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.