SECOND WAVE: EP reviews

EP Reviews

 

 

 

FURNITURE + 2 | HEADS UP | THE ARCADE FIRE | EGO TRIPPING AT THE GATES OF HELL | FIGHT TEST | MORE LIKE THE MOON | A GHOST IS BORN | BOOKS | COMLAG: 2 + 2 = 5 | THE MOAN | THE TAIN | IT FIT WHEN I WAS A KID | IT OVERTAKES ME | FOUR WINDS | FRIENDS | GET NICE! | ICONS, ABSTRACT THEE | PROSPEKT’S MARCH | SUN GIANT | IN RAINBOWS DISC 2 | NO ONE’S FIRST AND YOU’RE NEXT  

 

 

 

 

FURNITURE + 2 – Fugazi

(Dischord, 2001)

*****

Hello Morning/Furniture/Number 5

[No worst song]

 

Fugazi’s final release finds the band continuing to transcend hardcore in order to be something smarter, more nuanced and less predictable, while keeping the genre’s aggression and metallic tone. Furniture + 2 collects two unreleased songs the group played in their heyday with a new one derived from a tune on the Instrument soundtrack. Three compositions in all, the first terse, the second progressive, the last wild. This EP is not nearly as good as the average Argument track, but precious few things are. Plus, it has another good, haunting, thought-provoking cover!

“Furniture” is a laconic, stop-start tension builder. Its cautious, hesitant segments regularly boil over into a frenzy, creating a methodical, but dangerous mood. “Number 5” is a multipart instrumental extravaganza, with all sorts of cool, compartmentalized and memorable sections. “Hello Morning” sorta steals a riff from the Who’s live “My Generation”, but it disguises and adorns it well, so I’ll give them a break. Guy Picciotto’s voice is intriguing and so chaotic it’s entertaining, but one thing it’s not on this tune is melodic.

Song meanings time! The first cut deals with the fundamental lack of communication between people and the artist’s eternal frustration of trying to get across that which is impossible to express. (As opposed to “Ex-Spectator”, which dealt with loss of objectivity, distortion and loss of innocence, and “Epic Problem”, which dealt with the psychological and anxiety-related solipsistic causes of such inexpressiveness.) “Number 5” has no meaning, and I have no clue what “Hello Morning” is about. Crap, this paragraph hasn’t turned out as well as I expected.

It’s so fitting that this release tied up all of Fugazi’s loose ends, because from finances to solos, the band has always finished what they start. They make complex plans, set them in motion, and let them flow gracefully to their endpoint. Conciseness and starkness is a good strategy; there’s no boisterousness to get on nerves, no fiddling around to eat away patience, no pointless noise to unimaginatively provoke, no confining formulas and strictures to pacify and disinterest. There’s practically no downside to this aesthetic. So it makes these good, solid hard rock compositions seem exceptional in their context. And that’s before factoring in the lowered expectations one has for B-sides, which has built-in sympathy and generosity.

And come on, how can anything nine minutes long be that bad? Even if Fugazi were a subpar group, that’s hardly enough time for anyone to make any serious mistakes. Like Fugazi themselves, I’ve said my piece effectively, creatively, and succinctly. Now I’ll take my leave.

 

 

HEADS UP – Death From Above 1979

(Ache, 2002)

*** 1/2

My Love Is Shared\Do It!\If We Don’t Make It We’ll Fake It

Too Much Love

 

Something most folks unjustly disregard is at work here: the unusual simplicity and unique career arc of Death From Above 1979 forms a weird topography, a new way to look at their catalog. They released so few songs that it seems they must have made every one count; this suggests an intricate artistry. Their sudden retreat from the public eye and quiet, unexpected dissolution gives this project a fascinating privacy and finality. Plus, I always admire a group that quits while it’s ahead, when it feels there’s nothing more to say.

But the music itself is ruthlessly hardcore and singleminded. It’s just two guys, cranking out head-throbbing dance thrash, which makes their short-lived tenure that much more enigmatic. And so those two impulses battle it out on this puzzling, interesting release. It’s something I felt compelled to listen to a few times just to determine its significance and what precisely it was trying to do. I thought I was missing something, that it was the sort of work which unfolds from humble beginnings to produce a diamond in the rough. Well, it never did, but it’s still remarkable and cool, so there’s that.

If some upbeat or loud music could be described as “energetic”, then this appropriately brief and devastating recording would be akin to the blinding, searing, superhuman hyperdrive which lets a mother lift a car that her baby is trapped underneath. Almost every second here is purposefully overdriven and wall-rattling, with riffage so base, distorted and subterranean it might as well be construction work outside. But this exaggerated aesthetic perfectly suits the EP, and its brevity makes it less tiring to uncover the melodies that are deeply, deeply buried in muffled vocals and cymbal hiss. The only immediately hummable parts are the ending of “If We Don’t Make It We’ll Fake It” and the chorus of “Do It!”. (Maybe the guitar line of “Dead Womb”, too.) Oh yeah, I guess I should mention the lyrics now: they’re nothing special. There, that covers that.

Heads Up is way more successful as an idea than as music, but at fourteen minutes, it never gets boring, since the home stretch is always in sight. Fittingly for Death From Above 1979’s minimalistic output, that’s probably the best format in which to take this pummeling curiosity.

 

 

THE ARCADE FIRE – The Arcade Fire

(Merge, 2003)

****

Old Flame\No Cars Go\Headlights Look Like Diamonds

My Heart Is An Apple

 

This is definitely an embryonic version of Funeral’s sound, but the polished songcraft of that masterpiece isn’t fully formed yet. The Arcade Fire is the type of EP that’s basically a debut album the band didn’t have enough songs for, rather than being a compilation of B-sides and whatnot. Formative bits and pieces of future melodies, lyrics, arrangements and themes rear their heads from time to time, as is the norm with early unheralded recordings. The riffs are sometimes very simplistic and recall later, more grandiose tunes, but here they still work. The melodies are pretty basic too, which means the tunes seldom add up to much but seem engrossing and anthemic when they’re on. The group mines more resonance and insight from the theme of middle class life than they would on The Suburbs, which is twice as long.

Meanwhile, a lot of Funeral’s bombast and density has not yet arrived, so the songs are energetic and roughshod, while still supporting the huge ensemble. Every member has their showcase, and each composition has its points of interest. Because they were mere upstarts upon its release, these tracks are more pared down than they would be on the official debut, but each still manages to sound elegant. The production is very homey; lo-fi, but still professional.

Win’s (and Regine’s, for that matter) voice falls slightly to the wrong side of the wonderfully flawed/just can’t sing dichotomy, which is most evident on the opening number. It’s also fortunate that Butler stopped enunciating r’s on Funeral – it gives his voice an unattractive hickish quality here.

The early version of “No Cars Go” is barely different than the Neon Bible redux, besides the weaker production and slightly slower tempo. Most other songs approach notability, and then flounder just at the precipice of catchiness or invention. This is a confident and fairly deep, but ultimately forgettable and perfunctory release. It sort of establishes the band’s identity, but doesn’t yet separate them from the indie pack. Listen to it or don’t; I don’t care either way.

 

 

EGO TRIPPING AT THE GATES OF HELL – the Flaming Lips

(Warner Bros., 2003)

*** 1/2

I’m A Fly In A Sunbeam (Following the Funeral Procession Of A Stranger)\Ego Tripping (Self-Admiration With Blow-Up Mix)\Assassination Of the Sun

Do You Realize?? (The Postal Service Remix)

 

As was the case with Radiohead, the moment a band farms out the writing to remixers and DJs for an EP, it usually signals their creative nadir. (Thankfully, both bands didn’t reach lows that were too embarrassing, and they bounced back respectably.) Now, these generic, unremarkable, bachelor pad reworkings may have some memorable and entertaining new parts (indeed, in some cases, they hardly even resemble the songs they’re based on!), but that isn’t really the work of the Flaming Lips. In fact, the group’s weakest offerings are this and the It Overtakes Me EP. The two releases represent their furthest, murkiest descent into esoteric electronica and remix-happy irrelevance.

Though the computerized deviances found here are very ill-fitting and goofy, they’re all at least competent and the “Self-Admiration Remix” is actually pretty decent. But the majority of this material is merely atmospheric, which is really underachieving for such a typically great band.

The EP’s quality is really a tug of war between the Lips’ dedication and intricate writing, and the dastardly pull of ambient/dance music, which they’re not too well-suited for. Their quality wins out over their worse indulgences, but only barely – a good example is the Postal Service remix of “Do You Realize??”, which shows that even insufferable, disposable quirktronica can’t ruin such a devastating, Godlike song.

“Assassination Of the Sun” is pretty mild-mannered compared to their album tracks, though it’s appropriately extravagant and spacious. It’s also the most complete and self-sufficient the compositions on this EP get. “I’m A Fly In A Sunbeam” is an ornate, but fillerish instrumental which serves as a more downbeat cousin to “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon”, especially since the horn parts are so similar. Then there’s “Sunship Balloons”, whose melody calls back to “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and points forward to “Goin’ On”, achieving a net effect of placid unobtrusiveness and career stasis.

Finally, “A Change At Christmas” is a holiday song in the typical mold of holiday songs, with a modest injection of trademark Wayne Coyne strangeness. If you couldn’t already tell, Ego Tripping At the Gates Of Hell is pleasant, but inessential. 

 

 

 

FIGHT TEST – the Flaming Lips

(Warner Bros., 2003)

*****

Knives Out\Fight Test\Thank You Jack White (For the Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me)

Do You Realize?? (Scott Hardkiss Floating In Space Mix) 

 

Once again, the Flaming Lips seem to be trying to sabotage their own greatness. This time, however, they don’t try as hard, and Fight Test’s flaws are ones I mostly find easy to overlook. Sure, the “Knives Out” and “The Golden Age” covers don’t really go anywhere, but they sound totally thrilling! The Kylie Minogue cover is pretty slow and draggy, but it’s competently done and quite funny. There’s an atrocious nine-minute remix, but it’s of “Do You Realize??”, maybe the greatest song of the decade. After the really poor remix, the band dips even further into electronica, but they make an awesome tune out of it (“The Strange Design Of Conscience”).

The Lips’ take on “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is ridiculous and incredibly awkward, but they intentionally covered it for that incongruity and it turns hilarious when coupled with the typical Lips style. Its overserious bombast deconstructs the song, making its sentiments humorous, and yet that arrangement is exactly what the band would create out of reverence and respect for the tune, so the listener can interpret it either way.

The other choices are just as shocking, but also freakishly suited to the band’s sound.

I, for one, would rather listen to this tremendous, awe-inspiring version of “The Golden Age” (unimaginably performed live, no less!) than the moody, lethargic original. It’s majestic and beautiful. Their version of “Knives Out” is also appropriately eerie and chaotic, putting the inevitable crazy Flaming Lips noises to good use.

As I stated above, what follows is a flimsy, limp, uncreative, overlong, disrespectful and all-around lame-ass version of “Do You Realize??”. But that doesn’t quite derail all the fun! The closer, “Thank You Jack White”, is a disarmingly biographical, detailed and content narrative, bursting with Wayne’s joy and gratitude. Plus, we haven’t heard the Lips tackle country since “*******” in 1993 (excluding a few one-off tracks they did for their friend’s indie hick movie), so that’s something. Finally, it goes without saying that the disc’s single is also one of the best songs of the decade, so that doesn’t even need discussion.

Now, let me be clear: this EP only gets a ***** on the technicality that the cover songs are reimagined in a cool, entertaining way. Obviously, it’s rare that any song on an obscure EP is going to blow away the general public, but if you’re a fan of the band, this is a must have. By B-side standards, these are great.

 

 

 

MORE LIKE THE MOON – Wilco

(Nonesuch, 2003)

*****

Woodgrain\A Magazine Called Sunset\Camera

Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard 

 

EPs are exciting, because they throw off all limitations and aspirations to unity or dignity that artists usually maintain. Anything can happen as they experiment willy-nilly; this sometimes results in crap, but I generally like when a band tries new stuff, steps out of their comfort zone and gives me information that contradicts what I thought I knew about them. It forces me to reconsider why I appreciate them and add these new trifles to that perspective.

Also, if a composition is on an EP, it sort of neutralizes the “filler” factor. Songs don’t need to be significant, because they’re already tucked out of the way for only collectors and fans to find. Since there’s no context, smaller but nicer tunes have their chance to shine (“Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”, “Woodgrain”) and there are opportunities to discover idiosyncratic personal favorites.

More Like the Moon is a solid EP of interesting, divergent compositions. It finds Wilco at a crossroads between avant garde experimentation and folk rock, choosing whether to attempt a return to their salad days of country pop and new wave rock, or forge ahead into the unknown. “Woodgrain” is an odd little tidbit that mixes electronics and acoustic guitar (much like the EP as a whole), “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard” is a very low-key folk ballad, and “A Magazine Called Sunset” recalls Summerteeth’s regal, jaunty pop. The correctly spelled version of “Kamera” here is thrilling; a spectacular, hard-hitting and seamless mix of dirty industrial synths and anthemic garage rock. Finally, the title track is an involved, romantic slow burn on par with Neko Case’s expertly-played, ponderous statements of longing. These songs are all so disparate and compartmentalized, it’s fitting to cover them piece by piece in list form. This EP is only strengthened by their unpredictability. It’s really good. 

 

 

A GHOST IS BORN EP – Wilco

(Nonesuch, 2004)

****

At Least That’s What You Said (Live)\The Late Greats (Live)\Kicking Television

Panthers

 

Well, for some reason, the majority of these are live tracks, so that sort of makes the release pointless. However, it’s definitely worth hearing out-of-character neurotic riff rocker “Kicking Television” and the excellent concert version of “Handshake Drugs”. Then there’s “Panthers”, which is the epitome of A Ghost Is Born’s lethargy, so be prepared. It’s good, once you realize there’s a song within all that murmuring and buzzing. That’s about it for this one! Not too much to say, really. 

 

 

 

BOOKS – Belle And Sebastian

(Rough Trade, 2004)

*****

Your Secrets\Wrapped Up In Books\Your Cover’s Blown

Cover (Version)

 

Books covers the same stylistic ground as the album that spawned it, obviously. It contains one of the best uses of sampling and/or homage I’ve ever heard: “Your Cover’s Blown” is so good, I can excuse the fact that some parts were lovingly lifted from another song and hope that most of it is original. It’s almost an indie/new wave operetta, and every idea in it is classic. It’s a bold new sound for the band, and to kick things off we have “Wrapped Up In Books”, a wonderful, more traditional piece. “Your Secrets” is another very progressive venture for B&S; it’s excellent. But they just had to spoil this offering the tiniest bit by including a meandering filler track that’s basically backing music for one section of “Your Cover’s Blown”. Oh well, it doesn’t hurt anything – this is still awesome stuff.

 

 

COMLAG: 2 + 2 = 5 – Radiohead

(Toshiba-EMI, 2004)

****

Paperbag Writer\I Am A Wicked Child\Fog (Again) (Live)

I Am Citizen Insane 

 

I realized after a few listens that this peculiarity in Radiohead’s discography veers violently between rootsy songs and detached classical or electronic experiments. The two genres almost take turns, ending up with equal representation. In a dispiriting move, there are remixes here, but they’re a lot more inventive and tasteful than some remixes I’ve heard. “Remyxomatosis” is brutal, warped, and venomous; “Skttrbrain” is robust, bright and harmonious. Even so, this is Radiohead’s worst release of the decade.

The live version of “2 + 2 = 5” is perfectly okay, inessential and not as good as it was in the studio. The original mix of “I Will” is quite nice; I don’t know which one I prefer. The live acoustic take on “Fog” is perfect, without a single extraneous note or missed opportunity for greatness.

“Paperbag Writer” leans dangerously heavily on its bassline to propel the song, but it works like a charm, relentlessly chugging along. Then there’s the constantly murmuring, vaguely Oriental string backdrop, with Thom’s typically cryptic but compelling vocals. Really, that’s all the composition needs to be complex and intriguing.

The notion of memorizing how “Where Bluebirds Fly” goes is ludicrous. You just follow it while it’s on as long as you possibly can, as it flutters without rhyme, reason or structure. It makes for perfect eerie, wickedly gleeful Halloween ambient music.

“I Am A Wicked Child” is actually a groundbreaking, daring move for Radiohead: a straight up blues song! It gets really intense right at the end, and always makes me wish it would continue.

“I Am Citizen Insane” is a disappointingly flat, uninspired track, surely among Radiohead’s worst, though its lilting guitar hook isn’t to be overlooked and the overdone bludgeoning of its trebly beats have their own begrudging charm. The tune’s overall mood and style is a lot better than its component parts, that’s for sure. (And dig those weird sampled “Hey”s! Creepy, but also silly in the right mindset.)

And then come the two commissioned remixes – one is an ear-splittingly noisy, uneasy and abrasive reimagining of “Myxomatosis”, and the other is a colorful, flowering junkyard redux of “Scatterbrain”, where strings clash against sheet metal. As I said, they’re good on their own terms, but only function as dead weight when considering COMLAG as an independent artwork.

Finally (though not ultimately, since I’ve been skipping around the tracklisting out of laziness), we have the one gem that every critic agrees on: the excellent acoustic original “Gagging Order”.

Sure, this EP veers from (relatively) excellent to unremarkable all the time, but it’s Radiohead, dammit. They’re so talented that this, the weakest collection of songs they released in the 2000s, is still quite good.

 

 

THE MOAN – the Black Keys

(Alive, 2004)

****

Heavy Soul\The Moan\Have Love Will Travel

No Fun 

 

The Black Keys are even more amateurish than their usual milieu on this EP, with two cover songs featuring some pretty generic riffs, basic beats and meandering solos. Yet somehow, the duo makes those attributes work to their advantage like the White Stripes (for all their strengths) never could. Their catchiness, skill, and charisma is undeniable. There’s a spontaneity in the performances here that makes the simplistic nature of the songs bearable. I guess a better way of saying that is that they are amazing at breathing new life into old formula, something that countless garage revival bands forget to do amidst all their idol worship and effortless image construction.

The covers sound so much like the band’s own style that I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. More than possibly anything they’ve ever done, this sounds like a charming collection of pure, soulful electric blues beamed in from the 1940s. Even the Stooges cover (not a band you’d readily associate with the Black Keys) is good. But the old standards are great fun. The riffs are reliably awesome and catchy, and Dan Auerbach‘s husky, one-of-a-kind voice definitely increases the believability of the performances and makes them that much more distinctive. Well done, gentlemen, well done.

 

 

THE TAIN – the Decemberists

(Kill Rock Stars, 2004)

****

[Part 4]\[Part 2]\[Part 3]

[Part 5]

 

I had to cheat on the song list for this EP. It’s one track. That’s it. It’s a very risky move, even for a progressive band. It was a neat, mature decision to get rid of any potential filler and just have one self-reliant, standalone, ambitious suite. That way, the EP can’t be dismissed as a cash-in stopgap or collectors-only obscurity. It presents the release as an artwork unto itself. And this one sets a pretty good example. The song is a bit draggy, but that can’t be avoided at a length of eighteen and a half minutes, unless you’re Pink Floyd. (Holy crap – tangent time. Go listen to their song “Echoes” right now. All twenty-three-and-a-half minutes. I’ll wait. Best longform composition EVER.) Anyway, The Tain is quite nice, presenting the always-welcome rocking side of the band, along with their typical steampunk shanties and Elizabethan folk. The story is vague, but perhaps easier to understand than that of The Hazards Of Love. And that’s about it! The best quality of all: The Tain is easy to explain and critique.

 

 

 

IT FIT WHEN I WAS A KID – Liars

(Mute, 2005)

*****

Bingo! Count Draculuck\It Fit When I Was A Kid\The Frozen Glacier Of Mastodon Blood

It Fit When I Was A Kid (Don’t Techno For An Answer Remix)

 

This group purveys a sort of beat-heavy goth rock not meant for gloom and brash standoffishness, nor good vibes and free dancing, but rather meant to be pensive, eerie, exploratory, and above all, artistic. By those standards, this promo is a huge success.

“The Frozen Glacier Of Mastodon Blood” is a perfect bridge between Drum’s Not Dead and Liars. It’s a shocking, mind-melting mood piece with several tones I found incredibly impressive and novel. On it, the band creates a tactile, striking soundscape with guitar rhythms and the slightest suggestion of melody. I don’t know why, but I feel it works way better here than on its parent album. They’re masters at song deconstruction – nothing behaves like it reasonably should, and it’s an awesome experience, despite the music’s superficial numbness. It’s also roughly palindromic in structure, but way too obfuscated to notice unless you purposefully look for it.

At any rate, all these tracks are wonderfully jarring and unpredictable and there’s just enough here for it to be intriguing without feeling overwhelming or directionless. The songs are surprisingly concise expressions of ambiguity, as well. The EP goes down easy, at a manageable four tracks. Plus, the “single” (as if that term could be used in relation to such an odd, uncompromising band) that it features is “It Fit When I Was A Kid”, one of Drum’s better compositions. Its jagged remix suits Liars’ off-kilter sensibility just fine, and it’s wisely short.

Finally, the cover art is awesome – it ditches any and all pride or self-respect the band has in a gloriously debasing spectacle, and manages to be somewhat shocking and unbelievable, even for this day and age.

 

 

IT OVERTAKES ME – the Flaming Lips

(Warner Bros., 2006)

***

I’m Afraid Of Dying… Aren’t You?\It Overtakes Me\Free Radicals (The Bird And the Bee Mix)

Time Travel?? Yes!!

 

Though it alienated most long-time Flaming Lips fans, I actually liked the uncharacteristic teen synth-pop mockery “It Overtakes Me”, and that’s the single this EP is built around. It’s true that It Overtakes Me is the furthest the band ever went down the rabbit hole of trying to be trendy, and the closest they ever came to losing their integrity. Thankfully, they bounced back without a hitch. But this does seem quite dire on first listen.

“I’m Afraid Of Dying…” is a kinda boring, autotuned, and unremarkable Lips song, especially since it lazily reuses the riff of “It Overtakes Me” as a main theme. It does have some marginally intriguing philosophical lyrics, though. The remix of “Free Radicals” is ably done and recontextualizes the tune in a fresh way, but it’s in a very abnormal technophilic style.

“Time Travel?? Yes!!” is even worse; it’s basically elevator music with no personality or ingenuity, backed by a spoken dialogue sample of generically “deep” pseudoscience, and nothing more. Still, it’s more tedious than offensively bad. This and the Ego Tripping EP are what I had in mind when I said that the band seems determined to cripple their own instinct for quality and creativity. It’s a shame what pop pandering and electronica navel-gazing do to good musicians. These lesser releases turned out all right, I suppose, but I’d definitely get the Fight Test EP instead of the other two.

 

 

 

FOUR WINDS – Bright Eyes

(Saddle Creek, 2007)

**** 1/2

Reinvent the Wheel\Four Winds\Stray Dog Freedom

Smoke Without Fire

 

A work with this sort of elegance and melodic zest would have been a breath of fresh air on its own, but playing sidekick to such a rousing statement of purpose as Cassadaga, it seems like a bit of a retread. Conor’s mannerisms and lyrical obsessions are laid out here in a way that’s still affecting, but they’re increasingly similar and formulaic. Thankfully, the music is anything but. It’s electrifying on the rockers, and still detailed on the ballads. Think of it as symphonic, experimental country. You’ll find the same pleasant, but derivative honky tonk vocal melodies which are bettered in Oberst’s more notable compositions. Once again, the arrangements are the real selling point here.

The pleasant piano pop track “Reinvent the Wheel” should put to rest any thoughts that Conor is incapable of singing well. “Smoke Without Fire” is a windswept western ballad with a motionless tune and plenty of character in its harmonies. Not enough to carry the entire barren song, however. “Stray Dog Freedom” has a blistering, reinvigorating new wave intro after the underwhelming, bland taste of traditional Bright Eyes procedure. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in their other work. Some chunky riff guitar on that one. “Cartoon Blues” is a caterwauling, weird song that still latches onto those familiar chords and patterns. But holy crap, the music itself is cool! (I’m starting to sense a reoccurring theme here.) Finally, “Tourist Trap” is a morose, crackling campfire song with swirls of country ambience saving it from complete turgidity.

For all its numerous strengths, something about this set strikes me as plodding and one-sided. I really do think it’s the predictable, slow-paced song structures, but I suppose that’s a minor quibble considering these are studio outtakes. The instrumentation is certainly more dynamic than the vocal melodies, for the most part. The lyrics have some weak spots and labored metaphors, but overall it’s a tasteful affair. After all, this is Conor Oberst we’re talking about here.

Like Franz Ferdinand’s second record, it’s really a case of good music being overshadowed and devalued by past successes. But you know what? Conor’s obviously trying his damnedest to overcome and mutate his natural writing style, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since I was on the bubble with the rating anyway.

 

 

 

FRIENDS – Ween

(Chocodog, 2007)

*****

Light Me Up\Friends\King Billy

I Got To Put the Hammer Down

 

Like its parent record, La Cucaracha, The Friends EP showcases the sillier side of Ween, which they’ve been obscuring for quite a few years. The running theme here is integrating synths and preprogrammed beats into five totally different genres. As usual, the brothers do so with skill and grace, even finding appropriate spots for unexpected guitar lines throughout. The quality of their B-sides varies wildly, but these are all definitely keepers.

It’s a concise and accomplished piece of work, so I’ll get right down to business as well. The single version of “Friends” necessarily kowtows to absurd trends and sonic foppery in order to properly skewer the inanity of most rave music. So it’s more fleshed out than the album mix. “I Got To Put the Hammer Down” is an excellent take on the disaffected dance rock sleaze of groups like Franz Ferdinand, melded to the nihilistic, technophilic angst of Nine Inch Nails. There’s a bunch of crazy rave nonsense going on here, and it’s cool.

From there, things get even more diverse. “King Billy” is a skanking good goof on reggae and calypso, with the lush production one should expect from Ween by now. “Light Me Up” is no match for its superior spiritual predecessor “Voodoo Lady”, but it’s a great composition in its own right. It has a similarly sizzling solo, but this one has a personality of its own. “Slow Down Boy” is a staggeringly pitch perfect imitation of Tears For Fears, with a heart-tugging new romantic-style chorus. The Friends EP is a hidden gem in Ween’s catalog.

 

 

GET NICE! – Spoon

(Merge, 2007)

* 1/2

Love Makes You Feel\You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb (Garage Reverb)\I Can Feel It Fade Like An AM Single

Curfew Tolls

 

Get bent.

Calling the assholes responsible for this a “band” is a hilarious misnomer. Furthermore, these aren’t songs. They truly aren’t – for once, I’m not exaggerating out of passive-aggressiveness. They are, at best, extremely minimal ambient tracks. Like, minimal even compared to Spoon’s other stuff, which is absolutely unthinkable. These are “songs” if you consider the following scenario a “song”: A person gets an idea for one measly instrumental part. They then proceed to record it poorly, just them playing it for a minute or so. Ad infinitum.

In other news, on this abominable collection of uselessness, Spoon comes ever closer to their irritating apparent goal of eventually writing a “composition” that has not one solitary sonic component with “Curfew Tolls”. Okay, so there are a couple actual tunes here. And they’re pretty good. But that won’t save it. Besides the alternate takes of album tracks and the one legitimate song, not a single one is even worth acknowledging.

*, only because this utter waste of your time is over quickly. And although this is a miserly cheat toward paying consumers, they never said it would be anything more than tossed-off excrement. So, honesty.

 

 

 

ICONS, ABSTRACT THEE – Of Montreal

(Polyvinyl, 2007)

*****

Voltaic Crusher/Undrum To Muted Da\Du Og Meg\No Conclusion

Derailments In A Place Of Our Own

 

This is the kind of EP which is a perfect complement to its parent LP. It keeps supplying the same fun, off-kilter synth-funk symphonies without missing a beat. It was released on the same day as its accompanying record, and has a similar style, but never pilfers melodies. The leadoff track (“Du Og Meg”) is an exemplary indie pop tune, much like “Suffer For Fashion” on Hissing Fauna. In stark contrast, “No Conclusion” is a complex, involving and extremely entertaining long-form opus. It has several thrilling, well-written parts, and only really gets repetitive towards the end. “Voltaic Crusher” is rambling, swooning and Europopped to hell. So basically, a prototypical, pleasant Of Montreal song.

“Derailments In A Place Of Our Own” comes as a refreshing change of pace – a synth interlude (“Undrum To Muted Da”) followed by a harshly minimalistic acoustic ballad. Despite its lack of Kevin Barnes’ usual dazzling ear candy, it has a solid tunefulness about it. Finally, “Miss Blonde Your Papa Is Failing” continues this trend of introspection among the spaz-pop, being as it is a lush, mellow, and hurt crooner. That sense of progression suits the EP well, and only helps tie it together as an awesome collection of songs, despite a lull here and there.

 

 

PROSPEKT’S MARCH – Coldplay

(Parlophone, 2008)

***

Rainy Day\Lovers In Japan (Osaka Sun Mix)\Life In Technicolor II

Lost+, or for new songs, Now My Feet Won’t Touch the Ground 

 

This is a typically muddled, conflicted effort from Coldplay. As per usual with this band, the lyrics barely make any cohesive sense, form a perspective or message, or say something in a new and intriguing way without resorting to clichés. Just like on Viva La Vida, Eno dominates the proceedings, and basically anything worthwhile belongs to him.

Once again, there’s a full-band focus, which I’m grateful for. The candy-colored, new age arrangements just deepen the chasm between the trying-so-hard-to-be-progressive songwriting and the horribly unwieldy “poetry for the illiterate” prose. At least I can’t badmouth them for not trying something different.

There are so many sundry and complex ways these lyrics are faulty and poorly written, it’s almost fun to go through them in detail. But it’s mostly painful. Nevertheless, they’re what I want to focus on for this review, not necessarily to rip Coldplay a new one (I already did that) but to elucidate the reasons why I think certain lyrics are bad. So I’ll just skip around at random on a tour of lameness.

“Don’t you wish that life could be as simple as fish swimming around in a barrel when you’ve got the gun?” Oh, look, it’s a well-worn cliché! I can’t determine if its awkward phrasing separates it from the pack or further exemplifies Martin’s ineptitude. How about the next line – “Oh, and I run”? Okay, hold on, so why is the narrator running? Is this part of the previous scenario? Who knows? He never mentions it again. I get the sneaking suspicion this is a freaking filler line that he threw in purely to rhyme (it’s the most obvious rhyme available too!) which signifies nothing. I’m not getting mad over one paltry line; it’s just that the doofus does this kind of crap all the time. The very next line has him talking about being “two little figures in a symbol” and then hilariously obliterating that line’s purpose by saying “But I wasn’t one”. What in the hell?!? That is so bad! It’s the musical equivalent of a particularly unsatisfying “It was all a dream!” ending.

Elsewhere, as if the blatantly spelled-out imagery of “There’s a cold war coming on the radio” wasn’t enough, Chris Martin makes sure you understand that not everything about war is peachy by saying “Baby, it’s a violent world.” Gee, ya think?!? Thanks for the labored setup, village idiot! The next verse is so goofy with its klutzy half-metaphors that I don’t even feel like going through it. In case you were getting bored, he then uses a simile to describe what something literally is! Hooray! I think if Chris had any knowledge of English semantics and poetic devices, that he would surely use that experience.

I can’t decide whether “Glass Of Water” is a brilliant song that expands upon a cliché while inappropriately elevating it to a subject of imminent and transcendent philosophical importance, or if it’s a deeply misguided tune that does, well, basically the same thing. I also can’t tell if I think it’s more unintentionally humorous or inadequate. Well, actually, I guess the ending decides that for me. It spells out the already obvious and ham-fisted metaphor like a kindergarten teacher with a summary Chris probably meant as deep, but it just comes off as silly.

Although Coldplay don’t have any of the depth, knowledge, or conviction to convincingly portray such surreal, topical and dark themes, the only time that their conceptual ineptitude harshly struck me upside the head was when they pull “the Queen of Spain” out of their ass without any relevance whatsoever, just to rhyme with “rain”. Not cool, you guys, not cool. Then there’s another confused, poorly-worded metaphor about knives out of nowhere to make the tune angsty.

Another song is an entirely unnecessary and changed for the worse version of “Lost”. What did they do to remix this tune, a tepid, quiet statement of apparent mourning and insecurity? They brought Jay-Z in to rap over it. Of course! Duh! You should have known that! Coldplay only make the poorest of aesthetic decisions now. His verse is one of the most phenomenally ill-fitting and uncomfortable guest spots ever. In it, there’s one more cliché that’s clumsily parsed just to get it to rhyme, which it really doesn’t (it’s a near rhyme). And it’s also about fish! “You might be a big fish in a little pond/doesn’t mean you’ve won/‘cause along may come/a bigger one”. See? The man doesn’t care about his lyrics whatsoever. No professionalism to be found here.

“Success is like a suicide”? No, making artistic decisions like this is “a” suicide. Here, you can have your extraneous “a” back, you wastes of human life who don’t even know how to use articles.

How about this one: “Scared of losin’ all the time/He wrote it in a letter, he was a friend of mine”. Oh, wow, you know when people are telling a story and include a detail about something they haven’t mentioned yet and they apologetically fill you in because communication doesn’t work backwards? Yeah, songwriting is kind of like that too! It’s a form of communication that tells a story, so it’s better if you tell us about your friend before you say what he did. Also, I’m glad that you have such a stereotypically emo, pansy-ass friend who phrases his own insignificant problems and mild anxieties with incredibly overbearing and hackneyed terms that nobody actually uses. But I understand your concern, because you must have suddenly remembered you had to make a rhyme pretty soon. Good thing you pulled it off at the last minute with… wait, “time” and “mine”? What is this B.S.? You twisted around a standard truism just to match “time” with “mine”? Christ, what the hell are you, five years old?!?!?

Oh! …Unless, of course, you were phrasing a bland universal sentiment in the vaguest, broadest, most generic way possible to make it appeal more to your fan base in order to bolster your sales and reputation. Or because you couldn’t think of an actually clever, striking way to make the same statement.

…Nah! Couldn’t be.

In other news, “Poppyfields” has the balls to rip off a line or two from “Wish You Were Here”, and should rightfully be chastised for it. There’s a totally unnecessary remix of “Lovers In Japan” with nothing changed. “Postcards From Far Away” is the same kind of not-a-song, time-wasting ambience we found on Get Nice!. The rest is mildly pleasant, but not really worth talking about. Eno’s valiant efforts go to waste even more so on this EP, and Chris Martin’s prose and half-assed pretenses keep stinking up the joint.

 

 

 

SUN GIANT – Fleet Foxes

(Sub Pop, 2008)

*****

English House\Mykonos\Drops In the River

Innocent Son

 

If the length of this EP was doubled with songs that were just as good as these five, I daresay this would be the equal to Fleet Foxes in every way, if not superior. To some extent, it lacks the woodsy, CSNY-harmony-laden sound of the debut, but these tunes gain just as much from being more dynamic, distinctive and mysterious than most stuff on FF. The last track is a bit underwritten, but otherwise, this is an astonishing display of FF’s songwriting and range as musicians.

There’s Eastern European-style guitar noodling in the title cut after the suffocating (in a good way) harmonies subside. “Mykonos” has a splendid fake Mariachi horn line and one of the band’s most robust and catchy melodies. “English House” features a lush, sitar-crazed, lilting gallop with more of those awesome vocal lines. Finally, ”Drops In the River” wonderfully sounds sort of like the Moody Blues, as strange as that may seem, what with its solemn, yet hopeful tune.

All right. Then there’s the minor blemish I’ll try to hide. “Innocent Son” is a boring, emaciated, nearly a cappella-type song in the vein of “Oliver James”, only it’s not as good as that exception to the rule. But it’s just one small misstep! Seriously, the central three compositions here are finer than all but the absolute highlights of the LP. Definitely recommended.

 

 

 

IN RAINBOWS DISK 2 – Radiohead

(Digital download, 2009)

*****

Go Slowly\Down Is the New Up\Bangers + Mash

MK 1 and MK 2. For real songs, Last Flowers.

 

I’d like to talk about expectations.

And how Radiohead obliterates them.

“Down Is the New Up”. Where do I start? This single song will simultaneously change, reinforce, reward and challenge your notion of what this band’s music is. It’s very deft about all this alternating familiarity and subterfuge, and arranged in such a heart-stoppingly majestic fashion that I am NOT freaking kidding when I say that it stands among the most important B-sides in history.

It challenges every expectation Radiohead has accumulated over the years in a display that’s subtle enough to avoid being merely contrarian, and exists as a wondrous testament to their scope and capabilities. It fuses what people have come to anticipate from the group with harsh contradictions, in a song that is itself about inversion and surprise.

First of all, it’s quite upbeat. But to leaven that, it is piano-based, like a good chunk of their work. But that funky-ass jazz drumming isn’t something they’re typically known for, is it? No it’s not. But Phil Selway gives perhaps the best performance of his career here.

Now, let’s say you’re a riff fan. You’ve probably been ignoring eighty percent of Radiohead’s output. Well, here’s a treat for you. This riff, while pounded out on piano and muted guitar, is still terrific, catchy and sensual, something this group traditionally isn’t. The elaborate, arch rococo string part provides John Williams tension and James Bond classiness that fades in and out of the song at the perfect moments. (Jonny Greenwood scored this fresh off his Grammy-winning soundtrack for No Country For Old Men, and it shows.)

But the lyrics may be the tune’s greatest achievement. They lurch from Thom’s muted surrealism to honestly addressing the audience, and the mood of the song is just as schizophrenic. It unfolds like a drama, with a portentous beginning, casual, friendly middle, and almost silly ending, with an undercurrent of loathing. That seems like almost too much to take in, but the band makes it work. In yet another subversion, these verses actually make complete sense.

They address opposition and revolution in culture and politics. It’s a typically clever and thoughtful piece about finding comfort and stability in cultural upheaval, while also examining the extremists who create those paradigm shifts. The composition is almost a satire of the band’s own critical reputation for always doing something different. While using a characteristically new style, the band waxes poetic about the silliness of purposely attempting such a feat, comparing it to a circus act. However, they also point the finger outwards, implying some politicians to do just that, and how their promises amount to nothing. The effects are far more dire when political leaders ditch a cause and start trying something else.

While Yorke utters such cheeky, playful phrases as “What is up, buttercup?” and “Won’t you be my girl?”, there’s a wry criticism embedded deep below the song, where one backup Thom sings “You crawled off and left us, you bastard” (addressed to Tony Blair, as one early lyric sheet reveals). Meanwhile, the lead vocal lets out a strained, goofy, high-pitched delivery of “Topsy turvy town” that sounds wholly unlike the singer. Subversion upon subversion – they’ve gone from doomy proclamations to swooning love to bitter accusations and looped all the way around to campiness. None of those are put-ons, and yet none are the full story, either. This mysterious portrait of the band shows every facet of their genius, which is part of the reason I like it so much. That, and it just sounds so damn grandiose and captivating. Anyway, let’s move on to another outstanding achievement.

“Bangers + Mash”. Try to count the number of genres contained in this track. I’ll wait.

Now that you have lost count and become thoroughly confused and enchanted, let me confess that I’m not sure of the exact number either, so smooth and clever is their seamless mesh of influences. I’d estimate at least seven or eight, though. There’s the genuinely shocking and unique conversational, rap-like vocals (complete with a hip-hop backbeat); grungy, distorted garage rock guitars; a Middle Eastern riff at the end; a funky bassline; rhythm guitars and stiff beats playing all over, Krautrock style; ghostly harmonies; and a proggy, slowed-down art rock bridge, all with little bursts of noise injected throughout. The manic result is presented in a clipped, textured manner reminiscent of techno arrangements, with a badass double-drumkit attack which pins the song down and provides maximum groove.

Yeah, that’s a lot to cram into a tune that’s scarcely over three minutes, but Radiohead do so with finesse and taste. Not to mention that this is a triumphant return to heavy, guitar-focused rock for the band. More so, it’s a bitter, angry little thing, with Thom snarling, sneering and slurring in a wonderful vocal performance. Once again, it totally defies everything one would expect in a Radiohead song, while simultaneously consolidating lots of tricks they excel at. “Down” is notable for its contradictions, while “Mash”’s complexity is remarkable.

The unbridled genius of “4 Minute Warning” falls within an entirely different wheelhouse. It’s simply an unsparing, soul-shattering melody presented in a surprising, effective way in service of the ultimate bittersweet message – nuclear annihilation and the brief, Zenlike perspective it gives to life. This subject has been done before, but Radiohead outdoes all the competition. Their poppy and clear-eyed look at the final moments of despair and transcendence before the apocalypse is conveyed with the left-field combination of Sun Ra-esque African guitars and percussion, a simple but devastating idea. (I also like the introduction of phased-out and harmonically interlocking guitar fuzz, which admittedly took a while to get used to. But it’s never too harsh, and presents a mental image of those dastardly missiles being unleashed.) A rickety, soulful tambourine is the crowning touch to a tune that oozes modest despair while reveling in the beauty of humanity. 

The drop in quality from these three epochal tracks to the rest of the material isn’t that large, which shows how jaw-droppingly excellent this set is. “Go Slowly” and “Up On the Ladder” are possibly the band’s best fusions of electronic and acoustic elements to date, surely belonging up there on the awesomeness scale with most of Hail To the Thief, at the least. The former welds both genres together in different parts, splitting right down the middle of the composition, whereas the latter mixes them at once, with a curious dancey pulse providing a driving component for a traditional rock song. The percussive, melodic glockenspiel and guitar picking of “Slowly” ensure that the song’s dreamlike arrangement has a clockwork rhythm propelling it before becoming a bluesy stomp, while the downbeat-bereft “Ladder” uses its seeming inertness as a counterpoint to a rousing guitar line, crinkly electronics and haunting keyboards (not to mention some pissed-off, humanistic lyrics for contrast).

Then there’s “Last Flowers”, a legendary song among fans that finally receives a lasting treatment here. It’s a traditional-sounding Radiohead crooner, in fact echoing “Karma Police” a tad too much, but giving the band a self-plagiarism mulligan just this once, I won’t deny it’s every bit as affecting and wonderful as that tune. It also manages to feel as ostentatious and nuanced as its companions, despite being a very stripped-down production with little beyond Thom, his piano, a touch of bass, and sparse acoustic guitars.

These truly don’t seem like B-sides. They’re too robust and detailed for such a disparaging title. So much is explored here, from hesitant, pensive guitartronica to high-tension neo-orchestral bombast to luscious dream ballads that turn rootsy out of nowhere.

Okay, so “MK 1” and “MK 2” are pure filler. But they hardly take up any space and function as decent interludes. The turgid swooning of “MK 1” makes the sudden smashing drums of “Down Is the New Up” that much more bracing and serves as a bridge between it and In Rainbows’ “Videotape”, almost like awaking from a dream.

Featuring such exquisite tunes, and being structured the way it is, In Rainbows Disk 2 almost seems like an LP of its own. It has a dignity, depth and confidence that no other EP I’ve ever heard could match. No matter what you think of the band, it will force you to question your perspective. Not only this, but the songs themselves are of stellar quality, and vary greatly in style, featuring top-notch performances and incredible production. If that isn’t enough to satisfy you, you should really reexamine your standards.

 

 

NO ONE’S FIRST AND YOU’RE NEXT – Modest Mouse

(Sony, 2009)

*** 1/2

The Whale Song\Satellite Skin\Perpetual Motion Machine

I’ve Got It All (Most)

 

Like Four Winds, this EP finds a great band struggling to keep their sound relevant and fresh as their themes and dominant formulas become more transparent and worn out. No One’s First lacks inspiration, finds the band treading overly familiar ground with few new revelations, and is generally too homogenous and inessential. Despite this, Modest Mouse are so good at being competent and artistic that they succeed even when playing really subpar material. Yes, the song frameworks and inspirations are obvious and getting boring, but the band has always been good at detail too, and it’s the small unique touches that boost this EP to above-average standing.

The one impressive new application of Isaac Brock’s worldview is the drunken, swaggering Dixie band of “Perpetual Motion Machine”. There’s a line in “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” about the narrator not being aware that life is a game which far too closely echoes a similar sentiment in “Black Cadillacs”, suggesting the bandleader’s pet themes are starting to completely dominate the group’s work. The saturation point comes with the much better “History Sticks To Your Feet”, where his ever-present disdain for mankind’s repetitious, habitual nature comes to a head: he pretty much exhausts everything else he can say about it here, especially with the line referencing the Ourobouros. It’s also perfectly realized in a musical sense, while sounding fairly new (other than that cynicism and fatalism).

Elsewhere, “King Rat” is fascinating and intense, but also very confrontational, shrieking and uncoordinated, falling apart all over the place in a not-so-good way. It’s an extremely abrasive, but great showcase for Isaac’s psychotic bellowing – if his voice here were a guitar, it would be soloing madly and spewing cool noises all over the rest of the song. “The Whale Song” is basically an extended guitar jam, but it’s fairly hypnotic and dynamic.

“Autumn Beds” is sprightly, yet generic, much like “Satellite Skin”, a polished collection of familiar MM tropes. I guess I’d prefer the latter, if I had to choose. “I’ve Got It All (Most)” is barely worth mentioning. “King Rat” has a video about whales, and “The Whale Song” has a video about totally unrelated things. Go figure. They’re both well worth watching, though. And that’s about all I have to say regarding this EP. It’s solid, but nothing extraordinary. 

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