Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old Flames

A few nights ago, I was walking home from the train station at night, along a dimly-lit street with sidewalks covered by low-hanging tree branches, and a live version of Godspeed You Black Emperor's "Gathering Storm" popped up on my iPod. I had just added it earlier that day, but was using the shuffle function so the timing here was not premeditated. As the song built up over the opening minute, I happened to walk past an electric pole, and on its concrete base, scrawled in black paint, were the words "KNOW HOPE". It was pretty much a perfect moment in music.

Anyone who never liked Godspeed surely just rolled their eyes and has stopped reading this by now. Anyone who was ever a fan has probably had a few moments like these, in which their music has fit the mood of the surroundings perfectly -- a quick, meaningless moment in life abruptly crystallized into a memorable opening scene of a sad movie set to exactly the right soundtrack. At the same time, I understood what was missing in the music of A Silver Mt Zion (Thee Memorial etc.), or essentially, what they subtracted in sacrificing kitchen sink drama for lyrical sincerity and raw vocalized emotion. ASMZ don't create these types of moments. GYBE still can, even if, as in this case, I hadn't heard this particular Montreal live recording in years. The new ASMZ songs reek of a band that has already said everything they have to say. On their last tour, they regularly played 30-minute versions of "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)" that ended in dark, sludgy drone and suggested a more haunted direction for the band's usual worldly paranoia. But instead of drawing future inspiration from that song's final fifteen minutes, they drew it from the first fifteen minutes, continuing with a style that now feels exhausted.

One month ago, I honestly couldn't have cared less if Portishead ever released another note of new music. Now that they've created the best album of 2008 thus far, what do I have to say for myself?

Ten years is a long time to wait for a band whose first two albums never fully clicked with me, albums that I wanted to like as much as other people did but couldn't. The golden days of trip-hop now feel as quaint and outdated as Beatlemania, so what was there to feel excited about in 2008?

Even the most sombre moments on "Portishead" didn't suggest that they were capable of making something like "Third", an album that's as offstandish and mechanical as it is beautiful. Like all the best ideas that are floating around and waiting to be picked out of the air, it all feels so simple and obvious, not least because the entire album has a raw, lo-fi feel that makes it sound as if if was recorded for a few hundred dollars. Why haven't more bands made torch songs like "The Rip" that abruptly shift gears into the motorik rock of early Kraftwerk or Cluster? Why haven't more bands pillaged the idea of sounding like a mashup of Joy Division's "Heart and Soul" and Silver Apples' "Sunlight Serenade", like Portishead do on "We Carry On"? Why didn't Xiu Xiu record "Machine Gun" before Portishead did? Trent Reznor should be taking cues from that track and using it as a springboard for the major sonic overhaul that his most latest albums so desperately needed. And "Threads", which is heavier (more in a black metal way than a blues-y way) than anything on their first two albums, clatters toward it's bleak conclusion as everything sinks to hell while Beth Gibbons finally becomes unrestrained and wails us down with the ship.

"Third" is an outstanding achievement that gives me new hope for the prospect of formerly great bands returning from the dead and coming back better than ever (crossing my fingers with the MBV reunion) (fortunately, I have heard a bootleg of "The Coral Sea" and it definitely all that and a big bag of chips).

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