Thursday, February 25, 2010

Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

Here's a brief roundup of snap judgments and potential overstatements.

Radio On The TV: Say what you will about The Who's performance during Superbowl XLIV - I say it was a damn sight more musical and vital than anything on the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. I leaned on the fast-forward button so hard through that travesty that I practically broke the remote. I felt so disconnected from what was going on during the show that it felt like I was viewing an alternate reality. Jeff Beck's homage to Les Paul was a treat, but where did he fit in? When a giant of music like Leonard Cohen is dismissed with a quick sentence, you can be sure it is not a reality I want to be a part of. 

The person who seemed to enjoy it the most was Beyonce, cheering and grinning from her front seat. Considering that what is really being rewarded at the Grammy's is salesmanship rather than musicianship, this is not surprising. That there were 35% more viewers this year than last was a bit surprising, however. Maybe they were tuning in for the Michael Jackson tribute, which featured a song some have called egregious but that I actually think is great.

As for The Who, or the Two, or whatever you want to call them, I have definitely heard them sound worse. While I hated the medley-like aspects of the set list and would like to see another bass player take the place of polite Pino Palladino, I enjoyed the rough and ready passion displayed by Roger and Pete. Considering that there might not be very many U.S. stadium shows left for the quadropheniacs, it seemed a fitting swan song.

Snap Judgments: I listen to lots of podcasts, read magazines, follow tweets, etc., in an effort to keep up. Of course it's overwhelming but what tends to happen is that through repeated exposure, certain names rise to the top and I am driven to seek out the actual sounds under discussion. Sometimes the result is simply: "Why?" For example, lots of talk about Midlake and their new album, The Courage Of Others (**). Four stars and lead review in Mojo, etc. I went to trusty Lala and listened to a previous album - wait, didn't we already have Fleetwood Mac? Then the new one. As one dreary song followed another, I renamed the band Middling. Like Fleet Foxes without the unearthly harmonies or iron-clad songwriting. Next!

And what of indie landfill like Beach House (**)? Why the excitement? If you think your little brother or sister will have their lives changed by finding this on your computer in 5 years, please let me know.

Then there is Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM (**)- stories everywhere, all about her scandalous parents, her accident, her outre performance in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, her collaboration with Beck, the rhythm track created from an MRI recording. I was psyched! The title track (****), with it's MRI groove, was fascinating. Unfortunately, after a few more songs, I realized she can't really sing. It's just a breathy near-monotone on every song. She gets a lot of credit for her past and personality - if she and Beck had released just IRM as a single, it would have gone down as a classic one-off. Too bad they felt obligated to make a whole album. 

Same goes for Sade . When you go away for 10 years, expectations grow high. I have liked some of her stuff in the past, so I gave Soldier Of Love (**) a shot. Again - what a title track (*****). Best thing she's ever done, all jabbing strings and guitars set to a quasi-military beat, voice in fine form. Bring on the remix EP! As for the rest of the album, if I could remember any of it, I would let you know what it sounded like.

Speaking of icons on hiatus, I couldn't resist pre-ordering Heligoland (****1/2), Massive Attack's latest after a seven year absence. Even though 100th Window was a little ascetic, they're a very important group for me so I made the investment. This is beyond a return to form - it is a complete and intense work of art. My mental soundtrack is completely overtaken with fragments of these stunning songs. They have moved into a realm some distance from their earlier work, to a place that makes them neighbors with Scary Monsters and Remain In Light. This is art rock, even art songs, for the 21st Century. As brilliant as the original songs are, they have outdone themselves by curating a mind blowing set of remixes, included with the deluxe edition for a couple bucks extra. Not the time to be stingy, people. I would go on, but sample for yourself. Start with the the paranoid landscape they create out of the old reggae classic, Girl I Love You. For good measure, compare it to the source material and check out the remix  for the full experience. Horace Andy sings thrillingly on all versions and the haunting melody will stick with you, yes, forever. While it may lack some of the umami of Blue LInes (****), Protection (*****) and Mezzanine (*****), Heligoland is still a major statement from the newly reinvigorated group.

Some critics, bloggers, podcasters, etc., may rate these records in a way entirely opposite from the way I have. They're welcome to create their own reality. I just don't live there.

In two weeks: Mysteries of The Agora

Friday, February 05, 2010

Record Review: Spoon | Transference

Spoon | Transference (Merge, 2010): I'm not hip enough to have followed Britt Daniel's band from the beginning. Like many others, I discovered the band through I Turn My Camera On, which was featured in a commercial in 2005. Intrigued by the clever insouciance of the song, I had to know who it was, found out, bought Gimme Fiction (****1/2) and fell in love. I fell in love with their fresh take on song craft, Britt's versatile voice and that certain swagger. 

Then I was told that it was their fourth album and that die-hard fans were not certain it ranked with their best. So I worked my way backwards, discovering the wonders of Kill The Moonlight (*****), Girls Can Tell (*****) and A Series of Sneaks (****). There were even a few gems  on the Telephono/Soft Effects (***) reissue. By the time Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (***1/2) came out, I could be found singing along to Utilitarian at the top of my lungs when the band headlined Roseland.

So now we get to Transference, their first self-produced album in several years. In many ways, it is a return to the more abstract sounds of Kill The Moonlight and Girls Can Tell - and to the more heartfelt lyrics Britt was singing in those days. It's telling that several songs start with Jim Eno's drums, hearkening back to the emotional breakthrough of songs like Change My Life and Chips and Dip from the Love Ways (****) EP, where the drums speak nearly as eloquently as Ringo's work on John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. 

But in no way is this a step backward. The band has absorbed much from it's time in the studio with Mike McCarthy and Jon Brion and has synthesized those lessons into record-making that is both simple and sophisticated. The use of echo on Is Love For Ever?, the way the guitars jump out in a 3D overlay on I Saw The Light, or the amphetamine rush of pianos on Nobody Gets Me But You - these and other canny touches create a sound world that is stripped down but richly compelling. The minimalist approach never grows arid, as it did on their disappointing contribution to Dark Was The Night (they should have covered this similarly titled song).

Not surprisingly for a band named after a Can song, more than a couple of the songs ride on a hypnotic beat that is a more relaxed version of the familiar Krautrock motorik rhythm (used so effectively by Wilco on last year's Bull Black Nova and on the earlier Spiders (Kidsmoke)). This even shades into an echo of Joy Division on the wonderfully melancholy outro of Out Go The Lights. The blast of slashing guitars on Written In Reverse and the garage-pop of Trouble Comes Running keep things dynamic.

Britt is in great voice throughout, using his whole range over the course of the album. His scream on Written In Reverse replicates the buzzsaw guitar that opens Revolution and must be heard to be believed. He even finds the confidence to deliver a straightforward lullaby on Goodnight Laura, which will no doubt be the cause of much swooning if they play it on tour. Other songs are more oblique lyrically but still resonate. For example, Trouble Comes Running opens with classic Daniel: "I was in a functional way/And I have my brown sound jacket/Queen of call collect on my arm/She was my calm-me-down/She was my good-luck charm." The overall impression is that Britt's been on a rocky romantic road and has come to bring the pain.

On Chips and Dip, Britt sang "sometimes I can't make myself shuck and jive." There was a little shucking and jiving on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga but on on Transference we get Spoon without compromise. Though they never really left, it feels like they're back. Give it a listen and let me know what you think - the band is streaming the whole thing here. *****

A Note About Record Reviews: There is no substitute for hearing music. You can read all you want but the proof of the pudding is always in the tasting. So I encourage anyone reading my reviews - even the negative ones - to check out a track or two at Lala, or at least a 30 second sample at iTunes, Amazon or eMusic, and make up your own mind. I want everyone to find their own joy through music and I would hate to throw any obstacles in your way. That said, I will use my reviews to give my opinion about the record in question, and to provide context for why I feel that way.

A Note About Ratings: I am ambivalent about ratings. With any rating system, you have to ask, "Compared to what?" For example, let's say we take it as a given that Live At The Apollo, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Hot Buttered Soul, Dark Side of The Moon, Physical Grafitti, Aja, Exodus, Off The Wall, Entertainment!, London Calling, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Nevermind are all five-star albums. Does that mean that if I give Transference five stars that it is as good as those records? Or does it simply mean that it ranks with Spoon's best work and that of their peers on the contemporary scene?  The conundrum makes me want to scrap the whole idea of ratings. However, I see the usefulness of using ratings to compare different reviews and as a sorting principle. There is also the fact that only the passage of time can make something an enduring classic. So I am going to use a five-star system (half stars allowed) and apply it mainly in the context of the work of the artist and their contemporaries. I would like to think I can tell when something is a life-changing musical experience, like those on the list above, and will give the review extra oomph in those cases.

In two weeks:  Some snap judgments of other new releases.