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.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 9

The Magnetic Fields

Tips for distortion: Rewrite the Beach Boys' "California Girls" as a salvo against "The Hills" and its ilk; bemoan mistletoe at Christmas and hit the booze; take a walk in a nun's shoes -- are those stilettos? -- and make mama cry; have sex with a zombie (yes, a zombie); have someone drive you around; envy the courtesans and their unbreakable, gold-plated hearts. And don't forget to throw everything into a giant cochlea with tinnitus.

Read my review of Distortion here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 10

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin

Operating as an avant-garde jazz quintet under Swiss composer Nik Bärtsch, Ronin craft tight, deliberate instrumentals, achieving through repetition a kind of ritualized hypnosis.

Their modus operandi is the modul, a lengthy meditation of song bound to frustrate the impatient. The shortest track is the first, "Modul 42," and it's more than six minutes.

It begins with the chimes of a piano, Bärtsch playing a series of notes that might score a pensive moment in a film, like gray dawn breaking on the day of a trial. Kaspar Rast, the drummer, then taps a cymbal and they're off: Rast focusing on hi-hat and the rim of his snare, brass man Sha adding accents, and bassist Bjorn Meyer coloring the scene with a foreboding that matches Bärtsch's now-darker notes. Percussionist Andi Pupato works subtly, skulking around in the background, jingling here and trickling there, possibly using a drain pipe at one point.

"Modul 41_17" develops slower. The opening piano is muffled, its tones sounding more akin to the shallow twang of a rubber band than to the standard resonance of hammers on strings. Meyer comes in, playing variations of a sequence, then roaming as Bärtsch's instrument regains its voice. Ronin burst forth at 5:22 and 6:56, with rimshots, puffs of alto sax and a conviction in Bärtsch's fingers, and the rest of the piece is devoted to the band expanding on an indefatigable loop by Meyer.

One thing that stands out, aside from Ronin's obvious technical prowess, is how restrained they are. Not only is nobody showboating, but most of the time no one player strays from the pack. If there are solos, they are masked rather than spotlighted. It fits Bärtsch's expressed path of asceticism, or self-denial. Moreover, the pace at which the tracks evolve can be seen as its own form of denial: the antithesis of instant gratification.

Yet Bärtsch's credo, which he details in the liner notes, is that "an ecstatic groove and an ascetic awareness of form and sound in composed music are not mutually exclusive." In other words, asceticism doesn't have to be bland, boring and sexless.

So let's test that with "Modul 45." Meyer sticks to a rigid bass pattern, but it's a funky one. The hinge-like whine of Sha's saxophone adds some heat, and Bärtsch's piano circles around it before they lock step. Meyer breaks pattern and throbs deeply, leading to a delicate passage from Bärtsch. And then -- kablammo! -- a florid blare from Sha's hot, hot sax.

Case closed.