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.