Tag Archives: production

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.

First Impressions…

… are good. I’ll post a review of both Tonight: Franz Ferdinand and Merriweather Post Pavilion a bit later but, for the moment, here are some initial thoughts.

Tonight is crisply produced and comes with the right kind of aesthetic that Franz Ferdinand have been hinting at, but they only ever plunge head-first into one of these new directions on one track, the 8-minute Moroder-aping “Lucid Dreams”, which features an extended synth workout. The rest of the album is solidly written, with characteristically catchy hooks and typically insightful, witty lyrics. What will probably strike me to a greater extent on further listens is the pacing and structure of the album. Certainly, it appears to run on a continual upward slope, heading towards the peak of a night out, which occurs during the aforementioned “Lucid Dreams”. The final two tracks definitely represent the post-night comedown, their being much more blissful and hungover, and also more sincere. Beyond that, I’ve yet to gauge a true understanding of the structure during the first half, except that “Ulysses” is an invented drug, and that “No You Girls” cleverly inverts the naïvety of first love halfway through the song.

Merriweather Post Pavilion has absolutely astonishing production. Far from the murkiness I was beginning to associate with Animal Collective, the album fizzes and sparkles and, most importantly, sends thunderous quakes of bass through my subwoofer. That’s important, because it appears to accentuate the more dance-orientated direction the band have taken. It’s not necessarily music to dance to, just music that bears more than a passing resemblance to dance-music forefathers. The songs themselves are complex in structure, with a myriad of samples and synths that somehow don’t ever get lost in a fog of meandering. Though this is their longest proper album yet, the songs appear more focused and rooted, though they don’t observe conventional pop song structures. Lyrically too, the album sees AC mature the themes first evoked on Strawberry Jam – those of childhood innocence; the simple love of others; and the essential mysterious wonderment of being alive. They’re well-expressed through not overly catchy lyrics, with minimal sonic meddling, and the whole combination of music and voice coalesces best of all on “My Girls” and the closer, “Brother Sport”.

More to follow, definitely.