Monthly Archives: August 2012
Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
“If you thought we went soft after Merriweather Post Pavilion, what do you think of us now?!” Animal Collective didn’t say. But they didn’t have to since Centipede Hz gets that message across clear enough on its own. Unlike that avant-pop masterpiece, Centipede Hz contains no obvious singles, no routes in for casual fans likely roped in by their last album. Yet, even with Avey Tare explaining in interviews how Centipede would have more of a rocking out, live-band feel—something he hadn’t said since the group’s last truly experimental release, Here Comes The Indian—the album isn’t as different or difficult as he makes it out to be. It certainly has a jammy feel to it—the songs rely on a lot of repeated lyrical and music passages, and at 56 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut—but sonically, it’s closer to Merriweather and Strawberry Jam than any garage band this side of planet Earth. In fact, because of all this, Centipede Hz achieves something that no other Animal Collective album has—it’s boring. It may seem unthinkable, but because the band, which again includes Deakin, seems ambivalent about what direction they want to take with this record—avant-garde or pop, free-flowing or structured, analog or electronic—they end up standing still. The music is far from conventional, but Centipede is for all the world exactly what you’d expect from an Animal Collective album, sounding like a diluted blend of everything they’ve done since Feels.
To be fair, things start off well enough. “Moonjock” benefits from some of the ecstatic glee and jagged melodies that characterize the group’s best work, all leading to a fiery, cathartic chant (Avey is always at his most compelling as a vocalist when he sounds like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown). The same goes for “Today’s Supernatural,” whose satisfying, disjointed pop sensibility probably makes it the best thing on the record. But as the album winds through its songs, you begin to notice that each track follows roughly the same formula; it’s just that some are more successful at it than others. Sure, it sounds thrilling on paper: unidentifiable, rhythmic samples; arty guitar lines; Panda Bear’s pitter-patter percussion; some touches of Middle Eastern and Brazilian music. Yet each song mines the same moods and textures, and there’s often not enough hooks, melody or interesting Ben Allen production quirks to help distinguish many of the songs from each other, even upon repeated spins.
Unsurprisingly, when Animal Collective take a few chances, Centipede Hz comes to life. Deakin takes his first ever vocal turn on “Wide-Eyed,” and his trippy intonations are a welcome respite from Avey’s pained wails, ditto for the bubbling synth loop, which is one of the most memorable bits of music on the record. Elsewhere, the shuffling “Father Time” never allows the orgy of instruments to overwhelm the songwriting, while “Monkey Riches” has a trembling urgency lacking from the rest of the record. Whether or not your expectations were inflated after Merriweather Post Pavilion, Centipede Hz ends up a startling disappointment. Nothing here is aggressively awful—it just apparently finds one of the most creatively adventurous bands out there phoning it in.
Dan Deacon – America
Dan Deacon’s music has always been a mess of contradictions: chaotic yet organized, abrasive yet melodic, challenging yet never intentionally alienating. And he has never put those contradictions to better use than on 2012’s America. From Deacon’s deft handling of the quicksilver shifts in tone to the grand, conceptual sweep of the four-part “USA” suite that closes out the album, there’s a cohesiveness and maturity here absent from his previous work, the sound of an artist applying what he’s learned over the years. And while “maturity” can imply straight-jacketed creativity, that isn’t the case here. His renewed focus instead results in his most accomplished work yet, even eclipsing his fantastic 2009 effort, Bromst. Part of this has to do with the no-doubt-larger budget afforded to him by Deacon’s switch to the bigger, though still independent, label Domino, which gives America a fuller, richer sound, but even more of it has to do with the depth and variety of his productions.
He still can churn out bombastic, hyperactive pop—the brilliant “Lots” and “True Thrush” are two of his best in that department—yet it’s the more ambitious, nuanced moments that make the album the achievement it is. Bromst saw Deacon layering vocals and experimenting with live instruments, and on America, he builds on that template, weaving in orchestral and vocal arrangements into his electronic jumble. Moreover, he does this seemingly effortlessly, allowing for the “USA” suite to fluidly walk the line between regal, widescreen epic and cut-and-paste noise as it builds to a subtly uplifting finale. And even on the more raucous, freewheeling songs like “Crash Jam,” which feature so many sounds and textures that they could potentially capsize the ship, Deacon exhibits a firm grasp over the mix, so each digital manipulation and buried vocal hits with maximum impact.
It’s easy to see America as Deacon’s take on Kraftwerk’s seminal 1977 album, Trans-Europe Express—after all, both are hypnotic, electronic symphonies that work to explore and glorify a storied homeland. Plus, “Rails”‘ swirling synth patterns and motorik rhythm vividly recall the famed German band’s heyday. But Deacon’s working on his own terms, sculpting an album that moves into bold, new territory without sacrificing his own identity. With an album as dissonant, beautiful, friendly and provocative as this, he may have ended up doing the United States, a land known for its extremes and contradictions, justice after all.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Before Today was the biggest breakthrough for Ariel Pink thus far into his decade-long career—#163 on the US charts!—but if he made any effort to capitalize on that shred of commercial momentum, it’s all but inaudible on 2012’s Mature Themes. Well, to be fair, there are a few singles here, but the poppiest things on the album—a great, sexy cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby” (with an assist by Dâm-Funk on vocals) and the sweetly jangling “Only In My Dreams”—would be many other groups’ oddest material. But then, Pink is an artist who often excels at indulging his weird flights of fancy, and the first handful of tracks here feature some of the best bits of skewered pop you are likely to hear all year. The catchy, kitschy “Kinski Assassin” has enough affected vocal quirks to impress They Might Be Giants; the twitchy new wave-psych of “Is This The Best Spot?” throws sexual and violent imagery into the same stew, while the funny yet yearning soft rock of the title track presents an idealized portrait of young love. And those three songs are telling about what tone to expect on this record. Though “mature themes” like sex may frequently appear in the lyrics, Pink is intent on speaking about them in some of the least mature (if not necessarily vulgar or unintelligent) ways possible. From the “blowjobs of death” in “Kinski Assassin” to the spur-of-the-moment drive-thru order in “Schnitzel Boogie” to Pink declaring he’s a nympho, humor is a big part of Mature Themes, and it helps some of more half-baked ideas work since they come across goofy and endearing rather than ponderous.
Still, even that humor can’t always save the album. While the record builds up a large amount of steam in its first four tracks, it hits a wall at “Driftwood” and can’t completely find its feet again for the next 20 minutes, give or take “Symphony of the Nymph.” It’s not that these tracks are bad—in fact, they all offer many interesting and funny ideas worth pursuing—but they suck the momentum right out of the album since Pink and his band can’t figure out how to make these songs go anywhere. So instead, one after the other, they all follow the same pattern: a murky, psychedelic jam that muses on one or two lyrical and musical concepts before abruptly ending four or five minutes later. Luckily, tracks like “Baby” and the transportive, space epic “Nostradamus & Me” end up helping Mature Themes land on its feet because they return to the variety and accomplished musicianship of the rest of the record. If it sounds like I’m being too hard on the record, it’s only because I think it had the potential to be something even greater. As it stands, however, Mature Themes is pretty damn good in its own way, and even if Pink could be a better editor, it’s always gratifying to see an artist take so many chances and succeed in making music so unique.
Eugene McGuinness – The Invitation To The Voyage
As a young, talented and versatile songwriter signed to Domino, it’s nearly unthinkable that Eugene McGuinness didn’t get a whole lot of mainstream attention after releasing his self-titled debut album. But that’s just what happened, and one senses that this precipitated McGuinness’ musical direction on The Invitation To The Voyage, which streamlines and slicks up his sound even as he remains as eclectic and idiosyncratic as ever. Moreover, some of the tight, rhythmic post-punk of his little-heard Eugene + The Lizards detour, Glue, rubs off here as well. So even though the music is as varied as on his debut, Voyage has a sleek, modern pulse absent from most of his previous music—witness how “Harlequinade” rides in on buzzing synths and a tough beat or how “Shotgun” blends a Peter Gunn-inspired bass riff with some Middle Eastern influences. Actually, every song here is danceable in some fashion; drums even eventually kick in on the relative ballads, “Concrete Moon” and “Invitation To The Voyage.” Unfortunately, this insistent backbeat and shinier production end up making Voyage less dynamic than his past efforts since they flatten a bit of what makes McGuinness so unique in the first place. Little emphasis is placed on the different sounds he explores or his literate lyrics, and where his earlier work would take time to speed things up or slow things down, everything here sort of falls into the midtempo. On this album, there’s nothing as freewheeling as “Nightshift,” nothing as wistful as “Bold Street” or “Those Old Black And White Movies Were True” (though the title track comes close), and tracks like “Joshua” and “Videogame” fall dangerously close to middling territory. That being said, when Voyage works, it works well. McGuinness still can churn out inventive, offbeat singles like the cool, jittery “Lion” and the neon “Harlequinade,” and when he strays toward the more jagged, fraying ends of his sound, he comes up with a winner in the dense “Thunderbolt.” Plus, when the songs don’t quite work, the album never really drags because it’s so tightly produced and because McGuinness’ songwriting always yields memorable moments regardless of whether a song works as a whole. With any luck, The Invitation To The Voyage will turn on more listeners to Mr. McGuinness, yet interested parties may be better off seeking out his earlier work.
The Olivia Tremor Control – Music From The Unrealized Film Script, Dusk At Cubist Castle
Neutral Milk Hotel may have been more popular and the Apples In Stereo more accessible, but no other band epitomized the Elephant 6 Collective’s ideals quite like the Olivia Tremor Control. And this is especially true of their bewildering and exceptional debut record, Music From The Unrealized Film Script, Dusk At Cubist Castle. If the E6’s M.O. was, to be reductive, to update 60’s psych-pop with more modern underground styles of music, OTC achieved that and then some with this album. Adding elements of Krautrock, post-rock, ambient, noise and tape loops into their stew of Beatlesque psychedelia, Beach Boys harmonies and folk-rock, the band touches on anything and everything it can during Castle‘s 27-song sprawl, somehow remaining friendly and cohesive even when the homespun production makes things feel fragmented and unstable. Listen to how “Holiday Surprise 1, 2, 3” whips from bright, sunny pop to a murky, trippy drone to a tough, swirling rocker without skipping a beat. And would any other band of the era have dare attempted something like “Green Typewriters,” a ten-part suite that ambles from melancholy psych-pop to avant-garde rumblings to ambient soundscapes and back again?
Of course, all of this stylistic ambition and musical extremism wouldn’t be as bracing or as interesting as it is without great songs, and from its propulsive opener, “The Opera House,” to the sighing “NYC-25,” Dusk At Cubist Castle is teeming with them. The brilliance lies in how Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss’ songwriting never settles for simple retro revivalism, always taking unpredictable melodic turns into evocative territory. The overlapping harmonies and romantic confusion of “Jumping Fences” sums up much of the album’s appeal in less than two minutes; Doss’ vocals fill “Marking Time” with a palpable yearning; the lush, wide-eyed “No Growing (Exegesis)” is genuinely uplifting, while “Define A Transparent Dream” reworks “Dear Prudence” as a surrealistic dream that manages to rhyme “define” with “Gertrude Stein.” There might be a little too much slack towards the end, yet Dusk At Cubist Castle remains the quintessential, if not the absolute greatest, Elephant 6 album as well as one of the landmark records of the neo-psychedelia movement.