Monday, October 29, 2012

Ricardo Villalobos, "Dependent and Happy"

I've spent a few hours with Ricardo Villalobos' newest album.  First I listened to it all the way through while scrolling through news and sports articles on the internet.  It was a bunch of fluffy, light reading that didn't require a lot of concentration, and the music was a perfect backdrop to that because it doesn't require a lot of energy to absorb it.  Villalobos doesn't usually inspire deep listening, if you want to, the music can just be there, as bland and unnoticeable as elevator music in the supermarket if that's the way you want to approach it.

Later on I went back and listened to it more closely.  None of its twelve mostly lengthy tracks jump out at you, they don't suddenly take off like "Ichso" does about three minutes in, for instance.  But that's OK because nobody ever accused "Alcohofa" of "taking off" either.

Closer listening reveals all sorts of interesting details bubbling below the surface, which of course is typical for Villalobos' music.  There are countless little snippets of percussion and voice, sometimes featured as a blissed out melody cruising alongside the steady, insistent beat, and sometimes chopped up into nearly infinitesimal bits.  I'm partial to the odd, circular synth melodies on "Zuipox" because they sound exactly like something that would have appeared on a mid-90's Autechre album, but then again, I would be.  The closing track, "Ferenc", stakes one of the more muscular beats on the album to an eerie ambient hum, all of which would have been very much at home on a 90's Warp Records release (most likely the Polygon Window album).

But too much of "Dependent and Happy" is basically just there, coasting by in one long and drowsy 100-minute techno suite.  Villalobos rarely hesitates to do in ten minutes what can be done in five, and it's only on aforementioned tracks like "Zuipox" (which transforms itself halfway through) and "Ferenc" (which is short enough to not overstay its welcom) that he offers any surprises that don't require a great deal of patience to appreciate.  This is the kind of album whose tracks I would frequently skip if they randomly came up on a playlist, because there are only so many ten minute minimal techno tracks you can sit through before you start looking for something more hook-filled to entertain you and hold your attention.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Another link roundup (mid-October edition)

The first two are courtesy of RA's news feed:

1.  One normally finds links to mixtapes and newly released underground club tracks on the blog "The Head of Rothchild".  They also enjoy the occasional slog through the crappiest music one can find over the internet, posting audio, video, and photo links for us to point our fingers and laugh at.  I'd never heard of them until I saw their post on corny DJ photo shoots.  The intentional send-ups at the end of the post are actually not any more ridiculous than the real promo shots.  I can't for the life of me figure out what the guy in the first picture is supposed to be doing.  Is he pissing on his record collection through the hole in that fluorescent green disc?  

These photos don't look anything like actual DJ promo shots, so they can't even say that they were trying to steal from the pros and just overused the usual cliches.  They only have themselves to blame ... and that's saying something, because DJ promo pictures are unbelievably cliched and uncreative.  For instance, there's the "DJ covering his eyes" shot, and the million varieties of "serious and forlorn".  The most popular one is where the DJ looks off to one side, completely away from the camera, with his face partly in shadow.  These are just a few examples, but trust me, this is one case where the truth is nearly as bad as the parody.  

2.  An interview with Jeff Mills ... in Forbes!!  I love the description of him in the title - "artist, producer, DJ, and entrepreneur".  It is Forbes after all, so he's an "entrepreneur" and much of the discussion is devoted to his company/label's business model.  I can only imagine what the stock watchers thought when they saw this article.  Mainstream music publications are still obsessed over album sales figures -- how much did such and such an album sell in its first week, etc. What they consider "success" is still associated with a business model that is decades old.  Sometimes you see lip service paid to other versions of "success", like the free downloads as loss leaders strategies of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, and Youtube views.  But I think most of them still don't get it.  A song like "Gangnam Style" became a worldwide phenomenon, complete with iconic dance, hundreds of millions of Youtube views, PSY guest spots on American talk shows, flash mobs, countless tribute and parody videos, etc.  Despite all that, before it had started to make a dent in the charts outside Asia, a lot of music industry people wouldn't have considered it a "success".  At least not until it started racking up actual sales and downloads, which it eventually did, topping the iTunes download charts and pop charts in dozens of countries.  Now they'll just point to its iTunes ranking as "proof" that it was a hit, and ignore all that other stuff that made it a huge phenomenon -- stuff that's a lot more significant if you ask me.

Forbes and Tamara Warren, the journalist who conducted the interview, get it.  Mills comes across as the savvy head of a music and merchandise company that's keenly in tune with the changing needs of its customers.  Most actual music publications don't.

3.  Last week I thought I wrote a fairly inspired review of a concert by a legendary 80's music group. I tried to put the passage of time in perspective while trying to capture what makes them and their tour so special for longtime fans.  Then I saw this review of Morrissey by Hua Hsu on Grantland, which tackles much the same angle and of course blows my writing out of the water.

Not only that, his point is much more interesting and profound than mine.  Me = we get older and so do our favourite bands, how do both of us reconcile our current and past selves?  Nothing wrong with that, but it's hardly an original concept (which I knew, but still wanted to tell the story in that way.  But Hsu notes that these tours are partly about musicians playing the characters their fans expect them to play.  In the process, they blur the lines between those characters and their actual selves, and at the end of the day, who knows who is the real artist, who is the character that does what he can to collect the ticket money, and when the former morphed into the latter?  I don't this happened with earlier generations of artists.  It's not like Led Zeppelin turned out to be asexual homebodies who hated the blues.  CCR didn't admit they were pro-war all along and just went along with what the hippie crowd wanted so they could sell a few records.

Then you have artists like Morrissey and Robert Smith.  They were icons owing to a simple, almost parasitic formula.  They felt lonely, depressed, and isolated.  They wrote songs that expressed those feelings.  Their fans, who were also lonely, depressed, and isolated people who felt especially alienated by the plastic 80's music, idolized them because they perfectly understood everything they were feeling in their everyday lives.  And that's how The Smiths and The Cure built such a loyal following.

At least that's how the story goes.  But at some point, writing those kinds of songs in character became the most natural thing in the world for them, just like any fiction writer would put him or herself in the shoes of the characters in one of their books.  We can believe that Robert Smith was obsessed with death in '82 when he wrote "One Hundred Years", but as a fifty year old happily married man who tours stadiums and makes millions?  Morrissey is a militant vegetarian who hates the British royal family, there's no doubt about that, but he pushes those views as a convenient way of maintaining his legend, not as part of a deliberate attempt to change people's minds.  It's not to say that he's given up on the latter completely, but influencing people is not his main concern anymore.  He doesn't insist on meat and leather-free buildings because he wants people to follow his lead, he does it because it's convenient for him and he sees himself as a big enough star to warrant the special treatment.  And if it helps convince fans that he's as real as he was in the 80's and still deserving of his former status as a messianiac indie god along with the pile of earnings from the concert tours to go along with it, well, he's fine with that too.   You have to think that the Morrissey of the '80's wouldn't have played along with Stephen Colbert the way he did, he's more likely have stormed out rather than lower himself to trading barbs about vegetarianism with an American talk show host (even on a talk show parody like Colbert).

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that indie stars of the 80's turned out to be greedy just like the mainstream artists they stood as the antidote to some thirty years ago.  After all, they were products of the 80's just like the rest.  Will there be a reckoning when fans start resenting their former heroes for turning into fakes?  Or did that already happen when the bloom partly came off the rose with their run of less successful albums starting in the mid-90's?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Jesus and Mary Chain @ Barby

I've written a pile of things about Depeche Mode over the years.  Out of all my "favourite bands" over the years, they've been by far (FAR) the most enduring.  The first concert I ever saw was Depeche Mode at Toronto's CNE Grandstand (RIP ... or not, everyone hated that place), and I've continued seeing them on almost every tour they've done since.  Depeche tours are like federal elections, coming along once ever few years, and lead you to take stock of your life and think what you've accomplished since the last go around, see this review from 2009, for example.  After Depeche Mode concert, I could say they were the first and last band I ever saw, and there's something very special about bookending one's life through music like that, remembering the band who broke through huge with "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence" (and the teenager who used to crouch by the floor next to a tape recorder, taping the remixes of those songs off CFNY) and so on to the present day, and our older, hopefully more mature and grounded selves.

Except there's a bit more to the story than that.  Depeche Mode weren't exactly the first band I ever saw in concert.  The opening band that night was Jesus and Mary Chain.  And I hated them.

[actually, there were two opening bands ... the first was Nitzer Ebb, so they were the honest and 100% truthful first act I ever saw in concert.  Nitzer Ebb also continued their career into the late 90's, split up without me ever having seen them again, and reunited recently, so I suppose I could be writing this type of article all over again at some point.]

I knew a few JAMC songs from the radio, and never paid them much attention. "Head On" was their big single at the time ("big" for alternative radio) and it wasn't really my thing.  I didn't know anything about their early days, with the fifteen minute gigs and the riots and the walls of feedback.  I didn't know a thing about the shoegaze scene, which was reaching it's peak in terms of critical accolades at the time over in the UK.  What I did know what that this horrible sounding band was standing between me and "Enjoy the Silence", just one song after another, completely bereft of melodies, rendered completely unlistenable by the aimless squalls of noise that covered literally every single second of every song.

Depeche Mode were in the process of redefining their image from the 80's and trying to become something other than teen idols playing pervy synth pop.  Nevertheless, it might seem strange that a band like JAMC were chosen to open for them, but it really wasn't.  Depeche Mode's appeal across genre boundaries has always been underrated by the music establishment.  The wide variety of rock and pop bands who have toured with them over the years is but one testament to this (Raveonettes, The Bravery, Fad Gadget, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, M83, Motor).  In 1990 it actually made perfect sense -- the goth kids loved JAMC, especially the "Darklands" album.

Of course there's no way to know how JAMC really sounded that night.  It's all but certain they didn't sound as noisy and shambolic as I thought they were, and I can blame my untrained ears for that.  I can also blame the soundsystem and acoustics at the CNE Grandstand, which was rather famously subpar (although the atmosphere at concerts there could easily make up for it).  But chances are they didn't sound too different than they did this past Thursday night at the Barby.  In fact, with only a handful of songs from the 90's and a band whose sound was perfectly tailored toward the punchy rock and roll style of "Automatic", most of their set could have been lifted completely what they played on the "Automatic" tour.

However the '90 version of JAMC (or at least my memory of them) had one thing that the '12 version didn't -- they were threatening, angry, and dangerous.  The '12 version is a slick, professional rock band with all the cues timed down to the second and all the spontaneity or ability to surprise an audience stripped away.  But for the most part, a literal belief of those things would be naive.  Anything new and somewhat strange, particularly if it's rock and roll played by people wearing dark clothes, will sound scary or even dangerous. And the Pixies' hugely successful reunion and multiple tours showed that there was a market for 80's and 90's alternative bands to mend their fences, appear as a more mature and palatable version of their former selves, and crank out the same "hits" night after night to an audience itching to see them again after so many years.  We're no different from every generation before us.  We laughed when the Eagles reunited to make a few more bucks, and yet here we are, basically the same age as those Eagles and Who and Page and Plant fans were twenty years ago, shelling out good money to hear our heroes portray blander versions of the bands we grew up with and play the same exquisitely rehearsed hits night after night.  

But that's really fine by me.  I don't think anyone wants Soundgarden and the Mary Chain and whoever else to be exactly like they were then.  After all, we were around then, and we already remember what they were like quite well. We have no desire to relive our lives again from that period and we don't expect our bands to  want to either.  JAMC '12 might have been a bit *too* professional for my taste, a bit too much of the Reid brothers and their finely coiffed, emotionless backing band, but they played roughly all the important hits and played them well, and you can't ask for much more than that.  Jim Reid's voice has aged remarkably well, and although it's not like these songs were much of a challenge to sing, he still deserves plenty of accolades. William Reid is still rocking some of the 80's crazy hair and made the occasional racket on his guitar.  If anything, the last five years of reunion tour are only enhancing their legacy, and they have a chance to keep it going if they ever get around to releasing the long rumoured new album.

Of course, over the years I've come to like, even love quite a bit of JAMC's music.  By the time they broke up in '98 I was regretting that I never went to see them again, despite no shortage of opportunities.  What we called noisy alternative rock back then now sounds very normal, the weirdos (or at least some of them) always find a way to conquer the musical world (or at least a small part) once the niche they forced into the music landscape eventually becomes accepted by the masses.  So it's hardly JAMC's fault that they come off sounding almost mainstream, that's always the way things evolve in music. They're just playing the songs they had the foresight to write when most of their peers didn't have the talent or the balls to do it first.

And there's more, namely, how do you pass up an opportunity to see a band after nearly an entire generation apart.  How often in your life can you say you did that? 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Raveonettes, "Observator"

The Raveonettes have always been good at owning their influences.  "Lust Lust Lust" didn't just borrow the best bits from JAMC's "Psychocandy", it copied the blueprint and improved on it.  Same goes for "Chain Gang of Love" one-upping scuzz-pop and early Blondie.

Their last album, "Raven In the Grave", found them in the midst of an identity crisis of sorts.  There were still plenty of bands for them to steal from, and they couldn't figure out who they wanted to steal from most.  Would  it be a reconfiguration of their earlier thefts, or a meld of the safe and obvious with the new and unexpected?  On "Observator", the transition finally seems complete.  There's an added emphasis on melody and harmony (proper torch songs by The Raveonettes?  believe it!) and they've dissolved their influences so deeply into these songs that almost all traces of gimmickry left over from their earlier albums have now disappeared.  It's easily their best album to date, and at just 31 minutes long, their most concise and replayable.  An album this short and this hummable has a way of minimizing its weaknesses, in that they're over and done with before you have a chance to get bored of them or dwell on them.  But in truth, digging for flaws in an album this good is a fool's errand.

"Young and Cold" might be The Raveonettes most sensitive and bittersweet song, and it certainly doesn't hurt that gentle distortion over repetitively strummed acoustic guitar with boy/girl harmonies are basically musical kryptonite for me.  "Sinking With the Sun" and "She Owns the Streets" offer a back to back dose of mid-80's UK indie by way of the Stone Roses and the Smiths, the jangly melodies of the latter making it an obvious choice for a single.  "Downtown" returns to their girl group roots, but adding another flavour of jangly 80's indie rock makes for yet another refreshing combination.  "Til the End", with it's forceful drumming and hissing guitars could almost be an "Isn't Anything"-era MBV outtake.  It's the most gimmicky song on the album, and it's also arguably the weakest, which says a lot about how far The Raveonettes have come.