Friday, March 30, 2012
A while back, the Arctic Monkeys released a record produced by Josh Homme and to be honest, it didn't really work. This was mainly because the Monkeys tried to infuse their signature sound with Queens heaviness but it felt tacked on rather than organic. The key component which was missing is that when Queens are on form, they sound sexy. There is some Homme quote about making 'rock music girls can dance to' but I'd put forward it's more that it's music people want to have sex to (I got this from a friend of mine who said Misfit Love made her want to have sex immediately). Anyhow, on R U Mine?, the Monkeys seemed to have figured out the magical ingredient because this is a thumping tune which grinds in a seductive and sinister way. Welcome back lads...
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
When you get a present, sometimes the best one's that have been handmade and have that sense of craft. That's what I get with the Bearhug's debut - that a lot of love has gone into it and there are genuine choices made about the quality of the music rather than going for the easy out. What I mean by that is that there are moments when this record could soar but instead the band pull back avoiding the obvious hook which makes the whole record far more artful and subtle than your average indie rock band. The strength of the songs is in that subtlety because while some of the songs aren't immediately catchy, they get under your skin. Almost counter intuitively, I woke in the middle of the night with the album's centrepiece When I shake rolling around my head and I couldn't shake it for the next twenty four hours.
The easiest criticism to make of Bearhug is that their influences are too obvious but much like last year's Yuck album, I'm happy to overlook it if the songs are strong. While there's nothing new under sun, refinement, inspiration and good music can propel a band beyond their influences. For Bearhug , the touchstones of Pavement, Sparklehorse, and Built to Spill and loom large on their debut but never overwhelm them. In particular, the lead singer (a guy called Ryan I'm guessing - I downloaded from itunes so no credits and their webpage is unclear) veers from Malkmus to Linkous with ease although the songs that sound closer to Sparklehorse truly shine here.
When I shake rides a rolling indie country vibe complete with BTS guitar freak outs pop shine of Shiner pay homage while being unique in their own way. Opener Over the Hill and Home sound like the slightly sexy children of long lost Pavement and Dinosaur Jnr classics. To be honest, anyone still reeling from the suicide of Mark Linkous will find much to console themselves in the Sparklehorse-like Cherry Red, probably my favourite song here which plays to the band's strengths and floats on a whisper.
As you can imagine, there's nothing here you haven't heard before here in some form but if you like any of the bands mentioned you may find something to love on this record. Recommended (oh and they're from Sydney so give some props to the locals).
Friday, March 23, 2012
Yeah, I know I haven't written much of late but that's mainly because I've been promoted at work which somehow feels like a demotion. Anyhow, musically I have been considering the new Shins record and I don't feel like I'm ready to write about it. I find the Shins music often sneaks up on you and reveals it's depth and beauty over time rather than being immediately grabbing. It's all very pretty and consumable but I usually find that it's about six months later I have that one song stuck in my head when I wake up at 2:17am. So far, the songs are good but I don't think there's anything as captivating as on their last record but it seems pretty solid. I think a couple more weeks of listening to it will give me a better grip on it. There's been a bunch of other stuff as well but nothing really of note so I'll keep you posted if anything amazing pops up.
PS: Oh yeah, I'm not proud of it but I love that TV show the Amazing Race. I have to admit to a (non)-prejudice, I don't dislike Americans like some people in Australia and the UK do. As a matter of fact, as most of my favourite literature and music comes from there and I've had some amazing friends from the US, I don't buy into the popular image that we're often handed down - like everywhere it has it's charms and obstacles. However, the Amazing Race allows the best and worst of that country to basically hurtle through the world with their cultural insensitivities, Christian values and weird sense of geography and be challenged (in a pressure cooker style) to the pressures of international travel (with a game show element thrown in for good measure). I find it compelling viewing and usually find a couple of teams to root for. Sadly, the latest season is a casting bust with not one team really worthy of getting behind. Strangely, it's filled with all these cops and army guys who are dull and self righteous. I'm not really big on reality shows but I think this could be an excellent case of when reality casting goes wrong... Just saying...
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Like many of my nerd brethren, I am very excited about Ridley (Alien/Bladerunner) Scott's return to sci fi, especially as he is directing Prometheus, a 'kind of' prequel to Alien but also on the back of these trailers - which looks spectacular in the way sci-fi can be (not should be, I like subtle stuff too). My nerd meter went into overdrive yesterday with the release of the US Theatrical trailer which harkens back to the original Alien one, seemingly giving a lot of the story away, has pounding music and plays up the whole horror/action element. Here it is:
Within a few hours of that, the UK trailer was released and it has a totally different feel - less of the story, more atmosphere and suspense with action snippets played out at the end.
I'm not really sure what this says about the respective UK and US markets in terms of marketing (even though, much to my shame, I vaguely work in marketing). Does high action only sell in the US where the UK are more seduced by concept? Hmmm, I need to think on it a bit but I'm sure there is some pithy, intellectual analysis waiting to be written on the differences between the two but buggered if I'm going to write it...
Friday, March 16, 2012
It has always astounded many of my friends that I have no love for Sonic Youth but I find their records willfully unlistenable and annoying. Not to say I hate it all but I've tried to like them every way I can: I've heard all the seminal works, seen them live three times and occasionally go back and just listen to them to see that my mind hasn't changed. Call me a charlatan, call me douchebag - I just don't like Sonic Youth. However, when I do listen to them I tend to like the Lee Ranaldo stuff more and I will always have time for him because he produced the first (and greatest) You Am I records (including the long out of print ep Coprolalia which is fucking killer).
Anyhow, a buddy of mine came round a couple of nights ago and implored me to give Between The Times and the Tides a listen. I'm glad that I did because it's actually a great album filled with great pop tunes and slightly off kilter epics that are immediately engaging and endearing. The record sounds incredibly intimate and straight forward with little concession for the expected SY freak outs. Sure, the songs resemble Ranaldo's work in Sonic Youth but if anything, the record veers closer to the aforementioned You Am I and REM. Seriously, check out Shouts - even though it contains a Kim Gordon-esque spoken word monologue in its break down, Ranaldo echoes Micheal Stipe's vocal timbre throughout the song (particularly as one of the vocal hooks is Texarkana's "Catch me if I fall.")
Off the wall sails on some perfect melodies while the angular rock of Angles may have inspired its name. The stripped back acoustic musings of Hammer Blows and Stranded are stand outside the larger rock aesthetic but are both beautiful and revealing that maybe Ranaldo isn't the strongest lyricist in the world. Strangely, that really doesn't affect the enjoyment of the record as the record cruises in an effervescent fever of goodwill and passion - it's just one of those records that's impossible not to like.
The best song here is the sprawling Xtina As I Knew Her, which (ironically for me) probably is closest thing to Sonic Youth here. It rumbles along on a spaced out riff and Steve Shelley's excellent drumming and is beautifully imperfect, moving and anchored by a great chorus. Also of note, Wilco's Nels Cline features on many of the songs so there is some great guitar interplay between him and Ranaldo. There is a lot to love on this record and it may force me to go back and re-visit Sonic Youth once more - I mean, seriously, what is my problem? Recommended.
Monday, March 5, 2012
I've seen those videos of teenage girls losing their minds at the thought of Justin Beiber and I admit my inner-teenage girl gets giddy at the thought of a new Bob Mould record. In the last year, Mould has been playing a lot more Hüsker Dü and has just being playing the Copper Blue 20th anniversary shows and I think you can hear it in these two songs. The second one sounds particularly scrappy and fun - can't wait for the new record.
Here's a self indulgent little secret: I hear far more music than I actually write about on this blog. The reason I don't write about everything is because a) I can't be arsed and b) if I don't like something, I generally don't go the hack (I make the odd exception though when I'm particularly outraged) . I think writing damning articles about music is far too easy and it's much harder to write positively on the virtues of a record. Not that I want to be gushing or sycophantic but the internet is already filled with snark and a trillion reasons to hate Nickelback, I don't need to add to that chatter and don't need to attack music I don't like (hence no Lana Del Rey article). However, with Dry the River I face a small dilemma because I like their potential more than I like their record.
I was put onto them by a friend at work and must admit I thought No rest (above) sounds pretty great (especially the build to 1:40 and from there onwards) so I've listened to their debut album a few times (here). This is where I get into trouble because to me it sounds (superficially) like they have three major points of reference - Jeff Buckley (good), Radiohead (who doesn't?) and Mumford and Sons (unfortunate). So essentially they have embraced wide screen arena rock romanticism with a folk base and I'm not sure it works that well but there is so much on this album that has the potential to be great. Unfortunately, the folk elements don't always gel and they occasionally come across like a second rate Radiohead (ie Snow Patrol). They seem to be better off when they're rocking out. Anyhow, I think there's enough on this album to like if you have a passing interest in this kind of music or those bands. I figure they're either going to be truly great on their next album or they will be the biggest band in the world by this time next month - it's hard to know...
Saturday, March 3, 2012
There is a back story that goes with this record which will be mentioned in every review you read which is essentially White's wife left him during the recording of this record. I'm pained to mention this because I feel that's none of my business but it also might colour the perception of what is an excellent record. The record is certainly laced with melancholy but not consumed by it so don't get the idea it's one big bummer. However, for me, the more interesting story is that White no longer has a record label and used donations from fans through Kickstarter to get the record finished. Free to pursue his muse anyway he wished Where it hits you is nothing if not diverse with upbeat rockers, jaunty folk reveries and dark country soul ballads.
White has always been a purveyor of electro-fused Appalachian music with a vein of sadness but what I really enjoyed about this record was the freedom you can hear in his voice. His falsetto on the funk infused Here we go! sounds like the most free and fun White has ever sounded and that sense of emancipation suits him. Slower tracks like Chase the dark away and Epilogue to a marriage gently glide by playing to White's established strengths as a troubled troubadour. However the greatest song here is the haunted That Wintered Blue Sky, a song that exists on a minor piano figure and a sinister bass line that lurks in the shadows of a tale of regret and loss. The chorus sticks with you
Should the highway rise up to swallow you whole
Remember nobody never got nowhere - nowhere alone
It's probably the best song he's written since the seminal Still Waters and a reminder of just how great a songwriter he can be. For all the turmoil on the record (there is a lot), it ends with the low key Why it's cool, where White seeks to assure his listener that everything's going to be ok. Maybe he felt the need to do this given the back story of the record but White needn't have bothered, it sounds like he's doing just fine.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Towards the low sun starts in a disorientating storm and through the tempest, threads of beauty start to appear. First track, Furnace Skies is a Grinderman-esque collision of sounds that is unsettling as it is unexpected but as the song progresses, a gentle guitar and violin line can be discerned through the chaos. The Dirty Three have returned but even as elder statesmen of the indie scene you can hardly file them under easy listening. That austere beauty is continued in the second track Sometimes I Forget You've Gone although someone forgot to tell Jim White who drums like a maniac under sparsest of canvasses.
It is this ability to train elegant phrasing with discord that sets the Dirty Three aside from their peers - whoever they are. They are often lumped in with post-rock but that seems too convenient and simplistic. The first time I saw the Dirty Three in any iteration was when Jim White and Warren Ellis played with Aussie rock legend Kim Salmon (Beasts of Bourbon, The Scientists) and that show was post-nothing - it was electric rock n' roll (Ellis and White recorded one album with Salmon called Hey Believer - track it down). As such, every time I've seen the Dirty Three there is no sense that it is anything other than three men pushing the boundaries of rock and roll with Ellis playing a spaced out improvising Hendrix like virtuoso to White and Turner's foundation groove. This is not easy music sometimes but it is always rewarding.
However, the rock has mellowed over time and Towards the low sun continues the Dirty Three's trend inward as they have on their last two records Cinder and She has no strings Apollo. Songs such as Moon on the Land, Pier and Rain Song are soulful invocations and concise statements rather than extended rock jams that peppered their classic Ocean Songs period. That Was Was is the rockiest thing here with Ellis unleashing his distortion pedals on a whipsmart (un)conventional Turner boogie.
All of the tracks here are quality, worth exploring with repeat listens but sadly, I feel the Dirty Three have reached the point where whatever record they produce will be a slight disappointment. As a band they are in the unenviable position of producing two masterpieces (Horse Stories and Ocean Songs) and as such, almost every album since then will suffer (this happens a lot - I mean in literary terms it's like Don DeLillo's Underworld, a novel he will never surpass no matter what he writes). To be honest, that's a total cop out criticism wise but that's just how I feel. But despite that feeling, there is something exhilarating and rare in the music that the Dirty Three produces - it is music without boundaries, without fear and without care for what I think. Another Dirty Three record is cause for celebration...
Musical lineage and influence can be a contentious and opaque issue sometimes but for Bob Mould, his influence on popular culture can clearly be defined and quantified.
As a member of the seminal Hüsker Dü, their drive to push and refine hardcore with a deep love of sixties pop was a crucial part of the evolution of US '80's indie music. Subsequent to this, one Charles Thompson IV posted the following ad in 1986 "Bassist wanted for rock band. Influences: Hüsker Dü and Peter Paul & Mary." The formation of the Pixies proved to be equally pivotal and probably their biggest influence was that Kurt Cobain admitted that Smells Like Teen Spirit was an attempt to rip off the Pixies. In that respect, Bob Mould is two degrees of separation from the musical movement of indie (or grunge) into the mainstream of the early 90's.
After a couple of solo records, Mould returned to his three piece roots with the formation of Sugar in the early nineties. The success of Sugar's debut album Copper Blue (1992) was in some respects a triumph as much as it was reward for the path that Mould and his fellow bands had forged in the 80's (Black Flag, Minutemen, Minor Threat, Replacements etc...). As Mould says in his autobiography, the critical and commercial success of the album seemed just to him:
And this was my payoff. This was my receipt for everything. The crowd had seen Nirvana's cheerleader video and they knew where it came from. And then I was right there, with the right record at the right time. I didn't have to provoke; I just arrived with a smile. All the fighting had been done, Nirvana had won the war, and I showed up to rightfully claimed some of the spoils.
It also helped that Copper Blue was a beautiful realisation of Mould's knack of fusing power pop with a harder edge and arrived fully formed without need of explanation. Hüsker Dü was often hampered by poor production while Mould's subsequent solo albums were at turns pastoral (Workbook) or impenetrably bleak (Black Sheets of Rain). Copper Blue was different; it was aggressively jubilant. Strangely, the album came on the back of a few turbulent years for Mould. The acrimony and dissolution of Hüsker Dü was constantly brought up and this torment was followed by label and production difficulties with his second record as well as losing the mechanical royalties to his first two solo records through mismanagement. How this translated to Copper Blue is anyone's guess because the record sounds so buoyant.
I guess in that sense, (if your guitar is in standard tuning) if the E chord is the mother of all chords that must make G the victory chord. As Mould's long overdue victory lap, this becomes apparent on the first chorus of the first song The Act We Act. The song is all muted chug but when the band hits that big open G chord at the chorus it sounds as if dam of ecstasy has just broken. Mould admits that he was on a creative high when writing Copper Blue and that spark crackles throughout the record.
That's not to say it's all cheery, the lyrics themselves are a trawl through heartbreak, suicide, murder, disease and death but given the high pop sheen and upbeat dynamics of the record it'd be hard to tell as a casual listener because the record is incredibly uplifting. Free to produce a sound he adored (heavily tracked guitars and vocals) and not being slavishly devoted to Hüsker's one-on, one-off double songwriter structure while retaining the three piece power of his former band, Copper Blue unleashed Mould's love of pop from the Beatles infused Hoover Dam to the 70's am radio of If I can't change your mind. The sound leaps through the speakers giving nuance and weight to his songs, something missing in those seminal Hüsker records (don't get me wrong, that sound has its charms but is undeniably thin at times.)
The other great thing about the album is that it is excellently tracked; the songs collide and play off one another in a sequence that is both logical yet exciting. As the final chord of The Act We Act crashes to a halt, the propulsive bass line from A Good Idea starts up without delay which in turn crashes into the chiming harmonics of Changes. The album rolls from one high to the next as song after song rolls by in perfection. Mould has readily admitted that he unconsciously stole the bassline for A Good Idea off Debaser but while it never surpasses the Pixies classic, it stands out as a darker disturbed cousin. In fact, there is a not dud song on the whole album with only the errant Fortune Teller being a slighter weaker song towards the end of the record.
However, what is most striking is how propulsive the entire record is. It is just relentlessly catchy and upbeat with a pounding pulse part in thanks to the tight rhythm section anchored by Malcolm Travis’ driving drums and David Barbe’s sympathetic bass. But Mould is the star of the show here and his voice and distinctive guitar tone shine brightly on the record. Even twenty years later, its production doesn't sound dated or flat as if the songs defy age or understanding, they are perfect melodies that speak volumes to those that choose to hear them. I've tried to convert many people to this record and while many of them will never love it the way I do, I can only but try to spread the word about it.
Age can creep up on you and it seems amazing to me that Copper Blue was released twenty years ago. A few days ago, Bob Mould played the album in its entirety to mark the anniversary and sadly being in Australia, I won't get to see those shows but it did get me thinking about Copper Blue again. I can safely say that it is the record I have heard more than any other in my life. It has been a constant companion since its release and I still listen to it at least weekly if not daily. As such, there is no objectivity in what I've written but if you've ever loved pop music, there is something for you to love on Copper Blue.