SECOND WAVE Part 7: 2006

2006

 

 

 

 

BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA | DRUM’S NOT DEAD | FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD | NIGHT RIPPER | WHATEVER PEOPLE SAY I AM, THAT’S WHAT I’M NOT | YS  

 

 

BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA – the Hold Steady

(Vagrant)

***

I so wish I could insert a video here of me parodically imitating the singer’s voice.

Party Pit\Stuck Between Stations\Massive Nights

Same Kooks

 

The Hold Steady walk a dangerous precipice and take some crazy risks that I wouldn’t recommend any other bands try. But against all odds, they succeed more than I thought possible. As opposed to Broken Social Scene, the Hold Steady worryingly sound exactly like what you’d expect from an outfit with such a terrible name – that is, like castrated, aimless bar rock with an appalling lead singer. Much like BSS’s You Forgot It In People, this album starts especially badly, lowering my expectations before pleasantly surprising me with a noticeable, but not entirely redeeming increase in quality.

These guys are proponents of that manic, aimless and no-frills light punk style (making sure to first iron out any distinctive qualities and sounds!) where the musicians come charging out of the gate before realizing they haven’t really thought the melody through. Thankfully, they branch out over the course of the LP and get slightly more tuneful and ruminative. So that’s why I just mercilessly criticized an album I initially said was okay.

Uh oh! Here comes some more necessary bile…

It’s a rare case when vocals alone are enough to irrevocably ruin a good song, but I’d say Craig Finn qualifies. How much you can tolerate his voice is an absolute make-or-break factor for your enjoyment of Boys And Girls. Seriously, the lead vocals here are in the running for worst EVER. Finn’s “singing” bores into my skull like some kind of torture device. At times, it’s hard to tell whether he’s engaging in a vocal melody or a rambling interior monologue as he stutters and rants in a way that’s completely divorced from tunefulness. He sounds like the guy from Counting Crows after a tracheotomy and looks like a cross between Danny DeVito and Randy Newman (interestingly enough, his visage is as ugly as his voice). He slurs, swallows words, has the range of half a tree stump, growls and gargles gravel, speaks the lyrics in a choked Southern drawl half the time, doesn’t exactly strive to reach notes the other half, mumbles drunkenly…. HOLY FARTING JESUS ON A TRICYCLE, he’s just awful, let’s leave it at that.

There are only two tracks here I’d be completely okay with hearing again: “Chillout Tent” is one, and it’s no coincidence that two other people share the singing duties there. (Craig invades, but he’s tolerable.) The other track, closing number “Southtown Girls”, does the seemingly impossible and crafts an atmosphere of sounds and notes that actually suits his disgusting wheeze for once. Incredible, but true.

Beyond the ill-fitting, yet intelligent literary references which strangely pop up now and then, Boys And Girls is about mindless partying and hooking up as well as foolish, debaucherous drug use, and the malaise that accompanies that lifestyle. These aren’t exactly AC/DC lyrics, though – the Hold Steady try to make the topics respectable and contemplative. The lines that don’t deal with exploitative lists of alcohol imbibed and drugs ingested are really the record’s ace in the hole (though it sometimes seems they’re in the minority.) Speaking as a nondrinker, this may be tremendously biased, but does it strike anyone else as loathsome or at least ridiculous, garish and silly that the anthemic, soaring, repeated coda to one of these songs is “Gonna walk around and drink some more”?

That’s what’s annoying about Craig’s hedonistic thematic bent: he presents himself not so much like a man troubled by his demons and in need of a chemical crutch as a recently legal coed douchebag bragging about his substance intake every chance he gets and some he doesn’t. The tracks not related to partying range from pointless, dead-end complaining and empty rhetorical questions to pointed, wordy musings on traditional rock topics. In regards to the more substantial parts, this prose does seem like a wise and tempered personal chronicle of the songwriter’s complicated and often doomed relationships. The only problem is that he does very little to intrigue the listener. His words read like a solipsistic, esoteric diary full of boring hipster behavior, with the requisite ham-handed high culture in-jokes and gratuitous narcotics references. But besides that, Finn’s musings are pretty intelligent, poetic and verbose – for an alcoholic’s journal, that is. I’d say the lyrics break even, despite their less admirable qualities.

Anyway, some of Boys And Girls’ melodies are total afterthoughts if they’re present at all, buried beneath unmemorable, unengaging turds of sound. Its music seems to have an unearned, self-satisfied sneer at all times. The band achieves this fake-aggressive, extremely diluted attitude with faux-raucous, glossy power chord guitars which are mixed low because they have no content worth recognizing. Everything’s too unassuming and middle of the road to be exciting or entertaining. The riffs are played as if they’re full of vitriol and spontaneity, when they’re really mundane clichés. The only memorable parts come in fits and starts and rarely serve as a centerpiece or primary component of the songs. Claims of this album’s diversity are also laughably exaggerated – all the tracks sound a bit different, yet it goes without saying that this is no Abbey Road. But hey! At least the Hold Steady are adrenalized instead of totally listless like Death Cab For Cutie. (If I listen to one more of that group’s records and it sucks, they get an impressive two-album ticket to my less-than-prestigious exclusive list of bands I can’t even think about without veering into an apoplectic rage.)

To further elaborate, the Hold Steady are what Fall Out Boy would sound like if they weren’t a total nightmare of failure, inadequacy, and awfulness – however, the result still isn’t very good. Despite its favorable features, this LP certainly isn’t worth the time of anyone looking for something musically outstanding or notable, unless you, too are a debaucherous reveler who can relate to the liquored laments of Craig Finn. It’s also one case where you can trust something by its cover. Look at that garish, senseless piece of trash! It looks like the cover of a Pink album, for Christ’s sake!

Nevertheless, the most dispiriting and horrifying thing of all is that…. Actually, you could be wasting your time and rotting your intellect with much worse music these days. I’ve meticulously gone through the details of these songs and ranted about their irritating mediocrity when there are actual musical atrocities being committed which are far more deserving of my rage. Therefore, I feel I should grade on a curve and possibly take into account a slightly increased respect for this record should I ever listen to it again (which is admittedly unlikely). So I hereby award Boys And Girls In America a thoroughly uninterested and disaffected ***. And that’s being generous.

 

 

DRUM’S NOT DEAD – Liars

(Mute)

N/A (*** 1/2)

Are you sure?

Drum Gets A Glimpse\The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack\It Fit When I Was A Kid

It’s All Blooming Now, Mt. Heart Attack

 

Liars made this album as scientists rather than musicians. Their clinically conducted experiment was to figure out how static and toneless a song can get before it’s no longer a song, but a sound (my theory, not theirs, but I put a lot of thought into it). Drum’s Not Dead is the sort of record created expressly to induce flowery descriptions and ravenous hyperbole from critics. Let’s begin then, shall we?

It’s a static, throbbing head wound of an album, made to disorient and perturb.

It’s sedate, percussive ambience, not meant to be considered a set of active compositions so much as a general uneasy atmosphere.

It’s like the tribal, pulsating rhythms of world music and afrobeat meeting the stark, mechanical precision and gothic vibe of krautrock with all the sterile soundscapes and odd noises of new wave.

It’s post-rock with a lot of the melody removed, but with most of the ambition and artsiness excised as well, so its insufferability level evens out.

It’s more primal and basic than anything modern culture can deal with.

It’s a rusty, spiny miasma of lobotomized mantras.

It’s an ominous and buzzing LP that’s constantly propulsive, but goes nowhere.

It distorts perception and time to become something strangely alluring in its own difficult and inflexible way.

In some ways, it’s the Metal Machine Music of last decade.

Drum’s Not Dead mostly blows. It’s also totally badass in theory, and sort of like ambient metal, if that makes any sense (which it does not). In objective terms, it is an impenetrable avant-garde experiment by art-rock trio Liars. Everything about the band moves at a glacial pace with an air of dire solemnity. They make music without any signifiers of time or modern society. This record simply is. It exists, much like stalactites and hills exist. I can sort of imagine Viking marauders, Mongol warlords, or African shamans nodding along wordlessly to this stuff as they go about their grim daily duties (that is, if the songs weren’t so low-key and cryptic).

Every tune has some subtle changes, but adheres strictly to its one- or two-note groove. If it evolves at all, it’s through an imperceptible sonic blur. Basically, this is heavier, totally organic trance with more lyrics and some moments of muffled spaciness. The songs’ atmospheres are starkly different, but they all rely more on texture than melody. The band has admitted the record was primarily a rhythmic exercise, and there is indeed lots of cool, diverse percussion here. But each part is looped and repeated to the extent that it becomes boring. If any tracks here (save for a few real, dynamic compositions) could be called enjoyable, it would only be in a perverse, ironic way. I suppose I should mention that the three best actual songs are the lovely “The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack”; the mystifying “It Fit When I Was A Kid”; and “Drum Gets A Glimpse”, because that one serves as a suitable, gentle introduction to this madness.

The record’s saving grace is that it has vocals, because it could have just as easily been instrumental. Whichever guy sings the harmonies (I’m honestly not sure) has a disembodied, wordless falsetto that’s freakishly appealing. That intertwines with lead singer Angus Andrew’s rumbling tenor. His lyrics are sparse, vaguely threatening and portentous. Sometimes they’re sociopathic and raving as well, which betokens not a lack of diversity, but a focus and dedication to tone.

There’s no doubt that Liars are unique and uncompromising; however, the idea of repeatedly listening to this album is patently ridiculous. Whatever their artistic goal was regarding explorations of rhythm and mood, they failed colossally. The stuff here is entrancing if you give in to it, but the second you snap back to reality, it’s ridiculously slow and pretentious. Do you think you’re ready for this interminable drone? I’m not so sure. I wasn’t, myself. It’s out there. It’s difficult. But it’s pretty much singular.

Final thought: Drum’s Not Dead is a game of chicken with good taste and common sense, and Liars emerge victorious.

 

 

 

FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD – Neko Case

(ANTI-)

*****

Closing the gap between Norah Jones and Kim Deal in entertainment value and style – an incredible release.

Star Witness\Hold On, Hold On\The Needle Has Landed

At Last

 

On Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case develops a unique perspective and sound, while simultaneously making the LP a mysterious and oblique affair. It alternately pushes the listener away and draws them in, so it’s no surprise that it took me a bit to come around to this thorny, but incredible record after first ignorantly dismissing it as formless drivel. Its melodies, arrangements, and structure are very progressive and experimental, staying roughly within the realm of Americana music, but taking a very different and surprising approach with each track. As a result, this is a very distinct collection.

Though a Neko tune is unmistakable, it’s nice to see that she hasn’t pilfered any ideas from Blacklisted. This one definitely seems like a conscious artistic statement, whereas the previous record felt more like an excellent cover album of her idols’ songs. In fact, I found Blacklisted more enjoyable at first. This one’s got more idiosyncrasies to it, though. It feels weightier, and serious enough, while not so wrapped up in itself as to be irritating and arrogant.

To balance out artistic risk with clarity and accessibility, Confessor is understated, even though Case would be able to successfully amp up the grandeur later on. It’s very small-focus, touching on unrelated events and humble, vague feelings in piecemeal fashion. This is a scrapbook to Cyclone’s novel. I guess that would make Blacklisted a biography or something.

If I had to generalize, I’d say Fox is more notable for its instrumental prowess, while Cyclone has more tangible melodies, though each aspect is top-notch on both LPs. The subservient element is just there to pleasantly pave the way to the truly show-stopping moments. Cyclone is more airy, elegant and direct, whereas Confessor is intricate, abstract, and sometimes difficult. But Neko Case has such talent and creativity that no matter the circumstances, I’m impressed with most anything she does. She has entered the realm of “Even their worst is great” musicians.

In any event, Case’s vivid and dreamlike portraits of rural life, love and tragedy are as good as always. The lyrics and musical influences are a backwoods stew of Americana, taken at a leisurely, somber pace. There are bits of welcome experimentation as well, like the mostly a capella “A Widow’s Toast” or the rough guitar noise in the title track. The playing here is great, with all sorts of intriguing twists (again recalling the follow-up album I am compulsively comparing it to). It has tightly packed, unusual song structures with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them hooks of devastating power, which its more audience-friendly follow-up would pad out to a more noticeable and coherent ratio.

Despite this seemingly faint praise, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is far too professional, rich and intriguing to earn less than a *****. Just listen to Middle Cyclone first and you’ll be able to appreciate this for the resounding success it is. (In fact, her 2009 record’s unexpected quality may have colored my reactions to this one. At first, it was only a mild disappointment in comparison to the later masterwork, and I eventually enjoyed it just as much – plus, some songwriting ideas used on Neko’s other classic have begun to foment here, so who am I to say Confessor shouldn’t get some credit for that? Also, it might have something to do with which one you hear first, though it would be impossible for me to objectively inspect that angle. For what it’s worth, I listened to Middle Cyclone first and have been enjoying it ever since.)

But I digress. In summary, Cyclone is the more accessible LP, and is more immediately impressive to boot, but Confessor has just as much artistic value hidden beneath its rambling exterior. Because much like my ever-shifting, provisional, and faltering opinion on the record, Fox is timid and deceptive about utilizing its many strengths and enthralling depth. Instead of presenting these rich sonic tapestries as the involving, atmospheric story-songs for the heart that they really are, it poses them in the form of odd, abstract folk-pop tunes for the mind. I don’t know; I suppose they are equally enjoyable as a specimen to analyze or an experience to get swept up in. It’s hard to categorize just what distinguishes Case from her singer-songwriter peers sometimes – you simply have to listen and see for yourself.

To help you along, dear reader, here is an example of how one would optimally listen to a Neko Case song. Amidst all the seemingly capricious, winding vocal melodies and melismas, you should be able to distinguish numerous moments of clarity and pure brilliance that will keep you listening again and again until you suddenly figure out how all those disparate strands of sound pull together. Case in point (no pun intended, and yes, I almost published this without noticing): consider the irresistible “The Needle Has Landed”.

With its odd extra measure, one can count on the repetition of the “Where the needle touched down” hook. The way she says “Over poor Spanaway” is chilling, revealing her genius for phrasing. I know that sounds like an ambiguous, nonsensical critic’s word, but I’m confident all of you readers will be able to hear what I mean if you play the song. Then, the tune’s momentum having been established, the newcomer’s patience is rewarded when the catchiness factor spills over in the chorus. The contrasting, skyrocketing harmonies of the titular phrase are worth listening to the entire song for. Its lack of uniformity with the rest of the chorus makes the “You’d still be here” stick out, and it’s a memorable line, along with the complimentary reply of “My baby”, which fittingly winds down to the brisk energy of the verses. The majestic refrain becomes recognizable and memorable by its second repetition. Following that, the gamelan-like chiming guitar solos are very tactile and moody, eventually revealing a concise melody to boot. The double-tracked “Let it play” is engaging and provides excitement leading into a race to the finish. There’s a catchy guitar line playing counterpart to the general arrangement as everything comes together at the end.

And that, my friends, is how a quality song works! You have to pick out the gold around the bedrock of the composition before it will all make sense, but it’ll happen, don’t worry. The final product is invaluable. Now, off you go, to listen knowledgably to a ***** -worthy record that I heartily recommend!

 

 

NIGHT RIPPER – Girl Talk

(Illegal Art)

**

I don’t much care for sampling.

[Anything]\[Anything]\Smash Your Head and Hold Up, but only because they feature rather extensive “cameos” by songs I like.

[Anything – the weaknesses of this album are fundamental and based on principle.]

 

Context is ultimately what makes art significant in a historical sense, because everything is relative. If you didn’t know the Clash existed beforehand (not to mention even more unstable musicians like G.G. Allin), you could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking Green Day were revolutionary rebels with a refreshing sociopolitical mindset. Eliminating all context, then, makes art impossible to judge objectively as a critic, or at worst, completely culturally worthless, since each individual can construct their own favorable narrative about the music they like if they don’t know its place in culture. Plus, one can project any subjective positive values one wishes on whatever they listen to if they’re ignorant of any real measurable facts about it. This breaks down any rational system one may use to compare the worth of music or to discern the quality of art in general.

Gregg Gillis explores this idea on Night Ripper by robbing the songs he uses of all perspective. The act of doing so is interesting in theory, but put into practice with such insubstantial fragments as these and in such a thoughtless, repetitive manner, it’s mostly dull. You’ll cheer when a favorite song appears (which is inevitable), but most likely cringe at its sonic bedfellows. It could be argued that melding numerous separate genres (with their own isolated social circles, customs and hangers-on) provides for greater cultural diversity and understanding, but if you’re thinking in those terms, these gibberish snippets would only be the equivalent of vague stereotypes, unable to really inform anyone of anything new or different beyond a superficial, cursory impression. They don’t broaden the listener’s perspective; they confirm the lowest-common-denominator suspicions that person already had about all the styles represented.

The majority of this record’s intended audience will completely ignore the bits they’re unfamiliar with, or at best, enjoy them merely in their brief, bootlegged form. You few true-blue musically curious individuals out there, I salute you, but don’t kid yourselves – you know that most folks couldn’t care less where these random loops came from unless they already knew beforehand, in which case, this isn’t just preaching to the choir. It’s fifty minutes of an opportunistic priest running around pontificating boldly to several segregated choirs of multiple different faiths. You’ll notice that this is far from cultural unification; it’s a bunch of separate, solitary ego massages for people that just happen to be in the same room. To put it in a much less pretentious way: if a Pixies devotee hears his group’s music used here, gives a knowing smile and goes “Oh! Hey!” (no pun intended) and a Notorious B.I.G. fan hears his idol sampled later on in the same song, also cheerfully recognizing it, does that really mean the two people have found a common cultural interest? Absofreakinglutely not. That is why mashups are fun for five minutes, and afterwards completely worthless, if not deleterious, to popular culture.

Okay, I’ll back up a bit and give some credit where credit is due (and then snatch that praise away like a jerk): much like when Bob Dylan made literate, surreal lyrics an artistic possibility, Gregg Gillis has single-handedly created a concept that will drastically change the musical medium. Also like Dylan’s innovation, he himself already implements it so poorly that despite sparse successes, it probably wasn’t worth it. In fact, come to think of it, the only really original idea Gregg had was to do a whole album of mashups seamlessly flowing into each other. (Another factor to consider – if you hate this record, it may not even be due to the slapdash, kaleidoscopic remix approach. You may just loathe the tunes it uses, which is a totally justified reason to dislike it.)

His renegade, D.I.Y. aesthetic certainly gives you something new to focus on at even intervals, but this whole style is still only a novelty. Plus, the Beastie Boys did more or less the same thing with infinitely more integrity, creativity and depth on Paul’s Boutique. That album is a masterpiece without peer or precedent. This album is just hard to review because I get sidetracked by basic dilemmas it presents rather than its actual melodic content. I guess that’s what happens when you try to contextualize utter chaos and randomness.

There’s also the troublesome factor that the record’s “creator” actually did very little of the creation on display here, and it probably cost him minimal effort. This is the closest music has come to an artist having an idea and the idea then writing itself. It’s a spastic, delirious collage that is so utterly flimsy I was barely interested in its attention-deficit hodgepodge of senselessness while it was on for the first time. Is it possible or advisable to excise one line or one riff from a song and judge it on its own merits? If it is, that’s what I have to do right now, except a million times a minute. In its microscopic component parts, music is almost never transcendent. (Especially if taken to a logical extreme – what good things could you really say about a single note? That’s about as neutral as things get). I don’t like “Debaser” because the bassline is one of the catchiest and best ever; I like it because the whole song is one of the catchiest and best ever. Sure, I suppose the bass part is freaking amazing, but its greatness has something to do with where it’s placed, and for what purpose. Why reduce it to a brief guest appearance in some monstrosity that’s not suited to it whatsoever?

It’s interesting to note that the rap portions of Night Ripper all sound interchangeable when blended together and it’s the ‘white rock’ (for lack of a better term) that’s used as the actual melodic underpinning, to give the material a sense of purpose. Those parts always stand out, and I think Gregg goes out of his way to use especially unusual and gimmicky bits in an ironic way, as if to say, “Aren’t these white musicians from thirty years ago wacky?” He focuses too much on hip-hop, especially lousy modern hip-hop, making the project seem even more like a bad joke, as once-proud musical motifs get trampled by unbelievably stupid gangsta rap lyrics, enlightening no one and shaming everyone.

Even if there was a serendipitous bonding of artistic sensibilities here (which doesn’t really happen), they’re so fleeting in their presentation that it would hardly count for anything. Additionally, that brief glimmer of quality would probably be superseded by something tasteless and dumb which would immediately negate all that good will. Gillis underuses a lot of potentially decent ideas in the name of incoherence. For instance, he’ll usually pick just a small snatch of music to loop rap lyrics over. All right, so he uses the rhythm section from “I Bleed” for ten seconds. So what? Maybe if he utilized the entire musical backbone of the song for a significant amount of time and created a contrast with some idiosyncratic lyrics, that would make something worth thinking about. It would put the musical snippets in a new, entertaining light. But he switches and purées them so often, there’s no room for anything thoughtful to happen. We’re already on to the next half-baked crossover, and the next, and the next, and the next.

This obvious observation hadn’t occurred to me before, but Night Ripper is the postmodern epitome of style over substance. It is completely the former, none of the latter. In a sad irony, it’s wholly constructed from unrecognizable shreds of all sorts of substantial compositions.

This album is the entertainment equivalent of a Photoshopped picture. You show your friends something mildly amusing you threw together assembled from odds and ends you found, and you might get a small chuckle, but nothing really comes from it. And in the end, permanence is what it boils down to – a record could be stately, meaningful and reserved in all the right ways, yet if I don’t ever feel like listening to it, it might as well not exist. This durability and dependability is what leads to the context of history, quality and memory in the public eye. The factor of memory is important here – future generations should pass down the artwork as it is, with all that it encompasses; not some roughshod photocopy that glosses over everything. This hideous concoction is that wafer-thin oversimplification. It’s akin to giving the Cliffs Notes of our culture to our children, with glaring absences, generalizations and even the occasional mistake. Mashups have no purpose, unlike the original recordings they mutilate. They’re all about repurposing. In that way, they disregard any sense of progress or heritage, further counteracting the collective cultural memory and tradition that we so tenuously hold onto today. Sure, mixing two preexisting tracks is a bold new concept, but it’s a dangerous and ultimately harmful one.

Because of this short-lived novelty, Night Ripper is only of its time, nothing more, and that time has come and gone. I’m surprised it doesn’t already sound dated. It was meant as a winking mockery/homage to all sorts of musical artworks which, no matter how culturally entrenched they were, would inevitably be forgotten at some point. That’s a sadly true fact deserving of some artistic exploration, but what Gregg neglected to formulate was good music in general, the production of which is still in vogue. Ironically, his boring LP won’t be, soon enough.

Eventually, this will all become worthless. These songs will be equal in the face of entropy and decay. Music is ultimately a fleeting, temporal invention of mankind, which will disappear along with him. It may indeed have been Gillis’ artistic intent to remind us of that with his project. It’s quite an arresting, worthy message if that’s true. But again, I wish he could have relayed it in the form of engaging tunes. I imagine the result would have been a nihilistic, irreverent screed in the vein of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!.

But it’s all a wash, a pitiable mistake. The very idea of senselessly and aimlessly mixing these artifacts loses its luster over the album’s length, and that’s before you consider how haggardly executed it is. In fact, technically Gillis hardly created any of his own lyrics or melodies for Night Ripper. It raises that familiar question of authorship in remixes. I come down firmly on the side favoring the original performer, unless the thief does something really special with the material, which isn’t the case here. According to Wikipedia’s exhaustive source list, Gregg Gillis himself wrote only about forty-five seconds of original music for this record. As a supporter of artistic rights, I applaud Gillis for sneaking this potentially lawsuit-provoking venture under the radar and basically getting away with it scot-free. But speaking of his qualities as an actual musician, I could care less about his work.

Now, I do mildly enjoy some mashups; it’s not like I’m one hundred percent against the concept. It’s just that the producer known as Girl Talk isn’t focused on making a cool combination of elements so much as he’s driven to combine those elements as fast as he possibly can, more quickly than anyone else ever dreamed. The trouble is, that design bores me quite easily. He could have at least cut these stars and legends up in a creative fashion, like Danger Mouse was doing around the same time with The Grey Album. At the end of the day, when an artist amalgamates their influences into something new, the indicators of success are if the new product does justice to the original inspiration and if the result is worthwhile on its own. Night Ripper accomplishes neither.

Now, I’ll refrain from all the hyperanalysis and just list the compositions I like (or at least find a little bit redeeming), in order of appearance, which are tainted and mangled herein:

“Foreplay/Long Time” – Boston

“Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve (This is actually a sample of “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones. Meta-sampling! Now that’s a unique notion. Weird.)

“Intro” – Outkast (from Speakerboxxx)

“Pull Up the People” – M.I.A. (from Arular)

“Wonderwall” – Oasis

“Follow You, Follow Me” – Genesis

“What More Can I Say” – Jay-Z

“25 Or 6 To 4” – Chicago

“Blinded By the Light” – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

“My Hero” – Foo Fighters

“In Da Club” – 50 Cent

“Where Is My Mind?” – The Pixies

“Say It Ain’t So” – Weezer

“Jet” – Wings

“Come Together” – Aerosmith (originally by the Beatles)

“Today” – The Smashing Pumpkins

“Rebel Without A Pause” – Public Enemy (This is actually a sample of “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown; again with the meta-sampling!)

“Scentless Apprentice” – Nirvana

“Are You Experienced?” – Jimi Hendrix

“Tiny Dancer” – Elton John

“Juicy” – Notorious B.I.G.

“Holland, 1945” – Neutral Milk Hotel

“White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane

“Good” – Better Than Ezra

“I Bleed” – The Pixies

“Only” – Nine Inch Nails

“Galang” – M.I.A. (also from Arular)

“Heard ‘Em Say” – Kanye West featuring Adam Levine (from Late Registration)

“Gold Digger” – Kanye West featuring Jamie Foxx (This samples “I’ve Got A Woman” by Ray Charles. Also from Late Registration.)

“The Stroke” – Billy Squier

“Hard To Handle” – The Black Crowes

“Baby Got Back” – Sir Mix-A-Lot

“Hollaback Girl” – Gwen Stefani

“Another Day In Paradise” – Phil Collins

“Summer Breeze” – Seals And Crofts

“Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” – LCD Soundsystem (from LCD Soundsystem)

“Cannonball” – The Breeders

“My Cherie Amour” – Stevie Wonder

“I’m A Slave 4 U” – Britney Spears

“Carry On Wayward Son” – Kansas

“The Tears Of A Clown” – Smokey Robinson And the Miracles

“1979” – The Smashing Pumpkins

“Shout” – Tears For Fears

“Little Lies” – Fleetwood Mac

“Cut Your Hair” – Pavement

“Silly Love Songs” – Wings

Did the mere fact that the titles of those songs were located in the same place together absolutely thrill you? If so, nevermind – you’ll love this album.

 

 

WHATEVER PEOPLE SAY I AM, THAT’S WHAT I’M NOT – the Arctic Monkeys

(Domino)

****

Very well then: the Arctic Monkeys are timeless and unique.

The View From the Afternoon\I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor\A Certain Romance

Dancing Shoes

 

The Arctic Monkeys belong very much to a certain scene. Rather than try to appeal to many demographics (which would be folly considering they’re not incredibly flexible musicians), they instead pander to a certain sensibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad at all, but if you don’t care about the regional sound they represent, you won’t like this record either. Anyway, that sound is good old U.K. pub rock. There’s a mostly successful, if incongruent, white funk/new wave undercurrent to it as well, and a lot of ska influences, too.

I believe that good art can come from any medium, and even emerge and be worthwhile despite that medium’s drawbacks and shortcomings. This is a sterling example of that theory – the group rises above their mundane, homogenous influences and comes up with some great dancey punk-pop. Despite all the herky-jerk modern bar rock with few distinguishing characteristics, Whatever is essentially a good album. It’s just that everything here has been done before. If you were looking for a worthy update of old mod bands, here you go.

Actually, there’s a compelling argument that new musicians taking ideas from older ones are doing our common culture a service by keeping those concepts relevant, familiar and applicable to a new generation, while adding their own spin. If that’s true, then somebody give these guys a knighthood.

As opposed to American indie bands, who think they’re more creative and clever than they really are, the Arctic Monkeys act as if they’re cooler and more important than they really are. However, I find their artifice far less annoying than that of their neighbors across the Atlantic. They take Spoon’s hipster leanings where attitude seems to trump the actual musical content, and blend it with Franz Ferdinand-esque, guitar-driven dance music. They haphazardly cover many ideas in each song, but I have a feeling it’s out of desperation since those ideas aren’t as good as FF’s, on average. (Speaking of which, I’m partially indifferent toward this group since they’re inferior Franz clones.) I guess Great Britain has a predilection to constantly produce flash-in-the-pan rock bands every generation so the working class have something decent to dance to in clubs. As the singer poetically puts it in a brilliant line, “There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”.

Yes, this is perfectly fine as a bunch of diverting melodies. But as great art, it’s negligible; as an (possibly historical) “event”, it’s nothing at all; and as a potential source of musical evolution, it’s a total dead end. Despite their superficial quality, there’s just nothing special to recommend this group in particular, nor anything that suggests they would be among the decade’s best. If you happened to be indoctrinated into their cult of popularity which peaked a couple years ago, well, good for you. Just know that they won’t have much relevance or influence beyond that bubble ten years from now.

In lieu of starting their career with grandiosity and pretention, the Arctic Monkeys are perfectly content to play disgruntled blue-collar rock, which is commendable. On the other hand, the band’s general skiffle sound soon becomes distracting and after a couple listens, the songs sound samey together. The lads combat this by keeping things extremely brief, with the exception of a few three-minute-plus tracks; and by constantly changing the melodies they’re working with, shifting tempos and throwing in new guitar lines. Their conciseness is quite a nice touch, as most of the tunes say what they need to without getting inadvisably long. They have a surprisingly effective tender side too, resulting in some choice mellow tracks like “Riot Van”, “Mardy Bum”, and “A Certain Romance”.

The vocalists sing with likable (though sometimes incomprehensible) Mancunian everyman accents, crooning lyrics about the rough-and-tumble drunken English nightlife. They’re about as contemplative and insightful as you can get when the subject is wanton partying and the morning after, complete with corny, shameless references which fare well due to their winking decadence. Plus, they’re way less boastful and boorish than those of the Hold Steady, so there’s that. Overall, Whatever People Say I Am is an enjoyable album, and not much else. That “not much else” is a little nitpicky, I’ll admit, but it’s what’s keeping a solid debut at a respectable, though somewhat lacking, ****.

The more rational part of my brain keeps telling me this is actually a good band. But after a certain amount of time, even I get tired of a bunch of white guys with guitars. The Arctic Monkeys are the saturation point.

 

 

YS – Joanna Newsom

(Drag City)

***

Hell if I know.

Emily\Cosmia\Monkey & Bear

Only Skin

 

This is like a crackhead bag lady reciting Nathaniel Hawthorne stories through song to the strains of an orchestra and harp. That’s as informative a review of this album as any I could write right there, but I’ll continue out of a desire to clarify myself.

Joanna Newsom’s very presence in the modern day and age is an anachronism. I’m certain she is as removed from reality as her music is. Ys is a period piece. It’s written in the tradition of the epic poem, and then set to music based off of Joanna’s favored instrument, the harp. This is certainly something to behold, and I commend it for its nerve and strangeness.

There’s some excellent imagery and wordplay in Newsom’s prose. Her lyrics are rich and detailed, moving from the cosmic to the minute in the blink of an eye and switching from scientific to romantic equally fast. Yet they’re still rooted in one time and place; that of the vista behind her on the album cover. That sort of parochial, preindustrial landscape evokes the headspace these compositions all occupy.

Joanna tries so hard to irritate the listener with her vocals that for once I’m not taking the bait. This album was expressly meant to be polarizing, so instead I’ll take a more cool-headed approach to assess it and see what happens. Her singing style actually suits the material in some perverse, loony way and it’s one more thing to keep the proceedings interesting. She basically sounds like Tommy Pickles (only about half of the time; otherwise, this would be an intolerable affair). Actually, come to think of it, she sort of sounds like Björk the other half.

Despite all the inherent, forced strangeness, I surprisingly found this record to be affable and almost never annoying. Newsom’s depraved vocal gymnastics should be terrible, but I was instead bemused and intrigued by them. The tunes are similarly agreeable, though they don’t really have any striking moments. Yet the melody and backing changes enough to justify the truly epic song lengths. The tracks are all fairly involving once you steel yourself for the long road ahead and actually play them. As with most excessively eccentric recordings, however, this stuff is so far removed from contemporary musical standards that I’m boosting its grade as a handicap.

Upon inspection, it becomes evident that Ys is organized more like a collection of cansos, elegies and librettos than a bunch of pop tunes. To accompany these tales, there’s the ever-present harp, some genteel strings, and all sorts of other melodious things employed very subtly. For instance, Wikipedia says this album has electric guitar on it, though I couldn’t identify any. As I said, the melodies here exist primarily to accommodate the narrative or a shift in tone, whilst Joanna paints a striking aural portrait. It’s almost visual, as if these are movie scenes being described to the listener. Unfortunately, Newsom crams the most invigorating musical touches into such small areas when they should have been spaced throughout her songs to prevent boredom.

But overall, the words are what kept my interest piqued. In the interest of aesthetic justice, I will attempt to convey which Romantic writers each tune’s prose resembles. I’m not especially knowledgeable about this era, so give me a break.

The first song has the verbosity of Wordsworth, with a winding narrative that mostly serves to characterize the figures in the lyrics, leading to some slightly surreal images and events.

The second song comes across as a twisted Aesop lesson: two animals go through a huge rhetorical rigamarole, and though I can’t parse Newsom’s warped digressions, I’m pretty sure they learn something at the end.

The third song is like a Lord Byron love poem or something. Well, maybe Robert Frost.

Like a Frost poem, it contains atmospheric descriptions, a focus on nature and a predilection to insinuate rather than dictate. Much like the famed poet’s work, the story also has a certain emotional heft and a dire outcome. Sure, let’s go with that.

The fourth song resembles Mary Shelley with its circumspect detail, gentle melancholy and explanatory asides that describe its fantastical world. Although its themes of pride and puritanical tragedy definitely recall Hawthorne.

Finally, the last song is indebted to Emily Dickinson, bearing her trademarks of regal romanticism and ah, screw this, I have no idea. Let’s just keep moving and forget about these analogies.

Ys is a fascinating artifact and I’m glad I heard it, but I don’t know if I’d ever have the patience to listen to it again, at least not all at once. It’s tough to get through the whole ordeal. Even though there are some things Newsom does inadequately, the idea of making story-songs in today’s age and musical culture is something to be admired. 

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