Jan 26, 2010

np: "Before Destruction" - Spoon

I mentioned a few days ago my excitement for the new Spoon full-length, Transference. The release date, one week ago today, has come and gone and I have to say we were certainly treated to, as I had anticipated, "another great Spoon album". How great is it? How does it stack up against the other pillars in the band's noteworthy discography? I'm not sure yet, this is most definitely a record to spend a lot of time with. Not a "grower" mind you, this one made a pretty solid impact right away, but an album that needs to be lived in - there are lots of little nooks and crannies to crawl around and get lost in. As I embark on yet another listen, I thought it might be fun to do some liveblogging of sorts as I offer up thoughts on each track as I listen to the album.

1. "Before Destruction"
Seems like a pretty apt title, as this song feels more like its falling apart more than coming together. Buzzing drones float around that main guitar and vocals lines, dropping out time and again to reveal a pretty sparse skeleton. No hook, not much of a melody to grab, I can certainly see why those who loved the band's poppier moments might not have been impressed with this. But there is a certain sort of beauty in the way this stumbles along to the finish line. It's almost as if Spoon are daring you to follow them in another direction.

2. "Is Love Forever?"
This springs to life right out of the gate with a great guitar riff. Quite a bit of playing around with the vocals on this one, between Britt's double-tracked lead and the dub-inspired echoes. Not much of a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, but the studio trickery keeps your ears entertained. Such a tight and concise song at just over two minutes that you hardly notice just how sparse it is. Love the way Britt's vocals just sort of cut out near the end though. It's like the theme of this record is "addition by subtraction" or something.

3. "The Mystery Zone"
Establishes a great groove, solidified by a boisterous one-note bass line. This has the swagger that the best of the Spoon tracks have. More studio trickery as pianos, synths, and vocal echoes float up from the bottom to entwine Britt's vocal melodies. Really love how confident this one feels. As the song progresses, I'm noticing just how few notes make up that stuttering guitar rhythm. It's amazing how "full" this song can sound when made up of so little. Nice little drum break before an ethereal guitar solo of sorts jabs and darts away. There goes Britt's vocals cutting off in the middle of a word again. Warts and all? Some backwards vocals mixed in. I'm not sure if this beat counts as motorik, but I can certainly feel the influence. And we cut out mid vocal, but for good this time.

4. "Who Makes Your Money"
More emphasis on the bass again, punctuated by sparse snare hits and heavily processed vocals bouncing around. I'm feeling more dub influence on this one too, particularly on the swirling chorus. Is that Britt trying to channel some Prince with his mid-song exclamations? So many layers of rhythm on this song, leaving pretty much just the lead vocals to bring the melody. Even with all the studio trickery, there is a lot of open space in this track. We slow down to the end with Britt intoning the title over and over.

5. "Written In Reverse"
Another strong rhythm here, intensely struck piano chords and fuzzy guitar stomp around in the background as Britt works himself up to the chorus. The percussion is all sorts of rolling and tumbling, while the piano barrels around in the sawdust on the barroom floor. Loving the way Britt is stretching out the "looooooose". Really nice Crazy Horse styled guitar solo, particularly the little patch where it becomes one note repeated. The guitar playing on this whole song is fantastic. Sounds like they are having fun, as evidenced by the laugh at the end.

6. "I Saw the Light"
Some cool layering here with the different instruments, especially the rapidly strummed acoustic. More fuzzy guitar too. I like the way everything builds to a mini climax before it all drops out and we are left with just the piano and the propulsive drumbeat. Here comes the clean electric guitar and, whoa, some really low-end, demonic sounding vocals that I hadn't caught on any previous listens. Again, getting a very krautrock, motorik kind of vibe from the rhythm section. The guitars are just sort of free to roam all over the place while that groove holds everything else down. Really, really love this track and wish the instrumental portion could have gone on for another five minutes.

7. "Trouble Comes Running"
This starts out with muddily recorded acoustic guitar that sounds like it was lifted straight off a Robert Pollard project. Everything stays a little lo-fi and fuzzy, but Britt's vocals are right up front and clean. Even the drums are dampened and muffled. Now Britt is singing about "a heavenly host" in "a heavenly place". Everything cuts out for a guitar solo right out of the Pollard canon. This is at once both the most and least accessible song on the entire album, and I absolutely adore it for that. The vocal hook is undeniable, but the muddy production feels quite at odds with how bright the tune feels.

8. "Goodnight Laura"
Surprise, surprise. Here comes the piano ballad. The lyrics actually sound pretty sweet, a feeling aided by the neat way the humming approximates what would typically be the swelling string section in your ordinary ballad. Again I get the feeling of wide open space, the piano sounds like it is all by itself in a deserted ballroom. Surprised to like a Spoon piano ballad this much.

9. "Out Go the Lights"
The chiming, ringing guitars really make this song work, almost stealing the spotlight from Britt's vocals at times. There is a real clean, crisp snap to this one. For some reason the lyrics are making me think this might be the indie rock equivalent of "Wonderful Tonight". No? The instrumental performances on this song are all great and we get a few more of those dub flourishes as the extended instrumental intro rolls on. This song doesn't scream out for your attention, but quietly steals it anyway.

10. "Got Nuffin'"
This track gallops off from the starting line on the back of the drums and staccato guitar line. "I got nothing to lose / but darkness and shadows", I really like that line. Everything feels urgent and rushed, like the narrator just can't get his feeling out fast enough, before his veil of optimism is punctured and his bitter, cynical self comes to the forefront once again. The guitar riff repeated in the solo may be one of the biggest earworms on the entire album. "The flowers bloom and the trains collide", another great line. More frenetic guitar fun and driving drums out to the sudden finish.

11. "Nobody Gets Me But You"
A funky start to this one, more blatant R&B influence than we've seen on this album so far. An insistent, metallic sounding heartbeat off in one channel that plays nicely off the bass guitar figure that pumps the lifeblood into the song. Twinkling piano runs and a steadily increasing drone carry us forward. Tons of rhythm here, but little melody to hang your hat on. The common theme returns, lots of little sonic touches but plenty of "white space" to keep things from getting claustrophobic. I don't think there is any active rock band on the planet that used the studio as well as these guys do. Another extended instrumental run to wrap up the album, complete with tape manipulation and buzzing static to end the sentence.

Hopefully my ramblings weren't too disjointed, but I found it a bit more challenging to write as I'm actively listening than I expected it would be. Anyway, Transference. If it wasn't clear enough above, I really love it. There isn't the immediacy certain fans might be expecting, but anybody that really loves picking out minute details and listening for studio trickery will find plenty to love. Its rare that a band can sound this focused and confident while exuding the kind of playful and loose vibe that seeps through every track. This may not be the most accessible Spoon album yet, but it certainly feels like the most replayable one. I'm already itching to dive into it again, always a sign of an album worth keeping around.

Jan 25, 2010

np: "Zebra" - Beach House

I'm still exploring their Sub Pop debut, Teen Dream, but I thought I would share Beach House's pretty stellar performance on last week's Jimmy Fallon show. Late night American television performances seem to be very hit or miss, but I found this one to be very engaging and enough to motivate me to check out the record.

Jan 21, 2010

Evaluating the Teargarden Part 2: Widow Wake My Mind

Billy's running a little bit behind schedule already (not a surprise at all), but here it its... the second of the 44 song projects that is Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. Let's take a look at the new tune, shall we?

EP #1, Track #2: "Widow Wake My Mind"
Things kicked off last month with the epic "A Song for A Son", this time we scale back a little bit for something a little more pop-oriented. Which isn't at all a bad thing, the Pumpkins' back catalog is littered with great little pop tunes from the big hits ("1979", "Disarm") to the songs that should have been big hits ("Untitled", "Set the Ray to Jerry"). Even the huge, sprawling Mellon Collie took the time to step back for a brief burst of pop, so I certainly have no problem with it popping up here already. It starts off with a staccato guitar riff and Billy intoning "oh oh oh" before being joined by a frankly awesome bass line and an organ-sounding keyboard melody. This sets the tone for something light and airy and it isn't long before the first chorus swings into gear and sends us dizzying off into the air. It's a nice moment and reminds me more than a little of "Honestly", the intoxicating debut single from the short-lived Zwan project. It's a great chorus, even if the lyrics are pretty clunky and heavy-handed. In fact, the lyrics end up being pretty much the worst thing about the song. Billy's lyrics of late routinely ride the thin line between poetry and platitudes, this time they firmly fall into the latter camp. I also find myself wishing the song wrapped up at least a full minute before it actually does, we don't really need a piano bridge and an organ bridge both - it would have been far more concise, urgent, and thrilling if it were trimmed down to three minute pop single length. Still, this is the second song in a row to outpace my low expectations, so maybe this project won't end up a complete bust. The soaring chorus alone is enough to keep this song in rotation for awhile.

Rating: 7.2/10.0

Jan 20, 2010

2009 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll Results

In what, believe it or not, amounts to semi big news in rock crit circles, the results of the 2009 Pazz & Jop Poll have been posted over at the Village Voice site. Thoughts? What a boring and predictable list it is. I can't say I dislike the results, but I probably could have called the top albums from a mile away. I was hoping there might be a surprise or two this year, but nothing is shocking about this year. I actually voted for three of the albums in the top ten, including the eventual winner, so I certainly played my part in adding to the consensus. I just wish the Animal Collective win hadn't been so bloody obvious. "Empire State of Mind" winning the singles list was a bit of a surprise, mostly because I was under the impression that most critics hated it, but the rest of the top ten was surprisingly indie-centric with a lot of overlap with the top ten albums (Lady GaGa and Taylor Swift did sneak in to represent the mainstream pop worlds though). I certainly fed into the hivemind even worse on the singles list, voting for a whopping seven out of the top ten. But, I won't apologize, I still legitimately believe those were the ten singles that I got the most out of this year. Despite being disappointed with the predictability of the list, I don't know that this necessarily points to critical consensus being worthless (as some over on the ILM boards may have you believe), I think it just means that we, as critics, need to spend more time seeking out niches to get lost in and not being so blind when it comes to buzz and hype. I recommend a nicely worded essay by Chuck Eddy that dives into some theories behind lazy consensus. I will say, however, that I was happy to see how well some of my favorite metal albums did, especially that nice grouping around the upper teens. At any rate, another year another list. For the curious, below are my ballots with the final placing in the overall poll noted in parentheses.

1. The Flamings Lips - Embryonic / 20 points (#9)
2. Baroness - The Blue Record / 20 points (#19)
3. Mastodon - Crack the Skye / 10 points (#18)
4. Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions / 10 points (#42)
5. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion / 10 points (#1)
6. Oneida - Rated O / 10 points (#193)
7. The xx - xx / 5 points (#7)
8. Converge - Axe To Fall / 5 points (#24)
9. Shrinebuilder - Shrinebuilder / 5 points (#314)
10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (#17)

1. Animal Collective - "My Girls" (#3)
2. Phoenix - "1901" (#2)
3. Kid Cudi f. MGMT & Ratatat - "Pursuit of Happiness" (#148)
4. Dirty Projectors - "Stillness is the Move" (#5)
5. Phoenix - "Litsztomania" (#9)
6. Jay-Z f. Alicia Keys - "Empire State of Mind" (#1)
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Zero" (#6)
8. Lady GaGa - "Bad Romance" (#7)
9. Jay-Z f. Kanye West & Rihanna - "Run This Town" (#34)
10. The xx - "Crystalised" (#33)
np: "Slow Jaboni" - Surfer Blood

Pretty great little tune from a band I recently discovered thanks to their recent appearance on the KEXP Live Performance Podcast. These guys hit me in sort of the same place as the excellent debut last year from Real Estate, but I plan on talking a little bit more about them in the coming weeks, once I've had time to more fully digest the album.

Meanwhile, this was posted some time ago, but I completely forgot to link to it here. This is the nice year-end wrap-up feature I was a part of over at Metro Pulse. Neat little blurbs about the staff's favorite albums of the year. I wrote three blurbs for the piece, one each for The Flaming Lips, Baroness, and Animal Collective. In case you might be too lazy to scroll around over there, here are my blurbs:

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

The addition of huge hooks and bass-heavy rhythms to the band’s atmospheric trance was so natural it’s a wonder they didn’t arrive here sooner, although they might not have hit upon such a thrilling and timeless pop formula without the years of experimentation. Merriweather Post Pavilion provides a fitting cap to one of the decade’s most surprising success stories.

Baroness, Blue Record (Relapse)

Anyone who thought Mastodon had the whole “Southern sludge metal goes prog” thing wrapped up with Crack the Skye had another thing coming when Baroness released its second long-player in October. Blue Record picks up where Red Album left off and delves even deeper into King Crimson territory. Just a cursory listen as the instrumental “Ogeechee Hymnal” bleeds into the ferocious “A Horse Called Golgotha” reveals far more depth than most doubters are willing to grant metal. But the monster riffs and the fiery guitar solo on “Bullhead’s Lament” prove where these guys’ hearts lie.

The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

The Flaming Lips bounced back in a big way this year and shattered expectations lowered by 2006’s mediocre At War With the Mystics with this absolutely stunning late-period masterpiece. Wayne Coyne and his cohorts did more than simply return to their psychedelic roots, eschewing their recent upbeat pop leanings in favor of darker, more outrĂ© material. Free-jazz guitar solos, interstellar mathematical transmissions, and even cellular interference all found their place in Embryonic’s world, giving us an unexpected late-career game-changer and one of the year’s easiest albums to get completely lost in.

Jan 19, 2010

np: "Her Words Destroyed My Planet" - Motion City Soundtrack

I've mentioned several times in the past that I have a big weak spot for well done pop-punk, the tighter and more sugary, the better. Stuff like the first two Weezer albums, any of the Blink 182 singles, Nerf Herder, Fall Out Boy, early Green Day, Paramore, the list could go on and on. Minnesota's Motion City Soundtrack is another worthy addition to that list. Thanks to the sublimely wonderful "The Future Freaks Me Out", I discovered the band's debut album, I Am the Movie. While nothing else off that particular album reached the dizzying heights of "Future", it was nonetheless a pleasant platter of pop punk performances. I lost touch with the band after that album though, I went through a period of pop punk/emo overload and tended to stay away from Epitaph Records for a time. From the few songs I've heard from their second and third albums, Commit This to Memory and Even If It Kills Me respectively, it didn't seem like I was missing much. Luckily I took a chance on their just released fourth album, My Dinosaur Life, because the band is firing on all cylinders again. Mark Hoppus (Blink 182, and a dude who knows his pop punk) is behind the boards once again for this major label debut. While not every single track is a winner, it sags in a few spots (particularly the unsuccessful attempt at hitting Flogging Molly territory on "History Lesson"), there is enough sugary goodness to make this a worthy addition to my pop-punk collection. Hopefully we'll be hearing a lot from these guys in 2010.

Jan 18, 2010

np: "Sister Jack" - Spoon

I sit here on the eve of the release of Spoon's seventh(!) full-length album, Transference, and I am slowly starting to solidify a thought that has been bouncing around my head over the past several years - Spoon may have quietly become one of my favorite bands of the last decade. I say quietly because it has been a long, slow time getting to this point. I discovered them, as I suspect quite a few people have, through Kill the Moonlight before going back and absorbing the much-lauded Girls Can Tell and A Series of Sneaks. But moving forward, I don't recall ever being especially excited for a new Spoon release, at least nowhere near the levels of anticipation I would reach for, say, a new Radiohead or Pavement record. I did, however, pick up both Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga on the first week of release and each wound up being played over and over again on my iPod for weeks. It was almost like I was taking them for granted, "oh another great Spoon album". It took another year or so for me to realize that every single time one of their songs came up on shuffle I took note and ended up playing its parent album. And every damn time I was thrilled that I had done so. In my mind, that says a lot about the quality of a band. So here's to tomorrow and getting to hear "another great Spoon album".

Jan 14, 2010

Today, more serious concerns.

Certainly more important than whatever pop song happens to be floating through my ears at the time, I urge you to take a second and click on over to the Red Cross and donate to help the Haitian earthquake recovery effort.

Jan 13, 2010

R.I.P. Jay Reatard (1980-2010)

Came home from running errands today to hear this truly shocking news. Jay was certainly on the verge of bigger things and, at age 29, certainly had a lot of years of fantastic music left in him. He will certainly be missed.

Jan 12, 2010

np: "Cousins" - Vampire Weekend

Even if you hate Vampire Weekend, and there seems to be an awful lot of you out there these days, you have to give them credit for not backing down from the criticism and, in fact, just emphasizing it as much as they can. Too preppy and white-bred? Fine. The cover of their second album features a Polaroid of a girl in Ralph Lauren polo shirt. The first two lines of the entire record feature the words "horchata" and "balaclava". I kinda love it when bands engage in the game of emphasizing the very things critics hate the most. As for the music on the new record, Contra, itself - well, I think the boys have pulled off another great album, but we'll see how well it stands up 11 months from now. "Cousins" aside, there don't seem to be as many immediately engaging pop songs this time around (like "A-Punk", "Cape Cod Kwasaa Kwasaa", and "Campus" were on the debut), but I don't think it really suffers for this lack. The rhythms (yes, still heavily indebted to Africa via Paul Simon) are even more upfront and feature more than a hint of electronic influence ("Giving Up the Gun"). But as the beats grow more processed and rigid (Rostam Batmanglij's Discovery side project certainly rears its head more than once), the guitar lines and vocal melodies are as bright as ever and really breathe life into these compositions. All this results in an album that is at once more and less organic than its predecessor. Contra definitely reads like the record of a band developing nicely, without losing complete sight of what made Vampire Weekend such a phenomenon in the first place. I can't wait to hear what the "difficult third album" sounds like now that they've cleared the "sophomore slump" hurdle.

Jan 11, 2010

np: "Baby's On Fire" - Brian Eno

And sometimes other days call for an epic guitar solo, such as this one by Mr. Fripp. Lovely.

Jan 10, 2010

np: "Eva Luna" - Tarkio

Thanks to a friend of mine, I've been spending the evening listening to the recorded output of Tarkio, better know as Colin Meloy's college band before he formed The Decemberists. If you're already a fan of his work with the more well-known band, Omnibus won't entirely surprise you. Meloy's voice is unmistakable, as are the numerous literary references he packs into each song. What may throw you a little is the alt-country tinge that many of the tracks take on, resulting in a sound that isn't terribly far off from something you'd hear on an Uncle Tupelo album. To be honest, I half expected this to be something I'd listen to once and quickly file away (often the case when hearing early work of artists you really love), but I'm finding this stuff to be quite engaging much of the time. Meloy's skill as a songwriter and leader is clearly on display and its easy to see how The Decemberists emerged so fully fleshed out. A particular favorite of mine is one that sounds little like the others, a fairly rocking piece.

Jan 8, 2010

np: "Dopes on the Water" - Nash the Slash

Nash the Slash, born one Jeff Plewman, and his music are tough to pin down. There are elements of new wave, punk rock, electronica, and even some classical. As both a solo artist and a member of the group FM, Nash plays a wide variety of instruments but is primarily known for his work on the electric violin and mandolin. He is also known for his trademark facial bandages, which have been wrapped around his head every time he has stepped on stage since 1979. I've yet to really fully delve into his discography, but when I stumped onto his 1981 album, Children of the Night, recently I was very intrigued. The album contains a mixture of original tunes and Nash's interesting reworking of such classic songs as "Dead Man's Curve" and "19th Nervous Breakdown", but my absolute favorite has to be his twisted take on the Deep Purple classic "Smoke on the Water" as "Dopes on the Water", complete with a new tempo and new lyrics. Check out the song below and, if this gets you interested, head on over to the always interesting Egg City Radio and download more.

Jan 7, 2010

np: "Eighteen" - Alice Cooper

Its been a long, miserable week here and sometimes that calls for nothing more than classic rock pumped up to worrying volume levels. To that end, here's a pretty crazy clip of an obviously sloshed Alice Cooper tearing his way through "Eighteen".

Jan 6, 2010

np: "The Toy Garden" - Helios

I've never been a dedicated follower of ambient or ambient-influenced music. I certainly appreciate it when I come across it, but I rarely intentionally seek if out. Usually the ambient that crosses my ears comes in the context of something else, be it a post-metal band noodling or an extended krautrock jam that blisses out after some time. Every now and then, however, I stumble across something like Eingya and realize just how achingly beautiful this stuff can be when done right. Helios is one of the many aliases in use by one Keith Kennif, a songwriter from Pennsylvania that dabbles in electronica, jazz, classical, and rock in addition to the ambient stuff on display in this project. Despite Kennif releasing a number of albums both before and after Eingya, I've honestly never bothered to seek any of them out. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but I think I'm afraid of spoiling the beauty of this album. I kind of like to think of this as some little lost capsule that I can pull out when I want to hear something lulling and gentle. Maybe because I don't really need anymore of this stuff, since this album does the trick so well. Either way, I think this deserves to be heard and to that end I give you a little taste...

Jan 5, 2010

np: "Iron Acton" - Beak>

Happy 2010 to all of the via//chicago loyal, here's hoping this year offers you only the best! If you'll allow me to indulge for a second, can I please make a request for you guys to start posting more in the comments box? I'd love to open up some discussions this year and to hear some feedback on what is being posted. I think the site received all of four comments last year, and only two of those were non-spam. Also, if you'd like, there is a link on the right hand side to become a 'follower'. Why not? Then you can be informed of all the latest updates through Google Reader.

On to the music. It's only the fifth day of the new year, but I've already found one album that I missed out on in 2009 and I really wish I'd have heard it in time for year-end list-making, because, well, it's a great one. I'm speaking of the self-titled debut album by Beak>, the side project by Portishead's Geoff Barrow. In contrast to his main band's meticulously crafted and detail-oriented approach, the music on Beak> was recorded over just twelve days, live, with no overdubs. The result is an instrumental album heavily indebted to krautrock bands like Neu and Can, but surprisingly the vibe isn't completely removed from that of Portishead. There are a couple moments that veer off into territory inspired by metal, jazz, or ambient; but the overall groove reminds me of an album that could have been released 35 years ago in Berlin. Check out the YouTube sample of "Iron Acton" below:

I'd also like to take a second to point you in the direction of two new year projects that I will be following closely in the new year, each by longtime music writers I have really grown to enjoy and respect:

Not Just the Ticket - over at his regular blog, Ned Raggett Ponders It All, Ned it taking a thrillingly detailed stroll down memory lane and writing about all of the concert ticket stubs he has in his possession, a fun read.

It Took Seconds - meanwhile, Tom Ewing (he of Popular fame) has started a rather creative project to last the year, he started January 1st posting a song 365 seconds long and follows each day with a song one second shorter than the previous. Given Tom's breadth of appreciation, this should be a fun trip.