Thursday, September 27, 2007

New Pornographers, "Challengers"; Emma Pollack, "Adrenaline" (single)

New Pornographers have been indie rock poster children practically since their conception. With those accolades come responsibilities such as the need to exude geeky cool, spew quirky lyrical imagery. and other indie rock hallmarks. They'd settled on a formula that had produced three nearly indistinguishable albums, a formula that they could have pleasantly ridden with until the end of time or until they got bored with it. Many fans would have been perfectly happy with the first option, but it seems that the second option was the one that actually came to pass. "Challengers" is a pop album with wistful boy/girl vocal interplay and the breeziest, catchiest tunes of their career by far. Their over-reliance on choppy tempos and bouncy guitar hacking has nearly vanished -- in its place, we have the new Delgados. In the meantime, former Delgado Emma Pollack wants to be the new Coldplay. Or maybe she is moonlighting as an uncredited songwriter on the new New Pornographers album?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Seefeel, "Quique" (reissue)

Even when they were around, Seefeel were criminally underrated, and now that they've long since split, they've been sadly forgotten. Their blending of MBV's guitar pyrotechnics, Cocteau Twins' ethereal hymns, and the Orb's free-range flotation was completely out of place with anything going on in rock or techno at the time (there were some exceptions, such as A R Kane, although they had long since jumped the shark by 1993. Nevertheless, their latter-day "dreampop" was a virtual blueprint for what Slowdive would do shortly before they too disintegrated). By not fitting into any then-existing scenes, they never found their fan-base niche, thereby leaving few people behind who were likely to remember them. Then again, they flaunted their outsider status in interviews, so one could say that they were working hard at tarnishing their eventual legacy practically from the moment they first started getting press. And yet again, if you absolutely *had* to shoehorn them somewhere, it would be with the crowd of occasional ravers with a strong curiosity for techno but who, nonetheless, were more comfortable getting stoned in their basements than in going out dancing. In other words, Seefeel's fans were prototype IDM'ers, but unfortunately for the band, that genre and fanbase didn't exist yet as an outlet for this type of music.

Despite being a near-completist, I never owned "Quique" on CD. I still have my old cassette version, which somehow never got re-purchased along with my other 1993 cassette faves (the relative unavailability of "Quique" has something to do with that). Overall, Seefeel dominated my listening habits across multiple formats in 1994. The "Polyfusia" compilation was one of the first five or so CDs that I ever bought. It is a strong encapsulation of early Seefeel before they got all weirded out and ditched the guitars for something far more sinister. Afterward, the band became dominated by the sounds in Mark Clifford's head. Fletcher, Seymour and Peacock later regrouped as Scala, more or less picking up where Seefeel c. 1993 had left off. But once the calendar flipped to 1994, the actual Seefeel started to split from the style they'd become known for, beginning with the "Starethroughs EP". Darker and dubbier than anything they'd released to that point, each successive track is more frightening than the one before it, virtually telegraphing their eventual slide into paranoid isolationism as the EP plays on.

The "Fracture/Tied EP", which was released as a 10" single in the leadup to the release of their second album "Succour", was undoubtedly the point of no return. Even at their most other-worldliness, the Cocteau Twins' music was always grounded in a certain warmth and compassion thanks to Liz Frazer's voice and Robin Guthrie's shimmering layers of guitar. Any remaining stylistic links between the Cocteaus and Seefeel dropped out of sight with this EP. The A-side's crackling rhythms, akin to flailing away on an aluminum pie plate with a wooden spoon, signified the end of their fascinations with guitar and the emergence of a jittery, mechanical form of ambient isolationism. Autechre were one year behind Seefeel at this stage -- with "Amber", they were going through their own "warm" phase, and by the next year, they'd take tracks like "Fracture" to their limits by crafting something even more inhuman, more alien.

But before their music drifted off into those neo-industrial wastelands, there was "Quique". Seefeel at their most accessible, synth-tickling, sunshine-drenched best. The Seefeel that were ten years ahead of their time in anticipating Morr Music and a host of other guitar strumming folktronica bands, which is undoubtedly why most of "Quique" remains remarkably fresh. In the liner notes, Mark Clifford writes how he'd forgotten how little unreleased music was left from that period. That means they were scraping the bottom of a very shallow barrel when compiling the second CD, most of which is vastly inferior to the material on the proper album. So credit goes to the band for making wise choices back in 1993 with their track selections on the album. Regardless, fans will certainly enjoy hearing as much as possible from "Quique"-era Seefeel, and curious not-yet fans are in for a treat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Animal Collective, "Strawberry Jam"

Until quite recently, Animal Collective took a somewhat lackadaisical approach to, well, let's call it "full band participation". Those who wanted to involve themselves with a project under the AC name were welcome, and if they stayed away for whatever reason, then it was no big deal. Before the release of "Strawberry Jam", only "Campfire Songs" and "Feels" were recorded with input from all four band members. Once the band's critical and popular acclaim hit a new peak in 2005 with "Feels", it appears that they hit a turning point. Every subsequent release would have too much riding on it to not require everyone's full attention. Suddenly they had to concern themselves with things like their creative direction and long-term career planning, instead of just mucking around in the studio or at live gigs with whoever happened to be around.

This is a band that loves to experiment with new songs on tour -- most songs on "Feels" had been regularly played live for nearly two years before the album was released, and the same can be said for nearly everything on "Strawberry Jam" (even current live sets feature a spate of even newer songs). Writer's block is apparently a non-issue with these guys. Deciding how the album would eventually sound presented a greater difficulty. But they knew they didn't want it to sound anything like "Feels".

"Feels" was their guitar album. That means their obsession with doing something different -- without guitars -- meant that they had to remove all the best things about "Feels". The gauzy drones that backed so much of the record highlighted nearly every track from a sonic standpoint and provided a counterbalance to the band's zanier impulses. I used to be (and still am) nonplussed by most AC records, and only joined the ranks of the converted with "Feels". With each new release, the superfans emerge to decry the more restrained sound of the album compared with their more freeflowing live shows. And now I've become one of them, because a big complaint I have with "Strawberry Jam". But I also worship at the feet of guitar-drenched albums like "Feels". What else, other than those swarming layers of guitar, could have linked "Flesh Canoe" (which slots itself beautifully next to MBV's "Glider" period) with "The Purple Bottle"'s frantic ode to giddy love?

So "Strawberry Jam" is their electronic album, and it's not that they go too far with the electronics, but that they don't go far enough. Once you subtract the sonic density behind many AC recordings, then the zonked out wackiness starts coming to the forefront, and that's not a good thing. Without enough sound smacking you in the face, parts of "Strawberry Jam" come off like They Might Be Giants with a few electronic bleeps added in. "Reverend Green" ups the sonic mayhem until it reaches a blissful density overload, and along with "Fireworks", these tracks build majestically and jam their way into the kind of semi-epic explorations that the band typically excels at. "Peace Bone" contains the type of pogo-beat and caveman chanting that they use for all their singles, and although the formula is a fun one, it doesn't go far enough over the top. Instead of the wimpy, two dollar electronic backbeat, they could have gone full-mode crazed hardcore techno and blasted the track into overdrive, but even that would have put them in a virtual tie with what Super Furry Animals were doing ten years ago (example: "Mountain People").

Still, the band is on a hot streak where nearly everything they do feels at least a little bit right (although the new tracks they've been playing live aren't exciting me at all just yet). I'm not sure I'd put money on this album not being embarrassingly unlistenable in a few years, though.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Britney Spears, "Gimme More"

This leaked track (leaked by Britney's people to build advance hype, no doubt) has been kicking around the internet for about a week now, and most opinions range between "better than expected" and "fairly impressed". I have no idea where one draws that reaction from a track so horrible. From the opening seconds, straight from the "it's Britney, bitch" opening line (oh, she's sounding it off now, she's so baaad ... don't call it a comeback!) and the muffled, "vocals from a megaphone" whining that kicks off 90% of her repertoire, it's clear that Britney hasn't woken up to the fact that it's 2007 and she might want to try something a bit different. The beat is lifeless and pedestrian, and the croaky two-word chorus is about as catchy and addictive as piss-flavoured cigarettes. One minute and a half into it, the load is blown and the song runs out of anything interesting to say or do, and the rest is little more than endless repetitions on the chorus ("Hey Jude" it isn't), filling time until the allotted four minute time slot runs out.

postscript: I wrote this on the afternoon of (i.e. before!) the MTV Video Awards ... honest!