Saturday, July 30, 2011

Brendan Benson for Dummies

Sometime in Denton around 1997, there briefly existed an independent record store in the Carriage Square shopping center whose name is now lost to obscurity.  After the Sound Warehouse closed on Fry, it was one of the few places where a music fan could go and browse close to UNT campus.  I'm quite sure that they were aware of this, too, because the store had a loose system in place for suggesting up-and-coming artists.  In most stores, this would take the form of haphazardly sharpie-scrawled endcap claiming that “employee [x] (who you don’t know, but under whose authority you should unconditionally bow) suggests artist [y] (simply because we said so).”  This store was a little different, and I’m not sure how they did their research, but at least in the case of me and Brendan Benson, it worked out pretty decently.

One MississippiAt the time I was an avid fan of Ben Folds Five, and as I was browsing through their section, I ran across a label suggesting Benson.  I glanced over and found his full-length debut One Mississippi, and I bought it on a relative whim.  It subsequently became a personal favorite that I spread far and wide amongst my friends with a near- evangelical fervor.  Since then, he has consistently proven to be one of  my favorite power-pop solo artists.

Early in his career, Benson projected a charismatic Weezeresque slackerishness that seemed to contradict his effortlessly clever songwriting.  Due to the magic of YouTube, I stumbled across this 1996 French TV performance of the lead-off track from One Mississippi.  This, my friends, is a flawed gem.

LapalcoNow, quiz time.  Were there any emerging bands or artists worth their salt in the late 90s that did not get dropped by their label?  The answer is no: it was the industry standard at the time.  Benson, like Wilco, Jon Brion, and many others, had to deal with this type of malarkey, and for a time it seemed that the raven might have croaked "nevermore" on him.  Finally, though, in 2001, Lapalco was released.  It was little less explicitly aggressive than its predecessor, but it did show a marked increase in Benson’s already impressive songwriting prowess and emotive capacity while preserving his seemingly lackadaisical persona.  Life in the D was one of the more reflective songs from this album.

My Old, Familiar FriendIn 2005, he largely shed his carefree demeanor in favor of a more polished musical approach on The Alternative to Love.  I have plans for a more focused blog post on this one in the future, so I’ll save it, but its 2007 successor, My Old, Familiar Friend, continued in this somewhat more mature vein.  In either case, the progression in his sound suited him incredibly well, and both of these albums are, again, personal favorites.  Is it very, very difficult to pick a standout track from My Old, Familiar Friend, but this crunchy little tidbit always seems to hit me where I live.   

Aside from his obviously freewheeling approach to songcraft, Benson has an astonishing consistency to his work that he continues to innovate and improve upon.  Although he can place a beautifully introspective folk ballad right alongside a ripping self-conscious punk-pop anthem that would force Green Day out of their front seat on the bus (even on their best day), Benson’s albums always have a particular character and they clearly progress from one to the next.  If you are interested in Benson’s oeuvre, I think that the best experience might come by starting at the beginning and traveling through his catalog chronologically, but you can get any one of them with very little fear of a dud. 

Despite having such a long and, I think, artistically successful career at this point, Benson remains frustratingly relegated to the fringes.  So, being such a longtime fan of Benson, I get a little defensive when he now is referred to as “the other guy from the Raconteurs.”  Everything Benson does now seems to revolve around his participation in that band.  It’s not like he came out of nowhere.  While I accept that Jack White is more visible, and I think that he is genuinely talented, I’m not quite ready to call him a genius.  I think that Benson’s track record, on the other hand, ranks him amongst my favorite artists, which exceeds a mere respect for his talent.

Friday, July 29, 2011

July Round-Up: There Might Be Some Changes Around Here....

Heads up: August’s round-up may take on a little different form, although I’m not sure what exactly that might be.  You see, if all goes according to plan, at this time next month, I will be the father of a newborn.  I would love to be able to say that I will have time to write vivid blog posts recounting every musical detail of the experience, but realistically I will probably be sleeping in two-hour shifts and up to my elbows in diapers, at least for a little while.  So I apologize in advance if I don’t hit the end of the month as diligently as usual.

Relatedly, a lot of people have asked me “What kind of music are you going to listen to with your kid?”  My easy, and honest, answer is “Whatever I’m listening to.”  A kid could do a lot worse than get brought into a world where Yes and James Blake are on the daily regimen.  What is more interesting, however, is how my listening may be affected by the presence of a musically impressionable newborn.  I think Indian music is the solution, just to get those microtonal ragas and solkattu in there before the media gets a grip on her.  We'll see....

Here’s what went through the player this month.  As usual, if there is an available example, I tried to include it in the playlist.  This is the new 21st century mostly family-friendly mixtape, delivered right to your inbox, so set it up and check it out in the background some afternoon. 
Battles - Gloss Drop:  The first half to three quarters of Gloss Drop are really, really strong, but the focus seems to drop off at a certain point.  I’m still a Battles fan, but they just aren’t the same without Tyondai.

Mouse on the Keys - An Anxious Object:  This album has a lot more depth than the Sezzions EP, so I think it may come in and out of the player a lot in the coming months.  It also has great packaging, by the way –  totally worth getting hardcopy.

Other Lives - Tamer Animals:  A sublimely lush and well-crafted piece of contemporary symphonic psychedelia.  It’s early in Other Lives’ career, and I am wondering how they plan to proceed after such an impressive work.

Hooray for Earth - True Loves: This album has ended up sticking to my ribs in the most peculiar way.  A must for fans of New Order-esque synth-pop.

Field Music – Measure:  I really can’t say anything more about this album than check it out.  It’s quite possibly a masterpiece that, in its own way, rivals Jellyfish in their heyday (that’s right, I said it).

Yes - Fly from Here: Yes fans are fighting like rabid dogs over this one - they can be worse than superhero fanboys in their own way.  I prefer just to enjoy the movie, y'know?

James Blake – This self-titled debut is so compelling that it made the other things I was listening to sound dumb.  It’s both expressive and alienating, and certainly worth wider attention. 

Ebu Gogo – Worlds: Sort of a prog tribute to the Super Mario Brothers soundtrack.  Worlds has a lot of technique and detail, but never strays too far from its playful essence.

Fictionist - Lasting Echo:  Fictionist is a jammy pop band that came through the feed a little while back.  They are not too bad, but also have not stood out too much as of yet.

Christian Scott – AnthemI don’t think that this particular album is the 21st century’s Kind of BlueI do think, however, that Scott may have that in him at some point in the future.

Deadmau5 – 4 X 4 = 12:  It was not my intention to give 4 X 4 = 12 a bad rap in my previous post, because there are several tracks I genuinely like.  I will say the “fast forward” sometimes looks inviting, though.

Isis - Wavering RadiantThis one may have to simmer for awhile.  Although it currently has my attention, I often wonder why – still, it has its moments.

The Sword - Warp Riders:  I don’t know why I didn’t think about getting this back into play earlier this summer.  For those who like to rock, it’s a no-brainer.

Brahmah – Brahmah is a cross-cultural music ensemble comprised of UNT faculty.  I was fortunate enough to study under all of these musicians in back in the day, and this album beautifully showcases their individual mastery and collective flexibility.

Serj Tankian - Elect the Dead:  A killer hard-rock protest album from a few years ago by the lead singer of System of a Down.  This one probably needs its own retrospective-style posting someday.

Faces of Metal: Isis and The Sword

Warp Riders
Before I go on about Austin-based band The Sword, take a look at that cover art.  I began to notice Warp Riders about a year ago on prominent display at Waterloo, and there is no way that a self-confessed prog-rock and sci-fi geekboy like me could resist at least giving it a second look.  Usually, a superficial encounter with a CD like this begins and ends quickly: a quick scan, a smirk, and a cynical dismissal.  About a month later, though, I overheard some discussion from the music-savvy contingent in my Zen study group endorsing the album All signs, as the Magic 8-Ball used to say, seemed to point to “yes.”

I wouldn’t call The Sword prog, by any means, but I still can't say I was disappointed.  Although they obviously don't take themselves too seriously, for those of us that remember metal before blast beats and grunted vocals (which have their place, mind you) they are a breath of fresh “retro-metal." 

Now, I do not claim to be an expert in the complex history of metal and the nuances of its subgenres.  There are lots of very dedicated fans with way more knowledge than me, and I certainly know better than to cross that insane bunch.  In my superficial experience, though, it seems that the face of metal has changed a lot in the past thirty years.

For example, in 7th grade I took a music appreciation class from the choir teacher at Bedichek.  During one of our “show and tell” sessions, one student brought a Metallica album - Ride the Lightning, if memory serves.  When the song was over, he was grinning like a crazed Cheshire cat while the majority of the class sat in mortified silence and I, probably wearing a Hall and Oates concert T-shirt, felt totally assaulted in the soft, squishy core of my middle school being.

These days, Metallica is virtually easy listening, even before their 90s sell-out phase.  People sing along with Battery like the way we used to sing along with RoxanneWay before Metallica, however, really, really loud blues bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath laid the foundation of early metal, and this is where The Sword is coming from.  For those in the know, it is nearly impossible to listen to the riff-driven, bluesy, and melodic approach of Warp Riders without thinking of these classic pioneers.  Although it has moments of post-thrash flavor and post-glam accessibility, more myopic fans of current metal may not admit The Sword's wider relationship to the genre.

Wavering RadiantBy going back to its roots, Warp Riders has also helped me to remember what it is I like about metal.  Just in time - there is an impressive spate of releases by some of my favorite metal artists this fall, and my attempts to get my ears tuned back in to the expressive qualities of heaviness has been met with cynical apathy.  Almost like magic, though, and much to the chagrin of my wife, getting The Sword in play has opened up Isis’s Wavering Radiant, an album I have been trying to crack for the past few weeks.

Part of my initial issue with Isis was their obvious penchant for Tool’s cavernous atmospheres and their not-quite “cookie monster” death metal vocals.  In my opinion, this style loses its impact when used exclusively.  Isis does employ both clean and dirty vocals, but I am not quite convinced that they struck the proportion between the two on the nose.

While they might not have had Tool’s mega-chops, from an instrumental perspective Isis seemed to have a lot going on.  In interviews, the band admitted that their music was a bit impenetrable, so who am I to question their expertise?  On Wavering Radiant, their integrated keyboards and noticeably melodic bass support unfolding layers of chugging guitar riffs, often to explosively intense effect.  There is, however, a structural trap in this approach, in which the music meanders about from riff to riff with little cohesion within each piece.  Isis seemed to dodge this bullet, though, which allowed the album to hold my interest even before Warp Riders came back into the mix, despite my reservations.

There are clearly stylistic differences between the two, but The Sword and Isis both seem to fit under the broad category of “metal,” a genre which, like “rock” and “pop” and “jazz,” has become incredibly fractured.  I feel, though, that they are different manifestations of the same root ideas planted by Sabbath and Zeppelin - monolithic guitars, machine-gun drums, and often cryptic lyrics - but cultivated through several decades of innovation.  My personal current trendsetters Opeth and Mastodon have upcoming releases in the fall, which will probably further splinter the traditional idea of metal.  In my superficial opinion, however, that is why they are so enticing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wilco and the Magician's Circle: Reminiscing on the 4th

On July 4th I was wearing a shirt that, on any other day, would have been ridiculous.  The left half of my chest was covered with a blue, star-spangled field, while the rest of the shirt had vertical white and red stripes.  Back in the day, when I played live, I used to wear this as a stage shirt.  These days, it only comes out on July 4th, and I can always count on getting salutes from passers-by when I have it on - or at least incredulous glances.  We were coming to join my friend and his wife (aka the Best Man and the Minister) at the pool, and this collared hyperpatriotic nightmare threw them off so much that they did not recognize me at first.  I assured them that I wore the shirt satirically.

I happily shed it in the heat, though, and my wife and I joined them in the water for a relaxing afternoon of catching up.  Our conversations wandered through dubstep, chaos theory, moving, childbirth, the structure of Indian ragas, dojo politics, and gossip both meaningful and meaningless.

There was a jam box tuned in to some satellite radio station providing the ambient accompaniment to the flow of our conversation.  It would occasionally spit out a tune that was familiar to someone, but a particular song pulled me out of the conversation, not just because it’s a good song, but because of the associations it brought back. 

Yankee Hotel FoxtrotIt stopped me in my tracks because I had not heard or even thought of Wilco in many years.  Heavy Metal Drummer is from an album called Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was a critically acclaimed and generally trendy album to be into in 2002.  I was living in Denton at the time and hanging with a very close circle of friends, many of whom are still very dear to me. 

One guy, the Magician, I unfortunately don’t see so much anymore.  He moved on for job opportunities, but when we were close he and his wife used to have the whole crew over for dinner and a movie.  I particularly remember laughing uncontrollably at reruns of Mr. Show when it was released on DVDThe Magician was an avid fan of Wilco, and, despite my uncontrollable slide back into obscure progressive rock, he convinced me to check out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  I borrowed his CD, burned it, AND made a tape copy (yes, tape!).  I promised myself that I would one day purchase a full CD copy. 

Eventually, I got a new car with a CD player and my tapes became obsolete.  I finally threw them out, but I did take the time to put Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on my Amazon list.  It has been sitting there since 2005. 

My 4th of July poolside encounter brought back that time so viscerally that I immediately came home and finally made good on my promise.  Coming back to the whole album after almost a decade, I can say that it has held up exceptionally well, and lives up to its hype.  Ultimately, Wilco’s songs are melodic and tuneful, but also incredibly imaginative and subtly complex.  There is something special and possibly classic about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and it would be a shame if it were sort of lost in the shuffle during the music industry’s struggle to reorganize in the early 00s.

Several of the people that we were sharing our 4th of July with were also in Magician’s circle back in the day.  I mentioned how Heavy Metal Drummer reminded me of that time, and we all, as a group, stared blankly off into the horizon for the briefest of moments.  If anyone was watching us, they probably would have missed it, but it was there.  It was almost as if, for a split second, we were all going back and reliving it.  In actuality, though, I think that we were having a reverent moment of silence for a set of dearly cherished experiences that had long since passed.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Deadmau5, Daft Punk, and Haunted Technology

There was really no reason for me to be standing in the Target checkout with a Deadmau5 CD in my hand, although it was easy to pass it off as “fate.”  My original mission was to get a gift certificate, but, alas, Target is one of the few chains that actually stocks hardcopy.  I was drawn to the back of the store like a dog to a dropped peanut butter sandwich.  Not that I was really looking for anything, mind you.

For several weeks, though, I had been contemplating picking up a Deadmau5 album.   A friend of mine hipped me to Deadmau5 by way of a surprisingly layered piece called Strobe from his fourth full-length release For Lack of a Better Name.  There was still a modicum of resistance, though, because the music of Deadmau5 and other performers like him have a specific purpose: it is dance music.

Now, let’s get one thing clear: I don’t dance.  It’s just not my thing.  Although I definitely feel the relationship between the body’s motion and musical expression, I generally tend to interpret musical sound as the result of an instrumental interaction.  I do, however, think that it has unequivocally been proven that techno can have a musical value beyond whipping a mass of crazed dancers into a frenzy and keeping them there until either they drop or the club closes.  For example, there is always this gem:

When it came out, Digital Love opened my eyes to the musical possibilities of house-style techno.  Aside from having a great anime video, Daft Punk gets a huge amount of musical mileage with just a few ideas, and subtly constructs variants in such a way that even the most stoic head-bobber will be jumping about by the song’s end.  Deadmau5 has been heralded by many as the successor to Daft Punk's tastefully playful style.

4x4=12Which might be the case.  Deadmau5 represents a newer generation of techno and dance musicians that use programs like Ableton Live and other soft sequencers to construct and compose music on-the-fly, with less reliance on samplers and rigid automation.  In effect, he and other musicians that use this type of technology are opening up the computer’s instrumental potential.  So, when 4 x 4 = 12 jumped off of its prominently displayed but terribly misplaced home in Target’s “Soundtrack” section, it smelled like providence: perhaps it was time for me to get inside Deadmau5’s music and look for the ghost in the machine, so to speak.

Musical risk is part of the “human element” in music, and Deadmau5 obviously knows just like everyone else that dance music can be done badly – sometimes painfully so.  Getting up in front of a crowd and simply pushing “play” on your favorite house album is a dangerous roll of the dice.  In its “native environment,” house music matches and maintains the momentum of the crowd, which requires interaction between performer and audience.  This environment does not exist in my car, my house, or even my headphones, so to gauge the value of 4 X 4 = 12 in those situations may be somewhat unreasonable.

The risk in any recording is minimized: it plays the same every time.  A techno album, though, can be structurally appreciated as an idealized digital “sketch” of what the interaction between artist and audience might sound like on any given night.  Predictably, the tempo hovers around a repetitive 130 bpm for the entire album.  To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with repetition (otherwise Count Basie's riffs were truly the end of all that is morally good) but ultimately 4 X 4 = 12, as a purely auditory experience, begins to hover on the monotonous.  I feel enthusiastic at the beginning, but after a few tracks, I inevitably begin to think I may not be cut out for all of this mechanized hyperactivity.

Then, the seas parted.  While feeling stuck behind one of Austin’s many public buses, I discovered the song Raise Your WeaponIt’s beautiful, moody gem, made more so by its placement within the hammering pulse that necessarily permeates 4 X 4 = 12.  It’s almost as if Deadmau5 structures the entire album as a frame around this defiantly poignant piece.

The video above is a behind-the-scenes live performance of Raise Your Weapon with audio that seems to be coming straight from the board.  If you just want to hear the song, it’s a decent version.  What I particularly like about it, though, is from this angle, we are privy to the kind of interaction that he is engaging in as he performs.  There are definitely times when he just sort of lets the machinery run, taking time to grump at the soundman (4:13)  mug for the camera (4:27), or flirt with girls (starting at 2:38, but lasting the whole song).  Despite this, there is an element of flexibility and control in his performance.  You can particularly see his level of engagement with the medium increase when he transitions from one sonic “scene” to another. 

The Target checker that ultimately sold me the disc was enthusiastically surprised about her store having 4 X 4 = 12, even more so when it came up on sale.  More serendipity, I suppose, that, at the time, further justified my curiosity.  I can’t say that I share her unbridled enthusiasm for this particular album in its entirety, but I really like its finer points.  These moments whet my curiosity further about Deamau5’s artistic potential in the long run.