Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise: B+

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.


East River Pipe - We Live in Rented Rooms: B-

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.