Monthly Archives: November 2011

James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual

James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual

3.5/5

2011

James Ferraro has made a cult career for himself by finding the beauty in kitsch. This time around, he delves into the sounds of what can only be described as “educational CD-ROM music” or “shoe store employee orientation video music.” It’s the sort of stuff spewed from MIDI keyboards and tinny drum machines, no doubt thought of as “futuristic” circa 1993. What keeps Far Side Virtual from drowning in irony is how Ferraro merges these retro sounds with modern beatmaking techniques. And this only makes sense for a record that dwells on all manner of technologies, with references to ringtones, iPads, Skype and Pixar in the music, song titles and artwork. For an album obsessed with information overload, it also fits that the record is densely saturated with warped synths, decaying sound effects and reverberating piano chords, all of which perfectly mimic the legions of ill-fated producers aspiring to make their own Another Green World with nothing but a cheap Casio keyboard. Sure, there’s humor in the music’s outdatedness, but the main draw of Far Side Virtual is just how pleasantly listenable it all is. Despite all the purposeful artificiality on display, the album is breezy, melodic and accessible, even when threatening, darker moments bubble up from time to time. Unfortunately, the record is ultimately a bit of a one-trick pony. Ferraro never really bothers to move beyond the same pattern of canned strings and computerized keyboard effects, and as the album continues down its sixteen-track playlist, Far Side Virtual can’t help but feel a bit repetitive at times, especially when stand-out tracks like “Sim” and “Fro Yo And Cellular Bits” are few and far between. Still, congratulations are in order since not every artist can use some of the least timeless music ever as a starting point and spin it into gold. Ferraro’s high-concept artiness may keep his audience limited, but it also helps him stand out in an age where many musicians disappear in a haze of YouTube clips. Well done.

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Lou Reed and Metallica – Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica – Lulu

1.5/5

2011

It’s hard to know what to expect when first delving into Lulu, the 2011 collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. Taking into account everything Reed has released and recorded during his career—from his infamous noise experiment, Metal Machine Music, to a few new age relaxation records to a collaboration with the Killers—this project could have turned into virtually anything. And since Metallica are known more for their arena-filling metal than their artistic exploration, they seem like a strange match for Reed, at odds with his outré flights of fancy. But just a couple minutes into the album, two things become clear: Metallica are a strange match for Reed, and this is a strange album, even by Reed’s standards. And it should be said that though Metallica receive equal billing on Lulu, this is clearly Reed’s vision all the way, since it’s doubtful Metallica would mastermind something this warped without some guidance.

But what is Lulu like? Loosely based off a series of plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind about a girl-turned-prostitute, the album is a series of pounding, heavy jams accompanied by Reed reciting (and sometimes singing) poetry. By itself, this doesn’t sound too bad, yet the reason why Lulu is such a ponderous, punishing listen is all in its execution. Though Metallica play with expected dexterity and professionalism throughout (even when exploring experimental textures on the second half), each song simply goes on and on and on, way after the music has ceased to be interesting. Of the ten tracks here, only three of them clock in below six minutes, and many are much, much longer. Naturally, some of the tighter tracks are more tolerable: “Iced Honey” and “Brandenburg Gate” at least try and get out quick after their musical ideas have washed up, but even on these, very little of the music leaves a distinct impression. Lou Reed’s words, on the other hand, read decently enough on paper, at least as far as ugly, violent, erotic poetry goes. But his disjointed, drunken delivery makes his words lose any and all power they may have had and causes the record to seem like a eyebrow-raising mess. Not only is his raspy, aging voice a complete mismatch with Metallica’s guitar attack but Reed rarely even speaks in time with the music, as if he is unaware of the musical backing track at all. The effect is as if you opened up a video of Metallica performing in concert and a separate video of Lou Reed performing a spoken word piece and just played them over each other. It’s all just so tiring, and with a nearly ninety-minute album, it quickly becomes bewildering.

There are a few rewarding moments on the record, like when “Pumping Blood” seems to actually achieve the intensity it craves (albeit for a very short amount of time), but the listener has to gauge whether wading through the muck in order to find these moments is even worth it. Though each song may have isolated moments like this, only on the gargantuan twenty-minute closer, “Junior Dad,” does everything fall into place. Slow and understated, not only does Metallica show remarkable restraint when crafting a groove but Reed dispenses his words with the right timing and tone, never detracting from the overall flow. Even this track is about seven minutes too long, however, perfectly summing up a record that’s mired by overindulgence.

Lulu is not a failure in the way bad albums usually are: It’s such a spectacularly strange beast that it’s sort of fascinating despite itself, even though few will have the patience for it. In short, it’s the stuff cults are made of, so don’t be surprised if the record garners a small, dedicated group of supporters at some point down the line. The biggest question that remains is why it exists at all. Clearly as an album of avant-garde metal—especially the kind that would have been better off played by the likes of, say, Sunn O)))—this wasn’t a commercial endeavor. Instead, it was likely done for the fun of it, though “fun” by no means describes any part of this venture. Then again, for a group of aging metalheads, this may be how they get their kicks.

The Strokes – Is This It

The Strokes – Is This It

5/5

2001

Although it didn’t have quite the same success or impact, The Strokes’ debut, Is This It, played a similar role in the 2000s that Nevermind did in the ’90s. Like Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Is This It brought mainstream attention to a strain of underground rock, profoundly affecting the direction and attitude of American and British guitar rock for the following decade. The brilliance of the album isn’t that it is visionary—it’s that it sounds startlingly fresh, revitalizing rock mainstays like sex, drugs and the power of the catchy guitar riff. Adopting the effortless New York cool of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and marrying it to CBGBs punk and new wave, the Strokes, on paper, sound like they could get by on image alone. In actuality, Julian Casablancas put his own unique spin on these influences and wrote a supremely satisfying set of songs, each of them teeming with so much sneering wordplay and so many indelible hooks, the album plays like a greatest hits compliation. “Last Nite” has rightfully become a modern rock staple; the supremely melodic “Hard To Explain” and “Someday,” with their instantly memorable guitar lines, are two of the band’s finest moments; the chugging “The Modern Age” and woozy title track propel themselves forward with the airtight rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti, and Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. establish themselves as an astonishing guitar duo on the rampaging closer “Take It Or Leave It.” And though Casablancas largely limits himself to writing about dysfunctional relationships, he has a knack for writing clever, stylish one-liners, which are nearly as vital to the songs as his world-weary, Lou Reed-esque singing, itself one of the most widely imitated vocal styles of the 2000s. Though the Strokes later continued to grow and diversify, they would never again recreate the exuberance of Is This It.

[Note: As a show of respect after the September 11th attacks, the Strokes replaced “New York City Cops” with the nearly-as-excellent “When It Started” on the U.S. edition of the album.]