Put It In Context For Me…

I don’t know where I read it, but basically there’s this whole school of thought out there that all popular music is just stolen from other popular music; I mean, there’s only twelve notes that can be played/heard, multiply that by “acceptable” chord progressions, rhythms, etc.- there’s really a finite number of “sounds”, and even though it probably numbers in the hundred millions (or even billions), music is gonna get recycled at some point. Or at least sound that way.

So, in reverence to the “classics”, I’m going to review some of the following records in context to their influences (or what I perceive their influences to be). I hope this starts some epic arguments, after all- if we heard everything the same, music would be boring…

P.O.S. – Never Better (Rhymesayers; 2/3)pos

I’m pretty sure I can call 2009 “The Year I Fell In Love With Hip-Hop Again”; in response to my lack of any rap coverage over the last few years I made a conscious decision to recommit myself to an art form I used to hold so dear and I haven’t been disappointed so far, thanks to the good folks over at Rhymesayers Entertainment. Enter Minneapolis-based P.O.S.– not your average rap artist; he produces eight of the 15 tracks on Never Better, he samples Fugazi (on Savion Glover), mentions the prog-metal band Isis on Purexed: they kick that gingivitis / them rappers got the ‘itis / catch me bumpin’ Isis in a crisis…” and generally has a “fuck you” attitude towards the major label rappers. What do you expect, he grew up obsessed with punk rock- so he can reference hardcore bands like Lifetime, sample Christian screamo bands (Underoath) and get fellow Minnesotan and Hold Steady singer Craig Finn to guest star (except all these things happen on previous records, Ipecac Neat & Audition). 8/10

Dananananakroyd – Hey Everyone! (Best Before, 4/6)danana

Dude, this is screamo-pop. And that means I should probably hate it but I don’t. I can hear influences as far ranging as Refused, Blood Brothers, Black Eyes, Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Mae Shi and Los Campesinos! in here- but what would you expect from a band that’s name is a portmanteau of Dan Akroyd and the Batman theme (da-na-na-na-na-ak-royd!)? I mean, really- I for one, am sick to death with music reviews as an academic thing; this band pushes your head right into the crapper, fucking takes a huge shit on you then rips the fucking toilet seat off of its hinges, beats your face with it, scoops the dooky out of the commode, lights that shit on fire and throws it at your mother. I could’ve done this review in two words: FUCK YEAAAAAAAAAAH! 9/10

Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; 4/13)wildbirds

These Swedes rely heavily on larger-than-life vocals from Mariam Wallentin and drum circle beats from her husband Andreas Werliin. Now Bjork would be too obvious (because of Sweden’s proximity to Iceland) and I’m hearing something else in there as well; but it’s really hard to describe in the context of direct influences. This is pretty unclassifiable as far as a genre is concerned; they won the award for the Best Swedish Jazz Act of ’08- but it’s not quite “jazz” as much as it’s a freak-out, albeit a controlled one. There’s really no “instruments” besides drums, vocals and occasional ambient synth washes or a few notes here and there; oh, and drums. Did I say drums? Every song is a workout, there’s an amazing amount of range in Wallentin‘s voice (sometimes it’s bare, other times she’s multi-tracked over herself, I’m hearing Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush) and the timbre of the drums go from warm to bright and open to resonant. Wildbirds & Peacedrums The Snake is one of the “dark horse” records of the year- coming from out of nowhere. I’m glad people are making music like this. 10/10

Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade; 4/21)darkdays

I had a passing fancy with SFA a few years ago and couldn’t quite put my finger on their brand of fun, quirky Welsh pop. Then I revisited some krautrock lately (as I was trying to ready a piece on progressive rock that’s stalled a bit, maybe I’ll finish it soon?) and it hit me- they’re like a poppy version of Can; that four-on-the-floor motorik beat is present in a lot of their songs, as is the aural psychedelic landscape dotted with bliss-kissed synths and that funky experimentation. But singer Gruff Rhys has a much lovelier (yet less expressive) voice than either Damo or Malcolm. There’s even some singing in German (on the track Inaugural Trams, courtesy of Franz Ferdinand‘s Nick McCarthy). I’m really digging this record; I’m sure it’s going to grow on me as the year matures, and I’m currently immersing myself deeply into their back catalog. 8/10

Moderat – Moderat (BPitch; 4/28)moderat

I fucking hate techno. I can’t think of anything more boring and repetitive than this shit- this is the crap that’s playing when you walk into a store that you 1) immediately get dirty looks from the shitty Eurotrash wannabes working there 2) because they know you can’t afford anything anyway and 3) get in a huge fight with your girlfriend over how much she spent there that 4) eventually causes your break-up which is 5) good because she was an idiot that shops at a store with an unpronounceable name with awful people working there named Jens or Britta that like this terrible music. I’m also offended that this album took three fucking people to make- I thought the Germans were known for efficiency. Did they all get paid to click the same mouse? It’s like “Here’s beat #11, here’s bass line #3 and let’s drag and drop “ambient synth #43” on top, thanks ProTools! Because it’s all made on their laptops- ever wonder what those guys are doing when they’re playing live? You just paid 20 bucks to watch a guy check his e-mail, dumbass! This album cover saves this record from getting a zero, because that bitch punching herself in the face is an actual artist’s rendering of the first person to buy this record. 1/10

Thee Oh Sees – Help (In The Red; 4/28)theeohsees

The first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground I was probably fifteen; I don’t remember exactly, it didn’t seem that important at the time. It was probably another five years before I “got it” and understood the massive significance of their influence, I had to listen to them backwards (my term for getting into a band through their influences, e.g.- kids who like Interpol could follow them back to Joy Division, likewise; young folks who dig The National or The Hold Steady could easily then understand Springsteen). So what’s all this have to do with Thee Oh Sees‘ newest album? Let’s just say a fifteen year old discovering this record today could easily bridge the gap back to the Velvets or any other psychedelic/noise/garage band of note, in fact- I’d say just skip this record and put on anything by King Khan, BBQ, maybe the Black LipsLet It Bloom, no- actually, skip all them too and just listen to Sister Ray over and over. I think that’s what the MC5 and The Stooges did, and look at the bands they’ve gone on to influence, trickling all the way down to The Oh Sees, et. al. 4/10

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (Secret City; 4/28)watson-wooden-arms

I can think of one reason not to move to Canada: Patrick Watson. That’s the name of the singer/songwriter and his band. Pretentious much? His last album, 2007’s Close To Paradise, won a Polaris Prize (the Canuck equivalent of a Grammy, so yeah- pretty pointless). But who’d he beat out? Not only did he win over Leslie Feist‘s The Reminder but Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible. Now, I haven’t listened to Close To Paradise, but there’s no way in hell that it’s a better record than both The Reminder and Neon Bible. But this record, Wooden Arms– is crap. I can’t think of a sleepier record, and not “sleepy” in a good way, like when I used to fall asleep to Efterklang‘s Tripper, I mean “sleepy” in bad way, like doze-off-on-a-four-lane-highway-and-into-oncoming-traffic-sleepy. When it’s not a snooze-fest, boring you to death; it’s annoying- using things you find around the studio for percussion instruments isn’t groundbreaking, interesting or even edgy. It’s just lame. And tired. I’m tired now. 2/10

John Vanderslice – Romanian Names (Dead Oceans; 5/19)romanian-names

In terms of melody, Vanderslice is par excellence and his lyrics are emotive and poignant without being overwrought or corny. That being said, he’s the most likely to break out to a bigger audience; I’m somewhat shocked he hasn’t already- he could should be bigger than that twit Bono and what’s their names? But as the mainstream public is usually slow to react to brilliance he’ll probably find his music being misappropraited into an episode of one of those awful CW shows like Gossip Girls or the new 90210. I can’t see JV letting that happen, he’s still “ours” for the time being. On Romanian Names, Vanderslice is at it again- a short and effective album; perfect three-to-four minute pop songs built around catchy-ass hooks that feature imaginative production values captured to two-inch tape in his all-analog studio. He’s a bit of a throwback and I think that’s why he’s so endearing, oh- and his songs, man. 8/10

Hoots & Hellmouth – The Holy Open Secret (MAD Dragon; 6/2)hootsandhellmouth

On the track You And All Of Us, H&H deliver a hearty ole foot stompin’ and hollerin’ right there in the studio; I can envision their live show because this basically sounds like a live album, all amped up with hoedown shout-alongs and hootenany rave-ups. This is old timey music; and a big “much respect” because they’re Philly boys- it’s nice to see a little scene like this going on in my old hometown. It also helps that Sean Hoots, Rob Berliner and Andrew Gray produced this with Bill Moriarty (who did both Dr. Dog‘s and Man Man‘s last records). It ain’t all uptempo songs, however; it’s nicely balanced out with some balladry and melancholia. The most inviting aspect of H&H‘s sound is the three-part harmonies worked to absolute perfection; vocals weave in and out of each other, under, around to create excellent songsmanship. And more props to their record label (MAD Dragon), owned and operated by the students and faculty at Drexel University; it’s actually the only student-run record label in the USA with a national distribution deal (with Warner subsidiary Rykodisc). That’s pretty rad- to think I wasted college on pursuing an education degree, I shoulda started a record label. I’m wasting my life… 7/10

Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador; 6/9)sonic_youth

I can’t claim undying allegiance to Da Yoof, not since 1992’s Dirty (in fact, I had to give the seven albums in between then and now a listen to see what I’ve missed out on) so at the very least I can say I’m somewhat caught up on the trajectory of their sound; which if you’re a diehard fan you’d probably agree that it goes from somewhat mainstream to nigh unlistenable from record to record- they can bend their sound to either end of the spectrum. But for the last 28 years no other band smells as much like New York as SY, it’s like riding the D train from Coney Island up to Fordham and back again- kind of scuzzy, a little scary, way-too-hip for someone who grew up in Philly; that’s Sonic Youth in a nutshell. But the songs are all there- Kim Gordon has moved over to guitar as Mark Ibold (ex-Pavement) takes over on bass, so now there’s more diversity on the low end of things, and more interplay between the awesome axe-wielders Ranaldo and Moore. Of course, since it’s their most diverse offering it’s also caused the most division among hardcore fans- “it’s not experimental enough” because it’s not like NYC Ghosts & Flowers; “it’s not as polished as Dirty” because uber-producer Butch Vig wasn’t twiddling the knobs, etc. I don’t care about SY‘s hardcore fans- I can appreciate them as a band that’s dedicated to maintaining a healthy relationship with itself while making music that’s at times haunting and dissonant but still extremely listenable. In short, it’s a damn fine album- I’ve listened to it more than any other album this year (because I burned it to CD so I could listen in the car). 9/10

A Coat Of Primer…

Disclaimer: Rock music is for rock music fans. Music criticism is for music criticism fans.

I’ve been trying to reconcile the two for five-plus years now and I’m even more clueless as how to do this than when I started. I can tell you why something sounds good (or bad) but there’s really no way to accurately describe a piece of music without listening to it several times- so in effect I’m taking the guess work out of it for you, or basically disseminating my ideas on this here website and trying to give you an idea of what you’ll be in for.

Please feel free to disagree with me and stick up for your favorite bands.

I’ve read somewhere that the most boring conversations are the ones where everyone agrees, and if you agree with everything I’ve written I’m not doing my job properly. I’m merely a “rough guide” to music, what I really want is to open discourse about this music.

It’s been my experience that the only non-fiction writing I really enjoy reading is about music, and music criticism in particular. Every day I read the good, the bad and the ugly. I buy my music here. I take suggestions from all these sites, try different things, etc. I come up with opinions on everything and almost have to write them down; because as a fan of music and writing the two are inextricably linked forever in my mind.

So here’s more of some of the albums I’ve been listening to, albums that piqued my curiosity and albums that I hope to never listen to again. I’m just applying the coat of primer, you have to do the actual painting…

Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele – The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele (Paw Tracks; Feb. 3rd)dent-may

Who thought ukelele music would be so rad? Everything about this album is screaming “no no no” but it feels so right. Nerd jokes aside, it walks a fine line between tragic melancholia and tongue-in-cheek clowning; it’s somewhere between a schmaltzy bow-tie Ramada Inn lounge act and kitschy elevator music. A song about smoking weed in your pajamas all day? Try College Town Boy. A torch song to a faded tennis star? Give God Loves You, Michael Chang a go. Have a drinking problem? May admits he’s powerless on I’m An Alcoholic. Beware: this record is ridiculously infectious! Grade: 8/10

William Elliot Whitmore – Animals In The Dark (ANTI-; Feb. 17th)whit

This might be the worst album I’ve tried to listen to this year- maybe the past three years. I say tried to listen to because I couldn’t get through it completely (shame on me). I kept hitting the “next” button; just the song titles made me shiver: Who Stole The Soul, Hell Or High Water, Hard Times… He even used the vocal hook from The Roof Is On Fire on the song Mutiny. It’s like Whitmore picked up a book of overused cliches and wrote an album about that, except it’s political at its core. So in effect, it’s a concept album. The concept is how to suck by writing trite protest/white-boy blues/tired-folk/blue-eyed soul songs. Even the album cover is terrible. Grade: .5/10 (Yeah, that’s a “point five”; I’m really holding on to the “zero” for something more awful…)

Odawas – The Blue Depths (Jagjaguwar; Feb. 17th)the_blue_depths-odawas_480

Imagine if the vocal stylings of Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and Fleet FoxesRobin Pecknold were thrown into a musical punnet square. The resulting offspring would sound like Michael Tapscott‘s ethereal voice, but that’s just a basic (and reductive) way to describe what Odawas‘ lead singer/songwriter is capable of. This is one of those beautiful “Sunday Morning” records that plays well when the world is slowly rising to wipe the sleep out of its eyes and stumble into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It’s a record steeped in psychedelia as well as ambient textures, subdued electronica and good ol’ American folkiness. Grade: 8/10

Gun Outfit – Dim Light (Post Present Medium; Feb. 17th)gun-outfit

Boy-girl-boy. Pacific Northwest. Two guitars and drumset. One guitar plays intricate lines. One plays thrashy riffs. Drums pound. Heavy on the tom rolls. Sometimes girl sings. It’s rock and roll like it’s supposed to sound. I hear their sound informed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Sebadoh; they can go noise or they can do straight “indie” rock (whatever the fuck that means). Also, big ups to No Age drummer Dean Spunt for signing these cats to his PPM label, let’s hope added exposure and some heavy touring in the near future. I’d love to see this band live. Grade: 8/10

Here We Go Magic – Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl; Feb. 24th)here-we-go-magic

Subliminal folk melodies, (at times) barely there lyrics, instruments slowly fading in and out of the murky, churning under-current of “songs”, yeah it’s another one of these albums. And I say that as endearingly as possible; if my tone sounds mocking please forgive me, I’ve been forced to grow up in this world with things like pro wrestling and house cats, how could everything not be a joke to me? Anyhow, I put the word songs in quotes back there because about three of the tracks on this record are merely ambient drone instrumental pieces, but of the other six they are honest-to-god songs, just without that boring AABA format; bridges and choruses are virtually non-existent. It’s a study in both electronically-induced sonic atmospherics and organic-sounding timbres; banjos and acoustic guitars over synths-and-drum-machines- creating a contemplative state for the listener. Grade: 8/10

Micachu – Jewellery (Rough Trade; April 7th)micachu

“Infinitely interesting post-glitch pop with vaudevillian theatrics…” is how I’d define this three-piece from the UK. Mica Levy (Micachu) and The Shapes (Raisa Khan & Marc Pell) make music on what sound like broken instruments; but in fact they’re homemade. Things like a “chu” (which is a Mica creation- a prepared guitar played with a hammer) and a bow-like instrument made from a discarded CD rack. Umm, there’s even a vacuum cleaner on the track Turn Me Well, but it isn’t employed like this guy has been known to. On paper, this album appears to be a complete mess. On your earholes, it’s a pleasure to introduce the two. Calling it “post-glitch pop” actually does it a disservice; it’s actually post-everything, as if Mica came from the future to show us that all you need to make music is all around you- that frying pan can be a drum and that jar of coins is a maraca. I’m just sayin’ is all… Grade: 9/10

Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang Records; April 7th)metric-fantasies

Emily Haines can write some catchy-ass hooks. That being said; there isn’t much else to this record in that it’s basically just a collection of somewhat cohesive tunes designed to support the single Help, I’m Alive. Each song sticks to the prescription laid out in that song, only deviating slightly from the formula; slick and over-produced pop that’s for the masses. If this is Haines‘ last shot at super-stardom, I’d say she nails it. But that’s only if she wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Kelly Clarkson and Ashlee Simpson. Grade: 5/10

Silversun Pickups – Swoon (Dangerbird; April 14th)swoon

Smashing PumpkinsSiamese Dream was one of my favorite albums in high school. It had big, anthemic radio-friendly sing-alongs (Today & Rocket), sludge-metal riffage (Quiet), string-infused acoustic ballad (Disarm), seven-and-eight minute tracks structured in the vein of prog-and-post-rock (Hummer, Soma & Silverfuck); I still listen to that album every few months and I am instantly transported back to the summer before my senior year. That album gets a 10/10 in my book. Wait, is this supposed to be a review of the new Silversun Pickups album? Oh, yeah. In that case, fast forward from ’93 to ’09, but keep in mind that what was once awesome and trenchant is now tired and lame. I can’t understand some bands’ fascination with mid-90s alt-rock sounds; I think we all voted and decided that those guitar sounds and production qualities a la Butch Vig and Steve Albini were to be left alone. Sorry you guys weren’t invited to that conference. On the one track I sort of was getting in to, It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone, lead singer Brian Aubert sounds af if she‘s saying “it’s nice to know your wear cologne…” Yeah, that’s right- I said “she”, because that dude has a chick’s voice. Grade: 3/10

Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar; April 28th)japandroids

Apparently no one plays bass anymore. That ain’t a bad thing- just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everyone follows the bass” and I immediately blurted out (to no one in particular) “I fucking hate bass players”. Yeah, too bad everyone that starts a band nowadays either wants to be the drummer or guitar player. Later, bass. Vancouver garage duo Japandroids don’t need one anyway, their “heavy-on-the-toms-and-cymbals” sound fills the air with what could be some low-end notes, but a bass would really slow these guys down. They both share singing duties, trading back and forth or going at it together. If there’s one thing the Pacific Northwest can do (see above; Gun Outfit) is rock the shit out of a garage. Without a slow, plodding bass-playing jerk fucking them up. I fucking hate bass players. Grade: 9/10

Mika Miko – We Be Xuxa (Post Present Medium; May 5th)mikamiko

Channeling old-school three chords and a cloud of dust punk rock circa 1981. I’m a sucker for lo-fi shit these days, and I love this record because a) it reminds me of late-80s cassette-tape punk I used to rock out to in my Walkman, skating at the Manoa Shopping Center before they put up all those “No Skateboarding” signs, and b) it literally sounds as if they recorded all the instrumentation on one track and the vocals on another. It’s like they forgot they had two more tracks to use on their little blue Tascam four-track device. And I fucking love that shit, man. There’s two odes to turkey sandwiches, a saxophone shows up in a few songs and it’s all over in 23 minutes. Even though four of Mika Miko‘s five members are women, they don’t feel the need to play up their sexuality or use it as a feminist pedestal- they just came to rock your balls off and go home. Grade: 9/10

Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans; May 5th)akron

I have to admit that I am confused by Akron/Family. One minute they’re doing straight acoustic folk and the next it’s all techy with weird sound collage-type things. Experimentally inclined, psychedelic influenced, bits of funk and post-rock seep into their sound, three-part harmonies; it’s all over the place. But it’s still folk, with dashes of electro all about. Kinda like feeding granola to a robot, I guess. Grade: 6/10