Monthly Archives: January 2012

King of my weeknd

Fact: Well before Pitchfork was raving about it, I really dug “Initiation”, from The Weeknd’s final 2011 mixtape, Echoes Of Silence. Here’s the proof:

There’s a profoundly alien quality to the song, with its chopped-up beat, haunting and fragile synth stabs, disembodied background vocals, and, most significantly, that deranged vocal lead. The track’s producer, DropxLife, is probably the man behind the unique effect, which modulates Abel Tesfaye’s voice in such a way that it simultaneously oscillates in pace and pitch. It’s totally mad, and fitting with the mood of the piece.

What it really reminds me of, stylistically, is Wamdue Project’s “King of My Castle“. Upon its release in 1997, right at the vanguard of dance-music-as-pop-music (see Now That’s What I Call Music! 44 for further evidence), the song struck me as essentially ego-free and faceless, in spite of it being narrated in the first-person. It’s a perfectly-sculpted composition—witness the occasional chilling flute which pops up now and again—which summons a very particular mental picture. I think of a deserted warehouse, with the anonymous vocalist solemnly intoning his or her (again, like with Tesfaye, gender becomes interchangeable) maxim. And “Initiation” deals in the same palette. It’s remarkable.

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This is one of my all-time YouTube all-stars: TV On The Radio, who once brought experimental noise rock to the indie kids, playing “Love Dog”, live on French TV. The moment at 4:05 when the late Gerard Smith beams in this unearthly, haunting synth patch is just unreal.

Isn’t it great how closely the opening track of Toro Y Moi’s second album mimics the opener of an album that’s just turned twelve-years old?

A lingering drone unfurls to reveal cooing vocals and a blissed-out beat that’s beamed straight from the Moon, at 2AM. Fuzzy analog chords which detune fuzzily like the mother of all hangovers. Chaz Bundick certainly knows his way round Air’s “La Femme d’Argent”.

Speaking of which, here is a wonderfully noodly, nerdy live performance of the Ur-Chillwave anthem:

Spoon — My Mathematical Mind

Reading Mark Richardson‘s latest Resonant Frequency column, which is all about BASS, and our perceptions of and reactions to it, I was charmed to learn that his favourite song of all time is Aphex Twin’s “Flim“. It’s a gorgeous composition from a musician who often prefers to alarm the listener, and it also represents electronic music at its most elegantly sequenced—calculated, even.

Thinking about “Flim” in such a way made me jump to maths, and from there to Spoon’s “My Mathematical Mind“, which is the rigid arithmetic to Aphex Twin’s differential equation. Or, if you consider the way it builds and grows and complexifies, it’s more like an exponential function.

No verse or chorus in sight, Britt Daniel plies layer upon layer as the song wears on, rocketing it skyward at an ever-increasing pace. Atop an octave-jumping piano drone, we get skronky guitar-work, frazzled brass and crashing percussion. And then, right at the end, the elements coalesce and the track coalesces into serenity, like the eventual solving of an equation. How very mathematical indeed.

The Holy Ghost of Michael McDonald

You might know of my straight-faced love of Steely Dan, a jazzy duo who at their peak relied on the very best session singers and musicians. One such singer was Michael McDonald, whose husky and resonant tones are not that dissimilar from the digitally smeared vocals Karin Dreijer Andersson trickles over her songs as Fever Ray.

McDonald went on to found the Doobie Brothers, but not before he did backup vocals on classics like “Peg” and “I Got The News“. And McDonald’s trademark pipes get around even today, cropping up now and again on other people’s songs. In 2009 he appeared on a B-side version of Grizzly Bear‘s “While You Wait For The Others“, which showcases his distinctive voice in a lead setting. The original version was led by Daniel Rossen, who has a pretty honeyed voice, but McDonald has a beefier go at it, and then tackles the complex vocal arrangement in the song’s final minute, augmenting it with soaring accents.

More recently still, DFA quasi-heirs Holy Ghost! brought in McDonald for the closing song on their eponymous debut, “Some Children“. Like many of the songs on Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest album, “Some Children” has a natty choral arrangement, but Holy Ghost! are totally different in every other way. No intricate baroque pop in sight, they make sleek electro-by-numbers which can come across rather characterless. They know their way round a disco bassline, and the DFA production team gives it the requisite layers of vintage Clavinet and close-miked live drums, but it can veer off into anonymity.

Not so “Some Children”, which is reined in by McDonald’s lead vocals. On this occasion, he makes a sweet song more sultry—his curious phrasing has the effect of virtually slowing the verses down, before unleashing a richly textured extended outro, with his harmonies piercing through the stacked choir. It’s a really lovely, fitting finale which restores my confidence in the band—and pays Michael McDonald’s heating bills.

Why do McDonald’s vocal talents still appeal? He doesn’t have an equivalent in contemporary popular music, which has increasingly become the territory of more polarised singers (dramatic falsetto on the one hand, pained baritone on the other). Moreover, the kind of complex arrangements he specialised in has become the preserve of composers, and not multi-taskers (think of Nico Muhly, for example). So, perhaps when a band goes hunting for a man who can do it all, and add an inimitable personality to a song, it’s unsurprising they alight upon him. If that’s the case, go forth and multiply.

At his hoarsest, Dylan Baldi, the mainman of Cloud Nothings, sounds like a pained cross between Anthony Kiedis and Thom Yorke. And there’s a bleak, growling desolation to this cut from their forthcoming third album Attack On Memory which is reminiscent of both the Red Hot Chili Peppers circa Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Radiohead circa The Bends.

No Future/No Past” is the album’s opener; like the rest of the album it is engineered by Steve Albini, who gives it a bottomless, crisp and emotionally detached vibe that recalls his work on Nirvana’s In Utero. There are woody backing vocals which sound like Tuvan throat singing, and the guitars sound like sandpapered iron filings. I don’t think the rest of the album is identical in mood, but you and I can go and check on this here.

Hey man! I wanna have a fight with you!

Steve Albini’s Shellac exists as an economical vehicle for his misanthropic persona. And their compositions don’t get more transparent than “Watch Song”, which appeared on the album 1000 Hurts, released in 2000.

“From the way that you behave,
It is clear, to me,
You would like to have one too!”

The song’s narrator has bought a digital watch and, such is his aggravation at its persistent beeping, he wishes to extract vengeance on either the device itself, or the man who sold it to him. Sounds like a good reason for a fight, especially against the backdrop of Shellac’s caustic, ricocheting post-hardcore. The snare cracks during the verses sound almost combustible, and the unresolved, atonal chords which pierce through the gaps between Albini’s phrasing either signal the impending fireworks, or serve as a sonic nod to the “POW!” and “ZOK!” of the Batman television series in the 1960s.

Shameful music

I haven’t yet seen Steve McQueen’s latest film, Shame, but I think I know an album that would work well as a soundtrack to it. Like McQueen, Matthew Dear is in a stable relationship but chose to make an uncomfortable work that flirts with sleaze and moral degradation—Black City is a punishing, oily album that demands total subjugation. Its centrepiece, “You Put A Smell On Me” (see above), is heartless and relentless, rather like the anti-hero in McQueen’s film.

Shut Up And Play The Hits — Trailer

The final LCD Soundsystem concert, about which I enthused here, has been filmed for a documentary-cum-rockumentary entitled Shut Up And Play The Hits, après Win Butler. Its first screening will be on 22nd January at the Sundance Film Festival, and now it has a trailer (see below), so you can get extremely jealous about anyone you know who was there/will be there.

Would you look at that? It looks, and sounds, stunning. And I guarantee you’ll see every white balloon popping in super-high-definition somewhere in the film.

And now I must go and wipe away the fresh-sprung tears.

Matthew Dear — Headcage

In a previous, improbable life, Matthew Dear wrote “Hands Up For Detroit“, a small vocal phrase of which wound up serving as the backbone of the mother of all exercise anthems. Then he flirted with virtually every kind of music he loved, topping all he’d done before with 2010’s Black City, a sleazy slice of downtempo minimalism with a spiritual debt to Bowie’s Low (profile).

This year, he returns with the long-player Beams, which is preluded by the Headcage EP. The title track (see above) takes the noirish, oily grooves of Black City and gently sculpts them into something more softly polyphonic. The song bounces and trots where it might previously have oozed. The beat is more muffled too, a step away from the clattering, misfiring drum machines of old. And Dear’s vocals—always the Marmite factor in his work—are, while still digitally ameliorated, there to invoke a very different mood. The smearing lead voice is backed up a ghostly beatbox more in the vein of some of the songs on 2007’s Asa Breed.

In the final third, a synth patch not dissimilar to Fever Ray’s ethnic flutes [1] plays a lead riff which provides a brief and subtle nod to rave. All too soon, it vanishes, and the breathy outro makes sure the take-home message is a sensual one.

1. “Headcage” is actually co-produced by Fever Ray’s frequent collaborators, Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid.