Monday, June 29, 2009

Q209 Update

Hello and good morning and tra-la-la, it’s that time again where all good businesses tell the board and their staff where the company has been over the past three months. Yes, that’s right, it’s nearly the end of the 2nd quarter 2009 (I KNOW!!!) and with that comes my report on all things new in my world of music.

There’ve been some exciting releases from my perspective and instead of going into a mild tirade of how much a breath of fresh air some of these titles are in a ding-dong-disappointing musical environment (and honestly, in recent months I’m opening my ears to sounds that heretofore I’d have brushed off), I’m just going to get straight to the rock.

We’ll start things off with the return of NY and indie rock’s longstanding darlings Sonic Youth, and their rather oddly titled The Eternal. (And maybe there is something behind that name that I’ve not garnered yet from the lyrics, but to me, for now, it just seems off, like some sort of cheesy 'best of' collection for a dead crooner.) One cool thing about this release is that they’ve left Geffen (DGC, whatever) and signed to Matador…which if there are “major” labels within indie rock, this is definitely one of them, and yet they’ve certainly earned their indie creds over the years by putting out everyone from The Fall to Superchunk, and since Sonic Youth lands somewhere in between there, this is a nice and obvious fit. What’s also a nice fit is this album amongst the pantheon of the good to great to amazing albums that Sonic Youth has put out over the past 25+ years. And, to step slightly back, having said it’s cool that the band is off Geffen, I’ve always been rather partial to their major label years. I recognize that albums like Sister and Daydream Nation are noisy classics, but are they necessarily their heyday? To me Sonic Youth is one of those skewed, off kilter, “this ain’t yer daddy’s rock n roll” outfits that have greatly benefitted from the presence of nice equipment and the time to really cultivate their sound in a studio environment. They never sold out or watered down on Geffen (who wisely gave them freedom to be themselves) and they always kept doing what they do; my point being that it’s nice to really hear all the various and layered nuances going on within the music, and not have it buried beneath a wall of “bad input connections” or “channel 4 on the board has a short in it” or “no time to clean up that bit” or whatever frustrations you run into using a lackluster studio with no time and less money. Sure, those “classic” albums are a swirling, chaotic barrage of raw-boned bliss, but let’s face it kids, Goo and Dirty are pushing 20 years old and frankly just as classic and vital as anything from the gritty SST, etc years. And what’s nice about the Eternal is that it sorta harkens back to those early major label days, when they were first trying their hand at really making some pop, yet not for accessibility’s sake but because of the sheer joy and love of the genre (let us not forget Kim and Thurston’s mid 80s obsession with Madonna). And while The Eternal is a really good Sonic Youth album, which is fantastic by the standards of most similar-veined nonsense that’s out there, it’s not really a great Sonic Youth album, nothing near Dirty but parallel to much of the better if not best of Goo. (Are you following me?) As MSP so aptly put it, it’s another slice of the same pizza, and it’s a really good pizza, but it’s still the same pizza (something like that). And really, what more would we expect from them? Folks enjoy these guys for what they do, and that includes when they make those unexpected change-ups, because the unexpected is always expected. And even when that doesn’t happen, it’s still a good thing. I guess the “unexpected” move here is the addition of Pavement bassist Mark Ibold…so, the bass playing is pretty groovy as opposed to, well, never mind (I love you, Kim!). Other than that, it’s everything you’d want from a Sonic Youth album…and if I really have to explain to you what that means, it basically means you won’t like it. However, if you’re in any way a Sonic Youth fan and haven’t picked up this album yet, what are you waiting for?

Random good tracks:
What We Know

And what segues best from Sonic Youth this quarter? Depeche Mode. Depeche Mode? You heard me, Mike. What these two very different groups have in common is that they’ve both been around for nearly 30 years putting out their own brand of (often mimicked, never duplicated or surpassed) uncompromising music that has stayed consistently enjoyable, even relevant, as the decades have mounted. Sounds of the Universe is another offering of moody electro pop, delivered as only Martin L. Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher could, sounding (as always) simultaneously familiar and yet completely original. It’s nice to see how this band has logically developed over the years, from Casio pop pretty boys in their early career, to the dark, cynical industrial clang of the mid 80s, to the rich, textured tones they developed and perfected on 120 Minutes-alternative classics like Music for the Masses and Violator (thanks in large part to the addition of guitars). They continued on this trend into the 90s and 00s with albums so increasingly earthy and warm in nature that you forget that they’re still very much a keyboard-oriented band (not that there’s anything wrong with that). A noticeable change, however, is that a lot of the acidic bitterness from their glossy youth is gone. This has been replaced by a wary world weariness (say that 5 times fast) that though perhaps not as angst-immediate catchy in the sense of sing-a-longs for disaffected youth, it’s layered for multi-listens, making it ultimately more appealing and enduring in its sense of mature observation, with the continuance that everything is still not right with “the world we live in and life in general.” And while Violator (which to me is the seamless connection between these two stages in their career) is their undisputed magnum opus, the three albums they’ve put out in the dawning of the 21st century (including this one) are in some ways better because the boys have grown comfortable with who and what they’ve decided to become in the music world and are focusing on producing songs and albums that a) appeal to their ever loyal fan base, but also b) push the envelope just a little bit further into the future. And “future” is the key word here, because Sounds of the Universe is full of off-world noises and blips, humming, swirling patterns of effects that while obviously mindful of early forays into sci-fi, are still very modern in their sound and approach. Heavy “treatments” truly enhance the otherworldliness of this album; the keyboards and drums and guitars are at times swathed in reverb and phasers, even the vocals are sometimes masked and buried in distortion, while other times compression-mutated and pushed to the front, almost dominating the music supporting them. But despite all these “new and fresh” sounds, there is still a lot to identify them as the same Depeche Mode they’ve always been and will continue to be. In some ways this album is almost a “best of” in timeless Depeche Mode sounds, with several songs possessing little runs and sequences that are immediately mindful of classic 80s counterparts. This is proof that dozens of singles, 13 albums, as many world tours and millions of monies later, Depeche Mode still remembers who they are and where they come from. And this points to what’s really great about this album: Martin and Dave (and Fletch) seem just as inspired and excited to be making music now as they did 10, 15 or 25 years ago. They’re not going through the motions, they’re not just putting out more of what the fans want to hear for an easy buck, they really, really enjoy making music and still have something they’d like to say. Well, say on! I’m looking forward to the next album already.

Random good tracks:
Hole to Feed

So now we’re going to totally switch gears here, and yet I bet this next artist is at least a mild or one-time fan of Depeche Mode. You guessed it, I’m talking about alt-country pretty boy Rhett Miller and his self-titled third album (fourth if you count his pre Old 97’s debut, Mythologies -- which I guess I should). Rhett has finally made the solo album I’ve always wanted him to…and I think he’d agree. When the news came out several years back about his first Old 97’s era solo album, I was pretty pumped. The deal was that he’d written a batch of songs that weren’t really suitable for the band’s sound, with noted influences ranging all over the musical spectrum from Bowie to X and not just sticking with Merle and Johnny. Unfortunately most of us fans were pretty much underwhelmed with The Instigator. Was it the songs? Was it the production? Was it the lack of his better backing band, especially Godsend harmonizing bassist Murry Hammond? Yes, all three, and yet, well, it just didn’t seem right, didn’t click. That album has grown on me over the years, but still leaves something to be desired. And so when 2006’s The Believer came out with it’s bombastic gloss and ready-for-radio crisp corners (I mean the album opens with like a string quartet or something…say what?), I was screaming, “No, no, no, Rhett!!!” To me it was a better set of songs that were flat out ruined by watering things down for breaking into a wider audience, which was confirmed upon seeing him live (and poorly attended) on the tour supporting this album. I don’t know why Rhett is counting so much on this solo career. I mean it’s fine to want to step away from your regular gig and do something a bit different, but why want it to overshadow what to me is absolutely the greatest band of its genre (not to mention just a crunkin’ fantastic band overall) and easily the best thing to ever come out of Texas? Look Rhett, you’re my boy and I love you, and heck, you’re the 2nd greatest songwriter of our generation…but I’m sorry, it just isn’t going to happen. Ok? I mean you’ve made your cameo on 30 Rock, now it’s time to just put out music for your rabidly loyal cult following and cool out. But hey, Rhett, all tough love aside…this new album is GREAT!!! Seriously, Rhett really lays it all out there in the best way, from rockers to ballads; the former touching the rock star grandness that he seemed to be reaching for on The Instigator and the latter showing a tender vulnerability (without the cheese) that we knew existed per previous outings with and without the Old 97’s, but never, ever this raw, deep or sensitive. Influences are more obvious from ELO to the Doors and everything in between and delivered with a confidence that makes the album ambitious without being indulgent. I sometimes want to jump up on stage with him and dance my fool head off, and I sometimes just want to stop him mid song to give him a big hug. Really, Rhett, I’m proud of you, I truly, truly love this album…so much so that I might even buy it again so I can love it twice as much.

Random good tracks:
Happy Birthday Don’t Die

While we’re on solo artists, let’s check in with our favorite Russian immigrant Regina Spektor and her (FINALLY here) follow up to 2006’s Begin to Hope…Far. This album is in every way a Regina album: quirky, funny and cuts you straight to the heart. Knowing a bit about her background and having seen her live, I have to think she’s pretty sincere with everything she’s singing about and truly has sympathy for the lonely, downtrodden and achingly realistic characters she tells us of, often because I feel they’re so often reflected facets of herself. But Regina also reminds us that there can be joy amidst sorrow, laugher amidst tears and something to feel good about even when the pain is so acute you can’t take another breath. And she expresses all of those emotions and more in that funny, flexible, fantastic voice, that squalls, squirms and squeals its way from a whisper to a scream -- sometimes complete with farty sounds. Oh, and you can sing along as well. If you’re a wide-eyed, thirteen-year-old girl hugging your pillow at night, head full of current hopes and future dreams, or a jaded, thirty-five-year-old man who has spent countless sleepless nights pondering why his hopes always fizzled and wondering what dreams are left, Regina has a little something here that will put a bit o’ music to your melancholy. And she continues to be a mindful writer, perhaps more so than ever, with excellent wordplay and poignant observations on love and life as brutally honest as they are playfully unique. She doesn’t pull punches, doesn’t scrub hands or faces, doesn’t skip over that dodgy bit, but instead gives it to you full force, the imagery carried by a melody strong enough to take you full in chest whether she’s sighing softly over a solitary piano or giving it her all with a full band. And having said all of this, Regina doesn’t cover much new ground, doesn’t do anything earth shattering that she hasn’t already done. And honestly that’s more than fine, ‘cos to me she’s reinvented the wheel enough. If you like her deal, this is simply more of the same. And Far has “sister” songs that can definitely be musically linked to tunes from previous albums, which is in no way samey or formulaic but actually quite endearing, as it makes this album immediate, familiar, like an old friend coming home. So, as with the previous albums I’ve mentioned here, Regina isn’t likely going to win over any naysayers to her camp, but this album could easily garner new fans who have yet to hear what she’s all about (or only heard Fidelity, the “big single” from Begin to Hope). But if you’ve not heard her or heard and shied away, I ask you to indulge me and give this album a listen. I think by the end you’ll be smiling through your tears.

Random good songs:
Laughing With
Dance Anthem of the 80s

We’re going to close things down here with an infamous and yet still relatively little known (outside “knowing” circles) band, The Horrors, and their sophomore, in NO WAY a slump offering, Primary Colours (note the Brit spelling). The Horrors’ debut, Strange House, was a fun record, big and dark and forbidding as it epitomized everything about goth/punk imaginable, ran it through a blender and spewed it out with a pint of bitters (even though that’s an old man’s drink and these kids are quite young). Seriously, Sheena is a Parasite is one minute and forty-three seconds of pure YIKES! And while most of the rest of the debut was never quite as immediate, it was nearly as unnerving and forbidding and highly entertaining. And to me it was a novelty that was worth listening to a few times -- but were these five lads (some with hair to challenge the skyscrapers of most any major city) and their stage antics and public atrocities, which seemed so kitsch and showy, really a force to be reckoned with? Well, yes. Just listen to Primary Colours…I dare you. It’s almost a different band…almost. There’s enough here to link them back to the dark soul wail of the debut, but the essence of this album, what makes it immediately timeless and breathtaking and so completely unexpected, is the keyboards, moving from the biting, spine tingling organs of Strange House, to fluid, seamless, gorgeous, drown-me-now washes of pure majesty over most of Primary Colours. I know two (of my like four) readers heartily agree with me, so I’m really just preaching to the choir…but for the rest of you, take heed, this album is just as much terrifying as its predecessor but for reasons so completely subtle and subdued and almost scheming, that these songs will seriously haunt your dreams. When I listen to it I’m like, “Really? Did this really come out in 2009 from a bunch of snotty nosed Brits?” Yes it did. These kids have done their homework, just as they did with their first effort, and brought together all the brilliance and beauty of New Wave, Shoegaze, New Romantic, Post Punk, etc, etc and meshed them all together into a thing of true wonder. And so I have to throw out a caveat here…if you’re not a fan of these genres, you’ll probably think I’m spouting idiocy, but if you are and you’ve been wondering where all the love went lo these past 25+ years (truly, before these guys were born), it was up in heaven waiting to be birthed and delivered here at your musical doorstep.

Random good songs:
I Only Think of You
Sea Within a Sea

There’ve been some other good releases the past three months, like A Camp’s second album Colonia, and Doves’ latest Kingdom of Rust, but I’ve not had the chance to give them much of a listen ‘cos for some reason I keep listening to that stupid Coldplay album from last year. Somebody come slug me!

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