Tag Archives: minimalist

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.

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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.

Spoon – Written In Reverse

I wish I had grown up listening to Spoon. I’ve written on several occasions about the way their precision-engineered intelligent pop music gets to the point in just the right length of time, with witty, insightful and intellectualised lyrics coupled to hooks and grooves that are sparse, but catchy as anything. I defy anyone to listen to “I Turn My Camera On” or “Don’t You Evah” and not have their hips swinging within the first thirty seconds.

And my, how they’ve grown. It’s startling to think that the same band that produced a work of such brooding melancholy as Kill The Moonlight has since gone on to create a sparkling gem of a pop song as The Underdog, laden with parping brass arranged by Jon Brion. Their 2007 LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was a masterpiece of concision and emotion. In January, they will bestow upon their adoring fans a new creation, which will be called Transference – possibly in honour of the psychoanalytical phenomenon involving the unconscious redirection of emotion from person to person.

In anticipation of this, Spoon have treated us to an early indulgence, in the form of a new single, entitled “Written In Reverse”, which hits digital retailers tomorrow, but can be streamed from NPR Music right now. Unsurprisingly, I’ve already given it a spin on your behalf. It’s an interesting beast, somehow more reminiscent of their Gimme Fiction-era work, riding in on parlour-room piano and an almost criminally lazy drum beat. The bass is throbbing and occasional; Britt Daniel’s vocals are sandpaper-hoarse and multi-tracked like a choir of Tom Waits clones. Unlike some of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s best surprises, there’s a return to the wandering, night-time feeling that characterised the two albums before it. 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, you think there might a dose of levity in a surprising chord change on the keys, but the respite is fleeting, instead leading into an exquisite interplay between piano triplets and gurning, insistent guitar moves. The protracted false ending could be another comedy gesture, were it not for the claustrophobia that envelops the actual ending.

“Written In Reverse” is expansive and sophisticated, and certainly the song I predicted would follow sneak-preview single “Got Nuffin'”, released earlier on in the year in a three-song EP. That song had a quick-limbed motorik groove; this song is more lumbering and sleazy. Which is no bad thing, because no band this side of The National does reflected sleaze and grease better than Spoon – the way Britt Daniel can paint a character’s portrait is wonderfully enriching. It’s a grower of a track, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being etched into my brain before long, like so many of the band’s previous creative apogees. For sure, I expect Transference to be nothing short of a magnum opus.

Spoon – Got Nuffin

For me, the appeal of Spoon lies in their economy and their minimalism. On an album like Kill The Moonlight, Britt Daniel and co. showed off a range of styles and structures, but never let any element get ahead of the others – consequently, nothing runs further than it needs to, and no song is extended beyond the bare minimum required to convey a lyrical theme. My only hesitation with it was that some songs felt slightly sketchy and underdeveloped. Pleasingly, on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, an album about which I have enthused much, Spoon showed a mastery of their art: the style is still almost goadingly economical, but certain songs are fleshed out with greater maturity. “The Underdog”, for instance has a glossy horn section that I simply could not have imagined them using on a previous album.

The prospect of new music, then, is an exciting one, and the latest EP, entitled Got Nuffin, will offer a tantalising snapshot of the band’s current fascinations. The title track, “Got Nuffin”, is right up there at the top of their game. The drums are crisp and urgent; Daniel’s vocal tics and yelps are still very much a fixture, adding emotional detail to an already foreboding air. On a couple of occasions, guitars de-tune ominously, and after about a minute, an insistent piano part pings away in the left channel. Some people have compared it to Deerhunter’s excellent “Nothing Ever Happened”, and it’s true to say that both songs share a motorik beat, and a similar use of feedback and stabs of guitar. But they’re really very different beasts, and Got Nuffin is an exceptionally well-crafted four-minute slice of magic, where the tension continually mounts, without any release. The end sees the piano build to a more substantial role, and the guitar threaten to envelop the whole song, before a teasing fade-out leaves us gagging for more. Any ideas when we’ll be hearing a new album from the band?

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.