Archive for May, 2008

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New Review System: Requests

May 28, 2008

School is now over for me, at least for the Summer until I ship off, and I have some more time on my hands. Time to read, clean, work, and write. The writing part hasn’t been happening as much as it used to. Not that this is a bad thing, but I usually find that I am simply not as motivated to write, and when I do, it is less fulfilling.

I have a theory. We are going to have you decide what I review. The following link is where a vast majority of my music collection is logged.

http://rateyourmusic.com/~red_atm

rateyourmusic.com is a very handy tool. It allows me to log what is in my collection, organize everything by facts such as year released, artist, and my own personal rating, post my reviews of albums, and label everything by my own tags. The pages are very navigable. From the preceding link, you can see everything that I have reviewed in high regard, low regard, everything in the middle, things I have not yet rated, things that are on my wishlist, etc. I have some specific tags as well, such as Shoegaze, Metal, Ambient, Soundtrack, and much more. My most used tag is “Reviewed.” I use this tag to label albums that I have already reviewed.

What I ask is that you visit that link, find an album you want me to review that is not tagged as “reviewed,” and email the album title to me at juicelee94@gmail.com. I would suggest doing this by clicking on the “Ratings” tab underneath my ratings descriptions. You can view all of my ratings by clicking the blue large number next to the word “Ratings.” In doing this, you can organize all of the albums by various criteria such as name, artist, and release date. Or you can click on a specific rating (.5-5.0 stars) underneath that, so that you can see all of the albums I have assigned to a given rating. That makes it easier to see albums I really like or really dislike.

I will also accept requests for unrated albums, which are essentially albums I have not yet listened to at great length and cannot form an opinion on yet. Do not request anything on my wishlist.

I can’t promise I will get around to every request, but I will try. Some reviews will be full, some brief. I don’t really know how big of a response I am going to get for this. We shall see. In the meantime, send the requests my way and I’ll try to make it work. Thank you!

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Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

May 24, 2008

The impressive thing about new band Vampire Weekend’s debut album is not its consistency or eclectic flavor, but instead its immediacy. Instead of any attitude that this weekend will be a weekend that we will remember for the rest of our lives, or that we will get smashed and do things that can’t be erased, this weekend resonates of a straightforward, fun, in the moment attitude. It has been a long time since I have heard an album this shamelessly happy, and a long time since that kind of happiness has not been distracting or aggravating. Part of this might be due to the simple, warm instrumentation. The drums are propelling yet anything but tough. The guitars almost sound hushed. And everything else seems to be produced to be comfortable. That isn’t to say that the album is boring, however. Although the aim might be comfort and happiness, the sheer consistency of the album keeps it unique and compelling. To say that the band are smart would be an understatement. This kind of utilization of stringed instruments suggests classical training, and anyone who even knows what an Oxford Comma is can’t be a chump. Vampire Weekend seem to have discovered the alchemy to make pop gold. Arpeggiations dot songs beautifully throughout, most notably on the string laden M79, which makes use of hooks from a guitar, string section, and harpsichord (or at least the harpsichord setting of someone’s keyboard). This song is not lonely in its appeal. In fact, even a new listener could go through the album and never have any even remote desire to switch songs. The fact that they hold attention while flipping through an ocean of variety is that much more pleasing and impressive. From loud Little Richard esque piano pop (Walcott), to African rhythms over simple chord progressions and pleasing switchups (Cape Cod Kwassa), to glowing Mark Mothersbaugh esque chamber pop (Campus), and to giddy electro fun (Blake’s Got a New Face), there is not a corner of this album that feels unnecessary or able to be improved upon. This album gets the highest regards for the simple fact that every song is great, and it will appeal to people who listened to The Beatles in high school as well as people who remember the Rugrats theme song fondly.

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The Silence of Being: The Music of Arvo Pärt

May 20, 2008

Four weeks ago, my Music Theory teacher explained to the class that each of us were to do a short report on a classical composer of the twentieth century. I immediately called Arvo Pärt. Nothing else could have competed. I spent a weekend listening to his music and researching him at my local library. That weekend, I had a visit to Borders and by chance stumbled upon this box set. I walked out of the store having purchased it for approximately $32.

Why it took until 2008 for such a box set to be released is beyond me. How I got away with buying it for $32 is also beyond me.

I can say with great confidence that Arvo Pärt is my favorite composer, although I am probably not alone these days. In a world where classical music is becoming increasingly fashionable for the hip crowd, Pärt reigns supreme with his unique and somewhat legendary body of work.

The Silence of Being is a box set that contains many of the composers most famous or seminal works. Instead of being a sort of greatest hits compilation, this box set is instead a collection of five previously released collections of Pärt’s music, divided up somewhat chronologically.

The first disk contains six different recordings of possibly Pärt’s most popular song, Fratres, plus a lovely version of Festina Lente, a string version of Summa, and the timeless recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The second disk contains the tintinnabuli classic Tabula Rasa as well as some more essential early polyphonic works. The third disk contains the divided entirety of St. John’s Passion, perhaps Pärt’s longest work, and one of the most respected. The fourth and fifth disks explore the composers post-1980 choral music that has come to characterize him, in great variety, actually.

Rounding up Arvo Pärt music is hard. Your library probably has some, and you can order some for cheap off of amazon. But you will likely never be able to get a single collection with every Pärt essential on it. To be sure, this collection misses many important pieces. It contains neither Fur Alina or Spiegel Im Spiegel, two of his most beautiful minimalist pieces, and it also skips out on Te Deum, Pärt’s quintessential choral piece.

These two exclusions alone make this box set’s goals seem purely commercial. Also indicative of a money scheme is the inclusion of the Sonic Rebellion compilation, which contains only one of Pärt’s pieces which can already be found on disk one of the box set. The subtitle of Sonic Rebellion is “Alternative Classical Rebellion.” Clearly aimed toward the indie kids who were already interested in Pärt but wanted more modern music. Pärt doesn’t fit in with these other artists, except perhaps Philip Glass, and the rest is essentially a baited hook for listeners who want to experience the more aimless pretensions of modern composition. I also  noticed several typos and misprints in the track listing on the back of the box.

So it’s a money trick. Yeah. If Pärt had sanctioned and overlooked the release himself, I’m sure we would have gotten a completely new compilation. Instead we get five classic Pärt compilations and a bonus disk of goodies. And for $32? A steal. I should have paid one hundred dollars for this, at least, considering what is in it. If you can find it for a reasonable price, waste no time and buy it. This is a great place to start a Pärt collection, but a bad place to stop.

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Brian Eno – Neroli

May 20, 2008

In the mid 1990s, Brian Eno went through a string of albums that felt somewhat generic, even manufactured. This is not unusual or necessarily bad, considering Eno’s love for system based music, music that should be manufactured. Also, even the worst Brian Eno albums are compelling and fun. Neroli is a return to basic minimalist ambient music from the complex electronic beat oriented album Nerve Net and the dark ambient of The Shutov Assembly. The liner notes of Neroli explain that the album is yet another system based album, but does not really explain how. The entire album consists of warm synthesizers doodling in the Phrygian mode with a sparse rhythm. The Phrygian mode is mysterious and somewhat dissonant, and the tonic of the scale rarely shows up. But what is the system that is the framework, besides the Phrygian scale? How are the notes arranged and why? What dictates the rhythm? The lack of evidence in these areas suggests that Eno had a somewhat stronger influence on the music creatively than, say, Discreet Music. Which makes the fact that the music is on the threshhold of melody and silence that much more interesting. It is hard to say whether the album is deliberately simple minded or another of his postmodern albums that are of poor quality (see The Drop, probably his worst album. Although it contains a few keepers, the majority of the album was obviously thrown together rather quickly). Neroli can be quite relaxing. The fifty minute length is long, but I doubt Eno expects the listener to sit through its entirety, listening closely. The Phrygian scale is contemplative and relaxing the way it is treated, but it is the Phrygian scale. This is a rare album that you could have probably made yourself, given the right equipment. However, you didn’t. Brian Eno did. Thus, it is a part of his repertoire of sonic tools, and is desirable for those fans that love his ambient music. If you want a place to start on ambient music, this is the last place you would want to look. In fact, if you are looking for something here, the album technically isn’t doing its job. This should be ignored, and while in the background, on the bottom end of your aural register, it should lightly stimulate your mind. Eno has clearly learned the secrets of the human mind and its interaction with sound, and Neroli is another exploration.

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The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

May 15, 2008

When I saw The Magnetic Fields a couple months ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Stephen Merritt noted that probably 80% of the people in the audience had a blog, and that 50% of those people would go home that night and comment on the show. I didn’t do this, maybe because I was afraid of Stephen Merritt thinking I was lame (as if he was going to check up on the assessments of his band on shitty blogs), or perhaps because I was tired and lazy. And thirsty. It was another concert where I didn’t drink anything the entire time and I was very dehydrated. I bought a bottle of Coke on the way home. I bought a BOTTLE of Coke. In a gas station. That excited me. I don’t drink Coke from bottles very much. I couldn’t actually open it until I got inside though. I kept on working to get inside it in the car and it just wouldn’t budge. I had to settle in before I could actually drink my delicious beverage. It was the tastiest Coke I had ever experienced.

The Magnetic Fields concert was an experience. Listening to a Magnetic Fields album is usually an experience anyway, but seeing the band live helps to bring spirit and soul to the songs. I’m glad I had not bought Distortion before seeing the band live. I heard them perform, many of the songs from Distortion, and upon listening to the album itself, the songs that I heard live were immediately recognizable and easy to be comfortable with.

The fact that it took another four years to make Distortion, and that it also dons the now standard Fields label and a simplistic cover, denotes that the album should have yet another gimmick. It does, and it doesn’t. Distortion takes to its name, and is drenched in distortion, both smooth and screeching throughout, ala The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The songs are almost of uniform length, none running over three minutes and ten seconds.

It seems like there should be some kind of solvable puzzle here, some key to be found that unlocks everything. It is because of 69 Love Songs and i that expectations of this album have been distorted to the point of being ridiculous. And in fact, 69 Love Songs did have a trick to it, and so did i. There is no trick on Distortion, and if there is one, it isn’t significant. We are tricked into thinking that the distortion is the key to the album.

It isn’t. It’s a caramel coating that needs to be cracked with a spoon to get to the ice cream. The Fields are not the first band to use these tricks. Psychocandy did it twenty five years ago, and I’d be shocked if these musicians did not know that. The distortion and feedback does not work quite as effectively on Distortion. The Jesus And Mary Chain were a pop band, like The Fields, but they were also a punk band. When The Fields include the elderly noise punk effects of Psychocandy into the album, it seems like an unwelcome distraction, regardless of how natural they actually were during recording.

Some aspect of the distortion does, however, strike a pleasing chord. Many of the songs feel lost in the fuzz, subdued, blanketed. Unlike Psychocandy’s distortion and feedback, the effects here are rather innocuous most of the time and do not detract from the album’s pop spirit. In that sense, production wise, it sounds more like The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees than anything, with hushed cymbal hits, gentle pianos, and exclamatory guitars, this time with the updated vocals and songwriting sensibilities of the present day Fields. The band also played Lovers From The Moon at the concert. That song sounded just as natural and free as the new songs, also performed without their original electric context.

While the production is no coy framework, the Magnetic Fields, and particularly Stephen Merritt, are masters of meter and verse, and can be clever and enjoyable within the confines of individual songs. Three Way, for example, is both silly and assuring at once in its sly trinity. Other fun roundabout approaches at deep emotion are seen in California Girls, a pot shot at the romantic musings of the Beach Boys, and Too Drunk To Dream, which should be the official drinking anthem of the USA or possibly the entire world if we could make it rhyme in every language. The genre hopping here is as prevalent as on 69 Love Songs or i, and in that sense Distortion is just as much of a treasure trove.

The ending Courtesans makes a convincing case for the importance of all of the distortion, but ultimately, Distortion is not an album that holds itself together with some unifying theme. The production, while unnecessary, works to the album’s advantage at least more than the production on i, and is not a major distraction. It is another album of vintage Magnetic Fields, and we like it for that reason. We like the Magnetic Fields. They seem to be obscuring their personality with smoke and mirrors, but Stephen Merritt could have hired Jim Reid to sing these songs and it wouldn’t fool us.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa (Again)

May 11, 2008

I was told several weeks ago that I was to do a presentation in my Music Theory class about a twentieth century composer. Arvo Pärt immediately came to mind as probably my favorite composer and perfect for the project. As much as I loved Pärt when I wrote the last review for the very same release of Tabula Rasa, I simply did not know him as well as I know him now. Part of this comes from having listened to Tabula Rasa fairly often up until last week, and then what happened to me last week. What happened was I acquired about fifteen Arvo Pärt releases in one weekend, both from a box set that I purchased called The Silence of Being (I’ll get to that later, after I find the time to sit down and comb through the five disks carefully and be able to make an assessment) and various other releases from my local library. I have been completely immersed in Pärt for the past week, and I feel that I owe it to him and this album to take another shot at the review with my added knowledge and understanding.

The 1984 release Tabula Rasa is the most popular and essential example of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist tintinnabuli style. Although this is by no means a definitive collection of all of his best pieces of the style, the four recordings here have remarkable cohesion, and the presence of any one piece plays off of the others and brings out its best. It’s no surprise that this album is so popular with music fans who are not attuned to classical music. Pärt has a knack for classical structure, but his tintinnabuli style is both focused on melodicism as well as texture.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of the active working of this contrast are the two versions of Fratres collected here. The first features a fiery, raw solo violin part that represents entire chords at once in violent precision playing from Gidon Kremer, who seems to have little trouble with the complex bowing. The second version of Fratres is played by twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and this recording of the piece is alternatively subdued and more safe sounding, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, Fratres is a soaring, thoughtful, and sometimes spiritual piece. And Pärt is definitely a spiritual composer, although not really a religious, or Christian composer. Although many of his later, particularly choral pieces might reflect a religious theme lyrically, the aural spirituality is universal and accessible to all.

Sandwiched between these two recordings is the collection’s shortest and arguably most memorable moment, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. After a bell sounds off the beginning of the piece, a full orchestra cascades down over the constant pedal point of the bell like water over a cliff, or possibly like souls descending into the deep, in polyphonic parts. The downward moving strings get stronger and stronger, and then compound the dense sea of sound at the bottom. Before the piece has a chance to burn out, it cuts out, and is concluded by the same bell that started it. The word “cantus” has surely become synonymous with this piece as it is a perfect example of what kind of emotion a cantus should evoke.

The collection is rounded off with a full performance of one of Part’s most famous pieces, the twenty five minute long Tabula Rasa. The piece consists of two parts, which although are not separated in any way like on many other recordings, have unique enough ideas and emotions to make the distinction obvious. The first movement, Ludus, is a sprawling expansion on a single theme that grows in complexity with each repetition. Although the piece sounds something like more traditional European fiddle music at times, the harmonies are sublimely universal. Pärt’s experimental flair also comes through here on flourishes of prepared piano, which run rampant in the booming conclusion.

The second movement, Silentium, works opposite to Ludus by constructing a loose, polyphonic texture that delicately floats upwards into the stratosphere of the stringed instruments’ fingerboards on a melancholic chord progression which also seems to reach for the sky. There is little actual melody, but this is considered one of Pärt’s finest tintinnabuli moments and is a frequent pick along with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for favorite music of patients dying of terminal cancer or AIDS. Somewhere near the middle of Silentium, it sounds almost as if some ambient soundscape is vaguely introduced into the background. It might be a production trick, or perhaps even a nonexistent illusion of atmosphere, but it almost seems as if the song is ascending an icy, snowy mountain, as the air between the strings gets thinner and thinner. The piece finally fades gently into nothingness, a final equilibrium, a blank slate.

It is no surprise that this is Pärt’s most popular release to date. The pieces here are slowly seeping into popular culture; Fratres was featured in last years Academy Award nominated There Will Be Blood, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was featured in Fahrenheit 9/11, and Tabula Rasa was used in War Photographer. But this popular exposure does not mean that Pärt is a modern classical sellout, nor does it mean that Tabula Rasa is any less of a quaint release than it really is. All of these pieces mesh stylistically and represent a time of great inspiration in Pärt’s career, and the collection stands up as a collection of four (or five, if you count the two Tabula Rasa movements as seperate) utterly unforgettable works.

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Jimmy

May 8, 2008

When I was a child, I used to lie in bed and cry because I would never be older than my brother Jimmy. Now I lie in bed and cry because I am.