key “Tommy Can You Here Me?” has a fleeting entertainment value, but most of We Live in Rented Rooms sounds half-assed and complacent. I would say that Cornog shouldn’t quit his day job, but he seems to have a much better grasp of his artistic longevity than I do.