Saturday, December 20, 2008

Notes to get off my chest

Well, cancel the stuff I wrote in my last post -- there's nothing like end-of-year list shenanigans to get one's energies flowing into his writing. I started writing these two notes as a prelude to the top ten, partly to get a few things off my chest, partly to give some honourable mentions to some music that didn't make it.

Sigur Ros became a much more interesting band over the past couple of years, thanks to career twists such as the Heima DVD/postcard and their newest album "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust", of which the latter put them within spitting distance of being an actual pop band. Although their music was better overall when they were, uh, "less interesting", for the first time in their career, Sigur Ros seem completely unpredictable. Say what you want about their previous albums, but each one always had a clear singularity of purpose, most obviously on "{}", where they bludgeoned you with more or less the same ten minute mood piece / super climax until you either bought into what they were doing or turned off the stereo in disgust. But their latest album really had no idea what type of record it was trying to be, and this schizophrenia hurt the overall message this time even if many of the individual tracks are excellent. Mark P really nailed it with his PFM review (just be sure to ignore the last two sentences), where he argued that the album's biggest weakness is the band's inability or reluctance to completely break with past habits of knocking out epic string-drenched weepies almost by default. After the opening section of cheering pop singalongs, the pace comes screeching to a halt with the "Festival"/"Ara Batur" section (particularly the latter, whose overreaching sense of drama is actually kind of ludicrous and provides easy fodder for the people who think that they'll never be anything more than that type of band). At this point, logic and experience would suggest that the album's pace and volume would pick up again, but a funny thing happens on the way to the big finish, namely the exact opposite effect, with a series of closing tracks that are so sparsely constructed and molasses-like in their tempos that the album seems to completely vanish into thin air. Moving past the fairly superfluous "Illgresi" (a completely forgettable acoustic ballad that works if you consider it as a bridge between the album's chest-beating epics and its eventual slide into the vapours), the closing trio is arguably the best section of the album. Here, Sigur Ros try their hand at genuinely affecting, gentle piano ballads with virtually none of the OTT frills and schmaltzy gaga as per what used to be business as usual. "Fljotavik" is a ballad that would make Joni Mitchell proud, just verse, chorus, some simple strings, over and out in less than four minutes. It's ambient epilogue "Straumnes" fills a gorgeous gap of pure serenity, and I regret that they didn't go all Stars of the Lid with this one and stretch it out for ten minutes instead of simply using it as an interlude before "All Alright", which is so sparse that I can practically here Low's Alan Sparhawk whispering "whoa, this is sparse" as I listen to it. Its drawn out melody lines and vocals are like an alternate universe Low, with completely different instrumentation and singers that are too depressed and zoned out to even bother harmonizing. Although the music isn't as consistent as on their earlier albums, "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" sees Sigur Ros finding ways to set moods you never thought they could set, and on that basis alone it is still a minor triumph for them.

The Bug, "London Zoo". It's been given high praise from mags like the Wire (their #1 album of 2008) and as of this writing, it's the #2 most positively reviewed album of 2008 according to Metacritic. Even so, this album still slipped under most people's radar this year. I don't hear the greatness in it, but it's certainly a strong effort in a career-long series of them for Kevin Martin. Maybe that's his biggest problem, because the always reliable but never mercurial artists like Martin seem to become underrated on account of that consistency (consistency is always underrated, a band's first good album is usually newsworthy, but after their 10th good album its a bunch of hohum oh look they've done it again). He's also had the blueprint for the post-apocalyptic sound of crumbling industrial wastelands down pat for well over a decade. It just so happens that this sound has become more contemporary than ever thanks to the large crop of dubstep producers who have started to sound like him. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, listeners who are new to Martin's style will likely get more mileage out of "London Zoo" than his own longtime fans.

"London Zoo" actually isn't too dissimilar from MIA's albums -- they're both uniquely British multicultural stews filled with urban paranoia, political agitation, and chunky electronic hip hop beats. Except with "London Zoo", the production is fuller, nastier and more cavernous (and therefore more convincing at conveying the moods that it's aiming for), and the rapping doesn't suck. So whose albums and singles are topping critics lists and earning Grammy nominations, and whose aren't? Life isn't fair.

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