Archive for November, 2007

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Sigur Ros – Hvarf-Heim

November 26, 2007

Iceland’s most popular band, and arguably most popular musical artist even in the wake of Bjork, has been prolific to say the least within the past few months. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that the band announced the release of their live film, Heima, following the band during a brief tour of their homeland, marked by excellent cinematography, live footage, and footage of the gorgeous nature of Iceland. This DVD will be released in December in standard two disk form as well as in a special edition with an art book. I’m going to try to pick up one of them eventually, because the movie looks wonderful. Illegedly, Sigur Ros have also entered the studio to create a new album this week, and more news on this will surely unravel in good time. But this month marks a new release as well, the double EP Hvarf-Heim.

Hvarf

The first of the two EPs, Hvarf, is essentially a small rarities compilation. This is the release most anticipated and useful for rabid fans and completionists, and for casual and hardcore fans alike, most of these songs are previously unheard. Only Von and Hafsol have seen previous releases, but in forms so different that they might as well be new songs. But Von has never seen a recording in this early form, and Hafsol was only released as the b-side of Hoppipolla and gets new treatment here. The rest have never seen the light of the day to fans, save during select live performances. This makes this EP quite a catch among obscure releases. We will have to wait a longer time for a true, expansive rarities collection, but Hvarf rounds up some of the particularly hard to find material spanning Sigur Ros’ entire career, making it surprisingly representative. It echoes of each of the bands four album eras, but each song holds its own succulent personality, as Sigur Ros songs always do.

Fans will recognize the opening Salka as very reminiscent of the bands third album, the untitled (), sporting the albums specific hopelandic lyrics and melancholy scope. It is hard to say why this was a b-side, as it is somewhat more accessible than some of it’s () counterparts. In any case, it is a lovely, achingly sad piece that more than deserves a proper recording like this. After Salka comes Hijomalind from the Agaetis Byrjun era. This is, like it’s predecessor, fairly accessible in terms of Sigur Ros’ style which usually confounds new listeners. Jonsi gives yet another lovely vocal performance, and his final verse notes scream for neighboring non-chord tones (ala Milano from Takk…) that never appear, and with their absence these chords find gradual resolutions within themselves by the passing of only a few brief seconds of beautiful vocal space. Small nuances like these are only cognisible to people already familliar with the bands pervious work, but half of the fun in listening to Sigur Ros’ work, as daunting as it is to become familliar with it, is finding the coalescence between songs that have no chronological connection.

After this comes the song that we hear on the Heima trailer. This collection, after all, is meant to accompany Heima in some way, and this song was perfect for the trailer. It starts off with haunting, mysterious bells and eventually it builds itself into the signature Sigur Ros wall of beautiful guitar, this time more brutal and loud than ever before. It is truly a unique Sigur Ros song. After this is a lush orchestral rendition of Von, this time crafted differently than it’s original version on the album Von so many years ago. But the real winner is the final song on this EP, Hafsol. The song starts with with a steady percussion of drumsticks on bass strings, and is complemented by the bands signature warm yet wispy guitar blanket that wraps the vocal harmonizations in a layer of dissonant fuzz. The coup de grace is the final touch of wintery grace with a string section plucking a simple harmonization to complement the songs comparatively complicated vocal melodies. It’s the best song on Hvarf, and a nice way to wrap things up.

In the Hvarf-Heim double EP, Hvarf is the asset and the one that you will want to listen the most closely to. These rarities deserved a proper release, and they got them. All is well that ends well.

The second Sigur Ros EP in this nicely packaged double release is Heim, what the band describes as an acoustic EP. Heim handpicks some of Sigur Ros’ most well known and popular songs and reworks them to contain mostly only simple percussion, piano, acoustic guitars and vocals.

The first thing that fans will notice is the song selection, which is, for the most part, very nice. On one hand, these songs are some of the bands best, but they are also the ones we have essentially been listening to the most since they were released and thus never really needed a new angle. But even overlooking this minor issue of taste, these renditions reveal nothing about the original songs in the first place, because the originals were mostly acoustic ventures anyway. The extent of the differences between the original and acoustic versions are the sonic touchups in the originals which only enhanced the listening experience; Sigur Ros has always been organic at it’s core. Taking this detailing away only subtracts from what the songs have to say, and when listening to Heim, you will most likely want to switch on the original versions so you can hear them in all of their entirety.

However, although these songs do feel bare and incomplete, they are also very personal and well played. I’ll admit, I am a sucker for acoustic albums. Sigur Ros are going to play well no matter what environment you put them in. And clearly, as we will no doubt see on the Heima DVD, these songs were recorded in unusual places. You can hear birds chirping in Heysatan. This is one of the songs that was literally recorded in the middle of no where in Iceland. If we eventually get to see these performances on film, I have a feeling they will gather much more meaning. In any case, all of these songs are enjoyable to listen to, but you aren’t getting the full picture that you deserve.

The draw to this is that these are in fact the bands most popular songs, which could possibly make this double EP a good introduction to the band. But if the listener likes the band enough to go anywhere farther from here, they will inevitably get all of the studio albums and this disk will become obsolete. I would personally argue that it would be best to start people off on Takk or Agaetis Byrjun anyway. Despite the fact that these are nice recordings, they are disposable and unnecessary. Even rabid Sigur Ros fans will probably only spin this disk a couple times, because it is simply not that interesting.

Final consensus? If you like Sigur Ros, grab it for sure. You get your money’s worth. Usually these imports fetch high prices, but I found Hvarf-Heim at Borders for fourteen dollars, which isn’t a great price all things considered, but it’s below average for Sigur Ros. Nice rarities, nice acoustic variations (for what they are), and nice artwork.

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Aphex Twin – Come to Daddy

November 20, 2007

Aphex Twin is either one of the most important and talented electronic musicians ever, or a disposable gimmick. His work is either ingenious or obnoxious trash. Whatever Richard D. James is all about, something which no one can seem to figure out anyway, the Come To Daddy EP is distinctly more “Aphex Twin” than any work before it. That is to say, when it is brutal, it is more brutal. When it is mellow, it is more mellow. And when it is fun, it is more fun. This is not to say that the Come To Daddy EP is anywhere close to Aphex Twin’s best or most respectable work. But this work in particular does represent a lot of what Aphex Twin aims for.

The single Come to Daddy is one hell of a number. Although for Aphex Twin fans it may seem tame in comparison to James’ other more hardcore breakbeat work, it is still abrasive and rocking for how underhandedly atmospheric it is. To be sure, if you never liked or found any value in breakbeats in the first place, Come to Daddy is obnoxious and without any real value. But the breakbeats are utilized with a little more recognizable precision and beauty later on. The second track, Flim, is a pretty number with soft yet somehow driving breakbeats played over some of James’ most relaxing and pretty atmospheric tracks ever, later on decorated by humble strings to make for a very memorable final product. Bucephalus Bouncing Ball is often cited as one of Aphex Twin’s best breakbeat tracks. It starts off as a solid beat with a comprihensable direction, and then about halfway through it breaks into two minutes of impressive breakbeat experimentation and probably covers more ground than most other drill ‘n bass artists cover in entire albums. It’s one for fans and fans only, but it ends up being one of the most eclectic and consistantly interesting songs James has ever made, without being completely scary or obnoxious.

Funny Little Man represents it’s title with startling accuracy to say the least, but it isn’t a song you will play back as much as the rest of the EP. In any case, it still feels like it holds the disks uninterruptable personality, save maybe the very end where Richard has perhaps a bit too much fun with lude phrases played through a voicebox. Of the eight tracks that comprise the EP, three of them are alternate mixes of little to no value in comparison to their brethren.

Depending on what your specific taste in Aphex Twin is, and every fan certainly approaches his discography in unique ways with unique preferences, these mixes might be worthy of note, but for sure the albums best moments are it’s original vignettes which comprise the bulk of it. The last of these original pieces on the disk is IZ-US, possibly the most groovy track James has ever made. Simple rhythmic hand claps, snare hits, and cymbal rolls are played over some signature Aphex synthesizers. Considering it’s creator, IZ-US is a relaxing, comforting piece indeed.

Come to Daddy might not be Aphex Twin’s most worthwhile release, but it is easily the best EP. New listeners will most likely find this to be the best introductin to Aphex Twin’s expansive, varied career, and there are treats to be found here for both fans and new listeners alike. However, Aphex Twin’s quality is always scattered, and while there will most likely be something here to satisfy any individual, there are going to be as many songs that are initially worthless to a given person. Aphex Twin is an artist that you need to train yourself to like. This only obscures his agenda and scope of talent even more.

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Youtube Corner Pt. 7: Neil Young Concert

November 13, 2007

Last night I saw Neil Young at the Chicaco Theatre, on the first of two nights there, and it was really nice. The concert came in two portions, one half solo acoustic and the other half full band electric. I really enjoyed both portions almost equally. In the acoustic portions, Neil played his pianos, guitars, and harmonicas with great feeling, making each note as heartfelt as we expect him to. But the man knows how to rock out and do ten minute long guitar solos (on Old Black, no less!) with heavy distortion. I recognized a ton of the songs he played, which was something I was worried about not happening. He has such a massive discography that I expected him to do more obscure stuff than the hits, but he played a ton of his best songs and didn’t just dwell on the new or obscure. Really wonderful concert.

At one point during the acoustic half, he kind of broke off into a completely unrelated story about crawfish and his experience in the second grade. It was funny and distinctly Neil Young. After that, he went on to play one of the most beautiful acoustic renditions I have ever heard. It was Mellow My Mind off of Tonight’s The Night, and he played by himself with a banjo. It has been echoing in my mind for the past day. This is a very similar version of the song played back in 1976, at Budokan, and is completely flawless. My ears are in love. Enjoy.

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Pearl Jam – No Code

November 9, 2007

Apple, outlet, Dennis Rodman’s eye, pool ball, rotting teeth, zipper. The cover of No Code confounds and confuses, as does the album in it’s entirety. This album was released during a time when no one seemed to be able to quite figure out the point or overall goal of Pearl Jam in rock music. Jumping from mainstream rock anthems to hard rock, grunge, acoustic balladry, blues, classic rock revival, experimental junk rock, and back again within the span of one album, let alone their entire career, made Pearl Jam a hard band to pin in any area, and upon first listens, some songs or albums may appeal to some listeners and not others. Pearl Jam are a band that writes and plays whatever they feel like, exploring a wide range of issues, while still maintaining artistic integrity and an excellent sense of pure rock and roll. No Code is arguably Pearl Jam’s most diverse, jumpy, and spontaneous album to date, and probably the most prone to being misunderstood. What the hell is Pearl Jam trying to say with this set of thirteen seemingly unrelated songs? What the hell are Pearl Jam all about anyway?

My experience with Pearl Jam has stretched through my entire lifetime, since I was very young and my mother played the records and I heard them on the radio, to my childhood when she stuck with the band when the media did not, to my early high school years when I rediscovered the band and countless songs and hooks that colored my childhood, to now when I am progressively rounding up all the stray material and learning why exactly I enjoy them. When I popped No Code into my stereo years ago, probably six years after it was actually released, I recognized some of the songs and did not recognize others. This scramble of familiarity made things all the more confusing, yet kept me that much more interested and willing to stick with the album.

I began asking myself questions, because that is exactly what adolescents do. They ask themselves questions that they can’t answer, mostly because they are too lazy and don’t want to work hard enough to find the answers. Why do I like this album? Why does the album juxtapose (well, maybe I didn’t know words THAT big) hard rockers awkwardly next to quiet ballads? Why does Who You Are, the song that sounds like it SHOULD be the opener, come third in the line? Who is Jerome Turner? Why does Eddie narrate the lyrics to I’m Open? Is Lukin even a word? Why did this album only come with nine Polaroids with song lyrics on them, not even coving all the songs? And what is with all this cover art, indecipherable phantasmagoria?

It took me several years of occasional listening to unwrap No Code and get to the point where I enjoyed it fully. The songs that stood out on first listen were Hail Hail and Off He Goes, simply because I recognized them. Experiences like the ones I had with these songs were the reason that I started to get so interested in music in the first place. The nostalgia, rushes of memories, and sense of vague familiarity were what made many albums in my mothers collection feel like buried treasure. Although I gravitated to those songs in particular, there were several more that struck me as outwardly fantastic, such as the other single Who You Are. The aforementioned song is nothing short of a masterpiece for Pearl Jam and an accurate representation of No Code. It swirls into view with a pounding beat and is dotted with many tidbits of foreign instrument, such as steel drums and sitars. The sitar is used again to it’s full potential by the time the song has revealed it’s winning hook and cemented it’s place in the listeners ears. That paired with a wonderful guitar solo makes it one of the finest songs on the album.

This excellence is not lonely. It’s easy for me to say that every song on this album is really great, but from a commercial standpoint, Pearl Jam knew how to put their best foot forward with No Code by producing three singles which would become radio staples. Hail Hail, Who You Are, and Off He Goes are all fantastic songs in their own right, and all coming from three completely different directions. Hail Hail is one hell of a riff rocker, Who You Are is an eclectic anthem, and Off He Goes is a gentle acoustic ballad that rivals Daughter in sheer quality. These songs would be enough to reel in the casual listener, which would then be hit hard with all the other great things Pearl Jam has to say here. Every song is finely tuned and unique; Sometimes is a reflective prayer, In My Tree is a driving explosion of glorious sound, Habit is as angry and rhythmic as the preceding album Vitalogy’s Spin The Black Circle, and I’m Open is poetry recited over gentle ambient chords and soft beats. This album has about as much continuity and order to it as a fleeting stage one dream.

And yet somehow it works. No Code ends with Around The Bend, a deceptively simple lullaby of tropical style. This ending is deceptive, but ultimately satisfying and beautiful. The listener naturally expects some kind of stylistic answer or solution within that last song, and this might be yet another unsatisfying venture on the first listen. But like the whole album, it opens up with a little time. This is the brilliant code that is communicated through the album perfectly, that is, there is no code. The second you start to pin down a pattern or style in Pearl Jam, they will undoubtedly change or surprise you. The only way to fully appreciate No Code, and Pearl Jam, is to take several steps backward and look at the full picture. Pearl Jam are an excellent band that make whatever music they want to, with whatever message they feel. The entire notion that Pearl Jam cast away their fan base by becoming more experimental is a sad misconception. Pearl Jam never attempted to alienate anyone. It is not their fault that they have a strong desire to push their creative boundaries, and it is not their fault that their true fans were revealed in the process. In any case, No Code is the keystone to Pearl Jam’s discography, and the picture of excellence by which the rest of their albums should be judged, even their earlier, more revered works such as Ten. It might not make any sense at first, but that makes it all the more fun. No Code is a puzzle which can be solved in a number of ways, all yielding the same solution, a transcendent masterpiece.

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Howard Shore – The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers

November 4, 2007

This orchestral score accompanies Peter Jackson’s second serving of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. To many, including me, The Two Towers was the most interesting book and the most enthralling film, and the music has something to do with how tense and action packed the movie was. This is where hell breaks loose, and the music indicates as much. Most of the songs sway between quiet, mysterious movements and loud, dark, sweeping, full orchestra explosions at the drop of a feather. This keeps the score tense, progressive, and effective.

On one hand, the listener will hear many versions of the main Lord of The Rings themes that they have already been spoon fed hundreds of times before and probably won’t need to hear again. The Taming Of Smeagol, The Riders of Rohan, and The King of The Golden Hall are in this way songs that you may want to skip simply because you can already hum along to them. But even these songs carry the same urgency and sense of destruction that most of the movie communicated. This keeps even the familiar melodies rather fresh. But for the most part, the listener will most likely find the most enjoyment in the songs they don’t already know.

What Howard Shore has done here is craft an aural experience just as distinct as the visual and fictional experiences that it accompanies. There is a tint of Gaelic spirit in most every song, which adds to the overall coherency of the score. There are some songs meant to accompany the tense action scenes, such as The Uruk-Hai and Helm’s Deep, that do their damage very well, and recreate the dismal aura of Sauron’s lackeys.

When Tolkien created his books, he pushed his creative boundaries and created not just a series of books around his characters and events, but also a world. He wrote his own languages with their own phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary, and these languages are utilized here in several songs by accompanying soloists, as well as by booming female choruses. Isabel Bayrakdarian and Sheila Chandra sing exceptionally on Evenstar and Breath of Life respectively. But the real winner is, get ready, Liz Fraser appearing on Isengard Unleashed. Fraser has honed vocal emoting for decades using a language of angelic babel on her own, making her the most appropriate vocalist for this score. Her appearance, no matter how short, is deeply appreciated, and a bittersweet reminder that one of the worlds greatest singers still has her talent completely in tact after years of inactivity. There is some English singing on the closing Gollum’s Song by Emiliana Torrini, which captures the insanity of Gollum very well.

The most memorable themes that the soundtrack has to offer are The Passage of the Marshes, The Black Gate Is Closed, Evenstar, Treebeard, The Leave Taking, Breath of Life, and Isengard Unleashed. But this is a soundtrack worth picking up for it’s entirety. If you enjoyed any of The Lord Of The Rings movies, or have any appreciation for orchestral music whatsoever, you will really get a lot from this soundtrack, and really all of the Lord Of The Rings soundtracks. Don’t lie to yourself. Just because The Lord of The Rings has an army of ridiculous fanatics to back it up does not mean it is not quality literature. This soundtrack does great justice to the second Lord of The Rings film, which does great justice to the original book.

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Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City

November 2, 2007

I’m pretty sure I need to sit down and completely rethink my opinions on lyrics in general. Sometimes, vocalists I know are very good get on my nerves, and other times, vocalists that I know are bad are not so grating. Either I just have a very strange taste in vocals, or my perception has been separated from my opinions. Anyway, I am no linguist, but it always struck me as odd how many British vocalists with heavy accents don’t let those accents play out in the music. Same goes for the Scots, in general. The Irish show their accents a great deal in music. I don’t know what the deal is.

But for Bloc Party, Kele Okereke lets his accent show, and it’s very heavy and consequently not so pleasurable to my ears. I would be willing to overlook that if he had some good words to sing, but they are mostly all crap. It’s the familiar drill of the difficulty of living in a modern, urban world, except it is all stated very explicitly, leaving nothing to the listeners imagination, which is not good considering this is a subject that has already been discussed in music for years. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. Yeah. Except add a second layer to that. A second layer of failed relationships, time wasted, and just how god damn stressful everything is. These lyrics sound like they belong to a trashy emo band.

The catch is, Bloc Party is far from emo. In fact, the music itself is fairly conventional, at least for what fans of Silent Alarm are used to. It is a common trick to use the blurred light effect on the cover like that. Typical, but effective, and good photography, especially to describe something wispy or ethereal, and heavily layered. A Weekend In The City is definitely heavily layered. They manage to make these layers very abundantly, making each song an ocean of riffs, and hooks, along with oodles of one time use effects. This makes each song fairly interesting and unpredictable. This partially makes up for what Bloc Party lacks in instrumental talent, because as Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good. But these one-shot production tricks give A Weekend In The City the illusion of depth, when really, it doesn’t take much talent to utilize the tricks that keep the album fresh. The chord progressions are basic, dressed up with one hell of a production job by Jacknife Lee.

It runs out of steam by the end. The first five songs or so are damn good, at least three of them potential radio hits (Hunting For Witches, Waiting For The 7:18, The Prayer). But the second half of the album is pretty dull, with not so many memorable tracks. There is also a gradual realization that these guys really aren’t as original as you are told. They seem to have stolen some effects pedals from Explosions In The Sky, for one thing. Also, they simply repeat themselves throughout, and don’t keep interesting enough for an effective close. Every song is dressed in fast, mediocre, breakbeat drums, and predictable song structures.

Bloc Party are dull. Thankfully not quite as dull as some of their other British contemporaries that get about as much credit (Coldplay? Keane? Huh?). It’s alright, as long as you don’t think about it too much, but just alright.