Monthly Archives: May 2012
Sigur Rós – Valtari
With 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, Sigur Rós went pop—well, as “pop” as Sigur Rós can get while still sounding like Sigur Rós. There was still Jónsi’s hopeful-sad falsetto and the otherworldly soundscapes; it was just in a more condensed form, with many songs falling between two and three minutes. And let’s not forget Jónsi’s own solo album, Go, whose songs followed a similar template, if not exactly the same intent. Even though Sigur Rós released some compilations of their older, more experimental material to satiate fans in between albums, all signs still pointed towards the band continuing down the path toward more conventional song structure. That’s why Valtari comes as such a surprise. It’s a conscious return to the deliberate, glacial symphonies that made their reputation, with none of the summery exuberance of their recent work. With the exception of the ends of “Varúð” and “Rembihnútur,” nothing here rises above a whisper, most of it ebbing and flowing pensively. Valtari isn’t exactly a step backwards, though: It uses the formula of Ágætis byrjun and ( ) as learned through the more colorful orchestrations and arrangements of Takk…. So even if this album is short on surprises, it doesn’t exactly feel like a rehash. Ghostly choirs, music box melodies and moaning strings all float in and out of the mix, with the enigmatic production suggesting a decaying, sepia-toned film reel, particularly on “Ég anda” and the title track. At times, the album is so low-impact, it barely registers, yet it is also capable of some truly transportive moments. “Varðeldur”‘s piano-led melody quivers with so much sadness and nostalgia that it nearly induces tears after just a couple measures; “Varúð” rewrites “Hoppípolla” as a war cry, while “Fjögur píanó” sends off the album on a note of something that resembles hope. Valtari is ultimately one of the band’s lesser works, but it says something about Sigur Rós’ skills that even when they’re treading water, their music can still be striking and unique.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Killer Mike has always been an impressive, socially conscious rapper, but R.A.P. Music benefits from the ambitious goals he sets for himself this time. He aims not only to pay respect to the musical and racial heritage that brought hip-hop to where it is today but to provide a template for what rap should be going into the future. By all accounts, something like this should collapse under its own weight and go down as a well-meaning, if pretentious, footnote in hip-hop history. The astonishing thing is—as if we should have ever doubted him—that the album just about fulfills its promise. Even more, it’s light on its feet, filled with energy and life even as Mike goes on extended political diatribes like on “Reagan,” a scathing critique of economic policies and presidential administrations running from Ronald straight through to Obama. That anger and skepticism manifests itself in other places too, whether it be the unflattering portraits of Atlanta and New York on “Anywhere But Here” or “Don’t Die”‘s tale of corrupt policemen, the latter of which directly recalls (and stands with) the classic anti-authoritarian rants of N.W.A and Ice Cube. He also has some choice words for the state of hip-hop these days, describing it as “fiction that is sold by conglomerates,” and instead wishes to elevate the genre, comparing rap music to a spiritual epiphany on the title track, which could easily serve as Mike’s thesis. Again, this sort of stuff doesn’t sounds like it should make for easy listening, but Mike raps thoughtfully and gracefully throughout, so listening is never a chore. Plus, even when R.A.P. Music stays away from big themes, it’s easy to just get caught up in his dexterous rapping skills, showcased in the rat-a-tat interjection “Go!” and “Untitled,” where he manages to rhyme “John Gotti” with “Dali,” then “Basquiat” with “Pac.”
And working with legendary underground producer El-P proves to be the masterstroke here, since he deftly mixes the old and the new, looking back to the past while pushing to the future. See, just like Mike, he seeks to celebrate the hip-hop’s golden age too, looking to prime Bomb Squad and Prince Paul for reference without sacrificing his own unique voice. Check how the propulsive beat and squelching synths mirror the stressful, kinetic energy of the erupting riot on “Don’t Die” or how he writes the manual on creating classic old-school boom bap with “JoJo’s Chillin.” Top to bottom, the production is superb, with effortless slices of lively, gnarled funk around every corner, suiting the intelligence and humor in Mike’s words perfectly. Yeah, R.A.P. Music could stand to be a little hookier and more memorable in places, but even if it isn’t a true classic, it definitely stands as one of the year’s most urgent rap records. On the title track, Mike isn’t lying when he says “it’s what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”
Beach House – Bloom
Teen Dream ended up being something of a breakthrough for Beach House, its crystalline, shimmering surface bringing them more attention than ever, so it’s not surprising that they don’t try anything radically different for Bloom, their 2012 follow-up. The results are mixed, resulting in an album that successfully replicates the icy beauty of their last effort but too often sacrifices songwriting in favor of production. This wouldn’t be a problem—and it hasn’t really been one in the past—if their soundscapes were varied, or if individual elements and instruments were allowed to surface more often. But here, Teen Dream producer Chris Coady gives everything a bright wash of echo and blur, which turns about half the songs here into a gray soup of gently plucked guitars, keyboard loops and Victoria Legrand’s torchy vocals. It’s not always a bad thing: Bloom has an alluring sound, and it helps conceal when the songs aren’t up to snuff, like on “New Year,” so the album never really drags, even if much of it sounds the same. And occasionally, when the right song (“Myth” or “Lazuli,” for instance) shines through the slick, echo-y sheen, it’s hard to complain. At the same time, the record often feels stuck in first gear, like a streamlined version of Teen Dream content to go through the motions without mining more evocative territory. Yet when Beach House do branch out—or bloom, as it were—the music springs to life. The piano-led “On The Sea” and the blissful, droning “Irene” pick up some momentum as the album sprints to the finish, while “Hours,” with its bending guitar licks, manages to find some new wrinkles in their tried-and-true sound. Surely, Beach House have few peers when it comes to making these sorts of dreamy and beautiful sounds, but as Bloom demonstrates, they need to find a new way to make them.
The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Though it garnered a significant amount of praise at the time of its release, the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs remains one of the most underrated albums of the 1990s. A virtual masterclass in pop songwriting, this is the album that established Stephin Merritt as one of the greatest (and most economic) songwriters and lyricists of his generation. What’s interesting about the record is that it’s not particularly a departure from previous Fields’ records; it’s just that Merritt’s ambition has dramatically increased, allowing for his muse to lead him down more paths than it could before. And the scope of that ambition is simply staggering. As the title implies, yes, there are indeed 69 songs here. That’s more songs than a lot of bands have in their entire catalog. Plus, it’s a triple album that runs over three hours long. (It was released both as a box set and as three separate records; however, it’s better and meant to be taken as a whole.)
As immense and overwhelming as the playlist can seem, the key to 69 Love Songs’ success is in its depth and diversity. Merritt tackles nearly every style under the sun, running the gamut from reflective singer/songwriterism and skipping synth-pop to country balladry and coffeehouse jazz, often with equal parts humor and reverence. And even when he takes on more left-field genres like show tunes, vaudeville and Medieval folk, he revitalizes them, making them feel fresh, modern and accessible. But what’s really remarkable is just how consistently impressive the material is. While not every cut is a classic, it’s rare to find a song that completely falls on its face. And even these—including “Punk Love” and “Love Is Like Jazz”—are intended more as novelty asides than anything else.
Of course, you can’t have great love songs without great lyrics, and Merritt’s keen, observational eye and biting wit help to make the record the achievement it is. Much has been made of the fact that he always writes in character, eschewing confessionals for fictional vignettes. Because of this, some listeners have been quick to assume that the album is simply a series of dispassionate parodies. By a certain measure, they’re correct (Check the faux-sexist Irving Berlin spoof “A Pretty Girl Is Like…”). But though there is burlesque here, Merritt has explained many of these songs were often intended as homages (for example, Fleetwood Mac for “No One Will Ever Love You” and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark for “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”). Even more, he even admitted that some songs explore (gasp!) his own feelings, though he’s not saying which. Really there’s something for everyone here: There’s irony for the cynics, musical tributes for avid pop fetishists and honest sentiment for the romantics. But any way you slice it, Merritt’s words are incredibly well-realized and surprisingly deeply felt throughout, whether it be the clever and poignant “Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin,” the hopeless “All My Little Words,” the dramatic “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” or the intimate “The Book Of Love.”
If there’s any real reason for the album’s short shrift of attention, it’s probably because Stephin Merritt’s music isn’t trendy; even his forays into synth and noise-pop are formalist exercises rather than something stylishly edgy or retro. There wasn’t going to be a new wave of Tin Pan Alley pop, and it’s hard to see the young, hip bands delving into the outmoded styles Merritt sometimes explores. So be it. 69 Love Songs is a new American Songbook created by someone who’s memorized the original, and it’s one that deserves to be re-interpreted just as often.
Damon Albarn – Dr Dee
Between Blur, Gorillaz and the myriad other groups, projects and collaborations that bear Damon Albarn’s signature stamp, a common thread running through all his work is that his music generally finds its foundations in Britpop, electronica, hip-hop and African music. That’s what makes Dr Dee such a refreshing change of pace. Composing an opera about John Dee, an influential 16th century intellectual, Albarn’s normal music obsessions wouldn’t work in this context, so he strips everything back, leaning heavily on Elizabethan-era English folk without sacrificing his sense of songcraft. Unlike his first opera, the Chinese Journey To The West, Dr Dee doesn’t feel like it needs the visual element to be thoroughly enjoyed: Rather than bits of background music, the tracks on Dr Dee more or less sound like actual songs, even if they are far from any sort of pop music tradition. Moreover, many of the songs here are among the most haunting that Albarn has ever penned. “Apple Carts” is a muted, minor-key ballad that descends on mournful recorders and strings; Albarn’s uplifting vocal and the sustained church organ in “O Spirit, Animate Us” veer it to something like a funeral hymn; “The Marvelous Dream” and “Cathedrals,” meanwhile, are like breaths of morning air among the melancholy. What helps the album from blurring into moody monochrome are the other vocalists, who not only make Dr Dee seem anything close to a traditional opera but add some liveliness to the proceedings, such as on “Watching The Fire That Waltzed Away.” Also, Albarn can’t help but slide a bit of African influence in at times, getting longtime collaborator Tony Allen to play the kora and messing around with polyrhythms on “Preparation.” Anyone looking for the immediate pop highs of much of Albarn’s typical fare will be disappointed, but stick with it, and Dr Dee reveals itself to be a charming, intriguing collection. You are unlikely to hear anything like it all year.