Thursday, July 28, 2011

Explosions In the Sky, "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care"; The Caretaker, "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World"

Explosions in the Sky impressed me so much with their last album that I continued onto the logical next step in musical fandom -- tracking down live recordings. I downloaded a bunch of gigs from the Live Music Archive but rarely found myself listening to them. That was partly because their music, like that of most crushingly loud guitar based bands, is very difficult to record live, especially via audience recording. Having seen them live on an earlier tour, I knew what the "real" EITS sounded like, and those recordings weren't it. But this wasn't the main reason -- after all, poorly recorded live bootlegs are a fact of musical life, and had never stopped me from obsessing over recordings of countless other bands, even "loud" bands (e.g. Mogwai). Rather, I wasn't listening to those gigs (and eventually deleted many of them from my computer) because they all sounded the same.

And that's pretty much EITS in a nutshell. Even their fans know they repeat themselves ad nauseum. Even their fans have to admit that they've been recording the same album over and over again for ten years. "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone" was almost exactly like their earlier stuff, only better. There's no logical reason why a band like EITS should continue to run in place for as long as they have. Ten years ago it made sense to dream about a beautiful, apocalyptic post rock future. But now? The music they were making ten years ago shouldn't work in 2011, but somehow it does. "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care" is fantastic.

The album's structure is more or less the same as that of "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone" -- a bright, triumphant sounding song for the opener, introspective middle, furious finish followed by a more relaxed coda. The opening track, "Last Known Surroundings", is the triumphal overture/self-contained mini-suite that also happens to work equally well outside the context of the album. The furious finish happens toward the end of "Postcard from 1952" and the coda is "Let Me Back In", although at over ten minutes long it's less of a coda and more of an extended comedown. In between, "Be Comfortable, Creature" is something of a surprise, with its pulsing, shuffling, multi-layered rhythms that could almost pass for Do Make Say Think.

Don't skip this record just because EITS don't bring anything new to the table. It's not as well-executed as "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone", but rest assured that it sounds the same as all their other stuff. For this band, that still tends to be a good thing.


I can't hear the new Caretaker album without picturing his harrowing but entertaining non-performance from MUTEK 2010. A friend offers to show you his picture album from his year in Berlin, but what should have been fun stories about the city's nightlife turned into an endurance contest of increasingly unsettling debauchery. There'd be fond memories associated with the images if everyone wasn't so wasted and could remember even the smallest details about the nights the pictures were taken. That's The Caretaker for you -- 1920's Berlin coated in layers of gloom and paranoia, ostensibly happy songs and moments that have been sterilized and had all the joy sucked out of them.

FACT magazine recently reposted an article about the "20 Best Ambient" albums that included The Caretaker's "A Stairway to the Stars" from 2001, and this comment about that album perfectly encapsulates his music -- "The entire LP is built from old 78s and 1920s dance records narcotized and bathed in hiss and gloom until they feel like a scene from The Shining (the one where Jack meets bartender Lloyd)." Or even better, the album is like that feeling you got in the pit of your stomach as the camera slowly zooms in on the black and white picture of a grinning Jack Nicholson at a party from the hotel's supposed golden era.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse RIP

Yeah, so this wasn't entirely unexpected. Like with Kurt Cobain, her death was paradoxically logical and unnecessary -- logical because we've all seen this movie before, and uneccessary needs no explanation. They slowly went about ruining their lives, died, and we all watched.

I actually had some hope for Winehouse after seeing the now even more infamous "performance" from Belgrade. She looked healthy, not emaciated like in years past. She was out of it, but she'd looked much worse on stage before. Instead of being half asleep and mumbling along in a drug-induced stupor, she seemed confused, maybe even a little bit scared, like she had no idea how she ended up on stage. She looked less like a drug addict than an amnesia patient. I felt a little bit sorry for her, which wasn't the case for past performances when she was even more obviously wasted.

Many people said that Winehouse had an extraordinary talent, but I never heard it. She was talented, yes, she had a great voice, definitely, but she wasn't a singularly great, arresting, stop dead in your tracks sort of talent. To compare her to someone whose name will be coming up a lot in the next few days, she didn't have Janis Joplin's voice. Joplin's voice still sounds blindingly powerful and unique even forty years later. However, while she might have been a success during her life, Joplin only became a phenomenon after her death. Amy Winehouse was a much bigger star than Janis Joplin, and she had a far greater influence on the music industry. Plenty of bands were peddling blues-y pysch in late 60's San Francisco. Winehouse carved out an entirely new niche for herself in the pop landscape, practically created and championed a new genre of music to an unsuspecting public, and sold millions of records via the twin threat of her talent mixed with her ubiquitous personality cult. She cleaned up at the Grammys like few female artists ever had, and "Back to Black" was the third biggest selling album in the UK in the 2000's. Before Winehouse, the music landscape was filled with far too many cookie cutter R&B divas with nary a distinctive voice or sense of fashion to be found (of course there are some exceptions, e.g. Pink). Without Winehouse, mega-hits like Beyonce's "Single Ladies" wouldn't have existed, and Adele would have had an immeasurably larger barrier to superstardom.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

P&J 2010 (One and Done): Maps and Atlases, "Perch Patchwork"

30 points, t-365, voted on by Ryan Wasoba

So this is it, I needed seven months to finish my 2010 year in review. That'll be a tough one to top in future years.

Seeing as I've never been impressed by bands who can play complicated, dissonant guitar lines in stop-start 13/8 time, I've never really given much thought to math rock. Bands like Slint and Chavez are sometimes lumped in with the math rock scene, but I've never thought of them as such. Without getting into the fine details of the border between post rock and math rock, those bands' propensity for making loads of noise and borrowing from the urgency and intensity of metal always seemed to fly in the face of the notion that they were oddball nerds trying to become rock stars the only way they knew how. Take away the noise/metal edge and instead infuse the music with a sense of folksy Americana that would effortlessly fit in with any outdoor mountain jam festival west of Chicago, and you've got Maps and Atlases -- the marriage of musical genres I can't help but hate.

And yet, the album isn't half bad. Most of it is quite easy on the ears and the band can write perfectly acceptable melodies when they're not trying to be too clever. The title track is by far the most charming example of this, it seems pre-ordained that it'll appear someday on the soundtrack of a Wes Anderson movie.


I used to shop at a record store that occasionally sold "mystery packs" of ten or twelve vinyl records, grouped together by genre and sold in cardboard packaging. They got to clear out old stock, the we got to enjoy the novelty of paying twenty bucks for music even though we had absolutely no idea what was inside the package. But it was tough to say you weren't getting your money's worth. The package would pay for itself if it contained just one or two great records -- underappreciated or unnoticed gems that you wouldn't have discovered on your own. Anything more than that -- so-so records that you probably wouldn't play out but were nonetheless interesting and worth keeping -- was just gravy, and beyond that, any records that were so intolerable that you had to throw them away were of zero consequence.

The Pazz and Jop "One and Done" experience was more or less like buying one of those mystery packs, right down the distribution of quality of the music. However, I can honestly say that I didn't dislike anything I heard, which is definitely not what I expected at the start (I figured at least two or three albums would outright suck).
I can sum everything up by grouping these ten albums into a few simple categories:

Listenable, but I don't feel the need to hear them again.

Achille Lauro, "Indiscretions"
Matt Boroff, "Reaching for Sparks"
Cathedral, "The Guessing Game"

Worth hanging onto

Maps and Atlases, "Perch Patchwork"
Shinyribs, "Well After Awhile"
Captain Ahab, "The End of Irony"
Mogwai, "Special Moves"

Good album, I will definitely play this from time to time

L'il B, "6 Kiss"

Something of a revelation

Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, "The Grand Bounce"
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, "Up From Below"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A to JazZ Festival, Liubo Ursiny at Yalta Club (02/07/2011)

Although the music at these events was very good, the atmosphere made both of them instantly memorable.

Bulgarians love music. Whether they love music more than other peoples and cultures isn't really the point, but it's clear they appreciate a good concert more than most. I've seen something similar in other places where musical events are at a premium -- I think you appreciate what you get even more, especially if a notable international artist is involved. Under communism, clubbing didn't really exist in Bulgaria, internationally-renowned DJ's didn't start visiting until the 90's, and even now, such visits are fairly rare. Perhaps the market can't tolerate more events, or maybe the asking price of big DJ's is too high, I don't know (Bulgarians can't, and won't drop 10+ Euros on cover charges each week). The point is that you suffer through a few weeks where nothing interesting happens, then one weekend there's a cool free outdoor jazz fest and/or a extended set by Bulgaria's most renowned techno DJ. The level of collective enthusiasm goes through the roof.

Sometimes, the booking equivalent of the perfect storm needs to happen. Tiesto, who's as big a DJ as there is, is spinning at an event this month near the resort town of Burgas, on the Black Sea. Tickets are 15-20 Euro, which seems like an absurdly low cover price for a Tiesto gig. Is Tiesto's asking price lower when a vacation at the Black Sea is part of the deal? Or are the promoters expecting a windfall of partygoers at the peak of the Black Sea tourist season?

Anyhow, the mood at the A to JazZ festival was great, and why not? What's better than free music in the park on a Saturday afternoon? People of all ages gathered in the Doctor's Garden, lounged on the monuments and stones of Roman-era buildings, beers in hand, and took in an evening of tributes to the best of American jazz music. Even though the park turned into a graveyard for beer cans, nobody acted up or raised their voice, it was like a festival atmosphere mixed with supper club manners. And nobody was the least bit fazed during the ten minutes when it rained. It's almost as if there was an unwritten rule -- complain and they might not ever come back -- so everyone decided to be on their best behaviour. Just in case something like this never happened again, everyone brought their kids so they could be shown a good time while there was still a good time to be had.

The Ventsislav Blagoev Mainstream Jazztet jam it out and cover a bunch of the greats (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk), and JP3 followed with their "official presentation of their new album 'Poison'" which was one stylish, snappy melody after another. Both are Bulgarian acts, but I couldn't really tell if the audience knows who they are or whether it even matters who they are. There was a small photo exhibition by a local photographer who's been documenting jazz concerts (by Bulgarian artists and post-1993, concerts by an impressive array of famous names) in Bulgaria for the past thirty years -- suggesting there's a rich history of jazz fandom in the country. But history wasn't important on this night. Most people didn't trek to the park because they were big jazz fans -- me included. They were there because it was a place to be, and do you really need a better reason to have a drink and lounge in the park in the middle of summer?


Later that night, I lucked into catching an event by local promoters Elevate, on their "Elevate presents Blame" night at the Yalta Club. The club is something of an epicentre for the Sofia club scene. Located across the street from Sofia University in the historic downtown of the city, it was one of the first (the first?) clubs to host internationally renowned DJ's after the fall of communism. Liubo Ursiny is renowned for his heroically long sets and I was pretty much sold after checking out his softer side on Blame's podcast series and his harder side on any number of wild clips from his sets that were captured and posted on Youtube. On top of that, I should have known that something special was in the air when I got to the club, where a) the security were polite and helpful, and b) the organizers let me in for half price even though my request to have my name put on the guest list wasn't received in time.

This was a no bullshit club night. I mean, what's the point of going to a club? To dance and have fun, of course. The Yalta Club is a two story club, open in the middle, shaped like a semicircle, with the DJ's elevated platform in the centre of the ground floor. It's not a large club and with bars along the far edges of the room, and tables scattered around the fringes of the main floor, there isn't a lot of free space in which to wander around once the dancing starts. On the other hand, it means that the place feels full once more than 40-50 people are inside.

I walked in and the place was frenetic. People were dancing literally everywhere -- on the ground floor, on the second floor, leaning over the railings, next to the bars, there literally wasn't a single person just standing around enjoying his drink, trying to look too cool to be there. Not a single person was standing still, and they were all locked in step with the rise and fall of the music. If Ursiny cut the bass, people cheered, if he tweaked the EQ's to build up the breakdown, hands were flung into the air. Since people were dancing while literally draped around and over the balconies, the Yalta Club turned into the video for AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" every 10-15 minutes or so.

That's a no bullshit club. Nobody stood around trying to be seen. Nobody popped in looking to see what the scene was all about, danced for half an hour, and went home. People were too busy dancing to ogle the go-go dancers in the weird silver lamé outfits. Ursiny's mixing was flawless, and although his choice of hard clubland techno isn't something that I would listen to at home, he knows every nook and cranny of the music and knows how to work it to the fullest in front of a crowd. Considering that he probably plays to the same small hardcore crowd of Sofia techno fans every time he plays a gig, it's all the more amazing that he's able to work his magic in front of people who are already familiar with all his tricks. Or maybe they simply like to dance that damn much, and couldn't care less about falling for the same tricks over and over again.