Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Berghain vol 4" compiled by Ben Klock; Ladytron, "Live at London Astoria 16-07-08"

This is an excerpt from the release notes to "Berghain vol. 4": "Literally, Ben Klock's debut mixed CD is a cornucopia of new, unreleased and exclusive pieces. Without any sign of hectic or nervous breaks, but not without thrilling moments, peaks or valleys, turning points ..."

It's true that there are no sign of hectic or nervous breaks -- technically, it's a very well mixed CD. But of course there's shouldn't be any abrupt, nervous, or sudden breaks, it's a mix CD. That's a basic requirement. The fact that they felt the need to advertise this is unusual, it's as if they're saying "give the mix a chance, don't be put off by how slick and smooth this is, it's not completely on an even keel, there are peaks and valleys here too". (and they shouldn't have to advertise that either -- it's a mix CD, of course there should be some sort of rise and fall as part of its flow)

So the release notes basically tell us nothing interesting. Unfortunately, much the same can be said about the mix. Yes, it's well mixed, but no, it's very much without thrilling moments, peaks, and valleys. It starts slowly, reaches a mild plateau about 10 minutes in (during Marcel Dettman's remix of Junior Boys), but never moves on from there, never letting loose like great mixes should. The two Ben Klock tracks in the second half are arguably the highlight, so in the big picture this isn't much of a setback because he's still a fantastic producer and on a great DJ in most instances. This just wasn't one of those instances.

This is the second time this week where a mix really let me down (the other was Shed's RA podcast) and all of 2010 feels like a down year for great mixes. Only Donnacha Costello has been consistently overachieving. Speaking of which, get yourself to the Electric Deluxe podcast (which might be the best podcast around these days) and grab Costello's latest effort.

Ladytron's self-released live album is taken from a London gig just before the release of "Velocifero". The band comes off as exceptionally focused and determined to show off their new songs, but despite the strong start, they start running out of gas in the second half. The energy slowly drains away until the final track before the encore ("Last One Standing"), where they take their stand and gamely give it whatever they have in reserve. They had nothing left for the encore, but overall the night was a success.

The encore was "Klevta"/"Burning Up"/"Destroy Everything You Touch", so be warned -- if you buy this expecting to get blown away by this mouth-watering encore (on paper), you'll be disappointed. So let's forget about this gig and just talk about "Burning Up". Maybe we can agree that "Burning Up" is one of the best goth songs ever recorded? Especially the lyrics -- what more could you possibly ask for from goth lyrics? Just look at this monster of a chorus:

I set myself on fire without you
I wrote a protest song about you
That not a soul was meant to hear, except you

I mean, it's ALL there ... "I set myself on fire without you" ... an overemotional, melodramatic reaction to a fairly trivial thing. Very serious, very goth. It fully captures the pain and hopelessness of desiring another human being. And of course there's fire motif. No goth song can be without it.

"I wrote a protest song about you" ... I sat in my room and composed something that was dedicated to you and you only, I invoked your name and bared my soul from the emotions it stirred in me. The fact that the composition was a protest song only amplifies the OTTness that is essential in a proper teenage goth drama. Goths are anathema to politics, when was the last time you saw hundreds of goths marching in the street? She wrote a fairly innocuous concoction that felt like a rebellion (in her soul) but is really nothing more than a silly little poem.

"That not a soul was meant to hear, except you" ... this is the key line, the betrayal, the world now collapses because he showed that silly little poem to someone else. Listen to how Helen Marnie sings the word "soul" on the studio recording (on the live album she's too exhausted and blows the emphasis on the syllable), it's acerbic, haunting, I feel like repenting just hearing it sung, there can be no mistake that this was supposed to be a SECRET that NO ONE was to know about.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wavves, "King of the Beach"; Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"

Sometimes you press play and you know within seconds that you're listening to a great album. That couldn't have been more true the first time I heard "King of the Beach". Previously, Wavves' music had left me a bit dazed and confused. Its basic building blocks were easily extracted from the lo-fi din -- the manic energy of surf-punk, the fuzzed-out guitar squalls of JAMC, the high frequency crush of great noise music. But I couldn't assemble those pieces into a unified whole. What was Wavves' second album ("Wavvves") supposed to be? To me, it had a lot more in common with metal than with pop or punk music, largely thanks to the distorted vocals and blankets of guitar noise. And where were the tunes? Perhaps they were buried too deeply to be heard properly, or perhaps they were never supposed to be there to begin with (I wouldn't bother searching too hard for melodies on a noise record).

I didn't know what to make of some of the advance press surrounding "King of the Beach" ... Nathan Williams went and got himself a real producer? So you're saying that the record won't sound like shit? Wasn't that the entire essence of Wavves, to tear the needle off the record and to sound like shit?

Nope. I finally get Wavves, and while the same building blocks are still there (surf's up, JAMC, etc.) , they've been merged with a bunch of irresistibly addictive rock n roll melodies. Back to front, it's the most consistent collection of tunes I've heard on a straight-up rock album in who knows how long. Every song won me over in less than fifteen seconds. It's as if Williams knew exactly how to press my buttons (in a good way) -- the sample of "Da Doo Ron Ron" on "Mickey Mouse" was just the icing on the cake in that respect.

There are plenty of great 10-track, 40-minute albums. There are plenty of great 70-minute double albums. There are plenty of great 60-70 minute albums with long, epic tracks (especially in ambient and techno).

There's an inbetween category that has always been something of a nuisance ... how many great, 15-20 track, 60-65 minute albums can you name? There's usually one word that best describes an album with that many tracks in the 3-4-5 minute range -- dragging.

Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" really drags toward the end, before "The Sprawl II" rescues the album's second half. I don't know why they didn't make another 45-minute album like their first two, especially because the best ten tracks from "The Suburbs" would have made for one hell of an album. And yeah, I too am a bit tired of having to sit through yet another Arcade Fire album about bored teenagers looking to escape the shackles of their cookie-cutter lives. But there are a number of solid tracks here, and in particular, the "synth" songs ("Half Light II" and "The Sprawl II") offer a spectacular glimpse at how the band's sound might mature into something even more wonderful in the future (any indie rock collective that wants to take more cues from Blondie is making the right move in my book).

The rapid cycle of praise and backlash that's come with "The Suburbs" has been hilarious to watch. After the ink had dried on a series of glowing reviews, news broke about their debut at #1 on the album charts, which was followed by a bunch of "what does this mean for the future of indie rock and indie labels?" handwringing and acrid reminders that a #1 album doesn't mean as much, sales-wise, as it once did. Arcade Fire have long since been lauded as the indie band laying golden eggs, even from before the release of "Funeral". Even back then, they had a number of famous fans in their corner, such as U2 and David Bowie. Nevertheless, five years ago, was ANYBODY predicting they'd have a #1 album in their future? Jeez, let's all sit back and enjoy it for a few weeks.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dixon, Matthew Dear: House/Techno all-nighter @Haoman 17

Sometimes, you time things just right.

It certainly didn't seem that way at first. After having flown in from abroad the previous day, and having only found out about the party hours later, I was really just in the mood to relax and do nothing -- particularly on a Thursday evening. But who could pass up this pairing?

I saw Dixon only briefly at this year's MUTEK. Yet another case of bad timing. It felt as though his set was taking a bit of time to really get going, but after thirteen hours on my feet, most of it spent listening to music, having already gotten drunk and sobered up hours before, I didn't have any patience or energy left. It's 4 AM, don't ease into the set, hit me with your best shot or I'm out of here. That's how I ended up capping my night with Konque and their spaceman helmets.

The timing couldn't have been better this time. I arrived maybe 45 minutes into Dixon's set and the club was right on the verge of filling up. Within minutes, the dancefloor went from mostly empty to nearly full, the volume level rose and the music became more intense. Dixon straddles the lines between techno and hard house with ease, and by the time Matthew Dear hit the decks past 3:30 AM, there was already a sense of finality to the night, as if the afterparty was set to begin.

Matthew Dear sent the early birds home with an hour and a half of techno was nearly too hard and too relentless. Few people could keep up with him, and there wasn't enough variation to engage the people who might have otherwise taken a short break. The energy seeped slowly from the room. But in the last hour and a half, once it was down to the hundred or so diehards who absolutely refused to go home, the music became slower, deeper, and more euphoric. The nerve of the guy, saving his best stuff for well after 5 AM! I figured I'd be out until five at the latest, but yet again, the timing was perfect -- Matthew Dear dragged me back at exactly the moment when I thought I'd had enough.

Was this the best party so far in 2010? I'm hard pressed to think of a better one ...

Friday, August 06, 2010

Arcade Fire Live at Madison Square Garden

This concert was streamed live on Youtube earlier this evening. Is it an exaggeration to say that the size of the potential viewing audience and the timing of the gig (the week that their wildly anticipated third album is released) make this the biggest gig of their career?

The first time I heard the Arcade Fire, I thought of Blondie. I put on "Funeral", and the first track ("Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)") sounded like a straight up homage to Blondie, specifically, a faithfully xeroxed version of their track "Under the Gun". This was hardly a popular opinion, in fact, it put me in a minority group, population = 1. I still stand by my first impression as being not altogether crazy, although in general, of course, Arcade Fire don't sound like Blondie.

I've still never seen Arcade Fire live, but I've heard a number of live recordings. And although tonight's set never drags, it never seems to build to anything either. The setlist doesn't tell a story like all the best gigs tend to do, which is especially frustrating coming from a band that does nothing but tell stories about escapism. The new tracks don't carry the drama and flair of the older ones (which did NOT seem to be the case for "Neon Bible" ... that album came perfectly into focus for me after I heard some of their early live shows in support of it). There's a lot of motorik rock going on, and several weeks after the title track to "The Suburbs" made its way online, I still don't understand what that track is trying to accomplish (Odd foray into lounge rock? Elton John pastiche? "Why Does It Always Rain On Me" meets "Frankly Mr. Shankly"?)

All is forgiven in the encore -- "Neighbourhoods #1" and "Wake Up" sandwiching a new song, "Sprawl II", that screams Blondie so unmistakably that they might as well play the video for "Heart of Glass" on the video screens during their upcoming tour. Nobody can deny it -- Arcade Fire gave into their inner Blondie, finally, and what's more, they're REALLY really good at it! If the rest of "The Suburbs" can come close to being this good, then they've got their hands on yet another classic album.