Friday, July 26, 2013

Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories"; The National, "Trouble Will Find Me"

Maybe Daft Punk will start releasing new albums more than once every eight years and eventually build up a real catalog.  Regardless of how long it takes, eventually they will build up a deeper and more varied catalog and it will become increasingly harder for people to keep putting their first two wildly overrated albums on their undeserved pedestals.  They would disappear for years at a time and their fans dissected their only two albums without end on countless message boards and blogs, entrenching the Daft Punk canon into a feedback loop that it hasn't been able to escape to this day because there hasn't been enough new material to freshen up the discussion.

The best two Daft Punk albums are the most recent two.  This shouldn't even be a debate.  The first two are radio friendly techno pop made by anonymous robots.  It's been done to death.   Then you have "Human After All", a coarse and brutal slab of minimal dance funk, recorded cheaply and absurdly quickly, packed with loops and shrill squawks, and a supporting tour that literally revolutionized the industry and helped pave the way for EDM's commercial breakthrough in the US.  And now we have "Random Access Memories", a full on disco revival album right down to the live instrumentation and collaborations with a impressive list of disco pioneers and contemporary vocalists.  "Get Lucky" is far and away their finest ever single and in twenty years people will talking about how Daft Punk finally had the breakthrough anthemic disco megahit that their hardcore fans had always wanted them to have.  They won't be talking about how they always get a tear in their eye when they hear "Digital Love".


Every year I seem to get way into a new album by a much admired indie rock band that I'd never paid any attention to in the past (see: YYY's, Beach House).  I can't really explain why this has been happening, any more than I can explain exactly what touched a nerve inside me that morning when I heard a song from "Trouble Will Find Me" on the radio one morning and decided to give the whole album a chance.  Maybe it's related to those 2000-1 years when I got really into Travis for a while, which I attributed to an unconscious backlash against all the wordless techno and "difficult" experimental music I was listening to.  Sometimes you need a break from that stuff and need to listen to simpler, gentler rock songs that you can sing along to.

The National chose that name because it sounds anonymous and nondescript.  Like their name, "Trouble Will Find Me" is difficult to pin down or define.  In a way this could be any one of a million mopey indie bands.   Their obvious influences (Nick Cave, Joy Division, Leonard Cohen) have influenced so many bands that the comparisons don't really help to describe what they sound like.  I could add a couple of more, but I'm not sure it helps.

1) Smashing Pumpkins ballads from "Mellon Collie ..." and "Adore".  In particular, "I Need My Girl" would have been at home on "Adore", and the whole album kind of gives me a "thirteen more fully fleshed out versions of 'Blank Page'" vibe.

2) Drunken Arab Strap ballads, especially "Pink Rabbits".  Like the best of Arab Strap, "Trouble Will Fine Me" is melancholy, but not particularly sad, you can wallow in it but it doesn't really bring you down.  It's not like the best Smiths lyrics, where almost anyone who was once a teenage can relate, rather, it's something you observe from afar, ultimately feeling uplifted and thankful that these things aren't happening to you. Lines like "You didn't see me I was falling apart/I was a television version of a person with a broken heart" are devastating though.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury

Somehow, while I was doing a bunch of traveling over the past few weeks and remained out of the loop on a lot of music news, the Rolling Stones played what might go down as the gig of the year in their headlining appearance at Glastonbury.

It's 2013~!

But this is nothing new for the Stones, who have been the poster boys for rock ageism for the past forty years.

The idea of a band playing rock and roll into their mid-30's was considered preposterous during the 1960's. The Stones released all their best albums in the 70's and traveled the world on their most famously debauched tours.

The idea of a rock band touring well into their mid-40's was widely ridiculed during the late 80's.  When the Stones made something of a comeback with the "Steel Wheels" album and tour, popular sentiment assumed they'd be a parody of themselves onstage while cynically hauling in truckloads of money.  Instead, they experienced a career rebirth of sorts.  Critics and fans were surprised by their energy and stage presence.  Their new albums would remain redundant in this phase of their career, but it hardly mattered because the "Steel Wheels" tour solidified them as a major touring act for the next two decades (and counting).

All the subsequent milestones/excuses to go on tour have been met with skepticism (30th, 40th, 50th anniversary tours).  Why not humour them and let them collect their last payday, after all, there are always people who never saw them before or will pay to see them for the 100th time.  Except that last payday has never arrived, because they won't stop touring.  They even seem to enjoy it!

What's more, a lot of people from my generation were brought up on the idea of Glastonbury being a place where indie bands broke through to a wider audience, where we, the fans who'd been supporting them for years, could feel vindicated when they became the stars we'd always hoped they'd be.  But those days, where the likes of Pulp, Radiohead, and Orbital were breakthrough headliners, are long gone.  Glastonbury is the place where the world's biggest bands choose to appear when they want to make a long awaited festival appearance, and it's been that way for many years now.   A memorable show at Glastonbury becomes instantly legendary and carries more lasting impact than any tour, no matter how big.  Blur's reunion gig from 2009 actually seems like small potatoes next to the likes of Jay-Z and U2.  Rolling Stones '13 is a fairly logical extension of the last few years of increasingly fevered anticipation over headlining spots by increasingly legendary bands.

And yeah, I watched the Stones' Glastonbury set (or at least the last hour or so that was broadcast by the BBC) and it's crazy good, or, if you're basing the comparison on a different scale, about a billion times better than it had any right to be.  Mick Jagger must be a space alien because it can't be possible that a human being could live Mick Jagger's life and still have the same physique at 70 that he did at 20 (and his voice isn't too far off either).  And how many men of any age can still look cool wearing black feathered boas and gold lamé jackets?

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Eluvium, "Nightmare Ending"

There are two kinds of great albums -- the ones where you realize how great they are after one or two weeks and/or three or four listens, and the ones where you realize how great they are about ten minutes into the first listen.  

As you might have guessed, the albums in the first category are merely great albums, but the ones in the second category are GREAT and tend to be listened to obsessively.  

Eluvium's newest album, "Nightmare Ending", might be his finest album yet.  More so than his previous work, the focus is on looping and repetition.  The opener "Don't Get Any Closer" instantly envelopes you with the sound of church organs whirring to life and heaps upon heaps of echo-processed piano.  The worst thing about it is its criminally short nine minutes run time.  But it's on the next track, "Warm", where Eluvium takes the album to the next level.  On most albums, even his own, this would have been a two minute drone interlude before moving on to the next, more serious opus.  But here, the track loops on and on, and a semi-improvised solo sustains what could have been a throwaway track for seven more glorious minutes.  After fifteen minutes, "Nightmare Ending" is already an emotionally draining, enrapturing listen.

It also has its share of piano interlude pieces that are par for the course on Eluvium albums, but even these are unpredictable.  "Chime" starts out as a throwback to "Happy Songs For Happy People" era Mogwai before building into a thundering hiss of distortion and background noise -- a sound that many Mogwai fans have been waiting on for about a decade.  

"Unknown Variation" is a condensed version of what Eluvium attempted on "Static Nocturne".  Starting out with what could be a heavily processed meditation tape entitled "sounds of the crashing waves on the beach" or something to that effect, it gradually turns from smiley ambient bliss into a frightening semi-symphonic crush of vacuum cleaner noise.  

People who couldn't get into Eluvium's vocals-heavy album "Similes" will be happy to know that vocals are confined only to the closing track, "Happiness".  It's the closest Eluvium has ever come to having a truly romantic side, and he's brought in Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan to spin a simple and touching tale of walking home and pulling the blankets tight.  It's as if Eluvium made it his mission to prove he could have been a worthy collaborator on YLT's "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out", thirteen years after the fact.  Again, this could have been a throwaway track added to the album to court a bit of indie cred, instead it puts nearly everything on "Similes" to shame.  "Similes" is excellent, but Eluvium is on the roll of a lifetime with this album.  Almost everything he touches turns out better than he ever managed it before.