Monday, March 12, 2007

it is still 2006, apparently

Um, yeah. So it's already the MIDDLE OF MARCH and I'm still wrapping up the '06 capsules. I'll try to dispatch these speedily - I'm on Spring Break and not doing much, so it's not that hard - so I can get back to being behind on '07 releases.

The Whitest Boy Alive, Dreams - Respectable but monotonous, The Whitest Boy Alive would easily fit into that series of Domino post-punk re-issues (Orange Juice, The Fire Engines, Josef K, etc.); it's all fluid basslines, a single guitar that has to lay down both the hook and the choppy rhythms in-between, and precise, unwavering drums. "Patience is just another word for getting old," "Fireworks" blandly announces, suggesting that this album might snarkily get somewhere if it wasn't so boring. But it is, and I barely remember what it sounds like at this point. It would probably make good music for an American Apparel store.

Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis - When I get old and (maybe) have kids and can no longer afford to be angry and righteous all the time, I want Jarvis to teach the hypothetical kids in third-grade or so. "Running The World" - first a MySpace single, now the hidden track capping off this solo debut - minces no words. Like Billy Wilder in song, Jarvis has the lack for heavy-handed satire that hits its target rather than seeming overbearing. For anyone who's ever felt that the world, by and large, is run by people who don't have our best interests at heart, Jarvis sums it up: "Cunts are still running the world." The song is anthemic like "Common People" and even more inspring. Still, Jarvis needs bandmates: the album proper is a mixed bag, with acerbic lyrics often weighed down by unremarkable arrangements and lackluster hooks. 2 big exceptions: penultimate song "Big Julie," whose string arrangement adds weight to the possibly sociopathic title character, and "Heavy Weather." Oddly, it's the least characteristic thing on here: the lyrics could charitably be described as indebted to "Bad Moon Rising" and all those other stormy weather = metaphorical trouble songs, but it's got a tense verse that leads to an explosive chorus. Other tracks are better in theory than execution - "Black Magic" samples "Crimson And Clover" but the bombastic hook gets old fast, "Fat Children" is a better title than song, etc.

The Concretes, In Colour - This is a pretty mediocre record, full of meticulously produced filler in generic pop sub-genres: languid pseudo-country with fiddle ("Change In The Weather"), slow, comparatively sparse boy-girl duet ("Your Call"), etc. All are executed with varying degrees of drab, uninspiring competence. It's the kind of formalist pop that gives the genre a bad name. Naturally, there's a pair of excellent songs conveniently bookending the disk: "On The Radio," a sort of less-complicated latter-day melancholy Cardigans pop gem, and "Song For The Songs," which brings out a whole marching band and sounds bracing and uplifting rather than cheesy. Too bad bands this small don't get greatest-hits collections.

Herbert, Scale - First song "Something Isn't Right" is a killer - surprising chord changes, lush strings, Scissor Sisters percussion that's not campy, a husky female vocalist, a surprising outro that kicks in just when you think the song has blown its load. For a moment, it seems like collaborating with Roisin Murphy has rubbed off on Herbert, or maybe it's more like Basement Jaxx on tranquilizers. Things get boring fast though: "The Movers And The Shakers" begins with a blast of Herbert's patented sampled noises (a Coke can being opened, slurping, etc.) and a monotonous saxophone-enabled groove that seems to smother the life out of the music. It's not that the musicianship is off, but that Herbert's cleverness starts to seem like a defect. I'm hardly a proponent of self-consciously dumb, "raw" music, but by the time syrupy "We're In Love" kicks in, you're listening to what's basically a high-toned Whitney Houston ballad bathed in enough strings to power 5 Al Green albums. Something isn't right indeed.

Portastatic, Be Still Please - Business as usual for Portastatic, at least as I can tell (I just got aboard with 2005's Bright Ideas): another songs of well-performed songs that don't always add up. Like a lot of bands that prioritize lyrics over hooks, not everything always clicks: opener "Sour Shores" has a killer chorus but no real verse to speak of, and I can't remember what "Black Buttons" sounds like no matter how many times I play it, tasteful woodwind arrangement or not. The flip side of clever little bands like this that don't always seem to know their own strength is they do i nevitably connect: here, it's the uncharacteristically upbeat "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)" and the characteristically dour "You Blanks": those blanks are actually "fuckers," as in: "All my songs used to end the same way, 'Everything's gonna be ok'/You fuckers made that impossible to say." It's a perfectly calibrated blast of misanthropy in tun with the predecessor's "Through With People." (Are the demands of running a record label getting to Mac, or was Superchunk always this grumpy too?)

TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain - Obviously a massive step up from their humorless, kind of monotonous full-length debut, Return To Cookie Mountain is bigger in every way: Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes opened with simple saxes, throbbing bass line, some vocals, and a hi-hat, and stuck to it for the whole first song, seemingly scared of the prospect of harmony. In its first 20 seconds, "I Was A Lover" piles on enough sampled brass, guitars and drum machines to keep Beck fueled for half an album. It's a constantly varied album that never gets too bogged down in the intricacies of its production (which sounds like nothing else out there) to bring the drums and overblown vocals. It's too long by far, an excess of ideas that makes me listen to it less than I should, but thoroughly enjoyable whenever I do actually make the effort. Highlights are definitely the soaring "Province" (with a mixed-down but crucial David Bowie backing vocal that uses his distinctive timbre to give the song a harmony it couldn't possibly possess otherwise, as opposed to merely showboating a famous fan) and "A Method," a sort of revisitation of TV On The Radio's big gimmick, the a capella track, here wisely integrating percussion and thus transcending the merely conceptually interesting. Awesome whistle hook too.

Joanna Newsom, Ys - Didn't actually hate this much as I expected to, which I guess is saying something: I turned off the shrill-voiced, nigh-unlistenable The Milk-Eyed Mender in horror after 30 seconds, but fortunately Ms. Newsom has learned to keep her vocals in the range of recognizably human utterances this time round. Nice, counterpoint-ish string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks tend to be hookier than the songs themselves, which, according to Ms. Newsom's fans, is beyond the point: these aren't pop songs, they're long-form pieces that defy genre and create their own world. There's also a retarded Pitchfork article claiming that Newsom "brings the poise and splendor of classical music" to the indie world. Bullshit: Newsom might write songs that are, basically, warped 10-minute lieder (a la Mahler, Schubert etc.), but that's a 19th-century anachronism that has nothing to do with contemporary ideas (sterile as they are) floating around in the contemporary classical music academy. More to the point, they don't work: it's intricate harp-work only a fetishist of that instrument could love + strings + endless allegorical lyrics. The latter are the crux: either you think a nearly 10-minute song called "Monkey & Bear," about the abusive relationship between the two, is better than a straightforward relationship song because it has "poetic" lines like "Your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture," or you think life is too short. I'm in the latter; I've never been the most adventurous pop music fan, so I'll let it go at that. The overwhelming fanboy jizzing is getting really annoying though.


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