Tag Archives: band

White goddess, red goddess, black temptress of the sea

In Dan Weiss’s review of Interpol frontman Paul Bank’s forthcoming solo single, “The Fun That We Have”, the writer suggests that while “All the guys fall for the languid Turn On The Bright Lights … the girls I know tend to prefer the blockier Antics.” I may be the exception to the rule, in that I feel there’s a compelling case for suggesting that Antics is the superior album; indeed, that it may be one of those albums that I irrationally associate with ‘perfection’. Other such albums have included, over the years, Tortoise’s TNT, Amon Tobin’s Supermodified, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. To this list, I believe we can add Antics, because it succeeds in continuing the importance of mood and atmosphere that Interpol established on their debut, while attaching greater importance on the quality of the songwriting.

Turn On The Bright Lights is an alarmingly accomplished debut: from the very off, its echoey, jangling guitar signal a kind of reflective anxiety and unease that never lets up. Through the elegiac swooning of NYC and the slightly malevolent swagger of PDA, the intricate interplay of guitars provides the ideal counterpoint to the locked-in tautness of the rhythm section. The emotional centre of the album, Hands Away, with its beautiful swells of orchestral slush, is book-ended by two tightly-wound pop songs in Say Hello To Angels and Obstacle 2. The second half of the album finds the band a little in the wilderness, meandering through Stella… and Roland seemingly on autopilot, relying on atmospherics to succeed any boredom. Finally, in the closing brace of The New and Leif Erikson, the band secure their foothold once more with a pair of gorgeous, engaging epics that take unexpected turns and dives. The album is a delicious journey, and I’ve probably done little so far to dispel this suggestion. But, crucially, for me, it provides too few highlights. Taken as a whole, it’s an extremely successful portrait of a city, a culture, a social class. Taken apart, it only really contains one standout track – The New – and the overriding impression of a band reaching out far beyond their limits (which is undoubtedly a good thing) is more than anything else a product of the album’s interstitial outros. Collectively, it’s epic. Singularly, it’s just really good.

Antics, by contrast, announces itself in a considerably more upbeat fashion, with the organ-led swell of Next Exit, and proceeds, over the course of 42 minutes, to never put a foot wrong on the individual level of the song, and indeed the overall texture of the album. It’s both an album of singles, and a single body of an album. The structure and pacing of Turn On The Bright Lights was a loose-limbed thing; Antics follows a much more interesting pattern: the first side consists mainly of snappy, bright pop songs, broken only by the wandering beauty of Take You On A Cruise; the second side, beginning with Not Even Jail, is far more adventurous, with a series of far-reaching performances brought momentarily back to earth by the brief C’mere. As on its predecessor, Antics closes with a stunning couple, with the maximal arrangement of Length Of Love leading beautifully into A Time To Be So Small, which appears to depict a father-and-son argument taking place in a boat, from the point of view of a sea urchin, watching the dispute from the ocean beneath said boat. This is fascinating, far-out stuff, and it’s extraordinary how we never feel a sense of ridicule at being stretched so much by what superficially appears to be a four-piece straight-up post-punk revival.

The reason I think Antics is the better album, then, is because when it sticks to the pop formula, it gets better returns than before, and, when the band take off their dancing shoes and put on their thinking caps, the album’s exploratory epics put just as much experimentation and texture into each song as Turn On The Bright Lights achieved on the whole album. That’s not a criticism of Turn On The Bright Lights, more a satisfying reflection on just how accomplished Antics is. Of particular importance are Take You On A Cruise and Public Pervert. On the former, mournful, bleating pails of guitar and feedback lead masterfully into a an almost mantra-like passage of whispered chanting; on the latter, a simple arpeggiated bassline combines with lilting, tremolo guitar work to set up a raging beast of a song that captures perfectly the feeling of the lyrical refrain “So swoon baby, starry night…” It’s a rare moment of emotional unity on an album otherwise populated by unsettling and macabre imagery, as in the closer’s chorus of “cadaverous mobs”.

Antics is very much the kind of album that, when it recedes into silence at the end, one wants nothing more than to conjure it into being again. It manages to assert a continuous instrumental virtuosity that never ceases to surprise, which, combined with the best collection of lyrics Paul Banks has committed to tape, breaks surprising ground given the band’s sparse set-up. More so than its predecessor, it succeeds not only in the big picture, but also in the minutiæ, and for this, it remains one of the most pristinely unhindered albums I own. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

What goes around… comes around

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates. I’m afraid not all of us have eight-week terms, and the last few weeks have been criminally hectic.

Now, a lot of my friends have highlighted my lack of knowledge of recent pop music. It’s true that I don’t listen to what’s in the charts, and I’m sometimes surprised when I tune into the radio and hear something I never imagined would have entered the pop universe – M.I.A., for instance. I had no idea she had become so big. Scanning down a list of the current UK Top 40, I have never knowingly heard a song by The Saturdays, Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift, Akon, Alesha Dixon, James Morrison, Tinchy Stryder, Jason Mraz, Leona Lewis or Lemar. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother others.

What does frustrate me is the terribly low expectations of pop listeners. Why does it require a trailer for a bad stoner comedy to get people listening to M.I.A.? There’s nothing excessively pretentious about her music; it’s hugely entertaining; random sonic effects bounce out of speakers – put simply, there’s no excuse not to go and listen to her songs. I’m incredibly glad that she’s now receiving some mainstream love, but of course there are countless other artists whose music would be perfectly palatable for a pop-loving audience, but who have never received that big break. Music critics often talk of a band writing “great pop songs”, without mentioning that the pop breakthrough has so far eluded the band in question.

Here, then, are some artists who I would sorely love to see gain more exposure in the wider community, because there’s nothing unreasonably difficult about their music, and because they write great pop songs. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of most of these bands. But go and tell your pop-loving friends about them, in the hope that they too will come to appreciate better, more intelligent pop music.

My Morning Jacket – prone to lengthy jams in live shows, their studio albums have got progressively more pop, without really sacrificing on the quality. Often, it’s just straight up rock and roll, with a smattering of reverb, and some alt.country flavourings. It never fails to lift my mood. (Download now: Wordless Chorus, Gideon)

Belle & Sebastian – this Scottish troupe have been around for years, never making any great inroads at mainstream success, despite the fact that they write beautifully charming, witty, unpretentious songs that reference everything from folk, to electronica, to Motown and soul. Once again, it’s truly uplifting, engaging music that doesn’t make a great show of its intelligence. (Download now: Step Into My Office Baby, The Blues Are Still Blue)

Calexico – who doesn’t want to hear mariachi-tinged Americana that takes in elements from dub, folk, krautrock and popular indie rock? Over the course of their career, they’ve made some of my favourite, and most consistently enjoyable, albums, which are packed full of diverse ranging songs that evoke a singular image of the deserts of California and Arizona. (Download now: Writer’s Minor Holiday, Dub Latina)

The Decemberists – like MMJ, they can get quite progressive, but when they write sweet, romantic ditties, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get played on the radio. No one can fail to love “Summersong” on the first listen. (Download now: Summersong, The Perfect Crime #2)

Deerhunter – Their earlier work was aggressively ambient and shoegazy, but their recent album, Microcastle, is a triumph of pop melodies, inflected with tortuously beautiful guitar fuzz. In Bradford Cox, they have one of the most beautiful, troubling and haunting voices in music, but when he harmonises with the rest of the band, the result is sublime. (Download now: Heatherwood, Agoraphobia)

Field Music – I feel like I’ve extolled this Sunderland three-piece’s virtues way too many times. They no longer make music under that name, but their second album in particular is a masterpiece of indie pop, with strange vibes of Genesis and 80s prog rock, but all contained in three minute songs. (Download now: A House Is Not A Home, She Can Do What She Wants)

The National – framed with beautiful orchestral flourishes, this band’s genre-less music is wonderfully evocative, employing tasteful U2-isms and Springsteen-isms with the dark brooding mood of Interpol. (Download now: Fake Empire, Secret Meeting)

The Shins – darlings of the indie world, but why has nobody else heard their musically diverse, exceptionally well-written pop songs? They even had their music sprinkled through the film Garden State. (Download now: Kissing The Lipless, Phantom Limb, Sea Legs)

Spoon – what more can I write? Their music is beautifully sparse and minimalist; no song ever carries on where it’s not necessary; the lyrics are funny and insightful; even their albums are strangely brief. They’re just the complete band. Their music was featured in The O.C., as I discovered when I played an album to some friends. But why didn’t anyone follow it up? (Download now: Don’t You Evah, The Way We Get By, Stay Don’t Go)

There’s simply no reason not to spread the word of the gospel.

Tonight: five piece soul band!

Something that came up during my interview with Vivian Girls last night – yes, I will say more about it; no, I’m not just trying to hype it up mercilessly – was a discussion about what breeds a certain explosion in music creation. I contrasted the societal foibles that seem to inform British songwriters, with the predominantly positive artistic environment that catalyses American music-making. Primarily, I was comparing the canon of social commentators in British music (The Kinks, Blur, The Jam &c.), with the explosion of alternative and experimental music streaming out of Brooklyn (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls themselves).

This morning, while listening to Prinzhorn Dance School’s eponymous debut (released in 2007), it became clear to me that this tradition of commenting on the oddities of British society is still very much alive today. I like to think of Prinzhorn Dance School as being a recent band that time has already forgotten, for no good reason. The truth is, I regard them very highly, both musically and lyrically. There are clear links between their sparse, minimalist instrumentation and that of Shellac, and they also share that band’s taste in dark, violent humour. Their debut album was perhaps a tad long, but it boasted remarkably intricate song structures, and some of the best post-Albini production, courtesy of James Murphy, giving the whole work a wonderfully resonant, spacious sound. In Pitchfork’s review of the album, the critic wrote,

Only 70% or so of Prinzhorn Dance School’s debut album is made up of music. The rest is…well, it’s hard to say. What do you call the space in a song that lingers between the guitar parts, vocals, and beats?

And I really can’t put it much better myself. This lingering space fills the album with a sense of dread and anxiety, without resorting to melodramatic musical gimmicks. In the absence of trickery, the natural harmonics of guitar strings are allowed to float around unhindered. The almost militarily precise drums emit a kind of padded reverb. The bass sinks faster than the Titanic. The whole affair is rather industrial, like being inside a tightly packed machine that never slackens – a sensation depicted more visually in the video to “Crackerjack Docker”, above.

Combined with the sardonic and painfully unsettling lyrics, it makes for an uneasy listen. It’s not an example of my famous ‘scary music’, but it’s certainly pretty dark. In the song “Do You Know Your Butcher”, for example, the band reflect upon the unintentional scene of murder one might imagine –

If you go in for the counter,
There’s blood on the hands,
Fur on the floor
Meat.

An awful lot of it is about implied violence and enigma in the most innocuous of settings. It’s a bit like being in a Coen Brothers film. In “Don’t Talk To Strangers”, the pair deliver what seems like a public information film gone horribly wrong –

Don’t talk to strangers,
Just get into the car.
Don’t talk to strangers,
Or they’ll find out who you are.
Don’t talk to strangers,
I’ve got pills in a jar.

Just like their precursors, Prinzhorn Dance School are writing about the deep-rooted sense of dread in suburbia; the terror of doing nothing; the feeling of irrelevancy as we sit in cars, in traffic, our minds elsewhere. All this makes them one of more curious signings to James Murphy’s DFA label: I really hope the mixed reaction to their debut was a product of critical uncertainty about their pretensions, as opposed to a genuine dislike of their strange sense of humour. I could say, “but at least Pitchfork liked it,” but that would be missing the point. Pitchfork liked it because they can see beyond what could pass for being extremely pretentious. Pretentious is not what Prinzhorn Dance School are about. Yes, the music is certainly uncompromising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed – albeit with a wry smile on one’s face.

Riot Grrrls

In just under an hour’s time, I will be interviewing Brooklyn’s wave-making indie trio, Vivian Girls, before their gig at the Proud Galleries in Camden. My dictaphone is ready; my questions are laid out neatly in a notebook; even the regulation checked-shirt has made an appearance: in short, I am majorly charged up in anticipation of what will be my first ever band interview!

The interview and gig will be written up into a lead feature for the student newspaper, but you can rest assured that I’ll also be posting up some thoughts on the evening here on the blog – maybe a photo, if you’re lucky.

If you’ve never heard of Vivian Girls, which is perfectly understandable, they are an all-female band, making shoegazey and reverb-drenched sweet pop songs that have set critics’ eyes alight. They’ve just been touring around Europe, and will be returning to the US next week, continuing the support of their eponymous debut. It’s a good ‘un, and it’s only 25 minutes long! That’s enough for now – I have a train to catch.

The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds, strewn out across a blue blanket

On a scale of one to inconceivable, how unlikely and incongruous is the presence of “Aqueous Transmission” in Incubus’ œuvre? The closing track to their 2001 album, Morning View, is serene and beautiful, employing tasteful use  of the Japanese Pipa, lent to the band by none other than Steve Vai. At 7:47 in length – which includes a final minute of croaking frogs – the song is bizarrely peaceful and uncomfortably refreshing when set against the context of Incubus’ other material.

That’s not to say that I disapprove of Incubus – indeed, at the age of twelve, they were one of the first modern rock groups I remember enjoying. In fact, I can still recall my first encounter with their music: we were on a school trip to London Zoo, and a friend, knowing that I didn’t approve particularly of his heavier rock, thrust his earphones into me and persuaded me to give Incubus a go. I’m fairly certain the song was “Redefine”, the opener of their 1997 LP, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and I was instantly impressed by their dazzling combination of funk; wildly effected guitar; turntable scratching and weird samples. Predictably, I went through a young teen phase of ‘living’ Incubus, ruthlessly working my way through their albums. Now I scour my iTunes after at least a year of having heard absolutely nothing by the band, it’s difficult not to be charmed by sensual, curiously experimental cuts like “Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song)”, with its jazzy aesthetic enhanced by a saxophone solo, and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, which features what I remember thinking at the time was the coolest bass-line ever invented. Looking back on it now, I’m still inclined to agree.

Despite all this nostalgia, however, I still wouldn’t go back on my original claim, stated at the beginning of this post, that none of their material ever showed the emotional maturity and out-and-out beauty and resolution of “Aqueous Transmission”. It’s a stunning composition, and I’m almost inclined to believe some greater force in songwriting was responsible for it. I’m such a pessimist sometimes.