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.