Posts Tagged ‘boards of canada’

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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Boards of Canada – In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country

September 16, 2008

The songs on the In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country EP were taken from the Geogaddi sessions, which yielded the dark, schizophrenic final product of said album. However, the songs on the Beautiful Place EP are slightly more listenable than the songs on Geogaddi, although they do have their fair share of unsettling details. The title track features a sample from a religious recruitment recording, and the second track’s name is a play off of Branch Davidian leader Amos Poe Rodan (thanks for that info, Shawn). But these subtle hints of perversity do not hinder the aural beauty of this EP. All four songs are crafted simply wonderfully. As the first track, Kid For Today, suggests, listening to the disk is like taking a time machine in two different directions. All of the songs sound innocent in their underlying melodies, yet still have a curious undercurrent of mysteriousness. Also present is a balance between nature and technology. Each song seems to reminisce of some natural landscape degraded in the signature Boards of Canada style, as if viewed on an elderly nature documentary. And yet every song is electronically touched, giving some kind of suggestion of an old, outdated video game. All four songs here stretch the imagination with candy sweet synth melodies and bass heavy beats. Kid For Today and In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country are the more chilled out, free form pieces on the album, while Amo Bishop Roden is soaring and moody although just as relaxing. Also, one of Boards’ more unique songs, Zoetrope, is here to end the EP on a very light note. A contemplative, shimmering gem of a piece, Zoetrope feels otherworldly, magical, and nostalgic while only utilizing a single synthesizer. In the end, the winning force is what Boards of Canada have always been about…chilled out beauty.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

August 17, 2007

With their 2002 sophomore album, Geogaddi, Boards of Canada would have had to have pulled something completely special out of their box of tricks to cement their place in the musical world. Music Has The Right To Children was already hailed by some as a masterpiece, but who was to say it wasn’t a one time draw? For all anyone knew, Boards of Canada were the exact right band to fall back into obscurity and stay a cult hit for the rest of forever. And yet somehow, they managed to craft an equally popular album while still sticking to the style that made Music Has The Right To Children such an unexpected powerhouse. On many second outings, it is expected that a band would make their best album yet, change a genre, or bring something completely unique to the table. The fact that Boards of Canada are not concerned with record sales or trends in popular music was overshadowed by the fact that they simply want to challenge their working space, and bring their music to a new level. In this way, for many people, they ended up following the trend anyway and made what might be their best album.

But in reality, is it their best album? No. Music Has The Right To Children was simply better, better on the grounds that it did something completely different, better in it’s personal style, and simply more enjoyable to listen to. But that is another notion that BoC simply swept under the table with Geogaddi. Enjoyable music does not have to be initially enjoyed, and good music is sometimes inspiring without being enjoyable at all. That isn’t to say that Boards of Canada fans won’t find many of the things here that made Music Has The Right To Children such an enjoyable album. Because this follows many of the same trends and styles that made that album special. As usual, a good half of the songs here are very short interludes that represent very specific emotions or images, about a fourth are sprawling complex webbings of beats and rhythmic synthesizers played in striking conjunction, and another fourth are medium lengthed songs that combine elements of the two. Each type of song is important. Although many people would write off the short interludes, they are half the fun, and just as engaging as the long ones.

Perhaps it is of benefit of the listener to go through the first few songs step by step. I only do it this way because every step of the journey is as individual as the last, and there isn’t much of anything that will let anyone know what they are in store for before they listen to Geogaddi.

The first song, Ready Lets Go, is just shy of a minute in length and sounds like a small drone of an air conditioning system played underneath very subtle chords most likely produced by a cheap casio keyboard and interesting little swirls of noise. One thing that always strikes me about songs by Boards of Canada are the titles. Right off the bat, Boards of Canada assures you that you are on your way as long as you make it past that first track. This is only step one. Step two, Music Is Math, is one of those longer songs I mentioned. Various minor tonalities with simple sound are played over a rather harsh set of beats. These beats are warped every so slightly in their sound and rhythm throughout the song. This is one of Boards of Canada’s biggest tricks. By making these subtle changes in both beat and other instrumentation, songs keep fresh without loosing focus, and thus never overstay their welcome. The next song is Beware The Friendly Stranger, what sounds like a simple flute melody played through a crackly walkie talkie over the sound of children playing. What man in a trenchcoat could this song possibly describe?

Even after hearing those first three songs, starting over again reveals a completely new angle in Ready Lets Go, making it sound deceptively disturbing even after only having heard a tiny portion of the massive album. How do all these pieces fit together? Beyond the fact that they all sound vaguely like something you would hear in a nightmare, this is something I am yet to figure out. I can’t place my finger on it, but this music just works. It has to, for how well it gets under ones skin and pushes outward relentlessly. And I’ll be honest here, this album is a very difficult listen. It’s creepy. No, scary. The more you listen, the more you wish you hadn’t heard, and yet the deeper you want to dig. One song is named The Devil is in The Details, which describes Geogaddi fairly accurately. In fact, Boards of Canada have been accused of subliminal messaging, and at that, satanic messages. Are Boards of Canada satanists? No, no they are not, and they mean no harm. The listener harms themselves by doing all the vicarious listening.

I’ll bet this album sounds pretty pretentious right about now, doesn’t it? Because it sure sounded pretentious to me after the first listen. An album that puts a song of complete silence at the end has to be pretentious to some extent. Then I looked at my stereo, which had stopped upon completing the CD, at exactly sixty six minutes and six seconds. And then people start telling me that Geogaddi is smattered with mathematical equations in the music, and that there are biblical refferences here and there. And yet Boards of Canada assure us that there is no devil worship here, and that they are simply trying to make inspiring music. They tell us that the word “Geogaddi” has a specific meaning to them, but they want it to mean whatever the listener feels it should mean.

…What the fuck? Geogaddi is a puzzle. And Geogaddi is a puzzle with answers. Was that last track, one minute and forty six seconds of silence, an optimistic ending or a dreaded one? There is a full picture to be completed, but the jigsaws are cut by the listener. Maybe it is just a big mess of sounds and coincidences with no real meaning spawned by a bunch of stoners with too much time on their hands, or maybe it merrits attention. Who knows.

And to be fair, this is not some musical revolution. This is probalby my least favorite Boards of Canada album, out of three. I’ll bet it was this new, scary world of sound that inspired the band to make their most compulsively listenable and accessible album, The Campfire Headphase. This is not the bands best album, but it might be the most rewarding and exciting upon multiple listens. In any case, my mind has come to a stalemate with Geogaddi. I have finally admitted that I enjoy the album, and it continues to supply me with surprises and fun. And yet at the same time, I look at it from a distance with confusion and contempt, while it continues to baffle and disturb me.

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Yet Another Ten Reviews

April 23, 2007

For some reason, this time I ended up reviewing a lot of albums that I love and not so many that I just like a lot or are in the middle. I pulled some of them out of the vaults. I find it easier to praise than to complain, I guess. Some of these are my absolute favorites. I’ll bitch more next time, I promise.

Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged

This Unplugged concert was, for all intents and purposes, Alice in Chains’ final farewell. There is almost nothing that is not conclusive about this collection of songs, and in some ways it does it’s job very well. Alice in Chains was just screaming for an Unplugged concert, having two acoustic EPs under their belt and an impressive array of softspoken songs alongside their haunting metal. But perhaps there just wasn’t quite enough in the queue for the acoustic treatment. While half of these acoustic takes are absolute treasures, the other half are miscalculated performances of songs that should not have been acoustic in the first place. The renditions of Down in a Hole and Rooster were the only songs appropriate from the bands second album Dirt, and Angry Chair and Would are simply better loud and electric. Frogs probably was not a good choice to include either, nor was Sludge Factory, the name of which lets the listener know it is best played with muddy obnoxious guitars. While these clunkers are present, the rest of the performance is solid. Performances of classics such as Nutshell, Got Me Wrong, and Over Now are among the bands best moments, and unspeakably touching. Some other songs from the Sap and Jar of Flies EPs could have been included, but for the most part the most important cornerstones are hit that should have been hit. Another perk of this show is that the band is in excellent playing condition even after not playing a show for many years, and the guitar sound is as distinct and delicious as many other famous Unplugged shows are known for. The rendition of the unreleased Killer Is Me would have been grounds to buy this in the first place, and it is the perfect closer to the bands career. On one hand some great songs are played here, but the setlist is just not that well thought out. Depending on the listener, this could be either wonderful or bland, thus leaving this to be for the fans only and really a wasted opportunity.

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway

While nothing works effectively as a replacement for a Board of Canada LP, Trans Canada Highway is a more than good way to whet fans appetites. While this is fairly short in terms of new material, it is also easily the best EP Boards of Canada have released yet. Boards of Canada are a band with such scant material that fans delightfully lap up whatever material they can get their hands on. Luckily, this is a solid release and completely consistent despite it’s brevity. Dayvan Cowboy, the head track from The Campfire Headphase, is truly one of the greatest songs Boards of Canada have ever produced, and it is very worthy of being included here as well as being remixed. The remix, however, feels like a completely new song and is not just a throwaway. Trans Canada Highway does almost feel like a miniature BoC LP though, as it almost equally split between longer building signature electronica and short aural vignettes. The two longer new songs, Left Side Drive and Skyliner, are both fantastic and among the bands best. The signature Boards of Canada sound is marginally augmented by a simple matter of experience, and both songs are absolutely gorgeous in every way you love the band to be. Left Side Drive is a great chillout track with a great, steady, varying beat and awesome synthesizers floating in the background. Skyliner is equally as priceless though, layering itself an impressive amount of times and carefully changing the beat in comfortable ways. The two short interludes are both heavenly, otherworldly ambiance that you would expect a group with as much clarity to produce. Trans Canada Highway may simply be a taste of Boards of Canada’s future, but it’s a fantastic EP and a necessary augmentation onto an impressive discography.

Jane’s Addiction – Strays

This really isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. Sure, it doesn’t compare to Nothing’s Shocking or Ritual de lo Habitual, but very few albums do, so what is the point in complaining? People don’t seem to get that they should be thankful that the band came back and did their career justice at all. The album is not as completely standout on a song by song basis, but there are a few of the bands absolute best songs on here. True Nature is the heaviest Perry Ferrel and company have ever been, The Riches is a classic riff that seamlessly transforms into a relaxing segment that is very distinctly Jane’s Addiction, and Just Because and Superhero are very respectable short rockers. All of the other songs are good, just not great. Part of why people complain so much is because these are more aimed at the mainstream, but after doing as much trailblazing as the band did a decade earlier, this is a bit of a relief in some way. The production is solid, but Perry’s voice has deteriorated a little bit and is at his best when he’s really yelling. It’s no question that this is Jane’s Addiction’s worst album and it does not really stand out that much, but it’s a treat that fans will especially love.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

All things considered, Physical Graffiti was the last Led Zeppelin album that really mattered. And it was a surprise too, considering Houses of the Holy was rather disappointing when compared to the bands earlier numbered albums. Fortunately, the bounceback was in the form of a gargantuan double album around the time that the bands popularity was at it’s height and anticipation was at a record high. The album delivered in any way that a fan could ask for, with as much hard blues as could ever be asked for, and enough new heavy sophistication to keep critics who wanted change and variance happy. The disk delivered as a middle ground between every extreme the band had ever relinquished in. Custard Pie is a shorter lighthearted sexual blues knockout, and In My Time of Dying is a marathon ten minute blues epic. Trampled Underfoot is a danceable organ oriented heavy trance, while Night Flight is shorter guitar pop reminiscent of earlier days. Even Led Zeppelin’s love for eastern music is touched on with Kashmir and In The Light, alongside the pounding dinosaur rock of Houses of The Holy. Surprisingly enough, yet another middle ground is reached when one considers that the album was about half full of older unreleased tracks and half new material. The result of all of these factors convening is a colossal smorgesborg for fans of hard rock, and not just Led Zeppelin either, but a wider audience. You could even say this album shows the band in their absolute prime, and although it may never surpass the popularity of IV or II, Physical Graffiti is a grand album and anything but a let down.

Luna – Bewitched

Although Luna’s momentous worth should truly be judged by the span of their long career, their most respectable effort, Bewitched, should not be overlooked. The album not only defined the bands sound for many great albums to come, but presented it with unmatched consistency. The mood that the pleasant dreampop group always tried to convey was a sleepy melodic dreamscape, and if there is one kind of dream that people love to have, they are dreams of love. The impressive aspect of not only this album but Luna in general is that they can do so much with so little; the simple dreamy chords and lullaby bass line gently carry the title track into a definitive sleeping song, and utilizing what could easily be Beatles lyrics, centered around love and wispy attractions. The level of sophistication in the songcraft is also very impressive, and while certain songs like Bewitched and Sleeping Pill may make do with simple strums and reserved beats, others like Great Jones Street and This Time Around boast beautifully spontaneous guitars and complex yet accessible melodies. The album also has two killer openers, setting the mood perfectly. On one hand the more uptempo daytime song California (All The Way) that very well might be the least depressing breakup song ever, and the dropdead gorgeous innocent classic Tiger Lily, that may just make your heart melt. If you have ever wanted a varied collection of top notch dreampop, look no further.

Brian Eno – Another Green World

Essentially, this album was the first venture into the art of synthesizers, loops, and synthetic sounds incorporated into pop music that was easily accessible. And it still stands as an absolutely gorgeous venture even to this day, which makes it even more amazing that it was released in the seventies. Although I hate to quote AMG, the writer of that sites review for this says it best. Another Green World plays like a dream sequence, or at least the ideal dream sequence, of creations both relaxing and structured. The record is almost short lived, and in a way sadly so, because each song almost begs for more time to express itself. This work of art comes in two specific but scattered parts. There are a few melodic pop songs featuring Eno’s pop/rock lyrics that accompany a catchy electronic background. Some of these songs are the compelling St. Elmo’s Fire featuring Robert Fripp on a downright mean guitar, the charming I’ll Come Running, and Sky Saw, which was probably the most out there pop music at the time. The other side of the spectrum are a wealth of amazing instrumental pieces that seem to describe their moods in perfect harmony with their names. In Dark Trees is an unsettling nightmare, Sombre Reptiles is a wonderful natural groove, and The Big Ship might just be Eno’s most gorgeous creation. The final five songs on the album are also to be noted as one of the strongest wrap-ups in pop history, reiterating the defined structure of the album. And while Eno amazes on all of these levels, he keeps up a specific style, which is about what would happen if someone built a time machine and simultaneously mixed the future of pop music with classical aesthetic, as the cover art projects. While Brian Eno may have arguably changed music even more with his ambient series, this was the record that not only pointed in that direction, but also made all of that able to happen. What Brian Eno did with Another Green World inspired a wealth of change in the pop music industry, and if not for it, electronica, ambient, or even structured mood music would not have been possible. So not only did Eno make a fantastic record, but he set the stage of music for years to come. Almost all artists today owe something to Eno, unless they foolishly believe that the studio’s only function is to record what is played and nothing more.

The Radio Dept. – Pulling Our Weight [EP]

Radio Dept.’s follow-up EP to their 2003 full length debut Lesser Matters ended up being more than just affirmation that the band were a one shot deal. The Pulling Our Weight EP ended up trumping an already impressive album of lovely dream-pop with only five songs, all of which are utterly fantastic and indesposable. This EP is the Radio Dept. shedding off whatever weaknesses they may have had and exploding with their full talent much like a blooming flower. The title track is the bands greatest and most representative work. The song seamlessly presents hook after hook over the trademark soft looped drums and shy hushed vocals, and the accompanying music video is a charming work of art on it’s own. The album surprisingly looses no momentum even with the consideration in mind that from the top, there is no where to go but down. A shockingly touching aural poetry is delivered with We Climb The Wired Fences, and I Don’t Need Love I’ve Got My Band is the romantic keystone of the disk and a lovely display of gently cascading guitar solos. The short two minute haiku Someone Else is tropical and relaxing, and the band once again displays their knack of creating an atmosphere with subtle touches without loosing their pop sensibilities. The album is rounded off by what seems to be a shoegaze revival, The City Limit. The song carries along a wonderful soundscape and many more beautiful melodies to contemplate. This is truly one of the most accomplished works of pop music produced in years and the Radio Dept. may well be the best band indie band out of Sweeden ever. Pulling Our Weight EP is a masterpiece of underspoken dream-pop, a perfect culmination of everything this wonderful band has to offer, and a grand sign of what the future may hold. One of the best EPs ever, for sure.

Silversun Pickups – Carnavas

Silversun Pickups’ full length debut has been pinned as a lot of things. They say takes influence from certain alternative bands of the nineties a lot, but in truth this album is fairly unique. But being unique does not always make you fantastic, as Carnavas proves. The song with the most pinnable source is the opening Melatonin, a pretty obvious My Bloody Valentine rip, but it is actually a very good song despite it’s unoriginality. But if unoriginality was the only problem with this album, it would simply be a damn good album for nostalgic alt rockers. But the problems dig deeper than that. The mood here is despondent, which is fine, but unfortunately the theme does not develop throughout the near hour it lasts. The concluding moments of this pretty much sum it up. “We’re always going to cross the finish line while everybody wants to run and hide, but now it’s too late.” Whatever opportunity that Carnavas had to be concluded beautifully was botched. Sound wise this album just feels tired. This could have been a great shoegaze record, but the drums are too loud, the guitars are too subdued (this problem is relieved if you REALLY crank it), and the vocals are awkwardly miscalculated. The vocalist kind of sounds like s/he wants to scream like Dave Grohl but doesn’t quite have the guts to actually come out and do it, and if they did it would just be painful. The upshot is that these guys can write some very good songs. Lazy Eye has gotten some significant radio play for a reason, Rusted Wheel is a very contemplative outing, and some of the albums first half can be very fun. But the fact that these people know how to write music is unfortunately overshadowed by the fact that they simply cannot produce it well quite yet. If you have heard some of these songs and liked them you will find comfort in the rest of the record, but it still really isn’t that memorable. As imaginative as these songs are, they feel like wasted ammunition, and I can only hope that the future holds good things for these possibly talented but misguided musicians.

Tool – Ænima

Tool’s second album Ænima is a significant leap forward from an already great album, and it secured the bands fanbase while delivering one of the ninties more compelling metal albums. Like all of Tool’s albums, this takes time to open up. At first it seems passive and less forceful than the aggressive and fast-paced Undertow, but Ænima is truly an informing listen. And simultaneously driving too. On one hand the album delivers a radio hit with Stinkfist, but after that the listener is plunged right into the middle of the issues and ideals that are to be put accross. As opposed to being stated explicitly, these themes are to be realized after close inspection. Even then, fans of Undertow will love this album. Songs like Eulogy and Forty Six & 2 are alternately introspective and uncompromising. And yet the album still rocks out while delivering it’s complex and important messages. Hooker With A Penis is a short rocker (at least for Tool), and the title track is more rock solid than anything off of this album or Undertow. And the album can get progressive too. Eulogy, Pushit, and Third Eye are all huge, interesting pieces that are expanded on in complex ways that only the attentive ear can decifer quickly. When I first bought this album I didn’t like it at all, but after giving it a chance and looking for what makes this so popular, every song on this album opened up. This really isn’t inviting, as far as the general style goes or the colorful yet disturbing filler, but this is a fantastic album and it really put Tool on the map for a reason.

Cocteau Twins – Treasure

Treasure is Cocteau Twins’ most popular and influential record, but it’s questionable whether it is truly the best. Undeniably this is the Twin’s at their stylistic peak, delivering the goods with a greater and more constructive precision than ever before. These melodies are, for the most part, touchingly beautiful and accessible. This is really the breakthrough music that the band had been working towards, although the Spangle Maker EP was geared towards the same thing with significantly less success. The difference lies in the vocals, and Treasure is Liz Fraser’s vocal peak. The most obvious and unique charm of this record is Liz Fraser’s new vocal style. She no longer even tries to sing words but instead sings in unintelligible sounds thus extending her voice into what is now truly a musical instrument. Side A is quite simply perfect, and all five songs are beautiful and essential. Ivo is perfectly refined nuanced poetic dream-pop and one of the bands absolute best. The following Lorelei is misleading. The song has unbelievably beautiful hooks, a quality that the band were not known for, but if you turn up the volume on this, spontaneous eargasms will follow. Beatrix is as regal as it is fresh even over twenty years later, Persephone has deliciously dirty guitar cutting accompanied by another flawless vocal performance, and Pandora (For Cindy) is a lovely, relaxing, and almost tropical song that points directly to the bands next album, the beautiful Victorialand. An album with this much momentum seems unstoppable, and it almost is, but the unfortunate flaw of Treasure is that Side B derails a bit. Or maybe it just seems like it does because some of the songs aren’t as standout as those that preceeded them, but in any case it feels like the album runs out of energy. Amelia is very good upon closer inspection, and Aloysius is just as priceless as anything on Side A. But Cicely feels like a revisit to Persephone only with less enthusiasm, Otterley has almost no melody at all (although it is pretty ambiance), and Donimo is a vocal misfire. Even considering the fact that some of these songs are not quite as priceless as others, the album still stands in quality and this may well be the Twin’s best, most moving album.

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Eleven Reviews

April 1, 2007

Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains [Tripod]
Tripod
For their final studio effort, Alice In Chains delivered a full album that they did not accompany with a tour. They did, however, perform on David Letterman, and watching that performance even today will send chills down even casual fan’s backs. Alice In Chains Unplugged may have tied the loose ends up and ended up being the final farewell, but this album is where you see the breakdown happening for Layne Staley. Not that the album is all melancholy or heavy metal. This is actually AiCs most diverse record, and it touches on everything from the most hardcore sludge they have ever produced (no less Sludge Factory, and Grind too) to more positive songs (Heaven Beside You, Shame In You). But you can definitely hear the dissolution of the band in this record, mostly because it bounces around so much. The beautiful classic Heaven Beside You segues into the insane nausea of Head Creeps without any provocation. Most all the songs are good except for a few in the last half that don’t quite cut it as AiC classics, but Heaven Beside You is still one of the bands best and Again is the heaviest thing since Them Bones. The real winner is Over Now. After what appears to be a curl-up-and-die maneuver with the interesting Frogs, there is silence, and then a muffled recorded trumpet resound, after which the confused positive/negative song kicks in and does significant emotional effect on the listener. The biggest problem with this album is the production, which falters very obviously. The idea to continue layering Layne’s vocals was a good idea, but the vocals are treated very poorly here and the sound is simply not heavy enough. Such an emotional record should not have been treated so preciously. A remaster, perhaps? It’s not perfect, but it is a respectable way to throw in the towel and contains some of Alice In Chains’ very best songs.

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin [Box Set]
Tripod
This box set released in 1990 acts as an inflated greatest hits to the music of Led Zeppelin. Each disk both covers a specific time period as well as a musical aesthetic. The first disk is the dirty blues rock that made Led Zep famous, the second disk more folky acoustic stuff (my favorite), the third disk is the longer stuff mostly from the middle career, and the fourth disk is the best of the latter stuff that kind of needs to be included for posterity. Jimmy Paige himself chose the songs so the selection is solid, and every song is great. But the truth stands that this box set was probably unnecessary. There are some rarities rounded up, the bands two famous b-sides Traveling Riverside Blues and the Bob Dylan cover Hey Hey What Can I Do, as well as a brilliant live Jimmy Paige take of White Summer/Black Mountain Side. But beyond that, there isn’t too much incentive for fans. This collection is geared towards the fan who is a little more than casual but less than obsessive, a rare breed for Led Zeppelin. For that reason, people interested in the band could have done better with the two disk greatest hits, and people who want more could have gone with The Complete Studio Recordings box set, which also has the two aforementioned b-sides. The fourth disk may be useful for people who do not want to get too into the bands latter mediocre career, as it gathers the best of those albums pretty effectively. As a collection of songs this is easily an A+ purchase, but as a compilation it is just dumb. One is probably better off just getting The Complete Studio Recordings or starting the long fan trek of buying all the albums. Led Zeppelin was a fantastic band and this is a good portrait, but why stop at this when you could have the whole deal?

Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right to Children
Music Has The Right To Children
Surely Boards of Canada’s finest work, Music Has The Right to Children is at first downright confusing and off-putting but is ultimately a great ambient work. This is an album that has no clear purpose but in that sense reasserts itself within each song, creating everything ranging from small interludes to long beat oriented ambient techno. I remember walking home one day listening to this on my headphones. An Eagle In Your Mind was playing on the way there, the cool constantly changing beats keeping my mind interested and relaxed over the interesting synthesizer. Then the second I unlocked my door and walked into my dark apartment, The Color of the Fire started to play. The song is basically an airy drone underneath a childs voice horribly echoed and warped, complemented by bell-like instruments. I kind of freaked out. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and I felt like the sounds were real enough to be in the actual apartment. That is when the true purpose of this album opened up to me. Music Has The Right to Children is an album of electronic audio toys. Every song on the album has it’s own fun charms. There are some more straightforward pieces, especially the chill Turquoise Hexagon Sun comes to mind, and other times the album is more challenging, like with Sixtyten. Roygbiv is unspeakably fun or the short time it lasts, and Wildlife Analysis is a relaxing ambient opener. The whole album has a recurring mood of comfortable technology, and for that reason the album sticks together very well for how much it bounces around. It may have a few weaker songs, but the strong songs are enough to compensate and make the album a joy to listen to at any time, and a personal favorite as well. Rarely will you find an electronic/ambient album that is both passive and interesting, but Music Has The Right to Children makes the cut and is a completely unique, priceless album.

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album
Richard D. James Album
The issue everyone seems to have with Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album is mostly due to confusion. Confusion that the record simply does not straighten out. James’ approach on this record is completely skewed, and while this is definitely a product of his usual fun and ultimately effective psyche, listeners will likely be put off by his odd taste. Simply put, this record isn’t sure if it wants to be happy or evil, and the result is a big mess. It’s a fun mess, and an interesting one too, but by no means is this for the casual electronica listener. The ingredients are usually simple ambient melodies that could have worked as songs on their own (or maybe with soft beats) inflated to ludicrous levels of energy by breakneck beats. A surprise lies at every turn of this album, and as a result, the listener is hardly ever spared their temporary sanity. The opening 4 is an Aphex masterwork, a touching gel of strings hammered by the fast beats to make an interesting and contemplative modern piece. But then conversely the next song, Cornish Acid, is fun in a horribly evil way, with practically the same beats overlaying a creepy synthesizer. These decided contradictions are placed by the minute. Sometimes the trick works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Goon Gumpas strangely enough has no beat, and it’s a charming melody, enough to make even the happiest listener suspicious of what tricks might be up Richard’s sleeves. Girl/Boy Song is fairly innocuous even under the asteroid field of a drum machine, and another highlight. Logon Rock Witch is just evil, with a playful organ/jack-in-the-box tune that drifts into a creepy haze. And of course, Milkman is a schizophrenic trick that needs no explanation. This album probably does what it sets out to do with flying colors. I simply don’t always enjoy the goal. The intent is to make good electronic music, and there is a myriad of good tracks here, specifically 4, Fingerbib, and Girl/Boy Song. But the intent is also to confuse with an obnoxious juxtaposition of clashing elements. This can be enjoyable, and there are people who enjoy beats like this, so this is no throwaway. But I probably would have enjoyed the album more had those beats not been there at all. This album is insanity, take it or leave it.

The Cranberries – Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
Irish rockers The Cranberries delivered their most acclaimed record as a debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We. There is a certain charm to this kind of music, and no question they presented their style very well for a debut. But there is simply something about this that is lacking. If anything, the wonderful tune Dreams is enough to justify the rest of the album repeating itself. And it does sort of linger on the same melancholy Gaelic themes a lot. When it does it with specific taste and hooks like with I Still Do, it’s alright. But one would think that if the band continued on in the same way they presented Dreams, the album would have been nothing short of phenomenal. But unfortunately, what The Cranberries do the most is not necessarily the most interesting. In any case, some songs here are just priceless, namely Linger and Dreams, but for anyone who wants good Irish rock, a very narrow genre, it definitely wouldn’t be a bad purchase.

The Cure – Standing on a Beach
Standing on a Beach
The Cure are the owners of a frighteningly large body of work and can therefore be a complete hassle to approach. Starting at any individual album can likely result in misconceptions or an unclear picture of what The Cure were really like because at every leg of their long career they have been a bit different. The later compilation Greatest Hits just doesn’t do the job, and there has not yet been a good collection that has covered the bands whole near three decade career. When Standing on a Beach was made, there was never any question whether another collection would have to be made because the band was already making their next album Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, so this was never meant to be a complete picture but it is most likely the best place to start diving into The Cure’s imposing discography. The material here runs from the subdued punk of the bands debut Three Imaginary Boys all the way through the commercial sucess The Head on the Door, and the development is undeniably great and a wonder to listen to. Robert Smith’s voice is honed and the guitars are refined over the years that this spans. All the songs here are great, and it’s a wonder how a band so comtemplative and long winded can make such great pop gems. Accuracy is not any issue because this is a collection of singles, but the band definitely gave their best to the radio and never lost their grace in the process. The Cure are a great band and worthy of exploring, but it is tiring and troublesome to know where to start. This is not a complete picture, but there will most likely never be a completely accurate one, so for casual fans this along with the bands other singles collection Galore will be all one could ever need. And for those who want to dig deeper, this is a good branching point and signpost for where to go next. Either way, Standing on a Beach is a collection of great songs and further proof that The Cure are always fantastic.

Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Pretty Hate Machine
At what it does, Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine is a killer record. But unfortunately it has some qualities that are hard to get used to or simply not for everyone. This isn’t considered one of the industrial genres best records for no reason. Most all the songs are irresistibly catchy while staying abrasive and heavy. For a first song, Head Like a Hole is still arguably Trent Reznor’s finest concoction of muscular guitars and hypnotic electronica, and the lyrics aren’t bad either. However, one of this albums many flaws are how hit or miss the lyrics are. Half the time, they are spot on and a joy to hear unfurl (lay my hands on Heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars / while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car), and at all other times they are cringeworthy at best (how could you turn us into this? / after you just taught me how to kiss…you). Another problem people will have with this album is the very ’80s production values, such as the echoed snares and the stylized synthesizers. But fortunately the core of the record is simply good enough to keep it’s quality apparent even after almost twenty years under it’s belt. Each song is individually crisened with great hook and develops with great guitars and catchy electronic beats and tunes. Not only are all the songs strong, but the record presents itself like a finely cut gem. None of these tunes are as bleak or pained as Reznor’s later songs, but they still have a significant bit of emotion. No question, this is a thematic album based on a relationship that is both painful but also seductively fun, but the lyrics just don’t quite cut it in the end. All the tracks are standout, from the devils hook Kinda I Want To to the sexual pulse of Down In It. The album has great things to share with the right listener, a lot like The Downward Spiral, but it’s problems catch up with it pretty readily. Although it may not be an indesputable masterpiece, it is still a great collection of songs, one of the first truly good industrial records, and a fantastic start to Trent Reznor’s great career.

Cocteau Twins – Garlands
Garlands
Garlands is no question Cocteau Twins most off the wall, odd creation. Being the bands debut one can only expect so much, but either way this is hardly an enjoyable listen. The intension here is clouded. This is kind of a stab at the gothic genre but without as much force as The Cure or similar artists. Garlands is of it’s own world, though. The beats are almost primeval, and the guitar and bass provides a quiet, reserved swirl of out of place sound in the backdrop of Liz Frasers at this point un-honed vocals. To say I don’t understand this record is avoiding the obvious fact that I don’t enjoy listening to it, but the album may well be purposefully strange. Almost every track is an uncomfortable swirl of insanity, and the guitars rarely do anything more than unsettle, and the songs do not conclude very well. One has to wonder, judging from the sharp rise in quality with the proceeding record Head Over Heels, whether this disorder was intended. But the album does have it’s redeeming moments that justify it’s existence. Blind Dumb Deaf is absolutely gorgeous in a sad paranoid way, the title track Garlands is actually kind of interesting, and Wax and Wane is often cited as a Cocteau Twins favorite by hardcore fans who like the bands earlier work. The truth is, this is just setup for the brilliance of Head Over Heels and the spectacular career that follows, but this might actually be your thing if you are looking for early gothic music.

Oceans 11 Soundtrack
Ocean's 11
For a movie that has an otherwise fantastic soundtrack, the CD release is a let down in most all ways. Whoever compiled this clearly did not know what the hell they were doing, that simple. What struck me about Oceans 11 most the first time I saw it was the awesome jazz score, but on here, most of the songs are smashed in value by way of either brevity or inclusion of in-movie dialogue. Tunes like Pickpockets, Ruben’s In, and Stealing The Pinch, and Hookers would be ten times more enjoyable if they weren’t so criminally short, and the dialogue sprinkled throughout is not only unnecessary but also annoying. Some otherwise darling Percy Faith songs are only played as background music to dialogue… So stupid. What saves this for near salvation in the longrun is the fact that the music is fantastic. Boobytrapping, The Projets, Gritty Shaker, $160 Million Chinese Man, and 69 Police are all great songs and long enough for the keeping. Claire de Lune is, as always, a charming classic as well. But the fact of the matter is, the production here is catastrophic. Fans of the movie and it’s music deserve better, and this just doesn’t deliver on the level it should.

Smashing Pumpkins – Rotten Apples: The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits
Rotten Apples
As a sampler to the Smashing Pumpkins discography, Rotten Apples does a fair job, but as a Greatest Hits compilation it fails on a few levels. For one thing, the song selection is rather mixed. To be fair, this is not “Rotten Apples: Best Of Smashing Pumpkins.” Instead, we are treated to what is supposed to be the bands biggest hits on the radio, and in many ways those hits are not presented well enough. Any fan could make the argument that certain songs should have been included, but for a few reasons this compilation just can’t decide whether it wants to be a Greatest Hits or a Best Of, so it falters more in the face of these complaints. The choice of including a shortened version of Drown from the Singles soundtrack is a nice treat though, and two bonus unreleased songs are saved for last as the incentive for fans. These two songs are, no question, fantastic. But attention to the bands whole career is divided between it’s uneven components at the demise of quality of songs. Once again, personal preference is a prevalent complaint. Mayonaise was a much bigger hit than Disarm, and there was no reason whatsoever to include Eye at all. Landslide is truly one of the bands greater gems, but it does not reflect on it’s respective album quite as much as something like Frail And Bedazzled would. If you want a place to start, this might be the best bet you have.

Nirvana – Nirvana Unplugged
Nirvana Unplugged
For as long as I can remember, Nirvana Unplugged has haunted, amazed, and touched me on levels that no other record can. It would be silly for me to pretend that this isn’t my all time favorite record considering how much I come back to it even after long periods of leaving the bands music on the backburner. Every song here is a classic, and each song, be it one of the bands songs or one of the covers, is flexed to it’s otherwise unseen limits, displaying all their glory at completely new revealing angles. Instrumentally, the music is hypnotizing, and I’m yet to figure out why even after all these years, but the perfect rhythm section probably helps and the beautiful guitars are always wonderful. The momentum the album carries is never interrupted, from the Beatles pop of About A Girl through the Meat Puppets set straight down to the Leadbelly cover. Absolutely every moment on this album is as good as can be; there is not one weak song, and even Something In The Way, which I have always considered to be one of Nirvana’s lesser songs from their popular days, is seamlessly transformed into a wonderful gem. Considering Kurt Cobain shot up some heroine right before this show and was nervous out of his mind, the quality of the music is nothing short of miraculous. The band is, in fact, in better playing condition than they have ever been, even if Dave isn’t used to playing so quietly and Kurt is high and emotionally broken. There is clearly an uneasiness here, which makes the listening experience that much more enjoyable. Kurt exaggerates the price of a Leadbelly guitar among other precious nuances shared with the audience in between songs, as if to hide what emotions are really there. Thankfully, this music speaks emotions that words cannot capture and more than makes up for the less than adequate suicide note that Kurt would write in not that many more weeks. This is not only the greatest recording Nirvana ever did, but it is also the unequivocal culmination of their entire career, perfectly tying up any loose ends and leaving me with nothing more to desire from what has always been my favorite band even under deep scrutiny. It is my personal opinion that no record is ever completely perfect, but for all intents and purposes, this is as perfect to me as any album has ever been.