Posts Tagged ‘Electronic’

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Thom Yorke – "Hearing Damage"

October 15, 2009
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Thom Yorke of Radiohead.

It has been a busy year for Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The band has released two new singles within the past three months: “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” and “These Are My Twisted Words.” You’ll hear neither on the radio. Yorke has also released two solo singles of his own, a cover of Mark Mulcahy’s “All for the Best” and a double A-side 12-inch of the songs “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” and “The Hollowed Earth.” In addition to this, he’s started an as of yet unnamed new band with Flea, Nigel Godrich, and others.

You’ll hear a lot of varying opinions on said activity if you ask a bunch of Radiohead fans. Opinions are pretty divided, but the general consensus seems to be that the new tracks are nifty, even pretty good, but a bit of a disappointment. I personally agree, for the most part. In particular, “Harry Patch,” as pretty as it is, sounds streamlined, and so do “Twisted Words” and the Yorke singles, even considering their experimentation. To me, “All for the Best” is the one that sticks out as the best, a glowing electronic pop piece. With all this said, I’ve been playing all of these tracks fairly often recently, so my disappointment is obviously rather minimal.

The latest bit of Thom Yorke related news involves one of the stranger releases of this year, the indie/alternative rock star-studded “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” soundtrack, which contains the work of Grizzly Bear and Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand, Bon Iver and St. Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, Muse and Thom Yorke himself, among others. Someone involved with the Twilight Saga clearly had a large wad of cash to blow and happened to decide that this soundtrack merited it.

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Mmm, mmm, kiss me Edward Cullen, kiss me lest I stain my petticoat with mine beads of anticipatory perspiration.

As you can expect from a cast like that, the disc is scattered in quality. It is split pretty much half and half between (and this is just one man’s opinion here) lame alternative-lite shit and moody, thoughtful pieces. Yorke leads the latter pack with his new song “Hearing Damage.”

As I write this, I’ve listened to the song maybe around ten times, and it is really beginning to bother me. I’m imagining Mr. Yorke would either take this as a bit of a put-down or a complement, and I should hope the latter. A lot of Radiohead’s greatest work has been willfully difficult and experimental, and every one of their albums within the past nine years have their artfully disturbing moments. Thom Yorke took the band’s electronic paranoia to another level with his excellent 2006 solo album The Eraser. Not many other artists have the ability to reliably get under a listener’s skin with their music.

“Hearing Damage” wouldn’t sound out of place on The Eraser, and for that reason complaints of Yorke not progressing his style beyond dark electronic music may be legitimate, but this also means that Yorke has really started to cement his own style as a solo artist, and we can tell that this is a Thom Yorke track immediately upon hearing it. The song still has it’s own thing going, though. It taps into something primal, and we can point to the pulsing, irregular rhythm for part of the explanation.

The piece seems to build and build and not climax, and it’s sonic identity is built around a shuddering, bassy synth. It is heard throughout the track, dipping in and out and warping as the song draws to a close, and is also mirrored by higher pitched synths throughout. In opposition to this inventiveness is that this track is slickly produced, as expected for a song on the soundtrack of a major motion picture. How complex and disturbing the song is contrasts with its immediacy.

As far as Yorke’s vocals and lyrics go, we are reminded here why he is still one of the best vocalists around. As we have heard on Radiohead albums as well as The Eraser, a little bit of echo goes a long way for Yorke, and raises his emotional momentum a hell of a lot. His singing here is hushed, also a lot like it was on the majority of songs on The Eraser.

The lyrics are, as expected, the heart of the song, and they solidify “Hearing Damage” as a classic cut. “You can do no wrong / in my eyes, in my eyes” may sound like sexy vampire type shit, but it’s got the typical Yorke sleeper effect, and when you really think about it, it’s pretty creepy. He switches back and forth between first and second person point of view here, and there is no short supply of affecting material. Even more harrowing: “A drunken salesman / your hearing damage / your mind is restless / they say you’re getting better, but you don’t feel any better.”

A slithering earworm, “Hearing Damage” crawls into your consciousness, stays there, and haunts you, like tinnitus. It’s no surprise that it is the odd duck out on this soundtrack, and nothing else sounds half as creative. Granted, its competition is lukewarm and straightforward, but the curiosity of how the song might be used in New Moon almost makes me feel like I could tolerate two hours of vampire smut to know. Well, not really. But it’s further proof that Thom Yorke still has the capacity to make great music in 2009, and paired with some of the other good compositions here, makes the soundtrack worth the price of admission.

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Admit it guys, pretty much the story of our lives for the past two years.

NOTICE: As you can see, all of the Radio Cure playlist posts have been deleted. Don’t worry, you can still view them on the “Radio Playlists” page, now accessible from the sidebar. I did this to open up space on the front page for more interesting posts, as the front page was getting cluttered with playlists that I post weekly and didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of content.

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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  the 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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Dan Deacon – Bromst

March 20, 2009
Dan Deacon - Bromst

Dan Deacon - Bromst

I often find myself reclining somewhere with my headphones on trying to sift through the sound on an experimental electronic album. This has something to be said for it. When you really sit down and concentrate on sound, for a long time, you start to become more aware of its intricacies and the more difficult concepts become palatable. However, sometimes I just want to listen to something easy. I don’t want to have to concentrate on being open minded in order to enjoy an obscure Autechre song, as ultimately rewarding as some of them end up being. Sometimes I just want playful electronic music. And sometimes I just want something I can shake my ass too.

Dan Deacon might find himself categorized as “experimental electronic,” but mostly only because that phrase is a catchall term. What Deacon does on Bromst is actually pretty down to earth and traceable. His arrangements are not polyrhythmic or atonal, like those of many of his “experimental electronic” contemporaries. His rhythms are propulsive and his melodies accessible and catchy. However, his sound palette is what makes Bromst a true electronic work, and songs such as “Snookered” are both glimmering and experimental. If Bromst resembles the work of any other artist, it would surely be that of Baltimore brethren Animal Collective on Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is probably premature to cite Merriweather as an influence, but at this point talking about electronic music in 2009 without mentioning Animal Collective is really only kidding yourself.

The songs we remember most from Merriweather Post Pavilion are the ones with the most energy. If Dan Deacon is a mad scientist, then he really only figured out one simple musical equation. Speed=Energy. In that respect, Deacon starts Bromst off at a sprint and doesn’t slow down, and his energy carries through the record effectively, keeping every song zippy and danceable. However, if the album has it’s weaknesses, they might stem from this. Each song runs the risk of being “the fast one,” and this unshakable energy puts a responsibility on Deacon to make his range of sound distinct with each song to ensure that we don’t get lost in the sound.

With that said, you have to look really hard for indistinct moments throughout Bromst, although it might take a couple listens to be able to parse the set out. It is really shocking how few weak spots the album has. Even the album’s only song that might be considered filler, “Wet Wings,” is fascinating, and proves that every sound here is carefully considered. He opts especially for malleted percussion quite often, and it suits him well, allowing him to be melodic and rhythmic simultaneously. And while every song is energetic, they are all formed in unique ways that are quite memorable: The opening “Build Voice” wavers from nothing into a sweeping and majestic melody, “Red F” conversely spirals outward from a ear crunching drone, and “Of the Mountains” starts with a humble malletted melody.

For those who have accused Deacon of being over-the-top in the past, Bromst will surely please. His whimsical appearance might suggest Play-Do and Rubix Cubes, but Bromst more closely resembles Legos, colorful and but also logical, whimsical yet stimulating. Deacon has not resigned his playful style, but has fully developed it with a restraint and appreciation for simple charms that suits him well. Bromst ends up being a sort of chamber electronic album – one that we love to play at a party but can also appreciate the subtle intricacies of, born of a compromise that very few electronic artists are brave enough to make.

Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon

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The Postal Service – Give Up

February 20, 2009
The Postal Service - Give Up

The Postal Service - Give Up

Right when electronic music seemed close to becoming a genre for elitists, emo/indie poster boy Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) and relatively unknown electronic artist Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) started to send each other packages, and some months later the music industry was graced with the glittery, pretentious album of the next three years, Give Up. The truth is that Gibbard’s sweet lyrical content and Tamborello’s creamy electronic melodies and beats aren’t a hell of a lot different than they are on their main projects, but Give Up is milk chocolate; it was clear upon release that the two artists had found their true calling in their careers. Never have Gibbard’s lyrics felt so well surrounded, and never have Tamborello’s productions felt so contextually essential. Gibbard sings of everything from lovely astronaut love poems to more tales of heartbreak that he has mastered the art of, and Tamborello does everything from easygoing electronic pop to exploding breakbeats. The lack of any weak tracks as well as its cohesive and strangely cyclical nature (the ending of “Natural Anthem” seems to segue into the beginning of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” seamlessly, and I could loop this album for hours) make it one of the truly priceless albums of electronic pop in the decade, and the album that introduced the genre to a wider audience.

The Postal Service

The Postal Service

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Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

January 20, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

I saw Animal Collective live at the Pitchfork festival in 2008, and it was like no concert I had ever seen or heard. I stood in the same place for hours in order to get a good spot to see the band which I hardly knew well save for their at that point latest album, Strawberry Jam. In the sea of hipsters, I felt like a faux-hipster, not knowing what to expect, somehow at fault for his fascination and curiosity with a band that he had close to no knowledge of despite the fact that they already had a devoted following since the turn of the century. I felt ashamed to want to hear the more melodic songs at the concert. I was afraid of being ridiculed because I had wanted to hear the hits.

My insecurities would be sorted out in due time (actually with Panda Bear’s 2007 solo album Person Pitch which dealt with musical elitism head on), but at that point  in time what was important was what I was hearing, and I couldn’t even tell what that was. The concert was a complete sensory overload. I felt as if the concert was so loud, so dense, so invasive of my brain that I literally could not hear what I was hearing. It sounds strange, but I was completely enveloped by the music. It felt like I was inside the music, as opposed to the music going inside of my ears and being inside me. I was not even completely sure if I liked it at the time, but I knew that what I was listening to was catchy, and I was too fascinated to want it to stop. About half of that concert’s setlist consisted of songs that would later be on Merriweather Post Pavilion (named after the legendary Maryland concert venue), which is arguably the album that everyone has been waiting for the band to make for almost ten years.

With that said, comparing any Animal Collective album to any other is risky business. Merriweather is their ninth, and almost all of them are unique, although their progression makes sense and they share certain qualities. Starting from free form electronic, moving through noisy, improvisational psychedelia, folk, pop, and guitar rock, Animal Collective seem to have done it all, but they have developed and retained distinctive styles throughout their career. Observers have tried to condense these avant garde tendencies, just a few being rhythm-less guitar strumming, conversely rhythmic hooks, and drastic dynamics, into the label “freak folk,” but pinning a genre on the band seems futile, because they are always trying new things and moving in different directions. The core of the band has always been Noah Lennox (otherwise known as Panda Bear) and David Portner (Avey Tare), with other members Brian Weitz (The Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) joining in early on. The band’s lineup has changed since their last album, 2007s more guitar based Strawberry Jam, with the (presumably temporary) departure of guitarist Deakin.

Animal Collective at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Animal Collective at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

The concert I attended in 2008 was with this lineup, Panda Bear, Avey Tare and the Geologist, and primarily an electronic show. The spirit of the band’s live show is a thorough and accurate representation of Merriweather Post Pavilion’s style. Songs are thickly layered with sampled sounds of all kinds, everything from the more standard tools of the trade such as drums, guitars, and pianos, to bizarre electronic samples, found sounds, and foreign instruments. This technique has been honed by the band since their earliest days, but it seems to be a perfected art here, with more pleasing things going on at any given time than one can distinguish or separate. Particularly impenetrable are Daily Routine, Panda Bear’s sonic representation of a morning out with his daughter, and Also Frightened, which sounds like an electronic acid drenched rainforest. But this sonic complexity actually feels quite down to earth, for several reasons.

One of which is the band’s melodic maturity. Earlier Animal Collective albums often ran with numerous musical ideas and hooks in the same song somewhat linearly,  often separately. On Merriweather, the band run with the catchiest melodies and simultaneously lean on their production without ever simply relying on it. The most notable example of capitalization of melody is the album’s second song and first single, My Girls, primarily a Panda Bear song. The production here is excellent – the rhythmic arpeggios and low bass blasts are something that was hinted at on Strawberry Jam but are brought to their full potential here – but the song’s primary feature is that you would be hard pressed to find a more catchy song in the band’s catalog. The album’s centerpiece is Bluish, conversely more of an Avey Tare piece, which utilizes an absolutely lovely synthesizer melody alongside lush clicks and whirs and held up by a heart thumping rhythm, and ends up being Animal Collective’s cutest song to date. Just about every song, no, sound, on this album will make you smile.

Avey Tare and Panda Bear at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Avey Tare and Panda Bear at the 2008 Pitchfork Festival

Both of the aforementioned songs, and at that a majority of the songs on Merriweather Post Pavilion, feature shared vocal responsibilities from Panda Bear and Avey Tare. Animal Collective have always been about the unique melodic and vocal styles of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, and on this album, these styles blend perfectly. The two bounce main hooks off of one another on a song by song basis, but it is clear that each member of the band has a key role in just about each song. It is difficult to tell who does what, but from examining the solo work of Panda Bear and Avey Tare in relation to Animal Collective’s catalog, it becomes clear what each member of the band, including the Geologist, bring to the table. And they bring quite a lot. Merriweather Post Pavilion is a blend of countless ideas, old and new.

Lyrically, Panda Bear and Avey Tare have also matured. Panda has always been a bit more down to earth than Avey, but his lyrics reached drum-tight focus on Person Pitch, where they were almost conversational. Although Avey’s lyrics are still whimsical and focused on imagery, he has followed Panda towards a more tangible lyrical style, most recognizably with his romantic musings on Bluish. But Avey’s greatest moment might be Lion In a Coma, a multifaceted percussive song. It probably gets the closest to bizarre as any other song on the album, but Avey’s lyrics are spot on; just bizarre enough to be fun but also touchingly yearning and sensitive.

Conversely, Panda Bear’s finest moment comes last with Brother Sport, on which Panda engages in a completely new catharsis, specifically, dance until you drop. It explodes into Animal Collective’s most memorable song from the start, riding waves through hook after hook until a dramatic Boredoms-esque psychedelic freakout, in which it seems like just about every animal in the zoo got a musical instrument and everybody went wild at the same time, in perfect synchronization. Meanwhile, a sound collage cascades down from the sky and Panda chants “Halfway to fully grown/you’ve got a real good shot/won’t help to hold inside/keep it real, keep it real, shout out.” It’s the sound of a band who wants to do everything at once and has the experience and maturity to do so without sounding contrived or muddy. But this song is just one of many on an adventurous pop album where everything is carefully considered, and all of Animal Collective’s tools come together to make something utterly unique and irresistible, their best and most fun album to date.

Animal Collective

Animal Collective

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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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Autechre – Quaristice

September 24, 2008

Probably the most noticeable difference between Autechre’s latest LP Quaristice and their back catalog is song length. The electronic superstar duo is still cranking out experimental music, as signified by the complex rhythms, amorphous tones, and colorful aural textures, harkening back to their latter experimental albums such as LP5 and Draft 7.30. The difference is that the songs are significantly smaller, with a few notable exceptions.

These exceptions perhaps reveal a growth in soundmasters Sean Booth and Rob Brown. The first song to break five minutes is Simmm, which sounds much like a Tri Repetae b-side. An abstract but traceable pots-n-pans beat is built upon with very clean cut sounding IDM synthesizers until the latter half of the song kicks in with an assortment of sound experimentation that we would come to expect from more recent Autechre; synthetic sounds vaguely resembling water splashing, Mario going down a green pipe, or metallic pops are the norm for the duo. What makes Simmm particularly interesting is that it develops and ends within the five minute length comfortably. We can only guess, but guess reasonably that if Autechre made this song ten years ago, it would have likely continued on for an additional unnecessary five minutes. This improved awareness of time is applied with great success on some songs, such as Simmm and many of the more off the wall compositions on the album, which are not necessarily bad but do not need to be test driven or worked with for more than the two or three minutes given to them.

However, another thing that makes Quaristice a pretty bold album for Autechre are its ambient pieces, and it is difficult to say whether or not they were subject to deliberate timing decisions. The opening Altibzz is one such ambient song, and is destined to be an electronic classic. Probably the most beautiful piece the group have ever recorded, it shows an impressive amount of restraint with its soft synthesizer melodies that intermingle with one another to form brief and understated harmonies, the result being a mesmerizingly beautiful song that is full of life. The song clocks in at 2:52, and although many listeners could have probably listened to the song for five minutes more without getting tired, its brevity makes the song that much more delicious and fleeting, much like the shortest and sweetest pieces by Warp compatriots Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada.

But alternately, we have the opposite side of the spectrum with the less melodic ambient pieces. Of these, Paralel Suns is quite short and both Notwo and Outh9X are very long. The catch is that both seem to work, Paralel Suns being enjoyably brief in contrast to its massive scope, and Notwo being quite long but consistently relaxing, while Outh9X actually does have quite a bit to say and is appropriately the longest song on the album.

But Quaristice is in no way an ambient album. Autechre probably do have it in them to make an ambient album, but Quaristice ends up being fun because of all of the bases it covers, ambient just happening to be the most interesting of them. It is a versatile electronic album, hitting genres as far away from one another as RDJ reminiscent acid house (chenc9), the aforementioned ambient tracks, glitch, and more. But this is Autechre, so a good deal of the tracks are less music than they are experimental organized sound.

It is likely that Quaristice will confuse listeners new to electronic music just as much as Autechre’s previous albums. However, it is still significantly more likely to draw new fans or change the minds of anyone who had their doubts about Autechre, due in part to the band’s new understanding of time management, which is a problem which they have always wrestled with. And because Autechre are still finding new and effective ways to express themselves through electronic music, and are still producing the occasional brilliant cornerstone song to the genre like Altibzz, it has become difficult to deny that they are the future of music, for better or worse.

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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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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

August 26, 2008

I know the last thing that anyone needs from me right now is a review of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, and that I am a year and a half late on this, but I simply feel I must address this album.

After thoroughly listening through Person Pitch, Noah Lennox’s third solo album, several times, three things ultimately struck me most.

The first was how quickly this album seemed to pass by. On the first listen, I passively lent it my ears while doing other busy work. I knew I liked what I heard, but it seemed to have ended after fifteen minutes. After looking through the tracklist, I realized that over forty five minutes had passed in actuality. And on many listens since then, I have also felt similarly, even though I have been paying very close attention to the music, that it seems like it must go by in under a half hour.

I can attribute this strange phenomenon to a number of factors, the first of which is Panda Bear’s wide use of sampling and repetition throughout the album. When I saw Animal Collective live at Pitchfork, I found it quite interesting that the show was really just shy of a laptop show; all three members of the band were at one point in front of a soundboard, the Geologist actually for the entire show. Avey Tare was actually quite versatile, sometimes on a guitar or drums. Panda Bear spent most of the show in front of his soundboard, but picked up on percussion a couple times.

What is interesting about Panda  Bear’s behavior as an electronic artist, and I firmly believe he can be considered some type of electronic artist now, is that he actually doesn’t sample more than a little bit throughout the album. But when he does, he combines his sample choices with concocted or found sounds, and he never lets the album be completely electronic or completely organic. He builds up layers of sound much like Animal Collective did on Strawberry Jam, although somewhat less violent here, and then places them carefully over his rhythms. Many of his loops end in dissonant or floaty chords, thus making them that much more versatile and fluid. What many of them reminded me of before anything else was the album Pygmalion by Slowdive, and its accompanying demo sessions. It is only marginally likely that Panda Bear was ever actually influenced by this album, but judging by his use of these floaty vocal loops and many of the subtle melodies buried beneath the surfaces of many songs, it sure wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, all of these elements come together to make a rhythmic result that begs for the listener to do two things at once, relax and listen. In this sense, time is not a concern. Panda Bear does what he needs to do, and lets the songs end on their own. Sometimes it takes twelve minutes, and sometimes four. Perhaps the juxtaposition of long songs next to shorter songs has something to do with my loss of sense of time while listening to this album.

The second thing that surprised me was how accurately the album cover depicts the sound of the album. I can think of several other albums that have done such just as effectively, but none of those other album covers were quite as complex as the one for Person Pitch, making it that much more impressive.

The meat of the album are the layers of sound built in each song. Sounds are built upon each other, sometimes used for one time, several bars, or the rest of the song. The samples and effects come from all different directions, parts of life. Some may sound like the sound of water in a bubble bath, while others may sound like animals, the clattering of chains, the sound that Pop Rocks make in your mouth, fireworks going off, doorbells, and whatever else Panda Bear has found or created. The effects, however, are treated with so much watery reverberation that deciphering them becomes difficult. I can liken this to the experience of seeing Animal Collective live, and not really being able to tell what was going on in the music simply because it was so thick, loud, and confusing. This may have been somewhat of a flaw live, but it sure made the music sound that much more awe inspiring, and on record it isn’t a problem. However, I do find myself unable to pick out what I am hearing much of the time while listening to this album. It begs to be turned up, because you can never really hear exactly what is happening. After you turn it up, you still can’t really make sense of things, but this is an album that grows in power exponentially with volume simply because for every notch on your knob you turn, you are that much more submerged in the music and what is going on.

Lastly, I have been simply amazed at how happy it makes me to listen to the album.

People seem to have forgotten to harmonize their voices with one another. They are getting better with it lately (See Fleet Foxes pretty swell release this year that has been lapped up by the hipster crowd this year, with very good vocal harmonies. Actually, they played on the same stage as Animal Collective at Pitchfork.), but still, people forget that vocal harmonies sell. Panda Bear isn’t the freaking Mamas and Papas, but he harmonizes with himself in lovely ways that we don’t hear often enough. And his smooth, playful vocals are really what make this album the pop gem it is.

Lyrically, Panda Bear has the balls to sing about things that actually matter. And at that, values that his audience might actually need to hear. And the main theme of the album is so basic, so fundamental that most everyone, including myself, have glazed over it in our minds a long time ago. Be yourself. Don’t let anyone else tell you what is cool, what you should listen to, or make you feel inferior. Good Girl/Carrots seems to be the most prevalent in this philosophy. After the whimsical and fun run of “Good Girl,” the next movement “Carrots,” after a heartwarming reference to Mitch Hedberg, rouses a widespread defense against the kind of people who try to tell you what to listen to, to make you cling to a scene. The kinds of people that try to make themselves feel superior by collecting “all those first editions.” Possibly the most affecting line is an indirect put down against “those mags and websites who try to shape your style,” like perhaps Pitchforkmedia.com, or better yet, this website right here. The best and most representative line, however, is sandwiched in the middle of this song; “All I need to know, I knew so early.” These are the kind of lyrics that we heard when we were small children on TV. Why doesn’t anyone sing about these issues anymore?

But what really makes this album special is that it doesn’t falter even once. All of these elements come together to make a collection of seven lovely, moving songs that keep their momentum. The opening Comfy In Nautica sounds like a glorious call over a cliff to some canyon. Then, Take Pills’ two separate movements end up being as wonderful as one another, the first a slow relaxing piece, and then a marching, so-catchy-it-should-be-illegal second piece. And then of course comes the main song on the album, the sprawling Bros, for which my praise cannot be effectively articulated into written word. The almost tropical sounding aural cascades of I’m Not act as the keystone of the album. Good Girl/Carrots comes after it, and is just as moving as Bros. In the final stretch of the album, we have possibly the two most digestible and overall lovely pieces on the album, the ambient sound collage Search For Delicious, and a tiny, quite moving lullaby type song, Ponytail, which addresses the difficulties and wonders associated with change.

I think this is the one album of 2007 that I feel I can be unnecessarily enthusiastic about. It really is that good. Saying it is important or groundbreaking might be a little premature. But what seems to be the trend in pop music lately is either going toward the extremes of wildly experimental or almost ridiculously palatable. Sometimes we get people hitting pots and pans in complex polyrhythms, and sometimes we get The Jonas Brothers. Pop music has become a hedgemaze, and people seem to think that they need to base their decisions on which way to go according to how much is going to sell. Panda Bear, it seems, doesn’t really care. He was just taking a walk, and he stumbled upon the beautiful garden in the center. If any album could introduce free form and experimentalism into the world of glorious catchy pop music, Person Pitch is that album.

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Harold Budd & Brian Eno – Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror

June 25, 2008

After Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Brian Eno decided to immediately bring another ambient artist in for the second album of the series. The choice was Harold Budd, a pianist who had played minimalist music in the past and had recently released his first album, The Pavillion of Dreams, produced by Eno. On Ambient 2, Eno is seen as the producer and overseer, while Budd is the solo performer.

And to be sure, Budd takes the spotlight extremely well. Very little in the ambient world can compare to Budd’s playing. He is classically trained, and thus tastefully restrained, but at the same time his versatility is great and he never seems to do the same thing more than once on Ambient 2. At times he focuses his energy on the subtle melodies, while other times letting the notes loose in harp-like glissandos. What stays constant is his talent. Every note seems to matter. Some notes ring out, sounding warm yet hollow, while others feel like necessary side notes in decorative flourishes. Signposts and hooks however are few and far between. In fact, a lot of the album feels improvised, mostly due to the pacing, which says all the more for his talent and restraint considering how easily the music can melt into an environment.

And in fact, he did improvise a significant amount. What Eno has said of his producing of the album is that he would often create complex production setups that Budd would experiment with improvising on piano. The two artists would then bounce ideas off of one another. One such occasion is undoubtedly the first song, First Light. Budd’s notes are echoed and spread out like ripples over a subtle background of ambient tone. Eno plays the same card later on Above Chiangmai, and equally impressive song with just as much density and detail. But this is one of the few occasions where he tries the same thing more than once, and the album is anything but overproduced. The second song, Steal Away, is conversely left bare, in fact, and it is almost always Budd at the focal point of all of these songs.

The closest Eno gets to the spotlight is Not Yet Remembered. Eno utilizes a synthesized vocal part which Budd wrote and Eno cleverly reversed to somehow miraculously make one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Although this vocal part sometimes overpowers the piano, the melody is still the backbone of the song. Budd is the solo performer and the highlight of the album, but The Plateaux of Mirror feels like more of a collaboration than any of the other albums in the series, even Ambient 4 which featured a multitude of guest artists such as Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell. Ambient 4 is actually foreshadowed here. We hear many drones and electronic touchups meant to represent nature here, and they all came back in full force on Ambient 4. They are much more subtle here, in the form of an occasional side drone or the sound of a bird, but they still add to the experience.

The album follows the same piano based theme throughout, but there is actually a lot of variation. The songs are played mostly on acoustic piano and occasionally on electric piano. These two styles foreshadow many of Budd’s later solo albums that used either acoustic or electric piano. Many songs feel content and tranquil, others sad and melancholy. Occasionally a dash of jazz or a romantic suspension is included to add to the variety. The result is an emotionally fluid album that can at once seem to draw on past memories, while evoking a sense of contentment with the present, and also a sense of tension towards the future. Actually, this is one of those rare albums that seems to agree with whatever the listener is feeling at the time.

What is truly striking about Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is that all of the songs are interesting and memorable. All of them. And we have Budd to thank for that, but Plateaux is also one of Eno’s most notable production jobs, and the two stand side by side in its creation rather than Eno taking the backseat. Harold Budd and Brian Eno are both talented, humble artists that know how to work together, and Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is a perfectly formed album, and probably the best album in the series, because their chemistry works so well.