Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paying Strict Attention: Syd Arthur Challenges the Epic

"Gentlemen, when two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention." -Dale Cooper

And so it goes when it comes to new music. Finding new stuff is sometimes tricky because I practically never listen to the radio. As a usual matter of course, I troll a selection of music sites and take suggestions from friends, but even this short resource list produces an overwhelming amount of new and unheard music. I hardly have the time or the finance to give everything that catches my attention a serious listen, so there is an imperfect and informal vetting process that constrains what I let into rotation. Sometimes, things are left to time and chance, which usually lands me on the tail end of the “hipness” curve.

Clearly, though, I’m not overly concerned with what is hip.

I pay strict attention, however, when something new presents itself from two or three unrelated resources at the same time. This sometimes eerie phenomenon is what recently brought Syd Arthur into rotation. I initially discovered them through a review of their impending debut On and On posted on my usual progressive rock stop. The reviewer, who genuinely liked Syd Arthur’s proclivity towards asymmetrical time signatures and interlocking rhythms, spoke highly of their future potential, but, citing production issues, stopped short of unreservedly praising their debut album On and On.

He also seemed slightly perplexed by the band’s localized popularity in the Canturbury scene. Any band that plays with progressive tropes while dancing on the edge of accessibility is cause for confusion to the progressive rock purist, but almost always ends up being a long-term favorite with me. Knowing this, Syd Arthur was at the forefront of my consciousness two days later when, after playing at SXSW, several people contacted me independently of one another to tell me that I should check them out. Their enthusiasm put On and On at the top of my wish list, and within a few weeks I was putting in an order through their site.

I immediately liked their approach, so much so that I had a difficult time discerning whether I was drawn more to their sound or their songwriting. Like a lot of complex music, however, the best qualities of On and On revealed themselves after repeated listening. Syd Arthur’s superficially complex features provide the backdrop for hummable, well-structured songs which, with one exception, clock in at an easily digestible four minutes or less. Not all that is progressive has to be epic.

Prog should be adventurous, though, although the wider popularity of Gentle Giant, mid-70s King Crimson, and the vast sea of other unrecognized bands to which Syd Arthur refers was often hindered by placing complexity at the forefront of the art. In contrast, the songs from On and On are not unnaturally bridled to the shifting time signatures bucking underneath the surface, but instead weave their way through the album’s rhythmic intricacies with consummate, almost imperceptible ease. Despite its retrospective aura, however, On and On feels relevant and contemporary, at least to my ears - rather like the Decemberists ran aground and gave up their sea shantys for a little hipstery frolic.

I am looking forward to Syd Arthur’s progress, as well, but not because I hope that they will pen the next Close to the Edge or Foxtrot, with forced, multi-movement blockbusters that clock in at twenty minutes or more. Instead, I anticipate a further refinement of the succinct but engaging work that they have already displayed a mastery of on On and On.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Call Me Ishmael: Death Grips' "Exmilitary"

Driving in the semi-rural regions of Texas might seem like an incongruous setting for the rabid hip-hop stylings of Death Grips, but for the compulsive music listener, not all music has the good fortune to become connected to perfectly relevant experience. I recently took a solo drive up to visit a friend’s new lake house, which involved a bit of winding around in unexplored parts of the state. I knew that I could assault myself with whatever music I wanted for this drive. Death Grips immediately came to mind.

As I prepped for the trip, I got out The Money Store to put back in rotation, but I hesitated. A part of me still idealistically hopes that sooner or later, an official release of its follow-up No Love Deep Web will end up in my eager hands. Clearly, though, this white whale was not available at the time. I poked around online and could not even find any of its tracks in “soft” form from a reliable electronic source.

While I was initially OK with blasting The Money Store on my way to the lake, all this searching around gave me a hankering for some new Death Grips. I decided that their debut album Exmilitary, which is available in its entirety for free from the Death Grips soundcloud page, might do the trick. Against my usual listening practices, I downloaded the tracks, created a CD, printed off some passable cover art, and hit the road.

It did, indeed, do the trick. I listened to the album in its entirety about eight times in a row. Exmilitary packs the same abrasive, intellectual punch as its successor, but it is also a bit more eclectic and perhaps not quite as consistent. Some songs are structured with the traditional hip hop sample loop while others take a more cacophonous, unconventional approach.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Death Grips was exploring a variety of approaches to investigate their potential as a band. Some of these experiments are more engaging than others, but in the long run this self-examination was smart. The best tracks on Exmilitary serve as the stylistic foundation for The Money Store, and in my opinion, the latter simply would not have been as successful without the research conducted in the former.

So it was that I found myself driving through the idyllic scenery of east Texas, blaring the primal rage of Exmilitary and pondering the possibility that it very well could make an appearance on this year’s top albums. There was, and is, caveat that has nothing to do with the quality of the album, though. Several of the tracks on the album segue, which, as an album listener, I really like. Because it was downloaded, compiled, and burned to CD, however, my listening experience suffered from the annoying gaps that most CD writing software puts between tracks. On this first copy, these were a full second, which resulted in a jarring listening experience. I have since made subsequent copies and have gotten it down to a blip, but a perceptible one, nonetheless. To really get the full feeling that I think Death Grips intended, I think that a first-generation copy is the way to go, but hardcopy of Exmilitary is not readily available  It seems that I have added yet another rare Death Grips album to my wish list.  Sigh.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Reach: Half of One, Two Thirds of the Other

When I was involved in the 90s Dallas music scene, I saw countless bands, but there were probably a handful of them that I genuinely got behind. One of them was a Dallas-based band called The Reach. We played a gig with them once at The (now defunct) Green Room, and I bought their debut CD Closer on the spot. Although I wasn't entirely convinced that the album really captured the band, it was an enjoyable listen.

Never Let Go by The Reach on Grooveshark

What I found appealing about The Reach, more than anything else, is the fascinating way in which they blended the sounds of two very distinctive bands together into a cohesive style. It was as if two thirds of Rush (specifically, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart) and half of R.E.M. (singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills) all sat in with one another and, against all odds, found common ground. While it might be easy to judge the band for wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, I always thought it worked incredibly well in a live setting. They won me over as a fan, and I looked forward to playing gigs with them.

Time came and went: the Dallas music scene crashed and all the bands from that era that I connected with broke up. The great live work of many of these bands was flattened into the various CDs that I got at their shows. The independent studio practices of the day, despite being terribly expensive, often rendered these artifacts sadly muffled, unclear, and bereft of soul.  In most cases, however, they are all that I have left from that time. I was a little distraught, then, when I discovered in 2008 that somewhere along the line, my copy of Closer had disappeared.

I set out on a search to see if it was even possible to replace the album, and I found, to my surprise, that there was another chapter in The Reach’s timeline. The guitarist/lead singer had moved to Colorado after the Dallas scene imploded, but through MySpace, he eventually reconnected with the drummer, who was still living in the Metroplex. They collaborated remotely (which was much less common in the early 00s than it is now) and completed their sophomore album Lift in 2003. I contacted the band about replacing my copy of Closer, and they were kind enough to send me both albums.

Goodbye by The Reach on Grooveshark

Lift really impressed me when I first received it. As I have been revisiting it over the past couple of weeks, however, I am of the opinion that as a studio project, it has a conviction and clarity that renders its predecessor obsolete. Over the course of its thirteen tracks, it thunders and strums, convincingly overlapping the desolate rhythms of Grace Under Pressure with the fervent wailing of Document.  It is actually a great album that stands independent of any nostalgic ideals I hold of my time in the thankless, but interesting, Dallas music scene.  I highly suggest taking the time to track it down and give it a listen in full.

Dallas by The Reach on Grooveshark

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Dirty Projectors From the Mouths of Babies

The Little One loves to go outside. Fortunately, we had the foresight to wire our porch for sound, so we often have the opportunity to appreciate music while hanging out in our backyard. When the weather is good, we’ll turn on the tunes while she blows bubbles or draws chalk scribbles on the concrete. She is growing increasingly verbal, so she constantly astounds us with her use of plain language to express what is on her mind. I was floored, however, when one afternoon she abruptly stopped her usual outdoor activities to enthusiastically join in with the chorus of this tune.

Now, Swing Lo Magellan had been in constant rotation since I received it at Christmas, and About to Die, like many songs from the album, is infectiously tuneful. I was not surprised that she could identify it, but in this case, it wasn’t like when she used to garble out the Yeah Yeah Yeah Song last summer. It was very clear that she was singing the words to the song and even trying to match pitch.  I admit that it was weird to hear her toddler voice sing the somewhat dark lyrics to this song so clearly and enthusiastically from the arena of our back lawn, but the song’s meaning is a little too opaque for me to worry too much.

In truth, I can't blame her for connecting with its playful nature. Throughout the album, the Dirty Projectors have a poetic approach to their lyrics that seems to be inspired by the sound of the syllables as much as the meaning of the words. As a metaphor for summing up the album, though, the juxtoposition presented by a toddler performing About to Die seems fitting, because Swing Low Magellan is best described in terms of its juxtapositions.

Lead singer David Longstreth’s vocal approach has a hint of intellectualized derangement that conjures David Byrne, and there are subtle Africanisms in the melodic figures and highlife styled guitars that might reinforce this impression, but even so, the Dirty Projectors don’t objectively sound like the Talking Heads. In some ways, they conjure a more classic, pre-"World Music" feel, recalling Hendrix, Orbison, or even (thanks to the instrumental precision of the backup vocals) the Andrews Sisters.  The sometimes angsty performances, however, usually betray the contemporary context of Swing Low Magellan.

Even though I think that Swing Lo Magellan is impressive in the way that it navigates these juxtapositions, I can’t bring myself to say that it is varied in its style. The album is incredibly cohesive in spite of its eccentricities because, despite its stylistic extremes, it hangs its hat on outstanding songwriting and emotive musicianship. The Dirty Projectors have their own unique approach that could only be the product of experience, risk-taking, and collaboration, and deliver it with an artistic conviction that holds Swing Lo Magellan together as an outstanding album experience.  Its layered and complex, but so relaxed and accessible that even a baby could do it - or a toddler, at least.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" Breaks the Spell

Although in many ways, I am still on the fence about the new Daft Punk album, I have to admit I that I am enjoying the controversy that it seems to have stirred up. On the one side, the critics would have people believe that it is the most important album of 2013, but here on the street level it seems that praise for Random Access Memories is very rarely given without some reservation. At worst, a lot of Daft Punk fans, both old and new, simply don’t care for it.

Listening to it, I think this is understandable. Since 1997, Daft Punk has become associated with well-crafted, adventurous house and dance music, a style of “robot rock” reinforced by their mechanized stage presence. Despite releasing relatively little material in the past decade, Daft Punk have garnered a devoted following that hotly anticipated the release of Random Access Memories. As an intentional tribute to late 70s disco and early 80 synth-pop, however, the album is a challenge to Daft Punk’s well-established identity.

Well, we were warned. All of the early press indicated that any fan expecting well-defined electronica would most likely be disappointed, and its true.  The cybernetic pulse of One More Time and Digital Love is largely absentIn fact, despite the persistence of vocoders and autotune to “robotize” vocals, there is significantly less mechanization present on Random Access Memories than expected. Overall, the album would sound much more at home in a roller rink circa 1978 than thumping at a late 90s rave.

But Daft Punk, in my opinion, have always been innovators. They pushed the boundaries of house music so far that they came to define it. With artists like deadmau5 and Ratatat now occupying the space that has opened up in that arena since their last proper house style release it is logical for Daft Punk to take steps to vacate.  For them to take such a dramatic turn towards nostalgia, however, begs the question: where does the innovation truly lie on Random Access Memories? How does retreading these waters deepen them?

While I do think that the album is enjoyable (not to mention pristinely produced), the tracks that overtly point to that era are not necessarily any better than the music actually of that era. I get the sense that if I really wanted to indulge in that kind of nostalgia, I would do just as well to listen to the artists that originally innovated the style. Daft Punk’s reinterpretations are not offensive, by any means, but not earth-shatteringly great.

What I do like about the album, however, is the proliferation of live instruments, and I think that this is the area in which Random Access Memories pushes Daft Punk into a new field. There are several tracks that feature their classic techno sounds, but also showcase live instruments attacking these textures with an improvisational fervor.

Here, the instinct of human hands plays off the drive of technological automation.  By its end, this tribute to the synth innovator responsible for Donna Summer's I Feel Love becomes an epic drum solo propelled the song's bass sequence.  I think its electrifying and epic - worth the price of admission!  This is the area that I would have liked to see Daft Punk step into with the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in their rearview mirror.

Additionally, with technology becoming more user-friendly and seemingly human in our everyday lives, the metaphor that Daft Punk was previously trying to sustain about themselves as "robots-making-music" could still be intact and, perhaps, even more profound as a "2.0 upgrade." Random Access Memories, however, just makes them seem like really, really talented producers dressed as robots. Spell broken.