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.