Friday, June 28, 2013

Tell me how to feel...

I'm not really sure how I feel about these three things. I definitely enjoy them but I wonder what they mean in terms of the legacy of these three bands (if that even matters). I'll ponder this some more but in the meantime, have fun...


Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Kanye West's Yeezus

The last week I've been reading a lot about Yeezus and it seems to be either universally loved or loathed. I have to admit that I am fascinated by it because it is a view into the madness of our pop culture icons. It is as thrilling as it is repulsive but it is never less than compelling.

On the music front, it's pretty great - that abrasive electro sound that El-P and Deathgrips have been mining. As a rock/punk fan, I think you'd find that's the hip hop that has the most in common with my tastes and the hardness of the music is bracing. It's the lyrics which seem to be the problem for most and that's what I want to discuss here.

On it's release, it was revealed that a lot of the vocals were recorded in the very last session and up to five of the songs were basically written on the spot. As such, what we have is an unchecked, untamed version of the inner dialogue running through Kanye West's head and that's what I find amazing. For all the narcissism, misogyny and misguided politics, it is simultaneously contradictory, revealing and bug nuts crazy.

Think for a moment what it is like to be Kanye West. The son of a Black Panther and an academic, he grew up in middle class comfort and even spent time living being schooled in China when his mother was teaching at Nanjing University. He is an intelligent man producing seminal hip hop music in a genre drowning in self aggrandisement, wanton consumerism and bravado. His every move is charted and discussed, he is demonised and praised every day of the week and has access to riches unimaginable to a person like me. This privilege belies the racism we see universally across the world and the expectation placed upon his as an artist by his fans,  record company and the press must be intense. His partner is famous for self promotion and their union has dragged West even further into the trashy TMZ vortex that passes for news these days. How disorientating and crazed must that life be? Would you doubt yourself or believe the hype?

If you've ever met (or were) a teenager whose emotions were extreme and all over the place, all misplaced anger and confusion - that's what this album sounds like to me. It is pure, uncensored id and a prism through which you can sense how maddening it must be to live West's life. Branding consumerism of the famous as the new racism (or rather, the way companies latch onto black artists), the self proclamation of divinity in hip hop and endless misogyny all run into each other and contradict but I see this as a pretty unique insight into the brain of one the world's most famous men. The lyrics and music bristle with a fiery anger, wildly swinging at whatever comes into view. I think if West had more time on the lyrics they would have been refined but here we get the rough mix and that lyrical brutalist is bracing as it is jarring. You could say a lot of hip hop covers these themes but I can't remember anything being this raw for a long time. How sorry do you feel for a Grammy winning millionaire with a celebrity girlfriend? I don't know but I know I couldn't live under the scrutiny famous people now live under.

I'm not sure if this album will stand the test of time but at the moment I'm enjoying it. A few weeks ago, West walked into a sign, gashing his head in front of a harassing horde of paparazzi. It is sad that I know this (I am another victim of voracious over reporting of celebrity life) and on Yeezus's release I glibly said to a friend that the record sounded like Kanye West hitting his head on a sign for forty minutes. The more I listen, the more I think this might be more true that I ever thought but that sign is a metaphor for the sickening popular culture we support and has swallowed West whole.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

God save the Queen part 2

I was going to do a daily report of my listening across the long weekend and was going to re-listen to Daft Punk (why?!). However, my brain has decided it's a Pete Townshend day and as I've listened to White City six times in a row, I won't bore you with a part three. Thanks for all the reggae/dub recommendations. I was probably being over factitious about reggae so I'll do some more digging. Anyhow, this is what I did on my Sunday:

The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law: I really wanted to like this album but couldn't get into it. I rate their first record which veered between wide vision rockers and succinct, punky singles. It was the latter that made the album so good, Cradle and Magnifying Glass in particular. However, on Wolf's Law (surely the Cult have the copyright on this album title), they decided that the big vision thing was the way to go which seems like a mistake to me. Of course, I have a name for that, the U2 effect.

The U2 effect: where a band goes from making music with a level of intimacy and immediacy to making music that you can play in arenas (ie overblown and theatrical). It was most obvious for U2 between the Unforgettable Fire and the Joshua Tree (even though it technically happened between War and the Unforgettable Fire). Other examples are Coldplay between their first and second albums and the Kings of Leon on that album where they totally started to suck.

The Joy Formidable have gone for big tunes but the quality of the songs isn't up to it. If they'd stuck to that more intimate sound with the occassional branch out in the U2 effect, it may have worked out better for them but this album has very few hooks and just passed by without engaging. I almost turned it off but was glad that I persevered as it was only the final four songs (from Forest Serenade on) that showed any of the promise of their debut. Disappointing.

Laura Marling - Once I was an eagle: Let's get this out of the way, Laura Marling's voice is incredible and her songwriting has a depth which no one the age of 23 has any right of having. Like her previous album, this is a great folk record but my only criticism is that it seems to be one note, one speed, one sound. As such, it gets a bit samey. Maybe more immersion will differentiate and illuminate it better but I found it hard to differentiate between some of the songs.

Coliseum - House with a curse: Again I have to thank Max for not only sending me (a signed) copy of this album but also putting me onto them. Coliseum have been probably been the most exciting new find for me this year and everything I've listened to is killer - their isn't a dud amongst the lot. House with a curse seems a little more straight ahead than the Sister Faith (which I think is better but only just) but if you like your rock with no bullshit, this is the band for you. I know I'm enjoying an album when every other minute I get up and push the volume a little higher and by the time I was on the sixth song I noticed the windows were starting to shake. Can that be no better endorsement?

Clutch - Earth Rocker: I'm glad that I dismissed Clutch on Saturday because it's been brought to my attention that I don't know shit. I downloaded Earth Rocker yesterday and it is a thing of beauty. For some reason it reminds me of Motorhead - not in sound but in harnessing that sweet spot between punk, metal and rock n' roll. My experience of Clutch in the past was that they were a bit jammy, a bit fast and loose with their break downs but if there was any spaced out psychedelic jams in the past, there isn't an ounce of flab on this record - it is a straight up rock monster (except for the ballad Gone Cold which for no reason reminds me of Space Cadet by Kyuss). So, another album I missed which has rocketed into my top ten albums of the year.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

God save the Queen part 1

I am no fan of the monarchy but once every year the Australian Government gives me a public holiday to celebrate the Queen's birthday. I am nothing if not shallow so for that one day of the year I can be bought - I love you Queenie, thanks for the long weekend. This holiday I am dedicated some time catching up on a bunch of records I have wanted to listen to or dismissed previously. This is my journey:

The Congos - Heart of the Congos: A few weeks ago, a colleague was playing some reggae in the office. I'm not a huge fan of the genre but it was pretty pleasurable and made me think I should own at least one reggae album. I imagine there are people out there who feel the same about country, hip hop, hardcore and metal - they just need one album to fulfil their needs (idiots). Anyhow, I consulted my reggae loving friend who loaned me the Lee Scratch Perry Arkology which was probably too comprehensive for my needs. I cornered him again and asked him if push came to shove what would be the definitive reggae record to own and he recommended the Heart of the Congos. I bought it this morning and my friend was a 100% correct in one regard, it is a reggae record. Finally, that part of my record collection is complete! I think I'll have to get some medicinal herbs to help me enjoy this  (and when I say medicinal herbs I mean DRUGS). And no, I wasn't going to buy Bob Marley's Legend.

Smog - Knock Knock: I think there was a time where it felt like there was a Smog, Jason Molina or Will Oldham record coming out every other week and all these doey eyed sad men singing songs of love and loss was starting to bore me. However, courtesy of my friends Adam and John, Knock Knock came into my orbit recently. I must admit I remember when it came out because who could forget a cover like that but I never bothered to listen to it. Big mistake, I'm kicking myself that this album has been in the world for fourteen years and I hadn't heard it - it is incredible. Held, Teenage Spaceship, Left with only love etc... this record just swings from high point to high point. For some reason, I always imagined it'd be full of acoustic guitars but it is oddly rocking on a number of tunes (well, as rocking as these guys get). I am totally blown away and this is definitely my album of the year (for 1999).

Mudhoney - Vanishing Point: Sometimes things are so obvious you miss them. I've never really liked Mudhoney but the good reviews of their latest record got me curious. As the first song Slipping Away kicks in it strikes me that Mudhoney are awesome but not in the way I thought. You see, I love this band from Geelong called Tumbleweed that used to peddle LSD infused stoner rock in the 90's and Mudhoney sound just like them (or more correctly, Tumbleweed sound like Mudhoney). So if I love Tumbleweed then I must love Mudhoney. And I do. This record is fucking awesome and makes me feel like an idiot for emphatically dismissing them for all these years. A Mudhoney retrospective is on the cards.

Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest: There is no way to adequately describe this album. It is dark, apocalyptic, surprising, weird and puzzling. I think you'll see those words a lot in reviews but when it's an album of granular instrumentals, how can you really describe it? This is the only way I can think of doing it: A couple of the kids who work for me have got me hooked on a game called Plague Inc. It is a frightening, amoral (and totally enjoyable) game where you have to develop a virus to wipe out humanity. As disturbing as it is, it is fiendishly addictive and of course, I upgraded to the zombie virus pack to unleash flesh eating hordes on an unsuspecting world - it's like Risk + disease. You have to balance the transmission, symptoms and abilities of the virus so it doesn't get cured too soon to be successful in destroying the world's entire population. I usually succeed but there's usually one or two hold out countries (most regularly Greenland). As such, I let my zombies mutate such that they can travel through water and I launch millions of zombies across the ocean to take over the remaining zombie free islands. The reason why I tell you all this: Tomorrow's Harvest sounds like the soundtrack to a million Canadian zombies invading Greenland.

Torche - Meanderthal Demos: The ever brilliant Max sent me a couple of records recently and this Torche 10inch was one of them. In my mind I had somehow confused Torche with Clutch which is entirely ridiculous as Torche make Clutch look like a bunch of amateur burn outs. These songs are angular gut punching rifforama from go to whoa (seriously, each song has about twenty different riffs per minute)  and makes me fall to my knees and praise Satan for rock 'n roll. While the first side is head clanging stoner rock, Torche lighten up on the second side for some melodicism and more straight ahead rock fare which is brilliantly. Once I'm done going through these records, I'm hoping Spotify will cure me of my ignorance of this band and lead me into some beautiful discoveries.

Bob Mould - See a little light concert: About a million years ago, I sponsored the Bob Mould Kickstarter project for a film version of his tribute concert. Of course, I ordered the contributor pack which was held up because they had trouble printing a seven inch. It finally arrived yesterday afters months of waiting/ Although I'd watched it once online, I settled in to watch it this afternoon and it's a pretty enjoyable journey through Bob's career. Apart from the slight over-fawning towards Dave Grohl, there is nothing but love here. Ryan Adams is the non-Bob highlight, deconstructing Heartbreak a Stranger and Black Sheets of Rain into poignant, plaintive ballads. Britt Daniel and the Hold Steady guys make a fair fist of it and Craig Finn seems to be losing his mind being able to sing Real World. Daniel bravely takes on JC Auto and kind of fails but I don't think anyone can do that song the way Bob does. In fairness, the Bob + Dave Grohl portion is the highlight as they tumble through six Hüsker Dü songs including Something I learned today (my lord, I love that song), Ice Cold Ice, New Day Rising (with Grohl on drums) and Chartered Trips. Hardly getting over it is turned into an up and down hybrid ballad/rock monster - it is beautiful. To be honest, I doubt there would be much here for non-Bob fans but if you are, it's worth tracking down. (Oh and we can finally put to rest any argument as to whether Margaret Cho is a good singer or not but she loves her Bob as do we all).

Alright, that's enough for today. More tomorrow.


Friday, June 7, 2013

And then there's this...


Take a minute

A couple of my friends have been giving me shit about my geek out about the new Queens record and that's ok, if you want to give me a gentle ribbing about it I won't hold it against you (I'm lying, I hate you). But it did get me thinking that we might look back on this year as one of those special years in music. Six months ago, a new My Bloody Valentine album was a punchline and then there it was bleeding through our speakers. There have been great albums from Coliseum, the National, Nick Cave, Low, Laura Marling, Atoms for Peace, Ice Age, Wire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, James Blake, the Drones etc... We got a frickin' Bowie album which I don't really rate but we got a frickin' Bowie album anyway. Daft Punk seduced us with their marketing campaign and let us down with their coke rock pastiche. The crazy thing is we're only half way through the year and have records coming from Boards of Canada, Arcade Fire, Superchunk, NIN, MIA and a whole bunch of others (I'm sure there will be some surprises as well).

So take a moment, breathe in the ambience of it all and be thankful that you're a music fan in 2013.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age - Like Clockwork review

During the Era Vulgaris tour, Queens of the Stone Age would often break down their anthem to wanton drug use Feel Good Hit of the Summer to a whisper and Josh Homme would sing a few grabs of Amy Winehouse's Rehab. The band would then abruptly stop and Homme would stare down the crowd and pronounce arms outstretched, "I cannot be killed." However, no matter how invincible he seemed, the Queens lead singer was not immune to mortality. As has been discussed in many articles for Like Clockwork, Homme briefly died in an operation on his knee and was revived on the operating table. After being bedridden for months, he fell into a deep depression which formed the basis of the album's themes. When you're a father and husband, there's nothing like death to make you reassess your priorities and I imagine being a badass musician suddenly looked like a hollow pursuit. As such, Like Clockwork sounds like no other Queens record and is all the more glorious for it. Gone is the soundtrack to the apocalypse as imagined by a merry band of swaggering rock n' roll pirates and in their place is a deep meditation on death, humanity and love. This is not your mother's Queens of the Stone Age.

There are a number of things I want to discuss but I think the main thing is that this seems like a totally uncompromised project. From the lyrics, sounds and even Boneface's blood splattered album/video art, this feels like a deeply personal and clear headed vision of Queens. The music is by turns tough, weird, melodic and torturous but it is all laced with a new found vulnerability and sincerity that was never a hallmark of the Queens' sound or mantra. The closest Queens have come in the past is I Never Came, a ballad hidden at the back end of Lullabies to Paralyze (Queens other notoriously bummed record) but that was a detour amongst that album's carnival-esque darkness.

Let me digress for a second: Lullabies is often criticised as a let down (let it be known that Queens have never made a bad record) but I think they were in an impossible position after the their career defining Songs for the Deaf (more on this later). In retrospect, Era Vulgaris felt more like a reaction to the negative press Lullabies received and suffered for it. Songs like Sick, Sick, Sick sounded like Queens' by numbers, it felt listless, compromised and an obligation. Where Era Vulgaris was great was where they got funky and brutal (Misfit Love) or just plain weird (Run Pig Run). Where Like Clockwork succeeds is that it combines the darkness of Lullabies and the weirdness of Era into something new (side theory: Queens work in three album cycles - similarly, the robot rock of their debut + the melody laden hallucinations of Rated R culminated in Songs for the Deaf). As such, we have a distilled, pure version of their sound or to quote Hunter S Thompson, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Weird. What does that even mean exactly? In this context, I think Queens have taken those weird songs and sounds they used to hide at end of their records (Skin on Skin, Run Pig Run), brought them to the fore and normalised them. No more so than opener Keep Your Eyes Peeled which sounds more like a predatory animal circling it's wounded victim than a song. The riff is subterranean and brutalising and claws for your attention. Most people writing about this song will mention the key lyric in this song as being "If life is but a dream, then wake me up." Fair call but for me, the line that speaks most is "Shotgun, never behind the wheel anymore." Homme is no longer in control but in the passenger seat. Given Queens have pretty much always been about control: their destiny, their sound, their legacy - they were always the tough guys in the room, this is a major concession. The weird thing about Keep Your Eyes Peeled is that the first few listens sound jarring and sickening but then it settles into a strangely compelling pop song.

The second song, I sat by the ocean, while much more convention seems to be derived from Lullabies' Broken Box, a song about an ex's, ahem, vagina. Another deep track it was based around an unconventional structure and again, weird. I Sat by the Ocean sounds like a break up song but I would argue it's not; it's about identity, the thought of who we are and what we are. The chorus tagline of "We're passing ships in the night" changes to "We're crashing ships in the night" at the song's death. The reconciliation of the self (post-death perhaps) and image is jarring and confronting. The album's pop monster, If I had a tail, appears to be recounting the vapidity of rock god and fame asprirations. It starts with the throw aways "Giuchie, Giuchie, Oh la la, the Do run run, You won't get far," and then follows the emptiness of fame. Strangely, this is contradicted by the groaned vocal ear worm that follows the chorus that will haunt your dreams. If any song will be fucking huge off this record and make Queens anymore famous, it'll be this one.

It's not surprising that a man from the desert would appeal to the sun for redemption and My God is the Sun which sounded slightly askew prior to the album's release sounds like the most conventional song here. The respirator wheeze and jazz noodlings of Kalopsia gives way to paranoid ravings of a  patient in straps ranting at unseen foes, "Copy cats in cheap suits all playing it safe/ While cannibals with their noose consume a parade."The weakest song here is Fairweather Friends which is an odd jigsaw puzzle of a song that makes more sense the more you listen to it and goddamn, the guitar tones on that song are golden. Smooth Sailing is a funk sleaze number in the vain of Them Crooked Vultures and its odd strut is somewhere located between disco and devastation. It is universally great and I imagine nine months from now a number of babies will be born courtesy of this song.

Which leaves us with three songs to discuss. The first is The Vampyre Of Time And Memory, a piano ballad at the front end of the album. It is as vulnerable as Homme has ever been before and again it seems to be explore the sense of identity post-resurrection. Yes, he has survived but the protagonist in this song is lost:

I've survived, I speak. I breathe, I'm incomplete
I'm alive, hooray, you're wrong again 'cause I feel no love
Does anyone ever get this right? 

When he says the word 'hooray', it is the most sardonic and bitter word uttered on the record. The song itself builds to a flipped out blues solo which is as beautiful as it is unhinged.

The album centrepiece is I Appear Missing, a slow roar through Homme's trauma. The song itself lopes along but recounts the ever maddening loss of self, control and identity - themes that circle the album like vultures waiting for a meal. The lyrics are fantasic:

Calling all comas,
Prisoner on the loose.
A spitting image of me
Except for the heart-shaped hole where the hope runs out

Shock me awake
Tear me apart
Pinned like a note in a hospital gown
Prison of sleep
Deepened now
A rabbit hole never to be found again

The song builds and climaxes through a false ending building to the single flashpoint of release on the whole album. The album breaks like a wall coming down where the shrieking solo kicks in at 4:22 and builds to the revelation and redemption of the final lines "I never loved anything until I loved you." The whole final coda is incredible, a plea for understanding and breaking through the haze of depression. It is probably one of the best songs Homme has ever written.

The album concludes with the title track that proclaims that "it's all downhill from here." Whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate but I'd like to think it's a nice metaphor for Queens of the Stone Age as a band. Now that they've released themselves from the expectation of what Queens should be, they now have an endless horizon of possibilities of where to go next.

Let's move onto the sound of the album. This is not a riff heavy banger of yore but has a more considered sound. The guitar tones are tasty, well thought out and gorgeous ranging from seventies prog squeal to concrete mixer crunch. A common complaint about this record is that their are a number of guest appearances (Reznor, Lanegan, Arctic Monkeys kid etc...) but you can't really hear them. I for one am glad for this. I'd much prefer spending an hour writing about how great this album is than discussing how weird that Elton John duet is. Everyone of the guests is serving the larger vision of the album and their contributions, while discreet, no doubt add to the sonic tapestry of the record. The other thing is that Queens sounds more like a functional unit than they have since Songs for the Deaf. The real star here is bassist Michael Shuman, whose bass tones and playing are outstanding particulalrly the sympathetic lines on Vampyres and Like Clockwork. Sure it's reassuring to hear Nick Oliveri's sinister whispers at the end of If I had a tail but I'm not sure the need a Tension Head to set this record straight.

Finally, let's talk about the elephant in the room. A couple of friends whose taste in music I respect have spoken about their disappointment in the album or as Claire puts it, "I miss the screamy man." OK, it's no Songs for the Deaf but how could it be? That band hasn't existed for over ten years and the Queens of today is a very different beast. Don't get me wrong, I love Songs with a firey passion but that album is going nowhere. I'd argue that Like Clockwork is actually perfect because it's not beholden to Songs like Lullabies and Era were. Homme is free to write about things that matter to a forty year old man rather than a thirty year old one looking for drugs and trouble. For me, this album marks a clear delineation between the band of then and now and I happen to be in love with both.

Make no mistake, Like Clockwork is a masterwork on a par with Songs for the Deaf and for me, may one day eclipse it. This seemed almost unthinkable to me prior to its release (seriously, Songs for the Deaf is my second favourite record of ALL TIME). However, as I've submerged myself into the sound and feeling of this record, I have found myself excited, seduced and in love with it's idiosyncratic oddness and fearless vulnerability. It is an album that captures the mania, self doubt and redemption of mental illness and it pulls no punches. It is a great, great great record and far better than I could ever have dreamed.

Album of the year? You better fucking believe it.