There is actually, and I don't say this lightly, a phrase in the press release for Boxer that does a decent job of summing up what the National sound like: "a meditative rumble that starts in the heart, gets caught in the brain, and resonates outward." Still, J. Edward Keyes continues to put it best, and while I was worried his post about the National's NYC shows would mean that their Toronto show would be a bit of a let down (high expectations, TO not being their home base, etc), I shouldn't have.
This was seriously one of the best shows I've seen in a while, if we're specifying rock shows (as opposed to, say, Hot Chip) I'd say in years (when did I last see the Wrens again?). The only part that was even a bit of a let down was the encore. I love "Green Gloves" but it was a bit low key, "Abel" is not one of the tracks from Alligator I was familiar with, and "About Time," while awesome, was both new to me and not "Lit Up" (which, along with "Brainy," marks the only song(s) I was hoping for that didn't get played). If I'd known it was on the Cherry Tree EP they were selling, I would have picked up a copy; as it is, I grabbed the pretty cool limited edition tour print instead (now I just need to get it framed).
One thing that J's post that definitely held up was the crowd singing. Not for all the songs, and not as loud as I imagine it'd be in NYC, but "The Geese of Beverly Road," "Daughters of the SoHo Riots" and most of the other tracks had at least a good fourth of the audience (it sounded like, from the front) singing along. Even the fucking perfect "Mr. November" that closed out the main set had plenty of accompaniment, although it was kind of hard to make out for part of the song.
It's pretty much a truism to say that a band is louder and more aggressive live, and it'd be doing the National a disservice to not mention that the National were capable of massive and affecting restraint during the show (with the possible exception of the awesomely into it Matt Berninger, who I could swear almost fell into us while perched at the end of the stage during the more intense bits of some songs), but even a quiet tune like "Start a War" (beautiful choice of opener) managed to build up some real heat on the extended ending; often they would play what was effectively a more red blooded version of the album track and then after it was 'over' just continue on to new heights. Padma Newsome was there with a violin and some electronics, and they managed to replicate many of the album effects, but without horns and more strings the songs were definitely different; in fact, it was a perfect balance between the twin evils of slavish devotion to the recorded version and going totally off the rails. "Fake Empire" in particular took on a wholly new cast, one that was incredibly impressive.
Also, as is already pretty evident on record Bryan Devendorf is one hell of a drummer. He sets his kit up pretty carefully, of course, but the amount he can add to a song is just ridiculous. The whole band was extremely tight and clearly at the height of their powers. The guy I was talking to before the show told me that each of the National's albums have been better than the last (I've never heard the first two); I believe him, but I almost can't bring myself to hope the same is true for Boxer's eventual successor. The album already feels pretty monumental - how can they top it? They've got at least two albums worth of songs that seem to speak personally to a crowd the size of the packed Opera House in a way that I've never really seen a band manage before - or, to quote Keyes, "Berninger is a master lyricist, able to write lyrics that everybody gets but nobody quite understands." What makes the National so great, though, on record but even more so live, is that they more than match Berninger in terms of musical effectiveness and impact. Usually bands either nail the lyrics/content or music/form; the National are one of the lucky few to excel at both, and at their strange intersection as well. Very few things could prevent me from seeing them next time they come to town.
Set List: Start a War Secret Meeting Slow Show Baby, We'll Be Fine Apartment Story The Geese of Beverly Road Racing Like a Pro Squalor Victoria Murder Me Rachael All the Wine Guest Room Daughters of the SoHo Riots Mistaken For Strangers Ada Fake Empire Mr. November
So High School Musical was on Disney Channel here for what must be about the millionth time since its debut, and since the soundtrack to that movie was the biggest selling album released in '06 and I had nothing else to do, I figured I'd watch the damn thing and work out what it means to be listening to and writing about music in a time when the only people paying for music are 12 year olds. 
So, let us begin... Notes from a High School Musical.
* I tell you one thing about Disney: based on almost zero thought on the subject, I'm going to say that the folks at Disney have made more of an effort to give a cultural response to a changing American society than other writers/producers/directors/etc. At a time when the biggest population growth is in the South and Southwest of the country, High School Musical is set in Albuquerque. Call it smart marketing or whatever, but at least they're making an effort to keep their collective finger on the national pulse. In fact, I really have to imagine that the New Mexico setting was chosen purely for demographic reasons; it could have been set in Orange County for all the regional distinctiveness the movie has.
Nevertheless, Albuquerque it is. Not the New York or Los Angeles or New England locations that TV and movie-makers seem convinced are the only places in America (they add Wisconsin or Michigan to the list if they want somewhere "ordinary").
Going back to the geography--of Cleveland, Phoenix, Sioux Falls—They are all the same kind of city, in the middle of America, with the suburbs exuding out, conservative in the sense of conserving traditions and customs--by name checking them Kenny and Keith indicate audience participation in he most obvious way—they tell the citizens of over looked America that their concerns are being addressed.
High School Musical is about, and for, the kids of this audience. It's a red state movie that's been depoliticized of the issues that make states red or blue — the kids just don't care, y'know? — and so the result is a portrait of an America that is actually more accurate than the standard red-blue divide. They're red state kids that do the same things blue state kids do. They go to church (lead girl-character Gabriella says she had only previously sung in church choir), play sports, sing in musicals and have impossibly expensive cell phones. Just like in the real America. Considering Disney also does Hannah Montana, some show about Billy Ray Cyrus' daughter becoming a country singer, it seems that this company has realized that telling stories about people who don't live where the entertainment industry is based could actually have its advantages.
But, yes, this is Disney, and despite High School Musical's non-standard outside-NY/LA location and explicitly church-going lead character, the movie still takes place in an amazingly well-funded school district, in which the upper middle class students take vacations at ski lodges, can afford to carry expensive WiFi equipment around with them to serve plot points and go to a far-more racially integrated school than your average upper middle class institution. Things are different, but there also really quite the same as they've always been.
* My first HSM exposure was when we reviewed the big duet between the lead characters, "Breaking Free" for the Singles Jukebox last year. At the time, I said:
This Singles Jukebox gig isn’t all A-list parties and complimentary Cristal. Zac and Vanessa are two fresh-faced kids in some straight-to-TV Disney Channel movie about – get this – a brainy girl and a sporty guy who, even though they have nothing in common, audition for a high school musical. That’s why the movie has the appropriate name High School Musical. As for the song: it’s complete pap, of course. Its saving grace, though, is that it’s pap with verisimilitude; it sounds exactly like the big numbers that the popular drama kids would sing back when I did theatre in high school, loaded with uplifting sentiments and ripe for choreography. Bonus points for nostalgia, then, because musically… well, I’ve still got videos of productions I was in, and the quality is about the same. Which is the appeal, of course.
Well, I hadn't seen the movie then, but the plot isn't anymore complicated than I described there. Apart from "Breaking Free," the movie doesn't have that verisimilitude I talked about there. It's just pap. Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens, the two lead actors, are rather lacking in chemistry, so their relationship isn't particularly interesting. None of the other characters are very interesting, either, save for Ryan, the male-half of the evil theater-pro antagonists, and I only found him interesting because he was exactly the kind of bastard you meet in youth theater productions. The female villian was entirely unrealistic, which didn't particularly matter, but given that her name was Sharpay - Sharpay! - I would have hoped they'd find something more interesting to do with her. I guess if you're twelve years old, the pursuing your dreams and ignoring peer pressure theme would be pretty neat. Still, as kid's entertainment goes, it's slick but uninspiring. I mean, a big chunk of that audience probably also saw Mean Girls, right? And Mean Girls is obviously light years better.
* So HSM, not a good movie. And it's not a good musical, either. There actually aren't that many songs in it, and the songs are for the most part forgettable. A good musical should have you humming those tunes hours after you've finished watching it (q.v. Elaine's father and "Master of the House" in Seinfeld). I can't remember a single melody from this movie. And these aren't good pop songs, either, for the same reason. There was one moment, at the beginning of big basketball choreography number "Get'cha Head in the Game" where they construct a beat out of foot stomps and sneaker squeaks that is a pretty neat effort in musique concrete, but that was quickly subsumed into a bland dance track. Really, the songs on this soundtrack could have come from any Disney movie from the past ten or fifteen years. They just had floppy haired teenagers singing them instead of genies voiced by wisecracking warthogs or Robin Williams.
* A note about the plot: this is some weird, hormone-free high school, seriously. Look, the main guy wants to go spend time with this cute chick, and all his guy friends have to say is, "Naw, man, don't you think you should be spending more time in the locker room with us?" Until the happy ending where everyone hooks up with everyone else, practically arbitrarily, everyone in the entire school acts like it's the most thoroughly bizarre thing in the world for a teenager to want to spend some time with an attractive member of the opposite sex. Weird stuff.
* But conversely, I think there's a bit of metaphor going on with this movie. Basketball jock develops an interest in musical theater, is confused by his feelings, is worried about his father's response, fears that his friends will reject and ridicule him if they find out? Damn, this movie should have had "(nullus)" stuck up on the screen at the end of the credits.
*So, what can we conclude about the biggest selling album released in 2006? Well, I'm making the not too out there guess this was big because it was a movie tie in. These songs wouldn't have gone multi-platinum on their own. So that means that not only are 12 year olds the only people buying records, they'll also only buy records that soundtrack their favorite movies. Here's a recommendation: Cam'ron, hand the production of Killa Season 2 over to Disney. Maybe that's the only way to get hip hop sales back up.
 And indie kids, if the Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Shins, et al., sales figures are to be believed. But there are a lot more 12 year olds than indie kids. And they might have more money, too, considering, if I have my stereotypes right, indie kids are poor-ass ramen-eating college students, while Disney Channel viewers are pampered suburbanite middle-schoolers.
Yes, more about Stevie. I could fill a thousand grade-school composition notebooks with praise, criticism and rumination on Stevland Judkins/Morris/Wonder and never run out of things to say. One thing that gets lost amidst the zoom-in on his 70's output, though, is how great an interpreter of other people's compositions he was before he moved to exclusively self-penned material. In particular, I'm listening to his version of "We Can Work It Out," which eclipses the Beatles own rendition by a miracle mile. Perhaps because he sings like he's desperately meaning (and needing) it, whereas we all know what completely fucking useless human beings McCartney and Lennon turned into. It's what, five years between "We Can Work It Out" and "How Do You Sleep?" That latter song, for the record, boasts one of the most inane lyrics in pop history. Even as far as diss tracks go, it's pretty limp- I doubt it had Ringo fearing he'd be the next contestant on that Summer Jam screen.
Anyway, Stevie's "We Can Work It Out" is choice, from the echoed backing yelps at the end of every other line in the verse to the scuzzed-up backbeat, to the veering-towards falsetto he dips into as the song progresses. Even the harmonica solo is cool. Who the hell else makes harmonica solos sound cool?
Yes, it's February; quiet, you. I have been doing these slowly and irregularly at my blog, but all along my intent was to collect them here at the FF7 when I had enough done. I just posted the sixth, so here is the first quarter of my 2006 albums-in-review.
#20: Mogwai - Mr Beast / Excepter - Alternation
This is the list I submitted to Stylus, with one addition in this entry, and I don't even pretend this is still what I'd put down as my twenty favourite records of 2006; but it is twenty good ones, mostly not too terribly overexposed, and I certainly don't feel any regret.
So, to begin with, my #20 and the one that narrowly got bumped off the list once I realised I'd forgotten Phoenix (that would be Excepter). I went back and forth quite a bit on which of these I liked more, but ultimately Mogwai is the one I'd rather listen to for pleasure. Because I don't quite get "pleasure" from Alternation, even if what I do get might be more valuable.
But one at a time! Mr Beast may not have the best songs Mogwai has ever done (or at least, not all of them - although I'd make a case for "Travel Is Dangerous," "Glasgow Mega Snake" and the deceptively swooning "Friend of the Night") but it is resolutely their best album,* one where even the weaker tracks make perfect sense as parts of a whole, where brevity and power and nuance manage to collide perfectly. They pull off the same trick here that Constantines did on the underrated Tournament of Hearts, making their best record without quite hitting the heights they did before - maybe because they don't aim that high? Or maybe because both albums are so obsessively cohesive that it's harder to see highlights. "Team Handed" and "Emergency Trap" may not be songs I'll be putting on mixtapes, or even ones I can remember real well, but in context they, bluntly, work.
It doesn't hurt that Mr Beast manages to be both the hardest and the softest Mogwai have ever been on an LP; it avoids the absurd excesses of their first two records, the oddly unsatisfying sheen of Happy Music For Happy People and barely outshines the great Rock Action by dint of better sequencing and the fact that it turns out that a lack of epics suit the band. This is the first Mogwai album I love where I'd like to see them build on this sound; Come On Die Young and Rock Action felt more like they'd gone as far as they should and it was time to try something new.
As for Excepter, I'm just going to go ahead and post a conversation we had about it on the Stylus staff message boards.
Derek Miller: [Alternation] is a rather odd space for the band after their first few releases, more in the vein of Sunbomber.
Jeff Siegel: Yes. I quite like it actually. It's literally the most basic, fundamental thing they could possibly do. Ennui in a bottle. Yeah.
Mike Powell: Yeah, totally agreed. They're officially one of the most bored-sounding bands ever.
Jeff Siegel: Bored, but not boring. That's the key isn't it--how Uncle Andy put it?
Mike Powell: (The sound of our brains humming in unison, shattering the fragile champagne flute of mediocrity)
Jeff Siegel: Great minds.
I didn't think it was possible, but I've somehow managed to get "Ice Cream Van" stuck in my head.
Mike Powell: Because it is so awesome
Jeff Siegel: This is the fucking weirdest, most out-of-the-blue thing I've come across in a long time.
Mike Powell: Do you really think it's out of the blue? It makes perfect sense to me... and I'm not saying that to be weird or anything.
Ian Mathers: I won't be able to tell whether I like this or not for, oh, another ten or so listens. But I can tell I'm going to enjoy the process.
Stewart Voegtlin: Excepter certainly enjoys the process. The only other band who's patient enough to let songs "develop on their own" is NNCK. I think Excepter is stunning, and they ain't gettin' as much love as they should be. Dada dance band? Angst ridden disco? Coil meets LFO? All the above, yo.
Ian Mathers: Okay, I don't think I've been able to go a day without listening to this since I last posted (24 days before) in this thread. And that's fucking bizarre for me. Alternation is pretty severely eating/rewiring my brain.
Mike Powell: I find this admission both disturbing and laudable.
Stewart Voegtlin: That's funny, Mike. I felt the same way when I read it this a.m.
Ian Mathers: I finally managed to delete the damn thing off of my iPod (although not, of course, my hard drive**) tonight. My coworkers were, seriously, beginning to complain. They said it was "creepy". I find myself listening to it and half the time enjoying it without thinking, and the other half of the time sort of listening with part of my mind removed from the experience, asking the rest of me "and what are you getting out of this, exactly?" "The Rock Stepper" is pretty much the only song I know that I wish was an hour long.
*My favourite Mogwai album is Come On Die Young (absurdly long running time and all), so if you're one of many who thinks they stopped being good after the over-rated Young Team, go fetch some salt. **Yes, I bought a real copy.
#19: The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off
Except for "The Rat," I never liked these guys before. I hated this when I downloaded it. And then I got a hangover. A Hundred Miles Off is a headache, a blearily bawling pain behind the eyes, an almost determinedly ugly record from Leihauser's yowl on down. I mean, "Always After You ('Til You Started After Me)"'s main hook is the sound of the drummer trying to kill you after the title is wearily intoned.
And like a real hangover, it winds up being richer and more complex than you'd think at first. It helps that Leithauser is, no shit, one of the few great vocal personalities in modern indie rock (I love Chutes Too Narrow to bits, for example, but Mercer is basically a cipher). What's he actually saying? Who can tell? Who cares? Making something like "Emma, Get Me A Lemon" not only tolerable but a highlight is real yeoman work, in frontmen terms. This record, from the quietus of the far-off storm in "Lousiana" to seething spit, sweat and raw ache of most of the rest, reminds me of too many late nights out and too much of the texture of my actual life in 2006 to be ignored. I'll be unpacking what I love about it for years.
#18: Espers - Espers II
"There are shocks to the system hidden within II, but they're so pleasingly cushioned you never notice until afterwards. It’s an album that leaves you both soothed and disturbed, lulled and shaken by the group’s masterful blend of the comforting and the uncanny, slightly dazed as if returning from time travel or a knock on the head." (Me)
Space-age crystalline sludge-folk about deceased royalty, magick, storms, visions, hypnosis, living nightmares and the fugue state. Uses everything from an Omnichord to a dholak. Their publishing company is called "gonedarkside." This should be insufferably twee and/or goth but is instead strangely touching and genuinely weird. If Joanna Newsom was into writing songs with actual choruses and lovingly exploring the varieties of drone in the context of popular song from the Elizabethan era on down, she might sound a little like this. Only one of the strengths of Espers is that they very much sound like a collective instead of a person or group of people, and while the rugged individualists have long been lionized in music criticism, maybe we should be paying a little more attention to the gains made by groups that have more fully mastered the seeming mind-meld. It's probably just planning, but on the slow motion waltzing drift of "Dead Queen" and the almost schematic (in a good way) "Children of Stone" it seems more like telepathy.
#17: Mates of State - Bring It Back
One of those albums I'm surprised to see on one of these until I put it on again. But then I remember; I love pretty much every setting on Kori Gardner's keyboard (especially the ones that sound like organs or anything else that buzzes), "Think Long" is a strangely rousing opener, and I've never heard any of their other albums so I don't (can't) think this is any sort of a let down.
But mostly, I just love the way she and Jason Hammel yell. Not at each other - with each other. Whether it's the "Think long, think think long, think think!" from the opener, "And you will surely find this news pleasing to your ears!" in "Fraud in the '80s," "I've been thinking it's an afterthought!" in the ridiculously great coda to "Punchlines," "Nothing! And everything!" in "So Many Ways," or a bunch of other examples scattered across the punchy, hooky but tightly-plotted Bring it Back, it's one of the most willfully exuberant sounds I've ever heard. They really are like the anti-Low, where their voices don't go together at all and it does sound like two people, always, instead of one other... thing, but it's still amazing and alive and wonderful. And the record is perfectly paced (yes, I even like the ballad-y "Nature and the Wreck"); the closing "Running Out" is a bravura change of pace. A massed group of voices all yelling "Ooooh, tired of singing!" out of the ashes of the good-but-stark song the duo was playing somehow fills nearly 7 minutes without getting bored or boring.
I don't want them to add more people, or more instruments, or anything else. Just more albums of sugarbuzz surprisingly complex drum-and-organ-and-yell pop, please.
#16The Goslings - Grandeur of Hair
This is definitely the right time to talk about the Goslings; my head is clogged up by the tail end of a cold, and my working life is swiftly becoming a nightmare. In my review (too late, as is customary these days) I compare them to blood bruises, dull metal scraped on stone, and Aristotle's notion of catharsis. And a man who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, Bryan Berge, was "pleasantly surprised by just how heavy and harsh it is. Usually when people talk about finding beauty through the noise, they don't REALLY mean noise. Here it seems like a legit description." That's the problem/greatness of a record like Grandeur of Hair; it's so far off from what most people consider music that it can be hard to talk about without seeming pretentious, but this really is the real deal.
Like scrubbing yourself with sand, it's almost unpleasant but also cleansing; while plenty of music should be listened to loud the Goslings make sounds that demand the needle be edged over into the red. When you do, the noise is like a physical, prowling thing, and you're never sure if it's going to hug you or kill you. "Croatan," "Overnight" and "Dinah" alone deserve to inspire legions of imitators, but instead you can barely find Goslings material unless you take to the internet. At least they have a label now.
There's this thing comedians like to do: they find a dumb American, interview them, and claim the subject represents the entire nation. It's a pursuit equally beloved by non-Americans (Borat) as it is by Americans (Jay Leno), and admittedly, it can be pretty funny (Borat, not Leno).
It works because America is such a large, diverse country that you can, without too much difficulty, find someone somewhere who will not only hold a mindblowing ridiculous belief, but will also be entirely willing to elaborate this belief on camera. You can't do this style of comedy on Europeans, though, because the entire continent of Europe is utterly batshit insane. You interview an insane European, and the only response you could provoke from your audience would be, "Yeah, what's your point?"
Don't believe me? Look, here's a brief history of Europe:
1. Every European nation takes turns fighting one another, in some cases multiple times, over the course of a thousand years. 2. Eventually, they all have a gigantic fight that leaves millions of them dead. 3. Europe decides to hold an annual popular song contest.
This European insanity is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Since World War II, Europe has (mostly) avoided fighting itself and has instead been devoted to pursuing three main goals, which are, namely, making money, promoting public nudity and attempting to shorten the working week without reducing their capacity to make money and promote public nudity. That's not so bad. (America, for its part, has spent the time making money, restricting public nudity and trying to lengthen the working week without interfering with the pursuit of its first two goals. Australia has been pursuing the American goals, while telling itself it is pursuing the European goals.)
Come May, Eurovision will have been nobly stopping Europeans from killing each other for 51 years. I've only watched one full Eurovision contest, and that was last year's, which I helped profile for Stylus. I had seen bits of previous years, in those cases because I wanted to laugh at it, and I watched the year Russia entered tATu, in that case because of lesbians. But I've seen enough Eurovision to know one thing: it isn't all that good. It is better, however, than the other two major occasions for Europeans to gather together and not kill each other; unlike the UEFA Champions League, Eurovision actually offers contestants the chance to score a reasonable amount of points, and unlike the European Union parliament, Eurovision has decent costumes.
But before Eurovision starts, each individual nation needs to work out who is going to represent them at the festivities. Norway, for instance, holds a contest called Melodi Grand Prix, and if only them Norwegians vote properly, MGP 2007 has every possibility of launching the year's Eurovision champion. The MGP finalists have by now got through the gruelling semi-finals, and the clear standouts (i.e. the only ones I've bothered to check out) are a fantastic act who go by the delightful moniker Dusty Cowshit.
Dusty Cowshit are a Norwegian country act half way between "Rawhide" and Cowboy Troy (not that there actually is a lot of difference between those two). Germany tried to take out '06 with some Euro-country, and it wasn't half bad by Eurovision standards, but it was unfortunately played very straight. Dusty Cowshit solve this issue with their absolutely absurd song "Chicken Rodeo." Quite reasonably, Scandinavians are apparently rather impressed with these dudes. As the official MGP Web site says: "Norge liker cowboylukt!"
Let's face it: Eurovision is pretty shit. The reactionary end of pop music journalism tries to talk it up, but the rest of us can see that 90% of it is bullshit. I will admit that Kate Ryan, Belgium's failed '06 entry, had a decent enough song in "Je T'adore," but by normal pop music standards, even that was only average. The vast majority of Eurovision acts are comically bad, and the best ones are comically brilliant. Dusty Cowshit fall into the latter category, and I fully support their bid for MGP victory this year. With these guys and the possibility that Morrissey will represent the UK in '07, we have the makings of a first class cheese-fest on our hands.
This is a little perfunctory, as grad school and the like have yet to release its hellish grip on my life, but I wanted to mention that I recently caught the CFRU anniversary bash, or, as I prefer to think of it, the most recent Constantines show in Guelph. They began (again?) with the underwhelming-to-me "Tank Commander," but I seem to be the only one who thinks that the end of Shine a Light was the worst part of the band's discography.
Luckily, they were on their customary fine form (best live band in Canada, and don't give me any Arcade Fire guff), and the two new songs they played were easily up to the standards of their best material. One of the nice things about seeing them live is that they get a chance to transform tracks from Tournament of Hearts. It's their best album because for the first time Constantines really engage with the difference between playing live and making an album, and they want to fully explore the possibility of the latter, which also means Tournament of Hearts is their least-obvious record to date (although fans howl for "Hotline Operator" or "Draw Us Lines" just as much as they do for "Young Lions" or "Arizona"). But live they trade subtlety and range for brawn and excitement; "Lizaveta" feels about as heavy as Black Sabbath, and Steve Lambke's "Thieves" goes from quietly jazzy on disc to the highest of high octane.
Not that the set didn't have quieter moments, although those mostly came from the first album; more importantly, they played "Soon Enough" and "On to You" (the two hidden gems in a pretty ridiculously rich catalog), when four guys yelled out "Young offenders!" after "Young Lions" the band indulged them, and they always play well in their old home of Guelph. I could watch these guys every week.
Setlist: Tank Commander Working Full-Time No Ecstasy Hotline Operator Young Lions Young Offenders Soon Enough Showers of Stones* Subdomestic On to You Credit River* Arizona Thieves Lizaveta Shine a Light Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)
I did a top-five list with blurbs for Scenestars.net last week (although it hasn't gone up on the site yet), and while I was at it, I figured I could fill in the rest of the ballot that I submitted to the Jackin' Pop poll. (Still torn about whether or not to contribute to Pazz and Jop this year. On one hand, there's the genuine thrill of inclusion the last couple of years: "Ma, I'm in the Village Voice!" On the other, we're talking about a paper that has fucked over Robert Christgau, Chuck Eddy, and Michaelangelo Matos, three of the best, most consistently interesting music critics in the world. I guess there's always Hinder.) And so here we are:
10. Hot Chip, The Warning
An uneven record from a gang of pasty white British dudes that still contains some of the past year's most rewarding pop pleasures, from the energized, anthemic refrain of "Over and Over, " to the alluring blue-eyed croon and insistent twitch of "Boy from School."
9. Herbert, Scale
On paper it sounds like disco: lavishly sweeping strings and anonymously fabulous singers both subservient to a dance beat -- but for Herbert, fine details matter more than grand statements, and so his Technicolor orchestra here is microscopic, wrapped in a warm blanket of mellow clicks and glitches, and no less captivating for all the tweaking that implies.
8. Kaki King, ...Until We Felt Red
It's hard for me to dislike an album whose antecedents seem to be the kind of moonlit, back-porch post-rock I loved at the turn of the century: Tara Jane O'Neil's Peregrine and Papa M's Live in a Shark Cage, most obviously -- but the young guitar whiz also demonstrates her versatility by interspersing meditative, finger-picked instrumentals with eerily poignant vocal numbers like "Jessica," which borrows some of Jeff Buckley's compelling reverie.
7. Grizzly Bear, Yellow House
They've been said to resemble the softer side of Animal Collective, and this ensemble indeed copies the celebrated noise-folk outfit's wondrous harmonies and acoustic trance, but Yellow House is redolent less of the bounties of nature and more of the shadows of the past, with the hushed, creeping "Marla" seeming not so much a cover as a palimpsest, all the dusty, wine-stained markers of the attic where it was discovered still preserved and seeping through.
6. Destroyer, Rubies
Dan Bejar is the only New Pornographer I've ever had any use for, and though I admired the bold romantic artifice of Your Blues, his previous record under the Destroyer moniker, it was the sprawling Rubies that really sold me on him: an organic tangle of ramshackle piano and bleeding guitar, overlaid with endless strings of words that Bejar clearly relishes, as they build upon his own mythology.
5. Joanna Newsom, Ys
Girl's getting a lot of guff and p-word drops for her long song-suites, but pretentious only makes sense within the insular realm of indie rock: no one would dare diss Philip Glass, say, for ten minutes of hypnotic harp figures. Plus, the expansiveness only enhances the thorny beauty of these fairy tales: amid the colorful swaths of orchestration, it lets them linger and breathe.
4. Junior Boys, So This is Goodbye
Two years ago I swooned for the tricky rhythms and gorgeously frozen sighs of the electro-pop duo's debut, Last Exit, and though this one's more streamlined, that may ultimately be to its advantage: the persistent beat and elastic laser synths on "In the Morning" prompt fantasies of dancing all night, eyes lifted to the darkened sky.
3. Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
Owen Pallett's palette consists of the polite tools of the trained composer: contrapuntal cello and ornate piano intricately darting past each other, for instance. But he's as likely to spiral into cries of anguish as he is to dwell on his own prettiness (just as the album title conflates the heavens with literal shit), and the appearance of the Charlie Brown children's chorus on "This Lamb Sells Condos" all but encapsulates the record's consuming melancholy.
2. Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped
Twenty-five years on, and these boho rock stars not only haven't lost the plot, they're making some of the best music of their career: here they condense the bright, dreamy jams of their last couple records into crisp, shimmering pop songs, albeit with plenty of detuned arpeggios and breathy art-school poetry that'll probably always serve as a signature, since it still sounds so good.
1. Girl Talk, Night Ripper
In 2006 the gimmicky fun of the traditional mash-up gave way to a more transcendent pleasure: hearing dozens of my favorite radio hits stitched together, one snippet after another, for over 40 breathless minutes. Even when the name-that-tune factor lost its novelty, I was still left with a cavalcade of thrilling new contexts that unexpectedly stuck in my craw, and as the sort of dilettante who loves Ciara nearly as much as Sonic Youth, I couldn't help feeling like the mix was designed just for me.
Runners-up: The Knife, Silent Shout; Ellen Allien and Apparat, Orchestra of Bubbles; Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit; Phoenix, It's Never Been Like That; Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds; The Changes, Today is Tonight; Booka Shade, Movements; LCD Soundsystem, 45:33; The Rapture, Pieces of the People We Love; Luomo, Paper Tigers.
A consistent theme in one particular brand of hip hop is money; the earning of such, the keeping, the spending, the look, the feel, the smell, and, particularly, all the benefits and problems associated with the earning, keeping and spending of this money. This isn't a surprise. Money plays a significant role in nearly every aspect of life in the contemporary Western world, and as a lyrical theme, it is notable for its capacity for both breadth and depth, whether discussing its abundance or scarcity, or the transition from one state to the other.
Many rappers, particularly those who like to concentrate on the less legitimate, more desperate ways of earning funds, often discuss the mercenary nature of their approach. It's simple: C.R.E.A.M. get the money, from Mobb Deep's bleak "Shook Ones" to Lil' Wayne's "Money On My Mind," in which he spells out the relentlessness with which he and his contemporaries supposedly pursue their fortune: "Money is more important than the person."
These rappers don't want you to notice how seriously they take their craft. They slip hints, of course. Weezy sneers "cross-over, whatever, mainstream, no" and declares himself the best rapper alive, just like noted hustler-not-artist Jay-Z did before him. Young Jeezy says he does not even like rappers, then boasts of his own superiority as a rapper. As thuggish as they try to paint themselves, as economically single-mindedly as they claim to be, your average rapper ends us having a fairly extensive list of things they consider more important than money. Will.I.Am is an exception.
Will.I.Am has spent his extensive career reinventing himself in the pursuit of success, and his versatility and malleability has produced the kind of results he could not get from his rapping. Not to spend too much time kicking someone with absolutely no credibility anyway, but let's be clear: Will.I.Am is a horrible rapper, both in terms of lyrics and performance. His wordplay is near non-existent, he can't sustain a thought for more than half a bar and his rhymes are generic, repetitive and frequently cringe-worthy. The most memorable verse on Bridging the Gap, the group's second album, is almost certainly the large chunk of Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock" that they bite for "Go Go." If anything, Will gets worse the farther his career progresses; these early Black Eyed Peas raps were hardly inspiring, but they never quite plumbed the depths of his recent work, or, worse, his guest appearances.
Thematically, these releases concentrated on G-rated partying (a lot of which comes very close to being explicitly straight-edge) and lecturing other rappers for being too violent, too materialistic and for being lyrically vacuous. There are also a lot of hilarious accusations thrown about against those they believe are not being true to real hip hop. It'd be tempting, in light of the act's recent career moves, to accuse them of hypocrisy, but that assumes that they once genuinely believed the values they espoused in their lyrics. It is pretty hilarious hearing tracks like "Positivity" or "BEP Empire," of which the pious, Jurassic 5 style lecturing sounds like it was aimed at the rap group they would become (though, to be fair, the Peas are just as non-violent now as they have always been), but rather than viewing their 180 as the product of a cynical cash grab on behalf of the band, I am more inclined to believe that their original stance was just as cynical a cash grab.
The Black Eyed Peas' debut, Behind the Front, came out in 1998, and this period from the late '90s through to the early years of the '00s (when Bridging the Gap was released), was pretty much the creative zenith of the backpacker OkayPlayer positivity movement, and back then, it may even have seemed like this subgenre could be the commercial future of rap music. Biggie and Tupac had both died, and the West Coast was fading; gangsta could well have been on the way out, and I would not have blamed anyone for considering the possibility rap music would switch its focus to the Mos Defs, the Black Stars, and the Roots that were coming to prominence at this time. Perhaps Will.I.Am also saw this, and, sensing an opportunity, gathered together a couple of rappers who were even less talented than he was to create nouveau-hippie pop music. They even played their live shows with a real band, so they wouldn't scare off people who thought rap was bad because it wasn't made by people playing real instruments. Will was an able, though hardly gifted, producer, and he probably knew that for a good chunk of his audience, it was more important for rap to be moral than interesting.
Sonically, he did his best to make the music a success, filling the group's first two records with soulful limp funk, that fake Native Tongues bullshit that backpackers turn to when they get lazy. And it all had a gleaming pop sheen — not too much, mind you — just enough that you would never think a Black Eyed Peas track was abrasive or intimidating. "Weekends" is one of the better tracks from this era, and though its production is forgettable, it is still decent, and would be even moreso if it had a better rapper on it.
Full disclosure: back in high school, I quite liked the Black Eyed PEas, and I even have a signed copy of Bridging the Gap as proof. Apl.De.Ap and Taboo signed it, but at the show I saw, Will.I.Am had his lowly bandmates out meeting and greeting the general public while he hid backstage.
The whole caper nearly worked, too. It's pretty damn embarassing how hard the underground was riding B.E.P. dick back before they were Fergie-fied. Bridging the Gap managed to attract guest spots from backpacker heroes De La Soul, Mos Def, Chali2na and Wyclef, as well as a DJ Premier beat for the title track - and this was before Premo was tight with Christina Aguilera. The Peas even got Macy Gray on the single "Request Line," a surefire hint that they were looking to get paid off this positivity jawn; the song was even more glossy than the rest of their work, and people actually cared about Macy Gray at the time.
Of course, that wasn't the end of the Black Eyed Peas' story. They genuinely bridged the gap between conscious rap and pop rap with 2003's "Where is the Love?" which hijacked anti-war sentiment to smuggle a now Fergie enhanced BEP into the mainstream, and once they were there, they promptly forgot that they ever had anything to do with the now stagnant undie rap scene. Will found success as part of a pop group whose singles were as successful as they were forgettable, and that should have been the end of it.
Except, if this history has shown nothing else, Will.I.Am is not one to settle. He seemed perfectly content to continue grinding out an even more anemic version of the production aesthetic he pioneered for the Black Eyed Peas, but when Fergie came along, whether he expected it or not, he had a genuine pop star on his hands.
Apl.De.Ap and Taboo have always seemed to exist solely to make up the numbers, to provide variety to songs Will's rapping can't carry alone. It's no surprise that they should continue to be shoved into the background, and it looks like Stacy Ferguson has given Will.I.Am the opportunity to rid himself of them completely. Originally, Fergie seems to have been conceived as the chirpy, little sister of the BEP guys. If you watch the videos in which she first appeared with the group, she seems like she was drafted to have no greater role than sing the hooks and smile at the guys while they did their rapping thing. Even on "Shut Up," the Elephunk single she contributed most to, the video made it quite clear that she was only playing the part of the jilted, bitchy girlfriend. It was only when "Don't Phunk With My Heart" and "My Humps" came out, that she established her current persona, and she was able to do that in good part due to external events, like that photo of her pissing herself on stage and the vast amounts of hatred she attracted from, well, nearly everyone listening to pop music (I'm even willing to believe that her fans hate her). Add in that meth-addiction, and — bam — a dumbfuck trailer trash pop star was born. You think it's an accident that "t" was left in the title of The Dutchess? Even Jim Jones could afford to spellcheck the title of Hustler's P.O.M.E.
So with a genuine pop star on his hands, Will.I.Am started making genuine pop star music. The beat was the best thing about "My Humps," which really isn't saying a lot, but Will continued his second rate Neptunes act by conjuring up some really quite OK production for Fergie's record. It shows his greatest strength as a producer is not the brilliance of his ideas — as interesting as his blippy pop-hop is, it is clearly influenced by, and overshadowed by, the avant-garde of Timbaland and the Neptunes. Rather, Will is an admirably versatile producer, able to come up with a passable approximation of nearly any style of pop he requires. With a good performer, this results in music that is really quite enjoyable; Justin's "Damn Girl," for instance doesn't pop and fizz the way "Señorita" did on Justified, but it nevertheless does a good job playing second string for the absent Neptunes. Even if Will.I.Am did insist on weighing it down with an absolutely horrific guest rap. The words "feminine gelatine" should not be a part of pop music, especially when rhymed with "cinnamon."
With a less able performer, however, the results are less pleasing. The Dutchess sounds a good deal like a Black Eyed Peas record in many places (as Kelefa Sanneh said, "two [rappers] down, two to go"), and that's not a good thing. "London Bridge" and "Fergalicious," the singles, are two of the best tracks on the record, and I can't say I ever feel the urge to listen to those. Still, they work because Will keeps the production interesting enough that, similarly to Gwen Stefani's Wind It Up, while the track is never actually good, it avoids being boring simply because it is constantly doing something different. The rest of the album can't even live up to that standard, because, even with Will.I.Am pulling out skittering-electro-rap-future-pop, Fergie is a deeply unpleasant person to spend any amount of time with. Her dumbfuck white girl image may give her personality, but it doesn't make for enjoyable music, and listening to this record, I struggled to make it far into each track once Fergie had started singing (another Sanneh quote: "The worst thing about hearing the word “Fergalicious” for the first time? The dreadful certainty that you’ll hear it again"). There are some truly terrible lyrics, like, "I miss you like a child misses their blanket" from "Big Girls Don't Cry," and that track and the follow-up "Mary Jane Shoes" have a bizarre infantilization thing going on (the latter is a truly horrible one-joke reggae track about marijuana). Fergie doesn't have the ability to emotionally inhabit her tracks; when she sings "You're probably on your flight back to your home town," it sounds like she doesn't name that town because the you in question is not real enough to have a history. As such, these Fergie-as-a-little-girl moments don't make her sound vulnerable, they just make her sound like she's borderline mentally retarded.
And just to prove Will.I.Am can do anything, he's recently begun producing... wait... yes... hip hop. For the first time, he's making rap music that people into rap music listen to. I'm still a bit confused as to how this happened. Will.I.Am should be completely worthless as a guest rapper or producer, having zero credibility and zero crossover appeal (the Black Eyed Peas' kiddie-pop audience is not likely to want to buy Hip Hop is Dead just because a Black Eyed Pea is on it). It seems quite incredible that "serious" rappers would want anything to do with him. As Ian Cohen correctly said:
"[W]e all knew they were wack as fuck from the get-go, but at this point, it barely merits a mention. Making fun of them is almost redundant, but you figure they have no trouble paying their bills. There's supposedly a breakout star ( . . .Fergie) in here, but I seriously have my doubts if the public really cares. Absolutely no one would shed a tear if they disappeared completely."
The only explanation then, is that Will managed to get some rappers to liston to his production, and that these rappers, quite properly, chose quality over credibility. Just as Will is passable at doing club pop and second generation Native Tongues impersonations, so too is he quite passable at street rap instrumentals. More than passable, actually, considering his work with Too $hort, The Game and Nas. I still can't work out why they let him rap, though; "If we have a President's Day and a Veteran's Day, let's have a Titty Holiday" is unacceptably idiotic, even for a Too $hort song, as is "Them boobies was bouncing on my head."
And still, even with all this, it's hard to ascertain exactly what Will.I.Am is about as a producer. Any stylistic traits he has are just as likely to be missing as they are present. He likes live drums, except when he puts cold, hard drum machines on tracks for Fergie or the Black Eyed Peas. He does have a weakness for novelty (the "makes me wanna bounce" loop on "Keep Bouncin'", the inanity of "My Humps," the senseless pitchshifting of Ludacris' guest verse on Fergie's "Glamorous"), except he's also capable of turning in a bone simple banger like Game's "Compton." He likes samples, particularly when he can leave them practically unadulterated ("Hip Hop is Dead," "Pump It,") except he also likes creating frenetic synth patchworks, as on Fergie's hits. In fact, there is only one clear, consistent line running through Will.I.Am's production work, and that is its mercenary nature. If it sells, he does it. As a less capitalistic rapper said, "Money on my mind, so money is all I think of."
1 Xiu Xiu- The Fox and The Rabbit 2 Tyondai Braxton- Raise Yr Arms & Cross Them 3 Serena Maneesh- Drive Me Home The Lonely Nights 4 Parts & Labor- Don't Just Fucking Stand There 5 Patrik Torsson- påmönstring 6 Múm- Ég Finn Ekki Fyrir Hendinni Á Mér, En Það Er Allt Í Lagi, Liggðu Bara Kyrr 7 Sagor & Swing- Baklängesvisa 8 Mono- A Thousand Paper Cranes 9 Patrik Torsson- Komunikationerna 10 Birds- Birds 11 The Cleveland Orchestra- Ravel, Pavane Pour Une Enfante Défunte 12 Do Make Say Think- Frederica
As I maybe alluded over here, I'm vibing some hot zone music to go with my hot zone food today, and what could be more timely than a new Souljazz comp that follows in their awesome Dynamite series, only this time it's focused entirely on teh Dancehall.
I don't know what it is about dancehall - I've always really liked it in theory and sometimes in excectution - but too often I've found it rather tiresome to listen to for any extended period of time. Maybe it's just that I can't parse the patois, or perhaps my hackles get raised easily when homophobia is displayed...
Anyway, Souljazz tried a couple years ago with this comp, a half-baked effort if ever there was one. They've done a bit better this season with Dynamite! Dancehall Style, which blends old-school faves and the inevitable dubstep track or two without seeming like a cop-out. Here's some choice cuts:
I think everyone's forgotten, but Beck brought out a new album this year. It was called The Information and probably the most interesting thing about it is that it came with DIY artwork; if you cared enough to buy the record, you could make your own album art out of the free stickers. I've only heard the music, so I missed out on this record's most enjoyable feature.
Beck's most recent two records have been extraordinarily dull; I'm not saying anything new by noting that Guero saw him repeating himself for the first time, but I'm not saying anything inaccurate by mentioning it again. The entire point of Beck was that he was a crazy-ass guy who'd try anything to make weird, catchy pop music. Guero was just Beck trying to be Beck and, as a result, making rather dull pop music. But it doesn't have to be this way. Let's take a look at where Beck can go from here.
The only track from The Information that I have on regular rotation is "New Round." It's not so much that it does anything different to what Beck has done before, but rather that it does it right. Aside from Beck's junkyard popsmith image, he has his folk trubadour persona - his 21st century Nick Drake aspiration - and that's the Beck behind "New Round." It was the Beck responsible for Sea Change and to some extent Mutations as well. It works fantastically at times, for instance on "Nobody's Fault But My Own," "Golden Age" or (especially) "Lost Cause," but he has never been able to sustain that approach over an entire album.
This is for any number of reasons. "New Round" works in the same way all the best introspective Beck does, using his monotone speak-singing as an advantage, surrounding it with suitably moody production and packing it with enough intricacies and quirks to convey the emotion his voice can't. When it succeeds it can be devastating, sounding like Beck is remaining outwardly stubborn and morose while his inner emotions are projected in glorious technicolor behind him. Unfortunately, it too often does not work. Sometimes the production is focused on novelty when it should be focused on emotion (Has anyone considered that maybe Nigel Godrich isn't actually all that? I know he's part of the whole Radiohead brilliance phenomenon, but his greatness with that band does not necessarily translate to him being able to spin gold from anything handed to him, like, say, The Strokes or Travis). Somtimes Beck's monotone is just boring, rather than an unemotional counterweight, and sometimes Beck's songwriting is not strong enough to stand up without the bleeps and bloops that support his more freewheeling work.
Beck surely has the capacity to produce an album full of songs like "New Round" and "Lost Cause," but it seems unlikely he will ever do so. His strike rate with this style is too low. You could cobble together a good mix tape from his past attempts, but introspection is not Beck's path back to glory. Instead he should be attempting to recapture the thriftstore party atmosphere that made Odelay, Midnite Vultures, and Mellow Gold such enjoyable records. His big mistake with Guero was that he tried to capture the sound, not the spirit.
The solution is so obvious that I'm not sure what the bigger the surprise is: that it's already happened, or that it's only happened once.
Carry the anything goes, futurism-through-foraging mentality of Odelay through to the present day, and whom do you get? Tim Mosley, that's whom. And fair enough, there probably isn't an artist in the world whom I would not consider able to benefit from a Timbaland collaboration, but Beck would be particularly great. You don't even need to consider the contemporary implications; back in 1996, although Beck and Timbaland were operating in vastly different arenas, their approach to music, that is, getting asses shaking by being as weird as fuck, was rather similar. Or in another way: find a Beck a capella from '96 and lay it over Ginuwine's (Timbo-produced) "Pony." You've pretty much got the party mash-up of the century right there.
But you don't need to imagine how great a Beck-Timbaland collabo would be. It's already happened. They did David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," for that Baz Luhrmann movie that everyone hates, Moulin Rouge (incidentally, I don't get why folks can't deal with the music in that movie. Maybe it's just because I've grown up watching music videos, but I really don't see any disconnect in planting "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the middle of a garish 19th Century Parisian period piece).
"Diamond Dogs" is such an underappreciated high point in the Beck catalogue. For a start, the song is absolutely perfect for him, to the extent that I'm willing to call his version definitive. It was never one of Bowie's most loved songs, anyway, being the lead single off a concept album that never got the love things like Ziggy Stardust or Low did. It even sounds like a Beck song; lyrics like "The diamond dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees," and "In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch" have the ring of classic Beck nonsense, and the track's steady grind works much better as Beck/Timbo avant garde R&B/rock/pop than Bowie boogie.
Beck needs his freak back, and there's no better than a.k.a Thomas Crown to give it to him. And you can't say Tim wouldn't be interested. Beck would offer all the possibilites a Justin collaboration would and that Timbaland was in discussions with The Rapture shows Mosley could be interested in stepping outside the already rather vast R&B/pop/hip hop umbrella he works under. The Rapture was priced out of contention, even with Tim offering them heavy discounts, but Beck seems to have larger amounts of label money at his disposal; certainly enough to make high concept videos, anyway. I know where I think the dollars could be better spent. In '96, Beck had two turntables and a microphone, and ten years later, he's due back in the club. And the best part is, Timbo knows how to mix clever production with emotional resonance much better than Nigel Godrich. He did it on Nelly Furtado's most recent record, he did it fantastically with Justin, and, oh, yes, there were a few songs with Aaliyah that don't sound too bad. The Mosley-Hansen hook-up would not only let Beck party the way he used to, it would let him cry the way he wants to. And it would also thrill me crossover loving heart to no end. Let's get it happening, guys.
01. The Visionaries - Hindsight 02. Mighty Casey - Liquorland 03. Jay Dee - Fuck The Police 04. Clipse - Wamp Wamp Ft Slim Thug 05. Dilated Peoples - Bullet Train 06. Jurassic 5 - Linguistics 07. West Side Connection - Westside Fo Life 08. Fabolous - Superwoman Pt 2 Ft Lil Mo 09. Kudu - Hey 50 10. Professor Murder - Champion 11. Klaxons - Golden Skans 12. Spank Rock - Far Left (Audioporno Remix) 13. Shitdisco - Disco Blood 14. The Rapture - Whoo! Alright - Yeah... Uh Huh 15. The Blow - The Big U 16. Hot Chip - Just Like We (Breakdown) 17. The Knife - We Share Our Mother's Health 18. Sayag Jazz Machine - Flipper Down (Memories Mix By Co) 19. Radiohead vs. The Jungle Brothers - How Ya Want It (PZ Punchup Remix) 20. Masterminds - The Spinners 21. Mnemonic Ascent - Hold Back 22. Lyrics Born - Hello (Remix)
Alfred & I both raved way back in July(here and here, respectively) about Escort's previous single, "Starlight," a simmering slice of summer's madness delivered in discotheque form. I made the rare journey to a local record store on a quest for more Serge Gainsbourg music (I've just finished Fistful of Gitanes, but more on that later), and though I was unlucky in that quest, imagine my astonishment and delight when I found a brand new Escort 12" single! "Love In Indigo" is every bit the stunner that "Starlight" was, this time on a deeper boogie tip - much more bass-led and sporting a set of delicious string breaks sparkling like gold cufflinks. B-side "Karawane" reveals an unexpected afro-beat direction, complete with some stunningly deployed samples. Classy, funky disco for the naughties dancefloor - like KRS-One might not have ever said, not so much old school as true school. Coupled with an unexpected epiphany last night at The Proletariat to the tune of Sister Sledge, I'm quite ready to whip out the old disco dubplates and ring in the Holiday season with glitter, high-stepping dancefloor action and plenty of good-old fashioned pomp. I wanna see some freakin' pomp!
Without naming names and starting pointless fights about what is (like most things, really) nothing more than a matter of opinion, I'm finding certain colleagues reactions to the recently leaked Bloc Party album both a) disarmingly vague and irritating and b) exactly what I expected. Given the level of (deserved) praise Silent Alarm received, it doesn't take a genius (or a well-heeled monkey with a protractor) to anticipate a critical slashing of its' follow-up.
Needless to say, the early word on this is precisely what I imagined it would be - the most conservative so-called critics are ready to give it the boot, while a few people who (shock-of-the-month-club) took the opportunity provided by Silent Alarm to become fans are willing to listen twice, maybe even three times to their new record.
What are they finding, these lucky few?
Well, they're finding that the 192 kpbs .mp3 files that have illegally escaped the clutches of the record company are of a muted, rather poor sonic quality. No! Do go on!
They're finding that the songs on A Weekend in the City are different from those on Silent Alarm, yet obviously written and performed by the same band. "Do you see what I did there?"
They're also finding that some of the quirks and flaws inherent in Bloc Party's sound are still intact. For instance, Kele still exhibits moments and passages redolent of third-form poetry (vampires are mentioned twice, Sudoku once, and Bret Easton Ellis is both alluded to and quoted). The band still uses the same loud/soft patterns and punching/soaring alternations. They're still crippled by an enormous debt to minor chords and certain comfortable progressions.
They still have those kinda goofy backup vocal stylings a la "Helicopter." And I'm not sure if that's a flaw or a virtue, actually. So it goes in the middle.
They're finding that the virtues exhibited by repeat exposure to Silent Alarm are still here on its sequel. Kele still sings like a tense "ordinary man" accustomed to cloaking his vulnerability in a sense of retributive pride and world-weary dismay. The band still packs a rhythmic punch, even if its somewhat lopped short by a weak (hopefully-not-the-final) master which is heavy on compression and low on seperation. The songs still soar along in a manner evocative of U2 but without the latter's pernicious self-righteousness. There are still moments of intense ugliness alternated with flashes of beauty.
In short, it's the new album by Bloc Party. And just as haters (and those regrettably shorn of their ears) declared the album inferior to the (rather lopsided) EP, those quick to follow popular opinion will regard A Weekend in the City as Silent Alarm's leftovers. Fine with me. That's just more room at the feast-table for the rest of us.
Bloc Party's debut album was an unexpected explosion that ranks as one of the classics of the naughties despite its flaws, just like a hundred great records before it. Its successor builds on the debut without rewriting the book overmuch, yet adds elements and influences which weren't as obvious on the first record. It's the textbook example of the follow-up: consolidating ground, winning few new converts but not alienating the fans. Or it would be if we were retroactively judging, say, the second Ramones record. Instead, certain crusties are taking out their alienation from youth culture by binning the second record by the buzz band of 2005 on the basis of an un-finalized leak. Which they would be doing regardless of the quality of said record or said band.
Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. You have officially become your elders.
I've been listening to A Weekend in the City almost constantly since getting it - several times in the car, a couple at home, etc. It's a great second record, with many valid high points ("Hunting For Witches," "Waiting For the 7.18," the Cure-like "I Still Remember") and nothing jaw-droppingly embarassing.
And... (wait for it):
It's not as good as Silent Alarm. You know, the album that effortlessly ranks amongst my ten favorites of the decade thus far.
"Do you know what it means, the Slits in Texas on Veteran's Day?"
No. And we never found out either. Which suited me just fine - the Slits were at their best when carving out a space based on the commonality of sexuality's terrors ("Or What Is It?") and a appealingly trite rejection of consumerism ("Shoplifting," with its gleefully anthemic "I pay fuck-all!"), rather than grandstanding about the usual political suspects.
Original Slits Ari Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt led their merry band of fellow travellers (six Slits in toto) through the changes at Emo's (lol) in Austin on Saturday night. In attendance were myself and fellow FF7ers lady k! and senor shoup - another merry band, though slighly less large and dread-y. (Budgie was no where to be seen.) It must be said, the audience didn't seem to know quite what to make of things, a rather vocal contingent up front excepted. Perhaps it was the band's determination to avoid nostalgia (Cut dominated the proceedings somewhat less than expected), perhaps it was their repeated demands upon those in attendance to make "bird sounds." Most likely it was a sense of being completely dominated by Ari Up's alarmingly fit, nearly stentorian stage presence, which seemed to treat the audience as though it should, you know, actively become involved in the performance or something. Goodness. End result - the thrashing or at least happily bopping majority had a good old time, the rest went home to sit in front of their X-Box.
The band's sound vacillated between old-guard punk, trad reggae, punky reggae, and some indefinite other, in which something even more deliciously, suffocatingly primal than their Earth Mother riddims began to rear its head. This was made most clear when the Slits alternated rebel rock and lover's rock within the context of individual songs, and when they played material from their daring and overlooked second album, Return of the Giant Slits. All told, only three songs from Cut, the only album most concert goers could be reasonably expected to have heard, made the... setlist ("Typical Girls," "Shoplifting," and "FM"). Instead, the crowd was treated to a new song ("Slits Tradition") from the quickie EP Revenge of the Giant Slits, an oldie ("Number One Enemy," available on that release and the shoddy Live at the Gibus Club) and some more traditional reggae material, such as Ari's rasta polemic "Kill Them With Love," which originally appeared on her solo record of last year. We were also treated to some rather odd statements, such as the one that the Slits "invented New Music." I think Schoenberg and Stravinsky, among others, might have had a thing or two to say about that, but we'll let that pass for now.
But don't you let them pass :
Not so much a live show as an event, the remaining dates for Slits Tour 2006, an uproarious and almost dangerously wholesome good-time:
11.16 Thu - San Diego, California. The Casbah 11.17 Fri - Los Angeles, California. Troubadour 11.18 Sat - San Francisco, California. Mezzanine 11.19 Sun - Oakland, California. The Uptown 11.20 Mon - Eureka, California. Synapsis 11.21 Tue - Portland, Oregon. Dante's 11.22 Wed - Seattle, Washington. El Corazon 11.26 Sun - Chicago, Illinois. Logan Square Auditorium
In the meantime, treat yourself to two songs from their undervalued sophomore album:
Setlist: Keep Fallin' Shake A Fist* And I Was A Boy From School Out At The Pictures* Just Like We (Breakdown) Colours Hold On* Graceland* Beach Party No Fit State
Encore: Careful Over And Over
*As far as I know/can tell, new songs.
As at least one other member of our little collective could tell you, Hot Chip rock surprisingly hard live. Well, "rock" isn't quite the right word. As a band that have made a lovely, restrained album that's one of my favourites of the year for emotional rather than ass-shaking reasons I had some small amount of trepidation about them seeing them live, and not just because it meant I was going to have to finish off a 50% essay after going a full night without sleep (concerts in Toronto should end earlier, or else the bus back to Guelph should leave later).
I mean, The Warning is one of those records that really makes me want to never meet Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard. Not because they don't seem nice, they do (and I covet Joe's "Extended Version" t-shirt from the show), but because in my experience meeting people who have made music that "really, like, speaks to me" is disappointing. There's a necessary combination of specficity and vagueness needed for this kind of effect; sure, I love Hot Chip partly because they write about/from the perspective of people like me, but also because there's enough room in the songs that I can interpret them to be really personal.
As a result many of my favourite tracks on the album - "So Glad To See You," "The Warning," "Won't Wash," "Colours" (along with "Crap Kraft Dinner" from Coming On Strong, on which more in a minute) - are on the quieter, more reflective side. As you can see from the setlist below, that is not a side the band indulged much last Monday, but Pete and I still walked away having loved it more than pretty much any comparable concert we'd been to in the past few years (I mean, yes, the Mountain Goats were pretty amazing, but that's a serious case of apples and oranges).
On this show, at least, the six-person band (five in the front playing some combination of keyboard/device/percussion/drum/guitar, and one full time drummer in the back) seemed determined to provoke the maximum amount of dancing possible. The older tracks, which initially seemed kind of limp when I downloaded Coming On Strong (which I now have to buy; there used to be a used copy available down the street from my building, but as I found out last night it's been sold, naturally), were ferocious (I've had that sing-songy refrain from "Keep Fallin'" in my head all day!), and the material from The Warning was ecstatic. Let's not even get into Taylor interpolating "oh you've got blue eyes, oh you've got green eyes, oh you've got grey eyes" into the mid-section of the I-didn't-even-realize-how-much-I-wanted-to-hear-it "No Fit State," which I had just decided on the way up to Toronto that afternoon was maybe my new favourite song of theirs. You could have knocked me over with a feather. And after so much sweat and euphoria never have I been in a crowd so desperate for just one particular song the band had been teasing us with all night, and when they finally played "Over And Over" it detonated like a bomb. By the end, my voice was sore, my legs were sore, I was covered in sweat, and I'd gone from loving an album to loving a band.
And the new material! Usually these are the dull moments of a live show, but all of them were great, particularly the duo of "Hold On" and "Graceland," the latter of which sounded like a polyrhythmic sunrise. The comment in the review of The Warning comparing them to New Order is almost painfully apposite at this point, not because Hot Chip sound like them, but because if there is an analogy and these songs get aired in anything approaching their live versions we are headed for "Temptation" territory, in terms of quality. And although I'd never connected the two, Hot Chip and New Order are actually fairly similar; rock bands (kinda) playing electronic dance music (kinda), lyrics equally loved and derided for both their goofiness and their devastatingly precise emotional command, artfully opaque narrator/singers. I am fantastically excited at what comes next, and given that so far Coming On Strong seems to me to have more great moments than Movement (although I think the latter is a bit underrated; nothing as incredible as "Crap Kraft Dinner," but still), I'm possibly even more excited about Hot Chip. Of course, it helps that unlike New Order I get to be a fan as the band happens, so to speak.
The way the band fucked with the arrangements was also incredibly impressive, turning "Beach Party" into almost-Krautrock, "Just Like We (Breakdown)" into something vaguely akin to high-grade Underworld, "Careful" into an even more storming version of itself. Unlike most concerts even songs I know and love took a little while to identify, and the mass cheers when we did were kind of inspiring. The band actually had impressive stage presence, walking the fine line between cool and dorky exceedingly well.
I don't really have a greater point to make here, other than Hot Chip are awesome and I expect great things from them. But if they're coming your way, you kind of owe it to yourself to check them out. I admit that in addition to this sort of show it'd be neat to see them doing a more musically sedate set (dropping something like "Look After Me" into the middle of this show wouldn't have made a bit of sense), but it's the collision between the raucous and the emotional, as with New Order, that makes the band great. If they put out a live album (which they absolutely should), "No Fit State" alone should prove that amply.
Yeah, so I ain't exactly painting the town tonight. But as a frustrated pre-teen rap fan trapped in a frustrated little goth boy trapped in a frustrated rapidly aging I don't know what all, Halloween has to be the best holiday, like, ever and shit.
For those of you playing the home version of the game, that's the early, gay, synthpop Ministry when Al Jourgensen spells his name Alain and affects a totally bad Brit accent. Before he started doing smack and mucking about with animal carcasses and all that.
Time to go get more bourbon.
For the love of Christ, please have a safe and joyous Holiday and stuff.