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.
Yo La Tengo are one of those bands that I really should have got into around the time I got into Wilco, Modest Mouse and Sonic Youth. They’re one of the great cult indie groups of the last twenty years, and I regret not hearing wonderful albums like I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out earlier on. Many critics would say that the band are at their strongest when exploring polar opposites in quick succession – witness the 11-minute freak-out of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” being followed by the succint pop of “Beanbag Chair” – and, on recent evidence, their forthcoming twelfth album, entitled Popular Songs, will be a continuation of their present form.
Two tracks have been released on the sly, for free, into the wider cybernetic community, and each reveals a very different facet of the band. The first to be tentatively revealed was the tight, bluesy “Periodically Double Or Triple”, which contrasts Ira Kaplan’s nervous, hushed vocals with a storming organ groove and an insistent, shuffling beat. Halfway through, in place of a middle-eight, the song suddenly cuts to a burst of dissonant lift-music in one of those unexpected about-turns that is sure to leave some listeners scratching their heads. For me, it’s the perfect antidote to what has gone before it in the song, and when the regular riff cuts back in, I felt pleasingly refreshed, an effect intensified by the barbershop backing vocals.
The latest track to be set free is the opening track of Popular Songs, entitled “Here To Fall”, and it couldn’t be more different from “Periodically…”. Emerging from a noisy squall of reverb and wah-wah reminiscent of The Verve at their prime, a buzzing bass guitar leads into a beautifully evocative psychedelic passage, with soaring strings and lilting electric piano. Here, Kaplan’s vocals are equally anxious and lacking in confidence, which fits perfectly with the tentative exploration and frontier-breaking of the music. The percussion is intricate and precious, and washes of effected noise break out between the channels. The chorus, offering the dubious opening couplet of “I know you’re worried / I’m worried too,” is a thing of wonder and amazement, with the lyrics falling between gaps in the music in a manner that could so easily have been messy and ill-thought out. There are lovely little passages of instrumental virtuosity, and the song finally resolves into a neat string arrangement that sets up the rest of the album perfectly.
I really can’t wait for Popular Songs and I encourage you to check out these two early gems. Yo La Tengo’s finest albums are known for veering between wildly divergent styles without compromising on a consistent feel and thematic link, and I dearly hope that their twelfth LP will deliver on these qualities. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.
Some songs are impressive throughout, while others ramp up the tension and build-up before unleashing a climactic killer moment. Sometimes, I yearn for a particular song just to hear that singular moment, when all the individual units of the track coalesce and lock in to reach an apex. Occasionally, I’ll even get this craving while listening to another song – in these instances, I am liable to forget what the desired song was by the time the previous one has finished, and I then spend several minutes scrolling through my library, in search of the elusive high.
About 3:20 into !!!’s Heart Of Hearts, the synced-up groove of whirring guitars, groaning keys and raw, ecstatic vocals lock into a repeated cry of “For a heart of, heart of, heart of, heart of hearts”, set to a snappy motorik beat and astonishingly pulsating bass. Suddenly, the whole contraption comes to a dramatic, pounding halt. A second later, all hell breaks loose, sonically, as the instruments bounce back in, but with ten times the soul and vigour. It’s a pretty spectacular event.
Elbow’s stunning Crawling With Idiot begins in a very low-key manner, with Guy Garvey’s breathy, sensual vocals set to a trickling piano chord sequence and a delicate guitar figure, alongside a subtle waltz time signature. Gradually, electronic burbles and coo-ing backing harmonies enter the fray, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic tone. Finally, at 2:45, a jarringly harsh guitar line drones in, gradually, bringing the song to a wonderfully chilling climax, as the sweetness of the vocals contrasts with triumphant organ and that unsettling guitar. And then the song ebbs away, gently, into bleak nothingness.
Far from being one of the characteristically long epics on the TNT album, Tortoise’s The Equator is an under-four-minute long diversion, travelling along languid guitar work and a fidgety, twitching beat. Halfway through, at about 2:00, a yearning, soaring guitar figure is cut across by a supernova of a whooshing sound, which leads into a gorgeous segment of the song, where the soothing synth wash in the background is complemented by finger-lickingly funky guitar strumming.
The Coral have a cunning habit of letting 60s-sounding psychedelic pop songs wander into spazzed-out freakouts, and Come Home is a prime example. A jazzy groove is strumming along fairly ordinarily; the vocalist is singing sweetly about magic and myths and sitting by the fire, when suddenly, a reverb-heavy guitar breakdown segues into a organ-led vamp. Gothic sounding vocals loom forebodingly; the jerky guitar piledrives in angrily; the drums get more chaotic; a searing lead synth whistles dissonantly. How very romantic.
4:00 into Blur’s epic album closer, Essex Dogs, after a passage of portentous reminiscence and messing around with a whammy pedal, emerges a torrent of freeform noise rock experimentation and some of Coxon’s finest guitar work. It’s a visceral, guttural thrill that can’t easily be topped.