I’ve written previously about sprezzatura—the hard labour undertaken in order to appear carelessly stylish—in relation to Spoon’s underappreciated 2020 LP, Transference. But Brooklyn immigrants Parquet Courts achieve what might be considered sprezzatura‘s opposite on their latest work, Human Performance: casually executed precision. The end-product resembles a cocktail of rock canon greats—Velvet Underground, The Clash, and The Kinks, primarily—but with a somewhat nihilistic worldview that’s cleverly updated for this millennials’ age. As Brooklyn transplants, and subterranean romantics, they bring an outsider’s perspective to the most happening scene in the most happening city on the most happening planet in the galaxy. Their surface scruffiness is shot through with a surprising amount of melodrama and trickery. And their facility with non sequiturs and Dadaist slogans lends their work a cheerily surreal swerve. Continue reading The Antislacktivists
A mixtape for winter’s end, spring’s stirring, and the reïmagination of rock. Continue reading Frühlings Erwachen
A great clue to assist in the decoding of Beck’s Morning Phase lies in the packaging of his last proper full-length, Modern Guilt. Released in 2008 with an unbearably au courant title, its paranoia was more in tune with the America of the Cold War, and its cover was inescapably an homage to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Crisp Swiss typography and a shot-from-the-hip castoff photograph was an elegant visual counterpoint to the music within, produced by Danger Mouse and rich with rubbery synths and psych rock tropes. Continue reading Rock of ages
If Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a sound contender for the title of “Great American Novel”, then we probably ought to have a debate about the fight to be the “Great American Song”. My submission? Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)“, a song which James Verini says “explains Talking Heads”, but which I would suggest goes far further.
Verini’s essay is essential reading. He calls the song “uncharacteristic”, with a spare arrangement; he says it is a “an ode to the palliative effects of companionship”. Yes, this makes it an unexpectedly direct and involved song for David Byrne to sing, but, as Freedom demonstrates, such a personal subject can also stand for something larger. Brotherhood and strong friendships are bedrocks of America, informing its buddy movies and history alike, and also filling in for what the country’s rugged individualism cannot. But companionship is not a straightforward road. There is a healthy component of anxiety to it, which is fleshed out in “This Must Be The Place…” by dint of the disappointment and resignation in Byrne’s voice, and the occasional glimpses of uneasy imagery (“Eyes that light up / Eyes look through you”, “You’ve got a face with a view”).
America is also about a disparate collection of souls finding a home—or is it just a house? So does Talking Heads’ song speak to us of this unknowing, which probably also explains its repurposing in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. This song is about reaching a promised land, or person, and then just feeling a niggling emptiness, or an overreaching.
Some songs unknowingly link to numerous trends in music. From “Pull Up The Roots” we get James Murphy’s cowbell frenzy, the slinky bass of Quincy Jones’s productions for Michael Jackson, and the strangled, hothouse sax* that marks early TV On The Radio. There is a punkish energy to the song that also looks back to Talking Heads’ CBGB days, as well as prophetically forward to the rise of evangelical churches, with their rousing call-and-response chants. And, if you listen closely, the subtly finger-picked guitar-work around the three-minute mark became a mantra for The Durutti Column and, later, “The French Open” by Foals.
I wrote a bit about this album here; this song is an under-appreciated gem near its end, which ushers in the simple masterpiece “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”.
* The saxophone is actually a treated guitar part. I guess they learnt more than a few production tricks from Brian Eno.
Taken from Speaking In Tongues (Sire Records, 1983).
I’m not usually one for gimmicks.
In the 1960s, a predilection for quadraphonic sound emerged in the progressive rock scene. Pink Floyd’s use of the Azimuth Co-ordinator was flashy, but a lack of readily-available consumer equipment prevented the technology from making a leap into the living room. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1997, when The Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, an album designed for home-brew quadrophenia, but the music was too challenging to have mainstream appeal. A decade-and-a-bit later, “surround sound” is a fixture of the home cinema setup: we’ve finally found a way of making music in four discrete channels work. The question is this: do we actually want to hear that music? Continue reading Talking heads surround us
The allure of a MySpace preview proved too great. I’ve only gone and loaded up Vampire Weekend’s profile to sample the subtleties of their eagerly-awaited sophomore album, Contra. Well, I say subtleties, but it’s inevitable that somewhere in Rupert Murdoch’s machine, many of the nuances on this record have been eaten up by the low-bitrate monster. In which case, January 11th might be a better point at which to assess this smart, surprisingly low-key creation, which limbers in on a twinkling of keyboards and Ezra Koenig’s wide-eyed, gulping voice, and departs on a plaintive lament.
OK, but I really must say some things about this album right now. First up, it’s considerably less upbeat than the band’s eponymous debut. Where songs once fell into rousing choruses, now everything is tinged with sadness and regret and reflection. Where the music used to fall back on punk, now the default setting is slightly detuned morse code synths and pitter-patter beats. At one point, it even goes all dancehall-via-AutoTune.
Secondly, it’s much less baroque. I mentioned the instrumentation earlier, but what strikes me repeatedly about Contra is how much more modern it sounds. Yes, lead single “Cousins” evokes early Police, but it sits snugly next to songs like “White Sky” and “Run”, which play up the same set of presets as used by keyboard-whizz Rostam Batmanglij on his side-project, Discovery.
Anything else to report on? Of course, Ezra Koenig’s lyrics ought to be scrutinised carefully. Vampire Weekend was very much an album about campus life; Contra is all about this same set of Ivy League types graduating, inheriting the earth, and now re-evaluating their place in society. So, relationships crumble, and tales of distant shores are nostalgic and wistful.
I think I’ll leave it at that for now. But give me another day to digest this work and I’ll probably be back with more thoughts.
Jona Bechtolt is an intriguing proposition – part electronic artist, part PowerPoint-wielding humorist. His musical entity, YACHT, recently became a DFA-based duo, with the assistance of the dazzling Claire L. Evans, and their new album, See Mystery Lights, is a release that I am eagerly waiting (Amazon UK’s shipping estimate is three weeks; no joy on Spotify as yet). I’ve been tipping them for glory in much the same way as I did Hercules And Love Affair two years ago, having heard earlier incarnations of “Summer Song” floating around cyberspace.
In any case, that’s not why I’m writing all this. I listened to new single “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” this afternoon for the first time in a while, and ever since, its catchy and endearing vocal chant/hook has been ingrained in my head, bugging me constantly. I’m pretty certain it’s been borrowed/lifted from somewhere else, but I really can’t think where. My guess would be a Talking Heads song, but I could be wrong.
If anyone can solve this mystery, please provide your answer in comment-based form, and you will receive my profound thanks and gratefulness.
I need your help, Dearest Internet!
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been assiduously listening to two recent post-Klaxons albums, nominally of the nu-rave stable: Late Of The Pier‘s Fantasy Black Channel, and Friendly Fires‘ eponymous debut. Though both albums hinge on the elision of rock and dance music, I’ve come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that, whereas the latter album benefits greatly on its commitment to sparkly pop music, the former eventually frazzles out on a wave of unwavering madness and sonic freakery that is just too much to handle.
Friendly Fires is a fascinating piece of work: only one song cross the 4-minute mark; everything is succinctly polished and pristine, and yet it was recorded in frontman Ed Macfarlane’s parents’ garage on a microphone gaffer-taped to a stand. The music is relentlessly energetic, but in a joyous, bubbly way – it never sounds comically overblown or hedonistic. The synth sweeps and throbs and kept in check by delightfully gushing vocals and beautiful guitar lines. It doesn’t feel brash, more plain confident. A particular highlight emerges at the tail-end of Lovesick, where the standard formula segues into the formative strains of a trance breakdown. Magically, after half a minute, it fades out again for a reprise of the original chorus. It’s this minimalism and concision that keeps the album consistently enjoyable and manageable.
The same can’t really be said of Fantasy Black Channel, which is, much like the title suggests, a lot of everything, crammed into stupendously complex song structures, and beaten over the head with Erol Alkan’s frequently disturbing synth gurgles. It’s enjoyable, but only in tiny doses, after which it quickly becomes grating, deafening and slightly ridiculous. It’s in the band’s worship of everything 80s, from Gary Numan to Van Halen, that in the end sounds superfluous and messy, as if instead of keeping distinct ideas to distinct songs, the band have instead elected to shove them all into one. There are definite high-points on the album, but they are more likely to be individual hooks or breakdowns, which are weighed down by a lot of searing synth flab and fat, which effectively fries the record, and possibly also the record player.
The 80s is set to dominate British musical output for the rest of the year, but it’s clear to me that only when bands keep the influences in check, and settle instead for that decade’s shininess and gloss does the idolatry succeed. When the camp, overblown excesses of the 80s drag the music into an abyss of dark matter, it just sounds a bit ridiculous.
I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.
What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.
The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.
Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.