Sunday, September 29, 2013

Heavy Lifting and Tomahawk's "Oddfellows"

Back when I was first enrolled in CrossFit Central’s “Level One” program as a summer project, my Aiki Brother introduced me to Tomahawk. I have always been in awe of Mike Patton, but his massive discography is a bit overwhelming. Anonymous was the first album of his music that I had gotten into since the late 90s, and its reinterpreted American Indian flavor hangs incongruously over my early CrossFit experience like a veil.

The “Level One” program was scaled back from CrossFit Central’s regular programming, but it was challenging, nevertheless.  Although it served as an introduction to the training method, there were some ubiquitous CrossFit components that were not emphasized. Lifting weights to find max loads was one. When I started up again a year later in a "regular" class, I felt a little uneasy (maybe even irritated) about the emphasis on heavy lifting. I had a history of back problems that had subsided during my year of independent practice, and I was nervous about re-aggravating the condition.

These apprehensions have also subsided in the past couple of years, but I have come to recognize the hazy line between caution and fear. Some athletes explore this frontier with reckless abandon when they lift heavy. For others (like me) it requires some self-examination and reflection to decide whether I am being careful or scared. Although I’m still struggling with this internal boundary, by focusing on form, my max weights have increased little by little and I’ve never tweaked by back while lifting.

This summer, as my deadlift approached 300 pounds, I got into Tomahawk’s new release Oddfellows.

In comparison to its predecessor, Oddfellows is a relatively straight-ahead heavy rock album, especially if you accept that heavy rock music can have irregular, angular time signatures and sinister atmospheres. Although it is not as stylistically diverse as many of Patton’s other projects, it still captures Tomahawk’s capacity for extreme dynamic impact. Because it is less idiosyncratic than a lot of the work that Patton is associated with, Oddfellows generates the impression that Tomahawk might emerge as a focal, perhaps even commercial, project, rather like Faith No More and Mr. Bungle were in the 90s. Considering the broad proliferation of projects that he maintains, it would be interesting to see him associate with one as a more widely visible vehicle.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Steven Wilson's Raven and the Blackest Maw

There is no way to describe the absolute blackness that surrounds the front of a ship at sea during a moonless midnight. The captain and crew might be comfortable getting their bearings from the ship’s instruments in this environment, but a lone landlubber like me feels enveloped in an overwhelming maw. Additionally, winds at sea blow unhindered by obstructions, both natural and man-made. They seem as if they could whisk the largest of men out into the inky void.

I had purposefully held off on listening to The Raven that Refused to Sing until spring break, when I had the good fortune to go on a Disney cruise with the extended family. I hoped to harness it as the private soundtrack for my first-ever sea voyage, but traveling with the Little One afforded me very little time to wander about with headphones on. I did have the opportunity to sneak off late one night, however, and I meandered around the upper decks until I found myself in this oppressive nothingness at the ship’s fore. Even with the album as a shield, the experience was overpowering. I did not have the constitution to linger there for long, but while I was there I connected with the amazing guitar solo in the tune Drive Home (starting at around 5:09 here).

As I became more familiar with the album, I found that all of the musicianship was equally virtuosic. On The Raven That Refused to Sing, Steven Wilson gathered a supergroup of prog illuminati. They are perhaps not the most visible players or ones from well-established groups, but they are the musicians that move behind the scenes, quietly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the liner notes of amazing albums.

Although it is clearly Wilson’s project, The Raven That Refused to Sing is indelibly stamped by the idiosyncrasies of the musicians involved. Marco Minneman’s drumming is, as always, incredible, but in particular, Guthrie Govan shines brightly. In recent years, Wilson has downplayed his lead guitar voice, and although I miss his melodic soloing, Govan’s fluid and emotive style makes him a stunning stand-in. His masterful playing made me believe in the power of the guitar solo again.

As incredible as the musicianship is on the album’s surface, the conceptual undercurrents on The Raven that Refused to Sing also play toward Wilson’s deeper strengths. His distinctive brand of breathy, insular melancholy permeates the album’s examination of loss, loneliness, and isolation, and his lyrics are impressionistic enough to be multiply interpreted.

It’s interesting how having a child will change your perspective. Things that I once would have found emotionally interesting can now force me to pull the car over and weep. For example, this title track to The Raven That Refused to Sing relates a sense of sustained, unendurable loss, and I initially interpreted it to mean that the narrator had lost a child. I found myself thinking about how I would feel if I lost the Little One, and the effect of that burden as I grew old. It was unbearable – an emotional, conceptual maw that was no less oppressive than falling out into the inky black of a starless night at sea.  That Wilson can capture this is darkly magical.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Long Time Coming: The Postal Service's "Give Up"

When I first moved back to Austin in 2009, my first job was at the Doughtery Arts Museum as the music teacher for their elementary age summer program. My wife was working just up the road at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and we commuted to the area. We ended up spending quite a bit of time that summer in the Zilker Park and Barton Springs area. Not a bad area to reacquaint myself with my hometown. Last summer, I have passed through the area with some regularity and found myself feeling nostalgic about that time.

Not that it was a better time: I was immersed in a stressful struggle to find a permanent job here while pushing to finish my Master’s thesis. There was a subtle feeling of liberation, however, that was embedded in all that uncertainty. Because nostalgia works the way it does, this feeling is what came when I sat down at a rickety picnic table at Flipnotics to enjoy an inexplicably overpriced cup of coffee and capture some thoughts about The Postal Service.

Although The Postal Service’s Give Up was originally released in 2003, the hype around its recent reissue late last spring would have the public think that is was an entirely new album. For those of us that missed out on it back then, it might as well be. When I admitted to my friends that I had never heard the album, it was a virtual record-scratch moment. I unapologetically follow my own path when it comes to the music I pay attention to, though, which (as I have stated before) puts me way behind on the hipness curve. Truly great albums eventually make it into the player - sometimes over a decade later!

And Give Up is, quite simply, a great synth-pop album (arguably “perfect,” to quote my Aiki Brother). It’s got infectious, playful melodies embedded within a musical landscape of surprising depth and subtle experimentation. Stylistically, The Postal Service recombines a variety of synth-pop tropes in multiple ways. Pretty much any electronic technique that has ever worked well up to the release of Give Up seems to make an appearance on the album: old-school analog, sampling, live instruments, looping, and probably lots of other approaches that I just don’t know about. The end result is both cohesive enough to be immediately engaging, but broad enough to satisfyingly unravel though multiple listenings

The lyrics, however, are the gift that keeps on giving. The quiet enlightenments about the everyday that flash through people's heads are given a simple and direct voice throughout Give Up. Using clear allegorical narratives, The Postal Service consistently toes the conceptual line between playfulness and profundity, mirroring the tension between liberation and pressure that surrounds the Barton Springs area for me now.

Although I picked it up on somewhat of a whim through word-of-mouth, Give Up turned into the definitive album of summer 2013.  Not only did I come to really enjoy it, I could put it on around almost anyone (including the Little One) at anytime and be assured of a positive reaction. The recent release also has a second disc with a few new tracks and a collection of covers.  This includes artists covering songs from Give Up as well as Postal Service covering other tunes.  It takes a band with some vision to cover a good Phil Collins song (an important distinction, because there are good ones and there are bad ones), but they pull it off pretty well.  Although this bonus disc doesn't quite stand on its own as an album, it is interesting, nonetheless.  Longtime fans of the band will probably find something interesting to check out here, as well.  For us newcomers, though, Give Up is worth the wait.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"Some Nights," fun., and a Heavy Crown to Bear

This summer, I got a new car. It seemed that the time had come: the old Scion XA was finally starting to incur monthly repair bills, and we, as a family, needed a car with a bit more room anyhow. I said my goodbyes and replaced it with a Mazda CX-5 and, with one exception, I could not be happier. It seems that they just don’t make multiple disc players for cars anymore, so, despite the Bluetooth headset capabilities of my stereo, I’ve reverted to juggling discs like I used to juggle cassettes way back in the old days. I’m that stubborn.

The stereo sounds fantastic, though, and is well-equipped to transmit the sonic capacities of current production. I really noticed this as fun.s’ 2012 release Some Nights became the regular soundtrack for the family rush-hour crosstown trek to the dojo during the summer months.

With The Format’s Interventions and Lullabies playing such a significant role last spring, I was originally planning on putting off this more recent entry in Nate Reuss’ catalog, going for a more chronological approach. Thanks to the car, though, finance was particularly tight early this summer.  Finding a copy of Some Nights that I could purchase on trade-in was much easier than other more obscure albums in his career.

These two albums ring awfully close to each other, so it is hard not to make comparisons. The distinctions between the two, however, are far more interesting. The most fundamental difference is that Interventions and Lullabies was intended to capture the liveness of a band in a rock setting. Conversely, judging by its production approach, Some Nights is intended as a studio project.  Now, I have previously pointed out what I saw as a similarity between Reuss’ voice and that of the great Freddie Mercury, and I think it is impossible to ignore this resemblance on Some Nights.  Because their work is composed with the studio in mind, fun. has the latitude to operate within a nearly orchestral scope that clearly recalls Queen. In fact, if Mercury were still alive, I don't have to work too hard to imagine Queen having a late-period 21st century comeback with a tune not unlike the album’s Lion King-esque title track.  Might need a guitar solo, though.

One thing that Some Nights certainly sets in stone for me - Reuss is easily my favorite vocalist and lyricist in recent memory. Even on some of the album’s weaker tracks (and there are some) Reuss inevitably finds space to bare his soul and take musical risks. In Some Nights, for example, uses autotuning conventions to push his voice to a nearly instrumental extreme (and in the process, taking on the role of the aforementioned guitar solo). While his experiments hardly put him in Mike Patton’s league, he is trying out some interesting things with his voice and in a high-access arena, which I appreciate. Even when he isn’t pushing his voice to the brink of noise, as the lead singer of fun. he doesn’t fail to convince.

As I have delved further into the history of these bands, I have noticed that many longtime Format fans, armed with the accusation that Reuss sold out, are overly critical of fun. I admit that my investment in Reuss as an artist is merely months long, rather than decades, so perhaps my perspective is skewed, but I don’t quite see how Some Nights betrays his principles as an artist. It is, in actuality, pretty adventurous for a contemporary pop album. If you think about it, the band’s breakout anthem We Are Young is a rather unlikely hit. The song’s shifting tempos immediately disqualify it from the dance floor, its structure is non-standard, and its double-timed choruses exclude all but the most nimble-tongued fan from singing along. Yet its message, delivery, and compositional structure is inarguably credible and perhaps even moving.

The vast majority of talented musicians bang their head against the wall and never even get close to the big time, especially these days. Every now and then, though, good things happen to the right people. Nate Reuss and the other members of fun. have created an excellent collection of contemporary pop music with Some Nights, and a few of the album’s finer moments have miraculously become part of contemporary mass culture. Again, not many can readily don the mantle of being Queen's successors.  That is a heavy crown to bear.  If anyone is poised to, however, fun. has my vote.