Sunday, December 14, 2008


i never much cared for secret machines, so let's just say that benjamin curtis, now of school of seven bells, used to play with that (reasonably successful) band, but left to work on this project. musically, it's pretty clear he made the right choice.

as i said previously, 2008 has been an amazing year of music for me, mainly due to a newfound love of electronica. it's a way to make music that isn't subject to any physical restraints, it's only limitation is imagination. well, it's not like the genre isn't decades old, but i'm talking about my personal epiphany here, and my enthusiasm for it is like any greenhorn's. so, in a year when i delighted in taking in everything from gary numan to booka shade, the fact that alpinisms, school of seven bells's debut record, has riveted me is a testament to it. full disclosure here: school of seven bells reminds me more than a little bit of my previous electro-crush, last year's award winning au revoir simone, and not just because SVIIB (which, p.s., is a wicked acronym) also have dark hair and are from brooklyn. but just because i'm predisposed to like them doesn't mean that i'm wrong, and you'll hear why just around thirty seconds in. then, in the span of three minutes, the combination of intelligent harmonizing, imaginative beats, and the dramatic contrast of minimalist beats and swirling psychedelia will hook your brain, line and sinker. then, all of a sudden, you'll realize it's three hours later. time flies when you're having fun.

the first taste of alpinisms is the potent "iamundernodisguise," previously a prefuse 73 single ("class of 73 bells") with the band, which retains its powerful, sensuous undercurrents and indulges in a wash of hypnotic distortion and canonical vocals. these come courtesy of alejandra and claudia deheza, who helm the band alongside benjamin curtis. previously in on! air! library!, they met curtis on a tour, and the idea for school of seven bells was born. channeling the mysticism and beauty of classical indian form, and combining it with swirling distortion, SVIIB's approach is nothing short of seductive. in addition, the production on this record is totally immaculate (done by the band themselves), which makes it all that more of a joy to listen to - the vocal mixes are sublime, the perfect amount of reverb. it's probably the best sounding record i've heard since the magic position.

alpinisms is nearly bookended by its best songs, "iamundernodisguise" and penultimate track "prince of peace," both of which combine brooding distortion with explosive choruses. urgent and propulsive, "prince of peace" is delivered with no small hint of menace - there is no safety in the deheza sisters voices when they sing "we are the prince of peace / we are the hand of god." this isn't a song praising the munificence of a generous god, this is accompaniment to a deluge of some straight up old testament fire and brimstone, and the dehezas' are the killing angels singing a siren song. these two are the most pronouncedly ominous, but SVIIB don't ditch a good thing - while none of alpinisms's other songs come closer to the implicit threat of "iamundernodisguise" or "prince of peace," "wired for light" builds slowly but relentlessly, voices soaring (thanks to even more reverb than normal) over the sounds of a restless sitar, dropping out suddenly, leaving us startled and hollow.

school of seven bells's psychedelic bent reaches its climax on the 11 minute opus, "sempiternal-amaranth," which is notable chiefly because it hardly feels like more than 4 or 5 minutes long - it lulls you into a SVIIB stupor that is both impossible and undesirable to rise from. yet despite alpinisms's fluidity, there is a rather large conflict at its center, which is difficult to navigate for the critical listener. it's pretty clear that i favor heavy SVIIB, but what about the rest of the album? at times it seems odd, the juxtaposition of intense, transcendental tunes with upbeat, in-your-face treble ones, epitomized by "face to face on high places" and "half asleep," which many consider album highlights. i don't deny their quality, yet the (abrupt) transition from "iamundernodisguise" to the substantially more pop "face to face on high places" is rarely anything but jarring. the battle between pop and psychedelia rages throughout the record, and while the two are not always mutually exclusive, it does occasionally put SVIIB at odds with themselves. that being said, "half asleep" well deserves its release as a single, being one of those instances when pop and psychedelia blend to create something excellent.

alpinisms's press releases speak of the band's desire to literally climb above the physical world, a goal they have neatly accomplished. every second of music strives to elevate the listener above the conventional, to disappear among the folds in the music, to find a groove and follow it. pragmatically, alpinisms is almost flawlessly constructed, each song progressing and adding elements at deliberate speed, enough to hook but not to overindulge, so that you keep coming back for more, time and again. it is a curious twining, of restlessness and repetition, but SVIIB easily make it their own, especially on songs like "white elephant coat." drawing you into its clutches with a simple drum pattern, expansive guitar lines, and the same ethereal vocals that make the record essential, "white elephant coat" reflects alpinisms as a whole. for a remarkable first record, both in style and substance, school of seven bells' alpinisms is one of the most important albums of 2008.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

future reflections

as another year draws near its close, wetter and far warmer than the last, a healthy dose of perspective is vital to comprehend 2008 as a music lover, and a registered american voter. the election overshadowed all else, and our optimism and hope foreshadowed the still-exhilarating phrase "president-elect obama." but even as it became slightly more tolerable to be an american citizen, the stateside music scene left little to choice but to shop the import section. brooklyn spewed forth another crop of aspiring scene queens, their local triumphs spearheaded by overzealous brooklynvegan commenters, but the best american album of the year was issued by some hip pop outcasts from the left coast; though yoni wolf's bitterness suited our collective national disgust from january to june, one hopes change has come to him as well. but president-elect obama's administration is too fresh for its successes to be rewritten as music, and the election cycle, though it dominated virtually everything else this year, is not much of a yardstick to evaluate music by.

so what, then, defines 2008 in music?

the internet continues to redefine our understanding and appreciation of music in ways that continues to send shockwaves through the industry (and its observers), from the FBI-sanctioned intervention in a leak of chinese democracy to the blogosphere's self-serving, endorsed explosion of bands like vampire weekend, for whom the backlash is hopefully just beginning. the virulence and dogmatism of chat room crusaders and anonymous respondents is certainly nothing new (though the depths to which the dialogue can sometime stoop still has the power to bewilder), but talking shit about a pretty sunset is what made the internet famous. though the reach of blogs and other democratic music promoters has grown longer since 2007, its weaknesses are nearly as numerous as its successes, which i realize is an odd statement if you're reading this. i turned away from reading music blogs (save the ever reliable BV) sometime soon after january, and found a less self-referential (and more exciting) font for new music in the form of the now-defunct album blog robin hood of indie music. facilitated by the loss of OiNK, album blogs are the new medium for serious piracy, and pose few of the dangers associated with torrenting or (god forbid) file sharers. for me, 2008 in music meant a literal cornucopia of new bands every day, new and old releases that radically reshaped my tastes simply by virtue of their availability.

in april, i was hired by a concert venue in what has become the undisputed best job of my (albeit short) life, but its implications were much further reaching than my happiness - it has altogether changed my perception of hearing music. reading a review earlier this year, i was struck by the author's claim that we rarely think about how music is made, and just appreciate the end result. since april, i have been learning about the process of music-making, and i'm not talking about the notes. which microphone to use, how guitar amps work, the best way to mic a snare drum (one on the top and one on the bottom), small details that add up to determining how we experience music, specifically in a live setting. why you're an idiot if you stand in the front row and complain about how bad the sound is. simple things for someone who plays music, or works with sound, but significant developments for a layman like me, though i don't think i can call myself a layman anymore.

i'm not sure how these two factors add up, album blogs and working at a nightclub, but the timing is proof enough of my ear's evolution, an unexpected and bold change of course. in just a couple months, i've discovered how wide the world of electronica really is, and immersed myself in its numerous pleasures. though i was not a stranger to its appeal, i have opened myself up to every corner of the genre in a much more dramatic fashion, appreciating artists as diverse as julien chaptal, venetian snares, and róisín murphy with equal vigor. in short, 2008 was a year for joyous aural exploration, and my favorite albums of the year reflect that. as with last year, i still have a problem with the word "best," and am shying away from that with a list of records that were important to me this year. without further ado, here they are, listed alphabetically.

camille - music hole
cut copy - in ghost colours
foals - antidotes
i am robot and proud - uphill city
iglomat - iglomat
mogwai - the hawk is howling
mr. scruff - ninja tuna
mutyumu - il y a
school of seven bells - alpinisms
slaraffenland - private cinema
spiritualized - songs in a & e
why? - alopecia
wild beasts - limbo, panto

provided i am blessed with enough time, i will do a short writeup for each album (of course with mp3s), so stay tuned.

Monday, July 28, 2008

they flock like vulcans to see old jupiter eyes on his home craters

within the "eminently prolific" subsection of songwriters, there often exists a delicate balance that can either alienate or excite. a counterpoint to the relentless outpouring of music, it is often the case that most of these songs sound extremely similar. john darnielle, a man most of us instantly pinpoint as head honcho of the "eminently prolific" genre, has released over 40 albums, which all sound more or less than same (especially once you discount the varying fidelity). that's why it's enormously refreshing that kenny anderson, another old hand at the prolific game, has released an album that runs against the grain, a challenge to presumably kenny himself as well as his fans. they flock like vulcans to see old jupiter eyes on his home craters is a vibrant departure that finds anderson embracing an entirely new sound, as well as a new penchant for impossibly long album titles.

king creosote, anderson's recording name, has a reputation for stately, melancholy songs that come out of the gate mostly fully formed, placid backdrops for anderson's verbal talent. bombshell, the scottish folkster's previous album (and his first fresh effort for a major label), was a mild diversion from this course, yet still result in inspired accusations of betrayal by some of the more hardcore creosote fans. not coincidentially, bombshell is the album that gave king creosote more attention than ever before, its poppier sound appealing to a wider range of listeners, evidenced by last year's sold-out homecoming show at edinburgh's queen's hall. they flock etc. doesn't follow in bombshell's footsteps, and, judging by its unorthodox distribution, isn't likely to be a 679 release either. you see, king creosote's new album is only available at king creosote shows, a business model that makes so much sense, it's fairly astonishing that no one else does it. fence will be releasing it proper come september, but it's rather wonderful that they flock is only available to real k.c. fans (or, actually, was only available before the internet got its pesky thieving mitts on it, which all of us foreign faithful are grateful for). perceivable as either a two-fingered salute to bombshell's detractors (though that isn't kenny's style) or just an example of how mutable and evolving king creosote can be (more likely), they flock, in addition to being a solid record, is a bright reminder of how welcome unexpected experimentation is from predictable sources.

but enough talk about what it signifies, let's talk about how they flock sounds. king creosote meets the human league? okay, that's a bit overstated, but certainly puts you in the right frame of mind. this isn't a basement recording, not a 4 tracked CD-R, and not your typical k.c. fare. on some songs, there isn't even a guitar, much less an accordion! kenny's manifesto has long been that k.c. writes "songs with relatively few chords in a non-bluegrass style," and while nothing on they flock could be construed as bluegrass, but i'm not sure the maxim still applies. opening number "on esther's planet" has relatively few chords, and is the most accessible song on the record (i'm pretty sure the two are related), but the shimmery synths are a new development, and a little bizarre the first couple listens. i almost gave up after that, since "no one had it better" is the ultimate definition of throwing a spanner in the works, but "on esther's planet" kept drawing me back because of the inexorable pull of anderson's sweet scottish voice, and due to the relish with which he sings "let's go west, and let's get damaged," which is a mighty fine verse (its couplet is the equally awesome "let's drink water, and let's get healthy"). after "on esther's planet," however, anderson's voice get second billing for the next couple songs, along with his guitar and typical song structure, which are more or less abandoned. "ear against the wireless" finds kenny singing from a radio light-years away, backed by a menagerie of electronic sounds, a description that more or less suits roughly half of they flock's songs. which is definitely not to say they sound alike, since, as you will recall, the starting point of this post was how defiantly different of an album this is for the otherwise predictable scotsman.

the bevy of mostly electronic songs aside, they flock is (hopefully?) a turning point for king creosote's more traditional songs as well. as aforementioned, the accordion doesn't get a lot of credit throughout, but kenny employs the trusty squeezebox on standout "a mighty din of 'what if?'," even if only for a moment's turn in the spotlight. "44BC" is the closest we get to old-style kenny, but with a female backup and the faint sounds of synth, though the lyrics are predictably gloomy: he refers to himself variously as "a worthless cause," "a helpless case," and "a songless bird." the title "dead mouse's diary" should hint that some weirdness is afoot, and the union between casion beats, 2001: a space odessey-reminiscent synth effects and acoustic guitar is certifiably awkward, yet simultaneously enrapturing. on the other hand, the straight-up scatting that introduces "home creatures" feels genuine, an accomplishment in light of the fact that the album's impossible title comes from its lyrics. and even when you think a song is more or less in the standard k.c. vein (like "all mine, except for the falsetto[!?!]), it goes and breaks his self-imposed rule about samples: "no sample should be longer than four seconds, and although samples should be in tune or in time, not necessarily both," and you know whatever the hell is going on here, nothing is predictable.

it would be interesting to learn whether (or to what extent) ole' king c-sote was inspired by our current obsession with all things smooth and synthy. "the minter scale," to name but one example, could be a space-house track - hell, it is a space-house track, just one with a couple seconds of didgeridoo up front. also, kenny's placid, regretful voice, singing about stinging embarassment doesn't quite jel with our normal understanding of lite trance, but, hey, what are you gonna do about that? keep an open mind, like kenny. and just accept the fact that a different king creosote is still king creosote, and still writes awesome songs. despite the new direction k.c. takes on they flock, it is a cohesive and exciting ride, thus satisfying the most important law of king creosote: a kc album starts at the beginning, and don't finish 'til the end - by design."

"ear against the wireless" & "the minter scale"
they flock like vulcans to see old jupiter eyes on his home craters will be available from fence records in september.

Friday, July 18, 2008

awesome song day! - "baby i'm just a fool"

awesome song day! is a spontaneous feature, when i am moved by a song's singular awesomeosity and feel the urge to share its awesomeness with all of you. the song below is awesome.

spiritualized - "baby i'm just a fool"
songs in a & e was released in may.

spiritualized and portishead share common ancestry, in my head at least. both hyper-pioneering english bands who peaked and kinda faded by the time i was hip enough to know who they were, it seems like more than coincidence that they have both returned in 2008, each with a fierce, career-defining record. the history of songs in a & e is so well-established as to be chicken feed by now: jason pierce got some terrible form of pneumonia, and found the inspiration for this record in his near-death experiences in the accident & emergency ward. pierce's work has always favored the ethereal/transcendental, so songs in a & e isn't much of a departure; instead, it is a bold, fervent, and engrossing work that builds on spiritualized's druggy past and finds a semblance of redemption in pierce's restoration of life and livelihood. fluctuating wildly between sorrow and serenity, songs in a & e is nearly divided in half by "baby i'm just a fool," a tender-seeming track backed by a melody beaten on wooden blocks, anchored in the repeated lyric "you're so fucking self-assured / i'd rather let you down than let you go." though not as catchy as "soul on fire" or as self-pitying as "don't hold me close," "baby i'm just a fool," with its faux-carefree singalongs and languid latin feel, is the song that stays with you the longest, and feels better with each listen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

a week in EPs day #6: amiina - seoul

yup, i've returned to the EP and am loving it. nearly a year to the day since i left off with land of talk's applause cheer boo hiss (which i still avidly listen to, by the way), i return with another five-day dose of the best in great extended plays. only one of this year's entrants was released between july 20, 2007 and july 14, 2008, but a couple more were introduced to me in that time period; the others are old standbys that are aging excellently. while i haven't narrowed down my list totally yet, i can say there will be no repeated bands (sing jonathan david very nearly made it, but "take your carriage clock and shove it" just plain sucks), and i'm excited to make amends to some of the very great bands i skipped last year. so, without further ado, here is seoul.

rarely do i muster the courage to defy the all-knowing wikipedia, but i'm going to today with impunity. last year, for my final entry, i stretched the meaning of "EP" in one direction; this year, it's going the other way. wikipedia classifies seoul as a single, but i don't care - amiina's second release is sophisticated, mature, and playful, and contains the only recording of "ammaelis," a song so deliriously enchanting that it alone merits seoul's boost from a single to an EP (even if it's only for my nefarious purposes). so overlook the fact that, of seoul's three tracks, two are on amiina's full-length kurr (though "ugla" was subtly renamed "rugla"), and just embrace the three songs that heralded amiina's crowning as the cutest band in the world (an assertion validated by the band's photo gallery).

it's been too long since i last talked about amiina, but not much has changed since then. unfortunately, the icelandic quartet has been quiet as mice, though sigur rós's return to touring surely (hopefully) means that amiina will also regain their place as opening act. the band - maría huld markan sigfúsdóttir, hildur ársælsdóttir, edda rún ólafsdóttir, and sólrún sumarliðadóttir - congealed through sigur rós's touring schedule, the four women in close contact as sigur rós's backing string quartet. amiina first performed in july 2005, on the takk... tour, with a set of hastily stitched together songs. i saw sigur rós three times on the takk... tour, and was impressed exponentially each time by amiina, whose songs tangibly improved each time. two songs of that set stood out especially, which i referred to in my mind as "that song with the musical saw" and "that awesome video game one." both of these songs are on seoul. "that song with the musical saw" is the title track, a seven-minute exploration grounded in a hypnotic xylophone riff and buttressed by the saw's atmospherism. "the video game one" was "ammaelis," amiina's set-ender, which exemplifies the band's quirky cheerfulness vis-a-vis a 80s casio beat surrounded by shimmering synths. together with "ugla," which was written between tours at home in iceland, seoul is a mature work that rewards multiple, contemplative listens.

amiina's songs are lush, performed using a table's worth of gadgetry and toy instruments, and their seamless fusion of new-age devices and centuries-old ones is one of the band's most bewitching features. i was reading about something called "steam punk" the other week, a style that mixes 1850s fashion with high-tech electronics, and it struck me that amiina is doing much the same in music. wikipedia (whose wisdom i once again acquiesce to) has a list of 18 instruments used by amiina, ranging from the aforementioned saw, to a baroque guitar (seen in the lower right-hand corner of the picture above), to a compact synthesizer (their live shows also have a ubiquitous macbook). watching amiina perform is like watching four one-man bands work together, such is the band's concentration and diligence as they build their songs.

somehow, it isn't surprising that "seoul," "ugla," and "ammaelis" are arguably amiina's best songs, each possessing a learned dignity and the allure of simplicity. with an innate appreciation for timing, amiina's songs are just long enough for you to be able to lose yourself in the music, gentle crescendos and repeated phrases that acknowledge amiina's debt to minimalist composing. ultimately, their songs are just happy, and that's the most appealing quality you could hope for.

"seoul" & "ammaelis"
the seoul 12" with a remix by frakkur is available at boomkat.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

the last really good new album i heard idea. one of the reasons i've been absent from the mammoth realm is the absolute dearth of good new music. i'm not quite sure how noisy punk & feedback queens became the toast of the blogosphere (times new viking, no age, titus andronicus, crystal antlers, these are powers, abe vigoda, etc.), because none of them are actually good/listenable for more than 35 seconds, but that has been pretty unbearable. that au album was okay, but too derivatively animal collective, lp3 only confirms the fact that i don't like ratatat, i can't understand why fleet foxes are "the best new band on earth," the appeal of crystal castles wore off about two songs into their full-length (and the storm of controversy about their version of music piracy just adds fuel to the fire), i don't even know what dark meat IS, the black ghosts blow, monotonix put on one hell of a live show, but music doesn't really factor into their performance much, black kids, of course, still suck at life, the new girl talk leaves something to be desired, whatever excitement hercules & love affair provoked burned off quickly; as established, stay positive makes me sad, arm's way isn't much better, modern guilt is solid without being impressive, a thousand shark's teeth is meh, don't know why is anyone attracted to the sound of the ting tings (besides that one really good song they have)?, the one track that has leaked from the hawk is howling is weird, dude, sam sparro's press quotes ("like lcd soundsystem plus marvin gaye) are better than his songs, kaisercartel makes me want to stab myself in my thigh with a fork, and crystal stilts just plain suck. ponytail shows a healthy level of eclecticism, but can't say i would ever really want to listen to them voluntarily.

i liked
songs in a & e enough to buy $40 tickets for the seated spiritualized show at music hall of williamsburg, and i'm currently having a serious crisis because why? and mount eerie play the same night as mogwai and fuck buttons (all four of which have [or, in mogwai's case, will] put out great records this year). in all honesty, it's probably the toughest decision i will make all year. if i didn't have tickets to mogwai already, it wouldn't even be a question, but i think i'll have to wait and see if the hawk is howling is better than mr. beast. if it ain't, i'll see you at bowery.

anyway, now that i've shat all over bands you like/dislike/don't care about, we can get to the meat of the matter. i'm finally getting into
situation after digging that buck 65 orchestral show for a couple months, but i haven't heard anything, new or old, that matches up to alopecia, antidotes, or at war with walls and mazes, and it's totally killing my mojo. i've been enjoying some classics lately, as well as nas's new not-nigger, but 2008 is shaping up to be a year of bad albums. there are plenty of good songs, but i don't want to overabuse the "awesome song day" anymore than i already have, and one reason i've been so quiet is because there aren't any albums i really want to talk about. i've had a couple ideas to get myself involved in blogging again, so fingers crossed those go somewhere, and you can count on me weighing in on whatever the next seriously good album of 2008 is, if it ever arrives.

where the hell is heartland?

correction: oracular spectacular is another album without many peers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

awesome song day! - "took my lady to dinner"

awesome song day! is a spontaneous feature, when i am moved by a song's singular awesomeosity and feel the urge to share its awesomeness with all of you. the song below is awesome.

king khan and the shrines - "took my lady to dinner"
the supreme genius of king khan and the shrines is available on vice records.

it's kinda ironic (and more than a little disappointing) that "blog bands" tend to suck more often than not, and i've learned to approach any buzz band with a hefty level of trepidation & skepticism - explaining my delayed appreciation of the 11-piece psychedelic soul garage monster & king khan's decidedly personal lyrics. the supreme genius of is a "greatest hits" collection (no mean feat for a band with only 4 full lengths), and sounds more lo-fi than no age. their kickstarted soul finds common heritage with the dirtbombs, whose "your love belongs under a rock" invariably finds its way into my head after only one king khan song - their frontmen share a puckish extravagance and a smoker's croak, and their grit-coated guitars dominate wholeheartedly. "took my lady to dinner" has the most irresistible chorus - wailing so loudly that his voice cracks, king khan belts out a love song to his woman - "she's fat, she's ugly, she's fat and she's ugly but i love her!" true love has never sounded so true.