Archive for December, 2007

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Three Cocteau Twins Reviews

December 28, 2007

Sunburst And Snowblind

A great little EP to accompany one of my favorite Twins’ albums, Head Over Heels. The version of Sugar Hiccup here is superior, and makes the original version obsolete. From The Flagstones and Hitherto are wonderful songs, arguably better than some songs on Head Over Heels, but Because of Whirl-Jack isn’t as good, although a nice inclusion. I am pretty sure this rounds off the released material from the Head Over Heels sessions. There is no reason not to get this one. It only enhances the album which it accompanies, which was already nearly perfect.

The Spangle Maker

One of the most overrated Cocteau Twins releases. People often cite Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops as a turning point in quality for the band, but I personally find it trite and annoying, and one of Fraser’s most contrived vocal performances. The Spangle Maker is a frequent fan favorite, but the tune is tired and uninspired. Fraser’s vocals once again take a fall, only spending a tiny amount of the nearly five minute song delivering characteristically excellent vocals, the rest of which is some of the least melodic of her repertoire. Pepper-Tree is the saving grace. It is quite nice. However, in general, this three song EP is pretty weak. It seems to spark something for other people, but it was only worth it to me for the sake of completion.

BBC Sessions

This two disk set of BBC recordings of Cocteau Twins are useless and peripheral upon first glance, but closer listening opens up their purposes. One initial strikeout is how lopsided the collection is in respect to the breadth of their career. The lions share of these recordings are of songs from the Garlands and Head Over Heels eras, while the bands most popular periods, of Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll are given little and no attention respectively.

The reasoning for this becomes clear to fans upon closer inspection. The truth is, the Garlands era songs are generally exceptional but poorly produced and hampered by Fraser’s then unhoned vocals. Coming back to these tracks with an updated knowledge of production and better instrumental skill does the band good, and most of these songs deserve their facelifts. The collection is led of with Wax And Wane, and with a faster tempo and more clearly produced haunting instrumentals, feels utterly complete. A few songs that were once negligible are now standouts, namely Feathers-Oars-Blades, Strange Fruit, and My Hue And Cry. And the songs that were already fantastic are also given quality, often times unique deliveries. The wonder of the re-recording of Blind Dumb Deaf is just one the many surprises to be found here. In the said track, the steady drum machine fires off cold beats quickly int the void as the bass plays a hypnotic rolling as if on a wooden ship under the dancing storm that is Guthrie’s satanic guitars. Fraser sings in the middle of all this, unphased, as if some untouchable angel.

It doesn’t sound very likely, but these versions do bring out the best of their songs, and they reveal that even in their primal, incomplete stage, the Cocteau Twins were one hell of a band. Also particularly nice are the new versions of Hazel and Hitherto. The former is the Twins’ most relentless gothic assault and arguably their heaviest song, and Hitherto is a beautiful, tragic number that can be likened to Musette And Drums.

This collection is by no means perfect, and on the second disk, the quality takes a nosedive with the Treasure era tracks and continuing through the Twins’ Capitol albums Four Calendar Cafe and Milk And Kisses. Everything past Beatrix is flat out mediocre, save a very beautiful cut of Otterley. The bands most popular album, Heaven or Las Vegas, is only given one song, and Victorialand and Blue Bell Knoll are completely ignored. However, the majority of the first disk and a good chunk of the second are filled with revised versions of some of the Twins’ most perplexing tunes that are revised and touched up to as perfect as they will ever be. This is not an essential Cocteau Twins release, but considering the state of the Cocteau Twins fanbase (that is, only rabid), there are many goodies to be found here, especially in respect to Garlands and Head Over Heels.

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Snow

December 23, 2007

I have no better way to open a sentimental holiday post than with a simple fact. The weather here, in the Chicago area, is ass backwards. Last night at around midnight it was over thirty two degrees outside, I am completely certain. Everything was melting. It was one of those times when my town became a dripping playground of water. But the past few days since I got out of school have been generally very warm, but not quite as warm as yesterday. Yesterday, there was a thick fog blanketing the entire county. Driving in that weather is difficult. And it seems like everyone who is going well over the speed limit in thick fog also just can’t manage to turn their headlights on. This isn’t a hard concept. If you put a little snow on the ground, people drive like idiots. When it melts, that doesn’t seem to help.

This morning it is about fifteen degrees outside. It is frigid, but only because of the wind chill. Because so much of the snow melted yesterday, there is nothing but a thin, wispy layer left that flutters all around town in huge whirlwinds in the bitter wind. Tomorrow, it is supposed to get a little warmer, probably up to around thirty degrees, and I’m hoping that it will snow so that the Christmas snow isn’t quite so pathetic. I like having white Christmases. They are almost always white, so I guess the chances of it not being nice and snowy are unlikely. But now isn’t the time to get sentimental about snow. In February, I come out of my apartment on mornings like this in shock, because it feels like a heat wave.

I should be savoring this day. It’s an important day, to me anyway. It’s the last day before Christmas Eve, which is when winter inevitably starts to suck horribly. I love the holiday season. From about Black Friday to today, the world turns into something magical. I love that month… That is where you see the Christmas spirit. Windows at department stores, snow flurries, Christmas decorations, the shopping rush, warm clothing, the ever looming feeling of anticipation leading up to the day that the rest of the year has been leading up to, and that generally magical Christmas spirit. A lot of people don’t notice it, because they are looking too hard. And when someone on the radio asks you, “can you feel that Christmas spirit, Chicago?”, you really just want to blow your brains out. But it’s there. It’s definitely there. It’s subtlety is magic, and from Black Friday to today is my favorite time of the year, hands down.

And then there is Christmas, and the eve before it. I hate those two days. I hate them with a passion. Christmas is the most over hyped, corporate, disappointing holiday of them all. On Christmas, all those hopes and warm feelings are slaughtered in place of materialistic bombast. I’ll admit, I have never been an even remotely religious person at all, so maybe I’m missing half of the angle, that is the day of the Lord. See how I capitalized that “L?” Yeah, I did that for posterity’s sake. I don’t really care about what happened on the twenty fifth of December thousands of years ago. In fact, thinking about that just makes me grumpy. And following Christmas, as if that wasn’t bad enough, is another four months of dead, chilling winter. It’s not that this part of winter is so bad. It just lasts too long in Chicago, and you have to make it enjoyable on it’s own terms. It is usually depressing and lonely. I think the extreme cold does something to your neurons, and it makes one more easily disturbed by mundane things than usual. On a cold, two degree February morning, burnt toast scares me just as much as the walk to school, or the school itself. Etc, etc, etc. In any case, Christmas is worth it to me if just for the month that precedes it.

What I’m most glad about is getting off of school for two weeks. When I was a Freshman or a Sophomore, I might have felt a little differently, and I would have perhaps felt sad that I would not get to see the people I normally see at school for two whole weeks. But by now, I’m just sick of school, the workload, the social issues, and I just need a couple weeks off, which is exactly what I am getting, so as far as I am concerned I have little to complain about besides the inescapable grasp of the calendar. It feels good to not have to worry about English essays, or Calculus tests, or social strain. I’m getting a lot of stuff done that I don’t normally have time for. I am finally re-reading The Lord Of The Rings. My father gave me his nice copy of it, that he no longer uses, because he listens to them on tape. He has read The Hobbit along with the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy approximately twenty times, maybe a little more. He would always make obscure references to the books when I was a kid, and in an attempt to understand them, I tried to read The Lord Of The Rings when I couldn’t have been older than ten years old. Horrible, horrible idea. I know I got to about halfway through The Two Towers, but only to such a degree that my ADD stricken childish mind could have managed. My eyes read the words, but my mind did not process the meaning. I finally gave up when I picked the book up in the middle of some long speech that Gandalf was making, the context of which I was completely clueless to. I say I have read those books, but I really might as well not have. And I’m finally doing that now. The volume that I read from now is red, ornate, and contains all three books, maps of Middle Earth and the appendices. I’m finally appreciating this literature for what it is. It isn’t just the source of story for the films, which I really did enjoy a lot. The Lord Of The Rings is the apex of fantasy literature, and it is fantastically written, and I am having tons of fun reading it now.

I also finally have the time to watch a lot of movies. It is an appropriate time of year to watch movies at home like Fargo, The Thing, and A Christmas Story. I watched Sweeney Todd last night. Whoo, boy. Now that one was fun. It rivaled Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of degree of disturbance. Lot’s of blood spilled. I like that every once and a while, and it’s alright because it was a great movie, but it was just DRAINING. Interestingly enough, there are a ton of movies I want to see in theaters now. Juno, The Kite Runner, and No Country For Old Men, particularly. But I really have to watch my cash. I’m really low on it, and I’ve been spending like crazy lately, for gifts and for myself. Hopefully.

As far as Christmas music goes, there is always that bombardment of tunes and jingles in storefronts, and on the radio. But in terms of albums, my ears have been particularly fixated on three chilling pieces that accompany the cold very well. Substrata by Biosphere, Treasure by Cocteau Twins, and Vespertine by Bjork. Expect reviews for Substrata and Vespertine in good time. I’ve already done one for Treasure that is sufficient.

Everybody have a wonderful holiday.

-Alex

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Chris Clark – Clarence Park

December 18, 2007

This one is kind of short, but I figured I wrote it at all, so I might as well get it out here. A lot of little reviews like this get lost in the RYM ocean, and I forget when they were written and if they have gotten exposure here. Anyway, as you can see, I have been very interested in electronic and ambient music lately. It was initially sparked, as you can kind of see here, by my budding interest in Aphex Twin, an artist whom I initially hated and did not understand, but now love. I’ve been listening to a lot of RDJ, Autechre, and Eno (the electronic stuff), as well as other scattered albums that I have received, like this. I’m trying to get a handle on these genres. It’s difficult, but doable, and I’m enjoying myself, sifting through what I do and don’t like and why.

Voila.

Clark crafts some fairly interesting, playful electronica here. He succeeds best with his short, fragile interludes, particularly the gorgeous opening Pleen 1930s but also including Oaklands, EMW, and Nostalgic Oblong. Beyond these, Clark’s success is scattered to say the least. A limited number of these songs succeed, Proper Lofi and Lord of the Dance to be precise. Proper Lofi is harsh but ultimately playful and melodic, and Lord of the Dance is even more fun, featuring a wonderful flute melody that sounds like it was lost in the production of a SEGA Genesis RPG, surrounded by sharp beats. But the other songs are plagued by a lack of direction, which is supposedly what makes the album enjoyable in the first place but ultimately spells its downfall. Clark proves that just because electronic music is unique or experimental does not mean it is successful. The mood and style that the album’s better tracks set up could have easily carried through the rest of the album and made it a memorable classic, but instead, most of the songs are smattered with aggravating noise in between moments of grace. Taking the opportunity to shape this album into something accessible would not have been taking the easy way out, but following through on the soul of what was promised initially. It’s alright, and it’s best moments are very lovely, but it is ultimately a missed opportunity.

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Aphex Twin – Drukqs

December 13, 2007

Having a body of work as diverse as Richard D. James sets up a lot of unreasonable expectations for fans and critics. From his early work in the late eighties through his four albums recorded under the name “Aphex Twin” and countless other recordings under other names, RDJ has blazed trails and created many unique styles that characterize him. Through those four studio albums, RDJ pioneered and arguably perfected the genres of IDM, ambiance, orchestral electro horror, jungle, drill ‘n bass, synth pop, and more. The expectation for a new Aphex Album, especially one after a long hiatus and one to lead off the new millennium, were surely extravagant and overblown. What will James concoct next, and how will it shake the musical world?

What people seem to forget is that Richard D. James makes whatever the hell kind of music he wants, and has no interest in what the critics think of him whatsoever. Whatever satiates his desire to create is enough. What made the critics unsatisfied with the double album Drukqs was that no one was quite ready to stomach the fact that he can be just as effective working comfortably within his boundaries as he does when pushing them.

I recall the man saying that Drukqs was intended to be an album for the fans. This kind of surprised me. An album for the fans, rather than for himself? Sounds like a plan. He clearly worked hard to touch on many of his previously honed styles within the album. Any fan of Aphex has noticed and possibly ailed over the fact that he never quite does the same thing twice. With the exception of the soft white futuristic pop of Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Aphex re-hashes just about every style he has pioneered. Gwely Mernans is an ambient soundscape comparable in quality to it’s brethren from Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. He spends the entire stretch of Gwarek 2 experimenting with disturbing noises, reminiscent of the bizarre psychosis of I Care Because You Do.

The biggest rehash in the album is that of his breakbeats which he pioneered on Richard D. James Album, which he spends about half the album playing with to varying success. On one hand, James is a breakbeat master, and just about everything he puts out will be unique and fun, even upon repeated listens. These breakbeats don’t quite sound like the ones that can be heard on Richard D. James album or Hangable Auto Bulb. My music teacher once told me that music can be simplified to three dimensions: the vertical chords and notes (tone), the horizontal rhythm and progression (time), and what comes out and hits our ears (taste, possibly?). If RDJ pushed his limits in the vertical sense on SAW 2 and I Care Because You Do and horizontally on Richard D. James album, then the breakbeat songs here represents a tangent graph of sound on the Cartesian Plane of Aphex’s repertoire. These synthesizers on the breakbeat tracks sound darkly, seductive, even sexy, and the breakbeats themselves are of great quality save a few here and there. The likes of Cock/Ver 10, Taking Control, Meltphace 6, and Vordhosbn especially are among the best breakbeat tracks he has ever done, and they accomplish more in single songs than most electronic artists get done on entire albums. No walls are destroyed here, but he has certainly developed his signature sound to relative perfection.

But just because Aphex isn’t pushing his own boundaries doesn’t mean he can’t do something new. A lot of where the personality of the album comes in is through short, simple songs characterized by gentle chords. Six short piano interludes punctuate the bulk of the album in equal intervals spread through the two disks. These songs are among some of Aphex’s most simple yet outwardly excellent tracks ever made, and they deserve considerable mention. Strotha Tynhe, Avril 14th, Kesson Daslef, Father, Petiatil Cx Htdui, and Nanou 2 are these songs, and each of them holds a very special, emotional simplicity and fragility. But these are not the only simple ambient songs on the album. The second song on the second disk, Btoum- Roumada, is one of the loveliest most, contemplative, and most gently crafted works in RDJs body of work. Qkthr is also another immediate standout, a minute and a half of what sounds like an accordion being played by a creaking sailboat floating in a dock. Also worth a mention are some other gentle unique pieces Jynweythek, Kladfvgbung Micshk, Hy a Scullyas lyf a Dhagrow, Ruglen Holon, and Beskhu3epnm. They have a unique sound that he has never presented before. Fragile, eastern sounding, and melodic, these are also a series of songs that will be fondly remembered. It is interesting how he works on both ends of the spectrum, crafting harsh jungle music and ambient interludes, and then juxtaposing them next to one another.

That seems to be a large portion of the problem people have with the album. Things are awkwardly placed, but upon further listens, Drukqs opens up both in respect to the songs themselves and their placement. The abrupt change from Jynweythek to Vordhosbn becomes decipherable, and then enjoyable. Drukqs is an album that confuses and confounds before it becomes enjoyable, and it seems like most critics in high places have no patience, or little will to accept something different than they were expecting. Yes, it may recycle some of Aphex’s previous styles, but it creates new ones just as much, making it a double-album that honestly couldn’t have been nailed down to a single disk without deterring the album’s charm. Drukqs is an excellent album worthy of comparison to the other four studio albums under the Aphex Twin surname, and it might even be the best. RDJ doesn’t let up, despite the fact that you have been told he does here.

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Radiohead – In Rainbows Bonus Disk

December 4, 2007

Well, seeing as how the diskbox has been shipped and people are starting to get their packages, I think it is appropriate to give a little acknowledgment to CD2 of In Rainbows, the bonus disk.

The disk consists of eight tracks, all of which are outtakes from the In Rainbows sessions. They sound like the other In Rainbows tracks in terms of production which to honest, isn’t really that great. I mean, the album is produced fine, but I have my gripes about it. Thom’s vocals sometimes need a little work. Especially the beginning of Bodysnatchers, where he sounds horribly aloft and mediocre, which makes no sense considering the end of that song has some of his best vocal moments ever.

But it just feels like more work could have gone into making these songs sound exciting. It was the same way with Videotape. Although there was an intended effect to the studio version of Videotape, it lost a great amount of it’s energy and charm from the live versions. Some of these recordings that we find on the bonus disk are equally as reserved, except this time more boring. Down Is The New Up was the reason I was excited about this bonus disk in the first place, and unfortunately it is given pretty lame treatment for how great of a song it is. Thom’s vocals are tired and mediocre, and the song could have been made much faster. The catch of it is that it is briefly dressed up with some really cool, sweeping strings, like the ones that make many of the In Rainbows songs really great. But they are very brief and should have been utilized more. To be honest, Down Is the New Up had the potential to be one of the best songs from the In Rainbows sessions, but it was simply botched. What you hear here sounds like a b-side, and it shouldn’t have been one. It’s nice to have the studio version though, even if it is a disappointment compared to some live versions you can get.

There was a big fiasco on a lot of Radiohead websites discussing what tracks MK1 and MK2 could possibly be once the tracklists were announced. Some people were thinking short instrumental interludes, and they were right. They are brief, minute long little vignettes that could have served as in betweens on the album. They sound interesting enough for what they are, but the choice to not include them was probably good, considering they are potentially uninteresting. You can hear how they fit in though. This makes them useful for understanding In Rainbows more, even if they are filler. But the catch is, they seem to come in a natural progression. MK1 rounds off Videotape, making this disk seem like an extention of the first disk. I, however, am pretty certain that both disks were not meant to be played together in this exact order. I guess I have no way of knowing for certain, but it is pretty obvious that the better tracks made the main release, and these songs don’t really feel like they progress as smoothly as the album.

There are some more relaxed, downtempo songs to be found here. Last Flowers was a favorite among fans, and was long hoped to clinch the album. However, it only made it as a b-side. It may be overrated, but it sure is a nice little song worthy of being recorded. When Thom shouts “Releeeeeasse” among his classic set of Radiohead lyrics, it reminds me of Morning Bell to a certain extent. It’s fractured, subtle, and ultimately beautiful. Quite nice. Another nice surprise is 4 Minute Warning. Instead of the sweeping piano treatment given during the live tour, the song is now mostly mellowed out. The finished product contains some nice vocal harmonization, acoustic guitar, piano, and tambourine, finished off with some nice studio tricks. It’s lazy, rhythmic, and potentially beautiful. A nice little surprise. It complements House of Cards very well. This easily could have been on the album.

The one I am probably most disappointed with is Bangers & Mash, but I was never impressed with it even when it was live. It’s a decent song, but sub-par when compared to the quality of most Radiohead songs. The drums sound dull, and it sounds like a rehash of Bodysnatchers, except this time kinda crappy. It sounds dry, to be honest.

What it needed was the kind of touchup that Go Slowly and Up On The Ladder are given. Both of these songs are fantastic. Go Slowly at first plays like a guitar accompanying a creepy old music box, and then quickly gains momentum and ends up being one of the saddest songs of the new bunch. Thom’s vocals are given an almost Sigur Ros esque treatment, building up to a heavy, desolate, trudging riff. It’s very nice. Up On The Ladder plays a similar game, but with more sheen. The song is bathed in beautiful echo, from the light percussion, to a lovely organ, to the vocals. The guitar riff has a comparably rhythmic twang to it.

In short, it’s good, as any Radiohead is, but you can see why these tracks are b-sides. This should be a no brainer for any fan though. These songs complete In Rainbows, and they are all very good. Production gripes aside, In Rainbows is a great album with great outtakes.