Sunday, April 25, 2010

SPIN's Best 125 Albums of the Past 25 Years

Finally, a "Best Albums of the Past N Years" list that doesn't have a mind-numbingly obvious (yet not completely unjustifiable) #1. It does feel like a "forced" pick though -- as if they specifically wanted to break the usual mold and avoid having Prince, Radiohead, or Nirvana at #1 no matter what the cost, regardless of what they thought the "real" #1 album should be.

I once argued until I was blue in the face (online and IRL) that "Achtung Baby" was not only a better album than "Kid A", but was more adventurous and risky than "Kid A", IOW, a larger leap forward for a band that had a lot more at stake (and a lot more to lose). This wasn't nudnikery -- I really meant it, and still do. It couldn't be more obvious, right? On one hand, you have arguably the world's biggest band, a few years removed from making what many hailed as the most "important" album of the 80's, looking to rebound from a somewhat disastrous live album/film (disastrous in the eyes of some -- "Rattle and Hum" is a far better album than "The Joshua Tree" but that's an argument for another time). Anyway, the world's biggest rock band completely reinvented themselves, doing a total 180 from self-aggrandizing mid-song political sermons, rock messiah posturing, and overreaching their means to leech off the coolness of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix; to becoming a rock/techno hybrid with a keen grasp of irony. Would GNR have dared thrown in the towel in 1991 and handed their songs over to Apollo 440 for remix treatment? Did any other megaband at the time attempt such a thorough makeover of their sound and their image? And it worked! People bought their music by the millions! They sold dance music to rock fans who wouldn't have touched it with a ten foot pole.

On the other hand, you have a band recycling years old Brian Eno and Autechre tunes and calling it the future (nine years after "Achtung Baby"!)

Other notes:

-- Britpop: its canonization in American alt-rock circles is complete?
-- Teenage Fanclub's "Bandwagonesque", one of the most underrated albums of the 90's (and still the best grunge album ever made)
-- a selection of transparently low-risk, indie rock approved hip-hop albums (maybe with the exception of Prince Paul's "A Prince Among Thieves"?) that read like something from a Pitchfork list c. 2000.
-- almost nothing from the past seven or eight years, barring a scant few ubercanonical choices

Friday, April 23, 2010

Nitzer Ebb, "Industrial Complex"

It definitely isn't easy to reform a band after fifteen years and to follow up with the release of a new album. Fans still adore the classic old stuff, which is presumably a big reason for the reunion, but the band wants to show that they've evolved and can fit into the current musical climate.

The balancing act is probably even more difficult when you're Nitzer Ebb. Critics never had much respect for industrial/EBM, and goth/industrial/darkwave fans are notoriously fickle. The sound and style of the music remains stuck in the same comfortable ruts for years, it's what their fans prefer. I think metal fans are the same way -- they expect an adherence to a certain "classic" aesthetic, and bands are encouraged to recycle whatever they like as long as they don't stray too far from the template. I say this as a longtime fan of both industrial and metal.

But wait, did Nitzer Ebb really call their new album "Industrial Complex"? Sadly, they did. Have the clothes, posturing, and spastic dancing from the "Fun To Be Had" video really aged this badly? NOTE: Do NOT watch this video if you've never heard of Nitzer Ebb. If this is your first exposure to the band, you will never be able to take them seriously.

"Promises" opens the album with a nod to the band's earliest work. It's the sound of "Murderous" and "Let Your Body Learn", a fury of looped bass sequences, percussive noise, and catchy caveman chants. Since they've been away, Nitzer Ebb tracks like "Join In the Chant" have become something of a secret weapon in techno sets thanks to the efforts of DJ's like Richie Hawtin. "Promises" feels like Nitzer Ebb's attempt to close the circle, taking its rhythmic cues from the hard, driving techno tracks that they influenced.

Unfortunately, most of "Industrial Complex" consists of the type of noise-tinged hard rock that has been a staple of every Nine Inch Nails album from the past decade. Nitzer Ebb went through a number of phases -- the EBM/war chant phase ("Join In the Chant"), the funky perverted darkwave phase ("Hearts and Minds", "Lightning Man", the finest work of their career), the epic crashing emo with eyeliner phase ("I Give To You"). At no point did I ever wish that they would rock out more.

I doubt that there's anything on this album that will convince newcomers that they were anything special, but fans of this music will find at least a few of the tracks to be irresistible. "Once You Say" was a good choice for the first single, as it does the NIN/darkwave rock thing better than anything else on the album. The chorus quite noticeably cribs from Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" (the song even starts with the chorus, exactly like "I Feel You") but that's a criminally underrated DM single, so I wish that more bands would find ways to steal from it. I cringed when reading an interview that revealed that there would be a ballads on this album, but dammit if "Going Away" isn't arguably the finest track here. Full of analogue warmth and featuring one of Douglas McCarthy's finest ever vocal performances, it's the kind of ballad that Depeche Mode remembered how to write again on their past two albums (e.g. "Nothing's Impossible").

It's obvious that "Industrial Complex" owes a huge debt to the music that NIN and Depeche Mode made over the past decade, and that blatant lack of originality hurts the album a lot. But Nitzer Ebb were never a particularly strong albums band. There is undoubtedly enough good material here to start filling an overflow disc for an updated edition of "Body of Work".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Broken Social Scene, "Forgiveness Rock Record"

A new BSS album almost feels like gravy on their career. They've got nothing left to prove as a unit, and they can all fall back on their bazillion side projects and continue to make a healthy living in music. But they're smart folks, they know how to get the whole gang gets back together and make it feel like it's a Big Event. In no small part, you can chalk that up to their stinginess in the studio. With only three proper albums released in the past eight years, they've been careful not to overflow the supply chain.

I listened to "You Forgot It In People" about 836 times when I was writing up my end of the 00's musings and it only reinforced how far ahead they were of their peers at the time, and how amazingly fresh that record still sounds next to anything released in 2002 (in any genre). The self-titled third album was a decent stab at following up the unfollowable. It's not easy to make a record that successfully captures the sound of fifteen people being on stage, so as a production experiment, it accomplished its goal. But the songwriting felt bloated and inconsistent, with songs frequently venturing into the 5-6 minute range when 3-4 minutes would have been enough.

Simply put, "Forgiveness Rock Record" manages to splice together both the strengths and the weaknesses of the last two albums, not hitting the consistent highs of "You Forgot It In People" but largely avoiding the meandering lows of "Broken Social Scene". It's a comfortable-sounding record that won't disappoint longtime fans but in addition to treading on familiar ground, there are a number of fascinating surprises.

"World Sick", the seven-minute album opener, could have been a downtempo outtake from the last albums. I was hoping for a few more fireworks (their other albums start at 100 MPH) and wishing that the album would mix it up and show me something new or be relegated to the back of the listening pile fairly quickly. The wait was short. The second track, "Chase Scene", fuses industrial rock with bright, made-in-LA soft rock strumming and lullaby harmonies that could have jumped off a late 70's Fleetwood Mac Record. In 2010, it feels ridiculous to suggest that a rock band should focus more on electronics and less on guitars. But these are far and away the most inspired parts of the album.

"Forced to Love" is even better, smothered in Leslie Feist's gooey, breathy vocals and a pulsating metronomic beat like something from Blondie's "Autoamerican". In the gauzy final minutes of "Ungrateful Little Father", they embrace the shimmery ambient headspaces from their first album and "Beehives" collection. It's a style that's been with them from the start of their career, but the band has always seemed to hold those songs at arms length, treating them as throwaway studio experiments that aren't suitable for their "real" records. But I've always loved it when they go all 4AD on us.

Hopefully we can all agree on one thing, it's a GREAT album title with great cover art, if nothing else.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

American Idol Season Nine -- The Top Nine!

It's been a month since I rattled off these first impressions of the finalists. Having now seen them perform a few times each, I feel that I'm a bit more in the loop, so let's revisit/update those earlier on the remaining nine contestants.

Michael Lynche. I was wrong about Big Mike, he's way more talented than I initially gave him credit for. I wrongly assumed that he was a cookie-cutter R&B artist. He's becoming more confident and personable with each passing week (quite similar to Ruben Studdard's growth to mega-popularity in Season 2), and he's shown that he can succeed by taking risks -- I thought that his take on "Eleanor Rigby" was bold and adventurous. I don't think the voters "punished" him for Beatles Lennon and McCartney Week, I think it was just one of those fluky occurances where a fairly good contestant ends being a bit lost in the shuffle and finishes last. This is exactly why the "judges save" exists, or least why it should exist. At least they saved a talented artist this year.

Casey James. His version of "Jealous Guy" was the best performance on last week's show. He doesn't carry himself like a star or look particularly like a star, and that's a huge problem for him in the weeks ahead. But he's great every time he takes the stage.

Andrew Garcia. Quirky contestants usually don't fare well on this show, e.g. Chris Sligh, Didi Benami, and Megan Joy, all of whom crashed out long before the halfway point of the finals. Last week gave me a brief glimpse into a mildly successful Andrew Garcia as a full-on Buddy Holly clone, but he really has no business still being in the competition.

Katie Stevens. What a mess. The judges have no idea what kind of music she should sing, she has no idea what she wants to sing, and nobody has any clue how she should look. They've tried prom princess, teen R&B idol, and the worst of all, last week somebody had the bright idea of dressing up the girl (who's always criticized for not looking young enough) like she just walked off the set of "Falcon Crest". She has to go.

Tim Urban. This guy is a bit of a genius. He realizes his serious vocal limitations, but each and every week, he figures out how to maximize whatever talents he does have and manages to turn in an enjoyable performance.

Siobhan Magnus. People are finally starting to realize that she's Danny Gokey with even worse taste in eyeglasses. Coasting through 70% of the song and belting out the glory notes won't fool all the people all the time, so I was impressed at how good she sounded with her more scaled-back performance from last week.

Lee DeWyze. He's been building his confidence and has become a bit of a sleeper pick to make at least the top three. But is he a star? Is he a rocker like Adam Lambert or Chris Daughtry who you can see on magazine covers and MTV awards shows? Can anyone really get the least bit excited about a Dave Matthews soundalike emerging from season nine of AI, besides the most hardcore Dave Matthews fans?

Aaron Kelly. He's hard to hate, because the kid can flat out sing. Out of all the remaining nine, I have no idea what's going to happen to him from here on out.

Crystal Bowersox. She doesn't have much of a personality when she's off the stage (and my gut feeling tells me that she doesn't get along too well with the other finalists) but on stage, she's still untouchable. Maybe her starkly serious (or some might say, mature beyond her years) demeanor might cause people to sour on her by the time we hit the top five, but otherwise I can't imagine a scenario in which she doesn't at least make it to the finale.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shackleton live at Block Club (with Nee, Nasty Habit, Vermont, Skillaton)

This was a fantastic party, actually miles better than I was expecting, thanks to killer dubstep and techno sets by the support DJ's and a slick 70-minute live set from Shackleton. My opinion may put me in the minority though.

On a more objective, numbers-based scale, the party peaked about 30 minutes before Shackleton appeared. After serenading the people filing into the venue with some quality dubstep (and even managing to get a few people dancing), another opening DJ takes over with a set of mostly dub techno that loosens up the mood even more and leads into the party's peak (which may have happened precisely during Plastikman's "Spastik").

After that, things took a turn for the strange. Shackleton took over and the mood in the room immediately quieted down. Suddenly, it was as if there were 25% fewer people in the club. Many of those who were there seemed confused as to how to dance to this music. It doesn't kick like most dubstep, you can't really rely on the jittery percussive beats to guide you through the songs, you have to follow the spidery basslines. It skips along at a fairly wicked pace, but dancing to this music is effortless compares to most other types of music with this BPM. It was as if 80% of the people who attended had no idea what to expect. Why did they pay money to come inside? Was I missing an even better party somewhere else in the city? Even for the uninitiated, Shackleton's music isn't *that* challenging. For what it's worth, there weren't many people drinking at this party either. When he finished his set, at the fairly early hour of 3:30, the party was pretty much wrapped up (an absurdly early time by the city's usual standards). There was another DJ, but this party had gone to sleep by 4:00.

But if you confined yourself to a bubble of dedicated partygoers near the DJ booth, as a way of shutting out the subdued atmosphere that cast a shadow over most corners of the club, the quality of music you would have heard was simply not to be messed with.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Why music moves us

Writing in Nature, Daniel Levitin presents an excellent review of Philip Ball's newest book, "The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It". The science of music and musical perception is a topic that's always fascinated me, although I'm hopelessly out of touch with the topic since leaving the University of Toronto (and losing access to its music library). Philip Ball is a great writer (I haven't read his books, but his articles for Nature are always very well done) so this is a book that I really would like to pick up.

The most striking parts of the review deal with how the brain processes music by searching for a balance between simplicity and complexity. The review may not be accessible without a subscription to Nature, but I will excerpt the key passages here:

"... the music really starts to play when Ball introduces the US composer and music theorist Leonard Meyer. Meyer argued that music that is too simple or too complex is likely to irritate. The secret to composing a likeable song is to balance predictability and surprise. Because most music has a beat and is based on repetition, we know when the next musical event is likely to happen, but we don't always know what it will be. Our brains are working to predict what will come next. The skillful composer rewards our expectations often enough to keep us interested, but violates those expectations the rest of the time in interesting ways."

Cue up a series of articles extolling the virtues of melodically weird and complex music that manages to remain within the boundaries of pop, from "Good Vibrations" to 70's prog to Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion". But I read that paragraph and found a closer connection to techno, or more broadly speaking, the interaction between a DJ and the crowd in a club. Tracks are recorded with ebbs, flows, and breakdowns that are meant to provide just the right kind of lift to a live crowd. The DJ enhances these elements of the song by, for example, dropping the beat, tweaking the EQ's, or mixing in sections (or samples) from other tracks. Everyone in the crowd knows and expects to hear these tricks every time they step into a club! It's OK to have a instinctual feeling about when the DJ will drop the beat onto the track. The beat kicks in when you expect it to, but maybe it's a killer beat so that's all right by everybody. Similarly, almost everybody loves a good breakdown. What people don't want to hear is exactly the same breakdown, exactly the same EQ tweaks, track after track for hours on end. They like knowing that a breakdown is coming, but what makes the experience truly special is listening to tracks (and DJ's) who can surprise you about when the breakdown will end.

Dancing in a club (the physical action of dancing, that is) follows these principles almost to a tee. People don't just stick to patterns, dancing in place and zoning out. They alter their motions with the rising and falling of the music. They are predicting where the music will go and are shifting their dancing style to match it. More on the brain as predictatron:

"In neuroscientific terms, the physical world presents our sensory systems with an ambiguity, and the brain — a giant prediction device — uses statistical principles and logical inferences to resolve that ambiguity and to predict what will happen next. Listening to music exercises our neural circuits by simultaneously rewarding them for correct predictions and challenging them to learn new principles for organizing the world. Music engagement might also promote creative, flexible thinking and hone prediction skills."