Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cheap Shots

Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes

The first thing I'd say about the sophomore Fleet Foxes album is that it's gorgeous, and it is. Astonishingly so. But I don't like it when that's the first thing I'd say about an album. They have a beautiful, refined folk sound all their own, and their writing is good. But when you apply that breathtaking vocal sheen to everything on an album, it bleeds together. I had the same problem with their debut, but at least I catch myself humming bits of it every now and then. When what I remember best is the acid-jazz sax freak out in the middle of a ten minute song towards the end of the album, it serves to remind that walking away thinking "God, that was gorgeous" doesn't mean I'll be walking back again any time soon.

Gloss Drop

Math rock doesn't even sound inviting. I rarely go for it. But, with Battles, I have a history. I bought 2007's Mirrored during a brief phase where I was trying to like weird music. This was the same time frame in which I purchased my first Wilco album, and Brian Wilson's Smile. It was an awkward time. I picked up Gloss Drop much as I still pick up a new Wilco album. Like it or not, I feel I owe it to my younger self. Gloss Drop is, as one would expect, a technically impressive album. It has moments that are really enjoyable, but it is mostly music for the sake of music. For me or not (it's not), there's nothing wrong with that. Still, what I ask is clearly not impossible. Gloss Drop made me go back and listen to Mirrored again, and I tell you what, that is an impressive and enjoyable album.

House of Balloons
The Weeknd

In this day and age, is there a difference between a mix tape, an EP, and an LP? Debatable. This is technically the first, though it could easily be any of them. It's long enough. And it's good enough. Imagine if early-period Portishead were just slightly more ethereal, frequently used the word "shawty", and sang about doing lots and lots of cocaine. Not as much of a stretch as you'd think. And, like Portishead, The Weeknd never give you the high. Just the aftermath.

I learned about them from Pitchfork, which right away tells me I should be suspicious. But, honestly, I really like the cover. And I appreciate what they're doing here. A throwback, writing simple and infectious songs about relationships. I'll give them time. It will either be their proving or their undoing. Even on the less-impressive tracks, there is a youthful hum and vigor here, particularly on opener "Abducted" and closer "Rave On," which is, lets be honest, what pop is all about. But I'm not so sure there's anything else, and you can't live off of hum and vigor forever.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Something in the Water

It seems to have all started with ABBA.
The first indications of the genetic mutation which predisposes the Swedes to being absolutely brilliant pop songwriters could be seen in the stream of albums released by Anni-Frid, Björn, Benny, and Agnetha during the 1970's. Nobody else could write songs as cunningly catchy as "Waterloo" or, lest we forget, "Dancing Queen". After they broke up in 1982, the mutation went dormant for about 15 years, but they were clearly an indicator of what was to come. Think of them as the Magneto or Charles Xavier of the Swedes.

The new class started to make themselves known with the Boy Band craze at the close of the last millennium. I could have said century, but Max Martin, the Swedish Svengali responsible for a remarkable array of hits ("...Baby One More Time", "It's My Life," "Since U Been Gone," "Raise Your Glass", and "I Kissed a Girl" are but a meager portion of his contributions to radio's Top 40 over the last 15 years), wrote half of the songs on Backstreet Boys' Millennium, one of the more successful albums of all time. I'm aware of Martin's contributions to pop music, and I'm still stunned every time I read his curriculum vitae.

One of Martin's first successes was in 1997 with, naturally, a fellow Swede, pop siren Robyn. Their powers combined to give the world "Show Me Love," which remains one of the better singles of the era. After a weak second album, Robyn took some time and returned five years later firmly in control of her own career. Working primarily with Swedish writer Klas Åhlund, the self-titled album she released remained an unequaled piece of art-pop perfection until her own series of Body Talk albums came out last year. It seems that the only person in Robyn's league at the moment is Robyn herself.

Martin is unapologetically commercial, and there's nothing wrong with that. ("It's Gonna Be Me" by 'N Sync just popped up on shuffle. It's Martin.) Robyn is beating out her own path, making music that should, by all rights, be hugely successful, but manages to stay just below the radar. Commercial viability aside, they are both clearly touched by the same blessed mutation as the mighty ABBA.

With her new album, Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li makes a serious argument for being granted membership into this formidable and exclusive assemblage. While her first album, Youth Novels, was very good, and very catchy, it lacked the clear display of ambition necessary to gain full rights. If she wanted to bring any guests in to use the pool, Robyn, Max, or Klas would have to sponsor them. Wounded Rhymes is a different beast entirely. Where Youth Novels had a delicate, almost mock-low-fi aesthetic, Wounded Rhymes is a pop leviathan. It is loaded with dense, elephantine beats, perfectly conveyed by opener "Youth Knows No Pain" and standout "Get Some." Tucked in between the rumblers, the are gentle songs such as "Unrequited Love," a song in 6/8 which is played with appeasing lack of precision and cast Lykke as a girl at the corner of the bar, bemoaning her misfortune. The title is derived from the lyrics of "Sadness Is a Blessing," a sublime Phil Spector pastiche. It is loaded with unique electro-pop touches, some tucked way in the back of the mix. It is ear candy with a serious brain. It may be my favorite album to come out so far this year. Whether or not it holds that distinction until the end of the year, it makes me grateful for whatever those Swedes have been putting in the water.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

You & I

One of the distinctions between an art and a science is that an art cannot always be explained.

For example, "Why do baking soda and vinegar volcanos work?" can be met with "The acetic acid in the vinegar engages the sodium bicarbonate in the baking soda in a double replacement reaction, and what little baking soda isn't broken down overflows as the produced carbon dioxide expands within the confines of the volcano." But ask me why those final, mighty chords in Beethoven's Fifth always send chills down my spine, and you'll likely get no more than a shrug.

This is, of course, one of the appeals of the arts. Munch's The Scream is a strangely captivating painting, and you can't really, for all the art history and composition and color theory classes in the world, tell me why. You can explain the parts forever, but they will never equal the whole.

Yesterday, for example, I spent about fifteen or twenty minutes listening to The La's' "There She Goes?" over and over again. It is a good song: The lyrics are generally about love without being inane (the pop equivalent of being an instrumental, really), Lee Mavers' voice has a nice combination of the sweet and the gritty (It occurred to me yesterday that I would love to hear Spoon take a crack at this song, actually), and all the guitar parts are hypnotically simple. But I can name about 1,000 other songs with the same qualities. So what is it that makes this one song so compelling? You can't tell me, and I can't tell you. It is the simple magic of the pop song.

This is what we are accustomed to with music. We cannot explain what separates the very good from the transcendental. Same goes for individual lyrics. It's been well over a year since I heard "Conversation 16" by The National for the first time, and I'm still reeling from "I tell you miserable things after you are asleep." This is a poor example, because that lyric is so brilliant in how it encapsulated the situation that it speaks for itself. So how about this: In the Robyn song "Get Myself Together," she drops the line "I can't tell what's right or wrong, and I wish that something could be done, but I'm not that clever." Every time she sings "I'm not that clever," I can feel it in my heart. And I have no idea why. Again, though, this is within a good song.

I'm significantly more interested in when this happens with music we may not normally give much credence. On "You & I", the otherwise unremarkable new album by The Pierces (a conventionally attractive sister duo who somehow managed to become friends with the bassist for Coldplay), there is one song, "We Are Stars," that seems touched by this magic. "I could think of nothing worse than to sail this universe without you," either the blonde one or the Burnett one opines. And I find it genuinely moving. In the middle of a soppy song in the middle of a soppy record. Yet I keep returning, time and time again, to experience that moment. If only they could figure out how to make that magic last the length of a song, or even an album.

But, of course, if they do that, they'll have found the pop equivalent of the Holy Grail.

Location:Boston, MA

Monday, June 13, 2011

Suck It and See

Suck It and See
The Arctic Monkeys

I think T'Arctic Monkeys have been, as David Brent would say, having a laugh. With each of their three albums, the modern Saviors of British Rock have gotten heavier, and, to their peril, more serious. The dangers of a rock band taking itself seriously are myriad, and history is littered with Be Here Nows to serve warning.

Humbug showed them disappearing up their own asses. And I think they've figured that out since then. The first single off of Suck It and See, "Brick by Brick," followed where they left off, and the second single, "Don't Sit Down, Cos I've Moved Your Chair," said what I'd feared: Their desire to become the British Queens of the Stone Age had over-run all common sense. And they'd all grown beards. None of this boded well.

And then there's that title. Suck It and See. Stay classy, boys.

So imagine my surprise when I listened, and it ended up being an album of mostly melancholic guitar pop. A pleasant surprise if ever there was one.

It isn't a great album. Turner's lyrics are maturing well, but as far as the music goes, nothing much more than "competent" comes to mind. I've listened to it three times, and I can't hum a bar of anything. But that's not the point here. In an age where the release of an album no longer means anything, The Arctic Monkeys made me nervous, and they made me wonder. And don't think they don't know it.

I found out the other day that "suck it and see" is slang for giving it a try. Touché, T'Arctic Monkeys. Touché.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The CELTA Diaries, Pt. 2

There is a debate raging as to whether I am staying in Boston or Charlestown. It is ultimately of little consequence, because The Constitution Inn, where I am staying, is a fifteen or twenty minute stroll from The Garden, which is decidedly IN Boston.

My hotel is in a YMCA, and my room includes a kitchenette. It's a studio apartment, for all intents and purposes; it is simply two or three times as expensive, and comes with a maid service.

After I sorted out groceries and made lunch, I decided to take a walk over to Teaching House. To get to Faneuil Hall Marketplace, where Teaching House Boston is located, is about a thirty minute walk. Turns out, my classes will be held above a Godiva. I expect it to smell great, if nothing else.

Walking back, I took a slight detour and ended up near the Old North Church, which I haven't visited since I was five or six.

Paul Revere's statue is located in the church's backyard. I was more impressed by the back of his jersey, which says "Revere, 75". What I really want to know is if they'll give him a frowny face if the Bruins lose.

* * *

When I was finishing up my phone interview for CELTA, the woman interviewing me asked if I had friends in Boston. I said that I had a few. Her response was quick and alarmingly dry; "You should tell them you won't be seeing them much."

It is on the gossamer wings of these comforting words that I will go to class for the first tomorrow morning. Oddly enough, I look forward to it.

Location:Boston, MA

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The CELTA Diaries, Pt. 1

Today marks the beginning of the next chapter of my life. In a few hours- more than expected, as my connecting flight has been delayed- I will arrive in Boston to spend the next month taking the CELTA course, the completion of which will certify me to teach English in other countries.

It may be accurate to say this is the beginning of the next chapter, as it's really just another transitional period, but at least this one isn't killing time like working at Disney was. If the course isn't a new chapter all on it's own, leaving for CELTA will constitute the end of this chapter and my return shall be the beginning of the next. Much like Before Christ immediately turns into After Death, I'll let you work out when the course actually takes place in this metaphor.

* * *

I am taking the CELTA course as a direct reaction to my unsuccessful JET application. In brief, the JET program hires people from all over the world to come to Japan and teach English for anywhere from one to five years. I applied back in October, but I did not get an interview. As it turns out, they were looking for people with experience and knowledge, not just unadulterated, and arguably blind, enthusiasm. Go figure.

That I can recall, this is the first time I've failed in something and then made subsequent steps to fix it so I wouldn't fail the next time. Certainly for anything on this scale. And this is the first time I've wanted to fix it. This is the first time I've wanted something enough to put in the effort. "Surely," I tell myself, as I head off into a month of relative social isolation and fiscal destitution, "surely that is a comforting thought? Surely that means we are on the right path?"

It remains for you and I to find out. But I'd say so.

Location:Philadelphia, PA

Monday, June 6, 2011

This Is Country Music

This Is Country Music
Brad Paisley

Bob and I used to debate the merits of contemporary country music. Most of these conversations escape my memory, but there was one time when I brought out my two major sticking points: The lack of breadth in subject matter, which relates directly to my biggest problem, the vaguely patronizing way with which the genre seems to treat its audience. In response, he nodded sagely and said, "Simple stories about life."

Now, whether you agree with him or me, this is still my problem with country as it stands today. Bob looks at country music as presenting the audience with what they want, simple stories put into song. I feel like the genre is constantly insulting its own audience by practically refusing to talk about social issues or complex stories. The world isn't always a happy place in country music, but it's always cut and dry. The envelope containing the accepted subject matter in country is very narrow.

For about a decade now, Brad Paisley has been finding very clever and very subtle ways to push that envelope. Most of his songs concern the normal fare; "I love my wife", "Weren't we stupid when we were young?", "Fishing and hunting while drinking beer is paradise on this Earth", etc. But his writing is so witty, it doesn't sound like he's pandering. He's not writing about these things because he knows it's what the audience wants: he's writing about them because he is, in many ways, a traditionalist, and they are the conventions of the genre he loves.

But every now and then, he lets out a song like "American Saturday Night," about multiculturalism in America. Not a big deal in most genres of music, but country is, both fairly and unfairly, thought of as the last bastion of racism and intolerance. So that was actually a pretty big deal. And that it was a hit made it even better. Most of the audience missed the point, yes, but that's not his fault.

So it's a little disappointing for me when This Is Country Music, his newest album, opens with a title song that features everything I don't normally like about country. Take this verse as a prime example of what I'm talking about:

Are you haunted by the echo of your mother on the phone,
cryin' as she tells you that your brother is not coming home?
And if there's anyone that still has pride and the memory of those,
that died defending the old red, white, and blue,
this is country music, and we do.

Maybe it's just me. I don't like it when music panders that blatantly. And I expect Paisley to be better about this kind of thing. It's as though he feels he may have over-played his hand on American Saturday Night, and so he's here to make amends.

The biggest complaint about This Is Country Music is that it's too long. If Paisley had cut it back from 65 minutes to 35 or 40, it would be an absolute slam-dunk. As it is, songs like "Be the Lake" and "One of Those Lives" are accomplished and entertaining enough, but they never amount to more than filler. And while country music is all about giving the people what they want, which is usually more, Paisley is smart enough to know better. Still, a remarkable talent at what I can only assume to be the peak of his powers. It may not be a great album like his last one, but it's still damn good.