Monthly Archives: January 2013
Toro Y Moi – Anything In Return
Combining the blissed-out electronica (please don’t make me say “chillwave”) of Causers Of This and Underneath The Pine‘s R&B songcraft, Anything In Return finds Chaz Bundick assembling an attractive yet frustratingly indifferent album, one where style trumps substance but there’s not enough of either to sustain the record. Certainly, there’s music to enjoy here, and some of it shows Bundick growing as an artist. Like the thoroughly modern musician he is, he freely mixes and matches vibes and styles, adding in splashes of hip-hop, house, dub, indie pop and a few jazzy overtones to his great pool of sound, never sorting the past from the present. As such, he sounds more confident in his abilities here than on the other two Toro Y Moi records, and at times, his songs are better for it: The opening gambit of “Harm In Change” and “Say That” are luxurious, breezy club singles, while the grooves on “Cola” and the alluring “Studies” have a surprisingly strong undertow.
But while he sounds assured here, there’s also a distinct lack of surprise; for all the genre-blending, there’s a striking similarity among many of the tracks, each song recycling the same styles and approaches. To its credit, Anything In Return is cohesive, but there’s cohesive and there’s monotonous, and throughout the album, there’s very little variation in style, tone, attitude, emotion…anything really. It’s fine for an artist to mine a single sound for an entire record, especially a record as atmospheric as this, but it lacks purpose. So rather than captivating with strong hooks and songwriting, or serving as inspired background music, Anything In Return often disappears somewhere in the middle, with entire stretches going by without something truly memorable happening. Case in point: “High Living” comes across as sanitized TV On The Radio, and where that band would give the song real urgency via some sort of emotional undercurrent, Bundick settles for what’s safe—the song’s too polished to be trance-inducing and too indistinct to let its pop songwriting shine. He’s undoubtedly honed his skills as a producer, but musical ideas need real direction, and that’s something Bundick needs to learn.
Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Bred in Texas before packing their things and joining up in Brooklyn, Parquet Courts actually released Light Up Gold through their own imprint in the summer of 2012 but got a wider distribution through indie label What’s Your Rupture? in January 2013 after building up some buzz. And it’s a good thing too. Light Up Gold is the sort of record that doesn’t get made too often anymore and deserves to be heard: a simple, no fuss, plug-in-and-play indie rock album with a sense of humor. Certainly, as these sorts of things do, it brings to mind a multitude of other great acts: Pavement’s Anglophilic slacker-rock is an obvious touchstone, as is early ’90s Sonic Youth and not just because bandleader Andrew Savage (also of Fergus & Geronimo) sing-speaks like Thurston Moore on occasion, though that certainly helps. Moreover, the group call their sound “Americana punk,” and while there’s always a danger in dubbing your own style, it’s not a bad descriptor for Light Up Gold. A rootsy, yet distinctly jittery and witty, streak also runs through many of their songs, like early Gun Club via the Feelies. (“Master Of My Craft” even echoes Gun Club’s “Sex Beat” in parts.)
But name-checking can be a big turnoff for new listeners, who might get the impression that Parquet Courts are a ripoff act, when really Light Up Gold feels surprisingly fresh. “Master Of My Craft” starts things off marvelously with its faux-arrogant boasts and goofy “Forget about it!” asides; “Stoned And Starving” says it all in its title, devolving into an inebriated, droning jam, while “N Dakota” is a charming, lazy, high-by-the-campfire singalong. That Savage fits more clever commentary about the job market in “Careers In Combat”‘s one minute than most bands could do on whole albums (all while employing a catchy, elastic riff) speaks to the strengths of the songwriting here at its peak. Going forward, Parquet Courts would do well to diversify their sound a bit; even at about a half-hour, Light Up Gold drags in places, its sunburned stoner pop blending together in a murk. But by consistently crafting compelling music from familiar elements, Parquet Courts are something that haven’t been seen in a long time—slackers that should be taken seriously.
Swans – The Seer
A brutal symphony of sorts, Swans’ The Seer is a brilliant, punishing, gorgeous and rewarding work. Michael Gira claimed that this record is the culmination of his 30-year career, and in a sense, that’s accurate: The Seer touches on the visceral No Wave of Swans’ early efforts, the band’s more recent forays into extended compositions, the subdued melancholy of Gira’s Angels Of Light and the haunting atmospherics of his Body Lovers project. But this isn’t the sound of an artist delving into his past because he’s scared to move forward; no, this is someone returning to his strengths with renewed vigor and consolidating them into a major statement. At nearly two hours and only 11 tracks, The Seer isn’t afraid to push its tracks to nearly absurd lengths—the title track runs a cool 32 minutes—but rarely a moment goes by where it isn’t anything but captivating. With these longform, rise-and-fall compositions (as well as the fact I’m using the word “compositions”), it’s easy to throw around the term “post-rock,” and though it certainly applies to some facets of The Seer, the record is more diverse sonically and dynamically than that label can suggest.
“Lunacy” sets things off with some post-punk riffing before snowballing into an apocalyptic opera as Gira and Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker chant the title like deranged angels. And it hardly ever lets up from there. Swans assemble what constitutes a small orchestra on these tracks, swelling songs like “A Piece Of The Sky” to their breaking point before tearing them back down again. Even more, the moment the creepy, creaky interlude, “The Wolf,” slams into the droning, bagpipe-laden cacophony of the title track is surely one of the most surprising, terrifying and emotive musical moments of 2012. But it isn’t all uncompromising heaviness: “The Daughter Brings The Water” approaches something like verse-chorus-verse structure, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O has a sweetly mournful vocal turn on the country-tinged ballad, “Song For A Warrior,” which gives the record the necessary balance and humanity. Adding to that balance are Gira’s lyrics, which focus on images of water, light, mothers and daughters, conveying ideas of mortality, fundamental need and power dynamics. Of course, these themes are fleshed out in the music, so the words simply tie the record’s provocative emotions to specific viewpoints and topics that give the songs even more strength, since they are grounded in reality. That The Seer‘s last track, “Apostate,” ends with a flurry of pummeling percussion is fitting. It sounds like both the finale of a fireworks show and a Revolutionary War battle at once, which is to say it is simultaneously celebratory and violent and a better description of the record’s considerable power than I can muster here.
Yo La Tengo – Fade
With over a dozen records under their belt, many of which fantastic, Yo La Tengo have nothing left to prove in 2013. The Hoboken trio could keep releasing album after album of droning noise jams, spacy ballads and off-kilter pop songs, and they’d likely all be well-received by fans and critics alike. One senses they know this, and on the surface, 2012’s Fade seems to take fewer chances than the average YLT record. It’s somber and reflective, even in its brighter moments, with no shots of adrenaline like “Cherry Chapstick” to break up its sleepy flow. (Even “Ohm” and “Paddle Forward,” which make quite the racket, use their noise more as a pillow than as a weapon.) The whole thing winds up halfway between the ragged songcraft of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and the downcast And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, but it’s less expansive than either. Instead, as the first YLT record since 1995’s Electr-O-Pura without a song topping 10 minutes (the longest track here comes just under seven), Fade tackles the challenge of reigning in the band’s excesses. It may seem counter-intuitive to limit yourself if one of your greatest strengths is successfully mining any sound and song length you want, but that’s part of the reason the album is so refreshing. It ends up being something that, in a way, the group hasn’t really made before: a record of small gems that opens up over time. Working with a different producer for the first time in two decades (sorry Roger Moutenot!), John McEntire of Tortoise helps give these songs a polish and richness that reveal subtle, lush details upon repeated spins, like bubbly keyboards, trippy guitar effects and brass arrangements. Then there’s the songs themselves: “Ohm” is an addictive, rollicking jam; “Is That Enough” and the sweeping closer “Before We Run” retain the sumptuous strings that dotted their recent work, while “Stupid Things,” “I’ll Be Around” and “Cornelia and Jane” make up a gorgeously affecting trilogy that ranks among the prettiest work the band has ever done. Some fans may pine for something with a bit of a broader scope, and it occasionally can seem a bit too transient, but given time, Fade ends up as one of Yo La Tengo’s most accessible and quietly satisfying works.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas [Original Soundtrack]
As the soundtrack to the incredibly popular, Peabody Award-winning Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas contains some of the most cherished and recognizable jazz music of all time. As such, it continues to serve as many children’s first exposure to jazz, and fortunately, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t go to waste. Vince Guaraldi’s record is a Christmas classic, transcending its television roots to become a standalone staple of the holiday season. Guaraldi already sketched out his approach to scoring the Peanuts on the documentary soundtrack, Jazz Impressions Of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and he brings the same charm, warmth and humor to this set of largely traditional yuletide tunes. What’s even more impressive is that none of the musicians sacrificed or simplified their artistic prowess for the small screen. “O Tannenbaum” moves from an elegantly reverent reading of the song to some lively improvisational work; “Skating” recalls falling snow with its twinkling piano, while drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushwork adds a touch of swing to the proceedings; the exuberant “Christmas Is Coming”—one of the few originals here—is a joyous romp, assisted by Fred Marshall’s nimble bass, which makes the song borderline danceable. But the six-minute ballad, “Christmastime Is Here,” may be the most stirring moment, bringing to mind snow-topped trees, children sledding down hills and late family dinners. Throughout, the trio’s playing is focused, lyrical and accessible, revitalizing these well-worn Christmas standbys and roping in new cool jazz listeners with each passing year. That the rightfully acclaimed “Linus And Lucy” fits comfortably among these holiday tracks speaks to how distinct and successful Guaraldi’s voice is on A Charlie Brown Christmas.