Friday, December 31, 2010

Arena - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Let's finish off the year with a bang with a documentary from 2008 that I saw this past week for the first time.

----------------------------

In this outstanding documentary by Vikram Jayanti for the BBC, Phil Spector does little to dispel the notion that he's nuts.

He never comes across as violent or threatening. He's not a physically intimidating person. He doesn't have an evil glint in his eyes that suggests he might be capable of doing some truly nasty things (like murder). The film didn't leave me with a shred of a clue on whether he really did kill Lana Clarkson. His left eye does look rounder and puffier than the right, it's a bit of a lazy eye, it's more sunken, the lines underneath it are sharper and more pronounced. It might not be fair to judge a person by a physical deformity, however small, but this slight asymmetry in his face is just enough to be offputting. It's a small detail, but it's noticeable, even subconsciously in my opinion.

He never comes across as "nuts" in the sense of being "dangerous". He's simply not in touch with the real world.

It's right there in the very first scene, in his living room in his LA home, the scene of the extended on-screen interview (the first such interview he's ever done, and probably his last) that is the centrepiece of the documentary. The piano that John Lennon used to write "Imagine" can be seen in the background, just over Spector's left shoulder. The interview was conducted about one month before the start of his first murder trial. He rattles on about the upcoming trial, insisting that it's not the trial that worries him, it's the verdict. He repeats himself, rewording the same sentiments with little variation in the choice of words (he does that a lot in this film). It's not the trial, it's the verdict. He's not making even the slightest attempt to proclaim his innocence. He doesn't talk about what might happen in the trial, or how the negative attention has impacted his daily life. Instead, he reassures us over and over that he's strong enough to stand trial and hasn't a care in the world about what might be said about him in the courtroom. He's actually bragging about it. As if anyone in the world, with the exception of Phil Spector, would be worried over that.

----------------------------

Fast forward a month to the trial and you're getting hit by sensory overload. The video cuts between trial footage and clips of the Crystals and Ronettes performing on TV in the 60's (those clips are fantastic, BTW, and can be easily found on Youtube ... that Ronettes clip has long since been a favourite of mine ... after "Be My Baby" they cover the Isley Bros. "Shout", you really need to see it), along with audio from the trial and subtitles (written by Mick Brown) that fawn over Spector's abilities as a producer. It's one incredible song after another, and the documentary makes a point of playing nearly all of them in full, which comes in handy for soundtracking those courtroom scenes so our ears can remind us about Spector the musical genius while our eyes get to see Spector the accused murderer being torn apart in the courtroom.

----------------------------

His distinctively thin, high pitched, nearly effeminate voice is now raspy and hoarse. The camera framing is just great, usually managing to capture both his face and hands in the shot. This is notable because Spector is constantly fidgeting with his hands. It's hard to tell if it's an involuntary shaking or a nervous habit, but he does it ALL the time, even while sitting quietly during his murder trial, listening to the testimonies.

----------------------------

Phil Spector is a liar. Or does he really believe the things that he says? Is he just forgetful? Is he trying to cast himself in a more sympathetic light, or to forget that certain things ever happened?

His father didn't die when he was "five or six", in fact he was nine years old at the time. How could anyone forget his own age at the time of his father's suicide -- an event that every biographer agrees was the most transformative event of his youth?

He tells a long story about how he chose not to sue Martin Scorsese over the use of "Be My Baby" in "Mean Streets". He claims that Lennon called him into the studio in London to show him the film. How would someone obtain a copy of a film by a then-unknown director in 1973? Also Lennon wasn't in London in '73, I may be wrong, but I thought he didn't even step foot in the UK after leaving for the US in 1971. Even so, the fact that this supposedly took place in the studio would mean they were recording "Mind Games" (recording started in Oct. 1973, the same month that "Mean Streets" was released) ... in New York.

Spector didn't write "Da Doo Ron Ron", Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry did. Spector routinely took partial songwriting credit for bringing the song to life in the studio (and deservedly so), but in the documentary he gives the clear impression that he wrote the song all by himself (while building himself up as a hero for being "brave" enough to change the title from "Then He Walked Me Home").

I have trouble believing that a guy so addicted to fine tuning the smallest details in his music doesn't know the running time of arguably his biggest song, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". It's not "four and a half minutes long" (at first mention) and it's not 4:05 (at second mention). It's 3:46. The anecdote about how he wrote "3:05" on the record label so that radio stations would play it is a really, really famous story. How can Spector himself not know how to tell it properly?

----------------------------

At times I feel that the documentary is trying to manipulate me, which is by far the biggest strike against it. It excerpts a interview from 70's where he's talking about his father's death, and then jumps a closeup of Spector from his trial, stoic and unemotional aside from his quivering hands, while Lennon's "Crippled Inside" plays in the background. There's also a section where "Then He Kissed Me" (arguably the purest and most innocent love song in Spector's catalog) is playing over trial footage of Spector's ex-girlfriends testifying about how he used to threaten them with guns. Director Jayanti wants to maintain "official" neutrality about his subject, so he tries to use Spector's own music to do the editorializing for him. Or at least that's what it feels like.

----------------------------

The best new insight into Spector's character comes when he compares himself to Galileo. He feels that he needed to prove himself and all the bad things that happened to him later on are simply the price he had to pay for being so damned creative, groundbreaking, and rebellious. Just like Galileo.

He also compares himself to Miles Davis in the sense that they both pushed themselves to do better because of the discrimination and criticism that they faced, and because so many people kept waiting for them to fail. I partly agree with Spector here.

----------------------------

Like I mentioned earlier, Spector repeats himself a lot when he talks. He'll say something, and then say it again in a slightly different way. He says it, but later on repeats it. He never says anything just once, he usually can't help himself from rambling on and eventually repeating whatever it is that he wanted to say. He says something, and it seems like he's searching for a more appropriate phrasing the second time around, but he's not particularly eloquent and more or less just repeats the same things over and over. So he says whatever it is he wants to say, and then finds a way to say it again. He says it, but then tells it to you again one more time.

And when you combine that manner of speaking with the occasional times when he goes off on tangents, you have a baffling little monologue on your hands. One time, he starts talking about "Be My Baby" and how hard it was to record, and compares it to the relative ease of Motown's recordings, and then jumps to Brian Wilson's obsession with the song, and then somehow goes off on how "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" -- not a great tune by itself, but a recording that was made by all the quick edits and studio trickery, because it's an edit record, like the way "Psycho" is an edit movie, not a great plot story by itself, but an edit movie, and just like "Good Vibrations" isn't a great song, but it's an "edit record", and hopefully Brian Wilson is smart enough to understand that "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" ...

And you know what? He's right about "Good Vibrations". It *sounds* great, but I've never liked the melodies (particularly the verses). It's a great recording because there are a thousand screwy things all happening at once.

----------------------------

No interview with Spector worth its salt would be complete without some bizarre revelations. He's upset that he never received an honorary doctorate from a university, even though plenty of other people in the music industry did and guys like McCartney even got knighted. Oh, and the infamous shot of Spector with that ridiculously huge afro in the courtroom was a tribute to Ben Wallace (those are his exact words. As if I could have made that up).

----------------------------

Somehow, Spector gets more likeable as the film progresses. He comes off as so puny and harmless, and after a while his ego just becomes part of his charm. And all the great music in the documentary is enough to soften even the hardest heart.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pazz and Jop 2010

My ballot this year:

Albums

Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark" (Ici D'Ailleurs), 23 points
No Age, "Everything In Between" (Sub Pop Records), 20 points
Eluvium, "Similes" (Temporary Residence Limited), 12 points
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs" (Merge), 11 points
New Pornographers, "Together" (Matador), 8 points
Wavves, "King of the Beach" (Fat Possum), 6 points
Jonsi, "Go" (XL Recordings), 5 points
Bardo Pond, "Bardo Pond" (Fire Records), 5 points
Caribou, "Swim" (City Slang/Merge), 5 points
Yellow Swans, "Going Places" (Type), 5 points


Tracks

Crystal Castles, "Celestica" (Fiction)
Donnacha Costello, "Roll It Out" (Poker Flat Recordings)
Eminem feat. Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie" (Aftermath, Interscope, Shady)
Glee Cast/Darren Criss, Teenage Dream" (Columbia)
Kanye West feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver, "Monster" (Roc-A-Fella)
Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg, "California Gurls" (Capitol)
Lady Gaga, "Alejandro" (Interscope)
Lady Gaga ft. Beyonce, "Telephone" (Interscope)
Petar Dundov, "Distant Shores" (Music Man Records)
Taio Cruz, "Dynamite" (Island)

I heavily weighted my album votes again this year, which replaces my earlier strategy of "it's a ranked list and therefore all points ties are copouts". The top four really are miles better than the rest (and the top two are significantly better than #3 and #4), and I wanted the points rankings to reflect that. The albums I feel most strongly about get the bulk of the points (66/100 for the top four), and the rest of them get the scraps.

I made a couple of changes with my the tracks list this year: I made a point of not including any music that made my albums list, and I submitted the list unranked (alphabetical). There are no points assigned to tracks, so ranking them has always been a strictly symbolic exercise anyhow. I wanted my tracks list to represent my favourite pop music and/or my favourite music released in a singles format, and to clearly distinguish those artists from my favourite albums artists. So these aren't the ten best tracks of the year, but you can think of them as "the best/most interesting pop music songs of the year IMO".

I voted for two Lady Gaga tracks both this year AND last year. I'm not sure if I have anything else to add to that, other than to say that it's a remarkable run of excellence that's unmatched in pop music in recent memory. If 2009 was the year of Lady Gaga vs Madonna, 2010 was the year that Lady Gaga settled the issue so decisively that she managed to blatantly steal from Madonna and virtually nobody even bothered to call her out on it. The video for "Telephone" is Gaga's "What It Feels Like For a Girl" and "Alejandro" is her "Express Yourself", but did anyone care? Hardly. It doesn't even matter who Lady Gaga's influences are anymore, she's an island unto herself.

My P&J comments:

1. For a couple of weeks this past November, the supposed death of the monoculture seemed greatly exaggerated when it felt as though every man, woman, and child had an opinion on the new Kanye West album. And we get to do it all over again when Lady Gaga's album is released next year!

2. I usually need a few listens to warm up to an album, even the very good ones. Having said that, Third Eye Foundation's "The Dark" completely slayed me the first time I heard it. It had been years since I was so bowled over by an album on the first listen. I even went through Third Eye Foundation withdrawal the moment the album was over, and couldn't stop thinking "when do I get to hear this album again?" right up until I could get my fix on the train ride home that evening.

3. I'll admit that the "Glee" version of "Teenage Dream" isn't such a brilliant single, but I voted for it because I like "Glee" and it's the only song from the series that seems to have serious legs beyond the show itself. And frankly, I'm curious about how well it might fare in this poll, so I don't mind stumping for it and stuffing the ballot box a little bit.

4. In large part, "success" in the music industry is still defined as the ability to sell as many albums as possible. The formula used to be simple: get your song into regular radio airplay, promote the hell out of the upcoming album, and sit back and wait for sales to roll in by the millions. Well, the 1990's are over. You can't kick back and wait for your album to build momentum any more, and no, allowing legal viewings of a video on Youtube doesn't count as a forward-thinking style of marketing. More than ever, major artists need to keep stoking the market with treats for their listeners.

Crystal Castles aren't exactly "major artists", but they did have a great year and their new single "Not In Love" is a good example of what I'm talking about. Instead of simply releasing the unedited album version as a single, they released a new version featuring The Cure's Robert Smith on vocals. Musically speaking, it's not anything to get excited about in my opinion (I still prefer the vocoder version from the album), but its main achievement was that it gave everyone an excuse to take notice of Crystal Castles again. It gave writers an excuse to review their music again, and websites an excuse to put the band on their news feeds again. And anyone who hadn't bothered to check them out earlier in the year now had now been reminded that they existed.
I briefly considered filling up my singles ballot with nothing but viral music videos and lipdubs. Maybe mainstream pop music has run out of ways to surprise me, as opposed to the seemingly limitless supply of freely distributed online video oddities.

5. Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" is a fantastic song, and not just because I wholeheartedly support pop music with synth riffs that take their cues from early 90's rave music. After the song became a huge hit, Mike Tompkins' acapella version of the song went viral (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjCLQaTFXx0&feature=related), then The Maccabeats covered Tompkins' version (albeit with Chanukah-themed lyrics (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSJCSR4MuhU)) and it went viral as well. And then, unexpectedly, something strange happened. I found myself liking the song even more, except that "the song" no longer meant just Taio Cruz, but rather his version plus all the other versions, assembled into some multi-headed beast that can't be broken down into its constituent parts anymore.

Maybe this is how the post-Glee, post-American Idol world is going to work -- everyone wants to be a karaoke star, and no song is untouchable any more. The song recorded in a professional studio and promoted internationally at a cost of millions of dollars ends up on the same pedestal as the cover version recorded in some unknown singers' bedroom or the 90-second truncated version sung by a just-discovered teenager on a TV talent show.

Pet Shop Boys, "Performance", "Pandemonium"

Pet Shop Boys' "Performance" tour is fondly remembered and with good reason. The duo were still at the peak of their critical and commercial powers and could basically do no wrong. The mere thought of staging such an audaciously theatrical exhibition of pop music (it would be a bit of an insult to refer to this show as a mere "concert") would have been risible in the hands of virtually any other group.

I've been a PSB fan for more than twenty years, "Always On My Mind" is in my inner pantheon of top 80's songs, and yet I've never seen them live and until now I'd never seen "Performance". How can I even think about trying to get caught up with all the new music being released when I can't even catch up with all the big moments in the careers of bands I've been a fan of since I was a teenager? BTW, I love the fact that there's still so much to hear and see and buy and discover about bands that I've been listening to for twenty years.

I don't completely understand the technical aspects of this, but I believe the DVD is a transfer from the original VHS master, so the video quality isn't as sharp as what you'd normally get with DVD's these days. But I think the fuzziness of the video actually enhances the viewing experience because of the soft lighting and odd camera angles.

In the first half of the show, Tennant and Lowe are fringe characters, it's as if they're making cameo appearances in their own performance. There's a whirlwind of activity going on around them and it's clear that the show is meant to divert attention away from them, which they succeed in doing for the most part. In the liner notes, they spoke about wanting to distance themselves from the idea of putting on a concert. Once you get rid of the hassles of playing instruments, then you're free to present a more creative product on stage. They explain that when you go to the opera, the orchestra is hidden from view and whatever it is they're doing during the performance is scarcely important. They conceived of a tour that would more closely resemble a modern dance performance (albeit one soundtracked by their music) than a concert, and they hired choregraphers, art directors, and dancers from the "serious" art and dance worlds in order to make it happen. It's no accident that they called it "Performance". Sure, you don't see crowd shots and encores (you know what I mean) when you go to the opera, but other than small details such as these, it feels like an authentic show you'd see in a "real" "concert hall". I felt underdressed while watching it in my living room.

Some people might have felt ripped off by going to a PSB show only to discover that the pop stars they paid money to see were reduced to being bit players (if they were living in a cave before the night of the concert and had no idea what they were in for). But you could say the same thing about plenty of pop concerts in the 90's and 00's -- a Britney Spears concert basically showed her as the featured player amidst a storm of dancers and wild sets, with hardly a band (or a microphone!) to be found.

The second half of the show is a bit looser, more "fun". It feels less like a challenge, artistically speaking, with all the pig masks and bizarre costumes, and more like a concert with the PSB's biggest hits.

They also took a bunch of risks with the setlist, skipping a number of big hits (e.g. "Heart", "Being Boring") in favour of two songs they wrote for Liza Minelli (in particular, "Losing My Mind" is incredible and is arguably the highlight of the DVD) and b-sides like "My Funny Uncle". Almost all of their risks paid off. They claimed that there was a semi-autobiographical story arc to the performance, which was sometimes obscured by, uh, certain artistic decisions (i.e. I'd rather watch the show than be distracted by wondering about how such and such a mask could possibly be related to the song). But what can you say about the likes of "Jealousy", when the story and music mesh together perfectly? When it works, it works.

Fast forward to 2009, and "Pandemonium" finds PSB's fitting nicely into their role as elder statesmen of dance pop (in this case, I've heard the live CD but only clips of the DVD). Neil Tennant isn't afraid to be the point man for the concert, crooning and egging on the crowd like most lead singers at most concerts. The video screens and costumes are a dazzling display of bright colours, and while some of the artistic pretentiousness is still there (e.g. dancers wearing large monocoloured cubes on their heads), it pretty much feels like the norm in a world where Lady Gaga is as mainstream as you can get. Wow, how much DID Gaga steal from the Pet Shop Boys?

My memories of the "Bilingual"/"Nightlife" period of the late '90's are very negative ... I remember them being excoriated by the press at the time for making mindless disco music for gay clubs instead of the witty, funny/sad sexually ambiguous pop that they had been known for. Except that the generally positive review grades that are collected on PSB's Wikipedia pages clearly contradict my recollection of how well their music was received (I never even heard the albums, just the singles). Still, I've never been able to warm up to a single like "New York City Boy". It was one thing to cover Village People ("Go West"), quite another thing to try to one-up them by writing original songs that are meant to sound like them. The song is OK, but it's hardly the best use of PSB's talents.

Otherwise, this is about as good a mix of old and new PSB as you could hope for. "Always On My Mind" still gives me a rush, "Why Don't We Live Together" is bubbly and charming, and their cover of "Viva La Vida" is a nice treat for a live audience. "Being Boring" feels like the most emotionally charged song on the disc. It's completely a period piece -- more than any other PSB song, it takes you back to a specific year and captures the spirit of a particular time that feels like it happened a million years ago. I've always thought it to be one of their most overrated songs -- I've *never* liked the chorus -- but the verses leave me with a lump in my throat, more so in 2010 than ever before.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010 Mix

Compared to the year-end mix I made last year, this one is a bit short on the "hits", with no Lady Gagas and David Guettas to be found. I'm fairly sure I listened to *more* pop music this year than last, but those songs didn't find their way onto this mix. I suppose I was going for a particular mood here -- a bit of variety at the start, noisy middle, soul-crushing finish -- rather than trying to present my favourite songs of 2010. I doubt any of these songs will find their way onto my P&J ballot, for instance (well, maybe one of the techno tracks will).

So why would you want to hear the mix and why did I pick these songs to "represent" 2010?

-- tracks from a number of my top ten albums of the year

-- really good tracks from good but inconsistent albums by notable artists (e.g. Autechre, Matthew Dear, Nitzer Ebb)

-- my attempt to mix together techno and Arcade Fire ... doncha know that AF use synths and you can dance to them now?

-- the fey and delicate Jonsi crushing your brain under the force of his titanic live set closer "Grow Till Tall"

-- I looped and FXed the bejeezus out of No Age's "Katerpillar", transforming it from a (far too) short 90 second interlude into a five minute noise mini-epic. I always loop it over and over when it comes up on my iPod, so why shouldn't you hear it the same way?

Tracklist:

1. Nicki Minaj, "Girls Fall Like Dominoes"
2. Caribou, "Odessa"
3. Mark van Hoen, "Soyuz A"
4. Donnacha Costello, "Roll It Out (Original Mix)"
5. Jichael Mackson, "Locus Pocus (Original)"
6. Arcade Fire, "Half Light II (No Celebration)"
7. Autechre, "Ilanders"
8. No Age, "Katerpillar"
9. Infinite Body, "Dive"
10. Yellow Swans, "Going Places"
11. Nitzer Ebb, "Going Away"
12. Matthew Dear, "Innh Dahh"
13. Eluvium, "Cease To Know"
14. Jonsi, "Grow Till Tall (live)"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I've written about nearly every one of these albums this year (at length in many cases!), so I guess I can afford to keep this short. But my brevity shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm for these albums! For example ...

Quality! This was a good year for albums after a fairly weak 2009. My own top ten was the weakest it had been in years (well, since 2006, but before that you need to go back to 1998 to find such a weak collection of "top" albums). Although in most years there are two or three classics that stand apart from the pack, the overall quality of that year's music is more accurately represented by the quality of albums #4-10. Sure, my top three of 2009 were great and I'll still stan for them, and if you take them as a trio then they're better than my top three of 2006. But the rest of the list got a bit dicey, and 2006 was better a year overall for music.

Canadians! There are three Canadian acts in my top ten, the most since 2004 (which contained four).

Ugly! In all the years I've been compiling year-end lists, I don't think there's ever been a top ten with such an ugly collection of cover art. Seriously, there are like two, maybe three good covers here, and the rest of them range from barely passable to horrendous (#9 and #1 are great ... #4 gets a "maybe"). I have no idea what this could mean, but I'm 99% sure that it's nothing, just a fluke year where my favourite albums all had crap covers, so don't expect a post about the decline of the album cover.

So let's do this thing.

TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2010


10. Yellow Swans, "Going Places"


Yellow Swans - going-places

The final Yellow Swans album didn't bring anything new to the table, in fact, you could say it was formulaic and therefore disappointing and I'd have a tough time arguing with that. But sticking to a formula doesn't have to be a bad thing, just insert the word "reliability" in its place instead (plenty of prolific noise acts made "reliability" their calling card ... Merzbow is an obvious example) and you'll see and hear that Yellow Swans on autopilot can still be pretty darn good.


9. Caribou, "Swim"


caribou-swim

The first album from Caribou that felt like a proper "dance" album, and hopefully not the last. Swapping out the psychedelic element in his music for an extra dose of funkiness was a smart trade in my book.


8. Bardo Pond, "Bardo Pond"


BardoPond-400x400

This album was released only a week ago, so not enough time has passed to really put it in perspective. That fact, when coupled with my emotional biases when it comes to judging Bardo Pond (not to mention that this is the follow-up album to my #7 album of the 00's, "Ticket Crystals") then it seems almost certain that this #8 ranking can't possibly be right. In a month I'll be kicking myself for not putting in a few spots higher (or lower).

There's clearly a lot of great material here, but whereas "Ticket Crystals" was the most challenging album in Bardo Pond's catalog (they'd never attempted anything like "Montana Sacra II" or "Moonshine" before, and I think that sense of the unexpected is a big reason why it's such a rewarding record), "Bardo Pond" feels more superficial, like it's more a case of "what you hear [on your first listen] is what you get". It strikes a delicate balance between jamming off into the realm of forgetability and blissfully crushing you under the HEAVINESS of it all.


7. Jonsi, "Go"


jonsi-go1

I think this album surprised a lot people who thought that Sigur Ros were all about misty glaciers and bowed guitars, but it's actually not a huge departure from the "pop" songs on their last album.


6. Wavves, "King of the Beach"


Wavves - King of the Beach

Truth in advertising: go to Amazon (or any site that lets you hear samples of songs on albums before you buy them) and listen to the first ten seconds of the first track from this album. You'll know if you'll like "King of the Beach" based on that alone. Actually, it doesn't even have to be the first track, it can be virtually any track. I used to read reviews that complimented an album by saying "virtually any track could be released as a single" (what happened to those kinds of reviews ... are they extinct?), but that's "King of the Beach" for you.


5. New Pornographers, "Together"


new_pornographers_together_cov

I'm not sure if this is the best New Pornographers album ("Mass Romantic" and "Twin Cinema" offer stiff competition) but right now it certainly feels like their most consistent album. These guys make more or less the same record every time, so I'm not sure why this is their first appearance in my year-end top ten. But "Together" seemed to catch me in precisely the right mood this year. In a year (well, in most years) when I didn't listen to much indie rock, it was my go-to indie guitar pop album.


4. Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"


arcade-fire-suburbs

I still don't think of myself as a big fan, and yet their albums always end up among my favourites from that year. I tend to forget they exist between albums -- I don't pine for new Arcade Fire albums, I don't scour the usual websites in search of news tidbits about them -- and yet every time they release a new album, I come to the inescapable conclusion that there are none better at doing what they do. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because I wrote pretty much the same thing three years ago, after the release of "Neon Bible".

I still maintain that "The Suburbs" is too long by about four or five songs, but there's it's been a while since the last really memorable Verve release (the term seems horribly dated now, especially after Verve's most recent reformation/implosion, but whatever). In any case, this is one of the best Verve releases you'll ever hear.


3. Eluvium, "Similes"


Eluvium-Similes

Like with his last album, "Copia", I needed a lot of time to grow into this one. The vocals, which seemed like an unnecessary gimmick after the first few listens, now feel like an inseparable part of this album's wonderful misery (no, that's not an oxymoron).


2. No Age, "Everything In Between"


no-age-everything-in-between

This album represents a sensational leap in No Age's status from "punks who love their FX pedals" to "best reincarnation of late 80's MBV you're ever likely to hear".


1. Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark"


tef-400x407

Best comeback album ever? FWIW, the last album that won me over so thoroughly after the first listen was Plastikman's "Closer".

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2010

Everything I wrote in this post from last year is still true, but I only realized just how true that post was (and is) when I started going through all of my music from 2010 in order to prepare for these lists. I was somewhat surprised to discover that I've collected stacks of techno mixes, but very few individual releases. It seems that I was so busy listening to podcasts all year that I didn't get around to listening to, uh, actual techno.

Nevertheless, here are my favourite mixes and podcasts of the year, listed chronologically. I didn't restrict myself only to "unofficial" releases, it just happened to turn out that way. In most instances, I've linked to the sites where the mixes were originally posted and although some of them aren't available for download from those sites anymore, it isn't too difficult to track them down elsewhere on the internet.

Shed, FACT Mix 116, January 18 (link).

This mix for FACT is a better introduction to Shed than either of his albums because neither of them manages to encompass the full palate of sounds he incorporates into his own tracks quite like this. It comes off like a preview of the smorgasbord approach he took with "The Traveller", except more energetic and unpredictable. And if we're voting for "transition of the year", I'm probably voting for "Shiner" --> "Digeridoo" (Live in Cornwall). (start listening around the 25-minute mark)


Autechre, 12 hour radio broadcast, March 2 (link)

Autechre painstakingly curated their love for techno and hip-hop and managed to join them at the hip with one jaw-dropping transition after another. If you don't have time to hear the whole thing then just listen to an hour -- virtually any one hour section from anywhere in the mix -- to understand why this broadcast was legendary upon arrival for good reason. This mix arguably could have been made ten years ago because most of these tracks aren't new. I'd like to think that it drew rave reviews not just because people enjoyed the trip down memory lane (although old tracks can still sound fresh if you haven't heard them in a while), but because the track selection and mixing were more adventurous than anything else out there right now.


Donnacha Costello, Little White Earbuds Podcast 46, March 15 (link)

In addition to the release of his new album "Before We Say Goodbye", Costello had an outstanding year behind the decks. His contribution to LWE was more or less an "Influences" mix that showcases Detroit techno and minimal while staying clear of the more obvious classics. Stylistically, the mix as a whole feels comfortable and familiar, even though the individual tracks are relatively obscure. If anything, it's a testament to the depth and overall excellence of these record labels.


JPLS, Plastikman mix for URB, April 6 (link)

To celebrate the return of Plastikman to the live arena, Jeremy Jacobs aka JPLS put together a mix of Plastikman classics for URB. In the first half of the mix, he breaks the tracks into micro-excerpts and re-assembles them into an entirely new whole, not unlike Richie Hawtin's "Decks EFX & 909" and "DE9: Transitions" mixes (more so the first ... the second was an altogether different level of complexity). In the second half, which is dominated by material from "Consumed", he lets the tracks play out like one long, extended coda. Once again, the source material isn't new, but the track selection and creative mixing make everything sound fresh, and of course it doesn't hurt that 90's Plastikman tracks never seem to age.


George Issakidis, Electric Deluxe Episode 021, July 12 (link)

The Electric Deluxe podcast was the most essential podcast of the year, hands down. I think most websites and podcasts would claim that they're not trying to follow the trends and don't want to be burdened by genre labels, rather, they just want to find the best music and feature groundbreaking artists who aren't afraid to leave their comfort zones and take a few risks. Many sites aspire to realize that vision for themselves, but Electric Deluxe succeeded at it better than anyone else. And among the best of the lot was George Issakidis' blissful, mesmerizing mix of ambient experimental weirdness (with occasional breaks for the likes of the Cocteau Twins).


MSF aka Donnacha Costello, Electric Deluxe Episode 025, August 23 (link)

Another mix from the incendiary Costello, this one a grandiose trip through minimal and dub techno, taking in a mixture of old (Dot Wiggin? Dot Wiggin!! First time I've ever heard Sandro Perri's pre-Polmo Polpo material in a DJ mix) and new tracks to create arguably the year's most infectiously danceable mix.


Gabriele Mancino, Modyfier Process 230, August 28 (link)

An uplifting mix that straddles the boundaries of house and techno, it starts out cheery, detours through dark periods of dub techno, and gets happy again by the end. Normally I retch at the sound of anything this summer-y, but for some reason this mix really got to me.


Silent Servant Radio MIX 2, Sept 23 (link)

And suddenly, I can hear the connection between modern day dub techno and late 70's/early 80's industrial and electronic pop. It all makes sense!


Terence Fixmer, Whatpeopleplay Podcast 35, October 3 (link)

Easily the best contemporary club techno mix I've heard this year, one hour of peak time, speaker-rattling, devastatingly heavy techno goodness.


Petar Dundov, Resident Advisor Podcast 236, December 6 ( link)

The quality and consistency of the Resident Advisor podcasts dipped in 2010 (after a fantastic 2009) but they saved their best for last (week), with Petar Dundov's sensational mix of "emotive" techno. Not only is Dundov's "Distant Shores" the year's most perfect techno track, but, as shown with this mix, it makes for a brilliant set closer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Glitterbug, "Privilege" and LIVE at the Sniff Club

Glitterbug's newest album appears to be a bit intimidating due to its over two hour running time. But it turns out to be very easy on the ear, ebbing and flowing like a well-executed DJ set. Glitterbug's debt to the Cologne sound is obvious, but I also hear strong currents of Donnacha Costello's atmospheric melodicism, Ullrich Schnauss' death-by-synth-overdose neo-shoegaze/dance, New Order's "The Perfect Kiss" gone the way of M83's "Couleurs", and Pentatonik's long-form melodic techno from the mid-90's (surely I'm the only person who hears it though ... anybody else?). There isn't any one section of the album where it horribly drags and you start wishing the guy had hired an editor, but at the same time, the album is merely consistently good but rarely great (those exceptions include "Calcutta" and "Waves", both of them dipping their toes into the kind of gaze-y dance music that I usually can't resist, and the 1993 Basic Channel vs 1993 Juan Atkins soundalike "Over Water (dub edit)").

Based on last night's set, Glitterbug's DJ sets are virtually mirror images of his own music -- the man plays the kind of music he likes to record himself, or vice versa. Either way, no complaints from me other than my own tardiness -- his set started earlier than I expected so I missed about the first half-hour. On the other hand, I arrived during the peak of his set and thus was immediately won over. On the third hand, when you arrive during peak time then everything goes downhill from that point. What can you do?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 10 -- A Very Glee Christmas

As far as Christmas-themed specials go, this one might have been the corniest I've ever seen. Maybe there's an episode of "Family Ties" that can top it, but otherwise, "A Very Glee Christmas" just about takes the cake, with a number of scenes bordering on unwatchable (although there were a few great one-liners scattered throughout). Considering the throwaway nature of the episode (in terms of plot and music) and the fact that I had absolutely no interest in hearing a preview of the soon to be best-selling Glee Christmas album, I figured I wouldn't even bother writing a review this week. But I changed my mind thanks to one performance that was too good to not write about.

"The Most Wonderful Day of the Year". D. Sure, when the characters aren't performing or rehearsing, we suspend our disbelief all the time when we watch "Glee". I'm talking about the scenes where people burst into song for the cameras and the viewing audience, like they're actors in a play or musical.

Asking me to believe that the "Glee" misfits arrange a Christmas carol singalong (complete with musicians wearing scarves and reindeer sweaters indoors and a fully decorated choir room) while hanging ornaments on a tree was something straight out of Munchkin Land. Sorry, I draw the line here.

"Merry Christmas Darling". C-. Your basic Lea Michele "impassioned" singing performance with the usual overblown staging and orchestration.

"Baby It's Cold Outside". A. The poses, the twirls, the hand gestures, Blaine's impromptu piano solo. Kurt making googly eyes throughout. The fireplace. Perfect interplay between their votes, flawless timing and delivery from start to finish. THE SEXUAL TENSION. The episode as a whole is junk, but this performance is one for the "Glee" highlight reel.

"Last Christmas". B. I'm probably overrating this because it's one of my favourite Xmas songs. Hearing it always takes me back to a certain time and place ... no, not the winter of 1984, but the winter of 2003 when I spent part of the holidays in Germany and heard it (along with the same Avril Lavigne, Xtina Aguilera, and BEP songs) on the radio several times per day. And the video is even cheesier than this episode of "Glee".

Finn tried too hard to look "conflicted" here, and the minor lyric changes and awkward looks between him and Rachel got in the way of what could have been a much stronger performance if they'd relaxed and simply sung the song instead of trying to make it "mean something" in the context of their relationship.

"Welcome Christmas". C+. This is the final song from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", and was supposed to be the big weepy conclusion to the Sue/Grinch storyline. Well, I didn't feel won over by the spirit of Christmas, probably because it was a very ordinary scene with some students performing a song for their smiling teachers. I have no clue why this was supposed to melt Sue's icy heart, so like she said on the show, "let's call it a Xmas miracle and leave it at that."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

2011 Grammy Nominations

No jokes about the always baffling eligibility rules this time, let's just look at some of the nominees:

SONG OF THE YEAR
“Beg Steal Or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs
“Forget You” (aka “Fuck You”) – Cee Lo Green
“The House That Built Me”- Miranda Lambert
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem feat. Rihanna
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum

This is quite the interesting selection of songs, artists, and styles, and you could make a compelling argument for any of them winning. Or stated differently, it's hard to think up good reasons why any of these CAN'T win. Normally we could eliminate the black hip hop-cum-soul crooner in a competition against a bunch of white folk and country artists, but in this case said crooner's song is a 60's Motown throwback that many voters might find difficult to resist. Normally we might reflexively eliminate the token country/folk/Americana song in the group, but we can't do that here because there are THREE of them, one of which ("Need You Now") was arguably the biggest pop hit of 2010. Normally we might eliminate the bratty, controversial hip hop artist and his hate-filled song about domestic abuse, except that Eminem is already an ELEVEN (!!) time Grammy winner.

At the end of the day, I can't see a song called "Fuck You" winning a Grammy for Song of the Year (even in its censored version), Enimem is the veteran who already has plenty of trophies so they probably won't feel the need to honour him again, and Ray LaMontagne is small potatoes compared to Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum who appeal to similar fanbases. But I can't shake the feeling that Lady Antebellum are going to own the 2011 Grammys.


BEST NEW ARTIST
Justin Bieber
Drake
Florence + The Machine
Mumford & Sons
Esperanza Spalding

It already feels like Justin Bieber has been around forever, so I was shocked to see him nominated in this category which can probably be chalked up to the stupid Grammy eligibility rules that I'm not supposed to be making fun of that discludes artists like Nicki Minaj because she "missed" some ill thought-out album release cutoff date. Is there any chance that Drake upsets the Beeb? Probably not.


RECORD OF THE YEAR
“Nothin’ On You” – B.o.B feat. Bruno Mars
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem feat. Rihanna
“Forget You” (aka “Fuck You”) – Cee Lo Green
“Empire State Of Mind” – Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum

This category is stacked, and if anything gets in the way of Lady Antebellum sweeping their way through the major awards, it'll happen here. I'd look for veterans Eminem or Jay-Z (who has won TEN Grammys?!?) to steal this one from the kids.


ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
Recovery – Eminem
Need You Now – Lady Antebellum
The Fame Monster – Lady Gaga
Teenage Dream – Katy Perry

This category is really really stacked. As happy as I am to see the Arcade Fire rubbing shoulders with the heavy hitters, they have no chance up against this kind of competition. Lady Gaga won't win because "The Fame Monster" was a stopgap mini-album (albeit probably the most successful stopgap mini-album ever) and the voters will hold off on it because her new album will be released early next year. This is probably Lady Antebellum's to lose, although I wouldn't be shocked to see Katy Perry sneak in for the win.


BEST MALE POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE
“Haven’t Met You Yet” – Michael BublĂ©
“This Is It” – Michael Jackson
“Whataya Want From Me” – Adam Lambert
“Just The Way You Are” – Bruno Mars
“Half Of My Heart” – John Mayer

So we've got two guys with legitimate hits, two guys who the critics hate but Grammy audiences and voters love, and a guy who will have been dead for nearly two years by the time the awards are given out. I will laugh so hard if Michael Jackson wins this. Heck, he probably will. At least Ray Charles had been dead for only eight months when he won for Album of the Year in 2005.


BEST RAP SONG
“Empire State Of Mind” – Shawn Carter, Angela Hunte, Burt Keyes, Alicia Keys, Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic & Alexander Shuckburgh, songwriters (Sylvia Robinson, songwriter) (Jay-Z & Alicia Keys)
“Love The Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers, songwriters (Eminem & Rihanna)
“Not Afraid” – M. Burnett, J. Evans, Marshall Mathers, L. Resto & M. Samuels, songwriters (Eminem)
“Nothin’ On You” – Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Bobby Simmons Jr., songwriters (B.o.B Featuring Bruno Mars)
“On To The Next One” – Shawn Carter, J. Chaton & K. Dean, songwriters (G. Auge & X. De Rosnay, songwriters) (Jay-Z & Swizz Beatz)

I guess that Eminem and Jay-Z were just about the only people to release a rap song this year!


BEST ELECTRONIC/DANCE ALBUM
These Hopeful Machines – BT
Further – The Chemical Brothers
Head First – Goldfrapp
Black Light – Groove Armada
La Roux – La Roux

This category is as meaningless as they come. You know how people always ridicule the Grammys for nominating old guys like Robert Plant and Eric Clapton every time they put out a record? This is the "electronic/dance" equivalent of that -- a bunch of safe, veteran acts to go along with Goldfrapp and La Roux's 80's flashbacks (although they both made some really good music, their albums are a friendly and palatable form of "electronic" music that the voters are sure to enjoy). I hope La Roux wins, which probably means it'll be party time for Groove Armada.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 09

This storyline of this episode was about breaking out of safe, predictable patterns, and yet paradoxically it was the most formulaic "Glee" episode in some time. When the underdogs become the favourites, it gets more difficult to root for them. Sectionals felt like an afterthought this year, it was never treated as a do-or-die competition like it was in last year's episode. Almost everything that happened in this episode was lacking in drama and intrigue, from New Directions' victory to Kurt having a tough time fitting in at his new school to the couples bickering and making up by the end of the episode like it was an 80's family sitcom. The only thing that felt real was Rachel's caustic, desperate cry to Finn, "you said you'd NEVER break up with me", but that had nothing to do with the music.

"Don't Cry For Me Argentina". C. It's nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for Kurt's character at this point. In review:

1) He cynically introduced his father and Finn's mother as a ploy to get cuddly with Finn. Finn became so uncomfortable around him that they had a big falling out, which Kurt's father blamed entirely on Finn. Although Kurt's father eventually learned the truth about what had been going on (one season later!), Kurt never apologized for anything.

2) Finn took nearly all the heat for not protecting Kurt in a number of episodes, although in most of those instances Finn wasn't entirely at fault. Sometimes these misunderstandings happened because Kurt refused to be completely honest, but Finn was always the one who came off looking bad to those around him. Kurt always allowed Finn to take the fall for him and never apologized for it.

3) Instead of sticking to a simple "thank you", Kurt chewed out his friends for praying for his father following his heart attack. Say all you want about the maturity level of rebellious, troubled teenagers, but if people want to show their condolences and want to help you, then LET THEM and be thankful for having such good friends. Kurt never properly apologized for any of this.

4) Once Karofsky started getting on Kurt's case, he yet again allowed Finn to take the blame for not protecting him. All of Kurt's friends went the extra mile to look after him around the school campus and to make his father's wedding a huge success. At the wedding, Finn said that Kurt is like a brother to him and was the person who taught him how to be a man. To repay Finn for his humility and to show him how much he values Finn's opinion and his friendship, Kurt transferred to another school without any warning. Of course he never bothered to tell anyone that the real reason he's transferring is to be closer to his boy toy.

Now tell me, in light of all that, why should we care about inconsequential details of Kurt's life like whether gets a solo part with his new glee club? And why would Rachel want to do even the tiniest thing to help her competition? This performance's calling card seems to be the fact that they sing the song in the same key. That amusing tidbit raised the grade to something halfway respectable.

"The Living Years". C+. Am I supposed to find something poignant about old people singing a song about death? Should I admire their bravery in standing defiant in the face of the jaws of death that could spit out their bones at any moment? At least the seniors themselves were game, and put forth a big effort to make the performance watchable.

"Hey, Soul Sister". B-. The Warblers' M.O. is becoming clear -- they take modern pop hits and make them so white bread that you can scrape the penicillin off the crusts when they're done. And their choreography is horrendous.

"(I've Had) The Time of My Life"/"Valerie". B/B. Mr. Schue was right -- "Glee" isn't the Finn and Rachel show anymore, and giving other characters their time in the spotlight is a Good Thing. But there wasn't anything special in this performance, nothing we hadn't seen a million times before, and that's largely because they didn't pull out all the stops using their best talent. Was I supposed to be touched by the Sam/Quinn relationship blossoming right there on stage like Finn and Rachel's did one year ago? Was I supposed to be moved by Mike Chang making the most of his leading dance role and Artie's "inspirational" speech to Brittany? New Directions' Season One Sectionals and Regionals performances were worthy climaxes to their respective half seasons (both were worthy of at least A's), but this was the very definition of ordinary.

"Dog Days Are Over". C+. I'd never heard or heard of this song, but it fell into the tired old "Glee" trick of using a throwaway tune with a title that approximates the sentiment that they'd like to end the show with.

Shed, "The Traveller"

This album earned rave reviews, but I started writing this post to talk about how disappointing it is.

Shed's last album, "Shedding the Past", was a blueprint for the modern techno album, with track after epic track of bumping techno rhythms inflected by dub, broken beat, and dubstep. It too was a bit overrated (RA ranked it in their top 20 albums of the 00's), but there's no denying that its success, coupled with some high profile appearance such as his festival-stealing set at MUTEK, made "The Traveller" one of the year's most anticipated techno releases.

Shed's prior work, which includes high profile podcasts from earlier this year for the likes of RA and FACT, shows that he refuses to confine himself to a techno cubbyhole. On the "Traveller", he tries to expand that kitchen sink approach, foregoing almost any attempt at producing a dancefloor friendly album in favour of a diverse array of styles whose running times rarely extend much past four minutes. The problem is that nothing really happens on the album's first half, and it's only when the purer techno of "HDRTM" and "My R-Class" show up that the record kicks itself into gear. Up until that point, it feels like an album of beat explorations, and nothing gets enough time to develop into anything interesting, with the exception of the Scorn-like dub of "The Bot", whose six minutes of sparse beats feels more like 20.

At least that's what I thought after my first listen. But there's a reason why some albums demand repeat listens. Now I think "The Traveller" is pretty great, more or less for all the same reasons that I listed in the previous paragraph although I still think that it's a bit slow in the first half and could use one or two more techno-oriented tracks. And why haven't more contemporary artists mined the 1990-1 sound of Sheffield bleep, like Shed does on the fantastically bass-heavy LFO pastiche "Hello Bleep!"?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 08

I thought this was a music-themed show? The music almost felt like afterthought on this episode. The first song appeared after sixteen minutes (without commercials!) and there were only four songs in total -- two Bruno Mars songs, one from a 50's musical, and a song made famous by Dean Martin. That's quite the spread. They did manage to advance a number of different plots ... however, almost all of them involve Kurt in some way, whereas the other 90% of the characters on the show aren't really doing anything right now.

"Ohio". B+. Carol Burnett summed it up best: "well, that wasn't as good as I thought it would be." A Jane Lynch/Carol Burnett duet? How could it not be classic? And yet it fell a bit short, in large part because Jane Lynch can't hold up her end of the singing on a number like this. I mean, what can you do? She's not a singer, and when she's asked to sing she does a perfectly reasonable job. But unless you bring something else to the table (e.g. dancing) it's tough to go above B+ with just a "perfectly reasonable" singer.

"Marry You". B-. You know the "Glee" writers are a bit short on ideas when they start stealing from viral videos on Youtube. This was cute, energetic, and more than a bit too precious.

"Sway". C-. You know the "Glee" writers are a bit short on ideas when they realize that they've written an entire episode and didn't bother to give Mr. Schue anything to do, so they inexplicably cast him performing a sleazy mambo song. I have just realized that there are two kinds of Matthew Morrison performances on "Glee":

1) The ones he performs "for himself", as part of a separate plot line that involves only him. Examples: the Neil Patrick Harris episode, the duet with Jayma Mays on the Rocky Horror episode.

2) The ones when he leeches off the storylines involving the kids. Examples: Britney's "Toxic", this song.

Category 1 performances are almost always good. Category 2 performances are usually not, because he's their teacher and it's a bit creepy.

"Just the Way You Are". B. Once again: cute, energetic and a bit too precious. However, the audio track by itself is quite good -- probably better than the original version!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

A few disclosures: I don't listen to a whole lot of hip-hop, and won't pretend to have any clue what might constitute a five-star hip-hop album in 2010. Despite the complaints about this album being an overly long, egotistical sprawling mess, I have yet to hear the entire thing in one sitting. My copy is a "clean" version. I still haven't seen the "Runaway" mini-movie, this is in fact my first exposure to any of the music on the album (I didn't see the VMA's or his SNL appearance).

So I haven't done any homework before spouting off about Kanye's latest album, but it can be interesting to approach a new album with a nearly blank slate, and besides, who can resist commenting on arguably the year's most anticipated, most talked about album? The hype is so huge that in some circles, the reviews are generating nearly as much discussion as the music itself -- it's earned a 10.0 from Pitchfork (their first perfect score for a new album in ages) and 10/10 from Popmatters (only for them to turn around and publish a second review the very next day -- this time a 7/10.

Many albums contain mostly 3-5 minute tracks but somewhere in the middle there's a sprawling, epic, 7-8 minute track that stands apart as the album's "centrepiece". This album is no exception ... except that there are about five or six of those types of tracks. IN A ROW. In a number of different styles, i.e. "Monster" (multi-guest clusterfuck, yes, that's a compliment), "Devil in a New Dress" (70's soul), and "Runaway" (nine minute prog-rap confessional, complete with vocoder). Best of all is "So Appalled", whose backing track could nearly stand-in for the dark, murky electro-pop from Depeche Mode's "Ultra".

The beginning of the album is fairly unremarkable, in fact, if this album is bloated, I blame it on the shorter tracks. The album doesn't really pick up until "All the Lights" and its audacious orchestral intro, and from then on it's almost nothing but long running times and the kind of hyper-personal, self-deprecating kitchen sink drama that Kanye West seems to revel in these days (not that I'm complaining, it takes a genius to spill your personal life onto your music without coming across as an indulgent whiner. Kanye isn't afraid to walk that line and he walks it well).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 07

Worst episode of the season thus far, unless you happen to be a huge Gwyneth Paltrow fan. Guest stars are nice, but did she have to feature in every song (except for one)? She's performed more songs this season than some of the members of the actual cast! Like John Stamos, for example!

And not a single ironic Coldplay cover to be found ...

"Conjunction Junction". C+. I was thinking "here's her one-minute singing clip, to establish the zany-ness of the character and so we can all say that we saw Gwyneth Paltrow singing on 'Glee'." Little did I know ...

"Fuck You". B. Brilliant song, of course, and yeah, it is about time they did a chart-friendly, fun and contemporary song on "Glee" (no, Jason Mraz and the rest of the modern adult contemporary performances don't count). Gotta deduct points for the lyric change though. I know it's network TV -- pick a different song or be willing to pay the penalty.

"Make 'Em Laugh". B. Not sure what the point of this was, it was certainly an odd choice for a dream sequence. Mr. Schue the character fantasizes about doing show tunes with Mike Chang? You can't fault the effort involved -- it's an incredibly physically demanding number -- but the chemistry between the two wasn't there. We know that Mike Chang, the character, is more or less useless and exists only to spice up group performances by dancing while the others do their singing. Expecting him to carry 50% of the performance load isn't a worthwhile gamble. It worked a few weeks ago during the "Duets" episode because he had something to do, but here, he was just Matthew Morrison's lackey.

"Nowadays"/"Hot Honey Rag". C-. Didn't care for the movie, and didn't care for Lea Michele having to dumb it down so that Ms. Paltrow could keep up.

"Singing in the Rain"/"Umbrella". C. This was ... wet. They're splashing around on a wet stage and flinging umbrellas. We get it. And the mashup was a disaster. Maybe it would have had a chance if they'd centred it around the verses of "Singing in the Rain" with the chorus of "Umbrella".

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Autechre in the 00's

Between 1993 and 1998, Autechre put together one of the greatest five-year runs in the history of recorded music. Other bands have made better music, or have been more prolific, but arguably no band has ever managed a combination of quality and quantity that can top what Autechre did in such a short period of time in the mid 1990's. They seemed to redefine themselves with every EP and album release, literally everything they did was either a mind-bending refinement on what you thought they were capable of doing previously, or a seismic shift that shifted the goalposts completely. The copycats, and there were plenty of them, were consistently left in their dust. It wasn't until 1998's "LP5" that Autechre started to slip up just enough to allow the competition to gain on them. It was a good album, but tended too much toward quirky electronica, but that was enough to satisfy the fairweather IDM fans who had just gotten into Aphex Twin. "LP5" was released to probably their largest ever audience -- their hardcore fanbase was pretty huge by that point -- and bedroom techno was all the rage with plenty of copycats singing Autechre's praises. This is likely why so many people cite "LP5" as one of their best albums, but for me at the time, it was a clear #5 in the pecking order.

Autechre never officially jumped the shark, never broke up or went on hiatus. They kept making music at a fairly brisk rate -- five albums from 2001-2010 plus a sizable collection of EPs, remixes, and digital-only releases to go along with them -- but none of this music has really added to their legacy. Their legacy was secure once the 90's were over, if they'd disappeared before 1999 came to a close then the Autechre story would be more or less unchanged. Let's just say that virtually nobody's favourite Autechre album was released in the 2000's. The arrival of a new Autechre album or EP used to be An Event in the indie music shops, but now it's Just Another New Album from a big name group whose best days seem to be far behind them.

This gradual shift in attitudes began around 2000-2001, and we can attribute that to the following:

1) The IDM/clicks 'n' cuts/glitch scene ran its course. Fairly or not, Autechre got lumped in with that scene, and when it ran its course, interest in Autechre's music waned.

2) Nobody "got" "Confield".

We'll get back to those points later on. So, following the release of "Oversteps" earlier this year, an album which I considered to be something of a comeback for the band, I figured I was long overdue to re-evaluate Autechre's music over the past ten years. In terms of total listening minutes, I likely spent more time listening to Autechre than any other band in the 90's. But in the 00's, I also slowly drifted away after "Confield", and rarely revisited any of their albums more a few months after their release (reaching a nadir for "Quaristice", which, prior to writing this post, I have heard exactly once via a pre-release online stream in '08). This will not be a comprehensive review of everything they've done in the past ten years, as I'll be mainly sticking to the albums.

----------------------------------

"Peel Sessions II" (2000). This EP sounds every bit like a holdover from their 90's sound, and for that reason, it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of their 00's releases. Nowhere near the quality of their first Peel Session EP, this follow-up is for Autechre completists only. It was the first time in their career that they sounded indistinguishable from any of their then-plentiful clones. When I listened to this again, for the first time in I don't know how many years, I recognized almost nothing.


"Confield" (2001). Nearly ten years later, this stands as Autechre's most polarizing, most confounding album. Even those people who didn't take to it immediately (which was 95% of ther fanbase) seemed to like it because they appreciated that "Confield" was a daring, challenging record. It was put aside as an album that would need to grow on you, except that a lot of people couldn't bring themselves to pick it up again.

This really should have been the follow-up to "Chiastic Slide", in fact, tracks like "Hub" and "Calbruc" sound like dry runs for the lurching weirdness that would be "Confield"'s trademark. It's like they took the tapes from "Chiastic Slide" and put them through a shredder and ended up with "Chiastic Slide: Chopped and Screwed". On "Chiastic Slide", beats and melodies worked in unison, it's their most "minimal" album and those tracks are relentless, they keep going and going and are even irresistibly funky in parts (a lot more so than on "Tri Repetae", IMO, although I know I'm in the minority on this). On "Confield", the bottomless pit of churnings and gurglings that pass for beats just completely swamp the melodies, which have no choice but to try to keep up and tag along for the ride.

This album used to seem really extreme to me, but now it's ten years later and I've heard a hell of a lot more noise and experimental music. In fact, I've come back to this album a number of times over the years, and each time I did, I appreciated it a little bit more. Autechre were ahead of their time as usual, and I knew I'd come around on "Confield" eventually (yeah right) ... it's a great album, definitely up there with their best work.

Some "Confield"-era live recordings have appeared on the internet over the past couple of years (including this show that I attended), and I've really enjoyed the trip down memory lane, thinking back to the flabbergasted looks on the faces of an audience who were quite obviously expecting something more along the lines of recognizable elements from Autechre's studio recordings. In fact, whenever I thought about "Confield"-era Autechre, my strongest recollections were always from the live shows, not from the record itself. In those days (and it remains more or less true today), their concerts involved getting bombarded by microscopic sound elements of Autechre music, all stacked on top of each other, sped up and accelerated into your eardrums at 100 MPH. Conveniently packaged together into four 15-20 minute earsplitting segments for your listening pleasure, of course. Even "Confield"'s most extreme track, the album closer "Lentic Catachresis", doesn't really come close to replicating the assault on the senses that was an Autechre concert during that era. But fortunately, they did manage to capture that experience in the studio, just once ...


"Gantz Graf" (2002). I bought this EP when it came out (the non-DVD version), but I have almost no memory of actually listening to it. For years, the CD languished somewhere in my collection without a second thought.

Then I heard some of those live recordings from 2001 and traced my way back to "Gantz Graf". Taking cues from both the maniacal beats and sounds of drill'n'bass and the FX-laden high frequency overload of noise music, Autechre never combines the extreme and the melodic any better than they did here. The title track and "Dial" are both great, but there's no stopping "Cap.IV", which is the best Autechre track of the decade, and nothing else even comes close. By the time it hits the sped-up section at the end, and you're choking on a near-fatal flurry of thumping beats and ear-piercing electronic squiggles, you're feeling both helpless and triumphant. What can I say, listening to noise this dense, frantic, and deranged makes me feel powerful.


"Draft 7:30" (2003). For me, this was the jumping off point. There was a lot of great music released in 2003, and real life was keeping me fairly busy, so I had no time or patience to try to figure out what Autechre were trying to sell me this time around. It still sounds like an experiment gone wrong. "Confield" had its moments of serenity and structure, but "Draft 7:30" is like its brattier younger brother, refusing to be tied down by any rules at all. On "Confield" the beats are difficult to digest, but on "Draft 7:30" they feel almost random. It's their most improvisational sounding album, and the fact that it was stitched together on its 30th edit (hence the title) certainly suggests that there was plenty of jamming going down in the studio.


"Untilted" (2005). This one felt like a real "Autechre are BACK" release at the time. Gone were the bizarre, irregular rhythmic lumps and in its place were mountainous, frantic but intense beats that you could almost bob your head to. I was impressed by this album ... and then I found myself never listening to it.

"Untilted" is Autechre's "rhythm" album. There's almost nothing going on except for rhythm, there's nothing to hum, no hazy but haunting melodies lurking beneath, no points were the beat drops out some alien sounds just hang there suspended for a couple of minutes. At the end of the day, there's just nothing to remember about "Untilted", other than the feeling of getting boxed around the ears while somebody operates a jackhammer in the apartment downstairs.

It's not a bad album at all, rather, it's a great idea that was executed poorly (add them together and you've got something that's soundly average). For the first time in their career, Autechre sorely needed an editor. These songs simply never seem to end. There are too many eight or nine minute mini-epics that lose my interest about halfway through, and the album closer "Sublimit" is nearly interminable in it's coda-less sixteen minute run time*. Live Autechre shows are mostly rhythmic, but they're also persistent and unrelenting, they blast you harder and harder with slowly increasing intensity and force for fifteen minutes at a time. You've got to try 100% or not at all, sez I. Either destroy the senses completely, like on "Gantz Graf", or beat the listener into submission by, say, taking the first three minutes of "Lcc" and making that into a 15-minute monster.

* At the time I believe this was the longest ever Autechre song, a record that was smashed two years later with "Perlence Subrange 6-36" from "Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae". Well, at least once in your life you have to say that you heard Autechre attempt a 58-minute ambient piece (speaking of tracks that absolutely refuse to come to an end).


Quaristice (2008). And here's something you never thought you'd hear from Autechre -- the "pop" album, twenty (!) tracks, nothing over seven minutes long, but most clocking in at around three or four minutes.

"Quaristice" is an incredibly complex album, which is something I didn't fully appreciate two years ago. In comparison to their three previous albums, it sounds easy on the ears, brisk and light, almost cheerful. But there's so much going on within every track, every second is packed full of rapidly shifting sound. "Quaristice" never sits still. Although I can understand why Autechre wanted to make their version of "Revolver", sometimes you can't pack six minutes worth of ideas into three without overwhelming the listener. It's only on the final two tracks, "Notwo" and "Outh9X" (the longest two on the album), that Autechre start to sound more like themselves by stepping back and letting the songs develop rather than making them a race to the finish (granted, they *are* the most ambient tracks on the album).

Despite its faults, "Quaristice" is a fair bit better than the two albums preceding it.


"Oversteps" (2010), "Move of Ten" (2010). Technically we're into a new decade here, but let's conclude the story in the present. It seems like they'd tried everything else by this point, so welcome to the "melody" album and the "throwback" EP. "Move of Ten" could easily impersonate a "lost" Autechre session from the 90's, and even though it doesn't have the depth and creativity of their best 90's work, it's nice to hear something simple and straightforward from Autechre for a change. Especially after spilling thousands of words here on music that has been anything but.

They filed away nearly all semblance of rhythm for "Oversteps", it's like hearing an entire album of lovely ambient interludes a la "Kalpol Intro" (from "Incunabula") or "Nine" (from "Amber"). There's a fantastic palate of lovingly twisted melodies here, assembled into both easily accessible and head-scratchingly weird shapes -- perhaps more than any of their other albums, there is "something for everyone" on "Oversteps". Everything is drenched in echo and thick, analog-sounding tones, and noises emanate as if from caverns. Regardless of its deficiencies (too long by probably 20 minutes, no truly great signature tracks), "Oversteps" sounds completely fantastic.

----------------------------------

Autechre made a lot of interesting music in the 00's, but almost none of it really seemed to "define" the band, particularly not after 2001-2. If somebody who had never heard their music asked you for a primer on Autechre, there's virtually nothing you would play them from any of the above releases, nothing you would point to and say "THIS is what Autechre were about". And that's OK, nobody's prime lasts forever, and their prime was better than just about anybody else's. Now they're a legendary techno act who can still be counted on for a regular schedule of occasionally fascinating new releases. This is harder to do than it sounds. Lots of great bands take an extended hiatus at some point in their careers and coast on their reputation for a while. Autechre never did. And don't forget, these guys are still in their 30's, so we shouldn't be thinking of them as dinosaurs even though they've been around seemingly forever. They'll be making music for a while yet.

In the 90's, Autechre had a signature style and went about developing it in every direction they thought possible. In the 00's they seemed more concerned about pushing boundaries, trying to challenge themselves to do things they'd never done before without necessarily staying grounded by what had worked for them in the past. Most of the time it felt as though they were fixated on escaping from their past, as if their 90's catalogue was imprisoning them and preventing them from pursuing new directions in their. It's only in 2010, at the start of a new decade, that they have been willing to re-embrace who they were fifteen years ago.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 06

I didn't care for the storyline at all this week, but the music wasn't bad at all!

"One Love". C-. I missed Puck, his antics were by far the best thing about this episode, story-wise. However, I didn't miss his "talent" for doing every song in the style of a mohawked Jason Mraz. Like always, he's not good, not bad, merely average. This could have earned a C but the completely superfluous use of steel drums knocked the grade down a bit.

"Teenage Dream". B+. Easily the whitest performance in the history of "Glee", but call me crazy, I liked this. In contrast to Puck's entirely predictable performance, this one left me gawking at its sheer oddity. The sight of a bunch of prep school boys losing their marbles to a straight-laced glee choir version of Katy Perry is one that I won't soon forget. Everything about this was the polar opposite of badass, they even performed it like it was an innocent 50's doo-wop teenage dream and not a horny 00's one.

"Start Me Up"/"Livin' On a Prayer". B. This could have been so much better if they'd just done the Bon Jovi song, because all those moments were sexy and untamed and fierce, but the mashup did NOT work. The momentum died each time they switched to "Start Me Up" (it certainly didn't help that they didn't give themselves much to sing other than the title of the song).

"Stop! In the Name of Love"/"Free Your Mind". B. This was like the mirror universe version of the girls' performance. The suits were supposed to make them look like smooth operators, I thought they looked ridiculous. It certainly didn't help that their dance moves and hand gestures were as amateurish as anything we've seen on "Glee" in recent memory. But the mashup was great!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Two mixes

Mike Pickering and Graeme Park, Hacienda 26-02-1989

I found out about this mix only a couple of weeks ago via one of my news feeds, but it's been making the internet rounds for about two years. There is some faulty info out there regarding this mix -- some sites get the date wrong, and in some places Parts I and II of the mix are identical -- so for a good quality version and a complete track list, grab the mix here.

Anyone who's a fan of late 80's club music simply has to hear this. I mean, shit, they used to drop these slamming sets at the Hacienda every night? No wonder the place was legendary! And I love hearing mixes where the crowd is miked and you can hear their reactions.

If you're ever stuck in one of those technical proficiency vs "personal style" disputes about DJ'ing and are arguing for the latter, just play the section with French Kiss/You Make Me Feel Mighty Real/Pacific State/Sueno Latino. It's definitely not the smoothest job of mixing I've ever heard, but it's one of the most inspired. They take these distinct pieces that have no business interlocking together and they make it sound completely natural.

My ILM shoegaze poll ballot

I was so excited about my ballot that I made it into a Youtube playlist!*

I've been avoiding these clusterfuck polls where everybody nominates an infinite number of songs to be voted on later (what's the point if everyone simply votes for the stuff they nominated, if it's like that, then just let people submit ballots freely, without bothering to nominate) but remembered to get my ballot in at nearly the last minute. Since I didn't nominate anything then I can't really complain about what was on the noms list**, but there were still plenty of my all-time favourite shoegaze tracks to choose from.

As for the order ... well, as I said, I was voting in a hurry, so I missed some songs completely ("Here Come the Warm Jets", "Leave Them All Behind") and in retrospect would extend my margin of ranking error from the usual +/- 2 to something around +/- 5. "Perish" is fantastic, it's probably my favourite Curve song, but #3? Must have been the heat of the voting moment. I also tried to stick to a policy of voting for not more than one song from any band, which I regret somewhat. I didn't want a ballot filled with ten MBV songs, but once my ballot was nearly full I realized I couldn't possibly justify voting for 2nd and 3rd tier bands instead of, say, a second Cocteau Twins song.

I've been caning a lot of the songs on this list lately, along with a bunch of other shoegaze. I included a bunch of live versions that do a better job of capturing what I love about some of these songs. As for the poll itself, the results are here. I can't say I was surprised by #1, it's not my favourite song from them but it's a deserving winner for this kind of poll. Nice work by everyone who posted and voted, and special thanks to Moka for organizing the poll.

My personal experience with shoegaze is fairly warped and twisted. I would have never called myself a fan of shoegaze from '91-'93. I was listening to bands like Ride, Verve, Adorable, and Curve during those years, but didn't think of any of them as shoegaze. This is probably because I didn't start following the UK music press until late '92, when the scene was for the most part over, therefore I never really picked up on the shoegaze "label". I didn't start listening to some of the key bands until many years later -- I didn't hear "Loveless" until '96, for example. This also goes for some of the "associated" bands like the Cocteaus and JAMC, I didn't really become a fan of either until the late '90's. I loved Seefeel and knew that they were stealing from MBV and the Cocteaus, but somehow never investigated those bands. No, it doesn't make much sense, but in my defense, things were more difficult in the days before file sharing and Youtube.

* approximately -- I couldn't find a few of the songs on Youtube (FSA, Th' Faith Healers, Galaxie 500) so I replaced them with even better songs by the same bands. I wanted to cast votes for those bands, but never would have voted for those particular songs if different songs had been nominated. It's a better playlist than it would have been, so we all win.

** so many Ride songs, really? What's with those S3 picks? One Branca track, and it's "Lesson No. 1"?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 05 -- Rocky Horror Picture Glee Show!

I haven't had a chance to watch this episode until now, but today is Halloween, so it feels totally appropriate.

Audio recordings of the songs from this episode have been available for a couple of weeks, but I managed to avoid them completely. I never had any interest in hearing "Glee" recordings outside of the shows themselves, so there was no reason to change my habits now. Take away the costumes and the staging and the dance numbers that you can only get while watching the show and what do you have? Cover versions that are usually embarrassing compared with the originals, and with the campiest possible production to boot. Speaking of costumes and staging, in which episode could that possibly be more important than this one? So there were plenty of reasons to hold out on hearing the songs.

A number of commentators have complained that they can't possibly see how a RHPS-themed episode of "Glee" could possibly manage to shoehorn the songs into the show's plot. Well, the first few times I saw RHPS, I didn't like it. It was weird, sexy in a somewhat grotesque way, and had some memorable characters, but the movie made absolutely no sense. Eventually I learned to ignore the fact that there was no plot and an idiotic ending, and to just enjoy the movie's quirks. And the songs, they grow on you, of course. As for "Glee" ... hmmm ... the plots make no sense ... the songs drop in from out of nowhere with almost no connection to the dialogue ... quirky, memorable characters ... a flair for OTT theatrics ... it's a perfect fit! So for those of you who don't understand how songs from RHPS can possibly fit into an episode of "Glee", I mean, have you SEEN Rocky Horror Picture Show??

"Dammit Janet". B. This one was just getting good when it was suddenly cut off (or in plot terms, by Mr. Schue having to leave the room). As you'd expect, Finn and Rachel did a great job of capturing the basic essence of Brad and Janet, best described as "geeky deers caught in the headlights".

"Hot Patootie". B+. A shockingly great performance from John Stamos, who really earned his spot on the cast during this episode. Who knew that he could pull off a choreographed scene like that? And Mr. Schue's jealous, fuming looks (mimicking the reaction of Frank-N-Furter to Stamos' Eddie from the movie) were brilliant.

Sweet Transvestite. D+. Amber Riley has only one gear: diva. Lost in this performance were all the multifaceted elements that made Tim Curry's portrayal of Frank-N-Furter so great. Frank-N-Furter is a freak, a pervert, a sleazeball with schizophrenic mood changes (often within the same song). He's sexy only in a car crash sort of way, and he's not the kind of party animal you want to spend any time with because he's too unpredictable, and everything about the way he sings suggests that he might fly off the handle at any moment. None of these subtleties were there in Riley's interpretation, instead, she simply played him like a character from the "Lady Marmalade" video.

"Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me". A. Talking about Jayma Mays' singing in this scene would be missing the point (after all, the Janet role doesn't require much in the way of singing). She nailed the mannerisms, the timing, and the facial expressions. Toss in the one-liners from the rest of the cast and Santana and Brittany's frolicking, and you've got a classic.

The Time Warp. C+. Of course you knew they'd do this one, and of course it had to be in full costume. Too bad this was the only scene featuring Chris Colfer singing as Riff Raff, because I think he'd do a good job with that character. The performance was fairly average -- nothing technically wrong with it, but it felt flat, uninventive, and strictly by-the-numbers.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Best of Suede

This new best-of will be released in a couple of weeks, hot on the heels of a mini-reunion of sorts for the band. Brett Anderson was interviewed yesterday in The Guardian, and isn't it disappointing when your musical heroes turn out to be just as small-minded as your dad's?

Quietness seems inimical to Suede: Anderson misses the danger and fierceness his band used to thrive on. "I do find it weird that the last 10 years hasn't thrown up a new definitive genre. It seems that music is here to placate now, rather than provoke. Maybe a sense of apathy has crept in, or people's lives are too comfortable. No one wants to inspire extremity, as we used to do."

And there you have it, musical fogies from every generation complain about the music that the kids are listening to these days. "Things were so much better in the old days, when my band was on top! That was when music was real." For most of their career, Suede were only too happy to "placate" their fans by sticking to well-established genres. Suede were a number of things, but risk-takers they were not. They never strayed too far from a safe, signature sound.

That said, Suede have had a great post-mortem career. Nobody wants to look back and feel embarrassed about the music they used to like. The definitive history of Suede could have been written as it happened. They're still viewed as pioneers who helped kickstart a new wave of British bands in the 90's. The megahype media blitz that preceded the release of their debut single and continued all throughout '92 and '93 is still the blueprint for making and breaking new bands in the UK. If anything, Suede are more respected for that today, because they survived the media onslaught, lived up to their hype, and managed to have a long and successful career.

Most fairweather fans of the band would also tell you now (and would have told you then) that the band peaked in their first two years, or IOW, things weren't the same after Bernard Butler left. Judging from the track listing on their new Best Of, Brett Anderson believes it too. The first disc (the "hits") is dominated by their early singles, while their later albums are covered much more sparingly. And the second disc (b-sides and album tracks) is totally dominated by Anderson/Butler tracks. Even casual fans knew that the b-sides were essential to the Suede story, and anyone who swooned over "My Dark Star" or "My Insatiable One" in the mid-90's can rest assured that nobody's opinion has changed about that.

I personally believe that Suede peaked with the "Stay Together" single, which was released right before Butler left the band. They never seemed quite as invincible ever again. However, their strongest album, on a track-by-track basis, was their third, "Coming Up". But if you can only afford to buy one Suede album, it should be "Sci-Fi Lullabies". A b-sides history of Suede is probably even more genuine and more essential than their a-sides history -- it brings you closer to the soul of the band and the reasons why so many people loved their music.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 04

This week's episode was a breath of fresh air, not least because it threw my usual grading system out of whack. Obviously not every performance was meant to be a home run, and some of them were intended to be noticeably flawed or outright bad. And it was nice for the songs to actually figure into the plot of the show for a change. Rather than announcing every song with a "here's what I'm feeling right now about X, expressed vaguely via a tangential connection to the following song title", there was a clear reason for each song choice, and the outcome of the performance tied directly into the plot.

"Don't Go Breaking My Heart". C. Totally vanilla, but it was supposed to be. It makes perfect sense that Finn and Rachel would believe their saccharine (and obvious version) of the Elton John classic to be the most adorable thing ever, whereas the rest of us (and the rest of the characters in the glee club) would have a reaction that was closer to a dry retch. Their mediocrity makes you take notice of now much more interesting the other performances were, which is great, because far too many episodes of "Glee" have involved Rachel and Finn getting the keynote performance that the whole episode revolves around.

"River Deep Mountain High". B+. Great energy, great singing, and I'm a sucker for Spector (although this has never been high on my list of Spector favourites).

"Le Jazz Hot". A-. I can't remember a "Glee" episode that did a better job of letting the actors play to their strengths. Let's see ... we've got a cast full of musical theatre veterans who specialize in singing jazz standards and show tunes ... hey, let's turn them loose on jazz standards and show tunes! Probably Chris Colfer's best performance ever on this show.

"Sing". B+. As far as flawed performances go, this one is as good as you'll likely ever see on "Glee". Here you've got two characters (and actors) who are really good dancers but aren't strong singers. So they picked a song that they could get over on the strength of their dancing, facial expressions, and comedic timing (which is more of a dance skill that a singing skill). And since the song is about a guy who can't really sing, the song title (and lyrics) actually tie into the show's plot. This one performance did more to develop the characters of Mike and Tina than the last several episodes put together.

"With You I'm Born Again". B. The performance itself is terrible, maybe a D+. But as a performance that was supposed to be terrible, it was a winner. The costumes, the double meaning of "born again", the fact that it was a perfectly believable performance by Finn and Rachel (you can really imagine those characters thinking they'd hit upon a real winner), all of it was brilliantly executed. The grade would have been higher if they'd gone even more OTT with it.

"Lucky". C+. Cutesy to the point of near unwatchability, but again, that was the whole point. Obviously this by-the-numbers Jason Mraz cover (it seems as if Sam isn't capable of doing much else) didn't have a legit chance of winning the competition on its own merits, but again, it won believably. Any glee club member could reasonably think that some of the others were taken in by its simplicity and charm, and in that sense it was good enough to win, but not bad enough to make anyone suspect that its win was the result of shenanigans.

Artie and Brittany's "breakup" scene. F. I honestly laughed during this scene, I thought that one of them was putting the other on until the scene suddenly ended. Are we supposed to believe that three brain-celled Brittany has suddenly developed a conscience? Are we supposed to feel sorry for Artie and his dropped-like-a-bomb-out-of-the-clear-blue-sky angst over the workings of his dong? This was easily the worst scene in an episode with almost no weak scenes.

"Happy Days are Here Again/"Get Happy". B+. See earlier comment about allowing stage veterans to sing to their strengths. Bravo!