Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yes - Fly From Here: B

At what point are Yes in their career? The long-running prog rock group has not quite become the triumphant stalwarts of their genre like Rush, nor have they become a parody of themselves through embarrassing late-career albums. The mark that Yes has left on the musical landscape is just as unsure; not quite the “dinosaur rock” that has become the ire of many a modern music maker, but it’s not like you’ve heard an artist cite Closer to the Edge as a major influence in the past five years. Perhaps the best place to look for Yes’s influence is in metal, but, if that is so, the genre only takes the general idea of the group’s music seriously; the subtle and more poppy elements that came to define the group’s best work has all but been forgotten. As far as modern music is concerned, it’s difficult to see whether the sway of one of the greatest bands of all time spans beyond just an ace catalogue.

It is for this and many other reasons why Yes’s first album in ten years, Fly From Here, sits so awkwardly with me. While I fully embrace the idea of a comeback from this technical pioneer, in practice, the advantage/disadvantage spread in the album’s layout is just as contradictory as those aforementioned qualities. Fly From Here’s central concept comes from a song that Rick Wakeman replacement Geoff Downes and producer Trevor Horn had been working on before each joined Yes the first time around for 1980’s Drama. Here, it is presented as a twenty-minute song split into five parts, a presentation that would befit a classic Yes mentality. However, Yes frontman up to this point, Jon Anderson, has bowed out due to vocal complications and has been replaced in the dubious Journey style of recruiting a singer from a Yes cover band by watching YouTube videos. While Fly From Here would indicate a return to form of sorts for the group, it also seems like it’s setting the stage for some serious musical stagnation.

And, unsurprisingly, the album’s quality ends up somewhere in the middle. For however interesting the first five “Fly From Here” tracks are, they do begin to sound like they’re going through the motions with only one familiar vocal melody to draw the listener in. While I appreciate the sentiment of these four tracks, much of them could have been spaced out across the album or just omitted entirely. Luckily, though, the album also features a second half of better, standard Yes songs. Benoît David, the new singer, sounds how you’d expect him to: an eerie Anderson copy who brings no new musical ideas to the table. Nevertheless he’s competent, especially in the group harmonies, which are dead ringers for the ones on 1983’s excellent 90125. Remaining members Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White all have their moments. White’s percussion is nimble and fresh throughout, Squire’s bass is particularly lush on “Life on a Film Set” and Squire puts in a moving acoustic performance on penultimate track “Solitaire”.

In terms of great, complete statements, though, Fly From Here is seriously lacking. It’s a very uneven album, so for every time you have a genuinely interesting vocal melody in last track “Into the Sun”, you’ve got David singing about riding a tiger on “Life on a Film Set”. The five-part “Fly From Here” series may center on a catchy hook, but I doubt you’ll walk away from the album remembering anything other than it. From the die-hard Yes fans to the ones that have never heard of them, Fly From Here will invariably come off as a disappointment, which again makes me ponder its existence. Hardly a comeback album, but hardly a debacle, Fly From Here shows a Yes that is giving it a harder try than most of its peers, but only coming up with just slightly better results. 



Two months after the second wave of post-dubstep artists inspired debate within the electronic music community, out of nowhere comes lumbering Aaron Jerome, the man behind electronic outfit, SBTRKT. Listening to Jerome’s self-titled debut, it’s clear that the man is operating on the same plane as the purported Holy Trinity of dubstep dilution: James Blake’s self titled, Jamie Woon’s Mirrorwriting and Katy B’s On A Mission. It seems unfair to analyze SBTRKT in constant reference to those three records, but I’m just tactless and hypocritical enough to do so!

SBTRKT, more so than James Blake, Mirrorwriting or On a Mission, tapers to the traditional qualities of dubstep; music not quite made for the mainstream clubs like Katy B’s, but still capable of some pretty affecting grooves. Jerome often features female singers to carry catchy vocal lines and even recruits lauded hip-hop moper Drake to grunt on the “Barbara Streisand”-like “Ready Set Loop”. However, what you will mostly hear on SBTRKT when you are not listening to just straight up instrumental dance music will be Jerome’s voice, which sounds quite a bit like James Blake’s.

Like I mean A LOT like James Blake’s. So much so that it is often distracting. SBTRKT is a very good album; it delivers on many of its clearly identified goals. But the fact that Jerome’s voice has an almost identical tone to James Blake’s throws comparisons by the wayside to make way for debates as to whether or not SBTRKT is simply a more beat-oriented JB offshoot, even worse a mash up record.

Simplified, SBTRKT is just what I described: James Blake’s voice superimposed onto some traditional if tempered dubstep. Its harshness is watered down to suit a more streamlined listening experience, but not so much that it loses its dark edge. The album’s instrumentation is more in line with a sort of downtempo dubstep, like the recent work of artists like Guido, but artists like them tend to make the best music of that genre, so it is very possible that the combination of all these elements will make SBTRKT your favorite of the four records I have mentioned.

Taken as a whole, though, a part of me wants to dismiss SBTRKT because it is very much an album that’s context constantly gets in its way. Regardless, it is a very good product, not as rewarding as James Blake or On A Mission but still worthy of some interest. Perhaps the greatest value in SBTRKT is an indication of the movement from which it was spawned to be sputtering out, because, if artists are going to continue to make music that borrows so liberally from already established artists (or perhaps just James Blake), it’s going to become deformed from inbreeding very, very quickly. But premonition aside, SBTRKT doesn’t quite cross that line, so it’s still OK by me. 


Pure X - Pleasure: B

Get it? X? Pleasure? Ecstacy? Oh man that’s rich.

Music made to be ignored. Don’t bother.             


Gucci Mane - Writing on the Wall 2: B+

Give it time, give it time. I know I said that Gucci Mane’s last release, Return of Mr. Zone 6 was the death knell of the Atlanta rapper’s career, and I still believe that. The fact that the man has followed up that atrocity with his best mixtape to date does not deter me. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Gucci won’t go away with one album. Writing on the Wall 2 will regardless be a reassurance to longtime Gucci fans, and, in some sick way, I feel a little bit of goodness knowing that he can still pump out a considerable amount of above average tunes.           

The album, it should be noted though, is not a vast improvement on Return of Mr. Zone 6 because of anything on Gucci Mane’s part. Rounding up, I’d say that the man comes away with one solid line on the entire mixtape; one line that made me think, “Oh man, maybe I’ve been wrong about this guy all along.” In actuality, what helps Writing on the Wall 2 is that Mane’s presence is relegated to the textural or the background entirely. On the album, Gucci steps aside so that the real talents that have gotten him to this point can shine through.

In this manner, almost all the best parts of Writing on the Wall 2 are the beats. Where Return of Mr. Zone 6 and the majority of Gucci’s 2010 mixtapes were attempts at establishing the now hackneyed Drumma Boy/Lex Lugar constant barrage of sound, Writing shows these beat makers agreeing on a style and then branching them out into more tuneful arenas. On “Guilty” and “Tax Free”, Drumma Boy incorporates piano and synths to add more depth to his regular assault of mindless hooliganism. On “Recently”, he even opts for a smooth bassline to make the track flow like an excellent Curren$y song, all the bells and whistles dropping out to fantastic effect when 50 Cent takes the mic for a surprisingly memorable verse. Needless to say, when “MVP” emerges with a sung hook, it’s an unbridled success, making it an immediate album highlight. 

Drumma Boy’s not the only producer here who takes chances with excellent results. Writing is teeming with subtle risks that consistently impress. Many of the tracks surprise with the inclusion of boisterous horn parts. Their presence on “Hard On A Bitch” is a nice, silly touch on an otherwise tame track. They turn “Play Your Cards” into a veritable epic, with a malicious chorus from YC and a ¾ bass on the verses that adds welcome tension. However, it’s “Brrrr (Supa Cold)” that takes the cake on Writing on the Wall 2. Frequent Gucci collaborator Fat Boy creates a rather buoyant hook that’s harmonized vocals borrow as much from The Beach Boys as Waka Flocka Flame. The verses’ light and playful brass make the track sound like the most streamlined thing Gucci’s ever rapped over. Coupled with characteristically unrelenting bass, I’d say it’s the best track Gucci Mane has ever put his name on. The guy sounds so lively in this environment, it’s a wonder he hasn’t made more songs like it.

Although Writing on the Wall 2 will likely satiate Gucci Mane fanatics, it has many obstacles that will inhibit the uninitiated. While many of the record’s beats deserve praise, songs such as the Fat Boy-helmed “Camera Ready” and Lex Lugar’s “Lil Friends” sound like boring, grating Gucci by numbers. And, of course, considering this is a Gucci Mane release, the man is bound to surface from the background to deliver some truly crass, humorless lines. If you can look beyond terribly derivative couplets like “Pussy, pussy, I smell pussy,” then you’re pretty much in the clear for Writing’s enjoyment. However, if you’re looking for a good rap record in the traditional, lyrically brilliant sense, you’ve been barking up the wrong tree for far too long. Writing on the Wall 2’s positives may override its negatives, but, if you’re expecting more from Gucci Mane than cheap thrills, I’m tempted to ask why you’re reading this review in the first place. 


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact: A

“I can hear everything. It’s everything time.”
I’m kicking myself right now for opening this review with that line, because I know that so many other publications will quote it to begin their own reviews. Despite this, I have made a concerted effort to have it lead into my review, because there is nothing that I could say about Gang Gang Dance’s newest album, Eye Contact, that isn’t already encapsulated by those seven words that begin the group’s fifth release. At once emotionally cold and uncomfortably intimate, Eye Contact is the most jarringly eclectic dance music you are bound to hear this year.

That line comes to introduce first single, “Glass Jar”, a sprawling, eleven-minute behemoth that, like Destroyer’s recent “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”, begins with a cavernous atmosphere of reverberating synthesizers before getting into a groove that is all the more worth the time waited. The guy who utters those words reappears throughout the song’s six-minute build up. He lets out a passionate “Yes” as a musical palette slowly materializes, comforts with a “Don’t worry” and informs us it’s “Dream time” at various points in the song. The aura in which this guy says these things is so precious, it almost feels as if he’s commenting on your lovemaking while he’s in the same room as you. And while that is a radical way to look at “Glass Jar”, it is representative of the song’s humor and its willingness to drop all pretenses, like only the best modern hippies can.

And this is not even with the mention of Liz Bougatsos, the actual lead singer of Gang Gang Dance, whose inimitable coo appears when the beat to “Glass Jar” finally drops. While I could probably count the number of lines she sings on Eye Contact that I understand on one hand, her voice is so emotive that she is just as rapturous as a foreign ingénue as she is as a comprehensible frontwoman. Her indecipherable squeals on tracks like “Chinese High” and “Sacer” sound like an extra instrument, imbuing each track with a new, valued layer of depth. Her vocal presence tends to ground Eye Contact’s songs firmly in the realm of dance music, tying the gleefully disparate ends of “Mind Killa” with the utterance of the song’s title for example. Despite that clear hurdle of comprehension, you will find yourself singing her notes back to her, adding nonsensical words to reconcile their meaning within each song.

But Eye Contact, as that guy so well explains, is a time for everything, and, if you’re getting the impression the album is just some hipster electroclash, it’s far from it. “Glass Jar” does sound like the work of a high-minded outfit of Brooklynites, but it fades into the subversive refrain of a recording of an Italian singer, an intriguing choice of transition into the slippery Eastern guitar melodies of “Adult Goth”. The entire album flows like a DJ set, three interludes giving listeners context before another glorious dance track erupts through their speakers. This dense style of songwriting is most evident in “Mind Killa”, a veritable microcosm of chaos and creativity. It surges seamlessly through about five musical movements, all unique and all infectious. If the song were remixed to about an hour’s length, you wouldn’t need another song to play for a crowded dance floor. Elsewhere, Eye Contact wonderfully contradicts itself from track to track, experimenting with Caribbean jams on “Chinese High”, a spooky organ that would soundtrack a Nikki Minaj-hosted haunted house on “Thru and Thru” and the voice of Hot Chip’s Alex Taylor on the soft rock of “Romance Layers”.

Eye Contact may sound strange on first listen, but its many talents grow stronger with time. The album may very well be a time for everything, but it’s surprisingly manageable, the group very professional in making sure its innumerable elements are all kept in check. The album is very dense and its styles always fascinate and keep the senses sharp with wonder. It’s not as difficult to digest Eye Contact as you may think from this description, but, even if you find that it is, it’s all the more better. Sometimes the senses need to be overwhelmed. Keeps ’em fresh.


Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2: A-

Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 is such a return to form for Beastie Boys that it almost works against them. After releasing the middling To the Five Boroughs and the questionable instrumental The Mix-Up, in addition to postponing Hot Sauce Committee for a year due to MCA’s diagnosis of throat cancer, it seemed like the pioneering rap trio was aging in the exact opposite way longtime fans were hoping. But Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 hits so hard with the traditional sounds that made Beastie Boys so unique that it often goes over the nostalgia deep end, making it open game for naysayers who believe the group has long lost its potency. Hot Sauce Committee has a muddy production that can often make the group’s rhymes difficult to hear and the Boys bask in numerous lyrical clichés. As evidenced by “Funky Donkey”, perhaps the most unsurprising Beastie Boys song name of all time, if you were planning on hating Hot Sauce Committee, you’re going to hate it. If you weren’t, then this shit’s gonna be tight.

Despite Hot Sauce Committee’s muddy production, the musical ideas apparent here are positively fantastic and, for me, more of a draw to the album than the lyrical presence of the Beastie Boys, themselves. The skuzzy keyboard riff of “Make Some Noise” is perfect for silly two-steppin’. “OK” combines riffage and wonky synths with ease, consolidating its melodic prowess with a robotic voice that goes “Yeah yeah right right.” “Long Burn the Fire” similarly slays with organ and wah-wah pedal and “Say It” gets its inventive hook from the harmonics of feedbacking guitars. The bass is uncompromising, filling up any available space even when the group opts for full-on punk rock in the “Sabotage”-like “Lee Majors Come Again”.

Admittedly, the Beasties aren’t as memorable lyrically on Hot Sauce Committee. The album has about a dozen total outstanding lines, and they’re more notable for their silliness than their specificity. The album is highly self-referential and revels in throwback hip-hop clichés, so if you’re looking for something to rag on, you won’t have to look very far. The group goes on and on ‘til break of dawn on two tracks and Ad-Rock comes off as a curmudgeon in “OK”’s second verse (“I don’t give a fuck who the Hell you are / Please stop shouting in your cellular/ I never asked to be part of your day / So please stop shouting in your phone, OK?”). The best lyrical work on Hot Sauce Committee doesn’t even come from any member of the group. Nas’s surprisingly skillful verse on “Too Many Rappers” slays from the moment he bursts onto the track with “I have carte blanche.” When he’s finished, you can’t help but wish Beastie Boys were more dynamic on Hot Sauce Committee than just the funny voices they don for “The Larry Routine”.

So, although Hot Sauce Committee is not technically up to par with Beastie Boys’ greatest achievements, it definitely feels like a Beastie Boys album, which is more than enough reason to give it an excellent rating. When the album ends by cutting off the group while they’re yelling over each other, it shows they still have the vigor to be fun and absurd well into their forties. Hot Sauce Committee may lean significantly on spirit, but, man, if you were going to go with one spirit to lean on, you’re not going to find many livelier than the Beasties. The album is an outlier in terms of production and style in the context of where both hip-hop and electronic music are currently going. While we do have a Santigold collaboration here and a Wolf Blitzer reference there, in a way, Hot Sauce Committee brings the old school underground, and I don’t think I’ve ever danced so idiotically to an album so defiant of the mainstream.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra: A-

Well, at least they’re being honest. There have been a lot of bands come out recently from relative obscurity with only excellent music to speak for them, but it’s not like Unknown Mortal Orchestra ever attempted to deceive people when they first mysteriously appeared with nothing but a Bandcamp page. They’re obscure, they’re of this Earth, and they have the songwriting chops of a philharmonic. On their debut album, Unknown Mortal Orchestra don’t attempt to mask the listener with elaborate stories. Instead, they just play catchy vintage pop, and for that we should be grateful.           

Unknown Mortal Orchestra is cut from the same cloth of many lo-fi garage rock bands that thought 70’s fuzzy pop was just the bee’s knees. At times, some clear luminaries of the revisionist genre come to mind like Ariel Pink on the muffled “Nerve Damage!”. The group’s style is very much pop oriented, but their songs are shrouded in low rent technology. While vocals are almost always present, the only actual word that can be safely deciphered is “alligator” in the chorus of “Thought Ballune”, which probably tells you less about the song’s meaning. However, don’t lump Unknown Mortal Orchestra in with unremarkable groups such as Dum Dum Girls or Hippies. The group’s use of tracks for recording may resemble the visual of only a few pixels on a computer screen, but, if each of those pixels is vivid and electrifying, it shouldn’t really matter. The production may sound amateurish, but the group adds a variety of sounds to their tracks to make them sound complete, such as the emotive backup singing in “FFunny FFriends” and the oddball guitar introduction to “Nerve Damage!”. The drums on the album are so muted, the fills sound like they’re performed on the backs of rubber buckets, but each “thud” is endearing, giving an “aw shucks” quality to the group’s innocent pop.

So it’s a fun experience throughout Unknown Mortal Orchestra to listen to the group transcend their medium. The harmonies in “Thought Ballune” are intricate and well arranged. “How Can U Luv Me” grooves like some of the best pop songs of the 1960’s; I can imagine it being performed by The Jackson 5. “ Little Blue House” even features some clear vocals to place the song in a more modern context, both hinting that the potential of UMO reaches much farther than this record and that perhaps this whole lo-fi act is a put-on. It may sound rudimentary, but there are so many moments on Unknown Mortal Orchestra that signify a long and fruitful career for this group. As far as I’m concerned, they can stay as obscure as they like. I just hope this isn’t the last of them. 


Brian Eno - Drums Between the Bells: A-

U2 and Coldplay albums notwithstanding, you got to hand it to Brian Eno for being the OG oddball. The man’s been releasing albums nonstop for the past forty years, and has always maintained an air of strangeness to his tunes that would betray all of the mass acclaim he has received (the best track off MGMT’s newest album name checks him, so at least you know he’s good with the kids). He has often been labeled as the originator of ambient music, one the most confounding musical genres I have ever heard. And, for what its worth, from 1974’s Here Come the Warm Jets to this year’s Drums Between the Bells, you’d think nothing had changed.

Drums Between the Bells bristles with warped bass and mechanical noises, presenting a dystopian soundscape on which various vocalists can recite the poetry of Rick Holland. “Multimedia” undulates with wonky bass, “Cloud” features some spectral keyboards and “The Airman” is off-putting with its heavily reverbed bass drum. Eno makes these arrangements slightly off-kilter in order to keep the listener hinged on the range of topics Holland covers. When the vocalist on "Fierce Aisles of Light” passively mentions, “It’s a train again,” Eno accompanies it with the phased sounds of a moving train, adding literal drama to the otherwise spacious track.

The vocalists on Drums Between the Bells are all virtual unknowns. They range from people who work at the laundromat Eno goes to to his doorman, and the “recognizable” names will only be relevant to those already inclined to this genre of music. Nevertheless, all the performances on the album are well placed despite seemingly being plucked from anonymity. Male and female vocals share equal space and only a few times do they combine. Each seems to own the terrain Eno draws out for them, and they successfully add zest to Holland’s verses. A young, soft British female voice grounds Eno’s bouncy electronics on “Seedpods”. The male monotone on “Breath of Crows” envelops its ambience to create a dramatic if not show stopping album closer and the croak of the old British woman who graces many of the album’s tracks always gives a bookish nod and wink to the high-minded proceedings.

The voices of Drums Between the Bells seem recur in equal measure, so it often feels episodic. Eno spaces out his arrangements well so that when, for example, the old British woman comes back into the mix, she is welcomed by the listener’s familiarity. This is observed best on “A Title”, in which feral electronics swoop around the listener and that woman comes back in to regulate on the arrangement. As a side note, that old lady is a BAMF. She has a regal tone that sounds authoritative on the more ambient tracks and hilariously ironic on the more aggressive ones. Despite Eno being the main draw to Drums, it is clear that she emerges as the MVP, taking control on every track she appears.

The only deterrent from Drums Between the Bells is that it is, in essence, a spoken word album. There have been some great spoken word releases this decade, the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and Laurie Anderson’s Homeland to name a few, but there is something about speaking over music that will always give people the feeling that they are literally being talked down to. If that kind of stuff skives you out, then Drums Between the Bells will not be much help. Holland’s verses are standard poetic rumination. “The Real” talks about the perception of what is real (yep, that kind of poem) and “Glitch” and “A Title” explore the nuance of diction in a few minutes of sweeping generalizations. The minute of silence (entitled “Silence”) that comes at the end of the album would seem to confirm this high-minded disposition, but I would disagree. After all those delicious swarms of electronics and vocals have bombarded the listener for more than an hour, it feels like an appropriate respite. You could even say Eno’s earned it. 


Curren$y - Weekend At Burnie's: B

All you will ever need to know about New Orleans rapper Curren$y and his array of albums released in the last few years is embodied in the first line of his newest full-length, Weekend at Burnie’s: “Ain’t nothin’ changed.” The man says it on the very good Pilot Talk as well as its improved sequel. He has a natural laid back flow and the kinds of songs that put him in the best light are the ones of Ski Beatz, where light jazz floats through the mist seemingly conjured by Curren$y’s THC-addled recording sessions. The man loves to talk about sports, women and pot. And ain’t nothing changed. If you’re looking for evolution, variance, it ain’t here. Curren$y enlists producer Masta Beatz to lay down the tracks, but it’s all the same. It’s even more monochromatic without the occasional pseudo-aggressive jam like “The Day” was to the first Pilot Talk. And ain’t nothin’ changed. Address, the weather, the music, the man. Ain’t nothin’ changed, ain’t nothin’ changed. 


Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer: B+

Like Matt & Kim, much of the appeal of Eleanor Friedberger is that she treats her origins like a calling card. Her solo debut from her usual mainstay, The Friendly Fires, is peppered with specific references to New York City, and Friedberger flavors them with personal stories she tells in rambling, conversational candor. In fact, you could argue that that main draw of Last Summer is Friedberger as a personality, as the actual music that accompanies her is harmless soft rock, something that would not sound out of place on Marissa Nadler’s newest album. Where Matt & Kim, to continue this comparison, may keep their NYC inhabitance as a reference for their infectiously catchy tunes, Friedberger makes that inhabitance the main attraction. Luckily, this works in her favor.

The instrumentation of Last Summer is not at all revelatory. There are slight dabbles in funk (“Roosevelt Island”) and tropical rhythms (“Early Earthquake”), but the album mostly finds itself catering to the Brooklyn bohemian stereotype. Even if this was not intended (after all, who intends for the music on their album to be bland?), it ultimately helps Friedberger’s cause, because the rare variances in the music serve as foils for her forceful personality. Every time Friedberger says “ray” in “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, a rupture of echoes occurs, making her story all the more impressionable. While Last Summer will certainly not be remembered for any performance other than Friedberger’s, the music serves a clever purpose that helps to embolden the main attraction.

And the main attraction doesn’t disappoint. From what I have described, you’d think Last Summer was a musical travelogue… and it is, but it’s an excellent one at that. Friedberger speaks in a way that always makes her sound affable, so little throwaway phrases often become epic story-enders. “You got sick on the Cyclone,” she murmurs in “Roosevelt Island” as if keeling over from her own lovesickness. On “Scenes from Bensonherst", she bundles up her memories and moves on with the casual line, “Now it’s all of them in my inbox.” Friedberger may be intimidated by the passing days (“I said it wouldn’t come so close but it did,” goes one line), but she still sees 2010 as a glitter gold year. Last Summer gives a genuine impression of a girl in awe of the things around her, and Friedberger never ceases to describe scenes with brilliant simplicity.

This is best exemplified on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, ironically the only song on Last Summer that doesn’t deal with a New York locale. Instead, Friedberger’s tale unfolds in California as she insists to go to the restaurant during trips. “If Highland Park isn’t close enough / There’s that place on the way / And into the Seventh Ray.” The words tumble out of her like someone that would be indicating they want to go somewhere without explicitly saying so. Her personality is well established, so it’s campy as opposed to grating when she follows up with this non sequitur: “Take a lecture in stereoscopics to show us the way / To see with one eye open and one eye closed.” At that point, you see it as business as usual.

In fact, I believe the biggest reason Last Summer is a very good as opposed to excellent album is that there aren’t more non sequiturs like that line. Friedberger has great poise that I would love to hear say more ridiculous things; perhaps cede more realism to fancy. Despite Last Summer being essentially held up by one vice, I crave more Friedberger. Perhaps a trip to a more exotic locale is in order, like Tatooine or Castle Greyskull.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Washed Out - Within and Without: B

It was the middle of 2009, arguably the worst year for music in all the 2000’s. Albums kept pouring in but hardly anything was sticking. As if this feeling of stagnation was contagious to all genres, the summer yielded a plethora of artists that were playing a brand of pop that steeped itself in hazy electronics and indistinct vocals. If nostalgia came in a can, these groups would have sprayed their songs with it until they were thoroughly soaked. Nostalgia was their lifeblood, and the movement, formally known as chillwave, was either a refreshing deviation in texture or a further degradation of indie pop, depending on whom you asked. However, with all these arguments taking place, all that knew of the genre’s emergence could agree on one thing: that it was all ushered in through Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around”.

While far from revelatory, “Feel It All Around” always had an advantage because it did an excellent job of embodying pure bliss. Its analog keyboards were muted, its guitar chords light. Like much of the music that tried to copy its success, it seemed to embody less the good times of the past and more of the dreams recalling those good times, a song that could only truly be appreciated while watching something fun happen in slow motion as opposed to just experiencing it. It was a very agreeable summer jam, but I don’t think even Washed Out mastermind, Ernest Greene, knew how influential it would turn out to be.

Two years later, the state of chillwave in the musical lexicon is just as harshly debated as its musical merits were when it first emerged. There is no doubt that what is called the “blissed out” sound has had a significant effect on this decade’s popular music. However, if you ask this critic, that influence has not been particularly fruitful since that fateful summer of 2009. Many of the genre’s defining qualities have been dissolved into the sounds of lo-fi garage bands that no one should really care about, Toro Y Moi’s follow-up to his 2010 debut was good but not great, and Washed Out’s finally released debut album is hardly something to marvel at.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vampillia - Alchemic Heart: B+

For those of you who checked out my list of favorite albums of 2010, you may have noticed another list on there of considerable length of all the albums I had yet to grade. Since that December 31st posting, I have listened to and graded a lot of the albums on that list. Some of them I have enjoyed quite a bit, enough to place them in the top fifty of that massive aggregate.

An album released in 2010 that particularly peaked my interest post
-2010 was a collaboration between UK trip hop producers The Orb and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Metallic Spheres was made up of two tracks, each a part of a metallic sphere whole. Each was made up of around twenty minutes of warped voices, reverbed guitars and indelible hooks that were perverted into dystopian dance rhythms. It was the optimal thing you could expect from a forty-minute album that consisted of only two tracks; oscillating odysseys that hardly got stale.

The excellence of Metallic Spheres has left a great impression on me since I first encountered it, so I cannot help but make it a reference when listening to the second album by Osaka artist Vampillia, Alchemic Heart. It too is a forty-minute album comprised of two tracks that each exceed the twenty-minute mark; the first is called “Sea” and the second is called “Land”. And like songs that need to fill up a lot of time short of playing a medley of Led Zeppelin songs ala Dream Theater’s A Change of Seasons, Alchemic Heart moves very, very slowly.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Symphony X - Iconoclast: B+

If you’re a fan of modern screamo, you have probably heard the use of subwoofer boom in otherwise metal-styled songs. The sound often punctuates the endings of phrases in order to give a track’s hook an epic conclusion. It’s a rather disquieting method, regardless of context, and can draw much attention to a song’s transitions. Unfortunately, though, the sensationalist likes of bands such as A Day to Remember have co-opted this technique in order to try to make up for the strength that their actual music lacks. Like so many others, this technique has been bastardized beyond recognition by bands such as Attack Attack! The most traction it has ever gotten has been on System of a Down’s Mesmerize. Aside from that, it has never been used to good effect.

Iconoclast, the eighth album from New Jersey prog metal band Symphony X, has a few strikes against it, one of which is that it frequently incorporates that technique. As one would expect, riotous booms serve as periods for the ends of musical movements, giving unnecessary oomph to aggressive arrangements that would be just fine on their own. When used traditionally, the technique is very annoying, but it sounds even worse when used incorrectly. There are times that Symphony X will use the booming sound to introduce verses, which can completely throw the listener off, as that explosion is supposed to highlight a conclusion, not the thick of a track. As a result, many of the verses on Iconoclast sound weak and underwhelming because they are snuffed under the bass’s massive presence.

This may sound like nitpicking, but the inappropriate use of this technique is indicative of the half-baked nature of much of Iconoclast. The album feels a bit unsure of itself, a sentiment typified by its theme. Lead singer Michael Romeo said in an interview for Blabbermouth that the subject of Iconoclast was “of machines taking over everything, and all this technology we put our society into pretty much being our demise." On the album, Romeo goes about getting this point across by making grandiose statements as directionless as his intentions. “What’s done is done,” he sings on “Dehumanized”. “I’m dead inside / I’m what you’ve all become / Mindless and mesmerized / Dehumanized.” Songs such as “Bastards of the Machine” and “Electric Messiah” set up straw men for Romeo to demolish with rote sloganeering. The execution would befit a group of half Symphony X’s experience.

But guess what? Iconoclast is still an excellent listen. Its themes may be undercooked and the group may throw themselves too wholeheartedly into gimmicks, but Symphony X’s penchant for excellent musicianship and catchy choruses is something that cannot be taken away from them. “Dehumanized” may be laughably heavy-handed, but Romeo sings that aforementioned pre-chorus with palpable gusto, making it easy to vigorously sing along to, even if the words are patently silly. Tracks such as “Electric Messiah” and “Prometheus (I Am Alive)” are persistent earworms. The group has an undeniable talent for hooks and the performance of each of its members is something to be in awe of.

Also, the album’s theme shouldn’t count against it too badly. Romeo’s specious arguments may be reprehensible, but they’re really not all that different from what the late Ronnie James Dio was doing in his prime. With all its particularly nimble guitar work and Romeo’s soaring vocals, Iconoclast can often feel like a twenty first century update of The Last in Line. The fact that the group can still pull off such memorable songs with such clear limitations is a rather fitting tribute to the original proprietor of the devil horns.

I’m hesitant to give Iconoclast my full support, because those first criticisms I mentioned do tend to get in the way when I try to prod the album for its artistic worth. However, if you are a metal fan, Iconoclast will most certainly be satisfying, because it really can be a brutal and meaningful listen. It can be found in both single and double album versions, so you know it will be expansive and feel sufficiently worked upon in the four years since Symphony X released an album. It has its flaws, but they are far from crippling. Something tells me RJD would be proud of it.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Handsom Furs - Sound Kapital: B- / Iceage - New Brigade: B

"No Feelings"                                                                             "Broken Bone"

Oh, post punk. What are we going to do with you? You were so prescient and refreshing in the late 70’s and 80’s, but now most of the proprietors of your pale, white, monosyllabic British guitar rock have remained boring and stagnant. There’s something poetic about how two post punk groups can come from widely different places – England and Denmark –and still sound inert and unmoving.

Iceage are those said Danes. Their debut album, New Brigade, is a collection of two to three-minute bursts of jagged guitar and muffled vocals. As unprofessional as that may sound, the group actually has an admirable talent for maneuvering through fairly complicated twists and turns within their constrained song lengths. Still, their sound is nothing new and New Brigade becomes one of those albums that reminds you of the fun you had while listening to the work of other bands that did what has been done here much better. Iceage’s musicianship is promising, but their lack of distinctiveness leaves much to be desired.

Where New Brigade made you want to listen to a better post punk album, New Kapital just makes you want to listen to something else. Where Iceage take their post punk sound into more raw territory, Handsome Furs incorporate electronics, ostensibly to give their sound more depth. Unfortunately this new addition seems to be an excuse for the husband/wife duo of former Wolf Parade singer Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry to slack in the realm of hooks and song structure. The music on the album lurches through the tropes of trite balladry and Boeckner frequently opts for mundane lyrical platitudes like “What about us” and “You don’t serve the people”. As a result, Sound Kapital leaves hardly an impact when it ends. Its quality is worse than Cut Copy’s dull Zonoscope and just south of The Killers’ Day & Age (A position in which nobody wants to be). Like a lot of recent mediocre releases, Sound Kapital attempts to redeem itself on its final track, “No Feelings”, with a burst of synth fuzz and guitar distortion. However, repeated listens show that the track is hardly jarring; its eruption feels shocking in the context of the album’s epic banality. Perhaps I was desperately looking for something interesting to say about Sound Kapital by that point. I guess it turns out I disliked the album more than I thought.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Couldawouldashoulda: June 2011

Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)

Original Review Here

Now’s about the time when the Couldawouldashoulda’s start to really look like Honorable Mentions, albums you wish could have stayed on the top fifty for just a little while longer, but, alas, had to make way for other deserving releases. Hayes Carll’s fourth album is a great exhibit of an engaging personality. His voice is cracked and borderline drunken, slurring through his lines like he may just hiccup the next verse. But where this description may connote laziness, Carll brings a distinct voice to each of his songs, whether with wry political humor or homely specifics. His best work comes out on the hapless duet, “Another Like You”, the wartime frenzy of “KMAG YOYO” and the still heartwarming family get-together, “Grateful for Christmas”. Even if you’re not a fan of country music, KMAG YOYO is an album more than worth your time.

E-40 – Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift

Original Review Here

Right now, I’m working on a review compilation of E-40’s Revenue Retrievin’ series, so it’s fitting that this album should appear in this segment. We know that E-40 felt like releasing two albums on the same day last year and now two albums on the same day this year. This year’s Overtime Shift is the clear best of all four, so, thusly, Graveyard Shift should be completely ignored. Well hold on a second, not so fast. Graveyard Shift may not be as colossally satisfying as Overtime Shift, but it’s still a great album. Tracks like “E-40” and “My Shit Bang”… well, bang, and I’m not going to just sit around and watch people disparage it just because its companion piece is the musical equivalent of the doctor brother that the family keeps complimenting at Thanksgiving dinner. Graveyard Shift may not be as fruitful as Overtime Shift, but, if you’re an E-40 or just plain old hip hop fan, it’s a no brainer to get. Who knows, you might even enjoy it more.

Lupe Fiasco – Lasers

Original Review Here

LOL REALLY? I like thought this album was total shit! Lupe goes mainstream? HOW DROLL!!!!!! How could it possibly be on any honorable mention list? RU some kind of Lupe Fiasco fanboy or something? Well, yes, but that’s beside the point. We can get into a conversation as to whether it was right of Lupe Fiasco to go in the direction he did for his third album, Lasers, but there is no denying that, nevertheless, it is a very solid album. It sounds nothing like his magnum opus Food & Liquor or the comparatively disappointing The Cool, but it still observes Lupe in fine lyrical form over hooks that are actually quite catchy. So what if it works better at a club than a house party this time around? Does that make it worse? It doesn’t, so don’t believe the anti-hype. Lasers is a worthy addition to the Lupe catalogue, and I’m glad he’s back in the hip hop conversation.

Julian Lynch – Terra

Original Review Here

June 12th

Check Your Mode: Hey Julian Lynch.

Julian Lynch: Ummm, yes?

Check Your Mode: I wuv you.

Julian Lynch: Well gee… thanks.

July 7th

Check Your Mode: Hey Julian Lynch.

Julian Lynch: Yeah?

Check Your Mode:


Julian Lynch: *sigh* Thanks.

Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand

Original Review Here

Because I am constantly making lists and categorizing the music that comes out of the 2010’s, comparisons are inevitable, and the biggest may be 2010 overall vs. 2011 overall. It’s a valid query, but one that cannot be objectively inspected, because there are too many variables. However, I can safely say this: In terms of metal, 2010 definitely has the upper hand. By this time last year we had fantastic releases from Barren Earth, Stam1na, Triptykon and Nachtmystium. As of now, we only have two outstanding releases from Moonsorrow and Septic Flesh. Things can change of course, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I was a little disappointed, being an enormous metal fan and all.

In terms of quality, Primordial is in a run for third place for best metal album so far (In a dead heat between Devin Townsend and Týr). The Irish metal group’s seventh album slays like their others, trudging through lands of distortion and double bass drum to deliver blows and vanquish enemies with the uniting power of massive balls. Singer Naihmass Nemtheanga rants at you to an almost numbing degree, but it’s all motivational, so it’s all good. Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand makes you less want to destroy shit than spout rhetoric at that shit until it realizes its life is worthless and decides to shy away and kill itself. Not much music does that, but, if there’s one thing you need to know about the newest Primordial album, it’s that it succeeds at it. Oh yes does it succeed.


The Antlers - Burst Apart: B / Malachai - Return to the Ugly Side: B / Snowman - ∆bsence

Space is a wonderful thing to have on an album. It makes music more fluid, keeping the pace interesting. I cannot tell you how many albums I would have enjoyed if only they paused a moment from their unrelenting onslaughts; in many cases, a little space can go a long way. Many albums like that have crossed my path, and yet, I have heard ambient albums that feel like glorious translucent space that drifts through my speakers to give me a floating feeling, although it is clear I am listening to something substantive.

But it should always be noted that space is what it is: Nothing. And too much of nothing tends to swallow something, and good albums can be diluted because they yield too much of their running time to it. The newest albums by The Antlers, Malachai and Snowman all remind me of what can happen when space suppresses potential as opposed to enlivening it. Their approaches are different, but all are ultimately albums that feel incomplete because space is too involved a component of them.

Snowman broke up before the release of their second album, ∆bsence, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to their final project. Not to say that an album like this has to convey the tension I’m sure was building within the group during its making (After all, the final releases of groups like Fang Island and Yellow Swans gave hardly an indication of intra-group turmoil), but, there’s absolutely no tension to be found on the album, at all. What you mostly find are vague textures of keyboards, percussion and guitars. Falsettos abound through mountains of reverb with no notable distinctiveness. The album goes on like this and nothing happens time and time again. When the closing title track “explodes” with some unexpected distortion, it just feels like throwing a stone into an empty pool; it’s a loud “clank” and that’s it. No ripple, no nothing.

Malachai have a slight upper hand in that they at least observe some personality on their sophomore LP, Return to the Ugly Side. The album’s fidelity makes the music akin to lo-fi AM radio pop but with an erudite British edge, lead singer Gee Ealey’s nasally cockney sounding like what would happen if Oliver Twist joined a post-punk band in adulthood. However, while “Monster” features some bludgeoning percussion and “Mid Antarctica (Wearin’ Sandals)” has some gruff guitar riffage, Return to the Ugly Side also succumbs to the space of anonymity. Much of the album sounds like Britpop retread, and Malachai don’t do a very good job of convincing you otherwise. Return, ultimately, sounds like a series of Gnarls Barkley outtakes. Their vague 60’s aesthetic is held up defectively by a stale personality. Like Snowman’s “Absence”, “HyberNation” attempts to surprise the listener with some breakbeats, and, while, admittedly, it comes out of nowhere, it hardly saves Return from its mediocrity. It’s hard to see the album being enjoyed as anything but background music.

Coming to prominence with their 2009 debut, Hospice, The Antlers drew ears with plodding melodies and singer Pat Silberman’s devastating tales of loss and dejection. If you have read anything about the group’s Hospice follow-up, Burst Apart, it’s that, to an extent, it’s more of the same. I would agree with this sentiment; the group’s instrumentation remains tempered and Silberman’s falsettos remain nimble and affecting. In fact, Silberman does a fantastic job on Burst Apart. Many artists strive for delicacy, but he goes all-out, descending upon tracks like “No Windows” to give them a beautiful, sinister bent. It’s shame, then, that, despite the vocal acrobatics Silberman observes on Burst Apart, so little happens on the album. “No Windows” could be transformative if its expanse of organs and mechanized percussion weren’t so repetitive. Songs like “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and “I Don’t Want Love” should be distressing admissions of sexual frustration, but their arrangements are shy, almost cowardly. Even as Silberman gives his best lyrical performance in the first verse of “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, its impact is dulled by the sheer modesty with which the group accompanies it. The track embodies the mission statement of Burst Apart: A great album by a group with a talented singer marred by the low ambition of its more than competent instrumentalists.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Tyler, the Creator - Goblin: B+

In a March promotional video for Goblin, Odd Future ringleader Tyler the Creator’s second solo album, the man sits at a piano and performs an acoustic version of his first prerelease single, “Yonkers”. It’s a genuinely surprising rendition, not just because it puts one of the most caustic songs of the year in a much different light, but because of what Tyler says before he begins. “Right now, today,” he says, wearing a fake mustache, leaning into the camera. “I am nineteen years of age.” That just kinda floors me. The guy who has become the poster boy for one of the most invigorating counterculture movements in rap music in quite some time… is a month younger than me. I’m sitting at a computer like a dope, discussing the implications of a rap group that rocketed to fame with an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, and some of its members could have been in my high school graduating class.

We tend to forget that when we talk about Odd Future and their milieu of controversy. The argument that the group is too adolescent to fully comprehend nuance has been considered a copout from critics of Tyler and Odd Future’s vigorous talk of rape and gore, but they really are just kids. Some tracks on various Odd Future releases have been some of the most memorable lyrical performances of the past few years, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect the group to be constantly mature when it has been hoisted to such prominence at such a low level of artistic maturity. I mean, in Goblin’s “Nightmare”, Tyler talks about drinking alcohol for the first time with all the nuance of an irate middle schooler. Frankly, I’m surprised so many Odd Future songs are listenable, let alone as classic as “Yonkers”. Don’t forget that there was another recent rap artist that became an overnight sensation in his teens. That man was Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.

So, despite how much I enjoyed and continue to enjoy “Yonkers”, I came into Goblin with low expectations. We’ve all heard the stories of countless albums like it, where an artist gets swallowed by the spotlight and lashes out on the hand that feeds them. Tyler, the Creator continued to be a polarizing public figure up to release of Goblin, from Odd Future’s unhinged SXSW shows to his hilarious Golf Wang commercials. There was a part of me that expected the rug to be pulled out from under him as fast as it was laid out.

Nevertheless, Goblin begins with a fantastic opening track. It sets the scene for the album’s concept, in which Tyler converses with a therapist about all his recent problems, not least of which is his sudden acclaim. He elaborates on his frustration by coloring simple insults with vibrant affectation. His lyrics paint a realistic portrait of a snotty teenager laying on a couch, telling a shrink all his secrets, and hating every moment of it. “Life’s a cute bitch full of estrogen,” he sneers. “And when life gives you lemons fucking throw them at pedestrians.” Tyler speaks candidly about his disenfranchisement with the new friends he’s made, but nothing is quite as effective as when he references his skate-rap roots. “I can’t even skate anymore, I don’t have the time,” he laments. “I can barely kickflip now.” Tyler’s performance on “Goblin” pretty much validates all the immense Odd Future hype. When his therapist responds after his massive rant, “So, you were telling me you went to New York?” and the first rattles of “Yonkers” come in, it feels like Goblin is poised to be the rap album of a generation.

I once read a review of “Yonkers” that described the track as being forced to stay in a room with a raving lunatic for four minutes, an image well buttressed by the song’s video, in which Tyler, the Creator vomits and literally hangs himself in front of the camera. It’s an excellent interpretation, especially considering that the track really has no meaning. From “Buck 50” to “A Milli”, before it, “Yonkers” comes from a long line of rap songs that have been fantastic for their incredibly memorable (but only semi-coherent) word scrambles. The track definitely embodies a raw emotion, but, taken as a statement, it’s difficult to tell whether “Yonkers” is anything other than a big, hot, brilliant mess.

The tracks that succeed “Yonkers” are, for the most part, good, but, with repeated listens, one cannot help but feel as if Tyler is slowly but surely chipping away at the magnum opus that Goblin could have been. Third track, “Radicals”, is a murky, agro-punk tirade, but it feels hokey and doesn’t hit very hard, a sentiment not helped by the “random disclaimer” that begins it. “Her” is redundant melodrama that ends in anticlimax. Even thought it’s probably a joke, the Waka Flocka Flame-aping “Bitch Suck Dick” is a complete waste of space. For the most part, Goblin is efficient over its fifteen tracks, but it’s a much lower kind of efficiency that is, unfortunately, more inclined toward my low expectations.

And what is critical about this is that, as the tracks start to sound slightly undercooked, it becomes more difficult to justify the outright sexist, racist and Dadaist behavior that Tyler observes throughout the album. In “Tron Cat”, Tyler’s over the top threats of “fucking dolphins” and “snorting Hitler’s ashes” are understandable, because it’s clear he’s joking and there’s enough satire in his delivery to make you want to laugh with him. In one of the track’s best lines, Tyler pokes fun at himself by boasting, “You niggas rap about fucking bitches and getting head / Instead I rap about fucking bitches and getting head.” But come track ten, when Tyler’s listing racial slurs in the otherwise innocuous “Fish/Boppin Bitch”, it becomes a chore to defend the guy’s ideology, let alone enjoy the music for what it is.

Also, a glaring flaw of Goblin, which I’m surprised few have been talking about, is that many of its tracks’ productions are variations of the same beat. However different their mission statements may be, “Yonkers”, “Radicals” and “Sandwitches” are all made up very similar components. It’s that vague boom bap with intentionally (or at least I hope) cheap synthesizers that soften Tyler and his guests’ gruff couplets. I have no objection to the lo-fi sound, as it is in line with OF’s DIY aesthetic, but the creative bankruptcy becomes quite apparent after multiple listens. And since we’re on the subject of crappy production, whenever OF crooner Frank Ocean appears on a track, it immediately sounds half-baked. Ocean tries to channel a Trey Songz-like quivering timbre, but just ends up sounding flat and amateurish in ways that distract from an otherwise decent track like “She”.

Goblin only truly redeems itself at its very end, when the album returns to its storyline in ensemble track “Window” and final track “Golden”. Tyler’s therapist reprises his role as moderator on the former and Domo Genesis fantastically begins the track with a deadpan, “It was all a dream.” Domo, Hodgy Beats, Mike G and Frank Ocean (who thankfully only raps here), are all competent at their respective guests spots, but it’s the track’s hazy, lurching beat that carries them all, its eight minutes breezing by as Tyler eventually takes the reigns for one of Goblin’s best performances. “Since I’m saying ‘Fuck everybody’ I guess that means I’m a fucking pervert,” he seethes. In the track’s final minutes, Tyler’s anger becomes so unbearable, he proceeds to kill all his guests one by one. “Golden” similarly finds Tyler building tension as his diatribe becomes more vitriolic, ending in a plot twist that would certainly befit Goblin: The Masterpiece. If the album were only comprised of the four tracks that bookend it, I’d probably deem it a classic EP.

Goblin is one of those albums that I would recommend in layers. If you want to browse some of the most contentious music of the decade/year, again, The Goblin EP would be your best bet. If you are already familiar with OF, you can’t go wrong with “Tron Cat” and Hodgy Beats collaborations “Analog” and “Sandwitches”. And if you’re a Tyler, the Creator devotee, you probably already have and love Goblin, and for that you have my sympathy. Not because it is a particularly bad album, but because it will always be a chore to fiercely defend a product that’s controversy has stemmed its own controversial controversy.