Monthly Archives: January 2010

Spoon – Transference

It was perhaps inevitable, given Spoon’s stubbornly indie ways, that their follow-up to follow 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is willfully ragged, challenging and melody-free. Transference is hardly a krautrock behemoth; nonetheless, from the first wavering organ drone of “Before Destruction”, over which Britt Daniel growls like a spectator to the end of days, to the atonal tape loops that cut through the closer, “Nobody Gets Me But You”, this is a deliberately difficult work.

That’s not to say that Transference is a bad album – in fact, it’s a very good album. Self-produced, and often committed to tape from home recordings and demo tracks, the album veers between acoustic laments targeting primal emotions (“Goodnight Laura”, “Out Go The Lights”), and shuffling, dubby funk (“Who Makes Your Money”), in which Daniel’s sparse vocals are further obscured by the kind of playful production trickery the band has become known for. In-studio chatter is prevalent in the interstitial few seconds between tracks; on several occasions, songs either end abruptly, or suddenly isolate one instrument which peters out in a disconcerting fashion.

It’s not all shunt and groove, luckily – that would have been somewhat monotonous and overly gloomy. Spoon may have pruned their brand of minimalist art pop down to the bare essentials, but they’re still apt to throw a wobbly now and again, as on the barreling, piano-thrashing R&B (in a fifties sense, not à la Beyoncé) of “Written In Reverse” which recalls the grander moments of Gimme Fiction, or indeed the scratchy lo-fi of “Trouble Comes Running”, where the drums and guitars are entirely panned to opposing channels in a defiantly Pavement-esque style reminiscent of 1998’s A Series of Sneaks.

Some will argue that Spoon’s relentless infatuation with sparseness and economy has turned to parody on Transference. I would argue that the singleness of vision displayed on this album result in a subtle, vaguely creepy sense of cohesion that lend it an understated appeal that resembles a more low-key variant on the midnight ruminations of Spoon’s 2002 magnum opus, Kill The Moonlight.

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Vampire Weekend – Contra (Mk. II)

Yes, I’m back. I couldn’t really keep away from this intriguing little album for much longer. In fact, I’ll probably end up writing a third (and final!) review of Contra as a kind of blog-exclusive. The micro-review below is to be printed in next week’s PartB culture supplement of my university newspaper, The Beaver. Enjoy!

What I really loved about Vampire Weekend was its fusing of catchy pop music, subtle world influences, and some seriously smart lyrics about “college” life. It was the great unifying soundtrack to my first year at university, depicting the perfect, globe-trotting lives of four Ivy Leaguers while I stumbled drunkenly around rainy, gloomy London. That their critiques of privileged youth appropriating distant cultural trends were misinterpreted as somehow endorsing colonialism was bizarre – as anyone who listened properly to “Oxford Comma” would know, Ezra Koenig wasn’t so much flaunting his knowledge of punctuation as criticising that kind of pedant.
Anyway, now they’re back, with the knowingly titled Contra – a wink and a nod to The Clash, and we’re off, with the starry-eyed vocals and thumb piano of “Horchata”, a song that rhymes aforesaid milky drink with “balaclava” and “aranciata”. Cheeky bugger. The next song, “White Sky”, melds the chirpiness of the band’s debut with a new-found love of synthesiser bleeps and beats, no doubt informed by producer-at-large Rostam Batmanglij’s side-project Discovery.

At this point, the most noticeable change in direction exhibited on Contra must be brought to the fore – namely, the sense of sadness and regret that tinges large swathes of the album. This is not such an upbeat album as even a song like “Holiday” would suggest: where cheeky verses once practically fell into rousing choruses, now the default setting is slightly detuned synths and pitter-patter beats. It’s certainly less baroque, as the AutoTuned dancehall of “California English” and the ambitious, sample-heavy “Diplomat’s Son” will testify.

The second noteworthy progression on Contra is, unsurprisingly, in the lyrics. Vampire Weekend was very much an album about campus life; Contra is all about this same set of Ivy League types graduating, inheriting the earth, and now re-evaluating their place in society. So, relationships crumble, and tales of distant shores are nostalgic and wistful. Which, all told, is probably a good thing, because I don’t think another thirty-six minutes of cold professors studying romances, and Blake, with his new face, would have washed with Vampire Weekend’s more astute listeners. Contra is a subtle, limbering creature; less catchy and celebratory; more reflective and critical in its aesthetic and lyrical bent.

Vampire Weekend – Contra

The allure of a MySpace preview proved too great. I’ve only gone and loaded up Vampire Weekend’s profile to sample the subtleties of their eagerly-awaited sophomore album, Contra. Well, I say subtleties, but it’s inevitable that somewhere in Rupert Murdoch’s machine, many of the nuances on this record have been eaten up by the low-bitrate monster. In which case, January 11th might be a better point at which to assess this smart, surprisingly low-key creation, which limbers in on a twinkling of keyboards and Ezra Koenig’s wide-eyed, gulping voice, and departs on a plaintive lament.

OK, but I really must say some things about this album right now. First up, it’s considerably less upbeat than the band’s eponymous debut. Where songs once fell into rousing choruses, now everything is tinged with sadness and regret and reflection. Where the music used to fall back on punk, now the default setting is slightly detuned morse code synths and pitter-patter beats. At one point, it even goes all dancehall-via-AutoTune.

Secondly, it’s much less baroque. I mentioned the instrumentation earlier, but what strikes me repeatedly about Contra is how much more modern it sounds. Yes, lead single “Cousins” evokes early Police, but it sits snugly next to songs like “White Sky” and “Run”, which play up the same set of presets as used by keyboard-whizz Rostam Batmanglij on his side-project, Discovery.

Anything else to report on? Of course, Ezra Koenig’s lyrics ought to be scrutinised carefully. Vampire Weekend was very much an album about campus life; Contra is all about this same set of Ivy League  types graduating, inheriting the earth, and now re-evaluating their place in society. So, relationships crumble, and tales of distant shores are nostalgic and wistful.

I think I’ll leave it at that for now. But give me another day to digest this work and I’ll probably be back with more thoughts.

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

I like the fact that Yeasayer appear on Bat For Lashes’ thoroughly excellent Two Suns LP, even though I’m still not exactly sure what they contributed to the album. Both artists are big on percussion; both major on otherworldly sounds that creep into memorable melodies. Now, as a taster of Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, we have the free single “Ambling Alp”, whose title captures perfectly the loping, jaunty rhythm of the song.

“Ambling Alp” emerges from a pool of electronic gurgling and ethereal, percussive cries of joy. The beat is triplet-heavy and rolls about between the channels; Chris Keating’s vocals recall a bygone era of impassioned pop music, occasionally breaking into a spectrum of harmonies. The chorus benefits from parps of brass, and the repeated couplet of

Stick up for yourself, son; Never mind what anybody else done

is going to be sticking around in my head all week. Unsurprisingly, it’s a blast. As the song rides out on a turbocharged tropical melody, I was left relentlessly upbeat and perfectly content with the freezing cold weather outside. Yeasayer have brought the summer back to the world, even in the harshest depths of winter. Can we ask for anything more satisfying?

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

My novel of the decade

In considering my favourite novel of the noughties, it was perhaps inevitable that my mind should alight immediately upon a weighty work that captures the inescapable sense of disappointment that has epitomised this decade. I am, to those who know me, an arch miserablist, especially when it comes to cultural matters, and what really impresses me about my chosen piece of fiction is that, despite it being released back in 2001, it succeeded in foretelling much of the misery and broken dreams that would go on to characterise this period of time. Technology has made islands of us all; consumerist demands have ruptured families like only civil wars previously could; our ageing population gets away with bad decisions; an increasingly strained youth must pick up the inevitable cost. For me, only one novel has dealt with these issues in a compelling manner.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, as endorsed by New Yorker readers and Oprah Winfrey viewers alike, takes a group of people with a vague semblance to the traditional family unit, drags them into the twenty-first century, and catalogues the ensuing multi-generational, globe-spanning saga in a vibrant, sparky style that veers into the surreal but never escapes from its grounding in black comedy, tinged with sadness and regret. The Corrections follows the Lamberts – a Midwestern family spanning three generations, blighted by Parkinson’s and dementia (Alfred, the father of the family), marital constraints (Edith, Alfred’s long-suffering wife), consumerist demands (Gary, the eldest son, a successful banker), and failed romance (both Denise and Chip, the other two children, suffer from this). Though their lives are plotted along increasingly disparate vectors, Edith is determined to re-unite the family for what may be their final Christmas together – Alfred’s ailments seeming increasingly terminal.

Franzen doesn’t make it easy for us to like his characters. He doesn’t even make it easy to like his style of writing – numerous friends of mine have given up after the opening chapter, which refers to a silent alarm bell signalling the ever-present state of panic at the heart of the dying couples that inhabit small Midwestern towns. All of the Lamberts are blessed with loveable qualities, but each worsens their situation by dint of their more screwed-up character flaws, making it tough to sympathise with them. At the same time, we see that they are, at heart, good people, screwed over by modern society which, for one reason or another, they cannot adapt to. It is there in Denise’s bizarre relationships which challenge our perceptions of sexuality and the ease with which we can just fall in love. It is present too in Alfred’s undoubted intelligence, which is kept at bay by an inability to express modern values. The Corrections is a deeply unhappy novel about our insatiable desire to correct parts of our life – whether through food, people, money, or possessions – and yet it does not posit the strong family as the solution to this unhappiness either.

Franzen’s masterpiece is my novel of the decade not only because of its prescience and thematic weightiness, but also because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, written in a hyperthyroid style that flits between made-up science, wry perceptions and social commentary, political discourse, and frequently fascinating, clipped dialogue. If this new decade is to bring us any hope at all, we should endeavour to make it nothing like the world of The Corrections. Which is exactly why everyone should read it.