Archive for February, 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 27, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Last year, around this time, Dark Was The Night came out – it was a massive collection of indie material, organized and produced by Aaron and Bryce of The National, with all of the proceeds going to the Red Hot Organization to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. Talk about a good cause. The same is true for Stroke, although the aim is much more personal here; on June 11th, 2009 New Zealand lo-fi pioneer Chris Knox (of Tall Dwarfs and Toy Love fame) suffered a life-altering stroke. So Merge Records got together a cadre of musicians who fervently admired Knox’s work (from both New Zealand and abroad), and got them to record covers of Knox’s songs. And yes, all the proceeds will go to help Knox with his recovery. So as far as karmically righteous compilations are concerned, you can’t score much higher than Stroke. But who/what’s in Stroke, anyways? Well, an extraordinarily diverse group of people, that’s who.

Perhaps the most talked about individual appearing on the album is the supremely elusive Neutral Milk Hotel ringleader Jeff Mangum, who covers the Tall Dwarfs Sign The Dotted Line. Mangum’s intensity hasn’t lost any of its edge, and he’s still able to move mountains with just voice and guitar, just as he did with Two-Headed Boy all those years ago. It’s wonderful to feel his presence again, though you wish it were under better circumstances. On the flip-side of things, the seemingly omnipresent John Darnielle appears here as well, with a raging cover of Brave (a song from Knox’ first solo album) that harkens back to Darnielle’s Panasonic RX-FT500 days (the lowest of the lo-fi, arguably). Listening to the entire compilation (somewhat of a glorious endurance challenge), it’s fascinating to hear all the elements of Knox as a songwriter self-contained into a single artist’s idiom (the recently deceased Jay Reatard capturing Knox’s vitality, Bill Calahan capturing his intimacy, Stephen Merritt channeling Knox’s lo-fi aesthetic). It’s a powerful reminder that the influences of a single man can be more profound than words can accurately capture – hence the compilation.

It’d be nearly impossible to cover in detail all 36 songs that are on here and do them justice (it also doesn’t help that my familiarity with Knox’s music is only at a sub-intermediate level, at best). So instead, we’ll just focus on one final song, the last song here, a new recording by Tall Dwarfs entitled Sunday Song – it’s a simple song, not even two minutes long, with no real vocals or lyrics in it – but it’s the perfect way to close this collection. Yes, Knox might have “limited speech and mobility” (according to a press release), but he’s still breathing. And as long as he is, you can bet that we haven’t heard the last of his musical output.

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XIU XIU – Dear God, I Hate Myself (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 26, 2010 by monopolyphonic

For years, Xiu Xiu have been the unrivaled, grand-motherfucking-champions of perverse indie rock. Sure, Animal Collective’s neo-psychedelic fits are kind of out there, and The Dirty Projectors have been known to toss genres genres into a blender and tear through the results, but Xiu Xiu are in a class all their own. If the aforementioned bands were film directors, Xiu Xiu would be Harmony Korine (Animal Collective would probably be Terry Gilliam, and The Dirty Projectors would most likely be Quentin Tarantino – think about it; it makes more sense than you realize). Xiu Xiu have had a rotating door of members during their tenure, with Jamie Stewart being the only consistent member, which makes sense – the band’s music, as bizarre as it can be, is definitely the result of a singular vision. The unsubtly titled Dear God, I Hate Myself is the band’s seventh album, and it’s one that showcases some of the band’s most normal material, as well as some of their most abstract.

Musically, the most notable aspect of Dear God, I Hate Myself is its liberal use of electronic programming. Xiu Xiu haven’t featured this much digital manipulation since the days of Fabulous Muscles. The band use their electronics in a variety of ways, too, be it as the blueprint of for a surprisingly robust dance floor rumination (Secret Motel), as bleak, stiff curtains of sound, occasionally tossed about in a black breeze (House Sparrow), or as the beginning of a twitchy dirge that drops off the radar right before it bursts (Impossible Dream). So yeah, it’s a diversely assembled album, as far as the electronics go. I found myself thinking of Kevin Barnes’ later material more than once here (Gray Death, This Too Shall Pass Away, and the title track). Again, this makes sense: both men share a love for classic synth sounds and both have a penchant for detailed, theatrical narratives. But Dear God, I Hate Myself is more complex (and certainly more strange) than Barnes’ work, and that’s saying a lot.

I know I’ve talked a lot about Xiu Xiu being weird and strange and whatnot, but I don’t want to have that overshadow the band’s music, which is challenging, cerebral and, yes, serious – it’s an art form all its own. True, Stewart’s music lacks a broad appeal, but then again, no music is made with everyone in mind. It’s kind of ironic that Dear God, I Hate Myself is an album that’s likely to attract a few strangers based on the title alone, but the people who listen to it (perhaps expecting some angsty nu-metal or low-key Conor Oberst loathing) will be shocked (and perhaps put off) at how confrontational and raw of an experience the album is. Good art is like that. It forces itself upon and disturbs your coordination; it makes you deal with it on its terms, not yours, and if you can’t…well, either it leaves you or you leave it, one of the two. I’m glad that there are people like Stewart (and his labelmate, John Congleton) pushing the envelope out there. It makes me rest (un)easy at night.

EFTERKLANG – Magic Chairs

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 26, 2010 by monopolyphonic

For anyone who’s grown tired of múm’s breathtaking devotion to inconsistency, the Danish collective Efterklang have been a dependable antidote for several years. Like múm, Efterklang delight in mixing minimalist glitchy beats with a more natural instrumentation, creating songs that are brooding with energy and wonder. Unlike múm, Efterklang haven’t continually switched gears into a sea of weird failures (Summer Make Good and last year’s Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know being the most prominent of múm’s departures from their norm). No, Efterklang have always been dependable, and they’ve always excelled at keeping their sound fresh with essentially the same ingredients. So it was a bit of a surprise for me to listen to Magic Chairs, an album that’s certainly a departure, and certainly not a failure – it’s a showcase of a band demonstrating pop sensibilities that we didn’t even know they had.

The differences between Magic Chairs and Parades (the band’s last studio album) are quite stark. Parades was a halcyon collection of songs that were absolutely haunting despite being fragile and lucid in form. “Fragile” and “lucid” are two words that do not describe Magic Chairs, in form or otherwise. The music here is more akin to Grizzly Bear’s latest album; it’s got that same sort of baroque, classic feel to it, but Magic Chairs is livelier somehow. Songs like Full Moon and Mirror Mirror carry in them an unhinged joy that’s absent in most of Vecktimest. Now, Magic Chairs isn’t about to rival any of The Polyphonic Spree albums any time soon, but it’s uplifting and resonant in a way that their past work wasn’t. I mentioned earlier that Parades was a fragile album, and it is, and Magic Chairs is its opposite – tenacious, full of glee and vigor.

The best compliment I could possibly pay to Magic Chairs is this: I would not be saddened if this was the direction that the band took for the remainder of their career. In a total contrast to múm, Efterklang have gone off in a direction that suits them well – and the music created by it speaks for itself; they didn’t marginalize themselves, as múm have, or have turned their sound into a ghastly form bordering on self-parody (“self-parody” being the first words that came to mind when I first heard Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know). No, Efterklang have arrived at this point naturally – and I hope they stick around.

ELUVIUM – Similes (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 24, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Matthew Cooper (the sole member of Eluvium) sings on Similes. He sings on it a lot. This is a big deal. His previous albums, be they simple piano themes (An Accidental Memory In Case of Death), or warm guitar loops and resonant synths (Talk Amongst The Trees), had little use for voice, aside from a few samples (Tom Hanks from The Burbs at the beginning of As I Drift Off). But given that Cooper’s last album, 2007’s Copia, was a huge expansion of his sound from Brian Eno to something more approaching the gentle neo-classical of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the addition of vocals on Similes makes sense. And of course, the vocals here are anything but traditional; they’re softly-uttered and murky, buried deep within the mix, and more often than not, they function more as textures than as vessels for lyrics. Which, for an Eluvium album, is how it should be. Good. Now that that’s taken care of, on to the album itself.

Similes has the distinct quality of feeling as though it’s coming to us from a faraway celestial land. You don’t so much listen to the album as you feel it fall atop you from the sky, almost like a gift. Bending Dreams feels like the aural aftermath to a massive cloudburst, and In Culmination sounds like lost drops of rain scattering down a windowpane. You’re probably thinking, “I get it – he’s using similes to describe the songs because that’s the name of the album.” But you’re wrong. Similes (as a device) compare two unlike things, explicitly. And I’m not being hyperbolic in my descriptions (trust me, I’d be the first to admit if I was). Now then, almost every Eluvium album always has had one song that arches past the rest in terms of its scope and breadth of the albums’ other songs (i.e., Zerthis Was a Shivering Human Image,Taken and Indoor Swimming At The Space Station), and Similes is no different. That song here is entitled Cease To Know, and it’s the last song of the album. It begins with an open and gently pulsing ambient backdrop. Cooper’s vocals come, and they float around beneath everything. Then slowly, a swooping wave of sound emerges and it gradually begins to falter and break up until there is (quite literally) nothing left but its fragments, which fade like ashes, into total nothingness. Sound evocative? Well, that’s because it is.

It seems like Matthew Cooper is only getting better as a composer the farther he pushes Eluvium from its origins and into its natural musical boundaries. His early work was very reminiscent of much of Brian Eno’s ambient output (think Ambient 4: On Land), but his later work has a feel to it all its own. It’s peaceful without being soporific. It’s powerful without bombast. And it’s moving, without any pathos or tear-jerking melodies. Such a thing is rare in ambient music. And though I certainly enjoyed The Seven Fields of Aphelion’s debut, I would recommend Similes over it, easily.

JOHNNY CASH – American VI: Ain’t No Geave (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 23, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Johnny Cash is one of the very few musicians who needs absolutely no introduction. Cash’s music, decades of it, speaks for itself. And when Cash passed into the great beyond in 2003, less than four months after June Carter did, he left behind a musical legacy that will never fade from memory. But there were still some final pieces of this legacy that had yet to be revealed. After Carter’s death, Cash had continued recording for the American series he’d started with Rick Rubin in the early 1990’s (even though he was so frail at that point that he couldn’t play guitar), and when he died, there was enough unreleased, recorded material left of his for two more albums, though it’d have to be assembled first.

The first of these, 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways, was pitch-perfect in tone and scope; Cash’s powerful, thunderous voice quaked across the songs, but he never lost an ounce of authority in it. The entire thing seemed to emanate from another world, and when Personal File (a collection of secret recordings Cash had been making since the 1970’s) was released later that year, it seemed as though his posthumous releases would collectively be one final jewel in Cash’s prestigious musical crown. And to be sure, the aforementioned albums are. But the final American album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, is an uneven collection. Not that this is Cash’s fault (how could it be?), but if this is truly to be the last new material we see from Cash (and it certainly looks that way), it’s hard to deny that it’s a bit disappointing.

It doesn’t start that way, though. The opening two songs (Ain’t No Grave and Redemption Day, originally written by Claude Ely and Sheryl Crow, respectively) both perfectly exemplify one of Cash’s most well-worn motifs: troubled, yet awe-filled religious prophecy. And the following two songs, For The Good Times (originally by Kris Kristofferson) and I Corinthians 15:55 (most likely the final original song by Cash we’re likely to hear) switch the tone of the album up nicely, into a place that’s uplifting but not elegiac. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t stay out of the elegiac waters for long; that’s pretty much the only direction it goes after the cover of A Satisfied Mind (originally by Red Heyes and Jack Rhodes; Cash’s cover had previously appeared on the Kill Bill Vol. 2 soundtrack in 2004). Songs like I Don’t Hurt Anymore, Cool Water and Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream all seem too mellow and simple to be the final pieces of Cash’s last American album (and by extension, his canon). And the final song, Aloha Oe (written by Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch), is an extraordinarily puzzling way to end the album. It simply doesn’t make sense. Listen to We’ll Meet Again or I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now (from American IV and V, respectively), and the listen to Aloha Oe, knowing full well that this is the end. It just doesn’t work.

Now don’t misunderstand me – I know Cash picked these songs (and all the songs presented in the American series) because they were dear to him or they affected him in some way. And his vocal performance isn’t bad on any of them. But the way these songs are organized and presented here feels…disingenuous somehow, and the impact of these songs (and consequently, of the album as a whole) are lessened by it. Perhaps I’m being to clinical, and I’m analyzing the album too closely, thinking of it too much as part of a whole – but really, how else am I supposed to look at it? When it comes to figures as monumental as Johnny Cash, who’ve given the world so much, and who still exist profoundly in our collective mind’s eye, you can’t help but take an album like this for what it is: the end. Their final offering to us. And in that context, American VI: Ain’t No Grave is a tough pill to swallow.

THE SEVEN FIELDS OF APHELION – Periphery (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 21, 2010 by monopolyphonic

So there’s this band called Black Moth Super Rainbow. And they’re weird (as if you couldn’t tell that from their name, right?). Anyways, they play sort of a fuzzy, psychedelic pop that’s big on beats, constructed entirely out of sounds from the past: vocoders, mellotrons, and retro, analog synths of all kinds. Now, the ringleader of this ensemble goes by the name of Tobacco, and he released a solo album in 2008 called Fucked Up Friends – it had the same weirdly cozy feel of Black Moth, but it leaned more towards hip-hop in its construction (indeed, the album’s best song, Dirt featured Aesop Rock, perhaps the most playful MC in the hip-hop underground today; the pairing was, as you can imagine, perfect). So, now it seems like Black Moth keyboardist, The Seven Fields of Aphelion (not sure of her real name), has stepped out on her own to release a solo album, and unlike Tobacco’s Fucked Up Friends, Periphery is strikingly different from Black Moth.

The first thing that came to mind as I started Periphery was Eluvium. See, just like Matthew Cooper, The Seven Fields of Aphelion has
a deep affinity for tape loops and piano; though unlike Cooper (whose most significant piano work was 2004’s An Accidental Memory In The Case Of Death, which featured only piano compositions), Seven Fields likes to fracture and loop back her piano on itself, creating effects that are sometimes eerily beautiful. The opening song, Slow Subtraction is a great example; the main melody dances about itself, delayed, reversed and twisted back to the start again, like a musical möbius strip. Lake Feet, while not quite as intense as Slow Subtraction in terms of manipulation, builds itself up, with layer upon layer and then stripping them away until they all but disappear. But Seven Fields doesn’t just use piano here; she makes great use of other keyboards as well, and the results are equally enjoyable. The album’s best song, Saturation: Arrhythmia starts off fairly simply before morphing into a constant flutter of electronic keyboard mayhem; the song slips in and out of key, before finally righting itself again near the end, and receding down to nothing.

If you’re a fan of ambient music, I’d highly recommend this to you, but if you’re a Black Moth fan, I’d say steer clear. Periphery is way less bombastic and far more insular than Seven Fields’ parent band. If you’ve ever wondered what Matthew Cooper mixed with some Casio keyboards might sound like, Periphery is it. Turns out, the two go together better than you may have imagined.

TINDERSTICKS – Falling Down A Mountain (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on February 18, 2010 by monopolyphonic

On Falling Down A Mountain, Stuart Staples’ voice at times recalls Nick Cave, Matt Berninger and Leonard Cohen; however, musically, Falling Down A Mountain bears little resemblance to any of the aforementioned performers. Tindersticks lack the headstrong theatrics of Nick Cave’s compositions. They don’t flirt with the beauty between dark and light abstractions like Cohen does. And they don’t populate their songs with all manner of romanticism like The National do. No, Tindersticks make simple, uncomplicated songs that you can imagine swirling alongside cigarette smoke in a bar from an old black and white film. In short, they’re the last band you’d expect to wind up on Constellation Records alongside A Silver Mt. Zion and Evangelista. And yet, they are.

Aside from the sweeping, sometimes brooding album-closer Piano Music, Tindersticks don’t deviate much from the classicism that’s always defined them. The songs on Falling Down A Mountain feel intimate and worn, like you’ve known them your whole life, when you really haven’t. Overall, Falling Down A Mountain is an album I enjoyed well enough, though I have the same problem with it that I’ve had with the band’s other albums; namely, I enjoy the band’s more lively material better. Songs like She Rode Me Down, Black Smoke, and the album’s title track resonate with me more than songs like, say Hubbard Hills or Peanuts. There’s a disconnect for me, hearing songs that are so forceful and brimming with energy next to some songs that sound as if they’re just be laying there, wasting energy. Though the one piano ballad on the album, Factory Girls, affects me when I hear it; maybe it’s because it grows into something larger and louder at the end. Who knows? The one thing I do know, though, is that Tindersticks have been around for ages, and the lounge aspect of their sound will probably always be there, so this is just something I’ll have to get used to on their albums. I haven’t done it yet. But there’s still hope. And time.

Falling Down A Mountain (like Tindersticks themselves) has a limited appeal, but it’s not because of any shortcomings – it’s because the band are so committed to one specific, classical sound, that any listener under, say, 30, who stumbles upon this albim might just tune out as soon as it starts. Some people can’t handle the past if it’s not Lady Gaga or a Journey reunion. That’s no way to live, in my book. So if you’re looking for an album that’ll fit nicely next to Jeff Buckley’s Grace and that Morrissey Best-Of you’ve got, this one should do nicely.