Archive for June, 2009

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June 30, 2009

If anyone has been wondering where the hell my once-a-week updates have gone, or at least why they never came back during these Summer weeks in which I should have more free time, I am still alive. I’ve been rather busy lately with a job, family obligations, and doing some needed catching up with close friends. But I have several projects on the backburner that will get done soon enough. Some album reviews, an entire new page outlining a collection that I have, a giant long term project that may or may not see the light of day eventually, and the Pitchfork Festival is coming up and I’ll probably provide coverage on my experience with that. For now, these are some songs that I’ve been into lately.

The Strokes – What Ever Happened?

Dinosaur Jr. – Over It

The Jackson 5 – ABC (of course!)

Yann Tiersen – La Redecouverte

Flying Lotus – Comet Course

Missy Elliott – Work It

Elvis Perkins – While You Were Sleeping

Mariah Carey – Heartbreaker

Boris – Ibitsu

The Streets – Has it Come to This?

J Dilla – Airworks

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My Twenty Favorite Aphex Twin Tracks

June 16, 2009

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of one of my favorite artists, Richard D. James (most commonly known as Aphex Twin) and I’ve been kind of sorting through in my head which of his songs are my favorites. I haven’t numbered anything on this list because I think that would be both disrespectful and useless, as my favorite Aphex tracks are always changing anyway. There is a loose hierarchy here, but in general I’m taking this as an opportunity not to judge anything objectively but more to explore some of my favorite songs.

Once again, these just scrape the surface of my favorite RDJ tracks, so before you complain about stuff that is missing from the list, I promise you that I’m not trying to compile a timeline or history here. I’m just trying to aknowledge some good songs. I tried to get youtube links for as many songs as I could, and the official music videos for the songs that have them (“On,” “Windowlicker” and “Nannou”). Understand that the sound quality of videos on youtube are inferior to what you get from playing these songs out of a stereo or nice headphones, so the best way to hear them would be to dig in and explore Aphex Twin’s music for yourself, and in the process uncover some of your own favorites.

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Hangable Auto Bulb

Laughable Butane Bob

Aphex Twin’s first foray into the “Drill ‘n Bass” style which would come to characterize his later work was the Hangable Auto Bulb EP series, which had more than a few gems of the genre. The full picture of the series comes when all eight songs in the series are put together in the Hangable Auto Bulb compilation, and when you put them all back to back, “Laughable Butane Bob” stands out most to me. The experimental rhythm plays out perfectly, and this is the perfect introduction to RDJ’s new, crazy style, and the methodology of listening to his breakbeat work is still the same as it is for his creation; let it simmer a while and it’s pure funk.

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...I Care Because You Do

Acrid Avid Jam Shred

By the time fans of the Selected Ambient Works albums realized that the first song on Aphex Twin’s new album was an anagram for Richard David James, it had probably already occurred to them that the track was a scrambled incarnation of everything James had previously worked on. The song features the hard techno beats of his early AFX days slowed down to a creeping pace, playful electronic flourishes present on Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and elegant atmospherics that would have been at home on Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. The fact that all of these elements work together to great success and without seeming forced to make both this song and …I Care Because You Do indicates that James is not only talented as a musician, but also as an arranger.

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Analord 10

Fenix Funk

The only EP in the Analord series, Aphex Twin’s extensive return to analog synthesizer programming, to be released under the name “Aphex Twin” as opposed to “AFX” was Analord 10, and it was released before any of the other EPs, which were thereafter released in numerical order. Also, Analord 10 was packaged with a full sized binder with spots for the rest of the Analords. This odd non sequitur is understandable when you listen to Analord 10, as the EP contains arguably the best two songs in the series, the most notable being “Fenix Funk.” The track contains not only the smoothest of James’ funky breakbeats but also some of his most distinctive atmospherics. The rest of the series is downhill from this track, which fuses styles of RDJ’s two most significant discographies, thus making his persona that much more decipherable.

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Drukqs

Vordhosbn

Drukqs was the final frontier for Aphex Twin’s Drill ‘n Bass exploration, and “Vordhosbn” might be the highlight of the album’s more hard hitting half. It moves at a breakneck tempo with mile-a-minute development, hitting on more great new ideas in just under five minutes than most other Drill ‘n Bass artists can manage to pull off in entire albums. It’s got the intense thought provoking rhythms in God only knows what time signature as well as subtle a subtle atmospheric backdrop. Despite the complexity, this also manages to be one of the more exciting and listenable Drill ‘n Bass achievements Aphex Twin has yet put out, and hopefully not the last.

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Analogue Bubblebath

Analogue Bubblebath

The song that gave RDJ’s first massive EP series it’s name, Analogue Bubblebath is almost too humble to be a namesake. It’s whimsical ascending and descending synths accompany soft rhythms to make a finished product that contrasts with the majority of the acid techno in the series. The song more closely resembles the work James would subsequently release on his first album under the Aphex Twin name, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. With that said, “Analogue Bubblebath” foreshadows great things to come while still holding its own as a fun, relaxed cut, and a classic of early IDM.

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On

On

Aphex Twin’s early single “On” bridges two of his styles, the early IDM of ┬áthe Selected Ambient Works albums and the harsher rhythmic noise on …I Care Because You Do. The song and it’s accompanying music video directed by Jarvis Cocker are composed in similar ways, moving at a frenetic pace and progressively adding and subtracting different parts of the composition. The rhythm is too rough for the track to be danceable, and too eventful and funky to be ambient, thus moving away from any of James’ previously explored genres. In this sense it is one of the earliest examples of his avant garde single series, even more fun and stylish than “Digeridoo” and the beginning of his experimental modus operandi which would persist through the rest of his career.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Rhubarb

The best justice I can do to explain Rhubarb is that it’s one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. I say this with great conviction. Of course beauty is subjective, but hearing is also believing, and this song is one of the most believable that Aphex Twin has ever composed. It is Richard D. James submitting himself completely to the concept of beauty and contentment through Eno styled ambient music, and the end product even gives Eno a run for his money. Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is an album filled with progressive ambient experimentation, but throughout the the album are a few tracks of simple clarity, this being the most poignant on merit of delicate songwriting alone. I can’t think of anything less pretentious that fully does this song justice than saying that it is not only music you can live to but is also music that you can die to.

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Windowlicker

Nannou

The Windowlicker single may have rode on the strength of whimsical humor, the title track being Aphex Twin’s most fun single to date and “Equation” an indulgent experiment, but that makes the juxtaposition of the last song on the single, “Nannou,” that much more fascinating. The song was created with nothing but samples from music boxes: winding, clicking, clacking, chiming. The song is not only pleasing as a pretty, nostalgic gem, but also a piece of aural art crafted from things that have themselves already been crafted. Even in this musical sampling culture, it’s rare that we get something sampled that is so humble and quaint.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Tha

The longest piece on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 contrasts with the rest of the album rather heavily. While “Tha” shares the infectious beat and playful synthesizer melodies that the rest of the album possesses, the song is also easily the most forward thinking the album has to offer, less pop or dance and more ambient and experimental. Clocking in at nine minutes, the piece is a slowly shifting ambient composition which immediately brings to mind contrasting speeds involved with the visual aspect of a train ride. The song represents the best of what SAW 85-92 has to offer, both cutting edge as well as vintage. This is what the year 3000 will sound like in the year 4000.

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Richard D. James Album

4

That Aphex Twin would ever be inspired by classical music was a head scratcher concept before 1997 when he released Richard D. James Album, which cemented him as a modern composer. The album’s opener, “4,” is one of its more poignant pieces, not only utilizing beautiful string parts but also structuring breakbeats in ways that imitate the structures of classical composition. But the breakbeats are hard and piercing in texture, making the resulting song both relaxing and riveting. When avant-garde classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound played the song on their 2005 Aphex Twin cover album Acoustica, it only further proved that compositions like these will be remembered for a long time as modern masterpieces.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Blue Calx

The songs that fans of Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 would play for a non-ambient fan might be the more digestible tracks, particularly “Rhubarb,” “Lichen,” “Stone in Focus” or “Hexagon.” Although all of these tracks are great, they aren’t part of the more experimental three quarters of the brilliant double album, and “Blue Calx” might cover that essential experimental nature while still being accessible to new ears. It is ambient music at heart, both appropriate for background or forefront listening, and it encapsulates contrasting emotions, both safety and unease. The slow, unique beat mixes with the melancholy synthesizers and the sound of a clock ticking to make one of the most unique and memorable tracks on SAW2.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

We Are The Music Makers

“We Are The Music Makers” is typically noted as being the exception to the rule for Selected Ambient Works 85-92 as the only track to contain a vocal sample, but is usually only cited to differentiate the album from it’s house and dance music contemporaries as being more focused on texture and less hook oriented. But the song stands tall as one of the album’s finest moments, featuring an unstoppable groove and the signature ever-shifting dynamics that would come to be hallmarks of Intelligent Dance Music. And that single vocal sample from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, although originally utilized by 808 State, could be considered his original mission statement and will echo through the minds of chilled out early morning ravers for years to come.

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...I Care Because You Do

Alberto Basalm

In terms of sheer listenability, one would be hard pressed to find an RDJ track more addictive and pleasing than “Alberto Basalm.” By far the most popular track on …I Care Because You Do, the mysterious rhythmic groove is pure noir artistry, constructing its beat out of the sounds of cigarette lighters and clanging garbage cans. If I could think of a visual artist to paralell the song, Hopper would be the most appropriate comparison. It’s the Aphex Twin song that, were it tangible and visible, would be the modern masterpiece that the masses would oogle over in a prestigious art museum. His “Mystery and Melancholy of a Beat,” perhaps?

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Windowlicker

Windowlicker

Of Aphex Twin’s experimental singles, “Windowlicker” may be the most outwardly commercial. It is, after all, clearly a shot at the porn industry, as exemplified by its electronic funk style and accompanying over-the-top music video directed by Chris Cunningham. But both of the aforementioned elements come together to make one of Aphex Twin’s most successful and memorable songs to date. The chorus is classic, funky ass sexual chocolate, and the free flowing rhythm is easily Aphex’s most compelling, varied and memorable. And again, I stress, the video. I am told that Aphex Twin once said that he wanted to put a face to his music, which existed in a genre of faceless artists. After hearing this song and seeing that video, you’ll never forget his face, sense of humor, and unique musicality.

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Drukqs

Avril 14th

It is strange that Aphex Twin’s most well known track is also one of his most uncharacteristic. From the illegally used sample on a Lonely Island short on Saturday Night Live to being used in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, this song is the Aphex Twin track that any given person is most likely to have heard due to its wide exposure and undying popularity. 2001’s Drukqs contained a treasure trove of simple melodies played on piano and prepared piano, and “Avril 14th” is likely the most memorable. It’s the walking-to-Sunday-school melody that even the most naive of children probably wouldn’t believe in when their age had a single digit, and yet it seems to take every listener to a simple, happy place like no other track. That the song is flanked on the album by two of RDJ’s harshest breakbeat tracks is a testament to his versatility.

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Richard D. James Album

Girl/Boy Song

While Richard D. James claims that he wrote “Girl/Boy Song” as a response to the fact that most songs are either “boy” songs or “girl” songs and thus wanted to make a song for both genders, you would guess at first listen that it was meant for asexual aliens. However, upon repeated listens the song opens up like a flower, and new perspectives become more salient. It is possible that “Girl/Boy Song” is actually a realistic love story of simple melodic beauty (fairy-tale pizzicato string arrangements) juxtaposed next to frenetic insanity (intense, disarming breakbeats). The end product is the epitome of what RDJ Album has to offer, and in some ineffable way beautiful and human, an aural representation of what real, yearning love might sound like.

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Drukqs

Btoum-Roumada

Drukqs was an album of several principle ideas, one of which was the exploration of simple melodies which proved Richard D. James to be not only a master of electronics but also of classical composition. “Btoum-Roumada” may only be one of the album’s melodic triumphs, but it is the one that pops out the most, embossed with the use of a twinkling organ. While James may have emerged from the acid house underground, we can practically hear him playing from a quaint church on this track. The spirituality and finality of the song are enough to make it one of his most memorable and undeniably touching, and the ending brings the most satisfying epiphany – ah! This song isn’t alone. Is it possible that James has a heart under his mechanical exterior?

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Xtal

The first song on the first album released under the Aphex Twin name, “Xtal” is pure IDM bliss. It marks the beginning as well as the immediate perfection of one of the many styles that Richard D. James would pick up and quickly move on from in his heyday, and it is all the more significant because those albums released under the Aphex Twin moniker would reach a mass audience. For that reason, “Xtal” is often the first song anyone hears by RDJ, and not inappropriately. Other IDM artists would try to replicate the subtle beauty of this track for years. It’s not like James’ was the first person to incorporate breathy female vocals, subtle beats and glowing ambient textures into dance music, but I’ll be damned if anyone has done it quite so well since.

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Come to Daddy

Flim

While the title track of the Come to Daddy EP might have been one of Aphex Twin’s most successful experimental pop jokes that resulted in as much approval as disgust, the track that proceeds it will turn whatever expression it elicited into a warm grin. Despite the fact that “Flim” is one of the most widely loved songs among Aphex Twin fans, many have a hard time expressing exactly why. After all, its not like this was the first RDJ track to mix delicate melody with an ever-changing ambient breakbeat, but this is certainly where he masters the art. The rhythm is, like his other breakbeat tracks, carefully planned and different for each measure, and thus stays engaging as well as structured throughout. Rhythmic flourishes echo into the back of the track while the simple synthesizer dances under a simplistic, soaring string part. It’s grace is so aurally embossed that it almost doesn’t even need to be explained once heard, forwards or backwards. A true gem.

And…

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26 Mixes for Cash

Raising the Titanic (Big Drum Mix)

Found on the 2003 remix compilation 26 Mixes for Cash, Raising the Titanic might at first be of debatable authorship, either of Richard D. James or composer Gavin Bryars who wrote the original minimalist piece Sinking the Titanic in 1969. But Aphex Twin undoubtedly makes the piece his own with his electronic rendition. The track is worthy of its new name, and if we are judging it by the age old avant-garde standard of whether songs match their titles, it could be argued that Raising the Titanic is even more accomplished than the piece from which it finds its origin. Possibly the hugest sounding recording ever put to plastic, the song almost seems to be too big for its own environment; the thundering beat sputters while it lumbers and the strings and choral samples are often violently distorted, but not without singular beauty. It is the beautiful sound of decay, heaved upwards by the colossal rhythm and yearning melodies ad infinitum. The arrangement might as well be the most ambitious James has ever attempted, and he succeeds perfectly at combining an incredibly strong beat with beautiful atmospherics, and the result is a lucid masterpiece.

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