Archive for May, 2007


A Very Cozy Cage

Parts and Labor “Brighter Days” – The beauty of Parts and Labor is simple — they write anthemic pop-punk tunes, but replace the standard textures and dynamics of the genre with warped keyboards, severe electronic effects, and wild, heavy, inventive drumming. Their first two albums were good, but their new record Mapmaker is most definitely the best, the one where they fully deliver on their promise/premise by pushing everything to an extreme. The melodies are catchier; the arrangements are more vibrant; the drums simulate an exaggerated sense of space and depth, resulting in a record that sounds like it’s coming out of your speakers in 3-D. Like a lot of other things I’ve been loving in this year, it makes me wonder why this sort of thing isn’t more normal. Is it really that hard to tweak winning formulas and put in the effort required to rule? I guess I already know the answer to that question. (Click here to buy it from Insound.)

Elsewhere: My new Hit Refresh column is up on the ASAP site with mp3s from Shapes & Sizes, Dandi Wind, and Dog Day.


Stop And Stand Still

Speaker Bite Me “Fistful Of Air” – This song feels just as weightless and intangible as its title implies. The beat creates a sensation of forward momentum that is countered by the stillness of the horns, which seem to float in mid-air like clouds of smoke. The song somehow finds a way to have it both ways — the feeling of endless motion, and the moment of perfect, motionless peace. It feels like running through cool air and having your mind go completely blank. (Click here to visit the official Speaker Bite Me site.)

Wir Sind Helden “Die Konkurrenz” – Wir Sind Helden sound like a band who probably have great, witty lyrics, but since I don’t understand German, I have no way of knowing for sure without resorting to running their words through Google Language Tools and getting an awkward translation that might be extremely confusing or misleading. Judith Holofernes’ inflections come across very deadpan and sassy, and there’s an exchange with a male vocalist that seems rather cute. All I know is that the title translates to “the contest,” and that the music gives me the impression that they would very much like to be its winners. (Click here to buy it from Amazon Germany.)


Without Love I Am Not Tremendous

Von Südenfed “Fledermaus Can’t Get Enough” – I posted the first Mark E Smith/Mouse On Mars collaboration way back in October of 2004, and like a fair chunk of the music that I’ve written up over the past five years, it eventually sorta slipped out of my life. I dimly recall reading about their full-length as Von Südenfed a few months ago and being mildly excited about it in much the same way that I’m eager to hear most anything that Mark E Smith does at least once, but man, I was never prepared for the relentless excellence that was about to come my way.

When it comes down to it, Mark E Smith is just like a rapper — he may be capable of maintaining a baseline level of quality just by showing up in the recording studio, but the merit of any given recording depends greatly upon the talent of his collaborators. Smith’s two records this year are an extreme example of this: Whereas sounds as though he’s stumbled upon a bunch of amateurs on The Fall’s Reformation Post T.L.C., Mouse On Mars’ intense, nuanced tracks on Tromatic Reflexxions are top-drawer bangers custom-made for Smith’s unique vocal talents. The album’s opening cut “Fledermaus Can’t Get Enough” rides a beat that would not sound out of place on LCD Soundsystem’s most recent album, and amps itself up for a violent chorus that seems to repeatedly pistol-whip the listener with the full force of MES’ aggravated shouts. This may sound like hype, but I’m dead serious: Tromatic Reflexxions is aggressive, inspired, and easily the most consistently rewarding album featuring Smith since the late ’80s. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Erasure “Sucker For Love” – Like the rest of Erasure’s new record, “Sucker For Love” sounds as though Vince Clarke has not acquired any new musical equipment since 1991, but unlike most of the other selections, it actually sounds as exciting and overwhelmingly great as the duo did back during their creative peak in the late ’80s. (Okay, so maybe there’s a theme today.) At its core, the track is basically Erasure-by-numbers — bouncy beat, colorful synths, campy crooning — but they’ve blown it all out to an absurd, hyperactive extreme. The song is so incredibly jumpy and bombastic that it’s actually sort of like a self-drawn caricature of their signature sound. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Elsewhere: After a long hiatus, the second season of The Movie Binge began this week with my review of Lars von Trier’s The Boss Of It All and this group review of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. The All-New, All-Different Binge has the same mission as last year — we’re going to review every single movie that comes out between Memorial Day and Labor Day — but there’s a bunch of new writers in addition to a few original Bingers. This year’s new recruits include Dan Beirne, Erik Bryan, Lia Bulaong, Bryan Charles, Meghan Deans, Todd Serencha, and Kyria Abrahams. There will also be several really awesome guest writers joining in along the way. It should be a lot of fun, so please join us.


A Necessary Evil, I Suppose

Guided By Voices “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows (Live in Austin 2004)” – Guided By Voices’ final appearance at Austin City Limits was just released on cd and dvd, and though the setlist is quite good and the sound quality is high, it’s a very disappointing live album. I realize that a lot of GBV’s charm comes from their ramshackle, who-cares-let’s-just-get-to-the-next-song nature, but what worked very well in person comes off rather badly when recontextualized for home listening. It would have been wiser to release a live record that compiled strong performances from multiple shows into an alternative version of a greatest hits album, but instead the Austin set alternates between quality performances and mediocre or downright awful readings of beloved classics.

The worst offender is “Cut-Out Witch,” a fan favorite that was normally a major highlight of any given show, but appears on the record as a sloppy mess that is made even worse by guest vocals by a clueless Pete Yorn. (Then again, what version of “Cut-Out Witch” could possibly top the Peel session version with the snippet of “Acorns and Orioles”? Surely that is the definitive version.) On the opposite extreme, there is a spirited take on “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” that pumps up the song’s rock power considerably without actually changing much about it. Also, I kinda love that weird sound in Bob’s voice as he announces the title. Actually, the entire record is worth hearing just to hear him introduce the title of pretty much ever selection, usually along with a brief note relating to its place in the discography. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Elsewhere: My new Hit Refresh column is up on the ASAP site with mp3s from Battles, Dan Deacon, and Black Moth Super Rainbow.


Walk On Alligators To Safety

Noonday Underground “Come One Come All” – Daisy Martey normally sounds as though she is attempting to blow holes through your speakers with the strength of her voice, but she’s relatively smooth and sedate on this number, which floats along like a light cloud of psychedelic funk on a sunny summer afternoon. The arrangement is a shifting, fluid structure of sweet, soft hooks — swirls of groovy organ riffs, mild electronic distortion fashioned into melodic hooks, miscellaneous samples that float in and out of the mix like a gentle breeze. (Click here to buy it from Amazon UK.)

San Serac “That Obscure Object Of Desire” – I can describe this song in two words: Suave lunacy. The piano chords shimmer like the self-consciously “classy” hook in Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” but that nod towards elegance and sophistication is just a superficial ruse — at its core, “That Obscure Object Of Desire” is corrupt and unhinged. This might be what happens when you grow up wanting to be a debaser. (Click here to buy it from Frog Man Jake.)

Elsewhere: Baby, could you just get little pointy ears for me?


Floating Inhibition

Sophie Ellis-Bextor “Love Is Here” – I’m not the type to dismiss lyrics for their banality, but “Love Is Here” pushes my limits just a little bit. The lovey-dovey “I was made for you” gushing comes on VERY strong, but I suppose it is rather well suited to the song’s bright Lite FM melody and brisk disco beat. I’ve got a major soft spot for this sort of groovy, upbeat balladry, and though I imagine that a great many of you will hate this song for its unapologetic corniness, I just can’t help myself. Interestingly, though song floats from hook to hook like a super-polished pop machine, it ends with a fairly counterintuitive move: The chorus runs through a few more times before the conclusion, and then everything drops out but the bass and drums, which shifts into an urgent dance-punk groove for a few seconds into the fade-out. (Click here to buy it from Amazon UK.)

New Young Pony Club “Hiding On The Staircase” – “Hiding On The Staircase” fronts like a manifesto, but it feels more like a glossy fashion pictorial. The words never quite gel into a position, though the singer keeps telling us that “it’s the sound” of something or other like they are just learning how to push the buttons of their critics. It’s one of my favorite tricks: Make it sound smart and feel totally fantastic, and throw in just enough clever lines to make the audience piece together an idea much better than whatever the writer probably had in mind. (Click here for the New Young Pony Club MySpace page.)


You Can Put Your Trust In Me

Prinzhorn Dance School “Up! Up! Up!” – Since the artists associated with DFA have all been pushing toward an increasingly slick and sophisticated sound, it’s something of a surprise that the newest act on the label breaks the DFA aesthetic down into something so primitive and essential. “Up! Up! Up!” sounds like the burned-down remains of a punk song, and in that context, the vocals seem more like the calls of rescue workers stumbling through the wreckage. The music is extremely spare and bleak, but there’s just enough dark wit and campy horror film drama in the mix to keep it from getting too bitter and dreary. (Click here for the Prinzhorn Dance School site.)

Golden Bug “St. Tropez” – Okay. This song is called “St. Tropez” and it’s the middle of May — logically, it should follow that there will be no tan lines tonight. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I have no idea how many people will get that reference. It can’t be very many.) Anyway, this song has got nothing to do with obscure indie rock b-sides, although now that I think of it, its chopped up guitar riff has a similar sort of staggered swagger, and so I begin to wonder if that’s a coincidence, or something that suits “St. Tropez,” which is a place I’ve never been and will likely never see in person. (Click here to buy it from Juno.)


Gracefully Forgotten

Misha “Crystal In Love” – It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but it seems like falsetto vocals have been slowly colonized by a macho yet passive-aggressive element — your Chris Martins, your Dave Matthews — and as a result, it has become a signifier of THE NARCISSISTIC HURT THAT DUDES FEEL. It doesn’t exactly ruin the technique across the board — it’s not exactly difficult to differentiate the merits of Keane and Radiohead, you know? — but it does make me a bit suspicious of young guys who adopt the style.

Misha’s John Chao stays within my personal falsetto comfort zone on this song: Drag camp, disco glamor, ethereal crooning, and R&B affectation. When the chorus kicks in, Chao sounds as though he’s trying to transform himself into a woman through sheer force of will. Not just any woman, mind you: I think he’s specifically attempting to morph into Alison Goldfrapp! (Click here to pre-order it from Amazon.)

Karl Blau “Kill The Messenger” – Karl Blau’s latest project sets the lyrics of his former D+ bandmate Bret Lunsford to radically new arrangements, but to be honest, I can’t really appreciate whatever changes were made since I’ve only ever heard maybe three D+ songs tops, and only one of them appears on Blau’s record. I mean, it’s obvious enough — D+ was essentially a rock band, and the sound of Dance Positive is heavily indebted to funk and reggae. The way he altered his ex-partner’s songs is ultimately irrelevant to my enjoyment of the record, which mostly comes from its understated vocals, super mellow grooves, and the way the album’s slightly washed-out production leaves its bottom end feeling exceptionally cozy and warm. (Click here to buy it from Marriage Records.)

Elsewhere: Do you like broccoli? Do you like cool British cartoonists? How about t-shirts? If you said “yes” to all three questions, or even just the first and third, you ought to head over to Threadless and vote for this t-shirt designed by my pal John Cei Douglas.


Miss Me When I’m Gone

Ulrich Schnauss “Stars” – When I studied photography in college, I would often think of music in photographic terms, and vice versa. That said, I don’t remember ever relating depth of field to musical composition, which is actually sorta funny given how many artists intentionally simulate that sensation in their recorded work. Ulrich Schnauss’ “Stars” is an exaggerated example of this. All of the elements in its arrangement seem to be miles apart, with some sounds deliberately foregrounded while others are out of focus and blurred. The song implies a staggering scale, and plays out like the musical equivalent of a widescreen panorama. (Click here to pre-order it from Boomkat.)

Elsewhere: My new Hit Refresh column is up on the ASAP site with mp3s from Lavender Diamond, Marnie Stern, and Gui Boratto.

Also: In the wake of my R.E.M. project, a new wave of music blogs are focusing on writing about every song in a single artist’s discography. So far we’ve got Hyper-Ballads (Björk), Emotional Karaoke (Mountain Goats), More Words About Music and Songs (Talking Heads), My Impression Now (Guided By Voices), Fragments of a Cale Season (John Cale), Too Many Words, Too Many Words (Low), I Got A Message For You (Robyn Hitchcock), More Than Ten (Pearl Jam), and Fridgebuzz, which is the first of what I assume will be at least 15 blogs dissecting the Radiohead catalog.

And: Which celebrity, who recently made the cover of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People, likes to remind you of that fact while you’re having sex with her?


Talking To Myself About You

Wilco “Walken” – Despite the fact that Wilco has always been a vehicle for Jeff Tweedy’s songs and that the new record is apparently more of a collaborative effort than the band’s last two albums, more of Sky Blue Sky has a distinct solo-album vibe. It’s mellow, quiet, and a lot of the songs seem to be deliberately minor in comparison to the far more ambitious material on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. This isn’t a crippling problem — at least half of the tracks are low-key gems that show of the band’s skill at building songs around inspired guitar solos — but it most certainly makes Sky Blue Sky the sort of record that needs a follow-up to provide the listener with a sense of context and direction. Is it a detour, or a new direction? It’s hard to say.

I’ve been meaning to write about “Walken” since it first popped up as a solo acoustic recording a year or so back. I’m glad that I held out for a studio recording. The full band arrangement highlights rather than crowds out Tweedy’s seemingly effortless melodies, and the production is light, sunny, and has a great bounce to its beat. Even though he’s built his reputation on crushingly sad songs, Tweedy really shines on the numbers that express a hesitant enthusiasm for love — “I’m Always In Love” and “I’m The Man Who Loves” you are the obvious precursors, but “Walken” is far less neurotic and more matter-of-fact. It’s not a song for new love, or troubled love, or a dying love. It’s for the people who’ve been together for ages, and keep remembering why their relationship works. I don’t know if the love expressed is unconditional, but it’s certainly not something that’s going to fade away any time soon. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Elsewhere: Gilmore Girls ended its seven season run last night, and I’m not going to lie to you — I got a little teary at the end. Here’s a brief article for the Associated Press about the end of the series that I filed two weeks ago. It was written very quickly on short notice and it’s not everything I wish it could’ve been, but it’s nice enough. I’m not really sure why I started watching the show — I kinda stumbled into the first episode by chance, and I suspect that I only stuck with it because Lauren Graham is super hot, but man, I am so glad that I did. Even if the first half of its final seasom was very painful to watch, Gilmore Girls is one of my all-time favorite television programs and I’m going to miss it a lot.

Also: Stosh “Piz” Piznarski has his first album review up on Pitchfork today.

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