Monthly Archives: May 2011

Hot Chip — “Crap Kraft Dinner”

“All the people I love are drunk.”

Hot Chip know their way around the tragicomic, which is why “Crap Kraft Dinner” is a different kind of loser’s anthem.

The song doesn’t operate in terms of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and if it did, it wouldn’t work. The first bit is all purported scene-setting, making the listener believe it’s the guy who’s been dumped. Over melancholy FM bells and the occasional, soothing throb of bass, Alexis Taylor sounds like a down-and-out, glued to the bar stool.

“All you can hear is my refusal,
‘Cos I haven’t got the time for a jerk-off loser.”

But then, as the song enters its second act, the tempo steps up a gear. A lonely, forlorn strum of guitar is another faux amis before the song’s true intentions are laid bare. The 808 starts hitting on the off-beat, second vocalist Joe Goddard copies Taylor’s lyrics but an octave lower, and we realise that it’s the girl, previously the recipient of the titular “crap Kraft dinner”, who’s been dumped. Before you know it, with an ironic smirk, a saxophone straight out of “Careless Whisper” enters the scene, presaging the song’s final section, wherein competing synth lines rotate and murmur over a tricksier beat. Now he’s not so much singing about leaving his girl, as rubbing salt in her wounds, pretending he’s upset and heartbroken in spite of it being his decision. There’s “no more space or time / For a last supper”—though, given his previously explicated culinary skills, maybe that’s no bad thing.

The double irony is, of course, that Hot Chip know they’re geeks, and know that they’re never really the ones doing the dumping, or the salt-rubbing, or the pimping of one’s ride. After all, in another Coming On Strong cut, “Playboy”, Goddard describes “Drivin’ in my Peugeot / 20-inch rims with the chrome now / Blazin’ out Yo La Tengo”, like a particularly sad-sack gangsta from Putney.

The Horrors — “Still Life”

It’s dead easy to write off bands that come draped in NME hype (the worst kind) and release a debut album that is unapologetic in extremis. Then, sometimes, said band returns with a radically different second album, much humble pie is eaten, the album is lauded, its predecessor is given a second chance, and the axis of normality is reverted to.

But what comes next?

If your name is Faris Badwan, and you head up The Horrors, you go and make an album of dreamy girl group pop, with an opera singer called Rachel Zeffira who may or may not be your lover, which recalls Phil Spector records and the Shangri-Las.

Then, having done this, to stuffy critical acclaim, you go back to your day job, and ooze a song like “Still Life” out into the wild, in advance of releasing a third album, entitled Skying. The song exudes the casual, Sunday morning beauty of A Northern Soul-era Verve. Cautiously romantic synths are fired across a pool of backwards guitar. Badwan’s lyrics are all about patience, and biding one’s time; fittingly, the song takes time to unravel before we are treated to a gently euphoric chorus about “waking up and finding it”.

As a lot of people have noticed, elements of the instrumentation, and maybe even Badwan’s voice, are reminiscent of Simple Minds. I think that’s unkind: you wouldn’t catch the Scottish New Wavers teasing out their orchestral interests like The Horrors do in the second verse, wherein there are three brief flourishes of strings. They vanish immediately, to be replaced by lush but synthetic counterparts, which are later backed up by a faint trumpet fanfare. The song’s eventual fadeout is triumphant and at ease with itself—not something you could say about previous Horrors releases, which were foreboding and chilly even at their most blissed out.

Yo La Tengo — “Everyday

I have my friend RP to thank for getting into Yo La Tengo. Until I started at university, I only knew of the band via their referential, reverential song- and album-titles (example: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass). Then, I met RP, who plays cello in this band, and who lived above me in halls. We swapped mixtapes, and I had to up my game, naturally.

Yo La Tengo’s output vacillates between Beatles-y pop and Sonic Youth-esque experimental freak-outs. Then, in 2000, they released And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which is possibly my favourite of their albums. It is an extremely quiet album, which undresses itself by degrees, without revealing everything. Built on ambient drones and oddly disembodied drum machines, its songs only rarely edge into livelier territory: mostly, it sounds like displaced children creeping around suburban homes (see the album artwork, left, which is the work of Gregory Crewdson). If that sounds too forbidding, consider that I would offer a similar description to the music of The xx. Also, you should know that the band has a delicious sense of humour (“When in Nashville, visit Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack” etc.).

The album opens with “Everyday“, which is the perfect point of entry. Leave your preconceptions at the gate, and step inside a microcosmic world of faintly dripping taps, electrical humming, the rustling of crockery in the dishwasher. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the married couple who are at the heart of the band, murmur nonsensical couplets, softly, in harmony.

“I want to cross my heart,
I want to hope to die.
I hear Kate Moss talk, she talks to me:
She’s looking for a new beginning, everyday.”

Halfway through, an insistent baritone guitar lurks in, and a theremin-like whistling drifts near the top of the mix. The arrangement sounds like it’s coalescing into a suburban nightmare, and yet each element remains isolated, dissonant and perpetually thrilling.

Battles — “Africastle”

Previously, I’ve written about how my fear of avant-garde music was undermined by my diving headfirst into Battles. Now a trio, but still a supergroup of sorts, Battles are to release their second album, Gloss Drop, on 6th June, and all the signs suggest that it is an unintentionally easy listen. Surprising, given its troubled gestation.

The album opens with “Africastle”, the band not having given up on delicious song titles, and the song is an instantly stunning, shape-shifting composition. The intro suggests a rising, malevolent force, with Morricone-esque washes of guitar rattling beneath vaguely threatening pings. But the song quickly morphs: a lone thump of John Stanier’s bass drum, a cyclical figure played on god-knows-what instrument, and then we’re thrust into a giddy and thrilling passage which forms the bulk of the song. Whereas several songs on Gloss Drop feature turns from guest vocalists, “Africastle” is totally instrumental, and all the better for it, scene-setting what sounds like an otherwise esoteric collection of songs. At the 3:30 mark, the song turns back in on itself, with a spare and brutal bridge, but it seems as if the band can’t resist lightening the mood, and so this too drops out in the final minute, in favour of what sounds like a broken-down Game Boy telegraphing an Oriental motif over dry shards of synth and a rumbling bass drum.

What an odyssey, and it’s all over in less than six minutes, leaving the listener washed up on a distant beach, littered with mere fragments of the musical signposts we’re accustomed to. It’s great to have Battles back with us on Planet Earth, even if it’s only to beam us up into space.

I should probably mention that some people’s reaction to Battles Mk. II has been less than complimentary: Darryl Zero, over at The Night-Day Machine, said he felt “indifferent” by the end of a recent live show, and describes the band “methodically plodd[ing] their way” through the new song “Futura”.

Queens of the Stone Age — “I Never Came”

Gotta flush all the rawk music out of my system before I attempt to write something lucid about the new Amon Tobin album, ISAM.

Josh Homme is a beast of a man, but that doesn’t stop him having the voice of an angel, and a knack for writing sweet, sweet songs that wind up getting coated in seventeen layers of grime and rust by the time they appear on record. Lullabies to Paralyze was a break-up album of sorts: Queens of the Stone Age had parted company with bassist/head-case Nick Oliveri, and so, unusually, the rest of the touring band reassembled to record the next album. We like to think that Josh Homme is Queens of the Stone Age (plus or minus old hand Chris Goss), but Lullabies to Paralyze is more of a team affair, in spite of it sounding like a more personal record.

“When you say it’s dead and gone,
I know you’re wrong.”

QOTSA’s previous album, Songs for the Deaf, was a brush with the mainstream, with Homme penning a battery of songs that would find a home on countless radio stations—impressive, given that it still sounds like the driving-through-the-desert intro of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to my ears. In contrast, Lullabies to Paralyze was introspective to the extreme, with gothic fairytales and lullaby-like vocal melodies, interspersed with occasional chunks of chugging stoner rock.

Right in the middle of the album, there’s three minutes of bubblegum punk in the shape of “Little Sister”, but straight after comes the real centrepiece, “I Never Came”. Lyrically brutal (“Why you gotta shove it in my face /As if to put me in my place?” asks Homme) and musically raw, it sounds nasty and tragic all at once. The guitar has a pleading tone reminiscent of George Harrison’s solo in “Dear Prudence”, and the vocal harmonies (always divisive for QOTSA listeners) become incrementally guiltier as the song reaches its apogee. If you’re looking for precedent, you’d do a lot worse than listening to Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me“: both songs contain stinging accusations tempered by the realisation that, in an argument, both parties are usually to blame. “I don’t care if you or me is wrong or right,” admits Homme halfway through, signalling the confusion running through the song. The music behind him empathises perfectly with his trauma: a distant clattering of guitar in the verses; punishingly EQ-ed bass in the chorus; and those relentlessly studious drums that never pounce for the easy payoff. I’m not sure Homme’s ever written something so bittersweet as this.

My week as a playlist

“I love the girl,
But god only knows it’s
Getting harder to see the sun coming through.”
—Gorillaz, “Every Planet We Reach is Dead”

  1. Explosions in the Sky — Greet Death
  2. Hot Chip — One Pure Thought
  3. Beck — Send a Message to Her
  4. Radiohead — House of Cards
  5. Wild Beasts — Plaything
  6. Kanye West — All of the Lights
  7. Spandau Ballet — Gold
  8. Dionne Warwick — You’re Gonna Need Me
  9. These New Puritans — Drum Courts—Where Corals Lie (after Richard Garnett)
  10. Friendly Fires — Helpless
  11. Arcade Fire — My Body is a Cage
Every bit as grim as it sounds.

Spandau Ballet — “Gold” [12″ Mix]

Wild Beasts may have brought bongos back into art rock, but we shouldn’t forget the start of the love affair: 1983, and Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”. It may not have reached #1 (unlike the band’s preceding single, “True”) but in terms of its lasting influence on pop culture, I think we know which song won.

Here, in its extended version (which appeared only on the 12″ single), the heartbroken intro is eked out for as long as possible, a good three minutes strut by before Tony Hadley ventures near the microphone, and halfway through, saxophonist Steve Norman is given a solo long and rigid enough to span the Firth of Forth. And then, when it can’t get any more ridiculous: bongo break down!

So remember:

“Always believe in your soul!
You’ve got the power to know,
You’re indestructible…”

Because Mr. Hadley’s doesn’t give away his advice for free.

Kanye West — “All of the Lights”

So tomorrow is the Rapture (not the NY dance punk outfit), supposedly. In celebration of this ‘fact’, I bring you…

“Cop lights,
Flashlights, spotlights,
Strobe lights, street lights…”

In short, “All of the lights; all of the lights“.

What a stunning roll call of the good and the great Mr. West manages to assemble on this bolshy, intergalactic number. Star-studded it may be, but everyone still knows to bow down to Yeezy. Even when he’s battling restraining orders and visitation rights.

(It turns out there was no room for energy-saving lights in the MBDTF branch of Homebase.)

Explosions in the Sky — Camden Roundhouse (19/05/11)

Post-rock is a funny old nebula, and one that brought about some typically wise words from Simon Reynolds.

“[U]sing rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.”

Reynolds also saw a logical conclusion to post rock: so-called “cyborg rock”, which constituted “some kind of interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement.” Battles, then.

Bearing all that in mind, it’s surprising that Explosions In The Sky (EITS) have lasted as long as they have. The Texan four-piece, have spent more than a decade carving out a ‘trad’ crevice for themselves within the post-rock nebula, mining the same territory, with the same instrumentation, in search of the same payoffs, even as their contemporaries parted for distant shores. Mogwai tentatively embraced the robotic; Sigur Rós, who used to write symphonies for glaciers, started writing anthems for humans instead. And all the while, EITS kept soundtracking the death and rebirth of the universe. It took until album number six for them to knowingly embrace this fact, naming the opening song “The Birth and Death of the Day”, but I think I had them figured well before then.

None of this is to say that I hold anything against EITS. True, their albums bear undeniable similarities to each other, and the band do little to deny or hide them. But each has its own charm; a subtle variation that helps differentiate it from its neighbours; and, always, original motifs that plant themselves in the mind.

Because there are no lyrics to the songs of EITS, the listener’s reaction is totally subjective—an innocuous passage can cause some to recoil in paranoia, while others might treat it as a lull before the Sturm und Drang. Arguably, you can attach whichever emotions you like to their music. Me? I’m a sucker for apocalyptic drama (supporting evidence: the dialogue in “Have You Passed Through This Night?”, cribbed from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line), hence why I’ve typically failed to spot the undercurrent of euphoria supposedly present. Rebirth, in music, is not an occurrence heralding joy, but instead marks the comprehension of the universe’s cyclical nature. Such a response also meant I remained immune to the gentle resolution at the close of “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept”.

My response to their live show, which hit the Camden Roundhouse on Thursday night, was thankfully, in aggregate, positive. During their set, which was, as is their custom, devoid of an encore, I was unsure of how to react. There are no singalong moments, and yet the crowd (myself included) seemed to be psyching themselves for particular moments of release, which were typically accompanied by an onslaught of distortion from the guitars of Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith and Michael James.

Even when the overdrive was at its most ferocious, the music’s innate melodicism shone through, as in the more pummelling passages of “Yasmin The Light” and “Catastrophe and the Cure”. At these moments, however, I felt a certain disconnect from the band. With their heads bowed to the fretboards, and Rayani’s mop of hair obscuring any facial expressions, I didn’t know where to look. They seemed so wrapped up in their own private world, and it was hard to find the door that led to it.

In their more gentle songs—”Your Hand in Mine”, “Postcard from 1952″—I came to understand the selflessness of the music, which had remained hidden from my ears on record. The crowd basked in rays of contentment and epiphany, as golden chords rang out, and instrumental curlicues wove in and out of the main structures of the songs.

A Texan flag still draped over one of their amplifiers, the band closed with “Greet Death”, which is the opening track to what I regard as their finest work, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. This is an extraordinary composition, which emerges from a mist of indistinct notes, suddenly exploding into a monolithic wall of sound. There is a false end, which leads into a sparse passage of unsettling beauty, but this too billows into a more broadly painted final section, wherein those heavenward guitars refract and fragment into a million shards. On record, this is an unforgettable moment; performed live, it felt like they had blown off the roof of the venue.

Upon leaving the Roundhouse, I told my companions that I felt like I had been immersed in a tidal wave, but protected from the true force of the water by a kind of transparent sphere. I had wanted to be toppled over; to be dismantled and then reconstructed by the music; instead, I felt as if I had been receiving the show through a particularly strong pair of antennæ, in a format that needed some intermediary decoding. It was not a total success—perhaps I need to witness My Bloody Valentine on stage to get the effect (and aural damage) I seek. But I enjoyed Explosions In The Sky nonetheless, and seeing them on stage at last satisfied a five-year itch of mine.

Explosions In The Sky played:

  1. Last Known Surroundings
  2. Yasmin The Light
  3. Postcard from 1952
  4. Catastrophe and the Cure
  5. The Only Moment We Were Alone
  6. Your Hand in Mine
  7. The Birth and Death of a Day
  8. Let Me Back In
  9. Greet Death
PS Anne Maningas over at 3.1 has taken some gorgeous photographs of the concert on her Hasselblad.
[Photo: flickr user turgidson]