Archive for the Reviews Category

M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\ (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on July 20, 2010 by monopolyphonic

M.I.A.’s penetration into the mainstream was inevitable; and like all new things that reach that placid yet rarefied plateau of FM radio and MTV, they eventually get the marrow sucked out of them. Sure, it started innocuously enough. Paper Planes was used to great effect in the red band trailer of Pineapple Express – but by the end of 2008, the song had been remixed into oblivion, was sampled in Swagga Like Us a T.I./Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration, and was featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a film that would eventually win Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. Yikes. That’s a lot to happen to one song over a short period of time. And as Paper Planes rose, so did M.I.A. herself. Hell, she earned a spot on the Time 100 in 2009. And you know what? She deserved it. No wait, scratch that – she earned it. She’s truly a trans-genre artist, someone who sees music as a world without borders, and it’s this thats made her such a unifying fixture in modern music. Bottom line? Despite all the exposure garnered from the success of Paper Planes, M.I.A. emerged through it all with her integrity and credibility intact.

Taking this all into consideration now makes listening to /\/\ /\ Y /\, an album that’s made of perplexing industrial vacuity, an even more painful process than perhaps it would’ve normally been. With these sixteen songs, M.I.A. has burned off nearly all the intricacies that made her music interesting (the creative sampling, the alternatingly simplistic and impenetrable production, the unapologetically overt politics), choosing instead to make third-rate club jams and faux-dub nonsense. This sort of defiant reversal might earn her some platitudes from a few blogs and magazines, but for me, I’m having a hard time reacting to /\/\ /\ Y /\ with anything other than sadness.

Let’s run down some of the singles, shall we? First up is XXXO, and man, for a song that’s under three minutes, it’s hard to picture coming up M.I.A. coming up with anything more generic and lifeless. I mean, seriously – awhile back, M.I.A. took Lady Gaga down a peg in an interview with NME, saying “She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza disco, you know?” (she concluded with, “She sounds more like me than I fucking do!”) – and now we have this, XXXO, a song that’s basically a Lady Gaga sound-alike. Err, what the fuck? Why even bother appealing to the lowest common denominator like this? What’s the point? The entire song is a mystery, from the shallow verses, to the overproduced chorus’, right down to the name-dropping of Twitter and the iPhone – as if anybody cares.

Things don’t get any better with the next song, Teqkilla, which I suspect is misspelled as a not-so-sly wink to inebriation, or as a broad appeal to ironic counter-culturalism; either way, it pisses me off. Teqkilla is the album’s longest song, but more than that, it’s also its most obnoxious, a damn unpleasant way to spend six and a half minutes. Now, I’m not about to put down music that extols drinking, a time-honored subject that has been covered in countless songs, and will be covered in countless more. But Teqkilla doesn’t just extol drinking; it feels like being drunk. And not the kind of drunk where you’ve had perhaps one two many at your friend’s house, no, the kind of drunk where you’re on the verge of blacking out, and you’ve stumbled into a basement club somewhere at 3am, and the only thing keeping you from passing out on the nearest surface is…one more drink. That kind of drunk. So yes, like I said, unpleasant. Hmm. Perhaps that’s what she was going for – okay, yeah, sure, by that metric, the song works, but who would willingly want to listen to it, sober or otherwise? That’s the question, and the answer is too depressing to contemplate here, so let’s just move on.

Finally, we’ve got Born Free, which, in addition to boasting a controversial music video, also happens to be the most interesting thing on the album. Working off a sample from Suicide’s Ghost Rider, M.I.A. crafts a wonderful industrial-punk hybrid here, and damn it all if it doesn’t work out perfectly: the crashing drums are stirring, the warped vocals are mesmerizing, the whole thing sounds as if it’s about to come unhinged at any second (it doesn’t, but I think that makes it even more intense, because we’re kept waiting for it breathlessly). Sadly, Born Free is an idea M.I.A. explores only once on /\/\ /\ Y /\, so all we’re left with is a group of songs that are underwhelming at best, and painfully empty at worst.

Representing the “underwhelming”, we have songs like Steppin’ Up, which feels vaguely like a conveyor belt remix of Pull Up The People, Tell Me Why, a song that’s notable only for being the one song on /\/\ /\ Y /\ that doesn’t sound as if it’s caked in decades-old grime, and Meds and Feds, a song built on the twitchty sampling of Sleigh Bells’ Treats. It’s not bad, really, but it’s agitating, and it only makes me wish I was listening to Sleigh Bells instead. I don’t have anything against music that’s agitating, if it’s done well (Girl Talk, Dan Deacon), but with Meds and Feds, it feels like M.I.A. is merely holding the sampling in Meds and Feds back from entering breakcore territory – and there’s nothing more disheartening in music when you can recognize potential wasted in favor of restraint.

And the rest? Well, most of the album’s other songs all share one of two problems; either they feel unrealized in some way, like they’re demos or blueprints or something, and not finished songs unto themselves (Lovalot, Believer). That, or they do feel finished, and there isn’t enough going on in them to make them worth listening to (songs like Internet Connection, Caps Lock and the aptly-titled Space). Most of these aforementioned songs feel like aural ambien; to listen to them is to hear them run out of steam in real time. Talk about unsatisfying.

That M.I.A.’s first two albums, Arular and Kala, were named after her father and mother, respectively, is perhaps one of the most oft-cited things about her. So, let’s break that down: Arular was simple, focused and hypnotic; Kala was colorful and lively. And /\/\ /\ Y /\, the album which bears M.I.A,’s namesake, an album that one would quite reasonably expect to sound like a scion of her earlier work, sounds like…this? Really? Now, I’m not putting M.I.A. down for not taking the obvious path here, but the fact of the matter is that /\/\ /\ Y /\ is largely devoid of anything special; it’s an album that could just easily have been made by anyone with GarageBand and a penchant for mechanized noise. I’m not sure where M.I.A. is going to go from here, but after taking in /\/\ /\ Y /\, I’m far less interested to find out.

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NACHTMYSTIUM – Addicts: Black Meddle part II

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 29, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Most (read: not all, but….) black metal bands worth listening to eventually reach a point wherein they evolve beyond the aesthetic constraints that their genre reveled in during the late 1980s/early 1990s: the thin, fuzzy guitars, the constant, galloping tempo, the ever-present lo-fi haze that envelopes each song like coffin. Nachtmystium are no exception to this; with their earliest albums, Reign of the Malicious and Demise, they embarked down the path that Darkthrone had laid down (and then circled back to, again and again) so many years before. With Instinct: Decay, the band’s sound opened up, becoming singed at the seams with prog and pysch rock flourishes, resulting in a sound that was as cerebral as it was violent and menacing. The band would perfect this with Assassins: Black Meddle part I; that album had more in common with, say, Sigh, than Burzum. So now we have Addicts: Black Meddle part II – that it’s a perfect spiritual successor to Assassins should come as no surprise. That it’s, in large part, more indebted to hard rock fist-pumping than anything else, is.

The one album I kept coming back to in my mind whilst listening to Addicts was Entombed’s landmark 1997 album DCLXVI: To Ride Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, an album which nobody, not even fans of Wolverine Blues really saw coming. Entombed weren’t just crafting a stylistic anomaly with Wolverine Blues, and DCLXVI proves it. The band’s new direction, of mixing hard rock swagger and death metal’s confrontational spirit, would come to define much of their future releases. That mixture is alive and well on Addicts. And what’s more, it hasn’t sounded this good in ages. Then Fires seethes with jagged guitar riffs and Blake Judd’s visceral, tortured howling. For such an ugly, destructive song, it sure is a fun time to listen to. And I think that last part is what gives the album the bulk of its power: the songs all tie in thematically to a single idea, giving the album an authentic atmosphere that lesser black metal lacks.

I’ve listened to Addicts more than any other metal album this year so far, and it unquestionably takes you through the journey of an addict. The album begins, appropriately enough, with Cry For Help, wherein a raspy Judd intones over a sparse backdrop of delayed drums and chimes, “Nothing hurts more than being born.” It’s the sound of desperation in a lot of ways, the need to have something, anything, define you and provide you with meaning. It is, in short, part of a cycle that every addict winds up in at some point. Then, right on cue, High On Hate comes careening at you at 300mph. It’s the album’s only true black metal song, and it holds nothing back, and for good reason, too. This is the song wherein the addict’s high kicks in (the previous song, and the despair it held fast inside, brought us here, after all). It’s the rush, the instant euphoria, and the rest of the album rides out from there. No Funeral and the aforementioned Then Fires are upbeat, rollicking songs, songs that show the addict’s penchant for creating chaos in his altered state. This all culminates with the album’s centerpiece and title track, wherein the chorus unapologetically screams at you, “All I want…is more.” Addicts happens to be the song where the high starts to fade, so it’s no wonder it’s as ravenous a song as it is. The songs following it all form part of a downward spiral into withdrawl; they get moodier and slower as they progress, and Every Last Drop, the album’s final song, is an eight and a half minute death march to a place of unimaginable sorrow and desperation (hmm, much like the opening song). Thus, the album ends where it began: screaming at the agony that is now life.

Whew. Sorry for getting all analytical on you there for a second. But such thematic devotion is so rare in metal that I had to step in and make note of it. Addicts, in the realm of music in general, isn’t unique in what it does (The Velvet Underground did basically the same thing in microcosm with the song Heroin over forty years ago), but it is unique in terms of the genre in which it does it. Now, you might think I’m reading a bit too much into the album here, but frankly, the album doesn’t exactly mince words or moods or feelings while it’s playing; you’d have to do a whole lot of convincing to get me to believe that all this stuff is coincidence. Fortunately, if you’re still not buying it, let it be said that Addicts is an undeniably enjoyable metal album that switches gears on you on more than one occasion, and it doesn’t show off or compromise itself when it does so. That’s a rare thing nowadays. It’s not quite worth getting addicted to, but it’s close. Maybe too close…

THE PINEAPPLE THIEF – Someone Here Is Missing (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 19, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Over the course of the past several years (and albums), The Pineapple Thief have donned many different musical hats. Unable to wait for the next Radiohead album (which would eventually become In Rainbows), The Pineapple Thief released Little Man in 2006, and effectively gave us a Radiohead album in what turned out to be a year ahead of schedule. In 2007, the band decided to give their prog influences a bear hug, and released What We Have Sown, an album that’s as close as a new King Crimson-in-their-glory-days record as we’re likely to ever hear. And in 2008, the band released Tightly Unwound, an album that conjures all the best aspects of Porcupine Tree, Muse and dredg, together into one seamless collection of songs. All of these albums were released to little or no fanfare, and all of them remain (more or less) in obscurity. Which is a shame. And, after listening to the band’s newest album, Someone Here Is Missing, it’s even more of a shame for me to write that if this album remains in obscurity, there won’t be any harm done.

I’ve always had The Pineapple Thief’s back; I was hooked from the first time I heard 137. I remember obsessing over Remember Us, the final track from Variations On A Dream, for the better part of a year. I remember pre-ordering 12 Stories Down, of which only 1,000 copies were initially printed, the instant I could, so I could have the exclusive bonus disc, 8 Days Later. And with each release, the band have never failed to disappoint – until now. Someone Here Is Missing, the band’s eighth studio album, takes a drastic departure from the established complexity of the band’s sound. The Pineapple Thief’s music is densely layered and atypically structured; it’s not always easy to tell where their songs are going. But that’s not the case here. If pressed, I’d say Someone Here Is Missing kind of sounds like a mixture of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist, crossed with the least-inspiring The Mars Volta moments.

The problem with most of the songs that are present here is that they don’t flow forth from a well of ideas; typically, The Pineapple Thief songs would go from one section to another and another, being careful never to repeat one section for too long without augmenting it somehow. That’s not the case here. The songs take one idea apiece, and ride them out to their respective conclusions. What’s worse is that these ideas aren’t very interesting, a fact illuminated more and more as more time passes in each song. The blippy, no frills drumbeat of Wake Up Dead is the backbone of the song, which wouldn’t be a problem if more elements came in in a timely fashion. But they don’t – by the time the guitar comes crashing in three-quarters of the way through, we’ve checked out or hit “skip”.

And speaking of the guitar, my God, is it awful sounding. The same listless, neo alt-metal crunch permeates every single song, swirling about like a teen angst fueled hurricane. And it does so without any meaningful variation in any of the songs, save for some temporary acoustic noodling. Now, acoustic guitar has always played a role in the band’s music, but here, it doesn’t feel natural at all; the acoustic sections come off sounding timid, like they were placed there to counterbalance the atrocious metal tones, not because the song required them. The only song that rises above the mediocre fray here is the album closer, So We Row; but it comes too late to redeem an album that offered none of what we’ve come to expect from this band during the course of its run.

Someone Here Is Missing is an album that literally pained me to review. Seriously. My stomach twisted into knots, hearing a band like this fall from grace so hard. I read somewhere once that the worst thing that could be written about any musical endeavor was that it sounds as if it could have been written by anybody. Someone Here Is Missing made me feel like that at times, but throughout it all, I could still feel a faint glimmer of The Pineapple Thief emanating from somewhere in the music. In a way, I think that’s worse.

ANATHEMA – We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 11, 2010 by monopolyphonic

In an interview on Metal Underground, Danny Cavanagh stated that Anathema’s new album, We’re Here Because We’re Here is “by far the best thing we’ve ever done.” Strong words, to be sure, especially since this is the band that has given us three markedly different masterworks: 1996’s Eternity, 1999’s Judgement and 2003’s A Natural Disaster. But Danny wasn’t just inflating the band’s newest material simply because it’s the band’s newest material; he may actually be right. Listening to it, it’s undeniable that We’re Here Because We’re Here, an album that’s been in the works for years now, and has seen many false starts and about-faces, may go down as the crown jewel of Anathema’s oeuvre.

So, a quick history lesson: Anathema (together with fellow Brits My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost) redefined doom metal in the early 1990s; all three bands took the murky, slow-churned evil of Black Sabbath and sent it spiraling to depressive new lows. All three bands also seemed to hit their stride in 1995, which saw the release of Paradise Lost’s Draconian Times, My Dying Bride’s The Angel and The Dark River and Anathema’s The Silent Enigma, and from there, their careers took different turns. Paradise Lost now makes some kind of weird industrial gothic club music (kind of like what Theatre of Tragedy turned in to with Musique). My Dying Bride have stayed the course, releasing a new doom opus every couple of years. Anathema’s career change has been the most interesting, as the band began turning inward with each new release, making albums that were full of quiet catastrophes rather than guttural vehemence (yet which weren’t lacking in menace or despondency).

Nowhere is the more apparent than with the band’s last studio album, 2003’s A Natural Disaster. That album was a bleak affair, riddled with sorrow that seemed to be emanating from some place far away. But despite how burdened with emotion it was, it still all somehow felt fragile. It wasn’t melodramatic or maudlin. It felt very, very real. Few bands can defy the odds like that, and Anathema did. Now, A Natural Disaster is my favorite Anathema album, and I couldn’t help but make the connection that We’re Here Because We’re Here seems to be an inversion of that album, As dark as A Natural Disaster was, We’re Here Because We’re Here is as bright and life-affirming.

Let’s compare the singles, shall we? The first song that was made available from A Natural Disaster was Are You There?, and the first single from We’re Here Because We’re Here was Angels Walk Among Us (which features guest vocals from HIM’s Ville Valo, a band whose popularity in the US is not as inexplicable as it may seem at first). And while the phrase “are you there?” shows up lyrically in both songs, the tone is completely different each time. Angels Walk Among Us is imbued with spiritual resonance, while Are You There? is filled with regret.

“Spiritual Resonance” seems to be the theme here; there’s not a song on the album that doesn’t point itself towards the heavens (it must be said here that despite the occasional use of words like “Heaven”, “Angel”, “Spirit”, etc., We’re Here Because We’re Here isn’t a devoutly religious album; it’s merely one that’s concerned wholeheartedly with permeation of life, as opposed to the individuality lives). This inclusiveness is not hidden; it’s out in the open on songs like Everything, Universal and Presence (though they each take a different approach, tone-wise).

The culmination of all of this occurs (appropriately enough) on the album’s final song, Hindsight, which is a glorious, stately instrumental that slowly rises out of (and then descends back into) an airy bed of samples (some of which seem to be temporally connected to Anathema’s past, particularly to the aforementioned Eternity). This rise/coast/fall trajectory is a musical trick that’s been done for ages; it’s been used by everyone from Dan Deacon (on the song Snookered to A Silver Mt. Zion (on…well, most every song), but Anathema manage to take such a traditional formula and make something that’s surprisingly moving with it.

I mentioned earlier Danny’s interview on Metal Underground. Anyone who’s familiar with Anathema know that the band haven’t played anything that could be considered “metal” in over a decade now (old habits just die hard, I guess). And We’re Here Because We’re Here is no exception. It’s not a confrontational album. It’s not abrasive or ugly. It’s not loud. It’s not fast-paced and it’s not particularly energetic. But it’s a meticulously crafted album (Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree handled the production; that says it all right there), one that isn’t afraid to evoke capital-B big sentiments at every corner (and to set them against songs that soar, and dive, and soar again). Now that being said, there’s a fair chance that anyone who stumbles across this album by accident might find plenty dislike about it (the unapologetic use of major key, the incorporeal imagery, the overt lyrics). Any time you tackle a canvas with broad strokes, that’s bound to happen. But for everyone else, We’re Here Because We’re Here is likely to get caught in your soul. And stay there.

SLEIGH BELLS – Treats (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 3, 2010 by monopolyphonic

A lot’s been written about Sleigh Bells already, even though Treats is their debut album; the band whipped the blogosphere into a frenzy with a few raw, voracious demos last year, and a few well-received live performances (plus an opening slot for Yeasayer earlier this year) helped the band cement their status as the Buzz Band of 2010. And with Treats, Sleigh Bells arrive to claim what’s theirs.

But I don’t really want to talk about that. What I’d like to talk about for a moment is the loudness war. Now, I won’t go in to all the details on it; it’s quite technical, and if you care to read more about it, you’re welcome to do so. But basically, it breaks down like this: since the mid-90’s, audio recordings have become entangled in a sonic arms race. Albums are being mastered at louder and louder volumes, and everyone is struggling to keep up with everyone else. And it’s not just mainstream, top 40 albums we’re talking about here – it’s everything. That new Spoon album of yours could probably go toe-to-toe with Lady Gaga, level-wise.

Now, much has been said already of Sleigh Bells’ nuclear decibel hemorrhaging, but it’s worth repeating. To wit: Treats rides each and every one of its audio peaks like a malformed demon destined to wage war in the aural apocalypse; it corrals them all into oblivion, laying waste to everything and anything on the way there, and builds a throbbing dancefloor out of the rubble. And then it grooves on it. Yes, Treats gleefully embraces all the negative sides effects of the loudness war – the distortion and the clipping, the blown-out frequencies, the total lack of subtly – resulting in an album that’s ugly, hellish and violent. And, considering the idiom, brilliant. Your ears might want to ignore Treats, but your feet won’t. The album goes completely against the grain of what is expected from dance music. And yet, it still is dance music. Somewhere, John Congleton and Steve Albini are smiling.

With a few mild exceptions (the songs Rachel and Rill Rill – the former is what I could loosely call “ballad”, and the latter sounds like an outtake from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots), Sleigh Bells don’t really deviate from their search, destroy and swagger MO, and the album is stronger because of it. Songs like Crown On The Ground, Infinity Guitars and A/B Machines haven’t changed much from their demo versions (save for some crisper percussion), and newer songs like Tell ‘Em (which sounds less like a sweaty club jam and more like a pep rally anthem) fit right in to the mix. But perhaps the most surprising song on here is Kids (which, in demo form, was formerly known as Beach Girls). Energy-wise, it stands up to every song on the album, but it curiously alternates between trashy hip-hop and squelching demonic breakdowns wherein vocalist Alexis Krauss relays her vacation anecdotes to us in her creepiest movie-nightmare voice.

Despite the unorthodox power Treats wields as an album, if you break it down, it makes sense. Derek Miller was formerly the guitarist of the hardcore band Poison the Well. Alexis Krauss was formerly in a producer assembled all-girl pop band called Rubyblue. Treats is what they made together; it’s the product of an unlikely pairing, a pairing that decided to it take some risks at a conceptual level – and they paid off. More music needs to do that.

Record Store Day 2010: A Retrospective

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

Hey everyone.

First off, a new volume of Neweek will be posted tomorrow, so there’s that to look forward to. Beyond that, though, I thought I’d take some time to do a quick writeup on some of the albums (read: vinyl) I procured in honor of Record Store Day.

Now, I should mention here that I didn’t actually go to any record stores on Record Store Day; that was April 17th, a couple of Saturdays ago, and I was busy nerding out at C2E2, so I went ahead and hit up Reckless Records on Broadway the following Monday.

So what did I get? Well, here’s a quick rundown:

The Album Leaf – There Is A Wind 12″ (limited to 1,000)
Deftones – Rocket Skates 7″ (limited to 3,000)
The Helio Sequence/Menomena – Heliomena split 7″
Japandroirds – Art Czars 7″ (limited to 2,000)
Passion Pit – Little Secrets 7″

(I also purchased a used copy of one of the 7″‘s that Les Savy Fav released in their Inches series; this particular 7″ was issued on Sub Pop in 1997; Rodeo/Blackouts On Thursday, it’s called, and as luck would have it, those two songs happen to be among my favorites in the series. Talk about serendipity).

With the exception of the Les Savy Fav 7″ (and the Japandroids 7″), these are all exclusive Record Store Day releases. Meaning? You can only purchase them (initially, that is), in participating record stores. As you can see, too, the print run of these releases is extremely limited (well, usually), making them both enticing and somewhat dangerous for music collectors like myself. Determined to not miss the boat like I did last year (i.e., passing up a split 7″ by The Black Keys and The Flaming Lips, the latter of whom’s contribution to the release was a mindbending cover of Madonna’s Borderline, assisted by frontman Wayne Coyne’s nephew’s band, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs – both The Flaming Lips and Stardeath would collaborate again this year, covering of Pink Floyd’s space-prog classic, The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety), I decided to grab whatever caught my eye, and hope for the best. And for the most part, I was not disappointed (I should say here that since these are all 7″‘s, save for The Album Leaf record, they’re relatively cheap; most of them were around $5. so it definitely didn’t cost an arm and leg).

So, speaking of The Album Leaf, why don’t we start there? As previously mentioned, the record is called There Is A Wind – it was released by Sup Pop, and it was the only 12″ in the bunch that I purchased; it set me back about $11 or so, and it is also, unfortunately, the one record in the bunch that I’m disappointed with, across the board. It has four songs, two of them new (Landing In Snow and Resonations, both of which are flaccid and forgettable), and the other two are reinterpretations of two songs that are on the band’s latest release, A Chorus of Storytellers (an album for me that is still frustratingly uneven). The title track, There Is A Wind, is an alternate version of the song, and while I didn’t love the original (my review above says as much), I like this version even less. It’s a motionless alternate version, and one that I don’t much care to hear again.

The only semi-satisfying song on this release is the Jamuel Saxon remix of Falling From The Sun; it’s a glistening, glitchy fracture of the original (think of Finally We Are No One-era Múm, and you’re on the right track) – and if it were four or five minutes long instead of nine, it would be great. But the song loses its luster the longer it goes on, and the little things in it (the circling repetition, the twitchy autotuning) become grating after awhile. A shame, as I think it would’ve been extraordinarily memorable if it were a bit more restrained. But alas, that’s not the case. Sorry, The Album Leaf. I still love you, but this was not a worthwhile purchase.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Deftones? Really?” Well, yeah. While I applaud how much attention you pay to the metal coverage I do here, I must also point out that, as often as they get lumped into the nu-metal category alongside groups like Chevelle, Deftones are actually a band with a lot more subtext than most of their “contemporaries” (stack up Change (In The House of Flies against Distrubed’s Stupify, and see which one is more memorable; and yes, this is a fair comparison, as both songs were released as singles in the summer of 2000). Bottom line: Deftones have been doing this for over 20 years, and they don’t really need to prove anything to anyone.

That being said, Rocket Skates, the single which this 7″ features, is not as of the same caliber as their earlier material. But that’s understandable; it’s still better than most of the dreck that haunts the airwaves these days, to be sure, and Diamond Eyes (the forthcoming album on which Rocket Skates is on), has been plagued with problems since recording began on it almost 3 years ago (chief among these being bassist Chi Cheng’s hospitalization; he was in an auto accident on November 4th, 2008, and has been in a coma ever since). But I digress. I didn’t purchase this 7″ for the A-side; I purchased it for the B-side, which is a remix of Rocket Skates done by…wait for it…M83. Yes, that’s right. M83. You know, those French guys who do the electro-shoegaze-’80’s-revivalism thing? Yeah, that M83.

Needless to say, this remix did not disappoint. It’s incredible; totally elating and mesmerizing, especially considering how different some of the elements that make up the song are (to hear Chino Moreno’s screams juxtaposed next to pulsing synths is far more awesome than you might imagine it to be). I highly recommend you check this song out; buy the vinyl, first and foremost if you can, but if you can’t, you can stream/download the remix at I M // U R (at least, for now, anyways).

The first of two vinyls on here that don’t have a listed print run (meaning you can probably acquire well into the future without having to pay collector prices) is a split 7″ from The Helio Sequence and Menomena. Two bands, two new, exclusive songs, one 7″ – that’s what it’s all about. And yes, both sides of this 7″ are satisfying, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Converter (The Helio Sequence’s contribution) is the better of the two songs. Menomena’s Pilgrim’s Process, while undeniably groovy, feels a bit too cerebral at times, especially coming from the band who released songs like The Pelican and Wet and Rusting.

All told, this is an extremely solid 7″, and if you get a chance to pick it up, I’d say go for it. Both bands have yet to make it big, and both deserve to. The Helio Sequence’s last album has grown on me considerably since I reviewed it here, and I’m anxiously awaiting Mines, the new album from Menomena which comes out in North America in late July. As for Heliomena, the album is merely a reminder of the musical power of simplicity. Two songs, each different, each good, on one solid, physical object.

Lastly, we come to Japandroids, a band who I’ve been more than a little obsessed with since a friend turned me on to Post-Nothing at the beginning of the year. While Art Czars isn’t a Record Store Day release, it’s still a fitting symbol of how vinyl as a format is on the verge of burgeoning again. Now, I won’t go into too much detail here, as I’m covering this release in the next edition of Neweek, save to say that the band have announced that they’re going to be releasing five limited 7″‘s in 2010, and Art Czars is the first. The A-side here is the title track, which is a bit less sunny and a little more ominous than most of the material on Post-Nothing, but it’s still absolutely monstrous in terms of how much sound the band crank out (remember, there’s only two of them).

The B-side is a cover of the Big Black song Racer-X; again, I won’t go into much detail here, but it’s interesting to note the band’s cover choices, and what it says about their musical inspirations. The other cover Japandroids are known for is mclusky’s To Hell With Good Intentions; they close just about every live show they do with it (a studio version is available on the No Singles compilation, which collects the band’s pre-Post-Nothing material; yikes, that’s a mouthful). Both Big Black and mclusky were noisy, noisy bands, whose energy bordered on (and often crossed over into) sonic violence much of the time. Japandroids are noisy, too, but they’re not violent. If you look at it this way, the covers seem to be a direct roadmap to the band’s sound: they took the love of noise, and the sonic wallop of the aforementioned bands, but they use it instead to crank out lightning-fast, major-key punk riffs. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it. So, to tie this all back to Art Czars, if you haven’t heard of Japandoids, this is as good a place as any for you to start.

Passion Pit are an overnight success story of which there are very, very few in this day and age. From the time the band released their debut EP Chunk of Change in late 2008 to now, they’ve gone from being virtually unknown to selling out venues all across the country. They’ll be opening for prog-megastars Muse a few times this year, and the band’s music keeps popping up in commercials and TV everywhere. In short, it’s hard not to notice these guys.

Now, the song Little Secrets is my favorite from the band’s debut LP, Manners, and to commemorate Record Store Day, a red vinyl 7″ was issued, featuring the Passion Pit version on one side, and a remix by Felix Da Housecat on the other. So, what all can be said about Little Secrets? Well, it’s blissfully overindulgent, for one. But it’s the best kind o overindulgent there is. Let’s run down the list: blurry, airy synths? Check. Taut but playful percussion? Check? Pulsing bass? Check. And swirling all about it are the vocals of founder Michael Angelakos, a swooning falsetto angel, multitracked into infinity. Oh, and there’s a choir in there, too. In short, it’s the kind of song you can’t help but love, not because you feel as though it’s trying to impress you, but rather, the opposite: because everything about it feels so effortless and sounds so perfect.

The Felix Da Housecat remix, by contrast, feels a bit stilted by comparison; it’s lacking the energy that the original possesses. I’m not sure who Felix Da Housecat is, but the remix sounds like a standard dance club track – sort of like Hercules and Love Affair, but substitute the glamor for trashiness. This isn’t to say it doesn’t work. But if you take a song that wasn’t a one-trick pony, and turn it in to one, you can’t help but feel a bit cheated, even if the results aren’t really all that bad. In short, if you like Passion Pit, it’s probably worth the $6.

I mentioned earlier about the power of music on a physical object, and that’s what I think makes Record Store Day (and indeed, records in general) important. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mostly listen to music on an iPod or a computer nowadays, but (as evidenced by this blog), I still buy a ton of music. Mostly CDs, but some vinyl, too, if the mood strikes me. So, the question is, why CDs? Why vinyl? Why any physical format in the digital age? Well, as convenient and tidy as it is to have loads of MP3s, there’s one thing that MP3s don’t ever have the power to possess. And that is: history. Digital files are digital files; they’re indistinguishable from one another, and no matter how various companies try to dress them up with embedded cover art and digital booklets, they’re still plastic and impersonal. But physical formats, like the LP, the CD, hell, even the cassette, are different. They can age; they can become worn (indeed, if you don’t take care of them, they can break).

More than that, though, they occupy a physical space. My digital copy of Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica is the same as every other MP3 album I have. But my physical copy, the 2004 CD reissue, is not. The booklet’s waterdamaged from when I attempted to get in to a sold-out show in Chicago when the band were touring for Good News For People Who Love Bad News (and I held on to some false hope that I might get Isaac Brock to sign it); the inlay has a tear in it from when I attempted to remove the security sticker, while listening to the album’s opener, 3rd Planet, for the very first time. And the disc itself carries many a scar from being placed (sometimes carefully, sometimes not) into a plastic booklet (or a glove box, or a CD spindle, or sometimes just loose on a car seat) But it still plays, and doesn’t skip a beat. All this comes from the fact that it inhabits a physical space. I can look at it, and all these memories come flooding back to me, taking me back to a time when I first started to explore indie music (having been an exclusive metalhead prior to that). And as I mentioned, these are memories and experiences linked to the physicality of the artform, and it’s something I wouldn’t give up for anything. Remember that scene in High Fidelity where Rob and Dick are talking about the merits of organizing your albums autobiographically? Well, imagine them having the same conversation in front of an iMac and an external Western Digital MyBook. It’d be meaningless.

Keep in mind, this change isn’t unique to music. Books are rapidly becoming digitalized (beyond that, print in general is declining rapidly all across the country). Same with movies, what with the advent of digital copies and the massive popularity of Netflix (again, don’t get me wrong – I love Netflix, and you can watch thousands of great movies on demand with it, but it’s not the same as walking into a retailer and deciding to rent or buy Mega Shark VS Giant Octopus solely because the ridiculous title caught your eye from a shelf – what Netflix has in terms of customized recommendations, which are sometimes sketchy, it totally lacks serendipitous chance encounters). Now, maybe you don’t miss these experiences, or maybe you never had them to begin with, and you don’t care to. That’s a personal choice. But for my part, I think when we lose the history associated with art (as it manifests in a physical form), we also begin to lose our reverence for it; to wit, we appreciate it less. Quick: think of all the people you know (and I know you know them) who have hundreds of MP3s, but don’t listen to them? That is to say, they have them just to have them (I myself have been guilty of this numerous times, and it bothers me to no end).

Sure, iTunes puts access to thousands of songs for cheap right on your computer, and anyone who’s over the age of five knows that there are other, less legitimate ways of acquiring music (and movies, and books, and so on) digitally; with hard drive space so cheap, our means to store and procure media are nigh unlimited. But if our capacity to possess art is unlimited, than inevitably, our appreciation of it lessened by the mere fact that it becomes less of a cultural or sociologically enhancing experience, and more like a commodity. We demand less of it because it occupies no physical aspect of our life, we forge no history with it because 1’s and 0’s aren’t capable of historical sentience, and by extension, it in turn fails to provide us with a blueprint of our artistic consciousness.

I can remember, back when I was young, going to Crow’s Nest Music and More with my father. We’d go about once a month or so, and we’d spend hours in the store, just browsing, looking at all the music, taking it all in, and carefully selecting our purchases. My love of music came to me from my father; he died suddenly in 2001, when I was 16, in the summer before my junior year of high school – it was horrible, losing him so young, and it’s something I’ll never get over completely, but I could feel his presence around me every time I walked into Crow’s Nest. And when Crow’s Nest shut down at the end of 2006, forced out of business by Best Buy and Circuit City’s prices, I lost a huge, defining aspect of my childhood, and my adulthood; one of the links that connected me to my father was severed forever.

Could I have had the same life-molding experiences with my father in the iTunes storefront? No. And that’s why Record Store Day is important.

In short: digital may be the way of the future, and it may be super-convenient (just a few paragraphs ago, after all,I linked to an M83 remix you can listen to at your leisure – how’s that for convenient?), and it may eventually replace all physical formats of music (and sooner rather than later), but in my eyes, that doesn’t make it any less inferior.

Well, thanks for listening to my rant. Sorry it got a bit out of hand there. Anyways, take care everyone.

FRIGHTENED RABBIT – The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on March 13, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Some albums demand your attention; they have a sense of urgency about them that’s hard to ignore. As it so happens, the words “hard to ignore” fit Frightened Rabbit’s last album, 2008’sThe Midnight Organ Flight, to a tee; that album moved mountains without much more than two guitars and Scott Hutchinson’s painfully frank lyrics. While the songs were simple, they had a depth to them that was undeniable. And on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the band (having expanded from a trio to a quintet) take their sound and broaden it, making their songs even more resonant in the process. Gone is the beauty-through-simplicity approach that graced their earlier works – these songs cut deeper and speak louder. So while you might not be marveling at the band’s artful modesty, you’ll still be captivated by these songs all the same.

The biggest change on The Winter of Mixed Drinks is the abstraction of the guitars, and the addition of vocal harmonies; many songs on the album are wrapped up in a cocoon of guitar that sounds as if it was bred from a cross between Kevin Shields and Dave Sitek (circa 2006). This sound is most apparent on the album opener Things, and Yes, I Would and The Wrestle, while the vocal harmonies seem to rise up from within each song at some opportune moment, making the music therein sounding even more heavenly. Really, the only downside of the album to me is the first single, Swim Until You Can’t Reach Land – it feels too happy-go-lucky, and it doesn’t mesh with understated emotional rawness that the rest of the album conveys. Man, what is it with lead singles recently? And while we’re at it, what is it with songs named Swim in 2010?

Scottish rock might not be invading the US, as their British brethren did so many decades ago, but it’s definitely making an impression on the independent music scene. Between Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, and We Were Promised Jetpacks, earnest, forward-thinking rock from across the pond seems to be something that we’re seeing on a semi-regular basis. And I love it. I mean, this kind of music used to everywhere, but it seems to have abandoned our FM airwaves ages ago. Again, it all goes back to sincerity. Listening to any of the aforementioned bands, you get a feeling the music is simply the music – there’s nothing ulterior or artificial about. It seems to emanate from somewhere, and that makes it feel real. It’s nice to know that there are bands out their who still make rock to that end.