Archive for April, 2007

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The Apples In Stereo – New Magnetic Wonder

April 30, 2007

I’m not familiar with any other albums by The Apples In Stereo, but I don’t doubt that this is really their best album yet like so many people are saying. It has apparently been five years since their last release, making this a very pleasant surprise for a lot of people who probably expected that the band was not going to make another album. Just a little background information, The Apples In Stereo were one of the three prime bands to come out of the miniature movement of the Elephant Six “label,” the other two bands being Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. These people with the Elephant Six mindset probably would have been better off making music thirty years earlier than they did, and unfortunately they were in obscurity for most of their careers and didn’t get much radio play. But all of these bands had the same focus, to travel, meet new friends, have fun, and make great folk rock. To say that any of these bands were truly important or not pretentious would be a lie, but it would also be a lie to say that they were not all great. I’m probably not going to go on a huge five paragraph tangent like I usually do rambling about how great this album is, because when I do that, I repeat myself. I’m just going to keep writing this paragraph until I end, and that will be that. What stood out to me first with this album is how freaking long it is. What feels like about half of the album consists of little half minute blurbs of interesting melodic sound that kind of build on what the rest of the album has to say in their quaint little ways. These little filler tracks are the subject of the creative minds of many bands and many people seem to think they thin out the entire experience, when really they do not do anything negative. To me, filler is when a song was included that should not have been included because it was just bad in comparison to the rest of the stuff. If a track is that small, I don’t think that really merits calling filler. I call those tracks “treats.” And the treats here are fairly delicious. After all, if you are not going to be given a full eighty minutes of pure pop bliss, you would at least rather have interesting treats than silence. Just because this album is twenty four tracks long doesn’t mean it is not a muscular release. The songs do not really lose any momentum throughout the disk, which is interesting, because one would think this would be a hard kind of style to keep up. The style is, and bear with me here, kind of like Oasis but better. The problem I had with Oasis albums like Definitely Maybe were that the style did not really switch up at all and it got dull after thirty minutes. What The Apples In Stereo do is spice up every song with unique sounds and production and not just make every song the same feeling with a different hook like Oasis did. Thus, this album is infinitely more interesting and surprising upon further listen than anything from the brit-pop era. There are also explosions of psychedelia floating all over the place, and at times this sounds startlingly like The Beatles if The Beatles were not constrained by their style at any given time. The album art is just crazy. It reminds me of a book I read when I was a kid called Animalia. It is kind of like stepping into a big, colorful time machine, and in that way it might be some kind of vague off-kilter throw back to some Santana or Beatles album covers. Standout tracks are not rare. My favorites are the opening Can You Feel It?, Energy, Sunday Sounds, and the lovely Beautiful Machine cycle. My complaints about this album are pretty much that there is not enough of great things, which I suppose means that some songs are better than others, but when you do as many great things as this album does, staying perfect is not to be expected. I’m juggling between whether I think this is the best album of the year or not. It is definitely very good, but it has The Shins and Explosions In The Sky to measure up to, both of which I love. I think this is an album that will require some further listening, but indie rock fans will really want this. I picked it up on pure speculation and I sure wasn’t disappointed. Psychedelic folk rock by a band that has saved up ideas for five years? Yeah, go for it.

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Yet Another Ten Reviews

April 23, 2007

For some reason, this time I ended up reviewing a lot of albums that I love and not so many that I just like a lot or are in the middle. I pulled some of them out of the vaults. I find it easier to praise than to complain, I guess. Some of these are my absolute favorites. I’ll bitch more next time, I promise.

Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged

This Unplugged concert was, for all intents and purposes, Alice in Chains’ final farewell. There is almost nothing that is not conclusive about this collection of songs, and in some ways it does it’s job very well. Alice in Chains was just screaming for an Unplugged concert, having two acoustic EPs under their belt and an impressive array of softspoken songs alongside their haunting metal. But perhaps there just wasn’t quite enough in the queue for the acoustic treatment. While half of these acoustic takes are absolute treasures, the other half are miscalculated performances of songs that should not have been acoustic in the first place. The renditions of Down in a Hole and Rooster were the only songs appropriate from the bands second album Dirt, and Angry Chair and Would are simply better loud and electric. Frogs probably was not a good choice to include either, nor was Sludge Factory, the name of which lets the listener know it is best played with muddy obnoxious guitars. While these clunkers are present, the rest of the performance is solid. Performances of classics such as Nutshell, Got Me Wrong, and Over Now are among the bands best moments, and unspeakably touching. Some other songs from the Sap and Jar of Flies EPs could have been included, but for the most part the most important cornerstones are hit that should have been hit. Another perk of this show is that the band is in excellent playing condition even after not playing a show for many years, and the guitar sound is as distinct and delicious as many other famous Unplugged shows are known for. The rendition of the unreleased Killer Is Me would have been grounds to buy this in the first place, and it is the perfect closer to the bands career. On one hand some great songs are played here, but the setlist is just not that well thought out. Depending on the listener, this could be either wonderful or bland, thus leaving this to be for the fans only and really a wasted opportunity.

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway

While nothing works effectively as a replacement for a Board of Canada LP, Trans Canada Highway is a more than good way to whet fans appetites. While this is fairly short in terms of new material, it is also easily the best EP Boards of Canada have released yet. Boards of Canada are a band with such scant material that fans delightfully lap up whatever material they can get their hands on. Luckily, this is a solid release and completely consistent despite it’s brevity. Dayvan Cowboy, the head track from The Campfire Headphase, is truly one of the greatest songs Boards of Canada have ever produced, and it is very worthy of being included here as well as being remixed. The remix, however, feels like a completely new song and is not just a throwaway. Trans Canada Highway does almost feel like a miniature BoC LP though, as it almost equally split between longer building signature electronica and short aural vignettes. The two longer new songs, Left Side Drive and Skyliner, are both fantastic and among the bands best. The signature Boards of Canada sound is marginally augmented by a simple matter of experience, and both songs are absolutely gorgeous in every way you love the band to be. Left Side Drive is a great chillout track with a great, steady, varying beat and awesome synthesizers floating in the background. Skyliner is equally as priceless though, layering itself an impressive amount of times and carefully changing the beat in comfortable ways. The two short interludes are both heavenly, otherworldly ambiance that you would expect a group with as much clarity to produce. Trans Canada Highway may simply be a taste of Boards of Canada’s future, but it’s a fantastic EP and a necessary augmentation onto an impressive discography.

Jane’s Addiction – Strays

This really isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. Sure, it doesn’t compare to Nothing’s Shocking or Ritual de lo Habitual, but very few albums do, so what is the point in complaining? People don’t seem to get that they should be thankful that the band came back and did their career justice at all. The album is not as completely standout on a song by song basis, but there are a few of the bands absolute best songs on here. True Nature is the heaviest Perry Ferrel and company have ever been, The Riches is a classic riff that seamlessly transforms into a relaxing segment that is very distinctly Jane’s Addiction, and Just Because and Superhero are very respectable short rockers. All of the other songs are good, just not great. Part of why people complain so much is because these are more aimed at the mainstream, but after doing as much trailblazing as the band did a decade earlier, this is a bit of a relief in some way. The production is solid, but Perry’s voice has deteriorated a little bit and is at his best when he’s really yelling. It’s no question that this is Jane’s Addiction’s worst album and it does not really stand out that much, but it’s a treat that fans will especially love.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

All things considered, Physical Graffiti was the last Led Zeppelin album that really mattered. And it was a surprise too, considering Houses of the Holy was rather disappointing when compared to the bands earlier numbered albums. Fortunately, the bounceback was in the form of a gargantuan double album around the time that the bands popularity was at it’s height and anticipation was at a record high. The album delivered in any way that a fan could ask for, with as much hard blues as could ever be asked for, and enough new heavy sophistication to keep critics who wanted change and variance happy. The disk delivered as a middle ground between every extreme the band had ever relinquished in. Custard Pie is a shorter lighthearted sexual blues knockout, and In My Time of Dying is a marathon ten minute blues epic. Trampled Underfoot is a danceable organ oriented heavy trance, while Night Flight is shorter guitar pop reminiscent of earlier days. Even Led Zeppelin’s love for eastern music is touched on with Kashmir and In The Light, alongside the pounding dinosaur rock of Houses of The Holy. Surprisingly enough, yet another middle ground is reached when one considers that the album was about half full of older unreleased tracks and half new material. The result of all of these factors convening is a colossal smorgesborg for fans of hard rock, and not just Led Zeppelin either, but a wider audience. You could even say this album shows the band in their absolute prime, and although it may never surpass the popularity of IV or II, Physical Graffiti is a grand album and anything but a let down.

Luna – Bewitched

Although Luna’s momentous worth should truly be judged by the span of their long career, their most respectable effort, Bewitched, should not be overlooked. The album not only defined the bands sound for many great albums to come, but presented it with unmatched consistency. The mood that the pleasant dreampop group always tried to convey was a sleepy melodic dreamscape, and if there is one kind of dream that people love to have, they are dreams of love. The impressive aspect of not only this album but Luna in general is that they can do so much with so little; the simple dreamy chords and lullaby bass line gently carry the title track into a definitive sleeping song, and utilizing what could easily be Beatles lyrics, centered around love and wispy attractions. The level of sophistication in the songcraft is also very impressive, and while certain songs like Bewitched and Sleeping Pill may make do with simple strums and reserved beats, others like Great Jones Street and This Time Around boast beautifully spontaneous guitars and complex yet accessible melodies. The album also has two killer openers, setting the mood perfectly. On one hand the more uptempo daytime song California (All The Way) that very well might be the least depressing breakup song ever, and the dropdead gorgeous innocent classic Tiger Lily, that may just make your heart melt. If you have ever wanted a varied collection of top notch dreampop, look no further.

Brian Eno – Another Green World

Essentially, this album was the first venture into the art of synthesizers, loops, and synthetic sounds incorporated into pop music that was easily accessible. And it still stands as an absolutely gorgeous venture even to this day, which makes it even more amazing that it was released in the seventies. Although I hate to quote AMG, the writer of that sites review for this says it best. Another Green World plays like a dream sequence, or at least the ideal dream sequence, of creations both relaxing and structured. The record is almost short lived, and in a way sadly so, because each song almost begs for more time to express itself. This work of art comes in two specific but scattered parts. There are a few melodic pop songs featuring Eno’s pop/rock lyrics that accompany a catchy electronic background. Some of these songs are the compelling St. Elmo’s Fire featuring Robert Fripp on a downright mean guitar, the charming I’ll Come Running, and Sky Saw, which was probably the most out there pop music at the time. The other side of the spectrum are a wealth of amazing instrumental pieces that seem to describe their moods in perfect harmony with their names. In Dark Trees is an unsettling nightmare, Sombre Reptiles is a wonderful natural groove, and The Big Ship might just be Eno’s most gorgeous creation. The final five songs on the album are also to be noted as one of the strongest wrap-ups in pop history, reiterating the defined structure of the album. And while Eno amazes on all of these levels, he keeps up a specific style, which is about what would happen if someone built a time machine and simultaneously mixed the future of pop music with classical aesthetic, as the cover art projects. While Brian Eno may have arguably changed music even more with his ambient series, this was the record that not only pointed in that direction, but also made all of that able to happen. What Brian Eno did with Another Green World inspired a wealth of change in the pop music industry, and if not for it, electronica, ambient, or even structured mood music would not have been possible. So not only did Eno make a fantastic record, but he set the stage of music for years to come. Almost all artists today owe something to Eno, unless they foolishly believe that the studio’s only function is to record what is played and nothing more.

The Radio Dept. – Pulling Our Weight [EP]

Radio Dept.’s follow-up EP to their 2003 full length debut Lesser Matters ended up being more than just affirmation that the band were a one shot deal. The Pulling Our Weight EP ended up trumping an already impressive album of lovely dream-pop with only five songs, all of which are utterly fantastic and indesposable. This EP is the Radio Dept. shedding off whatever weaknesses they may have had and exploding with their full talent much like a blooming flower. The title track is the bands greatest and most representative work. The song seamlessly presents hook after hook over the trademark soft looped drums and shy hushed vocals, and the accompanying music video is a charming work of art on it’s own. The album surprisingly looses no momentum even with the consideration in mind that from the top, there is no where to go but down. A shockingly touching aural poetry is delivered with We Climb The Wired Fences, and I Don’t Need Love I’ve Got My Band is the romantic keystone of the disk and a lovely display of gently cascading guitar solos. The short two minute haiku Someone Else is tropical and relaxing, and the band once again displays their knack of creating an atmosphere with subtle touches without loosing their pop sensibilities. The album is rounded off by what seems to be a shoegaze revival, The City Limit. The song carries along a wonderful soundscape and many more beautiful melodies to contemplate. This is truly one of the most accomplished works of pop music produced in years and the Radio Dept. may well be the best band indie band out of Sweeden ever. Pulling Our Weight EP is a masterpiece of underspoken dream-pop, a perfect culmination of everything this wonderful band has to offer, and a grand sign of what the future may hold. One of the best EPs ever, for sure.

Silversun Pickups – Carnavas

Silversun Pickups’ full length debut has been pinned as a lot of things. They say takes influence from certain alternative bands of the nineties a lot, but in truth this album is fairly unique. But being unique does not always make you fantastic, as Carnavas proves. The song with the most pinnable source is the opening Melatonin, a pretty obvious My Bloody Valentine rip, but it is actually a very good song despite it’s unoriginality. But if unoriginality was the only problem with this album, it would simply be a damn good album for nostalgic alt rockers. But the problems dig deeper than that. The mood here is despondent, which is fine, but unfortunately the theme does not develop throughout the near hour it lasts. The concluding moments of this pretty much sum it up. “We’re always going to cross the finish line while everybody wants to run and hide, but now it’s too late.” Whatever opportunity that Carnavas had to be concluded beautifully was botched. Sound wise this album just feels tired. This could have been a great shoegaze record, but the drums are too loud, the guitars are too subdued (this problem is relieved if you REALLY crank it), and the vocals are awkwardly miscalculated. The vocalist kind of sounds like s/he wants to scream like Dave Grohl but doesn’t quite have the guts to actually come out and do it, and if they did it would just be painful. The upshot is that these guys can write some very good songs. Lazy Eye has gotten some significant radio play for a reason, Rusted Wheel is a very contemplative outing, and some of the albums first half can be very fun. But the fact that these people know how to write music is unfortunately overshadowed by the fact that they simply cannot produce it well quite yet. If you have heard some of these songs and liked them you will find comfort in the rest of the record, but it still really isn’t that memorable. As imaginative as these songs are, they feel like wasted ammunition, and I can only hope that the future holds good things for these possibly talented but misguided musicians.

Tool – Ænima

Tool’s second album Ænima is a significant leap forward from an already great album, and it secured the bands fanbase while delivering one of the ninties more compelling metal albums. Like all of Tool’s albums, this takes time to open up. At first it seems passive and less forceful than the aggressive and fast-paced Undertow, but Ænima is truly an informing listen. And simultaneously driving too. On one hand the album delivers a radio hit with Stinkfist, but after that the listener is plunged right into the middle of the issues and ideals that are to be put accross. As opposed to being stated explicitly, these themes are to be realized after close inspection. Even then, fans of Undertow will love this album. Songs like Eulogy and Forty Six & 2 are alternately introspective and uncompromising. And yet the album still rocks out while delivering it’s complex and important messages. Hooker With A Penis is a short rocker (at least for Tool), and the title track is more rock solid than anything off of this album or Undertow. And the album can get progressive too. Eulogy, Pushit, and Third Eye are all huge, interesting pieces that are expanded on in complex ways that only the attentive ear can decifer quickly. When I first bought this album I didn’t like it at all, but after giving it a chance and looking for what makes this so popular, every song on this album opened up. This really isn’t inviting, as far as the general style goes or the colorful yet disturbing filler, but this is a fantastic album and it really put Tool on the map for a reason.

Cocteau Twins – Treasure

Treasure is Cocteau Twins’ most popular and influential record, but it’s questionable whether it is truly the best. Undeniably this is the Twin’s at their stylistic peak, delivering the goods with a greater and more constructive precision than ever before. These melodies are, for the most part, touchingly beautiful and accessible. This is really the breakthrough music that the band had been working towards, although the Spangle Maker EP was geared towards the same thing with significantly less success. The difference lies in the vocals, and Treasure is Liz Fraser’s vocal peak. The most obvious and unique charm of this record is Liz Fraser’s new vocal style. She no longer even tries to sing words but instead sings in unintelligible sounds thus extending her voice into what is now truly a musical instrument. Side A is quite simply perfect, and all five songs are beautiful and essential. Ivo is perfectly refined nuanced poetic dream-pop and one of the bands absolute best. The following Lorelei is misleading. The song has unbelievably beautiful hooks, a quality that the band were not known for, but if you turn up the volume on this, spontaneous eargasms will follow. Beatrix is as regal as it is fresh even over twenty years later, Persephone has deliciously dirty guitar cutting accompanied by another flawless vocal performance, and Pandora (For Cindy) is a lovely, relaxing, and almost tropical song that points directly to the bands next album, the beautiful Victorialand. An album with this much momentum seems unstoppable, and it almost is, but the unfortunate flaw of Treasure is that Side B derails a bit. Or maybe it just seems like it does because some of the songs aren’t as standout as those that preceeded them, but in any case it feels like the album runs out of energy. Amelia is very good upon closer inspection, and Aloysius is just as priceless as anything on Side A. But Cicely feels like a revisit to Persephone only with less enthusiasm, Otterley has almost no melody at all (although it is pretty ambiance), and Donimo is a vocal misfire. Even considering the fact that some of these songs are not quite as priceless as others, the album still stands in quality and this may well be the Twin’s best, most moving album.

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Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

April 18, 2007

I wasn’t really expecting too much from this album. At all. It already didn’t have things going for it, considering there was only a two year gap between albums this time as opposed to the usual five or six, so one would have to assume that the product would be far less up to par than the other Nine Inch Nails that were so meticulously constructed over a long period of time. But really I think I could have thought the opposite too. With Teeth was good, and it’s best moments were very original, but it wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of Reznor’s discography and at times the motivation could have been calculated as a simple cash in after a really long musical break. I don’t know how long this took to make, but I can imagine it must have been under less stressed conditions and without many obligations. I do wonder if Reznor’s New Orleans mega studio was damaged during Katrina. Anyway, this has a lot of people talking. I wasn’t that excited about it when I heard four of the tracks had been released, two officially and two purposefully leaked by Reznor himself in flash drives carefully placed in bathrooms in venues on NIN’s current European tour. Trent is clearly outdoing himself on this album. Not only does he plan to release every song individually in garage band format to give fans a chance at remixing, but he has also has constructed an elaborate propaganda driven advertising scheme (see anotherversionofthetruth.com and then click and drag your mouse around the screen). The album is clearly themed, mostly around a fictional American future where the government and religion has complete organized control over the masses. Really, this doesn’t play into the music or lyrics too much, so no biggie. It sounds just pretentious enough to be annoying but it’s not. What is left to judge is the music itself, which in some ways was better than I was expecting but falters in some ways as well.

What I will say first is this is a much more interesting and progressive listen than With Teeth, which in some ways is good because it almost seemed like at times With Teeth was tired and burnt out as great as it was, and it borrowed a lot of it’s elements from it’s already sprawling predecessor The Fragile. Year Zero conversely is long, changes it up fast and often, and it establishes it’s own identity better. Reznor hasn’t changed his goals, but that’s good. He still tries to make very good industrial styled music driven by catchy synthesizers, adrenaline pumping beats, and sheer testosterone. What’s good about this is he’s still one of the few people in the business that can make industrial music without acting like a complete tool. The idea now is to be more electronic and less rock. What is convenient about this is Trent can do whatever the hell he wants on the electronic spectrum and still recreate his style with ease, this time without the grindy guitars and such. The beats are now much more toe tapping and the mood can change at a whim from the contemplative grooves reminiscent of The Fragile to electronic dance tracks almost rivaling closer. This is good. The versatility is appreciated.

The biggest problem I find with the music here is Reznor’s vocals. Not his voice though. Like Eddie Vedder, it seems that his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all within the last twenty years. And he is a very good vocalist for what he tries to do. His vocals here are simply mediocre at times. Instead of taking a more melodic approach like his earlier stuff, he now doesn’t seem to know what to do with his vocals and just kind of starts yelling a flat tone every once in a while. It doesn’t completely ruin everything, and it’s a flaw that isn’t too difficult to get over and look past, but it does leave a bitter taste in my, uh, ears. Me, I’m Not otherwise sounds like the most interesting computer glitch you’ve ever heard but is unfortunately kind of ruined by Reznor’s shot at hip hop styled vocals. A complete misfire. The vocals were actually the problem I had with the single Survivalism. This song is a grower, for sure. Reznor’s yells at first sound very ascending and aimless, but he is in fact hitting a note that wasn’t so apparent on the low quality early leaks. It’s a good song, but just not obviously. The album isn’t without it’s downright weak songs. They are mostly towards the last half of the album, and The Greater Good comes to mind as the worst.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the strengths are better than the weaknesses. There aren’t as many outstanding songs here as on previous albums, but most everything is at least good. After some consideration I’ve decided that Survivalism is worthy enough to represent the album, and My Violent Heart is the most catchy synthesizer line since Ruiner over ten years ago. This is an album worth cranking the volume on, but there are some recurring demons. Because the album progresses at such a quick pace, often times the best hooks that are worth hanging onto for the span of an entire song are left as interludes. Even the opening instrumental HYPERPOWER! is very good, as stupid as it sounds. And what Reznor has done is successfully removed himself from the introspective pain that he held onto for quite a few years with The Fragile and With Teeth. Once again, this is a very interesting album to listen to and hear develop, and it builds it’s own personality pretty damn well.

BUT. I’m not sure that it is better than With Teeth. Upon further listening things are opening up more and more to me, but in general this stands alongside With Teeth as being weaker than anything else in the discography. This is alright though, because it does have moments that justify it, and at times this can be downright compelling. And to be honest, Nine Inch Nails have never released a bad album. They do, however, have a hard time releasing an outstanding album. It’s still somewhat sleazy industrial music, and there really aren’t that many great songs, but like always the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. But this album shows promise, it’s inevitable sequel is apparently already being written, and it makes for a fun and surprisingly good angry electronic album. Some people despise it and call it another blemish on popular music and other people are hailing it as a modern alternative rock opera. To be honest, it’s not nearly that bad but at the same not nearly that standout. When you listen to this, just remember not to take the brilliant marketing campaign into too much consideration when you decided how much you like this. If you didn’t like Nine Inch Nails in the first place this won’t convert you, but if you liked the “bands” earlier stuff than this is well worth getting.

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Beauty

April 16, 2007

“That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful.”
-Edgar Allen Poe

I spent a lot of time thinking about this quote and I think it can actually be approached at many angles. On one hand, looking at something beautiful and just being taken back is a pretty primal, simple, and basic feeling, and it is also has a lot of pureness. What moves the heart is usually immediate pleasure like love at first sight and then it’s subsequent destruction. But anyone who knows anything knows that taking love at first sight seriously is risky business. Unfortunately it almost never happens and has very little meaning, and it is barely even real. There is a difference between being romantic and being hopelessly romantic. I could go on for hours with another rant about what true love is, but I’m not quite sure I have the right to do anything like that because most of my feelings on the subject are based purely on intelligent speculation. But it seems pretty generally argued that real love isn’t about loving someone because of how they look. It is about personality and experience, and maybe that already completely turns everything people know about beauty backwards on a daily basis. In any case, I have seen some beautiful things. If only I had realized that my eyes suck before I had gone to see Niagra Falls or the flower gardens at Millenium Park. But then again, I only really realize how dull my vision is when I put on my glasses. Before I conciously realize how much more beautiful everything is with my glasses on, everything is, to me, how it should be. That is a matter of perception. I almost never wear my glasses, because they are uncomfortable and they get me all worked up about how crappy my true vision is.

Which is very interesting, actually. I had a talk in my writers workshop that spawned all of this, and at one point we got to the fact that the pictures that are extremely detailed and photorealistic are often the least beautiful. Because really, our world isn’t always so detailed and perfect. People started trying to make animation realistic a long time ago, and the idea was to be perfectly realistic. What these people didn’t realise is that people don’t want to watch movies or play games that are realistic, because that’s no fun. We are all used to realism anyway, because we are real. Making a face as detailed down to the pore as possible is working at the expense of art. When I put on my glasses, and I’m being very sincere here, I suddenly look awful in the mirror. I suddenly realize all of my pores and my small imperfections, and I therefore get disgusted. I see the dirt, the wet ground, and large rats with tiny teeth that much more clearly. Then I take them off and everything blurs and everything is suddenly just a little more beautiful, despite the lack of detail. So what beauty is real? My lying to myself when I take my glasses off, or what is really there in all of it’s glory? I’m leaning towards both having their redeeming qualities. If you meander on the details too much you are missing the point, but ignorance is not always the best way to take things in because you are lying to yourself.

This is why that culture we could not remember does their art that way. But really it happens in all good art. On a simple level, perfect things are not interesting and also not realistic, because in the natural world, things are only perfect the more you zoom out. Certain art is often portrayed in this way. There is often a very simple repeating pattern or shape that is then made to be uneven with a small imperfection. Things that are completely perfect are not enjoyable. Take a perfect circle for example. Better yet, let’s work on our own dimensions and make it a perfect sphere. Well, not perfect, because I would personally call it impossible to make something that is completely perfect down to every last quark, as far as proportion and mathematics goes. But this is a pretty smooth sphere in your hand. Let’s make it green. If someone placed this sphere on a table, it wouldn’t hold your attention for that long. It is boring. It is very smooth, but it is predictable because it is so perfect, and therefore not that interesting. The more you zoom in on it the more it opens up. The more you can see, the more little things about it are apparent and therefore have the potential to be beautiful, but also it gets more imperfect and rough and ugly. Thus is the way that large green circles exude beauty. They can, but you need to ask yourself how much detail is satisfactory and how much is enough. And then it all comes into perspective when the sphere is made out of opaque glass, and you shatter it on a wall. The way all the glass explodes out of it, now that is beauty. You spent the whole stage collecting all those rings, and now you get pissed off when you lose them all. You don’t even realize that the best part is watching them explode outwards, into what was otherwise nothingness. But it’s not always complete shattering, sometimes just a knick. And this, this is why a relationship with no conflict is not romantic at all.

Getting a little more broad here, contrast is often times what makes something truly beautiful. The first time you go out and see the ocean when you were a little kid, well, there is just nothing like that. And it is still amazing now, and watching the sun set over the water and that brilliant flash of light at the end, that is just wonderful even when you are an adult. I remember when I was a kid back when I lived in a house on Perfect St., everything was huge because I was so small. I remember twenty gorgeous, gigantic elm trees all towering about the houses and the streets and reaching up to have conversations with the stars. Now I come back that same yard in which all of the elm trees have died, and the yard is very small and dirty and not that many feet across. What I DO remember are the Ginkgo Trees, because their leaves are shaped so funny and they are so uncommon. I think that is another thing that can mean a lot to beauty, that difference in size. Astronauts say that seeing the world from space is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. On the other hand, when someone sees a baby or a tiny animal, to realize that this tiny little thing is also alive and breathing and seeing is just crazy. Gorgeous.

I’ve spent the last few months completely enthralled by a piece of music that is less than three minutes long. Every time I hear it, it is still as fresh as the first time and I am still as blown away, and I have a hard time figuring out why. The song is Fleeting Smile by Roger Eno, brother and fellow ambient pianist of the famous Brian Eno. The song is originally off of the third installment in Brian Eno’s Music For Films series, but I got the song from a Saint’s Records compilation called Compounds + Elements. The song is very simple. It is a piano played slowly. That is it, just a piano. And the melody is relaxing, beautiful, and yearning. I feel like every time I hear it only yields more rewards, even though it seemed like I had picked the thing apart to it’s core already. First was the realization of the nearly inaudible metronome far in the background, then the subtle use of the pedals, and now I’m sort of pondering the theory behind it all. I don’t have a piano to go up to and try it now, and I’m not music theory buff (hey, I’m working on it already), so a lot of this might be based on speculation that is in fact wrong, but this song has brought me to very precise consideration that I would like to think bears some kind of fruits.

What strikes me first is how slowly it is played. Keeping time in a fast song is easy, especially if you are playing an instrument, because you have no real desire to speed up and the tempo is naturally assertive enough to keep the player concentrated. But in Fleeting Smile, the tempo is extremely slow and often times purposefully slowed down or sped up, to build tension. This makes the final two notes all the more painful. Painful in a good way, though. This song is completely teetering on the edge. It is at first glance a happy little lullaby, but like the title suggests, the piece is short and vague, like the face of a pretty girl across a crowd. During the song’s repeating ascending melody, while the lower notes are in a constant little harmony, the higher notes often times hit dissonant chords, that is, chords that do not assert themselves as either major or minor, happy or sad. I think that is what gives the music such a yearning sound, such a tragically beautiful and happy aspect. I think that is why most movies in Hollywood today are disposable, because they end predictably happily. The real, worthwhile movies are the ones that can’t decide if they are happy or sad. And I realized that this might be the case for all music.  Some famous cellist once said that beauty lies in the diminuendo. He was thinking kind of two dimensionally.It is now my personal belief that the best music, well that’s not true at all, the most moving music, is the music that is teetering on the edge between major and minor like that. Upon ending this song, the listener is just begging for more and has completely eaten out of Eno’s hand. I can’t get a handle on whether how simple this song is propels it to such astounding heights or if it’s something else. This song, like other very quiet low key piano pieces of it’s kind, works it’s magic by using simplicity and allowing the listener to effortlessly propel their imaginations and senses. And yet I equally appreciate very dense, complicated music because it challenges the mind and paints a very specific, beautiful picture. And sometimes I enjoy the difficult stuff the most, because often times the most challenging music is the most truly artful. Mozart and Bach are still revered to this day as being incredible while respectable artists today aren’t even pimples on either of their asses, but very few classical musicians had the guts to break the rules. I think that is why I don’t like classical music all the time, it has so many limitations and so little will to be obnoxious or challenging, that after someone has heard one Mozart concerto, it is very easy and reasonable to assume that one has heard them all. And even pop can be painfully predictable and therefore not rewarding in the slightest. This contrast is also felt heavily in literature and visual arts and needs to be explored more. By the way, I want more of this. I want more very simple, short piano music like this and I would be endlessly grateful if anyone could direct me to any other stuff of this kind. I’m dying here.

There are people who strive to understand beauty through proportions and mathematics and philosophy, and I think it’s impossible. The fantasy of these people would be to see and understand something on a specific enough level that they are blown away and can die happy. Maybe it is that simple and maybe it is not, but it is not easy either way. And I think we could sit here talking about beauty for the rest of our lives and still hit new ground. I’m going to go eat a sandwich now.

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Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92

April 12, 2007

Within the past year or so my interest in ambient music, and electronic music in general, has skyrocketed. And yet I feel like I have only grazed the surface of the genre and all that it has to offer. I have a great love for Boards of Canada but ironically I had not even touched on the work of the other two Warp Records juggernauts and ambient pioneers Aphex Twin and Autechre until a few weeks ago. I was a bit hesitant about Aphex Twin. I had heard both good and bad things about him and it was kind of a crap shoot, but in any case I broke and picked up this album and was floored upon the first listen. Aphex Twin has been making electronic music for the better part of fifteen years, or over twenty if you take this albums title seriously, which you may not if you consider that Richard D. James is only thirty five years old. I heard rave reviews of this record but once again I wasn’t really expecting anything truly great, but it turns out that this album is almost perfect in what it strives to do. To put it plainly, this was the first truly great ambient techno (or IDM, Intelligent Dance Music) album, and it stands easily the tallest among Aphex Twin’s other material.

I think it is safe to say that this album is vastly influential in it’s subgenre, as it was released so long ago when there was really little else like it save maybe The Orb or very subdued techno, which was not really common at the time. The album definitely strives to do what other ambient albums do, that is to be under the surface of ones ears creating an atmosphere without the listener knowing it. But the curse of ambient music is that it is hard to prevent from being repetitive while still being relaxing and atmospheric. In that sense, Richard James splits the music down the middle by both a song and album basis. The first idea is to make the beats very soft and subdued, so to not be obnoxious. And yet they are still driving for some odd reason. Perhaps this is because they are everchanging and are switched up at comfortable intervals so to not be boring or conversely annoying. Synthesizers are subdivided with great precision, especially in Ageispolis which is touched with both relaxing flows of synthesizers and melodic ones as well. Half the songs are more uptempo almost dance songs, and the other half are very relaxing ambient songs, making the record surprisingly comfortable within it’s own specific set of ideas.

But what is really amazing is that every song has a fantastic hook, if not more than one in the same track. The sheer amount of quality material on 85-92 is at first kind of hard to absorb, because not all the songs try to do the same thing. In my opinion, the best song on the album is the opening Xtal, a set of relaxing beats played over an angelic layer of synthesizers and airy vocal noise. And yet after this dancy piece comes the albums longest song, the nine minute long Tha which is truly the most ambient of all songs on the album, meant to be taken in as background music. Some of the songs are more likely to be heard on a dance floor such as Pulsewidth and Delphium, and some are more specialized. Heliosphan sounds like the theme to your childhood trip to space camp, and “i” is a charming minute long ambient synthesizer drone that could have probably lasted five minutes more without being boring. And yet for how much the music is stretched within the specific mood and boundaries of the genre, all of these tunes are choice chill out music for the modern world. We Are The Music Makers is a common favorite and practically an electronica groove, and Green Calx is the albums run with acid and it works very well.

I think the issues a lot of IDM fans have with this album is the production, and to be honest that only gets to be a problem on a select few songs. Specifically, Heliosphan, Schottkey 7th Path, and Hedphelym all have very poor production and sound like they are being played through a wall of pillows and not nearly as crisply as the songs that come before and after them. Also, some songs have a bit of fuzz in the background, but this seems to actually increase the value of their ambiance. Other times, certain synthesizers just aren’t initiated quite right, specifically the backdrop beat-drone in the otherwise wonderful Ptolemy and a similar drone in Aegispolis. And to be honest, Hedphelym isn’t that great of a song. It’s just kind of unsettling poorly produced electronic noise. But I really do believe the good outweighs the bad here, and the bad is almost negligible anyway. And you know what, I know this album has been remastered so for all I know my copy may simply be outdated and the remaster could fix some or all of these issues.

Someone once told me Aphex Twin was a joke. For a time I took them seriously. And I can see where that is coming from, because some of the latter stuff he has done is just bizarre and not that enjoyable, but I think the best of Richard D. James’ work is worth digging through the crap to find. And at that, his best stuff is completely varied. Part of what makes this album so special is how influential it is, but I don’t judge albums on influence. I judge them on quality, and this is a compelling, fun, and chill classic. Whether you crank it and inspect it further or let it rest in the back of your mind, this album is a great piece of work. If there was even an ambient album to be taken seriously, it’s this.

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Blades of Glory

April 9, 2007

I know what you are thinking, and I know what you want to ask, so I’ll just ask it for you to save you time. Alex, why the hell did you see blades of glory? Because I love seeing movies, that’s why. I wasn’t expecting much at all, but fortunately this was a very funny movie whose problems dig deep. So deep in fact that they go unnoticed to everyone watching. The fortunate thing is that this is a good comedy flick and worth your time if you want some laughs. It may not be a memorable movie, and it won’t gain cult status like other related movies have, but it’s definitely a step up in both main actors careers, even if it doesn’t really show any promise.

The premise is everything you would have expected from a movie containing either main actor. Jon Heder plays a dumb but ultimately sweet pretty boy who has gained cult status as a flawless ice skater Jimmy MacElory, and Will Ferrell plays a half-skater half-sex idol Chazz Michael Michaels. Jimmy “still looks like a fifteen year old girl but not hot,” and Chazz’s personal philosophy is “clothing optional.” They are warring rivals in the competitive (and apparently completely ridiculous) world of figure skating, and they both get banned from the men’s singles division when they beat each other up when they tie during a competition. After three and a half years of vomiting and selling skating related products, they reunite to compete in the doubles competition. Together. With twin dongs. The plot is as always predictable and stupid, but this movie was never meant to be anything more than predictable and stupid, so it’s not really bad when the main characters fight over a girl who is equally as stupid as Jimmy, have to deal with an unbelievably cliche rival brother-sister pair who you always knew would end up making out with one another in the end, and building an awkward friendship despite their differences.

The noteworthy part of this movie is the humor and laughs that it delivers. Not on any sophisticated levels, but what were you expecting from a movie with these two people in it. Like Anchorman, this isn’t afraid to be obnoxious. And in a good way. It’s all lighthearted humor, but it’s not afraid to touch on the gay stuff. Which is good, because it’s the kind of humor that people appreciate in this day and age. Maybe not the people who may have gone to see Ricky Bobby, or perhaps more accurately not the people who were too offended by their “sport” being slammed to go see Ricky Bobby. In any case, only a certain niche of people will appreciate the two actors 69’ing on the ice while fireworks are exploding out of their feet, or for that matter anything in the semifinal which is by far the gayest ice skating performance you have ever seen. And no one won’t laugh when they see the historic North Korean ice skating footage. This movie is well written and funny, and half of the humor will most likely go past a thirteen year olds head.

Upon walking into the theater I had middle ground hopes that were surpassed. No question, this is Will Ferrell’s funniest movie since anchorman and Jon Heder’s funniest (well, only funny) movie since Napoleon Dynamite. And yes, Will Ferrell was at one point a funny actor, most notably in Zoolander and the Ladies Man, with a funny over the top style, and no, I don’t care what you contend. Anchorman is the obvious winner though, and I could probably watch that movie one hundred times and still laugh when Steve Carell harpoons the Spaniard on the horse. And yes, it’s true, I love Napoleon Dynamite. It may have been ludicrously milked by the constant ‘Vote For Pedro’ t-shirts and endless quotations, but it would be criminal to call it anything other than a well written comedy. It’s a cultural staple too, whether or not people like it. And I think the fact that I love both of those movies made watching Blades of Glory a little more subtly painful. These characters are not original. In fact, their personalities and actions almost completely mirror that of their previous films. Jon Heder is still, for all intents and purposes, the dumb teenager that he played in Napoleon Dynamite. He is awarded with blue skittles on numerous occasions, drinks juice boxes, plays gameboy, and does odd choreographed skating while dressed as a peacock. The good thing is most of these details are subtle and they build his character over time. Will Ferrell on the other hand is an obvious mesh of Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy, and we’ve seen his character one too many times.

Standing alone this movie is pretty damn good, but it’s unoriginal as all getout, even when it tries not to be, and I can only imagine the writers thinking to themselves how smart they are for milking characters that have already made millions. And not just the characters, but the styles of their preceding movies as well. Yes, it’s still funny when Will Ferrell tries to get Jimmy to “carve some ice with his weiner,” but that really doesn’t mean anything because no one is going anywhere. It’s the same humor as Anchorman and Napoleon Dynamite crammed into one movie, which might be what you’re looking for. I laughed when Jimmy tells Chazz he is stupid because night is dark for everyone, to which he responds “Not to be people in Alaska. Or dudes with night-vision goggles.” It’s an alright movie, and possibly a relevant movie in the careers of two otherwise completely irrelevant actors. My advice, if you think you have seen this before just skip it, it’s not rewarding and you won’t be too surprised, but if you are looking for a movie to see over the weekend and you grow tired of all the slasher flicks, this WILL make you giggle, however silly and stupid it is.

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Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

April 5, 2007

The highly anticipated follow-up to Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Neon Bible, is finally here and to be honest I think it does a damn good job as a second album from a band that really needed to prove they weren’t a complete fluke. And they sure could have been too, as hard as it is to say that. Funeral is a great album, but one had to wonder if what most considered to be a fantastic new indie band really had what it took to be memorable in the longrun. Neon Bible isn’t quite as good as Funeral, but it delivers on the level I think fans would want it to. If this band has anything, it’s confidence. One needs confidence to release an album in as fun of a package as this for a second album. The cover is a hologram and the liner notes consist of some nonsensical flipbooks. Whether or not Arcade Fire are cocky or over confident is besides the point when they have released two great albums, and if the hype seems to match the delivery there isn’t much of a problem. This isn’t exactly a new direction, as the songs have the same kind of glossy feel, but this time in a more melancholy setting. Naming their first album Funeral was already kind of ironic considering the album felt like a joyous birth ritual, and given the history this album probably could have been blown to unnecessary proportions. And yet the title track Neon Bible is the most underspoken song on the album. It’s a warm if not dark quiet tune featuring only a bass drum, a quietly strummed guitar, quiet cellos, and airy vocals. Lasting only a little more than two minutes and not changing too much, it’s an easy pin for filler, but it’s subtle catchiness is undeniable. But that’s pretty much the extent of unusual stuff going on with the album. For the most part Neon Bible is Arcade Fire doing what they did on Funeral with a few minor switchups in mood.

The first two songs, Black Mirror and Keep The Car Running, are among the albums best and take the same familiar approach of jangly romantic hooks dressed up in layers of highly produced backdrop instruments. But as the album progresses, a more melancholy approach is developed. So there is growth here, and it’s about exactly what you were expecting. Maybe no surprises, but this is the necessary step forward that the band should be taking. The fourth song Intervention starts out with a big creepy organ that quickly reassures another lovely pop tune. After this, Black Waves/Bad Vibrations transforms from a happy little tune to a sadder more dramatic serious piece. And then the following Ocean of Noise is a lounging downtempo sad song. The development of the album is pretty apparent but also strong. You can tell this is just as well planned out of an album as Funeral, not just a bunch of songs thrown together. The best track is easily No Cars Go, the finest example of what the album strives to do, make great pop music in a now more dramatic and tragic way. If you’d call it tragic. I have issues with the word tragic. Like, I use it too much, and I’m going to use it again a lot on the next review. But I can’t think of a better word than sad or tragic to describe this mood. It’s abrasive and not depressing, but the album is definitely more, uh, I don’t know, pensive.

This was the right move to make. It is the safe way out but it is also thankfully very interesting and worth getting into. Funeral and Neon Bible are both on opposite sides of the same coin, and Neon Bible completes the first leg of what will hopefully be a long musical journey successfully. Once again I wouldn’t quite say it is as fun to listen to as Funeral but in the end it is just as rewarding. The style has changed comfortably and no more. We still have a lot of strings blended into one another to make a really pretty atmosphere, and a great set of vocalists who write their lyrics very well. I think the album might be lightly themed on the topic of (obviously) religion, but I’m not quite sure what it is trying to say exactly. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a grower, and I have a nagging feeling that closer inspection will reveal some further rewards.