Wednesday, May 11, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 3

WEEK 3 (May 5th-11th)

Total Albums Revisited: 17

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 3
  • Sasha Frere-Jones / Loren Mazzacane Connors Subsonic 5 (Sub Rosa) Pains me to drop it since Connors' material is about as good as he's done outside of Long Nights, but Frere-Jones' isn't anywhere near that good even at its high points. [6.4]
  • PsychophonographDISK Ancient Termites (Bomb Hip Hop) What was invigorating the first time around became annoying upon revisit. Frustrating since there are times I found myself getting into its fucked up groove. [6.7]
  • Judy Dunaway Balloon Music (Composer's Recordings) I can't outright hate this even if it annoys me/physically pains me to hear it at times...and you gotta respect that this was done mostly with balloons yet at times sounds like Merzbow. [6.2]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 10
  • Junior Kimbrough God Knows I Tried (Fat Possum) Look at that cover, it explains the music herein so much better than words. [7.7]
  • Glassjaw The Don Fury Sessions (Self-Released) Rawer (yay!) versions of the best stuff from ...Silence (read: minus the troublingly misogynistic lyrics for the most part). Cut out the repeated material between the two discs and You've got a much better debut record than Ross Robinson managed to give them. [7.4]
  • The Sadies Precious Moments (Bloodshot) Their most playful and surf-rockin' LP, masterfully recorded by Albini no less. I definitely prefer some of their later stuff but this is a mildly auspicious start. [7.5]
  • Other Dimensions in Music Now! (AUM Fidelity) Like a less well heeled companion to The Peach Orchard. Stimulating but never transcendent. [7.3]
  • Mr. Dibbs Turntable Scientifics (4 Ways to Rock) Skilled as fuck, as in it doesn't rely on the obvious/readily recognizable samples to draw you in so much as the way its put together and complimented through Dibbs' scratching. [7.6]
  • Boris Kovač East Off Europe-Closing the Circle (Les Disques Victo) Another one with more moments of greatness than anything sustained, but there's more than enough of those moments + an over riding atmosphere that keeps it from falling too sharply in my estimation. [7.1]
  • Ennio Morricone La leggenda del pianista sull'oceanao (Sony Classical) Extremely evocative, lyrical piano pieces that make me want to see the movie more than anything (this is a compliment from me in terms of soundtracks). Shame it had to be topped off with that wholly out of place Roger Waters track. [7.8]
  • Pele Teaching the History of Teaching Geography (Star Star Stereo) Half the time the keyboard adds to the songs and makes them into upper-middle tier post/math rock. Half the time they seem to be there for the sake of being there and add nothing. [7.2]
  • Quetzal The Messenger Lies Bleeding...(Conspiracy) On the one hand it's pretty much a standard post-hardcore/emocore release. On the other it's attacked with such ferocity that it begs to be noticed. On the other other hand, it's pretty much the love child of Unwound circa-Fake Train and McLusky. [7.5]
  • Albert Marcoeur M, A, R et Coeur comme Coeur (FRP Music) Avant-quirk pop with more than enough substance behind the quirk to cause actual resonance. [7.6]
Albums Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • Alvarius B. Alvarius B. (Abduction)
  • Guapo Hirohito (Cuneiform)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area: 2

Nguyên Lê  Mahgreb and Friends (ACT Music and Vision)
For a percussion and bass fiend such as myself, this is an incredibly diverse and layered album to dive into. It's not just in the complexity of guitarist Nguyên Lê's compositions and arrangements, but in the scope of his inspiration, drawing on his own Vietnamese heritage, various stripes of African music - mostly in the frequent involvement of Moroccan vocal/percussion quintet B'net Houariyat - Arabian touches and a deep fondness for 70s jazz-fusion. This mix gives the album's best moments a density and scope that very few of his peers can claim, mixing the varied percussion arsenal of B'net Houariyat and his own drummer Karin Ziyad with bassist Michel Alibo's funky, complex fretless runs, Lê's own tasteful soloing and a shifting ensemble of both traditional jazz instruments and more indigenous ones to breathtaking effect.

I'm not gonna claim that Lê is the first one to do this sort of globe-trotting mish-mash, but based on the contents of Mahgreb and Friends I won't hesitate to say that he was doing it at a higher level than any of his peers. The way he navigates these tricky waters, balancing a half dozen distinct styles within some songs without the mix ever sounding forced, is something to be praised. I'm thinking specifically of "Louanges" where a procession of vocalists from assorted countries meld seamlessly with the always evolving arrangement that at once never seems to bend at the will of the vocalists' distinct cadences but compliments them all the same, coming to a head with a frantic rush of choral vocals underpinned by some of Alibo and Zaid's most uninhibited playing. It's one of a few truly stunning numbers contained here in, from the dark, twisty "Constantine" to the emotional "Nora" and the calm and soothing sound of "Guinia" that makes it plain to see that while Lê isn't a very well known name in the jazz world he probably should be.

It also makes it all that much more painful when he falls into a more standard style a few times. None of that stuff is bad per se, it's still as involved compositionally as anything here and the core quartet of Lê, Alibo, Zaid and pianist Bojan Zulfikarpasic acquits itself admirably, but in the midst of the effortless cultural synthesis I talked about above stuff like "FunkRaï" comes off as an afterthought, a half-hearted attempt to Africanize a basic 70s fusion piece. Luckily, these unnecessary detours are few and far between on Mahgreb and Friends, leaving a two-thirds brilliant album of nearly unparalleled cultural breadth and depth. [8.0/10]

Closed Caption Radio Slang X Generator (Brickyard)
You've heard all the things that Closed Caption Radio do on this album before. You've probably heard them done better, lord knows I have. Slang X Generator isn't a holy grail for post-hardcore/noise rock aficionados by any stretch of the imagination, but all the same it's a lost gem in its own way. It's hard to explain why that is, because on paper all the elements in play here look like a 'Now! That's What I Call Post-Hardcore' checklist - tense, agitated vocals, crunchy guitar tone dialed in with just the right amount of feedback, involved but not complex drumming, bass mixed to be equal with the guitars, structure that effectively contrasts the loud and the quiet, appropriate additions of samples and keyboards to broaden the palette - but all the same, the way that the elements come across here is welcomingly familiar without being insultingly derivative.

Put another way, this is a prime example of why being original isn't necessarily paramount to creating a great album. Like I said, there's nothing here that you haven't heard before, but it's all performed so solidly and confidently that it's hard to really fault the band for playing it so close to the chest in that respect. I mean, it results in an album that I have a hard time finding a low point on, and the consistency that that implies is probably a good portion of the reason I'm so taken with Slang X Generator while many other more adventurous post-hardcore releases don't leave much of an impression. Each of the seven actual songs here is as fully developed and memorable as the last, from crushing "People of the Lie" and "Whoa Magellan" to the vaguely mathy "For Science" to the jagged "In the Black" and "Strangers in Unison." "All Put Away" is probably the highlight if only for that ridiculously catchy harmonic riff that punctuates the verses and its book-ending, almost post-rocky movements, but there's such a low dip in quality between it and the rest of the material that it's hard to qualify it as such.

It also helps that even though the band deals almost exclusively in tropes, there's a sort of personality to the release as a whole. It's something in the production's cold, clinical texture and the way it rubs against the band's energy, almost making them seem defiant of the sound they've created. It gives the whole album a different kind of tension than many of the albums it so clearly follows in the footsteps of - Fake Train and Exploded Drawing to name a couple - despite not sounding remotely novel. I really hate that I keep coming back to that point, but I don't want to oversell this album even though I really do like it. It may come across as little more than an exercise in extreme competence, but it gets under my skin in a way that kinda defies logic. [8.1/10]

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