Archive for the ‘Folk’ Category

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2. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

December 31, 2008
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Portland Oregon’s Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, has moved toward a more melodic sound with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. She has transformed from a studio hermit who crafts ambient slowcore to a troubador who crafts folk music, and the cloud of ambiance that she created to hang over her head has simply followed her. Her earliest albums, Way Their Crept and Wide, were notable ambient experiments and hinted at real melodic talent, but Dead Deer fleshes out these promises. The listener watches from a box seat in an otherwise empty theater as Harris weaves an intricate story through music. The result is an album that is at once haunting and beautiful, answers questions that her earlier albums posed, and raises even more. The first of which will undoubtedly be, “what is she saying?” The lyrics on Dead Deer are nearly unintelligible, but here they break through the fog more often than on previous works. The music mostly consists of simple guitar and vocal melodies, produced in a very full way. This formula, without much change, should have made for an extremely boring album, and at first that was what it seemed like to me. But I came back to this album, and not because anyone told me to. It has an eerie gravity due in part to it’s obscurity. Dead Deer is structured as a musical narrative that we want to materialize into something we can fully understand, but it always floats just out of reach. The understandable lyrical content in conjunction with the song titles can be vaguely but not completely understood; the narrator has a fascination with water, sleep, and dissociation from reality. The mood is melancholy throughout, but Harris’ melodic talent as well as careful attention to dynamics and slight variations make for utterly gripping pieces that demand further attention. After repeated listens, each song becomes individual and creates its own world. Songs match their titles. The album’s two instrumentals (although they do have bits of vocal ambiance in them), Wind and Snow and Tidal Wave, replicate desolate loneliness and a swirling wall of sound respectively. The longest song on the album, Stuck, flounders hopelessly like a fish out of water and can’t seem to find a chorus, verse, or bridge. Invisible sounds like a children’s song with a dark, unidentifiable twist. And I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which acts as the centerpiece of the album, creates an aural representation of what dragging said deer (be it literal or metaphorical) up a hill would feel like. The emotional experience is very double edged, and thus that much more intriguing. It is both comforting and haunting, and it traces a path that seems to be close to the human condition. Liz Harris has tapped into something mysterious with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and I wonder if she knows exactly what it is. Regardless of whether she does, Dead Deer is a masterwork that is a result of astounding musicianship, and a sign of more great things to come.

Grouper

Grouper

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6. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

December 25, 2008

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

When I was thinking about what I could send my aunt in Kansas from college, I immediately thought of the Fleet Foxes album. There was something so utterly appropriate about the idea. I thought of visiting my aunt in Kansas, the gardens, plains, the ocean of trees, the wedding, the bag of helicopter maple seeds that she said was the grooviest gift my uncle had ever given to her, the abandoned watertower from which they were let loose, my uncle’s armory (yes, he makes armor), and times when distance between us was not so great. Fleet Foxes seemed to encompass all of this perfectly. So I walked out of my room, down the stairs, out the front door of my dorm, and twenty feet to the Starbucks across the street. I’ll admit, a transnational corporation with as much power and reach as Starbucks contrasts with the quaint, homely sounds of Fleet Foxes, but at the very least they are both “syrupy,” and they were selling hard copies of the album at the register. I have heard the entire album played all the way through several times while studying in Starbucks. My Starbucks is nice. It is the highest grossing Starbucks on the East coast, and yet it somehow manages to be the warmest and comfiest Starbucks I have been in. I study there often. My aunt, who is going to college in Kansas to become a teacher, is also a coffee house studier. Granted, hers sounds much cooler, but I feel like when I’m sitting in that Starbucks, studying and listening to Fleet Foxes, I am suddenly much closer to her. Listening to these songs is like taking a time machine to a simpler time and place. The past, present and future seem to be in harmony with one another. Fleet Foxes are quite a young band with much promise, and listening to their individual breed of ancient sounding sunny folk music is like watching a seed bud and grow into the oldest in the land in the span of one album. These songs seem to speak of legends passed through generations, the details of which have been shaped over time. Vocalist Robin Pecknold seems to need to repeat his words in each song, to sort through everything that has happened with as many smiles as tears. When I listen to this album in Starbucks, which happens frequently, I am keenly aware of the seasons outside and how my aunt in Kansas is going through the same changes and has been in the same place as I was at some point, and will be again soon enough. It’s not that I feel as if I am somewhere else, and I’m sure she still feels like she is in Kansas when she listens to it, but I feel at ease with where I am, which is an emotion far too many people, including myself, have forgotten.

Fleet Foxes

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Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

October 17, 2008

What a pleasant surprise that two of 2008s best releases are somewhat stylistically similar. Both Gregor Samsa’s Rest and Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are introspective melancholy masterworks that deserve great praise and attention, but the latter might be both more difficult and rewarding.

Grouper is actually the work of a single individual, Portland Oregon’s folk/noise aficionado Liz Harris. There is very little information available on the artist. But this album will surely spark interest and cause a greater population of listeners to continue searching, in vain, for more information. But until the inevitable day when she hits it big, pretty much all that listeners will have to go on is her distinctive style which she articulates quite extensively on her studio albums, the latest of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

As far as style goes on prior releases, Grouper’s genre is hard to pin down, perhaps most appropriately described as creepy atmospheric music, but on Dead Deer, Harris’s style is reduced to a singular approach. Almost every song consists solely of Harris on guitar and vocals, but the trick is that both of these instruments are multiplied. A very thick layer of distortion covers both like a blanket, causing them to resonate out into the atmosphere, and the vocals are occasionally doubled for harmonic effect, although their lyrical content is almost completely indecipherable.

This is probably the album’s most frustrating quality; the vast majority of Liz Harris’s vocals here are impossible to understand, too muddled under the thick distortion to decipher. What little is understandable is not passively heard. One has to concentrate on the vocals of the songs to realize their content, which mostly involves sleep, water, and dissociation from reality. However, the effect the distortion has on the lyrics is outweighed by what the production does for the music, which in turn matches these lyrical preoccupations quite well. From the opening chords of Disengaged, the production ruminates of stormy waters, the sparse melodies threaten to lull the listener into a deep sleep, and lonely, sad, and yearning chord progressions carry along.

All of these qualities, especially strung out over an entire release with little stylistic diversion, would presumably come together to make a very cold, unwelcoming album, but in fact the opposite is true. The production actually does the album’s atmosphere good, causing chords to echo out into the darkness like a flickering candle. In theory this should be a very creepy sounding album, but it is instead both startlingly melancholic and warmly emotional.

Perhaps what makes it so affecting are its subtle intricacies. Songs often times match their titles, namely the aforementioned excellent opener Disengaged, but even more recognizably the longest piece on the album, Stuck, whose progression is in constant conflict with itself and cannot seem to move on. Also very atmospherically distinctive and appropriately named are the barren Wind And Snow, and the following Tidal Wave, the album’s two most important songs, and opposite sides of the same coin.

These more texture based pieces work in good conjunction with the album’s more memorable melodies, namely the easy pick for best song Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, the faster paced Fishing Bird, and the fractured title track. But the highlights don’t stop there. At first glance Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill seems like an awfully samesy album, but upon repeated listens the subtle differences between tracks flesh themselves out and each song becomes its own entity. Perhaps the most startling piece on the album is the quiet Invisible. Harris lightly sings, once again barely interpretable, “Invisible/I’ve become invisible” over her most simplistic, almost childlike melody on the album.

It is here that we realize that Dragging A Dead Deer up a hill is an album filled with secrets that will most likely never be fully understood. Even the title and art seem to be extremely important to the overall product, and yet there is no evidence as to what they mean. It is hard to say whether this was intended to simply be a collection of songs or a sort of narrative either literally or symbolically based off of the album’s creepy title, but in any case Dead Deer has an eerie, unexplainable cohesion. In this way the album’s form matches the style of its songs. It is easy to feel the presence of what is there behind the music when considering all of its subtle intricacies and almost tantalizing questions that are constantly asked but never quite answered, and for this reason, the music itself is that much easier to cling onto and appreciate. Because of all of these elements, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill proves to be one of the most complex and rewarding albums of the year.

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Shugo Tokumaru – Exit

September 30, 2008

Prepare to have your definitions of Japanese pop turned inside out. If your perception of the genre has previously been restricted to products of MTV Asia, sub par anime, and j-pop pretty boys/girls, then prepare to get knocked off your barstool. Jack of all trades Shugo Tokumaru’s third solo album is the record that he has been destined to make since 2004’s mini pop masterpiece Night Piece. But both Night Piece’s nocturnal atmospherics and the following year’s psychedelic excursions of L.S.T. were highly themed, and it would only seem like a matter of time before Tokumaru would make an album like Exit, a full on pop album. Immediately significant is the first song, the first by Shugo that could constitute as a pop hit. It is here that all of his finest talents convene for one hell of a single. He has a great sense of the melodic hook, and his advertised multi-instrumental talent still ends up being the focal point of both Parachute and the better portion of the rest of the album. Silly melodic flourishes and gentle harmonies dress each piece, and the album is said to use over fifty of the one hundred instruments that Tokumaru claims to be able to play. This is only one of the many features of Tokumaru’s albums that have caused critics to label him a pop innovator. He is certainly this, but more in the traditional sense. The time signature switchups and chord progressions that the musician utilizes are definitely out of the ordinary, at least for traditional pop, but nothing here feels out of place, and every song is a whimsical, poppy gem splashed with childlike innocence and Eastern style. Also notable are his vocals, light, easily maneuverable, and completely appropriate for his music, and although his lyrics wont be understood by non-Japanese speakers, his emotion transcends language barriers. Highlights are not few. The first three songs, Parachute, Green Rain (continuing his tradition of songs named after various forms of precipitation) and Clocca are extremely memorable and easy picks for singles. The musician also finds room for straightforward guitar pop throughout, making the acoustic guitar his main instrument of choice as gently exemplified on Sanganichi. Also highly memorable are the last three songs. Hidamari is a gentle lullaby spectacularly detailed with lush instrumentation that manages to not be overbearing in any way. La La Radio is possibly the most ambitious song on the album. It transitions from melancholic to fast in catchy in about the most effective way imaginable. The album is capped off by Wedding, an instrumental piece that might have felt at home on Night Piece four years ago. What is truly amazing is that it feels completely at home here as well, which is a good indication that Tokumaru has amassed a solid repertoire of songs and styles throughout his three albums that can truly qualify him as a distinctive figure in music.

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Animal Collective & Vashti Bunyan – Prospect Hummer

September 18, 2008

There was likely not an artist more appropriate to collaborate with Animal Collective than Vashti Bunyan, but that does not make her appearance any more likely. After releasing her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti went quiet for nearly thirty five years before making music again. Why she returned to the business is up for grabs, but in any case she is essentially the mother of psychedelic folk and her presence is vastly appreciated. I can imagine that both artists were humbled to work with one another, which makes the understated end result of the Prospect Hummer EP that much more satisfying. The EP is only four songs long but hits with the power of a full album, with it’s own unique tropical sound and a highly effective progression. The song Prospect Hummer is its main feature, being the most prominent and melodic vocal track. A light acoustic guitar riff echoes back and forth over a tiny beat, over which some signature Animal Collective touchups are presented, and all this would have been enough to make the song a winner as an instrumental, but the true beauty of the song is in Vashti Bunyan’s vocals, which have lost none of their beauty through the years. When Vashti whispers her final lines over the fading relaxed tune, the result is pure magic. The other songs are more than slack though. The opening vocal track It’s You and the instrumental Baleen Sample more resemble Animal Collective’s earlier free form style, with rhythmless washes of sound that are fluid but deeply affecting. After Baleen Sample comes to an end, one would think that the conclusion would have been reached perfectly, but the final song, I Remember Learning How To Dive, is the real culmination of the album. There is nothing hidden with this song. It is an innocent, joyful recollection of a learning experience. The beat is once again tiny and the melody is simple and touching. Bunyan takes it away with her reserved but emotional singing, and the instrumentation is straightforward and nonintrusive. It is one of those songs that is both relaxing and deeply touching. But all four pieces of the puzzle here are essential, and Prospect Hummer is a unique EP of aural poetry.

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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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Wilco Concert

February 18, 2008
I saw Wilco live at the Riviera two nights ago. The Riviera is a nice venue. I saw Rilo Kiley there a couple months ago. A friend and I stood outside in the cold from five thirty until seven when the doors opened, and up by the very front on the floor next to the stage until eight thirty when the band played. There was no opening act.
In a nutshell, this very well could have been the best concert I have been to. Neil Young may have been a religious experience, and Dream Theater had more energy, but I definitely had more fun with Wilco than anyone else. Although I would consider myself a fairly new Wilco fan, only having listened to them for a year or two, I would still say that I know them well enough to recognize a lot of their songs, and enjoy the stuff I don’t recognize. With that said, the setlist was pretty solid. The first ten songs or so I recognized immediately from the bands more popular albums, A Ghost Is Born, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Summerteeth. They got a lot of the crowd pleasers out of the way first, but they didn’t run out of steam. They should have, though, because they started to play the more obscure stuff near the middle of the show.
The deal with these Wilco shows in Chicago is that they are trying to play every song on each of their studio albums throughout the five nights. This does not mean they won’t play any repeats throughout the five nights. But it does mean that they have to dig back into the back catalogue, including the Mermaid Avenue albums, and play some of the really obscure stuff. They played many of Wilco’s most popular songs, especially in the first half. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Handshake Drugs, Hell Is Chrome, A Shot In The Arm, and Heavy Metal Drummer all made their appearances to booming crowd approval. In general, they spread out their setlist evenly between albums. The most attention was given to the bands double album Being There. And an unusual amount of material was played from their first album, the country styled AM. By the time they hit a lot of said obscure songs on Saturday, they had a counter weapon to keep everyone on their toes.
Andrew Bird.
That’s right, the whistler, fiddler, and folk singer closest to our heart showed up and played with Wilco for seven songs, starting with the crowd pleasing singalong Jesus Etc. His appearance was relaxed. He donned a stylish pink scarf. His presence was subtle, but ultimately appreciated, and he got a tremendous response from the audience despite how quiet and underspoken he was.
But in the grand scheme of things, Mr. Bird was peripheral (as much as we love him!). The core members of Wilco are as wonderful as ever. Jeff Tweedy has an unspoken bond with his Chicago audience that is clearly present, and his audience is completely vocal about their love for him. Although Tweedy is quiet and reserved on stage, he knows how to have fun and give the audience what they want. Upon straining some of his highest notes, he gives the audience a wink of recognition before his sharp ascent. Nels Cline is an amazing guitarist. His stage presence is perhaps the most felt out of the entire band. His towering figure spastically moves, sways, and convulses randomly as his fingers fly up and down his fretboard. His solos can be incendiary, but he has a certain control that is also appreciable. On many of the songs played a steel guitar on his lap with great restraint. Bassist John Stirrat and jack of all trades Pat Sansone are also particularly energetic on stage when they feel the need to be, and Mikael Jorgensen is the icing on the cake, the always present detailing that gives the live sound it’s density. But what pushes the band over the edge in their live performances is without a doubt drummer Glenn Kotche. By three songs in, he was sweating like a pig and slamming his kit as if it was the last chance he would ever get. His energy is always outward, and he makes the band’s live repetoire what it is. And there is nothing quite like seeing his cacophonous freakout during Via Chicago.

There is something to be said about watching a band play whose members would clearly rather be no where else in the world than where they are at that moment. This is the way that Wilco presented themselves on Saturday, and when a bands energy is that positive, and the audiences enthusiasm is equally as high, the energy bounces back and forth between both parties. Wilco were playing on a Saturday night in their hometown, so they were already enthusiastic about the performance, and even the more low key songs were greeted with enthusiasm from the band and audience alike. About midway through the show, a drunken idiot pushed past me in the middle of Heavy Metal Drummer, and proceeded to make his way even farther to the front of the crowd, at which point he was greeted with resistance from the fans in front of us. He was talked down by a big burly guy, who Jeff Tweedy eyed lightly throughout the song, smiling. Afterwards he complemented the big guy on how beautifully he handled the situation, at which point he and the drunken idiot were clearly buddies, playing it up. He said that we shouldn’t beat up the drunken idiots of the world, and that we should be their friends. It’s funny that even the drunken idiotic Wilco fans are nice enough.

The crowd was very nice, much nicer than the crowd that was there for Rilo Kiley. Wilco fans seem to be, for the most part, in their thirties or even forties, and really there weren’t any horrible people, except one guy behind me who was completely smashed and maybe high, who wouldn’t stop clapping his hands and hitting my hair. I can’t blame him though. It’s a big target, and I can imagine anyone who stands behind me in a concert would be pretty pissed off. But we met up with a friend there, and stood next to a nice knowledgeable couple and later on a cool guy from New York who I had a good conversation with.

What we came to the conclusion about is that Wilco is possibly the greatest American band active today. Their music feels genuinely American. They know how to add texture and a classical folk feel to their music through acoustic guitars and pianos, and yet they know how to tear through their music live and make their music more rocking and abrasive than one might expect. I don’t think I really knew how much I liked Wilco until I finally got ahold of the band’s live album, Kicking Television. While the songs do stand alone on their studio albums, it is really impossible to get an accurate picture of what the band are really like unless you hear, and ideally see, them live. Highly recommended.