Uncommon music criticized by the common man. (Or, exercises in futility masquerading as critical thought.)

Friday, August 29, 2003

Honey In The Hive
The Bigger Lovers
2002 - Yep Roc

This is another case of what could have been. While all the requirements for a good pop record are here, and there are definitely some moments of pure pop ecstasy, it somehow manages to fall short overall.

It opens with "Half Richard's," a power pop number with some good crunchy guitar, wonderful harmonies, and a melody that is instantly stuck in the head. The next track, "A Simple 'How Are You?'" is more of the same, but a bit more rhythmic. But then the album settles into a nice midtempo groove, and the momentum from the opening tracks is lost and not regained until track 8, "What Would It Take?" This is the same problem I had with the Simian record (We Are Your Friends) I reviewed a while back; these guys know their way around a hook, but play it a bit too conservatively in the albums middle section to really keep you sucked into the album. This seems to be a bit too common in the indie pop sphere these days. A few exceptional songs surrounded by songs that are good, but fail to meet the same standards set elsewhere on the album. Consequently, the album feels flat. There are two keys to great pop music: accessibility and vitality. Songs like The Raspberries "Tonight" or Cheap Trick's "Surrender" are classic because they are inviting and are bursting with energy. Yet, all too often, including on this record, the songs--while well-crafted and immediately enjoyable--lack the punch, that toe-tapping feeling, that makes you want to put it on repeat. It's particularly unfortunate in this case, because the album closes strongly, with the Posies-esque "Ivy Grows" and the Smiley Smile-era Beach Boys nugget, "Minivan Blues." The latter isn't particularly energetic, but it's so different from the majority of the album that it has a charm all its own. Plus, it feels like a perfect album closer, even if a lot of the songs that precede it aren't worthy of such.

This is utterly asinine. This is less credible than the BCS rankings in college football. There are so many places to begin lambasting this that it's not even worth it. Especially since it's just another list; lists are just filler when a publication or network has nothing better to do with their time, much less have the creativity to come up with something better. (See also: VH1)

For the record, the biggest criticisms of the list:

It's rock-centric. (Where's the jazz?)
It's America-centric (mostly).
There seems to be no criteria at all for rating these players. (Or else, Jack White never would have made a list like this.)
It's too focused on modern players. (See above.)

Craziness. But remember, it's only a list, probably selected by a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Updates are taking longer than I'd like. I apologize (to those of you actually wandering across this blog); I really would like to make this a more regular, possibly even daily, review site. Alas, such is not the case.

Amplifier Worship
2001 - Man's Ruin

Well, here is a perfect example of where the comparisons are apt. Boris owe a lot to the Melvins. Yet, making that comparison seems somewhat limiting. Yes, like the Melvins, Boris do have a handle on the heaviness-through-slowness. But just as the Melvins aren't strictly a one-trick pony (they're far too weird to let themselves get bogged down with one sound), Boris puts their own stamp on their sludgy sound.

For starters, Boris favor much longer playing times. The shortest track on this particular album is a "mere" 7 minutes in length. Another release, Absolutego, is a 65 minute long behemoth, much like Sleep's Dopesmoker. And while it would be easy to just make the music one spartan, drawn out riff after another in order to fill those times, Boris seems to know the exact moment where a riff may get tiring, and change things up. This also applies to a song by song analysis, as this doesn't feel like one big slab of music with arbitrary breaks for track numbers. Instead, they vary their styles a bit. While opener "Huge" (appropriately titled), is a bludgeoning monster of a song, all doomy riffs and pounding (though sparse) percussion, track three, "Hama," is a full on blast of hard rock bordering on punk. Later, on the wonderful "Kuruimizu," Boris actually takes a turn for the pretty (and it's not even a relative term in this case), with an extended coda that is a stark contrast to the previous riffing. It's downright tranquil, and keeps the proceedings from becoming oppressive (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Some people might hear this album and think it's the biggest Melvins' ripoff since Nirvana released Bleach--and that was my initial reaction--but further inspection reveals an album that's as heavy as anything the Melvins have released, but goes far beyond the simplistic riff and bash that such a characterization might imply. It reveals a band that understands that a little musicality can help make even the most challenging music that much better, without compromising any of the music's power or vision.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Saw this over at Travelers Diagram. Magnet is one of the few music magazines I pick up these days (others include Copper Press, Signal To Noise, and The Big Takeover). Interesting selections, though, rather limited in terms of genre. Then again, since the indie scene seems to be their bread and butter, I suppose that's to be expected. Not that they don't cover other genres; their back pages include sections on jazz and metal, among others.

Lists are useful in the sense that it's interesting to see what other people are listening to and value; that is, if you can filter through the ones that seem genuinely thought out, and the ones that are nothing more than a list of musical signifiers meant to enhance the compiler's hipness quotient. However, they are also very reductive (by their very nature, I reckon), trying to distill a year of music into 10 or 15 selections. Trying to sum up an entire decade in just five seems misguided and ultimately pointless. (NOTE: Their list is probably longer than 5; TD only listed the top 5 on their site. My bad.) Whatever (wait for it), that won't stop me from doing it, too. (Huzzah!) I'll expand to ten, just to be a bit more inclusive. (But I will stick with indie-alterna rock, since that has pretty much taken up most of my listening time the last ten years. I feel like a jackass for doing so, but I didn't listen to enough of any other genre--except maybe hip hop music--to feel like I could rank any releases with a semblance of credibility.)

In alphabetical order:

Flaming Lips - Clouds Taste Metallic
Fugazi - The Argument
godspeed you! black emperor - Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada
High Rise - Disallow
Nirvana - In Utero
Pavement - Wowee Zowee
Radiohead - OK Computer
Rodan - Rusty
Spiritualized - Let It Come Down
Superchunk - Foolish

A few notes on those selections:

I know a lot of people absolutely flipped over The Soft Bulletin, but frankly, I think the Lips (like kindred spirits Mercury Rev) are better suited for guitar storms than symphonic bombast. On Clouds Taste Metallic, I thought the Lips found the perfect balance between pop songwriting, noisy guitars, and psychedelic weirdness.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain might be the more cohesive album, but Wowee Zowee is just overflowing with great ideas. Not all of them are fully realized, but the ones that are--like the country psych of "Half A Canyon," or the Sonic Youth via Galaxie 500 of "Grounded"--make up for any lack of coherent theme. This was their last great album.

I almost didn't include the Rodan selection, but I found it impossible to leave off an album with a song as great as "The Everyday World of Bodies." The rest of the album is solid, too, but "Bodies" is a sprawling masterpiece.

Anyway, there you have it. My contribution to meaningless musical journalism for the day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Sorry for the delay; it's been quite hectic 'round these parts the last few days. For those keeping track, this will be the third review. Three albums in the collection down, 770-something more to go.

1990 - Sire Records

Okay, I'm going to dive headfirst into a music critic cliche: I'm going to say something that flies in the face of the critical consensus. Normally, this is a device for critics to make a "name" for themselves, by saying something so outlandish that readers will create a buzz debating it. Since I have no readers (that I know of; feel free to let me know otherwise by emailing me here), I'm using this tactic just because it seems right for these purposes. Lazy? Sure. But appropriate. This is just something I've been kicking around in my head recently while listening to this album, and the more I think about it, the more confidence I have in this particular opinion.

First, the conventional wisdom: the shoegaze genre--and possibly 90s alterna-rock itself--hit its artistic peak with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.

My response: not really.

The popular opinion is that MBV raised the bar and reshaped the possibilities of the guitar in a rock and roll context. And they did. Sorta. Considering that guitar terrorists like Keiji Haino and Sonny Sharrock predate this album by a good 20 years, maybe it's more realistic to say that they reshaped the possibilities of guitar within the indie realm. And even then, Sonic Youth might have something to say.

See, upon closer inspection, the place of Loveless in the pantheon of grand artistic statements becomes a bit tenuous. I'm not saying it's a bad album. The guitar textures are interesting for sure, and there are some nice melodies throughout the record. Yet, these are hardly the signifiers of a classic album. The way I see it, at the right place, at the right time, My Bloody Valentine released a difficult pop album. And that's the long and short of it. I have this theory that people tend to overestimate a music's worth if it sounds difficult, but they eventually "get" it. It's as if they are saying to themselves, "it took some time, and repeated listening, but I finally get this album. And because it took so long to get it, it must be a grand piece of art, the likes of which we've never seen and may never see again."

I'm not saying that such an experience is not rewarding. I think the great thing about many albums is the way they become so much more than that initial impression with each subsequent listen. But just because a piece of art takes time to "get," does that mean that other works that are more immediately pleasing do not rate as high artistically?

Which brings me to Ride. Ride's chance at elite status was pretty much obliterated with the last two studio albums they released, Carnival of Light and Tarantula. It was here where Ride began its descent into mediocrity, dishing up decent, if uninspired, folk-rock, with plenty of Byrds jangle. But there was a time where they were poised to be the best thing to come from Britain since, well, whatever the NME was overhyping the week before. And their highwater mark--from an album standpoint, anyway--was Nowhere.

The album kicks things off with the noisy psychedelia of "Seagull," with beautiful squalling guitars and monotone Brit melodies. It's a perfect opening statement for this album and one of the best tracks from Ride's career. "Kaleidoscope" picks up the pace, a little more energetic, but with less sheets of white noise. This opening one-two punch sets the bar high, and admittedly, the middle part of the album doesn't quite match it. That's not to say the songs are bad; far from it. Rather, Ride, instead of barreling on the forward momentum established from the get go, they decide to switch gears, starting on the the third track, "In a Different Place." If you read the Simian review below, you know that if I had a choice, I'd sacrifice diversity for a consistently infectious record. Things are no different here. The difference with Ride is that they don't let things drag too long. Song four, "Polar Bear," picks things up a bit, and the following song, "Dreams Burn Down," returns to some of the feedback drenched sound of the opening tracks. While it's still a bit of a "slow" song, there's enough going on that it doesn't become tedious.

The album pretty much continues on in this fashion, but never sounds same-y. "Paralysed" is a bit of a mopey rock song like only the Brits can do, while "Taste" speeds by on honest-to-goodness pop hooks. You see, one of the downfalls of the whole "shoegaze" genre is that they relied more on effects and textures than actual songs. Not so on this album. The songs are there in spades. Perhaps not the most poetic lyrically, but it's not an impenetrable fog of echo and reverb that characterized so much of the genre's music. The one exception might be the title track, which closes the album. This has a bit of an experimental feel, the guitars sounding vaguely alien, with the sounds of waves crashing on the shore as the song ends. It seems a fitting ending to the album, as if the waves of sound are finally starting to recede after leaving our bodies on shore, giving the audience a chance to admire the beauty, while considering the ride (no pun intended) they were just on.

While it may never be given the same amount of respect as Loveless, Nowhere will always be (to me, anyway) the true landmark album of shoegaze, a height they only matched once more--and surpassed actually--with the title track of their followup album, Leave Them All Behind. This song is without question the best song they ever recorded (followed closely by a b-side from the same era, "Grasshopper") and totally erases any other band's claim to definitive anything as far as shoegaze goes. The rest of that album is no great shakes, but "Leave Them All Behind" does in eight minutes what My Bloody Valentine failed to do in an entire career: write a truly epic rock song. Not since the Jesus and Mary Chain dropped Psychocandy has unrelenting white noise guitars and pop hooks been married so well. At times, you can't even tell there are guitars on the tracks--it sounds like the rhythm section is playing inside the engine of a jumbo jet. But it's so immediate and catchy and LOUD that you can't help but get pulled along by its momentum. It's a shame that they tarnished their legacy in their final years. If they had continued onward and upward, a lot less people would be waiting for Kevin Shields to finally finish the MBV followup (the fact that he's held out this long only adds to the mystique of Loveless). And who knows: if they had taken over, we may have been spared the travesty that is Oasis.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Hello lads and lasses. Review number two! Excelsior! (Exclamation overuse = sure sign of impotent writing and total lack of imagination.)

Hard Rock Transonic
Musica Transonic
2002 - Fractal Records

Japan's Musica Transonic is practically an all-star power trio of some of Japan's finest improv/psych rock musicians, with Asahito Nanjo (High Rise, Mainliner) on bass, Makota Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple) on guitar, and Tatsuya Yoshida (Ruins) on drums. Of those other bands, the closest point of comparison is High Rise. The music here is full speed ahead hard rock, like some lost 60s classic. Kawabata's playing is all over the top wah-wah damage, perhaps not as good as High Rise's Munehiro Narita, but no less inspired. His playing is not complete amelodic screeching as that might suggest, however (like his guitar insanity becomes at times on Mainliner's Mellow Out), as he understands the value of a killer riff. Nanjo's bass isn't as prominent as usual, but still quite powerful and driven. But the real star here is Yoshida, whose expert playing keeps things together, while still being as expressive--if not as complex and polyrhythmic as his work with Ruins--as the other players. A lot of improvised music can fall apart under its own weight, with each musician trying to have their say. Here, thanks in large part to Yoshida's playing, it is kept tight and the music is all the better for it.

The songs themselves do not vary in arrangement much (start with the basic riff, change gears into soloing, return briefly to riff, and the end abruptly), but that doesn't take away from the music at all. If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the songs aren't nearly long enough. These are musicians who have the ability to stretch things out without becoming boring, and it's kind of a shame that they don't do it here. But that is nitpicking, really. Overall, this is a great hard rock album on the order of classic power trios like Cream or Blue Cheer (just played faster and with more reckless abandon). Actually, it would also do well as an introduction for people interested in the Japanese improv/psych/noise scene (one of the most vital going now and probably for the last 30 years), as it's one of the more accessible records in the genre. Highly recommended.

(And if that's not enough, there are pictures of naked Japanese women scattered about the CD booklet!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

I now bring you the first review. It's a bit of a soft lob; we'll see how it turns out.

We Are Your Friends
2002 - Astralwerks

If the first three tracks were representative of the entire album, We Are Your Friends would be a bona fide summertime classic. Opener "La Breeze" is the albums call to arms, with singer Simon Lord doing his best John Lennon imitation while some very fuzzy psych guitar bounces along on top of a dance-y little rhythm. It's not quite funky (nobody will mistake this for an Isley Brothers song), but it's an ass-mover akin to a Primal Scream track.

With "La Breeze" setting the table, "Sunshine" is a delightful appetizer. Not quite as catchy as the opener, the groove on this song is a bit more laid back, like Air without the atmosphere. "Never Be Alone," the song from which the album gets its title, follows this up and is another winner. It matches a Supergrass singalong vocal backed by an electropop accompaniment that reminds me of Mouse on Mars without all the hip influences and glitchcraft. This song is the album's standout and peak. Sadly, this is not an EP. It's not that the rest of the album is bad, per se--with the exception of the clunky "Skin" and the out-of-place Beach Boys from Mars "She's In Mind"--but it never even begins to approach the quality of the opening three songs. Songs like the dark, dancy number "Big Black Gun" or the new wave-y (and strangely reminiscent of Taco--"Putting on the Ritz," not the foodstuff) "The Way That I Live" are fine when taken at face value. However, when evaluated next to the opening trifecta of pop brilliance, they seem lifeless. Listening to the songs, it feels as if the band decided that they needed to "mix things up" in order for the album to not become too repetitive. This is a fine idea, but unfortunately, not fully realized here. While they certainly do change things up musically (and not in the hyperkinetic, genre-pastiche way that is typical in today's mashup world), the music settles into a midtempo rut. Personally, I would have found this album a lot more exciting if they had run with the energy they established in the opening. As it stands, We Are Your Friends is an above average pop album that starts off with promise, but fails to live up to it.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Okay, so it's later. Before I get around to posting the first review (which may not happen until tomorrow), I should just make a few things clear. First, there will be no points system. While I think point systems are valid, my goal is to try to make the reviews informative enough that you can determine (if you choose to follow my endorsements) whether the album is something you want to check out or not. I think a lot of places, both online and in print, rely too much on a ratings scale. It allows reviewers to get lazy or tangential, since they probably assume that the reader will just see the rating and stop there. They then proceed to wax pseudo-hip or come up with some clever narrative that is a total waste of time and energy. Well I say nuts to that. I will try (and my success rate will probably vary initially) to avoid typical reviewer critiques and actually write something useful.

Second, as I said, this will be reviews from things taken right from my collection. Since I don't have unlimited funds, I can't go out and constantly get new releases. There will be some, but I can tell you now it won't be constant, like Pitchfork. Also, there won't be one particular genre upon which these reviews will be based. While a sizeable portion of my collection is "indie rock" (and its various bastard spawn and offshoots), there's also hip hop, jazz, pop, classical, noise, etc. It will basically come down to what I'm listening to and in the mood for reviewing.

However, if this thing catches on, and some young label out there would like to hook a brotha up, I can be reached here.

This is the inaugural post for my new blog. Since my other blog became too bloated with my own psychopathy, I decided to give this new little feature a blog of its own.

The new feature you ask? Daily (well...at least regular...hopefully) reviews of albums that are currently in my music collection, irrespective of date of release, quality, or relevance.

Why am I doing this? Two reasons: 1) Because I can. 2) I'd like to use this as a way to improve my writing/critical skills, so that I, too, may one day join the ranks of the David Frickes and Ryan Schreibers of the world. (Don't worry, I'm laughing, too.)

Besides, if the success of that other blog is any indication, this blog could be bigger than curly fries!

More later...