Friday, December 21, 2012


Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times and the Tides

Way back in 2001, in his review of Murray Street, Rob Mitchum introduced two hypothetical examples of Sonic Youth fans:
Meet Jeremy. Jeremy likes Sonic Youth. His favorite album by the Youth is Goodbye 20th Century, their self-released cover album of avant-garde works by various modern clasical composers. The CDs currently in his five-disc changer are Shalabi's St-Orange, Xiu Xiu, Merzbow, the Boredoms, and Fennesz. 
Meet Erica. Erica likes Sonic Youth. Her favourite album by the Youth is Dirty, the band's most direct flirtation with mainstream rock. The CDs currently in Erica's five disc-changer are the Breeders, Blonde Redhead, Wilco, Neutral Milk Hole, and Sleater-Kinney.
I would say I'm more like Jeremy than Erica in my relationship with Sonic Youth (my favourite SY album is A Thousand Leaves, for the record), but I can appreciate the straighter moments of the band's discography with greater ease than Jeremy, probably. If you assume that the audience for a Lee Ranaldo solo album is going to be, first and foremost, Sonic Youth fans, then it's natural to try and figure out if Between the Times and the Tides will appeal to the Jeremys or the Ericas out there. I would bet the latter are going to find more to enjoy and return to on this than the former, but it would be a shame to limit this album's appeal to a certain cadre of Sonic Youth fans. What this album is, as far as I can tell, is the year's best straight-up rock album filtered through one of the more distinctive songwriting voices in indie rock over the last three decades, something like what Wilco have been trying to do on their last few albums without entirely achieving it.

If we play a game similar to Mitchum's and ask which Lee made this album, it's the Lee who loves the Greatful Dead and Neil Young much more often than it is the Lee who played with Glenn Branca and performs improvised film scores in Text of Light. That's not to say there's no overlap between sonic identities throughout; the album is wonderful in part because of how natural the moments of overlap are. This means that the album feels curiously out of time: nothing about it fits in exactly with the current indie rock landscape, but it's all so intrinsically a part of that landscape (this is the product of a guy who helped make indie rock a thing, after all) that everything here could have always existed. If there's a certain early-to-mid 90s aspect to these songs--the album could have come from some indie band out of Chapel Hill or Athens or any other college town suddenly making its major label debut in the wake of post-Nevermind dollar chasing--it's not in the name of some retro impulse, but rather the result of so many of those bands speaking the same language, musically, as the one that Ranaldo helped to invent while in Sonic Youth.

Beyond contextualising, beyond theorising, this is an album that shows off what any Sonic Youth fan has known for decades: Lee Ranaldo can write a hook. Part of what kept so many people (like myself) waiting for this album for so long was the promise of what Lee could do with an entire album to write majestic, transcendent guitar songs like "Karen Revisited" or "Hoarfrost" or "Hey Joni." If anything, though, this album does more to reinforce the idea of Sonic Youth as a band rather than a collection of individuals--and Lee Ranaldo as a discrete component within that band--than anything they've released collectively lately. These are obviously and distinctively Lee Ranaldo songs, but they're quite different from what has previously defined that term on Sonic Youth albums. He's never been as nakedly romantic as he is on "Stranded," nor as breezy as he is on "Fire Island (Phases)," and if the acoustic "Hammer Blows" sounds like it might have fit into the rural first side of Murray Street with a little bit of tweaking, it's better for not having done so. He even provides an epic the equal of anything he's produced with Sonic Youth in "Xtina as I Knew Her," a career highlight with a sense of drama that he's never quite demonstrated before.

I never really believed I'd hear this album--not Between the Times and the Tides specifically, but a Lee Ranaldo solo album full of songs--and then it showed up. I wrote a review that became the most popular post in this blog's history after getting linked to on the Sonic Youth message board and Lee Ranaldo's Facebook page. It's funny how life works. Ultimately, the best thing I can say about this album is that despite years of waiting and wishing for it, the actual manifestation doesn't disappoint. I'm happier for having it in my life. To return to our hypothetical Sonic Youth fans, I'd bet that Erica is happy this exists, and--even if it's not going to replace East Jesus or Amarillo Ramp as his go-to Lee Ranaldo solo release--I suspect Jeremy is, too. At the very least, freed from the limitations of five-CD changers, they could both find room for it on their iPods.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Last year, I overlooked the first part of this when compiling my end of year lists because I forgot that it came out in 2011. This is only partly an attempt to correct that oversight. Since reemerging with 2005's Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, Earth have been one of the more interesting bands going. Channeling his proclivity for feedback, drones, and bass into new musical avenues--country, blues, psychedelic rock, free jazz--Dylan Carlson has come a long way from Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars. The culmination of the wandering, patient experimentation that's defined the band's past decade of work, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II deepens the slower-than-slow improvising of the previous installment by lightening up: this is probably the brightest music Carlson's been associated with (though the droning cello throughout keeps anything from threatening to get too major key). Carlson's guitar is mixed way up front, and his playing deserves careful study--if a generation of metalheads could get hip to this rather than generic shredding, the genre would certainly be headed in an interesting direction. For all of Carlson's contemplative playing, an approach that leaves no melodic permutation untested, no variation on a chord unplayed, Adrienne Davies and her drums are a subtly powerful force, providing crucial momentum to music that threatens to stop entirely at any moment, while Lori Goldston and Karl Blau tangle their cello and bass, respectively, around the shapes Carlson's guitar lines make.

As a guitar player (and one who grew up reading the kinds of guitar magazines that put people like Kirk Hammett on the cover), I've found Carlson's growth and development as a player over the last decade or so incredibly interesting, and I have to bring my appreciation of this album back to his work on it. Mostly, it's because I haven't found much guitar playing that excites me over the past few years. Earth, though, is one of the few bands that continues to produce music that interests me in the guitar and its possibilities as an instrument. Carlson's playing is wonderfully business casual throughout: sharp enough to hit a million subtle accents when called for, but otherwise in no rush to be in any particular place or to do any particular thing beyond taking chords and melodies apart and stretching them a mile wide. The Angels of Darkness releases have been particularly impressive because I tend to think of improvised music as challenging (even alienating) in its foregrounding of abrasion and dissonance. Thus, something like Fenn O'Berg or Charalambides can be immensely rewarding, but the music demands concentration; whatever enjoyment you are getting out of the music, you've invested a certain amount of patience and attention to find it. Earth's music on these two albums, and particularly Angels of Darkness II, is not like that. Challenging, yes--and often more so than its near static surface would suggest--but rarely abrasive. This is warm, inviting music, and if it asks for patience, it rewards that patience with slow-motion crescendos that are undeniable and hypnotically enchanting melodies. If you thought the world was ending Friday, you could do worse for a soundtrack.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


*...not featured on my albums of the year. I stole this concept from Nick Southall, and as it seems a nice way to give a tip of a cap to some excellent artists whose albums I didn't like quite as much as some others, I decided to do it again. These are roughly arranged in descending order, but they're all equally worthy of your attention (although some, like Evian Christ, are worthier than others). Enjoy!

I've said quite a bit about this track already, but Evian Christ's concept mix is, quite simply, stunning. You should download it right now if you haven't already. Like Tim Hecker's set for Moogfest last year, I'm astonished that such high quality music is available for free. Droning, unnerving, unsettling, "Duga-Three" is also never anything other than interesting. This is the kind of music that you inhabit (and, in turn, that inhabits you), and I've spent more time living in this than almost anything else this year.

Romanthony's turn on "Do It" might have received most of the plaudits, and Lauren Halo and Panda Bear might have received more attention for their appearances, but for my money Kelela turns in possibly the vocal performance of the year on this track. The stop-start rhythms of the verse give way to a chorus that the word soaring was invented to describe and Kelela moves from tough to breathy to blissful on a dime. Capturing the kind of in-the-moment lust that someone like Ke$ha wishes she could reflect, "EFX" makes me wish all pop music could sound this glorious.

The synths here are at once slinky and disorienting, a kind of late night delirium that suggests a fever dream of a club more than an actual one. Cooly G's vocals go one step further than the muted backing, though, being at once nape-of-the-neck intimate and fleetingly vague, always disappearing back into the reverb and synths, a ghost of desire more than desire itself. As an album, Playin Me's excellence came from its mastery of restraint, its post-coital drowsiness even as it seduces you, turning its R&B and club music template into something more intimate and more vulnerable.

Speaking of vulnerable, Abel Tesfaye's first post-Trilogy release continues his turn to overtly pop forms from Echoes of Silence without sacrificing any of the pyschodrama that made his three mixtapes last year such compelling listens. A plaintive, piano-driven ballad, "Enemy" revisits his concerns about fame, identity, and sex, Tesfaye's conflicting demands to the female he addresses as always revealing more of his own insecurities than any kind of bravado. The sample in the chorus--a brilliant reframing of Morrissey's yearning chorus to "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" as the kind of demonic voice that seems to drive Tesfaye's narratives--continues The Weeknd's razor-sharp production choices and suggests that there won't be any letdown in the quality of the music, PBR&B or not.

The audio equivalent of a bubble bath, the opening tracking of Tipped Bowls sets the tone for the rest of the album: pillow soft, gauzily pretty, and gently twinkling. The sound isn't a million miles from early Four Tet (c. Rounds, say), which isn't a bad thing, though without the manic jazziness of Kieren Hebden's beats the track is much more patient, slowly lifting off over the course of its five minutes. Nothing's really breaking a sweat here, and that's just fine, as its chilled out vibes carry off its sort of dazed wonder quite effectively.

I have to say that this track, the opening to the duo's album Dasaflex, reminds me more than a bit of Leila's "Lush Dolphins." This isn't a strike against, though, as where that track uses its tremulous synths and vaguely trip-hop drums to build up a heartbreakingly starry-eyed melody, "Lonely Moon" manages just as much (if not more) in the way of emotional payoff with much, much less. Like Cooly G, the keyword here is restraint, as Farrah's beautiful vocals are pitched and twisted every which way to give voice to the titular emotion, supported by a few blips and scrapes, a clap, and not much else. The soundtrack to dreams of the future and eerie as hell in the best possible way, I wish the rest of the album had followed its lead.

Steven Ellison does double duty on this one, producing under his Flying Lotus moniker and rapping as his alter ego, Captain Murphy, with an assist from Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt. The dusty loop that the track opens with and the gently loping beat underneath it all are vintage FlyLo c.Los Angeles. The distortion- and echo-drenched vocals are a little hard to parse, but the atmospheric smearing of syllables and words helps the occasional line that catches the ear hit harder, and also contributes to the lost-song-found-in-an-attic feel. The brief instrumental coda tagged onto the song doesn't hurt, either.

Shrines is a little homogenous as an album. Each song basically does the same thing, and you're either going to like it or not, so picking any one track to highlight is a little difficult. With an aesthetic as hyper-focused as the one that Purity Ring work within, the subtleties become crucial. Without them, the album becomes an undifferentiated mass of sounds and little girl vocals. "Ungirthed" is my pick for song of the album for its "Ears ring and teeth click" chorus, during which the processing on Megan James' vocals is both unnerving and weirdly beautiful, an uncanny balance that the duo tries but can't quite maintain throughout the whole album. Here, though, the balance is just right, and the results are stunning.

Wonderfully blown out, "Crystallized" is psych-rock as effortless as summer sun. Melody Prochet's vocals are just submerged enough to gain some much needed mystery to go along with their breathiness, and the vaguely kraut-y trance rock of the first half gives way to some sandpaper-y fuzz in the back half that's a perfect contrast to the sweetness and light of Prochet. Kevin Parker's production is perfect here, allowing just the right amount of heat to float up out of the track to the listener.

Suitably cosmic in introduction, the title track to Rose's first solo album is a glittering piece of zero-g pop music with an unabashedly huge chorus of wordless vocals. The drums are the real star here, though, driving the verses forward and keeping the momentum up during the mid-song instrumental. Its three and a half minutes feel cruelly short, like the sudden comedown from a sugar high. 

Monday, December 17, 2012


The EP is a sorely underappreciated format for the most part. While it gets praise in isolated instances--for example, the near universal acclamation for Disco Inferno’s series of EPs leading up to their second album, 1994’s sampledelic post-rock high water mark D.I. Go Pop--critics in end of the year lists or roundups of the “Greatest [x] of [y]” tend to go for the flashy single or the totemic album (indeed, good old Nick Southall’s “Top Ten EPs” feature for Stylus back in 2005 is the only such list I can recall off the top of my head--I agree with only one choice out of those ten, but that’s a story for another day). The EP deserves more love, and not just because there has been an exceptionally bumper crop of EPs released this year. With more room than a single but less pressure to make a statement than with an album, the EP is truly the perfect form for experimentation. Transitioning between styles? Experimenting with new members, elements, or directions? Refining an earlier breakthrough? Entering (or re-entering) the game with a new band or as a solo artist? The EP has your back in all of these situations. Thus, in honour of this plucky format--and, full disclosure, to make my own life somewhat easier as I compile my end of the year lists--here’re my top five Extended Plays of the year (to qualify, a release must loosely conform to what I've understood to be the traditional definition of the format: twenty five minutes or less of music or four tracks). Long may they reign!

Gonjasufi himself billed this as a “mini-album,” but at just twenty four minutes it can be snuck onto this list even with ten tracks. Not really a reinvention of anything that he did on A Sufi and a Killer--opener “White Picket Fence” makes it clear that we’re staying in the same ballpark--MU.ZZ.LE manages to condense and focus what was a fairly sprawling album. Gone are the sub-Tom Waits numbers, thankfully, and in their place are the most concentrated blasts of weed-fueled paranoia since Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension. The EP resembles the soundtrack to a spy on a bad trip mid-cover blown freakout. While its production values verge on the non-existent, the distortion, hiss, and murk throughout fit the cracked and broken vocals like a glove, highlighting the tenderness and fragility in Gonjasufi’s voice even at his most righteously pissed off. All of that, and the sensuous “Feedin’ Birds,” a career highlight given some erotic sweetening via backing vocals from Gonjasufi’s wife.

Despite the somewhat dour colour scheme of its cover art, Shlohmo's Vacation EP is anything but dark or depressing. Instead, the EP takes the humidity of last year's Bad Vibes and infuses it with tropical colours, creating an astonishingly alien soundworld that feels a little less ponderous, less heavy of limb, and more free-flowing than his earlier work. Despite all of its potentially played out trappings--particularly its treated vocals--something like "The Way U Do" with its alternatively pitched-up and heavily distorted keening winds up strangely singular, somewhere between post-dubstep bass music's vocal refractions, tri-Angle style witch-house/drag demon moans, and classic rave diva melismas. The real gem here, though, is "Rained the Whole Time," during which you can practically see the steam and mist curdling and the water dripping as a forest springs up in your room, the whole thing resembling something like early Four Tet after it has degraded in the soil for a few centuries. 

Burial's had a busy year, by his standards: two releases of his own (Kindred and the interesting Truant single that just came out on Hyperdub), an old track resurrected and worked by Dusk+Blackdown, "High Road," on the duo's Dasaflex, and a track with friend and schoolmate Four Tet, "Nova." All of this and hints of an album in 2013? Someone's feeling mighty productive lately. Trying--unsuccessfully, I'm sure--to put the baggage of "Burial the groundbreaking artist" aside for a minute, what makes Kindred interesting on the level of "Burial the musician" is its sudden push forward into a new method of organisation for Will Bevan. Where something like "Night Bus," "Forgive," or "In McDonalds" had its own status as a separate track, little sonic sketches that fleshed out the context for the vocal-driven big numbers but that remained independent of them, "Kindred," "Loner," and "Ashtray Wasp" favour a collage approach that splices between the two types of track at a moment's notice. Covered over with the omnipresent hiss that defines Burial's productions almost as much as those androgynous ghosts floating through them and stitched together with ridiculously deep bass, these tracks aren't a break with what's come so much as a redefining of the template's parameters. More than ever, Burial's music feels like a journey, but not just through lost pasts and never-to-come futures: these are journeys you can take in the present, that are repeated night after night. If it's a little short of last year's Street Halo EP (his career peak to date, in my opinion), Kindred's still a welcome addition both the the Burial canon and the Burial mythology.

The surprise of the year, for me, this EP introduced the Spaceape as a solo artist, and it turns out that he doesn't need Kode 9, Burial, Marytn, or anyone else to make gripping music. It might feel like a long way from the flash-forward Afro-futurism of 2006's Memories of the Future, but there are genetic links that make it feel like the inevitable destination for "Sine of the Dub." Unflinching and brave, Xorcism details the Spaceape's struggles with cancer, expanding on the science fiction biopolitics of last year's collaboration with Kode 9, Black Sun, in astonishingly personal terms. Over a bed of percussive Haitian voodoo music, Xorcism is a conjure tale, a communion with and a dispelling of the ghosts within, Stephen Samuel Gordon becoming ever more shamanic and prophetic throughout. Painfully brief, this is a flash in the darkness, a stealth attack and swift retreat, an apparition, here for a minute and gone even before the next arrives, elusive as smoke even in its corporeal focus. There's nothing else like it out there, and it's surely one of 2012's most vital releases.

Quietly elegant and moving, CFCF's Exercises EP dazzled me in the summer months when its chilly sound felt like a breath of fresh air amid all the heat and sun. With the change into Fall, though (and soon into Winter), the icy elegance of the EP's tracks has become an even more appropriate soundtrack to the day. Neither as studied nor as academic as its title would suggest, the miniatures on the album engage with 20th-century minimalism and avant-pop as much as they do contemporary trends in electronic music. The results are stunning, with the flowing, repetitive lines of "Exercise 3 (Buildings)" as hypnotically holographic as the best Philip Glass, and the gently wistful "Exercise 5 (September)" a slice of exquisite, autumnal pop beauty, offering a patient expansion on David Sylvian's original. On the more beat-driven pieces, like "Exercise 2 (School)" and "Exercise 8 (Change)," it's easy to imagine this as chillwave in the process of growing up, shedding some of its hedonistic nihilism in favour of something a little darker and stranger, yes, but also more human, more emotionally complex and compelling. What keeps me coming back to the EP, though, and what makes everything here succeed is Mike Silver's way with melody and his ear as a composer for the right sound as much as the right note, a crucial attribute in music this carefully designed. As a statement, Exercises content and format leaves it a little self-contained, so it will be exciting to see where Silver takes his CFCF project next with a wider field to play on.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Mogwai - A Wrenched Virile Lore
Rock Action, 2012

It is, of course, no secret that I love Mogwai, but I have to admit that I was somewhat sceptical about the prospect of this remix album being any good. I don't love Kicking A Dead Pig (in fact, I can't really remember ever having the urge to actually listen to the thing, not even the Kevin Shields rework of "Mogwai Fear Satan"), and the list of contributors--Justin K. Broadrick and Tim Hecker aside, obviously--seemed pretty underwhelming. Nevertheless, as a fan of the band, I felt an obligation to at least give it a listen. After all, no remixer was foolhardy enough to tackle the best song on Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will ("You're Lionel Richie"), nor was anyone tackling the worst ("Death Rays")--at least not exclusively: "Death Rays" is a part of Robert Hampson's "La Mort Blanche" remix, but more on that later. Unfortunately, I have to say that, by and large, my initial impression--this will be underwhelming--was confirmed. All told, there are two absolutely essential remixes/recreations here, with the rest of the album's tracks slotting in anywhere from functional to boring to irritating.

Starting with the latter, the album's only serious misstep is the Klad Hest "Mogwai Is My Dick" remix of "Rano Pano." Refashioned into some kind of cartoon-jungle hybrid, the track winds up as seven interminable minutes of hyperactivity, an annoying child of a song that just won't seem to go away. If the track is meant as a joke, it's punchline is made clear early on without any kind of set up and it never manages to raise as much as a grin. Cylob's "EVP Mix" of "White Noise" is the closest to Klad Hest's in terms of missing the point, but nothing about it winds up as actively annoying. The vocodored vocals inserted over the top of the track are a curious choice, and with some worthwhile lyrics (and maybe a deviation or two from the main melody line) might have been interesting. The sort of surfeit of prettiness Cylob seems to be going for is ultimately delivered by Umberto's slightly too long remix of "Too Raging to Cheers" as a kind of mystical, cosmic disco track. As it is, Cylob's track just seems kind of pointless.

I hate to damn the contributions of (arguably) the main draws here pointless, but there's not much to be said about either Tim Hecker's reworking of "Rano Pano" or Justin K. Broadrick's "reshape" of "George Square Thatcher Death Party." The former is little more than the original track with some static over top and run through a tremolo and the occasional bit of detuning. In some ways, it feels like Hecker is trying to turn the track into something like his own brilliant "The Piano Drop," but no such luck. Compared to this year's brilliant "Suffocation Raga for John Cale," Hecker's version of "Rano Pano" just feels half-assed. Indeed, the Soft Moon's take on "San Pedro" actually does a better job of "Hecker-ising" its source track, coating the track truly thick and viscous fuzz. As for Broadrick, it's probably best to think of his reshape as a kind of alternative take on the song, one where the original's bouncing pop is replaced by a gothic, arid dream pop, a little like what appeared on Jesu's Silver EP minus the warmth. It's certainly worth a listen just to hear what else "George Square Thatcher Death Party" could be, but I can't see myself returning to it with any frequency, or ever really preferring it to the album version.

There are a few takes that, if not superior to the album versions, do offer an interesting cases for how to hear those album tracks as part of larger themes and sounds that would otherwise escape detection. While "Mexican Grand Prix" was perhaps the most obviously krautrock indebted track on Hardcore Will Never Die, its Neu!-isms are revealed to be in good company by Zombi's reworking of "Letters to the Metro" as an elegantly Kraftwerkian epic, one that in its icy snynths, rigidly sequenced lines, and stately, measured melody line deliberately evokes "Trans-Europe Express" (the better choice would've been that record's real highlight, "Europe Endless," but that's an argument for another time). I only wish that Zombi could've found a way to get some "Planet Rock"-style vocals into the mix. Xander Harris' take on "How To Be a Werewolf" is equally enamoured of early German electronics, but uses its gentle motorik pulse to simply draw attention to the original track's euphoric build and climax. Indeed, it winds up feeling more like a kin to "Hallogallo" than "Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home" by the end. Nothing flashy, nothing fancy, then, but both tracks manage to make "Mexican Grand Prix" seem less like an anomaly than it initially appeared on the album.

"Mexican Grand Prix" itself is the subject of one of two tracks that make the entire album worthwhile. RM Hubbert transforms the song from driving krautrock into a hushed, moonlit bit of menace. Amping up the air of frustrated lust that ran through the original, Hubbert's acoustic guitar plays off the electronic voices retained from the original to brilliant effect. It's so good that I can only hope Mogwai themselves are taking notes. Hubbert's reworking is dwarfed (literally and figuratively) by Robert Hampson's mammoth closer "La Mort Blanche." Working through both "White Noise" and "Death Rays," the track is a full-immersion bath of bliss that, like Floating Points' remix of Four Tet's "Sing," radically expands the scope of the original source material in order to push into ever higher levels of light and colour. Hampson takes full advantage of his fourteen minutes, not rushing a single note and allowing a softly burbling ambient wash (it sounds a bit like an email alert heard through a running faucet, and I mean that in a good way) connect his take on "White Noise" to "Death Rays." The latter half of the track is even more impressive to me than the former, turning what I thought was Mogwai's most by-the-numbers track into a subtly life-affirming hymn, all soft-focus spangle without a sharp edge in sight before the original's furious climax appears in the guise of a gentle flame out.

Ultimately, I can't say that A Wrenched Virile Lore is going to get much play on my stereo. Outside of the RM Hubbert and Robert Hampson, there's not enough to really recommend it over its source material. I'm not sure that there ever has been with a remix album (I can't even say that I would take No Protection over Protection, to be honest). Without ten transcendent talents who are all firing on the day, the remix album seems destined to be a grab bag. Thinking of these as sort of b- (or c- or d-) sides that never were, though, makes a little more sense, though not in 2012. Instead, I'll treat A Wrenched Virile Lore as a postcard from an alternative 1998. In the meantime, though, I'll wait for Mogwai's soundtrack to Les Revenants.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I was listening to Pink Moon the other day--a late discovery for me, something I'd heard of but never really listened to until I got to grad school, and even then didn't really take to until the second year of my M.A.--and thought that for as good an album as it is (great songs, interesting arrangements, possibly the most perfect overdub in history [the piano line in "Pink Moon"]), it's an even better guitar album. Besides the fact that John Wood's production is a textbook example of how to record an acoustic guitar (it really is a joy just to hear that tone), Nick Drake is in brilliant form as a guitarist: not quite as freewheeling as some of his earlier work (like "Man in a Shed," for example, or much of Bryter Layter), but in full command of his talents, liquid runs mixed in with great chord work and lines that split the difference between chiming and droning ("Road," one of my favourite pieces of guitar music, being the best example of that). In fact, for all its simplicity--a guitar and an equally resonant male voice--Pink Moon achieves much of its singular power because of the inventive guitar playing. The circular chord progression underneath "Parasite" is an absolute necessity for its emotional content to hit at the right level and in the right places, a point that's often overlooked in attempts to ape Drake's sound and aesthetic.

Of course, there have been some successful copies of his work. I say copy rather than extension or development, because the song I have in mind--"Round the Bend" by Beck--is essentially a photocopy of "River Man," probably Drake's signature tune (interestingly, that's not Beck's only "borrowing" on the album: "Already Dead's" verses indulge in a bit of plagiarism at the expense of the Foo Fighter's superior--and wonderfully shouty--"I'll Stick Around"). The deliberate evocation of Drake's most recognisable song (prior to Volkswagen introducing a whole generation, myself very much included, to "Pink Moon") is a key part of the retromania-fest that is Sea Change. As an album, it feels mannered to the point of suffocation: a "serious," "mature," "artistic" work, Sea Change is very conservative in its template of sad man plus slow acoustic guitar songs. The best tracks are the ones that steer furthest away from this--"Round the Bend," obviously, but also "Paper Tiger" (the only track with a real semblance of life), "End of the Day" (with its gestures to some kind of casiotone country), and "Sunday Sun" (in its distorted climax)--but even they are indebted to specific strains of the past. That's not a problem in an of itself, but when that debt is figured as some kind of guarantor of authenticity--either in the sense that the music of the past was somehow "real" music in a way that today's music falls short of (e.g. rockism and calls for the return of rock), or that the emotions that the artist wishes to convey can be presented in their "realest" form in a style of the past (e.g. yearning and 1950s ballads)--the retromaniacal impulse becomes one of tail-chasing stagnation, curatorial consumption rather than creation. 

I've not followed Beck's career all that closely since Sea Change--in fact, I gave the album to an ex-girlfriend and never bothered to get it back--but what has popped up on my radar has fallen into this same kind of retromania. His record club project, while great fun for its participants I'm sure, (the recording sessions certainly seem like they were a blast) is perhaps the most damning example of this: track for track covers of "classic" albums (something that the Flaming Lips have also gotten into as they've settled down into increasingly less interesting work), without even the wink and nudge of the Moog Cookbook or Camper Van Beethoven's version of Tusk. Was this retromaniacal turn an inevitability for Beck? Hidden in his gleeful appropriation of junk culture and slacker attitude, was it a time bomb waiting to appear?

Certainly, by Mutations (named after Os Mutantes), Beck's urge to cite, to curate and to copy, had already begun to overwhelm him, parody clearly slipping into pastiche (a transformation completed in toto on Midnight Vultures). "Nobody's Fault But My Own" is the best of Beck's sad sack mopey ballads, but its sitars and Orientalisms are already as caught up in some period piece vision of the late 1960s as anything Oasis ever did. The real turn on Mutations is one toward "craft," and specifically songcraft as understood to mean very conventional and traditional notions of guitar driven music. Odelay's collage may have been a dead end, but it was also a force that managed to counterbalance the guitars and the reliance on folk, blues, and country throughout. For all its craft, Odelay is a different kind of self-conscious from Mutations, one that is equally exhausting and stifling in the end, but that also feels comfortably of its time (even if that means it sounds surprisingly dated in some ways today) in a way that its follow up abandons. Or rather, doesn't abandon, but rather reveals to be irrelevant: Mutations' influences--tropicalia, bossa nova, 1970s singer-songwriter music--is as up to the moment current for 1998 as are Odelay's influences for 1996. The difference is that Mutations is about its influences. Not doing anything with them, not transmuting them, but instead making them very apparent. They are the surface and the content, the purpose of these songs. Mutations, despite its title, changes nothing. It has the good taste to cite accurately and completely.

Looking back at his career arc, the later Beck's subsumption in overt retromania seems inevitable. One Foot in the Grave, his lo-fi folk album from 1994 (the phase of his career most obviously referenced by Sea Change), is designed to separate out a certain strain of his music and present it in its "authentic" form, "bolster[ing] his neo-folkie credibility the way the nearly simultaneously released Stereopathic Soul Manure accentuated his underground noise prankster credentials," as Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it. As a poster child for a certain form of indie rock's postmodern 1990s, an artist who was considered both cutting edge/hip and commercially viable, Beck seems like a useful signpost for investigating what happened to so forcefully propagate retromaniacal culture in the 2000s. The various phases of his career, for example, are an obviously different kind to that of Madonna (another postmodern artist who straddled the cutting edge/hip and commercially viable realms) or David Bowie (certainly a modernist [at most, a "limit-modernist," to use Brian McHale's term], whose "characters" explore an idea of persona that no early twentieth-century modernist would be uncomfortable with). It seems to me that a more careful and patient reading of Beck's oeuvre might reveal some points toward the definition of a retromaniacal artistic temperament, which might be a useful tool for analysis and criticism going forward.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Mouse on Mars - WOW
Monkeytown, 2012

Now this is more like it! I will admit to being underwhelmed by Mouse on Mars' first release of 2012, Parastrophics. What their record label describes as "a life-affirming and constantly surprising album which is crammed with ideas, exuberance and sheer kinetic energy," I found to be kind of a slog. For all the talk of songs in "compulsive new shapes, full of glitter, intrigue and addictive detail"--not to mention "an elegance . . . which speaks, whisper it, of maturity" while being "as playful as ever"--Parastrophics just isn't a fun listen for me. And if I can't have fun by (and while) listening to Mouse on Mars, what's the point of putting on music in the first place? Thankfully, WOW delivers the goods in spades (if nothing else, and there is much else, the cover of WOW is gorgeous compared to that of Parastrophics). Indeed, I sincerely doubt that I've had more fun with an album this year. Certainly this is the only album that has compelled me to laugh out loud in public while listening. It's frantic and ridiculous and conjures up images of hilarious machines run amok. Misters St. Werner and Toma even seem to realise some counterbalance was needed to Parastrophics, as the press release that accompanies the album notes "You can almost feel the tension being released" and positions WOW as a burst of creativity, "a spontaneous reaction to all those hours of studio labour" involved in the five year gestation for the followup to 2006's Varcharz.

Ostensibly a club record--and, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the track, an engagement with bass music's developments since 2006--WOW really is sheer kinetic energy, a blast of primary-coloured rubber band textures and the wobbliest, squelchiest bass possible that twitches and stumbles over itself in its headlong rush only to turn a somersault and suddenly reappear, smiling and heading in the opposite direction. That might not be enough for the kids looking for a drop, but it's awfully hard not to find the movement grin-inducing, the sense of spontaneity liberating, and the good-times vibes of it all infectious. Thus, the moments of off-kilter bump and grind on "APE" feel less out of place than joyous reminders that you have hips and should be using them, and the push-pull, stop-start groove of "VAX" proves as hypnotic a headknocker as anything coming out of the Brainfeeder camp while also sounding like half a dozen arcade machines and a full cast of cartoon characters got together for a night on the town. Indeed, the songs start to resemble a Scooby Doo-esque haunted house after awhile, with disembodied voices and cheesy sound effects coming from every direction, and the album's better for it. 

If WOW is in any way a response to bass music (or, and I do hate the phrase, Mouse on Mars' "bass music album," which sounds much too genre tourist-y), it is so only obliquely, more a reminder that the elements that in the last few years have been bolted onto dubstep's frame or smuggled into DJ sets via house or funky or what have you have always been a part of Mouse on Mars' sound. The pounding, repetitious ecstacy of "HYM," for example, is one of the better re-applications of house music I've heard, and, balanced by its aquatic wobbles, feels like a cheeky literalisation of the intersections between dubstep and house over the past few years, until the two elements combine with a loping downtempo melody line that becomes an album highlight. The mile-long and taffy-thick vocals on "CAN" might call to mind Burial's patented vocal manipulations, but he's never been this demented, never sent his listeners off into a funhouse full of helium while strobes flash the colours of the rainbow. With its glamourous surfaces, "PUN" suggests BNJMN's Black Square or SBTRKT's self-titled album, but everything is just a little too busy, too frantic, too willing to spiral out of control to be anyone other than Mouse on Mars. Similarly, if the video game bleeps and bloops of "DOG" recall something that Zomby or Joker might have released a few years ago, they're equally indebted to classic Mouse of Mars from 1995's Iaora Tahiti or 1997's Autoditacker. At this point, it's almost tempting to see Mouse on Mars as their own continuum, quite separate from the hardcore continuum (see also this), but equally likely to loop back around in new permutations and configurations.

Not everything on the album works, though. Five of its thirteen tracks are interstitial moments that link, preface, or conclude the more substantial songs. Outside of the glitchy, pretty "ESO," I find them to be mostly disposable. They do keep the momentum up, allowing the album to flow more like a mix than the collection of wildly disparate tracks that it is, but in the case of opener "SOS" and "BSD," the mood is marred by Dao Anh Khanh, a Vietnamese vocalist here singing (in much the same way that Damo Suzuki--a one time Mouse on Mars collaborator--sings during his most out there moments) in an invented language. Similarly, the closing two tracks, "WOC" and "CAT," are largely pointless, a letdown from the true closer, "SUN," which rides a hiccoughing (literally!) beat to a pretty--if twisted and disoriented--conclusion behind swooning and swooping chords and phone pad arpeggios. In the spirit of fun, though, you can't really begrudge the band a few missteps that sound like a band having a blast and letting ideas run wild.

In light of the six weeks the band spent on it and its much more obvious, lightweight content, it's tempting to view WOW as a less worthy album than Parastrophics, an album that doesn't mean as much, that doesn't really contribute to the conversation surrounding electronic music in 2012 in a significant way. This would be, in my opinion, a serious error. With its manic (and maniacal) energy, WOW feels like a catalyst to creativity, a reminder that two guys making weird, goofy techno music have managed to carve out a pretty distinctive niche for themselves over the last nineteen years. Indeed, WOW manages to contribute to the conversation precisely because of its charm--any engagement or response here feels lowkey, the result of the band hearing something they like and tweaking it to fit into what they already do, rather than grasping at relevance by making themselves over as an example of whatever style is hot (I shudder as I consider Mouse on Mars goes footwork). Without feeling the need to nudge things forward by self-consciously demonstrating their up-to-two-minutes-into-the-future cred, Mouse on Mars have managed to point out that most of the electronic music world hasn't really caught up to what they've been doing their whole career. As WOW ably demonstrates, they're waiting over here with a readymade party whenever anyone feels like joining them. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The Spaceape - Xorcism EP
Hyperdub, 2012

Twelve minutes and fifty two seconds. That's the sum total of Xorcism, the Spaceape's first solo release (available for free at his website), according to its run time. It would seem scant prior to listening, but, as the press release accompanying the EP notes, "Everything that needs to be there is here and nothing more." The backstory: the Spaceape, né Stephen Samuel Gordon, a vocalist whose powerful, resonant vocals have injected post-millennial tension into Kode 9's productions on two excellent albums (2006's Memories of the Future and last year's Black Sun) in addition to guest spots on Burial's first album, Martyn's Ghost People, and Redshape's Square among others, has for the last three years dealt with a rare form of cancer. Xorcism details this struggle across seven tracks, channeling the percussive, unsettling, ghostly presence of Haitian music in order to tell of his experiences. Harrowing enough on its own, then, but even more engrossing (and, somehow, braver) in the context of what's come before: label Hyperdub explains that
[t]his intense experience was behind the sonic fictions of bodily malfunction and radiation that surrounded The Spaceape's collaboration with Kode9 on 2011's Black Sun album. Relisten to the lyrics such as 'Black Smoke', 'Neon Red Sign' and 'The Cure' and you'll understand the context to this new batch of The Spaceape's solo material. 
The cover art--itself a still from the brilliant video for "On the Run"--perfectly captures the mood, suggesting the otherworldliness common to the Spaceape's words and voice and the darkness, pain, and terror suggested by the release's title.

Of course, high concepts and compelling personal stories don't guarantee good art. Xorcism could have been nothing more than a curio--that guy from the dubstep tracks with the deep voice made a solo album--but the tracks here arguably work even better with the Spaceape's approach than his Kode9 collaborations. On those two albums, and the singles and one-offs he's featured on, the Spaceape proved himself to be a master of dread. What kept him from self-parody--which, for a man with as distinctive a voice as he possesses, would seem both all too easy and too quick to slip into--was his ability to reveal that dread is a layered emotion, a whole space or affect that enfolds and discloses a reality. The solemnity with which he enunciated his words, though, could be suffocating over the course of a whole album, the timbre of his vocals becoming a black hole, swallowing all light and air. Xorcism sidesteps this problem both through its brevity--the EP is ruthlessly efficient, pared to the bone--and its tempo, the full sprint suggested by "On the Run" the rule rather than the exception, allowing his vocals to stretch their limbs in a way that the pitch-black dubstep of Memories of the Future or the science fiction miniatures of Black Sun often denied.

For all the temptation to view this solely through the Spaceape's words and vocal performances, though (cf. Robert Darnell's excellent look at "He Gave His Body Over to Science" for Dummy for a nice write-up that avoids this), it's the music behind and around them that makes this release feel so striking and new. The weird, undulating vocals behind "Spirit of Change," for example, are as haunting as anything that Ghost Box has released, and the urgent, insistent horn parts that cycle through "On the Run" and "The Sound" ratchet the tension up to almost unbearable levels. "Up in Flames" prominently features a violin part that sounds almost Acadian along with its drums and bells, and as a literalisation of the Black Atlantic subtext to the release, it's a striking moment. Ultimately, though, the masses of drums throughout are what really drive these songs. Pulsing with rhythmic force, though infinitely more pliable than four-to-the-floor kicks or dubstep's half-step lurch, the drums shift and swirl and blur, all motion, energy, and heat. Where the Spaceape plays with his vocals are also thrilling moments--from the pitched-up and modulated backing vocals on "Your Angel Has Come" to the female (?) backing vocals on "On the Run," the juxtaposition of calmness and anger on the multitracked "He Gave His Body Over to Science" to the chorus of vocals that close out the EP on "Up in Flames"--highlighting his command, but also his versatility.

As a spoken word artist's EP, though, eventually it comes back to the words, and the ones intoned by the Spaceape throughout Xorcism are evocative and arresting. The opening stanza to "Spirit of Change" burns with apocalyptic fervour as it sets the scene of "a man / Looking up at a weeping sky / Rain splinters down / His burnt charcoal skin." The depiction of radiation therapy in "He Gave His Body Over to Science" is almost too stark to bear, full of invasive technology that attacks (and constitutes) a soul in a person, its chorus ("He gave his body over to science / He said from now 'I'll be compliant' / No change of heart or acts of defiance / He gave his body over to science") and the assurance that "It won't be long before he's a believer" offering a kind of Foucaultian terror. Ultimately, it might be the mantra-like lines of "Up in Flames" that stay with me most: a song that "rallies against man's complacency in a world we inhabit so briefly" according to the notes that accompany the release, the repetitive structure of the lines give its exhortations an uncanny power. Pick a song on the release and you're bound to find a line that grabs you, though, that shakes you and that makes the demons exorcised in these songs dance into life in the corners of your eyes.

Twelve minutes and fifty two seconds. It goes by in a heartbeat, except when it doesn't. Xorcism has the curious power to dilate time. In the moment with these songs, the intensity is almost too much, the words, the sounds, the details accruing too quickly and proving quietly devastating. No song seems like it will ever end--the spell is too powerful, too hypnotic for you to be released from its grasp. Then, as soon as it's begun, the song is over, the EP sprints on to its next tale, anxieties brought to light and hanging heavy in the air from track to track. In its singular world, Xorcism reminds me most of Gonjasufi's work. Perhaps too easy a comparison--intensely focused and meditative words paired with immediately recognisable voices--but one that I keep being drawn back to. I've often tried to describe the Spaceape (and sell him to friends) as a force of nature: his voice is something big, his presence is something that takes you over, that demands your attention and your vision, like a massive storm. That's doubly true here. The ghosts in these stories will hound you and chase you through your unconscious, equal parts frightening and carnivalesque. Nothing about Xorcism makes for an easy listen, but it's a rewarding one, the sound of an artist boldly asserting his identity by giving voice to his deepest doubts and fears in order to find some measure of spiritual reassurance. In so doing, the Spaceape offers up one of the most compulsively listenable releases of the year even as it challenges you anew with every play.

Friday, October 26, 2012


I've made my feelings on the Weeknd's music fairly clear: I loved the trilogy of albums released last year because of the stylish production, but I keep returning to them because of the bizarre psychological terrain that the albums cover. Ahead of the release of Trilogy--the major label backed, newly mixed and mastered versions of House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence--Abel Tesfaye and co. have released a new song, "Enemy." As Fact point out, the song sounds like it features a warped sample of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," which should do nothing to fend off the charges of the Weeknd's music being "PBR'n'b," but is another inspired production choice. 

"Enemy" itself is a wonderful track, taking the lush, sensuous pop of tracks like "Montreal" and "Outside" from Echoes of Silence and fusing it with the fragility of that album's closing title track to produce a coldly sensuous burner. The minimal piano backing feels like it exists in an ocean of space, while the hints of 80s guitar and the fairly minimal beat provide an accent and a foundation, respectively, for Tesfaye to do what he does best: unfurl a tale of depravity and seduction shot through with desperation, isolation, and manipulation. It's old ground for him in some ways, but few people are masters of an aesthetic the way Tesfaye is, and that aesthetic evolved a great deal more over the course of three albums last year than people gave him credit for. "Enemy" doesn't move that aesthetic into any radically new territory, but it does suggest that there doesn't seem to be a drop in quality on the horizon.

The best songs on his Trilogy were the ones that balanced this tension between the wild indulgences and psychological emptiness that seems to define his character--"The Zone's" admission of not being able to see or feel even as he has the sex he can't help but pursue being the archetypal example--but there was another strand to this, the one in which Tesfaye considers his own status and abilities as singer, celebrity, seducer and denounces all three as inevitably fleeting and ephemeral ("Rolling Stone" and "Next" come to mind). "Enemy" seems to balance somewhere between the two narrative threads, at once begging and yearning like Morrissey but in the same breath noting that "I'd rather be your enemy / than any friend you think I'd be" and admitting that he "forgot how it feels to regret my sins / I need the old thing back." Unlike "Rolling Stone" or "Next," though, in which Tesfaye worries that once he's told his story the females he surrounds himself with will leave him as old news, no longer mysterious and therefore no longer attractive, he flips the tables and explains to the female he addresses in "Enemy" that:
You remind me of a feeling that I used to have
So I don't know what to expect from you tonight
But I'm not trying to waste nobody's time
I'm just trying to find material, some inspiration
We can put it in a song, if you want.
It's another seductive dangling of the fame and fortune he promises on "Lonely Star," one predicated on his voice, though one in an interesting tension with the choruses desire to seduce her without a word, as if he doesn't want to have to resort to his status anymore. Tellingly, the old ambiguity returns in his desire to make her "numb without a word" and "leave without a word," the two things that Tesfaye himself seems to reveal about himself over and over again: he's always numb, and he's always leaving and being left.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Ultraista - Ultraista
Temporary Residence, 2012

I've written about good taste and records before. Generally, I'm of the opinion that good taste is largely a curse; the bands and artists whose work deliberately appeals to good taste are rarely satisfying listens. While albums and bands can, in hindsight, seem to devolve into good taste (Bark Psychosis being a prime example with Hex, an album so perfectly in line with what's now "good taste" its wonder must surely be imperiled for the first time listener), there's a certain something--Fredric Jameson might call it an old-fashioned, modernist, "unique" style--that elevates such music above its influences, confluences, references, and progeny. Ultraista's self-titled debut album comes carefully packaged in not just good, but excellent taste. The press blurb on Temporary Residence's website notes the band's fondness for "Afrobeat, electronic an dance music, visual art, and tequila," a set of influences that lead them to produce their album "of highly infectious, exquisitely crafted electronic kraut-pop." To make it even more appealing, of course, the album is available (for a limited time only! Act fast!) on coloured vinyl. Oh, and it's Nigel Godrich's (he of Radiohead-producing fame) band, along with session musician Joey Waronker (famous to me for his drum work on R.E.M.'s Up) and Laura Bettinson, so you know the kids will love it.

To put it bluntly: Ultraista are not capable of transcending their good taste. Indeed, their good taste is so conspicuous, so all-encompassing, that the album becomes kind of interesting despite itself. Good taste in music like this often registers as pleasant anonymity--it sounds good because I know it sounds good, so it doesn't actually have to sound like anything--and Ultraista's debut is no exception. The concern to appear hip turns the album into a rigidly controlled screen, a surface that's impossible to get beyond. Studiously mixing the same three or four elements (essentially: metronomic, Teutonic funk drums; buzzing, swirling synths; icily detached vocals), the band's sound presents itself as a blank, a cipher. You can hear anything in this music: it's contemporary (parts of sound more like The King of Limbs than The King of Limbs did, others are vaguely in line with chillwave), it's retro (crucially, though, it draws from the 1990s rather than the 1980s, all mid-period Stereolab and early Broadcast), it's indie that has a shelf of European techno on vinyl to impress visitors with. For the most part, it's not even possible to distinguish the songs on the album by saying "that's the one with the . . ." or "it's the one that goes . . .," because its compositions are more of a piece than Music for Airports. In short, it's aggressively bland in its good taste, its pleasant anonymity.

This is where it gets interesting, though, because nothing can be so bland and anonymous without transforming into something else. One of the most overworked remarks on a piece of music is Brian Eno's description of My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" as the "vaguest music ever to have been a hit," but I honestly do feel that something similar is at play with this album. Just when it's on the point of dissolving, when it has reached a point of maximum blankness, it becomes bizarrely appealing. Temporary Residence credits the musicians with "masterful control over the pure anatomy of a pop song," and the description is not wrong, though for different reasons than the label would suspect, I think. This is pop music transformed into observed pop music--it knows very well how pop songs work, and it's able to demonstrate how they work to the listener without ever doing the things pop music does. This isn't music that inspires an emotional response in the way that a Top 40 hit will, but it offers a clinical deconstruction of how the Top 40 hit does this by turning the pop song into the unreachable world behind the screen of Ultraista's music.

Take opener "Bad Insect," which rewrites Radiohead's "Bloom" and suggests how pop music can be exhilarating without actually ever raising your pulse. Emotionally, this music is flat, devoid of affect, and more interesting for it. The minimalism in terms of sound design works to the song's advantage in focusing attention on the surface. This is taken to even greater extremes in the middle of the album, with "Our Song" and "Easier" anonymous enough to become almost offensive, to retain a certain grain of reality, a kind of productive irritation that suggests the songs are as much theorizing about the music they sound like as functioning as actual songs. Indeed, the album falters at its busiest, when the spell of its good taste, its vagueness, is broken. The songs that fall victim to this (hyper)activity become genuinely irritating, as on the grating "Smalltalk" or the chirpy "Static Light."

Perhaps the oddest song here is "Gold Dayzz," which ends up with a kind of sub-Trish Keenan vocal that sounds lazy in the wrong ways, a curse that also plagued the Godrich-helmed King of Limbs. Bettinson's detached vocals are put to quite good effect elsewhere, though, as on "Strange Formula"--which is practically sub-zero in its icy loops of voice and synth--or the brilliant closing troika of "Party Line" (the album highlight), "Wash It Over," and "You're Out." What makes "Party Line" immediately noticeable is its deviation from the rest of the album's tonal palette. Foregrounding a piano line that feels snatched out of an adult alternative song designed to soundtrack graduations, the song supports itself with buzzing synths and a gently insistent bass that work brilliantly to catch the ear. The final two tracks are content to drift along aimlessly, threatening to lose all semblance of form at any moment, to lose sight of the pop structures they so carefully work to ape and to dissolve into pure sound, and the better for it.

Ultraista is, ultimately, an odd release. It seems too studied and mannered to have had its most appealing qualities (vague formlessness, anonymity) in mind. Nevertheless, the songs here tend to work as a kind of new twenty-first century ambient art-pop, plundering the cool bits of the past and reassembling them into the precise shapes that are now able to be only just heard and distinguished from the general background noise of life--a YouTube video playing in the background of your cubicle while you do work, the sound turned down so as not to disturb coworkers. Ten years ago it would have been a hit, and ten years from now it might be again (or it might sound like nothing at all, its good taste silencing it), but at this moment Ultraista's debut is weirdly adrift. As I listen to it, I think about Neil Kulkarni's "A New Nineties" series at The Quietus. Whereas his columns reclaim an alternative decade to the Alternative decade, Ultraista are like a band of Rip Van Winkles who fell asleep when bands like Eleven were making albums like avantgardedog and that dog. were making Retreat from the Sun and awoke in 2012. Whether there is any place for them (or any point to them) remains the question, though; where Rip eventually settles into a blissful senescence, free to be the idle raconteur he always wished to be, I think Ultraista will never quite find another time they fit into.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Godspeed You! Black Emperor - ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND!
Constellation, 2012

In one sentence: ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND! is both exactly what you think a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album should sound like (particularly given that it's made up of "definitive" versions of two songs that were being performed before the group's hiatus) and a reminder of their music's ability to transcend expectations. Surprises: it's heavy as fuck, all squealing guitars and full band detonations. Reassurances: occasionally that exquisite brand of melancholy that is distinctly Godspeed will be teased, but the band never gives in to the temptation to rehash past glories--this is nervous, edgy music for a nervous, edgy time. Ultimately: if this is the end, it's on a higher note than Yanqui U.X.O., trimming some of that record's fat in its longer pieces and including some of the atmospheric dronescapes that made Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven such engrossing listens. Fuck yeah, I'm pumped, basically. I'll write a real review when I've stopped smiling. For now, listen here.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Via Fact, here's new music from Mark Hollis (formerly of Talk Talk). As their story points out, it's the first piece of music he's released since his 1998 self-titled solo album. Hollis casts a long shadow over the world of post-rock given his involvement with Talk Talk, obviously, and like Scott Walker (he of the forthcoming Bish Bosch), Kate Bush, and Michael Gira from Swans (apparently--I have to admit being deficient in my knowledge of that group), he's something of an avatar of the modernist auteur

After the announcement that the first chance one would have to hear Hollis' new work would be through the incidental music of a pay channel drama starring Kelsey Grammer, I admit that I didn't have high hopes. "ARB Section 1" does nothing to particularly raise my hopes, but it's at least a curiosity; it might even present a problem to be solved. After working through the strangeness of its first few seconds, the mix of weirdly tropical, Fantasia-esque strings and what sounds like the "voice" preset on a low quality keyboard (recalling the soundtrack to any number of JRPGs from the late 90s and early 00s) proves itself quite beguiling. There's a certain lushness to it that fits music from one of the primary architects of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, but whereas those albums seem crystalline and unreal, emanations from a Platonic realm somehow beamed to a fallen world, "ARB Section 1" feels weirdly real. Its humid mystery (appropriate, given that the music was originally conceived of as the score for a 2010 film The Peacock) actually makes it feel of a piece with artists like Shlohmo, Lone, and Slugabed, which, considering how far off the beaten path Talk Talk's later releases seemed at the time, is promising. 

Despite all this, the piece feels neutered without context, and I have to believe that subsequent sections of "ARB"--should they exist and be released--or at least more music to surround this piece would improve "ARB Section 1" Certainly, this feels like only half a return without Hollis' heavenly voice, which acted a beacon of light during Talk Talk and his solo work's bleakest moments, a familiar hand to guide the listener through the strangest passages. The problem that I see this track posing is one of the author function: Hollis' solo album seemed so of a piece with the final Talk Talk releases, and the long silence following it has offered a certain closure. I hear--and I'm sure I'm not the only one--that album "finishing" Talk Talk's project. If the appearance of "ARB Section 1" heralds the release of new music from Hollis, then, is it taking up that project again, suggesting that it wasn't finished in the first place, or is this a new moment, with a new project? How will the linearity of Talk Talk and Hollis' progression as an artist--one that is so perfect that it seems scripted--be understood in the face of new music? Will an equally long silence follow? In a way, "ARB Section 1" (and what follows, if anything) might cause a change in how Hollis is understood as an artist, or it might reaffirm how he is understood now by denying his new music a place in his oeuvre. Either way, it should be fascinating to watch the debates should more new music by Hollis surface.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Four Tet - Pink
Text, 2012

I figured I might as well join in the outpouring of love for Four Tet's new album, Pink (for examples, see the reviews here, here, and here, and the comments here). I don't know if I can call myself a long-time fan of Four Tet, but I've been pretty solidly on board since I first heard 2008's Ringer EP. "Ribbons" caught me in its spell--mysterious and alluring and weirdly beautiful; retrofuturistic in a strange way, like dusty chrome furniture in a space station. From there, I went backwards and caught up on what I'd missed. By the time 2010's There Is Love In You rolled around, it was fair to say that I was a fan. Over the past year and a half or so, it's been a pleasant surprise to have a steady trickle of music from Kieran Hebden, from collaborations with Burial to one-offs and pairs of tracks of new Four Tet songs. Those Four Tet songs are collected here, and it's a credit to the strength of Hebden's voice as a producer that Pink is a fairly unified set, exploring an area that, if not rigidly defined, at least has some pretty solid borders. If Pink doesn't quite match the heights of There Is Love In You, it's not for a lack of stunning moments, as throughout Hebden continues to demonstrate his ability to take what might seem affected in others' hands and turn out effortless, weightless music. The more overt turn for the dancefloor signaled by Ringer and followed through on his last album is front and centre, but there's also a nod towards his earlier work, with the sinuous, ever-shifting rhythms and cosmic outlook of free jazz, the gently psychedelic strains of 1960s folk and early 1970s singer-songwriter music, and the loose-limbed bop-and-knock of hip-hop shot through the floor-filling potential of the material here. Six albums into his career as Four Tet, Hebden's managed with Pink to sum up where he's been and hint at where else he might go. That both parts of that equation are thrilling suggests what a special talent Hebden is.

Pink is a lengthy album--it clocks in at just over an hour--but its length is put to good use: aside from a mid-album stretch of shorter tracks, extended run times provide Hebden with the room both to continually mutate the shape of tracks and to spotlight a track's parts. Thus, opener "Locked" allows its swinging percussion almost two full minutes to do all the lifting before it turns into infinitely refracted psychedelia, all shards of hallucinatory melody that subtly disorient even as they enchant. Similarly, closer "Pinnacles" pushes and pulls on its underwater, Caribou-esque techno centre, letting jauntily dissonant piano crash through the mix again and again, not to disrupt the groove but to highlight how swinging it is. Hebden is still able to pull back and isolate elements on the shorter tracks, though, as the drop into near-silence during the weirdly percolating break of "Jupiters" bridges its pretty overture with the jazzy and relentless groove that dominates its second half. Indeed, if there's a common denominator to the album, it's the importance of the drums to these tracks. Thrillingly alive--even when they clearly aren't live--they make the best argument for the evolution of Four Tet over the past decade, turning what's been an eclectic discography into a surprisingly linear trajectory. It's as if the collaborations with Steve Reid, the folktronica, the detours through house and techno had all been planned by Hebden, rather than happy accidents along the way as he developed. Regardless, it's all there in the drums, which, aside from the beatless epic "Peace For Earth" (probably the closest thing here to the material on There Is Love In You), cover the album like a web in much the same way those shimmering, Reich-ian pings and chimes covered the last album.

If the drums make the album, though, the stunning moments that I mentioned earlier come courtesy of the textures that interact with those drums. The chunky synths that close out "Locked" like a sunset. The kalimba/mbira that wends its way through the final three minutes of "Lion" and pushes the track's funkiness through the roof. The repetitive, old-school vocal sample that drives "128 Harps," and the heart-stopping pauses throughout the track, that inject some tension into what could otherwise be a bit of pretty filler. The chasing-its-tail vocal in "Pyramid" that allows the track to do "Love Cry" in reverse and offer the hardest, purest dance track of Hebden's career. These and other moments provide sumptuous highlights that move the body and fire the senses, suggesting that the music on Pink might best be called "gourmet techno." I've damned other albums for suffering from the dulling effects of great taste, but this is an example of undeniably great taste used to help the music rather than render it tame and predictable.

Despite the superlatives littering this and other reviews, it seems like it would be relatively easy to underrate Pink. Hebden's been so good for so long at this point that a new Four Tet album that does everything he's always done well and expands (or at least deepens) the project's aesthetic doesn't feel like a revelation. I doubt this album is going to be the starting point of any kind of revolution, and it's unlikely that Pink will be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential tones as his pal Burial's Untrue, say. What that doesn't and can't cover, though, is that this is well-written, well-produced music that hits all its targets in a relaxed, assured manner. Sometimes it pays to have a steady hand at the wheel, and it's difficult to imagine a steadier hand than Hebden's here.

On a deeper level there is one thing that Pink has going for it that suggests if it's not an "important" album, it's at least an interesting one: the tracks that make up Pink offer a model of how omnivorous music can avoid the over-caffeinated maximalism that tends to plague "post-everything" music, like Rustie's Glass Swords. At this point, Four Tet denotes an aesthetic sensibility that really does seem comfortable grabbing from just about anywhere, even if it mostly remains within certain genres and idioms. The pastoralism that first brought Four Tet notice is still present--if in limited supply on Pink; one of its wonders is how urban it feels--and the various elements at work in his sound are so integrated, so naturalised, that it's difficult to call anything he does a dalliance anymore. In this sense, Pink feels very timely: you could spend hours following its sounds and strands through YouTube, though that wouldn't necessarily make your experience of the album any richer. Knowledge of UK garage, 2-step, dubstep, house, and techno aren't required for entry--beauty and meaning are communicated on the surface as well as in the depths. In his study of literary modernism The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner compares the densely allusive poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot before concluding:
[N]o knowledge about Coriolanus will lock Eliot's lines neatly together as the information that Paquin was a Paris dressmaker will lock Pound's. Pound omits, omits, but knows what he is omitting and can restore on demand; but behind Eliot's resonance there is frequently nothing to restore (how centrifugal are the Notes to The Waste Land!). (133)
In place of omitting, we might say that Hebden synthesizes or integrates, but, like Pound, he can restore what he's integrated, allowing worlds to continually bloom behind his music. Here an allusion, a citation, and the (seemingly) infinite archive of the internet that supports and supplements the experience of listening to Four Tet offers a connection to a broader cultural matrix without ever feeling like it threatens to overwhelm the music in the present moment. That might not seem like it's much, but I'm finding that an increasingly scarce experience when listening to music these days. If musicians can learn any trick from Four Tet's Pink, I hope it's to do the same.