Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 11-20 albums of 2008

I had only planned to compile a top ten this year, but Matt from Cave 17 wrote and requested a top twenty for the website's end-of-year list* (he was nice enough to include me even though I'm a lazy bastard and hadn't written for Cave 17 in ages). Since the second half of the list only exists because of Matt, I wrote my commentaries in haiku form (if you don't understand the reasoning, don't worry about it, just enjoy the haikus).

11-20 montage

11. Sigur Ros, "Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust"

Bouncy pop music
Rollicking pianos too
Who would have thunk it?

12. Ladytron, "Velocifero"

Ned Raggett was right
They all go goth in the end
Big layered goth tunes

13. Pyramids, "Pyramids"

Shoegaze and metal
Always made for each other
Pyramids know this

14. The Mole, "As High As the Sky"

Disco disco yes
Disco disco disco yay
Baby you're the one

15. James, "Hey Ma"

Who invited these
Guys to the party this year?
Y'all forgot 'bout James

16. Various, "Depth Perceptions Vol 1" (Pronounce)

Watery dubbed out
Techno goodness won't grow old
As long as I'm here

17. Jamie Lidell, "Jim"

Stereolab went
Halfway Motown this year but
"Jim"'s not hedging bets

18. Torche, "Meanderthal"

If Grohl could rock out
Primordial sludge like this
I'd be more a fan

19. Spiritualized, "Songs In A&E"

Jason's gone folkie
I miss the real J. Spaceman
Drug druggy mainline

20. Growing, "All the Way"

Noisy squiggles latch
Into your skull without end
Really quite pleasant

* dare I say, with more than a hint of bias, that the resulting list is one of the most unique critics lists of the year? Although I'm ashamed to say that the only albums I heard from it were the ones I voted for and that blech-y TVOTR record -- there was plenty of music that I didn't get around to this year, but not yet hearing the Solange and Erykah Badu records despite the recommendations from the Cave 17 guys and their like-minded peeps was fairly inexcusable.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

OK, on with it:

10. Wold, "Stratification".


This is as caustic and evil as music gets. I listen to it and always picture the landscape of a thick, dense forest, and the picture in my mind is always a smudgy, grey and white photo. That's what I thought that before I saw the cover -- honestly.

9. Kardinal Offishall, "Not 4 Sale".


I've been hedging my bets with Kardi up until now, because some of his past work didn't sound, well, big time. The production felt flimsy and not ready for major worldwide radio play, although the track-by-track song quality was usually excellent. Not only was that problem solved and then some on the explosive "Not 4 Sale", but Kardi comes out raging on top form with nearly every track, displaying the urgency of a performer trying to impress on his debut album, not his fourth.

8. Fennesz, "The Black Sea".


My token ambient album on this year's top ten.

7. Luciano, "Fabric 41".


This is a near-perfectly paced mix with not one but several great builds, anthemic tracks punctuating its flow, big house vocals, melodic Orbital-esque payoffs (e.g. "Arabesque"), and plenty else under the sun. One of the only mix albums I can think of with absolutely no dead spots.

6. The Raveonettes, "Lust Lust Lust".


It's been a treat to hear this band improve with every album, morphing from a girl group rip-off (albeit a really good one) into a band making transcendent pop in their own right. They're reaching a level that's close to that of Stereolab in the mid 90's (also Blondie in late 70's), where they've taken a bunch of easily recognizable influences and cultivated them into something that now feels effortless. No longer defined by their many ultracool influences, their ability to process those influences and churn out something bold and refreshing is pretty much unimpeachable these days. And also like Stereolab at their best (although sonically they sound nothing alike), their sighing harmonies and singsong melodies are a recipe for instantly falling in love with a band, and many times when listening to both I found myself asking "why can't/doesn't all music sound just like this?"

5. Petar Dundov, "Escapements".


Although it would be accurate to describe this as a throwback to bleepy, melodic 90's techno, that's not the first thing that came to mind when I heard it. My first thought was how similar it was to Death In Vegas' "Satan's Circus" -- I figured I was in for a techno homage to classic krautrock. Others might adore or dismiss its debt to trance, in the way that tracks like "Oasis" gracefully build up to huge climaxes and then rapidly come down from that high. Naturally, all these viewpoints are correct, and shouldn't the best albums always contain a healthy variety of different somethings for different everybodys? It's just rare to be able to say that about a techno album ...

4. Portishead, "Third".


Certain great albums contain a key moment where the whole album seems to kick it into another gear. Perhaps my favourite example of this is Arab Strap's "The Red Thread", or rather the precise moment when Aidan Moffat mumbles "23 years of foreplay lead up to this" about halfway through track five, "The Long Sea". The magic moment on "Third" happens around the middle of the first verse of "We Carry On", my realization of which helped to downgrade my opinion of the entire album in some twisted way because it dawned on me that I longed less to hear the entire album back to front than to hear "We Carry On" on a 50-minute continuous loop.

3. Scarlett Johansson, "Anywhere I Lay My Head".


I'm not going to claim that this album was "misunderstood" because even the dimmest of bulbs can grasp the simple concept of a movie star hooking up with a hot producer to forge wall of sound interpretations of a legendary recording artist. But it was the year's most easily dismissed album, and possibly the one most underappreciated as well. I'll hedge my bets because it's also the one that feels most likely to make me reneg on a lot of the nice things I said about it in five years time. This music might wear out its welcome once the giddyness of it dies away, leaving only empty gimmickry with some overpowering production and somewhat dull vocals. Sure, it sounds right and all the right names worked on it, and you can say the same about the Paris Hilton album. I'm not reneging on my earlier praise of this album, I'm just saying that we have no idea if the future holds "haha remember when ..." memories, or if Scarlett Johansson will wind up with a Grace Jones-like cult following on the basis of her slick reworkings of some classic songs. But I'll stick my neck out on this point: this is the best thing that anyone in TVOTR will ever be involved with unless the band splits up and its members become full-time producers.

2. No Age, "Nouns".


I never aim to self-consciously "include" certain genres on year-end lists (at least, I hope not). Nevertheless, my favourite music over the past (insert any number your like) years contains virtually nothing that is the least bit punk-ish (or LA-ish). But I only just realized this, almost literally just when writing this comment, because at no time during the past several months did it occur to me that it was a personal oddity to be rocking out to this stuff. And no, at no point did I aim to convince myself that No Age were really shoegazers in a punk-y disguise.

1. M83, "Saturdays = Youth".


It's like listening to the greatest hits of the O'Jays, in that I don't just become nostalgic for the 70's. That might suggest that I miss the 70's and would like to relive them.. Rather, hearing the O'Jays vision of the 70's is infinitely more pleasant that actually living through the 70's. It presents a rosier picture than the reality ever could have been. It's like browsing though the brightest and most beautiful travel brochure, that shows nothing but sculptures lawns while avoiding glimpses at the cracked pavement and the garbage in the streets. And of course they didn't always sing about happy topics, but even their takes on heavier issues felt inspirational -- they made you want to be part of their world, not part of the world they were singing about. M83 have done the same for the 80s. You can relive the gated drums, poofy hair, and flashy synths without having to deal with, say, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Notes to get off my chest

Well, cancel the stuff I wrote in my last post -- there's nothing like end-of-year list shenanigans to get one's energies flowing into his writing. I started writing these two notes as a prelude to the top ten, partly to get a few things off my chest, partly to give some honourable mentions to some music that didn't make it.

Sigur Ros became a much more interesting band over the past couple of years, thanks to career twists such as the Heima DVD/postcard and their newest album "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust", of which the latter put them within spitting distance of being an actual pop band. Although their music was better overall when they were, uh, "less interesting", for the first time in their career, Sigur Ros seem completely unpredictable. Say what you want about their previous albums, but each one always had a clear singularity of purpose, most obviously on "{}", where they bludgeoned you with more or less the same ten minute mood piece / super climax until you either bought into what they were doing or turned off the stereo in disgust. But their latest album really had no idea what type of record it was trying to be, and this schizophrenia hurt the overall message this time even if many of the individual tracks are excellent. Mark P really nailed it with his PFM review (just be sure to ignore the last two sentences), where he argued that the album's biggest weakness is the band's inability or reluctance to completely break with past habits of knocking out epic string-drenched weepies almost by default. After the opening section of cheering pop singalongs, the pace comes screeching to a halt with the "Festival"/"Ara Batur" section (particularly the latter, whose overreaching sense of drama is actually kind of ludicrous and provides easy fodder for the people who think that they'll never be anything more than that type of band). At this point, logic and experience would suggest that the album's pace and volume would pick up again, but a funny thing happens on the way to the big finish, namely the exact opposite effect, with a series of closing tracks that are so sparsely constructed and molasses-like in their tempos that the album seems to completely vanish into thin air. Moving past the fairly superfluous "Illgresi" (a completely forgettable acoustic ballad that works if you consider it as a bridge between the album's chest-beating epics and its eventual slide into the vapours), the closing trio is arguably the best section of the album. Here, Sigur Ros try their hand at genuinely affecting, gentle piano ballads with virtually none of the OTT frills and schmaltzy gaga as per what used to be business as usual. "Fljotavik" is a ballad that would make Joni Mitchell proud, just verse, chorus, some simple strings, over and out in less than four minutes. It's ambient epilogue "Straumnes" fills a gorgeous gap of pure serenity, and I regret that they didn't go all Stars of the Lid with this one and stretch it out for ten minutes instead of simply using it as an interlude before "All Alright", which is so sparse that I can practically here Low's Alan Sparhawk whispering "whoa, this is sparse" as I listen to it. Its drawn out melody lines and vocals are like an alternate universe Low, with completely different instrumentation and singers that are too depressed and zoned out to even bother harmonizing. Although the music isn't as consistent as on their earlier albums, "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" sees Sigur Ros finding ways to set moods you never thought they could set, and on that basis alone it is still a minor triumph for them.

The Bug, "London Zoo". It's been given high praise from mags like the Wire (their #1 album of 2008) and as of this writing, it's the #2 most positively reviewed album of 2008 according to Metacritic. Even so, this album still slipped under most people's radar this year. I don't hear the greatness in it, but it's certainly a strong effort in a career-long series of them for Kevin Martin. Maybe that's his biggest problem, because the always reliable but never mercurial artists like Martin seem to become underrated on account of that consistency (consistency is always underrated, a band's first good album is usually newsworthy, but after their 10th good album its a bunch of hohum oh look they've done it again). He's also had the blueprint for the post-apocalyptic sound of crumbling industrial wastelands down pat for well over a decade. It just so happens that this sound has become more contemporary than ever thanks to the large crop of dubstep producers who have started to sound like him. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, listeners who are new to Martin's style will likely get more mileage out of "London Zoo" than his own longtime fans.

"London Zoo" actually isn't too dissimilar from MIA's albums -- they're both uniquely British multicultural stews filled with urban paranoia, political agitation, and chunky electronic hip hop beats. Except with "London Zoo", the production is fuller, nastier and more cavernous (and therefore more convincing at conveying the moods that it's aiming for), and the rapping doesn't suck. So whose albums and singles are topping critics lists and earning Grammy nominations, and whose aren't? Life isn't fair.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trust Me, This is not a Year In Review

This is the first year, ever since I started faithfully following music when I was a little kid, that I didn't buy anything new.

A predictable trend developed over the last few years, as my rate of spending sharply decreased (initially due to a fairly precipitous slide in disposable income) and the availability of free music (via filesharing) sharply increased. But still, there's a world of difference between a trend and hitting the absolute bottom.

Maybe I didn't make myself perfectly clear -- this year, I bought LITERALLY ZERO music released in 2008.

This is nothing to be proud of -- I'm not bragging, just simply stating a fact. But how could this happen? It was a confluence of factors, to be sure: increased apathy for modern chart pop, no trips to a Toronto/Berlin/NYC -type music hub where I would be bound to stock up on music over the course of some inspired shopping sprees, quality mp3 blogs posting excellent music, slsk, and not having cable (and access to music video channels) for half of the year.

But my music spending habits couldn't be healthier. I buy plenty of CDs, just not the ones released in 2008. My bookshelves are stocked with incoming jewel cases and I'm running out of room for the books. This trend is in itself nothing new for me. The most recent year in which I bought mostly new or recent releases by contemporary artists or labels was probably 2002. By some point in 2004, I was not only buying mostly "older" CDs and records, but was putting a majority of my shopping energies toward browsing through older music, to the detriment of keeping up with the new releases hitting the shops. Splitting time between New and Old isn't a zero-sum process, but there definitely is an inverse relationship at play, particularly when it comes to purchases.

Now, flipping through the bargain bins is more or less all I do. This might be considered a more noble habit if I lived in San Francisco or Berlin, but rest assured that I do have a fair number of options -- more than I expected when I moved. Relocating to a real city does wonders for enabling these types of shopping habits. So it means that I'm well settled into my new role as a musical archeologist. I trawl around cities and dig up hidden gems at undervalued prices. It's more than just a labour of love, it's a honed skill that requires a combination of patience and being able to draw on years of experience to recognize and remember stuff that most people have long since forgotten or stopped caring about (perhaps with good reason). I've spent half a lifetime learning this trade, picking up the experience necessary for sifting through thousands of uninteresting rocks in order to find two or three that are of value. I have regular locations where I conduct my "digs". I display my wares in my home, my precious talismans brought back from the field, where I can excitedly tell people things like "here's that legendary Rockets Red Glare album, and it has to be at least ... 2500 years old!"

I have the impression that critical consensus is at an all-time low, and it's not something specific to this year's crop of new releases. Critics are more geographically separated and are exposed to a greater volume of music than ever before. Years of discourse is archived (blogs, old reviews, discussion boards) and easily accessible. There has been an explosion of such internet content over the past five or six years, and perhaps we've reached the tipping point where associations with archived criticism are retained more strongly than those that are forged with newer criticism. Maybe the signal to noise ratio for quality criticism has become too low, ergo less meaningful interaction, ergo less consensus, or maybe we're all just bored of each other for different reasons. Of course a reduction of consensus simply means there are fewer "must have" new albums to galvanize people, and while the overall demand for hearing music isn't reduced, that demand becomes spread into thinner and more distinct strands. Curiosities get stirred up, people are more inclined to revisit the seemingly infinite wealth of older music (and to reflect on it with the perspective of x # of years of easily accessible criticism) instead of the more limited supply of music that's been produced this year.

For writing, I have to admit that this year was a bit of a disaster. There have been some long stretches during which I can't seem to write anything I deem interesting or usable, punctuated by spurts where I actually managed to get something done. I am sitting on a disappointing amount of unfinished writing, stuff that was started and then left behind either because I lost the will to complete it, or, increasingly often, spent so much time tweaking it that was never satisfied with it and couldn't find it in me to converge toward a finished product. I hope that some of this unfinished writing can see the light of day in 2009. These frustrating bouts of over-editing and perfectionism have been plaguing all of my writing (also in my actual work) since 2005 or so, and I think I know the reason but am not sure how best to handle it. One solution might be to get back to writing shorter, spur-of-the-moment pieces, as opposed to longer pieces where one feels more of a need to make a "statement".

The holiday listmaking season is upon, and of course I'm all over that like a moth to a flame. The top tens are nearly ready. Please wait.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Today's random pairing of new albums: Fennesz, "Black Sea" and Kanye West, "808s and Heartbreak"

Fennesz's music is simply so much better when he unleashes a full-out drone attack, as opposed to being cute and poppy with wistful melodies and introspective acoustic guitar plucking. Tracks like "Glide" and "Black Sea" unfurl slowly over several minutes, piling up noise and always making sure to maintain texture's grip on melody. Perhaps all the collaborations he's been involved with since the release of "Venice" have revived Fennesz's yen for drone and abstraction because there's a real "returning to his roots" feel to this album, almost back to the rougher edges of the "Field Recordings 1995-2002" material.

Kanye West, as everybody surely knows, has not only completely departed from his sonic norm but is challenging charts worldwide with some of the most personal and introspective hit songs in pop music history. I love the fact that this is not a hip hop album -- rather, it is a Kanye West album and nobody is trying to pretend differently. Rhythms (4/4 beats, electro-pop beats) and melodic leads (rave-y synths, Autotune-a-go-go) that were completely foreign to R&B music just a few years ago are now used with such regularity that it truly feels like the genre(s) can credibly incorporate nearly any sound or style and mold it into a hit song. The boundaries are disappearing, and "808s and Heartbreak" is a big nail in the coffin of R&B uniformity. We've come a long way since the days of dueling divas trying to out-scream each other over Boyz II Men's simplistic, cookie cutter, and endlessly recycled beats.

"808s and Heartbreak" is Kanye's "This is Hardcore", his post-everything "life is bullshit" record. I thought that the second single, "Heartless", was caustic enough, but then I heard "Robocop", which ends with his mind evaporating into the world of painful flashbacks, coolly spewing random insults and snippets of dialogue ("haha that was your first good one in a while") over the cheery tones of a string quartet playing a near-variation of "Eleanor Rigby". It's unsettling stuff, but makes for utterly fascinating listening. With lead (anti)-single "Love Lockdown", West has made his very own "Tusk", by following up a string of huge hits with a song that's difficult to love thanks to a sparse vocal melody and nary a backbeat with the exception of occasional stretches of frantic, thumping percussion.

It's a Kanye West production, so of course, all this sounds fantastic even if its unfamiliar territory for him. I wouldn't wish his personal troubles on anybody, but his reactions to it all -- caustic robotic ranting over chunky electo-pop -- along with the musical quality of the results, makes for one of the most compelling narratives in pop this decade.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Urban Renewal" Featuring the Songs of Phil Collins

Now here is an album that I completely missed out on at the time it was released, so stumbling across it in the bargain bin was quite the surprise (although some time later I did recall that I had heard, at some point in the last couple of years, the semi-legendary* ODB version of "Sussudio", and yet somehow I failed to ask myself the obvious follow-up questions such as "why the shit is ODB covering 'Sussudio??', etc.) So there you have it: years before notable rap and R&B artists couldn't help but get choked up at the mention of Coldplay, some of the biggest stars of the day took a crack at modernizing the music of one of the whitest solo artists in recent chart history.

Seven years on, it's little more than a curio, and undoubtedly a missed opportunity to make true to the album's title and transform these songs into something refreshingly different. Only ODB, by virtue of being himself, and Kelis' warped take on "I Don't Care Anymore" stand out, but most of the album consists of slightly more soulful rehashes of the same shmaltz that Phil Collins already mastered with the originals. "Against All Odds" is just begging for the R. Kelly "I Believe I Can Fly" treatment", but rather than grant the song the histrionics that are more than warranted in this specific case, Montell Jordan tries to play it smooth and robs the song of its all-important climax.

* Why is it semi-legendary? Because it's ODB. Performing "Sussudio". The Phil Collins song. Any more questions?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)

One day last week, my clock radio went off at 8:30 AM, just as it does everyday, and I stayed in bed trying to catch more rest while letting the music slowly stir me into the land of the semi-conscious (just as I do everyday). Except on this day, when I was instantly shocked back to life by a song I hadn't heard in eleven years.

Even though I only heard it once, all those years ago, the song stuck in my head because it was probably the first time that I really got Tom Waits, got past the gravelly voice and "weird" melodies and instrumentations, and appreciated him at his surly, beer-soaked best. Waits took an unforgettable refrain and his familiar warped lyrical wit, and made crying into your beer actually seem like a attractively bittersweet thing to do. I'm always amazed at how powerfully music can be intertwined with memories, which is but one reason why you can remain a fan of a song (or artist) even though you might not hear it for months or years. And then, upon finally hearing the song again, you can find yourself singing along effortlessly, with the memories flooding back as if the music itself had been forever preserved in a photo album.

Then I found this TV performance that made me view the song in a very different way -- more goofy and farcical, with Waits as the smiling court jester. Watching him smoke, drink, and spin witticisms in the post-performance interview is also a must-see treat.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

November random notes on TRL, Wolfgang Voigt, and Animal Collective

1. Mike Barthel sums up the "TRL era" over on Idolator, and he gets it dead on the money. It's certainly true that "we" (music fans and most certainly music critics born before, say, 1980) didn't recognize the importance or influence of the show during the peak of it's popularity and had little inkling that TRL would come to represent an entire era of music tastemaking. And then there's the rapidity of the critical rehabilitation of this music in "serious" rock and pop discourse. Hardened indie types wouldn't have minded if the Backstreet Boys had disappeared down a rabbit hole anytime in 1998, but those same jaded people likely swoon to "I Want It That Way" in 2008 (as for my thinking at the time, that was the song and video that was just too snuggly and lovable for me to seriously hate the Backstreet Boys any longer). The Velvet Underground weren't taken seriously for nearly twenty years, but Britney Spears' music arguably spawns more rockcrit than any pop or rock act in this decade. Maybe in ten years, TRL will be even more entrenched in the accepted rock orthodoxy, with it's power to make or break artists considered on par with that of the Ed Sullivan Show.

2. Here is an interview with Wolfgang Voigt from the same Red Bull Music Academy series that presented the Moritz von Oswald interview I discussed a few weeks ago. If von Oswald's session left you a bit cold, with the feeling that you didn't get an open and honest look at the man himself, you'll want to check out Voigt's far more revealing interview. At length, he discusses the inspirations for his music, complete with an eye-opening examination of the mythology of the German forest and how those rural atmospheres affected him not only in his youth, but up to the present day. He also explains the multiple meanings behind some of the titles he's used over the years (e.g. "Auftrieb") -- clever word play that is likely lost on anyone who is not a native German speaker. But my favourite part, in something of a car crash sense, happens in the last few minutes, when someone from the audience asks "is Kompakt a gay label" in probably five different roundabout ways without actually coming right out and asking the question, and Voigt responds "yes" in his own five roundabout ways without actually coming right out and answering him.

3. I dug out a Feb 2005 recording of an Animal Collective show and as "Banshee Beat" came on (and its twelve minutes of slowly unraveling, enveloping goodness), I realized what I'd been missing from this band for the past couple of years. Simply put, Animal Collective are no longer a mysterious band. It made perfect sense to perform these songs behind curtains, screens, and sinister masks, accompanied by pulsing, swirling lights. I think I let out a groan in the very first second of the recently leaked "Brother Sport", because the vocals ring out clear as day, upfront and happy, with perfectly clear production and easily separable melodic elements among the bumping bassline and the layered, ringing synth lines. That's not to say that the track isn't quality, because it is, and this kind of recording isn't a necessarily bad thing given the groovier style that they're currently pushing. But the guitar-heavy, foggy sound of "Feels" was most certainly their peak and they're not likely to touch those heights again.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't Call it a Comeback

It's been an interesting year for techno producers who have seemed to reappear out of nowhere (or after a few quiet/dormant years). Moritz von Oswald released an album with Carl Craig and started showing up for interviews. Another German legend, Wolfgang Voigt, re-released the his four albums as Gas and played his first live gigs under that moniker. A couple of weekends ago, I caught a couple of semi-comebacks at close range, at a party featuring Move D and Fairmont. It's a big stretch to say that Jake Fairley ever took a leave of absence from music, but he's a slow worker by many producers' standards, and his chameleon-like excursions between dance genres (plus his foray into rock as part of The Uncut) gives the impression that his career is nothing but a well-spaced series of vanishing and reappearing acts. Working as Fairmont, he is able to tap into the wave of more organic, soulful, minimal techno of the moment while taking advantage of his live rig to tease the crowd with the types of huge, extended breakdowns that you'd expect from a trance set. This pattern gets awfully repetitive once his set approaches the hour mark, and while I personally would have preferred if he'd balanced those tricks with more fluid, breakdown-free stretches, I was clearly in the minority among the crowd that night. [cute piece of personal trivia: Jake Fairley is now the first artist that I've seen live in three different cities]

Move D's period of dormancy lasted so long that I'd completely forgotten about his work with longtime collaborator Jonah Sharp aka Spacetime Continuum -- such as his remix on the latter's "rEMIT rECAPS" album. There's something dispassionate about the way Move D strips techno of its robotic, futuristic elements and makes it safe for cafes as well as dancefloors, and his recent podcast for Resident Advisor, which was filled with his new and unreleased recordings, left me a bit cold. But his DJ set efforlessly combined the smooth and the rough, bridging from his mellowed-out bread-and-butter techno to harder, more teeth-rattling tracks over the course of a stellar 2+ hour set.

It had been years since I'd heard the name Petar Dundov, who, under the name of Brothers Yard, used to create some of the harshest, most punishing pure techno around. After stuffing his brain with the music of the 70's, specifically prog, motorik and Sheffield-oriented synth pop, he's produced what might be the year's best techno album, "Escapements". The tracks are long -- virtually all of them run between eight and ten minutes -- but their looping, skittering melodies are addictive and manage to be both sing-song playful and suitable for the strictest of dancefloors. It all reminds me of how and why Orbital were nearly unassailable in the mid-90's. With the exception of an introspective track like "Anya", Dundov doesn't engage in cinematic storytelling in the style of "In Sides" or "The Box" EP, but you took "Mddle of Nowhere"-era Orbital, subtracted some Detroit and replaced it with Cluster, you'd more or less end up with "Escapements". The Cluster comparisons feel particularly fitting, in the way that synth melodies act as both the hooks and the rhythmic propeller of the tracks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Phil Spector in the 1970's

Box sets are a blessing and a curse -- they gather a large and hopefully definitive amount of material associated with a well-known artist, but it is easy to assume that they represent the whole, complete picture. One might think "if I buy the box set then I'll have all the important stuff and won't have to ever buy anything else by this artist", although for a truly great artist it is virtually impossible that all the essentials can be collected in a reasonably sized package.

Phil Spector's "Back to Mono" collected his career highlights from 1958-1969, a period that can roughly be defined as one in which he created monophonic productions intended for AM radio, and worked with a constantly shifting stable of artists who were less famous than he was. The implication is that Spector ceased to be interesting or relevant after 1969, or even after 1965, considering the small amount of material that appears on the box set from that year onward. Beyond his work with the Beatles ("Let It Be") and solo albums by George Harrison and John Lennon, even many Spector fans haven't bothered to devote much effort into unearthing his 1970's works, and when they are spoken about, it is usually to repeat stories about how so-and-so hated working with Spector and ended up practically disowning the work they did together. I still haven't heard The Ramones' "End of the Century", but I can repeat the story about how Spector reportedly pulled a gun on the band in the studio in order to force them to listen to and record the Ronettes' "Baby I Love You".

But 1965 is still a significant date -- after that time, singer-songwriters were the unquestioned stars of music and a producer could not, and would not be a top star in his own right on the worldwide music scene again until the rise of the Neptunes and Timbaland (although one could certainly argue for Quincy Jones, particularly in the case of his Grammy winning solo album in 1990). Spector never seemed to accept that. No matter who he worked with, whether it was in the 60's, 70's, or beyond, he insisted on playing G-d in the studio, pushed to get his way far beyond any reasonable bounds of etiquette or acceptable behaviour, and drove artists into fits of near insanity with his relentless perfectionism. In some sense, these stories are all that has survived from Spector's 1970's work, while the music he was working on at the time simply provides the background and context for the story.

But what about the music itself? Thanks to a recent thread revival on ILM, a bunch of people, including me, finally exhumed some of Spector's long-neglected 1970's work. Both Dion's "Born To Be With You" and Leonard Cohen's "Death of a Ladies' Man" (neither of which I had heard previously) have the unmistakable Spector touch -- lush arrangements, string sections, booming drums that sound like they were recorded in a cavern, ghostly ambiance filling the cracks between all the other instruments, etc. But neither album would be mistaken for his 1960's productions. Paranoia and sadness lurks through most corners of these records, which were clearly (hopefully?) not meant for AM radio.

"Born To Be With You", released in 1975, has long been one of Jason Pierce's favourite albums. That was news to me, but after hearing the album it made perfect sense, since based on his recent career path, Spiritualized albums have been converging to this sound fairly rapidly (i.e. confessional singer-songwriter folk-blues with a hint of maximalism in the production). "Make the Woman Love Me" tackles good ol' love and longing with the dewy-eyed wonder that Daniel Johnston would later perfect on his albums, and the title track is a glorious blue-eyed soul epic, with a simple, gritty lyric delivered over Spector's scaled-back, darkened pizzazz.

After a number of listens, I'm sold on the notion that "Death of a Ladies Man", released in 1977, is a near-masterpiece. All of Spector's poor treatment of Cohen (including locking him out of the studio when the album wasn't finished) acquires a modicum of good sense if you look at it as just another one of Spector's little experiments in finding "the voice". Like with Ronnie Bennett a decade and a half earlier (a girl who sang like a little boy), he'd found a new prototype in Leonard Cohen (a poet who sang like a dirty old man) and once he had that voice in the studio, he plugged it into his (Spector's) usual formula and assigned it to the songs that he thought were worthwhile to record. Details such as Cohen's well-established reputation of his own artistic ambitions for the album were of little consequence to Spector. "Death of a Ladies Man" is not a Leonard Cohen album inasmuch as it is a Phil Spector album featuring Leonard Cohen on guest vocals, and Spector went out of his way to ensure that.

Nevertheless, the results are impeccable. "Memories" is the clear highlight: a skyscraping Spector mini-opera with layer upon layer of 60's AM glitz, huge crescendos and false stops, choirs, a mid-song sax solo, and just about every other orchestrally dramatic bell and whistle in the producer's repertoire. Cohen transforms himself into nothing resembling the sensitive poet of his best known hits -- gone are preciously erotic lines like "they touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem" or "you touched her perfect body with her mind", this is Leonard Cohen macking on chicks at the high school dance and resorting to a bit of proto-Dawson's Creek sappiness to accelerate down the path to a night of slapping stomachs. It's Cohen's very own teen fantasy precursor to "Paradise By the Dashboard Light", where the protagonist is proud of the fact that he'll say just about anything to get busy with the girl he wants. The last minute of the song sees Cohen completely hung up on the object of his affection, screaming "your naked body!" over and over in a self-induced fit of orgasmic desire, and I can only imagine how many hours Spector made him yell in the studio until he got the vocal down just right (who knows, maybe this one recording did more to reduce Cohen's voice to his current raspy baritone than age or anything else). By the time this six minute rollercoaster is over, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, shake the hands of everyone involved, or put up streamers and balloons in my apartment and find someone to slow dance with. Even Cohen had to admit that the whole thing was brilliant, for this is the only song on the album that he regularly performed live, albeit in a greatly stripped down form and only for a couple of years in the 70's before he effectively disowned it like everything else on "Death of a Ladies Man". And guess what, there's even a video!

On an album filled with arrogance and hyper-masculinity, "Paper Thin Hotel" stands out as the one song where the macho protagonist gets his commuppance by having his heart broken when he spies on an unsuspecting lover and hears things that he was never meant to hear. Pulp's "Live Bed Show" asked the tantalizing question "what if beds could talk?" but for Jarvis Cocker it was a gossip-chasing dream scenario, where the talking beds would spill the dirt that he and the characters in his songs were always chasing after. Leonard Cohen puts his ear to the talking wall and hears terrible things that he wishes he'd never heard, and despite claiming that there was "a heavy burden lifted from my soul" thanks to finally knowing the truth, it's the next line that kills me -- "I learned that love was out of my control". Sure, you might be better off knowing the whole truth, but the fact remains that the whole truth ... well, sucks. The reminder that love is a roll of the dice that can disintegrate or be irreparably harmed without the slightest notice is a brutal and sobering lesson, one that any sanity-preserving person would prefer that they never have to learn or accept. Adding to the heartbreak, the entire drama is adorned by Spector's kitchen sink romanticism, not too dissimilar from an ever better Pulp tune, the bittersweet "Happy Endings". There's an undercurrent of lounge exotica on the album, of which "Paper Thin Hotel" is the best example, that draws favourable comparisons between Cohen's lovable horny dude persona and Serge Gainsbourg's self-characterizations from his mid-70's work. That's a comparison for the modern listener to make, since it's a near-certainty that neither Spector or Cohen had heard of Gainsbourg when they made their album.

Parts of Side 2 ensure that "Death of a Ladies Man" is far from a perfect album. "Don't Go Home with Your Hard On" is a dumb but fun rave-up with Bob Dylan cranking away on background vocals. And it's a disco song. No, I'm serious, it is. It won't be making your personal list of all-time disco classics any time soon, but you owe it to yourself to hear Dylan, Cohen and Spector trying their hands at disco at least once in your life. However, "Fingerprints" is a pitiful disaster, and lord only knows why they (i.e. Spector) thought that a country and western yee-hah shoutalong would be a good addition here.

Thankfully, all is redeemed with the title track. Its surrealist lyrics and vocal cadences recall Dylan's "Desolation Row", and the simple, almost amateurish harmonies mimic the Grateful Dead's best 70's recordings. The Ladies Man's demise can be chalked up to, naturally, too much fucking. Cohen can be really funny when he wants to be, and the OTTness of the lyrics surely indicates he was at least somewhat in on Spector's plan to make an album saturated with overdramatized characters with the production values to match. Suddenly, the song downshifts in tempo, adorns itself with shimmering synths, and then it's all starlight and daydreaming as I get "Le Petit Prince" flashbacks and start hoping that the final refrain of "It's like our visit to the moon or to that other star / I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far" will continue forever, "Hey Jude" style. It's a stunning line with a conflicting double meaning, where reaching for the stars turns into a metaphor for mindless, baseless, soulless sex and everything hinges on the word "nothing". That is, if you've taken the trouble to travel all the way to the moon, then you should know that you've done it all for "nothing" = "for no good reason whatsoever". Or, if you're going that route, then you're doing it for "nothing" = "for free", so go right ahead as long as you never forget that it's all in good fun and will never lead to anything satisfying. And with that, the song fades away into a twinkling dreamland ...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Random October Notes ...

Here is a fascinating interview with Moritz von Oswald
. There are no eureka insights into the making of the classics, but watching von Oswald kicking back on a couch and playing records in a semi-academic environment feels like the most natural thing in the world, so much so that I had to constantly remind myself that he is one of techno's most celebrated recluses.

Interesting tidbits from the interview include the admission that their secretive personas were partly meant to be funny, as a way of making light of fame and celebrity. This was hardly a revolutionary concept in 1993, but I guess the joke really was on us because it was widely assumed that the anonymity of the Basic Channel label was the key to its allure (which it was), but nobody really considered the additional notion of releasing a series of records with completely illegible inner labels/credits/graphics just for shits and giggles. Also, von Oswald feels that the best place for listening to his tracks is a room like the one he was interviewed in. This coming from the man who set up his own mastering and record cutting studio because he wasn't satisfied with how his records sounded when cut at existing commercial studios. Hmmmm ... (yeah I know, audiophile standards are one thing, a proper listening environment is something totally different) ... but anyhow, hooray for home listening!

2. TV on the Radio, "Dear Science". Yet another thoroughly mediocre offering from the much-praised TVOTR, who are well on their way to be the most undeserved critical darlings in rock music since Radiohead. Except that Radiohead have made many memorable singles and a smattering of otherwise notable songs, whereas TVOTR have never created even the smallest morsel of music that I felt compelled to hum to myself five minutes after I heard it. In some strange way they are the anti-Radiohead, in that Radiohead have always been a terrible idea in theory (wimpy sub-Floydian mope rock, millennium angst, electronica/jam rock hybrids, etc.) but tend to find a way to make those ideas work, whereas TVOTR are a good idea in theory (walls of sound, like an impeccably produced Flaming Lips minus all of that band's goofy and embarrassing druggy dream sequence tendencies) but their music always falls flat.

3. Madchester ahoy ... did you know that the Charlatans UK and James released new albums this year? And that they're both pretty good, particularly James' "Hey Ma"? Sure, they went overboard, Bono-style, with the album's anti-war political pestering. "Of Monsters and Heroes and Men" was written with raised cigarette lighters in mind, and "Whiteboy" might conjure up memories of 1990 student discos that you'd hoped you'd long since forgotten about. Sometimes, music can be a bit daft but can still push all the right buttons.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Animal Collective @ Zappa, 23/10/2008

Animal Collective's first ever show in Tel Aviv attracted an unique confluence of people of and atmosphere. I'm not just talking about the unusually high proportion of Americans that were there, or the average age of the audience (far lower than most gigs in the city), or the somewhat bizarre sight of so many teens and aged hipsters trekking to the outskirts of T.A. for a gig in a slick and elegant club located in an industrial science park. This gig is rare and special because bands like Animal Collective simply don't come here very often. Most international concerts are given by established rock acts, reggae or soul artists, or DJs. P4k-approved indie phenoms simply don't add T.A. as a stop on their European tours, and the fact that this band did exactly that created a pre-gig buzz and anticipation that can only come from a crowd that has seen only a small handful of such concerts in the past year, if not in their whole lifetime. I can't say that any of this caught me by surprise, but regardless, once you've seen several hundred concerts by virtually all of your favourite bands (including this one) you reach a point of being not so much jaded (someone please shoot me if I ever become jaded about experiencing palpable excitement before a concert by a great band) but certainly on the outside looking in at a crowd of joyous concertgoers who seemed to have little clue about what they were about to experience other than the assurance that it would be a whole lot of fun. Not only that, the party hosts would be a band that matters -- not one that used to matter five or ten or twenty years ago, but one that is a creative, critical, and popular success right now. Put that together with a group of ticket holders who would normally be thrilled just to see ANY cool gig, and you have an audience concoction not unlike the Ottawa audiences I was a part of during the summer I lived there. These are some of the best crowds you will ever see because they're made up of music fans who wait for months to see the gigs they really want, and always retain a special sense of music star worship that can only come with the humble feelings of surprise and disbelief that this band has truly chosen to come to their city*.

For most of the main set, they ran through the new songs they've been road testing for over a year, interspersed with tracks like "Peacebone" to get people moving (part of me is amazed that they can still bring so much energy to a song they've been playing almost every night for the past three years, but then again this is the same band that regularly went nutso to "We Tigers" for an even longer period of time). With the exception of an 18-minute version of "Lablakely Dress/Fireworks/Essplode/Fireworks" (whew) that was probably about five minutes too long, most of the song presentations were fairly concise and uninventive. But maybe I've lost the element of surprise with these tracks after hearing so many Animal Collective live recordings over the past two years. On the other hand, I never got tired of hearing "The Purple Bottle" in any of its forms, but in general the band has dropped a certain spirit of chaos and improvisation that was lost when they transformed from a guitar band to a dance band when Deakin started staying at home for the tours.

The encores (all 40 minutes of them!) were no mere codas -- they were the highlights of the show. After the first song -- a prog-dance slowburner that owes more to house/techno than anything else they've done -- I was forced to freely eat some of my words about the band having lost an experimental edge. A wild take on Panda Bear's "Comfy In Nautica" (with Ravel's "Bolero" sung in the breakdown between verses -- no really!) and the soon to be released "Material Things" (its working title) restore my faith in the band's ability to reinvent themselves as many times as they feel necessary.

* which is one reason why journos don't know how to deal with them when they do, witness this horrifyingly bad preview and poor excuse for an interview with Panda Bear as the unfortunate victim. I'll restrain myself with comments about why it's so bad, but the band history is clearly cribbed from their wikipedia page and "revealing" that a band's fans don't get bored of listening to their albums is just about the lamest comment that can be made in a feature article.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Notes on a few mixes (but especially "Fabric 41")

With podcasts appearing regularly on seemingly every blog and website in this, the age of rapidshare, I've heard more mixes this year since ... well, ever. The Mole threw a curveball with his Resident Advisor podcast and assembled a collection of 70's soul because he'd been understandably depressed after splitting up with his girlfriend. I loved both the mix and the sentiment -- there are plenty of self-promotional mixes floating around, but not too many that were sound as if they were thrown together in his or her bedroom at 2AM in place of a mood update on their Livejournal page. My mixes probably turn out best when they were made as an extended elaboration on my feelings about a certain person and/or at a certain moment in time, and I'm sure I'm not alone in writing that. The mix is a postcard from that hour or day or week, and is often far more effective at preserving memories than a rambling journal entry.

But despite the volume of material, I had yet to hear a near-flawless, truly excellent techno or house mix. For example, I had strong hopes for Matthew Dear's "Body Language Vol. 7", but found it to be less than the sum of its parts, with too many uneven sections where the momentum was lost (most notably about 30 minutes in, when the mix gets stripped down after a hot start and starts bubbling under when it should have been ready to take off).

I hadn't been a big fan of either the Fabric mix series or Luciano's earlier mixed work (incl. live recordings). Too many minimal mixes tend to take their sweet time before stumbling their way toward a peak of sorts, leaving long stretches of understated plateau and little in the way of euphoria or climax. Combined with the style of Michael Mayer's Fabric mixes, which led to a load of copycat mixes in which the DJ let the tracks run from start to end groove, and you end up with far too many 12-track, 65-minute mixes that seem to drag on forever. Luciano's "Fabric 41" contains none of these flaws. It hits the gas immediately, dispensing completely with any conventional notion of steadily building a mix toward a peak in the middle or at the end, and creates a series of euphoric peaks by being consistently surprising and unpredictable, even while staying within the general format of a continuously mixed minimal set. He'll stretch out a track for a six or seven minutes and follow it up with a couple of shorter cuts that jumble the pace of the mix just enough to keep the listener guessing. By dropping a vocal track only every ten or fifteen minutes, he creates a further element of surprise out of simple track ordering, making the appearance of vocals feel that much more glorious. Of course, the tracks themselves are simply stellar, and from start to finish -- from the rhythm guitar lines of Rhadoo's "Slagare" to Chymera's Gottsching-like "Arabesque"-- they are full of flourishes that set them well apart from plenty of lesser, cookie cutter minimal.

One way to build a mix is to slowly tease and build to a crescendo over many tracks and dozens of minutes, in other words, manipulating the listener's expectations, and then delivering exactly what they expect. Luciano takes the opposite tack on "Fabric 41". You might not know what to expect, but when he gives it to you, it's all good. It's further proof that track selection and the ability to pace a mix are the most important skills that a DJ can have.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New Hockey Night in Canada Theme!

After 40 years, HNIC will feature a new theme this year, and voting is currently underway on the CBC's website to choose the winning theme from among five finalists. WAHT?? This is what happens when you've been away from Canada for too long -- I only found out about this last week. Well, I guess this is an improvement over learning about the Queen Street West fire some six months after the fact.


1. CBC didn't own the rights to the HNIC theme song?
2. A contest? I know that Canadian Idol is really popular and all, but ... does everything need to come down to a nationwide contest and vote? The Federal Election, OK fine, but ... the new HNIC theme? Must we?
3. re: #1, seriously? They didn't own the rights to the third most recognizable Canadian song after the national anthem and "Summer of '69"? Really????
3. Gerry Moseby, "Ice Warriors". A strong, uptempo bar rock track that gets the blood flowing. I like the lack of horns and OTT symphonic flairs that set it well apart from the classic theme. If you're going to pick a new theme, make it a NEW theme, I say.
4. Robert Fraser Burke, "Sticks To The Ice". Pretty much the opposite of what I said above. Any attempt to push the exact same buttons that the classic theme did can't help but end in disappointment. It's also a bit too reminiscent of the theme from the Superman movies, and the "Day In The Life"-esque final chord is just silly.
5. Graham McRae, "Eleventh Hour". I was all set to reiterate the comment immediately above, but then the drums came crashing in and I was instantly grabbed by the synth/horn hook. That's great songwriting. I think we have a winner.
6. Christian St-Roch & Jimmy Tanaka, "Let The Game Begin". What, you mean David Foster *didn't* write this? St-Roch worked on the theme for the 1976 Olympics though, which explains the tympani overload, but whereas the Olympics are a larger-than-life drama that plays out once every four years (thereby warranting an epic feel), HNIC is a beer-soaked singalong that plays out in bars with wood paneling and staffed by a room full of mullets. I'll pass on this theme, thanks.
7. Colin Oberst, "Canadian Gold". There's a bagpipe-psych vibe here that gives me hints of what Caribou would submit if he would try to compose the new HNIC theme (read: Dan Snaith's talents are not best utilized toward sports themes). It's a head-scratcher, and I definitely can't see this as the lead-in to a Ford Truck ad.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Evil Preacher Orchestra, Levontin 7, 24/09/08

Some friends and I were in the mood to see a gig at Levontin 7 this week, so I picked this band out of their concert calendar purely on the basis of their name. I operated under the assumption that bands with "Orchestra" in their name generally don't suck, because large bands (eight members according to the concert listing) packing the stage with themselves and a variety of instruments make for an interesting sight and a healthy blast of sound, which at the very worst can be nice for the spectacle.

Better yet, the music turned out to be fantastic, a mixture of free jazz freakouts and semi-improvised funk rock that took me back to Great Moments in Spiritualized History when they recorded songs like "Home of the Brave" and "Amazing Grace", except that Spiritualized have never been able to funk properly (or at all) (maybe at the end of "Cop Shoot Cop"). A lot of people became bored and frustrated with this noise and left early. Screw 'em -- this was proper trance music.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Some techno notes

Carl Craig & Moritz Von Oswald, "Recomposed Vol. 3" ... The concept is absolutely mouth-watering -- two techno legends compose an hour-long suite built around snippets from Ravel's "Bolero" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (most notably the "Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle" section)) -- but the end result is more in the spirit of TV Victor's "Timeless Deceleration", in which the hour-long concept overwhelms the record and exhausts one's patience for many of the lush moods that are offered by the music. Rather than morphing (or better yet, ending) certain thematic elements when they've said everything that needed to be said, stretching everything out to super-epic lengths remains the ultimate, overarching goal that hovers over every minute of the record. Von Oswald also mastered that TV Victor record, and "Recomposed Vol. 3" is painted with a similar sonic brush (Cafe del Mar strained through dub techno, hazy effects and dubby fog, etc.) Villalobos' "Fizheuer Zieheuer" was similarly flawed, and in both cases I can see how it all makes sense as a method for creating semi-improvised trance music (in the more hypnotic, meditative sense of the word, not the hands in the air and wait for the breakdown sense), but it's a concept that can work when you're sleeping in the corner of the club at 6 AM, and that doesn't always translate well into conventional recordings.

Having said that, if you're looking to form a Detroit techno/classical music hybrid, then Carl Craig is definitely the guy you want at the helm. The gentle build of the first fifteen minutes of the piece isn't topped by the forty-five minutes that follow. The classical samples weave in and out of the mix like gentle birdsong, and of course the frittering hi-hat rhythms are pure Detroit and appropriately dramatic.

Of course I will not get to see M83 on tour this year, but Pitchfork provided some handy links to the band's appearance at/on Juan's Basement. Live, M83 have evolved from the shambolic mess of the "Run Into Flowers"-era into a tight and powerful unit that seems to finally understand how to properly translate the band's sound from the studio to the stage. That's right -- MORE SYNTH. Synth-hell overload, all the time, yes yes yes!! M83 just keep getting better and better. And a word about the interview ... I know that it's pretty much a required question when you're dealing with an album like "Saturdays = Youth", but the fanatically authentic style that is recreated on "Kim and Jessie" could never be anything but a labour of love. 80's irony is simply not part of the equation on this album.

Random play works as a bias-removal tool: I had tracks from both T. Raumschmiere's "I Tank U" and David Guetta's "Pop Life" on my iPod, and consistently confused them for each other upon casual listening. It's a good time to be making electronic music if you want to be hailed for your rock star crossover tendencies (witness Justice) and T. Raumschmiere's been straddling that line a lot longer than most. "Brenner", a major highlight of "I Tank U", actually owes quite a lot to Green Velvet (who is a true granddaddy of this style, which in turn owes a lot to Prince's brand of bump-and-grind funk rock), at least until the brief schaffel interlude and subsequent German rap turn up to kick the track into a different dimension. Although for my money, David Guetta makes for a better (and far more underappreciated) rock star.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Low, Sansanna @ Barby

You've got to hand it to the promoters for putting forth the effort in finding the perfect opening band for Low, that is, they found a local group that sounds exactly like them. Sansanna bring out the best in the silence between the notes, just like the headliners, and maximize the sound for their effort in part by reverbing the drums more than I ever thought that drums could be reverbed.

But Low are beyond spectacular tonight, easily blowing away the previous two shows I saw by them. It's been a long time since that most recent show -- in 2002, on the "Trust" tour, and a lot has happened to the band both professionally (two more albums, a box set), and personally (Alan Sparhawk's health). "The Great Destroyer", released in 2005, rejuvenated Low's career by jolting them out of the sweet n soft habits that had threatened to become stale over their previous albums. Although "The Great Destroyer" is sadly underrepresented tonight, its pomp and aggressiveness are all over tonight's set. There are still plenty of moments when one can hear a pin drop (and the all too common crunch of someone stepping on a discarded paper cup), but also transcendent moments of improvised noise such as the searing conclusion to "Untitled" from "Things We Lost in the Fire". The kick in the teeth that was initiated by "The Great Destroyer" has subtlely transformed the band into more spellbinding, arresting performers. Sparhawk sings with more passion and energy than I've ever heard from him, and Mimi Parker has never been in finer voice.

Remarkably, this turns out to be one of the longest gigs that Low have ever played. Beginning with a flurry of short songs (mainly from "Drums and Guns"), the shift to wigging out starts with a furious take on "John Prine", continues through two encores and two hours of Low from start to finish.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

We don't take kindly to Michael Jackson's brand of rock and roll music around here

It's like "No Repetitive Beats: 15 Years Later". Except much funnier! I'm talking about this story: Haredim move to eradicate "foreign" pop.

Even though I'm going to make fun of these people, a ban like this is a serious concern thanks to the nearly unbreakable loyalty that Haredim show toward their spiritual leaders. The influence these rabbis have on their followers is on the scale of the Christian Coaltion or dare I say it, Oprah's Book Club. The article does a good job of highlighting the possibly severe economic consequences of such a ban. But I'm not hear to insult anyone's beliefs, I'm here to laugh at their perceptions about music!

  • "'Michael Jackson-style music has no place in our community,' says Mordechai Bloi, a senior member of the Guardians of Sanctity and Education". Even though it's not 1987, we'll ignore that Michael Jackson would be the first name that would come to someone's mind when they choose to address the scourge of contemporary music. But I'm really wondering if this is the first time that Michael Jackson has been called out as Public Enemy #1 when it comes to corrupting the youth. At least the conservatives of the 80's had the sense to galvanize their opinions against devil-worshipping long-haired onstage animal-eating heavy metallers as the object of their derision. Is Michael Jackson really that scary a person. Uh ... wait, don't answer that.

  • "'We might be able to adopt Bach or Beethoven, music with class, but not goyishe African music and beats.'" Ah yes, Beethoven -- such a fine Jew he was. And Bach? Was his full name Bachstein, or was he simply a religious man with enough kids to form his own baseball league? Either way, he's approved!

  • "Menahem Toker, a popular haredi DJ who was reportedly fired from Radio Kol Chai under pressure from haredi activists because he promoted "treif" shows ..." I love the idea of a "treif show" ... it's such a great little phrase. See also: "kosher alternative". Maybe Jewish mothers can take notes and use these less threatening terms when dealing with their partly assimilated sons -- "we wish you wouldn't spend so much time with that shiksa treif female friend and would consider a more kosher alternative."

  • "'What are they going to do listen to every single disc that is released? What about the thousands of discs that are already in the market?' Luft admitted that listening to all the discs on the market would be a formidable challenge." [emphasis mine] I'll say! I can't even understand the words on Wold's "Stratification", but although I am therefore uncertain if they are promoting a kosher message or not, they are from Saskatchewan, which makes them most definitely treif.

Friday, September 05, 2008

No More "Paper Thin Walls"?

I've long since fallen behind on keeping up with the ebb and flow of music blogs -- for proof of this, notice how seldom I update my links bar these days. I only check a few sites semiregularly and receive RSS feeds from some megasites (PFM, Idolator), but otherwise my internet habits are fairly disorganized, music-wise. One of my regular stops, almost since its inception, was Paper Thin Walls. The site is closing shop and the news hit me like a ton of bricks. PTW introduced me to a truckload of fantastic new music over the past couple of years, so much so that it's no exaggeration to say that it was my single biggest resource on the internet in that respect. With sites like Pitchfork posting links to seemingly dozens of mp3s and videos daily (not to mention the weekly updates of documentary-length content on the Pitchfork.tv section of their site), I can understand that people might have found PTW to be a bit lacking in material. I felt that they made up for it and then some by maintaining an incredibly high level of quality control not only with the music they hosted, but also with the writing that accompanied it. Articulate, bite-sized reviews of single tracks are a lot more likely to sell me on a band than an essay-length semi-philosophical screed will, not least because the single song mp3 is simpler to digest than an extended play album, no matter whether I'm at work, home, or iPod.

Right now I'm listening to PTW's "Drifts and Drones" mixtape, compiled in April 2007, which remained glued to my regularly used media players for most of the spring and early summer of that year, especially the tracks by Eluvium and Horseback which I heard there for the first time. Follow the links from here to get everything on the tape, after all, what better way to pay tribute to a great website than by listening to the music that made it so special.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mogwai, "The Hawk Is Howling": a bit puzzling

Recently, a few Youtube clips from recent Mogwai shows renewed my buzz for their upcoming album. They'd retained their nasty RAWK edge from "Mr. Beast", but were indulging their prog tendencies by going more epic with a style that is part Sabbath, part Steve Hillage. I envisioned an album where "Glasgow Mega-Snake" was stretched and toyed with, where the three minute explosion on the record served as the conclusion to four or five minutes of buildup that led up to it. A record filled with "Ex-Cowboy"s, if you will -- "Come On Die Young: The Revenge", an album for people who thought that the first forty minutes of that album were boring and didn't pick up until the "Ex-Cowboy"/"Xmas Steps" portion (there were plenty of those people around in 1999). I'm not craving another "CODY" ("Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" already filled that role quite nicely, IMO) but Mogwai are long overdue for a few killer epic tracks. When it comes to the correlations between track length and quality in Mogwai's songs, their output has pretty much inverted itself over the past ten years. In the early days they were all about the eye-opening epic ("Mogwai Fear Satan", "Helicon 1", "Superheroes of BMX", "Stereodee", "Like Herod") but it's been years since they've delivered a truly memorable one. For example, "Ratts of the Capital" was one of the weaker tracks on "Happy Songs ...", and "Mr. Beast" didn't really have an epic track, save for maybe "We're No Here", which is again not even close to being the best track on that album.

"The Hawk Is Howling" does a lot of things halfway. It fills a halfway grey area between loud and soft, between epic and succinct, between melodic and freeform. None of long tracks are really that long, and none of them carry that "Mogwai Fear Satan"-esque emphasis that says "get comfortable because this is the big one". There are a lot of tracks in the six-to-eight minute range, and it's almost as if they kept hedging their bets them and weren't sure whether to let one of them really break out to prodigious lengths and dominate the album. Despite my initial hopes/impressions from the live shows, none of them follow the quiet/loud/quiet/loud ride that "Ex-Cowboy" does. The typical pattern is to build slowly and meticulously over the opening few minutes, eventually reach a plateau, and more or less maintain that plateau over the song's second half. Sometimes the journey is magnificent. "The Precipice" twists seemingly endless, Wagnerian melodies into fascinatingly detailed shapes. But large swaths of the album are devoted to wandering through anodyne, "CODY"-ish semi-ambiance without much in the form of an appropriate payoff.

So I'm not sure about this one yet, but Mogwai have always had a habit of not making things simple, haven't they?

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Raveonettes, "You Want the Candy"

Is there a more underappreciated band in music today than the Raveonettes? "Denis"-era Blondie, JAMC's caustic racket, 60's girl group pop, beautiful harmonies -- what's not to like? Why aren't more critics drawn to a band whose design elements read like a recipe book of beloved musical touchstones?

The Raveonettes aren't the first, or the 1000th band to be a better idea in theory than in practice. And there is no doubt that bands will continue trying (and failing) to write their own "Be My Baby" from now until the day comes when robots play and perform music in place of people (of course, the robots will fail to re-write it too). When Blondie claimed that they wanted to take 60's AM radio pop and update it for the 70's, they understood that the key word in the phrase was "AM", meaning that it's all about the three-minute pop single. Blondie weren't generally a strong albums band, but they wrote fantastic singles and that's why we still remember and adore them for it. The Raveonettes are more preoccupied with sounding a certain way, which is why their albums are packed with noise, echo, reverb, and girlie vocals that all sound so glorious, but they typically struggle to write memorable, individual songs.

With "You Want the Candy" (from their most recent album "Lust Lust Lust"), they've finally written their "You Trip Me Up", and provided another data point in the decades-long quest for confirmation of the "Candy Rule" (i.e. songs with "Candy" in the title never suck*). It's all here, the furious, galloping beat a la the Mary Chain's "Never Understand"; sly, titillating sexuality in the lyrics and delivery, and a chorus that's stickier than superglue. Naturally, it's all over in three minutes, but during that time they milk that chorus for all it's worth, cramming it in four times (plus a double dose of it at the end) and yet it's still not enough, as once the song is over I'm basically forced to skip back in the song to hear it a couple more times before finally being satisfied. Like all the best choruses, this one needs no buildup. They launch into it right from the beginning of the song and right away you're getting smacked in the face by distortion, vibraphones, and gooey two-part boy-girl harmonies. The verses are almost gravy after that, as would be the other forty minutes of the album, but the quality remains high until the end, making "Lust Lust Lust" the strongest work of the band's career to this point.

*with the exception of Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy", which is arguably the worst song ever

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why can't I post Youtube links just like everyone else?

Eluvium, "Radio Ballet" 22/05/08, live in Heidelberg

Noisy, slow-building centrepieces of Eluvium's set, such as "Under The Water It Glowed" and "Repose In Blue", have become increasingly epic in the last couple of years, with new layers of melody and white noise creeping in with every new tour. Good, or even passable sound quality recordings of those songs are difficult to find, especially on Youtube, because the second half of those songs provide pretty much instant death for the mics on cell phones and digital cameras. So instead, here's a simpler, more eardrum-friendly performance of the beautiful "Radio Ballet". Eluvium is kind of like Xiu Xiu in the sense that the louder, noisier tracks are more immediate, but the moment you "get" the slow ones (i.e. they stop feeling like mere interludes between the good stuff and start feeling like the *truly* good stuff themselves) is the moment their albums go from being Verve releases to true classics.

Jesu, "Silver", 07/04/07, San Luis Obispo

What can I say? Jesu are heavier than the planets. They are more brutal and sludgy when playing live than on record, so if you ever thought that Jesu records were too slickly produced, then this is the sound you want. On a different note, it's bad enough when people wear concert t-shirts to concerts, so major points are deducted for Justin Broadrick wearing his *own* band's t-shirt on stage.

Th' Faith Healers, "Spin 1/2" 29/03/06, NYC

One of the great underrated British indie bands of the 90's playing their best song at a 2006 reunion gig. But where's the rest of it? How many more minutes?

Lou Reed and John Cale, "Heroin" (acoustic)

Judging from the looks of them, this would have to date from that brief period around '71-'72 when they were getting along again and playing the occasional gig backing Nico.

Portishead, "We Carry On", Live HMH Amsterdam (04-07-08)

Notable for Beth Gibbons walking offstage during the closing instrumental section and hugging and kissing the entire front row on her way out.

Isaac Hayes, "Never Can Say Goodbye", live Atlanta 1973

RIP Isaac Hayes. Dig the golden chain shirt.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Curve, "Gift"

Curve's fourth album, "Gift", was largely ignored on arrival. You could say that about a lot of albums that were released in the second half of September 2001, but in this case even Curve's own fans passed on this one, partly because few of them knew of its existence thanks to nearly invisible promotion. After starting their career as meteoric indie darlings, they released two albums to lukewarm reviews and "not living up to the hype" derision, split up in 1994, reunited in 1997 and tried to hop on the late 90's electronica bandwagon, and finally ended up back where they started some ten years earlier, toiling away on an indie label and fawned over by a small cabal of post-shoegaze goth misfit fans, but otherwise largely unknown and uncared for by the mainstream music world. Even their sound had returned to its c.1991 roots -- after dabbling in grungy dynamics and near-ambient psychedelia on "Cuckoo", and electronica/DnB on "Come Clean", they returned to the less intricate style on which they formed their reputation, that of hip-hop inflected beats, aggro guitars, and dense shoegaze-y filling stuffed between the two. Swagger over complexity, if you will.

At the time, I had an advance promo EP that contained the songs "Hell Above Water", "Want More Need Less", and "Perish", and was disappointed to eventually discover, upon the release of the proper album, that it didn't come close to delivering on the sensational promise of the EP. Listening to it today, my first impressions (which remained my opinion on the album for years afterward) seem far too harsh. There's a lot of quality in the album's second half, which is a more low-key, less made-for-radio affair that shows that they weren't ready to completely leave their mid-to-late 90's selves behind. "Fly With the High" contains nods to "Come Clean"'s style of dirty electronica, and as such, it's the most skip-able track on the album, something that Republica could have cranked out in their sleep years earlier. Elsewhere, rock songs with tightly coiled moods punctuated by slashing guitars (i.e. "Cuckoo" redux) are precursors to nearly everything that Trent Reznor has recorded in the 00's (after he turned down the noise and turned up the guitars in his music), and Toni Halladay's brand of goth (part sex kitten, part angry young vixen with nails-a-slashing) pretty much invented anything Evanescence had to offer.

But any discussion about "Gift" always comes back to those three standout tracks that were featured on the promo EP. You may already know "Hell Above Water" without realizing it, because it's been featured as background music in a few TV shows and movies, including, most recently "Iron Man". It's easy to see why it's such an ideal piece of film and TV music:

1) fast, galloping beat with aggro guitars = ACTION
2) Toni Halladay's, smooth, sexy, yet caustic voice adds a touch of mystery and exotica (especially useful for opening shot, panorama scenes)
3) touch of electronica adds a hint of futurism, i.e. "this music is the next level shit, which should convince you that the same is true of this TV show/movie"
4) for kids: Curve are not mainstream but their music contains elements of the more mainstream music that they like (i.e.the qualities in points 1,2,3) = cool underground cred
5) for adults: they don't pick up on the specifics of #1-#4, but the music fits their preconception of what kids are listening to nowadays, ergo the song feels suitably appropriate for the movie/show

And finally, there are two songs featuring Kevin Shields, which are either the best songs on "Gift" because he plays on them, or Curve took their best two songs and asked Shields to play on them. There is no easy resolution to this chicken-egg game, but the end results have arguably been the highlight of Shields' non-MBV career, the quality of which were enough to curb any and all thoughts of an MBV reunion for a good year or two. But unlike his other collaborative works, such as Primal Scream's "Accelerator", he is unmistakably the guest artist with Curve, not the svengali whose characteristic style overwhelms the track while the group getting the bulk of the credit get to stand back and watch the magic happen. In simpler terms, "Accelerator", or J. Mascis and the Fog's "More Light" sound like MBV tracks, but "Want More Need Less" and "Perish" are instantly recognizable as Curve tracks.

"Want More Need Less" is one of the fiercest tracks in Curve's catalog -- a guitar-drenched update of their more gothic 90's sound. The nearly manic momentum barely lets up as the song gallops toward the chorus, with the volume growing ever louder thanks to Shields' string-slashing. "Perish" is more subdued but no less intense. Old school Curve were at their best when they added hip-hop-inflected beats into their usual stew (e.g. "Ten Little Girls", "The Coast Is Clear") and it's that sound that is not only resurrected here but is improved thanks to a more finely-tuned hard rock polish and Shields' blistering guitar playing. The heartbreaking lyric finds Toni Halladay expressing fear and anxiety in the face of a relationship that has lasted far longer than it should have -- the core is rotten, both parties are aware of it and yet they continue with the routine merely to put off the tears for yet another day (sounds a lot like "Love Will Tear Us Apart", doesn't it?). It's poignant both at face value but also because, amidst all the turmoil in the Toni/Dean partnership, it's hard to be sure if "Perish" is a just another love song or an encapsulation of Curve's then current state of existence. In fact, the group would release just one more (internet only) album the following year before splitting up one more time, apparently for good. The twisted irony of "Perish" is that they'd apparently exposed their own internal decay in the middle of their best ever song -- lamenting that the tank was empty and that there was nothing left to give, when in fact they had reached the peak of their powers.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scarlett Johansson, "Anywhere I Lay My Head"

I had no idea what to expect from this album, and it's safe to say that nobody really did. Hollywood celebs dabbling in music has become fairly commonplace, and some element of predictability comes with that regularity. But ... a Tom Waits cover album? Why Tom Waits? It's simple -- she's a big fan, and wanted to do an album of his songs. Simple as that. But still, why Tom Waits, i.e. a musician with approximately zero hits to his name that were not sung by Rod Stewart? No matter the quality of the resulting music, at least nobody could accuse her of trying to cash in.

So when expectations are completely up in the air, sometimes it takes me a bit longer to convince myself of the quality (or lack thereof) of the music. Actually, this was the easy part. I quickly became convinced that "Anywhere I Lay My Head" was a good album after a couple of weeks of trekking around with it on my iPod. The harder part was convincing myself that in 2008, as impossible as it may seem, Scarlett Johanson is making better Spiritualized albums than Jason Pierce.

The chaotic jazz freak-out of album opener "Fawn" could have been made by the band that recorded "No God Only Religion". The mushy, gated drums (and the way they seem to glide in and out of the mix) recall the dream-rock sound of "Run" and "I Want You". Even if it was produced by Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, I still need to pinch myself to be reminded that I'm hearing free-jazz freakouts, the semi-conscious neo-gaze of latter-day Slowdive, and David Bowie's background vocals on a Scarlett Johansson album. One can certainly complain about her vocals, which are flat and undynamic in parts, and claim that they don't add anything of substance to the tracks. For the most part, I think she shows just the right amount of restraint and is able to sell the emotion of the song without any attempt to oversing and oversell the tone of her voice -- which is more or less exactly what Tom Waits does on his own albums. Her sighs of disappointment during the chorus of "Fannin Street" turn the backing track from a coulda-been lullaby into a true dirge. It's not simply a sad song sung in a sad way, rather, Johansson brings a deeper level to the song by conveying the inevitabilty behind the lyrics, i.e. you can issue all the warnings you want, but that person's life is headed to the shitter regardless.

"Anywhere I Lay My Head" is what the new Spiritualized album would have been like if Jason Pierce had favoured the kitchen sink drama of "Borrowed Your Gun" instead of the bedroom folk of, well, most of "Songs in A&E". This should be taken as praise for Johansson, not as a backlash against Spiritualized (who are still one of the best bands around). But I can't help it if I miss what SPZ used to sound like.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dance Music Manifestos

Philip Sherburne recently turned in a sobering edition of "The Month In Techno" that might serve as a major buzzkiller for anyone who truly believed in a "quasi-mystical faith in beats". Fortunately for me, I have been cynical about this sort of thing for as long as I have been even remotely interested in techno. It was axiomatically apparent to me, back in the early 90's, that raves were Just Another Way To Party, no more, no less. A few years later, once preppies in blue jeans started showing up to parties that were "supposed" to be underground events, I became even more convinced that no Fatima-like events of mass enlightenment could ever be possible in settings such as these. I certainly believe that individuals can experience self-conversion at any party on any given night, but this notion of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, where the right scene happening at the right time in the right city can instill a "we are changing the world right now" sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and entitlement among its denizens is something that does not exist now, and probably never has existed in the last twenty years of electronic music history.

I've always felt that these mini (or maxi) conversions are just as likely to happen (at least for me) at home, walking down the street with my iPod, or in a music shop as they are to happen in a club. Music can latch on and couple to virtually any setting, and anyone who needs to be in the coolest club in a happening city in order to absorb their dose or quasi-religious fervour is either taking too many drugs or is trying too hard to convince themselves or something that may not be there. Sherburne writes that "a party culture (and drug culture) predicated upon parties that never end can only result in a music that thumps dully away without surprise or meaningful variation." But this was always the case with minimal, whether he felt it to be true or not. The difference between this column and the ones he wrote a year or two ago (that were drenched with praise for the Berlin minimal scene) is nothing but a shift in the writer's own perception. The music and its context have stayed constant, but people eventually get bored with what they've been listening to for the past couple of years and clamour for something different. It's the natural course of events that unfolds as a scene peters out. Beats have always been just beats, but a red-hot scene in the right city can go a long way toward convincing a lot of people that it all means more than that.

Even if you don't agree with the sentiment of the first half of Sherburne's article, the second half contains a bit of something for everyone in the form of content from the personal "manifestos" of various DJ's and producers. Whether conservative or progressive, silly or serious, all the "rules" collated by Sherburne are worth noting and many of them brought a smile or seven to my face (except for Strategy's preachy contributions -- is "Strategy" a pseudonym for DJ Spooky? :0). I want to highlight a couple of my favourites:

Pheek: "Clubbers must make an effort to listen to music on the dancefloor, and if they need to talk, to leave it." Oh yes, yes, A THOUSAND times yes. Most of the time I feel that I'm the only one in the club who understands this seemingly trivial and obvious "rule". Dancefloor behaviour/etiquette is barely spoken about by anyone at any time, but luckily there are people like Pheek, who, like me, believe it's a subject worthy of discussion.

Peter van Hoesen: "Every DJ playing out should dance for at least one hour with the same crowd he/she has been DJing for. We need more dancing DJs." This is the futuristic fantasy utopian world that I want to live in.

Nobody asked me, but I thought I'd thrown in a couple of rules of my own.

1. If you fancy yourself a DJ and can't find a way to include at least two different genres of music into most your sets, then fancy yourself doing something else. I'm not the least bit impressed by, for example, someone who is able to mix nothing but trance or minimal for six hours straight. Most people agree that track selection is the #1 skill that a DJ can possess, and what better way to display that skill than by effortlessly skipping between genres without losing the flow of the set and jolting the crowd.

2. If there are buttons/knobs on your hardware/software that you have never used or even considered using, then you should either a) use them before you buy something else, or b) buy something with fewer buttons/knobs next time. These machines are as much of a musical instrument as a guitar or a violin, and nobody would claim that they know their way around a guitar if they'd never played the E string. Electronic toys (yes, and turntables) are meant to be mastered.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival

The lineup was hit or miss this year, and although the "hits" did include some of my favourite artists (Jarvis Cocker, Animal Collective, Spiritualized), these bands have been touring almost constantly for the last year, so it's not like one would have to trek to the Pitchfork Festival to have any chance of seeing them. Friday night's lineup was intriguing because the average Pitchfork reader probably hasn't gone out of their way to see, or hasn't had the opportunity to see Mission of Burma or Public Enemy, let alone both of them on the same night. On the other hand, the average reader has probably seen Animal Collective a handful of times already, and can now simply brag to his or her friends that they saw them at the Pitchfork Festival too.

Time zone differences meant that I didn't follow along on the live stream very often. The camera work was OK, the video quality was perfectly fine (I wouldn't expect much more from a video stream), and the sound quality was actually shockingly good, so overall, the live streaming idea was winning one for Pitchfork, even if I was nearly blinded for life by catching a few minutes of Les Savy Fav yesterday. How could anyone glean enjoyment from watching a half naked pudgy guy prance around the stage, backed by the most stultifying hippie hardcore indie rock imaginable? After that, I caught a couple hours of sleep and woke up for Spiritualized, who did their best to wig out (eight songs in one hour) despite the short time allotted for their set. Every time they break into "Shine a Light", I feel like I have no need to hear them play it live ever again, and yet, by the end, the dramatic guitar solos and gospel tinges draw me in. Every time.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mogwai, "The Sun Smells Too Loud"

My spidey-sense detects a lot of excitement about the new Mogwai album, stemming from the buzz around the new track "The Sun Smells Too Loud", which was posted on the Matador website recently. I guess that the expression about the seven-year statute of limitations for recycling ideas is true, because I can definitely imagine this track having surfaced as a long lost "Rock Action" outtake, as if they were revisiting the second half of "Two Rights One Wrong", with a whiff of M83's recent "dreaming of the 80's" synthfests replacing the mountains of guitar feedback. The point being that "The Sun Smells Too Loud" doesn't really signal a new direction for Mogwai, as yet again the band's (false and incomplete) reputation for little more than soft/loud/Slint dynamics has preceded it and convinced a lot of folks that they're on to something drastically new, when they really aren't. So I'm excited, as I always am with the release of new Mogwai material, but with some reservations.

Besides, when Mogwai "go electronic" or some variation thereof, I have always preferred it when they do it in a simplistic, lo-fi way, i.e. "Superheroes of BMX", rather than with the lush and organic approach they took with "The Sun Smells Too Loud". But mainly I'm wondering why Mogwai are settling into a habit of stealing from themselves (the style of their last album, "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait", was also lifted faithfully from what they had been doing about seven years previous) instead of letting forward evolution take its course.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sigur Ros, "Med Sud i Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust"

It makes perfect sense that they'd release a stunningly lush DVD that serves as their love letter to their home country of Iceland, and then realize that they'd pushed their fairytale shoegaze sound as far as it could go. There is no use trying to sound like the swirling mist rising off a glacier once you've been there, done that, and produced the career retrospective DVD as a visual aid. As career decisions go, the shift they've undergone on new album "Med Sud i Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust" might be the smartest one they've ever made -- even though, between this album and the "Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do" EP from a few years back, Sigur Ros have taken more surprising turns with their music than virtually any other band that is often accused of being a one-trick pony.

The days of the bowed guitar or anything else resembling shoegaze are gone, at least for now. Sigur Ros have crept closer in style to indie rock then I would have ever believed possible -- 2nd track "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur" could nearly pass for Spoon, at least before the strings kick in. Toward the end, the song starts to sound like a more scaled back version of "Hollipolla" from "Takk...", but make no mistake about it, they're bringing their usual magic but are thinking big without having to sound big. On "Med Sud ...", less is more, and folk balladeering and warm-blooded tenderness has replaced standoffish epic maximalism and ten minute crying sessions.