Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Standing in the Gulf with Syd Barrett

For me the most real (but probably not my all-time favorite) version of Pink Floyd was the late 80s post-Waters incarnation, so I was, and still am, a huge fan a David Gilmour. History, however, has repeatedly (and exhaustively) labeled him as the "replacement" for founding member Syd Barrett, an artist whose genius was famously eclipsed by his fragile mental health.

Once I caught wind of Barrett, I became insanely curious about his musical prowess, but at the time, a lot of mainstream stores did not carry his solo stuff. In cases like this, I could always count on my favorite record hangout at the time, a long-defunct store called Compact Discs of Austin. CDs of Austin stocked a cornucopia of imported and rare albums and, most importantly, if I ate in my car, it was within driving distance of my high school during the glory days of open lunch.

So I picked up Barrett, but when I got it home, I genuinely did not see what all the fuss was about.  The album's almost quaint and sometimes meandering style bore little resemblance to the grandiose Pink Floyd that I knew. Superficially, Gilmour certainly seemed to be a much superior guitarist and vocalist  At the time, I concluded that Barrett’s biggest contribution to the band, aside from being an admittedly important character in its foundation, was to provide inspiration for Roger Waters' dark and perhaps exploitative lyrics for the next twenty years.

Admittedly, I was not swept up into Barrett's rise to fame when it crested, so I’m not sure I will ever really understand the hoopla around him.  With Pink Floyd flashing back into recent public consciousness, however, the story of the band is being recounted with increasing regularity.  It’s impossible to ignore his looming spectre. To stave off my compulsive desire to add more missing pieces of Pink Floyd's early catalog to my collection, I decided to revisit Barrett during Thanksgiving vacation.

One of many sights on our beachcombing safari.
In recent years, Thanksgiving vacation has evolved into much more than just a few days off and a turkey meal. Our extended family takes an annual trip to South Padre for Thanksgiving and this year was the Little One's first.  When she and I had some time to ourselves, I strapped her to my chest and went out for a barefoot walk on the beach. With Barrett on my headphones, I took time to appreciate the primal chill of ocean water rolling across my feet, while she watched them inexplicably disappear and reappear under the waves.

Barrett sounds much different to me as a new parent taking an introspective walk on a beach in November than it did to a me as delusional and naïve high school student. It was much more intimate than I remembered, and Barrett does show glimmers of fancifully obtuse genius. Check out the impish guitar intro to Baby Lemonade.

I also noticed that there are some tracks from Barrett that share a distinct vibe with earlier Pink Floyd, particularly Dominoes.  

But according to the accounts of its recording, it’s no wonder. Recorded in 1970, its sessions run concurrently with Atom Heart Mother, and for all intents and purposes, Gilmour and Wright should probably share some writing credits. They “helped” Barrett get his album done, and perhaps many of the uncanny twists and turns that the songs often take are an effort to reign in and capture Barrett’s stream of consciousness.

That was, however, a different time, when the legal implications of songwriting and collaboration were a bit more naïve.  Regardless of the process that created them, Barrett features some truly unique and affecting songs.

Ultimately, Barrett’s Floyd was not really the one that I know and love, although now, in reflection, I shouldn't underestimate his influence on the group  Barrett's most important contributions to Pink Floyd mostly occurred before the band's debut, and  lay at their very foundation.  They are also, unfortunately, lost to history.  Doubtlessly Pink Floyd would have been a profoundly different band had he kept it together, and his solo work provides a hint at what it might have sounded like.  On the other hand, Barrett also has its own merits if it is accepted on its own terms.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Dr. Spin's Best Albums of 2011, Part 1: #'s 11-20

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
Last month, I promised that I would publish the "lower" half of my "Best of 2011" results in lieu of my usual month in review post, mainly so that I can stop thinking about it.  You will find it below.  First, though, you should familiarize yourself with a few of the loose criteria that I have used to choose and judge these entries.  
  • An entry must have an association with the events, experiences, and memories of 2011.
  • An entry must be of a justifiable musical quality.
  • Entries are not limited to albums with a 2011 release date, or albums acquired during 2011.
  • Only one entry per band/artist can make the final list.
  • Albums from previous "Best of" lists are not eligible.
  • Seeking variety plays a vague role in the process.  
There is, of course, no award for winning, unless you count coming up on a  "Best of 2011" Google search to be a desirable goal.  In classic style, of course, I'll start with number 20 and work my way backward.  Imagine a drum roll, please...

Fly From Here (single) by Yes on Grooveshark
  20.  Yes Fly From HereWhile half of the Yes fanbase insists that the band has become its own tribute group, the other welcomes anything better than the incestuous rambling that the band has engaged in since the mid-90s.  I fall in the latter category – with a couple of minor exceptions, Fly from Here is an excellent album deserving of the Yes name.
Rope by Foo Fighters on Grooveshark
19. The Foo FightersWasting LightThe Foo Fighters are hardly in need of my support, so at the beginning of summer, I was quite ready to drop this one from the list.  At year's end, though, I can’t deny that Wasting Light is chocked full of infectious tunes that are delivered with energetic glee. 
True Loves by Hooray For Earth on Grooveshark
18. Hooray for EarthTrue Loves:   Hooray for Earth's shoegazey synth-pop sensibilities made True Loves a real grower.   It kept finding its way back into rotation over and over until, finally, I had to concede that it is quite brilliant.
Machine Makes Fresh Ground by Ben Butler & Mousepad on Grooveshark
17. Ben Butler & Mousepad Formed for Fantasy: Ben Butler & Mousepad won me over the old-fashioned way - by playing an incredible live set opening for Deerhoof.  Their album is quite incredible in its own right, but its a pale reflection of their full performing capacity.
I Feel the Dark by Opeth on Grooveshark
16. OpethHeritageIt remains to be seen whether Opeth's tribute to their progressive roots is an entirely new direction for the band or merely an excursion.  Taken on its own, however, Heritage is very good and quite memorable.
Super Duper Rescue Heads! by Deerhoof vs. evil on Grooveshark
15. DeerhoofDeerhoof vs.EvilThis album's jagged, multilingual, stream-of-consciousness construction has given me the runaround all year.  Ultimately, though, every single time I put it in rotation, it stays in for weeks, which says a lot.
Parachute by Sean Lennon on Grooveshark
14. Sean LennonFriendly FireLennon shows an unbelievable leap of maturity in comparison to his earlier release Into the SunFriendly Fire is a welcome dose of melancholic craftmanship that continues to ripen with familiarity.
むこう岸が視る夢 by toe on Grooveshark
13. ToeThe Book About My Idle Plot on a Vague AnxietyToe's approach on this album is far more impassioned, dynamic, and emotive than the usual math rock stereotype.  The band's virtuosity drives their collective concept in a way that would appeal to fans of tastefully complex music (like me).
Effortlessly by Field Music on Grooveshark
12. Field MusicMeasureAlthough Field Music is, ostensibly, a power pop group, they have an experimental aspect that ripples just below the surface, but can be heard in the form of odd-metered bridges and orchestral texture.  Measure plays out more like a song cycle than a pop album - it flows inexplicably from one track to the next without disrupting each song's discrete identity.
Steve McQueen by M83 on Grooveshark

11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re DreamingM83's stunning double album is a late entry.  The most important conclusion that I have come to in the short time since its release is that I need to keep listening to it, but it has certainly earned a place in the year-end favorites.
Mind you. all of these albums are excellent, and I had to pass on a lot of others that I liked to even get here.  I feel pretty satisfied with this part of the list as well as my first drafts of the top ten.  Stay tuned at the end of next month for the conclusion!

For my regular readers, don't worry - despite the advent of Christmas band programs, I'll be eeking out the usual posts about whatever I'm doing and listening to in December.  Keep your ears open and please, if you have music that you want to share, don't hesitate to sound off.  All of the best music I came across this year has been through personal suggestions, and I'm starting to build my wish list for next year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ratatat's "Classics" Set the Stage

One of the best finds of 2010 was the band Ratatat. LP4 ended up being a top ten album, and the only reason that its 2008 predecessor LP3 did not push out MUTEMATH’s debut was because of the “one band/one album” rule (I really have to get all these rules written out - they're more complicated than they seem!). In retrospect, I have several albums from that list that are still sort of “stuck in 2010,” but I still regularly get the craving to get my Ratatat on. Even today, the Little One often has obligatory dance contests to Neckbrace.

By February, I was convinced that Ratatat could do no wrong and I was ready to dip further into their back catalog, so I picked up their 2006 album Classics.  As I stated in my roundups, however, Classics put an odd damper on my fascination with the band. If you are familiar with Ratatat’s distinctive sound, the album clearly exhibits the same kalideoscopic, sliding grooves of its successors. On the surface It seemed that all of the pieces were in place for another Ratatat masterpiece, but no matter how much I listened to Classics, I couldn’t get it to click.

During my year-end review period, I have returned to Classics to see if I could figure out if I was missing out on something.  Going back to it now, it seems to me that an average track on Classics would serve as mere accompaniment on their later work. It’s like a play that has really amazing and elaborate sets, but has actors that stand awkwardly on the stage, smiling and waving ambiguously. There might be value in just admiring the sets, but ultimately, it’s the narrative as presented by the actors that provide the interest for the audience. In comparison, the slick melodic focus on LP4 and LP3 might best be compared to a Cirque del Soleil extravaganza.

In reviewing previous posts, I noticed that I mentioned the “narrative capacities” of music, which is the sort of academic claptrap I initially tried to avoid in this blog. Early on, I promised myself that if I were going to stoop to such lingo, I probably should take the time to clearly define what I mean. I’ve pretty much failed to do this since, oh, March or so. Sorry about that.

A superficial conception of narrative capacity might rest entirely on the story that a song’s lyrics tell. For example, do the lyrics mean only what they say, or do they point out to a broader context? From a perhaps more holistic point of view, narrative capacity can also refer to what the music is trying to say, either directly or by implication, as an entire experience. From this perspective, instrumental music can say something as clearly as music with lyrics, so much so that even the most vague imagery will seem to imply some kind of story or subtext.

Yes, that's the official video.  Say what you will, but don't pretend that, for the briefest of seconds, you didn't wonder what the bird was thinking.

Classics certainly sounds like it says something, but its statement is not nearly as clear as those found on LP3 and LP4. It’s mostly made up of grooves, which speak most clearly when they serve as a framework for melodic expression. Without listening to their first album for perspective, I will venture to guess that that Classics was a necessary step in Ratatat’s development. It’s pretty good, but it doesn’t represent what they would go on to do.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gentle Giant's "Octopus:" Lonely Listening

It’s not rocket science to see that I am an advocate of progressive rock. Caught up in the mediated narrative of MTV during my formative teenage years, though, caused my exposure to progressive rock to be relatively limited. I was only aware of the most visible artists. In the late 90s, however, the internet’s increasing resources opened up a whole new prog world, with an endless supply of obscure bands that I had never heard, both old and new. One such band was Gentle Giant, a 70s group that never reached the level of visibility and influence of Yes and Genesis, but were unequalled in terms of overall virtuosity and musicianship.

I recently noticed that my Gentle Giant collection was unjustly dusty, so I put their 1972 release Octopus in rotation. Listening to it now, I find that I remembered (and liked) it better than I thought.

Most fans cite Octopus as the beginning of Gentle Giant’s “classic” period. The album doesn’t mark a major shift in the band’s sound from their previous work, but in comparison Octopus has a noticeable focus. Some distinctive stylistic features emerged on the album that would come to characterize the band for the next few years. Most impressive of these emergent characteristics was their impressive use of vocal polyphony.

Yes always considered themselves to be a vocal group, but they never did anything that could touch Knots - at least not live.  Gentle Giant continued to refine the technique, however, and, along with being multi-instrumental, it became one of their things.

When I first got into Gentle Giant, their music seemed like gibberish.  It took quite a bit of focused listening to disentangle all of their ideas into an intelligible structure. There is, however, a passion and beauty to their work that is borne of a devoted conviction to musical experimentation. I think if I ever had to write a school song, I would steal some of the melodic material from the beautiful Think of Me With Kindness.

Think Of Me With Kindness by Gentle Giant on Grooveshark

Up until this point, I operated under the assumption that good music should be shared, but Gentle Giant presented the the possibility that some music, no matter how good, might be best held close to the chest. When I was listening to them I was not surrounded by musicians as I had been during my college years.  I was ridiculed a bit by the people around me who didn’t get what I saw in the band. I admit that from a certain perspective Gentle Giant represents a kind of indulgent inaccessibility that Spinal Tap was poking fun at.  I strongly felt, however, that their musicianship warranted respect at the very least.  They certainly deserved better than to carry the label "that crap you listen to."  As a result, my memories of the band are cloistered – huddled up in private listenings in a short-ceilinged upstairs loft where I lived in Krum.

But, times have changed.  I am in a better place overall these days, and I intentionally expend less energy trying to win the approval of others.  Additionally, the anonymity granted by the internet allows me to shamelessly plug  this obscure and inspiring band without too much fear of peer ridicule.  The people who like them will, and the people that don't won't.  Regardless, I feel like I am getting even more out of Octopus now than I did then, so if you are curious about Gentle Giant I think it would be an excellent starting point.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mastodon's "The Hunter" and Dealing with Preferences

Maybe I was playing the “cool teacher” card when I mentioned Mastodon to my students early in 2009. They were the young, up and coming rhythm section in my improv group, and, judging from the sludgy drop-tuned shredding they indulged in when I wasn't shoving the blues down their throat, I suspected that name-dropping the band might be a “way in." They were surprised when I said I was into Mastodon, but were less impressed when I mentioned I was listening to Crack the Skye. For them, Mastodon's earlier work was identifiably metal, and Crack the Skye, a proggish concept album about spirits moving through the ether and such, threw them off with all its melodic singing and harmony.

Oblivion (Score) by Mastodon on Grooveshark

Recently, as rumors about their new release The Hunter began to ooze out, I found myself developing my own apprehensions. Reviews indicated that Mastodon’s long form songs and rock opera concepts had been abandoned in lieu of a more compact, singles-ready format. Suddenly, I felt like I was the one being sold out on.

On a recent visit to Houston, though, I became aware of my own current synth-based music preferences. Not that there is anything wrong with exploring these styles, but it did raise the concern that hard rock music has already said all that it’s going to say. The Rush fan in me found that idea a bit troubling. 

After reacquainting myself with some now-classic tracks from Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots at our host's house, though, I realized that a stripped-down, streamlined version of Crack the Skye would actually compare pretty favorably to my favorite 90s grunge.

Sex Type Thing by Stone Temple Pilots on Grooveshark

I decided that The Hunter might fill this void in my listening, so I took the plunge.

The Hunter is quite a bit more straightforward and digestible than Crack the Skye, and its structural differences present the increased pressure of convincing songwriting.  For Mastodon's epic sound, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But let’s face it, if you “dropped the needle” on a random point on either album, the similarities between the The Hunter and its predecessor would be more obvious then the differences.

Mastodon’s massive sound springs from an amazing group dynamic that requires incredible cooperation and investment from all its members. The instinctive, spontaneous, “Lifeson-esque” approach of guitarist Brent Hinds, however, may make him one of the last entries on the list of great guitar heroes. Additionally, although members of the band share vocal duties, often drummer Brann Dailor sings lead from his kit, which automatically wins them plus ten awesome points.

Mastodon’s members are all excellent musicians in their style, and they ambitiously push their performance skills in the studio.  In a live setting, they also take care to render their music “as-is,” with a minimum of sequencers and back-up singers to patch things up. As a result, sometimes their live performances are a little sketchy in comparison to their recordings (especially in the vocal department). Regardless, I have a huge amount of respect for the way that they just go for it despite the potential glitches.

I can't help but admire Mastodon's intention to innovate, refine, and improve.  When you push a boundary, however, sometimes you cross it.  The Hunter actually is quite good and has quite a bit of depth of its own, but for the old-school fan of their earlier work, it may not sit well.  As a later fan of their more recent and expansive explorations, I admit to a preference for Crack the Skye, but The Hunter has still captured my attention.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Opeth's Aberrations: "Heritage" and "Damnation"

Opeth was, at their inception in the mid-90s, an extreme metal band, complete with intense drumming, terrifying "cookie monster" vocals, and a tounge-in-cheek undertone of evil. When I found out about them in 2003 at the suggestion of a student, however, they had just released Damnation, an album that was a conscious effort to extract, examine, and refine the emerging atmospheric and melodic aspects of their work. Damnation is a bit of an aberration in their catalog, but Skipper (the aforementioned student) suggested that I check it out, perhaps to avoid scaring me off with the growls, or maybe to prove a point about Opeth's musicality. Either way, the suggestion was solid. I would say without hesitation that the moody, ethereal Damnation is now counted among my personal classics. Even if you don't do metal, there's a strong possibility that you'll be down with it.

On their following two albums the band folded their increasing mastery of the atmospheric into more identifiable metal forms. I’ll save talking about these in depth for another day, but for now let’s just say that partially due to lead singer Mikael Ackerfeldt’s obvious affinity for progressive rock, the diversity and impact of these magnificent albums is nothing short of unbelievable.

Heritage, Opeth’s most recent release, extracts and examines the band’s roots in progressive rock, particularly focusing on classic 70s styles. The album opens with an instrumental that is not only unsettling in its beauty, but also in the anticipation it builds.

Usually, moments like this in Opeth's recent work predict an oncoming explosion of roaring vocals and towering walls of guitar, but on Heritage, this inevitable punch in the gut never comes. Instead, its arresting lyricism announces that Hertiage is a different kind of Opeth album, indeed.

More so than on their other albums, Heritage shows Opeth wearing their influences on their sleeves a little more overtly. It’s a pastiched combination of Camel, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull (complete with hyperactive flute solo) and a number of other 70s progressive icons from the dark side, stitched together by chugging acoustic guitar riffs. I am no stranger to the surprising ways in which Opeth examines and reinvents themselves, but I wonder how innovative it is to do something that has already been done – just not by you.

The more conservative naysayers in the prog community often refuse to accept any music as progressive without a certain amount to mellotron and odd time signatures, implying that a band really isn’t progressive unless it sounds like the music of the 70s. I find this stance to be problematic and paradoxical. I think that the more that prog quotes the past, the more it defeats the countercultural adventurousness that was the original intention of the style. In my conception, Opeth is at their most progressive when they directly challenge the expectations of the death metal genre. On Heritage, this challenge is more to the band’s identity than to death metal at large. Still, its a very good and deep listen, even though it largely sheds the superficial characteristics that once defined them..

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

October Roundup and the Home Stretch

I admit, I've probably spent an embarrassing amount of time contemplating my "Album of the Year" list.  Its proving to be more difficult than I anticipated. For one thing, I think that later entries don't get a fair shake. Its hard to compare an album that has stood the test of time since February with a late November entry. Also, when you've taken careful notes all year long (which, if you have been paying attention, make up the content of this blog), boiling it down to a "Top Ten" seems impossible.  I'm inevitably going to have to ignore some great work.

To get at the first issue, I am cutting off my "Album of the Year" entries after Thanksgiving. Unless there's a really mindblowing exception, I plan on focusing my listening time on "the year in review," so to speak.  You will probably see me indulge in more entries that reminisce on past greats during this time than usual, or maybe playing catchup on other recent releases. Also, my end-of-year list will have 20 entries rather than last years ten.  By the end of this month, I think I'll have a good idea of who will be left standing, so in place of the November roundup, I'll post the results for 11-20.

For now, though, October sounded like this:

The tUnEyArDs - W H O K I L L: This album has grown on me in a big way. It may seem a bit cacophonous at first listen, but only because it's a pretty unique beast.

Gamelan of Central Java vol. XII: Pangkur One: Javanese Gamelan makes for a soothing and intellectually rewarding listen. Plus, the baby just loves it.

Thundercat - The Golden Age of Apocalypse: This album is much more complex than it seems, and warrants continued listening to find its finer points. There is a sense, however, that Thundercat is searching for something unique that doesn't quite pop into clear focus on The Golden Age of Apocalypse.

Opeth - Heritage: For many years, part of Opeth's fan base has secretly hoped that they would just make a prog album. Heritage is their answer, and their haunting, spooky approach to the genre refreshingly avoids branching off from the Yes family tree.

Pink Floyd - Obscured by Clouds: Although Obscured by Clouds is a bit unfocused in comparison to their later work, it shows interesting snapshots of the Floyd to come. It seems that even when Pink Floyd clears their throat in preparation to make their next statement, it’s worth taking notice.

Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street: If, as I suggested in my review of Goat's Head Soup, the Stones' attitude is thier biggest innovation, then Exile on Main Street indeed deserves its classic status. It’s unflinching and unapologetically brash, and generally lacking in "hits," but still seems to convey an undercurrent of respect for the blues that is its source material.

Grizzly Bear - Vekatimest: This band sits at the crossroads of the Flaming Lips and Jellyfish, and every time I listen to their album, I feel like there is more to it that I am missing. There is quite a bit of depth that I am just now beginning to get into.

The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?: If accessible low-brow power pop is your thing, The Vaccines do it really well. Seriously, I was singing along with this album on the first listen.

M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming: Yet again, M83 carries the torch for the music of the 80s, reinventing its pop conventions into a distinctive psychedelia that is somehow relevant in 2011. The production on the album is truly unbelievable - as in, it is past belief.

Genesis - Nursery Cryme: For some reason, when artists try to wear outlandish get-ups and sing about enchanted fountains, it usually seems goofy and lame. In the early 70s, however, Gabriel's Genesis was so defiantly surreal and countercultural that they ended up being just plain awesome.

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues: There is a hot debate concerning the playback speed of Johnson's small but profoundly influential catalog. Listening to them with this in mind, I think its pretty apparent that they are a bit too fast, which causes one to wonder how Cream, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin would have reinterpreted them if they were pressed at their actual performance speed.

Oingo Boingo - Dead Man's Party: Danny Elfman's penchant for the thematic, which would later be refined in his film scores, peeks through on this album. Many of the songs on Dead Man's Party break the five minute mark, but construction is such that the listener barely notices.

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless: Some of my favorite bands, like Mew and M83, cite to this band as an influence. I do find its swirling guitars and whispered vocals to be an enjoyable listen, but I think that I like where shoegaze ended up going more than its prototypical form.

I Monster - NeveroddoreveN: Although it probably won't steer the future of my musical concept, I really do like NeveroddoreveN. It’s an eclectic mix that hangs together by the barest vaudevillian thread.

MuteMath - Odd Soul :  I should accept each album on its own merit, but for some reason later entries in MuteMath's catalog just don't click for me.  Like their sophomore release Armistice, this album is very, very good, but is missing the transcendent quality of their debut.