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January Music Round-Up

January 30, 2012 Leave a comment

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is Really Cool

January 20, 2012 1 comment

Sometimes I can’t really describe what exactly makes a band awesome, except that it’s instinctively “cool.” That’s the case for the YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a Canadian group fronted by drummer Alaska B and signer Ruby Kato Attwood that combines many disparate elements to create music that seems to be an attempt to redefine exactly what “music” is.

On their bandcamp page, where you can stream or buy their debut album YT//ST, they describe themselves as a “psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.” It’s a more apt description than anything I could come up with. One thing is basically guaranteed: This band is unlike anything you’ve heard before. And in 2012, that’s quite an accomplishment.

The fact that I had never heard anything quite like the band is what really blew me away, and their 7-song, 30-minute album has become probably my favorite of the last couple of months. After seeing the description I expected them to fall into a trap of sounding like a different band on every song, but they’re able to take all of those influences and turn it into something that is extremely cohesive.  I never get the sense that the band is experimenting with a genre or that their influences are fighting to be heard; they just naturally sound like a band that is dabbling in several different genres, often in the space of a single song. Most of the tracks also bleed into each other, which makes YT//ST seem more like one 30 minute piece of music rather than an album in a traditional sense.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN seems almost like a band from a future where no music genres or labels exist. As someone who has always been a bit annoyed with how we as listeners feel the need to pigeonhole bands into certain segments of music, the way they completely ignore such meaningless labels is refreshing.

Of course, none of this would matter if the songs weren’t good. Their debut starts with the minute-long “Raccoon Song,” a ritualistic chant that serves as prelude to the album and bleeds into the second track “Queens,” which is probably the closest the album comes to a pop single, with a soaring melody followed by a proggy instrumental section in the center.

The delicate folk song “Oak of Guernica” follows, after which the band kicks it into high gear with the two part “Reverse Crystal // Murder of a Spider” which resembles a 7-minute progressive rock jam with almost operatic vocals. The album’s other poppiest moment, “Hoshi Neko” comes next, and its propulsive beat reminds me a bit of Stereolab if they were suddenly imbued with pan-asian sensibilities.

The album closes with a pair of primarily instrumental tracks, “A Star Over Pureland” and “Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees.” They’re probably the two heaviest songs on the album, drifting more into metal and noise while still retaining the band’s “Noh-Wave” ideas.

While their debut album is relatively brief, it’s full of twists and turns and journeys into the unexpected. Sort of like a tiny musical rollercoaster. I haven’t really analyzed the lyrics at all (a lot of them are in Japanese), but just the pure sound and the cryptic nature of the album has grabbed me and made me want to listen to it over and over. In addition to the music, the band also puts on theatrical, operatic live shows, complete with costumes and special effects.

It’s bands like this that really make me excited about music. With so many bands looking back to find their sound, YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN only looks forward, refusing to fall into genre trappings and confounding expectations at every turn. Hopefully “YT//ST” is just the tip of the iceberg, because I think this band has tons of potential (I’m hoping for an epic 75 minute album and corresponding live performance eventually).

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.

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Unheard Classics: The Beatles – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

January 13, 2012 Leave a comment

As mentioned in my OK Computer post, I’m someone who is still relatively new to being obsessed with music. It wasn’t really part of my family growing up and it’s not something that was ingrained in me from a young age. I see this as both a blessing and a curse: On one hand, I feel like having a “blank slate” helped me form unique tastes that aren’t influenced by too many outside sources. I was able to identify what I liked and why I liked it all by myself.

The downside is that I feel like I’m constantly in a state of catch-up, particularly when it comes to past music that, for most music lovers, is just common knowledge. In particular, I have a rather shameful and embarrassing ignorance of most 60’s music.

Admittedly, part of that is my own doing. I’ve listened to plenty of older music from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but I’ve sort of consciously avoided the 60’s for a few reasons. One of them is that I’m more of a punk fan at heart — my tastes veer more towards the aggressive and I’m drawn to the punk ethos and the fact that the music is naturally making a statement. The 60’s had the seeds of punk in some places, but at least the kind I enjoy didn’t really pick up until the 70’s.

A bigger problem that I have with 60’s music doesn’t so much have to do with the music itself, but more with the way certain things get canonized and romanticized until there’s no room for any sort of reasonable discussion anymore. At a certain point it seems like a lot of the music from the 60’s has just become immune to any criticism and is only mentioned in slobbering articles, with massive statements about how “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking” it is. I feel like there’s a common perception among some music fans and reviewers that music is automatically better because it came from the 60’s.

Personally, I don’t think anything should be above criticism, especially something as subjective as music. So I thought this series, which is inspired a lot by NPR’s “You’ve Never Heard…” and the AV Club’s Better Late Than Never features, would be a good way to not only fill my embarrassing gaps in 60’s music knowledge but also to honestly evaluate and critique this music without being bound by nostalgia.

My mental image of Beatles fans.

My mental image of Beatles fans.

There was only one place to start with this experiment: The Beatles. Now obviously I’ve heard a lot of Beatles songs, because I’m a human being living on planet earth, but I had never really gotten the urge to just sit down and listen to their albums. Partly because, for me, a lot of the joy in music is the discovery: I love finding great music that has been overlooked or only has a small following. It makes me feel like I know something other people don’t, and it’s easier for music to emotionally connect with me that way.  (I realize this makes me sound like one of those hipster douchebags who hates anything that’s popular, but I can’t help it.)

Obviously, no such feeling exists with the Beatles. They’re everywhere. If you want to “discover” the Beatles, you just have to go to a local shopping mall or turn on the TV. The fact that the band is so widely and unanimously adored is a lot of the reason why I’ve never gone too far out of my way to listen to them. On some level, the band’s music doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. It belongs to the massive, crazy Beatles fans who were there during the 60’s or the people that know the words to every Beatles song and completely worship them.

I should clarify that I like the Beatles, at least most of the songs I’d heard going into this. I just have a negative reaction to the way they’re so endlessly mythologized, this attitude that the Beatles invented everything and it’s all been downhill since the Beatles and if you don’t listen to the Beatles you must be an idiot who knows nothing about music. I’m sick of stuff like Across the Universe and the like that is all about putting the Beatles onto this golden pedestal to the point that, if you say anything even remotely negative about them, you risk being shunned by society.

I could have picked pretty much any Beatles album (I might still do more in the future), but I chose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to start this. It was named the best album of all time by Rolling Stone a few years ago and has an overwhelming consensus as one of the all-time great albums. It’s generally recognized as being part of the band’s creative peak.

One of the main things I knew about the album before hitting play is that it’s been recognized as one of the first concept albums, as The Beatles, tired of touring, created a fictional band which presents the opening title track. That segues into the Ringo-sung “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which is a pretty classic Beatles tune with a great melody. After that, the concept is mostly dropped, which apparently bothers me more than anyone else, so I won’t make a big deal of it.

From there it moves to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, John Lennon’s ode to a girl named Lucy that was in the sky with diamonds and totally not LSD. That song’s combination of pop and psychedelia pretty much sums up the first chunk of Sgt. Pepper’s, which is a bunch of irresistible, catchy pop songs that also have a lot more to them than it might appear on the surface.

It’s in the middle part where Sgt. Pepper’s kind of lost me. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” has the pop craft that the Beatles are known for, but the lyrics are pretty silly which made it disposable for me. After that was George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” It’s a good song and I generally like Harrison’s sitar experiments with the Beatles, but it also feels disconnected from the rest of the album, like a George Harrison solo effort that just got plunked in there (which it basically is — none of the other Beatles played on the track).

After that is “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I said I’d be honest so here goes: I think this is a terrible song that comes pretty close to derailing the whole album. It’s just so maudlin and goofy sounding, it has no connection to the rest of the album’s sound, and in general it just sounds like McCartney making a song for a crappy children’s cartoon. I wish it didn’t exist. While a lot of the sounds the Beatles used on this album have been influential, I’m thankful that this one hasn’t.

Fortunately, things pick up from there with “Lovely Rita,” which is more in line with the first part of the album as a great pop song with some excellent harmonies and an infectious piano part. “Good Morning Good Morning” combines psychedelic guitar and horns into another tight pop package. It’s the kind of combination of accessibility and experimentation that has defined the Beatles.

After that there’s a reprise of the title track, just to remind people that what you just listened to was a concept album (even though it totally wasn’t — okay, I’ll drop it). That’s followed by “A Day in the Life,” which is one of my favorite Beatles songs and definitely one of their classics that I won’t argue with anyone about. Both the McCartney and Lennon parts are excellent, and they’re glued together in a way that makes perfect sense and helped redefine what a song could be in this era of music.

Overall, I obviously didn’t come out of my first serious listen to this album instantly going “THIS IS THE BEST ALBUM EVER EVERYONE WAS RIGHT,” because music doesn’t work like that. However, I can clearly see why it’s considered so amazing: On the surface it’s a great, listenable pop album, but beneath that you realize that the Beatles were experimenting and doing things that no other band had done before in the studio. That sense of experimentation, for me, led to a couple of dud tracks, but those duds were the result of the same artistic risk-taking that created “A Day in the Life” and the other parts that made it work.

Still, when listening, I can’t help but feel like I’m in a stuffy museum, observing it from afar rather than really experiencing it. I enjoyed most of the tracks but rarely felt that vital emotional connection, that spark I get when I find something I really love for the first time. I have a feeling that this isn’t the fault of the Beatles, it’s just what happens when art becomes so inescapable and influential. So many of the Beatles innovations have become commonplace that it’s likely that I simply can’t appreciate them the way people did at the time when there was no real precedent.

A lot of what music you really love comes down to timing: At a certain age a band might really make an impact that wouldn’t be felt if you listened to them even a couple years later. In that regard, I think I’ve either missed the boat on loving the Beatles or it simply hasn’t arrived yet. But listening did help me gain a respect for the band’s ability to play to the top of the pop charts while simultaneously experimenting with what music could be.