Prog-rock has been around for quite a long time now. Though its roots can be traced back to jazz fusion many bands eschew those undertones in search of a new sound that still retains the complexities in the music but not so much the jazzer attitude that can come off as overly pretentious. Nobody wants to end up sounding like Yes, or (it pains me to type this…) Emerson, Lake & Palmer after all. X-Ray Press has created one of the more complex albums that holds a firm footing in the prog world, but is still so much more.
From the opening of the first track, “Everybody, This Is Everyone (And Nobody Cares)”, the guitar tone reminds me of Shellac. The aggressiveness of the music also matches Shellac’s own ethos in some ways, and though they can both be considered to be creating “math-rock” (a genre that side-steps the aforementioned jazz influences found in progressive rock but still holds to the same “complexity for complexity’s sake” constantly shifting time signatures) Shellac would never consider creating an album with songs that are linked thematically forming a deeply woven story about living in the modern age. X-Ray Press’s angle is more similar to that of The Dillinger Escape Plan, with more than just a nod to their metal leanings, but with not as much of the dialed up anger as Dillinger, and cleaned up a bit. Though there is not an overt jazz sound there are glimpses of its interesting harmonies and song structure that can sound reminiscent of “Starless and Bible Black” era King Crimson as in tracks like “Chord and Mumble” and “Holy Ghost, USA“. But then again, doesn’t every prog band have some element or other that points back to King Crimson in some way? There are also strains that sound like Pink Mountain’s avant–garde improvisations in “Bad Beard (God Under Oath).
Hopefully this will give you an idea of the truly rich palette these guys are working from. Of course, it’s little bits here and there, nothing overtly derivative or “ripped-off” from anyone. Strongly influenced yes, but X-Ray Press really does seem to be doing something different. With “Uvb-76” they have taken a rather complex structured album and, where most bands would leave the tracks at 20+ minutes in length, X-Ray Press is carving out little gems that are much more easily grasped because of their forgiving song length of 2 to 5 minutes. This makes for a prog album that is in your face and quite possibly “radio-friendly”. A significant amount of punch is packed into the 2 minutes of “Cubicle Racist” and “Thin Mint, FSA“.
The concept of the album is primarily one of anger and frustration directed toward the world at large which eventually arrives at acceptance through discovering some way in which one can transcend, on ones own, the problems that are continually faced through creative action of some sort. In short: making lemonade from the lemons that life seems to perpetually dish out. From being just another automaton to making something out of ones life and moving on. The album is divided into 2 acts of sorts: I. Thought and II. Action. The first of these is divided up into 2 “scenes” while the 2nd is divided into 3. These “acts” are broken up by haunting, short piano interludes that appear between scenes. It sounds to me like a prepared piano (a concept first invented and developed by the American 20th Century avant-garde composer John Cage) where the strings are somehow stopped or otherwise prevented from resonating.
I told you it was a heady concept…
As mentioned before, their math/prog leanings means that the time signatures do not sit still for a second, switching all over the place before one can even begin to sort out where the downbeat is. As for the substance of the songs though, and there is a lot of substance that goes far beyond complex time signature changes and polymeter, the band has a way of working elements into each song that find them interlocking into a groove for a short time before pulling themselves apart again to go their own separate ways. The inclusion of a Rhodes piano to the ensemble adds to the hint of jazz influence as well as melding well with the guitar tone. It has the ability to sound like the guitar feeding back, but also adds to the bright high end of the guitar, often doubling it though you wouldn’t know until they choose to go their separate ways.
There is a lot to this album, but knowing the kind of fanaticism and dedication to detail that fans of this type of music are I’m sure that very little of it will be lost. If this is a sign of music to come in 2011 then we’d all better hold on because it is going to be an intense ride.
I recently made this mix for some friends. I burned a few copies and sent them off, hoping that it doesn’t just end up collecting dust in some corner of their place, or thrown on the passenger seat of their car, forgotten forever.
The concept behind this mix is that these are my favorite tracks of the year so far. These songs have all gone into heavy rotation on my iTunes and I think they represent a good cross section of a variety of styles from bands and artists that are quite well known, like Neil Young and Arcade Fire, as well as some lesser known acts like Wonder Wheel, Hurricane Bells and Beach Fossils. I hope that some of these tracks find their way into your iTunes, as I feel that they are all worth at least a listen.
Track 1: “We Used to Wait” – Arcade Fire
From the much anticipated album “The Suburbs” I chose this as the opening track for its driving quality and the slow build. Arcade Fire really does a fantastic job on this album of capturing a universal feeling of the wonderment of childhood and growing up. I wasn’t a fan of their previous albums, but I feel like they finally hit the mark with this one and I think that this is one of the stand out tracks. If you have a chance to check out the video that was created for this song I would suggest doing so, it brings even more emotional depth to the song and makes it truly personal. You can check out the video here.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/13-We-Used-To-Wait.mp3|titles=We Used To Wait]
Track 2: “Frankenstein” – Tokyo Police Club
This is the closing track from their most recent release, this summer’s “Champ”. All in all it is a strong album with a lot of memorable tracks. The pulsating guitar line with the slow moving and fuzzed out synth beneath it creates a layered effect that works really well here. This is also a rare instance where I think that the verse is better than the chorus. I discussed this album in detail in a previous post, here. Check out the track, below.
Definitely not a band that I had heard of only a few months ago. Motorifik is a side project from one of the members of Working For a Nuclear Free City and their sound is similar to Phoenix with a little bit more shoegaze and dreampop thrown in. I particularly like the wordless refrain that is drenched in reverb and echo. The drums sound more like explosions with the cymbals creating waves of sound that nearly overtake everything else.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/10-FLAMES-ON-THE-OCEAN.mp3|titles=Motorifik – Flames on the Ocean]
Track 4: “Alphaville” – Working for a Nuclear Free City
This comes from their recent double album “Jojo Burger Tempest”, far and away the most dense album I have heard in a long time. There are about a million ideas (not even exaggerating) on the album. This song is no different. We go from a simple, upbeat tune until the bottom falls out, a synth takes the lead, which is then replaced by guitars as the band careens through several different sections. The track moves to about 12 different places before coming to an end. The funny thing is though, and this is true for every track on the album, though the songs may seems overwhelming they are so catchy and well crafted and produced, that they stand up to repeated listens.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/04_Alphaville.mp3|titles=Working for a Nuclear Free City – Alphaville]
Track 5: “Helicopter” – Deerhunter
With a chorus that is similar in effect to the Motorifik track this one by Deerhunter is an amazing tune from an outstanding album. Halcyon Digest, released in October, is quite different from Deerhunter’s earlier, more ambient work. The lyrics here add to the emotional charge of the song, which is musically quite simple. Bradford Cox’s voice has a real sense of sincerity and longing here. The album is filled with powerful moments like the ones in this track. For a more detailed review, go here.
Track 6: “Scissor” – Liars
I’ve been following this band for a few years now. Their earliest work was in line with the dance-punk bands coming out of New York in the early 2000’s, but they quickly ditched that sound (as well as their rhythm section) and began creating very heady concept albums including the astoundingly great Drum’s Not Dead. They have moved away from those album oriented ideas with this album, Sisterworld, and the album before. This song brings forward the bands ability to be creepy and frightening while at the same time rocking harder than most bands around. The video is quite crazy as well (though, unfortunately, embedding is disabled).
Track 7: “A More Perfect Union” – Titus Andronicus
It is really difficult to pick a favorite track from this album. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor is damn near flawless. Musically there is nothing too new going on here, which is not a bad thing. Everything works perfectly. This track clocks in at over 7 minutes, and not a second is wasted. This band, from Glen Rock, New Jersey, rocks with a vengeance. Singer Patrick Stickles screams and growls his deeply personal lyrics through clenched teeth. This track, the opener from The Monitor serves as a call to arms. I talk about the album in far too much detail here.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-A-More-Perfect-Union.mp3|titles=Titus Andronicus – A More Perfect Union]
Track 8: “Years Not Long” – Male Bonding
This track comes from an album that is full of blistering tracks recorded in the red. It’s nearly all straight ahead garage rock. Fast, loud, noisy, yet the singing is almost sweet and gentle, despite it’s cutting through a whole lot of noise. Earlier in the year this was a standout album and there still isn’t anything that sounds quite like it.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-Years-Not-Long1.mp3|titles=Male Bonding – Year’s Not Long]
Track 9: “IMHO” – Wonder Wheel
This track could be filed in the “Chillwave” category with others like Neon Indian and Small Black. I really like the raw sound of the recording, the pervasive guitar line and ever present synth that casts a certain relaxed feeling over everything. The rapid fire vocals in the chorus are quite catchy, even if I’m not entirely sure what is being said. There is a looseness in the musicianship present here, where sometimes the drums speed up, or slow down, they aren’t necessarily synched up through the entire song, but it really doesn’t seem to matter. The middle 8 section is a highlight, as is the closing section that slows the tempo down and lets the track breath a little, taking a break from the wall of sound. This is also one very prolific band. I’m sure that by the years end we’ll have another album full of tunes, and I’m personally looking forward to it.
So it’s nearly winter, that doesn’t mean that we can’t pretend that we are at the beach. I really like the interplay of the guitar line and the bass line at the beginning. When the second guitar comes in with a tremolo effect things are pushed even further. This song, as with the rest of the tracks on this album, really capture the ultra-relaxed, sun-soaked laziness of southern California. The band really doesn’t have much to say beyond what is expressed in this song, but it’s fun. They aren’t going to change the world but their songs can make you happy for at least a little while.
Track 11: “Fake Blues” – Real Estate
Similar in style to Beach Fossils is New Jersey band Real Estate. They still have that laid back, west coast, lazy/sunny vibe that is no doubt helped by their echo laden guitars and laid back vocals. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing these guys perform a few times and they are a really tight band. They have taken these songs and really built upon them in their live set. It’s easy to tell that a lot of these tunes are developed from improvised jams and then shaped into solid songs. They have a limited bag of tricks and a very distinctive sound, but they use it quite well.
Track 12: “Make a Deal with the City” – Hurricane Bells
Ok, I’ll admit that the latter half of this mix tape is concerned mostly with songs that sound, to me, “sunny”. I think it has something to do with these past couple of songs have just about the same walking, lulling tempo, a relaxed singing style and a lot of echo. This one comes off of Hurricane Bells’ follow up EP to their debut full-length album Tonight is the Ghost. This is the kind of song that would work well accompanying an early morning drive down the highway as the sun is just rising in an orange tinged sky.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-Make-A-Deal-With-The-City.mp3|titles=Hurricane Bells – Make A Deal With The City]
Track 13: “Walk With Me” – Neil Young
Neil is one of those artists that seems to be untouchable. He releases album after album after album, some take off, some flop and fall away into obscurity but nobody ever seems to fault him for it. He’s celebrated for his output and his willingness to always try something new. Often he succeeds in creating some sort of new sound, even if that “new sound” is Neil returning to his “old sound” and updating it. This track comes from his collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois. The fascinating thing about this song, as well as the rest of the album, is that it is Neil with just a guitar. He still achieves an interplay of guitar lines and melodies thanks to his unique approach to the guitar combined with Lanois’ production tricks. The guitar here sounds beefy as hell and the way that the vocals were recorded make it sound like Neil is speaking directly to the listener from an authoritative place on high. In my opinion Young’s work is always worth at least a cursory listen. Sometimes the albums don’t hold up but there is always at least one song that is worth the trouble.
Track 14: “Eyesore” – Women
Closing out my mix is the closing track from Women’s latest album Public Strain. This band sounds like nothing else coming out of Calgary, or anywhere for that matter. They seem to be summoning early Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground. Lots of noise, produced by the instruments and otherwise. The way that this album, as well as their previous self-titled album, were recorded allow for a lot of extraneous sounds to enter into the mix. One can hear the squeaking of the kick drum pedal, doors opening and closing, talking at the beginning or ending of tracks, tape hiss and various other things that are usually scraped out with precision to make an album sound pristine. What this results in is a very haunting and affecting album. The last few minutes of this one in particular are my favorite. The repeated pattern that slowly fades as the energy continues to build just makes me want to listen to the album over and over again.
Stereolab is one of those bands where it almost seems pointless to write a review. Their fans are fiercely dedicated and almost unanimously unflagging in their enthusiasm for “The Groop”. Certainly Stereolab is in a class of its own. There is no other group, or Groop even, that sounds like they do. With their latest release, “Not Music”, they give us a heaping helping of electropop goodness.
The fact that Stereolab is in a class by itself can be seen as both a good and a bad thing. They are instantly recognizable, which allows them a certain amount of freedom because it seems that no matter what they do they can never not sound like Stereolab. I suppose this speaks to their reliance on the sounds of retro synths as well as to their melding of jazz, rock, electronic and lounge influences. It also speaks to their songwriting style and the way that they have branded themselves over the years as standing apart from most musical trends. It seems as though this group has their own language when it comes to naming albums and songs. The titles that Stereolab chooses for their releases seem to suggest inside jokes that only the band is in on in which they wryly comment on some abstract metaphysical idea, flat out absurudist humor, or references to food. Stereolab is an extraordinarily prolific band. In their time together they have released so many full lengths, EPs and collections that all but the most dedicated followers of The Groop can keep up, or even keep track.
“Not Music” was not originally conceived of as an album, rather these tracks were culled from the sessions of the band’s last full-length “Chemical Chords”. The fact that “Chemical Chords” as an album was strangely so-so and not quite up to the usual Stereolab standard makes this latest effort (not-effort?) very welcomed. This album is as solid as Stereolab albums come. An instantly recognizable jazz inflicted version of vintage synth driven lounge krautrock. The vintage synth sounds are mixed seamlessly with jazz ensemble stalwarts like a brass section and vibraphone. Imagine if Kraftwerk had traveled back in time to the 1950s and then hopped into their Delorean again (well they are European so I suppose that they would travel via Police Box) and went 10 or 20 years into our future, that is the sound of Stereolab. So well defined and distinguishable is their sound that it is to the point where they should actually go by the name Stereolab™. If anyone else even came close to imitating them it would be so obvious that they were completely ripping off Stereolab that the imitator would be instantly scorned and run out of town.
That being said, this album specifically is no different from any other album you have already heard from Stereolab and, unfortunately, this may be the last album that we ever hear from them. I say “unfortunately” not because this is a disappointing album, quite the opposite is true, but because they have been producing a steady stream of regularly fantastic work since the early 1990s. The band announced an indefinite hiatus in April of 2009 and singer Lætitia Sadier has begun touring as a solo artist. Her voice being so linked to the sound of Stereolab that I imagine she is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time separating her solo work from the work of this group.
Songs on this album like “Silver Sands” with its incessantly chugging rhythm bring the Kraftwerk influence front and center. That song sounding a lot like “Trans Europe Express” in, I feel, a very obvious way. The fact that Stereolab drags it out for over 10 minutes shows how unashamed they are in displaying the importance of their influences. The motorik backbone of “Silver Sands”, “So Is Cardboard Clouds” and “Pop Molecules” and the minimalistic opening of “Aelita” seem to be coming from a completely synthetic place but Stereolab never allows their music to come off as cold, unemotional or unhuman. Much to the contrary Stereolab, with their jazz influence, sometimes politically charged lyrics, and absurd/dada sense of humor show a very human side even if sometimes one can’t quite picture what instruments are being played, or if humans are even responsible for producing the recorded sounds. Sadier’s voice has very much to do with softening the sometimes machine-like sound of the group.
Hopefully this will not be the last that we hear from Stereolab. If we don’t hear from them for a while it’s good that they left us on a high note. Despite this album not really being an “album” in the traditional sense, but more a collection of songs from previous sessions, it still holds up with lots of great Stereolab™ songs worth hearing.
I wrote a post about a mixtape that I made for some friends that appears today on my friend, Adam’s, blog. His blog is located at Never Had to Fight.com. My post is here, tons of music. It will come to this blog next week.
Stop by here tomorrow to read my review of the latest (possibly last) Stereolab release, “Not Music”.
I started doing this on twitter where periodically I would take a line from a Sonic Youth tune and expound upon it. The idea just came out of me being goofy and bored while listening to Daydream Nation one night. I just wanted to make the lyrics sound conversational, but in a really erudite and literate way, as if someone that was very proper, or perhaps went to a finishing school, would say them. I called these tweets by The Proper Sonic Youths. Some people started to enjoy it and I decided last night that I was going to extrapolate this idea on my blog by “translating” entire songs in this manner.
Specifically what I try to do when coming up with these is to follow the lyrics, line by line, using as many different words for the specifics in each line, but still holding the same meaning. Basically I’m taking the poetry and flow out of it and making it as dry as possible, like Thurston, Lee and Kim have been rendered hypnotized by a thesaurus. You’ll get it, just follow along if you know the song, which I have posted at the bottom.
exegesis | eksi jesis|
noun ( pl. -ses |-sez|) critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture
Today’s exegesis comes from “Daydream Nation”. I pictured the lyrics of this track as if Lee were writing a letter to Joni (which is Joni Mitchell, if you didn’t know already). So I actually wrote down his letter. In case you can’t read my ( I mean….Lee’s…) handwriting, the text is copied below.
I would like to encourage you to place everything that has happened into the past. If you would do me this kindness I will offer to do the same. What is going on in your life right now is really quite confusing for you, I’m sure. Again, I would encourage you to just forget about all of those things that happened and just try to stay positive.
Be honest with me, Joni. I mean, we are in this together if you want me to help you out then I will. Perhaps it’s a result of living in this town, a change of location might help to guide your life in the proper direction. I’m remembering when we were younger, with our lofty ambitions, but you were unwilling to break the mold, until the one day we sat talking in the forest and I think that is where you finally had a breakthrough. We really bonded then, and I don’t think there’s any going back after what we said to each other.
Don’t you think I’m trustworthy anymore? Am I not a good person? How do you plan on turning your life around without me? When are you going to make good on all the promises that you’ve made to yourself?…Just assure me you won’t do anything you or I will later regret.
I dreamt the other night that you were standing in the middle of a large field, tall grass all around you, with gunfire in the distance. You were the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen, lighting up the sky in your brilliance. You weren’t concerned with anything but the precise moment you were in, right then and there. You were hoping to hold on to that moment forever.
Please, just put it all in the past. I’m serious about this and it’s all I can think about and you know I’m right! Just forget it, and I’ll forget it. Forget what “could” happen, everything is just a disaster right now. Don’t think about what did happen, and move forward with a positive attitude.
The years fly by, just place them behind you. Live in the present from now on.
Pepper Rabbit, with their most recent release, “Beauregard”, have produced a stripped down, folky version of ethereal dreampop with a bit of honky-tonk barstool blues added to the mix. The music has a familiar sound that is quite inviting, like music that friends would make some evening while sitting in front of a fire. The traditional “rock band” sound has been expanded to include clarinet, trumpet, ukulele, and mandolin, all of which assist in providing the songs with the aforementioned “folk” sound. The creative instrumentation doesn’t seem to bog down the process though. Each instrument is given proper consideration and space and most importantly never seem to not be exactly what the song calls for. Pepper Rabbit seem to be going against the “army of people on stage” ethos of Broken Social Scene and the like. Less is more in terms of orchestration. Finding just the right sound is much more preferred to figuring out parts for everything all the time. I think that the best way to get across an accurate description of Pepper Rabbit’s sound would be to compare them to a less guitar driven, less crowded sounding Arcade Fire. Pepper Rabbit can be quiet and introspective in much the same manner as Grizzly Bear, and they hit all the right emotional spots.
The songs are hopeful, catchy, sentimental, reminiscent and perhaps a bit remote and sorrowful, yet Pepper Rabbit singer and multi-instrumentalist Xander Singh, bassist Shay Spence, and drummer Luc Laurent are able to turn that sorrow into a celebratory remembrance of the past. Their sound is at once haunting and beautiful, to sum it up as succinctly as possible. Feelings are described perfectly with honest lyrics that are set effectively. Take for example the lyric, “That’s when you find there’s nothing there. Drink when you see that no one cares. You said I’ll see you soon, and back there’s the Harvest Moon” from “Harvest Moon”. The trumpet in that track echoes with a little help from the pulsation of a distant organ while the rhythm chugs along through a sea of voices.
With “In the Spirit of Beauregard” the normal pop-tune structure, which the band doesn’t deviate too far from through most of the album, is challenged. The songs goes through several changes with honky-tonk piano, followed by jovial klezmer band clarinets, followed by an upbeat quickstep and back again to the ethereal dreampop in an extended outro. These changes would probably never even occur to most bands, but Pepper Rabbit makes sense of it all in the spirit of pop experimentation.
The warmth of the songs, with layers of instruments with a recognized and welcomed style of thoughtful, introspective lyricism truly helps the music to achieve maximum accessibility. The band seems to also have a unique willingness to stand nearly unadorned and sing touching songs that have the ability to grab the listener’s attention based on the lyric’s emotional content alone. Alternately they can make really big statements with lush orchestrations of those same simple ideas. Take the song “Older Brother”, one of the more stripped down tracks consisting mostly of simple ukulele and voice. Incidentally I feel that “Older Brother” stands out as the song that could be the biggest “hit” with a rather upbeat and catchy chorus. They even tread pretty closely to pure ambience on “Song for a Pump Organ” with drones of sound, waves of voices and a glockenspiel ringing clearly through the cloud of sound. Anything to help bring a song to life. Nothing seems to be off limits here.
This is certainly one of the more carefully crafted albums to be released recently. It’s great to hear an album where songwriting stands front and center resulting in a moving album with subtlety and style.