Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

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.