Friday, October 31, 2008

Bit torrents

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles
Score: 9

If you grew up in the late '70s or in the '80s, chances are you spent a fair amount of time playing video games. And as you exercised your thumbs --- or your wrists, if you had a joystick --- your brain soaked up all that repetitive theme music.

As Crystal Castles, Ethan Kath and Alice Glass of Toronto take an experimental approach to music making, one of their tools being sounds from a modified Atari. It's a key launch point for whatever strikes their fancy. On their first full-length, that's a compelling agglomeration of rock freakouts, ambient techno, pitch-shifted vocals and creative samples.

Kath, who does the music, employs synths, sequencers and circuit bending. Glass, the singer, revels in the emotional purge of a shriek. Kath's manipulation enables Crystal Castles to change and rearrange those bleeps and blips and burbles, marshaling them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Witness his chopping and splicing on "Untrust Us" (sampling Death From Above 1979) and "Crimewave" (sampling Health).

In the frantic "Xxzxcuzx Me," Glass excoriates the mike over machine-gun beats as circuitry spasms around her. "Knights," which begins with a deep synth bassline and a metronomic clicking, drenches its druggy vocal line with distorted keys. "Untrust Us" builds its humming chant over a pattern of synth bloops, bringing in a faint buzzing in advance of the chorus. The buzzing, like a garage band at only a hundredth the volume, is nearly subliminal. Until the end of the song, that is, when it kicks into the foreground at full volume.

More than the half the tracks on Crystal Castles are uptempo numbers indebted to house, techno and electro-pop. "1991" palpitates with binary beats, fervidly pulsing before sliding into "Vanished," a relative breather. The vocals you hear on "Vanished" come not from Kath but from an extended sample of Australian band Van She. The instrumentals and songs with sampled vocals buffer the acid in Glass' strangled yelps and cries, providing variety and lending stability.

But just when you think you've sized them up, Crystal Castles reveal the surprise among surprises, "Tell Me What to Swallow." All vapor and gossamer, it shows that Glass can sing -- like an angel even, when she's awash in overdubs. Profane, meet sacred.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Now Scything: Kaki King,

Beach House, Gavin Rossdale

Kaki King
Dreaming of Revenge
Score: 6

When Kaki King lets her fingers do the talking, it's easy to listen. The guitar mag perennial can handle plenty of instruments, and in addition to her weapon of choice, she wields bass and percussion here. Her voice, on the other hand, is a different body, comparable to a foreign medium through which she passes gingerly. Her slight, colorless vocals distract the listener and seem to pull her from her stringed world. When spoken in short bursts, as on "Pull Me Out Alive," they work better with her tapping technique; drawn out, as on the plaintive "Life Being What It Is," they steer the focus onto her weakest element. Smartly, Dreaming of Revenge is largely an instrumental album, with seven of its 11 tracks vocal-free. Take in the scrabbling and snapping of "Bone Chaos in the Castle" and the way King caresses sighs out of lap steel and electric alike on "Montreal," and you might see what the guitar magazines have been going on about.

Beach House
Score: 5

If you're jonesing for a feel-good song, don't turn to Beach House. (That'd be the Beach BOYS you're looking for.) No, the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally pretty much stick to ... well, they don't really do sad songs, either. Devotion, like their self-titled debut two years earlier, wanders a perpetually socked-in soundscape of keyboards, reverb and organ thrum. If it could take shape, it would definitely be a plateau. There's a sense of depression to Legrand's songs of domestic life, as if she experienced sadness once but is numb to it now and is trying to reclaim it. In "All the Years," for instance, she describes "sitting on a rock, just / waiting for a key / to sleep inside the house / of old serenity." Devotion's mixing job plays up the band's haziness, but that doesn't flatter the material. Scally's guitar rarely rises above murk level. Legrand's vocals are difficult to pick out even when they aren't vying with a lot of instruments, and the lyrics are often opaque. "Astronaut," a somewhat psychedelic liaison, is really the only reason to read the liner notes. The mantralike chorus of "Gila" provides a much-needed hook; outside that, there's not much to latch onto.

Gavin Rossdale
Score: 4

Fellow Brit Mike Skinner of The Streets once declared, "I make bangers, not anthems." Gavin Rossdale does the opposite. Post-Bush and post-Institute, he shoots for the stadiums. Virtually every song on his solo debut tries to make grand statements (or at least big sounds) out of whatever's on his mind. Those things, regrettably, come out dressed in generic lyrics and verse-chorus-verse structures, which betray the effort Rossdale puts into his vocals. The imbalance between action and emotion culminates in a chorus that goes, in part, "Better get in my car and drive." It doesn't help that the phrase is preceded by "caught in a landslide," 'cause if you're caught in a landslide, you can't very well drive, though we can presume it's a metaphor (or maybe both are metaphors). Dave Stewart of Eurythmics worked with Rossdale in writing three songs ("Future World," "Another Night in the Hills," "Beauty in the Beast"), and Shirley Manson and Katy Perry contribute backing vocals, but their collective influence barely registers. If there's a sophomore slump in Rossdale's future, he won't have far to fall.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Follow them into the dark

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Score: 7

Ben Gibbard writes drama, not comedy. But even with that in mind, the songs on Death Cab for Cutie's sixth album run notably darker than those on Narrow Stairs' nearest predecessor, 2005's Plans. And with fewer melodic entry points, the album isn't easy to get into.

Now four years removed from their indie-label days with Barsuk and enjoying a higher profile than ever before, Death Cab took a minor risk by making a less accessible album. Of course, it's obvious they weren't weren't too concerned with its commercial appeal, judging by the length of the first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart." Giving commercial radio stations an eight-minute-plus song is a good way to get ignored. Yet the single found a strong radio presence, even if many stations evaded the time commitment by playing an abbreviated version.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" showcases a lesser-known talent of Death Cab: the long song. Back in 2002, the steadfast trudge of the Stability EP's title track --- likely influenced by slowcore pioneers Codeine, for whom Gibbard has expressed admiration --- demonstrated that the band could lock in a mood and keep a song interesting even in lengthy instrumental passages. The plangent title track to Transatlanticism and an extended version of "We Looked Like Giants" on the The John Byrd E.P. proved this was no fluke.

At first, "I Will Possess Your Heart" seems to fit with Gibbard's other portraits of bittersweet romance: It's just a fellow following his heart, hoping for the best, eager to please and earnest to prove. But the second verse exposes the man as more than persistent, beginning with "there are days when outside your window / I see my reflection as I slowly pass." The way this development creeps up on the listener pairs well with the night-driving groove of Nick Harmer's bass and the canter of Jason McGerr's drums in the 4 1/2-minute instrumental opening section, almost as if they're a harbinger of the window-peeping to come. In retrospect, the title itself hints at the character's intentions. He's not going to win your heart; he's going to possess your heart. This guy's not taking no for an answer. He's going to get what he wants, possibly by force, if it comes to that.

Though this drift into seaminess is probably the only moment that will make some younger Death Cab fans squirm, Narrow Stairs has plenty of cobwebs in its corners. If they were about the same person, "Cath" and "You Can Do Better Than Me" could be successive chapters following a meek lonelyheart: "You can do better than me -- hey, wait, Cath! I'm better than that guy!" And the brooding guitars of "Talking Bird" and feedback that hangs in "Bixby Canyon Bridge" convey definite friction.

Musically, "No Sunlight" is deceptively bright, with a surf guitar prancing and with piano highlights that glisten like dewy pie cherries. It's Gibbard's youth, all footloose and fancy-free. Until the clouds roll in. "The optimist died inside of me," he declares, even as the track remains happily upbeat. It's akin to Transatlanticism's "The Sound of Settling," a giddy sing-along that began, improbably, with the lyrics "I've got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots." "Long Division," farther along Narrow Stairs, keeps similar company. Building itself on bass throbs and an oblong chord progression, the hooky Photo Album throwback is likely to join "Baba O'Riley" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" in the hall of mistaken song titles, thanks to a repetitive chorus involving the word "remainder."

Still, the darkness has brought some stumbles. Tabla proves an odd fit (go figure) with Gibbard's vocals and the band's standard instrumental toolbox, disabling "Pity and Fear," though the Indian percussion works better for them when it's largely covered up by electric guitars. Puzzlingly, the track spikes in volume, then immediately cuts off, followed only a second later by the deliberate guitar tones of the last song, "The Ice Is Getting Thinner." The album has good pacing and logical sequencing up to this point, making it that much more frustrating of a decision.

The album closer leaves us on a pensive note. Returning to nature metaphors, Gibbard tells how two people have grown apart with time, not unlike ice floes. "We're not the same, dear, as we used to be / the seasons have changed and so have we."

The same holds true for Death Cab.