Thursday, May 26, 2011

98 the Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 5

WEEK 5 (May 19th-25th)

Total Albums Revisited: 17

Albums Dropped to 3 Stars: 1
  • Maquiladora The Lost Works of Eunice Phelps (Tectonic) Nice enough on the whole, but outside of a few stellar uses of atmosphere it seems a bit more incomplete and lacking than I had remembered it being. [6.6]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 12
  • Emmett Swimming Big Night Without You (Elektra) It's amazing how much this sounds like the entirety of modern rock radio circa-1998 without having actually been part of that tapestry to any notable degree. [7.6]
  • Boubacar Traoré Maciré (Label Bleu) Everything sounds great, but the songwriting isn't quite there and the performance seems a little distant. [7.4]
  • Vidna Obmana Crossing the Trail (Projekt) Wave upon wave of peace. Not transcendent or anything but perfectly immersive. [7.3]
  • Jarboe Anhedoniac (Self-Released) Evil, beautiful music that could stand a little bit of editing. [7.2]
  • Paul D. Miller Viral Sonata (Asphodel) As with 90% of Illbient music, the second listen reveals a much less rewarding album than initial impressions would have given. [7.0]
  • Loren MazzaCane Connors Evangeline (Road Cone) The thing with MazzaCane is that even at his subtlest - which this approaches - there's so much feeling in his playing that the results are eminently fascinating. [7.8]
  • Nature and Organization Death in a Snow Leopard Winter (Snow Leopard) I stand by my 'I Can't Believe it's not Eluvium!' assessment, but that implies far more good than bad. [7.6]
  • Lee Ranaldo Dirty Windows (Barooni) A travelogue of unparalleled unease. Beat poetry meets destructive noise rock. Spoilers for One False Move. [7.7]
  • Archbishop Kebab Bellyhunting (Zorlac) May as well be Dog Faced Hermans demos, for all the good and bad that that implies. [7.3]
  • The Chasm Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph (Oz) There's definitely something worthwhile going on here, but not to the degree I initially thought there was. [7.4]
  • The Third Eye Foundation You Guys Kill Me (Domino/Merge) Transitional record, eschewing the all consuming darkness of Ghost without fully realizing the genre-mashing grandeur of Little Lost Soul. [7.8]
  • Herbert Around the House (Phonography) Without the novelty of its sources it's just another nice but not exceptional house LP. Still much better than the average though. [7.6]
 Albums Being Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • The Renderers A Dream of the Sea (Ajax)
  • The Loud Family Days for Days (Alias)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area: 2

Bassholes When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again (In the Red)
When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again should be a simple album. There are only two men involved in its creation, and its rare that they sound like anything other than that, and on each of the album's 21 (!) tracks they stick to the tried and true garage-blues formula. Really, not only should this album be simple to sum up but it should be pretty fucking boring. And yet it's anything but.

See, while on paper there's nothing going on here that differentiates Bassholes from any number of their label-mates and other contemporaries, there's something in the delivery and formulation of When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again that makes it into one of the more compelling entries in the field. It's in the fact that the band are rarely content to leave these songs as standard shards of high energy blues, instead opting to pile on the weirdness, the surreal imagery, the caustic mindset and the badass harmonica and saxophone to set them apart. It doesn't hurt that drummer Lamont Thomas is able to perfectly balance the rudimentary time keeping with the interesting flourishes that give even the least individual track on here an identifiable personality of sorts. It also doesn't hurt that Dan Howland sounds like he's about 2 hours off his meds and on the verge of going postal at any minute no matter what he's singing about.

Consider that the secret at work here - the album sounds like it's right at the edge of insanity but never quite falls over into it full on. It's unpredictable in a weirdly comforting way, never quite letting you know where it's headed next other than assuring you that it'll still be unhinged. It may have a few faults working against it - any 21 track album, even one like this where the songs all sit comfortably around the 2 minute mark, is bound to have a few duffers, and the aforementioned unpredictability doesn't necessarily stop it from covering the same ground a few times with diminishing returns - but it more than makes up for them by virtue of having enough of a distinct personality to keep me listening, and invested in listening. [7.9/10]

Arab on Radar Rough Day at the Orifice (Oppoppop)
There are bands who work for years and years to become compelling as artists. There are bands who just seem to have that quality from the get go. There are many more artists who never reach that level.

Arab on Radar seem to have stumbled onto it by sheer drunken dumb luck and I fucking love them for it.

Nothing on Rough Day at the Orifice sounds planned out. The few times they hit on a riff it almost seems accidental, like a weird byproduct of what up til that point could very easily have been 4 people playing their instruments with no idea of what anyone else is playing. It's an ugly, juvenile, shambolic mess of an album that nonetheless ends up sounding frighteningly great in small doses. It's the weird case where nothing should fit but everything does when you get attuned to its wavelength. The drumming is haphazard and spurty, the guitars are dialed in for maximum trebly dissonance and never play in time or key with each other, the lyrics are best left alone since I'm predisposed towards being kind to this album and they can be a detriment if you look at 'em too long. None of that sounds like a formula for anything but derisive giggles in the band's general direction - aw, how cute! they think they're making music! - but somehow it winds up making a uniquely fucked up kind of noise rock that no one else can come close to replicating.

I'm not saying that Arab on Radar's novelty should necessarily be a point in their favor since said novelty ties in pretty heavily with the parts of their sound that can make them incredibly annoying in the wrong circumstances, but every time that I hear them I get the weird 'what the fuck was that?' twinge that all but guarantees that I'll be coming back in the near future.  [7.9/10]

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 4

WEEK 4 (May 12-18th)

Total Albums Revsited: 23

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 3
  • Pelt For Michael Hannahs (VHF) A much more scattershot release than I remembered, and given how much consistency there generally is across a given Pelt release it seems even more disappointing. [6.5]
  • Les Joyaux de la Princesse Exposition Internationale Paris 1937 (Les Joyaux de la Princesse)  On first pass it toed the atmosphere-tedium boundary gracefully. One revisit it seems to not even realize that there is a line. [6.3]
  • Wunder Wunder (Karaoke Kalk) Downtempo, jazzy electronica that falls into the slightly boring category all too quickly after a great start. [6.7]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 13
  • Southpacific 33 (Turnbuckle) The ideal midpoint between Blind Idiot God and Tortoise. A bit hesitant but worthwhile all told. [7.5]
  • Tiere der Nacht Sleepless (Captain Trip)
    When Archetti and Neumeier re-interpret big beat through the lens of krautrock it's a damn good album. When they just settle into second rate krautrock things get sketchier. [7.3]
  • Home 13: Netherregions (Arena Rock) Every Home album comes close to making that leap to the other level that i look for, but it never seems to happen enough to merit a higher rating. [7.6]
  • Gate The Lavender Head (Hell's Half Halo) Gone are the aimless feedback excursions, and in their place we have proto-dubstep. Seriously, tell me that "Mary and Mars" wouldn't fit in perfectly on a Burial LP. [7.8]
  • Taku Sugimoto Opposite (Hat Hut) Subtle music that no matter how near to silence it is always beckons far you to listen more closely. [7.4]
  • Six Organs of Admittance Six Organs of Admittance (Pavillion) The noisier atmosphere really suits these tracks, and Chasny's playing is great, as always. [7.5]
  • Hannah Marcus Faith Burns (Normal) Often hints at being something more than half-good, but just as often makes me wonder whether I'm being overly generous. [7.1]
  • Dissecting Table Life (Release) Really not my thing as a rule, but the weird Merzbow meets Godflesh territory that this inhabits is fascinating even if it's not essential. [7.2]
  • Dave Douglas Charms of the Night Sky (Winter and Winter) Figures that the first thing that came to mind when re-listening to this was that it was very Masada-y, but the violin and accordion added a much more mournful texture to the proceedings. [7.4]
  • Terry Bozzio Drawing the Circle (Self-Released) Bozzio's drumming is enough to maintain a whole release on its own. That's praiseworthy in and of itself, but there's also the fact that the pieces are actually catchy, variable and memorable. [7.7]
  • The Jazz June The Boom, the Motion and the Music (Workshop) I like to think of this as what Cap'n Jazz might have sounded like if they were around for long enough to get epic and vaguely experimental on their second or third LP. [7.4]
  • High Rise Desperado (PSF) Straightforward psych-rock'n noise, like Fushitsusha focusing on riffs n solos instead of bludgeoning. [7.4]
  • Knapsack This Conversation Is Ending...Starting Right Now (Alias) The fact that it's formulaic and kinda same-y only slightly detracts from just how good of a formula it is and how consistency is a nice by-product of the saminess. [7.8]
Albums Being Elevated to 4 Stars: 3
  • The Hangovers Slow Dirty Tears (Kill Rock Stars)
  • Species Being Yonilicious (Grauspace)
  • Duotang The Cons and the Pros (Mint)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area:

Angry Johnny and The Killbillies What's So Funny? (Tar Hut)
It's hard to justify this opinion, but the biggest thing that I find this album has in its favor is its sense of humor. Keep in mind that I'm saying this about an album whose first track details the willful sexual exploitation of an underage girl who ends up HIV positive and where every other song features as much bloodshed, implied or explicit, as a classic Peckinpah western. But underneath all that seeming shock value lies more than enough cleverness and actual wit to counteract the wanton unpleasantness of the proceedings. It's in Angry Johnny's lyrics, sometimes overtly ("Daisies," "My Ghoul Maggie") and in its more lasting moments in simple word choice at key moments. It even bleeds into the arrangements and the backing vocals which are more than up to providing jaunty harmonies to grim stuff like the blood feud of "Jonses." It's just a very darkly funny album at its core, and that's what gives it a great deal of its replay value

Of course that would all be for naught if the music itself wasn't as arresting as the lyrics. While there's a definite quality gradient to the songs depending on their pace - the band in shit-kicking hoe down mode is truly spectacular while their less upbeat material is much less special - there's still a high base-level quality to the band's playing that would elevate the material even without the added kick of the lyrics. What's most impressive is that they manage to do so much more than your average underground country act in terms of tone, mostly thanks to the addition of a truly badass sounding saxophone to their arsenal. Even without that though, they seem to touch on every type of country song you can imagine, from the straight up tear in your beerisms of "Shitty Day" to the funeral march of "A Love More True" on the slower side and from the lighthearted playfulness of "Daisies" and "My Ghoul Maggie" to the hellishly dark atmosphere of "Kill Again" on the faster tip. This sub-genre hoping may rob the album of coherent flow, but it shows a band that's extremely comfortable in just about any style of their chosen genre, which is appreciated in a genre where monotony tends to reign supreme far too often. [8.0/10]

The Grassy Knoll III (Antilles)
Nu Free Jazz?
Free Nu Jazz?
Jazz Nu Free?

It's an interesting combination that Bob Green works with on the third Grassy Knoll release, but the way he plays the unpredictability of free jazz against the rigid formality of nu jazz makes for some great music in the end. Green's assembled cast of contributors - everyone from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore to free jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin to future Sleepytime Gorilla Museum violinist Carla Kihlstedt - are allowed to run loose across their various tracks while the core elements remain in a strict, locked groove. The end result should by all rights be a mess, but the way it's assembled makes it more fascinating than messy.

It helps that even if you remove the free-er moments from the album, at its base III is still one of the better nu jazz releases of its time. There's something to the grooves that the album is built upon that instantly grabbed me; the dark tone of the bass and the crisp, rigid feel of the drums is basically the ideal midpoint between trip-hop and cool jazz, making it one of the few albums in this style to understand that balance. The rest of the elements may be what gives the release its true character, but without that solid base to work from it would be difficult to give them their proper due. And boy do they deserve their due, whether its for the way that they enhance the grooves as they do for the better part of album standout "The Violent Misery of All Things" or rub against them in all the right ways as they on tracks like "Paul Has an Emotional Uncle" the way that Bob Green pieces the tracks together is always interesting and at its best totally unexpected.

It's also worth noting that another thing that III excels at where so many similar releases fail is that its slower, more minimal sounding tracks rarely some off as boring. I can't imagine any other project in this genre pulling off a track like "A World Reduced to Zero" with anywhere near the aplomb that Green does, honing in on the parts of the minimal soundscape that enhance the atmosphere and ensuring that the track comes off as being just as 'crafted' as anything else on the album despite seeming to be made up of so much less. It also furthers the sort of juxtapositions that green seems so fond of on a sonic level by ensconcing i between the most darkly layered piece on the album and one of it's most chaotic and free, giving it the feel of a necessary 'breather' of sorts without shortchanging its own quality. That's also a testament to how well arranged the album's tracklist is, letting the variously toned pieces co-mingle  in a way that enhances their variety without distracting from each track's quality. [8.1/10]

Order From Chaos An Ending in Fire (Osmose)
A few things that make me feel much more fondly towards An Ending in Fire than I do towards a lot of death metal albums:

 - Brevity. I am saying this about an album whose centerpiece is almost 12 minutes long, but the fact that the album proper doesn't quite reach the 40 minute mark does it a lot of favors. Namely, it means that the things about albums like this that I tend to have the hardest time dealing with don't wind up being around for long enough to begin to actively bother me.

 - Flow. There's a sense that the band was pulling off the rare trick of composing both songs that stand in their own right and songs that work so perfectly in their intended place on the album that bringing them out of context makes them feel incomplete somehow. It's in the way that "Tenebrae" subtly twists the riff from "Dawn Bringer Invictus" into its own core riff, then twists it again to form the basis for "The Sign Draconis." Essentially, the fact that there was a modicum of thought put into the sequencing of the album.

 - Micro-Solos. I may be overstating this one a bit, but the fact that Order From Chaos guitarist Chuck Keller seems to be content with tasteful and brief solos rather than long-winded bouts of instrumental wankery does more for this album than anything else. Hell the fact that he'll occasionally let a song go by - a six minute song at that - without feeling the need to solo at all is pretty much the reason that I'm close to giving this 4 stars. My main gripe with death metal is that the guitarists seem to think its their Satan-given duty to dazzle the listener with their ability to playnotesreallyfast at every opportunity, so whenever I come across one who understands that this sort of thing works so much better when it's a) properly integrated and b) not overlong, I tend to heap on the praise.

 - Complexity over technicality. A related point here, but the fact that more often than not the times I find myself saying 'man, these Order From Chaos dudes are incredibly talented players' are when they're simply letting their riffs evolve rather than displaying how well they can play on their own. Sure, Keller's solos are impressive enough, but I'm more impressed with the way he and his bandmates can subtly alter their riffs without disturbing the flow of the songs.

 - Vocals that aren't comically overdone. This is a comfortable level of growliness for me I guess, not so polished that it's at odds with the music but not so incomprehensible that it toes its way into unintentional comedy.

All in all, this is a testament to how well a certain level of tastefulness can be used to make a somewhat great album in a genre I find it so easy to be annoyed by. Order From Chaos don't forgo the traditional death metal elements so much as they dial them in at just the right levels to work better for me, personally, than so many in their genre. The fact that they do it all without fundamentally distancing themselves from the genre the way a band like Gorguts did around this time is pretty commendable as well, proving that you don't necessarily need to go weird in order to make a compelling case for this type of music. [7.9/10]

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]

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 2

WEEK 2 (April 29th-May 4th)

Total Albums Revisited: 26

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 5
  • Jim O'Rourke, Zeena Parkins, Toshinori Kondo, David Shea, DJ Low & Dirk Wachtelaer Fear No Fall (Lowlands) One thing I'm noticing here is that I tend to focus a lot on the best moments of albums on first pass without fully realizing how much space there is between them. [6.3]
  • Peter Scion Tree Music (Domestica) I think the big issue I wind up having here is that it's just too brief - under half an hour - to really make its mark. Given that Devachan's defining moment is only 7 minutes shorter than this entire release... [6.8]
  • Parmentier Luxsound (Sigma Editions) For all the good aspects - the insidiously dark vibe mainly - there's not enough to grasp or to get lost in at the heart of this one. [6.6]
  • Jean Derome et Les Dangereux Zhoms Torticolis (Ambiance Magnétiques) Another case where the moments of greatness - or pure uninhibited insanity as the case is here - are far more sporadic than I recalled. [6.4]
  • Marc Ducret and Bobby Previte In the Grass (Enja) Far more standard than I remembered. The people involved here can do so much better than this. [6.2]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 17
  • Kočani Orkestar L'orient est rouge (Cramworld) Gets the right balance of frantic and smooth. The best stuff here is truly exciting in a way that few jazz groups are able to get. [7.7]
  • Sephardic Tinge Morenica (Tzadik) Much more exciting than Coleman's other RJC entry from this year - the previously RAIed Selfhaters album - which given the heavy Masada overlap doesn't shock me, but outside of a few moments it doesn't seem to fully realize the potential it has. [7.6]
  • Alvin Curran Theme Park (Tzadik) First track on its own might have gotten a plus distinction if not a 4 star mark, just the right kind of percussive racket for me. The second track doesn't hit even the lowest points of its predecessor thus it drags. [7.0]
  • Milford Graves Grand Unification (Tzadik) Impressively varied and at times downright weird for an album of nothing but pure, untreated percussion. At times it almost sounds of a piece with Ruins in terms of energy and variability, but more often it just doesn't make the jump. [7.5]
  • Joe Hisaishi Hana-Bi (Milan) Might have more of a reaction to this if I'd seen the movie it comes from, but even on its own it stands as a great piece of music. Effortlessly dramatic without falling into needless bombast or the realms of the maudlin. [7.6]
  • Golden Golden (Trans Solar) Fleetingly great if that makes sense...the kind of album that sounds like 4 stars when you listen to it but leaves you hard pressed to remember why after its over. [7.1]
  • Stefano Scodanibbio The Voyage That Never Ends (New Albion) Sustained menace and interest with just an upright bass at his disposal. Minimal and repetitive but never boring. [7.8]
  • Peter Scion Devachan (Domestica) Blessed with personality and an overriding sense of doom. The best of his releases in this time period. [7.6]
  • Joëlle Léandre No Comment (Red Toucan) Freewheeling solo bass explorations where half the enjoyment comes from the unpredictability of Léandre's playing. [7.6]
  • David Shea Classical Works (Tzadik) "The 'Voice' Suite" is breathtaking, probably the best thing I've heard Shea do in any context. Unfortunately, "Chamber Symphony" is nowhere near the same level. [7.8]
  • Creation Is Crucifixion In_Silico (King of the Monsters) The general vibe of this one - weirdly technological and foreboding - gives it a distinct flavor that I appreciate even when the songs don't quite stick. [7.4]
  • Nels Cline and Devin Sarno Edible Flowers (WIN) As with the previous Cline-Sarno joint, the atmosphere is there in great portions but beyond that there's precious little to hold on to. This one has a few more weirdly pretty moments to spice it up at least. [7.6]
  • Dumb Type [OR] (Foil) Call it glitch done right. Shards vs slabs, huge sound that allows the nuances to shine, clinical precision. [7.5]
  • Hasidic New Wave Psycho-Semitic (Knitting Factory Works) A bit weirdly mixed - guitar in particular is WAY too loud - but the overall Bar Kokhba homage never trips into rip off territory which is admirable. [7.2]
  • Nostromo Argue (Snuff) The answer to the question 'What would Agoraphobic Nosebleed sound like if they wrote actual songs?' A bit of a hidden gem in ways, but also kinda monotonous. [7.6]
  • Ivor Cutler A Flat Man (Creation) So compellingly odd that nothing else really matters. I want to go around quoting this just to see how many odd looks I receive for it. [7.8] 
  • Pangolin Beneath These Darkened Trees (Domestica) While Peter Scion's solo material explored facets of dark folk, his band from the same time frame gives it all to full bore acid-drenched psych rock of a high enough order. The title track is a real gem. [7.7]
  • Keith Jarret, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette Tokyo '96 (ECM) Three old pros take on a variety of standards and make them sparkle without necessarily making them their own. If it weren't so damned well played I might be annoyed by that last part. [7.6]
Albums Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • El Hadj N'Diaye Thiaroye (Siggi Musique)
  • The Shadow Ring Hold Onto I.D. (Siltbreeze)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area:

Joe Morris, Ken Vandermark and Hans Poppel Like Rays (Knitting Factory Works)
The word that I keep returning to whenever I listen to this album is 'playful.' Even in its most forceful moments there's a decided lightness of touch to the playing that gives it the sort of replayable quality that I find very rare in the scope of free improvisation. There's an air of tossed off effortlessness to the proceedings that you might think would undercut the dazzling displays of instrumental pyrotechnics that Ken Vandermark (on reeds) Joe Morris (on guitars) and Hans Poppel (on piano) are prone to indulge in, but in the end it's the fact that this feels so breezy and uninhibited that gives it the extra push that so many in this style seem to lack.

But let's be fair here: this is an album on which everyone plays like a motherfucker. Vandermark's the biggest name here and thus the most known quantity, but his distinctive tone and style shines through as usual without obscuring either of his two collaborators. Morris acts most like a foil to Vandermark, underpinning his flights of fancy while adding subtle counter-melodic shades to his more straight playing, but when he getsthe spotlight he makes the most of it. He never descends into cliched jazz-fusion shredding or overt McLaughlin worship like so many jazz guitarists seem to do, opting for a clean, precise tone that makes each note stick, even when it comes in the middle of a formidable run of them. Poppel, though, winds up being the disc's MVP. He acts as the defacto rhythm section for the Morris/Vandermark duo, but at the same time adds so many nuanced fills and occasionally crashes through with a perfectly placed solo - the title track in particular illustrates this so much better than I can explain it - without ever neglecting his backbone duties as it were. It's a shame that he doesn't seem to have many other credits to his name because given what's on display here he might be up there with the bigger names in free jazz piano of our times.

The real joy, though, comes in the moments where all three players are at once seemingly going off on their own tangents but doing so in a way that perfectly compliments everything else that's occurring at the same time. It's the sound of three players who seem uniquely attuned to each others' frequency for the whole album's length without ever letting that synchronicity develop into complacency. On top of that, they do this all like it came to them as naturally as breathing. There's no moments that sound forced or overworked, everything flows with a degree of self-assuredness that makes the album feel so light and playful. The players' skill might make for the best moments - and if we're gonna name 'em they would be "Like Rays" and "Life Stuff" - but it's their ease of interaction that makes for a great album. [8.1/10]

Gary Lucas Busy Being Born (Tzadik)
Maybe it's just indicative of my own preferences above anything else, but the best moments in Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series seem to be built around at times radical re-interpretations of traditional numbers. Ignoring John Zorn's entries in the series, my undisputed favorite release so far has been Kletka Red's Hijacking where a who's who's of art punk luminaries set about dismantling any number of Jewish standards and re-building them as fractured shards of art punk. While Busy Being Born isn't quite at that level of re-invention, it's certainly of a certain piece with it all the same, warping an array of standards through Gary Lucas' unique sensibilities and coming out with an album that for all its reliance on familiar material feels somewhat fresh and new.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that no matter what he's playing, no one else in the game plays guitar like Gary Lucas does. Even if you've only heard him once or twice, it's hard to imagine that you've come away thinking that he's just another guitar slinger. Something in the tone of his guitar and his loose, ambling style of playing sets him apart from any of his closest peers. As a result, even when he's riffing on the hoary likes of "A Hundred Ponds of Clay" or "The Mensch in the Moon" the results are much more individualistic than you might expect. He doesn't even do as much to reinvent them as you might think, but the mere act of applying his own style to them gives them a decidedly Lucasian vibe that over-rides their familiarity.

But the fact that the best moments don't just stop there is the real joy of Busy Being Born. I'm thinking of "Sandman"'s twin devolutions into skronk punctuating the incredibly creepy vocals that Lucas adopts, or the three sides of "Adon Olom" explored as the CD's bookends, or the punkish fervor of "Crawlspace." It might be enough to pique my interest with just Gary Lucas re-interpreting the Jewish songbook, but it's the other avenues that he and his cohorts take that idea down that give Busy Being Born a lot of its residual charm. It may not be his best solo outing - really, he has a long way to go to recapture the magic of Skeleton at the Feast - but it's certainly an interesting detour for him to take, and the results more than justify it. [7.9/10]

Kramer Let Me Explain to You Something About Art (Tzadik)
It's hard to put into words, but the closest I can come to describing the experience here is this: Imagine if The Fiery Furnaces' Rehearsing My Choir was re-imagined as a tragedy instead of a surreal comedy. Translate the album in that way and you might come close to the feeling that Let Me Explain... gives me. Kramer - yes, the same guy that was at the heart of Bongwater and Shimmy-Disc Records - describes it as a meditation on the dying process, and that shines through even without having his word for it. It's in the foreboding accordion and bass pulse that backs what appears to be a series of bar mitzvah guests congratulating the birthday boy on "Jupiter and the Infinite," the various snippets of history that he loops and returns to during "Odds Against Tomorrow," the very sound of the voices on "Umberto D." It's never full on bleak, thankfully, but it's not exactly a laugh riot either.

If I described the basic elements that Let Me Explain to You Something About Art is based upon, you might not understand why I'm so hung up on it. The major elements at play are a series of oral histories from aging Jewish men and women and a static yet shifting bed of dark classical music. That's it really, and yet something in the way that Kramer manipulates them, the oral histories especially, that makes it resonate a lot more than I'd have thought it would. I'm not invested in the stories, but they stick with me because Kramer takes a particular line or two and loops them to almost devastating effect. I'm hard pressed to say that the instrumentals are great in any way, but the way that they evolve and shift so subtly underneath the samples is perfectly evocative. The two elements don't interact too much, but they imbue each other with qualities not inherent to them on their own.

Like I said, it's hard to explain this album since so much of it defies verbalization. It's all about the feeling it evokes, the subtleties of the mix and Kramer's treatment of the material more than any show-stopping element that I can point to and say 'that! right there!'. Nevertheless, it's an album that sticks with me in an odd way, a way that very few albums do to be quite honest. I may not be able to do it justice here, but it's hard to hold that against the album itself. [7.9/10] 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

98 the Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week One

Rather than do the whole daily update thing for this portion of the project, I'm going to do a weekly post summing up the albums I re-visited and the results of that re-visitation. That way there's some meat to the posts - especially the ones from days that I work when I only have time to really listen to a couple of albums - and a set format that's easy to replicate each time.

So, what's the purpose of this section of the project? Well, like I said in my EP summary post, the ratings I'm working with are basically gut instinct first pass ratings. These had proven to be a bit unreliable in the past, so to try and normalize things and ferret out the growers that I hadn't given enough time to I'm going to give all the borderline 4 star rated albums I flagged another listen. There are a few possible outcomes from that process; either I was overly generous on first pass, was in the general ballpark or hadn't let the given album work its charms on me for long enough. As a result, these posts will summarize the week's listening into four headings...

  • Albums that are getting bumped up into the four star category. These will be further revisited in that section of the project.
  • Albums that aren't getting bumped up, but which would populate the very uppermost tier of the 3.5 star rating. These will get the review and download link treatment as seen in the EP section.
  • Albums that are remaining at the 3.5 star rating's lower tiers. These will just be summed up briefly.
  • Albums that are dropping down to a 3 star rating. Once again, these will be summed up briefly with more emphasis on how they fooled me initially.
So without further ado

WEEK ONE (April 21st-27th)

Total Albums Revisited: 28

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 7
  • Song of Kerman The Unamerican Sounds of Song of Kerman (Moo Cow) The passion is there in spades, but the execution isn't. Sometimes an excess of the former can cancel out the latter but not in this case. [6.6]
  • Griver / The Exploder A Split Twelve Inch Recording (Skylab Operations) Griver's side held its ground admirably, but The Exploder's never came close to being very noteworthy. [6.4]
  • Mark Helias' Open Loose Come Ahead Back (Koch) The interplay was enough to convince me that this might be fairly great, but the songs never quite connected.[6.5]
  • Clemencic Consort Troubadors (Harmonia Mundi) Fundamental otherness drew me in on first pass, second pass didn't turn up anything truly noteworthy besides said otherness. [6.2]
  • Michel Doneda Anatomie des clefs (Potlach) I remembered the sporadic bursts of horn playing adding up to a fairly satisfying whole. That doesn't seem to be the case. [6.1]
  • Brass Knuckles for Tough Guys Noise Man Kills Him (Divot) I was swayed enough by the most propulsive moments to overlook the fact that most of the time the songs are weirdly incomplete. [6.4]
  • Teodoro Anzellotti Erik Satie Compositeur de Musique (Winter & Winter) The pieces are still exceptional, especially the Gnossiennes, but the translation to accordion robs them of a lot of character somehow and doesn't imbue them with enough new character to compensate.[6.7]

Albums Staying at 3.5 Stars: 15
  • Marteau Rouge ...un jour se lève (Self-Released) Very, very Ruins-y improv with a decidedly darker tinge to its production. The parts that hit hit hard, but they're broken up by material that's just not quite there yet. [7.4]
  • Fabulous Trobadors On the Linha Imaginot (PolyGram) Comes damn close to being elevated if only because of the loose, zydeco-influenced vibe of the production gives it nice degree of ramshackle charm. Shave it down to 45 minutes and we'd have a much better contender. [7.7]
  • Selfhaters The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same (Tzadik) Minimalist jazz that I always come away from thinking 'that should have been boring...' yet never reveals itself as such. May not be exceptional but is certainly recommendable. [7.0]
  • Bruce Ackley Trio The Hearing (Avant) No matter how formulaic it becomes, the juxtaposition of the straight bass lines and Ackley's more uninhibited flights of fancy works consistently for me. [7.2]
  • KCE Japan Sound Team Metal Gear Solid (King) If not for the (necessary given its origins but still irksome to me) recycling of the same general themes in new tempos this might get the plus distinction. What's here is interesting enough though, more Martial Industrial than Video Game Music to my ears. [7.6]
  • Krzycz Trauma (Nikt Nic Nie Wie) At points it's more interesting in theory than in practice, but when the sludge/noise rock/screamo hybrid works and works for sustained periods of time it's incredibly noteworthy. [7.3]
  • Hellworms Crowd Repellant (Alternative Tentacles) Same issue that I have with Victims Family applies here: for all the skill apparent the songs never quite stick. [7.2]
  • Nels Cline and Devin Sarno Rise, Pumpkin, Rise (Volvolo) There's a lot to be said for the atmosphere - tense as hell, sonic equivalent of looking at a nuclear wasteland - but it doesn't get to the sort of queasy-making grandeur that Cline's other albums in this vein achieve. [7.7]
  • The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra Live in Japan '96 (DIW) The one-two punch of the Dolphy medley and Schlippenbach's "The Morlocks" sets the bar too high for the rest of the material to reach. [7.8]
  • The Keller Quartett Die Kunst der Fugue (Bach) (ECM New Series) Perhaps I've just been spoiled by Yo Yo Ma's Bach cello suites, but this seems far too cold and distant. Excellent composition and performance, but the piece itself doesn't do much for me. [7.3]
  • Komeda What Makes It Go? (North of No South)  Comes across as the Swedish version of Stereolab in both good - impeccably crafted lounge pop! - and not so good - no sexy French vocals! - ways. [7.6]
  • Joel R.L. Phelps and The Downer Trio 3 (Pacifico) Phelps is still one of my favorite vocalists, but bar a few songs here he doesn't seem to be as invested as previously. Still makes his mark, but nowhere near as deeply. [7.1]
  • Black Box Recorder England Made Me (Chrysalis) Slight musically, but Haines' wry, mordant lyrics coupled with Sarah Nixey's vocals give it a certain cachet for me. [7.8]
  • Denman Maroney Hyperpiano (Mon$ey Music) Incredibly interesting sounds come out of this one, but they're also kind of annoying and haphazard at times. [7.5]
  • Susie Ibarra and Dennis Charles Drum Talk (Wobbly Rail) These were two of the most dynamic and exciting drummers in the jazz world at the time, but while they both thrived in ensembles putting the focus on them isn't all it should be. Some splendid moments though.[7.3]
Albums Being Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • Shpongle Are You Shpongled? (Twisted)
  • Franklin Building in A and E (File Thirteen)
More on these in the next section

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area: 4

Sea of Cortez Age of Anxiety (Voice of the Sky)
There are three bands at work here. All three bands are heavily indebted to Unwound and Shotmaker in various proportions. All three bands are anchored by some fast-paced but not overly busy drumming. All three bands have a slight desert-baked vibe that makes them sound at a bit of a remove from the rest of their obvious peers. Basically, all three bands are decidedly the same band, but they come at it from three different angles. This is at once the best and worst part of Age of Anxiety, because while it ensures that there's enough variety to keep things interesting it also gives the album a bit of a hodge-podge feel that detracts from the experience a bit.

The first band is the most Unwound-indebted of the lot. Hell, the vocalist in this band may as well be Justin Trosper for all I can tell - same detached, slightly hoarse voice, same inflections. This is the band that gives Age of Anxiety its biggest triumphs, namely the fluidly shifting opener "Break Right Now" and the slow building yet frantic "Reset All Controllers." This is the most consistent of the three units at work here, and given that it's the mode that Sea of Cortez operate in about half the time they're the biggest reason I might hold this up as a high quality hidden gem of a release. If you pared back Age of Anxiety to an EP containing the material in this vein it would be an easy 4 stars from me.

The second band is the most problematic aspect of the release. This is mostly due to the vocalist residing in that weak, thin, reedy range so prevalent among the most run of the mill emo acts of this time period. The band behind him is decidedly on a different level from those acts, but any time that this particular vocalist rears up in the mix it drags the album down enough to be noticeable. Essentially, the tracks on the album that I have the least trouble skipping past if I'm in a more cursory mood are courtesy of this make of the band.

The third band is the most Shotmaker-leaning of the three. They're the one whose songs are the most energized, frantic, driving and focused of the whole album. They're the side of Sea of Cortez that gives them the most character out of the three we're talking about. Unfortunately though, this is also the band that shows up the least often, only really rearing up on the excellent album highlight "Negative Space" and the brief "Discovering the Wonders of the Universe." Actually, scratch that 'unfortunately' - really, the fact that this side of the band is relegated to the background more often than it's given the spotlight is its biggest asset. While I'd appreciate more stuff in that vein all told, the fact that this side of the band is kept on a leash as it were makes their brief moments in the sun that much more powerful.

In the end though, it's the fact that all three of these bands are sides of the same coin that makes Age of Anxiety stand out from the rest of the late 90s emocore scene. The disjointedness it creates aside, it gives the album a degree of depth that so many similar bands of this era would kill for, and a degree of unpredictability that makes each listen that much more exciting. It may be the reason I don't give the album a higher rating, but it's also the reason I find the album much more replayable than most of its peers. [8.0/10]

Dose One Hemispheres (Self-Released)
Dose One is an acquired taste. His voice is so nasal that it makes Aesop Rock sound like DMX by comparison. His flow comes across as haphazard and jagged at first. His lyrics are abstract to the point of impenetrability. He's not normal, in other words. In fact he's incredibly odd even in the realm of the most abstract hip hop. You won't like him, but you will never have heard any thing like him either. Even if you hate him with a fiery passion like some seem to, you can't exactly accuse him of being lazy or formulaic.

The thing is that, underneath all the impenetrable weirdness there's a skilled craftsman at work. That's probably more clear here than on his later output if only because he's front and center for most of the release. It's also his most normal sounding outing, very much rooted in his history as a battle rapper rather than the abstracted realms he favors nowadays, which might make it the most palatable entry point for the uninitiated. Sure, a lot of the beats are a bit substandard and overly minimal for my tastes at times, though the ones that are more carefully constructed - "Spitfire" and "Etherial Downtime" namely - make for album highlights, but the unadorned quality puts more focus on the skill that Dose has as a rapper.

He's verbally dextrous to a fault for one. Just listen to "Spitfire" where he and show-stealer Lionesque - seriously, why has she not done more shit since this? - wind around each other wit ha sort of practiced fluidity that elevates both of their performances if you want an example of that. On the other hand though, he also has a facility with finding these weird inflections and phrasings that sound fundamentally wrong if you remove them from context but sound absolutely perfect in the sphere of the song itself. That's what i mean when I talk about him as a craftsman first and foremost; he's not going to use every moment of this tape to demonstrate his skill in straightforward ways only, he's going to find the best way to work within the song even if it might sound weird or, well, wrong if you pull-quote it. And while this is his "normal" album, it's not without hints of his more avant leanings either. "Etherial Downtime" especially seems like the template for his later triumphs, with its moody piano loop and overlapping vocals that make it stand out from the rest of the album.

So this is probably the least representative Dose release on the whole, but that's probably why it's the one I'd suggest trying first. Think of it as acclimatization; you need to see if you're on the right wavelength to dive deeper into his stuff, so it makes sense that you should go with the toe dip of weirdness that is Hemispheres over something much more rewarding as an album but also much further removed from normalcy like Ha or Circle. You'll probably come out of this with an idea as to whether or not you even want to continue on or not, and it's easy to see why you might not, but you won't go into shock from the outre if you start here. [7.9/10]

Jackie-O Motherfucker Flat Fixed (IMP)
The main word that comes to mind as I'm listening to Flat Fixed is 'transitional.' After two LPs of very, very weird, all over the map freak folk/post-rock experiments, this double LP finds the boys and girl at the core of JOMF honing in on the parts of those albums that worked the best and developing them as best they can. As such it feels like the sort of missing link between the more freewheeling early material and the more expansive and focused stretch of albums that the band released between 1999 and 2005 - which is probably the best six album stretch any artist even tangentially related to post-rock can be said to have. It also feels very much like a dry run for the material from that era, the album where they figured out exactly what worked in what proportions by fiddling around with it more than usual.

What I'm trying to say is that while Flat Fixed could probably be said to mark the beginning of JOMF as I know and love them, that is as the makers of an intensely atmospheric and evocative post-rock/free-folk/jazz hybrid that so few can be said to even begin to approach, it's also oddly incomplete as it were. It's the album where they figured things out, and the process of the figuring was laid out quite plainly in the record itself. You can hear them trying various degrees of the alchemy from their earlier days, most notably on the almost electronic sounding "Dot Riot," in the attempt to get the balance just right. It's the very essence of a transitional album, at once very much a step in the right direction but still a bit too hesitant to pull it off with the right degree of aplomb or consistency.

That's not to say that its a write off though. Even if the early going is a bit choppier than I'd come to expect from this gang, there more than enough to recommend therein. "Turtles" is straightforward and pretty, almost like the material that would make up Flags of the Scared Harp a full 7 years later. Both "Bewitched" and "Ferrarris" are worthwhile even if they don't have the room to breathe that JOMF benefits from the most. "Honey" is almost there, as close as the album has come so far to properly dialing in the right mix of elements, but it hold s back where it needs to push forward and winds up feeling like a missed opportunity. "Dot Riot" is a definite step back into their older style, though it's played much more low key and subtle than that might indicate. The thing is that, "Dot Riot" aside, none of the tracks are bad at all, in fact most of them are great in comparison to the last two albums' material. They're just not quite there in light of what the band could do so effortlessly not even two years down the road.

That said though, when they do get the balance right on the album's final two tracks it's breathtaking. "Wolf Brother Blues" is a seventeen minute suite that would sit proudly next to any of the best songs from the forthcoming run of albums, pretty much defining the JOMF sound from here on out with its seamless blend of free jazz saxophones over an epic folk base. "Crazymaker" takes that blueprint in all manner of new directions over the course of its 24 and a half minute run time, but never goes so far afield that it loses the center. The build up to these two tracks is mildly frustrating at times, though the first 5 tracks are not without their charms, but the payoff is 40 of the best minutes of material JOMF have ever laid down and it's more than worth the effort to get there. [8.1/10]

The Stickmen The Stickmen (Self-Released)
As far as I'm concerned, the key to good noise-rock is that you don't shortchange the rock half of the equation in favor of the noise. It's all well and good to be punishing, feedback drenched noise-mongers, but if you're not also doing something akin to rocking as you do that you've missed the point. In a nutshell, that's why The Stickmen work for me so well. Underneath the intoxicating haze of psychedelic/bludgeoning guitar fuzz and incredibly well integrated turntable scratching that resides at the forefront of their self titled debut album there's an honest to goodness rock band that's pushing things forward in the most driving, insistent but not flashy way possible. It's a balance that's difficult to maintain, and at a few points herein they don't quite get it right either, but when they do it's utterly fantastic.

Let's just get back to that turntable thing though, because that's about where these guys separate themselves from the pack on their best material. You wouldn't necessarily think that turntables would make for a great addition to noise rock, but the way that Matt Geeves works it into the fabric of the band's sound, almost acting like its a second guitar more than anything remotely DJ-ish, allows for the songs to really come alive. More specifically, it lets guitarist Aldous Kelly push out riffs while Geeves provides the texture thus satisfying the noise and rock halves of the equation without stepping on each other's toes. Take "Creep Inside" for instance, where Kelly can devote his guitar solely to the double-picked surf riff at the song's core while Geeves can fill the background with just the right amount of percolating noise to act as an ideal backdrop. It's a unique set up, but it doesn't rely solely on that novelty to get its point across. Add in the perfectly propulsive rhythm section and you've got a recipe for some interesting, inventive times ahead.

Given all that, it's hard to say why I don't like this more than I do. Maybe it's the degree of sameness that can seem to overtake things towards the end, or the fact that the slower tracks don't play to the band's strengths and kinda drag things to a halt. Fact remains that when the band's working on all cylinders, and they are doing that for about half the tracks here, they make some of the most unique and peerless noise rock of any time period. It's a crime that it's so hard to come by - only 500 were made, self released by the band in their native Tasmania and given the reverent tone that everyone in this article adopts when speaking about the band I'd wager that the people who own those 500 copies aren't about to let go of them - but when you do get your ears on it you'll be in for a real treat. Trust me. [8.0/10]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Rock Week Part 5 - 'A golden bird that flies away, a candle's fickle flame'

So, thanks to a persistent sinus infection that made concentrating on writing and posting difficult plus a full work schedule, ROCK WEEK lasted a few days longer than I had initially anticipated. So here be the final sections of that so as to get it done with and move on to bigger, brighter things in the re-listening of all my borderline 4 star albums. Enjoy.

The Flys “Got You (Where I Want You)”
The Nostalgia Factor: Weirdly low. Don't get me wrong I liked it a lot when it was gaining traction, but not in a way that made me remember it as a particular favorite. [7]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I's spend the better part of the few minutes after I heard it trying to fathom how it was a hit of any size at any time, but in a good way. [10]

Ten reasons why this is probably my single favorite modern rock hit of the late 90s:
  1. The lurching, mysterious and creepy vibe that it carries from the first bars.
  2. The weirdly chorused vocal effect that singer Adam Paskowitz' voice is treated with.
  3. The lack of aggression in what is pretty much an unabashed stalker song.
  4. The subtle shift between the verse and the chorus vs the jarring transitions that post-grunge favored.
  5. The far too well considered lyrics. They don't read as predatory until it's far too late to turn back.
  6. 'I think you're smart' for example. Subtext abounds.
  7. The jarring shift into the bridge section that actually carries through for the rest of the song instead of receding.
  8. The integration of the rap from the bridge into the final chorus.
  9. The bass solo that it ends with...and the fact that only then do you realize that it's been driving the whole song with the guitars as window dressing.
  10. The fact that it sounds like nothing else from the radio landscape of 1998.

Hard as it is to believe considering that I don't recall liking the song this much on its initial release, this is pretty much the blueprint for the modern rock songs I've loved for more recent years. It's dark, moderately menacing, subtle and well considered on almost every single level – hell, even the rapped bridge that should be a detriment to it works in its favor in the end – so much so that I can't help but love it more and more every time I hear it now. But really it boils down to the fact that this sounds about as far removed from the rest of the songs I'm tackling here as you can get without leaving the confines of rock radio. That sort of black sheep quality allows it to stand out in a way that's easier to appreciate in hindsight than it would at the time. You could also say that this would be ground zero for my love of stalker songs/the tendency I have to read more predatory vibes into otherwise innocuous songs, which counts for a lot since this is my list and everything.

KISS “Psycho Circus”
The Nostalgia Factor: Comically low. Another one that I recall inspiring a large eyeroll upon hearing it. [3]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: My eyes would roll so hard that I'd be looking at my brain. [2]

There is literally no reason I can think of for this song to exist, let alone for it to have been remotely popular, other than the fact that KISS diehards will eat up anything the band offers to them like it was manna from heaven. I'd like to think that this wold be a sort of breaking point for a good portion of those people as well though, because even by the alarmingly low standards that KISS has this is impressively awful. It's also 5 and a half minutes long, which no KISS song should ever be even if it's not a fucking wormburner like this one.

Rob Zombie “Dragula”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderately high. Zombie at his campiest was right up my alley at age 13 since it involved horror imagery and scantily clad ladies. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd appreciate the catchiness of the whole thing, but not enough to over ride how cheesy I find the whole endeavor. [5]

This is the sort of thing where the nostalgic aspects don't wind up having any bearing on my appreciation of the song now. I loved it when I was 13 because it was made for me when I was 13. It was camp horror pop-metal with gratuitous dancing ladies in the video, basically the stuff that every red blooded 13 year old lives and breathes until he actually gets laid. With the distance I now have from that age it becomes more and more obvious that the appeal this held for me at one point wasn't due to the music itself but the image associated with it. That said, the song isn't exactly bad or anything, just base-line catchy and nothing more. It really doesn't help that the lyrics don't make a lick of sense even in the scope of Zombie's horrorshow ethos.

Lenny Kravitz “Fly Away”
The Nostalgia Factor: Low. This song always seemed incredibly lazy and underwritten even before I knew how to verbalize that thought. [4]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: My hatred of the entity known as Lenny Kravitz would literally know no bounds. [2]

This is yet another of my 'there's no excuse for this' reviews, because literally, there fucking isn't. It seems to have a level of contempt for the concepts of originality and depth that few songs can be said to possess, from the first verse where the rhyme scheme is pretty much plagiarized from a 5th grade rhyming dictionary on through the chorus which seems to think that 'yeah, yeah, yeah' is an acceptable way to make up for a lack of lyrics. To be brief, there's is absolutely no redeeming quality to this song, not one moment that convinces me that there's even an illusion of anything below the surface here. It's just Kravitz testing the waters to see how little effort he can get away with putting into a song and still have it be a hit. The answer, considering how ubiquitous this still is 13 years later, was a resounding 'none, at all' from the part of humanity that I routinely tell to go fuck itself.

Goo Goo Dolls “Slide”
The Nostalgia Factor: Low. The Goos were always a bit of a nothing band for me, never really hitting but never really aggravating either. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd definitely like it a bit more than “Iris” but I'd still be at a loss as to why it's even moderately adored. [5]

To be fair, there's a lot more to like here than I might have claimed even a month ago. Even the fact that its oddly hookless winds up reading as a good point, as not letting the need for a showstopping chorus get in the way of the story that the song's trying to tell is at least modestly admirable. That said though, it's still a bit of a cipher on melodic level, which is at once frustrating and refreshing since even the worst songs here have some sort of melodic thread to follow. It's repetitive, sure, but the repetition doesn't seem to have any sort of reasoning behind it other than formula. It makes for a strange reaction on my part, where I find myself more intrigued by how this sort of a song could be so widely adored than having any opinion of the song itself.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion “Do You Wanna Get Heavy”
The Nostalgia Factor: Nonexistant. Weird shit went on with the RPM Alternative 30 at the end of the year leading to quite a few really left field “hits.” [n/a]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Really? This was the lead single? Not “Attack” or anything with an actual hook? [5]

So yeah, at the end of 1998 something really weird happened to the RPM Alternative 30. What was generally a can-con heavier shuffling of the two concurrent American rock charts took a very decisive left-field turn for the final two months of the year, during which time Skinny Puppy, Flipper, Scratching Post (an independent metal band) and Talvin Singh all had singles in the top 10. At the helm of this time period? A middling track from JSBX. “Do You Wanna Get Heavy?” never struck me as a good album track, let alone one that would be a single under any circumstances, but for all of November and December it was the #1 song on the Canadian alternative charts, even securing itself a #6 position in the year end top 50. It's baffling to be honest, because like I said this sounds like a mid level filler track, not a hit single.

Kittens “Moose Jaw”
The Nostalgia Factor: Nonexistant, once again. Really, the weird shit that went on in the Canadian charts at this point is almost comical. [n/a]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Really? This was a hit? Even in the weirdness of late 1998 I find it difficult to fathom that this sort of grinding, sludgy noise rock had any audience at all...but I'll take it regardless. [7]

Even less hit single sounding than JSBX, but that has less to do with its quality than its unrelenting ugliness. Seriously, this sounds more in line with Children of God-era Swans and early Unsane than anything remotely popular at this point in time, which just goes to show you how fucking weird the Canadian alternative charts decided to get a year's end here. But aside from its decided lack of mass appeal there's a lot to enjoy here, particularly the grinding/driving main riff and breathless delivery that anchors the track. Of course to really get into it you probably need at least a passing familiarity with the more uncompromising end of noise-rock, and in that realm it's a bit less than worthy, but overall there's nothing much to hold against it.

Metallica “Turn the Page”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. This would have been around the time that I started to actively despise modern Metallica (read: I'd finally heard Ride the Lightning) but this one didn't aggravate me all that much. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd be plenty aggravated by it if only because it's so over-done compared to the original. [4]

Oh James Hetfield's alternative voice, how easy you are to mock. Your lack of emotion, your purposeful ugliness, your “attitude”'s difficult to get past you in the best of circumstances is what I'm driving at here. You certainly have your place, but a cover of Bob Seger's ambivalent ode to touring life isn't it. You seem to invert the meaning of the song, turning what was actually a fairly subtle dissection of the touring rock star persona into a celebration of the same. You don't seem to get that “Turn the Page” is supposed to be a moderately sad song about the emptiness of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. When Seger sang 'Here I go, playing the star again' the undercurrent was 'why do I even bother anymore?' When you sing it, that meaning is totally lost in favor of needless bombast. The blame isn't wholly in your corner though, really the whole band seems to have missed the point of the slight, subtle arrangement that the original had and instead seemingly felt it necessary to bludgeon it into a mid-level modern day Metallica rocker. Really, the whole cover is misbegotten after the first few lines, but I can't help but lightly praise it in light of what was to come from you guys...that's to say the production is actually moderately real sounding vs the processed to hell shit that we'd be faced with soon.

Cake “Never There”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. I didn't hear this song all that often upon its release but the few times I did I do recall enjoying it. [7]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd feel more than kindly towards it. It's certainly different from the rest of this batch which certainly lets it stand out a bit. [8]

The real charm here comes from the small touches. The backbone is the usual Cake thing of detached delivery over vaguely mariachi tinged alt rock, but things like the brief intrusions of phone sounds or the full band 'HEY!'s that pop up occasionally are what really make this one of the band's better moments. Essentially, if you like one Cake song you're gonna like 'em all, but its nice to see that even within that formula there's room for variation, no matter how slight it may seem.

Everlast “What It's Like”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. I was too young to have any residual nostalgia for House of Pain – though I was at least passingly familiar with “Jump Around” - so this just struck me as a fairly good song. The whole acoustic rap thing gave it a bit of a novelty appeal as well. [6]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Well meaning as it may be, the whole ISSUES! tone of the song kills my enjoyment of it to some degree. [4]

I am about to make a comparison that you can pretty easily disassemble, but that won't stop me: this song is like the movie Crash – not the Cronenberg one – in all the wrong ways (not that there are many right ones but that's another rant for another time.) It's a surface-level examination of various social issues – homelessness, abortion and street violence – that assumes that by merely bringing the issues to light it can be said to have depth. In some ways it's even worse than Crash because it boils all three vignettes down to the trite notion of 'if you haven't been there you can't say anything about it.' It's moderately infuriating on that level to be honest; it may mean well but it doesn't really say anything about the issues it wants to shed light on. Once you get past that, or just ignore it like I do most of the time now, there's not much else of note to discuss. It's refreshingly simple but not to a degree that that's necessarily an asset, and Everlast's flow is much better suited to this type of thing than it ever was to full on hip hop. If only it were a bit more objective and exploratory than clearly biased and cliched that might give it the makings of a great song, but such is not the case and we end the year on a bit of a dud.

98 The Hard Way: Rock Week Part 4 - 'Beautiful garbage, beautiful dresses'

So, thanks to a persistent sinus infection that made concentrating on writing and posting difficult plus a full work schedule, ROCK WEEK lasted a few days longer than I had initially anticipated. So here be the final sections of that so as to get it done with and move on to bigger, brighter things in the re-listening of all my borderline 4 star albums. Enjoy.

Eve 6 “Inside Out”
The Nostalgia Factor: Pretty high. The fact that the band was barely older than I was at this point in time and were all over the place weighed pretty heavily in the song's favor. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: The whole 'band being not much older than I was' thing would turn into a detriment pretty quickly. [4]

Yeah, it's obvious now that these lyrics are nothing more than a high school kid trying to write something deep. It's almost laughable how badly this has aged on that front, but otherwise it's still a decent if fairly faceless slab of pop-punk of that distinctly late 90s/early 00s variety. It's definitely easy to see why it caught on though, because even if the lyrics are utter shit the melody is incredibly catchy, so catchy that occasionally I find it distracting me from the lyrics. That's as good a quality as you can expect this to have, honestly.

Fuel “Shimmer”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. Another one that I remember fairly well but can't say for sure whether or not I had any strong reaction to. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd know in my heart that this was extreme middle of the road post-grunge...but I'd still like it more than most things on this list. [7]

Look, I can't not give this an inflated grade. Three reasons: 1. Cellos. I'm not immune to well-deployed cello even in the most faceless of circumstances. 2. Knowing where the band went hereafter I appreciate the restraint on display. 3. The fucking cello. I'M ONLY HUMAN GODDAMMIT! LET ME HAVE MY FAULTS!

Barenaked Ladies “One Week”
The Nostalgia Factor: High. I loved this song when it first came out, probably for all the reasons I'll go into below for hating it because... [9]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: HATE. HATE. HATE. HATE. HATE. HATE. [2]

Oh dear...well let's just get it done with; I hate this song. Hate hate hate this song. I hate it not because it's a novelty but because it holds that novelty up like it's something to be congratulated for. I hate it because it thinks it's clever when all it's really doing is making pop culture references. I hate it because the verses have no logical connection to the rest of the song on a lyrical level. I hate it because it's still inescapable 13 years later when you'd have thought that the 'lol white nerds trying to rap!' thing would have aged as well as a piece of gouda that you left out on the counter for 13 years. I hate it because 90% of the time when people say they hate BNL it's because of this song and this song only. I hate that this was the song that broke the band in a big way when Stunt has, by my count, twelve infinitely better songs. But most of all, I hate the fact that I can still sing along to every. God. Damned. Word of it like some sort of involuntary reflex.

Watchmen “Any Day Now”
The Nostalgia Factor: Mild. I had much stronger feelings for “Stereo,” their previous single, because it actually rocked the fuck out. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: It might be a revelation on a small scale. [8]

The key difference between the two Watchmen singles form this era is as simple as this: one actively strives for some sort of anthemic quality while one effortlessly achieves it. The key to why “Any Day Now” works much more easily than its counterpart comes down to the fact that Daniel Greaves' vocals are much, much better suited to the band's less rocking songs. On their rockers Greaves has to stretch his voice to fit in with the surroundings, but on songs like this he glides in effortlessly and gives the song an added depth that can't really be summed up in words.

Smashing Pumpkins “Perfect”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. I wasn't as vehemently against it as I was with “Ava Adore” but I still just thought it was an inferior retread of “1979.” [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Actually, 'inferior retread of “1979”' still sounds about right. [5]

It's weird that despite my new found appreciation for Adore as a whole the singles that were chosen for it still ring a bit hollow to me. I understand why they were chosen, but that doesn't stop them from being among the lesser lights of the album. This especially feels very much like a barely disguised sttempt to repeat the success of “1979” only replacing the manufactured nostalgia with swooning romanticism and maybe adding a bit more of an electronic vibe if only to remind people that the band isn't the same as they were a few years prior. It's perfectly serviceable but also inherently forgettable.

Beastie Boys “Intergalactic”
The Nostalgia Factor: This would have been my first exposure to the B-Boys – I missed the whole “Sabotage” thing by a year or so and was still 2 years from discovering Licensed to Ill – so I'm pretty sure I loved the shit out of it. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Beastie Boys are one of those bands that I can't appreciate that much now that I'm not a teenager. Sorry. [4]

Even in their more mature albums there's still a great deal of inherent immaturity to the Beastie Boys' songs. Maybe it's that on some level I will ever not see them as the same guys who made stuff like “Fight for Your Right to Party” or “Girls,” but I find it hard to really relate to any of their stuffas anything but some soret of tossed off juvenile lark. Maybe there are a few exceptions to this along the way, but “Intergalactic” certainly isn't one of them. Despite some interesting things on the production side of things – that pitch-shifted 'another dimension' loop single-handedly justifies the song's existence – it's still just another in a long line of Beastie Boys songs that don't connect on any level.

Creed “What's This Life For”
The Nostalgia Factor: I hated it. I couldn't tell you why I hated it but I distinctly remember finding it utterly insufferable. [3]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: Urge to kill...rising....rising...[2]

It's far too easy to hate Creed. They're just a trainwreck of all the worst traits of post-grunge – the Vedder wannabe baritone, the predisposition to maudlin ballads, the lack of interesting instrumental choices – but a trainwreck that isn't even compelling to analyze beyond the fact that it's a fucking trainwreck. It's impossible to analyze where things went wrong because it was all wrong from the start. And that's before you get to Jesus-pose purveyor Scott Stapp and his incredible lack of subtlety on either a lyrical or a vocal's a misbegotten venture that only yielded pain for all involved.

Everything “Hooch”
The Nostalgia Factor: High. It very much sounds like the summer of 1998 as though that sort of thing could be bottled into a 4 minute song. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: It would still sound distinctly like summer, and that sort of vibe really works for me. [8]

Any song that can be summed up as 'summery' will get an automatic pass from me. I'm not even a huge fan of the season itself – autumn's more my thing all told – but if a song can put me in that sort of mind state it usually winds up being a favorite. “Hooch” could be a failure, an amalgam of all the things that I hated about Dave Matthews Band and their HORDE counterparts, but the fact that those opening chords automatically make it seem like its 21 degrees Celsius and I'm lounging around a hastily assembled campfire with a few empty bottles around me, one more on the go and my friends nearby in similar states of contentment. That's saying a lot of the song because those aren't exactly specific memories I associate with it, but ones that come to mind when I think of summer. It's all in the weird connections my mind makes, but that doesn't diminish the song's quality at all.

Big Sugar “The Scene”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate/High. I think Big Sugar were one of the few classic-rock-indebted bands I dug even a bit in my younger days, mostly because the swagger was at the forefront. [7]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'm still not immune to the swagger, though I find it a bit stilted nowadays in this context. [7]

In some ways you could argue that Big Sugar were pretty much the mainstream version of something like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, taking most of their cues from old school blues rock but updating key parts of that ethos to reach their intended audience. In Big Sugar's case those updates are at once less invasive and more distracting, since on a sonic level this doesn't sound like it could be from any time except the late 90s but in terms of style it's decidedly trowback-y in its Stones at their most blues-indebted tone. It works far better here than in a lot of other Big Sugar singles though, and like I said earlier, the swagger is irresistible even when the lyrics hedge decidedly towards the nonsensical. Plus it's got those bad ass guitar solos to elevate it, and I'm nothing if not a sucker for a badass guitar solo.

Korn “Got the Life”
The Nostalgia Factor: The fights I got into with my mom trying to convince her that there wasn't a problem with me owning Follow the Leader...yeah, says it all right there. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd be surprised at how well it holds up to be honest. It's easy to see how this would break the band in a way that their previous singles didn't, and I'm perfectly OK with that despite my lukewarm stance on the band as a whole. [8]

This would probably be ground zero for the shift in alternative rock radio that occurred at this point in time, the shift from post-grunge to nu-metal that marked a notable downturn in overall quality for the format as a whole. If only the subsequent deluge had even a fraction of the quality present here...I really wish I could just dismiss this as not only the cause of the most problematic of nu metal's crossover material but as part of it but I just can't. This is a massive, massive track, wedding elements that should not work together – a disco beat, a Mr. Bungle bass line, chaotic yet precise guitars, Davis' usual raging vocal – into a fully functional whole that I could understand causing the shift I'd probably spend the better part of next year's overview raging against. Yeah, it's good enough that I can forgive it for letting Fred Durst become a superstar, that's the type of thing we're dealing with here.

Hole “Celebrity Skin”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. I seem to recall thinking it felt a bit incomplete, almost like it was missing a verse at the end or something...other than that I can't remember finding it too good or bad overall. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd be shocked at how much better Hole worked as a pop-rock band than they ever did as a grunge one. [7]

Minority opinion here, but I honestly think that Hole were a much better band when they finally decided to stop trying to be even remotely punk influenced. Both of their previous outings were third tier efforts in their respective sub-subgenres, but Celebrity Skin, while not exactly earth-shatteringly great or anything, was a damned good slice of straightforward pop-rock. The title track is pretty much emblematic of all the things that this version of Hole got right, trading in their rough edges for a more glammed up sound, concealing the bitterness with an excess of melodicism and masking world-weary resentment of the star lifestyle with angelic harmonies – a department where new recruit Melissa Auf der Maur proves her mettle admirably. The layers that the band's sonic makeover adds to the process really gives the material here the sort of staying power that even their previous best material could only dream of achieving.