Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Roots' "Undun" and Growing Up

As a music-fanatic dad, it is my intention to indoctrinate the Little One into a wide variety of music, but the lack of rap and hip hop is a glaring hole in my current listening habits. I admit that I am a very picky rap listener, mainly because I’m not always sure what will stick with me. My favorites have a mysterious combination of musicality, intellect, and authenticity that I can’t quite explain. Regardless, every so often I stumble across something that mixes these ingredients in just the right way, and a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that the recipe cooked up by The Roots seems to hit the spot.

Their recent release Undun is a concept album that outlines the story of a quasi-fictional character named Redford Stevens, a black youth whose time was cut short in a flurry of missed opportunities and frustrating circumstances. To me, it seems like a rap concept album is a no-brainer: rap depends heavily on the delivery of verbiage and storytelling, so it is a logical step to extend a narrative arc outside of the limits of a two to four minute song. There is a risk that inconsistency could derail such an ambitious project, but The Roots’ experience, intellect, and passion deftly handles the challenge. Sit back and check out the short film attached to Undun.  It features snippits of several tracks from the album.

Undun is a pristine example of mature, artistically ambitious rap. It’s an engaging commentary on the conditions of black youth, and eschews the sensationalistic narcissism that threatens to dilute rap as an art form. What brings the entire album into sharp focus, however, is its infectiously singable choruses. Each track on Undun has a hook that not only drew me into the song, but into the storyline of the album. In just a couple of passes, I found myself carefully studying them, which enriched my appreciation of the lyrics and overall concept.

The Roots have an added advantage with me because, counter to rap tradition, they identify themselves as a band. Rap and hip hop originated in the first-hand treatment of funk, soul, and R & B records. In its early days, a live performing group was unheard of. The Roots began bridging that gap over a decade ago, and now they effortlessly epitomize the musical connection between the great Motown studio bands of yesteryear and the work of today’s best turntablists. Their melodic and harmonic expertise provides access to a wide array of moods.  This is a somewhat low-quality video of my favorite track on the album, but it adequately shows The Roots in action.  Check 'em out on Jimmy Fallon any night of the week if you doubt their skills.

As engaging as Undun is, there are still conventions of rap makes it difficult to justify as an introduction for the Little One.  My sensitivity to these conventions indicates a change in my outlook as the mantle of “dad” starts to crease my brow. The Roots, while hardly foul, are not afraid to drop the occasional f-bomb or employ the socially complex n-word in the telling of Redford Steven’s story. In the past, I wouldn’t have given this relatively gentle rap language a second thought, but now it seems to stick out when the Little One is in tow. Go figure.

Friday, February 24, 2012

February Roundup: Its Clobberin' Time!

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
Sorry if the playlist seems a little short this time around, but its not without good reason.  For one, I've been "stuck" on several of these albums, and in a good way.  I have not been very eager to take them out of the player, which has cut down on my variety.  February is usually a busy and stressful month for the band director, though, and with professional conferences and UIL contest preparation, this kind of deep listening in the car has been cathartic, to say the least.  

Also, because of the Year in Rush project ( for which I have gotten very positive feedback - thanks!), the single song In the End from Fly by Night actually represents three albums.  These are listed at the end of the roundup.

Finally, a few of the albums I have been spinning this month are not available for streaming through Grooveshark, so they can't be represented on the widget.  The first couple of these are independent releases that could benefit from some extra exposure, so I urge you to check them out further.  I'll list them up front.

Tito Carrillo - Opening Statement: Tito was a friend of mine in high school that has made a good name for himself as a session trumpet player. This solo jazz debut from him is quite impressive.

Pop Campaign - Kraut Popping: This is a slick and well-crafted collection of complex, beat-driven electronica that straddles the past and the present. It would be great to see them break into the club scene with Kraut Popping.

Wilco - The Whole Love: After rediscovering Yankee Hotel Foxtrot last year, and seeing generally positive reviews of The Whole Love, it seemed worth a spin. To be honest, I'm still not quite sure what to think - it may take some simmering.

Now, moving on...

Field Music - Plumb: Relatively few bands have expanded on the Beatles' nonstandard excursions. On Plumb, Field Music takes the second side of Abbey Road as a starting point for a fascinating stream-of-consiousness pop exploration, heavy on the musicality.

Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact: The swirling, electronic psychedelia of Eye Contact still holds me in its thrall. There is a surprising amount of depth and thought put into this album.

The Roots - Undun: For almost two years now, I have been on the lookout for a new hip hop album to blow me out of the water. With its irresistible hooks and heady concepts, I think that Undun is the one to do it.

Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning: Wilson continually confounds my expectations with his top-notch songwriting, production, and arranging skills. Not many people should maintain a solo career, but Wilson has my vote.

 Kraftwerk - Autobahn: This album predates Rush's debut by a year, but maintains a relatively contemporary sound throughout. Kraftwerk was later repurposed in hip-hop samples, which provided them with a name in dance music, but here their explorations are more ethereal and contemplative.

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic: Probably one of the few albums that holds my attention for an entire CD length. With 18 tracks, the Lips somehow avoid filler while simultaneously throwing in more noise and exploration than ever before.

And the Rush sub-Roundup:

Rush: If, after reading the post on this album, you are a bit confounded by the Who comparison, check out the Live at Leeds album. Then thank me.

Fly By Night: I think that a case can be made for considering Fly by Night as Rush's true debut album. It's relationship to the rest of their catalog is much clearer.

Caress of Steel: If you consider Fly by Night as Rush's debut, then Caress of Steel is their sophomore slump. This album is infamous for nearly ending Rush's career, and although it is not the worst entry in their catalog, it is probably their least cohesive.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bon Iver's Soft Resistance

In certain circles, Bon Iver’s self titled release was getting some attention last year, but I was cautious.  Hype is often controlled by gatekeepers with unknowable motivations, so it makes me apprehensive.  I certainly didn’t want to force-feed myself an album’s worth of warbling coffee shop folk if I did not have to. Still, Bon Iver came up with high recommendations on many year-end lists, so eventually I caved in and gave it a listen on Spotify.  My preconceptions were immediately shattered. Impressed, I saw a live video for the song Perth, and realized I had been missing out on something quite special.

Judging by the bass sax alone, it's pretty clear that Bon Iver is intended as a departure. The band's nearly orchestral scope stands in direct contrast with the majority of current music, harkening back to the stadium acts of the late 80s. Dire Straits, the Who, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and even the Police toured with multiple guitarists, drummers and horn sections in an attempt to fill arenas with pristine recreations of their albums. Of course, this format fell out of favor in the 90s when the alternative became the mainstream. Now “indie” is the new alternative, and Bon Iver’s innovates by embracing the large rock ensemble as an independent collaborative environment.

This collaborative approach is the key to the artistic success of Bon Iver. Lead singer, songwriter, and conceptualist Justin Vernon keeps Bon Iver from falling into Coldplay’s “New Adult Contemporary” trap with a complex yet fluid intermingling of lyrics, timbres, harmonies, and atmospheres that inextricably binds each song to its ambience and instrumentation.  This environment was the result of the musicians to sharing in the development of Vernon's ideas.  In the end, covering the songs in a stripped-down format, although possible, would do them an injustice, and to extricate any given song from its place in the arc of the overall listening experience would do it a disservice. Bon Iver is an album in the truest sense, and if you don’t listen to it as a whole work, you are missing out on something, too.

Oddly, finding a CD copy of Bon Iver was far more troublesome than it would seem, and was the inspiration for my previous post concerning the fate of the album as a format.  Despite garnering so much critical attention in 2011, I stopped at no less than five stores, one of them an actual record store, before finding a copy of Bon Iver at Target on a baby supply run. One Best Buy had a card for Bon Iver, and a copy of their first album, but no copies of the current release. Judging from the dwindling size of the music section at Best Buy, I assume that they simply will not restock it.

Despite my first, ill-informed impression, Bon Iver is an incredible work, so it is nice to hear that every now and then, the Grammys get something right.  They certainly deserve their recognition - the album has set the standards incredibly high for 2012.  It is even more gratifying to hear that Bon Iver refused to perform on the ceremony. Judging from the format of current big media performances, I can imagine that Justin Vernon was asked to perform as Bon Iver as a talking head in a medley or in an overglamourized, mismatched duet.  Performing in such a format represented a compromise that he, and the band, was unwilling to make. Good for them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 1: "My" Band Takes a Quantum Leap

Of all of the bands to have adopted as my favorite, I certainly could have done worse than Rush. When I first discovered them, their music opened my ears to a kind of precision, creativity, and energy that, even today, fuels my own creative drives. I have unwaveringly followed them for decades, and their amazing longevity has produced an equally amazing catalog.

As amazing as it might be, however, it is not without its imperfections. Rush is, indeed, “my” band, but I admit that, with the same lineup producing nearly twenty albums worth of material, some albums shine brighter than others. My original idea for this long-term background project was to travel through their catalog chronologically. The downside of this approach is that I have to begin with what is perhaps some of the more infamous entries in their canon.

Their 1974 debut album, simply titled Rush, is bit of a curiosity, but for the completist it is, of course, essential.  Rush has the distinction of being the only album with original drummer John Rutsey. Rutsey, who played in the band from 69-74, was capable enough, and played an essential role in the formation of the band, but certainly did not have the ambitious technique that Rush came to be known for.  Even so, it has its place.  The foundations for every subsequent album can be heard on Rush, and the band still plays selections from this album live.  This video recently surfaced, however, showing a glimpse of what this lineup of the band was like.

I haven’t listened to Rush all the way through in many years. Early on, I saw them as a Led Zeppelin clone on this first album, but now I hear a much wider set of influences. The relationship that they have with The Who on this first album is, I think, glaringly perceptible. Geddy Lee’s admiration for John Entwhistle's aggressive bass approach is quite pronounced at this point. Also, for a band that is known for their precision, they play surprisingly loose. Especially on the psudeo-blues track Here Again, Lee and Rutsey play with a rather stilted shuffle feel while guitarist Alex Lifeson keeps it stubbornly straight.

Here Again by Rush on Grooveshark

Now, I accept that there are people that just can't get behind Rush, and for many of them the primary reason is Geddy Lee's vocal approach. Even later in their career, it can be an acquired taste. If you are one of those people, their sophomore release Fly by Night from 1975 will not win you over. Geddy's voice explodes out of the gate on the lead track Anthem, and it’s quite apparent that he's pushing his voice to, and maybe even past, its limits.  Still, the song, like the whole album, is impressively muscular and covers a respectable dynamic range.  Most noticeable is the invigorating influence of Neil Peart as he hybridizes Buddy Rich's flair, Keith Moon's kinetic energy, and John Bonham's precision into a style that would send an entire generation of drummers to the practice room.

Fly by Night is when the Rush sound that fans know and love really began to emerge. It’s a quantum leap forward from their debut in terms of composition, precision, and sound quality. In addition to pushing the band’s musicianship, Neil Peart's lyric contributions gave the band a more serious, intellectual, and, from a certain perspective, personal tone. The album also featured By-Tor and the Snow Dog, Lifeson and Lee's first multi-movement composition, a progressive rock influence that they would continue to experiment with for the rest of the 70s.

By-Tor & The Snow Dog: I. At The Tobes of Hades / II. Across The Styx / III. Of The Battle / IV. Epilogue by Rush on Grooveshark

I did not jump on board the Rush bandwagon for nearly a decade after these albums were released, so they don't really represent the version of the band that initially won me over.  Regardless, I still think that both albums are great in their own ways.  Fly by Night, in particular, has become a representative favorite of these early albums, and one that set a high standard that the band would initially have some difficulty surpassing.

To jump to the next post in the series, click here.
Forget this, I'm jumping to the end!

Friday, February 10, 2012

PoP Campaign, Kraftwerk, and the Innovation of Automation

In the 80s, I was an ambitious garage rocker with an insular progressive rock fascination. Instrumental technique was my primary concern, so at the time I did not really understand the important contributions to sound, technology, and songwriting that bands like Depeche Mode and New Order were making.  Thankfully, my worldview has widened considerably since those days, because it would be a shame to overlook all the amazing work of M83, Ratatat, and other great 21st century electronic/synth-pop projects.  So, when I was presented with the opportunity to review PoP Campaign’s full-length debut Kraut Popping, I felt conceptually well-equipped .  The album turned out to be a different thing entirely, however, and it has pushed my interests into unexplored territory.

PoP Campaign Theme Tune by PoP Campaign

Initially, PoP Campaign's playful brand of head-bobbing instrumentalism reminded me of Kraftwerk, which is pretty weird since, due to my youthful ignorance, I did not really know anything about these German electronic music pioneers.  On reflection, I realized that Kraftwerk's relationship to PoP Campaign was based on impressions I developed from cursory exposure to the band in documentaries and literature. Hoping to gain some realistic perspective on Kraut Popping, I decided to crack open Kraftwerk’s catalog.  By nearly unanimous decision of my readership, Autobahn was suggested as a good place to start.

Predictably, it also was not what I expected. Autobahn was far more ominous and programmatic than I anticipated, with ostinatos veering into soundtrack-like terrain.  While I would stop short of describing it as “ambient,” it is, perhaps, “environmental.” It is certainly not dance music. It is, however, unbelievably musical and decisively cerebral, and because of this, Autobahn clearly transcends the timeframe in which it was created. With no other reference for their catalog, I can agree that it is, indeed, a compelling place to start, but it is probably not the place to end.  More on them later.

For now, Autobahn serves as a reminder that a lot has happened in electronic music. From this distance, it may seem like a stretch to draw a straight line between Kraftwerk and PoP Campaign based solely on one album released in 1973.  The most fundamental reason for the gap between the two is because in Autobahn's day, electronic music was still dependant on the physicality of playing instruments. By the 80s, many synth pop innovators, including Kraftwerk, increasingly relied on rigid sequencing and automation, a practice that was the basis of my past prejudice.

Blue Monday by New Order on Grooveshark

Current technology allows PoP Campaign to transcend the physical limitations of early electronica without changing its essential soundscape or sacrificing spontaneity.  The rippling arpeggios on this track Herzlich Wilkommen, which are found all over Kraut Popping, would take considerable virtuosity and precision to play manually. With the flexible automation provided by current soft sequencers like Ableton, however, PoP Campaign can manipulate and elaborate on complex musical events using the sounds of first-generation synthesists as a matter of conscious, intentional choice.

Although PoP Campaign never loses sight of their music’s potential accessibility,  they have more in common with Kraftwerk than it would superficially seem.  They reclaim the ideology of experimentalism that lies at the foundation of so-called Krautrock while simultaneously acknowledging the historical role of electronic music as a dance style. As a result, Kraut Popping is equally at home in a club or in a more intellectual setting.  The most shrewd implication of PoP Campaign's instrumental commentary, however, is to challenge the notion that these two sites of music experience stand in opposition to each other, and to suggest instead that dance music can also be intellectual.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gang Gang Dance's Sinister "Eye Contact"

After discovering Gang Gang Dance at the top of an interesting year-end list, I suspected that I would have to order Eye Contact online. I was surprised to find it on the shelf at a local record store during a close-out sale. When I plopped the album in the car player for a preview, however, I thought it may have been a dud. The opening track started as a meandering ambient experiment, and ran counter to the online samples that initially piqued my interest. Patience is a virtue, though, and right as I pulled into a parking place I heard the distinctive sound of live drums. I was soon mesmerized, and I listened to Glass Jar in its entirety.

After this initial experience, Eye Contact became a bit of an obsession, and one in which I have not fully recovered. The album is experimental electronica, combining house music motifs, live instruments, and a variety of Eastern timbres into head-bobbing grooves with a vaguely exotic flavor. With as much as it has going on, Eye Contact might easily devolve into clutter, but from a sound engineering standpoint the album is really quite remarkable. It just sounds good. Lead singer Lizzi Bougatsos is an attention-grabbing focal point as well, employing her voice as a flexible sound-producing instrument as if Kate Bush took a turn as a Bollywood star.

Rather than being organized into standard verses and choruses, many tracks from Eye Contact are structurally linear. They start in one place and slowly evolve, which is why my first impression of Glass Jar was misleading. There is a sense of journey in their music, rather like jazz or the output jam bands, that can’t be appreciated from a cursory listen. The compositional structure of the tracks, however, differentiates their organic dance style from purely improvisational styles. They bear the potential for improvisation, but also cohere into songs through unifying themes and timbres.

Although I try to use “official” videos as examples when I can, I sometimes find fan-made videos to be revealing. There is an almost sinister, nocturnal overtone to Gang Gang Dance’s work that vaguely reminds me of Mew. The author of the unofficial Glass Jar video above seems to have picked up on this. As I continued to look for other examples, I found a mashup on Mindkilla with a similar tone. Both of these videos are unofficial, but by appropriating existing animation, they emphasize the nightmarish, hallucinatory overtones in Gang Gang Dance’s music.

I have only represented Eye Contact with two tracks, but the album is consistent, flows well, and coheres into a holistic listening experience.  I highly suggest it.  Furthermore, if the enthusiasm I have for this album remains in the coming months, even at this early date, I can confidently predict that it will make the year-end list.