Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Music To My Ears (10 Contemporary Albums)

10 Contemporary Albums(2009-2010)

10. Bitte Orca By Dirty Projectors(2009): How can I describe the Dirty Projectors. Experimental rock with an emphasis on blending vocal arrangements with odd time signatures sounds close, but it doesn't tell you how rustically beautiful and polyrhythmicaly funky this stuff is capable of sounding. A softer, leaner "Animal Collective" is another close similarity. But similarities, and simile's in general have their limitations. Some things have greater differences than similarities. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" said Frank Zappa and when considering the sui generis "math-folk(?)" sounds of Dirty Projectors I'm inclined to agree. Though soldier on with my "architecture dances" I must, maybe I will get lucky and make it rain on accident.

9. Eskimo Snow By Why?(2009)"Why?" have been playing "hip-hop" inspired intimate rock music for three albums now, but only here have they accepted their bedroom appeal and ditched the heavier darker, harder tones of their last album "Alopecia". The best songs here revolve around sing-speak vocals of self-deprecation and mortality over a rollicking acoustic guitar and gentle drums that play more to the cymbals and high hat than the snare or the toms. "Why?" 's continued obsession with death appear on tracks like "Berkley By Hearsback" and my personal favorite "Even The Good Wood Gone" the story of a Mummy dimly aware that his tomb has been ransacked and that he now lies in the British Museum, where "No flash photography" becomes the kind of symbolically loaded chorus, open to multiple interpretations, that have made them a rewarding band to listen to. It's sad, bittersweet, folk-pop at it it's finest here, with a rap penchant for dropping clever punch lines. "Eskimo Snow" is a short album and still pale next to their seminal and sunnier "Elephant Eyelash". The new albums name is a reference to the notion that Innuit's have 47 words for snow, since likewise the band seems to have 4 albums worth of variations on saying I'm curious/worried about death, curious/worried about love, and curious/worried about the balance between being honest and embarrassing yourself. Fortunately they are still founding ways of making such rigamortis stiff themes seem fresh, the cover art of flowers obscuring the face of a mummy is fitting in more ways than one.

8. Forgiveness Rock Record By Broken Social Scene(2010): Disappointing means something different for a Broken Social Scene album than it might for others. Though this is the least of their three albums, it is not a bad album per say. There was a time when I had to listen to Broken Social Scene with my finger near the volume always uncertain whether an explosion of Shoegaze noise might wash up or a crescendo of strings side wind into some unexpected direction. On "Forgiveness..." I find myself often turning up the volume and then....waiting. It was thrilling music, from a wide cast of Canadian musicians who on their own for the most part, were decent enough musicians who'd all been playing in bands before or during, in some cases for decades, but together they are something like Voltron, or The Wu-Tang Clan in their hey-day, worth more than their individual parts. Tracks like the bombastic opener "World Sick" and the breezy big-oil agit-pop of "Texico Bitches"(which captures the rap cockiness, sly humor, and tropical slant of "Apostle Of Hustle") are strong, but for the most part the rest of the album recall the greatness of the last album or the mystique of some the contributors solo projects rather than really move forward. Not a failure, by any means but for a band once known for it's ever shifting style and ceaseless momentum it is something of a misstep. When they want to they are still capable of fireworks, but they seem more comfortable with just enjoying the company of their old friends/fellow musicians than breaking new ground. Again, not bad, but I have high standards for this band, and after hearing their self titled 2nd album you would too. Everyone deserves forgiveness and bands are no different, let's just hope BSS don't make a habit of needing it.

7. Have One On Me By Joanna Newsom(2010):
Joanna Newsom could have made one good album but decided instead to produce three with one albums worth of good material. Newsom appeared a few years ago combining West African polyrhythms and Appalachian folk, with the dry literary wit and eloquence and a voice which sounded like Lisa Simpson on a bad day. Never mind that though, to hear her was to love her, and on follow us "Ys" she moved into wider territory recording arrangements by folk/psych/Americana composer extraordinaire Van Dyke Parks, and production pioneer Steve Albini (of Big Black, Rape Man, Shellac fame). "Have One On Me" has a generous spirit, but quite a bit of filler and fluff (not even necessarily bad filler), but filler nonetheless. "Good Intentions Pavement Co." and "81" are the best tracks and they come early on, leaving us to slough through lots the dreaded "indie folk", which Newsom was often accused of being, but never became until now. And as the Cracker song goes "What the world needs now is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head"

6. A Sufi And A Killer By Gonjasufi(2010):
San Diego born Yogi teacher, living in the Las Vegas desert studying Sufi mysticism and the Indian epics seeks band to jam with. Members must be down with hip-hop, Hindi music, psychedelic fuzz, soul, and analog fuzz. "A Sufi And A Killer" is an open letter of invitation to musicians from the reclusive Gonjasufi who has been appearing with collaborator "Flying Lotus" since the 90's in LA's hip-hop scene. His music at times sounds like fuzzed out garage funk discovered from the 60's, and at other times bedroom level trip-hop, and always with a b-boy swagger. Though Gonjasufi's ambitions are evident, much of his strength and charm lies with the lo-fi production. Music like this would be ruined with crisp production values, the power is in the haziness of it all. By the way that is "Gonja"-sufi not "ganja"-honest mistake though.

5. Merriweather Post Pavilion By Animal Collective(2009):
Animal Collective have come along way from the masters of camp-fire and drum circle style freak out to Brian Eno at the circus funhouse of electronic beats and blurps on their latest Merriweather Post Pavilion. An album of songs to be played in the open air at the eponymous venue. This is arena rock Animal Collective style and so it doesn't sound like anything that has ever existed before. The usual chants and bleeding vocals, Van Dyke Parks and Sonic Youth style noise and sweetness, but now with increasingly practical and sincere lyrics. "My Girls" is a song about wanting to own your own home and provide for your loved ones. Nothing surreal or strange about that, but Animal Collective were never about shock for it's own sake, but taking minuscule and mundane emotions and supercharging them into noise embroidered mini-epics. "Taste" is another fairly direct song about the varieties of musical and artistic appreciation, as Animal Collective are well aware they are not for everyone, but not bothered in the least. This is an album for those who enjoy their picnics in the spring time and their music by heartfelt eccentrics.

4. Dear God, I Hate Myself By Xiu Xiu(2010): Depressing as ever but dipped in a sticky sweet glitchy new wave coat, that's addictive as lickable wallpaper, though the flavors include shame, obesity, despair, and cruelty. Jamie Stewart loses cousin and long time musical companion Cara Lee Mcelroy, but gains some perspective and ditches some of the more avant-garde and progressive gamelan and gothic-industrial assaults of silence and noise. The results are the closest the band has ever been to accessibility, but Stewart remains the pervert whisperer; which is just like the horse whisperer except where he could sooth horses by his hushed voice, Stewart sings in your ear like the cartoon devil on your left shoulder reminding you of all the sexual tension, loneliness, and ugliness of the human spirit in a way that makes differentiations between sincerity and absurdity, exploitation and confession mute points, irrelevant before the onslaught of electronic shape shifting. "Dear God, I Hate Myself" is not Xiu Xiu's (I have given up pronouncing their name out loud!) best album but it is the most acessible to newcomers, who may be surprised how easy the albums title transfers into a catchy hook on the song of the same name. You'll be humming "dear, god I hate myself" to yourself with a smile, all week long.

3. Fang Island By Fang Island(2010): Positive, exuberant, brain shredding guitar rock, that's a joy to listen to. "Fang Island" is enjoying themselves. and the pleasure is infectious. I couldn't tell you what these songs were about, I am intensely lyrically oriented when it comes to music and I wasn't tempted to look up the lyrics here once. Words aren't sung but similar to "Animal Collective" chanted and blended into a sugary post-punk choir. "The Mae Shi" worked a similar territory but sometimes gave into glitchy electronic mushiness and obnoxious preachyness, none of which can be found on this self titled debut. This is music played at high speeds to be listened to at high volumes. Their music videos are every bit as infectious and frenetic as their music, the most definitve of which has the band playing before a group of real live kindergartners who proceed to pogo their little hearts out, this is the central image of "Fang Island's" vision of the world, and it's a heartwarming and head banging one.

2.Dark Night Of The Soul By Danger Mouse And Sparklehorse(2009)"Dark Night Of The Soul" would prove a more fitting title than anyone could have predicted, since not long after this collaboration with Danger Mouse, Mark Linkous aka "Sparklehorse" committed suicide. Fellow collaborator on two of this album's tracks Vic Chestnutt also died the earlier the same year of an overdose. The tone of the music here has the crackling old phonograph lo-fi and hiss of "Sparklehorse" with the solid back up beats of Danger Mouse occasionally veering into what sound like samples from 60's spy films. Though star studded with special guests, like David Lynch who provides vocals on one track and a book of 100 photographs inspired by the music, to Wayne Cohen(of the Flaming Lips), Iggy Pop, James Mercer(Of The Shins), Julian Cassablancas(of The Strokes), Black Francis(of The Pixies), to name a few. Though ome of these songs are excellent like the druggie droll of "Everytime I'm With You", or the moody "haunted" lamp-light vibe of the title track, others like Iggy Pop's contribution "Pain" or Black Francis' song are dismal and forgettable. The guests are all rock singers, and it does run a bit predictable after awhile. So steeped in shadowyness and the real life tragedy the music does however achieves a sense of gravitas it would not have otherwise. Linkous and Chestnutt were strong musicians both of whom I had only recently discovered and already gone. This album has the short comings of so many of these collaboration-albums, short comings the next and final band on this list, get the better of. For all it's funerary air, typical special guest-itis, "The Dark Night Of The Soul" is still song for song one of the strongest records in recent memory.

1. Plastic Beach By The Gorillaz(2010)

The Gorillaz' "Plastic Beach" Reinvents “Plastic Soul”

Plastic Soul as defined by Wikipedia: Plastic soul is a term coined by an unknown black musician in the 1960s, describing Mick Jagger as a white musician trying to sing soul music.

Paul McCartney heard the comment and later said that the name of the The Beatles album “Rubber Soul” was inspired by the term "plastic soul". …In a 1976 Playboy, Bowie described his album Young Americans as "the definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey"Plastic Beach by The Gorillaz, is the first great album of the bands career. The last two were fine, the debut interesting and the follow up Demon Days a definite improvement. With Plastic Beach they’ve proved they are not just a novelty act of hip-hop/indie rock fusion like the lightly memorable “Dan The Automator” vehicle Handsome Boy Modeling School, instead they have grown into a solid band. Damon Albarn has adapted the hip-hop strategy of the album full of guest’s, to his own purposes. Alone he might just make some mildly interesting trip-hop, but backed by De La Soul, Lou Reed, Bobbie Womack, Dennis Hopper(?), The National Orchestra for Arabic Music, Snoop Dog, and Mick Jones(of The Clash) and he can harness the best of whatever artist or idea he’s working with, without overloading us with guests for guests sake (see "Dark Night Of The Soul" for examples of the later).

This is a kind of direct sampling, and when most producer/dj’s try this it ends up sounding like an more hit-than-miss patchwork, but at this point in the Gorillaz career were their third album is coming out 12 years they began in 1998, they have the experience necessary to make everything sound natural. “Natural” isn’t a word you’d expect to hear describing the world’s first successful virtual band of the digital age (descendants of “The Chipmunks” down to their animal moniker), but such are the paradoxes of modern life, where the real, live, high-art collectives like ‘Broken Social Scene” deliver middle of the road filler with “Forgiveness Rock Record”, while cartoon rump-shakers prove more dexterous, lively, progressive, and organic than anything else available in modern music (to my limited knowledge at least). And if there was something better available right now, they would/will probably be appearing on the next Gorillaz album.

Additional Notes Towards More Sensual Artificial Primates

“The Gorillaz” has never been a cartoon band they have been the alias for artist/producer Damon Albarn since he left his earlier band “Blur”. The idea of the holographic band made sense, so much so it seemed to find a natural place in the cultural memory and was digested with ease by popular consensus. Albarn's switch from the twee brit-pop of Blur and songs like "Coffee And T.V." to the ass grinding decadence of “Feel Good Inc.”, is not as crazy as it sounds considering Blur’s most famous track “Song#2” was intended as a parody of the “grunge rock” phenomenon in exactly the same way Harvey Danger’s “Flagpolle Sitta’ was to the state of “alternative rock” a few years later, both songs becoming the very anthems of “youth angst” they were satirizing. But people ignoring the meaning of the lyrics and getting hooked into catchy hooks is nothing new. Consider the case of Bruce Springstien’s “Born In The USA” in the 1984 presidential elections: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_in_the_U.S.A._%28song%29#Political_reactions .

The Gorillaz are Albarn’s attempt at controlling the public image. The Gorillaz will never begin to visibly age, they can be re-arranged into whatever hip clothing is fashionable at the moment, and because they are not a band they do not do deal with conflicting personalities (collaborations either work or don’t on an individual basis).

In 2002 there was a film called "S1mOne" (from the writer/director of The Truman Show) about a man who creates a virtual actress to fill in a suddenly vacant role in a film he is directing only to have her become an overnight celberity he must now authenticate, leading him ever allegedly hilarious lengths to at first keep the illusion alive, and then to destroy it. Even after he stages her death, no one will believe she is really gone, and he has no choice in the end but to ressurect her and continue the charade (seemingly for the rest of his life). It was a better idea than a movie, and that “idea” like the simulation in the film, runs away with the whole show, but my point is Gorillaz began in 1998 years before the movie. The Gorillaz were living and are a living work of science fiction. On "Plastic Beach" the future sounds more soulful than one might have expected. "We are future pixels from factories far away"-"Rhinestone Eyes" off "Plastic Beach", By The Gorillaz

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