Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's Hard to Say Goodbye

It has to happen, in the name of taste and in the name of time. Every few months, I have to clean out the review pile, and decide that I won't be writing reviews for certain things. I do, however, like to make note of them, as they are often fairly good. I do this also with albums that are outside my intellectual purview. I cannot appreciate them, and so I will not issue a verdict.

One Life Stand
Hot Chip
I just don't have a taste for these guys. In the five albums they've released, I've never gotten into them. I even listened to "Ready for the Floor," their Big Hit. They just don't hit the spot. One Life Stand proves no exception.

Soldier of Love
"Diamond Life" is nice. So is "By Your Side." Most of her recorded output is at the level of solid, and it all sells very, very well. But it usually doesn't do it for me either. There is a theme here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Looking Back

I love a record that holds up. Most of them don't. The brief fit of adoration I felt for Vampire Weekend's Contra, for example, has rapidly dwindled away into repeated frustrations at trying to replicate the initial experience. There is no heart, and so it is difficult to visit it again.

I'm listening to Lily Allen's excellent It's Not Me, It's You, from last year. Some of you may remember, the album came out of nowhere to be one of my favourites. I'd been a big fan of Alright, Still, Allen's 2006 debut, when it came out, but it deteriorated, and I can't get through an individual track to this day. So I'm thrilled to report that Allen's latest, which I've not listened to in months, is still a great, great accomplishment. The lyrics are smart and clever, the latter ever-present to fill in for when the former is in shorter supply, and the music is simply perfection. There are layers to the sound here which still reveal themselves, even now. And this is a record I know backwards and forwards, so that's quite a feat.

There isn't a point to this entry, really. I'm fascinated by the seemingly arbitrary differences that make one work thrilling upon launch, only to have it sink into the sea, and another become a lifetime's obsession. If I could figure out the points between the two, let me tell you...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

For We Are Living In a Digital World...

Plastic Beach

There are many things to expect from a Gorillaz album. I think, with two prior full-lengths and a pair of B-Side collections, Damon Albarn has established a decent set of parameters. This is a quietly experimental band, of course, but their sound is fairly well established. You know when you're listening to Gorillaz.

For example, we know to expect a fusion of hip-hop and pop. Plastic Beach delivers there with the superb "Superfast Jellyfish," featuring Demon Days highlights De La Soul. You'll remember them from "Feel Good, Inc." What we don't expect is an album lacking a "Feel Good, Inc." That is to say, Plastic Beach doesn't come ready made with a massive single. It has some great songs, many in fact, but it doesn't come with a song destined for the Top 40. This may not be a bad thing.

We've come to expect unusual collaborations. Bobby Womack, unheard from for the last twenty years, makes two rip-roaring appearances, on first single "Stylo" and on near closer "Cloud of Unknowing." What we don't expect is that Damon Albarn has given the vast majority of the spotlight here to those collaborators. He is heard on every track, at one point or another, but you don't get the feeling that this is his album, and some friends are stopping by. It feels like Gorillaz have finally become what I believe Albarn meant them to be all along; a consortium, the King Crimson of pop. (To quote Fripp, "King Crimson is not a band, it is a way of doing things.")

We can expect airtight compositions. It's a Damon Albarn project, and this is a foregone conclusion. If Blur's final offering, Think Tank, suffered one ailment, it was that the songs were hermetically sealed. There was no oxygen anywhere. This has been an ongoing issue for Albarn. In Blur, Coxon gave ragged, soulful life to the songs which Albarn so brilliantly constructed. There has never been any Coxon on Gorillaz albums (pause for *sigh*). Demon Days, for all its daring, suffers the same problems as Think Tank. Aesthetically speaking, Plastic Beach has the least organic sound of anything Albarn has released. It is an album delivered from the middle of the 1980s, with synthesizers everywhere.

But here's the most unexpected thing: This is, without a doubt, Albarn's most feeling album in over ten years. I'm extensively (re; obsessively) familiar with his entire, remarkable discography, and nothing comes close to feeling like Plastic Beach, save 13, my favourite Blur album. And then he had Coxon. The highlights on this album are numerous, but none hit me so hard as "On Melancholy Hill," where, according to Damon, "you can't get what you want, but you can get me." He's only made me cry once before, back in 2003, with "Battery in Your Leg," the final track on Blur's final record. Here, Albarn taps into that vein of melancholy and sweetness which seems to belong to him alone.

The album opens as one would want a Gorillaz album to; there is pop mixed in with hip-hop and world music. But then it does a few things differently. For the most part, the hip-hop disappears. The album builds to a powerful, remarkable set of six songs that constitute the body, from "Stylo" to "On Melancholy Hill." Both the previous Gorillaz albums,irrefutably excellent in their own right, were spotty. Here, there is only one mis-step, "Broken," the removal of which would make this, dare I say it, a perfectly sequenced album. And on the way, we get insight into the remarkable talents of Damon Albarn, which continue to flower in directions nobody could have ever possibly expected.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Open Letter

Dear Michael Giacchino,

Thank you. I saw you win the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Up on Sunday, and I have to say, it was beyond deserved. I'm listening to the score now, and I'm impressed most by its simplicity. I was already familiar with it. In less than a year, Up has become one of the 25 films I've seen most in my life. But I've never sat and listened to it before. The melodies are never too busy, never too crowded, never too clever. They are genuine, without ever faltering.

All the iconic film scores can stand on their own right while also bringing to mind the movie they support. All of my favourites do that, anyway. And yours is no exception. Ellie's Theme is so wonderful a thing, I've walked around for days with it stuck in my head, and loved every moment. It's gotten me through more than one shift of work, I can tell you that.

But what really hits me is the sadness. I listened to "Married Life" today, at my desk, quietly. And I was enraptured. When it came to the end of the section, and I knew what would be on screen, I could barely contain the emotions you stirred. Powerful experiences in music do not happen enough these days, Mr. Giacchino. Too often in this modern world we walk around without really feeling connected. I know I do. And I want to thank you for giving me one moment of undiluted feeling. I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life.

Andrew Lynch

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do you ever find yourself unsure if you're doing something with irony or not? I think a large part of my life is spent in that gray area. Songs like this are why.


Sound of Silver, Talk to Me

The new LCD Soundsystem album has sort of been announced, in the sense that we now know the names of the songs to appear on the album, and we know it will be out on 17 May. We don't know a title. Oh, and we also know it's 65 minutes long. This is going to be a big year for doubles, isn't it?

While I'm just as excited as the next girl for the release of their follow up to the masterful Sounds of Silver, I do have one note of disappointment. One of the many song titles thrown around for a period of time in association with the album was "Why Do You Hate Music?" The title does not appear on the finalised list of album tracks. With his gift for irony and acerbic anger, I would love to hear a James Murphy song called "Why Do You Hate Music?," and so would you. Whether you know it or not.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Field Music (Measure)

Field Music (Measure)
Field Music

I wonder sometimes, when I see that a new album exceeds the 45 minute mark, why artists want to give us this much music. I don't mind when it's a real album, with a good sense of sequencing and a larger-scale vision in regards to a pervading mood or a theme. But most new releases exceed 50 minutes, many reach past an hour, and this often seems to be only because the artist doesn't know the difference between a killer track and studio filler. The CD has freed us to put out anything we want to, whereas vinyl forced us to delineate between the tracks we wanted to and the tracks we needed to release.

Ironically, as the format of the album is dying, the album band seems to be making a comeback, and while the focus required to make a real album does not always dictate brevity, the two often come hand-in-hand. Witness Field Music, possibly the modern album band. Of the four Brewis Brothers' albums which predate Field Music (Measure), only one of them exceeds the forty minute mark. And that was The Week That Was, Peter Brewis' side project. Their best album, Tones of Town, flies by, clocking in at 31 minutes and change. There's no room for fat anywhere on that album. And now this band, this band which embodies my ideal of brevity in the name of perfection, has released Field Music (Measure), an old-school double album which times out to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70 minutes.

I say this is an 'old-school double album.' It's sequenced like one. I've listened to it on vinyl, and each side has its own feel. This is how albums, double or otherwise, are meant to be. It reminds me of XTC's brilliant English Settlement. The two bands bear comparing, even if, from a timbrel standpoint, they sound almost nothing alike. Field Music are cleaner, more refined. XTC are a little sloppier. The Brewis brothers each have smooth tenors, as opposed to Andy Partridge's rough-edged howl. XTC became more precise with age. The Brewis Brothers are starting to sound like Led Zeppelin.

What XTC and Field Music have in common is that both draw massive benefits from repeated listens. Forensic levels of detail, which reward the attentive ear, litter all of their collective releases. The intriguing difference here, I believe, is that while XTC were a pop band with artistic tendencies, Field Music are an art band with pop tendencies. That is to say, XTC become more impressive while retaining their enjoyability, and Field Music become more (read: immensely) enjoyable while retaining their impressiveness. The first time through Field Music (Measure) was too much for me. There was too much to digest intellectually for it to hit my gut. The second time flew right by.

For those unfamiliar with Field Music, we have here precise, weird, blindingly brilliant pop music. It's all a bit angular, and it's not very loose, but the melodies throughout are top-notch, and the music rides an impressive sense of groove. Any band that can make 11/8 work without you noticing is riding a great groove. "Let's Write a Book" has an amazing riff at its core. "In the Mirror" opens the album with a dark, foreboding guitar line. I like it for personal reasons. Are there flaws? Certainly. The third side isn't as engaging as the rest, and the closer, "It's About Time," standing on its own, is indulgent. But within the context of the album, which is, mind you, what this is, everything has found its proper place, and the relaxed strings and score-like dashes of piano serve as a come down from what you've just experienced. Is it for everyone? Of course it's not. None of the best stuff is. But it's amazing, what you can do with 70 minutes, when you have a need, and not a want, to fill it.