sobota, 14 sierpnia 2010

El-P - Weareallgoingtoburninhell-megamixxx3 [2010]

Somewhere in the 10 years between Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus and his previous solo record, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P's production style snapped its leash. Not like it was all that tightly restricted in the first place-- his late-90s/early-00s work knocked with dread but included both hardcore hip-hop breaks and glitchy squalls. Still, his work's gotten to the point where it can take a longtime fan about 10 seconds to recognize one of his new beats, and another 10 seconds to hear something fresh in his approach. More than 15 years after Company Flow's first single, El-P's ability to maintain a recognizable style while still staying restless has kept his work interesting. (That, and his tendency to do things like his deranged, spur-of-the-moment Justin Bieber remix.)
Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 subsequently catches El-P doing something that suits his talents in an unexpected way: the mixed beat tape. The previous two volumes of this series were comprised largely of outtakes and unreleased material, heavy on the vocal tracks that showcased his hectic, often unhinged lyricism. But this one's more of an instrumental showcase, something that strings together experimental asides, self-contained pieces, and pre-established material into something resembling a sonic arc. He's had plenty of experience concocting beats meant to stay voiceless-- including CoFlow's unmixed 1999 release Little Johnny From the Hospitul and some of his compositions for the movie Bomb the System a few years later-- so it's not unprecedented.
But it is pretty notable, and skeptics who are traditionally either turned off by El's motormouth flow or take his production for granted have much to learn from this. El's soundtracking sensibility is what keeps much of Megamixxx3's momentum going, and even the short tracks don't run in place too long before cutting to new ideas. There's some cinematic allusions, like how "Whores: the Movie" sweats out hissing waveform faux-brass like his own mutation of David Shire's score for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, or when tracks like "Time Won't Tell" and "He Hit Her So She Left" slowly build in intensity like they were tailor-made for suspense sequences. And the pieces that go past the three-minute mark-- the horror-funk "Meanstreak (In 3 Parts)"; the spaghetti Western "Drunk With a Loaded Pistol"; the electro panic attack "How to Serve Man (Stripped)"-- have the feel of tonally shifting miniature suites.
Megamixxx3 originated as a blended amalgam of discarded ideas, so it's to El-P's credit that he was able to wrangle all this into a more-or-less consistent and substantial work. As weird as he gets, there's always a core of hip-hop fundamentals at the center of his music-- hell, there's even a Zapp break tucked away in there somewhere. And in the midst of a long career working his way around monster jeep beats, old-school headknock breaks, and dystopian analog concoctions, he's made fitting it all together sound easy. It helps that he's gotten a lot of mileage out of a few distinctly dense synthesizer tones-- we're a long way from that tinny little three-note "Vital Nerve" riff-- that give his tracks a signature buzz. But it's clear here that his real production strength is his drum programming, which builds off complex patterns and then lets them scatter and shift into elastic detours. A scrapyard curiosity of a bonus track, the eight and a half minute "Eat My Garbage 2", consists of all the isolated drum breaks from the record; it's not much of a song, but it makes a convincing case that El-P knows how to put a loop together like a motherfucker.
There are a couple of known quantities sewn into the mix-- instrumentals for his remixes of Young Jeezy's "I Got This" and Kidz in the Hall's "Driving Down the Block"-- as well as a memorably bizarre excursion into new wave lounge-R&B, "Contagious Snippet", a collaboration with Chin Chin's Wilder Zoby that evokes the neon-noir scores for Thief and Blade Runner. These tracks reinforce that this album is more of a Frankenstein's monster than a preview of El-P's future direction. But while Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 had all the indications of starting out as a stopgap project to stave off between-album downtime, it wound up being a solid exhibition of his chops. Even when the man appears to be just dicking around in his parts bin, he can still dredge up great music.

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Arcade Fire - The Suburbs [2010]

Arcade Fire never aim for anything less than grand statements. That quality has played a huge role in making them very, very popular; it's also their greatest weakness. Funeral was wracked with agony and grief, but what made it one of the transcendent records of the 2000s was that it avoided easy answers. It proposed that the fight of our lives is just that, a fight, but a winnable one. But when they turned that same all-or-nothing intensity outward on Neon Bible, otherwise propulsive and elegant songs were sometimes bogged down by overblown arrangements or pedantic political statements. You'd figure an album bluntly called The Suburbs that focuses on The Way We Live might repeat some of Neon Bible's worst tendencies. Instead, it's a satisfying return to form-- proof that Arcade Fire can still make grand statements without sounding like they're carrying the weight of the world.
The metrics of The Suburbs are misleading: At 16 tracks, including interludes and multi-part songs, it might seem like Arcade Fire are shooting for their Sandinista!, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, or Sign O' The Times-- a band at the peak of their powers reacting against the walls closing in by blowing everything up and trying anything. But the album actually plays out more like Bruce Springsteen's The River, a generously paced collection of meditations on familial responsibility, private disappointments, and fleeting youth, much of which takes place in moving vehicles. It also reintroduces much-needed levity to an act that can be overbearingly self-serious. On the deceptively chipper chamber pop of "Rococo", Win Butler borders on patronizing, evoking Nirvana's "In Bloom" and using the title word as a sword to skewer an easy target: the hipster more concerned with following trends than locating a genuine understanding in the world around him. But the point is that Butler values directness and truth, and throughout The Suburbs, what he lacks in poetry, he makes up for with honesty.
There's a tension between the uneasily resolving chords and lightfooted piano shufle on the title track, as Butler sings in a restrained falsetto: "Sometimes I can't believe it/ I'm moving past the feeling." As The Suburbs plays out, that "feeling" is one that lived on Funeral and is dying here. The initial fantasy of Funeral was escaping the neighborhood, dancing beneath the police lights, and living on misbehavior. The Suburbs can be seen as the update decades later, with those same kids having kids of their own, and moving back to and struggling in the same neighborhoods.
The heavy-handedness that marred some of Neon Bible mostly resulted from Butler's warning us of destruction caused by the lies of authority figures-- shady cultural impresarios, corrupt church leaders, politicians all too eager to push the button. But what makes The Suburbs a more humane and empathetic record is that Butler and Régine Chassagne have come to terms with how the pain of our day-to-day lives more often results from the lies we tell ourselves. At the outset of "We Used to Wait", staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety. The song is a simple lament about the exhaustion from a relentless pace of life that demands everything immediately. But as Jeremy Gara's steady drums lift the piece into cathedral drama, it's obvious that there's a deeper concern than the antiquation of letter-writing. By the time the narrator finds himself with "the lights cut out... left standing in the wilderness downtown," it's a sad reminder that giving up your dreams for a reliable job that pays your way and corrodes your soul isn't even a reliable option anymore. Soul-sucking work was at least once a dependably secure and profitable enterprise. Now what do we do?
The bulk of The Suburbs focuses on this quiet desperation borne of compounding the pain of wasting your time as an adult by romanticizing the wasted time of your youth. As bleak as the lyrics are, though, they're buoyed by the band's leanest, loosest songwriting yet. These songs are busy, but never overly complicated, subtly nudging at their boundaries while allowing wide lanes for Butler's perfectly memorable melodic turns. The framework is familiar: Arcade Fire's trademark of decorating AOR with orchestral fringe ("Ready to Start", "Empty Room"), sun-baked Harvest gold ("Wasted Hours", "Suburban War"), and in the record's highlights, pulsating electro ("Half Light II [No Celebration]", "Sprawl II [Mountains Beyond Mountains]").
But The Suburbs is a record that seeks to build, and it reaches a monumental peak at its closure. Both parts of "Sprawl" act like a conversation between lovers and a treatise on what makes Arcade Fire tick: Butler's despondence on "Sprawl I (Flatland)" matches the desolate atmosphere that surrounds him-- returning to a mall-spackled hometown is an admission of defeat. But as with their first two albums, the penultimate song towers over what came before: "Sprawl II" is an Arcade Fire song through and through, balancing a sort of defiance in the midst of crushing circumstance ("These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose/ But late at night the feelings swim to the surface"). It's a rare and thrilling example of the group stepping out of their musical comfort zone, an airy disco bounce evoking "Heart of Glass" that serves as further evidence of just how crucial the often underappreciated Chassagne is in tempering Butler's grimmer outlook.
That said, the relative concision of Funeral and Neon Bible didn't allow for a whole lot of wiggle room. And while it's somewhat heartening to hear something allowed to be a "minor" Arcade Fire song, they're still, well, minor. "Month of May" strains too much for a ragged punk glory while the folky, Neil Young-ish strummer "Deep Blue" doesn't develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought. And as The Suburbs reaches its second half, there's certainly some thematic redundancy-- surely, there's already a drinking game revolving around Butler's use of "the kids."
There's also the possibility that The Suburbs can be seen as a lesser Arcade Fire album if you mostly value rock music for its escapism. This is another 2010 example of a Boss-indebted band (see also: the National and Titus Andronicus) making epic outpourings of modern disillusionment and disappointment for people who can commiserate and return to fretting about their jobs and bank accounts once the house lights go up. But just because the concerns of The Suburbs are at times mundane, that makes them no less real. And that Arcade Fire can make such powerful art out of recognizing these moments makes our own existences feel worthy of documentation. By dropping Neon Bible's accusatory standpoint, The Suburbs delivers a life-affirming message similar to Funeral's: We're all in this together.

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Skream - Outside the Box [2010]

If you're Ollie Jones, a musician who's made his pseudonym on pushing an underground dance sound further into the mainstream without compromising its strengths, what do you do when it's time for a straight-up pop move? Maybe you drop a free mixtape or two (like his Freeizm releases) that stick to the formula that made you a dubstep champion, with the side effect that if the Big Album flops the longtime diehards will still have something to retreat to. Maybe you look back to a previous breakthrough-- something like 2005's definitive "Midnight Request Line"-- and extrapolate just how far out an idea like that should sound five years later. And maybe you take a shot at building off the momentum of your last and possibly biggest pop turn, the slow-burn magnificence of last year's remix of La Roux's "In for the Kill", and try to figure out how much of that there is to spread across an hour's worth of new music.
What you don't do is crank everything up to desperate look-at-me extremes, and remembering that is what makes Outside the Box smarter than your typical underground-goes-pop set. From the outset, Skream's best music worked in a modular, easily graspable way that helped it click with both neophytes and early adopters. And he did it by creating unlikely hybrids of mood: late-night gloom and enthusiastic cheer, sweat-soaked dread and childlike giddiness, snarling aggression and light fragility. By balancing these tones, Skream could stretch in two different emotional directions without going overboard, and he continues that trend admirably on this album.
The more pop-friendly moments nail this split-personality approach, where tracks like "Where You Should Be" and "How Real" simultaneously bring heavy, frame-rattling basslines for the steppers and wistful pop-R&B vocals for the lover's-rock crowd. The former track filters vocalist Sam Frank through a phalanx of overdubs, Auto-Tuning, and reverb, while the latter chops Freckles' voice up into a hiccupy, almost Todd Edwards-style Macintalk splice job. But the singers are manipulated into digital unreality in stirring ways that bristle with the same energy as rest of the production. And when La Roux reprises her famous remix team-up on "Finally", the thin shakiness of her voice is integrated into the beat in a way that makes it sound like an advantage, creating an atmosphere of delicate strength as it's engulfed by the rest of the melody.
A jaded eye might look at all the "feat." parentheticals and cringe a bit; in the case of "8 Bit Baby", a plinky showcase for Murs' corniest tendencies, they'd be right to. But there's still smart production beneath all the guest vocals. Skream knows what pleases crowds, which accounts for some tracks' idea of heaviness being a wobble bass that sounds like the turbines of an obese helicopter ("Wibbler") or a hissing, spitting Atari gone rogue ("CPU"). But he also goes for carefully layered component building instead of just constantly cranking up one prominent element of his sound. That's how he gets the same expressive resonance out of instrumental tracks like "Fields of Emotion" and "Perferated" as he does out of the vocal showcases, leaning on subtle but evocative melodic keyboard progressions and basslines so sturdy you could bounce to them without drums.
And if you had any other doubts as to what kind of pop move this is, keep in mind that Skream's efforts to please all sorts of crowds also skews toward the ones who remember and/or revere the sounds of the early-to-mid 1990s. "I Love the Way" features prominent rave-diva vocals via a Jocelyn Brown sample, floating over a shuddering dubstep throb that waits until the last 90 seconds to shatter into breakbeat. "Metamorphosis" strips the droning ambience of prime Photek and Dillinja for parts, tearing out the frenetic drums and refitting it with a restrained pulse punctuated by the occasional massive snare hit. And the drums from the infamous jungle-birthing "Amen" break actually show up twice, underpinning the trilling dial tone melodies of "Listenin' to the Records on My Wall" and rattling through the euphoric drum'n'bass revivalism of "The Epic Last Song". Of all the contradictions Skream has somehow managed to reconcile, a crossover bid that doubles as a back-to-the-roots move might be the most audacious.

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The Body - All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood [2010]

The Body are drummer Lee Buford and guitarist Chip King, two robust, bearded Arkansas boys living in Providence, R.I. In press photos, they brandish automatic weapons, some of which are triumphantly splayed on the table that stretches across the gatefold package of their second album, All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood. Buford and King cite Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, and Charles Manson as influences, and, in 2005, they turned Body Count's "Copkiller" and M.D.C.'s "Dead Cops" into sludgy voids on a 7" single. They've appeared on stage wearing potato sacks and nooses, and the cover of All the Waters showcases the pair dressed like ancient hooded Chinese soldiers.
This is probably where you roll your eyes and check out, figuring that these would-be metal/ hardcore/ noise/ whatever tough guys will never sound as bothered on tape as they might appear on paper. Well, you're wrong: Like the best of Eyehategod or Bastard Noise, All the Waters is the rare album that feels truly dangerous. As it crushes and collides doom metal, harsh noise, industrial rock, and gospel singing into one mean mess, it seems to obey no rules but its own. The result is a singular, explosive masterpiece and one of the year's essential heavy exploits-- even if, at turns, it sends you cowering.
All the Waters is an album of detours and surprises. You'll see the Body mostly referred to as a doom metal duo, but don't hang too many notions on that reductive nail. Rather, All the Waters is played by 32 people, including the 13-member Assembly of Light Choir and a score of folks who earn credit not only for keyboards, drums, and viola for but also for noise, sousaphone, and drum programming. Two of these seven tracks begin with slow, controlled, Earth-like riffs-- that is, quintessential, doom metal. Both evolve quickly. "Even Saints Knew Their Hour of Failure and Loss" corrodes its repetitive riff with a piercing din; the choir's gorgeous chant tugs upward against the low-hanging load. Everything disappears except for Buford's drums, a circle of snares and cymbals wrapping the distant chime of a church bell. King's lacerating squeal cuts in, quoting Yeats: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born?" It's music that has more to do with Current 93 than Earth, more with provocation than perfection.
Indeed, after a few dozen listens, the Body's risks and adventures still shock me. Almost uniformly, they deliver songs into chaos. The album begins, after all, with four minutes of beautiful choral singing. The Assembly of Light Choir offers a wordless hymn, harmonies rising and falling, melodies wrapping around one another like the cotton strands of some imagined heaven. Eventually, a voice slips from the flock, her line dropping into a mournful gospel quaver. The rest of the choir follows, their voices dragging and slinking, as if covered with the shadow of an unnamed malice on the horizon. When that beast arrives-- noise swells, shattering drums, monolithic slabs of guitar-- it's the sound of something beautiful being obliterated. Similarly, "A Curse" starts as a ruptured dance number that, a few minutes later, is an arrhythmic, atonal wasteland. "Empty Hearth" begins with a sample of a church group (taken from the strange Sounds of American Doomsday Cults album) offering a prayer; by track's end, their recitation has been chopped and screwed until it sounds like strangles and gasps.
On paper, All the Waters is a grim record, as lyrics outline the failure of science, nature, man, gods, and prophets in pithy bursts. But unless you're reading along, you'll never know any of this. King's strained, unintelligible voice seems constantly at the brink of being swallowed by the sounds around him. Those sounds are troubling enough, recorded and mixed so that the guitars and drums always feel like they're too loud for the equipment and room meant to contain them. The record itself is a smartly designed simulacrum for the lyrics, recreating the sense of impending darkness by creating a sound that swallows itself. The young indie rock bands now using cheap microphones and analog hiss to shape their songs are often criticized for obscuring shabby songs with shabby sounds. The best of those bands, however, use production to reinforce their ideas and give them an extra bit of depth. The Body does just that here, letting rough-and-tumble production add even more anxiety and trouble to seven songs that were bothered as is. Smart choice: All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood is the seldom collapse-of-the-world record that's actually as disturbing as it wants to be.


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Les Savy Fav - Root For Ruin [2010]

n their more than dozen years of existence, Les Savy Fav have gained a reputation as an exhilaratingly wild live act. While the band is known for working up a sweat-drenched crowd chaos, though, their career trajectory has been one of a band focused on truly honing their hard-charging craft. LSF's last full-length, 2007's Let's Stay Friends, represented the full realization of their sound, with exacting, catchy-as-hell songs that possessed the neck-snapping kinetic energy that was found in rougher form on previous records. A polished "crossover" effort, yeah, but also fun and rollicking in all the right places.
Root For Ruin, the band's fifth proper LP, re-asserts that sound rather than expanding upon or altering it. There's not many surprising moments on this record; if anything, it feels like the first Les Savy Fav album that sounds more comfortable in its own clothes than twitching to tear apart its own skin. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: LSF still excel at constructing miniature explosions of songs, even if they sound a bit tidier now.
Guitarists Seth Jabour and Andrew Reuland prove to be aces in the hole for this record, continuing to prove their worth as two of modern indie rock's smarter, more bruising axe-wielders. They layer colorful lines over each other like it's a competition, bringing the hook-laden pain on the smashing, bashing opener "Appetites" and "Lips n' Stuff". Elsewhere, they create nervewracking warning calls on "Excess Energies" that dovetail in and out of Tim Harrington's metronomic shouts. On the whole, there are still very few bands that do this arty, shitkicking stuff as well as Les Savy Fav do.
And yet Root For Ruin feels slightly sluggish, more so than any of the band's previous records. The distinct lack of new ideas plays a small part in this letdown-- "Dear Crutches"' dripping guitar line sounds a little too close to "The Sweat Descends", a standout on 2004's kickass singles collection Inches-- but mostly it's the presence of a few lukewarm cuts that make the record one of LSF's more minor efforts. "Sleepless in Silverlake" and "Let's Get Out of Here", notably, bring the album to a near-flatlining halt. The latter is a midtempo would-be rager that never takes off the ground, while the former is the life-in-Los-Angeles snoozer that you hoped Tim Harrington would never write. The slow jams aren't the only duds here, as the speed-addled "Calm Down"'s monochromatic chorus squarely locates the song on the wrong side of the "post-hardcore" tag.
Dull tempos, disengaging moments, recycled ideas-- all egregious offenses, yes. Luckily, Les Savy Fav have earned a decade's worth of goodwill to cushion a just-OK album or two landing in their discography, which makes Root For Ruin a well-deserved victory lap, if nothing else. The lone pair of surprising songs on Root For Ruin, the dissonant howler "Poltergeist" and menacing closer "Clear Spirits", serve as a gentle nudge as well that this band surely has some creative juice left in them. Let's hope they utilize it well in the future, because Les Savy Fav simply being Les Savy Fav can't retain its charm forever.

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Matthew Dear - Black City [2010]

If you've followed Matthew Dear over the years, then you know he doesn't like to stay in one place for very long. Even as a primarily electronic artist in the early 2000s, Dear hopped from label to label, switched aliases often, and made everything from steely microhouse to harder Detroit techno. But his biggest departure was 2007's Asa Breed, the record where he stepped out from behind the decks and reached for the mic. Singing on tracks and leaning more heavily on song structure, he built strange hybrid music that had one foot in techno and the other in pop.
Dear's latest album, Black City, follows this path but pulls a pretty drastic shift in tone. Where Asa Breed was bubbly and squeaky and ultimately dancefloor-bound, this record is dark as night. The music brings to mind blown-out warehouses, desolate alleys, and seedy basement nightclubs; it's some real threatening, grimy shit. The production is as inventive and immersive as ever, but what separates this album from the last is that Dear mostly sticks with one theme all the way through. Asa Breed was all over the place at times, but this album has a cohesive thread to follow and smaller vignettes within it.
It's worth noting on a general level that Black City isn't always an easy listen-- there's a lot of detail that can take a couple of spins to get comfortable with. Part of this is structural. Dear doesn't really do clean electro-pop; his approach is more about pushing contrasting sounds together and leaving the edges jagged. The other part is his vocals. Dear is not a classically strong singer and can often sound pretty flat; importantly he knows how to make up for it. He uses technology to stretch his natural range, wrapping choruses around beats in creative ways and sometimes layering multiple vocals together to create depth.
So the album has a lot of contrast and textural nuance. There's also a good amount of sex. In the first half, Dear explores this really nocturnal, salacious sound. Songs in this section are either slow-paced come-ons or faster club tracks, but they all ooze attitude and lust. Opener "Honey" is a good example of the former, kind of a sauntering R&B number with a gritty noise instrumental at its core. But one song stands out: "You Put a Smell on Me" is just total industrial-dance smut, with Dear soliciting an indecent ride "in [his] big black car." Mechanical synths grind, beats scrape against the wall, and Dear offers up double entendre: "You decide if you want to come." It might just be the raunchiest-sounding track since NIN's "Closer".
Dear gets that there's no point in going any dirtier after this, and he uses the rest of the album to divert the vibe towards something brighter. It's a move that threatens the overall theme, but it ultimately works in maintaining the idea of deep contrast and dark vs. light. So the back-end is more pastoral sounding-- beats don't grind as hard and vocals open up, feel more skyward. Rather than the dark disco earlier on, songs in this portion hew closer toward Eno/Talking Heads ambient pop, and there's some really beautiful stuff here. "Gem", the closer, is one of the album's best. A big, opulent track about loss and regret, it's both deeply sad and optimistic at the same time. And the album needs a big emotional anchor like this, otherwise you might feel a little filthy for enjoying it so much.

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