Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place: A

A part of me wants to hate The Magic Place, because it’s clear that it’s an album that did not take much thought to make. All its songs are ambient textures of female voices, drenched in reverb, repeating, interrupting and falling over each other. It’s an album that I would consider quite lazy, because anyone with a decent singing voice could have made it and perhaps with just as much success. However, Barwick’s arrangements on The Magic Place are vast, spacious and beautiful, no matter how generic they might ostensibly sound.

The Magic Place does not change from song to song. The countless forms of Barwick’s voice, winsome and whispery, drift formlessly through the album with very little variation aside from an occasional change in octave or key. The songs rarely heighten or have any sense of dynamics, and, when they do, they don’t build so much as add. Many songs begin with a piano, but, in the times when it, or any other instrument, is introduced, it is not from an accommodating context or crescendo. The loud chorus in “White Flag,” the standup bass in “Vow” and the hand percussion in “Prizewinning” simply appear in their respective songs. I would say that they serve no purpose, but, and this is one of the many great aspects of The Magic Place, they all work towards an end in that they all make the arrangements sound even more luxurious than they already were. The presence of these parts may have been an afterthought while Barwick was making The Magic Place, but, when they’re there, it is clear that what they are and what they do were slyly calculated for optimal effect.

Barwick’s debut is unique in the genre of ambient, because, where artists like Emeralds and Ohneotrix Point Never use computerized instruments, The Magic Place is almost entirely comprised of organic human voices, and, as a result, it’s the most intimate ambient album I’ve ever heard. The Magic Place’s lyrics are unintelligible and no single voice stays for long, but the album, as a whole, is nothing if not welcoming. As the wisely titled first track would indicate, The Magic Place envelops you from the very first note. It’s homogonous, but in a way that makes it sound like a forty five minute trip through your own subconscious.

In a way, The Magic Place is indulgent, because it makes a job out of pressing that one heart-melting pleasure center we all have to mawkish proportions. Still, it is fantastic at doing what I’ve deduced is the purpose of ambient music, which is to be the lubricant for your mind’s eye, giving you a soundtrack for expanding your thoughts and exploring your memories. The Magic Place is emotionally ambiguous, which means you can listen to it happy, sad, angry, horny, drunk, high or with a hangover and take away a completely different experience (Although I don’t know why you would listen to ambient music drunk or horny… sicko). It can be meaningful or pointless, but The Magic Place is special in that your reaction to it, to a certain extent, is a reflection of yourself.


Wye Oak - Civilian: B+

Some bands find their niche by making modern interpretations of the sounds of artists that influenced them (Oasis, LCD Soundsystem, Kylesa). Others just flat out write songs that sound like their influences, with little to no subtext to defend them from accusations of unoriginality. Wye Oak is one of the latter. Although Civilian is a thoroughly consistent album, not once does it attempt to forge a path for the group to differentiate themselves from other hard-nosed shoegaze bands with female singers. The melodic dissonance that often envelops Civilian is very similar to that of Land of Talk, Jenn Wasner’s casual voice the spitting image of Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powel. When Wye Oak go into reverb-heavy space jams, they sound exactly like the emotionless boogie of School of Seven Bells, with similar vocal tendencies to boot. Even when the group tries to close Civilian with a spare, guitar-led lament, they sound like a cover band for their Baltimore colleagues, Beach House, Wasner’s voice hardly as affecting as Victoria Legrand’s smoky croon. And, yes, I know all four of these bands formed around the same time, but the three besides Wye Oak do what Wye Oak do better than Wye Oak, so who’s really counting years at this point, anyway? Civilian is not a bad album, but, considering that there are so many identical bands out there that do its job better, it’s not something that you’ll particularly miss if you don’t hear it.


Live Album Roundup: March 15th 2011

Pearl Jam - Live on Ten Legs
Released: January 18th, 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 - Live at Stubbs Vol. II
Released: February 1st, 2011

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

Released: February 1st, 2011

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

Released: February 1st, 2011
For many music fans from my generation (I don’t know what it’s called, but I’m 19, so figure it out), Bob Marley has become more of a symbol than an artist; we have heard and been taught to love his hits and humanitarian work, but, as a result, we have been conditioned to view him as an intangible myth rather than a musician. Live Forever, a recording of Bob Marley’s last concert before his death from cancer in May of 1981, does an excellent job of humanizing the reggae superstar and consolidating his legacy for a new generation of music listeners. The first hit on Live Forever comes ten tracks into the album, and all the deep cuts Marley leads off with are fantastic and exhibit him as energetic, charming, funny and committed to his craft. Live Forever’s first half of lesser-known songs is invigorating and eye-opening and its second half of hits is fluid and poised. The Wailers rip up “The Heathen” with a guitar solo and turn “Could You Be Loved” into an intense percussion jam and Marley sounds like he’s having the time of his life throughout. Live Forever may best 1984’s Legend as the best introduction to Marley’s music, because it portrays him as an artist with incredible range. As his final product, it shows that the man left us at the peak of his talents. A


Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes: B+

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.