Monthly Archives: January 2009

First Impressions…

… are good. I’ll post a review of both Tonight: Franz Ferdinand and Merriweather Post Pavilion a bit later but, for the moment, here are some initial thoughts.

Tonight is crisply produced and comes with the right kind of aesthetic that Franz Ferdinand have been hinting at, but they only ever plunge head-first into one of these new directions on one track, the 8-minute Moroder-aping “Lucid Dreams”, which features an extended synth workout. The rest of the album is solidly written, with characteristically catchy hooks and typically insightful, witty lyrics. What will probably strike me to a greater extent on further listens is the pacing and structure of the album. Certainly, it appears to run on a continual upward slope, heading towards the peak of a night out, which occurs during the aforementioned “Lucid Dreams”. The final two tracks definitely represent the post-night comedown, their being much more blissful and hungover, and also more sincere. Beyond that, I’ve yet to gauge a true understanding of the structure during the first half, except that “Ulysses” is an invented drug, and that “No You Girls” cleverly inverts the naïvety of first love halfway through the song.

Merriweather Post Pavilion has absolutely astonishing production. Far from the murkiness I was beginning to associate with Animal Collective, the album fizzes and sparkles and, most importantly, sends thunderous quakes of bass through my subwoofer. That’s important, because it appears to accentuate the more dance-orientated direction the band have taken. It’s not necessarily music to dance to, just music that bears more than a passing resemblance to dance-music forefathers. The songs themselves are complex in structure, with a myriad of samples and synths that somehow don’t ever get lost in a fog of meandering. Though this is their longest proper album yet, the songs appear more focused and rooted, though they don’t observe conventional pop song structures. Lyrically too, the album sees AC mature the themes first evoked on Strawberry Jam – those of childhood innocence; the simple love of others; and the essential mysterious wonderment of being alive. They’re well-expressed through not overly catchy lyrics, with minimal sonic meddling, and the whole combination of music and voice coalesces best of all on “My Girls” and the closer, “Brother Sport”.

More to follow, definitely.

Radio Is Dead: Long Live Radio

So I finally received my beta invitation for Spotify, the new internet-based music-streaming service that’s absolutely free at the point of use, but is subsidised by the occasional advert. And I’m exceptionally happy, because, much as I love buying music, I also like hearing songs that I’ve heard a lot about, but which aren’t being played on the radio, because the radio only plays rubbish.

This means that Spotify makes an awful lot of sense for any kind of music listener.

It’s 100% legal, because the money raised from advertising and premium passes goes to the record companies; it’s of a decent quality – around 160 kb/sec; and, best of all, they’ve put an awful lot of thought into the design of the application, which is available for both Mac and PC. It’s a joy to navigate around in; it’s dead easy to find artists, albums and individual songs; and what is even more promising are its ‘social’ features. Any user of Spotify can create playlists, for which a URL will also be created, which can be shared with any other user. Already there are plenty of websites springing up which list and categorise people’s uploaded playlists: for instance, some enterprising souls have created playlists for Pitchfork’s Top Albums and Top Songs of 2008, which is ideal for anyone wanting to actually hear the music that’s being acclaimed but not heard through conventional media.

The only downside is that it’ll probably convince me to buy more music too, for now that I’ve finally heard ESG’s “Moody”, or the excellent live version of Wilco‘s “Poor Places”, I’ll definitely be thinking of buying the original albums. Of course, nothing beats the physical embodiment of an album, as I’ve already discussed, but I’m not exactly going to rush out to buy an album from which I’ve heard absolutely nothing; only read reviews.

That aside, it’s also a great way of hearing old singles that I really should have heard by now – for instance,  Gil Scott-Heron’s landmark proto-rap poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. However people use Spotify, it makes money for the music industry, which can’t be a bad thing, given its current beleaguered state (I would give anything to get Guy Hands‘ hands off EMI), without imposing a compulsory cost on the end-user. It’s a great idea, and while I’m here in halls, freed from the constraints of bandwidth download limits, I’m planning on making heavy use of it, not only to preview my potential purchases, but also to stock up on the music history that I’m lacking. Next stop: Arthur Russell!

Epilepsy Is Dancing!

Antony Hegarty inspires a surprising amount of dislike. Well, alright, it’s not that surprising: with a voice somewhere between Nina Simone and Rufus Wainwright, and an aesthetic that inspires some alarm in more conservative music-listeners, he’s hardly mainstream entertainment. However, what has always attracted me to his work is the combination of grim terror at mortality and beautiful melodrama that invades every minute of it. Back in 2005 I thought they were spot-on to award him the Mercury Prize for I Am A Bird Now; only last year I thought he was the star performer on Hercules And Love Affair, lending his soaring tones to a selection of the year’s finest dance tracks. Interestingly, removed from his usual environment of sombre piano and fluttering orchestral arrangements, Antony sounded far more assertive; more of a diva, and it suited him rather well. It’s not his fault he was born to contemplate man’s fragile existence on earth, and on H&LA the extent of his invigoration imbibes the songs with an alluring mix of hedonistic abandon and tragic nostalgia, particularly on the highlight, “Blind”.

And now, at last, he’s back with his regular troupe Antony and the Johnsons, with this year’s The Crying Light. Regrettably, I’ve yet to hear the album from start to finish – you only come to this blog for quality music journalism! – but the two tracks I have heard do indeed push his voice into uncharted musical territory, which is refreshing and wonderful. The video above is of the album’s lead single, “Epilepsy Is Dancing”. As Alexis Petridis noted in his review of the album, the song

doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs on paper, and indeed, it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs on record

but I would add that it has a charming folksy lilt to it, with light jazz guitar, feathery strings, an almost-invisible oboe, and surprisingly sweet piano. Though the chorus sees Antony singing

Cut me in quadrants
Leave me in the corner

which initially sounds rather chilling, he continues

Oh now it’s passing
Oh now I’m dancing

which suggests an uplifting caveat to what is an otherwise typically grim subject. Indeed, I would not hesitate to alight upon another central aspect of Hegarty’s work: rather than playing up to the victimised portrayal of gender confused artists, he has empowered a lot of people to stand up for their sexuality by singing about tough subjects in a resolved manner. His songs continually reference cases of extreme sadness and tragedy, but he is never prepared to lie down without a fight; always determined to look for the quirky joy that his life brings.

The second song I’ve heard, “Aeon”, sees Hegarty singing about love over delightfully Lou Reed-esque guitar arpeggios. It sounds a bit like “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”, but for a man, instead of a city. A lot of critics have mentioned the rather ostentatious climax of the song, which sees Antony literally screaming

Hold that man I love SO MUCH!

but I must confess that I rather like it.

IN OTHER NEWS

  • Pitchfork gave Tonight: Franz Ferdinand a respectable score of 7.3, but it’s the words in the review to which you’ll want to divert your eyes. The reviewer is mightily impressed by what he sees as the band’s evolutionary stage, where they have explored a range of genres and styles, with equal aplomb. I can’t wait for Amazon to deliver me the goods.
  • I got into Spoon far too late, but if you want a gem of a song that is practically perfect, check out “Don’t You Evah”, which is their cover version of an unheard-of band’s song, and which appears on their 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. It’s ace, and it features some humorous dialogue between singer Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno at the beginning, as they sit in the studio laying down the tracks. The melody; the vocals; the drums – it’s all there. I just wish it was written by them in the first place. Though I’m willing to bet the original song isn’t actually as good as the cover.
  • Finally, if you go to this website, you can hear a new song from The National, entitled “So Far Around The Bend”. It’s a bit more jolly than the stuff from their masterpiece of an album, 2007’s Boxer, and it contains orchestral arrangements from Nico Muhly, who did the arrangements on The Crying Light, mentioned earlier in the post. The compilation itself, Dark Was The Night, is a charity thing, put together by The National, and features songs from a selection of awesome artists and bands, including Arcade Fire, David Byrne, Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket and so forth. I’m sure it’ll be worth getting.

A Utopia For You To Live In

As Michael points out, I’ve so far refused the temptation of listening to the preview of Tonight: Franz Ferdinand on their MyFaceSpaceBook, and I think my reasons are pretty justified. For one thing, my pre-ordered 2-disc edition of the album has already been dispatched from Amazon (along with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion). This immediately impressed me – I don’t think I’ve ever pre-ordered an album on Amazon before; if I do want to buy an album as soon as it’s released, I usually prefer to visit my local HMV (other record stores are available!) – because I should hopefully receive the album not too long after tomorrow, which is probably sooner than I could have hoped to visit a record store, judging by my packed schedule for the next few days.

I’ve been anticipating Franz Ferdinand’s third album for a very long time: in fact, pretty much as soon as I had finished listening to their second album, and I’m really hoping it’s been worth the lengthy gestation. Experience tells me that, when my expectations are so high, there is no better way of releasing all the suspense than to wait until I have the physical embodiment of the album in my hands, ready to be played in super stereo, the way it was intended, as opposed to the low bitrate/dodgy ethics of a MySpace listening party or a BitTorrent leak. My case in point is Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations, which was probably my most eagerly-awaited album of 2006. Though I did end up bussing it to HMV on the day of its release – and then promptly heading off to school – by that point, I had already heard it from half a dozen different sources and, in many ways, it wasn’t the best preparation. I had heard it so much, and heard so much about it, that when I actually listened to the thing properly, there were no surprises. I already knew the synthesiser trickery employed in several songs; I was already aware of the conspiracy theories referenced in the lyrics. It wasn’t actually that much fun, and so that’s why I’ve decided that abstinence is the best preparation this time round.

Having written all that, I must confess that, by some indistinct means, I have heard the album-version of “Lucid Dreams”, which is already being referred to as the highlight of the album, and clear proof that the band can take their music-to-make-girls-dance in a faithful electronic direction. Personally, I think it’s a tremendous piece of music, initially swaggering, then mind-boggling, finally hip-shaking and dancefloor-quaking. It’s not a million miles away from the works of Moroder and the like, but it’s still refreshing to hear an updating of the synth-tastic dance music of the 70s from a band who really do know their stuff. Judging by the reviews though, the rest of the album doesn’t entirely live up to the heady heights of “Lucid Dreams”, but I’m still hopeful.

AND IN OTHER NEWS

May I recommend Wilco’s “Impossible Germany”, taken from last year’s Sky Blue Sky album. The band’s sixth studio album was a much mellower affair than usual, taking much more inspiration from more traditional country music. It was critically panned, but one of the highlights in many reviewers’ eyes was “Impossible Germany”. It’s utterly gorgeous, and really shows off the lilting guitar work of Nels Cline. However, to gauge a true impression of Wilco’s more experimental, adventurous work, you can’t do better than getting a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was released in 2002 after various sagas between the band and their former record label. It’s extraordinary.

Enjoy!

I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.

Much as I can promise that, in the future, I’ll try not to get an idea for a post solely by riffing off something Michael writes, having read his spot-on tribute to LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, I really couldn’t help but pen something concerning Mr. Murphy, for whom my admiration is fairly unreserved. I could wax lyrical about him for hours, but I won’t. Mainly because I need to catch up on sleep, but also because it would be sycophantic and dull.

Instead, then, I feel it’s worth arguing that, in order to truly appreciate the brilliance of “All My Friends”, one has to place it in the context of the album, Sound of Silver, and take it from there.

First, a little history. Murphy’s eponymous debut, LCD Soundsystem, was a witty, musically enjoyable romp through dance punk, and I don’t think the progression heard on its follow-up was necessarily expected. This first album was perfect at capturing a scene in its infancy, and enlarging it in order to poke holes into it, whilst still showing off a talent for eye-catching hooks, but it certainly wasn’t a wholly engrossing emotional experience; far less the kind of album that reduced me to tears (yes, just as with certain films, there really are albums that have this effect on me). On the contrary, Sound of Silver remains one of the most emotionally mature releases I have come across in recent memory, without compromising on musical interest or invention. If anything, it’s far less derivative than its predecessor, bearing much more of a debt to the experimentation and aesthetics of Bowie and Eno than the somewhat lairy post-punk of Mark E. Smith. The opener,  “Get Innocuous”, immediately clarifies the step up between the two albums: within the first minute, the instantly recognisable beat of a TR-808 gives way to Murphy’s live drumming, before layers of synths, piano and icily detached vocals give a strange emotional charge that, till that moment, is pretty much entirely lacking in his œuvre. It’s a wonderful song that builds and builds, swallowing the listener up in its lyrical themes and sonic artistry.

From thereon in, the album explores a range of genres and subjects without ever letting up, but, for me, the heart of the album lies in the trio of songs that kicks off with “Someone Great”, carries on with “All My Friends”, and culminates in “Us V Them”. It is in this triumvirate that Murphy gets to the bottom of his role as an artist; his reasons for being firmly in the game of making intelligent dance music (but not IDM) at a relatively advanced stage of his life; what spurs him on and makes him want to sing about real things, beyond the humorous but ultimately narrow-minded hipster anecdotes that pepper the debut record.

The first aspect of Murphy’s progression through life depicted in the trio is loss, detailed with poignancy and subtlety in “Someone Great”.

I wake up and the phone is ringing,
Surprised, as it’s early.
And that should be the perfect warning,
That something’s a problem.

Far from dealing in heavy-handed language and imagery, Murphy merely hints at impending tragedy, without ever appealing to melodrama or exploiting our emotions. His observations in the song are concerned with the minutiæ of dealing with loss – “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” he remarks, providing an elision of the quotidian and the exceptional, reminding us that, regardless of the trauma involved, normality continues apace. The repeated suggestion that “We’re safe, for the moment” is heart-wrenching in its subtext: on the one hand he is celebrating the life of someone who has passed on; on the other, he is objectively comprehending and processing the realisation that his days too are numbered, and that in creation, we are inherently poised towards destruction.

The twinkling, eery outro of “Someone Great”, with its collision of glockenspiel and detuned synth, provides the perfect segue into the epic contemplation on ageing that is “All My Friends”, which emerges, slowly, patiently, from a Reich-like piano figure; a single chord whose rhythm suggests an unstoppable force that continues beneath everything for the duration of the track – in effect, it represents our uncontrollable journey towards old age, whilst the lyrics take a typically dry, observationally succinct approach to the problems of this passing of time.

We set controls for the heart of the sun:
One of the ways that we show our age.

Again, Murphy never resorts to bludgeoning the message home. Instead, as the song unfurls around a scratchy guitar motif, his lyrics become gradually more impassioned, as he laments the bad decisions that have caused his life to come undone:

It comes apart,
The way it does in bad films.
Except in part,
When the moral kicks in.

Using the imagery of cars, films and journeys, he deftly examines his own failings, eventually repeating the question “Where are your friends tonight?”, before confessing “If I could see all my friends tonight” as the guitar reaches its own emotional peak, and the piano playing becomes more frenzied and rushed. The resolution at the end of the song suggests some closure, but it seems hollow when prefaced by the admissions of failure and wrongdoing.

In the aftermath of this dual rumination on mortality and maturity, Murphy at last takes on the final chapter in the defining passages of life – fame. “Us V Them”, the longest of the three, and also the most musically sparse and minimal, sees a partial return to the dance-punk sound that characterises LCD Soundsystem, dominated by muted guitar scratches and More Cowbell. In a successful attempt to lighten the tone, Murphy himself is heard whispering “Bells” before the requisite cowbell is ushered in. The remainder of the lyrics expands upon the spare accompaniment with an at-times scathing account of the Big Life.

And so all the good people wanna rescue,
All the small people wanna talk to you.
All the clever people wanna tell you,
All the little people wanna dance, it’s true.

In this depiction, everyone’s a villain, and everyone’s trying to get the better of him, leading to the inevitable cry of segregation in “So it’s us, and them, over and over again.” Of the three, this is the least resolved, perhaps a reminder of the fact that Murphy has made it, to an extent, in the world, and this is now the true (if a little exaggerated) format of his life – continual sparring and sniping – about which he can do nothing.

The remainder of the album is, unsurprisingly, superb, incorporating electronic music, punk and, finally, a Lou Reed-style waltz on the touching closer, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. Nothing, however, compares to this emotional heart of the album, which examines the making of James Murphy in an eloquent, touching and interesting manner, without ever resorting to mawkish sentimentality or emotional bluntness. It is to his great credit that, almost two years down the line, this trio of meditations on loss, ageing and fame, continues to inspires me after every listen. In an age of melodramatic emotional statements in music, set against a rival faction of emotionally bereft music, it’s incredibly endearing to find such a genuinely heartfelt set of songs that never patronises, but instead weaves its meaning through measured use of metaphor and allusion. What a wonderful album. What a wonderful artist.

Sad Robot

It seems like everyone’s going crazy about the current trend in Hip Hop for AutoTuning one’s voice, which culminated in one of 2008’s bleakest, most emotionally raw albums, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, which papered over Yeezy’s vocal inadequacies with almost continual use of AutoTune, and, in so doing, unearthed the most heartbroken corners of his mind. On a slightly related plane, one of the highlights of Bon Iver’s 2007/8 album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the track The Wolves (Acts I & II), which again presented the singer as an emotionally scarred recluse, hiding behind elusive metaphor to combat the pain and anguish of heartbreak. And, like with Mr. West, one of the most striking aspects of the song is it’s use of AutoTune to fiddle around with Justin Vernon’s voice, albeit in rather more of a subtle manner. Listen to it carefully and, at around 2:52, there it is, making him seem detached and inhuman to dazzling effect. It’s dead clever.

So clever, in fact, that Vernon has taken the trick to its logical conclusion in the new song, Woods, featured on his Blood Bank EP, out this week, and also featured in the video above. Here, unaccompanied by any instruments, Vernon’s vocals are stacked through a vocoder (which, I accept, is different from AutoTune), in a manner not really heard since Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. The effect, too, is similar: he sounds fragile and scarred, wishing to hide behind electronics not to mask any vocal inadequacies, but to depict a precarious and uncertain state of mind. Over the top of the vocodered refrain, Vernon howls like a wolf, presenting another level of anguish and passion. The results are dazzling, but only in small doses. When the song is over, you too feel drained and spent, and one has to hope that Bon Iver leaves his experiment at just that. It’s a wonderful, haunting song, but I certainly couldn’t bear a whole album of it.

10.0 albums

Are there any albums that I would award a score of 10.0, Pitchfork style? Well, being a bit more generous in places than Pitchfork, yes. There is still a little bit of overlap between the two sets of albums (the Pitchfork one used to be a group page on Wikipedia, but I think it’s since disappeared), but there are also some fairly substantial differences. Without further ado:

Amon Tobin – Supermodified

Arcade Fire – Funeral

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

David Bowie – Low

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

Gorillaz – Demon Days

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

Led Zeppelin – IV

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf

Radiohead – OK Computer

Radiohead – Kid A

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun

Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Steely Dan – Aja

Talking Heads – Remain In Light

Tortoise – TNT

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The main thing with this list that it overlooks possible faults with individual songs on albums in the pursuit of perfection as a whole. A 10.0 album, in my book, should be cohesive and thematic, without necessarily needing to have every song nailed.

U2 – Get On Your Boots

Neither Michael nor I are very big U2 fans. In fact, we both think they probably should have retired a long time ago; maybe sometime after The Joshua Tree. As it is, they’re still plodding along in stadium/arena/widescreen-rock fashion, obsessing about world poverty and widening social inequality and possibly the plight of the whales.

Now they’re dropping a new album, No Line On The Horizon, preceded by this lead single, Get On Your Boots, which is currently swapping between various YouTube videos having premiered yesterday morning. I’m holding out on judgement until I’ve given it a few more listens, but it really isn’t all that bad. As Pitchfork notes, it does have something of the desert about it, but in less of a delicate, beautified way than the highlights of The Joshua Tree.

Whatever any critic’s judgement on it is, one thing is for certain – it’ll be the most downloaded song on iTunes this year.

Oh, and as a bonus treat, here is Radiohead’s Creep, re-imagined by Microsoft’s latest embarrassment, Songsmith:

Enjoy!

Backtracking

Historically, I’ve been pretty shoddy with blogs. I create them and I obsess over them and I pour my soul into them and then I forget all about them and they vanish into the ether. Sometimes, along the way, some of my posts get unusually high levels of exposure, but then, as time wears on, they too fade away into obscurity. It’s a perennial problem that I’m hoping to dispel with this blog. Part of the reason for this wholesale new year’s resolution is the constant collaboration of Michael, who’s going to be manning the blog on an equal footing, which will hopefully up the stakes of competition and force me into being responsible about the upkeep of the blog, and my own article-count.

In the downtime since I forgot all about my previous blog, Interstellar Overdrive, I’ve occasionally been posting music-related ramblings and links on my Facebook profile, chief among them my Top 18 Albums of 2008 (because 18 is such an auspicious number). In the interests of giving my writings some sort of recent context, here, then, is a verbatim copy of that list:

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
  2. TV On The Radio – Dear Science,
  3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
  4. Hercules & Love Affair – Hercules & Love Affair
  5. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
  6. Deerhunter – Microcastle 
  7. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
  8. Portishead – Third
  9. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
  10. Calexico – Carried To Dust
  11. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  12. Johnny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
  13. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles
  14. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement
  15. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
  16. Foals – Antidotes
  17. Santogold – Santogold

Honourable Mention: The Week That Was – The Week That Was

Now I realise that 17/18 is not really a typical number for such lists, but I actually think there was something of a paucity of good albums in 2008 – certainly not a vintage year like 2007. The albums listed are those that I rate not only for the quality of the songs, but also for the structure and composition of the album. For me, the year was characterised by several high-profile duds and one-hit wonders, without really delivering a large quantity of really special albums. That said, there are a few more albums given high praise by music reviewers which I have yet to hear, so I’m willing to accept that this list is far from definitive. Certainly at the tail end of my list, the albums become a little bit flawed, particularly Hot Chip, Foals and Santogold.
Finally, The Week That Was is the quasi-solo project from a member of one of favourite unheard-of bands, Field Music, who are currently on some sort of untruthful hiatus. Their 2007 album, Tones Of Town, really struck a chord with me, and I can’t think why they’ve never achieved the fame of their close friends Maxïmo Park and the Futureheads. Please have a listen to their material; it’s beautiful and uplifting.

As a little tack-on piece, here are the albums I’m most looking forward to in 2009:
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light
The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love
Patrick Wolf – Battle (now with added Tilda Swinton!)
Unnamed James Murphy side-project
Possible new Arctic Monkeys album

I’m sure there’s plenty more in store, but that’s all for now.

UPDATE: In the interests of not appearing to be a smug idiot, I have now included the Bon Iver record. In actual fact, it was first released in 2007 (as evidenced by its appearance on the Top 50 Albums of 2007 on Pitchfork) but I’m willing to accept that virtually everyone else, myself included, only heard it in 2008. So in it goes at number 11.

P.S. In the interests of competition, I would love for Michael to post his possible list of Top Albums from last year.