Friday, June 22, 2012

What's New?: 6.22.2012

Sigur Rós — Valtari (2012)
To be honest, I thought they were done.  I thought Inni was the end.  It certainly had an air finality about it.  Með Suð had a sense about it as well.  It was definitely the band's most produced affair.  And something about a song of theirs being sung (finally) in English appearing last on that album just had something about that seemed to say "resignation" along with it.  And yet, here we are.  It's four years later and we have new Sigur Rós album.  The "big" aspects played up on Með Suð are mostly gone — along with the shiny uber pop uptempo numbers.  Indeed, this is Sigur Rós more in their Svigaplatan mode than either of their previous two albums.  Only 'Rembihnútur', with its jubilant build recalls slightly something from Takk (and, in an extremely cool move, the percussive ending on the vinyl ends in an infinite lock groove, looped right on beat, so you may not notice it right away — the CD mix is much different with an abrupt fade-out).  The second half of the album begins with 'Dauðalogn' — a choral hymn to the group's homeland.  It's all rather good and therapeutic-sounding, actually.  And then, brilliance occurs.  Sigur Rós, as the c. 1984 Brian Eno discovered ambient masters that some of us had envisioned them as all along, emerges.  'Varðeldur' (actually just a re-recording of last year's 'Lúppulagið') is exceptional — and furthermore, a brilliant lead off into a series of flat out beautiful tracks that I certainly didn't expect.  There are no lead vocals for the last twenty two of the album's fifty four minutes — brave.  I can't even think of the words that describe the sheer beautiful gloom of these last moments.  It's a bold move by a band that had nothing to prove.  And yet, here they are.  I honestly wish they had just done the most subtle middle finger ever and done an entirely ambient record.  Proving once again why they are one of the best ever.  Really excellent.

The Waterboys — s/t EP (1983)
I guess this was an America-only release, grabbing the best tracks from the band's first album.  I have to admit, I took the Waterboys as very much a second tier act for many years.  Not sure why that is — sometimes you just see a band's records and you judge them, that's all.  Well, it's my mistake once again, because these boys are fantastic.  Initially, just based on the overall sound of the first three tracks here, they strike me as a more folky Echo and the Bunnymen.  Yes, to be completely clear, that is a damned desirable comparison coming from me.  Beginning with 'December' is when things hit a note of uniqueness for me.  I mean, wow.  That's closer to the Chameleons than anything I've heard since. . . well, since the Chameleons.  Final track 'Savage Earth Heart' is honestly one of the best songs I've come across in a while.  Glorious new wave ideal, filtered through a folkie's brain.  Hero.  If these five tracks are the best things from that first album, I'm expecting a total masterpiece, if I ever happen to find that one.

The Waterboys — A Pagan Place (1984)
It's good — just a little overproduced.  'Red Army Blues' is clearly the highlight.  And it's a poignant piece of then-relevant political commentary, taken from a very unlikely point of view.  A very brave move, considered when this was recorded.  The rest of the album's songs are pleasant, if not a little stagnant.  There's no less passion involved (as displayed by the title track) but the songs just aren't as good overall.  Still a darn fine record.

The Waterboys — Fisherman's Blues (1989)
And Mike and his revolving cast finally go properly folk rock and the results kick butt and take names.  Seriously, if you're into it after the lead off title track, just go home and read the dictionary.  Because you obviously have no soul.  The rest of the album is a defying leap into the world of the acoustic at a time when that was anything but cool for an "alternative" band.  The very next track sounds like possibly u2's wet dream at the time.  Jeez, it's good.  'And a Bang on the Ear' was actually the single from this album, if you can believe that.  I mean, it's a totally good song.  But imagine that being considered alongside Love and Rockets.  Strangely awesome.  The album closes with the flat out excellent 'The Strange Child' and after a short jam on 'This Land is Your Land', it's all done.  I scooped a 12" single for 'Bang on the Ear' with this, which has a live rendition of the 'Raggle Taggle Gypsy' (apparently a song the band's only ever played live).  The deal sweetens.

William Ackerman — Passage (1981)
A little disappointed in this one.  It's actually just digitally re-recorded songs from his previous three albums, with some new ones tossed in.  Granted, the new stuff is just as good as ever, it's just that it's more musicians involved in those tunes.  And I feel like Will is best when he's alone.  Of the new tunes, there is one solo and it's the title track.  A wonderful tune that recalls The Turtle's Navel, if I might say.  Otherwise, it's stuff that's decidedly overcooked or that you've already heard before (in better performance, too).  Certainly not awful if you liked his previous albums, but nowhere near as good as any of them.

General Public — All the Rage (1984)
Dance, suckers!  Like your life depended on it!  Of course, this was Dave Wakeling's initial kick back against the break up of the Beat and it has one of the greatest pop singles of the 80's on it.  I mean, jeez, that thing is 'Just Like Heaven' status, isn't it?  Play it anywhere, anytime and folks are equally liable to dance as they are to burst out in tears.  Fantastic.  I guess Mick Jones was supposed to be a full time member of the band, but that fell through (although his guitar work appears on a good portion of this album).  It essentially sounds like the next Beat album.  Where Special Beat Service hinted at an especially new wave, slightly jangle pop-informed evolution of the band, General Public just relished in that direction.  It's pure pop; no mistakes about that.  But, it's rather good.  'Never You Done That' is not that far removed from the Cure's synth-oriented singles of the time, while 'Where's the Line?' sounds exactly like the Beat.  This is top tier new wave.  I actually get vibes of New Order at the time, if you can imagine that.  Just top gear.  Excellent.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book review: Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem

I jump at any Lem I see in the used bookstores.  This was not one I was familiar with, so I took advantage of its availability a couple months ago.

There it sat, on my shelf, ever since this past week.

Reading through it in a few marathon sessions (it's an uncharacteristically light and easy breeze of a read for a Lem novel), I'm mad at myself for waiting so long.

If you know Lem's more serious dramatic works, you will be familiar with the regretful outsider protagonist.  The one that, on top of being completely displaced in a nearly alien world and all of its uncomfortably unfamiliar things and practices, has another world of personal regret and conflict to reconcile with.  Hal Bregg, a near-Superman from the past, must make sense of the doomed space travel mission he has returned to Earth from, but first, he must make peace with a world that "betrizates" itself in order to dull the senses and make people immune from aggressive thoughts and urges.  Robots do everything else.  Cities are built in stacked levels, for which each level has an imaginary sky projected on a huge television screen on the floor of the next level up.  Space travel and research for lifeforms outside of of Earth have now been deemed obsolete and primitive.

This all confronts a man who is physically 30 years old, but technically 140.  He has the guilt of possibly the responsibility of the death of crew members on his conscience.  He has no immediate family.  He is completely isolated and unique (in a now socially awkward way).

Amongst his wanderings back on Earth, Hal is introduced to a shocking new way of life that seems pleasant on the surface, but in actuality, only raises more unrest in a mind that has the remembrance and knowledge that his has.  In typical Lem fashion, you, as the reader, are immediately catapulted into this unfamiliar world, without explanation.  Dialogue is fractured and many things are left open and unexplained.  The feeling of being absolutely lost and engulfed in this magnificent future of mystery and trippy landscapes is imposed immediately on the reader and it's certainly not by accident that there are no shortage of typical Lem-isms — that is, made up words to signify new technology that is commonplace in this future, but that seems completely alien to a contemporary reader.  The numerous ideas and things tossed out at random as ho-hum technologies in the time that this story takes place —the type that would be completely revolutionary if they were to actually materialize— are too many to count.  A short example: optons.  They are essentially an electronic tablet, not that different from a Kindle or an iPad, in which books or other information can be loaded onto for reference later on (Return from the Stars was first published in 1961).

As with all of Lem's works, satirical or serious, this one envelopes the reader in another world entirely.  That this book takes a less "heady" approach (though no less trippy, as the many city scenes from before Hal leaves for Clavestra illustrate), and instead aims for a more emotional landscape is where it wins.  Lem has always been capable of tugging at the deep thinker's heartstrings —Solaris, amidst pages upon pages of nearly incomprehensible technobabble, still somehow manages to be deeply resonating and emotive— but Return is just a master toying with his craft.  That he leaves out no minutiae —I don't think there's a meal that's not accounted for, nor how many words were actually uttered during its discourse— and yet, still manages an emotional finale unmatched in any of the other works of his I've read. . . well, that's pretty impressive.

There's plenty of action, too.  Though, most of it occurs through flashbacks.  Really though, it's the emotional core and how, in the final act, there is not a single mention of any piece of futuristic technology that pushes this one over the top.

In the middle of all this is a world gone mad with betrization.  So much commentary on how people don't truly understand their own impulses and desires before acting on them.  The betrizated society comes into question very early on in the story.  The logistics as to how  real any person walking around actually is if they've been treated to essentially not act like themselves are weighed right up front.  Very loaded.  Typical Lem.

A singular experience and one of his very best works, I'd say.


Such an inspiring and wonderful work, in fact, that I've been moved to create another podcast containing songs that I feel conjure up moods that this story evokes.  No title for this one, just pure feeling.  Enjoy.

1)  Brian Eno — 'A Clearing' (1982)
2)  Human League — 'The Path of Least Resistance' (1979)
3)  Red Sparowes — 'A Message of Avarice Rained Down and Carried Us Away to False Dreams of Endless Riches' (2006)
4)  Cocteau Twins — 'Lazy Calm' (1986)
5)  The Durutti Column — 'Falling' (2001)
6)  The Reegs — 'The Nasty Side' (1993)
7)  DJ Shadow — 'Blood on the Motorway' (2002)
8)  Slowdive — 'Changes' (1994)
9)  Sam Prekop — 'November September' (2010)
10)  Eberhard Weber — 'T on a White Horse' (1977)
11)  Kraftwerk — 'Ananas Symphonie' (1975)
12)  Tangerine Dream — 'Invisible Limits' (1976)
13)  Harmonia — 'Almost' (1976)
14)  William Ackerman — 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' (1977)
15)  Trembling Blue Stars — 'Branches' (2005)
16)  Brian Eno — 'Always Returning' (1983)
17)  Sigur Rós — 'Varðeldur' (2012)
18)  David Sylvian — 'Darkest Dreaming' (1999)


Sunday, June 10, 2012

What's New?: 6.10.2012

Lots to talk about. Let's go!

Japan — Obscure Alternatives (1978)
Japan was still a copycat act at this point.  And although this album bares little resemblance to the greasy funk rock of their debut (released eight months previous to this), they are still pretty far from being anything except followers.  Just have a look at the cover and it's obvious they're still trying to be glam punkers.  Where Adolescent Sex filled up its creative shortcomings with funk indulgences, Obscure Alternatives just flails in all directions.  Slimey faux reggae, stock new wave and even a synth-obsessed glance at where they were headed.  It's too much on one plate, but what's there is at least worth checking out if you're a fan.  I skipped this one because I didn't think it was essential after checking out some previews years ago.  But, I can honestly say now, it's a good album just to consider if you're a fan of the band.  It's a transitional album, so it's a mixed mess, but it does have its moments.  This remastered and expanded edition of the album from 2006 features four live tracks, one of which is a stunning early through of 'In Vogue' that finds Japan as the band they would soon come to be appearing fully formed for the first time.  A good album that bridges the gap between the early, more rockin' outfit and the later, sophisticated and reserved incarnation of the band.

Japan — Quiet Life (1979) 

Simply put: one of the most impressive musical evolutions ever.  In just under two years, they literally went from being borderline embarrassing in their copycat ways to being innovators.  The title track asserts this album's place in history immediately.  It's so ahead of its time that people still lump it in with the hits of the 80's (see what I did there?).  Otherwise, it's all here.  Chilly post-punk?  Check.  Spacey ghost funk?  You know it.  A new wave era remake of a classic?  Present.  I mean, sheesh, this album is good.  And they only got better from here!  This, again, is the remastered and expanded edition from 2006.  The bonus tracks are mostly disappointing as three-quarters of them are simply single mixes of album tracks (two of those being back to back versions of 'All Tomorrow's Parties' —grrrrrr!).  However, the other track is the very Tin Drum-esque b-side, 'A Foreign Place' so all is forgiven.  I seriously can't recommend this album enough.  As a huge David Sylvian fan in general and especially a fan of what came immediately after this album, I really have no excuse for not having this one around previously.

The Feelies — Time for a Witness (1991)

I'm gonna write a song called 'Ode to the Feelies' and it's gonna go like this: "Ooohhh, the Feelies / They kick ass! / Ooohhh, the Feelies / Do please ask / About the Feelies / Because now your task / Is to get the Feelies / In your memory, fast!"  I love them that much.  This album has eluded me for even longer than Crazy Rhythms did.  So, I said to myself, "Self, I've had enough of not having the entire Feelies discography!"  And she responded, "Do whatever, man.  Just make yourself happy."  So, I paid a little more than I probably should have, but you know what?  It's not like there's tons of bands that have released five albums, but have never made a bad song.  But the Feelies can lay claim to this honor.  Time for a Witness, what most must have taken for being the band's last album ever (until this happened), is simultaneously the band's poppiest and their most rockin' affair.  Side two is preferable for me, as it's quite reminiscent of the Good Earth.  But the whole thing is good.  Jangly, weirdly poppy, classic awkwardness and everything.  Check out the jammy 'Find a Way' and then take a step back and realize that it was the Feelies that just did that (and then get blown away).  'Invitation' is pure jangle pop bliss, while their cover of 'Real Cool Time' proves that they could actually rock out the whole time.  The fuckin' Feelies, man.  Kings.

George Harrison — Dark Horse (1974)
I guarantee, if nobody knew about George's throat issues at the time, nobody would say anything about the vocals on this album.  It's polished and classy, that's for sure.  And that sums up George's solo career, actually.  There's no absence of sheen on any of these albums, but the songs are all really genuine.  It's unfortunate that this album has now been classified as the album George did when his voice was suffering because it actually has gems.  'So Sad', in fact, should probably be considered amongst his best songs (Beatles or otherwise).  The bitter revision of 'Bye Bye Love' gets by solely on vibe (seriously, look up the history of that thing) while side two features the soft rock hidden gem 'Far East Man' (another one of George's best, actually).  Very nice music.  No shortage of tunes.

George Harrison — Extra Texture (1975)

This one starts off with 'You', which sounds almost like an All Things Must Pass outtake.  And I should say that this is probably my favorite George album, outside of that album.  This one is very slowly paced, but there remains an acoustic strummy base to all the songs and it strikes me as the one album that George made in the 70's where he was actually happy with the results.  'This Guitar Can't Keep From Crying' is a brilliant sequel, while 'World of Stone' is the sort of furrowed brow, deep thinking ballad that I expected from him the whole time.  Really strong stuff, for overproduced soft rock.  And, even without that arguably derogatory tag, it's still pretty good.

George Harrison — 33 and 1/3 (1976)

George ventures even further into studioland on this one.  Like I said earlier, the songs are still good, but whether or not you can notice that depends on how much patience you have for late 70's studio sheen.  For example, if you can understand that if the keyboards in 'Dear One' were scaled back a bit, it would damn near be a masterpiece, then you will get a lot out of this album.  'Learning How to Love You' is another good one in this vein.  Overall, the album sounds pretty good while it's playing, but doesn't leave much of an impression afterwords.

George Harrison — George Harrison (1979)
And it's more of the same here, but the songs are just a little more catchy, honestly.  First track 'Love Comes to Everyone' is so earnest, I have a hard time not liking it (please excuse the synthesizer solos, however).  'Here Comes the Moon' (another sequel) is just lovely, if you ask me, while 'Dark Sweet Lady' is so genuine and good, my inner soft rock nerd is giddy whenever I play it (and it has a harp!).  And, furthermore, the segue into 'Your Love is Forever' (officially one of George's best, actually) is just magical.  Darn good stuff, if you're already into in the first place.  And the last song being 'If You Believe' is just appropriate beyond comprehension, isn't it?

George Harrison — Somewhere in England (1981)

And one last overproduced noble failure from George.  It has 'All Those Years Ago' which was a hit and which I knew rather well when I was a kid (the things one forgets!).  Overall, there seems even less of what made his past albums somewhat charming present here.  'Writing's on the Wall' reminds me of the overproduced, earnest George I love, but not much else here is worth more than one listen for anyone except diehards.

The Trypes — Music for Neighbors (1983/1984)

I can't even begin to describe the rush I get from listening to this music.  Feelies affiliation or no, I am so into this band.  Granted, nobody would even have paid attention to them without Glenn Mercer or Bill Million's involvement, but it blew my mind to learn that this band, as a working unit, actually predated the Feelies.  The only recorded documents of the band under this name just happened to occur when members of the Feelies were in the group.  As a document of a group of friends getting together and screwing around, it's pretty entertaining.  As a piece of Americana and documenting one of the more fascinating evolutions in musical growth (in contemporary terms), it's priceless.  Acute Records is to be commended for their efforts.  Although this album appears as an anonymous slate brown spine in the above scan, everything else is handled with excellent care in this gorgeous package.  This compilation documents the band's only official release at the time with a bunch of extras.  'From the (Morning Glories)' is just unbelievably good.  The original version of 'The Undertow' (which the Feelies would redo a couple years later) is here among the initial output, while 'A Plan, Revised' comes along and just blows everything in its path away, very quietly.  Seriously, that thing is just godlike.  They're like a darker, more serious version of Shrimp Boat.  Jangly, 60's-obsessed (two Beatles covers!) and not afraid of noise or just rocking out, it's a document of a band that should have been more than just a sub-footnote.  Yeah, it's about time some of these previously only regionally heard American bands come forward and get their due acclaim.  Just absolutely and thoroughly brilliant.  Get this album immediately.  Help yourself to some free downloads in the meantime.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

A synth-pop mix for summer.

Not sure why, but I always feel like dated synth sounds and shamelessly poppy tunes accompany hot weather really well.  Here's a mix to enhance hot days and long sunsets.  I've subtitled this mix "I'm tired of crying on the stairs." 

1)  Simple Minds — 'Someone Somewhere in Summertime' (extended mix) (1982)
2)  Depeche Mode — 'New Life' (1981)
3)  The The — 'That Was the Day' (1983)
4)  Tears for Fears — 'Pale Shelter' (1983)
5)  Tones on Tail — 'Performance' (1984)
6)  Pet Shop Boys — 'Love Comes Quickly' (extended mix) (1986)
7)  The Blue Nile — 'The Downtown Lights' (1989)
8)  The Horrors — 'You Said' (2011)
9)  The Wake — 'Talk About the Past' (Kid Jensen Session) (1984)
10)  The Human League — 'Seconds' (1981)
11)  For Against — 'Amen Yves (White Circles)' (1984)
12)  Kate Bush — 'Experiment IV' (extended mix) (1985)
13)  Future Conditional feat. Bob Wratten — 'We Don't Just Disappear' (2007)
14)  New Order — 'Vanishing Point' (1989)
15)  Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — 'Sacred Heart' (1981)
16)  David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto — 'Forbidden Colours' (1983)
17)  Gary Numan — 'Cry, the Clock Said' (1981)
18)  The Postal Service — 'Sleeping In' (2003)