Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Not to say that this album is sloppy: it isn't. And not to say that it seems effortless: it doesn't. In fact, it is delicately imbued with an intoxicating kinetic energy. The idea that I'm trying to get at is that this album is meticulous anti-synchronicity. The syncopations are not consistent, but they are sure as hell intentional. Every beat, every dirty chord, is placed exactly where it is meant to go. It is the epitome of "brand new worn out" jeans: broken in so you don't have to.
If this all seems to be a terribly confusing description, then good. Because I'm doing it on purpose. You have now experienced the written equivalent of my listening to The Dead Weather's freshman effort. Maybe it's my mindset, maybe my lack of focus--I honestly don't know--but it took me a good FIVE listens to actually "hear" this album. For the record, this is incredibly untypical for me; usually I can listen to something once and tell you exactly what I like and don't like about it; I'm that kind of opinionated ass. But this...this was different.
And I want to say right here that I dig it. Really dig it. This album is just downright fucking sexy. If this album was a one-night stand, it would be with that hot fucker from a smoky dive bar that you bang in secret in your tiny college apartment. Sure, it might be good ol' missionary style sex, but it is a deep, intense penetration that you talk about for weeks. And maybe booty call a few times, just for the hell of it. Maybe more than a few times. This could go on regular booty call rotation.
I have been hearing a lot of backlash against Jack White these days, and I can relate to where that is coming from. Yeah, he is in, like, FIFTY different bands. Yeah, he has that whole "I'm a rocker, I'm too cool for skoo" vibe. Yeah, he has the scuzzy black hair, motorcycle jacket, and big black boots. But in spite of any possible comparisons to rocker cliches that you could impose, you cannot deny that the man can CHURN OUT some fucking listenable music. He has a gift: a gift of rock. If Jack White was the little boy Jack Black in The Pick of Destiny, it would have been Led Zeppelin talking to him from a poster on the back of his bedroom door.
I'm going to shy away from a track by track description, other than to leave you with this video. This FUCKING AWESOME video. They call it a short film rather than a video, and I can see why.
The Dead Weather, Treat Me Like Your Mother
AND the behind the scenes. Apparently, it is algebraic.
And for you film geeks: This is YES.
They really are too cool.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Brother Ali: “Us”
My mind has always said no to Scott Weiland, but my lady parts say yes. Weiland had a seizure on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami two weeks ago. The flight had to make an emergency landing in Dallas and Weiland was briefly hospitalized. After a quick recovery, he made it to Miami where he had a scheduled solo performance at the club Mansion. After his performance he did confirm a fall Stone Temple Pilots tour which starts on October 2nd in Mobile, AL. I’m guessing you shouldn’t expect much from it since the reviews for their last recent tour were shit.
Billy Corgan announced Smashing Pumpkins will be releasing their new album called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope this fall. Don't look for a regular old album in stores or iTunes though. Corgan's plans for the album include releasing one song digitally starting on October 31st. He will then follow consistently with single releases until all, get this, 44 freaking singles are released. Oh, and all the digital downloads will be free. He then is going to release eleven limited edition EPs that will contain four songs each. And finally, once all this shit has gone down, he will release one complete box set of all 44 songs. Corgan says that the final box set will not be an exact reproduction of the EPs. Isn't this the same bitch that went to Capitol Hill earlier this year to complain about radio royalties? At least he got with the program and realized his ass probably wouldn't get paid anyway for these songs (since no one in their right mind would buy them with actual money), and just decided to release them for free.
Everyone is being resurrected these days, and that includes the cult-followed band Devo. They recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers Records and are prepping for a 2010 new album and tour. In the meantime, Warner Brothers will re-release the albums Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo and Freedom of Choice in limited edition and deluxe formats in November. Also in the meantime, Devo is going on tour this fall to promote the re-releases. They will be stopping in seven-cities for two nights each performing both albums in full, one per night.
And now, to keep you abreast of what we're listening to, here's your Monday (mini-)Playlist.
Felicia: I’m currently listening to Hot Chip’s “Over and Over” from their 2006 album, The Warning. I had been wondering what they’ve been up to, since their 2008 album Made in the Dark was one of my favorites from last year. According to their official website, it seems the band members have been working on other collaborations and remix albums lately. They are also currently recording a new Hot Chip album, which will be released in 2010.
Sean: I'm following up last week's Buchanan song with a sample from Jay Buchanan's current band, Rival Sons. It's not quite the same vibe as Buchanan, that's for sure. It's straight-up rock; dirty, gritty, and sexy as hell. I'm digging it. From their debut record Before the Fire, this is "Tell Me Something."
Friday, September 25, 2009
But it was obvious that as opening act The Jealous Sound played through this very kind of music capably and honorably, we (for the first time in a long time) were the youngins ogling the old people that didn't seem into the music, but were oddly silent and contemplative. It was fitting, though, that we were in the minority, because the lineup consisted of the band's original four members, including Nate Mendel and Williams Goldsmith, who originally left SDRE in 1995 to pursue careers as bassist and drummer in some band called the Foo Fighters. So Mendel and co. stuck to largely that foursome's discography when they took to the stage, which are arguably the ones that SDRE will be remembered for anyway. It started off big, with mostly tracks for Diary, the band's debut from 1994. One in particular that managed to get me from analyzing the crowd to dive into the beauty of the music was their live rendition of "Song About an Angel". With gut-wrenching dynamics that haven't been in anything Jeremy Enigk's written (as a solo artist or in his other band, The Fire Theft) since his breakthrough songwriting year, it was certainly an early apex of the night.
As the band started intertwining more songs from 1995's LP2, including "Grendel" and "Iscarabaid", nothing caught hold of me as intensely as anything they played from Diary, but I knew I had never given most of these songs from their sophomore outing the fair shake they deserve, which is one of the magical things about surprise reunion shows, whether just a money-grubbing last ditch effort in a musical recession or not. When SDRE broke up shortly after the release of The Rising Tide, just after I had started obsessing over them, I immediately accepted the fact that I would never see them in concert. It's a completely different feeling listening to a record of a band you love when you know it's a possibility you'll see them someday, or if you know they're coming to town, or if you know they will never show up in your hometown. So hearing these songs in a light I didn't think would ever be possible truly was special. It makes me want to forgive the fact that the song "8" from that record was on the Batman Forever soundtrack, go back, and listen to it all in a refreshingly new and exciting context.
And despite their connections to commerical success such as this that broke out for the SDRE guys throughout the years both before and after the band's demise (lead singer Enigk also experienced marginal glory as film composer for the deservedly forgotten film The United States of Leland), I really didn't see this reunion as a primarily financially-fueled decision. And I say that as someone who finds a lot of these reunions nowadays completely financially-fueled. And I totally thought the same of SDRE up until the night of the show because there seemed no other reason to do it other than to jump on the bandwagon and see where their mark in emo history lay. Now the show was not sold out, but it was pretty packed. Their comments to the crowd were not necessarily enthusiastic, but they didn't sound forced either. And ultimately, at some point around the middle of them venturing into territory from their 3rd album How it Feels to Be Something On (and Pitchfork's favorite of that year, mind you) with "Guitar and Video Games", I realized they were not doing this for a quick buck. I had completely decided that between their new song that Jeremy (an otherwise sadsack sullen guy) murmured afterward he looks "forward to recording that one" and the pure ardor that propelled Mendel and Goldsmith through "Guitar and Video Games", that this was for real. These guys loved playing music together again.
So while not every song filled my veins with the kind of vitriolic fervor I felt as a pained teenager in a suburban wasteland (wee-ow, that sounds lame, who was I?) and as I came to the treacherous realization that soon I too would be 40 and might not want to "get into it" at a show, that at least the music remains. And thankfully, due to the spirit and genuine love between four guys who had a good run back in the day, both they and I and the hundreds of others that filled First Avenue wouldn't have to settle for just casually listening to an old record to get our nostalgic rocks off. We could get together again and while we can't recreate the past, we sure can come close. And as the mild giddy high weared off as I exited the parking ramp Wednesday night and I witnessed a 40-ish guy with black-rimmed glasses pulled out of his spot and readjust a car seat in the back of his Honda, I thought to myself, 40's not going to be too bad at all. If I can get away on a weeknight when I have a kid of my own to go and relive the glory of emo music when I'm 40, it's not going to be too bad at all.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
[Warner Bros./Helium 3]
A true resistance movement, in the classical sense, does more than just overturn the status quo. A truly influential resistance is one that stands for something greater, that meets traditional wisdom with fierce internal power and clashes with the establishment in such a meaningful way that, in the event of their failure, future generations can still look to their example for strength. If a resistance is truly important, it will ring throughout history and impact even those who oppose it simply through the strength of its ideals.
Whatever resistance Muse is attempting to mount with their new album will probably be forgotten before the last song is finished playing.
Muse has always been a fairly well-respected band for their musical ability and for singer Matthew Bellamy’s stirring, if divisive, voice. They’ve been significantly less respected for essentially being a rip-off of early Radiohead and Queen. All the musical talent in the world can’t make up for derivative songwriting. Their “Guitar Hero”-powered hit single, “Knights of Cydonia” (from their previous album “Black Holes and Revelations”) was basically a cowboy’s version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Unfortunately for the band (and for the listener), this trend of style-biting has continued with surprising vigor. The cheese-laden, piano-ballad-to-hard-rock jam “United States of Eurasia (+Collateral Damage)” should have Brian May considering litigation. The guitar solo in the equally grandiose “Guiding Light” even has May’s classic guitar sound, and bears such a close resemblance to his work it made me check the liner notes to see if it had been sampled from “A Night At The Opera.”
Everything about “The Resistance” is big, big, big, with no thought to what it’s really all for. Clearly, Bellamy is trying to make a point or, more accurately, a million points at once, but they’re so vapidly basic, one would have to wonder if he’s even seen a newspaper in the last two years or if he simply watched John Carpenter’s satirical “They Live” and decided that would be enough information to write his lyrics around.
The lyrics are, if you’ll forgive me, beyond stupid. The most interesting line on the whole album comes on “Unnatural Selection” (a title so clever it can only be considered with absolute reverence and awe): “Counterbalance is commotion/We’re not droplets in the ocean.” Pretty good. If only there was one more phrase on the entire album that was evocative in any way.
Just try to wrap your brain around the sheer poetry of their lead-off single “Uprising”: “Rise up and take the power back/It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack/Their time’s coming to an end/It’s time to rise up and watch our flag ascend.” You’d be forgiven for having to read it more than once. It’s super confusing. It’s, like, totally abstract and deep and junk.
He is right about one thing: fat cats are probably more likely to have a heart attack. Check your feline’s cholesterol before it’s too late.
On every song, Bellamy howls about wanting truth and fighting back against the lies that “they” are feeding us. He belts ad nauseam about power and right and wrong and victory. But, aside from being alarmist nonsense, his blathering results in absolutely nothing. There are no solutions offered other than “rising up,” whatever it is he thinks that means. Let’s say he gets what he wants. Let’s say that everybody bands together and decides to revolt against whoever or whatever. Great. Then what? Is that going to be explained on the next album?
Basically, it’s all problems, no solutions.
Even if you can ignore the nonsense lyrics, the music is hardly inspired or original. After listening through the album several times, I still can’t tell which song is which unless I’m looking at the track listing. And it’s not like Muse isn’t trying. If anything, they’re trying too hard. The production value of each song is so cavernously huge there is no gravity; if music traveled in the vacuum of space, it would sound like “The Resistance,” and everything would be too huge to be discernable.
What makes “The Resistance” so unpalatable is not simply its awful wordplay and bloated song structures, but the pretentiousness that has gone into its every detail. Muse clearly believes they’ve made something Earth-shattering, and every gluttonous minute of music feels more like three men paying homage to their own greatness rather than a band simply making a good sound.
The second half of “I Belong to You” is an excerpt from the opera “Samson and Delilah.” “Exogenesis,” the album’s three-part finale, is treated, and labeled, as an epic “symphony.” Rock bands that aspire to something more can be great. But rock bands that aspire to more and fail simply come off looking foolish, especially when they try to pass themselves off as leaders of some great movement.
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Muse is trying to lead some form of revolution, to affect some sort of musical or political transformation. But to anyone who’s actually paying attention it sounds like what Muse is resisting most strongly isn’t the voice of power, but rather the voice of reason.
This review appeared (in a heavily edited form) in the Minnesota State University Reporter.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Mute Math: Armistice
The first thing you need to know about Mute Math is that lead singer Paul Meany plays the keytar in concert. Don't even try to tell me that's not awesome.
Armistice, the second album from this New Orleans rock band, lives in a very nice middle-ground. Mute Math's overall sound--a blend of alternative rock and electronic, almost psychedelic music--and Armistice in particular sit comfortably between Bloc Party and U2; more melodic and pop-sensible than the former, and utilizing the kind of lead riffs and echo-chamber sound of the latter in ways that are infinitely more interesting (and without the stupid sunglasses, silly monikers and general obnoxiousness).
From the opening track, "The Nerve," we can tell that there's something just a little different about this Mute Math record. The foundation is the same: funky beats, swirling keyboards, strong bass lines and effects-laden guitars. But "The Nerve" seems injected with a bit of soul that never made itself known on Mute Math. The whole of Armistice feels a bit more "loose" than the band's debut; I put that particular word in quotes because I don't want to give the impression that Mute Math is any less technically proficient in their performance here--they aren't. There is, however, just a slight change in the overall tone of the music. Mute Math was--and is--a fantastic record in every aspect, but even the most uplifting songs on it felt deadly serious; not necessarily cold or lacking emotion, but very tightly focused. Armistice, on the other hand, feels a touch more playful; relaxed, perhaps. The difference is subtle, but it's there. To better illustrate my point, I'd point specifically to Paul Meany's vocals. He is, of course, still an excellent singer, powerful through his entire range and tonally right-on. He sounds more natural, though, this time around; there's a lot less reverb put on the vocals, a lot more harmony, and--apologies for the repeated use of this word--a little more soul. His transitions are just slightly more drawn-out but still smooth, giving the songs a warmth that was often missing from their debut.
To be honest, I'm kind of nitpicking here in pointing out these subtle comparisons. The important thing is that Armistice is really a good listen. As I said before, the Mute Math hallmarks are still here: keyboards and computer effects swirl and splash throughout the album without totally dominating the soundscape. The songs are still full of funky rhythms and off-beats that manage to keep toes tapping. Several of the reviews I've read of Armistice lament the absence of U2-ish songs like "Collapse" and "Typical," the arena-rock standouts of Mute Math, pointing to the more ambient sound and complex melodies of this record as a departure from the band's originality and pop sense. That complaint, however, ignores the fact that--the aforementioned two songs aside--the remainder of Mute Math was hardly pop music. I'd counter that Armistice leans ever-so-slightly more in the direction of pop (perhaps alternative, more aptly) by retaining the experimental ambiance of the band's debut while cutting down on the "open spaces," as one might say; those periods on Mute Math where the vocals dropped out and for a minute or two we were left with just the rhythm section. That isn't to say that there aren't impressive instrumentals here; the gorgeous string interlude of "Clipping" is a highlight. The quick piano that tiptoes through this tune, the pulsating keyboards and the high harmony makes this one of my favorite songs on the record.
Armistice, while often unconventional, is not always mid-tempo and cerebral. "Spotlight," "Electrify," "Goodbye" and the title track can all hang with the best dance-rock you're likely to find, especially the latter with its groovy funk, frenetic bass and killer horn section. Fans of the band's debut will dig "Pins and Needles," with its relatively sparse instrumentation and jazzy percussion. And U2 themselves--along with a number of other lame pop bands--could learn a thing or two from the ballad "Lost Year," which drops the synths in favor of a piano and strings, and manages to lay a beautiful track over a still-interesting beat, not sacrificing Mute Math's identity.
Though I seem to be in the critical minority with this opinion, I think that Armistice is a step forward for this talented band. They've added a subtle new dimension to their sound while maintaining their uniqueness; essentially, they've held on to their originality without re-hashing their debut. As I said, it's a nice balance between the experimental and the accessible. I've never understood the thinking of critics who pine that a new record is not the old record. It seems counter-intuitive to hope that a band never progresses or tweaks their sound as they mature as songwriters and musicians; that maturation what makes a momentarily great band into a reliable favorite. My dad used to tell me that to consider a band great, each of their albums had to be better than its predecessor. It may be to early to state whether Mute Math will achieve that level of greatness, but Armistice is a worthy notice of intent.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I also want you to know that this post is totally NOT SUITABLE FOR WORK! You have been warned.
Anyway, here are each writer's (who cared to participate) Top 3 covers:
Buchanan, All Understood
It's not graphic or even all that provocative, but it always struck me as amusing. We know what's going on in there, guys. Maybe not the specifics, but...we get it. Lotta steam, too; somebody's good.
Faith No More, Songs to Make Love To
Rhinoceros humping. Indeed.
Rush, Power Windows
Alright, so my musical tastes don't really lend themselves to controversial cover art. You'll have to deal with what I think is cool, then. Hugh Syme has been producing excellent, thought-provoking cover art for decades, and this is one of my favorites.
I'd also like to make a brief mention of another prolific cover-artist: Storm Thorgerson. Not necessarily because he's produced a number of iconic covers, including Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. But because the man's name--his GIVEN NAME--is STORM fucking THORGERSON. I dare you to find me a legit birth name that's more rock 'n' roll than that.
Dwarves, Blood, Guts & Pussy
Yeah, it's totally misogynist, but there are naked women covered in blood and a dwarf acting like he's having sex with a rabbit. It's totally an affront to your sensibilities.
Black Crowes, Amorica
Umm, so yeah. I kind of like the low-brow covers.
A guy dressed up in a bunny suit giving an easter egg to a poodle. Folks, I dare you to find a more fucked up cover than this. Not necessarily a big smack in the head like the first two, but more like "What the fuck?"
STNNNG, Dignified Sissy [Modern Radio; 2005]
I already knew the Minneapolis spazz-punk outfit STNNNG were awesome when I saw them live. It just so happened that an album cover featuring a polar bear viciously attacking armed men cinched the deal for me when contemplating whether to purchase their music. Also, every song sounds like the gruesome act depicted in the detailed illustration, so they get bonus points for appropriately complementary iconography.
I Am David Sparkle, This Is The New [Kitty Wu; 2007]
Okay so the actual visual, especially in JPEG form, of this album is nothing notable. But what makes holding the album cover in your hands so special upon purchasing the glistening and climactic instrumental guitar music of Singapore's I Am David Sparkle is that in order to get to the CD, you have to at least partially destroy its paper casing upon which the artwork is printed. Sewed together on all four sides with black thread, it is impossible to remove the disc from the packaging without ripping its cover, forcing you to work, to undo, to disassemble the art in order to hear the music. Call me a sucker, but I love pretentious shit like this.
Owen, At Home With [Polyvinyl; 2006]
Maybe I'm just an idiot, but I owned this album for a good two months before I noticed the item of mystery behind its cover's photographic composition. There the record sat, in my car's passenger seat, every single day for weeks as I listened to it obsessively on repeat, until one night I parked in my garage, picked it up to bring inside as the dim overhead light helped me catch a new found glimpse of its front side. Suddenly, as I stared, crickets chirping and the engine finally whirring down to a slight whine, I noticed it. Behind the fog, lying on the grass amongst the intimidating sprawling tree and foliage I finally saw it. If you're like me and don't see it right away, look closer. Hopefully when you notice it, it won't be as the automatic light in your car and garage turn off simultaneously and freak you out to the point of smacking your head on the door.
This is probably one of the most iconic album covers of my generation. I mean, you have the triumvirate of power, all captured here in a perversely simple image: money, penis, and swimming pools. (I could get all pretentious here, and talk about the imagery as symbolism for the delicate balance between life and death, but honestly, it's been a long day and I really just want to give this bottle of wine a blow job.)
Ween, Chocolate & Cheese
I had to add my own boobage. Ween and a pro-wrestling reference. I'm Southern. Need I say more? Oh yeah: blowjob.
Aphex Twin, Windowlicker
Sleep tight, kids.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Surprisingly, the notoriously interview-shy have a documentary coming out about their tour of Canada in 2007. Called The White Stripes Under Northern Lights (an unnecessarily long title if you ask me), the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival this week. Apparently, the film (which is black and white, of course) plays on a lot of the ongoing jokes of the Stripes’ career, such as whether they’re siblings or ex-husband and wife and the fact that Meg almost never talks. No word yet on a wider release for the film, though I’m sure it’ll be on my DVD shelf eventually. -Christian H.
Last Tuesday marked the day that the Beastie Boys were supposed to release their new album, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1. Due to Adam "MCA" Yauch's cancer diagnosis a few months ago, the release date has been pushed back indefinitely. However, the Beasties re-released a digital version of Hello Nasty in its place. The album includes the original remastered album plus 21 bonus tracks, skits and rarities. A physical release will take place on Tuesday September 22nd. There are a multitude of packages you can choose, including a double vinyl and a collector's edition vinyl. All the add-ons can be viewed at the Beasties' website. -Felicia
In what I think is the coolest news of the week, Pavement has announced that they are getting back together! Well, for a tour…in 2010. They’ve only announced three shows so far, all in NYC, but they claim it’s going to be a full-on tour “around the world,” which has my jukebox jumbling. For those who are unaware, Pavement is basically the band that made indie garage rock cool in the ‘90s with albums like Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. They made a lot of music before they broke up in 1999, so they will have lots of material to choose from as they go out and play. They say this tour “isn’t prelude to a permanent reunion” and that it’ll probably just be this tour and that’s it. I’m usually very negative about reunion tours, especially for ‘90s bands, but basically, if they come to Minneapolis, I will get a ticket or die trying. –Christian H.
I've been a long time fan of Muse so it's kind of disturbing to think they're just now gaining popularity due to the use of their song "Supermassive Black Hole" in the Twilight movie. I admit I read all the books and even saw the movie twice (as our readership drops from ten to one after that revelation) but I hate the fact that they'll be known as "The Twilight Band" from here on out. In any case, Muse just released the video for their new single "Uprising." The song has grown on me, but their older stuff will always be closest to my heart. Oh, and they still haven't gotten credit for when that monster Adam Lambert sang their arrangement and cover of "Feeling Good" on American Idol, which is one of my favorite covers of all time.
As always, it's my pleasure to present your Monday Playlist.
Felicia: We have an MPR radio station here in Minneapolis called The Current and at 4:00 p.m. t they play a "No Apologies" track, meaning there are literally no apologies for the dissemination od a possibly hideous song. It's one of my favorite features on radio only because I usually really like the songs they play. It's normally a throwback or something so bad it's good, like a Meatloaf tune. Last week they played INXS's "Not Enough Time." It reminded me how much I love INXS and how hard my heart aches that I will never be able to see the original INXS live. It also reminded me what a fucking atrocity that reality show was where they were looking for a new lead singer. How dare they try to replace Michael Hutchence, and they should be ashamed for selling out like that. I was one of those people who refused to watch that garbage and was just short of staging a sit-in protest against it. Long live the real INXS in all its glory.
Sean: My contribution to an upcoming collaborative piece got me listening to one of my favorite albums from my post-college and performing years, Buchanan's All Understood. I don't think it's possible to place this record in any particular genre aside from the broad and true "independent" descriptor; it runs the gamut of styles, from rock to acoustic to soul, jazz and blues. The sultry groove of "Satan Is A Woman" behind Jay Buchanan's creamy, expressive voice paints a vivid picture of a man with absolutely no power over himself, and of the woman who just owns him.
Chris: "Cloudbank" by Julianna Barwick, from her new release Florine, is an instrumental song that only uses vocals. Wrap your head around that for a second. Using tons of delay, reverb, and looping techniques, Barwick creates an atmospheric soundscape that's at once enveloping and sparse, which is (or should be, anyway) the ultimate goal of quality ambient music. The wispy layers of her voice crescendo with ease and longing while the gulps of silence that intercede her experiment throb with pain and aching. It goes to show that music doesn't need to be crowded with sound to be impressive or sound big. And Barwick does it with the only instrument that doesn't cost a penny.
We hope you're enjoying what you're seeing around here. Thanks for reading. Have a good week. -Sean
Friday, September 18, 2009
I've written a few songs in my day. Songwriting isn't easy. I've learned, though--both from my brief foray into composition and from my lifelong obsession with pop music--that the biggest challenge in writing a great song isn't the intro or the ending; great intros and endings are a dime a dozen. The real challenge is in writing the perfect Middle Eight.
What is the middle eight, you ask? In the most basic thirty-two bar pop songs, the middle eight is that part that's neither verse nor chorus; it's often referred to as the bridge, as well. It deviates from the structure of the verse-chorus progression, often changing key and/or shifting into minor and seventh chords. In many modern pop-rock songs, it also serves as a transitory section into an instrumental or solo. And when it's done right, it can turn a good song into a pop masterpiece.
My appreciation for this particular aspect of pop music was imbued in me by my father; a great middle-eight, he always said, should be your favorite part of a song. A great middle-eight could help a song pass his ultimate test of pop excellence: it would give him goosebumps. The perfect minor chord progression under a catchy melody and killer harmony, leading into a sustained vocal peak--it often feels like a tiny little song unto itself before moving seamlessly back into the main theme. Dad raised me on The Beatles, so they are, of course, his standard for all pop songwriting (as they should be). We'll begin our playlist, then, with my very favorite Beatles middle eight: "We Can Work It Out" (0:37 & 1:22)*. This middle-eight is the perfect illustration of what I described a few sentences ago; it's also the most memorable part of the song.
*Times shown represent the start of the middle-eight in each song.
Turning to more modern music, the middle-eight that has always blown us both (Dad and I, that is) away is from Fastball's "Warm Fuzzy Feeling" (0:54). This song, I believe, should be taught as a clinic on pop songwriting: the first verse hooks you in, the second takes it up a notch with harmony and the background vocals, the middle-eight takes twenty-two seconds to blow your mind, and the final verse cools you down, kicks you in the face with a minor-chord ending, and leaves you breathless, all in less than two minutes. Rinse, repeat. Lester Bangs would be proud.
A similarly structured--albeit longer--song, is Panic at the Disco's "When the Day Met the Night" (2:22). The dynamics of the verse-chorus change in this song, the veiled, calm beauty of the verse contrasted with the bright and sunny chorus (sorry, I know that's punny) is just excellent, but the vocal harmony and the strings in the middle-eight really put it over the top for me. The high note and even higher harmony that ends the bridge of "Fallen Leaves" (2:05), from Billy Talent, is a soaring end to its staccato-based minor section, and the "la-la-la-la" background of Head Automatica's "Scandalous" (2:34) creates a standout on an aptly-named record (Popaganda) full of nearly flawless power-pop. Like "Fallen Leaves," the high note that peaks the middle-eight in Gavin DeGraw's excellent "Chariot" (2:08) makes me want to fly, indeed. In slightly heavier territory (and in better days for this band), the middle-eight of "Earthquake" (1:47) by The Used is the most powerful moment of a spectacular rock ballad, as Bert begs: "have I murdered our love?"
I'll almost certainly be slammed for admitting this, but I really like Matchbox Twenty. Please don't take this to mean that I like Rob Thomas; Rob Thomas is a tool, and his solo music is balls. But what began as a catchy but typical 90's band became a power-pop powerhouse with Mad Season and More Than You Think You Are. The middle-eight from "All I Need" (2:16)--a song already full of perfectly-placed minor and seventh chords--has been a favorite of mine for years for the way it pulls the song into the guitar solo.
Back to less embarrassing entries: House of Heroes is one of the most criminally under-appreciated power-pop/rock bands operating today; their The End is Not The End is a nearly perfect combination of pop hooks, concept themes and impressive musicianship. It's tough not to sing along as the middle-eight of "Leave You Now" (1:22) finishes, falsetto-style, with "the only ending that is fitting is you and me, baby." Another of my less-appreciated stand-bys (and one that actually has been mentioned 'round these parts before) is Great Big Sea. "When I Am King" (1:12) is just so unapologetic in its optimism, you can't help but smile through the cheese of it all. From GBS' fellow Canadians The Waking Eyes, the bluesy "Wolves at the Door" (1:55) leads into a slide-guitar solo with an anthemic bridge that bursts with energy. Fountains of Wayne have been perhaps the most reliable Beatles-inspired power-pop band of the last decade; from their latest record, "Yolanda Hayes" (2:00) throws background vocals, a killer ending-harmony and a great horn section together for its bridge. "Sense of Henry" (3:12) has been a favorite song, solo and favorite middle-eight since I discovered I Mother Earth back in high school; it's not exactly pop, but this bridge is still the best part of the song.
Finally, I'll end with the fast, furious, thoroughly unkind and yet irresistible "She Was Dead" (1:27) from SR-71, the always-overlooked and consistently good rock band who wrote and recorded the original (and one-hundred percent better) version of "1985," which unfortunately propelled Bowling for Soup to stardom.
Remember, folks: the bread of the song sandwich--the intro and end--are the easy parts. The verse/chorus are certainly the meat, giving the whole concoction its volume. The middle-eight, then, I guess would be the cheese; you don't need it, but it sure makes the sandwich better. I'm not sure what I'm talking about anymore, but I do know that I love cheese. Love it.
As always, please weigh in with your own favorites, criticisms and/or insults.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Historically, when a popular young actress like Scarlett Johansson decides to break into the bright, shiny world of music, the results usually fit somewhere between forgettable and disastrous. Thankfully for Johansson, her first release, a Tom Waits tribute album, was mostly on the forgettable end of the spectrum.
Thus, when word came out that indie singer Pete Yorn had hooked up with the starlet to record a duets album (supposedly based on a dream Yorn had), ripples of trepidation and malaise were sent throughout the music community.
One of the most pursuant criticisms of Johansson's musical debut was her voice. She's been called "flat" by some nicer critics, "tone-deaf" by some less nice ones. For me, I found her voice pleasant enough, if lacking in significant depth or range. But I can't help noticing that, in all of her films of late, her speaking voice resembles Tom Waits more than her singing voice ever could.
Thus the buildup for Break Up was similar to the awkward tension that accompanies an alcoholic going to Las Vegas for the weekend. Deep down you want to stage an intervention before it happens, but it's easier to pretend everything's going to be alright and they'll be home safe.
Thank goodness, it seems that Johansson has returned home alive and well.
In the first track, the ultra-catchy, dance-hall themed "Relator," Johansson is singing right there next to you, right into your ear, and the results are almost night-and-day compared to her previous musical work. Perhaps it's the fact that these songs were written with her in mind, perhaps it's simply working with a veteran recording artist like Pete Yorn, but for whatever reason, Johansson buys a lifetime of musical goodwill in one song.
Well, that's not entirely true. It would be wonderful to say that every song on Break Up has the same quality as that initial surprise, but frankly there are still some rather glaring issues. The first major stumbling block comes in track three, "I Don't Know What To Do." From hearing this, it's hard not to make comparisons to She & Him, the similar musician-actress combination of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel. Here, Johansson's voice smacks of Deschanel's cutesy quality, while the song's structure, and even the production style basically mirrors that of She & Him. I'm not necessarily accusing them of ripping off another duo, but there's a definite case to be made.
This is followed by two mostly enjoyable tracks, the initially flat but ultimately worthwhile "Search Your Heart" and "Blackie's Dead" which features a warm chorus.
Yet the album doesn't regain the epiphany-inducing impact of its beginning until the final two tracks. First there's the vaguely '90s soul of "Clean," which does a beautiful job of harmonizing two fairly nondescript vocals. And finally, there's "Someday," which, despite (or perhaps thanks to) Pete Yorn's wavering voice, is a wonderfully soft, heartfelt ballad that avoids becoming overinflated.
Overall, there are more positives about Break Up than negatives. Unfortunately, that's not saying a great deal, as the "album" features only 9 songs and clocks in at just over 25 minutes, a pathetic length for an EP, let alone a full-length release. Whether Johansson should make another album is debatable. I guess all we can hope is that she takes the criticism she's gotten up to this point with dignity and respect and really weighs her strengths and weaknesses.
Let's just hope she never makes another tribute album.
-Christian J. Hagen
This review was previously published by the Minnesota State University Reporter.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Taken By Trees is the musical alter ego of Victoria Bergsman, the warmly wispy-voiced ex-singer of Swedish pop-combo The Concretes - and this album, East of Eden, is her second under that moniker. It's pretty, pretty, pretty good. For this record, embarrassingly, Bergsman headed over to Pakistan. Somewhere that isn't the West, y'know, with its boring guitars and pianos and Chris Martin. She was apparently inspired by Qawwali, the devotional music particular to Sufism. It all sounds a little bit irritating, especially when you consider that the purpose of Qawwali is to induce a trance-like religious sort of state in the listener - but if I tell you that Bergsman has merely filched a few instruments and tricks from the tradition and largely abandoned any idea of making a fully Sufi/holy record, I hope you'll be reassured. Long live half-assed cultural tourism!
Let's start at the beginning, with the really quite smashing opening track 'To Lose Someone', which gives a real flavour of her new sound. With The Concretes, Bergsman's calling card was a very Scandinavian sort of calm, collected pop; here, she adds so much warmth to her vocals with some sharp shakes of percussion and beautiful woodwind instruments, plus the Qawwali staples, tabla and dolak giving a soft rhythm to the whole thing. There is lots of beautiful pattern here, with threads of music criss-crossing each other - particularly in the way the beautiful acoustic guitar (not a Sufi staple) marries with all of this, and cushions her voice. It's a steady voice, with a kind of drone in the way she intones - she moves from one word to the next with a bit of a lazy slur, which gives the song a contemplative feel.
From here I want to skip to song numero quattro, 'Greyest Love of All'. I'm already giving it two points out of a possible ten for its hilarious title. I'm adding a steady five points for the instrumentation, with delicate fluted woodwind flying around the outskirts of the song, flirting with little ringing bells, while further in, towards the core of the song, finger-plucked guitar etches out a gentle repetitious riff, some sort of twangy instrument (a sitar?) echoes it, and the percussion bounces chirpily, counter-punching the song's sad lyrics. Her vocals get a further two points, for being so suited to their subject - that feeling of being caught in between things, neither here nor there; Bergsman sweetly hopes that some kind of happy medium can be found - and her voice is beautiful in this context. She is also echoed by a nice, silvery choir, giving lots of tone to the song. If I add a point for the poignancy of the lyrics and the overall flavour, it gets a thoroughly deserved 10/10. Well done. You also get a Smiley Face sticker, and a big tick.
You'll have gathered, then, that the record is really a pop album of wise, slightly melancholy songs complemented in the best possible way by the instruments and inspiration that Bergsman has nicked from the Holy tradition. She is fully in tune with current music, being pals with Peter, Bjork and John - and on this album she reprises an Animal Collective song ('My Girls' - here re-titled 'My Boys') and gets Panda Bear (of the very same band) to contribute vocals to her marvellous song 'Dear Anna'. The latter song is a gorgeous ballad with some nice percussion and really beautifully toned guitar - and all around, Panda Bear's back-up vocals swirling about her lead, creating a truly lovely anthem. It sounds not very exotic, but rather comforting and familiar on first listen. 'My Boys' cuts through the Animal Collective production bullshit, straight through to the tune. It's got plenty of studio sass, with a bouncing artificial beat and slightly manipulated vocals - and then it chucks in its Pakistani stuff, with harmonium inflating the whole track with a sprightly warmth, and clickety beats giving it good shuffle. There's very little to it, but it's probably my favourite song on the album, and it feels full and rich despite being stripped. Again, something in her voice chimes with her lyrical call for simplicity: this paean to domesticity sounds sincere and moving.
Her approach is mostly winning everywhere, with a few missteps: I thought 'Tidens Gang' was a touch listless, despite being well constructed from piano and whistles, and 'Wapas Karna' is the reason it's a good thing she didn't go all out Sufi on our ass. But 'Watch The Waves' has great rolls of drums and handclaps, and 'Day By Day' is really sweet, with a solid chorus, great choirs, bells, and some plaintive wind instruments. It ends on a high with the stirring, thoughtful 'Bekannelse'. It's an album I've really enjoyed listening to, and one I feel a lot of fondness towards.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Boys Like Girls: Love Drunk
Okay, hang on a second. I'm confused. What did I just hear?
Let's back up for a moment. A few years ago, a friend introduced me to a band called Boys Like Girls.
(As an aside, I shall now provide you a frame of reference. This friend is enamored of all things "emo," and tends to be a bit dramatic with his music. He once cried, alone in his car, to a Miley Cyrus song. Make of that what you will.)
The Boys Like Girls of their eponymous 2006 debut were pretty innocuous. They were a bunch of kids playing pop-punk lite; fast, catchy, hook-based and radio-friendly, with high-pitched vocals and the kind of beats and themes that all but guaranteed a teen-driven gold certification. The music was terribly catchy, but held up fairly well even through over-saturation. They were the perfect hit, in that way: pervasive, but not really bothersome.
Returning, now, to Love Drunk, the shiny new Boys Like Girls release: I'm not entirely sure that it's them. For reals, kids. As I labored through a listen, I was not just reminded of, but convinced that I was actually hearing, all of the following: Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake, Pink, Carrie Underwood, and any and every American Idol winner and runner-up ever. Boys Like Girls have thrown their identity right out the fucking window. Rather than playing unoriginal music that happened to catch mainstream audiences, they are now trying with all their might to invade the ear drums of every FM radio listener in America. And, predictably, the product of such ambition is over-produced, superficial, and total shit.
I wish that the previous paragraph were more eloquent. I really do. I just can't put together a more graceful description of my disdain for Love Drunk, and I have a feeling that this will continue through the remainder of this review. I decided that I required a second listen, in order to properly eviscerate the record; this was a mistake. I'm distracted by how much I hate it. I swear to you, I just got lightheaded while trying to fight through "Someone Like You" for a second time. The first time these particular vibrations hit my aural cavity and signaled my neurons, I was simply left agape and in disbelief; "My life in the rear view/I'm running from Jesus/Dont know where I'm goin' to/Got nothin' to lose, I'm fightin' my demons/Been lookin' for someone like you," sung over the awful pop-country rhythm...well, there was just no way this could be real. And I was seven songs into this atrocious album when I hit the crest of disbelief. I don't have an issue with the presence of religion in music; music is often meant to be spiritually uplifting. I'm a sucker for a good ballad, too. But, guys--and this applies to this whole record--a little subtlety goes a long way. You've got to understand, folks: I'm the guy who lists "pop-punk apologist" in his bio on this site. In general, I like this kind of stuff. But Love Drunk...it's just...terrible. TERRIBLE.
There are AT LEAST four songs on this album that could be mistaken for Fall Out Boy. Bear in mind that I say this is as a fan of Fall Out Boy--at least they inject a touch of clever subversion and irony into their radio-friendly music. But Boys Like Girls' lead singer (I don't know his name, and I don't care) is trying his absolute damndest to sound like Patrick Stump. Gone is his winsome, youthful voice, replaced with a lower and entirely over-produced sound that I can only assume is meant to confuse children and top-40 morons (to call them zombies, as I'd thought to, would be an insult to the kick-ass walking dead) into thinking that they actually are Fall Out Boy. The remaining seven tracks could honestly have been performed by any of the acts I listed earlier, and they'd sound no different. They'd still sound like they were penned by a professional songwriter for a cookie-cutter performer with the expressed purpose of creating a number-one hit. They're tailor-made for total media overload, for club remixes and ringtones, with lyrics that will make for millions of lame high-school tweets and status updates. Even for a band that was never really good, this is utterly depressing. It's not even that I expected so much more; I didn't. But I certainly didn't expect this level of regression.
Now, by this point, I'm sure that no one reading is even thinking of ever hearing Love Drunk. (In fact, I'd wager that not one of our regular readers would have anyway; but we at TMITM occasionally have to keep ourselves on our toes with tripe like this.) But just to be absolutely sure, I'm going to leave you with "Two Is Better Than One." This is a duet with Taylor Swift. No, I'm not kidding. Dear friends, I need you to know that I do not hate you. I love you all and care for your well-being. But I've suffered, and so must you. You must know. Just push play, and think of this as a character-building exercise; if you make it through the whole song, you are strong indeed. And be glad I didn't upload "Someone Like You."
(Another aside: I have a friend (okay, not really a good friend; a facebook friend; an RA from college) who, a few months ago, spent about three weeks using facebook to express girlish excitement about attending a Taylor Swift concert. He kept posting how excited he was to go see "his girl" in concert. He's 29, married, and--to the best of my knowledge--does not actually know Taylor Swift. Weird? I think so.)
These are two of the biggest stars in pop music, folks. This is the future. Welcome to your nightmares.
Monday, September 14, 2009
The reunited duo of Slug (Atmosphere) and Murs (Living Legends), who go by the group name FELT, will release their third album November 17th. Felt, Vol. 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez was produced by Aesop Rock. It is the follow up to 2005’s Felt, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet and 2002’s Felt Vol. 1: A Tribute to Christina Ricci. The single "Protagonists" is available for free download on their Myspace page. -Felicia
When , makers of Guitar Hero 5, recently released footage of a fully-playable Kurt Cobain in the game mouthing along to Bon Jovi, everybody, including and even and Krist Novaselic, lost their shit. Activision says they have a signed release from Love to use Cobain's likeness (not to mention photos and videos of Cobain that she gave them). But, in a statement that shouldn't surprise anyone, Love claims she "dragged [her] ass" and never signed the papers. SO, once again, either Courtney Love was actually that lazy in signing legal documents, or she's lying/forgetting about something important involving her dead husband. Heroin's a hell of a drug. We'll probably update everyone when this whole thing gets settled. -Christian
In other Activision-made music video game news, the company has pulled a major coup in the creation of their new game DJ Hero. Rolling Stone reports that, after already gathering tracks from DJ Shadow, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and DJ AM (plus an endorsement from Jay-Z), they've now gotten Daft Punk to not only create 11 exclusive new tracks but to also use their likenesses as playable characters in the game. Most of the new tracks are mashups, and only 8 have been announced so far. You can find them, and more geeky electronic news here. -Christian
The Beatles music catalog on iTunes announcement never came during the Apple press conference in San Francisco last week. I was a little disappointed, even though I feel like The Beatles are best when listened to on vinyl. If the rumors are true, the announcement will come sooner than later. In the meantime, The Beatles’ remastered albums came out last week, which we reported over on Pajiba a few months ago. -Felicia
And with that, here's your Monday Playlist.
TK: One of the most criminally unrecognized hip hop acts of the early 90's were Philadelphia's The Goats. I stumbled upon them on a compilation album I got for free from a record store, and promptly ran out and bought their stellar first album, Tricks of the Shade. There are so many standout tracks on the album, it's hard to pick a favorite, but on the basis of the hook alone, I'm going with "Whatcha Got Is Whatcha Gettin'." Sadly, they wouldn't be able to capture that same lightning in a bottle again, later releasing the fun (though not as smart, clever or politically charged) No Goats No Glory. But in 1992, there were few better hip hop groups out there.
Chris: I've always found Mount Eerie interesting. In fact I've always found Phil Elverum's musical endeavors worth a listen, whether it be under his own name or the Microphones moniker or whatever. Plus the fact that he books almost exclusively All Ages shows is impressive and honorable. But despite all this, no song of his has really clicked with me. Like truly made me fall in love with his style of doomy yet winsome anti-folk. That is, until I heard "Lost Wisdom Pt. 2" from the new Mount Eerie album Wind's Poem. It's simultaneously destructive and endearing, like his music in general, but with a certain kind of unforgettable punch that digs into the skull and never burrows its way back out.
Sean: I needed to wash the memory of a recent mistake from my ears (check back tomorrow) and remind myself that there is some decent music out there that falls under the silly label of "emo." To that end, I went back to The Classic Crime. It's thick and slick rock, with a lot of production behind it, but also with quite a bit of heart and talent. It almost feels like arena rock, but with a bit more originality than most of the garbage that finds its way onto mainstream radio. Hey, at least their influences reach past Fall Out Boy and Justin Timberlake. From The Silver Cord, this is "5805." I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.
Caspar: Laura Gibson, 'Nightwatch'. This wonderfully lilting song, taken from her very excellent album If You Come To Greet Me, is deceptively simple: the piano and violin give it a sort of lullaby feel, but there's a lot of craft in this song, and so much depth of feeling. I love so many different things in it: the quiet chap who harmonises with her; the way she intones 'bring you back' like a hopeful mantra; the opening note of the violin when it comes in; and, especially, Gibson's beautiful phrasing - the way she dwells on a word and savours its sounds, cloaking her sentences with a husky loveliness.
Enjoy your week, folks. We'll be around.