Sunday, June 8, 2014
As optimistic as his music can be, it’s always struck me that there’s a deep strain of sadness or at least melancholy within it. I don’t think it would work so well without it. So, the idea of “twee blues” makes sense – even though, as a musical idea, twee blues might seem an oxymoron.
Twee Blues, Vol. 1 (Wee Pop) isn’t a cross between indie-pop and blues, exactly, but it is a version of the former with instruments and sounds pulled from music that’s somewhere sort-of getting relatively closer towards music that touches the edges of the blues genre. For the LP Clary has pulled together a band – Brad Searles and Brad San Martin – that manages to add some eclectic touches while staying focused and together. There’s slide guitar, little horns and things, and occasional nods towards the folksier of Neil Young’s work, or a variety of “singer-songwriters”. Yet it also sounds like a typically melodic, clever, in-love-with-music Colin Clary indie-pop record.
The first line of the first song: “It’s hard to find out not everybody wants to be your friend.” Coming from a singer who often presents himself as everyone’s friend, it comes across as confession. The line is delivered like advice to someone younger, but also a reaching out, a longing to hear that a friend is OK. If the song seems light in tone, a friendly message from one person to another, underneath it is not. Beyond the personal, it also carries an acknowledgement of life’s fragility: “things break down.”
There’s intentional complexity of feeling/sound here, but also songs that are intentionally direct and even repetitive. Clary will often take a sentiment and repeat it like a mantra or lesson. Some examples – “guess I gotta say it / don’t think it out”; “Give it some time she said / you’ve gotta give it some time”; “hey I got a notion / ooh / Atlantic Ocean”, “would you love me forever / baby baby please”.
There’s rumination going on here. But often, the songs are swift and sweet like the Smittens’, with a sense of humor and, of course, a music collector’s reference points. There’s a song that nicks a Fleetwood Mac lyric and a love song that begins, “you’re the DJ / I’m the rapper”. I love the confident, playful announcement, “I wanna be in the bad girls club”, from the song “Bad Girls Club”. That song has a certain ‘50s greaser garage-rock-ish tone that emerges also on “She’s a Motorcycle” and “Boogiepop (Don’t Stop)”.
Those put together with references to farm animals, wizards and album-cover models show that Colin Clary has developed his own personal language of what he thinks is cool, as we’d expect all interesting artists to.
Monday, April 14, 2014
Now, in 2014, they’re starting with that same minimalist foundation (working with the same producer, Franc Tétaz of Gotye fame) and loading it with 1980s pop touchpoints galore. The opening song “In the Future” immediately reminds me of ‘80s aerobics videos and Madonna, a clear influence through the album. The low background voice uttering “are we in the future/living in the future” alone offers a wealth of ‘80s memories for me: a baritone voice uttering “pop goes the world”, the spoken voices behind Whitney Houston telling us to dance, and on and on.
It’s not just the ‘80s, though that is the dominant vibe. They take a ’60s pop song (Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk Into the Room”) and make it sound like an ‘80s prom. They end the album with a party song also in a 1960s mold, where you can easily imagine a group of men in matching suits doing a dance number. Yet the lead vocals on that song are Kellie Sutherland singing like Madonna, as she does through much of the album. Which means we think of the ‘60s and the ‘80s at once – which means, of course, The Big Chill soundtrack and its wake. Or, if you’re slightly hipper, the Style Council.
At the start of “U Tell Me”, singer Cameron Bird throws a pseudo-goth effect on his voice, to echo that he’s singing about the dead, visiting catacombs. There’s a very Prince-like keyboard in that song too, within its sort-of reggae, sort-of Miami Vice feeling. On “April” he takes us into ballad territory – not power ballads, more like white teen-pop-ers trying to pull off an R&B slow jam. “Born to Convince You” conjures up creepy ‘80s stalkers with hints of Tears for Fears and even something like a Glenn Frey or Don Henley hit. “2 Time” resembles rollerskating music, perhaps rollerskating to “Heart of Glass” as interpreted by a breathless pop diva that came in its wake. Sutherland throws a little Madonna-ish rap into the mostly Bird-sung “Boom (4eva)”, a song, like many here, about falling in and out of love.
I’ve been focusing on the musical influences and touchpoints here, but I could just as easily be writing about the heartbreak in these songs, the way it, like many great pop albums, often feels like a break-up album when you listen closely. But if it is one, it’s also an overly hopeful, positive one which is also about nonconformity, about smiling and dancing in the face of oblivion and certain doom. On “Echo”, the protagonist asks someone, “have faith in me / don’t ask me why-y-y-y-y”. I get the sense throughout the album that beneath the bright colors, the grooves and the fun looking-back costume-wearing, there’s a mass of pain, grief and uncertainty.
On “Before Tomorrow”, one of the clearest party anthems but also a likely breakup song, Sutherland sings, “there are times when all our people keep their problems alive / we’ll be floating backwards into the sun.” Is this escapism or suicide? And which direction are we going, forward or back? And again, the future and past are mixed up: “Make some history for tomorrow”, she beckons.
What Architecture in Helsinki is up to here doesn’t seem like nostalgia. They’re repurposing specific elements of pop music past, utilizing all of the emotions and sensory reactions tied up in those memories, and combining them into something that nonetheless feels fresh.
As basically a child of the ‘80s, I’m eating up the mixing and matching they’re doing, within songs that still hit on all of the reasons I’ve been an Architecture in Helsinki fan since the early 2000s. Basically this album almost made me stay up all night watching music videos of one-hit wonders from the ‘80s instead of finishing this review.
But I had to finish it, because I’m feeling completely out-of-step with other critics on this one. Look through all of the major Internet music sites and you’ll find negative reviews: Pitchfork, Paste, AllMusic, and so on. I don’t relate to those reviews in any way; they seem to be punishing the band for not sounding enough like they did when the writers first heard the band.
Somehow the album itself seems to anticipate this reaction. The album overtly acknowledges that the band is out of tune with the trends of our time, in its navigation of past decades and in the songs’ expressed uncertainty about where they belong. “Is this the future? Are we in the future?”
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
There are palm trees on the cover, and the first song starts out with a vaguely tropical feeling before turning into something closer to a French-pop duet. A song midway through starts out with ambient sounds that very closely resemble (and probably are) the sounds you hear when you’re settling into an airplane seat and getting ready for takeoff. The final track, “Arriver” (as opposed to the opening track, “Departeures”), ends with a pilot’s loudspeaker announcement and some kind of field recording of applause.
This is a travel album, one created during journeys which also replicates the disorientation and beauty of being on the move, abroad. It does that mainly through rather gorgeous, shifting dream-pop, consistently melodic (in a sticks-in-your-head even if you’re not sure what he’s saying way), but also with the directness of folk or punk. REW<< is Ryan Weber, who is half of the somewhat similarly focused duo Eric & Magill, and also has played in emotionally direct groups like the Promise Ring and its rootsier relative Decibully. That past is here somehow, though not so close to the surface that you’d guess it without knowing.
Departeures was recorded in “hotel rooms and train compartments” in Asia and Africa, and is largely a one-person affair. The music feels carefully put together by someone with a lot of time on his hands; and a laptop that able to be recharged at airports across the globe. These songs seem solitary, too; focused within the brain of the traveler, asking questions of himself like, “Where do I go from here?” or expressing thoughts like “it’s getting tougher all the time.”
Listening, though, I never imagine that those questions and thoughts pertain just to travel itself, but are more a reflection of how travel, especially solitary travel, presents a unique opportunity for contemplation.
It may be rare for a DIY pay-as-you-wish “singer-songwriter” bandcamp album, even one for the laptop era, to warrant an additional instrumental version of the album. Yet this one has it, and deserves it. My ears and mind are drawn more often to the music and the ever-shifting textures of Departeures than I am to the singing and lyrics. Or rather, the vocals are just one more piece of the fabric; they unite with the synthesizers, acoustic guitars and unexpected or unidentifiable sounds.
As an album it floats by quickly, but not without permeating your thoughts. Like travel itself, perhaps?
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
This piece could be just as easily titled “On the challenges of parenthood” or “On the challenges of owning a house” or “On the challenges of having a job you like” or “On the challenges of being a music obsessive who also is interested in other things”. Or “On the challenges of being alive”.
(Or maybe this year will be that year?)
Thursday, March 13, 2014
And also because it's one of those hip-hop albums that non-hip-hop fans find themselves drawn to, one that's entered the pantheon of 'rock' music, likely to be hailed by, say Rolling Stone or Spin. In other words, it appealed to ‘cool’ middle-class white people. (A memory from a summer job in my teenage years: while discussing music with a black co-worker, she asked, "why do you white people like De La Soul and Public Enemy so much?") .
The album's message of nonconformity through individual expression, combined with their overall look at the time, made it likely to be classified as "alternative", something the group fought hard against but has also occasionally embraced.
Another landmark hip-hop album, at least equally significant but quite different, was released on the same day but is more likely to go unnoticed by the broader press: Road to the Riches, the debut album from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. Its relative lack of cachet, at least among non-hip-hop critics/fans, no doubt is related to its comparative toughness, the more tragic urban stories the duo depicts and Kool G Rap's take-no-prisoners rapping style. As an entity, the group also had a shorter career, with less commercial success; Kool G Rap himself settled into more of an underground hip-hop hero's career while Polo disappeared from public view.
Road to the Riches is a sparse affair, without the epic album quality that appeals to rock critics. It has tracks that could be considered filler compared to their more powerful neighbors, like most hip-hop albums of its era. Even those, like the automobile tribute “Cars” and the DJ showcases “Cold Cuts” and “Butcher Shop”, are memorable. Yet the overall sleekness of the album ties right in with the hard-hitting minimalism that is one of their biggest strengths. The silence within this album is a major player, and helps make Kool G Rap all that much more of a riveting presence.
That presence has to be seen as a supremely influential one within hip-hop history. His compelling narrative style on certain tracks foreshadowed and influenced many of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers - Ghostface Killah, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., etc. His tough, yet quick and precise rhyming has been influential to legions of MCs of various stripes. America’s favorite late-night band, The Roots, have at least two straight-out tributes to Kool G. Rap on record; “Boom!”, where Black Thought imitates G Rap for a verse, and “Thought at Work”, basically a cover of Road to the Riches’ “Men at Work”.
Marley Marl, the producer, is the secret weapon on that song, with its breakbeat and electric guitar. And he’s so on the album overall. This was the era when you had a DJ billed in the group name, contributing audible scratches, but a producer who really was the chief creative force behind the music. Marley Marl brought to Kool G Rap and Polo a minimalist smoothness, even prettiness that managed to both highlight the brutality of the raps and counterbalance it.
Ugliness + prettiness is an equation running through the totality of Road to the Riches, especially on the title track. If any single song here should be considered an all-time classic of hip-hop, it’s “Road to the Riches”. It’s a perfect example of Kool G Rap’s storytelling - basically a gangster tale, of a youth, born into a rough life, seduced by the promises of wealth and led into a life of violence and tragedy. It pulls no punches - revenge kidnappings, torture, jail time. But there’s a poetry about it, too, and an increasing sense of doom - “Looking at the hourglass / how long can this power last?”
The music is a big part of the story, too. It’s a classic example of the resourcefulness and creativity of the best hip-hop producers of the time, they way they would find breakbeats in unlikely sources and loop them, to a huge impact. Here it’s Billy Joel’s “Stiletto”, drumming that’s funkier than you’ll remember there being in a Billy Joel song, followed by a little piano part. It’s a moment that goes by quickly in the Joel song, but looped to seeming infinity it’s powerful stuff, gorgeous in its simplicity yet uncaring about the tragedy it’s soundtracking.
The song really tells two tales - its second and third verses are the gangster tale that makes the lasting impression, but the first verse is about hard work, about hustling to get a record deal and then getting one - “All my manpower for four bucks an hour / Took the time, I wrote rhymes in the shower / Shoes are scoffed cos the road gets rough / But I'mma rock it til my pockets ain't stuffed enough.” That’s another powerful theme of the album, the “I’ve made it” moment.
“It’s a Demo”, the duo’s first single, is more skeletal but just as classic, its roughness stemming from the song’s basic conceit - “it’s a demo”, like they said - and exemplifying the duo’s overall edge. “Poison” is muddy in a purposefully stomping way that suits the rhymes. There are non-singles here just as noteworthy: “Trilogy of Terror”, another sharp collection of boasts with light but somehow menacing music; “Rhymes I Express”, comparatively less fluid, with more of an LL Cool J/Run DMC-style of blocky enunciation, but no less tough.
As light in subject as some of the songs are, the brutality of the album is thorough - if not as much so as their other two albums (1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and 1992’s Live and Let Die). When it comes to a song like “Yours Truly”, Kool G Rap’s worldview is ugly in a retrograde way reflective of the macho man of the era’s fears - of AIDS, and by relation gay people; of “slutty” women and by relation both women and sex. That the song’s perspective resembles the likely voice of the narrowly focused wanna-be gangster of the title track probably shouldn’t be lost on listeners. Neither should the way the verses resemble crass stand-up comedy of the time. Meant to be so or not, it’s an exaggerated vision of masculine fears of the other - in this world, everyone different than you is out to get you, to take your money and give you a disease. Is the tough man really that tough, or scared?
“She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” tries somewhat unconvincingly to open up Kool G Rap past his tough demeanor, to reveal his sensitive side (“a broken heart ain’t no joke”). It and “Yours Truly” might seem in opposition -- caring and uncaring -- but they really resemble two sides of one coin - the tough guy trying in different ways to steel himself against the world’s brutality. For if Kool G Rap’s rhymes themselves can be brutal - and they absolutely can, as much as any rapper then or now, they also set up a brutal, uncaring world around them. Kool G Rap’s articulation of that would itself be remarkable, but backed by Marley Marl’s intuitive, curated sound, it’s a whole different beast, the tough and the smooth joined together elegantly.
Sunday, March 9, 2014
I’m finding it harder to keep up with my favorite bands. Either by age 40 I’ve collected too many favorite bands or life is moving too fast for me to stay on top of it. Things happen that never did before – I’ll realize a band I listened to obsessively in 2005 has put out two more LPs since then without me knowing. Or, for example, Jeffrey Lewis put out an exclusive tour CD and I nearly missed the fact of its existence.
Actually, it’s available not just at shows but on his website. It’s under the name Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams, not to be confused with Jeffrey Lewis & the Rain or Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard or the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band or simply Jeffrey Lewis. Nevermind, go ahead and confuse them, they all involve the same person, the Lower East Side folk singer/comic artist/writer of sonnets based on Sonic Youth lyrics named Jeffrey Lewis.
Eclecticism is, to an extent, part of his music too – or at least this collection of 10 songs is lovably rag-tag. The CD starts with a lonely pop song that begins with him imagining his own funeral, wanting it to happen while he’s alive and moves into general longing for gatherings of friends and ponderings about his own ability or inability to maintain friendships within today’s social-media, fast-paced world (“You’re Invited”). [One thing I always relate to about Lewis is his ability to articulate the feeling that the world is slipping by you or making you feel like an out-of-touch alien.]
The CD ends with a short acoustic track that takes on a traditional folk form more than the rest (“Down to See”). In between those bookends is a song my wife mistook for the Violent Femmes, a spoken poem about Pussy Riot, a spacey daydream called “Nonsense” (“Nonsense rules supreme”; truer words not spoken) and a kind of gutter blues song about the hardships of daily life, like burnt pancakes or the morning newspaper not showing up (“It’s No Good”).
His wit and humor, within a Charlie Brown-like "woe is me" persona, is exemplified by the quick-and-easy "Outta Town", a would-be college-radio hit that seems like a tragic tale of heartbreak -- what can he do now that she's gone - until he reveals that she's only out of town for the weekend, and has only been gone for a day and a half. The bouncy, almost optimistic pessimism on display there is a hallmark of this collection and Lewis' overall discography, which is filled with many similar pleasures.
[P.S. To illustrate my first paragraph's point - while finishing up this piece, I spent some time looking at Jeffrey Lewis videos and stumbled across the fact that in 2012 he contributed to Tallahassee Turns Ten, a track-by-track, various-artists cover of the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee album. It has Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson, Hallelujah the Hills and bands I don't know yet. Awesome; this kind of discovery is what keeps me up too late, what makes me spend too much money and what keeps me excited about music every single day.]
Sunday, March 2, 2014
I’ve actually resisted most of those so far, but I have fallen hard for his new EP Blue House, which has an enticing graphic-novel-esque cover of a couple rowing a boat, on holiday. It’s five songs, which is sometimes all that you need.
The opener “Leaves and Stars” is a gorgeous work cut from bittersweet cloth. A divorce song, it seems, from the standpoint of onlooking friends. Change as a permanent fixture in the world; “Like the leaves and the stars / things cannot stay the way they are.” There’s a great electric guitar bit that sounds both mean and pretty, perhaps like the content of the song.
The songs here are pretty, even when the stories and feelings are not. “When the School Sold Its Fields” is a gorgeous, sad, five-minute ballad about, it seems, schools selling off the kids’ play yards for money. Memory – of childhood, of simpler times, of friends and lovers past -- is always at play in these songs, as it often is with Hayman’s music (and, for that matter, with most music that I love).
But these songs aren’t always wistful. Or, rather, they sometimes are wistful in the present tense, as on my favorite song here, the delicate “Kurhaus Blues”. This is one of those songs I will play again as soon as it ends; do you have those? In Hayman's notes about the song, which was based on a trip to Austria, he writes, “We walked around a ruined Kurhaus, lost amongst the mountains and trees. I imagined it when it was new. I do this a lot; imagine old things new.”
That imagining, of course, ends up involving not just the place, but also a relationship: “You know I love you / you know that I really really do”. The words about love aren’t why I find the song touching and a bit entrancing – it’s the particularly gentle way he sings over patient music that seems to catch things in slow-motion.
That Darren Hayman is still making such interesting and vibrant music 12 years after Hefner broke up might surprise you. Then again, do you remember Hefner at all? I don’t know whether people do. I don’t hear about them much, but I do live across the pond. In my world they’re huge.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
After essentially a one-year hiatus, Erasing Clouds is officially back. Check back on Monday, March 3 for the first post. I'll be writing at least one configuration of words about music every week for the rest of the year.