Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Letting Up Despite Great Faults and the Emerging Synthgaze

It was the second morning of my CrossFit level-1 certification program, and I was feeling pretty euphoric. I had gotten up early, eaten a well-rounded paleo-zone breakfast, and studied my materials while listening to the Asian shoegaze compilation Half Dreaming. Stepping out of my hotel room, I was experiencing gratitude for the life I have, as well as the obstacles that were in my way that grant me the perspective to appreciate my good fortune. I was even thankful for the questionable cup of freshly brewed hotel coffee I balanced in my hand as I juggled my bags and keys.

Untogether, an album by a band called Letting Up Despite Great Faults, was in the CD player. This was a conscious, deliberate decision that I had prearranged the evening before. It seemed a fitting soundtrack for the weekend, because after all, the album was in my hands entirely due to CrossFit.

Activities like aikido and CrossFit are good for introverted people who like to be social (people like me!). In the dojo or at the box, a person’s identity in the “real world” matters less than what they bring inside. It’s possible to get to know people in these environments without really knowing much about them. In the course of my training, I discovered that a fellow CrossFitter in my box plays keyboards and sings for Letting Up Despite Great Faults. She was kind enough to give me a copy of Untogether, and I immediately put it into rotation.  Here's a "fan video" of sorts for the lead track, Visions.

In the weeks prior to my cert, I had already developed a strong appreciation for the way that Untogether buys into the romance of late 80s synth-pop with its conspicuous use of analog synth and gated drum sounds. The breathy delivery of the vocals and their transparent placement in the mix, however, is sullen and isolated in a way that is clearly reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. I had heard a similar juxtaposition on M83’s masterful tribute to 80s nostalgia Saturdays=Youth, but Letting Up Despite Great Faults differentiates themselves by steering clear of grandiose cosmology. Instead, their overall sound is noticeably more reserved, engaging the more intimate potentials of an emerging “synthgaze” style.

On this specific occasion, however, I had an Indonesian contribution to Half Dreaming, a track called Unperfect Sky, still ringing in my ears from the hotel room.  Unlike many artists on that collection, Elemental Gaze prominently features keyboards.

Distracted as I was by exciting visions of perfect air squats and push presses, when Untogether burst forth from the stereo I thought that, for a fleeting instant, Half-Dreaming had somehow transported into my car. The impression was conveyed in nothing more than a momentary wall of timbre and passed at once, but it was visceral.

The roots of shoegaze extend beyond My Bloody Valentine, and although guitar effects were prominent in many of the bands that wore this moniker, many employed synthesizers, as well.  Despite coming from opposite sides of the planet, the timbral relationship between these particular bands is a reflection of a common interest in the potentials in their shared heritage.  Contemporary synthgaze projects like Letting Up Despite Great Faults seem to explore a parallel reality in which alternative music wasn’t overrun by Nirvana and, subsequently, grunge. Untogether is an appealing excursion into these potentials, and on that particular Sunday morning, it brought the prospects of the day ahead brimming to the surface of my awareness. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Peaceful Haze of "Half Dreaming"

I moved back to Austin in the summer of 2009 to an apartment complex that I now remember as idyllic. It was very clean and well-kept, our neighbors were mostly pretty realistic and mature, and my new wife felt safe enough to walk to the gym in the morning dark. It was quite perfect for us at the time, and it represented the promise of the new life we had begun to lead in Austin. Additionally, I was finishing my Master’s thesis in ethnomusicology, and I was riding a wave of academic momentum. As I began to break free of the constraints of my study, I focused that energy on the study of Asian music. I took Japanese language lessons the following summer and studied the shakuhachi as an investment in my potential future as an ethnomusicological scholar.

A few months after that move, Mew’s album No More Stories are Told Today…… was released, which subsequently reignited my interest in the shoegaze bands that they cite as influences. I was already giving My Bloody Valentine a second run, but they had me banging my head against the wall. I could sense that Loveless had more going on than I understood, but I was still looking in the wrong places. I thought I would branch out, and, inspired by my increasing interest in Japanese music and a couple of great experiences with global pop compilations, I discovered Half-Dreaming, a collection of Asian shoegaze and dream-pop.

Considering what I had learned about global popular music, and contemporary Japanese music in particular, I should not have been surprised that Half Dreaming bears very few obvious markers of Asianness. If you are looking for a localized twist on shoegaze, this will probably be disappointing. Asian popular culture, however, has historically been very adept at consuming and repurposing cultural material. Viewed in this fashion, Half Dreaming is an engaging (if somewhat inconsistent) representation of a contemporary Asian style that emerged through the appropriation of a relatively small British scene.

Now I must confess that my experience and knowledge of shoegaze styles is quite blinkered. It was only this year that I finally began to see the fragile beauty of Loveless, so I am hardly an expert. My newfound appreciation for that landmark album, however, prompted me to revisit Half Dreaming.

Distorted, reverbed guitars are often foregrounded on the album, smothering the vocals in a dense fog. Of course, emphasizing effects pedals over vocals in this fashion was a trademark practice of My Bloody Valentine. Their innovation, however, was their ability to preserve a sense of melody without actually emphasizing the melodic material, creating a sublimely amorphous wash of fuzz with just a hint of singability. A few artists on Half Dreaming cover up the vocals by simply drowning them in the mix, which I think misses the point. There are several cases, however, that are able to capture this delicate, inverted balance.

The wall of sound that is associated with shoegazey music can detach the text from the listener, but it also harbors the potential to liberate as its hazy boundaries spill over and beyond the artists’ desire to subjugate it to their narrative. There are a few tracks, however, that apply this unique aesthetic to a more song-based approach, resulting in a compelling reinterpretation of 60s psudeo-psychedelia.

These tracks were the ones I more readily connected with back when I first got Half Dreaming, and now bring to mind otherworldly recollections of the white limestone walls and immaculate landscaping of that apartment complex.  Armed with a new perspective, however, my recent revisit to the collection has been more unilaterally gratifying.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 5: A Flashback for Benson

I posted last year about my history with Brendan Benson’s catalog, but I left out a tidbit of information that only now, within the context of this Jellyfish project, gains relevance. It is true that I discovered his debut quite accidentally and purchased it sight on scene, but here's the "LOST" flashback: When I cracked it open and began checking out the liner notes, I was stunned to find that several of the songs were co-written with Jason Falkner.  By 1997, Presents Author Unknown had already earned Falkner a spot in my all-time greats list, and listening to One Mississippi with an ear for his influence undoubtedly contributed to my adoration of that album. Benson became another of my power pop favorites, and I have loyally followed him ever since.

I'm Blessed by Brendan Benson on Grooveshark

As far as continuity, that criminally underviewed post on Benson would probably make more sense as the next entry in this Jellyfish-related series, but I'm addressing his most recent release in its stead.  In truth, it’s been awhile since Falkner’s name has appeared in Benson’s liner notes, and his most recent release What Kind of World does bear Falkner’s influence, but not so much his direct input. I still hear its traces floating around in Benson’s songcraft, but the album’s darker setting evokes Benson’s interactions with Jack White more readily than Falkner’s vivacious energy. Regardless, Benson does have ties to Jellyfish through Falkner, and as such, deserves a dedicated branch on the their Family Tree.

Virtually every release from Benson since One Mississippi has been immediately rock-solid for me, but my experience with What Kind of World has been a bit different. Although it exhibits the same great songwriting and slick wordplay found on all of Benson’s releases, its relatively somber approach was a bit perplexing, and not just initially. It was a while before I became comfortable letting go of the carefree aesthetic of his past work. Certainly, the video for Pretty Baby reveals a very dark, and somewhat disturbing, interpretation of the song’s lyrics that did not fit with my preconceptions of Benson’s work.

Still, I never quite closed the door on What Kind of World.  It kept finding its way back into the player, and I began to notice traces of Benson's freewheeling past in several songs - instances that were somehow eclipsed by the album’s more solemn moments. It took a little adjustment to smooth over these extremes. As always, however, Benson proves to be quite adept at infusing each of his albums with a definitive, unifying character.  The disposition of that character is a bit more moody on What Kind of World, but it is still defined enough to bring the album together as a singular experience.

Because it follows My Old, Familiar Friend, which might be my favorite album from Benson to date, What Kind of World has a lot to live up to. In the end, however, like all of Benson’s releases, it is a phenomenal entry into the power pop canon.  It is also a very recent manifestation of the long-term influence that Jellyfish continues to have in that genre, as well as my own listening interests.

The previous post in the Jellyfish Family Tree is here.
To skip to the next one, you have but to click here.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 4: Falkner Knocks Me Down

Although the sign on my door said “Assistant Band Director,” I was taking an indulgent moment to cling to my past career as a rock star, and for that fleeting moment, I was feeling pretty confident. The refrain from Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) was dying away in the speakers, and I had nailed it on piano by ear in the first run-though. I was actually quite impressed with the elegant simplicity of the song and, emboldened, I put in another favorite: Follow Me from Jason Falkner’s 1996 release Presents Author Unknown. As seemingly simple and catchy as the song was, I thought that I might have similar success.  I was dead wrong.

Follow Me by Jason Falkner on Grooveshark

Within the first twenty seconds, Falkner left me and my remedial harmonic piano vocabulary in the dust. I fumbled helplessly as it fiendishly twisted and turned through inversions and secondary dominants, and I simply could not keep up. By the song’s end, I wasn't even convinced I knew what key it was in, and what little confidence Radiohead had granted me had been shattered.

Falkner came to my attention on the suggestion of my friend Paul, the drummer for The Days, when I was playing with Fletcher.  I was not teaching regularly until after my stint as a semi-professional musician had ended, though, so I must have had  the album for quite awhile before this episode made me realize just how sophisticated it was. It ended up becoming an album that easily rivals Jellyfish’s original releases in terms of my esteem.

After this humbling piano encounter, I decided that I needed to examine the album further on a more familiar instrument, so I began to run through its tracklist on bass. This still took a little bit of note-taking. I began to realize that, despite being quite accessible, all of Falkner’s songs simmer with vast nuance just below the surface. Additionally, like on almost all of his solo work, Falkner plays virtually every instrument on Presents Author Unknown. The dedicated listener can find dozens and dozens of incredible compositional twists and masterful performances littered across the album’s short span.

There were lots of rumors in the Jellyfish fan base as to the details of Falkner’s split from Jellyfish, but they all seem to agree that, despite contributing an irreplaceable guitar voice to the group, he was an underutilized talent. In retrospect, I don't know that there was a good solution for incorporating him into the band. With a little imagination, I could imagine a couple of songs from Presents Author Unknown reinterpreted within the strict structures of Jellyfish’s identity, but overall, Falkner’s work has too much personality on its own to fit into Jellyfish’s retro-pop mission statement. Listening to Presents Author Unknown, it’s quite obvious to me that that he was that band’s George Harrison: a sparkling, innovative songwriter in his own right that simply did not have the space to shine between the interpersonal pressure of his bandmates.

Like many of these albums on the Jellyfish Family Tree, I have not listened to Presents Author Unknown in several years, and its exuberant energy and impossibly sophisticated songcraft still blows me away.  It is a criminally underrated power pop masterpiece that I would gladly put on my short list of desert island albums.

To go to the previous post in the project, click here
To jump ahead, click here. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Seryn: More Than A Band of Foxes

I put This Is Where We Are on my list early this year after countless ringing endorsements from many people whose musical opinions I respect, but I just never quite got around to ordering it. It’s not that I didn’t try - I looked into Seryn on a few occasions, and there was nothing about them that I didn’t like, but, despite having some common ground with the Fleet Foxes (whose album Helplessness Blues was my top album of 2011), they didn’t quite hook me into taking the plunge. Still, advocates of the band were unrelenting. Finally, one devoted fan, who is an ex-student and fellow blogger, was insistent enough to send me a copy of This Is Where We Are through the mail. You can’t get much more fervent backing than that.

So, OK, I get it already. Especially as a relatively young, local Denton group just starting to get their work more widely recognized, Seryn is impressively mature.  When I was involved in the Denton “scene” in the late 90s, it was not much more than an appendage of the Dallas live music scene, which circled greedily around the promising success of Deep Blue Something and Tripping Daisy. More and more, I am surprised to see adventurous Denton bands getting national and international attention through current information sharing conduits.  Unlike the pop feeding frenzy that preceded it, the current Denton scene seems more artistically motivated.

As an example, there is a lot more to Seryn than is superficially apparent. At first, I thought that they neatly occupied a space right between Fleet Foxes and the Band of Horses, so I jokingly referred to them as the Band of Foxes.  In the long run, however, this easy and prematurely flippant categorization did not do justice to the way the album evolved in my experience. The tone of This is Where We Are is a bit restrained on the surface, but peeling back the layers reveals a vibrant, radiating, creative center.  Although I still think that they have a certain Appalachian tone that overlaps the Fleet Foxes’ style, there is also Peter Gabrielesque transcendentalism that lifts their work above being merely “folk.”

Also, it does not take much insight to see that Fleet Foxes is centered on the inestimable talents of Robin Pecknold. In comparison, Seryn feels more like a collaborative effort. The band's identity is generated by the synergistic interactions of the band's members rather than a singular musician’s presence. Seryn does, indeed, have some standout performers, but their individual musicality focuses purely on enriching the moments that arise in their music as it happens

Obviously, although I do get a kick out of discovering good music out of the widely available options, I find it much more gratifying to spread the word on local artists with a smaller visibility profile. Seryn has their own distinctive approach - one that I think that is artistically gratifying but also harbors the potential to be widely popular. By potential, I don't mean to imply that sometime in the future, they might release a great album. Seryn has an audience out there right now: This is Where We Are would not be out-of-place playing overhead during your daily Starbuck's constitutional, a medium that by itself probably reaches more people a day than current commercial radio.