27 January 2009

the self-titled album released by the band now getting sued by the international organization that will not be named (part 5 - with a lengthy preface)

As tradition established last year dictates, I'm going to list my oddly-named awards in no particular order before I get to the final album on my list of favorite albums for the previous year. Therefore...

The Andy Roddick Memorial Award: Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Rise Against - Appeal to Reason, The Roots - Rising Down, The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia, Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

The Stretch Armstrong Tribute Award: Genghis Tron - Board Up The House, These Arms Are Snakes - Tail Swallower And Dove

The Salvador Dali Memorial Award: Brian Scary & The Shredding Tears - Flight of the Knife,
Earth - The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull

The Spirit of Planet of Ice Award: Coldplay - Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends

The Bourne Identity Soundtrack Award:
Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III, The Roots - Rising Down

The Phantom Award: Metallica - Death Magnetic

The Die Hard with a Vengeance Tribute Award: Opeth - Watershed

The "Holy Shit! I Care About You Again" Award: R.E.M. - Accelerate

The Samuel Beckett Mem
orial Award: Portishead - Third

The Live Free or Die Hard/Lethal Weapon 4 Tribute Award: Foxboro Hot Tubs - Stop Drop and Roll!!!!, Disturbed - Indestructible

The '04-'05 Phoenix Suns Tribute Award:
Eddie Vedder - Into The Wild Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

2008 was a good year, with the exception of the virtually worldwide collapse of the financial sector, and confidence therein (I suppose that's not necessarily bad, depending on what kind of person you are, but as someone who depends on his job in order to, you know, stay alive, statewide budget cutbacks inspired by a decline in tax revenue, itself inspired by a deflation in consumer confidence are not a good thing).

2008's status as a good year is what most directly influenced my selection of Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" as my favorite song of the year (the runners-up, for those of you keeping score at home, were Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," followed by TV On The Radio's "Halfway Home" and Nine Inch Nail's "Discipline" - if 2008 had been a different year, my favorite song would've been a different one, but, c'est la vie), for personal-life reasons that are instantly apparent to anyone who knows me at all (or has read anything I've written in the last 5 months... Having found the most amazing, ideal, ridiculously awesome person I could've ever hoped to find has adjusted my attitude somewhat - for the better, I would say).

For the first time that I can remember, I love a song not just because it's well-written (musically and lyrically), or witty, or different from every other song I've heard before - Mr. Newman
himself has described it as a fairly standard love song, even though I think he's selling himself short - but because it articulates my personal feelings in a way that I don't think I'm capable of doing myself. Four lines from "Feels Like Home" go quite a long way towards illustrating that exact point:

Something in your voice/
Makes my heart beat fast/
Hope this feeling will last/
The rest of my life"

As I wrote before, reading Randy Newman's words doesn't even hold a flickering candle to hearing them come out of his mouth, so you'll just have to trust me on this: never, ever have I heard a song that pierced me to my... center? Core? Spirit? Even though it's a song he wrote for his musical version of Faust, it came along at the perfect time for me, the perfect situation. Let me put this another way: I didn't know how hard I was going to fall for this song until I heard it (a nice mirror of something else that happened last year).

In any case, I've heard it said - frequently - that timing, if it's not everything, than it's at least 40%. After 2008, I understand that a whole lot better.

Let's look at another couple of lines, just for fun:

If you knew/
How much this moment means to me/
Ad how long I've waited for your touch/
If you knew/
I wanted someone to come along/
I never thought I'd love any
So much"

Much of what makes Randy Newman so special is his word economy, how he's able to say more with less than, well, almost anyone (a trick I have yet to master, clearly). Movies and song titles keep getting longer, but Randy Newman still says what he has to say, then moves on. I appreciate that for a variety of reasons (many of which I've stated before).

In the interest of paying slight tribute to Mr. Newman, I'll leave my reaction to his song at that, and move on to the final album in my list: United Nations' self-titled record.

I love this cover more than any reasonable human being should; as an image that's supposed to embody the spirit of the band, and the music contained within, it's perfect. Totally, unquestioningly perfect. Irreverent, abrasive, hysterical (to the right audience), and far smarter than nay-sayers would ever be willing to give it credit for being, the cover of United Nations (which no record store in the country was willing to stock - they had to go with a backup that still wound up violating copyright) is as successful a cover as any album has ever had, ever.

I wrote a pretty thorough reaction to the album last year, so this'll be my first attempt in this little space that I attempt to call my own to address the same topic twice and do my best to not repeat myself (not to beat a dead horse here, but I think I'm going to play the brevity card once again - better to say what you have to say and get it the hell over with rather than waste everyone's time, including your own).

There are really two useful things I can say as a follow-up to my earlier posting (three, perhaps, but that might be stretching it. Read on). First and foremost, unlike, for instance, the Atmosphere record (an album that I overdosed on, more or less), I have yet to tire of United Nations. Every time I listen to it (and here I'll compare it to Pearl Jam's self-titled album), it's over before I really even process that it's begun. Sure, some of that might be attributable to its sub-30 minute running time, but that's not giving United Nations the proper amount of credit. Every aspect of the record blows me away whenever I listen to it: the purity of its fury, the dense layering of the sounds that make it up, how flat-out funny it can be, and the confidence with which the entire thing is pulled off. There's an almost swagger to it ("Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience" makes that case for me) that I've not heard on many "hardcore" records. I like it.

Here's my second point: I said in my earlier posting that I'd never cared about/for either Glassjaw or Thursday before listening to the UN album. Well, that opinion's found cause to change, and fairly dramatically, too. Having found cause to uncover Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence and War All The Time, I have to cop to a fear that I may have missed the boat on these bands. Not entirely, I hope, seeing as how I'll now happily count myself among the ranks of their respective fan bases, but I've missed them both in what was probably their heyday. That is to say, I doubt Thursday will release a better album than they already did in War All The Time, just as I doubt Glassjaw will produce anything superior to EYEWTKAS. One can always hope, but I feel pretty certain in my analysis.

Finally, but in a significantly different way from before, United Nations was, for me, absolutely the right record at the right time. My total disaffection with the Bush administration was passing the "total" marker, to the point that I contained enough hatred and loathing within me to account for three or more people, I was feeling as though the cracks in the system were widening and deepening to the point that they were truly going to fuck things up, rather than just be unjust and inconvienent, and I'm generally sick of treading water. United Nations gave that rage and despair a voice, an identity. That, more than anything else, is why it's my favorite album of 2008.

Post-script: Recently, I've picked up, and listened to, three more releases from last year. I'll briefly respond to both of them.

The Decemberists' Singles Series: "Valerie Plame" is a fantastic song. I think I've found my diving board into their music.

Thursday/Envy Split [EP]: I never expected to see a Thursday release on Temporary Residence (they do Explosions' releases - when I think of Explosions, I don't think of Thursday), but it's an interesting thing to do. If they're really serious about integrating some post-rock compositional/playing style into their music, my assertation about them having released their masterpiece may be premature (but we'll see). I'd never heard of Envy before, but I'd be willing to check them out.

Red Sparowes - Aphorisms [EP]: "We Left the Apes to Rot, But Find the Fang Grows Within" (see what I mean about overly verbose musicians - a funny thing to say about an instrumental band, but still) may be the angriest Red Sparowes song yet, but the rest of it's pretty normal, as far as they go. Good enough to remind me I'm interested in their new album that's supposed to come out this year.

26 January 2009

as long as we're thinking about remakes...

I'm throwing down the gauntlet here, Timmy (in kind of a lame way - I'll just restate a point I made at lunch):

I'm still not sure if we're entering into a time with horror cinema today (or if we're already in it - I think it's like a recession, by the time we know we're in it, we've been in it for a while) that's anything like the period American cinema as a whole entered into in the 70s, where you get the first generation of really serious horror scholars making horror films, but the only way they can conceive of fashioning a response to, say, Halloween, is by taking the movie and twisting it around and making their own Halloween.

My major malfunction here is that I don't see why you have to take so many of these properties and retool them (BSG syndrome, maybe?); why can't someone conceive of their own slasher-verse, their own villain with his own fucked up backstory, and make that movie? Why take Leatherface, or Michael Meyers, and ruin so much of what was great about them in the first place, even if it is in the name of hard cinema?

This isn't to say that I'm opposed to all horror remakes, or all remakes in general. There might be some properties with some actual potential to them, untapped at the time of original release (see an earlier posting of mine, for instance). But, why not be original (unless this is a business thing purely, in which case, fuck that. Fuck that sideways)? Put another way: Star Wars was, and is, hugely influential on me. If I wanted to make my cinematic ode/reaction/response/masturbatory tribute to Star Wars, I wouldn't make a Star Wars movie (the fact that I'd never be able to touch the property, professionally, is moot for the moment); I'd make... something else. Something that touched on characterizations, or themes, or moments in the movies that spoke to me, that I'd want to communicate to my contemporaries, to my audience, in my way. I wouldn't make Blade Runner II, either.

In this regard (and most every other), I'll take Quentin Tarantino over almost an entire generation of genre filmmakers; at least he puts his own spin on the shit he rips off.

I suppose this is stretching into complaining about hyper-referencing in general (Fanboys, Trekkies, Kevin Smith and filmmakers who want to be Kevin Smith...), but that's a branch-off for another time.

20 January 2009

dear science (part 4)

If you know me, you'd probably figure that the second I found out there was a band called TV On The Radio, and they'd just released an album called Return to Cookie Mountain, I'd have jumped at it like a lemming does at water. Well, you'd be right. The part of the story that you wouldn't expect, I reckon, is that despite my very best, well-intentioned efforts, I couldn't get into it. I figured it was "good," in that Pitchfork way that things are good, but nothing really jumped out and grabbed me (and there's so much out there in the movie/book/music/tv show/video game/theatre/stand-up comedy/poetry/live sculpture world that it's almost unjustifiable for something, anything, to not do some amount of work to at least grab your attention - of course, the band already did that little bit of work with their name, and the name of their record) and said, "If you work to understand this, you will be rewarded!"

This isn't to say that I'm yet another victim of the attention span recession, just that I have to get something of an indicator from a less-than-accessible... anything that working at understanding it will be worth my time (Leslie Stevens' Incubus, or Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View, or, more recently, Stuart Gordon's Stuck and Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion, for instance, fall into that all-important category). Return to Cookie Mountain, for good or for ill, just got pushed aside. I certainly want to go back to it at some point, particularly now that I've fallen for Dear Science as hard as I have.

Looking back at albums I particularly enjoy, a common thread many seem to have in their construction is an absolute knockout of an opening track (it kind of fits with the first rule of mixtapes that I developed on my own, and later had confirmed by John Cusack/Rob Gordon in High Fidelity). Look at my albums from this year: Harps and Angels, Med Sud..., 808s & Heartbreak, Dear Science, United Nations; all of them feature fantastic opening tracks that cast shadows any reasonable band would have to fight hard to escape (and all do, but that's not entirely here nor there, nor even here again).

This is all meant to indicate that Dear Science's opening track, "Halfway Home," is a triumphant five-and-a-half minutes of music, blending nonsense singalong with some of the most gorgeously articulate wordsmithing I've seen in a song in years ("A comfort plush all laced in lead/ Was sent to quell your sentiment/ And keep your trembling sentinel hand at bay"), soaring synthesizers with ripping, rocking guitars, all colliding together for about fifty seconds of pure, well, music. It's smart, it's glorious, it's... danceable, somehow.

[I should DIGRESS for a moment to explain that, while I absolutely adore TV On The Radio now, this newfound affection will do nothing, nothing at all, to reawaken my comatose interest in The Mars Volta, a band to whom I've heard them compared on more than one occasion, due, I guess, to the multi-racial makeup of their membership, their "genre-pushing" music, and the technical skill that they so clearly possess. I guess this is going to relate back to my abbreviated rant about how things - difficult, complex things - need to indicate that they're going to be worth the time it takes to unravel them, because I also think that, in this multimedia age where there's just so much to absorb (and sure, a lot of it is terrible, but a good deal of it is extraordinary, as well), the ability to make your point well and quickly is one worth cultivating. The longest song on Dear Science is five minutes and fifty-four seconds long; the longest track on The Mars Volta's latest album, The Bedlam in Goliath, is nine minutes and eight seconds. "Cassandra Gemini," on Frances the Mute, is thirty-two and a half minutes long. TV On The Radio know how to get their point across without wasting my time; one of The Mars Volta guys (don't care to remember who) said that he considered being called self-indulgent a compliment. He who recognizes the audience will get more love in my book, if that matters at all. END DIGRESSION]

"Crying" and "Dancing Choose" give TV On The Radio (to save time, let's abbreviate it TVOTR, okay?) lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe ample opportunity to demonstrate his versatility and range, and boy, he doesn't disappoint. "Stork & Owl" may well contain one of the most simple and powerful truths recorded in 2008: "
Death's a door/ That love walks through/ In and out, in and out/ Back and forth, back and forth." The omnipresent string section does a phenomenal job of bringing life to the tidal imagery that's all over the lyrics.

"Golden Age" takes the record into funky, disco-y territory, a move that feels so right it can't even be rightly recognized for the craziness it truly is. It just sounds so... positive, so goddamn hopeful that it can't be repressed. The horn section, laid so perfectly over the fuzzy thrum that persists throughout the last half of the song, could beat back any encroaching darkness that persists. Parts of the song I could've reasonably expected to hear blasted over loudspeakers at the inauguration, but particularly this:

Now we're all allowed to breathe/
Walls dissolve/
With the hunger and the greed/
Move your body/
You've got all you need/
And your arms in the air stir a sea of stars/
And oh here it comes and it's not so far"

This "Golden Age" that Adebimpe repeatedly promises is nearly upon us sounds very much like the post-Shrub era that so many of us around the world have hoped and prayed for for far, far longer than we would've liked, doesn't it?

This is contrasted pretty abruptly with the following track, "Family Tree," which weds death to marriage about as well as anything ever could (including the fairly fantastic movie pitch that my friend made to me a few weeks ago - perhaps we have a theme song? Probably not, this song is a bit too much of a downer for a slasher film). The... character, I suppose, doesn't sound regretful, mournful, or even the slightest bit angry about the development that manifests itself over the course of the song (in fact, the music gets more upbeat as it goes along, but that's not exactly the vocal part, now is it?), just... resigned, or maybe even accepting. I still don't quite know what to make of that (unless it's another commentary on "love," which so much of art is).

"Red Dress" is certainly one of the most energetic condemnations of, well, most of America that I've ever heard:

Read my names on your lips/
When the man cracks the whip/
And you'll all shake your hips/
And you'll all dance to this/
Without making a fist/
And I know that it sounds mundane/
/But it's a stone cold shame/
How they got you tame, and they got me tame"

It's certainly a more creative way of calling us all sheep, but if it's got wool and is docile to the point of self-destruction, well, a sheep's a sheep (except for those fuckers in Black Sheep; they looked ready to take the power back). At least the music is an incitement to action (going back to the form/content thing I harped on with regards to 808s & Heartbreak).

"Love Dog" takes the band into a quieter, more introspective territory, while "Shout Me Out" is probably as close to U2 as TVOTR is ever going to get (Joshua Tree U2, not HTDAAB U2) - The Edge would be proud of the last two minutes. "DLZ" turns their fury onto the most appropriate target any artist could ever ask for, the towering, crashing assault of sound finally giving way to exhaustion:

Congratulations on the mess you made of things;/
On trying to reconstruct the air and all that brings./
And oxidation is the compromise you own/
But this is beginning to feel like the dog wants her bones
Never mind/
Death professor/
Your structure's fine/
My dust is better/
Your victim flies so high/
All to catch a bird's eye view of who's next"

I think it's a bit overdone to refer to this band, especially that band's lyricist/vocalist, as articulate and intelligent (particularly in light of this past election season, when the entire country finally realized those were code words), but it's impossible to avoid them when talking about TVOTR. Adebimpe doesn't go halfway with his words; you hear every one of them burst forth clearly, and with such power, that they cannot possibly be denied, particularly here.

All of the frustration, passion, agony and ecstasy that have consumed the band and its album come to a head in the final track, "Lover's Day," and get released as TVOTR pulls out all the stops, deploying what can almost feel like every instrument in the known world to support a song that I can only describe by going back in time to the final Planes Mistaken for Stars show and copping what their lead singer said about the song "Little Death" - "a song about fucking." Except, "Lover's Day" may well be the end-all, be-all song about fucking, a song about fucking to put all other songs about fucking to shame (and now, friend reader, you see where I was going with the first sentence in this paragraph. You see all too well, don't you?).

In the spirit of the song, which neither burns out, nor fades away, but stops at the perfect time, in such a decisive way, I'm going to end this posting with a final quotation, from the end of "Lover's Day." I conjure it'll make my point for me:

We’ll smash the walls,/
Break the bed,/
And crash the floors, don’t!/
Stop! Laugh and scream!/
And have the neighbors call the cops!/
'till all the eyes that they've seen our fire play!!/
Can't forget,/
Mark it down,/
Call it Lover's Day!!/
Yes here of course there are miracles./
Under your sighs and moans./
I'm gonna take you,/
I'm gonna take you home."

stringer bell's making his way to scranton?

This could either be brilliant, or terribly, horribly awful...

I'm going to err on the side of brilliant, though. If there's one thing that has proven itself pretty adept at, it's integrating visitors into the framework that they've so carefully constructed for the show (especially out-of-left-field guest stars, like Amy Ryan, also a Wire alum... Weird). This isn't to compare them to 30 Rock, which has kind of become the gimmicky guest star-featuring program of the 21st century (not that I'm complaining - I loved Oprah, Matthew Broderick, Ghostface Killah...), but just that they're good at... integration, horrible as that might sound.

Idris Elba seems like he could be a pretty phenomenal comic, and he sure is scary as hell, so what exactly he'll be doing... Hmm. I'm exceedingly curious, and excited.

15 January 2009

the wrath of the reaper

Ricardo Montalban, the man who brought superhuman villain Khan Noonian Singh to life so expertly in an episode of original Star Trek ("Space Seed") and the best Star Trek movie (as opposed to Star Trek movie - there's an important difference there), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, has died. He was 88 years old.

Burned forever into my brain will be his performance as Khan. He was so powerful that he just took over the screen whenever he stepped onto it (which is no small feat when you're competing against William Shatner). He was always totally in the moment, and absolutely in command of his performance. Montalban was a star in the truest sense of the word (to dust off a fairly old cliche that possesses a lot of truth), and never would he shine more brightly than when he played Kirk's nemesis on the silver screen (look here; he shows up at about the 4:50 mark).

Khan was so perfectly diametrically opposed to James T. Kirk, from the first moment to the last. Khan took (or attempted to take) what he believed was his by virtue of his superiority as a perfect man, while Kirk accepted his imperfections and used that acceptance to strengthen himself. Khan was ruthless, unbending and evil; Jim Kirk was nothing if not a man who knew how to improvise, and, at his core, the sort of man every little boy who saw the show aspired to be.

Regardless of the fact that he was able to play such a brilliant villain, he always seemed like the sweetest of men when I saw him interviewed. Gracious, even eager to talk about his work in Star Trek, or the two Planet of the Apes films in which he acted (who better to teach a superintelligent ape born in the wrong era of all that could be good in an awful world than Ricardo Montalban? No one).

I didn't know that he'd written his autobiography; I'm going to track it down and attempt to educate myself more thoroughly on the subject of Mr. Montalban. I wish him a safe journey, and hope that he doesn't have to commandeer a spaceship to get him where he's going.

14 January 2009

so, I just saw the trailer for the Last House on the Left remake...

I want to hate it, I really do. This streak of remakes of genuinely good movies is driving me batty; it's one thing to take a movie, or television show, that wasn't that great to begin with and twist it around and rework it so that it becomes something new and interesting, but I've lacked an ability to understand the appeal of taking something that was good already and warping it so that it, inevitably, becomes less than it was before.

It feels like it could work. The idea was good enough to begin with, and it doesn't look like they're fucking with it overmuch (and it'd be nice to see it with a budget, and without the Keystone Kops, I'll admit)... I like the casting, too. Becca from Superbad, and Francis Wolcott from Deadwood? That's borderline inspired casting.

I was unnerved, close to scared, as the trailer reached its conclusion. Definitely intrigued am I, definitely want to know of a solid release date.

13 January 2009

at any other point in my life, this would've been the album of the year (part 3 of the 2008 retrospective)

I've made a big point over the course of my life (but especially since I became fascinated with maudlin music and overly dark, depressing movies) to state, unequivocally, that great art comes out of depression, lonliness, longing, and despair almost exclusively, because (if nothing else) a person whose emotions are running that particular gamut has to channel them into something productive if they want to avoid cutting their own ear off (or worse). I'm going to take a big step here as a person and admit that some of that was self-justification to allow myself to be miserable and depressed (though, I still think the argument holds water, as least in the realm of popular perception. Why else do comedies not win Best Picture Oscars?).

That situation has changed somewhat. I do still think that my theory holds plenty of water, but I no longer have any real desire to use it to justify keeping myself in a perpetual state of... sorrow is a bit too strong, methinks, but it'll work for now. I've tasted an alternative, and I'd rather my diet consist of nothing but that (the alternative) from here on out. I don't think that means I'll be less able to appreciate the dismal and dreary, but I do believe I'll do a little more to avoid exposure to same, lest unpleasantness ensue.

This is as good a moment as I'll get to transition back into my (spectacularly original idea of an) end-of-the-year music spectacular. #3 (with a bullet...): Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak.

As usual, let's begin with some sort of disclaimer. I have no strong love for Mr. West; I think he's a pretty good producer, a pretty good rapper, and a walking, breathing ego. However, I have to appreciate somebody who works hard, and I've never gotten the sense that Kayne's reaping undeserved rewards. From here on out, though, I'll be watching every move he makes, and closely. One amazing record, even one amazing song, can do that.

I've long been fascinated with what I'm going to unoriginally refer to as "extremes" in music, be they in regards to the music (as opposed to the vocals), the vocals (as opposed to the music), the production, the subject matter, whatever it is. If it's probing one end of the spectrum or another, I'll be inclined to at least give it a look (maybe that explains my longstanding fascination with exceptionally loud and abrasive music).

The point of this is that the stark minimalism of 808s & Heartbreak is, to steal a title of a track on the album, "Amazing." Not once, not ever, does the music ("beats" may be more appropriate in many cases) overwhelm the words (seeing as how rap is, as my American Folk & Pop Music instructor called it, poetry set to a beat, the words are pretty important). The starkness of many of Kanye's compositions are as grabbing and compelling as any I've heard in overproduced and messy (or full and rich) pieces of music.

Very rarely do I think (hah) that style consciously supports content, in any sort of art form (popular or otherwise - these days, anyway). 808s & Heartbreak is not one of those failures, not in my opinion. The frequently sparse soundscapes, coupled with his heavily processed, Auto Tune-d vocals (delivering some overwrought, but I believe heartfelt, meditations on loneliness, disappointment, alienation and love - which itself can be the root cause of all three of the former feelings), all feed into this overarching theme of disconnection and near-inhumanity (if we are, indeed, social animals, then an inability to socialize and connect would likely result in a subject's dehumanization. But I'm losing sight of the point by unleashing all of this mock-scientific theorizing). The synthetic, detached, inhuman nature of the music all feeds in to this.

I'm rather fascinated with almost every single track on the album; I think "Say You Will" is an incredible opening song. The ballsiness of the whole thing is really compelling (the same guy who used so much on "Gold Digger" creates this beautifully minimal track that, I think, is far more effective than the sonic collage of the other song) - I think you have to have a lot of faith in your work to be unwilling to busy it up with too many bells and whistles. "Welcome to Heartbreak" is a near-perfect followup, in the ways it amps up the energy and the attitude. "Heartless" pulls me in with its nearly exhausting fatalism... Let's put some lyrics on display, shall we?

"So I got something new to see/
And you just gon' keep hatin' me/
And we just gon' be enemies/
I know you can't believe/
I could just leave it wrong/
and you can't make it right/
Im gon' take off tonight/
In to the night..."

"Amazing" is the obligatory Kanye self-love fest ("My reign is as far as your eyes can see"), at least until Young Jeezy's part begins. I think the presence of the guest stars on this album is incredibly important, moreso than to most albums of this sort. Since Kanye's carved out this specific persona, this character for himself, the difference between him and Young Jeezy/Lil Wayne/Kid Cudi/Mr. Hudson is amplified to an exceptional degree. Their posturing is juxtaposed with his am-I-even-human-anymore act over and over again, and I think this experiment is where the album succeeds most thorougly, and what brings it up a few notches from potentially forgettable fuckaround to true art. To wit, Young Jeezy at the end of "Amazing:"

I’m amazing (amazing), yeah I’m all that (all that)/
If I ain’t on my grind than what you call that (what you call that)/
Victorious, yeah we warriors/
We make history, strive for victory (yeah)"

It's the delivery that sells it, and I can't replicate it as text-only.

"Love Lockdown" is the track that's most invaded my thoughts, because I think it's basically perfect. The minimalism of the album reaches another crescendo here with the muted bass part, the piano, and the robotic (but almost frantic all the same) drumming that comes in during the chorus. It covers a lot of the same ground that "Heartless" covers, except that I think it takes an important cue from the best of the New Wave songs, where it masks its darkness with danceability (he's also singing more here of a poisoned love, which is fairly different from a flat-out flawed one). I'm also quite taken with the effect he uses on the "system overload" lyric (actually, the Auto Tuning that builds up to that point is also pretty awesome)... It's just an extraordinary piece of music, and would've been my favorite song I'd heard this year, if we were in an alternate universe.

"Paranoid" is much more lush of a song than its immediate predecessor, which I think works well in its favor. The songs with greater, fuller production tend to involve more activity and less obvious introspection, and this falls in line with that (another case of form involving content, I'd contend).

"Robocop" passes on the robotic-as-less-than-human conceit to West's target this time, rather than just the artist himself (the instrumental that comprises the first 15 seconds of the track is, I think, fairly reminiscent of any number of Portishead songs):

"Cause I don't want no robocop/
You moving like a robocop/
When did you become a robocop/
No I don't need no robocop"

The strings that inhabit a lot of the musical space of "Robocop" seem out of place at first, but they do quite a lot to inform West's place as the human in the song, I think.

"Street Lights" keeps West's voice covered with a static-y sheen from start to finish (a fascinating counter to the un-altered female vocals that persist throughout the song with him); just when we think he might be escaping this self-imposed disconnect towards the end of "Robocop," it comes roaring back with a vengeance through the album's end.

"Bad News" takes the artificiality that's permeated the album to its logical extreme, where every piece of the song contributes to reaching the same end, that of an intentional disconnect from "humanity" so as to avoid any more gut-wrenching, heart-fracturing, thought-obsessing pain. In the second verse, that very point comes through best:

"People will talk/
Like its old news/
I played it off and act like i already knew/
Let me ask you/
how long have you known too/
You played it off and act like he's brand new"

"See You In My Nightmare" is 808s & Heartbreak's other track that caught my attention right from the start, and kept it. West (and featured performer Lil Wayne) reclaims some of his power in this song, casting aside the epynomous "you" in favor of, well, himself. What's most interesting to me, though, is the difference between the lyrics delivered by Mr. West, and those that belong to Mr. Carter (the aforementioned Lil Wayne).

I got my life and its my only one/
I got the night, I’m running from the sun/
So goodnight, I made it out the door (door door door door)/
After tonight, there will be no return/
After tonight, I’m taking off on the road/
I’m taking off on the road"

Lil Wayne:
"I got the right to put up a fight/
But not quite cause you cut off my light/
But my sight is better tonight and I might/
See you in my nightmare/
Oh but how did you get there/
Cause we were once a fairytale/
But this is fair well yeaah"

Kanye's place as the least aggressive character on his own album intrigues me to no end, if for no other reason than the fact that it's so atypical in this particular genre of music (the alpha male rarely ever brags about how he's running away from his problems). Of course, it's tough to sound much more aggressive than Lil Wayne, so that works in Kanye's favor here, too.

"Coldest Winter" reminds me a lot of a stereotypical 80s synth pop song, and there's not anything wrong with that. It's also got one of my favorite lyrics in the entire album:

If spring can take the snow away
Can it melt away all our mistakes"

I think there's a lot of beauty in somewhat repurposing the "rebirth" aspect of spring this way. It almost ends the album on a hopeful note, until Kanye closes it with, "I won't ever love again, never again." Talk about your bleak closers.

As Dante Hicks would've said, it ends on a down note, and that's what life is. That's why I would've loved it this time last year, even more than I already do. I'm just at a place in my life where optimism is more... pronounced, and I'd like to keep it that way. I love 808s & Heartbreak, but not as much as other things.

07 January 2009

a less-than-totally-transatlantic listening experience (part 2 of the 2008 retrospective)

When I was young (younger, anyway), I didn't go seeking out new and interesting music. I was more or less happy to listen to whatever variation on alternative rock radio I could find, and pick up recommendations from my older, wiser acquaintances (be they friend, relative, or stranger who liked my Pearl Jam shirt). I did not, to use a term I certainly cannot take credit for coining, "own" my music experience (or any sort, really. When you're in junior high, you don't "own" much).

That changed for me, in a stunningly original turn of events, when I got to college. Worlds upon worlds of music existed outside of my limited, private school experience thus far. Music meant to wash over you as the tide washes over sand, music that crashes into you with the force of a hit-and-run. This posting will deal with one band that produces the former.

I wish I could remember how I first heard about Sigur Ros, but I can't. All I recall is seeing the cover image of their album () on Amazon.com (a link from a page concerning a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, I believe - can't remember how I learned about Godspeed, either), and then purchasing that same album at the university's bookstore the next day (one of the few remaining CDs in their soon-to-be-liquidated collection, bizarrely enough). Listening to it on the bus ride back to Denver that afternoon, I fell in love (with the album - but especially the sixth track, which I later learned is called "E-Bow"). Afterwards, w
e were off to the proverbial races.

I contented myself with what I referred to as "The Parenthetical Album" for a while, until Takk..., which I believe is their masterpiece, came out. It's a case study in pacing, in build-climax-release (I know that sounds dirty) songwriting, in making something that's really and truly beautiful, that can transcend any sort of barriers that might have been inherent in its creation (in this case, see "language"). "Saeglopur" is gorgeous whether you understand Icelandic or not.

This brings us to #4 on my list of favorite albums for 2008: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust.

It's tough to imagine Sigur Ros putting out an album that's anything less than majestic, that doesn't add another few pages to the chapter that they have all to themselves in the book of music; put another way, I doubt they could ever make a "forgettable album," and they certainly didn't do that here. If there was one way I could think to describe Med Sud, it would be as the happy Sigur Ros album.

Don't get me wrong, now, for I've had more than my fair share of joyful moments listening to their other albums, but that's more due to the epic sweep of the music, my unabashed enjoyment of it, rather than the overarching tone of the pieces themselves. That changed with the very first moment of Med Sud, with as un-Sigur Ros of a song as I'd ever expected them to make: "Gobbledigook."

In bright, shining contrast to the tightly constructed, string-and-keys heavy music that I've come to associate with Sigur Ros, "Gobbledigook" is very nearly a beautiful mess of a song, bringing Jonsi Birgisson's voice to the song's very forefront, over a pronounced guitar and percussion section. It's about three minutes long, which is something of a rarity for a Sigur Ros song, but it's also in possession of a tone that's not simply ethereal and gorgeous; indeed, it's straight-up joyful. That sets the stage for a very different, yet totally familiar, Sigur Ros album.

I could easily see every song on this album as celebration songs, of one sort or another ("Fljotavik" - for my money, the most Sigur Ros-y song on the record - wouldn't fit the same sort of event that "Festival" would, and neither one of them are much like "Vid Spilum Endalaust," except that their Sigur Ros DNA is pretty apparent), which is something of a drastic departure from music that could mostly only be described as the audio accompaniment to a trek across, or over, the band's native land of Iceland.

"Festival" and "Ara Batur" deserve some special singling-out as the two most traditional Sigur Ros songs on the album (the two longest, not surprisingly). While "Festival" dispenses somewhat with the to-be-expected "slow burn"-style build that I love ever so much (around the 4:30 mark, the percussion kicks in and the song never looks back), I like the fact that there's so much of the classic Sigur Ros, and the "new" (if I can really legitimately call it that), as well. Again, I'm going back to the joy (dare I say, "playfulness?") that's rampant throughout Med Sud, only here it's painted with that fragile, ice-like sheen that I expect to cover most of their songs (except for the drummer crashing through over and over again. I think Orri Dyrason's drums are as pronounced as they're ever going to get here - he reminds me of Jimmy Chamberlain a bit). "Ara Batur" is straight out of the Sigur Ros playbook, but I defy anyone to not feel on the verge of tears (of... what's the word I'm looking for here?) for very nearly the entirety of the song's closing minutes.

"All Alright," the closer track, is noteworthy for the inclusion of a third language into the vocal stylings of the band - English has now joined Icelandic, and Birgisson's Hopelandic. I don't quite know, still, how I feel about this departure. I very much liked getting a feeling from their music, and not a burning desire to understand precisely what they're getting at (the "meaning," if you will). At the same time, I very much like that they're taking something of a risk, that they're flexing their muscles a bit (though, if this is simply a concession to their international fanbase, I'd rather they not make another). What is art, or life, without some risk?

I think I'll end here by saying that this is the Sigur Ros album I've come to appreciate the best after a live performance; I think the songs, in a lot of ways, are best represented with a performance, and not a recording (and with a large group of people around you). Don't you think it's better to celebrate with a bunch of friends, and not alone?

05 January 2009

solidifying an opinion (part 1 of the 2008 retrospective)

For me personally, 2008 was a pretty darn successful year. I got promoted at work and got to slide out from under a particularly useless supervisor, we produced our first lengthy motion picture, I jumped ahead a good five years in my life plan when I got to talk to Steve Zuckerman on the phone, I landed a girlfriend that's ridiculously ideal in every conceivable way, and neo-con, government-hating Republican policy got repudiated in the clearest possible way in November (I don't know what'll happen in 2 weeks, or after that, but I can hope... for change, right?). I guess the meltdown of the global economy isn't exactly "good," but since I've not been fired yet, I'm not able to complain too much (except about the "bailout," which seems more to be a handout to the top 1% that steered us into this mess in the first place)...

But, we're getting sidetracked (as I am wont to do). The point here is to put forth the first portion of my series of reactions to my favorite music of 2008. This is a significant entry in that it's the second time I've done it on this particular blog, and the first time, it was the most substantial undertaking I'd... undertaken in this space's short existence. Now, here comes the foll
ow-up. Pray that I can be as thoughtful and (I hope) interesting as I was last time.

Just to clarify once again, "favorite" is different from "best." As someone who's more an enthusiast than even a burgeoning expert on music, I feel more comfortable labeling my list with the former, rather than the latter. That being said...

My Favorite Albums of 2008:

1. United Nations - United Nations
TV On The Radio - Dear Science
3. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
5. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels

I still haven't finalized a set of recipients for my list of major awards, so that'll come later. But for now, let's tackle #5 on the list.

My introduction to Randy Newman came from, not surprisingly, Toy Story, specifically his song, "You've Got A Friend In Me" that played at the end of the film. I loved the song (I love the movie, in case that was a subject of curiosity), but I didn't do too much to investigate the man singing the song (which probably has something to do with the fact that I was 12 years old when it came out). I also recall that he performs a duet with Mister Lyle Lovett on The Road to Ensenada; a song called "Long, Tall Texan," I believe (my parents and I share an affection for Lyle - I've seen him at Red Rocks twice, and had a great time both times).

I'll come clean and admit that I don't own a single Randy Newman album beyond Harps and Angels, but I don't think that prevents me from appreciating it. I'd heard someone (and I'm paraphrasing here) say that Harps and Angels was Randy Newman at his Randy Newman-est (especially recently, what with all of his soundtrack work), and, well, what the hell? It's only money, and time (two of my most valuable commodities, actually)... Moments later, thanks to iTunes, I grabbed it, and listened.

It's a special album that can make time fly past without my even noticing it. Pearl Jam's self-titled album is really great at that, as is Funeral, and The Colour & The Shape, just to name a few others. Harps and Angels should be added to that list. Perhaps its relatively brief running time (just about 35 minutes) contributes to that, but hey, the greatest writer in the history of the English language declared brevity to be the soul of wit, so the fact that Mr. Newman can say what he wants to say and be done with it in a reasonable span of time is worth noting.

What strikes me - what's always struck me when I've heard his songs - is how well he can balance sincere almost-sentimentality with an impressively biting wit. As an example, let's take... well, almost every single track on the album (with the notable exceptions of "Losing You" and "Feels Like Home," but we'll get to those later). In the interest of expediency, let's go with the first track on the album (the title track, interestingly enough), where Newman's character suffers a heart attack and heads up to heaven, only to be turned back at the last second, because it's not his time. He's given some life advice before he departs, though, in order to prevent him from hearing, not harps and angels, but "trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tamborines." In the end of the song, he passes on these pearls of wisdom to his buddies.

I'll pull two bits from the lyrics to illustrate the careful balance Newman can walk effortlessly:

As I lay there on that cold pavement/
A tear ran down my face/
'Cause I thought I was dying/
You boys know I'm not a religious man/
But I sent a prayer out just in case/
You never know"


"So actually the main thing about this story is for me/
There really is an afterlife/
And I hope to see all of you there/
Let's go get a drink"

Admittedly, reading the lyrics without the priviledge of hearing his delivery (unlike any other as it is) only has maybe 40% of the impact of the song itself, but I think the snippets make my point for me. As the character lies on the ground, convinced he's about to die, the thought that flashes through his mind is to pray, just in case God's real, and at the close, when he has his epiphany about the existence of the afterlife, and how important it'll be for him to have his friends there with him, he cools the situation down by taking everyone out to the bar. This little skill of his might well make him one of the best, most human of songwriters, for his ability to create real people, with real human qualities, in barely five minutes time, is enviable (to put it mildly).

As I mentioned last year, I appreciate an artist's engagement with the world outside of him/herself, and the middle of the album (tracks 4-7, I'd say) is bursting at the seams with precisely that. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" delivers precisely what it promises (fatalism, with a dash of hope mixed in), "A Piece of the Pie" is addressed to those people who've had it worst during the series of terrible collapses we've been forced to endure these past few months, and "Korean Parents" explains, in no uncertain terms, why America's "falling behind" (everyone - the Korean immigrants that are the focus of the song, for instance - is working themselves harder than we are). The character Newman voices in "Korean Parents" proposes an interesting solution: white kids should purchase his parents to provide them with sufficient motivation to get ahead.

Let's take a look at "A Few Words..." in order to enjoy Mr. Newman's wordsmithing once again:

Just a few words in defense of our country/
Whose time at the top/
Could be coming to an end/
Now we don’t want their love/
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question/
But in times like these/
We sure could use a friend"

I love his delivery; I call it that because while he doesn't always speak, he sure doesn't sing. The songs wouldn't be half the songs they are if he wasn't the one articulating them.

I'll touch on "Losing You" at the close here (I'd write paragraph upon paragraph about "Feels Like Home," but then I wouldn't have anything to write when the time came to list my favorite song of last year - yes, I know it's been recorded before. Well, let me say this: they're perfect counterpoints to one another) by mentioning that it's a beautiful song, the sort of song that only Randy Newman, and only Randy Newman right now, could record. Just when you're getting ready for a riotously good time, hearing Newman lambaste the awful men and women that've run America for the last eight years, he throws something like this at you (which is perfect, by the way):

When you're young/
And there's time/
To forget the past/
You don't think you will/
But you do/
But I know that I don't have time enough/
And I'll never get over losing you"

I believe that's the sort of song Rob Gordon refers to when he worries about kids listening to thousands - literally, thousands - of songs about heartbreak, rejection, and lonliness. Regardless of the effect it might've had on my subconscious, I'm glad I heard it, and the songs that surround it. Sometimes the only way we can stay sane is to cry, or laugh, or maybe both, alternating hot and cold.

So, there's Harps and Angels. Next time, the new Sigur Ros album (as promised several months ago, right?).