Monthly Archives: June 2011

Madvillain Bistro

Thanks to @stkizzle and his accidentally bequeathed music collection, I’m slowly finding my way round alternative hip-hop, and not a minute too soon. With Kanye West’s stock at an all-time high—tell me, honestly, who thought he’d bounce back after Taylor Swift-gate?—now seems like a good moment to deflate his ego a little, with the suggestion that his couture rapping isn’t as hyperliterate as he thinks.

The first albums to whose charms I have succumbed is Madvillain‘s Madvillainy; it is as far away as you can get from the traditional gangland.

Madvillainy is all about the many masks and guises of MF DOOM; fittingly, the album evokes comparisons with the dark underbelly of Alan Moore‘s Watchmen. There are snitches of film dialogue from a bygone era; everyone’s either sitting on park benches peering out from behind newspapers, or committing dastardly deeds while dressed up as supervillains. It’s comic, but it’s not comic. DOOM’s rapping style is distinctive and punchy; it modulates between a sandpapered rasp and a treacle-sticky flow of inventive rhymes and disparate references. Behind him, Madlib‘s beats are Dilla-smooth, and interspersed with snippets of jazz standards that crackle off the vinyl (and are cryptically attributed to Yesterday’s New Quintet—a purely fictitious device). There’s a thick fug of weed-smoke hanging over the record, from which creep occasional pulses of bass.

“Pan it, can’t understand it, ban it;
The underhanded ranted, planned it and left him stranded;
The best, any who profess will be remanded.”

On “Money Folder” (above), over a tricksy breakbeat and a synthesised approximation of a double-bass, the pair treat us to every trick in their book. A brief snatch of repurposed narration, then we’re launched into the main attraction, with DOOM relentlessly spitting rhyme, and Madlib finding time to fit in a conspicuous jazz breakdown. Disembodied piano chords rise to the top of the mix, painfully slowly, practically inviting the fade-out which eventually follows, leading into a lengthier, chopped-and-screwed passage of narration, pieced together from different films and, who knows, different eras. It’s a mesmerising composition; a shadowy world reminiscent of the one dreamt up on DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing…; and a showcase for one of the most exciting rappers of all time.

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I was late to the DFA party, by dint of having been twelve years old at the time of “Losing My Edge“‘s release. But I made amends, as you may have noticed. When I went to HMV to buy Sound of Silver (a week after its release date—I wasn’t late to that party!), I also bought The Rapture‘s breakthrough album, Echoes, which, I quickly discovered, kickstarted the dance-punk revolution.

Like Battles, The Rapture have also been reduced to a trio; they have lost bassist Matt Safer. Cleverly, they engineered mass global hysteria about a so-called rapture, as a clever marketing ploy to announce their return to music (the new album, In The Grace of Your Love, follows in September). In even better news, they’ve re-signed to the DFA family, meaning an end to the sad-face which usually accompanied any mention of The Rapture in James Murphy interviews. Most importantly of all, the teaser track for their fourth album, “How Deep Is Your Love” (not a Bee Gees cover) is uncommonly good fun.

Dropping the punk half of the tag, the song is blessed with an ear-catching chorus, a restless rhythm, and seven-odd minutes of Italo house piano. Halfway through the song, everything but the piano cuts out, and singer Luke Jenner (I use this term loosely) tunelessly wails the title phrase. You think it can’t get more unhinged—and then there’s a skronking sax solo, which proceeds to go crazy for the rest of the song, peeking out from the mix at all the right moments.

Dance music hasn’t sounded this in-your-face live since Hercules And Love Affair‘s “Blind“. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to pick a cowbell and join in the fun.

[Photo: flickr user moralis]

Bon Iver — Bon Iver

Sufjan Stevens said he was going to write an album about every state in America, but gave up on the job after just two. Justin Vernon started off with just his broken heart, in the Wisconsin hunting cabin his father built. Four years later, he’s ventured as far as ten geographical and temporal fragments, each captured in songs recorded in a converted veterinarian clinic.

It sounds like even hanging out with Kanye West in Hawaii couldn’t restore his self-confidence. “And at once I knew I was not magnificent,” he proclaims over a peculiarly sketchy arrangement in “Holocene”. Throughout the album, ragged hollowbody guitars sketch faint semblances of chords; clattering percussion drifts in and out of the mix, adding colour and, occasionally, rhythm. For Emma, Forever Ago may have been minimalist in its instrumentation, but it was also tethered to the ground in its strumming regularity. By contrast, Bon Iver floats between disparate genres and proportions in the space of a three- or four-minute anti-pop songs. In the case of “Holocene”, an elegant cascade of acoustic guitar, backed by a lonesome brass drone, suddenly cedes to faint entrails of saxophone, which are in turn interrupted by, and forced to rise to the challenge of, a brief crescendo of drums, which weaves between the two channels.

Some songs are named after recognisable places, only muddied up, as if they’ve been expelled from a dying typewriter. No such sense of accident in the lyrics, which are lexically sound but defy easy parsing, so oblique and antiquated are some of the words Vernon chooses. In “Michicant”, he gives us “melic in the naked”: the kind of lyric that invites the listener to reach for the dictionary. In another era, we used to laugh at Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta, for spitting out a thesaurus every time he reached for the microphone; Vernon is more caring and considerate of his vocabulary. The song in question proceeds in stately fashion, with a cabasa infrequently breaking through mellifluously  strummed guitar and serene meanderings on woodwind and brass. Bon Iver is less the work of one man, or indeed a band, and more the collective endeavour of lauded session musicians, and an ethereal gloved hand which sprinkles magic production dust to make reasonably challenging music coalesce, in spite of a dearth of dynamic progression.

A track later, he re-imagines the Biblical figure Hinnom, whose son begat a valley named Gehenna, as a place in modern-day Texas. “Hinnom, TX” splurges out of its fictional geography with filtered piano reminiscent in texture and construction of the arrangement in the Spoon song, “The Ghost of You Lingers“. In the middle of the mix, and in an oddly low register, Vernon booms rather than sings, competing with occasional pulses of sub-bass tones. Atop this lyrical poetry, a multi-tracked falsetto choir of Vernon’s invention packs in opposing non sequiturs. And then, in typically obtuse fashion, the song ebbs away into white space.

More than anything, you can hear the afterglow of Unmap, the album Vernon performed on as part of Volcano Choir. With their abstract soundscapes punctuated by an otherworldly mass of stacked vocals, sometimes warped in extremis by studio fiddling, both albums suggest a leakage of digital signals into the pastoral world. On “Calgary“, which was previewed a few months ago, Bon Iver beam in a wedding hymn from the end of the universe, with synthesised approximations of church organs undercut by spacey drumming, which then give way to widescreen guitars. This kind of fleeting, gentle experimentation recalls Talk Talk circa Spirit of Eden, and does, I suppose, suggest a greater assuredness on the part of the songs’ creator. Even if, lyrically, Vernon is still battling demons of the past in his own inscrutable way, the fluid, shifting quality of the music is that of a more confident songwriter, stretching out from the limited palette he previously exploited.

It is another of Vernon’s side projects which informs the album’s strangest, most jarring song. The closer, “Beth/Rest”, was described by its writer as “the part where you pick up your joint and re-light it”, which offers an intriguing proposition as to how he likes to listen to Magic FM. Somehow, he invokes the worst excesses of 1980s soft rock—onanistic guitar solo, gated drums, New Age piano preset—and gets away with it. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, or hate it so much that I would want to re-listen to the nine tracks which precede it. You have to make a pretty special album to earn the right to that kind of self-indulgence—or it could be the case that, to Vernon, as he suggests in interviews, there is nothing embarrassing about the kind of music “Beth/Rest” dredges up. That would certainly explain his unabashed involvement with Gayngs, a soft rock outfit whose MO was to write every song in the spirit of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love“.

It is in no way surprising that the follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago is so different. That album was a product of circumstance, which obscured the diverse influences its creator would later cherry-pick on his ancillary excursions—Gayngs, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Volcano Choir. This time round, he’s given a truer account of his self, which, to me, seems more conflicted than ever. The one constant is his vocals, which are a revelation. We knew he had quite a set of pipes, of course, but the vocal arrangements on Bon Iver are sublime, and break away from our traditional expectations of harmony. The closest equivalent, I suppose, is James Blake, who takes a more digital approach to achieve the same ends; both artists turn their slightly granular tones to their advantage, at times sounding like harmoniums rather than humans. Vernon is more sparing with his use of technology, but when he does reach for the computer, it’s devastating. If you were floored by “Woods“, you’ll practically melt at some of the more outré moments on Bon Iver.

All this verbiage, and yet I still confess to be not wholly convinced by this album. Perhaps it is the distance Bon Iver create between creator and audience: there is certainly less on display here for the listener to be hooked in by. So translucent are the washes of colour on this album, that they are overpowered by the strength of  the watercolour-and-collage artwork. When I scour my library for a superior attempt at reining in such a rich tapestry of sonics and genres, I alight upon Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma, which sounds bombastic but not arrogant. A very different set of influences pervade Bon Iver, to be sure, but it presents the same challenge to the sculptor and, in this instance, on too many occasions, something doesn’t connect, or the song will simply peter out into the ether.

A hard album to fall in love with, then.

Ladies and gentlemen, Jason Pierce is floating in space

It’s jolly kind of Kate Radley to usher in Spiritualized‘s 1997 magnum opus by telephoning in the album’s title. Because, you know, what with all the orchestral bombast, astral guitars, and references to substance abuse, I was having a fair bit of trouble figuring out the predominant mood of the album.

I jest. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is an hour-long trawl through the narcotic inventory of frontman Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J. Spaceman). If Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” is about drugs, then Ladies and Gentlemen… makes that song sound like a Fisher Price toy. You can’t say Pierce eases the listener in gently: the album’s first two tracks catalogue the highs and lows of going into outer space, with all the subtlety of an ox cart. The opening song is Hollywood-tender; all sugary strings and softly murmured vocals invading every millimetre of personal space you might be holding on to. Then, we get the flip-side: “Come Together” is a warts-and-all freakout, complete with a brass fanfare to mark the song’s false ending.

“I think I can fly:
Probably just falling.”

And then we get the song where the two sides of Pierce’s hedonism connect. “I Think I’m In Love” spins an alternately sneering and then cynical internal monologue across a mesmerising eight-minute raga. Keeping it together, just, is the collected motorik beat; over it, we get a dizzying cyclical organ figure, free-jazz squalls of brass and guitar, and occasional descending sheets of violins.

“Think I’m the life and soul:
Probably just snorting.”

It’s not druggy music; rather, drugmusic. The two conflicting halves of self-medication collide, but the product is pure fusion rather than fission. Of course there is the occasional moment of euphoria, marking the temporary breakthrough of the addled mind’s false sense of supremacy, but these quickly dissipate. Who is Pierce in love with? Himself, and simultaneously, mid-realisation, no-one at all. But you wouldn’t think so if you didn’t listen to the words, so ballsy and triumphant is the music. In its over-furnished grandeur, “I Think I’m In Love” recalls A Northern Soul-era The Verve—a fine touchstone, in my books.

The song fades out, as impenetrable as it began, leaving us totally unprepared for the fresh assault the next song, “All Of My Thoughts”, will eventually deal out.

Battles — Gloss Drop

If you watched Adam Curtis‘s excellent three-part documentary, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace“, you might know something about Richard Brautigan‘s idyllic dreamland of man and machine interfacing towards a common goal. When Tyondai Braxton, Ian Williams, John Stanier and Dave Konopka released their first LP under the moniker Battles, Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell foresaw a similar synergistic future. The language in her review of Mirrored was at once brutal and admiring: she wrote of “pitiless CPUs” and “hammer connect[ing] with skin”, but concluded that the band had “done more to extend the idea of a flesh-and-blood band enhanced by computer technology than anyone since the late, lamented Disco Inferno”.

Now the “bionic rockers” are back, but they’re a man down. Braxton left to concentrate on his solo work (he’s a budding composer in the classical tradition); the other three deleted his parts from the computer; then they rebooted the whole project; then they wrapped up the whole thing by inviting four guest singers from the outer reaches of music onto the mic. It’s quite a way to deal with a break-up—but Gloss Drop definitely doesn’t sound like a break-up album.

So what does Gloss Drop sound like? Outrageously technical music that’s great fun, mostly. The playfulness is writ large this time, so there are cartwheeling circus organs and smatterings of steel drums—or, at least, things that sound steel drums, but may in fact be processed samphire for all I know. It starts out majestically with “Africastle”, about which I enthused at an earlier date, and then wrong-foots us with the deranged pop of “Ice Cream”, a sunny and casual song to which people will swim, sunbathe and, yes, eat ice cream. The remainder of the album’s first half is more sludgy and dense, consisting in the haunted organ-drones of “Futura”, the tangled fireworks of “Wall Street”, and the industrial carnage of “My Machines”, which features a guest turn on the microphone from a whiny Gary Numan.

Then, things get more Caribbean. “Dominican Fade” lives up to its namesake: a brief, palette-cleansing interlude, it bounces steel drums around a loose calypso. “Toddler” is a more inscrutable diversion, shorn of the usual thumping drums of Stanier, who continues to be the backbone of the band at all other times. Completing the trio of contracted instrumentals is the intriguingly titled “Rolls Bayce”, which sounds like a fleeting drive through a nascent carnival. There’s a dancehall feel to the rolling rhythm, over which are interlaid a jumble of those pesky steel drums (they get everywhere!).

Finally, to close out the album, there are two more epic compositions, the latter of which is augmented by a further guest vocalist. “White Electric” begins in tastefully restrained style, but eventually explodes into Morricone-sized proportions, with chase-scene guitars rumbling through the mix. “Sundome”, featuring avantgarde babbling from Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms, is tropical and triumphant. More steel drums, surprise surprise, and again, we’re not sure if they’re emanating from a guitar or a cheese-grater or the big toe of Al Doyle. The first half of the song is more freeform, but it eventually morphs into a stricter affair which struts around a surprisingly simplistic rhythm, not so much hammered out as telegraphed by Stanier. Eye’s vocals re-enter, multi-tracked to sound like disc scratching, and then the whole thing peters out tantalisingly, riding high on good vibrations.

It is arguably pointless to make detailed comparisons between Gloss Drop and its predecessor, Mirrored: the earlier album arrived context-free, for me at least (Helmet? Don Caballero? These names meant nothing to me in 2007), and sounded like it had been beamed in from an alien planet. I will say this though: Mirrored also sounded context-free, in part because of Braxton’s mutated funhouse vocals, which resisted any form of interpretation from the listener. As with what I wrote about Explosions in the Sky, this was music onto which you could graft any emotion or mood you desired. “Tonto” might have evoked memories of long-distance flight for some, and  sensations of extreme paranoia for others—but you can’t say the same thing for this set of songs. They seem rooted in more definite locations; less otherworldly, more terrestrial. “Sweetie & Shag”, for example, a really very lovely slice of fudge featuring vocals from Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino, is clearly assembled by an Earthling band, as opposed to the conscious supercomputer that you theorised could have been behind stuff like “Tij” and the enigmatic “B + T”.

All of this makes Gloss Drop less of an odyssey than what we’ve come to expect from Battles in all its incarnations. Mirrored once soundtracked a bus journey I took from London to Oxford, and it transformed the prosaic motorway idling into a warp-speed interstellar roller-coaster ride. Gloss Drop never reaches a peak, consisting as it does in two quite discrete halves, both of which could have made the basis of satisfying EPs from two different bands. There are catchy bits, there are heads-down fretboard fireworks, there are passages you could dance to, or which might form the building blocks of a serviceable chart hit. But there’s no complete immersion going on: the band no longer sound special, and that’s a shame.

Pick ‘n’ mix: “Africastle”, “Wall Street”, “White Electric”.

Beck — “Volcano”

So it’s basically summer, my life as an undergraduate is over, and the time has come to stop writing so many album reviews. This is not my interpretation of branching out; rather, this is me writing about a song that sounds so forlorn and defeatist, I can’t help but love it.

Much of Beck’s 2008 album Modern Guilt is about dread, but that’s not really a surprise, given his past form. In 2002, he released Sea Change, a break-up album, which saw him forgo the usual junkyard of samples and hip hop beats for a melodramatic palette of orchestral washes and angsty textures. Where Modern Guilt diverges from the Sea Change template, however, is that it doesn’t sound like an unhappy album, for the most part. Built on crisp grooves and clean guitar tones, with occasional pulses of vintage synths, it bears the unmistakeable stamp of its producer, Danger Mouse. Even when he’s moaning about post-millennial blues or the titular modern guilt, the album evokes visions of sunset shorelines, end-of-summer barbecues, and old school romance.

Beck saves all his sonic misery for the closing track, “Volcano”, which stutters into being before settling into a gloomy beat. Over a tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and a deathly mass of harmonies, Beck intones unexceptional deadbeat imagery: “Was it all an illusion, or a mirage gone bad?” he asks. But shot through this predictable guff, he spins us an intriguing yarn about a “Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano”. As the music drifts between sweeping string arrangements and the sparser verses, Beck sings of a longing for man’s elemental home, in “the womb of the world”. At the end of the song, he shows his full hand: he’s not searching for the primordial soup or the pit of hell, he just wants to “warm [his] bones / On that fire a while”.

“Volcano” is the kind of heart-on-sleeve song Beck’s yearned to write in the years that followed Sea Change. But, as he told the New York Times in the week preceding Modern Guilt’s release,

“It’s harder and harder to write songs these days […] I’m always slashing and burning, going, ‘Is this too on the sleeve?’ But if you’re not up front like that then you’re hiding behind something, so it’s a real manoeuvring.”

On “Volcano”, it’s like he’s given up trying to play the part of the cool and insouciant freewheeler, and wants to confront his real persona, with nothing to hide behind. The song is raw, and doesn’t play the same game as what has come before it on the album. Danger Mouse’s presence is deft—an occasional glitch in the rhythm; the soft thump of the bass drum—and doesn’t get in the way of what is a beautifully uncompromising portrait of the artist. Here, he’s not so much bemoaning a modern state of mind, as critically analysing himself.

“I’ve been drinking all these tears so long
All I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth.”

At times, in the past, Beck has seemed calculating about his image: on the tour supporting The Information, he employed puppeteers to mirror his every move on stage. He seemed liable to disappear into his own cultivated image. On “Volcano”, he appears to appreciate and abandon these efforts, in favour of a more naturalistic approach to making music, and the resulting song is an exercise in restraint, which still delivers an emotional sucker-punch.

Battles, methodically plodding along

I mentioned a little while ago that one gig-goer’s reaction to the new incarnation of Battles was less-than-complimentary. Since then, I’ve watched the trio’s live session, recorded for La Blogotheque, and I sort of see his point.

“Ian Williams, on keys and guitar, looks louche at the best of times.”

At times, it feels like drummer-karaoke. There’s a lot of loops and samples being triggered, but the only constant visual appeal is John Stanier, on his kit, thrashing away like an absolute beast. He’s magical, and charming; the rest of the band, less so. Ian Williams, on keys and guitar, looks louche at the best of times, and in these performances he exudes a casualness that’s a bit of a turn-off, frankly. The camera lingers on him too often, which shows exactly how disinterested he approaches the live creation of these undoubtedly complex, multi-layered songs. Over on the other side of the stage, Dave Konopka does his best to fill in the gaps between prerecorded elements, with some interesting textural guitar work, but there are still yawning corridors of time in which there’s a fundamental disconnect between what the pair of them are fiddling with, and the music roaring out of the speakers.

“Atop, there are a dozen competing melodies, which chime and whir and whine through the song.”

That’s not a criticism of the songs themselves, fortunately. From what I’ve read, “Wall Street” looks to be a Gloss Drop highlight, and the evidence presented in this live performance does little to dispel the idea. These new songs appear to be more densely constructed, but they don’t descend into self-indulgence. “Wall Street” bursts out of a sparkling pool of fragmented guitar, with characteristically ricocheting drumming and intermittently groaning bass. Atop, there are a dozen competing melodies, which chime and whir and whine through the song. I suppose it’s closer in sound to some of Battles’s formative EPs than the more honed aesthetic of Mirrored.

The second song, “Futura“, is less hyperactive, and slithers in on a liquid groove. The first part of the song burbles with sludgy organs and detuned steel pans, the latter of which sparks Williams into action like nowhere else in the performance. There’s a lot of build-up, then a brief drums-only interlude, and then… more of the same, lurching composition. The song peters out with no clear conclusion—which is either a disappointment, or a sign of sophistication, depending on how postmodern one is. Me, I’m undecided.

I guess there’s good reason to say the band are “plodding along” if you watch these live performances. Maybe one expects too much visual excitement which, without Tyondai Braxton‘s method-behind-madness flailing around, doesn’t show up at all. What this means is that I’m really looking forward to listening right through Gloss Drop without any extra-aural distractions.

But I might not hit their live shows any time soon.

“Let It Come Down”

“And I heard of that Japanese girl, who jumped into the volcano—
Was she trying to make it back,
Back into the womb of the world?”
—Beck, “Volcano”
Well, it’s not quite as dispiriting as the last one. The end of my finals is in sight; summer has arrived; the time has almost come to bid farewell to my university days.
  1. Pink Floyd — One of These Days
  2. Shy Child — Disconnected
  3. Yo La Tengo — Saturday
  4. Blur — The Universal
  5. Kanye West — Who Will Survive in America
  6. TV On The Radio — Love Dog
  7. Spoon — Out Go The Lights
  8. Cut Copy — Strangers In The Wind
  9. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Midnight Man
  10. J Dilla — Last Donut of the Night
  11. Pulp — Sunrise
All wrapped up in a convenient YouTube playlist.