Monday, March 12, 2012


Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times and the Tides
Matador, 2012

I've been waiting for this album since grade nine. That's when I bought Goo, then an album that was ten years old (I didn't know who Chuck D was or why people made such a big deal in reviews about him being on the album, nor did I have any idea what the PMRC was or why I should smash it), and fell in love with not just Sonic Youth's music, but Lee Ranaldo's songs in particular. My brother had a handful of SY albums--Daydream Nation, Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and A Thousand Leaves--but they'd never made sense to me. I knew they were supposed to be cool, though, and as I started to learn about things like "indie rock" and "college rock," I felt an obligation to go back to those albums. Daydream Nation was for me, as it was for many people, the way in: "Teen Age Riot," "Silver Rocket," and especially "Candle," but gradually "'Cross the Breeze," "The Sprawl," and "Trilogy." It took a long time for "Eric's Trip," "Hey Joni," and "Rain King" to make sense, but eventually they did. Something about "Mote," Lee's song on Goo helped with this. It was weird and alien. I didn't understand it or what it was trying to do. I did know that when he sang "I am airless / a vacuum child" it sounded so cool, but also so elegant. Thurston was effortlessly snotty, but Lee seemed intriguingly enigmatic and mysterious. Why didn't he get more songs?

By that time, I'd started listening to contemporary Sonic Youth. "Karen Revisited" [sadly, there are only edits on YouTube] was mindblowing; in his review of Murray Street, Rob Mitchum talks about the song's "ultraviolet feedback," which is such a perfect way of describing its beauty. Once that settled--and as I began to explore the back catalog more fully, finding gems like "In the Kingdom #19" and "Pipeline/Kill Time" or "Karen Koltrane" (those first notes! that first line!!!)--Lee continued pumping out great songs, even if he only got one or two per album: "Paper Cup Exit," "Rats," and "Walkin Blue" were all highlights of their respective albums. My friends and I used to talk all the time about an album full of Ranaldo-penned songs. We took our favourites from the various albums we owned and made each other mixtapes of them. I had a friend who was convinced that "Wish Fulfillment" was Lee's greatest song. I disagreed. I usually went with "Karen Koltrane."

About three years ago, I started to hear rumours that a Lee Ranaldo solo album was for sure in the works. When nothing came of it, I chalked it up to other things I really wanted but would never hear: a follow up to Loveless, a Nick McCabe solo album, a new For Carnation record (to pick just a few). Late last year, though, Matador announced that a Lee solo album was coming in March. By January, there was a single from the album, "Off the Wall". As of today, the entire album is available for streaming at Drowned in Sound (see the link in the photo caption). I was anxious before I pressed play. "Off the Wall" was decent, but it didn't really wow me, and if that was taken as the best way into the album, then I felt this did not bode well for my chances of enjoying Between the Times and the Tides as a whole.

Thankfully, mercifully, nothing could be further from the truth. This album is exactly what I want from a Ranaldo solo album and exactly what I needed that album to be (I should note: I know he's released other solo albums before; I mean a solo, song-based album). This is not to say that it is revolutionary or that Ranaldo is really doing anything new here: if you've been listening to college rock, indie rock, or some permutation thereof at any point in the last twenty years, you should feel pretty comfortable here. In some ways, this album is a lot like Murray Street in that it feels like a conscious engagement on Ranaldo's part with a kind of classic rock impulse. This is obviously the work of a man who loves Television and the Grateful Dead, but it's also the work of a man whose music helped to shape things like this and this. Indeed, not just due to the presence of Nels Cline on the album, Between the Times and the Tides most resembles Wilco, a distinctly American take on rock music of the past four decades, one that values Chapel Hill as much as Seattle, Southern California as much as downtown New York, though the dominant aesthetic is firmly shaped by early and mid-1990s indie.

The albums opens with the most Sonic Youth-sounding guitar line on the entire album (it wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Eternal), though one that quickly gets transformed into something like a '60s psych lead when the rest of the band comes in. "Waiting on a Dream" is relaxed and spacious even with its pounding drums, the kind of album opener that a 56 year old who's heading into his fourth decade of his recording career should be making. The mix is busy, full of guitars and touches of organ, but never overstuffed. If it wasn't such a pejorative, I'd say it sounds professional, a song that knows what it needs to do and goes about doing it. It feels much shorter than its six minute running time, and it gets the album off on the right foot. "Off the Wall" still feels slight, even in the context of the album--it's just slightly too close to an anonymous rocker--but it's followed by one of the album's highlights, "Xtina as I Knew Her," another dreamy, romantic reflection on lost time and lost people from a guy who can already claim at least two masterpieces in that category. The bridge and guitar break just past the halfway mark is stunningly beautiful and the long instrumental coda highlights just how the good the musicians Ranaldo has surrounded himself with are (aside from Cline, there's Jim O'Rourke, Alan Licht, John Medeski, and Steve Shelley, among others). Cline's solo--I'm assuming it's his--on "Angles" is unbelievable, a cross between a malfunctioning video game and a modem that possesses a weird, shimmery melodicism, and whoever is responsible for the warbling/screaming leads on "Hammer Blows" (is that an instrument or a voice?) deserves serious credit.

The second half of the album is the stronger of the two, though. "Fire Island (Phases)" cuts between molten rock and country-esque shuffle, exploding just past halfway into another furious guitar break (this is nothing if not a great guitar album--cf. the ecstatic solo on "Lost" for yet more proof) before finishing in breezy, lyrical territory that highlights Ranaldo's facility with hooks. "Shouts" with its cymbol wash and prominent organ reminds me of late period Talk Talk, of all things, while the lyrics seem to make reference to Ranaldo's participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The spoken word bridge (by Ranaldo's wife, Leah Singer) is an arresting moment, and the high point of the album for me.  Penultimate track "Stranded" actually one ups Thurston Moore at his own game, an acoustic ballad with some gorgeous pedal steel work that feels cut from the same cloth as "The Shape is in a Trance"/"Massage the History." Closer "Tomorrow Never Comes" is the great lost Alternative Rock single of 1995, all angular melody and casual vocals with an unashamedly big chorus and some more wonderful guitar. The way Ranaldo draws out "Survival" at the end of the second verse is just perfect, an example of one of the classiest deliveries in rock at work.

For as great an album as this is--and it is a great album whether you're a Lee Ranaldo fan or just a fan of interesting rock music--I can see an argument being made against it. Ultimately, there's little here that's going to assuage the fears of those who claim that rock is finally, once and for all, dead. It's difficult to imagine Between the Times and the Tides sounding any different had it been released at any point in the last 20 years. Really, it wouldn't have sounded totally out of place as a kind of double release with Thurston Moore's Psychic Hearts (1995), to say nothing of his Trees Outside the Academy (2007) or Demolished Thoughts (2011). Of course, the days of Sonic Youth as an actual revolutionary force were over long before they became the kind of band who marketed exclusive compilations through Starbucks. Nevertheless, it's hard to begrudge the fact that Ranaldo doesn't take more chances here given how lovely the results are. His previous solo ventures, and his ongoing Text of Light performance group, are plenty more in line with his avant leanings, for those who are interested.

For me, right now, I'm happy that one of my favourite singers and guitarists has made an album that celebrates and illuminates his voice as a songwriter. It doesn't tell the whole story--there's no "Eric's Trip," no "NYC Ghosts and Flowers," and no "Karen Revisited"--but it covers a remarkable amount of territory. In the liner notes, Ranaldo writes that "Songs can go a million different ways. Thanks to some amazing friends who stopped by to play and sing, this group of songs went to some wonderful places. Unexpected. I hope you like where they ended up." I can't say there are any places I wish these songs had gone instead. This is the best SY-related project since at least Murray Street, and I don't really expect to hear a better rock album this year. Thanks, Lee; it was worth the wait.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Today would have been Douglas Adams' sixtieth birthday and it is massively unfair that he is not alive to celebrate it. I can remember reading The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (it was a rite of passage in my house, along with reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that signaled one was an adult, with adult tastes and opinions, etc.) in grade six and boring my friends by reading long passages to them. It was the most brilliant thing I'd ever read at that time, and the whole series remains one of the funniest things ever committed to paper. I know that my sense of humour and my outlook on life can often be traced back to his writing ("Life: loathe it or ignore it, you can't like it."), and I'm grateful for every minute I've spent reading him. I almost walked out of the 2005 movie version of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy--it felt overtly Disneyfied, more an insult to his legacy and a betrayal to his vision than anything else (even if he approved it)--but not even that could dim my love for his books (though it did increase my appreciation for the wonderful BBC television series a hundredfold).

Dig that theme music! 

While I love how madcap and zany he could be, I also love the darkness of the last three Hitch Hiker books. He may have felt they weren't in keeping with the tone of the early books and radio serials, but they were still wonderful, even with the humour absolutely pitch black and the characters succumbing to all sorts of horrible events. What's more, they felt in line with the Dirk Gently books, particularly The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, in a way that helps to unite his entire corpus (not that someone with as distinctive a voice as Adams could really write something that wouldn't be recognizably his). There is--and it's unfair I can't find it online (though my own stunning ineptitude is probably the reason)--one of the more beautiful passages in the English language, one that I often find running through my head at the end of a long day, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and it's moments like that, when you suddenly realize that you've been laughing hysterically because someone managed to write something so profoundly true, to get the universe and what it's like to live in it so right, that make Adams such a pleasure to read.

Happy birthday, Douglas Adams!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Burial and Four Tet

Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) just tweeted a link to "Nova," the latest collaboration between Burial and himself (this follows their previous collaborations "Moth" and "Wolf Cub" from 2009, and their work with Thom Yorke last year on "Ego" and "Mirror"). This is a treat, coming so soon after Burial released his Kindred EP, and at less than six minutes it feels like something of a counterbalance to its lengthy suites. "Nova" is, as you can imagine, wonderful, starting off like a half-remembered song from a dream, all disconnected snatches of vocals just beyond comprehension and far away glimmers of melody. I particularly love the stuttering chords and vocals over those Burial drums in the first half of the track, and when everything takes off in the second half after a brief lull, "Nova" goes to another level. Achingly melodic, the climax is like the best moments of both artists distilled to deceptively simple elements, what every imitator and detractor has clumsily attempted to grasp, but with an obvious level of mastery and craftsmanship that transcends well-worn sonic signifiers. The close, with its static and what sounds almost like whale noises (a Burial favourite), is pretty, if a little inconsequential, but at that point the heavy lifting has been done.

This track hits the sweet spot for a collaboration between these two in a way that none of their other tracks have quite matched, with the lushness of Four Tet's work offered a propulsive lift from those 2-step drums that Burial favours and the approach to the vocal meeting somewhere in the middle. Both "Moth" and "Wolf Club" had moments of brilliant, but they felt stitched together, the boundaries between the two artists too clear to work as anything more than a Four Tet track added to a Burial track or vice versa. Here, though, there's a give and take that suggests two artists who are comfortable with each other and able to push each other into new territory. The idea of an album length collaboration between the two has become an increasingly tantalizing prospect over the course of their collaborative history, and this track really makes that seem like a masterpiece waiting to happen.

All in all, "Nova" is seriously, compulsively listenable and one of the best examples of  "glowing" music--as Burial has described the music he tries to make--I've ever heard. Indeed, this sounds more "glo-fi" than most of the chillwave stuff that got that tag a few years ago, bright and colourful in just the right way. Come December, I can see this fighting for track of the year. If it's any indication of what's to come on a new Four Tet album, the follow up to 2010's There is Love in You is going to be something special.


Radere - I'll Make You Quiet
Future Sequence, 2012

Back at the start of the year, Big Shot put out an article on "75 Dance/Electronic Music Albums to Look For in 2012." One of the releases highlighted on that list that caught my eye was Radere's I'll Make You Quiet. Described as an album constructed out of "found sounds and processed guitar and electronics" that was "captured on single takes, a rarity in this cut-and-paste digital age," I marked the album down as a definite "must-hear." That description called to mind Tim Hecker, whose work I love, and I wondered if I'll Make You Quiet might be this year's Ravedeath, 1972. In many ways, Hecker is not a bad comparison for the music Carl Ritger makes as Radere. The physicality of his music, the weight and presence it seems to have in the room as it plays, certainly calls to mind some of the best attributes of Hecker's work, but the tension between silence and noise, the co-mingling of beauty and violence within both of those dynamics, also calls to mind the work of Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis c.Hex. Another recent touchstone might the Sight Below, whose It All Falls Apart used a similar tonal palette, though to more melodic (and ultimately more rewarding) ends.

While Radere calls to mind all of these artists, I'll Make You Quiet is not quite at their level. Most of the tracks here work not in terms of linear development or narrative, but through stasis and repetition. This can be quite an effective technique, but I'll Make You Quiet often suffers from a fatiguing insistence on its static qualities. Given the power and force of his sounds--even at its sunniest and lightest, nothing here could be called gossamer or be said to shimmer; this is solid music throughout--Ritger is often able to construct his tracks in a topographic fashion, using layers of sounds to construct worlds with a great deal of variance from top to bottom. The cover image, which is absolutely gorgeous and probably my front-runner for album cover of the year right now, describes the movement of sound on the album well: while there are often peaks and valleys, huge banks of cloud (in the form of drone, hiss, or hum) shift throughout, now obscuring those peaks and valleys, now revealing them. When this approach clicks, as it does on the album-opening title track--whose structure of a slow build to a monstrous wash of noise (aided by the grainy, lo-fi texture of the recording) that gives way to a brighter, almost angelic bit of melody reminds me a great deal of "Hex"--and the closer, "Stay Away," which uses dynamic shifts, feedback squall, and the arrhythmic propulsion provided by what sounds alternately like keys jangling or bits of broken metal and glass being dragged across a floor to great effect, Radere's music achieves a beauty and power that can breathtaking.

Those two tracks, at twenty two minutes combined, make up just under half the album's forty six minute running time. Unfortunately, the other twenty four minutes are not similarly thrilling. "Sometimes, I Can't Make Full Sentences" is the best of the rest, calling to mind the more interstitial moments of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (I half-expected a female voice to tell me about Arco AM/PM Mini-Markets), but there is a frustrating lack of development. An entire world is being constructed, one that sounds like what Arthur C. Clarke imagines might be beneath Jupiter's clouds in 2010: Odyssey Two, but nothing happens beyond that construction. That Ritger is able to create such vivid and detailed tracks in one take is impressive, but I can't help feeling that multiple takes might allow him to do more in the way of development. The remaining two tracks, ". . . So I Left" and "Good Evening, Ghosts (Version),"* suffer from the same fate. While ". . . So I Left" introduces a new colour to the album with its mock-organ guitar and chattering denouement (the most alien sounding moment on the album), "Good Evening, Ghosts" is nine minutes of static repetition, a swooning, swooping loop (a very pretty loop, to be fair) repeated while being swathed in noise and sonic debris. The materials are there, but Ritger seems content to put them together without asking them to do anything.

I'll Make You Quiet, then, is ultimately a missed opportunity. Its opening and closing tracks show just how strong and interesting Radere can be, but the middle of the album suffers from being neither ambient enough to serve as aural wallpaper (music this weighty and physical commands attention) nor active enough to repay close listening. At its best, the album suggests that Ritger has a voice distinctive enough to contribute to the kind of power ambient music that Tim Hecker has been the master of for the past ten years, which is high praise. That the longest tracks on I'll Make You Quiet are the strongest bodes well for Ritger's ability to make this kind of music appealing on a large scale, but for now, too much stasis and repetition and not enough development compromise his vision over the album as a whole.

*You have no idea how much I wanted to like a track called "Good Evening, Ghosts."

Thursday, March 1, 2012


I just noticed this post on Blackdown last night, so I'm a few days behind here. I was pretty disappointed to read that "This Month in Grime/Dubstep" would be no more. It's even more distressing to read Martin Clark's narrative of events:
Before we get into any light messenger shooting, the column is being retired, I did not choose to stop writing it. I've been invited to pitch to other sections on Pitchfork but my grime/dubstep column doesn't fit into the new editorial strategy. I'll be honest and say this isn't something I really understand but naturally recognise their authority to make this call.
While Clark goes on to point out that in some ways the end of the column comes at a very opportune personal moment, something about the phrase "doesn't fit into the new editorial strategy" bothers me. Does this herald, not too far down the line, the end of "Show No Mercy," also (Pitchfork's metal column for those unfamiliar)? What about something like "The Out Door" (a column focused on outre/experimental music)? Is that destined to fall afoul of the "new editorial strategy?" I understand the desire to move away from a single genre/scene focused column--if that is what this new editorial strategy entails--but surely first grime, then dubstep, and now UK bass music more generally have demonstrated over the past seven years (the length of the column's lifespan) their vitality, vibrancy, and importance to contemporary electronic music. If nothing else, Clark's voice has been an energetic, excited (and exciting), and informative one. He closes his sign off with "If you took the time to read [a "This Month in Grime/Dubstep" column] in the last seven years and came across someone you'd not noticed, well then bigup: my work here is done." Trust me, Martin: your work here is definitely done.

I feel as if I've written about this a dozen times on this blog--I'm too lazy to check and see--but when I first got on the internet, my exposure to new music came primarily via reviews, interviews, and, had they existed (or I been smart enough to find those that did exist), columns exactly like "This Month in Grime/Dubstep." Sites like Pitchfork and Allmusic (and later Stylus) were incredibly important to me because they gave me access to new music even if I could only read about it. Up until just before I went away to school, getting music that I heard about online was an incredibly time consuming and expensive proposition, usually limited to a CD as a Christmas gift or a trickle of music found on bad P2P networks, music that was difficult to access given the speed of dial-up modems. Reading about music, then, and imagining what it sounded like, piecing it together slowly through networks of references, was what I spent most of my time doing. I didn't get to listen to a lot of this stuff for a long time, but in some weird way I knew it backwards and forwards.

In high school, probably as a result of the amount of time I spent reading about music on the internet, I decided I was going to be a music journalist when I grew up. What could be better than writing about music for a living? Not only would I still be able to read and talk about it, but, I gathered, as an actual journalist, I would get to hear it. I'd sort of vaguely had ambitions about being a writer before this, but puberty led me to the distressing realisation that reading, writing, and talking about science fiction weren't activities that were likely to impress girls (plus I was, and am still, pretty rubbish at writing SF). Obviously, I was not in any way farsighted enough to see that the idea of becoming a print music journalist was not the smartest career ambition for any number of reasons. That didn't stop me, though; I even remember asking my grandfather, with whom I don't particularly get along, about being a journalist (he was one--a financial columnist, I believe). He told me he didn't think that music journalists made good money on the scale of journalists' salaries. I ignored this.

This desire to be a journalist continued on and off throughout undergrad, and to a certain extent it shaped how I listened to music (and what music I sought out). I spent a lot of those four years catching up on all the music I'd only read about before. It was a little like doing my homework. I listened to (almost) all the things I'd seen referenced and tried to get myself familiar with them. I discovered a lot of the music that I now love and consider central to my concept of myself as a music listener by doing this. Equally important, I discovered a number of music writers whose work I found to be both inspired and inspiring as I sought out information on the bands, genres, and movements I felt I needed to become an expert on. I was taken with Stylus' "Soulseeking" column, especially those by Nick Southall, many of which seemed unutterably elegant and eloquent. Pitchfork's features like Tom Ewing's "Poptimist" and Mark Richardson's "Resonant Frequency" were also playing an important role in shaping how I was thinking (and how I wanted to write and talk) about music. Nitsuh Abebe's article for Pitchfork on early British and American post-rock was then and remains now one of the best pieces I've ever read: dense with information, but accessible, full of obvious affection for its subject matter and welcoming for those less familiar. It also introduced me to the work of Simon Reynolds, the man who coined--for all practical purposes--the term "post rock," and whose Energy Flash and Rip it Up and Start Again! proved essential reading (again, part of that idea of "doing my homework"--I'm still waiting to get a chance to read Retromania).

The upshot of all this was that from high school to the end of undergrad, I started and abandoned (usually pretty quickly) a number of music blogs designed to emulate what I was reading. I was not successful about this, largely because the people I mentioned above are all quite good writers. In my final year of undergrad, I wrote a (pretty terrible if I'm honest) thesis on music, memory, and the interaction between the two for both musician and listener.* It was my last attempt at doing what I saw the people I admired doing. I did not find it an enriching experience, and I gave up the dream of becoming a music journalist, or even of writing about music. Clearly, I couldn't do it--at least not as well as the writers I admired could--and if I wasn't up to their quality, there was no point in writing. I still read and talked about music all the time, but I wasn't going to make that the central goal of my life. I was starting grad school and the idea of being a writer of any kind, but especially a music writer, sort of faded away.

Concurrent with all of that, I started listening to more and more new music. It's not that I ever stopped doing that, but now it was the primary focus. Starting about four years ago, I began to try to keep up to date and current with what was happening in the genres and styles I liked, rather than catching up on what had been going on five, ten, or twenty years before. This coincided with a move away from rockism toward more catholic listening practices (a move that had begun during my undergrad years but that has intensified over the past few years). I started to listen to (and, more importantly, to enjoy) things that I never would have considered in high school (electronic/dance music and electroacoustic/noise stuff) at the same time that I grew tired of some of the enthusiams of my teenage self (namely prog rock and krautrock, both of which sound pretty tired to me now, by and large, though perhaps I just need a break. I listened to a lot of that stuff). The fall of 2009 was a time of pretty significant changes for me, and my relationship to music--what I listened to, how I thought about it/talked about it, what I used to listen to it--was not immune to those changes. In a lot of ways, it was the point of maturation of the developments of the previous two to three years, and what led to me writing these words today.**

To bring this back to where I started, "This Month in Grime/Dubstep" was an important part of helping to shift and develop my tastes in that period. I would dip in and out of it, but at some point over the past few years I started reading each installment. I saw Burial's name pop up on a number of year end lists in 2007, so I picked up Untrue.*** I'm by no means an expert in grime, dubstep, or UK bass music, but they've been a healthy interest of mine ever since. I've found other sources since to discover more of this music--Fact, Resident Advisor, The QuietusBoomkat's product reviews--but I've always looked forward to Clark's columns. They were expertly curated, and guaranteed to turn up something interesting even when talking about things I otherwise didn't enjoy. I know there are Rinse FM podcasts and a simple search will turn up loads of people talking about this stuff, but that monthly digest was handy. It helped me feel like I was at least somewhat keeping up with what was going on half a world away.

So, RIP "This Month in Grime/Dubstep." You will be missed. I'm glad to hear that Clark plans to continue writing over at Blackdown. All I can say at this point, I guess, is bigup, Martin. You've done a fine job these past seven years. Thanks for all the music.

*This is obviously why hauntology so grabbed me. It was like a more interesting, less regressive version of everything I wanted to talk about in that thesis.
**I started this blog (in its first form, before I moved it to blogger) in the summer of 2010. I didn't know then that it was a blog--it was mostly just a bunch of stuff in a long word document--but I decided to formally make it one in the early parts of 2011. A couple months (and a few posts) later, it ended up here. Actually, the first thing in that word document was an anecdote about listening to "Hyph Mngo" (which I discovered via "This Month in Grime/Dubstep") with some friends while in the middle of the Redwoods.
***It feels very appropriate that I'm listening to Burial's Kindred--which I'm enjoying even more this time around--as I write this.