Thursday, April 24, 2008

Quick and to the point

These news items are all about a month old, but let's tackle them anyway:

-- The full lineup for MUTEK 2008 is AWESOME, probably the best in the history of the festival. Christian Fennesz and Tim Hecker playing back-to-back? A dubstep picnic? Underground Resistance?!?? I won't be there for the fifth straight year, but someday ... I will.

-- I kept away from it for a few weeks, but upon viewing the new Black Kids video once again, I'm still disappointed that they didn't understand that so much of the warped magic of the song was wrapped up in burying the vocals deep into the mix with a generous helping of echo. So I guess the sound on the demo was just a case of being too poor to record and mix the vocals "properly" (read: a radio-friendly manner).

-- If it was possible to place and enforce a worldwide ban on cover versions of particular songs, "Heroes" would rank near the top of my urgency list. The Magnetic Fields' version is great, but every other version I've heard tries to turn it into a straight-up rock song instead of an FX-laden ambient prog-rock song, and is thereby embarassing and an insult to the original. The latest offenders: The Arcade Fire.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Portishead return

They went missing for ten years, and have returned as a completely different band. As it was with Tricky and his third album, they've returned in an angrier, dirt and grime-covered incarnation. The fact that I had to reference a Tricky album that nobody remembers (even if it was a massively underappreciated record) really highlights 1) how long Portishead have laid dormant, 2) how much more interesting it would have been if they'd returned with this sound several years ago. In 2000, this would have been an original and unexpected shift. In 2008, "Portishead goes goth" doesn't sound nearly as exciting.

Even the camera work in this live-in-studio performance gives it the feel of an old Kraftwerk (pre-1974) or Joy Division TV appearance. The neo-industrial percussion and twangy, distorted guitar lines make this closer to a late 1970's Cabaret Voltaire gig than anything you'd associate with electronica or hip-hop (in this or in any other year). The key problem is that Beth Gibbons' voice is completely unsuited to this style of band. Portishead have transformed but her voice remains the same, wailing out anguished blues over tunes that call for a more gravelly, frenetic, determined, and possibly even male voice. Even so, I've heard enough to be fairly certain that "Third" is the best Portishead album to date (yes, I know it has leaked but I haven't gotten a copy yet).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spiritualized, "Songs in A&E". M83, "Saturdays = Youth"

On one very memorable night in the fall of 2001, I listened to new albums by two groups, both of whom were inner-circle heroes of mine. Both were releasing their first albums in years, and I listened to them back-to-back on the same night. On paper, that Orbital vs Spiritualized battle looked even, but it turned out to be a huge mismatch. "Let It Come Down" turned out to be the masterpiece we all know and love, while "The Altogether" was easily the weakest album of Orbital's career, even bordering on embarrassing in spots as they went way overboard on the goofy samples and rave throwbacks. That evening's verdict turned out to be oddly prophetic for me because it symbolized the shift that my listening tastes would take from the 90's to the 00's. Melodic techno was out, and, um, wall of sound emo was in (Godspeed, Hollowphonic, Sigur Ros, and I'd even lump Eluvium in this category).

Seven years later, we have a worthy sequel. In some sense, the Spiritualized comeback is already a blowaway success, seeing as Jason Pierce literally cheated death and returned to touring less than two years later. Had it just been any ordinary tour, it already would have been cause for celebration, but this one was simply sensational, completely overhauling the band's typical live set with acoustic reworkings of old songs mixed with high quality new ones. In the other corner stands M83, synth-blasting MBV torchbearers turned overwrought cinematic 80's kitschmeisters, and the creators of possibly my favourite album that didn't rank at #1 on one of my year-end lists ("Before the Dawn Heals Us"). I don't feel secure with bands until they put out at least three brilliant albums in a row -- up until then, anything can be a fluke, any band can crash and burn and destroy my confidence in them. Three is a magic number that secures a godlike status and likely makes me a fan for life and a true believer in virtually everything the band chooses to do from that point forward. So I'm really putting M83 to the test with "Saturdays = Youth". Spiritualized passed that test way back in 1993, after I heard the "Electric Mainline EP". I broke my own "rule" at the time, since they had only released one proper album at the time, but what can I say, Spiritualized were (and are) special.

The initial round of listening took place not in my bedroom, but on the beach on a day that was so windy, it left nothing to do other than watch kite-surfing while listening to my iPod.

"Songs in A&E" is the very first Jason Pierce solo album. Yes, you could say that every SPZ album since "Ladies and Gentlemen ..." was a J Spaceman solo effort, if not every SPZ album, period, and I wouldn't put up much of a counterargument against you. But even though Jason pulled all the strings on those records, the music has plenty of jammy/improv moments that rely on close interplay between actual musicians who trust each other in a live setting. Other than the odd squall of S3-ish feedback, "Songs in A&E" has none of that. Only "Sweet Talk", the epic-sounding opener, connects this record to the larger-than-life symphonic rush of the "Let It Come Down" era. This is Jason the folkie, the outlaw, writing songs in his bedroom for himself. The band is gravy.

The brilliance of the Acoustic Mainline shows made me crave an all-acoustic SPZ album, and the arrangements on that tour (for both the new and old songs) offered far more surprises than anything featured on the proper album. The electic formats don't hurt the new material (for example, Soul on Fire really comes alive in its electric form, piling on sound in a way that the acoustic version can't hope to match) but consider that right now you can go to SPZ's myspace page and hear an acoustic version of "Goodnight/Funeral Home" that kills virtually everything on "Songs in A&E". Listen to that song and ask yourself how essential "Songs in A&E" can possibly be.

"Saturdays = Youth" completes M83's drive toward blueprinted 80's kitsch and distancing themselves almost totally from their synth-y shoegaze beginnings. The album sounds uncannily like something written and produced in the 80's. The attention to detail in that regard is truly something else. Picking up where "A Guitar and a Heart" left off, the last bits of Loverboy have been stripped away, making room for synth-y retrofuturism more in line with what Styx were doing in the early 80's. This turns out about 1000X better than you might expect based on a decontextualized reading of the previous sentence.

The dreamlike "You, Appearing" is not so far removed from the feel of one of the many short interludes on "Before the Dawn Heals Us", but it soon makes way for the almost unbearably good power ballad "Kim and Jessie" (even the song title reads like something that could have only been released during the 80's!). It comes complete with gated drums that would make Mutt Lange cry and want to produce "Hysteria" all over again, an intricate array of sighing synth lines accenting the oft-repeated chorus of "lurking in the shadows" and by the end you get that lump in your throat that comes with the realization that you're only on the second track but you already know you're listening to a great album. Many broken hearts and drive-ins later, the album fades to grey with the eleven minute (if anything, it is far too short) "Midnight Souls Still Remain", whose anodyne moods could have shown up on any Stars of the Lid album without much complaint from that band's fans.

Score a huge victory for M83 with what will surely wind up being one of 2008's best albums.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

NEWS FLASH: L'il Louis cited in "Science", plus more cool stuff that you won't believe ...

In Diana Dabby's short perspective entitled "Creating Musical Variation", she cites L'il Louis' "French Kiss" as an example of music that adds variation by gradually adding layers of rhythm and melody to the song's melodic backbone. I'm not sure why she picked this particular track, since countless other tracks could have illustrated her point just as well. Her goal may have been to highlight how this track stands out compared to then-contemporary house ("French Kiss"'s use of repetition was probably a bigger influence on trance and techno than for house). Or maybe we should simply gawk at the surprising and wonderful fact that L'il Louis was cited in one of the world's elite scientific journals. Never before have I been able to listen to faked orgasms and claim "I'm simply catching up on the literature". I'm not sure how much of that article is accessible without a subscription, but she links to this version of the song on youtube, so now you too listen to one of the greatest house tracks ever, all while keeping in touch with the scientific vanguard!

What's more, skating might be the new dancing, and I welcome the change. Skating parties hosted by Moodymann? Just when you think that there aren't any more brilliant ideas out there ... along comes another one. Skating in circles requires less coordination than dancing in place, so imagine the ramifications for the rhythmically challenged. Georgio Moroder said that Germans needed the basic 4/4 beat because they were clumsy and it was the simplest possible beat to dance to, so are skating parties the next logical progression for people who can't dance? Ah, but what happens when fancy spins and twirls become the required moves on the rink? I'm loving all this.

Would this fly in Canada on an ice rink? I can only dream.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Choked Up

Like many people, I'm sure, I delved into the music of NEU! this week as a reaction to Klaus Dinger's death, because death brings out a natural human reaction in most people and forces you to revisit music that you've regrettably neglected. I needed to be reminded of the funkiness of a motorik beat, of the way that "Hallogallo" builds unstoppably and imperceptibly -- it's possibly the most striking example of the magic of minimalism. Dinger also knew how to tweak the formula to deliver something more explosive, such as on "Lila Engel" from "NEU!2" (which has always my favourite NEU! album, in no small part due to that track). It's a cliche to note that the drummer is the most boring, not to mention invisible member of a band, but Dinger is a huge exception. In the bands he co-founded, he and his drumming were the true stars of the show.

I actually got a bit choked up with joy when I was waiting for a train and Black Kids' "I Don't Wanna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance" popped up on my iPod. I hadn't heard it in a couple of months, and promptly caned the shit out of it during the rest of the week and diluted its power (which is exactly *why* I had had to give it a rest for two months in the first place), but nothing can destroy the vividness of those thirty seconds on the train station platform once the opening chords kicked in. The way that even the most familiar music can spring out of nowhere and still surprise you might be the #1 reason for being a music fan.

Finally, six months after the release of "Hauff/Heim", I have changed my opinion on the new track "Hljomalind". I used to like it a lot, but now really "get it". Obviously inspired by the massive, sweeping scenery that was presented in the "Heima" film, "Hljomalind" marks a shift from the fairy tale music of "Takk" into something more expansive, meant to be shouted from tops of mountains instead of whimpered a dim, claustrophobic bedroom.