Tag Archives: 2013

New Release: Exotic Club – “No Dance”

Exotic Club - "No Dance"
Exotic Club – “No Dance”

 

 
Exotic Club’s dark dance music is an intoxicating mix of seemingly mismatched elements. “Alienation,” clearly visible against a dark night-time sky as backdrop. The album art is a perfect description the music contained within.

Well, it’s dance music for sure, while at the same time the effect of disassociation can not be overlooked. Exotic club uses the clean drum machine sounds and buzzing synths of a dance club, adding dark sounding, low and cavernously echoing vocals. When combined with the dancier elements the vocals seem to eschew the very aesthetic against which they are placed. The poppy, upbeat dance beats are not just countered, but downright denied. This is, as the title of the album states, no dance album. It’s dance music that is brooding and dark rather than the light, vapid instrumentals of the music that typifies a dance club. It’s dance music that’s run through an Interpol “Turn on the Bright Lights” filter.

I know that as I started to dig into this tape I found myself overcome with a sense of, maybe not anxiety, but more of a cautious and contemplative paranoia. Exotic Club has really found a direct line to some strange emotive places seldom explored. The desperately pleading vocals that come out of this dark texture, with lyrics such as “it’s Friday night, it’s Friday night, on the dance floor,” on “Lost in Music” that seem on the surface, reading them right there, like they are inviting and celebratory, but the delivery thwarts that interpretation in its droned repetition. The surface of the music, the danceable beats, drum machine hand claps, and buzzing synths paint a picture of a carefree night, while the lyrics and their delivery seem to simultaneously mock it. Ok, mock is a strong word, but listening to the track I think that the lyrics would be better translated as “it’s Friday night and you are supposed to be having a good time on the dance floor, so go have a good time because that is what it is that you are supposed to be doing.” Obviously, their lyric is better.

The robotic exactitude of the arrangement aids in the disassociation, by stripping away any human element, giving a deeper meaning to the coerced good time that the song is suggesting. Taking it out of the club is the track “American Zombies.” It uses the mechanical instrumental arrangement and dark atmosphere to comment on American consumer culture. “Runnin’ around in circles at the Walgreens, toothless smiles…,” listing off the automaton gestures that dominate the vast majority of American’s lives, and repeating each of these things line by line in a trancelike mantra, urging against deviation. Must consume. Must obey. “Forever, forever….forever….” as it is heard echoing into infinity at the conclusion of the track.

Melodies swirl and beats pulse, but don’t for one second take the music on Exotic Club’s “No Dance” as a given.

The tape, featuring a B-side full of remixes, is out now on Crash Symbols. Head over to their bandcamp to pick up a copy (only 100 made), or to download it if you aren’t into the whole physical media thing.

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2013 Recap: Phoenix – “Bankrupt!”

Phoenix - "Bankrupt!"
Phoenix – “Bankrupt!”

To be honest, this album sort of slipped through the cracks for me. It was released in  April, which was a pretty busy time for me as I was in the middle of a term, performing a lot and generally running around teaching and taking classes full time. During those super busy times I tend to fall into the rut of listening to old favorites on repeat forever (read: of Montreal, Lightning Bolt and Titus Andronicus).

The last CD that I ever bought, ever, was Phoenix’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” the day that it came out. I remember where I bought it, at the Eaton Center in Toronto. What I’m trying to say is that there was something about the PR machine that made a huge deal out of the release of that album, or maybe it was that I was somehow more exposed to it. I’m not sure. Or maybe it was that I had been listening to “It’s Never Been Like That” since 2006, thanks to my dealer. Either way, it was exciting that a band I had to explain to people who they were was now getting other people excited too.

And the style shift that happened between “It’s Never Been Like That” and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” was pretty noticeable. A post-production sheen was added to each of the tracks. Something about the atmosphere that was created really lent itself to drudging up feelings of 80’s nostalgia. Though similar in some ways to chillwave music like Washed Out or Neon Indian, Phoenix’s music does not look to replicate nostalgia through the use of vintage synths and “lo-fi” recording techniques (note: I’m putting that term in quotes because I actually hate the term, but it carries the connotations that I am looking for, so it serves at least a purpose here). Phoenix is somehow able to get to the core of it and producing a nostalgic sound authentically.

I know that it seems like it would be the same thing, but the difference is that the aesthetic is pure, it’s not a post-modern re-consideration, or a look back at the music and re-imagining it with updated techniques. It involves working with specific melodic material that conjures up feelings of nostalgia, rather than simply letting timbre do all of the work.

Anyway, this is all starting to sound really vague, and I apologize, the fact of the matter is that I sadly didn’t give this album the attention that it deserved when it first came out and now I feel as though I am playing a bit of catch up. What I do remember about it, from the first time that I listened was that they really like to use the pentatonic scale right out in the open. The album starts with one, and it keeps popping up in the same descending fashion in the back of other tracks like “Drakkar Noir.” But that really isn’t the important thing to remember about the album, in fact it isn’t worth really remembering at all, it’s just the thing that I think about when I think about this album.

Drakkar Noir

Phoenix is the kind of band that is capable of doing their sound incredibly well. That capability comes at a certain disadvantage though, because now they are getting dangerously close to pigeonholing themselves into creating cookie-cutter “Phoenix” tunes. Similar melodic fragments start to pop up here and there, similar syllabic constructions and accents of vocal lines start to become noticeable. They tend to relax into a midtempo, synth-pop groove and stay there for long stretches of time. The guitar has taken an increasingly more background role with the synths bearing most of the structural burden. Also, the songs “SOS IN Bel Air” and “Drakkar Noir” start off sounding remarkably similar. There are certain parts of the album that sound like the same ideas stitched together in different ways. This is all in addition to a lot of the build up in their songs seem to come from an idea that they had in “Countdown,” or “Girlfriend” back on their “Wolfgang…” album.

Though I don’t think that this is my favorite Phoenix album, it is their most solid effort to date. It doesn’t have the rhythmic drive and the raw edge of “It’s Never Been Like That,” but then again they are almost a completely different band now. Their sound has made drastic changes in the past 7 years. “Bankrupt” is even a big shift in direction from “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” but this is the sound that has really propelled them into being the headlining act that they are today. To be honest, 2000s “United” is one of the most scattered and disorganized albums I’ve heard. That one seems to be exploding in every direction in a desperate search for a sound with which the band can be comfortable. To that end it seems like “Bankrupt” signals their arrival at a sound. I can be more fond of “It’s Never Been Like That,” but in reality this most recent effort is more focused and stolid.

The Real Thing

It’s really difficult to deny that the thick, buzzing low end synth isn’t a really great addition to their sound. And the ethereal and dreamy sound that shifts them squarely into synth-pop territory casts a hazy familiarity to each of the tracks on “Bankrupt.” Hopefully the next release will take this fully formed sound and develop it, before the band starts to run out of tricks. All in all “Bankrupt” is a good album, and deserving of a spot on anyone’s year end list, but we’ll have to wait and see where their next release takes them. Hopefully some time out of the studio and off the road will allow them the opportunity to come up with some fresh ideas. It would be really exciting to hear Phoenix go off in a completely other direction following the synth-pop 1-2 punch of “Wolfgang…” and “Bankrupt.”

The band recently did a Take Away Show for La Blogothéque that finds them performing on a chartered jet. You can watch that video below.

Best of 2013: Foxygen – “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic”

Foxygen - "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic"
Foxygen – “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic”

Again, my story is the same as before: I get obsessed with certain albums during the year and other ones that are equally worthy of several listens start to fall by the wayside. Foxygen’s “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic” is one such album. And of course after I realized on what I had been missing out I started listening to the album several times a day. I felt like this was a penance of some sort, or maybe in some ways a way for me to “catch up,” if such a thing is possible.

The thing is though, that even after all that listening, I still can’t quite put my finger on what makes this album so great, and why I can’t stop listening to it. There isn’t just one thing, it’s the amalgam of poppy melodies, retro sounds, catchy hooks and the mixture of sounds past and present. One second there are Beatles-esque horns (“In the Darkness”) and the next thing you know Neil Young walks in the room and takes over an entire verse (“No Destruction”).

Speaking of Neil Young, it’s not like the verse of “No Destruction” simply reminds me of that of “Barstool Blues” from Neil’s “Zuma” album (my favorite of his), but it really just is the same verse with the words changed. I’m not faulting Foxygen at all for this, and there’s two reasons why: first of all, if you’re going to rip someone off do it unabashedly and obviously and steal from the best. Secondly, they use Neil’s verse as a starting point, it is merely the seed that the remainder of the verse springs from. They take everything in a different direction. Where Neil’s song is tense with pain and heartache, Foxygen finds relaxed thoughtfulness.

There are many points like that across “We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.” I know that I probably use the term “post-modern” far too much, but it’s so often apt for bands lately. Foxygen has some of the same characteristics of Brian Jonestown Massacre or White Fence, where you’d swear up and down that there is no way that this album came out this year. On the other hand, Foxygen retains that ability to use their influences as jumping off points, reaching beyond them, touching upon them and then following them wherever they may lead.

One of my favorite traits of a lot of the songs is the way that the band is able to use a switch from simple-time to compound-time as a means for separating the verse from the chorus, take for example “On Blue Mountain,” with the the ultra soulful singing of Sam France taking center stage. And rightfully so, France’s wailing in the verse allows one to easily picture him dropping to his knees, arching his back and shouting to the skies, eyes closed, microphone in hand, as he sings “I was looking through a bible.” Similar rhythmic modulations and soulful singing appear on the funky, mellotron and synth lead song “Shuggie.” The breaks in “Shuggie” take on a life of their own as the funk and soul gives way to a bouncy outro with a tack-piano buried in the back of the mix.

But this soulful rasp that evokes images of James Brown is immediately contrasted with the gentle and sweet singing that appears on the following track “San Francisco,” a lilting melody appropriating the wall of sound. Doe-eyed hopefulness and peace are presented with the help of a glockenspiel and distant echoed backup singing.

I suppose, yes, I do hear the Rolling Stones influence through their songs, but to me there really is more of a focus on psych-rock, as evidenced in the shambling guitars and horns of “Bowling Trophies.” This really is, simply put, a melting pot of early rock, funk, and soul, and it’s a damn groovy album as a result. Every track is noteworthy and catchy as hell, making this one of the year’s best albums.

Stream: Paper Airplanes – “Scandal, Scandal, Scandal Down in the Wheat Field”

Paper Airplanes - "Scandal, Scandal, Scandal Down in the Wheat Field"
Paper Airplanes – “Scandal, Scandal, Scandal Down in the Wheat Field” 

Earlier this week Airhouse records released Paper Airplanes’ “Scandal, Scandal, Scandal Down in the Wheat Field.” The release successfully bottles heady, thematic, album oriented rock music that is driving and passionate, and even more importantly, exciting and at times joyful and exuberant. A full album, that takes advantage of every minute that it has to offer. Like many song-cycle albums, it’s dense. There is a lot of material, but that is not a negative aspect in the least. I am of the opinion that the job of an album, and the job of an artist, a true musician, is to be able to create music that needs to be heard. The trick with an album constructed in this way is that the artist needs to create an entire album that needs to be heard as an album. Sure there are some songs that the listener will grab onto more than others, but in order to fully grasp the reality of the disc one must settle in and listen from front to back.

Paper Airplanes have managed to create such an album. A rare feat.

Like any good song cycle album, the listener is taken on a journey. The sequencing of the tracks is just as important as it would be with any other album, but this has the extra added challenge of needing to tie each element into the larger shape of the narrative arc. “Scandal…” deftly accomplishes the feat of creating a cohesive album of songs that are bound to each other to create a truly engaging solitary work.

Singer Marcus Stoesz’s voice stretches out from octave to octave, exploring the various shadings of tone in multiple ways for dramatic affect. One minute soft, relaxed and low, while brittle, reaching and tenuous the next. “Assembly” is a good instance of this type of song where the voice is reaching, soaring into the sky in a chorus that joyfully continues almost indefinitely in its soulful refrain.

The guitar tone, on that track, and throughout the album, is decidedly bright and clean. Everything is clean.  Stoesz’s voice is very unique, and instantly recognizable or. In many ways, and I’m sure that this comparison has been drawn before, but there are elements of Paper Airplanes’ sound that are similar to that of The Decembrists. Aside from the album length narrative structure that ties all of the songs together. The way that everything was recorded, and the arrangements (beautiful use of strings appear throughout this album, as well. They underpin perfectly the keyboard and guitar led ensemble in the quieter moments. The band really does know how to use their resources to provide each song with a terrific amount of emotional depth) tend to be reminiscent of The Decembrists.

There are elements of this album that have the shade of prog-rock to it. The presence of the drums, and the large scope of the album in general are both big contributors.Something like “Chisolm Trail” that comes at the end of the album, takes its time building up momentum. A trumpet rises out of the keyboard texture only to become the backdrop to the climactic outro.

From the opening fingerpicked tension filled steel string acoustic, to the exuberant beginning of “An Account of Surprising Accuracy, Given the Messenger,” “Scandal…” simply floats from song to song.

The band is exceedingly adroit in building everything up to an exciting and memorable climax, but knowing when to back off and when to keep things simmering a bit. Take some time to listen to the album above, give it the honest listen that it deserves, maybe give it 2 or 3. You’ll be glad you did.

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Best of 2013: Washed Out – “Paracosm”

Washed Out - "Paracosm"
Washed Out – “Paracosm”

I guess I am about 5 years or more late to the party, but I just recently, maybe within the past month or so, started listening with intent to Neon Indian and Washed Out.

I missed the bus on Neon Indian the first time around for whatever reason. Who knows what phase I was in at that point that prevented me from paying attention to anything that was going on in the world around me. Let’s just blame Lightning Bolt. That was probably what I was listening to so much that prevented me from taking my friend’s advice and listening to Neon Indian.

But, actually, Neon Indian, is not the artist that I want to talk about right now, right now I am focusing on the release that Washed Out put out this year, Paracosm. It’s another album, like so many this year, that fell through the cracks for me and I’m only just now starting to give it the attention that it deserves. My only other experience with Washed Out is through hearing “Feel It All Around” about a million times (by the way, say what you will about the show Portlandia, they could have picked a more perfect song for the intro sequence. The way that the ambience makes complete sense to Portland’s grey and rainy atmosphere as pictured).

And that brings me to my main point, and that is the music of Washed Out (and Neon Indian, and Small Black etc. etc.) places a lot of focus on a visual aspect that runs parallel to the music. Sure, it’s called “chillwave,” and it’s good that this aesthetic has gotten a name pinned to it, it helps us to generalize a little bit, but I think that the music that fits the genre is more impressionist than anything.

The seamless construction, with synth sounds that smear the harmonies, preventing any harshness, or dry attack sounds. Everything on “Paracosm” seems to buff out all the harsh contrasts, swirls the colors together and then takes a few steps back, allowing the picture to slowly fade into focus. It’s music of great emotional depth and music of nostalgia, and it’s also music that depicts light and an aura, a landscape. It does this so well that somehow we are all able to pick up on it, and accept it.

More specifically, the songs on this album are a little bit more danceable than on (my only point of comparison right now) Neon Indian’s “Era Extraña.” Where they are both, in a sense, working toward the same aesthetic, Washed Out tends to, on “Paracosm,” tilt the scales a little more toward radio-friendly pop, or as close to it as chillwave will allow.

“All I know” plays elements against each other to great effect with its bouncing tempo and a soaring, yearning melody over the top, while the title track flutters into view, a bit more somber than some of the other tracks, vocals hiding a bit inside those blurred out colors. The addition of a slide guitar, awash in reverb and delay, is a nice added touch. Layers and layers of atmospherics continue to build, though never crowding the texture. Everything just floats out over top of everything else, there’s a sense of constant elevation that’s created; infinitely open and never claustrophobic, despite the dense fog of sound that grows and grows.

This album, and this music, is more about creating a picture than anything else out there. But that doesn’t preclude there from being great melodies and catchy pop hooks. That label that we are so ready to place on the music is merely a shroud that is draped over the form of the music. It’s the timbre that gives the music its defining characteristic, and I think the thing that I think most about when listening to this album is how good the songs would be if all of the atmospherics and aesthetic concerns were stripped away. I think that that is really the measure of an album, and it’s fair to say that had that happened with this album, it would stand up as a collection of great songs too.

I can’t help but hear “Mercy, Mercy Me” at the beginning of every phrase in the verse of “Great Escape.” And that’s a good comparison to leave you with, as it’s useful in summing up the sound that carries through the album from beginning to end. The soulfulness and attention to all the typical concerns of songwriting; creating a memorable melody, and a solid formal and harmonic structure, evoking a mood – all of those things are present here, and are what make the songs great. That extra layer of atmospherics are really what set them apart and keep me coming back again and again.

Best of 2013: Kurt Vile – “Walking on a Pretty Daze”

Kurt Vile - "Walking on a Pretty Daze"
Kurt Vile – “Walking on a Pretty Daze”

I feel like the more that I look into the albums that were released this year the more I am surprised by the things that I haven’t devoted quite enough attention to. I’ve honestly been listening to as much new stuff as I can, but it’s times like these that make it readily apparent that I have some serious issues with favoritism, especially in a year that saw the release of a new of Montreal album.

Kurt Vile has always seemed like an interesting contradiction to me. I specifically remember seeing him in Chicago a few years back and loving his super noisy, electric guitar driven music. Or maybe I am treating myself to some revisionist history and that isn’t what happened at all, because none of the music that I have heard from him since have been noisy in the way that I remember it being some years ago.

(Also, he pushed me out of the way while trying to get back to the bar at the Subterranean between sets by Zola Jesus and Real Estate, but that is neither here nor there. I just like telling that story.)

Walking on a Pretty Daze is fully of gently lolling melodies, sung and played with a carefree air. The only thing that I am left thinking whenever I listen to the album is that this is what Thurston Moore wants his solo work to sound like, but instead all that we get from him is recycled, boring adult contemporary or something. I don’t even know what the hell he’s doing, and that doesn’t even matter right now.

It’s like everything on “Walking on a Pretty Daze” sits between classic rock like Bad Company or something and singer/songwriter fare. The backbeat is kept simple and low-key, just unobtrusively tapping out time in the background while Vile’s guitar is pushed right to the front, next to his half-snarled singing. If you are at all familiar with the music of Joel Plaskett, that would provide a nice point of comparison. Both artists wear their influences on their sleeves, though Plaskett tends much more toward the obvious in this regard.

Was All Talk

Vile’s open string suspended chords and extended harmonies give him a sound that is immediately identifiable as his own. The riff from “Was All Talk” manages to capture the essence of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” in a single chord. When you hear it you’ll know what I’m talking about. And I think that, again with the points of reference, will give us all (those of you that don’t know the music of Plaskett) something a little more universal to compare it to. That aura and atmosphere that is bottle on the Henley track is the basis for most of these songs, and the overall mood of the album.

It’s that moving though cautious and tentative mood. Even the synths that Vile uses attempt to capture the mood of “The Boys of Summer.” I remember that song being on the radio non-stop when I was younger, and all the same images that it conjured in my head back then are being brought back while listening to Kurt Vile.

Aside from that long aside, Vile’s music is well written and interesting. He creates a solid album and has fun with it. I mean he’d have to be having fun with song titles like “Air Bud,” and lyrics such as “makin’ music is easy….watch me!” Naturally that quote is delivered in a sly deadpan, where one could picture him trying to make you interested, but at the very same time not getting too invested in it. The music just flows out of him, and as I said earlier, it just seems so effortless. Effortless in the way that a Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album sounds effortless.

Shame Chamber

Overall, give this one a listen before the end of the year, I’d file it just to the right of any chillwave music that you may have. All around good album, front to back. Deserving of attention well past 2013, and that’s really the point of lists like these, isn’t it? Who will survive and who (or what album) will fade into obscurity forever? Kurt Vile has many more albums in him, I’m sure.

 

Beginning of the End: Best albums of 2013 Part I: Deerhunter – “Monomania”

Deerhunter - "Monomania"
Deerhunter – “Monomania”

It’s about that time of year. Album releases are slowing to a trickle as the year draws to a close. I think that since I have been listening to so many new things this year, things that I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about yet that I will begin with my year end posts interspersed with all of the other things that I normally post about. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get through all of them, but I’ll try.

It took me until the release of “Halcyon Digest” in 2010 to really get into Deerhunter. I had made several unsuccessful attempts to really get into “Cryptograms,” but for some reason I just couldn’t. It made me feel out of place, because when that album came out everyone was going crazy for it. I needed to come at the band backward apparently, because after falling in love with “Halcyon Digest,” and now “Monomania,” I have finally gained an appreciation for “Cryptograms.” If nothing else Deerhunter’s latest  has done at least that.

Somewhere along the line Deerhunter shed its ambient leanings (and a few band members) to become a powerful and moving rock band. Songs like “Leather Jacket II,” with distorted vocals and guitars that are constantly feeding back, being paired with “The Missing” show the range that the band has developed since their first releases. I don’t want to throw the word “folk” around, because that is really not fitting at all, but the style of Bradford Cox’s lyric and melody writing have allowed the band to sound a bit more vulnerable in general. Deerhunter is perfecting what it means to them to be a band that can release album after album of compact singles.

To me, the band is more effective and affecting in their quieter moments, but that isn’t to say that the title track isn’t one of the tracks that I automatically go to when I put this album on. And there are songs that fit nicely in between the extremes, such as the country twinge of “Pensacola.” That tracks rambling and bluesy vocal approach, “the girl that I loved, well, took another man” followed by a dejected “ohh” is followed immediately by the excitement contained in the line “well nothin’ ever ends up quite like how you planned!” These elements play an important role, the juxtaposition of elation and sadness. The sadness is kept in check through the nature of the tracks being upbeat major key (mostly) 3 to 4 minute pop tunes, but lyrically things may take a turn on occasion. For example on “Sleepwalking” the line “can’t you see, we’ve grown apart, we’ve grown apart?” is repeated or in “Back to the Middle” the lyric “You and me, you broke free. You broke free, and you left me these little pieces,” both obviously come from places of sadness, though that sadness is hidden behind the music.

To that end, maybe it isn’t as upbeat an album as it appears to be on the surface. Perhaps the album is about covering up true emotions, putting on a good face to go out and greet the world. If one was to look at things that way then perhaps this is actually the most tortured album of Deerhunter’s career.

Generally more upbeat in outward tone when compared to “Halcyon Digest,” the album, to its merit, doesn’t exemplify its title. The songs here are not simply variations on a theme, or expressing one color of the musical spectrum. There are differing shades at work that peak with the title track (that, yes, is an undeniably great song to depict the idea of monomania), allowing for the songs that lead up to it a lot of license to go exploring. The closing track allows Bradford Cox some time for reflection. “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” makes peace with the past, perhaps allowing himself to accept the different phases in his life that have allowed him to get to the place where he is now. I think it’s more a cross between that and Cox still searching for his true self. Either way it is a song about growth and change, and coming to terms for better or worse.

I can’t help but think (and I’m probably fairly safe in this assumption) that Cox’s Atlas Sound project, and the process that he goes through to write and produce those songs, has been influencing the songs that are ending up on Deerhunter albums. A song like “T.H.M” or “Sleepwalking” only have the slightest hints of where the band came from, but nothing as driven and tuneful as these two tracks appears prior.

This album belongs on anyone’s year of, best of list. And a performance on Jimmy Fallon stands as another favorite from this year. Check out Deerhunter playing “Monomania” just prior to the May 7th release of the album below.