Saturday, April 30, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Captain Ahab, "The End of Irony"

30 points, t-365, voted on by Brian Miller

This was not what I was expecting. Judging by the title, and having never heard of Captain Ahab beforehand, I imagined an underground hip-hop artist and heavy handed commentary about a boring (in a musical context) subject like the ubiquity of 21st century media. Then I read a description somewhere that characterized it as "electro" or "synth pop" or something similarly benign. Too bad I didn't see Joe Hemmerling's review for Tiny Mix Tapes, which nicely captures the album's schizophrenic bluster. Then again, I think it was better that I wasn't prepared for this, because surprises like these are welcome sometimes.

"The End of Irony" can't decide what kind of album it's supposed to be, but it starts out with three minutes of savage, scorching rhythmic noise and frankly speaking, a lot of electronic albums could benefit from having a few minutes of rhythmic noise tacked onto the start. The second track, "Godlike", more closely resembles an 80's synth throwback, that is, if your idea of an 80's synth throwback is KMFDM, not A Flock of Seagulls. KMFDM also recorded an eight minute song called "Godlike" ... coincidence? Judging by the militaristic chanting on the third track, "The Calm Before the Sword (Club Mix)", I'm going to say no.

"Death to False Techno" is a nearly intolerable six minutes of pogoing speed trance, but sometimes it's difficult to know when Captain Ahab are taking the piss so maybe the joke's on me. "Acting Hard" is a passable homage to Nitzer Ebb in the 80's, and "I Don't Have a Dick" is a hilarious, rollicking, piano-led club number about ... well, take a guess (here's a hint: "I get the finest ass in the world/The kids line up just to smell my sweat/I can fuck a hundred people at once/'Cause I can make you come with my EYES").

Even at just over 50 minutes, "The End of Irony" is a bit too long. In the album's second half, the freakazoid jokes and weird chants become tiresome, and I think it'd be a stronger album if they'd gone the route of the sleek, 35-40 minute album and dumped a couple of tracks. Maybe Captain Ahab like being labeled as techno punks who pay homage to the electronic, rave, and EBM music that they love by ripping the blood and guts out of the music and blowing it up into an even more cartoon-y version of its original self. However, I think they're better when they're trying to be sound creators than punks, and the first half of the album really shows that.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 18

Yep, they were holding something back last week. I wasn't thrilled with the storyline advancement in this episode, but the music was off the charts.

"Unpretty"/"I Feel Pretty". B+. Not only was this the first mashup in the show's history that they didn't completely ruin, it flowed so seamlessly that you wouldn't have known it was a mashup. Quinn and Rachel were sitting right next to each other but barely acknowledged each other's presence -- the tension was palpable and they might have well have been singing in different time zones. It was like watching two basketball teammates pull off efficient, sometimes breathtaking moves even though you know they don't like each other.

"I've Gotta Be Me". B. This might have been Finn's best solo vocal to date, and in a genre that I didn't think he could pull off. Well technically he didn't exactly pull it off because he handed off the dancing portion of the song to somebody else. The chemistry between the two was cute, but they never gelled. They were more or less spectators for each other's respective contributions.

"Somewhere Only We Know". B-. This might have carried actual emotional heft if Kurt had shown the slightest sign of being anything less than ecstatic to be studying at Dalton Academy over the past few months. Or if he'd ever talked about how badly he'd like to return to McKinley high, even once. Still, I can't hate on the song.

"As If We Never Said Goodbye". A. And just like that, they flip the switch and make Kurt's return seem like a big deal. Like the glee club members, I watched this in stunned silence. Chris Colfer sold the excitement of his character perfectly, always balancing precariously between breaking into fits of laughter or tears of joy while delivering a flawless singing performance. This got five minutes and an entire TV segment to itself (commercials both before and after) and why not? Who could possibly follow that?

"Barbra Streisand". B+. A flash mob doing a two-word novelty song in a mall needs to go all out on chutzpah if it's going to be entertaining, and this certainly accomplished that. Just who were some of those odd characters getting down among the crowd? Puck's dancing and Kurt's facial expressions were the kinds of little details that emerge on repeat views that really help make the performance great.

"Born This Way". C+. I didn't like the T-shirt moralizing (and weren't they supposed to reveal negative, or hidden traits? How do "no weave" and "likes boys" fit the bill?) and they didn't do anything other than walk in circles around the stage, but when a high-octane performance of a great Lady Gaga song is the worst thing on the episode, you can't really complain.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 17

"Glee" returned after a five week break and what did they have planned for the follow up to the excellent Regionals episode? Not much ... I guess this was all about reminding people that "Glee" was back and rolling toward May sweeps and the season finale. And why blow their load on a filler episode one week before a 90-minute Lady Gaga fest? Well, we still need to review it ...

"All By Myself". B. This was mostly to remind us that Sunshine still exists on this show, although who's complaining when the results are this good (but not great ... I think I've been fairly transparent about my distaste for these performances where the "Glee" divas try to out-diva each other. Something like this really has to knock my socks off to get a really good grade). I have a soft spot for this song too.

"I Follow Rivers". C. Are the producers doing some lame running gag where Tina performs a song and runs off crying before she finishes? Last time it happened I didn't even bother to rate it, but this Lykke Li cover was shaping up to be really interesting (and a perfectly believable choice for Tina's character).

"Turning Tables". D+. This was supposed to be Gwyneth Paltrow's attempt at a "serious" solo performance, in contrast with the fun pop songs she normally sings on "Glee". She really put herself out there with the elegant black dress and huge backing orchestra, all the better to show off her inadequacy on a song like this. Some of the down moments sounded good, but she's totally incapable of hitting the big notes and carrying the song through the choruses. Listen to Adele's version and how her huge voice effortlessly propels the song along. And with that, the Holly Holliday experiment comes to an end, and what was the point of having her go out with Will for all of a few weeks, only to split town like she always does? At least they left the door open for future appearances whenever Paltrow's schedule clears up, oh goody. I suppose nobody gets out of here alive until she covers Coldplay.

"Ain't No Way". B-. If we have to humour Amber Riley and her Aretha fantasies to keep her satisfied for a few weeks while other, far more entertaining singers get their chance at a big solo, then so be it. But this was far, far better than her usual formulaic stuff, mainly because she wasn't afraid to get gritty on this one, and the effort was off the charts.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, "The Grand Bounce"

30 points, t-365, voted on by Mike Mettler

The Tragically Hip are huge stars in Canada and have been playing arenas and headlining huge outdoor festivals for twenty years. During the 90's, they tried in vain to break through in the US market but despite constant touring and some high profile performances (e.g. SNL, the '94 Woodstock), it never happened. It's odd that they never enjoyed even Barenaked Ladies-sized success in the US (to name one band that toured their asses off to overcome the stigma of being a Canadian band trying to make it in the US) because they appeal to the same kinds of music fans that have made Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler into huge successes that can sustain healthy careers as touring bands until the earth falls into the sun.

So, it's not too difficult to understand why this album received only one vote on P&J -- almost nobody outside of Canada has ever heard of Tragically Hip or Gord Downie, and besides that, Tragically Hip were never all that popular with Canadian music critics. But judging from this interview with Sound and Vision Editor-In-Chief Mike Mettler, it's hardly a surprise to find out that he was the one guy to stan for "The Grand Bounce" in 2010.

I pressed play and recognized "The East Wind" immediately. I didn't understand how that could be possible, but once the chorus hit I remembered that I'd heard it on the radio while driving in Canada this past summer. It's a song that hits directly at my weakest spot -- the mid-tempo rocker led by a repetitively strummed acoustic guitar always turns me into goo on first listen (two good examples of this are James' "Laid" and Tom Petty's "Learning To Fly"). And yet somehow I forgot about this amazing song completely until I heard "The Grand Bounce", and that's why it's important to play silly little games like listening to all the albums on P&J that got only one number one vote from one critic and finished higher than your own number one album that got one vote.

I suppose one reason why Tragically Hip never became big outside of Canada is because they're a proudly Canadian band who sometimes sing about Canadian things. This hasn't been a handicap for any number of distinctly Irish and English bands who had international success, but Canadian culture has never exported itself well. Despite not being a household name, Downie could have invited any number of prominent guests to play and sing on his solo albums. Instead, he's stuck with the same backing band throughout his solo career -- Julie Doiron (from Eric's Trip), Josh Finlayson (from the Skydiggers, whose name wasn't familiar to me at all, even though I remember his band's music quite fondly) and The Dinner Is Ruined (who opened once for Tindersticks in Toronto many years ago and were awful, that was my first exposure to them and I haven't been able to stand them since). He splurged a bit on this, his third solo album, and handed the producing duties over to Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie) and the radio-friendly results are probably a big reason why the record went top ten in Canada, whereas Downie's other albums were considered more like esoteric indulgences that he needed to get out of his system between Tragically Hip tours.

Downie's been a consistently great songwriter throughout his career, and even when your reaction was a fairly muted "oh, it's the Nth Tragically Hip album", you still had to admit that the music was more than listenable because he's good even when he's just OK. But when he's good, he's really good, and "The Grand Bounce" can sit proudly next to the best Tragically Hip material. Highlights include the aforementioned "The East Wind", the wistful and introspective "The Hard Canadian", and "Retrace", arguably Downie's most REM-soundalike moment ever (which is saying something).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Swans, Bela Tar @ Barby Club

It's odd that I listened to Beef Terminal for the first time in a couple of years during the same week that I caught a live set from Bela Tar. Lots of people see the "solo guitarist with sampler" semi-genre as a gimmick that gets tired quickly, endlessly recycling the same ideas owing to it's admittedly restrictive basic structure. But I'm not one of those people. The vocals were the garden variety "breathy female shoegaze" type, but I gather that the Cure and all the Cure fans currently playing in bands might be wanting to talk to her about stealing a few riffs.

I'd only heard a couple of Swans albums before last year's comeback record, "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky", but my excitement leading up to this gig was way out of proportion with my familiarity with their music. They're one of those revered underground bands about whom nobody has a bad word to say. I only found out who they were around 2004, long after they'd split up, and everything I heard about them only reinforced the feeling that I'd missed out. According to just about everyone, they pulled off beautiful/ugly better than anyone ever had, and were one of the loudest (many people unequivocally stated they were THE loudest) bands ever to boot. At the very least, I missed out on the MBV reunion and could get some of the same kicks via Swans. To say that they didn't disappoint couldn't be any more of an understatement, because I can't remember the last time I saw a concert this good. Great concerts are nothing like great albums in that you know immediately that you're seeing a pantheon-level show, it doesn't need time to grow on you. This was an all-time great show, on the shortlist among the best seven or eight I've ever seen.

Plenty of bands file on stage one by one, picking up their instruments, steadily building the anticipation in the crowd until the singer finally appears, and the gig formally begins. In that regard, nothing can touch what Swans did last night, opening with five minutes of drone followed by double barrel chimes and vibraphone, ringing and humming through a near infinity of shapes and tones, followed by enough bass to make your digestion proceed 5x quicker, and by the way, only half of the band was on stage at this point. This was all part of the twenty minute intro (yes, intro) to the opener from their last album, "No Words No Thoughts", which finally exploded into a volcano of noise once the entire sextet were on stage, attacking their instruments as violently as any band I've ever seen. There is nothing, nothing -- and I mean this in the nicest way possible -- better than surly old guys making a shitload of noise. At this point, I'd already gotten my money's worth and could have left happy, so the next hour and a half was something of a bonus. A bonus that takes a show from being merely great, to all-time great. Sometimes more is more.

Michael Gira turns the levels on his microphone way, way up so that somehow, you can almost always make out the words above the din. He plays the sick preacher role well, but singing is a very specialized activity at a Swans show, punctuating the beginning and end of a furious onslaught of percussion. They play the bulk of "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky", but the record is fairly tame next to the infernal roar that becomes of these songs when they play live.

In Toronto, screaming and heckling is almost always tolerated at gigs. No matter what kind of crazy stuff the person says, everyone can laugh off his yelling as the rambling of just another drunk idiot. But in everyday life, you can't argue about anything without being out of line. In Tel Aviv it's the opposite -- people argue and scream about the dumbest stuff all the time, but if you yell something at a gig, everyone feels a collective embarrassment, as if we're creating a bad impression of the city in front of the guests of honour. Tonight's stooge yells requests for older songs, and doesn't stop until Gira cuts him off with "I'm not your fucking clown, man. We play what we play." And what about the "old stuff"? How could it have possibly been any better than what we heard, anyway?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Panda Bear, "Tomboy"

This album is streaming on NPR's website until next week. Its release date is finally in sight after several months of delays, and the availability of some of these tracks in various forms (e.g. singles and live recordings -- there is a fairly well-circulated recording from a gig in Berlin on 15-01-2010 that features a number of "Tomboy" tracks) has not dulled the anticipation of finally hearing the finished product.

This is one of those albums where you can learn a lot by looking at the track titles and track times, especially in comparison to "Person Pitch". There are no epic track lengths, no titles with slashes (/) in them (suggesting a song with multiple parts), no two minute song snippets. In contrast, most songs on "Tomboy" are around three or four minutes long. Yes, it's supposed to be a pop record.

At first, I was disappointed that there was nothing even close to a jam on this record, perhaps with the exception of "Afterburner", which is the longest track here. There are no spots where the album strays toward something odd and unpredictable like the breakdown midway through "Bros". The songs that immediately grabbed me were the most anti-pop of the bunch, like the aptly named "Drone".

But "Tomboy" grew on me quickly. In retrospect, the connection between early 90's Spectrum and Panda Bear is so obvious, I can't believe I didn't hear it before. Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember's mixing contributions are subtle -- a bit more echo here, a bit more embellishment on this wobbly synth note there. Panda Bear's sound tends more toward the abrasive, minimalist pop side of Spectrum (think "How You Satisfy Me") and S3's "Recurring" (think "Big City"), although there's also a touch of the drone-y side of soul that Sonic perfected on "Highs, Lows, and Heavenly Blows". These elements are clearly audible if you're listening for them, but if you're not, then don't worry because "Tomboy" is instantly recognizable as Panda Bear. A more vocal heavy, could almost be radio friendly version of Panda Bear if it weren't for the miles of reverb and deliberately lo-fi blare of beats and alien noises.

Or maybe you'd prefer NPR's description of how "Lennox pushes the limits of his sequencers and synthesizers, twisting samples into coils of reverby reckoning". "Reverby reckoning" not only sounds ridiculous, but it implies a frightful, threatening type of music, which I'm not hearing but could imagine someone hearing if aided by the right hallucinogenics after the layers of harmony rattle around in your head for a while and you think you're hearing shrill voices over the Gorillaz backed by cheap and noisy synths. Hmmm ... maybe NPR was onto something ...

Friday, April 01, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Matt Boroff, "Reaching for Sparks"

30 points, t-365, voted on by Rob O' Connor

I couldn't find this album, but I managed to hear live versions of six songs from it via Youtube. Oddly enough, Boroff's Myspace page only contains music by his band, Matt Boroff and the Mirrors, and the section on Boroff's own website that's devoted to his solo work is still under construction. I'm suddenly not surprised that only one P&J voter heard his album!

On his Myspace page, the music of The Mirrors is described as if "they'd taken the brains of Quentin Tarantino, Tom Waits and David Lynch, seasoned them with opium, stuffed them into a meat grinder and baked them in a junkyard on the sun." I listened to a few of their songs and ... yeah, I can't top that, the description is totally accurate. This twang-drenched, slowed down West Coast surf rock couldn't sound more Tarantino soundtrack-ready even if Tarantino had commissioned it himself.

Boroff's solo work is more in the vein of confessional singer songwriter folk rock, and from the first few moments of "1000 Pieces", I know that I'll never "get" solo Matt Boroff for a number of reasons -- I don't really pay attention to lyrics, I'm not a guitar player (Boroff seems like a guitar player's guitar player, where 20% of the audience at his shows are carefully watching his picking technique and if I'm wrong about this, well, then it certainly proves that I'm not a guitar player doesn't it??), and other than Kirsten Hirsh and Lisa Germano, I can't think offhand of any artists who have done solo acoustic work that I really like. It actually goes a bit further than that ... solo acoustic + anything vaguely Americana? Definitely not my style.

On the other hand, I "get" Matt Boroff perfectly, because I've seen live shows by plenty of like-minded artists. You know the scene -- a small club that can look crowded once 50 people file in, the audience sits in shocked silence during the songs (half of them are his friends and family), a calm but intense stage presence that easily grabs your attention (check out "Things You Should Know" for a good example of this). Time slows down, every pluck of the guitar strings seems to ring and reverb around the room for several seconds and every breath he takes is easily audible. There's little doubt that I'd have been moved by his performance if I happened to catch a thirty minute set by Matt Boroff in an intimate club.

But I would never listen to his music at home.