Friday, April 11, 2014

What's New?: 4.11.2014

On today's episode: London electronic-y producer guys!
Burial — Burial (2006)

Burial is an interesting story because, for a long time, nobody knew who was behind the music.  And for someone to remain actually anonymous in the internet age is quite a feat.  It's good fun for someone to make such clearly passionate music as Burial's and then refuse to be identified.  It gives the music an even greater mystery — as if this music didn't sound completely from outer space already.  Eventually, he couldn't play the role of the British electronic Jandek forever and his identity was revealed.  Google for more info, because it's been reported on ad nauseam ever since this first album gained some critical recognition.  What is the music like?  Well, being recorded in the first half of the 2000's, a lot of people would identify it as dubstep.  Because "dubstep" has a lot of connotations these days, I suggest looking at the wiki page for a general idea of how the term differs from what this music is and what most Americans (myself included) understand the term to mean.  Manipulated vocal samples, dark, moody, repetitive keyboard riffs and scattering drum breaks give way to purely ambient sounds, basically.  This is indeed a strange world that Burial conjures up; one where there is room for Eno-inspired, strictly ambient tracks like 'Night Bus' to coexist right next door to skittering and buzzing atmospheric two-step like 'Southern Comfort.'  This is probably Burial's most consistently dark piece of work — and that's saying something for a guy who uses the sounds of pouring rain and deep thunder on nearly 85% of his songs.  Key tracks: the short ambient pieces 'Night Bus' and 'Forgive' and the wonderfully tense 'Distant Lights.'

Burial — Untrue (2007)

Recorded throughout the course of two years, Untrue is the big, grand artistic statement that Burial's first album proposed.  But where that album was still a little too fringe-sounding, perhaps still feeling an allegiance to a "scene", some of Untrue could pass for honest-to-goodness pop music.  Warped, alien pop music, but catchy as hell nonetheless.  Relying more on manipulated vocal samples than ever before, Untrue creates its own little world where dubstep is the soundtrack for a perpetual, but inexplicably gorgeous grey-tinged horizon that never fully disappears; just simply becomes more brilliant or less defined as the score dictates.  It's fifty wonderful minutes of an artist coming into their own and painting his first sonic masterpiece in one of the most rewarding ways I've ever heard.  Key tracks: the opening trilogy of 'Archangel', 'Near Dark' and the the absolutely stunning highlight 'Ghost Hardware.'  Beautiful music.

Burial — Truant EP (2012)

By this point, Burial had moved so far past his initial sound that it's almost hard to call his music dubstep anymore.  Only two tracks, but in excess of twenty five minutes in length, it sort of implies a DJ Shadow-influenced dance sound, except without samples.  The songs go through movements, break down and build themselves back up again and it's all very tuneful — perhaps surprisingly so.  In fact, the second movement of the second track, 'Rough Sleeper', is perhaps the catchiest and/or prettiest thing Burial had done up until that point.  As the prologue to last year's masterpiece EP, Rival Dealer, this sets the table perfectly.  Key tracks: both are great, but 'Rough Sleeper' is just so damned catchy.

Burial — Street Halo / Kindred (2011/2012)

Two EPs released about a year apart, compiled onto one disc for my convenience.  As the proper follow-up to Untrue, Street Halo is perhaps a bit underwhelming because it follows the formula established so closely.  But the tunes are still there, so if there's anything noticeable about it, it's that the guy could basically do no wrong in that mode.  Kindred is the big step forward and basically where Burial becomes seemingly infallible.  Moving through a difficult first movement and hitting a glorious chord change about five minutes in, the title track is the sort of transcendent, otherwordly masterwork that's so good, it doesn't seem initially real.  Closing out with a deep house groove on 'Ashtray Wasp', his most ambitious work up until that point, Kindred sets the standard for all subsequent Burial releases.  Always dark, always rewarding.  Wonderful.  Key tracks: the melancholy 'Stolen Dog', 'Kindred' and 'Ashtray Wasp.'

Four Tet — Rounds (2003)

Usually considered to be Four Tet's masterpiece, Rounds is a work of sometimes glitchy, sometimes pretty instrumental sample-based music.  In fact, some of it borders so closely to hip hop production, I'm surprised that it slipped through my radar at the time.  Have a listen to the dreamy washes of keyboards and chunky manipulated drum breaks on the opener 'Hands' for an idea of what's going on here.  Some of its sad loops and big drums remind of Anticon production of the time — the big centerpiece 'Unspoken' for example reminds me immediately of a Them song.  Overall, nothing life changing occurs, but I don't think that's the point.  It's simply meant to be pleasant listening or to get your groove on to while doing something else.  In that respect, mission accomplished.  Key tracks: 'Unspoken' and closer 'Slow Jam.'

Cloud Boat — Book of Hours (2013)

A quick description of Cloud Boat, I would say, would be Burial meets Fleet Foxes.  Odd combo, you might say, but one listen to the glorious 'Youthern', with its post-dubstep groove and reverbed out passionate harmonies, was enough to convince me.  Book of Hours, with its washed out white on grey cover art perfectly reflecting what the music sounds like, has to be one of the most unexpected surprises for me recently.  Checked out on a whim, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  There is a quietness to this album, an irresistible calmness that I can't fully articulate, but that I absolutely love.  There is also an instability to it, as exemplified on the centerpiece 'Pink Grin' (part one, part two).  There is just a wonderful uniqueness to this music.  For guitar music, it's very electronic.  But for electronic music, it's very folky.  Absolutely engaging music.  Terrific.  Key tracks: the seven minute epic 'Pink Grin', 'Lions on the Beach' and the wonderful acoustic closer 'Kowloon Bridge.'

James Blake — self-titled (2011)

Perhaps the most singer/songwriter-y of the London dubsteppers, James Blake is a really interesting fella.  His early singles and EPs, some released while he was still a teenager, were strictly dubstep, but when it came time to release a full length, he started focusing more on original tracks where he would sample and manipulate his own voice.  He's got a very unique voice already, so when it goes untreated, like on 'Willhelm Scream' or the unlikely Feist cover 'Limit To Your Love', he's pretty charismatic.  But when he's playing producer and fiddling around with his own voice, results are similarly engaging and surprisingly soulful.  The whole album rides a fine line between catchiness and being too weird for its own good.  But, thankfully, it's challenge never outweighs its potential and it makes for one of the most singular albums of the past few years.  Key tracks: 'Willhelm Scream' and the two part centerpiece 'Lindisfarne.'

James Blake — Overgrown (2013)

When this second album was released last year, James Blake was officially a rock star, even though he sings on the album's gorgeous opening title track that he wants nothing to do with such conditions.  If anything has changed since his first album, it's that his music has become more nocturnal-sounding.  It's fine listening whenever you can get to it, but for me it seems more rewarding to play after the sun has set.  There is one song here that I just flat out don't like — and yes, it's because of the stupid RZA feature.  How mismatched are these two?  Otherwise, it's a fine album that is surprisingly darker than its predecessor.  Key tracks: the endlessly catchy 'Retrograde' and the epic buildup of 'Digital Lion.'

Mount Kimbie — Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (2013)

And one last late entry into my favorites of 2013 list.  With King Krule receiving two stellar feature performances on this album, I really have no excuses for not having this around sooner.  Those two tracks — 'You Took Your Time' and the incredible 'Meter Pale Tone' — are good enough on their own to merit purchasing this album, but thankfully, the rest of it is just as strong.  There's a burgeoning "post-dubstep" scene where live instruments and original vocals are played and manipulated by the band themselves over scattered breakbeats — and Mount Kimbie is one of the names most closely related to that scene.  After properly digesting their two albums (Cold Spring is their second overall) and earlier EPs, I can definitely testify that not many other people making music these days have evolved to sound like the music they are making sounds.  Having Mr. Marshall in your corner certainly doesn't hurt in my ears.  Key tracks: 'Made to Stray', 'You Took Your Time' and 'Meter Pale Tone.'


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What's New?: 4.9.2014

On today's episode: Jandek!
Jandek — Interstellar Discussion (1984)

"Listen what I say!"  That's the bulk of the lyrics on the first track here; yowled in that inimitable Jandek faux ghoul voice.  Just wondrous.  You know, since I last delved into Jandek last year, I've read a lot of conspiracy theories about the man and the creation of this music, and I have to say, the one that's the most fun is that all of these albums released in the 80's are actually from the late 60's and early 70's.  I mean, why the hell not?  This music doesn't fit into any logical rock and roll timeline, so why shouldn't it just be assumed that it didn't come beamed in from some other decade?  There's a heck of a lot of clattering drums on the first half of this album.  Just boom-blap-poppity-ploop-pop-pop-pop!, it feels like at times.  Some harmonica, lots o'howlin' by Mr. Smith and it's almost like this is his Bringin' it all Back Home the way it's split down the middle between group and solo recordings.  Probably one of the most challenging Jandek albums I've come across, but still endlessly fascinating.  Key tracks: 'Rifle in the Closet', 'Starless' and the oddly swelling 'Call You the Sun.'

Jandek — Follow Your Footsteps (1986)

There's obviously someone on electric guitar here that's actually practiced and studied the instrument for more than five minutes because there's actual chords and progressions being played.  Some of it would actually rank as Jandek's most accessible music.  'Course, that's accessible in the Corwood sense of the word; most folks would still hear it as absolute nonsense music.  But, I dunno.  There's a really approachable vibe to these mid-80's records.  Still lots of boom-clatter-clashing on the drums, but the inclusion of other vocalists and understandable chords goes a long way for the enjoyment of the listener.  This is generally regarded as when the name "Jandek" referred to a band, as opposed to just one guy (even though Mr. Smith is clearly the center of this creative circle).  It's a good one!  Key tracks: the undeniably moving 'Didn't Ask Why', the surprisingly pretty 'I Know You Well' and the jangly opening instrumental 'Honey.'

Jandek — You Walk Alone (1988)

Still working within that more accessible ideal here, though with a much more pronounced blues rock slant. There's a bit more of a focus on longer form songs here as well, which makes for some interesting moments.  I quite like the jangly instrumental opener 'Lavender' and the blues stomp of 'Time and Space' is pretty badass.  Probably the prettiest of the Jandek albums I've encountered.  Great faux rockabilly guitar tone throughout and, overall, probably the least abrasive of Jandek's early phase.  Wonderful stuff; highly recommended as a starting point for Jandek noobs.  Key tracks: 'Time and Space', 'Lavender' and the epic centerpiece 'When the Telephone Melts.'

Jandek — On the Way (1988)

Perhaps the bluesiest of Jandek's mid-80's run.  The clatter, stomp n'howl of 'Message to the Clerk' and 'Give it the Name' is a shambling, surprisingly coherent one-two punch.  Although the rest of the album is much calmer, it still retains the very bluesy philosophy of one guy and his guitar versus the world.  This is no clearer than on the stunning closer 'I'm Ready.'  Arguably the prettiest song Jandek ever did, it packs an emotional wallop quite unlike anything else I've encountered in the sphere of recorded music.  Worth it on its own.  Key tracks: 'I'm Ready', 'I'll Sit Alone and Think A Lot About You' and 'Message to the Clerk.'

Jandek — The Living End (1989)

A lot of people consider this the definitive Jandek album (no doubt, this is at least partially because of its mugshot-esque cover photo of Mr. Smith himself).  The opener 'Niagara Blues' has a riff so nice, it needed to be played twice — the song is basically repeated with different lyrics on the very next track, 'Janitor's Dead.'  Elsewhere, he actually references Bob Dylan and Dusty Springfield by name — which just seems so weird for Jandek to mention something that exists in genuine pop culture.  The album takes on a very folky tone in the second half — appropriately so, I might say.  Just pretty damned listenable stuff, actually.  Very inspirational music.  Key tracks: 'Embrace the World Outside', 'Niagara Blues' and the slow burning 'Take Me Away With You.'

Oh, Jandek.  How you have captivated me.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What's New?: 4.8.2014

On today's episode: new release roundup!

Neil Finn — Dizzy Heights (2014)

A very dreamy album in Neil's first work since Intriguer.  And a darn nice little pop album to start off the year ('twas actually released on m'birthday, asamattafack).  It's very well produced and sounds wonderful on this vinyl pressing (though the digital download did come with an extra song; and a good one, at that!).  Dave Friddmann's lush production is a perfect match for Neil's take on modern pop-psych.  Can definitely see this one growing on me a lot more.  Wonderful to have him around.  Key tracks: 'Flying in the Face of Love', the production mini-masterpiece 'Recluse' and the very Beatles-esque title track.

Jimi Goodwin — Odludek (2014)

Doves are on indefinite hiatus, so anything new from their camp is entirely welcome by me.  I just wish it was better.  About a third of it is up to meet my (admittedly very high) expectations.  It's mostly just too all over the place.  And I'm an admitted fan of mess albums, but this one tries to do too much with not very many memorable melodies.  The first side is the main problem here with tuneless dance rock numbers like 'Live Like A River' and 'Man v Dingo' really dragging things down quickly and heftily.  Side two is much more Doves-esque musically and is the easy winner here.  Maybe the mess will become charming after a while, but right now, the more straight forward acoustic based stuff is where I'm at with it.  Key tracks: the lush and beautiful 'Keep My Soul in Song', the folk rockin' 'Oh! Whiskey' and Doves-by-numbers tune 'Didsbury Girl.'  Just wish it was more initially exciting.

Burial — Rival Dealer (2013)

Just now delving very deep in Burial's world. And what time to do that when a lot of people say he's released his best work yet. I will have to go back through the catalogue properly to get a full context, but the fact that its new to me —in both the sense that I'm unfamiliar with it and unfamiliar with where it came from— and it still breaks through and resonates with me very deeply says a lot about the emotional aspects of this music and its ability to convey moods through pure sound.  The title track is the dark dancefloor filler that Burial has been doing for roughly the past decade.  But then final two tracks take a complete turn away from the dancefloor and aim directly towards the listener's heart.  80's drumbreaks and dreamy washed out synth patches that haven't been used as anything other than a novelty on any record since 1987 dominate the rest of the EP.  Splices of sampled audio encouraging "lost" people to find themselves is an effective and instantly resonating device that works wonders.  Truly am sorry I waited on this one because it certainly deserved a spot on picks for last year.  It's good.  Oh man, is it good.  Key tracks: 'Hiders' and the epic masterpiece 'Come Down to Us'


Monday, April 7, 2014

What's New?: 4.7.2014

On today's episode: BECK!  And a new feature!  Instead of naming highlights in the body of the reviews, I'll break down the "key tracks" at the very end.  Streamlining and whathaveyou.

Beck — Mellow Gold (1994)

When 'Loser' hit in the spring of 1994, it was so out of place on MTV —and, hell, everywhere else for that matter— that I don't think I had any choice but to like it.  When you're 13, any song that makes it to top 40 radio that contains the phrase "Gettin' crazy with the Cheez Whiz" is golden.  Throw in a name check for your hometown and it's just about the coolest thing ever.  Of course, the parental advisory warning label on the album prevented me from being brazen enough to buy it, and I'm pretty sure I would've hated it if I had purchased it and tried to digest it back then.  But at this juncture in life, some twenty years later, I'm rediscovering Beck in a new way.  Yeah, he's a wacky scientologist (sidebar: I love that Firefox marks that as a misspelled word), but I think he's an interesting study in being able to separate the art from the artist.  And he's basically made a career out of being completely and utterly unpredictable.  That's just fun, no matter how you slice it.  Mellow Gold is like funky noise folk for stoners.  Everything imaginable is thrown into the musical blender and it absolutely should not work, but somehow does.  It's very lo-fi psychedelic and messy-sounding.  Nothing sounds intentional — it's as if the entire record was a complete accident upon its creation and Beck and his collaborators simply had the good sense to realize its uniqueness and kept the tape rolling.  A good summary would be: clattering trippiness.  The fact that Beck was even allowed to release such a strange album on a major label speaks to the "anything goes"-edness of the mid-90's.  A challenging album, but one that sticks out because of its sheer weirdness.  Key tracks: 'Loser', 'Beercan', and the surprisingly pretty closer 'Blackhole.'

Beck — Odelay (1996)

Of course, 'Where it's At' was so huge, it's easy to overlook just how awesome it is musically.  It's essentially the nonsensical goof-hop of 'Loser', redux, with a bigger budget and a funkier backbeat.  The whole thing sounds so cliched "90's man" in retrospect that it's easy to lose sight of just how unique this music was back then.  Nobody sounded like Beck.  It was easy to look at as purely pop music and subsequently ignore it — which I did for a long time.  Even when I reassessed him in the early 2000's, I glossed over these two early records in favor of the less popular stuff.  I missed out.  While Beck's less popular stuff is arguably his more rewarding music in the long run, this early stuff was popular for a reason.  And that's because it's just so darned catchy and fun.  There's just something joyful about a genuine weirdo making hits records and Odelay is no different.  Key tracks: 'The New Pollution', 'Jackass' and 'Where It's At' of course.

Beck — Mutations (1998)

Beck goes fully 70's folk rock for the first time here. It's a guise he would assume every few albums continuing forward, so it's easy for us now to look at him as a neo-folk rocker that gets occasionally silly all along. But when Mutations was new, it caused a stir like you wouldn't believe. Because where the hell did Beck get this idea that he could sing all of a sudden?  It was my first Beck album, so this is a reacquisition and it has all sorts of great sentimental value for me.  It was the first time Beck was in the studio with a live band it was also the first time he worked with the Brit Nigel Godrich on production (and, to be sure, this thing is lush as heck).  It was a bid to be taken seriously as an artist and not just a novelty act, and it worked.  Key tracks: the lush psychdedelia of 'Nobody's Fault But My Own', 'We Live Again', closer 'Static' and the lively hidden track 'Diamond Bollocks.'

Beck — Guero (2005)

This came out when I was working at Tower, so I have fond memories of it being one of the things on the store stereo to look forward to.  It reunites Beck with the Chemical Brothers and, subsequently, to the alternative hip-pop of Odelay.  Some really great pop tunes here, mixed in with funky whiteboy musings and a bit of the thoughtful folk rock that he's come to be known for.  It's an all over the place stylistic mish mash of an album and a cursory description would be Odelay meets Mutations, but that doesn't do it any favors whatsoever.  Something like 'Broken Drum', for instance, meets the requirements of that comparison with its dreamy slide guitar riff and electronic beat, but it transcends and becomes something else entirely.  Pretty spiff.  An album that definitely has highlights, but very little cohesion (perhaps contrarily).  Key tracks: 'Broken Drum', the pure pop of 'Girl', moody 'Earthquake Weather' and the blues stomp of 'Farewell Ride.'

Beck — Guerolito (2005)

Beck set trends again in the early 2000's with the idea that an entire album can be remixed and revised by other musicians.  This only enhanced the feeling that Guero was never really meant to be viewed as anything except a compilation of new Beck songs and not really a proper album — but not to its detriment, either because the music was still decent, as much of a scattershot of styles as it was.  The remixes, generally speaking, are more hip hop-centric than their source material and the highlights generally remain the same.  It's a good remix album because it doesn't require the listener to be all that familiar with the source material to be able to enjoy it.  It certainly seemed to set up the foundation for Beck albums to follow, as the similarly mish-mashy The Information received its own full length remix not too long after its initial release.  Key tracks: Boards of Canada's meditative reimagining of 'Broken Drum', Air's synth-heavy take on 'Missing' (retitled here 'Heaven Hammer'), El-P's melodramatic 'Scarecrow' mix and the proper album outtake 'Clap Hands.'

Beck — Modern Guilt (2008)

And, just when the formula seemed to be firmly in place, Beck decided to return back to the psychedelic melancholia of Sea Change.  Except, with Dangermouse on board, everything has a funkier, spookier backbeat.  I've seen and heard a lot of talk about this album that mentions the word paranoia and I'm not sure I completely agree with that.  Because, while it does have a spooky funk vibe to it, I find something like 'Chemtrails' to be about Beck's state of mind, not everyone else around him (and a beautiful tune, as well).  So, I get a very Ray Davies on Muswell Hillbillies type of vibe from this album.  He's a 21st century man, but he doesn't want to be here, as it were.  This sort of thing might be considered dour if the tunes weren't as catchy as heck, but as it stands, it was arguably Beck's most introspective work at that point.  Key tracks: the spaghetti western-ish title track, 'Volcano' and the utterly gorgeous 'Chemtrails.'

Beck — Morning Phase (2014)

Man, some people are just straight up trashing this thing!  Whatever.  Sea Change is easily my favorite Beck album, so if he wants to rehash that sound for all its worth, I say let him.  The singles he released in the last year leading up to this album held no indication of what was to come, but here is an absolutely stunning new long player that's as slow and brooding as it is pretty.  Nigel Godrich is not around, but the lushness is played up despite his absence and the album is all the better for it.  But where Sea Change was about an in-the-moment breakup release, Morning Phase is more about long term emotional unrest and trying to make connections with the world around you.  I would have called Modern Guilt Beck's most personal work until this album.  He has successfully recaptured and rebranded that classic Laurel Canyon/LA studio scene of the early 70's for a new generation.  Excellent.  Key tracks: the searching 'Heart is a Drum', the eerie and borderline contradictory 'Wave' and the swelling odd time signature centerpiece 'Blackbird Chain.'

Sorry it's been so long between updates.