Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Knife, "Shaking the Habitual"; Omar S, "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself"

Both of these acts are very highly regarded but I've never understood what all of the fuss was about.  Maybe they're just not for me.  Or maybe it's about time I gave their new albums a chance ...

I have to hand it to The Knife, they have a keen understanding of their audience and how to promote themselves.  Leftfield electronic acts, take note.  They lead a shady, mysterious existence (accentuated by their wearing of masks in public), and release music only occasionally.  The same strategy has worked wonders for Daft Punk too.  They've also stopped giving face to face interviews. This would annoy casual music fans who expect their favourite artists to maintain some kind of public profile and to try to cater to their fans a bit more.  Also, what teenager would wait seven years between albums by their favourite band without going crazy or giving up on them completely?  Remember waiting for the follow up to the Stone Roses debut?  The delays and waiting seemed interminable ... and it was "only" five years!  Good thing that The Knife's fans are twenty and thirtysomethings whose free time revolves around music and music criticism.

They've also been streaming their album for free partly because they're anticapitalist but they know that they're fans are the kinds of people who will still pay for music even if they know how to get it for free.  All the advance press is focused on the political nature album, but the exact political stance isn't immediately obvious when you're listening to the long instrumental passages that make up the bulk of "Shaking the Habitual".  But they've talked up the political stuff in a number of interviews, which again, they know all the people will care about them will read. So they can be confident about getting the message out.

I'm not being sarcastic here.  Publicity and music distribution is about the music into the hands (and ears) of the people who want to hear it.  The Knife couldn't have satisfied their objectives any better.  How about the music though?

I rarely pay attention to lyrics, especially blurry, distorted ones, so if you're looking for a detailed lyrical breakdown then you've come to the wrong place.  Like Swans' widely acclaimed album from last year, "The Seer", The Knife have gone epic by stretching nearly every song out to eight minutes or more, presenting a near 100-minute palate of music that ranges from twisted dancefloor bangers to ambient noise.  It's ambitious to be sure, and holds my attention better than I expected it would.  But at no point during the album do I feel like I'm listening to a truly inspired work, in fact it's quite the opposite -- I feel like I'm hearing songs that are highly derivative of other artists, stretched out to maximum run time in the concerted attempt to make a masterpiece.  It's not such a bad bet to assume that a 100-minute album will get twice the hype of a more "ordinary" album running "just" 50 minutes.

"Full of Fire" is the kind of song that Crystal Castles might make if they had the attention span to write nine minute songs, and the nineteen minute "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized" definitely hits its mark by being the haunting and unsettling experimental noise piece its supposed to be, but is really isn't anything you couldn't hear on any one of two dozen Nurse With Wound albums.

The Knife: still not "getting it", unfortunately.

Omar S is undoubtedly talented, but I was mostly hearing a more house-y version of Ricardo Villalobos.  After a while, the never ending cycle of ten minute gently pulsing minimal dance tracks becomes exhausting.  Omar S always had sick beats (something Villalobos has always had a problem with, his tracks rarely have enough ooomph) and the coolest song and album titles in the biz, but even universally acknowledged classics like "Here's Your Trance, Now Dance" and "Psychotic Photosynthesis" never seemed to really go anywhere for me.

That's why I was surprised and delighted that "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself" (another great title) blew me away from the first listen.  "I Just Want" is a percussive slow builder that was mixed by Luke Hess but could be a dead ringer for Petar Dundov -- compare it with the similarly structured "Oasis" and wrap yourself in the enveloping bass of either track. "Air of the Day" and "The Shit Baby" are solid late '80's/early '90's throwbacks, especially the latter, which reminds me a lot of Ron Trent's "Altered States" (one of my very favourite 80's house+techno hybrids).

A couple of weeks after first hearing this album, I read RA's fairly middling review which concluded that it was good but nothing new, just the usual solid Omar S release that hits the spot but nothing more.  No surprises, no new tweaks on an old style, nothing.  Obviously they know his catalogue better than I do ... so what am I missing?  Or rather, what past Omar S gems have I been missing out on?

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