Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Quite A Year For Silence, Pt. 1

2011 has been quite the year thus far in not only music, but in cultural events. I haven't written in my blog in quite some time, which is surprising given the momentous things that have been going down in the world. Well, I guess you could call it preoccupations with my personal life and the overwhelming factor of all things both beautiful and terrifying that are going on in the world around us. I'm not sure what exactly my excuse here is, but I know that I have a lot of catching up to do on this here blog. Anyway, here is my all out assault of a musical and cultural explosion as I can. I'm going to focus on the music in this post.

Since January, when I last posted about Destroyer's life altering Kaputt, a ton of great music has been shared with friends through a Facebook group called "Nighthawks." This amazing group is a collective of friends of friends of friends that gets to the point of complete strangers sharing their favorite movements in music. If there is one song that shows the joyous atmosphere of this group has been Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks". The comparisons to MGMT aren't such a bad thing if you ask me. They are the SoCal version of this new group of psych pop stars. The hook is undeniable and the Foster the People EP is enjoyable in it's 3-song span.

In a similar psychedelic vein comes Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their EP is also a catchy yet a freaky throwback to lo-fi 70's groove rock and garage rock all in one. Their track "How Can U Luv Me" is a perfect track. "Nerve Damage!" is a bit weirder on record, but live these guys tear through their set with a crispness and a great groove that makes the lo-fi recording of the EP sound terrible. These guys probably have the most potential of making a splash this year, maybe aside from the much more accesscible Foster the People.

Also excellent, and the thing that lead some of this collective consciousness to UMO, is Smith Westerns. These guys revive Mott The Hoople and Big Star rolled into one and create some of the catchiest, sunniest music of the year. The overall pure rock glory that a song like "End of the Night" exudes is fantastic. "Weekend" is the song of the summer for me. It may have already been outplayed as the album came out in early 2011, but it's a summertime groove that is undeniabley perfect. I'll be cruising to the shore with this album. It's arena rock with a warmth to it.

Included in this bunch of newer bands making 2011 great is three album deep Aussie electro gurus Cut Copy. Zonoscope is a daunting album of catchy synth hooks and big guitar moments. They are carrying the torch of Electric Light Orchestra into the 21st century. "Take Me Over" is a strange combination of Katy Perry and Men At Work that works a little to well. But the real stand out is the slow burner into revelatory anthem "Need You Now" that launches this album into a chaotic pop music festival of sheer glory.

Also in the newer spectrum for this years goodies is Kurt Vile. He opened for Pavement last year and is a Philadelphia native, but I haven't been able to fully embrace his music until Smoke Ring For My Halo, yet another Nighthawks suggestion. "Jesus Fever" is a fantastic representation of the strange psych folk that is coming out of Philly. It's a beautiful song that has some crossover value waiting in the wings.

Enough about the plucky young upstarts. What about the stand by classic rockers?

In the realm of long running projects, 2011 is a bit polarizing and satisfying. Radiohead is the prime example here. The out of nowhere announcement and release of King of Limbs was mythic before it had the chance to let anyone down. And it's not a let down really, but a very curious album. More along the lines of Thom Yorke's The Eraser, it goes in a totally different direction than the more accessible In Rainbows may have had their fans hoping they'd continue to go. Regardless, it's still a great smattering of avante garde music. "Lotus Flower" is as close to a single as you'll find. It's a cool musical experience and an incredibly well written song, but it's moody and glitchy. It's inevitably polarizing. Whether you enjoy it, appreciate it or love it, it's an unavoidable song. Where King of Limbs really shines is in the track "Codex." It harkens back to "Pyramid Song" with it's slow climbing piano and a haunting Yorke vocal track. It's definitely the weakest album in the Radiohead pantheon (excluding Pablo Honey) but there is something beguiling about it. It makes it worth coming back to.

On a different level altogether, The Beastie Boys release their long delayed Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 and for some reason I feel like it has been forgotten. Are the Beastie's finally irrelevant? The answer is no. "Make Some Noise" is a funky ass track that shows an energy and scaled back approach that is refreshing. The Boys still have a little something, but it doesn't carry over the whole album.

Foo Fighters came back with Wasting Light, the closest to a return to form it looks like we're going to get out of Grohl and Co. And while it's not as bland as Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, it's still doesn't hold a candle to the glory days of the Foos. It's definitely the best album since One By One. Grohl took some of Josh Homme's juice after working with Them Crooked Vultures to release the best Foo's track since the 90's in "White Limo" but the rest of the album lacks the same gusto and fire that "White Limo" has.

One of my favorite song writers, J Mascis, released a solo album this year called Several Shades of Why. It may be the best selection of songs from Mascis in a long time and they are beautiful and quiet tomes. You can hear all of these songs turn into Dinosaur Jr. songs, especially "Listen to Me." Not sure what the reasoning behind not using these as Dinosaur Jr. songs was, but I'm glad they aren't. The simplicity of this album is what makes it great.

I am sure there are a ton of things I have yet to fully listen to (TV on the Radio, The Raveonettes, Rival Schools) and there are a ton of new albums coming soon. Next post will deal with the tumultous year 2011 has been in the news.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Destroyer Destroyed

My first impression of Destroyer was 2009's Bay of Pigs EP. A sprawling ambient to disco epitaph of sorts, it was one of the most beguiling and bewildering songs I had ever heard. It took me a while to really enjoy it as Dan Bejar, the brains behind Destroyer, has a very strange songwriting style. Needless to say, it has become one of my favorite musical experiences. I say experience over song as when it comes to Bejar, it's more about the experience than the song. In "Bay of Pigs" he states it perfectly: "I've seen it all." It's a journey. When I heard that Destroyer's latest record, Kaputt, would close with "Bay of Pigs," I immediately was interested. I mean, if the beguiling track was going to fit on an album, the mood would have to be the same, right? Not always the case, but luckily for me, and for everyone, Kaputt lives up to what "Bay of Pigs" delivers.

Lush production design filled with everything from synthetic waves of sound, guitars of all sorts, horns and flutes as well as backing vocals give Kaputt the feel of a progressive new wave record. Somewhere between the smoothness of Steely Dan and the synth pop of the 80's with a dash of Brian Eno ambiance gives this album a nostalgic feel. Lead off track "Chinatown" is a perfect pop song, but this radio-friendly track is only scratching the surface of the strange and sweeping anthems and epics that litter Kaputt. It is the mission statement for the rest of the record. "Savage Night at the Opera" is Modern English update for today's aging wine-o. It's a woozy lament with lyrics like "Old souls like us have been born to die." These two tracks are the best proof of Dan Bejar's eccentric song writing being reigned in for a pop friendly audience. The zenith of Kaputt is in the 8 minute plus "Suicide Demo for Karen Walker." Starting off with ambient, Frippesque guitar squeals in the background and a simple acoustic line, the song slowly takes shape. The smooth jazz flute comes in right before the disco back beat picks up and the song really gets going. It's a beautiful, melancholy song. "Kaputt" is also one of the highlights mixing all the smoothness of the album in one groovy, dream-pop ballad. Be it for the music, the strange yet poetic and sometimes fitfully brilliant lyrics or for the dream state that the album will inevitably send the listener to, Kaputt is by far the best thing I've heard from Destroyer yet. Definitely a great start to 2011.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Grooves: Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno - Apollo - Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)

It's really hard to write about utility music. By utility music, I mean ambient music. And by ambient, of course I'm talking about Brian Eno. He's a dabbler and an innovator and definitely a consummate collaborator. No matter what the album is listed as credit to Brian Eno, there is always someone helping out or inspiring him. This time around, his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois are behind the scenes adding guitar and other . Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is exactly what it says it is, an atmospheric ambient album that was sued as a soundtrack to a film called For All Mankind, a documentary about the Apollo space program. The music held on these 12" of vinyl is a journey through the emptiness of space. Sure, no one will hear you scream in space, but regardless of the soundless vacuum of the gulf of space, there is still some sort of music to be made to emote the feeling of emptiness full of stars and celestial bodies. Whether someone thinks it can be constituted as "music" is up to the individual, but there is no denying the power behind this record to emote a feeling of space travel. The wonder and awe of the universe broken down for your ears.

Before I go into the particulars about the music, I want to go back to what I mean by Utility Music. Ambient music as per what Eno was trying to create in the 70's is a type of music that isn't meant for popular consumption but to be used as utility. No greater album to describe this idea is Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It's purpose was to be played in airports to calm the nerves of bustling travellers. Sure, that isn't the case today as I have yet to hear "1/1" while waiting in the terminal, but it was an experiment nonetheless. A soundtrack is utility music of sorts, written for the sole purpose to accompany a visual, however, many soundtracks go beyond this. Apollo is definitely one of those records. Released in 1983, it's a beautiful album that works great for meditation, as a sleep aid and as a beautiful reflection of the night sky above.

"Under Stars", a recurring theme of sorts on the album, is a slow, bubbling and brooding track. It's incessant hum and occasional shifting synths make it one of the most unsettling first tracks on an album. Unless played really loud, "The Secret Place" almost seems nonexistent, except with an occasional sound here and there. Same goes for "Matta" where a strange, almost organic grunting sound comes out of nowhere. "Signals" fits the tide for a very somber and quiet opening of the record. It isn't until the incredible "An Ending (Ascent)" comes in that we get any sense of melody. This is easily one of Eno's most famous ambient tracks. It's an essential in his catalog. It's beautiful rising tide of sound is like watching the Sun emerge over the Earth, filling you with it's warmth and it's unbridled beauty. "Under Stars II" is much like the album opener, but there are tiny differences between all the star themed songs. "Drift" ends the first half of the record, which is a very minimal.

Side two is way more conventional. When Eno was given the task, he found that slide guitar and country/western style twang kind of fit in well with the role of the astronauts. Like space cowboys (not the movie!) they were travelling uncharted frontiers. This is where Daniel Lanois steps in. Side two starts with an impressive and gorgeous Lanois helmed track "Silver Morning." The tones on the guitar are beautiful and other than maybe a few minor production notes, Eno takes the back seat here. "Deep Blue Day," Eno's other very popular ambient track, invokes the vastness and beauty of the universe. It's flowing tones wash over the listener with an array of sounds and accents care of Lanois' guitar. It's one of the best songs to ease the mind. "Weightless" is an electric piano and guitar piece that definitely invokes the sense of floating. The sleepy slide guitar gently moving in and out of the simple and elegant piano line. "Always Returning" is a lullaby of sorts, one filled with a sense of wonderment and joy. The title is no doubt in reference to the astronauts returning, so the simpleness and quietude of the track is fitting. "Stars" finishes the record and much like "Under Stars" and "Under Stars II", actually, exactly like them except all other instrumentation aside from the simple drone is extracted. It's hypnotic in it's minimalism.

One thing is for sure; Brian Eno's ambient records are not for everyone. Utility in music seems a bit obtuse, yet Apollo is not as sterile as some of the other ambient projects. Maybe because it was used for a film it evokes more? I can't explain it. I just know that if you can embrace this album, you will truly be delighted.