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Bad Lieutenant: Sink or Swim/Dynamo (2009) September 30, 2009

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Bad Lieutenant: Sink or Swim/Dynamo

Bad Lieutenant: Sink or Swim/Dynamo

We’re back in another period in which a New Order reunion seems extremely unlikely, so it’s up to the side projects to keep us going. Bad Lieutenant is Bernard Sumner’s latest. and though the lineup is different, it doesn’t sound all that far removed from where his previous side band, Electronic, ended up: melodic Britpop guitar rock.

It may seem a bit anticlimactically normal for someone who was part of Joy Division and New Order to make such conventional rock music, but it’s well crafted, it’s still Barney singing, and it’s not really a departure from some of the songs on the last couple of New Order and Electronic albums.

“Sink or Swim” particularly echoes the guitar side of New Order, a midtempo tune with electric and acoustic guitars (Peter Hook’s bass is sorely missed; the bass is anonymous by comparison). The chorus has a decent hook, and after the bridge, some backing vocals make the song a bit bigger, catchier, and more generally engaging. Three listens in and I’m liking this a lot, and hoping the album (due in a couple weeks) is as good.

“Dynamo”… well, if this were a physical 7” single, it’d be the b-side, not the a-side. There’s a pulsing keyboard line in the background, but it’s less reminiscent of Sumner’s earlier bands than of the Who. It’s not as catchy as “Sink or Swim,” and the occasional little electronic sound effects sound out of place on a song that, with just a little less inspiration, could be a throwaway Oasis tune. Very classic rock ending: harmonica, then more of a Who sound, then the guitars crash back in and the drums pound away and Barney doo-doo-doos and repeats “whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do” a few times, then back to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the last few seconds. It’s a lot less impressive than “Sink or Swim.”

So: one good song, one meh song. When the album shows up on eMusic (I assume it will, because the single did) I’ll download it and hope for more of the former.

Wir: Vien (1997) September 24, 2009

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Wir: Vien (1997)

Wir: Vien (1997)

I don’t think I’ve actually listened to this before now, and I’ve had it for about a year. Oops.

The band Wire has gone through a few phases of activity and inactivity. There was the punk era Wire, who released three studio albums and a sort of live album before disappearing around 1980, then the version that reappeared for the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, then the one that reappeared earlier in this decade. For part of the second era, they shortened their name to Wir, to reflect the (temporary) departure of drummer Robert Gotobed. This two-song, 25-minute EP was the last thing they released before hibernating.

“The First Letter” begins with five minutes of ambient noise drone before an aggressive rock song starts grinding in, almost industrial, with Colin Newman’s growled distorted vocals, a busy beat, a rhythmic single note medlody, and other guitar (and possibly synth) lines weaving around. And it goes on. Wire once released an album called The Drill, several songs based on more or less the same base, something Wire calls dugga, a repetitive rhythm. This is somewhat similar, as a core song, with no verse/chorus/bridge variations, plays through but different sounds are added and subtracted and different vocals appear and disappear, the song noisily winding down over the last of its sixteen minutes.

“Sexy and Rich (Janet)” starts with some muttered German and synth whooshes, the former disappearing quickly, the latter building up and layering on more sounds gradually (this is reminding me a little of some of Neu!’s quieter tracks right now). Two minutes in, an electric guitar has appeared and the drums are starting to show up in the mix. Whereas the first track switches abruptly from experimental to rockish, this is a much more gradual transition. By three minutes in, Graham Lewis has begun singing. This is a bit more musical and pleasant than the first track, but it’s still a long way from pop music. Well, pop music from a robot’s nightmare, maybe.

This is quite good, actually. The last couple of albums from Wire’s second phase, Wire’s Manscape and Wir’s The First Letter, never did a lot for me. This has me thinking I should give them another chance. And keep this in rotation, too.

Mekons: So Good It Hurts (1988) September 24, 2009

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Mekons: So Good It Hurts

Mekons: So Good It Hurts

There’s cult bands, and then there’s the Mekons. They first appeared during the late ’70s punk scene and are still around, through an endless series of lineup changes, musical styles, side projects, and legendary live shows. I’ve encountered people online who see the Mekons every chance they get, buy all the albums, argue the merits of various side projects, and evangelize the Mekon cause to all who will listen. But I’ve never really managed to get completely into them.

I own one Mekons CD, I ♥ Mekons, which I bought because I loved the song “Millionaire,” an upbeat new wavey pop tune with a dreamy vocal by Sally Timms. But the rest of the album never really connected with me; I just kept playing “Millionaire” on repeat. But I kept hearing how great the Mekons were, and how their album Fear and Whiskey was a big alt.country influence, and I remembered liking “Ghosts of American Astronauts” when I saw the video ages back, so I got a couple of Mekons albums from eMusic, one of them being So Good It Hurts.

The album starts with a slightly skewed take on Caribbean-influenced ’70s pop rock, with a bit of a reggae feel, male vocals, and a lovely violin line, with lyrics that undercut the pleasant music. Then comes the utterly essential country-influenced ballad, “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” a song whose lyrics, which read like a condensed J.G. Ballard story, are sung beautifully by Timms. This is the one likely to get played indefinitely on repeat.

The next track is a good, pounding rocker, “Road to Florida,” a definite change of pace. Next up is a reggae take on “Johnny Miner,” which reminds me for some reason of the Clash’s Sandinista. Timms is back on “Dora,” another country/folk-tinged ballad, and another reason I should be listening to this album much more regularly. (It’s no coincidence that I have two of her solo albums.) Next track, “Poxy Lips,” is a fun, fast number that sounds a bit like the Pogues gone Cajun.

The stylistic adventuring continues with the slower, folky (with synths) “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian,” which incorporates a bit of a tropical feel in the guitar line. “Fantastic Voyage” is a rockier, driving tune, which sounds (am I really saying this?) a bit like the anthemic ’80s rockers like Big Country and U2. It’s back to the islands, again with a hint of Poguesiness, for “Robin Hood.” Then Timms is back for a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone,” played straight. “Maverick” is a more upbeat tune with big backing vocals alternating with the male vocal lead, for an almost country gospel feel.

It seems a bit odd to end with songs called, respectively, “Vengeance” and “Revenge,” but that’s what happens. The former is a fiddle-driven folk song, while the latter again reminds me a bit of the Clash’s style-mashing on Sandinista, though Timms is singing again, on a rockin’ tune about, naturally, revenge.

So… overall, the album isn’t necessarily helped by the stylistic mishmash, any more than the aforementioned Sandinista was. There are many good songs but they don’t really cohere into something greater. On a few songs, I think the production sounds a bit dated, too.

But the highlights on this album are so damn good. I don’t know if I need to play this album a lot more or just start going through Mekons stuff to build a compilation of the best tunes, but I can’t go too long without listening to some of these songs again.

Billy Currie: Push (2002) September 23, 2009

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Billy Currie: Push

Billy Currie: Push

Continuing my posts about albums I downloaded from eMusic and never seem to listen to, here’s one in a series of instrumental solo albums from Billy Currie, the keyboardist/violinist/viola player from Ultravox. Currie’s synths, especially his ARP Odyssey, and string playing were a distinctive part of the Ultravox sound, both in the John Foxx era and the Midge Ure era. So how does he fare on his own?

Currie’s first solo album, Transportation (1988), featured Yes guitarist Steve Howe on several tracks. It struck me at the time as kind of Vangelis-lite, floating somewhere between progressive rock and new age music, so I was disappointed with it. I’ve revisited it a couple of times over the years without changing my opinion. In fact, I’ve had similar impressions from a lot of Currie’s solo work, which is why I don’t listen to it much (I’ve downloaded a lot of it from eMusic because of the Ultravox connection and because hope springs eternal).

Push, according to Currie’s website, is about two things: using something called Granular Synthesis to allow him to play his viola and interact with samples being played back in real time, and to record some dance-oriented tracks with a bit of a rock edge. Sounds promising enough. Currie’s solo stuff has tended to feel too pretty and sedate by comparison to his Ultravox work.

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Tombs: Tombs (2008) September 23, 2009

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Tombs: Tombs

Tombs: Tombs

I think I came across this while looking for metalgaze, that ill-defined blend of metal and shoegazer that can be applied to bands as disparate as Jesu, Nadja, Angelic Process, and Alcest. This didn’t seem to be quite what I was looking for when I downloaded it a few months ago, which is why I haven’t listened to it much. It owes a lot to hardcore punk, including the vocal style, which really differentiates it from shoegazer. Apparently, it’s the album after this EP that has more of a ‘gazer sound, but that one’s not on eMusic. So… what am I listening to?

If there’s a shoegazer connection, it’s the pounding and noisy My Bloody Valentine of songs like “You Made Me Realise” and “Feed Me With Your Kiss,” not the more tranquil and hyperproduced Loveless version of the band (don’t get me wrong, I love that album). Tombs uses loud squalling guitars in its songs, which tend to be a bit slower than a lot of hardcore and metal.

A Decibel article on the band mentions Swans and Black Flag as influences along with MBV, and I can definitely hear that; I’d already thought that Tombs had the churning anger and hostility of Black Flag’s Damaged multiplied by the noisier side of MBV, but Swans (their earlier noise dirge stuff) fits too, and I’m reminded a bit of Helmet occasionally. The vocals on the penultimate track occasionally almost drift into silly metal cookie monster territory, but they aren’t actually that much more extreme than the vocals elsewhere on the EP, which tend to be shouted or howled. But this song is definitely more metal than punk once it kicks off. The last track, “Hallways of the Always,” is where I hear the most Helmet, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

I’ve never really been able to get into mainstream metal much, aside from Motorhead and some Metallica, but I’ve found some good music over the years that lurks around the edges. I think this deserves to be added to that list, even if it’s not quite what I initially expected.

Out Hud: Let Us Never Speak of It Again (2005) September 23, 2009

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Out Hud: Let Us Never Speak of It Again

Out Hud: Let Us Never Speak of It Again

(Damn, that’s an ugly album cover.)

Okay, let’s listen to some of that music that’s been listened to once or twice and all but forgotten about, as discussed in the last post.

Out Hud is one of those New York bands lumped into the dancepunk scene a few years ago, like the Rapture, !!!, and LCD Soundsystem and… well, I never really got into that scene, so I dunno. (Too often I could hear what I thought the bands in that scene were trying to do, but they didn’t have the hooks or the songs to pull it off.)

Apparently they started out a bit noisier and more confrontational but by this album they’re playing straightforward ’80s revivalism, pretty much. A mix of synthpop, electro, and disco is what I’m hearing so far, smooth danceable beats, synths, airy female vocals, a little noise burst of jagged electric guitar here and there… they’re pushing a lot of my buttons, I have to admit. I like Ladytron, I like Ladyhawke, I like Annie, I like Sally Shapiro, I just downloaded Telepathe, so I do like girls singing over synths and dance beats and a whole lot of ’80sness. I like some ’90s electronica, too, and that sound is present here as well.

As the album goes on, it moves away from that dance pop sound a bit. The fifth track, “The Song So Good They Named It Thrice,” is a long, stomping dance instrumental, and though the next track, “How Long,” ends up solidly in that girly dance pop arena, it has a long, atmospheric intro. “2005: A Face Odyssey” has a bit of a ’70s instrumental soul/disco feel blended in with the ’80s electronics.

So how did this slip between the cracks and not get the kind of attention Ladytron et al. get in this house? So far, I’m not sure. There’s not a hell of a lot of personality to some of the music but there’s nothing obviously wrong, either. It may have suffered from coming out when I was spending a lot of time listening to the more guitar-oriented revivalists, like Interpol, Bloc Party, the Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand, etc. As I listen to more of this, I find myself liking it more, and it’s getting more interesting (“The Zillionth Watt” is an odd, very short track starting with a wave of harps and distorted vocals; the harps drop out, a beat kicks in, and shortly thereafter, we’re into the next big dance tune).

I’m making a mental note not to let this slide back into the vault of forgotten albums.

Listening September 23, 2009

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Telepathe: Dance Mother

Telepathe: Dance Mother

At the eMusic bulletin board, one regular user announced that he was leaving, not because of the changes at eMusic, but because he has too much music he never listens to, and eMusic’s subscription model just makes that problem worse. I’m not going to quit eMusic any time soon, I hope, but I can see his point.

I’ve downloaded two albums and an EP from eMusic today (Telepathe and TV on the Radio). I’m halfway through listening to one album, haven’t listened to the others yet, and if I give into the strong temptation to go have some coffee and something to eat, I may get caught up in doing something else and not get around to the other stuff I downloaded. And then I may forget about it.

I downloaded the new Maximo Park and Julian Plenti albums a few days ago. I don’t think I’ve listened to either one all the way through yet. I know I listened to the new Lavay Smith all the way through once or twice. The new Sally Shapiro, two or three times. The new Robin Guthrie and the xx, half a dozen or a dozen times, probably. Robert Hampson — a few minutes of it. Andrew Liles — most of it, once, though I liked it a lot.

As great as it is to be able to access so much music so quickly and easily and relatively inexpensively, as great as it is to hear about an interesting new band or genre and be able to hear some of it right away, it’s breadth at the expense of depth. Downloads from eMusic don’t come with liner notes or lyric sheets. That old experience of opening a record or CD and putting it on the stereo, then settling back with the sleeve/jewel box/whatever to read through while listening to the music, doesn’t happen so often. Now it’s more about downloading something while doing something else on the PC, listening to it for a little while until there’s something else to do, and maybe getting back to it. I do sometimes listen to something while googling for reviews and articles about it, but my interaction with the music and the material I’m reading is more active, less immersive.

I like getting to know an album, getting to the point where as one song ends I’m hearing the beginning of the next before it actually starts playing, having songs pop up in my mind at times when I’m not listening to music. Not that long ago I came across a reference to a guitar solo in a particular David Bowie song. How did that solo go again? I basically played the whole song in my head, from memory — oh, yeah, that solo! But that song is on an album I bought when I only had a few dozen records, and it’s one I still love, so I’ve heard it a lot of times. I can’t do that with anything from the last several years. (The downside to that familiarity is that sometimes the music has made such well-worn grooves in my memory that the album plays through and never really grabs my attention; it’s over before I notice it. That’s why I sometimes like using shuffle, or listening to alternate versions of old favourites (live, Peel sessions, demos, etc) — I actually hear everything again.)

I guess that’s part of the point of this blog that no one reads: it’s about reminding me to listen closely to music, to think about it, to value it.

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram: Rue Britannia (2007) September 12, 2009

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Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram: Rue Britannia

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram: Rue Britannia

Sleeper. Echobelly. Elastica. Blur. Suede. Kula Shaker. Oasis. Ash. The Boo Radleys. The more of these names you recognize, the better this book — an omnibus collection of a comic book miniseries — will work for you. (If you don’t recognize many of them, there’s a few pages at the back of the book devoted to explaining who all these people are.)

Phonogram: Rue Britannia is the first collection of Phonogram comics by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s been described as Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity crossed with John Constantine, Hellblazer — in other words, tendentious and opinionated music fandom meets British supernatural horror in comic book form.

Rue Britannia is about the Britpop moment in the mid-’90s and is full of references to bands from that scene, the good, the bad, and the mediocre. The main character, an arrogant magician who’s something of a John Constantine knockoff, defines himself so much by his musical taste that he knows something is going badly wrong when he starts feeling mildly charitable towards some of the lesser lights of the Britpop scene. It’s an amusing conceit and helps make it clear that this isn’t just a lower budget version of Hellblazer.

The musical references are not only essential to the plot; for some readers, the musical commentary may prove the most entertaining aspect of the book. I think I may be one of them, because Gillen spends more time on making sure you know what the protagonist, phonomancer David Kohl, thinks about music than he does on making sure you get how the magic and the pantheon of gods and goddesses work.

The art is clean and clear, and the original covers of the individual issues are based on Britpop album covers.

Anyone who reads comics and remembers Britpop may find this worth a look. I have a feeling I’m going to find the next one, currently being produced in individual comic form, more up my alley, as Kohl’s not the main character and it’s about more recent UK pop, like the Pipettes and Long Blondes. I trust Gillen’s new phonomancers like the right bands. The one mistake Kohl makes is to class Echobelly among the mediocre rather than the good.

The Beatles: Rock Band (2009) September 12, 2009

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The Beatles: Rock Band

The Beatles: Rock Band

My wife Laura decided to buy this game the other day, and we’ve played a fair bit of it. Looking at it as an example of musical video games, it feels a lot easier to play on medium difficulty than the other Rock Band and Guitar Hero games we’ve played, and the main storyline doesn’t take a heck of a long time to get through. We suspect that this is because a lot of people who’ve never played one of these games before are going to pick this one up for the Beatles angle, and no one wants the newbies to give up frustrated. Visually it’s very striking, and there’s a good selection of songs.

As for the Beatlesness of it… we don’t have a lot of Beatles stuff in this house, because for a very long time I soaked up the Beatles from so many different directions (cartoons, radio, friends’ albums, etc). that it just didn’t seem necessary to actually own any of it. If anything, I wanted to avoid the Beatles. But hearing them in the game, having to pay more attention to the songs, almost makes me want to go out and buy some CDs. Some of the old familiar songs sound fresh and fun, and some that weren’t quite as familiar, the ones I’d heard but couldn’t instantly place from reading the titles — e.g., “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “If I Needed Someone” — sound almost revelatory. Having listened to so much other music over the years, I can hear connections to other bands and other songs I might not have made before. Which is not to say there aren’t some duds. A lot of the late Beatles songs played in the last level or two of the game sound like self-indulgent jams rather than well-crafted songs. I don’t think I’ll ever develop any kind of appreciation for “I’ve Got a Feeling,” for example. In fact, most of the songs from the last level, the Rooftop Concert, left me thinking the Beatles should have broken up a bit earlier.

Overall, it’s a fun introduction to the music of the Beatles combined with a simplified and streamlined look at their career. I’d kind of like to see the game get opened up a little to include some solo material by the various ex-Beatles, but I really doubt that will happen.

John Foxx: Metamatica, Urban Motets, Metatronic, Metadelic (unreleased) September 11, 2009

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John Foxx: Urban Motets

John Foxx: Urban Motets

John Foxx recorded three albums as leader of Ultravox in the late ’70s and four solo albums in the early ’80s before disappearing from the music scene for several years. In the late ’90s he reappeared with two albums on his own Metamatic label, the ambient Cathedral Oceans and a collaboration with Louis Gordon, Shifting City. Since then, he’s released more than two dozen albums, including collaborations with several other musicians, interview albums, live albums, and more.

But there are a few that fans are still wondering about.
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August’s eMusic downloads September 11, 2009

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Ghosthack: S.E.L. ep

Ghosthack: S.E.L. ep

Dubstep singles again. Faib, Liondub, MRK 1, Moldy, and Jack Sparrow, among others, and the much talked about Crissy Cris, whose big dumb banger style turns out not to be my thing. Plus an EP by Ghosthack, a German producer who’s heavily influenced by the excellent anime series Serial Experiments: Lain.

Grouper: Cover the Windows and the Walls. Somewhere between the Kranky Records sound of the mid-’90s (Jessica Bailiff in particular) and a more ambient take on the “rural psychedelia” of Flying Saucer Attack. (Not that that’s all that wide a divide, given that Bailiff and FSA’s David Pearce collaborated on the clear horizon album for Kranky.)

Robert Hampson: Vectors. Hampson was the leader of the loud psychedelic/shoegazerish rock band Loop but, after that band ended, moved to much more abstract experimental noise/music with little remaining trace of rock, with his project Main and elsewhere. I’m going to have to push myself to listen to this one, I think, because as much as I liked Loop, I haven’t really developed much of an appreciation for most of Hampson’s other stuff. On the other hand, three long tracks, three download credits, worth a shot.

Andrew Liles: The Dying Submariner. According to the AMG review quoted at eMusic, the subtitle of this album is “A Concerto for Piano and Reverberation in Four Movements.” Sounds about right. Reminiscent of the Caretaker, this is atmospheric, droning, and occasionally surprisingly musical. Once I’ve absorbed this, I may try out some of Liles’s other stuff on eMusic.

The xx: xx. The latest UK indie blog buzz band. I saw comparisons to Young Marble Giants and mention of dubstep influences, listened to the samples, and was instantly sold. I also hear the quieter side of the Jesus and Mary Chain in there, and the mentions of Tricky, the Raveonettes, and Mazzy Star that I’ve seen in other reviews also make a fair bit of sense.

 

Robin Guthrie: Carousel

Robin Guthrie: Carousel. Another album of instrumental guitar music from the former Cocteau Twin, shoegazer icon, and collaborator with Harold Budd, John Foxx, and many others. Not a major departure, but no one else does quite what he does.

Lavay Smith and the Red-Hot Skillet Lickers: Miss Smith to You! One of the best acts by far to come out of the ’90s swing revival, and one long overdue for a new album. We’ve listened to their first two albums quite a lot, and saw a great live show by them ages ago, so this should do pretty well around here too.

Sally Shapiro: My Guilty Pleasure. Another winning blend of Italo disco and synthpop with a touch of melancholy. Doesn’t have the same effect now as hearing “Anorak Christmas” for the first time a couple of years ago, but still good.