Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TV on the Radio - Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

I'm starting to hear talk of this past decade being officially the worst in recent memory.  Of course we spent those 8 years gritting our teeth and losing ground politically,  perhaps an ounce of forsight could have gone a long way, but I suppose people love to be wrong over and over again.  Anywho there's something to be glad about and their name is TV on the Radio.  

It was in these years that TVOTR grew from their humble beginnings, matured, outgrew the indie scene, and flourished in the mainstream.  Their self released OK Calculator was a sprawling mess of weirdness and fun that did little more than establish theri affinity for rigid experimentation and hint toward their talents.  With their Young Liars EP they showed they had grown and deserved their chance at the plate.

With their indie label debut Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, they emerged fully formed. It's major force is the beautiful harmony produced by singer Tunde Adebimpe's soulful and self assured poetics, and multi instrumentalist Kyp Malone's falsettos.  It is the unfortunate circumstance of many great bands that they have front man/singer who cant carry a tune or write a lick.  It's TVOTR's fortune that they are not only gifted musicians, artists, poets, technicians, and social commentators, but have commanding voices to boot.  The touching and sincere barbershop ballad Ambulance illustrates best that for all the novelty of their experimental approach, they truly need nothing other than their voices to create captivating music.

What comes through on Desperate Youth is a 60s era idealism tempered by a dose of  90/00's realism.  It's appropriatly hopeful and disappointed in turns, but never defeated.  It's woozy and lovey, and then angry and sarcastic.  It's summing up the century and saying lets move on.  Their name if nothing else roots their interests in the lessons of the 20th century while transcending them.  

It's this same idea which they expand upon with Return to Cookie Mountain, and Dear Science.  Looking at the world with that same disappointment and stubborn optimism, and over the past decade gaining the hearts of countless fans and the accolades of some the nations most well known and revered critics and publications.

In my opinion they've been making the same album ever since Desperate Youth(2004), honing thier craft in the process and utilizing their new found resources and friends.   It was Desperate Youth though that was their siren call, their mission statement, the prototype for their celebrated major label albums.  While each new album has pulled me in held me there, I'm still most in love with those first songs that were so perfect and different and right already. 

As the best of the decade lists roll I'm surprised and disappointed that I haven't seen them all over the place.  They deserve a better tribute than I have done or could do here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pedro the Lion - Control

It always baffles me to find out that a band or song writer I love is religious. It's not that I'm in awe that the same genius I recognize in them could believe in something I can no longer bring myself to humor, but more that such opposing views on what seems like such a basic and important question could find a complete reconciliation in my appreciation of their art.

Perhaps it's David Bazan's belief in the other side which keeps him afloat when uttering the simply soul crushing truths he's capable of in Control. Perhaps it's a religious beleif which draws him to such dire topics, or perhaps its the topics that drive him to religion. In any case there are no easy answers, no religious platitudes, no "good news", just people being all to human in an all too modern world.

The plight of man in the age of information and technology is a pet theme for Bazan. Is technology going to make us better people, a better country, will it even make us happier? With Control, Bazan expounds upon the themes of its predecesor EP Progress. Borrowing it's icy April 6, 2039 and renaming it Progress, he reworks it with an auto-tuned voice transmitted from the future selling furniture or perhaps just a prideful consumer showing off. It's hard to tell. The track drives the point home with "if you're lucky they'll turn out as good as you/you tell them that they're good kids but you know it isnt true/your father drank a little, you're on liver number two",drawing to mind that old quote which goes something like "I have no problem with technologies getting better and smarter, my only fear is that we will meet them half way". To make the point even clearer, the EP puts the barcode front and center of a steel grey cover.

In the bleak world of Control live a married couple who deal with the disillusion of their marriage in destructive and "Unoriginal" ways. Going from feigned "I love you's" at its start and ending with a EMT's feigned "buddy just calm down, you'll be just fine". An epilogue offers no answers, but won't admit meaninglessness, instead offering in a sober tone "wouldn't it be so wonderful/if everything was meaningless/but everything is so meaningful/and most everything turns to shit.", then in his characteristic irony sings "Rejoice" over a bed of angelic guitars.

Bazan has ever been a master of the cautionary tale, Control following in the narrative footsteps of the previous Winners Never Quit, another story of flawed individuals trying to deal with situations far over thier emotionaly immature heads. And, like many-a-band who try their hand at the concept album, came up with something more engaging the second time around.

Another important album from more overt Christians is mewithoutYou's Catch for Us the Foxes. These believers take an entirely different approach from Bazan, but still come up with something beautiful and meaningful. The music is vibrant and emotional owing much to 90s bands the likes of Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate. But, the lyrics are are what truly stand out. Feeling more orated than sung, they move along in a way that combines the immediacy of evangelism with the awe and wonder of transcendenatalist poetry.

If this sounds a bit paradoxical, it works all the better for thier themes which focus mainly on a sort of man vs himself struggle to keep the faith, recognize the truth, and maintain innocence. Aaron Weiss the bands vocalist carries the sort of neurotic energy of a Dostoyevski anti-hero, epitomising with his all to forward approach the unreliable narrator. But, if you can take his faith and joy at face value, then you will open yourself to some the best poetry and freshest imagery of the past decade.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Battles - Mirrored

Remember when you were a kid and for the first time you went to Six flags, Disney Land, Universal Studios, or what have you. For the next few days you couldn't stop talking about HOW COOL it was, gushing about how it felt to be whipped around by a big metal contraption until you lose your shit and your adrenaline takes over. The ride stops and you step off grinning like an idiot.

Fun is the word, Battles Mirrored(2007) is fun, its a thrill, its an effect. Its 4 men in room with a few tons of electronics, mad scientists hammering away at this wondrous contraption, a sonic playground for your head. It's a century old promise finally fulfilled, a complete symbiosis of rock and electronics. Its pure bliss.

None of the lyrics are readily understood, and none need be, there's no narrative to tell, no emotion to convey, just a spectacle to behold. It's as close to avant-garde as anything I've ever heard. It's also Battles' first full length album.

It does owe a particular debt to the math rock tradition with its emphasis on angular melodies, electronic loops, odd time signatures, and lyrical ambiguity. Most importantly to math rock veterans Don Caballero.

In a move similar to the break of At the Drive In and the rise of the Mars Volta. Guitarist Ian Williams broke with Don Cab in 2000, and by taking on a more aggresively progressive and expiremental sound with Battles won wider appeal. The only album in the math rock catagory coming close to its sheer musical integrity is Don Cab's 2006 release World Class Listening Problem, that in a decade full to the brim with great math releases.

Mirrored's greatest success and largest leap from the genre is its grasp of the electronic. Keyboards are used to great effect, guitars processed, tweeked, and tapped to produce intresting new tones, and vocals bent to absurd and comic pitches. When going at 150 beats per minute its complete sensory overload, theres so much you've missed, you've no choice but to get back on and ride again. Conscious of this, mirrored is bookended. The albums opening and closing tracks Race In and Race Out respectively welcome you to show, and make a curtain call. A thoughtful and clever touch.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Big Joe

Here's a little story bout a man I know. He's tough, he's mean, and his name is Big Joe.

thanks to Matt, Jeanie, Emily and Dan for the help.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mountain Goats - Get Lonely

I remember once hearing that the experience of loneliness makes everything around you seem sharper, more vivid, a sentiment I have to agree with.  And, no album I've heard captures this feeling like Mountain Goats  2006 masterpiece Get Lonely. 

The restlessness, the freedom, the desperation, the hunger of loneliness is in the albums every aspect.  The production is crisp and dry, the guitar played softer than one would expect form from singer songwriter John Darnielle, the backing instrumentation slow and spare except when used to signal the narrators claustrophobia and paranoia, to capture the transient joy of a painful recollection, or to express a sort of forced, by your boot straps, type of motivation he only half believes in.  The album FEELS lonely which may be the majority of its magic. But, the lyrics, oh man, the lyrics.

No one is around. Only traces of people.  Faint screams from a high school football game, the noise of traffic, flood lights, convenient stores, dream people, anonymous crowds, ghosts of memories, strangers, threatening villagers, and most importantly, not the woman who has left him to his own devices.

"Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy"...the titular wisdom of the 2006 film Old Joy...which ive just watched.  This is a particularly accurate sentiment for Get Lonely's narrator who spends half the album inhabiting the home they made, every detail aching with her absense. " The first time I made coffee for just myself, i made to much off it/but i drank it all just cuz you hate it when I let things go to waste/and i wandered around the house like a little boy lost at the mall/ and an astronaut could have seen the hunger in my eyes from space".  He tries to escape into the world and find something to connect with "i will find and a crowd/ and blend in for a minute/and i will try to find/ a little comfort in it" but  he only looks for her face in the crowd.  He tries to clean house "whole boxes of memories left out at the curb/what are the years we gave eachother/ ever gonna be worth".  Even his dreams give him fresh glimpses of the past to pine over.  There is no escape, the pain in the joy, the joy in the pain.

The album creates a frosty landscape, vivid, unmistakably real and present.  The imagery is cold and dry.  One can almost see Darnielle's icy breath coming through the tracks.  When the albums final track In Corolla comes around with the narrators metaphorical or perhaps actual sinking down into the warm comfort of a brackish lagoon and bringing the water into his lungs, it's a bitter sweet moment.  "The sun was sinking into the atlantic/the last time that i turned my back on you/I tried to summon up a little prayer as i went under/it was the best that I could do/and i said Let them all fair better than your servant/the reeds all pricking at my skin/heres hoping they have better luck than I did down here with them/all that water rushing in."

 Its also been suggested that in the lonlier periods of your life that music becomes more important.  Perhaps its a needed distraction.  Perhaps in more shapeless times one looks for signs of ones self, bits of wisdom, answers to questions that emerge only as feelings or hunches.  Ones eyes are opened wide taking everything in, nothing is certain, everything is at once more threatening and potentially liberating. Discovering a new album, a new band, one can relate to in many ways can be like finding a new friend, slowly you learn more about them, it can be disappointing or it can reaffirm the bond.  I've recently learned about one of his albums The Sunset Tree and I'm eager to put my brain's ear back into Darnielle and Co.'s capable hands.