Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

JEFF the Brotherhood - We Are the Champions: B-

If Time New Viking were the teenagers that genuinely tried to flesh out the big productions of their idols with limited proficiency and production value, JEFF the Brotherhood were the snotty assholes who recorded songs about farts and poop just so they could laugh at the playbacks. Nothing about JEFF the Brotherhood’s fourth album is serious. From the Raaaaaaaandy-style horn blast that kicks it off to the lazy Skynyrd and Ramones parodies that make up its second half, We Are the Champions comes off as a massive lark. At the end of “Cool Out”, the group switches from their style of boring slacker rock to a blast beat with guttural screams, as if lead singer Jake Orrall had just heard “Raining Blood” and thought it was the funniest thing of all time. There’s a feeling throughout We Are the Champions that what you’re walking into wasn’t really made for public consumption; I have no real objection to these types of joke songs, but they hold up terribly when shown to anyone but the musicians’ immediate friends and family. If you ask me, JEFF the Brotherhood are not even close to being ready for primetime. They’re close to the bottom of the lo-fi barrel, and they’ll probably always stay that way.


Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See: B+

I’ve been giving too many B+’s lately. Maybe it’s cynicism, boredom or both, but it seems like there have been less than five albums in the past month that have tickled my fancy enough to warrant any excitement for new music coming out. So I listen to an album, find nothing objectionable with it, slap a B+ on it and move on with my life. This month particularly, I’m finding this blog as more of a job than a hobby.

So obviously I’m feeling a little burnt out, but I don’t think you could have presented me with an album to top off this feeling of mediocrity better than the newest Arctic Monkeys album. The group that produced what I believe to be one of the most obnoxious first singles of all time comes back with their fourth album of UK derp rock. It’s marginally interesting in the nicest sense of the word. Some cool riffs here and there and some faux-erudite lyrics sung in a rich English brood to go over them. The group sounds best when they’re playing loud bass-heavy British rock like in “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Library Pictures”. You’ve got a decent Heartbreak Hotel metaphor in “Piledriver Waltz” that should keep you engaged for about half a second. Overall, it’s a pretty good listen. Sure, I’d recommend it.

But if you were to call this thing Hade’s ejaculation through the shaft of the River Styx, I wouldn’t blame you. If you chalked Suck It and See up to the boring competency of a group long past its prime and decided to shelve it in favor of playing outside, making love to the opposite sex and learning Arabic, I would probably approve. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the album’s fucking title, which is such an obvious gimmick, you can practically smell the cheap cologne through your speakers as it plays. But alas, is Suck It and See a good album? Sure. Is Suck It and See a bad album? Sure. Is the Chupacabra real? Sure. Is Bismarck the capital of North Dakota? Sure.



Battles - Gloss Drop: B+

Want to hear one of greatest bass performances of year? Listen to Gloss Drop. Want to hear one of the greatest drum performances of the year? Listen to Gloss Drop. Want to listen to some hilariously skonky keyboard performances? Listen to Gloss Drop. And if you want to get some mind-blowing visual accompaniment to a fantastic single, I would suggest you click on that link above and sit back as your eyeballs get thoroughly reamed.

But if you want to hear an album that’s distinct from track to track, I would still recommend Gloss Drop, but would not promise that you would be reeling once the album comes to a close. While Battles maintain their high level of instrumental proficiency throughout their newest record, hearing them play off of each other for nearly an hour can get a little tiring when there are few shifts in texture or style. Most of Gloss Drop is instrumental, but this principal is also applicable when vocals are present. Matias Aguayo (of “Rollerskate” fame) puts in a fun performance for “Ice Cream”, the album’s clear highlight, but Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead and Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms don’t really add much to their respective songs and those tracks and others begin to slump and blend towards the album’s end.

But I’m being negative. Gloss Drop is still great for its musicianship and at the very least is perfect background music for a particularly rousing game of Twister. The album’s not as outlandish as the group’s watershed moment, Mirrored, and Battles may have diluted their math rock leanings to an extent, but it’s still great fun to hear these guys mull over melodies, even if it should be in smaller doses. Gloss Drop’s definitely worth your time. You might even learn something.


Bill Callahan - Apocalypse: B

There’s that age old question every person hears in their English class from high school through college: “Do we really think that the meaning we find in these books was actually meant by the writers that wrote them or are we just scrambling to make them seem relevant?” You’ll hear a lot of variations on that statement, but that’s basically it. We stake so much in literature, lifestyle and music that the norm has become hyperbole in how we assume meaning down to the very arrangement of words in sentences in service of a greater, elusive whole. It’s a sentiment that will always have backlash, but that romanticism for hidden genius stems from the desperate hope in all of us that everything in our lives happens for a reason.

The problem I have with Bill Callahan’s fourth album, Apocalypse, is the same I had with R.E.M.’s latest release, Collapse Into Now. As I inspect Callahan’s words and the pastiche that surrounds them, I wonder if the things he’s saying actually mean anything to anyone besides Bill Callahan. He speaks of the world coming to an end and derides America before bringing it back into his good graces with really no clear structure or purpose. Apocalypse is very flimsy as a result of this, and, the more I look into it, the more I see it as a record of hollow rhetoric as opposed to anything remotely substantive.

Take “America!” for example. In it, Callahan repeats his country’s name in a mocking tone, never changing the three notes he sings in each verse as he describes an apparent longing for his country while he’s traveling overseas. “I watched David Letterman / In Australia,” he sings, maintaining that mocking tone. In the song, he rattles off American artists, presumptively his idols in the context of giving them military names like Captain Kristofferson and Sergeant Cash. “What an army!” he rejoices in that unwaveringly derisive tone. But then the song stops and Callahan switches to his grave deep voice. “Never served my country,” he intones. Then the song picks up again as if the deviation never happened.

Pretty funny joke of a song, right? But… is it a joke? At one point Callahan has clear respect for his idols by assembling them in an army, but then ridicules them by making it clear that he’s not concerned with the military. The drop-off that occurs in the song could actually be effective in conveying a serious mood to counteract his belief in the silliness of militarism but doing so produces a paradox in which he inevitably dismisses his idols. Does Bill Callahan not actually like Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson? Does he not like that you can watch David Letterman in Australia? Because based on that fucking annoying tone he takes throughout most of “America!”, you’d think he hated America, but actually liked it in the most incongruous and parabolic way possible.

So clearly it’s a song fraught with contradiction, which would be fine if it were organized. As I’ve just shown, there is no real message in “America!” More likely Bill Callahan had a couple contradicting ideas that touched upon similar subjects and put them all together on one track. So as a piece of music to be analyzed, it’s useless, because it has no mission statement despite sounding like it has the confidence of several. So, though I appreciate the ambition, the song is ultimately a total failure. It’s meaningless and sung like a Jim Gaffigan joke, and I hardly think that was Bill Callahan’s intention.

But man does the song sound like it means something. Honestly, if you didn’t feel like being a grumpy music skeptic, you could listen to all of Apocalypse and be sated by its hushed arrangements and Callahan’s honest to God gift for just saying words. You could sit back and assume that you were listening to an album with meaning, and that’s mostly why I didn’t give it such a low rating. For however empty the album’s lyrics prove to be, Callahan gives one Hell of a performance. His voice is deep and conversational and can tell a very engaging story, even if it turns out to be a mind numbing dead end. When he makes the sound of a flare gun in “Universal Acclaim” at the point of its use in the story, you couldn’t ask for a better musical accompaniment, and Callahan comes off as redoubtably endearing as a result. He’s so good at storytelling it’s a shame so much of Apocalypse is so deceptive.

However, the pointlessness of the album becomes too overwhelming. Its “mission statement” comes barreling through on second to last track, “Free’s”. “Is this what it means to be free?” Callahan asks in his amiable tenor. “Or is this what it means to be owned by the free?” Well, Bill, I’d say it would be pretty tough to confuse those two, so I’d chalk it up to words that sound profound because they’re opposites. “And the free / They belong to me,” he later sings, in a last attempt to breach some kind of coherency. He fails, but you wouldn’t know it based on the song’s beautiful aural accompaniment.

This speaks nothing of the nine-minute closing track and the other moot commentaries of America, an apocalypse and endless piles of bullshit. In “Riding for the Feeling”, Callahan even replaces the first and last words of the song’s title indiscriminately, as if acknowledging that his words are nothing more than placeholders. And yet, if you’re not careful, Apocalypse can be the most poignant turd you ever heard. It’s undoubtedly pleasant, but any scrutiny will indicate that it’s a gilded record, buoyed by the nebulous words of a convincing vocalist. There are some great moments on Apocalypse, but, shaken of its pretenses, it’s little more than a boring spoken word album. And I want to parse meaning from it about as much as I want to read The Catcher in the Rye for the seventy-fifth time.