30 March 2011

2010: Gil Scott-Heron, Girls

Gil Scott-Heron
I’m Here Now
Released February 9, 2010 (XL Recordings)

Short Notes: The revolution won’t be televised, but it will be reviewed on She’s Making Whoopee in Hell.

Lin: B+

I'm not overly familiar with Scott-Heron's work. I mean, I can name more than two of his songs, which is more than most people can name, but I'm no expert. Still, I'm New Here sounds exactly like it should sound: at the end of these 28 and a half minutes, the album has a great deal of internal coherence. His earlier material always seemed to come out of the jazz heritage. That's jettisoned here for the blues and hip-hop histories, and the music is better for it.

It may make sense, but the album suffers from it's lack of length. There are 15 tracks here, but 6 of them clock in at under 2 minutes and most of the others are around that mark. There are a lot of 'interludes' or other short pieces and, while they're enjoyable for the most part, the album is mostly bereft of actual songs: there's really only 4 here. Granted, the four are excellent -- the phenomenal cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," all tense and foreboding (the way it should be) is the clear highlight -- but they're just not enough. Some albums and EPs can get away with the short length by packing such a punch that the listener is exhausted. Unfortunately, I'm New Here doesn't, leaving me wanting more, and not in a good way.

Brandon: B+

Gil Scott-Heron hasn’t really made a substantial quantity of music in my lifetime, and so simply by releasing a well-received album in 2010, he’s perked my ears. I’m sort of ashamed to admit Mr. Scott-Heron is better known to me by reputation than by his actual recorded output, and I certainly liked this album enough to commit to some future cratedigging.

This is, despite it’s 15 tracks, a short album, with a lot of spoken word and sonic interludes, and only a few fully-formed songs. The best among them, “Me and the Devil,” is a wonderful example of what some eerie hip-hop production can do for the blues--reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s late 1980s work (I’m Your Man), Mr. Scott-Heron brings real grit to a proto-electro, synth-heavy backing track. On the other standout track, “New York is Killing Me,” Mr. Scott-Heron (who has had some well-publicized drug problems, including a stretch of incarceration during the 2000s), sounds much older than his 61 years (can you believe he’s basically my parents’ age? He sounds ancient) brings a low, slurred drawl to the song that flows in lock-step with the minimalist synth-handclaps that form most of the backing track. But as Lin suggests, for as good as the songs are, there isn’t a lot of meat here. This sounds like a fully realized vision, but a very brief one.

Broken Dreams Club

Released November 22, 2010 (True Panther Sounds)

Short Notes: 2009’s indie darlings are back with another strong effort.

Brandon: A

We don’t make it a habit to provide extensive backstory in our reviews here. But most of the half-dozen people who read this blog will be passingly familiar with the weird, amazing story of Girls singer Christopher Owens, who spent most of his life in a particularly manipulative and malicious cult, the Children of God. I bring in up only because it’s directly relevant to the point I want to make here.

From a 2009 interview with Owens in FAQ Magazine:
Were you reading any literature or listening to music made by people outside of the group when you were growing up?
No, I wasn’t. I was in like, performing group with other kids.

Did you sing?
Yeah. Cos they didn’t believe in working, so as soon as there were kids they realized the goldmine of children performing in public. So we did that growing up, my sisters and I both, all of us.

What would you sing?
Songs that were written within the group. Like, nice little Christian songs.

Had you been exposed to other music outside?
No – well, here’s the thing – when I became like, say, thirteen or fourteen years old, and was starting to get into trouble myself and become curious about the outside world, there was already a group of kids that were like my sister’s age, like the first wave of kids. They would have been like, seventeen. And there were guys that would like, record on cassette tapes from the radio, or try to grow their hair out.

Do you remember what songs they recorded?
Yeah, I remember all of them. It was like, Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, Bon Jovi, Lionel Ritchie – like, horribly crappy, but to us that was like amazing, foreign, just crazy, weird shit that we loved. And I learned how to play guitar from these guys. We’d like, learn how to play the songs. And right away, there was a split between everybody our age, like if you were rebellious or not. And everybody cool was obviously rebellious.

And then they did something really stupid when they saw what was happening – like, my older sister left, and a lot of the first, the oldest kids were leaving by the time they were like eighteen years old, and they freaked out. They were like, “Obviously this is what everybody’s gonna do.” So they set up these programs, for the teenagers – they’d send like a hundred of us to these camps, where they’d really focus on trying to make us wanna stay for the rest of our lives.

But it was a huge mistake, because it was like when you send a criminal to prison, and they all just trade secrets and things. Everybody there was interested in being rebellious. So we’d go and it was just like, the coolest place you could be.

From the opening trills of track one, “Thee Oh So Protective One,” it sounds as though Owens and his collaborator and bandmate, Chet “JR” White are trying to catch up with 60 years of rock and roll history, calmly and deliberately trying out new genres, making music that sounds both profoundly intentional yet remarkably naive. There’s the doo-wop by way of Billy Joel of the aforementioned first track, the broken-down twang of the title track, the little exhalations in the opening seconds of “Alright,” and the hazy psychadelic fuzz of “Carolina,” all of which sound complete and fully formed, and yet still like the experiments of a kid still figuring out this pop music thing. And the funny thing is that they’re naturals. The each experiment works on its own terms, sweet and endearing (most of the album) or vaguely menacing (“Carolina”). The strongest track here is the pseudo-Britpop nugget “Heartbreaker,” which is one of the stronger singles I’ve heard thus far for this project. True to its name, it’s an introspective tear-jerker--full of cliches (“I’ve still got a lock of your hair”), but in the hands of Owens and White, still original.

Like their debut LP from 2009, this is a fantastically strong piece of indie pop--short and to the point, but diversely, joyfully experimental. This is the sound of a very interesting band taking another major step forward, and I’m excited to hear more. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

I kinda liked Girls' 2009 release Album -- not enough to listen to in the last 15 months, but enough that I threw it on after this EP as a refresher without much complaint. Broken Dreams Club will probably end up in the same category: I'd have no problems if someone else were to put it on, but I wouldn't do so myself. Which includes a bit of pity, as I think this EP is better than the album. The opener, "Thee Oh So Protective One" reminds me of Elvis Costello which, of course, isn't a bad thing. But my favorite track here is the alt-countryish title track, with some real nice mournful country steel floating over top of it. I could see this track coming from someone like Jason Isbell, though Girls' lead singer Christopher Owens doesn't sound country (at all) in his singing. It's a bit unexpected, but not unpleasant. The other tracks are alright, but not particularly special.

28 March 2011

2010: Girl Talk

Girl Talk
All Day

Released November 15, 2010 (Illegal Art)

Short Notes: This is as divisive as it gets, folks.

Lin: D

Christgau's rating system, which we're using here, breaks down at the lower end: it doesn't work particularly well for the really crappy albums. His description of a D+ album is, "...an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity." Which describes my opinion of this album pretty accurately (mostly the former clause). But at the same time, "It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record." Well, I can understand why someone would get this album because I've had this argument a few too many times, but the only somewhat-valid argument is the simple "because I like it."

What Girl Talk does is a skill. I don't deny this. What Yngwie Malsteen does is also a skill. The dudes that speak fluent Klingon? Skill. Now, I don't think what Girl Talk does is as difficult as the other two examples, but that doesn't make it any more or less important or valuable. What I'm saying is that skill or difficulty is not a good argument for good music in and of itself. Good music requires soul, not pyrotechnics.

Which is key because, when you're working with other people's art, you need to add something to it in order for it to be worthwhile. The cover is the easiest example: of what value is a rote, note-for-note, pitch-for-pitch version of someone else's song? The best covers add something to the original and/or force the listener to interact it with a new and different way, adding to the experience.

What does Girl Talk provide that is new? None of the music or instrumentation is original. None of the lyrics or vocals. All that's "new" is a combination of elements. At best, an element is "new" only in speed/pitch. (I could be wrong about this, but I hear fewer adjustments of this type on this album than his previous ones.) Do any of these combinations lead us to considering the originals in a new light? If so, I'm at a complete loss: what am I, for instance, supposed to get from B.o.B.'s "Haterz Everywhere" appearing over top the famous riff from "Layla"?

I find it frustrating not only as a listener, but as a critic as well. How am I supposed to approach this? To judge it? What makes any particular mix good? What makes it bad? In the philosophy of science is the principle of 'Falsifiability' -- that it must be (logically) possible to prove an argument false. I feel like this kind of mixture of music is unfalsifiable, that I can't make any argument about it at all. (But that doesn't mean I'm not trying.) In and of itself that's not necessarily a bad thing. But this style (mashups) is the only style where I encounter this problem. I don't have the knowledge necessary to adequately judge Opera, for instance, but I could get the background to do so. That doesn't even seem possible with Girl Talk.

But let's assume that there is some deeper meaning to be gleaned from the combinations. I would be more willing to accept that I am just too dense to get it if Girl Talk allowed them some room to breathe, some room to grow and release their subtle secrets. But switching songs every 15 seconds? It's schizophrenia at best. All Girl Talk does is trade on cheap nostalgia. The album becomes a hipster version of "Name That Tune" where we can prove our geek mettle by recognizing more samples than our friends.

So, yeah, "All Day" offends me as a fan of music. If it was original, I'd be more okay. If it used rarer tracks, I'd be more okay. If had a better sense of groove, I'd be more okay. If it showed more virtuosity, I'd be more okay.

But it doesn't. This is anti-music. The only good thing is that you can download it for free. But don't.

Brandon: B+

And thus it falls to me, Mr. “I bought my first Robert Johnson record at 16 and I own approximately 5,000 pre-war blues and country songs,” to defend the authenticity of a mash-up record. The fact that my high school self would have slapped the grin off 30 year old me’s face had he caught me listening to this (and then insisted we listen to some acoustic Muddy Waters to “cleanse the palate”) is not lost on me. But I like Girl Talk (and its creator, Greg Gillis) a lot (although not particularly this record, which is an issue I’ll come to later), and so like Lucy, I’ve got some ‘splanin’ to do.

I’m not going to try to respond to Lin’s criticisms one by one, because, truthfully, it’s not fair to him. Just because I got to read his review before I wrote mine shouldn’t give me an advantage. So my defense of Girl Talk, and indeed, of the whole enterprise, needs to stand on its own merits. And so now we come to The Payoff.

I have absolutely no problem with appropriation in the name of art. Since Double Dee and Steinski’s 1983 “remix” of “Play that Beat, Mr. DJ” (done, famously, not on “authentic” turntables, but by literally cutting and splicing tape), hip-hop music (and I do want to assert that Greg Gillis’s music is fundamentally grounded in hip-hop) has benefited tremendously from its artists’ efforts to playfully appropriate, quote, re-combine, and co-opt music from across the popular culture. Before substantial sampling (not just the brief looped rhythms of many of the earlier hip-hop hits), rap DJs were rarely able to capture the magic of early live hip-hop performances. Just like Shakespeare, or Euipides, or Dvorak, or Ionesco were able to take allusions, references, and even entire stories (or melodies) that would have been easily (and in fact necessarily) recognizable to their audiences and turn them into something more, golden age hip-hop depended on its ability to take the recognizable (and even the cliche--”Apache,” anyone?) and by placing it in a new context and employing it in a new way, draw listeners in with the hint of the familiar. Art has always depended on the artist’s ability to make the familiar unfamiliar, and sample-based music is simply a digitally-enhanced extension of a very old principle. In this sense, I think the idea of “soul,” or a frame of “authenticity,” is the wrong way to approach this kind of music. If we acknowledge that appropriation, pastiche, and bricolage are legitimate and longstanding artistic moves and just move on, there’s a lot more to be enjoyed here.

One common criticism of Girl Talk in particular, as opposed to deep “cratediggers” like DJ Shadow or the Avalanches is that because he relies on the most recognizable of contemporary pop for the easy rise of recognition the latest hits provide, his music is essentially hackwork. As Christgau himself suggested in his review of Girl Talk’s first “major” record (2006’s Night Ripper), because his material is so recognizable, it never really coalesces into something entirely independent of its source material, the way most turntabalist records or Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9” do. But is this really a problem?

I hate to be an asshole or a postmodernist dilettante, but Derrida really comes in handy here. The thing that makes the best of Girl Talk so exciting--like the juxtaposition of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Biggie’s “Juicy” on Night Ripper’s “Smash Your Head,” which is arguably one of the most joyous pop music moments of the last ten years--is that by mashing together the most familiar pop records, the records we in the mainstream all have in common, he gives us a glimpse of the “structurality of structure” in modern pop.

In the late capitalist pop world in which we live (god help us), we are both inundated with the ubiquity of mainstream pop and yet can easily set ourselves apart from it. Despite all the other blogs and the Youtube videos and all the rest of it, the “Arcade Fire wins the Grammy” moments in which indie culture and the pop hegemons cross paths are the delightful exception, rather than the rule. While I know most of the songs Gillis is sampling, to say that I have more than an unintentional, passing familiarity with most of them would be a lie. There’s a lot less crossover (outside my immediate circle of friends) between fans of Elton John and the Notorious B.I.G. (or, on the record in question, Sabbath and 2Pac, on “Oh No”) than us music types think.

By pairing Billy Squier and Dr. Dre (“Friday Night,” off Night Ripper), Girl Talk moves the “center” of the structure of modern pop. Rather than being constrained by genre or by our own biases towards one kind of pop or another, Gillis is asserting that it’s all pop, and that he’ll play with it like he wants. At its best, the sample choices in Girl Talk songs remind us of what all pop music has in common. We revel in our recognition of the samples--there’s “Strawberry Letter 23!” That’s “Can I Get A...” (without the Ja Rule verse)!--the same way that the audiences of the Greek tragedies reveled in the retelling of the familiar myths. But because we live in a world that’s so saturated with media--even I recognize the Ke$ha samples, for chrissake--the joy of recognition is multiplied by the joy of recognizing what Ke$ha and Grand Funk (on track 6, “On and On”) have in common as weirdly integral parts of my life. It’s not that I find myself re-considering the value of each song sampled, it’s that I’m re-thinking about pop as a structure, and how it impacts my life.

That said, this particular iteration of Girl Talk falls a bit flat. While the album's first 2:30 are stone-cold brilliant, I thought the middle “songs” (the album’s a continuous mix) dragged even before I gave them repeated listens, leaning a bit hard on the most recent mainstream hip-hop and euro-style pop (Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas were repeat offenders) for my tastes. If you’re not already persuaded by this kind of thing, I’d give his two most previous records a listen first.

Of course, it might be easier to just argue that a world in which no one is playing “Single Ladies” over the beats to M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” just isn’t a world in which I want to live. This is visceral, joyful stuff, and you don’t have to go pomo on a motherfucker to appreciate it. Aside from its post-structuralist implications, I find the sample-spotting to be good fun, and as an unabashed pop fan, I find the anticipation of just how it’ll all hold together thrilling. But like it or not, I still think it’s art.

24 March 2011

How We Got Here: a Brief Review (pt. 1)

Following a nearly month-long pause (sorry to our four blog "followers"), we believe we're up and running again. Lin's been promoted, Brandon's got a course release, and with spring break soon to be a distant memory (at least for those of us who got one), it seems like a good time to look back and the first chunk of reviews (what we expect to be about 25% of the total).

Caitlin Rose, a surprise Whoopee in Hell Favorite


Pop artists of a certain sort gets lots of mileage out of complaining about the “critics”--about how they get no respect, about how they’re treated unfairly by the elitists who unnecessarily interject themselves between the musician and her audience who, it goes without saying, will really understand them. Well, I’ve always been sympathetic to the critics. When you grow up rebelling against mainstream pop music in a small town, especially in the pre-internet era, critics are crucial. Without both the professionals in the major media outlets and the semi-pros working the local weeklies and the ‘zines, I’d have been entirely without a point of entry to the world of independent music. I feel entirely the same way about the much-maligned Pitchfork, which so many indie artists have an embarrassingly love-hate relationship with. Every critical enterprise has its house style, and as long as it’s transparent, it can still be a good source of information about how to parse the overwhelming and fractured world of pop music.

This strip is too busy. However, I'm pleased with Independent Music James' facial expressions, and I have made demonstrable progress in my ability to draw some semblance of a car.

I think we’ve started to develop a house style over the last 40 or so records, and despite our difficulties in plowing through all these records, I’m proud of our progress thus far. We’ve been pretty expansive in our efforts to cover new records across genres and communities, although there are some substantial limitations to our selection process (no reggae, not a ton of mainstream pop or country, little real electronica, club, or dance music, and no jazz or avant-garde). As our (still-evolving) master list was compiled on the fly shortly after 2010 end-of the-year lists started to appear, we’ve been biased towards records people we trust had already told us they liked.

That’s made listening to the records easier, which is good (few real clunkers). This project has had a much bigger impact on how I listen to music than I had expected. As I’ve digitized my music collection over the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve become more of a singles listener--using shuffle to play through the nooks and crannies of my carefully tagged genre and mood playlists at the expense of albums. But I’m back to albums with a vengeance. In fact, when I get a little break from the tyranny of the new and the unfamiliar to listen to some old favorites, I’m far more likely to play through a whole album that I’ve been in years. In fact, I’m sitting in my office as I write this, plowing through the first disc of a six disc set of pre-war gospel and praise songs that, while I love, I rarely play.

But there are also negative side effects of doing a project like this. While I listen to a lot more new music, I also have to form solid judgements about it rather quicker than I’d like. I often have to base a grade and a review on a single listen all the way through, going back only to tracks about which I want to make some sort of point. Not surprisingly, the pace of this project has meant that I’ve given some review grades that, in retrospect, I’m not entirely happy with. Below, you’ll find my changes, as I see them now. Typically, my re-grades follow one of two patterns: A) I’ve listened to it more since moving on, and I like it rather more/less that I initially thought, and B) I ended up giving an album I like more/less a higher/lower grade, and in the interests of consistency, I need to adjust the earlier album’s score. In many cases, this addresses some of my (self-perceived) grade inflation, bringing a number of my scores closer to Lin’s.

  • Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now, up to an A. This record has clearly emerged as a Whoopee in Hell favorite, which is a bit surprising, because it's just a small little alt. country record that only recently got released in the US. But if you have any love of the twang, this one's well worth your effort.
  • Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, down to A-. While this is still a good record to my ears, it's not a classic. The relative dearth of good hip-hop LPs on the list led to me overvaluing this a bit.
  • Aloe Blacc and Alejandro Escovedo, both down to B+. A couple of the first records we reviewed, both of which have not aged well in comparison with much of what's come later.
  • Blitzen Trappen - Destroyer Of The Void, down to C+. This is one mediocre record, and I doubt I'll ever listen to it again.

To sum up: As we keep on down the list, there are a lot of records I’m pretty excited for. I hope you enjoy the next 120 (or so) records as much as we’ve enjoyed the last 46 (except the Belle & Sebastian and Broken Bells records--those were clunkers).


There's an old saying that 95% of everything is crap. I’d probably argue that it’s true if you don't add any qualifications. But since we're talking about popular music, I'd like to add two qualifications and reformulate. The albums we've reviewed thus far (and those we will be reviewing) are nearly all released by major (or "indie major") labels and, as Brandon explained, appeared on major EOY lists and/or are from established artists. As such, the totality of all music released last year has been boiled down and 'selected' to a clearly un-represenative 160 album collection. The ratings we've given don't support the "95%" thesis. Instead, I'd make the claim that, for the subset of albums we’re reviewing here,

  • 10% of music is "great" (and 10% of that is "awesome")
  • 10% of music is "terrible"
  • 80% of music is “meh.”
If I wanted to make my point stronger, I'd give a list of all the reviews where I had to find a way of saying "it's not bad, but it's not particularly noteworthy, either."

I spend a lot of time listening to music and have a lot of music to go through. Still, there have been a couple of long stretches where I had no desire to listen to music I didn't already know or knew something about. Or I get in a mood and that's all I can listen to, picking out the best (or at least the favorite) from a particular style. So a project like this suffers. But the joy that comes from finding something truly enjoyable and lasting makes it all worth it.

The highest rating I've given so far is an A+ to Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit, which still blows me away whenever I turn it on. But I would have heard that album anyway, since I already loved the band. The real winners in my mind are the Caitlin Rose and Dessa albums. I would not have heard either one of these without systematically going through these albums. After reviewing each of them, I added both to my 4-gig mp3 player and haven't taken them off -- which says a lot given the (relatively) low amount of storage space. Indeed, Rose's Own Side Now is probably the album I've listened to most over the last three months.

The mighty Agalloch, America's best active metal band?

Following Brandon's lead, here's a couple albums that I think I may have mis-rated:

  • Anais Mitchell - Hadestown, Original grade: B+ ... I'm not quite willing to bump this up yet, but I've listened to it a few more times and, yeah, it's close.
  • Antony & The Johnsons - Swanlights, original grade: A- ... For an A- album, I've had a curious lack of desire to throw this on again.
  • Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now, original grade: A- ... See my comments above. This is easily an 'A' album.
  • Cee-lo Green - The Lady Killer, original grade: A- ... Not sure this holds up well with repeated listenings. If I was reviewing it today, I'd drop it down to a B+.
  • Eminem - Recovery, original grade: B+ ... Rating something on its extramusicality is probably not the best way to do a review. Musically, I'd drop this down to a B or B- now, as it is really quite tedious for large stretches.

We’ve got a couple of my favorite albums from 2010 coming up and, I hope, a few more that will become such. May our four or so readers out there get as much out of our (intermittent) reviews as we do listening to all these albums, the good and the bad.

Finally, as a special treat to all you kids out there, Lin and I have compiled a playlist with some highlights from the first quarter of the list. These aren't necessarily our favorite songs, but they're all pretty good, and they should give you a flavor of what the list has been about.

Dessa, another WiH favorite
    1) Against Me - I Was a Teenage Anarchist
    2) Agalloch - Black Lake Nidstang
    3) Aloe Blacc - I Need a Dollar
    4) Anais Mitchell - Why We Build the Wall
    5) Antony and the Johnsons - I'm in Love
    6) Ariel Pink - Round and Round
    7) Beach House - Walk in the Park
    8) Ben Weaver - Drag the Hills
    9) Best Coast - Boyfriend
    10) Big Boi - Shutterbugg
    11) Big K.R.I.T. - Hometown Hero
    12) Black Breath - Eat The Witch
    13) Black Sleep of Kali - An End With No Beginning
    14) Boston Spaceships - Freedom Rings
    15) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Cairo Gang - The Sounds are Always Begging
    16) Broken Bells - The Ghost Inside
    17) Broken Social Scene - Texico Bitches
    18) Caitlin Rose - Shanghai Cigarettes
    19) Call Me Lightning - Called to the Throne
    20) Cee-Lo - I Want You
    21) Charlie Parr - Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down
    22) Curren$y - Seat Change
    23) Dale Earnhardt jr jr - Simple Girl
    24) Das Racist - hahahaha jk?
    25) David Banner & 9th Wonder - The Light
    26) Deerhunter - Memory Boy
    27) Dessa - Dutch
    28) Doug Paisley - O'Heart
    29) Drake (ft. Nicki Minaj) - Up All Night
    30) Drive-By Truckers - Birthday Boy
    31) Dum Dum Girls - Yours Alone
    32) Ed Harcourt - Lustre
    33) Elizabeth Cook - Blackland Farmer
    34) Eminem (ft. Rihanna) - Love The Way You Lie
    35) Erykah Badu - 20 Feet Tall
    36) Forbidden - Dragging my Casket
    37) Free Energy - Free Energy
    38) Freeway & Jake-One - She Makes Me Feel Alright
    39) Frightened Rabbit - Living in Colour
    40) Futurebirds - There is No Place for This to Go
Links for Part 1 (Tracks 1-20), Part 2 (Tracks 21-40)

23 March 2011

2010: Frightened Rabbits, Futurebirds

Frightened Rabbit
The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Released March 1, 2010 (Fat Cat)

Short Notes: Welsh indie rock prompts philosophical musings, receives middling grade

Brandon: B

I liked the last Frightened Rabbit record a fair bit, and I came into this record with an uncharacteristic degree of optimism. But this record was a bit disappointing to me, and I’m not entirely sure I can articulate why.

On paper (as they say--and I realize how strange a way of describing music that particular metaphor is. What I mean is that, “given the way Frightened Rabbit is described by the music press and several friends I generally trust about these sort of things...”), this is a band I should enjoy. Lots of swirling guitars, pop instincts, and a tendency towards the lo-fi version of soaring, epic song climaxes (“The Loneliness and the Scream”). But listening to the record again, I’m reminded of my equally negative review of another album I hoped to like more than I did--Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record. Like that record, The Winter of Mixed Drinks fails to capture the thing I liked most about this band’s earlier work--the popiness that shined through the lack of layered sophistication. There was something passionate but slightly innocent and amateurish about their last record that’s not here anymore. This record sounds overproduced: with too much of the space filled up with strumming and echo and odd other sounds. It’s just too busy for what I like about it to shine through.

Lin: B+

Brandon has this theory -- or way of describing music -- that I've never fully bought into (philosophical differences, you see, as I take a less Platonic and more Gadamerian view) but is nonetheless quite useful sometimes as a descriptor. He talks of certain bands, certain music sounding like "the music in my head." When I use this idea, such as now, I mean it as "if my personality and thoughts were music, this is what it would sound like." There are bands that meet that ideal better than Frightened Rabbit -- but only like one or two. I love Scott Hutchinson as a vocalist. I'm not willing to put him in the top ten or anything, but the way he sings -- on the edge of breaking under the weight not of sadness but melancholy -- is more expressive than nearly all singers working today. The music compliments his stylings perfectly.

So it's a shame I don't like this album more. I love the feel of it, the sound of it, but don't much care for the songs. It's pathos-laden, but doesn't hit me in the other Arisotellian areas (logos and ethos) as strongly. In short, what it does it does extremely well but lacks the well-roundedness to truly WOW. There are some great tracks here -- "Not Miserable," "Nothing Like You," and the single "Swim Until You Can't See Land" being my favorites -- but I don't see myself coming back to the album all that often except in those "I don't know what to listen to" times. I feel like I'm being a bit generous with the B+ grade because it pushes some of my personal buttons, so I wouldn't be offended if you consider this more of a B review.

Hampton’s Lullaby

Released July 27, 2010 (Autumn Tone)

Short Notes: Fuzzy Athens (GA) sound, alt. country edition.

Brandon: A-

This record was a pleasant surprise. I have no recollection of how this ended up on our list, but I’m glad it did. The Futurebirds are from the ridiculously productive indie hotspot of Athens, Georgia, and they’ve played with the Drive-By Truckers. This is their first (full-length) album, and it’s a poised, well-crafted debut, with a fuzzy, echo-y sound and a singer who evokes David Berman of the Silver Jews, or a southern Joe Pernice during his Scud Mountain Boys days. There’s a good deal of twang here (and some nice steel guitar soloing on my favorite track, the lilting “There is No Place for This to Go”), but a lot more diversity than you often get with these kind of indie alt. country-type records (the propulsive “Happy Animals” helps to keep the second half of the record, otherwise full of sad, slow songs from dragging). Highly recommended.

Lin: B

So, I learned something today: the washed-out production that I hate on all these modern pop albums isn't nearly as offensive on an alt/country album. Who would've thought? It's still not ideal -- I'd prefer the pedal steel twang to be crisper, but the mud feels more organic in the backwoods than in the bright city lights. That said, I don't have a whole lot to say about Hampton's Lullaby: it sounds like Titus Andronicus in places and Band of Horses in others but doesn't really exert enough individuality to secure a place on the same level as its RIYL compatriots. "Battle for Rome" is my favorite track here and will probably make it onto a mixtape or two, but that'll probably be the extent of my future involvement with this album.

22 March 2011

2010: Forbidden, Freeway and Jake-One

Omega Wave

Released October 22, 2010 (Nuclear Blast)

Short Notes: In which we give another B to another metal record.

Lin: B

This is a band with a history that probably deserves mentioning, but you can get that from any other review and I don't know any more than what wikipedia tells me. So, the first time I ever head of this band was when I picked up the album. Omega Wave betrays the bands 80's thrash origins, reaching back to the classic days of bands like Slayer, Metallica, or Judas Priest. This is not a bad thing. Most of the metal I listen to anymore is more along the prog/doom axis, so it's refreshing coming back to a "face-melting" instead of "head-crushing." I like this album, but I don't know enough about metal to really differentiate it from the pack -- especially if we start seriously comparing it to albums made 25 years ago. It's very much a "throw it on and forget about it" type of album as there's nothing particularly weak or strong. "Dragging My Casket" and the title track are the only ones that really jumped out at me better than the rest.

Brandon: B

I liked this record rather better than the other metal records Lin (our resident ‘head) has picked for the list (Agalloch aside), for most of the reasons he listed above. It sounds more like a “classic” metal album, with a lot of thrash and a hint of the NWOBHM (I do love Judas Priest). I’ve decided that I don’t really care for the really sludgy metal sound, or for the screamo death metal vocals, and this record, which is fast, technical, and with (mostly) traditional thrash vocals, is much more to my liking. Then why only a B? Because, while I can say I like it better, this still isn’t an album I anticipate putting on in the course of my ordinary life. There are a handful of metal records I do listen to with some small amount of regularity, and until I have enough background to describe better what I do and don’t like, it’s unlikely I’ll be dishing out higher grades.

Freeway & Jake One
The Stimulus Package
Released February 16, 2010 (Rhymesayers)

Short Notes: State Prop, Roc-A-Fella vet goes with the indie label from the MPLS, plays to his strengths.

Brandon: B

So it is maybe possible that about a year ago, when I first got a hold of the his record, I might have suggested I though it might turn out to be the hip-hop album of 2010. This was clearly my Rhymesayers obsession talking. Freeway is a rapper who, at his best, makes the kind of rap that I like best--big, heavy bangers with gruff but lyrical rhyming. My personal favorite purveyor of this (heavily NYC-centric) hip-hop is M.O.P. (“Ante Up,” suckers. Ante up.), but Freeway’s first solo record back in the heady golden days of mainstream rap (2003), Philidelphia Freeway, was a pretty good example, too. Songs like the Jay-Z/Beanie Sigel posse track “What We Do” and the exquisite “Line ‘Em Up” were classic Roc-A-Fella hits, and are still in heavy rotation on my iPod’s hip-hop omnibus mix.

But while I had huge hopes for the possibility that Free might bring some much-needed heft to the brilliant but not exactly gangsta Rhymesayers crew, this record really hasn’t stood up to repeated listens. It’s consistent, but in a 15 track, solo rapper/solo producer hip-hop record, consistency is overrated. There’s noting here that transcends the way that the 3 or 4 best Freeway tracks (and really, 3 or 4 really great tracks makes you a second-line star in the context of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s major label era, when pretty much anyone with decent connections could get a major label advance) did.

The real problem is that there’s nothing on this record that matches the heat of one of my all-time favorite rap tracks and previous Freeway/Jake-One collaboration, 2008’s epic “The Truth,” in which Freeway and Brother Ali do some of their best work of their careers. But it could be worse. At least he’s not Memphis Bleek.

Lin: B

I haven't paid much attention to Freeway, knowing him only from a few isolated tracks and guest appearances. What I've heard never inclined me towards digging deeper. Perhaps it's because it's a more complete picture, but The Stimulus Package easily clears the admittedly low bar I set for it. It's not brilliant and isn't on the level of, say, the Big Boi album, but it has its moments while minimizing the amount of skippable time. Freeway's not a particularly unique rapper -- I'm not sure I could pick his style and syntax out of a line-up -- but he's a talented enough writer to keep the album from being forgettable. The same is not completely true for Jake One's production who provides mostly workingman's beats. The album is like the movie that you don't regret paying $10 and spending 2 hours, but didn't set your world on fire, either.

09 March 2011

2010: Flying Lotus, Free Energy

Flying Lotus

Released May 3, 2010 (Warp)

Short Notes: It’s beats. Just beats.

Lin: C
I've never understood the love for J Dilla's "Donuts" -- it's fine and somewhat engaging for what it is, but what it is is a collection of beats. The fans will say that's overly reductive, and maybe it is, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. Cosmogramma is the same thing, but not as engaging. Nothing really has time to stretch out and become more than "just beats;" the longest track is 3:20, making the entirety feel like a rap album made up of only interludes. Creating good beats requires talent and skill, of course, both of which Flying Lotus display throughout the album -- I imagine I'd like him as a producer of rap songs -- but it's not enough to overcome the nature of the album.

Brandon: C

I agree wholeheartedly with Lin’s assessment. I like certain kinds of DJ albums, to be sure--I have a special place in my heart for Madlib, especially his mad romp through the Blue Note back catalogue, Shades of Blue --but this is head music that’s too choppy to just zone out to, and without enough sonic punch to make it rewarding for active listening. I know that a lot of smart folks really like this record, but I’m just not feeling it.

Free Energy
Stuck On Nothing

Released May 4, 2010 (DFA Records)

Short Notes: Either the best power pop record of 2010, or workmanlike in its evocation of the classics

Brandon: A-

This isn’t my pick for best record of the year, but it’s hard to imagine another record that hits my need for that pure pop sound any harder as we move down the list. It also doesn’t hurt that several of these gentlemen got their start in music in Minneapolis, a place for which I have a special pop fondness (see: Mould, Bob and Westerberg, Paul). This is one of the few records on the list I’ve been listening to since it came out, and I enjoyed it as much today in the car as I did last July.

It’s real strength as a power pop record is that, unlike a lot the mid-tempo saccharine stuff modeled on the Raspberries and other (great, but repetitive) 70s throwbacks, the clear point of reference here (especially on the fabulous second track, “Dream City”), as Lin also picked up, is classic T.Rex--but a little faster, with a little more crunch, and without the bluesiness. This means that Stuck on Nothing lacks the sonic variety of its progenitors (there’s no “Lean Woman Blues” here), and that's why it's an A- record. But the propulsive joy of the titular “Free Energy” (one of my top 15 songs of the year) more than makes up for it. Well worth the trouble if you have a bit of a musical sweet tooth.

Lin: B-

I'm still at a loss for anything to say about this album. It's mostly insubstantial -- meaning closer to "light" than "meaningless" but still a bit of both -- and, as such, I can't think of any good way to approach this review. (Sorry.) It's power pop-rock, akin to a Thin Lizzy or Electric Warrior-era T. Rex, but not as good as either. And at times it sounds like modern Scottish pop. The best moments are those that exude something like a cliched youthful exuberance, i.e. "Dream City" and "Bang Pop," the sort of thing that makes you wish you could redo high school with all of your current knowledge. Stuck On Nothing wears on me towards the end for the same reason I can't stand excessively happy people for more than small talk. Worth checking out if it sounds like your cup of tea, but I'll be sticking it in the "mixtape fodder" category.