Archive for August, 2007

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Radiohead – Amnesiac

August 29, 2007

This one is a quickie. I wrote a review for this one a long time ago. It’s still in the archives. I decided I didn’t like it so I redid it.

While Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A was already a shocking experience, nothing could have possible prepared fans for what would proceed the album in only a year, the vastly obscure Amnesiac. Written as a parallels to one another, the two albums fit together like pieces of an obscure and disturbing, yet ultimately ingenious puzzle. Kid A had it’s fair share of uplifting moments throughout the paranoia and gloom, but Amnesiac pulled no punches, and searched for an answer in the same vein as Kid A. Both albums share some specific themes, as evidenced by the two separate versions of the song Morning Bell, but both have very different personalities. It seems as if both started in the first place, a single point of birth, and spiraled off spontaneously in opposite directions. Kid A made the climb ad infinitum, and Amnesiac dug into deeper ground and swam into darker water. The album is largely a disturbing search for some kind of resolution to life’s angst and internal pain, and the trip it takes to the answer is nothing short of astounding. But let’s not kid ourselves, the chances that any album after Kid A would have been an easy listen is zero to none. That’s not to say that this album is completely unaccessible. You have heard weirder music, but sometimes it feels like the emotional bomb is being dropped track after track, and the only thing that seems traditional are time signatures which aren’t even always present. Upon first listen, the record will mostly likely sound distant and unapproachable, but once the listeners ears decide to take the wheel and drive the music home, a beautiful flower blooms and things start to make sense. Each song is hand crafted in this way, to reap rewards over time, and only time will do this work. Most of the songs, such as Knives Out and Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors meander with no real resolution, perhaps representing some kind of ongoing search. There is some accessible material here, namely I Might Be Wrong, an electronic groove which builds itself fantastically into catchy layers which build and then destroy themselves to a wonderful effect. Many Radiohead fans also cite Pyramid Song as the bands best song. But simple lack of accessibility leads many to believe that the album is at fault despite how much someone can enjoy it in the end. Radiohead know that how much one wants to make a record that can tear down doors won’t necessarily make them deliver. While at first it may seem like a collection of songs that simply weren’t strong enough for Kid A, Amnesiac actually has more structure than it’s predecessor, and is just as enthralling when one finally comes to understand it’s ins and outs. While this is easily Radiohead’s most difficult, jarring, and wildly experimental album, it is also the most engaging, rewarding, and to some, the best.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

August 26, 2007

I don’t think I would call myself a fan of classical music. I like classical music, and appreciate classical music very much, and have played classical music for many years, but I don’t listen to it in my spare time very much. I have very little classical music in my collection. The essentials mostly… Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, etc. And my mother is big on Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, etc. And unfortunately, most of these works lie untouched by my fingers simply because I usually have a taste for more engaging music. It is not the kind of music that keeps my ear in touch, even though it interests me. I’m not a fanatic, or a fan.

But every once and a while there is a classical piece that I hear and really, really enjoy. Many times they are various works by Handel, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, etc. The basic, well known stuff. It came to my attention that a good deal of popular music fans, or at least indie rockers, seem to have a taste for a piece called Tabula Rasa by a Russian artist known as Arvo Pärt, whom I had never heard of. Apparently this collection of four pieces is a rather big deal, and I’m surprised that I had not heard of it. Upon first listen, I was already floored by the CD which I had ordered on the internet by complete speculation. At least as floored as a classical album can floor me.

Actually, the first time I heard anything from Tabula Rasa was about a half year ago, when this absolutely wonderful violinist from my school played Fratres as a solo. It was pretty intense. He came from the audience and played as he walked up onto the stage. It was almost a little pretentious, but he’s that good that he can pull off the fingering acrobatics that are necessary at the beginning of Fratres, as heard on the first moments of Tabula Rasa. It was not until I mentioned to my music theory teacher last week, who also directs the schools orchestras, that I really loved Tabula Rasa that I found out that it was that same piece that I heard so long ago.

One thing that needs to be in effect when I listen to classical music. I only listen to classical music very loud. I’m sure there is a reason for it, but classical music is mixed much quieter than other recordings, so to get the full effect and hear the resilience, I just have to crank the volume to ludicrous levels. Hearing Tabula Rasa this loud was a liberating experience. Why this music held my interest more than other stuff I probably like more, like Beethoven or Handel, could be due to a myriad of reasons. For one thing, the pieces switch up the style a lot, which is unusual for a classical album. The album consists of four songs total. Two of them are different versions of the same piece called Fratres, one played with a violin and a piano and the other played with twelve cellists. Another song is the absolutely gorgeous, destructively tragic funeral dirge Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. And the final song is a twenty five minute long progressive melancholy masterpiece, Tabula Rasa, which gives the album it’s name. All of these songs are surely gorgeous.

The two versions of Fratres are both absolutely wonderful, without a doubt. The piece is a ten minute long creative forray into melancholy orchestral music. In some ways, the music sounds a bit religious, but not demandingly so. I have a feeling the word “Fratres,” which is Latin for “brother” might refer to a religious figure. But I don’t think that the pieces are very religiously themed as they are religiously styled. What the two different versions allow are for completely different angles to be explored in the music. The first version with violin and piano allows for a lot of impressive, complex dynamics that only a solo can make way for. The piano adds a bit of needed mystique, and the rapid fire soloing power that the violin is quite great. The version with twelve cellos is more melancholy, and at the same time sounds more polished. When you have twelve instruments on the playing field for making music, some doors really get opened up. The cello is a beautiful, gorgeous instrument that really gets a lot of room for expansion here, and the sweeping orchestration sounds perfect next to the occasional simple drum beats that softly pervade the music.

Possibly the albums most beautiful moment comes with the comparatively brief and fleeting Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. A mere five minutes long in comparison to the releases three other epics. This piece needs to be heard to be believed. The strings melt down and tragically swoop into the listeners ears. This is truly the sound of death, a perfect song to remember the living. Beautiful, tragic, destructive, wonderful. The final piece which consists about half of the album, Tabula Rasa, is as continuously interesting and engaging as Fratres, an already impressively engaging classical piece. I go to a lot of symphonies, and even when it is a great piece that I love, I fall asleep a lot, which isn’t good. I can imagine if I heard Tabula Rasa played all the way through, I would not fall asleep. This is, strangely enough, a classical piece that is very fun to get to know, and it has distinctly different parts that all mesh together, so it is never boring or repetitive. Arvo Pärt knows how to appeal to mass audience, I’ll bet.

This music is very inspiring, and it lets me know that not all modern classical music is atonal experimental trash. I feel like I really was rewarded by listening to the album, and gained a lot. This is now one of my favorite classical pieces, and I hope to hear more pieces by Pärt in the future.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

August 17, 2007

With their 2002 sophomore album, Geogaddi, Boards of Canada would have had to have pulled something completely special out of their box of tricks to cement their place in the musical world. Music Has The Right To Children was already hailed by some as a masterpiece, but who was to say it wasn’t a one time draw? For all anyone knew, Boards of Canada were the exact right band to fall back into obscurity and stay a cult hit for the rest of forever. And yet somehow, they managed to craft an equally popular album while still sticking to the style that made Music Has The Right To Children such an unexpected powerhouse. On many second outings, it is expected that a band would make their best album yet, change a genre, or bring something completely unique to the table. The fact that Boards of Canada are not concerned with record sales or trends in popular music was overshadowed by the fact that they simply want to challenge their working space, and bring their music to a new level. In this way, for many people, they ended up following the trend anyway and made what might be their best album.

But in reality, is it their best album? No. Music Has The Right To Children was simply better, better on the grounds that it did something completely different, better in it’s personal style, and simply more enjoyable to listen to. But that is another notion that BoC simply swept under the table with Geogaddi. Enjoyable music does not have to be initially enjoyed, and good music is sometimes inspiring without being enjoyable at all. That isn’t to say that Boards of Canada fans won’t find many of the things here that made Music Has The Right To Children such an enjoyable album. Because this follows many of the same trends and styles that made that album special. As usual, a good half of the songs here are very short interludes that represent very specific emotions or images, about a fourth are sprawling complex webbings of beats and rhythmic synthesizers played in striking conjunction, and another fourth are medium lengthed songs that combine elements of the two. Each type of song is important. Although many people would write off the short interludes, they are half the fun, and just as engaging as the long ones.

Perhaps it is of benefit of the listener to go through the first few songs step by step. I only do it this way because every step of the journey is as individual as the last, and there isn’t much of anything that will let anyone know what they are in store for before they listen to Geogaddi.

The first song, Ready Lets Go, is just shy of a minute in length and sounds like a small drone of an air conditioning system played underneath very subtle chords most likely produced by a cheap casio keyboard and interesting little swirls of noise. One thing that always strikes me about songs by Boards of Canada are the titles. Right off the bat, Boards of Canada assures you that you are on your way as long as you make it past that first track. This is only step one. Step two, Music Is Math, is one of those longer songs I mentioned. Various minor tonalities with simple sound are played over a rather harsh set of beats. These beats are warped every so slightly in their sound and rhythm throughout the song. This is one of Boards of Canada’s biggest tricks. By making these subtle changes in both beat and other instrumentation, songs keep fresh without loosing focus, and thus never overstay their welcome. The next song is Beware The Friendly Stranger, what sounds like a simple flute melody played through a crackly walkie talkie over the sound of children playing. What man in a trenchcoat could this song possibly describe?

Even after hearing those first three songs, starting over again reveals a completely new angle in Ready Lets Go, making it sound deceptively disturbing even after only having heard a tiny portion of the massive album. How do all these pieces fit together? Beyond the fact that they all sound vaguely like something you would hear in a nightmare, this is something I am yet to figure out. I can’t place my finger on it, but this music just works. It has to, for how well it gets under ones skin and pushes outward relentlessly. And I’ll be honest here, this album is a very difficult listen. It’s creepy. No, scary. The more you listen, the more you wish you hadn’t heard, and yet the deeper you want to dig. One song is named The Devil is in The Details, which describes Geogaddi fairly accurately. In fact, Boards of Canada have been accused of subliminal messaging, and at that, satanic messages. Are Boards of Canada satanists? No, no they are not, and they mean no harm. The listener harms themselves by doing all the vicarious listening.

I’ll bet this album sounds pretty pretentious right about now, doesn’t it? Because it sure sounded pretentious to me after the first listen. An album that puts a song of complete silence at the end has to be pretentious to some extent. Then I looked at my stereo, which had stopped upon completing the CD, at exactly sixty six minutes and six seconds. And then people start telling me that Geogaddi is smattered with mathematical equations in the music, and that there are biblical refferences here and there. And yet Boards of Canada assure us that there is no devil worship here, and that they are simply trying to make inspiring music. They tell us that the word “Geogaddi” has a specific meaning to them, but they want it to mean whatever the listener feels it should mean.

…What the fuck? Geogaddi is a puzzle. And Geogaddi is a puzzle with answers. Was that last track, one minute and forty six seconds of silence, an optimistic ending or a dreaded one? There is a full picture to be completed, but the jigsaws are cut by the listener. Maybe it is just a big mess of sounds and coincidences with no real meaning spawned by a bunch of stoners with too much time on their hands, or maybe it merrits attention. Who knows.

And to be fair, this is not some musical revolution. This is probalby my least favorite Boards of Canada album, out of three. I’ll bet it was this new, scary world of sound that inspired the band to make their most compulsively listenable and accessible album, The Campfire Headphase. This is not the bands best album, but it might be the most rewarding and exciting upon multiple listens. In any case, my mind has come to a stalemate with Geogaddi. I have finally admitted that I enjoy the album, and it continues to supply me with surprises and fun. And yet at the same time, I look at it from a distance with confusion and contempt, while it continues to baffle and disturb me.

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Daydream Nation 33 1/3

August 9, 2007

I bought this book on a whim mostly because I have always felt that Daydream Nation possesses powers that seem to elude me. It’s not that I don’t realize it is a good record. Just listening to it, I can hear the quality of the music, and I can also hear the influence that it has had on music ever since it came out. No question, Sonic Youth’s fingerprints are on a lot of my favorite bands and their albums, silently and subtley. But at the same time, I just never quite enjoyed many of the sounds that the album has to offer, and parts of it I simply don’t understand the appeal of. So I bought this book. Other entries to the series, the Loveless book and, to some extent, the 69 Love Songs book, have served me well, so I figured if I were to buy a book for an album that I really feel like I need to understand, the payout would be fairly high.

To some extent, it was. I think the biggest issue I had with this book was how much it reads into individual songs and themes. What I didn’t like at first about the Loveless book was how it didn’t give individual songs enough attention. I kind of wanted to know what pedals they used for a song, or what was going through the musicians heads while writing the songs. But what I realize from reading this 33 1/3 book is that the song by song comprehensive review really means nothing. It tells me some reasons that one might like some of the songs, and it might also bring some of the albums details and secrets to the surface, but I really didn’t have to remind myself that I don’t really care how much Matthew Stearns likes Rain King and why, or why I should even concern myself with these opinions.

That is not to say that the book doesn’t have some value of education. Stearns is a very articulate writer who knows how to get information across in style. That’s the first step. It’s an easy book to read and it is also fun. But you learn a lot from it as well. Daydream Nation is a musical puzzle if I have ever seen one. The first step in understanding the album is that it is bound to disturb and detriment just as much as it elates. Stearns main point in the writing seems to be that Daydream Nation is all about contrast. This might just be true. But broad, vague interpretations aside, there are also many details that I missed out on through the countless times I have listened to the album that the book brought to the surface. I didn’t even notice all of the sexual dialog in Silver Rocket. I also didn’t know that Hey Joni is about Joni Mitchell, Eliminator Jr. is a throwback to a ZZ-Top song, or that Providence is essentially an answering machine tape of Mike Watt of the Minutemen played over a dying amp. Also, the author gives the reader a rather comprehensive view of the New York rock scene of the 80s, the history of Sonic Youth, and the musical psyche of it’s members through excerpts of recent interviews and long, detailed explanations.

But a lot of what this particular 33 1/3 is about is mindless praise. And it’s exactly the kind of passion I was wishing for in the first place. But if one spends one hundred fifty odd pages relentlessly praising an album, it must be good, right? Yeah, but on it’s own terms. No question, Daydream Nation is a great album that rearranged the face of rock and roll for years to come. But these people are not gods. Part of what makes the album so interesting is that, for all intents and purposes, the members of Sonic Youth are just regular people with an artsy flair. Every guitar effect does not need to be justified as having some kind of meaning.

And lyrical analysis… Oh god. The lyrics. Part of the mystique of Sonic Youth’s lyrics is that more often than not, no one knows what the hell they mean. One part of the book that I found completely ridiculous is the detailed analysis of the lyrics of Eric’s Trip. Okay Matthew, there is something here you really NEED to understand. Every line of words does not have to possess some deep meaning. Sometimes punk rockers just say what sounds good and rhymes. I feel like all of the songs have specific meanings, but these don’t carry in every line. I can personally imagine that when Lee Ranaldo was scrawling out the lyrics to the song, he probably just thought the lines “I was the door and you were the station” sounded cool. Or maybe I’m hallucinating and every line does really mean something very deep, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think if these words do hold a very deep, sophisticated meaning, their previous mystique was stronger.

This year, Daydream Nation turns nineteen and the ideas that spawned it turn twenty. It’s a completely appropriate time to release the Deluxe Edition of the noise masterpiece. This edition is remastered and contains a wealth of bonus tracks to make the experience that much more enjoyable. If you haven’t heard Daydream Nation, you really should, because it honestly is a great album and there is no better time than the present to take advantage of the re-release as well as the bands tour in support of it, but you probably wouldn’t want to pick up this book to accompany the purchase. Although it is a very well written edition to the 33 1/3 family, I just put the book down upon finishing it feeling like not a whole lot was gained, and what was gained was almost regrettable. To be honest, you don’t need to buy this book to understand the album. If you want to understand Daydream Nation, simply buy the album, crank it up, listen two or three times, and maybe take a closer look at some lyrics sheets, no more no less.

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Some Random Thoughts (I'm not dead yet, I promise)

August 3, 2007

Sorry for the lack of updates in the past two weeks. Not only have I been having a particularly tough time in life in general and dealing with a lot of stress related to relationships, school registration, and other various issues, but I have also been going on several college trips. I went to Boston a few weeks ago and I think I fell in love with the city. Completely beautiful, and Boston University was really cool. My trip last week to Minnesota was not very good. And now I hear that a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis killing many people. I think I drove over that bridge when I was there. I assure you death is not following me. I cannot remember ever feeling afraid about death, even once. I’ve always been able to stare it right in it’s face, as distant as it is, looming over everyones horizon. Maybe I only feel indifferent about my own death, but given the chance I would probably get into a fist fight with the grim reaper just for the hell of it. And you know what I would do? I would make him cry for his mother. Anyway, being on summer vacation has opened me up tons of time to listen to new and old music alike, and I have heard so much stuff that it would be unreasonable for me to do page long reviews on all of them. But I guess I’ll go in depth on a few right now to let you guys know I still mean business.

Oh yeah, and I think I’m going to start trying some new things around here. As much as I love doing proper, more official sounding reviews of albums, I kind of don’t think it’s really always the right medium for what I want to get out. I think a lot of times I just want to talk about albums casually, on terms with other albums and my personal experiences with them more so than give them something becoming. So that’s what I’m going to try now. At least for the time being. And I’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, lots of new music lately. In Boston I got a brand new copy of the Radiohead EP Airbag/How Am I Driving for just ten dollars, and I’m pretty sure it was the original issue. That made me happy. I also got a lightly used copy of Vespertine by Bjork for very cheap. In Minneapolis they had a few really good record stores (two stores by the name of Cheapo’s and Electric Fetus) where I bought a really cheap early Aphex Twin EP Analogue Bubblebath 4, Giant Steps by Boo Radleys, and a used copy of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, because I needed a new copy.


Bjork – Volta
I’ll admit, I have never been too big of a fan of Bjork. I mean, I like a lot of her work, but not enough to consider myself a fan or an avid listener. I always feel like her albums are good, or sometimes even great, so I always buy just one more in the hopes that it will trump the last one I listened to. I now own four Bjork albums, and I think I was easily the most disappointed with Volta. In fact, I’d say this is the biggest disappointment of the year so far. And it’s not like I dislike Bjork, once again. Homogenic and Vespertine are both great albums that I really like a lot, and in comparison to those, Bjork has taken a creative nosedive into oblivion.

I feel like XRTs “Regaler Guy” here, because my vocabulary is somewhat limited and my tone is very blatant. But I won’t lie about this one. Volta sucks because it sucks. There isn’t any one particular reason for the mediocrity of this album besides sheer lack of creative drive or enjoyable songs. Before Volta came out, I heard Bjork perform on Saturday Night Live and I was really impressed. One thing I will give Bjork at this point is that she is still very gorgeous and her vocals have not gotten any worse since the early nineties when she first started out. Her range is really fantastic and she gets out some downright beautiful notes on stage. So with that I felt optimistic about Volta, and yet it ends up being pretty mediocre. I think it’s one of those albums that I really, really wish could have worked out because it just works so well on paper. It is a little bit themed, in that it seems to capture, or at least try to capture that atmosphere of tropical islands. To some extent, she make this apparent. The lead single Earth Intruders actually sounds very fresh with it’s jungle beat and eclectic instruments. But then when the song finally ends, it proves itself unfit for playlist inclusion and leans on the sounds of large steamboats for about a minute and a half. Either way, it’s a good start and a nice opening song.

And then the next song, Wanderlust actually sounds alright too. Bjork can get away with rather brutal sounding techno by laying her voluptuous voice over it, and the result is actually pretty good. But after that, things severely melt down. First, she does an eight minute long duet with some guy named Antony Hegarty, who is apparently fairly well known and respected, but I really dislike his lispy voice. The words are, as usual, pretty cheesy. I can’t stress enough how much I wish Bjork would sing in her native language like her fellow Icelandic compatriots Sigur Ros. And then the unbalanced vocalists sing about…some dull flame of some sort for seven minutes and it is really annoying. It’s just bad. The rest of the album is equally disappointing. I’ve always depended on Bjorks musical and vocal talent to outdo the lack of melodicism in her words, and unfortunately she just can’t pull off the musical part here. The songs Innocence and Declare Independence are both very obnoxious and uninteresting. On Hope, she tries interspersing some more exotic instruments to very mixed success. This was the idea she should have tried to bring to the forefront and stress more often, and maybe this would have worked back in her heyday when she was more poppy and less dark.

It has it’s moments. I really enjoy Pneumonia, and to some extent My Juvenile even if Antony makes a similarly mediocre comeback because the words are very lovely. But for the most part, this album is just very mediocre. I won’t go into individual detail on every song, but honestly, there is very little good material here. Bjork fans seem to like it though, so who knows. If you are a casual fan, like me I guess, you are better off going for some of the more revered Bjork albums instead, namely Homogenic and Vespertine.


Air Formation – Daylight Storms
Shoegaze is just one of those genres that I keep on getting closer and closer to admitting is total BS even if I like it a lot. It just seems like a shoegaze record that actually tries something new and succeeds only comes around once in a blue moon, and most everything in the genre is a My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, or Ride clone. What one has to realize is that sometimes these clones are actually very good. They probably won’t be very memorable in the future because they don’t try anything new or craft their own styles, but they succeed nonetheless by producing some serious beauty. It’s a very narrow genre where the fans are very devout and often disappointed, and depend on these clones to get their satisfaction. Well Daylight Storms is a pretty damn good way to distract yourself until the next great great awakening, or whatever.

So I’m sure shoegaze fans will first ask…MBV, Slowdive, or Ride? It’s Slowdive. VERY Slowdive. The vocals sound very similar to Neil Halsteads, and they pull the typical trick of blurring a random colorful image beyond recognition and sticking it on the cover as well as utilizing a beautiful sounding name. The songs are all slow, with washes of beautiful sound. Most people probably grow tired of this by now. Washes of sound? We have had this on record for years. But here it sounds good. If all a shoegaze record needs are big walls of chords, I would have signed up a long time ago. Well maybe that is really all it needs. And maybe that’s why the genre is such BS. In any case, I like this kind of music. Just crank it reeeally loud and then the beauty starts to surface when your ears are enveloped. These specific clones have always been able to avoid any melodic finesse by making their music all about big, beautiful sound, so you shouldn’t be tricked into thinking you are going to hear a catchy record. But it is a nice, quick, pretty fix for people who always wanted a true Souvlaki sequel and was disappointed that there never was one. These melodies are bittersweet like Slowdives, but this time around are probably more optimistic and full of love than Slowdive’s often brooding personality. It’s actually probably the best Slowdive clone I have heard to date, so you would be doing yourself good to pick this up if you like shoegaze and don’t mind not hearing anything new. Highlights are Daylight Storms, Into View, and Adrift.

Anyway…The window for my mind being inspired or blank enough to fill the slate is very narrow. I have not disappeared and I have not lost any will or anything. I’ve just been busy lately, that’s all. I assure you I am still around and my lapse was temporary. Expect a review of Portishead’s Dummy in a little while.