SECOND WAVE Part 6: 2005

2005

 

 

 

ARULAR | CHAOS AND CREATION IN THE BACKYARD | EMPLOYMENT | GIMME FICTION | GUERO | LATE REGISTRATION | LCD SOUNDSYSTEM | THE MOUSE AND THE MASK | PICARESQUE | PUSH BARMAN TO OPEN OLD WOUNDS | THE WOODS | YOU COULD HAVE IT SO MUCH BETTER  

 

 

ARULAR – M.I.A.

(Interscope)

****

It’s usually a foot long.

Amazon\Galang\Bingo

For skits, Banana Skit. For songs, Pull Up the People.

 

It’s like I keep saying: hip-hop is intrinsically such a barren, simplistic and derivative genre that the only qualification needed to make it interesting is pouring an absolute buttload of fun stuff on top of it. Outkast, DangerDOOM, Mos Def and Kanye West know this, and so does M.I.A. There’s a more eclectic combination of sounds here than on Kala; in fact, it’s a deep musical mix of interesting parts. This seems a little more creatively minded than its follow-up, but it’s still a degenerate mish-mash of rap trends and posturing that merely has a new face put on it. That said, it’s one exciting degenerate mish-mash!

It doesn’t seem so at first, though. Arular has an opening track that could not possibly be more childish or pointless. If the first song is meant to indoctrinate the audience as to what to expect from a record , I wouldn’t be surprised if every listener turned this one off in disgust. It’s basically Hooked On Phonics. But what else would you expect from a skit?

Anyway, the first real composition finds Maya amusingly assuming that merely inflecting her voice upwards is an appealing vocal hook. Apparently that passes for a “cool idea” among the braindead. It’s actually a disappointingly bare track; the second half of the album is quite strong, but Arular is crippled by its mediocre start (although throughout the affair, M.I.A. overestimates how often she can acceptably repeat verses). The rest of the music does show some improvement from the average Kala track. (Yes, I realize this album came out before that one, but I reviewed this one later so comparisons are inevitable.) Thankfully, almost all of the noises on the record are original and the few that are sampled are used cleverly and tastefully.

This debut ranges from banal hip-hop boasting to “Amazon”’s cool scene-setting collage of cultures and locales. The slices of life that Maya presents in her songwriting are great, but she has a tendency to sound exploitative and clueless whenever she mentions proper nouns and name brands, as if a studio exec has just asked her to work them in. This ruins her narrative momentum – it’s funny how she sounds like a totally oblivious poser whether she’s bragging about how badass she is or name-dropping underground bands. Oh well, I’m sure her intentions were good. Plus, I’m ashamed to admit that even when my mind is telling me one of her affectations is annoying and shameless, it does go a long way toward establishing M.I.A.’s personality, not to mention that sometimes those sonic gimmicks are maddeningly endearing. I don’t know what separates them from irritating gimmicks that suck; maybe it’s her confidence and guilelessness.

Anywho, there’s a plethora of naturalistic percussion in these beats, which may not be all that engaging at first, but they’re a welcome reprieve from the synthesized “ultra bass and handclaps” formula of modern hip-hop. That’s another plus for Arular – it combines minimal amounts of rap, electronic, tropicalia, afrobeat, R&B, and new wave into a fairly new sound. The lyrics and vocal melodies are wildly uneven, but the production actually shows some initiative this time around, phasing the aforementioned buttload of fun stuff all over the mix. Always keeping the listener on their toes is a strategy that almost never fails. I’m wary of M.I.A. because her production is her strongest asset, yet that factor is not always her doing. So some of this credit isn’t due to her, but to the unheralded songwriters she worked with here. That’s undoubtedly where parts of the good material came from.

Maya references and blends so many aspects of so many cultures into her music with such enthusiasm, it’s almost like she doesn’t know what race she actually is and just co-opts everyone else’s. But that just suits her kaleidoscopic image even better. It slowly becomes obvious that these are appropriations, however, and not natural mannerisms. The weird accents she sometimes adopts are dumb-sounding and unnecessary. Her vocal hooks and refrains are occasionally childish and goofy. The reliance on repeating phrases past the point when they’re interesting or tasteful also mars the album a little. These songs are a bit repetitive (hypocrisy!) and the vocal melodies are bare-bones, yet there are melodies most of the time, so this isn’t quite hip-hop. M.I.A. tries a lot of masks on here, and it’s an entertaining show, even though some of them are ill-fitting.

Nevertheless, Arular is an ebullient mélange of influences and ideas, and while not every one works, it was the right choice to throw them all in the same place regardless. I am totally fine with this album. If someone started playing it in my vicinity, I wouldn’t scowl or leave the room. Congratulations, Maya Apurluruojoijrewiojngerugjoguhjkreeeeeifduherbjk3eiobfgbhiul-go;hnubjlsgofuhrieglbjgouhefgjknbdhugvejknrtgiodufbhjkngwiodfsuy8g-behjkiortwehkiwogfjlnkioqrugbehjklgi4woudfhi.

[Winner of Outstanding Prose Award for second review in a row that ends with keyboard-punching gibberish]

 

 

CHAOS AND CREATION IN THE BACKYARD – Paul McCartney

(Capitol)

****

Once a Beatle…

At the Mercy\Fine Line\Friends To Go

Too Much Rain

 

Pop, delivered with imagination, precision, grace and goodwill from the master of the form. Chaos And Creation is dependable and memorable, yet it still doesn’t hit the spot that Paul’s Sixties (and some of his Seventies’) stuff did. The man never loses his way with a melody or wastes the listener’s time, but the transcendent passages come farther and farther apart these days. Producer Nigel Godrich’s presence is slightly detectable, bringing exotic, ear-catching arrangements into otherwise unadorned, mild-mannered songs. Meanwhile, McCartney tries admirably hard to not rewrite his old compositions, but doesn’t produce many new classics. He’s really written all he needed to write, yet even the sound of him spinning his creative wheels is pretty good.

As always, Macca is careful to make this a diverse affair, though it leans too heavily toward the quiet and nostalgic. He’s in good voice here and hits some notes that a man his age shouldn’t be able to naturally reach. His songs are all tight and clock in at reasonable Beatlesque lengths. The hooks are somewhat neutered and diluted, but he never pulls any stunts that go egregiously wrong – it’s a very consistent record. (Plus, considering everywhere he’s been and everything he’s done, it would be unreasonable to expect any true surprises from Chaos, ironically enough.) So I’d still gladly listen to this over some other *** 1/2 albums, even though it’s low on the **** list.

One caveat: the lyrics are kind of corny, saccharine and generic. They’re acceptable at best, characteristically cutesy and inane at worst. And the B-sides are pretty terrible, except for the pleasant “Summer Of ‘59”.

Despite few moments of outright self-plagiarism, everything here sounds like an off-brand version of a Beatles song, which isn’t necessarily bad. But judging this as a Paul solo album, the specter of his career looms over everything he creates. When you write the book on modern rock music so perfectly the first time around, you’ve painted yourself into a corner for the follow-up, as anything else will seem like you’re trying to lamely tack a cash-in epilogue onto it.

As much as I’d love for McCartney’s humanistic, “Summer of Love” perspective to never go out of style, it pains me to say that that acid-flecked ideal isn’t as relevant anymore and most of this album sounds like a desperate older man trying to revive the past while speaking from a quaint, bygone era. Plus, the record as a whole is very resigned and slow. Nonetheless, Chaos And Creation is dignified, good enough and pleasant to listen to, without being completely toothless. But when Paul’s this old, I wouldn’t be surprised if he only had dentures left.

 

 

 

EMPLOYMENT – Kaiser Chiefs

(B-Unique)

**** 1/2 

A great album title for a workmanlike band. (See what I did there?)

Modern Way\I Predict A Riot\Oh My God

Time Honoured Tradition

 

The Kaiser Chiefs may be kinda dumb at times, but they’re dumb in a charming, enthusiastic and naïve way that never fails to enthrall me. As an arbitrary example, the opening song on Employment features a rhyme scheme and a few isolated lines that are infantile and terrible. The initial melody is too repetitive and simple, but it’s a catchy one and the tune thankfully has different parts which are better. There’s the occasional painfully amateurish sentiment here amidst mostly banal lyrics, but the group is likably playful and willfully corny. For instance, the words to “Na Na Na Na Naa” are stupid in an acceptable, Ramones-y fashion. The song rides a braindead, two-chord riff with some minor accoutrements, but I’ll be damned if that riff doesn’t kick ass and get me pumped every time I listen to it. When these guys are at their best, as they are on that track, they make first-class pop rock.

The Kaiser Chiefs are the sort of pleasant enough, working class, under-the-radar band who will never be notorious in the big picture cultural landscape, but are really great taken for what they are. Their surprisingly solid initial effort follows suit. This is just unambitious, nondescript, well-written pop, and there’s no shame in that. The Chiefs wanted to write fairly creative, sometimes lovely, always fun songs. They succeeded. It doesn’t leave me much to write about.

These agreeable Brits make upbeat, but nonconfrontational chillout music that recognizes the importance of including guitars as well. In fact, this is propulsive punk-pop just as often as it is balladeering synth-pop. Although this debut never comes close to being snoozingly downtempo, the rousing Clash-esque lead single “I Predict A Riot” is a lot louder than the average track, along with the similarly hyper “Oh My God” and “Na Na Na Na Naa”. Employment sounds like the Smiths by way of the Cars (or maybe early Weezer on the louder cuts), with a little David Bowie glam dust sprinkled on it for good measure. However, that reductive equation shows that the Kaiser Chiefs are working from a limited palette. Some of the cues in songs vaguely recall past tracks. The record starts to become slightly formulaic and same-sounding at the end, and several tunes go on too long. The home stretch is a little sparse and rudderless when it could use some neat counterpoints, which the first half has in abundance. “Time Honoured Tradition”, the worst song, sounds like a messy, unpalatable grab bag of ideas that the band has presented more successfully elsewhere, but even that one is sorta fun.

Other than that, Employment’s disadvantages aren’t too serious. The compositions are a tad repetitive, but at least they don’t repeat their weaker parts. The vocal and instrumental melodies echo each other a bit too closely every once in a while… but these are all minor quibbles for a really strong first LP. When the band does so many things right, it’s easier for me to disregard the minor flaws and get to the good aspects.

For one, boy, is this stuff ever approachable – it’s a short record of good-natured, borderline adult-contemporary pop songs. So that, and my undying enthusiasm for the capable underdog, propels the Chiefs’ virgin effort to a **** 1/2 by the skin of its teeth. It has anthemic choruses, nice harmonies, moderately busy arrangements and a dumptruck full of energy. (I guess I’m measuring energy in dumptrucks today.) Considering the played-out influences the band works with and their unfortunate lack of any truly auspicious characteristics, this is a brilliant debut that could have revitalized new wave radio pop, if people had any taste or cultural consensus anymore. Criticize Employment if you must, but after this recession, the Kaiser Chiefs are still holding down their jobs, and that’s more than you can say for some folks.

 

 

GIMME FICTION – Spoon

(Merge)

* 1/2

Oh great. A Spoon album that’s even longer than usual. Er, sorry, I can’t listen, Britt. I’d love to, but I promised the government three weeks ago that tonight they could hammer rusty railroad ties into my dick, so I should really be going. No, man, I don’t have time to listen to even the first song, I’d probably be late for my important appointment.

The Delicate Place\I Turn My Camera On\Sister Jack

The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine and My Mathematical Mind; on this album, Spoon truly deserves two “worst songs”.

 

Part 4 of the Spoon Saga

 

This record was going to end all my frustration and gloom. I was going to sit back and actually enjoy a Spoon album for the few good things it could provide. I had gone through Anger (Kill the Moonlight) and Denial (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and then I Bargained with them on Girls Can Tell: “Spoon, could you maybe just put a little thought and effort into your songs? A little? Then I can walk away not feeling disgusted and you get a passable rating.” They did, but I only learned to like it much later. I finally listened to Gimme Fiction and tried to come to terms with a band that has given me a lot of grief. Now I’m just Depressed.

I’m trying to think of a way to put this politely…. Oh, I know! Retarded homeless men in Eugene, Oregon like music that’s more rewarding than this.

Hold on, let me back up. My emotional reaction and mental assessment of this band have diverted in some interesting ways over the past year. So let me split my critical mind in two for a moment. I hope you like redundancy, because I came to similar conclusions on both ends. One just takes a lot of exaggeration and primal scream therapy before I realize my point, but it seems entertaining enough that I didn’t want to get rid of it in case you diehards were interested.

 

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE (TL;DR)

Spoon songs sound like the underwritten, rough, bare first takes and guide tracks other musicians would initially lay down just as a baseline and later do something with. Not this band. That’s all you’re getting! A tepid template for something actually worthwhile! This trash is devoid of nuance or even engaging melody, relies on overly repetitive lyrics that are completely forgettable and features occasional instrumental interplay which, although nice, can’t save the LP.

I think that’s what bothers me most – the group’s aesthetic and reputation promises some thoughtful, intricate pop while the actual substance of it is anything but. Where I expected dense, catchy tunes, this is bland, near-empty, masturbatory posturing. Also, I’ll admit their music has a cool, culturally edifying swagger to it, but as I’ve said before, that sort of attribute serves a social function more than it works as a creative outlet. Basically, this band is a tool laidback hipsters use to signify that they’re ahead of the curve and miles cooler than you. It’s an accessory, not art.

There is so much squandered potential and wasted space here it disgusts me. This album is more silence than sound. To call it background noise is an insult to the hum of a refrigerator. I understand that having complex, detailed songs may not be everyone’s listening priority, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated out of my time while playing Gimme Fiction. This is not just understatement. I often like understatement. This is saying nothing at all.

If Transatlanticism was musical wallpaper, God only knows what this tripe is. A microscopic smudge on a blank wall, perhaps? Not only is Spoon’s supposed artistry majestically disappointing in practice, the depth and ingenuity of their actual compositions are seismically underwhelming. Interesting details and original ideas are scarce, and the melodies are so diluted and basic they wash right over you without leaving any sort of impact. In fact, the vocal parts are frequently one note, with slight modulations.

It’s so antiseptic; their songwriting sucks all the fun out of life. Everything’s so muted as to be near-silent, and so formulaic it’s like they’re solving math problems instead of being creative. Maybe their output is so empty and uneventful because there’s practically no bass in their music. It leaves a gaping hole in their enjoyability. This is so-called “pop” music that wouldn’t grab people’s attention if it were being blasted out of elephant-sized amps. The group’s approach is so maddeningly sparse, it’s difficult to claim this material even has a genre, not that Spoon would have the consideration to vary that one style anyway. I guess I’d say it’s minor-key gumshoe music that loses its novelty practically before you first hear it. It always leaves me dissatisfied in ways I can’t adequately express. Damn it, this band just is just not good enough to earn the praise it gets!!!

 

LOGICAL RESPONSE (SPARKNOTES)

This (and on the precursor Kill The Moonlight) is where Spoon began trimming necessary elements out of their songs, convinced they were on the cutting edge of a new minimalist style. These compositions never evolve, sticking with safe, bare melodies. They’re easily recognizable, but might as well be scales for all the ingenuity and personality they display.

Sure, this record’s unusually clinical, hesitant sound could be described as artful. However, in my opinion, it’s all for naught; a step in the wrong direction. The band carefully preserves gaping holes in their arrangements. There are by-the-numbers melodies and structures where interesting, unique touches could have comfortably fit. Yes, it’s landscaping, but it’s pruning away all the good stuff! This leaves the listener with compositions that aren’t polished and tight, but anemic and empty. Their “talent” is gracefully and efficiently removing the art from their songs until it sounds like the off-brand of good music. It has less than zero personality and distinctiveness.

After all that generalized pseudo-philosophy, I suppose I could more precisely describe this musical mundanity piece by piece.

The drums are skeletal and plodding. These tracks are rhythmic, yes, but in the laziest possible way. This junk could have been easily accomplished with a drum machine. Britt’s voice is drawling, monotone, talky, and lacks any distinctive quality – anyone could have sung these parts (and should have, instead of him). The guitars are puny, infrequent fretboard jabs, and the bass is usually a two-note harmony. Yawn.

Oh! Also, they seem to be playing the same patterns and notes for each freaking song. Evidence, you ask? The formula of “Sister Jack” is a duplicate of “I Turn My Camera On”, only the former is allowed to breathe more. In fact, that might be it – Spoon’s so-called “innovation” is to strangle each of their songs until all that comes across is a breathy rasp of a thing. “Jack”, while not stupendous, resounds and expands enough (without betraying the group’s minimal aesthetic) that I can focus on the different parts, which are actually playing something worth hearing for once.

This is because a lot of the band’s compositions are repetitive vamps which irritatingly beat one idea into the ground, with precious little variation or purpose. Sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll begrudgingly admit is fairly entertaining (hence their one or two great LPs), but it’s often not. Yes, some vamps and grooves are fantastic, but at least on Fiction, Spoon’s are decidedly not. Quality “static” music works because it has a lot of stuff to discover in the background, and usually boasts excellent melodies to boot. But this band’s music is way too stark to be as redundant and inert as it is. Though their songs are technically upbeat, the lack of musical presence, rhythmic counterpoint, and emotional investment renders them utterly unfunky and devoid of energy. So while there are a couple of nice moments here and there where things come together, the rest of the material is such a slog that it’s far from justified to listen. Gimme Fiction is especially bad because it’s so long (for a Spoon record). I will say that a little bit of them goes a long way – their pleasantly okay music goes down even better taken one song at a time. But the novelty wears extremely thin over the course of a whole LP. So even the compositions with some semblance of momentum and detail (like the refreshingly atypical “Was It You?”) go on for far too long here.

Another problem I noticed is that they screw so much with dynamics as to make the tunes distant, unsatisfying and irritating. Elements will erratically drop out and come back, again departing before the track can gain momentum. Key parts will show up far too infrequently and then sometimes the mix has just enough nice parts for like the last thirty seconds.

And that’s not all! They also lack diversity, for the most part – every track sounds like a shoddy demo of a Billy Joel B-side, except the band challenges themselves to only use one of the song’s hooks. This also adds up to some self-plagiarism, as they don’t really change this formula until Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Since Gimme is far and away their worst, I’ll further cripple it by blaming it for having the most rewrites, even though any Spoon record would be guilty of that. The Texas foursome has spent four albums changing absolutely nothing about their sound. I can’t even remember which track is which sometimes, let alone what it was like (other than a maddeningly indistinct, quiet lump of semi-ambient noise).

I’ve been blabbing on trying to specify what makes this band so terrible, and I’ve missed the most obvious explanation: SPOON IS BORING. Offensively so. I’m sorry if that’s too vague and useless to be constructive criticism, but Spoon’s work is nothing if not vague and useless. Their music intrigues and elates me not one whit. They’re the anti-New Pornographers. They make songs that seem artificially constructed to be forgettable, monotone and drab. Notes are played, but in retrospect, it seems like there weren’t any. This isn’t merely unfamiliarity on my part – it’s something close to willfully constructed tedium on theirs. I am having no fun listening to this. You can’t get worse criticism than that.

It’s true that Spoon’s style sounds “effortless”, but in the literal sense: there is no way these jackasses put any thought or work into these attempts at songs. They distribute instrumental work so each band member does the least they could feasibly do. Every track here is like an ineffectual jingle for the background of a Gap or iTunes ad. But they have no hooks or catchy parts, so they even fail at being commercial. Could some devotee of the group tell me why they listen to this stuff at all? Is it for some superficial reason? It must be. I’m convinced the fact that they have any fans at all is due to some vast, shadowy, irony-laden hipster conspiracy.

Britt Daniel’s melodies are casual, but not affecting or infectious. All their components are clipped and emaciated. Now, I’m not a wall-of-sound fanatic that’s expecting a ton of horns and an orchestra. All I’m asking for is the smallest of compositional successes – a half-decent pop song – and they can’t provide that here. Spoon tunes could only feasibly work on one level: that of the mindless, fun hook. However, their utter lack of dynamics, depth, or energy completely contradicts that very purpose. So every track is potentially – potentially – good, but turns out to be completely boring and worthless because of those factors, making the music even more infuriating than something that’s just pure garbage from the get-go. That’s the maddening trick Spoon always pulls. I can’t pin any single aspect of their art down as being absolutely atrocious. It’s all just profoundly subpar. It’s gray sludge as opposed to a turd sandwich, but society doesn’t need either. That’s why I’m incensed when people rave about this particular pile of sludge. I’m stumped as to how a group this boring could garner so much acclaim. To me, that seems like getting all worked up about how great dust is.

With all of their unexceptional musical components, I have no clue how they managed to be regarded as talents in their field. If you find your tastes in new music progressing to Spoon, I have unfortunate news: you’re done. You’ve exhausted all the good bands and are slowly working your way down to crap. In general, if you’ve heard the first minute of a song in the Daniel catalog, you’ve discovered everything it has to offer. This, of course, defeats the purpose of listening to the whole thing in the first place. All that poorly used compositional space and sonic dead weight is what I’m talking about when I say that Spoon suck sloth cocks. They have no new concepts, no intriguing personality, no formidable musical talent, they don’t adapt old sounds into something fun and agreeable, they’re not good tunesmiths, they have no place in modern music, they don’t stand out, and the world wouldn’t be any worse if they didn’t exist. I certainly wouldn’t care. Why give your time to them when there are hundreds more deserving bands? There is simply no valid reason except for ignorance and laziness.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s get to the negative points I want to make regarding this album specifically. The first things I noticed about Gimme Fiction were the insufferably pretentious titles from a notoriously incompetent band. Not a promising start, and it proved indicative of the record’s general lameness.

I could have written “I Turn My Camera On”, and I don’t say that about much music, because I have no formal musical training at all. Not only that, but in half an hour, I could have probably picked up a few instruments and played everything in this meager, worthless song as well. It’s the band’s biggest hit. Embarrassment upon embarrassment…

In all fairness, the guys sometimes successfully build tension (due to the constant and predictable abuse of metronomic minor chords, I’d argue), but for what – to support their deficiency of melody and content when it becomes slightly louder at the very end? They might as well not even bother. When there is something actually exciting in the mix, which is once in a blue moon, it comes at the track’s end in the form of a shapeless, noisy, and humorously short guitar line. Oh, well, thanks guitar line! That sure was necessary. The least the band could have done was play that mildly engaging tuneless guitar for the whole damn song instead of wasting the first three minutes dicking around. Although it wouldn’t matter: on the rare occasion that they actually get a confluence of interlocking sounds (in layman’s terms, a legitimate composition) going, it’s still middle-of-the-road and uninteresting. There’s no grace or flair in their work; they approach it like a desk job, pounding the same four vaguely ominous notes over and over on “The Beast And Dragon, Adored” as if they were punching keys on a computer.

Like Rejoicing In the Hands, Gimme Fiction gets a low rating not out of failed ambition, but because it’s so futile and uninteresting. Their other albums may be imperfect and overrated, but this one is mostly just plain horrendous.

Upon reflection, Spoon wasn’t even remarkable enough to warrant this hate rant, so I will stop writing about them until the next time our paths unfortunately cross. I can only conclude by saying THEY SUCK. DON’T LISTEN TO THEM.

 

EPILOGUE/RETRACTION:

I realize after comparing this to my Girls Can Tell review that both essays are really repetitive, present essentially the same ideas, go on way too long, and are just plain oppressive and boring. Let’s pretend I did that on purpose, because I couldn’t think of a format more suited to Spoon’s music.

A while after I wrote this, I listened to the initially off-putting Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for the third time, and finally liked this band for exactly one record. It’s great, but not quite a classic, so I keep my early reaction here as a technicality and to preserve the coherence of the review. I am happy and at peace, now that I have finally reached Acceptance. Anyway, you’ll see my review of the “Ga” album not too long from now.

 

POST-POSTSCRIPT:

Hey! Whaddya know! Girls Can Tell is pretty decent too, as you’ve seen by its review earlier. It took me a while to adjust my standards to Spoon levels, and then it was quite acceptable. As of now, my Spoon judgments are set in stone, for better or worse.

 

 

 

GUERO – Beck

(Interscope)

**** 1/2

Have you ever heard anything by Beck in your life? Feel free to base your opinion of this album on that.

Earthquake Weather\Girl\Rental Car

Black Tambourine

 

A paradox: if you’re always unpredictable, that variability becomes a certainty in and of itself, making you wholly predictable in a certain sense. This is the problem Beck faces. His chaotic nature became a formula, and so he’s always launching from extreme to extreme, hardly ever stopping to actually put some subtext or consistency into his music (Sea Change notwithstanding). Thankfully, he’s an absolute master at crafting attention-grabbing sonic mutations with some truly unassailable hooks and agreeably nutty lyrics. Hansen is perfectly aware of and happy with his status as purveyor of dumb, fun, crazy hipster anthems and delivers them perfectly at this point in his career. Though the resulting seat-of-the-pants tunes might have a limited shelf life, for me they’re so rewarding and impressive for the first few listens that I’d consider myself a fan of Beck.

Astounding songs like “Rental Car” are the primary reason why. That’s what every track on Odelay should have been like. I’m still processing its astonishing number of components after two listens, but every one of them is catchy, memorable, surprising and hits hard. Additionally, I’ve never in my life heard anything remotely resembling album highlight “Farewell Ride”. It’s brilliantly fun and surprising the first time you listen to it. You’d expect its usefulness to end there, but it retains that sense of discovery and confusion with each successive listen. This constant freshness, despite the ephemeral nature of his music, is why I like Beck probably more than I should.

Giving credit where credit is due, the Dust Brothers help him to achieve this awesomeness. Their production is characteristically lush, but there’s more focus in these tableaus and atmospheres, as opposed to the partnership’s earlier ventures. The producing duo are good at making what could potentially be a knocked-off string of cut-rate melodies into something wondrous and mesmerizing.

According to the Wikipedia citations of what this album sampled, it seems like most of the material is actually original. But with loops and samples like these, you can never be sure, so I’m hesitant to give credit. Speaking of samples, Hansen uses them wonderfully: rather than just stealing a song’s hook, he’ll appropriate a small, unusual segment of it – like a weird harmonica squeak or intriguing vocal interjection – then integrate that sparingly into an even cooler tune.

Anyway, even if Guero is pretty much repeating the whole idea of Odelay, it’s more cohesive and less sample-plundering than that record. There aren’t any free-association run-on sentences like that classic has, but there’s still plenty of nonsensical rambling. The lyrics here are ridiculous scenarios, non sequiturs and ramblings, but they’re more sensible and interrelated than Odelay’s frenzied verbal mish-mash. There are some great metaphors, one-liners and imagery, as always. A few tracks are even pleasantly coherent. That’s because Beck goes for purely genre-centric songs here. The album as a whole is as scattered as usual, but each track adheres to one style and the result is a more lucid work, as opposed to Odelay’s intentionally psychotic jumble of nonsense.

Though Guero’s melodies are great and ingratiating, they can be lethargic and simplistic with enough familiarity. It never bothered me while listening, but it did manifest itself as a nagging doubt (“Are you sure this album deserves such a high rating?”). A few of the songs (“Go It Alone”, “Scarecrow”, “Broken Drum”, “Black Tambourine”) become somewhat indistinguishable by virtue of using the same formula: a quiet, bluesy verse with a soulful singalong chorus. A couple of these also succumb to the one tremendous flaw music like this can have: being boring and too minimal.

Other than that, though, this is great, diverting songwriting. The melodies are textured with crazy sounds like The Information and they’re well-developed and catchy like Modern Guilt; Guero would be the best of both worlds, but the record’s occasional slowness does reveal that these (perfectly good and exciting) tunes do tend to repeat a lot to stretch out the LP’s running time. Modern Guilt’s compositions aren’t as ebullient as most of these are, but its tracks are far more succinct. On the flip side, this release has less gratuitous white-boy rapping than Hansen’s other work, which is welcome.

I can’t help but notice that (as I’m sure you’ve picked up on by now) I’ve been comparing Beck’s albums to each other for a large portion of this review. I think these contrasts are unavoidable, since as I said, he basically does the same thing with every record (even though that one thing is “doing everything”). So it makes sense to compare this outing to previous material. Plus, I think Guero may be the quintessential Beck album (if not his absolute greatest) – it’s him doing what he does best. Anyway, I will now rate his 2000s oeuvre based on several criteria and then I can hopefully stop comparing this record to everything else he’s done.

Best supplementary stuff: The Information

Best lyrics: Modern Guilt

Most diverse: (tie between all of them)

Best melodies: Guero

Most ambitious: Sea Change

Best overall: Modern Guilt

My only other complaint with Guero is the vague impression that Beck is rewriting his old songs. Maybe it’s just because he inevitably ran out of genres and had to return to some, but I can see traces of old favorites in new compositions just because of their style. Like, is “Scarecrow” really that similar to “Sissyneck”, or is my memory just unfairly associating the two because they’re jaunty country tracks? I’m not sure. I am sure that “E-Pro” sounds too much like “Devil’s Haircut”, and despite its charm and entertainment factor, all it really is is a simple riff and a basic beat. The chorus of “Qué Onda Guero” is too similar to that of “Hotwax”. I realize now that “The Horrible Fanfare” on The Information completely lifted the melody of “Black Tambourine”, as well. But I can’t decide which song uses it better. In turn, “Black Tambourine” sort of rips off the vocal melody of “E-Pro”. Mercifully, those are all the rewrites I could detect here, and they’re never dire missteps.

Nonetheless, Guero is certainly listener-accessible and completely unpretentious, while being surprising and unique. And that, in the end, is what makes me give Beck records disproportionately high scores. Yes, this is a novelty, but it’s a novelty so brilliantly realized, genuinely fun, and relentlessly inventive that it withstands scrutiny and numerous replays.

 

 

 

LATE REGISTRATION – Kanye West

(Roc-A-Fella)

*****

Late Admiration.

Drive Slow\Gold Digger\Gone

For skits, Wake Up Mr. West. For songs, We Major or Bring Me Down.

 

This record has a sense of enthusiasm, inspiration, universality and musicianship that in the entire genre of hip-hop as I know it, is only shared by Paul’s Boutique, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Stankonia.

I’m gonna go ahead and compare this and West’s debut to the Beastie Boys’ first releases. In these two oeuvres, album one was a more stripped-down affair that took its main themes and ran them into the ground, with some irritating parts. However, Licensed To Ill’s bludgeoning repetition, ironic geekiness, clumsy imbecility and grating voices were intentional methods of deconstruction and parody that added to the art of the work. Also, despite an airless and dry mix, Rick Rubin picked awesome guitar samples throughout that courted white rock fans. Compare that to College Dropout, where the asinine, unlistenable skits were something Kanye honestly thought would be good on the record. I’m not quite sure what spurred him to make such a musically basic LP (especially since he was a good producer in his early days), but he did, coming up with the novel concept of sped-up R&B vocal hooks that sounded better in theory than practice and only wore thinner with each use over the course of the too-lengthy recording. This reliance on filler material, thinner production and primitive rhyme schemes may be attributable to a lack of confidence and skill on his first outing, but who really knows?

Moving on, both artists have a sophomore effort that so far surpasses the debut as to render it almost unnecessary. The music is capable of standing on its own, seemingly creates new genres and avenues for hip-hop with every successive track, and is endlessly creative (this is far truer for Boutique, though obviously Registration is no slouch). They never grow boring, and the meticulous detail of the works is as commendable as their ability to be thrilling, attention-grabbing crowd-pleasers. There is a welcome shift toward the structural paradigm of a rock album, with greater emphasis and care put into the more obscure songs, the musicians commanding all the outside forces and talents they use so that they fit into a unified vision, unbridled experimentation that is kept within enjoyability and reason by the artists’ maturity, a distinctive sonic approach for each track, and an effort to whittle down the compositions into more concentrated statements.

Now, after some consideration, I realized that this LP is such a work of glitz and grandiosity that it’s not something you can casually put on and pick out individual tunes from. It’s an investment of time that requires one’s full attention. But that’s all just as well, because its greatness is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The record holds together beautifully as a whole. A single track plucked from the running order would scarcely be on the same plane of inventiveness as the average DangerDOOM tune. But Registration’s power and quality lies in accumulation. Kanye is perfect at adding exactly what’s needed when a song starts to lag or get lyrically stupid or whatever. Just as I’m about to find a flaw, he presents some new cool element while dropping what was starting to bother me.

Late Registration was one of maybe two or three hip hop LPs ever to make me so elated, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, wanted to replay it endlessly and admire its craft, wanted to enjoy the satisfaction that comes when the world agrees with you (or in this case, the reverse… I was late to the party on this one, but I’ve changed my ways). It’s always reassuring to finally find something enjoyable about a publically revered musician. It takes the pressure off of you for being in the clueless minority, and I’m personally relieved that my standards for Kanye’s music weren’t unattainably high after all. He had some true creativity in him, and LR suits my criteria for quality art perfectly.

Here comes another comparison: though it’s never as mindblowingly awesome as Outkast’s opus Speakerboxxx, Late Registration is a tad bit more consistent. Whereas Speakerboxxx reached such dizzying heights in its first half that the (still classic) remainder couldn’t hope to match it, Registration patiently and methodically doles out just enough cool stuff to keep your interest piqued throughout.

All in all, this may not be as legitimately “melodic” as Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but it does the next best thing – it’s theatrical as hell. No expense is spared and no bastion of integrity and modesty goes without a couple dents and scratches in order to make this The Greatest Show In Rap Music. That’s fine by me, as long as it keeps the listener riveted and doesn’t totally topple those pillars of good taste.

Perhaps it’s unfair to measure West by other artists’ standards, so now I’ll just observe how this record stacks up against his own College Dropout, which I find decent but grossly overrated.

As an experience, this is merely an excellent recording. With context, it becomes absolutely masterful. No song here is painfully hyperextended like several were on the debut. All right, “We Major” comes close, but it pads out its length with plenty of different unfolding parts. Most of the songs are gentle and smart, not needlessly and broadly oversentimental.

Ye gives in and farms out some verses to guest rappers, but he chooses them well and they all perform excellently. On such a sprawling behemoth of an album, who can blame him for having to oversee a few things rather than accomplish them himself? I am concerned about his potential overuse of samples, and how much of a hand he actually had in creating the musical backdrops. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, if only because many of these loops are obscure.

West truly broke some musical ground with these compositions; they’re basically unprecedented in modern rap. There’s soul, jazz, funk, blues, classical, Latin, new wave, gospel, world music, swing, folk, and who knows what else, all polished to a blinding glow. In contrast, College Dropout had rap, soul, rap, gospel, gospel, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, soul and rap.

Though the sheer diversity here is incredibly remarkable, most impressive are Jon Brion’s polyphonic arrangements. I’m not talking about just a few boring violins: they’re stunning, actually changing over the course of the track while adding detail. They also hooked me in from the start with melodies that would be good enough for an average R&B chestnut.

Now, it’s difficult to make a genre without guitars very upbeat, jarring and exciting. So in a shrewd move, a lot of these tunes are lush ballads of one type or another, which unavoidably makes the middle section a bit of a slog (though they’re all good taken on their own). It’s still great material, just very slow-paced.

The skits are emblematic of their respective albums as well. Before, they were truly odious and irritating. Here, they’re actually fairly funny, work thematically, and also function as rhythmic fraternity chants. They’re kept short and infrequent, too. I wanted to go back to the not-so-good Dropout to see if it was indeed by the same guy.

Furthermore, Kanye’s ideas on this release are far more nuanced and mature. His rhymes are conversational and unpretentious, in contrast to the bloviant preachiness and time-wasting playa inanities of CD. His flow is very diverse; he changes his whole delivery to suit a song’s mood. He has a habit of eliding and slurring syllables together, and while I can’t decide if I like it or not, it’s definitely distinctive. Sure, there’s still some witless brand name dropping and boring gangsta posturing left over from the earlier work, but West makes them undeniably his own. His delivery can’t help but drip with personality and his endearing quirks come through more clearly and subtly than they did before.

Here, he serves as a chronicler, delving deeper into the concerns of the urban-turned-elite lifestyle he’s led, approaching them all from an enlightened and unusual angle. This covers nearly all the themes present on Dropout, but tops that LP in pretty much every respect. Soul-searching, family values, nostalgia and childhood, dealing with fame and temptation, hope and celebration are all examined with honesty, detail, intelligence and humor. West’s writing almost never falls victim to clichés; even his soon-to-be-dominant ego is checked and presented carefully and colorfully.

Up until “Crack Music”, his prose is perfectly respectable, interesting and entertaining, but the eighth track is an absolute tour de force of totally unexpected poignant and pointed social commentary. With CD, he made some salient points, but they were ones he really only needed to make once each instead of developing them into redundant overarching motifs that relentlessly pummeled the listener with forced and unearned pathos and self-mythologizing. As opposed to the forward-thinking, but just okay “message” song “Jesus Walks”, “Crack Music” is a slice of lyrical perfection. Elsewhere, “Hey Mama” is selfless and lets the egotistical MC step outside his persona to show true compassion and humility, as opposed to when other rappers honor the women that raised them by keeping a game face on and simply giving them a stoic shout-out, as if their mothers were the record label.

The album’s megahit, “Gold Digger”, turns what could have been a lazy, disrespectful Ray Charles theft into a great uptempo tune that’s lots of fun. The other single, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, has its pros and cons, but still comes out smelling like roses. For one, although it was insightful and inquisitive of Kanye to tackle an often-overlooked issue (blood diamonds), his criticism here is fairly basic. However, the backing track is epic enough to make up for it. Jay-Z guests, and is classy as always, though he seems to comprehend the topic even less. There’s a bit of sidestepping some darker sides of the problem, as well as the inevitable whiff of hypocrisy that comes whenever a celebrity (even one with good intentions) tries to raise awareness of poverty, while decked out in all their high-profile regalia. Especially since they keep flip-flopping on their allegiances and try to rationalize the crime they’re decrying. Plus, every potentially wrenching line comes out awkward as they foolishly try to give it street cred, such as the “shorty with no arms”. But that’s hip-hop for you. I’ll blame the genre’s conventions, not the performers, and applaud them for their ambitious idea.

Moving on, the closer “Gone” is a marvel among marvels. It’s a potential all-time classic last song, contemplating death, aging, retirement, decay and incarceration with endless, captivating optimism and life-affirmingly melodic and hummable music of a style that, as crazy as it sounds, could only be accomplished in hip-hop. Kanye smoothly combines big-beat rap with high-flying experimentation, and it works amazingly. Consequence has a verse that absolutely blows away anything else on the LP. It’s wise that it comes next to last (before the man in charge capably closes everything out), because it’s flipping incredible. Finally, the hidden track plays understatedly and deservedly on the album’s title (and the running theme of West’s first three records), while nicely winding things down.

Late Registration has as much quality and intelligence as any classic rock album, and more than doubles the level of splendor and spectacle therein. It’s daring, developed, inspired and sensational, while remaining tasteful at (almost) all times. Although, after repeated listens it becomes less headspinningly cool and more workmanlike, the key factor is that there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it. I think it’s the best album Kanye is capable of making, and there’s nothing really wrong with it even if it could be better in a few respects.

Is this an unqualified ***** classic? Without question. Even disregarding the hip-hop handicap? Hell yeah. Even compared to past classics from better eras and nobler genres? Sure, why not? No matter which musical geniuses I pit him against, Kanye is Kanye, and this is his undeniable peak. 

 

 

 

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – LCD Soundsystem

(DFA)

**** 1/2

Disc 1: **** 1/2

Disc 2: ****

It’s like electronica without all the electronica of electronica.

[Disc 1:] Tribulations\Daft Punk Is Playing At My House\On Repeat

Thrills

 

[Disc 2:] Beat Connection\Losing My Edge\Tired

Yeah (Crass Version)

 

On LCD Soundsystem’s Wikipedia page, it says they’re a dance/punk combo. One listen to 2010’s This Is Happening would render that description sort of laughable. What I mean to say is that they have certainly evolved beyond that tag. Although the long-form grooves of the follow-up Sound Of Silver suggest at first a step backwards into homogenous dance-floor wankery, James Murphy and his cohorts build a lot of new influences around them and make them work, unlike the rote drum ‘n’ bass travesties that give the electronic/dance genre its bad name. So before they began to craft something new on their sophomore effort, and then perfected it on their third album, they had to start somewhere. That would be here, where the band is still in their infantile days of combining the spartan aggressiveness of punk with the… well, the synths and repetition of electronic music. And since they would later transcend the genre’s drawbacks, this LP serves as a good launching pad, showing that they had mastered writing songs in those styles to begin with.

As dance/rock tunes go, these are pretty dense and slick (and the unwieldy dichotomy between the two styles is a huge part of this album; Murphy actually makes the combination work). There are weird surprising sounds on every track paired with organic, lively percussion and shifting sonic patterns that oddly make the set sound more like a bunch of sparse punk songs. Of course, hardcore rock songs don’t have ponderous mellotron and marimba lines weaving through murmured vocals, so that’s where the new wave influence comes in.

LCD make funky, groove-reliant songs with traditional rock instruments and a rawness that makes them sound like garage techno. They’re more about tone and density of sound than melody, though they graciously have just enough of that too. The techno and rock parts of this album are actually fairly segregated. The punk sections are astoundingly shocking and noticeable from a group I thought was just experimental electronica, while the dance parts are nice, but hard at first to distinguish from most examples of that genre. At least these songs aren’t the artificial, soulless behemoths of synth and computer effects that most people associate with dance music (thanks to Daft Punk). While the electronic stuff on Sound Of Silver was a far cry from the tepid, numbing faders and sequencers of Daft Punk, a layperson could understandably confuse the two. But here, things are different. “Movement” is a bona-fide noise punk song, for God’s sake! That’s freakin’ awesome!

The rock tunes on disc one are breathtaking, but the house tracks are comparatively unpolished. The first disc doesn’t go too far into tape-looped excess, so by itself it would probably earn as high as a **** 1/2. However, the second half complicates things. These predominantly dancey songs sound like your typical acid trance tunes but with a lot more stuff in them. The group somehow magically makes the same plodding beat retain its tension and build in intensity and potency with the smallest of adjustments over a long span of time. For example, take “Losing My Edge”. It’s a long, insightful, humorous, rambling autobiographical piece (the first of a few James would make). Against all odds, it makes a pummeling, endlessly repeated drum part something other than mind-numbingly boring over the course of seven minutes. It’s mostly because Murphy is such a captivating and self-effacing narrator, but also because of the effective yet sparse details LCD puts into their music.

Even though Sound Of Silver had the consideration, craftsmanship and intelligence that comes when artists mature, this early effort doesn’t need that because it goes for the throat with poppier, more immediate hooks. The shortcomings of electronica almost bog it down, but the songwriting shines through. Though it’s repeated too much, the melody of “Tribulations” is fantastic. “On Repeat” does a terrific, exciting job of building up and deconstructing its two-note riff (nevermind that it’s just a two-note riff). “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” is a totally Seventies-guitar-rock specimen – shades of Wings at their best. It even sounds like “Dear Prudence” at the end, which I’ll forgive since I’m sure it’s a cheeky allusion on Murphy’s part. “Tired” sounds like the Stooges trying to play a new wave song, and is therefore triumphantly fun and silly.

The only constant irritation here is Murphy’s tendency to turn plosive and consonant sounds into their own syllables (hence, “tapped” becomes “tap-duh!”). He regrettably sounds like he had a stuffy nose during recording. But it adds a welcome human component to all these robotic breakbeats, and otherwise, he’s an excellent, expressive singer. He also kind of sounds like Christopher Walken during some of his more emotionally drained monologue-melodies. The phrasing, tone, etc. are eerily and entertainingly similar.

His lyrics are great, and also typical of the things clever art-school kids write before they’ve developed a niche or identity – recursive and detached examinations of culture itself, presented in a way that’s irreverent and odd. Pretty cool stuff. Some of the stanzas are just bland party mantras, but they always have a mischievous bent and several layers of cold irony.

LCD Soundsystem sounds for the most part like a unified band bringing a lot of cool ideas together in the studio rather than the James Murphy midlife crisis chronicle that followed on the second LP (not that it was worse; just different). The group gets the rating benefit of making such a progressive, ingenious venture, in addition to the techno handicap. Furthermore, a disc’s worth of this record was assembled from singles and included merely for completeness and efficiency, not as an artistic statement. This makes it easier to separate from the more important material and forgive the missteps of any stray B-sides.

This is regrettably necessary, because James pulls a stunt of distasteful hubris and puts a slightly longer instrumental remix of one of the tracks (“Yeah”) on the actual album, forcing me to consider it on its own merits. Despite its humorous parenthetical, it doesn’t help that it’s located immediately after the song it reworks. They’re also the two longest tunes here, but they thankfully switch things up often enough to climb to the second disc’s standard of “pretty good”. I’m certain that only one of them needs to exist, though, and I can’t decide which version is better. The instrumental is actually quite varied and accomplished, but the “radio edit” is shorter, and has more immediately compelling (and eventually irritating) buzzsaw synths. I’ll admit that the second disc works perfectly as half-heard background music (in fact, I strongly considered a rating boost since this stuff has wonderfully and irresistibly soundtracked a lot of my review writing since I first listened to it), but objectively speaking, it does need the electronica handicap badly. However, given some familiarity with the material, it eventually all becomes at least okay. 

There are some gross indulgences on LCD Soundsystem, but if you listen to the band’s other stuff first and come back, it will be easier to tolerate and comprehend. Plus, it towers above the dance/electronica competition from the decade (other than The Eraser and Sound Of Silver, of course). It’s mainly the length that gets to me on this double set. Otherwise, everything is fine taken on its own terms. It would make for a killer house party soundtrack, though; there are no two ways about that.

 

 

 

THE MOUSE AND THE MASK – DangerDOOM

(Epitaph)

*****

Now this is how you do a mashup – with two different artistic sensibilities, not two ideas conceived by other people.

El Chupa Nibre\Old School\Crosshairs

Beef Rap

 

Alright, I’ll admit that hip-hop had a handful of fairly original ideas last decade. The only issue was how tastefully and creatively those ideas were implemented. Also, those few unique records were usually neglected by the mainstream in favor of gangsta rap and other trash like that, which didn’t help the spread of novel concepts.

For instance, there’s a recently made subgenre called nerdcore rap, which is basically rhyming about geeky subjects over music from Mario video games and the like. Another fresh genre is underground, or indie, hip-hop, which makes room for more iconoclastic voices that the ordinarily success-obsessed style doesn’t take kindly to. The most recognizable proponents of this scene are big small names like Atmosphere and Del tha Funkee Homosapien.

Though he doesn’t subscribe to such a limited subculture with stringent rules, MF DOOM’s music seems to most easily fit this label; he’s an eccentric, but skilled wordsmith involved with several oddball creative endeavors. With this album, he made geeky rap much less esoteric and gimmicky.

So here’s the deal: The Mouse And the Mask is like the Gods of rap came up with a failsafe plan to get me, and me alone, to be totally enthralled with the genre. There are twenty thrills a minute happening in this freakshow: some of them inside jokes, some demented ideas, and most just exciting stuff for the everyman to appreciate. But beware ye who have never watched Cartoon Network at night – the extraneous stuff may be disgusting to you, go over your head, or just plain ruin the songs. You see, in 2006, the late-night absurd comedy animation block Adult Swim hatched a crazy idea to have two nerdy, intelligent musicians collaborate using their shows’ characters as a springboard, hence the voice actors utilized in these tracks. That’s right, that cartoon voice acting is the crazy twist here, and it actually works wonderfully, albeit a bit awkwardly.

Mention must be made of the humor inherent in this concept. As Frank Zappa famously asked, does it belong in music? Well, that’s another discussion for another time, but I can assure you that here it really does suit the general mood. DOOM walks delicate ground by saying things that risk sounding overly comedic and crude, but always manage to be witty and descriptive instead. This album is less contrived slapstick and punchlines as it is inspired lunacy.

As much of a draw as the Adult Swim silliness is for me, it’s utilized way less frequently than you’d think, which was probably a good decision. With a little work, they could have easily made this an astounding straight-up rap record without the branding stigma of midnight stoner comedy. Yet the peculiarity and idiosyncrasy of having all these interludes gives the LP personality. Plus, the original voice acting is pretty funny, against all odds (if you’re familiar with the characters), but the rehashing of jokes from the shows, as on “Sofa King”, is just a weak contrivance. But enough of the “guest stars”, so to speak – this is getting a ***** because of the visionaries in control of the project.

Danger Mouse’s production on The Mouse And the Mask is like none other, as is his standard: fresh, distinct, and bizarre. Possibly influenced by Adult Swim’s blips, it uses antiquated lounge, soul, and other types of music which are welded into the framework of hip-hop. These would be interesting by themselves if they were released as Sixties-sounding instrumentals. The beats each have an identity of their own and the duo has the wisdom to keep things short and to the point, so the tunes don’t wear thin. DM’s contributions help separate the record from being just another off-kilter indie rap release or more shoddy nerdcore; this stuff is leaps and bounds beyond merely speeding up a Mario song and adding a rhythm.

The other half of this heroic team is the incredible and enigmatic MF DOOM. He’s such a genius lyricist, he honestly blows everyone else in the game out of the water. DOOM is a verbal madman, peppering every second with the most verbose, unusual words, making these thematic musings and character portraits incredibly intelligent and natural, while actually striving to create coherent statements as well. When he does drift off into surrealism or goofy humor, he always grounds his prose with interesting descriptions, a clear throughline and a general topic for each track. His internal rhymes and structures are unimaginable, cramming in sly references out the wazoo (which I always appreciate), and he has a genial, conversational delivery that’s still very brisk. Much like the Shakespearean sonnets that stuffy, out-of-touch academics drool over, the verses he writes practically beg to be decoded, inspected and savored – and in this case, I’m happy to do so. This may be the only rap release I’ve ever heard where the vocals are a match for the music in terms of second-by-second enjoyability.

Additionally, Danger DOOM’s creative control and artistic vision is something nigh-unprecedented in hip-hop. There are no skits here, only two or three guest rappers, all the production is done by the same guy (who is a member of the group and not an outsider), and the music itself is original as hell. Furthermore, this experimental recording was released by Adult Swim on Epitaph, a decidedly indie label. But soon enough, this underground sampler tape of sorts, rather than being a well-kept secret among cartoon fans, became a huge word-of-mouth hit and made it onto many “Best of decade” lists (not to mention making #2 on Billboard’s independent albums chart, and cracking the overall top 200 at #41!). The Mouse And the Mask is a towering achievement for rap, and for so-called “novelty” music the world over. Listen to it as soon as possible. I mean, c’mon, what kind of hateful curmudgeon would dislike a song called “Vats Of Urine”?

 

 

 

PICARESQUE – the Decemberists

(Kill Rock Stars)

**** 1/2

Here is a risk-taking, youthful Decemberists whose style and talent is now fully envisioned and totally committed.

We Both Go Down Together\The Engine Driver\The Infanta

Of Angels And Angles

 

Picaresque is a very comfortable album for the Decemberists, and a formative one as well. It points toward the future, while formalizing and refining the past. In case you weren’t aware, bandleader Colin Meloy writes ornate, elegant, verbose, monocle-wearing pop songs that aren’t afraid to be loose, or rock, for that matter. He’s backed by a crack team of multi-instrumentalists who are shockingly willing to tag along on his flights of fancy, probably because they never quite reach the inadvisable heights of Icarus, so everyone can land safely and retain their dignity. These odysseys and conceptual pieces are odd, archaic and intellectually involved, but not smug, overly complex or esoteric. (Although, fair warning – Colin’s overblown word choice can be off-putting.)

This is perfectly adequate music which crystallizes everything that the group aspires to. By that logic, it should get a higher rating. But in the context of the band’s career, they would continue to craft even more astonishing successes, and so I have to adjust the scores accordingly.

As much as I like the Decemberists and find their formula fairly flexible, trustworthy and rewarding, I have to give Picaresque a slightly subpar grade. Its quality dips to approaching mere competence every once in a while, not reaching the peaks, nor attempting the scope of their following LPs. This record has all the hallmarks of Meloy’s aesthetic, but he doesn’t try to shake up any of those conventions. The album perfects his preferred lyrical style as it reaches its nonconceptual zenith. (It’s a good thing he could tie his intelligent musings into loosely operatic story arcs on following works, which prevented him from exaggerating his more indulgent mannerisms and slight poetic shortcomings.)

This set is a little overlong, but it’s consistent and doesn’t get too derivative, save one example: “The Sporting Life” finds Colin basically ripping off “Lust For Life” (the melody is different, but that beat is so familiar and so inescapably Iggy Pop’s that they should have known better than to nick it), and it’s hilariously anachronistic in its influences and subject matter. Indeed, the “uncoordinated kid disappointing his athletic family” storyline is a modern construct which threatens to completely unmask the illusion of listening to a troubadour living in the past, and comes eerily close to sounding like an insufferably pretentious blowhard who turns the events of contemporary life into quaint, circumlocutive Medieval tales. That overturning of the suspension of disbelief becomes slightly problematic on this Decemberists release, more so than others. As I mentioned in another review, Meloy’s authorial voice is perfectly acceptable when it adheres to the band’s musical and thematic fixation of older times, where it’s a comfortable and logical fit. It’s only when he tries to update and modernize one component of that mix that the façade falters and he comes across as ridiculous.

Thankfully, the majority of these compositions utilize that old-fashioned perspective much better. Despite its discouraging length, “The Bagman’s Gambit” miraculously works as a story-song of late-19th-century political intrigue and espionage, set to sparse acoustic backing, the occasional blustery section and a really cool dénouement. “Fifteen Military Wives” is a cheeky, intriguing piece of foreign policy critique which almost approaches aggressive ska. “The Engine Driver” has the strongest hints of the moody and tightly melodic songwriting Meloy would master on The Crane Wife. It’s a superlative tune. Even the somewhat draggy last three songs have their charms and are at least solid. For instance, the longest track, a suite called “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, mostly works and has an appropriately grandiose tale behind it.

The band is naively and likably dedicated to their sometimes silly ambitions, simply laying them out without trying to excuse them or make them more “high-minded” (that is, pretentious). In fact, that natural guilelessness, enthusiasm and sense of personality is what differentiates ambition from pretension. Pretense is when entertainment is heavily manipulative and contrived, while being overly serious and indulgent. This stuff is constructed and performed very organically and accessibly. Honestly, though their songwriting would improve later, there’s a case to be made that this may be the easiest Decemberists album for beginners to get into: it showcases their quintessential sound and turn-of-the-century mindset, while simultaneously establishing its own political and nautical themes. There’s a lot of verve here, too, as the band hasn’t given up the notion that it’s a scrappy rock collective. Picaresque isn’t necessarily more uptempo or noisy than any of their other stuff, but it’s arguably more raucous, rootsy and crowd-pleasing.

This is a great LP of scattered, relaxed songs, released before the turgid thematic pressures of Crane Wife and Hazards Of Love encroached and turned some folks off with their confusingness. It finds the Decemberists at a crossroads: they’re still young enough to mold their artistic character and build their aspirations, but experienced enough to follow through on that promise dependably and professionally. Their innocence shows here; they’re more precocious than wise.

Picaresque tends to luxuriate in its mood sometimes, which isn’t necessarily a demerit, but it’s slightly less entertaining than the hookiness of the band’s later albums. These are a bunch of shanties and steampunk ballads that establish the group’s identity, but only begin to display their knack for prog-pop. Is it their best effort? I’m not sure about that, but either way, there is still a lot of quality here.

…You know what? Screw the hesitancy. This is a really accessible, fun record, and I didn’t feel like redoing this review, so I’ll utilize the technicality that this came first and their later releases are the ones that are too familiar. There. A **** 1/2 rating is in order, then. Just barely.

 

 

PUSH BARMAN TO OPEN OLD WOUNDS – Belle And Sebastian

(Matador)

*** 1/2

Disc 1: *** 1/2

Disc 2: *** 1/2

The compilation from beyond the decade! [gasp]

[Disc 1:] Belle And Sebastian\The State I Am In\Lazy Line Painter Jane

A Century Of Elvis

 

[Disc 2:] Marx And Engels\Legal Man\This Is Just A Modern Rock Song

I Know Where the Summer Goes

 

Hmm. This one doesn’t count. Yep, about three-fourths of the material here was released on singles in the Nineties and the rest was released on singles in the 2000s. However, just because it was all packaged together last decade doesn’t qualify it. Nevertheless, I decided to review it. As with most double albums, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds is not a good place for beginners to start. Only come here once you’ve got a firm grip on Belle And Sebastian’s songwriting style. Too many of the songs start off bland and strummy, and despite agreeable melodies, end up going nowhere and sounding the same. A lot of the tracks have instrumentation that indistinctly bleeds together, but it suits the group’s sometimes transcendent songwriting.

The problem is, in many cases, B&S have done a lot of these things better in more auspicious circumstances. Not to mention that a few of the tunes are dangerously close to self-plagiarism and a couple more out-and-out stink. It’s unfortunate because the beginning of disc one contains possibly the best consecutive five compositions the band has ever recorded. In fact, three of them are some of their best songs overall and one of those is my absolute favorite of theirs (“Lazy Line Painter Jane” is a pop masterpiece – you should go listen to it now).

Since this compilation includes B-sides, this is where B&S go overboard a few times and get experimental, with both positive and negative results. Sometimes they’ll do a crazy awesome Egyptian riff-rock dance song like “Legal Man”, and then they’ll pull out a totally pointless spoken word track with a cut-and-pasted melody, which should have been kept in the vaults (that one is called “A Century Of Elvis”). There’s a self-deprecating, mythologizing epic (“This Is Just A Modern Rock Song”), and probably the quintessential Belle And Sebastian song, “The State I Am In”.

Overall, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds is a good collection for a fan of the group (and, as is usually the case with double LPs, could be refined into a single album, or possibly an EP, that no listener could turn down). It’s just kind of a drag listening to the whole thing at once.

 

 

 

THE WOODS – Sleater-Kinney

(Sub Pop)

**** 1/2

Girls Gone Ballistic.

Wilderness\Rollercoaster\The Fox

Let’s Call It Love

 

WHAM!!! Holy crap! It turns out that the gloomy, psychosexual, “diary narrative ballad” group I was expecting was sneakily replaced with a raw, focused hardcore outfit that’s fond of reckless screaming. In fact, The Woods sort of reminds me of a female counterpart to The Argument, and you know that’s high praise coming from me.

In a serendipitous parallel to Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Sleater-Kinney’s vocalist (Corin Tucker) could strike many people as jarring and divisive, since she alternates between yowling, cooing, shouting and warbling. But if you can handle Geddy Lee or Paul Di’Anno’s voices, you’ll be fine here. She carries the catchy vocal melodies well enough, but her embellishments and wavering yelps get a little irritating at times. It’s theatrical, but in a fun way, and when that style is paired with songs this wild, a more unhinged performance suits the proceedings just fine instead of sounding forced. And as long as Tucker still reinforces the melody, which she does, I’m okay with it.

Thankfully, the music makes up for her occasional noisiness. Sleater-Kinney’s songs are naturally attention-grabbing without being showy or overbearing. They all have a few ambitious, distinct sections and work through them in intuitive and dynamic ways, packing a lot of rowdy guitar action into each track. I can’t believe some of this stuff came from a three-piece band – there must be some heavy overdubbing in here somewhere, even though the performances sound fairly spontaneous and loose. It’s hard to cook up something totally fresh using just a guitar and no other gimmicks, but these ladies do just that, writing strong parts that could stand on their own as riffs. Their sinuous, ebullient interplay creates some really catchy lines. Right when the tunes threaten to blend together, they throw in a moderately surprising composition, like the washed-out, overexposed summertime jaunt of “Modern Girl”; the lopsided, jumpy groove of “The Fox”; or the slippery, disorienting “Night Light”.

Besides the brief respite of “Modern Girl”, the trio’s righteous clamor never lets up, which is cool. This is a heavy album combining the spectacle and decadence of hair metal with the rawness and aggression of hardcore punk. It’s also very reminiscent of the Riot Grrl movement, complete with garage band distortion and a D.I.Y. attitude. The Woods easily trumps P.J. Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea in pretty much every department. It seems as though Harvey uses the women’s lib subculture as a prop to give her music relevance, but Sleater-Kinney’s tunes hold up regardless of context. Their emphasis is on the instruments and lyrics, but the vocal melodies are incredibly accomplished, especially coming from rugged indie die-hards. As a bonus, the band has a secret weapon buried in the mix – some awesome, cleverly-integrated keyboards.

Equally important to the song is what exactly is being sung. The lyrics here convey everything from yearning and unease to disgust and despair really well, with ingenious metaphors and similes that are rarely innocuous. Tucker seems to tackle personal issues with unique symbolism and approachable ideas. At her best, she makes self-discovery and vague personal epiphanies something more than mundanities only of significance to their author. In all fairness, however, the verses sometimes reach Lilith Fair levels of predictable Freudian imagery. Then there’s the ever-present crutch of female songwriters: fey intimations of fragility and indignance (and honestly, Corin is too talented a writer to go to that well as much as she does here). But I digress – that sort of rote, uninspired self-empowerment shtick occurs very infrequently. More often, her prose is libidinous and frank in a way that’s once again comparable to P.J. Harvey and Björk, but she can be more subtle and poetic writing from a feminine perspective as well.

Overall, The Woods is a very consistent set; Sleater-Kinney’s biggest artistic risk is the unexpected, huge twelve-minute song that comes at the end. It’s another good guitar rock track, only repeated longer than usual, with a jammy coda and probably the yowliest singing on the record. It’s not quite up to my standards, but even for the weakest tune, it’s still good. This is a solid, exciting and fun record, and it’s apparently the band’s swan song. It doesn’t work as a grand finale quite like The Argument does (then again, what could?), but otherwise, I’d definitely recommend it for those not averse to a bit of hard rocking. Seriously – these chicks will wear you down.

 

 

 

YOU COULD HAVE IT SO MUCH BETTER – Franz Ferdinand

(Domino)

**** 1/2

Don’t be so modest. Probably only a little bit.

I’m Your Villain\Do You Want To\Walk Away

Well That Was Easy

 

Albums like this present me with a really problematic decision: suppose two given records by the same group are equally good. They have similar musical ideas, but both are distinct enough to stand on their own. The thing is, I have no idea which I would favor if I had to choose.

The element of chronology comes into play. If they don’t change their sound between albums, I don’t know whether to deem it derivative or consistent (generally, if the songs have obvious and direct melodic descendents rather than the same uniform style, it’s derivative). Out of habit, I’ve been giving the edge to whichever came first, since it’s ostensibly better and more original. But in this case, I do believe the band in question has improved upon their formula the second time around, while simultaneously cribbing too much from the previous work. (Then again, there are the bonus tracks on the debut, which I’ll go ahead and count just so I can make up my mind and give that LP a marginally higher placement.)

So the law of entropy would dictate that since they sort of follow the songwriting pattern and aesthetic of Franz Ferdinand, that this would be slightly inferior to that fairly fresh-sounding recording. Though the logician in me says it isn’t fair, I’m just gonna say forget it and give this release a high rating too. Because it really is great on its own terms. Plus, it never treads water with morose, derivative lowlights (it instead splits up those missteps from the previous album into a few uptempo derivative filler cuts and some great, mood-changing glum tracks).

Franz’s cheeky lyrics about love, lust and luxury haven’t dulled in the slightest. They’re ironic in an exuberant, endearing and clever way, which makes all their intentional posturing totally fine by me. I might be imagining this, but the mix on this one is even more punchy and kinetic. Considering the debut was bona-fide dance pop, that says a lot about its fun uptempo pleasures.

Let’s get down to details, then: “The Fallen” is a furious, proto-metallic antireligious screed that jerks the listener back into the guitar-rock realm of Franz Ferdinand. “Do You Want To” has the unenviable task of following up FF’s previous worldwide smash hit single “Take Me Out”. Even though it wasn’t nearly as popular, it’s immediately evident that this classic tune is just about as good. Elsewhere, the band starts to branch out in noticeable and pleasantly surprising ways, like the superb and not-very-dancey power ballad “Walk Away”. In fact, “Eleanor, Put Your Boots On” is a fantastic tune and change of pace – it’s an elegant Victorian cabaret song with no drums and few electric instruments. In a similar vein is the ethereal “Fade Together”. Finally, the album closes with the pummeling “Outsiders”, a breath of fresh air that utilizes the FF sound with a newfound focus and intensity.

Although this record could still roughly be characterized as punkish dance-pop, it doesn’t sound like one long energetic tune, whereas Franz Ferdinand did. The busy song structures are very easy to discern from the debut’s confident, strong, uniform guitar grooves. It’s more distinguishable, even though it’s the same old FF. You Could Have It So Much Better is moodier, but most certainly not the angsty, “difficult” follow-up some musicians respond with when success calls.

Though the songwriting is more adventurous, when they’re not doing something new with their style, everything blurs together and sounds like a reimagined reject from the first release. In fact, the outstanding strides forward are devalued by the decent, but fillerish third of the album. This record might be better than the earlier LP on a track-by-track basis, but it doesn’t work as well as a whole because of its fits and starts of inspiration. Basically, the small drop in quality between this and FF is due to the fact that they repeat the same minor errors again. That almost-undetectable accumulation of similarities and uniformity of sound is the thing that brings many a good band down and leaves them copping rewrites of rewrites on a nostalgia tour years down the road.

Like the Arctic Monkeys, FF jump frantically from idea to idea here, except Franz’s hit-to-miss ratio is even higher. Nevertheless, there are a distracting number of disjointed, ill-fitting sections in some songs which look like they were shoehorned in just because they were complex, despite being too convoluted to be catchy or gel with the composition. These embryonic, half-baked tics end almost before they begin, and aren’t fleshed-out or natural-sounding at all, as if they inappropriately crammed prog-rock changeups into dance pop. This unpredictable, nonlinear style is interesting, but it doesn’t always work.

But enough of my pessimism. I still give the group a ton of credit for eschewing the repetitive riff-fests of yesteryear and at least trying to change things up.

So, at long last, I’m persuaded to give this a **** 1/2, because the band makes these songs even deeper and more layered than the ones on their debut. They even wisely take their time with some turn-of-the-century baroque pop, and every time they do, it’s outstanding. Synths are also integrated into their sound here, and it works so well, you probably wouldn’t even notice that they figure prominently in several songs.

Despite all my griping, the only really major thing crippling this work is comparison to its predecessor. In a cultural vacuum, I’d consider it an imaginative, propulsive and extremely fun record. You Could Have It So Much Better is like Franz Ferdinand’s little brother – it tries to live up to its role model’s legacy by studiously doing twice as much three times better, but it just comes off like a precocious punk spitefully trying to top his elder’s success. That it mostly does is astounding, but that doesn’t make it any less of an overbearing spaz.

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