Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Raveonettes vs Warlocks

Consider two bands, A and B. Both bands release new albums at around the same time (usually this is the case, but not always, sometimes this situation applies to albums released in different years). Band A's album happens to tread on similar ground to whatever Band B is doing, and actually surpasses it -- they have essentially beaten Band B at their own game. The end result is that you end up devaluing, or even dismissing Band B's work because of the music of Band A. There should be a phrase for this.

Sure, it's not really fair -- it's not Band B's fault that Band A put out new music at the same time as them, so why can't both albums be judged separately, on their own merits, without one's perception of the quality of one being correlated to the quality of the other? But our brains don't always work that way, and besides, music listening habits *are* correlated, because listening time is finite, which means that we frequently must choose to prioritize what we want to hear. I could easily find myself thinking "I have Band A now, I don't need Band B so much anymore".

With their most recent albums, Warlocks have been Band A, while the Raveonettes have been playing the part of Band B. It's funny, because Raveonettes played the opposite role last year, acting as Band A and virtually shaming Band B's (Jesus and Mary Chain) debut album. But this year, they've moved past their "Psychocandy" phase and into their "Darklands" phase. They've toned down the cacaphony and the huge choruses, and moved toward something darker and moodier. Enter Warlocks, who have ironed out the jammy tendencies of past albums that usually resulted in a few tracks carrying on for seven or eight minutes as if by force of habit. They've stopped trying to make "Sound of Confusion" (with one exception, "Surgery" where they went girl-group and made their best album by far) and have moved on to making "The Perfect Prescription". The two sides meet at "There is a Formula to Your Despair", where Warlocks manage to outdo the Raveonettes on the latter's turf. Warlocks' previous attempts at girl group pop were highlighted by swagger and arrogance, but they had never convincingly pulled off anything tender or vulnerable.

Here is the albums ballot that I submitted for Pazz and Jop (numbers in brackets are the points awarded):

YYY's (20)
Moderat (19)
Lisa Germano (15)
Ben Klock (10)
Animal Collective (8)
Tim Hecker (7)
Moritz von Oswald Trio (6)
Matthew Robert Cooper (5)
Shackleton (5)
Warlocks, "The Mirror Explodes" (5)

After much thought, I removed Courtney Love's "Nobody's Daughter" from the list because it hasn't been released yet. As a reflection of my own listening habits and my favourite "new" music in 2009, it belonged, but it didn't feel appropriate to include it in a poll (I have thus disqualified myself from picking it for my own top ten of 2010, but reserve the right to vote for it in P&J if I choose ... this seems fair!) The points rankings are top-heavy, as they should be because only the top two albums stand out for me as classics right now, deservedly ranking amongst the decade's best music.

So with Courtney Love out of the picture, I put Warlocks "The Mirror Explodes" in the #10 spot. It's another patchy album in a list full of patchy albums, and it might be more of a "comfortable" listen rather than a work of truly great art, but I kept returning to it throughout the year and that counts for a lot seeing as my attention span has been whittled away to almost nothing thanks to my iPod, using Youtube as my personal jukebox, etc. Warlocks have been getting the shaft from critics for years, which is baffling because they consistently hit on a bunch of crit-love touchpoints (love of druggy 60's pop, girl groups, Spacemen 3/JAMC ) -- all of which can be applied to the criminally underrated Raveonettes as well. How many rock bands this year wrote a song as good as "It's Just Like Surgery"? How strong was 2005? How can a band write a song that good, and only make the 11th best album of the year? I really have no idea why the likes of Pitchfork have turned Warlocks into a punchline, consistently giving their albums grades that are comparable to a C-student's GPA. Do nostalgia trips and California bands who aren't afraid to use the word "psychedelia" add up to some kind of crit-poison?

Little White Earbuds and me: check out the mindmeld. Four albums in common, plus two others (Martyn, Redshape) that IMO didn't live up to the hype but were still pretty good.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I can't believe it's December 15 18 already

Let's do this ...


My excitement level with regard to this list is a bit muted, and compiling felt decidedly dispassionate and undramatic. But it's to be expected -- I blew my listmaking wad amongst all the "end of decade" excitement this year (that list is complete but has yet to be posted). What's unexpected, however, is the fairly uneven quality of these ten records. I'm not sure if there is a slam dunk classic among them, not a single one that I can promise you that I'll go to bat for in five or ten years time. Each of them are great, albeit flawed albums, there's a little bit of Verve in nearly all of them.

I've posted about how in the past couple of years, I've been discovering music more or less at random -- rather than scouring music shops, blogs, and message boards for news about new releases and making sure to check out anything that might interest me, I let the music come to me. Sometimes I tracked down a piece of music right away, and stuff I didn't get around to hearing could be easily forgotten. Sometimes I couldn't wait to hear a podcast by some unknown DJ mixing two hours of c. 1991 Sheffield bleep, and often I didn't have the patience to sit through the entire new Lindstrom and Prins Thomas album because one prog disco epic after another gets to be a bit too much. Compared to past years, this year I spent far less energy tracking down new releases and heard fewer whole albums (listening to entire albums in one sitting has become much more of a rarity for me). But I listened to more mixes and podcasts than ever before -- just another step on the road to hearing music one track at a time, rather than one album at a time.

The decline of the albums as an artistic statement (and more so as a product mover) is nothing new. But this year, I did start to wonder about my long term listening habits, and the consequences of taking the "random" approach to its logical conclusion. Eventually, my listening habits would become completely scattershot. Contextualizing music becomes more difficult if you've cut yourself off from everything going on around you, i.e. the music that's considered to be notable by whatever passes for critical consensus these days. If I can't contextualize what I'm hearing, if I lose the ability to compare my tastes with those of others (and in order to do that, I must hear at least some of the music that "they" are hearing) then my own writing is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

[OK, let's not brag ... it's already fairly irrelevant, but it's in danger of losing whatever small bit of relevance it might have.]

10. Shackleton, "Three EPs"


One person's urban decay might be another person's dreary atmospheric boredom. "Three EPs" might be bleak, but it conjures up images of Indiana Jones-style chase scenes through mossy temples in humid climates. There are no murky city streets here, no ragga croaking, instead, its spidery basslines and eccentric percussion maintain a brisk, energetic pace throughout the album. David Holmes might have made an album like this if he decided to go dub on one of his film soundtracks.

9. Matthew Robert Cooper, "Miniatures"


This was released in September 2008, but I didn't see the album reviewed until this past January. Save for one track, I didn't hear anything from "Miniatures" until 2009 and listened to it regularly throughout the year, so I'm including it here. Compared to the denser atmospheres that are typical of Cooper's work as Eluvium, "Miniatures" feels like a collection of tossed off experiments, or even demos for tracks that could be further fleshed out and recorded for an Eluvium album. If so, even Cooper's leftovers handily slay most other "ambient" composers best work. It's a solid effort until you reach the final track, "Miniature 9", which pushes the album into "must hear" territory. It not only could have appeared on Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works II" but could have been arguably the best track on that album.

8. Moritz von Oswald Trio, "Vertical Ascent"


So you may have noticed that I didn't like this album at a time when most like-minded techno heads were repping it as one of the year's best and most original albums. I've been coming around on it, partly by realizing that it demands patience and concentration, and as you allow it to envelop you, new details and phrases emerge from nearly every listen, jumping out from hidden corners of the record that you hadn't noticed before. From a cursory listen, these four long tracks seem to chase their tails. In fact, there is virtually no repetition here, but rather a stream of complex rhythmic patterns that constantly interlock and play off each other.

7. Courtney Love, "Nobody's Daughter"


Show of hands, who expected Courtney Love to reinvent herself as an elder stateswoman of rock with an album of grizzled rockers and acoustic balladry? Her nearest contemporary now seems to be Kristin Hersh, but if you compare "Nobody's Daughter" on a song-by-song basis to Kristin's widely praised 2007 album "Learn To Sing Like a Star", Courtney has her soundly beat on nearly every track. And even her voice sounds better preserved than Kristin's. How the heck did all this happen? You certainly wouldn't have believed it based on what you still hear about Love from the tabloids -- losing custody of her daughter is simply the latest disaster in what seems to be an endless sequence of unsightly news, pictures, and public embarrassments -- because on record, she's rarely sounded more determined or more focused.

6. Tim Hecker, "An Imaginary Country"


Tim Hecker's biggest strength has always been his biggest weakness -- he makes more or less the same album over and over again. He's reliable, but not particularly inventive, and his albums have become a bit too predictable. But the same is true of AC/DC! Do you see anybody complaining?

5. Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion"


Animal Collective became almost inescapably big this year, and not only within indie music enclaves. Five years ago, who would have thought that a bunch of Brooklyn noisemakers would reach this level of critical mass? It wasn't just that the album was widely praised, lots of albums receive high praise, and in the case of this one it was all either a) deserved, b) patently ridiculous and completely OTT, or c) lamentations for the supposedly halcyon days of "Sung Tongs" (all three cases appeared in nearly equal proportions). The catch was that the album felt canonized from practically from the second it was released, its reputation wrapped up and made final before the end of January. The speed at which all this happens puts "Merriweather Post Pavillion" in a category with albums like "Kid A", or "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot".

I'm not even sure I can properly evaluate this record anymore. I'm not even sure I was able to do it eleven months ago, not after hearing nearly every track countless times on live bootleg after live bootleg over the previous two years. In 2002, I experienced this with GYBE's "Yanqui UXO". By the time the album was released, every note was already a known quantity. Expectations were set in stone and fans delivered their pre-prepared pitch right on cue. Like with "Yanqui UXO", I don't really listen to MPP too much. The studio versions might paint a different sonic palate from the live versions that evolved over the preceding twenty months, but I never felt a pressing need to listen to this album because everything on it seemed so absurdly familiar.

Get back to me in five years with this one.

4. Ben Klock, "One"

ben klock

Rarely has one techno record managed to collect virtually all the sounds that I want to hear out of clubland in that year. "OK" still feels like the last word in the dubstep/techno crossover, and "Check For Pulse" and "Underneath" hit all the cavernous minimal dub techno sweet spots. But Klock isn't afraid to deviate from his safety zone. "In a While" is a ringer for the material put out by R&S in the mid-90's, and "Cargo" is a reminder of why Richard D. James did his best work under the guise of Polygon Window. In all, "One" is an extremely accomplished debut by an artist who was firing on all cylinders this year.

3. Lisa Germano, "Magic Neighbor"

lisa germano

Hazy piano balladry and the warm feeling of shriveling up into a cocoon never sounded so sultry.

2. Moderat, "Moderat"


With most collaborations, it's enough to expect that the artists will combine their strengths. It's unreasonable to expect that the pairing will also lead to a cancellation of each others' weaknesses. As for Modeselektor, they have a tendency to dabble in goofy ragga and other assorted knob-tweaking silliness in an OTT attempt to be edgy and unpredictable. With Apparat, it's an inability to forge their bleepy melodies into memorable hooks or anything that would stand out in a club. "Moderat" goes from strength to strength, steamrolling over all those potential weaknesses, resulting in an album that's as close to the spirit and genre-bending variety of mid-90's Orbital as anything that's been released this decade.

1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz!"


Yeah Yeah Yeahs were always more than just shouty NYC brats, but countless listens to "Maps" didn't really prepare me for the delicate neo-shoegaze balladry of a track like "Little Shadow" (although "Modern Romance", particularly when they played it live, should have prepared me for it but I wasn't paying close enough attention at the time). After hearing the starry-eyed wonderment of tracks like "Little Shadow", "Soft Shock", and "Skeletons", suddenly it made sense to cast Karen O as the token grownup to sing with a bunch of kids on the "Where the Wild Things Are" soundtrack.

Oh yeah, they don't do that thrash-y garage rock stuff anymore, they've tweaked those tracks and they now sound like Blondie-esque disco punk dancefloor fillers. And "Hysteric" is the best ballad they've ever done.

What, you still want more?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Minilogue are the marathon men, plus, the new Portishead track, "Chase the Tear", is freaking SICK

It was originally advertised as a six hour live + DJ set, updated announcements during the past week claimed it would be seven hours. I'm in no position to judge, because when I arrived at Barzilay last night, Minilogue's Sebastian Mullaert was at the decks, and when I left five hours later (at 6:30), he was still there. In between, the duo shifted down the table to their live rig for a two hour live performance that relied a bit too heavily on strange effects and tweakery, but was solid nonetheless. Mullaert's two DJ sets, featuring pounding tech house and LONG transitions between tracks, were the highlights. Minilogue are obviously no strangers to this type of performance. They paced the night perfectly, building from 120 BPM to the harder and faster material of their live show, and returning to slower tempos so to not tire out the crowd as dawn approached. It certainly worked -- I can't recall the last time I saw so many people in that club after 6 AM, and many of them were the same people who were on the dancefloor when I arrived five hours earlier!

And now, for your music link of the weekend week YEAR.

My jaw dropped after the first ten seconds. Please, please PLEASE tell me that the next Portishead album will be ten tracks of "The Rip" mashed up with Pete Shelley's "Homosapien".

Friday, December 11, 2009

Could I attempt to rank mixes/podcasts this year?

Answer: ugh. My head hurts just thinking about it.

I probably should do some sort of review, seeing as I tended to be more excited about the appearance of great new mixes or podcasts than for the release of new albums. The announcement of release dates and tracklists for new albums don't seem to match the overall "wow" factor of reading the tracklist for a forthcoming mix.

I should keep updating this space to list more of my favourites, but for now, two stand out in particular.

Ben Klock, "FACT Mix 31". Ben Klock was arguably the year's finest techno artist, his DJ sets helped to further refine the rougher edges of minimalism, and his album "One" was a techno love letter that paid homage to classic Detroit, Polygon Window's "Surfing on Sine Waves", and the banging techno styles of 2009. His FACT 31 was the year's most consistent, effortlessly cresting from peak to peak, and hitting its finest stride around the forty minute mark with his own hypnotic, deathly sparse "Before One".

Surgeon, "Resident Advisor Podcast 144". Typical Surgeon: driving, manic, absolutely relentless. True to his name, he slices up some thirty tracks in little over an hour, skillfully colliding one fierce techno and dubstep track after another. His style hasn't changed much over the past decade plus, I've always been amazed by his stamina (this stuff isn't all a bunch of studio trickery, he maintains this breakneck pace in his live DJ sets too), and how he finds ways to shoehorn non-conventional dancefloor tracks into his sets without ever breaking the mood or the rhythm (track down some sets where he slots in a bunch of mid-90's Autechre tracks, dropping them every fifth track or so).