Wednesday, December 30, 2009

So long, 2009

What a dismal ending to the decade: mass unemployment, lost benefits, winnowed savings, dying publications, resurgent terrorist threats. When I step outside, the bite of the cold wind seems too cinematic to be real. But, of course, December always brings that bite, in good years and bad ones. And it's nearly time to look back on the year -- and on the decade -- and remember the best of it. Feel free to share your bests, too. We're all in this together.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Candy with a dark center

The Raveonettes
In and Out of Control
Score: 8

With a surfeit of pop hooks and a greater emphasis on the chorus, Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have wrought a compulsively listenable album. On the surface, In and Out of Control breezes along, all lightness and brevity and fuh-fuh-fun. But the candy coating encases some heavy subjects. Gang rape, suicide and domestic violence feature, along with The Raveonettes' staple, drugs. How they sing about these things makes all the difference.

In the most striking juxtaposition, "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)," Wagner and Foo and overlay their vocals and stagger them, somewhere between an echo and a call-and-response pattern. They start the song with the chorus (the entirety of which appears in the song title), then go verse 1, chorus, abbreviated verse 1, chorus, instrumental bridge, and they repeat the chorus while fading in an a cappella version of it whose stuttering is more bubblegum than doo wop. The song's lyrics are bleak, with a girl forever haunted by rape, but by putting it in the mold of a catchy, happier song, The Raveonettes are accomplishing a few things: They're making sure the song's message gets heard and they're increasing the likelihood of it sinking in through repeated plays. And the multiple vocal tracks of Sharin Foo could be seen as representing feminine solidarity, almost like a support group.

That sympathetic tone appears again on "Suicide," which follows a "little runaway girl" whose life at work and at home has left her desperate to escape. The verse goes from one receding strum of surf guitar to a full-blast chorus of pounding snare, multiple electric guitars, bass and layered vocals, personifying the girl bolting out the door.

But the sympathy ends in "Break Up Girls!" Marrying squalling guitar carnage to an orgasm of distortion, the album's penultimate track introduces itself with two minutes of breakneck terror, before easing into the lyrics. Targeting "bunny girls" and the men who abuse them, Foo and Wagner implore the ladies to LEAVE. "Break up, girls," they urge, "You might like it."

Still, is there a wrinkle of hypocrisy on In and Out of Control? Or perhaps songwriters with slightly different stands on rough trade? Wagner, who wrote "Break Up Girls!," claims, "Sadistic girls, I don't get you" (even though he obviously means masochistic), yet in opening track "Bang!," co-written with producer Thomas Troelsen, he says, "Bang! When you whip me, baby / Bang! When I scream now, baby / Bang! You know I love it all the time."

Of course, the album would function just as well if lyrics were changed. "D.R.U.G.S.," which Foo and Wagner spell out in the eighth track, gets its wings from the incursions of reverbed uh-oooh-wha-uhts and ooo-wooing.

This food for thought doubles as dessert.

Now Scything: Doom, Al B. Sure!,

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Born Like This
Score: 6

The man behind the iron mask (or whatever metal it's made of), has always been a jester, turning lyrical somersaults through subject matter that had little potential for menace. Food, cartoons and comic books, all underrepresented topics in hip-hop, served as frequent inspirations. So it's disappointing to hear him strike such a hard tone on Born Like This, injecting cynicism from a Charles Bukowski reading and otherwise letting the fun whoosh out like air from an untied balloon. "Yessir!," one of two songs with a Wu-Tang Clan guest (in this case, Raekwon), throws in some gunshots, symbolic of his passage from busting a gut to busting a cap. His collaboration with Ghostface Killah, "Angelz," which luxuriates in spy movie horns and strings, clutters the escapade with unnecessary beats, and both emcees gave a superior delivery of the song on the 2006 Nature Sounds comp "Natural Selection." On one level, "Batty Boys" is gay-bashing out of left field; on the other, it could be seen as a dis track (and a meta one, at that): Doom the "supervillian" rapper (patterned after Marvel Comics' Doctor Doom character) stepping into the world of the superhero Batman, a flagship star of the rival DC Comics brand. Hope it's just a bad joke.

Al B. Sure!
Honey I'm Home
Score: 5

Now here's a guy who might have some idea how Portishead felt. Al B. Sure! stepped away for 17 years, focusing on business and recovering from a car accident. He's a different man now, natch, but it's a shame that he no longer carries the virile spark of yesteryear. His voice is pleasantly creamy, aged delicately, but there's a bit of a Rip Van Winkle-ism here, as he covers both Michael Jackson's "Lady in My Life" (1982) and Sting's "Fragile" (1987) -- and remains faithful to the original versions of each -- almost as if they were little-known and contemporary compositions. Both songs are near-standards by now, so a faithful approach was an unpropitious road for him to take. The result is better than karaoke, but his renditions don't improve the album. In fact, the tightness and inherent hooks of those songs help to point out where Honey I'm Home's originals are lacking.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Night Castle
Score: 4

Night Castle is PG-rated symphonic metal that seems all Europe, yet it came from New York. Also, it's 120 minutes long!! Save yourself! (Kidding. Kind of.) This double album has riffs, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a bugler's requiem, "Nut Rocker," "O Fortuna," a children's choir, pseudo mook rock and Broadway theatrics. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet thrown into a 50-foot blender.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Now Scything: Flipper,

Tinted Windows, Felix da Housecat

Score: 6

Like sardines with an impossibly distant expiration date, Flipper's first studio album in 16 years is grungy goodness straight from the tin. With Krist Novoselic on bass and Jack Endino producing, there are even moments reminiscent of Nirvana's Bleach, albeit without Kurt Cobain's songcraft. (Check out the opening of "Triple Mass," in which the bass burbles up and the guitar materializes out of feedback.) Former bassist Bruce Loose has stepped up to the mike, rasping and snarling over the blunt-force dredge 'n' roll supplied by Novoselic, drummer Steve DePace and guitarist Ted Falconi. "Old Graves," the album's plodding highlight, recounts a car plowing through a children's stick ball game. The foreshadowing is wonderful, with Flipper enacting a wordless grind for two-and-a-half minutes before Loose comes in. His voice numb, he hints at the tragedy by pointing out objects that passersby would take for granted, ones that blend into the background of life: "A piece of chalk / laying on the ground / broken on the sidewalk / The old frayed knot / moldy with rot / once was a jump rope / on the tree trunk." Chilling.

Tinted Windows
Tinted Windows
Score: 4

The lineup was intriguing enough to set imaginations in motion: What would you get with a combination of Cheap Trick (Bun E. Carlos), Fountains of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger), The Smashing Pumpkins (James Iha) and Hanson (Taylor Hanson)? It turns out, not much worth imagining. Tinted Windows' debut endeavors to propel us on a sugar-addled spree, to have us bobbing along to fizzy pop-rock love songs sprayed out in a sheen of onomatopoeic choruses. ("Uh oh / uh oh / uh oh / woah woah woah," goes the one from lead-off cut "Kind of a Girl"). Yet the set hurtles beyond radio-friendly, threatening to fall into Radio Disney land. And while it's true that Hanson could be seen as precursors to the Jonas Brothers, Hanson made fluff, not drivel. Tinted Windows have more talent among them than a whole army of Jonas Brothers, but would they gain much comfort from that categorization? Schlesinger was the chief songwriter here, but banal has replaced his standard clever, and the riffs and lyrics allegedly inspired by that never-run-dry stand-by, love, feel more like well-meaning fakery than true-to-life ardor.

Felix da Housecat
He Was King
Score: 5

Repetition is fine until it turns into redundancy -- which makes electronic dance music perhaps the most subjective genre to hold to those terms, since it's built on repetition. He Was King has plenty of promising moments, such as the dubstep-style "Kickdrum," which blows out the instrument and features a menacing spot from M.I.A. warning of its carnal power. Yet these moments are often squandered. "Kickdrum" soon shows its hand, revealing itself to be little more than level-adjusting and knob-twiddling over her vocal loop. Similarly, "Elvi$" starts with an immediately grabbing sparkly synth line but then has it cascade over a static beat and robotic murmuring, without change, for 39 seconds. Any novelty or exhilaration that synth line possessed bleeds out as it rapidly devolves from exciting to tiresome. Felix engineers an engine-like rise and begins to develop the track, but the synth line is more handicap than foreplay. He Was King peaks early, with an ode to Prince that borrows his mojo. If only Felix had also applied it to the songs in need.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Unlike that Disturbed guy,

I am not down with the sickness

The flu tried to kill me off, but I prevailed. I can't tell you if it was H1N1, though in most people, that's supposed to cause milder symptoms. So I suspect this was the bad ol' traditional flu bug. What's up with it hitting in October? That's ridiculously early. Be careful out there!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Big empty

Me and You
Score: 6

Over the past decade and a half, VAST have migrated from heavy, deftly programmed rock whirling with monk-chant samples to the comparative humility of unplugged instruments. Throughout, founder Jon Crosby has remained enamored with orchestras, and cello and violin embellish the traditionally structured rock of Me and You, implying human frailty in "She Found Out" and cushioning the knock of hand drums on the somber reflection "Here's to All the People I Have Lost." Harmonica, too, flecks some songs, adding a melancholy breeze to the plucked acoustic guitar of "You Are the One." Me and You doesn't forgo electric guitar, but the instrument isn't dominating the proceedings either.

Although hampered by several trite lines --- "It's Not You (It's Me)" slaps its groaner right in the chorus and title --- Me and You delivers Crosby's strongest songwriting in years. In what could be a loose concept album, the tracks outline a dysfunctional romance (or more than one), complete with resentment, obsession, fear, lies and infidelity. There's a voyeuristic quality to it, as if Crosby were exposing private sex scandals.

The waltzing "I'm Afraid of You" goes Freudian, suggesting that toxic braids in a couple's lineage set them up to make bad choices romantically. "You have a degree in photography," Crosby rumbles, "and you take it out on me." Details follow in the next song, "You're the Same": "She takes pictures of herself / with nothing on / She wants to hurt me."

"You're the Same" is not a waltz. It uses its brooding background of acoustic guitar to impale us with stark pronouncements: "She reaches into me / with hands I cannot feel." "She wants to leave me."

"How can I lose something I never had?" Crosby asks in anguished disbelief.

The bitter "You Destroy Me" locks in its hold with gentle, tom-centric drumming and the clap of a tambourine. The gliding electric guitar lines resonate the ache of forever wishing for consummation and being cursed to never have it. Crosby sings, "You destroy me / when you walk into the room / You destroy me / and you always will."

And when you can't obtain the devastating beauty, who do you go to? "Hotel Song" puts our faces up to the peephole to catch a liaison, likely with a mistress. Whether the place was a four-star or a no-star, the sign out front might as well have read BIG EMPTY, for the man takes little consolation in the meeting. As he puts it, "Tonight I'm yours, and / you're kinda mine."

We know there won't be a feel-good ending. The violin and cello bear that out. "She Found Out" is the pitiful plea of the wretched, perhaps from the rumpled bed of the hotel room. Crosby's voice is meek here as it rises up from some frightened place. "Wait / wait with me," the man implores his companion, knowing that his indiscretions have been discovered, that his partnership will shatter imminently. He knows that. He knows he's going to lose everything. What scares him most is facing that end alone.

At very least, he has the strings.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Precious tones

Nite Jewel
Good Evening
Score: 9

As Nite Jewel, L.A. artist Ramona Gonzalez creates an enveloping array of sounds through her analog synths, electronic percussion and ethereal vocals. Good Evening, her debut album, is humid and exotic, with ties to dream pop and alt-disco, yet its identity stretches farther than that.

Perhaps due in part to its 8-track genesis, Good Evening has a wide depth of field between its elements. Gonzalez's voice, pliant and cottoned with reverb, usually ripples out from a submerged or lateral position, passing through permeable keyboard lines until dispersing into the atmosphere.

Obscuring vocals is a risky move and can be a cover for lackluster lyrics. But, as with the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser, the stretches of unintelligibility can also enhance the atmosphere and add to the exoticism. It causes the listener to focus on the emotion flowing from the tones rather than on the words. In this regard, Gonzalez is quite skilled, favoring slow-to-midtempo notes that communicate tranquility, yearning, uncertainty and sensuality.

When we're first introduced to Gonzalez's voice, on "Bottom Rung," it's buried; perhaps it is the rung. And yet it's all around us, enfolding the sanctuary- or pagoda-suited keyboard, as if she's pulling a curtain of raindrop beads. Her voice emerges a bit more after the second song, "Suburbia."

Gonzalez's types of keys and drum programming, which often provide a non-Western feel, imply that some of the inspiration for Good Evening came from other cultures. "Heart Won't Start" pipes in flute that evokes the Middle East, while "Let's Go (The Two of Us Together)" gains Latin overtones from wood block, shaker and syncopation. "Universal Mind" is lush and immersive, like a secret garden unfolding, with a trickle of conga and a whispery hiss redolent of tiny flying fauna.

Her cover of Roxy Music's "Lover," which she slows down and makes into a languid dedication, wiggles out beats that seem to cross Ferry-Manzanera with Mtume. That funkiness extends to "Chimera," a track with an Afrofuturistic bassline that pairs great with the synth-claps and keyboard accents while the hi-hat sputters its puck-tss, puck-tss, puck-tss, puck-tss. "You see me show my teeth," Gonzalez sings, and it comes across as a statement of empowerment. Possibly in the form of a smile.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Now Scything: Sunn 0))), Eels, Prefuse 73

Sunn 0)))
Monoliths & Dimensions
Score: 5

Monoliths & Dimensions involves a lot of spoken word --- or more precisely, words slowly croaked up from the gullet and dribbled out. It's not a common trait to Sunn 0)))'s work, especially since their standard, downtuned feedback drones recede into the background for six minutes on album opener "Aghartha," effectively granting center stage to the gutteralizing. The voice belongs to Attila Csihar of the black metal band Mayhem, and the second thing Sunn 0))) do in the liner notes, after introducing themselves, is list him and guitarist-percussionist Oren Ambarchi as "key players." The two have worked with founders Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, in varying combinations, in other bands. In comparison to the somewhat tedious "Aghartha," "Big Church" is attention-grabbing, with a quasi-angelic choir set against the antimatter drones. Each section or set of verses is split up by the kong of tubular bells. Is this heaven vs. hell? Who's winning? Well, Csihar is back for "Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)," but no angels. Doesn't look good. "Alice" finally retires him and brings in harp, strings, alto flute and French horn, but the potentially intriguing accents they provide are arranged in a way that doesn't make their presence felt until almost the 12-minute mark. Still, we shouldn't put too much weight on Monoliths & Dimensions, because Sunn 0))) are given to experiment. All these developments could very well be expunged before the next album.

Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire
Score: 6

Meaning "Wolfman" in English, the latest studio album by Eels chronicles feelings primal and wistful, the two almost split squarely into odds and evens. The wistful side is familiar: softly chiming guitar, simple percussion, frontman E's gentle hoarseness. But the primal part is probably where the title springs from, and the band push forth with a comparatively raw approach on songs like "What's a Fella Gotta Do" and the swaggering "Tremendous Dynamite." E unveils a convincing bluster and whoop, assimilating garage-rock characteristics pretty well, although his in-the-red vocals are overdone and showy. You can see this wistful-primal divide as man phase and wolf phase, if you like; and without some fur flying, the groveling might have become tiresome. It's recharging to hit "Fresh Blood" midway through the album, the stalking toms and the wary guitar peeps working with E's measured delivery to wind up the tension for the inevitable release. In true lupine fashion (Howlin' Wolf, Wolfman Jack, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs), he's just howlin' for his dawlin'.

Prefuse 73
Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian
Score: 7

A mosaic of microtracks built from vocal fragments, percussive loops and brief, manipulated samples, Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian is the fruit of Guillermo Scott Herren's labors with Ampex analog tape. The 29 tracks unfold like channel-surfing dream sequences, but with their internal vignettes, you'd be forgiven for thinking the album held 40 or 50. Though beats and loops tie Ampexian to hip-hop, Herren's approach has more in common with experimental electronic music; he's on Warp, but he'd also be at home on the Ninja Tune label. The melange that Herren draws from was at one point funk, soul, jazz, rock, exotica and electronica, but the genres are so mutated and treated here that they seem more mechanized than human-created. If "Preperation's Kids Choir" was originally kids singing, it's now a helium whine. That might have been a kazoo in "No Lights Still Rock," but it's now the shrill tra-la-las of a robot gone haywire. Ever heard a piano turn into an ice cream truck? You can in "Fountains of Spring."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Seductive shadows

Depeche Mode
Sounds of the Universe
Score: 8

Ever since 1993, Depeche Mode have been on the four-year plan when it comes to albums, and with Sounds of the Universe, it feels like they've completed a grand circle, returning to the days of Violator. Sleek, lithe and subtle, the album dispenses with the louder, more-spacious sound of 2005's Playing the Angel and indulges in synthesizers and programming. The atmosphere is shadowy and velveteen, a seductive combination that invites you to come in, sit down and soak up the secrets. Just be careful not to spill your own.

You see, for every choice, there is a consequence. The man in the opening song, "In Chains," met someone. Now he's obsessed. "The way you move / has left me burning," Dave Gahan sings. "I know you know what you're doing to me / I know my hands will never be free / I know what it's like to be / in chains." As a cymbal simulates the rhythmic cracking of whip, his vocals twist and writhe, but never in agony. Because this is an S&M song. Depeche Mode have many. They may as well control the traffic lights at the intersection of lust and power. By the album's end, in fact, Gahan is voicing the opposite side. "I could corrupt you / in a heartbeat," he boasts to a temptress over the squirmy synth line. One could imagine her taunting response and his growling rebuttal: Her: "Is that a threat?" Him: "No, it's a promise."

Gahan, of course, would never use such an overheated cliche, nor would Martin Gore, the band's chief songwriter. Both are in fine form on Sounds of the Universe, crafting melodies that massage and stimulate. The guitars are used mainly as accents; brief and often sheathed in wah-wah, they never call undue attention to themselves. The percussion moves with padded paws. And the lyrics flourish in this environment.

"Wrong," which is impressive even bare on the page, repeats that title like a rueful head shaking back and forth, as Gahan details a litany of bad choices, including, "I was marching to the wrong drum / with the wrong scum / pissing out the wrong energy." The line "The wrong questions / with the wrong replies" is befitting of a poem by Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die," specifically these lines: "But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters, they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build." Sexton, who might've been a Depeche Mode fan if she'd been born 40 years later, ending up taking her life. Gahan himself nearly died by his own hand in 1995, and the theme of suicide has come up in the band's work, notably in the hit "Blasphemous Rumours," wherein a 16-year-old girl slashes her wrists but survives. (The same method as Gahan, coincidentally.)

Moody creepers "Little Soul" and "Jezebel" are like a midnight rendezvous in the spirit of "Violator," the synths a jet-black sheen. "Jezebel" is a bit flowery: It's hard to imagine a place today where people would refer to anyone as a "Jezebel"; plus, it's closely followed by the phrase "wanton acts of sin." But why not err on the bookish side? Settings are harder to recognize in darkness anyway. Gore's intimate tenor handles "Jezebel," another tale of irresistible attraction. In this one, her suitor believes he knows how she really feels, despite people saying she'll never care for him. What's the consequence of his choice? The last line of the song is "Jezebel!" But it is encased in robotic processing, warping it and making it unclear whether it's the suitor's realization or just the scornful cries of the onlookers.

In other words, it's a cliffhanger.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Now Scything: The Dead Weather,

Doves, Asobi Seksu

The Dead Weather
Score: 6

Not sated by being the backbone of two bands concurrently, Jack White managed to start a third. In The Dead Weather, he sets his ax aside and gets behind the drum kit, letting Alison Mosshart of The Kills sing lead. Still, you'll hear plenty of him on Horehound. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Much of the album involves backing vocals, which he is supplying; 2) His voice tends to cut through hers when they sing in unison; 3) They both have backgrounds in bluesy garage rock, so their singing styles are similar (which makes it easier for his vocals to sneak to the front). Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age (guitar, keyboard) and Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs (bass) fill out the lineup, and Fertita's organ runs lend a '70s feel. Dark boogie blues are the focus of Horehound, which teems with seedy characters and outlaws. There's even a pony named Lucifer. Whether it's the grinding buzz of first single "Hang You From the Heavens" or the scrabble of sticks in "60 Feet Tall," Horehound delights in its seaminess and foreboding. On "So Far From Your Weapon," Mosshart groans out, "I tried to give you whiskey, but it never did work / suddenly you're begging me to do so much worse." White echoes the lines, clearly feeding on the suspense. Now, has he had his fill, or are The Dead Weather just whetting his appetite?

Kingdom of Rust
Score: 7

The fourth album by Manchester trio Doves amalgamates their distant past, near-present and ... parallel universe past? Sci-fi excursion "Jetstream," an homage to Vangelis and the 1982 film "Blade Runner," evokes Kraftwerk with its atmospheric synths and shooshing hi-hat patter, drummer Andy Williams striking with metronomic efficiency. "We always wanted to write an imaginary song for the closing credits," the band wrote on their Web site in late January when they gave away the song as a prerelease. "Jetstream" doesn't really fit with the rest of the album, though Kingdom of Rust is their most varied one to date. "Compulsion," with bass flapping like baggy pants, is the kind of song they used to bust out in the early '90s as Sub Sub, their pre-Doves incarnation. 'Course, one difference is that in those days, anthems weren't their calling card. Kingdom of Rust, like each Doves album before it, finds consistency and strength in Jimi Goodwin's vocal melodies, which soar conspicuously through every track. Even though they never would've worked for "Blade Runner."

Asobi Seksu
Score: 6

Hush doesn't possess the verve of 2006's Citrus, but at least Asobi Seksu were up front about that. Instead, it gives their chiming guitar pop a slightly mild tenor that takes a few listens to appreciate. "Layers," chaste and dainty in its glimmering, is the clear standout, and a faster approach likely would have unspooled it. Overall, Hush is very similar to Citrus in dynamics and song structure, so anyone who enjoyed it would almost certainly find Hush appealing. The main difference between the releases, aside from the obvious fact that they're comprised of different songs, is that Hush seems to have a diaphanous film over it, whereas everything on Citrus snapped with crisp and masterful reverb. This production choice might help unify the album, but it does slightly restrain uptempo moments and crescendo passages. When Yuki Chikudate is oh-oh-whoaing to infinity on "Transparence" and the drum kit is taking a beating and James Hanna's guitar is surging ... it never quite takes off. The track's still lovely, but after tasting the sky, you don't feel the same way about the ground.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Piece it together, then pull it apart

Grizzly Bear
Score: 8

Altogether more complex than its nearest predecessor, Veckatimest pulls Grizzly Bear out of the Yellow House and into a larger setting. New environments can open the body to bombardments of stimuli, and this album feels like a representation of that.

Melancholy has the edge, although the chipper "Two Weeks" --- chortling Rhodes, irrepressible high notes, glorious harmonizing --- is apt to temporarily blind you with cheer and fool the memory banks into believing it carries more weight than a single song. The title confirms the band's continued intimate relationship with place: in this case, an island off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. And while they didn't record the album there, they did do some recording in nearby Cape Cod.

The word "veckatimest," previously unknown to most of the band's audience, imparts some mystery. The island is not listed in the 2008 U.S. Census; the band says it's uninhabited. But if a terrain is uninhabited, can it really be known? Veckatimest, with its tangle of moods, poses the same question.

Grizzly Bear have their range pitched somewhere between peaceful and pensive, sliding forward and back, but with occasional eruptions of acidity. In "Fine for Now," which begins
a cappella with the guys blending notes, the guitar flitters restlessly. A minute in, it booms its presence, foreshadowing the weighty show of force to come. The song ends with half a minute of roiling: cymbals crashing, bass shuddering, a guitar ordered to trench like grunge never died.

Even with the smaller temblors earlier in the song, the display is unexpected, and halting at first. Swats between rounds of pretty warbling. Similarly surprising, the lusty sax that cries out before the first chorus of "I Live With You" delivers a beguiling smacker before it scoots out the door. The tone here is part plea, part lament. "And they'll try," Dan Rossen sings, "they'll try. They'll try / to keep us apart." He later shifts from "they" to "you," as though he's putting a face on an enemy. And there's a warning embedded: "You brought us this far / We'll do what we can." Duo crashes of guitar and cymbals unshroud the resentment in the lyrics, and the noisy contractions imply both internal flagellation and a stifled anger breaking free.

It's tempting to think of Veckatimest as a puzzle, but a 3-D
one, so that the innocent "Cheerleader," featuring the Brooklyn Youth Choir, could occupy the same space and never have to see the torment on the shadowed side. Surely, with its cautious gait, tottering drums and bass, and demure vocals, it would be scarred for life if exposed to such paroxysms.

Founder Ed Droste speaks of a pattern on "Foreground," but as the delicate piano prepares the guestroom for the choir, the shape of Veckatimest remains equivocal: "Take on another shift / Palms in the middle, hands in the middle / Work out another rift / Something is muffled, another juggle / This is a foreground / It is a foreground." Somewhere in there, there's a background, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boom and bust

The Crystal Method
Divided by Night
Score: 4

The Prodigy
Invaders Must Die
Score: 5

Back in 1997, the tide was high for big beat. The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Crystal Method had infiltrated commercial rock radio, and contemporaries of lesser stripes, like Apollo Four Forty and Propellerheads, were gaining word of mouth. Electronica was going to be the next big thing. With Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky and techno having crashed the gate for electronica a few years before, it was reasonable to see big beat's successes as a prelude to a mainstream takeover in America.

Instead, the next two years spurned the forecasters, as the rise of teen pop and nu metal eclipsed whatever gains big beat was making, and, in short time, each staked a stronger claim to the term "takeover."

Stubborn in their longevity, big beat's big four have persevered to this day, with The Crystal Method's Divided by Night the latest shot across the bow. In a sign of solidarity (or coincidence), the Los Angeles band have followed in the footsteps of their transatlantic Brothers, making an album that not only brings aboard plenty of guest vocalists, but that places its nocturnal declaration squarely in the title. But where the Chemical Bros' most recent album, We Are the Night, had litheness (and some lighthearted humor in "The Salmon Dance"), Divided by Night is a bulkier customer. The title track and "Dirty Thirty" start the album with an appealing robo-workout, synths sidewinding and squelching, respectively. "Drown in the Now," though, usurps their role, arguing with its lengthy build that it is in fact the rightful album opener. And the tracks that follow wouldn't seem to object, all hewing to a formula that de-emphasizes the DJ and gives the floor to the guest vocalist.

Of course, the drawback to this approach is that if the vocalist doesn't carry the track, the beats and synths aren't likely to, because they've been assigned a less active role.

Matisyahu can be an impressive performer, as 2005's Live at Stubb's showed, but surely "Drown in the Now" must've looked a mess even on paper: Middle Eastern chants; fast, reggae-inflected rap; Sting-like callouts; big beat's humping and thumping. Justin Warfield's collaboration, "Kling to the Wreckage," doesn't come out any better. The Crystal Method hook the She Wants Revenge singer up with an overly busy palette of whizzing synths that clashes with the morbid quiver inherent to his voice.

"Sine Language," a collaboration with fellow producer-DJs LMFAO, hits a sweet spot, maybe because The Crystal Method are more skilled at cutting loose than inspiring contemplation. LMFAO turn in a humorous performance outfitted with impressive lines ("I got five dollars, but I feel like a million") and terrible ones ("At the club, the line is long / about as long as my dingalidong").

The Prodigy, always the most forceful of big beat's big four, bring high-octane pummeling on Invaders Must Die, from the rally cries of "Colours" to the spasmodic warnings of "Piranha." Fat of the Land fans will recognize nods to "Smack My Bitch Up" in "Thunder" and "Invaders Must Die," and "World's on Fire" could be the aftermath of "Firestarter": Keith Flint keeps spitting, "The world's on fire / the world's on fire / and it's about to expire."

The album's prize cut, "Warrior's Dance," starts off with the whistles of an evil sax, as we, like snakes roused from woven baskets, surrender to the sound, transfixed. Summoned. Murky synths churn in the background, and a pitched-up house diva issues an invitation: "Come with me to the dance floor / you and me, 'cause that's what it's for / show me now what it is / we got to be doin' / and the music in the house / and the music in the house." WHOOM! The set crumbles away and we find ourselves in a superclub, shaking it like we've just been elasticized and snapped into motion.

"Warrior's Dance" gives Invaders Must Die a surge that carries into the next few tracks, making Flint's typical exhortations in "Run With the Wolves" and "World's on Fire" more meaningful than they deserve to be. For the most part, the album's heft is false, an illusion perpetrated by the production, which confuses simple loudness for power. Despite tracks coursing with aggression, Liam Howlett captures little feeling of risk or danger.

Invaders Must Die charges along, changing course only for the finale, "Stand Up." The celebratory, house-party vibe brings to mind a victory feast after the battle, the proud horn section blaring away in triumph. The Prodigy have survived to fight another day. Now, what about that American takeover?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Go tell it

Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief
Score: 9

Sin and souls, fire and water, night and day, shame and glory: These recurring themes mark the second album by Chicago band Speck Mountain. Some Sweet Relief, at the nexus of space rock and gospel, is riddled with religious signifiers, yet it carries the mystique of the implicit. You'll find no shouts of "hallelujah!" here. The oomph of gospel bursts out in lead singer Marie-Claire Balabanian's drawn-out notes --- the ooooohs and the ohhhhhs and the i-iii-iiiiiis --- and in the throaty affirmations of multi-instrumentalist Kate Walsh's saxophone.

Mostly, though, there's a sense of patience and perseverance in the music and in the pace at which Balabanian sings. It's not quite tranquility, because these are songs of internal conflict and struggle, as well as of reflection, but there's a constancy to her voice. Even when she's singing about "this worried mind," she sounds supernaturally reassured.

Organ, electric piano and layered backing vocals provide overtones of reverence, while the former also supply the drone and flutter that make up the general haziness customary to space rock. "Angela," one of two instrumental or near-instrumental songs, repeats the woman's name like an incantation: "Angela / oh Angela / Angela / oh Angela."

Some Sweet Relief traffics in atmosphere. Its power is one that slowly builds over the course of its 39 minutes. The organ's swirl is enveloping; the electric piano tingles and twitches; the bass purrs with warmth; the dual guitar lines are resonant and tenderly probing.

Balabanian and multi-instrumentalist Karl Briedrick wrote the songs, which all seem to spring from a deep, personal place illuminated by intense examination. In that place they found disgrace and infidelity, but strength and righteousness, too.

The title track details a plea for mercy: "There was a day / oh how that sun did shine / I know that day / it's no longer mine / some sweet relief / lay your hand on me." In "Backslider" --- that's preacher parlance for returning to your sinful ways --- Balabanian tells of her partner's unfaithfulness. "My guy's got a wanderin' eye," she confesses. But "I Feel Eternal," by comparison, testifies of an inner fortitude, one borne of no less than the soul.

In a time when organized religion is on the downfall but spirituality is thriving, this album captures the zeitgeist. In a poll published in April, Newsweek found in a survey of 1,003 Americans that 30 percent describe themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious," an increase of 6 percent since 2005.

The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted last year and involving more than 54,000 respondents, showed a hemorrhaging of mainline Christian churches.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center, noted in its U.S. Religious Landscape Study that there was a significant rise in the number of unaffiliated people, hitting 16.1 percent. The study, conducted in 2007, involved more than 35,000 Americans.

This album is not worship music, but it feels like holy music. The symbology of Some Sweet Relief --- the use of rivers, sunshine and flame, rather than crosses and pulpits and churches --- lends the album a free and open identity that suggests an earlier, noninstitutionalized faith, one as pure as the elements.

As Speck Mountain strive for communion with the divine, we may be joining them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A joint mission

The Spirit of Apollo
Score: 6

Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon, repping North America and South America between them, aim to bring people together under a banner of hip-hop and humanity. As N.A.S.A., they've made quite a start: There are 40 or so guests on The Spirit of Apollo.

Seeing the wide and varied cast --- Santigold, Karen O, Ghostface Killah, Tom Waits, Gift of Gab, David Byrne, George Clinton, to name a few --- is all-around impressive. But the reality is that sometimes less is more, and the Apollo architects run the risk of a megasized muddle. Even with most guests limited to one track, that still means that two or three or more guests will have to share that space, and these folks ain't sidemen.

Perhaps N.A.S.A. were jugglers in a previous life, because most of the collaborations come off smooth. It's understandable that some songs might not be as strong and as chiseled as they could be with fewer artists at work, but the album is, overall, a fun ride with occasional thrills.

"The People Tree" produces some shining moments through the rapid back-and-forth verses of Chali 2Na and Gift of Gab, with Chali as God and Gab as a believer asking life's big questions. David Byrne, perhaps embodying some prehistoric carnivorous plant, comes in on the pre-chorus and chorus, his vacillating pitch delivering loopiness like "tasty little human beings / I grow them on the people tree." When he sticks around for the next track, it's akin to an actor sneaking onto the set next door: In this case, it's a Chuck D historical drama about money, with a supporting cast of Ras Congo, Seu Jorge and Z-Trip. Byrne sticks out. Although the sloganeering chorus allows for everyone to jump in, it's a rather weak one: "Money! Money, money, money, money, money, money / Money is the root of all evil!"

"Hip Hop" is a rote ode to its subject (as if hip-hop didn't have enough of them already), and "O Pato" needlessly perverts Donald Duck, but the big-banging "N.A.S.A. Music," which unites E-40, Method Man and DJ Swamp, could serve as The Spirit of Apollo's theme song. "Strange Enough" similarly strikes gold with a slate of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Fatlip and Karen O. Her crack-up in the penultimate chorus points to the lightness of the mood and shows that she had no preconceptions about how the finished song would sound. (Also, she's evidently not magisterial outside the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) The most-talked-about combo, Tom Waits and Kool Keith, for "Spacious Thoughts," is suitably strange, with the rapper's free association giving way to the growler's barreling portents.

"Gifted," the best argument for an Apollo 2, makes Kanye West, Santigold and Lykke Li sound inseparable, with West and Santigold trading off the main verses and she and Li handling the chorus and popping in elsewhere. A blipping solar babble drops into a tubby synth revving, setting the stage for West's marquee performance. Mixing levity with audacity in his own special way, he earns a chuckle with the opening, "Hey eh / I'm known for runnin' my mouth," as we all nod in agreement --- and he then immediately proceeds to run his mouth for the rest of his appearance! But West has reached a point where the boasts roll like a gag reel, and he seems alternately aware of this and oblivious to it. Here, he one-ups himself after each one: "While y'all on ten, I'm on eleven / Imma make the news, be on at seven / matter fact I'm on this very second / I'm in first and y'all in second."

Bolstering the album's "We are the world" premise, and adding a space theme, are photos (care of the other NASA) and samples mentioning the Earth or the Apollo shuttle. The album ender (before the inevitable hidden tracks) features part of an old speech by Richard Nixon, who waxes sanguine about the moon landing as a transcendent, community-building force.

Nixon --- certainly not the first person to come to mind amid themes of tolerance and cooperation --- is an odd fit, to be sure. He'd probably brand the whole Spirit of Apollo production as a communist conspiracy. But there's another side to using Nixon: The spirit of Apollo means peace and partying, even for those outside your circle. It's a commitment to work together.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Now Scything: M. Ward,

MSTRKRFT, Crystal Stilts

M. Ward
Hold Time
Score: 7

M. Ward has a reputation for crafting songs that sound much older than they are. Well, look at some of his sources of inspiration for his sixth album: Buddy Holly ("Rave On"), Frank Sinatra ("Outro [I'm a Fool to Want You]"), William Blake ("Blake's View"), the stars ("Stars of Leo"). Plus, he has that groggy, scratchy tenor taking us back to days of oil lamps and handmade goods. Hold Time gives us 14 opportunities to take that trip, from the strummer "One Hundred Million Years" to the smoldering Lucinda Williams duet "Oh Lonesome Me." She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel appears on the upbeat "Never Had Nobody Like You" and on the cover "Rave On." The title track has a beautiful drama to it, care of the moody strings, a reminder of M. Ward's talent as an arranger. "To Save Me" and "Stars of Leo" pack bombastic midsections with lots of percussion, but "To Save Me" is the one you really need to hear: An overdubbing of Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis' ebullient mandolin takes it to dizzying heights.

Fist of God
Score: 3

Clearly, the god at work here is a vengeful one intent on denying us the pleasure of a fatuous party album. (The fist was a tip-off.) Bizarre title aside; and gaudy, atrocious cover aside; and hideous-blob-of-naked-bodies art aside, and --- my, we have a lot of asides here --- the second release from MSTRKRFT does not, in fact, get the party started. Distancing themselves slightly from robot-rock luminaries Daft Punk, the Toronto duo team up with rappers, but hardly anyone benefits from the collaboration. The electro passes over E-40's rhymes like a static jet stream. MSTRKRFT tempt us with a Ghostface Killah cameo, then squander the opportunity by turning it into a sophomoric cut-up sure to exhaust even those who at first thought it amusing. Freeway's crudeness in the last track, "1000 Cigarettes," will jolt anyone out of boredom, assuming they're still playing the album. Fist of God really should have been a single, with "Breakaway" and "Heartbreaker" on it. "Heartbreaker" devilishly mimics the piano opening of Sara Bareilles' big radio hit, "Love Song," while "Breakaway" spotlights the Romanthony-like club-singer chops of Jahmal of The Carps.

Crystal Stilts
Alight of Night
Score: 5

The cavernous reverb of Crystal Stilts' debut album is striking, but it loses its novelty a few songs in and ultimately becomes too much. There's definitely an allure to lead singer Brad Hargett's half-intelligible ghostly keening; the trick is to frame it in ways that keep it interesting. Alight of Night indicates that Crystal Stilts excel when playing at the extremes: The placid, stripped-down "The City in the Sea" allows his voice to coast by, as if blown on the breeze, swirling in and out of caves and harbors. "Departure" worships at Joy Division's obsidian throne, the busy bass mixing with a constant tom-thumping- and snare-thwack pattern. Meshed with Hargett's wafting vocals, the result is an ominous, jerky swinging, much like Ian Curtis' epileptic swiveling and thrashing. Most of the time, though, the pace is midtempo and the atmosphere prevails at the expense of the songs. Overall, the echo-chamber approach works best when Hargett's vocals are either slower or not competing with electric guitars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Less bounce to the ounce

Lady Sovereign
Score: 5

Once a gum-smacking, smack-talking Super Ball, rap's "biggest midget in the game" has taken a few licks since her full-length debut three years ago. Or so Jigsaw would lead us to believe. The slower material, the lean toward pop, the scattered ideas --- it's safe to say Lady Sovereign is suffering from a classic case of second album-itis. Possible causes: introspection, relationship drama and jadedness with fame.

Let's lay it right out at the start: Her heart is the titular jigsaw puzzle. "Pick it up and fix it for me," she implores less than 10 minutes into the album. In a similar vein, the glum hook of "Guitar" is Lady Sov as Eeyore, trudging through a day of interviews, photos, promotions. The nicely arranged strings carry a dignified air, as if emblematic of the dutiful, success-minded musician --- perhaps a violinist in a big-city orchestra --- someone whose work ethic Lady Sovereign might envy as she wrestles with motivation. She confesses, "I feel a little tired, I feel like cryin' / I feel like lyin', I feel like not tryin' to do / what I'm supposed to do today."

"Student Union," supported by crisp synths, describes her experience at a college bash her friend took her to. As a high school dropout, she finds it hard to relate, and the "fuddy-duddying" drives her batty. The quasi-drunken sing-along here surely comes from the same rum bottle as Todd Rundgren's "Bang on the Drum All Day," a song which, unfortunately, is about as much fun as being clonked in the noggin with a coconut.

"So Human," by contrast, is a playful experiment, with Lady Sovereign recasting The Cure's "Close to Me" as a tour diary. The brisk pace implies a whirlwind itinerary; her fleet-footed raps imply she's keeping up. Still, dissatisfaction seeps in: "Anyway things change always / like the hotel hallways / I'll be gone again in four days." There's a hint of Auto-Tune on the chorus, a warning sign. Sure enough, it returns, bigger and badder, spritzing its goo all over "I Got You Dancing ...," signaling that the pandemic continues unabated in hip-hop.

But other vocal effects are at work, too, and they serve the curious function of erasing her thick cockney accent. Her voice is pulled deep into male range in "Pennies," with its chopped-and-screwed feel; "Food Play" makes her sound alien. Her helium squeaks follow a Barry White-esque rumble from a guest named Joey Benjamin. "Food Play," about incorporating grub into foreplay (and possibly beyond), isn't a chocolate-and-strawberries R&B seduction. It's more like a disturbing dream. "Check out my diet tips," she says, "you don't need to eat that burger, so let's just rub it 'round your lips."

There are moments where her arch side shines through, as on "Pennies" when she reminds all the "futhamuckas" out there what her name is, and then turns her name into a weather report ("it's Sover-raining"). But the way she wielded her power with glee three years ago --- the way she snapped, "love me or hate me, it's still an obsession / love me or hate me, that is the question" --- that's absent.

"I Got the Goods!!" wraps up Jigsaw, popping in almost as an afterthought, as if she's reminding us that, yes, she can bring it. If she feels like it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are we not beasts?

Crack the Skye
Score: 9

Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Score: 6

Accessibility, as we know from top 40 stations, isn't necessarily a determinant of quality. However, when a band is disposed to full-throated roars or puttering around like demented Smurfs, added accessibility is welcome.

For Mastodon, that comes in the forms of singing and song structures amenable to sung vocals. The Atlanta band have been cultivating a following beyond metaldom for several years, but Crack the Skye has the potential to go wide. 2006's Blood Mountain split time between singing and barks and shouts, but their latest seems to look to Tool and Black Sabbath, metal bands with strong singers.

Combined with chops that have never been fiercer, Mastodon sound hungry. For what, is less certain. Fame? Fortune? Perhaps, but the menacing riffs from guitarist Bill Kelliher on the album opener, "Oblivion," suggest something more immediate. Something like ... blood. Drummer Bränn Dailor follows the riff, commanding a march of toms that promises to take us to a place more beast than man. With a crash of his cymbals, the band churn, then break into a chugging tempo as he and bassist Troy Sanders trade off sung vocals amid lead guitarist Brent Hinds' growls, reverb dripping from their jowls.

Awaking even greater wild fervor, "Divinations" begins with Hinds strumming a banjo --- until the banjo drops its disguise, revealing that it was just a pawn in the electric-guitar ambush.

The slower pacing of "The Czar," split into the passages "Usurper," "Escape, "Martyr" and "Spiral," suits the dirgey singing. The vocals, perhaps colored by the reverb, at times recall Layne Staley's doomed cries; Ozzy Osbourne is the other nearest link.

Animal Collective don't have Mastodon's ferocity, though on some past songs, their yawps and whoops might have given you the impression they were raised by wolves. On their sixth studio album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective provide evidence to the contrary.

These compositions are more focused than their previous ones, and when the chants wear thin, at least there are hooks. "My Girls" is an earworm, thanks to a trickling keyboard that, in a parallel universe, would have lent its services to Eurythmics. "Bluish," the album's finest moment, rolls in on shimmering synth waves and lets Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) show off a Beach Boys vocal move on the chorus.

The initially sleepy vibe of "In the Flowers" conjures fields of poppies, but the lyrics make the blossoms in question more likely to be lavender. It's the national flower of Portugal, where Panda Bear lives with his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, and their young daughter. He describes meeting a dancer in a field and being entranced by her connection to her body's movement, while wishing he was capable of being so uninhibited. "If I could just leave my body for the night / Then we could be dancing / No more missing you while I'm gone," he sings. (His wife's Web site provides subtext with its motto: "Influenced by everything that moves.")

Merriweather Post Pavilion definitely doesn't sit still. A thicket of electronic insects click and chirrup away as Panda Bear and Avey Tare (David Porter) traipse through the flora, Avey the vocal yang to Panda's yin. Geologist (Brian Weitz), meanwhile, sets more of the sampler critters a-chatter. Organ pinwheels on "Daily Routine." Maracas (or their digital equivalent) rattle over shrill bleeps on "Brother Sport" as Panda Bear implores, "Open up your throat."

Not so loud, dude -- Mastodon might hear you.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

As you've never heard him before ...

Chris Cornell
Score: 5

Last time around, Chris Cornell covered Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." This time, he steps into some springy and contemporary R&B that might befit another Chris: Chris Brown, who, along with Ne-Yo, has been eying Jackson's mantle, long cold as it is. But those young hot-trotters bob and weave and with an inborn agility; for them, an album of Timbaland-produced tracks would be second nature. For Chris Cornell, who was howling across grunge stages before Ne-Yo hit puberty and before Chris Brown learned to walk, it's a different story.

Scream feels like a "Dancing With the Stars" experiment, Cornell in his clodhoppers, Timbaland walking him through some moves:

Tim: "Now, lemme see some bounce."

Chris: "Like this?"

Tim: "Naw, loosen up a bit more. Shake your shoulders."

Chris: "Shake my shoulders?"

Tim: "Yeah, it'll loosen you up. There, that's better. But you gotta get rid of those boots, man."

As surprising a pairing as it is, Cornell and Timbaland at least sound as if they practiced for a while before committing to an album. Cornell sings with conviction and adopts some of the techniques more common to dance-focused R&B, such as short vocal phrases delivered rapidly. This is evident on "Sweet Revenge," which also employs Auto-Tune. But the single most-abused production toy today actually works in this case. It pairs well with the synths and the manipulated backing vocals, and, for the most part, stays in the chorus, rather than dripping all over, as in T-Pain's "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" or Rihanna's "Disturbia." This is perhaps the fastest Cornell has sung before, and it's a style far removed from his usual approach, the soaring calls of rock 'n' roll. Even when he was headbanging through "Cochise" with Audioslave, he held his notes about twice as long.

Now, the idea of combining Timbaland, hit-making producer extraordinaire, with Chris Cornell, grunge legend, was not a bad one. Scream does, however, bring into being some moments of rarefied cheese.

Like the album's opening. (Sheesh.) Here, renaissance-fair trumpeting precedes a spoken-word introduction by Gollum or his closest associate. It's so over-the-top and amateurish that it has the potential to make Scream a guilty pleasure down the road. Less flagrant, but more comical, is when Cornell -- perhaps a little too loosened up -- utters over the organ runs in "Time," "Make a little love / make a little war," as if he's riffing on KC & the Sunshine Band.

Although those moments are brief, they do affect how a listener will view the album, and they can be instructive in how to assess the work as a whole. Is it a lighthearted romp? Is it a focused plunge into new territory? Is it an irredeemable mess?

Cornell and Timbaland are savvy guys. The medieval opening seems like a joke somebody cooked up to bug out first-time listeners. A fake intro for laughs. Like, "OK, now here's the real album."

The music of Scream has no shortage of bounce: Programmed and live drums keep things hoppin', with loads of studio effects blipping in and out. Cheeky synths flounce about over the chugging of guitars on "Enemy"; they turn backward on "Get Up." A chubby electronic pulse gyrates on "Part of Me." Auto-Tune resurfaces on "Get Up." "Take Me Alive" throws in tribal beats and sitar. (It works, but you could argue that it belongs on another album entirely.)

The sheer oddity of Scream, taken in conjunction with the reputations of its creators, makes it a curiosity to consider rather than forget. Still, the title track, the album's single, a rock-structured song ensconced in Timbaland's studio-club sonics, is probably destined to be the only one included in the inevitable Chris Cornell greatest-hits package; a mere note in the historical record, a reminder of that kooky time when he got loose with Timbaland.

As if to signal that he's already moving back to tradition, the hidden track finds Cornell in a bluesy setting --- breaking out harmonica, even --- and being "two drinks away from crying." At least Timbaland's buying the next round. Right?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 1

The Long Blondes

Life is short. Life is shorter
if you're a band.

The Long Blondes played
their first gig in 2003. They released their first single in 2004. They released their first album in 2006. They played their first Seattle gig on May 28, 2008. It was their last Seattle gig.

I was lucky to see it, because 12 days later, Dorian Cox, their lead guitarist and songwriter, had a stroke. He was 27. I'm 27. Twenty-seven-year-olds don't have strokes. But sometimes, sadly, they do.

Cox was hospitalized for more than a month. When it became apparent that he might never be able to play guitar again, they agreed to break up the band. On Oct. 19, Cox announced on their Web site, "We have decided to call it a day."

Couples, their second album, is fact sleeping with fiction: It's the photographs of couples the band stuck on a wall while recording; it's the romantic ghosts of Cox and guitarist-keyboardist Emma Chaplin, and those of drummer Screech Louder and bassist Reenie Hollis -- both real onetime couples -- and of those who came before, and of exaggeration, and of imagination.

Couples is a capstone, a headstone and a stone crashing through the windows of fantasy. It's a fairytale punctured by reality, "Sleeping Beauty" with a wall of brambles threatening to stretch forever.

Read my review of Couples here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 2

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles

Who are Crystal Castles?

Yeah, they're a band, but who are they really? Are they thieves? Geniuses? Thieving geniuses?

Producer Ethan Kath and singer Alice Glass met in Toronto while performing community service. Why they were doing that --- reading to the blind --- varies with the publication. Billboard reported it as being a high school requirement. Spin implied it was court-ordered, saying that Glass had been busted for living in a squat and that Kath was clearing his record of an undisclosed offense.

In any case, they bonded over noise rock and began collaborating. They initially had friends give fake interviews, resulting in a stream of misinformation. (BTW, one of their labels is Lies Records. Uncanny!) Kath does interviews now, but the facts can change. He has maintained that he's often misquoted. He was quoted, however, in a 2007 interview by the now-defunct blog sparks vs space as saying, "Sometimes I'll just agree with whatever an interviewer is saying because I'm exhausted and I want the interview to be over. They always set up interviews after I've been up all night making tracks or after flying overnight from a show. I'll say anything so that I can go back to sleep. I usually don't even remember giving them because I'm half asleep."

Of his attempt to talk with the band (which, indeed, involved a sleepy Kath), Louis Pattison of Plan B magazine says, "Interviewing Crystal Castles feels oddly counterintuitive: the more you ask, the less you feel you know."

Crystal Castles courted controversy left and right in 2008, accused by chiptune musicians of Creative Commons violations and copyright infringement, and accused by a visual artist of stealing artwork (of Madonna with a shiner) for T-shirts and their "Alice Practice" single. Artist Trevor Brown eventually agreed to a settlement, but the chiptune dispute festers. Though Kath has said Crystal Castles weren't involved in the chiptune community, he was quoted in Spin's piece (from last September) as saying "there should be no limitations on art."

That sense of rebellious creation, naturally, extends to their self-titled debut album. The anarchic, provocative methods --- shrieks, circuit bending, legally questionable samples --- have been impressively honed into songs that prick and throb and challenge and excite. Transgressive art at its best.

Read my review of Crystal Castles here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 3

My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges

It's not easy to evolve. Some bands try but fail. Some bands try, and they succeed, only to lose fans who preferred their earlier sound. The best bands try -- and they succeed -- often, growing with each couple of albums: broadening their technical abilities; working toward synergy; magnetizing styles and pulling them close; planting their flag on more and more musical territory; making more sounds into THEIR sound.

In putting together Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket made some big decisions:

1) Extracting Jim James from the reverb chamber, which had been a hallmark of their sound their entire career. He used the opportunity to nurture his burgeoning soul-man side.

2) Goofing on metal and schlock rock in the track "Highly Suspicious." Peanut butter pudding surprise?! (If this rock thing falls through, there's always Duncan Hines ...)

3) Bringing guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster into the vocal fold. Nothing radical, like singing lead, but their additions complement James and point to greater trust and cohesion in the band.

4) Pursuing a highly varied album. The first six songs alone are distinct enough to have come from six different bands. The greater the variation on an album, the harder it is to make everything stick. But they did it.

What's next? I can't wait.

Read my review of Evil Urges here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 4

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Deep, heady and dense, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) is just about as immense as its title indicates. Erykah Badu has become a vortex, sucking in genres and fusing them. Funk, jazz, neo-soul and hip-hop are a single shape-shifting compound under her command.

The world war noted in the title might well be the fight for our minds. Or the fight for our lives. Or our souls. Or all of the above. "Twinkle" and "The Cell" bemoan the generational struggles of drugs and poverty, a festering combination that boils over in acts of desperation. "They end up in prisons / they end up in blood," Badu states with balefulness, her watchful eye taking in the heaving of the hood. Reporting? Prophesying? They're the same thing here.

"Master Teacher" and "The Healer" can be seen as her responses to the vicious cycle. The former, more contemplative than prescriptive, finds her weighing the troubles in her mind, searching for solutions, allowing the turbulence to keep her up at night; consciousness (though the word itself isn't used) carries a double meaning here, as did "The Cell," which drew a line from DNA to R.I.P. "The Healer," a dialogue between its title character and "the children," suggests that hip-hop, "bigger than religion," could have the power to save them, and that people need to press their own personal reset button in order break free.

New Amerykah parallels various present-day struggles in American society, but its futuristic touches keep you guessing as to what time period this Amerykah exists in (though obviously post-WWIII). "The Cell" skirts along on jazz synths and free-roaming bass, the drummer thumping out a restless beat that gains steam and depth from the hand drums behind it. The contrasts of speed --- vigorous percussion, detached synths --- and structure --- the wandering bass compared to the stationary instruments --- create a feeling of anti-gravity. In "My People," a persistent blip plink-plonk-plink-plonks like some kind of drivers signal, while the thick and enveloping digi-beats give the track a darkness through which pass the natural elements: the chanting Erykah Badus and the rustle of shell-like chimes. Static cuts the track with a hiss, a technique that occurs several times on the album and implies that the song segments, or some of them, are transmissions, and perhaps ones that we survivors are hearing years later.

Put the CD player on shuffle and "Amerykahn Promise" could be the perversely preserved commercial break. It opens like a movie trailer, with an announcer's bellows interspersed with sound effects: "More action." (Bam! Pow!) "More excitement." (Zap, zap, zap, zap!) "More everything."

The song rides the back of '70s lost classic "The American Promise" by jazz-funk greats RAMP, ushering it out of obscurity. Then the '70s crop up again: After the swampy beats of "Twinkle" dissipate and an eerie synth line moves in to fill the vacuum, guest Bilal delivers a reworking of the "I'm mad as hell" speech from the movie "Network." "Recession" has replaced "depression," and now there's mention of flat-screens, 20-inch wheels and higher crime figures, but the rest is pretty much the same.

Just how far in the future is Amerykah?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 5

She & Him
Volume One

With Volume One, Zooey Deschanel shows that she's a natural songwriter, putting together a bouquet of countrypolitian, '60s pop and girl-group harmonies that's as wholesome as a sock-hop slow dance. She has a voice full of emotion, whether she's buoyant with possibility or biting her lip to keep her composure. A hint of twang sticks out here and there, and, affected or authentic, it's a nice touch.

But Volume One might have turned out differently if not for Him. The actress' savvy bandmate, M. Ward, helps make her songs all they can be, from providing guitar, keys and vocals to arranging the strings and being her mentor. As producer, he's the rootsy sage to her raw talent.

It's some talent she has: Her songs bump up comfortably to standards by Smokey Robinson and Lennon/McCartney, quite a feat for just about any artist, let alone an actress who professes that she started recording demos as a way to kill downtime. Yet her words reveal that it was a distraction with some dedication behind it.

"As an actor, you have a lot of free time," she told the Los Angeles Times last spring. "There's so much waiting around in hotel rooms and trailers. I was doing a movie a few years ago in a place where I didn't really know anyone, and I ended up recording these really elaborate demos of all these songs on my computer. Someone would be like, 'They're ready for you on set,' and I was like, 'I gotta finish these backing vocals!'"

Read my review of Volume One here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 6

Does You Inspire You

If Chairlift strike you as being concerned about the future, consider this: They're stuck with it one way or another. And they're young, so they presumably have a lot of it to see.

The Brooklyn trio of Caroline Polachek, Aaron Pfenning and Patrick Wimberly, all twentysomethings, explore space and texture on their incisive and inventive debut album.

A sense of unease pervades Does You Inspire You, whether it be from mounting trash ("Garbage"), shared living quarters ("Territory"), or the unknown and, possibly, insects ("Earwig Town"). Often there's a feeling of displacement, too, caused by uncommon combinations of sound.

In "Planet Health," for instance, birdsong, gong and koto join sparkling keyboard and an R&B bass so funky it could have been raided from Bootsy Collins' living room. Lead singer Polachek arrives with her voice soaked in reverb, a quality that enhances the duality of the piece: She could be looking back on what she learned in health class, but she tells it from a perspective that could pass for an alien visitor's. Health is Planet Health. The food pyramid is a place to sightsee. Want to learn how to make a baby? They'll show you how.

The chorus of "we're feeling great tonight" isn't as convincing as it reads, Polachek's overlapping vocals communicating a listlessness that becomes more apparent in tandem with Pfenning's part, the flatly spoken "we're feeling great." This contributes to the alienlike overtones.

Two overt pop songs make Chairlift more difficult to pin down. "Evident Utensil" plinks and plonks with all kinds of synth gewgaws, and Polachek introduces us to a rickety falsetto. The focus here is on rhyme, resulting in lyrics that might at first strike listeners as juvenile or ill-considered. But the kookiness of the song, along with Pfenning's comically affected deep-voiced enunciation, gives reason to believe that it's played for laughs and might be a lampoon of pop itself. Earlier in the album, "Bruises" grabs hold with a bass line reminiscent of The Cure's "Close to Me" and paints an ostensibly sweet tale of young love, Polachek playing the part of the girl who banged up her body while attempting handstands, Pfenning's boy responding by fetching frozen strawberries to "ice your bruisy knees." Once again, however, the band have written the song cleverly enough to allow for more than face-value interpretation. In a MySpace blog post, they suggest, with morbid humor, that the cutesy-wootsy tune is actually a tragic case involving a strawberry allergy and anaphylactic shock.

Polachek shows off her lilt in "Bruises" and yodel in "Earwig Town," both of which align her with the vocal techniques of Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries, perhaps an unconscious influence. Throughout the album, Polachek's vocal flexibility and subtle expressiveness make the songs more interesting.

"Garbage," the lead-off track, scorns society's wastefulness. "So much garbage will never ever decay," Polachek sings. Here, her tone is straightforward and slightly weary, perhaps because it's her generation that is inheriting the toxic mess. But a quiet contempt can also be heard, and she adds, "dark and silent it waits for you."

What does that mean? Well, you're headed for the grave. It's headed for the landfill. You're both going down to decompose. But your obituary in that buried newspaper will still be legible long after you're nothing but bones.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 7

The Dead Science

In Marvel Comics, there was a long-running series called What If, and each of these comic books would present a hypothetical scenario and follow it to its logical conclusion, i.e. "What if someone else besides Spider-Man had been bitten by the radioactive spider?"

Consider Seattle band The Dead Science to be this one: What if a group of musicians were just as inspired by comic books as they were by Wu-Tang Clan?

The beautiful thing about inspiration is that it's a starting point, not a fixed path. The Dead Science are not rappers. They don't have nine members. They don't sound like Wu-Tang. But they HAVE absorbed the essence, and that essence went through a lot of mutations as it circulated in the bodies of Sam Mickens, Jherek Bischoff and Nick Tamburro. Like Wu-Tang, The Dead Science plot a course of high drama, depicting the protagonists as supervillains. This dovetails with the concept of superpowers, the mark of Marvel and D.C. comics. You can see their influences intertwining in the Villainaire crest: a phoenix (an X-Men reference) that resembles the Wu-Tang's W but could pass for a fancy V.

Despite being a rock band, The Dead Science celebrated Villainaire's impending release by putting out a mixtape, a tactic seen mostly in the hip-hop community. School of Villainy served as a sort of companion piece to the album, with remixes, other nonalbum tracks and, amusingly, a phone call -- possibly a cold call -- to the RZA (choice line: "Who goes this?").

Villainaire, their third album, plays as if its battles and inner turmoil are occurring on a giant stage, the audience members uncertain if they should applaud or run for their lives. A stringed twitching becomes frenzied on "Throne of Blood (The Jump Off)," and Tamburro reinforces that by mirroring it on his snare and cymbals. "Tonight I feel there's something in the air," Mickens sings in his distinct, wavery warble. He convulses as "The Dancing Destroyer" opens, the frantic guitar suggesting the throes of madness.

Appropriate for an album whose dark streets crawl with menace. "Holliston," casting its spell with a brooding piano figure, tours areas of squalor, giving us glimpses of the boyhood home and present-day haunts of the title villain. "The filth grew to be my cape and cowl," Mickens relays, later alluding to why that might be: "At night, outside, shined Batsymbol flashlight up into the sky / Nothing came, nothing came." In a place forsaken by heroes, the villain is his own hero.

The Dead Science, like the Sinister Six or other Marvel villains they might have admired, know how to collaborate. The gains (while probably not ill-gotten) include mellifluous harp, swirling strings and the top brass of The Horns of Orkestar Zirkonium. These often augment the band's theatricality, jazz leanings and atypical time signatures. "Monster Island Czars," surging out of its gates with crashing guitar and a neurotic cello, leads into a barrage of tom rumbling, then, with a blast of horns, the players stop. Except for a single viola, shivering in place.

The juxtaposition parallels the intriguing paradox that presents itself whenever Mickens opens his mouth: If this character is a supervillain, how can he be so fragile? Even the track where he exerts carnal power over a woman on a boat, "Wife You," is not the ode to thugdom or masculinity that its title might suggest. Rather, it sounds warped. Tormented. Mickens quavers as a guitar line and an electronic pulse invoke rocking and the lap of water against the hull. "I want my violence to make you satisfied," he tells her, his voice rising to near-shriek as he repeats "satisfied."

Good thing there's no Batman. How would he deal with that, too?

Friday, January 9, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 8

The Ruby Suns
Sea Lion

Certainly not every adventure needs the stereotypical adventure soundtrack treatment: the booming drums, the power chords, the adrenaline and triumph poured on like a cologne shower. Sure, there are moments like that, but there are also slow days, and boring days, and days when you get lost, and days when monkeys steal your food, and days when snakes invade your camp, and days when you get really homesick.

So it's nice to have an adventure album that captures a more realistic range of emotions. Sea Lion, the second by New Zealanders The Ruby Suns, has its roots in frontman Ryan McPhun's intercontinental travels.

Full of chants, hand drums, clapping and clacking, as well as standard rock instrumentation, Sea Lion pairs Western styles with African ones. On the jubilant "Tane Mahuta," McPhun conveys the communal aspect of the chants, welcoming a chorus of voices. As he writes in the liner notes, "a lot of people sang on Tane Mahuta -- too many to list."

This is definitely his journey, though. For much of the album, he alone sings, and the echoey overdubs magnify his wistfulness. It might do Brian Wilson proud, particularly "Remember," which even uses some beach iconography: "Imagine yourself on a wave / riding all the way in / imagine yourself in a dream / seeing all your old friends."

Was one of those friends an elephant? "Ole Rinka" stirs from its nest of bells, the murmur of field recordings and twitter of tropical birds giving way to a simple chorus in awe of nature, "The elephant eats the leaves / the elephant eats the leaves." What follows can only be pure and wordless emotion: "Oh-aaah-ahh-ahh / oh-oh-ahh-ahhh."

Several of Sea Lion's songs include sections distinct from what each began with, as if split into parts. "Adventure Tour" zings with autoharp as McPhun recalls driving through a rainstorm. A change-up of guitar signals the end of that chapter, introducing a new tempo, but this lasts no more than a minute. The song ostensibly ends, dissolving into pops and suction, but wait -- a swell of voices fills the air, bleeding into the next song.

In this way, the songs imitate memories themselves: blurring with time, even if time makes them fonder.