In the autumn I saw Parquet Courts in concert. The adulation they received from their young fans got me thinking about underappreciated American rock bands. Allow me to elucidate—with reference to the works of The Walkmen, Dirty Projectors and more. Continue reading Great Underappreciated Songbook
A mixtape for winter’s end, spring’s stirring, and the reïmagination of rock. Continue reading Frühlings Erwachen
In August 2010 Time, a magazine, baited the liberal elite by featuring the novelist Jonathan Franzen on its cover, with a caption below it reading, simply, “Great American Novelist”. In the novel which precipitated the headline, Freedom, Franzen showed himself to be unafraid of engaging in music journalism in the middle of a serious novel about serious themes of nationhood. The same year, three American outfits released three landmark albums: LCD Soundsystem, with This Is Happening; The National, with High Violet; and Vampire Weekend, with Contra. Continue reading Great American Lyricist
The fraudulent promise of summer on a wind-blasted, sun-glazed weekend. When I listen to episodes of “This American Life”, the radio show presented by Ira Glass, it feels like perpetual ‘fall’. There are chance sounds and textures in songs from the past that switch up interchangeably with those of the present.
“I’ve always hated the harpsichord, it reminds me of a sewing machine.” — John Cage
I went abroad. And on my travels, improbably, the subject of the harpsichord came up in conversation with a friend. The harpsichord. Mainstay of Bach’s œuvre; acoustic precursor to Stevie Wonder’s fruity Clavinet; humble plucker of strings mated to a keyboard. The friend was not best pleased. Continue reading Baroque and roll
This time last year, I bored you all to death with my fifteen favourite albums of 2009. At the time, I suggested my list was not very useful because I had spent much of the year catching up on older music thanks to Spotify.
A year on, plus ça change. A friend told me he was surprised to see Fleetwood Mac extremely high on the list of most-listened to music on Spotify. I told him I was probably the reason behind this.
Nevertheless, for (non)completists’ sake, I shall persist with this probably pointless exercise. It might give you some weird insight into my warped tastes, at least.
Because I don’t wish to look like a slacker, you can also expect me to publish a list with albums I will get round to listening to in the near future. Continue reading Under-informed profligacy – Favourite Albums of 2010
Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.
Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.
1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.
2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.
3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.
4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.
5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!
6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.
7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.
Yes, I’m back. I couldn’t really keep away from this intriguing little album for much longer. In fact, I’ll probably end up writing a third (and final!) review of Contra as a kind of blog-exclusive. The micro-review below is to be printed in next week’s PartB culture supplement of my university newspaper, The Beaver. Enjoy!
What I really loved about Vampire Weekend was its fusing of catchy pop music, subtle world influences, and some seriously smart lyrics about “college” life. It was the great unifying soundtrack to my first year at university, depicting the perfect, globe-trotting lives of four Ivy Leaguers while I stumbled drunkenly around rainy, gloomy London. That their critiques of privileged youth appropriating distant cultural trends were misinterpreted as somehow endorsing colonialism was bizarre – as anyone who listened properly to “Oxford Comma” would know, Ezra Koenig wasn’t so much flaunting his knowledge of punctuation as criticising that kind of pedant.
Anyway, now they’re back, with the knowingly titled Contra – a wink and a nod to The Clash, and we’re off, with the starry-eyed vocals and thumb piano of “Horchata”, a song that rhymes aforesaid milky drink with “balaclava” and “aranciata”. Cheeky bugger. The next song, “White Sky”, melds the chirpiness of the band’s debut with a new-found love of synthesiser bleeps and beats, no doubt informed by producer-at-large Rostam Batmanglij’s side-project Discovery.
At this point, the most noticeable change in direction exhibited on Contra must be brought to the fore – namely, the sense of sadness and regret that tinges large swathes of the album. This is not such an upbeat album as even a song like “Holiday” would suggest: where cheeky verses once practically fell into rousing choruses, now the default setting is slightly detuned synths and pitter-patter beats. It’s certainly less baroque, as the AutoTuned dancehall of “California English” and the ambitious, sample-heavy “Diplomat’s Son” will testify.
The second noteworthy progression on Contra is, unsurprisingly, in the lyrics. 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. Which, all told, is probably a good thing, because I don’t think another thirty-six minutes of cold professors studying romances, and Blake, with his new face, would have washed with Vampire Weekend’s more astute listeners. Contra is a subtle, limbering creature; less catchy and celebratory; more reflective and critical in its aesthetic and lyrical bent.
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.
I’m going to pretend that the last few months haven’t happened – just assume that the extended hiatus of this blog is a figment of your imagination. Yes, I’m a slacker. I’m also a stupidly busy student/journalist/trouble-maker.
OK, poor excuses over, let’s crack on with the music. One of my favourite albums of last year was Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut – not only because it was a smart, concise album of intelligent and fun pop music, but also because it was pretty much the soundtrack to my first year at university. Having seen them open for Blur at the Hyde Park gig, during which they treated anyone who could muster a smile to a selection of new tracks, it was evident to me that their follow-up might be riskier and bit more grown-up, but would still provide maximum enjoyment.
On the evidence of the new single, “Cousins”, taken from the album Contra, fans of the band will have very little to be disappointed about. The song is snappy and catchy; it has frequent frenetic breakdowns; Ezra Koenig’s famous wit and skills of observation are still very much intact. More intriguingly, the song reminds me of early Police – there’s something about the punky tone of the guitar and the fluid bassline that had me hearkening back to the delights of “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Message In A Bottle”.
“Cousins” displays a fondness for experimentation, too: the bells at the end certainly do little to link the band with the Afro-pop of their first record. It would appear that the band’s searching for innovative and fun sounds have taken them further afield than Africa, this time round, and this was probably crucial, lest they continue to be considered in thrall to a singular sound. Furthermore, the frantic twin-guitar interplay that fills every chunk of air in the song shows off some fascinating echoes of Arabic music.
The evidence so far suggests that Contra is going to be a bit of everything, musically: the opener, “Horchata”, is heavy on twinkly keys, tribal percussion and programmed beats; live favourite “White Sky” is like a supercharged Afro-pop hit of yesteryear, with call-and-response backing vocals recalling tropical adventures. Now, we have “Cousins” – a brave stab at poppy punk that sees the band unafraid to fill the space that so characterised their debut effort, with chaotic percussion and delightful fretwork. Hopefully, the album’s release will excite and amaze existing fans, while drawing in a new batch of pop music lovers. Because when you cut through all the global/world-music hype, Vampire Weekend excel at making truly special popular music.