Sunday, August 27, 2006

massive update: Thom Yorke, Danielson, Creeper Lagoon, Parts & Labor, J Dilla, Guillemots

Thom Yorke, The Eraser - What it all comes down to is this: an artist leads a brilliant band faultlessly through over 10 years, keeping matters ambiguous and complex (and sometimes needlessly obtuse) while still appealing to millions, and you pray the day won't come when he does something as bloody literal-minded as naming a song "The Clock" and giving it churning, metronomic rhythms that are supposed to "suggest" the titular object, and top it off with a first line like "Time is running out for us." And then he does.

Yorke's description of the album was unpromising: "an accumulation of really sketchy ideas that were going around since I learnt how to use the laptop properly." And that's what the album comes down to: minor and melancholy, rehashed Radiohead melodies and vocals, with minimal loops providing a barely filled-in background. (Matthew Herbert, who does know how to a use a laptop properly, would've chopped up a real clock and made it sound like nothing on earth; oh well.) What's missing is the band, the rhythmic complexities and kinks that would make it interesting, even when some of the sounds are the same as those that were interesting 6 years ago (the fade-out to "Analyse" is so similar to "Kid A"'s that I expect to hear "The National Anthem" next every time). "Atoms For Peace" fares best out of the lot, skipping rhythmic intensity entirely and going in for resigned beauty, but it's still no "Motion Picture Soundtrack." Then again, judging by how good "Black Swan" sounds at the end credits of A Scanner Darkly, maybe this whole thing should've just been a soundtrack.

Mostly what The Eraser contributes to the world is renewed appreciation for Yorke's bandmates. This album doesn't do anything besides highlight their absence, and while some might argue that that foregrounds Yorke's songwriting and voice...nah. Side/solo projects are for band-members who feel like their voice is getting lost in the shuffle; judging by how this is just a pallid Radiohead album, Yorke has no cause to complain.

Danielson, Ships - Danielson certainly has his hardcore adherants, some of whom (Deerhoof, Sufjan Stevens) are in the backing band here. The fact that I like Sufjan but not Deerhoof (whose relentless spazziness I find irritating) turns out to matter; at times, this is like Deerhoof's chaos magnified by Sufjan's orchestra. Matters actually start quite promisingly; "Ship The Majestic Suffix" begins like some kind of sea shanty ("Before our time upon a noon there stood still a ship") before exploding into turbo-powered bursts of snare drum, glockenspiel and brass; it sounds more like a bizarre Mahler rehearsal than a pop song. And though "Cast At The Setting Sail" and, most successfully, "Did I Step On Your Trumpet" harness pure weirdness and barely stuff it into something resembling verse-chorus structure, successors like "My Lion Sleep Tonight" degenerate into howling atonal voices and digressive musical noise that couldn't be transcribed into notation no matter how you tried. It doesn't help that - even though I care almost nothing about proper vocal technique - Danielson's high-pitched screech is incredibly annoying, maybe because he seems to not use it just out of necessity but actually takes proud in it, cultivating it for all the bad attention he can get. It's a mess of the kind that hipster critics seem to be fairly in love with these days; what can I say? I don't get Animal Collective either.

Creeper Lagoon, Long Dry Cold - It's hard for me to write about Creeper Lagoon with any kind of objectivity, because their 2001 album Take Back The Universe and Give Me Yesterday was, oddly enough (given the fact that practically no one else remembers it), a formative music moment for me; I had just started downloading music off Napster, obeying the dictates of the first music critics I ever took seriously, the good people at the Onion A.V. Club. (Radio was, then and now, a mystery, thanks to my classically-fixated parents; even now, hear songs at parties that arouse nostalgia in everyone else and "What is this?" from me.) Somehow I stumbled onto Creeper Lagoon, a San Francisco act whose first full-length was produced by the Dust Brothers. I picked up Take Back at the now-defunct Sound Exchange (yes, the one name-checked by Britt Daniel on "Anything You Want"), a fierce punk institution that disapproved of pretty much everything I bought there. I listened to it obsessively, because I didn't have the money to buy many CDs; it seemed kind of alt-whiny, but gradually it grew on me. Even today, I think it's actually pretty good, but it's hard to say.

The story behind that album is almost more entertaining than the end product; given a signing advance, the band retreated to a farm with a bag of shrooms, a strategy that, unsurprisingly, resulted in only a couple of demos + a death freak-out for one of the band-members. The band then burned through a million dollars and four producers, coming out with an album that was heavily hyped but somehow failed to catch on with the alt-radio crowd. An EP was quietly released in 2002, and then presumably the group was dead, with a new offshoot named On The Speakers debuting with their EP shortly thereafter.

Guess not. 5 years after running the straight-and-narrow of '90s guitar-rock, Creeper Lagoon - on their own dime, self-released through the net - have learned how to go electronic. Though constructed from what mostly sound like real instruments, nothing sounds natural. Fierce snare drum loops propel otherwise gentle songs like "Henry Ford" and "Jimmy Robertello," while nighttime tracks like "Liquor Store" and "Gigantor" are like improved shoegazer; female vocals for a change of pace don't hurt at all. I like this album a lot; it's dreamy and contemplative without forgetting to write actual songs. But I'm mostly wildly impressed at this re-invention; though I'm far from objective, I actually kind of recommend this as an overlooked sleeper.

Parts & Labor, Stay Afraid - or, a graphic demonstration of why some things are essential to see live, no matter what you think of the album. With no foreknowledge, I saw Parts & Labor open for Oneida (who were so boring I walked out) and was blown away, deafened as I was deafened by squalls of noise so massive I hadn't heard the like since the City of Austin revamped its noise codes (I used to leave shows and wake up with my ears still ringing the next morning; those days are gone, as is apparently a chunk of my hearing, judging by how often I have trouble understanding what people are saying). Underneath thunderous organ riffs and punk drumming were simple hooks; the effect was noise piled on top of punk anthems, and the result was exhilarating. When they slowed down for a moment - i.e., bellowing over drumsticks tapping - it felt like being in the eye of a hurricane. I instantly bought their album.

Unsurprisingly, little of this transfers to CD, let alone headphones. Though the tracks are pleasant enough in their own right, little stands out about them; as befits these disguised punk songs, the melodies are simple, the words seemingly inconsequential, and P&L's interest in noise does not extend to producing different kinds and textures, just as much of it as possible. The result is fun, for a while, but it's nothing close to the exultation I got at the live show. By the very nature of what they do, the live act seems untranslatable to record; too bad. I recommend finding these guys if you're ever around Brooklyn's hipster-ier areas.

J Dilla, Donuts - Like electronica, I feel painfully underqualified to say anything about an album of hip-hop loops, although I wonder if this is exactly a genre. Seems everyone who's plunged into the fray to praise this was moved at least as much by Dilla's untimely death as the actual music; indeed, without said death, would I be seeing so many advocates claiming that the loops — mostly drums and old soul samples — represent the last frantic thoughts of a dying mind frantically shuffling through its past, that what sounds like mundane breaks missing Chuck D on the beat (Dilla's samples are decidedly old-school) are grave and disturbing? Seriously doubtful, even if he knew he was dying (although devil's advocate points out that the first track is labeled "Outro" and the last "Intro," almost a hopeful indicator that death is the beginning, not the end; whatever. Not to be cavalier about death, but it shouldn't retroactively make the music better - unless you're Johnny Cash, obviously.).

Most of this is lost on me. Most tracks clock under 2 minutes, many under 1:30. Typical track: "People" starts with someone yelling "People" over slowed-down drums and crooning a bit before the drums speed up to normal speed; breaths are drawn in repeatedly, distorted trumpets come in briefly, a far-off generic middle eastern female voice wails for a while, then the drums slow down and segue into another slowed-down soul sample, then speed up again, this time with electric organ, then the whole thing is rounded off with more wailing, breathing, and sirens (the sirens are a constant throughout the record; another argument for the death squad). If that sounds exciting to you, dig in. Some stuff tickles me slightly more than other stuff ("Lightworks" has a seriously goofy sample from some kind of '50s/'60s TV commercial), but it all sounds incomplete and not terribly infectious: hooks without hook, soul clips disassociated from soul.

Guillemots, Through The Windowpane - This is a pretty exciting and terrific debut whose impact diminishes rather than grows on repeated listens, but attention should still be paid. The great thing about Guillemots is that they're absolutely fearless, unafraid to shoot for the big orchestral ballads even though Coldplay's made them a hissing and a byword with the hipsters. Those not just indifferent but hostilely allergic to Chris Martin's U2 heirs, by the way, should steer clear: Guillemots are musically adventurous but lyrically banal. There's a song here called "If The World Ends," in which our vocalist pines that "If the world ends, I hope you're here with me/I think we could laugh just enough to not die in pain." That kind of stuff doesn't bother me, but you've been warned.

Beginning with the longest, most extended orchestral introduction since Rufus Wainwright's last salvos, Guillemots start with a song featuring solely vocals and orchestra, presumably just to scare off the rockists. "Made Up Love Song #43" pits band vs. sped-up sample orchestra and sounds like an actual single. Similar restlessness follows: they're just as likely to use an actual stand-up bass as the electric kind (shades of late-period Talk Talk), and some of the drums have the same fake-processed sound as the '80s' finest. Perilous ground, but Guillemots soar more often than fall flat, and they never outright fail. 11+ minute closer "Sao Paulo" is one of the best things on here, which is a pretty formidable achievement in and of itself, culminating in a damn-near Mahlerian explosion of brass and percussive chaos. Dead patches in the lengthy songs emerge over repeated listens, but this is still pretty enthusiastically recommended. These guys should get the Doves to produce their next record.

2 Comments:

Blogger Adam Villani said...

Do you know if the Radiohead songs on the ASD soundtrack will be on the new album or anything?

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Folco said...

The Radiohead songs from the ASD soundtrack are b-sides from Amnesiac/Kid A, a remix and a track from Amnesiac.

11:21 AM  

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