25 July 2011

2010: M.I.A., Male Bonding

/\/\ /\ Y /\ (Maya)

Released July 13, 2010

Short Notes: Or: On The Value of Lowered Expectations

Brandon: B-

It’s not at all surprising that critics were wildly divided over this record. It’s a radical departure from her quirky but club-ready sound on her first two (outstanding) records, more abrasive, processed, and artificial. I’ve only followed parts of the story of M.I.A. the artist, who’s global fame has put her artistic decisions under a new, intense kind of critical scrutiny. And like Kanye, she’s responded by pulling into herself, with tinny beats and processed vocals evoking a new distance between her and the listener. Mainstream critical outlets have responded much as they did for Kanye--heaping praise on this record as the statement of a more mature artist. But with the exception of the AV Club and Bob Christgau (who draws the comparison explicitly in his favorable review, suggesting that, as an insular, fuck-up record, Maya accomplishes its goals with “rather more success than Kanye West on 808s and Heartbreak) , the indie press that brought M.I.A. her first attention were rather brutal (Pitchfork calls it a “shambling mess.”)

As always, the truth is closest to Christgau. /\/\ /\ Y /\ is neither shambolic nor a masterwork. It’s not a fun record (no “Sunshowers” here), without much of the humor that made her so endearing on Arular, but the industrial crunch of tracks like “Meds and Feds” is reasonably interesting in its own right, as is the synthy “XXXO.” Even if half the songs here are duds, she’s still making challenging, original music that’s clearly aiming for capital-A Art, with all that comes with being that kind of pop musician. For better or worse, I’d rather hear M.I.A.’s take on krautrock (“Illygirl”) than the second half of the Lucky Soul record, which tells you something.

Lin: B-

For me, M.I.A. is in the same category as pre-Dark Fantasy Kanye: a popularly loved and critically respected artist that I just don't get. I mean, "Paper Planes" is a burner in every sense of the word, but easily my favorite version of it is the Diplo Remix with Bun B and Rich Boy which minimizes M.I.A.'s own input. I've not been impressed with any of her previous work; the albums are good enough to throw on for background noise or, presumably, dancefloor grinding but even the relatively intricate beats rarely force attention. /\/\ /\ Y /\, for all the comparisons to Kanye, is no My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family. It seems like more of the same, though those with more familiarity to her back catalog could probably point out the differences.

My favorite track here is "Lovalot," eschewing the bang of everything else with a more subdued, tense and paranoid beat the slithers it way through a story of terrorism or freedom fighting or whatever. "Believer" comes close to the same, but lacks any payoff -- all tension with no release. The rest of the album isn't a mess (as Brandon points out) but it's a chore to get through. Only "XXXO" and, to a lesser extent, "Tell Me Why" work in the more club-friendly format that most of her work trades in.

Male Bonding
Nothing Hurts

Released May 10, 2010

Short Notes: More shoegaze/lo-fi pop that doesn’t reach the heights of other shoegaze/lo-fi of 2010

Brandon: B

Fitting right in with the noise-pop of bands (I don’t like all that much) like Vivian Girls and No Age, Nothing Hurts is a stomping, echo-y barnburner that veers between the nearly Husker Du/early Dinosaur jr /first Nirvana record (“Your Contact,” “Crooked Scene,” “Paradise Vendors”) and the more plodding drone of their contemporaries (“Franklin”). I’m not particularly into shoegaze when it’s not cut with equal or better parts of pop sensibility, and for the most part, this album holds my attention with solid riffs that overcome the affected, echo-chamber vocals. At 29 minutes, the shoegazy parts of this record I find less compelling never really subsume the punk I like much more. Not my favorite fuzzed-out record of the year (Dum Dum Girls and Ariel Pink write better songs, and balance their fidelity affects with more compelling pop), but not bad.

Lin: C

Like Brandon, I’m not particularly into shoegaze -- except when it’s an accent to a heaping pile of metal. And since I have this growing, well, ‘hatred’ is the right word, I guess, of muddied lo-fi pop music, my favorite thing about this album is its short short length. This strikes me as far more generic than the albums Brandon mentions (Ariel Pink, etc.) which also makes it worse, committing the dual sins of being bad and uninteresting. “Pirate Key” almost piqued my interest there for a second, making it my favorite track on the album, but the rest of it is like driving through Western Nebraska, trying to find a radio station with a strong enough signal.

12 July 2011

2010: Los Campesinos!, Lucky Soul

Los Campesinos!
Romance is Boring

Released January 26 (Wichita Recordings)

Short Notes: Scotland’s answer to Vampire Weekend?


I think the Budweiser commercial using the opening of Los Campesinos!'s "You! Me! Dancing!" is brilliant. (I tried to find a copy of the ad online, but couldn't. If any readers can find it, post in the comments, please?) The build-up has just the right amount of tension that when it breaks it releases a flood of endorphins. Unfortunately, the song is six minutes long and goes downhill from there -- so I like imagine that the Bud commercial is simply a video for the song.

Which has little to do with this album before us, which I found really quite boring. (Cue headlines: Romance isn't boring, but Romance Is Boring is boring!) Nothing here comes close to the opening 90 seconds of "You! Me! Dancing!"... or, really, to the rest of that song, which I don't even much care for. I generally have more tolerance for music that is interesting or novel even if it fails. Even shit I hated (c.f. Girl Talk/Joanna Newsom) I have more respect for since it was 'good' enough to elicit an emotion at least. For whatever reason, I think the melodramatic song title "I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed. Just So You Know." pretty much sums it up.


Not surprisingly, I’m a Los Campesinos fan. This kind of literate (with the big words and such), half-spoken, sunny pop has always been my stock-in-trade, the third strand of my core musical identity along with alt.country and old-time blues and country. I listened to their first record, the jittery, manic, and surprisingly angry Hold On Now, Youngster on repeat during my “lost” year of graduate school in 2008, screaming out the opening track, “Death to Los Campesinos!” with the windows down in the van on the way to Woodman’s.

Romance is Boring is a bigger, sonically fuller record. Los Campesinos are getting weirder, closer to Xiu Xiu (Jamie Stewart guests), and further from the bands I was hearing in them in 2008--Frightened Rabbits and Vampire Weekend, for starters. The more conventionally structured songs--”Romance is Boring” and the too-clever-by-half but still pretty great “Straight in at 101”--are the most successful, though, as lead singer/frontman Gareth Campesinos! (yes, they’re that kind of band) channels a prep-school version of Craig Finn or (perhaps more aptly) Eddie Argos from Art Brut, ranting about the failures of hipster love. “Straight in at 101” in particular really works for me, the story of a fumbling love played out by a kid who plays at hipsterdom, camouflaging his adolescent assholery (and love for a good chorus) with tight pants, mussy hair, and picky eating:

I think we need more post-coital
and less post-rock
feels like the build-up takes forever
but you never get me off.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s why no one has sex while listening to Tortoise.

Unfortunately, too much of this record is given over to the very boring drone and repetition he’s criticizing--songs that lack the hooky vitality of this band’s best work. I still love it, but songs like “Coda: A Burn Scar int he Shape of the Sooner State” and “I Just Sighed, I Just Sighed, Just So You Know” are eminently skippable, which isn’t what you want from a taut pop record.

Lucky Soul
A Coming of Age

Released April 15 (Elefant)

Short Notes: British retro-pop that occasionally overcomes its genre trappings


I love a good genre exercise as much as the next guy, and tamborine-heavy girl-group-baiting pop isn’t a bad genre to play with. It’s heavy on convention, offering a tight format that, with the slightest tweaking or transgression, can easily become something much more. And when Lucky Soul go straight for the hand-clapping, cliched sweet spot, these songs overcome the fairly ordinary songwriting to become something fairly compelling, if slight--like a less punky, British Detroit Cobras. The first four tracks on this record do this very well, mixing lilting “whoa-oh” choruses (“Whoa Billy”) with driving mid-tempo numbers that sound like Northern Soul outtakes (“Love 3”) and the lovely, string-laden “Up in Flames.” But when the songs tray too much from the faux-Northern Soul format, the record is mostly forgettable. Such is the danger in plying “retro-pop,” as Lin has often noted: why would you put on new derivatives when you can listen to the real thing?


Which is amusing, since I like the first half of this album a great deal. Part of it is assuredly a reaction against the muddied lo-fi of the indie-acclaimed best-of pop albums of the year that I continue to rail on. The two released singles ("Whoa Billy" and "White Russian Doll") captures the raw joy of the best late 60's girl groups, making it perfect for summer listening. "Love 3" is fits in nicely, a lean two minute slice of tightly constructed soul pop. In many ways, this tracks are what I've always wanted from Belle and Sebastian but never got. But Brandon's right: outside of the title track, nothing on the second half of the album distinguishes itself from its sources or its contemporaries. But 3 pretty great and 2 pretty good tracks is enough for a 'B' and a qualified recommendation, if you like this sort of thing.