Sunday, December 29, 2013


It's been ages since I've posted anything, mainly because of an increasingly busy life, but, as Ian Malcolm said, life finds a way. I don't have time for separate posts, unfortunately, so my list will appear in one long post this time. There are other amazing releases that deserve recognition that aren't on the list--Tim Hecker's Virgins, Anthony Child's The Space Between People and Things, Karen Gwyer's Needs Continuum, Darkstar's News from Nowhere, Forest Swords' Engravings, The Black Dog's Tranklements, E.M.M.A.'s Blue Gardens, Pure X's Crawling up the Stairs, Rocketnumbernine's MeYouWeYou, Laura Veirs' Warp & Weft--and I strongly urge you to check them all out, too. Also, there were a number of albums that I never managed to get a handle on or that were disappointing in various ways that I would have expected to end up on this list: Boards of Canada's Tomorrow's Harvest (at times I think I love it, at others it just leaves me cold), Lee Ranaldo and the Dust's Last Night on Earth (dad rock in the worst possible way that got rid of almost everything I loved about Between the Tides and the Times), The Weeknd's Kiss Land (absolutely fascinating because of how unlikable Abel Tesfaye makes himself, but a little lacking in the hooks department), and the Besnard Lakes' Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO ("People of the Sticks" remains phenomenal, but the album as a whole is a little too comfortable and midtempo for its own good). And now, on to the list!

Albums of the Year 2013

 10. Four Tet, Beautiful Rewind (Text)
The album starts strongly and finishes strongly, but Beautiful Rewind doesn’t quite have the same brilliance as 2010’s There Is Love in You. When it’s on--the rushing jungle of “Gong,” the motorik intensity of “Parallel Jalabi,” the disorienting takes on Four Tet’s wall-of-shimmer that are “Ba Teaches Yoga,” “Crush” (which should be at least twice as long, cutting off as soon as it starts to get really interesting), and “Unicorn,” and the surprisingly poignant “Your Body Feels”--Beautiful Rewind shows off just how good Kieran Hebden is at making a palette that is, in theory, limited seem too expansive to ever run out of new permutations, much like his friend Burial. Unfortunately, the middle stretch of the album (particularly “Kool FM,” “Buchla,” and “Aerial”) feels underdeveloped, lacking focus and relying on repetition that feels more grating than driving, taking the ideas from tracks like “Ocoras” and “128 Harps” from Pink and failing to do anything new with them. A flawed effort, then, but one shot through with, if not greatness, at least very goodness. 

9. Machinedrum, Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
Travis Stewart's last release, Room(s), passed me by. After hearing all the hype I checked it out, but it made no sense to me (I haven’t gone back to try it again, though I probably should). “As a Child,” though, my favourite track from Lone’s Galaxy Garden, convinced me that there was something to all this Machinedrum love. When “Eyesdontlie” dropped, I was enticed by the descriptions that people offered--jungle, footwork, Burial--and I understood them this time. Hearing “Gunshotta” was an entirely different experience. The tools are, at this point in 2013, painfully overfamiliar, but the execution is flawless. I can’t disagree with the assessment that the album is frontloaded, but when I hear the best Boards of Canada song to come out in 2013 (“Center Your Love”) in that first half and still have tracks like “Rise and Fall” (which could’ve stepped off of Black Secret Technology) or the warped, melting pop of closer “Baby Its U” (which in my brain splits the difference between Jai Paul and Jon Hopkins) on top of “Eyesdontlie” to look forward to, I don’t much care. 

8. These New Puritans, Field of Reeds (Infectious)
Nick Southall reckons that the “Talk Talk similarities are over-emphasised in some circles; this is something quantifiably different to that, even if the odd musical moment or the ethos as a whole feels redolent,” and I can sort of get on board with that. If there is Talk Talk here (and let’s not kid ourselves--there is), it is Talk Talk as reimagined by Bark Psychosis. Indeed, Hex (and maybe some of ://Codename: Dustsucker, like “400 Winters” and “Burning the City”) seems the better comparison all around than Laughing Stock. Actually, despite not sounding anything alike, the album that Field of Reeds most reminds me of is Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes. Similarly, Elisa Rodrigues’ vocals on “Dream” (and elsewhere) call to mind Fovea Hex’s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent project. Field of Reeds is more than good enough to stand on its own merits, though. “The Way I Do” earns the cliché of dreamy--I can’t imagine how it couldn’t haunt your sleep for weeks after you hear it--and it opens the album with a fairly conventional structure. What Field of Reeds delivers in spades, though, is dramatic, shifting pieces (like “The Light in Your Name,” “V (Island Song),” and “Field of Reeds”) songs that seem formless until you accept their internal logic, in which case they become magnificent, three-dimensional spaces for you to play in. This is difficult, challenging music that never feels trying, and it amply rewards every minute of attention you give it.

7. Mogwai, Les Revenants Soundtrack (Sub Pop)
It’s a cliché to say this, so I’ll get it out of the way now: this might be the best thing Mogwai’s released since Young Team. Seriously. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was a great Mogwai album, but it also has come to feel like something of a corner. At this point, Mogwai does Mogwai so well, what’s the point in really listening to their albums? That this soundtrack recasts their sound as one of frosty, unnerving beauty (the stretch from “Relative Hysteria” through “Modern” might be the best run on anything Mogwai’s ever released) is a subtle but necessary bit of evolution, and if the oscillations of “Modern” or “This Messiah Needs Watching” point the way toward Rave Tapes next year, I’m very excited (that someone tried to criticise the teaser for that album for sounding like Ghost Box with dodgy drum machines is hilariously misguided, because that sounds awesome). At other times, mainly in the first half, Les Revenants offers the sequel to Come On Die Young that I never knew I needed, and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” succeeds in all the ways that “Hound of Winter” fails. Mogwai feels due, after almost twenty years, for the kind of late career renaissance that a band of their quality deserves. Hopefully this is the start.

Context be damned, at its best m b v is stunning. Bilinda Butcher’s voice turning into a beam of light from the heart of a globular cluster on “only tomorrow,” Kevin Shields’ perfect half-sighed, half-sung vocal for “who sees you,” the synths and coos of “is this and yes” suggesting the sterile beauty of the moon soundtracked by a particularly austere Stereolab, the heavy-lidded sensuality of “if i am,” the pulsating guitar break of “in another way,” and the fire-breathing rollercoaster ride of “wonder 2” are the show stoppers, but there are little joys and surprises throughout. Even the missteps--the somnambulistic “she found now” is both too long and terribly out of place; the 80s-indebted synthpop of “new you” is faceless, even with the help of a voice that has burned into the brain of a generation of indie rock fans, a soundalike that vanishes from the brain as soon as it stops playing; the insistent chugging of “nothing is” is insistent, chugging filler--can’t detract from a surprising triumph: Kevin Shields released something, it’s not as good as Loveless, and the world (and My Bloody Valentine) didn’t end.

 5. Burial, Rival Dealer EP (Hyperdub)
I’ve been listening to this a lot since its release about two weeks ago and I’ve only just started to make any sense of it. It feels to me like the conclusion of the Burial 2.0 format started with Kindred and perfected, I’d thought, on the “Truant”/“Rough Sleeper” single from the end of last year. Some of the claims made for this release have been . . . large, I’ll say (to keep it polite), but it does offer some interesting points to chew on regarding the exact nature of its politics (and those who are denying the release any political substance are flat out wrong). Burial has never been as reliant on darkness on those championing the “his new turn toward the light” narrative; his music has been from the very beginning not just nakedly emotional, but aspirational toward a transcendental grandeur that was more than just the perfect distillation of end-of-the-night blues (“Forgive” samples “An Ending (Ascent)” for god’s sake!). I’m still not convinced by “Hiders”--not because those drumbeats are bad, but because I don’t think the song actually needs its triumphant second half: at half its length, it would have made a glorious call back to his very earliest work--but “Rival Dealer” and “Come Down To Us” are majestic in the best sense. The suite format that Burial has been toying with comes to breathtaking fruition on this EP. The ambient final third of the title track, the final return and beef up of the melody in “Come Down To Us” prior to the Lana Wachowski sample, the treatment of that (somewhat contentious) sample on its own, are all signs of Burial’s absolute command of his sound at this point. I have no idea what comes next and I can’t wait to hear it.

 4. Jon Hopkins, Immunity (Domino)
If you played the first half of this album for me as a kid (or even as a teenager), I’d have told you that it sounded like the future. The endlessly squelchy beats and the rubber band, oscillating melodies are only part of that, though. The feel of the first half just is futuristic to me, somehow. When I hear it, buildings stretch into the sky, lights streak by overhead, and spacewalks by Saturn's rings are a common vacation (of course, then my imagination turns dark and the future's all about fuel/food shortages, civil unrest, and techno-fascist dictatorships, but this is what I get for growing up on pulp science fiction). I never want it to end (indeed, both “Open Eye Signal” and “Collider” seem like they never do end--somewhere, in the ether, they just continue on and on to infinity, pulling and stretching themselves into ever finer strands of beats and melodies). Like Machinedrum’s Vapor City, this is a frontloaded album, with the more ambient second half certainly pretty (“Abandon Window” makes clear the reasons that Hopkins was Eno’s protégé by approaching the beatific grandeur of “An Ending (Ascent)”), but slightly too languid (“Form by Firelight”) or too featherweight (“Sun Harmonics”) to make quite the same impact on the listener. Even with its second half slowdown, though, Immunity is often breathtaking in a way that feels quietly original, despite all the comparisons to Actress, Burial, Border Community, Aphex Twin, et al.

An album that may not have been actually released (perhaps the perfect Internet-age album, in that sense?) that works as such a vital document of the times because it gives them a past: low bitrate streams, bad cellphone cam videos, the no-fi blasted at maximum volume as a substitute for quality, nuance, substance. The songs on this album are constantly dropping out, melting away, switching abruptly to the next sound on the playlist, the next video/picture/website you have to see. This is not just pseudo-experimental pretention, though. From the Bollywood blasts of “Track 2” to the gleeful information overload/sci-fi fantasy of “Track 10,” from the frenetic desperation of “Track 5” to the warped softness of “Track 9” (“Jasmine”), Jai Paul offers up whirling, colourful hooks that go straight to the brain’s pleasure centres only to disorient them. Ultimately, when someone asks me what the last five years felt like, when they need some kind of phenomenological sense of the grain and texture of the world, a glimpse into how it sounded and therefore how I experienced it, I’ll point them to this. If that’s not the sign of a future classic, I don’t know what is.

2. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
Much like with Neon Indian’s “Sleep Paralysist” a few years back, that Waxahatchee’s “Coast to Coast” was not an inescapable global mega hit this summer is clinching proof, in my book, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Beyond that admittedly killer lead single, though Cerulean Salt offers a number of deep cut gems--from the bass-led slow dance of “Brother Bryan,” to the brief, never repeated ramp up of “Lively,” and to the gloriously tumbling chorus of “Peace and Quiet”--and perhaps the most consistent across-the-board songwriting all year. Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics are next level good, full of the kind of details that make a song like the humidly evocative “Hollow Bedroom” come to life and the entire album achingly poignant. More importantly, though, her voice and her arrangements take these songs into harrowing, unexpected directions: when Crutchfield lets go at full power in “You’re Damaged” the moment is arresting in the best possible way.

1. Mount Kimbie, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (Warp)
I fell in love with Mount Kimbie's "Sketch on Glass" when I heard it four years ago. Indeed, along with Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo," it soundtracked quite a bit of that summer for me. I fell out of love with Mount Kimbie's debut album Crooks and Lovers, though, and we're still trying to patch things up. What a relief, then, to unashamedly fall back in love with them here. “Blood and Form,” a serious candidate for my favourite song of the year (for a long time every bus journey to campus ended with it), opens like some kind of cosmic bowling ball made out of black holes: its bass is so impossibly heavy that nothing can escape it. The spiraling synths that make up its second half cause my brain to see the same colours as a good game of Geometry Wars. “Made to Stray” feels exactly like the sun coming up. “So Many Times, So Many Ways” is the greatest Broken Social Scene song that BSS never wrote. King Krule’s guest appearances have gone from distracting to essential over the course of the year. All of this and none of this describes the charm of this album, which is so small and modest, such an obvious product of home and hand (opening with a song called “Home Recording” might actually be a little too on the nose), and so utterly bewitching. I listened to this more than anything else in 2013. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I figure it might be a good idea at this point to say that I'm not shutting down this blog. I'm hoping to become a little more active again come May, but we'll just have to see. Now, that being said, that statement seems like the kiss of death for a blog. Before I started blogging, when I was just reading blogs as I discovered them, I found that prolonged periods of inactivity--or severely decreased activity--followed by a post saying "I'm not dead, hope to post more soon, etc." was almost always the last post in the archive. That's not what I have in mind here. I would like to finish my best of 2012 list before 2013 is half over. . . 

Anyway, I haven't actually been keeping up with music as much in the first quarter of the year, but some stuff that's been exciting me in 2013:

Mogwai - Les Revenants: This might actually be, for the first time, the best thing they've released since Young Team. At times it feels like a return to the Come On Die Young era, but the relative lack of guitars throughout shifts things from slow burn to post burn. When this is bleak, it's awfully bleak, but the stretch of music from "Relative Hysteria" to "Modern" is as good as Mogwai has ever been, with the former (whisper it) besting "Stanley Kubrick." The cover of "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" is a little more successful than "Hounds of Winter" from the Earth Divisions EP--I don't want Mogwai to go all Palace Brothers on me, but I'm kind of happy with this as a minor direction for the band (as opposed to something like "The Sun Smells Too Loud," which remains the nadir of their recorded output as far as I'm concerned). Also, parts of this soundtrack remind me of the soundtrack for Star Ocean 2 (mainly this and this), which I'm surprisingly okay with.

Cyclopean - Cyclopean EP: This comes on like a Martian Ege Bamyasi and might the closest thing to a prime period CAN release since Soon Over Babaluma. It's nervous and edgy in a way that the Malcolm Mooney period emphasised more than the Damo Suzuki period, but also shows off the kind of telepathic interplay that I wish people took away from krautrock, rather than playing another goddamn motorik drumbeat to put me to sleep. In a lot of ways, this EP feels like a more active version of Lokai's Transition (an underrated album if ever there was one). It sounds better in the room than it does through headphones, surprisingly, so I don't listen to it much on my commutes.

Karen Gwyer - Needs Continuum: Gorgeous, entrancing music. I put this on and disappear into another world. Enveloping in the best possible sense of the word. I get the Oneohtrix Point Never comparisons people keep throwing around, but whereas I find Lopatin's stuff leaves me cold for the most part, Gwyer's album is both warmly engaging and productively empty (that is, it works in the background to shape the space I'm in, but also invites me into its depths). It reminds me in a way of Fovea Hex's EPs from 2006; not so much in sound, but in attitude, the way it is aggressively its own thing without allowing that insularity to remove it entirely from the world. Thinking and living music, I'd say.

Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt: I only really like about half of this album, but that half sounds great. The best moments are the shorter fragments of songs--"Hollow Bedroom," "Coast to Coast," "Misery Over Dispute," and "Waiting" (the former two being the highlights of the album)--when it feels like the album is a half-remembered patchwork of songs I might've heard on the radio once or twice as a kid by bands like the Breeders and Veruca Salt. The lyrics are often startlingly good, but it's the confidence in negative space the elevates the best moments above the glut of similar sounding stuff released over the past half decade.

I've also been digging Darkstar's News From Nowhere (what I wish Animal Collective sounded like), Four Tet's 0181 (Four Tet by numbers in a lot of ways, but really pretty nonetheless), and, obviously, the new My Bloody Valentine.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


My Bloody Valentine - m b v
self-released, 2013

I'm not dead--I've just been busy, then sick, then busy once again. I will finish my countdown of favourite albums from 2012 soon (when I discover how to add hours to the day, of course), but I figured a special event called for a special post.

Last night, My Bloody Valentine released the followup to 1991's Loveless, simply titled m b v. I'm not going to rehash the backstory here. More able commentators than I will do so, and they will have had the benefit of being there. I first heard Loveless in 2002, when I was in high school. I'd heard of it for several years before that, but for some reason had never investigated My Bloody Valentine. One day, I went to the music store and bought Loveless. I'd never listened to single track before buying it. I put it on and it didn't do anything that I expected. It was . . . amazing? I'm not sure I can really remember anymore what I first thought. I grew to love it, though, like so many others. I can remember sitting on the bus with a friend, coming home from school and listening to the end of "I Only Said" over and over again, trying to figure out how you make a guitar sound like that. I can remember sitting in my basement, trying to make my guitar do those things. I can remember the first flushes of young love and young heartbreak and how "Come in Alone" was perfect for both of them. I can remember deciding that the guitar break in "Loomer" was what the voice of a god would sound like. I can remember my parents' patience in putting up with me playing Loveless in the car endlessly (sorry, mom and dad!). I have a surprisingly large number of memories that are attached to listening to Loveless.

I'm on my eighth listen to m b v (plus more for a few individual songs) at this point. I've got a handle on what I'm thinking about the songs (I think), so I figured I'd put down some initial thoughts. These will change, and come December, when I make my next albums of the year list, I'm sure I'll look back on what I wrote and laugh at how I tried to process this album the day after it appeared in the world. I'll find it strange that the songs that will become my favourites are the ones that I was less sold on initially (as if it could be any other way). I'll laugh at things I didn't know that have since come to light and shaped my understanding of the album. It's inevitable. Oh, well. Here goes nothing.

m b v is an album of two parts. There's a very clear break at some point between "the followup to Loveless" and "a new group of songs by My Bloody Valentine" that, I think, will become this album's identity. In some ways, m b v is impossible to listen to non-ideologically. It is, in Zizek's famous phrase, "pure ideology." There is the symbolic fiction of the tortured genius, slaving away to top his own masterpiece, cracking under the pressure, and redeeming himself by finally releasing something, anything, and finding that he still has a voice after all. There is the fantasmatic spectre of the twenty two year wait--the reality that the world (and music) have moved on, that no release can mean the same thing that an album did in 1991, that whole futures that Loveless' successor could've belonged to (most tantalisingly, jungle) have been and gone--and the even more traumatic spectres of all the music that's come since Loveless: the remixes, the contributions to other bands (hello, Primal Scream!), the one offs and live performances. There's the pre-ideological kernel, the assumption that bands have next albums, that requires the symbolic fiction be set in motion to disavow those traumatic spectres (Kevin Shields himself has done a very good job of separating My Bloody Valentine from those spectres and insisting most fervently on the symbolic fiction, as in his interview with The Quietus last year). My god, you think when you press play, pure ideology. This is what it sounds like.* 

There's also the spectre of that other thing, hauntology. You want to talk about futures that have never been? The first three tracks on m b v are a pretty convincing example of what that never recorded sequel to Loveless from 1994 would've sounded like. That jungle/drum'n'bass direction that consumed 1994-1997 and never amounted to anything? "wonder 2" is an, ahem, wonderful look into that lost world. A My Bloody Valentine who decided to take a look at what Tortoise and Stereolab were cooking up and realised that "No More Sorry" and "Touched" got them halfway there? "is this and yes" is as dreamy and as beautiful, but more alien. This is, then, an album out of time. An album missing its time. An album that could never belong to a time. It's belated in the Eliotic sense of the term, a Rip Van Winkle of an album that grew more famous for being asleep (and thus lost its voice--became incapable of saying anything, of being heard as anything, of being, plain and simple, in the world--because it got cut out of the symbolic order) and woke to a world where Loveless had become Loveless, instead of simply being an album that came before this one, and Kevin Shields couldn't touch a guitar without having already reinvented it and rendered it pointless.

So, in all of that, where's the music? Perhaps more importantly, what's the music? That's not an easy answer. It's beautiful, that's for sure, but it's strange, and wrong, and boring, and a half dozen other adjectives to boot. The album starts off on its weakest foot--"she found now" is a pretty timid way of saying "We're back!," all muted vocals and subdued, subterranean howls of guitar, a far less interesting "Sometimes"--but it gains confidence quickly. "only tomorrow" and "who sees you" (the latter bearing a distinct resemblance at times to my beloved "Come in Alone") are a reminder that My Bloody Valentine is a guitar pop band, but these songs are too strange to be "When You Sleep" or "Blown a Wish" or "What You Want." Both ride long guitar outros, with "only tomorrow" turning into a fanfare of guitars-as-horns, sunny as a High Llamas tune,  and "who sees you" stealing that "Only Shallow" drum trick before tumbling into hook after unexpected hook, the chord changes always a surprise (even if it does kind of sound like Chewbacca's blues in places...). Both songs are a little too long, but why wouldn't you want to luxuriate in something like this? My Bloody Valentine's music has always been about sleep and dreams, and they seem to be soundtracking the weekend sleep-in with these two tracks. If nothing else, that Shields wasn't producing bands throughout his years in the desert is a crime that he must be held accountable for. So many bad guitar tones that never had to be: m b v's guitars are a thing of rare beauty.

The few seconds of silence between "who sees you" and "is this and yes" herald a change. A twinkling, weightless ballad, this could never have come before, even as it is so clearly coming from those earlier albums. When you wake, you're still in a dream, the band said once before, but they've never really sounded as much like a dream as it fades away as they do right here. Bilinda Butcher's voice might not even be real. It feels more like the stuff around it (guitars? synths? hours and hours of sampled and manipulated feedback?) than the expression of a human being. Suddenly, m b v's stakes are much higher. They could, you start to feel, be on to something here. "if i am" might be the last gasp of old My Bloody Valentine on the album, but even here it feels disoriented, falling apart and fading away, the moans and gasps of guitar in the background forlornly seeing their own end, mourning all the songs that never came to be. Something else is around the corner, the album seems to be saying, something that keeps interrupting the old ways.

As a first step into the new, "new you" is aptly titled, and given its live debut ahead of the album, one has to think that the band sees it as a marker of some kind. Certainly the prominent synths are a bit of a shock, but the fuzzy, funky bass and the drums feel like siblings to "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)," and it ends up feeling as much of a false step as "she found now." It's pretty, but like "What You Want" on Loveless, I can only imagine waiting through it to get to what's to come. In this case, it's m b v's strongest, weirdest third. "in another way" is easily the album highlight, the first song that, on my initial run through of the album, made my eyes go funny and my brain say "what the hell was that?!" Vicious sheets of guitar, frantic drumming, a beguilingly ambiguous vocal from Bilinda, everything's here, but it's the break that first appears 1:25 into the song that makes you sit up and take notice. Those pulsating guitars that suddenly seem everywhere and take you away are breathtaking. That the second half of the track consists of nothing but suggests that Shields knew exactly what he was doing when he decided there was something to these songs, after all. The bizarrely dance-y "nothing is" follows, three and a half minutes of steadily ascending guitar grind and repetitive, train-a-coming drums that ratchets the tension ever higher until cutting out into echoes of itself as heard from the next building over. 

As an end to m b v (to My Bloody Valentine, even, should it prove to be), "wonder 2" is fittingly apocalyptic. Jungle rhythms, air raid siren guitar, barely barely-there vocals, a future rush like it's 1995 all over again, the songs feels constantly on the verge of blowing away and imploding simultaneously. Whenever it feels like there's nowhere left to go other than destruction, the vocals return, and the song gets a chance to do it all over again. Then it's gone, replaced by silence. No fade out, just a quick, flanged swirl before the end. As if nothing follows this, or could follow this. "Soon" felt like an arrow pointing to all the things that My Bloody Valentine could be (and would be) just over the horizon. There's no horizon here. If Kevin Shields, if My Bloody Valentine, is to do anything else, it won't be the followup to m b v in anything other than a chronological sense. This is an album that will have no children. I have to think, to buy into that symbolic fiction, that somewhere (between South Korea and Japan, I'd imagine), Kevin Shields is happy about that.

When m b v dropped--and after the website broke, and then went back up, and then broke again, etc., etc.--I wasn't so much wondering about whether it would live up to Loveless. I wanted to know how I'd live with it. Waiting for a website to come online, bitching on twitter about that website crashing, rapturously tweeting when I finally started listening, these are all signs of how different my life is a decade on from hearing Loveless (which I listened to in my bedroom in my parents' house on a stereo, not on a laptop in my own apartment). In a lot of ways, I'm relieved just to have another My Bloody Valentine to live with until the next one (if there is one) comes out (if it ever does). There are thousands of arguments to be made about the death of one thing, or the start of another, or the end of something, or the beginning of something else with this album. I've made a half dozen in the above review. More than anything, though, what I want to do is listen to this album and, more importantly, forget this album. To forget how a song goes when I haven't listened to it in awhile. To be surprised (again) when there's a chord change or by a particularly noteworthy sound. I want to listen to this album in a thousand different ways, and I don't want to think about it as an event, as part of a failed website launch, as a blogpost, a think piece, or a Pitchfork score. I want m b v to be an album. I want to have space for m b v to mean something to me, so when the next one comes around (surely Kevin can't take another twenty two years, right?) I'll think about m b v and I'll smile at the music, sure, but at so many other things, too. For right now, writing about it ends here for me. I'm going to go do some dishes and have it on the background. Or stare out the window at the snow that's falling. It doesn't matter. I'm going to go listen. You should, too. It's a pretty great album.

*I recognise I'm taking a hell of a lot of liberties with Zizek and his discussion of ideology here. Permit me my fun.

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.