Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What's New?: 11.29.2011

Mainly a batch of re-acquisitions, with a couple of new-to-me things. . .

Biff Bang Pow! — Oblivion (1987)

Vintage British jangle from the peak of the whole thing. It's not a very breathtaking album, but it sure is danged good. It's just like all good 80's jangle bands: sounds like it could have come from the sixties, but has that nostalgic (for me) 80's sheen in the production. I would definitely liken this to bands like the Field Mice or even Belle and Sebastian. It was Alan McGee's main band before he decided to step out of the spotlight and sign bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine to his label (and then there was that one group from Manchester that he signed a little later). Overall, ten songs, barely thirty minutes and not a bad one in the bunch. Pure pop, pure jangle. Just being who I am, I'd have a hard time not liking it, honestly.

Karate — Cancel/Sing (2002)

Karate, in retrospect, is just "post"-fucking-everything. Post-punk, post-rock, post-hardcore, post-jazz, post-prog — you name the genre, they're recontextualizing the everloving snot out of it. This became more into focus when they released their fourth album Unsolved in 2000 (John Pruett, you're a dick and it obviously went completely over your head). By the time the band released this two song, twenty-six minute EP two years later, it just seemed to make sense that the band would release something that would otherwise be classified as a sound labyrinth. 'Cancel' seems to be the song that people recognize from this one, and it's a fine piece. Lulling and doodly guitar fun until Geoff Farina finally hits his fuzz pedal about six minutes in and then it goes into the technical wizardry that the band became known for. The droney, Can-esque textures achieved in the middle portion are fun. 'Sing' on the other hand, is arguably the band's best song. It starts off as another rambling noodle of a song, but when it finally gets going, Geoff Farina's finest set of lyrics will open itself up to reveal one of the finest songs I've ever heard in celebration of music. Using music as a coping mechanism for the stresses of everyday life is something I'm sure everyone can relate to (top lyric: "If Crass called the Clash, 'the Cash', then my stash would make them laugh, because even real injustice just makes me want to sing"). The build-up is natural, fluid and exhilarating and the last five minutes of the tune are arguably the best thing the band ever put to tape. The final two minutes are especially good. And, if nothing else, it's a rare moment of purely rocking out in the band's later material.

Karate — Some Boots (2002)

This was the first new album by the band that came out after I became a fan, so it's nice to finally have it back in my collection. It pretty much continues in the vein of Unsolved, uninterrupted. That album and this one are actually pretty interchangeable. The only big difference is that Geoff Farina favors his noisier, fuzzier, more distorted guitar tone on all of the songs here. But still, he plays all of those rhythmic, comping parts in that deliciously jangly tone. There are hints of the expanded textures and long buildups that the Cancel/Sing EP hinted at (the dubby, psychedelic time signature maze in the second half of 'Original Spies' is a fine example of how the band was able to abridge their explorations on that EP into an equally as listenable six minute song). Longer form songs dominate, as only two of the album's nine tracks are less than five minutes. But still, I might say this is arguably the most representative album the band ever made (either this one or pockets). The screeching, disjointed guitar workout that is 'In Hundreds' sounds like Second Edition-era PIL, in absolutely the best way that someone possibly could have in 2002. My favorite Karate song is 'Airport' and 'Remain Relaxed' is one of the band's best ballads and both are on here, so yeah. It was my summer soundtrack in 2002. Total winner.

Solbakken — Pinanti (1999)

Solbakken. Jesus christ. Fucking Solbakken. First things first: I used to have fucking all of their albums. All of them. You know, those ones that you don't see anywhere on any American webstores? The ones that are expensive, even on European websites? Those ones you can't even find on illegal downloads when you search blogs for hours on end? Yeah, I had all of those. Why, you might ask, did I get rid of them? Because, my friend, I am a very stupid man. A very, very stupid man. My first introduction to Solbakken were two songs on one of Konkurrent's In the Fishtank albums: 'A Taste of You and Me' (sung by bassist Klaas Schippers) and 'Your Cave' (sung by guitarist Empee Holwerda). I was big into the Black Heart Procession at the time, but those two songs —obviously being Solbakken's contribution to the sessions— made me take a step back and realize just how much better this unknown band was than the band I had purchased the record for in the first place. It had a chilly, Nordic quality. Like kind of Kraut rock, but more soulful. Sigur Rós, if they just rocked all the time. The band just sounds like the weirdest, Euro-centric hybrid of a Sonic Youth-y noise rock combo, but more concerned with tunefulness. A post-rock band, but more concerned with poppy hooks. A super technical math rock band, but more concerned with moods. I've come to conclusion that absolutely no description will ever do. They just don't sound like anyone else I've ever heard. As for this album, it's the band's second, and such it's a little more raw than they would ultimately become. But still, the layers and mini-movement, song-within-a-song feeling that a good chunk of the material has here definitely points the way towards their future achievements. It is a bit more unpolished, so a song like 'Montana Tiger' that is otherwise a rather interesting little tune, comes off kind of ramshackle (but is a bit charming because of that). Some songs like the Joy Division-esque numbers 'Youth Camps' and especially 'Four Sundays Left' are so dense and utilize so much low end dynamics that you may forget that it's just three guys in the band (indeed, Klaas slips in some chords at times to make the otherwise grey tunes a little bit more colorful — which isn't to say that the shade of grey as portrayed here isn't magnificent; because it is). The couple usages of sitar throughout and the slant towards isolated lyrics (an ongoing theme in the band's whole catalogue) make for a really out of place sounding mini-masterpiece. It's mostly Empee's album, as he sings about 80% of it and overall, it strikes me as what post-punk should have evolved into (and considering that Klaas and Empee have longstanding roots in the Dutch new wave scene, dating back to the mid-80's, this is no surprise).

Solbakken — Klonapet (2003)

I've played this album for fans of many different styles of rock music and they all agree: it rocks. This is a godlike masterpiece. Jelle Buma had been sitting in on drums since their previous album Zure Botoa and I've long had a theory about a band needing that right feel behind the drums for them to completely fulfill their potential. Klonapet is just pure brilliance for all of its fourty one minutes. I did not include it in my best of the decade wrap-up because I had foolishly traded in the band's entire catalogue (you're welcome to whoever scored them all at Amoeba in Berkeley) and I felt like there was too much distance between me and the last time I had heard it to genuinely get behind it. Revisiting now, it's easily among my albums of the 2000's decade — and probably among my favorite albums ever. 'Love Interest' is one of the most perfectly weird pop songs I've ever heard. It was offered as a free download on the band's (now non-existent) website and I played it on repeat for hours in those days when I awaited that package from Norway. What's actually pretty surprising about this album is that, besides Klaas taking most of the lead vocals, there is a slant towards an angular, metallic attack in the sound of the guitars. If you take the final movements in songs like 'Entertain the Elderly' and 'Space Bordello' and listen to them outside of the context of the rest of their respective songs, you may try to peg the band as some sort of nu-metallers. Things like the trumpet on 'Relaxing Yourself to Death' or the marimba on 'Dung', however, moot that entire statement. The instrumental 'Mickey' points the band directly towards the 'post-rock' section, while 'Small and Evil Hole' sounds like the Pentangle floating in space. So, it's another confusing affair to be sure. But, it's completely solid. I love this album. It's a stone cold modern day classic. I just wish more people knew who they were.

Kanipchen-Fit — Multibenefit (2010)

Wish I hadn't been such a miser on this one last year, because it's actually really damn good. It's Empee Holwerda from Solbakken, his wife (?) poet/artist Gloria Williams and a drum machine (although, the band's website features three early very Solbakken-esque demo recordings from 2005-ish with Jelle Buma on drums — click on 'news' to listen). I guess the main thing on display here is Empee's guitar playing, because, as most of this album was seemingly recorded live, he colors the songs with all kinds of textures and dynamics that you can only sit back and marvel at (not to mention that Solbakken fans will recognize his tone instantly). The layers and resonance of songs like 'Radio Torture' and 'Pay More' are just striking when you consider that it's only one guitar, one drum machine and two voices creating the music. The themes on this album lyrically are more overtly political than anything Solbakken has done, but I'll be darned if I don't get that great isolated Solbakken vibe from songs like 'Vodka Rescue Team,' 'Pay More' and 'Rainfall.' Overall, not a complete masterpiece, but it's an update in the Solbakken story that I didn't see coming. If the band is no more, this is a new direction, but a promising one.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Jónsi — Go Live

I guess consider me rather late on this one, as it has been available on his website since late last year. But, you know what? It's not how long it takes you to get there that matters, it's what you see when you do that does.

And, boy oh boy, I see many things.

Just ignoring the fact right up front that the entire first half of this album is one of the quietest, most reserved and downright spiritual pieces of live music I've ever heard, I will say that it feels like pure giddy triumph when he bursts into a piece of totally rare stage chatter after the whole thing and the opening glitchy sampled vocal loop of 'Godo' begins and the crowd, subsequently, finally relents and there are some genuine and very audible 'WHOOOOO!!!!!'s to be heard (amidst a clap-a-long, of course — yes, it gives me chills).

Now, I liked Go. It sounded exactly like I hoped it would: reminiscent of Sigur Rós, but with more of a poppier slant and a sort of streamlined approach to the band's music. Nine songs; none in great excess of the five minute marker and all with a nice layer of post-production and a delightful sheen that was neither kitschy nor over the top. And yet, it left something to be desired.

(in a good way, but I digress)

But this guy right here?

He's a bit of different beast altogether.

Where Go felt very much like a knee-jerk reaction against his band's never ending funereal pace, Go Live is just as much an affirmation of that kickback as it is a reassurance that Jón Þór Birgisson, as the frontman of one of the most unique and important bands of the past decade —the singer and guitarist as most of his listening audience knew him prior to his solo album— is still very much the artist and the man that made them love him in the first place.

As you can see above, the album wears a sticker that boasts five new songs among its contents and they are very much more along the Sigur Rós brand of Jónsi's repertoire, filling out the album's spiritually (and revelatory) calm first half; not only with compilation tape fodder but with genuine and true SONGS that make this a rare case where the live album bests its studio counterpart. The performances are great, sure. But it's the sequencing here that sets this one apart from the rest.

As I said above, the slow and quiet bunch is packed up front. Starting with the nearly solo acoustic "new" song 'Stars in Still Water', the album begins on this somnambulist, nearly pastoral thirty-seven minute meditation of ballads and, predictably, it's the perfect soundtrack for watching slideshows of aurora borealis (that is, unless you can watch the real thing in person). The third track is 'Icicle Sleeve.' Easily on par with the best of anything Jón has previously done, it's definitely the highlight of this album for me. As the song seamlessly segues into 'Kolniður,' everything comes fully into focus: this is no toss-off of a live album. This is the real deal.

Capturing the musician in a venerable stage of unsureness, presenting the new songs to an audience unfamiliar of the material but familiar with the musician's new (yet, unheard) direction is a rare thing these days. Hell, people with the stature of Sigur Rós rarely even play b-sides, not to mention completely unheard material. It makes the opening five song suite as heard on Go Live extra special as, not only do the songs flow flawlessly, the audience is on Jón's side the whole way. And it's a little redemptive to hear someone present so immaculately such definitive versions of the songs. New or familiar; doesn't matter. The familiar songs had emotional aspects to them before, but with the new songs and the intimately perfected familiar ones, these are all the most poignant recorded renditions of the tunes.

And when those uptempo numbers kick in on 'Godo,' it's just complete chills. He just poured his soul out to complete strangers and now it's time to dance a bit, okay?


The anticipatory between song claps, the chorus to 'Animal Arithmetic' sung in Icelandic, the extra long, noisy (noticeably Sigur Rós-esque) coda to the closer 'Grow Till Tall'; it all feels very celebratory, very rewarding.

I liked Go.

I absolutely love Go Live.

It harkens back to a time in rock music when a live album was supposed to be a statement within of of itself — a unique entity that was more than just a complimentary piece.

Far more than just "recommended if you like", Go Live is the definitive account of Jónsi as a solitary unit outside of Sigur Rós. He is a unique and infinitely intriguing musician on his own; this album has plenty of evidence.

The accompanying DVD isn't too shabby, either, presenting nearly all of the songs on the audio half in alternate recordings and professionally shot.

The stuff that I keep listening to music for.

Go Live can be purchased from Jónsi.com


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

King Krule — King Krule EP

What do you say about a release like this?

Every once in a while, something comes along that just doesn't fit. Sure, it may not sound totally revolutionary in the bigger picture, but when the context is considered, it just seems wrong.

Before going any further, I should point out the main thing: this young man is only seventeen.

He does not have a good singing voice. He does, however, have one of the most refreshing songwriting talents I've heard come out of Britain in recent years. Where the country's music still seems to be mostly planted in the looming shadow of Brit-pop's rockstar obsessed smartass culture, Archy Marshall looks completely inward and towards his heart for direction. As a teenager in post-post-Thatcher Britain, it seems like he's just disappointed with an outlook that simply accepts one's unsure surroundings while trying to continue forth life as a regular human being.

Oh, and he has incredible tunes, too.

I mean, honestly, I've not heard a stronger argument in a long time for the side of "Well, some people are just naturally born with talent."

The thing the dominates all of the EP's thirteen minutes is the fantastically jangly tone of Marshall's guitar. Sure, there is some post-production and whatnot that adds heavier reverb and a slight hint of noise to the songs, but ultimately, his jangly guitar is right up front next to his out of key baritone vocals.

And his words are just as important as anything else here. Truly, he sounds like a man at least twice his actual age. While the dramatics may take you to the edge of sadness while realizing that a person so young has lived and seen more than anyone his age should have, you will find a twisted redemption in his ability to articulate.

A song like 'Portrait in Black and Blue' simply doesn't make sense coming from a seventeen year old. But, somehow, there it is. The opening instrumental '36N63' and the short track 'Lead Existence' pack more maturity in their collective three minutes than some other bands have been yet to achieve after several albums of material.

The closing track 'The Noose of Jah City' is clearly the highlight and the most unique thing here. Amidst a sparse (but affecting) Fender Rhodes chord progression, light guitar arpeggio and simple drum loop, the song builds into a thing of sheer beauty. Its meaning is a bit unsure, but it ultimately seems to be about finding nothing but disappointment in a burgeoning world to a young mind. This sort of thing might be tedious under certain circumstances, but in Marshall's world, this is the foundation on which inspiration can build a masterpiece. I can't stop playing it.

If nothing else, the whole thing reminds me of early Aztec Camera in the best possible way.

Exponential potential.


PS— Marshall's early recordings from last year under the name Zoo Kid can be found here. They are just as good (if not a bit more rough).

Back to basics.

As my first true musical love, hip hop showed me that no idea is original.  No matter how great I thought beats by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, DJ Shadow or Jay Dee were, there were very high chances that the beats were sampled from someone else' song.  My mind was blown by many songs, for many years.  But ultimately, I got used to it. 

By the time I became a Radiohead fan and found out that one of my favorite songs of theirs was a sample, I knew that it was game up. 

Everything was fair.  Nothing was really that surprising anymore. 

Sure, it was still fun to track down and hear those songs that had been borrowed from, but I didn't really take inspiration from that exchange like I used to.

Until now. 

It never occurred to me until last week that it was very strange that the song title 'Heirloom' on Björk's Vespertine showed up as 'Crabcraft' when I imported the album into my iTunes.

I did some research, asked around and finally came up with this:

For reference, here's 'Heirloom.'

I don't know why this has taken me aback as much as it has.  Maybe it's the image I had held up in my own mind of Vespertine as this singular masterpiece that was created in a fleeting momentary rush of emotion that came completely from within Björk's heart and mind

But, no.

Even masterpieces as unique-sounding as Vespertine even have their pre-existing seeds of inspiration.