Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Strokes, First Impressions Of Earth

Just as I was getting ready to hunker down and ignore all new music in favor of catching up with the classic past while (still) waiting for the zeitgeist to accomodate me again, I couldn't suppress my curiosity about the Strokes' latest. Lo and behold, it's not just the first release of the year, it's hard to imagine that it won't be one of the best. Metacritic's rating - hanging at 68 - doesn't reflect the real polarization the album's caused among fans. The worst reviews just suggest that the album is mediocre with moments; the worst fan reactions are considerably less kind.

The worst thing about the album is its disgusting production. Ditching Gordon Raphael in favor of perpetually employed industry man David Kahne means that the guitars, bass et al. sound like they were recorded for Incubus or some other late-90s radio alt-rock staple; full, rich, and vaguely distasteful. It takes some getting used to, as does the fact that Julian Casablancas takes the distortion and filters off of his voice; we can now hear him unprocessed, and it turns out that he sounds surprisingly like...Stephin Merritt (I'm not the only one to pick up on this), especially on "Ask Me Anything," when he rhymes "I've got nothing to say/I'm in utter dismay" over a lone Mellotron.

The next thing to distract you will be the fact that the best songs no longer sound effortless. Opener "You Only Live Once" is (choose one) a reference to Fritz Lang's 1937 classic, a snide reference to the James Bond vehicle You Only Live Twice, or just an enthusiastic cliche, but it sounds like typical old-school Strokes fare; it's a deceptive opener. The next track, "Juicebox," is the real James Bond vehicle, with secret-agent-man guitars that take guidance from Lalo Schifrin and other masters of 60s spy scores (the "Village Voice" suggests Mancini's "Peter Gunn"). Other unlikely influences peek throughout: the furious opening of "Heart In A Cage" wouldn't be out of place in a System Of A Down song, and the intro to "Electricityscape" flirts with Metallica. But throughout, the Strokes take potentially disastrous elements and force them to sound like the Strokes: inhumanly precise in the rhythm section, infuriatingly catchy and satisfying guitar lines, and Julian Casablancas dominating everything effortlessly. As always, Casablancas spits out stupid lyrics and quotables in equal measure: "Razorblade"'s "All my feelings are more important than yours" is a keeper, "Took a shit/it was fine" on "15 Minutes" not so much.

As the party line goes, this is the Strokes' "open" album. Those titular first impressions are presumably of a planet the band no longer seems too cool for; shaken by their lack of commercial success and fed up with their fickle hipster fanbase, they're not cool enough for the hipsters and inexplicably unready for the mainstream. The sentiments can often seem juvenile: on the best song, "On The Other Side," Casablancas laments: "I hate my friends, I hate them all/I hate myself for hating them/So I'll drink some more/I'll love them all/I'll drink even more/I'll hate them even more than I did before." At 17, I would've loved to have heard this song and related; as it is, I admire the craft, and sardonically relate to the sentiment, but let's face it; I like my friends. Mostly.

The Strokes may never make a classic album like Is This It? again, but First Impressions is easily my favorite. Their debut and its (equally good, no matter what anyone says) follow-up are the sound of high-school nostalgia to me (which I guess says more about what I did and who I hung out with in high school than the band's popularity), but this album proves they can go further than that. (The first time hearing "Vision Of Division," I had that rare thrilling moment where all the chord changes I predicted were the ones they actually chose.) An effortless seeming toss-off like "Last Nite" - still their pinnacle, when all is said and done - may never occur again, but I'm content with that. Die-hard old-school Strokes fans may have problems though.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

2005: almost done

Not that anyone ever agrees about which albums from each year have to be heard - there's certainly no fixed list of stuff you have to hear to be familiar with the year, unlike annual cineaste requirements, which are fairly clear - but, since the internet music geek group I belong to is having its top 10 awards and voting this weekend, I'll be quitting on 2005 soon. There's some fairly interesting stuff I have sitting around - Andrew Bird, Silent Alarm Remixed, The Russian Futurists - but whatever I haven't listened to by the end of January will probably fall by the wayside. Changes are coming to this blog - mostly because I'm bored with current music - but I'll figure them out in a bit. In a meanwhile, more 2005:

Matias Aguayo, Are You Really Lost - I'm just barely familiar with the work of the Kompakt label, but I find it almost comically intimidating, the kind of experts-only electronica that all sounds the same to me. I do like this guy though, because he sounds more sinuous than most: "De Papel" sounds downright seductive, even though the lyrics are gibberish (as with the whole album). The sounds are familiar ones - configurations of drum beats and loops and snare hisses and looped mouth sounds and so on and so on - expertly reworked in rhythmic configurations that keep changing in 4-measure cycles and toy with minimal resources to force you to listen closely. My favorite track is "So In Love," which jacks Angelo Badalementi's keyboards from Twin Peaks and is plausibly, if vaguely, menacing in the same way. A reminder (again!) that I really should listen to more electronica.

Jamie Lidell, Multiply - imagine Midnite Vultures with no sense of humor, or Prince without his irrepresible horniness and bizarre personality quirks, and you'll start to get the idea. This is straightforward, humorless soul crooner stuff - worked over with a wide variety of electronics, sounding like a less dated version of Prince's 80 production techniques - and it has "soul" and "authenticity" to spare. The stunt, of course, is that Lidell is a white electronica geek doing a flawless imitation, but it's a boring one, and I can't even begin to imagine why I should care. I fail to see why critics went apeshit for it, aside from that it played to their common jones for "real" soulful music, with a sheen of electronic innovation that made it seem noteworthy. As Blonde Redhead reminded us, fake can be just as good as real, and in this case it would've been preferred.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

catch-up: Sufjan/M. Ward

Sufjan Stevens, Come On, Feel The Illinoise - I didn't jump on Sufjan's bandwagon immediately; 2003's Michigan struck me as inordinately depressing and obscenely long, a killer combination. Where others heard exquisite sensitivity and a literary feel for lyrics, I could only hear the endless droning of depressed pianos and banjos picking their way into oblivion. It made sense, given the state's weather, but I couldn't handle it, cutting the thing into a third of its length for the iPod. Then I sat around and bitched about how the indie vanguard had left me behind.

Illinois is a vast improvement, although Stevens is still kind of monotonous if you're not sympathetically inclined. He doesn't do his own drums (one of the few instruments he doesn't play), but he's apparently only calling for a few different drum patterns: any upbeat song is likely to get the same rolling-tom pattern as the others, which is kind of annoying. But Illinois offers a greater palate of emotional ambiguity than Michigan, which was practically bipolar. Aside from the hysterical "John Wayne Gacy Jr." (a song I don't much care for, but which does uncork Sufjan's falsetto to pleasing effect), the songs don't ping back and forth between celebration and suicidal tendencies. E.g., after two short opening tracks, Sufjan plunges into the 6:45 of "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!," a song as excited about such arcane opportunities as an exposition to showcase the city and The Future as it is nervous about the applications. So it goes, a constant tension between optimism and reckoning which keeps things steady.

Stevens has done frightening amounts of research, pulling out references even I can't suss out; he's up there with Stephin Merritt vying for the title of Most Literate Indie Rocker. He also has broadened his arrangements a bit, even finding room for the occasional electric, amplified voice (even a guitar - with distortion crunch! - on "The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts") in songs that could otherwise be performed live and would already be unplugged. My favorite bit of homage is perhaps the least literate: "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!" etc. adheres strictly to the rules and logic of a zombie film. "I know my time has come," sings Sufjan, "I'm not so young, I'm not so strong." Exactly right. That song, incidentally, sounds like the lo-fi approximation of a 70s soul recording - sweeping strings, back-up chorus, swinging drums - to go along with Sufjan's much-noted interest in drones, loops, et al.

It's much easier to jump on the Stevens initiative - "Say Yes! To Sufjan!" as his more unimaginative groupies paraphrase one of his songs - now that the songs are more universally sunny and balanced. I do wish it wasn't 75 minutes long - the world could certainly do without "A Conjunction Of Drones," for example, although then Sufjan might lose cred for ditching his higher-ground influences - and that Dave Eggers hadn't written the obscenely long song titles (I still don't know what the songs are called, technically), but I'll gladly wade through the excess now that it's not so dark. Homeboy still needs to diversify, though...Texas better not sound like this, is all I'm saying.

M. Ward, Transistor Radio - like Sufjan, Ward traffics frequently in lyrical arcana, though seemingly it comes naturally to him, without any research. His is an Americana that doesn't cloy or naggingly insist on "authenticity" as a token of quality: in other words, it's devoid of annoying extra-musical connotations of worth frequently brought to their music of choice by country/roots fans. Transistor Radio sounds like World War II love songs broadcast through a time-traveling AM station in the middle of the night. The language of the past flows effortlessly from Ward, as when he refers to "Sweethearts On Parade," practically making you salivate for an Esther Williams musical (his smoky, somewhat jazzy vocals help too). Ward's sharp-eyed blend of the past and present throws in Beach Boys covers and electric guitars as needed, but it's all one entrancing unit. It's a perfect companion to the (far messier, less coherent) All Night Radio album Spirit Stereo Frequency, which did the same thing for druggy 60s psychadelia. I like this album a lot, at least in part because it taps into a past which I'm just as home in as Ward, but it takes the musical language beyond nostalgia.