Monday, May 24, 2010

American Idol S9 - The Fix is In

In Season Four, Carrie Underwood was the clear favourite from the top 11 onward, so your mileage for that season likely depends on how whether you liked her or not. As far as the producers and judges were concerned, most of the season was a project in keeping the praise for Carrie somewhat muted while they busied themselves in concocting a halfway credible challenger for the finale.

And this season we have a redux. Lee DeWyze was handed the #1 contendership around the top six or seven, once it became clear that Siobhan Magnus was too streaky and unpredictable to be taken seriously. Lee has to be the most bland and unexciting finalist in the show's history. I can't see any sort of successful career in his future, he's not as edgy as past rocker successes like Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert, and doesn't have nearly enough personality to engage an audience once he's not stuffed and propped up on a stage on national TV each week.

Lee reached the final in part by getting picked to perform Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" with a gospel choir and all the fixins, while Casey James was forced to sing a sleepy John Mayer song off in the corner of the stage. The favouritism shown during Top Three week may have rivaled Season Three, when the judges all but escorted Jasmine Trias from the show in order to ensure that Diana DeGarmo took on Fantasia in the finals. Jasmine sucked and had no business being in the top three, but that's not really the point. Meanwhile, Diana had no shot against Fantasia.

Even Crystal's performances have seemed a bit boring for the past few weeks, although I have a feeling she'll pull out all the stops on Tuesday and remind us why she was the clear and obvious best all-around performer this season. During the finale -- and you can bank on this -- the judges will award Round One to Crystal, Round Two to Lee (albeit narrowly), and take a non-stance on Round Three (featuring a crappy winners ballad that doesn't fit either contestant's style).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Caribou, "Swim"

I get the feeling that a lot of people are still waiting for Caribou to step out from under the shadow of his breakthrough album "Up In Flames". Why does that album stand out so much? The first Caribou album (released as Manitoba) was a pleasant little Boards of Canada clone, while "Up In Flames" (also under the name Manitoba) was a completely unpredictable about-face. Leaping from IDM to an album of 60's-drenched psychedelic pop was quite the surprise, and people remember surprises. Years later, one can naively view "Up In Flames" as a convenient precursor to the freak-folk records that people would be tripping over themselves to praise for about five minutes in the mid 00's. It's kind of like how some dance music with tenuous links to electroclash still gets fawned over, even though the it was popular for maybe four months (and sucked, for the most part). People seemed to pine for the Caribou sound of '03 when they heaped praise upon "Andorra", which was largely a retread of "Up In Flames" with a few more bleeps thrown in. And of course, every 00's poll seemed to definitely prove that every major artists' best work was released from 2000-2004. Nothing they put out from 2005-2009 could top it.

"Up In Flames" was far too homogeneous to be a great album. "The Milk of Human Kindness" was a great album -- part psych-rock, part Animal Collective sit-down jam (back when they used to do that sort of thing), part faux-Can white funk. But "Swim" is even better. It is far and away the best Caribou album. You want surprises? How about "Odessa" pulling off modern-day space disco better than Lindstrom ever managed after eight years of trying? How about "Bowls", which masquerades as an dubbed-out early Death in Vegas number until the 80's house licks unexpectedly show up? And what can you possibly say about "Kaili"? After countless listens, I still can't place what I'm hearing. I hear some "Technique"-era New Order in some of its sun-drenched, hedonistic melodies, but the last two minutes fall into a blizzard of free jazz squawks -- its another combination that shouldn't possibly work, but inexplicably does. Its fraternal twin, "Lalibela", is a throwback to Flowchart's version of lo-fi shoegazer house, with "Kaili"'s vocal melodies recycled in achingly maudlin form at the close of the track.

If juxtaposing such a curiously bizarre mishmash of styles was really so easy, then we'd all be doing it. Instead, we'll have to settle for listening to "Swim" and trying to pick up on the master's clues.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Spiritualized and Cocteau Twins, the early years

I found these four gigs on the always excellent Shoegazer Alive blog (no direct link because they've already been shut down and had to change their URL a couple of times, just go here These eras are underrepresented in terms of quality bootleg recordings, so if you're a fan, stop reading this and start downloading!

Cocteau Twins - Newcastle (England) (29.04.1983)

Very early Cocteau Twins has always left me a bit cold. One of the most fascinating things about them, for me, was how they were hatched almost fully formed. There were no humble and awkward new wave or synth-rock beginnings, gradually leading up to the sound we'd come to know and obsessively love. From the very start, it was all there -- the otherworldliness, the unintelligible, gauzy vocals, the strangled squalls of guitar. However, the songs from the early days were darker, heavier, and overall less melodically distinctive from what they'd accomplish just a couple of years later. If you liked the bludgeoning, raw style that was collected on the "BBC Sessions" discs, then this is the live recording for you. I have trouble getting through "BBC Sessions" ... it's uniformly good, but it's just too much for me. In that respect, I found this brief (11 songs, 40 minutes) gig to be the perfect fit for my early Cocteaus attention span. They're totally in the zone here, completely focused, barely pausing between songs.

Cocteau Twins - Tiffany's - Newcastle Upon Tyne - Newcastle (England) (19.04.1984)

Recorded just one year later than the above, this gig couldn't be more different. These tracks are among my all-time Cocteau Twins favourites. Compared to the songs in the set from '83, all their noisy and alien qualities are still present, but they'd perfected the art of writing these sensationally huge choruses to go along with them. "Hitherto", "Kookaburra", "Sugar Hiccup", "Pearly Dewdrops Drops" -- singing along to words you couldn't even remotely understand had never felt so powerful. But the gig itself is a bit of an oddity. It might be due to the sound quality (which isn't as good as the '83 show) but Liz Fraser's voice sounds much more upfront in the front, and she's throwing out strange vocal inflections into nearly every line, oversinging almost everything to the point of almost showing off. The gig isn't what it could have been, and not what I hoped it would be.

Spiritualized - Leadmill - Sheffield (England) (03.05.1992)

I have yet to hear a really solid, high quality sound recording of a complete gig from the "Lazer Guided Melodies" era (1990-1993, and that includes "Fucked Up Inside", which sounds weak and tinny to me). If you want to hear SPZ at their best during those years, you should pick up the Radio Sessions Volume 1 unofficial disc. The version of "If I Were With Her Now" from Mark Radcliffe's show in April 1992 is worth the price of the disc all by itself (although the sound quality, sourced from the radio, is far from perfect). At the time, they opened all their shows with "If I Were With Her Now", but would stop doing so very soon after this, to the detriment of nearly every gig they've played since that time. I have no clue why that song stopped making the cut once "LGM" was released, and why they've never brought it back since.

Whoever cut off the end of "200 Bars" should be shot.

Spiritualized - Roseland Theater - New York (USA) (28.04.1995)

This would have been recorded during their opening slot on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees. I went to the Toronto stop on that tour, which was just a few days before this. It was the first time I ever saw SPZ.

These sets were fascinating, and they deserve to be more widely heard. They didn't simply pick out the highlights of their usual set, they restructured entire songs with the aim of compactifying the SPZ experience, showing the complete range of what they could do while still keeping the set cohesive. The "All of My Tears/Take Good Care of It/Shine a Light section" almost comes off like a medley. They still find time for going long ("Electric Mainline"), older rarities ("Things'll Never Be the Same", which later became a fixture on some tours but at the time Jason simply wasn't playing S3 songs other than "Walking With Jesus"), for playing "Let It Flow" every night (overrated on record, arguably their most underappreciated song when played live).

By the time of their fall tour, they'd fallen into the "Cop Shoot Cop"/"Shine A Light/Electric Mainline"/"Electricity" rut that seemed to open all of their sets for the next seven years. Those fall '95 gigs weren't nearly as unique and adrenaline-fueled as the stuff they were playing in the spring while opening for Siouxsie.