Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March Roundup

If you had not noticed, this month I started messing with new ways to integrate music without having to rely on still-frame YouTube videos taking up space.  For the March roundup, I have included a playlist containing one selection from each album when possible, and I tried to use one I did not previously mention. Let me know if you like this.   

Minus the Bear - Omni:  I can’t recommend Omni highly enough.  This was number three last year, but in retrospect, it might have beaten out Imogen Heap and The Flaming Lips given time.

Metric - Fantasies: Fantasies has a few really great songs, and a few flawed good ones.  Even the flawed ones are catchy, though – like mind control. 

Don Caballero - American Don:  Of their early period, this is one Don Caballero's more focused albums. It is still a pretty dense listen, though, that may take some concentration to really crack.

Zorch - Demo:  I think that Zorch, as a band, are still in the formative stages, but I like where they are headed.  This EP has a couple of real winners on it. 

Ratatat - Classics:  Its good, but I don’t think it’s quite good as LP3 and LP4.  It stalled my Ratatat jag for the time being.

Budos Band III: Every time I get III in the player, I feel like I should listen to it more often.  The Budos Band simmers and simmers.  

Mouse on the Keys - Sezzions:  This EP has some fantastic piano playing and engaging compositions.  The opening track Saigo no Bansan is compact and powerful. 

Battles EP B/C EP: Although its unnecessary 2 disc format is a little irritating, I really dig what Battles was doing here.  I will be bringing it back soon, I think.

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates:  This was Minus the Bear's first album, and the difference in quality between this an Omni is huge.  Whatever they have going now, it was not yet happening on this release – I was pretty disappointed, despite its math-rock leanings.

Budos Band II: If you like III, you will probably like this one, too.  II is only slightly less refined, but still kicks out the jams.

Toe - The Book about My Idle Plot on a Vague Anxiety:   At times, Toe's love for the jazz aesthetic peeks through their moody, rainy-day double guitar interplay.  Fans of Tortoise and Rumah Sakit should take equal notice.

LITE - Illuminate/Turns Red EPs:  One of the few bands that seem to approximate the rhythmic approach of King Crimson, but with a little more straight-ahead take.   LITE is cacophonous, precise, sublime, and one of my current favorites.  

The Psychedelic Aliens – Psycho African Beat: If you crossed Jimi Hendrix with Carlos Santana and took out all of the guitar histrionics, you might get close.  The story about the original release of these tracks and how they came to be released on this CD is interesting and well-told in the liner notes.

Passion Pit - Manners:  Superficially, it seems like fans of Miike Snow may get into this.  Unfortunately, there is not that much substance, and the double-tracked falsetto vocals begin to grate after about fifteen seconds.  

Mike Watt - The Secondman's Middle Stand:  Although I received this album several years ago, it took me seeing him in his element as a live act to appreciate it.  I like the idea of this album, but I think that Mike Watt is harder to understand if you remove his voice form his body.

Philip Selway - Familial: This acoustic-ish offering from Radiohead's drummer returns from January.  Sounds like what would happen if Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree made a tribute album to Greg Lake and produced it with the exquisite moodiness of Beck's "Mutations."

Powderfinger - Dream Days at the Hotel Existence:  This CD will probably never top Odyssey Number Five, but I think that it does have some merit.  There are a couple of really great tracks surrounded by some more....lifeless contributions.  

There were a few other things here and there, but this is what went through the car changer this month.  Upcoming releases look really interesting in the upcoming month – TV on the Radio, Elbow, and the Foo Fighters to name a few.  First up this month will be the new Radiohead release.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Contrasting Similarities: Toe and Lite

I enjoy variety in my listening, and often my interest in variety will dictate the direction that it takes.  On the other hand, I do get on kicks with certain styles, and I see no reason to shake them if they continue to hold my interest.  In January, I was checking out a lot of electronic instrumental music, and to rebel against that, I went on a math rock kick at the beginning of this month (because you know, THAT’s so different).  This led to my current interest in Japanese progressive/instrumental music, and right now, even though I have tried to taper off listening to this subgenre, I keep fighting the temptation to fill up the CD player entirely with the stuff.  

In a previous post, I mentioned that Lite would be coming to Austin as part of the SXSW festivities, and that I was also looking into another band called Toe.  Those two seeds came to fruition simultaneously.   Toe's The Book about My Idle Plot on a Vauge Anxiety showed up the day I was going to see Lite at SXSW here in Austin.  There will hopefully be some footage of that show online soon, so I am going to wait to gush about it too much, but I will say that it will be seriously hard for any live act to top Lite this year.  

Book About My Idle Plot on

Between Toe in the car and Lite at the Gingerman, that evening threw gasoline on the Japanese instrumental rock fire I have been warming my hands around.  Although Toe’s similar instrumentation, ideology, and approach seems similar to Lite, their ethereal approach to twin guitars readily distinguishes them.  Toe’s music is intimate and organic in a way that makes them seem more “post-rock” than “math-rock.”

Now, let’s talk over on camera three for a second.  I dislike (nay, hate) the categorization “post-rock.”  I think it is essentially empty.  It’s a label created for progressive rock made after 1995 that intends to distance it from the excesses associated with that style.  Some influential bands such as Sigur Ros and Tortoise have been christened as “post-rock,” and as a result the term has the circumscribed melancholy associated with these bands, circumventing thoughtful description.  And that's the issue: as a category of music, “post-rock” is non-descriptive – it means nothing more than an “alternative” to “alternative.”  I fully accept my complicity in promulgating this term here, but also my reluctance to use it for the sake of brevity.  More on music categories later.

While listening to Toe on the way home, and enjoying it, I also struggled to keep the energy and precision of Lite’s show in my awareness.  I came home and immediately downloaded two of their EPs, Illuminate and Turns Red, and burned them onto a CD.  I even printed out cover art for the case.

IlluminateTurns Red - EP 

One of Lite’s strongest attributes is their attention to composition above individual technical ability.  Despite the obvious virtuosity of each of the individual members of Lite, they don’t showcase “solos,” in the classic sense.  I can’t argue the point that Lite uses lots of notes, but I think their chops coalesce in service to the melodic aspects of their work.  Filmlets was primarily guitar-driven, but synthesizers play a more pronounced role in Illuminate/Turns Red.  This is not to say that they have given up on their distinctively angular, riff-driven approach.  Instead, their use of synthesis widens and enhances the sonic possibilities of their work.  This live clip has two of my favorite songs from Illuminate.

Image Game is my "fight song" right now.  In a live setting, it was devastating.  Not only does it showcase their energetic mastery of precisely executed and thickly harmonized melodic lines, but also their ear for atmosphere and ambience.  Side-by-side with Toe, I think the differences between the two bands are apparent, but I also think that fans of one will probably like both.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Powderfinger's Best Bet

I get a bit nervous when I listen to too much of one thing.  If I am listening to a lot of accessible pop music, I feel unchallenged.  On the other hand, if I am listening to experimental music exclusively, I start to feel a little socially isolated.  Since the beginning of this year, I have been drawn into a lot of challenging instrumental music, and recently I started to “miss” my more accessible interests.  As a remedy, I began spinning the Metric CD as the beginning of this month and recently, I got a hold of Powderfinger’s Dream Days at the Hotel Existence.  Unfortunately, from my perspective a lot of it seems uninspired, although the band’s best work does shine through periodically, like this one:

With this album, I think that the interested should look at individual tracks.  I still like Powderfinger’s work, however, and although I have a rather meager collection of their albums and am hardly qualified as an expert, I would like to pass on what little I know.

Despite being visible in Austrialia, Powderfinger remained relatively unknown in the US during their career.  I don’t remember specifically when or where I first heard of them myself, but I believe their album Internationalist came up as a suggestion once while I was browsing on Amazon and I put it on my wish list, where it sat for a quite a long time.  When I decided to finally take the plunge, however, I ordered Odyssey Number Five due to positive customer reviews.   It eventually evolved into a favorite, and one that I periodically return to.  Powderfinger had several songs pop up in movie and TV soundtracks in the 00s, which is as high-profile as an Aussie band can get without actually getting major distribution in the states.

Although Powderfinger is a widely accessible project, I struggle to draw close comparisons.  They share a rugged earthiness with Neil Young, their most obvious influence, as well as an intimate lyric sensitivity, thanks to lead singer Bernard Fanning.  Despite their obvious classic rock leanings, in the 00s Powderfinger presented themselves in a style that was classic and contemporary, similar to Oasis’ refabrication of the Beatles sound in the 90s. 

What the band does exceedingly well is write highly singable choruses, surrounding them with supporting verses and anthemic connective tissue.  In manipulating these components, they often alter traditional popular song form and when they get it right, it really hits.  Odyssey Number Five turned out to be such a convincing album that I eventually got Internationalist as well.  Although it did not strike me quite as efffectively for me as its successor, I still find it to be a good listen.

Many of Powderfinger’s fans are dedicated, and there are few albums of theirs that do not have both enthusiastically positive and derisively negative reviews.  From what little I have heard, though, I would suggest Odyssey Number Five to those with even a passing interest. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sharp Turns and Bright Colors: A Weezer Retrospective

If you are a music fan, you have probably had a favorite artist or band at some time or another.  Depending on what time in your life you counted yourself as a devoted fan you may have thought that your favorite band could do no wrong.  Let me let you in on a little secret: no matter who your favorite band is, someday, they are going to suck.  At the very least, they will release something that will disappoint you in some way that you will have to internally justify in order to keep their reputation with you untarnished. 

That being said, in 1994, Weezer’s Blue Album was personally influential.  When I was still clinging to certain habituated progressive rock snobberies,  Rivers Cuomo's emotive hard-rock-nerd-chic  kept creeping into my awareness.  Aside from having incredibly catchy tunes churning with an intellectual undercurrent, they also delivered a uniquely genuine angst that readily tapped into my own insecure nature.  The Blue Album became a personal favorite that still resounds with me today, both nostalgically and musically.  I'll skip over the radio hits:

In this video, on bass, falsetto vocals and badly bleached hair, is Matt Sharp.  After the follow-up to the Blue Album Pinkerton was released, Sharp left the band, and as a bass player his absence was predictably underplayed in the big scheme of things.  Sharp invested in his side project The Rentals, whose vintage keyboard approach seemed a bit eccentric in the grungy 90s.  The Rentals released a couple of albums and had a low-key radio hit, but the band never quite took off like Weezer did.

Although he certainly contributed in terms of stage presence, I always had a feeling that Sharp contributed a bit more to Weezer than the songwriting credits revealed.  Without Sharp, though, Cuomo was clearly the principal songwriter for Weezer.  When the Green Album came out in 2001 after a brief hiatus, it represented a much more streamlined, and some would say formulaic, approach to songwriting, and I connected with it probably even more readily than their debut.  I listened to the Green Album incessantly when it came out, and saw them with Tenacious D when they came through Fort Worth on this tour.

I was a devoted Weezer fan at that point, and Cuomo could do no wrong, but not long after that, the problems started up.  The follow-up Maladroit was “just OK,” and their 2005 release Make Believe had some tracks that I would genuinely call bad – like not good.  My justification generator was going wild: on the one hand, Rivers is a smart guy, and it could have all been part of his master plan to release a couple of mediocre albums to build up anticipation for a big release, like a “fake comeback.”  It was far more likely, though, that being the principal songwriter for a group is an incredibly difficult position to maintain.  It seems hard to write songs in a vacuum, and far too many people take on solo careers for financial purposes rather than artistic.  There are, of course, exceptions, but generally speaking, when an artist goes solo, they usually have a couple of albums in them before they need to collaborate again to keep things fresh.

Which brings up 2008’s Red Album – this one featured more open collaboration and experimentation than the band was traditionally known for.  It does have a couple of personal favs on it, and it does grow on you, but ultimately I can’t say that the Red Album stacks up to either of its monochromatic predecessors in my mind.  It is, however, certainly one of Weezer’s most interesting albums, especially to the longtime fan.  I don’t like a lot of the live footage from this album, especially if you compare it to their older live footage, but this “video” does show the more nonstandard approach that they were trying to take with their songs.

The Red Album is also a frustrating release in another regard.  I still openly pine for a full on Cuomo/Sharp collaboration.  Although the contributions from the various band members on the Red Album are interesting, its pretty clear when you listen to it that none of them have the concept to really collaborate with Cuomo as a songwriting partner.  The Red Album (or an earlier alternate-universe version of it) could have been the place where Sharp and he emerged as a great songwriting team.

Although I keep my eyes open for them, I don't avidly follow Weezer like I did.  It seems like recently they release albums at an alarming rate, which makes me a little skeptical.   I did recently pick up Hurley, but I'll share my opinions on that one in a later post when I have it back in rotation.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Budos Band Live at Stubb's

With all of the live music going on in Austin, I could go out virtually every night of the week and hear a good show.  Especially now, with SXSW going on, there is an immense amount of music happening, and a lot of people here to watch it.  It’s like a Comic-Con nerdgasm for music fans.  As this event gets closer, more and more activity seems to fall into the orbit of the Austin music scene.  Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see the Budos Band live here in Austin at the Stubb’s amphitheater.  I have been to Stubb’s before, but never got a chance to get out to the amphitheater.  It is pretty neatly tucked away back there, but it is an impressive space to see a standing-room type show.  

When I see a live show, I probably I seem quite the statue.  Generally speaking, I am rarely inclined to dance, but this does not mean that I am not enjoying myself.  Instead, I like to listen and watch.  I like to see who is doing what, how they are doing it, and how what they are doing is making the sounds that I am hearing.   When something really grabs my attention, I can occasionally be caught swearing quietly to myself, but overall I usually don't interact in a way that most people can see. 

That being said, the show was good – very good.  The band played unwavering four-on-the-floor instrumental minor key grooves for the better part of an hour and a half.  Great solos from the horns and keyboardist, and the auxiliary percussionists added a lot of visual interest.  The bass player often propped the body of his bass on the front of his hip so that both of his hands were in front of him.  It seemed like an oddly relaxed position, but playing in this manner would require him to have comfortable familiarity with the fretboard, since they would be facing away from his field of vision.  The trumpet player was a sub, and he had his work cut out for him.  Playing at that volume and in that range that for that amount of time certainly seemed like a workout.  Towards the end of the show, I could hear subtle signs of fatigue (only because I know what it feels like to have tired chops – he still never missed a note).  Here's a lo-fi cameraphone video from the show (not mine).

Of course, I took the opportunity to pick up some schwag - a Budos Band shirt and their second album.  I admit to being a bit of a sucker for thematic album art.  I used to get a kick out of the old scarab-themed Journey covers, and I remember feeling disappointed when Raised on Radio came out and broke that long-running theme.  The covers of Budos Band II and III are similarly tied together with stark images of venomous, threatening creatures, and I think the art plays a significant role in the menace that that the band’s music conveys.

Budos Band II is a little less Ethiopian voodoo and a little more 70s cop drama.  If Quentin Tarantino were to make another 70s-noir gangster films like he was making in the 90s, he could do a lot worse than to have the Budos Band provide the soundtrack.  There is a feeling of freedom and rebellious independence in their work that makes it sound particularly good with the car windows rolled down on a cool spring afternoon.   

The good news is that the band’s recordings capture them pretty effectively, but there is a downside.  When I came back from the show my wife asked me how it was and I said that it was good, because it was, but she noted a lack of enthusiasm in my voice.  As much as I had been looking forward to the show, I think she expected me to perhaps gush a bit more.  The Budos Band played great, virtually like their recordings, but that there were very few surprises. I don't know that I walked away with my mind blown, but I can confidently say that the show was enjoyable.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Looks Japanese, Sounds Balinese: Jade Warrior's "Floating World"

One of my favorite Spring Break indulgences is video gaming.  I am, at best, a casual gamer, and I am pretty picky about what I play, but when something clicks for me I do enjoy the diversion.  There is a bit of a catch, though – some games give me really bad motion sickness.  I have never figured out what it is about some games and not others that makes me feel all pukey, but this goes all the way back to the first “Doom” that I used to play on my pre-Windows PC.  Even worse, I usually can’t tell if a game is going to give me motion sickness until I have played it for a little while.  Once I notice it is happening, it is too late.  I usually have to go lie down until the worst of it subsides.  This happened to me yesterday as I was playing “TRON: Evolution,” and as the soundtrack to my recovery, I listened to another album whose dynamic range makes listening in my usually lo-fi environment difficult – Jade Warrior’s Floating World.

Floating World is a rather obscure release from the early 70s, and although it certainly has its aggressive moments, it is overall rather soothing (which I appreciated from my horizontal position on the couch).  Even by today’s standards, it is difficult to categorize, but in the early 70s it probably was even more so.   It seems to fall somewhere between progressive rock, new age, and world music, although these latter two categorizations were not even really in existence then in the same way that they are today.  

Floating World 

Obviously, from their album covers, Jade Warrior was taking advantage of the preconceived exotic notions about the East that the average Western listener may have had.  The cover for Floating World is clearly referencing traditional Japanese culture, although there are virtually no Japanese elements in their music.  Although Jade Warrior does employ quite a bit a flute, it sounds like a Western Boehm-style flute, not the more identifiably Japanese bamboo shakuhachi.  We as consumers are primarily visual, though, so it is difficult to shake this first impression, as this fan-made video shows:

This is not to say that Floating World is without Eastern musical influences.  There are several examples throughout the album in which express an interest in non-Western music, particularly that of Bali.  The more cacophonous moments on the album sound suspiciously reminiscent of gamelan styles.  The most obvious Balinese reference, however, is their appropriation of the Kecak, or Monkey Chant.  This clip is taken from the movie Baraka.

Kecak has its origins in pre-colonial Bali, but in its current form it is a localized creation of “authentic” music that capitalizes on the considerable Balinese tourist trade.  Even the Balinese understand the power of “exotic” Western preconceptions of their own culture.  Jade Warrior has a more chaotic take on the Monkey Chant, although they credit it as a “traditional” piece in the liner notes.  The following video is, again, fan-made and is the only embeddable version of the track that I could find.

This rendition is pretty far from the original Kecak, and even more so due to the rather jarring video, but the connection between the two seems obvious from a musical standpoint. In the 90s, there was a lot of discussion about “World Music” and the appropriation of traditional non-Western music into popular styles.  Artists such as Herbie Hancock, Deep Forest, and Paul Simon took a bit of a beating in academic circles for the manner in which they capitalized on African music.  Whether they were “inspired by” these styles or “stole” them is a point of contention.  Regardless, despite creating a cut-and-paste bricolage of Japanese visuals and Balinese sounds that referenced and reinforced mystical stereotypes of the East, Jade Warrior somehow escaped from this discussion unscathed.  Although I doubt that a single Balinese was ever paid a royalty, I also think that the band’s own obscurity probably guards them to an extent from too much scrutiny.

By the time I came to this conclusion, the video game-inspired motion sickness had become bearable enough to move around the house.  I may have to get some dramamine - or keep writing.