Deerhunter – Helicopter

•September 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

Bradford Cox in "Helicopter"

Deerhunter’s “Helicopter” is being streamed on their website right now and I strongly suggest you go watch it, or download it, or buy it.

Right now.

Panda Bear and Animal Collective have been a huge influence on Bradford Cox (Halcyon Digest is being mixed and produced by Ben H. Allen who has done a lot of work with AC), but this new song goes so far beyond just a simple “guess the influence” thing.  “Helicopter” is undoubtedly Deerhunter, yet it doesn’t sound like anything they have ever attempted before. Deerhunter has never made anything quite this dreamy and hazy, and this is Deerhunter we’re talking about. Bradford Cox gives a breathtaking vocal performance, and really stretches himself as a singer.  In case its not obvious already, this is one of the very best songs of the year, and it stands as one of the absolute best things Deerhunter have ever recorded.

The song has been released as a music video and follows “Revival” which was the first single off of the un-fucking-believably anticipated new album Halcyon Digest. Much like “Revival” the song contains strong spiritual themes, which  is something new for Cox as a lyricist, along with the usual Deerhunter lyrics about sickness. The song begins with a fragile harpsichord-like synth as Cox sings “Take my hand and pray.” Cox sings of accepting death as helicopters circle an unnamed tragedy. Despite the subject matter Bradford Cox has a wonderful knack for making incredibly sad songs sound uplifting, and “Helicopter’s” wash of gorgeous melodies put a huge smile on my face.

The song eventually moves from fragile to grandiose and by the time Cox is repeating of the final lines, “Now they are through with me” it is clear just how brilliant and powerful a band Deerhunter are and hopefully will continue to be in the new decade.

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No Age – Weirdo Rippers

•August 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

Since there’s about a month left before No Age’s new album Everything In Between is released I thought it would be good to go back and give some attention to their earlier albums.

The first release by No Age, Weirdo Rippers is actually a compilation of all the bands singles, which is pretty surprising considering how well the entire thing flows together.No Age, who are drummer and vocalist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall are one of the finest noise rock bands of the decade.  The album is the haziest and noisiest of all No Age’s albums, opening songs like “Boy Void” and “Every Artist Needs a Tragedy” sound like amazing pop punk that is stuck in between two channels on the radio.I find that this is the most musically creative of the bands work however, they would write better pop songs on the next two albums, but you never hear something quite as magical in the later albums as the guitar solo about a minute into “Every Artist” or “I Wanna Sleep” where Randy Randall sounds like a scuzzy lo-fi Robert Fripp.

The best description of the album might be “ambient punk” a silly little term coined by Deerhunter for the album Cryptograms; frankly, No Age do it better. Unlike Deerhunter’s album which often alternated between the two, No Age marry the two contrasting ideas of ambient music and noisy punk rock together in every song. The pop moments addictively catchy, while the ambient moments never feel like they’re just transitions there to fill space. Many songs on here are gorgeous, formless instrumentals that drift into short bursts of punk rock glee such as in “Everybody Down”

A ton of bands this decade went for the whole lo-fi, glo-fi, shitgaze, whatever the fuck you want to call it, and a ton of those bands are hacks drowning everything in noise to hide that they have no talent. Its comforting then, how often No Age let things get very quiet on Weirdo Rippers. “Neck Escaper” and “Loosen This Job” (which is down right intimate)  are two songs where Spunt and Randall aren’t afraid to turn down the volume, something many other noise rock bands would be afraid to do. The approach seen in “Loosen This Job” would be later perfected on Nouns’ masterful “Things I Did When I Was Dead.”   No Age are the real deal, and Weirdo Rippers shows them at the most ambitious.

Raymond Scott – Soothing Sounds For Baby

•August 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment
Soothing Sounds For Baby

Soothing Sounds For Baby

Reading reviews for Merriweather Post Pavilion you would often see comments on how despite its incredibly electronic instrumentation it was surprisingly warm and optimistic. Critics treated it as if it were a contradiction, as if it wasn’t right for electronic music to sound welcoming or pretty. Electronic music has, like the technology that produces it, advanced and become so complex so quickly that lots of it can seem cold and alienating. But their is another side to electronica that now is becoming more popular, a warmer sensibility. People seemed to forget that computers can produce some incredibly warm and inviting music. Raymond Scott is one of those forgotten musicians who experimented with electronic and ambient music in a pop setting before nearly anybody else (YES EVEN BEFORE ENO.)

I came across Raymond Scott’s “Soothing Sounds For Baby” almost by accident, and was shocked to see this record series was released in 1964 more than 10 years before Brian Eno had coined ambient music and revolutionized electronic music. This record is one of the oldest examples of electronic pop music I have found. The 3 cds were designed for infants to listen to. The idea was the electronic tones would be soothing to the babies and the repetitive structure would lull them to sleep. Honestly I don’t know how much babies would like this, but goddamn if I don’t adore it.

The 3 volumes are designed for babies 1-6, 6-12, and 12-18 months with the music getting more complex in each volume.  Its shocking how ahead of his time Scott was on these records, nothing sounded like this at the time. At times it sounds like Eno’s best ambient albums or Tangerine Dream, other times it gets a little more playful seems like something you might here from Kraftwerk. The first track on Vol. 1 “Lullaby” is a perfect example of what to expect.   Ringing bell like electronic beats along with what sounds like a theremin at its prettiest make a gorgeous repeating melody for over 10 minutes. A lot of the songs lay out the repeating beat and just let sounds dance over it and develop. This structure is one of the central ideas of most ambient and electronic music, and it is evident here in its fledgling form.

There are times where Scott falters and its too bad that the not-so-good “Toy Typewriter” has to be 17 minutes long. A song that could have been decent becomes unbearable due to the length. “Tic Toc” is about as bad as the stupid Kesha song it shares its name with, consisting of 8 minutes of a simulated clock ticking. I understand Scott’s intention with it, (people would often put a ticking watch next to a baby to soothe it into sleep) so I can’t fault him. It makes sense that he would simulate that, after all he is just trying to make a record to help babies fall asleep too, I don’t think he intended on making a musical statement.

Finally, “Little Miss Echo” is possibly the most soothing and perfect thing on these records, its easily one of the finest ambient pieces ever recorded. The song is almost frustrating to hear, because it shows how artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never or even Emeralds on their most recent album have done very little in terms of pushing music forward. Of course it may not be their fault, Scott was ahead of his time, and maybe only now is everybody catching up with him.

If you have even a passing interest in ambient music I highly recommend you get this amazing album. Oh! Right. Get it if you have a baby too, it’ll probably soothe it or something.

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?

•August 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’m a huge Emeralds fan, they make some of the best drone I’ve heard. But despite being a huge fan I’ve only heard an extremely small fraction of their discography, mainly because they are so incredibly prolific. These three guys have hundreds of releases so it can be pretty fucking intimidating  trying to pick an album to listen to. I still think their best record is “What Happened” which came out last year on No Fun Productions, in fact I thought that was one of the best albums of 2009. However if you’re not a big ambient or drone fan, but want to check out Emeralds just cause they have a cool name “Does It Look Like I’m Here?” is probably the album to get.

This album shows Emeralds taking a stab at  shorter and more direct songs. They add a lot of rhythms and beats to the music and expand on a lot of the dynamics that “What Happened” dabbled with. There are moments where I think they try a little too hard and its sad that the longest song on the album “Genetic” (at 12 minutes) falls flat on its face with its storm of 70s sounding keyboards. The title track starts similarly, but manages to save itself about halfway through by adding some really heavy delayed guitar.

With the low points out of the way I should mention the good stuff, and there is a lot of it. Opener “Candy Shoppe” shows that the new direction Emeralds is taking can produce brilliant results.  The appropriately sweet  synth song spends the first half building to gorgeous climax that is breathtaking. Its easily the best song on the album, and one of my favorite songs this year. Despite being so heavily electronic the song is overwhelmingly warm, I’m talking Eno warm here. “Summerdata” and “Science Center” are great and sound like they could have been on “What Happened” which is nice, if the album had been all synthy sci-fi soundtrack stuff it would have been a disaster. “Cycle of Abuse” is especially nice featuring some guitar that actually sounds like guitar, it ends up sound like something from Eno’s “Apollo,” which is never a bad thing to end up sounding like.

A lot of drone bands won’t screw with their sound too much, so its interesting to see Emeralds do something so different, and most of the time it sounds pretty damn good. I’m looking forward to where they go from
here.

Album Review – Menomena – Mines

•July 24, 2010 • 1 Comment

The reception for Menomena’s  third proper album, Mines, has been misleading. Many critics have painted the bands past as one of a carefree pop band who now have suddenly decided to make brooding and dark music. The previous album Friend and Foe was a commercial breakthrough for the band, and in the three years after its release Brent Knopf, Danny Seim, and Justin Harris have been hard at work creating hundreds of samples and loops, with their program Deeler, to use in forming their follow-up.

I think these detractors need to give the earlier stuff another listen because while Menomena have their share of charming hook-filled pop they have always had a troubled, sad tone to their music, and a very experimental edge. Songs such as “Rotten Hell,”  “Strongest Man in the World” and the underrated album “Under an Hour” show a depth to the band that is overlooked sometimes. Mines is not a departure from the earlier albums, but it brings more attention to that deeper and darker side to the band. Its a perfection of the band’s sound and their best album to date. I have always thought of Menomena as a talented band, but I never expected them to sound so ambitious.

Menomena have added a new level of complexity to their music with this album. Opener “Queen Black Acid,” which is initially straightforward lulls the listener into thinking perhaps the band have abandoned their dense loop-based signature sound. Slowly, however loops and samples begin to develop over the delicate melody, some guitar feedback, a pretty piano phrase yet there is always sense of subtlety in the mix that holds true throughout the album. The loops don’t dominate the songs, and this is perhaps the most important thing that can be taken away from Mines. Menomena have moved from where they depended on loops to now using them in less obvious ways. Songs such as “Lunchmeat” and the stunning “Killemall” use samples deftly to create some of the bands most creatively structured songs. “Lunchmeat” for example is interrupted at one point with a Latin-tinged guitar that comes as quickly as it goes. Its one of many wonderfully weird moments contained on the album that make you want to replay it in order to soak in all the details.

While poppy songs such as “TAOS” and “BOTE” show Menomena at their heaviest and catchiest perhaps the most ambitious moment on Mines comes right in the center with “Tithe”. Sung by Danny Seim “Tithe” builds twinkling percussion, piano and sharp guitar chords, to a climax where there are about 5 different ideas occurring at once that coalesce in a way that is nothing short of breathtaking. The vocals are stronger on Mines than on any previous album. The soaring vocal’s at the end of the show stopping “Dirty Cartoons” repeating “I want to go home” in particular shows how much the band have developed as singers.

I’ve always liked Menomena and thought them capable of making a truly groundbreaking album. The 3 years after Friend and Foe with so little news from the band made me fearful they might fade away, but they haven’t. That whole time they were creating Mines, and after this brilliant album, fading away is the last thing I expect Menomena to do. Its the album I always hoped they would make. And they did.

Mines comes out July 27th via Barsuk

Album Review – Swans – Children of God

•July 21, 2010 • 1 Comment

If you heard the news about Swans getting back together  and weren’t jumping up and down cheering then there’s a good chance you haven’t experienced what Michael Gira’s group can do. This band is pretty divisive; ask one person about Swans and they’ll call them one of the most passionate and cathartic bands they have heard, ask another person and they’ll say its just a bunch of painfully slow songs with a guy shouting at you. One thing all can agree on though is that they are prolific as all hell.

Figuring out where to begin in this band’s 3 decade long career can be pretty intimidating. There is so much recorded material it might seem overwhelming. However, I’ve always felt the best place to start is a record from 1987 called Children of God. This album gives you a perfect blend of where the band started and where they were headed, and it conveniently came out right in the middle of their career.

Give Children of God a listen and you’re kind of getting the lion’s share of what Swans does best. Kicking the album off with one of their best stompy rock songs “New Mind” has loud slow drums (Michael Gira REALLY likes loud slow drums), call and response lyrics, and the recurring lyric(shout), “damn you to hell.” Following this is the almost-creepy yet beautiful piano led “In My Garden” one of a few Jarboe solo songs. A lot of what you’ll find on this album plays with these two dynamics: Fragility and Power. The dynamic is explored further on “Sex, God, Sex” which has heavier drums that even “New Mind,” but with its soaring backing vocals it creates major contrast as it builds to its climax.

The best part of the album is its centerpiece of three songs that capture the contrast perfectly. “Like a Drug” matches thudding bass with the scariest “sha-la-la”chorus you’re likely to hear. Meanwhile “You’re Not Real Girl” which comes right in the middle of the album brings acoustic guitar and Gira’s haunting vocals to the front for one of the more restrained Swans moments; less horror and more dread. The song shows that when he stopped shouting Gira actually had a killer singing voice, which would become much more dominant over the less musical delivery after this album.

“Beautiful Child” captures one of the most explosive musical moments Swans ever recorded. Gira never sounded more furious than on this Old Testament inspired nightmare.  The fitting music behind him (marching, militaristic drums, and a choir that would sound more appropriate in a ritual sacrifice) perfectly backs Gira as he manically plays the part of Abraham. Its all fire and brimstone on this track which  comes across as a more honest and human exploration of faith than any naive christian-rock tripe.

Swans are uncompromising in every possible way because despite all of the anger and aggression found on Children of God their is a consistent beauty to many of these song. Gira’s skill as a songwriter is his ability to never let himself become completely consumed by his rage; there’s a life affirming quality to these grim songs.  Give this album a listen and you’ll be cheering too at the news that Swans has decided to begin making music in this new decade.

Beautiful Child

Track Review – The Books “We Bought The Flood”

•July 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Books.

The Books have such a specific and unique approach to their music that they have been accused of being a one-trick pony. “We Bought the Flood”, a track off their new album “The Way Out,” will dispel such nay-saying. The song is a departure from most Books tracks in its apparent lack of any field recordings and its dependence on vocals. Stark, slow percussion and Nick Zammuto’s tender vocals are the only constants, both uncommon for The Books, and yet it is one of their finest moments.

For a band that so rarely has actual vocals it’s shocking to see how well-written the lyrics are. Zammuto’s fragile voice builds to the cathartic line,”Focus on the pain, focus on the way to get out” as an organ gives impressive punctuation by growing loud for just one second. This track is quite uncharacteristic of the Books because they always seem to be held at arm’s length. The artists rarely get personal and its austerity and directness create a rare glimpse into the two men behind this usually mysterious band.

The whole album is streaming on NPR’s website here.